This Sunday at the 11:00 service our church will celebrate Kate’s baptism. When I realized that this Sunday also happens to be St. Patrick’s Day, I remembered that we baptized Drew on Halloween. Though neither of those was an intentional choice, both are holidays with sacred roots being held hostage as secular celebrations. Somehow I see our accidental planning of baptisms on those days as a providential way to reclaim their sacred nature. It’s also a great way for the kids to remember the anniversary of their baptism every year.
Happy Halloween! (Remember your baptism and be thankful!)
Recently a good friend of mine, a fellow pastor, told me that baptizing his own children was an incredible experience for him – the chance to reach into the water and mark them with the symbol of the cross, claiming them for God’s family.
When he asked me if I was going to baptize Kate myself, I think I surprised him with how quickly and forcefully I answered: “No!” It definitely surprised me. Up until that moment the decision had just been a gut reaction, so I had to stop and clarify – even for myself – my strong feelings on the subject.
As a pastor I get to participate in a lot of baptisms. I get to stand in the pastor’s designated spot next to our church’s huge baptismal font (it’s rumored to have been custom made from an outdoor fire pit – a story that deserves its own theological reflection to say the least!) and invite families to come forward. I watch them step up on the other side of the kneeling rail as they bring their babies forward.
For years before I was a parent myself I watched the mothers’ faces as they held out their squirmy bundles. Their mouths smiled, but the fear in their eyes communicated wordlessly: Please. Please don’t squirm so hard that I almost drop you as I hand you to the pastor. Please don’t scream and cry in front of the whole congregation. Please don’t spit up on the pastor’s stole or try to eat the microphone on her robe or belch loudly into that microphone. (I’ve had babies do all of these things at their baptisms!)
I’ve stood on the other side of the altar rail so many times, trying my best to reassure those mothers with my calm smile. But inside I’m praying right along with for the mercy of a calm baby. It’s been one of the greatest privileges of my role as a pastor to receive those babies into my arms, representing both the arms of the Church and the arms of God, and to speak those holy words over them: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” To speak God’s love over them and to seal their adoption into His family.
In the best of scenarios the tiny baby sleeps through the whole thing, not even waking when a splash of cold water crosses their brow. Those are my favorite moments. Not just because all possible baptismal foibles have been averted, but because I see in my arms the perfect picture of how we all receive God’s grace – so unaware of its depths that we mostly sleepwalk through it all.
It wasn’t until the dark years of infertility and miscarriage that I realized how I longed to stand on the other side of the rail. The babies we lost never had a chance at baptism. They were God’s children nevertheless, sent the express route straight back to Him, too early for us to name them or claim their place here in the Church that I love. It was hard to hand the dream of those children back over to God. It wasn’t until the day I finally got to officially claim the title “mother” that I realized that this is the ultimate vocation of mothers – handing our children over to God.
It was then I finally understood the look in those mothers’ eyes at the baptismal rail. Their slight hesitation as they passed babies to me draped in slippery white gowns. That in that act of handing them over they were formally saying what all parents who trust Christ must say: “This is not my child. This is God’s child. I will use every last ounce of my energy and resources to care for them for a time. I will raise them in faith and sing to them about God and whisper Jesus’ love in their sleepy ears, but ultimately they are not mine. Someday they will return to Him. This is God’s child.”
I need to hand my baby over the rail this Sunday because I need to say it again:
“This is God’s child.”
I need pictures of that moment hung in our house to remind me of that every time I’m tempted to plan her life out for her. Every time I’m tempted to control her with my disapproval or direct her future with my worry. Every time I want so badly to be god in her life I need to remember that I officially gave up that job on St. Patrick’s Day 2013. The Church will remind me of that too. She will be their baby now, theirs officially to love and raise on God’s behalf as well.
So I won’t be baptizing Kate this Sunday. I won’t be able to stand in the place of pastor – some wonderful men that I admire and serve with are going to stand there instead. But there’s only one person who can stand in the place of her mother.
This Sunday I will sit in a pew I’ve only sat in once before – at Drew’s baptism on October 31, 2010 – the pew reserved for families with babies being baptized. Though it was Halloween I had removed my clerical costume and come as myself. Just a mom. Holding a baby. Handing him over to God and His family.
This Sunday is my last chance to do that again.
I hope I remember my line.
Pastor: “What name is given this child?”
Parents: “Katherine Juliet LaGrone.”
This is God’s child.