Economically, emotionally, and socially, they had known mean lives. They practiced the few parenting resources they had received on their children. My parents were capricious, insular, and hard as nails. They choked on compassion and squashed rebellion.
They did not go to church. They did not pray or read the Bible. Their social lives and habits revealed no traces of a deeper piety. Yet, I honor them as faithful parents; still, I cherish them as Lutheran benefactors.
When they had decided that they would have no more children, my parents drove to the Lutheran church in their neighborhood, met with its pastor, and arranged to have their three children baptized. I was five years old.
The pastor, resplendent with the resources of communal life, enveloped my parents with hospitality. He planned the Sunday baptismal service with the care of a professional wedding planner doting over wealthy celebrities; he even gave my father money to buy a suit. I still hold the memory of seeing my cabinet-maker father in that suit; I recall the subtle vibration of hope and wonder it stirred up in me. Was it a portent of something new?
The story took me into its arms as it promised to never let me go and on that morning, it gave me the gift of identity and community.
To this day, I remember the baptismal festival; it continues to present itself to me as an embrace of benevolent bounty: the colors, the music, the smiles, the warmth, the communication of love that was palpable, strange, and awakening, the sense that I was at the center of something larger and more authoritative than my family and, most of all, the story….it is the story that changed me and claimed me that morning. The story took me into its arms as it promised to never let me go and on that morning, it gave me the gift of identity and community.
I walked into the sanctuary with no knowledge of Lutheran ways, an ecclesial infant, and was swept up into an event that was profoundly novel. I stood passive before the talk of love and the gentle work of the story. There was so much “good news” to take in. There was One who made me and rejoiced in my existence. There was One who welcomed all children into his presence and gave them a place of priority in the community. There was One who would never leave me and give me wisdom and strength. There were others who encircled me that day and gave me a glimpse into the wonders that could attend the life of family, who showed me how one can rear a child with sacrament and story. Far from the law and the laws of my family, I received an interior freedom.
For the first time, I encountered a narrative that challenged my parents’ narrative. I was so much more than guilty, powerless, and responsible for the anger in my parents’ lives on account of my five-year-old sins; I was of value; I was worthy of sanctuary in every sense of the word. My spiritual identity took root as I puzzled over the contrast between the familial world and the ecclesial world. I was the same girl in the sanctuary as I was in my home, but one was a scene of bounty and the other a scene of scarcity, one a scene of unconditional love and one a scene of punitive restrictions. I was the same girl in each world and thus a truth was born of inestimable value for my life: the difference between the two environments did not lie within me; it was my parents who were broken, my parents who were lost.
My nuclear family and its tough messages were shattered by greater truths about my worth, my resources, my origin, and my calling. I returned to my family as a saint and a prophet, the embodiment of resources that allowed me to endure with hope the present time as I waited and worked toward the future that was calling me.
My parents… briefly released their firm grasp on me and turned me over to an encounter greater than themselves.
My parents were saints. Recognizing their limitations, they briefly released their firm grasp on me and turned me over to an encounter greater than themselves; they brought me to a church and washed me in a font of story.
To all of you who labor to baptize the children of families barely known to you, to all pastors, assistant ministers, musicians, lay ministers, and preparers of baptismal lunches, I ask you to hold on to my story. If you have ever wondered about the propriety of baptizing the child of a family that, most likely, you will never see again, please recall the little girl who was born anew during her baptismal celebration. You do not know the sufferings borne by the children who walk into your sanctuaries, but you do hold the story that heals and, for that, please accept my gratitude.
Join the Conversation:
How has baptismal identity been a source of hope for you and your children?
How can faith communities embrace and nurture children whose parents are inactive in the church?