I’ve had the utter privilege of hanging around in one congregation for over 30 years and watching a generation and a half pass before me. Some of the folks I know at my previous church home have been here for five generations. Their roots go deep and they wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else. This is their home. This is their family. It’s easy for a new member to feel like family in this atmosphere.
If I were to preach on the occasion of a Baptism I would want to grab everyone by the collar and warn them: “Be careful! Be very careful! What you are about to do will change you for the rest of your life.”
For sure, baptism changes the child we put the water on. But the congregation? How?
In a Presbyterian congregation there is a section of the baptism where the congregation answers this question: “Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ, promise to guide and nurture, (calling the child by name) by word and deed, with love and prayer? And the congregation then answers “yes.”
Then another question” “Will you encourage (calling the child by name again) to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church. Again, the congregation answers. “yes.”
This is dangerous territory, folks!! You are promising to love this kid! And, guess what? You’re also promising to teach a Sunday School class or two, or , at least a Vacation Bible School session or—at the very least bake some cookies for it. Now, how are you feeling about that baptism?
Now, add the fact that this is an infant—a total stranger and you have no idea who this kid is going to turn out to be. He could end up a serial murderer. Or maybe something else you might have a problem with like a member of another political party (gasp!)….or....gay. Yeah. Then where are your baptismal vows?
Because that’s what I watched unfold at that church where I hung around for well over a generation. And I watched the most beautiful, array of love-waves wash up on the shore. It usually happened around college. Someone we had know their entire life would let it be known they were gay. This news would be received by the First Presbyterian Church of Garland with a giant wave of love and support. Because they had know this kid all their life. And nothing changes that kind of love. Then a few years later, the same thing happened with another kid. The same giant wave of love. Then another kid and another wave of love.
It was an example of what my trans friend Jeff (nee Jennifer) told me years ago when he was in the process of coming out, “When you know someone’s name you cannot hate them.” He was explaining the AIDS Quilt Project in Washington, DC. The more you know about someone, the less likely you are to let labels get in the way.
In a church congregation, especially a close one, when you have watched someone from birth—when you have attended their baptism—their coming out can be simply new information akin to changing their major in college or being left-handed.
The baptismal promises still stand. And if it is hard for you....well, the promises still stand. You might need to go sit a spell and think things through. Those promises will still be there when you are finished thinking.
When we baptize babies we don’t know how their life will unfold. We don’t know if they are going to grow into outstanding examples or criminals or schizophrenics. Or just ordinary, taxes-paying, TV-watching, God-loving, still-sinning ordinary people. But we say “yes” to the promises anyway and pray to God that we will find a way to love them if it ever becomes hard for us to do.
There is very little we’re ever going to be able to change about other people and science has told us over and over that we can’t change their sexual orientation. Our best bet is to change our own attitude; try to get a better one.
Any kid, the most ordinary vanilla variety of kid will break your heart without meaning to. They will do insanely stupid things; make gargantuan out of the box decisions they will regret or have random accidents that aren't their fault. In any ordinary congregation with teenagers you are almost guaranteed a visit to the ICU waiting room for some sort of accident involving a teenager.
Anyone who hangs around teenagers is promised to have their heart broken at least once for something they can't control.
At baptism we are handed a wrapped package that we get to open a little bit each day. We’re not allowed at any point to grab the wrapping paper and start wrapping the kid back up and say “wait, this is not turning out the way I wanted. Let’s wrap you back up and put you back under the tree.”
The next time you walk into church and see a baptism on the schedule at church, you might want to think twice. Run for the hills if you like. Or stay and gird your loins.
Stay like I did and watch someone’s life unfold. Help in the nursery. Teach Sunday School. Buy all the fundraisers. Send graduation gifts or cards. Look them in the eyes and tell them you are proud of them. Be part of their lives. Be brave.
Oh, and for Pepa,--- She was baptized, too. And her baptism transferred to every church in Christendom wherever she finds herself. Your care extends as though that baptism happened in your own sanctuary.