A Mark too Deep to Erase

BAPTISM OF OUR LORD

Isaiah 43:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you anointed Jesus at his baptism with the Holy Spirit and revealed him as your beloved Son. Keep all who are born of water and the Spirit faithful in your service, that we may rejoice to be called children of God, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. 

Recently, I came upon a website run by an organization called Freedom from Religion Foundation on which you can download a “Debaptism Certificate” renouncing your baptism. The appeal is to persons who were baptized as infants or before such time as they were able to give informed consent to receipt of the sacrament and who now wish to reject their baptismal faith. The certificate is free for download and printing. If you don’t mind paying a small fee, you can get a certificate with an embossed seal and original signature by the organization’s president suitable, I presume, for framing.

I must confess that I find this puzzling. If you believe, as I assume most persons in the market for debaptism do, that baptism is a meaningless rite because the God behind it doesn’t exist, why would you dignify it with a certified denunciation? Why go to the trouble of erasing what isn’t there? In a strange way, this compulsion to “undo” one’s baptism testifies to its ongoing potency. These persons so hostile toward their baptisms are perhaps a good deal closer to genuine faith than the couple bringing their child to the church for baptism though they have not attended church since confirmation and have no intention of doing so again until they are carried through the sanctuary doors in a box. For the debaptism certificate holder, baptism at means something. At a bare minimum, it merits the dignity of a formal renunciation.

However much cathartic relief debaptism might bring to someone coming away from a bad experience with Christianity, it remains a nullity. For better or worse, the things we do and the things done to us shape our character and destiny. It is significant that the gospels place Jesus’ baptism immediately before the start of his ministry. Matthew, Mark and Luke each testify to the divine voice declaring Jesus’ sonship as he emerges from the waters of the Jordan. John’s gospel has the Baptist testifying to how he witnessed the Spirit remain upon Jesus. The rest of the gospel narrative can properly be understood as an unfolding in Jesus’ life and ministry of what that baptismal declaration means.

Similarly, the sacrament of Holy Baptism sets one on a trajectory of faithful witness to God’s reign. It identifies one as a child of God, thereby bestowing a unique and holy significance to one’s name. As we all know, and as Jacqueline Woodson’s poem illustrates, the power to name has a real creative potency. A name can shape one’s destiny, for good or ill. To ensure that baptism’s potency continues to be redemptive in one’s life, baptism works in tandem with the sacrament of Holy Communion, the preaching of God’s word, the communion of saints and the mission of the church. It is within that communal context that the mystery of each individual baptismal seed takes root, blossoms and brings forth its own particular fruit.

As anyone who follows this blog knows, I believe that baptismal practice among mainline protestant churches, such as my own, leaves much to be desired. We routinely perform baptisms of children whose parents have virtually no relationship to any church and no interest in affiliating with one. We often do little to educate these families about what we are doing or following up when, quite predictably, they disappear from our midst. For more on this ecclesiastically irresponsible baptismal promiscuity, see my post for January 11, 2015.

Notwithstanding all of the above, a baptismal certificate warrants that God’s solemn promise of salvation was spoken to the person it names and that a congregation vowed to assist that person in growing into faith and discipleship with Jesus. The stubborn fact is that you can stop believing in God, but you can’t stop God from believing in you. We break our promises to God with depressing regularity, but God keeps the ones God makes to us. Is one’s resort to debaptism a desperate attempt to break the grip of that “love that will not let us go?” I don’t know because I cannot get inside the head of another person. All I do know is that such efforts are futile because God is not an absentee parent. God never gives up on God’s kids-not even the problem children.

Here is the above named poem illustrating the power of bestowing a name, a power that is in many respects analogous to what we are doing in Holy Baptism.

a girl named jack

Good enough name for me, my father said
the day I was born.
Don’t see why
she can’t have it, too.

But the women said no.
My mother first
Then each aunt, pulling my pink blanket back
patting the crop of thick curls
tugging at my new toes
touching my cheeks.

We won’t have a girl named Jack, my mother said.

And my father’s sisters whispered,
A boy named Jack was bad enough.
But only so my mother could hear.
Name a girl Jack, my father said,
and she can’t help but
grow up strong.
Raise her right, my father said,
and she’ll make that name her own.
Name a girl Jack
and people will look at her twice, my father said.

For no good reason but to ask if her parents
were crazy, my mother said.

And back and forth it went until I was Jackie
and my father left the hospital mad.

My mother said to my aunts,
Hand me that pen, wrote
Jacqueline where it asked for a name.
Jacqueline, just in case
someone thought to drop the ie.

Jacqueline, just in case
I grew up and wanted something a little bit longer
and further away from
Jack.

Source: Brown Girl Dreaming (c. 2014 by Jacqueline Woodson, pub. by Nancy Paulsen Books) Jacqueline Woodson (b. 1963) is an American writer. She has produced several books for children and adolescents. Though born in in Columbus, Ohio, she spent her early childhood in Greenville, South Carolina and moved to Brooklyn New York at the age of seven. She is best known for Miracle’s Boys, and her Newbery Honor-winning titles, After Tupac and D FosterFeathers, Show Way and Brown Girl Dreaming, the work from which the above poem is taken. Woodson served as the Young People’s Poet Laureate from 2015–17 and was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress for 2018–19. You can find out more about Jacqueline Woodson and sample more of her work at the Poetry Foundation website.

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