Sunday, September 15, 2013

Just Bend Your Knees

Part of our job requirement is to send around a schedule update every Sunday evening. Because ministry work is often so fluid, we give a general idea of our plans for the week to one another - the entire staff - via email. It has become a great way to stay in touch, to keep abreast of what everybody's working on and who they are connecting with, and what we are celebrating.

Often, these schedule updates become quite entertaining. Anna's often make me cry; Matthew's are like reading fascinating works by an English major. O'Rear's attention to detail is inspiring, and Elijah's are laid back and relaxed. Brian ALWAYS tells a story. With lots of words.

I'm a words girl, too, and often my schedule updates are more like journal entries. After a day like today, in which I was funky and petulant for no good reason - until we arrived in Cartersville and went into the James River for baptism - I needed to process a bit. It came out in the weekly schedule update, which I'm sure my coworkers enjoyed.

Or maybe they didn't.

They probably take one look, think, "Ah, it's more of her creative nonsense..." and file it away to be read later.

I can go on. And on. And on....

Anyway, at one point in my list of highlights from the day, I wrote, "I probably should have just written a blog post...."

So here it is.

(The blog post.)

Our church tradition is to baptize in the James River, by immersion, twice a year. The line is usually long, and that in itself is powerful. Our church's very existence is rooted in an evangelical passion to reach those who have been untouched or unaffected by traditional churches. Baptism shows us raw data, in the faces and stories of people whose lives have been transformed by Christ. 
Photo credit: Jack Bellamy

We gather in a large group at the top of the hill, and Sammy gives instructions; hold your handkerchief here, listen for these words, simply bend your knees and lean back, trust your pastor will lift you up.

I had the incredible honor and privilege of baptizing three people today, and we went first. We stepped into the water, gasping at the initial chill, and then moving out towards the deeper part. Here is a thing: being so close to a person, holding them as they move under the water, helping lift them out - close like that, you have a unique perspective. I have baptized before, but today, for the first time, I looked. I saw up close the joy and surprise and the truth of that "newness of life" sketched on those three faces, beautiful, precious people whose stories are somewhat known to me. The cold water makes you gasp, for sure; but there the symbolism has endured for good reason. It is a holy and sacred moment.

Making my way out of the water, I stood at the edge and watched the rest of the group, some forty people in pairs, alone, with families, with friends. A family - the husband and wife baptized together, then their children, one by one. A teenager who came out of the water in tears, overcome with emotion that rendered him speechless - but somehow sanctified. I stood there and watched and thought; such an odd thing, this ritual of being put under water. It means so many things - the "buried with Him in baptism", the cleansing, the new life, purification...going under baptismal waters is a ripe, rich act. But as I watched today, an odd thought occurred to me. 

We say, "Do this thing to represent your decision to follow Christ", and we explain the history and what it represents. Our church does not get all hung up on obedience to church rules and regulations. We passionately avoid legalism, because we believe that Jesus was not a fan, and we know that many people have been hurt and driven away from God by the harsh imposition of rules of behavior. So we strongly encourage believer's baptism but we never say, "You must do this thing to be accepted by Christ, to be saved."

We say, "This is a powerful symbol, important for you and for the church, a public display of your decision to follow Jesus. We encourage you to do it. We will do everything we can to help you get there." 

And people say, "Yes. Okay. I will do this thing." And they line up at the water and walk into the river with all their clothes on, which is - in itself - sort of crazy. They stand there and say, "JESUS IS LORD" and they believe it and they let somebody fold them backwards into the water and they trust that they'll be pulled back up, and they are, and they gasp and rub their eyes and all the people cheer and shout and then they fight for purchase on the slippery rocks and stand on the edge of the water, dripping wet, hair a mess and drenched clothes clinging to their body. And they are baptized.

And there are no heavenly voices, no doves, no opening of the skies, but they are somehow changed after this act of obedience.

This submission.

That was a dirty word to me, not too long ago; I felt it's full force in subtle and overt ways. Submit falls in line with those rules and regulations and rigid expectations of behavior, or so I believed. So I had been taught.

But baptism is this powerful act of submission, to the community, to the command of Jesus, to the history and holiness of a long-standing ritual.

To Jesus.

Something clarified for me today as I stood and watched, dripping wet from my own walk into the water. Submitting to a somewhat odd act of corporate identification was a defining moment, not just because of the baptism, but because of the willingness to say yes. To bow. To relinquish control.

To submit.

My attitude towards submission has changed greatly; eight years in a community that strives to submit to one another in love regardless of gender, three years in a marriage that spins on mutual submission and honor - these things will teach a girl to put her weapons down. I am okay with submission - more than okay. I see it in action, in what I believe to be the truest spirit of the teaching, and I cannot argue with the beauty of submissive relationships.

It starts with this crazy act of baptism. 

I pray the morning light will baptize me anew tomorrow, and that I might walk the hours of the day simply bending my knees, folding backwards, trusting that somebody will lift me up.


Lori said...

That was beautiful Beth.
I use the word surrender a lot. For me, it holds that same meaning as submit does to you. And along with that I link it to obedience. Not the legalistic obedience, but the kind that comes from submission, love and surrender.. It is a way to honor ourselves anew and often times renewed in Christ. For me, watching the act of baptism is like reliving my own again. The joy, the profound feeling that comes from both the act and those being baptized will very often bring tears to my eyes.
We do submit, you're right. And we do it out of love. As his love for us drives us to that..
thanks for this... beautiful

annie said...

Beautiful! I love your writing. I'm glad you got up to write this!

Lori said...

I sat in church this morning, alone in that quiet space. It is home for me. A place where I am so comfortable and can talk out loud and sit in peace.
I was talking to Papa about what you said yesterday along that thought line about submit and yes Beth, that is the correct word. It is something we do out of love and the grace we have been shown. We do it because it is our deepest desire. For me, it does go hand in hand with that faithful obedience but beyond that too, it is the same gift we are given, as we are loved, so we love in return.
ENough said. And thank you. <3