I POSSESS THREE BAPTISMAL CERTIFICATES; one Methodist from age four, one Episcopal from age seven, and one Southern Baptist from age twenty-one. As my wife put it, I have two kiddie admissions and one adult, which perhaps does not reflect the seriousness with which I take these matters. Or perhaps it does.
Each certificate has its own story. My mother brought me up to the baptismal font to be sprinkled and spoken over in the Methodist church of her youth, where my grandparents were still members. I did not cooperate, as toddlers often don’t. I fled and attached myself firmly to a front row pew. The minister offered the pronouncement that it was the intent that counted—my mother’s intent, not mine—and duly signed and handed her my first certificate, on a cold January morning.
I cannot call to mind my later baptism in St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Bel Air, Maryland, three years later on another cold January day. My mother told me the story: “I wanted water on your forehead!” I remember the church picnics at St. Mary’s. I remember the warmth of midnight mass at Christmas, my confirmation at age twelve, carrying the cross in processional, the communion rail and altar, the ritual of lighting altar candles and the rising mingled scent of wax and embers as I extinguished them. And I know my fading religiosity was finally wrung out of me by the demands and regimentation of a denominational boarding school.
I have not yet had my fifteen minutes of fame, but I did have my fifteen minutes of atheism. When I was about fifteen years old my father tried to answer my growing skepticism by gesturing toward the stars one night and prodding me, “Who do you think created these?” I said I did not know, and didn’t really care. But I did. My adolescent atheism was short-lived and I soon discarded it like the affectation it was. But God was only a mystery and a memory to me.
AFTER SEVERAL YEARS OF EXISTENTIAL WANDERING IN THE WILDERNESS, looking for the meaning of life, the Meaning of Life found me. It is a long story, as most good stories are, and I think it is a good story, and maybe I will tell it someday. I am still working out the denouement. The climax came one November Saturday evening in the living room of a carpenter and Pentecostal street preacher named Peter. Years before I knew what the word “existential” meant, I was confronted with the life-altering phenomenon of Encounter and Decision. I am not an excitable boy, or emotionally effusive. But I know as much as I know anything that I encountered Jesus Christ that evening. And I decided to accept him as the meaning of life he offered himself to be. The following May I was baptized by immersion in the church of my then Southern Baptist girlfriend, yielding my third baptismal certificate. This is the baptism I claim as my own.
So, I had two liturgical baptisms, an Episcopalian upbringing, then an Evangelical conversion, mediated by a Pentecostal street preacher, followed by a Southern Baptist baptism and a denominational sojourn that lasted thirty years, which included a pastoral ordination and a doctorate in theology. These are legacies I do not disown, but I do hold all of them in my hands, at times, as strange jewels and unfamiliar fire. A few years ago, the beauty of worship through the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer drew my wife—also raised Episcopalian—and I back to the Episcopal Church, though I cannot say that I have any denominational loyalties. I would now consider myself an Evangelical Baptistic Anglican, were it a question of labels. It is not a question of labels, but we all come to know God in a context and a community. It is rather easy—a little too easy—to encourage ourselves to just follow Jesus and believe the Bible. That, too, happens in a context and a community.
I DO NOT CONSIDER IT A STRANGE THING, then, that I struggle with the mystery of God’s identity and nature, and especially the mystery of my relationship with God. Struggling with God is not an aberration, nor is it even an important thing. It is the only thing. One way or another, it is what we all do with the brief candle of this life.
Next week – Struggles with God – Part 2