I am an expert on baptism. My expertise comes, not from being a pastor or having a couple of degrees in religion. I am an expert on baptism because I have been baptized three times.
The first time happened in sixth grade. At an evening devotional at music camp during the summer, I had felt the “strange warming” in my heart that John Wesley talked about. In that moment I was certain–certain!–of God’s love for me. When I returned home, I shared the experience with my pastor and he signed me up to be baptized. That was a Methodist church, so I was sprinkled.
A couple of years after that, I started hanging out with Baptists. One day, the pastor at my Baptist church called me into his office and took me down the “Roman Road,” which means he showed me in various verses from the book of Romans how “all fall short of the glory of God” and how no one is saved except by acknowledging Jesus Christ as Lord and savior.
Now, I thought I already was a Christian. I’d felt God’s love for me, I’d been baptized…good to go, right? But when someone in authority calls you into his office and tells you you’re going to hell unless you say yes to the questions he’s asking, well, you say yes. So, I was baptized again. This time by immersion.
For years after that second baptism, I felt guilty. And afraid. That pastor’s insistence on “getting me saved,” convinced me that my true conversion experience wasn’t valid. And I knew that this second baptism wasn’t valid because my heart wasn’t in it…which meant that I must not be saved, right? Which meant (sigh) that I was going to hell.
I lived with that secret fear all through my tenure at a Baptist college, all through a couple of internships working in children’s ministry. Finally, in my second year of teaching school, I couldn’t take it any more. I made an appointment with my pastor. He, too, showed me the Roman Road and signed me up to be Baptized. The church was bigger, the baptistry nicer, but, in truth, it felt just as fake as the previous baptism. What I remember most about that day is the splitting headache I had.
Most of you know that I went to seminary to become a children’s minister…because that was all I had seen women do in the church. While I’m grateful that–even in a Baptist seminary–I got in touch with my true calling to pastor, my commitment to children’s ministry wasn’t without merit. Having seen so many children pressured to “accept Jesus into their hearts” at an age where they couldn’t possibly understand what that meant, I went to seminary to learn how to stop what I called the “spiritual abuse” of children.
Reflecting on children’s ministry in general gave me insight into my own spiritual journey as a child. Thinking back on that first experience of God’s love at music camp, I knew that my true baptism experience, the one where I emerged from the water knowing that I was beloved of God, was the first one–that sprinkling in the tiny Methodist church in Newberry, Florida.
On this day, when we reflect on Jesus’ baptism–and our own–may the most real thing we experience be the profound truth that we are beloved by God.