The church in general had no cushion either. There was not much wiggle room for a young sinner like me. Sunday School was okay. There were memory verses and fill in the blank questions in a work book, which primarily served to make sure you read the scriptures, specifically the King James version of those scriptures, and I was pretty good at that kind of thing. My Dad's contribution to my religious education was to make sure I had my Sunday School lesson completed before he would let me read the Sunday comics ... "Have you finished your Bible study? Wanna read the red funnies?" So Sunday School was okay, easy enough and the teachers always appreciated those who participated, but it was not enlightening or uplifting. The one clear lesson was how difficult, if not impossible, it was to live a good, Christian life. Early on, my young sinner self decided it was simply too much.
My tendency, even as a kid, was to collect data, allow it to percolate for a while, sometimes a long while, and then try to make the most logical, consistent decision possible. The problem was only partially with the data I collected from the church. It wasn't that the prescribed lifestyle was impossible, it was that it seemed inconsistent, and that I couldn't live with. Jesus came to save the world, but what about those who never heard of him? Women couldn't be leaders in the church, but all around me I saw women leading, even in those King James version Bible stories. We were supposed to let our light shine, but our church seemed so insular, so inwardly focused. We were supposed to praise God with singing, but for some reason, pianos poisoned the praise. We talked about Jesus' miracles, the supremacy of God, the power of the Holy Spirit, but there was no room for mystery. How could there be no gray areas when no one could claim to fully know God?
But many made that claim. They told me Dad was going to hell for not attending church. They told me the folks in the church down the street were going to hell because they weren't doing church the right way. They told me about judgement, but I don't recall hearing about grace. I got very good at memory verses and bible races and using particular scriptures as 'proof' of righteousness. In the end, however, it didn't make sense, at least to a young sinner like me, and so it became easier and easier to ignore and dismiss what was being taught. To me it seemed suspiciously like the church was creating their own check boxes, so it was not a surprise to me when they checked them off. I did not believe in what they were selling.
And then there was the other data being collected. My Mom took us to church. Dad stayed home. Church was stressful. Sunday afternoons with Dad were remarkably boring, often spent at Grandma Turner's house. Rides home from church were often filled with gossip or arguments or discussion of some sinner's inappropriate behavior. Rides home from Grandma Turner's were usually pretty quiet, except when interrupted by Dad's a capella renditions of Bob Wills or some obscure and hopelessly hokey cowboy song. I rarely saw Mom put money in the collection plate. I often saw Dad checking on some old guy he knew was down on his luck. It's not that Dad was nice and good and Mom was mean and bad, it was simply that Dad seemed happier. The same could be said of many of my other friends who did not go to church, or who went to a church that did fun things. The words I heard in church versus the life I witnessed away from it just didn't hang together.
Some of the words I heard in church included this, from Mark 16:16 ...
The one who believes and is baptized will be saved
This was a regularly featured scripture in worship. Near the end of every service there was what was commonly referred to as an 'altar call.' Inviting worshippers to come forward and be baptized. The expectation was that if you were so moved by the message, the Holy Spirit would call you to come forward and be baptized. The baptistry was behind a curtain, behind the pulpit. Once you came forward, the preacher would take you back to the baptistry. You would change into a white robe. The preacher would step into the water with you, say the appropriate words and dip or dunk you completely under the water. As you came out of the water, the curtain would be closed, I assume to save you the embarrassment of looking like you'd just been dunked. I never understood why they closed the curtain. If the action was holy, I wanted to see it all.
There was, of course, no infant baptism. You had to come forward, fully aware of your commitment. I saw many of my peers go forward to be baptized, some as early as 10 or 11 years old. By the time I was 13 I was feeling the pressure. It seemed that every time I heard "The one who believes AND is baptized" every head in the congregation would turn to look at me. There was no question that the "AND" was emphasized. But I did not believe. I simply did not. And, in my search for consistency, there was no way I was going forward. I could not do something I did not believe simply to conform to community convention. I even talked about this with my non-religious Dad who said, "Don't worry about it. I was baptized every time a traveling preacher came to town. I've been dunked enough for both of us." Consequently, I was never baptized, and as soon as I left home, I also left the church.
This was my thinking at the time. I do not condemn those who taught me, either my parents or the church leaders. I believe they were doing what they thought was best and all I'm trying to communicate is that it was not sufficient for me. I've already admitted my sinfulness. Though I was young, I have a hard time holding others responsible for my hard-headed-ness. None of us made it easy, so please do not interpret the above as criticism. It was what it was; it was my life and I truly have no regrets.
Today, however, at the age of 56, I was baptized at Bentwood Trail Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas by the Reverend Dr. Elizabeth Callender during Easter worship services. We have been worshipping at Bentwood Trail since 1999, and joined in 2000 when our son was 3 years old. I quit going to church as soon as I left home. I did not return until my wife convinced me that it was the right thing to do for our son, and somehow I recognized the truth of that, and agreed to "try" church again. Throughout my tenure at BTPC I have struggled with the knowledge that I was not baptized. Sometimes, it made me feel like a fraud. Other times it was reassuring, knowing that even if I was not baptized, God still loved me.
I'm sure there were many in my church family who were shocked to see my name in the bulletin to be baptized today. I've been active in teaching, leading worship, volunteering and church leadership for many years. To those who want to know "why now?" after all these years, I have three answers.
First, if anyone was going to baptize me, it was going to be Elizabeth. Despite the fact that she is a woman, and that I would be sprinkled instead of dunked, it felt right. I was part of Elizabeth's call to BTPC, and my work on the nominating committee truly was one of those times when I felt God's call. She has been my friend and my teacher, and there is a 'rightness' in our relationship that is undeniable. Since we will be moving to Houston soon, I couldn't let the decision to be baptized linger.
Second, as I mentioned before, sometimes it takes a while for me to process data and come to a decision. This one was a long time coming, but I finally determined that it was time to take this step. The epiphany came several months ago when I finally realized, after struggling with the whole concept and need and purpose of baptism for decades, that it was something that you get to do, an opportunity, not something you have to do, a requirement.
Finally, I eventually realized that NOT being baptized was my way of controlling my relationship with God. Not getting baptized was my way of letting God know that I was in charge of this relationship. I was holding out, hoping that some day, some way, God would prove himself to me ... burning bush, winning lottery ticket, life changing vision, something. Who am I to demand that the Creator of the Universe prove himself to me? Isn't the logical thing to seek a relationship with God, to simply accept His love that is unconditionally given?
I have grown from a young sinner, full of doubt and stubbornness, to an old sinner, unsure of many, many things, but absolutely convinced that it is better to live into and in the love that is offered, than to try to control it, or to try to force it into conditions and requirements of my own construction. It is not my tendency to leap into faith. Choosing to be baptized, for me, has not been a leap, but rather a decades long process that began with my Mother dipping my toes in the water (though at times it felt like being thrown in the deep end) and ending with being welcomed into the ocean of family and friends and believers spanning not just decades, but millennia.
Who am I? A child of the great I AM, baptized, a participant in Jesus' death and resurrection, dead to what separates us from God, and raised to newness of life in Christ. I will endeavor to choose life in all things, and will succeed with God's help.
Thank you, everyone, who brought me to this point. It has been a long journey, and you have all been part of it, and a blessing to me.