I was going through the serving line at a church luncheon a few months ago when I found myself standing beside one of our bright, capable high school students (there are so many!). Since I’m not with the youth that often she seized the opportunity to let me know what was on her mind. “I’ve been thinking about getting baptized again,” she said. “Really?” I answered. “I’d love to talk to you about that.” And so, when we had filled our plates, we sat down together.
She told me she had been so young when she was baptized the first time that she didn’t really know what she was doing. Now that she was older and understood more she thought maybe she should get re-baptized. “What do you think?” she asked, glancing at me sideways while she buttered a roll.
I told her the truth.
I told her there are very few of us who really know what we are doing when we get baptized, but we do it anyway, holding onto our fragile faith in Jesus even as we hold our noses to be dipped down under the water. We come up dripping wet, gasping for the first breath of our new life in Christ and at first it feels wonderful: we’ve been washed clean, we’ve gotten a fresh start, and the church welcomes us with open arms. But it usually isn’t long after that that we discover we are still capable of sin, and that we sin with embarrassing frequency. We wonder what we should do. Get back in the baptistery? Get those post-baptismal sins washed away, too?
I like to tell young people that becoming a Christian means making a commitment to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus. That’s hard. That’s really hard. We will surely stumble along that path. But when we do there are others in the church who can pick us up, brush us off, and help us get back on our feet again. And we will occasionally wander off the path and lose our way, but when we do there are brothers and sisters who will call our names and help us get back on track again.
Sometimes along this spiritual journey we have experiences that are so deep and meaningful we want to mark them in some way, we want to let everyone know that something profound has happened. Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of ways to do that in the church. We begin to think of the last time we did something like that and our thoughts naturally turn to baptism.
I told this young woman that my baptism at age 14 was the beginning of my spiritual journey, but not the end of it. When I was 20 years old I had a kind of “prodigal son” experience. I had dropped out of college for a semester and was working on a pig farm in West Virginia (really!). I was raking leaves in the farmer’s front yard one day when I realized how long it had been since I felt close to God and how the only time in my life that I had been truly happy was when I was doing what I thought God wanted me to do. Right then and there, with tears in my eyes, I asked the heavenly Father to let me come home again.
And then, when I was 25, I wrestled with the call to ministry. I prayed about it for months—hard!—before I finally felt a sense of peace wash over me. That was another holy moment. And then when I was 27 I was ordained as the new pastor of a little church in Kentucky. Those people came down the aisle and laid their hands on my head, blessing me and promising to pray for me as their pastor. The tears streamed down my cheeks. I had that same sense of God’s powerful presence when I was called to my church in North Carolina, and then Washington, and then here in Richmond.
I told this girl about those significant moments along the path of my spiritual journey and told her that at each of those places I had stacked up a pile of stones—not literally, but figuratively—so that when I looked back I could see those piles every few hundred yards along the path leading all the way back to the day of my baptism—reminders that in each of those moments God had been with me in a powerful way.
Maybe we need to have a way to do that in church. Maybe when God has been working in our lives we could come down the aisle and stack up a pile of stones right there in front of everybody, to let them know we have reached another milestone in our spiritual journey. If we had an option like that I doubt that this girl would have even thought about getting baptized again. Because getting back in the baptistery would have been like starting all over again, wouldn’t it? And who wants to do that when you’ve come so far?