NOTE: This is No. 4 in my weekly letters to the congregation of First Baptist Church. If you’d like to get these letters in your email inbox, even if you are not a member of the church, you can sign up HERE. And in case you’re wondering, that’s me, Jack Buckbee, and Ann Carter, above, standing waist deep in the James River (photo by Matthew Brown).
It started with a question from Ann Carter, our Minister to Students.
She had been talking to Will Storey, who wanted to be baptized, but he wanted to be baptized in the river. He remembered those baptisms we had done a few years ago at Bill and Beverley Hundley’s beautiful place on the James. She called me to ask:
“Are we planning to do another river baptism anytime soon?”
“No,” I said.
I mean, we weren’t planning to. We had baptized, like, 19 people the first year we did a river baptism, and 21 people the next year, and 13 people the year after that, and then there were only two people who signed up, and it didn’t seem worth all that trouble just for two. But here was one young person who wanted to be baptized in the river and for some reason I heard myself saying, “Hey, if he wants to do it, let’s do it!” But then Ann asked, “Can we do it before the end of August?”
And that’s how we ended up having a river baptism on Sunday evening, August 18.
Ann scouted out some locations and decided on a boat ramp at Robious Landing Park. She told Will and he told some of his friends and before we knew it there were four, then five, then six young people who wanted to be baptized in the river. They came forward during the invitation hymn on Sunday morning and it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen: all those young people streaming down the aisle of the church to present themselves as candidates for baptism. They may have gotten more hugs from the congregation afterward than they had ever gotten in their lives.
I got in my car around four to drive over to Robious Landing Park and at 4:30 I got out and started walking along the wooded path that led to the boat ramp. It was longer than I thought, and even in the shade the temperature was somewhere in the nineties. But when I got to the boat ramp I found a big crowd of happy, sweaty people and by 5:00 the crowd was bigger, sweatier, and (if possible) happier.
I put on my robe along with Ann and those six students, and then we paraded down the ramp while the James Family played and sang, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” Everybody was singing along; it was perfect. And when I waded out into the refreshing waters of the James I was grateful to be one of those in the river and not one of those sweating on the shore.
But then I became even more grateful.
Ann introduced the students one by one and read their Scripture verses, and then they waded out to stand next to me in the water. That’s when I felt the lump rise in my throat—when I stood beside these students and asked them to profess their faith, and when they said in voices loud enough to be heard on the shore, “Jesus is Lord!” I swallowed hard and said, “In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, and upon your profession of faith in him, I baptize you into the family of God in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” And then, one at a time, I dipped them down beneath those cleansing waters and brought them up again.
Can I tell you something? I never feel so much at the center of God’s will as when I’m baptizing. I mean, Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and there I am, doing exactly that. If I died in that moment I would go straight to heaven, right? But in that moment on Sunday evening, as one after another of those young people was lifted up out of the water and into their new life with Christ, heaven came to earth.
It really did.