A few weeks ago, you were inconsolable. I changed your diaper. I fed you. I burped you. But, you screamed until your entire tiny body was red. I got warm watching you and kicked off my slippers. I held you and bounced. You stopped screaming only long enough to catch a few quick empty breaths, just so you could keep screaming. I recognized those panicked breaths, and I prayed that you would outgrow them.
But you might not.
I bounced you up and started chanting, “we won’t be afraid, we won’t be afraid, we won’t be afraid.” Your mom laughed at me, but I just kept saying it. And eventually you made the journey from screaming, to crying, to whimpering, to staring, and finally, your eyelids started sticking.
But I kept chanting.
“We won’t be afraid, we won’t be afraid, we won’t be afraid.”
I wasn’t saying it for you. I was saying it for me. I thought about the distance between you and me. Your fingers compared to mine. Your understanding of language, of the world, compared to mine. And child, if you knew how safe and loved you were, you’d take long, full breaths. I thought about the distance between myself and God, and about how if I knew how safe and loved I was, I would take long, full breaths as well.
At baptism, what we say is that you are safe and you are loved and sometimes you will forget it. But, these things are true even when you forget. When you remember that you are baptized, child, I hope it will help you take long deep breaths and live more peacefully with yourself and with others.
Baptism is the sign and seal of God’s covenant. It is like the sign at the front of a wooded path that points you toward the beach and the endless lake.
It is a seal. There used to be this thing called paper, and you would take ink and write letters with the ink on the paper. And at one point in history, it was the only form of long distance communication. The emperor would send a letter to the people. The letter carried the words of authority. But, how did people know they could trust the words? Couldn’t someone else have written the letter? How did they know that the letter was really from the emperor? Before the letter was sent out, hot wax was dripped onto the bottom of the letter, and the emperor would place his unique ring or stamp into the hot wax, sealing its authority.
God has written you a letter, child. It says that your sins are forgiven and that you are never alone, that you have a people. It says, “What can separate you from my love? Trouble or distress or famine or nakedness or danger or violence? No, you are a conqueror, little one. Nothing can separate you from my love.” Baptism is a seal, placed on that letter so you know that the letter is true and it is trustworthy.
We baptized you today, but what if you grow up and you say, “How dare you, dad?” What if you say, “I don’t want to be committed to confessing the faith of Christ crucified until my life’s end?”
Well, child, if I can be honest with you… it’s not a matter of whether or not you will say that. I don’t know many Christians who haven’t said some version of how dare you or that’s not for me at one point or another. No, the better question is, when you do say that, when your fingers lose their strength and can’t hold on any longer, when you have worn yourself out with arguments, when you have found the cross too much to carry… what then will this water have meant?
At that moment, child, it is precisely the promise sealed in your baptism that has the only chance of bringing you back to the arms that never tire of holding you, the fingers that never lose their grip. Baptism is grounded in the faithfulness of God, not your own strength.
At that moment, when you are 19 and questioning everything, or when you are 27 and life hasn’t turned out how you thought it should, or when you are 40 and your faith has led you into scary places and you don’t know how you will be able to go on, it is exactly then that your baptism will mean precisely what it meant today: That though you knew nothing of it, Christ came, Christ died, and Christ lives nearer to you than you are to yourself.
We baptized you today and we claimed the forgiving and transforming love of God for you, because as Frederick Buechner puts it: “When it comes to the forgiving and transforming love of God, one wonders if the six-week-old screecher knows all that much less than the archbishop of Canterbury about what’s going on.”
We baptized you into the church today because you are the daughter of your mother. And, being our child means that you are a long baby and pasty white. You were born to us in Chicago, Illinois, of these United States, and at birth you became an American citizen. You had no choice in the matter. For better or worse, that was your lot.
And, if being born to your mother and I makes you a citizen of this country, then you can be sure that it makes you a citizen of the kingdom that has no end. You will get a passport soon that will identify you as an American citizen, but not until you’ve already been marked by the waters that make you a citizen of Jesus’ kingdom. You are an American, and someday I think you will be glad to be. But child, first you belong to an age-old people, made up of every tribe and nationality and race; you are a daughter of a people that speaks every language, in the line of Rahab and Sarah and Deborah and Ruth and Mary and Phoebe and St. Theresa and Mother Theresa, and you are the daughter of the king and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
You look left, mainly. I know the right side of your face better than I know my own. I’ve prayed more these last few months then I ever have. It’s a combination of having time on my hands while having my hands full, plus this spiritual itch that seems to come with being a dad. The other day I was praying for when you would start preschool, when you would start middle school. I can’t picture either moment, but I think I will find it comforting knowing that I’ve prayed for those days when you get to them. I hope you will, too.
I prayed for when you will start thinking about college and when you will fall in love and then out again. I prayed for when you will be 35 and starting a new career. 45 and wondering how you got there. I prayed for when you will be as old as your great grandma is now. She is 94. When you are 94 someday, God willing, I will be long gone… your mother and I will be shadows of memory in your mind. But I’ve already prayed for you, then. And today, though you are only 3 months old, we’ve done the very best thing we could do. We’ve placed you under the light of God’s promises, a light that shines in the darkness. A light that shines even when your breath is short and your fear inconsolable.
All my love,