Stories From An Unpublished Book
If what I do this morning does not sound much like a sermon, I shall count on you to remember that it isn’t a requirement of either religious law or Scripture to have a conventional sermon on Sunday….or, for that matter, any sermon at all. Worship will happen in all sorts of places this morning where no will speak any words at all from a pulpit — so please be tolerant if what comes next is a little different from our usual menu. Several people have asked me to share some stories from a book they know I work on from time to time, so I decided a few weeks ago to do that on a quiet Sunday mornng in January when we might have fewer visitors to be puzzled by such a curious discourse. The stories are about baptism, which in the church of my childhood and early ministry meant total immersion in the water of a baptistry, a lake, or a river. I grew up watching hundreds of baptisms and later performed several hundred more as a minister. Most of them went off routinely but once in a while something unexpected would happen — sometimes funny, sometimes painfully awkward, sometimes so poignantly beautiful it was hard to hold back tears. When it’s obvious that I was smiling as I wrote a particular story I’m counting on you to understand that the smile is touched with tender affection for the good and decent people among whom I grew up.
But I also have a serious purpose in sharing certain stories which illustrate how legalistic we sometimes were in our approach to God. Religious legalism, in case the phrase is not familiar, places such enormous importance on ritual and ceremony that it often leads to arrogance and pride. It is so much easier to take communion or count beads or burn candles than it is to learn love and joy and generosity that we often count on the externals to please God and forget what is far more important. Jesus saw too much of that attitude. To people who relied heavily on food laws to win God’s favor he said, “It is not what goes into your mouth that matters, it’s what comes out of it from the person on the inside.” To people proud of their ceremonial washings he said, “You concentrate so much on the outside that you forget to change your hearts.” You can decide from one or two of my stories whether we sometimes crossed the line into legalism.
We made endless jokes at the expense of Methodists and others who had substituted what we called “sprinkling” for immersion, but evenb efore I left that church there were times when I thought that the symbolism by which the forehead is touched with water from a font might be just as effective in marking a change of life. But I was locked into an implacable legalism: any alteration of form, no matter how slight, would rob baptism of its mysterious grace. I rcall an old man in Cave Springs, Arkansas who had been a devout and happy Methodist all his life until an evangelist from our church won his trust and told him that little dab of water was not enough, that his life was almost over and that he could not hope for heaven unless he was totally immersed. The old gentleman believed, but he was too sick and weak to leave the house.
The visiting evangelist, in town for a gospel meeting, explained that he could be immersed in his bathtub. Fearful that god would reject him despite his long, good life, the 90-year-old man called me to ask if I would come and baptize him. I already had some strong feelings that God takes the intention for the deed in such cases, but baptism by immersion was a sacred cow and it would have upset the old man and my church if I had refused on the grounds of humanity and aesthetics. So we filled the tub to the brim with warm water, lifted him out of his chair, stretched him out and pushed him under. The old man’s nephew later told me it was so much like preparing to do laundry that he had to suppress the irreverent thought that we should pour in a cup of detergent. As it was, we had to smooth out irreverent bubbles from air trapped in his clothes, and then shove down wandering elbows and knees to make sure he was completely submerged. We strangled him in the process, but the two witnessing deacons were satisfied that he had, indeed, “gone all the way under,” which our legalism insisted was the only way he could please his Maker.
An unlucky interim minister we had during the summer I became 17 had an even more embarrassing experience in front of the whole congregation. He was a very persuasive man and a record number of people “went forward,” as we would say, to confess their faith and be baptized. Among them, one Sunday night, was an enormous lady who had been visiting from the neighborhood and who, on that evening, found herself greatly wrought up and eager for immersion before the next sunrise. We encouraged immediate baptisms for fear that a car wreck on the way home or a bolt of lightning might kill the new believer before obedience had been completed and cause him or her to be lost forever.
Brother Chad was between semesters at one of our preacher-training schools in Texas and had little experience with baptisms. I could tell he was alarmed at the size of the woman, and perhaps old Ben Conley, a sturdy elder of the church, also sensed potential disaster. I had never before known Ben to come and stand at the edge of the baptistry, out of sight of the audience, but this time he did. Brother Chad looked small and nervous as he spoke the ritual prayer we used, but he remembered to squeeze the woman’s nose shut with his dampened handkerchief as he placed his rights hand in the middle of her expansive back and lowered her into the water with — alas! — ever-increasing rapidity. The truth is that he was losing her from the first slight incline, and she sank on down, out of his grip, with the speed and finality of a great ocean liner.
Brother Chad hung on and followed her underwater in an attempt at retrieval, but he surfaced when it was clear he could not manage. The woman, meanwhile, sensing that her trust had been misplaced, began to flounder and thrash wildly at the bottom of the tank. Brother Chad might eventually have located an arm and resurrected her, but Elder Ben was already in the water by then. Reaching down with both strong arms, he pulled the woman up on her feet, she choking and wheezing and utterly unmindful at the moment that her sins had just been washed away. She recovered to serve that church long and well, but Brother Chad dropped out of school a year later and went into the insurance business.
I was a visitor in another Oklahoma church one night when the evangelist converted, and the local minister baptized, a tall slender mail-carrier of about 25. No on anticipated any trouble. The local preacher was a powerfully-built man who looked as if he could immerse a rhino successfully, while the candidate was a stringbean, six feet seven inches tall, a matchstick figure of a man, all arms and legs. He and the preacher walked down into the baptistry and got themselves ready, filling a lot of vertical space, and the preacher raised his arm in the dramatic pose that would greet the audience when the curtain was pulled back. A man of almost intemperate piety, he closed his eyes and intoned the usual prayer, and with great energy and enthusiasm plunged the candidate backwards.
Unfortunately, he had miscalculated the distance to the concrete rim of the tank, and that mistake was compounded by the candidate’s jerking his head backward just as he was lowered into the water. His head thumped loudly against the edge and he was knocked senseless. Brother Wilson, bright red with embarrassment, held the young postman out of the water easily and picturesquely, the man’s head lolling first on one side and then on the other as the distraught preacher tried to shake him back to consciousness. It seemed forever, but it was only a few seconds before he came to, gazing wildly out at the stunned crowd. Brother Wilson cast an anguished look at my father, who was the songleader that night, and said: “Brother Meyers, would you lead us in a song?” For one blasphemous moment I hoped my dad would launch out into one of his favorites, called “Revive Us Again,” but as four or five of you can guess who also grew up in that church, he led us in the one we always sang after a baptism, a song called “O Happy Day” which seemed a little less appropriate that day than usual.
My own baptism took place under rather odd circumstances, and a friend of mine faced real tragedy one evening when he lost his grip on a girl he was baptizing in the swift currents of a Tennessee river, but those and other baptism stories will have to wait for some other time and place. I remember ponds in Texas and Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri, where sometimes at night after a church service we would go to bury repenting sinners in water and raise them up to walk with God….ponds sometimes icy cold with spring water, sometimes, sometimes warm and stagnant in the summer heat. People would turn their car headlights over the water and keep them on while we sang and prayed and did the baptizing. In the pinched world of Depression times, those prodigal headlights always seemed a glorious extravagance to me, a kind of sacrificial offering to God. Only a total cynic could have been unmoved by the sincerity and hope in the hearts of those who were watching.
But it is also true that legalism sometimes threatened to make the simple, ancient ceremony absurd. If a preacher failed to get a candidate completely under the water, some would notice and insist that he do it over again and get it right. And I found out one day how confusing and terrifying legalism could become for extremely sensitive and idealistic people. It happened at the denominational college where I first taught, and it involved one of my students who came up after class one day to say he would like to go with me on my Sunday preaching appointment to a little Arkansas town called Beebe because, he said, he liked to hear different faculty members speak. I said, “Fine,” and we became regular Sunday morning travelers.
One morning when we sang what we called the “invitation song,” I was surprised to have Ben rush down to the front of the church, tug on my coat sleeve, and tell me with great agitation that he wanted to be baptized. I knew that he had been baptized already, so I assumed he was one of the ultra-sensitive souls who wanted to do it again just to be sure his obedience was as legalistically perfect as possible. There was no baptistry in that small church, so we drove back to the college campus, got permission to use their zinc-and-concrete tank, and entered the huge empty auditorium about 2:30 on that Sunday afternoon. A large sanctuary is a little eerie after hundreds of worshippers have recently left it, their palpable warmth seeming to linger along with a faint hum as if the songs and the sermons still had a ghostly life in the place. I didn’t care for it much, that sense of invisible faces waiting to watch, but I had Ben on my hands and no time to indulge in fantasies.
We located a pair of the white coveralls an immersing church buys, and I found
the minister’s rubber baptismal suit. I pulled back the curtain and all those silent, empty seats closed in. Ben and I paused for a few seconds at the top of the tank before we descended. I remember how dark the water was in the dim light, and how when we troubled it with our steps it seemed almost sullen as if we were intruding. Ben was trembling, but knowing his highly-strung nature I thought that was predictable, and I was only mildly surprised when he said nervously, “I hope I’m ready.” “I’m sure you are,” I said soothingly, and positioned him for the ceremony. He seemed almost in a trance.
Then suddenly he said, “I want to pray!” and flung himself through the water and across the steps, his head just barely above the sloshing waves he had made. He did it rather dramatically, I thought, and then I immediately rebuked myself for having such a thought. I waited for a couple of minutes before he stood up, squared his shoulders, took a deep shuddering breath and said, “All right, I’m ready!” It all seemed a little contrived without an audience, but by sheer force of habit I raised my hand and spoke whatever baptismal formula I was using at the time, and with the skill of long practice I let him down into the water and drew him back up. He brushed the water from his face and we were sloshing back up the stairs to leave when he stopped abruptly, looked back down at the riled and leaden water, and groaned, “Oh, agony! Agony!”
And yes, I know how theatrical it sounds but I could tell he really was in agony so I asked what was wrong and the words came tumbling out. “O,” he wailed, “I didn’t think of all the scriptures — that baptism is for the remission of my sins, that it’s to translate us from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s dear son, that it makes us born again and justified, that it corresponds to Noah’s salvation by water, that it’s the answer of a good conscience towards God. I should have remembered all those things, and I forgot some of them! I don’t feel right, and if I had only remembered I know I would feel cleansed and I would know that God has truly received me.”
And then, having run all our biblical prooftexts through his head, he insisted on being baptized again. I tried to explain that no first-century Christian would have had such a storehouse of meanings to worry about, but he was adamant. “Please, I have to be baptized again. I can’t leave like this.” I don’t know what I would have done in such a strange predicament if an actual audience had been watching, but we were there alone with no one to ask embarrassing questions and I decided that in his state it might be best to go ahead and do what he asked. So we walked back down into the water and I asked him to be very calm and take his time, to make sure he had in his mind all the legal concepts he thought it took to please God.
His face contorted with his effort to remember all the verses he had heard in class and in his church, and this time apparently felt he had gotten it right. He closed his eyes and said, “Please….I’m ready.” I felt a little foolish saying the baptismal prayer again, but even more foolish to plunge him down once more without any preamble, so I said the words, lowered him backward, and raised him up again. This time he did not bother to brush the water off his face. It streamed down over wide, staring eyes only inches from my own, into which he stared with frightening intensity as he said, “Let’s do that again!”
I realize that this has made Ben sound like a candidate for the psych ward, but that it is not fair. The truth is that he was an abnormally bright boy, and the great emphasis on baptism in some recent college sermons had taken hold of his sensitive mind and turned a fairly obvious piece of symbolism into a mix of magic and mystery that had simply overwhelmed him. Still, I had no intention of doing yet another immersion, so I gently but firmly dissuaded him, got him dressed in street clothes and out of the building into our waiting car. But when I parked at the college gate so he could walk across campus to his dormitory room, he was reluctant to leave, and even after I opened the door and all but pushed him, he leaned in one last time and said, pleadingly, “I think it would mean so much more to me now if we could jsut go back and go through it one more time!”
I told him I thought that was not best at the moment, that he had fulfilled all the obedience that could be expected of one in baptism, and that he should go to his room and try to relax. I learned the next day that he persuaded another faculty member, and a fellow student, to go with him at midnight to the college swimming pool, where he was baptized one more time. He adopted a new mentor and we never talked again about that strange experience. After the end of that school year I never saw him again, but I have hoped many times since that he somehow found his way out of the thickets of legalism and into a life of grace that does not require one’s mind to work like a computer before God is willing to grant forgiveness and a sense of peace. Amen.
Help us understand, Eternal God, that your love for us is constant and unconditional,
a gift to those who trust and accept it, in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.