My first child, Nathan was not baptized until he was about one. This is no big deal, but in my family it was a cause for worry. Lutherans take care of baptism in the first few months of life. Some young Lutheran parents delay because their church attendance is hit and miss. This wasn’t so for us. Paige and I rarely missed Sunday worship in our 14 years of marriage before I became a pastor. Sometimes, Lutheran couples wait because one of the spouses is unsure about infant baptism. Not so for us, either. Paige was raised Methodist which advocates for infant baptism, too.
The reason we gave for waiting was that we wanted to find a church that would be our church, not my family’s church. When we were newly married, we attended my church, Grace Lutheran in Toledo. Eventually, we did have Nathan baptized at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Temperance, Michigan, a suburb of Toledo. Honestly, though, I think our wait had more to do with me just not getting my head around what baptism is all about. I thought of baptism as simply a ritual that confirmed what was already true and would be true for all of Nathan’s childhood. Baptized at 2 months or 2 years, he would be raised in the church by two parents who believed in Jesus as God. I didn’t see Nathan’s baptism changing anything in me, thus not that necessary. We probably eventually “did” it, more from social pressure than any real embrace of what was happening.
I thought of baptism as something I did, rather than something God did. Many Protestant denominations treat baptism as simply an affirmation of a person’s acceptance of Christ. It is what happens next, after you say I believe and accept Jesus as God. For those that understand baptism this way, it is the public announcement to what has already happened privately. In those Protestant denominations, infant baptism is not allowed because of course an infant or even a young child can’t say I believe. This makes logical sense. Why would God come into our lives if we don’t believe? It doesn’t seem too much to ask that at least we believe God loves us before we present ourselves to be baptized and God becomes our God.
Yet, if belief is required before God becomes our God, than we have to make the first move towards God. If we have to make the first move towards God, than baptism is about us, what we are doing, not God. If baptism is about us, that means in baptism we are claiming God, before God claims us, in order for God to claim us. This is what I believed about baptism, that God needed me to say publicly, I love you God, in order for God to start a relationship with my son. And something in me didn’t like that.
Moments after Nathan was born, I went home alone to our small three room apartment and laid on our hand me down couch and just thought about what had happened. I knew I loved Nathan from that first moment, but what occupied my mind was what that meant. I am sure I thought about warm fuzzy things we would do together, like camping, playing catch, swimming, wrestling came into my head. I even might have pictured growing old and Nathan bringing his children around. Surely, 21 year old Karl had no idea how incredibly handsome, healthy and vibrant I would be when my grandchildren would arrive.
Honestly, what I remember vividly about lying on that old couch was being overwhelmed with the heavy responsibility of a child. In order to love Nathan, I would have to work full time, every day from here on out to provide a home and security. I would have to stop hanging out with my friends, so that I could be present for him. I would have to be more patient. My head filled will all of the things I would have to do now that I had a son, but I didn’t run from those things. I embraced them. I made promises to Nathan lying on that couch on the first day of his life, before I ever even knew him. I was ready to sacrifice for him before he ever, even knew me.
I never once thought about what Nathan would have to do to receive my love. As I laid on that couch, a boundary for my love never entered my mind. It never occurred to me that I could do anything from here until I died except love him. My love for him has been full of human frailty. I didn’t always keep him safe. At a party at our house with college friends when Nathan was four, I dropped him square on his head while roughhousing with him. Often, I wasn’t patient or empathetic. I got very angry about a small, inconsequential tattoo he had gotten on the night of his 18th birthday. Yet, honestly, even in my worst moments as a father, and there were many, that first spark of love I felt as I laid alone on that hand me down couch has never gone out. My love claimed Nathan, before Nathan ever claimed me.
Baptism doesn’t affirm our love for God. It affirms God’s love for us. Baptism isn’t about what we believe. Baptism is about who God loves…us. All four gospel writers tell this story of Jesus being baptized. And in all four stories, the heavens open up and God stakes his claim of love on Jesus. The dove, a symbol of the Holy Spirit lands on Jesus, and God speaks clear words. You are my beloved. The gospel of Mark even uses a more powerful word to describe the opening of the heavens. He tells us that the heavens were torn apart. Making me picture God as a superhero, violently tearing down a huge wall that separates us from God.
From the moment of our baptism, God claims us. The heavens are torn apart and God breaks down every wall that could ever separate us. Nothing ever, ever can stop God from loving us. God speaks our name and calls us beloved. Does God need us to believe in His love in order for God to love us? No more than I needed the newborn Nathan to believe in my love to make it any more real. God’s love starts with God, not us. There is mystery in God’s love, that I didn’t understand when I was in my 20’s. I thought it was all about my love for God, not God’s love for my children.
We baptize infants in the church as a bold statement that baptism isn’t about us. It is all about God. We make promises in baptism, to be sure. Parents make them for their children or adults make them for themselves. Some days we can keep those promises. Some days we fail miserably. But every day, every single moment of every single day, God’s love for us does not waver, and our belief in that love is never a factor. In baptism, God has ripped open the heavens to say, “I love you…yeah you. What took you so long to hear that?”