Baptism By Fire And Water

February 25, 1998
by Harold McNabb

Psalm 69:1 – Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.

I come into the Presbyterian Church from the Baptist Church where I served as an ordained pastor. One of the main differences is how the two groups do their baptisms. Presbyterians can be much more dignified, while Baptists can be exuberant, among other things. It is a real challenge to be dignified when plunging a full-grown adult under water and then hauling them out again soaking wet and gasping for oxygen!

I remember very well my first baptism as a young Baptist pastor. She was a retired lady with a phobia about having her head touched. We discussed how we could manage the feat without touching her head, but I was more confident than she was. One day she came to me and suggested she could wear a motorcycle helmet into the baptistry! (No kidding, she really did!). I demurred, assuring her we could manage fine with faith and a little care.

Well, the day of the baptism came. In Baptist churches a couple of deacons are assigned to assist the person upon exiting from the baptistry. (Maybe lest they slip and fall and sue?) Our baptistry in Dauphin, Manitoba, Canada, had "wings" like a theatre where people could enter and exit from the baptistry unseen. One of our deacons waited out of sight ready to help — which he did in his own fashion. When it came time to baptize the dear lady, she panicked at the last moment and would not allow her head to be submerged.

The deacon, stabbing his finger in a downward motion, signalled me, "Get her head under." I guess he figured it was like Achilles' heel, and didn't want her left vulnerable — especially not her head.

So, obediently, I lowered her backwards a bit further, and with her co-operation could have completed the deed simply. I hadn't counted on her nervousness about her head. She pulled it up toward her chest so as to keep it out of the water. The deacon kept motioning with his finger, "Get her under!"

In exasperation, I finally just pushed her under instead of lowering her gently. This provoked an understandable response in her. First she gasped, which is not wise when under water. Then, flailing about, she grabbed at me as I tried to return her to an upright position with as much decorum as was left for either of us.

Coughing and grasping for a hand-hold she finally managed to exit the water and the deacon guided her to a room in the basement where she could get changed. I don't remember much of the rest of the service, but the good folk of the town still came for baptism afterward, teaching me much about forbearance and their faith in God's protection.

I tell you all this as re-assurance about feeling nonplussed over the antics of infants and their parents during baptisms. It can be much more challenging — believe me!

Prayer: Lord, thank you for Your love and presence in even the deepest waters, and help us to take you seriously, but rarely ourselves. Amen.

About the author:

Harold McNabb
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

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