Believing and Belonging

I’ve had a few conversations about baptism lately. It is appropriate as we prepare for the baptism of our grandson on Sunday. The base chapel is a great place to think and talk about faith in the midst of life. The chapel stands in a long tradition of military chaplains serving people of all faiths. Chaplains are trained in sensitivity to the different beliefs that are held by those who serve and the techniques of serving those whose faith may differ from the faith of the chaplain. Stories abound of a protestant chaplain assisting a catholic soldier or a Jewish chaplain providing for the spiritual needs of a Christian. There is no greater honor in life than serving those who serve and military chaplains live out that call to service every day. As a pastor of the United Church of Christ, I feel quite at home in the base chapel, where the two strains of Christian baptism are practiced side by side.

The traditions of Christian baptism received a great deal of attention and stirred much controversy and dissension during the Protestant reformation. Some Christians felt that the baptism of infants and children was inappropriate because they were too young to understand the meaning of the sacrament. They suggested that only believers should be baptized and that a conscious decision made by the candidate for baptism him or herself should be required for baptism to take place. The split within Christianity was more deep than a simple disagreement and baptism was only one of the topics around which dissension took place. The anabaptist tradition within Christianity arose as a part of the protest of the Reformation, but it did not arise in all of the churches of the Reformed tradition. In the case of the United Church of Christ, our historic roots lie primarily in churches that embraced the traditional sacrament of a one time baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with flowing water. Those churches were critical of the practice, in some other parts of Christianity, of repeating the sacrament and also of the view that total immersion was required. Their response was in part a display of a more ancient argument within the church where the question of the worthiness of the officiant has been raised. The mainstream response to that controversy was that the sacrament stood independent of the officiant. It wasn’t the officiant who made the sacrament, but rather the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, which transcended any failings of the officiant. As such, setting any test of the sacrament was deemed inappropriate.

The arguments persist to this day. In the United Church of Christ, however, a series of unions between different Christian communions has resulted in a church that embraces both infant and believer’s baptism and while maintaining its commitment to a single baptism and seeing no reason for a repeat in the life of the believer, continues to offer baptism of infants and of older persons as well as baptism by immersion and also by sprinkling or pouring water. The sacrament is present in a variety of different forms. The base chapel is designed with a space for immersion of adults as well as a font for baptism of infants, children and adults.

Baptism is about believing and belonging. In the ancient form, where people of all ages are baptized, there is another rite, confirmation, which is a declaration of faith, focused on belief. It has been argued that confirmation, unlike baptism, is a repeatable rite.

In the midst of these conversations, I find it impossible to take sides or to say that there is any possibility of separating believing from belonging. Both are important and both are present. When an infant is baptized the family of the one baptized acknowledge that raising a child is beyond any individual and a part of the community. Recognizing that the promises of God are not only to us, but to our children as well, we present them to the community and acknowledge their full membership in the family of faith. Later there will be opportunities to affirm baptism and to make statements of faith in the midst of the community. But baptism of infants is not just about belonging, it is also about believing. We believe that all children are gifts of God. We believe that all humans belong to God regardless of outward professions of faith.

At a deeper level, we acknowledge that believing is more than simple intellectual assent. It is not a matter of embracing or giving assent to a specific set of ideas or thoughts. Believing does not require that one has a particular mental image of God or a specific set of statements to which they will agree. In our corner of the Christian tradition, we use creeds and statements of faith as testaments of faith, but never as tests of faith. We have no set of words or of ideas that must be embraced for the individual to claim membership in the community. We are serious about our slogan: “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

Our children are full members of the family of faith. There is no requirement that they pass some test of mental acuity or make a specific declaration of faith.

One of the joys of preparing for this particular baptism is the joy of being a grandfather. It is a unique and wonderful role. Another joy has been working with the base chaplains. Our primary contact has been the Roman Catholic chaplain, whose welcome and genuine hospitality is deeply appreciated. He embodies the sense of embracing all people of faith without compromising his own beliefs and faith in any way. His genuine warmth and care of our daughter and her family is deeply appreciated. I will always remember his kindness and care for them.

There has been a bit of talk about what the infant will wear to the baptism. The christening gown that has been a part of our family in which our children were dressed is not here in Japan, let at home in part out of respect for the other side of the family. The dress outfit chosen before the baby’s birth is simply too large for the tiny one. He’ll get to wear it in a few months, but right now it is just too large. Of course it doesn’t matter what he wears, and his father and mother and grandmother will make sure that he is well dressed for the family pictures. The external elements will all come together and at the moment of the sacrament, we will all be bound together in both believing and belonging.

I’m just glad the church long ago resolved the issue of the worthiness of the officiant. As the one who will officiate, it is good to know that the sacrament is far beyond my power. I place our grandson in God's care.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!