Putting Down Roots

a little less bitter, a little more whole

Today is Holy Saturday, which I didn’t know was a thing until pretty recently (spoiler alert: it’s just the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, but I think it was feeling bad and wanted a special name. So.) Today is also the day that I went to a Lutheran church for exactly the third time since my family was kicked out of the Lutheran church in Batavia, Illinois, nineteen years ago. Neither of my parents had been particularly religious, but the best preschool in town was there, and I think they maybe gave a discount to families that attended services, so we went, and I apparently loved it. The church members and ministers frowned upon it when my parents divorced, but what really pushed them over the edge was when Mom moved in with Neil without having gone to the courthouse to get the proper paperwork filled out. They said she was “living in sin.” She was excommunicated. (Yes, people actually do get excommunicated still; I think the Lutherans are the only ones who do it besides the Catholics).

But before all of that, somewhat inexplicably, my mother had both my sister and I baptized in a service that I vaguely remember: I can picture grey felt banners with our names on them, a shell full of water, and the barber from town who somehow was our Godfather.

The excommunication more or less ended any relationship between my family and the church in general. If we had given thought to God or Jesus before, we certainly didn’t anymore, and I grew up a happy little athiest who was quite good at poking holes in all of the Christian’s arguments. And then I became a Christian, and ever since then, I’ve wanted to get baptized, except that this time it would count, you know, because it’d be as an adult who was choosing my faith, into a congregation that would support me and nurture me. I felt sure that the first baptism, since it happened under the purview of parents who had no real intention of raising me to know God and at the hands of a pastor who would, just months later, force us out of the worshipping community, was not “the real thing.” I felt resentful. I was sure that it meant nothing.

Which brings us to tonight.

I was sitting in St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church because they have an Easter Vigil service, which my church does not have, and because I’ve recently befriended a woman who’s pursuing ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and getting to know her has made me curious. I had seen the pastor speak at the interfaith worship service that kicked off Tallahassee Gay Pride and found her warm and spirit-filled; I knew that I could enjoy hearing her again.

The Easter Vigil is a long service that moves people from the darkness of Jesus’ death into the light and partying of his resurrection. There are stories of the ways God has saved people throughout history, there is lots of singing, there’s communion, there are candles and flowers, there is–and this is why I chose a Lutheran church tonight instead of joining my Episcopal friends–the renewing of baptismal vows.

A couple weeks ago, I was at a Wednesday night Lenten service at this church, and we read a bit of Martin Luther’s writings about baptism. Sitting there, hearing the explanation that baptism is God extending wide and extravagant love, that out salvation has nothing to do with anything we do or don’t do, that we were chosen by God to be part of this long history of people being made whole and being invited into a family, something shifted in me. I stopped thinking that my baptism didn’t count.

Sure, awful things had been done by the church. Sure, my parents had been sloppy at best in imparting any sort of faith to us. But that’s kind of the point. Humans, and our human institutions, are constantly messing up, but the bigger story is that there is a God who loves us and cares for us and wants to gather us back in and show us what the Good Life really looks like. I had been grafted into that whole story way before I ever understood it, back when I was a bleach-blonde toddler in the suburbs of Chicago while someone I barely knew poured water on my head.

Tonight, after all of us together recited the words that were said at our own baptisms, we got to come forward and dip our fingers into a shallow copper bowl full of holy water. We had started the service facing the back of the sanctuary, in the dark, holding candles, with a black curtain cutting us off from the rest of the chapel. As we dipped our hands in the water and touched it to our foreheads and shoulders and chests, the curtain got pulled back, and the lights got turned up, and everything all of a sudden smelled sweet from the Easter lilies that packed the altar.

More than anything else, this is the central moment in the church year: the time when we remember that light is stronger than darkness, that love is more powerful than hatred, that life won and will always win out over death, and that no matter how many times we mess up and get it wrong, there’s a God who has already given us a place at the table. And, as we walked past the copper bowl, we got to be part of acting out that story.

And so I dipped my fingers in that water, and I put it against my skin, and it was just Tallahassee tap water, but water has this way of lasting for billions and billions of years, so it was the same water that came down in last week’s rainstorms and fell as snow the day I was born and made crops grow and let the Israelites pass through the Red Sea when they were escaping slavery and got splashed on my head by a pastor in Batavia who would eventually miss the point but who, even so, got to be part of showing that God claims us. And I felt a little less bitter, and a little more whole.


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