Saturday, February 23, 2008

First Baptism

jesus knocking

I have been baptized three times. The first, I am now convinced, was the one true one; if any one of them worked, then that was it.

The other two stemmed, to varying degrees, from questionable impulses. The second, because I was struggling with my sexual feelings for other boys, which, without even knowing what they were, persuaded me that my soul might be lost. The third, a calculated dodge, because the minister of my church, of all people, had walked in on me in bed with a swimmer/basketball player at the Christian college I then attended--over four decades later, I still blush at the memory.

My parents were Baptists. Baptists believe in total immersion--a minister bends you backwards into a vat of water (filled up to the waist) until you are entirely underwater and then pulls you back up, while saying, "I now baptize you, my brother, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." Usually an organist quietly plays a hymn, as in a funeral service.

I was five when I was first baptized. My parents belonged to a church in the small Gulf Coast town close to the Air Force base where my father was stationed. My father was a deacon in the church; my mother was the best friend of the pastor's wife; the pastor's son, my age, was my best friend.

I had accepted Jesus as my personal savior one sunny Sunday morning. I walked up to the altar, knelt down between two bosomy old ladies who prayed with me, as I confessed that I was a sinner (already, at age five, fearful of an eternity in a burning hell) and asked Jesus to come into my heart.

I was a literalist. I had seen the picture of Jesus knocking on the door (of a sinner's heart) and imagined he entered one's heart as simply and literally as a vacuum-cleaner salesman enters one's living room.

How was I to know better?

As I recall it, I was baptized that same day--though it doesn't seem possible now that that was really so--surely, I must be condensing two different Sundays.

The church was located near a stream or bayou leading into the Gulf of Mexico. Instead of using interior plumbing to have indoor baptisms, usually in an evening service, as most Baptist churches do, this church practiced baptism immediately after the Sunday morning worship service. Interested church members, which included nearly them all, would walk from the sanctuary to this stream, which was deep enough to perform Baptist-style dunkings.

I remember that someone, possibly one of my parents, explained to me that baptism was a "picture" of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

My five-year-old mind understood this to mean that while I was underwater I would see a little movie about the last days of Jesus. Of course, the ritual is symbolic, but how was I to understand symbols?

As I was dipped into the water, I opened my eyes--the water stung them (there must have been a backwash of saltwater or something) and I saw a little flotsam--but no Technicolor Life of Jesus.

I was disappointed, but I did not let on. It was only as an adult that I began to tell this story to others. I remember this event as my first disillusionment, but my response to it was matter of fact.

As a child, I had already noticed that a lot of things that were supposed to work (or I had thought were supposed to work in a certain way) often failed to work. For instance, I remember once breaking open a carton of eggs onto the kitchen floor because I was under the impression that the refrigerator turned them into hard-boiled eggs.

So the symbol of my entrance into the true faith was perhaps really my entrance into a life of irony and skepticism, based on life's disappointing tendency not to be the way it is supposed to be. And my response back then, nonplussed in both senses of bewildered and unimpressed, continues to be my response to life's anticlimactic surprises.

Cue the deejay to play Miss Peggy Lee, singing "Is That All There Is?"

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