BAPTISM: SINK OR SWIM  

by Pool Builders on 05-18-2012 in Articles

The Southern Baptists love water, and I don't mean that wimpy €sprinkling€ stuff. I'm talking about getting soaking wet €" drenched to the bone €" bring a snorkel and flippers kind of water.

The baptistery was by far the most fascinating part of the sanctuary for me. I grew up going to an average size church (not like the monster mega-churches they have now where you could hold a Rolling Stones concert) and yet my church, like every other Baptist church I ever set foot in, had its own swimming pool. I remember my mother whacking me across the hands one Sunday morning when I suggested the baptistery should have a diving board. €Don't make jokes like that€ she whispered, €God can hear you.€ That made me wonder whether God had picked up on some of the other things I had heard recently. Was it safe to assume that He had heard what my Uncle Edward said last week when he turned his thumb into purple pulp after he missed that pesky nail with the hammer? And what about my friend Gary who only a few days before in the boy's room at school had accidentally caught a very sensitive piece of flesh in his jeans zipper? He said a few things that I bet God couldn't miss. And then there was my Aunt Shirley, who for the last two weeks had been trying to pass a kidney stone. The things that came out of her mouth each time the pain hit made a child's remark about a baptistery diving board seem pretty tame. Therefore, I did not feel any imminent threat from a bolt of lightning.

But it cannot be overstated that being baptized was an important part of our faith. We were not called Baptists for nothing. The grownups took it quite seriously, however they preferred not to do baptisms on Sunday mornings. You see this symbolic ritual takes a little while. You have to sing a couple of extra hymns to buy time while the minister and the person who is €going under€ get into the proper attire. This is an important moment in someone's life and the minister has a special robe that he wears just for this occasion. The point being that all this extra activity made it difficult for church to let out at high noon so we could beat the Lutherans to the good restaurants. I always assumed that from his vantage point, as he looked out over his flock during his sermons, our pastor could see the left arms discreetly being raised so that wristwatches could be checked as 11:45 rolled around. And if silence was maintained while our minister paused to look up a Bible passage you could actually hear the hungry grumblings of a few stomachs in nearby pews. You always knew who the guilty parties were because they would shift uncomfortably in their seats and fold their arms tightly against the offending digestive tracts.

Consequently, at my church the baptisms were usually performed at the conclusion of the evening service. This meant, as I once unfortunately mentioned to my mom, that you missed the beginning of Bonanza on TV €" but as my mother heatedly pointed out to me, €That is a small price to pay to get into heaven!€ We kids, however, did not view these events with the same gravity as the adults. We always referred to baptism as, €getting dunked€. As in, €Did you hear? Tommy's little brother is getting dunked next week, and he's scared because he only knows how to dog paddle.€ Back in my church-going-days no other religious experience made me happier than when my minister announced that someone was going to be €dunked€ the following week. (My words €" not his.) Even though I was quite a fan of Bonanza, I looked forward all week with great anticipation to the Sunday night event. Because when you take nervous human beings, some of them extremely old or extremely young, add ice-cold water and a super slippery surface, fun is just around the corner.

I always tried to convince my parents to sit as close to the front of the sanctuary as possible on nights when baptisms were scheduled. I didn't want to miss a grisly thing. The first part of the ceremony was actually physically challenging. The minister entered from the right side and the newly converted from the left. Most people waded in very cautiously, but occasionally you would get someone who was so €full of the spirit€ that they bounded in. This, of course, created waves (not unlike doing a cannonball into a pool) that occasionally crested over the clear Plexiglas that lined the front of the baptistery dousing unsuspecting choir members who were suddenly damp with the watery results of the unexpected tsunami. Women, who just the day before, had gotten their hair done for the Sunday festivities now sat biting their lip trying to fill their hearts with forgiveness for their new brother or sister in Christ who had left them dripping.

But no matter how cautiously people entered the baptistery; there were frequently slips and falls. Our minister would always try to take their hand and lead them slowly down the steps, but there was only so much he could do. The shock of the icy cold water was so startling that many flinched and lost their balance. Usually he was able to grab them before it was too late, but occasionally he would lose one all together and down they would go, slipping out of view like the Titanic in the North Atlantic. Of course total immersion was the whole point of this ritual but even if you went completely under when you slipped it didn't count as the real deal. You were not baptized because the pastor had not gotten to say the necessary words before the act. I cannot remember the exact speech that he delivered, but it always ended with the line, €I now baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.€ So if you made a public spectacle of yourself by falling and having to be retrieved from the bottom you still had to stand there soaking wet and freezing while the important words were said. Our pastor would then cover your nose and mouth with his hand, lean you backwards until you were completely under the water and then lift you back up to a standing position. The moment the new church member's head once again appeared above the surface, the sanctuary exploded with a chorus of hearty AMENS. The fact that you had taken a double dip had no religious ramifications. You were simply baptized just like the individuals who were blessed with better coordination and who were considerably more graceful than you. But at least you were in the club.

Sometimes I would hit the jackpot and there would be more than just one person being baptized. This was akin to getting to go to a double header instead of just one game. It was basic math. The more individuals that headed into the tank, the more opportunities for mayhem. This would mean a lot more sloshing as people entered, got dunked and then left, making way for the next convert. The older ladies in the choir would be frantically covering their crunchy sprayed hairdos in a futile attempt to keep them dry.

Our minister was an average size man but occasionally he would be presented with a challenge worthy of Samson as he tried to lean back and then hoist up a 300 pounder. There would be clearly audible grunts and groans as he attempted to maintain the dignity of both parties while struggling not to lose his grip or be pulled under himself by the whirlpool caused by the displacement of so much water. I would sit on the edge of my seat fascinated by the events unfolding before me. It was far more entertaining than anything that Hoss and Little Joe might be up to.

But there was one baptism that stands out in my memory above all the rest. She was a thoroughly unpleasant lady in her late forties or early fifties. The only other details I can really remember about her were that she had jet black hair and she was very fastidious about her appearance. She had been visiting the church for some time, but the other ladies didn't warm up to her. They claimed she thought she was better than them, and they said she had her nose stuck up in the air. Soon the gossip spread that there was no way that could be her natural

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