remembering a river

I was working a summer youth camp, and we took a weekend off to go to the Tennessee river—someone’s house generously opened up for the camp staff. As one evening wore on, I was feeling both a part of and apart from the group and slipped outside—down the grassy incline from the house toward the water, out onto the pier to take a seat on the floating dock.

There I sat looking down into the darkness of the water—thinking dark thoughts about all that was wrong with the church (or rather what was bothering me about the church in the moment): people’s fears and the hurtful ways those fears so often manifest themselves—thinking about how God who, as love, is supposed to cast out all fear, but how fear (ever resourceful) worms its way into the way of God such that too many people experience as integral to religion that which God exorcised from religion.

“I reject my baptism,” I thought to myself. Totally dramatic and inappropriate overreaction—an arrogant and, really, a false assertion. Because I wasn’t thinking of the community in which I was brought up—the people who loved me up—the congregation into which I was baptized. I wasn’t thinking about my dad who baptized me—wasn’t thinking about Thorwald Lorenzen who preached the baptismal sermon. I wasn’t thinking—was simply indulging my own frustrations.

“I should rebaptize myself,” I thought while still not really thinking.

Now while this would constitute a virtually heretical thought to so many, I was actually entirely (unbeknownst to me at the time) in keeping with Baptist heritage and history. John Smythe, founder of what is acknowledged to have been the first Baptist church (in Amsterdam, about 1609), probably feeling both a part of and apart from, rejecting infant baptism and the baptism of what he viewed as a false church—angry at everything wrong with the church (or what was bothering him at the time), baptized himself!

Sitting on that dock in the Tennessee River, looking into its darkly flowing waters, thinking about the possibility of a self-baptism, I thought to myself, “How appropriate—in a river—running water—living water.” And I wondered how strong the current might be. I thought, “A baptism in the dark—how appropriate—in the dark, mysterious water.” Then I wondered how deep it was right there off the dock, whether it was that slimy squishy kind of mud on the bottom, and what all lurked beneath the surface.

I ended up too scared to baptize myself in the mystery, and I got up and started walking to the house consoling myself somewhat with the thought that we ought be more afraid of baptism, no longer thinking at all about that whole God casting out fear idea, somewhat amused at myself, somewhat ashamed of myself, and then, as I made my way back up the hill, it started to rain.

Startled, I looked up into the dark night sky—peered up toward the mystery, and laughed within the grace.


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