Ten years ago this month, October 2002, I began to serve my call as senior pastor of Forest Grove Christian Church. That is an important moment in the life of a congregation, as well as for pastor and family. Everyone wants to be sure to get off on the right foot. Think about the first time you meet your sweetheart’s family, or your first day at a new job, or the first game of the season. First impressions often become lasting impressions, for better or worse. “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
Of course we also like to talk about a “honeymoon period” – that time when everyone is on their best behavior, everyone is still filled with joy and anticipation at the newness of the relationship. Then someone gets the flu. Something interrupts the almost saccharine atmosphere of ebullient enthusiasm. Suddenly you realize, “Honeymoon’s over”. Now, that can be both good and bad. Sure, that effervescent season was pleasant, but that is not really where the growth takes place. We get to demonstrate love when our companions are not at their best, and we love them in and through that. Our love is tested, we are tested to see what we are made of, what kind of people we are. And then, when that season passes, we begin the real work of building a relationship based upon long term commitment to covenant love.
I was looking forward to the season of honeymoon, honestly. It had been a difficult year – a difficult couple of years. I had come from a place where folks were acting like they didn’t like me, didn’t really want me around. The efforts of the church had been frustrated by a stubborn few who insisted on controlling rather than letting the Spirit flow. We could use a fresh start. And every indication was that Forest Grove would be just the kind of place where we would find it.
The evening before my first Sunday in the pulpit we were guests at a wonderful celebration – a 60th birthday party of one of the church members. I saw this as a chance to get to know more folks socially, to introduce myself, “let my hair down” as it were and relax and enjoy being together with these new folks who were welcoming us into their lives.
Our daughter was 7 and in first grade. Our son was 10 months old – still being carried around like a 40# sack of potatoes. There was food in the house, and live music on the patio, under a cover near the pool. Tables and chairs were scattered around. The birthday girl seemed to be having the time of her life – everyone was in good spirits.
Someone walked up to the table where I was seated, but there were no empty chairs. I gave her mine, and proceeded around the yard to where the extra chairs were leaning against the house. On my way back I navigated between pairs and triplets eating, talking and laughing. As I turned the corner of the pool, at a particularly narrow place in the deck, my left foot came down out over the water – I’d missed the coping by a good 6 inches. Into the water I went. This was not a swim party, or had not been up to that point. I was fully clothed, and as I came up sputtering I heard a gasp and a shout. You see, for the last half hour I had been holding our son. I had handed him off to the person to whom I also gave my chair – but many did not realize this. Once they realized that the baby was safe, laughter erupted from all corners, including from me. Someone helped me out, I dried off, and the party resumed.
On the way home we were talking about the evening’s events. We agreed that this was perhaps the best thing that could ever happen on an inaugural weekend. The honeymoon was over. No more wondering when the new guy was going to step in it, as they say. No more pretension of having everything together. The whole church had been invited to the party, and most had come, so this was now a shared story, the first in our history together.
The next morning there were many smiles and grins and even a few chuckles. Yes, it was funny. Yes, I’m ok, thanks for asking. When it came time for worship, I had my notes that my predecessors had given me to guide me through the nuances of how worship flows here at FGCC. At one point in the service, it may have been announcements or the prayer time, I don’t recall, I asked if anyone had anything else, at which point the choir began to hum shall we gather at the river, and our resident choral thespian stepped forward, and in his best southern camp meetin’ preacher drawl, proceeded to expound on the virtues of the previous evening’s festivities, and in particular how the pastor had duly baptized himself. Recognizing this second gift – the congregation receiving in love what I had offered the previous night – I stepped down and knelt before the self-appointed evangelist as he laid hands upon me and prayed for me. Here is the baptismal certificate I received that day.
That is one of my baptismal stories – you may have some of your own. I remember baptizing my daughter and several of the other children here. I have had the pleasure of baptizing several adults, and of celebrating a ritual of remembrance for others who had been baptized as infants in other traditions. As a Christian, as a parent, and as a pastor, I have thought a good deal about baptism, what it means, how and why it is done.
My own story is that I was raised in the Presbyterian church as a young child, following the tradition of my mother. As is the practice among Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Orthodox and Catholic Churches, I was baptized, or christened, as an infant. Resulting partly from that experience, I grew up always knowing that I belonged at the church, never feeling like an outsider waiting for some particular moment when I would be invited or let in. My earliest consciousness includes the awareness that I belong to God and that Jesus loves me and that the church is a place of safety and peace and hope – a place where we learn to follow Jesus and thus become who we are created to be.
When I was 10, we had moved to Texas from Pennsylvania, and we joined a Disciples congregation after the tradition of my father. I am actually the fifth generation in my family to be theologically trained in the Disciples’ tradition. That 5th grade year was the time for what in some churches is called Pastor’s Class. In this instance it was a special class taught by the pastor to a group of 8-12 ten year olds in preparation for our public profession of faith and baptism.
As I said, I had always known myself to be a baptized Christian. I had not ever formally made what one might call a public profession of faith, though I had talked about my faith and trust in Jesus many times with others. I also had not been immersed, I could not remember my baptism. And all my peers were doing it. To my recollection we never had a conversation about whether it was appropriate to rebaptize someone, or just how this would be understood and described. I just did it. I recall it being a joyful experience.
I developed the habit of saying regarding baptism, “I just like to cover all my bases, so whoever is right, I’m ok.” I didn’t actually think of it that way though. For me, the experience when I was ten served as a reaffirmation of my one baptism as an infant.
Some of you have dramatic conversion stories accompanied by a joy-filled and tearful baptismal experience where you knew yourself claimed and sealed by God for eternal life. Others of you have experiences more like mine – a slow unfolding knowledge and faith that has always been present. Scripture attests to both. Either way, baptism represents God acting in our lives, through the church, to call and claim us as his own, and our willing response to be called and claimed. For those baptized as infants, many churches provide an experience later in life, often called confirmation, where like in my Pastor’s class the basics of the Christian faith are reviewed and the participant is encouraged to give self, body mind, soul and spirit, to the Love and Lordship of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and our Savior. I find that occasionally in my Christian walk I need that confirmation experience – it is not a onetime thing anymore than our profession of faith or our salvation are something that only happened in the past. As followers of Jesus, we like him are called to come daily to the Father to confirm our commitment to God and to receive confirmation from God that we are now and always have been God’s beloved.