In 1988 I had the rare pleasure and experience of writing my own baptismal service. At the time, I was taking the Worship and Sacraments class in seminary. Baptismal theology and liturgies were a normal part of the course. I was also negotiating my way through the ordination process. In the course of that, the Candidates’ Committee (now referred to as the Committee on Preparation for Ministry) asked me to produce some record of the date and place of my baptism.
I had always assumed I had been baptized since I had grown up from the age of seven in the Presbyterian Church. But the first few years of my life were chaotic as my mother had left our little family and my sister and I were moved around to relatives in three different states while my dad got his feet back on the ground. In the search for a baptismal record I could find nothing. I finally approached my dad and asked him about it. He mulled it over for a moment saying, “We must have had you baptized, but now that I think about it, I don’t recall where it might have been or when it was.”
Between my dad’s confession and the lack of record anywhere I finally assumed that my baptism had gotten overlooked. The committee needed some proof before I could proceed with the ordination process and I had none.
It was perfect timing!
I asked my seminary professor if my semester project could be writing my own baptismal service and submitting a paper describing all the elements of the service. He was delighted that my semester project would become as much experiential as academic.
I will never forget the experience. I employed some of the ancient liturgies and by the time the service ended everyone must have gotten a good education in the theological significance of baptism. Two rituals especially stood out. I used a conch shell for the application of the water. During the service Dr. Howard Rice recited, “In the name of the Father (pour), and of the Son (pour) and of the Holy Spirit (pour). I was drenched. Prepared for the moment, I then stripped my long sleeve dress shirt off and donned a large, over-sized, nearly see-through cotton shirt representing the “new garment of Christ.”
Baptism is largely about symbolically crossing a threshold as we “drown to our old life” and rise as new people in a covenant relationship with God through Christ.
For me that day represented the crossing of a threshold as the circumstances surrounding my baptism reminded me of a former chaotic life and also reminded me of the new life I had found in the community of the Church. By the time I was baptized I had already been in the church for two decades, been confirmed as a member, had a religion degree and was nearing seminary graduation. While the baptism itself did not signify a great threshold it did point to the threshold I had crossed nearly twenty years before as a child.
This is a strange time to write about baptism. One would think I could wait another few weeks for the actual “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday in January. But the word threshold has been crossing my mind for weeks.
In the literature around “The Hero’s Journey” one of the early stages is the “Crossing of the Threshold.” In the Star Wars movies we clearly see this in the first episode, Star Wars: A New Hope, as Luke Skywalker is encouraged by Obi-Wan Kenobi to join the Resistance against the Death Star. But he feels obligated to help his uncle and aunt on their desert farm and refuses the call. Rushing back to the farm to make sure that his aunt and uncle are safe, he discovers that Storm Troopers have already been there leaving his elder relatives lifeless bodies in the sand. This is the threshold moment for Luke. He realizes that his former life is now gone. He feels he only has one choice—to join the resistance, to go forward.
I can’t help but think that we are at a threshold moment.
Months ago we might have wished to return to our church buildings and resume our normal routines and traditions. But even those who talk about a return like this are saying that things will be different. They don’t want to abandon the connections that they have made through online worship and prayer groups. Meetings that generally took laborious planning and trips across town are being rethought. Why fight traffic at night during the dinner hour when a quick Zoom call could just as easily handle the agenda?
The point is I am hearing less about returning to our former life and more about leaning into a new future. I hear a pull toward something new and uncertain rather than a hope for something tried and true and known.
That is what baptism is about. That is what the Hero’s Journey teaches us. There are points in our lives when there is no going back. There is only stepping by faith into a new future. There is only drowning to one way of life and rising to new way of life.
It’s happening to me. It’s happening to you.
Let’s do this together.
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades