The ceremonies and rituals we share in worshipful communities are part of our spiritual practice. And one of the most fundamental of these is baptism.
In the United Church tradition, we describe baptism as a symbol of the new life God gives us as we join the church community. Water as a symbolic cleansing agent signifies acceptance of this new life. We remember our own baptism, too, and the need to accept, embody and extend this new life, over and over again. I think of this as sacramental soul work.
When we participate in baptism as congregational members, we make our own promises. Many churches use the words offered by Rev. Betty Lynn Schwab in Celebrate God’s Presence (a book of United Church prayers and services): We promise to support you “with constant love, wholesome example, Christian teaching, and faithful prayer.”
Nowhere else have I made such a personal, public commitment to the well-being of others in my community. As my voice rises with those beside me, I hear the sound of the love that connects us. Yet it’s a tall order!
How are we to live out these promises as part of our spiritual practice? How do we make the baptismal covenant come to life, particularly for children and their parents?
Andrea Buttars, her husband and their three young children are members of St. Mark’s United in Dundas, Ont. Buttars sees baptismal vows as a commitment for the long run, as adorable babies grow into unpredictable children and teens. She describes how her church community demonstrates its baptismal vows to her and her children: “[Kids] are sometimes noisy and squirmy, and spontaneous in the way they participate. We appreciate how our minister welcomes the lighting of the Christ candle, in the moment. Sometimes a kid comes forward, sometimes an adult. For our son, who is very physical, it’s lovely that there’s a way for him to participate.”
Some of Buttars’s friends had their children baptized but now go to church only on Easter and Christmas Eve. She suggests that the church can still offer them family-friendly events. “Maybe it’s a spiritual practice for those who attend church every Sunday to come to an understanding that you can provide no-strings-attached outreach to people who don’t.” Constant love is unconditional love.
Congregational members can offer wholesome example by finding ways to include children who want to help out — stacking chairs or cleaning up after pancake breakfasts — especially when it would be easier for adults to do the job themselves.
And commitment to Christian teaching may include paying for a Sunday school teacher. Giving to make this possible is another spiritual practice.
The promise of faithful prayer has us returning to personal prayers that support community life. It may help to write down the names of children baptized, and their parents, to keep handy for your prayer times. I am deeply grateful to congregational members who held us and our children in prayer, especially through hard times. They assured us that we were not alone.
As American novelist James Baldwin said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
As you show children what you mean by your baptismal vows, what might they imitate? What other ways have you found to show “constant love, wholesome example, Christian teaching, and faithful prayer?”
Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.
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