Take Me to the Water: a Baptism Story

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Take Me to the Water: a Baptism Story

The day of my baptism was one of the most disappointing days of my childhood. I was 14 years old and I had high expectations as to how I would feel.

I’d wanted to get baptized since I was seven. I vividly remember standing on the left side of Memorial Central Church in Liberia where my mother and father served as missionaries and my older sister and I seemingly frolicked our days away. Every year our church had at least one evangelistic series, at least that’s what I recall. At least one. If not three. On some scale. And the best thing about them wasn’t that people were giving their lives to Jesus, although of course that’s a wonderful thing, but for me at age 7, the best thing about these evangelist series was the baptism at the end. 

We knew that there would be many people being baptized especially if the guest evangelist was from the UK or the United States. He’d have that foreign aura. Always a he. Long before I know women pastors existed. And we knew that there was no church big enough to house all of the people getting baptized. You see, these series didn’t take place necessarily in a church. Maybe the small scale ones, but the big ones, the ones with the foreign evangelist and the amazing music  were held in a  huge white tent that was set up in some big field. Those were the series where come time for baptisms, you had at least two pastors if not three dunking people not into a baptism pool but the Indian Ocean. This, this was the best part. Beach baptisms. We got to go to the beach on Sabbath. For a 1980’s conservative Christian culture like ours, this was unheard of. You did not go to the beach on Sabbath just like you didn’t throw a frisbee or ride your bicycle with your friends. There were some things that seemed too frivolous, too far from what would actually be a calming and restful experience set apart from all the other days of the week. 

But not so on the Sabbath at the end of the evangelistic series, oh not so. We went to the beach and we stayed at the beach for quite a while because there were so many people who needed their sins to be washed away. 

Don’t worry. I do respect baptism and still love it to this day. I also love to laugh a little at how we used to be.

And at age 7, as I stood on the left side when facing the platform of our church there in Monrovia, I knew that I was giving my life to Jesus. There was no other way. It didn’t make sense any other way. What I didn’t want was to get baptized at a time when others expected me to. Yes, I wanted to get baptized. I wanted to get baptized in the Indian Ocean that I could faintly see from the front windows of my home. I wanted to dip down into those warm beautiful waters, have that sand between my toes. I wanted to hear people sing “Take Me to the Water”. But I would not get baptized at seven because I knew, because they’d said so, that people expected me to. After all I was the pastor’s daughter.

The altar call had been given. Everyone was on their feet. I fought the desire to walk to the front and silently gave my heart to Jesus where I stood

Seven years later, we’d been living in southwest Michigan for almost three years. Lake Michigan wasn’t too far away but it was too cold for a March baptism. The only thing about being baptized now that would have been true 7 years ago was that my dad would do the honors. He’d reviewed the fundamental beliefs of our church with me after I’d finally decided to get baptized during my Freshman year of high school. I was good to go.

The day came. A few of us were getting baptized on a Saturday afternoon in a huge church building. It became a cozy setting when those present were invited to gather around, close to the baptistry. When my turn came, my dad and I entered the water and I was ready, ready for all that was about to come.

In Liberia, there was always someone leading everyone else in song before and after each baptism, giving each person ample time to get into the water and properly situated with their hands clasped around the pastor’s forearm. I loved the singing.

Your momma cannot carry you
Your momma cannot carry you
Your momma cannot carry you
To be baptized.

So, take me to the water
Take me to the water
Take me to the water
To be baptized.

When we were at the ocean with multiple pastors in the water with multiple baptismal candidates by their side, one person would speak for all:

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

And down they went—out with the old. Up the came—in with the new.

We’d say Amen. We may have even clapped if someone getting baptized had one of those amazing stories and now had tears streaming down their cheeks and their hands in the air, praising God for this new life they’d just begun.

I was ready for that moment. I was ready for everything to change in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

But when I came up, I felt the same as when I’d gone down. People watching were smiling and happy but I was still…me. No sense of angels singing in heaven. No new insight. No tears. No hands in the air. Just a hug from my dad whose face was beaming and a dozen roses from my parents who didn’t have any excess change for a dozen roses. Mirta, one of my older sister’s classmates, was crying happy tears and gave me a hug, too, the real kind you don’t actually expect from a fellow teen. Her face was beaming.

How did she get the glow? It didn’t make any sense. Where was my joy? Where was my transformation?

When we sit on a dream for too long, it begins to taste a bit stale. And we wonder, “Was this ever possible?”

But the dream isn’t the final destination. 

I had come to see baptism as a final destination, this thing I’d do that would mark me as safe. And once I’d done that, there’d be nothing else to really shoot for except heaven which is…a long way away…even though it’s soon. Baptism was this one glorious moment. 

But on March 6, 1993 it was not. 

If I could go back in time and talk to 7-year-old me, I’d say,

Girl, forget the church folk and their pressure. Go for the story! As folks you meet in the future talk about their baptism stories, at least you’ll be able to say that you were baptized along with 89 other precious souls in the Indian Ocean. Because of how young you were, your dad walked proudly in and a little closer to the shore. And because of that bit of extra time to get situated, Julianne led the crowd in another stanza of Take Me to the Water. She was your favorite singer. She smiled as she saw that you were singing along.

Go for the story! It’ll be one of the best days of your life.

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