Practising baptism

audio for ‘Practising Baptism’ by Martin Malina

We cannot possess hope without practicing it – Amanda Gorman

I look downcast at my guitar sitting in the corner of my home office. Over the winter I picked it up daily, plucking on its strings and practising some Christmas carols adapted for classical guitar.

But since February I haven’t picked it up once. Not once. And you know what? It is true: If you don’t use it you lose it. If the strings on my guitar aren’t exercised daily—pulled and stretched by regular use—they will actually deteriorate and snap under the tension of the steel-wound strings. I’ve already lost my D-string.

So in raising up the benefit of practice, I want to give Aidan a gift at his baptism today. I know his father is a big fan of the Buffalo Bills NFL team. So I’m guessing this might be a hit, and encouragement to start early. Here is, I suspect, not Aidan’s first football. But he can add it to his collection.

Aidan will have to start early in his life practising to catch and throw and run with the football. Starting early will give him the best chance to become really good in this sport over time. And Dad can help, at the beginning anyway.

Practising requires discipline. It doesn’t just happen. I read the story of John who was visiting a friend one day. And they were sitting on the porch at the friend’s house one afternoon. John’s friend complained that there were never any birds in her yard. 

During the hour that they talked, John saw and named half a dozen birds. The friend was astonished, declaring how much she wanted to see and hear them too. “No”, John replied with blunt honesty, “you only want to want to see and hear them. You must have the bird in your heart before you can find it in the bush.” The friend was charmed by the idea of attending to birds, but didn’t have the will to give herself to its practice.[1]

I can think of two good reasons why we baptize infants, you may be wondering. The first reason is a belief I’ve held on to most of my life: The baptism of infants demonstrates God’s unconditional grace and love. This grace is the foundation of faith. For Lutherans especially, reflecting Martin Luther—the great 16th century reformer—who preached that we are ‘justified’ (i.e. made right) before God ‘by grace alone’.

In other words, there is nothing we can do to earn God’s favour—not all the good works we do, not all the services we attend, not all the people we help in God’s name. We don’t do what we do in order to check the boxes to get God’s attention: “Hey God, look how good I am!”

Babies cannot prove their worth. They can’t even speak for themselves at the font. They depend on others’ care, protection and presence to support them in faith at this moment. It’s not to suggest babies don’t have the capacity for faith—I believe they do. They just can’t express it in ways we adults recognize. But it is to say that they encounter God at this time in their lives pretty helpless on their own.

And that’s how we all relate to God—relying on God’s good will and faithfulness to us no matter our age, our intelligence, our competence. Jesus said, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[2]

But recently another good reason, maybe more simple, has emerged for me as to why we baptize infants:

If living in this world didn’t mean anything significant for our faith, if being a Christian was only valuable in so far as the prize at the end of life, if it were all about the destination and not the journey—then why would we baptize infants? Why wouldn’t we wait until later in life to be baptized?

No, the practice of infant baptism holds immense value for living in faith during our lives on earth. Infant baptism exclaims that the journey does matter, not just the destination. The beginning of faith coincides with the beginning of life-on-earth. Baptism launches us not just with heaven in mind, but more significantly, baptism suggests a way of life for now.

In the Gospel for today Jesus gives practical instructions to the seventy disciples.[3] He gives the disciples a blueprint for ‘how to’ relate to people and presents a lifestyle consistent with following Jesus in the world. I am not suggesting a literal application for every time and every place; we always need context to determine those things. 

But the point is: This life, and how we live it, matters. And how we learn to live the faith of Jesus in our lives is born out of a life time of practising our baptism. Martin Luther suggested that every morning before starting your day when you wash your face: Remember your baptism! 

How we pray. When we pray. How we serve our neighbour. Working together in a community of faith to make a positive difference in the world. Caring for others in need. These are all things that grow us in Christ Jesus. This is our practice. We need to practice! 

“Practice when it is easy and it will be there for you when it is hard,” said a wise teacher.[4] But if you haven’t practiced when it was easy in life for you, then it likely won’t be helpful for you and others when life gets hard. That’s why it is important to start early, and when you are young, to develop your spiritual practice and discipline. Try new things. Grow in your faith.

There will be times in our lives when practising, like with my guitar, will be put on the proverbial back shelf. But the guitar is always there, always reminding me that I can pick it any time again and start over. In faith, we are always starting over with each new day. By the grace of God we are, as people of faith, always beginning again.

We begin again not trying to earn favour with God and secure our place in heaven. That’s not why we practice. We practice our faith to reflect the love of God for all of creation, for all people. Because that’s how God approaches us. With grace, with forgiveness, with compassion. In baptism we are given the Spirit of God. God promises to be with us always, and empower us along the way, to practice.

[1] Cited in Belden C. Lane, Chapter Two in “Beginning to Listen” Kindle edition, The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019)

[2] Matthew 18:3

[3] Luke 10:1-11

[4] Russ Hudson, “The Role of Anger in Spiritual Work,” Oneing Vol.6, no.1, Anger (Center for Action and Contemplation, Spring 2018): p.70-71.

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