The Waters of Baptism
I was baptized when I was sixteen, maybe seventeen. My first encounter with Jesus Christ was no more than a year before that, at least I think it was an encounter. Actually, the way it went was I woke up one Sunday morning and without any sort of prompt or pressure, I decided to go to church. I may have been home alone, or perhaps everyone was still asleep. In any case, I left before breakfast and walked a half mile to Central United Protestant Church.
It was either early Spring or late Fall, one of the bookended seasons for brisk, morning air. I smoked a cigarette on my way, forgetting that my pew partner might smell it on my jacket. I opted for a balcony seat, away from the majority of the congregation. It was, by no means, a particularly large church. Maybe eighty to ninety people there.
I remember the color of the sanctuary, a rustic brown and a dim, dark blue from the stained glass. I remember something about the sermon; there was a football reference.
Something happened that Sunday. Something must have happened, because I kept going to that church. By myself. I probably didn’t tell my parents for about a month, not that it would’ve made much difference to them. But I kept going, and I can’t remember why. The sermon was nice, sure, and the people were friendly. There was free coffee. But there was never a moment falling on my knees and throwing my hands in the air, “Jesus is my Savior, I’m born again!” No, it wasn’t even remotely close to that.
For me, it was an awkward transition from being unchurched to churched. And in the beginning, it really didn’t seem to make much difference.
After a few weeks of being there, I was introduced to the Worship leader, Chris Culver, by a mutual friend. I said I was a guitarist, told him I would like to play sometime. He invited me to play with him and the band on Wednesday nights for the youth group. Turns out the rest of the band smoked too. I fit right in. I also played pretty well at the time, so everyone got along just fine.
It was this community, this group of friends, that challenged and encouraged me to read the Bible and really think about Scripture. This, again, was another awkward transition for me, from being illiterate to barely literate, and trying to keep up in conversation. Despite my attempts at reading through the Gospels, I still didn’t feel like I had the same understanding that they did. The kids in youth group, Chris, the band, everyone in my new community seemed to be able to draw things from the Word that I wasn’t able to see or comprehend. All the while, I was reading through these passages, waiting for some lightbulb to flash on in my mind.
Back to that baptism day, six months to a year later. Two friends and I had signed up to be baptized on the same day. Prior to being dunked (they did the full immersion thing), we sat in front of our peers and shared a Bible verse that resonated with us. I chose John 20:29.
Then Jesus told them, “Because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
I remember stepping into the tank of warm water, the youth and senior pastor there with me. And something crossed my mind, a sort of expectation. It wasn’t this thought exactly, but something along the lines of “When I go down into that water, I’m going to see God, I’m going to hear His voice.”
I was preparing myself for some transfigured night.
Down I went. Up I came. Yes, being baptized really is just being dunked in some water.
You might imagine my disappointment. I mean, I wasn’t asking for any Damascus-level conversion. Just something tangible, some burning image in my mind’s eye, some voice inside my head. Instead, I got a towel and a certificate.
Artists often wait for those moments of divine intervention. In fact, we’re all a little guilty of this. We pace around the room until the perfect line comes to mind. We stare at the staves until the melody floods our ears. Often, hours will go by without pen touching the paper. But we expect that at any moment, something will happen.
Is it really plausible to think that Van Gogh had Starry Night fully envisioned in his mind when he was starring at a blank canvas?
No. It’s not.
Beethoven went through hundreds of edits on his scores for his symphonies. You can see his agony, anguish, and frustration scribbled on the pages, blots of ink splattering on the corners.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”
I’ve been thinking about this passage tonight. What it means to me as a Christian, one who has trudged through a lot of awkwardness and doubt, of total elation and joy, bouts of skepticism, and everything in between. What it means to me as an artist, performances where I feel like the music is playing me, others where I feel like the music is weighing me down. Flashes of inspiration and understanding, and others of total loss and laziness.
Faith and Art take commitment and discipline. But most importantly they take time. We need to suffer through those early, awkward changes, where everything seems to move slow and nothing seems to fit together. We cannot see our transformation, just as we can’t see the scale turn into a sonata.