I was twelve years old when the church ladies draped a white robe atop my Laura Ashley jumper and pulled my scraggly brown hair into a loose bun resting on my neck. My Granddaddy, who has always been the head pastor in my life, held my hand behind the church altar and together we stepped deep down into the baptismal pool. The water was warm, but my bones rattled just the same.
I don’t remember the faces of the congregation that filled the old, wooden pews of the downtown Baptist church. I don’t remember if any other boys and girls came to lay down their middle school burdens with me on that day. But I remember the water, how my Granddaddy guided my fall into it, how I felt safe in his hand.
My Granddaddy told me that I was the salt of the earth. He placed a pinch of salt upon my tongue. He told me that I was the light of the world, handing me a candle while it dripped white wax down my knuckles. And standing in that small, warm pool of water, white robe dripping wet, hair slicked back behind my ears, salt on my tongue and light in my hand, I knew that in some strange way, it was all a response to Love.
Last week I sat in a wooden Adirondack chair on the banks of the Lumbee River and watched the boys throw sticks and rocks into the water. I watched them squeal as the stones sank to the bottom, out of sight, lost to another world. I picked up a flat river rock myself, tossed it out, and held my breath as it skipped three times across the water’s brown surface. “That’s what I’m talking about!” I hollered, running around in a circle with my hands high in the air, a champion’s victory lap. The boys howled in laughter.
I rocked on the screen porch while they slept that night. A candle lit in front of me, Joni Mitchell crooning the blues in one ear, crickets chirping in the other. I scratched out sloppy sentences and scribbled down simple prayers in my worn thin notebook. And while no salt was on my tongue, no candle in my hand, and no water in my hair, I was washed clean.
Now I know that the thoughts and beliefs about baptism are as wide and diverse as God’s Church. I know that baptism is complex and deep. It’s about covenant and repentance, promise and eternity. And surely I am no theologian. But time and time again I find myself needing to be made new, longing to respond to that ever-so-little light of belief inside of me, desperate to be washed and cleansed. Baptized again and again.
The Whip-Poor-Will’s song lifted the sun the next morning. I hummed “I Could Drink a Case of You” right along with him. Each word, like salt upon my tongue.