#93: Tender Mercies: Remembering My Baptism

The other evening, Sam and I watched my favorite movie, a gentle little flick from 1983 called Tender Mercies, featuring Robert Duvall.  The whole movie – and the baptism scene in particular – took me back to my own baptism at Souderton Mennonite Church in 1959.

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Souderton Mennonite Church in the 1950s

The hot summer morning of my Christian initiation I wore a navy long-sleeved dress.  I was the youngest in the long line of 11 waiting to be baptized by my Dad’s Uncle Jake. Whether by happenstance or design, my turn came last.

All my senses were heightened that day. I remember my fear that I would faint from kneeling so long in the heat and then my baptism wouldn’t “take.” I remember how hard the bare wood floor felt under my knees. I remember my concern that the water poured on my head would dent my new prayer veiling. I remember the smell of sweat and the trickle of water making its way down my hot face. I remember my dread of the “holy kiss” I would receive from the deacon’s wife.

As a baptized 12-year-old, I was also terrified of participating in foot washing.  My Aunt Esther came to my rescue, offering to be my partner the first time. After that, I always “washed feet” with a girlfriend, so as not to get stuck with some old lady I didn’t know, who would actually expect me to take off my nylons rather than just sloshing water over them.

Looking back, I do wonder whether a young adolescent girl with typical concerns about looking good, doing things right, and not embarrassing herself was ready for baptism!

And yet…I recall asking for baptism out of a tender heart. I wanted to know for sure that my sins were forgiven. I wanted to follow Jesus. I understood that baptism in and of itself couldn’t “save” me. I understood it was setting a direction for my life. And I would have been devastated if the bishop, preacher and deacon had said “no” to me, perhaps snuffing out my emerging faith.

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Baptismal tank used at Rockway Mennonite Church, 2016 (A more celebratory baptismal scene than 1950s Franconia).

I  also wondered if more was going on than they told us. Years later, when I was a pastor, I said “Yes!” to John Rempel’s simple statement in the 1998 (Mennonite) Minister’s Manual: “Rituals condense vast realities into simple gestures.”

…Which brings me back to Robert Duvall and Tender Mercies. This film didn’t catch on at the box office, but Duvall won an Oscar as Best Actor for his role nonetheless.

In the film, Duvall plays a down and out Country and Western singer named Mac who lands at a rural Texas gas station/motel run by a pretty lady named Rosa Lee.  Of course he marries the pretty lady, and gradually wins the trust of his new wife’s young boy, Sonny.

Amidst a great struggle, Mac decides to fully claim his new life. Mac and Sonny are baptized by immersion on the same day in a little country church where Rosa Lee sings in the choir.

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Rosa Lee, Sonny and Mac talk about the baptism (from Tender Mercies)

In the truck on the way home, Sonny asks Mac “do you feel different now”? And Mac answers “Not much different…nah…not yet…not yet.”

“Not much different…not yet” has stuck with me as part of an essential reality about baptism.  I’ve gradually come to the conclusion that it takes a lifetime to live into our baptism.  Baptism, it seems to me, ushers us into God’s dream for our world.  The implications of God’s dream for us and for our world don’t unfold all at once.  It takes a lifetime. Or at least it has for me.

At this point, I see my “believers’  baptism” at age 12 as a tender mercy offered by the church to an overly scrupulous young adolescent. I’m actually glad I’ve had 60 years to live into it!

Sam,  who was baptized by his father at age 11, took a different approach. He decided to be re-baptized as a young adult, considering his first baptism “not Anabaptist.”

…Two valid approaches – in my opinion – to claiming God’s dream for our world….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Are your memories of your baptism good, not so good, mixed or simply absent (as in infant baptism)? Was the day solemn for you or celebratory, or some of both?
  2. Do you agree that it takes a lifetime to live into our baptism, whenever it happened? Why or why not?

Next week: TBA