I’m on retreat and was reflecting on my baptism. Here’s what I wrote:
I was six years old when I prayed the prayer I was told would allow me to become a Christian. It was a Sunday night in the little church I grew up in. Our children’s Choir was rehearsing on the stage because we had a program the next week. Twenty of us were sitting in those little indestructible wooden chairs while we practiced our two part harmony. A week or two earlier I had told my parents that I thought maybe I was supposed to walk down the aisle and make a public profession of faith. It had been after one of those particularly emotional invitation times when a lot of people were walking the aisle. I wanted in on the fun.
Walking the aisle, praying the prayer to accept Christ, and being baptized, this was (and still is), a massive part of the Southern Baptist heritage – a coming of age ritual and the essential link to making Christianity personal. So I went home and told my parents I had a feeling I was supposed to walk down that aisle today. They took me to see the pastor. My parents were no dummies. This is how parents in our churches figured out whether or not you were just jerking their chain. If they said “Let’s go talk to the pastor,” and you were faking, that’d be the end of all that. As it turns out I guess I was not faking (it was as much of a surprise to me as them). So we went to see the pastor.
“Did you say the prayer accepting Jesus into your heart?” he asked me.
“Oh, yeah… sure I did that weeks ago.” Helpful hint: if a six year old finishes a sentence with “weeks ago,” he’s full of crap. I didn’t want to look like an idiot. How had I missed that step? This is all about the prayer. The light finally came on as I realized that walking the aisle wasn’t the key, it was the prayer at the end of the aisle that counted. How could I have been so stupid? Well, it didn’t matter because they bought it. Everyone was convinced that I was nine tenths of the way to born again, and at the age of six! I was a spiritual savant. Only one thing left to do now… have to walk the aisle and be baptized.
I was scheduled to be baptized that Sunday evening in the service right after our choir practice, and I was starting to feel the pre-game jitters. I decided that if I was going to go through with this baptism thing, I couldn’t continue my charade. I had to say the prayer before the baptism… this is huge for Baptists. If you get things out of order the baptism might not take. So I close my eyes right in the middle of the rehearsal while our director, Mrs. Ellis, was rehearsing the sopranos. I remember it because I said it fast. “God, I’m a sinner. I pray that Jesus will come into my heart and save me. I think that’s everything… Amen.” That was it. I opened my eyes and one of the six grade girls whose name was Stephanie was looking right at me. She had witnessed the whole thing.
Stephanie was a little rough around the edges and was apparently offended by my spontaneous prayer. “What the hell are you doing?” she said.
“Nothing I replied,” turning red. Welcome to the body of Christ.
When I climbed down the steps into the baptistery I couldn’t have weighed more than forty pounds soaking wet. I could barely keep my chin above the water and all the congregation could see was the top of my white haired head poking out of the water like a bobber. The pastor had to physically lift me by the shoulders and present me to the onlookers. “This is Tim Suttle,” he said, “He’s accepted Christ and has come to be baptized.” I was mortified. Why did he have to lift me up and show me off like I was his puppy? He dunked me and my parents cried. I was good and saved.
As I think back on it, I know that this was an arbitrary line, but I’m thankful for it. I was already a Christian, and have always been so. I was a Christian from birth for the same reason that Jacob and Esau were both Jews from birth. I was born into these people. Oh, sure. I could have walked away at any time. I still could. But there has never been a single day of my life that I have not been a part of the people of God. Twas ever thus; Twill ever be so. Still I’m grateful for that little church and the rituals they taught me.