One of the features of being in foster care for many, especially in the ’70s and ’80s, was there was no contact with the birth family to be had. Depending on family circumstances, that can be a good or bad thing.
But the result is that one’s early childhood and life story is a bit of a mystery. I never knew my birth last name until I was in high school. I had no photos and no stories of any time before I was five years old. It’s like being an alien who just gets transplanted into our world, I came from nowhere.
But given that in foster care, the one consistent family I had was my life in the church — largely Lutheran churches — growing up, I knew of the importance of baptism. It comes up in Lutheran churches as they often recite Martin Luther’s charge to “remember one’s baptism.”
But like much of my early childhood, that was a mystery as well. I didn’t remember my baptism. In fact, I had no evidence about whether I had been baptized or not. So, in 1983, at the age of 11, I spoke to the then interim minister at First Presbyterian Church in Miles City to see if I could be baptized.
The answer of course was yes and around Halloween I was baptized. I remember almost everything about the event itself as I said the words affirming my faith in front of the congregation.
It’s telling for me, that 1983 was also the year of my adoption to my adoptive dad, Clark Welch. Thus, I got a new last name as I was adopted into his family at the same time that through the waters of baptism I was formally adopted into the life of the church.
‘You can’t be Christian and gay’
Later, as an adult, I did connect with my birth family and discovered that I had never been baptized until that moment in 1983. But the significance of the event itself grew on me as I got older.
Because when I was in college, I underwent a crisis of faith, partly brought on by the questions and doubts many young adults experience about their faith. Partly brought on by the fact that I was coming out of the closet as gay.
For both reasons, I was told by many well-meaning Christians that I was not a Christian. That I couldn’t be gay and Christian. That I couldn’t raise certain questions and entertain certain doubts and still call myself a Christian. On the list of propositional claims, some hold about Christianity, I came up short.
And yet, for whatever intuitive reasons I had, I did not believe them.
A central part of this was my experience in an open and affirming Lutheran campus ministry at the University of Montana, and I have related that story to many in the past.
Partly it was the faith given to me in my childhood of God’s love and acceptance of me, which was stronger than any doubts I was wrestling with and stronger than any worries in coming out.
But I think in the end it was the fact that I was baptized. The memory of my baptism was key because it told me who I am, a part of the church, a child of God, a Christian. That is, my fundamental identity in faith had been secured at that moment in time.
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:27)
For LGBTQ Christians, for doubters, for anyone who has been told that they don’t measure up to the standards of being a Christian, remembering our baptism takes on new significance.
Set free by baptism
Baptism is a counter-story. The story in society says we must prove our faith, we must believe in this list of things, we must vote a certain way, our families must look like this or that, our social and cultural obligations require this or that of us, whether those obligations are good or not.
Some of us have experienced them as not always good at all.
But hear the good news:
But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian. (Galatians 3:25)
I’d suggest that any story that tries to rob of us of our faith is a disciplinarian, that is it seeks a kind of discipline and set of practices that mirrors the values of a given community.
But saving faith tells us a different story:
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water[s] of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4)
To trust in God’s goodness is to trust that as Paul writes, we are adopted into faith and that this Is an adoption that cannot be revoked. We can’t be written out of the will.
As an adoptee this matters to me.
But to the task of remembering my baptism, I feel as if I have a distinct advantage. Because as my story indicates, I literally do remember my baptism.
But for traditions that practice infant baptism, including the ELCA and the UCC, what could that mean?
It certainly means that you did not choose your baptism.
As Alexander Campbell, founder of the Disciples of Christ, writes:
Baptism is a sort of embodiment of the Gospel, and a solemn expression of it all in a single act. In baptism we are passive in everything.
Or as Martin Luther writes:
I know full well that I have not a single work which is pure, but I am baptized, and through my baptism, God cannot lie, has bound himself in a covenant with me.
Now, remembering one’s baptism does not mean one literally remembers the event. It means we hold on to this story as ours, never letting competing stories diminish who we are in God.
I remember a Lutheran minister who when asked about remembrance said: When you can, watch another’s baptism. Make sure you see it happen, listen to the words of baptism said over a child or an adult, see them as the water washed over them and they are named anew.
That is, we can encourage each other in our faith. It could be that an infant baptism helps you remember what transpired for you as you claim your identity in Christ.
Therefore finding a congregation that loves and accepts you fully as you are, becomes so important. It encourages us to claim who we are in Christ.
And that could be one way of thinking of Jesus’ baptism. He sets the example; he joins in solidarity with all of us who would claim our adoption.
That solidarity takes on new meaning when one considers John the Baptist’s call in Mark 1:4:
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
It’s not that Mark believes that Jesus sinned, but rather for Jesus he knows what sin does to the community.
If we needed a reminder of that sin, we were just reminded of it in the events that happened in our nation’s capital January 6th. where whole groups of Americans couldn’t imagine sharing a common life and world together. Many of those who claim the term Christian are among this lot as they justified their violence.
The church and our country need repentance. As Reinhold Niebuhr writes:
Ideally the church is a community who know themselves to be “forgiven sinners.”
This ideal should make for humility. But the long history of religious self-righteousness reveals that religious experience is more effective in inducing repentance for deviation from common standards than in in inducing repentance for the hatred, bigotry, and prejudice involved in the common standards of race and nation, or church.
Rather than bringing forth the fruits of repentance for shortcomings as judged by the transcendent God, perhaps human selfhood in its collective form constitutionally is unable to imagine any higher value than the common value of its devotion.
Jesus envisions something different as he took ordinary elements, of bread, of cup, of water, signaling God’s good intents towards us, even when we don’t express that to one another near enough.
They become sacraments because we follow the example of Jesus and share these elements. We enact the beloved community even when the news says otherwise.
The beloved community that shares in food and drink, that through the waters brings in those who would be rejected by the various divisions that mark our world, into one body
My prayer is that our baptism reminds us of the shared world God would have for all of us. Amen.
An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, Rev. Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings, where he also serves as a part-time philosophy instructor. He is married to Jim Reindollar and is owned by two cats, Annie and Adler. He blogs at Approaching Justice.