Holy Baptism

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January 08, 2017

In this baptism of Madelyn Grace Sessoms and ­McKenzie Naima Grace Arthur, their adult presenters take on certain responsibilities. The parents and godparents will be asked:

"Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?"  

And they will answer:

"I will with God's help."

We could be more specific. Will you bring ­­­McKenzie regularly to church? Will you lead Madelyn in prayers at home?  Will you show them how to take communion, answering their questions about what it means?  Will you teach your daughter or goddaughter to put pennies in the plate? When she gets a little older will you show her how to make and keep a pledge? Will you let these children see that what you, their parents and godparents say with your lips, you believe in your hearts and that what you believe in your heart you show forth in your lives?  Will you?

Just what you needed: another set of responsibilities—as though you didn't have enough already.  Had anyone told you straight out all that raising children would entail? If the prayer book had a liturgy for people contemplating parenthood, the questions might go like this:

Will you abstain from alcohol and cigarettes throughout your term? This will include the two months before you realized you were pregnant. The women alone answer this one, fathers standing to the side conspicuously relieved. The remaining questions now are directed to both parents. Will you keep your baby safe, warm, and dry? Will you burp and change him? Will you get up when she cries? Will you use the right child seat, federally approved and doctor recommended, and keep them buckled up at all times? Will you get her shots and vaccinations take him to the dentist—which is more expensive than you figure?

You won't lose your temper, will you?  You won't spoil him?  You wouldn't break her spirit, would you?  When notes come home from teacher, you will respond.  You must help him with his homework.  You cannot let her watch too much TV. Will you monitor their internet and teach them– scare them if you have to–not to text and drive? You'll be signing up for little league, karate, ballet, gymnastics, soccer, hoops, scouts, not to mention Sunday school. You will pull out all the stops for birthdays.  You will know when to say yes and no.  You'll figure out what's just a part of growing up, and what calls for a visit to the pros.  Of course you will. Of course you know.  You're a parent.  Didn't you get the training?  No?  They didn't cover this in school?  Too bad.  Well, ready or not, here she comes.  Well, you just do the best you can. 

And you answer: “We will, with God's help.”

One day a friend called me because she was worried about her baby. When this child was born, the doctor had said, "the baby's beautiful, but there is one problem."  Some month's later, it came time to fix the problem.  Surgery would be involved.  It would hurt.  The baby wouldn't comprehend.  Would she resent her mother for allowing her to suffer?  That was a hard question, for which I had a strange answer, which my friend liked. I said, "don't worry, she was going to resent you anyway." She understood.  

You see, it would be awful if there were a perfect way to raise a perfect, happy child. Then we would feel compelled to find it. Most of us would fail. Our children would have cause to hate us. As it is, while there are guaranteed ways to hurt a child, there is no guaranteed way to raise one happy, secure and prepared for what's to come. 

I like to use the little jingle Richard Holloway unearthed about living with the problems handed down, but I have to edit it for church.

"They (mess) you up your mum and dad.

They don't mean to, but they do.

They give you all the faults they had,

And throw in extra, just for you."

Our children will have issues with us. They will discuss them with their friends.  They may find medication helpful.  Years of journaling and dream work, talk therapy, just to work through the way we made them go to Sunday school, or didn't make them, or let them stay up too late, or made them go to bed too early, or held too tight a reins, or did not teach respect for authority, or didn't demonstrate appropriate voice control in talking to their other parent. 

And so parents worry. Godparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, worry. We worry for our children when the way is rough: when friendships seem not to take, behavior reports are less than satisfactory, grades are down.  But we also know that when everything comes easily, that can be a problem later. Children who sail through school with all the friends they want, high achievers to whom success comes easily, become eligible to fulfill the spectacle of the faded high school star. High school favorites and beauties often end up as gossip fodder for twentieth class reunions.

I think of a friend of mine named Will Ray Robinson, Central class of '73, who died in 1995. You may not have heard of Will Ray Robinson, but I remember when it was reasonable to predict that someday his name would be a household word in Arkansas, if not America. Will was a star in track and football. He also was popular and friendly.  I said he was my friend.  That was an exaggeration. Actually, I was just another fan. 

Lord could he run.  Against the El Dorado Wildcats, Central was driving for a score.  The ball was inside the ten. Will dropped back to pass, felt pressure, scrambled.  Pressure came from the other side, he turned back.  He was chased by four or five defensive linemen all the way back to the fifty-yard line, still scrambling, still cool, even though he was at risk to lose forty-five yards on one play.  He looked downfield, threw the ball fifty yards on the run, to his brother Eddie who caught the pass for a two-yard gain. 

Frank Broyles came personally from Fayetteville to recruit Will and Muskie Harris.  Muskie took a scholarship, but Will declined. He went to Arkansas AM&N, now UAPB, tore up his knee and quit. After college, I ran into Will one day at the state capitol. He delivered packages.  We talked about old times.  I didn't see or hear of him again until our twentieth reunion.  I could tell he was dying then.  Will would have looked old for sixty-eight, but he was thirty-eight. He quivered.  He smiled, reintroduced himself to everyone, and we all talked about old times. Behind his back, we whispered, "Have you seen Will?" He died from cirrhosis of the liver.  From his obituary, it was clear his life had ended twenty years before. Will Robinson, rest in peace.

"The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.  So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well." 1

That parable is fulfilled in the relationship of growing children with their parents.  The good seed and bad are mixed.  Just as in the parable, they both must grow together until the harvest time. 

So now I put a second question to you, who sponsor McKenzie and Madelyn.  The first one seemed to speak of duty.  This one wants results.

Will you by your prayers and witness help this child grow up into the full stature of Christ? 

I sense a rising protest.  "My prayers and my witness are going to help this child do what? This child with whom I may not even be able to get to pick up his room.  This child who will someday bring home notes from her teacher that say we've got a problem and need to talk.  This child who may some Friday night be picked up by police, who will wreck the car, who will make mistakes and have regrets, who may or may not be talented, gifted? This child whose genes may make the going rough, no matter what the parents do?

Yes.  Your prayers, your life will help such a child grow into "Christ's full stature."  That would be the stature of the one who sows good seed, seed that is sprinkled even now within the souls of Madelyn Grace and McKenzie Naima Grace. You cannot remove the weeds, but you can cultivate the healthy plant.

"Madelyn and McKenzie, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ's own for ever."

For your children, Christ assumes final responsibility. The Spirit makes the mark of Christ upon your child "indelible."  No enemy, no misfortune can erase it.  When darkness comes upon your children, and it will come...when they wander off the path, and they will wander, they still bear the Spirit's seal.  

That spirit will dwell within them.  It will awaken them to gracious possibilities in any circumstance. It will haunt them when they move towards darkness.  It will sustain them as they move in light.  They may or may not know it, but the Spirit moves with them, before them, behind them, at their side. When they fail, he is there to pick them up. When they die, he is there to meet them. Grace, we call this. Both you parents thought to put it in your daughter’s name. Well done!

Parents, sponsors: your prayers and actions are tools the Holy Spirit uses to cultivate the life of Christ within your children.  The Holy Spirit works with you, even as it moves within you, cultivating Christ in you, sometimes leading, sometimes haunting you, never giving up on you.

Something you’ve probably heard me say about the priesthood is that there is never a boring moment and the job is a lot harder than it looks. Of parenthood, the same is true times ten. In both, expect some ups, downs, and oh my Lords. The job is the same: it’s the care of souls. In neither, do we walk alone.


1: Matthew 13:24ff