A few weeks ago, I persuaded my husband to accompany me on a visit to the local Episcopal priest.
With Easter Vigil and our daughter’s first birthday on the horizon, it was as though a reminder notification had gone off on my iPhone – “Time to Baptize the Baby.”
My spouse (and, may I add, Father Jerry) humored me by participating in a discussion on the subject, even though they both knew what I was choosing to overlook.
We don’t actually attend church.
Since graduating from seminary six years ago, a series of personal crises had brought us to a point in our lives where church no longer seemed helpful—in fact, in some ways it had been unequivocally harmful. We grew angry with God. We lost sight of our faith. And we walked away from the community.
So when I elbowed my way into Father Jerry’s study that chilly March morning, he had every reason to be puzzled.
“I’ll baptize your child if you want,” he said. “But it seems to me that you’re more than qualified to do it yourselves.”
His words cut unflinchingly to the point. But they forced me to confront the fallacy of my request.
Baptism in the Episcopal Church, as in most infant-baptizing traditions, isn’t just about dunking the baby. It isn’t just about claiming God’s promises for our lives. It’s about living in community.
In the Rite of Holy Baptism from the Book of Common Prayer, the Celebrant begins by asking questions of parents who present the infant for baptism: “Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?” “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?”
And then the Celebrant asks the Congregation to pledge their care to the child as she grows in faith: “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?”
The Rite doesn’t take place in an empty room. It is set among the people, a faith event for both individual and community. That’s a big part of the point. The child is baptized into the family of God…an adopted brother or sister among many.
Apart from a stint doing pulpit supply for the local UCC, I haven’t attended church regularly since 2009. And to be entirely truthful, I haven’t missed it all that much. I enjoy my Sunday mornings at home, lounging in my pajamas on the couch; I relish the relative ease of navigating the local grocery while everyone else is in worship.
But having a child changes the way you think about a lot of things—not the least of which is faith. While your own history with religion forms the way you talk and think about God, this new little life requires you to write a new story. What do you want your child to know about Jesus? What kind of relationship do you hope she will have with God? Will you raise her as part of a community of faith, or will you adopt a more passive role?
The moment I became a parent, I was faced with a decision.
I could continue to separate myself from an intentional life of faith, counting my scars and abiding in silence until my daughter grew old enough to ask questions of her own. Or I could take proactive steps toward healing by moving back into the community.
For many who follow Practicing Families, this may seem less of a dilemma. But for some new parents, life as part of a faith community can be anything but basic. Worship attendance is a practice. It is a rhythm. It takes time to become good at it – particularly when children are involved. (Can she sit still that long? What if she cries? Who’s staffing the nursery? What about her morning nap? Is this really worthwhile? Wouldn’t God understand if I just needed the Sabbath to…well, REST?)
But even more than that, living in community takes trust. I must trust these people to help guide my precious child as she grows, as she learns, as she asks hard questions. And that may be difficult to do when I am struggling to trust them with my own needs—or worse, if I’m holding a grudge.
The crux of the dilemma is this: I want my child to know God’s boundless love for her. I want her to inherit the powerful legacy of Word, Sacrament, and liturgy. I want her to discover the beauty and benefit of following Jesus. Yet, as Father Jerry reminded me, I really can’t accomplish that in isolation. I cannot share those blessings with her if I do not accept them for myself.
In the life of a child, community matters. As the well-worn proverb goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Many of the adults I remember from my own childhood were those who met me at church: teachers, worship leaders, even the parents of my peers. They showed me how to live (and sometimes, how not to live) as part of a greater community. They offered me acceptance and safety. They shepherded my spiritual life until I acquired the tools to step out on my own. And even now, years later, miles away, they provide me with examples of people who have walked through the valley of the shadow…to emerge in faith.
As a very new parent, there is still much for me to learn about how to raise my daughter to be the kind of woman I hope she’ll be. But the older she grows, the more I realize that I’m not sure I know how to raise her into that woman without the spiritual practice that is Church.
Amanda Cormack is an approved candidate for ordination in the United Church of Christ, wife to an amazing full-time daddy/home improver, and mother to a precocious one-year-old daughter.