Swimming Lessons

When Monk first started talking about having a desire to be baptized, last January, he was curious about the process. And he wanted to know how D and I were each baptized. I was baptized (the first time, I admit with some chagrin) in a Methodist church when I was twelve years old. My brother and I were baptized on the same day; he needed to be “done” so he could get confirmed later in the same service. (Clearly our Methodist church hadn’t engaged with the liturgical renewal movement yet and didn’t know that one does not need to be “confirmed” if you’re baptized as a believer. But that’s another point altogether.)

So because we were Methodist at the time, I was baptized by pouring–a small amount of water dribbled carefully on my head. I remember my hair was pulled up and back into a bun that morning. And I feel like I can still go back to that moment, the gentle graciousness, almost caress of the water as it trickled through my hair and down along my neck. Ever play the game where someone pretends to break an egg on your head and they run their fingers gently over your head and onto your neck before you squirm away?

When I told Monk about this, he immediately exclaimed: “Can we become Methodists? Can’t we get a Methodist pastor to baptize me?” The idea of being dunked under water in our big baptistery felt pretty overwhelming to him. And, in fact, with good reason. It’s one sign the Baptists definitely get right.

But we wanted to pay attention to his fear, too. Not just dismiss it or try to simply talk him out of it. There is something to fear in our baptism, I think. Our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ is overwhelming. Even God’s grace is overwhelming. If we cozy up to these kinds of things too much, then we have lost something of their meaning.

We knew that the greater part of Monk’s fear, though, lay in his increasing discomfort at not being able to swim yet. Although he’s had lessons each year since Kindergarten through his public school, they have never been sustained enough to get him comfortable in the water. Last summer would have been the ideal time for us to get him swimming lessons, but we were at a loss about how to do it. We don’t have a pool, of course. And we don’t belong to a swim club. And, frankly, it’s pretty darn cold in this part of the country in July and August.

But sometime over the past year, swimming morphed from a fun thing that he wanted to learn to a frightening thing that felt just plain dangerous. And this danger, it was clear, was represented by the baptismal waters as well.

I shared some of this with my students a month or two ago in our class on baptism. Afterwards, one of my students came up and suggested that we intentionally tie the two together: Give him swimming lessons as his baptism gift. She said that for her, learning to swim was the most empowering thing she felt she’d ever learned to do. Why not link the empowerment of learning to swim with the powerful moment of baptism? The idea seemed brilliant to me.

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