Saturday, September 19, 2009

For Irene, on Her Baptism

I wish that every person could at least one relationship that is of the nature of the one that I had with my grandmother. I’m not sure if my parents felt it when I was born, and was in the room with her, or if it developed as I grew older, but there was a soul connection between the two of us that is unique and for which I will be forever grateful.

I used to love the stories she’d tell me about the things I did when I was little, how I’d pat the floor next to me when I was sitting down with my pile of books to read, so that she would sit down and join me, or how I’d call her on my play telephone, just as I’d call many other people, and have long and involved conversations with them.

When I think back to the moments that I spent with her, I don’t always even remember what we did, or specific words of wisdom that she gave me, I just remember enjoying her company, feeling her love, and being cared for by her. Sure, I know that she drove me to piano lessons, and she always had a stash of red gummy Swedish fish in the dining room, and that she would make me a snack of blueberry Eggo waffles on the afternoons I stayed with her after school. I remember her hand-rolling pot-pie noodles on her kitchen counters, every counter spread with flour first, and I remember her making the BEST mashed potatoes I have ever eaten.

But there was something more, there was a connection beyond the activities, beyond the words, and I pray that either of my children might find that with at least one of their grandparents, or even with my husband or me, or with more than one of us.

I’ll never forget one day when my dad, my grandma, and I were sitting at the little table in the patio room, just the three of us, and I felt at complete peace. I just felt complete, as though the three of us were all connected, that there was some sort of unexplainable thread of being that linked from each of us to the next, that we were whole because we had each other.

And I suppose that I thought that Grandma would live forever. I was completely shocked when she died, and yet her death helped me make some very important choices in my life. It was in my time of grief that I declared that I would attend seminary, and soon.

In college, I had an advisor who suggested that for certain professions, one should be of a more advanced age and have more life experience, or wisdom, I suppose, before undertaking the training for that profession. He thought this applied to such roles as college professor, for himself, and pastor, for me. When I suggested that I might go from college straight to seminary, he discouraged it.

So, I found myself one year out of seminary, working in a job that I both loved and loathed, wanting something more, and suddenly, over the course of one weekend of ill health, my grandmother was gone. And it seemed as though my mortality was staring me in the face, which is a phenomenon that many of us encounter when we lose someone we love. And, what was I doing with my life? Even though I was only 21 years old, I felt as though I needed to make a more significant contribution to society, and to do it soon.

As I heard the stories that my cousins and uncle and family and friends told over the days leading up to and including the funeral, I learned of how many lives my grandma had touched as an elementary school teacher; I would say that it seemed as though maybe 75% of all those who had gone through the Northeastern School District in Manchester and Mt. Wolf had had her for the fifth grade, or perhaps another year at some point, and remembered her fondly. I also remembered the stories of how Grandma attended Millersville University to prepare to be a teacher, and then began her teaching career upon graduation. She had taught for most of her life, and even though she began young and learned a lot as times changed and she matured, no one ever mentioned that it would have been better had she waited until she was in her forties to begin.

I can’t say that I am grateful to Grandma for dying when she did; I wish she’d been there at my wedding—she liked Don from the very start, and I knew that after she first met him, if I went to visit her without him along, she would ask, “Where’s Don?” and look mournful for a few minutes until she accepted the fact that I was all she was getting that day.

When Jack was born, and my cousin Robin came to visit, she looked at Jack’s little hands and remarked, “Grandma always said that Emily (her daughter)’s fingers were like little matchsticks.” And I felt my breath catch in my throat—I wanted Grandma to be there to hold Jack, to comment about HIS little fingers, to know him, too.

But I’m grateful that I had 21 good years of knowing my Grandma, and of having that connection with her that I cherish so much, and that inspired me to suggest that we name our daughter Irene, after her.

The letter of James today says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” It seems as though Grandma lived by this verse, though I’m not sure how familiar she was with it. It is my prayer that this might be a guiding sentiment for Irene’s life, and for all of ours, as well. James goes on: “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” And the passage for today ends by saying, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

What wise words for all of us as we prepare to make the promises of the baptism covenant. For Don and I will make promises on Irene’s behalf today, promises that she will be exposed to this community and to the Word of God so that she might grow in relationship with God and that she might learn how to live out her faith in the world. But baptism is not just about the baby and the parents. Baptism is about the gathered community, who pledges to support the family and the child as well.

In other countries, we hear the adage: “It takes a village to raise a child.” And we might think of it as a quaint notion for countries less developed than ours. But even if we’re not aware of it, of course it still takes a village. And already I see that St. Peter’s Lischey’s will be a big part of that village for both of our children.

When Jack was baptized, we were at Trinity Church in Hanover, because I was a member there and my dad was still serving as Associate Pastor. Even when we talked about the promises of the congregation in the sermon that day, we knew that they were symbolic promises, made on behalf of the communities of faith that would some day nurture Jack, but that Jack would not be growing up within the actual congregation of Trinity.

But here, at Lischey’s, you will be Irene’s community of faith, and also Jack’s, now. And so the portion of the baptism liturgy that involves the covenant between the congregation and the child takes on a special meaning today, as you promise to support Irene, to nurture her fledgling faith, to love and care for her as you do all the children in the midst of this congregation, as you did a few months ago with Allison, as you have with countless children in the past. These are promises not to make lightly, but to be spoken with intentionality, and a vow of endurance that we, as both parents and congregation, will see these things through.

It is fitting that in the Gospel lesson for today, we encounter this passage: “Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

As you welcome the children that come into this congregation to be baptized, you are welcoming Jesus himself. And as you grow in faith with the children, you know that Jesus walks alongside you. The beauty of baptisms within the gathered congregation is that they give all of us the opportunity to affirm our faith and reaffirm our baptismal vows as we witness the baptism of one who is new in our midst.

Now as Irene prepares to receive her baptism in a few minutes, I offer the following pledges and prayers for her, which I believe also apply universally to the way that we all feel about our children and those we care for, which I also offered to Jack at his baptism. These prayers answer the question, “What kind of life? What kind of life do we intend for Irene? What kind of things do we hope for her, and for each one of us?”

Well, dear Irene, these are some things that I hope for you:

  • That you would find the kind of joy that you bring to our lives, and that you would be able to some day have a sense of just how much joy that is
  • That you would live boldly, without fear, and be able to take find a way to serve God doing something you feel passionate about like justice, or fighting against poverty, making the world a better place for your generation and those that will come after you.
  • That you will love others and be compassionate, following Jesus’ example
  • That you would find within you the special talents and gifts which God has given you, and that you would use them to the Glory of God and for your enjoyment. That you would not get too wrapped up in being expert in anything, but that you would sing, or dance, or play sports, or do algebra with a dedication to that work because it’s something God has given you the ability to do.
  • Now having said that, I hope that you would know just how precious your life is, before piling on any accomplishments or characteristics. Just because you exist, you are loved unconditionally, and there is absolutely nothing you can ever do to change that.
  • That you would never, ever doubt this love, even when your dad and I are being too busy, even if we forget to tell you enough
  • And most of all, most of all, I hope that you would never wish to be anyone else but you. God “knit you together in your mother’s womb,” specially, just the way you are, the way you are meant to be. You may not end up being the fastest runner, or the best singer, or the smartest or most talented, but who cares? That’s not the point. You are you, just as God has intended you to be. You are loved, cared for, blessed, and wonderful, because you, like each one of us, are of God. Amen.


Songbird said...

Oh, beautiful! Have a wonderful day tomorrow. (Pure Luck's name is Don, too.)

Juniper said...

Oh my goodness, this is so lovely! How did it go? I would not. be. able. to. stop. crying. if I tried to preach this!

revdisco said...

I hope it was a wonderful day!

Jennifer said...

What deep. deep joy. I hope it was a glorious day!

Sarah said...

Thank you for stopping by to read and comment!

Juniper -- you know, there were two things that got me through the sermon and kept me from crying: 1) the sound system was vaguely shrieking and was distracting me, and 2) my husband sat with the baby RIGHT BEHIND his mother so I couldn't even see her! In the moment, I was annoyed, but as I think back, those two things helped to keep me from getting too emotional, so perhaps it was good!

It was a beautiful day; I'm so glad I got to baptize baby girl.