My backyard baptism

by M. Thomas Shaw

On my day off, when I am in West Newbury, I go to a little gym in a storefront in a shopping center for my morning workout. While some of the trainers know I am connected to the church, none of them have ever seen me in my monastic habit or a clerical collar and everyone calls me Tom. Two of the trainers are evangelical Christians and one is what I would call a seeker.

Early in the summer Ryan, the one I call a seeker, became a dad for the first time. He and his partner, Laura, had a beautiful little girl. On his first day back at the gym after his daughter’s birth, we were all congratulating him and I added, “So what about a baptism?” He replied that he would get back to me after he talked to Laura. The next time I was in the gym Ryan told me they were up for it, and we scheduled a time for me to go to their house, meet Laura and her three children from a previous marriage and arrange for a baptism.

Wednesday evening, the time we had agreed on, 5:55 p.m., dressed casually, no prayerbook or Bible, I pulled up in front of their house. There were a number of cars in the drive. Curious, I thought to myself. I wondered if it was a two-family house or if they lived with parents. Then it dawned on me. It’s a party. They have invited family and friends. Ryan and Laura misunderstood me, and they think tonight is the baptism.

Sure enough, as Ryan greeted me at the door and introduced me to Laura’s parents, his parents, the kids, and I could see all the food on the dining room table, it was clear they thought tonight was the baptism. I needed to make a quick decision. Just do it, I told myself, and forget about preparation and a church and all the things I thought we would be talking about.

They showed me where they thought the baptism should be in the backyard, someone got a bowl and a table and we were all set. The family gathered around and I asked who the godparents were. The baby’s four-year-old brother and seven- and eight-year-old sisters, I was told. Improvise, I thought to myself, and so I asked the kids what it meant to be godparents. They told me that if something happened to their mother and Ryan, they would be in charge of Isabel. That’s a start, I thought, and I tried to explain what else was involved in being a godparent.

No one, it became clear, not kids, parents or grandparents, were connected to any church. I talked a little about what we were about to do and what I thought it meant for them and for Isabel. We prayed together, and then we baptized that beautiful little girl. Later, as we ate dinner, there was time to get to know one another, for them to talk of their religious experiences in the past and for all of us to share more about our faith.

I had the best time that night. And all the way home I laughed at myself. It was clear to me how much I relied on all the props of the church and a language that not a lot of people understood. I shook my head at myself about how inarticulate I was in front of kids who didn’t go to Sunday school, and parents and grandparents, good people, who don’t make many of the assumptions I do.

As I pulled into my driveway I thought, in a way, I was the one who was baptized that night. I was embarrassed by my inadequacy, but glad. I felt God had brought me to a new place. Has anything ever happened to you like that, where you have felt you didn’t have the words to explain the importance of your relationship with God or what the church has to give?

The Rt. Rev. M. Thomas Shaw, SSJE is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Masschusetts. Used with permission from the Bishop’s Reflections.

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4 Comments
  1. John Maher

    Great story, Tom. As a church planter who also goes to the gym regularly I have had some similar experiences. It is very different to be the one who depends on the hospitality of others to bring something of the love of God to them. However, when Jesus sent out the 70 in Luke 10 he gave them instructions to depend on the hospitality of the person so peace they meet. Here is my question- after the initial ministry experience, like the backyard baptism, what steps would we take to invite them further into a life of following Jesus?

  2. Claudia Perez

    WONderful – that’s where church happens, when we’re all on unfamiliar territory.

    Sometimes I wish I didn’t have all the buzzwords at my command. They tend to get in the way.

  3. So, the question for me is: How do we connect the invitational nature of this baptism with the institutional nature of the place that is our spiritual home?

  4. Rick Fabian

    A perfect updating of Acts 8:34-39, which must express common early church experience. Note no connexion with institutions there, instead the baptizer just goes his way, like you! How nice to see life imitate the bible: our church might even try that….

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