About two years ago, while driving to a preaching engagement in a Christian Reformed congregation that had invited me for the first time, it suddenly hit me:I (Syd) had been baptized in this very church building more than half a century earlier!
My parents had spent their first two years of married life in this small community before moving to the city where I had been raised to adulthood. As I stood at the pulpit an hour later to begin the worship service, I told the congregation my baptism story and confessed that, just like all of them, I had no memory of that event. They smiled indulgently.
But there was more truth to that confession than I dared to admit. I also don’t remember what my baptism meant to me as I grew from infancy to adulthood. The principal meaning that livedinside me was that I was a Dutch immigrant kid who went to the “Dutch Reform” school and was therefore an outsider in Canadian society. Peter’s exhortation to “live as aliens and strangers in the world” (1 Pet. 2:11) was a visceral reality for me, but it had little to do with my baptismal identity and a great deal to do with ethnic sectarianism.
An Eye-opening Adoption
It wasn’t until my wife and I adopted our first child from an orphanage in Asia almost 30 years ago that I began to ponder seriously the meaning of baptism. But even then my pondering did not lead to questions like “What significance will this baptism have for our child’s identity? Rather, I wondered, “Does the Bible truly teach infant baptism, or should we wait until this child is old enough to make a decision?” A helpful conversation with our pastor freed us to joyfully bring our infant to the baptismal font.
Today I now serve on the Christian Reformed Church’s Faith Formation Committee, which has done quite a bit of reflecting about baptismal identity. (You can find much of our reflection at www.crcna.org/faithformation.)
My prayer is that someday I’ll be able to teach my grandchildren things that I was ignorant of when my wife and I were raising our children. For example, I didn’t know that people from every tribe, language, people, and nation are called to find their baptismal identity in Jesus Christ, and that every other mark of identity is secondary (at best) to this fundamental identity.
Though Jesus is a Middle Eastern Jew, his deeper identity is that of the second Adam through whom we are made alive and receive God’s Spirit (1 Cor. 15:22, 45). Jesus’ death and resurrection have become our death and resurrection: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:4).
The implications of this are profound for all believers, not just for multicultural families. “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” are two of the primary questions facing all teens and young adults as they separate from their families and ponder their place in God’s world. The powerful temptation to ground our identity in secondary markers is rooted in the old self, which, Paul continues, “was crucified with [Jesus] so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin” (Rom. 6:6-7).
The co-author of this article faces these questions of identity as well.
Navigating Two Worlds
I (Irene) spent my childhood and youth in New York City, where my identity was shaped by first-generation Chinese family members and a first-generation Chinese church.
When these Chinese people moved to North America, they faced many choices: Which of our norms and values should we hold on to, which should we let go of, and which ones should we adopt from the dominant culture? How can we manage the tension of living in two worlds: a Western culture that typically values individualism, rights, and self-assertion and an Asian culture that values collectivism, duty, and self-effacement?
My parents prayed and worked toward giving my siblings and me a foundational identity as children of God.
Their holistic Asian and holistic Reformed worldview helped them navigate the cultural differences they faced after immigrating—the ones you can hear, smell, touch, taste, and see (language, food, andclothing), as well as the differences that go deeper.
Just as I’ve been reminded of my physical birth on many occasions and in many different ways, so I’ve been reminded of my identity in Christ. Baptism isn’t just a one-time event to be forgotten, but an identity that needs reaffirmation. In their book Celebrating the Milestones of Faith: A Guide for Churches (Faith Alive),Laura and Robert J. Keeley suggest some tangible reminders of our baptism:
- a baptism candle
- a baptism book
- video clips
- a present
- a certificate
- an annual baptism anniversary celebration
- a faith chest.
In my own life, the many beautiful “I am” statements in Scripture eventually morphed from Sunday school memory verses into the foundation of my identity and an integral part of my faith journey:
- I am God’s child (John 1:12).
- I am chosen by God and adopted as his child (Eph. 1:3-8).
- I was bought with a price and belong to God (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
- I am a citizen of heaven (Phil. 3:20).
- I am God’s workmanship (Eph 2:10).
When factors such as gender, ethnicity, family, education, nationality, and financial status threaten to overshadow my Christian identity, my faith community prays for me and reminds me of who I am in Christ. It encourages me to be salt and light according to how God made me and in whatever setting God places me.
Practicing more frequent, intentional public celebrations of our identity in Christ in the worship life of our churches will also help ground us in God’s steadfast love.
I've never had the opportunity to attend a baptismal renewal service, but I hope to someday. Imagine that in the final 15 minutes of a worship service, all the children and infants who were in the nursery or in Sunday school have joined their families in the sanctuary. Imagine the entire congregation filing to the front, row by row, while singing a medley of songs celebrating our baptismal identity.
Each person walks past the baptismal font, dips a hand in the water, and draws a cross and open tomb on his or her forehead—the very youngest aided by older siblings or parents. Some of the younger teens giggle in awkward self-consciousness, but they nonetheless feel enveloped by the steadiness of the entire community participating in the same liturgical act.
The last person returns to her seat, the singing ends, and the pastor declares, "You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy" (1 Pet. 2:9-10), followed by the benediction.
Someday I'd like to experience that service with my adult children, then say to them during Sunday dinner, "Let me tell you how this morning's service reminds me of something I neglected to do while you were growing up. . . ."
- What is your primary understanding of baptism?
- How do you understand “the old self” that Paul talks about? Can you give examples from your own life that might characterize that "old self"?
- What values of Western culture seem to be at odds with our identity in Christ? How do you manage the tension of living in two worlds?
- What would you like children to understand about their baptism?
- How can people of all ages celebrate their baptism to make it more meaningful? What can the church do strengthen our baptismal identity?