Like a Child

Today I’m grateful to be sharing a guest post from James Stambaugh. James and his wife, Deborah, are dear friends of ours and some of my favorite people  to talk with about theology and its tangible effect on our lives, usually while drinking something interesting. We don’t see them nearly enough, and as I always learn something from our conversations, it’s a treat to hear James’ thoughts on the decision to baptize their son Edmund as an infant, and the ways children teach us how to approach God. 

Baptizing my son as an infant was a difficult choice.  I mentally accented to the doctrine.  I read the pertinent theology.  My wife and I worked through the information given to us by our parish, and met with the Christian education director.  We set a date to have Edmund James baptized, and chose godparents.  But there were complications.  These decisions are rarely only about theology.  Christian practice is messy.

Psychologically, it was hard to overcome twenty years of being told that infant baptism was wrong; that a person must choose for his or herself to be baptized.  I was baptized when I was nine after making a public profession of faith in Christ.  I don’t exactly remember choosing anything.  I remember it though, cold water on a January night, and value the memory.

The Anglican tradition, which I came to in young adulthood, affirms the value and the choice of baptism for older children and adults.  Since I began attending the Episcopal church I have seen many persons “of riper years”—as an old Prayer Book called it—get baptized, and it is always beautiful.  But, infant baptism is the normative practice of our church.  More by intuition than by dogmatics, I felt it was right for my son.

Some of our close family warned us before Edmund was born never to let them know if we baptized him as an infant.  They acted as if just knowing of an infant baptism in the family would cause too much shame and disappointment to bear.

My wife and I were faced with a decision between what we felt was right and what was normative in our faith community on the one hand, and what we were taught growing up and what our family wanted us to do on the other.

In the end, we went with our gut.  We brought our child to the font.  We promised in front of God and everyone to bring him up in the Christian faith, and help him to grow into the full stature of Christ.  We spoke the ancient words of the baptismal covenant, and our voices were strengthened by the voices of the whole congregation.  The priest poured water on his head, and anointed him with oil.  We received the light of Christ: a candle burning with Pascal fire.

That was two years ago.  Edmund is almost three.  Most Sundays we take him out of the nursery in time for Holy Communion.  He calls it “Jesus bread time.”

He points to the colors in the stained glass, listens to the rumbling organ, and says parts of the Lord’s Prayer—mostly just “Our Father” over and over.   Then we line up to go to the altar rail.  When he was younger we would take the wafer for him, break it up, make sure it all ended up in his mouth, but we don’t worry too much about that anymore.

Now Edmund kneels by himself.  His chin rests on the top of the wooden rail polished by a century of communicants.  He reaches up, palms open; absolutely committed to expectation.  He wastes no time shoving the whole wafer in his mouth.  He smiles as it melts on his tongue.  Once he grabbed the priest’s vestment as he walked past, and asked, “more please.”  The priest gave it to him.  Another time he begged a piece from the man kneeling next to him.  This man broke his wafer in half and gave it to my son.  As a member of our congregation, that gentleman also made a promise the day Edmund was baptized, and he took it seriously.

Edmund feasts on the Sacrament with unadulterated joy.  When he breaks free of my grasp and runs to the rail giggling, I see what Jesus meant when he told us to approach His kingdom like a child, with innocence, joy, and expectation; with careless laughter.  At the rail, receiving the Eucharist with Edmund, I know that baptizing him was right.  He is a member of the Body of Christ and participates in the life of the Church in his own, completely legitimate way.  And who cares that he approaches donuts in the fellowship hall the same way? [1]

Edmund is teaching me that children intuitively understand the Incarnation.  They make no distinction between sacred and profane, between spiritual and material.  They worship just as truly with sticky hands full of cake as with prayer book and hymnal (though the combination of all three is not recommended).

Some will still argue that children cannot worship, or be baptized, or take the Eucharist because they don’t know what they’re doing.  But do any of us really know what we’re doing?  Regardless of how ripe in years we are when it happens, we are all infants at baptism.  The extent to which we think we are spiritually mature is usually inversely related to how mature we really are.  If we do not approach the Sacraments as a mystery—with the spiritual discipline of expectant unknowing—we are in grave danger.  Children don’t have to worry about that.  God grant me grace to be like them.

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James is in the process of becoming an Episcopal priest and will be attending seminary in the fall of 2014.  Right now, he lives in Albuquerque, NM with his beautiful wife and darling children.  He occasionally blogs at cynoceph.wordpress.com.

[1] Who can deny the sacramentality of coffee hour?

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Like a Child

  1. This is really beautiful. I love this part: “Edmund is teaching me that children intuitively understand the Incarnation. They make no distinction between sacred and profane, between spiritual and material. They worship just as truly with sticky hands full of cake as with prayer book and hymnal (though the combination of all three is not recommended).”

    Thanks James!

  2. Ricky

    Emily and I recently started talking about blurring the lines “between sacred and profane, between spiritual and material.” Thanks, James. Good words to start the day.

  3. Thanks, Heath! I don’t think we’ve met in person, but I’ve read and enjoyed some of your writing thanks to our mutual friends, the Lunas.

    Thanks Ricky! If all goes well, come August we’re going to be living on the other end of the DC Metro line from you.

  4. Mjackson

    James,

    I’ve struggled with this but recently was reading the story of Jesus’ circumcision and this really stopped me. Jews circumcise a child at 8 days, identifying that child as taking part in the Jewish covenant as commanded by God. The child has to at some time in their life affirm this covenant, yet the covenant marks cannot be removed.

    In the early church the majority of the church was Jewish and so this practice continued for Jewish believers but what about Gentiles. It seems that Baptism, which was the sign of the new covenant, to all believers, was the natural action. So from the beginning of the church just as God had the Jews, His people, circumcise a
    child on the 8th day, the early church baptized infants as the sign of new covenant. Makes sense.

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