Post Author: Shannon E. Sullivan
As preacher’s kids, my sisters and I were forever baptizing our pets. We come from a tradition that baptizes infants as a celebration of God’s grace; we don’t choose to be baptized, because it is a recognition of how God chooses us. It is also not an action we ever have to repeat; there are no re-baptisms in the United Methodist tradition, because God doesn’t mess up choosing us. But I don’t think we believed that we had to baptize our poor cat Amanda for the 403rd time (seriously, why didn’t she run away?) because God messed up; we just liked splashing in the water, and we liked remembering we were a part of a bigger story, something cosmic and ancient, even in our play.
I have not baptized my pets as an adult, though my dog has had her fair share of communion bread (some of which was not on purpose- sorry to all the shut-ins I was supposed to take communion to that one time!), but I still have dreamed of my own child being a part of that cosmic and ancient story. My spouse comes from a different tradition of baptism, but as our wait for a baby extended from months to years, and as that wait for a baby was clouded by pregnancies that ended in miscarriage, even he wanted a ritual celebration of love for a living child.
Once we did finally have a living child, the pandemic limited our ability to celebrate in person, so we decided to wait. We waited until we found out we would be moving. If we continued to wait, the congregation who walked alongside us for the fertility treatment, pregnancy, and birth would not get to celebrate with us. So my spouse and I finally just wrangled our families together and picked a date.
This ceremony was not a grab-the-child-and-stick-him-in-the-bathtub-like-we-did-with-the-cat kind of event. It wasn’t just important to me but also to my own clergymom, seminary friends, and colleagues, all of whom were celebrants willing to take part in ritual creation and leading worship. It represented a kind of gratitude to the church where I stood crying, trying to tell them I was finally pregnant and they stood and clapped and clapped. It was me making a vest for my child out of leftover fabric from my wedding dress to add another layer of love and creativity and sparkle. It was a Big To Do, though my less liturgical Baptist spouse put a limit to the pageantry, as did the continued pandemic.
So there we were, one Sunday in May, standing before our masked guests behind a baptismal font. Our friends’ children babbled, filling the solemn stone cathedral with lively music that warmed us all after the church had been pandemic-empty for so long. My own nephews at 6 and 4.5 years old stood on the other side of the baptismal font to help.
A colleague asked questions about our own renunciation of sin and profession of faith, since our child couldn’t answer for himself, and we accepted the freedom and power God give us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression as we also committed to nurture our child in the church and help guide him to accept God’s grace for himself. Then I invoked stories of floods and rainbows, of waters parting to make way for liberation. I poured wanted into the font and spoke of the waters that flowed inside Mary of Nazareth’s womb to nourish baby Jesus who himself was baptized by John the Baptist in the river Jordan. I dipped a shell into the baptismal waters, as ancient Christians did, and poured the water over my child’s head, soaking him in the water as we claimed that his whole life would be soaked in the love of God.
Of course, he barely reacted to any of this because he was busy chomping on a cookie bribe. There might not be much cosmic about cookies, but to this mom, they are another instance of grace too.
In our tradition, each baptism serves as a remembrance of restoration for the gathered community. Each baptism is an opportunity to commit and recommit to the baptismal vows others made for us. Each baptism is a time to hear the story of God’s saving acts through water and remember anew that God is still saving us. My child’s baptism was mine and my spouse’s and my sisters’ and even in a way the cat’s: every baptism proclaims, reminds, insists that we are all soaked by the love of God.
Many of my clergy friends choose “just to be a parent” for momentous religious rituals in their children’s lives, but I needed to splash in that water. Splashing in that water is who I am, and who I’ve been since I was a child baptizing a cat in the tub with my sisters. And really, splashing in that water is who all of us are as we swim along in this great story of love.
Rev. Shannon E. Sullivan (she/her/hers) is a life-long feminist and United Methodist currently serving the community of Frederick, Maryland, as the senior pastor of Trinity UMC. She is a proud graduate of Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey. She is married to Aaron Harrington, her high school sweetheart, who is a pilot and all-around aviation geek. They have one living child who they are raising in a house cluttered by books and airplane parts. More of Shannon's writing can be found at shannonesullivan.com.
Image by: VJP Photography
Used with permission