I always associate baptism with wild places. Except for my two oldest children, who were baptized in swimming pools surrounded by friends and people who loved them, my baptisms have all been wild.
I was baptized by my uncle in the stormy Irish Sea. I was sure I would drown, but he stood there like the rock that he was, clutching me firmly, his Ulster preacher’s voice booming against wind and wave. When I came out of the water, I felt numb in body but alive in spirit. I remember a thick fog rolled in while we were out to sea and we couldn’t find our clothes on the beach for the longest time.
Other memories I have of baptisms include that of a dear friend in the frigid Yellow Sea off the coast of Dalian, China. He is 6-foot something – a beautiful, gentle giant of a man, and though I thought drowning plausible, I was pretty sure I would freeze to death first.
There have been a couple of times I’ve helped baptize new believers in the Mozambique Channel off the coast of Madagascar where furious waves knocked us off our feet and tossed us back to shore. I still treasure the box of seashells my friends collected for me that day. And then there was what was essentially a mudhole in Madagascar’s western desert region where we baptized new believers from the Mikea forest. We had to travel many kilometers to find a water source because there was no water in their village of Anjabetrongo.
In all these memories, the wildness of the surroundings perfectly suits the beautiful intensity of the experience. What is baptism except a dying? A burying of all that we are to be enfolded into all that Jesus is. A symbolic losing of our lives so that we can find Life.
It is both an end and a beginning. It is God reaching down to lift us out of deep waters and set us on a new path, ready to learn the ways of the kingdom, cleansed, forgiven, adopted, marked for life. Then he sends us into the wilderness to be tested, where, unless you are the living Christ himself, we repeatedly fail, fall, stumble, rise – and fall again.
Like Israel’s forty years of circuitous desert wanderings, it can feel like we’re walking in circles on this wilderness journey. Each loop takes us into deeper places of brokenness, more profound understandings of God and ourselves, more tender intimacies with Christ, the breaking of illusions and breakthroughs into reality. The journey is not comfortable, but it is wildly alive.
During this pandemic, the temptation is to allow stress and anxiety to drive us into the comfort zone, where we can camp out on our couches eating comfort foods (i.e., plates of nachos as big as my face) in comfortable clothes (i.e., one-size-fits-the-neighborhood hoodies that I can both get lost in and live in) and try not to think too deeply about anything for any length of time.
But as I am reading about John the Baptist in the gospel of Mark today – that wild-eyed, camel-skinned, leather-belted, locust-eating, truth-telling, fire-breathing, living prophet – I realize what I really want on this Lenten journey.
I want my wildness back.
The wildness of my first love, the wildness of my baptism, the wildness of following the untameable Christ to the ends of the earth, unleashing the wildness of his unconditional love. I want to return to the roots of wild kingdom faith – the kind that gets out of the boat and walks on water, eyes fixed on Jesus. Like the early Irish monks who set sail in curraghs without oars, trusting the wind and the seas to carry them to their final destinations, wherever God moved them, I want to throw my oars overboard in wild surrender and follow Jesus alone.
I fix my gaze on the living, burning Christ who consumes my life, and I cry:
Lord, hear my prayer.
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus answered him, “‘Love the Lord your God with every passion of your heart, with all the energy of your being, and with every thought that is within you.’ This is the great and supreme commandment. Matthew 22:36-38