Walking Wet in a Troubled World
David B. Batchelder
David B. Batchelder is recently retired after serving nearly twenty years at West Plano Presbyterian Church (Plano, Texas), a remarkable congregation whose life and mission is deeply formed from font, pulpit, and table.
Rowan Williams suggests that baptism really ought to come with some “health warnings to it: ‘If you take this step, if you go into these depths, it will be transfiguring, exhilarating, life-giving and very, very dangerous.’”
The church’s sacramental life has the potential to seed the imagination with new insight and wisdom because it offers a spiritually dense (and intense) experience of bodily encounter with the mystery of the incarnation.
A baptismal imagination requires that we struggle with the challenges and temptations of our present moment. All theology is contextual.
How do you see the world? With all that is happening around the world, it is tempting to speak of events in apocalyptic terms. I believe we must resist this temptation without looking away from the suffering and trauma afflicting the planet. By virtue of our dying and rising with Christ in baptism, we are sent into the world with a grace-filled way of seeing and being. More colloquially, we are sent into the world “walking wet.”
Upward Journey, ink on paper, Jennifer Bunge
Being baptized plunges us into a messy life insofar as it takes us “where humanity is most at risk, where humanity is most disordered, disfigured and needy.”1 I wonder what people are thinking when asked at baptism (and every reaffirmation of baptism thereafter), “Do you renounce evil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God, and the ways of sin that draw you from God?”2 Are people thinking that this would be a one- and-done question rather than a call to continually resist corrosive influences that contest our loyalty to God’s reign of justice and love? Given these serious implications, Rowan Williams suggests that baptism really ought to come with some “health warnings to it: ‘If you take this step, if you go into these depths, it will be transfiguring, exhilarating, life-giving and very, very dangerous.’ To be baptized into Jesus is not to be in what the world thinks of as a safe place.”3
Let us try to imagine what such “health warnings” might look like if churches decided to follow this counsel. Of what, exactly, would people be warned? Who would issue the warnings? Would such warnings be accompanied by the equivalent of medical proper care instructions as we are so accustomed to receiving when released from the hospital?4 These questions nudge our imaginations in the direction of ministries that recognize the church has a responsibility to form and instruct persons before baptism as well as walk alongside them providing ongoing formation following baptism.
What Rowan Williams suggests is that the church should not make assumptions. Williams is also hinting at a kind of ministry that existed at another time in the church’s history. One of the characteristics marking the first four centuries of the church was pre- and post-baptism teaching (catechesis) that recognized the many challenges the newly baptized would face as they began new life in Christ. This ministry, called the catechumenate, is gradually being reimagined and appropriated by churches of many different traditions. These churches are realizing that better preparation is needed for those birthed to new life with Christ.5
At the time of this writing, churches are beginning to recover an in-person communal life that was severely impacted by the pandemic. What this life will look like in the coming years is yet to be known. During the pandemic, much educational and formational ministry was necessarily transferred to Zoom and other online technologies. Reports from the field indicate new creativity with varying degrees of success. Many have discovered that these online tools, while quite useful, cannot substitute for the power of personal presence that comes with people being in the same space, breathing the same air, fully visible to one another, sharing a common experience. All we are in our full material creaturehood continues to matter for a faith where being and doing are inextricably bound together to express the meaning of “through Christ, in Christ, with Christ.” As James Farwell writes:
Liturgy is an embodied practice. Movement, gesture, sound, silence, color, and pageantry are all a part of liturgy and not add-ons, even though there is diversity of such practices in evidence. . . . [We] are embodied persons—even our cognition is embodied, as today’s neuroscience increasingly demonstrates—and the ritual enactment of belief incarnates theology, reshapes our desires, and enacts our transformations at every level of our embodied nature.6
This means that the vast majority of churches continues to desire and need an in-person life as they celebrate the liturgy of Word and Sacrament and live out their communal identity as the body of Christ.
The rest of this article speaks from the understanding that the church as “assembly” embodies itself (in the body, mind, and spirit of its members) to do the liturgy through which the church “signs the presence of Jesus Christ in the world and for the world.”7 In its “doing,” the sacramental liturgy both seeds and expresses—thereby deepening—the church’s baptismal imagination. As the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy reminds us, worship is both the summit of the church’s life together and the fountain from which the church’s power flows.8
Imagination and Hope
One of the most well-known street art works by the artist Banksy is titled Balloon Girl. The mural first appeared at the site of London’s Waterloo Bridge in 2002 and shows a young girl with a red heart-shaped balloon that has just left her hand.9 The girl’s hair and dress are blowing from right to left, as if by the wind. Behind the girl are the words “There is always hope.”
I have thought a great deal about this image. In it, a red balloon has left the girl’s hand. Was it wrenched from her fingers by a gust of wind? We know the power of strong winds that have brought much chaos to our world, so this option may seem likely. Or did she let the balloon go? Maybe she is giving it away, sending it to sail as a symbol of the words of hope written behind her. We could read sarcasm and irony in the image: the girl has lost control of the balloon, and yet “there is always hope.”
Read through a theological lens, for me the child represents who we all must become to enter the reign of God, the kin-dom of human flourishing. Interpreted theologically, her failure to hold onto the balloon is also a place of hope in the image. It calls us to renewed trust, vulnerability, and a willingness to open ourselves up to change and growth. It also calls us to allow others to make a difference in how we live our lives. In this respect, Banksy’s image invites us to think of other children, perhaps our own, those we see in our neighborhoods, and those appearing in news reports.
“No change for the good ever happens without being imagined first,” said poet Martin Espada to a graduating class in 2007 at Hampshire College.10 For me, Banksy’s image represents the power and potential of a vibrant baptismal imagination that works with the wind of the Spirit bringing a fecundity of new life and hope.
The church’s sacramental life has the potential to seed the imagination with new insight and wisdom because it offers a spiritually dense (and intense) experience of bodily encounter with the mystery of the incarnation. Through baptism, we are born into the mystery of God’s solidarity with us in our full creaturehood. This baptismal mystery is planetary. Indeed, it is cosmic. Catherine Vincie writes,
A community that is initiated into Christ is a community committed to participation in Christ, not just in the sacramental life of the church . . . but also in a cosmos. There is no dichotomy between matter and spirit, secular and religious; conversion and transformation of all in Christ is the goal of a truly sacramental life.11
One of the great blessings of the past half-century has been the church’s recovery of a fuller baptismal theology. There was a time that baptism seemed “tiny” in its meaning, concerned about individuals getting spiritual passports to a life beyond death. Various editions of the Book of Common Worship and the Directory for Worship have given us an expanded list of baptismal meanings steeped in ideas of Divine gift and call.12 The connections between baptism and Christ’s mission are being taught to all ages, but Vincie urges us to wider imaginations. Living as we do in a time of planetary peril, we must add both breadth and depth to our understanding and practice of sacramental life. As Mary McGann writes, “Baptismal identity in the incarnate Christ corroborates, deepens, expands, and strengthens the earthly identity of the baptized—their call to co-responsibility as protectors of the Earth-commons and as servants of the web-of-planetary-good.”13
Meaning, Metaphor, and Mystery
Aidan Kavanagh once observed, “It was a Presence, not faith, which drew Moses to the burning bush, and what happened there was a revelation, not a seminar.”14 What metaphor and symbols both provide is such an encounter. What they ask from us is to pay attention. The sacraments teach and form us with a new vision, expectation, openness, and readiness to the holy Other. We learn to be receptive however and through whomever the Divine presence might come.
I have learned that paying attention means enlarging our capacities for wonder, silence, stillness, and contemplation. It involves a new way of seeing the world, relationships, and a certain hiddenness lying beneath the obvious.15 A faith community committed to the pattern and ritual practice of Word and Sacrament helps us to pay attention to what we might otherwise brush past. Such careful attention-giving pertains to metaphor wherever it is found, but especially in Scripture and the liturgy.
Metaphor has the power to awaken and enliven. It speaks meaning with words the way symbols communicate to the eyes, ears, touch, and taste. Metaphor is not literary embellishment. Metaphor achieves a bit of magic with words. Once a reader or listener receives a metaphor, an image is implanted in the imagination. That image may linger however long, playfully, perhaps hauntingly, but most certainly enticingly, calling us to be and do in ways we would not consider if not first stirred by what we received. This is because metaphor can provide a portal to the mystery of God’s truth in ways religious dogma cannot.
Without metaphor, we cannot avoid flattening God’s saving mystery to a kind of stagnant literalism that fosters dangerous forms of fundamentalism. The Scripture bids us to commune with God while cautioning that we cannot know the mind of God. While we ponder and wonder at the ways of God, faith calls us to trust and be apprehended by God.
For this reason, “the best way to begin to understand Christian liturgy,” writes Gordon Lathrop, “is to see that it has been made up of a fabric of interwoven, mutually reinterpreting, mostly biblical, always engaging, almost always metaphoric, saved and saving, verbal and enacted and then sometimes visual images.”16 Baptism and the Lord’s Supper make extravagant use of both metaphor and symbol, flooding the imaginations of the baptized for faithful living and providing the church with a rich resource for the church’s ministry of faith formation.
Metaphor is the Spirit’s tool for mystagogy, an ancient spiritual pedagogy rooted in ritual experience by which the church “[tells] the truth about mystery: that a mystery can be pointed to, hinted at, even glimpsed, but it cannot be defined or exhausted.”17 Contemplating faith’s mysteries through metaphor will help churches “unmask idolatries in church and culture”18 and resist ideologies masquerading as Christian in competition for our allegiance. When it was necessary to challenge the powers at work against God’s justice and mercy, the prophets found metaphor to be the preferred and necessary form of speech. Walter Brueggemann notes that the prophets
proceeded by image, metaphor, and allusion that could not be reduced to a program and that could not be co-opted by the dominant theology. At best prophetic testimony is not didactic or instructional; it is rather a bid for emancipatory faithful imagination, in the conviction that imagining outside the ideology will evoke fresh waves of energy and courage and generative obedience.19
We are living in a time when political ideologies are putting the Christian imaginations of some in a chokehold. We grieve the enmity that sets neighbor against neighbor, divides neighborhoods, fans hatreds, and Christianizes white supremacy. Ours is not the first era in history to witness the church held captive to culture and co-opted by powers in high places.
In the late twentieth century, Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya wrote a book asking questions that continue to haunt us about the disconnect between the church’s sacramental practice and Christ’s mission in the world.
Why is it that in spite of hundreds of thousands of eucharistic celebrations, Christians continue as selfish as before? Why have the “Christian” peoples been the most cruel colonizers of human history? Why is the gap of income, wealth, knowledge, and power growing in the world today—and that in favor of the “Christian” peoples? Why is it that person and people who proclaim eucharistic love and sharing deprive the poor people of the world of food, capital, employment, and even land?20
Both the ethical and missional dimensions of the church’s sacramental life deepen our baptismal imagination. “Christian liturgy begins as ritual practice but ends as ethical performance. Liturgy of the neighbor verifies liturgy of the church, much as a composer’s score makes music only though the risk of performance.”21
The last several decades have seen a renewed interest in the life, theology, and writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer with new translations of his monumental works. Many recognize a commonality between our present cultural context and that of Bonhoeffer living at the time of Hitler’s rise as a totalitarian leader. Bonhoeffer was distressed by the scandalous divergence of Christians from the ethical life of Jesus in the Gospels. Bonhoeffer felt compelled to re-present a theology rooted in the teachings of Jesus and modeled after his self-emptying life. This theology inevitably led him to grapple with the meaning of baptism.
In 1944, Bonhoeffer was in prison awaiting final judgment and unable to be present for the baptism of the son of his close friend Eberhard Bethge. Written as remarks he would have spoken were he not in prison, Bonhoeffer offered an assessment of the German church’s shortcomings and how it must change in the face of the present crisis. He wrote, “Our church has been fighting during these years only for its self-preservation, as if that were an end in itself. It has become incapable of bringing the word of reconciliation and redemption to humankind and to the world.”22
Bonhoeffer felt himself and the church being thrown “back all the way to the beginnings of our understanding.” Circumstances at the time compelled him to ask fundamental questions about the meaning of “reconciliation and redemption,” “rebirth and Holy Spirit, love for one’s enemies, cross and resurrection,” and “what it means to live in Christ and follow Christ.”23 Many of us have felt a similar urgency as a result of the pandemic, political and societal division, and a brutal invasion.
A baptismal imagination requires that we struggle with the challenges and temptations of our present moment. All theology is contextual. It cannot be otherwise since theology is the lived-out experience in real time of a life we share with Christ who is on the front lines of human suffering.
A baptismal imagination is informed by an ongoing practice of spiritual discernment and scrutiny that continually searches for the Spirit of truth as distinct from those other voices that distort, deceive, and falsify.24 As R. Alan Streett notes, baptism washes us into a life of resistance.
When Christ-followers submitted to baptism they committed an act of resistance against Rome by becoming part of a movement that challenged Roman ideology, its hierarchical social order, and rejected Caesar as the ultimate Lord. For many of the original believers, baptism was the initial step that led to persecution and even death. Hence, baptism was a rite of resistance.25
What Streett refers to is a refusal to surrender to any other lordship than Christ because ideologies in competition for allegiance ultimately chart a course for death. Life in fullness is found only through, with, and in Christ.
The ritual vocabulary of “renunciation” introduced in the 1993 Book of Common Worship Rite of Baptism sets before the church the metanoia necessary for living out the gift and call of baptism. Such baptismal living continually asks us to turn away from all that draws us from God’s love in order to turn toward the fullness of life found in Jesus Christ. Is this not the time to revisit this ritual language and ask how our churches might explore what renunciation and resistance might look like in our conflicted time? Such an opportunity could also include exploring ways the church can nurture support and courage for its participation in ministries of justice, solidarity, and peace-making. Alan Kreider reminds us that there was a time when such formation for baptismal living was carefully done. He writes:
At least from the second century believers were not baptized until they had gone through a lengthy process of catechesis. . . . Teachers and sponsors taught the candidates a new way of living and of viewing the world. The teachers imparted new narratives—the stories of the Bible, which replaced the traditional narratives of the culture, and gave the candidates biblical texts to memorize—key passages that expressed Christianity’s beliefs and that reinforced its values of economic sharing and nonviolence. . . . The teachers taught the candidates how Christians live. They taught by their own example; their catechumens were their apprentices in the faith. But they taught also by overseeing the candidates’ progress in forms of behavior that were characteristic of the Christian community—care of the poor, works of mercy, nonviolence. . . . Why, we may wonder, all this emphasis upon catechesis? . . . The reason goes to the heart of the early Christian approach to mission. The Christians did not offer the world intellectual formulas; they offered a way of life rooted in Christ.26
I conclude with this: Like many readers of this journal, I have been profoundly shaken by the horror of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but also deeply moved by the stirring witness of Ukrainian courage and communal solidarity. In this regard, I am eager to learn what I can about the living by faith of the Ukrainian people. As weeks became months with this war, a conversation was presented in the Canadian journal Comment in which Archbishop-Metropolitan Borys Gudziak offered an insight into the Ukrainian people that resonates with what I hope for with a baptismal imagination. He said,
In Ukraine today, there is a very clear vocation to witness in a social, political, spiritual way, also in a practical military way: the defense of the innocents, the proclamation of the kingdom in the face of the darkness, to carry the light into and through a tunnel, to conquer fear, to be willing to sacrifice and make the ultimate sacrifice for the most important things and for the most important people. And the most important people are the others. “When we lose ourselves,” Jesus says, “we find ourselves. When the seed dies, it gives fruit.”27
Such fruitfulness is what Christ promises to all who in baptism are joined to Christ’s dying and rising. This is the blessing of “walking wet.” It is a fruit-bearing life that is ours through living daily the ethical dimensions of the Paschal Mystery, the stunning and fathomless realm of grace to which we are joined through the crucified and risen Christ. “The selfish self dies in the baptismal waters and a new self motivated by love (agape) is born, reconciled to God and to others, even the enemy, always dying in Christ in order to give birth to life.”28
- Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 4.
- Book of Common Worship (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2018), 443.
- Williams, Being Christian, 9.
- For more, see David Batchelder, “Baptismal Renunciations: Making Promises We Do Not Intend to Keep,” Worship 81, no. 5 (September, 2007): 409–425.
- To learn about what Presbyterians have been doing with the catechumenate, see the following articles: Martha Moore-Keish, “The Recovery of the Catechumenate and North American Presbyterianism,” Call to Worship 38, no. 1 (2004–2005): 63–71; Kim Long, ed., “Reflections on the Catechumenate: Eyewitness Accounts,” Call to Worship 40, no. 2 (2006–2007): 46–52; and Stanley R. Hall, “Reforming Christian Initiation: The Catechumenate and the Church,” Reformed Liturgy & Music 29, no. 4 (1995): 247–254. In my book Pathways to the Waters of Grace: A Guide for a Church’s Ministry with Parents Seeking Baptism for their Children (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017), I present possibilities and resources for what a church’s ministry of baptismal preparation might look like.
- James Farwell, The Liturgy Explained, new ed. (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2013), 49.
- The particular phrasing “signs the presence of Jesus Christ in the world” was offered to me in a conversation with Gordon Lathrop.
- Harold M. Daniels, “Reformed and Ecumenical—Ecumenical and Reformed,” Call to Worship 38, no. 4 (2005), citing the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, chapter 1, section 10, 1963.
- See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girl_with_Balloon/.
- Martín Espada, “The Republic of Poetry: Martín Espada’s Hampshire College Commencement Address,” May 22, 2007, https://sarahbrowning.blogspot.com/2007/05/republic-of-poetry-martn-espadas.html. See also my article, “Cultivating a Baptismal Imagination,” Liturgy, Journal of The Liturgical Conference, vol. 25, no. 3 (2010): 42–48.
- Catherine Vincie, Worship and the New Cosmology (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2014), 88.
- Greatly significant to this work of renewal is the document “Invitation to Christ” prepared by the Sacrament Study Task Force and presented to the PC(USA) General Assembly in 1996. For an overview of this document’s influence in the life of the church since that time, see Tom Trinidad’s chapter, “A Sacramental Continental Divide: Invitation to Christ as a Watershed Document for the PC(USA),” in Reshaping the Liturgical Tradition, Ecumenical and Reformed: A Festschrift in Memory of Horace T. Allen, Jr., ed. Jonathan Hehn and Martha Moore Keish (Franklin, NJ: OSL Publications, 2021).
- Mary E. McGann, “Troubled Waters, Troubling Initiation Rites,” in Full of Your Glory: Liturgy, Cosmos, Creation, ed. Teresa Berger (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press Academic, 2019), 342.
- Aidan Kavanagh, On Liturgical Theology (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press), 92.
- This turn of phrase borrows from one of my favorite lines: “Never have an experience and miss the meaning,” written by William Sloane Coffin Jr. in his book Letters to a Young Doubter (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 27.
- Gordon Lathrop, Saving Images: The Presence of the Bible in Christian Liturgy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017), 85.
- William Harmless, SJ, Augustine and the Catechumenate (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995), 365–367.
- From a Brief Statement of Faith, Book of Confessions, (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2017), p. 312.
- Walter Brueggemann, Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2014), 38, 39.
- Tissa Balasuriya, The Eucharist and Human Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979), xi, xii.
- Nathan Mitchell, Meeting Mystery (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), 38.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 8 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010), 383–390.
- Bonhoeffer, Letter and Papers, 329.
- For more, see David Batchelder, “Christian Initiation in a Post-Truth World,” Call to Worship 51, no. 2 (2018); and David Batchelder, “Baptismal Renunciations: Making Promises We Do Not Intend to Keep,” Worship 81, no. 5 (September, 2007): 409–425.
- R. Alan Streett, Caesar and the Sacrament—Baptism: A Rite of Resistance (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018), 10.
- Alan Kreider, “‘They Alone Know the Right Way to Live’: The Early Church and Evangelism,” in Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future, ed. Mark Husbands and Jeffrey P. Greenman (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 175.
- “The Spiritual Dimension of the War in Ukraine: Father Deacon Andrew Bennett in Conversation with Archbishop-Metropolitan Borys Gudziak,” Comment, https://comment.org/the-spiritual-dimension-of-the-war-in-ukraine/. (Comment is one of the core publications of Cardus, a think tank devoted to renewing North American social architecture, rooted in two thousand years of Christian social thought.)
- Thomas F. Best and Dagmar Heller, ed., Becoming a Christian: The Ecumenical Implications of Our Common Baptism, Faith and Order Paper No. 184 (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1999), 90.