Faith Works 5-7-11
Among the Bits and Pieces in the Stairwell
When you sit up in the front of a church, whether behind the pulpit or the communion table or wherever, you find that there's always . . . stuff.
Matches or lighters for candles, stray bulletin inserts and cards from stewardship campaigns years ago, tissues new and used.
No matter how neat and tidy and tucked away the sanctuary space is, the view from behind is usually a bit more pragmatic, practical, functional.
You see the cords for the sound system, the half-full box of candles, the other set of vases, maybe a case for the altar cloths in seasonal colors.
In the same way, when you duck through the doors opening into the chancel or worship center or the platform, however you call the front of your church, you go from a well-appointed, clean and orderly world, into what theatre folk just call "backstage."
Backstage has old props and sets and costumes, and in the vestry or sacristy or baptismal space of a church, it's much the same.
You walk more carefully, as parts of the sanctuary furnishings lean against the walls, rolls from nave runners, spears from Roman soldier outfits in the Easter pageant all lean against the narrowly spaced walls. There are generally crosses, various sizes, suitable for your life or mine, a large Jesus or a youthful one with a glued on beard, and they make an interesting arrangement in their corner, one you try not to bump into.
There are often restrooms, or "a" restroom, but those usually have an old wardrobe or hand-built closet filled with costumes for Mary and Joseph and Kings from the east. You can find rocks from a garden scene in a box, next to a large stone made from chicken wire and papier mache, painted grey.
In the tradition my wife and I grew up in, there's also always a pair or two of fishing waders. Some clergy would step, suit and socks, right into such a rig to baptize a new convert right off, which believer's baptism by immersion would call for. You also find a few baptismal gowns of various sizes, all white, symbolizing the spiritual intent of the act, washing the new Christian's sins away in the waters of life.
Myself, as a minister, I've not baptized as many as I've buried, an all too common situation and something I'm not pleased about, but there it is. Many of us clergy in the Midwest have walked along leading a casket to its place in the earth, on more occasions than we can count (well over 200), but are all too sure how many people we've baptized. (About 42.)
What makes each occasion even more memorable for me is that my ridiculously large feet (size 15) means that I've never even tried waders. I just put on swim trunks and an old white shirt like the candidate for baptism wears, and over that a retired black preaching robe with weights sewn into the hem so it doesn't poof up around my waist. The robe sinks down as I walk down, barefoot, into the baptistery to offer the blessing prayer and scripture reading from Matthew 28: 18-20, our warrant for baptism from Jesus himself.
The trick usually is to complete the baptism, then rush past the newly baptized person (or persons; one Easter I got to baptize eight people at the start of the service, a truly wonderful day); they're usually still rubbing the water out of their eyes and drying their hair in the hall by the time I come back out. If I dry off and change fast, I can get back out before the opening hymn is finished. Done it a million times . . . or at least a few dozen.
It wasn't that fast last Sunday. There at Central Christian Church on Mt. Vernon Road in Newark, at the start of the 8:30 service, I waded into the baptistery, faced the smiling congregation, offered the usual words to begin, then turned to the door at the top of the steps and held out my hand as I always do, to help the candidate walk down the steps into the water.
This time, my son took my hand, and stepped into the water with me. And I baptized him, "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
And they had to sing two hymns before I made it back up into the sanctuary from backstage, but no one seemed to mind.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he had a good weekend last week. Tell him about your good news at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.