By Robin Jones
A couple of Sundays ago at St. Paul’s we baptized three kids—the narthex did somewhat resemble the YMCA pool for a few minutes. Mother Melissa’s sermon centered that day around a discussion she had had with various members of the parish about whether baptismal water should be warm or cold. Now, be assured, at St. Paul’s it’s always going to be warm, for all kinds of good reasons, but among the notions that came from those discussions and which found its way into the text of the homily was that of the water being warm as evoking the waters of the womb, or the warmth of the baptismal water representing the gentle caress of God, for just a couple of examples.
I think I was in on one of those vesting room conversations, and those in the parish who are acquainted with me know that I spent many chapters of my life as “Satan’s Cabana Boy,” so it came easy for me to play Devil’s Advocate and suggest the water be cold, because, as I put it, “the person baptized needs to be reminded that ‘life at sea can be hazardous.’” Well, naturally, that smart-alecky seeming non sequitur didn’t get replayed in the sermon, but I stand by what I said.
I don’t remember my first baptism, but I remember my second: I was on a Navy cruiser bound for Australia as I approached my 22nd birthday. I remember bloodying my knees on the hot main deck to have a mop-headed King Neptune order cold seawater poured over me, declaring in a round-toned alcohol-sodden gravel that I was no longer a “’wog” but a Son of Neptune. Most of humanity still resides in the northern hemisphere, and there is still, even in the 20th and 21st centuries, a mystique to crossing the Equator. Young sailors are always patently aware of the mass of ocean surrounding them that diminishes the proportion of the floating arks on which they live and labor, and the ever-present immediacies of drowning and dehydration, sharks and tsunamis make them cling to such life rafts of camaraderie and tradition as ceremonies of crossing really an imaginary line around the waist of a planet, lonely for its uniqueness in precipitating enough water to harbor life. Life at sea can be hazardous, and there is safety in being part of a crew.
I won’t tell you the sea story of how I returned to the Church after an extended odyssey of self-exile, because when I do, people seem to no longer suffer insomnia, but I will tell you that I when I made the decision to do so, it wasn’t the proverbial lifting of a weight off my shoulders. Nooo, I know exactly why I came back—but the reason is utterly illogical because I at that moment had for so long worn my loneliness, cynicism, and profane rascally-ness like comfortable sneakers, and coming back to the church meant that I was scrawling my signature to all the attendant responsibilities of feeling, and caring for other people. It was more like shouldering my end of a massive canoe for a long portage. And over these last ten years, when I have winced at the sense of my heart about to explode for that feeling of belonging that comes definitely with every Christmas Eve and Easter, and when I think about it, every day; when I have stepped solemnly in funerals and said good by to souls cast to eternity, people whose lives I would neither have intersected with nor given a second thought to had I not returned to the Church, and for whose loss I may feel so alone again, I do sometimes find myself leaning at the rail and looking longingly over the horizon for that desert island of cynical self-containment.
But I’m a member of the crew nowadays, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. To the three pollywogs last week I say “Welcome aboard.” Welcome to the crew. Welcome to being a Human Being. And remember, life at sea can be hazardous.
Robin Jones is an altar server at St. Paul’s.