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Essay

Grandma’s Baptism

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“I’m going to baptize my grandkids this summer!”

These were the words of an Elder in my congregation, a grandmother, as she headed out for some vacation with her daughter and grandchildren in a faraway state.

We’d had several conversations about this before she left. She “knew” all the correct answers. Baptism didn’t change God’s awareness of or orientation toward her two little darlings. God loved them regardless, before and after baptism.

We talked about the importance of parental participation and church support for baptism to come to fruition in faith. Our grandma Elder’s daughter, the children’s mother, wasn’t active in any church. Really she wouldn’t identify as a Christian, but like everyone else her age she was “spiritual.”

In fact, grandma Elder wasn’t sure that she would tell her daughter about the baptisms until after the fact, after the deed was done, if at all. As they say, easier to ask forgiveness than permission. Grandma Elder wasn’t even sure what she would say to her little grandchildren. Would she explain it to them or ask them if they “want to do this really cool thing together?” Or might she surreptitiously baptize them in the bath one night, or maybe with the garden hose as they horsed around on a hot afternoon?

My Elder knew that baptism was not a shield of safety, an eternal life insurance policy, a guarantee that no harm would ever come to her grandchildren. While she “knew” this, I wondered if this wasn’t the kernel of her need to baptize those kids.

As we talked, it was clear that she wanted her grandchildren to be marked as God’s own. She wanted God’s promises to cover them, for her cherished little ones to be blessed and lifted before the Lord. Perhaps in a way not really articulated, she deeply desired to nudge her little grandkids down a path that might, she prayed, grow and deepen in amazingly unforeseeable ways in the years ahead. It was apparent to me that all my “good theology” as well as her awareness of it, was not going to stop her.

My college students are always caught a little off guard by my grading. I’m an easy going and supportive professor, so they typically assume I will be an easy grader. Likewise, I think people are often a bit surprised that I am sort of a stickler about baptisms, wanting them done with integrity and according to our Reformed understanding. Over the years I’ve learned that one giant red-flag is when grandparents, rather than parents, make the initial contact about a possible baptism. Sentimental and family reasons don’t sway me much either. Long ago, when fellow-Twelver, Jim Schaap, was not yet a friend, but was to me only the biggest celebrity in Sioux Center Iowa, his story “Deception Pass” influenced and confirmed my thinking about baptism. I commend it to you. If grandma Elder had asked me to perform the baptisms or to have them in our congregation, I could have quite easily said, “no.”

My conversations with grandma Elder were always pleasant and open, playful and understanding. It is easy without context, without relationships, to dismiss her desire as misled, flawed, maybe even superstitious. I saw no good purpose in chastising her or thinking my disapproval would stop her. Honestly, in spite of my own “correct theology,” I didn’t really know if I did disapprove. I was captivated by her love, her drive, her yearning for those little children to be baptized in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

A good story needs a good ending and I don’t have one. My Elder never reported on what she did, how she did it, or how it was received. I didn’t ask. Maybe I don’t really want to know. Maybe it isn’t my business. The Holy Spirit and grandma Elder are the ones who will have to do the heavy lifting now.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

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