Saturday, December 29, 2012

My Big Toe

28 years ago this November I was baptized in the church building I had grown up attending. We had moved from the town in southeast Missouri where that building stood, but just 6 months after the move my family and I drove down from St. Louis just for this occasion. I was to be baptized in the church where my grandparents still attended, and where a couple hundred other people attended who had been my church family til I was almost 11.

This event was prearranged by my family. A family friend who was leading the singing for the worship service in which I would be baptized called us the day before to see if I had a request for the invitation song. I didn't. He was also the same man who led singing at my dad's funeral some 22 years later. As was the custom, at the end of the worship service the next day I walked to the front of the auditorium when the invitation song began. This is what one did if baptism or confession was needed. Another woman "came forward" as well. She had mental retardation and was prone to coming forward every few weeks to ask for the prayers of the church for some particular or not so particular sin. I was irritated by this imposition on my limelight, though I felt guilty as well for being so selfish and self-possessed. Though my dad was not the minister, he was the one to baptize me. It isn't uncommon in my denomination for fathers to baptize their children.

I sadly don't remember what my dad said while we stood in the baptismal font. Of course I gave my confession that I believed Jesus to be the son of God. I'm sure that my dad baptized me in the name of the Son, the Father, and the Holy Ghost, for the remission of my sins. However, what really stands out is that, as I was being immersed in the water by my dad, I felt as though my legs rose above my head, causing my toe to emerge from the water. This is a minor occurrence in a rich and meaningful event. However, what was primarily meaningful to me was the fact that my toe seemed to rise from the water, causing me concern that I was not fully immersed. In my denomination, much is made of the fact that the Greek term "baptizo" transliterated baptize means "to immerse." It was stressed in  Bible class and sermons that it was of eternal significance that my entire body be covered with water for a singular moment in time for me to be immersed, thus allowing me entrance into heaven, thereby saving me from the flames of hell. Though these worries were momentarily suppressed by the long line of hugs I received following my baptism that morning, it wasn't too long before that worry crept into my thoughts. What if I was never fully immersed? What if God doesn't consider me baptized? What if I'm going to hell? I remember asking my dad on more than one occasion if I was fully immersed. He assured me I was. However, I could never fully put the worry to rest. Even well into adulthood it lingered, an embarrassment, like an unflattering family story that relatives like to rehash. What actually put an end to my obsession over whether I was fully immersed or whether I should be rebaptized was the realization that I wasn't sure I believed the tenets of Christianity that would give me reason to be baptized in the first place.

If you're thinking that to be preoccupied by my big toe for the better part of 20 years indicates a strangely obsessive style of thought, you'd be correct. Most people would have either not noticed the sensation of their toe rising out of the water, or would have been easily assuaged by their father's reassurance that they were, in fact, submerged during their baptism. And most 10-year-olds would have given little thought at all to the particulars of baptism. In my defense, consequences of eternal magnitude were at stake. And I was brought up in a denomination that made a great big deal about the particulars of baptism and the consequences of ignoring these particulars.  Unfortunately, something about me made these conditions much more challenging. I was developing obsessive-compulsive symptoms that served the function of helping me feel safe and in control. And a place in my life where I felt unsafe and out of control was my eternal fate. As I grew older, I felt almost as terrified about the fate of others as I did about my own. And this terror was intensified by the realization that according to my denomination, almost every person who ever lived was going to hell. Eventually, this burden broke the neurotic girl's back, giving way at long last to a faith crisis. Though several years now I've spent studying and coming to very different conclusions about my beliefs, I have felt somewhat stuck in my current position, neither free to throw off religion altogether, or to develop a different faith of sorts, one that doesn't have such a miserably worrisome start point. I've been held fast, I believe, by the burdens of my past.  Subsequent posts will share my recent efforts in therapy to release this burden.