It was 2004, and we rested in the home’s shady courtyard, as grateful to escape the hot sun of Kaffrine, Senegal as we were to worship the God whom we had spent days serving in medical huts. We sat on the ground, sang songs in several languages, and witnessed something incredibly rare among the Wolof people.
“To be Wolof is to be Muslim,” a proverb states. Islam is so central to the group identity of the Wolof that there is, essentially, no separation; more than 98.5 percent of Wolof are Muslim. As in many cultures around the world, individuality is still less important to one’s identity than is group membership; to convert is to renounce not only faith but also relationship, to cut oneself off from community and family and even the basic cooperation of livelihood and chores. “I can’t change my roof alone,” one closeted believer once told our missionary friends there. To declare oneself a Christian carries a very real cost where we were.
And yet, there she was. A woman who’d been taught about Jesus, who’d come to believe that His words were true and that He was truly God, who’d chosen to change her life and her heart to follow her conscience, was standing in a small cistern in the yard of this house church, publicly declaring her faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and in Jesus as the only path to Heaven. She did so knowing the cost she faced and the reward she gained.
I was baptized as an infant. I faced no dilemma, no trouble, no risks. My parents, married from different denominations, had actually faced some trouble to get me baptized, but neither was fired, arrested, or beaten. My baptism was a sign of my parents’ hope and intentions, not of my belief, which (nurtured by their guidance and the work of the Holy Spirit) came later.
As my faith grew and my understanding of God’s word developed, I felt Him pulling me toward demonstrating that faith publicly through baptism. Having been baptized as an infant, though, I hesitated; theologians debate whether people can or should be re-baptized and what exactly baptism does for believers as individuals and as communities.
But a Christian should always follow Jesus, and He included baptism in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20): “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’” In His instructions, baptism follows the making of disciples, follows a person coming to personal faith. Repeatedly in the Book of Acts (2:41, 8:12, and 10:44-48), baptism follows belief.
I believed, so I should be baptized. For a time, I tried to focus on how I wanted to be baptized, how it would be most meaningful to me. I thought for a long time that I would like to hike with my pastor along the creek that meant so much to me in my youth and be baptized in the waterfall where I proposed to Tracy. But I also came to realize that I had it backward, and that I should focus on what God wanted rather than what I thought I’d like. Hearing the sermon and testimonies at our church’s baptism service last year convinced me that it should be public and that I should stop holding back.
Just over a week ago, I was baptized as an adult. I still faced no dilemma, no trouble, no risks, but it was my choice, my hope, my belief. As a friend read my brief testimony, I walked up the steps and down into the water, greeted my pastor, and went all in for God. The water washed over me and supported me; a moment of resting in weightless peace, and then an emergence to bear witness to it and the God who provides it eternally.
Just like our daughter Karen had done moments earlier. By choice and belief.
Tracy and Billy took turns running our video camera. At the end, you can almost see me sneaking up behind our pastor and gently scooping some water onto his head.
“Been Through the Water” by Kyle Matthews
This song was popular many years ago but has been on my mind lately. I’ve always loved how it emphasizes that baptism shouldn’t be considered a mere ceremony but instead a marker and reminder of a conviction to live differently. I especially like this video of the song for the diversity of the people and settings for the baptisms pictured here.