You remember the day we almost died on the river?
Before then, we’d been such strong, proud swimmers,
guardians of life in the water even. None of this mattered
when I got caught under the upturned boat,
you in the tangle of a fallen tree downstream.
That day I learned we were baptized too young,
on the day when the pastor filled up a clean, tiled box
with clean, warm water, dipping us like babies in God’s bathtub,
and everyone applauded after we held our breaths
for all of two seconds, the day we left the sanctuary
with formal certificates of salvation in our hands.
No one told us though the most important part: the word
baptism shares its home with shipwrecks and drownings,
water burials and, inside of those words,
all words none of us want to learn
much less teach our children.
No one taught me baptism is not safe and cannot be otherwise
and that when I said Yes to Jesus
I would one day also need to tell him No
because the river of life flows in both directions
and always refuses a handler.
(I hope you will understand me now when I say
my first baptism didn’t stick.)
Baptized a hundred times since, mostly by my own hand,
I live that one day on the river — do you? — over and again,
every holy name I say washed from my mouth,
every handhold dissolved into mud as I reach for it.
Now the water lays me flat
like a wet leaf over half-submerged rock.
Lungs trembling with snowmelt and mossfleck,
I choke until I breathe again.
This is what I know of baptism.
Heather Isaacs is a hospice chaplain who lives and works in the East Bay.
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