“No, the state bird of North Dakota is the Western Meadowlark; the state bird of North Carolina is the cardinal.” He corrected me, mercifully assuming that I must have gotten confused about my states—more than one of which begins with “north,” after all. Since his family moved to Texas, Martin’s interests have expanded to hiking, kayaking, Legos, and OK Go, a musical group that produces hilarious music videos for the internet. It might be because he lives halfway across the country, but I can’t keep up with all the things he’s into now, which seems about right when you consider that I’m a 41-year-old man talking about a 10-year-old boy.
When Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship formed in 2004, Martin was the first child dedicated in the congregation. I held him during the service of dedication, and, as I walked him around the aisles of the sanctuary, members welcomed him, laid hands on him, prayed over him, and tickled him. It was a sharp and breathtaking moment in my life, in the life of our congregation, in his parents’ lives, and, I hope, in Martin’s life too. Memory, after all, isn’t merely conscious recollection; it’s the way the past lives in us now, shaping us in ways infinitely greater than we can ask or imagine.
Sometime last year, Martin’s mother contacted a couple of her friends, including me, and posed this (true) scenario: Martin has a pen pal, a man named John, who’s in prison. John, while in prison, has become a Christian and is being baptized. Martin said to his parents, “I want to be baptized, too, so that I can be like John.”
“What do you think we should do?,” his mom asked. I couldn’t think of any better reason for baptism than wanting to do things with other Christians, who, as members of Christ’s body, are the way that Christ is present with you. The “doing with” is crucial: baptism is one activity that demonstrates exactly what Christians share, namely the death and resurrection of Christ. But, baptism does more than forge common bonds among Christians who otherwise might not know each other; it builds bridges in broken lives, connecting what is injured and chaotic in each of us to the power of God in Christ through other members of God’s family.
As a healing, justifying, or sanctifying force in human lives, Christian baptism is not magical: it is intensely social. Indeed, among their other complaints about infant baptism, the early Anabaptists were uncharacteristically united in rejecting interpretations of baptism that depended on an objective healing action of God connected to the administration of water that minimized the participation of the human being in the sacrament. So, we might say: Christian baptism is not God dunking or pouring water on people, splashing, sprinkling, or dabbing them with moist towelettes and then saying, “Aha! You’re clean. Now you can go to heaven.” Christian baptism is much more like the mark of being in relationships with other people that transform us into more fully human versions of ourselves.
I hope that in reading the paragraphs above you see the life of a boy. I hope, too, that you realize how many more stories there are that even I, a person on the edges of Martin’s life, could tell you.
Yet, Martin is also on the autism spectrum. And, it chafes to tell you that, as if the only reason to write this piece of Martin’s story is that special, atypical fact, or as if my relationship with him is the token of credibility that legitimates my views, or as if his diagnosis mars his otherwise intact humanity. That said, his mother’s question has been marvelously clarifying for me: Martin may never name his baptism in ways that mimic the “right” responses from the Minister’s Manual, but he’s been made who he is today by living his whole life within relationships of friendship with the baptized.
I’d like to call that “the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out” on him and treat his request to be baptized with the joy it deserves.
Alex Sider is Associate Professor of Religion at Bluffton University.