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Sam’s Baptismal Gown

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. Galatians 3:27

Sam's baptism

Last Sunday, my son wore the same gown that I wore over thirty years ago when baptized in a Moravian church in Canada. My Southern Baptist grandmother, whom I call Gran, fashioned this article of clothing for me way back then. Though she is too weak to travel across state lines, she was nonetheless with us in a tangible way for her great-grandson’s baptism. This gown embodies a sacred tradition that, like a thread, binds us together across denominations and countries, even time.

A robust theology of baptism, however, includes not only those images we finding comforting, but also those which challenge us. While we dress a child, it is God who is ultimately fashioning us, shaping and molding us into the image of Christ. In our baptism, God is transforming us. Sounds great . . . until we realize that is means we have to come to terms with a very loaded and often scary word: change.

While denominations have different theologies concerning infant baptism, I submit that dealing with change is our common challenge. Like Hannah, we seek God’s peace that passes understanding through difficult and confusing times. Sadly we more often act like Peninnah, like rivals, like the other person somehow threatens us and our security. In the words of the old folk song, “the water is wide, we can’t cross over.” By wide, I refer to the distance between the liberal verses conservative, progressive verses traditional, the “old way” or the “new way.”

So the question becomes, how do we cross over together? How can baptism unify us as those being fashioned by God, those clothed with Christ?

Several months ago in Raleigh, we slipped Sam in my old gown and discovered that he was already too big! Specifically the collar and the sleeves needed to be larger to accommodate his – ahem, robust physique . . . his multiple chins and arm rolls! Over the course of her life, my mother had learned a great deal about sewing from her mother, my Gran. She could have widened the gown herself. Nevertheless Mom requested the help of a more seasoned seamstress, a woman at Raleigh Moravian who watched faithfully over the years as I outgrew many clothes. With a partnership of attentive and loving eyes, these mothers noticed intricate details of a grandmother’s work, how she delicately sewed the sleeves by hand, doubling back over the stitches to create a beautiful pattern. They were able to keep my grandmother’s artistic touch, honoring her work while at the same time widening the gown to fit my son.

This awareness has caused me to reflect anew on the word, wide. Yes, the water is wide; but might that mean something else beside division? Might wideness even bring hope for peace? In Hebrew, the word, salvation, literally means “to make wide.”[1] True, my Mom and her friend widened the gown; but neither she nor anyone else “saves” Sam or any person baptized regardless of the age. Salvation is something that God alone can do. Infant baptism, in particular, testifies that our relationship to God is solely by grace. A very young child baptized before a congregation invites the self-awareness that we are all truly like infants–unable to care for ourselves and totally reliant upon the love of one stronger and wiser.

Yet God’s grace is at work through humans. In baptism, we can claim the ancient faith for every boy named Samuel, every Hannah, every Peninnah, and all those children, young and old, who are heirs to the promise. Like alterations to a baptismal gown, we work together with what has been passed down to us, widening the gift so that more people can be included. This is the vision of Paul: all of you are one in Christ Jesus. In other words, our baptism is wide enough to fit us all.


[1] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, 20

About Andrew Taylor-Troutman

I am a pastor and a preacher, a writer, a husband and a father. My professional and personal lives are deeply involved with story-telling: stories that are silly and poignant or profound and commonplace. Stories that are tear-jerkers and belly-shakers. Stories about my son, Sam, and the congregation I serve, New Dublin Presbyterian Church. Each in its own way, these personal narratives shed light on the great story that God is writing with humankind and all of creation.

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