This past weekend, we all put on our Sunday best and landed in the front pew at church. It was time to baptize our Littlest. We worship as Episcopalians, and I am desperately in love with the liturgy of baptism in this community. We welcome God’s smallest into this great big family of sinners, forgiven and and finding grace together. We each are invited to revisit our own baptism, affirm for each other again how our lives have been claimed. There is a lyrical narrative about this holy water. The priest blesses these babes, and then with a bit of holy oil, crosses their foreheads – sealed by the Holy Spirit, marked as Christ’s own forever. Forever. Nothing this child can do can change that.
So here we are, spit shined and squeaky clean, doing our best to do our best, in the front pew. The Littlest looks like a little man in his proper corduroy pants and button down shirt. But he keeps ripping his socks off and chewing on them, and then he tires of sitting in the stroller, protesting loudly with his growing number of sounds. The Middlest has climbed in and out and around every pew and kneeler, commando crawled her way through every pocket book and cup of coffee obstacle on the floor. The Eldest, first enthralled with the music, has decided that he’s bored now and can’t understand why Daddy won’t play a game with him. And that’s the thing about doing your best, right? It’s all you’ve got, and somehow it needs to be enough. Let me tell you, the front pew is not the right place for us, folks.
We’re called up front for the baptism part of the service, not a moment too soon. Though once in front of the crowd it becomes clear that maybe we’re not right to be up here, either. Maybe, next time, we’ll just arrange a private thing in the bath tub, eh? Because now the Littlest will not be still and is just about doing back flips trying to escape my grasp. His protests are getting more extreme, and eventually I can think of nothing else but putting him down. On the ground. Where he is desperate to explore.
So I do. I put him on the ground, kneel down with him, hold the brass pitcher of water to keep it from tipping over as he pulls himself up to it, checks out his reflection. He taps it, smiles at the deep echo. He crawls over to the font itself, begins to climb up the steps. All the while, I’m following him around, kneeling on the floor of the church, murmuring the bits of call and response that I can remember, priest beside us, godparents surrounding us, family and a whole big congregation looking on. I wear an apologetic smile.
Eventually, we get up off the floor, the Littlest and I, when it is time for the water. I brush the dust off my legs, and hand my babe over to the priest. The kids are mesmerized when the priest poured the water into the font. The priest scoops handfuls of water onto the Littlest’s forehead. Water runs down his eyebrows, follows the bridge of his nose. The priest drags his fingers in that space between his eyes and his hair, writing the promise of grace into his life. I am mesmerized by the magic of spirit and words, by ritual and poetry. The symbolic becomes tangible. We pray these words: “Give him an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” And all I can do is offer up my loudest Amen.
By the end, I think we were spread over three pews, and had left a trail of crayons and cheerios in our wake. I doubt that any of the pictures will have us all looking at the camera. I hardly even remembered to take a picture. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t graceful, but it was full of grace. Afterwards, we gathered with family and friends, to break bread, to laugh at the ordeal of it all, to rejoice in the mess of it all.
And that’s when a friend spoke into my heart: “Blessed is the mama who gets down on her knees to crawl around the floor with her little one,” she said. She said this as I was, in my usual way, trying to make light of our embarrassing display. I think what she meant was that in God’s eyes, this is the path to glory – this dusty position of prostration, of work and heart and honesty. It is setting aside expectations to embrace this dynamic life, and being able to give what is needed within each moment. That though I may have wrinkled my outfit, and that the happy squeals of the Littlest competed with the rhythm of the liturgy, I was doing the work of mothering, which never stops, not even for a priestly blessing. I was so caught up in the ways that we had made a spectacle of ourselves, crumpling up any church protocol and throwing it out the window that I had failed to see how my family, each of us doing our best to do our best, was there at the altar, at the place of grace. That in letting the Littlest down and crawl around instead of scolding him to be still in my arms, I was offering him just as he is, not as he should be. My family is real – not some prescription to fit a churchy image in my head. My Jesus is real, too.
So when the Littlest naps straight through his own party, so when the Eldest throws a fit because he’s not the center of attention, so that when the Middlest can’t.stop.moving.her.mouth because she hasn’t had a nap and is bit manic, and when we all have scrambled eggs for dinner – this all is real, too. And I know that God is there. And this, too, is full of grace. And I’m on my knees crawling hard after these babes of mine, chasing them around the altar of the One who made it all, who knows this mess better than I, and makes it all beautiful.
Though I doubt we’ll take the front pew again any time soon.