With the premiere of the movie What if
and its theme of regret at past decisions and the chance of spiritual “do-overs,” I’ve been thinking a lot about my own choices and their unexpected consequences. As long as the list is of decisions that I would change given the opportunity, there seems to be an equally long list of decisions for which I can take no credit that ultimately turned out to be gloriously “right.”
I stood at the counter of a gift shop in Yardinet, paralyzed–supremely conscious of the lateness of the hour, the massive press of impatient people behind me, and the importance of the decision. Was it worth the 40 shekels (about $10 US) they were asking? Would I ever have this chance again?
Karen recognized my stricken look. Even Karl, our secular Jewish guide, encouraged me with his signature brand of pragmatism, “Do it! It’s not like she’s offering you a place in the Hamptons.” So I stepped forward and laid my money on the counter to rent one of the white cotton robes required to be baptized in the Jordan.
The instructions of Christ are clear–repent and be baptized–but in my life, things are not always so black and white. As an avowed enemy of the cross my freshman year in college, God saw fit to inflict me on two of His followers. All these years later, we still laugh and marvel at His ways.
Throughout our freshmen year as roommates, Cissie dated a guy from a denomination that was REALLY big on baptism. His words had such an effect on me that it was almost a year and a half after I surrendered my life to Christ that I was confident it had been obedience that propelled me and not solely my desire for “fire insurance.” I was baptized in a tub in North Carolina in a strangely moving and precious ceremony witnessed by as many of my friends as could squeeze in between the toilet and the counter. After the sheer elegance of that event, you might be asking–Why would you even be tempted to be baptized again?
It’s one of the first things people said when they heard that I was going to Israel–How exciting to be baptized in the Jordan! To be honest, I didn’t think I would be. I’m not one for mass events or for doing something just because everyone else is doing it. My decision was reinforced when I heard the poignant stories of the others in our group who were being baptized. I had settled on being a dry but heartfelt celebrant from the sidelines.
But I was in Israel standing on the banks of the Jordan, which was the scene of one of the most extraordinary events in the universe as Jesus presented Himself to his cousin John to be baptized. Who knew if this opportunity would come again? Was I so enamored by my theological “correctness” that my pride threatened my obedience?
Few who know me well will be surprised to read that it was the voice of Mac Powell of the group Third Day that formed the soundtrack to my thoughts
Give me a revelation. Show me what to do because I’ve been trying to find my way–
I haven’t got a clue. Tell me should I stay here or do I need to move? Give me a revelation–I’ve got nothing without you.
Ultimately I was convinced by a single question –Which would I regret more, being baptized or missing this opportunity? I quietly pushed past the cold metal arms of the turnstile into the locker room clutching my bag with the rental robe. I laid my belongings on a bench–over thirty women in various stages of the process chattered excitedly in a variety of tongues or moved silently and reflectively through the motions of dressing or undressing.
The sun had already set as I joined my group on one of the concrete piers that served as our baptismal launching pad. With the deeper spiritual and emotional decision made, now my resolve was threatened by the mundane details. Were there really catfish? Would the lack of rain and the drop in the height of the water make submerging impossible so that the whole symbolism would be lost? I had this awful mental image of having to flip over on my belly like a gasping goldfish in order to even approximate the requisite “dunk.”
Then there was the most pressing issue–Who would baptize me? I’m not sure how I had envisioned it, men of the cloth stationed every 25 feet waiting for the next postulant to be dunked? A computer program that would match me with someone from my own “flavor” of Christianity? Or an opportunity to grab someone from the group in a fulfillment of the thought “we’re all priests” under the new covenant? Whatever my preconceived notions, this appeared to be the ultimate DIY.
So I’m finally standing on the shore of the Jordan about to experience a life-changing spiritual act of renewal and all I can think is–What if no one is willing to baptize me and I am left standing here, unchosen and alone?”
As I joined the group in clapping as another of our team rose out of the water, I caught the eyes of Steve, one of the pastors from our group, and silently mouthed the words, “Will you baptize me?” His quick nod of assent seemingly without hesitation freed me from my self-absorption and I began to ask God what He wanted to tell me.
It wasn’t even a minute before Sandi touched my arm and asked if she could share a verse before I went under. Sandi is the kind of woman I want to be when I grow up–a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, a genuine student of the Word of God, and the kind of woman who spends her 25th wedding anniversary at Ephesus researching the early church. Grateful that she was willing to add her blessing, we agreed that I would signal her once I had entered the water. After some jostling, it was my turn and I stepped into the knee-high dark water and waded over to where Steve stood.
Words cannot express the depth of my knee-weakening gratitude when he didn’t interrogate me but simply asked, “Anitra, are you ready?” I motioned to Sandi and she began to recite from memory
But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep.
Barbara was not just my boss but also one of my closest friends and confidants. Vertigo, financial stress, a prodigal son, and a difficult mother were all just material for the novel she would eventually write of her life. When she died from an opportunistic infection after her breast cancer diagnosis, I was stunned. I received word in Ghana that she had died, and I was convinced that there was little or no redeeming value to my sitting in the middle of a dirt road and wailing as I threw dirt on my head.
So I pushed down the waves of my grief and completed the humanitarian tour. Her celebration of life was the day after I returned to Florida. Two days later, I came back to work to discover that I had missed my department’s communal progression through the stages of grief. I tucked away my sorrow, agreed to move into her office for the sake of expediency, and resumed life as though my heart had not been torn asunder.
Three weeks later, I stood shivering in the Jordan as Sandi’s voice rose to a crescendo
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.
As the awesome glory of her words faded into the darkness, Steve gripped my shoulder and asked, “Anitra, who do you proclaim as Lord?” I managed to force the name past the boulder in my throat, “Jesus Christ.” In a heartbeat, I was rising up, no longer imprisoned by rage, disbelief, fear, or death.
So was I, like hundreds of thousands before me, baptized on the banks of the Jordan? You bet!
Anitra can be reached at [email protected]