Toddlerhood. I think it is the most magical time of childhood. I use the word “magical” quite intentionally. For figuratively speaking, magic can result in amazement and wonder, laughter and joy, or wholesale destruction, all at a moment’s notice and with nary a hint of warning.
Toddlers, fueled by wellsprings of energy have the wide-eyed curiosity of a thousand cats, empowered for the first time by upright mobility, the beginnings of fine-motor dexterity, language and their first inkling of independence. They’re unpredictable, moody, perpetually playful, and offer us adults the gift of re-experiencing the world with fresh wonder. (I’ve often said that toddlers and teenagers are strikingly similar, but that’s a subject for another post.)
So imagine centering a toddler within the sacramental rite of baptism. Baptism is an orderly, highly scripted, predictable ritual. For babies, youth and adults- no problem. For toddlers? Well…
When some parents from my church approached me with a bit of cautious trepidation about baptizing their almost two-year-old son Graham, I told them, “You know, we’ll make it all work somehow.” Inwardly, however, I was nervously wondering how adaptable and flexible the parents, congregation and the ritual would be to the temperament of a toddler. That was the big question.
Yesterday, Sunday morning, came, and the parents arrived with their son Graham, their pre-school daughter (who was insistent that her little brother should not be getting wet for this whole baptism thing), and a whole gaggle of family and friends. Graham was the epitome of cuteness- a white dress shirt, tan-colored vest and slacks, a tie and black shoes. He seemed to know something big was afoot, so he was extra primed with nervous, curious energy, toddler-style, of course.
I’m not always the most conscientious pre-planner, but something told me to make a few strategic adjustments. So first I switched out the cold, room temperature water in the baptismal font with warm tap water. Granted, that wouldn’t make Graham’s big sister any happier, but perhaps warm water would soothe his nerves a bit more. And then I gave Graham’s parents the baptism certificate before the service began. That way, if a quick getaway was needed after the baptism ritual, his parents wouldn’t leave empty-handed.
Well, the moment we had all anticipated arrived. Right on cue, as soon as we had gotten underway with the baptism ritual, the game of “Pass the Fidgety Child” commenced between the boy’s mom and dad. That game quickly lost its charm, and then Graham’s impatient chattering and complaining ramped up, quickly accelerating towards a 5-alarm nuclear meltdown.
Now I’m pretty calm in a storm, and that includes being in the presence of crying or screaming children. In a worship setting, I just carry on as if nothing is happening, trusting that the child and parents will work things out. My operational value in all this is let children with families be themselves. But when Graham’s protests were clearly distressing his parents while my congregation stirred with uneasy laughter, clearly it was time for a tactical change on my part.
My paternal instincts kicked in, and in a split moment I asked myself, “What would Pope Francis do?” He’s an amazing example of allowing children to be children, and in unprecedented and impromptu moments of grace, he unflinchingly finds ways for children to be included in his leadership of highly ritualistic Roman Catholic liturgy. So, in Pope Francis style, I improvised.
I found myself stepping closer to the father who by then had broken out into a visible sweat and was hoisting his son at the waist in one arm. Graham was facing out kicking and protesting. I showed Graham my hymnal and the words of the liturgy I was reading, and instantly, he stopped fussing, followed my finger in the text and went back and forth between looking at me and looking at the words of his own baptism liturgy.
I then adjusted my voice a bit from my normal boomy “this is the Word of the Lord” public speaking voice to a quieter, side-by-side reading inflection. I’m sure he had no idea what I was talking about (or maybe he understood more than I give him credit for, especially the all important non-verbal stuff of communication.) At any rate, for the first time in that service, I think Graham felt included in what was going on, and during the next several minutes of liturgy, he was as well-behaved as any watching adult.
It’s ironic. This was the church’s and his rite of baptism, and yet we were about to unwittingly leave this highly aware toddler completely unengaged in it. Why shouldn’t things be such that a child like Graham could fully involve himself and have his own sense of ownership of this tremendous gift of God’s grace that he was being given?
Then the time came for the administration of the water. By then, it seems I wasn’t a threat, so Graham came willingly into my arms and enjoyed the gift of his baptismal waters. It was truly one of those authentic, natural moments of grace for Graham, his family and his new congregation of brothers and sisters in Christ.
While I suppose there are many lessons to be learned from an instance like this, one stands out for me. Be fully present in the moment. Being fully present allows for maximum connection with those around us and the greatest opportunity within our connection for God to show up and do things that clearly demonstrate God’s power, God’s grace, and God’s amazing love. And yes, as we all learned, that can even include a toddler.