Monday, September 12, 2016

Listening for God Underwater

My dread of baptism began one summer afternoon with my dad trying to teach me to swim at Blue Springs. I made steady progress until it came to actually putting my head under water.

At that point, I had to simultaneously keep from drowning and remember what to do with my arms and legs. Personally, I felt the first task deserved all my attention. My dad soon tired of my aquaphobia and he let me and everyone else at Blue Springs hear about it.

Blowing nice cool spring water out my nose and trying to hide from amused onlookers, I vowed to myself that if I were lucky enough to leave the Springs alive, I would never come back to them, nor would I ever put myself into a body of water any deeper than a bathtub.

So just hours after getting the guts to publicly accept Jesus as my personal savior, I began to fear the Baptist church's customary dunking. My nightly bedtime prayers always included a request to wake up in the morning a Methodist. My newfound savior answered with a resounding "NO!"

I had been to a few baptisms as a kid. I remember some tall guy -- so tall he had to bend his knees so Reverend Something could complete the ritual -- being baptized in the Withlacoochee River. We sang "Shall We Gather at the River" (of course), while the brownish water kept on flowing, smelling a little like tea steeping. 

People cried, including grownups, including men. Maybe the tall baptizee cried, but who could tell while he was drenched with river water?

I saw another baptism at Cherry Lake on a Sunday afternoon just before a thunderstorm. Even though it was in a lake, we went ahead and sang "Shall We Gather at the River." More crying. People wearing church clothes while standing on a sandy shore under shade trees. Women stirring up pockets of breeziness with accordion fans, cooling their rouge and disseminating the fragrance of body lotion and Avon perfume.

What did it all mean?

Grownups explained to me that during baptism, the person went under the water, then came back up another person, born again. On some level, that made sense to me, even as a child. It made more sense later when I began to fear that I would go under as living Roy, then come back up as drowned Roy, useless to everyone but Beggs Funeral Home.
Not really me.

So, like the smallpox vaccination, there was no avoiding it, and my day finally arrived. It was just over a week after I had been granted Hell Protection Insurance (HPI) during a revival, in which a visiting evangelist touched my heart and soul with a moving depiction of the world being destroyed following a Dr. Strangelovean kerfuffle with Khrushchev. 

For some reason, someone made the decision that I would be baptized at Cherry Lake Baptist Church. Not the lake, the church, which, it turned out, had a baptismal font, but it was more like a small tub, a Jacuzzi, if you will. 

A wall at the front of the church separated the Jacuzzi from the sanctuary, or the nave, or the auditorium, i.e., where the pews are. In the wall was a square window, maybe four feet by four feet, and the window was covered with a curtain, so it resembled a miniature theater screen. 

During baptism, of course, the curtains were opened, the veil was torn, revealing, typically, a teen at his most awkward moment, not sure exactly how to play this. A rapturous smile? A solemn gaze? The tastefully reserved weeping evoked by gratitude? Or should he merely try to conjure up a look of counterfeit comfort while, clothed in his Sunday-best dress pants, he was standing waste-deep in water?

The time finally came round at last, and Preacher Meenswel* held my head entirely underwater, and he said things while I was under there, things that sounded like "You noon unique you noon," and rather than feeling my sins being washed away or that a new Roy was being born, I worried that Meenswel had forgotten all about me and I would soon gurgle my last breath before meeting my savior face to face.

Then there's a blank while I was returning oxygen to my system. Surely the congregants didn't applaud -- that was taboo in Baptist churches back then. Probably they busted into "Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb" with its oxymornic lines: "Are your garments spotless? / Are they white as snow? / Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?" Snow-white blood?

Soon my dad joined Preacher Meenswel and me "backstage," and we went to a Sunday-School classroom so the preacher and I could get into some dry clothes.


I was shivering and self-consciously removing my drenched pants when I looked over at Meenswel who was just stepping into a dry pair of those old-fashioned boxer briefs, and I couldn't help noticing . . .

Here I will let my friend Kurt Vonnegut speak for me. As he said about Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-5, "he had a tremendous wang, incidentally. You never know who'll get one." No need going into detail, but, you know, think stallion.

Just a reminder before I continue: The Baptist accepting-Jesus-then-Baptism rite of passage typically takes place during the onset of puberty. 

So it's no wonder that my mind moved immediately from Meenswel's trophy-winning Titanic tool to his diminutive, junior-petite-sized, cherubic wife and his cute little daughter.

My freshly reborn little mind immediately went into quite a stew attempting to reconcile the spiritual with the carnal nature of this man called by God. This was a side of preachers I'd never considered.

I dwelt much, much longer on this dichotomy and the inconceivable synthesis of Meenswel's two sides than on my being reborn, just moments earlier, in the blood of my Lord and Savior.

I tried in vain merely to frame this conundrum in words -- forget solving it! It would be years before I read Jekyll and Hyde, but I already agreed with Jekyll: "Man is not truly one but truly two."

What else to do but separate the dark dwarf -- stunted by his base fleshly desires -- from the spiritually awakened Child of God dressed in light?

I grew up to be a person who thinks and speaks and sees almost entirely in metaphor, but at 12, figurative language was beyond my reach. I didn't know what was meant by the blood of the Lamb, or fishers of men, or the prophet Isaiah's claim that "all flesh is grass"; I didn't know why Jesus would refer to me as salt or sheep, or if he was serious about plucking out my eye or cutting off my hand. All of it, a Gordian Knot of meaningless words!

But that dangling thing I saw in the changing room, I understood. That was real. And now that I was saved, I must try harder than ever not to think about it and certainly not in relation to Meenswel's Thumbalina of a wife or the little daughter that was the fruit . . .

*Not his real name.


  1. Great. Then my day was not useless.

  2. Yes, laughing here too, but also feeling the pain of that kid. Managing both those things--that's really good. Barbara

  3. Now you can see why I turned out like this!

  4. Is that a bible in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

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