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Last Sunday, I held my infant daughter in the knee-deep Florida gulf water, transfixed by the ceremony being performed in front of me. I watched as several families were baptized about 20-yards away.
A crowd of people had gathered as a Pastor, one-by-one, dunked the willing participants backward into the warm bay waters. I had never seen anything like this before and neither had my not-so-subtly-staring children. The curious, interested look from each of their faces is etched in my memory bank.
After the ceremony was over, my 6-year-old daughter interrupted my gawking. “Daddy, why was that man pushing those people in the water? And why did those other people watch and cheer?”
I placated her innocent question with a simple statement, hoping not to invite any more questions that I might not be able to answer.
“Vivi, those people are getting baptized for their church. It’s a church ceremony – he’s not pushing them.”
She nodded and started to charge back toward the water until she abruptly stopped and turned to me, “Daddy, why don’t we go to church?”
I was speechless – my look must have clued Vivi in that I didn’t have an answer right now.
Vivi was not the only one of my children with similar questions about what we saw– as I suspected, during the car ride home my kids’ curiosity flowed freely.
Their questions forced me to evaluate my experience with church and faith. I am spiritual in my own way – I pray often. I do so without having set foot in a sanctuary in many years.
My view of attending church was formed by a Catholic upbringing which, for me, connected going to church with routine. Attending mass was not about being devout as much as standing up and sitting down for an hour per week on cue.
I pray often. I do so without having set foot in a sanctuary in many years.
Over time, I found that I didn’t need the structure. The bricks and mortar weren’t critical to leading a faithful life for me. In fact, I tend to believe that structure unnecessarily complicates most things.
I don’t need lights and chalk lines to play baseball in a sand-lot. Children in Africa can play a hell of a game of soccer with no shoes, no goals and a ball made of socks. In both examples, no formal structure is needed.
That view has kept me from seriously considering taking my kids to a church. As we drove home and I explained this concept to my children, I began to feel like I had unilaterally decided they should feel the same. I felt badly that I seemed to be cramming my view down their throat.
I find these moments to be the times when I’m conflicted most about how to parent. During these times I personify a Good-Bad Dad – trying to do what’s right by my kids and then constantly wondering about whether I’m doing so.
Witnessing the beach baptism and trying to answer my children’s’ questions afterward, made it blatantly obvious that my kids were having difficulty with my logic – or at least would like the chance to form their own opinion.
This discussion took me back to the feeling of social pressure to attend church that confronts most parents after the birth of a child. That pressure is wrapped in questions like, “Are you baptizing him?” I’ve seen many friends rediscover church by virtue of feeling obliged to baptize their new baby – but not me.
It was blatantly obvious that my kids were having difficulty with my logic.
If I go to church, I want to be authentically attending – not because I felt I should because my kids need to.
When I saw the bay-side baptism, I affirmed 3 ideas:
1. A church is not required for a faith-filled life
2. My kids should be afforded the chance to see if they agree
3. I should allow them do so objectively
This issue has more to do with parenting than it does faith. I have a role to play in helping my kids gather information but am not the ultimate authority – particularly as they grow up.
Parenting is about constantly re-accessing my direction and allowing for deviations from the path I might envision for my kids.
Just as I watched each of the beach-side baptism participants being re-born last weekend, I too should not be timid about changing course – even if I am not ready to take such a plunge myself.
Tobin is a husband and father of 5. Tobin’s rambunctious family life provides ample opportunities for thoughtful pieces about fatherhood. Check out his writing at goodbaddad.com.