The Heavens Torn Open: Why I Wrote a Book about Covenant Baptism

In 2011, our family made a move from Alabama to Mississippi so that my husband, Andrew, could pioneer a new campus ministry at the University of Southern Mississippi. We left our town of Auburn, Alabama with ten-month-old Wilson in tow, and one of the sand bags of grief that I carried with me was his missing our Baptist church’s Baby Dedication.

We were actually so burdened by the thought of our son not being formally dedicated in a church that we asked a mentor—who also happened to be a retired Presbyterian pastor—if he would give some sort of blessing for us in front of a group of our friends. It’s funny to me now to think that his private thought went something like—”You mean a baptism?” and yet his public and gracious response to us was that Wilson would be fine. He advised that we join a church as soon as we were able, and then seek our pastor’s counsel.

We did. We visited Baptist churches our first two Sundays, and on our third Sunday we sat down in a pew at First Presbyterian Church. I gave Andrew’s hand a squeeze and he nodded knowingly in agreement. This was going to be our home.

Except one (big) problem— what to do about infant baptism? My heart and my mind tracked with everything else. I loved the liturgy, agreed with the theology, and sang the richly-worded hymns with great joy.

But I had some problems with the baptizing of those babies. Did the parents presume these were saving waters? Did they think this was their child’s ticket to salvation to be cashed in at confirmation class? Was it all just a stuffy tradition? Why was there no immersion? Doesn’t the word baptism itself mean immersion?

The pastors of our church were kind and patient with us as we wrestled with all of this. We still had a pull on our hearts to give Wilson some sort of formal entrance into the church, but were understandably hesitant to offer him the sign of baptism before a declaration of faith. Our pastors told us that we could still be members, even if we decided not to baptize our children. They even said that we could wait for a believer’s baptism if we felt strongly about it. And yet—they gently reminded us that they would not tire of helping us to understand the beauty and the goodness of welcoming our child into the church as a covenant member.

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Very slowly, I began to intellectually understand why one would choose to baptize their children. I understood the concept of the visible church (church membership) and the invisible church (redeemed hearts). I could make the links between circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New and how baptism was now a marker to show who belonged to this visible church. I understood that there were no interruption of traditions in Scripture that told us that families were no longer dealt with as households. This made sense to me— that because my children lived in a household of faith, they were set apart in some way. I saw how baptism was a sign to the world and to our children that they were a significant part of the church. They belonged there.

"For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy." 1 Cor. 7:14

But, this is not meant to be an apology for infant baptism. My desire, here, is to share the moment that all of this clicked for me in my gut, and not just my intellect—how it sunk so deeply down into my bones that I had to wrap words around it for myself and for my children.

The place that this happened—of all places—was at an adoption conference. Andrew and I were in a session about grace-based parenting, when a pastor made a short aside that changed my whole perspective on our children’s place in the church. I would love to give some credit to this speaker but, alas, I took terrible notes. He wasn’t speaking on the sacrament of baptism, but what he said created a direct link to the why for me. He offered that one of the better things we could do for our children is to make sure they know that we are not pushing them outside the gates of the church and asking them to find their way back in. They are in the the covenant community with us. That image settled an angst in my heart I didn’t even know was there. I thought of Jesus as mine and Andrew’s shepherd and what necessarily followed was that Wilson, under our care, was also under the care of our Good Shepherd. Wilson was in the pasture with us, even if he didn’t yet know Jesus as Savior.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 19:14

We baptized Wilson at age two with great joy. The congregation sang “Jesus Loves Me” over him and I loved that what we were saying to him (and to one another) was— “You have membership here. You carry the sign of our shepherd.”

That little head! This is your pew, little buddy, The people sitting in them are your people, too.

That little head! This is your pew, little buddy, The people sitting in them are your people, too.

When Charlie, our second, was six months old, he too was baptized at First Presbyterian Church. And this time, I put all of these images that had been swirling around in my mind into words on a blog post. I wrote that because Andrew and I were living under the care of our shepherd, Jesus, we believed Wilson and Charlie were living under His care, too. Jesus nurtured our family with the grace of green pastures and still waters, and— by his mercy— our children were not living on the outside of the gate looking in. They were with us in the midst of the visible church. Here, in this metaphorical pasture, we would sing the love songs of our shepherd over them and wait in great hope for the day when they would hear His voice and respond in faith—embracing all of the promises of Jesus that were spoken over them at their baptism.

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And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” – Acts 2:38-39

Story and imagination have the ability to sink truth down deep into our bones. After posting on my blog, I had several people tell me that the images of sheep in a pasture helped them to make sense of covenant family/baptism. What they may not have known was that it helped me, too; Often, it’s in the act of writing that we are able to truly wrestle down thoughts.

I was thrilled to be able to help other parents understand covenant baptism, but I also longed to give my children words and pictures that would help them to understand what their baptism meant. In James K.A. Smith’s book You are What You Love, he muses about the importance of stories and images in our children’s early education. He asks the reader to suppose they are a child who sees a painting every Sunday morning in the church nursery of a shepherd carrying the lost sheep who wandered away from its fold. The image burrows itself down into your imagination. Later in life, as a teenager, you walk away from the faith and…

…what catches you short on some lonely evening of despair isn’t a doctrine you remember or all those verses you memorized from the book of Romans. What creeps up on you is the inexplicable emergence of this image of the shepherd from the deep recesses of your imagination storehouse…that is an understanding of the gospel that is implanted not through merely didactic information transfer, it is an understanding of the gospel that is a kind of know-how. A knowledge you carry in your bones.
— James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love

I wanted my children to have images like this stored away in a corner of their hearts—so, I wrote a children’s book. And I asked my friend, Laura Pennebaker, to create images of a shepherd taking care of his flock. I wanted our children to see pictures of lambs lying down with their parents and hearing the songs of Jesus being sung over them.

Laura did an exceptionally wonderful job, and I have been praying James K.A. Smith’s words over this book—that our covenant children would be enamored with the image of a shepherd who has been taking care of them from their very first breath. I’ve prayed that the image of a shepherd who knows and loves his sheep would be stored away in the imaginations of our children, and that one day they would recognize Jesus’s voice and His hand in their lives. I’m praying that one day imagination and reality would collide for them. In fact, we pray that they would never remember a day when they didn’t know the shepherd’s hand as belonging to Jesus. This hope of our children understanding the promises they have available in Jesus is the reason I wrote the book and it’s also the reason I sought out someone to publish it. (Many thanks to my wonderfully supportive and gracious friends at CDM!)

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This children’s book, The Good Shepherd’s Pasture, is meant to tell children the story of their baptism. At the baptism font, we tell our children that they belong here with us— in the pasture of the good shepherd. We remind them (and ourselves) that Jesus is taking care of our family like a shepherd would take care of his sheep (we are a lot like sheep), and because they are here with us, He is taking care of them, too. At their baptism, our children are given a sign that points to Jesus: the only One who can wash our hearts clean. We give them the seal that tells them our God has promised to be their God; They need only to respond to Him in faith. And as we sing His promises over them, we hope for the day when they hear His voice rise above our own.

Paul tells us in Romans that we are “baptized into Christ,” and I think it’s worth thinking about Jesus’s baptism in light of our own. Right after Jesus was baptized, the book of Mark tells us that “the heavens were torn open.” In the Old Testament, judgement would have been expected to rain down from an open heaven. But here we see something radically different—instead of fire, a dove. Instead of judgement, words of a well-pleased Father. And if we are united unto Christ, this proclamation of peace in place of judgement is ours, too. And for our children, at their baptism we are telling them: The heavens are torn open to you! Peace and daughter/sonship are yours to embrace. All spiritual blessings are laid up for you in Christ and are available to you.

And this is why I’m thrilled to get The Good Shepherd’s Pasture into the hands of our baptized children and their families— I want the children to hear: “Little One, the heavens are torn open to you.” Jesus is a good shepherd to care so tenderly for our children as He cares for us. And we have a good sign to give them in baptism to remind them—all of their lives—that He knows them and loves them, too.

“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” Isaiah 54:10
”…All your children will be taught by the Lord, and great will be their peace.” Isaiah 54:13