I baptized my older daughter, Sarah, when she was three months old. She was not my first baptism, though she was among my first. I was new to the sacraments then. I had only been ordained for a couple of years and hadn’t taken the course at seminary on the big, dramatic gestures of worship, which is how the seminary thought of the sacraments (they were taught by a member of the speech department). When I graduated, I had no idea how to take a baby from a parent or how to apply the water or how to do much of anything that ordination allowed me to do.
Happily, though, I worked with an experienced senior pastor, who was more than willing to show me. At 6:30 on the Sunday morning before my first baptism, before the minister of music arrived to practice the organ, the senior pastor and I went to the sanctuary with a large baby doll I had stolen from the church nursery, and I practiced holding the baby and administering the water and saying the words I had memorized. There’s a higher degree of difficulty involved in all of that than most people realize.
My colleague’s approach to infant baptism was to take large fistfuls of water from the font and apply them to the baby’s head—one fistful each for the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Those babies were always in for a soaking. The baptismal liturgy says that in baptism we die to our old selves and rise to new life in Christ, and he intended to get those babies as close to a drowning as he could.
Sarah was dressed for her baptism in a long, white baptismal gown that had been in the family for years. A few of her cousins had been baptized while wearing the same gown, and a few more have worn it at their baptisms in the years since. I took Sarah from her mother’s arms, having had quite a bit of experience by this point, and then, standing close to the massive stone font, I looked into her eyes, just as I had moments after she was born. I confidently grabbed a fistful of water and applied it to her head, and I managed to say, “Sarah DeYoung Brouwer, I baptize you in the name of the Father…” But that was as far as I got. Suddenly, in that moment, I realized where I was and what I was doing, and I was so overwhelmed by it all, the meaning of it, that I was unable to go on.
My senior pastor could see that no more words were going to come out of my mouth, so without hesitation he took over. He grabbed two more fistfuls of water and finished the job: “…and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!” He soaked both of us. And that’s how Sarah was baptized, a tag-team effort, unusual in the annals of Protestant worship. She was a child of the covenant, sealed in the Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever. We sang a baptismal hymn that had been written for the occasion, and then it was over.
I don’t mind saying that those few minutes were among the high points of my ministry. I was aware in the moment that what had happened was holy, though at the time I would not have been able to say why. In Sarah’s baptism, though, I began to understand a bit more clearly what my ordination meant. Ordination, I realized, meant that I would get to spend time with the holy bits, that I would get to lead people to the point where they could experience the holy, if they wanted to. I would be allowed to dip my hand into the waters of baptism, to hold the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper, to pronounce words of blessing on people entering the covenant of marriage, to say words of comfort and hope at times of death, and more. I began to see my ordination first as a great privilege and then, later, as a great responsibility. I realized that my life as a pastor would be filled with holy moments, not just with my family, but with many others, in a variety of settings. In the words of the apostle Paul, I had become “a steward of the mysteries of God,” a job description that I never tired of, even when, later in my career, I began to fall out of love with the Presbyterian Church.
Once, on my first pilgrimage to Israel, I led a group of church members from my Wheaton church in worship near the Sea of Galilee. It was our second day in the country, so I may have been jet-lagged, but I am confident that the experience was genuine. There were thirty-three of us gathered in a small chapel, with the lake plainly visible through the large windows, and as their pastor I stood to read scripture and speak briefly.
Suddenly, as with my daughter’s baptism several years before, I realized where I was and what I was doing. It was my privilege and responsibility to lead my people to the point where they could experience the holy, if they wanted to. I had heard about Galilee since I was a five-year-old child in Sunday school. Mrs. Peterson, my teacher, made the setting come alive in my imagination so that even then, as a five-year- old, I could see it in my mind’s eye. And now here I was, at last, with the responsibility to tell my group what this place meant and why it should matter to them. I cried again, as I did at my daughter’s baptism and as I do often in the presence of the holy, but this time I was able to keep going. After spending a few years growing into the role, I knew finally who I was and what I was supposed to be doing in the moment.
Finding the holy in baptism isn’t all that hard, as it turns out. It’s one of those rites within worship where, if you’re the least bit open to the holy, you can usually see it or feel it. At other times, and in other places, finding the holy can be much more difficult. At meetings of the buildings and grounds committee, for example, doing nothing more than comparing estimates for roof repairs, God’s presence can be somewhat harder to see.
When I would go the hospital (for pastors “business travel” usually consists of driving to the hospital) and take the elevator to the fifth floor, and then walk down the hall looking for the room where a member of my congregation was lying in a hospital bed, I knew that I was not just anyone who happened to walk in off the street. In these visits I knew, as I did during baptisms and during meetings of the buildings and grounds committee, that I was a Minister of Word and Sacrament.
When the person in the hospital bed saw me and invited me in, she was seeing not just a tall man with a concerned smile. She was seeing her pastor, someone who could be counted on to know God and to be familiar (to some extent) with the ways of God. She was expecting that I would bring with me not only a worship bulletin from the previous Sunday, but also a piece of what happened there, the holiness that her church family had seen and participated in. When I took her hand to pray at the end of the visit, there would be something in the touching of our hands that let her know that she was in the presence of God. I always knew that it was my work to do those things, to be that person, to be mindful of that presence. I never grew tired of visiting church members in the hospital.
Like many pastors I spent too much of my time being a program director for children, youth, college students, singles, families, older adults, recovering divorced people, and all the other niche groups in the life of any church. That’s a fine thing to do, or it can be, but I wish I had spent less of my time being that person. I wish I had spent less of my time as a manager and a therapist and a community activist. What I really wanted to be, and what the church really needs, are pastors who are “stewards of the mysteries of God.”
Once, as I was about to lead a family into the church sanctuary for a funeral, an usher who was holding the door for us whispered to me in a confidential tone, “I sure don’t envy you having to do this.” It wasn’t the moment to have a conversation, and I knew he meant to express his concern for me, but what I would have said in that moment, and before all of the other funerals I have been asked to lead, is this: “I have never felt more like a pastor than right now. This is what I have been trained and equipped to do. It is a great privilege to be invited by a family into their grief, to hear their sobs, and to find the words to say that they are unable to speak. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but in this holy moment.”
The funeral where the usher made a point of whispering to me was a big one. The person who had died was young, someone whose name had been mentioned in worship during prayer concerns for several weeks, someone who had left behind a husband and young children. To be able to give thanks for the life of an older person is easy by comparison. Services for the young, particularly for children, are always unimaginably difficult.
I remember a brief funeral service for a newborn. It took place in a hospital room and was attended by the parents and a couple of nurses. I remember a service for a teenager who had died of an underlying heart condition while swimming in a lake at summer camp. I remember others, each one painful in its own way. These funerals were some of the most difficult experiences of my ministry, and yet—I also remember each one as a holy moment. They were holy in their intimacy, they were holy in their suffering, they were holy in the sense that there was nowhere else to turn but to something beyond ourselves. Death had brought us together, and it had stripped us of our pride and arrogance and false hope. Death, strangely enough, provided the setting in which we could see and know and experience the holy.
Most people are surprised to hear this, but pastors would overwhelmingly prefer to officiate at a funeral rather than a wedding. At a church wedding, God too often feels like an afterthought, not the reason people gather. A scripture reading might add some weight to the occasion, but at a wedding people don’t count on a Bible verse to see them through the day. At a church funeral, God is typically at the center of things. Even God’s apparent silence at death can focus our attention, causing us to wonder and reflect. I always preferred a funeral because that’s where the holy bits tended to be.
In my travels, I have been to some of the world’s holiest places—not all of them, certainly, but enough of them—and by and large I found little that was holy about them. I remember visiting the grotto beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where according to tradition Jesus was born, and all I remember about it is the press of the crowds. I had to keep moving so that all of the pilgrims behind me could take their turn and see the place where (according to tradition) Mary brought forth
her firstborn child. I had pretty much the same reaction to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and even St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva (John Calvin’s church). I’ve seen all of them more than once, and I’m glad I did. But the unmistakable presence of God is not my lasting memory about any of them.
And yet, I think holiness can be connected to a place, even those I mentioned. For me the language of a “thin place” is often helpful. A “thin place” is where the membrane between this world and the next seems especially thin or porous, as though you could easily walk through and be in the presence of God. “Thin place,” as I understand it, was originally a Celtic term, and for me it applies to the Isle of Iona, which lies off the western coast of Scotland. Something about the severe landscape and the ten-minute ferry ride from the Isle of Mull to reach the place—as well as the abbey itself, which dates to 563 CE when St. Columba founded a monastic community there— give it an otherworldly feel, a place where God must be present, or at least available.
Mount Sinai, with St. Catherine’s Monastery at its base, has been another of those places for me, a place where Christians have claimed, down through the centuries, to feel the unmistakable presence of God. I once climbed Mount Sinai with my nephew, arriving at the base of the mountain well after midnight, climbing through the night, and then once at the top waiting for the sun to rise over the Gulf of Aqaba. We could smell incense at dawn coming from an old Russian Orthodox Church, and in the early light we were surprised to find around us hundreds of other pilgrims from around the world who had also made the climb in darkness. It’s hard to say exactly why these and not others are “thin places” for me, but I have a guess.
Annie Dillard has written in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that there are two kinds of “seeing.” One is the garden variety kind of seeing where you strain to pay attention to what’s happening around you, as I always have in places like the Church of the Nativity. To see in this sense, you’ve got to work hard to quiet other voices within (and to block out the crowds of tourists). But there is another kind of seeing, according to Dillard, that involves “a letting go.” You don’t seek; instead, you wait. It isn’t prayer, as she explains it; it’s grace. The feeling comes to you, unexpectedly and mysteriously. You find yourself standing in a small chapel at the Sea of Galilee with church members you love, and you remember in that moment where you are and what you are doing. It’s then that the place becomes holy.
Twenty-six years after Sarah’s baptism, she was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and once again I had a part in the service—not to throw water around this time, but to participate in the laying on of hands and to preach the sermon.
In my sermon that afternoon I mentioned Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World, and I told the story from the book about Taylor’s father teaching her to be observant of the world around her, what she learned to call the “practice of paying attention.” For Taylor paying attention had become in her life and in her ministry a spiritual practice, right up there with prayer and Bible reading. But in Taylor’s telling, the paying attention she has in mind is not straining; it is letting go. She would lie on the ground in the backyard, along with her father and younger sister, and while looking up into the night sky they would notice all sorts of things that you typically don’t see unless you’re paying attention: “All I remember is lying there beside [my father and sister] looking into a sky I had never really looked into before, or at least never for so long.”
In my ordination sermon I told Sarah what I have come to see as true—namely, that to be a Minister of Word and Sacrament means to pay attention, to be observant, to find the holy, not only in the night sky (as Taylor has), but also in the everyday, in the committee meetings, and in the routine of ministry. I acknowledged that this, of course, is the work of every person of faith, but the Minister of Word and Sacrament, the steward of the mysteries of God, has the privilege and responsibility of devoting lots of time to it. The church members we serve, I said, will expect that we’ll be able to do it, that in any old moment or setting, in a hospital room or next to the Sea of Galilee, we’ll be able talk about the divine presence and help others to see it too.
Excerpted from Chasing after Wind: A Pastor’s Life by Douglas J. Brouwer ©2022 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) Reprinted by permission of the publisher.