Imprinting with God

(As we reflect on the baptism of our Savior, we understand that God was doing more than setting an example. The author gives us a new take on the power and the place of our baptism in imprinting God in our hearts. Worth a read.)

I shall nev­er for­get the scene. With a mug of black cof­fee in hand, I was on a walk through my woodsy, rur­al neigh­bor­hood ear­ly one spring morn­ing. As the sun began to bathe the land­scape with light I came over a hill and was able to look down into a horse coral where I saw my neigh­bor, Mary, hunched over a foal. As I came clos­er it became appar­ent that the foal had just been born: she was unsteady on her hooves, and still wet. While the moth­er mare stood close by and kept a watch­ful eye, Mary strad­dled the foal, press­ing her face up against the side of the newborn’s face, vig­or­ous­ly rub­bing its neck. I had nev­er seen any­thing quite like it before, but it all looked very inti­mate, up close, per­son­al, even affectionate.

A day or two lat­er when I ran into Mary at the post office I asked her about that pecu­liar morn­ing. ​“What was the thing you were doing the oth­er day with that foal”? Very mat­ter-of-fact­ly, almost as if she was annoyed to have to explain such a thing to a city boy, Mary respond­ed with a sin­gle word: ​“Imprint­ing.” See­ing that the word wasn’t reg­is­ter­ing for me, she con­tin­ued: ​“If, in the first hours of its life, a horse is exposed to you, where it gets your smell, and hears your voice, it’s much eas­i­er to train as it grows up. From now on I’m like a sur­ro­gate moth­er to that horse, and it will respond to my voice, and trust me to lead it. We’ve bonded.”

Imprint­ing. A deep and mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ship with God begins with our bap­tism into Christ, where we get acquaint­ed with the voice of the Son, where we become famil­iar with his ways. And, it devel­ops as we prac­tice our bap­tisms, enter­ing the rhythms of a life of dis­ci­ple­ship, most sig­nif­i­cant­ly as we exer­cise the holy affir­ma­tions and the holy denials of our new life: ​“No” to sin and evil; ​“Yes” to the King­dom of God and the Jesus Way. We hear the voice; we heed the voice. We get trained up in right­eous­ness, and we become increas­ing­ly inti­mate with the Lover of our souls.

From the time when we are still wet behind the ears, we are influ­enced and formed by oth­er peo­ple. Obser­va­tions con­cern­ing infants reveal that they begin to mir­ror their mother’s facial expres­sions long before they can speak their first word. As chil­dren mature it becomes appar­ent that they are unnerv­ing­ly astute, observ­ing and then imi­tat­ing the behav­iors they are exposed to, both for good and for bad.

Imi­tat­ing oth­ers does not end once one reach­es phys­i­cal matu­ri­ty. We con­tin­ue to be influ­enced by oth­ers around us, and we have a strong ten­den­cy to adopt var­i­ous ver­sions of their val­ues, idio­syn­crasies, and lifestyles as our own. The notion, for exam­ple, that mar­ried cou­ples begin to look and act more sim­i­lar­ly as the years go by is a real phe­nom­e­non, because peo­ple in long-term prox­im­i­ty to one anoth­er tend to mim­ic each other’s facial expressions.

The life­long dynam­ic of bap­tism as a lifestyle is what makes it end­less­ly mean­ing­ful, offer­ing both descrip­tive and pre­scrip­tive lan­guage to iden­ti­fy not only what is, but what should be. Bap­tism offers a cor­rec­tive (repent!) when lives lose their holy telos and aim, and it pro­vides affir­ma­tion (beloved!) when rela­tion­al­ly rec­on­ciled. This is the ten­sion of hold­ing a coin on the edge of the Gospel’s nar­row way. Bap­tism pro­vides the bound­aries and guardrails nec­es­sary to stay on the Way with and toward Jesus.

Peo­ple who are splashed in the waters of bap­tism grow to devel­op their sacra­men­tal sen­si­bil­i­ties; they become alert to the vari­ety of smells, sounds, sights, tastes, and feel­ings asso­ci­at­ed with water and its semi­otic sig­nif­i­cance, rec­og­niz­ing that ​“every­thing in it is charged with val­ue and encod­ed with mean­ings.”4 Each of our five sens­es serves this sacred pur­pose: point­ing to the Spir­it who brood­ed over the water; point­ing to the One who com­mand­ed the chaot­ic waters to come to order; point­ing to the Son who came drip­ping up out of the Jor­dan; all point­ing to the Three­some giv­er of life who is par­tial to water as an agent of both cre­ation and re-cre­ation. As Tom Long pro­pos­es, ​“To be bap­tized is a sign that every­thing we are — work and play, per­son­al­i­ty and char­ac­ter, com­mit­ments and pas­sions, fam­i­ly and eth­nic­i­ty — is gath­er­ing up and giv­en shape and def­i­n­i­tion by our iden­ti­ty as one of God’s own chil­dren.”5 Grow­ing into such a sacred iden­ti­ty is the bap­tismal process, a holy lifestyle, requir­ing a life­time of practice.

Eric Peterson

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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