On almost any given Sunday, taking a beautiful child into my arms for the sacrament of baptism happens smoothly with great excitement. One particular Sunday there was an added dynamic that created an element of anxiety. That Sunday I would hold a child that was the eighth generation baptized in this sanctuary, using the water from the same spring, in the same baptismal gown. One parent made the comment jokingly, “It’s okay to drop the baby, just don’t damage the gown.” The generations of pastors before me in the 260 year history of our church handed this sacred act to me and with great honor and humility I asked those familiar words of the congregation, “Do you commit to care for this child, support his parents and teach him the ways of Christ?” The congregation full of young, old and in-between then answered in affirmation as part of a much larger community of faith stretching across the generations.
This community is referenced as a ‘great cloud of witnesses’ in Hebrews 12:1: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
It is a sobering thought that we are an intricate part of a growing cloud of witnesses, the multitude of descendents promised to Abraham and Sarah as God pronounced His Covenant to them. These generations of faith continue as parent to child, grandparent to grandchild, developing into a powerful interlocking community of mutual support and love. There is something profound about the passing on of values and the treasure of our family stories. This is how God intentionally created us to live. We are, warts and all, a family, a community that loves, supports and teaches the generations around us. One of the great traditions at Rocky River Presbyterian Church in Concord, North Carolina, is our annual fellowship dinner. The women acquire and prepare all of the ingredients and it is the men’s responsibility to throw them into a big cast iron pot and stir all day. This process is carried out in careful detail, from the way the bowl is cleaned and seasoned to the ceremonial passing of the paddle to stir the stew. Though the actual task of stirring is simple, holding the paddle is monumental. I have witnessed as the paddle has been passed from father to son, uncle to nephew, and though it took me a couple of years to be accepted into the fraternity of men, now pastor to pastor. With each stroke made around the bubbling edges of that stew, stories are passed on, and men and boys find meaning in the generational roles among the cloud of witnesses. This magnificent interplay of passing on our faith through stories is the very heart and soul of life and the reason we were created the way we were. God created us to need one another, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity. No person is less valuable than the next. We need each other’s stories. We need one another’s traditions to fully understand our part within the cloud of witnesses. As I said those sacramental words of baptism to the jewel of that child within my arms, I knew the enormity of the occasion. Later that day, that same gown would be carefully packed away and handed down again for future generations to continue sharing. Thanks be to God.