It was 2002, almost Thanksgiving. By some strange fluke, I was appointed to serve a Methodist Church in November – something that usually happens in June! The First United Methodist Church of Reform, Alabama. Legend has it that the town got its name from a Methodist Circuit Rider they ran out of town. On his way out he shouted, “Reform! Reform!” Good news, they’ve gotten better about how they treat their preachers.
The reason I was being sent there in November was two-fold: the previous pastor had to leave because of an affair (he didn’t shout “Reform!” on his way out, though); my family’s situation in North Carolina needed a quick change (my wife’s church was a “bad match” and my pastoral counseling practice was not working).
So, there I was, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, arriving to preach my first sermon. This would be the first time I was the “real” preacher after serving as an Associate Pastor 6 year earlier in Huntsville. I had never preached two weeks in a row; I had never been in charge of anything except a youth group. My kids were young, changing schools, and Belinda was taking some time off from ministry. Needless to say, I was anxious.
I walked into what I thought was an empty building. I think everyone was in Sunday School. I heard some noise down the hall, so I went toward it. A man came out of the Fellowship Hall and stuck out his hand, “I’m Bill Davis. You must be the new preacher.” Shaking his hand, I said, “I think so. Nice to meet you.” “I’m a retired Methodist preacher,” he went on, “just here visiting a friend.”
Flashback to a few years earlier: After selling my childhood home, my father gave me a box of things that he thought I might want to keep. Inside was a Baptism Certificate from Central Methodist Church of Gadsden, Alabama; it said that I was baptized in May of 1964 by William C. Davis.
Back in Reform, the gears in my brain started clicking: Bill is short for William; retired Methodist preacher . . .
“Did you ever serve Central Methodist in Gadsden?” I asked.
“Yes. It’s been a long time, though. Back in the early 60’s.”
It was then that the heavens opened up and I felt the hand of God. Bill could probably tell that I had been hit in the head by the Holy Spirit as I said, “You baptized me.”
Did Bill know? Did he know that almost 40 years later he would be present for my first “real” sermon? Did he know what he was starting when he baptized that little baby boy? No human could ever know or plan the circuitous, “up and down” path that lead us to that moment in the hallway of First United Methodist Church in Reform, Alabama.
I imagine that God had a good time engineering that moment – trying to get us both to follow his urgings, to make the right decisions, to do listen closely to His voice. I don’t know if this was the ultimate plan of God, but maybe a nice little bonus that happened along to way, “Oh, cool! I could get Earl and Bill in the same room? I’m going for it!”
Nobody knew. Not Bill Davis. Not my parents. Certainly not me. If we knew how it worked, knew what was going to happen, knew the outcome, then baptism would not be an act of faith.
Baptism is now and has always been an act of faith – faith of the person being baptized, the parent who bring the child forward, or the preacher doing the baptizing. Baptism is not just a “custom,” not a “good luck charm,” not a “ticket to heaven.”
One might imagine parents of an infant saying, “We’re not sure what the future will bring for our child, but we believe that she belongs to God.”
Picture the adult coming forward saying, “I’m not sure what will happen tomorrow, but I know that in this moment, I give my life to Christ and I will never be the same.”
I can tell you from experience that the preacher doing the baptizing might be saying, “Lord, I don’t know what the future will bring to this child, this man, this woman, but they are going to need your help.”
E.Y. and Sarah Freeman didn’t know. William C. Davis didn’t know. Early Young Freeman III didn’t know what was going to happen – but they believed. They trusted God to work. And God did.