Baptism: Knowing yourself as beloved

ripple“You are baptized,” he said, his voice booming, “to the extent to which you believe you are loved. It is not … a one time … event.”

I stared down at the reflections of the floating candles. I was standing at the edge of a swimming pool with twenty nine other retreat participants in the spring of 2010. We’d made a circle around the perimeter of an Olympic-sized pool in the basement of what was once the seminary athletic center. The basketball court was above us, the blue green water before us. A faint scent of chlorine lingered in the air as tiny flames moved effortlessly in small circles across the water, and a voice from deep inside of me kept saying, “Yes.”

All of which struck me at the time as rather odd because I hate swimming pools. I haven’t been to one in years. I avoid them at all costs. Not for the usual reasons, although I detest bathing suit shopping as much as most other women. I’ve always been self-conscious of my long skinny legs, the ones my mother told me women would kill for, the ones that for most of my teen years I tried desperately to cover up. Even now my favorite look is long tailored pants.

But the real reason I didn’t go to swimming pools was because the moment I started to think about taking my nieces and nephews all I would see was a sea of families: mothers with skirted suits spraying sunscreen across bare backs, fathers in the shallow end throwing their daughters up in the air, tables of neighbors and old friends sitting together, eating french fries and sipping cherry slushies, cheering loudly for the largest splash from cannonball jumps. Everywhere: families. Big families, small families, one parent or two, it didn’t much matter. They all had what I ached for. And in a matter of seconds, my thoughts left me jealous and heart broken and feeling as if I was on the outside of life looking in. It was definitely not a moment of baptism.

Yet, there I was, on the edge of a pool. The retreat leader stopped talking so I figured I had to be safe. There were candles, after all, floating on the water. I couldn’t possibly be expected to get in. I watched intently as he sat down by the side of the pool and invited us to contemplate our baptisms. I didn’t know what I should do. The lights were low, the room silent. The voice in me was growing louder. I pushed back my hair, glanced nervously around the pool to see if anyone else was doing what I was thinking about doing. Then I slipped off my shoes, rolled up my jeans, pulled off my socks, and for the first time in years slowly dipped my toes into a pool. The water was cool and refreshing. I swirled my feet in tiny circles and watched as the ripples spanned out across the water.

I thought back to the story the retreat leader told us earlier, the story of Jesus in the desert. After days and nights of blistering heat, Jesus was tired and thirsty and hot. But the devil just kept right on taunting him: If you’re the son of God, why are you so hungry? Where is your dinner? If your God is so great, why do you have nothing to eat? (I have to admit, I could see his point.) But Jesus just shook his head: No, he explained, it’s possible to be hungry and still be beloved by God. It’s possible to be lonely and be beloved. It’s possible to feel loss and sorrow and pain and be beloved.

The pool water lapped around my ankles. “Yes,” I heard myself whisper, feeling my baptism. “Yes.” I said it again as tears streamed down my face. “I am a mom. I am a mom. I am a mom.”

Three weeks earlier I’d had my first appointment with an adoption agency. I was trying out several. The counselor was dressed in green, a tailored jacket and a daisy printed dress. Her hair was perfectly straightened. Framed pictures of her husband and two children adorned her desk. I tried hard to keep breathing. She asked me to explain why I was there and how I defined grief and what infertility meant to me. I practically choked on my tears, trying to look as composed as she was and to present myself as altogether healed. When she was satisfied with my answers, she leaned forward in her chair and told me to close my eyes. “What does the baby you’ve always wanted look like?” she asked rather expectantly. Only I panicked. I didn’t see anything. I didn’t see a baby. I saw a family. A unit. More than me. So I lied. I told her the baby was in my arms. I didn’t know what else to do. I am single after all.

But I felt something stir deep within me, so much so that by the time I fled her office and arrived back home, I said out loud to no one in particular, other than God, that my deepest desire was to have a family. Not just a baby, a family. Then I breathed a sigh of relief, reminding myself that it didn’t have to be an either-or proposition. I’d met several single moms who’d told me they had to trade one dream for another: a husband and family for a child and motherhood. It was so clearly painful to them that as I listened I had to keep reminding myself that no one knows the future. Not even me. I shared this with my spiritual director and a bunch of my closest friends, and they all said the same thing: “You don’t get to decide the order in which things happen.”

I knew they were right. My deepest desire was to have a family, however that family was defined— two people or three, six people or eleven— and whenever that family was to come to me. I just had to keep to keep tumbling down this path into what was yet to unfold, trusting that God would always find me.

At my next meeting, I went straight to the top. I met with the agency director, a silver haired woman in her mid-sixties with eight adopted children and three grown biological sons. We sat in a tiny office with a bulletin board full of picture postcards and family announcements of newly adopted children. I took a deep a breath and prepared myself for the drill, but her eyes were so kind that when I finished telling her my story, she simply said, “This really means a lot to you.” “Yes,” I said, and then proceeded to cry and apologize for crying, all at the same time. But she just smiled warmly. “Something this big merits emotions,” she said. “It merits tears.” That’s when I knew I was in the right place.

Once my tears passed, the director explained my options. Russia, China and Guatemala, long-standing avenues for single adoptions were now closed to anything but the standard two parent kind, the international laws being what they were, and changing at any given moment. Ethiopia had just implemented a quota for single women, which pretty much eliminated any chance if you weren’t already in that cue. But Haiti was open. I’d just finished reading a novel by Edwidge Danticat, a well-known Haitian writer, and it moved me to tears. Domestic adoption was also a possibility, she explained, albeit sometimes challenging for single women to compete with the teams of dads or moms or both.

“How did you decide?” I asked her. “How did you pick the children you adopted?”

“Oh, you don’t get to decide,” she said. “Children pick their parents. They pick you.”

Stunned, I felt her words sink into me, into my belly, and right then I decided to let the mystery of it all carry me forward. I didn’t get to decide when a gift from God came to me. I didn’t get to decide when I found my children or my husband. And I no longer needed to demand who came first. What I knew and trusted was that somewhere out there, there were children who ached for a family as much as I ached to build one. If a child and I could be that gift for one another then both of our lives and the lives we touched would be all the more blessed for it.

I swirled my feet around and around. The pool water gushed softly as ripple upon ripple upon ripple expanded with possibility. In all things, at all times, I was— as we all are— beloved. We are never in or out of favor. We are simply beloved.

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