It was Sunday morning, and I was reviewing the notes for a sermon I would preach in about an hour at the Church in Tricotte, when Eldier entered the room. “They are going to baptize down at the river,” he told me. I hadn’t yet witnessed a baptism in Haiti, so I set down my Bible and notebook and decided to join those Haitian believers as these converts took this public step of obedience.
I reached the main pathway that led down the mountain to the river just as Pastor Diogene passed by with a group of Haitian brothers and sisters. When he saw me, Diogene stopped and called, “Pastor Philip, I want you to help me baptize this morning.” I immediately accepted this unexpected honor and accompanied the group the rest of the way to the location they had selected.
When Diogene asked me to help, I expected that he and I would together baptize each new believer, Diogene on one side and I on the other. I anticipated Diogene taking the lead and my role being more ceremonial than anything. But when we arrived at the baptismal site, he said to me, “I’ll baptize here,” and pointing ten yards upstream, “you baptize there.”
I thought about explaining to him that I had never baptized anyone in a river and asking if there was anything I needed to know, any tricks to baptizing in moving water or any customs that might be uniquely Haitian. But instead I found myself wading out into the water, resolved to watch Diogene carefully and do exactly what he did, and everything would be fine.
The water was a little more than two feet deep and reached just above my knees – much shallower than baptisteries back home. The current was also significantly stronger than any baptistery I’ve ever been in, and I had to move with care to stay upright. Once Diogene and I were in place, he indicated our readiness, and two Haitians began to wade out to us.
A stocky young man went to Diogene. Diogene faced him downstream, placed one arm around his back, and grabbed his wrist with the other hand. Then he said some words in Creole and baptized him.
To me came a lovely – though quite frail – elderly woman. Two young men escorted her through the current, and she seemed nervous about the entire affair. I received her. I faced her downstream. I placed one hand around her back and with the other grabbed her wrist. I said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” and I lowered her back into the water.
Because the water was shallow, I leaned her back until she was nearly horizontal, removing what little weight had been pressing her feet into the gravel riverbed. The current continued to push from behind and now swept her legs up to the surface. It turns out I had failed to notice one important detail when Diogene had baptized the young man: the strength of his grip on the young man’s waist. And while I managed to lift the woman enough that her head was marginally above water, I simply did not have the leverage to lift her any further. Nor did I dare loosen what grip I had in order to get a better one for fear might lose her completely.
She was flailing her arms by this point – no doubt trying to fight off this “blanc” who was attempting to drown her. I was doing my best to keep her head up, waiting for help to arrive, and feeling terrible that I had allowed this important event in this woman’s new life to more resemble waterboarding than the sacred ordinance it was meant to be.
About that time, Diogene came to our rescue and together we returned her to her feet. I half expected Diogene to tell me, “Maybe I it would be best if I baptized the rest on my own.” But he didn’t. He didn’t even admonish me to “make sure to get a better grip.” He waded back to where he was baptizing and indicated for the next two to come out to us.
I had learned a lesson. When baptizing in moving water, get a good grip and baptize with authority. Put the believer into the water and hoist them back out. I baptized three more that morning without a hitch.
Now I want to pose a question: Why did Diogene ask me to help him with these baptisms? It certainly was not because he needed the help. He wasn’t looking around, thinking, “Who am I going to get to help me with this?” There were only seven of them, and I haven’t met a pastor yet who didn’t love baptizing new believers. So he didn’t ask me to help for his sake. Nor did he ask me to help for the people’s sake. I offered nothing that Diogene didn’t already provide. And as their pastor, he was the more fitting person to perform these baptisms.
So if it wasn’t for his sake, and it wasn’t for the people’s sake, why did he do it? I believe the answer is threefold. First, he desired to partner with me in this particular ministry. We have ministered together in other areas, we are friends, and it pleased him to minister together again. Second, he recognized that it would be meaningful and encouraging to me. And third, it brought greater glory to our Lord. The ministry – the baptisms – was accomplished, but through the cooperation of two of the Lord’s servants and the edification of a brother, the glory given to God was even greater than had Diogene baptized alone.
I share this because it is a picture of why God has chosen to use the Church as His instrument of ministry in this world. Like Diogene with me, God does not need us to achieve anything. He is more than capable of accomplishing any ministry He desires wholly on His own. He can reach any person, meet any need, and communicate any truth without any help from us. Our involvement adds nothing.
So why does He involve us at all? Why doesn’t God simply bypass us and feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, and proclaim the Gospel of Christ to the lost? Why does He stoop to use such creatures as us to accomplish His plans?
I believe the answer is the same as it was when Diogene included me the ministry of baptism. First, God simply desires to partner with the Church. We are His children, Christ’s bride, and it pleases Him to work with us and through us in a similar way that it might please a father to include his young son in a project at home. Second, it has immeasurable value for us to be involved in God’s work in this world, and God desires to see us grow through these ministries. And finally, this is His plan to bring Himself the greatest glory. Were He to accomplish His work on His own, it would be marvelous thing and bring Him great glory. But when He takes us – who were utterly lost and corrupted when He found us – and redeems us, and uses us to accomplish that same ministry, His achievement is even greater. Then He has, in His manifold wisdom, brought Himself the greatest glory. And mystery of mysteries, we are part of it.
Serving the Lord together,
Bernie, Sheryl & Philip Bovenkamp