The baby is actually napping – in her crib – and I just finished ironing my family’s 114-year-old baptism gown for her to wear on Sunday. I’m not sure who thought it was a good idea to leave me alone with an heirloom gown of tissue-thin cotton and a hot iron. Most days I can hardly keep my morning coffee in the mug and off my shirt; I’m not known for my dexterity. But here we are, and the gown is relatively wrinkle-free and still intact.
This beautiful, fragile heirloom is quite an amazing thing. It’s on its fourth generation of babies. The first to wear it was my grandfather’s older sister in 1902. My Opa wore it in 1905 and his children, grandchildren and many of his great-grandchildren have followed. When a boy is baptized, a blue cotton panel is carefully stitched below the eyelet layers, and there is a pink panel for girls. Fortunately for me, the last few babies have all been girls. I would not like to try my luck with a hot iron and a needle.
It is no small feat for an immigrant family to have such a fragile historic item. The gown somehow made it through a war, prison camp and two immigrations, not to mention decades of spit-up, mustardy baby poo and tiny, persistent fingers and toes working away at its delicate eyelet. As I think about all the things a family could treasure across generations – jewels, furniture or art – I’m so grateful that the one (and only) heirloom in my family is a symbol of faith, literally the faith of my fathers.
The first babies were probably all baptized in the Gereformeerde Kerke, and my great-grandparents might be shocked, even appalled, by what’s happened since. We had our older daughter baptized at a Catholic church. At the time, we had just moved and hadn’t joined a church yet, and Father Frank who married us and whom we loved was the obvious choice. Fast forward four years, and we have now made our home in a non-denominational church that does not practice baby baptism. So Jane is being dedicated on Sunday. Wherever you land on the infant baptism spectrum, one fact is fairly universal: baptizing a child is the parents making public their intentions to raise him or her toward faith in Jesus Christ. For me, this tradition, this sacrament, is an issue of parenting, not salvation. And so whether it’s a formal baptism involving candles and water or an informal dedication involving photos and a letter we’ve written to the baby, what is meaningful to me is the community that gathers around to witness our commitment and support our intentions. That I can involve a century-old gown is gravy.
A prayer for the future
To prepare for the dedication, our church asked us to write a letter to Jane including three to five words that describe the kind of person we hope she will become; the idea is that these words become like goal posts for our parenting. This is not an easy task as we obviously want everything for her (and I also happen to love words, lots of words). But in the end, this is what we came up with. I trust my great-grandparents would approve.
“We hope you will grow up to be WISE, to recognize the truth and navigate life with discernment. We hope you will be STRONG – have the courage of your convictions and God-given power to stand up for what’s right in yourself and others. HOPEFUL. In a world where it is so easy to fall into pessimism, we want you to know, deep down in your core, that ‘more will be revealed,’ that a beautiful story is being written and yours is just a chapter. LOVING – that you will remain soft-hearted, that you will cut others and yourself lots of slack, and in doing so recognize the God who is full of love for you. JOYFUL – that you will be so deeply aware of your blessings you will go through this world with unshakeable, confident, infectious joy.”
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