An Outward Symbol of Inward Change
BY cathy schaefer
I was born into a large, loud, mostly Irish, and very Catholic family and grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s. My parents had me baptized as an infant, and although I am grateful for the decision that they made on my behalf, the fact is that I had no choice in the matter. It was their decision, not mine. It was really more an indication of their commitment to raise me in the Catholic Church and to teach me the ways of God to the best of their ability, which they did faithfully. They took me to church every Sunday, and they sent me to parochial school. We prayed the rosary together as a family, practiced all the Catholic sacraments, and observed all the Catholic rituals, feast days, holidays and remembrances of the saints.
Unfortunately, between a lot of fire and brimstone preaching and all the emphasis on “the law” and following the rules perfectly, I somehow managed to miss any message of God’s love for me and the amazing grace offered through Jesus. In religion class as a second-grader, nuns taught us from the Baltimore Catechism, which described the different types of sins and how each sin left a black mark on your soul. As a child, I wanted to please God but kept envisioning my soul becoming dirtier with each mistake I made. I grew up feeling a lot of guilt and shame over the belief that I was basically a sinner who would never “measure up” to God’s standards. It seemed that God’s love had to be earned: He was keeping a running tally, and I was forever scrambling to acquire enough credits to overcome my deficits. I came to view God as an angry, critical judge who was just waiting for me to screw up so He could punish me.
As a teenager, I was enticed by all the “freedoms” flaunted by the culture around me and began to tire of trying to follow all the rules in an attempt to please a demanding God. Plus, it was obvious to me that religion wasn’t cool. In high school, my friends and I made fun of the “Jesus freaks” – goody-goodies who carried their bibles around, quoted scripture and attended prayer meetings – they seemed fake, naïve and ridiculous to me. So, I basically turned my back on an impossible-to-please God and decided to please myself instead. (Which is never a great idea, by the way, and did not produce great results.) I will spare you the ugly details but suffice it to say, I have a lot of regrets about many of the sins I committed during about a 10 year period of wandering away from God. I call them my lost years. I got lost, but thankfully God knew exactly where I was, and He never took His eyes off of me! He continued to pursue me and call me back to Him.
In my late twenties, I experienced a growing inner restlessness that I could neither define nor satisfy. Over time, I came to realize that I was longing for forgiveness and freedom from my burden of guilt and shame. I wanted peace with God, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to obtain it. I had left the Catholic Church, and confessing my sins to a priest was not an appealing option! But God knew how to get my attention, as only He can do. I love to read, and God reached me through the pages of a book. One day I was in a bookstore and came across THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING by Norman Vincent Peale. I was intrigued by the idea of overcoming my negative thinking, so I bought the book. And I was shocked to discover that his suggestions were entirely based on uplifting, encouraging and inspiring verses from SCRIPTURE! Wonderful promises and assurances from God that I had never heard before! Not only that, but Rev. Peale described our need for repentance and forgiveness, and went on to say that, thanks to Jesus, we do not require an intermediary to receive it. All that was necessary, he wrote, was for a believer to come directly before God with a humble and sincere heart, confess their sins, and ask for forgiveness. Wow!
This revelation caused me to wonder what else was in the Bible that I had missed or never been taught about as a child? Obviously, this reader needed to read it for herself! I started with the Gospels because I specifically wanted to know more about Jesus – WHO He was, WHAT He said and did, WHY He came and HOW He treated people. After learning about Jesus, I was more convinced than ever that I wanted to be in a “right relationship” with God. I yearned for His forgiveness, acceptance, and love, but I was also afraid. Afraid to approach a Holy and Sovereign God. What if He rejected me? What if I was too unworthy? Or worse yet, what if I prayed to God and there was no response at all? Then what? These questions haunted me. Soon after reading the gospels, I woke up one night and couldn’t get back to sleep. A verse I had read in John was running through my mind: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) More than anything I wanted the freedom that Jesus offered to sinners. . . . I sensed God nudging me, urging me in my spirit to come talk to Him.
Before I could change my mind, I slipped out of bed and lay prostrate on the floor. I visualized myself at the feet of Jesus, and through many tears, poured out my heart to Him. I confessed every terrible thing I could think of that I had said or done. I told Jesus I was sick and tired of myself and was desperately in need of His love and forgiveness. Words can’t begin to describe this very personal and emotional experience. But I do know this: God’s presence was very real to me in that moment, and after my confession, I felt His forgiveness wash over me. Although it was dark, it seemed as if the room, and in fact, my very being, was flooded with light. I was filled with a profound peace and joy, unlike anything I had ever known! For the first time in my life, I understood the meaning of God’s “amazing grace!” I also understood that I had been given a second chance – I was “born again.” This was my spiritual baptism, and from that day forward, I determined to cling to Jesus, my Savior and Redeemer.
30 years later: My two children were now young adults, and my husband and I had recently relocated to the northern suburbs of Indianapolis. It had been a difficult transition. My husband was incredibly busy starting a new business, and I was really missing my long-time friends and former church home in Illinois. We tried a few churches here, but couldn’t seem to find the right fit until one day someone recommended Grace. We were hooked from the first visit: we loved the energy, friendly atmosphere, great music, wonderful Bible-based preaching, and incredible community outreach programs. The biggest drawback was the size. We’ve never attended a church this large before and felt a bit “lost.” Several months after we started attending, the ROOTED pilot was announced, and I decided to give it a try. Turned out to be an answer to my prayers and just what I needed at the time. It was an opportunity to not only reaffirm my faith, but to meaningfully bond with a great group of people!
Toward the end of our ROOTED study, we learned about the significance of Baptism. Before coming to Grace, I had never belonged to a church that practiced adult Baptisms and had honestly not given the matter much thought. My husband and I have enjoyed witnessing and celebrating other believer’s Baptisms during our time here, but since we were both baptized as infants, we weren’t sure we felt the need to participate. However, the thought-provoking lesson on Ceremonies in ROOTED described both Baptism and Communion as “public expressions of the Gospel of Christ.” It compared Baptism to a wedding ring – just as “the ring is a symbol of the covenant of marriage; Baptism is a symbol of the covenant of salvation.” Not only is Baptism an outward symbol of an inward (heart) change, but Baptism and Communion are two ceremonies that Jesus Himself modeled for us. Following the example of Jesus seemed like reason enough to me! I also went to my Bible and read as many scripture references on Baptism as I could find. Although I was reassured that Baptism is not necessary for my salvation, I became more convicted than ever that I wanted to “take the plunge” for Jesus. So when my ROOTED leaders announced that Baptisms would be offered as part of our Celebration Dinner, and that she and her husband would be the ones to actually perform mine, I didn’t hesitate to sign up!
Being Baptized as an adult truly felt like a “full circle” moment in my life. Just as I have to regularly humble myself before the Lord privately in prayer to seek forgiveness for my sins, Baptism is a similar act of obedience and humility before God and my fellow believers. It’s a public proclamation admitting, “I am a sinner in need of God’s grace and forgiveness.” Even though I have been a Christ-follower for many years now, it was incredibly empowering to be baptized – to freely make the choice to participate in this symbolic ceremony that is an outward sign of my inward change. It was an awesome reminder of the fact that I am a sinner who has been washed clean by the blood of Christ, and I feel blessed for the opportunity to publically affirm my gratitude, love and devotion to Jesus. Prior to the ceremony, my ROOTED leader asked me if there was a particular Bible verse that she could pray over me during my Baptism. While pondering my choices and poring over so many familiar and beloved scripture verses, I was reminded of just how far I have come since that night over 30 years ago when I first came to Christ. I recalled how I was once a slave to sin and burdened by guilt, until I received God’s amazing grace and the freedom found only in Jesus. I don’t ever want to forget where I once was and where I am now, which is why I selected this verse: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) With God’s help, I intend to stand firm and walk in the freedom of Christ for all the days of my life!