Forty years ago, yesterday I was baptized at Stanford Memorial Church. As I have reflected on my journey since then, I am struck by two things: First, the events leading up to my baptism marked a dramatic change in my life. Secondly, although my baptism was the beginning of a new life, it has taken me forty years--and will certainly take many more years--for me to live innto the new life I was given.
What events led to my baptism? I wasn’t raised in the church and had very little exposure to the Bible. During a dark time my first year in college, someone in my dorm suggested that I read the Bible. One night I read The Gospel of John from beginning to end and everything changed. That night I discovered that my life was connected to God. That night I realized that God was not some distant reality, but a presence that “was like a spring of water gushing up (cf. Jn 4:14)” inside of me. Although I had received much love in my life prior to this encounter, now I realized that the Creator of all things loved me. I had discovered the truth that makes us free (Jn.8:32). I was aware that I was part of a much bigger story than I ever dreamed possible. At my baptism, I acknowledged that the love of God made known in Jesus was the source of my life. I also committed to being a part of what Christ was doing in this world to reconcile all things.
However, I also discovered in the days ahead that although Jesus offered me a whole new life grounded in God’s love, it was going to take some time to learn to live this new life. Classical Christianity refers to this growth process as sanctification. Early on in my journey I was often impatient with how long this growth process was taking. Jesus tells me not “to be anxious about my life,” to trust in God’s providential care. Why then was I often anxious? Jesus commands us “to love our enemies.” Why did I find this hard to believe? Jesus was constantly reaching out to those who were excluded. Why did I find it hard to take that step? It didn’t take long before I began to realize that growing into “the full stature of Christ (cf.Eph. 4:13)” is a lifelong process. The example of the disciples in the Gospels proved very comforting. They are agonizingly slow to grasp the way of Jesus. Why should I assume that my experience will be any different?
In my impatience, I also discovered the key to growth. I had assumed that my growth would come because of my own willpower. After all, in my life prior to baptism the motto was “work, study, get rich.” If I just worked hard enough at it, good things would come. What I soon discovered was that growth in discipleship is the result of the Spirit’s work on us. Willpower is highly ineffective. What is required is willingness. Will I be open to what the Spirit of God can do to transform me more and more into the image and likeness of Christ? Sanctification is a slow process, the results of which are only noticed after the fact. Worship and prayer are indispensable. Spending time with God and allowing God to do the work is the way. We can’t make this happen. It is a gift from God.
Let’s be honest: that we don’t control our growth process annoys us to no end. We want to make our lives happen. No such luck. All we can do is ask God to do the work and be patient. After forty years, I am aware that God has changed me in spite of my ongoing resistance. I see things now that I didn’t see right after my baptism. I am able to love others now in ways that I couldn’t love them then. Perhaps most importantly, I am able to love myself—all of myself—more fully now.
As I continue my journey, I thank God for helping me grow little by little into the full stature of Christ. I pray that I will be open to God’s life-changing Spirit. Most of all, I pray that I will be patient with myself as God continues to work on me.