The only way for Amy Julia Becker to explain her love for her daughter was through the lens of faith. So she took a deep breath and began.
February 7, 2012 | Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from “A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny” by Amy Julia Becker, © Copyright 2011 by Amy Julia Becker. Used with permission of Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
We arranged to use Lawrenceville’s chapel for the baptism. On Sunday morning, November 12, we dressed Penny in her great-grandmother’s christening gown. She sat on the plush red carpet that surrounded the altar, with her translucent skin and wide blue eyes, her soft brown hair and the long, creamy, lace gown draped around her. The fairy-tale portrait was interrupted by a Boston Red Sox bib, protecting the gown from any drool or food.
“Don’t worry,” I told my sister Kate, Penny’s godmother-to-be. “I’ll take it off before the service starts.”
Kate leaned down and put her face close to Penny’s. “I will make sure your mom remembers to take off the bib.”
Penny batted her eyes.
We got everything set up -- flowers at the altar, two of Peter’s students to hand out programs. I checked in with a friend who had agreed to play the piano. We made sure the microphones worked and that various friends and family members knew their roles in helping the ceremony proceed. As the pews began to fill, I removed Penny’s bib and ran my hands along the delicate lace of her gown.
Over one hundred people showed up. Dozens of Peter’s colleagues and students. A few friends from church. Family members from all over. Atheists, Jews, Muslims, and Christians all gathered for the occasion. Peter stood to welcome the faces that lined the wooden pews. “I know that sitting in a chapel is not what many of you do every week. But we’re so honored that you would choose to be here this morning to join us in receiving God’s work in our daughter’s life and in our family’s life. We’ve tried to keep the service simple, but we know there will be parts that might feel unfamiliar -- prayers or hymns or even the whole baptism thing. Please don’t worry if you don’t know what’s going on, but we hope you’ll participate to the degree that you feel comfortable. And be sure to sing out!”
Sing out they did. The voices filled the cavernous space, as if to embrace us. We sang “Praise to the Lord,” an old hymn. I had always loved it, but I was struck for the first time by the penultimate verse:
Praise to the Lord, Who doth prosper thy way and defend thee;
Surely His goodness and mercy shall ever attend thee.
Ponder anew what the Almighty can do, Who with His love doth befriend thee.
Ponder anew what the Almighty can do … With Penny propped upon my hip, I thought, Yes, God can do new things. New things in my life. New things in my heart. New things in our family. I kissed the top of her head as the hymn came to a close.
A few minutes later, I walked to the lectern to offer my reflections on the readings we had chosen for the day. Kate had read from 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s famous passage about love, most commonly heard at weddings. Our friend Susannah read from Mark 9, where Jesus received the children even though the disciples thought He would see them as a nuisance and had tried to shoo them away. My heart pounded more quickly than usual. I had spoken about my beliefs in a church context before, and in one-on-one conversations, but never to a crowd like this one. And yet the only way for me to explain my love for our daughter was through the lens of faith. I took a deep breath and began:
The passages that Kate and Susannah just read have meant a lot to us these past ten months. Both of them contain a contrast. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul begins by talking about things like “speaking in the tongues of men or of angels” or “having faith that can move mountains.” He contrasts these things -- these impressive traits -- with what it means to have love, and he says that without love, those previous things have no value. In the second passage, we hear about Jesus and His disciples, and we receive another contrast. First there are the disciples, wondering who is the greatest. Then there is the child, a representative of “the least among them.” And it is the child who becomes the model for the disciples, and for all of us.
One week after Penny was born, a friend called and shared that verse from Mark’s gospel: “Whoever receives this child, receives me,” and she said, “Amy Julia, I have a sense that this is true for you with Penny.”
The more we receive Penny, the more we welcome her, exactly as she is, the more we welcome God’s work in our lives.
As I spoke, I made eye contact with people in the pews. Some sat with quiet smiles, others were nodding their heads.
One of the things that Penny’s life has shown me so far is how different God’s values are from my values, and from many of our culture’s values. Going back to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians for a minute, I have realized in the past few months that I am very impressed by education, by the ability to be articulate and communicate clearly. I don’t think it’s bad, in and of itself, for me to be impressed by these things, yet it makes me ask myself whether I am more impressed by good speeches and college degrees than I am by love.