Philosopher of religion Dr. Matt Douglass and his wife, physics professor Dr. Angela Douglass recently had their second child. Shortly after their gender-confirming ultrasound they discovered their new baby was at high risk in the womb and, if surviving to birth, would be born with severe brain deformation, likely resulting from a very rare disease, Walker-Warburg Syndrome. The Douglasses learned that, “she may have some awareness, possibly emotions and pain and sensations. However, language development and abstract thought seem unlikely.” They decided to name their little girl Joy.
Joy was born in May. She experiences seizures but she is stable. Her cognitive disability means that it is likely she is unable to recognize pain. Joy’s life expectancy is two to three years. Dr. Matt Douglass wrote his PhD dissertation on theodicy – the problem of suffering.
We were worried that Joy would never be able to travel long distances, but after assurances from the doctors, we drove to Kansas for a week, which started with a wedding, ended with a baptism, and had some good and bad times in between.
Our oldest daughter Amelia was dedicated at our church in Arkadelphia. We had considered whether to baptize her, but ultimately we decided not to. I know the basic arguments from the various traditions, but I still don’t have a settled opinion on the issue. The Nazarenes will dedicate or baptize infants, depending on the family’s wishes, but the Nazarene culture seems to have a preference for believer’s baptism. But that’s not an option for Joy.
We could have dedicated Joy, as we dedicated Amelia two years ago, but the idea seemed…not pointless, exactly, but anemic. Typically at a dedication the parents promise to raise the child in the church so that, eventually, she can adopt the faith for herself. The church, in turn, promises to show love to the child and help incorporate her into the body of Christ.
But such things apply to Joy, if at all, in a far diminished way.
I sing the Lord’s Prayer to her, but she’ll never learn to pray. We’ll bring her to church, but she’ll never learn the basics of the faith. We’ll take care of her physically, but to what extent can we really meet her spiritual needs?
Baptism symbolizes the new creation that comes with salvation. It also represents our eventual death, burial, and bodily resurrection. More than this, though, we (Angela and I) believe that baptism is a sacrament, a true means of grace, not merely a symbolic ritual.
And, this side of heaven, it is the only sacrament Joy can participate in. (I suppose there won’t be any baptisms or marriages in heaven, but perhaps communion? I hope so.)
Fortunately, my dad got his district license from the Church of the Nazarene in July, which gave him the proper authority to baptize Joy for us. Our church manual includes a ritual for the baptism of infants, which my dad amended for the occasion. Here is part of it:
[To the congregation]:
Dearly Beloved: The sacrament of baptism is the sign and seal of the new covenant of grace.
While we do not hold that baptism imparts the regenerating grace of God, we do believe that Christian baptism signifies for this young child God’s acceptance within the community of Christian faith on the basis of prevenient grace.
At this time we are unsure to what extent Joy will be able to have a personal knowledge of faith in Jesus Christ. We are convinced though that she is able to sense and absorb the Christ like love that surrounds her.
[To the parents]:
In presenting this child for baptism you are hereby witnessing to your own personal Christian faith and to your purpose to continue to extend to her Christ like love and affection. To this end it is your duty to take her as often as feasible to the sanctuary where she may sense the presence of God and of godly fellowship. To share with her often the assurance of God’s love for her and as much as in you lies, to bring her up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
Will you endeavor to do so by the help of God? If so, answer, “I will.”
Joy Ana Douglass, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It was a solemn and emotional occasion.
Follow the Douglass family at https://thedouglasses.wordpress.com/