Deception Pass: The story behind pastor Martin's emphasis on meaningful baptisms

What's unique about Reverend Gordon Martin—and his whole congregation at Snowhomish Church recognizes it—is his penchant for doing meaningful baptisms.

Often his baptism service includes a children's sermon, for which he has used all kinds of visual aids—a goldfish, a baby hamster, a meat cleaver, five one-hundred-dollar bills, and (the one no one will ever forget) his own wife in a bathing cap. Each baptism has its own special music, too: Amy Grant has been performed by kids, teenagers, and even in duet one time, by a mom and dad; the three-year-olds have sung "Jesus Loves Me"; and the choir has also sung "Feed My Lambs," that Natalie Sleeth pastoral, with flute accompaniment provided by the baptized child's sixth-grade sister.

What no one at Snowhomish knows, however, and what few anywhere understand, is why Pastor Gordon has this thing for baptism. There is, after all, a reason.

Pastor Gordon's father was a firebrand preacher, a man driven to purity in doctrine and life. He was a dissenter in the denomination into which he was born, and, like the pilgrims who settled Plymouth Massachusetts, finally became a separatist who left his childhood denomination to beget a new and more rigorous assembly.

His mother was the exact kind of woman his father required: she slid along in his sometimes turbulent wake without once second-guessing the surf her husband was creating. Both of them were small, hunched in appearance, stern-faced but full of the Spirit. Their eyes seemed to match—dark and foreboding and wary after all those years of battle.

Gordon was the oldest of four children—three boys and a girl. His brother Autry sold carpet and taught ninth-grade Sunday School in Eugene, Oregon; Rebecca, their sister, had set her sights on motherhood and married a man who became a professor at a Christian college.

Then there was Jeremy, the prodigal.

Jeremy's Request

In August, 1985, the four Martin children rented cabins at a park on Whidby Island, Washington. It was the first time they had all been together since the death of their father two years earlier.

The place was called Deception Pass, and it was more than an hour from Snowhomish Church. It was a place Gordon picked for its beauty, a place where each day billions of gallons of tidal water from the sound rushed through a thin, deeply cut crevice in the earth, back and forth, to fill and then empty the basins of the island.

Jeremy and Alexandria, his second wife, arrived in a beat-up Volvo, a pair of bikes on a rack on the trunk. Alex was his wife now, but she hadn't been when their baby Aaron was born, just two months after the funeral—and believe me, that's another story.

Besides Gordon and his wife Donna, who came early to set everything up, Jeremy and Alexandria were the first of the children to arrive. And perhaps because they were alone—Gordon, the preacher, and his brother Jeremy the prodigal—Jeremy asked Gordon a question that Gordon hadn't really anticipated.

He asked it in a flourish of hope, it seemed to Gordon, while the two of them stood alone outside the cabin where Alex was feeding little Aaron. Jeremy lifted the trail bike off its hooks as he looked at his brother, smiled, and said, "We want you to baptize Aaron—

here, now, with the family." Then he put the bike on the gravel, lifted the front end off the ground and spun the front tire, as if to see if the long trip from Minnesota had done it any harm. "We thought it'd be nice with all the family around. It's something we've thought a lot about," Jeremy said. 'And we'd like you to do it."

Gordon's first reaction was the one he would have expected from his father: "a family is not a church." But although he was a preacher, Gordon was by no means his father's clone.

"I mean, when everybody's here," Jeremy said, taking hold of the second bike, the one with the baby seat.

So much within Gordon wanted to rush into a wonderful baptism in the same headlong fashion that the tidal waters poured through the steep gorge on the coast. Baptism was a step after all, a baby step, even, toward faith for his brother Jeremy. And the whole family had been praying for him endlessly through what?—fifteen years of rebellion and personal problems.

"It just seems right to us," Jeremy said. 'And it's not just for Dad's sake either. It's for us—for Aaron."

It was a mark of how far Jeremy had wandered from his father's path that he would even ask such a thing...

"Wouldn't it be great for Mother?" Jeremy continued.

Gordon helped his brother lift the suitcases out of the trunk. He knew, of course, that there were no quick answers to his brother's request. So he offered Jeremy the only response he could think of right off hand. "I'll have to think about it," he said. "It's not just something one does, Jeremy—like feeding the child."

Something died, just that fast, in Jeremy's eyes. He turned away carrying a pair of suitcases up the worn board stairway and into the cabin. The screen door slammed behind him, slapped shut by a long spring. Just as quickly Jeremy reappeared. "You're so dogmatic, Gord," he said from the doorstep. "Just like Dad. There's no humanity in you."

"I haven't said no," Gord told him.

"But you're thinking about it," Jeremy said.

What haunted Gordon as he thought about Jeremy's request that night was something he remembered of The Godfather—the scene in which a killing took place at the exact time the mobster who set it up created an alibi by having his son baptized. This terrifying, ugly murder occurred while the boss stood on the front steps of a giant gothic cathedral for a religious ceremony as empty as a tinkling cymbal.

But after all, Gordon thought, how many of the couples whose kids I've baptized were really thinking through the vows at all? How often do people simply baptize their children because, like fireworks on Independence Day, it's a good thing to do? And isn't baptism just a promise? The water's not holy—the janitor takes it out of the restroom. And don't we all break promises? Isn't it true of any parent that their pledges of honor and perfect parenting are all broken at some point? We all sin, after all—every one of us. Does baptism—a simple sign and symbol—mean so much really?

Gordon struggled with his own doubts and questions as he tossed and turned in the dark cabin. Would his sprinkling tidal waters on his nephew's head somehow destroy God's own pledge? Was there anything a man or woman could do to a child or his parents that would somehow affect God's grace? If God wanted this child, was there any question but that Christ's own cleansing mercies would wash over him?

Wasn't his brother's soul worth it?

Church or Family?

"You know what your father would say." Gordon's mother sat on a picnic table working a crossword puzzle, keeping her eye on the three youngest grandchildren who were puttering on the water's edge.

"But this is his son," Gordon said.

"What makes you think that would make any difference?" she asked.

"Maybe it should," he replied.

They were alone, all the others out biking on the road toward the pass. Just Grandma, the three littlest kids, and Gordon, who had told the rest he would catch up.

"We're not a church," she said; "we're a family."

"We're a church, Mother," Gordon said. "We're believers who happen to be a family."

She slapped the opened magazine lightly against the edge of the table. "Seems to me your mind's already made up," she told him.

'Are you with me?" he asked.

"You know what your father—"

"You, Mother," he said. "I want to know what you think."

She stood, stepped out from behind the picnic table, and walked up behind her grandchildren, so busy at the water's edge they were oblivious to both of them.

"I have to, Mother," he told her. "I can't face Jeremy with any more theology."

She turned back toward him slowly followed the line of her tracks back up the dusty slope, then looked away. "Then let me just say this," she told him, shaking her head. "Don't you ever forget him." She raised a finger. "Don't you ever, ever forget about him."

"You mean Jeremy?" Gordon asked.

"No, I don't mean Jeremy" she said. "I mean Aaron—the boy you're about to pledge to God. Don't you ever forget about him."

A Good Thing

It took longer than he thought it would for him to catch up to the other bikers. Almost an hour, in fact—an hour he had alone on the road.

The next morning, alone, Gordon told Jeremy that he would baptize the child. But he also told his prodigal brother that he wanted assurances from him—assurances that he and Alex would take Aaron to church, that they'd begin to go themselves, and that they'd begin to take the faith of their parents more seriously.

"Sure," Jeremy said. "We've been thinking that church would be a good thing again."

"A good thing," Gordon thought all the rest of that day. 'A good thing," he repeated to himself that afternoon, when all the kids were there, and all the grandchildren—when the whole family stood there at the shore and watched Gordon Martin reach down for the water that was already retreating back out to the sound.

The whole family that is, except his mother, whose absence, Jeremy claimed, he understood and accepted. "I won't be there," she'd told them all. "You know your father would not approve." But neither did she try to stop them.

So Gordon Martin baptized Aaron Martin, Jeremy's son, because it seemed to him, at least, a good thing to do.

The Invisible Mark

And today at Snowhomish Church, every time a couple comes to him, Pastor Martin sits down with them, opens up the possibilities of what might happen on their day in front of church, offers some suggestions, points at the banners, and lets the newborn baby squeeze his finger.

And then they talk.

"Do you know what it is?" he says to the couple. "I mean, baptism—do you really understand what you're doing?"

The couple invariably look shyly at each other, shrug their shoulders, and nod their heads. Of course they do.

"Do you know why your child should be baptized?" he says.

They glance at each other, and then, once in awhile, the father says, "It's a good thing to do."

"It is a good thing to do," he tells those young couples, but then he tells them no. He says he won't baptize their children until they know for sure and believe in what is going on with the sprinkling of the water.

You see, in 1987 Alexandria left Jeremy for very good reasons and took Aaron to New Mexico, and that's where they live—mother and son—together. Jeremy still lives in St. Paul. He's had more than his share of trouble, and he's got another girlfriend—one with two kids who he claims need a father.

So today Snowhomish Church knows it's a thing with Rev. Martin—this sacrament of baptism. And now you know why: his dead father has a grandson somewhere in New Mexico with an invisible mark on his forehead placed there by his uncle, a preacher who drew in a handful of water from a basin that had begun, even as the family stood there together, to seep slowly back out to the sound.

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.