The day before his baptism, after I after I explained to him why we wouldn't be able to baptize in the ocean, Anthony told me that he wanted me to hold him under. I said, "What!?" He said, "I want you to hold me under. I want to stay underneath the water for a longer time than normal, really capture the moment, talking to God..."
So Wednesday night came, and we were late starting because Anthony - our drummer - was convinced that along with this Houdini imitation, he'd also sing. As he fished around with microphone cable calling out instructions to the sound board over the small crowd, I sat holding my guitar and seriously wondered if I would hold him under. And for how long? What does "hold me under" mean?
Also, I was surprised to be doing the actual dunking. Howard has been walking with Anthony for a long time. But Anthony was clear: Howard in the water, you dunk, John. I was like, "Alright..." So it was on me. And, honestly, I get as nervous about baptisms as I do at weddings - it's intense - and this "wish" freaked me out.
Hold me under.
Well, we baptized Mike first. And right before we did, I realized that because Anthony had fiddled with microphones for ten minutes, the front of the stage was now empty of cable; and all the people gathered just walked right up and stood on the stage, inches from the baptistry - which is, basically, kind of shaped like a hot tub. Just without any hot.
Mike shared his story. He was raised in a church environment where he never actually saw or experienced Jesus. Later, after enlisting, Mike went to war. When he came back from Iraq, he came back in a pile having seen things no one should ever see.
Then he met Jesus.
When Mike spoke about the collision, he just exploded with thankfulness for what Jesus has done in his life, and as I put him back into the water - which was cold - and lifted him up, everyone wiped away tears, cheering.
Then here comes Anthony. Shirtless. Which was a nice contrast because Howard came in the baptistry wearing a rash guard. Anthony didn't have much to say before the baptism - he shared more later - but you could tell he was ready to go. He stood awkwardly, facing the wrong direction, so I turned him by the shoulders, positioned Howard behind him, explained what was going to happen. I said my bit, prayed, and then put him down.
And he was under.
At that point - my hand on his hands which covered his face, tipping him back into the water - even then I still hadn't made up my mind. But as he sunk to the icy cool water at the bottom, I spread my hands and touched his shoulder and his knee, and I held him under. I was shaking, I was so nervous. One one thousand. Howard then said to everyone, "He asked to be held under," which seemed to surprise no one. After a couple beats, up he came, spitting and dripping and wiping his face. He hugged me. He hugged Howard. The world cheered.
I tell this to share a couple thoughts, - one, really. First, baptism is God's thing, not ours. I tell people, "It's God's sign....to all of us....of what he has done in the life of the person being baptized." After the job was done, people shared words about each man, expressed love and encouragement, and we shut it down with a couple songs the guys had picked out.
But here's thought number two. If I didn't hold him down, I didn't do what he wanted me to do. I am an L.A. kid, originally, but have lived all over. In the midwest, some of my cousins would go hogging - fishing for catfish with their bare hands - and one would stand on the others shoulders to pin him to the river floor, where the fish are. It sounds crazy, and it's incredibly risky, but that's what they'd do. Then they'd stick their hands in the holes of the river floor, wiggle the fingers, and "chomp" - a fish.
When you enter the water, Romans Chapter 6 says it's kind of like entering the grave with Jesus. He went to the grave, and he took with him every bad thing that had ever been done. He was killed. All the bad things were killed, too. The fancy way of describing the "dunk" is to say, "you are identifying with Jesus' death and burial."
So for Anthony to say "hold me under," he was kind of saying, "Hold me in the grave." The baptism itself is symbolic of a spiritual reality - there is no trick or magic in the experience - but that's heavy symbolism.
When you come out of the water, it's like Jesus coming out of that tomb. You don't come out better. You come out alive. Brand new. Jesus was in the grave for days, and then he came to life and walked out of it. The fancy way of putting this is to say that when you come out of the water, "you identify with Jesus' resurrection."
I don't know what Anthony wanted. Maybe a more explosive grave exit. Maybe time to just pray, while he was in the grave, so to speak. Maybe he wanted to simply be under the weight of water next to the people who love him, in that cool place with milky light falling all around, talking to God.
If I ever have a chance to be in that place again, I hope my friends won't yank me out. If they have any say or point of influence, I hope they hold me under.