But as soon as I said out loud that I wasn’t going to do it, it became clear to me that, actually, I would. I think of this annual ritual dunking as a way of letting go of the last year and opening myself to the new one. In theological terms, full immersion baptism (not just the sprinkling we do in my church’s sanctuary) is an image of dying and rising. Coming up from baptismal waters is being “raised to walk in newness of life.” After 2020, of all years, that is what I wanted.
Meighan, who has been staying with me while her house is being built here on the island, has been a partner in the Whidbey plunge for years. When I told her I was going, she said “yes” too. So we headed off to Double Bluff beach.
When we arrived, a stiff southern wind was blowing and some brave folks were out parasailing. As we prepared to jump into the water another family arrived to also take the plunge. We all maintained an appropriate distance, even as I was appreciating the little scrap of community they provided.
Without the traditional blowing of the horn that lets us all know it’s time to go, I had to gather my own courage and tell myself, “Go!” I ran down to the water and headed in. I felt the pain of cold on my feet and legs before they went numb, and I kept going. When I was up to my waist, I fell backward and let the water cover me. Then I was up and out and back on the beach, shivering and salt-water clean.
I am glad I went ahead with this annual ritual after all. It’s not the impact of 2020 that I expect to be washed away. That is neither possible nor desirable. What I do need to challenge is my tendency to fall asleep. I need regular reminders to wake up, to take stock, to pay attention, and to take action. On the first day of a new year, what better way to be brought back to myself than a cold water drenching?
And I have needed such moments all the more as we have entered 2021. Wednesday’s events in Washington D.C., as white supremacy lies and mob mentality culminated in acts of sedition and insurrection, abetted by both the president and legislators who continue to promote falsehoods and fabrications about the November election, remind me that the turn of a page on a calendar doesn’t change things.
Faithful, ongoing work is needed to dismantle racism, to honor truth, and to meet hate with God’s reconciling love. We need to stay awake and keep moving. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus. . . “ (Hebrews 12:1-2). And so on Wednesday I looked not only at what was happening in our nation’s capitol, but also at what was happening in Georgia. There, as the fruit of years of staying awake and moving forward, voters were empowered and people showed up to vote for change.
So my new year’s prayer, to accompany my new year’s baptism, is that I (and all of us) will continue to keep going, and that when I need another cold-water plunge to wash away any chance that I might fall asleep, God will take me to the water.