Praising the Lord

Six months is an embarrassingly long time to go without a single baptism. So when the Ward Mission Leader (WML) from an adjacent ward invited me (another WML) to attend his baptismal service, I couldn’t pass up his offer. It had been so long, I was beginning to forget how to run the services myself. Best to make an appearance, and see how it’s done. Presumably my own elders would also attend the ordinance. Maybe some magic pixie dust would rub off, and they’d be motivated to find good candidates of their own for a good dunking. It certainly couldn’t hurt.

I entered the baptismal room just before the start of the meeting and surveyed the scene. Up in front sat three investigators in a row, all dressed in white — two men and a woman, whom I’ll call “Peter”, “Paul” and “Mary”. Something about the way these three were sitting, the way they weren’t interacting with each other, their body language — to say nothing of their distinct ethnicities — made it obvious they weren’t a family. These folks clearly didn’t know each other. Here were three totally independent investigators, all of whom happened to be getting baptized on the same day. “Great,” I thought. “My missionaries can’t seem to find a soul; meanwhile, this ward has three separate people joining the Church in one service. How depressing!”

I took my seat near the back as the baptismal service commenced. Everything proceeded smoothly. When the actual ordinance portion of the program arrived, Mary was the first in line. A 30-something blonde with a big grin on her face, she was clearly happy to be there. She slowly entered the font, where an awaiting elder gently took her hand. He briskly lowered her into the water, said a few words, and then up Mary came. She wiped away the water from her eyes, clasped her hands together, looked upward, and then exclaimed in a booming voice: “PRAISE THE LORD!! PRAISE JESUS!! HALLELUJAH!! PRAISE THE LORD!!!” Mary turned to ascend the stairs to her changing room, but a look of pure ecstacy remained on her face. “PRAISE THE LORD!!! PRAISE GOD!!! JESUS BE PRAISED!!!” she screamed. Her outbursts continued, even as she exited into the back room.

I cringed. This wasn’t the sort of reaction I was used to witnessing in the newly-baptized. Oh sure, happiness and smiles were to be expected, but Mary was so effusive, so over-the-top, so thunderously emotional in her outburts, it was downright embarrassing. I wanted to take her aside, and say: “Look lady, this just isn’t how things are done. You’re a Mormon now, and it’s high time you learn to act dignified and reverent and staid in your spirituality. None of this grating, evangelical fervor, thank you very much.” I tried to comfort myself with the realization that in time, Mary would come to unlearn her bad habits, and assimilate nicely into the culture of Mormonism.

But moments later, I starting feeling guilty for my initial response. Who was I to say what was and wasn’t an appropriate reaction to one of the most important religious ordinances in a person’s life? If Mary’s outbursts were genuine and heartfelt, if these were authentic expressions of religious joy, who was I to rain on her parade? Shame on me! She’d have ample opportunity for acculturation later, why couldn’t I just appreciate the spontaneous expression of religious feeling I was witnessing? What an anal-retentive stick-in-the-mud I was!

As I sat in my seat, mulling over my contradictory reactions to Mary’s emotionalism, Peter exited the room and then began his descent into the font. I looked at him, and then I suddenly experienced an odd premonition, a sense of foreboding. As Peter stepped into the water, it dawned on me that there was one big difference between Mary and Peter. Mary (presumably) had never attended an LDS baptismal service before. This was all entirely new to her. She was a blank slate, one who couldn’t possibly know how other investigators have reacted to their own baptisms in the past. But the same couldn’t be said of Peter. He had seen at least one LDS baptism previously — that of Mary, just moments before. “Oh, no!” I thought to myself. “What if …. ?”

My worst fears were realized. Peter arose from the water, and a new round of worshipful shouting began. “Praise Jesus!!! Praise the Lord!!! Hallelujah!! Praise Jesus!!!” Peter turned to exit the font, as Mary had done before him, and continued his verbal barrage: “Praise Jesus!!!” “Praise the Lord!!!” Praise God!!!” Just like Mary …. except not quite. Except for one palpable difference. While Mary had been unquestionably sincere, Peter seemed more like a nervous actor. He was aping Mary’s performance, trying his best to come off as authentic, but not too successfully. This made Peter’s theatrics even more awkward than Mary’s. But it was also kind of sad. Here’s a guy who should have been beaming with pride at his baptism, but all he seemed to be doing was remembering Mary’s reaction and thinking about how best to meet the expectations of his Mormon audience (as he imagined them).

Paul’s turn came next. Do I really need to tell you how it went? I knew what was coming, and braced myself for the worst. Sure enough, Paul repeated Peter’s performance, but with a terrible twist. While Paul’s outbursts were as inauthentic as Peter’s, Paul also seemed fully embarrassed to be playing a part he hadn’t wanted. His “Praise Jesuses” and “Praise the Lords” were uttered reluctantly, and without conviction. His intonation even rose at the end of each utterance, as if he was hesitantly posing questions: “Um, praise Jesus?” Praise the Lord?” Translation: “Um, folks, is this how it’s done? Is this what I’m supposed to say? I didn’t get the memo, so please don’t blame me if I emote incorrectly!”

All in all, a disaster.

* * *

Peter, Paul and Mary’s baptismal service was the most awkward baptismal service I have ever experienced. Three different baptizees, all publicly proclaiming their love for Jesus in decidedly un-Mormon fashion, but two of whom were only doing so out of a mistaken belief that this was how baptized Mormons were supposed to behave. And so I left the service, feeling bad about what I’d witnessed, feeling happy that three new churchmembers were embarking on a new phase of their lives, sure, but lamenting the awkward expressions of inauthentic religious feeling from two of them. And as I reflect back on this experience, I find myself wanting to extract a moral from it, wanting to frame it as a cautionary tale as I advocate for Mission policy X, Ward policy Y, or White Bible rule Z that will ensure nothing like this ever happens again.

Thing is, I can’t. What could the elders have done? What could anyone have done to prevent the investigators from reluctantly following Mary’s unusual lead? Forcing potential new members to attend at least one LDS baptismal service before their own service sounds like a sensible rule, but it isn’t realistic. Most wards and branches in the Church don’t see sufficient quantities of baptisms to make such a rule viable. Asking missionaries or Ward Mission Leaders to thoroughly review the ins-and-outs of baptismal protocol with investigators is perhaps important, but instructing baptizees to react in a certain way would be worse than saying nothing at all. Surely we don’t want to script new members’ reactions to their own joyous religious milestones. Honestly, what else can we do?

So in the end, I’m left with a different set of thoughts. Part of the reason I felt (and feel) for Peter and Paul is that I realize they’re not so unique after all. How many of us go through our religious lives, modeling our conversations, our testimonies, our religious language, after some imagined ideal, mimicking the manner and style of those whom we assume better represent orthodox Mormonism? How many of us feel trapped by confining modes of discourse, or seemingly unwritten rules concerning religiously correct vocabulary that we feel obliged to let direct the content of our testimonies, our comments in Gospel Doctrine class, our conversations with our fellow Saints? How many of us refrain from, say, publicly bearing testimony, out of fear that we will come off as too emotionally detached, or say the wrong things? No, our own experiences as churchmembers are not completely analogous to those of Peter and Paul; these gentleman had no idea what the cultural expectations of the Mormon community were, whereas typical LDS churchmembers know the expectations all too well. Still though, Peter and Paul’s awkward performances serve as a reminder that it’s all to easy to sacrifice authentic religious expression at the altar of community expectation.

I guess, at the end of the day, I wish I’d been able to take Peter and Paul aside beforehand and give them a message we all need to hear: There’s more than one right way to praise the Lord.

Comments

  1. I know with every fiber of my being that this is an excellent post.

  2. 6 months? Try 10 and counting.

    Great post, Aaron. Love your conclusion; it is all too easy to forget.

  3. “He briskly lowered her into the water, said a few words, and then up Mary came.”

    That’s why Mary was praising the Lord; she was glad the missionary hadn’t drowned her.

  4. Excellent post.

  5. It reminds me of a Langston Hughes short story. My mother had this same experience when she did her catechism as a Lutheran. The kids were supposed to acknowledge when the spirit fell on them, and she said she didn’t feel anything, but the rest of the kids did, so she leaned over to her friend and said “I didn’t feel anything, did you?” Her friend said she didn’t either, but that they had to go along with it. She said it was very different from her experience being confirmed in the LDS church.

    I do think our F&T meetings can be a bit like this too. We conflate crying and sentimental stories with spirituality.

  6. When I was baptized at age eight, I was startled by the cold of the water, and said “Golly!” When my Dad raised me out of the water, I yelled “Wow!” which elicited a burst of laughter from my grandparents and mother. Nobody told me I had broken a protocol.

    One Fast Sunday I attended in 1974 was at the ward in Biloxi, Mississippi, on the Gulf Coast where most of the members were Air Force people stationed at Keesler AFB, including the bishop who, unusually, was an AF chaplain. One of the members who stood at the pulpit to bear her testimony was an older black woman, a recent convert who interjected her statements of gratitude for finding the true church with exclamations of “Thank you, Jesus!” She had seen us sobersided Utah Mormons testify, but didn’t feel constrained by our example.

    When I was at the Language Training Mission at what was then the Church College of Hawaii in 1969, we all attended one of the student wards. During Fast and Testimony meeting, a strapping Polynesian brother burst out singing a hymn of gratitude.

    These were unusual expressions of emotion in our church services. The more typical emotional expression is tears, and sobs that can interrupt our efforts to speak, even in General Conference addresses by apostles like Henry Eyring.

    The brethren who were taking those two men into the baptismal waters should have told them that the woman’s statements were her own spontaneous remarks and not expected or required. Afterward, the missionaries should have apologized for not informing them of it beforehand.

  7. This is a wonderful post, Aaron. It elicited so many emotions and thoughts as I read it, and your summary touched on almost all of them.

    Truly, there are multiple ways to worship Jesus – and I wish we did more obvious praising. Mary was singing a song of redeeming love, and it’s disheartening to realize that many of the really good, sincere, devout members I know would have reacted in embarrassment, as well – as I would have before I got to know my own version of Mary years ago.

  8. Chris Gordon says:

    Sounds like the film department needs to show an instructional video on a baptism so that all baptisms are properly correlated.

    Honestly, though, given how many font-side baptism preps I’ve seen both by fathers of children and by missionaries (“no, put your hand here like this and I’ll do this-no, not quite-wait, like that”), maybe a short video wouldn’t hurt.

    I can remember family home evenings during the month or so prior to my baptism usually ending in “rehearsals” that were very fun.

  9. This wouldn’t have happened if the elders hadn’t fallen for the sexist idea that women have to go first like they do in sacrament meeting when couples speak, the “ladies first” notion of outdated chivalry, and the erroneous sexist idea that women need longer to get dressed.

    If Mary had gone last, it would have had a different outcome.

  10. Last Lemming says:

    It seems to me that it wouldn’t have been that difficult for an elder, while escorting Peter into the font, to whisper in his ear “I’ve never seen anybody react that like that before.” It might not have occurred to the elders that Peter would follow suit, but when he did, they certainly should have said something to Paul.

  11. If Mary had gone last, it would have had a different outcome.

    Yes, one has to wonder what would have happened if Mary’s father had hit Marty instead of George.

  12. Naismith – maybe they just drew lots to see who would go first, or Mary had been waiting longer or been more anxious to get done first. Maybe prior experience of baptisms in that ward/district indicated that women needed more time to get dressed afterward (even if not necessarily true).

    Certainly Mary going last (or even second) would have had a different outcome, but that’s missing the point. We can’t just jump up and judge if we don’t know the circumstances.

  13. StillConfused says:

    I LOVE evangelical Christians. They are alive and vibrant. Definitely no snooze fest there.

    My traumatic baptism experience was at my son’s baptism. He was scheduled at the same time as a fellow member’s down syndrome daughter. The daughter had no idea what was going on; was terrified beyond belief; and screamed bloody murder the entire time. It was the most horrific, unChristian thing that I had ever seen. I actually had to go out in the hall for most of the ordeal because it was so terrible. After the torture was over, they came out and got me for my son’s baptism, but there was no calming or loving spirit in that room that day.

  14. That’s a great story, Hawkgrrrl. I wish we could suss out those moments in our own congregations and address them properly.

  15. At least she didn’t come out of the water speaking in tongues! (We had that happen in one of my areas in Louisiana)

    While you can’t always show people a baptism I think it is important for the missionaries and ward mission leader to prepare people to know what to expect. My experience is that people have legitimately felt the spirit in other faiths and other circumstances. They’ve been taught one way to react to the spirit and it often happens spontaneously. A little preparation helps a lot.

  16. “There’s more than one right way to praise the Lord”.

    You’ve drawn a great moral to your wonderful story. Thanks for sharing.

  17. In the ward I attended in Puyallup, there was a big old African-American man that was confined to a wheelchair. He was the greeter, and as we filed in he would take people’s hands and kiss them and tell people that he loved them. Quite often during Sacrament Meetings he would shout out something like “Praise Jesus”, or simply “I’m with you there.” I thought, at first, that he possibly he was some kind of imbecile. But shortly afterward I taught a class that he attended, and learned quickly that his understanding of particularly Mormon doctrines was well rounded and often deeply insightful.

  18. clarkgoble, and what would be wrong with someone speaking tongues immediately after baptism? Seems like that happened fairly routinely in the early LDS Church.

  19. This was a very good post thank you! I think when I got up from the water I whispered loud: YESSS! It just slipped out… and everyone laughed. Poor guys I could imagine how they felt after her… someone should have told at lest the last one that he do not need to do that :) This was funny, made giggle. In one babtisement a little girl started to swim around …

  20. Wendell Welling says:

    Perhaps now is a good time to remember that we have a seventh article of faith which states;

    We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healings, and the interpretation of tongues. My own great great grandmother was recorded to have spoken in tongues several times by Eliza R. Snow. Hopefully we still believe in these things. I hope we will all be able to discern authentic gifts of the Spirit when they manifest themselves. They are a part of the restored gospel.

  21. #16
    Maybe you only realized that his exclamations were insightful when they were in praise of your teachings. I wonder how nice it might feel to give a sacrament meeting talk to a congregation where I could see and hear enthusiastic support. Instead many of the listeners are sleeping/distracted and I can’t tell the difference between those with genuine interest and those holding your standard perma-smile.

    Now I’m a VERY generic, white, male, church-going conformist who knows and follows Mormon protocol, but several times I’ve been really tempted to shout “EXACTLY!” or “YES!” and shove an agreeing fist-pump in the air when I hear something awesome over the pulpit. Instead I keep my quiet and smile and nod my head just enough so somebody might notice if they’re sitting close.

  22. This reminds of the most entertaining bishopric meeting I attended. We had a wonderful newly baptized college student at the east coast college I was at. He was something of an artist and it came time for him to give a sacrament talk where he was to bear his testimony. He asked whether he could read his poetry as his testimony which we all knew pretty well tended toward the beatnik style. It would clearly make certain elements of the congregation more than uncomfortable and not fit into a traditional Mormon style. There was serious consideration of not letting him do it but we ultimately decided that not only was his heart in the right place that it really would be wrong to not let him express his spirituality in his own uniquely felt way. We provided a bit of council about keeping it in the right spirit and then just sat back. Predictably half the audience squirmed uncomfortably and hated it. The other half loved it. It was awesome, I still count it as one of my favorite, most memorable and most Spirit filled talks I have experienced to this day. Aaron if your out there – It was totally awesome! I wonder how much we suppress expressions of the spirit due to our rigid forms and conventions?

  23. clarkgoble says:

    Andrew (18) – I tend to think speaking in tongues is self-created. Honestly I think that a lot of the early speaking in tongues in the church was also a counterfeit. (There are indications Joseph felt that way too) That’s not to deny real gifts of the spirit but it seems undeniable that people counterfeit them. People who come from a culture where one acts in that way when there is a spiritual experience will act that way again. It’s not like there is something “standard” in all this. I mean we associate quiet organ music by older ladies with it but I don’t think that’s essential in the least.

    In any case if someone starts speaking in tongues and there is no interpreter present I discount it out of hand.

  24. we associate quiet organ music by older ladies with it but I don’t think that’s essential in the least.

    I agree, but many don’t. Our organ has one volume–loud–and people are always complaining about it.

  25. Clark, how do you know if there is an interpreter present? In the early church, interpretation was a gift of the spirit as well, as Joseph made clear on at least one occasion where he approved a young girl’s interpretation and rebuked the elders’ attempts to restrain her. It could be that any number of people could interpret, if only they had the proper faith and were open to the gift.

    Moroni makes a special effort to warn us against denying the gifts of the spirit. Maybe we should listen to him.

  26. clarkgoble says:

    MCQ, if you look at what I said I don’t deny the gifts. However it seems to me undeniable that they are frequently faked. If you go back to the old thread on the speaking in tongues and gifts of the spirit you’ll see I think them as common today as in prior ages. However I think that early converts who were used to responding in Church settings in a particular way would continue to have those habits.

  27. Interesting story.

    It kind of reminds of how helpful it would be if every member of the Church would be charitable to every other instead of judging them.

    Raymond,
    Thank you for the helpful words.

  28. Butch Bowman says:

    When it comes to scriptural interpretation and religious practice, we Mormons tend to be a pretty narrow-minded bunch. I suspect that at least part of the reason Peter and Paul were uncomfortable is because they sensed the discomfort of the members present but weren’t sure exactly what it meant. Perhaps if the members had been more open to different expressions of spirituality, Peter and Paul would have felt more free to express their own spiritual feelings genuinely, instead of confusedly attempting to navigate the unknown waters of Mormon conformity.

    I would be interested to know what evidence exists for Joseph disapproving speaking in tongues. I would site the instance when Brigham Young spoke in tongues and Joseph confirmed it to be “pure Adamic language.” In response to clarkgoble (23), I would ask what experiences you have had with the gift of tongues, and what prejudices you have against it. The early saints had this gift among them. I would say the fact that we don’t have it speaks more to our loss of a spiritual gift than to their counterfeiting of one.

    The Church of Jesus Christ (Monongahela, PA) has an interesting version of the gift of tongues among them. While they are open to the traditional scenario of one person speaking an unknown language and another acting as interpreter, they more often have a manifestation they refer to as “speaking in the Spirit.” In this scenario, a member of the congregation will interrupt the meeting channeling a message from the Lord, but it is in English.

    To me, the statement that, “we believe all things” suggests that we should be accepting of other people’s spiritual experiences and their individual ways of expressing it, rather than insisting on the crushing conformity of correlation (if I may wax Maxwellian). Think of what wonderful spiritual experiences we could have together if this were the case.

  29. When I was a missionary in Texas we always made sure we watched the video “On the Way Home” with investigators prior to their babtism. While I still think the video is a bit cheesy at times it does accuratly depict an “ideal” mormon convert baptism. As well it helped reinforce the concept that a baptism requires complete imersion in water. In my home ward there was an investigator who had a water phobia. It took three seperate baptismal services until she was able to be calm enough to go under the water.

  30. clarkgoble says:

    Butch, I prefer not to go into my experiences or those of people I know. It seems one thing to talk about historic events and an other to talk of contemporary ones. As for Joseph’s changing views on the matter this is well discussed. I’d start with the June 27, 1839 record:

    Were given for the purpose of preaching among those whose language is not understood as on the day of Pentecost &c, & it is not necessary for tongues to be taught to the church particularly, for any man that has the Holy Ghost, can speak of the things of God in his own tongue, as well as to speak in another, for faith comes not by signs but by hearing the word of God.

    Then the August 8, 1839 account

    Speak not in the Gift of tongues without understanding it, or without interpretation, The Devil can speak in Tongues. The Adversary will come with his work, he can tempt all classes, Can speak in English or Dutch. –Let no one speak in tongues unless he interpret except by the consent of the one who is placed to preside, then he may discern or interpret or another may.

    Then there was the April 28, 1842 account

    If any have a matter to reveal, let it be in your own tongue. Do not indulge too much in the gift of tongues, or the devil will take advantage of the innocent. You may speak in tongues for your own comfort but I lay this down for a rule that if any thing is taught by the gift of tongues, it is not to be received for doctrine.

    Joseph clearly believed in the legitimate gift of tongues. However he also clearly felt it was open to a lot of abuse.

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