PCB is a professor and prior guest of the blog. We’re really glad he chose to share these sacred thoughts here.
Recently I baptized my eight-year-old son. It was an emotional and profoundly spiritual experience for me, perhaps one of the most important in my life. I know a lot of parents feel this way, but this surprised me. I love my son, love the Church, and was very happy to welcome him into the official fellowship of the Saints. Our practice of baptizing eight-year-old children hasn’t always resonated with me, though; despite Mormon’s fierce protestations to the contrary, I don’t seen a big difference between child baptisms and a baby blessings. Perhaps more to the point (and maybe not unrelated), I’ve felt some ambivalence these last few years toward many other institutional features of Mormonism as I’ve wandered through a thicket of complexity in my spiritual and religious life. All to say: I knew this gathering of family and friends to celebrate my young son would be special. I just didn’t expect it to prompt so profound a spiritual reaction. I was wrong.
It wasn’t really the family gathering or the baptismal ceremony itself that prompted this reaction. It came instead because the hours before that ceremony brought to mind my own baptism under very different circumstances thirty years ago. Over several hours on Saturday, I felt in a deep way the love of God the Father and God the Son as they operated on me to help me understand how weak things can become strong, even across generations. And in the process, I felt drawn tightly toward the beauty and meaning that Mormon Christianity has to offer me, despite what I perceive to be its flaws and imperfections.
I’ve written before about my fraught experience with my father. There’s no other way to say it: Dad simply wasn’t very good at life, something I don’t ever remember not knowing. I remember so clearly, for example, six- and seven-year-old me sitting on the curb in front of our house, studying the faded paint on my hand-me-down RC Cola backpack that doubled as an overnight bag, waiting for him to come get me for a Saturday night together as he had promised he would do. As the minutes ticked on, I would move farther and farther down the street in hopes of hastening his arrival. My mother remembers that these vigils would last all morning, but they often ended the same, with me coming in dejected and stood up. By the time I was eight, I had a lot of experience with Dad’s unreliability.
When the time for baptism came, my mother laid out the reality tenderly but starkly. I wanted Dad to confirm me—my big brother took care of the baptism—but Mom made clear that the chance of this happening was remote. Dad had a lot of difficulties, and even if he was willing to do it, he probably wouldn’t be able to get to church on time to be there. I needed a backup plan, she said, and helped me think of who in our ward could be on hand to help me, should Dad stand me up yet again. We decided to ask our home teacher, whom I liked a lot and knew would be there on Sunday.
First I called Dad on the phone and had the hard conversation. “I want you to confirm me, but I know you might not be on time. Can you promise to be there?” He said he would do it and promised not to be late, but I knew that he had promised before. And so, ward directory in hand, I knelt by the telephone and prepared my backup, giving the home teacher a call. “Hi, this is Peter. I want my Dad to confirm me tomorrow, but he might not come. Will you confirm me if he doesn’t?” He graciously agreed.
Mom told me that to give my Dad a fighting chance I should next call the bishop to see if I could be confirmed last (in our northern Utah ward, there was a bumper crop of child baptisms that day). And so, again: “Hi Bishop, this is Peter. I want my Dad to confirm me, but he might not come. Could I get confirmed last to give him more time to get to church?” A comforting memory seared into my mind from that day is hearing the Bishop tenderly answer my call as he conducted sacrament meeting. After announcing the other confirmations in alphabetical order, he put my surname (early in the alphabet) at the last, and announced: “We’ll proceed in that order.”
Dad made it. I can’t remember if he was late, but I remember feeling so much love for him as he laid his hands on my head and kept his promise to me. For years thereafter, the picture of the two of us taken that day, me beaming up at him, hung on my bedroom wall. I also felt like I had done a great and hard thing by making sure I had a backup plan to make up for the clear weaknesses of this man I still loved so much. When he died a little over a year later, the memory of that confirmation—including my taking matters into my own hands to ensure his participation—was a treasured one.
I have not thought of this experience much in probably a decade or more, but as I prepared for the baptism of my own eight-year-old boy, it all came back to me. My son is remarkable. He is brilliant and funny, full of love and skepticism, uncertainty and curiosity, affection and timidity, loyalty and a stubborn sense of self. He’s also very sensitive to stimuli. New food textures or flavors, the sound of hands rubbing on synthetic materials, the feel of itchy clothing, extremes in heat or cold (especially water) —these can all be crippling to him. It was important to me and my wife to make this special day as free of distress as possible. The temperature of the baptismal water became a very serious issue.
The problem is that our old ward building has an idiosyncratic plumbing system that prevents the font from delivering hot water. A friend explained to me that the theory was to prevent scalding, but the reality is to prevent it from being warm at all. Frigid water comes quickly, lukewarm water comes at a trickle. In December in Pennsylvania, this scenario was not a good one for my sensitive son. In a nice piece of historical symmetry, the same brother who baptized me in 1989 sat by my side that night as we assessed the plumbing and timing issues together. And our assessment was that we needed to intervene the next morning to make the water hotter.
After a few hours of sleep, I arrived at the church in the predawn hours to start a little ecosystem of four pots boiling water in rotation on the church’s two kitchen stoves. The pots ranged in size from a little tea kettle (it boils water in about five minutes) to a monstrous lobster pot (that took 40 minutes to boil). I loved imagining the copious amounts of cheap chili previous ward members had cooked with the massive thing, but in the moment I was just grateful for this ungainly if potent addition to my arsenal.
For hours, I paced between the font and the kitchen with these pots of boiling or near boiling water, topping off the frigid 2/3 I had already filled, running against the clock to make the temperature pleasant for my little boy.
It worked. The water wasn’t that warm, but it was far from frigid. My son told me afterward, with real appreciation, that he knew I loved him because I made his baptism water “not unbearable.” And he was right. I carried his water, quite literally, because I love him with a deep visceral love that I have felt all of his life. Perhaps more importantly, I carried those pots because I find acting on that visceral love very easy to do. Even though that lobster pot, filled with boiling water, felt like a latent calamity with every step, I felt a pulsing love for my son and his special day guiding me easily through those early morning hours.
At first, as my brother and I formulated this strategy the night before, the contrast between my father and my son’s father was a bone in my throat. I kept picturing myself as a little boy in 1989 struggling with narrow shoulders to carry the water in a different way for his father. Sitting on the curb waiting for him. Having that hard phone call with him to beg him to keep a promise. Coordinating well beyond his years to cover for a father this little boy knew wasn’t measuring up. As my brother and I recounted this and other stories, tears and bile came to the surface as I remembered how much I relied on this broken man and how often he let me down.
The next morning, I spent a moment or two dwelling on these dark thoughts, feeling betrayed by this man I had loved so completely. Love for my young son made those hours at the church easy, but the work was real. I dropped the lid of one pot into the font, and had to fish out. I burned myself stupidly on another pot as I was trying to keep the boiling rates appropriately staggered and got a bit distracted. And I felt like some kind of contestant on a strange reality TV show as I carried that giant lobster pot through the crucible of church doorways and hallways, finally heaving its contents over the glass barrier on the outside of the font. And my Dad could barely muster the will to show up that Sunday for the confirmation, after standing me up so many times before? My heart broke for the younger me having to navigate that very adult world at an age when he should’ve been doing something else.
Those bilious thoughts quickly gave way to what felt like a sacred theophany. Instead of resentment at a lost childhood, the love I felt for my sweet boy continued to build throughout the day until it overwhelmed me. I felt no more bile, only love. Love without beginning or end. Love as the father for my sweet boy who looked like a drowned rat coming out of that water but who knew that I had worked hard to make his day special. Love for a Savior who sees and heals our hidden pains.
And in the moment of best clarity, love for my own Dad. I saw clearly his weaknesses, but also some light of strength. I don’t think the challenge for him was a lack of love for me. I think he felt that same natural pull that I feel for my children. For him, acting on that love was the debilitating, chronic weakness. As I replayed that distant memory in my head again, I realized something very important: I don’t know what it was like for him to get that phone call from his barely-eight-year old son, sternly begging him to just show up. I don’t know what hell he lived that morning to get there on time. In his way, for all I know, he carried some pretty heavy boiling water on the day of my baptism, too.
What God gave me on this sacred day was more than a family gathering and more than welcoming my son into the fellowship of the Saints. He gave me the witness of an intergenerational fulfillment of the familiar scriptural promise in Ether 12:27, that God will make weak things become strong. My Dad was, through almost all of my life, weak. I feel peace in knowing that I don’t know the potent combination of mental illness, bad choices, and/or bad circumstances that led him to act the way he did. Even with that empathy, though, there is no denying Dad’s many, painful weaknesses. There is no denying, too, that I have prayed and ached and pled and fasted for the strength not to be weak for my own children in the ways that he was to me.
On that crisp below-freezing morning last week, as I heaved those pots of boiling water into the baptismal font, I saw in real time one father’s weakness becoming another father’s strength. With all of my ongoing flaws, in that morning I was strong for my boy. He didn’t have to worry about frigid water ruining his day because his father—me, in so many ways the same vulnerable person with the RC Cola backpack—would be there for him.
Immediately after the baptism, as I warmed him and helped him into his dry clothes and we chatted about his special day, these two eight-year-olds converged a bit in my mind as I saw in my sweet child echoes of my own vulnerability and sensitivity. To understate it: It is a precious gift to me that I can be a source of warmth for my young son, literally and figuratively. Challenges and uncertainties and real darkness will come into his life, of course. I can’t spare him that, and wouldn’t want to. But for now, I can put off those hard realities a little longer and when they do come, I can help make those burdens “not unbearable,” as he put it. He can get from his father what I could not from mine, and in the process we can get warm together.
That gift, delivered across nearly thirty years, felt like the parting of the heavens. As I sometimes wander through spiritual valleys and struggle with parts of the basic architecture of LDS religiosity, I do not always feel such a strong connection to God through ordinance. Last week I felt it. In that moment, in my boy’s face shivering not quite as much as it would have without that lobster pot and tea kettle, I felt close to Jesus, close to my son, and close to my Dad who fought demons I did not see to be there for me that day. Weak things have become strong indeed.