Thoughts on Two Baptisms, 1989 and 2016

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.

Comments

  1. ginaathompson says:

    This is incredibly beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  2. This is heartbreakingly lovely. So beautifully retold. Please consider writîng it on paper for your son if you have not.

    And I will sit and try to not let November 2015 taint baptismal testimonies while trying to also ”always remember” those who cannot similarly take part.

  3. Beautiful. I, too, have found parenting to be a deeply healing balm for many childhood wounds. Seeing echoes of my father in the personality and mannerisms of my son has made it so much easier to forgive both of them. Like you it was fully unexpected. Such a gift.

  4. What an honor and blessing it was to read this moment you have shared with us.Thank you.

  5. What an awesome post.

  6. A hard and loving and beautiful story here, brother. Thank you for sharing it.

  7. This was beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing, and I wish you and your son all the best!

  8. it's a series of tubes says:

    Wow, this is incredible, and hits close to home. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Thank you so much for sharing this. You’ve captured well the complexity of human life and the grace that often lurks amidst it.

  10. Please print this off & tuck a copy on both your own journal & your son’s. You have an incredible story of weak things made strong thru love, beautifully written, that will be a strength to your descendants for generations if you preserve it for them.

    The chapels in Idaho falls where our children were baptized had these same issues. My husband was the ward clerk, so he filled the font with straight hot water until it turned cold, then “clerked” for 45 minutes, then did it again, for 4-5 hours, to have “warm” instead of frigid water in the font.

  11. This is wonderful! Thanks so much for sharing it.

  12. Thank you for writing this. It is a blessing to learn from our parents’ mistakes. It is a blessing to see their weaknesses and still love them. And it is a blessing to give our own children something better.

  13. So beautiful and touching. Thank you!

  14. Very touching, beautiful, and moving. Thank you.

  15. Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful story. It really touched my heart.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Lovely. And while I didn’t have any special sensitivity, I still remember lo these decades later how very uncomfortably cold the water was in the font for my baptism, so I can personally appreciate on some level the effort you made for your son that day.

  17. Clark Goble says:

    My son has Sensory Processing Disorder (or whatever they call it this year) so I’m very sympathetic. Fortunately our font was warm. (Although that doesn’t appear to bother him as much as your son) I remember back home though that we often had to boil pots of water before the baptism and definitely we did in some meeting houses on my mission.

  18. J. Stapley says:

    It seems to me that this is at the heart of the idea “that they without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect.”

  19. Very touching, I’m glad it was such a good experience for you.

  20. It’s interesting how time and perspective helps us appreciate something as common as a baptism more. My father, a non-member, was unable to participate in my baptism but looking back, the uncles who drove 100 miles in heavy snow are bigger to me than they ever were at the time.
    Note, having served a mission in Pennsylvania 40 yeas ago, I can attest that there is more than one building there where you heat water on the stove to supplement the sad, sad water heater.

  21. Well said, PCB. Wonderful insights. (I suddenly wonder whether one could use a couple of sous vide wands in the future. Get the hipster neo-culinary vibe as an add-on.)

  22. Beautiful

  23. Aching and beautiful. Thank you.

  24. Shima Baughman says:

    Such a beautiful story Peter. Thank you for sharing.

  25. Oh my. This touched me in ways that I’m not even sure I understand right now. I don’t have children (yet?), in large part because I am worried I will mother the only way I saw mothering done. I want to be a source of warmth for my children but my biggest fear is that I won’t, that I will replicate the only thing I know. Bless you, for changing your son’s story and for your compassion to your father. Thank you for sharing this.

  26. Thank you for this. Truly divine.

  27. Aaron Brown says:

    Thank you.

  28. I wish I had a more profound comment to make about how much I appreciated this, but words are failing me. Thank you for your story and insights.

  29. Amen

  30. Heather S says:

    This is beautiful. Thank you.

  31. Touching story. It made me wonder how such a story would unfold today. Presumably, the author’s father didn’t have a temple recommend. By today’s standards, he would not be able to confirm his son. Baptize? Yes. Confirm? No. In mammy ways, the Church was more progressive a few decades ago.

  32. *many ways

  33. Professor Lockhart says:

    Thanks for writing this and sharing a piece of your history. The scripture, he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers kept turning through my mind.

    “It made me wonder how such a story would unfold today. Presumably, the author’s father didn’t have a temple recommend. By today’s standards, he would not be able to confirm his son.”

    And in a new building 20 years from now, the hot water experience, which hopefully will be remembered by the authors son as a token of a father’s love for eternity, will never be able to happen. Likewise, the vast majority of us will never have our faith tried as physically severe as the pioneers, and miss something which was necessary in their coming to know God.

    Tina suggests the church was more progressive in the past, but I’d counter it’s exactly the temporal progresses we’ve made that comfortably prevent many from coming to know God more fully. They are not putting their faith to the test against the brutal realities of life the way so many early members of the church did.

    But to Tina’s point, the church policy is one needs to be “worthy to hold a temple recommend [to] act as voice.” It does not say they need to actually hold one right now. So a simple interview before hand, with sincere intent and repentance by the Father could change that. In fact, rather than just going through the motions, giving the confirmation/blessing and moving on, an interview before hand with sincere love by the bishop and repentance by the father could actually show some real progress.

    It’s possible the father can have a repentance moment right then and there as he stands in the circle. But it’s nice if the bishop can fulfill his role before hand and helping fulfill is stewardship in helping others repent. So I see the change in policy as a positive one if it encourages introspection and repentance.

  34. This is beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing your personal experience, I really appreciated it.

  35. This is so beautifully written. Thank you for sharing.

  36. Beautiful.

  37. Thanks for sharing this. It’s beautiful. Your son is fortunate. And so are you, for being able to see your father from a new perspective. I suppose you would say, at this point, that the faulty plumbing was a blessing, not an inconvenience. It seems the reward was well worth the extra trouble.

  38. This gave me chills and brought tears to my eyes – thank you for sharing. It is beautiful and beautifully written.

  39. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You can’t imagine what this did for my heart.

  40. Rayette Gonzalez says:

    This was inspiring. I am going to tell you something about 8 year olds from an physiological perspective. When I was in college, my physiology professor told me that at 8 years old, the brain starts to understand an inherent right from wrong in an action. Children younger than 8 know that doing something wrong will displease their parents but not in the same way. Children from 7-8 start to understand that some acts are wrong and some are right. I tried it with my own children. One was 6 and one was 10. I don’t remember the question but I asked why they shouldn’t do it. The 11 year old said, “Because it is wrong.” The 6 year old said, “Because Mommy and Daddy will be mad.”
    I laughed. It was a perfect example of my professor’s analogy.

    Maybe this will help in some way with the 8 year old baptism idea.