In my experience baptism doesn’t suddenly change a person; the water is not magic. Baptismal font water is tepid tap water from the same pipes that flush the church toilets. Baptism doesn’t really “wash your sins away” as it washes away smears on porcelain bowls. Thankfully, our sins are not poop chunks on our skin, and thankfully we get to keep those, our sins I mean. We get to feel them, examine them, try them, and learn from them. In my religion, the ritual of baptism isn’t a symbol of perfection or even cleanliness but a ritual to celebrate the divine inside and outside of a human being. Part of that divinity is our ability to choose “sins.”
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints baptism is by emersion. There are witnesses to make sure that every part of the baptized body and clothes are submerged. The water isn’t magic, it doesn’t suddenly change a saint, but it celebrates the person who has the power to choose. It’s a wet ritual for the person who has the human power to make mistakes; the power to try again; the power to learn every day; the power to hurt; and the divine power to love another person with our whole self. By emersion. At least, this is what I told myself and my eight-year-old son on his baptism day last Saturday.
My older girls avoided baptismal interviews with their bishop, but their little brother willingly bounced into the bishop’s office. He accepted the invitation to pray but stumbled over the words, “Dear, dear, Heavenly . . . Dear, uh, Heavenly, I mean . . . ” He didn’t realize the interview would feel like a test of how well he knew the rules that his parents never taught him. I said the prayer and sweated through my shirt as I watched my son unable to answer questions he had never heard and didn’t know the answer to. I didn’t either. The bishop’s ideas didn’t align with mine; he talked a lot about priesthood power, being perfect, and going to church, but the reason my son was dunked in some tap water by his uncle was love.
“I hope that you can look back on your baptism and the memory will give you strength. The strength that comes from remembering how many people love you, strength in remembering that there are things in this universe that you can’t see that love you and help you. Remember that you made a choice to love others and through that choice, you will learn how much you are loved.” This is what I said in the talk my son asked me to give at his baptism. This is the only truth I believe: love. Is that enough?
Because of COVID I have been the only spiritual resource for my children. They don’t know the levels of heaven, they don’t know the levels of priesthood, they don’t know the word commandments because I don’t use that word anymore. My son is unsure how to open a prayer because his dad begins with, “God, whoever you are . . . ” and his mom changes frequently how she prays. And I have never coached my children on “the right way” to pray. I don’t believe there is one.
I don’t know how much longer my family will be welcomed into this church that has so much beauty and so many rules we don’t want to know. But, my precious eight-year-old son chose the songs for his baptism from the church’s primary songbook. In the opening song, we sang, “We are as different as the sun and the sea . . . we learn from problems and we’re starting to see . . . we reach together for the best we can be . . . I love you and you love me, and that’s the way it is supposed to be.”(263)