Sunday, August 22, 2010

Infant baptism--by immersion

Today at the Episcopal church Hugo and I attend, a couple's baby was baptized. This congregation baptizes infants by immersion, which is quite something to watch. They set up a big tub outside. The baby is entirely undressed and placed in the priest's arms. As the priest says, "I baptize you in the name of the Father..." she sort of sweeps the baby backwards into the water, just enough to immerse the baby's back. At "and of the Son..." she does another pass, this time deeper, usually with the result that water splashes over the baby's face, at which point he or she starts, um, voicing reservations, shall we say. With "and of the Holy Spirit," the baby passes entirely under the water, just for a second, and comes out howling in unknown tongues.

Immersing infants is very important to the priest here in order to preserve the death-and-resurrection symbolism of baptism. In her sermon today, just before the baptism, she talked about how in baptism we plunge into the life of Christ. Actually, she said something about how people "choose" to be baptized when they're ready to plunge into the life of Christ. Nicely put, I thought—and a great argument for why infants shouldn't be baptized. They're not choosing to plunge into anything.

I don't mean to be sanctimonious here. Back when I was at the MTC, they brought in some middle-aged man in a suit to talk to us; and one of maybe two things he said that stuck with me is that when he was on his mission, contacts would sometimes invite him to witness their child's christening, and he could never share their joy because he knew what the Book of Mormon says about infant baptism and the gall of bitterness. Then and now, I thought the guy needed to dislodge the iron rod he had stuck up his _____.

(Well, okay, I wouldn't have phrased it that way at the time I was in the MTC. The J.-Golden-Kimball-esque language and full-on disdain came later.)

Nevertheless, watching today's baptism, I was reminded of how traditionally Mormon my sensibilities are on this question. (Also Baptist—this is a question on which Mormons and their Baptist opponents would see eye to eye.) I understand the liberal theology that reads infant baptism as a way to welcome children into the church, the family of God. I understand that, sociologically, these events are an occasion for families to celebrate the newborn and to pass on tradition. And whenever I witness these events, I always think: A baby blessing could accomplish the same purposes. Save the baptism for when the child is old enough to remember the immersion experience and everything it symbolizes and to perform some modicum of self-conscious identity work and meaning-making.

Anyway. Wanted to get that little soapbox off my chest. In any case, the baby was cute, he got over the shock quickly (they generally do), it was a great moment for the family, and they served a fantastic cake afterwards. Chocolate cream frosting and raspberry filling take the gall of bitterness right out of your mouth.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


There was a strict command throughout all the churches that there should be no persecutions among them, that there should be an equality among all... (Mosiah 27:3)
As a historian, I should know better than to be surprised. I know that nativism is a recurring phenomenon in this country's history. I know that American Protestants have a history of rallying against religious Others, and I can even give you a sociological theory to explain why contemporary evangelicals do that. (It has to do with the way strong boundaries generate religious vitality.) I know history doesn't roll smoothly forward in Hegelian fashion, though I have faith the Spirit can make it do that if we're willing to bend as it blows.

Despite all that, I am wearily taken aback by the intensity of anti-Muslim sentiment that's been stirred up around the proposed Islamic center near the former World Trade Center. And it's not just that, of course, though the "Ground Zero mosque" has become the cause celebre, partly because opponents find it easiest in that case to squeeze away from the accusation of intolerance. (It's just about being sensitive; they have nothing against Islam in general, it's just that the location of this particular mosque is so provocative, etc.) But protests against the building of mosques and Islamic centers are going on in different places around the country. And now we've got this bigoted minister down in Florida planning a Qur'an-burning for the September 11 anniversary. ("You want religion, do you? I will have preachers here presently.")

I read in the news the other day that over 60% of respondents to one poll opposed the building of a mosque at Ground Zero. Language is key, of course: I've noticed that opponents tend to talk about building a mosque at Ground Zero, which has left me wondering if it's possible that there are people out there who actually imagine that the proposal is to erect a mosque on the site of the Twin Towers? Consider the sign that one person is reported to have been carrying at the meeting where the Manhattan community board voted to approve the project: "You're building over a Christian cemetery!"

If a statement like that reflects "sincere" ignorance, there's a chance of being able to communicate. But if the statement is sheerly an expression of Christian entitlement—I don't know if it's possible to communicate with that.

Don't misunderstand me: I'm prepared to believe that there are people out there who really aren't particularly Islamophobic but who believe that the "Ground Zero mosque" is unwisely provocative. I'm willing to read the ADL's opposition, for example, with that kind of presumptive generosity. (Though I still agree with the New Yorker columnist who called their opposition "shameful.") For me, this isn't even so much about the "Ground Zero mosque." It's about watching how the "Ground Zero mosque" debate is helping to bring out anti-Muslim sentiment all over this country, sentiment that gets expressed in ways which simply cannot be excused in the nuanced way that some people explain their opposition to the Islamic center in Manhattan. And the fact that you have people offering nuanced opposition to the Islamic center in Manhattan emboldens the people who are just plain bigots, because it makes it easier for them to imagine that their position is similarly sophisticated and respectable. It gives them a respectable language behind which to conceal their prejudice.

I am so angry, which does nothing to help. The anger is, rather, a symptom of how helpless I feel.


God the Compassionate, the Merciful—

Through a latter-day prophet, Jesus says: "Do not be afraid."
I want to see the light of truth dispel ignorance.
I want to see prejudices broken up and swept away as with a flood.

I give thanks for the voices of reason who at this time are speaking up
on behalf of the constitutional principles which must be maintained
for the rights and protection of all.

(I thought my country's president was one of those voices,
but now I'm not so sure.)

Teach me what I can say
that will constructively help to change minds and hearts
of people in my orbit.

In Christ's name, amen.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A prayer of thanksgiving

Praise the Lord with a prayer of thanksgiving. (D&C 136:28)
I give thanks that the Deepwater Horizon well appears to have been successfully capped—and I pray it holds. I give thanks that the oil appears to be dissipating more rapidly than feared and hasn't spread far as it was originally feared that it might.

I don't mean to be sullen, but I just don't find it in me to feel very grateful about either BP's or the U.S. government's reactions to the spill. I'm sitting here, actually, having an epiphany about how much antipathy I feel toward Congress and the Obama administration, not just over this issue but in general.

I pray for people whose lives are still affected by the spill and its aftermath. I pray for the wildlife living in affected habitats.

I remember the dead. I was thinking of animals when I wrote that, but there are people to remember, too—those killed during the explosion.


I give thanks for the federal ruling against the constitutionality of Proposition 8. There's no telling, of course, how this is going to end. But it's one hurdle past. A ray of hope.

I have been surprised—baffled, really, to the point where I would start talking about Providence if I didn't think that were philosophically problematic and prematurely optimistic—by what a poor showing the proponents of Prop 8 made in court. It's weird. I don't know what to make of that. Ineptness? Overconfidence in the strength of their case? (I felt "our side" had made that mistake when Prop 8 was challenged before the California state supreme court.) Possibly resignation? Did they figure they couldn't win before a gay judge, but the Supreme Court would save them? (Which it could.) Or even, perhaps, a sense of fighting a losing battle? Obviously I'd love to think the last, but who knows.

I'm grateful for the very important irony that none of the government officials named in the suit, including Schwarzenegger and the state's attorney general, were willing to defend Prop 8. I'd like to see there a lesson in the limits of populism: groups may be able to get what they want by passing propositions, but if you thrust such things on elected officials, they may not go to bat for you. This case has shown that gay marriage isn't so neatly a Republican vs. Democrat issue anymore, which is a good sign in terms of shifting public opinion. The fact the judge is, evidently, gay is also an encouraging sign of the times: Imagine back in the Sixties trying to defend racial segregation before a black judge. The kind of case that the religious right is accustomed to making against gay/lesbian equality really only works when you're talking about gays and lesbians as the menacing Other. When the person to whom you have to make your case is the Other . . . you've got a problem.

Of course, if/when this case reaches the Supreme Court, we'll be the Other again. No direct representation on the bench. So . . . we'll see. But for the moment, I give thanks.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Feast of the Transfiguration

Today was the Feast of the Transfiguration in the Western Christian liturgical calendar. Today was also the usual first-Friday Taize service, so I made the Transfiguration our theme. I used the scriptural readings listed for today in the Book of Common Prayer (they included a Gospel account of the Transfiguration, of course), and I wrote prayers that worked with themes from those readings.



Mighty are you, God of Zion!
You reign supreme over the nations.
Let all the peoples praise your name.
Holy are you!

Mighty governor, lover of justice,
you rule with equity.
You have executed righteous judgment
and established justice among your people.
You are worthy of worship and praise.
Holy are you!

Moses, Aaron, and Miriam were among those who served you;
Deborah and Samuel were among those who called on your name.
When they cried to you, you answered them;
you spoke to them from a pillar of cloud.
They carried out your instructions
and observed the law you taught them.

You answered them, holy God.
Though you decree judgment for wrongdoing,
yet you showed them you are a God who forgives.
You are worthy to be praised
and worshipped on your holy mountain.
Holy are you!


2 PETER 1:16-19

When we told you about the coming of Jesus, the Chosen One,
and his power and majesty,
we spoke from our own experience,
as eyewitnesses.

For we were there when Almighty God gave him honor and glory—
when a Voice from out of dazzling glory said,
“This is my Beloved, on whom my favor rests!”
We ourselves heard this Voice from heaven
when we were with Jesus on the holy mountain.

Because of this experience,
we believe even more firmly in the words of the prophets.
So we urge you to take up their words
like a lamp in the darkness,
until the daybreak comes
and the light of the morning star shines in your own hearts.


LUKE 9:28-36

Jesus went up on a mountain to pray.
He took Peter, James, and John with him.

As he prayed, his face began to shine,
and his clothes became dazzling white.
Suddenly two other glorious figures appeared—
the prophets Moses and Elijah.
They talked with Jesus about what was going to happen
when he journeyed to Jerusalem.

Peter and the other two had been dropping off to sleep,
but now they were wide awake.
They saw Jesus, shining in glory,
and the two prophets standing with him.

When the prophets began to leave,
Peter said to Jesus:
“Teacher, it is good that we are here!
Moses and Elijah don’t need to go—
we can set up tents, one for each of you...”
He was babbling.

While Peter was speaking,
a cloud appeared and enveloped them.
They were filled with fear.

From inside the cloud, they heard a Voice say:
“This is my Son. This is my Chosen.
Listen to him!”

As soon as the Voice said this,
they found themselves alone with Jesus.



Christ our God—
on the mountaintops of our lives,
in our places of retreat and our times of prayer,
you have revealed yourself to us,
sometimes in glimpses,
sometimes with a force that leaves us babbling or speechless.
We yearn for the experience of sensing your presence.
Open our eyes to recognize you in all the ways you come to us.
Response: Teacher—it is good that we are here!
Christ our light—
you have caused us to hear the voice of God:
through prophetic words and inspired writings,
through the voice of conscience,
through divine light shining in our hearts.
We hear, but at times we cannot see, or we are afraid.
Help us discern our Creator’s will,
and give us faith and courage to do it.
Response: Teacher—it is good that we are here!
Risen Christ—
we are eyewitnesses of your glory.
We know by our own experience
that you give light to those who seek;
that you are a God who forgives, heals, and comforts;
that you are at work in our lives.
Show us how to share your light
and to work blessing in the lives of others.
Response: Teacher—it is good that we are here!