I’m always struck by the simple affair of baptism. Children and new converts spend months and years building up for the special day. They read and prepare. Friends and family come, often from far distances to watch a new member enter the waters of baptism.
The actual ordinance takes less than 15 seconds. A short prayer and a quick immersion. The confirmation is another three minutes, and the ceremony is complete.
I think there’s something to be learned by the simplicity of our religious rituals in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many of the powerful experiences in our lives are unpretentious. Like Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, there is power in a few simple words. Perhaps Heavenly Father is sending us a message about how to carry out the important affairs of our lives.
For instance, many of the key moments of the Savior’s life happened in small, unadorned ceremonies: the Last Supper, the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Crucifixion and Resurrection. There was no pomp and circumstance, no elaborate staging, just a handful of trusted companions.
In a world where much of our lives are made public through social media, it’s important to know when to keep things quiet, away from the “pins” and the “likes.” There are moments best served by setting aside that camera and becoming fully aware, present in the moment. It’s one of the things I love about our church meetings and temple ordinances. But those moments can happen outside of a religious context. It may be on a quiet outing with a child, or a date with a spouse. We may see a slice of nature so lovely we prefer to hold it in our mind and not on our iPhone.
I’ve been thumbing through a book of essays by E.B. White. He writes a great deal about birds and ponds and travels up and down the East Coast. He quotes a great deal of Henry David Thoreau. Here’s one of my favorite Thoreau quotes: “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.”
Sometimes I want to sit down with the posthumous Thoreau and say, “Now look here. This is easy for you to say, living in your shack by the pond, without family or church callings. You didn’t have to juggle dentist appointments and trips to Costco.”
But I’ll let Thoreau off the hook, because I still believe in what he says. All the pomp leading up to my son’s baptism, the programs, the invites, the table set with refreshments, all that was simply the gilded edge of the larger, more important picture: the baptism itself. I’m fine with letting the day of baptism, and the lead-up, become an occasion for celebration, but frittering is certainly not necessary.
I’m sure there was pomp leading up to my own baptism several decades ago, but that’s not what I remember. I remember the cool of the river water and the way my dress stayed down, weighted by rocks sewn in the hem. I remember the lone fisherman casting his line upstream, as he watched us with curious eyes. I held tight to my father’s hand as he led me into the waist-deep water, said the baptismal prayer and tipped me backward.
To me, it was not a rushed experience. Perhaps because childhood feels like long stretches of waiting interspersed with flashes of excitement, the moment plays in my mind as if in slow motion.
Those are the things I remember. And I hope my son always remembers his special day, the anticipation, the way family gathered from across the country and his brothers labored over the piano to learn just the right songs to play.
I hope, more than anything, he remembers the simplicity of dropping deep into the water and coming out clean.