I enjoyed Kathleen’s June post on geneology miracle stories as a genre of Mormon storytelling. I think it’s valuable to reflect on the types of stories which matter to us orally as we look for meaning in the stories writers didn’t think were strong enough to survive passage from mouth to mouth and therefore felt compelled to write down instead.;)
Last month, our bishop told a story in sacrament meeting about a recent baptism. It sounded like this baptism was particularly important to the family–maybe they weren’t all members or active and that everyone could attend was a big deal; maybe there’d been some complication in getting permission from someone for the baptism to take place and so there was special reason to rejoice. All I can really remember was that the bishop was unusually distraught when he arrived just prior to the service to find the font empty.
Fonts, of course, can take several hours to fill, so this was bad news. Because of whatever the family situation was, the bishop didn’t want to reschedule so he began thinking through every possible way to make the baptism happen on time. Could volunteers be quickly called and marshalled to fill the font with buckets filled at every nearby water source? Could the size of the font somehow be artificially decreased to make it fill faster? No, too complicated.
The bishop then consulted with the primary president, who suggested calling around the ward to find an available swimming pool. One a house or two away was available and so it was that the girl was baptized in the sunlight of a neighbor’s backyard in the last days of a long and beautiful summer.The family was happy, the bishop felt blessed to have had everything come together after being at the brink of a minor disaster, and a family in the ward found themselves unexpectedly drawn in a small but important way into a young girl’s life.
It’s a lovely story, and apparently also contagious. Another sister rose and told the story from her and her husband’s mission in Troms, Norway, a city some 300 km north of the Arctic Circle. A young man had gone with some friends to a region-wide youth conference in the south and came back with a desire to be baptized, the first convert baptism in the area in some time. Because the distance from the island where Troms is to the nearest LDS fonts in the south is considerable, it was decided that a suitable spot for a baptism needed to be found in the area. Plans would also have to be made, of course, for how to make a fall baptism in the Artic safe and healthy for the baptist and baptized alike.
The sister actually looked different as she told the story of the baptism itself. She had the look of real memory: eyes almost seeing things which were there rather than hear, body hesitating a little as if it isn’t quite sure what world it’s in. And from the warmth of an ordinary chapel pew, I got to imagine the spot in the cove they find where it was deep enough to baptize just a few yards away from where it fropped off and became too deep to stand at all. Got to imagine what it might have looked like when two bodies emerged from the water burning with the spriti but literally freezing cold, how all the blankets got thrown on the young man at the center of attention at first while the aging baptizer shrugged off his own shivers.
And so it is that imaginations begin to run away and the contagion of the first sotiry spreads. I can’t remember everything else that was said at that testimony meeting nearly so well as I can remember remembering the other baptism stories I’ve heard and felt conntected to: how the font hadn’t been filled for a respected, elderly man in my grandfather’s mission in India. My grandfather was so embarrassed at the missionaries’ forgetfullness, but the man solved the problem by asking what exactly was required and then suggesting that after the words of the baptism he lie down and immerse himself before accepting a hand up from the elder who performed the ordinance.
I remember another story, from my mission in the former East Germany, about the old branch president’s son, baptized at the height of state suppression of the church. How they drove him out in the dark of night, flashed on the headlights to baptize him in a river then turned them off again and drove oh-so-carefully in the darkness until they were home.
This genre of stories–the tale of the unusual baptism–is an important thread into the tapestry of our oral tradition. What can we discover, when we follow the thread, about the ways in which we approach the complications the universe presents us with? What can we learn about the ways we approach faith?