On Unitarian Baptisms and Baseball Gloves - a sermon for the (adult) baptism of Irish Sirmons

L. to r.: Andrew Brown and Irish Sirmons, and then Irish's
sponsors, Sabrina Lewins and Susanna Brown
Readings: Luke 14:25-33

From The Etiquette of Freedom – an essay by Gary Snyder given at the Wilderness and Civilization conference in August 1989:

An ethical life is one that is mindful, mannerly, and has style. Of all moral failings and flaws of character, the worst is stinginess of thought, which includes meanness in all its forms. Rudeness in thought or deed toward others, toward nature, reduces the chances of conviviality and interspecies communication, which are essential to physical and spiritual survival. Richard Nelson has said that an Athapaskan mother might tell her little girl “Don’t point at the mountain! It’s rude!” One must not waste, or be careless, with the bodies or the parts of any creature one has hunted or gathered. One must not boast, or show much pride in accomplishment, and one must not take one’s skill for granted. Wastefulness and carelessness are caused by stinginess of spirit, and ungracious unwillingness to complete the gift exchange transaction.

Introduction to The Size of God — The theology of Bernard Loomer in Context by William Dean

Bernard Loomer’s father was a sea captain. He was acquainted with his small place in an uncontrollable nature. In a talk in 1974 Loomer described his father's in about the uses of a baseball glove. The father had just overheard his son’s sandlot [playground] complaints about the thinness of a glove inherited from his older brothers. When his father asked him what a baseball glove was for, young Loomer had said that it was to protect the hand. In the words of Bernard Loomer in his sixties, his father replied: 

Willie Mays' baseball glove
"Son, I never have played baseball, but it seems to me you ought to be able to catch the ball bare-handed. The way I look at it, you use a glove not to protect your hand, but to give you a bigger hand to help catch balls that are more difficult to reach. I assume that in this as in all walks of life there are tricks to the trade. I suggest you learn how to catch with that glove for two reasons. First, because you are not going to get another one, and second, because you don’t need protection from life. You need a glove to give you a bigger hand to catch baseballs you might otherwise miss."

As the decade of the 1970s progressed, Loomer reflected increasingly on the fact that what you might otherwise miss was irrational, even evil, but must be caught anyway, Loomer grew increasingly dissatisfied with those who seemed to restrict their reach—even Whitehead was faulted, And, increasingly, it appeared that Christian theology was the theology Loomer had—that he was not going to get another one—and so, although it was thin in places, he attempted to use the one theology he had, to catch all he could.

A few words from Irish Sirmons about her service of baptism:

I asked Andrew a couple weeks ago, after much prayer and consideration if he would conduct an adult baptism. My mother and father did not have my sisters and I baptized whilst we were children.  They wanted us to choose the right church and the right time.

Until a little while ago, I was quite opposed to baptism. My personal feelings about God and following the teachings of Jesus had nothing to do with anyone else. It seemed like a show, a spectacle, unnecessary. I would not be dunked! But, over the past few years as Ryan, my husband, prepared for ministry in the United Church of Christ, a (mostly) liberal denomination in the US, and especially over the past year whilst I've studied an MA in Literature and the Environment at the University of Essex, I've come to realise the importance of this spectacle. It has to do with the importance of the material aspect of our being in the world. Much of the destruction of the environment has come from our disassociation from nature, even though we are formed of it, we are a part of it.

This public act of discipleship with water and a flower is an important event in my life as a Unitarian Christian and I thank you for allowing me to be baptised in your midst. I could not imagine trusting this event to any other church. I thank Andrew, Susanna and Sabrina for sponsoring me. And I thank you all for being here and witnessing this event even if you had no idea that it was going to happen, today. Thank you!

The Address 
(the service of baptism we used can be found at the end of the addresss)

Given what is for us the unusual nature of today's service of adult baptism, it is important to start today with a bit of our own history as a church tradition. Remember we sprung into being during the sixteenth-century Radical Reformation in Poland and Transylvania where there occurred a unique blending of a late Renaissance Christian humanism (which highly valued the use of reason in religious matters) with a kind of mystical anabaptism (which highly valued personal, existential religious experience). It's why we have, at times, been called "Rational Mystics".

People today generally have some idea of what the rational, Renaissance humanist part of our tradition was concerned about but fewer people know anything at all about the anabaptist part.

The word comes from the Greek "ana-", meaning "over again" and, "baptismous", that is to say "baptism" which means ritual-washing. So, an "anabaptista", was a person "who baptizes over again" or more simply, "re-baptises". Our sixteenth-century forbears felt it was vital that baptismal candidates, i.e. those wishing to join a Christian community, must be able voluntarily and knowingly to make an authentic confession of faith based on their own personal, mature experience of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit - the three major headings under which Christian experience is most often described. In consequence, they rejected Roman Catholic and Protestant infant baptism because they could see children had no way of rationally reflecting upon any kind of experience (religious or otherwise) so they could freely decide themselves which particular church they felt they should be joining. I hope you can see why this stance would also appeal to the rationalist side of our tradition.

Generally speaking, in Britain anyway, we retain to this day something of this anabaptist concern and, consequently, our services for new-born or very young children are today, for the most part, not baptisms but, instead, services of blessing, dedication and/or naming. They are services in which we as adults welcome the child to the world to the whole human family and, of course, to our own voluntary, free-church tradition in which we dedicate ourselves to the upbringing of the child so that, later on in their more mature years, they may freely choose themselves to which religious or philosophical community, if any, they desire publicly to commit.

This later, existential moment of adult, religious commitment has, however, been for the most part replaced by us with some kind of formal membership procedure, such as the one practiced here - it is, if you like, akin to a kind of very low-key "confirmation" service. In short, membership has generally become for us primarily an intellectual assent to an ideal rather than to undergo some corporate and individual psycho-physical experience of commitment to, or initiation into, a particular religious community and way of being-in-the-world.

It is only Irish's heartfelt desire and need (for the reasons she outlined earlier - see above) physically to be baptised amongst us and by us that gifts us, firstly, with the opportunity to perform a service that is wholly derived from our radical, liberal Unitarian Christian tradition and, secondly, to prompt us to ask the question of why it is that have we not generally retained some recognisable physical form of adult baptism and simultaneously to ask whether this is this a good, or bad, thing?

I think it is clear that a major reason for the abandonment of adult baptism amongst us is to be found in the historical moment when, with the rise of the natural sciences, we began to feel that no external, tangible, material things can, in and of themselves, change a person's existential way of being-in-the-world. We see this viewpoint explicitly expressed in a seventeenth-century footnote to the original Polish Unitarian Racovian Catechism of 1605 in the section dealing with baptism. Benedykt Wiszowaty (c.1650–after 1704) wrote:

"It is rightly stated that this external rite alone cannot effect our salvation. The water itself avails us of nothing, - but the benefit results from the observance of our Lord's [i.e. Jesus's] command".

Although Wiszowaty and his fellow Polish Unitarians felt that, alone, actual water did nothing you can see, however, that it was still being used by them in their service meaningfully to aid a person's existential commitment to, and initiation into, the way of Jesus.

But a thought had arisen that since then has resolutely refused to disappear from view, namely, that if actual water doesn't really effect any change in a person's existential being then, really, why bother continuing to use it? Is it really necessary at all? Can't it just be dispensed with as an unnecessary and, perhaps even, superstitious practice? We see occurring here a shift of emphasis in what was considered by us to be truly  real and important to humanly-being, away from the natural, physical world and towards what was perceived to be a truer and more really real, spiritual, transcendent realm.

Quite simply the felt *need* to be baptised by actual water slowly stopped pressing upon us as "required as a necessity requires" (Wallace Stevens).

So far, so appropriately rational. But, as we all know, in human life there is always in play what is known as the "law of unintended consequences."

Keeping tightly to the theme of baptism, we were saying, on the one hand, that being touched by real water didn't count for anything or change us in any significant way and, on the other, saying that the symbolic idea of water did effect a change in us and was, therefore, more real (or more to be valued) than real water. The unintentional effect was to create a radical mind-body split.

But think about this . . . you try to tell this story to anyone (including yourself) who has had cause to travel on a hot, hot day and for whom a refreshing drink or a dip in a cool river has just changed their whole mood, attitude, perspective and understanding of what it is to be human and what should be valued in life!

Despite this recognition - which we can still make in certain extreme or near extreme situations - the mind-body split remains very real to most of us, especially in our formal, liberal religious services of worship which can often be veritably disembodied and "corpse-cold" (as Emerson once memorably noted).

It should be clear that there is likely to be a direct connection between this attitude and our own rationalist, European and North American culture's often highly aggressive and invasive attitude to the natural world as a whole and also with the often rude, brutal and violent way we have dealt with so many indigenous peoples around the world who have never forgotten that there is no absolute distinction to be made between the mind and the body, and between humankind and the natural world.

Gary Snyder’s essay from which we heard an extract, and indeed much of his work as a whole, constantly attempts to remind us about what it means consciously to live deeply intertwined in nature and he offers us many memorable examples of the consequences of this kind of living which can help us feel, as our reading today noted, the truth of the idea that "Rudeness in thought or deed toward others, toward nature, reduces the chances of conviviality and interspecies communication, which are essential to physical and spiritual survival."

Elsewhere in that same essay Snyder quotes the wonderful and often witty founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, Dogen (1200-1253), who once said:

"Whoever told people that 'Mind' means thoughts, opinions, ideas and concepts? Mind means trees, fence posts, tiles and grasses."

And I'll add, in connection with today's service of baptism, that mind also means water - not some abstract transcendent, Platonic idea of water, but the kind of physical water that is essential for all life on this planet, a water that we mustn't poison or waste and which we have a duty to share and distribute freely and fairly to all. I want to ask where does water end and inner, existential commitment begin? Where does inner, existential commitment end and water begin? Can you draw the line? I cannot - mind is water, water is mind.

Might not our own existential commitment to God and the whole natural world in this liberal Christian community be better and more effective if were able to keep mind and water together and could understand both as essential and, in the end, indivisible? I cannot prove this is the case but, pun intended, in "my waters", I strongly feel it to be so.

It seems to me that we have to find ways from within our own denomination's complex, liberal Christian tradition that help us both see, and deeply feel, once again our profound interconnectedness with the natural, material world. We must not forget that we are ourselves nature - mind and body, spirit and water, together.

If we don't achieve this realisation in the depths of our very being we are, I think, all in real trouble. But we need to recognise that we cannot quickly and simply make up new psycho-physical rituals which allow this realisation to occur. Neither can we simply appropriate those of other cultures, such as those practised by the Athapaskan Indians mentioned by Snyder.

It is this point that brings me back to the story I told the children about Loomer's baseball glove though I told it as much for our benefit as for theirs.

It seems to me that what has gone on in this service today is that Irish has modelled in her own baptism a willingness to put on the baseball glove of our own liberal Christian tradition. To be sure it's thin in a few places but, recalling the words of Bernard Loomer's father, neither she, nor we, are going to get another in the foreseeable future. It is also important to realise that, like Loomer's own baseball glove, this service of baptism is not "put on" to offer Irish protection from life like some divine, insurance policy. No, it is a service which, by indissolubly combining mind and material, helps her (and us) to catch more of life's meaning than we would otherwise catch. It is a service which enlarges our sense of being (to include mind and body, spirit and matter) such that it becomes obvious and essential to us that we must live "an ethical life . . . that is mindful, mannerly, and has style" that is not mean nor rude towards others, towards nature.

In a dream, just before falling asleep last night, I imagined that this sermon would be followed by a general rush from you all to be re-baptised here and now in a wonderful, liberal revivalist up-welling of the Holy Spirit. Old time religion writ anew! Of course, I know that this is vanishingly unlikely to occur. But we'll see . . .

But whatever happens immediately after this address I ask that next time you wash your hands and face, take a shower or bath, or drink a glass of cool, cool water I hope it will play a real part in re-baptising you, not only to the cause of liberal religion as it is practised here but also to a commitment to serve the ultimate well-being of nature herself - our creative and holy mother.


The Service of Adult Baptism we used:

Andrew: To request Unitarian Christian baptism is to make a solemn promise to be a disciple of Jesus, to learn the way of life which he taught, and with God’s help to follow him as best you can. It also means taking personal responsibility for working out an authentic faith to live by, remaining open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and treating the faith and feelings of others with respect, tolerance and compassion.

Irish Sirmons, do you wish to be received into membership of the universal church by baptism, pledging yourself to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and all who have revealed God’s will for humankind?

Irish: I do.

Andrew: Susanna, and Sabrina on behalf of this church community, do you as Irish’s sponsors promise to support her intention to follow the Christian way of life?

Susanna and Sabrina: I do.

Sabrina: Andrew, do you as one of Irish’s sponsors promise to support her intention to follow the Christian way of life?

Andrew: I do.

The sponsors now have an opportunity to express their support in their own words.

Andrew: Irish Sirmons, I baptise you in the name of God. In so doing we formally welcome you to the whole human family and to the earth, our common home. We welcome you with water, symbol of the purity with which you were born; and with a flower, symbol of the beauty which is yours. May God bless you as we bless you, and may the divine spirit in your heart guide you, comfort you and strengthen you all the days of your life. Amen.

Let us pray.

O God, the Life of all our lives, we are thankful for your spirit, dwelling within us, liberating us from bondage to every inner compulsion and from every constricting care. We give thanks at this time for the freedom of the human spirit in which we share.

O God, in your unimaginable image we are made. Its outlines are traced by the heritage of good men and women who have gone before us and in movements of the natural world of which we are part. Its pattern is vivid in friends and neighbours around us. We give thanks at this time that this vision of a world made whole is communicated between us, reanimating our faith.

With the gifts of the spirit we are blessed. By it we are strengthened to do the commonplace and the extraordinary tasks of the day for the greater good of all. We give thanks that in this service we have been enabled to exchange with each other the gifts of the spirit we have been given and so, at last, to say our benedictions to all life. Amen.


Yewtree said…
I am so glad I was actually there for this service - it was very beautiful, and an honour and a privilege to witness it.

I agree wholeheartedly that a physical aspect to an initiation ceremony is important. I have undergone three initiation ceremonies - two Wiccan ones and one Druid one, and all of them have a physical component. The symbolic transformation thus wrought in the psyche can be profound. The subconscious understands symbols rather than ideas, and the four elements - earth, air, fire, and water - are some of the most complex symbols there are (despite being apparently simple).

I was very disappointed in the Unitarian membership service because it had little or no effect on a subconscious level, no symbols and no crossing of a threshold even.

Whereas the baptism service you did had all the right symbols and gestures.

I find it very interesting that the Christian tradition decided to do its initiations in public very early on in its history. They had already realised that the inner process, not the outer form of the ritual, was the important bit, but they still used external symbols (probably to emphasise the importance of the physical world).

I am sure that Irish will feel a sense of transition because of the physical aspect of the ritual - the sacrament.

And I loved the bit about water and mind - it recalled for me an image that I have of the subconscious as dark water, like the image in Genesis where the Ruach (breath of God) moves over the waters. But my image is actually of that vast cavern of water in the film Dune.

And even if, like me, you have found a different catcher's mitt (or maybe even a different game - Quidditch anyone?), you still have to work out what to do with the catcher's mitt you were initially provided with - whether that is some flavour of Christianity or even atheism (which is still a mitt).
Thank you, Yvonne. It was wonderful to have you there to share it with us and to add your voice and perspective to the conversation after the service.