How We Welcome Our Children

Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto
Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto
How We Welcome Our Children

Order of service:

The why, when, and how of our child dedication rituals, and what they say about the meaning of life.

Worship leader: Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Special music: Veronika Agranov-Dafoe, piano

How We Welcome Our Children

Reading                                           A Baptism, Robert Walsh

Sermon         How We Welcome Our Children, Amy Zucker Morgenstern                 

If you have never witnessed a child dedication, you have a treat awaiting you. And if you have, you know that it is a simple but profound ritual. As we typically say by way of introducing the ritual, it is about welcoming children, formally giving them their names, thanking and praising the Spirit of Life that brought them forth, and pledging our support to them and their families. It typically involves touching them with water and with a new, barely-opened white rose. Although it takes only a few minutes, it involves more meanings than we can possibly explore today, in one service. But I would like to explore a few, because the ritual by which we welcome children conveys, often without words, what we think about the purpose of life, our relationship to whoever or whatever created us, what it means to live a good life, and what we need in order to do so. And the ways it varies across denominations and changes over time say a great deal.

So let’s look into the history a little. By the way, Dan Harper, with his historian’s sensibility and love of research, compiled a terrific collection of documents on baptisms and dedications and I’m gratefully drawing on them today. To read the originals, which have lots more fascinating details than I can share in one sermon, visit Dan’s blog.

Baptism is one of the most important rituals in Christianity. Therefore, I’m sorry to say, it is one of the most contentious. Numerous schisms have caused the creation of numerous new sects of Christianity because of their differences of opinion about baptism. Running water or still?– immersion or sprinkling?—done in infancy or adulthood? . . . people have literally died for these differences–or rather, what they stood for.

To the oldest extant Christian churches, the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic, baptism is a sacrament. It literally transforms the person baptized: specifically, saving them from the state of original sin that they, that all of us, inherit because of the disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve. There are exceptions and leniencies permitting some into heaven without being baptized, but in general, the Catholic Church holds that we are “born into this world dead in sin” (Pope Pius XII, Papal Encyclical Mystici corporis Christi, 1943) and must be cleansed of that sin through the ritual of baptism. Even though Luther and Calvin led two earth-shaking reform movements, in time leading millions away from the Roman Catholic Church into the first Protestant traditions, they both insisted on infant baptism as well. But while the largest descendent of Luther’s Reformation, Lutheranism, holds that baptism is essential to salvation, the largest descendent of Calvin’s Reformation, the Reformed Church (including Presbyterianism), does not. It turns out there are a lot of reasons to welcome infants with a religious ritual, even if one doesn’t consider the ritual necessary for the salvation of their souls.

As Unitarians and Universalists developed their own theologies that took them away from their Protestant roots, they nevertheless continued to welcome children with a ritual that, on its surface, resembles baptism. But the differences are more profound than a change in words.

Our Universalist ancestors called themselves by that name because they believed in universal salvation. Unlike the Calvinist churches from which they split off, which held that few were destined for salvation, Universalists believed that the loving self-sacrifice made by Jesus extended to everyone. No child, therefore, was born into original sin, and many 19th century Universalist parents did not present their newborn babies to the minister in order for him (it was always a him, then) to wash clean their souls. On the contrary, in one formula from 1850, the minister would address the child: “Child of innocence, emblem of purity, and image of thy Maker; “Of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Now, in the morning of life, while yet unstained with sin, we present thee, a living offering, a lamb without blemish, to the good Shepherd and Bishop of our souls.”

Okay, the “offering” and “lamb” language may be a little strange to modern Unitarian Universalist ears. But be assured, the intent was not for the child to be a sacrifice. Jesus is the Shepherd, the one who lovingly tends the sheep; and he is the Bishop, the overseer or supervisor, the one who guides us. And so one of the deep meanings of our ritual of dedication is the conviction that, as the young mother in Robert Walsh’s anecdote hoped to hear, God is not a punishing judge but a caregiver, a caretaker, our companion and help in life.

There was a more traditional option as well–those who wished a baptism could request it. (Our individualism was in evidence already.) There are always those who prefer the older ways. But even in the baptism formula, the emphasis was on God as the source of “our life and all its blessings,” God “the infinite fountain of good.” And if the family preferred the wording about the child being innocent and pure, created in the perfect image of their maker, then the ritual would be called a dedication. As we call it today. And, this being another of our meanings, we have kept water as a part of the ritual, but significantly revised its meaning: From water that washes away original sin to a Unitarian ritual in 1827 that prays that “this childlike purity, of which the water is but the emblem, may never be tarnished.”

One of the criticisms of Unitarian Universalism, and particularly our Unitarian strain, is that we can be naively idealistic about human nature. We could challenge that 1827 minister: if children arrive on earth in a state of purity, how is it that they may grow up to do evil things? Blaming “their parents” or “society” doesn’t explain anything, because then one must wonder how their parents and the people who make up their society ever fell from this state of grace. (One could, I suppose, blame the slings and arrows of physical suffering. But this seems weak to me.) It’s fascinating to watch a more nuanced view of human nature emerge in a Unitarian dedication ceremony 95 years later, in 1922, when the minister speaks of water as “the emblem of that purity which the heavenly Father desires in the souls of all His children.” Another of the deep meanings the ritual carries is our conviction that as we grow, we experience impulses to do loving, good things and hurtful, hateful ones, and that we fervently wish that both we and the children in our care will choose the loving way.

So let’s spend some time with that word, “dedication,” and the many meanings it carries.

One meaning is the dedication of the parents, or whoever is raising the child, to do so with reverence, love, and respect. At one remove from that meaning is that of the dedication of the community to be the village that will help raise this child well. Beneath both of these is the belief that what we do matters. We are not fatalistic; we do not believe that God or anyone or anything else doomed each child to a particular destiny; we do not believe that the power of good is so irresistible that nothing we do is needed, nor do we believe that the temptation to do wrong is so overwhelming that nothing we do can help. Human choices and actions make a difference; they help make the world that we will inhabit. And so, after handing the child a rose that echoes their own unfolding beauty, we remind ourselves, “If our hopes for this child are to blossom, we must water them with love and commitment, creating the community for them that we wish to see flourish in their time.”

Another meaning of “dedication” is to dedicate the child to the church. When it comes to the meaning of membership in the church, we are close kin to the Baptists. For us, membership is something one undertakes of one’s free will. A child may enjoy this congregation and consider it their home (we hope they will!) and tell the world they’re a Unitarian Universalist, but until they are old enough to consider their beliefs and values, and to make a conscious commitment to them, children have a different status than adults. There is no one age at which that magically changes, but for the purposes of our congregation, it is when they are 15 years old or have completed the Coming of Age program, in which they explore important religious questions and express their own credo. Then they can choose to become members. Likewise, for Baptists, this process must be carried out consciously and with commitment, and the decision to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior–what they call “believer’s baptism”–is what makes one fully a member of the church, and in their terminology, the Body of Christ. Only then is one baptized with water, the outward symbol of an inner transformation that has already occurred. Baptists’ ancestors, the Anabaptists, were persecuted for this conviction in many countries: tortured, executed, and exiled. That persecution continued against Baptists in colonial America, where, among the other forms of violence and discrimination against them, they could be found guilty of child abuse for denying their babies baptism.

So if one believes, as we clearly do, that the important religious decisions are not possible for a child to make, much less an infant, why have a ritual at infancy at all? For the Baptists and us, there are multiple layers of membership. Children are a part of this body long before they can decide whether they want to be Unitarian Universalists as adults. So we welcome them, teach them, and hope they will decide freely and well.

And the ritual is also a matter of dedicating the child’s life to holy purposes: in short, in the Baptist ritual (since they also practice infant dedications, though not infant baptisms), to God, from whom the child has come.

For us, too, there is the sense of the child being dedicated to God or to all that a godly life might be. The minister from the nineteen-twenties who used water because God desires us to be as pure as water went on to say, “let us now dedicate these children to pure and noble living and to God.” In our dedications in this congregation a century later, we usually ask the child’s guardians to promise “to raise this child in the ways of truth, beauty and love.” The deeper meaning, as the language shifts, is that our lives have a meaning beyond simple survival or pleasure-seeking. We are here to grow in goodness and wisdom: to live in ways that bless the world.

Embedded in this ancient ritual are some theologies that few of us Unitarian Universalists embrace. The challenge for our movement, as we have shifted away from Christianity and its symbolic language–by which I mean images and rituals as well as words–is not to empty our inherited rituals of meaning. It’s as if we inherited a thick soup, and as we have taken out this and that ingredient, sometimes because it had a disagreeable taste or wasn’t so good for our digestion, we are in danger of ending up with a mighty thin broth.  

If our process of evolution, as a religion, is mostly subtractive, we can end up without a language for some of the most profound experiences of human life. I’m trying to avoid the cliche “throw out the baby with the bathwater” here, though it is particularly appropriate . . . The old language can leave a modern-day Unitarian Universalist feeling alienated. And yet, the arrival of a child evokes in us needs that are as urgent as they ever were, and that this ritual has satisfied for dozens of generations. Even for those among us who think of the Source of Our Being as the purely indifferent, amoral forces of the universe, there is a deep sense of the sacredness of a new life. Even those who do not believe we are souls migrated from heaven, who arrive here “Trailing clouds of glory . . . / From God, who is our home” (William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”), feel, as they care for an infant or toddler, that that tiny child is a teacher of wisdom and beauty. Even those who don’t believe there will ever be a moral accounting, a judge’s reckoning, at the end of our lives or the end of the universe, want to raise their children to be loving, wise, kind, fair, trustworthy, patient, determined, brave, generous: in short, to live holy lives. Even those who don’t intend to insist that their children follow the same religious path that they have taken, and so might shun a term such as “godparent,” still wish their children to have other adults who will nurture these qualities in them; they need a community of support, challenge, respect, and love community to guide the children and themselves.

We welcome children with a ritual because we need to proclaim that birth, adoption, parenting, mentoring, exploration, and growth are holy. We need to express that we feel this child’s arrival among us to be a blessing and that we wish to shower all blessings upon the child in turn. We need to proclaim the sacredness and the difficulty of what we are undertaking, as parents, grandparents, siblings, friends of the family, and as a congregation.

This faith grew in, and out of, and apart from Christianity. But as the members of this congregation come into Unitarian Universalism from an increasingly diverse range of religious and cultural backgrounds, I wonder what we will add to the soup. Muslims whisper parts of the Adhan, the call to prayer and declaration of faith, into each ear of a newborn child so that the first thing they hear will be words of God. If this is part of your tradition, a powerful question you bring to Unitarian Universalism is: what are the words we want those we love to have in their hearts from the moment they enter this world? Hindus have a ritual of touching a tiny bit of honey to the ears and tongue of a newborn, so that they will hear and speak only sweetness. If this is your tradition, you prompt our Unitarian Universalist faith to ask, What kind of people do we want our children to be? Jews carry out the b’rit milah, the bris or circumcision, for newborn boys because it is the symbol of an ancient covenant with God, the sign by which each generation remembers that mutual promise. What do we Unitarian Universalists believe the source of our being promises to us, and what do we promise in return? What might symbolize that covenant? The form of our ritual will continue to change as we incorporate these and other traditions of our members.

As we welcome children, we remind ourselves, for our own sakes as well as theirs: The source of our being is a companion and help to us as we make our way through life. We are neither purely good nor the embodiment of evil, but experience impulses to do both loving and hurtful things, and we pledge to choose love. Our choices and actions make a difference; it matters what we do. We are here to grow in goodness and wisdom: to live in ways that bless the world. And finally, we wish always to remember that life itself is a blessing and that the Spirit of Life that moves in us blesses and rejoices in everyone who nurtures life.

It will be a while, we don’t know how long, until we gather in person again and once again dedicate a child. When we do, it will mean all of that and more. Until then, may these commitments help sustain us and bless us with joy and meaning.