Recently, as I was looking through some old family files, I found my certificate of baptism given when I was just a toddler. Issued from the Presbyterian church in which I grew up, it was a simple declaration that I belonged to the church, to God in Christ, and that the community was committed to teaching me the way of Jesus. I was marked by water, cleansed and made new in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Sliding the aging cardstock between my fingers, I pondered the question, ‘what are we baptized into?’ And it’s corollary, ‘how am I to live this gift of new life?’
This past summer, the world mourned when a calf born to southern resident orca J35 (Tahlequah) died. What captivated so many of us was the display of unabated grief as Tahlequah carried her calf for over two weeks, assisted on occasion by others in the pod. News sites from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans shared the story of this phenomenal event. According to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, Tahlequah traversed over 1,000 miles of the Salish Sea in approximately 17 days, keeping her calf near the surface, refusing to let it sink. The orca mother would not let go. We watched through news reports, twitter feeds, and Instagram videos. As her mourning persisted it compelled us to follow after her, until we too let our grief surface, carry it around, and just be with it.
On the one hand, Tahlequah was simply one orca, acting within and beyond the bounds of normal behavior. Dolphins, in particular, have been known to mourn in this way, though seldom for so many days. On the other hand, she offered a prophetic witness calling humankind to see the fruit of its activities, to raise up her deceased calf for all to gaze upon. A variety of human industries are largely responsible for diminishing the life and health of the southern resident orca. Dams and historic overfishing have dropped the population of chinook salmon, their primary food. Noise from marine traffic is deafening to orca and impacts their movements when following salmon runs. It’s as though Tahlequah’s abnormally long grieving period was intended to provoke repentance. She created a moment of crisis, and invited us to journey with her.
There are times in our life when we just need to feel made new. Sometimes that comes with a major transition, or at the end of a season; sometimes it is a feeling welling up in response to something profound or overwhelming. Perhaps you encountered a deep welcome to a community that feels like home. Perhaps you faced a horrible situation and are piecing bits of yourself or a loved one back together. Regardless of how positive and optimistic the change, somewhere, something had to die in order for change to truly begin.
What are we baptized into?
The waters of my chrismation issued from and returned to the waters of the Salish Sea–the very waters in which orca glide, hunt, birth, and die. The simple element of water in rites of baptism invites us to follow its source and path. Where did it emerge as a molecule of hydrogen and oxygen in liquid form (riparian headwaters, aquifer, well)? How far had it come from its origin, before becoming consecrated? Where will it flow after it touches the baptizand? (Will some drops linger and become absorbed into the skin of the spiritually new person?)
Throughout my life, I have repeatedly returned to my baptismal waters, the Salish Sea, the Duwamish and Cedar River watersheds, with a growing sense that our stories are mingled–more than mingled, that I am drenched in these waters. In remembering my baptism, I remember the waters; I pray for healing for the watershed and all its inhabitants, as I remember and pray for the orca. Baptism immerses us into communion with an entire watershed community even as it is a symbol of new life.
How am I to live this gift of new life?
Christian baptism for me is everything we proclaim within a given community of faith, and more. Remembering my baptism is a call to renounce death-dealing powers and actions–not just those that impact other humans, but also those that diminish the lives of fellow creatures on this planet. It is a call to acknowledge the human species as ecosystemically interrelated with other species in particular places, starting with a watershed. It is a call to voice our gratitude for the rest of creation, not because it benefits us, but because the mere existence of a western grebe, harbor porpoise, or manila clam constitutes Creation’s flourishing.
May we all open our eyes and hearts to our fellow inhabitants as we invite God’s creative Spirit to bring new life to our baptismal watersheds.
Kristen Daley Mosier is a PhD student at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She completed her MDiv at Fuller Seminary Northwest (Seattle) in 2012, and holds a BA in Art History from Western Washington University. Based in the Pacific Northwest, her research is focused on developing a theology of water that connects persons, places, and the experience of baptism through the life of the Holy Spirit. Kristen lives in the Seattle area with her spouse, with whom she serves the community of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, located in the Cedar River Watershed. Read more of her work at sermonsandbox.blog.