A futuristic story which is fictional… until further notice.
“Dad, what’s the deal with cleansing the pulpit?”
“What do you mean, ‘What’s the deal?’”
In the parking lot next to the chapel, a daughter sits behind the wheel of an automated vehicle. Her hands clasp the steering wheel at 10 and 2, even though the engine is off. Dad is stretched out in the back seat, scrolling through an e-book titled The Fall and Rise of J. Golden. As they do every Sunday after sacrament meeting, Dad and Daughter wait in the car for Mom.
Daughter says, “I get that we need to sanitize the pulpit and microphone after every speaker. But why does everybody do exactly three wipes of the pulpit followed by three wipes of the microphone?”
Dad’s eyes focus on his e-novel. His voice sounds easygoing. “Well, if you want an official answer, that’s a question for your mother. But I suppose tradition is a big part of it.”
“It’s just… When I finished my talk today, I picked up the bottle of cleaner and sprayed the pulpit like we’re supposed to. Then I tore off a paper towel and started wiping. But… I honestly worried if I only did two wipes of the pulpit, or four for that matter, that the Bishop would correct me in front of the whole congregation. I half expected he would say, ‘Thou shalt wipe the pulpit thrice.’”
Dad looks up from his tablet, glancing out the window toward the chapel. “I think he just wants to make sure we’re being consistent. If we’re consistent, we have a better chance of avoiding infection.”
“Hmm,” Daughter says.
Mom emerges from the chapel and beelines to the car. As is her habit, once off the sidewalk she pulls the elastic off her left ear and lets her facemask dangle from her right ear. She opens the passenger-side front door and then stows the mask in her bag.
“Thanks for waiting, you two.”
“Our daughter wanted to ditch you, but I talked her out of it.”
Mom giggles dutifully. She watches as the teenager boots up the vehicle’s operating system. “Remember, even though the car does the driving, keep your hands free and your foot covering the brake at intersections.”
“I got it, Mom.” Daughter finishes plotting their destination home and the automated car pulls out.
“How are your new counselors faring?” Dad asks.
“They are well enough off.”
“You sound unconvinced.” Dad’s eyes drift up from his tablet for a moment. Soon they return to the e-novel, where J. Golden Kimball treads the Wasatch Front wielding wit like a flaming sword.
Mom tilts her head back. “Honey, you told me I would love being Elders Quorum President.”
“You will. Eventually.”
“Mm-hmm,” Mom says with a wry tone.
Dad sits up straight. “Our daughter is thinking of leaving the Church to protest the Pulpit Cleansing Ritual.”
“Am not,” Daughter says, rolling her eyes.
“Cover the brake.” Mom thumbs at her phone but leaves it in her lap. “What about the Pulpit Cleansing Ritual?”
“She’s worried the bishop might confiscate her temple recommend if she fails to wipe the pulpit thrice.”
“Let our daughter explain.” Mom turns to look at her child. “What concerns you about the Pulpit Cleansing Ritual?”
“I don’t know,” Daughter says, clinching the steering wheel. She can feel the computer’s energy streaming through the wheel, making all the decisions for her. “I guess it just doesn’t add up to me.”
“What doesn’t add up,” Mom asks.
“Well, first off, we’ve had herd immunity from the Syberian novel virus for like three years now. I mean, it’s not that novel of a virus anymore.”
“But it may mutate.” Dad interjects this with no apparent concern in his voice.
“Whatever,” Daughter says. “There’s always some virus we’re trying to keep from becoming a pandemic. It’s been that way my whole life. But if it’s really about safety, what about this? The primary kid who talked before me did a sloppy job. No way did that kid really cleanse the pulpit. With hands that small, three ceremonial wipes aren’t enough.”
“No one is going to do a perfect job sanitizing the pulpit,” Mom says. “But the symbolism of three wipes helps us be mindful. It reminds us of the godhead, the three degrees of glory, even the number of members in a presidency.”
“Okay. But why not wipe the microphone first? That’s when the paper towel is cleanest. The microphone is the closest part of the pulpit to our mouths, but we’re wiping it with a used paper towel.”
“Three wipes of the pulpit followed by three wipes of the microphone is just how we’ve always done it,” Mom says.
Daughter scrunches her face. “It feels a bit like mind control.”
“Mom, does God really expect us to do three counterclockwise twists as we wipe off the microphone?”
“I can answer that!” Dad sits up. “When I did my service mission after high school, my mission president explained it. She said the three counterclockwise wipes of the mic symbolize the rotation of the Earth, which is why the sun rises in the east, which in turn symbolizes Christ’s return.”
“I’m not aware of a doctrinal basis for the number of times we wipe the pulpit or the direction we wipe. But we’ve been doing it since the 2020s and it works pretty well.” Mom looks closely at her child’s face. “Are you really bothered by this?”
Daughter covers the brake as they approach another intersection. She sighs. “No, I guess not.”
Mom waits a moment and then speaks gently. “You, my daughter, have never liked how automatic everything is. And it can sometimes feel like it is all rote. We give our talk. We say, ‘…in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.’ Then we pick up the spray bottle—”
“With the green disinfectant symbolizing our green aprons in Eden.”
“Symbolism has its place,” Mom says. “But this is also an act of service. We prepare the pulpit for the next speaker. All the more reason to have it be sacred.”
“I hear they are going to canonize it as Section 141,” Dad says.
“I think that would be beautiful,” Mom offers. “I remember my patriarch saying viruses would be with us until the Second Coming.”
As the vehicle smoothly carries them home, Daughter stares at the emergency override button for the autopilot. Her mind wonders about all the what-ifs. The desire to answer them for herself grows.
How well are cleaning procedures and worship services mingling? How deeply will they mingle over time? Your comments are welcome below.
I got the idea for this story watching a recent Sacrament Meeting streamed online. Though not performed as a ritual, each speaker followed the same basic steps for wiping down the pulpit and microphone after their talk. In keeping with the reverence of the meeting, the sanitation procedures seemed to carry a solemnity.
Thought provoking! I haven’t returned yet so can only imagine…
Interesting how anything may rapidly become ritualized and then need to be rationalized. I think Mom’s issues with PH meetings is distracting from your main point, Overall, quite clever.
Very interesting and makes you think how traditions get started.
Attaching symbolism to cleaning sounds like an effective way to get compliance in the church.
We haven’t gone back yet either. Zoom church, which has its benefits, continues.
(and ladies, maybe we need to think more about the consequences of getting the priesthood lol)
I love this, Jake. What a cool thought experiment. I especially appreciate how well you’ve captured the Mormon ability to rationalize all kinds of doctrinal relationships to practices as a way to support them. Outstanding post!
Thanks to each of you for your thoughtful comments! The feedback and perspective are very much appreciated.