With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation

Gaudate Sunday…today is an  important anniversary for me.  Six years ago this very morning, around 11:10 a.m., I was baptized for a second time in my adult life.  That day in December was, like today, the third Sunday of Advent, also in the Lectionary cycle Year C.  That day in December, I joined the Calvary Baptist Church and embraced a form of Christian and community identity based in the Baptist distinctives,  a group of beliefs about individual and community practice  that is best described by the charter covenant of the Alliance of Baptists.  It has been the lens through which I have understood my life in Christ for almost ten years now, a view of faith that has formed me, and the foundation of a community that has nurtured me for many years.

And yet, as I stand here on this anniversary day, I could not be simultaneously more close to that moment of baptism and further away from it.  I stand here, considering how my understanding about my own identity as a disciple has moved and changed since that December day, considering all that I have lost and gained along the way.  I will not be worshiping on this anniversary day with that community that baptized me, nor will I be worshiping there in the foreseeable future.   You see, I realize that it is time, after all the events of the past two years and all that I have had to do to heal and reclaim my life after my surgery,  time to stop fighting the transformation has been the byproduct of that healing.  It is time to embrace, with my whole, repaired heart, the new identity that has resulted from that work:  today, I embrace my identity, not as an adherent of specific gathering or denomination, but as a pilgrim along the Christian way. I have, to echo Robert Wuthnow’s definnition, become a seeker not a dweller (After Heaven:  Spirituality in America Since the 1950’s); the only sacred place that holds meaning for me right now is the place of the journey itself, the place along the road of life, the place that is my relationship with my God.

Questions of identity  have continually driven my search for a deeper and more meaningful expression of faith, and I should not be surprised at the current state of that faith.  I am, at this time, the sum total of all that I have learned in each community that I have experienced.   Since the term presbyunibaptopalian* is a bit, well, clumsy, I have decided that pilgrim is not only easier to say but a more accurate label for my current state of being.  You see, I have no idea where I will stop next nor how long I might stay.  A life lived in search of healing, in search of ways to incorporate the practice of healing into my daily living, has taught me that the journey is really all that we have, a journey with (if we are lucky) some lovely sightseeing  and companionship along the way.

So now, pilgrim that I am, I have decided to honor all that I am.  I have learned that, I most experience a sense of healing in that moment when I can embrace my changed sense of identity and be at peace in the knowledge that, just as that identity has been changed before, it will be changed again.  There is only the road behind and the road ahead, and, most of all, the place where I stand right now.

This morning, as I stood in worship in an unfamiliar place, the words of  the prayer offered before the table meal spoke as if just to me:

We hear from Jesus of the coming of the Son of Man.  He warns us to be ready for change, to be awake.  We wonder what this can mean now as we grope in the tattered remains of our faltering hopes for a better world.  And we light our Advent candles, as of old, savoring tradition even as we yearn for change. … In our hope for change, we pray that by the power of the Holy Spirit, this bread and wine may be the body and blood of Christ for us and so strengthen us to be change agents.  May Jesus come to us still as God’s power in our humanity.  May change agents in our own day inspire and move in us to translate your dream into reality, to fire our hearts and minds and wills to love and serve you in the world (St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 12/13/2015, adapted from Rev. Susan Flanders)

We cannot be the agents of change that we are called to be in this world if we ourselves are afraid of change.  And so, pilgrimage it is.

What better way to begin by remembering another beginning.  So today, I stand again in the water of my baptism.  New things ahead, new worlds to see, new ways to experience the God of my being.  All made possible by a moment in the water, some six years ago today. With joy, I draw water from the wells of my salvation, to paraphrase the prophet (Isaiah 12:3).

If you are interested in finding out just where these changes might take me, you can continue to follow my thoughts and adventures along the pilgrim’s path at a new location:  Subversive Light.  I look forward to meeting you again along the way.

 

*Presbyterian, Unity School of Religious Science, Baptist, Episcopalian

A Nostalgic Kind of Holy Day…

I find myself, each Maundy Thursday, feeling, well — nostalgic.   Yes,  I am moved deeply by the invitation to walk alongside Jesus through this most difficult and yet most glorious part of his story and our story together.   This day, however, forms an intricate piece of my own story as a person and as a disciple, one of those places where my tale intersects with the story of the Christ in unusual ways.

Let’s go back to the beginning —  my own beginning, that is.  You see, my parents had a difficult relationship with the idea of church after the death of my brother.  My earliest memories of this season were of Maundy Thursday services,  because my father wouldn’t join “the other hypocrites” on Easter Sunday (um…his words, not mine) .  My Dad had an opinion about everything (just one of the many ways in which I follow in his footsteps) and one of his strong opinions was about “the Christmas-Easter people” at church.  I don’t know whether or not he just didn’t like the crowds (they might have interrupted his nap during the service) or if Easter was often too close to his birthday or whether this idea was just a convenient excuse to not attend yet another Sunday service, but that was the rule we lived by.  We attended on Maundy Thursday, not on Easter Sunday.

Many years and many congregations later, I found myself as a substitute chorister at a Maundy Thursday service at the Calvary Baptist Church.  I eventually joined that community and embraced the idea of identifying as a Baptist.   And as each Maundy Thursday rolled around for the next 8 years, I worshiped and wept for Jesus and for my own failings as part of that community. I worked as a musician there, I was baptized (again) there, I served on committees and participated in church governance (a very Baptist thing to do), I was licensed to the Gospel ministry there, I served as a teacher and  as a deacon and in any other capacity that was needed.

Tonight, in many churches, there will be a dinner before the members gather at the Table.  Tonight, there may be foot washing in response to the command “Do this (John 13:14-17).”  Tonight, churches that are not Eucharistic by nature (that are, in fact generally non-Eucharistic in worship), will celebrate and remember as we have been instructed to remember…with the bread and the wine/wine substitute.  And they will tell the story again, the story of togetherness and the story of betrayal.

And yet tonight, all that I can think about is the incredible loneliness that there must have been in that room. The disciples were, I am sure, afraid and uncertain and each lost in their lonely thoughts of what might come.  Jesus must have felt so alone in the presence of his disciples — they understood but through a glassE_footwashing darkly. There was so much to do, his Father must have seemed so far away in the presence of Peter who would deny him and Judas who would betray him.  And yet,  he washed their feet.  He offered the greatest act of hospitality that could be offered.  He said to them, yes, you will deny me, you will fail me day after day, and yet I offer you all the hospitality our God has to offer — because I know that in your daily failure you will continue to try to live the one great commandment that I have left with you:  “ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35).”

What we often miss, however, is the essence of this story:  the ultimate and total forgiveness and love that it contains.  We often miss the true commandment here.  Jesus does not just tell us to remember, he does not tell us to think about him, he does not tell us even to tell his story.  He tells us to do this…”For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you (John 13:15).”

I don’t know about you, but if I look back on the months since the last Maundy Thursday, I have failed at this commandment daily, but I do continue to try — try to love, try to forgive, try to be reconciled, try to do this.  And so, even though I join no community in worship tonight, I remember these all important words of confession that are so appropriate today in particular and on most of the days of my oh-so-human life:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.  

Amen, indeed.

Onward…

Having spent most of my years as a communicator of some kind, words are important to me.  If you combine that life experience with a good ten years spent in a worship community in which the song that lead into prayer during worship went like this,

Our thoughts our prayers
And we are always praying
Our thoughts our prayers
Take charge of what you are saying
Seek a higher consciousness
A state of peacefulness
And know that God is always there.
And every thought becomes a prayer.

and you have, well me — someone who over and over again examines the use of words that many people assume have a well accepted and agreed upon common meaning.  For example, I understand that the word “family,” which we use so freely in our worship gatherings as a synonym for the kind of Christian community we hope to creation, does not mean the same thing to all people — it does not, to everyone mean that safe, desirable warm place that you either have and want to share or that, if you don’t have already, you desire more than anything else on earth.  For some it is a social unit that excludes, that hurts.  Family is a word with two very different meanings.

Another such word is the word calling.  You would think that, given my nature and my passions, I would find this word wonderful.  I have heard it used with the best of intentions and the greatest of faith, but haven’t we all heard it used in other ways?  And, I ask myself, even if your intention is good and clear when you use it, does the word not imply that you have something that the person sitting next to you does not — that you are somehow special and maybe even a little “better-than”?  Has this word and its professionalization not led us to some of the deep problems in our gatherings, where those with “the degree” and “the calling” are seen as better, more spiritual, even more holy than those without?  I don’t have answers for these questions but they are things that I continue to ponder.  And they are questions that have made it impossible for me to use the word “calling” without trepidation.

Yesterday, however, my friend Adrienne gave me new language that seems to fit the journey that I am beginning today.  Generally, I would not mention a person by name without their permission, but she did use this language on Facebook and she deserves credit.  Even if it is not original, she is the one who placed it in front of me as I’m about to step off on another part of my journey. journey Adrienne referred to her own path as following “that ministry which God has laid upon my heart.”  I follow Adrienne carefully because, she, like me, is following a path that is way outside the box of church life in 2015.  Her journey gives me strength and now, for a while, language that I can live with along the way.

You see, today I am flying off to San Francisco to begin a certification process in the ministry of listening.  Listening is the critical piece needed to help our understanding of the way in which words impact people’s lives — their words and ours.  It is, to me, the path to greater peace and faith.  And it is part of the infrastructure that I need to, like Adrienne,  follow the path of ministry that God has placed on my heart.  Maybe I will make it and maybe I won’t, but this is the next step on the this path.

During this last year of recovery and struggle and finding my way, I asked for one simple thing — that a feeling of possibility and movement might return to my life, that the ability to create and dream return.  A year ago, I would not have found comfort in a phrase that used the words “laid upon my heart,” but now I can.  You see, words can be rehabilitated in a life, too.

I am here to tell you that prayers are sometimes answered.  Who knows where this step will take me or what new language I will be asked to confront and dissect, but I do believe that my ability to hear many meanings to well accepted words will be of some help over these next weeks.

 

Five years later…

It has been five years.  Five years since I put on that worn out white robe and climbed those creaky, ancient stairs to the baptismal at the Calvary Baptist Church (only pausing long enough along the way to share with the pastor that I was deathly afraid of water).  Five years ago, for the second time in my life, I was baptized.  This time it wasn’t a sprinkle of water, it was baptism by full immersion.  And it was well worth facing my desperate fear of water.baptism

I am, quite naturally, a person who remembers anniversaries, and so each year on this date I have stopped to consider my baptism.  I in fact think of my baptism often, because I keep the picture below near my bed so that I see it often.  And, I kept a copy of that picture in my hospital room so that it, along with a few other dear images, was the first thing that I would see when I woke from the anesthesia.  And while at the seminary, I had multiple opportunities to participate in services where we relied on the Book of Common Prayer to guide us as we remembered our baptism.  I came to appreciate the questions we were asked to ponder:

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in your prayers?

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

It is such a wonderful, succinct list of our responsibilities as disciples, as believers, as followers.  Lately, however, I feel that there is a question that is missing from this list.   It is a question that is not asked in any baptism ritual that I have seen or experienced, but, in my understanding of a life of faith it is THE most important question, the one where most of us fail over and over and over again as disciples.  And that question is:

Are you willing to be changed, over and over again, by your faith and by the call that this faith exerts upon your life?

In his book Beyond the Edge:  Spiritual Transitions for Adventurous Souls (2013), Andrew D. Mayes alludes to this question in his compelling discussion of the baptism of Jesus.  You see, as Mayes points out, we forget that, at his baptism, Jesus not only enters the water, but he passes through it — he crosses the river.  Mayes sees baptism as a threshold experience, accompanied by bereavement of things lost and the dual feeling of exhilaration and fear at the creation of something new and unknown.  For Mayes, the peaceful scene of a beatific Jesus receiving the holy Spirit bears no resemblance to the probable truth.  Jesus journeyed far, from the peaceful land of Galilee, to the harsh land of the desert, the very edge of the sacred land of the Hebrew Bible.  Jesus went to the very place in Joshua 3, the place where the Jordan River became the barrier where the people of Israel underwent that fundamental transition from a people wandering in the wilderness to a people, claiming the land that was promised to them.  The Jordan, unlike the Galilee, was a fundamental place of hard transition for Israel.  And in Jesus’ day, the Jordan was not the little trickle that it is now when we in the 21st century visit its shores:  it was a ferocious river, with swirling, threatening waters.  And on the other side of those waters, Jesus faced a total and irrevocable change to his life:  a change in vocation (he had, up until now, worked as a tradesman with his father), and that sense of bereavement and dislocation that comes with such a change and with the loss of all that he knew (family, friends, community — possibly everything about his life as he knew it).

I understand this now.  While I did understand my choice to be baptized again in 2009, I could not have foreseen the road out of the baptismal waters.  I could not have understood the letting go, the loss of identity and confidence, the incredible vulnerability that living into this life of change and transformation has meant to my journey on this planet.  I did not at all understand the pain involved in the process of forging this new identity, the new way of living demanded by this threshold experience.

And, five years later, I do not regret the choice or the commitment.  Not in any way.  Not for a single second.

Mayes says it best:

Baptism is not a one-off event in the lives of Christians, rather it sets the pattern for the whole of the Christian life.  We pass through the baptismal waters as the first crossing of our Jordan but we are called to be a pilgrim people through all of life. …all through the year God is calling us to step into the swirling waters, to wade into the deep, to drown our small ideas, let go of certain dreams or sins, to submerge our narrowed hopes or worn-out practices and to hear again the call of Christ.  We emerge, dripping like Jesus, to face a new future.  We are a baptismal people, a river people, who know the Jordan in our daily experience.  We are a people ready to make transitions, in the ways we pray, (in the ways we live), and in the ways we serve (LOC 295-303, Kindle Edition).

Just as on that day five years ago, I stand here, before my God, wet, and dripping, and ready to change.  The difference?  Today I know that change, above all, is what is demanded of me by my baptismal declaration.