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That Gospel – I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means

That Gospel - I Don't Think It Means What You Think It Means
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/3/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 64:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, & Mark 13:24-37. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

I’ve been accused of many things. But I’ve never been accused of being without imagination. When I was a child, I had what you could probably describe as an overactive imagination. Every book I read, every cartoon I watched, I wanted to act it out. I wanted to live it. I wanted to make it my own.

There is something delightfully self-centered in small children. I say “delightful,” because there is nothing malicious in it. A child doesn’t have the layers upon layers of self-deception that we adults tend to have. All of it is right up on the surface. Children are better than anyone at placing themselves in the center of the story.

For me as a kid, I was really good at this. I could always imagine myself in the role of the protagonist. When my parents showed me pictures of Russian dancers, I got some of my mom’s pantyhose and used them for tights, so that I could be a Russian dancer, too.

When I was maybe four or five years old, I was mildly obsessed with the Disney movie The Rescuers. I loved the characters and the story. Most of all, I was enchanted with the lead character, a little girl named Penny. Maybe you can guess what happened next. Before long, I had put my hair into ponytails, just like Penny. I ran around in the backyard wearing a makeshift brown skirt, role-playing all sorts of death-defying scenarios of intrigue and adventure.

I may have been a particularly theatrical child, but even as adults, most of us have a certain inner flare. We’ve got a taste for story. We find it totally natural to place our lives, our experience, within the context of that story. Nowhere is this more true than in the most important story, the narrative arc that we are exposed to through the writings of the Bible.

For thousands of years, women and men have read the Scriptures in a participatory, childlike way. We imagine ourselves as Moses, parting the Red Sea. We participate spiritually in the adventures of the apostle Paul, imagining what we would have done in his place.

Those of us who are particularly daring also cast ourselves in the role of the villain. What was it like to be Pharaoh, with his hardened heart? What was Cain thinking when he murdered Abel? How did Judas feel when he came to his senses and realized that he had betrayed his master and friend to death? When we imagine ourselves as the heroes of the story, we’re invited to take on the virtuous traits that they exhibited. But when we put ourselves in the shoes of the evildoer, we are able to wrestle with the same darkness that exists within us and could lead us to the same terrible actions.

So all this is to say, I like my inner child. I like yours, too. I think our inner five year old is essential to our spiritual development. Only that daring and imaginative inner child has the guts to fully take on the story of the Bible and try it on for size. Through child-like play, we discover ourselves in the stories. And then, hopefully, we are able to apply what we learned their to our everyday lives.
But while this is a vitally important way of engaging with scripture, reading ourselves into the text can also present some problems. Think about all the doomsday cults throughout history that have read themselves into the more apocalyptic texts of the Bible. Filling in all the blanks, we human beings are capable of weaving an intricate, internally-coherent web of deception that distorts our vision. These false visions can even lead to death.

Apocalyptic cults are not the only ones who misuse scripture in this way. The crusades, anti-semitism, and slavery—all of these were justified and perpetuated by a distorted reading of scripture that places people like us at the center, and relegates those who are different to a marginal role, at best – and to outer darkness at worst.

So while it’s generally a natural and healthy thing for us to read ourselves into the scriptures, we have to be careful. Who are we reading ourselves as, and how does our story-telling position us in relationship to Jesus, who emptied himself and became obedient even in the face of shame and death?

Sometimes the danger in reading ourselves into the text is that we don’t really understand the context of what is written. I think of the Renaissance painters who depicted first century Romans and Jews as being white Europeans, dressed in medieval garb. They read themselves into the story so much that they imagined the times and cultures of the Bible were no different from 1500s Italy.
In our gospel reading this morning, it’s dangerous for us to be ignorant of context. It is problematic to imagine that we are the intended audience of the text. It is a mistake to assume that we have a grip on what Jesus is talking about, the situation he’s speaking into.

In 1988, Ched Myers wrote a ground-breaking commentary on the gospel of Mark, called “Binding the Strong Man.” This book has helped raise my awareness of the situation in which Mark was authored. Myers makes a strong case that the gospel was written by Galilean Christians during a period of upheaval in Roman Palestine, just before the destruction of the Temple.

He argues that the gospel of Mark came into being during the years in which the Jews were in open rebellion against Rome. The Roman legions would soon crush this rebellion, lay waste to Jerusalem, and destroy the Temple once and for all. But in the meantime, the Christian community in Galilee found themselves in the desperate position of rejecting both the Roman invaders and the zealot insurrectionists who reigned from Jerusalem.

The audience of Mark’s gospel was a people under mortal threat – both from the established empire of Rome, and the rebel empire of Jewish revolutionaries. In the midst of this death, destruction, and upheaval, Mark’s community found themselves being called by Jesus to stay true to the kingdom of God, even as the nations raged all around them.

It’s in this context that Jesus says to the church in Galilee, “Stay awake.” It would be easy to fall asleep, to breathe in the lies of Roman supremacy on the one hand, or theocratic Jewish ethno-nationalism on the other. To stay awake in the midst of war and domestic conflict means risking a lot. Acts of violence against authority, or submission to it, can both provide an illusion of safety. But the followers of Jesus in Mark’s community could not afford any such illusions.

It’s in this actively dangerous context that Jesus is explaining to the church in Galilee about all the tribulations that are coming their way. The destruction of the Temple. The desolation of Jerusalem. False messiahs, famines, earthquakes, wars and rumors of war. To stay awake meant to acknowledge these present realities and resolve to follow Jesus, despite the cost.

Today, it’s easy for us to look at Jesus’ words in Mark 13 as being foreboding and mysterious. Millions read these words as a prophecy about some mythological “end times.” But for the Christians in Galilee, Jesus’ words weren’t mysterious and other-worldly. They were concrete and actionable.

The community that authored Mark was watching Jesus’ words unfold all around them. Everything he said was true to their experience. Despite the apocalyptic ravings and resistance of the zealots, Rome was on the move to destroy the holy city. False messiahs sprang up every day, attempting to deceive the Galilean church, baiting them into a clash of civilizations. In days before rapid transit or communications, rumors of war must have been rampant.

And just as Jesus had predicted, the greatest threat to the church was often the civil and religious authorities that sought to regulate the faith of Jewish people on the one hand, and bolster an insurrectionist agenda on the other. Mark’s community was being delivered over to councils and beaten in synagogues. Their livelihoods and families were threatened as they refused to take up arms with the rebels, or collaborate with the invading Romans. The church in America likes to talk a lot about the “end times,” but the Galilean church was living it.

So the church in Galilee was experiencing the pain and confusion that Jesus refers to at the beginning of our reading today, when he says, “after that suffering.”

It is “after that suffering” that “they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” It is “after that suffering” that Jesus will gather his people from the four winds and the ends of the earth. It is “after that suffering” that the kingdom of God will be revealed.

It would be dangerous for us to imagine that we are the intended audience of these words of Jesus. It would be easy for us to use these words to put ourselves to sleep, rather than staying awake as Jesus commands us. It is tempting for us to skip straight to the “great power and glory” without having experienced the lesson of the fig tree. In the Middle East, you know it’s about to be summer when the fig tree puts forth leaves. In the family of God, you know Jesus is about to come to reign when we as a community suffer for his name.

And as much as some Christians today like to talk about “persecution,” let’s be real. That’s not us. I don’t want to downplay the serious trials and sorrows that many of us experience at different times. But we as the church in America are not, generally speaking, being persecuted for our faith.

I mean think about it. Seriously. When was the last time you had to make a major sacrifice to be true to your Christian convictions? When was the last time that we, as a congregation, faced the active disapproval of the civil authority and paid a price for it?

And that’s great! I’m very happy to live in a country where my faith in Jesus is not grounds for persecution. Following Jesus is hard enough without adding on the burden of a hostile regime.

But we need to be real about the fact that we are not the early church. We are not the audience of this text, the gospel of Mark. The original audience of this piece was facing death, torture, and all kinds of brutalization in the midst of a nasty, Vietnam-style war in their homeland. They were facing exclusion and persecution by their non-Christian Jewish countrymen.

For the community of Mark’s gospel, the Jesus was coming to inaugurate the kingdom of God very soon. He had to, or there would simply be no survivors! As Jesus says in Mark 13:20, “And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short these days.” That’s what the kingdom of God meant to the Galilean Christians: A chance to survive and overcome the horror.

What is the kingdom of God for us? What does it mean for Jesus to tell us, “stay awake”? How are we to learn the lesson of the fig tree? The community that wrote Mark was living in late spring; summer felt very near. What season are we living in?

Until we can answer those questions, we’re really not much different from a five-year-old Micah Bales, dressing up in pig tails and a skirt, running around playing Penny from the Rescuers. We’ll be living in a story that isn’t our own, one that blinds us to the real work that God is calling us to in our own time and season.

All that being said, there is at least one part of Mark 13 that was definitely written to us specifically. We know this because Jesus explicitly says so. He warns his followers that no one knows the hour at which the master will return. None of us knows when our own time of crisis may be coming. No one knows when the kingdom of God will shine out of the darkness for everyone to see. So Jesus warns us that regardless of our context, regardless of the season, we must stay awake.

“What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

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So You Want a Revolution?

So You Want a Revolution?
When I became a Christian, following Jesus seemed like the most revolutionary thing I could do. The teachings of Jesus are radical. The way the early church lived out the gospel inspires me to go deeper, give more of myself, and nurture a grander vision for what human community could be like.

The more I read the New Testament, I more I find myself pushed towards a lifestyle that challenges our present society to its foundations. In contrast to the radical individualism of consumer capitalism or the enforced conformity of most religious communities, the way of Jesus demands both radical openness and profound submission to the guidance of the Spirit.

This revolutionary new reality plays out in love for enemies. We find it when we choose relationship and trust rather than money and self-interest. It comes alive in the healing power of forgiveness and the daily practice of justice.

The freedom of the gospel looks like insanity to middle-class, safety-conscious America. For those of us who are a wrapped up in the world’s priorities, the simple act of forgiveness looks like weakness. The Christian’s refusal to take refuge in wealth and privilege seems like adolescent silliness at best. At worst, the humble-yet-prophetic way of Jesus can activate the defense response of those in power. Violence. The emperor does not like being told he’s stark naked.

My years as a Christian have been filled with a sense of longing. I’ve yearned for the revolutionary days of the early church. I’ve looked back to the fiery, apocalyptic campaigns of the early Quaker movement with admiration. And I’ve wondered: What must we do to ignite this kind of movement in our own time and place? What must I do to be part of God’s continuing revolution?  

I know a lot of other people are experiencing this same yearning. We live in frustrating times. Stuck times. Times in which we all find ourselves longing for upheaval and change.

I hear words like “revolution” being thrown around a lot. In Christian circles, the word “revival” is often a popular choice. Heck, even I’ve used this word once or twice. Quakers and Christians of all stripes throughout the world are longing for revival – the restoration of that movement-church fire, the Holy Ghost power of a people gathered by God to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world.

It’s a beautiful vision. It’s the right vision. And it’s a vision that we are completely unprepared for.

I’ll be completely honest: For a long time, I’ve blamed God for the lack of transformation in my own life and in the communities where I’ve served. I’ve been baffled at the lack of forward momentum, Spirit-led change and healing despite how much I and many others have prayed for it. Looking back to the miracles of the early church and the prophetic Quaker movement, I’ve been perplexed. If God could do that in the first century and the sixteenth century, why won’t he do it now? Why doesn’t Jesus send the Holy Spirit like he used to?

I’m seeing now that I’ve been wrong to blame God. The Holy Spirit is alive and ready for action any time we call on her. God isn’t the problem. I am. We are.

We’re not ready for the spiritual revolution we dream about, precisely because it is a dream. Far too often, our ideas of revival are a fantasy of spiritual highs, supportive community, and connection with God. But when’s the last time you fantasized about losing your home, your bank account, your sense of security? Does your imagined revival include beatings, persecution, and social ostracism? Does your vision of the beloved community involve sacrificing career, enduring hardship, becoming a community that our culture laughs at and punishes?

Mine neither.

Lots of Christians talk a big game about revolution and revival. (I myself talk about both.) But it’s all a delusion if we aren’t ready to embrace the cross, the sacrifice that comes when we choose to be friends of Jesus. I’m weary of all our talk of revival – I’ve gotten fed up with my own words! You and I have no business talking about revolutionary transformation of our society when we have yet to take seriously Jesus’ call to repentance. 

The whole Christian movement is founded on the idea that we must profoundly change our way of life. If we think that we can follow Jesus but keep our toys, our security, our status, and our noble conceptions of ourselves, we’re going to be very disappointed. I know I have been.

How much longer will we chose to wander in the wilderness of conformity to the 21st-century capitalism, self-centeredness, and the world’s conception of what’s important? How long will we refuse to let go of our dreams about community and embrace the real relationships that make the church a revolution – not a club? When will the numbing effects of our opiate religion make us so nauseous that we resolve to sober up rather than choking on our own vomit?

Jesus has told us time and again that the way to life is narrow. The passion and beauty that we admire in the early church and other Spirit-filled movements has always emerged from sacrifice and struggle. Until we repent – until we turn away from our involvement in the consumer-capitalist war machine and all its false promises – we will never be that community we dream of. But if we do embrace this challenge, Jesus has promised us life, real life. Gathered in his victorious and comforting Spirit, revival is possible. 

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Will the Real Church of Jesus Please Stand Up?

Will the Real Church of Jesus Please Stand Up?
What does it mean to be the church? Is it about an organization with staff and buildings? Is it about a set of traditions handed down by our ancestors, a denominational brand? Are these the things that make us the body of Christ?

When I read the New Testament, I see something different. During Jesus’ years of ministry, he demonstrated a relationship of a teacher and students. The disciple community held together because each one was committed to following Jesus, learning from and imitating him.

After the resurrection, the form of the community expanded. We came to know Jesus as an ever-present teacher through the Holy Spirit. The power of his presence released unique gifts in each individual. Some were called to be apostles, some prophets, others evangelists, pastoral caregivers, and teachers. Together, the early church discovered itself as a community gathered by Jesus. We fit together as an organic unity in him.

In this dynamic, Spirit-directed community, there was structure. The Twelve Apostles served as leaders of the movement in Jerusalem. Others were appointed to care for the material needs of the community. Still others – like Paul and Barnabas – were sent by the Spirit to share the good news in cities throughout the Roman Empire. There was a role for everyone in this new community, according to the gifts that God bestowed.

The whole ethos of the early church was one of movement. The life of the church was catalyzed by prophetic action, works of mercy, risky cross-cultural mission, and passionate teaching. They thrived without buildings of their own. They met in homes to share meals, and they worshiped together in public spaces like the Temple and synagogues. This was a church without popes or priests or officers, without creeds or books of discipline.

Times have changed. Throughout the western world today, the church has become more about maintaining a business model than seeking the surprising way of Jesus. Whether you’re at a triumphalist mega-congregation or a dwindling mainline church, the focus of modern Christianity has shifted dramatically to institutional maintenance and the idols of comfort and respectability. In much of the church today, there’s very little room for the radical message of Jesus.

We have become burdened by our heritage in so many ways. Financially, with our endowments and buildings and legacy institutions – we’re so afraid to lose these things that we often allow them to hold us back from real discipleship to Jesus. Same goes for our ideological heritage. Many of us are so sure that our denominational orthodoxy is more important than healing divisions with our brothers and sisters in other Christian groups. Rather than consolidating our efforts and resources, we huddle in empty church buildings, waiting for a miracle that will likely never come.

What’s the alternative? Can we reform our Christian institutions? What would it mean to release the stored up potential of centuries, allowing the living Spirit of Jesus to gather us once more as his body? One thing is for sure: It won’t happen unless we are willing to abandon the comfort of being right in favor of being united in one Spirit, one mission.

What’s holding you back from being part of a fresh movement of the Holy Spirit in our generation? What are the denominational, institutional, financial, ideological, and relational barriers that hold you back from the life of the kingdom? What does it look like to be part of a community that is more about following Jesus than avoiding pain, loss, and death? How can we get there, together?

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Discovering the Hidden Power of Slow Time

Discovering the Hidden Power of Slow Time
I was recently looking through some old papers when I came across a note to my parents, from one of my elementary school counselors. Among other things, she remarked that I had a “low tolerance for frustration.” I had to laugh: to this day, learning to deal constructively with frustration remains one of my key growth areas. 

All my life, I’ve been an activator. I’m someone who starts new projects, blazes new trails, and asks disruptive questions. This personality is great when things need to change, but it can be a challenge when the status quo is actually working pretty well. When all the system needs is a few tweaks, it’s easy for me to get stir-crazy. My innate sense of urgency, my desire for sweeping improvements, can often be a recipe for frustration.

I’ve burnt myself out more than a few times. I’ve had a vision and pursued it with confidence, only to find that the world doesn’t change as quickly as I want it to. Like many young people, I’ve overestimated the impact I can have in months while underestimating what can be accomplished over the course of years. 

My twenties were a deeply educational decade for me. I’ve learned that human communities are complex systems that require care, nurture, and consistency over time. Sudden revolution is rare. When it does occur, it often ends badly. The safer, more loving, and more effective course of action often involves long periods when – at least superficially – it appears that nothing is happening.

For me, real wisdom lies in being able to tell the difference between living and dead silence. There are times of stagnation, when there really is very little going on behind the scenes. In times like these, the status quo needs to be shaken up. But there are also times of dynamic tension, periods when real growth is taking place behind a façade of normalcy. In moments like these, the challenge is to accompany the community through this slow, subtle transformation. It’s time to water the seeds, not dig up the ground to re-plant.

These “slow times” are where we live most of our lives. These are the long stretches between revolutions, when we watch a new paradigm emerge and grow to fruition. They’re times that call for what John of Patmos referred to as “the patient endurance of the saints.”

What does it mean for me to live in slow time (or, perhaps, “ordinary time,” as our liturgical brothers and sisters might put it)? How does my attitude and posture need to change in order to patiently endure the long stretches between revolutions?

Living in the slow times is hard. Israel wandered in the wilderness with God for forty years, Jesus spent forty days fasting in the desert, and the early church spent centuries enduring persecution in the midst of a hostile and unsympathetic empire. All of these journeys involved suffering, doubt, and intense spiritual wrestling. Yet, it was in this slow-cooking environment that the full character of God came to be revealed in Israel, Jesus, and the early Christian fellowships. Through endurance in these slow times, they were equipped to shine brilliantly before the world when the kairos moments finally came along. 

As I explore what it means to live in the slow-cooker of patient endurance, I’m finding unexpected joy. Slow time is primarily about people, not ideas. It’s about friendship, family, and community. It’s about growing roots and branching out, finding myself in relationship with the people in my neighborhood. These slow times are an opportunity to witness what God is doing in the world, just beneath the surface, despite the fact that everything appears to be “stuck” and immobile. Even in these times, the Spirit of God is hovering over the waters.

Do you experience time this way? Can you sense the difference between fast and slow times? Which kind of time do you experience more frequently? What are the ways you can live more fully into God’s invitation for you in the midst of slowness, challenge, and stuckness? Where will you find joy?

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Why is Church so Hard?

Why is Church so Hard?
For the last couple of years, this blog’s tagline has been: “Religion is easy; discipleship is hard.” I’m starting to think that perhaps this slogan is only half right. Discipleship certainly is hard, but religion doesn’t seem to be such a piece of cake, either.

I recently read a really tender, honest post from my friend Hye Sung, in which he wrestles with the fact that he rarely attends church, despite his strong faith in Jesus and his belief that Christian community is very important. What does it mean for him, and the millions of others like him, that faith in Jesus should be so compelling and yet finding healthy, life-giving Christian community is so hard? What does it mean for me that after spending years in seminary and nearly a decade in Christian ministry, I find myself resonating with Hye Sung’s dilemma, too?

Why is church so hard? For hundreds of years, the Sunday-morning congregation has filled a vital role in the life of God’s people. Yet in my generation, it may be that there are more Christians living their lives outside of the traditional congregation than those who remain within it. And many of those who remain are struggling.

We are in the midst of a monumental shift in the life of the church, one that is just as significant as the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. Our entire culture is changing, and all of our legacy institutions – government, media, business, and the church – are straining under the pressure. We’ve set out on a new sea, but instead of oars, we have shovels. How long will it take for us to craft the tools we need to thrive in this new environment? So much hangs in the balance.

It’s reassuring to remember that we’ve been here many times before. This coming Sunday is Pentecost, when we remember the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit that formed the first Christian community in Jerusalem. Pentecost was a moment when God made a way out of no way. In the face of stuckness and confusion, Jesus drew together a new community that could speak to the spiritual hunger of the people of the Roman Empire. The old order was fading away, and it was frightening, but the Holy Spirit brought the creativity needed to bridge the gap. She revealed the new order of God.

This new order played out differently in 1st-century Palestine than it did in medieval Europe. The body of Christ looked different in the days of St. Francis than in those of George Fox. The way that the Holy Spirit is guiding us in our time, place, and culture, is bound to be different from anything that humans have ever experienced before. We’re being given new wine for the new wine skins of our day and age.

I won’t sugar coat it: These are hard days to be living in. Everything that our grandparents thought they knew is being turned on its head. We are in the midst of a great confusion as a society, and it’s not clear where we are headed. And yet there is a blessing in such a moment, the promise of the Holy Spirit to guide us into a new expression of faithfulness for our own day. Just like on that most famous day of Pentecost 2,000 years ago, we are being invited to participate in a brand new experiment, the likes of which the world has never seen.

I don’t know where this road leads. I’m not even convinced that I’ll like it when we get there. But I do have confidence that God is in control, and that the Holy Spirit has not abandoned her people. This is a time for the patient endurance of the saints, for us to be actively partnering with Jesus in his ministry of reconciliation and peace. It’s not easy, but it can be joyful. Let’s stumble down this road together.

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Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

Let’s get this out of the way: The story of Jesus being raised from the dead is totally nuts. The idea that for two nights Jesus would lie dead in a tomb – probably beginning to smell a little funny – and then on Sunday morning would be up and about, visiting his friends, strains credulity to the breaking point.

Even those who saw it first-hand were slow to believe it. Mary assumed he was a gardener. The male disciples dismissed the women who told them what they had seen. And the apostle Thomas said he wouldn’t believe in the resurrection unless he personally put his hand into Jesus’ pierced side.

Eventually, Thomas did see and touch Jesus in his resurrection. And he recognized in Jesus all the power and majesty that he failed to comprehend during Jesus’ pre-resurrection ministry, crying out: “My Lord and my God!”

Today, there are billions of people who say they believe in the resurrection. Countless men and women throughout the centuries have believed, despite not having the benefit of touching Jesus’ wounds or having breakfast with him by the Sea of Galilee.

To any rational outsider, the resurrection faith of the Christian community must seem inexplicable. How do so many otherwise reasonable people come to put their faith in an event that none of us have personally witnessed, and which all our scientific knowledge tells us is not possible?

I had the same reaction during my first visit to a Quaker church on Easter Sunday. Everyone around me was saying, “He is risen!” and I could only look at them with startled curiosity. On what basis were these intelligent, highly-educated people saying something so preposterous? Did they have special knowledge that I didn’t? I asked some of them directly: Have you seen Jesus yourself?

I remember being less than satisfied with their answers. How could faith in something as crucial as the resurrection rely solely on church tradition or the words of an ancient book? Surely we should demand more proof than that. If Jesus showed himself to the first disciples, why shouldn’t we expect the same today?

According to John, Jesus says those who have not seen but believe anyway are blessed. But I’ve never been very interested in that kind of blessing. I’m more of a Thomas. I want to see Jesus with my eyes and touch him with my hands. If Jesus and his resurrection are going to be at the center of my faith, I want to know the reality of it for myself. I don’t want any second-hand religion. I want to be a witness to the resurrection.

And in many ways, I have been. In the years since my first, skeptical Easter, I have had my own Thomas moments. I have seen the presence of Jesus shining through in the lives of those around me, in acts of courage and love, and in totally unexpected encounters that are hard to explain. I have come face to face with Jesus, the one who was dead but now has been raised to life.

To my skeptical self of a decade ago, I know this would sound like a pious sleight of hand, a cop out. “You still haven’t seen Jesus in the flesh. How can you believe in a bodily resurrection based on your subjective feelings?”

I acknowledge that to many my faith might seem to stand on a weak foundation. But I have seen Jesus in the flesh. I have seen him in the flesh of men and women who are serving him, many times without even being aware of it. I have seen how he lives in the most broken of us, even in me. He is alive. His amazing presence fills the cosmos, and this silly little world we share. If that’s not bodily resurrection, I don’t know what is.

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I Want to Follow Jesus. Do I Need to Be Baptized?

I Want to Follow Jesus. Do I Need to Be Baptized?

When I was about twelve years old, I went through a phase when I was terribly afraid of hell. Like, wake-up-screaming scared of hell. Shouting-at-the-ceiling-because-God-won’t-answer afraid of damnation. My parents probably thought I was mentally ill, but that wasn’t quite right. I was living in a persistent state of spiritual terror.

Somewhere along the way (maybe at the church summer camps that tended to be run by the more fundamentalist-leaning folks in our denomination) I had come across the idea that my eternal soul was in peril. There was a deep, dark abyss of fiery torment waiting for me the moment I died, and there was nothing I could do to save myself. Nothing, except say a prayer inviting Jesus into my heart and asking God to forgive my sins.

So I did that. A lot. I can’t even remember how many times I invited Jesus into my heart. Asking God for forgiveness for my sins became a compulsive ritual, lifelessly recited several times a day, just in case I might die in the next few hours. My relationship with God was basically robotic. I just kept hitting save on my spiritual Word document, praying that when my physical computer crashed God would be able to recover the data.

I felt so empty, so distant from God. I was desperate to know that I was acceptable to him, and that I would not face unspeakable punishment when I died. I wanted the constant, gnawing anxiety to stop. Eventually, I became so desperate that I asked my mom to baptize me in a swimming pool.

This was a strange thing for me to ask of my mother, and perhaps even stranger that she agreed to it. You see, we were Quakers, and baptism is just not something that Friends do.

The Quaker church teaches that traditional Christian rituals, called sacraments by most groups, aren’t the true religion instituted by Jesus. You don’t have to eat bread and wine to commune with Jesus. You don’t have to get dunked in a river to experience spiritual conversion. Real faith comes from a living relationship with Jesus Christ, not from masses, baptisms, and suppers.

Following this logic, Quakers normally eschew the mainstream Christian rituals. Our understanding of Scripture leads us to believe that these practices are not only unnecessary, but can actually be harmful if they are allowed to take the place of the substance of Christian faith. There’s good reason to believe this is true: How many people have been burned, hanged, drowned, and tortured because they baptized by dunking rather than sprinkling, or baptized adults rather than children? How many communities have been ripped apart by disagreements over how the Lord’s Supper should be performed, and whether the wafers and wine are really the body of Jesus, or just symbolically so?

Jesus didn’t come to establish a particular way of eating bread or washing ourselves. The church’s historic obsession with these rituals has caused more harm than good, often even serving as tools of oppression. As one of the most radical Christian groups of the already revolutionary 17th-century England, Quakers did away with the iconic ceremonies of the historic church.

My parents being Quaker pastors, I was well-aware of our tradition’s rejection of sacramental rites. At this point, though, I didn’t really care. I had had enough of the torment. If dunking me in the chlorine-filled swimming pool would make the pain stop, I was for it. If my pastor mom (a former Baptist, conveniently) could impart some grace to my life, I was ready to give it a go.

I came up out of that water expecting to feel something. Anything. Some kind of shift in my mental state. A feeling of deeper communion with God. Relief from the burden of sin and the fear of hell.

I waited for it. Pretty soon, I realized I’d be waiting a long time.

It would be years before I would finally experience the connection with God that I longed for. When it did come, it was not the result of any ritual or rote prayer. I would have to learn that the grace and power of God is not a magic trick to be controlled, but a relationship to be received.

Before that, I would pass through a period of deep despair. I renounced God and religion, certain that the faith of my upbringing had nothing to offer me but daily fear and spiritual burden.

When I did come back to faith, it was through direct, personal experience of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit led me back into the Quaker community (though, admittedly, a very different corner of it). Even after becoming a Quaker again, I still found Christian theology and language offensive and threatening. Fortunately, the Spirit kept working with me. I eventually discovered the real Jesus, first in the pages of the New Testament and later in my own direct experience of him as risen Lord.

I finally realized that I had become a Christian in early 2007, when I was able to say with integrity: Jesus is Lord. Since that time, I have been growing in my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. My deepening experience of his life has been both beautiful and painful, teaching me that relationship with God is not only about feeling the Spirit’s presence, but also involves significant periods of spiritual dryness and doubt.

I am so grateful for the space that the Quaker community has given me to develop as a follower of Jesus. The rich and radical theology of the Quaker tradition has provided me with a greater awareness of the Holy Spirit, and the ability to name when I see Jesus alive and at work in the modern world.

As time has gone on, I have also felt myself drawn to other Christians, from different traditions. There is a radical stream of Christianity – found across denominations – that takes the Sermon on the Mount literally and experiences Jesus as alive and present to lead us. I’m inspired by Anabaptists, radical Catholics, charismatics, and rowdy believers of all kinds. I long for unity and collaboration with these other radical disciples. I want to be together with them, following the leading of the Holy Spirit and sharing the good news, just like in the New Testament church.

But my joy turns to sadness when I realize that my Quaker conviction about the sacraments may prevent me from entering into full fellowship with others in the radical church. It’s startling for me to realize that I actually can’t become a member of most non-Quaker congregations without being sprinkled or dunked with water. Even in relatively radical circles, where most ideas are up for debate, the necessity of certain rituals for group membership (if not salvation) is a core assumption.

I wish I could let this thing go. I really do. It seems silly to block ecumenical unity on the basis of arguments about water and bread and wine.

But it’s not silly. Sacraments don’t really matter. And that really matters.

It’s a question of whether my path to God and relationship with Jesus Christ are valid. It’s a question of whether I’m really a child of God, even if I didn’t do a certain ritual when I came to trust in Jesus as Lord. It’s a question of whether God’s power is greater than the human need for orderliness and rules to follow.

I am a baptized believer. I was baptized that night I stayed up late reading CS Lewis and was visited by the Holy Spirit. I was baptized on the campus of Lancaster University in England, when God called me into a life of service. I’ve been baptized in ecstasy, and I’ve been baptized through suffering. I’ve been baptized into the agony of God’s absence from my life, and into the joy of his presence. I’ve been baptized and re-baptized so many times, I’ve lost count.

I can’t throw all of that away for a false unity around water baptism. I can’t renounce my faith that God does whatever he wants to do, human rituals or no. I can’t forget that God saved me while I was still an unwashed sinner, and that no amount of outward washing can improve upon the inward work of Christ’s spirit in me.

In spite of the barriers that these convictions present to so many of my brothers and sisters, I still long for unity.

I accept you. I embrace the work that God is doing in your lives. Can you accept what God is doing in me?

Whether we have all passed through the same rituals is unimportant. What matters is the power of God at work in us. Clearly, God has poured out his Holy Spirit on the Anabaptist and the Quaker, the Baptist and the Catholic. Who are we to question the saving work of Christ in our midst? How much longer will we grieve the Holy Spirit with our human disputes?

Related Posts:

A Baptism of Humility

What is Real Faith? Actually Doing What You Believe