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?