Today, June 3, 2011, is the 10th calendar anniversary of my baptism into the Episcopal Church. The liturgical anniversary will be next weekend at Pentecost.
Baptism for me wasn’t then, and isn’t now, about being saved from Hell. At least not in the afterlife. Jesus did rescue me, in this life, from an abusive codependent relationship and the shame, perfectionism, and emotional chaos of mind that came out of that. His unconditional forgiving love allowed me to cling to hope and self-respect when my abilities fell far short of my goals.
What baptism primarily meant to me, in 2001, was coming home. Home to the artistic tradition where I’d always experienced my strongest encounters with transcendence. Home to a community of elders, living and dead, who had faced the same existential dilemmas and could give me companionship and guidance to move forward. In the same way that radical queer politics would do a decade later, the Protestant paradigm of sin and redemption began to cure me of the delusion that it was my personal responsibility to avoid failure and humiliation, at all costs. My “problem” was the human condition, and the followers of Jesus showed the way to not be defeated by it.
In Christianity, I saw a place where my countercultural values of chastity and emotional self-mastery would no longer be dismissed as the hang-ups of a socially immature young woman. Behind me stood a whole community that resisted compartmentalization of sex and spirit, and affirmed that the most intimate parts of ourselves were sacred and deserved to be handled with care.
Now, in 2011, what does membership in the Christian church mean to me? Sometimes I feel that I’m in my Christian adolescence, as instinctively resistant to religious authority figures as I once was welcoming and trusting of their guidance. This questioning spirit even extends to God. I hold many orthodox beliefs at arm’s length now, looking at them from the reverse side, from the perspective of one who’s been made an outcast by the church or finds Christians personally so triggering that he can’t safely open up to the question of the doctrines’ truth. But it’s Jesus who has opened my heart to this perspective, Jesus who gives me the courage to “stand in the place of shame” (as gay Catholic theologian James Alison says) with the people who can’t rest in the assurance that they are God’s chosen.
I don’t know if it’s healthy anymore for me to think of the church as a substitute family, unless it’s a family of adults, not children who have no input into the parents’ rules. What happens at that crossroads where doctrinal disagreement threatens the community’s core mission, and separation is necessary for integrity? If we expect unconditional inclusion, like children in their parents’ house, we will feel terribly rejected–but perhaps we were expecting the wrong things.
I am an adult Christian, if I’m willing to be one. In an incorrigibly dysfunctional family, your choices are to stay and shut up, or walk away. Our faith communities can and do model a better way of processing our differences. Ten years later, I still feel just as blessed to play my part in that struggle to discern God’s will–though I sure do wish, sometimes, that it was more like sleeping in Mother Church’s lap.
Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. (Matthew 11:7-12)