Standard greetings apply: Long time, no see and all that. The truth is, I’ve been too depressed to write. Overwhelmed, tired, bummed out, sapped of strength. Church conflict wears me out. It’s not that we’re always in conflict here, but the fruits of conflict are never far away.
But that’s not what I’m here to write about today. Shaking that dust from my feet for now.
What I DO want to write about is a new book I’m reading by Jonathan Martin (of Sanctuary Tulsa). He’s called this book How to Survive a Shipwreck: Help is on the Way and Love is Already Here.
I’m still on the first chapter, and already “my mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.”Ahem. Yes.
The first chapter is called “Losing your ship without losing your soul,” and Martin talks here about the experience of what we would call “drowning” in the secular world, but which Christians might describe as “baptism.” It’s about the death of the old, not simply for death’s sake, but death out of which comes New Life, Transformed Life. The shipwreck is the overarching metaphor or the event that leads to this drowning.
At first I was simply thinking about this kind of baptismal drowning in terms of the ritual of Baptism, which is officially a Big Deal among Lutherans (and other sacramental denominations). For us, along with the Eucharist, it’s one of the Two Biggies.
Recently I did some counseling with a woman who brought to me her two adult children whom she had never had baptized. It hadn’t been a priority for her husband, and she had gone along with his apathy until now, when she will be moving out of state. Now she wants to make sure she “does the right thing” by having them dunked. We talked about how this isn’t a ritual that magically solves people’s life problems, and how one really needs to make this decision on their own as an adult. (NB I truly believe that God is the active worker in Baptism, not the person being baptized, but if you have no desire as a grown-up to undergo the drowning, what would your motivation be, aside from superstition?)
In that event I made an invitation to the adult children to learn more, and I do hope they follow up, but it got me thinking about the rite of Baptism, which the Church used to consider necessary for salvation, almost as if it WERE a magical ritual.
Jonathan Martin’s book basically affirms what I had been thinking, but it takes me to a whole new depth of understanding. He writes about the shipwreck in a person’s life that – intentionally or otherwise – leads to baptism/drowning. It cuts one off completely from a person’s old life, and there is no going back. “The shipwreck is upon you.”
“The waters that drown are the waters that save.”
And then he turns to the creation story in Genesis 1.
“Before there was a human, there was a sea; there was a watery, shapeless chaos, a blackness that had no form and no meaning. Spirit came and hovered over the black, liquid night of the waters; the dove brooded over the anarchy we call sea. And she stayed there long enough, breathed into her deep enough, for life to come up shimmering out of the ocean.”
Martin brings us from our primordial, mythical beginnings to our actual, physical entrance into the world, and then into the mystery of the return:
“It is these primordial waters that we come from, the same water that poured out of the woman you called mother in the hours before you were born. It is into these dark waters that you must return, into this primitive abyss, into this watery grave. You must return again to the chaos of the world you knew before you started trying to build a world you could control — back to the bottom of the ocean where you once lay, submerged.”
This return, Martin says, feels like death. Probably because it is, in a way, maybe in a real, literal way, maybe more symbolically. The old, beloved, comfortable things that once helped us form our identity are now sinking into the murky depths, never to be reclaimed. But their absence makes possible new realities, new identities! It’s ultimately Good News for the old to die, otherwise the old chokes out the potential for New Life, New Growth.
This is about so much more than a simple ritual cleansing. It’s a real-life facing of death. And out of that death, we’re dragged coughing and gasping into something wholly new, wholly clean. Next to this, superstition seems so … superficial. Right?
As I was thinking about this whole drowning and rescue mission, I got to thinking about our congregation and redevelopment. We have sort of officially come out of that phase. We aren’t receiving any more money, which I look at as a good thing. This is our moment of truth, because we can no longer kick the can down the road, but instead we have to face the reality of death for this congregation.
I’ve quoted our Bishop before and will keep quoting him, because his words are truly wise: As a congregation, you can either die, or you can die. In other words, you can keep doing what you’ve always done and sadly watch ourselves fade away; OR, we can allow our old selves — our old way of being church, our old everything — to die, so that something new may be reborn from the ashes.
As I was thinking about this whole shipwreck metaphor, the image of our church as an overturned boat (look at how our sanctuary is built) seemed apt. We hit the rocks somewhere along the line — whether the winds carried us there, the currents, bad navigation, intentional self-destruction — whatever the specifics are don’t matter because we’re there.
And in the shipwreck, we had an option to cling to the flotsam of the wreckage — our building, our “Lutheran heritage,” “the way we’ve always done things around here,” our music program, our manner of following the liturgy … there’s a LOT of flotsam — and we’ve tried to drag ourselves to shore in order to be resuscitated. We also had the option to let ourselves drown, let ourselves go under the water and trust God to drag our dead bodies out of the water. We could have stopped the wild flailing of a drowning person, and look into the deep, “into the depths of God, into the depths of [our] own souls, into the depths, of life itself.”
To do that would have meant “linger[ing] at the ocean floor, where the sea monsters live, and confront[ing] everything in [us] that [we]’ve constructed a whole life out of avoiding … confont[ing] the mysteries that lie at the bottom of [us].”
We didn’t really do that. We made some attempts to do that. But we never did.
What we needed was Resurrection. What we settled for was mere resuscitation.
I would like us to radically rethink and re-process our last 3 years together. Let’s reconsider letting ourselves drown. Even though it’s a terrifying proposition. The things we cling to, the flotsam, isn’t saving us. The only thing that will save us is to lose our lives. Jesus said, “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but whoever will die for my sake will find it.” Martin writes about this baptismal kind of death, that, “to almost everyone’s surprise, until an invisible hand holds them underwater long enough, the most beautiful things in all of creation are down here — below, beneath, under the world you knew.” We can’t know what beauty we’re missing out on by hanging on to the ship’s wreckage.
“The waters that drown you are the same waters that will save you; and the same sea that is pulling you under is the sea that will make you new. The things you’e been holding on to cannot keep you afloat any longer. There is no going back down the birth canal when the Spirit of life is pushing you forward, despite yourself. The only way to lose yourself forever is to keep hanging on to the life you had before. The storm rides you hard, but the Spirit whispers into the ptich-black that surrounds you, carrying the words Jesus spoke to Nicodemus in the wind: You must be born again.”