The Apophthegmata Patrum – The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, is a compilation of sayings from the most influential 3rd Century Ascetics who lived out their faith in the harsh conditions of the deserts of Egypt. Their spirituality and wisdom was matched only by their discipline, humility, and complete disregard for societal hierarchies.
From the moment I encountered this text, the words of the Desert Mothers and Fathers set my heart on fire. Over the course of my graduate studies, I carefully examined their lives and mined their wisdom for guidance in my life. To this day, I read a few of the Sayings every morning and return to them throughout the day in hopes that the words of these Elders might be etched upon my heart. I enjoy the company of their wisdom and subversity as I endeavor to live into the silence, solitude, and stillness of spirit they embodied and espoused. For a number of reasons, I have come to regard these monks as my spiritual Ancestors.
It should come as no surprise that I reserve a special regard for John the baptizer of the New Testament. He too sought God in the harsh conditions of the desert. He frustrated hierarchies and systems of power, rejected societal norms, and subverted the authorities of his day through his radical spirituality and reckless prophetic voice. John the Baptist’s message was so dangerous that it ultimately led to his execution at the hands of an evil, violent ruler; a story for another day.
This is the Season of Advent. Advent is a Christian holiday season that leads up to the celebration of Christmas. Traditionally, Christians are called to lament, to observe the suffering and evil of the world, to prepare, and to keep watching in faith that the Messiah will come. On the Second Sunday of Advent, all throughout the world, Christians read the Gospel According to Mark 1:1-8:
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Friday, just two days before the Second Sunday of Advent, I responded to a consult for a patient who was recovering from a major surgery. As I was walking into her room, she commented on my hair. As a hospital Chaplain, I wear a dress shirt and I often wear a suit. I also wear my hair in a mohawk. This patient couldn’t believe that I was a chaplain because she had never met one who looks like me. She is a Black woman in her fifties and she was warm and engaging. Her voice carries a certain authority that reminded me of the Non-Commissioned Officers I followed into war a lifetime ago. After we exchanged pleasantries, I reached for the reason I had been called to her room.
“I understand you have been through quite an ordeal. I am wondering how you are holding up and what you might be needing right now,” I began.
“I shouldn’t be here,” she responded flatly. Her eyes widened as if to make sure I was hearing her words with the same intensity she was speaking them.
“What do you mean?” I prompted.
“I mean I should be dead. People don’t survive the kind of physical emergency that brought me here. I almost died. As I was laying on the kitchen floor in my home, I almost fell asleep and if I had, I would have died. Luckily a bell went off in my head and I regained enough wherewithal to know I needed to call 911. Had I arrived any later, I would not have lived.”
I listened as she recounted the details of what had happened to her just two nights earlier. She was still feeling the gravity of how close she came to death and that was forcing her to reckon with her own finitude. Physically, she had suffered. Spiritually, she was suffering still.
“So now I’m realizing that my body is in bad shape and that means that I need to make sure my soul is right. I need to know that my soul is in good shape with God,” she proclaimed.
“What would give you the assurance you need?” I wondered aloud.
“I need to be baptized.” The intensity of her gaze was palpable.
This answer surprised me. Most people who grow up in a Christian tradition that teaches Baptism as a necessary condition for the “salvation” of their souls (or their admission into Heaven after they die), are baptized as infants or as children. Younger Christian traditions that teach baptism as secondary, with an attestation of faith in Jesus being the condition for “salvation” often baptize adult converts but since Baptism is deemphasized, this kind of request would not be common. I needed clarification.
“Will you please tell me more about your need to be baptized?” I implored.
“When I was younger and all my sisters and brothers got baptized I didn’t do it. I knew it wasn’t right for me to.”
“Well what about now? You seem to feel that it is right for you now…” I could feel that we were starting to get to the issue she seemed to be circling. Her eyes scanned the room as she gathered her words and then returned to me just before she spoke.
“I want to be baptized. But I don’t believe it is a sin for a person to be gay.” At this she stared intently into my eyes – searching.
“I don’t either,” I replied immediately.
“Well, now the way I see it… wait. What did you just say, Reverend?” She was baffled.
“I said I don’t believe it is a sin for a person to be gay.” My spirit began reaching out to the Divine. I could see that this woman needed healing and I knew we required the presence of the Holy.
“What I mean, Reverend, is that I don’t believe it is a sin for a person to be in a gay relationship.” She seemed certain that we were going to disagree.
“I agree completely.” I assured her.
All at once I understood. Noone had to tell her that she was disqualified from Baptism all those years ago – they’d been telling her for her entire life. In their sermons, their jokes, their prayer services, their talks around the dinner tables, the endless rhetoric about the “death of the American family unit,” and WORSE, she had been told a thousand times that she had been disinherited without them ever saying her name. That theology had pushed her outside of the Community to which her entire family and, likely her entire social circle, belonged. She was forced outside of the Church because of her Love; who she loved and how she loved deemed her unworthy to them.
“What church did you say you are credentialed through?” She was getting suspicious and she was almost ready to trust me.
“I’m from the Disciples of Christ. We are the oldest American denomination.” I said.
“And they know you are out here just…” she waved her hand around erratically, “just doing this!?” She seemed exasperated.
“She wants to make sure this counts – that her Baptism will be legitimate,” I thought to myself.
I laughed. “Yes ma’am. My church knows where I am and they know what I am up to. We believe that God is Love. We believe that where we encounter God, we encounter Love. Likewise we believe that every person has the very image of God. So where I encounter a person, any person, I have encountered God. Furthermore, where there is Love, there is God. So where there is Love between two people, God is there. We make no distinction between heterosexual or homosexual Love – how could we?”
She leaned forward which caused her to wince in pain. She stayed in that posture anyway.
“So if I can be any more clear, allow me to say this. God made you just exactly the way you are. God’s Image is imprinted on you. So when I encounter you, I encounter the Divine as a Lesbian, Black, Woman.”
Tears welled up in her eyes and then retreated back as she swallowed hard.
“Would you baptize me today, Reverend?” She finally spoke.
“I would be honored.” I replied. I couldn’t reply fast enough.
We set a time for me to return that would allow for me to get some things in order. I walked to the other side of the hospital and wrote a Liturgy for her Baptism and Communion. I put two portions for Communion in my pocket along with a small bowl that would hold her Baptismal Water. I had taken my time writing the Liturgy to make sure it was my best and now I needed to get to her before another doctor, specialist, or nurse made demands on her time.
I walked outside even though it was cold.
My thoughts turned to my patient as a young teen. Her respect for the Sacrament of Baptism caused her to recuse herself because she had been told she was not worthy. She sat in the pew while her siblings were welcomed into the Church, holding Sacred things Sacred in the way she had been taught. On that day that meant abstaining from this Sacrament as though she would diminish the purity of Baptism because of who she is.
The cold air hurt my face and stung the sides of my head. I thought of her young mind trying to make sense of a God who made her to Love and the Church that told her she was condemned for the Love God gave her. I thrust my hands in my pockets as I crossed the courtyard to stop the burning cold. My mind turned to my Ancestors – the first monks. I thought of how they found God in the harsh conditions of the desert because they couldn’t find God in the impossible conditions of the cathedral. I could see them walking with me in their rags and loincloths, thousands of them, unbothered by the cold after a lifetime spent outside. I breathed in the cold air through my nose and my heart swelled as I felt the company of those radicals walking alongside me; all around me.
When I walked into the hospital I saw my fellow Chaplain, Rev. Dr. Kazuhiro. I asked him to pray for me that I would be the minister my patient needed and that I would be filled with the Holy Ghost. He laid his hand on my shoulder and we all bowed our heads as Kaz joined my Church and my Ancestors and commissioned me for this moment.
As I walked into her room I opened my phone to put it on Do Not Disturb so we wouldn’t be interrupted. I saw a text message from a colleague and mentor of mine who is a Queer Minister. They had a sibling who had just been born and they shared a picture of this new life with me. My heart soared that they were in the room with me now – they joined this great cloud of witnesses, the patient and I in a sterilized room with a view of Minneapolis. I prepared all of the elements for Baptism and Communion and asked the patient if she was ready to be Baptized.
“I’ve been waiting for this my whole life,” she said confidently.
“Me too.” I replied.
As I spoke ancient words, she held her palms toward the ceiling and I watched the Sacred Water run off my fingers and into her hair. I spoke the Words of Consecration and we shared Communion as I slipped the Host underneath my mask and into my mouth. We were both in tears as I enjoyed the distinct honor of welcoming her in – into the Blessed Assurance of her Salvation that she had lived too long without; that had belonged to her all along.
Multiple times in the Gospels, Jesus is recorded as conflating himself with marginalized people in society. He makes it clear that those who are disinherited by human standards are the first in line in the Kingdom of God saying, “whatever you do to them, you do to me.” These statements go further than saying, “treat them the way you would treat me as though they are me.” The claim made in the Gospels is much stronger:
I am the one you threw away, I am the one imprisoned by your legal system, I am sick, I am disinherited, I am unhoused, I am oppressed because of the color of my skin, I am the least among you – with the least privileges and fewest comforts. I am.
On the way back to my office it occurred to me that she was the first person I had ever baptized. I don’t know why I didn’t realize it before. I felt like John the Baptist must have felt – having just baptized his better. I felt at home with him and the Desert Mothers and Fathers who found God outside.
I had gone outside and there I encountered Christ; right where the Church left her.
Ward, Benedicta. 1975. The wisdom of the Desert Fathers: the Apophthegmata Patrum (the anonymous series). Oxford: SLG Press.
I’m paraphrasing and interpreting Matt 25:40 (among other NT scriptures) here but I’ll die on this hill.