By Shelby Smith
On June 8th I was baptized by my home church, the Wilderness Way Community in Portland, OR. I was asked to reflect on why I was choosing to be baptized.
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”—Micah 6:8
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”—Phil 4:13
The Bible and its legacy is full of contradictions and conflicts and also beauty and strength. In 2014, when I came to Wilderness Way I found myself feeling dry and broken. That feeling was an extended phase that continued for some time. I had a relationship with God but Jesus and Christianity was completely off the table. Except the occasional times when I would pick up the Bible, read some passages—and feel disgusted or bored or confused and walk away again. I wrestled with a lot of shoulds, anger and fears. I struggled to do justice, to love kindness and the walk humbly with God. I struggled acutely with all three of these.
And along the way, I thought, OK, I will practice the vulnerability I see in others and start asking Jesus—specifically Jesus and the Holy Spirit—to be with me and to guide me and help me walk differently. And to my partial surprise, it seemed to have an effect. And I have learned many things along the way—the difference between passages being prescriptive or descriptive; that some stories are how people make sense of the world; that this Bible is based on context and to understand it we must dig…and sit…and listen.
I’ve experienced that relying on God, asking Jesus for support in all sorts of matters, has had an affect. I’ve been so scared to branch out and try life differently to be vulnerable in so many instances and again and again I’ve tested the theory that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. And again and again, I’ve found that strength and ability to have hope, to examine my motives and effects on others, to love, to speak honestly, and to listen.
It has been through asking Jesus for help that I have finally found myself able to work through some of the barriers that prevent me from doing justice—as opposed to performative displays, that have prevented me from loving kindness because I wanted control, and prevented me from tuning into the walk with God because I was scared and numb and full of self-will. Through God and Christ have I finally been able to answer the call for peace and justice that for years I’ve yearned to better answer.
A part of my discernment has been: How does my reverence for Nature fit in? I avoided the Christian tradition for a long time, for many reasons. One being the potential requirement to renounce what gave me life and what I ardently loved. Or that I would be forever caught between two worlds-struggling to ride two different horses. Instead in this community, I found those who love was just as fierce and devoted. My Wilderness Way Community and folks in Radical Discipleship Communities showed me the possibility of a new Way.
For Lent this year, I read a book by Choctaw Episcopal priest, Steven Charleston, The Four Vision Quests of Jesus. He described his process of rectifying his pull to both Indigenous and Christian tradition and practice. It opened my eyes and brought be great relief.
In this baptism, I am not turning my back on Nature, my first love, my first refuge. Nature was my first understanding of God, My first communion with God was in the mountains and forests of the Pacific Northwest. In the arms of cedars and against the backs of granite mountains I felt my first solace and accompaniment. I still see God as an expression of all that is, not just the animating force but the matter and material as well. In the last few months, I’ve learned again to listen to what rivers and trees and mountains have to tell us. I’ve learned again how to appreciate it and tune in deeper. I’ve learned that I don’t have to split my beliefs or practices.
Another part of the struggle in this formation process was reconciling with the biblical passages and people that claimed Christian supremacy.
I have come to believe that the Christ energy is a manifestation of the deep cosmic force of good that has flowed throughout existence. Like water which manifests in so many different colors, speeds, tastes, mineral contents—the rivers and oceans feed so many different forms and expressions of life and yet it’s all water. Water adapts to its surroundings and takes on different qualities, which allows different expressions of life spring up. I believe God does this too and when it was written, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (A passage I found so very problematic).
Perhaps what was meant, is that the way of justice and kindness and abiding in God, as you understand God, is the Way. One cannot attain peace within oneself or peace with others via the way of violence, or of greed, or of hiding. Many people in their religions and rituals find the way of doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with their God like all of us are sustained by different rivers and watersheds, different manifestations of water. And Christ-Jesus is one word one can use for the nourishing, energizing, life altering force that animates and guides this world. And this particular stream—this Judeo-Christian river—is one that have given me new ability to do my work in this world.
I do not believe in Christian supremacy any more than I believe in Columbia River supremacy. But I will honor the river that is feeding, teaching, and loving me.
For me today, baptism is an agreement to honor and follow the tradition that has returned my breath. It’s a decision to strive to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with my God. This baptism, for me, is also an acknowledgement that along the way, I will have to keep leaning on animating, loving, powerful strength of Christ/Nature/God and that in order to stay sane and grounded, I’ll have to remember and give thanks where it is due.
Shelby is a community acupuncturist raised by the Pacific Northwest, soon to relocate to La Crosse, Wisconsin. She loves gardening, contra dancing, Liberation Bible Studies, and organizing for affordable healthcare.