Anchoring Rituals, Part 2 with Dr. Chelle Stearns and Matthias Roberts

This week, Dr. Dan Allender, Dr. Chelle Stearns, and Matthias Roberts, MA, reconvene to continue their conversation about being “lost at sea.”

Their conversation centers around the watery ritual of baptism: the terrifying acts of faith as we enter the murky waters and the renewal and redemption that God has for us. With deeply personal stories and compelling theological perspectives, we hope this conversation invites you to consider this ritual of renewal in new ways.

You can listen to the first part of this discussion in Anchoring Rituals, Part 1.

About our guests:

Dr. Chelle Stearns is an Associate Professor in Theology at The Seattle School for Theology and Psychology. Her academic work has focused on the interaction between theology and music, and she loves to talk about the Christian imagination. She is also passionate about trinitarian theology.

Matthias Roberts (he/him) is a queer psychotherapist, podcaster, and author of Beyond Shame: Creating a Healthy Sex Life on Your Own Terms (Fortress/Broadleaf, 2020.) He hosts Queerology: A Podcast on Belief and Being and co-hosts Selfie alongside fellow therapist Kristen Howerton. Matthias holds two master’s degrees, one in Theology & Culture and one in Counseling Psychology from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. His newest book, Holy Runaways will release in Fall 2023. Find Matthias on Twitter, @matthiasroberts

Episode Transcript:

Dan: Last week seafarers, we were in a conversation about lost at sea with Dr. Chelle Stearns and Matthias Roberts. So welcome back gang. Are you ready for sliding up and down more waves this week?

Chelle: Sounds great.

Dan: You know, I’m looking at the weather right now and things are looking actually a little bit calm from my side of the boat. I don’t know about you, but I really enjoyed the conversation last week. And so if you don’t mind Matthias, I kind of wanna come back to, look, if we’re living in a deeply traumatic world that has the potential, every time we go to sea to die, but also to find something of life where we’re both allured and terrified. And I think the reality that we’ve attempted to put words to last time is that most of us don’t want to have to live in the intersection of allurement of danger. And yet we can’t help. And at some level we’re meant to choose to do so. We’re meant actually to leave the fair winds of land and enter into the wild unknown. So where we began to go is particularly as a gay man who’s known great harm in many evangelical circles. Chelle asked you last time, like what holds your faith? And I loved what you said. I’m gonna interpret it from the standpoint of similar in John 6, where Peter has just heard Jesus say outlandish things like eat my body, drink my blood, and a whole bunch of people left and, you know, Jesus goes, well, who do you think I am? And a roundabout way. Peter says, you’re the son of God. And to whom else shall we go? Nobody else has the words of life. So that’s, that’s how I heard what you were saying. Nonetheless, I don’t wanna put words in your mouth. So how have you remained, as a follower of Jesus?

Matthias: Well, you, I mean, you brought up this category of baptism as we were ending last time too. And I mean, that brought my mind to my literal baptism story, which I was probably 15, 16. I grew up in a tradition where, there was this belief that you had to kind of be ready, prepared to be baptized. And I waited a long time because I knew that I was, you know, “struggling with my sexuality” right? It was a struggle at that point and, and tried everything I could to remove that part of myself. And I thought, well, maybe, maybe baptism is the key. Maybe that is the thing that will actually remove this from me. And so I decided to get baptized, you know, of course there were other reasons I wanted to affirm my faith and et cetera. It was not the only reason, but I went right before a guy in my youth group that I had quite the crush on and, you know, was baptized wondered, did it work? And he went next and he was wearing this white shirt. And as he was dunked, I realized immediately, it had not worked. And I was quite angry at that. And, ’cause I had this belief that God would cure me at some point. And I think, you know, at that time I wouldn’t have been able to put the language of ambiguity on it, but now I can look back and say like that that’s I think thrust me deeper into that ambiguity of what does it mean to take this faith seriously? And the reality of, of who I am as a person. And it was years of being at sea, so to speak, working with that.

Dan: And at least I wanna come back to that question of, and how has in one sense the disappointment of baptism and at least at that point would’ve been, I, am I wrong to say disappointing and disillusioning?

Matthias: Yes.

Dan: And yet I know of your own heart for Jesus. And so it obviously gave some other form of grounding. How?

Matthias: Again, I wouldn’t have been able to put this language on it at that point, but I think it, it pushed me further along further into the sea. And then that imagination of maybe Jesus wants something different for me, maybe there is a fuller expression of who Jesus is, of who God is, of who I am that is different from what I have been told. And then having to search for that. I think Chelle mentioned last week that looking for other lands, and discovering other lands, like it pushed me further into that. The question of who do you say I am? Of me saying that to Jesus and Jesus saying that to me, like, who am I? Who are you? What does that mean?

Dan: Well, it sounds a little too academic, but, the cost of individuation of discovery who we are and who we’re not, is disillusioning because most of the illusions we have about ourselves, about others, about God, when they die, or at least when they’re dying, feels like we’re not gonna recover, that we are going to drown, and that there will be no rescue or at least no resurrection. And that I think is one of the hard things about owning the nature of any form of trauma, where we have been failed, where we fail, where we have a sense of struggling with others engagement that feels dishonoring to us. That leaves us with so many questions of where we fit, how we fit, whether we’re willing to compromise what we know in our body about our own sense of being, and so easy to kill before we die. Uh, the realities of where our own sense of being is in some tension and opposition with others. So, Chelle, baptism.

Chelle: Well, I’m still like on this idea of, I’m reminded a lot of Peter being in the boat, Jesus is left on the shore. The wind is coming up and they think a ghost is coming out toward them and it’s Jesus walking on the water and, he recognizes Jesus in that moment. And one of the things we talked about in the class, and maybe this is part of what we’re talking about as well, like how do you have faith in this moment on a lake? You know, the wind can, can kind of stir up the waves in a way that the waves come toward one another and crash up against each other, because there is no limitation of which direction the waves go and a boat can suddenly be like completely taken over by the waves. And here Jesus is coming across the waters, right? And Jesus, and Peter’s like looking out and, then he recognizes him and, and he like goes, gets out of the boat and starts walking towards Jesus and then sinks. And I’m like, I think in some sense, faith is a lot like that. And there, I don’t think though, I know Dan, you have, you have trouble with what Jesus says to Peter after this of, “if you had more faith,” I mean, how much more faith do you need than to get out of the boat and start walking?

Dan: Darn darn right. Come on, Jesus. Like, gimme a break here. Like Peter. Okay. Okay. Just a slight, diversion, but impulsive, certainly, not exactly ironic, nonetheless. That’s an incredible amount of faith to get out of that damn boat and start walking. And then Jesus is acknowledging his failure of faith when the rest of them are sitting in the boat, watching this crazy man do these things. So, yeah, that’s my little side note. Go ahead. I’m sorry, Chelle.

Chelle: Well, no, I mean, I think this is a good wrestle of ’cause I think even as we talk about faith and baptism, that, I think there’s something really genuine about Matthias’s story of, in some sense, we think that baptism will get us some place as opposed to baptism as this entry point into something. It’s a marker of what we are called into. And like Peter, maybe we’re in the drink and now we don’t know what to do. We, in some sense are like, well, it’s gonna take a long time for me to understand what this baptism means. It’s like a long road, a long, a long swim, if you will, to like how to have faith. And it’s because it’s unpredictable. I’ll say that, you know, maybe this is a bad thing for a theologian to say, but I’m often suspicious of anyone who says that their spiritual life is peaceful and at ease, it really brings them a lot of just kind of ease… and, yeah, it’s the ironic, it’s the, it’s that sense of, but I’m like, I think faith often brings us to this place of, you have to wrestle with yourself, you have to wrestle with the world, you begin to see what’s out in the world and you are stirred because your faith is no longer just about you. It’s not just about like, I said a prayer and now I believe in Jesus and the Spirit is with me or any of the experiences that we have or just the experiences we have. I think there’s something when the Spirit does hover over the waters of our lives, that we are then called out into the world in certain sorts of ways because it’s, we it’s like baptism is this initiation, it’s this marker into, you are entering into a way of love that will grow and grow and cost you something. But you’re entering into this love. That is so beautiful. And what’s promised is God’s Spirit what’s promised is God’s presence with us. We aren’t entering into, you know, whether we’re singing choruses or hymns or going to a liturgical church or non, you know… That’s one part of the Christian life and that’s our practice. But what we’re called into is God’s very being and presence in the world. And sometimes that takes us into the dark places of the world.

Dan: So comfort in the midst of chaos and so the water, symbolizes the sea. It’s not just in some sense… I think a lot of folks think baptism is a form of absolution, of being washed, having our sin washed way. And I don’t think I want to dis that as much as what we’re trying to say is that baptism is an entry into trauma. You’ve been in trauma.

Chelle: In the ancient rights, you know, from the very early church that to be baptized was to promise, to stand against evil, to resist that which is evil and harmful in the world. As Rowan Williams talks about it, wherever the neighborhood of Jesus is, that’s where darkness is, that’s often where harm has happened. And to be Jesus people, to be people of the Spirit, is to be in the places where harm and trauma has happened. And to wonder, is there a possibility for healing? Is there a possibility for life and presence to happen in this place?

Matthias: Well, and this is where I’ve started reading these stories of Jesus’s chiding. I think in a slightly different way. Because this isn’t the first time Jesus has chided someone for their lack of faith, right? Like, like there are multiple instances in the gospels where Jesus says, “oh, ye of little faith,” or, but there’s always, or often a contradiction there. Like if you have faith, the size of a mustard seed, and yet, ye of little faith. And so I’ve begun to wonder, and I’m playing with this in my book. If Jesus is not chiding, but is actually identifying the faith that he knows is already present and asking Peter, asking the disciples, asking us to trust the faith that we know is already here.

Dan: Well, that could change my whole attitude toward that one scenario, inviting me to know that I wouldn’t have gotten out of the boat if there had not been immense faith. And then will you lean and come into the faith? That actually is there there’s so much reluctance to name our goodness. It is so much easy-er to name what we perceive to be our failure of. I think that’s a really outlandishly, hopeful and righteous way to look at that. So when is that gonna be published, buddy?

Matthias: We have to wait ’til fall of 2023, quite a while.

Dan: Yeah, well, I should, I should not ask, but at least I can say, well, love to have access to the manuscript. Nonetheless, the framework that you’re offering feels, again, a kindness, and yet in that non-chiding invitation actually leaning into something harder, instead of actually saying, you need more, is you have all that you need, will you play with that and come into the waters with me?

Chelle: Yeah, and I would add to that, this idea of this comes from, Swiss theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar this idea of encountering the face of Jesus. And so I even wonder about Peter in the boat, recognizing the face of Jesus, recognizing something of who he is and being compelled to move toward. And one of the things that Balthasar talks about is that this encounter, in some ways, marks our recognition of our own failure to love. That we, there’s a greater love that’s inviting us in. And this is, in some sense, the beginning, he talks about it as love becomes in inchoate within us. We think we understand love, but in these encounters, we are invited into the biggerness of this love. And so the smallness of faith, in some ways, marks that inchoateness… Inchoate is one of those fun words that it’s like it’s starts small, and then it expands.

And I wonder about that, of that there’s enough space in our heart to begin. When we feel that lack of faith, when we feel that struggle with faith, when we struggle with perhaps the ambiguity or the ambivalence of our own lives, what does that mean to trust that small inchoate spark of love, that moves us outside of ourselves and brings joy and beauty to the world. And, I think that’s that, so Mathias, I love that idea of this is the small faith. This is the little mustard seed that begins, the generativity, this, this bringing, growing, bringing, expanding into God’s love within our lives and that can’t help, and maybe this is just my theology, it can’t help, but make your communities better.

Dan: If we can hold in some ways, let me use the term. Courage is not an absence of fear. In fact, if you don’t have fear, you, whatever it is that looks like courage, it’s not. It’s hubris or a form of sociopathy. But why don’t we think that with regard to faith? Like doubt, I don’t wanna bless doubt. I’d love to have my doubts resolved, but the reality is faith without doubt is a certitude that actually isn’t faith at all. It’s a trusting and a person or a process or a certain set of convictions. It’s not faith, but appears to be. And so can we honor that we all bear, especially in the context of trauma, doubts about the goodness of God, doubts about who we are in the midst of the goodness of God. And in that reality that I doubt even the two of you. And so like, like, let me just put words to a doubt. Chelle, you just use the word biggerness. Did you just make that up?

Chelle: That’s what theologians do we make up words. Because sometimes our reality can’t quite hold the language that we already have. So of course.

Dan: Damn. That’s good. I just, I think that, I mean, there’ll be a lot of things that stay with me, particularly what Matthias was putting words to, but I’m gonna try the word out. Usually I try words out with my grandchildren and they are severe critics of certainly my language, but in this case, biggerness. Yeah. That’s that just makes, it just makes me laugh. I mean, did you like, did you hear that Matthias when she said that?

Matthias: I didn’t even notice.

Chelle: Kinda used to Chelle making stuff up.

Dan: Well, back on focus, the reality is that somehow within this, can we engage our doubts, not resolve them, but let them prompt us to ask what faith exists. And I wanna come back to baptism as clearly a category of a right, a ritual, and to say, how are rituals particularly baptism, part of what, you know, to be the grounding of your faith?

Chelle: Well, there’s definitely two different markers here. Scripturally, one is the baptism of Christ and which is the beginning of his ministry. And then there was our own baptism as individual. I mean, I grew up a Baptist, so, you know, I, at eight years old, I remember going down, I was sitting in the balcony, having to walk all the way down to the front and declaring that I will be baptized. And having that be a mark of me declaring that this is the faith I am choosing. I mean, when I was eight years old, I mean, what did I know? How did I know that this was the life that I was getting into? But the, but the baptism of Jesus also is super provocative. I like how in the Eastern Orthodox tradition that the image of Jesus putting his body into the waters and usually icons in the east, have Jesus in the water up to his neck often. And there’s sometimes like a, he’s often standing over like what looks like an eddy or a bit of chaos. So he’s, he’s also like the Spirit, hovering over the chaos of things. So he is entering into the chaos, putting his own body and vulnerability there. And then often below his feet are the river gods. And which I think is so significant, this idea of, in some sense, the gods of the world, or the chaos of the waters, that in some sense, even at the beginning of his ministry, there’s a dual thing that happens. He sanctifies the waters of the world through the presence of his body, but also this idea of promising to hold the chaos of the world at the same time, through his life, death, resurrection. And you see this repeated over and over again in different ways throughout his ministry. And then we see this represented in different ways throughout scripture. You know, from, we’ve already mentioned the creation story of the Spirit hovering at the beginning, but also the image of the tree of life in the book of revelation. There may not be any more seas, but the rivers will be sent out and the tree of life will be on either side of the water and the leaves are for the healing of the nations. And so you realize that, oh, from Jesus’ body going into the waters comes this way of life, that is promised to heal the world, that the world in some sense will be baptized by the presence of God, by the waters of the Holy Spirit. And I’m like, how do I sleep at night? And how do I get up in the morning? This is the promise. Even when it feels dark today, this is the promise that leads us into our day-to-day faith. So baptism it’s become important to me think.

Dan: Me as well. Much more so, but again, Matthias, as you think, in terms of rights rituals that bring you into your baptism, what, what categories come for you?

Matthias: Yeah. And I think the category that’s coming to mind is something we talked a lot about in class, but I don’t know that we’ve mentioned it in today yet, is that sense of memorial. Markers. Where certainly baptism is a marker of something, but, also what does it mean to mark or memorialize grief, trauma, death, goodness. I mean, all sorts of things. And, also reclamation is coming to mind too. And as we were kind of preparing for this podcast, I was thinking about, well, what does that mean to me? And my mind immediately went to language and, the reality that my community, the queer community has been, has had a lot of language used against us. And the ways that we have reclaimed that language, what was meant for evil has now become good. There are many slurs that, that we use amongst ourselves that are now communal. They bring goodness, even though they were meant for harm. And so that’s the category that’s coming to mind of marking both the pain and trauma, but also bringing the goodness that can come forth of reclamation.

Dan: Well, just again, to remind the audience of your podcast, Queerology. It is the reversal of a word that would be a word of contempt and degradation. And in one sense to flip that word into being one, which, it becomes a statement of honor is so playful. And you know, again, the word Christian was initially used as a statement of violation. You are Christ ones. And believers became those who can turn contempt into honor and blessing. And there is that reversal, you know, the ambiguity and ambivalence we’ve talked about with trauma. I don’t wanna sound quick and easy, but the waters actually require us to acknowledge there is no quick process, but that ability to turn what was meant for evil into what is good is that playfulness with regard to, we know death, but death doesn’t get the final word. Therefore we can face death and play with death in a way in which we’re actually acknowledging life wins, love wins. Chelle, you look like you were about to bring us into another level of goodness.

Chelle: No, one part of the class, was that I was, I had used some of, Pádraig Ó Tuama;’s work and especially his prayers. And I think I’m entering into something in my own spiritual life where I feel like the written prayers of other people are a form of this sort of marker, an acknowledgement of how has God been with me. And then the sharing out of this marker. I mean, there’s many different memorials, there’s different, many different markers. You know, and I can’t help, but think, you know, of the stones. The word Ebeneezer is another one that Dan you were using. And it comes from this idea, the Israelites, you know, walking across the river bed, picking up stones and creating, you know, a pile of stones on the other, other side to mark how God has, has rescued how God has been with them. And so wherever there are words, wherever there are markers where wherever there are memorials, we just begin to wonder about how today can I live into this and this is just part of his, like just a morning prayer. He says, “we pray for all whose day will be difficult. May we support, may we listen. May we change. We resolve to live life in its fullness. We will welcome the people who will be part of this day. We will greet God and ordinary and hidden moments. We will live the life we are living.” But I love that kind of combination of, for those, for whom today is difficult. And in that we pray for them, but we will also not be afraid to live.

Dan: Hmm. Again, that that’s, to me, what baptism holds in that passage in Roman 6:3, where it’s clear that, our baptism is an entry into the death of Jesus, but in that death, the power is that death has been conquered. So I can risk my own death knowing that death again, doesn’t bear the final word, but in that there’s a potential for gaining life, finding life, having the fruit of what the sea holds. So before we end, it strikes me as kind of sweet that the conversation we’re having, obviously is prerecorded to when it arrives. But I was just looking at the date that this will be shouted out to the world. And I will be, in Montana, with my dear friend and colleague Steve Call. And we’ll be fishing on a river that I will not name, but nonetheless, that one of the things I ask Steve almost every year when we fish and this year in particular, because there has been a lot of heartache brutality losses, in this world, I mean the number of mass shootings of just the last few weeks, it just feels like the insidious polarization, the cruelty, the hatred, that seems to be evident in our world. And some of it not far away. I ask Steve every year to baptize me. Now. I was baptized as a child, a baby, not in the Baptist tradition, little bit of water on the head. That’s all I could bear, but I need to be baptized again. Not because my faith is not growing, but because it is growing, I need that right and ritual of return of what my body experiences, when he lays me down in like 58 degrees, 62 degree, cold mountain water. And I literally, I shout as I come out of that water. And, there are a lot of other rituals I look forward to daily, weekly, monthly, but there’s something about that for me, that renews what I know to be my entry into chaos, the promise of resurrection, the reality that my king entered before I did, and rose, uh, out of that. And in that there is something of the promise of the metaphor being real and more real than reality itself. So I, before we end, I want to come back to that question of how do you renew your baptism?

Chelle: That’s a good question. I think there’s something in participating in the Eucharist, ’cause it’s also the memorial of the death of Christ, of, you know, taking in the body, becoming the body, how the church is the body of, Christ in the world. And so there’s something in that kind of, we renew all the time, depending on your tradition, you think about it differently. But there’s something to, I don’t know, it’s just the sweetness of being part of not only your local congregation, but the, the worldwide church. And, there’s something about even praying for those who are in places that are really suffering, but also your neighbor, the neighborhood church next to you, the church that’s across the world from you, that we are connected by this story of being found in the death of Christ and then being raised with Christ. It calls us into the world in a really particular sort of way.

Dan: And, and just to underscore, even as you’re reading the poem was a renewal of baptism. And I think that’s where a lot of people may, may press and say, that’s ridiculous, but I want, I want you to hear that in one sense, every time we enter into the sea, into the waters of chaos of trauma of loss, we’re actually renewing our baptism.

Chelle: yeah.

Dan: Matthias last thoughts on all that?

Matthias: Two places come to mind for me. One, one is a good walk in the woods, that slowing down, and the other is one in a lot of queer theologians talk about this, like the right, the ritual of going to a gay club. And that space of delight, that place of celebration. There is a renewal of baptism in those spaces.

Dan: Whatever puts us in danger that simultaneously gives the promise of life is in some sense, entering into the waters. And in one sense, defying the terror, honoring the allure. And in one sense, living with the promise that there is renewal, there is the rising. And so as we end, again, to come back to this hope that you will take a moment to, in some sense, take in, take in your baptism and begin to weave something of the intersection of trauma and the rights of baptism, the Lord’s table, not as separable, spiritual activities, but as an engagement with trauma itself. And if we haven’t provided you with a lot of clarity, it’s ’cause we’re still in the water. And, if we step out right now, we’ll sink, but in some ways maybe there really is enough faith, to walk on water. Thank you both.

Chelle: Thank you, Dan.

Matthias: Yeah. Thank you.