Grasping at Consistency: Honest Thoughts On A Religious Journey Part 2

I’d like to tell you a story, but I would like to start near the end of the story because really, it’s closest to the beginning.

It was an oddly warm morning this past October and like almost all mornings, I took my dog Aera for a walk.  I decided to go to the outdoor track behind the YMCA because I needed a change of scenery from our usual places.  One of the best things about having a dog is the necessity of a silent walk—perfect for praying.  And that particular morning, my heart was heavy with a decision that I’d made.  I was praying that God would give me one last confirmation—a Biblical fleece, I guess you could call it—to show me that I was indeed, following His will.  So as I prayed and walked, we passed a lady who was running and she smiled and waved to us.  And because this track is a large loop, we passed her several more times.  At one point, she stopped running to talk with us.  We made small talk about the weather, dogs, and then she asked me a question I was not expecting.

“I know this is going to sound strange,” she said, sounding a bit hesitant. “But do you believe in God?”

“I do,” I replied.

She looked relieved.  “You may not believe this, but as I kept passing you, I received a word from the Lord.”

Now I know very well that the phrase “word from the Lord” is a Pentecostal phrase that means, God spoke to me about you, so I was very interested to see where this was going.

“Oh?” I asked, trying to show her that this was indeed welcome information.

“The word I got was ‘courage,’” she continued on without much of a pause. “You see, I think it has something to do with a decision you are making and that you should have the courage to go through with it and not be afraid.  This is what you’re supposed to do.”

For a person skeptical of the more mystical side of Christianity, I’ve had quite a few things like this happen throughout my life, so I couldn’t help but smile. “You know, you’ll never believe this,” I responded. “But I was just praying for confirmation for a decision I’m making—that it’s the right one and that God would give me a sign.”

She beamed at that point, “Take this as confirmation.  I also feel this has something to do with those close to you—your family?  Maybe telling them something they don’t want to hear.”

“Yes,” I said, shaking her hand.  “Thank you so much for having the courage to tell me this.  It really is what I needed to hear.  Your words are an answer to prayer.”

She stood for a few moments, seeming hopeful that I would explain what all of this was about, but I didn’t.  I didn’t want to shake her faith.

We kindly parted ways and I shook my head, trying to contain my laughter at God’s sense of humor.  You see, what had just taken place was this: a Pentecostal had just told a Presbyterian to become Catholic and to have courage to tell her Southern Baptist dad about her decision.  See the humor now?

The following is my thought-process throughout this 5-year journey, it is in no way a complete look into my thoughts, but it is enough.  That being said, here is my journey towards Catholicism.  I’ll start with the boring stuff I had to come to grips with first about the Catholic Church.  If you’re not interested, then feel free to skip to the last paragraph.

Problem #1:  Authority

Part 1: I have always had a problem with trusting authority because throughout my life, I’ve had a front-row seat to religious leaders and others in authority abusing their powers (whether through sexual abuse, misleading “truths” to push a personal agenda or to gain notoriety, etc…).  Many people my age have left the church because the great amount of hypocrisy they’ve seen.  I have not left because I know that a church is a place full of sinners who need God (and the only difference between people in a church and outside of a church is that church-goers admit that they need help to be more like God).  For me, God has always been much better and higher than His sin-tainted church.  But we try and that’s the point.

What about all of those children sexually-abused by Catholic priests, you are asking?  How can you ignore that?  I don’t.  Here’s the thing, the Catholic church is huge.  There are an estimated 1.2 billion Catholics in the world currently.  In 2010, there were an estimated 800 million Protestants (many different denominations).  I grew up Evangelical and knew that the same awful stuff was happening in most of the churches I’ve attended, the difference being, the churches are smaller and can cover it up more easily.  The Catholic church is huge, and thus, much easier to expose.  I’m glad that the sins of the Catholic church were exposed because hopefully it can heal and change.

Part 2:  Accepting Apostolic Succession.  This was not a hard one for me.  Catholic theology teaches that when Jesus told Peter “Upon you I will build my church,” it was meant literally.  Apostolic succession is through the laying on of hands from one Apostle to another.  The Apostles were the first bishops of the church.

Part 3: The all-male Magisterium (bishops of the church who have ruled on interpretation of questionable scriptures throughout history).  I do not love that women are excluded as deacons and priests, especially since Junia was named in the Bible as an Apostle (bishop) and is recognized as such in Catholic church history as such, and Priscilla and Phoebe, recognized as a deacons.  Thus, historically and Biblically, women should still be eligible for included in church authority but they currently are not.  That being said, the exclusion of females in governing leadership is nothing new to me.  Presbyterians, for example have a Presbytery and only men are considered for pastor, elder or diaconate roles.  I tend to give a bit more leeway to Protestants because they think they are acting Biblically.  For example, Junia is argued by John Piper in his work in helping to translate for the New English Standard Version to really be Junias (even though there is less-than-nothing to back up that claim besides his own distinctly patriarchal p.o.v.).  Protestants shrug at the inclusion of Priscilla as a deacon because they say that she was paired as a “helper” to her husband Aquilla who was the real deacon and was not really referred to as a deacon.  The many verses in Timothy about women being silent in church, etc…is always taken out of the patriarchal cultural context at the time too, but whatever.  I could go Episcopal or Anglican, but those tend to be pretty liberal leaning or non-existent in our area.

So why am I becoming Catholic despite this?  Because progress is being made and the church is open to it.  For the last 50 years, many strong nuns and leading female (and male) Catholic writers and sympathetic priests have raised this issue.  Every few years, the current Pope brings it up as something that must be changed.  Summits are held, voices are heard.  Change is slow, but I am happy to lend my voice to this cause.

Part 4: The Pope, the Magisterium, and our ultimate need for consistent authority. Whether or not Protestants like to admit it, we all have our own “Popes” or “Magisterium.”  Whether we ourselves are the final authority on what we believe or whether it is a favorite pastor or a more celebrity-type leader (like the Graham’s, Dr. Dobson, Bill Gothard, John Piper), we all listen to someone as the final authority.  Becoming Catholic, I am choosing an authority with a long history, both good and bad, that has been consistent in its teachings throughout the centuries.

Problem #2:  The Perpetual Virginity of Mary

I’ve read the Protoevangelium of James (aka the Gospel of James).  I’m not gonna lie, it’s pretty weird and I have a tougher time with this one.  It’s an account of Mary’s upbringing, Christ’s birth, and testimony to Mary’s perpetual virginity.   But what about the mention of Jesus’ brothers in Scripture?  The church teaches that they were most likely the children of Joseph from a previous marriage or cousins.  But having accepted the church’s authority in general, this is one I can live with. And because the Catholic church dates back to Jesus’ Disciples and what they taught, I’m going to believe the people who knew Mary personally.  So even if you are a Protestant and are thinking, “for shame,” just remember that the original Church Reformer, Martin Luther, believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity too.

 

So I’ve told you what I had to really work through, but what simultaneously drew me?

 

A Consistent Theology of Life, Love and Truth in Action

I was 21 when I picked up a copy of “Death of Innocents” by Sister Helen Prejean from the library.  I knew absolutely nothing about the book, I just liked the title when I came across it on the shelf.  It was a book about those wrongfully convicted on death row and the idea that the death penalty is always morally wrong (innocent or not).  I wrestled with the concept at the time, but now I see that it comes from a theology that is all about respecting the entirety of life. I love that the Catholic Church is pro-life all the way through life and in every aspect.  Pro-life to Catholics means much more than just protecting the unborn.  It also means caring for and loving the refugee, the prisoner, the oppressed, the mentally ill, the homeless, the elderly, the poor, your enemy; and all of these are equally as important.  It means that Catholics were the main overlapping group who attended both the women’s march, the march for life, and refugee rallies across the US.  It means having a theology that says others who’ve never heard of Christ but who believe in God in the way that they are able, will likely be alongside Christians in Heaven.  It’s a theology that embraces the idea that it is our job to be good stewards of the earth that we live on and we are to care for all of its inhabitants (plant, animal, human).  It is a theology that says, yes, God created the earth, but we don’t have to deny science to still believe that.  It is a beautiful thing and one, that without putting words to it, I have always believed and tried to live out.

 

Complexity and Suffering

The churches I grew up in were somewhat fundamentalist, but Advanced Training Institute (ATI) was legalistic to the extreme.  They taught us that there were always clear, black-and-white, Biblical answers to every problem that could arise in life.  Special rules were formed for that reason: you should not dance, because dancing could lead to sin, for example.  Remember King David dancing before the Ark and how that turned out?  That was the ATI example of why one should never dance.  The philosophy was, it’s better to avoid things that could lead to sin, rather than come near temptation—a sort of bubble wrap theology. I believe very firmly, and always have, that God did not call his people to take the simple path.  He did not create for us a simplistic black-and-white, all-or-nothing, comfortable world with easy Biblical answers that we can close our eyes and point to and say, “problem solved!”  It would be convenient if the world worked that way, but it doesn’t and can’t. (I’m also not saying that we should purposefully go out of our way to put ourselves in losing situations either).

Although the Catholic church has the same downfalls as any other religion/denomination to ere on either side, its core theology is embracing of that fine line, that delicate balancing act of being in the world fully, but not of the world.  It is subtle, nuanced, difficult and complex, and never quick nor easy to explain.  Much of what Protestants (including myself a few years ago) say the Catholic church believes is an inaccurate soundbite of the actual belief that misses all of the important complexity.  “Catholics believe that you can work for your salvation” is one, for example.  In reality, Catholics believe that salvation through Christ’s redemption is the only way, but they take the verse in James, “Faith without works is dead,” very seriously.

Within a portion of that embracing of the complexity, it also means embracing ideas that could lead to suffering.  The Catholic church teaches that suffering is a good thing and a normal part of the Christian’s life, and although suffering for suffering’s sake is never right, they encourage believers to not shy away from it, and in some respects, to expect it. In a very real way, if one is truly pro-life and acting on that by visiting the sick, the prisoner, or giving aid to refugees, you might be placed in dangerous situations.  You may become ill, you may die, doing what you are called to do and this is what the church is much quicker to embrace than many Protestants.  There are two movies that I think really embrace the complexity of trying to grapple with difficult issues of faith, suffering, and what part God has called us to play: The Mission, and Silence.  I would encourage you to watch them if you haven’t yet.

The main thing that I would like you as the reader to know is that I’ve put much thought and prayer into all of this as I hope was clear.  If you know me well, you know that I’m not just following my husband (as some well-meaning people have assumed).  For a handful of people that are very dear to me, I have not told you before now because we have not been face-to-face since I’ve made my decision, and how do you awkwardly work in “oh and by the way, I’m being confirmed in the Catholic Church” into the end of an e-mail, text, or a two second conversation?  I know for many people, this might be controversial and that is okay. Note that I did not site scriptures or texts, but they are easily Google-able, so if you want to discuss something, feel free to look it up first and we’ll talk.

One last thing.  Please know that I did not make my decisions based upon a dislike of Protestantism, but a love for Catholicism and foremost, because God has called me here.

If you would like to read about my thoughts when Ethan became Catholic (Part 1), here’s the link.

Grasping at Moderation Part I: Honest Thoughts on a Religious Journey

Picture by tubagooba CC Some Rights Reserved

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

In May, my husband Ethan was confirmed into the Catholic church (the rough equivalent of denominational membership).  To get to know what it is that the Catholic church officially believes, I am taking an RCIA class (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults into the Catholic church).  Throughout this class, I am constantly reminded of how Catholics aren’t well informed as to Protestant theology and vice-versa. I grew up indoctrinated with misinformation like, “Poor Catholics.  They’re good people who’ve missed the point.  They think that you can get to Heaven through works alone. It’s too bad we won’t be seeing most of them there.”

Our dentist was a Catholic and my parents really loved him. “He’s got to be a Christian Catholic,” they reasoned, “you can see the love of God in his life in the way he treats people.”  For much of my life, I thought I would make an excellent nun…if only they were Christians…

Catholic theology places great emphasis on works stemming from faith.  They take James 2:18 very seriously: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.”

I am still Protestant, partly because I have not read the church fathers and can’t swallow the emphasis placed on Marion theology, and partly because I have not felt the leading of God that way.  However, I’m very thankful for my husband’s journey as he seeks God’s will. Perhaps I will join him somewhere down the road, and perhaps I will not.  I am trying to keep an open mind and heart.

When Ethan made this decision, we were dumb-founded at the blatant prejudice that is still so pervasive between the two factions (for lack of a better word).  We have both been treated with great hostility for his move.  People seem baffled by this dichotomy of my being in full support of Ethan’s decision while choosing not to follow him.  One well-meaning woman even rebuked me for allowing my husband to make that decision.  Hmm, right. I’m going to MAKE my husband think one way or the other…yeah, not so much.

“What is this? The middle ages?” I mused to Ethan one night while brushing my teeth. “It might give people more satisfaction if we revert to burning at the stake. I just don’t understand how two groups of people who love God can be so hateful to one another.  And honestly, I see it much more from the Protestants than the Catholics.”

“Being strong and in the middle,” a very wise older friend told me, “confuses people and makes them uncomfortable.  You are doing something uncommon by being together in your separateness. People like black and white because it’s easy to see what is right and wrong and thus, comfortable.  This is one more way that you two are pushing the boundaries.”

It’s so refreshing when friends approach me directly and straight up ask what they want to know.  The questions always start with “How is this affecting your marriage?”  When I answer that this has actually drawn us closer, a majority of people cock an eyebrow and say “really” because they assume I’m either lying or insincere.  Let me assure you I am not.

The next question is, “What about when you have children?  Then what will you do?”

Most people assume that we’re just busy people that are waiting until we get all of the fun out of the way, but the truth is, I can’t have children.  So choosing a church in which to raise our children is not a problem that will have to be solved in the near future.  All of the sudden, people get sympathetic looks on their faces and begin apologizing about prying.  I always think this is funny, because I wouldn’t have told them if I didn’t want them to know.  I have nothing to hide–it’s just the way things are.  I always had an intuition growing up that I would not be able to have kids, and well, I was right.  I’ve already raised a bunch of kids, so I know what it’s like.  I’ve had the sleepless nights when a baby is colicky or a kid is throwing up or the sheets need to be changed and the kid bathed in the middle of the night because he/she wet the bed.  I’ve had the joy of changing diapers, giving baths, tucking in at night.  I don’t feel the need to do it again any time soon.

That being said, if God wanted to do a miracle he can make anything happen and Ethan and I are happy either way. This statement  leaves people with a look of aww,-you’re-just-making-lemonade look on their faces.

Lastly, people want to know about communion.  “Won’t you miss taking it together?” In some ways, it is a little odd that we are not allowed to take communion together, but I subscribe to the fact that God is bigger than church tradition.  He’s present at both and we’re partaking in the body and blood of Christ, just perhaps not in the same place and time.  As for the transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation argument, I’ve always sided with the Catholics since I was 14 and read Foxe’s Book of Christian Martyrs of the World  (the opposite position of the book).

This is all to say, the middle is not a popular place to be, but being comfortable is not all its cracked up to be either.  Whether or not you agree with my thoughts, I challenge you to look at your own journey.  Are you in the uncomfortableness of seeking God’s will?  Is God calling you to follow him in the undefined middle?  Where has your journey led you up to this point?