Monthly Archives: December 2012

Prayer to Saint Peter

This is a beautiful prayer:

O Holy Apostle, because you are the Rock upon which Almighty God has built His Church, obtain for me I pray you: lively faith, firm hope, and burning love, complete detachment from myself, contempt of the world, patience in adversity, humility in prosperity, recollection in prayer, purity of heart, a right intention in all my works, diligence in fulfilling the duties of my state of life, constancy in my resolutions, resignation to the will of God and perseverance in the grace of God even unto death; that so, by means of your intercession and your glorious merits, I may be made worthy to appear before the Chief and Eternal Shepherd of Souls, Jesus Christ, Who with the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns forever. Amen.

I am slowly discovering the worth of recited and repeated prayers. More than merely asking for things, these are little liturgies in a sense, training and serving our souls in attentiveness toward God so that we might become saints. A prayer like the one above is, in this particular prayer, a calling out to God via Peter, but it is also an education, an encouragement for the soul to hold fast to what it knows is true in the midst of a fallen world.

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Six touchstones of the visible body of Christ

Christian churches come in many flavors. If we are to pick a church and stick with it, as opposed to the common Christian practice of switching churches like people pick their new favorites restaurants, then which characteristics or touchstones might we look for to guide us? I have in mind six touchstones which I will describe below. For simplicity I also have in mind the main “flavors” of Christianity to be Protestant (and its many variants), Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox.

As  a Protestant I was trained to see right doctrine as the primary , evidential touchstone of faith. Sola fide—”faith alone” in the right doctrine—was the bedrock of salvation. Where one went to church was ultimately based on what doctrine was preached from the pulpit; that was the key discriminator of any church, so I was taught. Sola scriptura—”scripture alone” as the only source of right doctrine—followed as a very close second in importance. I still tend towards placing a heavy emphasis on doctrine, faith, and scripture, though what doctrines I believe have changed over the years. How tightly I hold on to various doctrines has also changed. And I do not believe in sola fide any longer, and I do not hold to sola scriptura. (Let me say, however, that I do like the spirit of sola fide and sola scriptura. I like emphasizing the importance of faith and scripture. I just think the doctrines are wrong.)

I now see the CHURCH as a living, breathing, even changing thing—it is a body after all. Yet I know there must be something changeless and fundamental about the Church. Practice is important. Right doctrine is also critical, and the Truth should be preserved, but Protestantism has destroyed much of that foundation by systematically dismantling the pillar and ground of truth. (see 1 Tim. 3:15) This our inheritance who have been raised Protestant. This is a harsh perspective certainly, but we should all be greatly troubled by the profound dis-unity produced by the Protestant Reformation (which I see more as a rebellion than true reformation). If we look at the fruit we have produced then we should grieve this particular aspect of our history. I grieve that I have played a part in that dis-unity.

As I try to get a handle on what I believe, why I believe it, and what Church I should follow (Roman Catholic, one of the many Protestant variants, or Eastern Orthodox), I realize my Protestant training has left me unprepared to make such a choice. What criteria do I use? What are the key characteristics of the visible Church? I’m sure there  are many who would be eager and willing to offer an answer, for they have it all bottled up, but that’s exactly the kind of certainty with which I grew up and which I am leaving behind—not because I dislike certainty, for I love it, but that the further I go in the life the more I realize there is a great mystery behind all our certainties. I want to follow Christ, to be like Him, and to have my life be an exhibit of love for Him. Something I have learned over the years is that following Christ is a far more mysterious and dangerous project than we typically assume.

With this in mind I see six possible characteristics or touchstones of the Church that seem to speak to me and offer guidance. They are: Liturgy, Theology, History, Unity, Authority, and Mystery. This list began with a couple of good friends who say “history, mystery, authority” is their elevator pitch as it were of why they converted to the Catholic Church. I have added liturgy, theology, and unity to that list because I find they must also be there for me. What I think about these things, and what I discover in light of these touchstones, perhaps will guide me.

Note: Faith, love, hope, righteousness, goodness, holiness, virtue, etc., are not listed below because, though they are also touchstones of the visible body of Christ, they are primarily of the individual. They are, as it were, assumed in the list below. I also have not included the sacraments as a touchstone, though they should also be assumed. Perhaps the sacraments are really just a part of each touchstone below.

The six touchstones:

Liturgy is made for us and we for it. By liturgy we infuse into our souls the truths we claim. Liturgy fits with the classical education model as well (something important to me) for liturgy is about the ordering of the soul, the whole person. We learn by memorizing, by practice, by repetition, by meditation, and through application. The body, and not just the mind and emotions, must be involved in learning. But liturgy is also an act of unity. We practice our liturgy with others, in solidarity, in love. Liturgy can be simple or complex, old or new, though wisdom and experience might find a balance. To deny liturgy, or to denigrate liturgy, or to ignore liturgy is to turn from the true nature of man, which is to turn away from God the creator of man’s nature. Which church offers the best, most fitting combination of man’s nature with liturgy? Which church seeks an “ordering” of the whole being in its liturgy?

Theology is the pursuit of understanding God and promulgating that understanding in both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. We should all pursue an understanding of God, though most of us are not called to be Theologians in a formal sense. So, on the one hand theology can stand for a particular orientation towards God, and on the other hand, those beliefs and practices that flow from that orientation. Theology here can also stand for the dogmatic cosmos that each Christian group or church claims as truth. Which church offers the best dogmatic cosmos, the best harmony of doctrines, the best total theology, that explains our experience and makes sense of what we know, how we should live, and what it means to be the Body of Christ?

History is the knowledge of where we come from, but also the debts we owe to those who came before us. History is the rich tapestry of accumulated experiences mystically present in the simplest of actions. History is the substance of our commitments and obligations in the light of past and future saints and martyrs. History is the voice of monuments calling us to the true richness in the historical and ever present body of Christ. Which church best presents and preserves the substantial history of Christ’s mystical body?

Unity is the solidarity of believers regardless our natural tendencies towards disunity. Unity is the demand of love in light of Christ’s death and resurrection. Disunity is a result of hate and pride, the result of the fall, evidenced first in the blaming of Eve by Adam and then second in the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. Because of our fallen state disunity should come as no surprise to us. However, staunch, systematic, historical disunity may be a sign of the hardness of one’s heart, either as a  kind of self-righteousness cloaked in dogmatic arguments or as a kind of complacent inertia. Which church best represents the movements of unity, embracing the universality of faith (and the diverse experiences of faith) in light of a holistic dogmatic cosmos? Which church seems to offer unity rather than demanding disunity?

Authority is the servant. As Christ told his apostles, to be a leader one must be a servant, even by becoming the least of all. The purpose of authority in the Church is to do the will of the Head (Christ) by serving the Body (us). One does not gain authority by claiming it, but by being anointed. But why authority? We are sinners, we are dis-unifiers, we are hard-headed. We need to be held accountable by something or someone with more authority than ourselves. This is the way God designed the world and us in it. It is a part of human nature to need, and ultimately thrive within, the bounds of temporal authority outside ourselves. And we need that authority to be visible, present, conforming to our human needs. To think otherwise is vanity. Which church best offers the guidance and solidity of authority so necessary in light of our weaknesses, in light of our disunity, in light of our vanity? Which church is the better servant of our striving for holiness and the kingdom?

Mystery is the nature of being. The heart of sainthood is a mystery. God is a mystery. Though He has revealed Himself to us, He remains beyond our grasp. Be we, who are made in God’s image, also are mysteries. Worship, prayer, and love are mysteries. What Christ did on the cross, and what the Holy Spirit does in our hearts are also mysteries. We can know what has been revealed, and be confident in what we know, including God’s existence and goodness, in Christ being the Son of God, in the story of salvation God has been telling since the beginning of time, but we also bow before God because He is “I AM”, the One who is, the source of being, a mystery. What church embraces a pervasive desire to know God and yet fully embraces mystery? What church has both a rich intellectual tradition and is simultaneously filled with mystics? Which church most consistently cries out: “Be a saint”?

Now I am both blind and optimistic. I will deny things that are there and see things which are not. How I answer the questions above may be very different than how others do. I may romanticize one “version” of Christianity over another, while someone else will do the opposite. While we should always desire Truth, we must realize the answer is not that we attain (or believe we have attained) Truth, rather that God has us in His hands. We are saved by God’s grace not because we have attained Truth. Of course we must seek Truth, but love is greater. We cannot “bottle up” our Christianity, for to be a Christian is to be a “little Christ” as it were, and Christ is the Word, the Son of God, the light of the world, a man, a mystery. Christ cannot be bottled up. That is why, though God has us as only He can have us, we work out our salvation in fear and trembling. Thus I propose the six touchstones above both provisionally and tenuously.

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Believing with integrity

Each of us who try to follow Christ will often associate ourselves with a particular church. Broadly speaking we have three big choices: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. For the Protestant the choices further multiply exponentially. But why do we make the choices we make? Why does one choose Protestant over Catholic, or Orthodox over Protestant? And, if Protestant, why choose Methodist over Presbyterian, or Baptist over Episcopalian? Or why not just choose not to care at all, as many do?

For those denominational apologists among us the reasons are clear, and each church, each camp, has its ardent (sometimes foaming at the mouth) defenders. But we live in a culture that, for the most part, believes it does not really matter which church one attends or which denomination one adheres to, as long as one goes to church somewhere and meets some vague, minimum requirements of “christiany” belief. Some take this further and say that any kind of organized Christianity is only likely to get in the way, that being a Christian is really and only about faith, which is really and only existential belief. I am inclined to view each of these positions as wrongheaded, though I have tended to be less “religious” and more in the “faith” camp.

Sometimes it seems that we, and I mean most Christians (at least in the U.S.), have lost somewhere in the recesses of history and memory what it means to be Christian. Naturally we will seek out other Christians in order to emotionally and psychologically bolster our desire to believe ourselves Christian, but does this cut it?  Sadly, how one looks, what one wears, the lingo one speaks, the food one eats, and where one shops, probably has more to do with being accepted by other Christians these days than right doctrine. We gravitate to those like us, give them slack in their “Christianity” because they are like us, and seek churches filled with people like us. We look for a comfortable Christianity where we are welcome and where we feel good. From my observations, this tends to be true more in Protestant churches than Catholic or Orthodox, but I’m sure it is everywhere. Fortunately, genuine faith still exists even in the midst of our many follies. In fact, I think we tend to live with this tension all the time—our tendency for a comfortably social Christianity and the pull of the Holy Spirit towards authentic religion.

As I wonder about my next steps on the path of faith, I do not want to give into a vague, mushy sentimentality (though I have many times before, and will certainly do so again), for it smacks too much of a kind of consumerism where churches become something more like brands than representations of particular doctrines and practices. On the other hand, I do not want to fall into a kind of apologist swamp where being a Christian is all about manning the barricades and where winning arguments effectively function as a kind of perverted beatific vision. In short, I want to pursue what is best. I want to pursue Christ. This may mean clinging to a particular expression/version of Christianity while simultaneously holding it loosely. In other words, seeking Truth while obeying Love.

One should have good reasons for being who and what one is. If one is a Catholic one should know why. Same for the Protestant. It seems one should have reasons better than, “I was just born a Baptist and I guess I never questioned it.” or “A friend invited me to their church and I just liked it, made some friends, my family is ‘plugged in’, why change?”, or “I’m on the ministry team and it would be too big a deal to change.” or “I just don’t want to deal with all the questions if I do change.” or “My father and my grandfather before him were Presbyterian ministers and there’s just no way I could change.” or “Once baptized a Catholic, always a Catholic. So I can’t change.” But these are exactly the kinds of excuses by which we tend to live. And often we don’t even get to the excuses. We frequently put up barriers that prevent true challenges from ever penetrating our minds; the questions aren’t even allowed in the room.

And perhaps most of us do not consciously choose which “version” of Christian we are. Much of the time, so it seems, we just are what we are, and don’t think much about it. But then that puts us in the same camp as anyone in the world who uncritically accepts the religion of their culture or their family. In other words, one can be a Christian in one sense, and yet be no more a part of the Body of Christ than is any Muslim, Buddhist, or Zoroastrian. If we are not careful our Christianity may be nothing more than the Dutch church critiqued by Kierkegaard. He argued that if everyone’s a Christian then no one is a Christian, and I fear that holds true for many today.

If one does not consciously choose, freely and intellectually and existentially choose, then is one’s choice truly valid? Of course we can all too easily fall into the whirlpool of constant self-doubt, wondering if we are truly saved. Nor should we assume or presume too quickly upon our salvation. The solution, as always and from the beginning, is God’s grace, in which our hope resides.

It is important for a Protestant like me (someone whom God has made a questioner and self-analyzer) to truly and honestly ask why am I Protestant. I know one thing at least: Through the “accident” of birth, at that particular time and place, into the particular family I have, within that particular social world, I was raised a Baptist. I was taught basic Protestant theology from my youth. I was taught to love the Bible, and genuine faith, and gong to church, and piety. And I was trained to be anti-Catholic (and anti-nonBaptist really) from my youth. I later found a version of Reformed theology appealing and dove in, leaving some of that Baptist world behind, but not all. I know my presuppositions played a big part in why Reformed theology made sense to me. But at some point it is important to ask, “Why these presuppositions? Why this church, why these doctrines, why these practices?”

I know that God is sovereign and thus He is the author of my life, but I also know that some will call Jesus “Lord, Lord” and He will say, “I never knew you.” Thus I have freedom, and I must use it wisely. While I know it is God who wills and works, I must also work in fear and trembling; I must also seek God, imitate Christ, listen to His apostles, and be a member of the Body of Christ. And part of this is to ask, “Why am I Protestant?” If I do not honestly consider my reasons, then I lack integrity. If I do not honestly consider my reasons, then I might also lack faith.

Of course, I have asked myself that question. I have asked why I am Protestant. My conclusion is that, though I am still deeply committed to Christ, still passionately a Christian, I am no longer Protestant.

What now?

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“…all the rest of life is expendable.”

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What does the Eucharist mean to you?

“I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, A Charmed Life). She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. The people who took me were Robert Lowell and his now wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.

Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

Flannery O’Connor, in a letter dated 16 December 1955

Given that I am not Catholic, not yet anyway, I find myself in an interesting place: I love the Eucharist, I am coming to believe in the Real Presence as understood in Catholic doctrine and, like O’Connor, if it’s only symbolic then “to hell with it”, but since I am not Catholic I do not partake of the Eucharist in the Mass—in other words, I have many times partaken of the bread and wine (or Baptist grape juice) in Protestant services, but never in a Catholic Mass, never with a consecrated Host. I have a peace about it because I am in God’s hands regarding the path He has me on, but I do long for the Eucharist.

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Advent Prayer

advent candles

Come, long-expected Jesus. Excite in me a wonder at the wisdom and power of Your Father and ours. Receive my prayer as part of my service of the Lord who enlists me in God’s own work for justice.

Come, long-expected Jesus. Excite in me a hunger for peace: peace in the world, peace in my home, peace in myself.

Come, long-expected Jesus. Excite in me a joy responsive to the Father’s joy. I seek His will so I can serve with gladness, singing and love.

Come, long-expected Jesus. Excite in me the joy and love and peace it is right to bring to the manger of my Lord. Raise in me, too, sober reverence for the God who acted there, hearty gratitude for the life begun there, and spirited resolution to serve the Father and Son.

I pray in the name of Jesus Christ, whose advent I hail. Amen.

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Steve Jobs and God

Steve Jobs is, hands down, one of the most important business and cultural leaders of all time, but…

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I am reading Walter Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs, and I read the following:

Even though they were not fervent about their faith, Jobs’ parents wanted him to have a religious upbringing, so they took him to the Lutheran church most Sundays. That came to an end when he was thirteen. In July 1968 Life magazine published a shocking cover showing a pair of starving children in Biafra. Jobs took it to Sunday school and confronted the church’s pastor. “If I raise my finger, will God know which one I’m going to raise even before I do it?” The pastor answered, “Yes, God knows everything.”

Jobs then pulled out the Life cover ans asked, “Well, does God know about this and what’s going to happen to those children?”

“Steve, I know you don’t understand, but yes, God knows about that.”

Jobs announced that he didn’t want to have anything to do with worshipping such a God, and he never went back to church. (pp. 14-15)

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I know that struggle with God’s sovereignty.

Images of starving and suffering children from around the world have become so ubiquitous that we tend to merely give a collective shrug.  From a Christian perspective one might want to jump in and say, “Steve, it’s Christ you are looking for!” But we should be careful that we do not proclaim Christ and lack the response of Jobs. He rightly was grieved by what he saw on the cover of Life. Francis Schaeffer once wrote that he was saddened by how the passionate youth of the sixties had, by the mid-seventies, largely abandoned their socio-political critique and gave into the pursuit of personal peace and prosperity. He was saddened not because they had abandoned their solutions, which they had but which Schaeffer also saw as inadequate, but because they had abandoned their critique. In others words, the troubles of the world no longer bothered them as it once did. They gave in to affluence. We should be as bothered as was Jobs.

On the other hand, is it not interesting that Apple Computer has given us so many insanely great products, and even changed the world in ways that we love, because its founder and driving life-force, was a man who passionately sought answers to life by first consciously refusing to accept the God who made him? Is it not ironic that we benefit from that?

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Jobs was driven to perfection, in part, because he was seeking ultimate meaning which remained out of reach once God no longer existed, or was irrelevant. There is no doubt that Jobs was a genius; a truly brilliant man whose passions changed the world. But the more I read of his life the more I find him not a good person—not that I’m a saint. One could say he was troubled, or tormented, or that he just wanted excellence. But the fact is, his commitment to himself and what he wanted constantly overshadowed his ability to love others. I don’t think this was just a shortcoming, like not having enough information. And I don’t think it can be blamed on his being given up for adoption, as many want to say. (I can only speak about reported things he did and said; I cannot speak about his heart.) I think his troubles were spiritual.

In short, Jobs’ vision of the world, at least through much of his career, did not include a wise understanding of, or commitment to, love. Which is interesting considering he was so committed to spiritual enlightenment. It is also somewhat predictable that the person who dismisses God because of a story about children suffering on the other side of the world will be blind to his own profound lack of interest in loving his own neighbor, co-worker, waiter, friend. Perhaps Jobs changed later in his life, but I haven’t got to the end of the book yet. I hope he changed, for his own sake as well as others. And perhaps he has not yet reached the “end of the book” either.

And don’t you wish that Lutheran pastor had been more prepared to answer Jobs’ questions? A lesson for us all.

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