10 December 2010

An Ecumenical Appeal to Tradition

An Ecumenical Appeal to Tradition

Sometime in ages past, we in the west decided “tradition” was a bad word. Venerable began to mean the same thing as corrupted, ancient began to mean the same thing as dead. What we sought instead was that which was fresh and new, that which was novel and exciting. We are still doing this today, having discarded even the novelties, once their shine began to dull.

Tradition has come to imply a Pharisaical rule, set up in opposition against the law of God. We see it even in our Bible translations. In the New International Version, for example, the Greek word paradosis (παράδοσις) is translated as “tradition” when it is used as a negative, and as “teachings,” when it is used as a positive. And yet, it is the same word in the original language.

The Apostle Paul tells us, in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions [paradosis] which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” (KJV) Yes, there are some traditions of men that should be discarded, but there are also holy, sacred traditions passed down to us from Christ and the apostles. Even the Scriptures themselves are part of what is often called Sacred Tradition.

We as Christians have such a rich storehouse of tradition, inherited from our forebears in the faith. And yet, we have cast so much of it aside, treating it as something of no worth. We have come to believe that what our ancestors valued highly is, in fact, the equivalent of last week's rubbish, which ought to be taken out before it begins to smell.

I believe this is a great tragedy for our culture, and a great tragedy for the Church. However, there is hope. We can hold onto what we still have, and we can work to reclaim that which we have lost.

Here I am, as a non-Catholic (so far), arguing people across the Tiber again, some might suspect. However, I am appealing to all Christians to reclaim their traditions, and I must point out that the Catholic Church is by no means immune from the deliberate rejection of tradition we have experienced in our day. In fact, the “modernization” of the liturgy, along with the accompanying—and likely connected—decrease in knowledge of the faith by clergy and laity alike, makes me far more wary of the Catholic Church than I would have been in Newman's day or even Chesterton's day. Still, there is reason for hope.


In what may prove to be a controversial move, I will first address the term “Christian.” It is a noble term, and one with a long history. As the Bible says, in 1 Peter 4:16, “Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.” (KJV) For centuries, men and women have died, proudly claiming the name Christian. In our time, however, many have come to believe the name contains too much baggage. Seeing that there have been some bad Christians, many modern followers of Christ have attempted to disassociate themselves from those in the past who did not quite measure up. “Christ follower” is one common substitute, though others are likely in use.

What troubles me about the alternate terms is not so much what they say. After all, every Christian should be a Christ follower, and that is even one of the definitions of the word. What concerns me is what the new terms are trying so hard not to say. It is as if the modern believer says to God, “Thank you that I am not like the Christians who fought in the Crusades or ran the Inquisition, or burned “witches,” or walked around in suits with their fifty pound King James red letter Bibles. I am a Christ follower, and I am hip and modern and wear American Eagle and drink fancy coffee. May the world see that I am approachable.”

There is something of a fad in all of this. Soon, even “Christ follower” will fall out of favor, as people discover that Christ followers, just like Christians, can be self-righteous and hypocritical, full of sin and human failings. Perhaps “Jesus admirer” will catch on next, followed by “Divinity sympathizer” or something equally inspiring.

What I propose is that, rather than ditch the name “Christian,” we fight to show the world what it really means. If some have not been worthy of the name, then let us work to be as worthy of it as we can. It is our word, a word we share with two thousand years of our brothers and sisters in the faith who have gone before us and now sit with the Church Triumphant, awaiting our victorious resurrection, by the grace of Christ our Savior.


One of the greatest possessions of the Church, which I remember with great thankfulness from my Protestant youth, is the overflowing treasury of hymns we have received. I could go on and on, listing my favorites. They were hymns of great beauty, but also great holiness. There was doctrine in the hymns, and one could be grounded in the faith without listening to a single sermon.

By contrast, the music of today does not even approach the majesty of what was written by our ancestors. One could argue about why this is so, but I think it is largely because we have lost a sense of the sacred. The writers and composers who put the old hymns on paper were overwhelmed by the glory and grandeur of Almighty God. They were also unafraid to point out that we are sinners in need of God's grace, and they rejoiced in praising His power, love and mercy.

Today, we sing vague songs about how God loves us, and how we love Him, but the lyrics could just as easily refer to a sappy relationship between infatuated teenagers. We could throw the songs onto the pop radio station, and many people would not even know they were about God.

I believe we need modern music, as we need to encourage the next generation of Christian writers and musicians. However, we still have the old hymns, and we should not let them pass away. They are priceless, a great gift to pass down to our children. Please, sing a couple on Sunday, in addition to the more modern selections. And writers and musicians, do not look only to pop music—rarely good for congregational singing, as it is—for your inspiration. The secular musicians have that covered, and they are consistently making better pop music than you are. Instead, look to the hymns of the faith, look to the Scriptures, and let the Sunday morning worshipers sing beautiful, holy, songs to our God and King.

And Catholics, please bring back the occasional Gregorian chant. Even the Protestants are making you look bad, and they sing better, too.

The Church Calendar and Special Events

In the liturgical churches, there is the idea of the Church Calendar, where special dates are celebrated, certain saints are honored, and certain customs are practiced. The Christian lives through the year, celebrating with his or her fellow believers, sharing in fast and feast alike.

Modern non-liturgical Protestantism is barely hanging onto Christmas and Easter, but there is often nothing else. No Epiphany, no Ash Wednesday, no Lent, no Advent season. Even Christmas and Easter are in danger. How many of you have been to an Easter Sunday service where the pastor did not preach about the resurrection? How many of you have been to a Christmas Sunday service where the music was no different from that sung the rest of the year?

There is something very important about special days and special times. Consider how excited we get about birthdays, Thanksgiving, or the Super Bowl. If we can rejoice in these secular events, why can we not share in joyous commemoration of our Christian faith?

To this I would add noteworthy events in the life of the Christian. Baptism is a time when sin is washed away, and God's grace fills us, and this event should be celebrated by the whole Church. Families should come, the date should be written down, and the Church should welcome a new brother or sister.

In the same way, receiving Communion should be an incredibly important event. In the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, it is offered every Sunday—and every day in the Catholic Church. Receiving our Lord in the Eucharist is the central point of the whole service. The Orthodox serve communion even to infants, and the Catholics celebrate a child's first Communion.

In our more “modern” churches, we make a point of celebrating Communion rarely, fearful, perhaps, that having it too often will cheapen it. This is odd when one considers how we have already stripped away the sacramental, horrified that the spiritual could become physical. One wonders how we have managed to maintain our belief in the Incarnation, God made flesh.

These special observances, in the lifetime of a Christian, and in the liturgical year, serve as milestones in our lives. They make each day special, they unite us with our fellow believers, and they help us see our place in the vast company of the faithful, past, present, and future.


I read an article recently by John Zmirak (http://www.insidecatholic.com/feature/stitching-in-limbo.html), in which he said, “Most 19th-century prisons look more humane than churches built in the 1970s.” I agree. Our culture used to value beauty in its art, music, architecture, and worship. We have now become utilitarian, churning out soulless and drab substitutes that fail to satisfy.

Several centuries ago, some people decided that churches should not be beautiful. They removed the statues and icons, they whitewashed the walls, and they turned Sunday worship into “four bare walls and a sermon.” They took away the incense, a visible reminder of our prayers rising to God. They took away the images, which reminded us of the Incarnation and the physical reality of God's work. They took away the beautiful music which united the worshipers with the Heavenly choir.

People need beauty. They long for it, they seek it out. The man who stares at splattered paint on a canvas in a modern art museum and says he prefers the Renaissance painters is not a philistine; he is a normal human being. The woman who prefers the “smells and bells” of traditional liturgy to power point and rock and roll is recognizing the beauty and reverence of the former, a beauty and reverence which the latter, for all its energy, cannot match.

Beautiful buildings and beautiful services draw our hearts and minds to God, the Author of beauty. They are also a way of honoring God, by giving Him our best. Our ancestors knew this, which is why Europe is dotted with beautiful churches.

Some will say that beautiful churches cost money, and that the money would be better used to serve the poor or support the ministries of the church. Beauty, however, is not always a matter of expense. A small chapel can be beautiful, and a large mega-church can be an architectural monstrosity. And so often, the money we save by making a bland building simply goes to folding chairs, drum-sets, sound systems, and coffee supplies. Sometimes it really is better to break the bottle of perfume over Jesus' feet and give Him the honor that is is His due.

I ask you to consider beautiful music. Consider putting a cross in front of the sanctuary, for all to see. Show scenes from Scripture in stained glass. Dare to cover the walls with the stations of the cross or icons of the apostles and saints. Do not be afraid of the physical reminders of God's grace. If you are building or remodeling your church, honor God even in that.

In Closing

I thank you for reading my appeal. There is much that unites us as Christians, and we can all work together to do the will of God. May He guide us through our disagreements and bring us into all truth. As we move forward, let us take hold of our common heritage, honoring those who have gone before, and preparing the way for those who are to come.

18 September 2010

Is Union With Rome A Moral Imperative?

Is Union With Rome A Moral Imperative?

I am a Christian, a member of a religion stretching back two thousand years. I am, one could say, the spiritual heir of nearly one hundred generations of those who came before me in the faith. And yet, I was born into a divided Christendom, clinging to one of the Reformation's innumerable shards.

And, so far as shards go, it was not a bad one. I grew up as a Free Methodist, the result of a schism from mainstream Methodism, which was itself a schism from Anglicanism. Anglicanism has its own story, of which more will follow later.

Free Methodism is a Protestantism of the Arminian variety, which affirms free will, denies eternal security (the belief that we can never, even through deliberate renunciation, lose our salvation), and does not teach that God is a most, shall we say, “unpleasant” being who has decided to hate (to the point of predestined damnation) the bulk of humanity from the moment of their conception. The Free Methodist Church is a wonderful church, and it has been the spiritual home of my family for many generations.

And yet, as a body created by schism, it has had a relatively short life on its own. The heritage of faith only goes back to 1860, before one must jump back into the parent church. Continue back through Methodism, and one finds oneself in the Church of England. If one dares to continue, one will find oneself in the Church of Rome, the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church, by its very existence, is controversial to the Protestant. There is this idea that we Protestants rediscovered Christianity five hundred years ago and put the religion back on the right track. It can be baffling to see so many believers -- indeed, the largest single group of believers -- still within the Roman communion.

Those who know me very well know that I have been strongly interested in the Catholic Church for several years now. This has been surprising to some, and even shocking and upsetting for some others. To say to a devout Protestant that one is considering Catholicism is much like saying that one is considering renouncing one's citizenship and pledging allegiance to a foreign land. This is particularly shocking if the Protestant believes, as many do, that the Catholic Church is evil and apostate, the home of the anti-Christ.

I first expressed serious interest in the summer of 2005, while serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq. Someone, in such a callous disregard for separation of church and state that Barry Lynn would have surely collapsed from shock had he known, had taped the Prayer to St. Michael to the window of one of our humvees. I investigated it further, out of curiosity, and this led to further study of the Catholic Church.

I continued my study when I returned to the U.S., amassing quite a library of Catholic apologetics. I even entered the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) program in Savannah, Georgia, with the intention of joining the Church on Easter Sunday, 2007. I did not follow through, however, due to some lingering doubts. That decision, I fear, has been to my detriment, though perhaps the fact I see that is a sign of hope.

In an earlier note, entitled “500 Years After Rome,” which I posted on February 5, 2010, I argued that the Protestant Reformation has had rather disastrous consequences and that, in hindsight, maintaining union with Rome, even a flawed Rome, would have been a better course of action. That argument was based primarily on the idea of unity and doctrinal cohesion.

I made a later argument in favor of traditional Catholic-style liturgy, in my note, “Give Me That Old Time Religion.” Certainly, I prefer traditional liturgy to what we have in Evangelical churches today, but that is largely, though I would not say entirely, a matter of taste. And, if aesthetics are to be the deciding factor, I attended an absolutely beautiful Church of Ireland (Anglican) service in Dublin recently, which put the Ordinary Form (Novus Ordo, post-Vatican II) of the Catholic Mass to shame.

And yet, as beautiful as the service was, Anglicanism has no great appeal to me. It looks, at least in the glorious high-Church atmosphere of the 11th century (and therefore, formerly Catholic) Christ Church Cathedral, like Catholicism used to look, but appearances are deceptive. Underneath the beautiful display, the doctrines and moral teachings of historic Christianity have been eroding away. In the Catholic Church, however, the doctrinal and moral foundations are still firmly in place, no matter how strenuously clergy and laity alike so often rebel against them.

Anglicanism is interesting, however, when it comes to my own religious heritage. King Henry VIII had once been a loyal Catholic, and he had opposed the innovations of Martin Luther and the other Protestant reformers on the continent. However, his desire for a male heir – and Anne Boleyn – coupled with some good old English nationalism, led him to break with Rome. If not for those factors, England may have remained a Catholic nation. As a Free Methodist, tracing my heritage back, I cannot help but wonder if I would have been raised a Catholic instead, if King Henry VIII had stayed true to his wife and to his Church.

However, King Henry did split, the Reformation did happen, and here we are, heirs to a centuries-old schism. The question is, what are we to do about it? May we continue as we are, accepting the status quo, even if we lament the original separation? Or, does each and every Protestant have a moral duty to return to union with Rome, in the Catholic Church?

These are very serious questions. We Protestants often talk of the importance of unity, and yet I cannot help but think that Protestantism, by its very existence, is an offense against unity. It had its origins in rebellion and division, and it perpetuates rebellion and division. Personally, I do not believe Protestantism contains the viable framework necessary to maintain any sort of unity or doctrinal orthodoxy. This is nothing against the strong faith and commitment of so many Protestants, but I believe we are working within a system that is doomed to failure.

And yet, most of us are born into this system. We did not choose to leave the Catholic Church. Our ancestors, for various reasons, chose to do this long ago. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the following, in entry 818:

“However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.”
Very well; this is all very positive. We are not charged with the sin of separation, and we are acknowledged as fellow Christians. However, skipping down to entry 846, we read this:
“Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.”
If I may repeat the last sentence again, “Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse to enter it or to remain in it.”
Those are fairly strong words, though still showing a great deal of mercy to the ignorant. Most Protestants ignore or disagree with words such as these, believing that their faith is perfectly fine, thank you very much. However, for those of us who do consider such words, for those of us who think there is at least a chance the Catholic Church is correct in what it says, we cannot set the matter aside.

This is where that moral duty comes in, which I mentioned earlier. This is not about aesthetics or about what each of us may prefer in a church service. This is a matter of what we must do, not a matter of what we would like to do. It is a matter of our salvation. We may look into the Catholic Church and decide, in all sincerity, that it is incorrect, and we ought to stay where we are or go elsewhere. Or, we may embrace its claims and rush eagerly into its doors. What we cannot do, I believe, is ignore it.

Schism is an unfortunate state in which to be. As Protestants, we are separate from those who were our predecessors in the faith. At some point in time, our spiritual ancestors said to their bishops, “We will no longer acknowledge your authority,” and then went their own way. In the years since, many of us have have come to accept their decision as the default. What I propose is that we each consider the matter anew. We should each decide if the schism is something we wish to personally maintain and pass down to our children, or if we should return to Rome.

“What a minute,” some will say. “You do not understand. I was raised Catholic, and I never heard the Scriptures; I never learned how to have a personal relationship with Christ. I was saved out of the Catholic Church. Why would you want to go there?”

Leaving aside the question of what in the world they were doing during mass, if they never heard the Scriptures, or what can be more personal than receiving Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist, I think these are legitimate things to say. The Catholic Church in our day has done an astoundingly poor job of teaching the faith to its members. One could argue about why this has happened, but the result is that many Catholics have left the Church and have embraced some form of Evangelical Protestantism or left Christianity entirely.

The fact that so many Catholics do not know their faith is a serious problem, but the problem, in my opinion, is not the faith, but the fact they do not know it like they should. One almost never hears of learned, faithful Catholics in our day studying their way into Protestantism, though there are numerous examples of the reverse being true and Protestants studying their way into the Catholic Church. Instead, the casual Catholics and the Christmas and Easter Catholics and those who found themselves simply going through the motions on Sunday are “saved” by Evangelicals who actually do know their faith.

The newly converted Evangelicals worship God wholeheartedly in their new church, and one cannot fault their zeal, and one cannot help but be glad they are now seriously serving Christ. However, did they have to leave the Catholic Church to do this? Did they have to commit themselves to a new and exciting version of Christianity, or could they have stayed in the Catholic Church, sharing in two thousand years of faith and participating in the sacraments?

I have, over the past few years, had some objections to the Catholic Church, but they were not the objections of Luther or Calvin or any other Protestant. My concern, a concern shared by John Henry Newman, was that Rome had introduced innovations and perhaps the true, apostolic, historic faith was to be found elsewhere. Newman believed, for a time, that this faith could be found in Anglicanism. I have often thought it could be found in Orthodoxy. I do not think it is likely to be found in some radical new theology preached in the new church down the street.

“But the Reformation was a restoration of the true, historic, apostolic faith!” some might say. While I respect the opinion, I must disagree most emphatically. When I look at the practices of the ancient Church, its writings, its councils, and its creeds, I see sacraments, apostolic authority, the communion of saints, infant baptism, and a visible Church. The Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church continue to hold to these. Protestantism has largely rejected them, while adding a few doctrines, such as sola fide and sola scriptura, that were clear departures from what was previously believed.

If someone were to be suspicious of purgatory, papal infallibility, or the immaculate conception, I would be sympathetic. These are doctrines believed by the Catholic Church, but not by the Orthodox Church, and they were formally defined after the East-West split in AD 1054. I have respect for the Orthodox objections, and if someone, out of a desire for the true, apostolic, historic faith, were to become Orthodox, I would completely understand. However, if a Protestant were to object, simply because the doctrines did not line up with his or her interpretation of Scripture, then I am unlikely to be convinced, particularly since the Protestant also rejects so much that Catholicism and Orthodoxy hold in common.

It is difficult for me to believe Rome was right about the inspiration of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of Heaven and Hell, and yet Rome's teachings about the communion of saints or the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist are damnable lies. If the Catholic Church is completely wrong about sacraments, authority, and Sacred Tradition, I am far more likely to reject the faith entirely than to scrape away a few pieces and make my own personal Christianity out of them.

What shall we conclude? Was traditional Christianity hopelessly flawed, with the mess that is Protestantism being the best we can do? Is the Christian religion itself a hodgepodge of conflicting options which we should abandon in favor of agnosticism or atheism, admitting that none of us have a clue who God is or what He wants from us? Or, did Christ found one Church, which He has continued to guide into all truth, promising that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it?

For myself, I am increasingly inclined to believe Christ did found a Church, the Catholic Church, and it is the obligation of every person to enter into it. I am still a bit indecisive and I have not made any formal decisions, but I have to wonder how much longer my indecision will be a valid state of inquiry, rather than a form of rebellion against Almighty God.

I welcome your thoughts. May God have mercy on us and guide us to the truth.

15 June 2010

The End May Or May Not Be Near

The end is near, I have heard it said. Soon, perhaps as early as next Thursday, the Rapture will happen. All the true followers of Christ will suddenly be lifted up to Heaven, leaving cars without drivers, airplanes without pilots, and Mr. Smith's biology class without that one kid who rolls his eyes whenever Mr. Smith says the word “evolution.”

It appears that something great and terrible is about to befall humanity. Great plagues will lay waste the land, the multitudes will suffer indescribable pain, and “them that dies will be the lucky ones.” Thankfully, if we are the right kind of Christians, we will get to skip out of here before the going gets tough.

This belief that the end of the world is imminent is very popular within a particular segment of Christianity. Numerous books have been written and movies have been made about this subject. Sermons have been preached, Study Bibles have been published, and detailed accounts of the “Last Days” are readily available.

A fascination with the end of the world is, I suppose, normal for us. Jesus' early followers thought the end was going to happen in their lifetimes. As Rome fell in the West, the end had to be near. When the year AD 1000, with all its Y1K concerns, approached, I am sure many throughout the world thought the world's story was almost complete. We saw it in 2000, and it looks like we get to have it again in 2012.

And yet, the world keeps on spinning and we are still here. True, I suppose the world could end before I finish this sentence. Then again, perhaps we will have to wait a bit longer. While we're waiting, perhaps I'll hunt down a copy of 88 Reasons Why The Rapture Will Be In 1988. I do love to read.

I would like to address two issues that are affected by this “End Times” fascination. One is peace in the Middle East, and the other is the environment. Both are areas where end times fever goes beyond an eccentric hobby and can actually have very real consequences.

As I sit and think, it occurs to me that a devastating nuclear war in the Middle East, in which millions die and the land is ruined by radiation, is actually a bad thing. And yet, there are many people who eagerly look forward to such a scenario. This big war could be just the thing to set off the end times and trigger the Rapture, if it hasn't happened already. Every time someone throws a stone in the Gaza Strip, the Armageddon clock can move forward one more second.

The conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis is a complicated one, and I do not pretend to have the answer. Both “sides” have their supporters, who tend to thoroughly ignore the humanity of their “side's” enemies. One tends to expect the radical Islamists, if the term is appropriate, to support the Palestinians and the radical Jewish Zionists to support the Israelis, so this is no surprise. It is a little less expected to see Western anti-war leftists on the same side as the radical Islamists, and it is also a bit of a shock to find Fundamentalist Christians on the same side as the radical Jewish Zionists.

Leaving the Islamists and Western anti-war leftists aside for this discussion, let us look at the Fundamentalist Christians. They are a powerful ally of the Israelis, influencing U.S. foreign policy and sending aid to Israel. And yet, there is something very peculiar about this relationship. Fundamentalist Christians have a tendency to think that Jews, by virtue of not being Christians, are heading for Hell, and they also have a tendency to think that a horrible war in the Middle East is a desired event.

My guess is that the Israeli Jews appreciate the aid, though they would personally like to avoid the horrible war, and perhaps even Hell, if that's not too much to ask. Their faith that God will miraculously save them during the war by sending fire to destroy their enemies may not be quite as strong as that of their Fundamentalist benefactors.

Resolving conflicts between peoples tends to require compromise and reasoned discussion. For the Israelis and Palestinians who truly want to live in peace, there is hope that they can sit down at the table and work something out. Perhaps other parties can even participate. However, if a particular group, such as the end times focused Fundamentalists, believes that it is God's will for the modern state of Israel to extend to the Euphrates River and that the Palestinians have a moral obligation to move to Portugal, it is difficult to see what help they can be. They may even sabotage the peace process by their hardline stand on behalf of the people who actually have to live with the consequences.

It is a wonderful thing when brothers can live together in harmony. What a glorious thing it would be if the Israelis, Palestinians, and all the people in the region could share peace, happiness and mutual prosperity. To work for such a peace would be a noble thing, and I salute all who are doing so. For those who are hoping the Rapture takes them away before they have to deal with wrinkles and walkers, however, this peace could actually be a disappointment.

This world is a changing place. Not so long ago, the oceans teemed with life, and vast forests covered much of the world. Today, as we look at our polluted, deforested planet, we are becoming increasingly aware that many of our actions are harmful, and real change is needed in order to preserve our home. This awareness has begun to move from fringe environmental groups to the mainstream, and there is hope that we may be able to work together to ensure our children will inherit a liveable planet.

Among the end times crowd, however, this goal is often looked upon with scorn. If Christ is going to take us all away in a few years, why do we need to protect our oceans and forests? Why do we need to make sacrifices for future generations that are not going to exist? Why do we need to take care of this planet, when God is going to give us a new and better one?

While opinions do vary, there are many who believe Christ's return will occur during the lifetime of those who saw the restoration of Israel as a nation in 1948 (some will stretch it to 1967, when Israel reclaimed the old city of Jerusalem). Whatever date one chooses, this probably only gives us another fifty or sixty years, at most. If we are to assume that this planet only has fifty or sixty years left, it is easy to see how an environmental policy of rape and pillage appeals to people. Let's use it while we have it, and then watch it burn as we ascend to glory.

How many more generations of humanity are still to come? We simply do not know. Perhaps we will all be wiped out by a meteor strike in a few decades. Or, in a more hopeful scenario, perhaps we will become a galaxy-spanning civilization, living out our lives on countless worlds, our earthbound years being but the infancy of our species. Who is to say?

I propose that we take care of our home, in the best way we can. Perhaps I am sentimental, but I would like for my children to be able to walk through a forest or see a pod of whales skimming the surface of the ocean on a summer's day. I would like to know that I did my best to ensure those who come after me inherit a better world than I received. We do not know how long this place needs to last, so let us take the concept of stewardship seriously, and take responsibility for what God has given to us.

I understand that people want to feel special. They would like to feel that God has chosen them, out of all the generations in human history, to be taken up in the Rapture. They would like to feel that there is something that sets them apart from those who have come before. They would like to feel that they, uniquely among the masses of humanity, will be spared the pains of death.

And yet, if the experience of every other generation in history is any indication, the reality is that you, me, our families, friends and acquaintances are all going to die. This is a scary and often upsetting truth, because no matter how strongly many of us believe in the glorious hereafter, none of us really know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what is going to happen to us. And yet, countless generations before us have experienced the same thing, and there is little to indicate that our generation is something special. Our bodies will shut down, for one reason or another, and then...we shall see.

I mean no offense to people who, based on their reading of the Bible or the teachings of their theological traditions, truly think that the end is near. What I am suggesting is that none of us can be certain. Life is a gift, and none of us, Rapture or no, can know how long we have. So, rather than obsessing over the coming apocalypse, why not spend our days loving our neighbor and making a better world for our children? And then, perhaps in some distant age, Christ will return to a world we have not managed to destroy. Keeping the place in order in the meantime seems like the decent thing to do.

08 May 2010

Give Me That Old Time Religion

There is a song I remember from when I was a child. It was called “Give Me That Old Time Religion,” and the chorus was very simple:

Give me that old-time religion,

Give me that old-time religion,

Give me that old-time religion,

It's good enough for me.

Other verses would follow, listing other people for whom that “old time religion” was also good enough. There is another version, by Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger, which references various ancient religions, which we did not sing in church. It is quite funny, but its content is outside the purpose of this discussion.

Getting back to the original song, this gospel tune, dating back to the late 1800’s, tends to make me think of old camp meetings and Sunday morning services in country chapels. It makes me think of ministers preaching the Gospel in a straightforward, uncompromising way. It makes me think of the great hymns of the faith, sung with gusto by the entire congregation, all without the benefit of drumsets or electric guitars. It makes me think of a more pure, simpler time, a time that had already largely passed before I came on the scene.

It is a time I miss, as I stand in church in my jeans, the pop/rock strains of the latest contemporary music filling the room. I miss the old days of singing “Amazing Grace,” “Revive Us Again,” or “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand.” I miss the days when church on Sunday was a little less like the rest of my week, the days when it was something special and sacred.

I hesitate to bring all this up, because sometimes I feel like an old man, yelling at the neighborhood kids for walking on his lawn. Musical styles change, people will say. We have to appeal to the new generation, people will say. Dressing up for church scares away the poor, people will say. I appreciate these arguments, and I am sure there is something to them. However, I cannot help but feel that there is more at work here than simply a change of style. It seems to me that what we are experiencing is a loss of our sense of the sacred.

It was a Saturday in 2006, and I was stepping cautiously into the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, Georgia. Unless one counts a few masses in Iraq held in the shared chapel, I had never before set foot in a Catholic church. It was the most beautiful church I had ever seen. As I walked in, I was faced with the holy water font, a reminder of my baptism. The walls were covered with paintings and stained glass windows, showing stories from the Bible and from the lives of the saints. All along the sides of the church were the stations of the cross. In front was the altar, an object that held far more meaning in this Catholic house of worship than in any Protestant church I had previously attended.

Soon after my Saturday visit, I attended mass. I sat with a kind married couple, whose Bible Study I had participated in earlier that morning. I saw people walk in, drop to one knee beside their pew and, facing the alter, cross themselves in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We knelt to pray, we said the Creed, we prayed the Our Father, we sang hymns (to include one in Latin!). I watched the procession, as the priest walked down the center aisle, holding the Sacred Scripture over his head. We heard more scriptural readings than I had ever heard in one service before. We stood, out of respect, during the reading of the Gospel.

Though I, as a non-Catholic, did not receive Holy Communion, I felt that I had truly participated in the reverent, holy worship of God. This was not a show put on for my benefit. There was no rock band on a stage, there was no multimedia display. And when the priest elevated the Host and said, “This is my body,” I felt that I truly was in the presence of Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity.

It was much the same at St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church, also in Savannah. I walked in alone, not knowing what to expect. Here I found the same reverence as at St. John’s. The people lit candles, kissed icons, and made more signs of the cross than I had ever seen in my life. Incense filled the air, the choir sang (again, without a rock band) in Greek and English, following a liturgy whose age is comparable to the settled canon of the New Testament. When it came time for the Eucharist (communion), even infants in their mothers’ arms were brought forward to receive.

Having experienced the reverent, sacred liturgies of both East and West, it has proved difficult to find the same level of worship in modern Evangelical Protestantism. The statues and icons of Christ and the saints have been torn down, the stained glass windows have been smashed, and the sacraments have been reduced to mere symbols. Even the great hymns of Protestantism have begun to disappear. As Dr. Thomas Howard, the brilliant author of Evangelical Is Not Enough once said:

Evangelicalism has changed drastically, having bought almost completely into a jazzy, breathlessly contemporary ambience, registered most obviously in their hymnody, which is now limited to ‘praise songs,’ in the place of the immensely rich, 500-year-old treasury of hymns which were Protestantism's greatest glory.”

This sort of talk likely offends many people, which I understand. Modern evangelicals are proud of their churches and believe that they are true places of worship. I do not doubt that this is the intent, nor do I doubt the sincerity of the worshippers. To me, it is ludicrous to suggest that God requires a beautiful liturgy and beautiful churches. Humans, however, are creatures who are drawn to beauty and who are inspired by beauty. Keeping that in mind, is it really a good idea to strip away any sense of beauty, reverence and ceremony from our services?

I think this is a question worth pondering, and even the Catholic and Orthodox churches should consider it. The Catholic Church, in particular, has gone through a ruinous 40+ year affair with iconoclasm, from which it is only now beginning to recover. It remains to be seen how the Orthodox Church, still a bit of an outsider in the West, will deal with the pressures of the modern world.

Much of this is about preference, I realize, and I know there are other issues at work. Doctrinal disputes are important, of course, which is partly why, along with love for my current church family, I am not yet a Catholic or Orthodox Christian. Still, I cannot help but long for the ringing of the bells, the smell of the rising incense, the reverence of traditional liturgy, and the physical act of worship in the sacraments. There is also something wondrous about the idea that Christ is present in the Eucharist, that the waters of baptism truly wash away sins, and that a man and woman are truly united in marriage.

Those are just some of my thoughts. I welcome comments.

God bless!

05 February 2010

500 Years After Rome

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther was a priest, teaching at the University of Wittenberg; John Calvin was not yet one year old; Ulrich Zwingli was a college student at the University of Vienna; Menno Simons was not yet four; King Henry VIII had only recently ascended to the English throne; and Western Europe had one faith and one Church.

Today, the situation is quite different. We have gone from a society with one Church, to a society with many Churches, to a society that believes the Church does not matter.

Many of us may object to this, exclaiming that our faith matters very much, and that we are fully committed to living a Christian life. I do not doubt this. What I do doubt, in many cases, is our commitment to and belief in the Church.

Consider, if you will, where we attend services on Sunday. What sort of name is on the sign or printed on the bulletin? It may say, “First Baptist Church,” or perhaps, “St. Paul’s United Methodist Church,” or some such thing, but in many cases it probably says something like, “ Town Name Christian Center,” or, “Town Name Community Church.” With some churches, in very small print, we might see written, “a Free Methodist congregation,” or “a free and independent member of the SBC,” but there is often no indication of denominational affiliation at all.

“Bravo!” some will cry out. “We are all followers of Christ. Denominations do not matter. Let us break down these barriers and rejoice in our common faith.”

It is a noble-sounding sentiment, and it fits well in a time when tolerance is seen as the highest virtue. However, if I may quote G.K. Chesterton, “Tolerance is the virtue of a man with no convictions.”

To clarify, the reason our theological differences do not matter is that we do not truly believe in our own theologies. The average Christian in the pew may profess a great deal of love for Christ, as he or she may understand him, but few would be willing to die in the defense of their church’s distinctive doctrines.

Unity is certainly something to be sought after, but the unity we rejoice in today is a result of reducing Christianity to the lowest common denominator. This process is still ongoing, and it does not show signs of stopping anytime soon. The dogmatic certainty of the early sixteenth century Church has been diluted to “mere Christianity,” which is itself on its way to “mere spirituality.”

Many of us will disagree, I realize. We will say, perhaps, that we believe the Bible is true. We will say we firmly believe in the existence of Christ and the reliability of the Christian faith. I applaud this, I really do. However, I must take this a step further. We believe in the truth of Scripture and the Christian religion? In that case, is it important to believe rightly when it comes to the importance of baptism and what it does? Is it important to believe rightly when it comes to the nature of Holy Communion and what it really is? Is it important to believe rightly when it comes to demonstrable gifts of the Holy Spirit? Is it important to believe rightly when it comes to the assurance of salvation?

At this point, many will say that these are “non-essentials,” and that disagreement on these issues should not prevent unity. It is important to note, however, that this list of non-essentials was not so long fifty years ago, and it certainly was not five hundred years ago. Care to guess how long this list might be in another fifty years? As time is passing, less and less Christian doctrine is considered to be important. If nothing is done to halt this trend, in a few centuries or less, will there be any Christianity left?

This progression from orthodox Christian belief to modern relativism stems largely from the rejection of authority. We disagree with our church’s stand on a particular issue or issues, so we reject our church’s authority and form our own. And, really, to be honest, is this so surprising? For the children of the Reformation, all of our churches exist because of a previous rejection of authority. As we storm out of the church and form a new one down the street, what can our former pastors say? If we are rebels, then so are they, and so are their spiritual forebears.

To continue, once we, as a society, decided that it was legitimate and proper to throw off the authority of one Church, why should it be a surprise that it has become common practice to throw off the authority of every Church? Our religion is increasingly becoming the religion of the individual and his or her interpretation of the Bible. There is no recourse to an authoritative Church. Rather, individual Christians, many of whom likely believe the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility to be a damnable heresy, believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding them to an infallible interpretation whenever they pray for guidance and read the Holy Scriptures.

We are left with a problem, however, because we Holy Spirit-seeking, independent Christians disagree about any number of doctrinal matters. If there are a hundred of us in a room, there are probably a hundred different sets of doctrine. Odds are that many of us are quite sincere in our search for truth, and yet we still disagree and come to contradictory conclusions.

At this point, I believe we must consider the possibility that perhaps the one person and his or her Bible system does not work. Perhaps the wholesale rejection of authority is not the best way for Christianity to operate. Perhaps, and this is the shocking part, we were better off five hundred years ago than we are today.

“You would return us to the darkness of Romish papism!” some will cry out, wringing their hands and looking frantically about for Spanish inquisitors. It is a rather significant thing to consider, I will admit, and I realize that, for many of us, the thought has not dared to cross our minds. It lies in forbidden territory, inscribed with the warning, “Here there be monsters,” on our Protestant maps.

And yet, that is the Church from which we came. Sometimes I think we forget this, as if somehow Christianity was on pause for fifteen hundred years. We think we can go from the book of Acts to Martin Luther, ignoring fifteen centuries of men and women who served Christ and belonged to His Church.

Perhaps we do not agree with every doctrine of the Catholic Church, but can we at least say that these men and women were Christians? If we Protestants can call each other Christians, despite our various theological differences, can we not say the same about these Catholics? Or, while tolerating the errors of our misguided brethren down the street who formed their particular sect in 1892 or 1986 or 2009, are we truly going to deny the Christian faith of those within the Church that we all came from and that dates back to the time of the apostles?

Were people going to heaven under the care of the Catholic Church? Were they being encouraged to live righteous lives? Were they told to love God and love their neighbor? If people were being saved within the Catholic Church, has the splintering, chaotic explosion that is Protestantism proved to be any kind of an improvement? Are we as Christians and as a civilization better off now?

1 Timothy 3:15 says that the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth. If we agree with Scripture, can we really say that leaving the Church behind was such a good idea? Some will say that the “Church” is an “invisible body of believers, scattered throughout thousands of denominations.” Perhaps I am old fashioned, but it seems that a pillar and foundation that people can see and identify and look to for truth is a superior kind of pillar and foundation. Foundations and pillars are strong, and they hold up large and tall buildings. If the foundation and pillar were to be broken apart and scattered, the building would fall. Since the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth, if the pillar and foundation are invisible, the truth is much more difficult to find.

We rejected the authority of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. Since then, we have been steadily rejecting more and more of traditional Christian doctrine and practice. Would the apostles recognize our churches? Would the early Protestant reformers even recognize our churches? We have established a pattern of rebellion, continually breaking away from what is old and embracing what is new and different. When our children leave the faith entirely and take up atheism or some new and exciting foreign religion, they are going down the same path that Martin Luther and John Calvin and their compatriots took all those years ago.

As this comes to a close, I want to point out that this is not intended to be an attack on anyone’s faith in Christ. I see this as more of a critique of a system, a system that has shown itself to be flawed. This is not a work of Catholic apologetics. I am not at a place in my life where I could write such a thing. I am a class of ’07 RCIA dropout, with great affection for Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, along with an appreciation for all that is good (and there is much) in my Protestant heritage. I think, however, that we have been taking the Protestant system for granted, assuming that it is the way things ought to be. With all respect, and with great love for all people, I ask you to at least consider the possibility that it is not.

May God bless us all and guide us to the truth.