23 September 2012

In Which I Write About The Church

All roads lead to Rome, unless there is an ocean in the way or some such thing. However, as we pass through the waters of baptism, perhaps we can cross an ocean or two. With God all things are possible, eh?

You see, we are all in a mess. We have sinned, you see, every last one of us. Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. We have rejected the good, embraced the evil, and wandered down the path of destruction. However, God, by His grace, sent us His Son, Jesus Christ, to die on our behalf. He conquered death, obtained forgiveness for our sins, and opened the way to Heaven.

We are all free to reject this, however, and most of us do, at least at one time or another. Our way seems best, even it takes us through the brambles and stinging nettles, through ditches filled with festering decay and filth, and down through the darkest places below, where there is no light and no hope.

And yet, the path is there, narrow though it may be. Angels guard it, carrying out their unceasing watch in a war as old as time itself. All who seek after God will walk it, step after step, until they stand before the very gates of Heaven.

Those who stay upon the path are safe, whatever may befall their physical bodies in this shadow world we call our home. However, to step to the left or the right is so easy, and there are ever those who would lure us to our doom.

“Come, join us,” they say, grasping with skeletal hands. “The path is hard beneath your feet, and the road is long. Rest with us in the wood, where there is no striving or struggle. Give up the fight.”

For those who stagger off the road and wander into blackest night, some will never be seen again. Some, by God's grace, will make their way back to the path, though only after great pain.

Making it back to the path is not easy, particularly when there are so many guides who insist the straight, paved road is not the path at all. “No, no, good sir,” they say. “The true path is supposed to go through this swamp, you see. The scaly beasts who dragged off Simmons there were probably just inviting him to tea.”

And, of course, many of these guides are quite sincere. They have a guidebook, or part of it, anyway, and they think they have interpreted the way out of the dark forest. Unfortunately, the guidebook was never meant to stand on its own. There were additional instructions and warnings passed down from the master guides of the past, along with the proper interpretation of the more confusing portions of the guidebook. This knowledge is still held by those who patrol the narrow road. However, the independent and often self-appointed guides who wander the forest depths believe those on the road are lost, their authority illegitimate.

Sometimes, in the midst of wading through the muck, or hacking through walls of thorns, some will look in the distance and see the road, its straight and unbroken length lit by torches and candles. Often, the sound of singing can be heard, or perhaps a slight whiff of incense will drift over on the breeze. These travelers may pause and say, “Look, nothing against you lot. I mean, it's clear you're doing your best and you think you're going the right way, but it's pretty obvious that we're heading deeper into the blasted swamp.” Then, with fond farewells, these travelers head for the road, though many trials may still await them before they reach it.

To move away from the metaphor and say it clearly, my family is preparing to enter the Catholic Church. After visiting several Catholic churches this summer, we have started the RCIA program, or Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, with the goal of entering the Church this coming Easter. I actually used the path analogy in a recent class, saying that I believed I had been looking at the path for some time, and was now finally on it.

It's difficult not to shake people up a bit when proposing the idea of conversion. Even Allison was resistant at first. After all, no matter how polite one tries to be, one is, in a sense, saying, “There is something fundamentally flawed about the beliefs I used to hold, and which you still hold. In order to do the will of God, I must change and move.” So, I do understand why some people might not understand, or why they might even be upset.

What I found, in my own journey, is that I could not remain a Protestant. The longer I remained where I was, the more uncomfortable I became. I didn't agree with the distinctive Protestant beliefs. I didn't believe in salvation by faith alone, I didn't believe in sola scriptura, I didn't believe in a purely symbolic baptism, and I was not content with a symbolic Eucharist. I did agree with all that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches held in common, even if I was not always sure I knew where I stood in the areas where they disagreed.

I feared dying while still a Protestant, and then standing before God and saying, “Well, I couldn't decide, you see, so like the servant with the one talent, I did nothing at all.” It didn't end well for that guy, if you remember.

Even today, I'm still only about 80% sure I should be Catholic, but that will work for now. Part of the purpose of the RCIA program is to help people ensure they are making the correct decision. For the rest, I'd say I'm 15% sure I should be Orthodox, and 5% sure I should sleep in on Sunday morning and forget the whole theological mess. Still, even if I'm not yet at 100%, I would still rather die as a Catholic than as anything else. I'm not sure where the truth lies in all these debates between Christians, but Christ did say to Peter that on this rock He would build His Church and the gates of Hades would not overcome it.

The Catholic Church of reality does not always line up to the Catholic Church of the Protestant imagination. When I thought of the Catholic Church while growing up, I imagined stone cathedrals, Latin chant, incense, and nuns in habits. I have had to adjust the picture a bit, though those other aspects are still there, if one knows where to find them. A great deal has changed in the past forty years or so, and not all of it for the good.

The other day, we participated in a tour of St. Patrick's, in Tacoma. We were told how after Vatican II, the church was instructed to install a new simpler altar and abandon the use of the old. However, the old high altar was too large to move, and so it stands, a reminder of things past and perhaps a sign of things to come again.

All of this seems to move in cycles, anyway. One generation decides the church buildings are too ornate and an offense to the poor, so the decorations are stripped. Another finds that reverence is lacking and people have lost a sense of the majesty of God, so the decorations return.

Where do we want to raise our children, and where do we hope they will raise their children? The average Evangelical Protestant church is likely more full of sincere Christian believers than is the average Catholic church. However, the same could have been said of the Protestant mainline churches a few generations ago, and where are they now? I am far more confident that the Catholic Church will still be teaching the faith one hundred years from now, than I am about any Protestant denomination. Of course, as I said above, I don't agree with the distinctive Protestant beliefs. Therefore, I don't think Protestantism is really teaching the faith now.

So, on we go, following the liturgical year of the Church. The Advent season still awaits, followed by Christmas, another slice of ordinary time, Lent, and finally Holy Week. There is still a long journey just to enter the Church, and then the journey will continue, moving down the road of this life. May we stay true and stay on the path.

God bless you all.