Saturday, February 25, 2017

144 Months

I was organizing some boxes in the garage & ran across an old journal going back to 2005. This was when I had seriously started to consider Catholicism. Since the 5 year anniversary of my confirmation is coming up this Easter, I thought I'd take a look 12 years back...

March 6, 2005
In my search for a more “true” Christianity, in light of the Catholic Church & it's call for holiness among it's members, in light of what I've brought with me from the Assemblies of God & it's teachings, I've discovered being a Christian is truly a hard road. For Catholics (devout anyway), Mass is central. Prayer is central. Repentance & confession are central. It would seem that Christ is ever before them, behind them, within & without. Is Christ ever before me? No. How sad that I even have the gall to consider myself a Christian. I think in the coming months, I will be going to Mass & incorporating some sense of ritual into my life. And in the fall, when RCIA starts, I'm going to see where that takes me. Perhaps this time next year I will be able to call myself a Catholic, as scary as that sounds. 

Being a Christian is still hard... and I've discovered that my view of Catholicism was kind of idealistic back then. I suppose it is what you make it. But in my experience, many Catholics see Mass only as an obligation... Corporate prayer seems nothing more than a mindless & speedy recitation of memorized words & the lines to the confessional are often very short if there's a line at all (unless of course, it's Lent, when everyone comes out of the woodwork in preparation for Easter). I never went to Mass that year- I was too scared. I didn't go to RCIA either. The priest scandals shook me pretty hard.  I wouldn't attend my first Mass until August 15, 2011, the feast of the Assumption of Mary.

March 7, 2005
I was listening to a show on Catholic radio... "Eucharistic" Jesus is not a symbol only. One who receives the Eucharist is one with Christ in the Eucharist & one with the church. The Eucharist exists to make each of us part of the body of Christ. It transforms us. It is the tangible representation of Christ in us. Re-presentation= remembrance and remembrance is not a passive act. It's a participation. Wow.
If there's no purgatory, one must be “perfect” when they check out of this life... Purgatory is the mercy of God. What is the protestant take on all this? I've noticed many of their interpretations don't make as much sense as the Catholic doctrines do.

I don't remember ever hearing the word "Eucharist" used in the Assemblies of God. The idea of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist was an entirely new concept to me... If communion was no longer merely symbolic, what would that mean for the one who partook of it? It would have to be pretty amazing, right? That's what I thought, anyway. The first time I experienced the Eucharist, I didn't feel much. But there were also times I was so overwhelmed that it was all I could do to get back to my seat so I could put my head down & cry. The feeling was like being swallowed up in warm water. Everything faded away for a few moments & I felt... love. That never happened with the grape juice & oyster crackers. As for purgatory, the Catholic view confirms what I had always secretly believed & it still makes sense to me.

March 9, 2005
I'm considering conversion more & more... I wonder if others will experience fear about it when I tell them. Can it be real for me? Will it hold life for me a year down the road, 5 years, etc? Or is it just something different to explore... a passing fad of sorts?

I talked to a couple friends about converting back then... and they effectively talked me out of it. 144 months later, those around me have accepted my choices, even though they don't understand why I chose Catholicism of all things. I still get impromptu "sermons" from family members, but for the most part, there's no condemnation. Has conversion been "real" for me? I think so... I'm challenged daily.  Does it still hold life for me 5 years since my confirmation? Absolutely. In fact, I think Catholicism actually saved my faith.  I can't imagine living without the help of the ancient Church, of Mary, the Saints & angels... The idea that they're out there- a cloud of many witnesses that watches over & intercedes for me- gives me hope. And because of that, I don't despair as much as I used to. Because of that, it's not just me & the "armour of God" (see Eph. 6) out on the battlefield.  It's me & everyone who has gone before me. We all go into the fight together. Honestly, Catholicism feels like the completion of what was missing in my life prior. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Mulling Over Mary

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day about the Catholic understanding of Mary...  
It felt kind of surreal because I honestly thought I sounded like a nutcase. Do I really believe this stuff? It's an important question I often take for granted. I have to admit, I go back & forth. I mean, I like proof. I like logic. Sometimes being a Catholic denies me both and I just want to walk away.  Being a Christian these days is hard enough, and Catholicism demands so much more simply because there's a lot of superstition & false information out there to wade through. But it also has this oddly consistent habit of leading me back toward God & for that reason, I hang on.

So. Back to my friend. She wanted to know what the Hail Mary said.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women & blessed is the Fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now & at the hour of our death, Amen.

She asked why I would pray to Mary when I'm supposed to pray to Jesus? Actually, I don't remember anywhere in the Bible where Jesus says we're supposed to pray specifically to Him. Wasn't He always saying something about being gathered in His name, asking in His Name, etc., but only praying to the Father? He always told us the Father was greater & that someday we would approach the Father directly with our requests. Yet we pray to Jesus because we understand Him to be the second Person of the Trinity, and thus... God.

So if we can pray to Jesus, why not Mary also? The answer I always got from my non-Catholic friends was something along the lines of “She's dead, she can't hear you” or, “There's only one mediator between God & man & that's Jesus”. I have no argument with the second one. I don't believe Mary is equal to the Trinity, and I do believe Jesus is the only Mediator between God & man. But the Bible never tells us there can be no mediator between man & Jesus. Don't we all participate in that role when we intercede for one another?

I liken praying to Mary to being in a crowded room & seeing someone you don't know (yet). Your friend happens to know this person, so you ask your friend to go talk to them on your behalf, to find out more about them & maybe introduce you at some point. Now since Mary was Jesus' Mother on earth, she has more intimate knowledge about Him than any other human being. She maintains that intimacy with Him & has His ear, even in Heaven. We can pray to Mary & any of the Saints because they're our intercessors on the “other side”.

Of course, here's where we could debate whether Mary & the Saints are even alive in Heaven, IF they can hear us & HOW they hear us if they aren't omnipotent, omnipresent, etc., like God. But I don't know if that's something anyone can really know with certainty at this point in the game. I know the Catholic Church doesn't require one to pray to Mary or the Saints. And I know from Hebrews 12:1 that we're surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (those who went before us in the faith). But those guys were long dead when Hebrews was written. Since a witness typically has to be alive in order to fulfill the office of witness... one can only assume they are (spiritually) still alive in Heaven, as Saints who watch over & intercede for us.

Maybe it would help to think of them like the folks who dug a hole in some poor guy's roof. They lowered their paralytic friend down to Jesus because there was no other way in. What happened? Did Jesus reprimand them for stealing His glory? No. He saw their faith & healed the paralytic. Again, what about the parents who came to Jesus & begged Him to heal their children? Did He tell them to pray to God instead? No. He healed them. Those parents were intercessors in the same way Mary & the Saints are for us. And yes, I believe we have direct access to Jesus, but who hasn't experienced difficulty approaching Him from time to time, especially when we know we've sinned? One last thought: when we pray alone, if we ask for the intercession of Mary & the Saints, don't we then become “two or more gathered in His name”? And didn't Jesus say He would be there in our midst? How cool is that? I don't know if it actually works that way, but it might change the way we think about prayer if it did...

The final question my friend had was why pray the Hail Mary over & over in a Rosary? My response was that the prayer is a type of place holder, almost like saying “One alligator... two alligator” to space things out. I try to get a mental image in my mind & then I use my imagination to interact with the events of each mystery. I might imagine myself at the nativity... standing next to a few stinky shepherds in the middle of the night as I look at Jesus, swaddled & drooling in the trough. How might that experience affect my life in the present? I think about it for a minute or two, commit the scene to memory & then pray the Hail Mary as I continue to mull over the event in my head. It allows me adequate time to think & gets the focus off of me. It helps keep me from rambling & getting lost down rabbit trails as I pray (you know what I'm talking about. We've all been there). The Rosary is another thing that's not required by the Catholic Church, but it's out there for anyone because it honours Mary's obedience to God. It makes the humble request of her that she “pray for us sinners” while we meditate on the events of each mystery. And, if we take the time to pray it well, the Rosary, like Mary, will lead us straight to Jesus every time.

 "What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ." CCC 487

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Storm of Depression

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I pretty much grew up in the church. I prayed the prayer when I was 6 years old & became “born again”. Now it was my God given duty to tell the world of my joy so they could be saved too. Uh, yeah... By the time I was a teenager, this “joy” hadn't exactly kicked in yet. It was actually a great source of guilt for me. Surely I was doing something wrong because I hadn't felt a lick of joy the whole time.

I usually sat in the back of the church, didn't get into the happy clappy worship songs & didn't respond to altar calls. I would hang out after service because I enjoyed the quiet. I was noticeably dark & dour in those days (compared to everyone else). Well meaning ladies would come over to me every once in a while & put an arm around me. Sometimes they would just grab my hand & launch into a sobbing, passionate prayer in tongues without so much as a hello (Yes, I guess I shoulda bought a Honda. Thank you). Sometimes they would ask me how I was doing, if I wanted to talk, if I was getting enough sleep (or my favorites: Did I have a place to go? Was I doing drugs?).

I remember one gal asked me if I was involved in the occult (no) & if I knew Jesus (yes, I think). In fact, many people would ask me if I was saved. What do you say to something like that? It made me so angry. And when I get angry, I shut down. Many times they would just keep talking, asking their questions & somehow managing to answer themselves, creating an entirely new identity for me. I wanted someone to care (because that kind of stuff filled my potholes for a while), but only a few actually listened to me without putting words in my mouth. Yes, I prayed, I read my Bible, I listened to Christian music. I wasn't sleeping around, drinking or doing drugs. I worked with kids, got involved with youth & college group and routinely volunteered for local "mission" trips and other service opportunities. Good for me. 

I went to counseling, but nothing seemed to touch my depression. Eventually, people backed off & I was left to my own devices. I became one of “those” people who are just too broken to be fixed. I still went to church & stayed involved, but I eventually faded into the background. Clearly my issues were nobody's fault but my own. But had depression been my fault when I was 6 years old? Because that's when I remember it starting...

Anyway. I read something the other day that said most people describe depression as a heavy black cloud following you around. That's not my experience at all. If anything, that blackness is inside of me, filling me up like smoke that somehow turns to stone or something like it... all my limbs ache with the weight of movement. Every part of me is hard & heavy. My emotions feel trapped in a slightly frozen state- retaining the cold, but vulnerable & mushy. Some days I wake up & I just feel “off”. Everything annoys me. Sounds are much louder, much more shrill or penetrating. Light is much brighter & my eyes feel tired. Even if I've gotten a good night's sleep, I wake exhausted. Sometimes it feels like my body is buzzing... vibrating with some invisible electricity. I might feel full of energy inside but then zapped of strength if I actually try to exert any. Sometimes my mind feels foggy and instead of thinking in words, I can only conjure pictures & phrases that are vaguely similar to what I want to say.

I wish I had the means to articulate these things when I was younger, but I suppose only time & experience afford that ability... like a prize of sorts. Yay me. Another perk I've received with age is the gift of perspective. Because I've weathered the storms for this long, I can usually see when another assault is gathering off in the distance. I know what to look for... I know how the air feels... and I know I can take action to help soften the blow when it comes. Somehow, I know I'll survive.

O Lord, you have searched me & You know me. You know when I sit & when I rise. You perceive my thoughts from afar... Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your Presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there... Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.   Psalm 139:1-2, 7-8, 16 NIV


Thursday, February 2, 2017

Testing the Waters

When Jesus saw that the disciples were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, He came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by... but He spoke to them & said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”. Mark 6:48,50 NRSV

Because I'm trying to read the Bible quickly, I don't often linger with individual passages unless something extraordinary jumps out at me. I was in a dark place when I read this, feeling overwhelmed by some things that seemed out of my control. These were exactly the words I needed to hear in the moment & helped provide me with some much needed perspective.

The full story (as far as Mark is concerned) tells us the disciples were crossing over the Sea of Galilee. It'd been a long day. The news of John the Baptist's beheading was fresh in their minds & Jesus had them tending the crowds for another mass miracle- this time, it was the feeding of the 5,000. After all was said & done, He dismissed the crowds & told the disciples to head home. This was shortly before nightfall.

Jesus had decided to stay behind so He could spend some time alone in prayer. Around the 4th watch (just before dawn), He got ready to head back. He could still see the disciples... and that wasn't a good thing. Remember, He had sent them away before nightfall. That meant they'd been on the water anywhere from 6-10 hours now. John's account tells us they were only 3 or 4 miles out (Jn. 6:16-24) & it was at least 13 miles across. It was windy... stormy. The waves were rough & the guys were having a hard time.

They were tired. Some of them were originally disciples of John the Baptist, so they probably had a lot of thoughts & feelings rumbling around inside their heads (If John is dead, maybe we're next!). They'd also been around people all day- working the crowds, passing out food & picking up after everyone. I imagine being stuck out on a stormy sea in the middle of the night was the icing on the cake. All they wanted to do was go home & crawl into bed, but there was a very real chance they might not even make it back alive.

So Jesus sees His disciples & starts walking... on the water. Scripture says He intended to pass by them. There are many theories about this, but I think it was a test to see what they would do. He was hard to make out in the darkness & tumult of sea spray, so they didn't recognize Him. He was probably the furthest thing from their minds at that point. They were so freaked out in fact, that they actually thought He was a ghost. The account says they cried out in terror (which is a kinder, gentler way of saying they were probably screaming like banshees).

Jesus called out to reassure them everything would be ok. According to Matthew 14:28-31, here is where Peter decides to redeem some pride & asks to go out to Jesus on the water. He was probably feeling pretty manly til he remembered the ferocity of the wind & the waves & started to sink. We know what happens next- he cries out, Jesus takes him by hand & they get into the boat.

This wasn't a story about Jesus calming the waters. It wasn't even a story about faith. This was more of a diagnostic assessment... a pop quiz of sorts. Had they already forgotten how He calmed the wind & waves once before (Mt. 8:23-27, Mk. 4:35-41, Luke 8:22-25)? Were they not blown away at how He had just fed thousands of people on scraps? No. They had been preoccupied with other things...

I can imagine the guys moving out of the way as Peter gets in & Jesus sits down. Maybe He stares at them in disbelief for a moment. The wind has suddenly died down & everything is calm... all is quiet. The boat creaks a little as Jesus leans forward in the shadows, looks each of them in the eye & says “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Distraction of Persecution

When I was a young Evangelical, I was always told a great revival was coming. I believed it was more likely I would see a time of persecution instead. I wasn't sure when exactly it would happen or what it would look like, but whatever was coming wasn't going to be pretty. I had seen the shock films portraying the end times & the rapture, but I was never fully convinced that God would rapture Christians before the tribulation. What I understood from the Bible is that they were meant to experience at least part of it & be witnesses to those “on the brink” of hell. I could be wrong. Either way, I thought often about how I would respond to imprisonment or torture. Could I be as brave as Peter or Paul?

We were told how the anti-Christ would start beheading Christians if they didn't take the mark of the beast. The UPC system & implanted chips were supposed to start the ball rolling. Who knows, those things could still come into play as tools of persecution. But I'm not sure if the obvious things are the the ones we need to be paying attention to. I can't help but feel like all this chaos of late is a distraction for something else to come.

Christians in my circles would typically say the anti-Christ is one individual who is yet to come. But 1 John 2:18 says many anti-christs have already come & gone. 1 John 4:1-3 tells us it's actually the spirit of anti-christ that's at work in the world. I suppose that could mean an individual, yes, but I'm inclined to think a little bigger. What if the spirit of anti-christ was more of a belief system? What if that system employed hatred, intimidation and... protest? What if this spirit was antagonistic, coercive & appeared oddly pragmatic to the rest of the world? And what if this is the real driving force behind the kind of mob mentality we've been seeing these days? Don't you find it curious that so many people are just too agitated to engage in civil dialogue anymore? Where did all this vitriol come from? It certainly didn't happen overnight, but this is the world we live in now. 

This is only the beginning. It may be birth pangs of what's to come or it may be nothing more than a singular wave of dissent that crashes on the shore & retreats with time. We've actually experienced many waves already. We've seen the spirit of anti-christ beheading Christians via Isis & other terrorist groups. We've witnessed the persecution of Christians in the middle east & many other countries. In fact, persecution began before Jesus was even dead on the cross. It only continued to gain momentum when He rose & ascended back to heaven.

That statement sounds preposterous, even to me. Who actually rises from the dead? What about heaven? Is there even such a place? Remember the serpent who distracted Eve with doubt? Think of that same spirit of anti-christ who coerced Adam to see things Eve's way... Consider how basic matters of faith are often brought into question in the attempt to cause doubt & distraction. The only way I know which side is up sometimes is by going back to scripture & consulting the oral/written Tradition of the Church.

There's a verse in Revelation 22:11 that says “Let the evil doer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy and the righteous still do right and the holy still be holy.”. I take that to mean “live & let live”. I don't condone what I believe is wrong, but I also won't condemn. It's not my place. How did the saints of Revelation finally overcome Satan, their accuser? By the Blood of the Lamb (Jesus) & their testimony (Rev. 12:11). There's no arguing or trying to reason with the spirit of anti-christ. You can't argue with crazy.

If you want to know my personal views, I will be happy to share them with you & afford you the same courtesy. But like you, I'm not interested in being bullied & belittled for what I believe. I'm also not interested in bashing someone for how they practice their religion or for how they choose to live their lives. It's not for me to make a judgment about someone else's morality or faith. I'm busy worrying about my own! If I can't find a sense of reconciliation within myself, I will choose to keep my peace for the sake of peace. I don't always need to have my way. 

I know there are Christians out there who believe we should make our own signs & storm the abortion clinics, face the liberals, and oppose the POTUS on immigration & other issues. "To do nothing is consent to sin" they say. Yes, in some instances, this is true. But one must also pick their battles wisely. While as Christians we all fight the good fight of faith, not every Christian fights with the same weapons on the same battlefield.