Saw this quote on facebook today, and needed a good place to write it down to keep it, because this little paragraph is one of the best things I´ve read in a long time.
For context, I believe that Peter J. Leithart is a Presbyterian theologian who talks or writes or thinks a lot about other denominations, notably Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans. This article seems to be his response to those who ask him why he doesn´t convert to another denomination.
Thanks for this pearl, Peter J. Leithart!
My main reason for staying put is theological. God is alive, and that means he surprises, and that means he frustrates the silly projections of creatures who can’t see past the horizon. Jesus will unite his church. He asked his Father to make his disciples one, and the Father won’t give his Son a stone when he asks for one loaf. But the united church won’t look like any of the products presently on the market. God is an entrepreneur who is in the business of creating new markets.
For the full article, click here.
My daughter started catechism last year. I´m still not quite sure what to think of it. Part of me really likes it. Part of me loathes it. Usually, that´s to one very small, very loaded, and very pervasive phrase.
You have to . . .
Now, I´m not a big fan of being told that I “have to” do anything. Remember the Book-It reading program in elementary school? We “had to” read so many books or for so many minutes in a month and Pizza Hut would reward us with a free individual pizza. Overall, it was a great reading incentive.
However, I HATED writing down exactly how many minutes I was reading and exactly what I was reading. I was a voracious reader. I needed no incentive to read. (Of course, getting pizza was nice.) But I hated the feeling of someone breathing down my neck, checking up on me to make sure I was reading.
I get the same feeling in religious circles. I know people mean well. I know they´re merely suggesting practices or activities that would strenghten my faith or my relationship with God. For example, the last time I got irked by this phrase, a friend of mine was explaining the virtues of practicing the Liturgy of the Hours to someone who was unfamiliar with it. My neighborhood Bible study was on the point of breaking up, but for the last few months, we hung together, practicing this Liturgy of the Hours–a lovely mix of prayers, call and response, and scripture readings. It is a nice practice, and something I was looking forward to getting in the habit of doing on a regular basis.
And then, letting ethusiasm take over her tongue, my friend proclaimed, “Reading the Bible and practicing the Liturgy of the Hours are two things that we HAVE TO do.”
I know she meant well. And I know it is a good practice.
But, let´s face it–we don´t “have to” do anything.
For starters, we don´t even have to respond to God´s grace.
Yes, Jesus died for us. Yes, He´d love it if we all rushed to accept him. But God gave us free will. He lets us decide on our own. He could force us. But he doesn´t. We´re free to walk away from Him.
We don´t even “have to” accept God.
Yet, if we choose to accept God, are there some things we “have to” do?
Not at all. If my Lutheran education drilled anything into my head, it´s that we are saved by grace alone. There is absolutely NOTHING we can do (let alone “have to” do) to earn our salvation. Now, there is that little clause about being saved by grace THROUGH faith.
So basically we have to believe that God actually does want to save us.
But that´s it.
In evangelical circles, one hears often about accepting Christ into your heart. “Have you asked Christ into your heart?” In conversations, it appears that one is not “officially” a Christian unless they´ve prayed “The Prayer”: Jesus, please come into my heart.
This isn´t a bad idea. Again, like the Liturgy of the Hours, it´s a great thing to do. But are we turning the idea of turning to God into a series of magic words? If I simply say these magic words, my soul will get to live in heaven? Hmm . . .
And then in a letter, the apostle James makes that famous statement that “faith without works is dead”. He´s certainly got a point. But do we have to do certain things to prove that we have faith so we can be saved?
God knows our hearts. God knows our faith–no doubt, much better than we do.
When Jesus was dying on the cross, one of the criminals who was being executed with him, simply asked him, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom”. And then Jesus said, “TODAY you´ll be with me in paradise.” The criminal dying next to him didn´t have to do anything or prove anything in order to gain access to heaven. He was about to die. He received the death penalty for crimes he admitted. He had no way to go about proving anything. However, as Jesus said so many times to so many other people, “your faith has saved you”.
So, sure–there are all kinds of practices we can do to strenghten our faith. There are all kinds of things we can do that are beneficial. But is there anything that we HAVE to do?
It seems to me that in any Christian tradition, it´s easy to get hung up on certain beneficial practices. We identify ourselves by saying, “because I am [this type of Christian], we do this. In plenty of instances, it might be more of a cultural context than a spiritual or religious one. But again, whatever that certain practice is, it may be a great thing to do.
But is it something we “have to” do?
Not on your life.
So how did I go from being an evangelical-leaning Methodist to a Roman Catholic?
Sounds like it could be a dramatic story. However, the reality is that it happened so gradually, it´s taken me some time to figure out when it began.
Then again, when I think back, it started at my best friend´s First Communion. Now, at this point, I was nine years old and we had only been Methodist for a year anyway. However, even by then I knew that when we went up for communion, we were simply remembering Jesus and the Last Supper. Even at that point, I was aware that it was a purely symbolic ceremony–at least in my church.
So when we went to Sara´s First Communion, my mom quickly explained why communion was a bigger, fatter, hairier deal at Sara´s church than at mine. “They believe that it really is Jesus´s body and blood.” Ohhhh . . .
My next conscious thought was, “well, who am I to tell God what He wants to do?”
While that thought didn´t hugely impact me for quite awhile, I´ve never been one of those people to get my knickers in knot about how we interpret things. (Or I hope I haven´t been.) To me, it seems that most of our Christian denominational differences revolve around whether we believe the Bible asks us to take things literally or symbolically. And most of us have an odd assortment of beliefs we interpret to be taken literally versus those “suggestions” where we think Jesus was talking figureatively.
When in conflict with those of differing opinion, I fully realize that I could be wrong, or those in the opposing camp could be wrong. Or maybe we´re both right, somehow. What I imagine God doing most of the time, when we´re in conflict over these issues, is that He´s shaking His head while he hand-smacks his forehead. “Man–you´ve BOTH got it wrong!” (Or, as Jesus says a number of times, “How long must I put up with you people?”)
So I continued on my way, symbolically consuming Jesus´s body once every few months. Because that´s what we did.
Then I went to Valparaiso University. A Lutheran University. Another day, I´ll explore my reaction to hard-core liturgy. Knowing that Lutherans were some of the original Protestants, I was quite comfortable taking communion there, assuming that they were also on the symbolic side of the communion aisle. After all, wasn´t the denial of transubstantiation one of the core philosophies of the Reformation? (My understanding of this is still pretty shady, so any Lutheran scholars are welcome to enlighten me in the comments section.)
Anyway, I merrily communed at the Lutheran church for over a year, when, one Sunday the new University Pastor held up the wafer, right before giving it to me, and said, “this IS the body of Christ”.
I had a split-second to think, “wait–what?” before I had to react. With that emphasis on the IS, my long-cherished belief that all Protestants communed in purely symbolic terms got severely rocked. Since I no longer knew exactly what the pastor was giving me, I just prayed quickly, “Dear God, you know what this is and how you want me to receive you. May I just be in line with whatever you would have me believe.” (Or something along those lines.) And then I took it.
And all of a sudden, I understood a bit better why the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church insists on closed communion–a practice I had rallied against as long as I had known about it. But since, at that moment, I wasn´t sure what exactly I was doing, I realized that that is precisely WHY they only want their initiated church members to participate in communion–so all those who participate know exactly what they´re doing.
(Beyond that, I still think that closed communion is against the overall message of the gospel, and it does make me sad that my current church insists on closed communion, too. Thanks to this experience, I now understand the reasons behind it, but I still think it´s an overall damaging practice.)
Finally, about 8 years after that memorable communion, (and a year after I became Catholic) I was at my friend´s wedding. She and her husband had just graduated from Lutheran seminary, so many of their seminary friends were in attendance, and FINALLY explained what Lutherans believe about communion. “Jesus is present in the bread and wine, but he´s about the elements. He´s over them, under them, around them . . . ” basically just hovering around.
My first thought was, “hang on a tic–I could have been Lutheran!”
Immediately after, my next though was, “Really? You´re pretty much saying that he is physically present in the bread and wine, except we´re just not taking that last step to say that He IS the bread and wine.” Or, to use football terminology, they go about nine yards, and just stop short of the full ten to say that this IS Jesus´s body and blood.
Thanks to my revelation at Sara´s First Communion, I was pretty easily able to read John chapter 6, and say, “hang on–He WAS being literal!” Jesus lost a lot of followers after telling them to eat his flesh and drink his blood. As weird as that sounds to us, it was a much worse thought to the Jews of Jesus´s day. But he didn´t run after all those followers who deserted him, saying, “Wait a minute! I was talking symbolically!”
Of course, there were many instances where He was talking symbolically and didn´t clarify that, either, so if someone reading this remains unconvinced, I completely understand.
I was just able to incorporate Jesus being fully present in the bread and wine easier, as I decided at the ripe, old age of nine, “well–who am I to tell God what He wants to be?”
Are others wrong? Not necessarily. Am I right? Not necessarily. But that´s my story, up to this point. And if I am wrong, I trust that God will let me know.
Since so many of us are so very divided on this issue, I´m guessing that we´re all a bit wrong and all a bit right. But someday, God will let us all see clearly.
So this is the space for my story. Specifically, the space for my faith journey.
Now, I know, some will stop reading here. That´s OK. This space is for me, and if anyone wants to follow along, you´re more than welcome.
Sometimes in random posts or thoughts I appear to be overly fascinated by denominational differences. Again, a topic that makes many want to stab themselves in the brain. I think those differences are fascinating.
Why? I was raised in a Methodist/Lutheran home, went to a Lutheran university (a mixed Lutheran university–for those who are in the know about Lutherans, there are a few different factions and Valparaiso University is split pretty evenly down the middle between the two largest factions. No end of interesting discussions) where I learned to love liturgy, and eventually became Catholic. In between all that (mostly during those university years) I hung out in evangelical circles, joined a gospel choir and began to feel comfortable in traditionally African-American churches, and hung out with the Baptists for a year while in New Mexico.
Now, didn´t I just start off this post saying this is space for my faith journey, and yet here I am listing off all kind of religious denominations? True, a faith journey is a personal thing, best undefined by the constraints of organized religion. However, we´re kidding ourselves if organized religion doesn´t have a tremendous effect on our personal faith journeys.
Well, maybe it doesn´t affect some peoples´ faith journeys. But it does mine.
So these posts may bounce between rule-laid religion and unbound spirituality. While they´re not particularly connected, it is precisely that hide-bound religion that helps us launch discussions with others about that which is hard to express.
It also has had a tendency to launch wars and atrocities in the name of God, but that´s just taking things way too far.
I don´t claim to have all the answers (or any answer). This is just my space to throw my thoughts around.
Feel free to join me.
So those who might read my blogger account, might know that I´m on a quest to start another thread, one that isn´t about my kids, Mexico, goofy things that tickle my funny bone, etc.
I think I´m looking for a place to reflect, to tell my story, to sometimes think “out loud” to myself–and hey, if that helps anyone else out, feel free to read along!
It´s a little too late to start tonight, but it is worth checking if I can link this up properly.