Every Day Is Reformation Day

It’s naturally difficult for Catholics who are former Protestants to talk about the Protestant system without doing ideological violence to it. To shift from one ideological system to another necessitates that the former was incomplete, insufficient, or outright dangerous (and this goes both ways—for also the Catholic who becomes Protestant). One can only talk about the fullness of one’s new ideology by comparing it to the system he knew in the past, and that perspective is violent, dangerous, and, well, revolutionary. The Catholic convert has revolted against the revolters. For the Catholic convert in America, every day is Reformation Day.

I’ve never actually told the story of how I was called into the Catholic Church. I find it difficult to discuss the Protestant system (as if there is merely one) without unintentional disrespect, because it’s all I know in comparison with the Catholic system. If I had converted from agnosticism or from Orthodox Judaism or from Buddhism, such a perspective would frame my story, and I would necessarily do violence by speaking of those systems in the past-tense. To make matters worse, we Christians love our conversion stories because they emphasize the hope that is in Christ. We speak in past-tense because it makes Jesus look good, and it brings hope (and hopefully, more conversion) to the world: I once was lost, but now am found, etc.

But truth be told, my whole life has been a conversion story. Today, I am still striving to be Catholic. I am still striving to be holy, and to be true and authentic to my God and my fellow man (Philippians 3:12), and my Catholicism isn’t solely a matter of intellectual assent, but a matter of the will and body. Even many Protestants would agree that we are not saved on an intellectual basis (though some details of what you believe, a result of what you know [a strictly intellectual matter], appear to be important for some Protestants).

I don’t want to disparage the Protestant system, least of all on this day. In light of Reformation Day, I want to speak of the Christ I see in Protestant systems, and how individual reform can convert us ultimately to Christ—the most important conversion one can have, especially Catholics.

Wesleyanism was my introduction to Christianity, and I can hardly think of a better entry-point, or a system for which I have more gratitude. I came in through the United Methodist Church as a teenager and already had a love for history and thought that contemporary Christian issues should be handled within the context of how the historical church would have handled such issues. As a 15-year-old, I studied the life of Wesley and the history of the United Methodist Church, doing my final report for my Sophomore world history class on the history of Methodism. At the time, I was largely unaware of the liturgy around me, but I loved the way we spoke of the Holy Spirit. I read the whole Bible within a few months and fell in love with it—a deep, almost romantic love that still excites my heart today.

Within a few years I’d come to be friends with a pastor’s kid (who lived up to the stereotype) who was Lutheran. Not merely Lutheran, but of the Lutheran Church of the Missouri Synod. We were inseparable buddies, and he introduced me to everything that would shape my world for the next five years, from sports to music to popular entertainment and video games and literature, but perhaps most importantly, he introduced me to scriptural exegesis and conservative, traditional theology. And, most significantly, the practice of antinomianism. Jesus literally says that this is his body and blood, not that it’s like his body and blood—and we know from his parables that he knows how to speak in metaphor, but here it’s clearly not a metaphor, nor has the church ever understood it to be metaphorical, they taught me. I read Luther’s Small Catechism in no time and took notes in the margins, and, following the deep theological advice of teenagers, I deadened my conscience because my conscience didn’t matter to my salvation.

And then I went to college. I was introduced to nondenominational evangelicalism and thought it was just the best—that God should save everyone from each Christian denomination because each denomination reaches different people in their own way (a simple cop-out for the conflict of relativism and religion). Little did I know that this was a slope towards Universalism, but it revealed a desire that’s in everyone’s heart (and the fundamental conflict between Calvinism and Arminianism)—that God, in his loving generosity, has a plan and an intention to save every human being. However, it wasn’t long before the sacraments of Lutheranism and the holiness of Wesleyanism fell to the back, while a new order of relativistic interpret-the-Bible-for-yourselfism took its place. Having just turned 20, I had already mastered scriptural exegesis, had an appreciation for history, and knew that the Holy Spirit wouldn’t steer me wrong. What I didn’t know was that the Holy Spirit can’t supplant the human will.

Year after year for the next five years, the deadness of my conscience would drive me further away from Scripture, from God, and even from my friends. At last, after much conflict, confusion, and distress, when I had hit rock-bottom and abandoned hope in God, a friend saw my turmoil and said to me, “Don’t worry. The Catholic Church is still admitting sinners.”

Within six months, I read the Vatican II documents, the Catechism, and re-read in a new light Galatians, James, and Matthew (my guiding lights of Scripture). In the Catholic Church, I found the personal holiness that Wesley spoke of, the sacraments that Luther couldn’t give up, an answer for relativism that doesn’t undermine principles of eternity and infinity, and the promise that God’s plan for salvation is not foiled by man’s lack of knowledge or limited by our understanding. The Holy Spirit works with our will, but doesn’t replace it (see Romans 7:15–8:18). And that’s the beautiful thing. Nearly four years since that call, I, like St. Paul, still wrestle with the almost Platonic dichotomy between mind and flesh. But I know that grace comes from God, and the Holy Spirit is engaged in recreating me, preparing me for infinity, while this world tries to catch me and hold me in the temporal and the corporal. I know that many Protestants are earnestly seeking this personal conversion, too. Because, in the end, what are Protestant systems except a seeking after the infinite? Seek first the Kingdom of God.

This blog post isn’t merely a pat on the shoulder for Methodists, Lutherans, etc. In the end, regardless of what you believe (or what you think you believe), seeking the Kingdom of God isn’t an intellectual pursuit. In the same Gospel, Christ doesn’t speak of the Kingdom being a belief system or creed. His parables speak of serving the poor, the widows, and the orphans (it would be interesting to read Stanley Hauerwas’ commentary on Matthew in the Brazos series on this). Seeking the Kingdom isn’t agreement to a creed, catechism, or confession. It’s an activity. The activity of doing what Christ speaks of in his parables in the same Gospel. We Christians should be others-focused before we can be theological. We need to be engaged in behaving like Christ before we can be ecumenical. And we all know, by nature of our birth, we won’t naturally be like Christ unless we commit violence to our sinful nature—and seek to cause reform within ourselves. Protestants speak of this personal conversion all the time—and know how drastic it can be. Francis Chan’s Crazy Love is an insane example of this, which many Catholics could benefit from reading. But ultimately, it’s not what we read that saves us, that unites us, or that makes us like Christ. It’s conversion to the will of Christ.

“The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?”
-Dorothy Day

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Converting Yourself to Christianity

A few days ago I wrote on the Verbum blog about St. Francis de Sales and his teachings drawing me closer to Christ throughout 2013. While ongoing sanctification is a major underpinning to what I wrote and how I analyzed myself, I didn’t feel it necessary to explain or defend ongoing sanctification. The same is true for this blog post. Whether you’re Catholic and you adhere to the doctrine of ongoing sanctification or you’re a Protestant interested in a practical biblical theology for the practice of holiness, I want to offer my thoughts on today’s Gospel reading. Check it out before reading further—Mark 4:1-20—it’s a long passage, but this analysis assumes you’ve read it through.

In the middle of this passage, before Jesus offers an explanation for those whom the parable has mystified, Jesus has this to say:

“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12 in order that
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ ”

What?

This passage is a little mystifying. Jesus speaks in parables and concludes by saying that he does it on purpose to obfuscate the understanding of those outside of the Kingdom of God. But there’s a lot more here than just mystery and revelation. Jesus explains the parables to his twelve apostles, enlightening them of the meaning of the parable while leaving the crowds in the dark. Does God create intentional outcasts of his kingdom?

I don’t believe this is the case. Interestingly, the parable is self-referential. This is where the analysis of the passage gets weird—I’m getting the feeling of déja vù as I write this, and am tempted to drop an Inception joke. You see, not only is the understanding of the parable itself withheld from the masses of Jesus followers, but the parable itself is an explanation of why the followers don’t understand it in the first place.

Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all of the parables?

We often think of the parable of the sower as being a parable of conversion. Jesus explains that the seed that is sown is, essentially, the Gospel, or the Word. The various states of soil represent the circumstances surrounding the people who receive the Gospel message, and for whatever reason, be it thorns, rocks, or weeds, the Gospel message doesn’t last long in that person’s heart. It is a parable of conversion; but much more than that, it is a parable of understanding. You see, when Jesus asks the question, “How will you understand all of the parables?” the scope of this parable’s importance becomes paramount.

Now, suppose we make a parable out of this parable. (Have patience with me—I was an English major.) Imagine this parable is the full Gospel—it is the Word of God, the Good News, and the light to the nations. How can you fully understand it? Do you understand God, his methods, ways, purposes, and plans? This parable is a very apt microcosm for the entire Gospel of Mark, and even for the whole New Testament. Numerous commentators before me (Protestant and Catholic) are in agreement that understanding of God comes first from God—for how can we understand any aspect of him unless he allows us to? Therefore, and these same commentators agree, the understanding of this parable is given to us by God—just as we here see Jesus imparting understanding of the parable to his Twelve. But do the Twelve fully understand it? I suspect not. I suspect that our knowledge-based understanding of God and our practice-based holiness go hand-in-hand.

Remember what I said earlier about the parable being a parable of conversion? The seed is sown into different types of soil, where it either takes root or doesn’t. Now, apply this to the principle of ongoing sanctification. We are constantly re-converting ourselves to God—repenting, returning, and redirecting our actions, words, and thoughts to God. The seed—God’s Word, or, more appropriately here, the Gospel and God’s Truth—is being sown into us each day. If you’re Catholic, then this applies even more literally—we have daily readings from the Gospels every day of the year! Whether you’re aware of it or not, God’s truth—his love—is constantly bombarding your heart, looking to take root.

Now that you understand the parable, this brings the most pertinent question before us:

What type of soil are you giving to God’s word? This Great Sower is endlessly reaching out to you. Is your mind open to him? Are you willing to let his love take root? Are you even aware of the state of your soil?

I’ve been thinking lately about the state of the soil where God’s Gospel message is planted upon me, and it shames me to admit that this soil is pretty dry. Filled with entertainment, food, friends, internet, beer, general laziness, and the freedom to do whatever the hell I want, I’m not reacting with conversion or repentance when God’s Word is sown upon me. And trust me, it’s sown through my Christian friends, through the Catholic Church’s daily readings, through prayer, the Mass, and through theology books, but the evidence of a shallow root is quite clear. I’m not able to focus or give my attention for lengthy periods of time. I’m unable to adhere to any kind of discipline or routine. I’ve become weak, lazy, and selfish.

But I know the causes of poor soil. In my case, it’s not for lack of engagement with my Church, community, prayer, or Scripture reading. These things are various forms of the seed, and tossing more seed upon the soil isn’t going to improve the soil. Rather, I need to prepare my mind and body for the reception of God’s Word. My attention span and ability to study have been shot by quick and easy entertainment, fast food, and my ability to control many aspects of my life—who I spend time with, where I go, what I do. I need to prepare myself to convert back to him.

I need to get rid of the distractions. Eliminate the laziness. It is in circumstances like these that various Catholic and secular disciplines can really make the difference. I’m talking about routine exercise, avoidance of YouTube and Facebook, regular reading (and I mean real reading—books, poems, novels, essays, theology, anything longer than a blog post), and controlled diets (not a “diet” as in, eating less food, but controlling how much goes in to you, when it goes in, and what is the contents of your sustenance). What kind of music do you listen to? What kind of games do you play and how do they affect your attitude and heart? How do the people you spend time with affect the ways you think and process reality and affect your behavior and attempt at holiness?

It is for this reason why we Catholics fast from meat on Fridays. Why we sacrifice something significant from our lives during Lent. Why penance is not in any measure a form of atonement, but preventative care. Penance prepares us to receive Christ again in the future, when he calls us again, and we decide whether we’re converting back to him.

Are you prepared to convert to Christ’s call? God is sowing his Word to you even now.

What kind of soil have you prepared for him?