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

Psalm 3

Psalm 3

I lie down and I fall asleep,
and I will wake up, for the Lord sustains me.

Whereas the Second Psalm focused on the fear of God as a requisite to knowledge and, ultimately, any form of true power (one that is not founded in the Ego, but rather flows through and from God himself), the Third Psalm shows that the fear of the Lord leads to freedom from the fear of man.

The psalmist writes the words above in the midst of an immanent threat to his life—he is being pursued by attackers who will kill him when they find him. And yet, so confident is he in the Lord that he is able to do perform the most vulnerable act—sleep—even though a letting down of all defenses means a potential loss of life. The writer here is not just free from fear, but from all anxiety.

Interestingly, the writer’s security is not merely a defensive one, but it manifests itself in an active faith of the offensive:

Arise, Lord! Save me, my God!
For you strike the cheekbone of all my foes;
you break the teeth of the wicked

We don’t here see death and utter destruction, but we do see a plea for debilitation. The saving of the righteous happens transpires through the punishment of the wicked.

What is striking about this psalm is the writer finds himself in a place of true desperation

How many are my foes!
How many rise against me!

And the reiterate, no one seems to believe he can (or will) be saved:

How many say of me,
There is no salvation for him in God

“It is not God who will (or can) save, but he may save himself, perhaps” they say. But the psalmist rejects this: On the contrary, it is precisely the Lord who allows him to live, who gives him the ability to continue. It is through this knowledge that he does not fear either man (or himself!), but finds rest in the Lord, who watches over all things. 

Psalm 2

And now, kings, give heed;
take warning, judges on earth

Serve the Lord with fear; 
exult with trembling, 

The second Psalm is one centered around fear, specifically the fear of the Lord—the same kind of fear that is considered “the beginning of knowledge” in the first Proverb. A king or ruler, of all people, should be one who fears the Lord, who “trembles before him,” because failing to do so only increases pride, ultimately leading to destruction. Interestingly, the ruler’s pride here isn’t characterized as a “worldly foolishness,” like a mere stubbornness, but rather one that invokes the wrath of the Lord. 

Accept correction
lest he become angry and you perish along the way

when his anger suddenly blazes up

Pride here isn’t characterized as an inwardly destructive force, but rather one that destroys from outside the self—pride is a provocation, a wind on the embers of the wrath of God.

But contrary to all of this destruction, the second psalm ends on on a positive admonition:

Blessed are all who take refuge in him! [The Lord] 

This imagery of “refuge,” of the Lord as a “strong tower” is one that will crop up again and again in the Psalms. There is a prevailing discourse of power that persists through these songs, one that compares the King (or ego) with the King of Kings.

Where does true power lie? Only where “will and power and one.”

Psalm 1

He is like a tree
planted near streams of water,

that yields its fruit in season

Such is the man who “does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the company with scoffers.” A man who delights in the law of the Lord, “and on his law he meditates day and night.”

Patience, is a motif here—or, more aptly, diligence or perseverance. We read that the fruit that is yielded is not immediate, but rather it is produced “in season.” When is this season for harvest? When Jesus spoke of a harvest, it was in reference to the “end of the age.” But I think we may be allowed to read this not in an exclusively eschatological light, but rather understanding that the fruit yielded from the labor of righteousness comes intermittently, in various “seasons”.

 

We are not to despair when the the fruit is lacking, but we are to wait, and to continue working.

The second half of the psalm echoes this motif focusing on the wicked,

“But not so are the wicked! They are like chaff driven by the wind…”

The image here of chaff, of something light being caught up into the daily shifting winds, is an image of idleness, of “flightiness,” characterized by submitting to the whims of fancy. It is a damnable evil, but one less severe than others (such as deceit or malice), one found in the likes of Dante’s 5th canto where the lustful are caught up in the powerful winds in the second circle of hell.

We find then that the first Psalm is fitting as ordered — it readies the one willing to pursue righteousness, telling him to be prepared to wait and continue in labor (persevere) until the time of harvest.