Saturday, April 11, 2009

Why in the world did I want to become Catholic?

It is Easter weekend and there is a lot we are celebrating relating to our faith in the Shank household. First and foremost, we are celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Like most families, we are doing this not only with prayer and reverence, but also with painted eggs and lots of chocolate for the kids.

This year is a bit more special however. We are also celebrating much more including my daughter's baptism. Zoë has waited a long 19 months for her baptism and we owe her not only apologies for this, but also thanks to the Lord for extending his grace onto her thus far in her life.

We also have further celebration in that we have a surprise this year for those who visited. I made the decision to become Catholic! I say this was a surprise because I made the decision early on in the process that I wasn't going to tell either my Mom, my in-laws, or anyone else in my - or my wife's family about this decision.

I decided to keep this to myself for several reasons. Primarily, it was because I wanted this choice to be between God and I and no one else. I wanted this to be a clear decision made upon the discoveries I made about my faith, what I knew to be true about my own experiences, and without influence. I did choose partners in this process from both sides of the conversation, but those were on terms I felt I could control.
Additionally, I elected to keep this to myself because I didn't want to create any assumptions about anyone else's participation in the process. Conversion stories naturally lead themselves to such thoughts as it did with our friends here locally. To that point, we have already heard many surprising comments from friends that we hadn't even expected. With my wife and her family being Catholic one would naturally assume I had been overtaken by the "club." Admittedly my wife does have a lot of influence over my life, but not over my spiritual life. If anything my wife being Catholic has, over the course of our marriage, been more limiting to our spiritual development than beneficial.

Michelle has always had an estranged relationship with the Catholic Church. In her words, "I went to Mass enough when I was in Catholic School I don't need to go anymore." She has for years hated Mass, hated the idea of going to Mass, and is a part of that huge demographic out there that has been burned out on faith disciplines because of her time in Catholic School. Michelle loves God, loves me for my love of God, and has embraced my faith quest as part of our responsibility as parents in raising our children. Michelle also has found her niche in many of the Protestant Churches we have attended for the subtle differences that provide some interest to her. But I would say that overall my wife has, as long as I have known her, been trapped between a rock and a hard place; those positions being a frustration with aspects of Catholicism and not really being able to feel completely comfortable anywhere else.

Of further note, my conversations with Michelle's family about the Catholic Church have always been respectful, yet at the same time, distant. This is because of my long standing and outspoken animosity for the Catholic Church. I had for years believed that in general, most Catholics weren't even real Christians. So to put it simply, it is fair to say that my in-laws gave up years ago on the idea of me becoming Catholic.

Now I am sure there are some people out there wondering why I did this. In fact, as I already indicated, some have already been pressed me on the subject. In respect to them, this choice is something for many in my sphere of influence that is hard to understand. So, why I made this choice is a good question and deserves a good answer. I assure you that my wife is just as dumbfounded in some ways about this as many of you might be. And quite frankly, it is a question that has been on my mind as well. So as a logical person with a restless mind, I am going to put it down on paper as I always do so I can look at it objectively and make sure that this is something I am confident in. So I write this as much for myself as anyone else, but it is my hope that in publishing this on the internet it offers anyone else aid in their personal walk of faith, for whatever direction they are going, and hopefully answer any questions about mine.

So what follows is a discussion I had with myself as to how I discerned Catholicism in my own mind and why I found a home for my heart in the Catholic Church. This journal involves discussions and comments of others, but is not directed at anyone. This is directed at me and me alone, and is a discussion with two halves of one mind – the critic and the analyst. I have put some considerable research into this decision and write this within the context of my own level of faith and Biblical understanding. So I apologize if assumptions are made which a reader finds confusing or I express my own naiveté.

At this point I should also mention a word of thanks to my brother, a Methodist Minister, for his tempered counsel on this experience. His help and focus to a "keeping my eyes wide open" approach to the process has not only been helpful, but has also been critical in my being able to make this decision as a responsible adult. Keith was very supportive. He went out of his way to assure me that the path I was on did not necessarily have to include the Catholic Church, but that he was supportive of it because he found God's hand at work in leading me down this road. Thank you very much Keith.

Hunting Rabbits

So how does an outspoken critic of the Catholic Church even become remotely interested in becoming Catholic? Well, as we in sales like to say, "Just because you get the rabbit out of the hole doesn't mean you will get it in the cage." What does that mean? Well, it means it happened in two parts. The first of which was the need for change. The change in question was our determination to get Zoë baptized. The church we have been attending doesn't believe in child baptism. Furthermore, they were of the mindset that Michelle and I should get baptized as adults. Now I don't want to get wrapped up in anyone else's personal beliefs on the subject, but suffice it to say, neither one of those two options appealed to Michelle and myself. We both felt uniquely connected to our baptisms through our life experiences as children of the Churches we were raised in and were made uncomfortable by the thought of being baptized again. And, as I indicated before, we felt it our responsibility as parents to get Zoë baptized as well. So we began our quest for a solution of how to get Zoë baptized.

What got the rabbit into the cage came down to years of Bible study for me and the subtle invitation from a priest. Michelle and I were referred to a priest I had known for years and forgotten about as one of our possible solutions to our baptism "problem." So at the dutiful persistence of a friend, I called and set up an appointment with Father back in September.

So I with my anti-catholic disposition, and my wife with her frustrated with Mass / troubled Catholic Childhood experience disposition, went in with both barrels loaded to ask this poor man to take pity on us, despite our beliefs, and baptize our child.
And we opened fire too. We held nothing back and for lack of a better term, mugged the poor man in his office. Michelle voiced all of her concerns about Mass and I voiced my general skepticism about a church I really didn't yet understand.
In the end Father just smiled at both of us. He immediately stated without question and sincere grace that they would baptize Zoë. He also helped Michelle find perspective on how she, as someone who may have lost meaning in the Mass for herself, gives to others purely through her participation in the Mass and could look for God's grace in that. He added that the Church is a community of believers that praise the Lord through their support of one another.

Father then turned to me and offered me the invitation to attend, at my leisure, the RCIA program which follows Mass each Sunday simply for the purpose of understanding what I was baptizing my children into. He made sure that I knew that I was under no obligation to join the church, and that no one would pressure me to do so as part of Zoë's baptism.

Frankly, Father's words faded out beyond that point because my mind was stuck on his words to Michelle about Catholicism being about a community of faith. I could see his lips moving but I couldn't hear anything anyone else was saying. Those words just started echoing through my head as if they had some value I couldn't put my finger on.
Finally, after minutes of disassociation, something connected. That something was an idea that had been overwhelming my thoughts for weeks previous which I had been developing in the weekly men's Bible study I was attending. This idea was that the reason why we live this life is to figure out how to embrace and love our fellow man. That our charge is to successfully connect with each other. It’s as if I tripped over the answer to the whole “meaning of life” question. I am after all an existentialist at heart anyway. But specifically, this charge especially involves those of us in the community we can’t stand, don't identify with, and feel held back by in life. So somehow, we fulfill our purpose in life by learning how to incorporate others into it.

So those two ideas fused together in some odd coincidence of fate: the fact that Michelle would be serving others in the community of faith by participating in the Mass in spite of her own needs, and that we should be loving our fellow man as our primary task as a creation of God. And so I turned to Father and said that I would very much like to join this group and see what this is all about.

That is also when I also said the dumbest thing that has ever come out of my mouth. As my wits came around I told him that I felt my faith was strong enough to take anything they threw at me. (As if he was asking me to get a better understanding of Scientology.) Because I also had an ulterior motive; I wanted to find that thing in my wife’s past, and the past of so many other Catholic’s, that created so much ambivalence in their faith. As a father and a husband, I have always considered it my responsibility to provide faith leadership within the home, and the "Catholic Thing" always would get in the way. The ecumenical relationship Michelle and I have had always served us well as a couple, but as our family grew this began to hinder our holistic faith development as a unit.

So I jumped in with both feet and began a process that would change my life. I like to live under the illusion that I am not a simple minded person. That my time on this earth, education, and career success has empowered me with reasonable discernment skills. I also believe that I have been truthful to myself through out this process, and that I have been truthful to those whom I have asked to assist me along the way. What I discovered is what most on a grail quest discovers; that to grasp the most unreachable desires, answer the most unsolvable questions, and overcome the most challenging aspects of our lives; we need only to look within ourselves to reach the destination.

What I discovered in this process is that I had never really looked at Catholicism before. I spent my whole life looking at Catholics to form my opinions of this denomination. What others did, said, or held to be true. Why was I a Methodist? Why were we attending an independent church? The only barometer I ever used was whether I could feel Christ at work in this church? This process was very reliable, but yet simplistic and at times an inadequate diving rod.
It was inadequate because I had never reconciled aspects of faith against my own personal relationship with Christ. Just because God was at work in that church didn't necessarily dictate that God needed me there. God works in different ways with different people, and I have been searching for something for some time without really understanding how to process what I found. Another way of looking at it is that I had always dedicated myself to being such a coach-able follower, so much so that I never really took the time to see where I was going. So I guess if I wanted to be a leader for my family, I was going to have to be a leader for myself first, and leadership takes a little understanding of who you are.

So as I took this helm of leadership I began to appreciate how foolish I had been. I wasn’t foolish for being Protestant, not in the slightest. But I was foolish because I allowed others to discern how I defined myself, not my relationship with God. I had given others that power over who I thought I was, my family, and my future without discerning God's purpose first.
Additionally, another discovery I made was that my thoughts about Catholicism primarily existed out of ignorance. Furthermore, I had let my frustrations about how I saw the faith be fueled by more ignorance; I fed on "self declared recovering Catholics" and fellow Catholic haters to the point that my reality of the Catholic Church really only existed in my own mind.

So as I went through RCIA I began a study of understanding theology. I discerned what I learned against Independent Christian thought, Catholic thought, Methodist thought, Calvinist thought and much more. What I discovered was how similar all Christian denominations are and why it really is dumb to focus on differences.
I also discovered the importance of living what you believe. For years my natural contrarian nature left me uninterested in belonging to any specific group. It is easy to be a floater though, moving from one place to another relying on an independent mindset to live unattached to any specific dogma. After all it's just me, Christ, and my Bible right? Well, no, not if life is about connecting with others its not. Those two ideals quickly became incongruent for me. I also found that it also is much harder to believe in something and to be marked by it so it is undeniable. So I asked myself if I was ever to reach my goal of being a Christian in that way, why should I fear being a part of a church in that way; could those be related?

In the end I found that I liked Catholicism - a lot. I understood it – it has many moving parts and can be confusing. As J.K. Chestern says, "its bigger on the inside than it is on the outside." It also offers a lot of tools for faith discipline and I can always use more of that. Catholicism is, in many ways, the answer to some of my prayers for my life and the life of my family. I would admit that other denominations could be too, but like a lot of the bigger picture benefits Michelle and I found with moving to Shawnee and buying the house we did, Catholicism offers some profound depth in ways I had never really imagined. I had always seen it as simple and shallow, but in fact it is just the opposite. It is a robust practice of Christianity that challenges you daily. It is not by any means perfect, but then neither am I. At my age there is much in life that I can say I have seen before and know I will see again. That is how I see the Catholic Church: Yeah we have seen that before. It will probably happen again. Let's just put on our shoes on and get back to work.

Another way of looking at why I became so intrigued by Catholicism is in some of what I took from St. Ignatius. Ignatius was one of the first apologists of the Universal Church and a founding father of Catholic thought as it is become known today. In many ways I saw through my Protestant experiences that accepting Christ as the son of God was the end result of your faith quest. "Jesus is the answer!" He was that point that you could keep coming back to on the road of life as a partner in all you do. What I have found in Catholicism with the help of our friend St. Ignatius is that recognizing Christ as the Son of God is just the beginning, and it is the basis for understanding the purpose for which God made you a part of His creation. I would encourage anyone to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. As it relates to this thought though, I would encourage you to read the section entitled "The Vocation of Man."

This has been a fascinating ride that may not be understood by all. What follows are my reflections and discoveries surrounding various aspects of faith. It is my hope that these add value in any way they can.

Reconciling my faith to Catholic Doctrine

To me, this was the most amazing part of whole experience, and what turned out to be the easiest. See, as I said, I had always looked at Catholicism by looking at Catholics. Seems logical right? Well, not when you also realize there are a lot of Catholics that don't know what it means to be Catholic. This is not intended to be a judgment on anyone. The fact of the matter is you could say the same thing about any number of Christian faiths. But when I looked at what I call pure Catholicism, the catholic faith as it was introduced to me through the words of Michael Himes' book "The Mystery of Faith, an introduction to Catholicism," I found something that was profoundly beautiful to behold. Though not a complete illustration of Catholic thought, it opened my eyes to a greater understanding of the basis for Catholic ideology that I found truly fascinating.

You can ask my wife about the effect it had on me. I wasn't sleeping at night because I kept waking up thinking about what it had stirred in my mind. I inhaled that book and what turned into a steady diet of books to follow. Scott Hahn's book was another big mind bender that completely knocked me off my horse. I was constantly checking and sourcing my Bible on what I read. I was dumbfounded at the simple and amazing insights I had found that put so much in perspective for me.

I was raised in the Methodist Church. My parents were really great about exposing my brother and I to a life of faith at an early age. My parents loved my brother and I very much all of our lives and I will forever be indebted to the upbringing they gave me. Both my Mother and Father instilled in me core values that would help me throughout my life including a relationship with God and the Church. They also walked the walk at home themselves. I can remember many times our family praying together and building on our faith relationship in and out of the home. Both my brother and I were in youth group from kindergarten to graduation from high school. We sang in the church youth and adult choirs, and did confirmation as scheduled. Did I mention that my brother is finishing his Masters in Theology? I have also even been cursed with the fact that nearly all of my close friends from High School and College turned out to be Ministers some where in the world. So suffice it to say I have had considerable exposure to faith development, but yet I still felt incomplete.

Furthermore, as an adult I took an intensive adult Bible Study program for 32 weeks called Disciple in which I highly re-familiarized myself again with the Bible. I have, in one form or another, been involved in weekly Bible study somewhere for the past 10 years. I am the table leader in a Men's group that meets each Tuesday morning at a church near my house to study and learn about faith, and I read for fun books on faith that I find from many sources. As I said, I have been searching and searching. So suffice it to say, I always felt very comfortable in my faith and loved the Bible because of my own personal moment of surrender and salvation in Christ. What has always been an issue though for me – as with many Protestants however – are what are called aspects of faith. Points of doctrine as some might call them have sometimes been put aside as a focus of prayer and continuing discernment.

Catholicism, as it turned out, cleared a lot of things up for me that never seemed to be truly clear. See, I am a relational person by nature. My thinking processes involve transitive logic on many levels. I understand a = c very easily because I know that a =b & b = c. I need to understand how things fit together. Many aspects of my Protestant faith however, always seemed to have individual logic systems and be independent of one another (at least to me). I was always told that some things were just a matter of faith – you can choose to believe, or not. So I took some things on faith because I was a follower of Christ.
Catholicism, on the other hand, is highly interrelated. A particular practice, discipline, or meaning may be very difficult to fathom without factoring in other practices, disciplines, or meanings.
For example, transubstantiation makes perfect sense to me now. Why, well because of the new covenant with Christ; the Trinity defined as Lover, Beloved, and the Love between them; what it means to be a part of the body of Christ, the concept of sin and God's promise to us; how we continue to experience God's grace through the Holy Spirit; baptism; the Incarnation; victory over death; the communion of saints; the role of the church, and understanding our role as part of God's creation. Clear as mud right! Well anyway, ask me about it later. Suffice it to say, it makes sense to my complicated brain.

Justification

I just can't escape this part of the Catholic faith. I realize this thought will cause the greatest amount of controversy within my family and friends, but again – I just cannot escape it. Justification was what my mind found in those moments in which my thoughts connected with Father's comments to Michelle in our early meeting about Zoë's baptism.

It should also be known that no one, and I mean no one, in the Catholic Church and my RCIA experience ever brought this up. Not once. Not even a priest. These are feelings I came to of my own mind and in my own time through my reading of the Bible and the repeated messages that I have gotten from the Protestant Pastors I have regular access too. I believe that we are justified before God not only through our belief in Christ, but through our actions (works) on this earth. (You may begin the egg throwing now.)

I say this with the hope that it is understood that I see these two concepts to be one and the same. There are many who would successfully argue that when Christ said in the Gospels the most important part of the law was to love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-34), He was talking about a single concept. Why? Because you love God by loving your neighbor, they are inseparable. The same can be said for justification. We reveal our faith in God through our actions (works). These concepts are two halves of the same whole. To think that they can exist independently of one another is foolishness.

Getting back to transitive logic; Adam & Eve fall into this thought as well. In the second chapter of Genesis God created Adam to have responsibility for His creation. The last time I checked, God is timeless. God created you and me and the world around us. I don't think He was hiring a guy for a 30 minute job. Adam wasn't just a simple gardener hired to maintain the grounds of the Garden of Eden. In breathing life into Adam God made us our brother's keeper. He made us responsible for one another. I just can't escape the thought that from Eden to Calvary this is the point that the Lord has been trying to drive into our thick skulls the whole time. This is what life is all about – the other guy (or girl). Live for others and enjoy it.

Now does the Catholic Church own the patent on Justification just because they put deeds on their business card? Let's not be that ridiculous, please. There is an army of Catholics out there that forgot years ago why they show up and do stuff. For some sadly, there is no spiritual connection at all; and it was some of these humbled masses that were the folks I so arrogantly judged Catholicism by. So know that being Catholic only guarantees you that at some point in your life you'll likely watch a Notre Dame Football game, and at the level they are playing at now even that is suspect. See, it's funny that the Catholic Church falls under the umbrella of a corporate faith, because that is where I see Catholic guilt coming from. Catholic guilt is the faith based version of "That's the way we have always done it?"

But let's try and understand what makes this work for me; the Catholic Church has earned my respect because they do keep works on their business card. It's an honesty approach that I like and I believe Christ appreciates because your actions are a reflection of your love for Him. Rick Warren of "Purpose Driven Life" fame created a widely used illustration for the spiritual growth path of an individual within a church and likened it to that of a baseball diamond:

First base = Membership in the church
Second base = Spiritual maturity
Third base = Ministry
Home Plate = Mission Work

This process is with the idea that those returning to home plate kick start the next base runners.
Now I am not saying that Rick is wrong in his approach. In fact to the contrary, I am sure that many Catholic parishes' use a version of this same model. But what I do think is an important difference is that the Catholic Church tells you up front that they expect you to score, that they expect you to show up daily, and the people counting on you are right here for you to meet. So much so that they won't just give the bat to the next person in line before they are sure that person understands what is happening in the game. When you step into the batters box as a Catholic you have the knowledge right from the first pitch that you need to be thinking triple or home run. (Again, some get more focused on the game than the meaning of the game, but they are playing.)
Now I used to be offended that I couldn't receive communion in a Catholic Church, and then I understood why. I found out that in the first century churches that sometimes it took years before people could receive communion. This is because you needed time to prepare yourself for what it means to be a Christian. In the end, is that not what's best for each of us anyway? I mean, how many people in any church really understand what it is that they represent? And of those that do, how many of us make that truly a part of who we are?

To emphasize this point further, I have seen a lot of protestant churches filled with people who feel "stuck on second base" in Rick's example, or who get to second and then head off into center field because they have this need to accumulate so much spiritual maturity that they never go anywhere. People I know talk about this quite a bit actually. In some ways they become like college students that never graduate. They have tons of opinions about how the world should work, but when it comes to doing something about it they go off and register for the next class. I happen to know this is a real problem for some churches, even large churches with lots of money (and yes I am sure – even some Catholic Churches).
This issue is in part why I have heard such talk about actions from so many sources. Understand that what I say next is with the utmost respect and sensitivity to anyone's situation: We need to do more than continually express thanks for our moment of surrender to Christ and the Grace we received. We need reflect that grace by fulfilling God's promise in others. We need to pay forward our forgiveness.

All in all, as I have told my brother, I believe it is all just really semantics that separate Catholics and Protestants on the issue of justification. I mean let's face it; both Church forms are trying to assist people in getting to the same point. It's all about how the language plays out in your mind.

To illustrate the complexity of the semantics issue, and to illustrate how I see these two concepts intertwined, I offer a quote from Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (Eph 2:8-10):

8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9not by works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

And this from James 2:26:

26As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

For me, I have found comfort in the Catholic Church speaking more openly and determinately about what I have come to discern as important through scripture. I find it important to not let the argument in Ephesians verses 8 & 9 overshadow the bigger picture found in verse 10. We were created to have responsibility over God's creation, and we fulfill our commitment to His covenant relationship by our faith which we demonstrate through our actions that God has prepared for us in this life.


The Liturgical Calendar

This was the meat and potatoes of my conversion. I had, for years, been praying for the tools to center Christ in my family. We have been pretty successful thus far with Jackson and faith but we had kind of hit a plateau. In comes Advent! And what timing its meaning was for our family. We began preparing for Christ in many ways. This experience for us also held true the axiom that a good advent leads to a less stressful Christmas. Jackson loved learning the names of the candles and always wanted to be the one who lit them. Zoë just thought it was cool to have burning candles during dinner. We kept the advent wreath as our table center piece and said the prayers each week we got from the church as part of our Sunday dinner ritual. We talked with Jackson regularly about why we celebrate advent and that we should be humble in our expectations for Christmas.

Lent has also been big at the house. All 3 aspects of it: Praying, fasting, and alms giving. Daddy fasted on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Daddy gave up alcohol for Lent - hello, Mommy gave up pop, and Jackson gave up Mario Kart two days a week. We all gave up meat on Fridays. It became a family thing. We all had our "sacrifice for Jesus." Truth be told, Jackson needed some reinforcement on the whole Mario Kart thing. He struggled with separating it from punishment, but he was consoled with the fact Daddy couldn't drink beer so it must be okay.

Michelle and I also committed to volunteer for Harvesters, and we embraced the no meat on Fridays by joining in on the fish fries at the Church for fun. This was arguably my wife's favorite part of me becoming Catholic – the Fish Fry. Never mind being equally yoked in our spiritual development – she got her Fish Frys back. Hey, priorities right. But in all seriousness, we all loved them - especially Jackson. Jackson would tell us each morning how many days it was until the next Fish Fry and blew the mind each week of the Knight that tried to give him cheese pizza. No…he wants fish – two pieces please…no really he will eat them. Yes, he's only six….I promise, he will eat them. No, it's not really another one for Dad…..he helps me finish mine.

My brother shared in this joy of us embracing the liturgical calendar again also. He explained to me how he has born witness to any number of people who have left Churches that used the liturgical calendar and who came back because they missed the value the calendar provides. It certainly was like being a part of family again you hadn't seen for some time.

The fascinating aspect of the Calendar for me has been learning about its history. As it turns out the Catholic Church has quite an interest in the Liturgical Calendar. The Pope was given the responsibility of Calendar management by the Roman Empire to develop and implement it. The Church has fulfilled that role in one fashion or another up to the current day.

Now we haven't embraced the Calendar as much as we could; in Catholicism there is a Saint feast if not daily, then nearly weekly. But we do appreciate the value of many of them more than we would have in the past. St. Patrick's Day this year was definitely more educating than intoxicating. What these days offer us though is a way to bring Christ into the habits and customs we form as a family; "Opportunities to coach," as we called them in our Love and Logic class.

The Beauty of the Mass

There was a time in my life that the Mass held about as much interest for me as a Chinese Domino Tournament. To add insult to injury, a Mass was nearly guaranteed to put my wife in a bad mood for the next several hours. For those of you who have met my wife, I am sure you realize how much of a disincentive that would be to ever go to one. But I am sure you also realize by now in this reading that I drank all the kool-aid that I could at those fish frys and that I have really come to appreciate the beauty of the Mass.

For years I had been under a severe misconception that my father in law cleared up for me over the last 4th of July. He explained to me that a Mass is not a worship service. The Mass is a discipline of faith. This in some ways made me very thankful because it helped me realize that Catholics weren't trying to bore the Lord to death in their Worship services. But hey, there is no better way to say thanks for salvation than letting someone you love get a little shut eye.

What I have discovered is that the Mass is a daily discipline that is usually practiced weekly, and mandated only twice a year. All opinions aside on how often you should attend Mass, looking at it as a daily discipline gave me it its greatest meaning. The Mass is an opportunity for prayer, repentance, serving others, connecting to Christ through the Liturgy of the Word, and connecting to the body of Christ through the Sacrament of the Eucharist. All good activities in the daily life of a Christian wouldn't you say? But the point of the Mass is the Eucharist - A Manna meal with your Lord and Savior. Gives the term "Breakfast of Champions" a whole new light doesn't it?

What I learned about worship in the Catholic Church is that you worship God by serving others. Which I think is kind of cool, and helped me understand why my wife always loved God but hated the Mass. See, this made no sense to me for the longest time and I could never understand how those feelings could co-exist in her heart. She would always say, "I would rather be serving meals at a soup kitchen somewhere than sitting in a church. What good does that do?" Little did I know, and what she could never figure out how to say, is that she loved God and loved honoring Him in ways He wanted - not in ways she wanted. What's funny is that for years I have been trying to show my wife the joy of praising God, and little did I know I was the one who didn't get it.

Now I am not saying that the Lord doesn't love a good Hymn sung with the heart of someone who has been saved. Furthermore, there are some gospel singers south of the Mason Dixon line that would make the Pope cry in thanksgiving for God's Grace. More to the point, I am quite confident that before the Gospel is read in Mass replacing the usual Gloria with Michael W. Smith's version of "Awesome God" or Amy Grant's "Thy Word" would be a real treat for the Lord. And I would have felt a little less apprehensive in line for the Sacrament of Reconciliation listening to Mercyme's "I Can Only Imagine." But nonetheless these are just little details of a more significant picture that the Mass and Worship represent. The Mass is about our connection to God, not God's connection to us. Worship is about fulfilling God's promise to us, not finding a way to make God appealing to us.

In the book, "Wild Goose Chase," Mark Batterson writes about the concept of "Inverted Christianity." To paraphrase: Inverted Christianity is the WIFM Concept (What's in it for me) taken into our faith. Mark, who is the pastor of an independent church in Washington D.C., is more of a Catholic that he realizes or would likely admit too. Mark has a real concern that too many church goers evaluate their church experience based on what they get out of it, how well they like the minister, and how good the music is. Church should be about God – period.

Now don't get me wrong, Mass is not a panacea for inverted Christianity. Many Catholics choose their parish based on their taste in architecture, how they like the priest, and how good the school's basketball team is. But what the Mass does offer that I find so appealing is nothing but the sacraments. It's brutally honest in that respect. You go there to connect with Christ as a community through the Sacraments. Again, it's only about the Eucharist. Its simplicity is its greatest message and its greatest strength.

I found out in my studies that originally Mass was intended to be in standing room only fashion. You weren't meant to sit down. The body language of sitting at the time was considered pious and disrespectful to others in the community and to God. Pews were introduced as part of a trend started by protestant churches in early American history as both sermons and homilies got longer. This explains the whole concept of the kneeling rail and why they are so awkward. What would we as Americans think of Church today if we weren't allowed to sit down? Think about that the next time you attend on Sunday.

So what about the joy of worship and praise? Well I want to keep it up. Furthermore, I recognize and appreciate the value worship services bring to the evangelistic moment. But for me, my relationship with God has become more about how I deal with my fellow man, its about living the sermon as much as debating it, and its about living hymns as prayer and feelingthem in your heart while doing work at that soup kitchen! I've got my IPOD rolling and we will be turning on some Third Day to get motivated.

What do I see when I sit in Mass? I have to admit it reminds me a lot of a Kings court. This appearance could be due to the rotunda shape of the parish we attend but I give it over a lot to form as well. The King's people come in community to His court, are led by the priest as Herald, give praise to the King, celebrate His entrance onto the thrown, settle the business of the day, and renew their faith in the leadership and grace He provides. Kind of nerdy I know, but not that far off from where the old Roman Rite was sourced from.


Bible Passages for thought

(Mathew 23:1-2)
Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation 'Rabbi.' As for you, do not be called 'Rabbi.' You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called 'Master'; you have but one master, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted."

(Philippians 2: 1-11)
1If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. 3Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6Who, being in very nature[a] God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the very nature[b] of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! 9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

(Mark 12:28-34)
One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him,"Which is the first of all the commandments?"Jesus replied, "The first is this:Hear, O Israel!The Lord our God is Lord alone!You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this:You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these."The scribe said to him, "Well said, teacher.You are right in saying,He is One and there is no other than he.And to love him with all your heart,with all your understanding, with all your strength,and to love your neighbor as yourself is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding,he said to him,"You are not far from the Kingdom of God."And no one dared to ask him any more questions.

(James 2: 14-25)
14What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.
19You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
20You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[d]? 21Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,"[e] and he was called God's friend. 24You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
25In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

(Mathew 5:1-11)
1Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2and he began to teach them saying: 3"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

(John 3:16-21)
16"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,[f] that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.[g] 19This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God."[h]

(John 12:20-26)
20Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. "Sir," they said, "we would like to see Jesus." 22Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.
23Jesus replied, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

2000 years of Church History

My father-in-law said something to me once that has turned out to be highly prophetic, "The worst thing about the Catholic Church is its marketing department." Wow, how true that has turned out to be. What's funny is that every time we have embarked on an adventure with the church, whether it was for our wedding, Jackson's baptism, or this experience; I went in thinking it would be a fight and it has always turned out to be a pleasure. So I have added another ounce of wisdom to my father in-law's list of profound statements. Mine is that "the only difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is 2000 years of Church history." This sounds simple and nonsensical at first read, but trust me when I say it became the truism I would return to over and over again as I pulled back the onion of the Catholic church.

My brother helped me a lot with this as well. He outlined for me those 2000 years one Saturday morning as we discussed the Desert Fathers, the Roman Empire, Calvin, Luther, Wesley, and more. He explained to me how Church's of today founded their basic doctrinal differences and what made them unique. He explained why the church we had been currently attending thought the way they did about baptism and why they didn't use the liturgical calendar. All really great things and Keith really help put things in perspective.

But getting back to my new corollary, as someone who has spent time in Catholic Churches, Luther originated Churches, and Calvin originated Churches I have really come to appreciate some of those fundamental differences and logic. From just a practical perspective, it wouldn't matter if you were talking about Churches, baseball teams, or hamburger stands; much of what defines the differences between any two similar organizations, when comparing one that has maintained its original form and ones that have changed regularly over a similar time period, is the approach each took to dealing with the challenges it faced over that time.

Now I could probably add 30 pages to this journal in just describing the bad decisions the Catholic Church has made since Christ put his hand on Peter's shoulder and asked him to take care of his bride. So instead, let's just concede up front that my father in law has it right and the marketing director should have been fired and replaced some time around the reign of Titus. To emphasize that I do take this point seriously however; lets not forget that the Catholic Church at one point wanted my family extinguished from the face of the earth and tried very hard to make that so. For the History buffs in the audience, feel free to read up on the protestant heretical trials in Europe of the late 1600's (for my family specifically: Eggiwil, Switzerland in 1671) and the subsequent massacres in southern Germany that began 2 decades later in the refuge camps. When you live through such things you tend to write them down and pass them on.

So let's just also say that another thing the Catholic Church is great at is shooting itself in the foot. But when it's not demonstrating it’s expertise in marksmanship it has held true over time to some pretty sound principals and ideas. Such things like putting Christ at the center of life, making faith a daily decision, caring for the poor, building a strong family, being responsible to your community, educating children, peace, and caring for life everywhere.

Admittedly, some of things that really impressed me most in the RCIA process was how easily the Church admits to its failings and its faults. It knows it's been stupid in the past. It knows it has affected more harm than good at certain times in history. But it doesn't let these things change its core values or its sense of mission. It just puts its head down, picks up its cross, and goes back to work. So I was compelled to remember that Christ chose Peter, a flawed man who denied Him 3 times, and who then re-commissioned Peter 3 times. I have come to see a Catholic Church which realizes that falling down is not a reason to quit.

Now I will also tread lightly here and with respect, because I embrace and value the Protestant upbringing I had and value those Church relationships that have shouldered me in my faith walk. They all continue to have my respect, prayer, and in some cases even involvement. What I began to see in spending more time in a Catholic parish however is subtle differences that relate a lot to consistency versus marketing appeal. Not all of these things were bad in my eyes and not all of these were good. In fact I, and another former devout Protestant that was in my RCIA class, both liked to point out that Protestantism and Catholicism could benefit a lot from one another if they just tried working together.

But throughout the process, I began to wonder what some Churches would be like if they didn’t continue to splinter? I mean you want to talk about inverted Christianity; you have to accept that the ultimate act of WIFM is church splintering. For instance, you have the Independent Church movement. There are actually Christians out there that have become so unimpressed with one another they don’t want to have any affiliation with anybody. Most of these have come out of the Baptist faith, who in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s jumped backed and forth between affiliations so often you needed a dance card to remember who to make your check out to each Sunday. My roommate in college was tied up in a lot of that and I can’t tell you the number of times he would tell me things that would get us both laughing for hours.
You also have right now the growth of Home Churches – that's right, you have people who have given up on even wanting to be a part any congregation and just get together with small groups each Sunday to have Church with the "real" believers in their network. This is part of the growing Calvinist movement in the U.S. right now you can read about in the popular press. This movement is based on the idea of mimicking the 1st century churches after Christ's death and the idea of predestination. This is all fine and good I guess. However for me God was the one who told Noah to build the Ark, Noah didn't do it on his own because of his own sense of sin in the world.

I also forget the numbers of new churches that my brother told me are created daily but it's staggering. Now part of that is obviously due to the IRS and the tax code. But there is actually a joke that many protestant ministers tell that says if you find the perfect church don’t join it – because adding you into the mix will ruin it. Now its funny, and I get their point. But if you think about, it's kind of sad. I actually know of situations where protestant churches have turned into bad marriages and it's like they get divorced. They dissolve their charter, or a segment of the congregation establishes a rival church down the road so they don’t have to deal with folks they don’t get along with any more. I mean come on. Why are you a Christian? Why?

Now I should be fair about this and address a couple of things. First of all, yes, Catholics jump parishes too, but not with the level of animosity I was speaking of. Also, parishioners can get stupid crazy sometimes over there little piece of the world, but in the end it’s the Church in Rome and its infrastructure that holds the final say on all matters. Finally, the Mass itself is the same everywhere in the world. Yes, the world, which I find kind of neat.

Furthermore, out of fairness to my Brother, the majority of the situations I was previously referring to come out of the Calvinist vein of the Church Family tree. But in that same fairness, I have personally bore witness to a lot of the same behavior of many Churches including those of Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Catholic denominations.

In the end, I surprisingly found some real value in the consistency of the Catholic Church. I found value in the fact that I was coming to be in communion with God and not because the minister was a good speaker. It's always a plus when they are, but it would no longer be a determining factor. I found value in the daily discipline of Mass and really like it. I found value in the core values of the Church and how those could be blended into my family and my own life. I found value in the community aspects of the Church. Finally, I found value in the way the Church has humbled itself to me and my family, as well as how it is trying to move forward from the mistakes of the past.

I would also offer Christ's Parable of the Lost Sheep as a measure of guidance on these issues as found in Luke 15: 1-7:

1Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering around to hear him. 2But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."
3Then Jesus told them this parable: 4"Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' 7I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

The Impact of 2000 years on Church Practices and Doctrine.

As I indicated previously, so much can be explained about the Catholic Church because of its longevity and how certain needs at certain times that were, or were not, incorporated into the long term dogma of the Church. What really brought this to light for me was imagining what the Church we had been attending would look like in 2000 years, and how different that image would be from the Catholic Church. The thought also stemmed from a recurring question I had been having at that Church which was, "What would the world be like if we were all like this? What if everyone believed in Jesus Christ?"

We had been attending an independent church which took its roots out of the Baptist faith. I have learned from my brother that such church's take there roost out of the Calvinist movement and have a focus on worship services as they would be in the first century churches. Now I am sure many who have attended Westside and seen the rock band and the coffee shop would be surprised to hear that called first century, but that description is related more to their lack of interest in the Liturgical Calendar, what is called a "seeker friendly" approach and a high priority on adult baptism.

But it was that Calvinist nature that got me thinking. How would a, or even could a, first century congregation grow and evolve – given that they still stayed together – look like today? Now granted they wouldn't have the Liturgical Calendar, but in order to stay first century and seeker friendly they would have to evolve. Obviously the modern music and latte's are there to make people feel comfortable and relate to the masses, but they would still have to maintain a value system that defined who they are – some kind of dogmatic foundation. Especially, if like most of them, they continue to grow so substantially. So let's just say that instead of splintering over and over again, they looked at something along the lines of a consistent dogmatic foundation that would allow many of these churches to act in concert and benefit from each other. Now I want to get crazy here, but doesn’t that just look a little like a modern day Council of Nicaea?

Now as this new collective faith evolved it might face big challenges throughout its existence both from the inside and from without. It might even oversee periods in its history where it enjoyed widespread prosperity and social oversight, paralleled by periods in history of retraction and social contempt. But it would be my hope that no matter what challenges it faced it stayed true to God and the message of Jesus Christ. Then I thought, you know, it would probably look a lot like today's Catholic Church.

It was at this point then that I decided to really understand the aspects of the Catholic Faith and how I would discern those things relevant to my own relationship with Jesus Christ. What follows are what I thought to be thoughts of relevance.

Saints. Obviously not the football team. Prior to my interest in Catholicism, I would have ranked them way below that Chinese Domino Tournament in areas of interest. I have had people outside the Church ask me several times what Saint I pray too? See if I’m Catholic, I guess I must pray to Saints, name my kids after them, or must keep one as a pet. I honestly don’t believe I remember the RCIA session where they offered up Saints as an alternative to Christ?
But I will say, is that in any organization that has existed for 2000 years you will likely have had some people in its history of note that stood out for their accomplishments. Call them, oh I don’t know, employees of the month if you don’t like the word Saints. Furthermore, in an organization focused on doing the work of God on earth one might even suspect these people have a connection to God worth remembering.
Now there is also something called an intercession in the Church, in which you ask for a saint to intercede on your behalf. Of course some have told me these are prayers of a different name. Well no, but think what you like. You also have people around the world who honor the burial sights of Saints as Holy places and take great pride in the Saint that brought God’s glory to where they live. Everyone will come to their own opinions on these things and frankly I found the subject without influence in my decision making process.

What I did find interesting was the parallel a Catholic’s relationship to a Saint is with the relationship I have with my father. No, Dad isn’t a Saint, nor would he ever admit to be one. But he is a hero and a friend to me. He always did what was right for my brother and I and he looked out for us every day of our lives. Dad died 1 year before my son was born. I have told many close to me that I believe Dad felt it was time to go so that when he got to heaven he could help pick out the two most wonderful children the Lord had in the lot.
Now I still believe that, although now I believe it's because he wanted to make sure we would get ones that would pay us back for all the crap he took from me. Regardless, I still talk to my Dad to this day. I ask him for help. I visit his grave. I show him what I am proud of and thank him for his influence to my life. I see his spirit even now affecting my involvement with the world I inhabit. I feel his imprint on this life overall and recognize his value when I see that happen. I would feel lost if I never had the benefit of his life on mine. My father is my Saint, and I would deny no man or woman a similar relationship with theirs.

Surrender. This was probably the biggest obstacle in becoming Catholic for me. It is arguably what defines a Protestant in their faith. This was my rationale for why Catholics were not real Christians. Surrender was what tied for me Protestantism's position on justification as Paul articulates it in Romans 3:21-26.

Why is this so important? The act of Surrendering to God is the moment in which you accept Christ as your Lord and Savior. Some Church's call this experience being "born again" and others call it being "saved." This is a very powerful and compelling moment in someone's faith experience. The best way I can describe this for someone who has never experienced it before is that you actually feel such pain in your heart, body, and mind that it is as if you have traveled through space and time to Calvary and become the criminal hanging on the cross next to Jesus. You become completely convicted of your sins and take ownership of them; you plead Christ's innocence as your only available response, and you beg Him to remember you in heaven. One feels so touched by the grace of God that they feel freed of their sins and pledged into living for God. You carry this experience with you and share it with others in what is called "witnessing."
A simplistic example of witnessing: Many know I had a bad mountain biking accident last year and I will share with anyone the need for wearing a helmet when you ride because mine saved my life.

Needless to say this experience changes your life. It's why you see so many hand waving Protestants in highly emotional church services because they are re-experiencing that moment. It's why some Protestants bring there Bible's to church with them, because they are excited to be there. It's why Protestants look at Catholics and think, "Why don't they get excited about going to Church. I mean come on; let's raise the roof in this place." It's why people change their life direction, careers, and social dynamic. I mean lets face it; if you have been hit by lightning, there is life before that day and life after that day for the rest of your life.

So how did I come to terms with that? Well, a lot of it came down to understanding what was happening in the Mass. Part of it was sharing experiences with those in my RCIA class. Part of it was observing and talking with Catholics who had actually experienced surrender themselves and understanding how they processed that experience as Catholics. Finally, part of it was how I felt I was being affected by my own surrender and how I saw it affecting people I know in protestant congregations.

I would first like to say how comforting it was to find out that Catholics experienced surrender. Now how Catholic's processes surrender is directly tied to the consistent presence of the Church in their lives. For a protestant, or an "un-churched" person, this is a very individual experience. You have a sense of what 40 days in the desert is like because you feel as though you went through that on the way to being broken.
But most Catholics grow up in the church and the presence of God surrounds them their whole lives. That presence is highly strengthened and reinforced through the cultural continuity of Catholicism over 2000 years, the family aspects of the Liturgical Calendar, and the corporate aspects of Catholicism as a faith. For a Catholic it's not so much about discovering that God is real to them, it's more about discovering how real their faith & lifestyle are for them. What I discovered is that this is just as real as any protestant experience, the difference is that it happens within the context of the Church that has existed since Peter told Christ yes 3 times.

Now again, I will tread lightly here. But another factor that helped my overcoming this obstacle was my concern that my own surrender, as that of some people I know well, has become too much of a crutch and a drug. There is a euphoria associated with surrender that is overwhelming, and by making it apart of you one can turn it into a narcotic. You want to live in that moment forever, and witnessing positions you with some pretty heartfelt attention. Adults can become like children in a classroom who after discovering the praise of answering a question correctly, want to answer all the questions after that. I actually know a man who left my men's group because he no longer had the most dynamic conversion story. Someone else came in who trumped his ace and he left because the shift in attention was too disappointing for him. I have seen other situations where people didn't feel respected for all they had been through, I have seen others that cling to folks because they become addicted to the tragedy stories, and I have seen others who scorecard people based on how real of an experience they had.

Without totally throwing the baby out with the bathwater here, let me first say that there are many "healthy" people in protestant churches that handle these things very well and I in no way am passing judgment on their experience at all. These people turn into very constructive members of the church and go on to serve God in valued roles in there respected churches. In fact, I have had a surrender experience which I hold near and dear to my heart. But I do think that such behavior is at the root of people wandering off into center field and never reaching third base. I think it is also at the root of why many focus so highly on who the pastor is. I also believe these feelings lie at the core of why church's splinter.

So in the end for me, I wanted to get off second base myself. I am well liked by many in my men's group and have been considered a valued part of any Bible study group I have ever participated in for my insight and passion for the Bible. But I want to do something (my wife is rubbing off on me). So seeing the temptation that exists for vanity in others and the desire to be in an environment that favors service as worship attracted me to the the Catholic Church.

The Pope.
Who? Honestly, not someone you think a lot about in this process, strange as they may sound. I can say up front that I am more at ease about the Pope than I am about being a Notre Dame Football fan if that matters. The Pope at least tries to earn my respect.

Now I have been to the Vatican, and loved that experience. Michelle and I went there as part of a tour of Italy for our honeymoon. It was a tremendous experience for me. Our trip came just a few months after my father past away. It was an overwhelming feeling to stand in the middle of St. Peter's and appreciate the unmistakable message of the artwork. Victory over death was what it said to me, and thoughts of my father rushed over me. I went to one of the alcove Chapels to kneel, pray, cry. At the top of the Cathedral we met a woman from Sao Paulo, Brazil who had saved her whole life for her trip there. She had us take her picture in front of various things. What I remember most of this woman was how she appeared to now feel complete having come to Rome. She repeatedly cried with joy and kissed various parts of the building. My experience at the Vatican was really the first time my thoughts on Catholicism began to open up. Between my own emotions and that of the Brazilian woman, I could at least respect the tremendous gifts the Catholic Church could offer to people's lives.

I had someone asked me if I was comfortable being associated with a church that has someone at its head who claims his only job is to be a conduit for God. I really wasn't sure if he was asking about the Pope or Billy Graham. I say that with humor and respect both men, but it's important to understand the Pope is tasked with being the caretaker of the Church. The Pope isn't supposed to be its charismatic leader. Despite some Pope's that have been criticized as self-agenda driven, the role of the Pope is very selfless in nature. The popular press likes to affiliate the Pope with other World leaders, and I really haven't seen that as being as true to form. Popes have been political leaders in the past. At times in world history they were one and the same, however like the Church of today, much of that has changed for the good.

Given all that has happened over the Church's history, how can the Papacy still claim to be an ordination of God? Good question and one I asked myself many times. Well, one thing you notice almost right away in a transition to Catholicism from an active Protestant background is the tremendous influence of the Old Testament. Interrelated doesn't quite cover it when you realize how strong of a patchwork quilt the Catholic Church has made in interlinking the Old and New Testaments. Personally, I have found this very fascinating as a Bible reader, and also extremely relevant to any trust in the Pope as a figure head of the Church. Throughout the Old Testament God dealt with human intermediaries. Arguably many of these were very imperfect men whose faults provided as much leadership as their skills did. When the Lord sent His son to earth to form a New Covenant relationship many believed this all changed. Many Protestant denominations see Peter as being a universal figure in nature who is the "Godfather," if you will, of all Church leadership as it would exist today. The fact is that Protestantism could not legitimately exist if that was not their position. That is not good or bad, it just is. Their situation is completely illogical otherwise.

The Catholic Church's position, as I have come to understand it, ties directly to Jesus' talk to Peter and the Commission he received. Peter is the ordination of Christ's Church on earth which began an unbroken line since the time of Christ. Jesus asked Peter to look after His Church on earth and the role of the Pope is to insure the Church fulfills its entrusted mission.

Personally, I don't care if the line ever broke; and the God I read about in the Old Testament tells me He will color outside the lines whenever He wants. I think this is especially true if the line disappoints Him and doesn't fulfill its purpose. I also think that men like Luther were active agents of God in moving the Church in directions it needed to go when it needed to be moved. Such men existed outside the line of decendency in the Old Testament, and they will likely exist until the Son of man returns.

Furthermore, it's worth mentioning that the road to the Papacy is filled with some pretty sharp drop offs. If you are truly unworthy, that has a tendency of making itself known. The higher you are up, the higher you fall down. You see this in Protestant Churches as well. I personally don't see a huge difference between the two. Both sides of the faith aisle are filled with scandal. Whether you are talking money, sex, or power, all are abuses of position and failings of man. Corporate style faith is probably even more likely, by its design, to temp men to sin. Something tells me that God already knew that though when he forgave Peter.

What I do know is God commissioned Peter and the other disciples. I can read about these things in the Gospels and the Book of Acts. I also believe in the value of the Catholic Church as I have aforementioned described and the Pope is part of the package. I also know that Christ didn't give up on Peter despite his failings, just as God didn't up on the line of David in the Old Testament despite their failings. A lot can happen in 2000 years both good and bad. I have faith in Christ and His Church. Maybe, just Maybe, I should have faith in the caretaker as well. I'm sure if the Pope screws up, the Lord will find a way to fix it.

Mary. Now my Mother would love Mary if Mom were Catholic. Being as my mother isn't Catholic, something tells me she might find that statement frightening. But my mother will be the first to tell you that Mom's, as a group, need more respect in this world.

The Catholic Church loves Mary, the blessed virgin. In fact, I know some Catholic men that love Mary more than they do there own mother's and wives. I have heard her described as soul sister, beauty in a blue dress, and the Mom of Ages. Most Protestants would jump faster than a startled cat at some of the comments I have heard about Mary and consider the whole Mary thing something out of Pagan history.

Going back to my Mother's lost appreciation of Mary; what Mary most symbolizes to me is the importance of family in the Catholic Church. Most devout Catholics can tell you every cousin Jesus ever had on this earth. It's my big fat Catholic Wedding all over again, but the bride is the Universal Church, and they are all about including the groom's family. Now about the only time a Protestant pays attention to this is the weekend after thanksgiving when they are setting up the manger scene outside under the oak tree.

As a side note that is worth mentioning here is that this whole dynamic has come to explain for me a weirdness that has always existed between my mother and my in-laws. My Catholic in-laws try and include my mother in on everything and it kind of weird's my mom out sometimes. Not that my Mother still wouldn't feel somewhat weird; but if she were Catholic and understood the Mary thing she would probably not find it as strange.

Anyway, do Catholics pray to Mary? No, but they do ask for intercessions. (See my comments on Saints.) Why would you ask for an intercession when you could just pray to Christ? My response to that and what I think you would hear most Catholics say: Fine – pray to Christ and stop bothering me. Use that as you may, there is no Saint requirement in Catholic rulebook.

Understand Saints are just people who had tremendous experiences of faith and are recognized as being close to God. Furthermore, an intercession is pretty much just asking a dead person to pray for you. (I know…a what?) But if you think about it that is really what it is, and if you are looking at understanding the Communion of Saints try and think of it in that way too. And why is that so bad? If you have someone who has mentored your life, given you insights into your faith, and in whom you have trust is in heaven with the Lord; why wouldn’t you want that person to pray for you? I mean, if they were alive you would want them to pray for you. So what is it about them being dead that is so troubling? Do people in heaven not pray? Why wouldn’t they?

Now others I know have verbalized concerns about iconic imagery. “Those Catholics pray to statues of Mary.” Though I find much of it gaudy and straight out of 1970’s interior design, I can’t say that iconic imagery bothers me. I think we have covered the intercession base. So understand that these people of influence have no physical form on this earth. Therefore wouldn’t you naturally use art as a substitute? Finally, as someone who has been to the Vatican, I can tell you that much of early Christian communication was done through art. After all, many couldn’t read and within the Roman Empire not everyone spoke the same language if they could read. So art (and statues) became the cornerstone of communication within the early church.

All in all what I will say is this: There is no other experience that has brought me closer to understanding how to interpret what God wants of me than being a parent. It is mind boggling how quickly you progress down that learning curve. And my children remind me everyday how I need to be more considerate of my mother and honor my memory of my father. So maybe, just maybe, an understanding of the woman God chose to be the Mother of His son on earth might possibly be able to assist me, in some way, with getting through this life. It's just a thought I am working with; haven't gotten crazy with it yet.

Reconciliation. One of the first conversations I was blessed to engage in at an RCIA session was on reconciliation (aka Confession). I actually joined the group right after the first phase, which was about accepting a belief in Christ. Father was pretty well convinced from my comments in his office that I passed that part upon his inspection. So I entered right as they were beginning their discussions of the disciplines of faith, and reconciliation was first on the list.

I was proud to share with this group my understanding of reconciliation in Catholicism was similar to when my 6 year tells me he’s sorry for taking his sister’s toy and I tell him not to do it again. This got quiet a laugh in the group and gave our facilitator a great transition point into the common misconception of reconciliation. But confession was always part of my disrespect of Catholicism as a practice. I mean, we Protestant Christians owned up to our sins and made them a part of who we were. We carried them like scars on our bodies as part of surrendering to Christ. I also ran weary of confession due to what I considered to be its overt hypocrisy; hence my joke. See, my Grandfather on my mother’s side had left the Catholic Church at an early age for just that reason. A devout Pentecostal, Grandpa couldn’t see the benefit of attending a Church where, in his words, "people sinned again right after asking for forgiveness."

I learned several things about reconciliation: Its a discipline created by the Church, it has evolved in function over the life of the Church, can take place in a variety of different forms, and is recommended to be done at least once a year. Furthermore, reconciliation is not about the Church, it's about you as a member of the body of Christ.

What I wanted to get resolved first was the hypocrisy issue. What I found most shocking is that Priest’s don’t have to grant you absolution. Part of their responsibility is to help you discern your understanding of your sin. The sacrament of reconciliation begins in the heart and has to be sincere. Now I am sure that some version of hypocrisy still exists in the sacrament, as in all things that involving the nature of man. But if my Grandfather was alive today and I was discussing this with him, I could look at him with a clear conscience and say that what I have come to know as reconciliation is not the confession of his day or his parish. Now I don’t know the specific circumstances by which Grandfather formed his opinion, or how what did bother him was relevant to other factors in his life, but what I do know is that the majority of parishioners that I have met in the Kansas City community take their faith seriously enough not to be flippant with the sacrament. Most Catholics I know have given me the impression that there is a direct relationship between a person’s sincerity in their faith and their practice of the sacrament of reconciliation. So basically, the cheaters don’t even bother.

How did reconciliation come about? Turns out it dates back to that whole Rome vs. the Christians thing. Rome made many a Christian fearful for their life and so had to choose between Caesar and Jesus. So those that broke under the fear of death were given Reconciliation as a means of re-entering the faith. Over the years the sacrament went from being offered once in someone’s life, to once a year, to twice a year, and it was a group of Irish priests that facilitated its practice as often as was needed in someone’s life. Its purpose has always been about serving the individual’s needs. The Church has, at times, made huge mistakes with reconciliation. Most of these relate to the relationship it has with Indulgences – enter the dark ages and later Martin Luther with the Reformation.

Why do I have to confess to a priest? Well, turns out you don’t confess to a priest. You confess to God. How this was best explained to me was in terms of the Community of faith as the body of Christ. Thomas Aquinas also helped me with his definition of sin. To Thomas Aquinas evil does not exist. Evil is the absence of good. With good as the adjective of all God’s creations, evil exists when good is removed from an object. Ergo, sin is created when we become separated from God. As a community that comprises the body of Christ, when we sin we become disconnected. Reconciliation is the process by which we become reconnected. At one time reconciliation was performed publicly in front of the whole congregation. Over time it became understood that the sacrament did more good on a one-on-one basis. So the priest became essentially the chosen delegate of the community to hear the members confess. As that delegate, he also bore the responsibility as God’s agent to assist the confessor in the reconciliation process.

From my own personal experience with the Sacrament of Reconciliation I could tell you that it was like the Priest was there and not there at the same time. I have unfortunately can offer no other analogy than this, but the Priest reminded me of when you help someone throw up. If you have ever been it that situation you know what I mean by that. The Priest is the person who rubs someone's back with one hand to help them keep calm and then squeezes their stomach with the other when they are vomiting to try and push everything out in as few tries as it takes. Father was very calming when I first sat down and then when I began to talk his face became completely blank, offering only two eyes to make contact with as I laid out my sins. His comments following my confession were amazingly insightful, calm, authoritative, and most importantly – focused on healing and how to recognize the power of God's grace in my life. What's weird is that when I was done I felt like I had thrown up. I was exhausted, numb, and just wanted to go to bed.

To really challenge you if you are stuck on Catholicism's use of a priest, I would mention the fact that you don't have to be Catholic to go to confession? So how can that be a requirement of Catholicism if it's a sacrament that is open to anyone who has been baptized? It is there for those who need it.

Now, if all of this is too deep for you, and you know what a life group is – think about this idea. Most confession is not like in the movies or on TV with you and the priest getting in the little clubhouse and are talking through a screen. Most confession is down in open conversation and can take place anywhere. Again, its role is fulfilling the need of an individual to reconnect to God. This comes about because we are human and stumble through life. So I would ask, "How are we most successful when we make a mistake?" When we have someone near us to help us get up and get back on track. Is that not why people join Life Groups? They fulfill that ongoing function in your life.

But why confess at all? What was it that the Church was trying to help us to do? Well, what I really think is funny is that the logic of Reconciliation is highly parallel to the Calvinistic argument behind adult baptism. Calvinist churches (i.e. Baptists), believe that baptism is a decision that only an adult can make. That the free will that God gives us has to be applied with fully developed faculties to make the decision to become a Christian. Then and only then can we experience the Grace of God. In a Catholic’s world, Reconciliation is also adult baptism. If baptism connects us with the body of Christ and sin separates us. The way that a person who has already been baptized (at whatever age), reconnects to the body of Christ is through the sacrament of reconciliation. So what I think is really funny is that the Catholic and Baptist Churches (who normally tend not to agree on a whole lot) actually have the same idea and recognize the same need, but they service that need in two different ways.

I experienced reconciliation right before becoming Catholic. As a baptized member of the Elect, it was highly encouraged, but not required, that I do this. Logically, it made all kinds of sense to me. In fact, I don’t know why Reconciliation is only a Catholic thing? Mark Batterson, in Wild Goose Chase makes a similar point. Batterson encourages it amongst his Independent Congregation members. I would think that this might help with the whole “inverted Christianity” concept as well.

Furthermore, doesn't Christ call us to reconciliation? In Christ's masterful sermon commonly referred to as the Beatitudes, Jesus proclaims in Mathew 5:4 "blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted." I had always interpreted this as mourning the loss from death of an individual; a loved one, family member, or friend. But it was John Stott, an English Theologian and author, who helped me see that mourning is not the sorrow of bereavement that Christ refers, but rather the sorrow of repentance. Jesus is promising comfort to those who mourn the loss of their innocence, their righteousness, and their self-respect. More simply put, He promises relief to those who carry the burden of guilt for their actions. He promises comfort to those in need who have been separated from God.

Prayer. Prayer is something that I truly love and strive to commit time daily for prayer. My biggest concern with Catholicism and Prayer is what I saw as empty prayers said over and over again without meaning. Prayers to me must come from the heart. I am also one of those people that see real logic in the argument that when Christ gave us the Lord's Prayer He wasn't giving us a script; he was giving us an outline. The crux of the position is that when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, they were asking for an alternative to scripted prayer. That they had seen Him open his heart in prayer and want to learn how to do that. (This also is a rationale as to the differences between the two versions of the prayer in Mathew and Luke.) So Christ gave them an outline to use in prayer to guide them in this way:

I. "Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven."

Begin your prayers by offering glory to God.

II. "Give us this day our daily bread."

Next give thanks for what the Lord has provided to you.

III. "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Next ask for forgiveness of your sins and pray for those whom have sinned against you.

IV. "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."

Now is the time to ask for something of need in your life; whether it be strength, wisdom, or comfort.

V. "For thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory, now and forever. Amen."

End with a reiteration of offering Glory to God.

The first thing I learned about prayer in the Catholic Church is that right behind that missing Chapter in the rule book about Saints is the missing Chapter on Prayer. There are no rules – do whatever you like, it's about a personal relationship with God. The next thing I learned about Prayer in the Catholic Church is that a lot has happened over the last 2000 years. Over 2000 years we have passed through times in which not every spoke the same language, we have passed through times in which the populace at large could not read, and best of all – in the last 2000 years we have had some people write some pretty good prayers that were worth remembering.

So okay, I get it; at times in the past scripted prayer add value and I can pray however I want. However, how do I use those guide posts within a Catholic faith life and my love of more open hearted prayer to find my ground to build on? I mean, Mass is still repeated nearly word for word daily, the Lord's Prayer is repeated uniformly in Mass, and Hail Mary's only seem to only have weight by the pound.

Well, I kind of started backwards. I asked myself what it would mean if I just cut out scripted prayer altogether. Well Mass taught me that I would probably have to throw out the entire book of Psalms from the Bible, which I didn't want to do. I still believe that Christ was giving us a living mode of prayer as much as he was a prayer to know with the Lord's Prayer. But there is also something special about the Lord's Prayer in Mass: The whole Parish holds hands and says it in unison. Now as much as I know that is not unique to Catholicism, I still find it a very powerful experience in which I feel very connected to my community of faith and to Christ all at once – Kind of like the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Also, if I was going to give up the Psalms I would have to pass on Christian music because aren't those the same thing? You can be in prayer through song. So that is how I found my common ground: Scripted prayer allows me to unify in faith with others and open hearted prayer allows me to share my heart with God.

So then I bought a book of Catholic Prayer to become "in the know" when I am hanging out with cradle Catholics like my wife who had these prayers stenciled on their brain at the age of six. But I discovered something really neat when I read through it – there are some really good prayers in there. Kind of like "Footprints," a favorite of mine that I like to read and think about sometimes, there were some prayers in there I wanted to read over and over again. I also discovered prayers for stuff I would rarely pray about because I didn't know what to say. So maybe I could use those prayers for that stuff that is on my heart but can't find its way to my tongue.

That's finally when I remembered a book I really loved, Invitation to a Journey, by M. Robert Mulholland Jr. Rev. Mulholland is a Methodist Minister for a Church in North Carolina. In his book he helps people discover how to relate to God. He takes classic psychological learning systems and applies them to faith disciplines. In doing this he also makes the point that everyone relates to God in their own way, there is no single method of uniform success; and that when you focus too much on "the right way" as to how everyone should be doing it you actually distance yourself from God. So with that thought, I just relaxed about the whole thing and stopped worrying about it.

What is funny is that near the end of RCIA I found out something very ironic. The Catholic Church has been concerned that chanted (repetitive) prayer could become lifeless since the end of the fifteenth century. Shamefully, like so many other things in this life, I didn't think of it first. Also of surprise was that the Church was proactive about it. They knew that chanted prayer had become a mainstay of Catholic life by that time, especially after the Hail Mary was used as a unifying prayer of all Europeans to fend off an invading Turk army; so they enhanced it to keep it of the heart. The Church developed the practice of meditating on the Mysteries of Christ's life (15 stages) while in the midst of repetitive chanted prayer. I can't say as I would necessarily prefer this method to open hearted prayer, but I at least credit to the Church for having their "heart" in the right place.

Then I also found out something even more interesting; Catholics view the Lord's Prayer as an outline of the Gospels. So maybe I wasn't all that far away from Catholic dogma anyway. Now think about that for the idea of everything being interrelated too. Christ taught us to pray in a manner pleasing to God that is a reflection of the Gospels, which are the story of His life, which is the fulfillment of the creation of God's new covenant, and which is the fulfillment of scripture since the being of time. Hmm??

Oh and Hail Mary's – if you are someone like I was that thought these were not Biblically based. I suggest you read the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, versus 26-38. The Hail Mary is actually a summary of these versus of the Bible. So it's a Catholic version of a "Life Verse" really. It is also a devotional prayer (not a liturgical one) that is the combination of a salutation and a petition. The petition portion was actually added by the people of Ephesus in what has to be the greatest act of wholesale chivalry known to history. What I find most intriguing about the petition ("pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death") however, and the fact that the Hail Mary is most cherished by the poorest of Catholic nations around the world, is how it reminds me of my Dad's favorite hymn: Amazing Grace. If Amazing Grace was listed on the program for that Sunday at our church growing up you might as well just go ahead and get a Kleenex because Dad was going to loose it. See, both the hymn and the prayer cry out for those most broken and fractured by this world; to which Dad always felt kinship with.

Rosary. I should admit at the beginning of this section that I have really embraced the Rosary. I carry one in my pocket every where I go. Though it was designed for chanted prayer, many people use the Rosary for a variety of different things. (Again - another missing chapter from the Catholic rule book.) I use the Rosary as a constant reminder to think of others before myself. Each Rosary is set up so that one circuit is 50 prayers. So when I pray with it I use it to pray for 50 different people. Try it sometime – it's hard. I have hundreds of clients, hundreds of friends, and thousands of acquaintances both in KC and around the globe and it can be hard to think of 50 people to pray for. But you know what? I am always glad I did. It's like prayer exercise; tough to get started but once you get going you are glad you have formed the habit.

Now please understand no one told me to go get a Rosary. Having one is part of that missing chapter in the Catholic rulebook. There was no section on the Rosary even in RCIA. Catholics don't wear them like Boy Scout badges on their clothes or trade them like baseball cards. I was simply given one by a dear friend. A youth center that services disadvantaged children made them. She bought one for me there and gave it to me as a gift for deciding to become Catholic along with a book on the life of Mary. I love the thing. It's simple, dynamic, and wrapped in love. What more of a tool could one want to use as a way to think of others daily?

Community of Faith. I have talked a lot about this in my journal and thought it deserved its own discussion. So really, what does it mean? At times in my life I thought this was a euphemism for "members only," or "just the rich kids, please." Growing up in Quincy I was lead to believe at a young age by many that this was true. Then in Jr. High and High School I went to work with a lot of these kids and realized that if they were rich they were hiding it better than I ever could. But this holds true in Johnson County, KS today as well. In fact the wealthiest zip code in the county (and there are several to choose from believe me) has, at its epicenter, Holy Trinity Catholic Church and School. Not to mention the Missouri side of Kansas City, that touts very prestigious (and expensive) Catholic Schools for all ages. Therefore you naturally have a cross over with the Country Club crowd and Catholic Churches in this area.

But is that the Catholic Church or is it Geography? If you know anything about the Jesuits (the education arm of the Catholic Church), you would learn quickly that all that money came from the guts to enter difficult areas and educate kids in need. The financial successes of today are really the result of much hard work and quality education that was done generations ago by those with no money. The challenges to those Catholics are more about continuing to infuse good values and an appreciation for prior efforts into the students of today. These efforts come with successes and failures of their own. But nonetheless, we should be careful about judging people for doing God's work successfully.

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But enough about money, what is the Community of faith really? It is the body of Christ. But what does that mean? Are Catholics the only real Christians? (Dear Lord, what a thought.) Though I am sure there are fundamentalists in every faith including Catholicism – as I was as a protestant - absolutely not. I believe Christ taught that lesson to the Jews in Luke 4: 24-30:

Jesus said to the people in the synagogue at Nazareth:"Amen, I say to you,no prophet is accepted in his own native place.Indeed, I tell you, there were many widows in Israelin the days of Elijahwhen the sky was closed for three and a half yearsand a severe famine spread over the entire land.It was to none of these that Elijah was sent,but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon.Again, there were many lepers in Israelduring the time of Elisha the prophet;yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian."When the people in the synagogue heard this,they were all filled with fury.They rose up, drove him out of the town,and led him to the brow of the hillon which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong.But he passed through the midst of them and went away.

So then, how do Catholics capture this concept of the body of Christ and a community of faith as their own? Well the word Catholic means "universal" and refers to a single, visible communion, separate from others. But in fact, most Catholics, and the Church of today, doesn't claim exclusivity. They do however; take great pride in being the origination of Christ's Church within the new covenant relationship. Most Catholics that I have met look at the Reformation as a political disagreement between a good man and a leadership structure that measured itself by how well it could align its nasal cavity with its rectal cavity. But as unfortunate – and necessary - of a situation that the Reformation was, it still shouldn't, and doesn't, change how everyday Catholics experience God. After all, it's about a personal relationship with God isn't it?

I almost died when I heard that for the first time in RCIA – I thought only Protestants believed in a personal relationship with God. After all, wasn't that why Luther did his thing in the first place? Surprisingly however, and I mean it was a HUGE surprise to me, the Catholic Church is all about fostering a personal relationship with God. But how can a community focus be about a personal relationship? Well, people need a place to connect and the Church simply fulfills that role as the facilitator of relationships to God through community building. Wow, sounds kind of Protestant like? So maybe I should remember again that Jesus forgave Peter three times for not having his head on straight. I think it is safe to say the Lord new the likelihood of it happening again was not outside the realm of possibility. But yet, he still forgave Peter.

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So let's merge these two topics together to get to a very significant aspect of the Community of Faith. Because there is a social aspect of Catholicism which is what brings it into the fold of corporate faiths. Its things like Catholic Schools, Catholic Community Centers, Catholic retirement homes, Catholic Charities, Catholic Hospitals, Catholic Universities, Catholic Television, Catholic Radio, Catholic Book Stores, and so on, and so on. What is so special about Catholicism, or Judaism, or any ism that means they have to all operate in there own little bubble? Well the answer, not surprisingly, is nothing.

But why does any church have an outreach program? Yes outreach, I am sure people forget that sometimes, but that is really what we are talking about here. The church we had been attending sponsors an Easter egg hunt annually at the Kansas Speedway which usually brings together about 20,000 children and Lord knows how much chocolate. You want to talk about ditching the Liturgical Calendar; a church sponsored Easter egg hunt has to be up there with as bold as you can get. My wife and son were the only two in our family that ever attended, but if I had to guess it was much more fun to Jackson that a three hour Easter Vigil. But this was part of their outreach program to the community. All churches have some sort of outreach program. Outreach rarely if ever discriminates and sometimes even becomes multi-denominational to make certain things happen for God. So let's go back to the concepts of longevity and success for the Lord. Because the way I see it, that is what we are talking about here. You have an organization that has taken outreach in many directions over time based on the different needs of the communities and generations it was a part of, it has been successful, and it has molded these "programs" into roles that serve the changing needs of the world they are in now.

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Now at the same time, yes, the Church does facilitate a lifestyle by which you can surround yourself with all things Catholic, and people do. There are tight knit relationships and bonds formed over years of networking and mutual personal development opportunities that transcend other typical community social networks. And they build on one another too, and last throughout someone's life.

So in the end of this process do I feel like I joined a club? Well kind of - yeah. I joined a club of Christian believers who want to mutually support one another in a life of faith and community with Jesus Christ, a club of people around the world that join together in prayer daily, and a club that was commission by Christ to be a lamp post for those progressing along their faith path. But do I feel a social shift as well – also yes. Catholics make it a point to embrace one another in a way I have not seen with anything else I have ever been a part of. It is on par to having kids and meeting other couples with kids the same ages as your own. People openly reach out to you to welcome you into "the family" and then treat you like you have been there your whole life. You have instant trust, rapport, and connection to many. But why do I see that this happens? I believe it is because Catholicism is a daily choice. I find it very similar to having become an Eagle Scout. At my award ceremony a Scoutmaster stood at the podium and talked about how I was now a marked man. As much as I would like, being an Eagle Scout is something that would follow me for good and bad the rest of my life. People would expect things of me because I was an Eagle Scout. From what I have experienced in the reactions I have faced from friends and acquaintances to my decision to convert, I see Catholicism as being very similar. There is a social transparency you now have in being a Christian that you can no longer hide. You are marked for all to see. So yes, fellow Catholics respond to that in ways of understanding each other that may appear cliquish to non-Catholics.

Scholars. For those die hard Protestants out there wandering around center field avoiding third base, I thought you might want to know that in the last 2000 years the works of Catholic scholars could fill several libraries, and do. This was very much of an I-could-a-had-a V-8 moment for me. Now I love many great modern authors who focus on faith, but I just thought it would be worth mentioning that books on faith in the Catholic Church have been round for awhile. Oh, and for us X-Files fans out there, these books aren’t kept in a secret vault somewhere in the Vatican sub-basement for only Bishops to read. We can find them in places called “Catholic Book Stores” and on the internet.

Subtleties. On a final lighter note, I thought I might mention some of those subtleties I found interesting in day to day observation:

For those of you out there that know what a life group is, let me tell you – a parish is a 2000 year old life group (no kidding, the similarities are amazing).

A priest is a minister that realized sometime in the last 2000 years that he is not the reason people attend this particular church. And yes, most priests are 2000 years old by the way – or at least act like they feel that old. Well, most of the ones I have met anyway.

Parishioners – not a whole lot different than a congregation really. You have the same ensemble of personalities that make up both groups.

Weekly Bible study – is done in the Mass – you cover it in two years daily and six years weekly. They put in the Liturgy of the Word because they needed more help in the soup kitchens on Wednesday nights. J I was actually told by someone that Catholics don’t read the Bible? A third of the Mass is reading the Bible and the rest of it is an expression of scripture. My Catholic wife spits out Rain-man like responses on Biblical history due the zealous approach of her Catholic School religion teachers. So…yeah, I’m just missing that one. Also Catholics do have what is called "breaking open the word" (a.k.a. Bible Study) which is done in small groups that meet regularly.

Bringing a Bible to Church – No rule against it. They didn't kick me out for bringing mine. Mine was eventually replaced by a Missal however. Because a Mass is a faith discipline and not a worship service there is no program. The Missal is an outline of the Liturgy of the Word (Scripture Readings in Mass) for a given period of time – usually a year. So, you can look up the passages in advance and go to them during Mass in your Bible, or you can just turn to the date in your Missal and read the same thing. So yes, I am lazy too. Now if you're like me, and like being able to put the scripture being used in greater context to fully understand the sermon / homily don't fret. Understand that this is why Mass is best understood as a daily discipline. If you follow the Liturgy of the word daily you will already understand it within the greater context of the Bible because it's progressive in nature. Oh, and this is a great way to form the habit of reading the Bible every day – also something many Protestants think Catholics don't do.

Sunday school turned into School - At some point I guess the Church realized that if they didn’t have to worry about the adults running off and starting a new church, they could just focus on family development and so no longer had to keep worrying about planting seeds in their kids. So then they just decided to make “religion” a class in school. I am not sure really where I fall on this subject given my wife's experiences. But if the State of Kansas keeps cutting the education budget, I may explore it further.

Finally, after hundreds of years of celibacy and fasting priests invented beer. Today those that are married and overweight drink it all the time. :)

Marketing

Speaking of the Catholic Church's marketing department, it amazes me how the Church continues to let the obvious big picture get obscured through little details. I have firmly become of the opinion that the greatest failing of the church is the lack of leadership it offers in the larger Christian Community. There is much that the church could be doing in our social landscape and its not. There is much experience and generosity it could be sharing with other churches and its not. It needs to stop making its failures the only thing to talk about. The Church needs to stop leading with things like indulgences, and start talking more openly about the beauty of living in communion with Christ and in the grace of God.

So let me really illustrate this point with the aforementioned topic of transubstantiation. There is more to Catholicism than this, but let's work within the box. There is an army of atheists, Protestants, and disenfranchised Catholics out there waiting to autopsy the next parishioner walking out of the sacrament line to prove that the little wafer they just ate didn't turn into an ounce of Christ's flesh. And God bless the Catholic Church, they deal with this situation by arguing with people on this subject at that level.

But can we focus on the big picture here for just a minute – everyone? Those want-a-be morticians are like the audience of a very skilled Las Vegas magician; one's attention is on the left hand and diverted away from the right hand where the real "magic" is taking place. Transubstantiation is a change is substance, not in form. Ask yourself this: Why does the substance need to change? Why is this important at all? Because it creates a change in us. The "magic" of the Sacrament of the Eucharist occurs in the person digesting it. Stop worrying about the wafer. If you want to autopsy someone you need to be looking in their heart when you cut them open and not their stomach because that is where the change occurs. It occurs because we bring the body and blood of Christ into our physical being becoming one in the body of Christ. It is a spiritual connection to Christ through a physical experience, and is part of our covenant relationship with Him that He instituted.

Now for those of you out there that look at me after reading this like you always do, and insert the word “symbolically” after every point I make insisting nothing actually really happens. Well, I just can’t accept that. For me, something is happening. Something has always happened for me in whatever Church I attended, and not just with the Catholic Bread. So much so that this was another reason the rabbit came out of the hole for us. The church we were attending had only offered "communion" twice in two and a half years. I missed it, and regularly inquired about it.

So if I didn't accept transubstantiation as a real change for the reasons I just explained, then I would have to ask myself why my Baptism was so important to me. See – interrelated. The change in substance is in us brought about by a connection to a physical substance the Spirit inhabits for that change. (Ironically in things that support life: Bread, water, blood, and light.) God is passing into us (whether it is baptism, the Eucharist, or other) creating a change in us through the act of a physical connection. (Remember those that reached out and touched Christ's robe to be healed? It was those who had faith in Him.) So yes, as I have come to see it, God is physically present in the moment and we experience our connection to the body of Christ.

See if I was in the marketing department of the Catholic Church and trying to position transubstantiation for the masses I would be talking about the best place to sit in Mass to appreciate the experience. I mean if you want to get it, you got to know where to sit so you can take it all in. That seat, for me, would be the cockpit of the space shuttle with a pair of theater glasses as it orbits the earth. (I know….Ahh….what?) See, the Church does talk about the Mass as a unilateral event connecting Catholics around the globe in communion with Christ. Fantastic! So, I envision this holistic image of it all happening, and that it would be most easily appreciated from space – because you need to see the whole earth to take it all in. It would be kind of like looking at the largest crop circle ever. And what would it look like? My bet is that it would look a lot like the image that was left on the Shroud of Turin.

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Another good example of misguided approach to leadership is the situation the Church faces with the manning needs across the globe for Priests. Many within the Church community are taking it upon themselves to help the Church with this issue and God Bless them for that. One key suggestion I have heard a great deal about is in letting married men be priests. Now that is fine, I find nothing fundamentally wrong with that idea from a faith perspective. However, this is the strongest point of discussion on this issue and will do little, if anything, to solve the greater problem. As a man who has faced the discomfort of balancing a demanding career and being a parent I have what I believe to be some insight into this issue. The role of a Priest is more demanding than any I have ever had to deal with. I wouldn't want to look into the bright blue eyes of my kids and balance that guilt with the guilt of not serving God. Are you kidding me – its hard enough to do with clients and growing a business let alone throwing in the eternal salvation of everyone I meet.

In just looking at the Priesthood from a "job" perspective, imagine if you would the job application for Priest. There would have to be a box on there you must check in order to get the job and that would read something to the effect of, "Are you willing to travel 80-90% of the time." Because lets face it, being a Priest is no different than serving in the Military. Sure, let in married men into the priesthood – so what – but be prepared for them only wanting to serve 4-8 years of there life. And if turning the priesthood into a transient service environment like the military is a comfortable decision for the Church then fine let's do it. But let's fix our problem too.

The Church needs young men, 25-30 years old, who want to devote their life to the service of God and his community here on earth. Yes, that is easy to say and not easy to do. But it starts with leadership: Leadership in the Community, leadership in the parish, and positive involvement with young people. Priests should be role models in our community, and for lack of a better term they need to be re-branded that way. This is something we need to do for the next generation – ours is lost of this already; we need to do it for our kids and their kids. I heard a very arrogant Catholic say once, "Not everyone can be Catholic." Bullshit. Anyone can be Catholic – not anyone can be a Priest. It takes a special person to be a Priest. Are you that person? If you are, we need you.

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All in all I have come to see this poor marketing effort as a result of not knowing when to put the cart first and when to put the horse first; those two images representing the actions of the Church and actions of Jesus Christ.

To explain this thought I reference the Catechism on the Church's position on dogmas of the faith:

The dogmas of the faith
88
The Church's Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes, in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these.
89
There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith.50
90
The mutual connections between dogmas, and their coherence, can be found in the whole of the Revelation of the mystery of Christ.51 "In Catholic doctrine there exists an order or ‘hierarchy' of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith."52

I am in complete agreement with this position in the Catechism; I just believe is poorly applied in practice. The Church's role is to light the path of faith as the Catechism states. To many times in its history, the Church's blurs the line of lamp post with that of tour guide. A lamp post lights the way, it doesn't point the way. The Church shouldn't be positioning itself in a way so that the individual gets confused between those two ideas. Now I am not saying that the Church is too controlling. I am saying that church isn't clear – in its application of its dogmas – as to what's its overall role is. I mean you want to wonder why you can ask eight different Catholics why something is done a certain way and get ten different answers; that’s it.

Now granted they don't have to manage a sophisticated hierarchy, but many Protestant Churches have this down well. You want to understand the explosion of Calvinist philosophy in the U.S right now through the Independent Church movement - look no further, you found the answer. Independent Churches are really good about telling you what they are, and are not, when fulfilling a role in your life. They are really good about pointing out what is a Jesus thing and what is a Church thing. In support of a commonality with Catholicism, these Churches will tell you if you can only come to church only once a week to go to a Life Group and skip the worship service. So let's understand this: Anyone who has any marketing experience can tell you that if you want to be successful in marketing you must be able to successfully define yourself.

That last point is, in my opinion, how the Catholic Church can better manage through its challenges today. Improve on delineating between what is a Jesus thing and what is a Church thing. It needs to stop martyring itself as the messenger; let the message do its own work as it has done successfully for thousands of years. I believe the Church has always struggled with this because of section 89 of the Catechism; the organic connection between one's spiritual life and dogma's. This is the greatest strength of the Catholic Church and its greatest weakness. The Church needs to be a conduit for faith practice, not a conduit for faith. Because when the Catechism goes on to talk about the hierarchy of truths in section 90, the Church needs to remember this concept: Truths are not truths because they come through the Church; the Church's role is to talk about the truths that come from God.

So what is the easy answer? Don't talk about dogma – talk about Jesus – period. Be a light for Christ in the world, not an organization that sends out memos on policy changes. There is a point in sales when it is more important to shut up than to continuing to talk. Talk about Jesus and then shut up – the rest will all work itself out.

Forgiveness

My Brother asked me once why given all he had showed about how there really was no difference in becoming Catholic and returning to a church sourced out of the Luther arm of the Church's family tree – i.e.: Methodist – so why do I still wanted to become Catholic? My answer to him was forgiveness.

I have made such a fool out of myself for years letting feelings of animosity and anger over all things Catholic affect my life. I had given such power and control over my life to absolute nothingness. I let it stand in the way of relationships, opportunities, and even affected how I dealt with some people at work. I really was pathetic. Early on in my life when I found out that my family left for the new world because the church considered them heretics and wanted them killed (we were some of the earliest Protestants). That seed planted in me such poor feelings that I let any thing negative about Catholicism only reinforce my attitude.

I learned 15 years ago that God had a sense of humor when I met my wife. Being Catholic I felt she was safe to date because there would be no way I would marry someone who was Catholic, and at the time I met my wife finding the woman of my dreams was not a priority. I would get so hurt by her friends and family sometimes because they would ask me what religion I was. I would answer them Christian in response because I couldn't believe how insensitive they were being to my faith. Little did I realize many of them couldn't figure out where Michelle had met me? Then a weird thing happened; I fell in love. I will forever credit my wife with showing me what it means to love someone. Soon I was looking at everyday as a chance to earn her respect and trust. Then I realized one sunny day in Huntington, England, as I watched her leave on the afternoon train for London that I never wanted to be without her again.

So that meant that I would have to form a relationship with her parents, who were again - Catholic. Dear Lord why? And her aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, and grandparents – yes, yes, all Catholic. Even a cousin was a Priest. It was my Big Fat Catholic Quincy Wedding. Blah!

You want to know the most sickening part of it all. They all seemed to like me – freaks. Worst than that, they all treated me like I was born into the family? This I really appreciated, but truly couldn't get. I mean if Catholics had such feelings and could be so much fun, why was it that they insisted on boring God to death in church? Over the 15 years of my relationship with my wife I have come to appreciate how family and community are strongly linked to, and nurtured in, the Catholic life.

My in-laws truly are wonderful people and they have earned my respect and trust because they have never asked me to be anything other than myself. In fact, they even go out of their way to support those things that I find help me identify who I am as a person. Trying and weird as it was for them at times I am sure; I am another color in the rainbow they call family which all can enjoy. My differences, which is what I saw that separated me from them and their family, is what they saw that made me special and worth having in the family. And I never got the feeling that it was because they felt they just got lucky with someone they blended with. That is just how they engage with others. I guess when it came to love; my wife had some good teachers.

So converting to Catholicism has allowed me the joy of loving something I used to despise, and if you have never done that before I highly recommend it. It's mind blowing! Take something you said you would never do – like say, living in Kansas – and do it. You might just be surprised how much you like it and how it helps you grow as a person. Forgiveness has also allowed me to experience reconciliation in a powerful way. Because once you have success in forgiving something and / or someone it gets easier the next time. You then find it easier to forgive yourself for things. Then you become more accepting of others and find hope in dealing with the responsibilities God has given us caring for His creation. Before long, you completely open the door to trusting in God.

Reading as a road for adventure

As I indicated previously, I have been on a reading terror as part of the impact this has made on my life. I offer here below a list of what I have been able to digest in all, or in part, that has influenced me in my decision making process. I offer it to you for as my gift and hope it helps you the reader in any way:

The Beatitudes - Jesus Christ

The Book of James - Bible

The Gospel of Luke - Bible

The Gospel of Mark - Bible

The Gospel of John - Bible

Paul's Letter to the Philippians - St. Paul

Paul's Letter to the Thessalonians - St. Paul

Paul's Letter to the Romans - St. Paul

Paul's Letter to the Ephesians - St. Paul

"The Mystery of Faith, an Introduction to Catholicism" Michael Himes

"Rome Sweet Home" Scott & Kimberly Hahn

"Invitation to a Journey" M. Robert Mulholland Jr.

"Wild Goose Chase" Mark Batterson

"Why Catholics Do That?" Kevin Orlin Johson

"Understanding the Mass" Charles Belmonte

"Summa Theologica" Thomas Aquinas

"Thomas Aquinas for Armchair Theologians" Timothy Renick

"The Catechism of the Catholic Church" multiple

"Theology for Beginners" F. J. Sheed

"Prayers of Christian Consolation" multiple

"The Nooma Project" (DVD) Rob Bell

"Mere Christianity" C.S. Lewis

Catholic Magazine - Podcasts (I Tunes)

"On the Incarnation" St. Athanasius

"The Scandal of the Incarnation" Hans Urs von Bathasar
(Irenaeus Against the Heresies, Selected writings of St. Ignatius)

"Developing Spiritual Character" John Stott
(A study of the Beatitudes)

"Good to Great in God’s Eyes" Chip Ingram

The Catholic Channel - Sirius Satellite Radio

"Rosary Stars" (DVD) Family Theater

Ipadre.net - Podcasts (I Tunes)

United States Conference on Catholic Bishops' website http://www.usccb.org/

"A Purpose Driven Life" Rick Warren




Epilogue

I am glad to say first and foremost I think that this process has helped my marriage. Not that my marriage needed help, but there is definitely something to be said about being on the same faith page when you weren't before. If for no other reason that this is something you now have in common and so particular faith disciplines no longer seem so one-sided. Though I have to admit, it could just be because Michelle now has a husband that is just as excited about going to a fish fry – who knows?

But seriously, it has helped both of us. For me, I finally feel grounded. For Michelle, I think she really enjoys having me as a partner in the Church experience. I think that her faith was just something she didn't want to have to do alone. Now that she has me as a partner in this "Catholic Thing," she has started to become much more open than I have ever seen her in evolving our church life.

My relationship with my brother has improved with this decision as well. He and I have found an interesting connection point that we can grow closer with and I am thankful for that. I think Keith is also just glad to see us on the correct side of the worship river and not a part of a Calvinist Church. But I will leave Keith's opinions to Keith, I tend to get in trouble when I don't do that.

All in all, this has had a tremendous impact on my life. I think I have found something that fits me and my relationship with God. It has fulfilled my prayer requests for solidifying Christ as the center of our family. It has fulfilled my prayer request to find the time to pray more regularly and for more people. It has humbled me in a tremendous way and created opportunities to celebrate forgiveness. It has provided me with the triggers I need to be more available for Christ in my daily life and the actions I devote my time too. Furthermore, I have discovered what my own fundamental theological perspectives are, and those allow me to be a leader in my marriage and for my children.

Finally, I feel spiritually healthy for the first time in a long time. So long I really can't even remember. It reminds me a lot of basic training and how I felt when I left San Antonio, TX. I feel truly grounded in who I am. As someone who has lost 50 lbs three times in my life I know there is a difference between working towards a goal and living within and sustaining what you have worked for. You could say I feel 50 lbs lighter and feel more normal because of it. (Now if I could only loose that physical weight again.)

But this experience has been essentially the beginning of a new life in many ways. I know this will also affect many aspects of the faith life I had known from before. I touch on those under the following themes:

Ministry. One key component for me of Catholicism is activity and that is something I have already begun to embrace and look forward to continuing. Of course, people of all denominations are active in ministry all over the world, and I continue to welcome similar opportunities in my life as a Catholic. But one of the key differences I see between my life as a Protestant and my life as a Catholic could be called the Ministry of Daily Living.

Like all corporate faiths, Catholicism really shines in this way. Whether it be prayer, scripture, service, family, community, or neighborhood in nature; I have found Catholicism to offer a lifestyle based on the idea of an abundant life. Abundant life is not about rolling in money, physical goods, or constant buffet style eating. Abundant life is about a sense of fulfillment which comes out of doing your part in God's community; and that it doesn’t matter what your role in the community is – it just matters that you do your part in honor of God and do it to the best of your ability. Essentially you become Adam; caretaker of creation, gardener of Eden, and assume responsibility as your brother's keeper.

If you want to know why Catholics seem so cliquish – that's it – the sense of purpose in community for working towards an abundant life with God; a life that is not about preparing oneself for the world to come, but living in Christ in the world today to His purpose. Just before the sacrament of the Eucharist, parishioners turn to one another and offer each other the sign of peace. Why do they do that? They do it because it's the great equalizer. This act is the moment of recognition that we are all equal, that all grievances have received forgiveness, and that we are joining together as one body in Christ. So to all; peace be with you.

Ironically, the person I think who has summarized this best is a minister of another Independent Church, Rob Bell. Rob did a project called Nooma. Nooma is a series of short films that explore our current world from the perspective of Jesus. In film #3 entitled "Trees," Rob makes the case about living for God today and not getting stuck between the trees:

"We want to know why we are here. If our lives really matter. How our religion is relevant to this life. Today. We want to understand what significance this minute, hour, week, month, and year has to our lives. To our world. We need a God who cares about this life, in this world, right now. We want to understand why everything we think, everything we say, and everything we do matters. We don't want to just sit back and wait for something to happen or someday to come. We want to know if our choices we make now will shape our world and lives for eternity. Because we want our lives to have meaning today, and our lives today to have meaning forever."

This is quintessential Catholicism to me: victory over death, communion with Christ, and living a life with purpose in Him starting today and lasting forever.

Family. It is my sincere hope that my Mother is accepting of my decision to become Catholic. I recognize this is something she would never do herself and will probably struggle to understand why I made this decision for me. I love my Mother dearly and respect her for her own decisions as I hope she respects me for mine. If my Dad was alive he would probably be happy for me, but concerned. Dad never was that big on organized faith. He served on Church boards and was active when needed, but did those things out of responsibility - not passion. Like me, he was also big into prayer and would go to Church at times he wanted to talk with God without interruption. But Dad was always closest to God while working a trolling motor on a lake. I don't say that tongue in cheek either; Fishing was a spiritual thing for him as much as it was sport.

Now for my in-laws my wife tells me they will be excited. I would hope that would be true as are most Catholics that I meet, but I also look forward to reconciling with them over my feelings on Catholicism. This will be a time for me to be humble and gracious. It will also be a time for me to learn and to grow. I look forward to their thoughts as I continue along my faith journey.

As for our nuclear family Michelle and I are now equally yoked as they say. Both of our Children are now baptized Catholic. Michelle and I are now fully ingratiated members of the Church as well. So next on our plates will be Jackson's first communion and choosing a parish. You might think that we have already done the parish thing and we might just stick with Good Shepard. However we need to decide if we want to give Sacred Heart another chance. Sacred Heart is only about 1 mile from out house, and we tried that parish for three weeks two and a half years ago. There was nothing about the parish at the time that excited us and we moved on. Now with our family now all flying the same flag we have decided to at least explore it again to make certain Good Shepard is for us.

Apologetics. Personally, I have never been a fan of apologetics. I leave that for people like my brother who have a passion for it. I will help the interested understand things and the lost I will share my experiences with, but I don't generally feel the need to defend the Church against every yahoo with vocal chords and an opinion. And it had always been my opinion that the only Apologetics the Catholic Church involved itself in were edicts from Rome that fell on deaf ears and that usually offered as much relevance to the everyday person as the delivery route of a bread truck in Billings, Montana. Little did I know though that the sleeping giant has a voice, and a loud one, and it's not that hard to hear it if you know where to listen.

Ever hear of the Pepsi Challenge? Well I would offer up the same concept between the BOT Radio Network and the Catholic Channel. Take out the advertisements and call sign promotions and do content by content taste tests. I bet you would have a hard time telling them a part at certain times of day. The Catholics do have a bit more fun though. Greg and Jennifer Willits run a show out of Atlanta called The Catholics Next Door and one Friday I almost wrecked my car laughing when I heard an old Beastie Boys song (No…sleep…til…Brooklyn!!) re-worked to be: "No…Meat…on Friday's!!!!"

I will admit a key distinction here though too; Catholics are more into print media and Protestants are more into television and pod casts. That is changing daily, but still seems to be a good general rule. But if you consider the primary role of a minister as to that of a priest it would seem very obvious as to why that is true. The Web, however, is everyone's playground and there are amazing resources on the Web for Catholics. A primary resource for me has been the United States Council on Catholic Bishop's website. I find there the daily Liturgy of the Word, a daily homily, a daily Psalm, an on-line Catechism, links too many resources, and news and information about things happening within the Church at large.

But the main point here is that there are millions of American Catholics out there who are arguably much more Biblically savvy than their Protestant counterparts from what I have heard, and these people do involve their faith in the decisions they make, the expectations they have from their government, and in applying their faith to the coming and going of issues in the public eye. Furthermore, this is where I see the greatest blur in the line of separation between Catholicism and Protestantism. In listing to the pod casts from Catholic Magazine on ITunes, I was seriously shaken by how similar these were to Protestant sermons. The values, the message, the ideology, the prayers – all the same; these were concepts that I had always "owned" as being Protestant ideals. Turns out they are all much more universal than I ever would have imagined.

Finally, one might argue that my list of sources for this journal and experience were too Catholic in nature. That I didn't get enough expressed criticism of the Catholic Church. Well, as a regular reader of the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Reuters, trust me when I say one doesn't have to wander far to find criticism of the Catholic Church. What I have found to be more interesting though, and mentioned within this piece, are Protestant and Independent voices that actually affirm Catholic dogma, and Catholic voices that affirm Protestant and Independent dogma. So as I began to discover this huge crossover, I left the extremists out of it and stuck with people who would provide me a better understanding of fundamental Christian theology. In other words, in reconciling that we are all Christians what is it about our core differences that make us unique. Then, how do my beliefs align with any particular set of those core fundamentals.

Fellowship. This was one of my most feared aspects of Catholicism, and logic should have told me better being that Catholocism is a community focused organization. But admittedly I previously only looked at the negatives of the Catholic Faith. One of the most important aspects of my Protestant experience was the gangs of fellow faith travels I met along the way. These relationships not only help mold your faith, but more importantly they strengthen it at unexpected times deepening your personal commitment. I had expected this to be non-existent in the Catholic Church. After all, everyone just showed up for the wafer anyway right? Well, turns out – no.

What caught my attention first was how the Catholic Church openly acknowledged my concern. F. J. Sheed in his book Theology for Beginners calls these people the "uninstructed Catholic." Sheed describes them as, "Stumbling along in the dark not even aware that it is dark, half-fed and not even hungry for more, he is in no state to show others the light or the nourishment." Sheed just doesn't assign this label to the Catholic who doesn't attend Mass, but also includes the pew warmers in for the biscuit, a hand shake, and a wave until next week.

Then as I progressed through RCIA I began to understand how the Japanese felt after they bombed Pearl Harbor. I discovered a "sleeping giant" of heartfelt devout Catholics out there quietly and dutifully being disciplined children of God. These are serious people who embrace a life of faith. Faith I can respect that is timeless, committed, and led by Christ. I had always thought people like this had left the Catholic Church generations ago leaving only Sheed's uninstructed and die hard's in small towns like my in-laws behind. But not only are they there, but there is more of them than you would think; and they are the vibrant beating heart of most parishes.

Probably the most dramatic realization of this for me took place during the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and after we became the "Elect" within the Parish. If you have never had a whole congregation pray for you while placing there hands on you consider yourself out of touch. All I can say is Wow. There have been a small number of moments in my life that I can count with just a few fingers in which I can honestly say I physically felt the presence of God. Well, during these events in Mass I could physically feel the Holy Spirit around me. As a 250 lb man I felt weightless, energized, and loved all at the same moment. I literally remember thinking that I hope I am straight up and down when this is over, and that my feet are the closest part of me to the floor. It was through these experiences and many others that I truly felt the Catholic Church was a place I could continue to grow in faith with others.

But what's funny is this whole idea of fellowship is really what my brother had been trying to tell me all along regarding denomination not mattering. I also found these same thoughts in the words of C.S. Lewis. Lewis makes the argument that the groups of sincere Christians, the ones truly in communion with Christ, can come from any denomination and are really more alike than they are with folks within their respective denomination. These are people that let Christ define them, not there denomination. Lewis argues that the differences between denominations are fueled from those at the periphery of a church not people truly focused on God. This point became real to me when I took a long time mentor of mine to lunch. Michael was in my Methodist Disciple Class, is a life long Christian, is on the Board of St. Paul's School of Theology where my brother is getting his Master's Degree in Divinity, is the Director of the Research Department at KU Medical Center, and is someone I consider a great friend. I basically put it to him that I was thinking about becoming Catholic and wanted him to talk me out of it. Michael looked at me and said, "Darin, you would make a great Catholic why would I talk you out of it…..What I have always like about you is your highly logic mind and your ability to recognize the interrelationships in things. Catholicism is highly logical and interrelated, so I can see why it would attract you. Go be a Catholic; you have my blessing." He then essentially told me to stop wandering around in center field like I described previously and that I needed to focus on getting back to God's purposes. He suggested I move on because God needs me focused on bigger things than deciding what denomination to belong too. Michael further went on to describe some mission work he and his wife had coming up and the needs of making that happen. After finding my concern fairly small in comparison, Michael asked me what difference it would make if I was Catholic or not as to whether I could help bring about solutions to those kinds of problems.
You have to love friends like that.

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So again, my hope is that by making these thoughts publicly available I can offer others some insight into my decision. I realize this will be very confusing for some people I have known for awhile. I also additionally hope that I might shed some light on the Catholic faith in a way others have not seen before. I believe Catholicism is a poorly marketed and highly misunderstood practice. My situation was unique, but I believe God lead me to this point because this is where he wants me to be. I also believe that he filled my heart with these thoughts to the point in which I had to write this down and share my experience.

Now if you're like many, if you’re like I used to be, and if you find it easier to Catholic bash or protestant bash than to understand; I challenge you to not just accept what others who agree with you say, but sit down with those who don't, share your views, and learn. Ask questions. Read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (Yes, I know you just laughed.) Or what ever book of Faith Dogma you follow. But so you know though - the Catechism is universal in many ways, and even if you're not Catholic it may help you better understand your own faith through contrast. Then read the Bible, or read the Bible as you read the Catechism. I mean really read it. Read it and listen to it for how it speaks to you.

Oh and if you are a Catholic or Protestant bashing non-Bible reading Christian – SHUT UP! And no you’re not excused if you use the Bible like a reference book either, or you source passages off internet search tools on topics of interest, or if “people in the know” refer you to passages so that you are “armed” in your faith. If the Bible doesn’t “speak” to you personally – stop telling other people how it should speak to them. And before you even begin to presume how others should relate to Jesus Christ you may want to get His thoughts on the matter – and His thoughts should be how you hear them.

Know your faith. It’s yours after all, so why wouldn’t you? Why even claim to have a faith if you don’t understand the principals it’s based on? No there is nothing wrong with following wonderful men of God – the Bible is filled with such relationships and you can see I have referenced many of my own within this piece. But understand why such people are important to you. Empower your sense of discernment and use it to center yourself. Stop living vicariously through others. A friend of mine lives by the motto that every Christian needs a Paul and needs Timothy all at the same time. You have to have a mentor and be a mentor at the same time. You can only do that by reconciling what you learn within yourself so that you can pass it on. So read the Bible. If nothing else read the Gospels. But that Paul guy by the way, commissioned by God and all, he is pretty insightful too.

Finally, don't be afraid to challenge what you believe in. I wasn't and it changed my life in amazing ways. It helped me discover who I was and how I can best love God. It improved my closest relationships, answered many of my prayers, and gave me a joyous sense of peace by helping me center myself to God. My prayer is that you find that too.

My best to you in your search.

Your new Catholic neighbor, friend, relative, son (in-law), brother (in-law), or acquaintance,
Darin N. Shank

9 Comments:

At 10:07 PM, Blogger David Ould said...

Wow Darin,

Read it all. Twice. I guess today is not the day to disagree with you.

Let this ultra-conservative protestant friend-become-a-minister just affirm the integrity of your decision and my pleasure that you were able to make it in the light of seeing the integrity of others.

We'll save the disagreements for another day ;-)

PRaying that this Easter day will be one full of trust in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.

 
At 3:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came across your beautiful conversion story via your family tree (we are distant cousins!) and I want to congratulate you on finding your way home to the Catholic church.

Thanks for the family tree info- I wanted info on Shanks/Schenk and I sure found it! I descend from Johanne->Christian->Henry->Joel->Olive Shanks Thurman ->Mabel Thurman Richards (my great grandmother).

You have a lovely family, and I enjoyed your writing very much.
Take care!

Jennifer in Madison

 
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