Sifting for Lies

June 15, 2009

Last night Chris turned the tv to Joel Osteen’s preaching while I was knocking about the kitchen getting ready for bed. I was listening, responding with the occasional snort and scoff. Chris said, “Stacey, what he’s saying is right. He’s not wrong.” So I sat down on the couch, next to my less critical husband, prepared to defend my assessment.

At first I was worried there was no hard proof for my accusation. Osteen was encouraging the football stadium filling congregants to do their work, whatever they do, unto the Lord, and to do everything for the glory of God. Of course there’s no problem there, in fact, it’s a vital message in the Christian life. But then, he said (paraphrased), “When you excel in the workplace, that is the best witness,” with an unnatural emphasis and satisfaction at his last words, as if to witness Christ to others was the only reason you offer all your work to the Lord. I grabbed onto this small shred of evidence, and told Chris, “Can’t you see where he’s headed? What he’s telling people to do is right, but the motivation is wrong. It’s as if the only reason to excel is to evangelize.”

After listening a little longer, Chris agreed. I went on, “And he doesn’t put any value in the work itself, done for God. There’s no encouragement that our suffering is united to Christ’s so that we may be glorified with him. It’s right there in Romans, Chris, why don’t they notice it?” Chris said Protestants don’t really talk about suffering that way, which is true, but silly. It’s in the Bible. They get everything they believe from the Bible. Right?

As Osteen went on, it became glaringly obvious that he was exhorting people to excell not only that they might be a good example of Christ to others, but so that others might “see something they want in [Christians]” and we should work hard without holding back so that “God doesn’t hold back a great release” from us. Evangelism wasn’t his only motivation, reward here on Earth was also a motivator. He talked about promotions, commendations, recognition, superstar basketball players earning over half the team’s goals. He talked about working hard and doing out best so that others notice, we are blessed in return, and others envy that blessing and want to become a Christian so that they can be blessed as well. That’s twisted.

He ought to have said that our work offered to the Lord is valuable as it is, regardless of its usefulness to others. He ought to have said that regardless of anyone else noticing or rewarding us, God will reward us in the next life. He ought to have said that we should expect nothing of a return for our labor from this world, no promotions, no raises, no envy, but instead will normally receive hate because Christ was first hated. If we are so blessed, we thank God, but never expect it.

As Chris said, Osteen’s message does nothing for the factory worker doing a repetitive and thankless job. It does nothing for the teenager working at McDonalds where there is little hope of promotion or recognition. It does nothing for my dad, 18 years in a job that takes advantage of him and loathes a higher standard, denying pay raises whenever possible, who wonders what God’s plan is for his life and why his current situation seems to be fruitless. I worry about the despair that results from a message like this. How many people in that stadium will fall away from Christ because they don’t see the results they expect and lose any value in their suffering? There’s so much truth in what Osteen says. Is it enough to mitigate the lies? Does he still point the way to Christ?

I’ve become pretty critical when listening to Protestant messages, always sifting through it to find the lies. Besides trying to find where they go wrong, I’m trying to find where I’ve gone wrong. I have no idea what I’ve believe in the past because I thought it was standard Christian beliefs. I don’t know where it all comes from. I’m always evaluating. Maybe this is a failing on my part and I should ease up on the Protestants. They do love God, after all, and do His work. Perhaps this is a step in my journey. I’m still watching to see that my current path is the right one.


Catholic Guilt

June 10, 2009

I was watching Dead Zone the other night with Chris, the episode “Transgressions” in the final season. At one point, Johnny tells Sarah he just feels so guilty, and she quips, “It’s all the Catholics you’ve been hanging around.” Odyssey 5 also comes to mind in which someone tells another, “You’re Catholic, you always feel guilty.” After I finished reading Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers, I decided I was too harsh on her, that she wasn’t being deliberately malicious, and decided to email her and ask why she made certain characters Catholic. She responded by saying “Because [she has] many Catholic friends who suffer guilt until they realize how much God loves them.”

Where did the “guilty Catholic” come from? Personally, I have never met a Catholic who’s tortured by guilt. I feel no guilty motivations for any “works” I may do, though Lord knows I have plenty in my life to feel guilty about. When I asked Chris, he joked, “I feel guilty for not feeling guilty!” Although as far as I can tell, this stereotype has little basis in reality, it is a widespread and deeply ingrained stereotype. I can only speculate as to its origin.

The Original Guilty Catholic

Maybe we can look back to the Reformation. Martin Luther was initially wholly motivated by guilt. At least that’s the picture I got from his biography, Luther the Reformer. He ran from pilgrimage to pilgrimage, in a frenzy to rack up his good works points and wipe out his guilty debts, which eventually led to his “faith alone” epiphany. Repeatedly, he was told by his fellow monks to look to the cross, but was plagued knowing he could never do enough to be righteous, and stand before a righteous God, of his own merit. When I accused Luther of pride in a conversation with a friend, because Luther somehow believed his sins were too great for the usual method of salvation from the cross, he told me this form of pride is called despondency. I’m willing to venture that the generic guilty Catholic stems from despondency. I think Luther’s pride is also seen when he believed that he was the only one whose interpretation of Scripture was correct, and that his belief was enough to save him. Focuses way too much on himself to be of Christ. Enough about Luther, the original guilty Catholic.

Why Catholics Might Feel Guilty

The difference between Protestants and Catholics in how we see ourselves, is that Catholics believe what we do matters, but we take full credit for our sins, and only share in any credit for the good we may do by God’s grace. Of course, many of the far removed Protestant denominations believe the same thing (my parents and I agree on the technicalities of this issue, a great relief!), but this was a crucial breaking point during the Reformation. “Faith alone” means what we do doesn’t actually matter in that it doesn’t affect anything, it is merely proof of faith without our free will. Always keep in mind, Luther emphasized grace to the point of condemning free will in even our decision to accept Christ’s sacrifice for our sins. Calvin took things further and said our damnation and even our sins are designed by God to increase His glory, we have no choice in anything. Both thought that any effort on our part was pride, and that any claim to glory on our part was an attempt to take away glory from God. Of course, increasing the glory of His loved ones increases His glory, especially since we can only be glorified if we become like Christ. How can that be prideful?

This kind of disconnect with our actions doesn’t make much sense, and it scrambles any of the beauty of our relationship with God because free giving of our selves is crucial to any real relationship. If what we do doesn’t matter, then why are we here? That’s why many Protestant denominations have drifted back to Catholic dogmas, without a clue as to their roots.

So here is the defining Catholic feature: we must do things. There’s really not much that we must do, and Augustine assessed it as a very easy yoke to bear indeed, especially compared to the old law. There are observances of a few “sweet” sacraments, and obedience to those in authority. Like any kind of guilt, I’m assuming that of the guilty Catholics (I’m sure some do exist though I haven’t met them), comes from knowing that either you’ve done something wrong or you haven’t done what you should do. In the Catholic Faith, what we should and shouldn’t do is more clearly defined than in many other faiths or denominations, so I guess it makes sense that there is a guilty Catholic stereotype. Maybe it has sprung, not from real experience with guilty Catholics, but from what people imagine they would feel if they were Catholic and had to follow “all those rules”.

It’s true that the Catholic punishments are also well defined. There is the sacrament of reconciliation and penance. Usually, people are instructed to right their hearts through prayer, not to sin again, and are forgiven. Doesn’t sound awfully guilt inducing to me, but hey, I haven’t actually gone through it yet. Then there is the punishment of Purgatory, although as C. S. Lewis puts it, our souls cry for the purifying fires of Purgatory. We would not wish to stand before a righteous God without being purified. The pain of Purgatory is a sweet pain when thought of that way. The only real catch in all the Catholic rules is that we must mean it. Everything is vain without faith that bears fruit in love. If someone obeys all the rules, and goes to confession, does their penance, etc., but does so without love of God or faith in His mercy and salvation, they must know in their heart they haven’t fulfilled the greatest prerequisite to accepting God’s grace. So is the guilty Catholic really the same as a guilty Protestant, just better defined?

Why Catholics Shouldn’t Feel Guilty (and most don’t)

Of course, those familiar with Catholic beliefs know we can never merit our salvation, and even the good works we do are not by our own merit, but Christ’s. Salvation and our lives here on Earth are not about us, and we need to avoid pride, which leads us to believe it is. Instead, we must realize that all we are capable of is cooperating with Christ, and allowing God’s grace to work in our lives. Any good that we do or have is only by God’s grace. So the pressure to “earn” salvation would seem to me an entirely invented pressure, designed to make us feel more important than we are.

That must be the key. Realize that it’s not about us! It’s not about fearing His punishments or even fulfilling a list of requirements. It’s about God, and loving His laws, because you love Him and want to please Him and be conformed to His will. When we realize that, the pride of giving ourselves credit, and beating up ourselves with guilt disappears. Because then, we see that our sins are washed away by Christ’s more than adequate sacrifice. Our works are performed in earnest effort to be closer to God and conform to His will. The good we do is not ours, and the bad we do doesn’t matter in light of the cross, like Luther’s peers told him.

I don’t know how Luther could have missed it, because as I’ve said before, the heart of the Catholic Faith is sacrificing our pride, our selves, and surrendering to Christ. I know the Church of his time was a hyperactive abused thing, but it’s all there in the catechisms and councils. Guilt was conquered at the cross. We realize that nothing we do is enough to stand before a righteous God, but that He has done enough. What we do matters, because we choose to accept or reject God, His grace, and His will in our lives. We choose to respond in love or pride, and consequently feel peace or guilt.

Disclaimer

This is all more of a journal entry pondering this stereotype that I find bizzare, and doesn’t really qualify as a public statement. Do I understand it right? Or is the guilty Catholic outside my reach still?


The Catholic Heart

May 4, 2009

In my semi-long absence, I’ve lost my trains of thought. I planned to update my thoughts on Redeeming Love since finishing it. I have several posts about Calvin’s use of the Church Fathers percolating. There’s a lot I’ve planned to write, but here’s what’s been on my mind recently: the heart of the Catholic Faith is unlike anything I’ve seen before, and it’s beautiful.

What I mean is that the deep root of Catholicism is surrender to Christ. We are called to deny our selves, take up our cross, and follow Christ. (Matt 16:24,25) Seeking to be our own master is at the heart of our separation from God, and at the heart of reuniting us to Him is rejecting our own desires, submitting to God’s plan, and accepting His way for us in Christ. We are even called to submit to those in authority over us here on Earth, regardless of their behavior. Contrary to what Luther taught (see his bio), this includes those in authority over us in the Church here on Earth.

In the Catholic Faith, every belief, every practice, every prayer, is permeated with submission to God’s will. This is acted out in submission to Christ’s Church and His way for us here on Earth. It is a practical submission, whose efforts are not confined to the spiritual realm, nor are the commands to which we submit. Once the Catholic Church is recognized as Christ’s Church, the dogmas and practices of the Church are to be obeyed and believed as if Christ Himself is speaking to us. For the good Catholic, this includes attending mass every Sunday, believing in the Real Presence, going to confession and accepting penance, obeying your priest in matters of confidence and your bishop and Pope in matters of faith and morals. This includes not getting an abortion if you should find yourself inconveniently pregnant, or not giving into the temptation of homosexuality if that is present. The list goes on, but these are practical things that a faithful person may not always want to obey, but does, not for fear of men in an institution, but for love of our Lord and the desire to do His will instead of our own.

This submission carries over into the attitude that Catholics have in life. Remember when my manicurist asked if I was Catholic? It was because he recognized (or so I believe) my acceptance of God’s will in my family life and faith in His grace. The good Catholic surrenders control of their daily life to God, gladly accepts their calling, and does all work for the glory of God. If you need proof of this, consider the “Universal Call to Holiness”, Opus Dei, Josemaria Escriva, Thomas A. Kempis, Brother Lawrence, and so many others. Also, like in no other faith, Catholics can accept struggles along the way because they put value in it! Every thing is offered to the Lord, so that we may be united to Christ in our suffering, and so become co-heirs and share in His glory. There is merit in our actions, value in our suffering, and reward for faithfulness, unlike anything acknowledged by the Reformed faith and Protestant theologies.

Some may not have read about my ecclesiastic past, so I’ll briefly describe my parent’s Word of Faith beliefs. Besides believing that there is power in words, by virtue of speaking them, Word of Faith-ers also generally believe in “name it, claim it” or “health and wealth” theologies. My parents deny this sort of theology that demands what it wants of God, yet they still believe since we are adopted sons and daughters of God, Christ has already suffered all that we must suffer and God’s riches are our inheritance in this life. They believe prosperity and health are for the taking, freely distributed by God to those who have enough faith, all for the purpose of His glory and to win converts. Although the Word of Faith ideas that my parents adhere to are extreme, I watch them live out such a violent resistance against the struggles in life. I believe this resistance is characteristic of Protestant faith. They lose any benefit they should gain from their struggles and fall into despair, believing that they should overcome their sins and afflictions in this world and not the next. I so much desire for my parents to find peace in these things that I believe they can only find as Catholics.

Protestants may have good intentions to submit to God’s will, and although there are good Protestants who may seek His will in all that they do, the beliefs and actions of the faith are not helpful and in fact hinder growth in surrender to Christ. Consider the once saved, always saved idea. Not only does this lead people to believe that they should be immediately and permanently changed, it nullifies the value of any efforts on their part to change after salvation. The struggle with sin becomes a struggle to prove your salvation experience was real, instead of a process of working out your salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). On a side note, I was listening to a Protestant radio show a couple weeks ago and found myself listening to the Catholic “saved and being saved” message of justification. It seems there are plenty of non-denominational Protestants returning to Catholic ideas to avoid Reformed pitfalls.

Catholics are more equipped to live out the imitation of Christ and share in His suffering because of the Catholic view of ongoing salvation. Our struggles not only unite us to Christ in our suffering, but we also become co-redeemers with Christ, by God’s grace and through the merit and sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Every step matters, and like a faithful marriage which can’t be called faithful unless it is faithful every day until death, faithfulness to Christ throughout our entire lives is what we must strive for. With this perspective, it becomes delightful to submit to your calling in life, and valuable to bear burdens of sickness and frustration, that we may have been justified and are justified still. Even in their darkest struggles, the good Catholic can say, like Job, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, may the name of the Lord be praised.”

Keep in mind that I’m talking about the good Catholics. Every religion will produce faithful followers and lazy followers. There are those who take their faith to heart and live out their beliefs. Then there are those who go through Sundays like most of us go through high school. All they were supposed to get out of it is lost, and they’re just happy to leave when the bell rings. The rules of any faith have a life of their own; it’s the personality of the institution, and it is seen in the best of the faithful. The form of Catholicism is seen in the Catholic saints. This is the heart of the Faith that I’m talking about.

The submissive Catholic heart is exemplified in one of her saints, Mother Teresa (obviously one of my favorites, and for this very reason). She experienced a call, in her early closeness to Jesus, to go and love the poor of India and to win souls for Jesus. She felt this call intensely and earnestly, but constantly sought the direction of her spiritual superiors – first her priest, then her bishop. In every step, she did her best to obey their advice, even in remaining silent and “forgetting” about her call for some time. I’ve since learned that this is a common Catholic test of the validity of a call in someone’s life. Those in authority test the spirit of those under them to see if they are obedient, the first sign that their call is from God. I can’t help thinking that if Martin Luther’s superiors tested him in such a way, that he failed miserably. Mother Teresa’s submissive faith continues in her later years, when she experiences a separation from the presence of God, she continues to follow His will for her faithfully. I want to be that kind of saint.


Say the Black, Do the Yellow

March 5, 2009

“Say the black, do the red” In other words, stick to the entire liturgy. Not only say what you’re supposed to say, but do what you’re supposed to do. I don’t. I say the black and do the yellow, for cowardice.

Only two Sundays ago I began saying the entire liturgy. Before that, I had skipped the confiteor and the creed. I couldn’t in good conscience ask the “blessed Mary, ever virgin” to pray for me if I wasn’t convinced of her perpetual virginity. Neither could I confess a belief in the “one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” when I couldn’t say for sure if the Catholic Church was Christ’s church. Those following my blog may have read my recent posts on Mary and Tradition. After looking into these two “problems”, I am convinced to the point of being able to profess belief in them, but it wasn’t easy.

Every step I have made on the road of accepting Catholicism has been deliberate and painful. It’s almost a year ago now that I started crossing myself. I labored over this small expression so much that I can remember exactly when and how I started. During the Good Friday mass, I surreptitiously crossed myself, hoping nobody would notice in case I did something wrong like holding my fingers weird. Nobody did notice, not even Chris. It was about a month later that I told him I was doing it, and he still hadn’t noticed.

Our old parish had a rather large Hispanic sub-community and a separate Spanish mass. There were a couple catechists in RCIA that we spent a little time with. I hope nobody takes this the wrong way, but I’ve always envied the ease with which the Hispanics of my acquaintance do these things. They cross themselves and kiss their crucifix and leave it for others to accept them the way they are. It’s beautiful. I wish I could do that.

So what is my problem? It feels weird. I have a naturally self-conscious nature, so it’s hard for me to get over feeling like I’m on display. I know that in reality nobody is paying attention to me, but I have an unnatural fear that someone will glance my way when I muddle up the gestures for lack of experience. It feels like there’s a floating neon sign above my head that says, “This one’s a Protestant!!! She’s not supposed to be doing this. Stop her!” So I still don’t genuflect or kneel or even cross myself with holy water at the entrance. Two extremely wiggly little children give me ample excuse to skip these things, and even prevent me from following through on a resolve to begin a gesture from time to time. Somehow, though, I feel like I’m cheating. My excuses are dwindling and I’m left only with my fear of a new thing.

I know I’m making a big deal out of nothing. These gestures are an outward expression of our inward prayerfulness. They give God honor that is due Him. I want to give these things to Him. I could just do it, but this is how hard it can be to change. I was raised to be suspicious of all things Catholic and apparently that doesn’t disappear with just knowledge to the contrary. Once I build up the courage to say the black and do the red, I wonder how long it will take me to be comfortable and feel at home with it, or if I ever can.


Self-driven Faith

December 29, 2008

It’s ironic that a common Protestant view of Catholicism is that it’s a self-driven religion. I always had the stereotypes in my mind that Catholics try to work their way to heaven and have all these strange man-made rituals to get them there and make them feel spiritual. After over twenty years in evangelical churches and only three in Catholic churches, I think this may be a classic case of Freudian projection. What Protestants accuse Catholics of, they are guilty of themselves.

Over at the blog, Thoughts from a Ragamuffin, Ragamuffin has talked about the hype generated at many Protestant churches like the upbeat big band music and the dynamic preaching necessary to keep a church alive. I wish I could find his specific post, but I’ve lost it. The problem he discusses and that I have found in these situations is that sometimes, you just don’t feel like it. You could smile and clap and sing but can’t “enter in”. Often enough for me it’s because the kids are wiggling on my lap, or ready for a nap since they’ve been up all night. I don’t feel like working myself up into a spiritual frenzy. Like Ragamuffin has said, it’s comforting to profess your faith in the liturgy even when you don’t feel like it.

There are the respected men and women of God at these Protestant churches who always seem to have it all together and be able to “enter in”. They’ve memorized every verse in the Bible, their prophetic accuracy is over 50% (if you’re Pentecostal), they attend every meeting and are “forerunners” or some other word-of-the-day. I have seen the best of them fall. Affairs, divorces, homosexuality… it does seem most of these problems have to do with sex. I’ve also heard from our pastor at different times “Let’s judge this leader by his fruit” and “You can’t judge the godliness of a person by their personal life”. Fifteen years later, I’ve had the privilege to judge these “forerunners” by their spiritual fruit as well, and let’s just say that the church is no longer a church and they no longer lead anything. One excuse I’ve heard for disasters like this one is that the pastor or church was new and inexperienced. I’ve not so secretly thought that if there was a heirarchy of experienced leaders, some set rules of initiation, and less of an emphasis on venerating leaders based on their own powers then we wouldn’t set ourselves up as easily for such a fall. Sounds Catholic to me.

This self-driven spirituality has always been a problem for me. Ironic, isn’t it? Protestants (who have probably never read the canons of the Councils of Orange or Trent) accuse Catholics of trying to work their way into heaven, while they time after time they try to keep their spirituality and liveliness of the church going through their own abilities. I know it’s not the same in every church, but I think the Protestant system sets people up to be considered spiritual by their own power, by what they do and how great a faith they have. I’ve known several people who have given up their faith altogether, because they thought if they were saved “once and for all” then they would stop struggling with their sins, and couldn’t take being disappointed. I always knew I never had that power to make myself spiritual and backed out of the whole scene, terrified of becoming a hypocrite like the others.

On the other hand, in the Catholic Church I have found a series of rituals and graces available to everyone who wants them. It’s not dependent on how many prophecies you make that come true or how many people you’ve prayed for that get healed or even leading a spotless public life. Any individual can avail of God’s grace through the sacraments and become closer to God. Not because of the wondrous faith he has or his sinless record, but because of his hunger for God and that small amount of faith that it takes to step forward and act on your belief, making use of the sacraments. There’s something poetic about crying out for God and seeking him in the Eucharist.

Chris has known about my distaste for the self-induced spirituality of Protestantism and the comfort I take in the Catholic faith. So this Christmas, he gave me Mother Teresa’s secret writings, “Come Be My Light”. She is quoted as saying “If I ever become a Saint—I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven—to light the light of those in darkness on earth.” The darkness she talks about is this lack of feeling the presence of God in her daily life. Although close to him early in her life, she lost her sense of closeness with God when she went to Calcutta to become one of the poor she ministered to. She became like them – completely impoverished, thirsting for the goodness and love of God.

I wonder if Mother Teresa had any idea when she begged her superiors to destroy her letters how many of us feel the same way at times and would benefit from her example of faith. Abraham, when he was asked to put his faith in God and do something he didn’t want to do, he did it anyway. It was credited to him as righteousness. I think it rings truer to believe in God and commit yourself to following Him no matter what you want or how you feel than setting up your whole faith on the greatness of your ability to purely believe.

I contrast Mother Teresa’s committed faith to the self-centered faith of Martin Luther. As a monk, he obsessed over his own sins instead of dedicating himself to the will of God. He relied on his own belief (I don’t even want to call it faith) to save him instead of the graces available in the church. He rejected authorities because they weren’t as well read or intelligent as he thought he was. I’ll give a more complete portrait of Luther when I finish his biography, but his narcissistic motivations seem clear enough to me. I compare Mother Teresa to the son who told his father no, but did his will in the end, and Martin Luther to the son who told his father yes, but did not do the will of the father.(Matt 21:28-31) I don’t think she ever told God no, but certainly did the will of the Father however she felt. Luther seemed to never think twice and consider that the Father’s will might be different than his own.