Sola Scriptura, Broken Chains

I follow a page on Facebook which regularly identifies the “Six Things that” bedevil and otherwise hamper Protestant Church leaders. Often those things are lack of giving, hurt feelings, and style of worship. Once, it covered the four comedic rules to becoming a better leader. Recently, one caught my eye. It was a list of things that the author thought people mistakenly credited as being in the Bible.

The piece starts with a blurb “I was surprised how many of these I’ve heard in my church” and then attempts to list several unbiblical statements Christians believe. They were a collection of folksy sayings that, fortunately,I’ve never actually heard attributed to the Bible in any church I’ve been to.

Before he gets into mocking those statements, he makes one of his own that made my jaw drop. He writes, “anything and everything that we know about God comes from these Holy Scriptures, and they contain the totality of what we need to know  about becoming a Christian and everything we need to know about living the Christian life.”

Where did he get that, I wondered. Certainly a statement so profound and succinct would be found in the Bible. But, of course, it isn’t. It comes from Protestant tradition, all of which is very recent.

I spent 37 years immersed in the Protestant culture. Obviously, it took me way too long but I eventually began to see things in Protestantism that were “man-made” doctrines which didn’t square with Scripture. And, when I could resist no longer, I began to wonder what was going on those first 1500 years where the Holy Spirit was guiding the Church without the help of Protestant doctrine? I went to the Catholic Church near me and signed up for RCIA.

It wasn’t a smooth ride, of course. I’d been indoctrinated over the course of four decades. A pastor friend of mine tried to halt my conversion by asking darkly, “Ross, are you saying that you no longer believe the Five Solas?” I took awhile and finally answered. Yes. I think that actually is what I’m saying.  So, the wrestling began in earnest.

In my RCIA classes I learned Catholic doctrine and heard the word “magesterium” for the very first time. I began to get a grasp of what the Church believed when it was founded and really began to see what it meant that the Church began in the first century and not the sixteenth. What I learned made it fairly obvious to me that the Church Fathers, a group that all my Protestant teachers had never mentioned, were the key to understanding the proper position of the Church in history. And, a week or two before my acceptance into the church, I heard my (now) friend Matthew S. Leonard say on a radio show that “the Bible came out of the Church, the Church did not come out of the Bible.”

That was the epiphany for me. After that, I saw the Sacred Tradition argument with stunning clarity. There was no canon at all for centuries after the Resurrection. People did not have access to printed Scripture at all until the advent of the printing press. There is absolutely not a single verse of Scripture that tells us that Scripture itself would be our sole guide. On the contrary. Jesus told us He would send us the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth. He never said there would be a book coming.

Even in the very Scripture Protestants and Catholics alike love, we are told that “if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” So, it is the Church that is the Pillar and Foundation of the truth rather than the Scripture. It is the Church, not the Bible, charged with delivering the deposit of faith unblemished to all future generations.

 

 

Seeing Jesus this Advent

The same came therefore to Philip, which was of Bethsaida of Galilee, and desired him, saying, Sir, we would see Jesus.  John 12:21.

Well, that’s what we all want, isn’t it? We want to see Jesus. It’s the Advent season. We are preparing ourselves to for the Nativity, for the coming of our Lord. We are taught to refocus our vision upon seeing Jesus anew. We are to consider that He is on His way, visiting us again.

It’s hard to imagine the overwhelming joy of the shepherds when they saw the baby in the manger. The Magi were to see the toddler Jesus later at a house and brought him spectacular presents. The rabbis were to be amazed at the young Jesus speaking in the Jerusalem temple. Many saw the great teacher on mountainsides, preaching the Good News that the Kingdom of God had come to earth. Crowds watched Him heal, saw Him do miracles and watched as He took the mantle of sin from humanity, cloaked Himself with it and made His way to the cross. Those who loved Him saw Him after that, on the Emmaus road and the Mount called Olivet.

What would it be like to see Jesus this Advent season? Would it be like seeing someone sick in a hospital, hooked to feeding tubes and waiting to breathe their last? It might be.

Would seeing Jesus be like seeing someone sitting in the cold, on a cardboard mat, hungry, desperate for something to eat or drink? It could be.

Would it be like taking care of a refugee fleeing a war-torn country who needs shelter and clothing? Possibly.

Could seeing Jesus be like seeing a person in prison, separated from society and family, needing human contact to bring him hope. I think it could.

That might be what it would be like to see Jesus this Advent season. It might be just like that.

Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You? The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”

You did it to Me.

So, yes, that’s what it may look like to see Jesus this Advent season. We will see Him in the faces of the poor, the sick, the downtrodden, those without hope. And, as you help those who need it, they might just see Jesus when they look at you.

Scripture, Tradition, and The Printing Press

I follow a page on Facebook which regularly identifies the “Six Things that” bedevil and otherwise hamper Protestant Church leaders. Often those things are lack of giving, hurt feelings, and style of worship. Once, it covered the four comedic rules to becoming a better leader. Recently, one caught my eye. It was a list of things that the author thought people mistakenly credited as being in the Bible.

The piece starts with a blurb “I was surprised how many of these I’ve heard in my church” and then attempts to list several unbiblical statements Christians believe. They were a collection of folksy sayings that, fortunately, I’ve never actually heard attributed to the Bible in any church I’ve been to.

Before he gets into mocking those statements, he makes one of his own that made my jaw drop. He writes, “anything and everything that we know about God comes from these Holy Scriptures, and they contain the totality of what we need to know about becoming a Christian and everything we need to know about living the Christian life.”

Where did he get that, I wondered. Certainly a statement so profound and succinct would be found in the Bible. But, of course, it isn’t. It comes from Protestant tradition, all of which is very recent.

I spent 37 years immersed in the Protestant culture. Obviously, it took me way too long, but I eventuallybegan to see things in Protestantism that were “man-made” doctrines which didn’t square with Scripture. And, when I could resist no longer, I began to wonder what was going on those first 1500 years where the Holy Spirit was guiding the Church without the help of Protestant doctrine? I went to the Catholic Church near me and signed up for RCIA.

It wasn’t a smooth ride, of course. I’d been indoctrinated over the course of four decades. A pastor friend of mine tried to halt my conversion by asking darkly, “Ross, are you saying that you no longer believe the Five Solas?” I took awhile and finally answered. Yes. I think that actually is what I’m saying. So, the wrestling began in earnest.

In my RCIA classes I learned Catholic doctrine and heard the word “magisterium” for the very first time. I began to get a grasp of what the Church believed when it was founded and really began to see what it meant that the Church began in the first century and not the sixteenth. What I learned made it fairly obvious to me that the Church Fathers, a group that all my Protestant teachers had never mentioned, were the key to understanding the proper position of the Church in history. And, a week or two before my acceptance into the church, I heard my (now) friend Matthew S. Leonard say on a radio show that “the Bible came out of the Church, the Church did not come out of the Bible.”

That was the epiphany for me. After that, I saw the Sacred Tradition argument with stunning clarity. There was no canon at all for centuries after the Resurrection. People did not have access to printed Scripture at all until the advent of the printing press. There is absolutely not a single verse of Scripture that tells us that Scripture itself would be our sole guide. On the contrary. Jesus told us He would send us the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth. He never said there would be a book coming.

Even in the very Scripture Protestants and Catholics alike love, we are told that “if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” So, it is the Church that is the Pillar and Foundation of the truth rather than the Scripture. It is the Church, not the Bible, charged with delivering the deposit of faith unblemished to all future generations.

via I stopped going to church and joined the Church.

Text, Tone and Tension

I recently had a conversation with a Calvinist regarding the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. As most of you know, That’s the Catholic Doctrine of Transubstantiation, a doctrine held by the entire Christian world until the advent of Protestantism in 1517. Even then, one major Protestant figure, Martin Luther, was not content to jettison the doctrine. He created a variation of it in which the bread and wine still changed to the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Another major player in Protestantism, John Calvin, created an entirely new concept where the bread and wine were mere symbols of the body and blood of Christ.

The purpose of this blog is not to argue the merits of the three (or more) possibilities. I just wanted to relay how that conversation, between two guys who promised not to offend and to be civil, went straight down a rabbit hole.

Although the Church believes in Sacred Tradition, I find it fun to debate with Protestants using only Scripture. I spent thirty seven years as a devout Protestant so, although I’m no theologian, I can find my way around a Bible.

We were debating the sixth chapter of John, a chapter where Jesus clearly defines and introduces the doctrine of transubstantiation. My Calvinist friend, running from the clear Scriptural truth, insisted that it could not be. It didn’t make sense.

The beauty of the Gospel is that NOTHING makes sense. Would God become a human and be born of a virgin? Could a bit of bread and several fishes feed thousands? Could a man once dead be commanded to walk from a grave? Could the Son of God do the same? It’s all ludicrously true.

He then cited an early philosopher, honestly mistaking his work with that of Clement of Rome, to show that the influential Clement did not hold to the Real Presence. I gently pointed out the case of mistaken identity and he became angry, calling the conversation off, because I was too “emotionally invested” in Catholic doctrine to see the truth. We had a conversation that lasted over the course of several days that ultimately went down in flames because we failed to understand each other.

There’s a great example I like which points out how careful you need to be when putting your own inflection to someone else’s written word. I heard it, I think, from Charles Swindoll. It has always stuck with me. It’s the simple sentence, “I didn’t say you were stupid.”

There’s no inflection in writing except where the reader places it. Let’s conquer that by using capitals. Please trust that I am not shouting. Take “I” didn’t say you were stupid, with emphasis on the first word.  It’s possible that you are stupid. It’s possible people are talking about it. But, I haven’t said it.

I DIDN’T say you were stupid is a straight up denial. Sort of. It doesn’t rule out the possibility I may say it in the future.

I didn’t SAY you were stupid. I thought it. I’ve accepted it as common knowledge. I just didn’t verbalize it.

I didn’t say YOU were stupid. It’s your mother who is the real dummy.

I didn’t say you WERE stupid. It’s an oncoming thing. No way is your stupidity relegated to the past. It isn’t that you were stupid. It’s that you are stupid right at this very moment.

I didn’t say you were STUPID. But, let me tell you, being stupid would be the least of your problems. Your big problem is that you are ugly. Oh, and you smell really bad. But I didn’t say you were stupid.

Facebook is often hard for me because I frequently misread the intent of a post. I will admit that, for me, joy is fleeting and gloom is permanent. And, because of that, I often place a negative reading on an innocuous comment. I hope you don’t do that too.

It’s important for me to remember, for my Calvinist friend to realize and maybe for you to remember also, that only the reader and not the writer can control how a sentence is read.

Let’s read each others words with the best intent.

Beauty, Poetry, and Restless Hearts

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. 

(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Giampietrino-Last-Supper-ca-1520

by Ross Decker Sr

A few weeks ago, my priest began his homily by reading a poem aloud. As he read it, I realized I was having a personal epiphany regarding my reasons for converting to the Church after spending very nearly 40 years meandering in a Protestant desert. For the very first time I began to think that I may have been drawn to the Catholic Church because it was a religion of poetry. A religion of art. A religion of beauty.

When I first began to consider entering the Roman Catholic Church, I encountered Bishop (then Father) Robert Barron. My wife Liz and I had just seen Midnight in Paris and loved it. While googling about the film the next day, she came across  Father Barron’s review of the movie along with a series of other reviews he’d done. “Look, Honey. A priest who reviews movies!”

I’ll admit that I thought it was going to be silly. After all, what kind of out of touch reviews would a priest write? I imagined that they would all be stilted works, not really capable of grasping worldly art. But I was wrong. I learned that Father Barron had a fine grasp upon the real world. He reviewed movies from the point of view of someone who loved them, who appreciated them and who understood them. He wrote a fantastic piece using Dante’s Inferno to describe the Christian life. He spoke of Lennon and Dylan as though they were artists, not as though they were silly sinners creating nothing worthwhile. I had been taught that in my previous experience, but Robert Barron seemed to see no art as secular, all art as divine.

St. Augustine famously said that, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” So, of course it would have to be that all art is God’s art, all poetry and prose stems from God. Now, some of this may come from an anti-God position, but even that art exists to examine man’s struggle to make sense of God nonetheless. Whether in confrontation or communion, our restless hearts sing of God.

Over the last few hundred years there has been a movement which has attempted to separate artistic culture from religion. I grew up in that school of thought. It’s a movement that might hold that modern culture cannot speak to the Church, that modern culture should be shunned. Avoided. It’s also a movement that has sought to strip religious art, both old and new, from religion. A movement seeking almost to deny the yearning of man for God. It’s a movement that has turned beer halls and school auditoriums into churches and have turned churches into stark, soulless meeting halls. We’ve seen altars converted into stages and windows viewed things that must be covered with drawn shades. It was a movement that, for me, was lacking. I could no longer separate the two cultures. I wanted the art. I wanted the struggle. I wanted the poetry.

The history of the Church reads like the history of art itself. Through the ages the Church commissioned artistic works. The Church was a patron of the arts. Artists created canvas upon canvas of Biblical theme. They sought to explain, to glorify and to define God through their work. They left to us breathtaking art that glorified God. The Ghent Altarpiece is stunning, there was Caravaggio, who at the dawn of the 17th century was called the most famous painter in Rome. That’s certainly saying quite a bit. Last year at this time, I walked the streets of Rome to see church after church, each with amazingly beautiful artwork. The church architecture was breathtaking in itself. Walking through the Vatican Museum I was surrounded by so much beauty it made me want to just stand still and sob. And, of course, in the midst of all that is the Sistine Chapel. God reaches out there to touch mankind. Painted by Michelangelo, I see it as the pinnacle of religious art. I’m confident that I’m not alone in that opinion.

So, Robert Barron’s position that art is the language of the Church resonated with me. The vesting of the Priests, the sensory awakening of incense, the beautiful ringing of bells to signify the epiclesis, the windows, the statues, the altar, all illustrate to me a respect and deference to our God that just isn’t found elsewhere.

I was drawn to the Catholic Church by art. It wasn’t the reason I converted, of course. I converted because of the doctrine. But I never would have heard the doctrine if I hadn’t come for the poetry.

It reminds me that the world is charged with the grandeur of God.

The Pope, The Line, and Who’s Telling The Story?

by Ross Decker Sr

I was on a line with other ticket holders waiting to attend Pope Francis’ Papal Mass at Madison Square Garden. The line was astonishingly long. We walked 13 city blocks away from the start of the line at from Madison Square Garden itself to get to the back of the line. Then we waited for the line to start moving so we’d be able to retrace our steps along that 13 Block route back to Madison Square Garden.

The line was a happy one. There was no grumbling at all about the wait, a wait which was ultimately two and a half hours from where I joined the line. Everyone was talking about the Holy Father. They loved the news coverage. They thought the reporters were stunned by this Pope. They speculated about where he was along this day’s itinerary. Would he be late? would we be late? Would they start the Mass before we got inside? Oh, and yes, was that a rainbow?

Our Pope had charmed Washington and New york. He charms everyone everywhere. He brings the Gospel story in a fresh way, making that story present and relative to today. He reminds me of when I first heard Bishop Robert Barron say that the Catholic story was a beautiful story. It just hasn’t always had the right people telling it.

The Holy Father took DC by storm, telling Congress,  “Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.”

A week before, I wasn’t planning on being here. I’d been to Rome and had seen him give the Wednesday Angelus blessing from his apartment window. The following Sunday was the better day, though. We had tickets to the General Audience in St. Peter’s Square and were seated right at the railing. The Holy Father came past us and we were only about three feet from his happily waving hand. So, I reasoned, what could top that?

I didn’t enter the drawing for the Central Park drive through. I reasoned that I may be far back in the crowd, without a good view, I might be uncomfortable, the weather might be poor. My parish had only 16 tickets for the Papal Mass at Madison Square Garden. They were to be given out in a lottery type drawing. I didn’t enter. I was quite happy to watch the Pope’s visit on television. I was. For awhile.

As the press began to amp up coverage of the impending visit, some desire to see the Holy Father began to stir. I heard a woman tell a reporter that she was hoping to see the procession through Central Park. It was, she said, a “once in a lifetime experience.” That made sense to me. I wanted to go, but it was too late.

So, when my daughter-in-law, Catherine, offered me the two passes she’d gotten to see the Central Park procession, I was delighted. I was going to see the Pope. To sweeten the pie, she’d gotten the handicap access I needed. Now, I had a whole new view of this Papal visit. I was in. I was a participant.

The only thing better now would be tickets to the Papal Mass. But there were none available. I told a few people that I was hoping to get a ticket should one become available. But none did. Then, after mass on Sunday morning, I was getting into my car. I saw someone I knew driving down the street and we waved to each other. He stopped for the traffic light and then, backed up and lowered his window to chat. We talked about the Papal visit and how energized we all were, how hectic the Holy Father’s schedule would be. As an afterthought he asked. “are you going to the Mass?” No, I said, I didn’t have a ticket. “How many do you need,” he asked. “I have extras.”

The line began to move quickly as we neared the entrance. There was NYPD security on top of the marquee. Police were assuring us that, as long as we had a ticket we’d get in. The line divided to those with and those without bags. I had no bag and slid off to the line on the right. There was one person in front of me. After a quick scan with the wand, I was inside.

I’d missed some of the performances. I got to my seat as Gloria Estefan was introducing Jennifer Hudson. Then came Harry Connick. There was time to buy souvenirs and get back to my seat a minute before His Holiness entered. I was caught up in the excitement. The Pope was in my city and I was seeing him.

“Knowing that Jesus still walks our streets,” he preached, “that he is part of the lives of his people, that he is involved with us in one vast history of salvation, fills us with hope. A hope which liberates us from the forces pushing us to isolation and lack of concern for the lives of others, for the life of our city. A hope which frees us from empty “connections”, from abstract analyses, or sensationalist routines. A hope which is unafraid of involvement, which acts as a leaven wherever we happen to live and work. A hope which makes us see, even in the midst of smog, the presence of God as he continues to walk the streets of our city.”

Capping his whirlwind visit was the trip to Philadelphia where he addressed the sexual abuse scandal.“God weeps for the sexual abuse of children. These cannot be maintained in secret, and I commit to a careful oversight to ensure that youth are protected and all responsible will be held accountable. Those who have survived this abuse have become true heralds of mercy – humbly, we owe each of them our gratitude for their great value as they have had to suffer this terrible abuse sexual abuse of minors.”

And then, it was over. He was on his way back to The Eternal City of Rome. But he didn’t leave before filling us with hope and love, reminding us of both our value and our neighbor’s. And not before humbly asking us to pray for him. He reminded us that the Catholic story is a beautiful story. And now the right person was telling it.

Syrians, Samaritans and Mustard Seeds

by Ross Decker Sr

He proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.”

As the middle east continues to be a troubled, unsafe place, thousands of Syrian immigrants pour into Europe daily. Estimates place the number of displaced people at nearly 400,000. We’ve seen the pictures and heard the stories. The photograph of the three year old who drowned on his way toward hope is burned into our minds. Although the wealthy Gulf States have displayed amazing lack of compassion for their Islamic brethren, Europe is responding to the crisis with kindness and care. Germany has set itself at the center of the gracious acceptance of these displaced people. At this point, though, the crisis shows no signs of abating.

The Pope has called for each Catholic parish in Europe to take as many refugees as possible. He has extended the compassionate arm of Jesus Christ toward these afflicted people and welcomed them. It is, he reminds us, our duty as Christians. More than that, it is our great calling. We are to love the world and to love our neighbor in Jesus’ name. It is an honor to do so, regardless of the personal costs. The disciple James advises us of our responsibility on this. He writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,  and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what goo is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Quite a few Christians, Catholic and Protestants alike, have questioned this call. Some think it isn’t safe to do this. They worry that terrorists will slip into our society, arriving as refugees. I have heard others say that, being the same nationality as our enemies, they should be left to suffer and to perish in this horrible predicament. This may even seem to be the sensible thing to do if we are afraid of those nations. Some say that they would prefer to protect what they have and let this poor mass of humans find it’s own way through. But this solution is political expediency, not religion.  But it isn’t a following of the calling given to us by our Lord. Our religion, if co-opted by fear and hatred, is no religion at all.  And, if we turn to our faith only when we’ve exhausted “reasonable” options, we’ve only a comforting philosophy. Not a faith. We pollute our faith when we fold politics into it. Combining those ingredients ruin the recipe. Religion plus politics equals politics.

Let’s look at the parable of the Good Samaritan. This is one of the most famous parables of Jesus. People with absolutely no connection to faith have all heard of it. A certain man went down the very dangerous Jericho Road. On the way, he was mugged. The muggers beat him very severely, robbed him and left him for dead by the side of the road. His own people, a priest and a Levite, passed him by. They were in a position to help. As religious people, you would reasonably expect that they would. But, they didn’t. It took a Samaritan, in this situation the enemy, who gave the comfort. This stranger, this enemy, went out of his way. He cleansed the wounds, he brought him to an inn, and covered all the expenses.

Well, it isn’t a very big stretch to apply this parable to the immigration crisis. The influx of immigrants is represented by the man beaten on the roadside. The priest and the Levite are the Persian Gulf nations who will not help. And we? We have the opportunity to be the Samaritan. We shouldn’t wish to play the role of the Levite.

It makes sense not to help. It’s safer. It feeds into our anger and revenge instincts. It’s the easy choice to make. But it isn’t what we are called to do.

The Scripture overflows with exhortation to be kind. To do good. To love our enemies. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength and with all our mind. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are to be kind to the stranger in our land. Do these people, so desperately in need of our help, possibly have ties to the terrorists who seek to kill us? Yes. But we are to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us. We are to bless those who curse us and pray for those who mistreat us. No, it doesn’t make sense. But we are supposed to do it.

Through the centuries the Church has handled difficult situations with supernatural bravery. Are we always delivered in the way that Daniel was delivered from the lion? No. We are not. But brave Christians have preserved and advanced the faith through the years. Tertullian wrote “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

Recent events in Paris have made this a harder choice. And, it has place a solemn burden on our government to thoroughly vet refugees.  Maybe there will be terrorists hidden within the masses who seek asylum. But, if something horrible happens, it will have happened while we were doing good. While we were serving the Lord. While we were loving our enemies and washing their feet.

The parable tells us that the mustard seed is one of the smallest of all seeds. And Jesus says it is an example of our faith. And to follow that illustration, it’s fair to say that our faith, when it is fully grown, should be expansive. It should be welcoming. The birds of the air and the people of all nations should find the mustard tree of our faith to be a safe harbor from the harsh reality of this world. They should find comfort in our branches and stability in our rooting. This is our calling.

Kim Davis, Wedlock and Deadlock

By Ross Decker Sr

I’m pretty sure that you have heard, over and over, that Kim Davis. a clerk in Kentucky, refused to issue wedding licenses to same sex couples because of her deeply held religious beliefs. She took a stand, a stand that prevented some couples from obtaining marriage licenses for a few days and, once again, made Christians look totally foolish.

I’m a Christian. Had a “born again” experience in 1976 and I’ve never wavered from the commitment I made to God on that day. But I never got confused about what that commitment was. It was a commitment to live my life according to the grace God gave me through His Spirit in accordance with His word, the Bible. At no time did I make a commitment for anyone else and in nearly 40 years of following Him it has never occurred to me to extend that commitment to anyone else. No one had to follow the rules I’d voluntarily adopted for myself but me.

So, Let me get this out of the way straight off. I’m sick to death of Christians taking stands about what other people should do. Before we do that, let’s take a shot at getting better at our own behavior.

I’m not about taking stands. I can’t support someone using their political power to try to force their deeply held religious beliefs on other people. Kim Davis is all that. She’s taking stands. Gays had to wait about a week before they can get married. Not a very effective stand, was it?  She wouldn’t put her signature on a marriage license because she has to take a stand. She can’t go against her word. Or….can she? What about the vow she took when she assumed the job? She vowed to uphold the laws on Kentucky. Now she goes back on her word. Because she is taking a stand.

Her lawyer claims she has been jailed for her beliefs. But that isn’t true. She is being jailed for her actions. And she is being jailed for ordering her subordinates to follow her conscience rather than their own. She’s taken a stand for them, too.

The Bible is written for God’s people. For believers. Never does the Bible put us in charge of what non-Christians do. We are not to tell them how to live. We have enough difficulty keeping our own stuff together. None of us are in the position to tell a non-believer how to live their lives. We  are called to proclaim the gospel, the good news that Jesus Christ died for mankind’s sins. It’s accepting that by grace that we are redeemed. It isn’t by living a moral life.So, why would a dutiful Christian try to control the behavior of non-believers when that good behavior makes a non-believer the nicest person in hell.

I’ve lived this life long enough to see someone on staff at his church refuse to attend a wedding between a young couple because he was “taking a stand.” The couple was of legal age to marry, the bride wasn’t pregnant. All the parents approved of the marriage. What was the issue? The pastor of this man’s church was counseling the groom and the groom chose not to follow it. That was a little more than 10 years ago. That lovely couple is still happily married today. But, that guy, related in no way, refused to be a guest at their wedding because he was taking a stand.

A dear friend gave his daughter in marriage. In this case, she was pregnant. People (from the same church), took a stand and stayed away. Though it was none of their business, they didn’t approve. Maybe they thought that if they went to that wedding they’d wind up pregnant too. It’s hard to know what the reason is when someone takes a stand. Both sets of parents approved of the wedding. But, their dear friends took a stand. And they created a host of negative memories that pop up with each anniversary. And, yes, there have been over twenty of those anniversaries.

Now why does Kim Davis refuse to issue marriage licenses to same sex applicants? From my point of view, I’d have to say it’s merely because she feels like it. There are certainly no scripture verses to support her deeply held religious views that she should tell strangers how to behave.

That right wing Christians try to frame this as some kind of infringement upon religious freedom is troubling. The government isn’t forcing its beliefs upon her. If anything, it is Kim Davis attempting to force her religious beliefs on the government. I get that religious freedom extends to the individual outside their house of worship. Religion cannot be limited to the walls that surround the church, temple or mosque. The freedom to practice your religion must extend to the marketplace. Christians are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and the imprisoned. We are to bury the dead. We need to be able, for example, to feed the homeless in city parks. To be forbidden to do so, or to be forbidden to mention Jesus’ name does infringe on our religious freedom. But, when it comes to actions that affect others, our deeply held religious convictions, and the extent of our religious freedom, should be to do good and not harm. To be compassionate and not harsh. It is not an infringement upon our religious convictions to stop us from forcing our religious beliefs on others.

We are a nation of laws. We obey the laws. If we have a job which requires that we perform an action we find we cannot do with a clear conscience, we give up that job. We don’t disrupt the lives of others as we protest the law. Don’t refuse to do your job and expect to continue being paid, especially if you took an oath, as government officials do, to do that job.

One thing we can expect from Christians is to tell the truth. Jesus says to let your yes be yes and your no be no. If you promised to do your job, do it. Or resign. If something about your job bothers you and you do not quit, you effectively tell everyone that you are choosing your paycheck over your principles.

I do believe that a church should never be forced to perform same-sex marriages. That would infringe upon their deeply held religious beliefs. But, an individual’s signature on a marriage license doesn’t compromise their convictions in any way. That would be a legal service regarding a legal procedure. Kim Davis would be acting as an employee of the state, not as a Christian. That marriage will be performed without naming God once. Outside the walls of the church, it’s a civil marriage. Religious convictions are not involved.

Jesus never tells us to interfere in the lives of non-believers. I think that’s because we have such a difficult time managing our own. But, there are many verses and parables which clearly tell us that we are to act kindly, lovingly, compassionately. Let’s not worry so much about how important our signature is and let’s start being kind and compassionate when we name the name of Jesus Christ.

Twitter, Martin Luther, and Oz

martin-luther-nails-thesis-1

by Ross Decker Sr

So, there we sat. Liz and I were waiting in the church library for the meeting to begin. I had some sense of what to expect. I’d been in church meetings before. I’d been to Oz and had seen behind the curtain. It would be a slam dunk set up. The pastor would come in, accompanied by two or three others who totally and unflinchingly agreed with him. They’d put together their talking points. They had played out the meeting among themselves, came to their conclusion and now, all that was left was to fill us in. After, an imitation discussion, of course.

We were called in to discuss some horrible crime related to our Twitter pages. The pastor didn’t want to tell us why he wanted to meet with us, surprise being an advantage to him. Nor did he want to invite the person who’d brought the questionable tweets to his attention. But, we would have no meeting without those two concessions, I assured him. Reluctantly, he gave in. Pastoral sit downs are so stacked against the congregant that, like Gil Garcetti moving the OJ Simpson trial to downtown Los Angeles, he was sure he’d crush us.

I assumed that he had issues with our Twitter accounts because I followed LaylaLoves on twitter and she followed me. We occasionally talked about our dogs, hers being Mojo and mine being Spanky. She is an entertainment and sports reporter. Very knowledgeable and very attractive.

But it wasn’t Layla. It was David Platt. I wasn’t the problem at all this time. It was Liz. She was posting quotes from Platt’s book, “Radical”, a book which looked at the American Evangelical church in a new way. At that meeting was a kid on the worship team. Wanting to be noticed, told the pastor’s wife that Liz was posting “dark tweets about the church.” she, ran to tattle to her husband. Not until the meeting began did the pastor learn that the tweets and re-tweets were points made by Platt, probably because he couldn’t conceive of someone learning something from a source beyond his pulpit.

What did our pastor find objectionable about Platt? Nothing, it turns out. He agreed with every Platt quote once he learned that they were from a respected, hip Christian leader. He did say that Platt was wrong to make those observations public and Liz was wrong to Tweet them. The assistant pastor earned his paycheck, saying, “You don’t know who might read it and say ‘Ross and Liz think the church is bad so maybe it is'”.

Then it got awkward. I enjoy awkward. This was the point where Liz reminded him that he had asked her to do internet research to learn what the cool churches had been doing. He wanted to incorporate some trendy things into his sermons. He was angry with her because she had done what he’d asked her to. Besides, she pointed out, she’d written many positive things on her personal blog.

He got very loud at this, slamming his hand on the table. “All the positive stuff is about Glenn Blossom,” he yelled out. “Glenn Blossom! Glenn Blossom! I’m sick to death of Glenn Blossom!”

“Well, Glenn has been very kind to us,” I said. “I consider him my friend and mentor.”

“Well, you once called me a cold hearted preacher, he screamed. And….there it was. Four years before, a young man who from our congregation lost his life in a car crash early on a Sunday morning. The entire service went by until there was an “oh. as some of you have heard,” announcement. After dismissal. I met the pastor and told him I’d thought that the late announcement wasn’t enough in this situation. I told him that I’d wished he’d done more. He explained why he’d approached it the way he had and his point made sense to me. I told him so immediately and we parted, I thought, amicably.

Not so. Now, in the presence of the assistant pastor, the kid from the worship team and my wife, he spewed out his bitterness. The saddest part about it is that he had been acting as everything was fine. He was taking communion every Sunday and serving it to me. He made me a deacon. And, all the while, he hated me for a conversation that only happened from him reliving it and rewriting it in his mind. I reminded him of what really happened and he admitted I was right. He then launched into a “you two are so bitter that nothing any pastor does can make you happy.” Then, he heel-turned and was off to pick his daughter up from school.

Why did it happen? I think it was a pastor who didn’t understand his job. He admitted that he never was on Twitter. He’d only felt he had to do something because his wife brought it to his attention. And she heard from the kid on the worship team. But, why did he care? What if the tweets weren’t quotes but were Liz’s own words? What if there was, as the tweets suggested, a problem with the church in that it was functionally segregated by color and culture? What if the church really wasn’t doing enough to care for the poor? Is it really preferable to keep silent about it? Should tweets really be, as the pastor actually insisted, “rah, rah, Jesus?” I don’t think so. and this Protestant pastor needed to remember that Martin Luther didn’t think so. In fact, that church might never have existed if Luther hadn’t criticized the Church of his day, using social media in nailing his 95 Thesis’ to the Wittenberg door that Saturday in October.

The next Sunday, during his sermon, he held up a copy of Platt’s book. It was a book he was enjoying, he claimed, and promised to be working Platt quotes into his messages.Of course, he never did. And then he did the thing pastors often do when they fail to dominate their prey in a meeting. He re-enacted a question/answer from our discussion but altered the responses to prove his point. The phone calls started three weeks later. The assistant pastor called to ask why we were still coming to church. He told us that, if a pastor had spoken to him as venomously as ours had to us, he’d be gone. After several more calls I asked a friend of mine, a counselor on the church staff, why I was getting these repeat calls, He told me that they wanted us out.

And, so it crystallized for us. A string of people had been driven from that church after nasty encounters with that pastor. We were just the latest. So, yes. We would start going to another church because that’s what our insecure pastor wanted. I told him we wanted to go to a church that had a greater outreach to the poor. Makes sense, he said, because “you’re not gonna get that here.” So, we went to the other church, the one from last week’s Ashley Madison post.

So, Pastors, don’t fight your flock. Shepherd us. You’re called by Christ to take care of us. Treat us kindly. Drive us into the safety of the church, not from it.Don’t use our private conversations for sermon fodder.  And certainly, under no circumstance should you slam us as bitter without being willing to help us with our problems. Oh yes, and don’t expose your own bitterness while accusing someone else of being bitter.

And, should we not mention problems within the church so that we get people to join us? Is that the way we grow our churches? I think not. I think it never hurts to speak the truth, for the truth will set you free. I have that on good authority, too. It isn’t even from David Platt

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As always, I appreciate your comments. Next weeks’ blog will likely be about the aforementioned Glenn Blossom. Let’s see if you get sick to death of Glenn Blossom too.

Confession, Gossip, and Ashley Madison (part one)

by Ross Decker Sr

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession.”

When I said those words, it struck me that I’d  never thought that The Penitential Act of confession would be one of the major attractions to Catholicism for me. Why would I sit in a dimly lit booth and speak my sins out loud to another man? For thirty seven years it had been drilled into me that there was no mediator between man and God but Jesus Christ, and I could access God’s forgiveness at any time by merely thinking about it in the privacy of  my head. Now, I was comforted while confessing my sins to a priest.

There was something very welcoming to me about confession. I knew for certain that it was the Seal of Confession more than the confession itself that drew me. I knew that whatever I told the priest would not be shared with anyone else, not even with me. And that was very different from the religious culture I’d come from.

During my previous thirty seven years I’d learned that you had to be careful what you allowed people to see of you in church. The Apostle Paul, Saint Paul, wrestled openly with sinful desires. He didn’t hide that. Romans 7:15-20 has him writing “ For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.  For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” Let me be clear; Saint Paul would be excluded from ministry in a few churches I’d attended. 

In all of the churches I’d attended, only one pastor, Glenn Blossom, ever admitted to the same struggle Saint Paul so openly wrote about. His openness about his own temptations and failings created such a comfortable environment at that church. He often said that the church, a precursor to our heavenly family, must be the safest place on earth. I wonder too, if the ability to speak freely about ‘little’ sins might be a good defense against the major failings we’ve seen via Ashley Madison. Maybe, if Josh Duggar and Sam Rader weren’t conditioned to hide their sin as a means of self preservation, perhaps someone could have helped them avoid this latest scandal.

Needless to say, those other churches were never the safest places on earth. Following the pastoral lead, everyone dedicated themselves to hiding and denying any sin issues in their lives. To be discovered would mean being shamed, being curtailed from any ministry you might be doing and, what I didn’t find out until much later, being grist for the pastor gossip mill. Just before I left the Evangelical church on my tiny island, I learned the secret that moved me out. The pastors on Staten Island socialized regularly. Their topic of conversation? Their congregation.

I was naive enough not to know that. These pastors all preached about the sin of gossip from their pulpits. It was dishonest. It was hurtful. It ruined lives. It tore congregations apart. Yes, they told us that gossip would surely do all these things. And then, they gossiped.

In the last church Liz and I attended, the one that drove me to the open door of Catholicism was where I found this out. Liz was asked by the choir director to take over the choir. This is Liz’s gift, she has led worship for many years. Surprisingly, the pastor said she would not be allowed to do it because she had been greatly hurt in a church fifteen years before. I immediately asked for a meeting with that pastor.

I was concerned about two related things. First, I wondered why he thought Liz was troubled fifteen years after an event. Secondly, I wanted to know why he thought, believing that to be true, would tell it to his current choir director.

The amazing revelation about the meeting was that the pastor realized that Liz and I did not know the two people he’d heard the story from and….wait for it…..he remembered that the story was about someone else and he’d thought the story was about Liz. He didn’t want to create any “confusion” so he thought it best that Liz not become the new choir director anyway. Besides, he said, he’d spoken to another pastor about us and that pastor told him our twitter pages had “dark posts” on them.

I asked him if he didn’t consider all this to be gossip and he assured me that he didn’t. He told me that he regularly got together with a few Island pastors, naming them, and said that they always talked about the people in their congregation. He said they did so to “protect” the congregation. When someone from their churches left to go to another church the past pastor would call the new pastor to alert him to things he should watch for in the new attender. We asked a pastor friend of ours why this could happen and he answered readily. “It’s because pastors believe the lie that they’re special.”

Staten Island is a small island. Knowing that all the pastors gossip about their church was an eye opener to us. But learning it meant there now was no way we could again sit in an Evangelical church without the reasonable fear that the pastor had heard a story about someone else and now thought it was us. We couldn’t listen to another sermon about “integrity” without feeling betrayed. The church was no longer the safest place on earth.

We began to think about the local Catholic Church parishes. We weren’t thinking of converting. We were just looking for a place to live out our faith in the presence of God without worrying about the gossipers. We knew there was no interplay between the Evangelical pastors and the Catholic priests. Catholicism seemed safe. We drove past one church, The Church of The Sacred Heart, and noticed that the door was always open. That attracted us. We went inside. The service was beautiful. There was so much meaning to me at every moment.

So, as I knelt in the confessional, confessing my sins to a priest, I was confident that no one else would hear about them other than the three of us in that booth. Only me, the priest, and god. I knew that the priest would strive to not even remember my confession. He wouldn’t bring those sins up to anyone. Not even me.  I was safe in church, I was home.

As always, I look forward to reading your comments.

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