I spent a lot of Wednesdays and Sundays in a church that really didn’t recognize Lent. The pastor preached instant forgiveness and promised that God could not even remember your sins once you confessed them mentally to Him. He preached about Lent, Confession, Penance, and other Catholic practices only to mock them. He had a special vendetta against Catholicism and preached against it often. Until I entered the Church I always bought the story that, for Catholics, Lent was a dark time. It was a time for self flagellation. You beat yourself up for your sins. I was taught that Catholicism provided no outlet for the forgiveness of sins.
After being received into the Church I began to see the beauty in Lent. I saw that Lent was also a time for deeper praying. Our Lenten journey was to allow us to walk closer to our Lord and to hold Him all the closer. We do that through those Lenten sacrifices and through a deepening of our prayer lives. And, alms giving. That’s such a beautiful and sacred part of Lent. and, so fitting that a church which shares God’s special love for the poor would prescribe a season of charity so that we might enrich our own hearts by giving.
Lent was always important to my mom and me. She was a single mom and took me to church often. She sang hymns around the house during the day and quoted Bible verses to me that, I now realize, were learned directly from her Small Catechism. She grew up in a Lutheran Orphanage, the daughter of a Lutheran minister.
Her father had a brutal effect upon her life. Not only was he a bad father, sending her and her twin sister to live in an orphanage, but he was a terrible minister. He was defrocked due to poor moral conduct and ultimately wound up working on the custodial staff of the very home where he’d sent his daughters. For some crazy reason, my mom grew up distrusting ministers. Even crazier, I think, she grew up without her faith in God shaken.
One Lenten Wednesday night my mom took me to church. The lesson was about Jesus’ agony in the garden. It was told using a slide show. I can remember to this day a slide that was shot from above, through the trees, of Jesus praying while the disciples slept a short distance away. Something stirred in me at that time. I still cannot put it into words but that feeling has stayed with me. Today, writing this and seeing the picture once more in my mind, I am stirred with a desire to walk with Jesus.
But, Lent was also a time of mild fear for me. I knew very little about it but I knew that there was a time during Lent where the congregation washed each others’feet. Believe me, I wanted no part of that!
It was during Lent of 2013 that my RCIA course drew near the close and I prepared to enter the Church. It was a turbulent time for me, a pretty staunch Protestant, as I came face to face with the reality of what the first fifteen hundred years after the Cross meant. I realized that, if the Holy Spirit was real, and in charge of guiding the Church into all truth, Catholicism had to be the right choice for me. Otherwise, I thought, the first thing the Holy Spirit would have done after being charged with leading us to truth would have been to guide us into error. That just could not be. So, during Lent, I took the plunge into the Tiber and swam to the other side.
It was as Lent ended in 2014 that I sat in our congregation on a Holy Thursday and was swept up to heaven in worship as the choir filled the church with beautiful notes. Those notes seemed to swirl upward toward the great vaulted ceiling and were joined there with angel voices. It was the most beautiful time I’d ever experienced in church.
And, this Lent is sure to be a special memory for me, too. As I was on the handshake line after Mass, my priest asked if he could have a word with me. Was I planning on coming to the Holy Thursday Mass? Even though I knew immediately what was coming next, I admitted that I was.
“Would you be willing to have your feet washed?”
I don’t want my wife to become a Catholic. Not, as in the Seinfeld episode, that there’s anything wrong with it. While she finds Catholicism to be meaningful and beautiful, she gets a personal fulfillment from another type of ecclesiastical community.
I’ve become a Catholic recently. But, that isn’t my heritage. My heritage, my lineage, is that of a Protestant. My mother was Protestant. My father was Protestant. My grandfather on my mom’s side was a Lutheran minister. It gets pretty muddled beyond that. Although I was baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran, growing up I went to a Methodist church. And, like any self-respecting teen, as soon as I was confirmed, going to church was over for me.
When I was a young adult, I began to feel a very strong desire to return to church. My wife, Liz, shared that pull. We didn’t know where to go at first but I remember saying that I didn’t want to waste our time by going to a church where the people weren’t “all in.” We decided to go to a nearby Assembly of God church. We had been married there and had no doubt that the pastor was fully committed to the Bible.
I was the only male younger than sixty in that church so, with the pastor’s support, we began attending (ultimately joining), an Inter-Denominational church. Our Assemblies pastor didn’t approve of that particular church but we were sure we new better. The twenty two years that followed were more like being customers of a family owned and operated business than being members of a church. And, for that reason, please cut me some slack when I describe my Evangelical Protestant experiences. They come mainly from one, off the track, church.
This was a church that was formed when the founding pastor had a disagreement with the church he was pastoring. It’s actually a fairly stereotypical illustration of how many Protestant churches begin. There was a squabble (this one happened to be over money), and the pastor convinced 16 people from the congregation to come with him so he could start his own church in the basement of a bank. There, he could lead his new group unfettered, not controlled by anyone else. I was a member of three Evangelical churches during my 37 years as a Protestant. But this one, a family owned and operated enterprise, formed most of my understanding of Protestant churches. So, I do realize that the picture is clouded. After the family owned one I went to two denominational churches, both within the Evangelical Free denomination. They were not too similar to each other, oddly. One seemed to be a traditionally styled EFC congregation and the other clearly borrowed the playbook of the independent one. One thing the three of them shared was a right leaning political position. They sang patriotic songs on US holidays. They had the United States flag on the “platform”.
Liz became a soloist at the first church as it grew. She was one of the very few singers in the regular rotation who was not a family member. I’m going to get a little “churchy” and say that, when she sang, the Holy Spirit moved. It was never a performance. What came out of her mouth on Sunday mornings clearly was more than the sum total of her ability. Grown men often wept, they were so deeply touched.
The church continued to attract new members and was about to outgrow the building they’d bought. They added onto it but the building was too small the moment the doors opened on each new section. My wife was ministering in song, I served as a deacon, and my son found his first girlfriend. And, that’s when the wheels came off and I first peeked behind the curtains and saw the wizard.
Someone in the youth group told a “youth worker” that my son and his girlfriend were going “too far.” The youth worker did what was protocol in that church and told the pastor without confronting my son or his girlfriend. So, the other father and I were called into a meeting where we were ambushed by the pastor, his son, and a few witnesses. The pastor presented his concerns and then two youth witnesses came in to tell of their fears. The pastor told s in grave tones that we, as fathers, must order our kids to stop seeing each other.
Perhaps it had never happened before but, the pastor was pretty shocked when both fathers refused to break them up. Just as he really began to heat up, one of the youth worker witnesses came back into the room and recanted! He said he’d been pressured into saying there was an issue when he really didn’t see one. even the son now realized that there were no substantive complaints about our kids. But, when he said that to his father the dad shut him down. obediently, he hushed himself.
What happened next was beyond the pale. Realizing that nothing untoward had happened between our kids and knowing that many people were aware that this meeting was happening (although we didn’t know) he tried a different tact. Rather than being the righteous judge, he petitioned us to break our kids up so the reputation of these two respected youth leaders would not suffer. That’s right! As loyal church members we were to make our kids appear guilty in order to protect the youth workers reputations, even after one had admitted that he was not telling the truth.
What happened next was really crazy. It’s the type of thing that could only happen in a church where the pastor is CEO and answers to no one.
Part Two is coming your way soon.
With the possibility of the repeal and replacement for Obamacare, my Facebook timeline has been abuzz. One side calls for compassion to the poor, the other complains of higher premiums they blame on Obama. I can understand the desire to have a bit more money but I can’t understand valuing that money over the lives of the poor and marginalized.
Neither the Church nor our Lord calls us to value personal wealth above humanity. We aren’t called to hoard our money. We are called to be our brother’s keeper. Logically, if you cannot do that within your own resources, the next step is to see that it gets done by an entity that can do it. Pope Benedict wrote ” To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity. To take a stand for the common good is on the one hand to be solicitous for, and on the other hand to avail oneself of, that complex of institutions that give structure to the life of society, juridically, civilly, politically and culturally, making it the pólis, or “city”. The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbours, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practise this charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the pólis. This is the institutional path — we might also call it the political path — of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbour directly, outside the institutional mediation of the pólis.”
My wife and I once went to a church where the pastor was very keen on pointing out the differences in the way Christians and non-believers act. he definitely felt that the way people behaved could tell you about their spiritual life. He told us (over and over) that he would be careful to count the change he got from the store cashier because, if too much, it gave him the opening to “present the Gospel.” How? He would announce to the cashier that he was returning the money because he was a compelled to by virtue of being a Christian. Once in the parking lot, he would proudly push his cart into the cart corral because that is what Christians do.
And, yes, to this day, Liz and I laugh about that every time we shop.
Somewhere along the line, a new generation of Christians bought into this delusion. Christians, more and more, seemingly believe that their belief can be summed up in being nice. In being exemplary social creatures. Say, Merry Christmas. Please and thank you. Pardon me. Allow the other guy to turn left in front of you at the intersection. And, why not? That’s the reason Christ willingly went to the cross, isn’t it? So we’d all have good manners?
Well, it’s great to have good manners. But, of course, Christians are called to do more. We are called to care about our neighbor and to act upon that caring. And, it isn’t just a caring out of convenience. It sometimes costs us something.
So, I link that to the health care debate I see on Facebook. A number of Christians have recently advanced the argument that it isn’t the government’s Biblical responsibility to collect taxes to take care of the uninsured. Plus, they work hard and their taxes and premiums are already too high to now subsidize the poor. One poster responded to me by writing “The problem with the govt doing it is that it is no longer charity for the poor. Charity for one’s neighbor must be out of one’s free will. Therefore, the govt imposing high premiums on some to support others is not consistent with our Christian faith. The missing element is freedom.”
Freedom? Freedom to ignore the needs of the marginalized is not a Christian tenet. Yes, the gospel states “freely have you received, freely give.” But, clearly, the one who opposes the government caring for the poor must now take it upon herself to do it. Yes, I will support your desire to have lower premiums as soon as you commit to paying the $200,000 for your neighbor’s hip replacement.
So, to claim that taxes to help the uninsured are wrong because they deny the taxpayer the “freedom” he is entitled to is a weak excuse to go on turning your back on the poor. It exposes the desire to hoard your wealth, to build the bigger storehouse of Luke 12.
It’s a darkened heart that closes an ear to the cries of the poor. And returning all the shopping carts in the world will never make up for it.
Thanks for the great response and kind words from everyone. I just want to make it clear that while we left that management team in the rear view mirror many years ago, they have continued, more than a decade later, to be unable to turn their thoughts elsewhere. They just can’t quit us. This past week we have seen the son send a nasty private message to Liz on the Facebook, Then, man that he is, block her before she could respond. But, that didn’t give him the satisfaction he sought so he contacted friends of ours to ask if we’d been saying “mean” things about him.
So… game on. Here comes part two.
The dad contacted us and told us that we had some unspoken grievance against him. We assured him there was none but he remained adamant. In fact, we had held a party at our home just a week or so before and we’d invited his son and him. I reminded him of that and he said that we’d done that as some sort of diversion from the truth. We wanted to make it look like all was well although he knew for certain that it was not. He declined our offer to get together and talk things out face to face. And, he let Liz know that she could no longer go to a woman attender’s home for a Bible study. Yes, that’s just why he opened a church business-to keep women from attending Bible studies!
They maintained an email prayer chain where members and attenders could find out who needed prayer. It was a great way to bathe someone in prayer support when there was a sudden need. The day after the phone call, Liz was removed from the list. Her prayers were no longer wanted. Well then, maybe that’s why he opened a church business-to keep people from praying for each other!
Nonetheless, the son had agreed to come to our house. We looked forward to straightening things out with him. We were confident that he was his own man and would be rational about why we left. Surely he would be able to see that we felt that we could do more good in a smaller church that needed able bodies.
Or…so we thought!
The son called and said he could no longer come to our house. His dad wouldn’t allow it. If there was to be any meeting, it would have to be on their property, not ours. And, he told us the reason why the dad had refused to come talk things out. The reason? His dad was offended that we were planning to serve dessert. Maybe that was the reason the dad opened his church business-to keep people from resolving conflict!
I once attended a church near my house that might more accurately be described as a cult.
My wife and I left it nearly twenty years ago and really have not given it much thought since. Although it was pretty much a clean break from our side, it proved to be a more difficult breakup from the viewpoint of the cult. For a number of years, they initiated attacks on us, most recently when one of them sent an abusive private message to my wife via Facebook and then blocked us all before he could be answered.
Pardon me as I avoid referring to this place as a church. It was set up then, and is still today, as a family business. The dad started it when he caused a rift at the denominational church where he had committed to shepherding. But, things didn’t go his way and, rather than working out the difference of opinion, he took a good part of the tiny congregation with him to start the new “church” in a local social club. The new church was set up with the dad at the helm, with a constitution designed to keep someone from splitting his group the way he’d trashed his old church.
My family attended that group for more than two decades. We were active, we served as elders, Liz led worship. We were very happy and blissfully uncaring that this business was run like few others. Nearly every paid position in that business, and there were many, was filled by a family member or family friend. There was little chance that any Sunday donation would see the light of the outside world before it graced a friend’s pocket. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not hinting that there was anything illegal going on. Just something unseemly. And we didn’t care. It’s a good thing that didn’t bother us. Because my wife was on the payroll, too.
Eventually, embarrassingly far along in our Christian walk, we began to yearn for a different type of Christianity than we practiced in that building. We felt called to serve in a smaller church that needed our help. The one we’d been attending had grown to about 500 people (1600 in any of their press mentions). They were fine. We wanted to go where we were needed. So, I wrote a letter to the dad, letting him know that we were leaving under the best of terms, had no grievances, and wanted to serve in a smaller church.
One of the first things we were able to do with that small church was to pick up litter around the entire neighborhood. That was what we were doing when our local paper showed up to take a picture. And, when it was printed in the paper, all hell broke loose.
I got a phone call from the dad’s secretary and was told that I should call the dad. He wanted to speak to me. Now, I was shocked. I had been a group member for over two decades! Yet, somehow, the dad didn’t feel as if he had the freedom to phone me. I assured the secretary that he was welcome to place that call and that he should call me on the very same number she’d successfully reached me at. Yes, I know he had her call me because he was playing a power game. But, unless you are the Pope, I win those games. So, he caved and called me.
He initiated the phone call by introducing himself merely as “Pastor.” That forced my stubborn self to begin a practice I’ve kept up until this day. I addressed him by his name, not his title. How angry he was! What, he asked, were people going to think about his “church” if they saw us picking up garbage in the street? Why would we minister at another church if it was not something designed to embarrass him?
He demanded a meeting at his office. We offered to have it in our living room. He refused, insulted that we would challenge his authority. I pointed out that we had left cordially, that we wished him the best. I also told him that his son was coming to our house to speak with us the very next week.
Or, so I thought…
I often do things backward. In my spiritual life, I was a Protestant first and a Catholic last. I was my own personal Counter-Reformation.
One April morning, Palm Sunday in 1976, my wife and I raised our hands in response to a pastor’s challenge to accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. That was how they did it in the church I’d attended for the first time that day. The pastor preached a sermon on some Biblical topic he deemed pertinent, offered up the opportunity to become a christian, and invited you to come forward. Yes, that’s right. On our first day in that church, Liz and I walked to the front, stood before the congregation, and repeated a prayer that was promised to change our lives.
Now, having embraced Catholicism, I see the “altar call” event differently. But, truth be told, that simple prayer did it’s job. From that day forward the two of us have walked a path that has immersed us deeply into the love of God. It changed our lives immediately and continues to do so daily.
That Tuesday, the pastor surprised us with a knock on our door. He wanted to follow up with us about our decision. He wanted to make sure we knew what we were doing and he wanted to give us a framework for our new lives as Christians. He told us about tithing! and he told us that Jesus had called each of us to take up our cross and follow him.
The carrying of our own cross was a topic this pastor, as well as other pastors in my life, revisited often. Mostly, it was an explanation for why Christians still suffered. You have cancer? That’s your cross to bear. Unemployed? Your cross to bear. Cranky mother-in-law? It was that cross again.
Somehow, it seemed to me to be too tidy an explanation. First, My life was pretty good. We always had enough money, no one had cancer, none of our children were in jail. My mother-in-law passed away before we met. All in all, our lives were perfect. I had no cross to bear. It took me years of Christianity to really bring the cross to bear issue into focus for my life. When I did, I wondered how those explanations could be true. Why would we carry our own crosses if Jesus had told us to cast all our burdens upon Him? seemed to me that carrying our cross must mean something else.
After going through RCIA and being received into the Church, I settled into a Jesuit serviced parish. And, not long after that, the carrying of my cross took on a clearer meaning.
I began to see that Jesus, through the Incarnation, placed Himself into total conformity with the Father. Everywhere He went, to everyone he spoke, he spoke the will and the words of the Father. He continued this conformity to the Father’s will right up until His death. His death on the cross. Jesus’ cross to bear, pictured by the wooden one, was His willingness to be conformed to the will of the Father. Ours, the, is to be conformed into the will of Jesus Christ.
That’s why the decisions we make are so important in our daily lives. They are our cross to bear. Can we look on immigrants with disdain? We cannot. To do so would put us in nonconformity with Jesus. Can we walk past the beggar? Can we call political candidates vile names? Can we hate someone based on the color of their skin? Their gender? Their sexual preference? Can we label an entire religious group terrorists? Can we look the other way when we see someone being bullied?
Of course we can’t. We must respond in a way that conforms us into the will of Jesus. We must do it in a way that reflects the love of our Lord. We do that because we are the salt of the earth, the light upon a hill. We do it because it is our cross to bear.