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Unity

In Christianity on May 23, 2009 at 1:03 pm

There is no more beautiful chapter in Scripture than John 17. Christ’s high priestly prayer is among the summits of the New Testament. It tells us about Christ’s earthly work; about His love for us; about His relationship with The Father; about intra-Trinitarian love Itself. And in this prayer, three times in just eleven verses we encounter the phrase, “That they may be one” (John 17:11-22).

May Be One?
Yes, unbiblical ecumenism exists. So it is easy to justify fragmentation between denominations by imagining one’s own grasp of the truth demands separation from those less skilled exegetically or less faithful in living their faith. One might even argue that the true church is invisible but unity really does exist among true believers. Yet we can’t escape Jesus’ words in John 13:35, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

All will know we are Christ’s disciples? Men and women who are not yet reconciled to God have a difficult time seeing an “invisible church”—a phrase sometimes used to explain away the visible lack of unity. Instead, they see hundreds of contentious sects. Each one (as with the fable about the blind men describing an elephant) stumbles about, clinging to a partial element of the fullness of Truth.

“One body, and one Spirit . . . One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:3-6)  This is the metric against which the Church is measured: unity, real unity—not some imagined, “invisible” fellowship.

What Does Visible Unity Look Like?
From a positive perspective, what does unity mean? Unity means I am part of a Church that is in India, Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Americas—with indigenous bishops and priests—and has been there for centuries. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

The Catholic Church has always gone; it has always taught; it has always baptized—starting in what we call the Middle East today (Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, and elsewhere) and continuing on to Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. The Catholic Church was there. The Catholic Church is there. It maintains a common Liturgy, so if I am there—whether in Sydney, Sao Paulo, or Köln—local believers and I will rejoice in our unity while worshipping one God and Father of all.

With no harshness intended, protestant fragmentation is not biblical. In Ephesians, Paul writes the words quoted above, “Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). Peter writes, “love one another with a pure heart fervently” (1 Peter 1:22).

Paul rebuked in 1 Corinthians 1:11-12? “Some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided?” How then, have we ended up with more versions of the “truth” in the 21st century than that of the believers Paul admonished?

Is Christ divided? “God forbid!” as Saint Paul so often wrote. By God’s grace, we follow one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Think hard about Christian unity, particularly if you have not yet come to see the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church as Christ’s Church.

If you have, then give thanks for His Church. What a Church; what a biblical Church. Christianity Richly!

Certainty. History. Unity. Authority. Liturgy. Community. Sacramentality.

Christianity Richly!

History

In Christianity on May 16, 2009 at 11:55 pm

My wife has two degrees in history, including a Masters in Church History.  Her background prompted me to take Church history seriously.

But even before we met, something just didn’t ring right about real Christianity “going underground” in the first century, only to reemerge fifteen centuries later. Protestant denominations differ on what happened. I was taught a particularly Anabaptist view while growing up. But even then, to ignore entire centuries of saints—who served Christ, built Western civilization, and frequently showed their faith through martyrdom—seemed out of kilter with reality.

The Church Fathers
Catholic writer Scott Hahn, a former PCA minister (Presbyterian Church in America), attributes a large part of his becoming Catholic to the history of the Church, and especially to the Church Fathers. The Fathers, as the Catholic Encyclopedia says, are “the parents at whose knee the Church of today was taught her belief.”  And the immediate successors to the Apostles have continued to be just that, for twenty centuries now.

For most of us, talking about centuries is a bit of a stretch. I once worked for a CEO who amazed all of us who worked for him by professing he wanted to build a business that would last 300 years. Many of us silently thought, “Who today would be crazy enough to imagine an organization enduring 300 years?”

The Catholic Church has endured 2,000 years. It has no equivalent. It has outlasted rulers, nations, empires, ancient universities, corporations, and yes, even the Church’s least-noble Popes and contemporary scandals. Despite wheat and weeds sown together (Matthew 13:24-30), the Church has endured. Why shouldn’t it? Christ promised, “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

The Unbroken and Unbreakable Line
The Church stands, just as Christ said it would. It has both His promise and Presence: “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20). Having been received into that Church, I can rejoice in the communion of saints. By God’s grace I stand in an unbroken line of men and women, on earth and in eternity, who worship God; who pray for each other; who profess “I believe in . . . the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life of everlasting” (conclusion of The Apostles’ Creed).

In Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, George Weigel admonishes readers to respect “the ecumenism of time” (p. 134) and to reverence the rich history of the Church. Might we even say, The Church of History?  “Surrounded by such a great cloud of witness,” we place ourselves in their line, “looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

What a joy and privilege to be received into the Church that Jesus Christ promised cannot fail—and will not be overcome.  The Church of history is also the Church of today, and of tomorrow and eternity.  Truly, this is Christianity Richly!

No Drifting Christians

In Christianity on May 8, 2009 at 9:05 pm

Let’s say you are fishing offshore, near a small island along Florida’s west coast. You’re in a tidal inlet, where water levels vary significantly from high to low tide. Things are going well. You may have let out a bit too much line on your anchor. But you’re within sight of shore. In fact, you’re close enough that people in condos onshore are watching with binoculars.

“That’s odd,” you think.  At almost the same time, you realize that—in your preoccupation with good fishing—your boat has drifted so far from the island that you are stuck on a sandbar.  Aside from the embarrassment, and the damage you’ll cause to your equipment if you try to move before high tide, you aren’t going anywhere.  

My family and I actually watched this happen.  What’s the point?  The parallels between what happened to this poor guy and his boat, and our spiritual lives, are just too clear to ignore.  

This is exactly what happens when we drift as Christians. We give ourselves a little too much line.  We aren’t alert and watchful.  We may become so engrossed in what we are doing in the present, that we give too little thought to the consequences, or to eternity.

All of this is one more reason to give thanks for the Sacraments, particularly the Sacrament of Penance.  Before we receive The Eucharist at any time, we should examine ourselves, of course.  But to make a good confession, we must pay attention to any drift. Even my Baptist friend (see this post) recognized Confession and Penance as a clear moment of accountability.

The Sacraments.  Christianity Richly!

Walking Out

In Christianity on May 6, 2009 at 9:37 pm

I no longer walk out of worship services.  

“That’s an odd thing to say,” you might think—and rightly, if you are a well-catechized Catholic.  The sacraments are objective.  The sacraments act ex opere operato, “by the very fact of the action’s being performed” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶ 1128). But that was new for me.  Before I was accepted into the Church, I spent decades functioning as a good protestant, a one-man worship judge and jury:

  • The pastor just began his sermon with a statement that raises questions about his orthodoxy.  I’m outta here.
  • The pulpit has been replaced with a drum set and a platform full of guitar amplifiers. I’m outta here.
  • The music turns out to be yet another “Kumbaya” group of 40-somethings, their inspiration drawn from the least common denominator of a musically undistinguished genre.  I’m outta here.

Understanding that the sacraments work because Christ Himself is at work in them was quite a step (especially for someone raised on Gilbert Tennent‘s sermon, “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry”). Realizing that Christ is made present in The Eucharist—not in the style of music, the depth of the homily, or the quality of the architecture—imposed a humbling I needed. After all, I wanted “church” to be perfect . . . just like me.

That said, a vital role remains for right worship.  When we see the consequences of inadequate catechesis (a partial answer to John Norton’s question here, at OSV.com), what are we to say? Might we say it is quite possible that part of the catechesis we owe our families, our friends, city, state, and nation, must be “caught and not taught?”  

That was the point of  Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. The parish George Weigel describes certainly is not the only parish in the world he could describe in that way. The pastor there would be the first to say that! But while never wanting to speak harshly—how could I, when I was received into the Church so generously?—I have visited parishes where it was not clear why we were assembled except for God’s gracious action (ex opere operato).

Let’s show the world Christianity Richly, by living what the Church teaches; by worshipping as we believe. That is how values are caught, as well as taught. Parishes are made up of men, women, and young people longing for lives of significance.  Will they see an opportunity to live such lives, by the ways we show our love for God? Through our lives of prayer? In our service to others? By our readiness to give? In our ability to transcend circumstances? Through our heroic virtue and consistent integrity?

What kind of Christianity will people “catch” from you?  From me?  

What will the John Norton of the next generation be able to write about them?

Books

In Christianity on May 3, 2009 at 4:47 pm

Spent the last several days mostly in bed with some sort of respiratory issue. Sickness is never fun, but it does provide time to read.  Since the number of books at my bedside (yours, too?) always exceeds the time available to read them, I took this opportunity to do some catching up.

John W. O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II was mentioned in a previous post and I promised to return to it.  O’Malley’s book includes so much that is helpful, it requires a post of its own.  But don’t miss this book.  O’Malley offers a balanced account of the Council’s work.  He avoids emotionally charged terms like “conservative” or “progressive,” preferring simply “majority” and “minority.”  Yet a clear and wonderfully heartening picture of the Council’s work emerges, accomplishing his stated goals: To provide a brief, readable account that (1) summarizes the events of the Council, (2) puts the issues that emerged into context, and (3) suggests some keys—a hermeneutic—for grasping what the Council accomplished (p.1, from the “Introduction”).

O’Malley’s book was a pleasant contrast to The Rule of Benedict, by David Gibson.  Gibson is among those who are less than pleased with the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  At various points accusing Benedict of an “inherently pessimistic outlook” (p.166) and “radically rereading” Vatican II (p.324), Gibson’s account ends up giving the impression of a long-harbored polemic, rather than any sort of carefully considered look at the Holy Father and his work—whether at Vatican II or since.

Finally, I’ve not yet finished Eamon Duffy’s, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, but have found much profitable even in the book’s early pages.  I am indebted to Fr. Benedict Kiely (Blessed Sacrament Church in Stowe, VT), for pointing out this book during his lecture, “The Witness of the English Martyrs.” Duffy’s focus on the faith of the laity, his emphasis on the importance of the communal, and his understanding of symbol and liturgy all offer great insight for our times—which was, in fact, the point of Fr. Kiely’s good lecture.

Enough, for now.  I miss being here at Christianity Richly when I am away for more than a day.  With apologies for the lapse over this past week, I hope to see you again soon—and regularly—in the days to come.

Do You Journal?

In Christianity on May 3, 2009 at 12:20 pm

In addition to the Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and a stack of yet-to-be-read books, another volume near my bed is A Year with Thomas Merton:  Daily Meditations from His Journals.

Merton was a complex man and one with whom, honestly, I have some difficulty. But the point here is not Merton himself—but rather, his practice of journaling.  In an entry written on September 27, 1958, he points out

For me to write is to think and to live and also, in some degree, even to pray (p.280).

Do you find that to be true in your life?  I do. To write is to think and pray. I also find that keeping a daily spiritual journal, or a prayer journal, is a great discipline.  The small, red book beside my bed reminds me that time spent in Bible study and prayer every morning pays rich dividends.  

If you aren’t already keeping a prayer journal, my suggestions are so basic I hesitate to post them. But consider using a blank hardbound journal, or even a datebook, the kind used in the days before BlackBerries and iPhones.  I love my iPhone, and use apps including The Liturgy of the Hours (Universalis) and several translations of the Bible (Olive Tree).  But there is something important about your prayer diary having a tactile or aesthetic quality that encourages you to maintain it; that suggests the lasting nature of its purpose.  A one-page-per-day datebook also reminds you to be faithful, since the format itself gently imposes a certain accountability. 

Then, be faithful about recording something daily.  Your entry may be only “Missed daily prayer and reading,” on a day when an unanticipated obligation intrudes on your regular prayer time.  Even that intrusion, however, may provide the opportunity to later write, “But what I was required to do, I did—by God’s grace—in a spirit of love” (see the full quotation of this thought by Saint Thérèse of Lisieux here).

Keep a list of your regular, daily prayer intentions in the datebook. Maintain a separate list of requests from others, requests for which you have agreed to pray. Remember to check them off and date them as God answers. Also record brief passages from your Bible and devotional readings—passages through which God has spoken to you. Go back to these pages periodically.  If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll be amazed at the continuing power of these passages to speak and to guide you.

Finally, watch for God’s work in and through you, as you journal. Writing truly can be a form of meditation; of prayer.  Don’t be surprised if you occasionally find yourself noting a thought you hadn’t yet consciously put into words!  Through this practice of journaling, you are spending time in the presence of God daily.  Little wonder, then—but great grace—you may find yourself recording thoughts prompted by His Spirit.  

Do you journal?  What a robust source of God’s richness this can be in your life. Christianity Richly!