My Brush With Greatness

The incomparable Mark Shea linked me on his blog. This is definitely the coolest thing that's happened to me all day. If you've never been introduced to Mr. Shea, click on his name and be sure to read everything -- his blog is a treasure trove of fascinating stuff.

Hello and welcome, fellow Mark Shea readers!

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What happened? (Or, how I turned my back on a lifetime of protestant teaching and learned to love the Catholic Church)

It has come to my attention that I have not adequately explained my reasons for ending my "protest" against the Catholic Church and entering into the fullness of Her authority and teaching. This I will attempt to do here. It may take one post, it may take more than one, I may have to write a book about it. I'm not sure how thorough I need to be to make myself understood. But I'm going to give it a shot.

For five years, I had been happily attending a large independent Bible Church in our area. This church was (and is) one of the fastest-growing in the area, and possibly in the nation. In the five years I attended, our membership grew from 7,000 to 10,000, and was increasing all the time. All this at a church that started with just ten families in the 1980s.

The pastor of this church is an excellent speaker. He is engaging, well-educated, funny, self-deprecating, and culturally savvy. The church buys airtime on the Howard Stern Show and other non-traditional, worldly venues and produces a short spot in which the pastor addresses some life problem that almost anyone (regardless of religion or lack thereof) can relate to, using examples from Scripture to offer solutions. Thousands of unchurched people visit this congregation each year thanks to their willingness to reach out through worldly means. In fact, the church’s motto is “Impacting Secular (insert our metro area here) for Jesus Christ.”

This megachurch is big for a reason -- one reason. It’s really all about the pastor. If, God forbid, he died tomorrow, I don’t believe for a second the church would ever be the same again. In many ways, it is a cult of personality. And this is a feature common to many protestant churches. In my 24 years as a protestant, I saw countless pastors come and go, and entire churches live or die by their popularity.

Pastors and the churches they lead can be popular for a number of reasons. Some water down the gospel to make it palatable to people whose very lifestyle is one of sin (pro-aborts, gay activists, etc.). Some take a hard line on everything and attract people who need structure and rules. Some are more like social clubs than houses of worship. And some are the real deal -- places where people can go and be challenged and supported, and grow closer to God.

The church I mentioned above was the real deal in many ways. Our pastor was never afraid to take an unpopular position for the sake of Truth. Week after week, he offered practical, realistic ways to apply the gospel to our everyday lives in an inspirational way. And he was committed to the church in a way that many pastors aren’t –- he promised (or “threatened,” as he likes to say) to stay with that church until he died or we threw him out, whichever came first. All in all, his church was a good place to be, and I happily grew in my faith there for five years.

So why did I start looking for something different?

Well, there were issues at the megachurch. I won’t share them in detail because in the end, they’re not relevant to my conversion story. Some were financial, some were legalistic, and a few were doctrinal. But the main thing that pushed me out the door was, ironically, the very same thing that had ushered me in five years earlier -- the life application teaching.

Don’t get me wrong -– life application teaching is wonderful. Necessary, even. How do we know how to live the Christian life unless we are taught? But is its proper place the main worship service on Sunday morning? We once did an excellent series on The Davinci Code -- twelve weeks’ worth of debunking its myths and lies. It was timely and interesting, but I couldn’t help feeling its proper place was a seminar or a Sunday School class, not a Sanctuary of the Lord. Same with the series on finances, and the series on workplace evangelism . . . these things were tremendously helpful, but I didn’t come away feeling like I’d just worshiped the Lord of Lords.

I found myself missing the liturgy of my youth, missing weekly communion (the Bible church did a Communion service about four times a year) and longing for spiritual application teaching. My outward life was fine. I was doing all the right things, making all the right moves. But I knew my heart was a mess, and that was something that a lifetime of life application teaching would never address. I thought about returning to the Lutheran church, but they’d strayed so far from their theological roots as to be unrecognizable. The Episcopal church was similarly apostate, but at least they seemed (at the time) to be working with the more orthodox factions of the church as opposed to running utterly roughshod over them like the ELCA. I found a nearby Anglican parish with a good pastor and tried it out alone early one Sunday morning. It was small but friendly, and I sensed that I wouldn’t be able to fade into the woodwork and be lazy there like it had been so easy to do at the megachurch.

Meanwhile, I was doing a lot of online reading. I’ve always been interested in theology, and there is plenty of theological deliberation to be found on the internet. One forum in particular was simultaneously vexing and intriguing to me because of the large number of Catholics that posted there. Their arrogance astounded me, and yet the depth and substance of their arguments were hard to ignore. At one point, someone posted an article in which the author compared the Catholic Church to Jesus and described protestants as a bit like Pharisees -- so scandalized by the audacity of an entity that would call itself the One True Way that they wailed and rent their garments. All I could think was “Ouch.”

After a couple of weeks of attending the Episcopal church on my own, I convinced my husband (who was rather bewildered by my sudden discontent with the church in which we’d met) to accompany me one Sunday. My husband is a cradle Catholic, but had been away from the church for several years when I met him at a singles event at the Bible church. We were married in a protestant church (though not our own because of a lack of appropriate facilities) and never questioned whether our children would be raised protestant -- it was a given.

As anyone who is familiar with both the Catholic and Anglican liturgies can imagine, he was rather underwhelmed by the Episcopal/Anglican church. “It’s a lot like Catholic Church,” he said. “Why would you consider this, but not the Catholic Church?”

“It’s not the same thing!” I protested. “The beliefs are totally different.” I explained the major differences in a nutshell (the authority of the Pope, the Marian doctrines, purgatory, consubstantiation vs. transubstantiation) and he nodded thoughtfully. I added emphatically, “I’m just not comfortable with the Catholic Church’s beliefs!”

And then, in what was almost a throwaway line for my husband, he said the words that would eat at me for the next three weeks: “Why do you have to be comfortable with the church’s beliefs?” Again, all I could think was, “Ouch.”

Why, indeed? I realized that instead of trying to shape my theology to match God's, I was searching for a church to fit my theology. A theology carefully honed over a whopping eleven years. In between classes, work, dating, marriage, and a child. That’s the stuff of theological legend, right there . . . or maybe not.

The realization stung, but it wasn’t enough to get me to consider the Catholic church yet. In fact, I went the other way for a few days, thinking we should just stick with the megachurch since we’d both been happy there and they were such sticklers for the Bible.

But there was the rub -- the more I’d gone “back to the Bible” in search of answers, the more I realized it simply had to be a piece of the puzzle, and not the whole puzzle. The seeming contradictions (which, in retrospect, were only contradictions when viewed with a protestant hermeneutic), the “missing pieces,” the failure of the text to line up perfectly with what I’d always been taught.

I began to catch on to the fact that it was impossible to read the Bible without making at least a few interpretations of the text -- it just wasn’t sufficiently self-explanatory to make any sense otherwise. And it dawned on me that as hard as I was on Catholics for “blindly” accepting the Vatican’s interpretations of scripture, I’d essentially done the same thing. So much of my belief structure was based not on the Bible, but on someone else’s interpretation of the Bible. From “accepting Jesus as my personal savior” to “once saved, always saved,” I’d essentially built my faith on catchphrases and cute acronyms (like the ACTS way to pray -- adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication; and PUSH -- pray until something happens!) without a lot of actual Biblical truth to back it up.

As I pondered these things, my husband left on a weeklong business trip, leaving me with much more time to think, read and pray after I put our son to bed. One night I was reading an article promoting infant baptism (we’d had our son “dedicated” but felt strongly that baptism was for believers only, which meant being old enough to believe) and found that the scholarship behind the article was frighteningly sound. I was ready to barge into my toddler’s bedroom and baptize him myself by the last few paragraphs of the article. I was stunned to reach the end of the piece and find that the source was a website called “Scripture Catholic.”

I went to the Scripture Catholic site and began surfing around, just kind of skimming the content. In another window I still had open the site at which I’d read the article about infant baptism. The next article on the list was a 1997 article by Mark Shea called “Five Myths About the Seven Books” in which he made the case quite compellingly for the veracity and validity of the seven deuterocanonical books found in the Catholic Bible and rather derisively called “the Apocrypha” by protestants. I was impressed by his logic and won over by his genial but no-nonsense tone. And as I read, point by point, his argument in favor of the Catholic canon, I realized that the implications of the argument went beyond the scope of just how many books should be in the Bible on my nightstand. I realized that in an indirect, but devastatingly effective way, he had made the case for the authority of the Catholic Church:

“In his later years St. Jerome [who had previously opposed the inclusion of the seven books in the canon] did indeed accept the Deuterocanonical books of the Bible. In fact, he wound up strenuously defending their status as inspired Scripture, writing, ‘What sin have I committed if I followed the judgment of the churches? [emphasis mine] But he who brings charges against me for relating the objections that the Hebrews are wont to raise against the story of Susanna, the Son of the Three Children, and the story of Bel and the Dragon, which are not found in the Hebrew volume (ie. canon), proves that he is just a foolish sycophant. For I wasn't relating my own personal views, but rather the remarks that they [the Jews] are wont to make against us’ (Against Rufinus 11:33 [A.D. 402]). In earlier correspondence with Pope Damasus, Jerome did not call the deuterocanonical books unscriptural, he simply said that Jews he knew did not regard them as canonical. But for himself, he acknowledged the authority of the Church in defining the canon. When Pope Damasus and the Councils of Carthage and Hippo included the deuterocanon in Scripture, that was good enough for St. Jerome. He ‘followed the judgment of the churches.’”

With much fear and trepidation (and a growing amount of genuine excitement, because this was just making TOO much sense all of a sudden) I clicked back over to Scripture Catholic, where I found a handy guide to where major Catholic teachings are found in Scripture. There was a section on Church Authority, and a section on the Primacy of Peter (AKA the Pope). With my Bible in one hand and my mouse in the other, I began to fact check everything. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that after a couple of hours of this, I was a convert, in mind if not yet in body.

As I read the scriptures with the mind of a Catholic, they came alive like never before. Thinking of Peter as the first Pope shed so much light on the dynamics of so many relationships in the New Testament. I noticed things I’d studiously ignored for years, like Jesus giving to the apostles the ability to forgive sins on earth so they’d be forgiven in heaven. I could go on and on, but I’d rather send you to Scripture Catholic to see for yourself. It’s truly eye opening if you’ve never seriously considered Catholic theology before.

At any rate, literally overnight I became a Catholic. In the days to come, I found myself reading protestant arguments on different forums and mentally picking them apart only to find that they fell short every time when put up against the Catholic teaching. That’s not to say there haven’t been plenty of debates won by protestants against Catholics, but I started to recognize that on these occasions, it was due to a lack of knowledge on the Catholic’s part, not a failure of the theology itself.

I also found a site with a lot of writings by the Early Church Fathers, people who knew and worked with the apostles themselves. To my surprise, these men were unarguably Catholic. (Present-day Catholic, not some kind of imaginary “early Catholic” of the type that was good enough to put together the Bible, but not good enough to hold the fullness of the truth for all generations.)

Even after my husband returned home, I kept all of this to myself for a few days, considering I had recently firmly proclaimed my opposition to all things Catholic. I didn’t want him to think I was flaky, or worse, schizophrenic. But as the desire to pursue this path grew inside of me, I sat my husband down over dinner and said, “Honey, I have a dilemma. While you were out of town, I did a lot of reading and praying, and I think God showed me that the Catholic Church is true.”

“Okay. . . ” he said, waiting expectantly for an explanation, which I tried clumsily to give. The words I came up with were not too different than the ones I’ve shared with you here. He was surprisingly open to the idea, and later told me that the reason he knew this was from God is because of the tremendous growth he’d seen in me both spiritually and personally surrounding the events of my conversion. “By their fruits you shall know them (Mt. 7:20),” and all that.

Fast forward to today. I am just about finished with the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) and am getting ready to make my first confession. At Easter Vigil, I will be accepted into the fullness of the Catholic faith and receive Jesus Christ physically in the Eucharist for the very first time. I couldn’t possibly be more excited, and I am thankful to God that He showed me His truth in His perfect timing.

I am thankful for some other things, too. First of all, I am thankful for my protestant upbringing. All too many Catholics are raised into a sort of apathy and lack of knowledge of the faith. The Catholic faith is incredibly rich, vibrant and complex, but a lot of cradle Catholics have boiled it down to “be a good person and show up to Mass and you might avoid hell.” That’s incredibly sad and not at all what Jesus had in mind for His faithful, I feel quite sure. It’s also painful to watch so many cradle or “cultural” Catholics walk up and receive Jesus week after week not really believing or caring that it’s Him. Since I had to choose this faith for myself, and be truly convinced against all my prejudices of its veracity, I am profoundly aware of its beauty and truth. In short, it is because of my solid protestant background that my Catholic faith will be strong.

I am also thankful for God’s perfect timing and orchestration. From each website I visited seemingly at random, to the Catholic parish I happen to live in right now (with its incredible pastor who rivals the megachurch’s pastor in style and annihilates him in substance), everything seems to have been nothing if not a complete set-up by God to lead me into the Catholic church (and make me think it was my idea, ha!).

I am thankful for my husband, who is thoughtful and supportive and kind, and takes this God thing as seriously as I do. His support has been incredible, especially as I’ve dealt with a certain amount of fallout from family and friends who don’t understand or support my decision. And I’m thankful for my son, who served as yet another piece of the puzzle through the issue of baptism. Had I not had a baby sleeping in the next room, I’m quite sure I’d have never read up on infant baptism, and that was a major turning point in my conversion story.

Most of all, I’m thankful to God for His Church. What a gift. What peace in knowing there IS a plan, there IS a shepherd here on Earth, and there IS a way to know what the Bible really teaches. What perfect grace is offered through the sacraments. And what confidence is inspired by a 2,000 year unbroken tradition passed down from the Apostles themselves.

I am excited for my future as a Catholic. I’m fascinated by the depth and richness of a faith I could learn about for a lifetime and yet hardly scratch the surface. And I’m exceedingly grateful that all that depth is matched by a beautiful clarity and simplicity that can be understood by anyone with eyes to see or ears to hear.

I sincerely hope my sharing of this story will both adequately explain my own conversion and help some of you along the way in yours. Thanks so much for reading.

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Where are you?

This is the question I'm getting. Over and over. I feel very noticed, so thanks!

The answer to the question is, I'm busy at home -- and in the Home Stretch of my swim across the Tiber River. Easter Vigil is right around the corner, and I'm trying to get spiritually ready to make my first confession and receive Jesus in the Eucharist for the first time. I'm also trying to pick a confirmation name, which is surprisingly difficult because there are just so many amazing saints to choose from. Right now I'm particularly enamored of Francis de Sales, Monica, and Therese of Lisieux. Not to mention Mary, who suddenly fascinates me thanks to our parish priest sharing some unique thoughts about her -- but I'm still so confused about her place in my life that I don't feel I can take her name as my own.

Meanwhile, we're putting our house on the market. My family lives in a narrow 3 level townhome, and the stairs and the lack of running space for my almost-two-year-old BOY BOY (BOY is he active) and the lack of yard and the multiple families crammed into a single unit across the street who favor really loud gangsta rap and late-night visitors and letting kids run wild are just too much to deal with anymore.

So we're going to move. And moving means selling, and selling means a thousand projects we should have done years ago so as to enjoy their fruits, but never got around to, and also a lot of plain old stress. So the time I would normally spend pondering theology and writing about it here has been spent packing extraneous stuff into boxes, pushing a paint roller, searching the listings database for new digs, and arguing with my poor husband about how much money we can afford to spend on the house of our dreams. Or any house at all.

Thanks be to God that He is the God who meets us even in the midst of boxes, tape, magic markers and Magic Erasers. Otherwise I'd have gone completely insane by now.

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