Sunday, October 30, 2005

Time to go to church

The comments to my last post led me to one of those "ah-ha!" moments where so many things fall into place. One of the bigger stumbling blocks I've been facing is the sheer density of the Bible. I just cannot get through that thing. I thought the way you should become a Christian is to sit down and read the Bible like a John Grisham novel and God will reveal himself to you through its words. So far the only thing that has been revealed to me is that I don't understand middle eastern Iron Age culture.

So I've been gravitating to books about the Bible (C.S. Lewis, Norman Geisler, et al). These books are the only things that have allowed me to have any understanding of the Bible (Old Testament in particular), so I've found myself hanging on each author's every word...only to realize that I am now putting my faith in some random dudes. What if they don't know what they're talking about? What if they're leading me astray? So then I go back to reading the Bible for myself, only to get bored and frustrated and put it down after a couple pages.

The whole endeavor left me with the sinking feeling that either I'm missing something or the tenets of Christianity are just too nebulous and complicated for me. I don't want to structure my religious beliefs solely around random writers' opinions, yet I can't drop everything in my life and start reading and researching the Bible all day every day.

And then I read the second comment to my last post. I think I might have actually said "ah-ha" out loud. This is the information I needed. I have avoided Christianity all my life to the extent that I even shunned academic investigations into the subject, so I didn't fully understand the distinction between Protestant and Catholic approaches, particularly regarding Sola Scriptura. I didn't realize that my mindset and approach to Christianity is a product of the (predominantly Protestant) American culture in which I live. I didn't really know that there's another way to go about it, an approach that involves discovering God and Jesus and the Bible through a religious authority rather than just opening the book for yourself.

If you had asked me what approach is more appealing to me a couple years ago I would have immediately answered Sola Scriptura (well, actually I would have laughed and said all of Christianity is silly, but if I had been open to anything it would have been the Protestant approach). I'm naturally distrustful of authority in the form of large institutions, and I would have thought that letting someone tell you what to believe is just asking for trouble.

But now that I've actually tried figuring out if God exists on my own and attempted to understand the Bible by just picking it up and reading it from beginning to end I see that I need help. To fully understand the stories and instructions of the Bible would take a lifetime of research and learning, and that's not an option for me. So I'd like to have some experts at my disposal who have devoted their lives to Christianity and can give me guidance on matters of God and the Bible. But not just anyone. It can't be someone who has kids and family and tons of social obligations but has just read the Bible a lot. I might be very interested to hear what that person has to say, but I couldn't accept them as a religious authority since they're in no better position to be an expert on the Bible than I am.

But a priest...that's interesting. That's someone who's life *is* Christianity. A priest has the time I don't to fully understand the Bible. He doesn't have PTA meetings and college savings worries and diaper duty and all the other distractions that come with having a family. He can spend his days wrestling with tough concepts, drawing on all the priests who have come before him for insight into difficult issues. I could base my beliefs on what a person like that has to say.

This is an exciting realization for me because a) it clears the way for me to make much more progress on my religious pursuit and b) I really wanted to be Catholic. I've wanted to be part of the Catholic church even before I thought I'd ever believe in God. My mother comes from a big Irish Catholic family and I feel like it's somehow in my genes (my mom actually had me baptized Catholic "just in case" -- the only time I've ever been in a church for a religious event with my parents).

So next week I am going to go to a local Catholic church that I've heard good things about. Because of major baby sleep issues and general laziness on my part I actually have not been to church yet since I started this religious investigation. In fact, I've rarely been in my life. I probably went about five times with the Southern Baptist friends I grew up around, then once after my husband and I got married (we were not married in a church), and that's when I was still in the phase of thinking that you didn't really have to believe in all that resurrection stuff to be a Christian.

So I am going to church next Sunday. It will be the first time I've set foot inside a church since I've started to think that Jesus' resurrection may have actually happened and he may have really been God incarnate. No more bringing in other books to read and yawning and staring off into space like I did when I was a kid. I'm serious now. I've been trying to resolve a lifelong spiritual crisis on my own with little luck and I need help. And I think the Catholic church, the church that my maternal ancestors have been part of for generations, might be just the thing I need.

6 Comments:

At October 30, 2005 6:34 PM, Blogger Colleen said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At October 30, 2005 6:35 PM, Blogger Colleen said...

That Steve really is something, isn't he? I feel like I have been in a particulary good seminar, every time I read one of his messages. Jennifer, I am so happy that you have found a way to cut through all of the "underbrush" so to speak. Onward and upward!

 
At October 31, 2005 1:25 PM, Anonymous SteveG said...

First, I want to say how happy I am for you that you feel that you have a clearer path forward. Second, I am utterly humbled and thankful that I have been some small part of that. I feel so lucky to have discovered your blog. You may not realize it, but you are helping me (and I suspect other readers) as much as any of us are helping you. As you tell your own story, my own conversion is brought to mind and is given deeper roots as I am reminded again and again of why I believe what I do.

The Reluctant Atheist said: I didn't realize that my mindset and approach to Christianity is a product of the (predominantly Protestant) American culture in which I live. I didn't really know that there's another way to go about it, an approach that involves discovering God and Jesus and the Bible through a religious authority rather than just opening the book for yourself.

And isn't it amazing how much sense this 'new' approach makes. Having now gone through the pain of trying to figure it out for yourself, isn't it almost a relief to know that this isn't the only way and that everything doesn't rely on you? I know it was for me. Without meaning to be insulting to Protestantism, there has always seemed to me to be a bit of western and intellectual elitism in even the most fundamentalist approach of Protestantism. Zippy Catholic posted on this topic a while back, and his words are still the best summation I've seen in his post,Salvation by What?

The Reluctant Atheist said: But a priest...that's interesting. That's someone who's life *is* Christianity. A priest has the time I don't to fully understand the Bible. He doesn't have PTA meetings and college savings worries and diaper duty and all the other distractions that come with having a family. He can spend his days wrestling with tough concepts, drawing on all the priests who have come before him for insight into difficult issues. I could base my beliefs on what a person like that has to say.

I'd like to highlight a nuance here that I assume you are aware of but just want to draw out a bit. What I want to highlight is the fact that what really should prompt us to find a Catholic priest, bishop, or pope as someone we'd take more seriously, or grant trust to, is the fact that they are within the historical continuity of that chain from Jesus to the apostles, to the bishops, to the next generation of bishops, and so on. Not the fact that they have more time and are supposedly more devoted to this area of study.

I'd be lying if I tried to argue that Protestants can't claim that they have folks who spend as much time and are as dedicated to the endeavor as the hypothetical priest you mention. There are PHD's who study biblical scholarship in both the Protestant and the Catholic flavor. There are I am sure even unmarried clergy in some cases in Protestantism (thought certainly far fewer). The real difference here is not the individual, or their circumstances, but their connection to that historical continuity from the beginning to now.

What the Protestant lacks is that wider context upon which to draw. When Luther posited, and Protestantism accepted that the bible was the only authority in the life of the believer, it set off a chain of events that ended up with each believer rightly being able to claim that their interpretation was as valid as Luther’s, or anyone else. Once 'they' stepped outside of the authority of the historic Church (as held by the bishops and the papacy) it was a free for all. It then became very common for a person who thought themselves wise enough to say 'well if Luther can toss over the first 1500 years, why can't I toss over Luther, Calvin, et al. and start from scratch.' This has led to a proliferation of denominations (based on the same bible) that estimates give as anywhere from 8,000 to 30,000+. The fact that the Protestant 'experiment' unmoored itself from the first 1500 years of Christianity is the real problem here.

That is what you've been experiencing in your personal journey. The Protestant paradigm which has left you adrift and isolated from historic Christianity. Though the western, individualist mind-set is somewhat hostile to institutional authority, as you've already become aware, there really is a need for it in the Christian life. And in any event, it's the system Jesus set up and which was accepted nearly unanimously prior to the reformation.

The Reluctant Atheist said: This is an exciting realization for me because a) it clears the way for me to make much more progress on my religious pursuit and b) I really wanted to be Catholic. I've wanted to be part of the Catholic Church even before I thought I'd ever believe in God. My mother comes from a big Irish Catholic family and I feel like it's somehow in my genes (my mom actually had me baptized Catholic "just in case" -- the only time I've ever been in a church for a religious event with my parents).

Wow! You are a baptized Catholic!! That means that in reality you already are, and always have been Catholic! You haven't been fully 'initiated' into the faith, but you are already part of it in a very deep sense. If this is where your heart is leading you, I think your best bet would be to call the local Catholic parish you are talking about and ask to meet with a priest (hopefully the pastor). He will be able to give you some very good guidance on how you should proceed.

In the Catholic Church, in order to become Catholic, the normative process is to join the Rite for Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) program of your parish. This is a process that usually begins in September (though I'd be willing to bet, they'd still let you join this years 'class'), and meets once a week for prospective Catholics to discuss and learn the faith (and you can back out at ANY time if you feel uncomfortable or just not ready). You are not meant to do this on your own. Please contact them and get their advice.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that like any group, on a practical level things are not perfect. There are good and bad priests, there are good and bad parishes, there are good and bad RCIA programs. It's really important that you find a good parish if your experience is to be a good one. I may be able to help you make that determination if need be.

I think you have my email address, so if you are willing to tell me the city/state you live in (via private email of course), I may be able to assist you. If you don't have my email address, let me know and I'll contact you (as I still have yours from our earlier correspondence). If you give me the city, state and the parish name, I can even see if they have a website which I can check out, and give you a feel for what to expect.

Now, I hope I won't come across as to bold in offering some very practical advice regarding your plan for next Sunday.

The Reluctant Atheist said: So next week I am going to go to a local Catholic church that I've heard good things about.

*Is hubby going with you? Are you planning on going yourself? While I am a huge proponent of families bringing their kids to mass, if there is a way for you to attend the first few times by yourself (or with your husband if he's planning to come) and leave your daughter with a sitter (or dad if he isn't coming), I think it would be beneficial. I am a HUUUUGE lover of children (have two of my own already and one on the way), so please don't take this as anti-kid. But if I've read your blogs correctly, your daughter (?) is in the neighborhood of 2 yrs old (?), right? Bringing a 2 yo to mass for the first time is a recipe for being totally distracted and exhausted at the end of it (unless your toddler is able to easily sit for an hour without fussing). On good days, at that age, my kids sit like little angels. On bad days it's like trying to wrestle a tornado to keep them under control. It's great to have kids get in the habit of attending, but I just think it would be better for you the first few times to be able to concentrate if the little one wasn't present.

*Next, try not to be nervous. One of the great things about a Catholic Church is that for the most part folks are NOT going to judge you when you walk in the door. Most folks won't even notice you've slipped in unless you want them too. It won't be a big deal that you aren't a familiar face. Folks aren't going to be looking around, pointing and whispering 'who's the new gal.' They'll more likely just smile and say hello and slip into their own pew. We are just not a very 'in your face' group of people. For me, this was wonderful, as it allowed me to not feel pressured. For some, this is a huge disappointment as they wonder why folks don't seem more welcoming and rush up to greet them. It all depends on your perspective. Later, you'll feel as involved, or uninvolved, with parish life as YOU choose.

*Sit towards the back so you feel more comfortable and can observe what's going on. There is going to be a lot of sit, stand, kneel, sit, stand, kneel, stand going on and it may be confusing at first. Don't feel pressured to DO anything, say anything, or sing anything unless you WANT to.

Feel free to simply sit there and watch if you feel more comfortable. No one is going to judge you for this (most folks won't even notice as they'll be attending to the mass themselves). The one exception to this rule is at the 'sign of the peace.' You'll know you've hit this when the priests says 'Let us offer each other the sign of peace.' When he says that, the folks around you will start turning towards each other, hand extended (for a handshake), and will say 'Peace be with you' when they shake. It's not that you have to do this, but if you wave everyone off, it usually is a bit awkward (for the waver, not the wavie).

*There will likely be a couple of books in the hymnal holder attached to the back of the pew in front of you. Likely, one hard-cover, one soft-cover. The soft cover one is called a missal (no, it won't blow up if you toss it at someone). ;-) This contains the scripture readings for the mass (among other things). For this coming Sunday, you'll be looking for the section that says 'Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time'. This will allow you to follow along with the scripture readings as they are done from the sanctuary. The hard cover book is usually a hymnal where most of the hymns being sung will be found.

BOTH books likely will contain a section called THE ORDER OF THE MASS, which is just a generic walk through of what will happen (i.e. what to say, when to stand, sit, kneel). It will look something like what you see here…
Order of the Mass

or in summary form here...

Summary Order


....if you want to get more from what you are observing, maybe review these links a few times so you have a rough idea of what's going to happen.

*Try to get there a good 15 minutes early. This will give you time to look around and check the church out, and calm your nerves. It will also give you a chance check out the books I mentioned and find the sections I've referred to so that you aren't scrambling to figure things out once mass begins (you may even want to take a few slips of paper to mark the pages). You should even feel comfortable printing this post out, or the order of the mass links and taking them with you if you like (just be careful to keep the paper rustling to a minimum). ;-)

*I doubt that you'd feel comfortable going up and receiving communion the first time out, but just in case, please refrain if you feel the urge. Communion (commonly referred to as the Eucharist) has a deep reality for Catholics, and the church generally asks that non-Catholics and those not yet in full 'communion' with the church respect that significance by not receiving.

It's not meant to be taken as an insult; it's only a request for respect for Catholic belief. Assuming you continue down this path, part of your entrance into the church would involve a profession that full communion of belief is what you seek, and that will be completed by receiving the Eucharist/Communion on that day.

*Don't feel pressured to DO anything, say anything, or sing anything unless you WANT to.


*Don't feel intimidated by all this. It's a bit confusing the first time, but it's the kind of thing that as you become more familiar, all the books, postures, prayers, etc. become second nature. I don't mean to make it sound overly complicated, but I know the reality that for the first timer, it can indeed be a bit daunting and confusing.

*Understand that Catholic worship and the mass are very liturgical. That means simply that we have a basic form that we follow which is roughly the same for each mass. The content of the words, readings, prayers, etc. vary from week to week, but the form is the same each week. What's really neat about that is that you can know that all around the world, on that same Sunday, all billion or so Catholics will all be hearing the same readings, and participating in roughly the same exact worship that you are witnessing and taking part in at that moment. It's part of what makes the Church truly universal (Catholic=Katholik (greek)=Universal).

*Finally...Don't feel pressured to DO anything, say anything, or sing anything unless you WANT to. No one is going to single you out, ask you to 'come forward', or emberass you. Hope that part is clear. ;-)

Because of major babysleep issues

Alright, at the risk of 1) wearing out my welcome and 2) coming across as a know it all (I hope not), I may even be able to help you here. As I mentioned, I have two already (with a daughter on the way). Our first was not a good sleeper his first two years. Our second, at 2 + 1/2 is STILL not a good sleeper, so we have some experience. The book which we found invaluable in this area is 'The baby book' by Dr. William Sears. In fact this book has been our single best resource for all types of parenting issues for babies and toddlers. Dr. Sears even has a website called Ask Dr. Sears with a section on sleeping issues. Dr. Sears is just wonderful. He's a widely renowned Pediatrician with an unbelievable resume, and more importantly, he's got 8 kids! So he knows a good bit about children, to say the least.

Another helpful book was The no cry sleep solution, and I notice now, they even have a version for toddlers and preschoolers

And I think the Catholic church, the church that my maternal ancestors have been part of for generations, might be just the thing I need.

Ahhh, the prodigal daughter returns. ;-) God Bless you Jennifer. I will continue to keep you in my prayers each day. You probably already know this, but I am happy to answer any questions you might have. Please feel free to email me or just keep posting your beautiful journey here and I'll keep pontificating. ;-)

May God bring to completion the work which He has begun in you.

 
At October 31, 2005 2:41 PM, Blogger Colleen said...

OK, now I sense a challenge from Steve: just because he has 3 kids (2.5 at the moment) and I have none, is no reason I can't weigh in on baby sleep issues.

I saw a guy on Oprah, of all places, who has perfected sleep techniques. (I have watched Oprah only 3 times in my entire life, who'd have figured it would come in handy?)

Premise: It is noisy, really noisy in the womb. Also, highly constricted.

So, if your infant doesn't sleep well try swaddling her (I always thought that was weird/cruel. Now I know better). That may not be enough. She may need noise.

If you can afford it, the Target web site sells a "white noise" machine. The doctor says that anything that makes some noise in a predictable pattern will work.

He also demonstrated how one can keep shushing in the baby's ear (mimicking the noise of the flow of blood)

Of course, if your child is two, I dare say none of these will work. In fact, I would love to see a swaddled two year old ...

 
At November 03, 2005 2:56 PM, Anonymous SteveG said...

Hi again
I hope I am not giving you too much to chew on here, but I wanted to drop a few more comments here to give some additional context regarding the mass you are going to be to witnessing this Sunday.

First, I wanted to pull a section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (the compendium of Catholic teaching on faith and morals) which mentions part of the historical context of the Catholic mass….

1345 As early as the second century we have the witness of St. Justin Martyr for the basic lines of the order of the Eucharistic celebration (mass). They have stayed the same until our own day for all the great liturgical families. St. Justin wrote to the pagan emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161) around the year 155, explaining what Christians did:

On the day we call the day of the sun, all who dwell in the city or country gather in the same place.

The memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, as much as time permits. (Scripture readings)

When the reader has finished, he who presides over those gathered admonishes and challenges them to imitate these beautiful things. (homily)

Then we all rise together and offer prayers for ourselves . . .and for all others, wherever they may be, so that we may be found righteous by our life and actions, and faithful to the commandments, so as to obtain eternal salvation.

When the prayers are concluded we exchange the kiss of peace.

Then someone brings bread and a cup of water and wine mixed together to him who presides over the brethren.

He takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and for a considerable time he gives thanks (in Greek: eucharistian) that we have been judged worthy of these gifts.

When he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all present give voice to an acclamation by saying: 'Amen.'

When he who presides has given thanks and the people have responded, those whom we call deacons give to those present the "eucharisted" bread, wine and water and take them to those who are absent.


...What you are going to be seeing has a historical continuity with regard to its form that goes all the way back to the beginning of Christianity and is even formally documented as early as 155 A.D. Amazing, if you ask me. :-D

Given this and the fact I mentioned in the previous post, you can maybe begin to see the context. This mass you will be witnessing is going to be the same in not only form, but in much of it's content (accept for the homily and a few odds and ends) as that being witnessed by all the other Catholics around the world on the same day, as well as the same one participated in by those who've gone before us in the faith over the last 2000 years. It makes your participation, a participation in the Christian worhip of always and everywhere.

The other piece of context I'd like to mention is the fact that the liturgy you are going to witness has it's very roots in the Jewish worship of the synagogue which Jesus and the apostles themselves would have partaken in.

I've been trying to find a good article that summarizes that (there are lots of great books on the topic, but I've recommended enough books already). ;-) If I find something succint that does a good job, I'll come back and post it. So far, not much luck though.

 
At November 09, 2005 12:17 PM, Blogger Bill said...

Hi, I just stumbled across your website and found it interesting.

I understand your reluctance in getting into institutional churches' positions on things as being one step removed from the Bible. But often times a church will develop creeds and confessions specifically because the Bible is such a big book it's hard to know where to begin. For the new believer. Just as when you try to understand one of Shakespeare's sonnets, knowing something about the structure can help to get more meaning out of the writing, so you can get more out of reading the Bible if you first understand its basic structure.

I'm a Protestant and attend a Reformed church. But the interesting thing is that we confess the Apostle's Creed, as do Roman Catholics. I think most people would say that this is a good summary of the necessary tenets of the Christian faith that have stood the test of time and rise above the in-fighting of Christian denominations:

Here is the Apostle's Creed:

"I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.

He descended into hell.

The third day He arose again from the dead.

He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.

Amen."

Another resource I'd recommend if you're interested in the basics of Christian faith is a little book by Rico Tice entitled, "Christianity Explored" which takes you through the gospel of Mark and tries to help explain what's going on there.

Hope that helps and may God bless your endeavors.

 

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