Sweeping through the darkness

Paul and Silas in prison (unknown artist)

In one of today’s Mass readings, Paul and Silas are unjustly beaten and imprisoned by order of a Roman magistrate who is either intimated by, or sympathetic to, a violent flash riot motivated by cultural prejudice and fear of economic instability. This occasion for grievous personal injury and miscarriage of justice (even by Roman legal standards) results in salvation for Paul and Silas’s jailer and the jailer’s household. I wonder what became of the jailer and his family? What far reaching consequences resulted directly or indirectly from their conversion to Christianity? The Bible doesn’t say, nor are there any additional stories about them from the early church, at least not that I’ve been able to find.

This morning it occurred to me in one of those moments of sharp but brief clarity of insight, those occasional moments we can only hope to come close to adequately translating into words later, that the Holy Spirit uses all events and occurrences and people to accomplish His ends and bring about the fulfillment of God’s kingdom. The Holy Spirit blows through our lives, events, societies, history, unexpectedly and unpredictably to bring about God’s kingdom step by mysterious step until Christ comes again in glory to reconcile all things once and for all to the Father (Col. 1:19-20).

Something that struck me in this insight is that the Holy Spirit doesn’t sweep through and leave everybody in His path converted to Christ, nor does He undo all the harm and evil and transform it overtly into good. Yet somehow, by means mysterious to us but partially perceivable sometimes in hints and inklings, the Holy Spirit makes it such that all actions, people, and events will ultimately serve as means to the end which is the renewal of all things in Christ (Matt. 19:28). This is dreadfully mysterious, discomfiting and disturbing, yet also a source of great comfort to me.

What is the “renewal of all things” mentioned by Jesus, and the reconciliation of all spoken of by Paul? I don’t know, but my understanding of eschatology has been hugely influenced by the likes of St. Isaac the Syrian, Julian of Norwich, and George MacDonald; therefore I cling to the hope that it means what it seems to imply at face value. That is, that all humanity who ever was and will be, ultimately will be united in Christ and transfigured into his likeness. Somehow, some way, I think God’s love will not, cannot relent until all are brought home safely. Perhaps this stretches or goes beyond the bounds of canonical teaching, or not. Either way, to assert otherwise would be in my understanding to place unacceptable limits on God’s love and to give corruption too much credit in our anthropology.

Therefore I choose to believe that even though the Holy Spirit seems to bypass a great many people and lets many events play out where we feel God ought to step in and intervene, ultimately even the worst of us won’t be abandoned as human refuse and left for little else than to be burned and forgotten. The Holy Spirit is described in the book of Genesis as hovering (or blowing, depending on your translation) over the Earth’s waters in the darkness of primordial chaos (Gen. 1:2-3). I believe the Holy Spirit continues to hover over each of us (water constitutes up to 60% of our bodies), whether we’re Christian or not, gently present with us and for us, in the dark chaos of our world. And as God brought order and beauty out of the darkness and chaos, so will this be true for us in Jesus Christ our Savior through the working of the Holy Spirit.

Orthodox prayer to the Holy Spirit:

Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of truth, who are everywhere present and fill all things; Treasury of blessings and giver of life: come and dwell within us, cleanse us of all stain, and save our souls O Gracious one. Amen.

My search for the God who loves (part 12)

Sometime in late June of 2012, 1 MEF MWD platoon returned from Afghanistan to southern California. Approximately a week after returning stateside, my parents came to visit for a few days. Even though I would be flying home later in the month for two weeks leave, they probably figured they wouldn’t see me as much as they’d like once I was home. They were perplexed and concerned about my seemingly sudden decision to become Catholic, but their initial excitement to see me, and concern for my emotional health, initially overshadowed their religious anxieties.

In the parking lot at the Camp Pendleton K-9 facility.

My return home was suffused with an underlying sense of dread and anxiety. This feeling gnawed at me overseas with ever greater intensity. By the time I arrived home, I was probably in a state of clinical depression. I had been in a serious relationship since my return home from the first deployment, but it was a thoroughly toxic and emotionally abusive relationship. For a long while I was in hardcore denial about the toxicity of the relationship and the woman I professed to love, although everyone around me could plainly see it. We were engaged to marry in the autumn not terribly long after I was discharged from the military, but my time overseas with a slow operational tempo afforded me the overdue opportunity for an honest appraisal of my situation back home. Plainly stated, I was miserable and wanted my life back.

Post-deployment leave around the end of July was a whirlwind. I spent the first week and a half of my two week leave mostly hanging out with my fiancée and her family, tying up the remaining loose ends of our wedding plans and going on dates. Her parents had used some of their connections to secure a position for me with the sheriff’s department in their county as a detention officer; I was scheduled to do a physical agility test for them before returning to California. We found a nice town home style apartment and had all but closed on the deal. On the surface it seemed that we had everything we needed lined up for a secure future after the military, yet I was absolutely miserable. What I had managed to previously conceal from myself through justifications and euphemisms, I now perceived with stark clarity.

Halfway through the second week, I had a much-needed day off from the supposed love of my life, who hadn’t been able take off that day’s work shift. I feigned disappointment through a text message that I wouldn’t get to see her, then I proceeded to spend a beautifully low key day with my family. No sudden fits of crying and accusations until I apologized for offenses I’d been unaware of, no lengthy diatribes about the ways someone in my family supposedly gave offense, and no relentless pressure to be somebody I simply wasn’t. It was the best day I’d had since returning home from Afghanistan. I decided that same day I would regain control of my life and end the relationship.

Without getting into great detail, it’s enough to say that I was a no-show for the sheriff department’s agility test I had been scheduled to attend the next morning. Unprofessional and inconsiderate as it may be to not show up without advance notice, doing so in this particular case felt eminently satisfying. I felt like I was setting fire to something that represented a prospective future I now loathed and feared above all else, and metaphorically burning it to ashes felt great. Later in the morning I arrived late for our scheduled premarital counseling and put an end to what I should have ended much, much sooner. Doing this was anything but simple (it turned out to be messier, more complicated, more protracted than I had imagined it would be), but details of this sordid episode in my life don’t warrant any further narration.

By putting an end to a toxic relationship, I unknowingly was putting to death yet another aspect of my own toxic images of God. That is, because God was to me still very much a hard-nosed lawgiver who rigidly held us to high expectations, my mind transferred this false image of God into the discernment process when it came to how I should handle this relationship. Somehow I got it in my mind that it was God’s will that I try to make such a relationship work, that ending it when things got hard seemed to be a breach of God’s law.

My process of “discernment” at this time largely involved reliance on fluctuating feelings, an unstable situation in itself. When I finally garnered the courage to regain my freedom, disregarding all else including what God may or may not think of me, I discovered a liberating truth that it’s never God’s will that we suffer through toxic, abusive relationships. My overlong stay in such a relationship was among other things, the fruit of a harmful image of a wrathful God who thunders down complex legal requirements and cares little how much suffering it brings us. With another false image of God discarded, the God of love was able by yet more increments to reveal to me how close to me God really is.

I returned to California with a liberating sense that my future was once again wide open with possibilities. I could focus on the things that really mattered to me, namely becoming Catholic and figuring out what I was going to do after my upcoming discharge from active duty.

Of gods and symbols

Recently I finished reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. It’s an interesting novel with good insights into how we collectively create, worship, and ultimately kill our own gods. This story taps into a deep abiding truth that we’re religious down to the bones, whether we like it or not. American Gods isn’t an academic book or philosophical treatise, but I felt a lot of philosophy speaking me through this wacky, hard-to-put-down Americana meets Old World misadventure.

Much as we’ve tried to rid ourselves of our “primitive” religious impulses to become more rational scientific animals, we’ve merely reconstituted our religiosity and renamed our gods. Scientific materialism, the assumed philosophy of society and the mindset which unifies us as Westerners, has succeeded in disenchanting us from our old gods and ideas. We no longer look at nature with the sense of religious terror and enchantment as did the ancients, and we can’t return to it if we want to. Church no longer rules the public sphere as it did during the days of holy empire. Yet materialism has nonetheless failed to prevent us from setting up shrines and altars and making sacrifices to a new pantheon of gods and spiritual energies, with no less fervency than our ancestors who worshipped Apollo, Odin, or sacred trees.

One of the scenes in the novel I particularly liked was when our protagonist encountered the god of mass media while watching television. The god appeared to him indirectly by crashing his viewing of I Love Lucy, speaking to him through Lucille Ball. During their confrontational exchange the god reveals much about the religious nature of American life when it tells our protagonist how much of our supposedly secular society is controlled by gods of our own making. To paraphrase the god of mass media, television is the altar upon which Americans worship and offer sacrifice to this particular god. Our sacrifices are mostly time, but sometimes more. We could say the same about our computers and mobile devices. You get the gist of the author’s logic. Conversely, in another section of the novel American churches are relegated to the relevancy of dentist offices.

American churches are as dedicated as anyone else to making and chasing the gods particular to our milieus. Quite often our churches create gods meant to be an alternative to the gods of mainstream society, but the predictable result is that our church gods are just shoddy knock-offs of what they were intended to displace. Why bother with church if what’s offered is watered down, second rate helpings of what you can find anywhere else? Jesus never made an appearance in American Gods, but my edition has an afterward included by the publisher, a deleted chapter where the protagonist meets American Jesus. In it the Jesus figure talks about how being a god is exhausting and self-destructive because it requires you to fit into so many peoples’ imagined molds, that you eventually lose your identity and become everything for everyone. This ultimately reduces you to little more than a vague idea.

It seems to me that Jesus is for many within the American church (broadly speaking) a malleable vector through which our more ‘real’ gods—democracy, the military, political activism, nationalism, money, guns, self indulgence, freedom of choice, etc.—are worshipped. This is of course an age-old phenomena, the use of a dominant religion as a smokescreen to worship actions, causes, people, or ideas without bothering one’s conscience too much. Many of us use the Bible and church traditions to marginalize, enforce blind conformity, identify ourselves according to who our perceived enemies are, and we call ourselves traditionalists, orthodox, or simply faithful. We might likewise call ourselves progressive, liberal, or loving while shaming, demonizing, or excluding our perceived opponents as we visibly preen in our self righteousness and advocate cultural and political causes we’ve mistaken for the gospel. Nothing new under the sun.

Somewhere along the way Christianity apparently has taken up the banner of capitalism, private property rights, the right to kill ones’ enemies, and foreign policy intended to benefit us at the expense of others. At least this is the subtext (if not overtly stated) underlying belief and praxis in much of what goes by the name “Christianity” here in my home country. If Jesus were another god who rose from the oppressed masses to displace the Roman pantheon and ultimately become the new tyrant on the block some 2,000 years ago, it’d be safe to say we’ve successfully killed him again in America (as have many societies before us). Not by crucifixion this time, but by commodification. Or rather, we’d have killed the older versions of Jesus which came first to America and created hybrids more suited to our contemporary tastes. No god can survive capitalism, not even the gods born out of the deafening chaotic forces of a hypercommodified society. Gaiman’s modern American gods appeared nearly invincible at first, but even they lived in constant terror of being forgotten and therefore killed, as technocratic capitalism creates and kills gods at ever-faster speeds.

But Jesus is truly the Son of God, real man and real God who lived a bodily life doing bodily things like carpentry, laughing, eating, and pooping, who of his own will was crucified and was resurrected, who now lives and works among us sacramentally. He exists in his own right and has his own essence, therefore no matter how much violence we subject him to (whether intentionally or not) when we redefine, commodify, or adapt him to suit our needs, he remains himself and truly of his own existence and essence. This is great news, especially for us Americans who live in a loud, dehumanizing, ephemeral world of our own making.

In baptism we were named ‘beloved children of God’ and connected to Christ. In the world of spirit, symbols are reality. Our languages and ability to think relies so much on metaphor because we’re enfleshed spiritual beings with one foot in the heavens and one on earth (so to speak). The symbolism of rebirth in baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit in confirmation, Christ’s intimate presence to us at the Eucharistic meal, are all truly what they signify. Our being named as God’s children in the ritual of baptism is more substantial than any title anybody else could confer upon us. In talking about American gods and the shortfalls of the church we should not make the error of thinking we ought to shield ourselves from “the world” in which God has planted us. We don’t avoid moral contamination by insularly closing ourselves off from the people and social structures who form our milieus. Rather, we’re called to live boldly in conscious recognition of our baptismal identity, our true names ‘beloved child of God’.

These ‘gods’ we speak of, these powerful impersonal illusions we create and imbue with the centripetal force of social practice and assumptions, are constantly trying to confer on us false names: consumer, voting bloc, American, illegal, wealthy, old, beautiful, important, fat, jobless, etc. We internalize the myriad labels society foists upon us from birth so much so that the most conscientious among us may spend a lifetime trying to disentangle themselves yet never quite finish the job. But our baptismal identity slices through all those titles and calls them out for the lies that they are. Truly, we are the children of God, loved unconditionally and forgiven unconditionally. God gave us baptism as the ritual means by which we’re brought to understand we’re delivered from the power of darkness and translated into the kingdom of God’s only begotten Son. The other sacraments are the ritual means by which we as children of God continue to come together to celebrate the joy of belonging to God’s kingdom (though this doesn’t by any means imply we should be constantly happy or pretend to have our lives together).

Despite how much we get wrong within the American church, the true Jesus is nonetheless present and closer to us than we are to ourselves. He tends to show up unexpectedly, in unexpected places. One of my favorite fictions, Imaginary Jesus, is about a Christian’s journey to destroy his numerous false images of Jesus to encounter the true Son of God. May God help me, all of us, to walk more boldly in our baptismal identity and share the joy of the Gospel.

Thoughts from the abyss

Image retrieved from my favorite web comic, Existentialcomics.com

To any who read my blog and maybe even get something out of it, I ask your pardon for my lengthy absence. I have, as it were, taken a prolonged and most unwanted plunge into the dark, icy waters of despondency and existential nihilism. What began as a run of the mill bout of depression morphed into a dark exploration of my own deep-seated doubts about God, religion, and the nature of reality. My depression and existential darkness became inexorably entangled with one another, and this shit storm of anomie dragged on from the middle of December until 5 days ago. During all this, the insoluble problem of suffering and evil ceased to be an abstract puzzle and became for me a personalized struggle which forced me to painfully confront the fact that I don’t really believe God is good and just in creating the world in which we live.

I hate depression, but I’ve come to see it as an asset because it can act as a sort of purgatory wherein self-deceptions, blithely held beliefs, and poorly thought-out ideas are burned away. That is, when I reach a certain point where my faith seems to evaporate, and certain of my views that stem from a sense of concern for the well-being of society take leave, I’m prone to nihilistic revaluations wherein I torch my interior world and let the flames consume what they may. That’s not to say I don’t still battle with inner resistance that screams out in pain at the thought of losing cherished beliefs, but the effects of depression leave me entirely devoid of a sense of God’s presence and enable me to better gaze into what I think Nietzsche might have meant when he spoke of “the abyss.”

Without depression, I’m unable to grapple with the problem of suffering and evil apart from the cushion of a comfortable piety which enables me to trust God even when I don’t understand something. Depression robs me of that cushion, and this last time around it forced me to face with frightening clarity my underlying doubts and anger directed toward God for all the wrongs created by men and sufferings inflicted by Nature. I reject the over-simple explanation that God gives us free will and therefore is not responsible for all that went wrong with creation, as if it were a simple misunderstanding on the part of humanity and only needed a quick explanation to set things straight.

If God is the wellspring and grounding of all existence, the source from which all that is and could be continually draws its being and substance, then I cannot conceive of how God can be let off the hook for anything that happens. Simply put, if in God we all “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), then I fail to see how everything that happens is not within the purview of God’s responsibility, even granting that God gives independent agency to the sentient creatures which proceed forth from his mind. The medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich boldly faced this question in her Showings, admitting her great struggle and ultimate inability to resolve this quandary. Her mystical showings were a result of a lifetime of reflections and dialogue with God on the existential conflict between evil and God’s love.

Depression by itself does not bring clarity, but rather it sets the stage for clarity after the storm clouds have passed and ideas have been purified or reduced to rubble. The icy interior darkness which passes through my soul a few times a year brings with it a madness of its own, a madness which threatens to be a sickness unto death if it’s acute or lengthy enough. But when the darkness finally gives way to light, when my interior world reaches equilibrium with the surrounding environment such that I no longer feel painfully discordant with the pace and mood of everything else around me, the presence of God is renewed in me and the interior winter gives way to a new springtime. It’s probably not coincidental that this last bout of depression seems to have coincided so closely with the shortening and lengthening of the days.

I’m still wrestling with the problem of suffering and evil in the world, and of the goodness of God. But if I’m honest, I frequently do even if I don’t feel alienated from God. Perhaps in my recent darkest hours, I’ve been wrestling with God like Jacob. Today I thought back to the experience I had in the mountains last year that I think of as a mystical experience. It was where the problem of suffering and evil seemed incomprehensibly resolved in the light of God’s perspective. In that experience I somehow felt that the world as currently stands, somehow exists in harmony with God’s love. But I felt this could only be understood from the inaccessible Divine vantage point, which I felt I had been privileged for a brief moment to glimpse within my soul. On the ground level, this could not be understood, though the resolution was very real and even in the midst of everybody on ground level.

This is most difficult to accept because it means we have to become childlike, as Jesus says we must if we are to enter the Kingdom. I think I now have a better understanding of how or why people could consciously choose to walk away from the Kingdom in favor of their own so-called wisdom. Psalm 97 describes God’s throne as being surrounded by clouds and thick darkness, and I think that in my despondent moods, trying hard to peer into the mind of God hidden behind this impenetrable cloud, I lose myself in existential despair. Attempting to gaze into the very secrets of God which are not permitted to me or anyone else, I instead gaze into the abyss of my own ignorance and finitude, running the risk of self-destruction in the process.

Therefore, I see the mystical route as the only viable road on which I can travel. Not that I’m a mystic, if by ‘mystic’ we mean someone for whom religious ecstasies and visions are somewhat the norm for their journey. But in the sense that Karl Rahner spoke of in his Concern for the Church, where he speculated that if Christianity is to survive the modern/postmodern era, ordinary Christians must become mystics if by ‘mysticism’ we mean “a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence.” Only from the real experience of God encountered within our heart of hearts, can we face the problem of evil without settling for facile soundbite answers. And I think existential struggle, where we feel that God has abandoned us—if God is anything more than a figment of our imaginations—provides the fertile ground wherein we can have authentic encounter with God. That leads me to the final lesson I’ve taken away from this recent experience: drawing close to God means we simultaneously draw perilously close to atheism.

Herod, Blackwater, and the War on Christmas — Parish on Fire

Be sure to follow the news over the holiday, our professor told us as we headed out the door. It was 2002, and I was a freshman journalism student in Washington, DC. Because this is when the powers-that-be do their worst. When no one is paying attention, he practically had to shout over us to […]

Herod, Blackwater, and the War on Christmas — Parish on Fire

The author of this excellent piece really struck a chord with a similar vein of thinking I’ve mulled over this holiday season.

Finding joy, even in comfort

St. Michael the Archangel Parish, Findlay, Ohio Eucharistic stained glass window depicting bread and wine (Wikipedia)

St. Paul wrote in Philippians 4:12-13, “I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.” And in Luke 16:9, Jesus told his disciples, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

I’ve written before, without a sense of resolution, about the conflict of conscience I experience from time to time in trying to follow Jesus within my context as a middle class American. Yet recently, while reflecting on the friendship developing between myself and an impoverished widow who lives behind us, it seemed more clear to me that being materially comfortable amidst a world of suffering need not be cause for a bad conscience, per se. Insofar as I live comfortably and have some means about me, I can find joy in bringing comfort to others who of themselves, are unable to meet some of their own basic needs. The chief comfort being the solace of developing companionship between two souls who are equally wealthy on account of Christ’s love for us.

The danger in seeking to do good for others, especially those who are at a material disadvantage, lies in the very thought that we may have something to offer the other. When we finally reach the point where we realize we actually have nothing to offer, come what may of our donated money and abilities that we make far too much of in our own minds, then we’re able to finally offer the one thing we can truly give: ourselves. When we stop doing “good” with the expectation of a return for our efforts and generosity, we arrive at the end of our ropes where we can begin to act in humility and love; there, our goodness really becomes good. I think quite often, God must strip away our pride by letting us learn how not to serve others and do good, before we can finally get it right. But I digress.

I think Jesus calls material wealth “dishonest” because it’s inextricably embedded within social systems that perpetuate injustice. But Jesus says wealth can and should be used a pretext for establishing friendships between the poor and people of means. After all how can friendship, much less love, exist where one refuses to help the other in matters of necessity? It is written in James 2:15-16, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?”

That there are any class distinctions at all which separate us, is in itself a sinful situation. Much less the fact that someone can live in want of basic necessities while his or her neighbors, literally next door, have plenty. I don’t think as followers of Christ that we’re called to try and solve all of someone else’s financial problems necessarily, but I think we ought to live in the sacramental paradigm whereby our pattern of life—our inner dispositions and outward conduct—reflect something of the kingdom of God as revealed in Jesus.

Speaking for myself specifically, sharing resources in the name of Jesus—in terms of financial help, physical labor, and donated time—across social and economic dividing lines, fulfills a sacramental function in witnessing to the reality of the coming of God’s kingdom where all is shared and nobody is in want, and no boundaries separate humanity. Roughly speaking, a sacrament is a symbol which effects what it signifies, though it does not quite yet bring the full reality of God’s kingdom to bear upon its recipient. It’s that paradoxical already/not yet thinking so prominent in Christianity.

For me this all amounts to not only donating abstractly to worthy causes or to church, but also patiently asking God to lead me to direct action, then acting on the faith I profess as the opportunities present themselves. As my giving becomes progressively more generous and sacrificial, more authentic in the way of building up relationships with equals in Christ, I begin to find joy even in the midst of my suffocating material comfort.

All Scripture verses are excerpted from the New American Bible Revised Edition translation.

Eucharizing the ordinary

In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God:
command that these gifts be borne
by the hands of your holy Angel
to your altar on high
in the sight of your divine majesty,
so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar
receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son,
may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

excerpted from Eucharistic Prayer I (Roman Canon)

Celebration of the Lord’s Supper is an invitation from Jesus to live according to a new dimension, a new paradigm. The scriptures call this the ‘Kingdom of God.’ In the Mass Christ makes himself truly present under the appearance of ordinary bread and wine for our salvation. This great mystery highlights the crucial truth that Christ is truly present in the most ordinary details of our lives, day to day, moment to moment.

All the gifts of creation which sustain us, which we so easily take for granted or frivolously waste, are in a certain sense sacraments of God’s love for us. The gifts of each moment are merely the outer shells of a greater inner truth: that Christ is present and always inviting us to discover his love for us, and to love him in return.

Each moment lived, each encounter or gift received, is given to us by God for our salvation and the salvation of others. The sacrifice of the Mass is the highest, most sublime icon of this truth; I think it’s the most clear image of what is in fact the true nature of every moment we live. May we pray to our Lord for eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to live in gratitude of this awesome truth.

My search for the God who loves (part 11)

FOB Z in Kajaki, Afghanistan.

Leaving Kajaki

I spent the final weeks of my 2012 deployment working with 1/8’s police mentoring team. We lived in a small compound behind the Kajaki Sofla bazaar and maintained a slow operational tempo, patrolling about once a week and making occasional administrative trips to FOB Whitehouse or FOB Z. During this interval I was deeply torn between whether to become a Lutheran or Roman Catholic. Spare time was overabundant, and in spite of our spartan living conditions we had wireless access, enabling me to immerse myself in religious research.

My exposure to Luther might actually mark the first time in my life that I really believed the Gospel. It wasn’t until I read Luther’s catechism and learned the basics of his theology that I understood why the Gospel is actually good news. And I was drawn to how much more the Scriptures made sense within the Lutheran theological paradigm than according to the variations of Evangelical teaching which up to this point, had constituted my religious formation. Suddenly, the New Testament was allowed to actually mean what it says without elaborate hermeneutical twists and turns.

However, I was also drawn to Roman Catholic spirituality and its apostolic foundations. To adapt from C.S. Lewis, there were days when Catholicism seemed unbearably true. Despite the sola fide debates on justification which separated Catholics from Lutherans, I didn’t perceive enough substantial differences such that the Gospel was clearer in the one or compromised in the other. Sometimes it seemed rather plain to me that within Catholicism, one could benefit from the best of Luther’s gospel theology and still participate in the older time-tested traditions rejected by the Reformation. Yet, even though Roman Catholicism held a powerful appeal with me, I seemed to spend a lot of time making arguments in my head for why I shouldn’t become Catholic.

One day, toward the end of my stint with the police team, I was riding in the back of our armored vehicle as we approached FOB Whitehouse for an administrative stopover. The felt tension within me, between the pull toward Catholicism and my desire to become Lutheran, was growing particularly acute. Abruptly, with the attention-grabbing clarity of a peal of thunder, a disturbingly sensible thought cut through all the mental white noise: Why do you argue so relentlessly against becoming Catholic, unless you already believe Catholicism is true and don’t want to admit it? It was a jarring, unsettling experience, to say the least. Nonetheless, I persisted in my struggle and actually returned to Camp Leatherneck decided on becoming Lutheran.

Reunion, sorrow, and apprehension

1 MEF MWD Platoon’s final regroup to Camp Leatherneck was marked with great sorrow. One of our handlers, Cpl Keaton Coffey, was killed by a Taliban sniper on May 24th while out on a mission with Marine Corps Special Operations. He was killed only two weeks from the end of our combat operations. During the interval between regrouping at Leatherneck and flying home, our command put together a memorial service for him at the Camp Leatherneck chapel. Unfortunately, we knew the drill all too well from the previous deployment, when Cpl Max Donahue was killed.

Corporal Keaton Coffey (21 Aug. 1989-24 May 2012)

After we mourned Cpl Coffey and honored him with a memorial service, we returned about our business of preparing for command changeover and leaving Afghanistan. Unlike the end of our previous deployment, I was actually ready to go home this time. Whereas I loved my first deployment and couldn’t get enough of it, I ended the second one on a sour note of disappointment. The slow operational tempo had a little to do with how I felt, but most of it was because I spent the deployment under a significant burden of emotional stress and internal turmoil.

Most of this stress wasn’t even related to my spiritual struggles. If church history and ecclesiology had been my biggest concerns (outside the usual concerns of getting blown up or shot), I may actually have found this deployment enjoyably laid back. No, there was business waiting for me back home which I did not look forward to dealing with. I wasn’t even sure how I was going to deal with it. All my praying for an answer failed to yield the sense of clarity I had hoped for; I still had to learn that God is not ordinarily in the business of handing us easy answers.

Plus, my active duty contract was ending in September, and I was very much over the military at this point. Marines nearing the end of their enlistment will often be told, “don’t drop your pack,” which is to say, don’t get lazy, you still have a job to do. Well, as one of my fellow dog handlers laughingly told me at the end of the deployment, “When we got here you were already dragging your pack by a single strap saying, goddammit!” Not exactly a flattering portrayal of me, but honest. I wasn’t careless or complacent when we were outside the wire, but I was visibly burned out and had let my attitude and physique slip.

Rediscerning my discernment

Anyway, after the memorial service I met up with the chaplain and told him that I wanted to become a Lutheran. We sat in his office and talked about it for the next couple of hours. I energetically relayed my story of theological and spiritual discoveries during my final weeks of combat operations, and he tested my motivations and knowledge of Lutheran teaching. After his examination, he concluded that I was a suitable candidate for Confirmation, and subsequently he confirmed me into the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod at the next service.

I was thrilled to finally belong to a liturgical, sacramental church body, and to receive the Eucharist. However, I never fully dealt with my conflict regarding the Catholic Church, and not too long after Confirmation I felt as if I had rushed into a mistake. I decided to quash my concerns once and for all, to let myself enjoy being a Lutheran in peace without suffering to have Rome always casting a shadow over me like some kind of ghost or bad dream. The last thing I wanted was to have to backtrack and become Catholic, after getting confirmed as a Lutheran. I’d already confounded my Baptist family back home with an email telling them I was coming home a Lutheran, for goodness sake!

Writing is what I do when I need to get to the bottom of something that’s got me flummoxed. In this case, I started writing my best defense for why I should be Lutheran, with rebuttals against Roman Catholic arguments. Curiously, I wasn’t worried about sola fide; this honestly seemed to me like a non-issue in the grand scheme of things. My biggest concerns were sola scriptura and ecclesiastical authority. I started the project thinking Lutheranism be the stronger side if I systematically laid out my reasons for why I thought I should be Lutheran as opposed to Roman Catholic. To my dismay, my hypothesis was proven wrong; slowly but surely, I had to admit my best-articulated ideas were fairly easily toppled by the counter-arguments I sought to refute.

For me, the clincher was how we ultimately decide what belongs to the legitimate diversity within catholic tradition as opposed to what’s rejected as heterodox? Lutheranism upholds sola scriptura, with the subtext being that proper scripture interpretation is done through the lens of catholic tradition. This means Lutherans reject private interpretation and favor instead the authority of the church fathers. For example, the Lutheran Reformers argued that sola fide, while not believed or expressed unanimously by all the fathers and councils of the church, nonetheless was expressed by some of the orthodox fathers. To them, sola fide was a legitimately catholic view of justification with sufficient precedent in the tradition, rather than being a theological innovation.

Sounded good at first. But it began to unravel as I questioned who exactly gets to decide which ideas are orthodox or heterodox, and by what mechanism is this decided? There have been revered church fathers and saints who’ve believed things which were later on, decided to be unorthodox. Some church councils have been rejected as heretical by later councils. The whole lot of church history is rather messy, and at the end of the day there needs to be some mechanism that can authoritatively make those unpopular decisions regarding what is legitimately accepted within the diversity of the Catholic faith.

Lutheranism, as a decentralized movement which has solidified into many ecclesiastical bodies across the globe, has no coherent mechanism with which to address the ongoing challenges history continues to throw at the church—not without the ongoing fragmentation and chaos inherent in the Protestant mode of Christianity. Church history is still being written—Catholic tradition is still being formed—and there needs to be a mechanism of authority which defines and holds together this tradition.

The Lutheran Reformation launched itself from the Roman Catholic patrimony and grounded itself in many elements of Catholicism of the 16th century. This worked well, so long as Catholicism remained at that point in its development. Beyond that, as history marches on and Catholicism grows and changes, the Lutheran church bodies must also play their role in writing church history. But they must do so as decentralized bodies in a movement which inevitably must succumb to the entropy which afflicts, mutates, and dissolves all Protestant bodies.

That entropy and ultimately, dissolution, are the natural end to the Lutheran Reformation—and all Protestant movements—was something I could not abide. If a church body was more or less correct in its theology and practice, as Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism both claim, there’s something fundamentally wrong about a scenario in which such an ecclesiastical body, or confessional movement, can be allowed to fall apart and ultimately die. This would be tantamount to the Gospel itself being lost, because the Lutheran Reformers contended that it was the integrity of the Gospel which was at stake

I finally gave up. I did my best to argue for the catholicity, the apostolicity of the Lutheran tradition, to assure myself why I shouldn’t have to become Catholic. Like the morning sun gradually illuminating the landscape until darkness has nowhere left to hide, it occurred to me that God was calling me to be Catholic. By the time this occurred to me, I no longer wanted to fight it; I willingly, gladly accepted it. I felt silly for having rushed into a Confirmation service for a denomination I excitedly announced I would be part of, just to have to backtrack and explain, just kidding…I’m going to be Catholic now. I felt that my family wouldn’t take me seriously anymore, that I appeared to be just another religious consumer chasing after fads. No matter, because I knew my heart and what kind of journey I took to reach this moment of discernment. Soon we’d be flying home, where I would confront some really big changes in my life.

MWD memorial at Camp Leatherneck K9 compound, “Camp Donahue.”

My search for the God who loves (part 10)

The flight line at FOB Whitehouse in Kajaki, Afghanistan.

During a temporary recall to Camp Leatherneck for MWD Kiddy’s scheduled veterinarian visit, I attended Lutheran church services, spoke with the chaplain about theology, and discovered the early church fathers were sacramental in their theology. I left Kajaki Sofla a struggling Evangelical, and returned two weeks later convinced God was leading me toward something liturgical, sacramental, and catholic.

Departing Camp Leatherneck to return to my assignment, I flew by rotor craft from Camp Bastion to FOB Whitehouse in the Kajaki district. During my overnight stopover at Whitehouse, I dropped by the chaplain’s tent where I picked up a Catholic periodical entitled The Word Among Us. The next day, 1/8’s police mentoring team arrived and brought me back to our small compound behind the bazaar. There I resumed the slow grind of daily life as part of the occupying force in Kajaki: conducting foot patrols once a week or so, making occasional administrative trips out to nearby FOBs, standing guard duty every morning from 03:00-06:00, and killing lots of time between reading and watching pirated movies.

The view from standing post at the police team compound.

Everyday I eagerly poured through Luther’s Small Catechism and Theodore Graebner’s abridged translation of Luther’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians I had downloaded to my e-reader. I learned from Luther’s catechism to pray daily the Our Father and the Apostles’ Creed, and I worked through the slow process of retraining my neural pathways to rest in assurance of God’s grace given to me in baptism, rather than looking for assurance of salvation in subjective cognitive experiences or judging my own patterns of conduct.

My starved soul ravenously devoured the spiritual feast I brought back with me, and I gladly shed my previously held Evangelical beliefs and assumptions to embrace an emerging new catholic identity. It wasn’t long before I burned with desire to partake of the Eucharist, realizing now that the true body and blood of Christ is what’s offered and received in this sacrament. My longing for the sacraments intensified with time, compounded by the knowledge of how much longer I had until this deployment was finished. It was also a source of great spiritual pain to me that I no longer belonged to an organized church body.

Though my admiration of Martin Luther was great, as was my pull toward the Lutheran tradition, my journey was complicated by the fact that I also felt a strong pull developing toward Rome. This wasn’t something I could ignore, especially if I was taking seriously the witness of the early church. This attraction to Rome developed while I was at Camp Leatherneck and steadily worked its way into the forefront of my mind. Initially I explained away this perennial longing and focused on Luther, but gradually I included Roman Catholicism into the sphere of my discernment. My attraction to Rome grew in proportion to my exposure to it. That is, relative to what I could manage out in the boonies of Afghanistan.

My edition of The Word Among Us had some great articles, not to mention daily Mass readings I could use to supplement my prayer. A feature on St. Faustina and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy captivated my imagination,; through this article I developed a great love for St. Faustina and an interest in reading her spiritual writings. Catholicism could no longer be dismissed as a theological or historical abstraction. It became to me a living, breathing tradition with Jesus at its heart.

Nonetheless, I harbored strong fears that if I were to convert to Catholicism, I would be required to perform a harsh or exacting penance as a condition of entry. My conscience festered with wounds of guilt, inflicted by many sins committed over the years. Exaggerated anxieties about the Catholic Church being a morally harsh institution were undoubtedly aggravated by my reading of early sources like Tertullian and The Shepherd of Hermas. It would take me a long while to develop a more nuanced, contextualized understanding of the church’s historical development of penitential practices and moral theology.

From the depths of my heart, I was crying out for God’s love, a sinner in the process of being humbled. I desperately wanted to give my heart to God, and I knew for sure that God was calling me to give myself to Him through submitting to a particular church body. But when it came to seriously considering Roman Catholicism, I hesitated out of fear that I would be like the rich young man who came to Jesus only to turn away sorrowfully (Matt. 19:16-22).

Foot patrol with the 1/8 police mentoring team.

Even though Roman Catholicism held a deep visceral appeal I could only partially explain by my positive association with it several years previously, Lutheranism nonetheless remained deeply attractive to me. My discovery of Luther’s gospel preaching, built upon on a sturdy foundation of sacramental theology, was honestly the first time I actually recognized the message of our salvation in Jesus Christ as good news. For my entire life up to this point, “gospel preaching” had been for me a source of unremitting torment and theological confusion.

For Luther, faith in Jesus Christ means simply that we believe we are reconciled to the Father on account of the Crucified and Risen Lord. In practical terms, this means trusting that God saves us by washing away our sins and uniting us with Christ through water baptism. For Luther, trusting in God’s saving promise given to us at our baptism is absolutely foundational. Confession and absolution, and the Sacrament of the Altar, are also means of grace whereby God communicates salvation to believers and reassures terrified consciences.

Luther’s theology lifted from my shoulders the impossible burden of having to gaze inwardly to the interior movements of my soul, to determine whether or not I stood secure in God’s grace. In his writings I discovered a new image of God, a healthier conception of God. Luther preaches an incarnational God who, understanding we’re bodily as well as spiritual beings, gives us tangible sacramental means within the church with which to bestow the benefits of salvation and assure us we belong to Christ. Come what may of our feelings and internal dispositions, even our sins, we always look outside of ourselves to what Christ does for us in baptism, the Eucharist, and Absolution. This, and nothing more, is Luther’s idea of faith that saves.

The Lutheran Reformation was a liberating discovery. Finding myself in eager agreement with Luther’s gospel preaching, I was freed from ever again having to take seriously the Evangelicals whose teachings impoverished my perceptions of God. I was elated to never have to return to the interpretive chaos, rootlessness, and faddishness inherent in American Evangelicalism. I looked forward to embracing a world of apostolic tradition, liturgy, and solid theology when I finished this deployment.

Until that time though, when I felt my mind rising too high into the clouds of otherworldly thoughts, I had to remember I was still weeks away from the end of combat operations. I was still participating in counterinsurgency patrols in not-so-friendly territory, and needed to keep my head on a swivel and watch where I step.

Patrolling Kajaki Sofla district.

My search for the God who loves (part 9)

Entrance to the K-9 compound at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.

When I attended a Lutheran service for the first time at the Camp Leatherneck chapel, its liturgy resonated deeply within me and I knew a liturgical tradition would have be my future in Christianity. As a Baptist I had been introduced to Christ and developed a desire to love Jesus, but I was spiritually anemic and dying for solid nourishment; questions about how to understand God’s plan of salvation still vexed me.

Sometime after attending the service I stopped by the MWR building, where internet access was readily available for 30 minute time slots. I knew nothing about the theology of liturgical Protestant denominations, but naturally Lutheranism would be the place to start. At first I was disappointed to learn that Lutherans believe in baptismal regeneration and the Real Presence. Same for the Anglicans.

I was at a crossroads where I realized that to depart from American Evangelicalism for more liturgical, tradition-oriented forms of Christianity, meant I would inescapably come face to face with sacramental theology. My Evangelical heritage and its spirituality was forever closed off to me, this much I knew despite my uncertainty of everything else. Yet the idea of sacraments seemed to carry with them uncomfortable echoes of Roman Catholic “works righteousness.”

Despite these concerns, I was ready to set out into uncharted waters and trust the Holy Spirit to lead me wherever. I would approach the more catholic-leaning Protestant traditions with an open mind and let them be my teachers. Besides, what harm could come of learning from Martin Luther himself, the great Protestant Reformer whose legacy and work all other Protestant traditions claim as their patrimony? Prior to deployment I enjoyed using a devotional called Faith Alone, a collection of excerpts from Luther adapted into daily readings. From this, I already had a scintilla of exposure to the German monk and liked what I knew of him.

I set up an appointment to meet with the chaplain who presided over the liturgical service I had attended. He was more than happy to make time for me to come and hear him talk about the Lutheran church, its history, and its theology. He was a tall, muscular Navy officer in his fifties or maybe late forties, with glasses and a gray crew cut. My initial impression of him was that he was friendly and easy-going, also direct and no-nonsense, a let’s get down to business kind of man. His denomination was the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the second largest and one of the more theologically conservative Lutheran bodies in the United States.

During my two week stopover at Camp Leatherneck we met in his office at least twice, maybe more, where he explained Lutheranism to me with much clarity and detail. I attended his services for as long as I was at the base, though I refrained from further participating in Communion out of respect for his denomination’s understanding of what it meant to receive the sacrament. I wasn’t yet able to wrap my mind around a sacramental understanding of salvation, but I knew how baptismal regeneration and Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist could be easily read into the Scriptures.

For me the ultimate issue was authority. Lutherans lay claim to their beliefs on the authority of the Scripture interpreted in light of catholic tradition. Their confessional writings go to great lengths to demonstrate that Lutheranism is a legitimate movement within the catholic tradition, and a necessary corrective force therein. Because my interest had shifted from asking what does Scripture say? to asking on what authority do we base our interpretations of Scripture?, it was time to find out whether the early church was sacramental in their theology and worship.

I had on my e-reader the classic Ante-Nicene Fathers by Philip Schaff, a multi-volume collection of writings from the early church fathers. I had not yet attempted to read it because I was intimidated by its imposing size and writing style, but now seemed the time to utilize this resource. If ever in my life I had a lightning-strike conversion experience, it was when I read the following selection from St. Justin Martyr, a 2nd century Christian philosopher:

“And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”

Justin Martyr. First Apology. Chapter LXVI—Of the Eucharist.

And just like that, I became convinced that Christianity is at its heart, a sacramental religion whose evangelic rituals are efficacious to salvation. This didn’t exactly settle the issue of which denomination I should join, but it was a huge breakthrough nonetheless.

Elated by my by theological breakthrough—my radical and sudden embrace of a very different conception of Christianity—I returned to my next meeting with the chaplain and excitedly told him how I came to believe in Christ’s real presence in the Lord’s Supper and in baptismal regeneration. I told him I didn’t intellectually understand how it squares with sola fide, but I accepted the truth of it on the authority of Scripture and the testimony of the early church fathers.

I also told him, with a hint of sadness in my voice, that I would soon be returning to my assignment at Kajaki Sofla where I had no access to church services. The chaplain gave me a copy of Luther’s Small Catechism and instructed me to prayerfully study it and, if upon my return I still felt lead in the direction of Lutheranism, to come see him. I excitedly took him up on his offer and departed his office.

MWD Kiddy was pronounced healthy by the base veterinarian, and at the end of a two week stay I was sent back to 1/8’s police mentoring team at the Kajaki Sofla bazaar for the remainder of the deployment. I returned spiritually reinvigorated, with a new sense of focus and closeness with God. My newly discovered sacramental understanding of salvation closed the door on my anxieties about whether nor not I was “truly saved”. But now with the issue of historical and ecclesiastical authority at the fore of my thinking, I would face new ideas and challenges in my personal journey to find the God of love.