A Sense of Belonging

Over the next several Mondays I want to focus on some topics that were key in my journey into the Roman Catholic Church. A week ago today Charlotte and I were interviewed by Marcus Grodi for the “Journey Home” program that will air on EWTN, Monday, September 10, at 8:00 p.m. “A Sense of Belonging” was one of the things I talked about.

Early on in my journey, in December 2013, I picked up the book How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps by Christian Smith. I read it once, read it again to Charlotte, and then read it for a third time. I began to interact with his statements. The first statement was “Begin to feel rootless.” This I recognized as having to do with a sense of belonging. What I will share here is my journal entry on December 10, 2013 as I wrestled with that sense of belonging and something I will develop more deeply on the “Journey Home.”

To begin with, on a general level, I have always sensed rootlessness. I am a “third culture kid” (TCK), having been taken by my parents from our Midwest (Indiana) culture to the jungles of Suriname, South America at the age of six. I spent the next five years there before coming back to Indiana just before my twelfth birthday (in 1968!). I never felt that I belonged and didn’t understand why, until many years later after I had settled in New York City. I thought it strange that in 1987, at the age of 30, as I traveled to Costa Rica for language school I felt in a sense I was “going home.” Yet I never felt completely at home in the Latin culture, only more comfortable. While in college I took interest in my family history due in part to a feeling of rootlessness. I longed to know where I came from; where my family came from and what was their story. 

I love history, especially church history and it was in my church history course at Asbury Theological Seminary that I first learned about Apostolic Succession. My professor, a United Methodist expressed some pride that he could claim “apostolic succession.” I wasn’t really sure what that meant or even if it was all that important, yet I wondered if I could claim the same. I pretty much figured out that I couldn’t. So, yes, even ecclesiastically, I have felt rootless. 

This has increased even more as I no longer serve in a denominational setting, but as part of a non-denominational church that is a hybrid of many Protestant evangelical traditions. While I appreciate the openness to and practice of liturgy, it seems we constantly need to identify ourselves and find roots in the shallow sands of non-denominational Protestant evangelicalism. I have felt this acutely as we wrestle through issues such as homosexuality, women in ministry, membership requirements and even our preaching topics and schedules.

One of the great gifts that coming into the Catholic Church has given me is a sense of belonging–a deep sense of history–being part of the Church that Jesus founded upon his Apostles. Blessed John Cardinal Newman is often quoted, but it is very true: “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” A sense of history and belonging was a key component my conversion to the Catholic Church.

A Sense of Belonging

It’s Good to Be Home!

As I write this morning we have been back a week from our most recent vacation. Even a week out I can still say that it’s good to be home. It had been four months since I had had any time off from work and I was certainly ready for the break. The week was restful, as I will describe below, but when it was time to come home and get back to work I was ready. I can’t remember that happening in a long time. It’s good to be home!

This morning Charlotte and I worshiped at home: Church of the Good Shepherd. It’s good to be home! While we were on vacation we had many wonderful spiritual experiences. It was our purpose and privilege to take in a variety of worship experiences while away. We started out at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The first Sunday away we worshiped at Sacred Heart Church in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. From there we spent a couple of days at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, and had some special moments with our dear friend, Sister Jeanne Paul, a Benedictine nun. In Philadelphia we visited the Shrine of St. John Neumann and in Washington, DC, we returned to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Our final stop took us to Raleigh, North Carolina, to a family wedding at the Sacred Heart Cathedral. The following day before driving 10 hours to come home we worshiped at the 7:30 a.m. Mass in the same cathedral. There was standing room only, and that was one of nine weekend Masses to accommodate the worshipers in the smallest cathedral in the United States. In each place we participated in the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist and had the incredible privilege of receiving the Body and Blood of our risen Lord! But this morning we were back at Good Shepherd and while it was “only” the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, the ministry of the Word and the Eucharist was so significant! It’s good to be home!

Since the last time I wrote a blog post here there has been a lot going on of spiritual significance that stands out to me. The denomination I was privileged to serve for more than 30 years had its quadrennial General Conference. The Wesleyan Church celebrated God’s work among them and elected a new general superintendent. Dr. Wayne Schmidt has been a friend since college days and he will lead the denomination for the next four years. At the same time four of my former pastoral colleagues at Trinity Grace Church in New York City were guests, along with several other evangelical leaders, of Pope Francis in Vatican City. Pope Francis invited these leaders to talk, share and pray as to how together they could be an answer to Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21–the very prayer that has been rocking my spiritual and ecclesiastical world. Oh, how I long to see that prayer answered! I rejoice to see these answers to this prayer.

Over the past several weeks I have been reading a book on my way to work on the train. The book is Apologia Pro Vita Sua by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, who in the mid-nineteenth century made the journey from the Anglican Church to the Roman Catholic Church. His journey was prolonged, misunderstood and second-guessed. The book I’m reading was his attempt to explain how God led him to do what he did. A quote from Cardinal Newman written in 1845 after he was received into Catholic Church captures my sentiments twelve weeks in.

From the time that I became a Catholic, of course I have no further history of my religious opinions to narrate. In saying this, I do not mean to say that my mind has been idle, or that I have given up thinking on theological subjects; but that I have had no variations to record, and have had no anxiety of heart whatever. I have been in perfect peace and contentment; I have never had one doubt. I was not conscious to myself, on my conversion, of any change, intellectual or moral, wrought in my mind. I was not conscious of firmer faith in the fundamental truths of Revelation, or of more self-command; I had not more fervour; but it was like coming into port after a rough sea; and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption. (p. 155)

There is a lot to flesh out here, and with God’s help and by His grace I will humbly continue to share this journey. It’s good to be home!

It’s Good to Be Home!

“A Gift for You!”

Over the two months after my mother-in-law’s death and my commitment to fully understand her faith I found myself treading in deep waters. I read books from a Catholic perspective, listened to and read testimonies of men and women who had been lifelong evangelicals and had come into the Catholic Church. The story of Scott and Kimberly Hahn in Rome Sweet Home was particularly powerful. The best way to describe what was going on in me is to revisit my prayers and writings found in my journal from that time.

December 27, 2013–Feast of Saint John the Beloved
This morning my mind needs to refocus and take in your glory and the majesty of your grace in our lives. I look to you and trust you to show me the way you would have me to go. What’s your plan and purpose for me? I have no desire to cling to something, especially a role or a position that causes your kingdom to stall. Holy Spirit, I ask you for wisdom and illumination so that it will become clear to me what it is you are calling me to. Either these thoughts and readings are the direction you are leading me or they are a distraction to your original call for me. Spirit of God, make that abundantly clear to me. Either lead me unswervingly into the bosom of the Catholic Church or deeper and more committed to where I am with a greater appreciation for what you are doing on a larger scale. I recognize that this is a process and there are questions you want me to ask and allow you to answer. I do ask that in this process you enable me to look to you, to gaze on your face and live in your grace and do all to the glory of God.

Recognizing that moving away from what I had always known would cost me my vocation (pastoral ministry), my reputation (possibly), and my livelihood, later that same morning I wrote:
Father, I humbly come into your presence and ask you to reveal truth to me. I have desired you all my life. I don’t want anything to keep me from fully and faithfully loving or serving you. You know what is happening in my world and how my spirit is restless in this search. I don’t want to go where I shouldn’t, but I also don’t want to resist where you are leading me. I sense deep in my being that you are calling me “home” to the beauty and fullness of the Catholic Church. That feels strange and uncomfortable on one level to say, but on another level it feels like truth and the natural and logical next step. So Holy Spirit, you are the One who leads into all truth. I come to you and ask you to lead me. Point me to Jesus my Lord, my Savior, my God and my King! You know my heart and my wholehearted desire to obey you. I have always desired that. Make your will for me very evident.

About 20 minutes after I prayed that prayer I went downstairs to get the mail. What I found in the mailbox was either an answer to my prayer or just a coincidence. Allow me to explain. In those days of searching I used a membership I had to paperbackswap.com to help get books at no cost. One of the books I had requested arrived that morning, A Catechism for Adults. There was nothing unusual about that. However inside the white paper wrapping was not only the book I ordered but a card and another package wrapped in Christmas paper from a woman in Lexington, Kentucky, whom I did not know. The card had these words: “What’s in the package is a gift for you!”

Inside the package were two books I had of course not ordered: Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth: The Catholic Church and God’s Plan for You and The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic: How Engaging 1% of Catholics Could Change the World.

I wrote: Honestly, I can’t take this as anything less than the beginning of the answer to my prayer. Even as I write this I feel scared and a little warm. O God, show me the way!

Last week I wrote to the woman in Lexington and asked her about the package she sent me. Since it came by media mail it had been on the way several days before I asked God to give me a clear sign as to what He wanted in my life. She wrote back and said she was prompted to do so because someone else had sent her some gift-wrapped books. God only knows why she chose those specific books to send me. I thanked her for being an instrument that God used in that part of my journey.

“A Gift for You!”

Pentecost Sunday

Seven weeks ago at the Easter Vigil Charlotte and I were received into the Catholic Church. Since then I have been relating the story of how this third-generation Evangelical pastor and wife made that journey. My intention in this telling is not to be first and foremost an apologist, yet there will be some of that. Nor is it to proclaim that I have risen to the ascendancy of faith, yet that could be perceived by some of my readers. In fact, if you feel that way you will probably stop reading. The simple fact is that I am sharing here my own personal journey and my struggle and process of answering God’s call in my own life. If it is an encouragement or challenge to you, my prayers are with you.

Today is the birthday of the Church. Nearly 2000 years ago about 120 followers of Jesus gathered in the Upper Room having spent nine days in prayer as their Lord had instructed them. On the 10th day, a day of significance in their Jewish faith and culture, “suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” (Acts 2:2-4, NAB).

What followed was astonishment and amazement on the part of the onlookers. Peter got up and preached the first homily. “Now when they heard this, they (the listeners) were cut to the heart, and they asked Peter and the other apostles, ‘What are we to do, my brothers?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand persons were added that day” (Acts 2:37-39, 41, NAB).

The story of Pentecost never grows old. All my life I have longed to see that day replicated in my life, in my church, and in the world. At times in my life and ministry I have sought the holiness that comes through the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit. At other times I have sought the power that comes from the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit. Too often, I confess, I have been guilty of seeking the gift for powerful and spectacular ministry and probably not enough the Giver.

At the Easter Vigil at our church, mentioned above, a group of 20 women and men received the Sacrament of Confirmation. In this sacrament we received the “seal of the Holy Spirit.” According to Scripture, a seal is a symbol of a person, a sign of personal authority, or ownership of an object. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1296) says:

Christ himself declared that he was marked with his Father’s seal (John 6:27). Christians are also marked with a seal: “It is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has commissioned us; he has put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 1:13; 4, 30). This seal of the Holy Spirit marks our total belonging to Christ, our enrollment in his service for ever, as well as the promise of divine protection in the great eschatological trial (Revelation 7:2-3; 9:4; Ezekiel 9:4-6).

One of today’s readings for Pentecost is found in the holy Gospel according to John (14:15-16, 23-26)–Jesus said to his disciples: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always.”

The relationship that Jesus had with the Father was one of love and of obeying the Father fully. The life that Jesus lived in the Father was by the presence, power and purity of the Holy Spirit. Jesus invites you and me to have that same relationship with the Father through the Holy Spirit. He asks us not to focus so much on the purity or the power, but the love and obedience that He himself lived out. Can you imagine if each one of us who say we are Christians would love Jesus and keep his commandments? What would our immediate world look like tomorrow?

 

 

 

Pentecost Sunday

Do Not Worry About Tomorrow

In the early days of processing and researching I didn’t share with anyone what I was doing. Looking back over my journal of that time I was very careful what I wrote there. I remember fearing that someone would pick up my journal, read my thoughts and not understand what I was doing. At that point I assumed I was just being kind to the memory of my wife’s mother, yet something else was  already at work.

Even now I as write about this journey I recognize that my words will be received through various filters. Some will be put off, convinced I’ve been deceived. Some will read with interest because they have perhaps sensed a similar drawing. Others will wonder why this was such a difficult thing because they haven’t struggled with approaching their Christian faith from a different perspective. I understand that. In some ways it is difficult for me to go back even two and one-half years ago and put myself in the place that I was.

Part of me did not want to enter this investigation; part of me felt drawn to it. But how was I to go about it?

About this time I read that one of my seminary professors had passed away. It was from him that I took my first class on Christian Worship and an introduction to worship and liturgy. His class was like opening a gift that I didn’t know existed as I learned about liturgy, the liturgical calendar and seasons of the Church such as Advent and Lent.

I also had a book by Henri J. M. Nouwen called In the Name of Jesus in my library and I was reading it, not because he was Catholic, but because of the subtitle: “Reflections on Christian Leadership.” More than a year into a church plant I was desperate to be a better leader and I had picked it up. A quote from the prologue grabbed my attention.

I…came to see that I should not worry about tomorrow, next week, next year, or the next century. The more willing I was to look honestly at what I was thinking and saying and doing now, the more easily I would come into touch with the movement of God’s Spirit in me, leading me to the future. God is a God of the present and reveals to those who are willing to listen carefully to the moment in which they live the steps they are to take toward the future. “Do not worry about tomorrow,” Jesus says. “Tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34).

Okay Lord! I trust you to lead my on this journey. You will not despise my sincere heart.

In 2012 I came across a book by then Presbyterian sociologist Christian Smith called The Bible Made Impossible (2011). Several in our local congregation read the book and found it very helpful in making sense of some of the issues that tend to divide and separate Evangelicals as they seek to follow Scripture. In late 2013 I heard through the grapevine that the author was now Catholic. As I googled it to make sure I found another book that he wrote after that: How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps.

Step by step the author laid out the misconceptions that I had regarding the Catholic Church. I was beginning to see and hear things from a different perspective. On December 7, 2013 I wrote in my journal:

Charlotte asked me if I was recording my evolving thought process regarding faith expression. I said I was, but realize that I haven’t written anything specific related to my own thoughts (what I referred to above). I want to be careful and thorough and keep my heart and mind open to what the Holy Spirit is doing in me through the Word and through the other resources available to me. Suffice it to say for now, these are significant times in my life and I feel or sense that I’m being drawn “home.”

I find my heart continually drawn in one direction as I continue to read and meditate. It is as if I were being led or drawn home to a place of deep roots with deep and rich significance. The implications are massive and must be weighed accordingly. I am in continual conversation with Charlotte and she is supportive. I certainly want to pursue this with great care and due diligence and with utmost prayer and devotion. Any decision this important merits my full and dedicated attention.

 

Do Not Worry About Tomorrow

Fruit Inspector

I confess that I have been a long-time fruit inspector. I’ve never worked for Dole, Tropicana or Chiquita, but I could have been an asset to their teams. No fruit that was blemished, bruised or aged would pass my approval. It had to look “perfect” to enter my mouth! I’ve mellowed out over the years. I will now even look for a banana with some brown spots because I know it will be softer and probably taste a little better than the pristine yellow one.

Jesus tells us in St. Matthew’s Gospel that “by their fruits you will know them.” Growing up in a conservative Christian environment there were certain things that were indicators of how spiritual someone was or how committed they were to Christ. For my parents’ generation much was made of the length of a woman’s hair or her coiffure. Wedding bands, jewelry, hemlines could all point to the quality of the fruit. As I grew up I associated certain habits or vocabulary with the fruit of a person’s life: smoking, drinking or bad words. The story is told that as a little child I would call any of those things a “bad bird.” I guess I couldn’t say “bad word.”

The “gospel train” that I referred to my third post was my way of categorizing and organizing how “good” a person’s fruit was. Of course, doing that was way above my pay grade. Yet that had been part of the issue of my perception of the faith of anyone who hadn’t grown up with the same spiritual DNA.

Soon after the death of my mother-in-law, a friend who worked with me in several justice initiatives died in an accident. This friend was from a historic mainline denomination. My friend’s political and social framework was different from mine and honestly that impacted my assessment of this person’s fruit. After attending my friend’s memorial service I wrote the following in my journal in November 2013:

Attending the memorial service got me to thinking even more about my place in this world. As I was praying I thought about my heart being squeezed by an iron band as an appropriate description of the smallness of my perspective and perception, that I have typically focused on the limits or made very small the arena out of which I live and operate. I think the milieu in which I have lived can best be described by the question Charlotte asked me when I was telling her about the memorial service–“was X a believer?” I almost took offense at the question. Actually I did! Yet that has been the very question I first ask so often in trying to evaluate people. I have been notoriously a “fruit inspector.” The scenario surrounding my friend is a continuation of the conversation I had with my father-in-law after my mother-in-law’s death regarding her faith and relationship with God.

Something inside of me is crying out for more authenticity, more grace, an open heart–I pray that this is the Spirit that God has placed within me. As I prayed this morning, I don’t want to lag behind God in this, nor do I want to be out of tune or down some rabbit trail. What I know is that I have been very guarded and exclusive when it has come to matters of faith expression.

Nearly 10 years ago as I was approaching my 50th birthday I asked the Lord to not allow me to become calcified in my spirit or in my outlook. I wanted to be open to God so that the Holy Spirit would always have complete access to my life. Up to this point I thought I had pretty much achieved that. Yet God took my prayer very seriously. Of course it was God who birthed that prayer in my heart. Little did I know that I was beginning a journey I could never have anticipated. Lord have mercy!

 

Fruit Inspector

Christ Is Risen! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Today is Sunday of the Fourth Week of Easter. Most of my life I never thought of this day in that way. Of course I celebrated Easter, but after that, life, even life in the church, went back to a normal pace. One of the criticisms I had of Catholics in the past was that they focused so much on Good Friday and Jesus on the Cross, but did not give Easter its proper attention. Imagine my surprise when I learned that there is an Octave of Easter, so that Easter and the next seven days are like Easter all over again. And then there are seven weeks of Easter tide all the way up to Pentecost Sunday. This morning as I turned to the Liturgy of the Hours for my devotional time the hymn was “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” by Charles Wesley. Yes, sometimes we are victims of our misconceptions.

I share this as I return to the last part of 2013 and the intensification of the challenge that God would place before me: are you really serious about Jesus’ prayer that we all be one, even as He and the Father are one?

It was October 2013. The Trinity Grace Church parish in Washington Heights had reached the 18-month stage of existence. The one-year anniversary was a high point, but following that there were the normal and persistent struggles that a church plant goes through. As a pastor I was seeking how to lead the parish forward. Over the summer I began to seriously consider adopting the cell church model for our congregation. I connected with a leading expert on cell churches to ask him to coach me on a monthly basis.

On Sunday, October 13, Charlotte’s mom suffered a heart attack and by the following Sunday, October 20, my mother-in-law passed away. The next morning Charlotte’s dad came out of his bedroom and sat down with three of his children and me. We could tell there was something heavy on his heart that he needed to express. He talked about faith and how he and his wife had sought to love and follow God and love Jesus. He expressed how important their Catholic faith was to them. The statement that challenged us both, especially Charlotte was when he said that her mother loved Jesus just as she did.

He expressed sadness and confusion over why faith seemed to be such a divisive issue in the family instead of something that drew us together. As he spoke I began to regret all the wasted opportunities to affirm them in their faith and find commonality with them. His was a gentle rebuke, but I was convicted that I had discounted the genuineness of their faith in the Catholic tradition. Yet I had stated often that I wouldn’t rule out that there were real Christians in the Catholic Church, not because of the church, but in spite of it.

Suddenly my preconceived notions were being held up to the light of the experience of someone who was asking me why I held that view. I had no idea at that time where this would lead, but I knew I owed it to my wife’s parents to take a serious look at their faith and give my father-in-law the courtesy I would to another Christian brother.

 

Christ Is Risen! Alleluia! Alleluia!