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Archive for the ‘struggle’ Category

I’ve been wrestling with this Catholic vs Anglican thing for a while now. I’m happily part of a thriving Anglican parish now and my wife and I are growing deeper in our relationships with Christ and each other.

But in the background I’ve continued to consider the claims of the Catholic church and wrestle with the problems of biblical authority, interpretation and so on. I’ve also paid some attention to the views of the Eastern Orthodox on the matter of the primacy of Rome.

After all of the arguments back and forth, pro and con, I think I’ve come to realize something. I can get on board with a lot of things. I could handle praying to the saints. Properly understood I know that it is simply asking saints in heaven to intercede in prayer for us just like we have people down here on earth pray for us. I see no reason why I couldn’t ask Peter or Mary or Augustine to remember me in prayer before the Lord. I don’t think it’s a requirement, but not a problem for me either. Obviously being in the Anglican church I don’t have a problem with liturgical worship. I can even handle things like transubstantiation. And though it would be a leap of faith I think I’d be able to come around to the Catholic view on contraception and related issues such as IVF.

The stumbling block that I cannot seem to get over is the Catholic position on divorce and remarriage. What makes it even more difficult is how I’ve seen annulments handled with certain prominent Catholics in politics for instance, where the bishop seems to hand out annulments like a PEZ dispenser. Meanwhile folks who don’t have that kind of influence or who don’t have a neat and tidy excuse to have their marriage annulled suffer. I know too many Godly people who love Christ and strive to follow him with all that they have who nonetheless through no fault of their own have been divorced. Either their spouse left them for a younger model, or was physically and emotionally abusive, or was a serial adulterer who’d been forgiven and taken back many times before, or sexually abused their children or the couple simply married when they were young and immature and were unprepared for what marriage requires but now one of them has gotten serious about their walk of faith…the list of reasons goes on and on. Under Catholic doctrine, unless they can show some arcane reason as to why their marriage wasn’t a “true” marriage to begin with…maybe the spouse was gay and never told them for instance…they are stuck. They can’t date and remarry and find love again unless the spouse who was at fault and left comes to their senses.

I simply can’t come to grips with that. I know what the interpretations of the passage from Matthew are according to Catholic doctrine. When Jesus said that except for sexual immorality, divorcing and remarrying is committing adultery, Protestants and Catholics see it differently. Catholics say that the Greek word “porneia” that is translated as sexual immorality doesn’t simply mean “fornication” or “adultery”, it means something more specific such as the aforementioned “secretly gay spouse” or perhaps a partner that entered the marriage already cheating on the other and having no intention of being faithful sexually in the marriage. Or it could be something more perverted. But it’s not simply having an affair.

What gives me reason to doubt the Catholic take on this is that Paul also addresses divorce in 1st Corinthians. Paul says that if an unbelieving spouse abandons a believing spouse, the believer who was abandoned is not “under bondage” in that situation any longer. What “bondage” would there be in that situation except continuing to be tied to a spouse that has left you with no intention of ever returning? Or perhaps even having remarried themselves? It would seem to me that Paul would not mention abandonment as a reason for divorce if Jesus was really restricting it just to very specific instances where a valid marriage never took place to begin with. You can’t choose what Jesus said but disregard Paul’s words because after all, Paul was speaking as the Holy Spirit directed him to speak. The letter to the Corinthians is just as binding as the Gospel of St. Matthew.

Don’t take me the wrong way, I hate divorce. I know God hates it. The best and most ideal outcome in these situations is to work to repair the relationship, bring the offending party to repentance and have a healthy marriage come out the other side. But it takes two to tango as the saying goes. I do not believe it was Christ’s intention to create a doctrinal situation where an adulterer essentially gets to put their spouse in a state of indefinite limbo while they whore around and go remarry one of their lovers.

For this reason, and the many people I’ve met over my life who are divorced for reasons the Catholic church would not deem worthy of an annulment, and who are repentant and hate that their previous marriage failed but have remarried and are committed and fully faithful to that marriage, I cannot be Catholic. I understand that to be Catholic means you sign up for everything they teach. I cannot assent to such a view.

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Well, our family attended the local Anglican parish this morning for the first time in over two years.  My wife told me a few weeks ago that she was ready to go and that she just felt like it was time.  I had to be out of town for a week so this Sunday was the first opportunity.

It was a bit stressful as she started expressing serious anxiety over the whole matter on the way there, mostly due to it being so “different” from what we’re used to but another unspoken issue is a perception that it’s an affluent church full of skinny, pretty people.  She’s afraid we won’t relate to the families there who are (mostly) in a higher economic class than we are and that our kids will have a hard time making friends with all the rich private school kids.

Overall, I think it went fine.  There was the normal fumbling with the Book of Common Prayer and not being sure what to do next.  We’d tried to prepare the kids for what to do during the Eucharist but since they didn’t have they’re hands cupped and held out, the rector thought they weren’t receiving this morning and simply gave them a blessing.  On the other hand, a friend of mine from high school is involved with the children’s ministry and came up to meet my family.  She then took us around to show us the Sunday School programs, explain the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and I think all of that helped.  Plus the sermon was really good.  So all in all I think it went fairly well.

I really want us to give this a real, open-minded attempt this time around.   Last time we visited for 4 weeks or so, but never engaged.  We plan on attending Sunday School next week and I want us to really try to immerse ourselves in the life of this church.

So, I covet your prayers.  I ultimately want to be where God wants us to be, but I want to give this place every chance.  So please pray that my wife’s anxiety will subside and that she will truly be open-minded to the liturgy, the quieter, slower pace and the other things this church has to offer versus your typical contemporary evangelical megachurch experience we’re used to.  And help us and the kids to make new friends we can relate to and that relate to us.

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Someone I know wrote this and he’s allowed me to share it with you.  It meshes very well with my own feelings.

The Problem With Christian Music (or Skipping to the Last Page)

The song that brought this to mind is “Gravity” by Sara Bareilles.

Something always brings me back to you.
It never takes too long
No matter what I say or do I’ll still feel you here ’til the moment I’m gone

You hold me without touch
You keep me without chains
I never wanted anything so much than to drown in your love and not feel your reign

CHORUS
Set me free, leave me be. I don’t want to fall another moment into your gravity
Here I am and I stand so tall, just the way I’m supposed to be
But you’re on to me and all over me

You loved me ’cause I’m fragile,
When I thought that I was strong
But you touch me for a little while and all my fragile strength is gone

[CHORUS]

I live here on my knees as I try to make you see that you’re everything I think I need here on the ground
But you’re neither friend nor foe though I can’t seem to let you go,
The one thing that I still know is that you’re keeping me down

[CHORUS]

The artist seems to have a bad relationship in mind. A choreographer on “So You Think You Can Dance” this past season reinterpreted it with one dancer playing the role of a malevolent addiction pulling the strings of control and holding down a person desperate to be freed from its clutches. Filtered through my Christian worldview I can also see this another kind of struggle. The allure and desire for something that is killing us can at certain moments seem overwhelming if we’re being honest. Whether it’s a daily struggle with alcoholism, the enticement of lust and pornography, the creeping discontent brought on by materialism, jealousy and envy or a smoldering, volcanic temper waiting to explode on those we love most, the fight is very real. And what gets us about it is that we often run to whatever it is for comfort and release, believing the damnable lie that the rush we feel from indulging ourselves will be lasting and fulfilling or solve our problems.

Now, I’m very aware of the problems with so-called “secular” music and entertainment. I’ve heard them nearly all my life. But sometimes, and not as infrequent as some may think, one of those secular songs or artists just gets it right in a way that Christian music rarely does when it comes to honestly assessing the human condition. Among the unwashed masses, there just doesn’t seem to be this need to pretty everything up and tie the neat little bow on the end of it. Everything’s not happy. Sometimes things don’t end well. Sometimes we don’t understand and relief isn’t in sight. But to listen to about 99% of the music on Christian radio, you would be convinced that God steps into virtually all of life’s situations and fixes them within the span of a 3 1/2 minute song. We know deep down that life doesn’t work like that but the songs make us feel good so we play along and perpetuate the lie.

I call this syndrome “skipping to the last page.” It’s that urge when you’re reading a novel and tragedy strikes the characters you care most about that makes you want to flip toward the end to make sure that they’re going to be ok, that the girl and boy end up together and so on. It also happens with the Bible. We tend to remember best the verses that talk about triumph, victory, God stepping in to fix things, how great Heaven is going to be and how Jesus wins in the end. But meanwhile there are these nagging reminders throughout Scripture that relief isn’t always measured in days, weeks or months. Sometimes it’s measured in decades or centuries where even some people’s lifetimes did not afford them the answers and relief they sought. Whole books are devoted to a near avalanche of regret and mourning such as Lamentations. Chapter after chapter goes by with very little reminder that God will bring healing and restoration. Ecclesiates raises question after difficult question, mostly without resolution. And given how long some of these chapters and books are (such that most people don’t read the whole thing in one sitting), I can’t help but feel that God did this by design. He actually wants us to marinate, to sit and ponder the heartache and lament because contrary to our typical way of wanting life to proceed, He doesn’t see the destination as the only thing that really matters. The path and the time it takes to walk it is just as important as where we’re going.

The truth is for many, this struggle is not solved by simply going to the altar, having some spiritual superstar pray it away or repeating enough “victory” verses from the Bible. That’s not to say that God never does the miraculous and completely rid us of a problem or struggle. But most of the time, His response is the one He gave Paul regarding his famous thorn in the flesh: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” We’ll have times where we don’t really think about it and other times where we can feel its hot breath right on our neck, but it’s always lurking around…right alongside our fervent desire to follow hard after Christ. And this is normal. There’s no need to skip to the last page or fast forward to the happy ending of the movie. God has purpose in the struggle itself and those purposes are good. But they cannot be accomplished without allowing for the struggle and suffering. Just be honest about it, both to yourself and to those around you. Call it what it is, how it really feels and then cast yourself on God, even if He doesn’t fix it in your preferred timeframe.

Now if we could just get that same kind of honesty from our favorite Christian music.

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Back in the age of dial-up, when regular people were just beginning to get on the internet, the first things I discovered were message boards. There were tons of them. And the ones I seemed to gravitate to the most were theology boards and ones devoted to debating Christianity with atheists and agnostics. Generally speaking those debates generated way more heat than light, but every now and then you’d have a conversation that went deeper, perhaps via email off the boards or in private messages. And more than once a more level-headed, non-angry atheist would say something about how they appreciated my approach and kindness (I wish more would have felt prompted to say that about me, but I sometimes struggled to keep my temper and sarcasm in check) and that they looked at me or others on the boards and wished they could believe.

That always seemed to be so odd to me. Someone who looks longingly at Christian faith and sees beauty and peace and something desirable, but can’t bring themselves to say they actually believe it. It seemed so sad. All I could do was pray for them and try to answer whatever questions I could and encourage them to keep an open mind on it. You can’t just make someone see something they don’t see. I can’t imagine not believing in God so sometimes it’s hard for me to really put myself in their shoes and feel what it would be like to really NOT believe…until now.

I’m starting to understand where they are coming from, but it’s not what you may be thinking. I’m still a believer. The world literally makes no sense to me without God in it. I can’t “unbelieve” such a thing any more than I could unbelieve that my wife and children exist. But I do wish that I could believe something. My friend is so certain and so at peace with his decision to become Catholic. He did his homework, read a ton and came to the conclusion that the Catholic church was the church Christ founded and that it’s the church we all should seek to be reunited to. I on the other hand have read far more and for a longer time than he did, but I’m still wandering in the wilderness. I admire so much about Catholicism and find much about it to be so attractive. I have similar admiration for other traditions such as Orthodoxy, traditional Anglicanism and Lutheranism too, but particularly on the latter two (in addition to traditionally minded Reformed churches) I still run into the question of authority. Who has the ultimate authority to decide between widely divergent interpretations on Scripture and Christian doctrine? It just seems that splintering over and over becomes inevitable no matter which tradition you choose, except Catholicism.

But though I look longingly across the Tiber at what seems to be a much more stable and solidly rooted faith, I find myself thinking, “I just wish I could believe…” And the wishes are about many things. Among them, I wish I could believe:

…that the Pope and Magisterium truly were infallible on matters of faith and interpreting Scripture.

…that the bread and wine in the Eucharist truly were the literal body and blood of Christ.

…that the Marian dogmas were true and that asking her and other saints for their intercession was truly effective rather than idolatrous.

…that I could agree with the Catholic Church fully on their stances regarding divorce and contraception.

…that if I chose to cross the Tiber, that I wouldn’t be sitting there 5-10 years from now unhappy again and wanting more out of church and the Christian life but now being completely befuddled as to where to go next.

I could go on and on I suppose but I guess what this really speaks to is that I’m so tired and weary. Nearly exhausted mentally and emotionally. I’m tired of being restless in my spirit and mind. I’m tired of not feeling like I can really jump in with both feet somewhere because of all these unsettled theological questions.  I’ve been through the emotionalism of my Pentecostal days, the intellectual high of Calvinism and Reformed theological study and the seemingly endless quest to be “culturally relevant” (which seems to be closely related to some vague notion of “hipness” sometimes).   Right now I’m just attending church but I don’t feel like I can really engage with my whole heart because I question everything.  I just feel like I’m in this state of suspension with no solid foothold anywhere, not because there aren’t several options purporting to be solid footholds, but because I’m in a crisis as to which one to trust.  I believe the Bible, but on the deep stuff, it’s increasingly unclear as to who is viewing and interpreting it properly. It’s wearing me out. I just want the truth. And I need a place to stand.

I just wish I believed…

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The kids were sick this past Sunday and it was my turn to go to church, so I took the opportunity to go to the Anglican church. I needed some liturgy in my life.

Anyway, as I was in the service I was struck by how ruled by feelings I can be. The main part of the service, the Eucharist, was wonderful as always. But the rest of the service was less inspiring. First, the organ at the church they are using until their place is built has stopped working, so it was piano only (and they indicated that’s how it would be in the new building since they won’t have an organ right away). Then, I didn’t know any of the hymns and they weren’t particularly good (Anglican hymnody pales in comparison to that of the Methodists to me). And finally the main rector wasn’t there this week so there was a guest speaker. He was ok, but frankly, I’ve become quite used to hearing excellent teachers on Sunday mornings.

So I was sitting in the service, sorting through my feelings. I worry sometimes that I over-romanticize things, then get tired of it or bored when the reality doesn’t live up to the ideal in my head. Here I was in exactly the kind of church I’ve been dying to go to and everything was seemingly conspiring against me to make it less than inspiring.

It troubles me that I’m like this. And I’ll admit, it’s not just a concern for me with Anglicanism, but with any thoughts of becoming Catholic. I don’t want to feel this way. This is a big deal to drag my wife and family into a tradition that is foreign to them and totally different from either of our immediate family. It can’t be done on simply matters of taste and preference, which can then be so easily affected by the lack of an organ or second-rate hymnody. It’s got to be about something deeper. And I also understand that worship ultimately isn’t about me, it’s about God. I do benefit and receive many blessings from worshiping God, but the main reason for being there on Sunday mornings isn’t for me to get something, it’s for me to give something.

And on an intellectual level, I know that if I become convinced that certain beliefs are true and are important, and I know that the church I’m attending doesn’t believe that way but another option in town does, then I should start attending the church that teaches correctly. This becomes an even bigger deal if I become convinced of the claims the Catholic Church makes because it’s not just a matter of this doctrine or that one, but it’s a matter of believing that it is the Church that Christ and the Apostles founded and that it has been given the authority to interpret Scripture and determine correct doctrine and practice. If I’m convinced something of that magnitude is true, how much do my feelings on how inspiring the Sunday service is really matter? “Not much” is my educated guess. But it depresses me to think that I’d be locked into a style of worship that really isn’t open to debate the way it is in Protestant circles and because of my ephemeral feelings, I may grow bored with.

Maybe you think I’m worrying about nothing, but this is the way my mind works. I’ve jumped on trendy things in the past and have a natural bent toward things that are different from what most of my family or friends are into. Then about the time they begin to come around on it, I’ve moved on to the next thing. To some degree I wonder if my dalliance with Calvinism was that way. I was so convinced it was the right view of Scripture and salvation. Now, not so much. Would it be like this for this liturgy or Catholicism issue? Because that’s a whole lot of pain, stress and upheaval for something that could change in 5-10 years.

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Stuggling to Worship

I was attending the Methodist church this past Sunday and chose to go to the “traditional” service because I like the new pastor that teaches there and at least I get to hear some old hymns. All started out well with one of my favorites, “Praise To The Lord, The Almighty.”

But then we got to a point in the service where the music director typically makes a medley of hymns together that we sing. Today he decided to focus on heaven as the theme since the pastor’s message was on the Scripture text, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” The song line up was a trinity of perhaps my least liked popular evangelical hymns:

“I’ll Fly Away”
“When the Roll is Called Up Yonder”
“When We All Get To Heaven”

I struggle so much when songs like this are sung. And I don’t think I’m alone. As I scanned the congregation, I noticed a fairly consistent pattern. The older folks (those 60 and above, which included the music director) seemed to love it. They had smiles on the their faces and sang with some gusto, nodding or lightly bouncing to the music. Anyone under 50, and especially those 40 and under seemed at best subdued and at worst bored. The melodies and time signature just have that bouncy, happy-clappy hoedown feeling to them that sounds dated in all the wrong ways. In fact, the whole middle of the service, from a musical perspective, just not doing it for me. In addition to the above medley, the choir did the Southern Gospel classic, “Midnight Cry” (a popular song about the rapture coming any moment) which just made it worse.

But beyond the music itself, I struggle with the lyrics and subject matter. I struggle for a couple of opposing reasons. For example, a couple of verses from “I’ll Fly Away”:

Oh how glad and happy when we meet
I’ll fly away
No more cold iron shackles on my feet
I’ll fly away

Just a few more weary days and then
I’ll fly away
To a land where joys will never end
I’ll fly away

Is it unreasonable to feel that a mindset like “just a few more weary days and then…” and “no more cold iron shackles on my feet” when referring to this life is a tad pessimistic? And I guess for me, when I’m in church on Sunday morning, I want to worship God. It’s great to hear messages that encourage or convict me and help me grow, but my real purpose for being there is me offering myself, my worship to God. In a sense it’s great to look forward to eternity with Him, but it doesn’t feel like a worship song to me. Compare the lyrics of that medley to the opening hymn we did today:

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,
The King of creation
O my soul, praise Him , for He is thy health and salvation
All ye who hear, now to His temple draw near
Praise Him in glad adoration

Praise to the Lord,
Who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth
Shelters thee under His wings , yea, so gently sustaineth
Hast thou not seen how thy desires e’er have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?

Praise to the Lord,
Who doth prosper thy work and defend thee
Surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee
Ponder anew what the Almighty can do,
If with His love He befriend thee

Praise to the Lord, O let all that is in me adore Him
All that hath life and breath,
Come now with praises before Him
Let the ‘amen’ sound from His people again
Gladly for’ere we adore Him

To me, that’s a song of worship…talking about God, what He’s done, His attributes and majesty. “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” just doesn’t compare to that. And that doesn’t even touch the explicit Left Behind style rapture theology of it and “Midnight Cry.” I just found myself straining to connect with the songs at all. Perhaps some of it is the age thing mentioned above. The closer you get to the end of life on earth, the more aches and pains and troubles you’ve accumulated or seen, the more you long to just get out of here. But when you’re young and have a lot of life ahead of you, you look forward to living it. You want to see your kids grow up, get married and have kids of their own. You want to do exciting and meaningful things for God down here. You’re not just waiting for the rapture or to “fly away.” It’s great to look forward to heaven one day, but sometimes people seem like they are “so heavenly minded, they’re no earthly good.”

Now, for that opposing reason. Setting aside the feeling that none of the hymns in that medley above really seem “worshipful” to me and taking them just as songs with a message…is there something wrong that I don’t feel more moved by them? At all? Shouldn’t I view myself as a “stranger and alien” here? I mean, I do want to spend eternity in heaven with Jesus. I do look forward to a time where I’m not fighting this constant internal war with myself over sin and I get at least some answers for all the evil and pain and misery that does exist down here (though being an American mitigates how much of that touches me directly). As I was singing these songs and trying to connect, trying to understand what the older folks were getting out of them, I felt guilty that it simply wasn’t happening. No matter how hard I tried to resist the “I hate these songs” urge within me and absorb the message, it didn’t work. They seemed escapist, defeatist, trite and unmeaningful. Yet I felt like as a good Christian, I shouldn’t feel that way.

Anyone else feel this way at church sometimes? Struggling mightily to squeeze whatever you can out of the service or the music or the preaching, largely failing, and all the while feeling guilty that you’re not “more spiritual and can see God moving in it? What do you do about it? As I continue to struggle with the desire to be in a more traditional, liturgical worship environment, but having to consider all of the needs of my family and settling for something different for the time being, this is the hardest thing I deal with. And I don’t want to feel this way every Sunday. I just want to worship God and connect with Him.

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Well, the dreaded moment has come. I was hoping to avoid it but it’s here.

We’re at an impasse on the church question.

I’ve been visiting some different churches hoping to find something close to the Anglican one I enjoyed so much, but with a stronger children’s program and other elements my wife would like. But in this area, there doesn’t appear to be such animal. So we’re stuck between two choices: the Methodist church my wife prefers and the Anglican one I prefer.

It’s so frustrating because we’ve never been in this situation before. We’ve always been on the same page. But here we are and someone’s feelings and wants will have to give way to the other’s. One of us will have to die to self and make the best of it while the other one will try not to feel guilty for “making” their spouse be the one to sacrifice.

It sucks.

So many things to weigh. Would our children, as they get older, enjoy a smaller more formal and traditional church and all that it encompasses in terms of how they make friends who share our values and how they relate to and experience God? Or would they feel that it’s stuffy and wish it had more activities for them like a larger church would? Could I figure out a way to carve out a bastion of reverence and quiet and connection to Christian history in contemporary evangelicalism or will I be longingly be pressing my nose up against the proverbial window at what I really desire? Would the rather high socioeconomic status (which we are decidedly NOT) of the Anglican congregation be a hindrance to relating to others and getting to know them or would it be better in the more mixed economic demographic of the Methodist church? Or is having a service that’s oriented around the Eucharist as opposed to the sermon important enough to outweigh all the other factors?

There just aren’t any easy answers. Someone will be happy, someone will be disappointed.

When did choosing a church get so frickin’ hard?

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