Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Same as if it Were

It was the fall of 1990, and I was in a new member class led by Pastor Saresky at Faith Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) in Penfield, NY. He was discussing Communion, The Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, the celebration of that Last Supper Jesus celebrated in the Upper Room with his closest followers and commanded that they continue in remembrance of Him. It seemed to me that my new pastor was presenting a quite different view than what I had learned in my Southern Baptist and Presbyterian backgrounds so I asked, “You aren’t saying that the bread and wine are literally the body and blood of Christ, are you?” He answered, “No, but it is the same as if they were.”

That was one giant step in my journey from young Baptist to elderly Catholic. Pastor Saresky was expressing Lutheran doctrine, a theology of “the real presence” of Jesus, “in, with, and under” the elements of bread and wine. I believe that is a bit divergent from Luther’s position which, even for the time of the Reformation, was a bit at odds with Catholic teaching. Luther apparently believed that the 12th century doctrine of Transubstantiation was an unnecessary attempt to explain the divine mystery and that it was adequate to just say that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ.

But, all that is just an introduction to what I want to write about. There is a bit of an uproar going on now in social media about Trump supporters, even some of the picks for his administration, taking the early chapters of Genesis, those that cover the prehistoric events before historical figure Abraham appears on the scene in Chapter 12, as literally true. Such believers are sometimes referred to as Young Earth Creationists, a handy label used to disrespect and marginalize.

Those early Genesis events include two divergent creation stories, the story of Adam, Eve, Eden, and that nasty serpent, the first shedding of blood in jealousy, rapid population growth and the spread of wickedness, the story of Noah and his family, a couple of conflicting stories about a great flood covering the earth, and the Tower of Babel story about why there were so many languages and about the desire of humans always to be God, or at least to worship themselves.

Here is the problem. Many people who would never think of taking the words of Jesus in John 6 literally, want to take the stories in Genesis 1-11 literally. There is no way to submit the John 6 teachings to any kind of scientific investigation. Whether we believe those words is simply a matter of personal faith. But we know from scientific investigation that the earth is not just a few thousand years old. And, given the way continents have shifted position and risen and sunk, we may not be able to prove scientifically that the land masses comprising the highest mountains were never under water, but we do know they were not under water in the last five thousand years.

I recall another former pastor, maybe 25 years after the Saresky lesson, saying that when we ask difficult questions sparked by literal understanding of those first 11 chapters of Genesis, questions such as, “Where did the wives of Cain and Able come from?” or “Where did the waters in Genesis 1:2 come from?” we are simply asking the wrong questions. The questions we should be asking are about the theological truths taught in those ancient stories. Nothing we have learned from scientific investigation of the origins of the universe and humankind takes anything away from those lessons.

Those ancient stories, first written down perhaps 3000 years ago, represent hundreds or perhaps thousands of years of oral tradition, stories told and retold in an attempt by the people to explain how things were, and why they were that way. Where did the earth and its people come from? Why did they have to work so hard? Why was there so much sin and suffering? Why were people selfish and jealous? Why did people want to be God? And, as a believer in the One Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, active in the lives of people from the beginning, I accept these stories as part of Sacred Scripture revealing spiritual truth. In other words, theologically speaking, “It is the same as if those ancient stories were literally true.”

The thing that concerns me, the reason for this little essay, is that when we Christians take the position that the ancient stories refute what we have learned through scientific investigation, with our God-given intelligence, about creation, we lose credibility and fail to help people understand the great spiritual truths taught in both Old and New Testaments, the truths that lead us to The Church, the Body of Christ. We make an easy target for those who want to ridicule and discredit the Church. Some non-believers even argue that, when we insist on such literal interpretations, we are worshiping the Bible, the written expression of the Word of God, instead of The Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We should not let that happen. Jesus Christ is the Word of God, and, according to Catholic teaching, Sacred Scripture is all about Him.

It is interesting to reflect on the words at the beginning of Genesis and at the beginning of the Gospel of John, the theological or spiritual gospel.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” – Genesis 1:1-2

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” – John 1:1-4

And, by the way, the two most basic spiritual and eternal truths taught in the ancient stories are these:
  • God created and it was good (but we don't know exactly how)
  • Humankind has a strong tendency to be bad and to blame somebody else for it

And one final thought: Efforts, such as this one to “prove” the Bible is true seem to me to completely miss the point and, for me, would be an expression of lack of faith. They ignore not only the characteristics of ancient writings but the simple fact that Christianity is a spiritual matter of personal faith. After all, if we could "prove" that everything in the Bible is true, no faith would be required.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Confessing Failure to Help

It's 10pm in the parking lot of a hotel, and we are just arriving, tired and looking for a good night's sleep. A minivan pulls up, window down, and a young Black woman says, "Sir, I'm not asking for any money or anything but we just need a place to sleep tonight. We can check into a shelter in the morning, but they don't have room for us tonight."

Well, I'm not going to ask her to share a room with my wife and me, and I'm not going to check her in on my credit card and ID, taking responsibility for anything that might happen in the room, regardless of how long she might stay. I doubt the Holiday Inn would even allow that under the circumstances.

I admit that I am suspicious, thinking that it is really just money she wants and that she may be going home somewhere at bedtime. I'm concerned about who else might be in the car and whether it is an organized scam, maybe even a setup for armed robbery if I get too close to the car, wallet in hand. My wife has walked on to the hotel entrance and is waiting there for me.

So, I ask the woman, from some distance, if she has a credit card, and she says she doesn't. I suggest that the shelter that has agreed to take her in the morning should have a referral system for some place she can get temporary shelter. Surely suburban Atlanta has such a system in place for single women with children, if that is, in fact her situation. I don't see the children but there seems to be a child seat in the car. I would have known where to send her in Columbia SC.

I tell her that I can't help her, and she drives away.

After getting to the room, I still have her on my mind and wonder if she is circling through the parking lot and soliciting other arrivals, so I go back outside and look around. My plan is that, if I see her, I will ask her to park her car at the door of the hotel and come inside by herself, in view of security cameras, so I can see her ID and discuss her dilemma with her. I have a couple of hundred dollars in cash and will be glad to give her enough to pay for a room somewhere that does not require a credit card, a small gift of no consequence to me and possibly very helpful to her.

I don't see her anywhere. So, I go back to the room feeling guilty for passing up an opportunity to help somebody, obviously in much worse shape than I, even if she is lying and scamming.

If I ever face that same situation again, I now have a plan. I will say to the driver, "Drive to the front door of the hotel, step out of the car by yourself and go just inside the door by yourself, where there will be security cameras and I can see your ID and we can discuss your situation in a public place. Maybe I can help."

If she takes me up on that, I will be glad to give her enough money for a night in a hotel. And I won't have to feel guilty, and she can do whatever she wants to with the money. If she doesn't take me up on that, I will know it is a scam.

As for the young woman I encountered Friday night, at least, if she was telling the truth, she is in a shelter now.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Pentecost 2016 - Five Years Catholic

At Pentecost, 2011, I was received into full communion with the Catholic Church at St. Peter’s Catholic Church, Columbia, SC. From a purely logical standpoint, I had concluded, hopefully under the influence of The Holy Spirit, that Jesus established The Church, His “Body,” and left Apostles in charge, promising the guidance of The Holy Spirit, and that that Church, with its apostolic succession, was The Church I wanted to be a part of. And, yes, I know there has been much misbehavior of Catholics and Catholic leadership down through the centuries even with that guidance of the Holy Spirit. However, Jesus promised not that the Church would be perfect but only that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it.

Aside from that logic, a number of things about Catholic faith appealed to me spiritually and theologically. It is not just about me and whether I am “saved” but is primarily about growing in worship of and service in the name of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, obedience of the Greatest Commandments and The Great Commission. Catholicism recognizes that there is divine mystery and theology beyond human understanding but eloquently, if imperfectly, expressed in the centuries old Nicene Creed, a clear statement of The Gospel of Jesus Christ which we are commanded to proclaim. That divine mystery is acknowledged in the reverence and ritual of Mass, the focus on the timeless sacrifice of Jesus, and the mystical sharing in His Body and Blood clearly prescribed in the Gospel of John and practiced in the early church and down through the centuries.

Before making the change from Lutheran to Catholic, I read through the several hundred pages of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and concluded that the Catholic Church could reasonably be described as “full gospel,” a term relatively recently and narrowly applied to some charismatic evangelical churches, but that, in the case of Catholicism, it would mean paying attention to all of Sacred Scripture, and to the ways it was written, compiled, understood, preserved, revered, and practiced by the early Church.

The key statement in the Catechism about the Bible is this: “All Sacred Scripture is but one book, and this one book is Christ, because all divine Scripture speaks of Christ, and all divine Scripture is fulfilled in Christ.” (P134). With that understanding of the Bible, Catholicism generally resists the temptation to boil down the complexity of our relationship with the Triune God to simple formulas and selected Bible verses without context. We reverently hear readings of Sacred Scripture from the Old Testament, Psalms, Epistles, and Gospels in most celebrations of The Mass, but it is clear that Catholics do not worship the Bible (or Mary either). It is the Triune God alone, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit whom Catholics worship.

I have joked that one reason I became Catholic was that I wanted to be persecuted. Not true of course but I do hear and read disturbing condemnations of Catholicism from time to time from serious and faithful non-Catholic Christians. There are still divisive issues that keep us from being one, but I have concluded that the answer to those divisive issues is usually not either-or, but both-and. We have been saved, and we are being saved, and we will be saved. We are predestined and we are called to make decisions for Christ. We are adopted, our names written down, justified by grace through faith, and we are commanded to persevere, obey, work, give, serve, love, learn, and finish the course. Jesus came to save souls and to save the world. God created the heavens and the earth (in unknown ways) and that act of creation continues and includes all the processes still operating, including any “evolutionary” processes. Eternal life begins when we are baptized and there will be a resurrection, details of which I have no knowledge and about which I have no concern, at some future time. These are just examples. If one carefully considers Sacred Scripture in its entirety, I believe that the both-and approach is validated and that we waste our time insisting on either-or decisions rather than serving together. We, the Body of Christ, have a job to do.

During progression through three prior Christian denominations, I sometimes had the conviction that the current theology I was hearing was correct and would argue in defense of it. Now, in the Catholic Church, I believe that the theology is sound, but the primary feeling is one, not of being right, or of needing to prove or argue in favor of anything, but of being at home, in The Church, even if I sometimes see and hear things (usually expressions of personal piety or theological slants) that cause a little discomfort. And I take comfort joining weekly with Catholics around the globe, hearing the same selections from Sacred Scripture, reciting the Nicene Creed, and “passing the peace” in hundreds of languages, and then standing in line with fellow worshipers, awaiting my turn, to share in the Body and Blood of Christ.

Thanks be to God!