Click here for the beginning of my story.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Darkness and Light

While writing my last post, I realized anew how dark some of the portions of my journey were. But at the same time, comprehending the full story to the present, I appreciate the fact that, as in many great paintings, the dark shadows serve to offset and accentuate the bright and beautiful elements which constitute the main subject of interest. I have passed through several deep and fearful valleys in my journey towards God only to arrive on the other side at a higher and more glorious peak than before. The tentative and faltering steps at the beginning of the spiritual life can lead later, by God’s grace, to mountaintop vistas where one is moved by what is seen to cry out:
O Light! O Love!
     O Beauty Resplendent!
O Brilliance encompassing
     all things else!
O Refulgence Cascading!
     O Glittering Radiance!
O Bliss! O Hope!
     O Gladness Unforeseen!
O Great and Boundless Good!
     O Beauteous Nameless Joy!
O Serene and Golden Light
     from a clear and cloudless sky!
O Enchanted Blessedness!
     O Sight Most Fair!
O Sweetness! O Treasure!
     O Loveliness Beyond Telling!
O Lamp of Clear Wisdom!
     O Splendour Most Pure!
O Light! O Love!
     O Life! O God!

And from these heights one can look out upon the lands through which one has journeyed, and indeed upon the whole world, and see that:
In a marvelous way the world is changed
with nothing altered or rearranged
The facts themselves remaining true
each one gains a golden hue
the fair, the foul, the good, the bad
the mundane, the happy and the sad
all beheld in contemplative sight
become infused with a glorious light
each detail sharp and crisp and clear
each illumined with a meaning dear
and all together in perfect peace
serenely move and never cease
around the core of Love unmade
shining through each with glory arrayed
and rising upward one can see
what is past and what will be
and what is now seamlessly sewn
and in circling together is clearly shown
a Light, a Love infused throughout
and not one particle or thread left out
making up a glorious glorious world
a manifestation of Love unfurled!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

III: The Loss of Initial Fervor and Faith

“Radically Saved!” My t-shirt said it all. I was indeed saved and soaring high. In the months after “getting saved” my enthusiasm did not lessen but steadily grew and consumed my whole life. I was learning a great deal about the Christian Faith and could not get enough. An intense hunger to read the Bible filled me and I set aside significant time each day to study. I sent off for free Bible courses and read anything I could get my hands on about following Jesus. I learned to spend daily “quiet time” alone with Him in prayer, which I faithfully did as I sought to get to know the One who had saved me. However, although my personal devotion was commendable, I really had no sense of the importance of any larger Church community in decisions of doctrine or faith. It was the Bible alone, and whichever interpretation of the Bible sounded most reasonable to me.

Although I was a Methodist, most of the material I read was from a decidedly fundamentalist angle, in that I was learning to take everything in the Bible as literally true. This made sense to me because, being God’s Word, it only followed that the Bible had no errors in it. I needed a firm authority to tell me what was true, and for me this was the Bible alone. I was not aware of any other approach to Christianity. To me, if one was a Christian then by definition one believed that the Bible was God’s “instruction manual” on how to be a Christian. There was no other authority needed. A bumper sticker popular at the time stated this doctrine succinctly: “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!”

One shift that had taken place in my life which demonstrated how serious I was taking all of this was that the music I listened to completely changed. I jettisoned all the secular "worldly" music that was so much part of my identity, in favor of Contemporary Christian Music artists like Petra and Michael W. Smith. This was indeed a tremendous sacrifice for me to make at the time but it was important for me to surround myself with all that was explicitly Christian and to make a clear break with “my old self”. I was shifting into this new life with all of my heart.

I was talking about Jesus everywhere. I brought Him up at home, at work, and at school among my friends. People told me how different I was, that my attitude was better, and that I seemed happier. Ever sarcastic before, I felt more inclined now to restrain my biting remarks and jokes and treat others with more kindness. At church youth group, my friends and I had formerly been the troublesome crew in the back of the room, but now I spoke up with fervor about my new life in Christ and the leaders and my fellow youth seemed amazed. At times, however, my bold fervor spilled over into spiritual pride: Why wasn’t everyone like me and on fire for God? Why wasn’t everyone excited about Jesus and the difference he can make?

Another significant change took place in my life around this time as my family decided to change denominations. After attending a Methodist church for all my life, our Sunday mornings now found us in the pews of a local Southern Baptist church. This suited me fine, as Baptist evangelicalism seemed more in keeping with my passionate enthusiasm. I considered the more liturgical Methodist church services as “dead” when compared with the livelier and less formal Baptist gatherings.

While in the Baptist church, I was soon taught that the baptism which I had received as an infant in the Methodist was not a “real” baptism. I needed “believer’s baptism”, now that I had made my own decision for Christ. I went along with this teaching because it was based on certain Bible verses which seemed to show that baptism was only meant for people who are old enough to decide for themselves. This act was seen as a good way to demonstrate publicly that I had become a true Christian. So one Sunday evening in November 1989, I stepped into the large tank of water behind the choir loft at Central Baptist Church and the pastor fully immersed me, making me an official Southern Baptist believer. I enjoyed a warm welcome into the church community and all seemed to be going very well with me.

But in the midst of these bright golden days of evangelical sunshine, a dark cloud began to form. It appeared small at first but in time it began to loom larger over me and the sky lost a great deal of its brightness. A strange specter began to haunt the halls of my mind, disturbing my peace and mocking my enthusiasm. The name of the specter was Doubt.

It ironically sprang from my voracious reading of the Bible. I took for granted that the Bible was completely true and free from error in every historical fact and detail. Being analytical by nature, my mind wanted answers to all the questions that were raised by certain passages that I read. I wanted to know how God made the Universe in six days only a few thousand years ago, according to the apparent timetable in Genesis, when science seemed to demonstrate that the Earth itself is millions of years old? How do the fossil records and the dinosaurs fit into the Biblical account of Creation? How did Jonah live inside the belly of that fish? The story of Noah and the Ark bothered me greatly, as I could not see how all those animals fit on the Ark and lived there together for a hundred days and nights. A related question was regarding animals like the kangaroo and koala and how they got from Noah’s Ark all the way to the island of Australia, which is the only place where they are found. These questions seem so juvenile to me now, but they were the types of questions that I really wanted answers to at the time.

I also had questions about the miracles of Jesus, which for some reason sparked incredulity in me whenever I read them. Just how did Jesus multiply those few loaves of bread into enough to feed thousands or walk on water? These events seemed too unreal to be believed literally.

Above all of these, I think it was the inconsistencies that I noticed in the various accounts of the Resurrection as given in the four Gospels that most confounded me. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark a group of women, including Mary Magdalene, arrive at the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection and encounter one angel (Matt. 28:5 and Mark 16:5), while in Luke the same group encounters two angels (Luke 24:4). The Gospel of John relates an entirely different sequence of events and tells of Mary Magdalene coming alone to the tomb that morning and encountering no one. She returns to the tomb after Peter and John inspect the empty tomb. After the disciples leave again she sees two angels and then Jesus Himself (John 20:1-18). This matches the Gospel of Mark which states that when Jesus “rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene” (Mark 16:9), but Paul seemed to indicate in his first letter to the Corinthians that Jesus appeared to Peter first (1 Cor. 15:4-5). These passages and many like them left me thoroughly confused. In my mind they could not all be true, as they contained conflicting statements, yet the Bible was supposed to be without error from cover to cover. The ground under my feet was starting to rumble.

I sought feverishly for answers to all of these questions in various Biblical commentaries and Evangelical apologetics materials, but unfortunately I found less than satisfying explanations or the difficult issues were glossed over or ignored altogether. My doubts persisted and expanded until I began battling with questions that struck deeper into the roots of the Faith: There are so many religions in the world, so how did I know that Christianity was the only one that was true? If I was born in another part of the world, I may have been brought up in a different religion and would have thought that religion to be true. How could I think that I just happened to be born into the one true religion? How did I know that the New Testament was not just made up by some people 2000 years ago? Perhaps Jesus never lived. How could I know for sure? Questions like these swarmed around me like stinging flies. I looked for proof after proof to force them away, but nothing was effective. I examined the prophecies in the Old Testament and how they related to Jesus, but my mind instantly sabotaged such efforts by formulating counter-arguments: perhaps the people who wrote the New Testament simply made their fiction fit the prophecies about their expected Messiah. The moment I thought that I had banished one difficulty another one would materialize. While dealing with that one, the previous difficulty would reappear with renewed strength. I could not ignore these doubts, but the more I struggled to confront them, the worse they got. I poured out prayer after prayer, but these were met only with silence.

At the local public library one afternoon, searching desperately for some book to help me, I came upon one volume bearing the inflammatory title: “All of the Contradictions and Inconsistencies in the Bible”. Unfortunately, I picked up this book up and began reading. One by one the author laid out apparent contradiction after apparent contradiction. I tried to deal with them the best I could, but to no avail. Some were petty (such as pointing out that Jesus called the mustard seed “the smallest of all seeds” (Matt. 31:32), but it is now known that there are many seeds much smaller than the mustard seed). Some were truly perplexing, many of which I had never thought of. It was pointed out that there were parallel accounts of the same incidents in the Old Testament (for example, in the books of Kings and Chronicles) which, when compared to each other, contained contradictory information and details. Of course, the author also took delight in emphasizing the similar inconsistencies which I had already noticed in the various Gospel accounts of the Resurrection.

I began to truly get overwhelmed but I could not put the book down. I had been taught that every word in the Bible was true and without error, and yet there were all these apparent mistakes and contradictions which I would not explain away. I did not want to admit defeat, so I kept trying to convince myself that all these supposed errors in the Bible were not really errors. However, I was still new to Scripture study and did not have sufficient knowledge in myself to combat this threat. God seemed so silent and I felt very much on my own.

The unresolved doubts began to pile up and smother my newborn faith. Standing there in that library aisle I felt a sinking feeling that I had been duped. I thought for the first time in my life that it was quite possible that Christianity was not true. I felt that those who had taught me about Christianity had held this back from me. They knew about the Bible’s self-contradictions and yet continued to teach that it was true. I had been tricked. There was a deep deep emptiness that settled upon me. I truly wanted to believe but my mind would not let me. I could not force myself to believe something when I could not logically see how it could be true. The doubts were all that I could see whenever I prayed or read the Bible and I could not see beyond them.

I did go talk with the pastor at my Baptist church and spilled out honestly what I was dealing with. Both he and the youth pastor listened to what I was saying and seemed to be eager to help. However, they did not have any answers for my many questions. They acted like these questions really were not that important. In the end, they took a sort of jovial approach, and with a slap on the back sent me on my way with the admonition to “plow on”. The only other comment I recall them making was “The devil’s really workin’ on you, isn’t he?” I thought to myself that that did not help me at all because I was having serious doubts that there even was a devil or anything else that the Bible taught. I was not encouraged after this meeting and I slipped further away into my doubts.

How long can one keep up the fight against persistent doubts? It was an ever-present obsession in my mind. I doubted when I woke up in the morning and I doubted all day long. I doubted at night when I laid my head on my pillow and I lay there doubting in the darkness until I drifted uneasily into sleep. This went on for weeks and months until I think I just collapsed from sheer exhaustion. After a year and a half of flying high, my faith laid down and died a pitiful death.

I grieved this loss in silence for some time, but my life had to go on. It had been an exciting period of newfound faith, and it was disappointing to have it live such a short life, but there was nothing I could do to revive it. I entered into a period of a sort of “agnostic deism”. I retained a belief in a Divine Being as this was evident to me from the created world, but I did not know if this was the God of Christianity, or Buddhism, or Hinduism or some other world religion, or perhaps of no organized religion at all. Perhaps He was not even directly involved with the world after He created it. God seemed distant again and I was alone to figure out the rest of my life.

I recall at that time writing a poem, which was based on a “Christian Agnostic” book I read. I have since lost the poem, but I still recall the title as it was the same as the book: “Awaiting Further Light”. This phrase appropriately describes my life during that period because I did send up a sort of prayer to “God”, whoever He was, to give me more light and to show Himself to me. However, as the currents of time swept on and I passed from high school into college, this attitude of waiting faded and I forgot about that little prayer. I lost any hope that it would ever be answered.

But God had heard my prayer and had not forgotten me. In His time and in His way He would answer that prayer and quite unexpectedly bring my faith back to life again.Continued in Part 4 of My Conversion Story: “A Miraculous Resuscitation."

(Read a reflection on "The Loss of Initial Fervor and Faith" here).

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Protestants Accept Catholic Traditions

“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” - 2 Thessalonians 2:15

As it has now been over 11 years since my conversion to the Catholic Church, the length of time has provided me with a different perspective on my Evangelical Protestant roots. I look back fondly on my years as a “Bible Christian”, as this was the context in which I first fell in love with Our Lord. However, I now see even more clearly the many shortcomings of the Protestant view of Christianity.

Protestants boldly profess that the Bible is their only authority for their doctrine and practice. In view of this, several questions could be asked:

1) Where in the Bible does it teach that the Bible alone is our sole authority in matters of doctrine and practice in the Christian Faith?

2) Where in the Bible does it tell us which books belong in the Bible?

3) Where in the Bible does it tell us who wrote the four gospels named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? What about who wrote the books named Acts, 1 2 3 John, or Hebrews? Again, how do we know that these books are Scripture?

4) Where in the Bible do each of the New Testament writers state that their writings are inspired by God and are to be considered as Scripture?

5) Where in the Bible does it tell Christians to have their main day of worship on Sunday, and not on the Saturday Jewish Sabbath as taught in the Old Testament? Where does the Bible tell us to change the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday?

6) Where in the Bible does it tell Christians to construct buildings to meet and worship in, instead of in believers’ homes? Where are steeples on church buildings mentioned in Scripture? What about crosses displayed in the sanctuary?

7) Where in the Bible does it tell us to have wedding ceremonies, where vows are exchanged before a minister? What about the wearing of wedding rings?

8) Where in the Bible does it tell us to celebrate the Birth of Jesus every year on December 25th? Where is the word “Christmas” found in the Bible? What about the season of Advent leading up to Christmas?

9) Where in the Bible does it tell us to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus every year? Where does it tell us how to determine the date of Easter every year? Where is the word “Easter” found in the Bible?

10) Where is the word “Trinity” found in the Bible? Who coined this term?

11) Considering this Scripture found in the book of James: "You see that a person is justified by what he does, and not by faith alone" (James 2:24 NIV), where does the Bible say that salvation is by faith alone? Why do Protestants use the language "we are saved by faith alone", when Scripture clearly states the opposite in James: "not by faith alone"?

12) Where in the Bible does it authorize individual Christians to break away from the One Church which Jesus founded when he was on Earth if they do not agree with its doctrine and practice and to set up rival churches of their own?

After considering all of the above questions myself during my journey to the Catholic Church, it became clear to me that none of these traditions are found in the Bible at all. Yet Protestants accept and follow each of them without considering why, all the time denying that they are following tradition and firmly insisting that they are relying on the Bible alone. Many of these questions demonstrate that Protestants even in their bedrock basics are adhering to Catholic sacred tradition, without which they would have nothing. They oppose the Catholic Church with vehemence, without realizing how many of their own beliefs and practices, including the very Bible itself, rely upon the Catholic Church to exist. It is like people who prefer the light of the Moon, and despise the Sun. But if in their zeal they pull down the Sun they would lose the light of their precious Moon as well.

May the Holy Spirit continue His mighty work in these days, of granting His Light and Grace to us all and restoring Unity to the Body of Christ, to prepare for the end of the age, when Christ our One Head returns to be united with His One Body the Church forever! Amen.

Coming Soon: Part 3 of My Conversion Story: “The Loss of Initial Fervor and Faith”