Friday, December 30, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol.14)

Things I’m looking forward to in 2012 edition:

1. Going back to school! I’m such a nerd. But a 13-month hiatus is really enough to make me miss being a student.

2. And if school goes well, I should be moving into my own place either this summer or fall.

3. I’m planning on visiting my aunt in Texas over spring break. She always comes up here to see us, so it’s way past time to return the favor.

4. In May, my mom and I are going to Scotland! Ever since I spent just a day in Edinburgh, I’ve always wanted to go back to Scotland, and now we’re going for 10 whole days!

5. I’m really hoping I can repair and heal some relationships I damaged in 2011. But if I try and am not able to, I hope that I can at least learn to let go and move on.

6. And obviously, I’m looking forward to joining the Church at Easter!

7. I can only think of six, but all of those should be in the first half of the year, so #7 shall be a good thing that unexpectedly comes about in the second half.

Check out others' Quick Takes here!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

In the Flesh

The Christmas Eve candlelight service continues to be one of my favorite services of the year. I don’t know if it’s the carols, or the darkness outside, or the candles inside, but I always get something out of it. A few years ago, the pastor had set out a manger. When it came time for communion, he unbundled the loaf of bread that had been sitting in the manger and broke it. It was perfectly beautiful symbolism. This little baby whom we’re all adoring, he’s going to die for you.

It was also a Christmas Eve communion that opened my heart to transubstantiation, which looking back, I believe was the first push to the Church.

During the service this year, it occurred to me, that the birth of Christ isn’t just the big conclusion of the story of prophecy that we’ve followed through Advent. And it’s not just the beginning of the story that we’ll get to at Easter. It’s a whole story in itself, a grand moment in time that makes everything else seem to fall away. God became human. And He did so in the most human of ways; a tiny baby growing in his mother’s womb. He knew what it was to be helpless and hungry and scared. God loved humanity so much that He came down to save us, yes, but first to experience the human condition.

For one night, the saga of sin and covenants and salvation are overshadowed by the tangible and weak form Christ took to come into the world and live among us.

Of course, Christmas Eve communion was a bit different this year because I’m in communion no-man’s land. I’m not yet ready to receive the Eucharist in the Catholic church, but I can’t in good conscious take communion at a Protestant church either. I tried earlier this fall and it just felt out of place. So as the plates of bread and little juice cups went around, I realized I was probably the only person over the age of six not partaking. I knew it was the right thing for me to do, but I felt alone. By definition, communion unifies the community, and I had just placed myself outside of that.

But then suddenly, I wasn’t alone. Someone from beyond the physical world was there, just over my left shoulder, trying to comfort me. It didn’t feel the same as those spiritual sensations that I recognize as the Father, the Christ or the Spirit. I didn’t know who this was, saint or angel or God in some form I didn’t recognize. In my head, I was crying, “Who are you?” but I knew it didn’t particularly matter at that moment. I was comforted, and that’s all whomever seemed to care about.

Thinking about it at a distance, I’m inclined to think it was a guardian angel. But I’ve never given much thought as to whether I even believe in angels or not. Then again, a few Christmas Eves ago, I would have said the same about transubstantiation.

I don’t know what it is about that Christmas Eve service. I try not to overanalyze or push away these experiences when they happen. I try to experience them to the fullest and worry about analyzing and making sense later. I want to have more of those rich, spiritual moments, to be able to touch that intangible world. And maybe that’s what is so different about Christmas Eve. The tangible and intangible, the visible and invisible, seem to blur lines. God became human. A little baby was also fully divine. Something as abstract as a Word became flesh. Gloria, indeed.

Friday, December 23, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol.13)

1. I’m writing later than normal today because I’m house-sitting for some friends this week. It’s odd to have so much alone time just before Christmas, but it’s also nice to be staying away from the internet.

2. I got a new car last weekend! I wasn’t expecting such a big gift from my parents, but I’m so grateful. It’s a 2011 Subaru Impreza. I’m glad to have four-wheel drive since I start commuting to school in January.

3. I also bought a black cardigan this week! I have wanted a black cardigan for months, but it has actually been really difficult to find. Now I can wear my short sleeve dresses to church. Although, it was 67 degrees yesterday, so the cardigan isn’t even needed.

4. Since it’s the week before Christmas, mom and I made her delicious peanut butter balls dipped in dark chocolate. It’s my favorite sweet!

5. My aunt is staying with us for a few nights over Christmas. It will fun having another person on the big day. She and granddad are joining us for church on Christmas Day. Dad will get to go too since he found someone else to work (he has had to work on Christmas for as long as I can remember).

6. Almost there!

7. Because family will be in, I’ll be going to the Christmas Eve service at the Cumberland Presbyterian church, then the early service on Christmas Day at the Catholic church, then the 10 a.m. service at the Cumberland Presbyterian church. The C.P. church is combining its two services since it figured a lot of people wouldn’t come on Christmas Day, and I’ve heard other churches have cancelled because of Christmas falling on a Sunday. It seems to me, that should be one of the days the church is overflowing. Seriously, canceling church because it’s Christmas? That screams of messed-up priorities.

Read others' Quick Takes here!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Is It OK to be a Hypocrite?

A hypocrite is an awful thing to be. Jesus certainly doesn’t like them. To some extent, we all are hypocrites. We like to hold people to higher standards than we actually live, yet most of us realize we shouldn’t do that. And that leaves us with two options: Live by those high standards or change the standards.

I think most people today have changed the standards. “I’m sinful, so I can’t tell other people what to do or not do.” Soon, there are no standards or rules at all. People have to figure out “what works” for them. We’re a society that has no cohesion, no united morality, because things like morals, values, truth, and virtues have been stripped of the community and left to the individual.

The only rule is that no one can judge another’s choices because “no one is perfect.” We’re allowed to individually set the standard as low as we need it to be to reach it. And we get warm, happy feelings of being a “good person” as defined by our own standards. That’s the easy choice. Not holding your neighbor accountable for his actions means you can act however you want with no accountability as well.

I am a hypocrite. I have many weaknesses that I don’t tolerate in others. But I want hold myself to that higher standard too; I just suck at living up to it. That’s not true hypocrisy, but it is critical. It takes virtue and self-evaluation and big doses of humility and guilt. It takes work. I’d rather aim for the high standard, knowing I’m going to fall short, than sink into a world where goodness and truth are subjective at best (non-existent at worst). I know that without the grace of God, I damned. But that just means I should work harder, not throw a tantrum about “the system” and renounce it all.

That’s part of what being a Christian is: we struggle to live a high standard, to be like Christ, but we know we won’t. That doesn’t mean the standard is wrong. We are. We’re weak, and foolish, and lazy. But we should always strive to do better, and to hold one another accountable, all working together to be better and closer to God.

Friday, December 16, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 12)

1. Rejoice! We're over halfway to Christmas!

2. Last Friday night, I went to the Madrigal dinner at church. I loved the wassail and costumes and music. I got to history geek out and get in the Christmas mood! And the priest’s magic show was great!

3. I watched the 1947 Miracle on 34th Street last night. I had forgotten how good that movie is. Except it had been colorized. What's the point of colorizing movies? I'd much prefer my old movies be untampered with. Black and white doesn't bother me. However, it was a pretty good color job, and I still enjoyed it. Now I've seen all the Christmas movies I traditionally watch except A Christmas Story, and I save that for Christmas Day when it's on for 24 hours.

4. I bought Rome Sweet Home by Scott and Kimberly Hahn and read through it in one day. Everyone kept telling me I'd enjoy it, and I did. I particularly enjoyed how each of them prayed the rosary the first time, making a prayer beforehand that it was alright to do so. I totally did that too. I think the Hail Mary prayer is big stumbling block for Protestants becoming Catholic. Our Protestant friends can't figure out why we want to do it, and our Catholic friends can't figure out why it's a challenge. But it was good to learn that it's not just me.

5. I'm also trying to read through the Old Testament while I'm at work. So far, I'm halfway through Leviticus, and I'm actually enjoying it. I'm not making myself do it. I'm just reading for pleasure. I've never been able to read the Old Testament for pleasure before. I guess I'm just at the right place to really get something out of it this time.

6. My parents are selling my car tomorrow. I'll be getting my mom's old car. I'm grateful to have cars I don't have to pay for, and I'm happy to have 4-wheel drive before winter sets in, but I'm still said to see my car go. I didn't know about this until a few days ago, and I didn't realize how attached I was to having my own car.

7. We finally got the tree up!

Friday, December 9, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 11)

Christmas decoration edition! Almost all the decorations are up at the house (except the tree, which we never put up until after the 10th. And it's finally getting cold and starting to feel like December!

1. Second week of Advent. It was pretty lonely doing the Advent wreath by myself for a few days while my parents were in New Orleans. I made up for it by trying to take "artsy" photos of the flames.

2. The stockings are hung by the chimney with care!

3. I set up the Dickensville houses on the mantle and side table this year. Here is the church with its own Nativity set.

4. We have a collection of Santa ornaments, depicting Santa from years 1813-1938 (we have most but not all of them). My favorite has always been the 1889 Santa, because he came with a Mrs. Claus!

5. The Nativity set. Some years we have the wise men in a different part of the house until January, but I put them all together this year. I don't know if I've just gotten used to seeing Jesus on the cross more, but the manger looks extra-empty this year. In a good way. I like waiting for Him.

6. This is a picture I painted in 6th grade art class, but we always put it out with my mom's snowman collection. It really is the peak of my fine arts skills.

7. Not a decoration, but my mom brought this back for me from New Orleans this week! It's a Lady of Prompt Succor chaplet from the Ursuline convent.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Hail Mary, full of grace...

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. I have to say, the biggest struggles I’ve had with the Catholic faith are doctrines about Mary, especially the Immaculate Conception. I couldn’t see how the phrase “full of grace” accounted for the theory of her being conceived without Original Sin, of being ever-virgin, and of being assumed into heaven. (Though I did understand that if I believed the first part, the other two would reasonably follow.) I liked the idea of Mary being a new Eve, but I just didn’t believe it, or see the importance of it. But that still left me with a problem, because the Immaculate Conception seemed to be a really big deal, as in, the only two times the Pope has spoken infallibly has been about Mary’s conception and assumption. Everything else I was learning seemed to make so much sense, but this whole Mary thing wasn’t jiving. I knew Mary was always supposed to point to Christ, so I figured, if worrying about her just got me all frustrated, it was better to just ignore her and pray to Christ on my own. I wasn’t going to let Marian doctrine get in the way of everything else I loved about the Church.

As a Protestant, I never gave much thought about Mary. She only came up during Advent each year; the virgin birth, the journey to Bethlehem, wrapping Baby Jesus in swaddling clothes. But Catholics focus on Mary before all that: her Immaculate Conception and her “fiat.” She had the free will to say no to God, but she said yes, even though that meant a serious burden and probably lots of rumors about her. Her yes meant everything for humanity. But, if she was already free of Original Sin, wasn’t it easier for her to say yes? Or if God had freed her from Original Sin knowing she would say yes in the future, what free will was there?

Eve was free of Original Sin. She had the free will to stay that way and obey God or not. She chose not. Mary chose to say yes with all the free will Eve used to say no. God freed Mary of Original Sin to give her that choice. And we should all be grateful that she made the right decision.

One day at work not too long ago (I wasn’t even thinking on it), it just clicked. I believed in the Immaculate Conception, which for me also meant belief in her sinlessness, her perpetual virginity, and her assumption into heaven. An idea that seemed so out there to me suddenly felt familiar. I still feel uncomfortable with the amount of focus on it, and I still don’t like saying strings of Hail Marys when I could just be praying to Jesus directly. But now, it is part of my faith. And it’s probably good that there is part of my faith I know I need to work on. If I’m comfortable, I’m not doing it right.

[The top is a picture of Eve and Mary reconciling. I had saved it on my computer awhile back and now can’t remember where I got it. But I really, really like it. The bottom picture is a picture that is hung in the classroom where I have RCIA. I always get distracted and just stare at it during class. I know it’s a romanticized, northern European version of Mary and Jesus (that is not a Jewish nose or Middle Eastern skin tone), but I think it’s beautiful.]

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Worshipping Statues

Catholics are sometimes accused of "worshiping statues." They have statues of saints, and they talk to those saints, so certainly they are worshiping statues, the highest form of idolatry. Except for that it is clearly untrue. Even as a Presbyterian, I knew Catholics didn’t worship the statues in their church. I didn’t really get the whole saints deal, but I thought it was obvious that the Catholics’ statues were just statues, the same as family photos hanging in someone’s home.

But thinking about this more, I’ve decided that nobody has ever worshiped statues. It’s a meaningless straw man of a phrase. Protestants that don't have icons or statues like to accuse churches that do as idol worshipers, implying of course that they don't worship idols because they don't have those objects. But idolatry is much more insidious than that.

The pagans had statues of their gods. They would go to the temple and pray before the statue. But the statue was a representation of the god they couldn’t see. At most, there might be a belief that the god would come down and inhabit the statue in order to communicate to the worshipers. The statue was a reminder, a vessel, but never something worthy of worship on its own. People simply don’t worship inanimate objects. (Nature worshipers worship nature purely because they believe nature to be animate.)

Yet, people do mistakenly worship inanimate, intangible constructs. Name brands, jobs, TV shows, foods, electronics. In the fall in the South, the clearest idol is football. An idol is simply what we focus our devotion on instead of God. We build unhealthy attachments to things that on their own are harmless, but become idols as we attach our self-worth, our happiness, our identity to them. Idols are narcissistic. They are us trying to make God whatever we want Him to be and trying to make salvation whatever makes us comfortable or happy.

When the Hebrews built the golden calf, God was not angry that they made a statue. He was angry about what the statue represented: rejection of Him, creating new gods. He had just delivered them from slavery, but instead of being grateful, they turned away from Him. The gods of the idol were not able to deliver them, or lead them to the Promised Land, or make them feel complete. The Hebrews wanted to create a custom-made god. All they got was a false idol and an angry Lord.

At most, an idol offers us a moment of gratification. We feel good and don’t have to worry about sin or charity or salvation and all that other tricky stuff. But like any dangerous drug, we begin needing more and more to keep that good feeling going, and we get depressed and feel empty without it, because it’s not healing anything, just masking the problem. The problem is that our priorities are all messed up. We’re looking for easy, feel-good solutions instead of the Truth.

Friday, December 2, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol.10)

1. I completed NaNoWriMo! It totally helped that I FINALLY found my jumpdrive. I feel such a sense of accomplishment for reaching my goal, and it’s motivated me to keep working on my fiction just for me.

2. Advent started this week, and I’m reminded how much I love Advent wreaths. This is the only time of the year I really use candles, but I love watching fire. It hypnotizes me in the most delightful way. I’m hoping it will be cold enough to use the fireplace soon.

3. I have the house to myself again this weekend, and I’m looking forward to some solo vegging time, introvert-style. A Charlie Brown Christmas, Muppets Christmas Carol, and Love Actually are all on the agenda.

4. Speaking of the Muppets, if you haven’t seen the new Muppets movie, do it. Do it now. It is adorable and funny! I think I grinned out of pure delight through the whole thing.

5. I’m going to try to decorate a lot of the house this weekend to surprise my parents when they get home Wednesday. We never put up the tree until after the 10th, and I wouldn’t want to tackle it on my own anyway, but I want to get the Nativity set and some smaller decorations out.

6. I reread The Best Christmas Pageant Ever at work yesterday. If you don’t know, it’s the story about a church Christmas pageant (duh) that gets overtaken by the six meanest kids in town. These kids don’t know the Christmas story, and they see the story of Jesus’ birth in a more genuine, reactive way than those of us familiar with it do.

7. I help watch and tutor the kids at the Cumberland Presbyterian church on Wednesdays. Their pageant is in two weeks. They are singing those pre-packaged kids-bop-type songs, and I’d much prefer they just do the Nativity and sing “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night.” They would know the words, and the congregation would be just as happy. All anyone really wants is to see little kids dressed as angels and sheep, right?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Why I'm Excited about the New Translations

First off, I haven’t put much effort in memorizing parts of Mass until now, because I knew it was going to change so soon. So I have no attachment to the former words, and I’m not struggling to replace phrases that roll of my tongue with new, similar-but-different-enough-to-confuse-me new ones. I really do feel the pain of the older parishioners who grew up around the Latin, then had to deal with Vatican II changes, and now have to deal with this. But I believe the changes are for the better.

One reason is just one word: “consubstantial” It’s a big word, not easy for a congregation to say in union, but I like it. It replaces the “one in Being” in the Nicene Creed. While theologically, I don’t think it makes much difference, I just really like that word. I also like saying “visible and invisible” instead of “seen and unseen.” It’s a personal preference, sure, but I think it makes the creed cooler. (And yes, I think creeds are cool.)

Another reason is the whole reason there are changes in the first place: to get the wording as close to the Latin as possible, so it's more in syncopation with the universal church. If we’re not going to use Latin (and sadly, we aren’t), we have to take great care in vernacular translations, so the meaning cannot be misunderstood.

There are so many English translations of the Bible, that come from older English translations, that come from Latin translations, that come from Greek and Hebrew. Even translators trying to be faithful to the language and without a personal agenda have to make some judgment calls when translating. Each step further away from the original makes room for error and misunderstanding and missed nuance.

I think it’s a good thing people can approach the Bible or a church service in a language they understand. But to do that, the Church has to be extra-careful with translations. The new changes were made because they were needed to make sure English-speaking Mass was as close to a Latin Mass as possible.

I’m going to appreciate anything closer to the original and closer in line with what churches everywhere in all languages say. From what I can tell, the changes have even more beauty. I don’t mind that they are longer, or have four-syllable words, or make me beat my chest three times. In fact, I love it.

Friday, November 25, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 9) Thanksgiving edition

Because it is the day after Thanksgiving, I'm going to list seven things I'm thankful for. Not very original, but still, it's important to note these things sometimes.

1. I'm thankful for my parents, who have raised me a loving home, given me an enormous amount of support when I'm hard on my luck, and have shown me a great example of marriage. And I'm grateful that they are supportive/at least tolerant of my decisions.

2. I'm thankful for two of my friends (one even a Presbyterian minister), who when I told them I was becoming Catholic answered in some form of "That makes sense." That was seriously the most affirming response I could get from someone, as if they understand that I belonged in the Church and my seeking would lead me there for honest reasons.

3. I'm thankful to live in a country where I can practice my faith openly and where is doesn't make a difference that I'm Catholic, Protestant, or a Christian at all. I feel marginalized and misunderstood for being something-other-than-evangelical here in the Bible Belt, but I am well aware it's not real persecution.

4. I'm thankful that my family and I don't live with any debt. Our house and cars are paid for, and credit cards are paid in full each month. I graduated without any college loans, and I have enough money to pay for most of my second degree. When I think about buying something, it's always something I don't need, and the choice I have to make isn't "Can I afford this?" but "Do I want to spend that much for this?"

5. I'm thankful I'm unfamiliar with death. People in my family tend to live long and live healthy, so I haven't experienced a lot of deaths in the family. I don't experience hunger or war or gang/domestic violence or pandemics. I wake up with every expectation of being alive and safe at the end of the day.

6. I'm thankful for the opportunity of education and the education I've received. I can't imagine not being able to read or write. Knowledge is everything.

7. And mostly, I'm thankful for the amazing awakening I've experienced this year that has led me to the Catholic Church. I don't feel like I'm converting/changing, but that my faith is deepening and expanding. My mind is open to so much more understanding, and my heart is open to so many spiritual experiences. I didn't even know I was seeking, but God brought me to where the answers were anyway.

Friday, November 18, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 8)

1. I’m having a horrible time finding a good Advent calendar to keep at my desk. When I was kid, I had about three different calendars: One of a Santa which I got to add a cotton ball to his beard each day, one 3D cardboard one with various doors and windows to open, and one from a children’s book that revealed different animals behind the flaps. The book was my favorite, and I’m sure it’s still down in the basement somewhere, but I’d really like one that can sit at my desk at work and actually has a religious theme.

2. It’s amazing how many Advent calendars aren’t religious. You can even get a Lego’s Advent calendar. And even though it looks fun, it makes me think more about preparing for a Lego’s pirate ship for Christmas than preparing for the birth of our Lord. Just a tip: If the 24th or 25th box/door on your Advent calendar isn’t of the Nativity, it’s not an Advent calendar; it’s a December calendar.

3. I lost my jumpdrive. This is devastating to me, because all my writing (college essay, NaNoWriMo novel [at 18,000 words], all my detailed notes for my stories, and all my in-process blog articles/pictures) were on it. I’ve lost more sleep over this than I care to admit. First world problems. But I’m getting closer to St. Anthony because of it.

4. I did successfully find about the first 9,000 words of my novel saved in the recycle bin of my work computer. But I still miss all my notes and blog articles the most.

5. Despite this major setback, since I knew how many words I lost, I’m continuing on with NaNoWriMo and am determined to meet the goal this year. Then, in December, I will go back and rewrite the parts that are missing and flush out parts that I needed my notes for. I’m at about 26,000 words, which is a bit behind, but much better than I actually expected from myself.

6. The worse part of losing my jumpdrive is imaging someone actually reading my work. I would rather have rolled over it with my car, crushing it into dozens of pieces and knowing it was gone forever than to have it out there, still working, in someone else’s hands. I'm very protective about my writing.

7. I almost, almost have everything in order to go to school next semester. Praying registration goes well on Monday. Two of the classes I need still have openings, so I'm optimistic, even after the week I've had.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I want to be pregnant during Advent

No, not this Advent, clearly.

But should I in my life find myself married and pregnant, I’d like it if part of the few months of the pregnancy to overlap with the holidays. Because it just makes sense, doesn’t it? You get to prepare for your baby and Baby Jesus at the same time. I’m someone who likes my metaphors to hit me over the head with their obviousness, and being pregnant during Advent would definitely fit that category. I find myself thinking that in church every Sunday of Advent, and I’m happy for the glowing mothers-to-be I see there during that time. My CP church is having a baby shower on the first Sunday of Advent. Is there really any more perfect date for that?

Advent is my favorite time of year. It’s just so warm and cozy. On my favorite show, How I Met Your Mother, Ted meets a girl named Victoria at a wedding. Instead of kissing, they just lean in close for a long time, almost-kissing, because Victoria believes the drum roll leading up the kiss is the most romantic part. Advent is like an awesome drum roll. Taking the time to relish in the waiting and preparation just makes Christmas that much more amazing.

Disregarding the tacky, secularized commercialization , it’s that time of year when more is more. More decorations, more prayer, more lights, more songs, more gatherings. It doesn’t become cluttered, but builds to a magnificent crescendo-ing drumroll, reaching its peak Christmas Eve and grandly concluding with trumpets and choirs of angels on Christmas Day. What better way to start the Church year than with an abundance of everything that makes the Church beautiful?

Friday, November 11, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 7)

1. It’s 11-11-11! So at 11:11, I’ll be sure to make an extra special wish. November 11 also means it’s Veterans/Armistice Day. The cease-fire was declared "on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" in 1918, marking the end of World War I, though Germany didn't finish paying reparations until October 4, 2010. I've always been interested in reading about WWI. I think many just look at it as a precursor to WW2 and overlook its independant significance. It's considered the first modern war and is a strong divider between the Victorian and Modern eras. Armistice Day always brings out my interest in that time period.

Also, it reminds me to say a special prayer for those throughout history who honorably served their countries, especially those who died in battle.

2. This evening, I’m heading up to Camp John Speear to help with a senior high retreat. I just can’t seem to stay away from my Cumberland Presbyterian roots, not that there is anything wrong with that. The topic of the retreat is peace.

So I'm super churching it this weekend: CP youth retreat Friday through Sunday, Catholic Mass on Sunday morning, then Youth Sunday at the CP church later that morning. I think that earns me a stiff drink Sunday afternoon, which fortunately to both faiths is totally ok.

3. I’m about 16,000 words into my novel for NaNoWriMo. And I don’t feel like I’m very far into the story, which means either: 1. I have a long story to tell or 2. I just have lots of boring scenes and need to learn how to pace stories better. I think it’s really a mix of both.

4. I would have been further along writing, but I spent most of Wednesday morning figuring out my student account and email account for school. Yep, I’m officially going back to school now! I’m not sure how much I will like this school or how good I will be at Accounting, but I’m happy to feel like I’m doing something again.

5. When I was seventeen and looking at colleges, everyone wanted to court me, and I got lots of packets and lots of information about what I needed to fill out and turn in by what date. Not so this time around. I miss being wanted. Now I have to call a bazillion offices just to figure out what I need to do. As much as I appreciate bureaucracy when I’m familiar with the particular process, I’ve certainly witnessed its dark side while dealing with registering at a new school. Rules make sense to me, and I like organization, but when you don’t know where to go, when to do what, or whom to call on for help, it’s easy to just get frustrated at “the system.” And speaking of systems, if my alma mater and new school are in the same state university system, why can’t the former forward the latter all transcripts and immunization records?

6. Another reason I'm not getting much writing done this week: my boyfriend and I broke up yesterday. On good terms and for the right reasons, but I'm still pretty sad about it.

7. I’ve actually found it easier to not get mad at the people who start the Christmas season on November 1. Maybe it’s because I’m not living with two of those people pushing their Christmas trees in my face and blasting Christmas music through the house like I was last year, but I also think it’s because I can think to myself, “Aw, it’s just those poor low-church Protestants who don’t understand the beauty and significance of the liturgical calendar.”

On that note, Advent (along with the New Mass) is just three weeks away! I can’t wait! (except I really can, because waiting/preparing is sort of the whole deal of Advent)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Independent Voter

The presidential election is a year away, and I’m already tired of it. The candidates might dwindle down to two, but the talking points aren’t likely to change in the coming months. Wouldn’t it be great if something disrupted the ad nauseum campaign cycle? I can’t help but think, why don’t Catholics form a third political party?

No political party as a monopoly on being God’s party. I like that Catholicism isn’t wedded to an American political party. I don’t want to hear politics from the pulpit. It’s gotten to the point that I think some churches are based on political beliefs instead of the other way around. But what if Catholics actually formed their own political party?

First off, I think the two-party system turns democracy into an “us-versus-them” fight where winning is more important than taking care of a country. George Washington warned against it, so I can’t be that un-American in this belief. That said, I’m always on the lookout for a viable third party that could reshape the political landscape, whether they tout my personal beliefs or not. I just want more options. The Tea Party was almost it, but then it just merged with the Republican Party and formed a more conservative Republican Party, making the landscape more extreme instead of more diverse.

Catholics tend to believe in things on both sides of the political spectrum. Depending on what they deem as most important, they fall into two voting groups: pro-life Republicans or social justice Democrats. Helping the unborn and helping the poor shouldn’t be oppositions. By being representatively unsatisfied by both the big parties, Catholics are perfectly positioned to take the issues into their hands and form a third party.

As I see it, this third party would be against both abortion and the death penalty. It would support taking care of the environment. It would be against gay marriage. It would promote capitalism but also support programs that would help the needy and unemployed. Even if it just attracted Catholics, it would create a large third party-voting block in the U.S. But I think lots of non-Catholic moderates would be attracted to it as well. As the left/right debates grow more and more extreme, those stuck in the middle with a mix of Republican and Democrat values need a place for their voices to be heard. I don’t know if it would offer any solutions to the problems government faces, but it would at least shake up the us-versus-them campaigns.

Sadly, I know it won’t happen. Next year at this time, I’ll cast my vote for whoever I think is the lesser of two evils. But I will vote, because that is my duty. I just wish I could enjoy it more.

Friday, November 4, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 6)

1. After three days of NaNoWriMo, I’m 6,000 words into my novel. I’m resisting the urge to research, because that always winds up with me wasting the time online learning about the Vendeans or looking up a new ziti recipe. Neither of which pertain to my story. I’m just trying to push words onto screen and not overanalyze. That’s the point of NaNoWriMo.

2. Because I’m trying to write this story, I’m not sure how much blogging I’ll get done this month. But I’m sure it will pick up once Advent begins.

3. One of the youth at my Presbyterian church recently learned that I’m in the process of joining the Catholic Church. He asked why, and of course the subject of transubstantiation came up. He said, “I don’t want you to become a cannibal!” Yes, it was completely misinformed hyperbole (and yes, I tried to clarify the foreign concept to him), but I also found his reaction funny.

4. I’m still surprised that he didn’t even know the term. Even when I didn’t believe in transubstantiation, I knew what it was. I guess I take my interest in learning about other faiths for granted and assume everyone knows the basics of the major faiths. I think to be confident your faith, you have to know what the other options are.

5. I’m super excited to see my college friends this weekend at Homecoming. None of us are really into football, but it’s a good excuse to get together. It’s hard to keep that close connection when you go from living across the hall to living 500 miles apart.

6. I had my mom’s homemade macaroni and cheese last night. And I’m looking forward to the leftovers for lunch. It’s my very favorite dish of hers.

7. I can’t really think of a seventh thing, so here’s a picture of the passenger seat of my car. It's become my de facto Catholic bookshelf. (Includes U.S. Catholic Catachism for Adults, St. Francis de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life, Oscar Lukefahr's We Worship, and my RCIA notebook.)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

So, Why Catholic? part 7

This is the conclusion of the reasons I've accepted the Catholic faith.
Part 1 here.
Parts 2 and 3 here.
Part 4 here.
Part 5 here.
Part 6 here.

7. Beauty. The churches. The art. The literature. The music. The vast amount of beauty inspired from the Church isn’t something to be ignored. There is the first, obvious way beauty attracted me, and the second, subtle, more important way. The first, I admit, is shallow. I like being in pretty places. One of my favorite things about my college was its campus of matching buildings in a quad. The uniformed, colonial style said, “This is a place of learning.” In contrast, I would get a mild depression when visiting schools whose buildings were scattered about a city and had no architectural similarities to one another. The collegiate feel was gone along with inspiration. I should have the fortitude to be able to study or pray or find inspiration despite the setting. But I like being in pretty places. Churches with narthexes and calices and an altar make it easier for me to focus. Add stained glass, statues, and candles, and I’m seduced even more. The higher and more beautiful the liturgy, the more positive reaction I have. It grounds me and points me in the right direction.

The second reason is the higher beauty that is the source of the more obvious kind. Mystics like Julian of Norwich and John of the Cross had powerful, personal experiences with God. I want what they had. I want the overwhelming joy and peace that come from a strong prayer life. The Church knows people are weak and often stupid. The religion is in place to help us lift ourselves up to be the best we can, to hold us accountable for our sins and cleanse us, to strengthen our praying, to always point toward God. And the saints serve as positive role models. I’m not afraid to admit that I need all the help I can get.

The Church (while remaining one) is big enough and wide enough to meet each of us wherever we are in our faith journey. She is rigid enough to provide structure for someone just learning about the faith and unrestrained enough to allow mystics room to search and meditate and constantly deepen their relationship. That’s Love. That’s Beauty. It’s that beauty that inspired the architecture and art and literature and music, as well as the missions, the charities, and the martyrs. And it inspires me.

Friday, October 28, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 5)

1. The Rite of Welcoming is this Sunday!

2. November begins next week, which means it’s time for National Novel Writing Month again. I tried it last year but didn’t complete it because of a host of personal things. 50,000 words in 30 days. I have a lot of free time at work, so hopefully I’ll do better this year!

3. I feel like I have this great story, but I don’t trust my own writing skills to express it well enough to do it justice. Maybe just pumping out words with help, or maybe it will just make me even more uncertain. I’m definitely my worst critic when it comes to my writing.

4. November also means I should hear back from the school I applied to. I really want working on my second degree next semester. I don’t know what I’ll do with myself if I have to wait until next fall.

5. If I do start school in the spring, I’m thinking of using my spring break to go to Taize, especially if I could get someone to go with me. I get nervous travelling alone. But if I can’t go to Taize, maybe I can find a spiritual retreat within driving range that will work too.

6. I have a list of books I want to read, most of them religious. I’m trying to decide whether to put them on a Christmas list, or just break out the credit card and buy them now. I get impatient when it comes to books.

7. I woke up with Adele’s “Someone Like You” stuck in my head this morning. It’s a pretty depressing song to have stuck in your head while trying to get out bed and it’s still dark outside. But it’s also a really beautiful song.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

So, Why Catholic? part 6

This is a continuation on the reasons I've accepted the Catholic faith.
Part 1 here.
Parts 2 and 3 here.
Part 4 here.
Part 5 here.

6. The Trinity. I have always believed in the Trinity, but I never really experienced it until I started this journey. When I prayed, it was always to God the Father. He felt like a better fit for me. Jesus was the cool dude personality for the evangelical crowd, and the Holy Spirit was for the emotional Pentecostals.

But I’ve learned that to understand God at all, you have to understand all three parts of the Trinity. The Spirit led me to make this change in my life. My prayer life is blossoming. The Spirit opened me up to accepting things that defy my sophomoric logic. Sometimes coincidence is providence. Sometimes an emotion is a reaction to a reality, objective instead of subjective.

And is there any doubt I’ve gotten closer to Christ through Mass? Human and divine. Tangible God. Protestants use the empty cross to represent the risen Christ. And while the Resurrection deserves such central focus, looking at an empty cross or an empty tomb can often just feel empty. Jesus came to earth, where existence is dirty, and gritty, and painful. He suffered for you. He is perpetually hurting when He sees how we make the world an even harder existence than it has to be. He understands pain and persecution and struggle. And He chose to endure it for you. God is beauty. There is beauty in the kind of love that will get ugly and dirty and common. My relationship with Christ stems from that kind of love.

I needed a better relationship with Christ. The Catholic Church has shown me a real Christ to connect to. The Trinity, though fundamental, is a challenging concept. Believing in a Trinity and actually experiencing each person of the Trinity are two different things.

I’m far from the first to compare a relationship with God with a romantic relationship, but the two are so parallel it’s hard not to. (Probably because romantic love is just a microcosm of God’s love). I’ve experienced the infatuation, the uncertainty, the compromise, the humility, the joy, the wanting to tell everyone you know, and the wanting to keep it quiet all to yourself. Understanding God is a creator but also a sacrifice and sanctifier makes Him more complex and more concrete.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Scaring the Hell Out of You

A few years ago, one of the local Lutheran churches put this message on their sign: “Our God is a God of love, not judgment.” The uproar and negative phone calls they received led them to take the message down within three days. What was so outrageous about this message? While it appeared as the standard “God loves everyone, come as you are” message, there was a passive-aggressive tone. That’s because it was late October, which means the Baptist church a few blocks down was putting on Judgment House.

If you haven’t heard of Judgment House (sometimes called Hell House), it’s the Christianized version of a haunted house. It shows teens in typical after-school special situations (pressured to have sex, drink, bully, etc). Then some tragedy strikes, and you follow the ones who didn’t love Jesus to a hot, torturous hell, and the ones who did love Jesus to shiny, happy heaven. At the end, you fill out an information card that asked if you've been saved or not. If you want to give (or re-give) your life to Christ, there are prayer groups waiting to talk to you. They remind me a lot of the medieval morality plays, except the morality plays personified virtues and vices and covered a range of Church teachings. They are similar, though, in that each offers skits about "average Christian" making choices that affect his salvation, showing images of heaven and hell.

I know the people who put on these productions mean well. At the least, they want to provide a Christian alternative to Halloween. I always feel a little bad for making fun of them. But the whole production gets under my skin. Inducing fear to create converts just isn’t the right way to bring people to Christ.

People should want to be with God, not just want to avoid hell. It’s like marrying someone just because you are afraid of being alone for the rest of your life. You should marry someone because you love that person, because you can’t imagine anything else but a life with that person, and because being with that person makes you a better you.

Judgment Houses believe you have to break people down to build them back up, that they can only find Jesus when they are emotionally vulnerable. Sometimes being scared is good. It’s scary to realize how much we (humanity in general and individuals) sin and reject God. It’s scary to realize how hard actually living a holy life would be. Fear reminds us that we mess up a lot, that we need to improve ourselves, and that we can’t just assume we can coast through life without struggle. It holds us accountable. But that sort of fear comes from real-life, individual experiences. It’s not fictionalized. It’s not a production designed to stir up and exploit particular emotions. As humans, we’re already broken enough. We don’t need to be frightened into realizing that we sin and need God’s help.

But in the end, Judgment Houses aren’t even a good tool for evangelism: I suspect that if a person decides to go to a Judgment House, he already is a particular type of Christian that believes in this description of hell and salvation. A person that doesn’t believe in God, sin, hell, or heaven probably isn’t going to go to a church looking for a haunted house. And if someone like that does wind up there, the production doesn’t make a case for the existence of these things. It scares believers into wanting to avoid hell above wanting heaven on its own merits and leaves non-believers (and non-fire-and-brimstone Christians) with a bad impression of what salvation is about.

Monday, October 24, 2011

So, Why Catholic? part 5

This is a continuation on the reasons I've accepted the Catholic faith.
Part 1 here.
Parts 2 and 3 here.
Part 4 here.

5. Views on Afterlife. I’ve already explained how purgatory makes sense to me. Heaven is pure, and even the best of believers might have sins that need to be purged before being capable of existence in heaven. They are still part of the communion of saints, which extends and unites through heaven, purgatory, and earth. It seems so obvious though I had never seen it this way before: Christ’s conquering of death doesn’t just mean we get to go to heaven; it means the veil between this world and the next is ripped open.

Honestly, I’m still trying to figure out praying to saints. Yes, I believe it’s like asking a friend to pray for you, but 1. I normally don’t do that and 2. Why spend time asking for prayer when I could be praying? It feels like an unnecessary step that as a former Protestant, I’m still uncomfortable with. It’s certainly something for me to work on. Yet despite my struggles with it, I think it’s beautiful that departed saints who never knew me on earth love me (and everyone) so much that they look over us and pray for us, and that when I die, I’ll be filled with that kind of caritas.

There is also the beatific vision, being able to directly see God. Being with God in heaven is not the soft picture of sitting on clouds and being dressed in white. It's overwhelming joy at God permeating all your senses. I can't imagine joy comparable to the actual presence of God. It should be the ultimate goal.

What anyone knows about the afterlife is murky, and so much of it is speculation. Some believe nothing happens, but most that believe in an afterlife believe in an existence without suffering and complete joy. Sometimes you have to follow the rules to get in, sometimes you have to be reincarnated multiple times to reach it, but once there, only good exists. Any belief in an afterlife requires faith; most faiths require belief in an afterlife. Because it is such a leap of faith, I don’t like getting hung up on the particulars: What’s heaven like? Can people who have died interact with us? In the final resurrection, what happens to people who were cremated or whose bodies have decomposed? Does hell include physical torture? How long does purgatory last? If we spent all our time on earth tossing around our speculations on the afterlife, we wouldn’t get much done, and we still wouldn’t come to a consensus. Yet I still believe and still strive.

Once you accept a faith, it’s better to not overanalyze or fear the tiny details of the afterlife. (Though it is important to study and understand the theology.) It’s much better to strive to be worthy of grace. That’s the best way to receive it.

Friday, October 21, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 4)

1.Congrats on surviving the end of the world!

Remember Harold Camping who predicted the end of the world in 1994 and again this May? Well, along with his May 2011 judgment day prediction, he predicted that the world would come to an end by October 21, 2011. So far as I can tell, it hasn’t happened. And with it almost October 22 in New Zealand, I think we’re safe.

2. On Tuesday, it was 83 degrees; on Wednesday, it was in the 40s with snow flurries on the mountains. Oh, Tennessee weather. I wish it would just get cold and stay cold. It’s unorganized to have flip-flops and winter coats out at the same time. And I’m definitely ready for winter coat weather.

3. I miss carving pumpkins with the Presbyterian Student Association and dressing up for costume parties in college. I do not miss seeing an abundance of girls using Halloween as a night to dress as slutty as possible. As explained in the oh-so-quotable Mean Girls: "In Girl World, Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress up like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it." The only Halloween tradition I’m observing this year is watching Hocus Pocus. And maybe Mean Girls.

4. I had heard that the phrase Hocus Pocus came from a Latin church phrase, and that conversation came up again this week. The version I heard was that in the big medieval churches, lay people who didn’t know Latin and couldn’t see the altar from way in the back, would wait until they heard, “Hoc est corpus meum” (“This is my body”) as the signal to go up to receive the Eucharist. From the back of the church, the phrase sounded like “Hocus Pocus” and the phrase got associated with the consecration of the Eucharist and then later, secular supernatural works. There’s no knowing how much of this version is true, but I’ll give it points for believability. The phrase is also thought to be rooted in a Norse language or Welsh. But it seems reasonable that people who didn’t speak Latin yet heard it in church every week would 1. corrupt a phrase since they didn’t know the correct one to begin with and 2. believe the Latin language contained “magic words.”

5. More baking this weekend! Moist Swiss chocolate birthday cupcakes and White Russian cupcakes with KahlĂșa icing.

6. Random fact: if a White Russian is made using skim milk instead of cream, it’s called an Anna Kournikova. If it’s made with goat milk, it’s called a White Canadian.

7. My almost-91-year-old granddad has decided to sell his house and move into an apartment. He has lived in that house since the mid-1950’s, so it’s pretty hard on him to leave. I’m glad he’s making the choice to do it now, instead of waiting until he can’t take care of himself and is forced to move, but I’m still sad that this is going to be a big transition for him. Lots of trips up there to help clean out the house are in my immediate future.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

So, Why Catholic? part 4

This is a continuation on the reasons I've accepted the Catholic faith.
Part 1 here.
Parts 2 and 3 here.

4. Views on Life. I’ve always considered myself pro-life, even back when my view was, “Well, sometimes abortion might be alright for other people, but I could never get one.” But why was I so sure I never could get one? Because it would feel like killing a baby. Eventually I came around and realized it was killing a baby. No one says “Sometimes murder might be alright for other people, but I could never murder.” No. Society should step in and prevent murders. Suddenly I find myself an ardent pro-lifer, something the Catholic Christians and evangelical Christians can agree on.

But the Church is not just anti-abortion. She is also against the death penalty. Absolutely lock up criminals, but don’t let them turn our society into murderers, especially when there is always the possibility the person being killed is innocent. The point of prison is to keep a criminal from hurting society. As long as prison is preventing a criminal from being able to harm others, there is no need kill another person just to get a sense of revenge.

The Church’s views on life directly affect the Church’s views on sex. I remember being in my dorm room trying to explain to an ex-boyfriend the actual reasons Christians wait until marriage to have sex. "God wants us to" wasn't cutting it, and the best I could come up with was “You shouldn’t have sex unless you are prepared for the consequence of children.” Even when I believed in contraception, I still believed sex was fundamentally about producing children. It doesn’t take a college biology class to know sex=children, but our culture has distanced itself from this obvious fact. Marriage is the framework for producing and raising children. (This is also why the Church condemns homosexual relationships. She is not bigoted toward homosexuals; it’s that homosexual sex deviates from the biological purpose of sex.)

The Church is pro-life from the willingness of a couple to produce and raise children before the child is conceived, to the right of that child to live from conception to birth, to taking care of the needy throughout life, to making sure a government doesn’t kill it’s own citizens, even the most horrendous of criminals. I think if people understood the Church's comprehensive view of life, then even if they disagreed, they'd be able to see pro-lifers as not sexist bigots but sincerely concerned citizens.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

So, Why Catholic? parts 2 and 3

This is a continuation on the reasons I've accepted the Catholic faith. Part 1 here.

2. Not Sola Scriptura. I didn’t come from a background that believed the Bible was inerrant, but still, it was all we had. There were guidelines of what you had to believe to be a Christian (Jesus’ resurrection, the Trinity), but beyond that, it was really up to debate because each person was able to interpret the Bible for themselves. I appreciated the flexibility and the emphasis on studying and gaining knowledge so you can best interpret the faith for yourself. But too much freedom leads to relativity, picking-and-choosing, and a lack of accountability.

I can’t believe that Christianity is supposed to be made up of two billion autonomous individuals; we’re supposed to be one church. The Bible is a collection of complex books. Even people who study it for a living disagree. When it’s the only core of the faith, it leaves room for division. The Bible never claims to be the all-end-all of Christian faith. If it was: what did the Christians believe before the Bible was officially compiled? What did Christians believe in a time when most were illiterate and books were expensive and rare? Why did Protestants throw out some of the Old Testament books?

Don’t get me wrong. The Bible is very important. But without a unified way to approach and interpret the Bible, it’s a confusing mess. Which parts are literal and which parts are symbolic? Which laws are just for pre-Jesus Jews and which still apply? I think Luther meant well in saying, “Let’s just go back to only what the Bible says.” but without a context and a structure around the Bible, various interpretations on major theological issues arise, which leads to the ever-splinting branches of Protestantism.

3. Tradition. This is sort of the second part of #2. If there should be more authority than just the Bible, what is it? Answer: tradition. This is not just doing something because it has always been done that way (though I know many both outside and inside the Church probably think it is). Tradition unifies all believers from the earliest church until now; we’re all working on this salvation thing together.

Tradition provides a context for Biblical interpretation and reasons for why we do what we do. It’s not always apparent on the surface, but there really is a reason for everything. It takes constant education to keep digging deeper, but the more you learn, the more you understand the significance of each tradition and belief in the Church. In most cases, tradition gets you to focus on what’s important: God. The Church must have known about ADHD back in the first century, because she has set up rules and routines to help you calm down, set aside your petty distractions, and focus on knowing and worshipping God. Maybe some people can consistently deeply experience God without the structure, but humans usually need boundaries. The boundaries and the structure and the rules are loving, not rigid. Tradition has proven these are the best methods in helping the most people be the best Christians they can. No need to flail about trying to build a religion on your own; tried and true methods already available.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

So, Why Catholic? part 1

“So why Catholic?” my dad asked. “Why not Episcopal?” He made it sound like it was my choice, like I was just picking out a church with a higher liturgy. There was never a moment when I decided to look for another church. And there was never a moment when I lined up all the Christian denominations and chose one. The Catholic Church called me. I just said yes.

Still, once I get past the fact that my transition was rooted in “the Spirit drew me,” there are seven legitimate reasons I’ve accepted Catholicism. I thought I could easily list them in one post, but I've decided to spread them out. Let's start with the most obvious:

1.Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This is a big one for me, but not something that’s easy to explain to Protestants. Bread and wine as symbols makes sense, and symbols are still powerful. To them, there just isn't a need to make more out of communion than that. Except that there is so, so much more. I believe in transubstantiation. It’s not something I can debate because the two reasons I believe it are emotional and subjective, but they are still true.

The first reason is at Christmas Eve service in 2008, some powerful shift happened when I took communion; I could sense that the bread was much more than a symbol. There was a gravity to this whole situation. I can’t say that the bread was transubstantiated, but I do think it was the Spirit’s first push to pay extra attention to this sacrament. It took me a few years to realize that if I believe there is more to this than bread and wine, I better do something about it.

The second occurs when I attend Mass now. Normally when I pray, I can feel my prayer going out to God. That is, I can feel my words leaving me and going to Him, but not going in any particular direction because God is everywhere. But at Mass, once the priest has consecrated the Eucharist (and not before), my prayers suddenly feel more person-to-person. They are going straight, the way words do when you are talking to a person across the room. I'm not directing my prayers differently; the difference just happens. So it’s not my intention that caused this shift, because it kinda freaked me out the first time it happened.

Just to be clear, transubstantiation isn't transformation. It is Christ, but under the appearence of bread and wine. I like to think of it as the opposite of a tree: A tree changes appearence throughout the seasons. If one didn't know better, he would think a springtime tree of branches and white buds was different than an autumn tree shrouded in big orange and red leaves. Though it looks like two different things, it's still a tree. With the Eucharist, at first it looks like bread and wine, and later it looks like bread and wine, but at some point the substance of it changed from that of bread and wine to Christ.

Friday, October 14, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 3)

1. I haven’t been writing much this week, and I really want to get back into the swing of things next week. For someone who considers herself a writer, I have certainly not been in the writing mood much lately.

2. One of the reasons I haven’t been writing is that the director of RCIA gave me my own copy of the Catechism and I’ve been engrossed in that. Yay!

3. Even though I get bored a lot at work, I’m also grateful for all the free time to read. There are a lot of positives in my life right now, or maybe I’m just starting to see it that way.

4. I’m putting together a plan for losing serious weight this winter. I’m already dreading the holiday food. It gets me every time.

5. Other than that, I’m super looking forward to the holidays already, even though there is still over a month until Thanksgiving. I’m especially looking forward to celebrating Advent in the Catholic Church, new mass and all.

6. I really want to go to the local haunted corn maze this weekend, but I’m having trouble rounding up people to go. Corn mazes are definitely a group activity.

7. Exactly what am I supposed to be commemorating this month? October is “National (insert a bazillion causes here) Month.” It’s hard to keep track, and even harder to get support for your monthly cause of choice, when there are dozens of causes vying for everyone’s support.

This month’s list includes, but not limited to:
  • National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month

  • National Book Month

  • National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

  • Filipino-American History Month

  • LGBT History Month

  • Italian-American History Month

  • National Bullying Prevention Month

  • National Domestic Violence Awareness Month

  • National Pizza Month (Yes, that's really a thing. Oh, America.)

Friday, October 7, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 2)

1. I’m reading the Gospel of St. Mark. It’s not my favorite Gospel (that would be John), but it’s good to reread it. I had forgotten how much Jesus tells his disciples about things to come, but then instructs them not to say anything yet. What exactly did he tell them? Did he lay it all out, exactly what they needed to do, or did he speak in more parables? I like to assume he laid it out straight, because the Gospels mention quite a bit how the disciples and other followers (even though they were trying) never really understood what Jesus was trying to say when he used metaphors.

2. Speaking of parables, I’m thinking of doing an article series on original sin, except I’m beginning to realize how little I understand the Garden of Eden story. I mean, I get the gist, but there can be a lot of nuance to the story as well. I’m a sucker for a great metaphor, but it’s frustrating to feel like you’re not in on the full explanation. That’s probably how the disciples felt listening to Jesus’ parables all the time. It would be so much easier to just be a literalist: there were the first two people created on the sixth day, and then a serpent messed things up.

3. Wouldn’t a literalist be looking for an earthly garden guarded by angels and have a BIG hatred of snakes? The lack of people (who claim the Genesis story literally) going on expeditions for the Garden or trying to rid the world of snakes tells me they aren’t as literal as they think. Which is good. Faith should be strong enough to withstand some metaphors and some inclusion of reason and science.

4. I bought Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales last weekend. I’ve read part of it before, but I’m excited to read my own copy. Of the parts I've already read, his instruction and explainations are still relevant on how to approach and apply faith today. Besides, Francis de Sales is the patron saint of journalists and writers, and he converted a bunch of Calvinists, so how could I not love him?

5. I’m looking forward to a weekend alone at home to stay in my sweats and do some cooking, embroidering, cleaning, and watching movies. The cooking, embroidering, cleaning part makes me sound much more domestic than I really am. But I do like a weekend where I can stay in the house alone and revel in my inner-introvert.

6. I’m in a bread-baking mood, even though I’ve never done it. I vaguely remember my mom doing it ages ago, but it still feels like unfamiliar territory to me. I’ll probably just go buy bread at the Mennonite store instead.

7. Apparently I missed the Occupy Wall Street demonstration going on until yesterday. While there seems to be various reasons why people are out there, the general idea of “greed is bad, especially when greed trumps caring about people” sounds good to me. I don’t want to get too political, but I do support the protestors who want to shine a light on a system that values money over people or community. I don’t think there will be any actual change, but good for them to stand up and say, “I don’t agree with this.” That’s what the rights of assembly and petition are all about.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Getting Cleaned Up for Heaven

Even before I ever considered joining the Catholic Church, I liked the concept of purgatory. I liked it in the way that it just made sense to me. Heaven is pure. And even through baptism, profession of faith, and confession of sin, humans are still stained. There lingers the sins we forget to consider sins, the desire to sin, the inclination of temptations, the unhealthy attachments to earthly things. It only makes sense we have to go through some cleansing process to enter heaven. It seems more unbelievable to me that some die in a state of grace and get to bypass purgatory and go straight to heaven. We are so undeserving of that gift, but it’s there. God’s always trying to help us get there.

We were talking about purgatory in RCIA last week, and one man said, “I think I’ll go to purgatory.” “Why is that?” “I have a guilty soul.” I have a guilty soul too. I feel bad about something I’ve done even if it was an accident and even if I have long been forgiven by whomever I wronged. The bad feeling lingers. I don’t feel clean. I want to know there is some place to purge all the dirty humanness. I want to be cleaned up for heaven. T. S. Eliot wrote, “human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality.” I think purgatory both purges believers of any lingering sin or guilt and forges them to be capable of existing in such a pure place as heaven.

It’s a beautiful and sensible concept. Of course, the particulars aren’t too pretty. There is punishment and pain, pain upon the soul for which I cannot find an adequate comparison. But there is not hopelessness. There is the communion of saints praying for those in purgatory. And I believe God is still there, watching over them. Purgatory isn’t Lesser Hell. In hell, there is no hope. But purgatory offers hope, a goal. All those in purgatory will one day be united with God. Purgatory is temporal. I think any true believer who wants to be united with God yet recognizes failings would use his/her free will to enter purgatory, just as everyone has the choice to reject God and go to hell. We accept that heaven is worth the punishment and pain.

I don’t know if purgatory exists in time like earth or out of time like heaven. I don’t know how we can know whether someone is still in purgatory or heaven. Even though I think I’m going to have to make a stop in purgatory first, I don’t think of it as necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I shouldn’t think about it much at all, and focus on just being the best Christian I can be, letting the chips fall where they may later.

I’m starting to figure out that for any theological idea I have, there is a saint that said it better. So I’ll conclude with a quote from the Treatise on Purgatory by St. Catherine of Genoa:

When I look at God, I see no gate to Paradise, and yet because God is all mercy he who wills enters there. God stands before us with open arms to receive us into His glory. But well I see the divine essence to be of such purity, greater far than can be imagined, that the soul in which there is even the least note of imperfection would rather cast itself into a thousand Hells than find itself thus stained in the presence of the Divine Majesty. Therefore the soul, understanding that Purgatory has been ordained to take away those stains, casts itself therein, and seems to itself to have found great mercy in that it can rid itself there of the impediment which is the stain of sin.

Friday, September 30, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday

1. I'm taking this idea from Jennifer Fulwiler, who blogs at Conversion Diary. She's been doing the 7 Quick Takes Friday for three years as a way to do little updates and announcements without having to write a full blog post about each thing. I think it's an awesome idea.

2. This has been a really rough week for me, just a series of mistakes and roadblocks. I haven't been this excited about the end of a week in a long time.

3. A cub and mother black bear were spotted about two streets over from where I live. I live in the very middle of town, so I'm still trying to figure out how the bears got into town before anyone noticed them.

4. I'm still having a hard time explaining just why I felt like I needed to join the Catholic Church. Part of it is because I'm never sure what someone's reaction might be (some Protestants have really crazy opinions on Catholics) and part is because when I say, "The Spirit led me." it feels like a cop-out of an explaination even if it's true.

5. On a related note, I'm not joining the Church because my boyfriend is Catholic. I know some people think that's the case, but I take my faith more seriously than to change it for someone else.

6. I'm enjoying RCIA, even though I wish there were some people my age. I feel like it's very slow, which is better than being rushed through I suppose. I'm glad I have the time to learn things and reflect that this is what I really need, but I'm also starting to impatient, wanting to go deeper or faster.

7. It's finally starting to get chilly here. I love jacket weather. I sort of miss walking to class in weather like this.

Religion Friday: Evangelicalism

Evangelicalism (meaning “good message”) first began during the Great Awakenings’ revival. People wanted to strip away religious technicalities and traditions and focus on the cores: salvation and a personal relationship with Christ. In reality, most Christians fit under the broad umbrella of evangelicalism, but I’m going to talk about the group that usually self-identifies as evangelical and rose as a movement in the mid-twentieth century, fitting somewhere in between mainstream Protestantism and fundamentalism. Today, Evangelicals make up the majority of Christians in the U.S. with an estimated count of 70-80 million.

Evangelicals believe in the prime authority of the Bible, the Great Commission (sharing your faith with as many as possible), and that you must have a “born again” experience where you without a doubt accept Christ into your heart.

I live in the Bible Belt. There are a lot of Pentecostals and evangelicals. As I mentioned last week, the Pentecostal style of worship is foreign to me as I just haven’t had a lot of experience with Pentecostals. Evangelicals are another story. Their very name indicates that they believe in confronting you, talking to you, convincing you to convert. I think it’s admirable they are so open and enthused about their faith. It’s done with the best of intentions; they don’t want you to burn in hell. But my experiences have usually left me very uncomfortable. It’s a very extroverted form of Christianity, and I’m a pretty big introvert (as if you couldn’t tell).

Have you been saved? I got asked this quite a bit in school. My Presbyterian and Lutheran friends would either 1. not even know they were talking about religion and respond “from what?” looking around for a danger or 2. be familiar with the phrase and give smart aleck responses such as “Yeah, 2,000 years ago” which apparently is an unsatisfactory answer. Now I just say yes; it’s true of course, whether the two of us are using the same “born again” terminology or not.

Evangelicals have a language and a culture all their own. But they don’t isolate themselves from everyone else. Many believe liberal Protestants adapt to the secular culture and fundamentalists avoid contact with secular culture, while evangelicals try to change the culture to match their biblical beliefs. It was evangelicals who created the marketing idea of the Christian Right, which has dominated conservative politics for the past 30 years. While I admire letting your beliefs guide your decisions, I don’t like the merging of church and state in such a way as the Christian Right has. Suddenly liberal Christians and conservatives of other faiths are pushed out of the political sphere to create a “right us” versus “wrong them” catfight.

In continuing with this idea of working in but not of the secular culture, evangelical services are typically known for their worship/praise bands and use of multimedia. I’ve always gotten the impression that evangelicals want people to think it’s hip to be Christian, that Jesus was this awesome guy you should want to hang out with. Theologically, I don’t have much of a problem, though I think a little more reverence for Jesus would be nice. My issue is about presentation. I understand that if it’s important to you to attract as many believers as possible, then advertising is going to come into play. But people shouldn’t go to church because it’s the cool place to be; they should go because it’s the right place to be. I’m sure some people are attracted for the wrong reasons and stay for the right ones, but does that justify the wrong reasons to begin with? Are we supposed to trick people to church? By trying to be so pop culturally relevant, I can’t see the difference in them selling Jesus and MTV selling Jersey Shore. And what happens to that person’s faith when the Jesus fad wears out and they look for the next cool thing? Suddenly the church has the burden of always being on the cutting edge of coolness in order to keep members.

I think the best way to evangelize is being a good Christian. Loving your neighbor, striving for virtue, confessing your sins and learning to do better, helping the poor, living the same on Saturday night as you do on Sunday morning. You know, all the hard stuff. The people you touch will see the joy you have in living that way and be drawn to that joy. We’re still kids that learn best from imitation.

[The fish is an old symbol for the Christian faith, but today, you're most likely to see it on the back of an evangelical's car. That's why I decided to use it to represent this movement, which again, is so broad, there isn't really one symbol to represent it.]

Friday, September 23, 2011

Religion Friday: Pentecostalism

We’ve got the Spirit, yes we do, we’ve got the Spirit, how bout you? –what I imagine Pentecostals saying to each other in the parking lot after church.

The Pentecostal movement is really broad, tying in to the earlier Holiness movement and good ol’ Great Awakening ideas and paving the way for the newer charismatic movement. But many agree that Pentecostalism officially began with the Azura Street Revival. William Seymor, the son of former slaves, began his revival in 1906 in Los Angeles. He preached baptism of the Holy Spirit, as evidenced by speaking in tongues. His services consisted of emotional alter calls, faith healings, and speaking in tongues. Most churches rejected his teachings, but he gained followers from the poor white, Hispanic, and African-American neighborhoods. Services at Azura Street continued almost around the clock for years as visitors came to see what all the fervor was about. In its early years, the movement encouraged racial integration and gender equality, but as it grew and became more organized, it fell back on the established culture, separating the races and restricting preaching and leadership to men.

Pentecostals believe in being baptized by the Holy Spirit. This often manifests itself through the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. Early in the movement, people thought that the tongues were languages of other countries, and missionaries were told they didn’t need to study languages. It only took a few mission trips to discover this error, and leaders redefined their definition of tongues to a non-earthly language. For salvation, Pentecostals believe a person must receive three “baptisms”: the baptism of Christ (accepting Him as your Lord and Savior), baptism of water, and baptism of the Spirit.

Worship services usually include a lot of emotion and movement. Worshippers may clap, dance, or shout. There can also be healing services and speaking in tongues. It’s all a bit (ok, a lot) chaotic for me. I do believe their experiences with God in that style are genuine, but God doesn’t speak to me that way (suddenly, loudly, emotionally). God speaks to me little pieces over a long time. I hear God in stillness. I focus on God through order. The Pentecostal concept of worship might as well be another foreign religion to me.

Another tenet of Pentecostalism is the belief that Christ is returning very soon. You have to get right with God RIGHT NOW because the end is near. I agree that the end might be near, but I also think it might also be a few centuries away. You can’t use any political changes or natural disasters as sure signs. I’m sure people in the early 14th century thought the plague was a sure sign, or people in 1883 thought Krakatoa was a sure sign, or people in 1917 thought the Bolshevik revolution was a sure sign. If those aren’t signs, than neither is U.S. debt and hurricanes. There is no knowing. And more importantly, there is no point in knowing. While we shouldn’t put off getting right with God, I don’t like using apocalyptic fear tactics to do so. Focusing on the end makes us ignore (or hate) the present. Love should lead us to God, not hyped-up fear.

Today, it is estimated there are more than 11,000 different types of Pentecostal denominations all over the world, which obviously makes it hard to fit Pentecostal beliefs under one revival tent. How does one movement (whether Pentecostalism or Christianity as a whole) result in thousands of interpretations? And these aren’t just little differences. Oneness Pentecostal churches reject the doctrine of the trinity. That’s pretty fundamental. I believe individualism is important. If someone wants to quietly mediate and another wants to jump and speak in tongues, both should considered valid expressions of faith. But I can’t believe that Christ would have wanted us to have to sort through tens of thousands of Christian options to find one that’s the right fit. The fact there are so many options speak more about American consumerism and individualism than Christianity. Faith shouldn’t be like Burger King; you don’t get to just “have it your way.” You have to accept or reject what already is. And while I’m not saying my personal opinion is the only right path, I do know there aren’t 30,000 truths to Christianity.

[I'm using the flame to represent the Pentecostals since it usually represents the Holy Spirit and the holiday of Pentecost. Obviously, with thousands of denominations, they don't have a symbol representing the whole group.]

Next Friday: wrapping up Christian movements with the Evangelicals

Thursday, September 22, 2011

No Establishment

When reading about the Anabaptists last week, I started thinking about separation of church and state, an idea the Anabaptists held in Europe when it was practically unthinkable. The idea of separation of church and state is still a hot issue in America. It seems that no one wants the state running their church, but plenty would be ok with their church running the state. But with more than 30,000 different kinds of Protestantism, let alone other Christians or other religions, it would be mighty tricky to figure out which church’s values get to run the country. We credit the idea of this separation to Jefferson, but really, Jesus supported it as well. One of the main reasons Jews don’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah is that the Messiah is expected to become a great ruler on earth. But Jesus didn’t seek earthly political power because his kingdom wasn’t a plot of land. His kingdom is above politics. In fact, he advised to “render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and render unto God that which belongs to God.” That means, pay your taxes, be a member of society, just make sure you’re living the virtuous life as well.

The early Christians could never have imagined Rome becoming a Christian state. They knew Rome was not going to tolerate a monotheism that spoke of another king, promoted evangelicalism, and sounded kinda cannibalistic. So they met in secret. But they didn’t deny their faith, living one way at church and another in public. They died for living as Christians. I think Chinese Christians (and Saudi and North Korean and many, many others) today can relate to the struggle of worshipping in secret but also trying to live their faith honestly. (I know that by not being able to relate to it, I am very blessed.)

But even in a country that promotes religious tolerance before anything else in its Bill of Rights, it’s still difficult to figure out what should be kept private and what belongs to be expressed publicly. When is keeping quiet against the faith? When is promoting one’s faith persecuting another? Should we get rid of the Ten Commandments in front of courthouses? Probably. Should we take “In God We Trust” off the money? Probably. But since I’m a Christian, I’m not really going to promote change, just not argue with those who want it. The First Amendment says that the government will not support any religion over another, and that the citizens are free to worship however they want. Now, I would love if the government decided, “No, we’re going to be united under one faith. Everyone needs to believe this.” It would certainly make a more cohesive culture. But I probably wouldn’t love is so much if “Everyone needs to believe this” meant “Everyone is Mormon now.” Or Sikh. Or Taoist. Or atheist. That’s why the First Amendment exists. People fled to America to get away from state-run churches, so America’s foundation is one built on a government that provides collective safety but promotes individualism.

People complain we have strayed from our (Puritanical) roots. But I think a country of various individuals believing whatever they want, seeking God or safety or money, is exactly our roots. The only problem I see with this is that America lacks a strongly defined culture. We often use the word freedom as a one-word catchphrase to describe America. But freedom means lots of people living lots of different beliefs and values, only united by geography. There is often a lack of community and duty when fellow citizens are the “others” and individualism is prized above all. But, I think to be American, you have to decide that the freedom is worth the chaos and hate and bickering and misunderstanding.

I don’t know what it’s like to actually feel my life in danger because of my faith. I know what it’s like to be misunderstood by individuals, to be told I’m wrong and probably going to hell, to be the butt of jokes. But that’s different from actual violence. Separation of church and state doesn’t mean the state is anti-church or that the church should be anti-state; it just means, “Hey, let’s not kill one another over this. That’s what those bourgeois Europeans did.”

The key isn’t merging church and state, but using our freedom wisely. Pope John Paul II said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” To be able to freely practice our faith, we have to allow others the freedom to practice theirs. We should use our freedom to outwardly live and celebrate our faith, to fight for our brothers and sisters who face real persecution, and convert others through loving neighborliness rather than threats and swords.