For the past 10 months or so I’ve been seriously dating a Catholic. I shudder a little bit even writing that sentence, because while that statement is true, he is indeed a Catholic, he is so much more than that. Isn’t that just like us humans, though, always categorizing each other? You are the same as me; you are different from me. You are similar enough that we can co-exist; you are different enough that we must separate.
The second day my (now) boyfriend and I met we were in Oregon on a hike in Bend at Smith Rock. I don’t remember how we stumbled upon religion in our conversation, but it came up that he was Catholic. When I asked about his family, he divulged that he was the second of ten children, and that two of his brothers were priests and one of his sisters was a nun. I remember the words rolling out of my mouth, “Ohhh, you’re really Catholic, huh?” The next day we took an all day road trip together from Bend to Portland, Oregon for both of us to fly back to the East Coast (he lives in Syracuse, NY and I live in Richmond, VA). We stopped at a bakery for some pastries and coffee before the adventures of the day and had conversation between us with no respect to time. The conversation turned to serious spiritual discussions concerning some normally very divisive topics, and I remember thinking, “Wow, I never expected to think so similarly to a Catholic”.
Me dating a Catholic is proof that God’s ways are decidedly not my ways. Had my boyfriend and I met in Richmond at a party of a mutual friend, the moment that he dropped in conversation that he was Catholic I would have filed that relationship under “never going to happen” and walked away. God in His boundless loving kindness and wisdom that far surpasses mine, saw fit to build our relationship on similarities instead of divisive differences. After two days of the most epic road trip of my life a few things were clear: I had the most intense soul connection with this person that I had ever had with any other human being, and that the vast majority of our hopes, dreams, aspirations, and values were the same despite being in those divisive categories of Catholic and Protestant. God cleverly built our relationship on those similarities, and it was only us with our preconceived notions that picked each other apart with our divisions.
The majority of my life I was taught that “Catholics don’t really know God”. Spoiler alert: there are many people who are Protestant who don’t really know God, and there are also many Catholics who don’t really know God. Faith, as always, is a matter of the heart and not outward pretext. I have no idea how things will end up between my boyfriend and I, but I am so thankful that God loves me enough to not leave me closed minded in my own prejudices.
Following months of sparks flying with intense theological debate, the question that is rumbling around in my heart is, “What is Church, exactly?” The church I attend presently looks nothing like the church of my youth. What started as liturgical repetition of the Lord’s prayer and the Nicene Creed has now turned into hands raised abandoned to God in worship and a much more relaxed atmosphere. This church has a choir. This church has a sound system, lights, a power point slideshow and a full band. In this church you kneel, stand, kneel again. In this church you recite liturgical prayers. In this church there is no scripted prayers. In this church you genuflect and have holy water. What is Church?
We walk into church with our fake smiles, dressed in our Sunday best, and never tell a soul inside it’s walls that our life is broken, unmanageable. We check church off our to-do list, thinking we have met the obligation, and return home, completely unchanged, living no differently than we were before we went. We leave just as thirsty for God and community as we walked in. No one sees the real, broken version of ourselves (because we most certainly won’t let them-we are supposed to have it all together!), and we don’t really see anyone else either. We are separate souls floating mechanically in and out of a beautiful building, “church”, never really knowing one another, never truly encountering God. The lost, the hurting, the broken never step foot over our churches doorsteps. And why should they? Everyone inside it’s walls seems to have it all together. Church seems like a club you can only join once you are cleaned up and presentable (after all, won’t God only accept us once we are cleaned up and presentable to Him, too?).
Shannan Martin writes in her book “Falling Free”, “Quite bluntly, we have lost our way. Rather than being reclaimed by the alliance of our poverty, we’ve learned to endure a false community of the proud polite. We’ve sworn membership to our feel-good Sunday club where the real troublemakers are outside our walls, and we’re honestly a bit suspicious when one straggles in. We maintain the illusion of ‘family’ despite not even truly knowing one another. Maybe rather than being a standard no one can meet, church could become a soft place for us all to fall. Freedom comes at the cost of vulnerability. This is where we have failed the hardest.” Church at it’s best should be a place of absolute freedom. It should be a place where needy, broken souls have encountered the absolutely transfixing gaze of the most intense mercy and grace of their Heavenly Father. It should be a place where we remember we are made of dust, remember our Father’s mercy towards us, and we can be honest in rich, deep community of our continued failings to love like Jesus loves. We should be able to look one another in the eyes and say, “me, too”. A place where we can experience a Love that accepts us just as we are-broken, messy, failing, but because of His grace that is not our final destination. And because there are others in the church walls who have experienced that same grace, they are able to open their arms and freely give the grace and love they themselves have generously received. I’ve never met a person that was deeply and profoundly impacted by arguing with them about theological doctrine, but I’ve met plenty of people whose lives were turned completely upside down when they encountered unconditional love that met them in the midst of their mess. Love that walks alongside, love that meets you in your mess, love that shares in our frail humanity, that is the way of Jesus. We must start being the church. Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest states so eloquently, “We hope some of them have begun to awaken to maybe Christianity is much more about lifestyle and how you actually behave in the world than it is about defending doctrine, which is largely a head trip-you don’t have to love one moment. Don’t forget the devil presumably believes the doctrines of the Church. If they’re true, the devil knows they’re true. You can believe all the doctrines you want and not love God or your neighbor.”
So what of all these doctrinal differences? My head spins with them all. Even within Catholicism and Protestantism themselves there is variation. I think pursuing Truth is a worthwhile venture, and one I’m prepared to be on for the rest of my life. But I’m starting to believe that a mature faith is able to see value and things that different parts of the Body of Christ perhaps masters better than theirs does and take a posture of humility and willingness to learn and grow rather than a divisive stance. I am not advocating church hopping trying to find the pearls of Truth in each denomination, but to simply allow yourself to learn from different parts of the Body of Christ rather than dividing yourself from the Body and labeling them as WRONG. Accept what you can learn from them with open arms and allow it to make you more like Jesus. Father Richard Rohr says it best, “The crown that is Christ is so big, so glorious, filled with so many gems and jewels that I don’t believe that any one denomination or tradition can possibly hold all of them. For example, Roman Catholicism was conjoined to the Holy Roman Empire and Roman Imperialism. So we didn’t have a very strong peace tradition. We didn’t understand the clear teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Non-violence was not a part of the main Catholic or Protestant tradition. But inside of Protestantism people like the Amish, Mennonites, the Quakers, there was a little subset that got it. Now, maybe they threw out some other things. It’s like the Christ is too big to pay attention to the whole mystery. So this is where I do believe we help one another, we need to respect and learn from one another, because I can hardly think of a denomination that doesn’t hold one or two of the jewels or the gems that are the crown of Christ. When we can be honest about the whole of the Scriptures (instead of just cherry-picking what we want to see) which takes a lifetime, I admit, I think we are finally becoming the new man, growing up to the fullness of Christ Himself as Ephesians would say.”
This is where this leaves me: I want to deeply and profoundly encounter the heart of the Father, I want to come into the Church doors open and honest about my failings, I want others to be able to be honest with me about their failings and encounter that same love of God reaching out through me, and I want this love that I’ve encountered to empower me to be the Church everywhere I go. I want to respect and honor other parts of the Body of Christ and never fail to learn from them and seek Truth. I want the Church to finally become the living stones that 1 Peter 2:5 references instead of merely a church building. I want to put all the veneer and self-centered preferences aside and allow myself to be loved by God, just as I am, and extend that same love in a tangible form to a lost and hurting world. If we all lived out the theology we say we believe, I’m willing to bet it would look more alike than it would different.