If I’m anything like the rest of us, sometimes I just sit back and think, “Life is funny,” and I smile. Sometimes the smile is sardonic, other times amused, still other times wry and bitter, and yet other times, rather pleased and expectant.
This morning, and many mornings as of late, it may be a mixture of all the above. Let me walk you through the last 10 years of my ecumenical, or not so ecumenical church experiences, and maybe you can understand.
College: We’ll start here, because as we all know, college is the birthing room for “finding yourself.” What I found were tulips, lots and lots and lots of tulips. The Puritan kind, not the floral kind. I grew up in a pretty reformed version of the Evangelical Free denomination, and by the time I was 19, was fairly certain I’d hammered out all the theological intricacies of predestination and Providence. Between Luther, Calvin, Sproul, and Piper, what more did I need to ascertain about simple things such as single and double predestination and God’s chosen people? I spent hours and hours reading books, holding heated arguments at Denny’s with my Arminian friends (whose salvation of course I questioned), wrote papers for classes, stayed up late holding Socratic conversations with my youth pastor and his wife, and had even come so far as to be willing to tattoo a tulip on some part of my body. This latter part was not because the tulip is my favorite flower (although, ironically, it is). I was more in love with a 5 part acronymical system that enabled me to understand God in human terms. That brought comfort to an otherwise pretty troubling worldview.
Post-college: We’ll call this the mid-twenties, and the early years of my teaching career/grad school. I started traveling overseas. Missions work most definitely interrupted some of my preconceived notions of worship, ecclesiology, doctrine, the Gospel, and soteriology. People in Africa just don’t always articulate the Gospel in the 5 part way I’d come to understand it. And sometimes, they worshipped in the Catholic Church. Oh man, what was I supposed to do with that?
And then, to make matters even more complicated here in America, I started attending Sandals Church,a place where tattoo plastered folks with a whole mess of problems talked openly from the stage about sex and drug addictions. The preaching wasn’t always purely exegetical, and music happened with the lights dimmed, drums, and no piano. Woah. Talk about being thrown for a few church loops.
Suddenly, people started telling me I should read books by Brennan Manning and St. Theresa of Avila and Donald Miller and other (probably) non-Calvinists. Um, I only read Piper and Edwards and Elizabeth Eliot. And then the real problem came, I started to like this other stuff. I learned from it. My mind got blown and grew and was challenged, and I started to question. Heaven forbid, I started to question that Tulip I once wanted inked onto my skin for all eternity. Somewhere in all this I attended a few Protestant liturgical services, and was super uncomfortable about them, but intrigued nonetheless. I started practicing Lent a few times, and found it to be a fairly normal spiritual discipline sort of exercise/celebration. Easter meant more those years, as did the first Starbucks after 40 days of denial.
Post-post college: We’ll call these the late twenties, or perhaps more appropriately, the last year. I did the unthinkable for a little Reformed girl. I dated a Catholic boy. No, guys, a real Catholic boy. Not the nominal, I’m Hispanic or Italian, and therefore Catholic, kind. And through our late night conversations, and our debates, and our going to Mass together a few times, I came to really appreciate Catholicism. I stayed up late researching articles on how Catholics and Protestants can make it work in marriage (one had to think about these sorts of things), I asked friends and family working on seminary degrees how the heck to make sense of our differing sides of the Council of Trent, and I started to get angry when my hyper-Protestant friends questioned his salvation. Really angry.
We’ll make a long story short here. We didn’t work out, but I think we both learned a ton from each other, and God used this sweet guy in my life to teach me some pretty invaluable lessons about Himself, the Church, the Trinity, and Jesus. It became pretty clear to me pretty early on that while we may have some differences on the doctrines of justification and the practice of the Eucharist, this guy knew Jesus. He served people like Jesus serves them, and He wanted the same for me.
And so, while I didn’t end up converting to Catholicism and marrying my Papist as I had begun to think I would, Jesus grew in me this sweet, sweet love for His Church everywhere: the Catholics in Rwanda, the Protestants in the Presbyterian church in San Bernadino, my kids going to Mass in Riverside, my fellow community group members at Sandals, and a new special friend attending the local cross-town rival, Harvest. I started seeing and celebrating all the similarities instead of the differences, and I added an especial fondness for liturgy to my expanding understanding of worship. In fact, at Christmas, of my own accord, I attended a local midnight mass, and loved it, even without homeboy by my side to explain everything.
I fell in love with the Nicene Creed all over again. No Protestant or Catholic owns the market for that. It’s just this beautiful, old, doctrine of what Christians believe. I began to appreciate crying babies in the middle of a church service because I had this growing appreciation for the rich age and legacy of the Church. I doubt Sunday school existed in provincial parishes in 13th century Spain.
The traditionalist and the literary nerd in me marveled at the symbolism of so many elements of Mass. The Protestants miss them, sorry guys. I love the sacred space that gets created in the solemnity and the antiquity of Mass. I love the majestic grandeur of old (and new cathedrals) that remind you the God you worship is magnanimous, lofty, vast, beautiful, and yet approachable, intimate like a corner nave and pure and clear as a baptismal font.
I found myself super interested in the selection of the new Pope Francis this week, and actually cared whether or not a good Father was picked for that branch of the Church. From what I can tell, he seems like the kind of man I could follow as a church leader.
All that to say, it’s been a journey, like most things. And, the journey, like most good things, involved a fair amount of discomfort, and for sure pain. But, I’m thankful that now I can sit back, in far more places than I ever used to, and worship Jesus. I’ve found that He can be found just about anywhere, in pews or kneeling benches, or plastic chairs. And I’ve learned that there is far greater pleasure in not being able to understand all the ways He works, than in simply praising Him with others who may understand Him a bit differently.
I’m a little bit astounded by the steep learning curve this last year produced, and all the 180 degree turns I’ve seen my own theology take in the last decade. But, to be quite frank, that just makes me more excited. I’d much rather a view of God that continues to grow ever more expansive and complex, than one that narrows and limits in its ironically human simplicity.
And so with the thousands upon thousands who have gone before and who will come after, and with whom I will sing around the throne, my heart thrills to say:
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen