The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed. So Moses said, “I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then He said, “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said also, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3:2-6).
I was raised in a devout, Roman-Catholic household. My family always sat in the first couple rows of pews every Sunday morning. We even attended holy days of obligation.
My parents also fostered a commitment to church service. Starting young—I think that I was eight—I joined the choir. I was its youngest member. A few years later, I became an altar boy. I served as an altar boy through high school, until leaving for college…
The Roman-Catholic denomination—and essentially all of the catholic traditions—operate under a highly structured system of communal worship. Given that the word “catholic” means “universal,” this isn’t all that surprising. For instance, the Roman Catholic church follows a three-liturgical year (Year A, Year B, Year C) cycle of readings for Sunday Masses, and a two-year cycle for weekday readings. Therefore, every Roman-Catholic church in the world uses the same readings for their Masses each Sunday.
Accompanying the Roman-Catholic church’s formalized structure is a highly developed system of rituals that serve to reinforce and encourage adherence to its instituted norms. For example, the Roman-Catholic church recognizes seven sacraments, which are often categorized into three groups:
- Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist
- Sacraments of Healing: Penance and Anointing of the Sick
- Sacraments of Service: Matrimony and Holy Orders
These sacraments are taught by the Roman-Catholic church to be “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions” (Catechism).
Where I grew up, there really weren’t any “non-Catholic” Christians. Individuals could generally be categorized as Roman-Catholic, Cultural Roman-Catholic (a.k.a. “Easter/Christmas Catholics”), spiritual (i.e. “agnostic”), or atheist. Consequently, throughout the majority of my adolescent years, my Christian worldview was primarily molded by the Roman-Catholic (i.e. “Latin-Rite”) tradition.
After a negative experience with some self-professed, Protestant “Christians” during a college bible study, I took it upon myself to learn more about other Christian denominations. I didn’t want to be as ill-informed and judgmental as the majority of that bible study’s participants. Fortunately (thank you, Lord), my negative experience with this bible study group ultimately motivated me to delve further into scripture than I had previously; examining a plethora of Christian denominations and theological positions; learning more about historical events impacting Christian practice; and, allowing me to, over time, mature significantly in my faith. (That said, by no means do I claim to be a finished product; but rather, just one of many who are journeying along the arduous path of Christian sanctification.)
From this period of faith-based exploration and theological inquiry, I found that my convictions aligned more strongly to what would be considered a reformed theological worldview (i.e. Calvinism), that adheres to five irrefutable convictions, or solas (i.e. “alones”):
- Sola Scriptura: Scripture alone
- Sola Christus: Christ alone
- Sola Gratia: Grace alone
- Sola Fide: Faith alone
- Soli Deo Gloria: the Glory of God alone
Another way of communicating these convictions is through the Five Points of Calvinism (or, TULIP):
- Total Depravity
- Unconditional Election
- Limited Atonement
- Irresistible Grace
- Perseverance of the Saints
Since reformed theology derives its name from its professed intention of “reforming” the theological perspective of the Roman-Catholic church, the churches that I’ve regularly attended over this past decade—and some of which that I formally joined as a member—are of Protestant traditions. I don’t, however, agree with the Westminster Confession of Faith‘s position that all Roman-Catholics are heathens. I know too many devout Roman-Catholics who possess a faith of strong conviction, a deep understanding of and strict adherence to scripture (2 Timothy 3:16), and visible production of spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22-23) in their lives. Their witnesses refute such a position. Therefore, when I’m asked about my faith, I profess to be a “Christian,” not actively associating myself with a particular denomination. While I may generally adhere to a reformed theological perspective, I am not protesting the Catholic traditions…
When I’m pressed about how I perceive the general practices of Catholicism and Protestantism, I typically provide a metaphorical analogy that describes Catholicism as a big, fat, meaty T-bone steak, and Protestantism as a processed chicken breast. If you’re a fan of steak, as I am, then you may question why I’m currently attending a Baptist church, right? For most carnivorous individuals, steak likely sounds more appealing. Allow me to explain.
I describe the general practice of Protestantism as resembling a processed chicken breast because:
- There is little “fat” (i.e. minimal ritual)
- There is no “bone” (i.e. extraneous canon, dogma)
- There is healthy “meat” (i.e. scriptural teaching), however,
- In removing the fat and bone (ritual and canon), some of the meat (scriptural teaching) is lost (i.e. I believe that the apocrypha—or, what Protestants refer to as the pseudepigrapha—is a valuable resource for growing in one’s knowledge of God)
I describe the practice of Catholicism as resembling a T-bone steak because:
- All the meat is included (i.e. scriptural teaching), however,
- There is much “fat” (i.e. unnecessary, and even unhealthy ritualistic practices)
- There is much “bone” (i.e. extraneous canon, dogma, that often seems to convolute God’s Word)
Our world functions in a manner that encourages us to accept what C.S. Lewis refers to as errors of opposite pairs.
“I feel a strong desire to tell you—and I expect you feel a strong desire to tell me—which of these two errors is worse. That is the devil getting at us. He always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking about which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors. We have no other concern with that than either of them.”
I see evidence of errors (i.e. deception) being present in the way that many—if not all of us—practice our faith. Take, for instance, how individuals perceive God. Without running the risk of false teaching, I believe that any Christian reading this post will agree that God exemplifies perfect love (Psalm 86:15; John 12:34, 15:13; 1 John 4:8-19; Romans 8:39) AND perfect justice (Deuteronomy 10:18; 32:4; Psalm 9:7-8; Isaiah 30:18; Revelation 20:12-13)—right? Yet, how many of us consistently perceive God as exhibiting perfect love and perfect justice? For clarification, when I speak about our perceptions of God, I’m not referring to our “head knowledge” of God. Rather, I’m referring to how we’re actually perceiving God’s actions in our lives.
At any point in time, I’d suggest that most of us tend to hold a perception of God that resides on a spectrum with two extremes. On one end, there are those of us who are more likely to perceive God as resembling a hard, unloving dictator, such as Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi; whereas, others among us are more likely to perceive God as resembling a loving, “go with the flow,” hippie friend, such as “Buddy Christ” from Dogma. Such perceptions would represent “errors of opposite pairs.”
I have flirted with both sides of this spectrum.
When I was an adolescent, my perception of God emphasized His justice; thus, it also deemphasized His perfect love. During this time, my external behaviors more consistently aligned with scriptural teaching. However, these behaviors were too often driven by self-righteousness than they were a love for God and others (Matthew 22:36-40). Rarely did I exhibit mercy towards others who wronged me. I regularly held grudges. Basically, I was erring like the Pharisees that Jesus, during His earthly ministry, referred to as white-washed tombs.
In my twenties, there were times when my perception of God emphasized His perfect love, and deemphasized His perfect justice. During these times, my behaviors were less consistently aligned with scriptural teaching; placing an unhealthy dependence on God’s great, loving mercy. I was much quicker to forgive others, but too often it was because I was overemphasizing the beatitude on judging, which states, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned” (Luke 6:37; see also, Matthew 18:21-35). Unfortunately, there was less evidence of spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22-23) in my life during those times too; regularly ignoring how Jesus tells us to “do unto others as you wish done unto you” (Matthew 7:7-12; Luke 6:37).
On occasions where my perception of God is more attuned to both His characteristics of perfect love and perfect justice, my deeds more regularly bear fruit. The frequency and manner in which I worship God also tends to improve.
Unfortunately, one aspect of my personal worship—demonstrating reverence (Luke 6:31; Psalm 89:7; Matthew 7:7-12; Hebrews 12:28; Revelation 7:11) to my Lord—may actually have been better during my more Pharisaical (i.e. negative context) years than it is currently…
For years, I’ve adopted a thematic resolution at the beginning of a new calendar year. The first time that I ever adopted a thematic resolution was in 2006; focusing on a theme of “surrender” throughout that year. It was a year of significant spiritual growth for me.
This past year, I adopted a thematic resolution of “personal accountability to self.” Last year was the fifth (and final) year of my doctoral studies, and I had, over the course of my studies, neglected my personal health; only holding myself accountable to others. If there was a need to sacrifice something in my schedule, I’d make sure that it’d only affect me directly (i.e. self-destructive). Such a mindset is problematic because it operates under false logic. If I’m in poor health and a poor state of mind, how can I more effectively serve others? If my body is supposed to be a temple of spiritual worship and it isn’t, how does it affect my witness? Consequently, doesn’t self-destructive behavior severely limit or even prohibit my ability to effectively serve as Christ’s ambassador?
Upon receiving my PhD this past May, I focused more on my 2017 thematic resolution, and was able to make many changes in how I managed my life. The effects of these changes have been noticeable in my general demeanor (i.e. improved emotional health) and my physical appearance (i.e. improved physical health).
My spiritual health, however, is an area of focus that I had hoped would improve more than it did this past year. And while I do believe that my spiritual health has improved from where it has resided these past couple of years, I also believe that, at best, I’ve been spiritually stagnant during my doctoral studies (i.e. past five years). In many ways, my doctoral studies were a dark time for me, and as I mentioned earlier, I fell into self-destructive patterns. Therefore, I have adopted my 2018 thematic resolution with the intentions of:
- Promoting a healthy perception of God’s presence in my life
- Addressing the frequency of and manner in how I worship God, and
- Encouraging spiritual growth
- Improving and stabilizing my spiritual health
- Producing more spiritual fruit in my life
My 2018 thematic resolution: REVERENCE.
I’ve come to realize that I’ve become too casual in how I pray to God. When I was a child, I’d never have prayed to God while in a sitting position. In more ancient times, Kings would be the only ones sitting, as others were (often to petition favor) standing, kneeling, or prostrate. While I’ve heard many of my Protestant friends joke about how Catholic Masses involve a lot of “stand up, sit down, and kneel,” I’d like to see similar behaviors in Protestant or non-denominational services. Certain catholic practices, such as kneeling and communal prayer, are signs of reverence that too often are neglected in Protestant services. Since I regularly attend services—only attending Masses with my family when in Massachusetts—I’ve been in environments that encourage reverence within its scriptural teaching, but is more prone to be neglected in its application:
- We never kneel as a congregation during service
- We rarely engage in communal prayer during service
- We rarely have communion as part of our service
The absence of such behaviors in my church community settings—behaviors that reinforce a reverence for God—have slowly influenced changes in my personal worship practices. For instance, something that I plan to do more this year—even though I’ve had three knee surgeries in the past six years—is kneel when I pray. For, I should both demonstrate reverence and fear of my God (1 Samuel 12:14,24; Luke 12:5; Hebrews 12:28). The apostle James, the half-brother of Jesus, was known to have “knees like a camel,” because they became hard, calloused over as “consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and [his] asking forgiveness for the people.”
If I can grow more reverent and fearful of my God…
If I can be more prone to pray for God’s glory and for the needs of others (Philippians 2:3-4; Ephesians 6:18; John 17)…
If I can become a better ambassador for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), then may my knees also become camel-like.