March 14, 2011

They Call Mary the "Mother of God!"

They Call Mary the Mother of God!

I guess after 3 years someone at the Baptist church in Bertram noticed I wasn’t coming around as much anymore.

I was preparing for confirmation as a Catholic at the Easter Vigil 2007. A few weeks before confirmation, I received a call from the music minister at First Baptist. He needed someone to sing a particular song at their Easter Cantata. I told him I’d be happy to do it assuming the schedule worked out. I told him that I was in formation to become Catholic and that I’d be pretty busy Easter weekend. I told him I wanted him to know because I wanted to be transparent with him. I knew my becoming Catholic might be a touchy subject for some of the folk at his church, but if he was fine with my singing in the cantata, then so was I.

After I told him, he asked me if I’d grown up Catholic. Apparently, a re-version is easier to understand than a con-version. I told him, “No,” that I’d had a supernatural conversion, and I was trying to be obedient to Christ.  I chose my words carefully.  How could he argue with my desire to be odedient to the Lord?

His only word of advice for me was to say in a hushed, worried tone,”Now, you know, they call Mary the Mother of God. . .”  To this I replied calmly, stifling a laugh, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I do know that.”  All the while I’m just smiling inside, wondering whether or not he would argue with me if I said Jesus was God.

The minister and I ended the conversation amicably but without any further mention of my singing in the cantata. In retrospect, that was good. God helped me keep my focus on my Catholic future.

Breaking up is hard, especially when the words “Mary, Mother of God” become fighting words. It’s harder still to believe that Mary, the Blessed Mother, and the mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ can be the focus of strife and disunity. She should be the woman who creates unity, being the one human person in all of history who always said,”Yes.”

Uh Oh. . . Maybe Peter Was the First Pope. . .

I had this Catholic friend for awhile who was a teacher at my school. One day I heard her telling her students that Peter was the first Pope. I’m like, “What?!? Does the art teacher at a public school really need to be talking about this in class?”
But later, as I was walking to the first RCIA class in the fall of 2006, thinking about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and how, if the Catholics were right about their Eucharist, then how did the Body of our Lord come to be in that bread? I mean, what was the mechanism through which this could possibly happen?
So I’m thinking about all this, wondering about it, and I am walking to the church because I’m not completely sure where the RCIA classroom is. I’m also a little freaked out about what I'm thinking of doing. Just coming onto the campus of a Catholic church seemed weird to me. I was afraid that someone might talk to me and find out I wasn’t Catholic. I was afraid that no one would talk to me, and I’d be able to use that as an excuse to turn my back on the journey.
In anticipation of these fears, I’d already made plans to meet with another co-worker of mine, one of the secretaries, the one who had told me the year before that I had to believe in the Real Presence if I wanted to be Catholic.  This co-worker was a sacristan at a mass held the same time as RCIA, and said she could direct me to the right room for RCIA if I came to the church to find her first.
As I walked into the narthex, the outer entrance area, I could peer through one of the open inner doors, down the center aisle toward the altar and the crucifix. I felt like a stranger.
However, my eyes fell momentarily on the altar as the sacristans prepared it for mass. In my mind’s eye I could imagine a priest, vested, standing behind the altar which was itself holding various cups, and plates, ready there, I assumed, to hold communion bread and wine.   In my mind's eye, I imagined the priest holding his hands over “the stuff” on the altar. Suddenly, in my spirit, I knew that there was something the priest did that turned that bread into the Body of Christ, and it was something he did that turned the wine into the Blood of Christ.
Although I didn’t know what it was exactly the priest did at the altar, I knew he did something. . . and I wondered, “How did the priest get this power?”
He gets it from Peter, the first Pope, of course.
Who got it from Jesus.

In Consideration of Idolatry. . .

On the day I arrived on the St. Helen campus for the first RCIA class, I was thinking about idolatry.

The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist had been on my mind since the Emmaus Walk retreat I’d attended a week or two before. I knew I’d be an idolater if I worshipped “a cookie” like some of the internet anti-catholics asserted.

But. . . What if that “cookie” wasn’t a “cookie” at all? What if the Catholics were right, and what looked like a “cookie” was really, somehow, in a supernatural, God-directed way, the Body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Well, then, that’s something completely different.

And therefore, it’s not idolatry.

Walk to Emmaus. . .

I’d wanted to do an Emmaus Walk retreat ever since I’d sat under the teaching of Kenny Wood at Riverbend. The way he explained the Emmaus story brought such power and meaning to it. The pilgrims in that story saw Jesus in the breaking of the bread. This was the essence of the scripture that Kenny wanted to break open for us at Riverbend. Yet, the bread, for Kenny, was still just bread. Somehow, he thought God’s grace attached to the bread, even though the bread stayed bread. (It’s my own opinion that he was afraid of where this teaching might lead him.)

Years later, in 2006, I was still in a rut searching for a church home. My friend Amy, the soprano in our trio, the Grace Notes, offered to sponsor me for an Emmaus retreat. A methodist teacher friend had also encouraged me over the years to do that retreat. So August of 2006 seemed like the right time. I thought this might give me the answers I sought about how "to get more of Jesus," and about where to go to church. There were two specific advantages of attending this retreat also:

1. I’d be able to take communion multiple times.
2. I’d be able to avoid becoming Catholic.

Since I’d gotten the hint from God that being Catholic was a possibility, I’d looked up information about the “Real Presence” as taught by the Catholic Church. At that time, I didn’t see what the big deal was about believing the bread actually became the body and blood of Christ. If people wanted to believe that, then why couldn’t they? It hadn’t occurred to me yet that I’d need a priest to consecrate the bread in order to transform it into the Body of Christ.

At that point, Christianity (and the Real Presence) was still mostly “Wishful Thinking” to me.

So I went to the Emmaus retreat. And for three days I received communion that I hoped would be Jesus.  Instead, that bread seemed like. . . well. . . bread.  Just dry bread.  I felt like I was going through motions. Empty rituals. I didn’t tell anyone.

I know that God did bless me at that retreat in a mighty and profound way. But the blessing did not come through the communion bread.

I should have been elated that Sunday night at the end of the retreat, yet I was numb. Grateful for the blessing that I did, in fact, receive, but confused and disappointed that my blessing did not come through the communion. I woke up Monday morning, and I still could not shake my confusion. If I’d found more of Jesus in that communion, then I could be a Methodist. Then my problem of where to park my carcass on Sunday morning would be solved. I really wanted to be satisfied with the communion I’d received, but I wasn’t. I cannot overemphasize at this point, the relief I desired to feel, if only I could have been satisfied with the dry bread at that Emmaus retreat.

At the risk of showing some spiritual pride, I have found that first thing in the morning, I'm especially vulnerable to God's promptings.  My thoughts during my first waking moments are frequently very spiritually fruitful.  Tuesday morning after the retreat, as I opened my eyes and the first moments of consciousness were creeping into my brain, the thought entered my mind, “OMG! The Catholics are right!  That bread at the retreat. . . was just. . .well. . . bread.  Jesus intended it to be his body, but at that retreat, it was just plain old bread.”

I didn’t know how the bread in the Catholic church came to be different. I had no idea about the mechanism involved in consecrating the bread.  I wasn't thinking about apostolic succession yet.  All I knew at this point was, if you want to believe in the Real Presence, then the Catholics are the only ones who can guarantee that reality. Everything else is just “wishful thinking.”

So in August of 2006, I decided I had to run, not walk to the nearest Catholic church and join RCIA, after putting it off a year. I told myself I wouldn’t make any rash commitments, that I would just get all the Catholic information straight from the Catholics themselves. If I decided the Catholics were full of baloney, then so be it, I could always go back to the Methodists, or the Presbyterians, or the Baptists, or the Lutherans, or the Pentecostals, or the Non-denominational Evangelicals.

It occurred to me that I might be about to embark on my own walk to Emmaus, with Jesus teaching me about His church.  I did still attend protestant churches from time to time after I started RCIA, but I didn’t receive communion after September 2006.  Further, I did not receive Jesus in the Eucharist until the breaking of the bread at my confirmation mass, the day I received His Real Presence, the Blessed Sacrament, Holy Eucharist, for the first time.

You Gotta Believe In the Real Presence. . .

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1374

“The mode of Christ's presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as "the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all sacraments tend." In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist "the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained." "This presence is called 'real' - by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be 'real' too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present."

I went back to the Baptist church in Bertram for a time in the fall of 2005. I helped direct a children’s musical called, “Angel Alert.” I had a great time working on that musical, even though I didn’t attend Sunday morning services at all. I felt unsettled about that, but nobody seemed to notice.

I had put off RCIA to work on this musical. One of my co-workers was acquainted with the people who led RCIA at St. Helen Church, and she was the one who put me in touch with the teacher. When I didn’t join the class in 2005, I started to feel uncomfortable around her. Not because of any arm-twisting on her part, but because of some residual co-dependency issues on mine. Anyway, I told her I was putting off RCIA, that I hadn’t forgotten about it, but that I wasn’t ready. She raised a finger to my face to make her point and gave me one piece of advice. She said, “If you’re thinking about becoming Catholic, you gotta believe in the Real Presence.” That’s it. That was the extent of her advice to me. Simple.

I’d read a little about what it meant to be Catholic, but what I’d read were mostly things about superficial practices and traditions, (with a small “t”). I still didn’t know about the Real Presence.

After she told me that term, I did what I always do to find out information about things I don’t understand. . .I googled it.

And, yes, I’d agree, as a Catholic, you gotta believe in the Real Presence.

I Just Want More of Jesus. . .

I didn’t know where to go to church. I’d been stuck for months.

By the spring of 2005, I was one of those people who call themselves Christian but live secular lives.

Until one day. I was fed up. I was angry. At God. At the Baptist minister. At my father. At myself. At nobody in particular.

Something happened as I was driving home from work on a Friday afternoon in March of 2005. I was trying to decide where to got to church on Sunday. This was my usual routine, but I never had an answer. I was stuck.

I remember shaking my fist at God while I was driving and saying out loud, maybe to God, “I just want more of Jesus.”

That’s all. I felt I’d already done every bible study, every retreat, every home group, every conference, blah, blah, blah.

I just wanted more of Jesus. I didn’t know where to go to get any more of Jesus than I already had. I was embarrassed to call myself a Christian, yet still be experiencing this feeling of lack.

Immediately I heard a voice in my spirit saying, “You know, if you were Catholic, you could (potentially) have Jesus every day.”

I knew that voice. I recognized the voice. It was the Holy Spirit. God. He didn’t repeat himself. That’s how I knew. And I also knew enough about the Catholic church by this time, because of conversations with some of my Catholic friends, to know that they had mass in some churches every day, and that the priest would not be the judge as to whether or not I was disposed to receive communion.

I almost had to pull the car over. At first I thought, “O Crap! I have to be Catholic, now? Are you kidding me?” That’s how I talk to God. Then, after a moment. . .”Wow. . .now I have an excuse to be Catholic. . .Cool!”

I started to plan, still making my way home. I thought, “I’ll just jump through all their little hoops, but I won’t really have to change the way I believe, will I?” It hadn’t occurred to me yet that at some point I’d have to say, “Amen” in order to receive communion. And I only had a vague sense then that in order to become Catholic, at some point, they would probably ask me to make some kind of oath. (God has been so patient with me.)

The next week, I started looking up things on the internet like, “How to become Catholic.” That’s how I found out the acronym RCIA, although I still didn’t understand what it was, exactly. I called the closest Catholic church, St. Helen in Georgetown, to find out how to join this “RCIA.” In 2005 the RCIA classes didn’t start until August, but by then the Baptist church in Bertram had called me back to service to direct a children’s musical for Christmas. I wanted to do it, and it was on the same night, Wednesday, as RCIA, so it also gave me an excuse to put off Catholic formation for a while longer.

Apparently, I wasn’t ready for more of Jesus. At least not yet.

Where Do I Go?

For about two years before I became Catholic, I tried to decide where to go to church. After I knew I didn’t fit in with the Baptists, I made a mental list of all the denominations in my town and considered each one. Logical, right?

I’d been a Presbyterian in high school, but the Presbyterian church in Bertram was a different kind of Presbyterian than I’d known, because of a split way back when. They were actually kinda like the Baptists where I’d already been, except they used a hymnbook I wasn’t as familiar with, so I didn’t see point in even considering them. (I admit maybe that was just an excuse.) All those people were friends so why couldn’t they all go to the same church anyway?

I’d been singing with the Grace Notes, my trio, for awhile, and one of the ladies was Methodist. There was a Methodist church in Bertram, and they were very “open” with their communion like Riverbend had been, so I did consider them. At that time though, they had a lady preacher who was kind of odd. She called everybody “Friend” whether you knew her or not. Also, one day I drove into Georgetown to visit one of the Methodist churches there. The minister was preaching on how proud he was to be a Methodist. Honestly, it didn’t sound very inspiring to me. From what I could gather, the basis for his pride was the fact that the Methodists had 350 years of history, and some of these “‘new’ churches springing up everywhere, well, what did they have to offer with only 1 or 2 or 10 years of history behind them?” Immediately I wanted to laugh, wondering what the Catholics might think of that speech. I wasn’t Catholic at the time, but I always saw the Catholic church as the “Mother” ship, even if I would have also said she took on too much water and went adrift sometime in the 15th century.

I’d been watching TV pentecostals for some time, since the mid-1990’s at least, and I tried to talk myself into driving to a large charismatic Christian fellowship, called Shoreline, in north Austin. However, I thought if I was going to drive all the way to Shoreline, then I might as well drive all the way back to Riverbend. I knew I was too lazy for either. And, I reasoned, I could always watch the pentecostals on TV anyway.

Then it occurred to me to use a different criteria than I’d used before. I thought about my ethnic heritage. I’d been adopted through the Lutheran Social Service. My birth father’s family, it turns out, were from the town where Martin Luther was born, and where he ultimately died, Eisleben. If you look on the internet, Eisleben has a website where they proudly advertise this claim to fame. I’d known a very nice lady who attended the Lutheran church in Burnet, the next town over, but I knew my connection to Lutheranism was the weakest of all. I’d never even been to a Lutheran church. And I didn’t really owe my birth father’s family any kind of ethnic allegiance anyway.

So I was stuck. Again.

Every Friday I’d be driving home from work, rehearsing in my mind all the choices I had for church. I’d try to decide and make my plan for which church to attend that weekend. And every Sunday, I’d sleep late and stay home. It was ridiculous.

I thought, what if I were a pagan? An unchurched heathen who had experienced a touch from the Holy Spirit? Where would I go to church? How would I decide? Would it be confusing for me? If it was confusing for a person like me who was already Christian, and had already been a member of a church, then I’m thinking it would be confusing for someone with little church experience, too. I’m certain that Jesus does not want things to be so confusing.

I stayed in this rut for part of 2004, all of 2005, and part of 2006, a very long time, it seemed to me.

The only thing that got me out of the rut was the voice of God.

I Am My Own Family. . . Sort of. . .

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church

261 The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of the Christian faith and of Christian life. God alone can make it known to us by revealing himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

265 By the grace of Baptism "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit", we are called to share in the life of the Blessed Trinity, here on earth in the obscurity of faith, and after death in eternal light (cf. Paul VI, CPG § 9).

When I was approaching my 40th birthday, I knew I had already entered a minor mid-life crisis. Even taking up oil painting to satisfy a long held desire to do art did not completely quiet my unease.

By 2003, at the age of 38, I had cut-off communication with my father, simply by not calling him, realizing that if I didn’t call, we’d lose contact. This had been a superficial, problematic, and somewhat hurtful relationship for me since my parent’s divorce when I was 11, and I was ready to get honest and just let it go.

I had no family. I wasn’t married, nor did I ever expect to be. Fall-out again from the trauma of my parents divorce and from my adoption at age two. I’m not angry about any of it anymore, but I was trying to find a way to respect myself and honor both (all!) my parents at the same time, when I broke off contact with my dad.

I don’t have brothers or sisters close by. And the brothers and sisters I do have, I didn’t grow up with. I’ve never really been able to take any of my relationships for granted. I have to work at all of them. The ones I work at the most, turn out the best, usually.

Since my mother died, I’ve had no automatic place to spend Christmas. I’ve had no automatic birthday gift or Valentine’s day card.

One of the most functional (and fun) sections of my family, headed by an elderly cousin of mine in Dallas, has welcomed me into her extended fold for Christmas, and I try to respond as gratefully as I can. I try to keep up with their lives through phone calls and Facebook. (Thank goodness for Facebook.) And I want the relationships to continue as long as I live. Still, I can’t easily assemble a big group of close relatives around me. My family is made of up many parts, and most of the parts don’t know each other well. If you have a big family of nosy relatives, you are probably thinking, “What is her problem? This sounds great!”

So, when I realized that my mother’s death was going to change so many dynamics in my life, I sought some counsel. The pastor at the Baptist church I was attending at the time put me in touch with a man who did spiritual direction/counseling for free as an offering to the Lord and to the church.

I talked to this gentleman a handful of times about the changes in my life, at mid-life no less. I talked to him about not having a family and what that felt like. I wanted to know how God’s plan for me could possibly include such a great amount of loneliness and “aloneness.”

One day he wagged his finger in my face, (thoughtfully), and said, “Judi, you are your own family.”

At the time, I thought, “Wow! That’s brilliant! Wise and meaningful.” I knew what he meant. He meant that I needed to take care of myself as a mother or a father would take care of a child. Sometimes I should be the child, sometimes the mother, and sometimes the father. And I should have respect for myself like I would for a family member. I got it. I thought.

In time, I decided that this position, though good, was really not complete. The only entity that is his own family is God. That is, God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit make a family. God is all about “family.”

But my desire for a family could not be satisfied by somehow “being my own” family. My desire for a family could only be satisfied by joining a family.

At the same time I had the conversation with the counselor, I was having doubts about my ability to fit in with the Baptists. I was already desiring to find another church “family.” It was a very hard time for me as I reached the age of 40.

In my life I’d had lots of experience with having to fit in with existing families. I’d had to fit in with my adoptive family. I’d had to fit in with the fractured parts of my father’s family. I’d had to fit in with my step-father’s family after my mother remarried. I’d had to fit in with my birth-mother’s family after I found her. I knew I had the skills to fit in somewhere again, but I didn’t know if I had the energy to find another family and have it fail. What church family should I join? I couldn’t pick a church on the basis of what kind of choir they had. I’d already done that. I really didn’t know what criteria to use to pick a church.

I didn’t know the answer for a long time.

One night, when I was in RCIA, we talked about the Trinity and the subject of families came up. The teacher talked about how everything Catholic is Trinitarian and familial. There’s a reason why Catholics call priests “Father” and consecrated religious “Sisters,” “Brothers,” and even, “Mothers.” The whole church is a huge family. God himself is part of a family. The Holy Spirit reveals the love between God and Jesus. And that love completes the Trinity, which is a family. The Holy Trinity is God’s family.

So, really, I am not “my own” family. Not Exactly. However, I am part of God’s family, if I choose to be.

And the one place I never feel lonely, ever, is at a Catholic Mass.

I Dipped My Toe In the Southern Baptist Pool. . .

As a young child I was taught about Jesus at a non-denominational church called Joppa Community Church that happened to use the Baptist Hymnal. When I was nine, I was baptized in Bertram, Texas at the nearest Baptist Church because Joppa didn’t have a baptismal font. However, I didn’t actually rub shoulders with other Baptist believers, as an attender of a Southern Baptist church, until much later in my life.

Right before I entered formation to become Catholic in 2006, I spent roughly 3-4 years attending that same conservative Baptist church in Bertram where I’d been baptized at age nine. Here is the reason I chose to attend there: I had been attending Joppa Church, the small country church of my youth, right after my mother died in a car accident. I had moved back to the country, and was too lazy to drive all the way down to Austin every Sunday for church. Joppa was quite a change from the mega-church I had been attending in the city. Riverbend had thousands of people coming on their campus each weekend, and the Chorale, of which I was a part, could draw 200 singers. Joppa considered 30 people in the pews a good day, and they had a piano player and a song leader on their music “team.”

For awhile this change was fine. But after a time, I started missing singing in a choir. And although I started feeling drawn to sing again, I didn’t want to lead songs at Joppa. I wanted to sing harmony in a choir, or better yet, a small ensemble or trio.

I chose to go to the Baptist church in Bertram because they had the biggest choir. That was my reasoning. Can you believe it? At the time, the quality and nature of the music seemed quite a reasonable basis upon which to choose a church.

The Baptist church choir was about 20 folk strong. I sat beside a woman who had, in her youth, sung with her two sisters in a gospel trio. She used to say, Judi, I’ll take the “low,” you take the “middle,” and Kim, (another soprano), you take the “high.” She was talking about chord parts for harmony, but I had no idea what she was talking about for the longest time. She sang by ear, and she was trying to get me to sing by ear, too. It was good for my singing to sit by her, although it was torture at first, to flounder around listening for the right note. It does take time to develop an ear for chords, and mine is still developing.

The choir was the highlight of my time there. During the time I sang there, I was invited to sing “special” music several times. It was also during this time that I sought out friendship with the ladies who would end up forming the trio I still occasionally sing with, called the Grace Notes. And, it was another Baptist lady in my bible study at the time who helped me brainstorm our name.

So, the singing was good with the Baptists.

However, over time, I realized I really didn’t read the bible as literally as they did. And I didn’t believe in the rapture. And I wasn’t as overtly anti-Catholic. (Although I certainly did have a few secret prejudices toward the Catholics I knew.)

Further, I missed communion. My plan back then was that I would attend the Baptist church three Sunday’s out of the month, but go back to Joppa for communion. You see, I was vaguely aware, even from the beginning, that I wasn’t fully committed to First Baptist Church of Bertram. Still, I hardly ever made it back to Joppa for communion either.

After about two years like this, I suddenly realized I had only received communion twice in two years.

This was a problem for me, particularly because of some of the teaching I’d received while I was at Riverbend about the importance of communion. I’d been able to receive the Lord’s Supper once a month there. And Joppa had communion once a month too. That’s what I expected.

So I started asking when was communion in this Baptist church. It took a long time to get a straight answer. I don’t think they had a regular time to celebrate. Some people told me it was quarterly, but I knew that wasn’t true. Then finally, after asking repeatedly, someone said it was “whenever the pastor thinks we’re ready.”

I just about flipped when I heard THAT! The person who told me didn’t seem to be too happy about it either. I mean, HOW would the pastor KNOW whether each individual was READY or not? How?

Later I realized that even a Catholic priest would not necessarily KNOW if each individual communicant was READY to partake. It would have been the responsibility of the communicant to know whether he or she was eligible (or disposed) to approach the altar specifically for communion. I wasn’t Catholic, but I knew that much. Suddenly, the Catholic church seemed much more free than the Baptist church although I resisted that notion a while longer.

And if the bread is a symbol, then how can eating a piece of bread be dangerous for your soul anyway?

So, at this point all sorts of questions and problems with communion started entering my brain. The bottom line was, I missed taking communion, so I knew, no matter how great the singing was, I’d have to find some place else to go on Sunday morning. I learned that good music, as wonderful as it is, is not always the best basis upon which to choose a church. Satan was a musician before he got kicked out of heaven after all.

The question is: If communion is the basis upon which to choose a church, what makes communion? What creates “unity” in the body of Christ?

My understanding of communion and unity was so superficial, so elementary, so minimal, then. I didn’t realize it, but my desire for communion, percolating under the surface, would, in fact, be the thing that would eventually lead me to the Catholic Church.

Fftthhttt. . . or, I Know How to Quiet a Room of Baptists

I was in a home bible study one time at the Baptist church in my town. It started as a “Purpose-Driven Life” home group. Remember the Purpose-Driven Life?

From time to time comments were made about the Catholic church. Scary comments like. . .”Can you believe they confess their sins to a priest!” And, “You know Catholics don’t have ‘assurance of salvation’!” Yikes!

All this sounded bad to me. Very bad.

Then, in 2005, I went to Mexico on a painting trip, with a fallen-away Catholic.

We traveled to San Miguel de Allende to paint, but on breaks, we meandered into the local churches. There was a Catholic church on every corner it seemed. Anyway, these churches rang bells all the time. They had mannequins in the side aisles in glass boxes that looked like coffins. The mannequins were dressed as dead saints, with lots of fake blood poured on. I remember thinking how scary it would be for a little kid to go to church there. If I were a child, what would I be thinking about all that blood? Eww.

One day, as we were leaving one of the churches, I thought about my bible-study and their comments about confession to a priest. I told my (sort-of) Catholic friend that I could NEVER confess my sins to a priest, and she said, “Well, the thing is, when you confess your sins to a priest, you get to hear him say you are forgiven and then your sins are gone, fftthhttt, just like that.” And she quickly waved her hand and made a sound with her lips and teeth like air escaping a tire.

The next time the subject of confesson to a priest came up at my Baptist bible-study, I told them I thought it sounded like a pretty good deal actually to hear those words of absolution and to have the assurance of the church that those sins were indeed gone, “fftthhttt,” just like that. . .

And nobody in my Baptist bible study said a word after that.

It's All About the Blood. . .

“One Drop”
by Clint Brown

One drop of blood that day was enough for humanity
On a hill the victory won the price was paid with just one drop

His blood still healing the hurt and diseased
His blood still flows as a cleansing stream
His blood a rushing river of grace
His blood

Thank You For the Blood

I started watching Joyce Meyer on TV back in 1998. By 2000, right after my mom died, I’d started going to an occasional Life In the Word conference when one would come somewhere near me. At that time, I had returned to live at my mother’s family home in the country, and I was going to the church of my childhood, the Joppa Community Church. We sang hymns that I remembered from my youth, and I was learning to sing harmony with the song leaders there.

So Joyce, at one of her conferences, was selling a CD with old time hymns of the faith. These hymns had a theme. Every song addressed the blood of Christ. It was called “Thank You for the Blood,” and on the cover there was a picture of the crown of thorns sitting on a piece of bright red fabric.

I listened to that CD every day for months. During my commute. On my walks. While I did housework. I had never pondered the importance of the Blood of Christ before, really. I’d been attending Riverbend for the last ten years or so, and the subject of the blood didn’t come up very often, except occasionally during bible study. My faith was so elementary at the time, it had not even occurred to me to meditate on the sacrifice of Christ. It was a finished work, a done deal, so I didn’t have to.

So, because I was a singer, I loved those songs, and I was becoming amazed that so many of them had been written about the blood of Christ. It seemed even the grace-filled, bible-believing protestants, especially the pentecostals like Joyce, wanted to remember and honor that blood-sacrifice of Christ.

The Passion of the Christ

In 2002, Mel Gipson offered a sacrifice to the Lord in the form of his movie The Passion of the Christ. I remember a couple of things. I remember the scene after the scourging when Mary tried to wipe up the blood. So much blood. The blood was precious. Mary wanted to preserve that precious blood. I’d never thought of how precious the blood was before.

When I drove away from the theatre, I felt a strong sense of my sin. Not in a pathological way. I was just so glad that Jesus had done what he did. Although I was horrified that he’d had to suffer so much. It seemed over the top. For the first time, I think, I felt contrite. I felt the need of my savior, a need I didn’t ordinarily feel. If I’d been Catholic, I’d have gone to confession straightaway. I think it was the first time I’d considered my need of a savior, to atone not only for original sin but also for my personal sins. That was surprising to me. I thought I’d already “accepted Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.” I wasn’t prepared for this new reality. It was powerful.

Then I remembered the Joyce Meyer CD I’d been listening to and made a connection from the Blood of Jesus to my own salvation. Here are the lyrics to one of the songs on the CD:

“The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power”
by Andre Crouch

The blood that Jesus shed for me way back on Calvary
The blood that gives me strength from day to day
It will never lose its power

It reaches to the highest mountain and it flows to the lowest valley
The blood that gives me strength from day to day
It will never lose its power

It soothes my doubts and calms my fears and it dries all my tears
The blood that gives me strength from day to day
It will never lose its power

How Does It Work?

But the question for me was, how do I appropriate that blood to my own personal sin? What is the mechanism through which that is supposed to happen? Does it just happen by faith? In my mind? Or could there be some way to enter that healing stream that was more reliable than my own transitory thoughts and feelings?

One day, probably in 2005, after I’d started singing with my trio, the Grace Notes, they asked me why I liked to pick songs about the blood. All I could say was, “It’s really all about the blood.”

And when I went to Mexico in 2005, I saw mannequins dressed as dead saints with fake blood all over them, on display down the side aisles of their churches. I was grossed out, and I rolled my eyes and thought, “Those weird Catholics!” Until I remembered the songs on my CD and the movie The Passion and I had to admit again, “It’s really all about the blood.”

The Veil Is Thin. . .

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

960 The Church is a "communion of saints": this expression refers first to the "holy things" (sancta), above all the Eucharist, by which "the unity of believers, who form one body in Christ, is both represented and brought about" (LG 3).

961 The term "communion of saints" refers also to the communion of "holy persons" (sancti) in Christ who "died for all," so that what each one does or suffers in and for Christ bears fruit for all.

962 "We believe in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church; and we believe that in this communion, the merciful love of God and his saints is always [attentive] to our prayers" (Paul VI, CPG # 30).

I used to have a conflict in my mind about the Communion of Saints. I thought that the Catholic Communion of Saints was a Christianization of pagan mythological gods.

Remember studying the Roman and Greek gods in school? There was a god for every aspect of life. And it seemed to me that there was a Catholic saint for everything. (I still think there’s a saint for everything!)

Also, I never saw the need to pray “to” a “saint.” It would not have ever occurred to me to do that.

Then, on January 18, 2000, my mother, Joann Ater Alvis, died suddenly in a car accident.

On the day of her funeral I was trying to find the iron so I could press my step-dad’s shirt. We were on a tight schedule, and he’d had to go out on an errand. I was trying to save some time and do something for him that under other circumstances, my mother would have done.

I could not find the iron. This seemed so strange to me. All the laundry and clothes-care items were stored neatly in the laundry room. All except for the iron.

My mother was a very tidy and organized person. I couldn’t think where she would have put the iron. I was so angry that I couldn’t just ask her.

So then, I decided to ask her.

And she, or someone, told me where the iron was. I had an idea, somehow, in my brain, that came from outside of me. The idea was, to look in a bedroom closet. There was the iron, sitting on top of a large cardboard box, underneath some coats.

I don’t know how I got that idea in my mind. I’d looked in all the other logical places. That bedroom closet was not a place I would have thought to look. The ironing board was in the laundry room, for goodness sake.

I had the feeling for many days after my mother’s death that she was so close to me. I felt she was very near, but that there was a screen, or a veil between us so that we couldn’t talk in the usual way. I had a distinct sensation that she was, in fact, alive. As a Christian, I believed she was in heaven, but I didn’t know where that was. Heaven always seemed very far away. But now, faced with the reality of my mother’s death, heaven, seemed very close. I wanted to know more about heaven and where it was and how it worked.

I do have faith in the grace of God, that my mother is in heaven.

And in the last 10 years, I have accepted the teaching of the Catholic Church about the communion of saints. When I take communion at mass, I believe I’m taking communion with all the believers who have ever lived, and died in friendship with God, since the beginning of time, which group I believe includes my mom. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that my mother Joann, and my Blessed Mother Mary, might’ve been in cahoots in heaven, pleading my case before God, to send his Holy Spirit to keep “hounding” me until I joined His catholic church. (My mom pushed me down the aisle to get baptized. It wouldn’t surprise me if, when I die, I find out that she and Mary pushed me down the aisle to get confirmed, as well. LOL.)

The saints can communicate with us, and we can communicate with them. The communication is not the same as communication between two people sitting beside each other on the couch, or two people traveling together in a car, but that’s because our earthly senses are not perfected yet.

They root for us.

They pray for us.

In heaven, the saints are exactly what God created them to be, more fully alive than they ever were when they lived on Earth.

The Church Militant, the Church Suffering, and the Church Triumphant are all one, unified, Church.

The Eucharist Unites. (No, It Doesn't?) Yes, It Does. . .

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

815 “What are these bonds of unity? Above all, charity “binds everything together in perfect harmony.”265 But the unity of the pilgrim Church is also assured by visible bonds of communion:
    --profession of one faith received from the Apostles;
    --common celebration of divine worship, especially of the sacraments;
    --apostolic succession through the sacrament of Holy Orders, maintaining the 
             fraternal concord of God’s family.266
When I was a child, I didn’t care about the Lord’s Supper. I saw my mom partake at Joppa Church, and I knew the adults cared about it a great deal, however, to me, it was a time during the service when I had to be extra quiet. I was baptized at Joppa when I was nine, but I don’t remember taking communion there until I was an adult. I don’t remember much about communion at Covenant Presbyterian or Westminster Presbyterian either.
The first time I remember being concerned about communion was at Riverbend after my reconversion to Christ. Our preaching pastor named Kenny had taught us about the “anamnesis,” the making present of the Lord in the communion, that is, remembering Jesus in such a way that we became His body to a lost world because of our communion with each other.
I was deeply affected by this teaching.
It was during this time that I became aware that not all communities practice an “open” table. Riverbend had more than it’s share of ex-Catholics, so from time to time comments were made about the unfair, exclusionary rules concerning communion in the Catholic church. It sounded so mean and backward to put some kind of requirement onto a person in order that they might partake at the communion table. I mean, God loves us unconditionally, right?
Was there something special about the bread that made the difference?
No, that couldn’t be it. At that time I would have been talking about the bread being, well. . . bread, since I was in a denomination that believed the bread was just a symbol. The bread symbolized the love of God for me. God’s grace. I think Kenny secretly wanted the bread to be Grace instead of just symbolize Grace because he even advocated, (maybe tongue-in-cheek), that people carry communion bread around with them. For example, keep some in the car with you, and when you feel the need, pinch a little communion bread to remind you that God loves you. Maybe while you’re in traffic, I guess, and you're tempted to give in to road rage?
At the same time I had a friend at Riverbend, named Maggie, who had a Catholic background. She would occasionally, talk about mass at St. Theresa Church. She seemed surprisingly open to the Catholic way. Because of Kenny’s emphasis on grace, this was disturbing to me. (I found out later that the grace Kenny preached was actually quite cheap.) Even though I was a Catholic “wanna be,” I still saw the Catholic church as the other “side.” I didn’t want my friend to go to the other side. She seemed “normal” though, so it made me curious about mass.
I used to occasionally sneak over to St. Theresa on Saturday evenings. I’d sit in the back and just watch. I’d get angry that I couldn’t take communion. I’d try to talk myself into taking communion anyway, but I never did. I’d think, “No one would know if I went forward. I can fake it.” But I wasn’t sure what to say to the priest when I got to the front. Of course everybody says, “Amen,” but I didn’t know that at the time. I probably could have figured it out without too much trouble if I had really been more determined, but I was afraid someone would find out I wasn’t Catholic. Then, I’d be in the middle of an embarrassing scandal in front of the communion line. So instead, I just sat in the back, angry, watching, wondering what the requirements were to be Catholic. Wondering, too, how all those Catholics could stand to be. . .well. . .Catholic.
Inside the front cover of the missalette there were guidelines for the reception of communion, an explanation of the Church’s position about who was able to receive. It tried to explain why “members of those churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to Holy Communion” and assured that Catholics were praying “that our common baptism and the action of the Holy Spirit in this Eucharist will. . . begin to dispel the sad divisions which separate us.”
At the time it seemed to me the Catholics themselves were the ones who were drawing the line of division by stressing the division, not smoothing it over. It sounded like Catholics were the gatekeepers. What was so great about their communion anyway? And what did they think Protestants did during the Lord’s Supper?
I had another Catholic friend from high school at this time. I must have told her I’d been visiting St. Theresa on Saturday’s. Maybe I told her I’d been tempted to take communion, because she said if I did, it would “offend” her. Offend her! Those were her words. Pretty strong words. Unfortunately, she was also unable to adequately explain why she’d be offended. From her point of view, and in her defense, today I don’t know if she was unable to explain, or if she was unable to make me understand. In any case, she didn’t try very hard to explain her offense. I let it drop, but still I remembered her comment, and when I went into RCIA I was determined to learn why non-Catholics taking communion in a Catholic church was “offensive.”
Of course, back then, I didn’t stop to wonder either why it bothered me so much that I couldn’t take communion at a Catholic mass. Now I look back believing that, yes, the Holy Spirit certainly did act during those celebrations of the Eucharist. That discomfort I felt was another step in my path to confirmation 15 years or so later.
It would have been easy to pretend or fake it, but I was afraid. Afraid to embarrass myself, I thought. But now I wonder if I had the beginnings of a reverential Fear of the Lord. In any case, I did not take communion as a Catholic until my confirmation at the Easter Vigil, April 7, 2007. When people ask me why I became Catholic, the short answer is, "I did my part for unity in the body of Christ," and this is,  “. . .in keeping with Christ’s prayer for us ‘that they may all be one’ (John 17:21).”
Quotations taken from “Today’s Missal: Masses for Sundays and Holy Days with Daily Mass Propers ‘Guidelines for the Reception of Communion’ ”

Go Long. . .

Luke 22:14-20
When the hour had come, He reclined at the table, and the apostles with Him. And He said to them, "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God." And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He said, "Take this and share it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes." And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me." And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.
I remember when I first started doing youth work at Riverbend Church in Austin. One of the first youth camps I remember was led by a preacher named Kenny.
Kenny was extraordinary as a preacher and a teacher. (I found out in time that he might also be the most broken man I ever met.) Even so, Kenny is the one who taught me about the importance of communion. I’ll always give him credit for that.
Although I couldn’t have known it then, I look back at my faith then and realize it was completely unformed. I knew communion was supposed to be important to me. But if it was just a symbol, then what was the importance of going through a ritual just for a symbol? Both myself and the kids needed to be taught what communion meant.
One memory of Kenny during communion night at camp: A group of kids in the back needed bread. Kenny shouts “Go long. . .” and then he chunks a communion loaf like a football over our heads all the way to the back of the room.
Shocking!  If we believed it was just bread. . . why so strange to lob the communion loaf?  Why so shocking?
And Kenny also was the first person to explain in detail the word “anamnesis” to those of us at camp. It’s the word Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Jewish writers chose to translate Jesus’s words (documented in Luke 22:19) on the night of the Passover meal with the disciples, “Do this in remembrance of Me.”
Kenny tried to explain the deep intensity and urgency of that word, “anamnesis.” It’s not the way we would use the word as if we were simply thinking about something that happened long ago. Maybe we take a picture of something significant that we want to remember later. We put it in a photo album or post it on Facebook. When we look at the picture, we think about the past, but we usually do not bring the past into the present.
The way Jesus was talking, because of the words he used, He was asking the disciples to do much more than just remember Him like we might by looking at a photo. Jesus used the same word used by the writers of the Hebrew scriptures when they talked about the Passover. (And the Hellenistic Jews who translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek also made the connection between Jesus’s words and the words used to describe the Passover.) When Jews, including Jesus celebrated the Passover, they would have celebrated it as if it was happening in the present, and not as a distant memory. It’s not possible to overstate this. The Feast of the Passover would have been urgent, pressing and real.
Kenny taught that the connection between the Passover and our communion means that in our communion, we are to make Jesus present, among ourselves, and in the outer world.
No only that, but according to Kenny, the disciples and we are expected to actually put our Lord’s body back together in our world. We are to re-member him, as if his body truly was broken, (which it was). His members, His arms, His legs, must become our own, literally. Communion should make us the Body of Christ, literally.
How? If we believed it was just bread. . .
I’d never thought about communion that way before. Kenny made it seem so real, so powerful, as if Christ were really present. (Kenny was so close to the truth. . .)
The “real presence” is scriptural, and has much to do also with the basis behind the Catholic mass. The Sacrifice of Christ is made present, as if it is happening now, for real. The power of the one and only sacrifice is made present at the Mass so we can be there, with Christ, at the foot of the cross, no matter when in time we might have been born. And I think Kenny might have figured it out. Maybe the reality of Christ in the Eucharist scared him. He would have meant that he had to become Catholic. And he would have had to clean up his act.
He went long. . . but he didn’t go far enough.
As for me, I can say this: When it came time for me to become Catholic, there was much about what I learned from Kenny that made my transition easier, including this teaching about the word “anamnesis.” And when I was in RCIA, learning about the Mass, I was arrested by the grace of God that He could use the foundations laid by Pastor Kenny, a cracked pot for sure, to get me to His one, true, holy and apostolic church. Kenny convinced me that the bread was important, and that communion was powerful. . . but he couldn’t tell me how it came to be that way. For him, maybe communion was just another example of wishful thinking.
Kenny’s favorite author was Frederick Buechner, a protestant pastor and author. Here are a couple of quotes by Buechner:
"When you remember me, it means you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. I means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart."
—Frederick Buechner
"Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me."
—Frederick Buechner
At one time I was in agreement with these quotes. But now they seem deficient and somewhat sad to me. For me the communion of saints is a reality that I encounter every week in the Eucharist. It's not wishful thinking.  The saints are just as alive as you or me.  And doubt sometimes happens, but it's not meant to be permanent. It's alright to look at doubt, but it's not o.k. to stare. I want everyone to know the reality of Christ in the Eucharist. It’s the only thing that can save our broken world. It’s the only thing can can straighten our paths, clear our minds and save our souls. A mental assent and belief in a symbol doesn’t have that power, and is only an empty work. But if it’s true that the Eucharist is who the Church says it is, then that’s not an empty ritual, wishful thinking, or a work of man.
It’s a miracle, every day at Mass.