Gleam of Heaven

If you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him… Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.
—C.S. Lewis

At the root of it, most (or all, I would hope) Christian teaching, regardless of denomination, says the same thing: Love God. Do good. Get your Heavenly reward.

When I was “between” churches—after Evangelicalism, but before Catholicism—I couldn’t quite explain the difference between each church’s teachings. When trying to explain how Catholicism is different, I’d end up saying the same things I’d just rejected in the old church. I tried to write down the difference before, but that still doesn’t get my point across. So I’m trying again.

C.S. Lewis says it better I could.

The entirety of the Old Testament is proof enough that we can’t save ourselves. We make mistakes; we get prideful and angry; we outright deny God (even if we don’t mean to). I think we all understand this. But what irks me about a prayer of salvation, this “sinner’s prayer,” is that it’s entirely self-centered. When taught how to street evangelize, it was a challenge to encounter a Catholic. We marveled that they didn’t know the answer to “Do you know where you’ll spend eternity?” But as I learned later, it’s not that Catholics don’t know. It’s just a weird question. Because the point of worship isn’t to decide where I spend the afterlife. We don’t do good deeds for a mere reward.

But I’ll play both sides of the argument for now, because neither is necessarily wrong.

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
—Ephesians 2:8–9

So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
—James 2:17

Any good Evangelical has heard that Ephesians verse over and over again. Our works don’t save us; that’s why Jesus came to Earth. As proven by the Israelites, we’re incapable of being wholly good. We’re flawed beings who need God’s grace. Only by faithful belief in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus can we even hope to have that gleam of Heaven.

If that’s true, why does James claim faith without works is dead?

Because what’s the point of God’s saving power if we don’t do anything with it? Our Earthly duty isn’t to save ourselves from the fiery pit of hell. We’re to “go into all the world and preach the gospel.” (Mark 16:15) We’re to help the needy and teach of Jesus’s power. Like C.S. Lewis says, we don’t do these things for the reward. We do them instinctively, because He’s working through us.

It’s tough to explain. In the end, we’re saying the same thing: we can’t save ourselves, and we’re to do God’s work. But it’s more about the primary focus—is your worship focused around saving yourself, or on worshipping God?

I didn’t have a bad experience in my old church. I’m still friends with them, and attend service with Mom on occasion. It’s a high-energy, familial group. But there are teachings I don’t agree with. There’s a great push to accept Jesus’s love, because that’s how we’re saved. It’s not technically wrong, but the priority is skewed. When they ask “Do you know where you’ll spend eternity?” you answer “Yes!”, because you said the prayer of salvation. But take a moment to consider, What am I accepting? What does it mean?

My core beliefs aren’t any different than before, but I shifted to a more logical perspective. I followed the guidance of the Our Father and focused first on God, and then on forgiveness. We all need saving. But we have to first understand what we need saving from.

An aside: Confession. When I converted, people asked, “So you tell a priest all the bad things you’ve done?” Yeah. Or, I should (once I admit them to myself). The sinner’s prayer would have more punch if there was a sense of personal confession. Think about your specific human faults—against others, yourself, and God. Then, “I’m a sinner” means something. It’s no secret that humanity is flawed. But facing the Confessional helps you understand why. Not for the whole of humanity, but for yourself.

So, love God. Do good. Get your Heavenly reward. But loving God comes first. If you love God, the rest will easily follow. Your works don’t save you, but if you’re not doing works for God, then are you really saved?

Be Not Like “Them”

Visiting the Baptist church for the first time since Confirmation wasn’t as weird as I thought it would be. That includes chatting with the pastor, who’s been trying to track me down to have a heart-to-heart to figure out why I left. (I did return his phone call, honest. We just keep on missing each other.) It’s the church I grew up in, so everyone knows me, but I don’t know who knows. No one asked what church I’m going to, not even when it was revealed that the guest preacher resides close to my new home. And I certainly wasn’t going to share the news during a Sunday morning service.

Looking back, I’d spent a lot of time being angry at the Baptist church. I was mad that they ignored obviously Catholic teachings in the Bible, despite it being the one-and-only authority they follow. I was mad that they convinced me I was nothing without a husband and children. I was mad that they teach certain principles so central to their beliefs that aren’t in the Bible at all (I’m looking at you, rapture). Truthfully, I even started this post with a two-paragraph vent about all their wrongs, but I deleted it. Because I forgive them, and I still love them.

I sat in the pew with my Baptist mother and made jokes about our differences. They’re silly things. In the Baptist church, they take time between hymns to greet each other. We’re talking, like, five minutes just to walk around and say hi to people. Mom admitted that they seriously need to stop doing this, and I said I’m already used to just turning around to shake a hand and being done with it. She laughed. It was okay.

But one thing is not okay, a detail that nagged at me years ago when I first considered maybe the Baptist church isn’t for me: They elevate themselves by belittling others.

They’re not intentionally looking down on their Christian bothers and sisters. But they try to prove their own worth by claiming to be unlike the others. Years ago, my mom told me how much she dislikes this. Not because she disagrees with it, but because this is no way to convert people. You’re not going to reach a Catholic by telling her that everything she knows is wrong. That Catholic is going to hear the message, feel personally attacked, and never go back to that church.

Honestly, I was waiting for it during that service. It was just a little side comment about prayer: How prayer should be genuine and not repetitive. How you don’t just recite the “Our Father” word for word like “the others” do.

Catholicism wasn’t even mentioned by name. But that jab at the Our Father—the one prayer that Jesus Christ himself taught us—physically hurt. He thought he was saying something against the Church, but he wasn’t just criticizing an earthly institution. I can almost deal when non-Christians do it. They don’t know any better. But I expect more from my fellow children.

Pastor still wants that conversation with me. I know he’ll share plenty of reasons why the Catholic Church is “wrong,” but I’m not interested in this debate. I wonder if they’ve actually done research on Catholic teachings, or if they’re simply regurgitating what other Baptists have told them. Because it took me all of a week to understand what the Church really says about the major anti-Catholic arguments. And that was enough for me to consider converting.

We’re not the enemy. There’s only one enemy, and I guarantee he’s not part of the Catholic Church. Stop spending so much time trying to prove the “others” wrong. It’s exhausting. And it’s unnecessary.

A Silent Departure

It was the height of election season, and I was at a post-service lunch at the Baptist church. The conversation was getting too political too quickly, and I’d accidentally outed myself as a Democratic supporter. I had to escape. Someone at the table asked why I was so adamant about not voting for the Republican nominee.

I quietly gathered the remains of my lunch, rose from the cafeteria table, and replied, “Because if I were alone in a room with him, I wouldn’t feel safe.”

It was the last time I talked politics. Not even when we traveled to Israel together that November, when a tour bus full of Evangelicals celebrated the victory of the Republican party. I kept my mouth shut.

It was another year before I gathered the courage to leave the church, and even then I quietly slipped out the back. I never formally forfeited my membership. I simply stopped showing up. Then I relocated for work, which gave me a good—albeit dishonest—excuse not to return.

My sister recently shared this article The Evangelical Temptation, which took me all day to read in its entirety between breaks at work. How could staunch conservatives support a candidate like that? The article does a great job at explaining how it happened, how Evangelicalism has declined both in numbers and in morals.

It’s not brainwashing. But there is a certain moral high ground they take, that when you’re submersed in that culture you’re lead to believe everyone else is wrong. The Episcopals are wrong. The Presbyterians are wrong. And most definitely the Catholics are wrong. Only the Fundamentalist Evangelicals know the real truth. You get wrapped up in it, and you stay in that church for too long, because part of you fears that they’re right.

I wrote a letter to my church when I’d decided to leave, with the intent to read it before the congregation. That never happened. Not only because I feared their reaction, but because I couldn’t stand up there and tell these people who had become my friends that they were wrong. Nothing in the letter says that—I’d only eluded to everyone worshiping God in different ways—but any viewpoint not theirs is the “other,” and I was about to descend into the darkest depths of that other. The letter didn’t even use the word “Catholic.” It wasn’t something I wanted to explain, nor could I, because they’d been taught for so long of Catholicism’s inherent evilness.

There’s a radio program on EWTN for non-Catholics, to call in with questions about the Church. I listened to it nearly every day when I was questioning, and still tune in occasionally. The host, a convert himself, provided a fabulous answer recently regarding what Fundamentalists believe. I saved the entire answer in video form, because he does a much better job of explaining their beliefs than I ever could—and I grew up with this.

“When one is saved more or less by assenting to certain religious doctrines, or through the performance of a particular individual religious formula like the sinner’s prayer… that makes you a Christian. And that’s all she wrote. Once you’ve had that experience, your salvation is guaranteed. Now, if that’s your view of Christian life, naturally the institutional Church becomes almost irrelevant to that whole procedure.”

The Catholic Church isn’t simply “incorrect.” It’s irrelevant. The only thing you ever need is the KJV Bible, which you’re encourage to read and interpret in the way you’re taught to interpret it. Don’t question it, because these words came straight from God. (But that part about baptizing families and men having the power to forgive sins? That’s not really what those verses mean.)

It’s only been six months, but it feels like my being part of that church was so long ago. At the same time, I read articles like the one above and feel like I’m still sitting in those pews. To this day, there is still an instinctive trust that I have to consciously remind myself isn’t there anymore. Not only was this something I was taught but something I believed, because this is God, and I respected the men of God. But even in the depths of it, I was always at the periphery. I never felt like I truly belonged, that I was somehow broken or “not saved” because I didn’t completely act and think the way they did.

When I told my mother I was joining the Church, she replied, “I’m not worried, because I know you’re saved.” I can’t say anything to that, as I had the same gut reaction when I first decided to convert. Because even in the midst of leaving, as you start to realize how skewed their perspective of Christianity and morality is, there is still that small voice in your head that asks, “But what if they are right?”