I don’t go to church every week, but I wish I did. This Saturday, I went.
I don’t want to go to church more often because then I could feel good about checking off an item on my list of Things One Must Do To Be Good (the way I used to think of church before I was a Christian), then wipe the worry from my brow, and carry on with my day. Rather, I wish I attended any church service regularly, whether it’s for Mass or at a non-denominational Christian church, because even when I don’t think the sermon is stellar, it changes my heart a little bit every time I go, or some “coincidence” happens where the lesson of the day touches on something already on my mind. I think of those as Godincidences, and I cherish them because they light my heart on fire and remind me that God is real and present and active in my life.
The message yesterday was about morality. The pastor emphasized that external acts (tithing, going to church, not cursing, etc) aren’t what being moral means unless those acts are genuine reflections of the inner workings of your heart. That seems like a “duh” factor to me now, but for most of my life, that point was lost on me. I only saw the acts. I only saw those “good works” on a list of things I had to do in order to be a good person in someone else’s eyes. Furthermore, since I was able to do a lot of those things whether I believed in God or Christ or not, why the heck did I need God or Christ or any church or religion?
For me, that attitude was a result of my Catholic upbringing where there was such an emphasis on things one had to do, or things one most certainly should not do, without any explanation of the real meaning behind any of it. “Have you ever let a boy kiss you?” my mother asked me when I was 16. I understood that if I admitted I had, I’d surely be burned at the stake. “You’ve never read the Bible?” asked my high school friends who were in church youth groups. Wow, I must be stupid and bad if I didn’t even know what the Bible said. “You haven’t been Confirmed?” my Catholic friends probed. Clearly I’d go to Hell if I didn’t get that taken care of sooner rather than later. Just because I didn’t go to confession x number of times a year, I was going to go to Hell? If I didn’t say x number of Hail Mary’s, and if I didn’t say them properly, my soul was tainted? What about any of those lusty thoughts I had about boys at school? Evil evil evil. Man, I was doomed!
That was it. There was no explanation behind any of the do’s and don’t’s. No one ever explained to me the concept of having a relationship with God – how it changed your heart, how it changed your very soulscape – and that something like confession, for instance, was really about the church wanting you to commune with God, not a “you better tell Him what you did or else” type mandate. It wasn’t until I took a Landings class at a Catholic Church in Arlington (http://www.stcharleschurch.org/map.php) in 2010 that I heard the sacraments, in their best form, described as gifts (not obligations) from the Church to us. A priest came to one of our classes. I asked him, “You’re telling me that if I don’t go to Confession that I won’t go to Heaven?” He replied, “Am I going to sit here and limit God and tell you if you don’t go to Confession then you’re going to Hell? No. It’s not my place to say that. Of course you can still get to Heaven, but that’s not the point.” He explained that Confession can serve as a therapeutic way to present your mistakes and then receive the components of forgiveness: mercy, compassion, understanding, and guidance. Forgiveness is hard enough for us to grasp, to feel, to believe in its reality….and simply reading about it in the Bible often isn’t enough for a person to absorb its healing qualities. So, in the eyes of the church, Confession offers you a tangible setting in which to really feel that forgiveness. Not because a priest is literally the one forgiving you, but because he acts as a specially appointed liaison between you and God, that he is providing a perceptible pat on the back in a way, and literally saying the words, “You are forgiven.” Now that made sense to me.
I’ve heard the horror stories about Confession, though. I get it that it isn’t always implemented the way it should be. I experienced it myself where priests (or Catholic family members, for that matter) leave you feeling condemned and evil, not renewed and cleansed. As with most misperceptions about things religious, though, the act of people messing it up doesn’t negate the real purpose for it. People are flawed, God is not, people will screw up the message at times whether they mean to or not, but it shouldn’t distract us from what is true and good and meant to help us. Unfortunately, the flawed person who represents the church can be detrimental to people seeking faith because they look around and think, “These people claim to be Christians, but are out doing x, y, or z “bad” things, or claiming to be Christian but then treating people poorly. I don’t want to be associated with that. I’m nice to people whether I’m a Christian or not.” All they see are hypocrites. I’ve been there, I’ve thought that, and I urge you to rethink some of these old assumptions you may still be holding onto. Once I really processed that just because the people who talked about God were flawed didn’t mean that God Himself was flawed, that concept helped me hurdle over some of my major religious hang ups. In college, when I began investigating things myself, reading voraciously, asking people questions, I found that a lot of what it meant to be Christian was spot on. Don’t be scared to investigate issues that you think you already know all about. Dive a little deeper, then decide what you think about it.
Nearly ten years later, that persistent need to investigate lead me to Landings. I went to the class because as an ethnically-Catholic/practicing-Christian, I’d been saying “no” to Catholicism based on assumptions I’d held for years, and decided it was time to make that an educated “no” if that was to be my official stance. I couldn’t keep saying I wasn’t really a Catholic unless I understood what that meant. I expected my negative predispositions to be confirmed, but they weren’t. I’m not ready to be a full-time card carrying member of the Catholic Church again just yet, but I understand A LOT more about the sincere meanings of its practices than I ever did before. Now I see Catholicism in a much softer light thanks to Landings. Plus, perhaps more importantly, going through that process brought me even closer to God, regardless of whether I called myself a Catholic, a Christian, or nothing at all.
Anyway, I got a little off track of what I originally planned to write about… Although, I think barriers to faith and barriers to morality are intertwined, so perhaps this all goes together after all. J Ok, so, as I was saying, I’ve heard the message on morality preached many different ways, about the inner workings of your heart and how you have to be changed there first to live a genuinely moral life out of love for God/Christ and not out of a sense of obligation. Interestingly, I’d recently pulled this excerpt from one of my old prayer journals, having felt like I needed to write more about it.
From 4 January 2005: “If you feel stuck, bring your whole self to Christ, not just the problem, but you. Ask God to change your heart. Commit yourself to pray to that end. It’s God’s heart to give good gifts to His children.” -Shelia Walsh (emphasis mine)
Wow. This quote really hits home right now. 1. I’m applying it to redesignating. 2. Applying it to living my life the best I can. Lord, I know I need to make a complete change from the inside to live my life for You better. Please help me to have the moral courage to not put myself in “dangerous” positions in the first place. Help my heart to want to do the right thing, and my mind to be able to act on it. Help me to not be naïve in situations where it will cause me harm. Guide me. I want to be Yours completely and feel peace and love and understanding and healing and healthy. I need you in order to be whole. I feel like my trust is getting deeper, but help me go further. Help, help, help. J
I was 23 and facing yet another major transition in my life: redesignating (leaving flight school to start a then-unknown new career path in the Marine Corps). Yet even as a new Christian, I wanted to bring my whole self to God in order to make the best life decisions possible. I saw courage as a moral reflection because I think I already understood, beyond the black and white oft-discussed “moral” issues of how many guys you date or how often you drink, that something deeper was at stake in my decision-making process – my heart. And, really, isn’t that what’s at stake for all of us?