Monday, January 30, 2012

What are all these churches? : Introduction to Christianity (part 3)

A brief history of the church (the collection of all Christians), starting with the birth of Jesus Christ:

About two thousand years ago, Jesus was born to a devout Jewish family in the Roman-occupied and governed territory of Palestine. As an adult, Jesus traveled Israel (Palestine) with a band of disciples, proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom of God, teaching about Scriptures, healing the sick, and forgiving sins. He claimed to be the Son of God. Huge crowds followed him, though he appalled some followers by prophesying that he would die and be raised to life after three days (see Matthew 16:21 and following). Many Jewish religious leaders opposed Jesus, threatened by his claims (and demonstrations) of authority; eventually they succeeded in having him crucified by Roman authorities. Jesus died on the cross and was buried (as he had prophesied); three days later, his disciples found the tomb empty (as he had prophesied). Christians believe the tomb was empty because God had raised Jesus back to life; skeptics believe the tomb was empty because someone stole Jesus' body and duped everyone.

After Jesus' death and resurrection, his disciples spread the good news (gospel) that "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16) throughout the Roman empire and beyond. Followers of Jesus came to be known as "Little Christs", or Christians (Acts 11:26). Christians believe Jesus to be the Anointed, or Christ (Greek), or Messiah (Hebrew)--the Savior who had been promised long ago in the Jewish Scriptures (which Christians encounter in the Old Testament of the Bible). The earliest Christians were all Jews, and in fact Christianity was originally considered a sect of Judaism, and as such was protected under Roman law as a legitimate religion.

The number of Christians grew, despite persecution, and Christianity eventually became a recognized and established religion. The body of believers, or church, came to have centralized, organized leadership, with the Pope as the very top of the human hierarchy, and ranks of cardinals, bishops, etc. below him. As the church grew, doctrinal disagreements and confusions sometimes sprang up; many creeds, such as the Nicene Creed discussed in this post, were composed in response to these controversies.

After about a thousand years, in 1054, this giant organization split along east-west lines corresponding to the east-west split in the Roman empire, in what is known as the Great Schism. The eastern branch became the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the western branch became the Roman Catholic Church.

Hundreds of years later, the Roman Empire had expired but the (Roman) Catholic Church was still going strong. In fact, it was a powerful political force, with a great deal of wealth. Unfortunately, many people sought positions in the clergy for the sake of wealth and power, rather than for spiritual reasons, with the result that corruption and theological drift were rampant. One of the more egregious problems was the sale of indulgences, a practice which essentially claimed that God's forgiveness of sins could be bought with money.

In 1517, German priest Martin Luther began publicly condemning and protesting the sale of indulgences and other practices of the Catholic church. This was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which lead to the birth of the Reformed, or Protestant, Church. Unlike Catholics, Protestants today are split into many different denominations, and have no single central leadership. (Some of these subgroups within Protestantism, in no particular order: Baptists, Evangelicals, Lutherans, Charismatics, Presbyterians, Pentecostals...)

What are the differences in beliefs between these three major branches of Christianity, you may ask? Unfortunately, I know a lot about my own branch of Protestantism but comparatively little about the Catholic church, and next to nothing about the distinguishing doctrines of the Eastern Orthodox Church. I will just write briefly about major differences between Catholics and Protestants, and leave it to you, dear Reader, to learn more by talking to (or reading from) persons who are better informed than I.

What are the differences in doctrine between Catholics and Protestants? Historically, Protestants have focused more than Catholics on personal/individual devotion to God and on reading the Bible for one's self. Protestantism holds that the Bible is the ultimate and only real spiritual authority, whereas Catholicism teaches that tradition is a spiritual authority as well, and that priests and other clergy members have a distinct kind of authority to interpret Scripture and tradition, which unordained believers (laity, or laypeople) do not have. The pitfall of the Protestant perspective is a tendency to excessive individualism, leading to division and uncorrected misinterpretations of Scripture; on the other hand, the pitfall of the Catholic perspective is a tendency to excessive authoritarianism for the clergy and passivity for the laity.

The other two highly visible differences in doctrine stem from this difference in the roles of Scripture vs. clergy. The first is that Protestants give the virgin Mary little attention; she is honored as the mother of Jesus and as a good woman, but not seen as dramatically different from other Christians.  Catholics, on the other hand, see Mary's role as far greater; she is important enough to be prayed to. This doesn't mean she is considered to be a second god, though; Catholics sometimes pray to a variety of saints. (Protestants, in contrast, don't even have a process for recognizing saints.) Honestly, I don't understand Mary's role in Catholicism. Ask someone who believes if you want to know more.

The other highly visible doctrinal difference is in the interpretation of Communion. All Christian churches practice the sacrament of Communion (as far as I know), which is a commemoration of the final meal that Jesus shared with his disciples at Passover, on the night that he was betrayed and then crucified. At that Last Supper, Jesus
took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22:19-20)
Christians symbolically re-enact this scene (take Communion) to fulfill Christ's command to "do this in remembrance of me." Catholicism teaches that, in Communion, the bread and wine are miraculously transformed to become, literally, the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. This doctrine is known as transubstantiation. Protestantism teaches, instead, consubstantiation, the idea that the bread and wine of Communion, while sacred, do not physically become flesh and blood, but symbolically represent the flesh and blood of the Lord Jesus. This difference in interpretation of Communion leads to different practices as to its implementation in Catholic vs. Protestant churches.

Despite these significant differences in doctrine and practice, Catholicism and Protestantism, as well as Eastern Orthodoxy, agree more than they disagree. These three branches of Christianity, flaws and all, are still unified spiritually as the Church, set apart for God. They have Christ in common, and at the end of time all the differences and disagreements will be sorted out in His light.


I've been talking with a friend lately about his habit of hiding. Not answering the uncomfortable questions, avoiding work by reading things online, using chocolate as a quick-fix: hiding, hiding from the truth.

I confronted this friend about his hiding. I berated and exhorted him, I explained why it's harmful, what kind of priorities it reveals (self-worship, at the bottom: refusal to face the truth about one's self). It was a long conversation, and my friend went away chastised. I took for granted that I had the higher moral ground. Then the next day, I noticed myself hiding, exactly the way my friend does. There was an uncomfortable truth or several lurking under the surface of my consciousness, and I knew I ought to dig it up and give it up to the Lord of my soul, "who forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases" (Ps. 103:2). But I didn't want to.

I've been confronting this friend about a number of his bad psychospiritual habits, and I keep noticing the same tendencies in myself shortly after those conversations.

Honestly, it is so stinking hard not to hide. There are a million ways to do it. I hide my fear by being angry, or I hide my anger by being afraid. I hide my disagreement by asking questions instead of speaking out, or by not speaking at all. I hide from despair by doing "fun" things--watching T.V., reading books. I hide from all my feelings by doing "productive" things--assembling furniture, working on my resume, researching nutrition. I hide from O. by not answering his emails and text messages. I hide from feelings of disconnection by hugging him and ignoring my anger or sadness. I hide from the demands of my body (food! water! exercise!) by engaging my mind or my emotions; I hide from the demands of my emotions by feeding and indulging my body.

The trouble is, hiding from truth is hiding from God. This is folly. In the Garden, Adam and Eve, ashamed, refused to come when God called them. They deluded themselves into thinking He couldn't see them. I tell myself this is totally different from what I'm doing, but that too is a delusion. I keep avoiding truths, and the Truth. But what I really need, underneath it all and above it all and beyond it all, is the Truth: Jesus, the Way, the Truth, the Life.

"Surely You desire truth in the innermost parts." O my Lord, cleanse me. I pray in faith with the Psalmist: "Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean; wash me and I will be whiter than snow." (Psalm 51:6, 7) O God, help.

Nicene Creed: Introduction to Christianity (part 2)

In the last post, I wrote about the definitions of "Christian" and "Catholic." The dictionary defines a Christian as someone who follows Jesus Christ and his teachings. Who is Jesus and what did he teach?

The answers to those questions lie in the gospels, accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus written down by eyewitnesses within the lifetimes of other eyewitnesses. To know Jesus, you should read the accounts we have of him; the gospel of Mark is the most concise and fast-paced. (Link is for The Message version.)

But it takes a while (at least a couple hours) to read the gospels. Moreover, as accounts written two thousand years ago in a totally different cultural context, the gospels can be seriously disorienting. It doesn't work well to read the gospels trying to quickly extract principles and instructions of Christianity. The gospels are not full of convenient lists of ideas, because Christianity is about a Person (God), not an idea, and the proper "container" for a person is a story, not a list. While incomplete in itself, a list or summary can be a helpful orientation before (or during or after) reading the gospels themselves. For this, a creed is helpful.

So, for the person interested in a summary of the essential points of Christianity, here follows a discussion of the Nicene Creed, which summarizes the major doctrines of Christianity* in three paragraphs. But be prepared: Even the creed is more like a story than a theory.

Here is my paraphrase or adaptation of the story/list that is the Nicene Creed (Brackets indicate points that are not directly in the Nicene Creed), expanded into six paragraphs:

(1) From the beginning of time, before there was anything, there was God, the Almighty. God created everything else that is: the physical world and the spiritual world. [One of God's creations was humans, whom He created to love and serve Him, but who rebelled against Him in mistrust. Ever since the first rebellion, humans have lived in a broken world and in broken relationships with each other and with their Creator and Father, God.]

(2) For the sake of us fallen people, God sent down to us His Son. This Son is not a biological son, or in any way less than God as Father, but, mysteriously, has always existed (rather than having been created) and is one Being with God the Father and is just as much God as the Father is, so that the Father and Son are distinct but unified, two Persons but one God. This Son, Jesus Christ, took on a human body and being to walk among us and live a human life but a perfect life. He started where we all start, as a baby. He was born to Mary, a virgin, having been conceived by the Holy Spirit instead of by physical means. [He went through childhood and adolescence and grew up. As an adult, he traveled around Israel with a band of students (disciples), ministering to huge crowds by teaching about God's kingdom, healing the sick and forgiving sins. Jesus' teaching and claims infuriated the religious authorities of Israel, who conspired against him.]

He was tried in a Roman court under Pontius Pilate, who sentenced him to death by crucifixion: being nailed to a cross and dying the most shameful death available. The human agents at the time didn't realize it, but they were fulfilling God's plan for the world, the purpose for which Jesus, God the Son, had come into the world in the first place: dying to save us from the power of sin and death.

And so Jesus, the Son of God, died and was buried--and then on the third day after his death, He rose again to life. This fulfilled the prophecies in the Jewish Scriptures and in Jesus's own ministry. After rising again to life, He returned to Heaven in glory, where He has taken up his position of authority, at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to Earth, at an unknown time, for the final judgment and the end of time and the restoration of the world.

(3) In the mean time, followers of God are helped and guided by the Holy Spirit, who is the third Person of God, of one Being with the Father and Son, and as such is worshiped and glorified as God in the same way that God the Father and God the Son are worshiped and glorified. The Spirit speaks to God's followers today, as He spoke through the prophets whose words are recorded in the Bible.
God's followers form the Church, which God has made holy.

Despite the divisions and brokenness in the human institutions that represent the Church, there is one unified and holy Church which the many churches strive to manifest and to become. Also, despite the various manifestations and interpretations of the sacrament of baptism, there is one baptism which these different versions all represent. Baptism itself is connected to forgiveness of sins. Members of the Church live in hope, believing God's promise that He will restore life to the dead and bring about a new and fuller life in a new and restored world.
*These doctrines are all accepted by the Catholic church, most Protestant churches, and the Eastern Orthodox church. (Where did all those different churches come from, you ask? See part 3...)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Catholic vs. Christian: Introduction to Christianity (part 1)

What's the difference between a Catholic and a Christian? A friend, raised Catholic, asked O. this question recently; I'll try to answer it here.

First, let's consult the dictionary:
  • Christian: a follower of Jesus Christ and his teachings
  • Catholic: a member of the Roman Catholic Church
So the Oxford American Dictionary defines a Christian according to his allegiance to Christ Jesus, and a Catholic according to his membership in the Roman Catholic Church. Since the RCC is a Christian religious organization, one might expect all its members to be Christians. However, as a human and communal institution, the RCC brings in many people who come for reasons based in family, culture, or tradition, rather than for theological or spiritual reasons. Whether such attenders are members in a formal sense or not (my understanding is that they often are), they are likely to consider themselves Catholics, and the dictionary definition affirms their perception that the essence of being a Catholic is membership in the RCC. The theology held by the person in question doesn't directly enter into the question of whether they "qualify" as a Catholic (so to speak).

A similar situation may prevail among members or attenders of other Christian churches. For instance, suppose my parents are Baptists and they have taken me to a Baptist church all my life, starting when I was an infant, and my primary community is with the members of this church. I might well consider myself a Baptist, even if I don't believe all the things taught in my church.

Now, in contrast to the definition of "Catholic" which depends on institutional membership, the definition of "Christian" is rooted in the individual's beliefs and actions. A Christian follows Christ and follows his teachings. One could be a Christian all alone on a desert island, never having set foot in a church, if he believed in Christ Jesus.

So the terms "Catholic" and "Christian" are really speaking to two orthogonal characteristics. One deals with membership in an institution, the other deals with personal beliefs and allegiance. Thus, a person could be both a Catholic and a Christian, or be a Catholic but not a Christian (as in the case of a person who is associated with the RCC but doesn't believe), or a Christian but not a Catholic (that is, a person who believes in Christ but isn't associated with the RCC).

In the U.S., historically there have been more Christians who are not Catholics than Christians who are Catholics. Most of these non-Catholic Christians were and are Protestants:
  • Protestant: a member or follower of any of the Western Christian churches that are separate from the Roman Catholic Church and follow the principles of the Reformation, including the Baptist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches.
These Protestants have sometimes claimed for themselves the term of Christian in opposition to the term Catholic. In some cases they believed that Catholics aren't Christians because they seem to worship gods other than the one true God by praying to Mary or to various saints. In other cases, the distinction drawn between "Catholic" and "Christian" is the result of defining "Christian" on the basis of institutional membership, in parallel with the definition of "Catholic" or "Baptist."

How does this happen? Suppose I grow up going to a Protestant church that isn't affiliated with any particular denomination (non-denominational or inter-denominational). My parents are Protestant Christians, but I never hear them use the term Protestant; they just call themselves Christians. I may get the impression that what makes a Christian is having Christian parents, or just going to my church, or at least my kind of church--that is, I may think the definition of "Christian" is "a member of a (Christian) church"--and maybe even think that I can be a Christian without believing in Christ or actively pursuing his teachings.

And so there are competing ideas of what "Christian" means floating around in people's minds. But the meaning, the definition, the essence of being a Christian is following Jesus, and it has nothing to do with membership in a human organization. Meanwhile, being a member of the Catholic church makes you a Catholic regardless of whether you follow Jesus.

Of course, the Catholic church is a Christian church, so presumably the system for becoming a member is intended to ensure that its members are indeed following Jesus. That is, from a theological perspective, Catholic should imply Christian: follower of Christ. Catholic and Protestant Christianity do differ, in both theology and implementation, but they agree far more. They have Christ in common (plus everything in the Nicene Creed)!

A last note: The definition of Christian doesn't specify some key things. What does it mean to follow Jesus Christ? What did he teach? Without answers to these questions, it is impossible to know, concretely, what it means to live as a Christian and think as a Christian. I'll address those questions, as well as some of the differences between Catholic and Protestant theology, in part 2.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Clothes & Stuff

Today I counted my clothes. Inspired by the Twenty Pieces Project, I have been going through my clothes and trying to pare down. I've eliminated two trashbags worth already. Today I counted what's left after a couple rounds of filtering.

I was rather disgusted by the results. I think of myself as not having too many many clothes or shoes (at least, by the standards of my upper/middle-class American female peers). I also think of myself as not being all that attached to appearance. I even consider myself somewhat of a natural ascetic.

Well, it turns out that, counting by the Twenty Pieces rules, I have seventy pieces of clothing. Seventy! A piece of clothing for every day for ten weeks. This isn't even counting socks, underwear, swimsuits (I have two), scarves, or pajamas.

Ascetics do not own seventy pieces of clothing. People who are living in simplicity do not own seventy pieces of clothing.

This is an unpleasant wake-up call. I am remembering now the fervor with which I used to cling to my old favorite pieces of clothing as a child. I would outgrow them or wear them out, but to me they remained important and valuable by virtue of their familiarity. My mother would insist I give them up, get rid of them. I found this process frustrating and traumatic. I liked these clothes! I loved them! They were still comfortable, so why did it matter that they supposedly didn't fit right or look right?

It's been years since I had to go through such a purge with my mother looking over my shoulder. Today the freedom of having only a few things appeals powerfully to me. Moreover, I understand now my mother's perspective on clothes. Grown up, integrated into a society that will pigeon-hole me by my appearance, I have internalized society's perspective on clothing. (This is probably a bad thing. I must be judging people without even noticing it.) Old or inappropriate or unflattering clothing is easier to let go of now. So why is it still so hard to cut down my closet?

It's hard because I invest sentimental value in my clothes. The prom dress. The tie-dye "gypsy" dress my sister saved up money to buy me as a Christmas present after I had sighed over it in the What On Earth? catalog. T-shirts from exotic vacations, one each from Alaska, Washington D.C., Ecuador, ... Latin Convention shirts from high school, designed by one of my best friends. I am reluctant to part with these items, as if I'll lose the memories by giving up the physical objects associated with them.

It's hard because I'm also afraid to get rid of clothes that were given to me, especially if they were gifts from relatives (or worse, in-laws). Will they be insulted? Even if they don't find out, am I insulting them by getting rid of their gift?

Worst, I balk at getting rid of clothes that people talked me into buying. Once upon a time, I deliberated and concluded that it was worth buying item x. If I now decide that item x isn't worth keeping, that means I made the wrong decision when I decided to buy it in the first place. So goes my "reasoning"--the logic of my innards.

All that to say, it's hard for me to get rid of clothes. What if I need that later? It's even hard for me to acknowledge that it's hard for me to get rid of them. But here I am acknowledging it. And I am committing to getting rid of more clothes. At minimum, I want to pare it down to 50 pieces. I will be happier with myself if I cut it down to 30 or 40 pieces.

There may be ascetic tendencies in my personality, but stronger than my asceticism is my craving for thoroughness, for collection, for security. I'm a Five on the Enneagram, in my fallen nature a hoarder of information and of things. God is calling me to take my security only in Him, and to count Him as my greatest, my only, Treasure. "Store up for yourselves treasure in Heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." I want my heart to be hidden in Christ, not collecting dust in my closet.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Finally, Winter

This morning I woke to gray light. Where is the burning sunrise? I wondered, and looked out the window, and it was: snow! This new window, in this new home, looks east into on a narrow yard where a tree stretches twigs across the sky. All the green had gone out of the yard. Snow was still falling, large soft flakes. The sky was white, the yard was white, the tree black, the light cloud-gray.

We dragged ourselves out of bed, put on hats and coats and boots, and tumbled out into the falling white. Later we ate scones, drank tea, played Pictionary. I played with the landlord's Labrador in the backyard while my husband shoveled snow in front. When he sprinkled the salt, small dark circles blossomed around the grains where they landed.

So winter has really come here, at last. I hope the snow stays, to remind me that this is a season, which is bound to come and to go in its time, and that it is a season of softness as well as coldness.

Friday, January 20, 2012


I spent my day failing to rest and, in the process, also failing to be fruitful. I accomplished some things but I neglected the state of my soul. When will I learn? If I don't have truth, I have nothing.

Refreshment comes when I look reality in the face. Doing and doing gets some things done, but it leaves me barren. Now the sun has set, and the day is gone. Good things happened in it, but on the whole I think I got in the way, rather than being a channel of peace.

"God be merciful to me / on Thy grace I rest my plea."

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Bloggistential Crisis

Lately I have been wondering about purpose. What is this blog for? Is it accomplishing what it should? Should I be doing something different? something better? Ever since reading two or three blogposts about how to make your blog better, get more readers, increase traffic, etc., I have been intermittently paralyzed from blogging, or writing at all, with the perpetual question: is this any good? Will anyone want to read this?

Often I treat this questions like flies, swatting them away without much thought. They are annoying but short-lived. But these are flies that hover around the "New Post" button on blogger, and, as I do with any pest-infested place, I have been avoiding that "New Post" button, and even more, the "Publish" button. This is a problem! I'm not a blogger if I don't blog. I'm not a writer if I don't write. I want to live in my identity as a writer: I need to write. And so I need to face my fears.

I have been noticing more and more that the unexamined fears are the most troublesome. They nip at my heels, they growl at me from behind. They are always behind me, you see, because I never look at them. I studiously avoid eye contact, because in order to look at them, I would have to acknowledge their presence. Unlike wild beasts, these threaten me more by the fact of their presence than by harmful actions they could take against me.

In truth, when I look my fear in its yellow eye, it wilts like a scolded dog. It turns tail and disappears under a car like a stray cat. Simply by acknowledging that I have been afraid, I diminish my fear.

My fear here: I am afraid of being judged and found wanting according to some unwritten standard. I am afraid this blog will be a failure. --But when did I sign a contract subjecting myself to the judgment of the internet? The internet may judge me (most likely by ignoring my existence), but its judgment has no real force in my life. Why am I allowing it to have force in my heart?

The problem is, I have no idea what the purpose/mission/goal/raison-d'etre of this blog is. Or rather, I have several ideas, and sometimes they get along but sometimes they fight each other. Sometimes I think I keep this blog so that people can read my writing. This is scary because what if no one does read it? What if it's always just my parents reading? Sometimes I think I keep it because I write different kinds of things here than I write in a journal or an email. This is less scary. I am the only one I have to satisfy. Other times I think other things. It gets messy in my head and then I just stop writing, for a while. But I come back. I come back because, even though I can't tell you exactly what my purpose in writing here is, I know I have a purpose, or a hundred fragments of purpose, and I also know this blog doesn't have to be a mere means: it can be its own end.

My purpose in keeping this blog is to write, and to write well. Goodness is its own justification, and I don't have to write the best, the most, to write well. So here I am, and here I'll be.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


I cannot write without living. This is what I must keep remembering, when I grow anxious about not having written poems, about having instead squandered time in going to the zoo, reading technical books of linguistics and psychology, cooking, selecting produce at the grocery store, sitting at the dinner table, just being, being with my husband. (That word still astonishes me.) Life is experience. Life is learning and attention and presence and activity. Life is light and noise and heat. Meanwhile poetry is a pause, a stillness, silence taking shape as words. Poetry is thought, incarnate: a thought become word become flesh. And thought is darkness and silence. But it is a darkness full of stars, and a silence surrounded by music.

Perhaps one may write poems without loving life. But those poems are not the poems I love. Those are poems that do not touch my skin or ring in my ears, and so they do not touch my heart. They do not make me live, they suck away at my life. I shut their books and walk away, hoping the wind will wake me up. I do not want to write poems like that.

I want to write poems that, like the wind, wake me up. Poems that splash like the sea, and make me shout. Poems that taste, that burst on the tongue like pomegranate seeds and then crunch between your teeth.

And so I will live and rejoice in living, and I will not grieve about not writing. The words will come in their time. I will not sit still, sadly, waiting for them. The words will creep out into the world where they will find me chasing lizards and being bitten by a parrot and eating mangoes and getting sunburned and building sandcastles and getting sand in my fingernails and toenails and hair and swimsuit and underwear. When the words find me, and I stop to write them down, I will still have sand in the crevices of my ears, and the hand holding the pen will be sticky with juice:

This is my New Year's resolution.

(Also, I resolve to write 100 posts before the end of 2012. But I will not worry about writing them: this too I resolve.)