Tuesday, October 18, 2011

I am Protestant, but not a Protester

I am a Protestant through and through.  No question about it.  My view of Scripture, church, authority, spirituality, God, prayer, miracles, Mary, etc. are all thoroughly Protestant.  No question about it.  I would love to say that when I read Scripture and I am simply taking it for what it says and obeying it faithfully.  I would love to think that the black ink on that white page of the Bible was information that I read in a completely black and white, clear cut, obvious answer kind of way.  The truth is, however, that I am a white male raised in a Western, affluent society that is wrestling between modernity and postmodernity.  I am fairly educated in things theological and almost all of that education has been processed through a Protestant lens.  All these factors mean that my reading of Scripture and experience of God and His church are not black and white.  They are influenced heavily by who I am and what I have experienced.

This past week my lovely wife and I were in Indianapolis for the national CCDA conference, which was a rich time of learning, worship, and reconnecting with friends (not to mention a great time to be with my wife sans the offspring!).  Our last day in town was a Sunday, and since we both are big fans of highly liturgical worship, we decided to walk a block from our hotel to Saint John the Evangelist Catholic Church for 11am Mass (sans kids = sleeping in!).  This church was founded almost 175 years ago by Irish immigrants.  The exterior of the structure was gorgeous and the interior immediately draws your heart and imagination to the cross, its beauty, and the glory of heaven that surrounds us at all times.

My encounters with Catholic worship, spirituality, and theology are marginal.  Enough to make me aware of our differences.  Enough to make me appreciate what they offer without being idealistic or dismissive of the gaps that do indeed exist between them and me.  Though I am Protestant through and through, I want to protest any spirit of protest against our Catholic brothers and sisters by offering a few things that I think we can learn from the church we long ago split away from (and have been splitting away from the splits in increasing fashion ever since):

Aesthetics - I appreciate the beauty of the space for Catholics.  For them space matters.  Though I am fully aware that worship can happen anywhere and God is everywhere and the church building is no more sacred that the super market, the Catholics know that art, beauty, and aesthetics are a part of worship just as much as music, liturgy, prayer, and the spoken word.  When I sat in that sanctuary and looked up at paintings on the ceiling of angels, I remembered the truth and power of what it means to gather in worship.  I remember that God and His heavenly court surround us as we worship.  Though this is true with or without the images, the images draw out that awareness.  The lack of art, image, color, beauty, and aesthetic is something we need to address in our Protestant spaces.  And addressing this requires more than concert style lighting and moving, sparkling powerpoint backgrounds.  It was refreshing to enter a few minutes early, kneel and just meditate on God's presence through the art that surrounded me.  This leads me to my next point...

Kneeling - I realize that there are a number of Protestant groups that have kneeling benches attached to their pews as well, but there are plenty - like my own - that don't.  It is pretty hard to find a Catholic Church that does not have and regularly use kneeling as a part of worship.  In the last ten years of public worship within my particular Protestant heritage I have kneeled maybe twice, once I can remember for sure.  That posture is missing from my own private worship as well as my experience of public worship.  It needs to be restored.  Humility is not just a position of the heart.  Saying we don't need kneeling to express public humility and submission is like saying we don't need smiles to express joy.  Raising hands, laying prostrate, dancing, closing eyes, clapping hands, and kneeling are all ways that our bodies participate in worship.  Worship is an act that the mind, body, heart, and spirit must all participate in.  Along these lines, I also appreciated how each Catholic, when facing the cross or the prior to receiving Communion, kneels and bows as a sign of respect and honor.  This leads me to my next point...

Communion-Centered - When a Catholic leaves the house on Sunday they don't say, "I'm going to church" or "I am going to worship," they say, "I am going to Mass."  Mass is a Catholic term that refers to the Eucharist (Lord's Supper/Communion ).  When you go to a Catholic "worship service," you quickly notice that the Table is at the center of what they do.  We Protestants put the pulpit and the preached Word at the center of what we do.  The worship at Saint John's on Sunday revolved around what happened at the Table.  The Table was even at the center  of the "stage" with the pulpit off to the right side.  Jesus' action for us and His invitation to receive it stand front and center.  This is something my tradition that emphasizes the weekly breaking of bread can appreciate.  It seems that the early church gathered in homes around tables put the Table at the center as well.  This is one way, of many, that the Catholic Church stays connected to the ancient rhythms of Christian worship, which brings me to my final point...

Living History - There are images, statues, and constant quotes/references to the saint of generations past when you worship with Catholics.  The Protestant trend in many churches seems to be the worship of novelty.  The latest book, the latest song, the lastest curriculum, etc.  Though I am a fan and proponent of innovation, there is a very long history behind us of men and women whose lives and words are a part of the transformative power of the Christian story.  History is alive and powerfully formative for the Catholic Church.  In Protestant churches is is close to a sin if you refer to a song or a book or a person that was active before the 90's (I exaggerate, of course).  History is alive as a source for shaping who they are today.  They are not pioneers inventing a new way of life as if the testimony of those who followed Jesus before them make no difference.  They don't think they can collapse history and regaining some perfect original version by ignoring everything from the second century to the twentieth.  They keep touch with the earliest expressions of faith by allowing all the saints of every century to speak to them and guide them.

Don't misunderstand.  There are plenty of problems/critiques I have for our Catholic family.  But the purpose here is to honor and affirm those aspects from which I think we have something to learn.  I know, at least, that I need to model my own spirituality after the aspects shared above.

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