Thursday, July 05, 2007

A blind man searching for a black cat...

Rules. Who's "in" and who's "out." Who's going to hell and/or heaven. Have you said "the sinner's prayer" - just right? Are you holding your hands just so, in order to bless the communion elements (because the epiklesis, the pouring down of the Holy Spirit on the elements, just won't happen if all the parts aren't arranged just so. The Spirit of God is rather particular about how the Table is set before He/She/It appears, you know....).


All the rules and conditions and exceptions and moronicity of organized religion reminds me very much of a blind man, searching in a dark room for a black cat that isn't there. I've been listening to variants on this nonsense since I was old enough to understand English, and it makes less and less sense with each passing day.

I'm not sure when this particular bit on spiritual indigestion started. One piece started at an AA meeting last Monday - a guy brought up the fact that he's been sober a while, and a girlfriend sounds like a good idea. Actually, a night of even lukewarm sex sounded like a good idea, but that was a sin. Actually, he's an inactive Catholic who's divorced, so now we've got issues of companionship, love, sex, religious rules, confession and reconciliation, and salvation on the table. And fifty untrained theologians and psychologists realize they probably aren't going to resolve this before the hour's up...

Then there was a section in Sara Miles' wonderful book, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, where she is praying with people who are coming to their church's food pantry. A church Pharisee sees her laying hands on one of the customers, and starts into a rave about whether the pastors have duly authorized Sara to pray or anoint "these people," and whether the bishop should be involved, and what does she think she's doing?

That kind of nonsense makes me crazy.

And then, a Lutheran discussion thread on the GCN discussion boards talked about apostolic succession. For you non-theology-junkies, apostolic succession is a concept that says
  • The doctrine of apostolic succession is the belief that the 12 apostles passed on their authority to successors, who then passed the apostolic authority on to their successors, continuing throughout the centuries, even unto today.
  • The Roman Catholic Church sees Peter as the leader of the apostles, with the greatest authority, and therefore his successors carry on the greatest authority.
  • Other churches who want to get in on this "line of succession" try to see where their branch of Christendom (not Christianity - there is a difference) split off from "the main line," and claim authority based on this "line of succession."
Now, anyone who has studied church history for more than, oh, a week and who has not had a frontal lobotomy can see that this whole idea is more shot-full-of-holes than a block of Gruyere swiss.
  • I find very little evidence that Peter was the pre-eminent apostle, and that all authority comes sliding down from his hands. (Saying "you are petros (rock), and upon this 'rock' I will build my church" doesn't mean "you are the rock of ages, and since you were here first, all authority and power devolves from your hands.")
  • In fact, there are strong arguments that Paul should be seen as the numero uno guy in the church, because he is the one who has authored so much of the New Testament. But he wasn't one of "the first twelve," so he's not one of the cool kids. Hence, no il Papa, baby. Even if he did write a whole bunch of the book we call God's word....
  • At a couple different points in the church history timeline, there were multiple Popes and/or anti-Popes, in different cities, fighting to the death to remain Pope. So, any pretense that the "line" remained intact during the various sunderings of the Papacy would have easily shattered in those places (and there were several).
  • It doesn't take a great mind to see that there is a big, big difference between spiritual authority and temporal, political authority. Thanks to Emperor Constantine and his conversion in 312 AD, however, the Church and State became one in his person, and people who are in power rarely choose to relinquish it. So there was a large justification for retaining the temporal authority of the Popes, and it worked that way for a long time.
The online Catholic Encyclopedia points out that "In the third century the popes claim authority from the fact that they are St. Peter's successors, and no one objects to this claim, no one raises a counter-claim." This is perhaps the weakest logical support for any statement - "I've made a statement, and no one has objected to it; hence, it is true." It completely ignores the fact that in the third century, there was little opportunity for resistance by anyone who would object, and that afterwards, the Church had the support of the State (including their military) which tended to suppress debate a bit.

Now, please, please understand this - this is not another anti-Catholic polemic. I am so past that, boys'n'girls. Just because the Catholic curia says stupid things, that is not any reason to discount the faith (and good works) of millions of observant Catholics. I hang around with a good number of Catholics these days, and I honor their faith in Christ and their service to the world.

When they bring up doctrines like apostolic succession, my eyes glaze over, and I simply agree to disagree with them. Though The Church doesn't see it this way, I see it as adiaphora - it may well be important to some, but this concept is not central to my Christian identity.

I bring this up because the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) bought into the whole apostolic-succession concept as part of their agreement with the Episcopal Church in the sunnily-titled agreement Called To Common Mission. And while I am all for "may we all be one," I thought this was one of the stupidest agreements ever forged between two denominations. The key features of the agreement seem to be:
  1. We Episcopal folk agree that you Lutherans can be part of the "cool kids."
  2. You Lutherans can't have a valid and legal ordination to the priesthood unless one of our Episcopal bishops lay hands on him/her, so they are included in this "unbroken chain of apostlery."
  3. None of the other kids, who still won't agree to this, get to be in our club.
Like I said, it makes me crazy. This ain't what Jesus was talkin' about when he said, "Feed my lambs," folks.

Martin Luther (himself an ordained, then defrocked, member of the apostolic succession) would tell me that if I'm on a desert island (or a youth retreat in the Rockies) and there's no ordained priest around, that if I sat on a log, took a box of Ritz Crackers and a glass of Dr. Pepper, and said the words of institution over them in the presence of believers and the Word of God, then what I did would result in as valid and efficacious Eucharist as if we were at Rosary Cathedral with the robes and linen and the gold-plated tableware. I don't need to have anything else - no holy orders, no robes, no nuthin'. (Especially no stinkin' succession....)

It's a lot of the reason I became a Lutheran. It seemed like Outback Steakhouse - "no rules...just right." (Of course, I was later disabused of that notion, but the rulebook seemed less bulky, somehow. The fact that the Lutheran church didn't seem to have a position titled canon lawyer seemed a good sign...)

I guess what this boils down to are issues of rights, authority and power. Do I, as a non-ordained lay person, have the right or authority to pray with people, let alone anoint them with oil? Do I have the right or authority to speak the Words of Institution - or are those words only legitimate of they are spoken by someone who's had good Catholic or Episcopal hands laid on them in ordination?

I keep coming back to Communion - Eucharist - because it's what I have most experience with. As a seminarian, I was leading worship on a Saturday night at Faith Lutheran in Prairie Village, KS. I'd been hired on as a lay preacher while we were searching for a new pastor, and the interim pastor would show up to bless the Communion elements on the every-other-Saturday service. But here it was, time to start the service, and no Pastor. "What are we going to DO?" cried one of the church-ladies.

"Well, dearie, what we're going to do is I'm going to go in and lead worship. And when we get to the Words of Institution, if the Pastor's not there, then I'll say them. And I'll trust that if God wants these people communed, then His Spirit will descend on the bread and the wine, despite the fact that I'm an untrained, unordained sinner. If God could forgive me all the rest of the things that I've done, I'm sure He will find it in His heart to forgive me this, too." (Because I'd been sober 7 or 8 years at the time, I chose not to add, "At least I'll be sober, and will keep my clothes on, for this particular sin...")

Once, after I'd started seminary, one of my AA sponsees wanted me to marry him to his fiancee'. Neither one had use for a church; neither one believed in Christ - but both of them were absolutely sure that God had let the two of them together, and wanted someone who knew their story, and knew their understanding of God, to bless their union. I told them I had no legal ability to marry them - but if they went to the Justice of the Peace on Friday afternoon, I would be able to craft for them a celebration of their marriage which would incorporate every aspect of their life.

And it was great. I believe with all my heart that God was no less present, and God blessed those two no less, than if it had happened in a church by a pastor with all the requisite pomp and circumstance.

For my own mind, there is no action by another human being that is going to determine my suitability as a member of the body of Christ. As I wrote about a few days ago, I am not interested in rituals of flame-proofing; I have already been to Hell, and choose not to go back over the rules of men (none of THESE were ever agreed on by women!). I happen to believe that Roman 8:38-39 happens to be true - that no one gets to stand between me and the love of God.

I have no quarrel with ordination; I believe it fulfills a necessary requirement in the orderly way of the world for churches. Just don't tell me that an ordained priest or minister is the only one who - spiritually (not legally) - can perform the rites of priesthood. Because it just ain't so.

I don't need to be a trained minister or pastoral counselor to pray with those who are hurting. My Ritz-n-Dr.-Pepper Eucharist will not condemn anyone to burn. And it doesn't matter who's laid hands on who - because the authority and the Spirit comes from God, not from the hands of man. I've seen many instances where the man was duly consecrated and anointed - yet destroyed a congregation. And I've seen many instances where the person who I'd have bet was closest to God was the person least-qualified in the eyes of the world to speak for the Almighty.

Even looking back on what I've written, I know that folks can and will argue about differing standards of what is holy or sacred or whatever, and how certain practices make things "right" for them. And they, of course, are welcome to it. For me, my "holiness" or "sacredness" has nothing to do with what I've done - because my "garments of white" were rather soiled from my prior and current life. It is only "Jesus' love and righteousness" that gives me a hope of escaping hell. Nothing I do is gonna influence that one iota.

So my friends can argue about this or that theological tidbit, concept or nuance. I'm gonna leave 'em to it, and try to go be about my Master's business.


Tom Scharbach said...

The best advice I ever got regarding religion came from a retired priest with three decades or so in the AA program: "Tom, don't worry about theology. Don't think about it; don't write about it; don't argue about it. It is unimportant. Seek God's grace and be at peace."

It is the great secret of the AA program: AA people live in God's grace precisely because they don't worry overmuch about theology, don't engage in self-destructive argument over theology, and don't let theology be divisive.

The priest knew a simple secret: Religion is almost always the enemy of spiritual growth.

Michael said...

Of course, within the Roman church -- of which I am an ordained member, after my fashion -- there are rules within rules, even for the ordained. I may have the power (through laying on of hands in the apostolic succession) to validly consecrate the elements of the Eucharist, but if I do so without keeping various and sundry other rules, it will be valid but illicit. As one liturgy professor jokingly explained, "If it is invalid, Jesus doesn't come. If it is valid but illicit, Jesus comes but he's not happy."

It is easy to imagine Jesus not being happy at all sorts of valid and licit celebrations in his name to which some of his brothers and sisters are not welcome.

Fortunately for all believers, he has a disconcerting way of walking through locked doors.

brother said...

I can't tell you how much I appreciate this blog, for posts such as this.

Preach n' teach, Brother Steve.

~m2~ said...

i have so much to say but alas, am still on hiatus. my heart is ever changing, ever evolving and ever growing in love with God. i just want to serve Him and be in communion with others, regardless of how "licitly" (is that a word?) prayers and consecrative acts are performed.

i am think am so over that.

yikes. what is going to happen to this Catholic girl next?

Im A Foto Nut said...


FYI, Pastor Joe's Blog address.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I needed to read this today!

Danielle said...

I dont know what to say except thank you. Your kind words really made me smile. I hear where you are coming from and i know its not the end all...i just handle things badly.

Ive been down the same road time and time again, tripping and making a mess over and over again. Thankfully God picks us back up-i just dont always like to let him.

Thank you for showing me that people do care. I didnt think anyone even read my blog to begin with let alone know i was reading theirs. I dont mind the extra reading you listed. I have enjoy reading yours and renee's entries. I like what you have to say and how you say it.

As for the failure part-eh. Failure has always been my biggest fear and most dreaded thing-im the 'perfectionist' 'over achiever' type. I just hate the fact that everything tumbles over in every aspect at the same time. I really cant grasp why God would allow that to happen.

You mentioned the 'institutional church'. Sadly the church discourages me more everytime i go. I feel as though its become less about jesus and more about 'what we can do for oursevles'.

You also mentioned how things havent worked out for you-what did you do? Is it anything like what you expected-or possibily even better?

Thanks for the encouragement-and the hugs! Ill keep your words of wisdom in much as an 18 year old can.

Kyle said...

you should write a book...

Keith Brenton said...

Better yet, you should start a church. Okay, don't call it a church if you can't bring yourself to. Call it a community of faith or an ecclesial group or an AA chapter for people who are addicted to sin.

I keep praying that you'll become the pastor to a flock which needs Christ through you more than through anyone else.

Scott said...

my new friend... thank you for the thought provoking post...

I am a sober alkie, got sober in Toledo in 1996, moved down here south of Lima in 1998 and was received into the Catholic Church just this past Easter Vigil. I am constantly questioning my faith and growing in closeness (at least I hope lol) to a God of my understanding. I too have some questions/doubts/concerns about some of what's taught and believed in the Roman Catholic Church.

I am adding you o the list of blogs I read in order to continue to explore my faith both as a Catholic and more importantly, as a recovering person in AA.

Glad to meet you, God Bless! I am quite sure we'll be sharing a cup of coffee after a meeting some time down the road!

Im A Foto Nut said...

Forgive me Father for it has been 13 Days since my last post.....

You ok Steve? I have been out of pocket with Pneumonia but am all better now. Still at home, aren't Doctors cool?!

~m2~ said...

so on 7/6 i answer in one way and start a conversation on my blog; i come back in, almost entirely sure of my position and you respond with something that makes me really rethink my stance on things.

how can that be? i only know you through blogging .... how can you know me all that well?

suffice it to say, you've got me thinking again and that is really a good thing. i am at the hospital this weekend so i cannot visit other churches, but from next weekend on, i am on a mission. thank you for helping me think outside of my *box*.

between you and jeff, i don't stand a chance to be complacent. God, am i ever grateful.

love you.

Screeching in the Angelic Choir said...

Speaking as a former Pentecostal, I never understood how someone could just be saved by saying the 'Sinner's Prayer'. Like what? Boom, zap! You're saved? One second ago you were destined to burn in hell, and now you're on the high road to the pearly gates?

I tend to think that salvation is a continual process of life-long repentance to which we are justified by a faith that works to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving them as Christ loved us.

The closest thing I can find in the Scriptures to the Sinner's Prayer is "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom." (St. Luke 23.42)

Lorna (see through faith) said...

"A church Pharisee sees her laying hands on one of the customers, and starts into a rave about whether the pastors have duly authorized Sara to pray or anoint "these people," and whether the bishop should be involved, and what does she think she's doing?"

For the record I hate church Pharisees like this one ! And when I try to see Him though Jesus' eyes all I get is Jesus shaking His head in pain. They just don't get Him and His love for the people! Grrr

Lorna said...

Oh and for the record I'm glad you put ministry (Communion and marriage) over theology (who can do it)

bless you