Prelude and Fugue in Faith — Prelude (Part 3)

(continued…)

The C&MA is a much larger denomination overseas than in the U.S. as a result of its deep commitment to foreign mission work. I loved the stories we heard, and the people we met through the missionaries’ stories and slides. A choir was begun while we were there, and I became choir accompanist. This is a job I held until Dan and I separated, and it was my favorite and deepest mode of worship and prayer.

Ironically, though, after the separation, it was not from my church that I received my strongest spiritual or emotional support, but rather from the academic community at Guilford College, where I was working on my bachelor’s degree. The gentle but strong Quaker influence over the campus allowed me a lot of room to go through the faith crisis that was inevitable with the end of my marriage.

I had been taught, indoctrinated, from my earliest days as a Christian, that if one “plays the game right” – if one attends church, reads the Bible studiously, prays, gives to the Church, abstains from all immoral practices – if one has enough faith – then God will perform miracles and bad things will not happen to the faithful believer. But I had played the game right, and Dan had still left me. Suddenly, a lot of the things I had been taught I had to believe as a Christian – and I confess, that I had obnoxiously passed on to other people as well – were invalidated. They didn’t hold water. The surface upon which my religious life had been built for more than a decade shattered.

If it hadn’t been for the still-vivid memory of the vision of Christ on the Cross, that profound revelation of God’s love for me, I believe I would have done what a lot of other severely disappointed Christians do in an unanticipated crisis and abandoned Christianity altogether. But somehow the memory of that vision assured me that God’s love for me was real, even if His ways had been misrepresented to me through human religious institutions.

The Quakers gave me plenty of room to sort out the mess. Theirs is simultaneously a mystical yet bold confidence in God’s ability – and desire – to lead His people to Himself. I felt as if I had to start all over again as a Christian, from the basic reality of “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” and discover anew what it means to be a Christian. This did not frighten the Quakers as it did the evangelicals; rather, it excited those with whom I shared my thoughts on the matter.

It was while I was a Quaker that I began working for an attorney in Greensboro whom I had met while we both served as volunteers for a local pro-life ministry. Jim was a member of a large, upscale Methodist Church in downtown Greensboro… but he was also a great admirer of the Catholic Church who attended Mass regularly, prayed the rosary, and read Catholic writers by the truckloads. His enthusiasm for the Church intrigued me.

My first memories of exposure to the Church were as a child. The movie The Sound of Music comes immediately to mind. I thought it was wonderful that someone could choose to live life fully for God. Later I read Maria von Trapp’s autobiography, and I realized that her Catholic Christian faith was a much more vibrant part of her personal and family life than the movie had portrayed. Of course, as I grew older and began hearing things about the Catholic Church, its superstitions and oppressive rules and regulations, I though it was a pity that such devotion was tragically wasted on such an institution

I have never believed that the Catholic Church was the “whore of Babylon” like so many fundamentalists have taught. I did believe some of the things I heard: that Catholics worshipped Mary, that they unquestioningly followed the Pope and even worshiped him; that they had superstitions about praying to dead people, that they didn’t believe Jesus’ sufferings and death were adequate to save others but needed “help” from suffering Christians, that married people could only have sex to make a baby and were paranoid about sex in all cases … but I didn’t think Catholics were bad people, just misguided and trapped in bad teaching.

And I’d even read some of the Catholic fathers in college, in a History of Christianity course. Frankly, I hadn’t seen the pertinence of them. I wasn’t mature enough as a student or as a Christian to appreciate what important works I was being exposed to; I had wanted to get dates, a time line of crucial developments in the physical structure of the church, not read a bunch of dense ideas by people I’d never heard of, people like Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origin… Thomas Aquinas. I did enjoy Augustine’s Confessions, a text appreciated by Christians of all denominations. But most of the Church fathers were sleepers, by my reckoning. Dead, outdated, outmoded… totally irrelevant to contemporary church life. If they weren’t, we’d hear a lot more about them in the modern pulpit, wouldn’t we? Well, wouldn’t we? And I was content with that attitude.

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