Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Theology Talk

I recently gave a testimony talk about the role of theology in my life. Here is the text of it adapted to a blog post.

Edit: I had put a lot of headings in the text of my talk to help me find my place whenever I might depart from the text. All of those headings did not look good for a blog post, so I have taken some out and have done a little clean-up while I'm at it.

Watching Apollo

One of my early childhood memories growing up in Mesquite, Texas, was watching the Apollo 8 mission to orbit the moon. I was 6 years old, and I watched all of the TV coverage I could, even changing between different channels to see which had the best pictures. I was again glued to the TV set 8 months later when Apollo 11 actually landed on the moon. I decided then that I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up, so I devoured books about space travel and science and that set me on a trajectory that would affect the rest of my life.

On my bookshelf among the books about science and technology, there was another book that didn't seem to fit in. It was a collection of Bible stories that my Grandmother had given me called Good News for Children. I remember her showing the book to me and telling me about heaven and hell, and that if I believed in Jesus, I would go to heaven. This presented a couple of problems to me. The first was, how do I know I believe well enough to go to heaven? I was certainly willing to try to believe if it would keep me out of hell. The second problem was that my Good News book and the science books seemed to tell conflicting stories about the world.

We didn’t go to church much when I was little. My dad was raised Baptist, but he didn’t like the “no dancing, no partying” Baptist culture he grew up in. My mom was raised Methodist, but for some reason they didn’t like the local Methodist church. When we did go, I didn’t like it because I didn’t know what was going on. When I was about 10, friends who lived down the street invited us to their church, which was Presbyterian, and we started going to church there regularly. When I was 12, I went to “Communicants Class”, which is a sort of first communion class. Since I hadn’t been baptized, I received baptism and first communion on the same day at the end of that class. I was rather interested in it all while in the class, but that didn’t last.

Young Atheist

As I got older, I decided that science and religion were not compatible, and I chose the side of science. If someone would ask me, I would say that although I went to church, I didn’t believe it.

One of my favorite authors was Isaac Asimov, who wrote science fiction, but he also wrote books explaining scientific topics for a layman audience. I had several of his books, one of which was a collection of essays called The Planet that Wasn't. The last essay in the book was called "The Judo Argument," and it went about disproving several proofs for the existence of God. However, I was surprised by how the article ended. Although he didn't believe anyone had proved the existence of God, he also believed no one had disproved it. It was an open question. I decided that if I were to be intellectually honest, I should consider the possibility of God's existence.
Psalm 14:1, ‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”’
When I was fourteen, the movie "Star Wars" came out. Not only was it the best science-fiction movie I had ever seen, but it surprised me by combining space travel and technology with the mystical concept of the Force. It further opened my mind to the possibility that there could be something out there that was greater than what science could tell us, but at that time I didn't think this something would be the Christian God.

In high school, I went from spaceships to computers, and in my sophomore year, I took a computer programming class and ended up as a member of a three-man team to compete in a programming competition at UNT. Our teacher drove the three of us to Denton and back in his car, and on the way back, the other two kids asked our teacher if they could play a tape they had brought. It was a guy named Larry Norman, and he played rock music about Jesus. I thought this was very strange, but I had respect for these guys because they knew computers, so I listened to them over the next several months as they talked to me about Jesus and the Bible. By the end of my junior year, I had a strong faith in the truth of the Bible, and its message of Jesus as our savior. This faith gave meaning to the universe that had fascinated me from a scientific standpoint.
Psalm 19:1 "The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands."

Texas A&M

I went to college at Texas A&M to study Engineering, and I didn't want to lose my newfound faith in the midst of college life, so I immediately found a church there. I chose a Bible Church because that's the kind of church my Christian high school friends attended. I believed that the Bible was God's message to us and that it was a trustworthy source for truth, so I tried to learn as much as I could by attending Bible studies and classes.
Psalm 25:4-5, Your ways, O LORD, make known to me; teach me Your paths, guide me in Your truth and teach me, for you are God my savior.
In college, I found myself struggling with two theological issues. The first one came from the fact that most of the people in my church believed that the Universe, including the Earth and the first humans, was created in six days 6000 years ago. They desired to be faithful to the Bible, and they thought interpreting it as literally as possible was the best way to do that. Of course, contemporary science is in conflict with that view, and this bothered me. I believed God was capable of creating the world in six days, but if he did, I would expect scientific evidence to be more supportive. I did find one Bible Church theologian who provided an alternative interpretation of Genesis that fit better with the scientific data, but that remained a minority view, which I soon learned was not something to mention unless I wanted to stir up some controversy.

The other issue had to do with the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone. The college minister at the church I attended taught that once a person put their faith in Christ for salvation, nothing else mattered. No matter how much they sinned or fell away from the Christian life, they were still saved and were destined for heaven. There were other Bible Church pastors who taught a view called "Lordship Salvation" that said a person must receive Jesus as their Lord as well as their Savior in order to be saved, and that meant that a Christian's life should be changing for the better.

These struggles showed me that just believing the Bible was not enough to know the truth. I didn't know how I would go about finding that truth, but I turned to God in the hope that somehow he would guide me.
James 1:5, "But if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and he will be given it.”


These theological problems weren't purely academic. I found that my uncertainty about theology made it difficult to hold strong to certain moral positions. I had read a book that had taught against contraception, which was unusual for a Protestant. Nevertheless, I found the argument convincing and had decided I didn't want to contracept when I got married. However, when I did end up getting married, the pastor who did our pre-marital counseling advised us to use contraception at least during our first year of marriage so that we would have time to be more settled before children came. Even though my conscience was telling me contraception was wrong, the fact that most Protestants thought it was okay made it hard for me to maintain my stand, so I ended up giving in.

We had not been married five months when Toni started suffering severe abdominal pains, which were followed by fever and weakness. After some time in the hospital, heavy antibiotics, and eventual surgery, we found out her appendix had ruptured and she would not be able to have children. By attempting to delay having children, we lost our opportunity to have children at all.

Giving up on Theology

During my college years and several years after college, I tried to find a church that had answers to these theological issues, as well as others we don’t have time to get into. On each side of an issue, there were proponents who had a whole set of Bible verses and rational arguments to back up their side. Sometimes the arguments became heated and not very Christian in their manner. Even after all of the heated debate, nothing would be achieved and divisions remained. I came to believe that too much focus on theology can get in the way of one's relationship with Christ. Therefore, I decided to give up on theology and just go back to the Bible Church where my High School friends had gone. At least they were caring people who loved Jesus.
1 Corinthians 8:1b-3, ‘“Knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If any one imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if one loves God, one is known by him.”

History of Worship

We had been at the Bible Church for about five years, and I was a member of their “Worship Team,” helping out with music and sound. The Worship Team was trying to figure out how to get the congregation more involved in the worship. Besides singing a few hymns, the people at our services just sat and listened. In an attempt to get some new ideas, the leader of our worship team had bought a set of books called “The Complete Library of Christian Worship” edited by Robert Webber. He asked different members of the team to read a volume and give a report back to the group. I was assigned volume 2: Twenty Centuries of Christian Worship. In that book I was surprised to find that the earliest known forms of Christian worship were liturgical in nature and focused on the Eucharist. The book had excerpts from the writings of Justin Martyr in the second century describing this liturgical form of worship that was still used in Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican churches today.

I was amazed at my findings because they exactly answered our problem of getting the congregation involved. The liturgy was like a script, and everyone had a part to play. However, I was not surprised that when I shared my findings with the group, the pastor responded that there was no way liturgy would be introduced at our church.

I wanted to learn more about the beliefs and practices of the early church, especially when it came to liturgy and the Eucharist, so I thought I should visit some of these liturgical churches. I was not interested in the Episcopal Church because they were moving away from traditional Christianity. I didn’t look at the Catholic Church at that time because I had been taught by both my childhood upbringing as well as my Evangelical tradition that the Catholic Church was to be avoided. That left the Orthodox Church. I had a coworker who was converting from being an Episcopalian to Orthodoxy, and so I checked out some of the Orthodox churches in the area. I was attracted to them, but my wife found them very foreign and strange.

Then through a series of connections I discovered a small Anglican denomination called “The Charismatic Episcopal Church,” or CEC. Despite their name, they were not connected to the Episcopal Church and did not share in the beliefs that concerned me about the Episcopal Church. They had a rather vibrant parish in Sherman, TX that Toni and I visited for the first time May 1999. We both liked the church very much. The people there were very interested in liturgical worship and the early Church Fathers, so it was exactly what I was looking for. They also had a part-time seminary program that allowed students to attend classes one weekend a month, with reading and writing assignments in between.

The Church Fathers

I found the focus on the Church Fathers to be especially intriguing. Not only could I learn more about early forms of worship from them, but I also thought they held the key to solving some of these theological controversies that caused so much division. Since they lived much closer to the time of the Apostles, they had a better understanding of the culture of the Bible and could interpret it better. Some of them were actually from churches that were founded by the Apostles and had preserved the Apostolic teachings and practices in their traditions.

My interest in theology was reawakened, so when I was invited to join the CEC seminary program, I enthusiastically did it.

One of the earliest Church Fathers we read in seminary was St. Ignatius of Antioch.  He was the third bishop of Antioch, following the man who took St. Peter’s place when Peter went from Antioch to Rome. It is likely that as a child, Ignatius knew St. Peter.

As an old man, Ignatius was arrested by the Romans and taken to Rome to be fed to wild animals in the Coliseum. During the long journey, he met Christians along the way, and he wrote to them as he continued on his journey. These letters have been preserved and we studied them in my class.

One theme that was important to St. Ignatius was unity in the local church. He saw the bishop as the key to unity, and he exhorted his friends to do nothing without the bishop. The bishop had been given authority from Christ through the Apostles, and it was through the bishop that Christ would hold the local church together.

I learned that the bishops in the Orthodox, Catholic, and some Anglican churches could trace their line of ordination back to the Apostles. Having experienced plenty of division, I found this idea very compelling.

The CEC considered themselves a branch of the Catholic Church. We would tell people that we were Catholic, but not Roman Catholic. We disagreed with the Roman Catholics on some things, but we had much more in common with them. Because of this, I learned a lot about Catholic beliefs and practices and how they were rooted in the Bible. I was not interested in becoming Roman Catholic yet, but I now saw Roman Catholics as brothers.

Although there were many things I liked about my brothers in the CEC, I was dismayed to find that most of them were pretty anti-science, especially when it came to evolution. They wanted to hold to a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story, and that caused them to reject much of what science said about the universe.

Lack of Unity

After a few years, I came to see how much division existed in the Anglican world. The bishops of the CEC were separate from the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the United States. There were other small Anglican groups in the United States that were similar to us, but remained separate for various reasons. There seemed to be no way to resolve these differences and bring these groups together.

Although the CEC had many beliefs in common with the Catholic Church, the main thing we disagreed about was the Pope. However, I began to see the Pope as the answer for the problem of division. St. Ignatius showed us how the bishop was the point of unity for the local Christians, but there also needed to be a point of unity for all of the bishops. If the bishops were the successors of the Apostles, then it made sense that there would be a successor to the leader of the Apostles, St. Peter. I came to see that it was the Pope that held the Catholic Church together, and he was the one who ultimately would rule in theological controversies. Peter had the job of bringing the Apostles together, and he was the foundation on which Jesus would build his Church.
Matthew 16:18, "And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it."

Luke 22:31-32, "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren."

This belief about the Pope came together in me during the 2002-2003 timeframe. I began to think I should become Catholic, but I kept quiet about it because I didn’t want to stir up a mess until I was sure I was going to convert. I spoke privately to the Seminary Dean and my Bishop, and they both tried to convince me to stay with the CEC, arguing that their way was right. None of their arguments were convincing to me, but I decided to stay because it seemed that God had placed me among these people for a reason.

I must admit that another thing that held me back was the fact that I was studying to become a priest in the CEC, but I could not become a priest in the Catholic Church because I was married.

In November 2004, I was laid off from my job at Nortel that had allowed me to telecommute from Sherman. I found another job, but it was no longer practical to live in Sherman. We decided to move near Denton so that we could help out a small CEC parish that was pastored by a friend of mine there. We had been there about a year and I was a couple of months away from being ordained a deacon when there was an interpersonal blow-up in the parish. The parish was very small, less than a couple of dozen people, so I was wondering if we could continue attending that parish. The problem was that in such a small denomination, there was nowhere else in the area we could go. For the last two years I had been trying to make things work in the CEC, but now that had come to a dead end. I was lying awake one night trying to figure out what to do when it occurred to me that now was the time to go to the Catholic Church. I had delayed three years earlier because of my ties with my friends in the CEC, but distance and circumstances had weakened those ties. I was nearing ordination, but I could not in good conscience now make ordination vows when my convictions were with the Catholic Church.
Romans 8:28, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”

Becoming Catholic

I didn’t know any Catholics in the area, so I just started visiting parishes in the area. A CEC friend told me about St. Mary the Virgin parish in Arlington. It had previously been an Episcopalian congregation, and the whole parish along with the pastor had come into the Catholic Church in the 1990s. My friend thought their pastor would be understanding of our situation. Fr. Alan Hawkins at St. Mary’s worked with my wife and I for several months, and we were received into the Catholic Church on Easter of 2006.

It had been twenty-four years since I encountered my first theological controversy in college. During that time I thought it was up to me to figure out who God is and what he wants us to do. I believed that the Bible was a trustworthy source, but people understood the Bible in so many contradictory ways. When I entered the Catholic Church, I happily placed myself under the authority of her teaching. I gladly handed over judgment of right and wrong to the body of Christ, and her apostolic leadership that connected us to the head of the body, Christ himself. I sought refuge in the Church as my Mother, trusting that she would guide me to eternal life.
1 Timothy 3:14-15, “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”
I chose St. Thomas Aquinas as my confirmation saint because one of his great accomplishments was showing that Christian faith was not opposed to reason. He provided the foundation upon which many Catholic thinkers have been able to harmonize our faith with modern scientific discoveries. However, not only was St. Thomas a great intellectual, he was also a deeply spiritual man who spent time in deep prayer, even having mystical encounters. He was a great example of the fact that theological study is not incompatible with spirituality. Instead, according to St. Thomas, no one can truly understand theology without having a personal encounter with God.

Catholic teaching also had a solution for the faith and works question that had come up in college. Salvation is not by faith alone. The life of the Christian begins with and is founded on faith, but works of love should also flow out of our life with Christ. All of this, both the faith and the works, are a result of God’s work of grace in our lives.
James 2:24, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

Ephesians 2:8-10, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
As a Catholic, I now had clear teaching about God’s view of marriage and children. Modern thinking has disassociated sex and the conception of children, but traditional Christianity has always seen the two as together. The Catholic Church draws on that 2000 year tradition and is not swayed by the changing spirit of the age.

After I been a Catholic for about a year, I decided to work on a Masters in Theology at University of Dallas with the intention of next getting a doctorate and teaching in a seminary. If I couldn’t be a priest, maybe I could help others in the process of becoming priests. In the process of moving to the Irving area so that I could go to UD, I fell into a job opportunity as Technology Director at Cistercian Preparatory School, which is right across the highway from UD. I thought this would make a nice temporary job while I went to school, but it has turned out to be the best job I’ve ever had. The only drawback for me is that I can’t teach theology there because the Cistercian monks teach all of the theology classes.

It took me five years to finish my Masters and I came to see that it was not practical for me to get a doctorate and make a career change into the University academic world in my 50s. I considered teaching theology at another Catholic High School and applied to the schools in the area, but I was not happy about leaving Cistercian. Then I was approached by one of the deacons at our parish who invited me to consider the deaconate program. I realized this could be the path God has for me. So, this month I started the discernment and formation process with an aim to ordination in 2020 if we discern that is God’s calling.

You can see how theology has worked in my life and has led me to the Catholic Church. Although I went through a period of thinking that theological study could get in the way of a relationship with Christ, I now see that theology done rightly is an important part of the Christian life.

God has given each of us a mind, and he wants us to use it. Not only should we use the gift of our mind in our daily lives, but we should especially use it when it comes to the most important thing, the relationship with our creator and savior.
Philippians 1:9-11, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”
There are many ways to bring theology into your life besides going back to school, including good books, Internet resources, and Catholic radio and television. No matter how you go about it, I encourage you to seek the truth about Jesus Christ. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. If you seek Him, you shall know the Truth and the Truth will set you free.

No comments: