I was raised a Free Methodist, and even had my sights set on the ministry. In my mind's eye, I foresaw me receiving pastor's training, marrying a piano-playing gal who could help lead worship services, and taking assignments in backwater prairie towns, feeding the flocks there with the word of God. To fulfill that vision, I attended the now-defunct Aldersgate College in Moose Jaw, SK to begin a Bachelor of Theology degree. Life, however, took me in another direction after my first year concluded, and the following year the college closed. Suddenly rudderless, I drifted around, and during my travels and wanderings I found myself summoned into the Catholic Church. That's a long story for another post... if I haven't told it somewhere else before. Here's the part where I apologize to any faithful readers I have left for the long gap between posts. This one ought to make up for it.
Being a Catholic has changed the flavour of my visits to Arlington. I still love being there, as many dear friends I've made over the years still attend camp, and it's always been a favourite meeting place for my family, who are scattered over the prairies. And I still encounter Christ there in my personal prayer life and in the Christian community and events. But in order to fulfill my obligation to attend Sunday Mass, I need to leave the camp and drive with my wife and kids at least 40 minutes to the nearest Catholic parish. The means that a 3 hour chunk of time during each week at Arlington is spent away from my extended family and friends. They don't understand the nature of the Catholic Sunday obligation, and they certainly don't understand my love for the Eucharist that beckoned me across the Tiber. And they've never really had the patience to sit through an explanation of the scriptural reasoning that led me to Rome; those conversations usually get heated before they devolve into "let's just agree to disagree on our interpretations." For the sake of peace, I back down, but my heart still burns within me to help them see the truth as it's been revealed to me.
My most recent journey to Arlington was no exception. But this year was the first one in a long time that found me able to participate in the organized Family Camp activities as an adult. That specifically meant I could attend a Bible study through Philippians led by one Free Methodist pastor, another study of church hospitality led by a different pastor, and evening sessions on the divinely inspired rhythm of rest and revolution, led by the new bishop of the Canadian Free Methodist Church.
Here's where my post title of "So Close" comes into play.
On eight separate occasions within those sessions, I found myself seeing a logical next step in the teachings presented that, if taken, could merge beautifully into Catholic doctrine, but the pastors/bishop would always stop before that step. It was eerie. I know that we're all Christians and we have a lot in common already, but the proximity to specifically Catholic ideas was startling.
For example, one pastor talked about John Wesley's wish that his followers would be partakers of constant communion. Growing up Free Methodist, a communion service was something that was done perhaps once every two months. Long before my conversion, I remember thinking how weird it was that Catholics could potentially have communion every day. But this apparently was a concept close to Wesley's heart, which is logical considering he himself was an Anglican priest, which just one step removed from Catholicism. Still, Free Methodists are a couple of steps farther away, so for one of their pastors to wish for more frequent communion services made me want to stand up and shout, "Yes! God wants this for us, more than you know!" And indeed they had frequent communion services during the week (I did not partake), and one time they kept the leftover bread and grape juice on display on a table at the front of the big tent in which we had our worship meetings each night. This had a semblance to Eucharistic Adoration. Of course, Free Methodists and Catholics have a very different understanding of what communion is, and nobody was venerating the exposed bread the way Catholics worship the Eucharistic Lord. Still, they were so close right up until that last understanding, at which point they veered off wildly.
Another example in the same vein: this pastor also talked about how knowing there is communion after his sermon really takes the pressure off him to "perform" well as a preacher. It was all I could do not to point out to the group that the highlight of the Mass is always the Eucharist, and that bad music, unintelligible preaching, and unfriendly pew-mates don't matter to me as long as I can participate in the sacrifice of the Mass.
The third so close moment was when the bishop talked about the importance of confessing our sins to one another, verbally and out loud. He pointed to James 5:16 to drive this home, and touched on how forgiveness comes only after a verbal confession of sin. Unfortunately, he didn't connect that to John 20:22, where Jesus gives the disciples the authority to forgive sins through the Holy Spirit. But never before had I heard a protestant preacher talk about the importance of a spoken, verbal confession of sins.
Fourth: one pastor talked about how in Acts 15, the apostles came together in what's known as the Council of Jerusalem to decide on the question of whether non-Jews needed to become Jewish as a prerequisite for becoming Christian. The council decided no, and issued a letter stating their authoritative teaching on this matter. Today Catholics would point to other definitive councils in history, most recently Vatican II, as equally authoritative as the Council of Jerusalem because they are done under the apostolic administration of the Catholic Bishops, who are the spiritual descendants of the original apostles. These councils have been held to address the larger questions facing the Church in its current culture, and will certainly continue until the Lord's return.
Fifth: the bishop talked about the importance of a specific venue for private prayer. Catholic churches have always understood this need, which is why many of them have side-chapels, perpetual adoration chapels, and alcoves within the main sanctuary. The bishop was specifically referring to having a place in one's home, and many Catholic families I know have this because it's been ingrained into them by what they see in their churches. So close...
Sixth: the bishop led an interesting teaching on how different prayer postures can facilitate different types of prayer. He saw merit in praying with one's hands stretched up to the sky, in kneeling, in being prostrate, in standing, in sitting, etc. To a Free Methodist listener this is pretty radical stuff. But Catholics get it. Throughout the liturgical year we see all of these positions several times.
Seventh: one night, the bishop read from James 5:14 about how those who are sick should seek out the leaders of the church and request anointing with oil and prayer. If you're reading this and you're Catholic, you'll see that this is one of the spiritual bases for the Sacrament of the Sick. And not only did he preach on this, but he also had the pastors come to take up stations to offer an anointing with oil to any who were sick or needed prayer. I partook of this opportunity, while realizing it wasn't a valid sacrament per se, but hey, free prayer is always good. Again... so close!
Eighth and finally, one pastor outlined salvation history this way, as a five-act drama:
- Act one: Creation in the image of God
- Act two: Sin and the fall, with the promise that the woman's seed would crush the serpent
- Act three: the promise made to Abraham and Israel that as God's chosen people they would be the instrument of the world's reconciliation with God
- Act four: Jesus and his redemptive sacrifice
- Act five: the Church's fulfillment of the promise of salvation, culminating in the return of Christ
He maintained that the fifth act is incomplete because it's being lived out in our lives right now, and continuing the theatrical metaphor stated that we as the actors are basically doing improv until the Lord's return, with only the scriptural account of the early church to give us direction. I had the occasion to suggest to him privately afterward that as a Catholic, I have a script for these last days, and it's provided by the Church. I had done the improv thing, but once I found the script and discovered that it fit the flow of the production seamlessly, I could never go back to making it up as I went along.
We couldn't get much deeper into it at that time, and I have written this post in large part to be able to articulate all of those "so close" moments that I didn't get a chance to share with the people I ached to share them with.
Jesus, before beginning his Passion, uttered a prophetic prayer to his Father in John 17:11, asking the Father to keep his followers "one just as we [Jesus and the Father] are." My decision to become Catholic was less an act of will and more an act of obedience to this prayer. I didn't want to become Catholic; I needed to. Me being a Catholic is my personal response to Christ's prayer for unity among his disciples. I've surrendered all doctrinal differences I had with the Church; no cafeteria-Catholicism for me! I saw no way to remain outside of the original Church and the teachings handed down by the apostles and their descendants, and at the same time honour Jesus' wish for unity among his people. I pray that all will feel the same conviction.