Saturday, November 15, 2008

Tribe and Grace

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So anybody who knows me for very long knows that I was excommunicated from the Presbyterian Church of America in 1998 after being received into the Roman Catholic church in December 1997 in Bayswater, London. To this DAY I don't know anybody else who has had that happen to them. Of course, it's not the kind of thing that's likely to come up in your average conversation on a night out:

Me: (laughing with a beer in hand) THAT was funny! So, who else here's been excommunicated??

So, I was excommunicated... had a Scary Letter sent to me telling me that I was no longer welcome to take communion in a PCA church. They considered my conversion an act of rebellion and the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church to be Very Bad, Indeed... basically they really didn't consider me a Christian now that I'd Aligned Myself with Rome. They didn't tell me I couldn't darken the doors of a PCA church, so I still went to church with my folks when I was at home after graduating from Covenant that May, but when they had communion, I was not welcome. I obeyed this directive, with a considerable sense of irony and a little bit of bitterness at their denying communion to someone who WAS a Christian. One of my coolest memories of my Mother was of her also quietly refusing to take communion. I passed the plate without taking anything from it, and so did she, without ever saying anything to me about it. I love my Mom.

I thought The Letter was really Much Ado About Nothing. As far as I was concerned, you either loved Christ and accepted that He was the fulfillment of the OT Messiah or you didn't. THOSE were the salient categories to me, the Christ-lovers and the non-Christ lovers. In a sense, my joining the RC church WAS a rebellion, but it was a rebellion against all the Theology Hounds up on the mountain at Covenant who acted like Christ's incarnation in no way necessitated that their faith be similarly incarnate, i.e. primarily concerned with continuing Christ's work of healing and ministering to the sick, lonely, poor. They seemed to be more interested in creating the Perfect Theology above the clouds while Chattanooga suffered in The Valley Below. They weren't particularly childlike in their faith, either, which I considered to be absolutely essential, and to be a pretty clear directive of Christ's... basically "come to Me as a child, humble and trusting, or you're never ever ever going to get what I have to say. I'm more complicated than you could ever understand, but what I want from YOU is really simple, and pretty difficult, and you're going to think it's dumb and an awful lot of effort."

The letter pissed me off more because I Knew The Guys That Done It -- had known them since I was a kid-- and I didn't recall any of them really trying to talk to me about my faith. They didn't know that my prayer life and my commitment to Christ had literally kept me from killing myself multiple times as I dealt with a dark, deep depression that hit when I was 12 and didn't let up at all until I was about 16 (gotta love puberty). They had no idea what my Catholic conversion meant to me, didn't know the Catholic guy I'd fallen in love with that precipitated so much of it, didn't know how alienated I'd felt at Covenant. They didn't seem to understand my faith as a living relationship with Christ... didn't understand that I found all the theology interesting, that it was a part of me intellectually, but that it was utterly separate from the God who met me in my room at night and stopped my tears, who went with me through the day and comforted me when I was overcome by social anxiety, who spoke to me through my Bible and who gave me hope for the future. THIS God was God as I really understood Him, relationally, and if there was no space for that God in their theology, then I doubted THEIR Christianity. So I turned my back on the PCA with no regret and very little pondering on the matter. That was 10 years ago.

I've mentioned last week's Pete Rollins conference thing. I didn't mention that Five of the Coolest Guys I Know and I stayed with Bob and Grace Haymes. Bob was pastor of Highlands Church (PCA) in Lafayette, GA when I was at Covenant. He was MY pastor, and my friends and I loved his church dearly because it was a church of Just Folks... such a far cry from the crappy Race to Be the Most Truly Reformed going on up on the mountain. Don't get me wrong, Bob's theology is in order. He is still very PCA and he's currently serving as an elder at New Hope Presbyterian in Philly. But he gets that theology must be incarnational. He gets that any theological system has the life of Christ as its ultimate referent and the standard against which it must be judged. So Bob and Grace and their little family were this wonderful little oasis for those of us who just wanted community under Christ.

Last weekend, watching Bob and Grace talk to my buds, I was at the verge of grateful tears the whole time. They're incredible hosts... both sick with a nasty cold/flu thing but both so obviously digging having us around, so engaging and engaged in the conversation, which was often about theology (we were up there to hear Pete Rollins, so of course it was going to come up). The thing that had me almost crying was a) my memories of them and how kind they've always been to me, and to my brother when he was going through a really really hard time at Covenant (he and I both briefly lived with the Haymes at different times for different reasons), b) their beautiful transparency which made the conversation flow and endeared me to them again, and c) that nobody backed off an inch really from their theological standpoint, but that we found common ground... and that common ground was almost always related to the life of Christ.

Last night, I had dinner with Domi and Kitula, friends from Tanzania, who are also very PCA. Kitula and I's friendship began when I found out he'd gone to Reformed Theological Seminary in Jacksonville, FL, and had classes with Richard Pratt, a good friend of my Dad's (they founded a church together with some other folks in Roanoke when I was a little kid). I haven't seen D,K, and their gorgeous baby Peter in months and months... hadn't been to their house in a year... but it was like we just picked right up where we left off. The conversation, of course, turned to theology, and I did my best to explain the emergent thing to them (Christianity engaging postmodernity, basically... right?), and Kitula was receptive and gracious about it. Before Kitula drove me home, he asked to pray over the three of us, so we joined hands and he said the most gorgeous prayer, thanking God for His grace, thanking Him for our friendship, for all the blessings that God has given, and how He has directed and protected all of us, especially me. So there I was, choking back tears at the amazing grace of PCA folks for the second time in less than a week.

A new friend of mine called me a Calvinist recently and I said "I'm NOT a Calvinist. Well, I am in the sense that cradle Catholics are always Catholic." and indeed, that's true. I started taking communion in the Reformed Presbyterian church when I was 4 years old because I had already memorized most of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. It's in there at some deep level, and I probably live it out in ways that I don't even begin to understand. The PCA hasn't been my tribe in a very long time, though, and it has felt so good to reconnect with these amazing amazing people who understand that one of the best things about Reformed Theology is its emphasis on Grace. They've shown me Grace... lived it for me and with me. and I am profoundly blessed by it.


grace said...

What a blessing. Every church, every sect, every "tribe" on earth that claims to follow Christ has rotten dirty pigs all crocheted in amongst those who "get it". I was thoroughly marinated in whatever- Reformed Presbyterianism - from my birth on. Literally, my mother quoted scripture to me the moment I "appeared". Somehow, that still seems a little creepy - is that bad for me to wish she'd said something like, "Oh GOSH you're AMAZING!!!" But then again she'd never say Gosh. I digress.

So - I was marinated in theological excellence from birth on. Not only that, but I also had extended family who were marinated in perfectionism. I remember as a 1st grader, looking at the picture of Jesus with the children, thinking, "He sure seems a whole lot nicer and kind of frumpier than Aunty makes him out to be." So my understanding of him as shepherd, saviour, lover, friend, king, redeemer - I kept it kind of secret.

The other person who "got it" was my dad - for which I'm deeply and thoroughly grateful. He was an ordained minister; signed, sealed, and delivered Westminster Confestion of Faith and Catechism - Longer and Shorter subscriber. But here's the clincher: he could never "get over" the fact that Jesus loved him, chose him, washed him, and delighted in him. I remember him just putting his head in his hands and saying, "I just can't quite fathom that the maker of the universe actually loves Ted Noe'." He would talk about the theological perfectionists (when they weren't around), saying, "They wear their Reformed Theology like a gothic cathedral hanging around their necks." or "He's an 8-cylinder Calvinist with flying racoon tails."

Now I'm sucking space up on your blog. Too much chocolate chip cookie dough - but oh! so much better than the actual cookies.

Amy, you're a dear and we're just as moved as you are by the fact that you brought your friends to stay with us and they were such dears.

- G

Mike Croghan said...

Awesome, Amy. (I'd say that even if I hadn't met Grace and Bob and found out for myself how awesome they are.) :-) This is the sort of story that fills my heart with happy.

In fact, I'm tempted to invent a new blog award, in the tradition of P3T3's blagor0xx0rs: "Croghan's John 13:34-35 Award" for stories of Christians actually living the freakin' New Commandment. For once. Dammit.

'Cause that's just what the interwebs need: another nobody blogger handing out another unnoticed blog award. ;-)

But you (and G&B and D&K) win it, FWIW. I affirm you.