I had an experience this morning that has the wheels of my interior processing going at full speed. For the first time in about 18-some-odd years I attended a Protestant Sunday worship service. My parish choir shares a director with a Presbyterian congregation in the area, and today we sang together at both their church and ours. Oh, I've been to ecumenical things here and there (where the service was kind of a no-man's land), but this was unique. I'm trying to grab some very powerful impressions and wrestle them into words.
The unity of all Christians is something I pray for every single day. My heart is all for acknowledging what is good and holy in every Christian communion, and for that matter in every religious or spiritual community. My heart is also deeply attuned to the need for on-going (or first time, for that matter) conversion to Christ in the heart of every person.
That’s where I am today. I think this morning's experience put me in touch with elements of my religious past that I can now see with much different eyes. I guess what really struck me today is the huge, gaping divide between religion and an encounter with the supernatural. I will say that we need both, but in very different ways. Religion, as I am using the term here, is a human, natural virtue. It is the natural virtue of being reverent, of knowing that there is a God and acknowledging His right over His creation and humanity. It is about a sort of natural justice and goodness. There are people, I know, who have no formal religious affiliation at all who excel at these virtues. There are probably lots of people in every church whose religious lives express these sentiments.
But it's not Christian.
I think there are other people who go through churches who aren’t strong in these natural virtues, and they look at the claims of organized religion and the actions of the people around them and they declare Christianity a bunch of worthless sentiment. They might believe there is a God, but find the practice of religion meaningless. And sometimes I think they might actually jettison religion as an exercise of virtue, because our somewhat crude culture emphasizes not so much to respect form but to seek what is real and what actually works.
Here’s the real kicker: The natural virtue of religion must have a supernatural encounter with the living God, or you can't call it Christianity. There is so much more than religious form, and you’d better believe it’s real and it works! Lived Christianity is supernatural. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, broke into our humanity in the womb of the Virgin Mary -- that is an absolutely reality-altering experience! God came to show us His face; this is what is above nature coming into what is our nature. As a result, He raised us up to be with Him. God makes us to "share in the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4). The life we live is not one powered by warm fuzzies because of a great example of a good man, it is breath breathed into a corpse that resurrects! Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live! This is that which is above nature blasting into life our fallen humanity. He raises us up, anoints us with His Spirit, and sends us out to participate in the same supernatural, miraculous ministry that He had.
That is Christian.
I have been in healing services and heard accounts of powerful healings. I have prayed over people to receive charismatic gifts. I have personally had various supernatural experiences happen to me in prayer services. And while fully acknowledging these, I will also say that the single greatest evidence of God's presence is love in the human heart. Love will do the humble thing; it will also care of the physical needs of anyone at hand, just as Jesus did. Is this not exactly evident in the fact of the Eucharist? There is no Eucharist without a miracle, without the supernatural breaking into our ordinariness. And then, Jesus gives Himself to each one, feeding us, loving us, and bidding us and enabling us to love one another. How absolutely perfect!
At times in my life, I have been toxically religious. By that I mean that I was deeply entrenched in a system of human efforts to reach God, but that I lost sight of the goal and became addicted to the system and the effort. And, I must stress, this toxicity is possible in any ecclesial community, for Catholics as easily as for Protestants. Today I am so thankful to God for exactly the path He has chosen for me. He never left me to drown but allowed me the grace to call out to Him for rescue. Thanks be to God for every painful step, for every bit of confusion, and most especially for the witnesses to the supernatural He has sent across my path to show me there was a way out being traveled by others.
Praised be Jesus Christ! Now and forever!!