Thursday, June 15, 2017

Wrestling with the Reformation

As many Protestants prepare to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation this October 31, I am conflicted about that development in church history.

As a Baptist pastor, I thoroughly identified with the Reformation. I relished Luther’s chutzpah that sparked the movement. I honored Luther for translating the Bible into the language of the German people. I was grateful that Luther and others articulated and promoted the three solas: by Scripture alone, by faith alone, and by grace alone.[1] I tried to turn the attention of folks away from Halloween and toward the celebration of Luther posting his ninety-five theses. On Reformation Sunday, we would sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and read Psalm 46.

Now as a Catholic, my appreciation of the Reformation is muted. Discourse, most often by theologians, historians and clergy rather than from lay people, is typically critical. They sometimes refer to it as a rebellion.[2] While they admit that the Church needed a course correction, they consider many of the beliefs of the reformers to be out of bounds. Yet, last year Pope Francis participated in a prayer service at a Lutheran cathedral in Sweden to mark the anniversary of the Reformation. He expressed that Lutherans and Catholics “should mend past errors and seek mutual forgiveness.”[3]

So I wrestle with the positives and negatives of the Reformation. I believe that the Lord God inspired Luther and others to challenge the Church for the integrity of the Gospel. At the same time, I believe God wants all followers of Jesus to be united—to be “perfectly one.” Unity reveals God’s love for us, which matches His love for our Lord Jesus Christ (John 17:20-23). As the song from the ‘60s goes, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

But what would complete unity look like? Would the division between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, which began in 1054, be settled? Would the disconnect between Protestants and Roman Catholics, and further lack of harmony within the Protestant branch of Christianity, be resolved? It’s true that perfect unity will happen in the heavenly realms. But can we achieve it here on earth? If so, how will it take place?

It will arrive as we realize that all branches and sub-branches of Christianity believe and teach that our salvation, our forgiveness and ultimate freedom from sin and friendship with God, comes from “conversion to God in Christ by the power of the Spirit.”[4] Unity will arrive as we speak respectfully about the nuances the branches and sub-branches emphasize. Unity will flourish as we recognize that disagreement among Christians largely has to do with the mechanics, descriptions and practices that promote our essential relationship with our Lord. Engaging in worship with other traditions is a good way to appreciate their beliefs and practices. For example, in June of 2013 Judi and I spent several days at New Skete Monasteries in Upstate New York basking in the beauty of Eastern Orthodoxy.[5]

While evangelicals and Roman Catholics agree that our faith is all about having “a personal relationship” with God the Father through Jesus Christ, Catholics don’t typically use that phrase. So I take note when Catholics express their faith that way.

For example, the priest at the parish I attend recently gave this illustration during two separate homilies. He recalled attending a funeral at an evangelical church where the pastor was an outspoken critic of Catholicism. The pastor said something like this to the assembled congregation that apparently included Catholics: “If you think your rosary beads will get you to heaven, you are in for a rude awakening!” and “If you think your novenas will assure your salvation, you are mistaken!” Fr. Michael said that the pastor’s words were so annoying that he wanted to take his rosary beads and throw them at the pastor such that the crucifix would make a permanent impression on the speaker’s forehead. “But there was just one problem,” our priest said, “That pastor was right! Our rosary beads won’t get us to heaven. Our novenas aren’t the way to God. Jesus is the only way. It is only through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that we will arrive in heaven. Our rosary beads and our novenas are simply some of the means we use to connect with our Lord.”

And H. James Towey, in his contribution to Paul D. Scalia’s book That Nothing May Be lost, writes, “Any book on the Christian life is only of value if it facilitates or nurtures an encounter with Jesus—not the concept of Jesus or the legend of Jesus, but the Person of Jesus.”[6] He also quotes Pope Benedict XVI: “Faith is above all a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, and to experience his closeness, his friendship, his love; only in this way does one learn to know him ever more, and to love and follow him ever more.”[7] Towey proceeds to tell his own conversion story. It’s worth the price of the book.[8]

I hasten to note that Catholics and evangelicals, and our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox tradition, have much more in common than a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Here is a short list of beliefs revealed by the Holy Spirit to the Church long before the Schism of 1054 and the Reformation of 1517.

       There is one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit;
       God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, became flesh and dwelled among us. He is one person with two natures, divine and human;
       Sacred Scripture (God’s Word) is authoritative for faith and life;
       Our Lord Jesus Christ died and rose again to accomplish our salvation;
       We are justified by grace through faith because of Christ;[9]
       Those who accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ;[10]
       We look forward to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will take us to heaven to worship God for all eternity.[11]

There are clusters of Christians from contrasting traditions that work harmoniously without diluting the tenets of their faith. A short list includes those aligned with Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ETC),[12] members of “That They May Be One” Evangelicals and Catholics in Dialogue,[13] and those who write for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity. I’ll focus on Touchstone because it is the one I know best. This publication, which has nourished me for fifteen years, has a clear mission statement:

Touchstone is a Christian journal, conservative in doctrine and eclectic in content, with editors and readers from each of the three great divisions of Christendom— Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox. It provides a place where Christians of various backgrounds can speak with one another on the basis of shared belief in the fundamental doctrines of the faith as revealed in Holy Scripture and summarized in the ancient creeds of the Church. To the confusion of voices in the world on matters of order in religious, social, and cultural life, it speaks with a unified voice of that which, manifest in creation and divine revelation, flows from the life of God himself.[14]

It’s a pleasure to read Touchstone for several reasons: the writing is superb; each issue features a wide range of topics; and the authors express their convictions in a positive and constructive manner. Above all, its members seek to bring healing to our wounded society. Theological disagreement among, for example, a Southern Baptist (Russell D. Moore), a Roman Catholic (Anthony Esolen) and a member of the Eastern Orthodox community (Patrick Henry Reardon) is never on display. Their unity is palpable.

Such consensus is an example for my wife, Judi, and me as we enjoy our respective traditions. I like to say that we have our own chapter of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. We remain united when we recall that we are followers of Jesus by virtue of our conversion to God in Christ. We remain united when we speak respectfully about our contrasting customs. We remain united when we affirm that differences in our traditions have to do largely with mechanics, descriptions and practices that promote our relationship with God. We remain united when we recall that first and foremost we are followers of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Writing this helps clarify how I feel about the Reformation. Division, prompted by sinful attitudes and practices, still abounds. Yet, positive points of emphasis and nuances embodied by various traditions continue to nourish the body of Christ. C. S. Lewis observed that in heaven, “. . . each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the Divine beauty better than any other creature can.”[15] That sort of praise of God does happen in this valley of tears, but it is often tainted by sin.

Thus, I celebrate this momentous anniversary, in advance, by writing this essay. I’m sure I’ll observe the day in some special way. Until then, I’ll read and support Touchstone magazine even more faithfully; and I’ll begin reaching out to evangelicals in our community to promote meaningful communication. Perhaps, by God’s grace, Judi and I will expand our chapter of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

© Stan Bohall
June 12, 2017
Word count: 1517

[1] I have since discovered two more: through Christ alone, and glory to God alone.
[4] Cf. “Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” (, the penultimate paragraph of the section titled We Witness Together, 19 of 24. Not all groups that claim to be Christian are within the fold. The article “We Need to Stop Saying That There Are 33,000 Protestant Denomination” ( by Scott Eric Alt makes this clear.
[5] Cf.
[6] Rev. Paul D. Scalia, That Nothing May Be Lost (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017), 19.
[7] Ibid. Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, October 21, 2009, quoted in “Pope Encourages Personal Relationship with Christ: Points to Example of St. Bernard of Clairvaux”
[8] Ibid. 20-22.
[9] “Evangelicals & Catholics Together . . . .”, 4 of 24.
[10] Ibid.
[11] There are groups that claim to be Christian that do not espouse one or more of these beliefs. Scott Eric Alt makes this point in his article, “We Need to Stop Saying That There are 33,000 Protestant Denominations”
[14] Reproduced from the magazine’s masthead. A summary of that statement is the subtitle of Touchstone’s parent organization, The Fellowship of St. James, For Christ, Creed & Culture.
[15] Clive Staples Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 154.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Two Films about Spiritual Journeys

As I watched the movie Fences recently, two previous experiences came to mind. The first was seeing grace and nature play out in the film The Tree of Life. The second was a seminar titled “Gender & the Spiritual Journey” presented by Adele Calhoun during my spiritual direction training. So I’ve decided to write about those experiences to absorb the lessons they offer for myself and others.

In the first scene of The Tree of Life, Mrs. O’Brien describes grace and nature this way.

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things. They taught us that no one who walks the way of grace ever comes to a bad end. I will be true to you whatever comes.

The film shows Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, small-town-dwellers during the 1950s, taking separate paths especially with their three school-age children. Mr. O’Brien, a power-plant manager who regrets leaving behind his music career, takes the path of nature: He demands that his sons call him sir, he expects immediate obedience, and he exacts penance for small offences. As an example, he orders his oldest son, Jack, to close the screen door quietly fifty times for having allowed it to slam once. In contrast, Mrs. O’Brien, a firm yet loving mom, takes the path of grace. Once, when Mr. O’Brien is away on a business trip, she blissfully plays along with her sons’ boyish behavior as they celebrate their father’s absence.

The movie Fences, a remake of the Broadway play, presents those two paths taken by Troy and Rose Maxson, an urban couple in the 1950s. Troy, a former baseball star in the Negro leagues, is an illiterate garbageman. His path is evident as he relates to his sons, Lyons and Cory. Lyons, born of a previous marriage, is a struggling self-employed musician in his thirties. Cory, a high school football player, is being recruited by a college team and needs his father’s approval.

One Friday afternoon, Lyons stops by to ask his father to loan him ten dollars. Troy rebuffs him: “I’ll be damned! I’ll die and go to hell and play blackjack with the devil before I give you ten dollars.” When Troy stalls with a silly story fueled by the gin he has been drinking, Rose brings him back to reality: “Let the boy have ten dollars, Troy.” At that, he reaches into his pocket and gives Rose the envelope with his weekly wages: seventy-six dollars and forty-two cents. Rose hands Lyons a ten dollar bill, so he thanks her. But Troy complains, “Wait a minute. You gonna say, ‘thanks, Rose’ and ain’t gonna look to see where she got that ten dollars from?”  

Troy’s relationship with Cory is even more heart-rending. A third of the way through the story, Cory asks his father, “How come you ain’t never liked me?” Troy counters,

Liked you? Who the hell say I got to like you? What law is there say I got to like you? Wanna stand up in my face and ask a damn fool-ass question like that. Talking about liking somebody. Come here, boy, when I talk to you.

Troy contends that he feeds, clothes, and allows Cory to live in his house because it’s his responsibility.

A man got to take care of his family. You live in my house . . . sleep you behind on my bedclothes . . . fill you belly up with my food . . . cause you my son. You my flesh and blood. Not ‘cause I like you! Cause it’s my duty to take care of you. I owe a responsibility to you!

Even that speech reveals that Troy has commendable qualities; he’s fully a three-dimensional character. As an example, he’s been watching over his brother, Gabe, whose head injury during the war rendered him childlike. Late in the story, Rose tries to help Cory see Troy’s better side.

Your daddy wanted you to be everything he wasn’t . . . and at the same time he tried to make you into everything he was. I don’t know if he was right or wrong . . . but I do know he meant to do more good than he meant to do harm.

I still refer to her handout, a diagram adapted from lectures given by Richard Rohr titled Men and Women: Journey of Spiritual Transformation.

Rohr and Calhoun point out that in traditional cultures men and women began life on different trajectories. Boys engaged in an upward heroic journey; they were initiated to become wise warriors. Thus, they entered manhood with a solid self identity. Typically a crisis of limitation challenged their aspirations. Their response to the crisis determined whether they would pursue wisdom or become bitter old men.
In traditional cultures, girls descended and developed a permeable self identity that typically led to marriage and motherhood. When a woman’s midlife crisis came, she could ascend to a position of power and become either a wise matriarch or an embittered old woman.

The Gospels reflect those paths. Thus Jesus routinely calls men to descend, but he invites women to ascend. Recall that Jesus urged the rich ruler to sell everything he had and give to the poor (Luke 18:17-29). Yet he summoned the woman at Jacob’s well to drink from the spring of living water that wells up to eternal life (John 4:10, 14).

Richard Rohr points out that men typically struggle with crucifixion (movement downward). The obvious example is Peter’s response to Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). Thus, Peter, along with all but one of the Twelve, scattered when Jesus was arrested, condemned, tortured and crucified. Peter was so frightened that he denied even knowing Jesus. But our Lord restored him, indicating that he too would glorify God through suffering and death (cf. John 21:15-19).

In contrast, Rohr observes that women at that time didn’t believe they could rise above their circumstances (movement upward). So in God’s providence, women were the first to hear the good news that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Mark’s Gospel shows Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome overwhelmed: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). But their hope was restored by repeated revelations. Certainly Jesus’ conversation with Mary Magdalene outside his empty tomb is one of our cherished memories (John 20:14-18).

Rohr’s observations about men and women play out in the movie Fences: Troy’s identity is solidly centered on baseball. In fact, he often uses baseball metaphors to deal with life’s conundrums. He ascended to power through the sport; but racism curtailed his career. It makes sense that he would shield his younger son from a similar fate. But Rose challenges his assumptions: “Times have changed since you was playing baseball, Troy. That was before the war. Times have changed a lot since then.” When Troy disagrees, she says, “They got lots of colored boys playing ball now. Baseball and football.”

Troy’s friend, Bono, tells him that he came along too early. But Troy rejects that as an excuse: “There ought not never have been no time called too early!” He points to a player for the Yankees (Selkirk) who batted .269. “What kind of sense that make? I was hitting .432 with thirty-seven home runs! Man batting .269 and playing right field for the Yankees!” But Rose reminds him, “They got a lot of colored baseball players now. Jackie Robinson was the first. Folks had to wait for Jackie Robinson.” But Troy is unbowed:

Jackie Robinson wasn’t nobody. I’m talking about if you could play ball then they ought to have let you play. Don’t care what color you were. Come telling me I came along too early. If you could play . . . then they ought to have let you play.

And Troy is adamant about Cory’s aspirations:

The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway. You go on and get your book-learning so you can work yourself up in that A&P or learn how to fix cars or build houses or something, get you a trade.

Rose’s identity, on the other hand, has been what Rohr calls permeable: As a young woman, she invested totally in Troy. “I took on his life as mine and mixed up the pieces so that you couldn't hardly tell which was which anymore.” As a consequence, when a crisis threatens to blow apart their eighteen-year marriage, she tells her husband:

I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams . . . and I buried them inside you. I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn’t take no eighteen years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn’t never gonna bloom.

Yet in time, as a result of Rose’s decision to act graciously toward Troy, she rises to a position of power. A latent aspiration becomes a reality for Rose, so she lives out her days as a wise and resourceful woman who freely gives to others.

Apparently Troy never rose above his bitterness. That’s in contrast to Mr. O’Brien in The Tree of Life, who was able to admit his failure and seek forgiveness. Early on, Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien receive word that their middle (adult) son, R.L., suddenly and tragically died. They both grieve profoundly; but Mr. O’Brien, weighed down by sorrow and guilt, humbly bows. And he laments,

I never got a chance to tell him how sorry I was. One night he punched him . . . himself in the face for no reason. He was sitting next to me at the piano and I criticized the way he turned the pages. I made him feel shame. My shame. That poor boy. That poor boy.

Thus, I want my decisions to be grace-filled. I want to be on a journey toward wisdom such that, by God’s grace, I become what Rohr and Calhoun call a “holy fool.” I also want to help others pursue the way of grace and to seek wisdom’s path. May it ever be.

© Stan Bohall, April 17, 2017

Monday, March 20, 2017

So Be Perfect

I’m a recovering perfectionist. I acquired that propensity naturally—through my family. As a child and adolescent, during the ‘50s and ‘60s, I went with family members to camp meetings and revival services in the American Holiness Movement. There, Christian perfection, A.K.A. entire sanctification, was the theme. As their fiery messages concluded, evangelists would invite us to the altar to receive that “second work of grace.” One more stanza of “Just As I Am” or “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling” might draw a few more sensitive souls to receive sinless perfection.

At one Free Methodist camp meeting when I was a teenager, I was bewildered by testimonies from people who claimed to be sin-free for years. The prooftext of the belief was “Without holiness, no one shall see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). Even in her ‘90s, my mother was haunted by how she might achieve that standard for Judgment Day.

My maternal grandmother, with whom my brother and I lived for months at a time during our formative years, did her part to help us live holy lives. A practicing member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, she regularly warned us against lying, sexual sins, and overeating. Abstinence from alcohol was also a theme. She was obviously overweight, so now I wonder if she projected her own struggles onto us.

Thus, it’s not surprising that I stumbled over one of Jesus’ most difficult sayings: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48, KJV). That’s because, though I tried, I never acquired that second work of grace. I “went forward;” I asked God to give me that experience. I was earnest; yet, try as I might I continued to sin.

I would, at times, express my consternation about Matthew 5:48 with my dad. He was the one person in our family who seemed to be immune to perfectionism; though, in retrospect, I recall some telltale signs of the malady. Dad thought Jesus intended that we would be “perfectly fit” for God’s purposes. His favorite analogy was a “perfect” baby, one who arrived with all her fingers and toes, and about whom Wordsworth wrote in Intimations of Immortality, “Heaven lies about us in our infancy!” I’m sure Dad wasn’t aware of Wordsworth’s line; yet, babies exuding the glory of God was the picture he had in mind. But with all that rhetoric about sinless perfection swirling about, I wasn’t convinced by my dad’s imagery.

It’s no wonder that, as a young adult, I grabbed the lifeline of the Reformed faith at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where Jesus’ hard sayings were tempered by the theology of Paul’s letters. First there was, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV). Then, as Paul wrote to the Philippian believers, “. . . continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (2:12-13). The emphasis was upon God’s work of gradual sanctification in our lives. Our work was simply to cooperate with God. So relax!

Now, after having worked forty-plus years among descendents of the Protestant Reformation, I find myself in the Catholic tradition. Once again, I hear a greater emphasis on Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels than on St. Paul’s theology in the Epistles. Thus, Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” reverberate.

For example, the Gospel for Sunday February 19, 2017 was Matthew 5:38-48. The article, “While Only God is Good, Everyone Can Be Perfect” by Fr. George W. Rutler, arrived via email on Ash Wednesday. I had already read the meditation “Be ye therefore perfect” in the book Open Me the Gates by Barbara Dent, a convert to the Catholic Church.

I decided to deal with Jesus’ stunning message once and for all. So with some trepidation, I translated Matthew 5:48 from the Greek text, I reviewed those articles, and I looked at various English translations and paraphrases to see how they expressed Jesus’ message.

To my surprise, Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Matthew 5:48 in The Message brings to light the nuances of Jesus’ directive. It reads this way: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

First, that paraphrase reflects the grammar of Matthew 5:48. The verb “to be” (Ἔσεσθε) and the adjective “perfect” (τέλειοι) are keywords in the sentence. The “You,” inherent in the verb, is plural. Another, otherwise unnecessary, plural pronoun “you” (ὑμεῖς) conveys that Jesus intends us to be involved. The verb is in the future tense; so we’re to begin now and continue indefinitely. “You folks are to be. . . .” is the idea. The verb is also in the “middle voice,” which implies personal involvement. Some English verbs come across that way: “Josephine bought (herself) a car” is an example. The word “therefore” (οὖν) connects this verse with verses 38-47. Accordingly, the first part of verse 48 reads, “Therefore, you folks are to be fully engaged in” that which Jesus has in mind.

What does he have in mind? The adjective “perfect” conveys fulfillment of one’s intended purpose. That is, if we progress through all the stages of development, we become full-grown, mature. Jesus’ concluding phrase, “just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” reminds us that we were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). As a result of Adam and Eve’s Fall, God’s image in us was marred. So in Matthew 5:48, Jesus calls each of us to cooperate with God to ever more perfectly bear His image.

Peterson’s paraphrase also reflects the context of verses 38-47. There, Jesus tells us to act graciously and generously toward everyone: When slapped on one cheek, offer the other one; if someone sues for your shirt, give up your coat as well; go the extra mile; give generously to all who seek help. Love your enemies! The supreme example is our heavenly Father, who generously doles out sunshine and rain—to good and bad folks alike.

How then, do we fulfill Jesus’ mandate? How do we grow up? St. Paul tells us that Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). We most fully bear God’s image as Christ dwells in our hearts through faith (Ephesians 3:16-17). Christ’s life and ministry included suffering and death on the cross. Thus, Jesus tells us to pick up our cross and emulate him (Matthew 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23).

The articles by Fr. George W. Rutler and Barbara Dent explain how we acquire God’s perfection. Rutler writes that true goodness is divine; but perfection comes when we partake of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). A perfect man is not a perfectionist: “Perfectionism is a neurosis based on the confusion of goodness and perfection. The perfectionist tries to defy mortality without the help of God who alone is immortal.” Rutler says that we become God’s work of art when we allow the divine sculptor to remove that which does not belong in our lives. “It is said that Michelangelo explained to a child that he sculpted Moses simply by chipping away from the marble all that was not Moses—but Moses had been there all along.” That brings to mind the metaphor St. Paul uses in Ephesians 2:10: We are God’s work of art, His masterpiece (NLT).

In her article “Be ye therefore perfect,” Barbara Dent emphasizes God’s persistent artistry in our lives.
God sends us, each second, precisely what is most needed for our sanctification, so that by lovingly accepting the present moment as his will, and abandoning one’s own will second by second in favor of his, one achieves union with him, which is, of course holiness.

A key phrase is lovingly accepting the present moment, whether joy-filled or sorrowful. Indeed, that’s the emphasis when I sit with folks as a spiritual director. The question, “Where is God in this?” is implicit in every conversation. As we explore what’s happening in the directee’s life, we seek to discover how the divine sculptor is shaping the person. Thus, spiritual direction promotes spiritual formation.

I’m still a recovering perfectionist; but now I’m more aware that my loving heavenly Father is shaping me into His perfect work of art, chipping away all that doesn’t belong.

© Stan Bohall