Sunday, May 21, 2006

Next of Kin

I remember the Presbyterian Church. That's where my grandfather's funeral was held. And I used to attend youth group there. Good people--yes, wasn't so different from the old Mother Church.

Neither are Methodists or Lutherans, apparently. They were my first choices for this project--this Exodus out of my Catholic past out into, well, some bigger conception of religion that I won't be able to acknowledge properly until I'm much further down the road.

Now, in my estimation, no offense to their congregations, these two mainliners are just not as well rounded as their parentage. I understand, their founders must have gotten a little spooked by the cannibalism of the Eucharist and the mysticism of the Sacraments. But they've really sacrificed a lot of depth.

The Lutheran church I visited is part of the "Missouri Synod". To make a long history short, this sect operates on the basis of self-governance for each particular community within the body, the only unifying principle being the Word. Here are some of their main tenents, which they propose are the pure ideas of Martin Luther:

Grace alone

God loves the people of the world, even though they are sinful, rebel against Him and do not deserve His love. He sent Jesus, His Son, to love the unlovable and save the ungodly.
Faith alone
By His suffering and death as the substitute for all people of all time, Jesus purchased and won forgiveness and eternal life for them. Those who hear this Good News and believe it have the eternal life that it offers. God creates faith in Christ and gives people forgiveness through Him.
Scripture alone
The Bible is God's inerrant and infallible Word, in which He reveals His Law and His Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. It is the sole rule and norm for Christian doctrine.

On the other hand, the United Methodist Church has a much different lineage from Catholicism. It arose in America from the roots of the Anglican Church in England. It developed because there weren't any official leaders here, and so certain ambitious folks took it upon themselves to carry out the mission and in the process established their own denomination. It, as opposed to the Lutheran platform hinted at above, was very much grounded in the idea of works--the language of their doctrine is filled with images of labor, and there is a central understanding the the truth of scripture can only be realized when put into solid, practical discipleship. Here are some of its major concepts:

Prevenient Grace—We acknowledge God's prevenient grace, the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God's will, and our "first slight transient conviction" of having sinned against God.

Justification and Assurance—We believe God reaches out to the repentant believer in justifying grace with accepting and pardoning love. Wesleyan theology stresses that a decisive change in the human heart can and does occur under the prompting of grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Sanctification and Perfection—We hold that the wonder of God's acceptance and pardon does not end God's saving work, which continues to nurture our growth in grace. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are enabled to increase in the knowledge and love of God and in love for our neighbor.

Faith and Good Works
—We see God's grace and human activity working together in the relationship of faith and good works. God's grace calls forth human response and discipline.

Mission and Service—We insist that personal salvation always involves Christian mission and service to the world. By joining heart and hand, we assert that personal religion, evangelical witness, and Christian social action are reciprocal and mutually reinforcing.

So the path was Zion Evangelical Lutheran followed by Sandpoint Community Methodist. What were they like, in the flesh? Well, I'll tell you, if this pilgrimage was dependent on thrills and enticements it'd be over now. If it had anything to do with attendance in the pews, it'd be over by now. I'm not looking for those things, though. I'm just looking for people. And I found them.

Desperate, aging people. Kind, welcoming, homely people. The kind of folks who are ready with the coffee and fresh baked goods. The kind of folks who want to know where I went to college and have kids who are your age. One woman I met had a family line stretching back to the founders of her church. Several of them were returning members, who had moved away and were drawn back somehow, some way. They all insisted that I stay and chat.

You know it's amazing how regularity eliminates passion. Now I'm not arguing that there is no spiritual fervor deep within these folks, it's not my provence to claim, but there's a sweet and comfortable way in which after so many years settled in your beliefs, there are no questions asked. I sat for a long time with several life-long church-goers, and not once did they engage me on religious terms. No, far from; we talked of retired basketball teams and ailing husbands. I was a visitor, and consequently embraced. One woman, at first reserved and even a bit off-putting, graced me with tales of her road trip through California in her youth.

These mainliners, these veterans of the flock, are holding up well despite decline. They know that it's coming; they can see the derth of youth around them. When I inquired about their children they all smiled and spoke with a distance, as I imagine you might do. Maybe that's their tragedy as well as their virtue: they see it happening and yet, for age or for cemented ways, they do nothing.

I wish them the best, these cousins of Catholicism. They offered me their hospitality, made me at home. I've got nothing but gratitude.


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