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The Marquee Down the Street
By Brianna Heldt
Four and a half years ago, my husband and I were blessed beyond belief to be received into the Catholic Church. It was something we had never set out to do, really, but there we were nonetheless. People often want to know why we made the decision to become Catholic, and the simple truth is that we came to be convinced that it is indeed Christ’s Church, the fullness of the faith. As wonderful a foundation as evangelicalism laid for me, I had come to see the Protestant doctrines I’d held to my entire life as also being a bit inconsistent, and not rooted in history. I believed in the authority and inerrancy of the Bible--which certainly gets you pretty far--but then so did all the other churches in town that were teaching things opposed to what my own church taught. What was right, and what was wrong, and who got to decide?
My experience of Jesus on the other hand was real, fruitful, and relevant to my life. So what of religion, doctrine, and the approach to a relationship with God? For many people hailing from my generation and faith tradition, the answer lay in rejecting the very notion of doctrine. These people rightly saw the flaws and seemingly arbitrary rules, and decided to either walk away altogether or choose what I would call a more progressive version of Christianity.
I, on the other hand, wanted answers. More specifically, I was interested in the historic Christian understanding of marriage and children, not because I was looking for more rules or “thou shalt nots” in my life, but because few issues seemed more relevant to my relationship with Jesus than this. I was a wife, and a mother to many. I had observed a disturbing cultural trend--present in Christian circles just as often as secular ones--that said it was irresponsible to be open to more than two children. I had used the birth control pill, and hated it. I had observed in my own kids the beauty, even amidst the challenges, of sibling relationships and an openness to new life within our family.
So I found myself scouring the internet for sources on Christian marriage. Eventually I landed on some Catholic websites, which pointed me to some of Pope John Paul II’s writings and addresses. Over time I came to see the brilliant, indisputable truth and sense of who God had created men and women to be, me included. What was reflected in natural law was also reflected in Catholic doctrine.
Something that appealed to me perhaps even more than the consistency, though, was that the Catholic faith left room for questions, suffering, and the messiness of humanity. We have the sacraments, the incarnation, and a whole host of saints that stand as examples of how the supernatural necessarily intersects with the physical world around us, including our own bodies.
There’s a church near my house that I pass by multiple times each day. The marquee out front always has some sort of pithy saying on it, ranging from mildly clever to downright annoying. A couple of times, in fact, I’ve actually considered emailing the pastor and asking if he honestly thinks this sort of thing is edifying for the neighborhood, or representative of a loving and merciful Jesus. But being the conflict-avoidant sort of person that I am, I have yet to reach out.
Truth be told, my main problem with the marquee is that I don’t really think the hope of Christ is so easily encapsulated in twenty-five words or less. Criticizing people for not being in church on Sundays, or declaring prayer to be a “lifestyle” versus an “emergency exit” simply can’t represent or express the complexity of God, or of the human experience. You can’t reduce prayer, salvation, or a life lived in faith to words that, frankly, sound more like something you’d find in a bad fortune cookie than on a sign outside a place of worship.
So much more profound and beautiful than kitchsy fortune cookie marquee signs, though, is the Catholic call to care for the dignity of the whole human person. We don’t have to rely upon mottos or axioms, which typically ring hollow at best or insensitive at worst, to share the hope of God with a hurting world that is, incidentally, made in His image. The simple acts of befriending a neighbor, expressing empathy to a fellow mom at your child’s school, or openly welcoming a new baby or adopted child with joy are all things that declare the mercy and love of Jesus.
But those things are less convenient, I think, than the quick platitudes that come so easily to both mind and lips when we’re faced with someone experiencing a real crisis, or even a difficult situation in our own lives. It’s easy to point fingers at the anonymous guy who changes out the sign at the church down the street, but much harder to ask myself if I am really, truly making myself available, and loving people well. Am I seeing their needs and their hurts? Loving the poor? Showing grace and mercy? Experiencing Jesus in my own life? Or am I approaching faith in much the same disjointed and short-sighted way as the very people and methods I tend to criticize?
As a convert to Catholicism, I especially don’t have the luxury (or convenient excuse) of seeing everything in overly simplistic terms. I loved Jesus for thirty whole years from outside the walls of the Catholic Church, even though I now know that it was an incomplete and, dare I say impoverished, manifestation of the Christian faith. So I of all people should be inclined not to judge, to listen before I speak, to place the person before me--and his or her own journey and set of life experiences--above my own need to categorize and cast aside. Truth, clarity, and authentic love do not have to come at the cost of compassion and mercy.
There will always be, I think, a temptation towards the quick-fix approach to evangelism here in America. Wading into the mess and the grief and the gritty nuance of life takes time, effort, and an unwavering trust in God. As aggravated as that church sign makes me (no fewer than two times per day, I might add), I know all too well that my own words and actions communicate a message, too.
Which means I should probably take the time to think about what that message is, what I want it to be, and who exactly is hearing it.
It looks like I won’t really have the time to send that blistering email, after all.
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