You make a vow
You take the bread and wine and the family name
With people who mistake lies for the truth
Oh, it’s hard to keep on showing up
It’s easier to run away from home
… But everything is gonna change …
— Derek Webb, “Everything Will Change”
In my prior post, I wrote about not being able to find my church home in the Mennonite world and, in July, giving my notice to leave my job with Mennonite World Review. What hasn’t been known publicly until now is that I’m joining the Roman Catholic Church.
I owe my readers an explanation, because I’m sure some of you will be shocked. It’s shocking to me! So this post, in connection with the previous one, is my attempt to explain myself.
Assuming you’ve read Part 1 (and you really need to), let’s go back to September 2017. I was torn up over losing my church and becoming deathly ill. I wrote that I was hoping to die while in surgery, but the real reason for that was that I was despairing of ever finding a church home for conscience reasons (as you now see since of course you’ve read Part 1).
This is very important: Up until just a few months ago, I was operating with the unquestionable assumption that unless the beliefs and the practice of a church’s members were acceptable to my conscience, I could not fully participate in communion without endangering my eternal welfare.
The day before I went into the hospital was Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017. I rode along with my parents to church since I wasn’t in any condition to drive and could hardly walk anymore. I sat in the very back on a padded chair (normally reserved for nursing moms or elderly people) because I was so emaciated that sitting on a hard surface was painful, and I drank my meal replacement shake (to give you an idea of how horrific that day was, I ended up vomiting most of it about nine hours later).
During the service, I began making a mental list of reasons why I might be OK with simply returning to my parents’ church: My dad was a longtime elder there; people knew me; there was a respect for the authority of Scripture that was better than most “conservative” evangelical churches; I could tolerate the aggressively Reformed Baptist theology (because even though I felt it was lacking on the praxis side, I felt it at least provided a solid foundation that could be improved upon), etc. I reasoned that, even if I made a complete physical recovery, I didn’t really want to live by myself because that was so awful, and the sad reality is that there aren’t really any stable roommates for single people other than our parents (if we still have them). So if I was going to limit myself to this geographical area, my parents’ church was, in the grand scheme of things, a pretty solid place where I already had connections.
I started to feel a tiny bit of hope that I would soon emerge from the desert of church-homelessness.
Then I checked Facebook that Sunday afternoon and saw several of the same people who were connected to my parents’ church castigating the National Football League players who were protesting racism by kneeling during the pre-game National Anthem, which was seen by many people as disrespectful.
All the same frustration I remember experiencing as a 13-year-old after 9/11 came rushing back. How could all these “biblical” Christians be more upset about refusal to be patriotic than they were about racial injustice? In my opinion, nationalism is an idolatrous scourge in the American church, and for professing Christians to be calling for people who don’t engage in the proper acts of nation-state worship to be persecuted (i.e. be removed from their jobs) is beyond disgusting and evil. I was completely repulsed by this — there was no way my conscience could stand knowingly participating in communion with people who held such hideous, un-Christian attitudes and church leaders who did nothing to root out this idolatry.
That’s when I wanted to die. For years I had tried to get other Christians to agree with me on this, but almost no one did. That’s a major part of what had led me to become Mennonite, but there were problems in Mennonite world as well…
In the summer of 2016, after taking another look at the epistle of Jude and warnings to the the churches in Revelation (particularly the letter to the church of Thyatira in Revelation 2), I became convinced that for a church to affirm sexual immorality (including same-sex marriage) would put the eternal welfare of all its members in jeopardy. If church leaders did not remove unrepentant practitioners of immorality (according to the instruction in 1 Corinthians 5), faithful Jesus-followers had no other choice but to remove themselves from the fellowship and seek obedient fellowship elsewhere if they hoped to escape condemnation.
Following that, I quickly realized that, in order to be consistent, I had to apply this action to all sin, not just same-sex marriage. Jesus said remarriage after divorce constitutes adultery (Matthew 19), so any pastor who knowingly remarried a couple while one party had a still-living spouse was sinning, and I could not accept communion from or with him. Etc., etc., etc. Pretty soon I realized that following this course would practically result in me excommunicating myself from nearly everyone. And that’s what happened.
Again, this is very important: It was my foregone conclusion that removing oneself from a corrupt church was the faithful course of action to take. This premise is what grounds the entire Anabaptist movement, and in my mind it was it was unquestionable.
So once Plow Creek was gone, I was devastated. What were the chances of finding another nearly perfect little group like that? And if even my parents’ relatively solid church wasn’t good enough, surely none other around my area would be. And that’s how I ended up passing that Sunday, Sept. 24. I curled up on the couch with my churning gut and mind and watched Polycarp. Unlike the garbage my professing Christian Facebook friends were posting, Polycarp refused to be “patriotic” and stood by his allegiance to Christ — at the cost of his life — instead. That’s the mindset I wanted us all to emulate! After the movie ended, I wandered over to my bed and put on Handel’s Messiah. The pain was getting worse, and I wanted the truth of the biblical passages in the Messiah to comfort me. Some hours later, I vomited my last attempt at a meal.
I had just turned 29, I was 84 lbs, and I had lost my hope in this world. My mom got me into the hospital the next day so I wouldn’t dehydrate between Sunday and Wednesday, when my surgery was scheduled.
Obviously, I didn’t die. But I was in the hospital for about 10 more days getting the use of my body back. I could hardly move at first, but there was internet access. The first few days, my vision was a little scrambled and I experienced strong tiredness when I tried to read any text. Maybe that’s what drew me to Instagram, which is dominated by images.
I’d had my Instagram account since 2012, but I’ve only occasionally posted pictures, and I didn’t look at it a lot. With hours and hours in the hospital with nothing to do, I somehow started following Catholic Instagram accounts. It’s hard to say what I was looking for. Maybe I was just looking to be comforted by beauty and encouragement. I went so many days without eating or going outside (my brother, Frank, brought me a white mini pumpkin which felt incredibly good and therapeutic to hold). My mom and dad spent a lot of time staying with me, especially early on. But for some reason I felt particularly helped by those Instagram posts, highlighting saints, sharing prayers and selling encouraging products.
I grew up hearing Catholicism was totally corrupt and evil. I can remember being very little and hearing about how Catholic authorities tortured and burned people who disagreed with their religion and wanted to interpret the Bible differently (or even be allowed to read the Bible). I didn’t think about it too much, but I had this vague idea that the only reasons Catholics weren’t trying to take over America and kill non-Catholics today was that most of them were clueless about their religion (all the Catholics I’d ever met didn’t seem to know the Bible at all or even talk about their faith that much) and the few who knew better simply had to be content with giving up their barbaric, superstitious ways because they were a tiny minority. I thought their connection to ancient times was vaguely compelling, but I was persuaded that their religion was hopelessly corrupt, even if parts of it were good.
Obviously I was pretty ignorant, but those assumptions stayed with me and colored my view for a very long time. Even now, the history related to that still bothers me… But I’ll come back to that.
Outside a few nominally Catholic relatives’ funerals and some John Michael Talbot music (the latter of which I rather liked), I didn’t have much exposure to any Catholic people until May of 2007. I wanted to attend a Christian college student retreat, but no one else from my community college was going. So I got connected with the group from a nearby Catholic university. I remember being very impressed with the beauty of the campus (there’s that beauty thing again…), and then we were off on a long drive. I was very quiet, doing my usual Rachel-y observing and judging. At this point I identified as a quasi-Mennonite (I didn’t actually have a Mennonite church to go to, but my thinking about Christian faith and practice was very Mennonite-influenced), and I took Jesus’ saying, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7), very seriously.
During the week, the Catholic campus minister from our group hosted a small discussion time during the meal to talk with evangelical students about some Catholic beliefs and clarify misconceptions. I realized I’d never actually had the chance to talk to a person who was actually Catholic AND who knew what he was talking about, so I hung out over there. The only thing I remember from that time was learning that Catholics don’t pray to saints, but they ask saints to pray for them like they ask their Christian friends on earth to pray for them. I remember thinking something like, “Well… That’s weird, but it’s not as weird as I thought.” I didn’t think too much about it, but it planted in my mind the idea that there were probably other things Catholics believed that weren’t as weird as I thought they were.
I think at one point, I went to a Mass held in a tucked-away classroom when a Catholic friend said he was going. I decided to sit in the back of the room and watch very suspiciously. It was pretty funny because we were the only two attendees there, and I really didn’t know what was going on; I just knew I wasn’t supposed to participate. So I watched. Very suspiciously. LOL
I ended up transferring to that Catholic school, Lewis University, in 2011 (yes, I spent seven years in college figuring out my life; don’t judge me). I didn’t really look into spiritual things at that point. It was a time in my life when I put God on the back burner and focused on journalism. I just wanted to graduate and get my job. Plus I was really burned out and disgusted with the right-wing politicalism of people at my parents’ church. I wanted to go looking for some neo-Anabaptist-ish fellowship, but I didn’t have a car. So I protested by sleeping in on Sunday mornings. It wasn’t the best time in my spiritual life, but I was diverting all my passion and energy to full-time studies and professional networking, with the long-term plan to find the “real Christians out there.”
I went to one student-led Mass on a Sunday evening on campus, but it was pretty tiny and nothing about it really grabbed my attention. I do recall, though, that it was right after the big liturgical overhaul, and all the cards with the updated liturgical responses had been distributed in the pews. I remember being impressed by how some central authority somewhere could dictate such minute changes and all the churches had to accept them. I also remember, during my last semester, when two of my classmates skipped class to watch the announcement of Pope Francis becoming pope. They breezed in smiling during the middle of the class period, unconcerned with any potential consequences for their purposeful lateness. I remember thinking, “Wow, I know it’s a big news story, but this is personally important to them.” Another vague memory I have is of getting slightly familiar with the consistent ethic of life in Catholic Social Teaching, which would have really interested me if I hadn’t been so singularly focused on graduating and journalism networking…
There isn’t much to say until the spring of 2017, when Plow Creek was on its way out. Plow Creek had some vaguely Catholic liturgical touches that I really liked (“kind of a low church with a dash of high church,” as described by our worship leader, Christiana Peterson), so I had a new appreciation for that little “dash of high church” that I found myself greatly missing when I was visiting other churches. (Something I noticed was a correlation between traditional liturgical elements and liberal theology/practice, while more theologically conservative churches seemed to have less-inspiring “contemporary” worship or, better but less often, revival-era hymns. This bothered me. Couldn’t we have orthodoxy, orthopraxy, AND a little “dash of high church,” too? Plow Creek seemed to be the only group that got anywhere close to this balance. But Plow Creek was soon to end.)
That’s when a former co-worker invited me to the Easter Vigil service at his Catholic church. With no other plans on the Saturday night before Easter, I figured, why not? I’d never been to an actual service at a Catholic church before, so might as well check it out. I rather enjoyed it. It bridged the gap between sober and joyful. Best of all, the entire gospel message was given straight from Scripture readings. In fact, there was much more time spent on the biblical text than on the priest’s commentary. I came away thinking, “That’s the gospel. That’s the same thing I believe.” From then on, I no longer doubted that the Catholic faith (when it was actually adhered to) was anything but orthodox Christian. I knew there were some other strange beliefs that were part of the package, but I also realized there was a long historical tradition those beliefs came from, and I had some sense that I should have some more respect for that tradition instead of just assuming that my ideas about the Bible were automatically more right in every case. I was still bothered by the violent history, but I saw there was a lot of good that was worth appreciating.
After the service, I went out for a late light dinner with my friend and his wife. I can’t remember how the conversation flowed, but at some point I said something about being interested in “nun life” (that’s what I called religious life back then, LOL!). They were the first people to not awkwardly smile at me, but seemed to think this notion entirely natural.
“So you want to be a bride of Christ?” my friend asked.
“I feel like I already am!” I blurted out.
“I could see that for you,” he said.
Not being awkwardly laughed at or dismissed was huge for me. I felt like I was finally understood — at least sort of — by someone.
And that’s all there is to relate re: Catholicism, up until the point where, after Plow Creek had ceased meeting as a church, after I had moved back home in July, after that terrible Sunday in September, after the surgery on Sept. 27… I found myself looking at Catholic Instagram posts in the hospital, looking for anything worth living for, looking for God.
Confronting my conscience
When I was still in the hospital, post-surgery but well enough to have a conversation, I told my dad about my experience the Sunday before. I told him I couldn’t participate in communion as long as church leadership didn’t decisively condemn nationalistic sentiments and the ugliness those sentiments spawned on social media. I challenged him to do something about it, since he was a church elder, or else I wouldn’t stay at church. He didn’t think it was as big of a deal as I thought it was, so I said I had no choice but to remain self-excommunicated for conscience’ sake indefinitely, and I wished I had died on Sept. 27.
I had to spend the next 10 months unraveling this dilemma: How could I get access to the body and blood of the Lord AND avoid violating my conscience at the same time? To some of you, this may seem strange, while to others it might make complete sense. Remember: My unquestioned premise was that the only faithful response to a corrupt church was to remove oneself from fellowship, because to remain in fellowship with a corrupt church was to jeopardize my eternal welfare! This was the premise I was going to have to deconstruct in order to reconcile my problem.
But I didn’t see that right away. When I begged God for guidance, I sensed him telling me I had to rest right now. Winter was coming. I had to work on eating and regaining weight, standing up straight, walking, getting fresh air and socializing. I quickly got back to work. Soon after I came home, my grandma moved in with us, and I needed to help take care of her.
I desperately wanted to have a church home by Advent — the start of our new year. Now Advent begins tomorrow, and I don’t think a miracle is going to happen. I have cried a lot about this, particularly the past couple weeks. I didn’t really think it could happen, but I was still hoping.
Instead, I bounced around some churches. I was kind of addicted to traditional-ish liturgy by this point, and I was attending Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran services. I felt somewhat like an impostor, but there was something compelling me. I bought the Blessed Is She liturgical planner (I LOVE THIS PLANNER, ladies!!! GET IT!) and took note of various saints’ feast days (I was particularly drawn to the martyrs from the church’s first three centuries), and sometimes found myself driving — almost in a haze — to their memorial Masses during the week at this Poor Clares monastery that is 10 minutes from my house.
I felt compelled by the mystery even as I wondered about the rightness of what I was doing. God, I would often think, if I’m doing something wrong, please forgive me. I’m just trying to find you. Sometimes I would stop and think to myself, What am I doing here? Just what am I doing???
YouTube’s algorithm decided to start showing me videos from LizziesAnswers, a YouTuber who had just publicized her conversion to Catholicism (from a Church of Christ background) near the beginning of Lent in mid-February. I watched her subsequent videos with curious interest, and continued to enjoy Instagram posts from accounts like Blessed Is She.
On the first Sunday in March, I got into a discussion about my concerns with some people at the Orthodox church I went to sometimes. I wanted to know: Will the churches that claim a lineage from the ante-Nicene church reclaim the ante-Nicene Christian views on church-state relationships and repudiate the church-state fusion of the latter fourth century? Not exactly the apologetics question most Catholic and Orthodox believers expect to get from someone like me. But at this point, that was my main concern with basically every Christian church group (other than Anabaptists, obviously). All the other “weird, but not as weird as I thought” stuff, while somewhat of a stretch, was workable for me. But there was no way I could affirm a phenomenon that led to some horrific violence against people connected to friends of mine living today.
On that day, there wasn’t really a conclusive “Yes, we will repudiate that and make sure it never happens again.” from my Orthodox friends. But there was openness to my belief in Christian nonviolence. More than that, though, I remember they introduced a different way of looking at the church. It was the idea that the church is a family, and you don’t remove yourself from your family even if you have relatives who have done horrible things. There’s one church, and it’s the church that God started, and you can’t just start your own because you have a lot of crappy relatives there.
I felt that I’d been gently smacked on the head, cracking open a space for some light to poke through. As I drove home that Sunday, I began daring to question my unquestionable premise that schism was an indicator of faithfulness and purity. I remember asking myself a terrifying question: “Have I made my conscience into a god I cannot appease?”
It was starting to feel like it. I cherished my conscience’ freedom and sensitivity — a core value of Anabaptism and similar movements — I saw it as the mechanism via which I received and applied instruction from God about how to order my life. Surely, it was untouchable, enshrined with the greatest care. I could think of no greater priority than to defend human conscience from even the remotest of threats — for if our conscience became subject to any force other than the Spirit of God, how could we continue to pursue, discern and implement righteousness?
(I think I’ve reached peak Enneagram 1 status here…)
I felt the defensive reaction immediately, and I began a furious argument with myself inside my car. At war were these two paradigms: the protection of one’s conscience at great costs that could include church schism in order to secure one’s peace of mind regarding one’s eternal destiny vs. the faithfulness to the one universal church that God started — through which one’s eternal destiny is secured via access to the body and blood of the Lord — that one cannot simply leave to start a replica church (any more than one of Noah’s sons could jump off the ark to build a vessel of his own because animal poop was all over the deck).
About a week later, I wrote a blog post that played with the second paradigm of the church as “a hot mess” like the character of Kid in “Chrono Cross” who spends half the game’s story nearly dead, unconscious or fighting on the wrong side — yet is still the one meant to be redeemed:
These days, I’m taking a very hard look at how to distinguish between this dissatisfaction that is meant to be momentarily endured and legitimate objections of conscience that warrant the self-imposed excommunication I’m currently living with. How do I reconcile Jesus’ parable of the good seed and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) with Paul’s admonition to “purge the evil person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)? Have I made my conscience into a god I cannot appease?
The road trip
Although I was not excited to think about moving away from my family and trying to find some measure of stability and love in a new living arrangement, I realized that I was never going to find a church community my conscience felt right about unless I left the area.
I had planned a 30-day road trip from Joliet to Boston and back to network with people from conservative Anabaptist groups, Lancaster Conference and the Kingdom Christian movement. No groups like that were in my area, despite my years of trying to spread an Anabaptist Kingdom Christian vision. I negotiated with Mennonite World Review to fund the trip in exchange for the valuable on-location reporting I provided, and I set out in a rental car with the themes of pilgrimage and seeking the kingdom of God. Songs like “I Wonder as I Wander” (Audrey Assad’s haunting version suited me perfectly) and “Pilgrims to the City of God” (Michael Card) were played many times on repeat, reflecting my inner stormy tenacity.
One thing I did in advance was get permission to attend the Easter Mass with the Daughters of St. Paul in Boston. I had somehow discovered them online the year before and I was delighted — a community of celibate women who loved Jesus and whose charism was working in media! (Why can’t non-Catholics have anything cool like this? I fumed.) My heart was so taken with the idea that I just had to meet them, since I was going to be in the city of their U.S. headquarters.
As it turned out, to my amazement, the few hours I spent with the Daughters of St. Paul were the best part of the entire trip. It was just such an odd situation — the Kingdom Christian community I was staying with had no interest in observing the church’s liturgical calendar (they favored the regulative principle of worship, which limits Christian worship practices to those affirmed in Scripture), and yet there I was over Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. Now, I love the church’s liturgical calendar and find it vital to my spirituality. I think the regulative principle of worship is an unnecessarily restrictive idea that disrespects our liturgical heritage that has evolved from centuries of our shared devotion to Christ. That weekend is what it took to confirm that I find the regulative principle of worship insufferable.
I walked to the nearest Catholic church for their Good Friday service and was once again impressed by the extended readings from Scripture. The entire Passion narrative from the Gospel of John was read aloud, with different people reading various parts while we, the congregation, read aloud in chorus the lines of the crowd calling for Jesus’ death. It was a somber and even horrifying experience to identify with those people and to reflect on my own complicity as a sinner. It was especially chilling to read aloud, “We have no king but Caesar” (which would be a terrible thing for us to say anywhere outside of reading this narrative — but how different is it from professing Christians calling for people to lose their jobs for not worshiping the nation-state appropriately?).
I didn’t make it to the Easter Vigil service this year, but I got up early Sunday morning on April 1 and hiked back to the church, feeling chilly without my jacket (which I’d temporarily misplaced) but sensing that God was making enough sunshine available to compensate. After the service was over, I quickly walked back to my car and drove through downtown Boston to meet the Daughters of St. Paul. I heard the same readings and gazed with wonder and delight at the image displayed of Christ bringing Adam and Eve up from the grave with him.
But where I really felt the nearness of God was when the sisters invited me to their Easter lunch. I had felt some sadness at missing my family’s Easter dinner, so being invited to join these lovely women (with whom I felt a surprising amount of affinity in so short a time) for our traditional meal gladdened my heart immensely. Now, this entire trip I’d had a fierce craving for peanut M&Ms, and I kept buying them along the way. So I was blown away by the sight of this marvelous dessert table in the convent’s lunchroom featuring (among other delightful items) a small mountain of peanut M&Ms. I could almost hear God telling me, standing just outside my field of vision, “I got these for you. I’ve got you covered. I’m telling you, It’s going to be OK.” The entire lunch was like a foretaste of heaven; I’m getting tears in my eyes recalling it. I also got a tour of the Pauline Books and Media facilities and got to join a few other young women there on a discernment retreat (that’s what you do when you’re thinking about religious life) and for an after-lunch walk outside (another family tradition I enjoyed!).
I remember feeling sorry to leave, and I spent the next couple days processing in my head what I couldn’t say out loud: Could I actually be Catholic to join a community like that? Something like that was what I really wanted. I had tossed the idea around with various Mennonite friends over the past couple years about starting some kind of celibate Christian community with Anabaptist theology. But there was very little interest. I mulled the pros and cons.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to understand the operating principle here: I was still evaluating the Catholic Church — as one of several other options — against the measuring standard of my conscience’s synthesis of God’s written Word. This was the only way I knew how to operate: Look at a church’s statement of faith and measure it against your own understanding of Scripture — if there are any red flags that alarm your conscience, cross that church off your list, because that’s obviously the Holy Spirit warning you of danger. So of course it’s imperative to continually be refining your understanding of Scripture, because if you didn’t, you ran the risk of making a monumental error in judgment.
(If you’re reading this and you’ve been Catholic all your life, I’m curious what you make of this. Does it sound absolutely crazy to you? Looking back now, I see this as absolutely sanity-destroying, but this was my normal procedure for my entire life until a few months ago. I truly could not conceive of another way to discern truth but to continually bulk up on Bible study and collect an arsenal of proof texts working in concert to fight other Christians’ arsenals of proof texts in a battle for whose analyses were superior. There’s no one church who’s more trustworthy than all others; it’s everyone running around like Pokémon trainers battling each other for the distinction of being the most faithful to Scripture, with anyone able to start his own church at any time if he can attract followers. For people on a quest for truth, it’s chaos.)
Naturally, my conscience recognized a threat to its supremacy and reacted violently, like an allergic response at the soul level. All the associations I had of the Catholic Church (and Orthodox and a lot of Protestant groups as well) as an entity that had never truly repudiated its complicity in violent attempts at conscience violation returned to me and terrified me. How could I confess fidelity to an entity that had hurt so many people and might, in the future, repeat those activities and harm people I cared about? I couldn’t do it. My conscience was literally screaming bloody murder. I couldn’t violate it and live.
Once again, I wanted to die. I alternated between asking God to take my life during the night and fearing for the state of my soul if I were, in fact, to die now. It was Easter Week. I felt like the phoniest Christian I knew.
The turning point
I amended my request and told God he could take my life after I returned the rental car and got home so my parents wouldn’t have the added burden of fetching my body from some other state. But while on the journey back to Joliet, I was able to connect with a few more Kingdom Christians who were my last hope that the church I was looking for was out there, so my desire to die was held off a little longer.
I returned home, had my post-recovery colonoscopy and was declared disease-free. With the last energy I had, I thought my only remaining option was to try to start a church fellowship of my own, which could eventually network with what I fantasized would be an emerging coalition of the best of Lancaster Conference, the more open-minded conservative Anabaptists and the Kingdom Christians. I wrote an editorial in Mennonite World Review encouraging such a coalition to emerge, centered around our common ground in the writings of the early church:
It is good that the leaders of Lancaster Conference and representatives of various plain Anabaptist groups are looking in the direction of our ancient Christian heritage. As they do, they will rediscover their common ground and perhaps work together.
As I continue my pilgrimage, I hope to see these kingdom-seeking groups join forces in simple obedience to God, as Jesus’ followers have done since Pentecost. I want to join them for some church attic-cleaning.
But days after writing it — even before it was published on April 23 — I had almost no faith that what I was looking for would ever come to fruition. I had lost hope in what I had written the week before. My internal harmony was dismantled and I felt I couldn’t live with myself. I shuffled through some more nights, praying each would be my last.
On the morning of Tuesday, April 24, my old friend, Tom, who had invited me to the Easter Vigil a year earlier, sent me a text message:
“How are you doing today?
I keep thinking of you this week. The Holy Spirit has thrust you to the front line of my prayers and petitions, for whatever reason.”
OK, God. I see that’s a ‘no’ to my request. Thanks for letting me know you’re listening. Now I’m listening for you as hard as I can. Please keep talking.
The next day, Tom invited me to church that coming Sunday, April 29. I went. Two weeks later, I had begun re-evaluating my paradigms.
On May 9, I wrote on Facebook:
“In four months (and a day), I’ll be 30. Here’s what I’m giving myself:
permission to make mistakes
to make imperfect decisions
to move toward God, to not stop in this life
to trust in his mercy.
I can’t be perfect, but I have to be something. I believe he rewards those who diligently seek him (Hebrews 11:6). I can accept the inevitability of me/us being wrong about some things while trusting in his great un-chaos-ing of things.”
These were my first steps out of my own prison that was destroying me. Four months to the day after giving myself this permission, I’m beginning the Catholic Church’s Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, which will end at Easter. I told my Enneagram 1 self that honest mistakes are part of the path toward God, and his mercy has the capacity to cover my deficits. Isn’t that what all Christians believe, anyway? I’m sober, but I’m at peace, and even excited.
What’s the logic, though?
The story so far has already looked at one of the major reasons I’m becoming Catholic, which is that relying on one’s own sense of the Holy Spirit in interpreting the Scriptures has led Jesus-followers in thousands upon thousands of directions. I know my Anabaptist readers insist they recognize the discernment of the gathered community in interpreting Scripture, but there are dozens of Mennonite communities with clashing beliefs, and I felt indefinitely doomed to homelessness among the spectrum from Old Order Mennonite to Marginal Mennonite.
So that’s argument No. 1: Attempts to interpret Scripture apart from the tradition of the original church and via one’s sense of the Holy Sprit, even when practiced with a small group of generally like-minded people, lead to endless discordant permutations of what both individual and communal Christian belief and practice ought to look like. This leads to an ocean of disunity and chaos that I can no longer navigate.
As I said in Part 1, if I were to place myself somewhere on the Mennonite conservatism spectrum, I would place myself right about where Tabitha Driver places herself in this delightfully simplified graph — between Conservative Mennonite Conference and Biblical Mennonite Alliance (note the latter is a schism from the former!). I suppose the most classically Mennonite thing to do would be for me and Tabitha to start our own church, right on that point of the spectrum! But if we did, would it last? Or would we continue the pattern of division to vainly combat degeneracy?
Here’s how Mennonite historian Rich Preheim relates a typical history of Mennonite schism:
A series of ministers’ meetings, called Diener-Versammlungen, were held between 1862 and 1878 to try to address the problems. The Diener-Versammlungen were only marginally successful and ended with the emergence of two groups: the tradition-minded Old Order Amish and the more progressive Amish Mennonites.
Unlike the Old Order Amish, most Amish Mennonites built meetinghouses and aligned themselves with the former Mennonite Church, joining in the creation of mission and publishing enterprises and supporting Goshen (Ind.) College, the first MC educational institution.
Like their MC counterparts, most Amish Mennonites created area conferences. The first was the Indiana-Michigan Amish Mennonite Conference in 1888, followed by the Western (1890) and Eastern (1893) conferences. All three joined the Mennonite Church and in the early 20th century merged with MC area conferences.
But a number of congregations kept some distance between themselves and their more progressive sisters and brothers, choosing instead to remain unaffiliated. M.S. Steiner, a prominent Mennonite Church administrator in the late 1800s and early 1900s, is credited with naming this in-between group the Conservative Amish Mennonite Conference. “Amish Mennonite” suggested it wasn’t part of the Old Order Amish. “Conservative” meant it was different from the conference-organized Amish Mennonites.
Does anyone else have a spiritual headache after reading this? I do! This is an unavoidable part of the Mennonite legacy, and although this criticism might be hard to hear, I need to talk about this, because it has wrecked me so badly the past couple years.
I was impressed as an almost-13-year-old with the early Anabaptists’ (note: I’m specifically referring to those Anabaptists whose legacy was carried on by the Mennonites — I’m aware the term “Anabaptist” was a catch-all derogatory term applied to anyone who practiced adult baptism but could have had any number of strange or objectionable views on other subjects) commitment to taking New Testament instruction literally for their practice, particularly regarding the refusal to participate in violence (which I still believe is the correct view and the one held with a surprising degree of uniformity among ante-Nicene Christian writers), which is a practice their successors were routinely persecuted for over the following centuries.
Given this background, you must try to imagine my horrified shock when with my own eyes I witnessed in June 2016 a Mennonite (Mennonite Church USA) pastor baptize a young man who had announced to his congregation not an hour earlier that he planned to join the U.S. Marine Corps. I was so utterly rattled and nearly in tears — I felt betrayed. How could you do that in the face of the American martyrs for peace of World War I? Conscientious objectors to war on Christian grounds endured abuse and died refusing to participate in violence, right here in the United States, as recently as 100 years ago — and it could happen again!
Whatever spiritual credibility I had ascribed to Mennonite Church USA began eroding that day. Clearly not every pastor in the denomination cared about the peace position that much. (Of course, given the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage, I shouldn’t have been surprised. For some reason I thought surely the peace position was untouchable, and I found out that day it wasn’t.) And once I realized that, I realized that any beliefs I had associated with Mennonites were up for debate in Mennonite Church USA, and I couldn’t count on anyone being disciplined for any violation of our written confession I had presupposed we all agreed on. I hope people can understand how jarring and horrifying this was for me. It was like watching my people shoot their own feet, demolishing the very heritage that attracted me to them in the first place. As much as it hurt to lose Plow Creek a year later, one blessing I privately noted was that my congregation’s dissolution naturally released me from a denomination I no longer trusted — I was spared an ugly break-up scene because I had no church to break up with.
Meanwhile, looking at more conservative Mennonite groups raised red flags as well, though of a different sort. It was in conservative Anabaptist settings that I experienced repeated and painful marginalization as a single woman (and I noted women in general had really no voice other than blogging/social media — if their groups were “liberal” enough to allow that). But what bothered me more deeply, particularly at the Anabaptist Identity Conference (which I attended three years in a row), was the way their faith was bound up so tightly with particular practices that were (for the most part) only palatable to those who grew up with them (rules about how to dress, strict limitations on recreation, etc.). I observed a lot of pressure to 1) have many children and 2) to pressure one’s children to carry on the practices they had grown up with and not to lose any of those practices (i.e., become more “liberal”).
I noted a strong emphasis on submission to the brotherhood of the church (that is, their brotherhood’s extrabiblical rules applying biblical principles) while simultaneously esteeming Anabaptist martyrs who weren’t exactly known for their submission to the church. This seemed inconsistent. Conservative Anabaptists today still believe in baptism upon a person’s voluntary confession, but the strictness of some of their lifestyles (which, again, are transmitted primarily via parenting) left me with serious questions about how voluntary these confessions really were. Is an 18-year-old truly consenting to baptism (which, for him, is initiation into his distinct tribal community) when his alternative is to be distanced from his family and not allowed to marry within his community? Technically, he can refuse, but if he refuses, he’s going to incur a fair amount (the extent varies, depending on the dynamics of the group) of loss that most people that age aren’t prepared to face. (See my editorial in Mennonite World Review addressing this question.)
I remember sitting alone in my hotel room during the first AIC I went to in 2016, trying to process the nascent versions of these thoughts, combined with the low-key triggering flashbacks of being at a Christian homeschool convention, with its heavy emphasis on traditional family life that contributed to all the shame and inferiority I had felt for most of the past decade. It was another kind of betrayal — not as blatantly jarring as what I experienced among Mennonite Church USA, but more subtle, harder to pin down, yet still upsetting.
When I tried to point out these inconsistencies, I received no satisfactory replies. People on the “liberal” extreme dismissed me as judgmental and bigoted, while people on the “conservative” extreme castigated me as individualist and rebellious. During the middle of 2017, when I was getting sicker, I left two different Anabaptist Facebook groups (one very liberal, one very conservative) because I was tired of fighting the extremists in both.
(Of course, I must not neglect to mention the many kind non-extremist people. There were many who sent me kind and encouraging emails appreciating my reporting and editorials for Mennonite World Review. This essay is pointing out ecclesiological root problems, but I would be remiss not to mention that there were many loving Mennonite friends and sometimes strangers who supplied me with lodging, food, labor and good conversation — both online and off. The emphasis on Christian community/mutual aid/hospitality is a beautiful Mennonite strength that should be normal for all Christians.)
These observations illustrate argument No. 2: Church renewal cannot be accomplished via schism because each new schism eventually degenerates, often making mistakes eerily similar to the ones they were originally formed to oppose. And this pattern will repeat with no end! I remember thinking at some point, “Give any new church restart-attempt three or so centuries, and watch it repeat the same mistakes as the original church did.” Rich Preheim’s June 18 column in Mennonite World Review confirmed my hypothesis with this title: “When Mennonites Persecuted Mennonites.” The time frame? The 1860s — about three centuries since the Anabaptist movement originated (1520s). (The article is worth reading for its familiar sad refrains.)
Now, once a schismatic movement goes through all the upheaval and suffering in order to exist as a “better” church — I expect the new church to, in fact, be better. Not just somewhat better, but excellently better — very near perfect. Because once we establish the precedent that the mechanism of church renewal is schism, schisms will continue, perpetuating the quest for purity as long as their originating branch is deemed corrupt by any of its members.
If a schism is doomed to degenerate, then why should I continue to perpetuate it? If I’m looking for a pure church, and I pour everything I have into forming the ideal pure church, only for it to let me down later when corruption eventually does set in, wouldn’t I have wasted my time when I could have poured my resources into renewing the church that God started? Do I think I can build a more durable, corruption-resistant church than God has been building? I once did, but it was a foolish thought, even though I maintain I had pure motives. The answer is no.
Argument No. 3: If any man may form his own church and thereby gain access to the body and blood of the Lord in the Eucharist, what then is the point of excommunication? The very fact that excommunication is given to the Church as her mechanism of discipline and self-purification of unrepentant members implies that she has the guardianship over whatever the real Eucharist is.
So when a schismatic movement is excommunicated, that means it no longer has access to the real Eucharist. The schism cannot produce the real Eucharist if the Church has the guardianship of it and the Church has excommunicated the schism. From where, then, does a schism get the authority to declare itself a church and excommunicate its own sub-schisms in turn?
This argument occurred to me when I was talking with a Kingdom Christian friend about the question I raised earlier: How do I get access to the Eucharist and avoid violating my conscience? My friend’s solution was to refrain from communion at his home church and serve himself at home. This did not sound right to me. He asked me if I could raise an objection from Scripture. I couldn’t think of a particular Scripture reference, but I did ask what the point of excommunication was if any of us can serve himself. I almost lost my breath as I realized I had all but argued myself into the Catholic Church!
We should ask, if we trace our spiritual heritage to an excommunicated schism, whether we’ve ever had access to the real Eucharist at all.
The bottom line: For these reasons, I’m now convinced that attempts to renew the Church via schism — no matter how pure their intentions — are futile. Since the nearly-perfect church is unsustainable, what’s the long-term, big-picture point of schism? Even if Tabitha Driver and I and a handful of other like-minded people started our own Mennonite church right where I wanted to be on the spectrum, how long would it last before degenerating into liberalism, retaining a stifling conservatism (or sub-schism-ing without end because its founders believed schism was the way to purity), or simply dissolving into history?
I don’t think God’s ideal was for “finding the church” to be this insanely, heartbreakingly, death-wishing-ly confusing! We simply can’t, in the long term, improve upon the church that God started via separation. I no longer have the heart to try, because I’ve looked at both history and my own journalistic observations of the present to know that, even when some faults are improved upon in the short term, it’s a losing effort in the long term.
On a positive note: I do want to add that Mennonites (and, to some extent, other Reformation-era and later separatist movements, but especially Mennonites 🙂 ) had and still have many good qualities and admonitions that we all should consider and learn from — like discipleship and holiness not being optional for Christians, like the centrality of Christian community in Christian life, like legal freedom from coercion in religion, like the peace position (properly rooted in New Testament teaching, NOT in questionable neo-Anabaptist theological wrangling nor in liberal social ideas)! Right now, there are many younger Catholics who are serious about their faith and experiencing a renewal, reclaiming the better parts of their heritage, looking (like everyone else) to the early church for inspiration on how to be faithful in an increasingly post-Christian society. They’re looking for more community, more evangelism, more prayer, more study of Scripture, more devotion to the Lord — a lot of the same things we non-Catholic Christians have been talking about! All of us Christians in the broader realm of orthodoxy have more in common than we’ve had in the past several centuries — the Catholics I’ve met who are orthodox and kind are surprisingly more evangelical (in a good way) than I expected, and have really blessed me with their witness.
But what about…?
I’m not able to answer every remaining question. There are Catholic apologists who have converted from Protestant/evangelical groups after doing intense, critical investigation (Scott Hahn and Steven Ray, for example). I don’t feel the need to attempt to replicate their work; you can check out their testimonies if you want to hear from people with greater scholarly credentials than I have. Also, The Coming Home Network’s YouTube channel has tons of conversion stories and lectures explaining much more.
This apologetic is only meant to explain my journey, not to defend every Catholic teaching out there. That’s not my job, and I’m not signing up for that right now.
But there are a couple big things I have to address:
What about infant baptism?
Infant baptism was the No. 2 difficulty for me because it seemed very non-consensual and coercive. I had read some arguments for it (in summary, the idea that God grants the infant faith at his baptism, so in that sense, it can be called a believer’s baptism, albeit unconscious; as well as the historical argument — apparently it was practiced at least as early as the third century, with Origen claiming the tradition came from the apostles!), but something about it still bothered me.
One day, the Holy Spirit just started talking to me about it.
“What’s your real problem with infant baptism?” he asked. “You don’t think it’s a sin, so why is it bothering you this much?”
“I don’t like that it gives people false assurance of their salvation,” I said. “People think because they were baptized, they’re all squared away with you. They think they’re in your kingdom by default, and as long as they meet the minimum obligations, they don’t actually have to pursue real holiness.”
“Then your problem is with bad catechesis,” he replied. “You know you can do something to help with that, right?”
Oh. Silly me. Of course I can. (Isn’t God the best???)
And that’s more or less how I’m able to resolve things: I understand there’s often a difference between Catholic practice and actual teaching. So if I see someone’s practice (or lack thereof) that makes me uncomfortable, it’s OK to feel uncomfortable. 1. I’m not in trouble because someone else is messing up. 2. I can learn what the real teaching is. 3. In any case, it’s OK to feel uncomfortable! Sometimes is the problem is my negative associations/triggers rooted in lingering misconceptions. God knows what’s up, and he’ll fix what he needs fixed. I don’t have to be the all-confident defender of everything! WOW! For my Enneagram 1 self, that is huge.
What I need to concern myself with is being united with Christ and pursuing righteousness in my own life. I’m no longer going to let other Christians’ sin disrupt my intimacy with Christ.
That being said, there’s one really serious issue left to talk about. I referenced it earlier, but I need to say more:
What about the Anabaptist martyrs?
The lamentable reality is that there are going to be sinners in the Church. There are going to be sinners among Church leaders. There are obnoxious and sinful people on both the “traditional” and “liberal” ends of the spectrum, just like everywhere else. Like Kid from “Chrono Cross,” the Church can go astray in some terrible ways. There will be extremists doing ugly things, and we should rightly grieve these phenomena and pray for deliverance, whether it’s the evil coercive force used against dissenters of the Reformation era (not to mention the corruption that inspired dissent in the first place) or the evil sexual abuse of today’s headlines.
There’s some real ugliness in the Church’s history, stuff that really hurts my heart to learn about. I don’t want to gloss over how difficult it is for my Mennonite friends to live with some of these terrible historical realities that caused trauma to their ancestors, the lingering effects of which may contribute to (or at least set the backdrop for) the very phenomena I had the audacity to critique earlier. I also don’t want to overlook the contribution of Anabaptist martyrs (tortured and killed by Catholic- and Protestant-aligned authorities) to the ideological foundation for the religious freedom many of us have today — the freedom that both enables great confusion but also enables great quests and pilgrimages (like mine) that in the end make our faith stronger. Again, this issue of historical violence was far and away the most difficult thing for me to confront in this process, especially knowing that some of my Mennonite friends could be particularly hurt by my announcement, related to this history.
In the summer of 2013, right after I had graduated from Lewis, I was driving home late from the second shift as an intern on the copy desk of a California newspaper. The headlines that day were more violent than usual, and it sank in that working in news meant I was going to see a lot of upsetting content. I cried inside my car, feeling the weight of fallen humanity and wondering if God was, in fact, really going to fix it all. He gave me a vision of himself as the Great Copy Editor, faithfully correcting the errors of our sad history with his own red blood. I don’t know if that means nearly as much to you as it meant to me that night, but if you’re hurting because of my announcement, I hope it brings you some comfort.
What I suggest to my non-Anabaptist friends, and particularly my Catholic friends, is to make a pilgrimage to a place like the Kauffman Museum in North Newton, Kan., to see “The Mirror of the Martyrs” exhibit. Our traditions may never perfectly align in theology and practice, but I hope all of us could look at that, learn our history, grieve, repent and say “never again.”
When you consider that there’s a terrible enemy of God in the picture, it’s not surprising he wants to corrupt and destroy the Church any way possible — including from within. The enemy wants the Church to be so horrible that people are understandably terrified of it and stay away, lost in the desert while searching vainly for something better. But the reason I’m at this threshold in spite of all the darkness is that the mythical nearly-weed-free church “out there” doesn’t exist, at least not for more than a few glimmering moments. I have looked hard. So if you’re Catholic and you’re thinking about leaving to look for another church that’s free of abuse and corruption and fighting, I affirm your desire for righteousness, and I want to warn you that you’re going to feel completely crushed when you find that stuff in the “better” church, too.
In a beautiful article, Sr. Theresa Aletheia writes:
However, one might ask, “If the Church is truly one with Christ, how can some members do such evil?” The answer to this question is at the heart of the mystery of the Church itself. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this mystery well: “Christ, holy, innocent, and undefiled, knew nothing of sin, but came only to expiate the sins of the people. The Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal. All members of the Church, including her ministers, must acknowledge that they are sinners. In everyone, the weeds of sin will still be mixed with the good wheat of the Gospel until the end of time” (827). Therefore, no sinner, not even the worst of sinners, can bring ruin to the Church. Not because the humans that make up the Church are trustworthy—we are not. But God is trustworthy.
I can’t be perfect, but I have to be something. I’m choosing to join the imperfect Church and let God sort the wheat and weeds at the end. Because it’s not just one of the many Christian “tribes” that depend on its followers’ adherence to its particular confession’s emphases, I no longer have the burden to see “my tribe” maintain its particular heritage (or the fear of seeing us lose it). My job is to make sure I’m among the wheat. My job is to pray that God’s Spirit will raise up more wheat. My job is to be the most inspiring witness I can be, with the help of the Lord. My job is to encourage other believers toward holiness, and leave the rest up to God. I don’t have to be best friends with every Catholic out there. I don’t have to follow every Catholic’s ideologically upsetting social media posts. I can access the body and blood of the Lord — for real — and while I grieve sin, my conscience can rest, because I’m only responsible for my own integrity, not the integrity of any other person or organization. And someday, the Lord is going to make everything right at the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
Thank you, God, for helping me find my way again by 30. Thank you for telling me it’s all going to be OK. Thank you for your mercy. I’m looking forward to the next 32 weeks and beyond with you. Help.