Several years and another lifetime ago (back when I was single and drawing a steady paycheck), I used to attend the Christian Booksellers Association Convention each summer. At the first convention I attended, shortly after I joined Servant, I was particularly nervous about one meeting — breakfast with Elisabeth Elliot and her husband Lars. Elisabeth is a veteran missionary and radio personality, a revered spiritual icon in evangelical circles. (My mother nearly fainted when she found out I had met Elisabeth. "Oh, dear … you didn't tell her where you go to church now, did you Heidi?")
In point of fact, I had mentioned it — but only after she peppered me with questions until I couldn't evade them any longer. I wasn't ashamed of being Catholic, but I was a bit nervous about the possibility that Elisabeth might lecture me (like so many others had) about turning my back on the "faith of my fathers." In the eyes of this great faith warrior, I did not want to look like a slacker. And so, I decided not to bring up the subject. Anyway, I told myself, it's not like someone as famous as Elisabeth Elliot would care two bits about my little story.
I was wrong. We had just settled down over our pancakes when Elisabeth opened the conversation with, "So … you haven't always been Catholic, have you dear?"
That mouthful of pancake was thoroughly masticated before I responded, cautiously. "Why do you ask?"
"You mentioned that you used to work for Bethany House, and they are certainly not a Catholic publisher."
Still I hesitated… A little impatient, she continued. "Do you know my brother, Thomas Howard? He entered the Catholic Church some years ago. I only wish I had his courage."
I nearly choked. This comment from a woman who had courage enough to set up housekeeping for herself and her daughter among Aucas of Ecuador, the very Indian tribe who had martyred her husband and their associates in cold blood. Not only was this august personage not going to scold me, she admired the decision I had made to enter the Church, as her dear brother had! After she had sung the praises of the Catholic Church for several minutes, I worked up the nerve to ask Elisabeth why she did not follow in her brother's footsteps.
"Cowardice, I suppose. My listeners and readers simply would not understand."
That, I understood. I understand it even better now, in light of the recent hubbub surrounding the reversion of Dr. Francis Beckwith, former president of the Evangelical Theological Association. Despite the fact that it meant losing the respect and fellowship of his colleagues, not to mention his livelihood, Dr. Beckwith's courageous position was unequivocal: unless there is a serious theological reason not to, the default position of every believer must be to belong to the historical Church founded by Christ.
Why? In his book The Night is Far Spent, a collection of essays by Thomas Howard newly published by Ignatius Press, Dr. Howard offers five reasons for this "fallback position," which he outlines as the five "marks" of the church: her antiquity, authority, unity, liturgy, and sacraments. He writes:
What is at stake here is the rock-bottom question as to what worship is, and how you do it…. [W]orship is the thing we were created for — to know God, and knowing him, to bless him and adore him forever….
To worship God is to ascribe worth to him. It is an activity distinct from teaching, and from fellowship, and from witnessing, and from sharing. It is an act, not an experience. … Our task in worship is to offer the oblation of ourselves and our adoration at the Sapphire Throne.
Obviously this is a daunting and an august task. Fortunately we are not left to our own resources, nor to the whim of the moment, nor even to our own experience. The faithful have been worshipping God since the beginning, and there is help for us. All of us, even those of us who come from the so-called free churches … are accustomed to borrowing secondhand, canned words to assist in worship. I am speaking of hymns. When we sing "Amazing Grace" or "O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing," we are borrowing John Newton's or Charles Wesley's words. And we discover that, far from cramping or restricting our worship, these secondhand words bring us up to a level quite unattainable by our own spontaneous efforts. They take us away from ourselves (p.254-255).
These reflections on worship contrast strangely with the protestations of many of those who leave the Church for what they perceive to be greener (certainly noisier) pastures. "I feel closer to God there …," they say, or "the people are so much friendlier, and they have more to offer in the way of children's programs." Thinking they can choose a church the same way we can choose a new school or a new home, they rely on subjective factors of preference and comfort, rather than the single most important consideration of all: Which is the most authentic expression of the Body of Christ as He originally envisioned it? Not, "Which is most entertaining?" but "Which leads me with surest steps along the pathway to holiness?" Not, "Which makes me feel good?" but "Which is most effective in treating my spiritual ills?" Not "Which has the best music," but "Which draws me closest to the sacramental presence of the Living Christ?"
Can you enter heaven without professing membership in the Catholic Church? Yes, the Church has always taught that there is hope for those outside her "visible boundaries" — a hope that is based on the treasury of truth and faith that has been preserved by the Church for two thousand years. In the same way, a group of tourists who fall off a cruise ship hope that the lifeboat that has been tossed down will save them. The lifeboat (part of the equipment of the larger ship) may indeed save them; but how much better if they had never fallen overboard!
Holy Spirit, pour out your restorative presence among your people.
Unite us once more, we humbly pray,
with all our brothers and sisters in the faith,
for the glory of God and the benefit of all.
For the sake of His sorrowful Passion,
have mercy on us and on the whole world!