09 July 2017

Conversations: Journey to Rome

Michael Faber has been a friend since another friend invited us to a Facebook conversation about the sacraments…if memory serves. This last week he shared his time and story with us.

Could you start by describing your growing up experience and the steps along the way, as you say, Baptist to Charismatic to Charismatic Catholic?

I was born into a Baptist family, but we didn’t go to church much except on Christmas and Easter and a few other times a year. My uncle Vernon, who was more religious, made sure to take me to church summer camp, several times in junior high....

Despite this lack of heavy church involvement, my interest in faith increased.... I remember conducting a “Bible study” under a table in the fourth grade with my pocket Gideon New Testament for several friends. I started a Bible study club in junior high when they were no longer allowed in public schools. I was baptized at age 14 at our family church, and when I was in the 11th Grade, I had a “born again” experience and was also “baptized in the Holy Spirit.”

During my last two years of high school, I was in church or Bible study about five times a week and was ridiculed for carrying my Bible around on campus. I wanted to be a minister.... After my tour in the Army and while in college, I never stopped considering myself a Christian, but I never read my Bible and rarely went to Church.

I married my wife Mai, who was Catholic. She insisted on going to Church every week, but I would drop her off there and go hang out with my friends, and then pick her up after Mass. This pattern continued...through Law School....

Then my uncle Vernon died. I remember at his funeral, he was referred to as a “man of God” and the thought crossed my mind that no one would call me that if I were to die.... My wife and I started attending both Catholic and Protestant church together from time to time. I wasn’t Catholic, but I attended Mass and made friends with the priest and deigned to agree that Catholics were Christians too.... We also went to Capital Christian Center, an Assemblies of God church.

When I was about 30...my friend, Dominick Naso, started coming around, preaching to me and challenging me to study the word of God. Also, as a lawyer, I visited a young Vietnamese man in jail.... I went back to my office and began praying for this young man. I cried out to the Lord, “What is wrong with this kid?”

I heard an interior voice say, “He needs Jesus, and so do you.”...

I thought about all the young Asian gang members I was representing at that time, and thought, “They need Jesus too. Maybe I can help.” I prayed, “What should I do Lord?”

God spoke and said simply, “Learn my Word.”

I signed up for a correspondence Bible course through the Assemblies of God.... I did not want to be an Assemblies of God pastor, (because I disagreed with some of their doctrine) but I wanted to learn what they knew.

Quickly, I was placed in charge of a high school youth group at a Baptist church I began attending, and also led a Friday night praise and worship group.... I was licensed to preach the Gospel in 1995.... In 1999, I became the interim senior pastor for four months after the pastor retired....

In 2000, there was trouble with the new leadership, and I quit and with a group of people...started our own church. I remember, we set the time of our new church service, so that it would not conflict with my ability to attend Mass with my wife....

In 2006, I enrolled in Fuller Seminary to obtain a master’s degree in Bible and Theology. I learned Greek and Hebrew, textual criticism, lots of Bible, and lots of church history.... I graduated in 2012. By this time people started calling me “Pastor”.... I was preaching two to three times per month...and also began to write and self-publish spiritual books based on sermons that I had preached....

It seemed the more I studied the [Bible], the more I realized that “faith alone” wasn’t really backed up by scripture. Jesus and Paul and James and John and Peter all required action in addition to faith to secure salvation.... Not only that, my study of church history, made me reject out of hand the Protestant narrative that the Church was corrupted after Constantine and thus needed to be reformed by Luther.... Furthermore, the theology of the earliest Christians...was Catholic all along. My own experience with the Catholic Church showed me that Catholics were devout people who loved God just as much as us Protestants.... Everyone claimed the Holy Spirit as well as academic authority. Seminary blurred rather than clarified many things for me.

I wish I could say, like Scott Hahn, that I studied my way into the Catholic Church and conclusively proved to myself each and every Catholic doctrine before I had my first Mass. But the truth is I had been participating in Mass for 30 years, and I had come to agree with about half of what the Catholic Church taught, based on my own studies, but I still had problems. These were the Marian doctrines, purgatory, indulgences, loss of salvation through mortal sin, confession, etc....

I enjoyed people finally calling me “pastor,” and I loved preaching the Word of God. I pretty much was exactly where I wanted to be. Full time lawyer, part time pastor.

While on vacation in December 2014, we travelled to Mendocino and went to a lovely Mass Saturday evening. I felt really at home. That night, I began having nightmares with sweat, and tossing and turning.... Every time, I fell asleep, I heard this voice insisting “You need to stop preaching in the Protestant church and become a Catholic!”

I truthfully thought the voice was demonic. Why would God tell me to stop preaching and become a Catholic where my ministry would never be as fruitful as it now was? I even told my secretary how Satan was trying to trick me, pretending to be God....

Over the next year, every time I sat in chapel I heard, “You need to step down from your position and become a Catholic.”

“I don’t agree with the Catholics, Lord!”

That year, a man at my parish began challenging me because it was my practice to take Communion at Mass. His name was Bob Laywell.... I truly began to hate Bob and avoid him. Then while in prayer one day, the Lord told me, “Make friends with that man!”...

Immediately he began trying to convert me. I laughed him off. “You never are going to convert me! I know a lot more scripture than you ever will!”

One effective thing he did do, besides pray for me and keep the idea of conversion in my head was that he gave me a video about the Virgin of Guadalupe.... As I watched that video and realized that millions of Aztecs came to Christ because of this Marian apparition, I began to see her as not a false god or competitor to Christ for the admiration of God’s people but someone on the same team that God could use even now for the salvation of souls....

Finally, in December 2015, we prepared to take a trip to Cabo San Lucas. As is not uncommon, American Airlines oversold their tickets and bumped us off of their flight.... Instead of being in Cabo on the warm beach, we had to spend a day freezing at the San Francisco airport.

It was Saturday, so Mai and I decided to go to Mass. At the Church, I was enveloped in a sense of peace and warmth and joy. I knew I was home....

I entered into full communion with the Catholic Church at Easter Vigil 2016. Bob Laywell was my sponsor....

I had to lay down the title I had so coveted for so many years.... I had to lay aside my own understanding on several theological issues, and simply believe that Jesus had given his apostles authority to interpret the Bible and that if I was to believe Christ, I would have to believe His Church....

Since becoming a Catholic, my prayer life has increased, my sin life has decreased, and I am walking in friendship with Christ. I am being obedient. I am at peace, and I feel great joy during the Eucharist....

I'm intrigued you don't seem to have wrestled with too many doubts about Christianity in general. Why do you think that is?

I don't wrestle with the truth of Christianity because God speaks to me, and I feel the power of his spirit when I am filled with the Spirit. If he is not real, then I am crazy.

Further, the teachings of Christ and scripture in general speak to my spirit and I know they are true and good for me even if seemingly counter to my human nature and momentary fleshly desires....

I personally never took the creation story literally, even as a Baptist.... It is a poetic description of Gods successive creation of the Universe. Happily that is how the Catholic Church sees it as well. The Bible doesn't claim to be a science textbook.... It gives us everything we need for faith and morals and truths about God.

The way you understand God speaking to you sounds familiar from growing up in Assemblies of God churches. What connections do you see between your Pentecostal background and Marian apparitions or even the Eucharist?

Pentecostals...are taught to seek the charismatic gifts of the Spirit. It is sad to me when I run across many Christians both lay and clergy who state that they have never seen a vision or heard God's voice. I know the Spirit gives gifts as he wills, but I believe more Catholics and Protestants could hear from God if they would learn to listen and recognize God's voice....

When I was in my 20s my Pentecostal friends...all studied hearing Gods voice by reading Catholic mystics like Brother Lawrence and Jeanne Guyon and Theresa of Avila as well as Saint John of the Cross.

As for Marian visions, I was extremely skeptical of them 'till the month before I made my decision to convert.... Now that you mention it, why should I have doubted it when I believed in angels and demons?

As for the Eucharist, my fundamentalist background made that one easy. Jesus said, "This is my body," not, “this is a symbol.”... Again per your suggestion, I can see that my charismatic background probably made the switch to Catholicism easier. Both charismatics and Catholics believe in miracles....

Living as I have after the Second Vatican Council, during the pontificates of John Paul II, Benedict IVI, and Francis, I find myself drawn to a more sacramental, more historic understanding of Christianity. But how do you reconcile those ideas with the checkered history of the popes?

We are taught that with the exception of Jesus and Mary....all men are sinners. That includes priests, bishops, and popes.... I believe Dante said hell was full of bishops, popes, and priests.

We have been lucky to have better Popes in modern times. This probably is a result of the church being stripped of the Papal States. There is less motivation for evil or greedy families to promote their own into the papacy, leaving the job for idealists and true believers....

God chooses to take each of us wicked weak sinful people as his bride and to declare us holy. He does this on the macro scale with his church also, supernaturally protecting the doctrine it teaches from error.

Peter the first pope was weak, stubborn, and kind of dense, yet Jesus declares that “on this rock I will build my church.” He gave Peter the supernatural graces he needed to get the job done for the times.... We believe the Popes are prevented from teaching false doctrine while sitting in the chair of Peter....

This belief is necessary. Otherwise truth becomes unknowable, according to the opinion of each Bible scholar. The advent of thousands of Protestant denominations shows the inadequacy of "sola scriptura." The apostles and thus the Church were given the responsibility to preserve the truth, not each individual believer.

What do you make of the controversy surrounding the Second Vatican Council? Or the controversies around the Synod on the Family?

By and large I support everything done at Vatican II as good for the Church.... Because there was a change in Church culture, those vested in how things were always done reacted with various levels of vigor. Go to any Protestant church and try to change the music style or the meeting times. Even though the message preached will be the same, reaction could be fierce.

The issue with "Amoris Laetitia" is still playing itself out, and it is too early to make any assessments. Should divorced and remarried people receive communion in the discretion of their pastors? It was proposed in a footnote but not theologically hammered out. A lot of theology will go behind that simple little act, and now as a Catholic lay person I can have my opinion...but frankly it is above my pay grade.

The Pope and the Cardinals will work out an accommodation that does not do harm to the theological framework established by the Magisterium. If anything else happened, it wouldn't be Catholic. The Holy Spirit will prevent the Pope from teaching theological error.

For the time being he is proposing an act of discipline but it will have to be done in a way that fits within the theological understanding established thus far by the Magisterium.

How would you respond to someone who sees Eastern Orthodoxy as the main trunk of Christianity off of which western Christianity in general has splintered?

If you had two cousins springing from the same grandpa which cousin represents the true family coming from grandpa?

Both might have equal claim.

Now imagine grandpa has a family business, and he put one of the cousins in charge as the CEO of the business, and then due to the behavior of the CEO the other cousins took their franchises and stopped sending money to the CEO and declared him deposed. But the CEO cousin stayed in business with his fewer number of franchise stores and through good management grew the business to the largest in the world. In the meantime the other cousins who left with more franchises through no fault of their own found their businesses attacked and vandalized by competitors and ended up with a smaller market share. I would say the branch led by the CEO installed by grandpa has a better claim of being the legitimate family business both because of title legality and right as well as practicality of how things worked out.

Jesus put the apostles in charge of the church but set one higher than the others. He gave Peter the keys to the kingdom and established him as the rock. Every organization needs a single leading voice and Jesus gave us one: Peter, whose successors are the bishops of Rome....

The Roman Catholic Church looks forward to reconciliation with its Eastern brothers, describing the church as made of two lungs, east and west.

You've mentioned concluding that “scripture alone” and “faith alone” are inadequate. I've grown to take comfort in those passages that emphasize God's initiation and faithfulness towards his people. I used to say I was a Calvinist (emphasizing God's sovereignty) because I didn't have a strong enough will to be an Arminian (emphasizing human free will). I'm curious how you understand grace. 

Grace is the initiative of God. It is a gift of unmerited favor. God chooses us and gives us power to respond to Him in love. Without grace we could not believe or ever attain salvation. But God does not compel our love or our obedience. Baptism especially of babies is an act of pure grace by which, through the power of Christ's death and resurrection, we are adopted into His family. But God does not compel us to receive our inheritance.

God requires our free response to his grace to assure salvation. If we choose to follow serious sin, we are rejecting God's grace and his love. If we fail and repent, he will forgive us if we confess and seek his forgiveness. But if we persist in our sin without repentance and die in the state of rebellion against God, we are in serious jeopardy.

Thank you for taking time for all these questions and for responding so quickly too. Your answers challenge me in ways other than I expected. My doubts come less from disagreement over morality, less from difficulties harmonizing science and scripture, more from the fundamental differences between my experience and the experience you describe. I tend not to trust my impressions, except I cannot account for the good and beautiful apart from some idea of God.

Are you doubting the existence of God my friend? I know that much of my relationship with God is subjective, based on feelings, voices, and supernatural experiences. Catholics call these things consolations and counsel that our faith must be strong even if the consolations disappear. Saint John of the Cross wrote about this in his book, “Dark Night of the Soul.” Mother Theresa suffered from such a dark night at the end of her life. She kept the faith, even when she was denied the feelings of God's presence. To start, however, if you have not yet experienced God's presence, is to learn how to listen, to recognize God's voice. I recommend the book “Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ” by Jeanne Guyon.

I think the questions I wrestle with have a lot to do with what evidences can be trusted, even when those consolations disappear, if I may borrow your words.

I would recommend that you plumb the depths of Catholic spirituality, even if you are not ready to be a Catholic. Go on a retreat. Learn and practice Examen, Lectio Divina contemplative prayer.

Get in touch with your spirit. God's Spirit will speak to your spirit. That is how the Holy Spirit can touch you. Faith comes not by scientific proof, logic, or philosophy, though those things have their place to remove objections. In the end, faith comes because you are drawn by the Spirit.

We choose to believe or disbelieve, and all the "proof" follows after to justify whatever we have already chosen. Pray for faith. Pray for the Holy Spirit. God will answer that prayer. Luke 11:11-13.

Thank you for those recommendations. I've read George Weigel's "The Truth of Catholicism," and G.K. Chesterton has influenced me more than any other writer. If you were going to recommend one or three books to represent your understanding, what would they be?

The three books I would recommend would be Scott Hahn's “Rome Sweet Home,” Karl Keating's “Catholicism v. Fundamentalism,” and Devin Rose's, “Crossing the Tiber.”

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