Moment of Truth

I’ve already shared significant portions of my journey from Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism in my posts Considering Catholicism, On the Road to Rome, and How Francis Chan Helped Me Become Catholic, however I also wanted to share a pivotal moment of my testimony that I haven’t shared on my blog before. By the time 2013 was winding down, I was facing some very real questions about my faith. Some questions had begun to nag me years before, such as why someone as intelligent as G.K. Chesterton could conclude that Rome was right. But others were more recent, such as how Catholics can point to Jesus’ clearly articulated words in John chapter six to explain Christ’s Body and Blood being present in the Eucharist (a.k.a. Communion or Lord’s Supper), while Evangelical Protestant explanations were falling short to say the least in saying our Lord’s words must surely be symbolic.

Facing the very real prospect of being convinced of the truth of Catholicism, but struggling with the unfamiliarity of it compared to my prior beliefs, I began looking for a way out of the spiritual conflict. Turns out, it’s easy to find a way out, especially when you’ve been raised in the fringe minority of Christianity that thrives in modern American culture. It’s easy to lose yourself in American culture whenever you get tired of theology (the study of God). I even found a song that I felt I could adopt as symbolizing my new determination to pursue only minimalist Christianity. “Simple Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd was how I felt and by determining to believe that God wanted nothing more from me than wholehearted simplicity, I decided to just read the Bible in a simple way, pray in a simple way, and serve others in a simple way, and Christianity didn’t need to be any more complicated than that. The admonitions of my relatives and friends seemed to echo the lyrics of the song:

“Boy, don’t you worry you’ll find yourself
Follow your heart and nothing else
And you can do this, oh baby, if you try
All that I want for you my son is to be satisfied

And be a simple kind of man
Oh, Be something you love and understand
Baby be a simple kind of man
Oh, won’t you do this for me son if you can?”

Trust me, if you drive down the road blasting songs like this with the windows down, it’s easy to forget about things like sacraments and ancient beliefs. But some things still rise above the noise:

“The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” -1 Cor. 10:16-17

I had a nagging suspicion that the little symbolic crackers that are passed out in Evangelical Protestant churches are not the body of Christ, even if I wished that it might be true, and if it wasn’t “a participation in the body of Christ”, was I even part of the body of Christ: His Church? Nonetheless, all of the Christians I grew up with and hung out with were all able to shrug it off as no big deal, and I was determined to do the same. Forget the Catholics and their evidence, they’re weird anyway! Perhaps the less I think about it, the better… Well, God had a patient way of working in my restless mind, and I should mention that even though I was growing weary of theology and wanted to live a simple life, I was also praying earnestly for God’s direction.

In the mean time, my wife and I decided to back away from Catholicism and we determined to make our Pentecostal church home work for us. We were sitting in a sparsely populated worship service at the Assemblies of God church one Sunday morning, and it was time for communion. I had been raised to take communion very seriously growing up, and I did, using it as a time of quiet reflection and bringing my sins before God. The pastor usually goes out of his way to remind everyone that it’s a symbol, even while hearkening back to Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. Even though I had been wrestling with the biblical, theological, and historical evidence put forth by the Catholics, I decided that I was just going to leave it in God’s hands and take my time figuring it all out… someday.

As we sat in what was nearly the center of the sanctuary waiting for the crackers and grape juice trays to make their way to us, it gradually dawned on me that the ushers had somehow missed us. I tried to think whether in all my years of attending Evangelical Protestant church services this had ever happened to me before… it never had as far as I could remember. How could they have missed us? I had determined that it would be fine to partake of this symbolic communion as I always had, but had God prevented it? A crazy thought… or was it? While the short communion time proceeded without me, I pondered the possibility that God was saying, “I am fine with you taking your time to work through the process of understanding the Catholic Church… but you know better than this.” My wife wasn’t as sure that God had intended to send a clear message, but she did find it strange at least that we were missed, especially since we had been wrestling with whether or not to continue the Evangelical Protestant version of communion in a symbolic way.

An usher came up to us after the service and was genuinely apologetic for having missed us. He didn’t realize it until after he had passed us by. I happily informed him that it was no problem at all. Little did he know how much God may have used him in that moment.

The journey was still long after that point, but it did seem to be the final clincher in the subject of symbolic communion. And knowing what I know now, it would probably be a sin for me to do something that I know to be a symbolic reinvention of what God intended to be a Sacrament, without the defense of unknowing sincerity. I know that people can quickly and easily disregard this story as coincidental (and even bring up instances of being missed in communion themselves), but I see this as being just the sort of thing that God would use to speak to a specific person in a specific way, and in a way that cannot be used as proof for anyone else. In and of itself, it is hardly evidence of anything, but as it was a tipping point for me (on top of a pile of evidence and prayers for God’s guidance), it might be helpful to others in a similar situation.

In closing, I’ve noticed that if there is one subject that even the most biblically-minded Evangelical Protestants like to avoid, it’s the subject of the Eucharist. Once the biblical evidence is honestly examined, you need to do some very creative footwork to justify that communion is a symbolic “ordinance” rather than a sacrament. After ruling out the churches of our upbringing, we still had to choose between the options that remained. For awhile, we tried out the local Episcopal church, and we would have gladly gone to an Anglican church (at the time) if one was nearby. Also, the Eastern Orthodox have some substantial arguments… but we knew we could never innocently go back to where we were before.

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” -1 Cor. 11:27

-Ben 9/29/14

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From here, I recommend this post:

John 6: Spirit and Life

-Ben 7/27/15

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Check Your Posture

I remember often as a kid my parents would tell me that I should sit up straight. I didn’t really see what the fuss was about and largely ignored the advice, continuing to sit with my nose in a book, or reclined in whatever position felt comfortable. It wasn’t until I saw a picture of myself with friends when I was in my late teens that I noticed how horrible my posture was. My neck and shoulders naturally bent forward. By the time I had finally become self-conscious of my posture I had to work to undo years of slouching. It has not been easy, and I have not fully succeeded by the age of 30, but I have largely overcome the effects of bad posture through a constant attention to maintaining good posture.

Do you notice how actors in movies always just seem to have good posture? Athletes, dancers, equestrians, politicians and other people in the public eye can give the impression that good posture is a natural thing that we all have. I would argue that most if not all of those people have made a conscious effort toward good posture, to the point where it looks effortless, much like a well-trained public speaker appears like he’s having a natural conversation with his audience. Because the people we see and admire make good posture look natural, we can assume that we naturally have it also, especially when we only see ourselves from the front when we look in the mirror. I have learned that bad posture sneaks up on you, and for people like me who didn’t start out right, it takes an active fight everyday to not look like a slouch.

These days I notice that bad posture is becoming an epidemic among teenagers. Young ladies can develop a hunchback appearance, perhaps from looking down at their cell phones texting all day. Young men who play guitar or video games can have the problem and not even realize it, and then it can be a serious blow to their confidence when they finally notice. Is anyone going out of their way to motivate and properly instruct young people on how to sit and stand up straight? Perhaps we can learn something from the English culture of Jane Austen when young people were given elaborate instruction on how to carry themselves in public.

We should be aware of ourselves and understand our tendencies. Tall people can feel self-conscious about their height and perhaps subconsciously slouch downward, while shorter people might naturally have better posture while making the most of their height. People who work at a computer and/or a desk need to be extra careful, but those who work on their physical fitness have an advantage. If we’re relaxed much of the time then balance muscles that support our skeletal frame are not being exercised as they should. This is as much a challenge to myself as anyone.

The best advice I’ve ever heard for proper posture is to imagine that there is a string tied to the top of your head, pulling firmly upward. This helps you to extend the spine, put your shoulders and head back, chest out, and your chin up and back slightly, without exaggerating any of those movements. Daily stretches and strengthening your core are good ideas as well. A brief search online reveals possible routines that can help.

A focus on good posture can help with self-confidence, balance, and breathing, and can serve as a reminder to bring your head up and take a look at the world around you. It takes effort, but it’s well worth it. My point is, these things might need to be explained by parents and anyone who has an impact in the lives of young people. A bit of tough love can be something they’ll be grateful for later.

-Ben 9/13/14


The Guns of August, a Century After the Battles

“There was an aura about 1914 that caused those who sensed it to shiver for mankind.” –Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August, ch. 15

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. In remembrance of this, I took the opportunity to re-read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. The “Great War” has been overshadowed in our collective memory by World War II, but for the people of 1914, it was truly a massive conflict, and people hoped it would be the “war to end all wars.”

When we hear about World War I, we often picture the trench warfare that became a symbol of the dug-in, brutal fighting in which thousands and ultimately millions of lives were traded to gain small advances in the deadlock of Europe’s Western Front. However, in the opening weeks of the war, daring maneuvers and grand strategies were tested while armies struggled to gain the upper hand. Winston Churchill later said that it was “a drama never surpassed,” and this drama is the essence of what Tuchman was able to present through her narrative. In the foreword of the edition I read, Robert K. Massie points out that “Mrs. Tuchman’s triumph is that she makes the events of August, 1914, as suspenseful on the page as they were to the people living through them.”

When the book was published in 1962, many people still remembered World War I quite well, but even to them, Tuchman was able to make it exciting. Now more than ever, readers have all the more reason to be on the edge of their seats waiting to see what happens. By the way, President John F. Kennedy read this book shortly before the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. It greatly affected how he viewed the possibility of world war looming before him, and he could see with even more clarity the consequences of bad decisions made on the brink of conflict.

What Tuchman was able to do in this book is show very effectively how men can proudly bumble their way into war. We don’t often see the full extent of our thoughts, behaviors, and decisions, but especially world leaders must remember that sometimes the cat cannot be put back into the bag, and new wars bring new terrors.

World War I was a shocking example of old ways meeting new technologies. The brave bayonet charge by gallant men in red pants can be mown down quite efficiently by a well-placed machine gun. A mighty fortress can be destroyed in mere hours if you only have a gun that is big enough. A good example of old meeting new is an account quoted by Tuchman in chapter 11 of a German siege mortar entering a Belgian town:

“…a piece of artillery so colossal that we could not believe our eyes… The monster advanced in two parts, pulled by 36 horses. The pavement trembled. The crowd remained mute with consternation at the appearance of this phenomenal apparatus. Slowly it…[moved]… along the Boulevards de la Sauveniere and d’Avroy attracting crowds of curious onlookers along its slow and heavy passage. Hannibal’s elephants could not have astonished the Romans more! The soldiers who accompanied it marched stiffly with an almost religious solemnity. It was the Belial of cannons! …In the Parc d’Avroy it was carefully mounted and scrupulously aimed. Then came the frightful explosion; the crowd was flung back, the earth shook like an earthquake and all the window panes in the vicinity were shattered…”

French General Gallieni noted, “with the Germans one must always expect the gigantic.” Sadly, despite their grand history, impressive abilities, and grim determination, the Germans were greatly lacking in morals in the way they chose to fight the war. Their invasion of neutral Belgium was inexcusable and heartbreaking to read about, yet it was a fundamental aspect of their strategy to win the war quickly. The French were determined to win back territories they lost to Germany in the War of 1870, but they trusted too much in their élan, or “will to win,” which although helpful and even crucial at certain moments, could not decisively overpower German steel. Thankfully for the French, the British were brought in against Germany by Belgium’s invaded neutrality, but they were a relatively small expeditionary force with less-than-enthusiastic leadership. Russia’s involvement aiding the Allies against Germany was interesting, with their sheer strength in manpower greatly hindered by their sheer size of territory… not to mention their corrupt and somewhat backwards ways. They did manage to be helpful, albeit sometimes humorous: “At sight of an airplane, the first they had ever seen, Russian soldiers, regardless of its identity, blazed away with their rifles, convinced that such a clever invention as a flying machine could only be German.” –Tuchman, Guns of August ch. 15.

Tuchman’s research was exhaustive, and it shows in the way she was able to relate battle plans, the drama of deliberating governments, the reasoning and decision-making of field commanders, and the effect of war’s collateral damage on civilians. She was very good with her descriptions of the characters involved.

I think it’s important for people to remember how World War I started, because in many ways it was typical human pettiness and greed played out on an epic scale on a massive stage. War can be avoided in most cases, with a little extra foresight and (dare I say) Christian perspective. It may be a brilliantly discreet feminine touch on the part of the author, but I cannot walk away from reading this book in the belief that there was any good excuse for World War I. Pope Benedict XV called it “the suicide of Europe.” German general Moltke, who was largely responsible for carrying out the aggressive German war plans, seemed contemplative enough in 1914 to see the coming war as “the struggle that will decide the course of history for the next hundred years.”

And in many ways it has. I recommend picking up a copy of Barbara Tuchman’s book. A hundred years later, we should remember the guns of August.

-Ben 6/29/14


Beard Success!

Well, I’ve apparently done it. I got my first random beard complement from a total stranger. “Nice beard dude” were the words I heard, and turning I was relieved to see a normal-looking dude with an appropriate expression. I said thanks and went on my merry way. I’ve put a lot of work into my beard. No seriously. As great as my Northern European genes have turned out to be, there’s a lot more to growing a good beard than one might think. Last year I grew out a beard for the first time. I was dealing with dry, crackly hair and split ends that made it rather uncomfortable, and I had no idea how to properly trim and take care of it. So after about six weeks I basically panicked and shaved it off entirely. After going back to work and hearing that I looked like a 12 year-old boy, I figured there must be a better way. Once people get used to seeing you with facial hair, be careful about just shaving it off.

This year, as my 30th birthday approached, I decided on two things. First, I was determined to stick with it this time, and this required making myself wait a few months in anticipation before starting to grow it. Secondly, I was determined to give my beard the best possible care. So, in the months preceding the start, I did my homework. With YouTube, and Jack Passion’s book The Facial Hair Handbook (which was ordered in at the local library thanks to my request), I learned quite a bit about growing a healthy and well-kept beard. Many things these days are a lost art that every man used to be taught as a boy in the “old days”.  Yes, it’s possible to simply grow out a beard in the same way that it’s possible to grow out your hair. Just stop shaving, right? It can be that simple, but putting a little extra thought into it can go a long way. Most people like to keep their hair looking and feeling civilized, and a beard is no different.

Beards are coming back into style. I’m quite sure of it. It’s probably a combination of many influences, like the guys on Duck Dynasty and Vikings and professional ball players who are getting people used to seeing beards again. I think that many men are beginning to question why beards were out of style for so long. In the twentieth century, thousands of men came back from the World Wars where the military required a clean-shaven look of uniformity (also gas masks required a good seal on the face). Shaving companies jumped on the opportunity to portray men as clean-shaven and went a long way in encouraging that appearance. Hippies made beards look (and smell) bad in the sixties and seventies. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there are many feminist types who apparently suffer from beard envy and don’t wish to compete with such visual reminders of manliness. It is a sign of healthy manhood in an almost Darwinian sort of way. You can’t grow a good beard unless you are healthy and possess plenty of testosterone. A beard signifies someone who can provide and protect. Since pre-historic times, women have known deep down that a man with a good beard is a good choice.

So what are the secrets? First of all, in my late teens and into my twenties, I basically could not grow a decent beard, and I was in the military anyway. If you can’t grow a full beard, growing a scraggly-looking one may not be the best plan. It is important these days to make beards look good as they re-emerge on the cultural scene. In my late-twenties I was surprised to discover that I could grow a nice full beard. Sometimes you just need to give yourself a few years. Don’t give up hope entirely. If you are ready to grow a beard, remember that before the hair leaves the skin is the best opportunity to care for it. This means a healthy diet, drinking plenty of water, and taking an Omega-3 supplement and multivitamin. This is easy stuff. Avoiding processed sugars, smoking, or stress is also important. Married men have the ability to boost their testosterone in the traditional way (wink wink), and working out is important as well. Get plenty of sleep, and basically be as healthy as you can in general (which is good to do anyway).

What about caring for your beard? First of all, do not use shampoo, or any soap with excess chemicals. I have tried “Grandpa’s Pine Tar Soap” and it seems to live up to the hype. Any soap with only a few (natural) ingredients should work fine. I’ve heard that conditioner can be good, but just using natural soap on my hair, face, and beard has been working great for me going on 3 months now. Take an extra minute to rinse well when using soap. Also, and this is important, your face puts out a certain amount of natural oils, and it’s important to brush and comb these oils through your beard a couple times a day. It’s especially important to do this during the “itchy phase” in the first couple weeks. Scratching with a comb is fine and feels great. Try to avoid touching your beard too much, as it can work grime into the hairs and also cause split ends. A boar-bristle brush is the way to go, and “Kent” handmade saw-cut combs are totally worth the money (I like the 6T). Avoid typical plastic combs and brushes! They have tiny seams that can snag and scratch the hairs. Don’t brush or comb your beard when wet, and let it air dry for the most part. There are reasons behind these things, and Jack Passion’s book goes into more detail about a lot of them. I just wanted to pass along some basic tips that have helped me a lot. As far as trimming goes, I suggest YouTube, and being very careful. When it comes time to get the scissors out, take just a tiny bit off at a time. I’m still working on establishing a standard method for myself.

By the way, if you stop your beard at the jaw line, you’re severely limiting yourself. The natural neck line is best, allowing the beard to grow to a much better fullness. It may be a bit itchier at first, but if you care for it then it ends up feeling fine. One of the benefits of growing out a beard is that it requires minimal upkeep, so why grow one that requires daily maintenance? Goatees, mustaches, and excessively-trimmed beards look really bad if they go a couple days without shaving around them. A razor has not touched my face in months. I take care of the stray hairs on my neck and cheeks well enough with scissors and clippers, but basically my beard’s natural lines look fine. I like to have the ability to go weeks without upkeep and look natural (albeit a natural mountain man) if I choose or if circumstances demand it. Unless you’re a male model for a cologne company, there’s no sense in being dainty about it.

I was tempted at first to let my beard grow wild (and it’s always a possibility, so look out), but I have thus far settled on a more conservative look. I’m seeing what I can do with a standard shorter length and I can always go longer later. For now the style is more like Sean Connery or Ulysses S. Grant than Stonewall Jackson or Phil Robertson. I feel like a new man, and as the beard has grown out, it’s grown softer and sometimes I even forget that it’s there. It’s cool how it actually helps to protect my face in the cold air or harsh sunlight as well. Around here, many guys have beards this time of year, so it’s perfectly natural to grow one out. Encouraged by my success thus far, I don’t plan on getting rid of it any time soon.

-Ben 11/25/13