Plumbing the Truths of Christ’s Church
One day, on a bank application, my wife wrote that my “form of employment” was that of a “Singing Plumber.” To me, that conjures an image of a man in a tuxedo, cleaning drains as he sings opera. I do sing, not opera, but Christian songs to kids under the name “The Donut Man,” because I end every concert by “repairing” the hole in a donut to remind everyone that God sends His love to fill up the empty place in our hearts.
Both Sides of My Brain
I tell you this to let you know that both sides of my brain, the musician and the plumber, had to be convinced to become Catholic. You’ve heard from the scholars, theologians, and educators on the Journey Home. Now it’s time to find out why a blue-collar, ex-hippy, musician-type like me would “cross the Tiber.” But first, some instructions are needed.
Plumbing Rules and Tools. To be a plumber, I had to master some very practical things, such as: sewage runs downhill; cold water is on the right, hot is on the left; payday is on Friday; and don’t chew your fingernails. And then there are the tools. Let me tell you, plumbers have tools for their tools! We’ve got “goes-inta” tools and “goes-outta” tools. There are twisting, cutting, cleaning, bending, burning, gluing tools, and of course we always want more tools. Why? Because we’ve got a job to do! Truly successful plumbers have to find the shortest, straightest line between two points and run their pipe accordingly. Water comes down the tower, through the main, into the house, and out the tap. In order to work, it all has to be connected to bring refreshment and cleansing to the occupants, and then safely conduct the waste to where it can be appropriately handled. Just think of the diseases that plague cultures that don’t do it!
If you’re not really excited by my story yet, hang in there. Because if good plumbing is important in the natural realm, think of how much more important it is in the spiritual!
“Spiritual Plumbing” is something I think the Catholic Church does remarkably well. Not that my Protestant experience was sorely amiss, but it was just not employing all of the “tools” Christ has supplied. This was especially true on the issue of dealing thoroughly, and appropriately, with sewage. By sewage, I mean sin.
In with the Good, Out with the Bad. Both Catholics and Protestants agree that all sin is pardoned by Christ’s finished act on Calvary. Some Protestants, however, tend to consider Baptism as only a symbolic act, whereas Catholics embrace and employ the promise found in 1 Peter 3:21, that “Baptism … now saves you.” The Sacrament of Baptism actually sets us apart to God, and as a daily reminder, we can bless ourselves with holy water, and reappropriate, by faith, the power of our Baptism every time we walk through the doors of the church. That is good plumbing. And, it gets better.
A Protestant is far more on his own when it comes to confessing sin within the church. In all of my years of support groups, small groups, venting groups, and spiritual-help groups, I never, ever had anyone look me in the eye and say unequivocally, “Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
That is what a Catholic priest says to us when he administers the Sacrament of Reconciliation. (Ahhh. What a wonderful-sounding “flush” that makes)!
Connected. Plumbing systems don’t work if they are not connected! Yet the Catholic Church is the only church that sees the “apostolic connection” as a must. Apostolic succession, Holy Orders, is found in the Roman Catholic Church because before Peter died in Rome, he handed off the Church to the next guy, and that guy to the next guy, and then the next guy, and so on. In other words, when a priest distributes the Eucharist under the appearance of the bread and the wine, he is “piping-it-in” all the way back to Peter, Jesus, and the first Eucharist! This is a marvelous, miraculous, historical connection (more about the Eucharist later)!
Plumber’s Key. Most plumbers carry a shut-off key in their truck. It has a “T” handle with a long stem that goes way down into the street to access the supply to your house. Let me tell you, when you need that key, you really need it! Therefore, I appreciate the keys that Jesus gave to Peter in order to operate this “supply and waste system” otherwise known as the Catholic Church. Protestants believe that Peter took the keys with him to the grave. The Catholic Church does not (check out the first chapter of Acts where the disciples gave Judas’ empty office to Matthias). My point is, the pre-eminent office of Peter still functions today, with a wonderful teacher named Jorge Mario Bergoglio, otherwise known as Pope Francis, keeping an eye on those incredible keys!
Rust. Now in a system this old, you might find some rust in the pipes. But anything else two thousand years old would have shut down a long time ago if God wasn’t in it. I used to be “put off” by the traditional liturgy, the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic Church. Some of its style strikes me as a bit “rusty.” But as a plumber, if you told me that the first water mains here in Philly were made of plastic, I would know you are no plumber! The first water mains that Ben Franklin and company set in the ground were hollowed-out logs. I’ve seen some in the museums around town. In front of the display, the “plumber-in-me” calls my family over to admire what I find to be so exciting, “Wow, look at this hollowed-out log with metal bands on the ends!” And my kids pat me on the shoulder and say, “That’s nice, Dad.”
I recognize an original when I see one. They see a log. I see this old wooden pipe as a seminal invention, obviously the real McCoy. So, too, do I now see Catholic ritual and liturgy. Yes, it can seem tedious, culturally speaking — not modern, to say the least. But if you are looking for the real, historical Church that Jesus handed off to Peter and the disciples, wouldn’t you expect something two thousand years old to have a few things that look and act a bit strange? Perhaps even a bit anachronistic? But when we do encounter “rust” (and we will), let us pray for the fresh water of the Holy Spirit to cleanse every bit of corrosion from the vital function of the Catholic Church today!
Now from the Other Side of My Brain
I’m a musician, a singer, a songwriter, poet … dreamer. I love a good story, and can recognize when a story is fully realized or not. As the “Donut Man,” I have sung Bible stories from the first-person perspective with great effect. “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” is sung by the lion. The “Parable of the Mustard Seed” is sung by the mustard seed, and so on. This “first-person” style of storytelling has allowed me to view things from a fresh perspective.
For over forty years now, my life has been rocked by the greatest story of all: the story of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. When I was introduced to Jesus at the Gospel Temple of Philadelphia in 1972, it was accompanied with the pastor’s personal attention and discipleship as we sought to apply God’s Word and promises to my life. I remember him exhorting me to allow God to address my need for what he called the “Three Ms” of life: master, mate, and mission.
“Jesus is your master,” he said. “Now, let’s pray about the other two.”
The Prayers of the Saints.There began a long-standing prayer relationship with Jesus and me. As I prayed, and as we worshipped later with our worship band in church, the overhead projecting the words upon the wall, I closed my eyes and imagined Christ on the cross, Christ rising from the dead, and Christ now on a marvelous chair there in His throne room. I must tell you that over the years, as I considered the “manifold witnesses” and “the spirits of those made perfect” surrounding us in our approach to Mount Zion, I found it odd that Christ was always portrayed in the throne room surrounded by everyone thanking Him, praising Him, worshipping Him, but not praying to Him. Not that “The Master” let me down. He certainly did answer my prayers. For a “mate,” he gave me Shelley, my wife of forty years. And the “mission”? Well, that is still being revealed! But I came to realize that Catholics had it right when they asked the saints in heaven to pray for them.
The Ultimate Mom. Perhaps it was the storyteller/writer in me that started to think that something or someone else was missing in my spiritual life, in my understanding of heaven. But it wasn’t until I started to go to a Catholic church that the missing persons in that throne room were identified. Of course! A great King would not be sitting on the throne by Himself. Rather, He would be surrounded by His Bride, the Church, the mighty men and women comprising it, and most prominently, there would also be by His side … His Mother. In Mass, I have found various feast days to be inspiring and revelatory, because now I pray that these saints in glory would pray to the Lord our God for me, that the virtues they enjoyed would be created by the hand of almighty God in me as well.
I love the fact that in any given Mass, a saint who has been dead for fifteen hundred years can be recognized and his or her prayers requested. That is heavenly stuff! I also ask that the first and ultimate disciple of all would pray for me as well, since she is the finest reflection of God’s glory ever found in a created being. That, of course, is Jesus’ mother, who is now our mother: Mary.
The Eucharist: Symbol or Heaven Itself? The same Protestants who dismiss Baptism as the real impartation of grace usually also dismiss the possibility of the Real Presence of Christ being imparted in the Eucharist. It follows that if you deny the power of the Sacrament of Baptism, you would likewise deny the power of the Eucharist. I therefore raise a flag of truce and ask for a parlay of both camps! Come hither, let us talk peacefully! Here, as Protestant and Catholic camps gather under the white flag, we agree on many points.
We all agree that the God-who-created-everything-by-the-words-of-His-mouth so humbled Himself, that He was born of a Virgin. And when this child became a man, He humbled Himself even more, to be tempted by every temptation common to man. We also all agree that this Man-born-of-the-Virgin humbled Himself yet again, to the point of dying on a cross. But then, after His resurrection, the Protestant says God would never continue to humble Himself to the point of becoming bread and wine! The Catholic says, “Why would He stop humbling Himself at this point?!” The storyteller in me shouts, “The Catholics have it right!”
Jesus said, “Lo, I am with you always.” The Protestant says, “That means that Jesus is with us by His Holy Spirit.” The Catholic says, “Today, at Mass, Jesus was physically present to me in the Eucharist, and spiritually present by His Holy Spirit, and in the community of saints.” Why would the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost countermand Jesus’ declaration found in John 6? God, the ultimate iconoclast, smashes the barrier of heaven and earth, time and space, when He says that when we eat the Bread of His flesh, and drink His Blood that it is indeed real food and drink. The limits of heaven and earth, of time and space, are like putty in the hands of Jesus, the Creator-made-flesh.
Now from the Heart. So far, I’ve given you some practical plumbing tips, songs about “repairing” donuts, reflections on the sacraments, apostolic succession, the keys of Peter, the communion of the saints, and the Eucharist. I have two more things, but these are from my heart. You see, I am a child of divorce. My heart was broken when my mother divorced several times, and both of my parents remarried, providing me with two half-brothers, a half-sister, and a myriad of step-siblings. Of course, I am happy that I got siblings out of the deal. But our family unity was scattered to the wind, and I had to adjust to a whole new framework for my identity. My agonies prepared me to receive the Gospel.
When I became a Christian, I was told that this would be my “forever family.” That was true for about three years, until the senior pastor committed adultery, and our church went on to split several times in several ways. That was when Shelley and I moved on; out to Los Angeles, then to Nashville, and then back to Philadelphia. Over the next thirty years, we belonged to a variety of Protestant churches. Of the eight churches that we were members of during that time, four of them split and divided for a variety of reasons. The closest emotion that I can equate with a church split, especially in our younger years, is the pain in my heart when my own parents divorced. It was an agony to see friends shattered and scattered. I actually pulled the car over several times during that period to weep. I have to admit, by the time the last church split, we saw it coming and “ducked.”
Now that I am a Catholic, I have learned that the “denominations” that I had taken for granted in my Protestant experience had not always been there. To study Church history is to discover that about five hundred years ago, people known as “The Reformers” split away from the Catholic Church to form a brand of Christianity that did not include the “See of Rome” in the equation. It was, essentially, a divorce, a split driven by sincerity and the need for reform, but resulting in the great divide that we see today. I found that it forced me into choices that are very difficult.
As a child of divorce, I found that I had to choose between my father’s lifestyle and my mother’s lifestyle. I found that choice to be impossible, untenable, and emotionally debilitating. Now I have to make a choice between two spiritual families.
If you are struggling with the style differences between modern Protestant seeker-friendliness and solemn Catholic liturgy, I can empathize! I love contemporary music, clapping and singing, but I have a deeper need for solemnity and the awe that accompanies worship in the communion of the saints. That is why I now go to the Catholic Church. I appreciate the many biblical contributions that the brilliant teachers of Protestantism have to offer about every aspect of life: marriage, finance, faith, child-rearing, and so on. But I prefer a homily followed by the Real Presence of Christ that is found in the Eucharist.
Marriage: A Shadow Cast from Heaven. As I reflect on my two trades, music and plumbing, I forgot to mention the obvious: I learned these trades in order to provide for my family. My driving force has always been that my loved ones would be provided for. But now I have been pointed toward a mystery that makes me peer over every cloud and look eagerly beyond the horizon to heaven itself. Here’s why: in my years now as a Catholic, the most profound teaching I have found is the “Theology of the Body,” and it is, in my humble estimation, one of the highpoints from the teaching of the great Pope St. John Paul II. He observed that “all analogies of heaven are imperfect, but the spousal analogy for the Kingdom of God is the least imperfect.”
In short, I am living in a sacrament called “Marriage.” My marriage is actually a veil for heaven itself. The light source is the Trinity, shining through the throne room of heaven, and earthly marriage is the shadow this light casts. The “Theology of the Body” observes that all created things point toward their Creator, but Christian marriage, Catholic marriage, is the “crown of God’s creation.”
For a child of divorce, with such dysfunctional experiences and shattered memories, to “get back on the saddle” and ride off into the sunset with my wife Shelley at my side is a miracle of sorts, don’t you think? Shelley is also a child of divorce. We met in church, and then thirty-four years later we came into the Catholic Church together. We both absolutely agree that the sacraments are now an indispensable agent of grace within this grace we know as our marriage. We both agree that the two key sacraments that keep us going are Confession and the Eucharist. Modern man’s pessimism claims that you can never give what you never got. As Catholics, we disagree. The Godhead, the Trinity, is the eternal source of all unity. And the marriage of Jesus, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, to His Bride — the Church — with Mary by His scarred side, and with St. Joseph standing nobly in attendance, is the heavenly model that we earnestly emulate and call upon for prayer.
I leave you with this “spousal analogy.” On my wedding night, I did not take the keys from my bride. Rather, I gave them to her. Shelley got the keys to the house, keys to the car, and keys to our bank account brimming with $640. She did not need to ask me every time she used the keys. I “endowed her” with full authority to use them, anytime, as my bride, as she saw fit. So it is with Jesus giving the keys to Peter. When He gave the keys to Peter, He endowed the Church (His “Bride”) with all authority necessary to conduct earthly affairs in His name, until His return. I thank God that my home is now under Peter, who is under Christ. This “Singing Plumber” has a lot of work to do, and a lot of songs yet to sing. But I can rejoice to call myself a Roman Catholic.