In 2019 I found myself working in Hamburg, Germany during the city’s celebration of a popular local holiday: Reformationstag, or Reformation Day.
In 2019, I was still a Roman Catholic.
I remember hearing we would have Monday off due to the Reformation and rolling my eyes a bit. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the holiday walking around the city with coworkers. At one point, we passed St. Michael’s Church, the biggest church in Hamburg. I was curious and would have at least tried to see the interior if I hadn’t been with my coworkers, but I just walked on.
That memory captures who I was that day. It wasn’t that long before that I had lived a life of intense Catholic devotion and considered becoming a priest, but by then, my faith was a wreck running only on the fumes of lost fervor. Christians give bold testimony as witnesses when their relationship with Christ is strong. My relationship with Christ was weak, not lacking in belief but feeling distant from him. That distance from Christ left me feeling permanently like I did that night, with memories of a sunny day fading into a cold twilight.
I didn’t deny Christ to those coworkers or anyone else I met, but I didn’t claim him, either. I wanted Jesus on terms that were convenient to me. But that’s not how Jesus works. He waits at the door for us to let him in, but then he wants it all. He wants us to put our trust in him alone. He wants us to know that it’s by his cross we are saved, not by any of our own efforts. He wants us to know that our total loyalty to him is unlike loyalty to any earthly king because his burden is light and with it come freedom and hope to replace enslavement and fear. But it is still meant to be total loyalty.
Jesus was in my life, but he was coming in last. If being a heathen was just about decadence and excess, I may have eventually settled in nicely as one. But it’s also about having no knowledge of God or God’s customs, and there, even in my lowest times, I’ve never been much of a heathen. As a kid, when I went to church mostly out of obligation, I still found it peaceful and restorative. It got even worse as an adult when I found not just peace at church but also truth, beauty, and a sense of home.
A year ago, I was still going to church; I couldn’t give it up. But I was going to different parishes each weekend, whenever the time worked for me. Nearly everything else, I gave up. I lost my interest in growing in holiness and instead contented myself with an Antinomian sense of presumption.
My sinful life fit well with my church attendance in the sense that the random guy who shows up at a different parish each weekend where no one knows him is accountable to no human. I cut myself off from my former parish community because communities ask questions and invite you to dinners and care about you. I wanted to be left alone with my sins.
When you are stuck in a pattern of sin like I was, it’s only fun for as long you can stay distracted from your conscience. I wasn’t unhappy as I stood outside the church in Hamburg, but there was no joy. I knew I was choosing again and again to trade heavenly nearness with Christ for lesser earthly delights. I was stuck in a morass, knowing I needed to change but lacking the desire for it.
I found no such desire that night. I stood in front of the church for only a few moments and then kept walking with my friends. Grace and joy were so close, and yet I turned my back on them again. Tomorrow. Another time. I’m good for now.
From Germany, I continued on to a conference in London. In my free time, the sight I was most interested in visiting was Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), the Anglican parish that had originated the Alpha course.
HTB has a parish bookstore. When I made it there, I was reminded of an earlier book-hunt during a similarly dark time. In 2015, I went on a trip to Portland and visited one of my favorite spots, Powell’s Books. I found a small stack of books that helped fuel my born-again conversion, which was capped by taking the Alpha course.
The spring when I had taken Alpha was one of the happiest times I remember. I had gotten out of a bad relationship, taken the unthinkable step of giving my life to Christ, and found life easy. Each week, I grew my faith more through Alpha. No matter the ups and downs I had faced since then, my feelings towards Alpha never changed.
The HTB bookstore was smaller than even a single room at Powell’s, but it still had heaps of books I wanted to buy. I piled up a stack of books so big I wasn’t sure how I would fit them all into my luggage. When I reached the register, the worker looked at the stack with curiosity.
“Well, that’s a load of books, isn’t it,” she asked.
“Ah, I like to read,” I replied. I really just wanted to get back to a conference call. But now she could also hear I was an American.
She asked me, “Are you here for Alpha?”
I didn’t quite know how to answer; I was there because of Alpha. I thought she meant an Alpha evening, so I replied, “No, but I did take Alpha back home. I really loved it.”
“Where’s that, then?”
“Lovely,” she said. She was smiling now. “You should stay for Alpha tonight. They’re having it at 7.”
I already had plans to head back home to pack for my flight. I started to shake my head.
“No, really—you should stay.”
“But I already took it,” I objected.
“You know, if you stay…you might see Nicky Gumbel! I think he’s coming tonight.”
She’d gotten my attention. Nicky Gumbel is in many ways the father of the Alpha course. When I took Alpha, we had the original videos where Nicky did all of the speaking. I had read several of his books, I had used his Bible in One Year app, and I loved him to pieces. I had raved to friends that Nicky was the best evangelist of our era, a cross between C.S. Lewis and Billy Graham. I couldn’t resist. I told her I would stay. I was beaming.
It would be great to say I stayed and met Nicky Gumbel, but I actually chickened out and left. So Nicky didn’t change my life that night. The books I bought were good but not life-changing, so they weren’t life-changing either. No, I think what started that night at HTB that began to turn me around was community.
The woman running the till hadn’t let me off the hook. She kept drawing me out, inviting me forward, making me choose. She was happy with her community at HTB and she wanted me to be part of it, even if only for a few hours.
It was the opposite of what I thought I wanted. I thought I wanted to belong nowhere and be anonymous. The spirit of that woman was so different. She wanted me to understand that the power of Christian community comes less from the individuals who make it up than it does from the living Christ who stands in our midst. She wanted to welcome me into a community much greater than any individual but also a community accountable for each individual, a community where people would know my name and ask me questions and invite me to small groups.
I think of the pre-Reformation church, where the faithful were separated from the altar usually by a screen, hearing a liturgy in a language not their own, fervently attending to their own private devotions while hoping for a glimpse of the eucharist at the elevation. Come the Reformation, the people were expected to participate—to understand the prayers, to read the Scriptures, and to take part in the eucharist. They were invited into the church in a new way, and I felt that same spirit in this woman.
At St. Michael’s in Hamburg, I had admired a beautiful church from the outside. At HTB in London, I crossed the threshold and entered into the church—I entered back into the body of Christ. I stopped trying to go my own way and cherish my distance from the people around me and instead sat back down as one more sinner at the eucharistic feast, always different in character from the believers around me but always the same in our need for grace.
Not even two months after that night at HTB, I decided to go to a new Anglican church-plant in Seattle. I had tried being an Anglican a few years before, right after my born-again conversion, but had ended up back in Rome. Rome worked for a while, but I missed the radical Christocentricity I had known in Anglicanism. So I ducked into this church-plant and tried to keep a low profile, but then the priest asked my name after church.
That priest is now my priest, Fr. Casey, and that parish is my parish, St. Ambrose. Ours is a small church-plant. There is only one mass each weekend and each weekend I’m there.
For all the challenges the year of the pandemic brought, faith has not been one of them. My faith is reinvigorated. Though this renewal predates my membership at St. Ambrose, I know the community of the parish has helped sustain it. Our Christian faith is a communal faith. We must never make the mistake of living it alone. We must always return back to the table with fellow Christians and acknowledge together that we must eat his Body and drink his Blood to have eternal life.
We recently celebrated Reformation Sunday. Just a year after I had guiltily enjoyed the same holiday in Germany, I celebrated it gladly. One of the famous tales of English Reformation concerns the martyrdom of Bishops Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer. Just before they were burned at the stake, legend holds Latimer said to Ridley, “Be of good comfort, and play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” This year, I felt a child of that candle’s light, a recipient of that grace.
In Fr. Casey’s pre-church email, he shared Robert Farrar Capon’s words on the Reformation. Capon wrote:
The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellar full of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof Grace–bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly. The word of the Gospel–after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps–suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started…Grace has to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale; neither goodness, nor badness, not the flowers that bloom in the spring of super spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case.
Last year in Hamburg, my fear of my own sinfulness kept me far from God. This year, I drank His grace straight and found myself back in His company with all the other broken and yet beloved sinners. In the blind drunkenness of that grace, I even managed to start amending my life and choose again the path of holiness.
I thank Luther and the other Reformers for what they did to open up the possibility of grace to the Church. I imagine I will always have a complicated feeling towards the Reformation because of what it meant for Christian unity and what sort of excesses followed in its wake, like the tragic dissolution of the English monasteries and bloody religious wars. May that same grace that makes possible our salvation save also our Church from the scandal of division and conflict.
Let we Christians live that best spirit of the Reformation in our lives and share it with those we meet. Everywhere around us, there are people like me a year ago, standing outside the Church in darkness who need to be invited into our community and welcomed to our feast with the Lord. Let us live the joy of fellowship with Jesus in our lives, let us radiate his friendship to them, and let us love them despite their flaws as he first loved us.