Recently, I attended an event that brought some fresh Christian voices my way. The Catholic Answers conference in my husband's hometown of Glenwood, Minn., left me feeling enlightened and gifted with new ways of articulating things about the faith I've known but haven't been able to describe easily to others before.
Some of the most profound insights for me came in the opening talk, given by Dr. Charles Bobertz, who is also a Catholic deacon. Bobertz teaches theology at The College of St. Benedict's and St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., all-women's and all-men's Catholic colleges in our neighboring state to the east.
His talk, "How Catholics Read the Bible," helped me understand different approaches not only to Scripture but in how faith and religion are lived out, particularly from the Catholic point of view, and why our version differs at times from the Protestant version.
The subject matters to me because I have so many Protestant brothers and sisters who, while they profess and believe in the same God as I do, have a different approach to faith than my Catholic one. I think it's important to grapple with our differences in order to understand one another better, so we can continue to work together to build the kingdom of God.
He talk began with an explanation of the Ancient world, and how people in Jesus' time understood the world in general and faith in particular. During the time of Jesus' death, two different approaches to faith emerged: the spiritual view, and the spiritual-plus-earthly view.
The most debated question in Christian circles following Jesus' death was, according to Bobertz, "Did Jesus rise from the dead in the body or in the spirit only?" This led in turn to the two different approaches to the Christian faith; one focused mainly on the spirit, and the other, the intermingling of both earthly and spiritual matter.
Now, consider for a moment all of the "stuff" that makes up the Catholic faith -- the bells and whistles, the incense, the vessels, the ashes and chrism oil. Think of the physical aspects of the sacraments (water, rings, robes,) and the bodily movements (genuflecting, sign of the cross, kneeling). Think of how we approach the body even after death, along with Lent and its ashes and fish.
These elements of our Catholic faith help us express our faith and can bring us closer to the Lord. But some of our fellow Christian brothers are sisters tell us this "stuff," this earthly matter, is superfluous to what is necessary to live out the Christian life.
It's true, we don't need these things to get into heaven. But do they matter? Yes, we believe they do.
Think again of that hotly debated question: just spirit, or spirit and body? In the Jewish faith, the body was part of the deal, and you see these signs in the Jewish tradition of an emphasis on "matter." It mattered to the Jews, then and now, and it matters/ed to Catholics, too. We brought the Jewish emphasis on the physical and its relevance to the life of faith with us.
Dr. Bobertz mentioned the widely popular YouTube video from a few years back, in which a young man makes the bold claim that he's "spiritual but not religious." Many in the Christian world cheered his proclamation. But some Catholics scratched our heads, because we don't see religion as a bad word. Religion gives form to all of those "things" I mentioned above. Religion respects and invites matter to be a part of the equation, and the body to join with the spiritual.
And therein lies this whole different approach to faith that can help explain our current diversions. "To be Catholic is to be religious and then spiritual, because God is in the world," Bobertz said. "God is in the world, making the world sacred." God is in us, too, making us sacred. And this vision of faith, he added, "affirms the sacredness of the Church."
Consider the question, "Are you saved?" which sends so many Catholics into a tailspin, not because we don't know, but because we sense there is something more to our answer than a simple yes or no, and we also sense somehow that if we try to give it, we'll be immediately misunderstood. And we might.
To some Protestants who subscribe to the "spiritual only" view, all you must do is "believe in your heart" and you are saved. But to the Catholic, it's this as well as all the earthly matter that comes with Baptism, for example, that explains salvation. Our salvation begins at Baptism, with the words of the priest, which is really Christ speaking through that human vessel, "I baptize you in the name of the father, son and holy spirit;" with the water poured over the child; the chrism oil placed upon the child; the white garment worn; the baptismal candle lit.
These things are not irrelevant. And then our conversion continues throughout our earthly lives.
This view also affects our approach to Scripture, according to Bobertz.
"Catholics take the liturgy, the material sacredness that is in the world, and we apply that to Scripture," he said. "So the whole understanding of what it means to be Christian in the world is different for Catholics."
This is why, too, a wedding on a beach won't do. And why it's not enough to just experience God in nature, though of course we do and can. But the church building, though not an end in itself, does contain a sacredness that cannot be found anywhere else, and that is why we reserve the sacraments for these holy buildings. God is there in a particular and special way and we honor that. We honor the earthly.
Bobertz didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know, but he said it in a way I'd never heard it before, and in that, I could feel a spark rushing through me at the realization. I knew I'd just been blessed by his view.
Even the Eucharist can be explained through this viewpoint, he said. "The Eucharist is really the resurrected body in our midst." Which, if you ponder that for a while, is profound.
Some of the young people in my life are going to these colleges, or are already there. Some will end up taking one of Dr. Bobertz's classes -- lucky them. I feel certain they'll come away with a clearer understanding and deeper appreciation for their Catholic faith. Our faith and perspective is a treasure, and Bobertz reminded me of that in sharing his perspective, which really comes down to these two simple words, as he put it:
sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, and allowing a
second chance for those who missed them the first time, I reprint them
here, with permission. The following ran in The Forum newspaper
on August 9, 2014.]
Living Faith: Todd Burpo tells story linking faith, timing
By Roxane B. Salonen
I had a prior commitment the night of the
recent “Heaven is for Real” presentation at the Fargodome, but when a
friend offered her extra ticket a couple nights before the event, I
rethought my course and agreed to accompany her to the show.
event was part Christian rock concert, part discussion with Todd and
Sonja Burpo, parents of Colton Burpo, the teenager from Nebraska who
claims he visited heaven during a near-death experience when he was 4.
friend and I both went into it with a similar mindset. We wanted to
believe Colton’s testimony, but we had some unanswered questions we were
hoping would be satisfied that night. We were firm on the hope that no
matter the outcome, we’d come away with something valuable.
me, one of the treasures of the evening was a story Colton’s father,
Todd, told about a recent incident while traveling by airplane with his
He described sitting in a triple-seat row with a third
passenger squished in next to them. It was a woman, and she had a yellow
book in her lap. Turned out it was the best-selling account of his
son’s visit to heaven that Todd himself had written.
him, as if to say, “Well, aren’t you going to do something?” So being
the dutiful husband, he asked the woman if she’d like him to sign her
“Why?” she asked, and he proceeded to explain he was the
author, and Colton’s father. She didn’t believe him, so after a brief
discussion, he asked to see the book. Reluctantly, she handed it over,
and he proceeded to flip to the pictures in the middle.
Finding one of himself, he put it up next to his face, turned to her and said, “I’m not any better looking in person, I know.”
then, to his dismay, the woman started to cry. He wouldn’t find out
later the full reason for her tears, but in a letter she wrote him after
their encounter, all was revealed.
She’d wanted to believe the
story, she told him, but she just wasn’t sure. Was God even real, she’d
wondered? So she asked him, “God, if you’re real and this is true, let
me know somehow.” The very next day Todd Burpo showed up on the same flight on the same day in a seat right next to her.
believers would call this an answered prayer – God revealing his love
to one of his creatures through a situation it would be hard to name as
Some would call it a “God-incidence,” and say there’s something about the timing of it that gives it credibility.
whole prayer and timing thing first came to my attention a few years
back while pursuing an article on faith during flooding.
one interview, as the subject began sharing different “God-incidences”
that had occurred while her home was being encircled by flood waters, I
began playing devil’s advocate.
“What makes you feel these were
actual answers to prayer?” I pressed. “Couldn’t it have just been the
goodness of humanity springing into action? Why give God the credit?”
She paused only a moment then said, “Well, it was the timing.”
went on to explain that each blessing that had come her way then had
been specific to the particular challenge at hand. The way it was
resolved, including the person involved – someone who just happened to
have what was needed to turn things right, and at the moment it was
needed – assured her the divine hand was at work.
non-believers, this likely would not be enough. “Extraordinary claims
require extraordinary evidence,” they’d say. A feeling just won’t do.
Where’s the real evidence?
But, as Albert Einstein once remarked, “You can live as if nothing is a miracle, or as if everything is a miracle.”
the beautiful thing is that we all get to choose. We can look at the
darkened, sun-less side of the stained-glass window, or the side
reflecting sunshine and the incredible array of colors.
I choose the sun-reflecting-color side, the miracle, the “God-incidence.”
I'm still not exactly sure how I got so fortunate to be invited, but when the invitation came, I knew I couldn't say no to dinner in a prairie field.
Yep, there I am, Peace Garden Mama taking a sunflower selfie!
The event was organized by a group of women who are part of an organization called Common Ground North Dakota; comprising people who love these prairie lands. They wanted to do something to bring city and country folks together and help us learn from one another; especially for us city dwellers to discover some of the stories of the people who feed the world from the crops here.
The gal on the right below giving a nod to the cooks is Katie Pinke, my blogging and real-life friend of Pinke Poste. She's the real reason I got to come!
I ended up finagling my friend Laura, fellow mother of five, to be my date. I knew she'd 1) appreciate a night out 2) find it fascinating and 3) be gracious to the hosts, because she's just that kind of gal. As we approached the entrance together, she was just as giddy as I was!
In fact, though I interview people for a living, Laura took the lead in question-asking. Here, she's learning about wool (right) that comes from North Dakota sheep.
When we arrived, we were warmly greeted, and told we could roam around to visit the stations that had been set up and sample the products, which originated from 11 different crops, also on display.
The evening was absolutely amazing weather-wise. We could not have ordered it any better for roaming around the fields, sampling fresh North Dakota products, mingling and indulging our taste buds.
Among the appetizers were Tuscan bean salad, potato salad in apple cider vinaigrette, corn fritters, flax seed crackers with corn hummus, sunflower brittle, endamame salad and candied walnuts.
I will be honest. There were more than a few bugs to keep things interesting, but honestly, what would a field feast have been without some critters buzzing around? Very unnatural at best.
After we'd made our way around the grounds and had our fill of appetizers, the dinner bell rang. No, I'm not kidding! We got called together with a good-old-fashioned ringing of the bell.
Laura and I were blessed to somehow end up next to the field owners/hosts -- Mr. and Mrs. Peterson of Peterson Farms in Harwood. He joked and said he couldn't take much credit for the whole thing. All he had to do was show up in time for dinner.
The chefs are people I know -- the Nasellos from here in Fargo. I first met them through my youngest son, who is friends with their son. Then a few years back they started writing a food column for The Forum which comes out a day different than my column, so we have that in common, too.
But unlike them, I don't know how to cook this kind of grub. I was so excited to hear one of the main entrees would be lamb, but the beef tenderloins absolutely blew me away. I've never tasted any meat so tender. It was incredible.
But I'm getting ahead of myself, I suppose. Before that came the chilled gazpacho soup garnished with cucumbers and extra-virgin olive oil.
And a dish of basil pesto pasta topped with toasted pine nuts and Parmesan cheese.
A little cup of lemon sorbet drizzled with North Dakota honey cleaned our palettes in preparation for the rest.
Side dishes included roasted red peppers, green beans, roasted red potatoes, and horseradish and a veal glaze for the meat. Peaches and cream shortcake with toasted almonds made up the dessert.
Just as we were finishing up our meal, the sun started to descend and I was in photograph heaven. I flitted about trying to capture what I could of this rare opportunity.
When it was all done, they gave us mugs and swag bags, and had us hoist ourselves back up onto the flatbed to hitch a ride to our rigs.
Definitely not something you get to do every day, not to mention ever in a lifetime for most. It was an absolutely wonderful experience, shared with a treasured friend and a field full of fun new and old friends.
And it did get me thinking about those farmers, who work so hard to produce this bounty, not just for our little group but for the whole world, really. They don't get a lot of glory, but they sure do deserve it.
I can't help but point up to the sky, too, in thanksgiving to our good God, who is so dear to the hearts of these people, and who so lovingly helped set the stage for this memorable night.
If heaven produces banquets like this, we are in for a treat someday. The only thing different, I'd imagine, is that there won't be any little buggy beetles there, I'm pretty sure.
Q4U: What or where was the most unusual meal you've ever had?
Our family may never experience flying on an airplane together. In opening our hearts to a bigger family, we silently agreed to give up this luxury, though we may not have known it at the time we were in the midst of collecting kids. But one sacrifice I've never been willing to make is to forgo spending time together away from home every summer, even if it means limiting trips to within driving distance.
The Black Hills was an early destination of choice. We'd never been there before and it seemed like the right time. But when we realized our time frame would hit the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally, we decided we weren't up for battling crowds and spiked prices, so we began devising a suitable Plan B.
After a fair amount of rumination, I threw Duluth, Minn., into the mix. Some of us had been there several years ago for a cousin's wedding and done a few touristy things, but it was quick and focused. Maybe something more intentionally vacation-y would fit the bill. The four-hour distance seemed about perfect and from what we could tell, Duluth has a lot of offer families wanting a little relaxation time together.
We left Wednesday morning and came back Saturday night, but we covered a lot in that time, and by the end of it, I'd put it high on the list of favorite family vacations so far.
To appease the younger kiddos, we chose a hotel with a water park. This was a compromise, since earlier deliberations had us considering an amusement-park destination, and I'd put in my vote to avoid spending our time together going on rides in the hot sun like a few years back.
It's important to me that our time together has some sort of opportunity for restoration with a side of education when possible. I want it to be a little more than a joy ride. The best trips, in my mind, leave you feeling connected to the place, and enlightened somehow.
For many reasons, Duluth proved to be a dream vacation for me, and I haven't heard too many complaints from the rest of the crew, either. It has just about everything I would want -- an ocean feel without being on the coast, a city with a small-town feeling, and a coastal, creative vibe. We were only four hours from home but it felt like we'd traveled a great distance from our prairie home.
We enjoyed many terrific meals. The first was mine to enjoy with a friend I've known for a while now through a mutual friend but never met in person. What a great start to our adventure, sharing my morning with Jennifer at Amazing Grace Cafe, which also exposed me to the lovely area of Canal Park; a portion we'd missed somehow during our last visit.
Hanging out with Jennifer also gave me a great overview of the area. She explained how the fog in the mornings is common in June and August, as well as the relationship between the two cities of Duluth and Superior. She also gave me some choice insider's advice. If you want good pie, she'd said, skip the well-known Betty's Pies and go just a little further up the road to try the Rustic Inn & Gifts instead. It will be worth it, she'd promised.
We were not disappointed. The pie was fabulous, but the big surprise for me was the best bowl of homemade chicken and wild rice soup I've ever had the delight of tasting.
We shared three big pieces of pie -- five-layer chocolate, apple and strawberry rhubarb -- though we gobbled them down too quickly for me to snap photos
of the actual pie.
We also spent time at the shoreline just off Canal Park...
Enjoyed introductions to various critters at the aquarium...
And an evening pizza cruise.
We topped that off with caramel apples at one of many candy shops scattered throughout the area.
I'll save my photos of Gooseberry Falls for another day. It's hard to narrow down hundreds of photos in one post.
For now, I'll close by saying again how much I loved Duluth -- enough that I could imagine myself living there someday, if ever I were to peel myself from the Fargo I also love.
In an email from my Mom, I was reminded of a family connection to the place. My Grandpa Louis, my father's father, grew up in this fair city. It felt right somehow to be here during my father's birthday month when he is so much on my mind. It was one of the treasures of the trip that didn't come to me until we were well into our adventure, but brought a deep happiness to my heart.
Grandpa Louis in the middle, my Dad, little Bobby, far right
Perhaps this is why it felt so instantly like home to me. There's something about knowing a part of you has a connection to a part of the earth like this, no matter how small and hidden.
We're back now, and better than when we left, filled with new memories, refreshed by water and green, better equipped to meet what's next.
Q4U: Where did you find yourself restored this summer?