Backroads in the Bible Belt
The early years
“Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” (John 14:1-3, KJV).
Sitting on my dad’s bed, reading the Gospel of Saint John, Chapter 14 with him, is one of my earliest memories. Before I learned to read I was learning the King’s English! I am grateful for God’s amazing grace and mercy. I am grateful to my parents because from my early years the seed of God’s Word was planted in my heart.
I have experienced faith and hope and love that comes from the Incomparable Christ of the Gospels. Hopefully, some of that comes through as I tell this story. Hopefully, by writing this and by your reading it, we will both come to see Him more clearly. Also, I want my Protestant family and friends and former pastors to know that my having embraced the Catholic Church is not a rejection of a single thing I truly believed. Rather, I have embraced all that is true and good from those Protestant traditions. Indeed, the Catholic Church is where those Protestant traditions received what they hold as the true and the good. It is only in the Protestants’ negation that they went off course. More of that later.
My parents took my sisters and me to church “whenever the doors were open”. That was all the time. Fulton Road Baptist Church was a small congregational church situated in the struggling part of Mobile, Alabama, on what is affectionately (or derogatorily) known as D.I.P. (Dauphin Island Parkway), or the Parkway. There I went to school through the fifth grade, before transferring to a small, independent Methodist school until graduation. Sunday morning and Sunday night, Monday night (Royal Ambassadors), Wednesday at chapel during school and Wednesday night for prayer meeting – – we got a steady diet of the gospel. And for that I am eternally grateful.
Don’t get me wrong. I was not overly devout, preferring parking-lot duty on Sunday nights with my dad. In the early 1970’s, the men in the church would hang out in the parking lot smoking cigarettes. Maybe once or twice a year, fiery evangelists came through town holding week-long revival meetings at our church. How can I forget Lee Castro, the evangelist from Mexico with his beautiful voice and guitar, or Anis Shorrosh, the Palestinian Christian born in Nazareth who came down to the Parkway showing films from the Holy Land? So many preachers and Bible teachers left no doubt in my mind: Jesus is real, and He came to save us from our sins.
Lee Castro, Evangelist
By grace through faith
From those earliest days at Fulton Road, to my baptism in the tenth grade and up to the present, I came to know and enter into the life of God in Christ. There is no space here for my version of Saint Augustine’s Confessions. While I may have shared many of his sins, I have little of his brilliance or eloquence. Suffice for the purpose of my testimony: by grace, through faith, I responded to God in Christ who came to save sinners, among whom I count myself one of the chiefs. I have discovered “the absence of God in sin, the need for God in anxiety, the coming of God in salvation, [and] the presence of God in the life of grace.” The Power of Silence, Robert Cardinal Sarah, 192.
A reluctant convert
Don’t think I fell willy-nilly into the arms of Rome. I was a reluctant convert. Ashamedly and embarrassingly, I confess I was one of those Protestants who believed and repeated the worst things about the pope and the Catholic Church. Since, I have come to love and revere Saint John Paul II who led the Church when I was coming of age on those backroads.
Sacred Scripture became part of my daily diet, starting in the seventh or eighth grade. I was baptized in the Baptist tradition at age 15. Then about twenty-five years ago, while in law school, I underwent a deeper conversion experience and began taking my faith more seriously. The study of Scripture became more intense. By then an avid reader, so books about the faith became a regular part of my life. C.S. Lewis, John R.W. Stott, F.F. Bruce, Ravi Zacharias, R.C. Sproul and Oswald Chambers were among my teachers. You would be amazed how many sermons by Charles Spurgeon, the nineteenth-century Prince of Preachers, I consumed. While in law school, I began studying the authenticity and reliability of the Scriptures. Apologetics and evangelism were my passion. I wanted to share my faith. I was part of a jail ministry and even joined a mission to Ponta Pora, Brazil to save Catholics.
Well into adulthood, married with children, my wife and I joined a (reformed) Presbyterian congregation (Presbyterian Church of America or PCA). John Calvin’s theology fit with my Spurgeon-taught understanding of the gospel. I was part of that small PCA congregation when I became convinced of the truth of the Catholic Church’s claims. Fundamentalism, evangelicalism and reformed theology were the backdrops of a real faith since my youth. Some who know me might recognize in this writing bits of piety or devotion they witnessed. Others will wonder about all the sin, and whether I have a ghost-writer. To the former I say, Thank God for His grace. To the latter, Thank God for His mercy.
A well-known Protestant goes over the wall
Fast forward to the Spring of 2017. Satellite radio shocked me with news that Hank Hanegraaff had entered the Eastern Orthodox Church. That thunderbolt hit me on May 26, 2017, somewhere along U.S. Highway 98 East between Hattiesburg, Mississippi and Mobile where I live. I deposed an economist in Jackson, Mississippi earlier that day, getting ready for trial in a personal injury lawsuit I was defending. On the way to Dauphin Island for the Memorial Day Weekend, the news about Hanegraaff stirred in me something that had been slowly brewing, but mostly dormant, for longer than I could remember.
The Bible Answer Man’s radio host, Hank Hanegraaff, came into my orbit almost twenty-five years ago while a law student at the University of Mississippi. He was on the front lines countering heterodoxy. Certainly, Hanegraaff was one I considered orthodox, at least in that Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis) version of orthodoxy. Almost two and a half decades later, the Hanegraaff-surprise began, or rather restarted, what became an unforgettable summer.
More to follow
This post was background. In posts to follow, I plan to talk about the discoveries that led me into the Catholic Church: authority; the Sacraments; Sola Scriptura; history; Church Fathers; ecumenical councils; John 6 and the Eucharist; John 17 and unity; Saints and miracles and holiness. It will be enough if I scratch the surface of your soul, and prod you to pause and take a hard look for yourself.
Some seem to believe this church question does not really matter, so long as we all “believe in Jesus” (whatever that means). If you’ve read this far, probably that is not you. If you should wonder, “What do I really believe, and why do I believe it?”, this blog may be helpful.
The goal, restated
This is no mere academic exercise. I want to see God with my own eyes. I know myself to be a great sinner in need of a greater Savior. I want to please our Lord, and follow Him. Ultimately, that desire led me to the one, holy, apostolic Church that received me with open arms. May God bless you as you love Him with your whole heart and mind and soul and strength.