Suddenly wet and amused by the mystery of it all, how did I find myself in the Tiber stroking against the currents toward Rome? I had no intention of becoming Catholic. Though my intentions were to love and serve God with every sinew of my existence, I surmised it would be within my Protestant convictions. But quite ironically, at the age of sixty, as I stood among the candidates and elect during the Easter Vigil 2010 at Saint Agatha’s Catholic Church in Portland, Oregon, robed in white, holding a lit candle signifying the light of Christ, it was not as a sectarian Protestant any longer but as a Catholic — a Roman Catholic. So what changed? How did I find myself swimming toward the Vatican against the tide of all I had been taught?
Becoming a “church family”
My parents had no Christian proclivities or background. To the contrary, my dad ordered the local Nazarene pastor off his job site, waving his carpenter’s hammer at him for emphasis. He was, what I characterized in his eulogy, “a severe man.” Life had dealt him severe blows, convincing him to live accordingly. Mom, too, endured hardship as a youth raised by an elderly father and three erstwhile uncles. By those inexplicable mysteries of God, however, they found their hearts pierced at a singular moment during a revival service within the small, Nazarene church near where we lived. How anyone persuaded Dad to attend these services can only be credited to sheer miracle. And suddenly — quite suddenly really — they were changed. I was young at the time, maybe four years old, but recall the turnabout of events. Our aunt no longer drove my younger brother and me to Sunday school and church; Dad and Mom did. We attended church together, as a family. Dad remained severe; demanding strict discipline and hard work out of us boys (my two younger brothers and me), but lived thoroughly persuaded that Jesus Christ had delivered him from his many vices — alcohol and gambling prominent among them. For Mom it was more of a struggle, but she persisted in the faith, growing steadily through the years.
From the moment of their conversion, our family became a church family: two services on Sunday, plus NYPS (Nazarene Young Peoples’ Society), Wednesday night prayer meetings, revival weeks — one in the spring another in the fall, and sundry potlucks. Any time the church doors were open, we were there. Family vacations (what few we took) were spent at family camp among other Nazarene families. Summer youth camp rounded out my social life, which was governed largely by the church. The major sins we teens were strictly enjoined from indulging included smoking, dancing, drinking, movies, swearing, and thinking too fondly of the opposite sex. We were further taught to avoid fraternizing with the in-crowd at school, or taking up “worldly” interests, which ranged broadly from attending school social functions to hanging out with Baptists. In other words, the “don’ts” substantially outweighed the “dos.” Looming over them all, however, was the “don’t” enjoining us from Catholics, Mormons, and other “cults.”
Bliss did not dominate our church life, however. Our rather ingrown little congregation endured myriad squabbles, which ultimately convinced my parents to take some time off and let matters simmer awhile. For the better part of a year we attended no church, spending Sundays instead puttering around the farm. I distinctly remember the emptiness I felt, though as a pre-teen I couldn’t articulate it as clearly as I felt it. I missed Sunday worship, and I missed my church friends. Finally, on one particular Sunday I approached Mom about this unsettled emptiness, suggesting that maybe it was time to give the church another chance. She agreed and spoke with Dad who, though a bit more reticent, gave his consent.
A budding call to ministry
As was the habit among Nazarene churches at that time, pastoral changes occurred about every three years. Consequently, shortly after we re-commenced Sunday worship, new pastors were introduced, John and Darlene Kell. I think of them as the focal miracle of my childhood. Darlene Kell became — for me, and our small huddle of youth — Mama Kell. She shaped the trajectory of my thoughts toward God and church by her uninhibited love for Jesus Christ, and her positive engagement with us kids. She demonstrated the other side of religion, that side abounding in grace, mercy, peace, and those other fruits Paul spoke of as evidence of the Spirit-filled life, all of which were quite uncharacteristic of my earliest encounters with the church. Under hers and Papa Kell’s ministry, I committed my life to God sensing that He had also called me into full-time ministry. Mama Kell especially encouraged my ministerial urges.
All too soon, though, they were called away to another church, and a new pastor arrived. I was at first devastated that my spiritual godmother was gone. Her influence could not be replaced, and I floundered for a while. Nonetheless, God opened my heart and new doors. Gifted with glib, I preached my first sermon at the age of fourteen under the direction of the new pastor, and preached in a variety of Nazarene churches from then through college, occasionally filling in for pastors on vacation or speaking at youth-week events throughout our part of Washington State.
My life seemed established on a path leading toward pastoral ministry. Everything pointed toward college and seminary. But then something intervened that cast a cloud of doubt on my understanding of the church, a cloud that would persist for over four decades. I was maybe fifteen and president of our little youth group. Our pastor handed me a recently published book, Why I Am a Nazarene and Not a….” advising me that as president of the youth group it was my responsibility to facilitate a series of lessons from this book. By use of scriptural proof texts, the content of the book dealt apologetically, arguing against other allegedly-Christian groups and for the Nazarene Church. It was my first direct exposure to sectarianism, where my sect (Nazarene) held itself apart from all other sects, assuming superiority over them and lauding itself as the best expression of Christ’s church.
Curiosity into the Roman Catholic “cult”
I personally had no problem denouncing the “obvious” cults or even the Roman Catholic Church until I came across what seemed certain poorly attributed sources. Pertaining to the Catholic Church, I recall numerous items that caused me to question the conclusions drawn by this book.
For instance, did the Catholic Church truly worship Mary? If the Catholic Church is the authority on Scripture, was it wrong? If the Pope is infallible, what were the limits of his infallibility? I distinctly remember thinking that the authors of this book seemed overwrought in their efforts to abase the Catholic Church and credit their own movement. Not one of the author’s references contained citations from sources other than trusted Protestant theologians. Then, I was confronted by an esteemed Christian leader who made an assertion that bothered me most deeply. This individual avowed that Catholics leave Jesus on the cross (viz. crucifix), because they don’t believe He rose from the grave. Really! I mused, “Can it honestly be possible that a Christian church, or a group that calls itself Christian, advance a doctrine of Christ crucified but un-risen?” At this same time, Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s Life Is Worth Living television program began making an impression on me. I found it ironic that his program was wedged between programs hosted by popular Protestant preachers. His messages resonated with me in part because they seemed so faithful to things I learned in Sunday school; in part because of the spirit in which Archbishop Sheen delivered them; and more so because he frequently affirmed the risen Christ. His commentaries stood in direct contradiction to claims made by this book.
Unfortunately, I was born with an over-heated curiosity, a kid who could not tolerate leaving stones unturned, literally. As I roamed the fields of our hay farm, I avoided common sense warning me against tempting fate, and would indiscriminately roll over any rock I came across. Similarly, I couldn’t bear simply letting my questions go without adequate answers, even if the answers unsettled my preconceptions. Alas, however, I was forced to file my Catholic questions under the heading “Teenage Impertinence,” since it was considered impertinent at that time in our culture for teenagers to question the authority of our elders. And, if nothing else, I was properly raised to respect all people, those older and wiser most especially. Nevertheless, it was the Catholic perspectives contained within this book, the claim against the resurrection and the dismissive attitude among other respected elders toward Catholics that bothered me; they were the ungainly creatures beneath the rock that niggled at my mind for decades.
Owing to these events, and this rather divisive emphasis even toward other Protestant groups, for the first time in my young life, doubt encroached into sacred space, smudging the patina of my religious idealism. And though a curious kid, I was also a hopeless — and hapless — idealist. I terribly wanted what I understood to be right, so much so that small chinks in the armor of my tradition troubled me deeply. Unity in the church seemed not merely a goal, but what deserved to be considered its state of being. Didn’t Jesus emphasize unity in His concluding prayer with His disciples — that we should all be one? (Jn 17) What could be more unsettling to a naïve teenager than the awareness that the universe of the church was not aligned? That some planets were on a different orbit? Or worse, that not everyone who called upon Christ was in solidarity with one another? We weren’t one, but many — the shattered and scattered and, yet by some unseen means, the Church.
God’s love and the doctrine of entire sanctification
A short while after puzzling about the apparent anomalies the Nazarene Church held toward Catholicism — and other genuinely Christian groups — I bumped head long into what for me became a thorny problem within Nazarene theology — the doctrine of entire sanctification. It should not be assumed, however, that the church was wrong, but rather my inability to grasp its meaning made it a strangely difficult issue for me. It seemed untoward, awkward, and impossible to validate — and even more impossible to live by. I couldn’t find explicit evidence for it in Scripture, and the books I consulted left me as lost at sea as ever. Accordingly, this singular tenet of the church distinguished it from other Protestant movements, classifying it within the “holiness movement,” and even more a particular reflection of holiness doctrine. The Nazarene Church professes an amalgam of the Dutch pastor/theologian Arminius and the father of Methodism, John Wesley. Wesley proffered the notion that initial sanctification that resulted in forensic justification, regeneration, and adoption was followed by what the Nazarene Church interpreted from him as a second crisis work of grace — viz. entire sanctification that eradicated the sin nature, filled one with the Holy Spirit, and set one apart for God’s purposes.
As stated, I puzzled over this doctrine throughout my teens for reasons beyond the scope of the doctrine itself, such as the methods and evidence indicating this crisis experience had indeed transpired, which was typically validated by an impactful emotional experience. What it left unaddressed was the painful worry that if a person sinned after this encounter what became of his salvation? My peers and I worried that sin was impossible to avoid but sanctification was just as impossible to hold. We dreaded the semi-annual revivals. We knew beyond doubt that each one of us hyper-hormonal, acne-faced teens had sinned a thousand times, and the emotional appeals of the evangelist only confirmed that reality, which drove us into deeper guilt and galvanized spiritual doubt. Even if we didn’t feel the tug of the Holy Spirit we, nonetheless, felt impelled to race to the altar to renew our salvation — surely we had lost it. The evangelists backed the hearse up to the church door, and we kids knew it had come for us. This whole scene made it almost impossible to view God as loving. Instead, we worried about offending Him and incurring what we knew we deserved most: His wrath. How could we claim entire sanctification if our very salvation was at stake? How could we walk with a God of love who seemed unloving by offering a doctrine that didn’t work? Again, I do not fault the Nazarene Church, but my misunderstanding of this central doctrine.
As an aside, until my adult years, I understood the altar as a kneeling rail stretching across the front of the church on either side of the communion table. Evangelists called it the mourner’s bench; the place a sinner went to die in order to be reborn; where a backslider went to repent again and be restored to faith; where a confused teenager went to insure the odds were in his favor. It was not the table from which the Body and Blood of Christ would be served. That understanding would come much later in life. (And thankfully it did. It’s at that altar I have discovered anew and again a loving God through the grace and merits of the Paschal Lamb.)
My one and only pastorate
I entered Northwest Nazarene University (then College) still conflicted. For a ministerial student intent upon serving in the Nazarene tradition, the inability to firmly accept an important core tenet of the church created a steep hurdle for me. Twice, my inability to affirm the doctrine of entire sanctification netted me an invitation to my academic advisor’s office to discuss it. It was even suggested that perhaps the Nazarene Church wasn’t the place for me. I dismissed the suggestion. Even if I didn’t understand her, I loved (and still love) the Nazarene Church, and was resolved to serve God in her.
Amid the confusion, a beautiful young woman caught my eye. We were newly installed junior class officers who barely knew one another. She was the chatterbox who sat behind me in chapel (assigned seating), disrupting the services by prattling with the girl seated beside me. I began to see her in different light. She was politely assertive, cute, and a distraction from all that nagged me about the church — and my personal failures. Judy became for me that remarkable reflection of the simplicity of knowing God. Unlike me, she had no doubts. A new Christian, she could care less about doctrine. What mattered to her was to know God and love Him with her entire life. Ha! So simple! So refreshingly simple! We married immediately after college and headed for Bend, Oregon where I took up my first and only ministry assignment.
Bend Nazarene was a small church — at the time, less than one hundred worshipers on Sunday mornings. It had, however, what was characterized to me as a vibrant youth group. I was so successful with this group I managed to lose all but two kids. The rest vanished. Why? I asked the surviving two one evening. Why don’t the other kids come? Gus, an unvarnished country kid answered, “They don’t want to know God like you want to know God, Pastor Jim.” But, he and Linda did. That began a new journey for me — and them. Over the ensuing months Judy, Gus, Linda, and I met and prayed. By the end of the school year over one hundred young people were gathering with us throughout the week — most of them new Christians who came to faith in our home or in the town’s parks. They were hungry, eager, and hopeful youth who took faith seriously and who, like Judy, simply wanted to know God and love Him forever.
A path I could have never foreseen
Eighteen months into this ministry, it became apparent that Judy and I had accomplished all that we felt called to do. It was time to change course. But where would we go next? Despite a marvelous experience with the youth, one marked by grand encounters with God that shaped each one of us, I had no sense of direction. Fortunately, a couple of father figures in the church offered timely counsel and prayer. One man in particular strongly urged me to find work outside the church and let God speak to me from an entirely different milieu. Honestly, the thought of a career path other than traditional ministry never entered my mind. At first, I was repulsed by the idea. Nonetheless, he discerned something I hadn’t, and saw in me a potential that entirely escaped my view.
Consequently, at my friend’s urging I put on my best suit and started knocking on doors, banks mostly. In a small Central Oregon community, there weren’t that many doors to knock on. Moreover, a badly flagging economy shortened the list even further. But God opened one door that quite surprised me and a new career path emerged, one I would follow for nearly thirty years. In short order, I moved from bank management to consulting with banks as the industry expanded under bank reforms that opened new horizons for them. For nearly two decades, I traveled the country as a marketing executive working in a variety of capacities, helping bank leaders develop new delivery systems for non-traditional products. Though my career took flight, my heart remained in ministry. Yet, those doors seemed off limits. A quick look back over the years, however, reveals God’s fingerprints smudged into every feature of my journey — most especially in an unexpected twist that led me home to Rome.
I likely would have never found the profoundest experience of my journey had I not dared step outside the church walls into the marketplace where God frequently surprised and amused me by the cleverness of His genius. I cannot even begin to recount the stories of people with whom I had the privilege to pray, counsel, and offer hope in offices, airplanes, and restaurants. Neither did I have the slightest wit that God might be aiming me toward the Catholic Church. Apart from early misgivings during my teens, I was mostly indifferent, but not defiant toward it. Nonetheless, a number of oddly inexplicable events transpired that relentlessly nudged me into the Tiber and toward the historic Church — despite the fact I was entirely clueless that this nudging toward Rome was even happening.
I was meeting with the administrative officer of a company one morning when our conversation diverged to faith. She fairly gushed her love for Jesus Christ, frequently calling Him “my savior.” I joined in with similar enthusiasm. When I asked her what church she and her family attended, expecting to hear one of the evangelical Protestant denominations, I was taken aback when she chirped, “We’re Catholics.” My reaction must have caught her by surprise: “Something wrong?” she asked. I shook my head, no. But there was something wrong. I had preconceptions about Catholics that clearly didn’t fit the impassioned witness of faith I had just observed. Our conversations continued and over time this godly lady began to dispell my ignorance toward Catholics.
Gradually transforming into a Catholic
A year later, I picked up a book authored by a Quaker minister, Richard Foster. Its title intrigued me: Celebration of Discipline. It would be impossible to properly describe the transforming effect it had on my spiritual life. To that point the only disciplines I knew of amounted merely to reading my Bible and daily prayer — and we called them devotions not disciplines. The notion of inward, upward, and outward disciplines — properly rhythms, based solidly on Scripture and early Christian tradition — had never been brought to my attention. But then neither had evangelical Protestantism enjoyed their bounty before Foster’s seminal and classic work. I was enthralled by the devotional masters Foster cited; so much so that I began accumulating their works and earnestly devouring their content. I craved the intimacy with Christ they portrayed. It wasn’t long before it struck me that each of these masters was Catholic, most who lived during the nadir of the Church’s history at the height of the Middle Ages. To describe this discovery in any other terms than transformative would be misleading. I didn’t resist the truths because they emerged from Catholic tradition; instead, I embraced them because they facilitated the intimacy with Christ I so craved.
Shortly after discovering the devotional masters, we moved to Portland, Oregon where I took up a significant career opportunity. Maybe a decade later, I happened onto a Benedictine Monastery in Mount Angel, a half-hour drive from our home. Along its ascending, winding road were simple, small gabled structures, housing intricately carved figures of Jesus — fourteen, all told. I had never heard of the Stations of the Cross, but as I walked the trail, pausing silently before the figures, it was as if I were mounting the Via Dolorosa amid the crowd as Jesus drug His cross to Calvary. This would form my introduction to the monastery, but my introduction to Catholicism came by way of its Oblate Director and Guest House Master, Fr. Pius X. Harding, OSB. For several years, I walked the stations, studied in the magnificent abbey library where I conducted much of my doctoral research in the ancient catechumenate, and sat contemplatively in the abbey church, often alone. The time came, however, when I felt an impetus to consider becoming an oblate. Fr. Pius and I met ostensibly for that purpose. What actually transpired can only be attributed to the mystery of God. For nearly three decades, I had imperceptibly and unintentionally inched toward Rome.
As Fr. Pius and I talked, it became immediately apparent I was speaking not only with a man intellectually formed in his faith, but a brother transformed by the merits and mercy of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the most jolting moment in our discussions came after I asked why the Roman Church referred to Mary as co-Redemptrix. Wasn’t that, I reasoned, elevating her to the same status as her Son? No, he insisted. That she was regarded as co-Redemptrix did not imply equality. It stood for cooperation — that, by her surrender — “be it done unto me according to your word” — she agreed to become the bearer of the Messiah under extraordinary means. She, in her sacrifice, became the first among disciples, the one who would show the world how to love her Son. In this way, she cooperated with God’s plan to fulfill prophecy by sending His Son as our savior through a handmaid overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. I remember distinctly how I felt as Fr. Pius tenderly, unapologetically unpacked this mystery. My heart was strangely warmed (borrowing from Wesley) and suddenly I saw Mary in brilliant new light.
For several months, we met and Fr. Pius patiently answered my many challenging questions and quandaries, faithfully pointing me to the cross and to the risen Savior. Nearly three years later, after dozens of conversations with him and the pastors and scholars to whom he referred me, and devouring books by Catholic theologians and Protestant converts to Catholicism, I sat down with the Retreat House administrator one morning for a lay perspective. As she recounted her journey from Anglicanism to Catholicism, I was overcome by the peace countenanced in her words and spirit. Quite unexpectedly, I sensed God asking, “What will you do with all I have shown you?” Not an emotional sort, I was immediately stunned to find myself inconsolably weeping, knowing I had arrived at a life-altering threshold. By the mercies of God, I received the grace to take the plunge. And now, three decades after a fateful conversation in a client’s office, a book that introduced me to the devotional masters, and a series of in depth conversations that produced not only answers, but a lifetime friend and brother, I am home. Catholic theology resolved my issue with entire sanctification, offering a biblical perspective with far more explanatory cogency than what I observed as a naïve teen. My wife, Judy, was, and remains, very supportive of my move to Rome. She has not become Catholic but attends Mass with me each Sunday, and has done so for nearly three years. We journey together in seeking a closer walk with our Lord Jesus
Now home, I am at peace.