I am writing this brief summary of my life to share my experience and to serve as a testimony of my Christian journey from Jerusalem to Rome. At the outset, let me confess that Jesus Christ is the Lord of my life and it is my lifetime goal when standing before the throne of Judgment, that I hear the words: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
During my Christian walk, I have been asked to serve the Lord in many capacities including: trustee, elder, deacon, advisory council, Sunday school teacher, and prison ministry leader. I have also been a men’s fellowship leader, home group leader, outreach and evangelism leader, have led many prayer groups, provided counseling, worked as a nursery worker, and served in other capacities. In over twenty-eight years of Christian service, one gets called upon for many things. This many years of service opens the door for wonderful opportunities to study the Scriptures, dig into word studies using a concordance, Bible dictionaries, commentaries, and the like. Over time, I have been blessed to receive some of finest Bible teaching available to Christians. After years of study and devotion, one could anticipate having a fairly secure handle on the “truth concerning the things of God;” yet, I must be perfectly frank, after studying our Christian history, it is very easy for me to deduce, without feeling the least bit insecure, that my learning curve in light of the past few years has only just begun. I really do not know a fraction of what I thought I knew. Herein begins my story.
Coming to Christ
My closest time to the Lord as a child was under the care of Dr. John Ed Matheson, at Capitol Heights Methodist Church, during a Blue Lake Methodist youth camp trip. I was born again at an early age as a Protestant and water baptized (immersed) by Dr. Jerry Gunnells at Eastern Hills Baptist Church at age 13, along with other members of my family.
As a youth, using a definition from the Scriptures, I backslid and adopted almost every sin I could in high school. Right out of high school, at the age of 18, I married Deborah Woodley; we have been married over 31 years. We were equally yoked, because both of us were not serving Christ in the early days of our marriage. Our first child came in late March in the third year of marriage (1976) and, before the summer was concluded, Deborah had met and accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savoir (believe it or not, while reading a Living Bible version of the New Testament.) On our fourth wedding anniversary, I reunited with Christ and was filled with the Holy Spirit; the date was September 29, 1976, which was 30 days after Deborah’s conversion. This conversion and reuniting with Christ confirmed to me that we needed to raise our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. This all happened under the ministry of Fran Harrison, who reminded me so much of my mother.
Joys and Sorrows
In our new walk with Christ we wanted to be a part of a church that was alive, that treated Jesus as a living, real Lord and invoked His presence, power, and gifts. We were enjoying the Charismatic movement and attending Evangel Temple Assembly of God Church in Montgomery, pastored by Dr. Frank Martin. We wanted to fully engage in church-life activity and living on Lake Jordan, a 30-mile commute to Montgomery, made it very difficult. We then immersed into New Life Church; an inter-denominational church in Elmore County where God’s Spirit was saving lives and His spiritual gifts seemed to weekly flow. The manifestations of emotional and physical healings were commonplace under John Varner, a former Baptist minister who served as pastor. In 1985, we sold our house on the lake, moved back to Montgomery, and joined the inter-denominational Christian Life Church, led by Pastor Stephen Vickers. This church had a racial mix of fifty/fifty white and black. We gladly embraced this idea because it was spiritually the right thing to do here in the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, Montgomery, Alabama. Martin Luther King used to say the most segregated hour in America was during church. This church was living proof it could work.
We then felt the need to get involved in the inner city and reach out to the poor in West Montgomery. To fulfill this mission, a new church, named River of Life was birthed under the pastorate of a former Presbyterian USA minister, Dr. Dick Druary. It was in this setting that communion became very special to my family as we approached the altar regularly together, broke bread, and prayed. Each time, I was reduced to tears, embracing my wife and three children, clutched up close together as we took communion. I joyfully, yet tearfully, prayed over my little flock as its patriarch — what a memory!
Our second child was born in 1979, our third was miscarried, and our fourth was born in 1984. In the spring of 1999, our second child, Micah, was killed in a car accident at the age of nineteen. He was missing for three days under a bridge on I-65 South just four minutes from our home. The unanswered questions about his death still remain a lingering mystery. Was his wreck accidental? Or was he intentionally run off the road?
Although our spiritual journey allowed us the distinct honor in our Christian walk to serve under different pastors, we only had positive and non-controversial experiences in each transition. In fact, every minister that had been our pastor or influenced Micah’s life participated in his funeral. With all of these ministers involved, Micah’s funeral service seemed like a coming together of the Body of Christ from all walks of faith!
Rethinking Christian history
In 1999, we accompanied a small tour group going to Israel. This trip triggered a new search for our Christian roots. The homeland of Jesus felt so alive after reading about this miraculous land in the New Testament. We walked where Jesus walked and quickly learned that this land — which was the place of Jesus birth and crucifixion — was only the beginning of Christianity. In Israel, we saw three churches at every major Christian historical site: Catholic, Orthodox, and Coptic. In addition, we saw Muslim mosques and the long-standing Jewish synagogues nearby.
At the beginning of Christ’s ministry, there was a transition from Judaism to Christianity, which made its way to Rome. In 2002, Deborah and I went to Rome on our thirtieth wedding anniversary. We realized firsthand that the launching pad of the Gospel to the Gentiles took place here in this historic, yet romantic ancient city. In Rome, we saw where Christian martyrs were executed for their faith, including Peter, Paul, and many others who gave their lives for the Gospel. (As a side note, isn’t it interesting that when the Church was under persecution, it grew, and as we are under persecution as individual Christians, we grow spiritually, as well?) We saw a pattern of apostolic succession, which began with commissioning at the Last Supper, with the lineage back to St. Peter the Apostle, the first pastor in Rome.
On this trip we began to ask new questions about the Reformation and the brave and unusual Catholic priest named Martin Luther. In 1517, he submitted his 95 Thesis of unscriptural infractions to the Catholic Church hierarchy, which, at the time, was corrupted (unsightly, at best) and, in many ways, un-godly. It became clear to me that all Protestants, including myself, were in a way formerly Catholic, and when we “left” the Catholic Church about 500 years ago, we abandoned almost anything that remotely looked Catholic. In fact, if the truth were known, we had nothing but criticisms of the Catholic Faith. Because of the experiences leading to and following the Reformation, we did not understand — or even want to understand — this ancient Faith.
As evangelical Protestants, we found it hard to believe that Catholics and Episcopalians were ever “born again,” but I later discovered this was not true. In fact, many of the things we learned as Protestants about the Catholic Church I have since found to be untrue, inaccurate, or exaggerated. History teaches us that in 313 A.D. the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the entire Roman Empire. As a result, the Gospel and Christianity rapidly spread. It was Constantine who assembled the Nicene Council to settle once and for all the question of the deity of Jesus Christ and in the process defined the Holy Trinity. Although we as Protestants fled from the Catholic Church, many of us still say and/or believe the Nicene Creed, which is our confession of faith. Still, many Christians, wince at the words, “we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” Somehow we skip over that term or explain it away by saying, “catholic means ‘universal’.” Yet, St. Ignatius of Antioch used the use the word Catholic in reference to the Church in 110 A.D. The Nicene Creed, which is the profession of our Christian faith, goes back to 325 A.D.
Any one who has grown in the Christian life has realized that no church is perfect and all churches (denominations and non-denominations) have experienced internal sin, disappointment in man, and scandals, which is indeed not a good testimony for the Lord. Protestants have experienced this heartache, as well as have Catholics.
In addition, there have been doctrinal changes across Protestantism. Under Martin Luther, certain books were removed from the Old Testament even though they were in the Bible used by Jesus and the Apostles. Luther even wanted to remove the New Testament Book of James, because he thought it conflicted with the doctrine of being saved by grace alone. James 2:20 states: “But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead” (KJV).
Two things followed Martin Luther’s departure from the Catholic Church; the first, is that men will scatter quickly outside of authority. The divisions in Protestant ranks vary over a wide range of disputes and differences, which led us today to having thousands of denominations. Each year, new church splits occur over the most insignificant issues, which continue to multiply. Second, Martin Luther’s departure forced the Catholic Church to reform and vigorously deal with the valid and undisputable accusations levied against the Church. History teaches the doctrines of the Catholic Church have been consistent and scriptural; man did fail, but God never fails, and the teachings and traditions of Christ are tried, true, and tested over time — even until today. Man did fail, but the doctrinal, scriptural teachings did not fail.
I began to see other signs and symbols that enrich my faith in Jesus Christ and my spiritual walk with Him. I guess it goes back to our work on the pro-life front and being around Catholic priests. Although I was not a Catholic admirer, I was drawn by the servant-hood and humility I witnessed in these men. I seemed to have an “unwritten holy respect” for them. There was no envy, strife, struggle or ego present in them, which I found most Christ-like and very appealing. This temperament in a minister draws me to Christ. As I took a closer look at these priests, I realized they have given up all. They pledged their lives and their own needs through a commitment to celibacy. It does not get any more unselfish and selfless than this. I found myself, rather than being critical of priests (as most of us Protestants were), having a deep regard and respect for their willingness to serve the flock of God. I did not know this at the time, but priests celebrate Mass daily (many have multiple services daily); this is true dedication and a true gift to the Body of Christ. Needless to say, I am indeed impressed with this deep level of commitment and sacrifice. They have given up their entire life to be a servant to the Lord and His flock, which is all they do 24/7. What more can one give than one’s whole life? I have always had the highest regard and respect for pastors, since there is no higher calling in life, but I have developed a new respect and admiration for Roman Catholic priests who literally give everything up. Roman Catholic priests, like Father Francis Butler, Father James Dean, Father Frank Pavone, and Father Charles Troncale, were visible signs and witnesses to Deborah and I in our pro-life work. More recently, Father Stephen Martin of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Montgomery has greatly contributed to our walk and understanding. He loves to research and teach Church history — I love this guy!
I would be remiss if I did not expound for a moment about a spiritual patriarch and friend, Jim Pinto. Jim Pinto is a former Charismatic Episcopal priest who served as a pastoral covering to my family as we were searching for a church home. Jim was a former Catholic who strayed from the Lord and, after coming back to Christ, was ordained as an Episcopal priest. Recently, he came home to the Catholic Church, giving up his ordination and pastoral ministry in this decision. This man’s gifts and pastoral calling have richly touched my family. We are proud that Jim Pinto sponsored us coming into the Church. Ed Clark with the Montgomery Respect Life Committee and a founder of COPE Crisis Pregnancy Center is another person who touched our lives. In the Gospel of John chapter 17 there is an example of touching all of those in Christ, because we are one. Ed never had any other agenda than to serve others. Around our house he is referred to as “Saint Ed.” His humility and gentleness is a living testimony of God’s love.
Signs and Symbols in Catholic Liturgy
Once we began to visit the Catholic Church, I came in contact with some significant symbols and traditions that greatly enriched my Christian walk. Catholic churches in their architectural design create a sense of permanence. Their typical grandeur and construction is meant to convey a holy place, loudly communicating that the Lord is the same yesterday, today, and forever more. I love to hear the bell ringing before church; a call to the people for a time of worship. In Rome, you hear the bells echoing through the ancient streets with a crispness of joy and thanksgiving. The bells somehow ring in our hearts that He is alive, and that we are His people, coming forth in the name of the Lord. The art in the church — enveloped in paintings, stained glass windows, sculptures, and the like — cause me to meditate and bring to life the birth, life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I find myself observing others prayerfully taking in these images, which so vividly remind me of Jesus. The liturgical calendar is exciting to me as we always have something to look forward to in our walk during the year with Him. To me it is not even close to becoming boring or a ritual, but instead breeds life. He promised that He is the same yesterday today and forever more — He is far from boring.
The holy water font in the entrance of the church is a reverent opportunity to dip our fingers in the water and form the Sign of the Cross over ourselves, which reminds us of our baptism, through which we were cleansed from sin and set apart as servants of God Almighty. The Sign of the Cross was present when the early Christians were being martyred at sporting events for the Romans. It was a sign and witness to the audience from the martyrs as their life drew to a close that they were marked as Christ’s own. How many of us would risk our life, as they did, for our faith? What a testimony: not to be ashamed of the Gospel and to lose their life for their faith. Seeing the people enter into the peaceful, holy, and reverent sanctuary and kneel in respect to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, it outwardly reminds us all He is seated on the throne, Hallelujah! Watching Christians quietly slip to their knees — making their pew an altar — praying before the service begins, allows us a moment to reflect and prepare our hearts for worship and adoration for all He has done for us.
The procession coming down the aisle led by the cross reminds me of when Jesus came into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, revered and recognized by His own as King of the Jews. In the order of the liturgy, which dates back to 155 A.D., the service begins with repentance before God, calling to mind how we have fallen short of the Glory of God, and thus, preparing our hearts to enter into His worship service clean before God and man. The Scripture readings, which are daily read in church services, not only walk us through the Bible essentially every three years, but His Word is being read on the same page every day by Christians all over the world — which I find absolutely amazing! This in my view brings unity and direction to all of His flock around the world. Repeating the Nicene Creed is the confession of our faith as Christians and dates back to 325 A.D., emerging from the Apostles Creed. I am in awe that we repeat everyday the very confession of faith that our brothers and sisters have faithfully through tradition recited since the beginning of the Church.
The burning of incense is a symbol that has great depth and meaning. This can be seen, for example, in Revelation 5:8, where John depicts the saints in heaven offering our prayers to God under the form of “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” The censer of burning frankincense reminds us of the gifts given by the wise men to baby Jesus. History teaches us the significance of those three gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gifts of gold were always reserved for a King. Frankincense was both used for healing by physicians and for worship on the altar of incense in the temple. Myrrh was a sign of suffering and death and was used to perfume bodies for burial. As the frankincense burns during the Catholic Mass, I am reminded that Jesus is the Great Physician. As a Christian, I also see the cloud of smoke as God’s healing power and glory hovering over the people and the altar where the One Sacrifice is offered and Communion is received. I love to see and smell the incense as it is offered up to Him who is worthy of all praise and thanksgiving. Exodus 30 describes the altar of incense in the temple; verse 34 states:
Then the LORD said to Moses, Take fragrant spices-gum resin, onycha and galbanum-and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer. It is to be salted and pure and sacred. Grind some of it to powder and place it in front of the Testimony in the Tent of Meeting, where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the LORD.
Our Lord’s Body and Blood
As I stated earlier, communion became a very intimate time for my family several years before we came into the Catholic Church. I have come to realize that when Jesus was on the road to Emmaus, His disciples did not recognize Him until He broke the bread and revealed Himself. There is a great revelation of Jesus in the taking of the bread and the cup. Partaking of the bread and cup is an honor and privilege for Christians and should not be taken lightly. Traditionally, most of our Protestant upbringing overlooks the power and revelation of Jesus in communion; it sometimes becomes a square we color in. Yet, we miss an opportunity for Christ to have another venue to reveal Himself. Early Christianity was under fire because rumors were flying about Communion (the Body and Blood of Christ) was being viewed by some outsiders as cannibalism! Jesus in His words said, “Take, eat; this is my body….Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood” (Matt 26:26-28). In defense of the Christian Church, St. Justin Martyr wrote to Antonius Pius, the Roman Emperor, to fully disclose and describe the order of a typical Christian worship service, which always included Communion.
Christ reveals Himself though many manifestations and in many venues. Like on the road to Emmaus, He revealed Himself gently in Communion, yet His power is overwhelmingly miraculous and great revelation is present in and through it. The benefits to all Christians of the sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood are too great to enumerate; the awesomeness of all of this can be witnessed in Communion. The altar (where one comes to receive Communion) is a place of dying to self, where we as sheep are fed and touched by the Shepherd — it does not get any more powerful than that. I now realize what it is about, and it reduces me to tears every time.
I always thought the word “Mass” was weird; Why didn’t Catholics just say “church” or “worship service” like we Protestants do? Later, I found out the word “Mass” comes from the Latin word missa, which means, “go forth.” (We get the English word “mission” from the same Latin root.) We are to “go forth” into the world carrying the Gospel, loving others, and serving the Lord. As Protestants, we always talked about equipping the saints for the work of the ministry (as found in Ephesians), but this term, “Mass” means that I am being sent out into the world. Isn’t that neat?
God does not overlook the details
It appears as though that the Lord uses all five of our senses to minister to us in these ancient Christian services. With our eyes we see marvelous architecture, icons, sculptures, and art that visually draw us into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Certainly with our ears we hear the Scripture readings, the prayers of the people being offered, the liturgy being read, and the sermons being preached. The sweet smell of the incense burning takes us back to the altar of incense used in the temple and reminds us of the prayers of the people being lifted up to God. We touch one another as we exchange the peace of the Lord. The priest, as the representative of the Lord, touches us as little lambs of the flock during Communion. Finally, we use our sense of taste as we ingest the Body and Blood of our Savior. It is simply amazing — He does not overlook one detail!
We had been at sea now for a long time seeking a harbor that we can call our own. We have standing invitations all across Montgomery to join many churches all the time. All of these churches have great pastors and wonderful congregations. I could never renounce my Christian experience over my twenty-eight years as a Protestant, for the Lord does deliver, heal, and restore by the power of His Spirit wherever there is a willing heart. But, neither can I ignore the history of the Church. What should we as Protestants do with the 1500-year block in our history? It seems as though we have ignored it totally.
Deborah and I were absolutely thrilled to be received into the Roman Catholic Church at Easter 2004 and to receive Communion. I even get excited saying the words “Roman Catholic,” because until then it seemed we were hopelessly separated from one another. Now, as Catholics, we have been invited to bring all the blessings we have received throughout our Christian lives — in the whole Body of Christ — into the Catholic Church. You know we are all in one Body together. Deborah and I have seen one of our gifts is to bring people of all walks of life together. I hope our experience and future walk could serve as a small contribution in building a bridge that brings two remote islands together. You know: together we stand, divided we fall. I want to dedicate myself to be in the business of unity. Thank you so much for allowing me to bare my soul.