When I was 13 years old, I had the adolescent awakening of realizing I had no purpose in life. I didn’t know what my purpose should be, but I knew God would know. So, I told one of my parents I wanted to go to church. That didn’t go well.

I wasn’t raised in church, but both sets of grandparents went often. When I was little, one set of grandparents took me to a Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) congregation, where I learned God loved me. I knew that much and I had heard of Jesus dying on the cross. I once asked my grandmother to explain it to me and she told me I wouldn’t understand. That was as much discipling as I would get.

After being rebuffed at age 13, I made arrangements to stay the weekend with my other grandparents. I told my grandmother I wanted to go to church, so she had my grandfather take me. I ended up in a big room with small rooms on the sides. Some guy got up and instructed the kids to go to their classes. He pointed me to a room where there were just two kids with some guy and his wife. He gave a Bible lesson of some sort and at the end asked the three of us if we knew where we would go if we died that day. I hadn’t thought much about death and certainly had no idea what would happen afterward. I said I didn’t know and he asked me if I would like to. Well, yeah. Sign me up! So, he led me in a sinner’s prayer, told me to tell someone, and to read the Bible. This was an Independent Fundamental Baptist church and they were “King James Only.” I told my grandparents I had said the prayer and my grandmother sent me with my grandfather to the bookstore to get me a Bible. It was the King James Version and I knew nothing of the book, so I did what you do when reading a book: I started at the beginning. I got as far as a pair of sisters getting their dad drunk to have sex with him in hopes of giving him a son and I gave up. That was as much discipling as I would get.

Evangelical Love for the Bible

Earlier, when I was 10 years old, I met a kid on the playground who became my best friend. We’re still friends today, but I had moved to a different school district at age 12 and we lost contact for a few years. One summer day, when I was 15, I gave him a call and he asked me if I had ever considered becoming a Christian. I told him I already was and went to spend a Saturday night at his place. We went to his church the next morning, where I was given a brochure for a church camp in Kansas. My dad would later say that was the worst money he ever spent.

At camp, a preacher said you have to make a commitment to following Christ. Well, I had never heard that before. So, I got up and went forward to the steps where he told kids to kneel and pray. The kid next to me was bawling and I thought I was supposed to cry. I tried, but the emotions weren’t there. They sent us to the back to talk to camp counselors and the guy asked me what was going on. I said, “I just needed to make a commitment” and that was it.

After we got home, someone in the church connected me with a lady who lived down the street from me and I started walking down there and going to church every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night to youth group. This was a Christian and Missionary Alliance church and it was the first time I received any religious training.

Sunday services were unconvincing and were definitely not for me. It was no different than your typical Southern Baptist church, but I didn’t know that at the time. After a couple of years, I got bored and stopped going. The youth leader had started a parachurch organization that organized youth groups in several school districts and I got involved. The organization held regular lock-ins at the YMCA and I attended one after being away from church for a couple of months. I felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit and told myself that if I was going to start going to church again, I was going somewhere more exciting.

Lifting Holy Hands

I knew kids from around town through that parachurch organization and a girl who lived near me recommended visiting her church. Her dad was gracious enough to come pick me up on Sunday morning as he was taking his family to church. It was an environment I had never been exposed to. They used drums and guitars; they sang lively songs and lifted their hands. They prayed loudly and it wasn’t in English. The whole thing lit my fire and piqued my interest. I wanted all that God had for me. I didn’t understand what was going on in that worship service, but the pastor of this small Independent Charismatic church gave me some literature on the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” and I wanted it. I went forward and the elders gathered around me; they laid hands on me and started praying in tongues. The pastor told me to just open my mouth and let it flow. I received the gift of tongues and began attending that church. Then I found one like it which was much closer to home. I could catch a ride to it down the street from my house, so I started going there.

I got carried away. I had encounters with the living God in those early years and really dug into the Bible. I was in love with this charismatic experience — it was what I was looking for at the time. I hadn’t received any religious belief system from my parents, so I considered it my responsibility to discover what I believed by finding out what the Bible teaches. I didn’t understand there were different religious traditions with all of these different ideas and even different paradigms. I thought church was church and that churches represent God. I had always thought that and it wouldn’t be until much later that I would see problems with the idea.

When I started looking at colleges, I wanted to attend a “spirit-filled” Christian college because I had some pride about charismatics being “more spiritual” than Christians who weren’t “spirit-filled,” and I wanted to be taught by those who shared my doctrinal slant. I ended up at a classical Pentecostal liberal arts college in Missouri.

During my sophomore year, I started getting bored again; bored with the Christianity I had known. I spent a lot of time in the library’s reference section satisfying my curiosity. If I had any questions at all about any denomination or religious movement, I would go look it up. The college subscribed to a variety of magazines, one of them being New Covenant, from Charismatic Renewal Ministries, which is Catholic. It is now named Renewal Ministries. I was enamored — I mean absolutely enthralled — with the images of thuribles and incense smoke, monstrances and other sacramentals. I was drawn to these things; I didn’t know why, but I needed to explore it.

High-Church Liturgy and the Eucharist

This was the first time the Catholic Church came on to my radar. I had been taught that Catholics aren’t Christians; they aren’t born again and the mainline Protestant churches were also “dead.” However, I had a pair of friends down the street from my home who were the ninth and tenth children of a devout Catholic couple. I wasn’t sure my friends’ dad was “saved,” but I knew their mom was. It was clear that she had a relationship with God, but I believed her to be the minority among Catholics.

I desired to explore what I now know to be contemplative Christianity. I had anti-Catholic prejudice that made me uncomfortable with going to contemplative Christianity’s Western source, but I knew the Episcopal Church was similar. I went to the phone book and called the nearest Episcopal church. It turned out to be a high-church Anglo-Catholic parish and it was exactly what I was looking for. I was in love!

The charismatic experience had been a milestone, but so was this smells-and-bells liturgical experience. The traditional church architecture, the sacred music, the sung Mass, and the belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist captivated me like nothing ever had. I threw myself into it and embraced as authoritative and authentic everything I was taught. I prided myself on being “Catholic,” though not Roman Catholic.

I was taught that Catholicism is broader than just the Church at Rome; that authentic Catholic religion is based on four pillars: Scripture, Tradition, the Sacraments, and Apostolic Succession. I was taught that the Anglican Communion was legitimately both Catholic and Protestant and that we were on the Catholic side of the issue. As an Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian, I identified as Catholic and to call me Protestant would have been fighting words. I knew other Episcopalians and most of the Episcopal Church didn’t share my faith and this was very disappointing. I wanted church unity and the denomination couldn’t provide it. It also wouldn’t provide fidelity to 2,000 years of orthodoxy and I ended up leaving the denomination over that. I was perfectly happy with my parish and I didn’t want to leave, but I was concerned for my future. I didn’t want to invest time in a denomination that I would later feel compelled to leave, so I left sooner rather than later. That was in the late 1990’s.

Convergence

I went immediately to the Charismatic Episcopal Church, a small denomination built by leaders from the independent charismatic movement, who had been reading the Church Fathers and were incorporating Anglican liturgy into what they called the “convergence movement.” Basically, this was a group of charismatic and evangelical sacramentalists who were trying to build a new denomination under the orders of a religious group in Brazil that was not in communion with the Pope. A large percentage of the CEC’s clergy, including the bishop who received me into the denomination, would later become Catholic.

I was still in Missouri at that time, but soon moved back to Ohio, where neither the CEC or the Episcopal Church was available to me. In that small town, I had two choices: Rome or Luther. I chose Luther, but it was a poor fit. It was too low-church for me. I had been with low-church Anglicans in the CEC, but they were still liturgical and believed in the Real Presence in the same way I was taught as an Anglo-Catholic. The way the Real Presence was assented to was sort of like transubstantiation with a consubstantial description. However, the Lutherans understood consubstantiality very differently. As an Anglican, I had been taught from the objective side of the matter, but the Lutherans I encountered in the Evangelical Lutheran denomination approached it with a great deal of subjectivity and emphasis on the faith of the recipient as a determining factor concerning the nature of the Eucharistic species. I was turned off by this, so unless I were to become Catholic, I was staring at a Protestant vacuum.

Because of my persistent aversion to the Catholic Church and Evangelical de-emphasis of denominationalism, I felt I needed to be flexible and allow my interior leanings to coincide with whatever the worship style would be of whatever church I would most grow in. I ended up in a Vineyard Fellowship, under a former United Methodist pastor. Had his background been Calvinist, I wouldn’t have gone there because of Calvin’s “total depravity” doctrine. As it was, I moved back to Kansas City after a few years and went straight to the CEC cathedral I was connected with when I lived in Missouri the first time. I grew impatient with the distance I had to drive to attend church, despite this being the only CEC church in the KC metro. So, I again became flexible and chose a United Methodist church near where I lived. I wish I hadn’t.

Liberal Mainline Protestantism

I had never encountered people in church who identified as Christian but believed in abortion and gay “marriage.” I rejected such ideas, even as I grew to love these people, whom I discovered held these social and political opinions as time went on. I was open-minded enough to wrestle with these ideas and that was one of the devil’s tools. The other would be a crisis of faith which began with a personal tragedy.

Through no fault of my own, I lost my job and spiraled downward. I got evicted from my apartment and my car was repossessed. I knew a retired minister from my Sunday School class who got me into a halfway house setting connected with a homeless ministry and I got a job I could walk to. In five months, I was back on my feet, but the experience rattled me.

Heterodoxy, Syncretism, and a Half Lotus

I moved home to Ohio and back into my parents’ home. I found my dream job as a newspaper reporter and copy editor, but my spiritual life was in pieces. Because of the Word of Faith movement and the consumeristic emphasis on worldly success that Evangelicals capitalize on when marketing their approach to Christian faith, I believed God would not allow life to be so hard on me. There was also some Calvinist influence going on, though I had never been in a Calvinist church of any kind. Calvin taught a doctrine of “election” and that must have influenced me. I thought I was of a special group — those who are born again. Therefore, I expected to go through trials, but I didn’t expect this level of hardship and it shook my faith. I went back to the Lutheran church I had been in before, but I only went once in a while. I read liberal theologians from mainline Protestantism and that led to my understanding Christianity metaphorically. I never stopped believing in Jesus as the Son of God and I never stopped believing in His bodily resurrection, but everything else was up for grabs. How He was the Son of God and what that meant shifted around over the next seven to ten years as I fell outside of orthodox theology and explored Eastern spirituality. I also explored the Unitarian–Universalists and experimented with different forms of meditation.

I felt let down by organized religion and was deeply disappointed — not with God, but with the church as I had known it. However, my interest in the Catholic Church never completely went away. I had embraced the Social Gospel and that led me to social Liberalism. I found the Catholic Church to be too conservative for me, but along the way I discovered the teaching of a liberal-leaning contemplative Catholic priest and author who I became enamored with. This priest was instrumental in bringing my faith full circle. Also during that time, Pope Francis was elected and I became very fond of him. I eventually got to a place where I didn’t want a church to look like me by reflecting my opinions and that was the beginning of the end.

Coming into the Catholic Church was difficult, though. While working my dream job and exploring meditation, I met a priest and considered becoming Catholic for the first time. We only met a couple times before I backed off. Later, I made friends with another priest and met with him; this was the second time my interest in the Church was piqued. I was still liberal and he was uncomfortable with that. He said nothing about my views, but politely steered me away from the Church, telling me to go wherever I could get fed.

After relocating to another part of the country, interest in the Church came up a third time and I met with a catechist who scheduled a follow-up meeting, but stood me up and I backed off again. Becoming Catholic came up a fourth time and I looked up RCIA programs near me, found one, attended for a while, but didn’t follow through. The catechist didn’t understand where I was coming from, as a former practicing Anglo-Catholic. Despite all of the doubts I had wrestled with, in my heart I still believed in the Eucharist and I still believed in the legitimacy of what catholicity had been instilled in me years earlier. My position was not validated by that catechist, as it shouldn’t have, but I didn’t understand that at the time. So I got cold feet yet again.

Finally Learning to Swim

I wanted the issue settled, so I decided to not become Catholic. I consented to attending a local Episcopal church, determined to make it work, but it didn’t. I attended fairly regularly, but I wasn’t into it because it wasn’t high-church. It was a typical mainline Protestant style of worship, which to me, was bland and flavorless like chewing gum you kept in your mouth too long.

I was working at another newspaper and my editor received an e-mail from a Catholic parish that had done a beautification of the church’s interior. I was assigned to write a story on it, so I called the priest without any intention of getting personal in the conversation. After the interview, we kept talking and I told him about all of the times I had considered becoming Catholic, but lost heart. He asked me to meet with him and I obliged him out of courtesy. But this time, the Holy Spirit went to work on me and by the time we met, I was once again actively considering entering the Catholic Church. This time, it would be the right time and the right priest.

We met over a couple of months as we both carefully prayed and discerned the issue. This church-hopper ended up joining the Tiber River Swimming Team, entering the Catholic Church on the Solemnity of All Saints in 2015.

 I became Catholic for many reasons. Aside from knowing there was no home for me anywhere in Protestantism, I had set aside a felt-centrality concerning my own opinions. I had accepted the authority of the catholicity I had embraced in traditional Anglicanism and surrendered my excuses. I could no longer justify remaining in schism. I wanted the truth and I wanted the full version of the “Catholic Lite” I had fallen in love with. I also wanted full union with the religious body endowed with the authority to live out the authentic and historic Christian faith — not an opinion about it. Because someone has to have the final say, I came to embrace the Pope as that person and I embraced the supremacy of the Catholic Church. I had an opportunity to enter the Church by finding a priest who understood me and was willing to give me individual attention, so I embraced it.

In hindsight, I can say with firm resolve that becoming Catholic was the best decision I’ve ever made and one of the greatest gifts God has ever given me — second only to my (earthly) mother. Taking that plunge has brought me home for good.


Michael Ford

Michael Ford is a former newspaper reporter who was received into the Catholic Church after 30 years of looking for the true faith in the various Protestant traditions. He blogs at bornagaincatholicblog.wordpress.com.


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