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Keeping Jesus at the Center

W. Keith Moore
July 25, 2011 4 Comments

I grew up in the deep south. Louisville, Mississippi is a small farming town. Meridian, Mississippi is one of the larger towns in the state. I spent the first twelve years in Louisville, the next six in Meridian. The two towns are as different as night and day. They symbolize my early journey on this good earth.

In Louisville, my parents were never serious church goers. When we went we were United Methodist. I was an only child and loved my life of living in the country. I spent my days riding horses, motorcycles, fishing, and discovering whatever the piney woods of Mississippi gave me. My great uncle was a missionary, and whenever he would come back to preach at our church my mother made sure we were in the front row. I remember as a kid thinking this guy must be pretty important.

When I was 12 my parents divorced and everything in my life changed. I went from a 60 acre horse and cattle ranch to an 850 square foot apartment over night. When my mother met me that day at a secret location to take me away from my father, I left my five dogs, many horses, and innocence behind forever. My dad moved to Texas, and my mother and I moved to Meridian. We made a life as best we could. Meridian had temptations Louisville didn’t have. Needless to say, I rebelled pretty seriously during this time. By the time I was fifteen I was smoking marijuana, drinking, and trying to deal with the pain a teenager feels in times like this. I was in bad shape.

It was a very dark period in my young life. The last thing on my mind was God or church. In fact, I only joined a local Methodist church to meet girls. I was a bit of a con-man and was soon voted Youth Fellowship president. I used my status to make out with girls in the balcony. I was lost.

It wasn’t long after this that something strange happened. I was sitting at the house of a pot smoking buddy one night, and the next night I was sitting in the largest Baptist church in Meridian for the spring revival. My friend’s mother had somehow convinced him and me to go. I’m not sure how she bribed us, but there had to have been a bribe.

I do not remember anything the preacher at the First Baptist church in Meridian said that Wednesday night. I do not remember how or why the next thing occurred. To this day, I do not understand it. When the preacher asked if anyone wanted to “come down and be saved,” I looked at Ronnie, my friend, and said, “I’m going down and you’re going with me.”

I cannot explain it now, just as I could not then as to why I did it. Every member of that huge church wanted to shake our hands and give us advice. The very last lady, who had waited a long time to be last, came up to me and looked me straight in the eyes and said, “The devil is going to be after you now.” I asked her what I was supposed to do. She said, “Read the Word of God, and start with the Gospel of John!” She asked me if I had a Bible, and I told her I thought so. For the next few months, Ronnie and I would meet after school either at his house or mine and read the Bible out loud to one another. I owe much of my memory knowledge of Scripture to that period. It became the music and muse of my life. To this day, by God’s grace, those times of discovery are still with me.

The very next day, a girl at our school, who did not know about my night before at the revival, had decided to witness to me. I was not a friendly person in school. I often fought and played football simply to hurt people. For this young girl to approach me in the hallway of our small school was brave indeed. She told me later that she was so scared she almost backed out. She came up behind me and said, “Keith, do you want to go to a Bible study tonight?” I almost screamed the word YES as I spun around to face her, giving her a big hug! That night I walked into the apartment of the youth director and sat down on the couch. I had long hair and a long reputation that everyone there knew about. The first girl I saw sitting across from me was Renee Case, the preacher’s daughter. (She and I have been married for 22 years! I love to tell people that I found Jesus on Wednesday and Renee on Thursday. Those were the best two days of my life! Isn’t God something?)

Renee’s father, John Case, is one of the most popular United Methodist ministers in Mississippi. He is retired now, but he is still preaching, and when people find out I am his son-in-law in our little town of Oxford, it gains me immediate respect. That is until they find out I am Catholic, which confuses them deeply. From the time I was 15, I grew up learning from this man. He is a Wesleyan Methodist. John’s main focus was youth. We always had the largest youth groups and the most highly trained youth directors in the country. Most of them had graduated from Asbury Seminary in Kentucky. These guys were sound in their theology! Orthodox Methodist! I felt the call to youth ministry for years and often worked with youth all during college and for a year after college in Nashville. Nashville is where things started to get complicated spiritually.

(I must go back for a moment in the story. That first week after the night I was “saved,” someone gave me something I have around my neck as I write this. It is a silver miraculous medal cross with the Holy Family depicted on the four beams of the cross. On the back it says, “I am Catholic, call a priest.” At the time I was given this, I do not remember even noticing the words on the back. I didn’t care. If it was a cross, I wanted it around my neck! I believe I will find out one day that the person who gave me this cross had something to do with my journey home.)

I wrote songs and performed in Nashville for 14 years. During this time my wife and I ended up in mostly “non-denominational” Bible churches. The Methodists in Nashville were too liberal for us. We ended up at a Charismatic church where we were group leaders. I taught a Bible study for 20 or so people weekly. But something happened in this church that ended all of it abruptly. I won’t go into it, but it was bad at the time. I am grateful for it now because it ended up being the thing God used to turn us toward home. At the time, it wasn’t enjoyable. I became anti-established religion.

For two years we never set foot in a church. To me, God had nothing to do with religion, or at least the religion I was seeing around me. We would meet with friends in homes. We felt this was getting back to the “Early Church.” One night I recall a friend of mine being so excited that we were getting back to the Early Church’s ways. This made me curious. I went to a Christian bookstore and tried to find something about the Early Church. I asked someone who worked there if there was any such thing. I never got anywhere. They could only go back to the 1500s. I wondered why there was nothing about Christianity in these Christian bookstores before the 16th century. There had to be something!

I began working at a secular bookstore in Nashville. I love poetry, and one day I stumbled across St. John of the Cross. I read his canticles and some of his book The Dark Night of the Soul. It was odd and intriguing. I must make it clear that I was in no way thinking about Catholicism during this time. St. John of the Cross was simply a Christian poet to me. I spoke to a friend about this and for some reason he told me about a book called Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail. After reading it, my wife and I started visiting an Episcopal church in Nashville. There was something about this experience I really liked. In some ways it reminded me of when I was young in the Methodist church. But they had more, they had Communion every Sunday! Here was a religion that focused itself on Jesus and not the preacher. I liked this. I spent much time in the church library and found this style of worship was very ancient. This is where I re-learned the word “Liturgy” from my early years as a Methodist.

I kept reading anything I could get my hands on about the Early Church, which wasn’t much. I remember I became fascinated with monks and the life of detachment from the world. Why, I don’t know. I then came across the book that really shook me.

I have no idea where or why I bought The Way of a Pilgrim. I had been asking God for a long time for a deeper more intimate prayer life. At first I read it with suspicion because it was about praying a rote prayer. I had always been taught that we were to stay away from vain repetitious prayer. But something happened when I started praying this prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” I even went so far as to learn it the way he learned it in the book. I started “breathing” the prayer, saying it hundreds of times a day, sometimes without even realizing it. Something beautiful happened. My desire for Jesus grew to a place I had never experienced. I realized that repetitious prayer was not vain unless one allowed it to be. THIS WAS HUGE! This opened a door in my mind. This simple realization challenged something in my spirit about other things I had been told in church. I became curious.

The thing about the book, The Way of a Pilgrim that really shook up the apple cart, was his mentioning things like the Mass, the rosary, and the Sacraments. I didn’t know what any of this was. The Episcopal church we went to for a short time for some reason didn’t make a dent in my understanding of these things. It is strange, but I don’t remember the words Mass, Eucharist, or Sacraments ever being talked about. But these things seemed very important to the writer. His entire journey began because of the readings in the Mass he was attending. I did not associate this with anything Catholic at the time. My impression of Catholics was that they worshipped statues, Mary, and they drank, cussed, and had to confess to a priest, which they did on Sundays after they had sinned like crazy the night before. Where I grew up, we didn’t think Catholics were Christian.

I kept searching for material about the Early Church. Everyone was still talking about being like the Early Church. One night someone mentioned an early figure named Clement. I had an uncle named Clement, which may be why I remembered his name. I looked at the secular bookstore and found some things written by Clement, Justin Martyr, and a couple of other guys who KNEW THE APOSTLES!!! I was blown away! And here was the kicker, they mentioned the same things as the guy who wrote The Way of a Pilgrim. They talked about the Sacraments, and something else I had never heard: the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. It was as if someone had slapped me in the face. What the heck was this? Justin Martyr described in detail what the Early Church gathering looked like. It was nothing like what we in Nashville were calling the Early Church! My curiosity began to germinate.

As I said before, I am a songwriter and singer. One of my best friends is Phil Keaggy. Phil was producing an album for me during all of this seeking, which had begun a couple of years before. One day while we are in the studio the phone rings and it was a guy named Jeff Cavins. Phil hangs up and says that he and I are going to be on a show called Life on the Rock on EWTN. I said sure, whatever. I thought it was just another religious TV show like all the rest, which I didn’t like, but I was grateful for the opportunity. I figured if Phil was doing it, it must be okay. I knew nothing about EWTN. A couple of weeks later Jeff Cavins shows up to meet with us for some pre-production. For some unknown reason, probably the book, The Way of A Pilgrim, I had just purchased an Irish rosary from a Catholic book store in town. When I met Jeff and found out he was Catholic, I figured he knew what a rosary was and I showed him my Irish one. He asked me if I was Catholic. I laughed and said no, but I liked anything Irish. He then asked me if I wanted him to take it and have Pope John Paul II bless it. Jeff was on his way to meet with the Pope. I remember thinking, Sure, what the heck. He took it with him. I didn’t even know how to pray the rosary at the time. Later that week I was at the bookstore, though by this time I no longer worked there, and I noticed a book with the Pope on the cover. It was called Crossing the Threshold. I read it and was amazed how much this leader of Catholics loved Jesus and knew the Scriptures! My curiosity was growing.

EWTN was bizarre! I had never met a priest, much less a nun! There were nuns everywhere. Without a doubt, to that point, they had the biggest influence on my journey home. I called my wife the night after the show and told her about the nuns. They were so full of humor, joy, simplicity, peace, and sincerity. Their detachment from the world was palpable. I wanted what they had!!! It is amazing how God works. The show went great and that night Jeff and I talked until 2:00 in the morning. Jeff had great respect for non-Catholic Christians, and he never once made me feel anything but love and acceptance. His witness and passion for Jesus moved me deeply. God used Jeff to plant the seed of longing for the fullness of Truth in my heart. He and I are very close today. Jeff is the first Catholic I ever talked to. His witness, knowledge of Scripture, and dedication to Jesus and the Church made a huge impression. The seed was beginning to break through the soil.

Not long after this, life took us to Spokane, Washington. I was working on a music project with an old friend of mine. When we arrived we had nowhere to go to worship so we talked to my friend about it. His wife is Catholic and I was fascinated by this. I asked her if we could visit. Up until this time, my wife and I had never been to a Catholic Mass. She agreed to go since we were so far from home. We started going to St. Aloysius on Gonzaga campus. I will never forget walking into that beautiful cathedral. I had never seen the Stations of the Cross. I had never seen such amazing stained glass windows, not just for there beauty, but for the stories they told of God’s work in our lives. The statues were amazing to me and I did not feel as if anyone was worshipping them. They suddenly seemed to me very important because of what they pointed to. I was almost trembling by the time we left that day. We were a little confused and upset when we found out we couldn’t receive during communion. We didn’t know anything about the Catholic Faith at this point. But grace got the best of me and I read about why this is so. I then agreed with this teaching passionately. I got involved with the ministry to the homeless while we lived there. I started to see something authentic in Catholics. But here is the real life changer. One Sunday during the Liturgy of the Eucharist while Communion was being distributed, I started to cry. I couldn’t explain it. At this time I did not understand the teaching on the Real Presence, but my soul did. My soul was starving for the Bread of Angels. A leaf of change was growing on my curiosity tree.

When the music project was complete we moved back to Oxford, Mississippi. We were glad to be back home. We went back to the Methodist church. It wasn’t long before I was dying inside. It was the most depressed I have ever been. For a year I taught a Sunday School class and was miserable. I probably confused those people in the class with all of my Early Church talk. But with John Case retired and living in this little town, my wife could not see us going anywhere else. I was reading now about the Early Church Fathers daily on the internet, and we discovered with our satellite dish we had EWTN! I watched every second I was in the house. Renee started watching it some with me, but she was not open to visiting the local Catholic parish.

Finally, one day as I was driving by the parish offices of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, I turned in and parked. I walked in the front door and asked to see the priest. This very short, middle eastern looking guy in black with a white collar came from around the corner. He had a deep Mississippi Delta accent. We went in his office and I told him my story. The first thing out of his mouth was, “Would you like a job leading the music for Mass?” I asked if this was possible since I was not yet a Catholic, he said, “Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it.” I started my new job a month later and my wife decided that since they had hired me she could go. This would be a good excuse to her dad. (This is how I learned the Liturgy, by leading it! Isn’t God something?) My curiosity began to bloom!

I was patient with Renee. I never pushed her once. But I knew where God wanted us. I had read about Scott Hahn by now and some other converts in the book Surprised by Truth Volume 1. I was also reading the Church Fathers on a regular basis, and praying the Liturgy of the Hours, which I had received from our priest. (At the time I had no idea how blessed we were in this little southern town to have Fr. Joe Tonos. He is an “orthodox” Roman Catholic priest who follows the lead of Pope Benedict down to the letter. He respects the Liturgy and never adds to it or takes away from it in any form or fashion. We even have one Mass each Sunday Ad Orientem.) We watched The Journey Home program without fail. It became the most important show for us on television. I would record it and watch it over and over, sometimes taking notes. Fr. Corapi played a huge roll in Renee’s understanding. I remember one night after we had watched him teach on the catechism, she looked at me and said, “This is starting to make way too much sense.” The one thing that really brought Renee to the point of no return was the Divine Mercy Chaplet. The first time we watched this on EWTN we both became emotional. St. Faustina is Renee’s patron Saint.

We went through RCIA with our then 15-year-old son Wesley. We were received into the Church on Easter, 2006. Since that wonderful day, our lives have not been the same. We feel as if we are babes once again in our spiritual lives. The breadth, depth, height, and wealth of the Roman Catholic Church is mind boggling. We thank Jesus for shedding the grace on us that brought us into His liturgical family. I have no idea why we heard Him. As St. Thérèse, the Little Flower says, “Everything is grace…”

We thank God every day for His Church. I would be lying if I did not say I want all of my wonderful Protestant brothers and sisters in Jesus to come home and share in the family they are estranged from and do not know it. I want everyone to know this treasure, beauty, and fullness that is the Roman Catholic Church! It blows my mind every day. I now partake of His Body and Blood, I now know forgiveness in a way I never dreamed through Reconciliation, I NOW HAVE A MOTHER I NEVER KNEW! Mary has taught me more about loving Jesus than anyone. How I love Mary! I now know saints like Thérèse of Lisieux, Terese of Avila, Francis, Augustine (my patron), St. Catherine of Sienna, St. John of the Cross, and Padre Pio; the Apostles are now my friends. This is too much for my little soul. Glory to God! The journey of curiosity has become a journey of clarity. I am nowhere near understanding the immensity that is His Church, but I am so glad to be learning of its mysteries. I love the smells, sounds, and rhythms of the Liturgy. I feel like a little baby again. How amazing that now, by grace, my goal is to be a saint. Please pray for me.

Renee’s father and mother have in their own way been supportive. The one thing John said to us the day we told them we were going to join the Catholic Church was this: “As long as they keep Jesus at the center.” Renee, my wife, smiled and told him, “I have never seen Jesus so much in the center.” They came to our Confirmation and for that we are so grateful. He never asks me anything about it, at least not yet. I keep praying he will.

As I finish writing this, I must tell you about my new album coming out soon. It is called Beloved; it is a collection of songs given to me in this journey of discovery. It is songs inspired by Mary, our mother, the Saints, and most of all, our Beloved.

Thanks for allowing me to tell you my story.

In Jesus and Mary—W. Keith Moore

W. Keith Moore

W. Keith Moore lives in Oxford, Mississippi. Keith has been writing songs since he was 14.  He, his wife Renee, and their son, Wesley, were received into the Catholic Church on Easter 2006.

Keith has traveled on pilgrimages with Jeff Cavins, played with the Catholic Underground in NYC and Pennsylvania, produced and written for Phil Keaggy, and has played on EWTN with the Irish Catholic singing sensation, Dana. He has played for the Defending the Faith Conference at Franciscan University, and speaks to youth and adults in parishes wherever he goes. He was the guest of Marcus Grodi on The Journey Home on August 24, 2009.

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