The Early Years
I grew up going to several Baptist churches in a small town in north Georgia about an hour outside of Atlanta. Our Sunday mornings were usually filled with either in-person church or watching sermons on TV from well-known evangelical pastors. I can recall singing hymns, Sunday school in the church basement, WWJD bracelets, Wednesday night youth groups, and fiery sermons. But music was my family’s favorite part of going to church. They loved gospel music, especially southern Appalachian-style songs. They would sometimes take me with them to gospel quartet concerts at little country churches. Typically, the music consisted of piano and sometimes a guitar. Sometimes, people would share their personal testimonies of how they came to know the Lord and we’d do communion sometimes and have baptisms once or twice a year.
During the summers, I attended vacation Bible school. The church bus would come to pick my sister and me up from our apartment complex. They would feed us, we would play games in the gym, and then we’d have some time in a youth church service. They would talk to us about the Lord through a series of lessons. We always got some sort of candy bar, which for me was a major highlight. I was baptized shortly after turning 14 and got my first Bible as a gift from my grandfather. Today it is a cherished family keepsake on my bookshelf.
For Baptists, you are baptized when you are old enough to profess faith in Christ, which is past the “age of accountability.” It is seen as an outward, public profession of an inward faith that has already happened. In Baptist theology, the waters of baptism don’t save you; it’s just a symbolic act. It’s your faith in Christ and your acceptance of Christ that save you.
Jumping Into the Scriptures
As a new Christian, I was really excited to study the Bible. But then I started asking my grandfather questions about what I was reading and had a bit of a disconnect when comparing it with our Baptist worship services. One of my fondest Bible study memories is sitting up late with my grandfather, rattling off questions about the faith and what I was reading. As Christians, I knew that we didn’t follow all of the Old Testament traditions or requirements to keep the kosher laws. Still, I didn’t understand why our church didn’t have a tabernacle, why we didn’t have a Passover Lamb, and why there were no oils, no spices, no decorations in our church. The description of the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Table of the Bread of the Presence were very specific in Exodus 25: “And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat” (Ex 25:18).
While I do not remember all of the details of that conversation with my grandfather (may his memory be eternal), I do recall discussing the disconnect that I was having between reading the Bible about how the Israelites worshiped God and what we did at church. We had four bare, white walls in our church. I knew that God couldn’t be inconsistent in what He wanted. My grandfather agreed, and he also wasn’t sure why that was, other than that was back then, and this was now. At our church, there seemed to be this idea that anything spiritual was good, and anything material or physical was bad. But in Genesis 1:31, the Word of God says: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (emphasis added). We couldn’t disdain the physical or material elements of worship if God called everything He created “very good.” God surely doesn’t change His mind. I wanted to be faithful to how God wanted to be worshipped, and I felt there was something missing. This left me hungry to know more. It was a very confusing time for me as I considered the question of what is worship. So, I continued pondering it all.
Altar Calls, Getting Saved,
and the Mind Game of “Faith Alone”
The emphasis in our church was on asking Jesus into your heart to be your personal Lord and Savior. There would be an invitation to an “altar call,” where one would go up to the front of the church. Interestingly, there was no actual altar in the church, but rather, a podium. The altar call was for the preacher to get everyone stirred up spiritually. It would culminate in the person dedicating himself to the Lord. Some people would do this repeatedly, rededicating their lives to the Lord as often as they felt they needed. People would answer the altar call, then the preacher would begin to pray that Jesus would come into their lives as their personal Lord and Savior. As I understood it, this was supposed to be a transformational moment in the life of the Christian believer. The preachers would get so immersed in the message that they would begin to sweat, get red in the face, start getting short of breath, and would always have a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off their face. The verse that was preached from the pulpit was always Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
This understanding of “being saved,” in the past tense, was for us a “lightning bolt” type of moment. If you begin to doubt whether or not you are genuinely saved, you weren’t. I questioned my salvation a lot because of this emphasis on one-time salvation. I wasn’t sure that I had actually been “saved,” and when I asked about it, I was told that if I were truly saved, I would have faith and knowledge that I had been saved.
This only created more doubt, because I then had no confidence in having faith that I was saved. I thought, maybe I didn’t say the words of the Sinner’s Prayer right and needed to do it again and really mean it from the deepest depths of my heart. I surely didn’t want to go to hell. Everyone in the congregation believed in “once saved, always saved”: once you were saved, you were good to go. I wondered if that was all there was to it, and I was confused about what being “saved” was. I had serious issues with just simply saying the Sinner’s Prayer.
Again, even though we taught salvation by faith alone, every sermon was about avoiding sin and doing good works. If my ticket was already punched, then the dilemma in my mind was that, if I were already going to heaven, it didn’t matter what I did or how I lived my life. If all I have to do is profess Christ and say the Sinner’s Prayer with a repentant heart, then I’m literally good to go. It was more of a transaction than a transformation, and that caused me a lot of consternation.
It didn’t square with Christ saying: “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21). My experience of the doctrine of “faith alone” and saying the Sinner’s Prayer left me with deep questions. I struggled to reconcile it with Scripture itself in light of James’ letter: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas 2:24).
Grape Juice and Crackers
One of my most nagging doubts, in light of the New Testament and the Old Testament clearly mentioning wine, was why we used grape juice and crackers. In the Bible, wine is mentioned 240 times. Our church went to great lengths to convey that communion was “just a symbol,” nothing more. But Paul writes to the Corinthians: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27). If it’s only a symbol and not real and nothing more, then I’m not sure how this squares with Scripture. You can’t be guilty of profaning “just a symbol” that isn’t really real. The partaking of a symbol unworthily would be, at worst, just another symbolic act that isn’t really real. Not to mention that Christ responded to His disciples’ disputes on “eating his flesh”: “so Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed’” (Jn 6:52-55). If it’s just a symbol, then it should be no big deal.
It was at this point that I began to have more in-depth questions about communion — never mind the strange idea that something “symbolic only” isn’t really real. It seemed like a lot of effort was put into making sure that we knew that it was only a symbol and nothing more, but it didn’t explain why Christ would leave us with just a symbol that wasn’t for real. In contrast, miracles were all over the Scriptures, throughout both the Old and New Testaments, and whatever Christ said became real. These and other questions plagued me to the point of despair. It must all make sense, but things just were not adding up for me.
In the same vein, if Baptism was only symbolic and not real, why did we make such a big deal and fanfare out of performing baptisms? Scripture says, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 3:21). If Baptism was just a symbolic profession of faith and didn’t really save you, then this verse completely contradicted it.
Unanswered Questions and Anti- Intellectualism
The questions that troubled me were met by people telling me that I just “needed to have faith,” and that faith was a feeling, not in your head but in your heart. It was presented to me that faith was a knowledge found in the heart. I didn’t deny that is partly true, because French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal famously said that the “heart has its reasons of which reason knows not.” I had honest, heartfelt, and sincere questions, however, and no one had satisfying answers. I felt quite alone, because my questions obviously bothered other believers. I thought maybe I should just stop asking questions. I thought that, if God created us with both a soul and an intellect, then faith as humankind’s response to God should make sense to both the head and the heart. I wholeheartedly identified with the father in Mark 9:24: “Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (emphasis added).
Atheism and Agnosticism
When I graduated from high school and moved on to college in North Georgia about an hour outside of Atlanta, I developed a sense of not believing in God at all, because the idea of salvation by “faith alone” didn’t make any sense to me, comparing it withScripture, nor did symbolic only Baptism and communion and the understanding that the spiritual was “good” and the material was “bad.” I was unaware of other versions of Christianity at the time and didn’t look into any other churches. While working at Home Depot during the summer, though, I met a pastor from upstate New York. I had a series of conversations with him about faith and reason, and he challenged me. I ended up reading Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict and an atheist turned Anglican, C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. These two books were turning points in my faith development, because they spoke to me from a skeptical, thinking man’s perspective. I saw the incoherent nature of atheism. You cannot logically maintain the “positive-negative” of atheism. Atheism was a dead-end, and agnosticism was the only intellectually-honest form of lacking a belief in God.
Seeds of Catholicism
In 2004, I had the opportunity to see some 15th and 16th-century Catholic churches in the Spanish colonial style, and the very first Catholic church that I ever set foot in was the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City where the Virgin had appeared. It was an interesting experience at the time but I didn’t pursue it further. I attended my first Catholic Mass during another study abroad experience in Mexico and it did plant somewhat of a seed in my mind. I was interested enough to take a few RCIA classes when I got back to the United States to find out more about what Catholics actually believed between my two study abroad experiences in Mexico.
God Exists! So, What About Other Religions?
Now that I had established a firm belief that God existed. I began to examine what other faiths might have to offer if I were going to be intellectually honest and follow the truth at all costs. In that case, I couldn’t just blindly accept a “tradition” of Christianity that had been handed down to me and de- cided to do some research for myself. I began to study Buddhism and Islam. In Buddhism, I learned about the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. But I didn’t feel that achieving Nirvana by breaking the cycle of desire (desire causes suffering) ultimately answered the questions I had. Creation exists; therefore, there must be an ultimate Creator. Buddhism didn’t have that.
Islam had answers to the questions to some doubts that I had as a Baptist, such as the Trinity. This was an attractive concept, because it seemed in line with the faith of Abraham and Moses, as Deuteronomy 6:4 says: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.” Christians and Muslims taken together comprise almost half of the world’s population. So, there must be something special about Christ if both Christians and Muslims believe that He is coming again. Muslims hold Mary in high esteem as there is an entire chapter dedicated to her in the Quran. I was intrigued by the bodily component of worship in Islam, where the faithful prayed in prostration, placing one’s head on the ground in submission to God. Still, I had no answers as to why Christian worship didn’t involve the body, since we will be resurrected in our bodies. The physical component of prayer and regular organized daily prayer pattern in Islam made sense to me. The absolute oneness of God made sense to me as well and the call to prayer was beautiful. Islam seemed like an ancient faith and a very simple one because it was 5 pillars: a profession of faith, fasting, prayer, almsgiving, and a pilgrimage to Mecca. So, I made my profession of faith and became a Muslim. I was graduating from college around this time, and it was time to move on.
Prayer For Truth … My “Aha!” Moment
After a couple of years of researching other religions and after a year and a half of being Muslim, I was in deep spiritual and mental despair of finding the truth. I began to wonder why in Islam, Christ was coming again at the end of time if He was only a prophet. Why was it Christ? He is called the “spirit of God” and the “word of God” (obvious parallel here with John 1:1) in the Quran. At this point, I was being spiritually torn between Islam and Christianity. Christianity had Jesus as more than a prophet and Islam had the physical prayers. Keep in mind that the only Christianity that I knew personally was “once saved, always saved” and not
much else. I had been searching for many years to find a faith that made sense to the head and the heart. Was there no faith that made sense? In one final effort, I prayed to the Lord that He would just show me the truth. The next morning, I got up, and as I was having my coffee, I saw a video on YouTube. It was part of a BBC documentary about ancient Christianity. I watched it and saw monks in a Coptic Orthodox Christian monastery in Egypt praying by prostrating and putting their heads to the ground. This was the same prayer method that I had seen Muslims and Buddhists use. So, Christians did pray this way after all! This was my big “aha!” moment. I decided to check out my local Coptic Orthodox Church, where I learned that St. Mark the Evangelist had founded the Church in Alexandria, Egypt.
I pulled up in the parking lot of the local Coptic church on a Sunday morning and walked in. As soon as I arrived, I heard chanting in a mixture of Arabic, Coptic, and English. There were icons, candles, and lots of incense. People were bowing, and they were making the sign of the cross. It seemed like a representation of heaven on earth. I knew I was home! I wish I had know that this existed; it would have saved me so many headaches.
An Egyptian lady came by and helped me understand what was going on in the liturgy, and another lady, working as a greeter at the church, asked me if I had ever tried out the Catholic Church, because they taught similar doctrines. That conversation planted a seed in my mind — I had never given the Catholic Church a fair shake. I had heard that some Catholics were “saved,” not because of the Catholic Church, but despite it. All I knew is that they had some “unbiblical” doctrines, and it had been portrayed to me as a bad, evil, dark place to be. But after all, Rome was one of the five ancient sees of Christianity, according to the Orthodox. I was, however, enamored with Eastern Orthodox liturgy. After all the searching I had done, and my prayer had been answered, there was no going back.
Reception into the Orthodox Church
The priest recommended that I read Becoming Orthodox by Fr. Peter Gillquist. He was part of the Campus Crusade for Christ back in the 1970s. Soon afterwards, I was chrismated (confirmed) into the Orthodox Church in America and received Christ in the Eucharist for the first time in 2009.
But I couldn’t dismiss Catholicism completely, since the Orthodox did see the Bishop of Rome as the first among equals. Shortly after I became Orthodox, I went to a Romanian Orthodox church. A lady there also wondered why I hadn’t tried the Catholic Church. This kept popping up in my interactions with Orthodox Christians. They kept recommending that I go to a Catholic church, pointing out that they had all the sacraments.
In the summer of 2009, I packed up and moved to Houston, Texas to work on my Master’s degree. I began attending an Orthodox church there, and while I loved it, I found it challenging to fit in culturally. I began to wonder if I shouldn’t actually check out the Catholic Church, since the meaning of the word catholic is “universal.” That word is in the Nicene Creed and was mentioned by Ignatius of Antioch in ad 107 in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans. I scheduled an appointment with the Catholic priest at the university. He suggested that I read Scott Hahn’s Rome Sweet Home, so I did. Dr. Scott Hahn addressed many of the issues that I had long been questioning. For example, the most profound thing that struck me in his book was the fact that the Bible never says that Scripture is the “pillar and foundation of truth.” Instead, in 1 Timothy 3:15, we see that it is the Church that is the “pillar and foundation of truth.” He was able to explain that sola fide is unworkable and isn’t actually in the Bible. This was a huge relief to me, because sola fide never made sense to me. I always knew that the faith had to be more than just a mental transaction. But I was very reluctant to convert to the Catholic Church, because it was supposed to be this medieval, dark, evil place. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church had all seven sacraments, just like the Orthodox. I found out there were 23 different sui juris Churches in the Catholic Church, and many of them were in Eastern Europe and the Middle East and had the same liturgies as the Orthodox!
So, I decided to become Catholic. I was received directly into the Church through a profession of faith at a local Mass. Finally, I could embrace all five ancient sees of Christianity by coming into full communion with Rome.
Not long after I became Orthodox, and then Catholic, at age 26, I began to drift
away, because I really didn’t connect into a parish. I had some difficulties, questioning why I became Catholic, because it seemed weird. Why Catholic? I started to push Catholicism aside, despite the answers that I had found. It was literally the last place I had looked for an answer. I also began to think about what was so wrong with me, that I couldn’t just be like all of my family and go to a “regular church.” I thought to myself, why make life difficult? And I went through a period of about three or four years where I just drifted through life, not taking my faith seriously, because I wasn’t sure how to live it out. I got married and divorced after two years and moved back closer to family near my hometown in north Georgia. Not long after, I met a wonderful woman, Jessalyn, who is now my wife.
A Gem Recovered
A few months into my marriage to Jessalyn, I began to really think about what I had thrown away. After all that I had researched and prayed for, I had just stiff-armed Catholicism, so that I could be “normal” like everyone else in my family. But with many questions and many strange coincidences to get to this point, I couldn’t just throw it away. I had to get it back. I told my wife my situation, and she agreed and was amenable to going to my church. I was comfortable with both Orthodoxy and Catholicism, and we went to a Greek Orthodox church for about a year and a half. My wife almost became Orthodox. But she brought up a point that I had considered several years earlier and brushed aside. Culturally, it was challenging to fit in completely. I can’t solve what the Orthodox and Catholics have not been able to reconcile after the Schism of 1054.
I decided to give Catholicism another go and returned to the Church. It was the last place that I thought I’d end up. In the end, reading Vladimir Soloviev’s Russia and the Universal Church was compelling enough to choose to be in communion with Rome. What ultimately compelled me to return was his push for unity and reconciliation with Rome, because Soloviev argued that it was impossible to be truly universal without the office of the papacy. The East needed the West as much as the West needed the East.
Jessalyn went through RCIA and decided to join the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2018. Both of us have been Catholic ever since. We had our marriage convalidated after I received an annulment for my previous marriage outside of the Church for lack of canonical form. We took a trip to Rome, visited all four basilicas in the Eternal City and got to see some other unique historical sites in the churches of Rome. It was surreal standing in Saint Peter’s Square looking at the basilica built on the tomb of Saint Peter, according to the words of Christ’s promise: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). The Church may have been through some stormy seas, but it remains afloat today, capable of uniting Christians worldwide and speaking with a unified voice. The universality of the Church made an impression on me.
My story has a few twists and turns, but I am thankful to God that I made it here. I am thankful for the gift of faith I received in the Baptist church and the gift of an awareness of early, apostolic Christian faith in Eastern Orthodoxy, along with robust, intellec- tual answers to my questions in the Catholic Church. I am also thankful for the hospitality of Muslims whose pattern of prayer gave me awareness of the unity of the physical and the spiritual. I am thankful to God for all of these experiences, good and bad, which ultimately brought me to where I am, in communion with Rome and in the universal Church of the saints that have come before us.