Faith of Our Fathers, Holy Faith!
Music has always been an essential part of my spiritual life. I was born into a heritage of Christian faith that goes back many generations. Magnificent hymns, such as “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and “It Is Well With My Soul,” carved their way into the heart of my family culture. As a child and teenager, I spent many hours listening to music, singing and dancing with my grandfathers, both of whom were talented musicians. I danced when my maternal grandfather played “I’ll Fly Away” on his banjo and listened with wonder as my paternal grandfather introduced me to Handel’s “Messiah.” Both my mom and dad came to a place in their lives where they had made their fathers’ faith their own, and they passed that faith on to me and my two younger brothers.
Unlike many Protestants, I never had a specific moment when I said a sinner’s prayer and became saved. I’m sure there were times in junior high when I went to the front after an altar call at youth camp, but from a very young age, I have had faith. I was given the incredible grace to have loved Jesus ever since I could sing or say His Name. We grew up in a very tight-knit family unit, with aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins all attending our conservative Baptist church on a weekly basis. We were all involved in children’s and youth programs, while the adults assumed leadership in the church.
As a youth, my dad had a subscription to a magazine called Christian History, and he would read stories to me about missionaries and historical figures who traveled to distant places around the world, spreading the gospel and changing history through courageous acts. This is where I heard about Jim and Elisabeth Elliot for the first time. I heard of their incredible acts of sacrifice to bring the gospel to native people in Ecuador and was transfixed. Throughout junior high and high school, I spent many hours reading their stories and others like it.All those lives you changed by giving such a joyful answer to your faith, that’s what I’m going to do, Grandpa! Click To Tweet
When I was 17 years old, I was called out of class one day and told that my parents were taking me to see my Grandpa Bell one last time. He was a pastor and minister to international students in local universities. The work my grandparents did with students and the care they provided to those under their wings had a huge impact on me. At almost every family event, there were people from many parts of the world, including Egypt, China, and Germany. I saw the joy on his face when he talked about Scripture and sang his favorite hymns. As he lay dying of stomach cancer, the last thing I said to him was, “All those lives you changed by giving such a joyful answer to your faith, that’s what I’m going to do, Grandpa!” That was the beginning of a call to ministry that God had placed on my life, and it sparked a flame in my heart to seek out ways to spread the good news, just as my grandpa had done.
Anywhere With Jesus, I Can Safely Go
After I graduated from high school in 1995, I already had three international trips under my belt, including two short-term mission trips to western Europe. My calling for missions and enthusiasm for travel were in full bloom as I entered a Christian university about an hour away from where I grew up. I had the expectation that, as soon as I said “Yes” to the call God had placed on my life for missions, I would just show up to college and it would all be laid out for me. What classes I should take, what major I would choose, what kind of work I would obtain, it would all just somehow magically appear. It seemed so easy for all those missionaries that I had read about! But it wasn’t as easy as that. The school I chose to attend was, at the time, still a very traditional Assemblies of God institution, which is Pentecostal. From the beginning and until the very end of my college career, in class or in chapel, I constantly heard about receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit and how speaking in tongues proved that one had received the Holy Spirit.
The first problem I had is that I came from a church culture where even the raising of hands in worship was frowned upon. Secondly, I had absolutely no clue what speaking in tongues looked like in a modern-day church. I had always been taught that speaking in tongues was for the Apostles only, and only on the day of Pentecost. This private prayer language thing was a complete mystery to me. Thirdly, as a Baptist, I believed in “once saved, always saved.” Whether or not it was the official doctrine of the Assemblies of God at that time, I don’t know. What I heard as a naïve, idealistic college kid is that if I had not received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, I was not saved. I would have to walk this tightrope of salvation until I received that baptism. Then, and only then, would my eternity be secure.
The first two years of college, I wavered back and forth on my major. I spent many hours in chapel or in my room, on my knees or with my hands in the air, begging, pleading to God to give me that baptism of the Holy Spirit. I can remember crying out to Him, saying, “If this is what it means to be saved, then save me! That is all I want!”
At the end of my sophomore year in college, I took a compulsory class called Pentecostal Doctrine. I was hoping that, somehow, I would find the answers that I had been seeking for those two years. I was terrified that the question of my salvation would still be up in the air. I sat in the front the whole semester, peppering my professor with questions that he couldn’t seem to answer. I walked away from that class more confused than ever, asking two very important questions that marked a turning point in my faith journey. These questions would eventually lead me out of evangelical Protestantism.The first question had to do with authority regarding correct interpretation of Scripture: Is there any one person or denomination who has more authority than all others to interpret Scripture correctly? Click To Tweet
The first question had to do with authority regarding correct interpretation of Scripture: Is there any one person or denomination who has more authority than all others to interpret Scripture correctly? After all, there were huge differences between my Baptist upbringing and the things I was learning at my Assemblies of God school. The second question had to do with salvation, and it got to the heart of the matter for me: Who has the right to tell me that I’m saved or not saved? By what standard might the status of one’s salvation be determined?The second question had to do with salvation, and it got to the heart of the matter for me: Who has the right to tell me that I’m saved or not saved? Click To Tweet
At the beginning of my junior year, I was fortunate enough to make friends with people who had similar questions as I did and who were willing to talk about those questions openly. Somehow, we discovered a book by Mark Shea, called By What Authority? While reading that book, I learned about problems with sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), and it was the first time that I thought about the origin of the Bible. I was convinced that Mark Shea was on the right track, but it didn’t change the trajectory of my life over the next several years. I was determined to be a world-changing missionary like I promised my grandpa. Despite the lingering questions, I pursued my dream and graduated with a Bachelors in Ministry and Missions in 1999. My senior project was a paper about my strategic ministry aspirations to travel to Paris and convert Catholics in that city! After two years of traveling and discerning, I became the first full-time, home-grown missionary from my home church, commissioned and sent to spread the gospel in Latvia and throughout north central Europe. I spent several summers there directing camps and mentoring college kids in leadership. Eventually, I moved to Latvia full time.
When Sorrows Like Sea Billows Roll
After living in Latvia full time for about a year, I received a letter from the government. My request to stay and live there was denied. I had two weeks to get out of the country, and I couldn’t return to Latvia for two years. I packed up all my things and said goodbye. About two weeks after moving back to the US, I received a call from my home church stating that they could no longer support me financially. I was crushed, absolutely grief-stricken. I was 26 years old, living in my parent’s house, my lifelong dream of being a missionary taken away from me, and my home church — the church that I was raised in — didn’t feel like home any more.
After a few months, still reeling from grief at the loss of a vocation, I enrolled in Fuller Seminary’s satellite school in Seattle, near my place of residence at the time. I wasn’t sure what I was going to accomplish, but I was hoping for the opportunity for more time to discern what my next step would be. I didn’t realize that the questions I’d had in college were going to return full force.
I studied systematic theology and church history concurrently, three terms in a row. The theology classes were simply surveys of different Christian systems of the meaning of faith. The initial question of my personal salvation, whether secured or not, became much more convoluted and unclear, and it was difficult to see how I could love Jesus and find a church where I was comfortable with their theology. It also seemed like my question of authority in interpreting scripture was never going to be resolved, because every denomination and denominational head had a different answer! Luther had his answer; Calvin had his. The Baptists had their own set of ideas!
By the end of 2005, I could feel my faith going into a tailspin. I loved Jesus, and I had made that promise to my grandpa, but I still had no answers on how I was going to fulfill my promise. I had a multitude of questions — questions I wrestled with, questions I tried to ignore, questions I tried to overlook, but just couldn’t. I walked away from that year angry. I was angry with God for taking my vocation away. I was angry at myself for being so naïve and idealistic, and I was angry with the church. Studying all those different systems of belief made it clear to me how, as a Christian, one can walk through the cafeteria of Christian beliefs, pick and choose whichever part of whatever system happens to soothe the soul or be relevant at any given moment. Then that person can do the same thing again the next day and choose something different. I knew that I had been guilty of doing that. Was there a remedy to subjective Christianity?
I walked away from my work in the Christian world. I started working for our family business again and gave up my quest to find answers to my questions. I was tired, I was depressed, and I was angry at everyone and everything. I spent the next few years wandering in and out of different churches and faith communities, never finding what I was looking for. I was done with Evangelicalism. I finally just adopted a “Jesus and me” mentality and wandered even further into the abyss of my own sin and darkness.
The song “Draw Me Close to You” by Michael W. Smith was one of those songs that I had sung over and over again at camps as a young adult in the mission field, in church, with the radio, even with my Walkman! It encapsulated that time in my life so well because it expressed my earnest desire to love and serve God with my whole heart and my sincere hope of finding the answer to the question of my salvation. But the song also came to me in the middle of the night, in my darkest times, along with all those old hymns I learned from my grandfathers. When I was at my worst, crying on the bathroom floor, the phrase, “You’re all I want. Help me know you are near…” played on repeat in my head, becoming a tiny, feeble prayer. I held on to that little scrap of love for Him which seemed to exist only in that song. I couldn’t sing the first part though, “Draw me close to you, never let me go,” because I had fallen so far from Him. I was so ashamed of my sin that I didn’t dare ask Him for that. I was still single, now in my early thirties, and it seemed as if those times as a college student and young adult when I had fervently raised my hands in the air, singing, “I lay it all down again, to hear you say that I’m your friend,” had all come to naught. I didn’t know if Jesus would ever answer my prayer, “draw me close to you.” I spent a few more years working and living in a deep depression.
Draw Me Close to You; Never Let Me Go.
On June 28th, 2010, I met my husband. One of the first questions I asked him on our first date was, “What do you do for fun?” In what I found to be an adorable Mexican accent, he said, “On Saturday night I go to church to visit with my God.” I was delighted to find a man who actually wanted to go to church but dismayed to discover that his church was Catholic! Still, the way we met was such divine intervention, we both knew from the beginning that this was it. For that reason, we decided that we should find a church to attend together. We cycled through a few of my old Protestant churches from years before, but those just weren’t the right fit.
Fernando took me to his Spanish Mass on a Saturday night, about three months after we started dating. I had never been to a Mass before. I didn’t know Spanish. And I certainly didn’t understand all the holy aerobics! Even though I didn’t understand the language or what the Mass was about, Jesus met me there, and I experienced Him in a way that I never had before. Since I am short and vision impaired, I like to sit near the front so I can see what’s going on. What I didn’t realize until much later is that I was sitting right next to the Tabernacle, where the Real Presence of Jesus resides! Over the next year and a half, we dated and eventually became engaged. During this time, we attended Mass regularly together, and I began to do some research into the Catholic Church. My experience of sitting next to Christ in the Tabernacle every week began to break down some fortifications I had built up in my heart, and I began to hope that He was, in fact, drawing me closer to Him. By the time we were married, I was ready to take the next step. The day after we returned from our honeymoon, I entered RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults).I am short and vision impaired, I like to sit near the front so I can see what’s going on. What I didn’t realize until much later is that I was sitting right next to the Tabernacle, where the Real Presence of Jesus resides! Click To Tweet
Over the next several months in RCIA, I felt that I had completed one of the most important legs of my intellectual journey into the Church, a journey that had begun many years earlier. My questions about the nature of salvation, Church authority and the role of Scripture in the scope of the whole of Divine Revelation was answered in those sessions. I began to understand the need for Tradition and apostolic authority to preserve correct interpretation of Scripture. I made the wonderful discovery that there are thousands of saints and witnesses that have gone before me, saints who struggled with the same kinds of questions that I had.I began to understand the need for Tradition and apostolic authority to preserve correct interpretation of Scripture. Click To Tweet
My cousin, Shannon Kurtz, appeared on the Journey Home right around the time I entered the Church. I had had a candid conversation with her a few years before about my questions when she was visiting from Illinois. Then, not having spoken to her for a few years, she randomly sent me an e-mail with a link to her show, about a week before I entered the church. We immediately connected via phone, and we both cried many happy tears! Since then, The Coming Home Network International and its The Journey Home television program on EWTN have always had a special place in my heart. This apostolate demonstrates that conversion begets conversion.
Benedictus Fructus Ventris tui, Iesus.
About this time, my sponsor introduced me to the prayer known as the Rosary. It was during the last weeks of Lent that I asked the Lord about it, and I expressed my hesitation about praying to Mary. The message I received was, “Why don’t you talk to her and find out for yourself?” So that’s what I did. I started out slow, one Hail Mary at a time, and it wasn’t long afterwards that I learned to love Mary and pray the Rosary often. In fact, it was at this time that I realized that she had answered a prayer that I totally forgot that I had prayed! When I was taking voice lessons in high school, my voice teacher wanted me to learn how to sing in Latin to practice my technique. As soon as she introduced me to it, I loved it. I went to the music store to find all the chant and polyphonic music I could find.
One CD that I found had Schubert’s “Ave Maria” on it. The first time I heard it, it made me cry, and after that I couldn’t stop listening to it. I memorized all the words, and even though I didn’t understand the full meaning of the English translation, I knew that it was probably sacrilegious and wrong for a little Baptist girl to be singing Ave Maria! But I couldn’t stop myself. For a period of several months, every time I was alone in the house, I would lock myself in the bathroom, turn the shower on full blast and sing at the top of my lungs! It was in those last days before I entered the Church that I realized Mary was there all along, drawing me in, protecting me, so that the deepest cry of my heart would be answered: to draw close to Jesus and know His salvation.
Teach Us Through This Holy Banquet, How to Make Love’s Victory Known
The night I took my place at the holy banquet finally came at the Easter Vigil, March 30th, 2013. At the beginning of the three-hour vigil, I began to feel very thirsty, and as the night went on, even after I was baptized, it felt like I had a mouthful of cotton, and I was quite uncomfortable. Finally, the moment I had been longing for — my first Eucharist — arrived. I received Jesus for the first time in the Most Blessed Sacrament. Not only did He draw close to me in a spiritual and emotional way, but He was physically there — I didn’t just see Him raised up at the Consecration, but actually consumed Him! It was amazing, but I was still thirsty. Then I received the Precious Blood from the cup. In that very moment, my terrible thirst was gone. I knew that if I kept coming back to this place, to this Eucharistic banquet, I would never be thirsty again. All my longings, all my questions, all my hesitations were gone.
After I received the Sacraments at the vigil, I was left with a fire in my heart. There was a physical, Emmaus-Road burning in my chest, and I was thirsty for more knowledge, more understanding, so I picked up the dictionary-sized Catechism of the Catholic Church and read the whole thing in less than three months! There was something extraordinary about reading what you already know to be true, and yet the Holy Spirit confirms it in the pages of a book. All the answers to my difficult questions were given daily while reading. It was also around that time that my ache for knowledge included a desire to re-read the Scripture from a Catholic point of view. In 2014, I started my Master of Arts program in Biblical Theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University online. It was the perfect place for me; it assuaged the burning in my chest, and I fell in love with Scripture again.
Despite my new love for the Catholic faith and my theological studies, in 2016, at the age of 40, symptoms of my undiagnosed mental illness became difficult to control during a stressful time in our marriage. By God’s grace and Mary’s intervention, I was able to find a doctor who would give me some official diagnoses and a plan to get healthy again. Unfortunately, part of this plan meant that I would have to come to grips with abuse from my past. Again, I found myself on my knees on the bathroom floor, singing that song, “Draw me close to you, never let me go…” But this time, I had the grace to get up and run to that banquet table, and Jesus answered my prayer with the gift of His Body and through the lyrics of a song, “I lay it all down again, to hear you say that I’m your friend.”
During this difficult time, a priest was kind enough to administer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick before I started my intense EMDR treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it was life changing.My painting art allows me to fulfill the promise I made to my grandfather that day, to change the world by giving a colorful and joyful answer for my salvation. Click To Tweet
Over the next few years, I would make strides in my own healing by growing in my Catholic Faith and my artistic expression. After many stops and starts, I graduated from John Paul the Great in 2018. My painting art allows me to fulfill the promise I made to my grandfather that day, to change the world by giving a colorful and joyful answer for my salvation.
I can also say with confidence and faith that Jesus continues to answer that deepest song-prayer of my heart:
[Draw me close to you, Never let me go
I lay it all down again, To hear you say that I’m your friend
You are my desire, No one else will do
Nothing else can take your place
To feel the warmth of your embrace
Help me find the way, Bring me back to you
You’re all I want, You’re all I’ve ever needed
You’re all I want, Help me know you are near
(Smith, M. W. (Performer). (2001). Worship. Reunion Records, Franklin, Tennessee, USA)]