Saturday, December 29, 2007

My Faith Story

Growing up, my family didn't attend church or talk about God. It was a non-issue. My mom did put out a nativity scene at Christmas but that only served to confuse things for me. I wondered "If Jesus is God, then who made Joseph and Mary?". I thought Joseph was Jesus’ father and I wondered how his son could be the creator of the world if Mary and he existed before Jesus did.

My best friend from ages 4 -12 was a Roman Catholic. If I spent the night at their house on Saturday, I would go to church with them on Sunday. I remember thinking it was boring. My grandmother married into the United Church of Christ. My family would attend her church on Christmas and Easter from time to time, as my mom's 2nd cousin was the pastor there. I remember thinking that the liturgy was boring and the sermons were much too informal compared to the Roman Catholic church. The pastor was humorous and laughing in God's presence seemed wrong to me. My best friend from 12-14 attended a Baptist church. I think it might have been Southern Baptist, but I can't say for sure. I remember thinking it was far more interesting than the other two churches and the hymns seemed more understandable to me. Perhaps they were contained more human sentiment than scripture.. but I'm just speculating. I willingly went to church with friends because I wanted to please God. I figured going was better than not going. I wanted to stay on God’s good side.

In case you're wondering, I was baptized by an Army Chaplin in Hawaii in 1973. I have no idea from what tradition he was because the baby book containing my birth certificate is missing. March 31st, 1989 was a turning point for me. We were on a family camping trip 1200 miles from home. We were staying in a State Park that had tricky reservation policies. You either had to go to the county courthouse in-person, or to the campground in-person to make reservations. My step-father's college buddy had moved to that county so he made our reservations for us every year. Due to these policies, it was rare to meet an out-of-state visitor while camping there but this year was different.

When we first arrived at the park, I headed for the restroom. There I met a girl who was from a town just 10 miles from my own and was classmates with two of my ex-boyfriends. After our brief introduction in the bathroom, I returned to my campsite not knowing what site she was staying in. The next day I was mailing a postcard to one of the guys we both knew and I wanted say that I had met her, but I didn't know her name. Somehow, I walked straight to her RV, knocked on the door and asked "Is the girl with the red hair here?". (The Holy Spirit led me, perhaps? Hmm!)

She and I spoke for a while... long story short, she asked me if I had ever asked Jesus into my heart. I said "no.". She asked "Do you want to?" to which I replied "sure.” with a shrug. I had nothing against God. She and her mother offered to lead me in prayer. We joined hands and I repeated their prayer, but only silently. At the end of the prayer, before we lifted our heads, a thought entered my mind "I wonder if this is what it means to be born again?". We then released hands and looked up and the girl's mother said to me "This means you're born again!". I was totally floored because it was like she was reading my mind. I instantly felt different and it lasted for weeks. The new feeling was accompanied by an inceptive interest in God and the Bible and a desire to do good deeds.

Upon returning to school a week or so later, I learned that the guy who sat next to me in my art class went to the same church as the girl I met on vacation. I began attending youth group with them; his father drove us. There I was introduced to a myriad of doctrines from charismatic gifts to sin and grace through Jesus death. I was also exposed to contemporary worship including the raising of hands and clapping. It wasn't the "dead and boring" stuff I was exposed to as a kid and I responded to it instantly. During those first few months it seemed that I day didn't go by where I didn't learn something new, and a moment didn't pass where God wasn't at the front of my mind. Amidst the charismatic emphasis on speaking in tongues and whatnot, I did manage to come to an understanding that I needed to repent and that I needed a savior and I prayed for forgiveness without being led by someone else. In November of that year I was re-baptized (a “believer's baptism”).

The first few years I took things as they came. Everything was new to me. I was enchanted by this baptism of the Holy Spirit that was spoken of all the time and I sought this experience with a passion. I went anywhere that any "powerful minister" was going to be. Whole rooms full of believers would be "slain in the spirit" and I'd be the only person standing and I'd ask God why. I wanted whatever he had for me and I couldn't understand why I couldn't get this other baptism and the gift of tongues. I was told to receive it by faith and just start speaking (gibberish) and it would come. Testing God didn’t feel right so I was reluctant to “speak forth in faith”.

The church I attended was in a state of flux. They were moving towards the prosperity gospel and were going through a pastor change and a growth spurt. I didn't notice the change in youth group, but after getting my driver's license and starting to attend on Sundays, I was exposed to the "Name it and Claim it" mindset creeping in. About the same time, I also had a new boyfriend who was much deeper into the prosperity gospel and I began going to church with him. This period really put my "faith" to the test and I failed miserably. Nothing I spoke or claimed ever came to be. Within a few months I determined that this was just turning faith into a work. With this belief I didn't need God anymore because if I had enough faith in my faith, then I could get whatever I wanted. And, never would I have tried to speak justification, sanctification or salvation into existence. Speaking and claiming was always about selfish material gain or personal success. It was never about piety, clothing and feeding the poor, caring for widows and orphans or about God forgiving us as we forgive others. This wasn't the Gospel of the bible, it wasn't even close. It took me years to really come to understand this.

Over the next few years I continued to bounce around from one non-denominational church to another. I was convinced that lively worship was the only kind of worship where your heart couldn't be far from your lips and that all "hymnbook churches" were dead. I figured that people attended them because they were raised in them and thought they were pleasing God, but they really didn't know Jesus or worship him. It was just a perfunctory Sunday routine. Even my own grandmother was convinced that she was going to heaven because she was a good person. That wasn't the Gospel. While I loved contemporary worship, I had also come to the conclusion that charismatic gifts were grossly misunderstood and I stopped seeking them.

In 1996, I met the man who would become my husband. We worked together. One day I went to his desk for something and he was reading a bible. When I returned to my desk I sent him an email that said "So, you're my brother!?" and the rest is history. We began dating within weeks. He was raised a WELS Lutheran. I visited his church with him and experienced a "common service" and unpadded pews. I was bored to tears and told him I could never sit through that again. He visited my flavor-of-the-year charismatic church and told me that it was a circus. In my Christian concert goings and bible-study-hoppings I had become familiar with a moderate LCMS church. We visited together and decided to take their membership class. Part way through the class we got engaged and we were eventually married there. Within weeks of the wedding, the church opened up their new "Worship Center". It had stadium seating and the alter was up on a stage.

We hadn't quite noticed, but for months things had been slowly changing from semi-liturgical to more contemporary. With the opening of the worship center came new worship practices. We had a full worship band up on the stage with colored/gelled spotlights and big screens where the words were projected... just like any other non-denominational church. Over the next 8 years they grew into a fully contemporary mega-church. We never followed the lectionary but the sermons were pretty good. I referred to myself as a Christian who attended a Lutheran Church. I never considered myself to be a Lutheran.

In 2005 I gave birth to our daughter. She was born with a rare genetic kidney disorder called Bartter's Syndrome. As a result of the kidney disease, when she would get common illnesses, she always had to be hospitalized. Once she was big enough to walk, we found it darn near impossible to get anything out of church and putting her in the nursery was out of the question. Every time we put her in, she would end up being hospitalized. We became shut-ins.

Since my daughter and I were essentially living in a bubble while my husband went to work, I made friendships on the internet to keep myself from going stir-crazy. In the summer of 2007, one of my respected internet friends converted from Presbyterian to Eastern Orthodoxy. This threw me for a loop. I had always regarded Eastern Orthodoxy to be the same as Roman Catholic with a slightly different calendar. Also, I had always regarded my friend to be a thinker and a staunch Protestant and Calvinist. She too had had a bit of a charismatic phase in her past. I couldn't figure what on earth would be drawing her to such an ethnic, rote and antiquated expression of faith.

I began scouring the internet for accounts of Eastern Orthodox people turning to Lutheranism, but I found only accounts of Lutherans heading east. In my internet searches I found accounts of John Fenton's conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy. Also, at the same time, I turned to my husband's Book of Concord to look for some protestant faith of antiquity because I knew Rome wasn't for me. I'm not sure which parts of the Book of Concord I read because I skipped around. The most significant change was that I became convinced that the Body and Blood of Christ were truly present at communion. I had never believed that before. Now, I couldn't wait to take communion again! It had been nearly 2 years since the last time we had been to church. I found a church near me that offered communion every week and made plans to visit it someday soon.

In September of 2007, our daughter was having some health complications with a persistant duodenal ulcer and was hospitalized for 25 days. In the midst of her stay, had to have g-tube surgery done. The church I wanted to visit was only about 4 miles from the hospital. The Sunday before her surgery I attended that LCMS church because I knew I could count on them having communion. That day I was introduced to the Divine Liturgy of the Tridentine Mass. But, this was different the Roman Catholic church. It wasn't solemn, but it was exceedingly reverent. People bowed at the name of Jesus and the mention of the Trinity. I was overcome by the stark difference between this and our church. I knelt in church for the first time in decades and it felt so right. Then, when we got to communion, the bulletin said that you're not a member, you can't take communion until you've spoken with the pastor. At this news I lost it. I was sobbing uncontrollably. I wanted the Body and Blood and I had come there that reason alone and now I wasn't going to get it? A woman saw me crying and came over to me. When I told her why I was upset, she told me to go up, but to keep my head down and the pastor would bless me. I did as she said but the pastor bent down and said "Do you want communion or...", and I said "Yes but..." and he said "Are you Lutheran?" and I said "Yes" and he stuck a wafer in my mouth. O rapture! The body of Christ at last!

I honestly can’t explain what happened to me that day. For nearly 20 years I had detested “hymnbook churches” for their perfunctory format and lifeless worship. I abhorred the lectionary, paraments and vestments and their seasonal colors, call & response, and the stand-up, sit-down, kneel, repeat. I don’t know why this time was different. There was just something about it. The fear of God and adoration perhaps. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe it isn’t just one thing, but everything. Now I just can’t get enough of it.

I have attended this church nearly every Sunday since that day. I've only missed once due to a snow storm. I'm learning first hand how rich the liturgy is, and that hymns are rich as well. I'm getting a handle on the proper balance between law and gospel. I’m seeing the big picture of the bible more clearly and I’m understanding scripture with more continuity. I'm starving for catechesis! I'm reading like there's no tomorrow. I've always got my nose in something from the church fathers to "Why I am a Lutheran" by Daniel Preus. I want somebody to go through the Book of Concord with me. I'm keeping up with a handful of blogs. I'm asking questions to whoever has the answers. I plan to start posting some of them here. Thanks for reading. :)


Paul T. McCain said...

A blessed and happy New Year to you and your family.

I was very interested to read your story of your journey in the Faith; and particularly intrigued by your account of becoming convinced of the actual presence of our Lord, in His body and blood, in his Supper after you read about it in the Book of Concord.

If you are not familiar with this edition of the Book of Concord, you may find it helpful to you. It provides many note and helps as you read, so in a way, it may be that companion you are looking for as you read the Lutheran Confessions.

Here is where you can read more about it:

The peace of Christ be with you.


Rev. Paul T. McCain

Brian P Westgate said...

Tridentine? Yikes! We're pre-Tridentine (I'm part German, part Sarum, though sometimes I think the good Kantor is post-Tridentine)!

orthodoxy hunter said...

We're Tridentine? Pastor told me we were Tridentine. Ack!!