On the Louisiana College campus, there’s a carillon at the top of the central historic building that plays awful bell arrangements of traditional evangelical hymns at certain times during the day. When I was a student there, I would go back and forth between loving and hating it, but one day as it played “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name” I felt a moment of irrational panic when I couldn’t remember the words. It felt like I had misplaced something very important.
The old familiar hymns had always made Jesus seem close by.
I was raised in a Baptist church in the late stages of a transition from revivalist fundamentalism to Evangelicalism. When I was young, it was still common to hear a preacher or traveling evangelist who longed for the days of tent revivals and week-long salvation crusades followed by dinner on the grounds.
Much of what we embraced was 15 years behind the curve – Maranatha! Choruses, Campus Crusade for Christ and slide projectors instead of hymnals – but of course we boycotted Disney and applauded when one of the first American Family Radio translator towers was placed in town, right next to our church’s parking area, though the credit for that went to the Presbyterian church the next lot over. I consider it a grace that the songs of my childhood were old standbys like “I Will Sing the Wondrous Story” and “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name” instead of anything from the catalog of obliquely close to sexual “praise” music that overpowered much of the worship music scene at the turn of the century.
Even though I have not been a member of that church – or a Baptist – for more than two decades, I am still glad to see that it yet lags behind the rest of the Evangelical world in adopting some of the more egregious innovations of American bourgeois Christianity. It was changing when I was a child and has certainly changed since then, but there you can still find traces of that old-time religion that I cannot embrace but which holds a special place in my cultural memory. It was not without a twinge of sadness that I learned their Bible Drill team had abandoned the use of the King James Version for the 1984 NIV, which is itself now a thing of the past.
My Grandparent’s Country Church
Though most of my early religious experience was in my parents’ church, I owe no small debt to the church my grandfather pastored and – after a stroke forced him into retirement – to the one he and my grandmother were members of in the last years of his life. Liberty Hill Baptist Church had a good 15 members on a well-attended Sunday. It was rural, located in an area that would have been considered a ghost town if any of the buildings were still standing. The last time I passed through, a handful of houses and a couple of rusting trailers, and the church – surrounded by thousands of graves, some dating back to the late 1700s – remained.
I can only assume that most of that congregation has gone the way of the town. The older people surely have died; some, like my extended family members, must have moved away; the last I heard of worship there was that one of the laymen from my grandfather’s time was leading a simple service.
The members there were country people, the kind disparagingly called “salt of the earth” by those who don’t realize that they are, in fact, the salt of the earth. They relied on God because that is what they had – it was all they had – and the messages I heard there and at home were simple: Christ died for sinners; God provides. The only time I heard a fire-breathing, hellfire and damnation sermon was when my uncle stood behind the lectern and delivered a monologue mocking that sort of thing during a birthday party.
I have no idea about the age of the church building, except that it was old and was heated by gas from an outside butane tank. The church didn’t have working toilets until the late 90s, and before that if you needed to go you had to walk down a trail in the trees where you found a cinderblock-and-wood vault toilet that stank to high heaven and you had better check for snakes before you sat down on one of the double seats.
Baptisms were conducted at Mount Driskill, which at an elevation of 535 feet (67-feet above sea level) is the highest point in the state of Louisiana. I saw my uncle and a couple of my cousins baptized there in the pond halfway down the slope, rising from the baptismal waters as new men, their then-present and future salvation indissolubly linked with the rolling, bucolic hills of North Louisiana.
My grandfather, who along with every other of-age male in the congregation grabbed one last cigarette in the final minutes before the service started, was a member of a dying breed, the bi-vocational pastor who spent the week working at the mill and on Sunday preached in a church that couldn’t afford to pay him anything close to a salary. The corporate church model would have never worked at Liberty Hill, and if you had suggested to anyone that my grandfather’s title should have been Senior Executive Elder for Teaching and Worship, they would have given you the same crazy look as if you had suggested he get rid of his Monday-through-Saturday greasemonkey suit and instead muss up his hair with styling product, wear skinny jeans, vintage t-shirts and a sport coat while preaching about God’s plan for your sex life. They wouldn’t have thought of that as “re-thinking church;” they would have called it shenanigans.
Making Faith My Own
It was against that backdrop that I had my first encounters with the living God. One of my first memories is singing praise songs in the dirt beside our house. Later, I would tell my teacher I was going to be a preacher; I even drew a picture of myself waving a Bible in the air.
Early in my childhood my father experienced an adult conversion and was baptized. After a few years, he was ordained a deacon. My mother was a faithful thrice-a-week churchgoer, even in my early years when when my father wasn’t. As I got older, every evening we had a short family liturgy, reading chapters from the Bible, alternating our focus between the New Testament and the Hebrew scriptures. One of my brothers learned how to read from the pages of the NIV Student Study Bible.
In the darkness one night, lying in my bed, I understood something about myself, about my relationship to God and God’s creation, and I prayed a simple prayer, one I’d heard modeled many times: Lord, I know I am a sinner; please forgive my sins, take them away, and make me yours. Some weeks later I stood in front of the church and confessed what I had done. I was baptized that evening. I was nine.
There was a time in my mid-teens in which I decided to reject Christ, for all the usual reasons. I tried a few eastern religions, but nothing really seemed to stick, also for the usual reasons. I blame my mother’s prayer.
One evening, I sat down with an old New Testament and a highlighter pen, and beginning with the book of Matthew, started to highlight anything that caught my attention. At first, I was infuriated at what I read, but the more I read, the more Christ puzzled me, and before the evening was done, I had finished the first three Gospels and started the fourth.
That was a turning point, one where I decided to seek out Christians and to become more engaged with what Christian culture I could. A year later, with a lot of help and through the innumerable prayers of my parents, I was baptized a second time on Easter morning, my brief rebellion buried in a watery tomb that – thanks to the church’s Easter musical – was partially obscured by the façade of a Roman garrison.
I still have that tattered paperback Bible. I keep it on the shelf next to the one I inherited from my grandfather, his preaching Bible.
I attended a Baptist college, LC, and studied journalism and religion, convinced that I would be able to use what I learned for deployment as a missionary writer. I met my wife there, and – as I tried on theologies – I attended Presbyterian and Episcopal churches in addition to keeping my Baptist chapel obligations. The school was in the middle of denominational fractional struggle when I attended, and it left a bad taste in my mouth for them. Whereas before I had enjoyed debating theologies on the Internet and in person, it was my first conscious experience of seeing theology used as a sword, not to winnow spirit and truth, but to wound. The experience of internecine fighting over bits of theology and church politics, of which I was a small participant inasmuch as a student journalist can be, taught me the importance of valuing people over ideas.
Life moved on. My family moved. We had more children. I started teaching Sunday School in an unaffiliated church – the one my wife had been raised in – where the third graders were not afraid to ask questions like, “Is God real?” Looking into the eyes of a nine-year-old who asked such basic – and yet monumental – questions made me realize the weight of teaching, the importance of understanding what one is doing when they try to proclaim a truth as God’s truth.
Finding the Spirit everywhere present
After returning to school, a combination of personal study and meeting the right people at the right time led me to became an adult convert to Greek-Arab Orthodoxy, a religion so strange and so far outside of my cultural experience that I could have converted only because I believed it was the only option. The process of how that happened is not terribly important, and the only things I will say about it is that I converted because I felt it was the only way I could remain a Christian at a time when that was really a question, and that it took longer than necessary.
I spent a decade in Orthodoxy, give or take a few years depending on how you define being a part of something, and it was good for me, giving me a true grounding in understanding both the importance of tradition in Christian life and the dangers of allowing historic consequences to roll unchecked, but some ugly experiences and a growing discomfort about how the Church treated some members of the faithful forced me to reassess my understanding of what the one holy, Catholic and apostolic church really is. I was in a diaconal formation program but decided to quit. (There is more but I will not tax brevity.)
I began, instead, to pray in a small church with an aging congregation down the street. I could still feel Christ reaching for my attention when an old lady grabbed my arm and said she was glad I was been back after a week away. I could sense something when I looked around and saw the Stations of the Cross on the wall, painted in a garish 70s style that doesn’t match the nave’s natural wood panels. It is, as the Byzantine prayer says, that the Spirit is, “Everywhere present and filling all things.” In those early days at St. Mark, I was also plagued by a chronic illness that for a time limited the use of my hands and crippled my gait, forcing me to use a cane; I was deeply unhappy at losing the ability to play music, or hike, or even walk down the street without aid. (Steps toward recovery have been another story.)
I finally told God that, no matter if I ever got better, I would encounter Christ however I could and that I would take the advice – of both St. Benedict and the Buddha – to bloom where I am and not long for a place and time that do not exist. I received the Eucharist and found my heart.
Somehow, slowly, after a season there, I also found my feet as a teacher, returning to my childhood goal of preaching by helping resurrect a dormant Christian education program for adults. As I got to know people and the situation better, I was privileged to become a lay chaplain, taking the Holy Eucharist to hospital rooms and homes, leading worship and – more often than not – listening to Christ as I listened to the people around me. For several years, I had an opportunity to volunteer weekly at a food pantry, and now, even though the opportunity has shifted away from having my feet on the floor there, I am able to serve in a different capacity, on the board of directors.
During this time, I began inquiry into the Anglican Order of Preachers, and – though that inquiry had a long pause in the middle – going through the process of inquiry and self-assessment with the Oblate director helped me clarify for myself not only my calling to service through preaching in its various forms, but it also helped me understand where, even as I’d considered myself spiritually disciplined in other seasons of life, I had not lived with any kind of rule to to assess if that was true or what kind of measure of success my supposed discipline was giving me.
I understood – and understand – my discernment toward Oblature as part of a greater call on my life, one to share Christ with others, but also, as St. Dominic did, to offer a service in the reform and rejuvenation of the church. I do not think I am a prophet, but in the teaching ministries I have been part of in recent years, some of my greatest joys have been seeing people who have walked with Christ for many years put down their Bible and say, “That finally makes sense to me.” But with that joy comes responsibility, and I realized very quickly that, just as I’d felt called to something more in terms of personal devotion, learning and teaching – something that I believed the Order could help me with – I was also called to accountability, something the Order’s rule could provide.
I finished my inquiry into the Order, but the time was not right. COVID came. It strained the church and many people’s faith – I admit I had a lot fears. But I continued praying, still teaching, preaching, listening to God and listening to my family. We survived. Christ continued to abide, to be present.
As I continue to study and pray – and pray that I do not misapprehend God – I do not have the fear I once felt that that I have misplaced Jesus. He is never too far that I cannot reach out and clutch at the hem of his cloak.
Christ with Me
I have had a few, but very few, mystical experiences in my life. One that I hold onto probably does not seem like a mystical moment to some, but it was.
One Holy Saturday when I was still attending Orthodox liturgies, as the priest entered the nave and declared for the last time before Pascha, “Christ is in our midst!” I tried to respond with the customary, “He is and ever shall be!,” but instead I choked on the words halfway through the sentence.
In that moment, I saw and once again experienced Christ with me as a child, singing hymns while I played in the driveway; Christ with me as I played kickball behind the church; Christ with me – ever there – when I turned my back on Him, and Christ with me when I wept alone in the back of a chapel and said my life was His; Christ with me when I praised Him with arms raised high, and Christ with me all of the times I doubted Him; Christ with me at my wedding, and Christ with me when my children were born and when they were baptized.
I did not know it then, but Christ would be with me in the year the Paschal declaration that he was Risen and no dead remained in the tomb would stab me in the heart because days before I’d dug a grave for a baby. He would be with me when the joy of a move to a better situation became a grindstone under which I had to labor as the world fell out from under my family and we had one emergency after another without our established support system to catch us. He would be with me when my hands began to shake and my legs became weak. Because he became united with humanity, and I am united with him in baptism, he bore it with me. He has wept with me, and he has laughed with me – and despite it all, I have known more joy than sorrow.
Jesus is the Christ who transcends our discomfort, who brings us the salvation that is union with God far beyond our culture or our flawed reasons for converting or our spiritual incapability. He transcends years and apostasies and repentances, stretching past nature and Hell and every jot and tittle of the law.
Despite the doubts, despite logic, I knew it in that moment, and I know it now.
Christ is in our midst. He is and ever shall be.
This essay is from our Anastasis Series where we resurrect articles from the past that are either still relevant today. This piece was first published on January 23, 2020. It was significantly updated in September 2022.