I was raised in the Oneness Pentecostal movement until I was twelve years old. My mother was more devout, and my dad had stopped attending church by the time I was around six or seven. The Oneness Pentecostals are a very, very strict sect of the Pentecostal churches. I remember when we had no television in the house, we couldn’t wear short-sleeved shirts, no make-up for the women, long hair for the women, and a myriad of other rules applicable to every facet of life. I was baptized in “Jesus’ name,” for the Oneness churches do not believe in the Trinity. I remember looking down on the poor Trinitarians. So deluded. So lost.
I spoke in tongues. I’ll never forget the night this happened. I so wanted it. Without it I was lost. With it I had power. A crowd of people, hands all over me, shouts of encouragement and pleading to God. And then these sounds came from me. Nothing like a language I’d ever heard. But those around me broke out in joyous celebration. I had been filled. I was around nine. My memory is hazy on a lot of things, but I do know that I struggled with doubt about what had happened. I was always questioning, but never disrespectfully. I truly wanted to know God and have all that He had for me.
When I was six, we got new neighbors. An Assembly of God pastor and his family moved next door. A kid my age! A kid my brother’s age! We were in heaven. But they were Trinitarians. I remember those days of adolescent theological discussions. “You believe in three Gods!” I would say. When I was around twelve, and the neighbor and I best friends, my mother had a falling out with the leadership at the Oneness church. We went to visit the Assembly of God church. It was a turning point.
I had never experienced the love of God. The Oneness church was all about ‘the letter’. Here was ‘the spirit’. We immediately fell in love with the people. Unfortunately this earned us the pity of our former church’s membership. Many never spoke to us again. Yet we had found ‘home’, and in many ways that church is still my home. I met my wife there, we were married there. I still attend with my wife on occasion.
I embraced the Trinitarian doctrine, as best as a twelve-year old can. I was re-baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I ‘truly’ was baptized in the Holy Ghost and ‘truly’ spoke in tongues – though, in truth, there was little difference in experience. The sounds were gibberish, and bore little resemblance to ‘language’ in my opinion. Over the next few years, I would struggle, as all teenagers do, with lukewarm religion – followed by periods of revival. These ‘high’ periods usually coincided with the annual Church youth camp. Oh, those were so fun. Free from the influences of the ‘the world’, hundreds of kids would gather to seek after God. If we found a girlfriend during the week, that was an added bonus.
When I was fifteen, it was at one of these camps that I entered my most fervent period. I ‘felt the call to preach’, though I kept it to myself. I was scared. When I got home, I would spend long periods of time praying in my closet – literally. I was taking God’s word seriously. I read the whole Bible through for the first time. I would wander the woods surrounding my house, praying, crying out to God, and preaching to the trees. Honestly. It was during this time that I sought God for a sign that my baptism in the Holy Ghost was not simply me producing gibberish. I wanted what came out of my lips to sound like something ‘real’. While in the woods one day, I found my new prayer language.
I began to have very intense, almost vision-like experiences. I even thought that one such vision came true. Our youth meetings had become bone dry. In prayer one day I ’saw’ the Spirit take control of the youth meeting. A message in tongues was given out. People were changed. It wasn’t long afterward that something very similar happened. I felt like God was using me. A few weeks after the fulfillment of my ‘vision’, I too gave a message out in tongues in our youth meeting. It was interpreted. I can’t even remember the ‘message’.
This period of intensity lasted for quite some time. But the fervor faded eventually. And I found myself struggling with myself. I couldn’t understand the ups and downs. I didn’t comprehend how I could be so duplicitous. So, I entered into more of the same. Hot. Then cold. Up. Then down. I felt like I was on a rollercoaster. I either wanted off or I wanted it to level out. By the time I graduated high school, I was living a double life. The good church kid at church, the know-it-all blossoming delinquent outside its walls.
When I started college, God was on the periphery. However, once again, youth camp brought me to a ‘closer walk’. I resolved this time to announce to everyone that I was ‘called to preach.’ So, I did. That was the way it was in the churches I grew up in. My pastor offered to let me preach on a Wednesday night. I took my text from Isaiah. I’ll never forget how I took an hour’s worth of material, and in my nervousness, spewed it out in fifteen minutes. But it was over. And I had ‘done well’. More opportunities arose. So, I started helping out in Sunday School. In college I joined the BSU (the token Pentecostal), and soon was the director of evangelism on the Executive Council. I was actually preaching in more Baptist churches than Pentecostal.
It was in the BSU that I first experienced theological opposition to my Pentecostal belief system. Several of us would sit around and discuss any number of topics. But the ‘pet topic’ was, of course, the nature of salvation. Most of my Baptist friends believed in ‘Once Saved Always Saved,’ and the BSU chaplain was a staunch Calvinist. Many times I would walk away from these conversations with my faith deeply rocked. I began to spend more and more time studying my faith. However, at the same time, I began to slide ever closer to giving into certain sins that I had been battling. This combination led to some very sincere questions about my faith. I began to go to the computer lab and get on the Internet, reading articles from points of view that I had never encountered. It was like I was stepping onto a new planet.
I began reading polemic works against Christianity. Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason proved to be the key to unlocking all kinds of truly unoriginal thoughts, but ones that were new to me. During this time I was still living at home, still dating the same girl, still chaffing under the pressure of a faith with which I was once again struggling. It came to a head one night at church. I was in serious conflict. My pastor’s wife could ’sense’ it, I suppose. She came and urged me to come to the front for prayer. I did not want to disappoint, so I went. Prayers went up to heaven for me, and yet I felt nothing. I didn’t want to feel anything.
I walked away that night, convinced that all that I had experienced in my life concerning religion was false. It wasn’t long afterward that my girlfriend and I broke up over these issues. I moved out of my parents’ home and began to forge a life of my own. For a while everything was a new discovery. For the last years of college, I declared myself an atheist and rejected the whole idea of religion. I was pretty vocal about it, and found myself speaking in front of Intro to Religion classes – as an example of ‘an atheist’. I thought this new ‘freedom’ was . . . well, liberating. Yet, soon I began to dabble in drugs and alcohol, and I began battling episodes of depression. It wasn’t long before I realized that life away from God was not very satisfying. I was too proud, however, to make my way back.
After graduating college, I planned to attend law school. I had a dorm lined up, loans ready to go, and I was working for a local lawyer – getting my feet wet in the world of ‘law’. I had moved back home with my parents for the summer, before heading off to law school. It was during this time that I began to be around some of my former friends from church. The peace in their lives was very convincing. My former youth pastor (and a very close friend) told me that the youth camp I had attended while younger was happening in a couple of weeks. He invited me down. I shrugged it off and went about my way. However, I was flipping channels one day and came upon TBN, and saw Deion Sanders giving his testimony. Now, I’ve never been a fan of TBN, but his testimony struck me for some reason. I began weeping. It was Thursday afternoon, and I just ‘knew’ that I had to get to Youth Camp. That the depression, the pain, the emptiness would go away if I could just get there.
I hopped in my truck. With no air conditioning, a pack of cigarettes, and emotions running high, I drove the two hours to the Camp. I’ll never forget walking into the tabernacle that night. Everyone seemed to remember me. Everyone wanted to welcome me. The love I felt was amazing. I remember seeing my former girlfriend there. She was perfect. Everything was perfect. This would be it. The end of my doubts, my confusion. I would make a commitment here. Now. I sat among some old friends and the night service began. The choir sang a song titled, “Salt Pillar,” about the wife of Job, about the consequences of turning away from God, and the rewards awaiting those who kept on the journey. I ran to the altar. I only remember pouring my heart out to God, and truly feeling that He had poured His out to me.
After the service at the youth camp, I decided to stay the rest of the week. I immediately reconnected with my former girlfriend. In many ways it felt as if I had never left. I knew that things would have to change in my life, so on my return to the ‘real world’ I called my boss, the lawyer, and announced I couldn’t come back to work. I called the university law school and withdrew. I just knew that law school wasn’t in the ‘will of God’.
My friend, my former youth pastor, was working in IT and convinced his boss to give me a shot. It worked out, and I had my first post-college job. It wasn’t long until I asked my new-old-girlfriend to marry me. I had no doubts that she was the one. Some months into the marriage I convinced myself that being in the ministry was the only way to truly be in the will of God. I confided this to my pastor. Nothing happened at first, but soon I got a strange phone call from North Carolina. My friend, the youth pastor, had moved on to be an assistant pastor in Georgia. He had received a call from a pastor looking for a school teacher/youth pastor. He recommended me (I had my license to teach). The pastor called, and I immediately said we’d drive up, meet everyone, and consider. Ten hours away from home, we arrived to find what seemed to be a vibrant church and school. This was where God wanted us to be.
When we came back home and announced our decision to move, my parents took the news hard. My mom was very distraught and told us that the time frame would never work out. We had less than two weeks to sell everything we had, move and start classes. I told her that if it all worked out it had to be the will of God. Everything worked out. We made the first day of classes in a new city, a new state, and completely cut off from the lifelines we had grown accustomed to.
We stayed in Charlotte for almost two years. The church was very different than the Assembly of God church we knew so well. There was more focus on externals – how one dressed, for example. But we quickly found ourselves adjusting, making friends and settling in. The school, however, came to be somewhat of a proving ground. The students weren’t all from the church’s families. There were constant questions about religion and about the church’s stand on many issues. I tried to focus on the subjects I was teaching, but the questions began to grate at me.
One day the assistant pastor (the pastor’s son) asked me to read something called the Church Fathers to hunt for evidence that the early church preached a standard of holiness similar to our own. The Church Fathers? I was vaguely aware of them, but I had never read them. My world was about to change. I dutifully researched (being a history major had equipped me well) and I did find several passages that buttressed our ideas, but man oh man was I surprised at the depth found in the Church Fathers. Hierarchy, Eucharist, etc. It was simply confusing. So I walked away, but I walked away rocked.
I began to have those gnawing doubts again – that all I believed was resting on a flimsy foundation. An evangelist who specialized in campus preaching came to visit our church – a great guy, really, but his tactics were quite off-putting. I took my class to see him in action one day at the UNC-Charlotte campus. I even preached a little myself. College students who were peppering me with very hard questions surrounded me. I spouted out the answers I thought I knew, but deep within I remember thinking, “Do I even believe what I’m saying?”
I tried my best to shake the familiar specter of doubt. It was like I was a teenager once again – go down to the altar, pray, repent, weep before God, ask Him to take away these questions, to help me shake the Devil off my back . . . . Days of exhilaration where I would think things were going to work – then something would happen to make me question all over again. I should be honest here and say that I was wrestling with issues that I had had since childhood. I would walk, apprehensively, in what felt like ‘victory’ – only to fall all over myself in moments of insanity. Having been raised ‘holiness’, being unable to ‘keep the faith’ was devastating.
This inability for stability has been a theme in my life. It was no different during this period. I had thought that by ‘answering the call’ – by being ‘in the will of God’ – it would somehow be the magic ticket to spiritual freedom. It wasn’t. Many nights I would finish preaching, only to find myself in the deepest depths of despair I’d ever known. Surely this was simply the Devil attacking a faithful Christian . . . right? Surely, if I prayed more, if I sought God more – it would all be fixed. I would be fixed.
But I wasn’t fixed. And I was once again living a lie. I had serious doubts about my faith; I could no longer toe the line as a youth pastor and teacher. So, I tendered my resignation. We had just had our first child, my wife was unable to work due to complications – so I used money as an excuse. We loaded all we had into another U-haul and we moved to Georgia, where I had landed a job in the IT department of a small college. The new home was close to a church that had a close relationship with our home church; so many of the faces were familiar. They were so happy to see us in Georgia! They were excited to have another ‘minister’ and they had plans to put me to work. Me? I just wanted to be left alone. I didn’t want to teach, I didn’t want to lead, I didn’t even want to sing in the choir (which has always been one of the most enjoyable aspects of church for me). But I have this ridiculous fear of disappointing others. So . . . invariably I did do all of those things. Over the course of three years in Georgia, it was simply more of the same. Up, down, etc. etc.
Going into our third year, I had entered a phase where I was simply going to give up. I told my wife of my doubts, laying out my positions, but never really getting to the heart of why. She was the rock she is, and she simply took it all in and I’m sure began to intercede to God on my behalf. It was around this time that I happened upon a little website called TheologyWeb. It was a turning point in my life – truly. I was able to challenge myself, my doubts, my questions – to really begin to see that what I had considered my faith was shallow. I was out of my depth, and I resolved to change that. I began to read more and more, trying to self-educate myself into the fray. I soon saw that I truly was empty without God, and I could never resolve to live as if God didn’t exist. So, I recommitted myself to Him – but reservedly. I knew that I shouldn’t compartmentalize myself – I had to be honest with God, and honestly seek ‘the truth’.
A few months spent searching led me to a stronger faith than I had ever held. But many questions remained. I became interested in eschatology, and spent some time trying to figure out what I could believe on the subject. This led me (once again) to read more of the early church fathers. While reading the church fathers, my interest in other subjects was soon piqued – especially the Lord’s Supper. The one passage that really caught my eye was from Justin Martyr: “For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.” I began to reflect on what *I* had been taught about the Eucharist, about the early church. It didn’t add up. The popular myths about the church from the Pentecostal perspective was that it soon corrupted, was partially restored by men such as Martin Luther, and finally re-emerged in the early 20th century with the Pentecostal movements of men like Parham, et. al.
I began to develop a different sense of church history, although it was far from possessing depth. Around this time I began to participate in the Pal Talk discussions of TheologyWeb. The topics I was newly interested in came up, but rarely. So I went looking for those who would discuss them. I visited the Catholic room on Pal Talk – they were friendly, gracious, but too . . . Catholic. I then wondered into an Orthodox room. Orthodox? Huh? I was blown away. The music, the theology – it was all so new. Since I had resolved myself to an amillennialist position eschatologically, it was comforting to see that one of the oldest bodies of believers in existence agreed with me. This allowed me to be a bit more accessible to the teachings of the Orthodox Church. I began to read everything I could get my hands on. Websites, books, pamphlets, whatever – I was becoming convinced that this was Truth. One book in particular ’sealed the deal’ for me – and it wasn’t even written by an Orthodox Christian. Evangelical is Not Enough, by Thomas Howard, was the proverbial nail in the coffin for the objections I had to sacramental Christianity.
Now, how was I, in a small town in Georgia, going to find a way into the Orthodox Church? There were no churches within a reasonable driving distance, and I hadn’t exactly shared my new found interest with my wife as of yet – so I sat on it for a while. I continued the study, the interaction over the web, and began to try to live as “Orthodox” a faith as I could. A few months into all of this, I received a job opportunity that would bring me home to Mississippi. I found a parish that would be almost two hours away from our new/old home, but I was determined to attend. I corresponded with the priest and with a parishioner I had met online. Everything seemed to be fitting into to place. I talked to my wife about Orthodoxy, however, and I hit a wall. I had had hopes of her ’seeing the truth’, but she wasn’t with me on this one. Not by a long shot. So, after the move, I waited a few months – hoping that she’d become interested. Nothing. Finally, I went on my own. It was like nothing I had ever seen. Not remotely. Yet, it spoke deeply to me. I wanted more.
I started attending the Orthodox Church more frequently. It was a great time of discovery. It wasn’t long until I made the decision to become a catechumen. My priest asked me if I might wait until my wife was ready to convert. I considered the possibility remote, so he agreed to allow me to enter the catechumenate. This was late 2004.
I looked forward to becoming an Orthodox Christian, and my efforts to lead an “orthodox” life were increased. It was not easy, as I felt that my wife was very uncomfortable with me doing such things as praying before an icon. My efforts to accommodate weren’t reciprocated, and soon the accommodating began to feel a lot like sneaking around. I began to build up a wall of resentment toward my wife, which truly hampered not only my move into Orthodoxy, but my marriage as well.
As the months wore on, I was fully expecting to become Orthodox during the upcoming Easter. As the day approached, and my priest was not mentioning it, I felt like I had to ask. “Probably later this year – the Fall maybe.” This ‘maybe’ hung over my head. Would I ever be Orthodox? I was truly longing to experience the Eucharist – to participate in this sacramental theology rather than simply study it.
During this time I was continuing my study of the Church. One of my friends on TheologyWeb began a move toward the Catholic Church, and I was frenetically trying to convince him to ‘try Orthodoxy’. I was frequently involved in polemics against Catholicism. But in attacking the Catholic Church, I came to see that all that had been presented to me in my childhood and all that I learned in coming to the Orthodox Church was not what it had seemed. My views were changing, and I was quickly leaning toward a more hopeful view of Roman Catholicism.
One major push in this direction was the blog Pontifications by an Episcopal priest searching for his place in the True Church. He honestly was trying to investigate the claims of both East and West. The discussions on this blog were very helpful in forcing me to think in new ways. Ultimately, Fr. Al found his place in the Catholic Church. I still remember the profound disappointment I felt. I could be more hopeful about Catholics, but there was no way I was going to become one.
Here I was . . . a few months away from becoming Orthodox, now experiencing a bit of confusion regarding Roman Catholicism. Quite honestly I was disillusioned by the cacophony of opinions among Orthodox Christians concerning a myriad of topics – most especially ‘the West’ in general and Rome more specifically.
It was also during this time that I fell into the deepest period of darkness I’d ever known. This wasn’t due to my theological confusion, but my spiritual weakness. I allowed an old enemy to win a major battle, and the fallout was devastating – so much so that the whole war seemed over. Depression wafted over me, and I half-heartedly tried to regain my footing. Then Katrina hit. It was the perfect excuse not to make the effort to drive two hours to the Orthodox parish, so I didn’t. Soon I wasn’t attending at all. Soon I gave up and built a wall of anger out of my failure and self-loathing.
This condition lasted for months. I remember thinking when the end of the year rolled past – “I should have been Orthodox by now.” Yet I wasn’t. Not even close. My marriage, my sanity, my future – they seemed to be in the perpetual proverbial balance. Then I took a business trip. On this trip I was able to spend some time alone and think. And finally to pray. On my way home, the floodgates opened as I was pouring my heart out to God. Somewhere between Atlanta, GA and Mississippi, I found solace in God’s grace.
So, I came back home a ‘new man’. I started attending church with my wife. I was still not the ‘old Rusty’, and others could tell I still had reservations about a lot of things. However, I kept my opinions to myself and I tried my best to live a life of dedication to God and family. Yet all that I had learned, all that I had come to understand about God, the Church, history – I couldn’t shove it in some bin and forget. So, I started showing up at the daily masses held at the local Catholic parish. It really felt wonderful. I attended these quietly, not making a big deal about it to my wife or anyone else. Finally I began RCIA and entered the process of becoming Catholic.
I am four months past Easter vigil. That is the day where I finally received the body and blood of my Lord in the Eucharist. That is the day where I entered communion with Thomas Kempis, John Paul the Great, Thomas Aquinas, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus, Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Augustine of Hippo, Jerome of Palestine and Rome, and a great cloud of other witnesses to the glory of the Catholic faith.
Today I was at daily Mass and meant every word when I said, along with the congregation, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only speak the word and I shall be healed.”