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  • Writer's pictureJM Zabick

A Journey Home (5): Turning the Corner—Evangelical Deconstruction Yields a Catholic Re-Awakening

Part V: Chronicling My Return to Roman Catholicism



“That our idea of God corresponds as nearly as possible to the true being of God is of immense importance to us. Compared with our actual thoughts about Him, our creedal statements are of little consequence. Our real idea of God may lie buried under the rubbish of conventional religious notions and may require an intelligent and vigorous search before it is finally unearthed and exposed for what it is. Only after an ordeal of painful self-probing are we likely to discover what we actually believe about God.”

A.W. Tozer—From the introduction to The Knowledge of the Holy



After reading that closing thought in the prior piece (“I guess you could say, I began yearning for more religion.”), you could be wondering, “How in the world does someone go from revival to religion?” More confounding may be the suggestion I had actually gotten to a place where I longed to return to Catholicism. Insofar as I can attempt to answer that simply, it was the deterioration of an evangelical outlook that brought me to a (then) surprising realization. That surprise was recognizing my outlook was every bit as religious as the “religion” I claimed to be beyond.


For my entire life beyond Catholicism, however, I have known many Roman Catholics who have had notably intimate lives of faith and obvious relationships with Jesus. I’ve witnessed them live within a religious identity that was ALIVE with passion and gratitude for the Lord. Be it from afar or more closely, I understood them to be in pursuit of a genuine Christian ethic and life of service that outpaced anything I was doing.


Yet, I arrogantly and ignorantly clung to my idea that it was I who had the corner on relationship, and that they were just stooped in religion. Of course, I knew several “shuffle in and out” Catholics too. These are the Catholics who are the archetype many evangelicals find useful for spiritual comparison’s sake.


I found them convenient to my cause, no matter if it was to the disregarding of the many “shuffle in and out” Christians of other persuasions I knew—including evangelicals.


In the end, this idea “I’m not about religion as much as I am relationship” amounted to hardly more than a self-affirming slogan I used to convince myself otherwise … without even the slightest self-awareness, I had gotten to a place where I needed such convincing.


And make no mistake, when I use words like “outlook” or “framework,” in connection with evangelicalism, what I mean is “religion.”


Here, let me speak to those evangelical readers still with me:


You ARE religious.

You are IN a religion.

You are DOING religion.


Because what you are “in,” and “doing,” IS a “system of faith and worship.” That is the very definition of “religion.”


Upon my acceptance of this, I then felt compelled to discover the nature of the system I was “in and doing.”


As introduced in the last installment, I began to grow concerned with aspects of the overall framework for my context. To say it another way, I had come to wonder what the heart of my religion was really all about.

 

“The heart of my faith is Jesus!” I can imagine folks declaring in rebuttal. “And the system of my faith and worship is the Bible.” I probably said or thought such things a hundred times.


Being as real as we can, though, let’s admit the heart of ALL Christianity is Jesus … Evangelical, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox. To assume exclusivity on the matter is just not informed to the reality that there are people in each of these just as passionate, if not more, about Christ than any of us can imagine.


So too is the assumption that the Bible is held in higher regard by Protestant evangelicals than the rest of the Christian world. The Bible is THE authoritative text for Catholics and Orthodox believers, as well. But to those who would say Scripture alone is the grounding authority behind their religion, I would argue a crucial caveat be added. Your system of faith and worship is grounded on an INTERPRETATION of the Bible.


The proof is in the thousands of Protestant/evangelical denominations out there. Each of them claims to be doing and believing what the Bible teaches. Thus, each of their adherents assume they’re grounding is more in lock-step with God than the folks in the church across the road, because their differences necessitate they must be off the mark in some manner or other.


Before proceeding, I will add that when I say “grounded in an interpretation of the Bible,” I am in no way saying the grounding is wrong. But when that grounding differs from another grounding, who is best positioned to claim the interpretive high ground? And how do we even define what constitutes the “best position”?

 

Such thoughts about structural issues inevitably drew me toward questions about the quality of my foundation, and ultimately this question: “What is the interpretation leading to my religion grounded upon?


Truly obtaining that answer was, to me, something requiring deep drilling. It necessitated getting to a depth not made accessible by that taught within the church, discussed within a small group, popularly published in a Zondervan text, or able to be preached on a Sunday morning.


This is what brought me to seminary.


As mentioned, divinity school was but one of a pair of glacial processes descending upon the mountain range my evangelical certainties were perched upon. In retrospect, those glaciers were catalysts in kicking off my evangelical deconstruction.


Glacier one was the ordeal of witnessing my mother’s unusually long and cruelly slow succumbing to Alzheimer’s—and the realization of how insufficient the contemporary American gospel and devotion was to me in that time. I could write a book on my observations of this whole dynamic. Though that is too personal, not only to my family and I, but it is a series of observations that would draw on interactions with other Christians in our circle who aided me in seeing that insufficiency.


Suffice it to say, as horrifying as witnessing my mother’s life across those twelve years was, from diagnosis to death, one thing God did in the midst of it all was to allow me to see the mold into which much of the contemporary American Christian tradition was casting their image of God from.


And to those who clumsily and constantly, yet warmly and caringly, told me throughout, “God’s really going to show you something amazing through all of this” … could you ever have imagined it would be witnessing the pulverization of the idol I had erected?


The mid twentieth century evangelical pastor/theologian A.W. Tozer noted how modern pride blinds us into thinking idolatry is kneeling before gods cast in wood, stone, or metal. He said, however, “The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him.”


Idols, he warned, begin with a thought … a thought of what God must be like, from which a portrait of him is painted—an image that is a grotesque and ignoble conception of the One, True God.


These words were contained in the first few pages of his book, The Knowledge of the Holy (PDF linked), the initial assigned reading in the first graduate theology class of my seminary journey. It’s a text I’ve since read a dozen times through, and the introduction alone … probably forty times. Tozer’s were words that rattled the walls of my religion.


I recall that semester. It was late 2014, and I had read that introduction through again and again. Each time, wondering how in the hell would I resist being completely undone, spiritually, if I began to conceive of God in a manner that began with awe and wonder as opposed to propositions and presuppositions?


It was around then I realized why so many of my closest evangelical circle were so loudly quiet, or firmly ambivalent to the idea of pursuing theological higher education, and why some warned me not to. One even forecast, “Nothing good for you is going to come of this.”


Knowing now their idea of “good for me” involved more of what was safe for them, I can attest to the fact they were “right.”

Thus, of the second of my two glaciers, seminary was it. I embarked upon that path to really get to know the foundations of my evangelical framework, just to arrive at a place of great discomfort with what I had come see those foundations to be.


Mind you, my nine years in school have been in solidly evangelical institutions, neither of which can rightly be called “liberal.” I mean, honestly … Liberty University? That’s the same Liberty University founded by ultra-conservative Southern Baptist, the late Jerry Falwell.


Here, I have truly wrestled with just how detailed to make this portion. I suppose keeping it “in general” is best, because the very last thing I want to do is come across like I’m trying to lay waste to the Protestant evangelical community, as I move on from it. That is not my intent. And specifics would betray the appropriate line.


Additionally, I recognize there are those who are dismissive of this move and my reasoning of it, to the extent they’ve closed their mind to it well before I even began presenting the case. So, no matter how particular I make it, it was already pre-dismissed by those presuming the impossibility of anyone in “right relationship” with God turning Catholic. To some, this will always be due to a spiritual or moral calamity of mine, as opposed to anything right or God-led.


Them notwithstanding, some evangelical friends have shared with me how there is something unsettling in this for them. Unsettling because it creates a discomfort which is easier to dismiss than reading through.


I can see that. It comes from a desire to maintain a sense of security within the confines of a religious framework that has our deepest confidence built into it. This confidence is rooted in the (conscious or subconscious) sense that among the thousands of expressions of Christianity, we are in the one pointing most accurately to the church in the New Testament—the body most reflective of what Christ intended. The interpretative grounding most closely aligned with Divine Intent.


It is a very, VERY strong thing to challenge. The vested interest is so immensely tied to us personally, the idea we may have drifted off the mark appalls us … and repulses us toward that which insinuates as much.


Which, when we cut to the quick, is ME … as I'm that which is insinuating as much, I suppose.


I confronted this directly in my own way and it is everything Tozer claimed it to be, and more, when he wrote in that paragraph listed atop this article: “Only after an ordeal of painful self-probing are we likely to discover what we actually believe about God.”


But when we discover what we believe about God, we cannot help but then ask to what extent our church context has influenced that. Thus, people cannot help making the association that as I questioned my church context, I was questioning theirs. With that being both unavoidable and inevitable, there is little need for greater detail to draw the conclusion that, by this process, I have come to appreciate greater value in the religion of the Catholic Church, than the religion of an evangelical denomination like the Assembly of God.


That admission, even “in general” terms, makes me uncomfortable stating. Why? Because I know how much the evangelical religion means to so many of you, due to knowing myself how much it has meant, and will continue to mean, to me, my dear family, and many friends.


Therefore, if that is the end, does it matter if we arrived here without specific examples? I fail to see how, if so.


On the other hand, those of you reading this out of a genuine interest, and with an open mind and spirit, probably are intuitive enough to have a sense for what was powering this demolition, by what I have already stated here and in my writings over the prior years, which were much more forcefully to the point (you need only to look back at some prior articles on this blog). So much so, that I really don’t need to spell it out more clearly.

“Then why say it all?”


Because there are a fair number I know, who are exactly where I was five to eight years ago. And they have asked to know. So too are there many solidly evangelical friends and associates who have asked I share how such a thing happened? I feel both should know. And that also leads me to understand they may be just the visible portion of the iceberg. I intend this to be a hand, then, that they can reach out to, if they ever need one, as they contend with their own framework issues, or are troubled that I would make such a move.


So then, to any of you who feel uneasy with me calling out the evangelical community. Let me just say that I see it more as calling INTO that community. Calling in to those who remain, tentatively, and are struggling with their faith. Not because I want to tell them “Catholicism is the best! Come be Catholic.” But because I want to tell them that faith is alive outside of evangelical circles. It really is. Sometimes, as in my case and the many who have departed, it’s even stronger on the other side.


These are people who are still in the pew next to you on Sunday. These are pastors who are still in your pulpits preaching from a place of agonizing conflict. These are even your husbands, wives, kids. All these are folks who know what the Church is supposed to be, but feel their witnessing it be something foreign to that.


Listen though! By all means, if you are really growing, then DO NOT GO ANYWHERE! You are where the Lord would have you. It was my circle for many years. It was where the Lord had me, and used me, and grew me. Grew me into one who he, for whatever reason, wanted to take onward for a broader revelation of himself and the further development for his plan for my life.

 

NOTE: "Deconstruction" is a hot topic/buzz word in the evangelical movement today, due to an incredible number of evangelicals who are trending toward being done with evangelicalism, yet who are not done with the Lord. But I believe deconstruction of one's faith context, without intense self-analysis, checking motives, maturity, and intentionality can be ruinous to one's faith overall, if not their life more broadly. I also believe it can be healthy and liberating. And in many respects, as long as the evangelical tradition resists reformation, it may be needed. So let me offer two suggestions if you are "deconstructing": (1) If your church tries to lead you through deconstruction, by way of a series or curriculum geared toward quelling your questions and qualms, then please … RUN! I’ve been seeing, over the past few years, many churches attempting to tamp the deconstruction impulse by “owning” it and making it yet another controlled and marketed thing. (2) You need someone on the other side to be with you. I am willing to talk, without trying to “Romanize” your faith. If you are uncomfortable with my winding up in Catholicism, I would be honored to direct you to my friend Justin B. for healthy advice and as a very non-Catholic option.

 

Back to my glaciers. I realized they had completely recontoured the terrain of my faith, and much of my worldview. When I looked beyond, out the “window of my life,” there was an entirely unfamiliar landscape. Peaks now stood where there were valleys, and the mightiest summits had been reduced to gravel beds memorializing the completeness of my evangelical demolition.


I saw the church fueling faith that was katanoia (contrary/against thought and mind). This is a faith tightly aligned with certainty. And in this framework, I felt little room to move, theologically speaking.


More and more, I was finding myself being lured by a metanoia faith (after/beyond thought and mind). This is a faith given to awe and wonder. I plan to one day draft a separate article on these ideas, but for now, the former (kata) represents more of an emotional spirituality, whereas the latter (meta) a mystical spirituality.


It was in this place, one I had gotten to over the preceding five years, where I realized that in the bareness of my completely leveled religious landscape, I beheld something I long believed beyond me—Roman Catholicism.


It just took the demolition of the walls of my propositional faith to open the sightlines through which I could finally see it.

 

So then, here it is where this tale turns, and this account rounds the corner into these last five years, to take up the telling of a Catholic’s re-awakening.

 

Meeting God … Again

If you’ve been reading these accounts, then you’ll remember how in the very first I mentioned the prophetic tablemate, Paul (thanks Michelle for reminding me on his name), at the wedding six years back.


Well, the year following that encounter with Paul found me at another wedding. Same side of the family, but at a different Catholic Church—Sweetest Heart of Mary, near Detroit’s Eastern Market.


We sat in a pew to the rear of the bride’s side of things. I was seated furthest off to the left side, my wife to my right, and her sister, brother-in-law, and parents down the aisle from there.


It was about ten minutes to the start of the mass, I’d guess. The organist was playing something softly through the pipe array marshaled across the rear of the balcony, and a mass server was lighting all the candles. The photo/video-graphers were doing lighting checks and talking near the front of the church.


As took in the beauty of this majestic old nave, caringly upkept over the decades, I appreciated the intentionality of Catholics in articulating physical beauty in the church and making aesthetic worship a priority. I chuckled to myself about how my tradition failed to understand and appreciate the manner in which beauty is so important to traditions far, far older (i.e., Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglican, and Catholic), and conveyed via architectural expression.


It's an element of high church traditions that is convenient to dismiss, or even negativize, by those traditions that lack it, I thought.

Sweetest Heart of Mary Catholic Church; Detroit, MI. Photo Credit https://www.motherofdivinemercy.org/weddings

And it was out of this appreciation I began to sense something moving upon me … maybe it was more welling up within me. Maybe it was both.

It was also unmistakably and immediately familiar.

While it had been two decades since my encounter with God in Florida, in that moment I realized God was present with me again.

And I felt, like before, that incomparable ontological awareness of his un-resistible nearness upon my mind, spirit, and every physical fiber of being—again, as if down to the molecule.

I was becoming breathless, and tears rushed to my eyes. As I sat in that pew, I looked to my left and bit my lower lip, so to collect myself … and not let my family see me “like this.”


The intensity grew. He drew nearer. And I want to caution that I do not mean that in terms of proximity, like the feeling of heat intensifying as the flames near. It wasn’t like that, as much as it was an intensity that was encompassing. It was both growing within, and around me, but more so … upon me.

“God,” I asked, thinking back to Brownsville, “Are you really going to take me out of it right here and now?”


But it quickly became clear that this time was different. There was no “taking me out.” There was no radiance. I still heard the organist and the people chatting softly to my right. Visually, I could see the reality I expected to.

I realized a present distance was being maintained, or perhaps graced upon me.


As I write this, I think it was more probably afforded to me … that while captivating the full attention of my being, was not intent on consuming it … this time around.


And although I was breathless and trembling, there was something sort of disappointing about that, if I can be honest. It was that aforementioned (prior installment) paradox between the simultaneously terrifying and ethereal reality of divine holiness upon the finite being, I was kind of wanting to succumb to ... again, in spite of my ego.

I leaned forward and looked at the floor, wondering why this was happening. I closed my eyes and asked, “Lord … what?”


Then, that familiar whisper, not heard with ears, but with soul. It breathed, “Know I am here.”


Around then, the organ burst into full volume as the procession began. Everyone stood. And I followed suit, still breathless and under the influence of the presence of God. I was trying to steady myself and leaned one hand onto the pew back in front of me.


Cutting through it all, I “heard” it again. “Know I am here.”


“I know it.”


Grabbing my right forearm, Nicole (my wife) leaned to my ear. “What’s wrong with you? she asked, “Are you OK?”

I’m not even sure what I said. I just sort of focused on catching my breath, as I began to experience the intensity of divine presence … hmmm … perhaps relent a few significant notches (if that’s the right word). -

Thus, being able to better collect my thoughts, one in particular was screaming at me:

PARTICIPATE!

With the procession ended, and the priest making some initial comments in greeting, I was hit with a very deep conviction to join in the mass. Upon first identifying that, I began to doubt, thinking, “But … I’m no longer a Catholic.”

The priest said, “Let us begin our celebration, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Words that were accompanied by a gesture—the Sign of the Cross.


For the first time in decades, I joined with the Catholics in attendance and crossed myself, practically without thinking or intent.


It felt great. And with that, I was off and away ... dialed into the liturgy with this very strange and eager excitement, to the extent I was sort irritated by the insertions of the wedding aspects (in the kindness way).

It was more like this hunger for the mass was present in me, and I was looking forward to every movement in the liturgy and every recitation offering the opportunity to join in response—all of which I was surprised to remember, after not being an active participant in the mass since eight grade. I even remembered the Creed.


But then, after the universal prayer, the ceremony moved into the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and I wondered about my continued participation.


“What am I to do here?” Because, as it concerns the heart of the Catholic mass, this is where the rubber met the road. This is THE Sacrament. And I had, effectively, been out of communion with the Catholic Church for a very long time.


As the presentation of the gifts had ended and the sound of kneelers hitting the floor reached me, my confusion, perhaps … my confliction … had me wondering how to proceed with my “participation.”


And then, just like my time around that stage in Pensacola, I “heard” (came to discern) a single word.


“Kneel.”

And just like so many years prior, it wasn’t a suggestion of what I could do, as much as it was a declaration of what I should do.

Yet, it was markedly different, all the same. While I knew God was present upon me in that moment, I wasn’t of the mind he was going to knee chop me like before (cf. prior installment).

This was more of an invitation. An offer to submit myself willingly, in the moment, and enter into the heart of the mass—to fully gather around the Table.

“Kneel,” was an offer to join in. A warm and welcoming offer.

So, as the lone wierdo in our aisle, I lowered the kneeler and dropped to my knees.

The priest recited the words, “Pray, my brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.

I joined with the others, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of his name, for our good, and the good of all his holy Church.”

Still, I knew the way it worked. And throughout this Eucharistic Liturgy I kept thinking, if there was a confessional open right now, I’d go, so as to make myself as ready as possible to receive Him.


“Take the Sacrament,” came the whisper.

“I’m not … I can’t,” I thought, looking for some excuse or justification for my confusion. “It’s been way too long … I’m not even Catholic anymore.”


“Take the Sacrament,” came the whisper, offering me a place at the Table.


I’m a sinful man.” I admitted. “I’m not spiritually ready to receive You, Lord.”


Then the priest raised the Host aloft, and declared, “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.


Instinctually, I responded with all my heart and soul, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

“I hear you,” He whispered. “I say the word you seek. TAKE the Sacrament.”


So, I stepped past the knees of my family, who were probably wondering what in the world I was doing. And I joined the procession of people up to the foot of the altar, eager to receive.


I will admit, I was trembling and teary eyed. I was somewhat afraid that I was disrespecting God and the real presence of Christ in that communion moment.


At the same time, I wanted to bull rush the others and charge up there. With each step forward built assurance, and hunger, and excitement.


Then, I was next. And I was trembling.

“Body of Christ,” offered the priest.

“Amen,” I affirmed, looking at the sacred meal now resting on my palms.

Stepping aside, I completely choked up. And a brief second guess came over me.

“Partake.” He invited me.

I did.

I returned to my aisle, dropped the kneeler again, and prayed. With a sweet and deep abiding assurance and peace in the core of my being, I recognized a spiritual refreshment that warmed me in an incomparable way. I was foundationally re-nourished, in a manner that I cannot begin to express.

It was as sweet as reconnecting with a dear friend who’d been at a great distance for far too long.

I sensed profound joy and a sustenance deep in my soul that was simultaneously familiar and alien to me.


And there was something re-awakened in my heart and spirit.

 

The mass and the ceremony had ended, and we walked toward our cars. My father-in-law and I sort of lagged behind. He was, at a time far prior, a Catholic seminarian who had completed part of the priestly formation but had departed and spent the decades since as a minister in the evangelical community. He was also as genuine a man of God as I’d have ever known.


“There’s something beautiful about it, isn’t there?” he asked.


“For sure,” I agreed, assuming this was about the physical structure. “Such an amazing place.”


“I’m talking about the Eucharist,” he clarified with a chuckle. “You know, I wish I had joined you when you went up.”

Never Again

I spent much of the night prior, and the following morning, wondering why in the world God chose that moment to engage me in such a way. After all, I would be safely back in the Assembly of God church the following morning.


What an absurd thought, right?


Absolutely absurd. But as I have come to recognize, it was grounded in that sort of evangelical arrogance I had developed. Intensely proud of the church I was in, the community I was among, and the remarkably godly leadership I had been under … it happened by way of my association from long ago, with a flash of that freshly-back-from-revival immaturity that thought God must be AG.


And that never came about because of ANYTHING the AG ever taught, or my pastors exemplified. It’s something that just grew in the vacuum of my spiritual echo chamber.


As I stood for worship, the auditorium darkened like a concert, I found myself having a difficult time entering into it all. This had not become unusual for me by then. My mind and spirit were still at Sweetest Heart.


Yet, at some instant, I was jolted into the moment, and once again found myself asking, “What are WE even doing here?"

About this time, a team of ushers began passing silver trays with juice and wafers around. It was communion Sunday, the first of each month. An assistant pastor read from Scripture and mentioned a few things about the Last Supper.


But for my part, I was fixated on that tray. And as that usher got closer to the row we were in, I had a growing apprehension about taking the elements. They were merely symbols of reflection. Communion absent the real presence of Christ.

As he reached over me, passing the tray down to my wife. I felt it deep in the core. As loudly as anything.

"DO NOT TAKE THAT!"


The usher looked at me quizzically when I passed, but I didn't take it. Nor did I ever participate in that communion again.


But at that moment, almost five years ago to the day, I knew everything was different. I knew my path was leading me someplace I had not scripted for myself, nor even imagined.


And I acknowledged that “someplace” was not the church I currently stood among at that moment.

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