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  • Writer's pictureJM Zabick

A Journey Home (4): From Revival to Religion—The Later Evangelical Years

Part IV: Chronicling My Return to Roman Catholicism


I sat about two hundred feet east of Mound Rd., gazing past a small stand of trees toward the houses across the way. The engine was running, and my foot was on the brake. My hand, however, didn’t seem prepared to engage the shift knob, over which it slumped, and place the vehicle into DRIVE.


It was an unusually pleasant morning for mid-February in Michigan—meaning sunny and mild. While the air was yet crisp, I could feel some late winter warmth off the low morning sun.


Staring without any particular focus into the space ahead, I exhaled long and slow. Maybe it was my heart, maybe my soul, or mind … or all of them together ... but something conspired against any will to be on my way.


So, there I remained, thinking over the mass I had just participated in. I considered the Scripture readings. How they formed the basis for the priest’s brief, but substantive homily (teaching). My mind dwelled on how, once again, my spirit was nourished by the Eucharist. And I appreciated the reverence observed in the dozen or so who stayed afterwards to pray the Rosary together.


I think part of why I didn’t want to drive away was the fact I wanted to do it all over again. The reason was twofold:


First, I knew it was good and right for me to be there that morning. The sort of sense you sometime have that goes way beyond, “I’m really glad I decided to do this." Like, to the extent you wonder if something of more lasting impact was achieved in the fact that you did?


That’s why I felt it was “right.” I was moved by this realization. In part, because of the desert of spiritual conflict and question in which I had been wandering for the preceding several years (at that point).


The Liturgy of the Word … the Liturgy of the Blessed Sacrament … left me fulfilled at a level I could not deny. And, more so, that I knew I should not deny any further.


This brings me to the second of those two-fold reasons. The realization it was good and right for me to be there, not just that morning, but PERIOD. Meaning … moving forward.


This was the point at which I became fully aware I was NOT to remain where I had been. God had, by this time, shown me plainly, his plan involved my return to the Catholic Church.


Some Back-Story

This inevitability had been gathering steam for a while. It began about three years prior (so about 5 years before this post), when I first entertained the thought God was just maybe, slightly, possibly, pointing me back toward Catholicism.


The first two of those years were spent mostly in denial. Though, as I continued to study, pray, and dialogue with other Christians who were with similar angst in their evangelical context, I was forced to seriously consider why I was unable to shake this. It just was not passing.


In fact, instead of it diminishing like some fleeting emotional tug, thoughts of Catholicism grew over this two-year period. This is not to say I didn’t have objections or concerns with aspects of Catholicism. I did. Yet, in relationship to the objections or concerns I was confronting in my faith context at the time, they seemed comparatively mild and far less difficult to reconcile.


I gave myself to investigating this all more fully (be that through formal seminary experiences, or “on the side”), and I could not deny how so many of the Catholic things my Protestant lenses took to be strange, or wrong, or unbiblical, or whatever … were very often things I came to see as more biblically and historically grounded than the very recent doctrines I assumed to be correct. An assumption I had learned to, in a way, hold against the parts of Christian history not convenient to my own.


Like many, I just dismissed it. There was the Church in the New Testament, then those who uncovered it again (in pieces) between the American Revolution and Azusa Street. The other 1800 years, especially those prior to 1517, were all a religious tangle of heresy and corruption I was free to disregard.


Or so I believed.


Getting a peek behind that curtain of bias, however, left me shocked at how many inconveniences there may actually be ... and how significant they were.


This caused tremendous uneasiness, in the sense I wasn't seeing a whole lot of the faith, as I believed and practiced it, reflected much at all in early Christianity.

 

I’ll give one example of this. It involved a growing concern with the practice of communion.


I found that belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was axiomatic to the Church of the earliest centuries. It was a given. So much so, Christians were accused of cannibalism by pagans and Jews from the end of the first century onward, because they gathered regularly to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ.


It was the centerpiece of worship. While it was supported by Scripture reading, prayer, and teaching, gathering before the Table of the Lord was the heart of Christian practice.


This was belief and practice that endured in the growing Christian Tradition, being consistently maintained throughout the Middle Ages (even past the schism of the Latin Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church’s—both which hold to the same doctrine today).


It was never really even contested until a decade into the Protestant Reformation, where (of all people) Martin Luther vehemently defended the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist against a new doctrine proposed by the early Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli, who suggested the bread and wine was merely a symbol commemorating the bodily sacrifice of Christ.


So, I became perplexed over the practice of communion, and the appropriateness of its occasional, sometime casual, insertion between praise and worship and what had become the new centerpiece of contemporary Protestant evangelicalism … the sermon.

 

By this time, my prayer was to keep myself committed to surrendering to God’s gravity, and as disquieting as all this was at times, it was valuable in exposing me to what I had actually become as a believer—an assumer more than a seeker.


Out of that gravitational pull and this personal realization emerged the distant possibility God was leading me back to the Catholic Church. It soon became a real possibility. Then, over time, it became a likelihood … and then an even greater one, until returning to my Catholic heritage became the desire of my heart and soul.


(Insert screeching halt sound.)

Enter the pandemic.


As with most things in 2020 life (like many of you will probably “get”), this entire process was disrupted by the uncertainty of those following months. Additionally, in the fall of that year I started my doctoral journey. Couple those two things with the final winding down of my dear mother and her long and courageous battle with Alzheimer’s, most of you would probably also “get” how there was scarce mental capacity remaining for any more productive thinking on this all, in that time being.


And when things did begin to moderate into (and I hate the term) the “new normal,” I briefly recalled the whole thing and actually wondered if it had been some wave the 2020 “reality check” had dashed on the rocks.


Silly me.


Not only did it return, but it also stormed the beaches of my mind, heart, and spirit, with significant intensity. I may even say ferocity.


Thus, on that day, sitting in the north parking lot of St. Kieran Catholic Church, in mid-February 2021, I realized my world had been rocked. It was clear to me the Spirit of God had drawn me back to the Roman Catholic Church.

Note the tense choice there: “had drawn me,” and not “was drawing me.” I want to convey a sense of finality through that realization.


However, saying YES to this, meant saying NO to something else. While mind, heart, and spirit were onboard, getting my will to follow? Well … that was going to take a bit. If you’ve read all of these installments, you know my will lagged until May of this year, when I finally got to the point, I could no longer stomach my own inaction. (That would be a few weeks before the dating of that that first installment.)


Why, you may ask, was the will so resistant? The short answer involves a sense of loyalty, commitment, and counting the cost. The long answer will be saved for a later chapter in this story.


Nevertheless, in a strange parallel to my driving away from that wedding mass (previous installment) wondering how I’d admit to my evangelical church family that I was done with it all, for my lack of belief in God … I drove away from a mass once again wondering how I could ever tell my evangelical family I was done with it all, for my conviction God was pulling me “home to Rome.”


Those loyalties, responsibilities, and the personal ties to that community were far deeper and stronger, at that point in time, than ever.


Still, I was incredulous, you know? I just kept thinking … “God, you CANNOT possibility be asking this of me.”


But I knew I was in too deep, by that point, for it all to be otherwise. I also recognized it as the culmination of a process that had begun some years prior. My arrival in that moment was the result of a long-fought experience of painful and confusing deterioration I endured after surrendering the framework of my faith to God. A framework, that once I did, was revealed as holding little value for my connection with him to begin with.


It began about a decade prior to that morning.



What Am I Really Even Doing Here?

I don’t recall why, but I was flying solo at church that morning. Douglas would have been a little over four at the time. So, maybe he was under the weather and Nicole stayed home with him.

No matter, there I was. Standing toward the rear and toward the right side of a very dark auditorium, a colorfully and brightly illuminated stage before me.


Our new worship director was three songs into his set. This would have been about six months or so into his brief layover with our congregation.


As he performed worship, I admired the evident skill, polish, and charisma that a man so young—

Wait! What?


“Performing?” I thought. “That’s sort of harsh. Why would I think that?”


This self-inquiry led to some critical self-reflection. There could have been any number of reasons I had such a thought. All of them judgmental and pointing to issues with my outlook that morning, as opposed to anything he was or was not doing.


Insofar as that was the case, though, I couldn’t help feeling I was standing in an atmosphere that seemed more like something other than church. It was as if my mind and spirit were pointed toward numerous things, none of which happened to be God, at least in any direct sense.

And as much as I began checking my attitude for judgmentalism, I sort of knew myself well enough to know that wasn’t really what was going on.

There was nothing begrudging in me … toward him, the church, anyone, or anything. I wasn’t being the religious “get off my lawn” guy because of a new style, sound, approach, or volume level that wasn’t to my taste.


Still, and without realizing it, I had at some point early in the worship service become detached from it all. And I proceeded to just stand there, taking it in, like a spectator ... almost a concert goer.


As I broke it down … the thing that really stood out at me was the focus of it all. I could not help but think that it was not as God-centered as it was “US” centered. Now four songs in, each had as its object: WE; ME; and (with special emphasis) I.

 

It had been about a decade and a half since my encounter with God in Pensacola. In the intervening years I had grown to be integrally involved with, and in many respects in love with, this community. I met my wife and got married there. Served alongside them in various capacities, volunteering to join or lead, as my skills were suited.


I teamed with them in foreign lands to serve the church and its mission abroad.


I prayed with them. Ate with them. Celebrated with them. Mourned with them.


I had been part of their journey, as they had been part of mine and Nicole’s (and Douglas’) for a good long time.


This wasn’t just my faith community. It was my tribe, my friends, my family. Truly amazing people.


Truly.

 

But for the first time, that morning, I found myself vexed with an unexpected and troubling series of questions … questions about US, WE, (and with special emphasis) ME.


“What are we even doing right now? Is THIS what worship is supposed to be? Is there an attempt to manufacture something spiritual and meaningful happening before me, around me … IN ME?”


And if so, what was driving the expectation up? Something external to me, that I had grown accustomed to as worship? Or was it (more likely) something within me that I had allowed to contour my worship in such a way?


To this day, I think these questions involve a circular answer … each of which would necessitate the other. It was a “chicken or the egg” scenario, in a way.

But one question would linger for years to come, “Is this really what the church should be?”


Minutes after the sermon concluded, the lights were dimmed out once again. The young worship leader returned to do his thing, behind the speaker who delivered an impassioned final prayer, exhorting the Spirit of God to move upon those who needed it, while inviting those who did ... to let it.


Again, I stood there in observer mode. Taking in every word, processing it all in context, and finding myself reduced to a single question: “Why am I here?”

 

Here, many a reader’s mind will race to supply apologetic responses to what these questions imply, precisely because my asking such questions press the belief something was wrong with this all. And therefore, whatever I perceived to be off … must’ve been off with me.


I know this, why? Because that is exactly what my mind was racing to do. Truth be told, I spent the entire sermon trying to work out the “something” that was wrong with my outlook on worship that day, as opposed to the possibility that what was off, was indeed the approach to it.


I’ll go even further and suggest this self-analysis and critique (that such questions must signal something wrong in me) was present, in the form of self-spiritual abuse, for a fair number of years afterwards.


As if they constituted a betrayal or exposed something fake about my own faith, I wrestled with these questions and what they implied. Often with enormous amounts of discomfort with, and condemnation of, my own love of God and spiritual/moral state.


Without knowing it at the time, and long before the term "deconstruction" became so trendy among evangelicals, the demolition of my evangelicalism had commenced.


An Evangelical Deconstruction

Over the following years, all of this would become more and more frequently confronted, as I began to take a deeper appraisal of my spiritual being than ever before. And I didn't just confront questions and tensions but worked very hard to discern the genuine motives behind them.

One thing I was coming to grasp was that I was indeed growing and maturing as a “church-goer,” but that was not translating into growing and maturing as a Christian.


I will go as far as to say, that for a good five or so years, I had indeed grown in my walk with God after encountering him in Florida. But this was now thirteen/fourteen years after. And without really noticing it along the way, I couldn’t point to a single tangible aspect of my spiritual/devotional life that had substantially developed over the later eight or nine years of this period.


The depth of my Christ-likeness was stalled at puddle deep. This, despite conformity to the requisites for spiritual formation, common to the publications, teachings, and devotional strategies of the broader contemporary American evangelical movement.


I was reading the Bible regularly … and doing so A LOT. I was praying. I was fasting (on occasion). Getting involved in ministry and service. Doing the small group thing. And I was doing it with the searching thirst of one aware of their own “parched-ness.”


I began to consider my discipleship, in very raw and intimate terms. And it wrecked me to discover … then to admit … I was not so much a disciple of Christ, as I was an adherent of a system of beliefs. A system coupled to a code of morals and characteristic spiritual benchmarks, that when lived up to, would constitute the “fruit” of a good Christian life; as opposed to a living and breathing expression of existing in, and being formed to, the gospel.


As much as my evangelical sphere and I (flapping my gums in lockstep with it) touted “relationship over religion,” I was beginning to suspect precisely the opposite was taking place.

I knew all the components of my faith context: the verbal language, the body language, the spiritual etiquette, the behavioral etiquette. I executed them well and faithfully … and (along with the rest of my faith community as best I could tell) with a sincere motive.


But a decade ago, I was pained to recognize I certainly didn’t know God well at all.


I began to ask myself, what defines what? Was that system and that code defining my discipleship or was Christ?


The belief was that the system, code, and characteristics were biblical, so it was OK to presuppose that what I was doing was what God wanted.


Yet, when I stepped back to look at my own relationship with the Lord in its panoramic totality, I was repulsed to find it was far more a pursuit of a spiritual identity pattern than real love and affection with my Savior.


To put it another way, I was in relationship with a standard of belief and behavior, as opposed to living gospel alongside others who needed The Gospel.


I was placing this relationship over religion, all right. But my relational preoccupation was tied more to propositional alignment and emotionalism, which amounted to latent self-absorption. It was a focus that viewed God over the shoulder of my own reflection.


Let me repeat that: IT WAS A FOCUS THAT ONLY ALLOWED ME TO SEE GOD OVER THE SHOULDER OF MY OWN REFLECTION.


I, was my relational fixation. God was in the background of me, reflectively (perhaps effectively) removed. I couldn't see him, without first taking myself into account, sadly enough.


And others? Forget about it.


As if that wasn’t enough, the entire framework for “doing church” was, in my humble view, a significant driver for it all.


Chicken or the egg ...


It was a framework that believes itself to be “open to the movement of the Spirit” in a way that the liturgical church wasn’t. This was due to it not being “bound” to the perceived rigors and "ritualism" the “religious” folk were stuck in.

Yet, what I came to see was merely a different liturgy taking place. Instead of calling it a "mass," we called it a "service." But this service was structured around elements that were, as far as I could tell, potentially just as ritualistic, if not more.


Once I came to this opinion, I began to consider what the movements and stylings of this form of liturgy were rooted in. It wasn't ancient (capital "T") Tradition. It wasn't the practice of the early Church. It wasn't New Testament. It wasn't awe. It wasn't beauty.


It was a more contemporary vibe. It was twenty-first century. It was attraction. It was consumer.


And here, let me add that I am not saying it was wrong, as much as I’m saying it is liturgy from a different orientation. One that, without question, looks to God. But one that left me not able to look to God straight away, because I was always considering him by way of me.


This is American perspective at its heart. Stylized to be individualized.


I will, of course, concede that maybe this sense was "just me." But look, "just me" felt spiritually superficial.


When you cut to the quick, I was spiritually lonely, and I felt distant from the Object of my faith.


I guess you could say, I was looking for some quality alone time with God. I wanted to get to know him better and more fully. Yet, paradoxically, for that to happen, I needed to find some time for us to get away together ... away from ME.


So, a more beautiful, straight away, and sacramental liturgy became my longing.


I guess you could say, I began yearning for more religion.

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