Faith Journey | The Jesus Movement

The year that I was 13 was a significant year indeed. (See the two blog posts before this one.) I came back from a summer in Europe to my father’s new pastorate, which meant seemingly everything in my life had changed. Returning to America after spending time in Germany had felt disorienting before, but now I was dealing with a new home in an unfamiliar town. I didn’t know anyone, and I missed our small mountain community and our cozy little home on the lake.

It was 1971, and it didn’t take long for the Jesus Movement to find us again. (My father had already held youth-oriented evening church services in our previous church, and they had become quite popular.) Soon a few ragtag hippie-types were meeting with my father, peppering him with questions, and begging to be taught by him. “He knows the actual Greek!” one of them enthused to me.

These kids had dramatic conversion stories: almost all of them had been “into something”, like drugs or eastern religions or promiscuous sex or all three, before coming to Christ. It was a truly exciting time, to the point that some people were sure we were observing the end times revival.

Eventually I got caught up with this group of new converts who had somehow found my dad. They were intense! For awhile, it seemed as if we had two youth groups, our regular bunch of typical kids and the “spiritual” semi-ex-hippy group who wanted only to study the Bible, sing choruses, and have deep discussions. When the two factions got together, it was awkward indeed.

I guess we weren’t intense enough at our church because our hippy friends invited my older brother and me to what was supposedly just a Bible Study — only we called it a “Bible Rap” because it was the early 70’s and that’s how we talked. It consisted of a bunch of us sitting around on the floor in a beautiful little Episcopal church, with one of the most breathtaking carved wooden crucifixes I’ve ever seen.

As far as I could tell, there wasn’t any real leadership within this group. We met weekly and, maybe once every few months, some older guy showed up who everybody seemed to hold in respect, if not awe. There was talk of trying to emulate the “New Testament Church” which, to this bunch at least, bore a strange resemblance to hippies sitting around singing “Happy in the Lord”, talking about the end times, reading the Bible, telling our testimonies, and complaining about people who we thought didn’t measure up spiritually. But gradually there seemed less emphasis on sharing our unschooled interpretations of the Bible, and more on being baptized with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues.

Around the same time, people in the group became extremely judgmental and legalistic. “Rebukes” were common: I got fussed when I referred to a boy as “cute”, for example.

I remember being surrounded by older girls (I was probably the youngest kid, by at least a couple years, who attended) and they were demanding that I confess the SECRET SIN in my life, because there had to be some, it was obvious, or my spiritual experiences would match theirs exactly, and I would speak in tongues. I remember week after week of confessing everything that I could think of, like being “lazy” (undiagnosed inattentive ADHD) at school, having a “messy” room, etc., etc. The weekly interrogation sessions were only one aspect of how controlling and pushy and borderline abusive this group had become.

I went on a quest to be “baptized in the Holy Spirit“ — to be slain in the Spirit and speak in tongues — and I went to meeting after meeting and event after event, wherever I heard that “the Spirit was moving” and I had a way of getting there. (My mother patiently drove me to a number of these.) I would go forward and, inevitably, almost everyone around me would fall down and speak in tongues, but nothing ever happened to me.

Eventually I missed one of the Bible Raps, but something that night got my brother all upset, to the point that he and his girlfriend were convinced that they had observed demonic activity. We never returned.

My experiences during that time were mixed, with lots of excitement, but also seeing what seemed good at first — like the Bible Rap — fizzling out or turning into something negative. My view of “church” was both challenged and, in retrospect, strengthened. Summer camps, youth rallies, and the enthusiasm of so many new converts galvanized my faith. Shy little me handed out “Jesus Papers” at my junior high school, carried around a cool looking Bible, and even started a weekly Bible study that met before school. (Talk about the blind leading the blind…)

Eventually, by the time I reached high school, one by one, the “Bible Rap” kids started “falling away”. It was a sad, discouraging thing to watch, made all the more so because of painful things in my personal life. My faith walk during those years became one of lukewarmness, pain, and even doubt — punctuated by times of renewal and re-dedication. It was definitely a roller-coaster ride.

Even years later, I would miss those first few Bible Raps that I attended, before things got weird— when we sat around on the floor, filled with youthful zeal, gazing at a beautiful giant crucifix and earnestly pouring our hearts out to God.

Faith Journey | Attending Mass in Italy

When I was 13, I had the privilege of spending five wonderful weeks in Italy, in the delightful little town of Vettica, where my uncle was born and grew up. He had married my mother’s oldest sister and the two of them, with my cousin in tow, returned to his family home every summer. That year they took my older brother and me along with them.

I could write volumes about my time there, because it was such a pivotal experience for me on so many levels, and left a huge impact. Just two examples: I finally learned to swim; and, thanks to my aunt’s fascinating “bedtime stories/lectures”, I developed an interest in linguistics which inspired me to study Latin in junior high and high school, and various language/linguistics classes in college. Mostly, my time there was hugely enjoyable, despite getting rather ill. Even then, I was doted on by my uncle’s sister and extremely well taken care of, so my brief “suffering” seemed not much at all. It was mostly an idyllic time, full of feasting and swimming and fascinating places and wonderful people who treated me like visiting royalty.

But I’m writing about my faith journey…

Before going to Italy, my experience with and understanding of Catholicism was minimal. I knew schoolmates who observed meatless Fridays and vaguely knew it had something to do with their Catholic faith. From somewhere I’d gotten the idea that Catholicism was old and traditional, which made me think it should continue on without change, so I was strangely upset about the Mass no longer being in Latin. At the same time, I really had no idea what the Mass was and had zero interest in the Latin language, so I’m not sure why this mattered so much to me. (What can I say? I was a weird kid.) My father had befriended a Catholic priest during his first pastorate; apparently the two of them were the only ones, in a local group of mostly theologically liberal pastors, who “really believed the Bible”. That gave me a rather positive impression of priests. So did watching Bishop Fulton Sheen on TV a few times. A story I’d read about Italian immigrant families made the very idea of midnight Mass at Christmas seem so wondrous that I wished we observed something similar. I’d come to the conclusion that, for the most part, Catholic Churches appeared — from the outside at least — to be more beautiful and “churchy” than their Protestant counterparts. And that’s about all I knew.

Then I went to Italy.

Catholicism was woven into the very fabric of everyday life, and I was exposed to things that, frankly, bewildered me. I saw statues of Mary everywhere, it seemed, and statues of village patron saints paraded about in processions and celebrations. At one point, I blurted out something to my aunt about idolatry.

“You ignorant little girl,” Tante Lydia responded, somehow making the words sound loving rather than like an insult or rebuke. Then, ever the teacher, she proceeded to set me straight. I wish I could remember what she said, but my takeaway was that there was a vast difference between worshiping and celebrating or honoring, and that I was wrong to judge the hearts of people when I didn’t even understand their words, actions, or the real meaning behind them. The lesson about judging the hearts of others is one that, sadly, I have had to relearn over the years.

Weeks later, back in Germany, I made some comment to my grandfather about wondering why “real Christians” didn’t leave the Catholic Church. My Opa loved me dearly — in fact, for years I was convinced that I was his favorite grandchild — but he didn’t hesitate to rebuke me strongly for my prejudice. He had known many “real Christians” over his lifetime, he told me, and some of the most devout ones were Catholic. He trusted that they were exactly where God wanted them to be.

While in Italy, we attended the village church. This was 1971, and the Mass was in Italian. The priest, a relative of my uncle, helpfully loaned me an older German/Latin missal, cautioning me that the liturgy was not identical but that I would hopefully understand most of what was going on. So my first introduction to the Catholic Mass was reading a German translation of the Traditional Latin Mass during an Italian Mass! Unfortunately my German vocabulary wasn’t quite up to the task. I did come to the conclusion that a lot of it was prayer. In fact, it seemed to be mostly prayer, as far as I could tell.

I secretly found the priest fascinating. In public — as in whenever he was around the church or going out and about on the village street — he wore his cassock and carried himself with an air of sober dignity. During the Mass, I thought his voice was impressive and reverent. And then he would show up for an evening visit or to go out with the fisherman at night, dressed in a quite ordinary way. Yet there was still something about him…

I returned to America thinking that Catholicism in our country was of a very different sort. In many ways, that’s true. It was far less public. In Vettica, the children about to receive communion processed down the village street that was lined by all the rest of us, and I’d never seen anything like that at home. Faith in general, where I lived, seemed a way more subdued if not private thing, best kept within the walls of church and home, with the exceptions (like Billy Graham crusades or the Jesus Movement) being newsworthy. If American towns had patron saints, they were kept hidden away and never mentioned, at least as far as I could tell.

But I had to admit that there was something very special about the church as a center of village life, and about people seeming to take for granted that they could openly express and celebrate their faith anywhere and everywhere. And there was also something special about churches and traditions that went back hundreds upon hundreds of years. America always seemed so new in contrast, and I wasn’t sure that was entirely a good thing.

I often found myself longing for deeper roots, for a sense of belonging to something far greater, grander, and more enduring. Looking back now, I see so much of this as God planting seeds in my life and in my heart, seeds that would take decades to come to full fruition.

Faith Journey | Beauty and Awe

My German grandmother introduced me to beautiful architecture. How I wish I had paid more attention to her attempts to teach me about history and architectural styles, but I did absorb an appreciation for beautiful churches — places that took my breath away and inspired in me a sense of reverence. On one of our visits to Germany, when I was 13 years old, Oma insisted she show us the cathedral in Limburg.

How glad I am that she took us there! I’ll never forget my first glimpse of this magnificent cathedral that dominated the landscape. At the time, they were restoring the exterior, but enough of the work had been completed for me to be stunned by how beautiful it was.

When we entered the building, I was overwhelmed with the sense of sacredness.

We were given an unexpected gift on the day we visited, and I wish we had pictures and recordings of what we experienced. It was a Saturday, and people were readying for Mass the next day. Someone was practicing on the pipe organ while women were decorating an area around the altar with flowers. Over 50 years later, I can still remember how exquisitely and reverently beautiful it all was. I was in awe, and I never wanted to leave.

My grandmother showed and described many more wonderful things over the years, planting deep in me a longing for truth, beauty, and goodness.

We can worship God in many ways and in many places. But not all of those places inspire a sense of awe and reverence, and not all of our attempts at worship are necessarily befitting the One we claim to worship. Sorting that out, for me, has been a lengthy process, involving study, soul-searching, long conversations, and prayer. And, as I have written previously, I’ve learned from experience that I am far more capable of worship when “my soul is fed by beauty in an environment designed for worship rather than vexed by ugly, distracting things scattered across what looks like a concert stage.”

Although I don’t worship in a grand cathedral on Sundays, I do worship in a sacred place that is entirely focused on worship. I am surrounded by truth, beauty, and goodness, and our worship feels timeless to me, with a liturgy that spans the ages and contains the very words that resound and will resound around the Throne of Heaven. Why settle for less?

Faith Journey | The hymnal that changed my life

My father, a Baptist pastor, loved to sing. Some of my fondest childhood memories of church involve singing, and watching the joy in which Daddy led the congregation. In his first pastorate, we used the “Worship and Service Hymnal”, published in 1957. When I think of all the hymnals I’ve used in various churches over the years, it’s still my favorite.

Even though I was highly motivated to learn to read, I struggled mightily. This hymnal became one of my tutors. I learned to recognize three digit numbers and find my way to the correct page. And, as I followed along with the familiar hymns, with words helpfully divided into syllables, reading began to make more and more sense to me.

“And Can It Be” became, years later, one of my favorite hymns.

That hymnal, and our long-ago Baptist church services, also introduced me to liturgical worship, although we never would have described it with those words. We had an “order of service”: every Sunday, we sang the Doxology and the Gloria Patri; we recited the Lord’s Prayer; we read Scripture aloud together, in what we called “responsive readings”, which were located towards the back of the hymnal.

When I was 11 years old, I went forward at a Billy Graham crusade and prayed to receive Jesus Christ as my personal Savior. Our home copy of the “Worship and Service Hymnal” became my first prayer book although, if someone had asked me what a “prayer book” was, I would have had no idea what they were talking about. Some of my sweetest memories of all time are those I spent, when alone at home, using the words of my favorite hymns as prayers. They said so much better what my heart longed to say to the God I was learning to worship in spirit and in truth… and especially what I wanted to say to the Jesus that I was learning to love.

In no way am I exaggerating when I say that this hymnal changed my life. It helped teach me to read. It helped teach me to worship. It put words and music to my prayers. And it not only introduced me to beautiful elements of liturgical worship, but sparked a hunger and longing for more.

The dangers of “concordance theology”

One of the problems of private interpretation of Scripture, along with the idea that the Holy Spirit alone is enough to keep us from error (compounded with the temptation to arrogantly assume that all the other people in the world who come to differing conclusions than us simply aren’t listening to God) is that our methods of interpretation can sometimes become truly odd indeed. This is especially the case if we aren’t learned scholars, knowledgeable in the Biblical languages, educated in the history and culture of the human authors, and well studied in theology and doctrine. The wheel we re-invent in our unwillingness to rely on the wisdom of the ages is all too often prone to be a rickety, even dangerous wheel.

Enter what I’ve dubbed “concordance theology”. This is when someone, attempting to plumb the depth of meaning in a particular verse or passage, seizes on a key word, looks it up in their trusty concordance or Bible app search function and, after hopscotching around the Bible, comes up with some way of stringing a bunch of verses together to arrive at some all too often novel meaning.

Let me demonstrate.

John 10:7 So Jesus said again, “I tell you the solemn truth, I am the door for the sheep.

Hhhhmmm… What does this mean? Jesus couldn’t be saying that He is a literal door! I know — let Scripture interpret Scripture! Let’s see where the concept of “door” first appears in the Bible.

Genesis 4:7 Is it not true that if you do what is right, you will be fine? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to dominate you, but you must subdue it.”

Uh oh. That makes it sound like the door is a place where sin crouches. But wait — if that’s true, there needs to be at least one other verse to confirm that.

Proverbs 5:8 Keep yourself far from her,
and do not go near the door of her house,

Oh, wow. Doors are associated in Scripture with sin, and we are warned not to go near them. Is Jesus warning us to stay away from Him? Apparently He is the door for sheep, but doors are not for people trying to avoid sin.

John 10:2 The one who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.

Now I get it! Shepherds are leaders, and only they are strong enough to actually get near enough to enter the door where sin is crouching. When Jesus said He is the door for sheep, He really meant that only shepherds should get close to Him. Got it.

I admit that it took me very little time to make this all up, and I made it as ridiculous as possible, but I’ve heard examples of “concordance theology” almost as absurd. Unfortunately, the people espousing their interpretations were serious, and were insisting their conclusions were obvious, sometimes to the point of exclaiming, “I can’t understand why no one else has ever seen this before!”


I thank God that He did not abandon me to living as an orphan with a Book, left to muddle my way through it on my own. Thank God for His Church, and for a glorious tradition of Saints far more learned and holy than I can ever hope to be!