Skip to comments.His Open Arms Welcomed Me
Posted on 11/03/2007 5:03:12 PM PDT by annalex
The following story of my conversion, "His Open Arms Welcomed Me," is the first chapter of the bestseller Surprised by Truth, edited by Patrick Madrid (Basilica, 1994).
I was quite young the first time I saw him, so I don't remember where it happened. But I do remember being terrified by the sight: that tortured man, thorn-crowned, blood-bathed, forsaken. The sculptor had spared no crease of agony; the painter, no crimson stroke. He was a nightmare in wood.
Yet I was strangely drawn to him as well. His open arms welcomed me; his uncovered breast stretched out like a refuge. I wanted to touch him.
Of course, I knew who he was. After all, I'd won the big prize -- a Hershey Bar -- for being the first kindergartner in our little Southern Presbyterian church to memorize the books of the Bible. And my parents had busted with pride on the morning when I stood before the congregation to recite the grand old affirmations of the Westminster Confession: Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever ...
But in our church the cross on the wall was empty and clean. We read about the blood, we sang about the blood, but we didn't splash it on our walls and doorposts.
In the years to follow, the man on the cross haunted me. When I found out that a schoolmate wore a crucifix around his neck, I asked my father to get me one. But he shook his head and said, "That's just for Catholics." There was no malice in his words; he simply spoke matter-of-factly, in the same way he might have observed that yarmulkes were just for Jews.
One day my aunt from New York came south to visit. She was always inheriting odd items from boarders in the residential motel where she worked, and this time she shared them with us. In a box of assorted old treasures calculated to fascinate a little boy for hours, I found him.
He was plaster of Paris, unfinished, maybe a foot long, cross and all. I ran my fingers over the smooth surface. The details were remarkable for so humble a work, though he had a flaw in his right foot. He was beautiful. But he was too white, too clean. So I found some old watercolors and painted every detail lovingly, with crimson dominating the whole. Then I kept him under my bed and took him out regularly so I could look at him, touch him, and wonder why he should be in some Catholic home instead of mine.
I don't remember when I lost that plaster body, but it must have been sometime after I became an arrogant little atheist at the age of twelve. Some school teacher I've long forgotten encouraged me to read Voltaire, the Enlightenment rationalist, who convinced me that all religion was delusion. At the time I didn't need much convincing; the adolescent season of rebellion against my parents had begun, and skepticism was for me the weapon of choice. No doubt I tossed out the man on the Cross in the same trash can with the Westminster Confession.
For six years I ran from him, though I thought I was running to truth. I had no choice about attending the Presbyterian church with my family, but every week I repeated a quiet, private act of defiance: Whenever the congregation said the Apostles' Creed, I remained silent.
My heart was hungry but my head turned away from anything that could have nourished my spirit. So I began to feed on spiritual garbage instead. A science fair project on parapsychology introduced me to supernatural forces. But I thought they were only unexamined natural powers of the human mind. Before long, I was trafficking in spirits, though I would never have dreamed they were anything other than my own psychic energies. They would sometimes tell me what others were thinking, or whisper of events that were taking place at a distance. The more power they gave me, the hungrier I became for it. I began to experiment with seances, levitation, and other occult practices -- all, of course, in the name of science. I wanted to become an expert in parapsychology.
From time to time I saw him again, usually hanging beyond the altar in the church of my Catholic girlfriend. His open arms still welcomed me. But since I was convinced there was no God, the most he could represent to me was a suffering humanity. And in those heady days of the `60s, when American youth were so certain they could transform the world, I didn't want a reminder of human brokenness. We were out to forge our own bright destiny in the new Age of Aquarius, and the crucifix was an unwelcome relic of the old order. Like some child of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, born just a few centuries too late, I was convinced humanity could perfect itself through education. So I set out to prove the thesis in the human laboratory of my high school.
Our particular campus was an odd mix of peril and promise. As a first step in fully desegregating the public schools of our Southern city, the school board by fiat turned an all-black high school into a racially mixed one. Amazingly, those of us with a vision for racial harmony were able to build more of it than many critics had expected: Out of the chaos of a totally new student body gathered from utterly different social and racial backgrounds, we forged well-oiled student organizations that helped smooth the process of integration.
In a short time, blacks and whites were becoming friends and working hard to build a community. We became the city's first model of a school that had been forced to desegregate totally, yet had come out of the process racially integrated as well -- and all without violence. As student body president and a central actor in the drama, I felt as if my Enlightenment strategy for changing the world had been validated.
Nevertheless, reality at last bumped up against my carefully crafted visions. First to go was the Aquarian illusion. After a massive transfer of students city-wide in my senior year to complete the desegregation process in all the high schools, the make-up of our student population was radically altered. Some of the new students were militant racists and troublemakers, both black and white. When other campuses in the city began closing down because of rioting, we were put on alert that angry students from other schools were planning to infiltrate our student body and provoke violence there as well.
One lovely fall afternoon, after our homecoming rally, it happened. A riot broke out on campus as I watched helplessly. Black and white friends who had once shared my hopes for a new, peaceful world attacked one another with knives, chains, and tire irons. I naively ran around campus from one little mob to another, trying to break up fights and restore calm. My watch was knocked off my wrist in the struggle, but I was miraculously spared injury -- to my body, that is. My soul was quite another matter. The sight of one young man in particular was branded on my memory. He lay sprawled cruciform in the dust, his arms extended, his face bloody. The wooden nightmare of my childhood had become flesh and blood, and I wept bitterly for the death of a dream. The idol I had made of humanity was shattered, and nothing could put it back together.
Next to die were my delusions about psychic powers. One starless summer night a chilling demonic force, grown tired of its human plaything, commandeered my body. It physically pushed me toward the edge of a nearby river to throw me in. I've never learned to swim, so if a couple of muscular friends who were with me hadn't pinned me down, it would have drowned me.
The next morning I told my English teacher, a Christian who had been praying for me, what had happened. She said I'd had a brush with the Devil. I laughed at her and scoffed: Don't be so medieval. Even so, I had to admit something was out there, and it wasn't a friendly ghost. My teacher gave me C. S. Lewis to read -- at last, an antidote for the poison of Voltaire -- who in turn sent me back to the Scriptures.
It was there that I learned about angels, fallen and unfallen. I found dark references to the powers that had tormented me and the evil mastermind behind them, the god of this world. In the Bible I rediscovered a multi-tiered model of the universe, of nature and super-nature, that fit the realities of my recent experience in ways that parapsychology and the Enlightenment never could.
These were my first faltering steps back toward reality, and with a sobering irony, I came to believe in the Devil before I believed in God. Yet that inverted order of my emerging creed had its purpose in the divine intention: So devoid was I of the fear of God that I had to work my way into it by stages, starting with a fear of demons. The pleasure I'd taken in declaring myself an atheist, unfettered by the rules of any creator, began to crumble: If there was indeed a devil but no God to save me from him, I was in deep trouble.
Yet Scripture was teaching me much more than fear. In the gospels especially, I encountered a man whose wisdom and compassion arrested me. He was the same man I'd sung hymns about as a child, the man on the cross who had stirred me with his suffering; but he was becoming real in a way I'd never imagined possible.
Years before, he'd been much like the hero of a fairy tale: a bright legend that embodied the noblest human traits, but only a legend after all. Now he was entering history for me, breathing the air and walking the soil of a planet where I also breathed and walked. I was still scandalized by the thought that he could actually have been more than a man. But the possibilities were opening up. After all, once you grant the existence of super-nature, you can't rule out God; and if there's a God, what's there to stop him from invading nature? If there's a God, I knew, then the rest of the story, however shocking -- Virgin Birth, miracles, the Resurrection surely becomes possible.
Meanwhile, I began trying prayer as an experiment. My requests were concrete and specific; so were the swift, undeniable answers that came. The evidence was mounting, and though I felt threatened by the prospect of having to submit to the will of Another, a part of me also longed for that submission. Soon I was getting to know believers whose lives convincingly enfleshed the gospel -- or, to use Merton's haunting line, "People whose every action told me something of the country that was my home." When one of them invited me to a small prayer meeting, I came, however awkwardly, and sat silently for most of the evening. But I came back the next week, and the next, because I sensed that these people genuinely loved me, and I was hungry for their love.
A fresh, new breeze was blowing through my mind, sweeping out the cobwebs and debris that had accumulated through six years of darkness. The light of Christ was dawning inside, and all the frayed old arguments of the skeptics soon rotted in its brilliance. The more I knew of the world and myself, the more I found that Christian faith made sense of it all, and the more I longed to meet this man whose followers I had come to love.
Just after my high school graduation, at a massive nationwide rally of evangelical Christians in Dallas sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ, he came to me -- not in a vision or even a dream, but in a quiet, unshakable confidence that he was alive and knocking at the door of my heart. I repented of my unbelief and all its devastating consequences. I confessed to God that Jesus Christ was his Son, and asked him to become my Savior and Lord. My mind at last had given my heart permission to believe, to obey, and to adore.
When I took up Scripture again to read, the centuries were suddenly compressed, and the historical Figure that had replaced the noble Legend was himself now replaced with a living Friend. In my hands were letters he had addressed personally to me, written two millennia ago yet delivered to my home at this moment, so fresh that it seemed the ink should still be wet. He read my thoughts, nailed my sins, told my story, plumbed the depths of my pain.
Overwhelmed, I asked him to fill me with himself.
Two months later I was sitting alone in our Presbyterian church's sanctuary, late in the evening after a service had ended. I'd opened my Bible to the book of Acts -- no one had warned me that it was an incendiary tract -- and I read about the day of Pentecost. I'd never been taught about the baptism of the Holy Spirit or his gifts. But I told God that if what happened to those first believers on that day long ago could happen to me this evening, I wanted it. And I was willing to sit there all night until it happened.
I didn't have to wait long. Suddenly a flood of words in a tongue I'd never studied came bursting out of me, followed by a flood of joy that washed over me for a week. The Holy Spirit baptism was for me a baptism in laughter; I giggled like a fool for days over this sweet joke of God. It was a liberation from the chains of the Enlightenment. This irrational -- or perhaps I should say para-rational -- experience opened my eyes to realms that soared beyond my understanding, and left me face-to-face with mystery. For years, reason had masqueraded as a god in my life, but now I saw it for what it truly was: only a servant, however brilliantly attired.
That realization served me well in the following years when I majored in religious studies at Yale. That school's great, Neo-Gothic library best illustrates the spirit I encountered there: Painted on the wall high above the altar of its massive circulation desk is an awesome icon of Knowledge -- or perhaps Wisdom, though I rarely heard her voice in the classrooms of that campus. She was personified as a queen enthroned above us lowly student mortals, and though we freshmen were tempted to genuflect, I owed my first allegiance to another sovereign.
In the twenty years that came after, faith grew, establishing itself as the heart of the vocations that consumed me: I went on to a graduate school program in religion, and I served as a missionary evangelist in Europe, an associate pastor of a charismatic congregation, and a writer and editor for several Christian publishers.
Those were good years, years of settling into a deep relationship with the God I'd once abandoned. He gave me a beloved Christian wife and two children who learned to seek his face from a tender age. But at last the time came for yet another conversion in my life -- and another baptism of joy.
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Inspiring conversion testimony for your enjoyment.
I have some of Mr. Thigpen’s books. He seems to be a very nice man.
Well written, covers a lot of ground; thanks for posting this. Enjoyed it very much.
Excellent post and story. Thanks for posting it!
Bishop Steensons Statement to the House [of Bishops: Episcopal (TEC) to Catholic]
Bp. Steenson's Letter to his clergy on his conversion to the Catholic Church
Bishop Steenson Will Become a Roman Catholic
Married man considers turn as Catholic priest
Pavarotti returns to the Catholic faith before dying
Searching For Authority (A Methodist minister finds himself surprised by Truth!)
Why I Returned to the Catholic Church. Part VI: The Biblical Reality (Al Kresta)
Why I Returned to the Catholic Church. Part V: The Catholics and the Pope(Al Kresta)
The Hail Mary of a Protestant (A true story)
Why I Returned to the Catholic Church. Part IV: Crucifix and Altar(Al Kresta)
Why I Returned to the Catholic Church. Part III: Tradition and Church (Al Kresta)
Why I Returned to the Catholic Church. Part II: Doubts (Al Kresta)
Conversion Story - Rusty Tisdale (former Pentecostal)
Why I Returned to the Catholic Church. Part I: Darkness(Al Kresta)
Conversion Story - Matt Enloe (former Baptist) [prepare to be amazed!]
THE ORTHODOX REVIVAL IN RUSSIA
Conversion Story - David Finkelstein (former Jew)
Conversion Story - John Weidner (former Evangelical)
12 Reasons I Joined the Catholic Church
Conversion Story - Tom Hunt
The Tide Is Turning Toward Catholicism: The Converts
John Calvin Made Me Catholic
Journey Home - May 21 - Neil Babcox (former Presbyterian) - A minister encounters Mary
Going Catholic - Six journeys to Rome
My (Imminent) Reception into the Roman Catholic Church
A Convert's Pilgrimage [Christopher Cuddy]
From Pastor to Parishioner: My Love for Christ Led Me Home (to the Catholic Church) [Drake McCalister]
Lutheran professor of philosophy prepares to enter Catholic Church
Patty Bonds (former Baptist and sister of Dr. James White) to appear on The Journey Home - May 7
Pastor and Flock Become Catholics
Why Converts Choose Catholicism
From Calvinist to Catholic
The journey back - Dr. Beckwith explains his reasons for returning to the Catholic Church
Famous Homosexual Italian Author Returned to the Church Before Dying of AIDS
Dr. Francis Beckwith Returns To Full Communion With The Church
Catholic Converts - Stephen K. Ray (former Evangelical)
Catholic Converts - Malcolm Muggeridge
Catholic Converts - Richard John Neuhaus
Catholic Converts - Avery Cardinal Dulles
Catholic Converts - Israel (Eugenio) Zolli - Chief Rabbi of Rome
Catholic Converts - Robert H. Bork , American Jurist (Catholic Caucus)
Catholic Converts - Marcus Grodi
The Scott Hahn Conversion Story
This was the pivital point in my wife's conversion.
Thank you very much for the ping. I would agree with your wife that charismatic worship (from what little I know of it) is probably not the way to go. They appear to me to focus much more on experience, and much less on scripture. I am very glad she has found a Christian home.
[from the article:] The congregations I'd been part of were for the most part assuming that they had recovered a New Testament model of strictly spontaneous worship, local government, and Bible-only teaching. But the early Church, I found, was in reality liturgical in worship; trans-local and hierarchical in government; and dependent on a body of sacred Tradition that included the Scripture, yet stretched far beyond it as well.
I read the Wiki entry for spontaneous worship, and it was associated with charismatic services. It didn't sound like anything I've ever seen in a church service. (Granted, I have very little experience outside of my own SBC church.) In any event, it didn't sound like something I would want to be a part of.
The local government part I do agree with, however, I don't know where the claim by the author that early churches were governed in a hierarchal system comes from. I thought the very first churches were basically autonomous. (Is that right, WM?)
And as for Bible-only teaching, we use Bible-authority-only teaching. That does not preclude the use of other materials, as long as they are consistent with the Bible. Therefore, all tradition is not bad. In my church we employ the man-made tradition of the altar call. However, our faith is not DEPENDENT on any man-made tradition. That dependence itself is wholly man-made. For example:
Mark 7:8 : You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men ."
To me, this verse does NOT say that all traditions are wrong. It just says that we cannot replace the scriptures with such traditions. Therefore, if there is any dependence on traditions that contradict scripture, then scripture has been laid aside. Re-interpreting scripture to match the tradition is not a legitimate practice because that would have man trumping God's word.
It seems to me that the author used his charismatic background to arrive at Catholicism. I'm not saying that makes sense, but I would not recommend using the charismatic "way" to arrive at anything. :) It really doesn't surprise me at all that he found nothing of lasting value in Bible-believing Protestant churches. They are not experiential-based. Throughout the whole testimony, the author returns again and again to his experiential base. Apparently, he found something in Catholicism that matched that.
I've never actually drawn any connections between Catholicism and experiential faith so I would be interested in your comments. In addition, I noted in the testimony that the author spoke approvingly of "Charismatic Catholics". I've never heard of them. Are they legit?
A good source for that are the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, as well as of course the letters of St. Paul to the Corinthians.
Chapter 8. Let nothing be done without the bishop. See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.
Chapter 9. Honour the bishop. Moreover, it is in accordance with reason that we should return to soberness [of conduct], and, while yet we have opportunity, exercise repentance towards God. It is well to reverence both God and the bishop. He who honours the bishop has been honoured by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop, does [in reality] serve the devil. Let all things, then, abound to you through grace, for you are worthy. You have refreshed me in all things, and Jesus Christ [shall refresh] you. You have loved me when absent as well as when present. May God recompense you, for whose sake, while you endure all things, you shall attain unto Him.
16 Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ. 17 For this cause have I sent to you Timothy, who is my dearest son and faithful in the Lord; who will put you in mind of my ways, which are in Christ Jesus; as I teach every where in every church. 18 As if I would not come to you, so some are puffed up. 19 But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will: and will know, not the speech of them that are puffed up, but the power. 20 For the kingdom of God is not in speech, but in power. 21 What will you? shall I come to you with a rod; or in charity, and in the spirit of meekness?
(1 Cor 4)
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and members of member. 28 And God indeed hath set some in the church; first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly doctors; after that miracles; then the graces of healing, helps, governments, kinds of tongues, interpretations of speeches. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all doctors? 30 Are all workers of miracles? Have all the grace of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?
"Charismatic Catholics". I've never heard of them. Are they legit?
Yes; this is a movement out of the Theological Seminary in Steubenville, OH. I know little of them. Their signature Practice are healing masses.
A good source for that are the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, as well as of course the letters of St. Paul to the Corinthians.
Well sure, we have the hierarchy of my pastor and staff members in my church. But in the very early days, did one Bishop control a whole region of churches? Was there a centralized Church government in Rome from the beginning? That just doesn't sound right to me.
for when I’m not supposed to be sleeping
They were. The churches selected their Elders and Deacons. It was after the Apostolic Era ended that there began to be a push for a hierarchal system. The justification for this was to combat heresy.
As with all things that man does to try and improve on God's plan it didn't work out.
Then why does St. Paul direct Titus to "appoint presbyters in every town"?
Maybe that "push" started with the Apostles themselves.
One bishop ran the show in one large town. As the faith spread, a bishop had more and more presybters (elders, priests) helping them, and they delegated more and more duties to them.
The idea that one town would have more than one congregation (or parish), with one (or more) presbyters serving each one, developed later on.
In the early days, of course, there were only enough Christians for a single congregation in even the biggest towns, and few or none in the smaller towns and countryside. (Our word "pagan" comes from a Latin term equating roughly to "country bumpkin".)
“Christ, in His beauty, draws me to Him”. - Jacopone da Todi
His perfect Sacrifice is the beauty I’m refering to here, not that it’s “beautiful” to see Him on the Cross, broken and bloodied. (Just to avoid any confusion) The beauty of Him, in all His Being, is, dare I say, “irresistable” to those who seek an answer to the mystery of life? Perhaps this is the method by which the Father “draws” those that come to Him? (cf. John 6:44) The Beauty of His Son.
Through the Son, the Father draws.
Just something I’ve been thinking about for a while.
The issue is whether the Early Church was hierarchical, not whether hierarchies also exist in Protestant settings. Also note that the quotes I gave you not simply set up admninistrative structures: they set up a liturgical and doctrinal structure as well, centered around the Eucharist and obedient to the bishop in all matters.
After St. Peter we had a short-lived papacy of St. Linus of which we know next to nothing; he was succeeded by St. Clement who was controlling things in Corinth over the heads of the local bishops, so definitely we had a papacy in the person of St. Clement, while the papacy of St. Peter is clear from the scripture.
Here's a link: The Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians