A letter on Finding Faith – Karen Kerley

In 12 Converts on 2015/10/30 at 12:00 AM

Dear Friends,

I’d like to take a moment to share with you a journey I started years ago, a journey that led me through the mission field, to a Christian university, into and out of many churches and to an unlikely home. Understanding you might need time to digest this journey, I neither wanted to “spring” it on you via phone nor wait until I visit you to “surprise” you with it. It certainly surprised me.

Born in the mountains of North Carolina, I spent my early years in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where my father attended a local Christian university. There, he acquired his undergraduate and graduate degrees, and there he accepted a call to the mission field . . . to Australia.

After spending several years on deputation, raising funds from various Baptist churches to sustain both the ministry and our basic living expenses, my father led us to Australia where we spent almost a decade as Independent Baptist missionaries. It was in Australia that I saw prayers answered, that I learned about many other cultures and that I first experienced Christians outside the Fundamentalist circles in which I was being reared. It was there that I saw how Christians pulled together to face tragedies, drought and death, but it was also there that I witnessed how easily churches fracture over doctrinal interpretations, misunderstandings and even personalities, how they scatter without a shepherd to guide them, without a Moses to lead them through the wilderness.

At 18, I returned to the States to attend university, a Christian university. My love for the arts and opera led me to Bob Jones University. There, I studied business, language and music. There, I was introduced to many Fundamentalist missionaries. There, I took part in mission trips to Europe, particularly Bavaria, Catholic Bavaria.

I remember the spring sights, sounds and smells of the Bavarian villages I made home for a few summers. I remember long walks along country lanes, cycling through lakeside pastures and spending quiet moments in churches, Catholic churches. I remember the colorful processions celebrating Pentecost. I remember being drawn to the beauty, the ceremony, the incense, the organs of the Catholic churches. I remember thinking how sadly wrong and misled all those Catholics were, as I’d been taught since childhood. But I also remember being attracted to something in those Catholic churches, something I couldn’t quite identify . . . a peacefulness, a serenity, a sacredness within the church. It would be many years later that I would discover what that something is, WHO that something is.

A few years later, as a German and English instructor at Bob Jones, I became troubled by what I saw in Fundamentalism. I saw many who were passionate about sharing the Gospel; however, I also observed a division, a separation not just from sinful behaviors, but from other believers, a division that seemed to be spawned by fear, zealousness and perhaps pride.

Worship styles, music, points on the Calvinistic scale and other like issues divided believers, sometimes vehemently. The impacts that I observed to many friends and acquaintances were devastating, some walking away from faith, some moving on to more “progressive” organizations, some leading defeated, joyless, fearful lives. After much prayer and study, I sensed God calling me, pulling me, along on a journey. Having been at BJ, first as a student, then as a teacher, for nearly a decade and in fundamentalist circles my entire life, I left the school, left Fundamentalism. I felt as though I were walking into a desert, like Moses, not knowing where I was going or where I was being called. Out of frustration, I asked God to show me who He was, and lead me to Christians beyond the gates of BJU, and, indeed, He brought vibrant believers from various walks and denominations across my path.

In the meantime, I began fellowshipping with, what I considered to be, more forward- thinking, evangelical churches, free from the dividing constraints I’d experienced, where the music was upbeat, the expression fresh and the worship exciting. I enjoyed the teaching, the fellowship and the freedom but soon found that the worship often left me with an annoying feeling that something was missing in the worship. So, I continued my search as before – unsure of what I was looking for or even missing.

After a few years, I took a paid singing position at a Presbyterian church. I loved the music, began to appreciate the more traditional liturgical structure and, admittedly, enjoyed the pomp and ceremony. Attendance became a matter of habit – singing every Sunday, attending rehearsals every Thursday evening. Over time, however, I began to feel that nagging sense that something was missing. And, again I felt a tug – both through prayer and scripture – to something else, to figure out what was missing.

I also became more aware of the struggles of the protestant church at large with issues of life, of marriage and of moral relativism being forced upon the church by society. One Christmas, I found myself flipping around on the TV, quite aimlessly, when I heard a German speaker. It was a sermon in German, and the thing that caught my attention was an omission in the English translation. From the German speaker, I heard a clear articulation of the Church’s responsibility to be salt in the earth on matters of morality, of life, of faith and that the influence begins in the home, the domestic church as the speaker called it, and in school. The English interpreter left out the speaker’s call to include moral teachings in schools. I was flabbergasted to learn that the speaker was the recently appointed German pope, Benedict. It surprised me to hear a Catholic espousing a Biblical perspective on morality and calling the faithful to live these principles in society.

The following year, I made the decision to leave the Presbyterian church to dedicate more time to my search for a church home.  Out of curiosity, I visited Lutheran churches, Episcopal churches, Baptist churches, Reformed churches, Methodist churches, read doctrinal statements of the Methodists, Moravians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, and of multiple branches of the Presbyterian churches.  It became a running joke that the only churches I hadn’t tried were the Pentecostal churches (seemed too emotional to me) and the Catholic Church (but that church, if one were to call it that, was full of papists who worship people, pray to saints, are bogged down in tradition, confess to men and are trying to work their way to heaven – hardly an enlightened Christian church, I thought).

Interestingly, a few years before, my brother entered into communion with the Catholic Church. Since that time, he and I had spent years fussing and arm-wrestling about it. I credited his entering the Catholic Church to naivite and considered it a single step on a long journey back to a good church where he could worship properly.  I finally agreed to attend a mass to see for myself if what I thought about the Church was, indeed, true. In fairness, it wasn’t what I thought it was.  I appreciated the liturgical structure (I’d gotten used to liturgy in worship at the Presbyterian church) and was surprised to find that the mass was focused not specifically on the sermon as I’d been accustomed, but on the death, burial and resurrection of Christ as celebrated in the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, as they call it.  However, it seemed they were also loyal to a man, a pope, supposedly entrusted to lead the church like a modern-day Moses leading the children of Israel, they talked about communing with saints as if believers have functional roles in eternity, about paying respect to Mary as if she warranted special respect for her role in rearing the perfect Christ-child and other things that simply didn’t jibe with what I understood, what I had been taught about Christianity, since childhood.

About the time I left the Presbyterian church, my sister also began a journey, spawned by the desire to center her growing family on Christ.  Imagine my surprise when she announced her intention to investigate, with the objective of joining, the Catholic Church.  Again, we fussed and arm-wrestled about matters of church, of papacy, of pride until I finally decided I simply wouldn’t discuss it further with her.  I felt such a dark anger of betrayal, of pride, a vehemence that I could neither explain nor justify. We’d been reared as Independent Baptists, southerners, missionaries’ children.  I’d been saved as a child, rededicated my life on a few occasions, acknowledged Christ as my personal Lord and Savior and had spent a lifetime collaborating with Fundamentalist missionaries.  The idea of the Catholic Church seemed incompatible with everything I thought I understood about the Church, my faith, my Christianity.  For me, it was simply not a viable option for a Christian journey. After all, what would the people I’d grown up with, worshipped with, studied with think?

I was determined to continue my search for a church home without referring to my sister or brother. Through a series of remarkable events, it slowly began to dawn on me that perhaps I wasn’t simply wrestling with my sister, my brother or even a church, but, like Jacob, perhaps I was arm-wrestling with the Almighty God Himself.  And, like Jacob I was developing a bit of a limp from my own struggles.

Through further scripture study, prayer and reading early church fathers, I began to understand what I was missing in my journey to a church home, to a place of worship.  I’d been taught and believed firmly that the Bible is the Word of God, inerrant and should be taken literally.  Interestingly enough, there were several accounts of words uttered by Christ himself at the Last Supper, in those last moments before He shed His blood on the cross as the all-sufficient sacrifice for sin, that I had never, ever taken literally.  Found in Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19-28 and 1 Corinthians 11:24, Christ says, “This IS my body” – not just a symbol of His body – and commands us to commune with Him in the most intimate way, through the ingestion of His body – a consummation of the spiritual relationship and covenant we, the Church, the bride of Christ, have with Christ.  My worship had been missing Christ, the very center of our worship, the body of Christ in the Eucharist.  God was inviting me to a physical consummation of the spiritual covenant I have with Christ, and the only group of believers that accept Christ’s words literally and celebrate this communion, His physical presence in the Eucharist, is the Catholic Church.  From that point, I knew the path that God had invited me to journey was a path to a more intimate communion with Christ through the Church, the Catholic Church.

So, after years of prayer, study, lots of fussing and arm-wrestling, I finally followed God into communion with the Catholic Church just this past year. All the things I had protested my entire adult life – the Pope, the role of Mary, communion with the saints, the priesthood, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, confession and other issues – seemed to fall, and are still falling, gracefully into place one by one as I let God lead.

In the Church, I’ve found a spiritual home, an avenue of grace, a place to contribute my talents and abilities to further God’s kingdom – a bit of heaven right here on earth.  Admittedly, I’ve run into my share of cultural Catholics, as I’m sure you have in your journeys, who neither fully understand their faith nor seem to be able to articulate it.  I’ve also had the great blessing of getting to know and serving with many faithful Catholic believers who love God, have an extremely intimate and personal relationship with Christ and are serving God faithfully and joyfully in their communities to the best of their abilities.  For these encounters with the faithful, I’m very thankful and blessed.

I share this journey with you joyfully and out of respect for the efforts you’ve made for so many years to serve God faithfully, understanding that we likely have differing perspectives on the Catholic Church.  I suspect, like my parents in their mission work, you’ve spent years ministering to folks who’ve been hurt or disillusioned by the human reality and frailty of the Church, folks who may not have been able to articulate their personal faith in Christ and individuals who have simply rejected what they consider to be man’s religion.  The Church is, indeed, an old organization, full of tired, erring humans.  Thank God His grace is sufficient to forgive our frailty and imperfections and lead us to lives of productive service in His Kingdom in spite of ourselves. Surprisingly, my parents, former Independent Baptist missionaries, also came into communion with the Catholic Church quite independently of me this past year.  This calling to the Church, to a closer communion with Christ, seems to bear testimony to the fact that when God orchestrates change, He does so within families, the domestic Church.

Please be assured of my continuing good will and love for you.  I understand you may have questions or even concerns, and I continue to welcome an opportunity to visit you and to discuss this journey, if you desire.

May God bless you.

Your Friend,



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