My Spiritual Autobiography; God uses bad, bruised, and broken people…

I am forty-three years old. I am a seminary student. I am a husband, a dad, a pastor, an Army retiree, an athlete, a politically involved guy, and I wear several other hats as well. My spiritual autobiography will mention these areas/roles of my life. Many of these areas overlap. Yet, I want to tell my story in four stages; childhood, college, military, and seminary. These four seasons of my journey best describe the different phases of my life and will aid best in the telling of my spiritual autobiography.

My childhood was a “spiritual” one. One of my earliest memories happened when I was still three years old. The day was April 3, 1974. Huge parts of the South and the Midwest were devastated by multiple F4 and F5 tornadoes that began on the third and didn’t end until the fourth. My community was devastated by a night of ferocious non-stop tornadoes. They seem to come in wave after consecutive wave. I remember driving from our home to the tornado shelter at my grand-parents country store. Our home was about three miles away from the shelter, and as we were driving I remember seeing this behemoth of a tornado coming across the field where our road intersected with the main highway. The tornado was probably three hundred yards away and my mom was crying and praying, my dad was driving, my little brother was two. I was in the floor board and I looked up and told my mom that Jesus told me that we were going to be ok. We beat the tornado by about thirty seconds. We turned left, it went right, and took out several houses on the main highway, killing some of our friends and neighbors.

I begin with this story because it arises out of my childhood experience and faith. This event happened in the final year of my parents’ marriage, and it did not serve in any way to wake them up to the preciousness of life, the absolute importance of our family, and how that living our faith was important. They separated in October of 1974 and their divorce became final in January, 1975.

My dad re-married in 1976. He left the local Baptist church and took up the religion of his new wife. She was a classical Pentecostal. She was a member of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tn.), and because my dad became my primary residential parent, her faith became mine. I remember my very first experience at the Church of God. The Sunday school seemed very similar to the one that I had attended at the Baptist church, but I remember the puppets. We didn’t have puppets at Corinth Missionary Baptist Church. I thought that these puppets were so cool. After Sunday school I was introduced to my first Pentecostal worship experience. It was quite dissimilar to my earlier experience at the Baptist church. The singing was loud, lively, and long. Besides the familiar piano, there were drums, an organ, a few tambourines, a guitar, and lots of handclapping coupled with hand-raising. I saw people enjoying singing! It wasn’t that the people at my old church didn’t enjoy worship, but these folks at the Church of God really enjoyed it!

The preaching was lively, the crowd was responsive, and the altars were full after that very first service. I became a little Pentecostal that very day. I “felt” God. My little heart felt alive. I remember thinking that this was awesome. Attending this type of service became a three time per week experience for me all through my childhood years. I would have “high” seasons as well as “low” seasons, but I was always in church, several times every week.My childhood years were important in forming my spiritual identity.

Although I ended up in the UMC, I realize now more than ever that the experiential nature of my childhood faith created within me a constant realization and recognition that God is present. This ever present God, became for me, unshakeable and irresistible.
When I was fifteen, I was “saved” and filled with the Holy Spirit. I became “on fire” for God and felt a deep calling and giftedness of the presence of Jesus within me. Yet change was taking place in my church, and it was a change that set me on a course that would alter my life forever. The year was 1985. Our beloved denomination along with our fellow Pentecostals in the Assemblies of God, were becoming “mainstream”. The ladies began to cut their hair, wear jewelry, we stopped hiding the fact that we went to movies, and in many ways we realized that we had much in common with our brothers and sisters in the Baptist and Methodist churches. We were no longer cultural outcasts.

The mainstreaming of the “religious right” may have (and I think it does) present us with some crazy politics and bad theology, but for us Pentecostals it brought us out of the shadows. It caused me to feel like we could live normal lives and that we could be involved with other Christians. The “mainstreaming” of my childhood faith brought me some wonderful opportunities as a teenager. I spoke at MYF, I spoke at the Baptist church, and I spent the remainder of my childhood teenage years “living for Jesus”. I do not regret this at all!

I graduated High School at seventeen years of age. I felt a calling from the Lord, but I knew that I needed an education. In the fall of 1988, I became a freshman at Lee University in Cleveland Tn. I spent the next four and half years earning a B.S. in Religion and Social Science. I met the mother of my children during my first week at L.U., and like many in our denominational background, we got married very young. We married after our sophomore year. We both stayed the course and finished school.
During my years at Lee my spiritual faith began to change, develop, grow, and be stretched beyond my wildest imaginations. Although we were a Charismatic/Pentecostal/Evangelical school, I was introduced to biblical criticism, Reformed theology, Neo-Orthodoxy, students from other parts of the world, and I also began to realize that the Dispensational theology of my childhood hadn’t worked out so well.

I continued being Pentecostal but I developed doubts about the defining doctrine of Pentecostalism. The doctrine says that “the initial evidence of the Holy Spirit baptism is speaking in tongues”, and that everyone who has the fullness of the Spirit will do so. Although I continued to believe in the charismatic spiritual gifts, and still do (well mostly), I could no longer believe the defining doctrine of Pentecostalism. This created problems for me at the church of my childhood. It created problems for me with my wife’s parents, it created problems for me with my wife, and it caused me great struggle, stress, anger, disappointment, and frustration. I had given up a doctrine that I had been immersed in since I was six years old.

Even though Pentecostal churches still have this doctrinal statement as part of their church covenants, many of the Pentecostal parishoners have come to the same conclusion that I did back in the early 1990s. I am glad that they have but the break with that doctrine was really difficult for me and it caused me, as well as my (ex) wife lots of pain.

So with these changes, along with the addition of Ethan D. Greene (b. Dec.15, 1992), our life began to change. I felt a “call” to ministry but there was no way whatsoever that I would ever become ordained or even licensed in the Church of God because I couldn’t espouse that one defining doctrine. Thus began a frustration that would eventually lead to an exit from the C.O.G., a divorce, seven years of aimless spiritual wandering, and a sadness over the loss of my childhood faith that was at times to painful to bear.
After college my faith had changed dramatically, I was a husband and a dad, and I felt so very disconnected from the church of my childhood. I had no prospects for entering ordained ministry in the Pentecostal movement, and I needed a job that would support my family. So in 1994, I took an oath to defend the constitution and became a U.S. soldier and because of my degree an NCO.

The Army opened a world to me that I did not know existed before. I was able to travel to other continents. I made friends with other Christian people, people from other religions, and people from no religion at all. I continued moving away from Pentecostalism both intellectually, socially and spiritually. I ended up attending a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship church with my (ex) wife and children. We made friends, we “loosened up” a little, but neither of us was able to come to grips with the disappointment of losing our childhood faith.

Her parents were our harshest critics. My dad had left the Pentecostal faith in my early college years, my mom rarely if ever went to church, yet life seemed pretty good. Her parents were very unhappy with the both of us. The pressure from her parents was more than she could stand. We “were going to hell” because we had left the Pentecostal faith. The pressure began to build and it eventually became more than either one of us could bear.

On September 28, 1998 we separated. The world as I knew it ended that day. I was no longer an everyday dad. I was furious that she had moved my kids six hours away and the spiritual snobbery from her parents was just about more than I could handle. Our divorce became final in December, 1999. I was devastated. She was the only woman I had ever slept with. She and I had dreams of “doing God’s will”. She and I had two beautiful children. Yet she and I were now divorced.

In the Pentecostal church divorce was one of the “worst sins”. In some ways I think that they were right; primarily, because it creates one hell of a life of pain and disappointment. The two income family now becomes two families. Paying child-support became the first bill every month. The pain of not seeing my kids everyday was pretty terrible. Thus began my journey into spiritual wandering, functional agnosticism/atheism, and being “lost.

I deployed several times after 9/11. I saw lots of combat action. I was wounded in combat. I reasoned that this hellish war on terrorism was the result of cocksure religious fundamentalism, the unmerciful kind that drove a wedge in my marriage and forced the breakup of my home. I was no fan of religion.

On November 4, 2005, I encountered God again in the worst kind of way. I was on a Field Training Exercise. It was late at night. I kept getting calls from my brother and I finally answered. “Daddy’s dead”, he screamed. “Daddy’s killed himself”! I was a platoon Sgt. in a Sapper Unit, but I broke. I screamed and cried, I wailed in pain. My dad had hanged himself. My First Sgt., the chaplain, and my guys comforted me. The chaplain reached out to me that night and God made himself real to me. I could not escape God. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t hide, my dad was dead, my agnosticism was not enough, and God spoke to me. Yes God really spoke to me.

God used a United Methodist chaplain to reach out to me and love me that night. Through this tragedy, another deployment to Iraq, several heart breaking days, an eleven month participant in the wounded warrior program after being hurt really bad in combat; I was listening to God and I wanted to follow Jesus. I was medically retired on March 31, 2009 from the US Army. I was given a full retirement and wonderful educational benefits. God said “use them, you are going to seminary”.

I became a student at Memphis Theological Seminary. I was in a terrible marriage. I was serving in a church. I loved God but my problems didn’t just go away. I had to drop out of seminary to get some things right. I took a couple of years off. I had another failed marriage. I was washed up. But God said “no you are not”.

I met Rachel. She, like me, had failed at marriage. She was a Baptist girl whose ex was raised Pentecostal. She was a mental health professional. She understood my physical pain and struggles with PTSD. She was funny. She was beautiful, and I fell in love with her the very first time I ever laid my eyes on her. We dated. We both felt like big sinners because of our failed marriages. But God used our past failures and broken hearts to heal one another.

In the fall of 2011 she encouraged me to go back to seminary. I did and finished with my M.A. in 2012. God said “I am not finished with you”. I applied to UTS and began in January of 2013. The D.S., my pastor, my Sunday school class, my friends and family, my seminary friends from Memphis all recognized God’s call. I had a “past” God had given me a future. And for that I am so very grateful. I thank God every day of my life for second chances. Life is good.

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