When you grow up thinking that everyone else is going to burn in Hell forever and ever because they go to the wrong church, it’s quite destabilizing to find someone who so obviously bears the fruit of the Spirit. Having so little exposure to people outside my tribe, I was blown away to find Ms. Lazarus.
Ms. Lazarus was my creative writing and literature teacher while I was in community college and working for the Argo Church of Christ. She was smart, intuitive, and a wonderful person. Her relationship with Jesus was evident in everything she did. Our theological conversations were stimulating, and I spent many hours hanging out in her office between classes.
There was just one problem.
Ms. Lazarus is Catholic.
Being Baptist is one thing, but being Catholic is on a whole other level. When you are taught that the man of sin in 2 Thessalonians 2 is the Pope and that 1 Timothy 4 has unmarried priests in mind, to suspect that a Catholic college English teacher might just be a Christian is quite the task.
But that’s where I found myself in the Spring of 2015. Though I had Ms. Lazarus as a teacher for almost two years, I was still living in my old paradigm, so the idea that she could be a genuine Christ-follower was still an impossibility. After all, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
The Spring of 2015, however, brought with it a challenge to some of my long-held beliefs, which, in turn, led me to question my definition of what it means to be a Christian.
In January of 2015, I felt like a rockstar. My sermons were well received, I set up a well-attended Monday morning Bible study, and all of my radio programs and articles were going well. I was unstoppable. On top of that, my relationship with Laura was wonderful. We were newly engaged and looking forward to a wedding later that year.
Laura, who has always been supportive of my ministry, would sit in my office and read with me. We would go back and forth reading a chapter at a time. The two books we read together work as an allegory for my personal paradigm change.
The first book was Muscle and a Shovel. If there is a book that fits within that stability category, Muscle and a Shovel is it. Everything that a young Church of Christ preacher is passionate about is affirmed in that book.
Muscle and a Shovel is a novel that retells the story of the author’s conversion. He tested the various denominations, but he found them all lacking. After interacting with a close friend who happened to be a member of the Churches of Christ, his questions were slowly answered, and he became a Christian.
This book has sold millions of copies. Churches would purchase them by the truckload to distribute to the general public. It was hailed as one of the most effective evangelistic tools for the mainstream Churches of Christ.
The second book we read was a debate book on the Holy Spirit. The participants were Guy N Woods and Benjamin Franklin, a Church of Christ preacher turned Pentecostal. The debate was about the question of miraculous gifts: do they continue today? Woods was a cessationist while Franklin affirmed that the charismata continued today. Or, to put it another way, when Woods talked about being called to preach, he was talking about the telephone while Franklin had in mind the Holy Spirit.
I had read this book several times, but I hadn’t actually understood what he was arguing in the first speech until I heard Laura read it to me. Perhaps that’s why the letters of the New Testament were heard instead of read, which is why Paul said, “So then faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).
About five pages into the debate, Woods makes the mind-blowing assertion that when the Bible uses the expression “last days” (like in Acts 2), it is talking about the last days of the Jewish state, not the last days of the end of time.
Having been taught that we live in the last days today, this was a bit shocking to me. I even had Laura reread it. But the more I thought about his argument, the more it made sense to me at the time, so I embarked on a study of the last days. To make a long story short, I reached the conclusion that what I had been taught about the last days was wrong.
I can’t stress enough how big of a deal it is to change your mind on something so significant when you live in a world where you really do believe that you have the whole truth. It’s even more earth-shattering when you equate having the whole truth to being saved. Without that knowledge, you would be no different than the Baptists and Methodists. In other words, you would be lost.
So to change my mind on something so significant, something I was so sure about led to me to ask several questions: (1) if I was wrong about this, what else could I be wrong about, and (2) if I’ve been wrong about this and believe that those who disagree with me are saved, then what about those who disagree with me on other matters?
Flash back to 2011.
Picture me sitting on the living room floor of a single-wide trailer. It’s nighttime, and the bass from the party in the trailer adjacent to me is causing the floor to vibrate. During this time of the year, the temperature outside is perfect, so most people leave their doors open to let the air flow through the screen door. These are the days of sub-$50 power bills.
In the floor, I’m surrounded by a Strong’s concordance, a Thayer’s Greek-English lexicon, papers full of word studies, my KJV Bible I received for graduation, and a few of those approved books. As I’m sitting there contemplating the nature of the indwelling of the Holy-Spirit and the extent of the “miraculous age,” two guys a few years older than me appear at the door.
One is tall, muscular, and has a marine-style haircut. The other is just a tad taller than me, has a chinstrap beard, and is built like a track and field athlete. They introduce themselves as my neighbors, the ones with the party, and they wanted to come and meet me.
Travis, the one with the beard, asks what I’m studying, picks up one of my papers, and asks if I believe we’re living in the last days. “Of course,” I respond, “Hebrews says ‘in these last days…’ We’ve been in the last days since Pentecost.”
What I was so sure of in 2011 became almost silly to me in 2015. “The writer of Hebrews may have been in the last days, but that doesn’t mean we are,” I reasoned.
This change made me begin to rethink and reexamine everything.
Shortly after this, I was going through an extremely personal and difficult experience unrelated to my ministry. I went to Ms. Lazarus for counsel because we had become close. She suggested I adopt a patron saint, something I’ve written about before. While I never did take her up on her offer, I will never forget what she and Maximillian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest, did for me. Kolbe sacrificed himself in a concentration camp to save the life of another prisoner, a man who cried out for his family.
Listening to his story, one can’t help but think of Romans 5: “For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7–8).
How could a person like that be in an eternal burning Hell? It doesn’t make any sense. For that matter, how could someone like Ms. Lazarus be destined to cook forever in a custom torture chamber? God, how could this be?
I didn’t have the answers at the time, and I was still deciding whether or not to give her a book called Catholicism Against Itself by O.C. Lambert, but I had a sneaking suspicion, or maybe more than that, that Ms. Lazarus would be with me in Heaven one day.
I knew that something must be wrong. I knew that while I could quote the scriptures, make the arguments better than anyone (and still can), something wasn’t lining up. Somehow, someway, my calculations were off.
When these feelings persist, and the fallacies of the old paradigm become even more apparent, we become shells of our old selves. Like a caterpillar who constructs a cocoon, someone in this stage is just… there. Like Paul, I was torn betwixt the two for almost a year and a half.
Some weeks I would find myself creeping slowly away, like when I felt almost embarrassed to preach the exclusive view of Christianity I was raised with when there were people present who I knew fell into that “going to Hell for sure” category.
Other weeks, like a rubber band, I would snap back to the old ways, preach the old doctrines and give the old arguments with pride only to find myself questioning myself and my delivery later that night.
This stage is called “disembedding,” and we’ll explore it more in the next post!