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Thursday, August 23, 2012

My Personal Testimony

I come to the altar of the Lord
To the Lord who rejoices my youth
(Psalm 42:4, Duay-Rheims translation, and from the Maronite Liturgy)
The above passage is my signature verse, as it pretty much describes my life's pilgrimage - returning to the landmarks of my faith.   And, a pilgrimage it has been too in many aspects - I have come so far, yet still have so far to go.   Yet, I stand by what that old mountain gospel song says:
I am a pilgrim and a stranger
wandering through this worrisome land,
I've got a home in that yonder city, good Lord
and it's not, not made by hand.
We are indeed on a pilgrimage of faith as Christians, just like the one in the 19th-century Russian Orthodox spiritual classic The Pilgrim's Way that I have read now several times through.   The pilgrimage can get rough, and indeed it does, but we need to stay focused on the destination and not the obstacles.  And, that is a lesson that is lifelong, as it can be difficult to learn.  However, what I have learned is that oftentimes our own agendas can get us off-course of the pilgrim trail, and it takes a total submission to and trust in God to get us back on course again.   Such is, really, the story of my life.
My beginnings were in a tiny West Virginia town called Parsons, where on a cold November day I was born to my mother, Daisy Mae Strahin Thrower, in the local hospital there.   From that first day, God has had his hand on my life as I continued forward, and he used a lot of great people, starting with my great-grandmother, Ottie Turner, to keep me on the straight-and-narrow.  Granny was a devoutly Christian preacher's widow who spent many of her later years working in the very hospital where I entered the world as a kitchen aide.  She faithfully attended the little Free Methodist Church in our hometown of Hendricks, WV, which was three miles from Parsons, for many years although her own family was German Dunkard in background.  From an early age, she took me to Sunday School there and there was a certain holiness about that little church building - you just knew you were in God's house when you entered it, and that was both humbling and comforting at the same time.   My mother too at one time had strong convictions, although she later backslid not long after her divorce from my father, and she took up drinking and some other bad habits.  Although she never stopped believing in the basic doctrines of the faith - to this day she still knows the Bible even better than I do in some cases, and I went to school to study it! - her life has not been what it should be.  It is my prayer that she comes back to the Lord before she passes away one day.

My great-grandmother, Ottie Mary (Stevens) Turner (1902-1984)

My hometown - Hendricks, WV

The Tucker County Courthouse in Parsons, WV, about 5 blocks from the hospital where I was born

The Hendricks Free Methodist Church, where my great-grandmother attended for years and took me to Sunday School as a kid.
Interesting story about my family's religious heritage.  My great-grandmother was born and raised just northeast of Parsons in a little area called Holly Meadows, which was in a beautiful picturesque region of Tucker County called the Sugarlands.   She grew up in what was called the Dunkard Brethren (now Church of the Brethren) tradition, which is a German Anabaptist/Pietist group similar in many ways to the Mennonites, although distinctive in many ways.  She married my great-grandfather, who was a Dunkard minister from nearby Preston County, Rev. Charles Judson Strahin.  Grandad Strahin was what they called a "circuit rider," meaning that he oversaw several small congregations over a wide area that he preached in on a rotating basis over a period of a month or so.   Back in that time, automobiles were just making their appearance, and many rural Appalachian people still used older forms of transport, including horses.  My great-grandparents managed that way too, traveling to the various congregations in the circuit on horseback, often being paid with fresh produce, chickens, eggs, homemade bread, etc., which was a lot of times all the parishioners in those churches could afford.   One night while making a call to a parishioner who was sick, Grandad Strahin had to ford a rapid river on a horse, and as a result he contracted tuberculosis which later landed him in a sanitarium, Hopemont in Terra Alta, WV, where he later died in 1933 or so.  However, his spiritual legacy remains even today, as one of the oldest Pentecostal congregations in Hendricks (and the county) meets in a churchhouse that he helped build in the Hendricks subdivision of Rosendorf.   Today it is called the Rosendorf Pentecostal Church of God, and has been pastored for years by some other relatives on my maternal grandmother's side, the Carrs - the late Sister Lily Carr Plaugher was the pastor there for years, and upon her passing her brother Rev. Floyd Carr took over, and today the church is pastored by Rev Floyd's great-grandson, Adam Snyder.   It is still a vibrant congregation, and I remember years ago as a kid when Mom and Granny would go over there for revivals back when Sis. Plaugher was alive, and one thing in particular I remember was an old man named Virgil Knotts, who played the guitar with a contraption that also sported a harmonica.  It is really unfortunate that many of those great saints are gone today, but suredly they went onto a greater reward.

The old Sugarlands Dunkard Church, outside of Thomas, WV, where my great-grandmother's folks were some of the founding families.

My great-grandfather, Rev. Charles Judson Strahin

The little Pentecostal Church of God in Rosendorf, near Hendricks, which was originally a union church my great-grandfather helped establish at the turn of the last century.
As I grew older, the religious influence was still there, in particular from my step-grandmother, the late Goldie Strahin.  Goldie was my grandfather Dave's second wife after he and my grandmother, Elsie Summerfield Strahin, separated in the early 1950's.  Goldie was ill at the time with cancer, and she was also devoutly Pentecostal Christian.  Back in the day, Grandad and Goldie lived in a little sleeper town called Bedington, WV, just outside Martinsburg, and Goldie was active in a tiny Pentecostal church in nearby Falling Waters, WV, pastored by an unassuming Pennsylvania-born minister named Rev. Claude Benjamin (or "Jeff") Carbaugh.   At one time, Rev. Carbaugh was associated with the Church of God, but due to his more conservative convictions he began a small Pentecostal fellowship of several churches in Maryland, WV, and VA but unfortunately not much is out there in the way of information about them, although I did contact the WV Church of God office to obtain more information on Rev. Carbaugh's ministry with them during the 1960's.   Rev. Carbaugh passed away in 1997 I believe, and as far as I can tell the Falling Waters church he founded is no longer there.   My step-grandmother Goldie also passed away in 1979 when terminal cancer finally won the battle for her life, but as I grew older, I appreciated her witness much better and realized what a tremendous woman of faith she was too.
My mom at one time also studied for the ministry, as she served as a WAC in Okinawa during the Vietnam campaign and was led to Christ and discipled by two California-born Free Will Baptist chaplains, Ken and Judy Elits.   Although Mom lost contact with them over the years, she still attributes them as being her spiritual mentors.  However, after a messy divorce with my dad, which ended their marriage in 1974, Mom fell away from the Lord and any church involvement, began to drink heavily, and often when she was intoxicated she saw no problem mixing bawdy jokes with bad theology in the course of a normal evening - as Mom fell away, the basic "hellfire-and-brimstone" mountain religion of our roots became mixed in with some bizarre stuff from both horror movies such as The Exorcist and The Omen,  as well as some eschatology derived from some rather scary Christian movies of the day, notably Baptist pastor Estus Pirkle's docudrama The Burning Hell.  To be honest, by the time I was in my early teens, Mom had me so scared to death of this stuff that I was under the mistaken impression that all Pentecostals thought like this!  Thankfully, later as you will see I had an experience of my own that changed that, and today stuff like The Burning Hell does not bother me - as a matter of fact, that film was Biblically sound, and there was nothing wrong with the theology of it, but it was just the way Mom conveyed it that made it a bit repulsive to me for many years.  It did show, however, that Mom still had convictions, although she was by the early 1980's anything but Christian.  She always made sure, for instance, that I knew the Bible, and she always encouraged me to attend church or Sunday School somewhere too.  Also, amidst some of her bizarre stuff, Mom also appreciated good Gospel music, and I grew up with the sounds of groups like the Statesmen, the Blackwoods, and particularly the Rambos and Chuck Wagon Gang (still two of her favorite Gospel groups today).  Also, it was pretty normal for Mom to listen to Kathryn Kuhlman, whom she considered to be the greatest evangelist of all time (I also admire Kuhlman, although for many different reasons).  Generally, the routine was this - at the time we lived at my great-grandmother's in Hendricks, where Mom worked at the local Kinney Shoe plant in Parsons.  After church on Sunday and an early Sunday dinner - usually consisting of good food such as home-fried chicken, roast, or something else - Mom, Granny, and I would pile in the car and go for a Sunday drive.  With Mom's Chuck Wagon Gang tapes accompanying the trip, we visited some of Granny's old relatives, cemetaries, or just drove around the back roads.  Those were fond memories.  However, they were short-lived as an upheaval that would shape the next several years of my life was about to take place.
While at the Kinney Shoe factory, Mom became romantically involved with a female co-worker in a lesbian relationship which lasted for about a year.  In the course of that year, Mom and her "friend" moved us to Romney, WV, where we settled until the relationship fizzled sometime around September of 1978, and we once again found ourselves back in Martinsburg with Grandad and Goldie, where they now lived in a rather rough area of town on Schwartz Street.   However, things were so weird that Mom sent me to my Dad's in Georgia that year, which at that time I felt was a bad idea but later realized it was a big favor.  While in Georgia, Dad and my new step-mother, Deborah, got me involved in church again, and this time something was different.   In Brunswick, GA, the primary religion of most people in those days was Southern Baptists, but although Southern Baptists then were fairly more conservative than they are now, there was also something else that made going to a Southern Baptist church a little more of a good experience than it was for me in those little mountain Holiness/Pentecostal churches back in my native West Virginia.   Deborah and her parents attended Beverly Shores Baptist Church, which was fair-sized congregation located in a picturesque oak grove just off Benedict Road there in Brunswick.  They were a much bigger congregation than I had been used to, but so friendly, and I was immediately invited to be part of the Royal Ambassadors boys' group (a Southern Baptist version of the Boy Scouts).  I really enjoyed it, and I got to enjoy church more too.  After coming home that June though, I would find out that maybe that church was something I needed for what was to come1
After Goldie passed away, Grandad met up with and married almost immediately a woman from back home in Parsons, and Mom was not overly crazy about it and it caused a division.  During that time (summer 1979), we still lived at Grandad's house on Schwartz Street, but I experienced one of the most glaring periods of abject poverty I had ever been exposed to - Mom didn't work then, and we were reduced to eating canned applesauce and corn cakes, although on occasion an old man who lived next door at the time, "Pappy" Beavers, would give us fresh ham and stuff to sustain us.   It was a miserable time for us, honestly, and not something I wanted to repeat anytime soon.  So, Mom, who had been on the outs with my grandmother Elsie, gave her a call and they came and got us, taking us back to Augusta, WV, where they lived in this old farmhouse without pumbing or any other amenities.  And, there we lived until the summer of 1980, when Mom and I moved to Kirby. 
Our years in Kirby, WV, were very destitute as well - we survived on a combination of Dad's child support, foodstamps, and the local Community Action program which paid our living expenses for several years.  Mom picked up some odd housecleaning jobs on occasion from some rich old bubbas that lived in nearby Hardy County, and the combination thereof helped us to survive.   However, almost all of that ended in 1985, and once again, we were forced into abject poverty - this time, we survived on vegetables I heisted from people's gardens, as well as catching hogsuckers out of the local Grassy Lick Run and an occasional bit of help from the local food bank at a Methodist Church in Romney.  I vowed then and there to become a Christian if God delivered us from that place, and later that year he did.  And, I found I had a promise to keep, and so I did as well.

Schwartz Street in Martinsburg, WV, where my grandparents lived in 1979 in one of the rowhouses on the left.

Dad and Deborah's old house, at 2008 Ellis Street in Brunswick, GA, as it looks today.

Beverly Shores Baptist Church, in Brunswick, GA.

Nellie Cox's old store in Kirby, WV, where we lived from 1980-1985.
It wasn't until January 27, 1986, on a blustery winter night, that I gave my heart to the Lord and accepted Him as my Savior.  At around that time, we had moved to Rowlesburg, WV, about 20 miles from where I was born in Parsons, with my grandparents.   It was a rough move, and although I was glad to be out of Kirby and making a new start for my life, it was a tough transition.  Luckily, my step-grandfather's sister, the late Betty Rydzewski, lived across the street and on one Sunday she invited me to go to church with her.  In 1980, the Southern Baptists had begun a group Bible study in Rowlesburg that developed into a church, which by 1985 had a pretty good membership.  Betty and her husband Ted started going there, and both of them became born again and active in that church.   Betty never had to pressure me to go either, and unlike some of the more aggressive Holiness/Pentecostal people of my earlier childhood, she didn't have to badger me into going with some hellfire-and-damnation spiel either.  I was in a state where I was ready to go to church, and I went willingly.  The pastor of the church and his wife, Olen and Linda Phillips, really reached out to me and it had an impact.  I began to struggle within myself, more so than I ever had before, and by the night of January 27th, which if I recall was a Wednesday, I approached Pastor Olen after the service and told him I wanted to be saved.  So, he led me in the "sinner's prayer," and I became born again!  And, despite a few months of challenges - I got a lot of opposition from Mom, which surprised me - within a year I was actively involved in a mission of the Rowlesburg church, Evergreen Chapel in nearby Terra Alta, where we lived there (Mom took a job as a live-in caregiver for a nonegenarian lady named Myrtle Masters on Salt Lick Road between Rowlesburg and Terra Alta).   But, I am getting ahead of myself - Olen baptized me on February 9, 1986 in a service at the Kingwood Southern Baptist Church (the only one that had a baptistry at the time), and that summer when I went off to church camp at Cowen, WV, I got a call to the ministry one night at a fireside assembly outside.   My life had been transformed, and would continue to be so for years to come.
Betty Rydzewski, my step-grandfather Alonzo Lipscomb's older sister, who got me back into church again.
The Rowlesburg Southern Baptist Church, Rowlesburg, WV - this is where I was born again on January 27,1986.
Rev'd Olen Phillips baptizing me on February 9, 1986, at the Kingwood Southern Baptist Church in Kingwood, WV.
Another part of this story is also worth mentioning.  At the time, just before I was born again, I was also invited by two Lebanese Maronite ladies, Mrs. Freda Faris and the widow Bertha Nassif, who also lived in Rowlesburg, to attend Mass at St. Philomena's, the local Catholic Church in Rowlesburg.  Now, I have always had an appreciation for the Catholic tradition, so much so that some years later I became part of it!  From an early age, Mom even encouraged it - I often went to Mass with my cousin Gayle Schroeder when I was in kindergarten when we lived in Baltimore, and there were so many things about the Catholic Church I loved.  Of course, after I was baptized and we settled down in Terra Alta later in 1986, I became very active in the little Southern Baptist mission, Evergreen, there.   The new pastor then, a bearded Maryland native in his late 40's who looked more Amish than Baptist, was Frank Brubaker, and for the remainder of my high school years I got to be very close with him not only as a pastor, but as a friend.   Frank was not what you'd call dynamic as minister by any stretch of the word, but he gave me the discipleship and stability I needed, as well as giving me opportunities to serve in the local church - by age 17 I was teaching Sunday School, and by 18 I was also editing the church paper.   And, I became very interested in denominational affairs as well, and loved attending the conventions, etc., that occurred throughout the year.   But, I had one problem - my earlier fear of my Holiness/Pentecostal roots made me somewhat ambivalent towards the Pentecostals, and I thought they were all flakes, an attitude I held up until a certain book was published in 1988 that educated me profoundly.  1988 was the year that Stanley Burgess and Gary McGhee, two outstanding Assemblies of God scholars, published the Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements.  With the money I was given for gifts for my high school graduation that year, I ordered a copy of it through the local bookstore in nearby Kingwood, and got it practically on the day I graduated.  It turned out to be a valuable resource, and as I went off to Georgia with my father that summer before I started college in Graceville, FL, at the Baptist Bible Institute (now known as Baptist College of Florida), I began to understand through reading that dictionary that Pentecostals were actually quite diverse, and I started to open up to them more.  The next step, naturally, was to actually attend a service at what I felt like was a quintessential Pentecostal church, and I just happened to find one near where Dad lived - the First Pentecostal Holiness Church (now called Potter's Wheel PHC) over on Newcastle Street in Brunswick.  One night though it happened - the church was having a revival and this evangelist from Michigan was there preaching about the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, and as he was doing so, I felt like he was talking directly at me!  So, at the end of the service, they gave two separate altar calls - one was for people to receive Christ, and the second was for people who wanted what they call the Baptism of the Holy Ghost.  I felt led to go up on the second, and at that altar this group of little old Pentecostal ladies crowned with their "glory buns" started praying over me.  The lady pastor of the church, Sis. Mayfield, also was leading in the prayers.  After a few minutes, all of a sudden I felt this sensation like a gushing water hose in my innards, and it bubbled up, and up - then I started talking and didn't know what in the Sam Hill I was saying!  That, folks, was my first time ever speaking in unknown tongues, and it is an experience to this day I have not forgotten, and it is also something I still very much believe in.   However, it would cause some issues at the Baptist College I was going to that year, and boy, did it ever!

The old First Pentecostal Holiness Church (now Potter's Wheel PHC) on Newcastle Street in Brusnwick, GA - this is where I first received the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and had my first experience with tongues.

My old church, Evergreen Southern Baptist Chapel in Terra Alta, WV.  They had built this a year or so after I went to college, as they met in a storefront originally when I went there. 
As mentioned, although my newfound Pentecostal experience was something I received great joy from, I was later to learn that the Baptist college I went to didn't look very highly on this, and therefore I was later compelled to leave the Southern Baptists for good and instead became part of the Foursquare Gospel denomination.   Foursquare is one of the oldest, and perhaps most controversial in its origins, Pentecostal bodies in the US.  It came into being in 1923 solely through the evangelistic efforts of Aimee Semple MacPherson.  The reason I became interested in Foursquare was due to one person - Dr. Jack Hayford, pastor of Church on the Way in Van Nuys, CA, which then was the largest Foursquare congregation in the US.  I loved Dr. Hayford's teachings then, as they mirrored a lot of my own convictions, and I wanted to be part of that church.  So, in February 1990, I contacted the nearest Foursquare church, which happened to be in Midland City, AL (just outside Dothan), and met later with the pastor, Rev. Everett Rowe.   I formally joined the church later that year, and for a while it was OK until some in the congregation got involved in some abusive practices - they were "naming demons" in people who didn't agree with them, and the pastor's messages became very harsh and almost condemning.  Although I would stay part of Foursquare for many years afterward, when I transferred from BBI to Southeastern College in 1992, it was a real blessing.   However, my spiritual growth was still doing things with me, and I was about to have another paradigm change in my life that would impact me in a great way.

This is me back in my BBI days in Graceville, FL (the school had just changed its name from Baptist Bible Institute to Florida Baptist Theological College in 1989, shortly before I started.) I later transferred to Southeastern College in Lakeland, FL, where I earned my undergraduate degree and am now working on a Masters.

New Life Tabernacle Foursquare Church in Midland City, AL, where I attended from 1990-1992.
Although I attended a Pentecostal college now (Southeastern) by 1994 I was having some odd pangs that God was leading me a different direction.  That all had a backstory too, as in 1988 I became interested in a group of people called the Assyrians, a largely Christian ethnic group that had undergone centuries of persecution by Islamic powers that ruled over them because they themselves were neither Muslim nor Arab - their roots went back to the Assyrian Empire of old.   Although the first nation to become Christian, the Assyrians had a testimony written in the blood of their martyrs.  After initially contacting Fr. Qasha Klutz, who served as secretary to the bishop of the Assyrian Church in the US in Chicago, I received a lot of information on them, and as I did, I began to feel like maybe I had a calling to them, and so I began to prepare for that accordingly.  As I did, I gained a greater appreciation of Eastern Christianity, and as I did I began to see that something was missing from those Pentecostal services I attended, and thus began a journey for me.  In 1995, Barbara and I (I had married in 1992, which I forgot to mention!) began attending a charismatic Episcopalian church, Christ the King, here in Lakeland.  In time, as I grew and evolved in my own spirituality, I eventually was drawn to an even more traditionalist church and was chrismated a Maronite-rite Catholic myself on Easter Saturday 2000.   Although validly Catholic, I was not overly impressed with the growing liberalism in the Roman Church, and beginning in 2007 we began to identify ourselves as "independent primitive Catholics" and became involved with an Anglican Catholic parish, first in Pinellas County where we lived at the time, and then over here when I moved back to pursue graduate studies.   Essentially, that is my testimony, although much more could be said and I feel like I may have left some details out.
Then there is today!  In recent years I have learned so much as I began studying my own family history as well as beginning to write down my life story.   One thing I have discovered was that sometimes you have to look back to move forward, and indeed I have done that.  For roughly ten years now, I have been seeking to recover much of the best of my past and incorporating it into my present in order to get a fuller picture of the person God wants me to be.   Keeping a journal also has helped me sort out a lot, and I thank God everyday for the miracle of the internet, because I can find so many things here to fill in the gap as well!  Another thing God has taught me all too well, especially in recent months, is this - sometimes our agendas get in the way of his plans, and we have to let God be trusted with control of our lives.  That is one of the most difficult lessons I have personally ever had to experience, and at times I still struggle with it.  Ultimately though, our obedience to God will reap its own rewards, and that today is the major lesson of my own story that I hope will impact others.  God bless until next time.