Overall, I was a pretty pious youngster: I got in trouble from time to time (including once conspiring with my middle brother to give our youngest brother a swirlie), but wanted to be a priest when I grew up. As my brother and I were altar boys, that seemed the logical next step. I went through all the normal sacraments - including being confirmed at age 13 with the confirmation name of "John." I was bummed because I wanted to pick a new name, like "Pious" or "Felix," but they said I should use my middle name. I'm still not sure what that bit about the name change is, maybe it's supposed to be like Saul to Paul or Jacob to Israel.
Needless to say, I was never a Christian during this time. Like most cradle Catholics (and increasingly but not surprisingly, increasingly many evangelical youths), I dropped away from Christianity in my teens. At college, I made a few attempts at going to church, but overall I derived more benefit from sleeping in on Sunday mornings after Saturday's party than sitting in church. As time went on, I started to doubt the existence of God. The behavior of some so-called "Christians" was a big part of it: I remember one guy who claimed to be a Christian, but was also a big drinker, and definitely was the biggest womanizer I knew: it was said that he could get any girl to bed on the first night, and as far as I knew that was the truth. I wasn't a Christian, of course, but even I knew that wasn't how a Christian ought to act. (I should mention that one of my own personal mission fields is Yahoo! Answers, and I can respond to many of the objectors to Christianity because, frankly, I've heard and thought it all before, and come through the other side when rationality took over instead of emotion.)
Over the next 15 years, I went through various stages of unbelief. Sometimes I would have considered myself an all-out atheist, saying the idea of a god was simplistic and for people who preferred easy, black-and-white answers to reality. Sometimes I would have just been considered an agnostic: sure, it's obvious that God exists, but nobody could ever know anything about Him, and He's certainly not the God of Christianity. (Isn't it nice how sure of things you can be when you say you can't be sure about anything?
Then, a guy with the good all-Virginian name of Lee Braddock witnessed to me. (He was the guy I mentioned in my article on Cursing Christians, who softly responded "that's kind of disgusting if you think about it" to my oh-so-clever vulgarism.) He gave me the C. S. Lewis books "Mere Christianity" and "The Problem of Pain," which I leafed through a bit but pretty much ignored at the time, but which had a huge impact on me later.
I ignored Christianity for the next 6 years (getting more intensely into studying Buddhism), when a force to be reckoned with came crashing on my neat little unbelieving world: my son JA. Seeing him, I instantly knew there was more to the world than I had been believing. The philosophies of the world (along with the liberal politics I had been imbibing) started seemingly increasingly wrong. Looking back, I was clearly under conviction by the Holy Spirit: at the time, all I knew was that I felt vaguely but unceasingly uneasy.
When JA was about a year old, Marcia made it clear she wanted us to go to church. I suggested trying to find a Buddhist temple (which she put the kibosh on), as well as trying to find a Unitarian church in the area. Unitarians are a very liberal (theologically and politically) group who we had attended a few years earlier. Thankfully, there were no nearby Unitarian Universalist congregations, or I might have wanted to join them. (Not that that would have stopped God from regenerating my heart, of course: but my life would have just been more difficult had I not yielded when I did.) So, lacking a Unitarian group to join, we picked the Episcopal church in town. This was a good choice, I thought, because it joined the two things I wanted most in a church: the same kind of traditions I had remembered from growing up ("smells and bells," the assistant rector of that church called it), and very liberal politics. However, even there, there were Christians. My face-to-face encounter with God had begun.
TO BE CONTINUED (don't you hate it when people do that?) ...