In last Sunday's column, I wrote about my earlier experiences as a Holy Roller, worshiping in a run-down farmhouse and speaking in tongues.
After that essay appeared, a reader suggested I write a spiritual autobiography, on the grounds that my journey certainly has been colorful and perhaps unique.
The truth is, I've tried several times to write that very book, but without success. No matter how I approach it, I can't get the writing to click.
However, making those attempts has forced me to consider the highs and lows of my life and my faith. It's helped me see patterns and milestones, to examine what I interpret as the Lord's hand in my travels.
So, to that extent, failing at the memoir has still proved profitable for reflection.
You might find a similar exercise helpful yourself, even if you don't aspire to make a book. Think back and look for themes. Jot them down. Meditate on them. Draw a timeline or chart or map.
For whatever it's worth, here are the turning points (so far) in my spiritual trek.
■ Baptist boy. Growing up as the son of a Baptist minister instilled in me a knowledge of, and lifelong interest in, Scripture.
It also ingrained in me the habit I've since needed to attend church multiple times a week, year after year, in bountiful seasons and spiritual droughts alike.
■ Rebel. As I mentioned last week, from roughly the ages 16 to 21, I — like countless other children of the '70s (or, heck, any decade) — pursued unbridled hedonism. I roasted millions of brain cells. I drifted into agnosticism and, briefly, atheism. I partied my way out of a couple of colleges. I made a spectacle of myself. I got chased down by the police. I wrecked cars. I had a grand old time. I also flamed out. But at least I saw the other side; I know what to avoid, and why to avoid it.
■ Holy Roller. I caromed from one extreme to the other — from pickled miscreant to Pentecostal Christian. By age 26, without a seminary education, I began serving as pastor of the tiny, traditional Pentecostal church where my first wife, Renee, had been brought up, where some of the women still wore their hair in buns.
It was like something out of a Flannery O'Connor short story, an entirely different milieu from the Baptist congregations in which I'd spent my childhood or even the aisle-dancing fellowship my parents had started after leaving the Baptists.
I learned to love those wild and woolly and wondrous old-time Pentecostals, and they learned to love me, which was the more challenging task. I stayed there 14 years.
I remain grateful. I discovered God's gifts never hinge on the recipients' economic or social status. I learned people can reach profound insights into the divine without possessing much formal education.
■ Scholar. While leading that congregation, I returned to the University of Kentucky to complete an undergraduate degree. I ended up with two graduate degrees as well. I was mentored by some of UK's top professors. I discovered a talent for academia.
On weekdays, I taught university courses and wrote scholarly papers. On weekends, I slapped my hands on sick people's heads and knocked them to the carpet.
Both pursuits were true to who I was. I'd call it the duality of Paul.
But the university taught me how to read my religious texts carefully and assess them unflinchingly. It taught me how to write.
■ Journalist. I decided to go into the newspaper trade. Later, the Herald-Leader assigned me to its religion beat. All the while, I continued as a part-time pastor.
For seven years, I interviewed skeptics and Anglicans and Mormons and imams and rabbis and bishops and Zoroastrians. I crossed paths with the Dalai Lama and Billy Graham and survivors of sexual abuse and renowned theologians and scandal-ridden clergy. I got my horizons broadened, way out beyond the Milky Way.
■ Caregiver. In 1997, I left newspaper work to become, for the first time, a full-time minister.
Three years later, Renee was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was 39.
I became her primary caregiver for five agonizing years — watching the person I loved most die piece by piece. I fell into depression. Our congregation nearly fell apart. My mom died. My dad manifested signs of dementia.
I questioned everything I'd ever believed. I realized some of it was flat wrong. I saw my own fallibility. I almost fled the ministry. And the state.
■ Survivor. But I didn't leave. With the help of God and magnificent, selfless friends, I've slowly found myself restored to wholeness, or at least to sanity.
In 2011, I married Liz; ours is a happy, blessed union. My only child, John, and his wife, Cassie, have given me five marvelous grandchildren. My church again percolates along. I remain a Christian, obviously, but I don't shout as loudly. I no longer possess all the answers for myself or for anyone else.
But so far I'm still here, still putting one callused foot in front of the other. Still pressing forward. I've learned that even when the future appears hopeless, as it did just a few years ago, there's still hope.