Life from the Hand of My Father

Barbara Ann Merz

I was born in 1953 in Brooklyn, New York, to Sicilian-American parents, who brought me to church about a month later to be baptized into the Roman Catholic “religion.”

Raised a Catholic

As a young child on Long Island, New York, I constantly felt drawn toward anything related to God. I cherished looking through our large, ornate Douay-Rheims Bible that otherwise remained in its red box.  My mother consistently warned me to be careful as I looked through it, indicating that this was a special book, and I solemnly promised that I would. Too young to read, I gazed at the portraits of Jesus.

Among my favorite books were two on the lives of the saints—one each for male and female saints—with portraits on the left-hand pages and biographical summaries on the right. A certain quality in their heavenward gazes especially impressed me; they obviously loved God. While my older Catholic relatives would pray to them, I hoped to one day be one of them. I recall aspiring to become a nun when I would grow up, presuming that this was how one would become a saint—my true “goal.”

My mother, deeply religious, insisted that my sister and I attend church every Sunday and never missed Mass, even after cancer made it difficult for her to walk unassisted. When her aggressive disease rendered her unable to attend, Mom had our two aunts take us, while she stayed home and read her Missal.[1] I do not remember my father ever attending.

Since the Mass was in Latin, I got very little out of it. Despite desiring to know God, I found it a chore, much like school. I was about ten years old when the Mass changed to English, but I still did not feel whatever it was that those picture-book saints appeared to be feeling.

Teenage Years Without God

Shortly after my mother died in 1966, so did my attendance at church. My father, not sharing my mother’s religious zeal, no longer demanded a God-centered life of me or of my sister. After my father had remarried, family life became tumultuous. The first years of marriage are hard enough under the best conditions, and our family had death and step-relations to handle. Without God as my foundation, I felt hopeless and often cried myself to sleep.

By 1970, I was spiritually starving. Therefore, when one of my aunts, dabbling in the occult, asked me to accompany her to various paraphernalia shops, I was eager to go. I found it all fascinating, but I wanted something more. This only added to my despair.

Later that year, fond memories of my mother’s Bible came to mind, which I had never actually read. Fortunately, although my father had rid himself of many things that could rekindle any memories of my mother, he did not dispose of that family Bible.

First Evangelized by John

At first, I tried to read the Bible like any other book—from beginning to end. Genesis was interesting and enlightening. Moving on to Exodus, I read this passage. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them….[2] I shuddered to think that I had broken this commandment whenever I had knelt praying before a statue of a saint. Leviticus was cumbersome, and I entered Numbers, drowning in a sea of genealogies.

Remembering my original intention—to learn about the Lord Jesus—I closed the Bible in frustration. Where were stories about Jesus? It might sound odd that I was ignorant of the arrangement of the Bible, but Catholics of my childhood were not Bible-readers, nor were they encouraged to be. While the priest read excerpts at church, we never received much urging to read it ourselves. As I closed the Bible, I saw on the title page the words, “Words of Christ in Red.” I began to flip pages, desperately scanning for those red words. Finally, I found them. Realizing that the second portion of the Bible, the New Testament, spoke of Jesus, and wanting so much to learn about Him, I began reading the Gospel of Matthew. Settling in to read, I hit another genealogical list, but continued through the book.  I proceeded to Mark, a bit easier, if only because to me it read like Matthew, only shorter. The opening of Luke sounded so familiar, due to what I had heard from Christmas cards.

When I started reading John, Jesus was revealed to me. His words sounded so incredibly familiar, as if I was recalling the words of some long-lost relative from my distant past. Not only familiar, these words felt comforting and safe. I could almost feel Him comforting me and giving me assurance, confirming that God was very real. For this reason, I tell anyone who is reading the Bible for the first time to begin with John.  Although I did not know it at the time, the Lord was drawing me through His Word.

Introduced to the True Church

I proceeded to the Book of Acts, in which I found stark differences between the early church and the Roman Catholic religion in which my family raised me.  The more I read, the more I desired to be part of a church like that of the apostles.

Continuing through the epistles, I came across this warning.  “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.”[3] Was the apostle Paul writing of celibacy and the “no-meat-on-Friday” rule? Could this be pointing to the very religion of which I was a part?

For the remainder of my senior year of high school, I often tried to explain to my contemporaries what I was feeling but could not. My Catholic background left me without the words to understand (no less explain) what I desired. Whenever I tried, the other girls looked at me as if I had just landed from another planet. I felt like a foreigner on earth.

When I stopped accompanying my aunt to those shops, explaining to her that I felt that God did not want me to have any part of it anymore, she became furious over my implication that it was evil. This began our history of repeated debates over crystals, Ouija boards, communicating with the dead, horoscopes, and many other issues.

“Real Life” Gets in the Way

I graduated high school in 1971, and, at my parents’ urging I “got my head out of the clouds” and began thinking of more “serious” things. I bought a car, took driving lessons, got my license, and got a job.

Through this job, I met a young man who could really make me laugh. With home life filled with strife, it was a welcome change. Within a year, we decided to get married, and we did so in 1973. However, we were both too young and entered marriage much too lightly, and I was certainly not waiting upon the Lord to show me the way to deal with the tension.  Essentially, I had taken matters into my own hands.

I became friendly with my husband’s younger sister, Diane, who read the Bible a great deal, So did her boyfriend, Bob, who also wrote songs based on the Psalms. My husband thought his sister was “wacky”, but she and I began to have many discussions in great depth on Scripture, which rekindled pleasant memories of reading God’s Word. Early in 1974, Bob, Diane, and I returned to church together—Roman Catholic, which was all we knew. We never once heard the salvation message at church, and we wondered among ourselves what Jesus meant when He said, “…Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) However, although Scripture was indeed beginning to influence my thinking, I did not comprehend the true meaning of this verse and would not for many years to come.

During this time, many of our contemporaries were experimenting with psychotropic drugs to discover the “meaning” of life. Sadly, many of them discovered death instead. We perceived that what they wanted was to know the supernatural; what they needed was to know the Lord Jesus. Although God had not revealed His truth to me yet, He did allow me to know that the only truth for them was in God’s Word. Bob, Diane, and I thought it might inspire some of the young people at church to read it if they could hear the testimonies of three young people who had. Therefore, in our naiveté, we presented our parish priest with the offer of his using us in whatever capacity he thought best to accomplish this. I will never forget his reply—something like this…

“You know, in our experience, we have found that, when people come to church they tend to not like religion being crammed down their throats. Therefore, we try to keep things light here—not alienate them. This kind of thing might appear to be cramming religion down their throats and make them stop coming. Frankly, we cannot afford that.”

We could not believe our ears! Was the priest saying that the physical lives of those young people, not to mention their souls, were not as important as his financial bottom line? As we gathered our wits in the parking lot, Diane suggested an alternative action. We could type up our experiences of God’s reality as revealed through the reading of the Word. She would then make copies, which we would place on the seats of the church before Mass the next week. This would not cause anyone to feel pressured—the paper could just remain there if one did not want to read it. The following Sunday, we did exactly that, making sure to be there especially early.

Asked to Leave the Church

Evidently, the priest did not share our enthusiasm. After Mass, he met us at the door, and asked us to stay until everyone was gone. That did not take very long, as the congregation was generally quick to exit and pursue their other Sunday activities. After everyone left, he chided us for “disobeying” him, and then he asked that we pick up all the papers, leave “his” church, and “never return.”

Because one’s address determined one’s parish and one could not really join another, we were now without a church to attend. Not only did we wonder where we would go, we were also somewhat concerned over what our families’ reactions to this incident might be.

Diane and Bob soon found a church whose pastor taught long sermons out of the Bible. We began to fellowship there, and many things began to make sense. However, we still misunderstood the John 3:3 text; thinking it meant that we had to commit our lives to Jesus and “turn over a new leaf” as it were.  Believing I had done so, I soon took part in full-immersion baptism before the entire congregation. I was not yet truly born again, despite what I may have thought.  I presumed that I had chosen to follow Jesus, and the result of this error would soon become manifest in my life.

Leaning on my limited knowledge of Scripture, I was able to endure my unstable marriage, built on the selfish, immature desires of us both.  However, I was doing so under my own power, and this effort was therefore doomed to fail.

Pride Comes Before a Fall

This remainder of this was so painful for me to recall that it almost made me reconsider writing this testimony.  However, it will serve to underscore how much we need a Savior and how important hearing the true Gospel can be.

Suddenly, without apparent explanation, my marital pressures exceeded my “commitment” to the Lord. With those pressures taking priority, I felt as if He had abandoned me. The truth is that I had built my house on sand—I thought that “I” had chosen to follow the Lord Jesus—I was taking credit for my own salvation. Not realizing that dead souls cannot choose to follow the Lord Jesus, I held salvation in light esteem and not as the treasure that it is. My life was a lie; I had never truly been “born from above”; God’s work does not fail. Consequently, I eventually found it easy to depart from any fellowship. Without accountability to anyone, I increasingly focused on my wants, my needs, and my self. Not long after that, my husband and I separated, and we divorced after only four and a half years of marriage.

The next twenty-four years were totally devoted to me. I imagined that I was so independently controlling my life, but my only success was in breaking every commandment. What else should I have expected? I was living in total rebellion against God. I was, in fact, my own god. I thought I had it all, but I had nothing.

In 1985, still in rebellion, I met my current husband. He was a serious, thinking man who held integrity high on his list of priorities. Since we held most of the same principles, and we both wanted to have children, we began a life together and planned to get married—eventually. I found his family friendly, intellectual, and well educated. However, because they apparently considered discussing “religion” to be rude and possibly offensive, I kept my beliefs to myself, continuing to deny the Lord in order to be accepted.

Home School Leads Me Home

In 1988, we were married; in 1989, I gave birth to our daughter; and in 1991, I gave birth to our son. In 1998, as my daughter was nearing the end of third grade and experiencing some problems in school, my husband and I became increasingly dissatisfied with the performance of our public school system. We made a decision to homeschool her.

In order to obtain information and support, I joined a local chapter of a statewide Christian homeschool organization. At the first meeting, held at a nearby church, I found that a pastor of the church and his wife were the chapter leaders. After the meeting, they asked me what church I attended. Embarrassed, I did not know what to say. I barely remember what I actually did say, although I think it was something about being between churches. I felt continued guilt whenever I was around the other moms in this group. Although they never once lectured me or made me feel inferior, and I knew they loved me, I also knew I was living a lie.

After the first year of homeschool ended, at the urging of one of these home school moms, I enrolled my two children in Vacation Bible School (VBS) hosted by that same church. During the closing program, I felt like an outsider despite mentally agreeing with virtually everything they professed. Concluding that faith is not merely intellectual assent, I added a bit of Bible study to our curriculum for the following school year. Having now withdrawn our son from public school, we added him to our home school.

After the second year of homeschool ended, I again enrolled them in VBS.  My daughter had just completed fifth grade, and the church program allowed for the fifth-graders to receive instruction from the senior pastor and his wife. During the closing program, they approached me and told me how much they had enjoyed having her in their class. A huge lump formed in my throat; I knew I had to take some responsibility toward my children’s Scriptural education, even if I was to continue in my own rebellion. I recalled a verse from Ezekiel, “But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman’s hand.”[4] How could I leave my children exposed to the enemy?  How could I not teach them about God?

Therefore, in our third year of homeschool, we started every school day with Bible study. We also enjoyed the luxury of impromptu discussions on the Bible during the school day and beyond. Sometime during that school year, as I continued in sharing Scripture with my children (exposing myself to His Word as well), the Lord began to draw me to Himself. Slowly at first, He increasingly filled me with a desire to read His Word.

One night, in March 2001, after everyone had gone to sleep, I sat up reading, and my eyes fell upon a long forgotten verse. “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.[5]

I had spent twenty-four years ignoring the One Who truly loved me enough to die for me—and Whom I had professed as Lord besides—while living entirely for myself. The tears fell as I saw my life of hypocrisy.  I also began to consider that perhaps the decision to homeschool was actually neither my husband’s nor mine. Maybe this decision was part of God’s purpose to bring me into His fold.  I grieved over the fact that I had forgotten so much of what I used to know from Scripture and prayed that the Lord would give that to me again.  In His goodness, He allowed me to have that. However, knowing Scripture is not the same thing as understanding His Word. Still not having a clear understanding of the gospel, I “decided” to “really commit my life to the Lord this time.”

It sometimes seems to me as if Roman Catholic teachings resemble brainwashing; they seem to entrench human self-righteousness deeper than it already is. I was still deluded into thinking that I could commit myself to the Lord; I was still trying to be “good” under my own power.  As soon as some personal trials came along, I again thought I could take matters into my own hands and “fix” things.  Failing miserably, I progressed through guilt, self-hatred, and severe depression, which immobilized me for three months. I felt foolish to think I had ever considered myself a Christian.  Thoroughly ashamed, I could no longer pray or read Scripture. Slipping into despair, I could not bear to think of Him. A concerned friend recommended a women’s support group, which included a Bible study. One night, we came across this.

For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.”[6]

This verse perplexed me for days, even as I visited a therapist to obtain a prescription for anti-depressants. Sitting in my car, thinking of how miserably I had failed God, I heard in my mind, “That is all you can do, but it’s not about what you do. It’s about what I have done.”

How I needed to hate my sin and to stop imagining any potential for good in me. How I needed to be confronted with the bad news before being able to hear the good news. Since God dwells with him of a contrite and humble spirit, my soul was not devoid of hope.

Except a Man Be Born Again…

This much is true. I “thought” I had come to that place of repentance before my baptism in 1974 but had not. Consequently, I had never really died to myself. I had thought I was born anew, but the Lord was yet drawing me.  It was not until that summer in 2003 that God saved me by breaking me. There was no choice but to call upon His mercy.

For the first time, I had a hunger for His Word, in contrast to what was previously mere curiosity. God opened His Word to me, and the Lord Jesus appeared in a number of Old Testament passages—something I had never expected to find. However, the most profound revelations came to me from where I had started—John’s account of the Gospel.

“Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.”[7] The Lord Jesus had chosen me? I had not chosen Him? I found more.  “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.”[8] I could not have come to Jesus unless the Father had drawn me?  In addition, “…no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father.”[9] If the Father had not given it to me, I would have not been able to come to Jesus? I recalled Lazarus in the tomb, unable to exit the tomb until Jesus spoke the words, and later found another passage.

“And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation [lifestyle] in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.”[10]

Finally, an often-repeated Scripture made sense,  “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”[11] Thinking that I had chosen to follow Jesus was, in itself, faith in a works salvation—one sure to fill me with pride and cause me to fall. “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”[12]

The verse that I could not understand years earlier was clear, “…Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”[13] Unless one is born from above, as a new creature, he cannot comprehend or even perceive the things of God’s kingdom.  This verse is not about what we do to get into heaven; it is about what God does to open our eyes. My salvation did not come from my family, religion, or something I “chose” at the age of twenty. I was “…born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”[14]

I have grieved over how my life—especially while professing that I was one of His—has mocked the holy name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, I am unspeakably grateful to the Lord God for His grace in convicting me, leading me to repentance, forgiving me, and transforming my mind.  The Scriptural truths expressed by the Apostle Paul have become my personal story, “You hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; but God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved).  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”[15] Truly this is not my testimony; it is His. All glory to Lord God forever!

Barbara Ann Merz

If you wish you can email me at:

[1] The Missal is the book that contains the prayers said by the priest at the altar as well as all that is officially read or sung in connection with the Mass.

[2] Exodus 20:4, 5

[3] Timothy 4:1-3

[4] Ezekiel 33:6

[5] John 16:33

[6] Isaiah 57:15

[7] John 15:16

[8] John 6:44

[9] John 6:65

[10] Ephesians 2:1-3

[11] Ephesians 2:8, 9

[12] Proverbs 16:18

[13] John 3:3

[14] John 1:13

[15]Ephesians 2:1, 4-5, 10