HOUSTON - As an electrical engineer and a self-professed "angry atheist," Clay Lein
had no truck with religion.
was convinced, was fools' folly - a crutch for those who couldn't cut it on their own.
wife, Jill, and her
father, an Episcopal priest, were free to believe, of course, but the Bible stuff just wasn't for him.
Baseball, though, was another matter.
Seated in a study at Houston's St. John the Divine Episcopal Church
, as he
prepared to deliver his
first sermon as the 75-year-old congregation's new rector, Lein
tale of how a scoffing man of science was transformed - through the agency of sports - into a staunch believer.
At 53, Lein
has worn the clerical collar more than 17 years, as executive pastor at Christ Episcopal Church
in Plano, Texas, and, most recently, as rector at St. Philip's Episcopal Church
in Frisco, a Dallas suburb.
"I met Jesus and that was the beginning of a wonderful relationship that has changed every single thing in my life - my marriage, my priorities, my future - all for the better," he
For much of his
- raised as a Lutheran - was a cheerful atheist.
"God was irrelevant to me personally and to the world," he
All that began to change when, as a mid-20-ish Intel Corp.
engineer in Phoenix, he
was paid a visit by his
Searching for a church to attend during the visit, the older man stumbled onto a charismatic congregation that so impressed him that he
recommended it to his
, too, found the Episcopal church a good fit, routinely dragging her
spouse to services.
"I went to humor her
bluntly informed the clergyman that he
was a nonbeliever, but was impressed when the churchman seemed to accept him nonetheless.
The two men soon discovered a common bond: a favorite sport.
Before the priest departed, the nonbeliever had agreed to coach a church team.
coached for Jesus, but was unshakable in disbelief.
When invited to counsel teens at a summer camp, he
spurned the offer.
When reminded that summers at the mountain camp would be about 30 degrees cooler than in Phoenix, he
At first, his
duties were limited to serving as a father surrogate to the campers.
But things reached a crisis when Lein
was asked to participate in a healing session, physically laying hands on the teens and praying with them.
balked, then acquiesced, concluding that "I can do this.
I'm arrogant and proud of my gifts.
I can make something up: 'Oh creator of the universe, blah, blah, blah.'"
Then the first teen stepped up, and Lein
stretched out his
"Before I could open my mouth, words came into my head that were not of me and I prayed those words," Lein
"I saw big boulder fields like in Alaska, and on each were words - names of all the things he
was struggling with.
Each time, God got in the middle and the words that came out were not mine."
Next up was a girl who, as Lein
prayed, began sobbing, revealing the details of sexual abuse she
had suffered at the hands of an adult.
"That's when a question came into my mind," Lein
"I said, 'God, if this happens when I get out of your way for 15 minutes, what would happen if I got out of your way for my whole life?' It was an epiphany, a thought that just didn't sound like me.
It said, 'Try me.'"
knelt, and recited the Lord's Prayer, the only one he
knew by heart.
sprang into Christianity with a vengeance.
A month later he
agreed to mentor a church youth group; within three years he
felt called to preach.
"It never occurred to me to doubt the reality of God," he
said, the more he
persevered, the more the doubts faded.
With master's and doctoral degrees in theology, Lein
was ordained in 1996.
After stints as deacon at a South Carolina church and 5½ years as rector in Plano, Lein joined the Frisco church as its first rector in 2002.
12-year tenure, he
contributed to its growth to about 1,400 members.
established a reputation as a communicator who eschewed pulpit oration for a relaxed delivery.
St. Philip's spokeswoman Dianna Brannan recalled the Sunday when Lein perched atop a ladder and proclaimed, "I'm God looking down.