From Cross to Crucifix
22 years, 9 months and 5 days. That is the amount of time that passed between marrying a Catholic girl and becoming Catholic myself. To say it was a process is an understatement. To say it was completely driven by experience and in God’s time is an absolutely true statement.
At the time of this writing, I’ve been Catholic for less than 24 hours yet many who have been a part of my faith life in recent years would say I’ve been more Catholic than many Catholics; that they had no idea I wasn’t Catholic. I feel a little weird about that yet a little proud at the same time, if I’m being honest. The journey has been long, interesting, sad at times, challenging, surprising and awesome; awesome because it culminated with an emotional night that made others say they wish they saw more people in church as emotional as I was when I finally received the body and blood. I had gotten to the point where I longed for it and couldn’t wait to receive it, yet, couldn’t have cared less about it for the greater part of my life before last night.
I grew up in Buffalo, NY surrounded by Catholics but with no knowledge of what ‘Catholic’ even meant. We went to church occasionally. It wasn’t until I was in my 30’s, though, that I got up the guts to ask my dad why we didn’t go to church more and learned that my parents believed in God. I grew up without faith in my life yet was thankful I at least believed there was a God when I met Jeanne, the Catholic girl from New Orleans, in Raleigh. We were engaged a year to the day after meeting and married six months later in a Catholic church. The acceptance granted to me by the Church before we got married and the verbalized acceptance the Priest offered at our wedding by welcoming all in the congregation - no matter their beliefs - were my first glimpses into the welcoming nature of the faith.
At the time of our marriage my perspective on the Catholic faith was that it was mysterious, peaceful and admirable. It was important to Jeanne and her family so it became really important to me; I really wanted to marry that girl! We agreed on raising our children in the Catholic Church. They were baptized and received religious education yet faith did not become a huge part of our family’s life. I would say this was partially because of the challenges Jeanne had faced (being Catholic in this part of the south, in North Carolina) and maybe in greater part because of me not yet knowing who I was or how I felt about this whole faith thing. I was a nice person with a good moral compass but didn’t know much about God or the Bible or church in general. It took the loss of a little girl very close to us to open my eyes and the actions of a few friends to focus on Him.
When our daughter, Ella, was finishing pre-school, her friend by the same name was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor on her brain stem. She wagged her finger at the doctors who said she had weeks-to-months and proceeded to celebrate three more birthdays before going to Heaven. It was at a fundraiser for her family that, for the first time in my life, I found myself in a prayer circle. A group of the parents close to Ella Newmiller’s family had joined hands in support of the family when she was diagnosed. Then, just before the fundraising event, we joined hands again as we stood in a circle and verbalized prayers for Ella, her family and the event we were hosting to raise money for part of her treatment plan not covered by insurance. I knew these were some awesome humans I was getting to spend time with but a lightbulb went off in that circle that these were all Christian humans and the connection was made for me that perhaps the reason why I thought they were awesome had something to do with their beliefs. I remember thinking, “This is a club I want to be a part of.”
The reticular activator is the thing that goes off in your brain when you find yourself noticing every red Honda Accord on the road after you see one in a commercial and fall in love with it. That was how I found myself with the Christians in my life after being on Team Ella and being in that prayer circle. Allen, Allison, Oie, Mark, Renae - the list is long – these were all people I started paying closer attention to and spending more time with. I think I confused my wife a bit when I started using words like “Godwink” and “Grace” and less words that start with “F” and “S.”
Around this time is when I started writing. I wrote a book with a seemingly irreverent (but well-intended) title of “Holy It!” It was written to get people in touch with their “thing” - their “It” as I called it - that was God-given and needed to be uncovered and acted upon. I wasn’t educated enough about faith to weave it into the book fully but I made a few mentions. My second book came out just after Ella’s passing and is entitled, “The Second Day.” Its intention was to share my personal experience with suicide attempts in the hope of saving lives. I knew I wanted to incorporate God into this book as well but did not know how I would accomplish that, again with my limited education and experience with church. I had written about half of the book and was at the part where the mostly true story I had shared was going to shift fully to fiction. I had named the God character in the book after my friend, Oie, and reached out to said friend to ask him if he’d proofread it for me. Not knowing anything about the book (let alone that he had inspired it in one of his speeches I attended or that I had used his name for the God figure in the book!), he said, “Chew on this - how ‘bout we write it together?” He proceeded to write the second half and our humble opinion is that it came out pretty good. This is the definition of a Godwink, we believe.
I share the information about my books to show how God was working in my life, but very gradually. He was coupling my heightened awareness of Christian behavior and joy of writing while shining light on things I was passionate about. It took the sudden passing of my father just two months after I had served as a pallbearer at Ella’s funeral and then the passing of my mother two years later to connect me to faith in a much deeper way.
My father had been so moved by the story about Ella’s unique “green” burial in a wooded area behind a traditional cemetery that he had changed his own wishes. He was literally on his deathbed when we had the discussion about those wishes and, with all the might he had in a gravely weakened condition, he pulled off his oxygen mask and told me he wanted to be buried like (and where) Ella was buried. For his funeral, we found a Pastor who was known to the cemetery staff as someone nearby and willing to help with funerals for those who had no church connection. Two years later, that Pastor was not available to preside over my mom’s service; I believe that proved to be a vital cog in the wheel that was my faith journey. I reached out to a Methodist Pastor many of my friends knew and raved about, Owen Barrow. I had met Owen once or twice but we certainly didn’t know each other. When he said, “I’ll do it” after I asked him if he knew any Pastors in the town forty minutes away where my mom was to be buried next to my dad and near Ella, I had another “I love Christians!” moment.
The friendship with him and the following of ‘all things Owen’ that happened in the next few years provided a huge part of my education on the Christian life and how to live like Jesus. How things went down with him and book #3 taught me about patience, grace and friendship.
The idea for what became my third book, “Mess to Message” came very much from the rough experiences of losing Ella and my parents within two years of each other, along with some other life challenges either I had been through or those close to me had been through. To teach the reader how to not waste the pain and how to see God’s grace and lessons in the tough times seemed to be a great way to serve my fellow man. I was, yet again, in a position where I didn’t feel qualified to write the faith-related part of the book. I then had the idea to structure the book in a unique way – I would write “Part A” of each chapter (the story about “the mess”) and I would ask Owen to write “Part B” of each chapter (the reflection and hope from a biblical perspective - “the message”). He said ‘yes’…and then had his third child. Three years later, Owen’s name ended up in the book but not on it - he wrote the Forward while another gifted Christian friend, Allison Cain, co-wrote the book with me. Owen and I ultimately laughed about the whole thing - it’s all good.
Owen and I saw each other once a week during that three year period; we saw each other at 519 Church which was one of four locations of Apex United Methodist Church (AUMC). If my family went to church growing up, it was to a Methodist church so it was a good fit that this good friend led one of them in our area. I learned a lot about faith and the Christian life from Owen and the other gifted pastors that were part of the family of faith communities that made up AUMC. I also learned that there was some massaging to do with my family in terms of how we could be a two-church family. With some advice from friends, we learned to not call it “Mom’s church” and “Dad’s church” but rather “St Mary Magdalene” and “519.” One was where our whole family went and our children were sacramentalized, educated and prepared for Confirmation while the other was where I went to learn. There was never a time we didn’t go to the Catholic Church together yet it was usually just me who went to the Methodist Church.
There are a few major events that proved to be waymakers in my journey toward Catholicism and one of them stemmed from the aforementioned welcoming nature of the Catholic Church. St. Mary Magdalene has a renowned youth program that routinely attracts 300+ middle and high schoolers to it. When our daughter started in that program in sixth grade they welcomed me as a group leader even though I was not Catholic. I am currently in my 7th year of serving in that role and doing so has been transformative for me just as it has been for so many of the kids we serve. Large group teachings, small group interactions, Adoration, serving on youth retreats, chapel time with the adult leaders, being poured into by the program leaders, retreats solely for the group leaders to prepare for the year with the kids, XLT nights with guest speakers and musicians…the list goes on and on of the experiences that showed me the beautiful beliefs and traditions of the Catholic Church. If I had to point to one or two things that had the biggest influence on my decision to fully join the church, they would be Adoration and Janine. Oh, and a breakup and two priests, but first things first.
Adoration is the spending of time - often in silence and while kneeling - in front of the true presence of Christ (the Eucharist displayed in something called a monstrance on the altar). During my time I’ve served in the youth ministry program, I would guess I have gone to Adoration twenty times. It is probably one of the most ‘Catholicy’ things I’ve done and has routinely been one of the most impactful. When you are told to look at the monstrance as though you are looking Jesus in the face and to know he is looking right back at you is one thing. To actually allow yourself to be fully immersed in the moment and to be brought to tears time and time again - all as a non-Catholic - you start to understand and believe what is truly happening.
I saw my deceased parents standing beside Jesus.
I heard middle school girls yelping as they released their suffering.
I saw middle school boys crying in front of their friends as they knelt beside me.
I was forgiven for past transgressions and embraced by Him.
Nobody coaxed any of this to happen and nobody made me participate but I’m glad I did, many times over.
If I participated in Eucharistic Adoration twenty times, one was dry. Just one. That one time was on a Saturday night in a meeting hall at a YMCA-like camp where we held a middle school retreat. I just wasn’t feelin’ it. I didn’t want to waste the moment so I stood toward the back of the room. Amazingly (to me, at least) is that most of the kids at these middle school retreats opt to go up in front of the stage (altar) and kneel as opposed to sitting in the chairs. My vantage point gave me the chance to witness the experiences of the kids during Adoration. To see these tough-yet-fragile boys and put-together-yet-vulnerable girls pray, cry and support each other in front of a piece of metal that holds a wafer is something to behold and is proof, to me, that it’s not just a piece of bread in there.
Weeks later, when I found myself at coffee with Janine who ran the middle school program at the time, I shared my experience from that night at the retreat. I let her know I was thankful to have been granted the gift of attention to the kids since it wasn’t my night to have yet another moving experience of my own as I typically did with Adoration. To my surprise, she said she had the same kind of night, a night of observation more than participation. She did, however, say she heard one thing from Jesus that night and it made her very uncomfortable; she said He told her to ask me to become Catholic. While this little powerhouse of a human being can own a room full of antsy tweens and keep their attention for double digit minutes (something many trained teachers can’t accomplish), she doesn’t feel nearly the same confidence asking a fellow adult to join the faith she passionately believes in. She asked me, though.
Janine also did so much more. She poured into the adult leaders of the youth group as much, if not more, than the students. She believed that her job was to prepare our hearts to serve the kids and did so by way of the aforementioned adult retreats, education and prayer time before the nights with the youth, special programs with Father Dave Pivonka (one of the most influential and gifted Priests in the world) and other Catholic leaders and musicians, creative ways of teaching the kids that taught us adults so much..and so much more. Her heart and humility coupled with her passion for leading and teaching led me on my journey.
My appreciation of her influence showed itself in the weirdest way, but in a way I know I’ll never forget. On the night of my Confirmation, the pew reserved for me and my family was the very front row in front of the altar. The anticipation of receiving Communion for the first time is not something I can really put into words. I had been incredibly influenced by this talk by Father Mike Schmitz as well as this video about Eucharistic miracles and this one by prominent Protestant leader, Francis Chan. All of that information, coupled with the hundreds of times I had been to mass over 22 years and not taken Communion, had me all kinds of excited to receive it.
Already in tears and being “consoled” by my wife after receiving the body and blood, we knelt and saw the rest of the congregation receive Communion. I saw some of my brothers from our Saturday morning men's group pass by; at least one had tears in his eyes from what I believe was his reaction to my reaction (after receiving). Others smiled and congratulated me. And then Janine McGann went by. When she turned and blew kisses or praise or whatever she did, I let out a yelp that probably sounded like an injured dog to the people around me. The influence of that woman is immeasurable, on me and all those she has served over her years in ministry. Sometimes people come to faith by way of one experience - in my case it was from 50 or 100, most of which have her name and her heart tied to them.
One other ginormous thing Janine did for me was to lend me her bonus room and two of her houseguests a few years back. I needed an intervention of sorts; something to help me become me again. Something to help me forgive someone who didn’t know he needed to be forgiven.
Honestly, I really don’t want to write about this but it was such a formative experience in the faith life of my family and the building of my faith (to the point of joining the Church) that I feel I need to share it.
I mentioned earlier that my wife struggled when she was in high school and her family moved to the predominantly Protestant state of North Carolina from the mostly Catholic community in New Orleans. She was ridiculed for her faith. She was told she wasn’t Christian. That ridicule came from teenagers so it could (but shouldn’t) be called ‘understandable’. It sickens me, though, that she has also experienced this as an adult…from Christians. I’ve heard some of it as well and it just baffles me. What happened to our daughter, though - whew! What happened to her changed me.
14 years-old. Freshman in high school. Hanging out with a non-Catholic boy. I’ve met the boy's dad and learned about how he’s raising him. We’ve broken bread with the family more than once. They’re not ‘dating’ because they believe you date to marry - they are just ‘special friends’ and there is a close eye on everything. We go to dinner with the family on a Friday to celebrate his birthday. Saturday he meets with his father and the adult men in his life who are his spiritual leaders (one of whom is a well-known leader in their church) for a ceremony celebrating his growth into manhood. Sunday – PALM SUNDAY - he breaks up with my daughter because she’s Catholic and, therefore, isn’t saved and isn’t someone he could marry. (Yes, they knew she was Catholic from the outset.)
There’s more to it but that’s the surface-level description and enough to set the level of suck for you.
Her wailing when she ran into my room (my wife was out of town) at 9pm was worse than when she came flying into the house at age eight with a face full of blood from a bike accident. I’ll never forget it or the conversation that followed it (once she could breathe again).
WE’RE ON THE SAME TEAM was all I could think of in the minutes, hours, days and weeks that followed.
WHAT WOULD JESUS SAY if the two of them stood before Him and told Him the story of why they were no longer continuing this really cool relationship all were enjoying? That was the other thing that kept coming to mind over and over.
It sucked. The whole thing absolutely sucked in my humble opinion. I was mad. As time went on, I was probably more angry and for some reason had a harder time letting go than the Catholics in my family (I think I know the reason now, though).
I behaved well when I forgave the boy in a text conversation in which he stated that he would never be able to forgive himself for hurting Ella. My mind went to the messes I went through when I was his age. No way was I going to do anything but forgive him or I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if he went and did something stupid like I did in high school. It was the Christian thing to do. Where I did not behave well was in the interactions with his family after that, specifically with his father. I thrive on social interaction - it feeds me - yet I avoided it with him as much as humanly possible and it made me feel inhuman. You never shake a man’s hand when you’re sitting down, right? I did it - twice. Anger was not an emotion I experienced much at all but it owned me - for almost a year.
Eleven months of talking to Christian friends of all denominations including a Pastor or two, being angry and just not feeling like myself, I reached out to Janine. She had brought in “Two cool Priests from Texas” to speak to the youth programs and they were staying at her house. She had also proven to be a sounding board for our family as we had to process what felt like discrimination, elitism and intolerance so she fully understood when I said I’d like to grab some time with her houseguests. The two hours that followed changed me.
After telling the story to these two men in collars, they asked questions. A lot of questions. Questions about me, my past, my parents, my formative experiences, my faith. They did something no one had ever done for me and it had nothing to do with the reason I was meeting with them (or so I thought) - they prayed for me and had me pray out loud about my two suicide attempts in high school. They felt I needed to get that part of my spirit right before we could move forward. As I seem to do easily and is well-documented in this post, I cried like a baby during this exercise. I proceeded to go through a similar series of game-changing statements and prayers and processes to release from my spirit all the negative juju that was eating me up. It was intense to the point where I had to shed a layer of clothing while I was sitting there.
The most memorable and effective thing they had me do in my time with them was to close my eyes, picture myself with the boy’s dad, put my arm around him, walk him to Jesus at the cross, forgive him and then turn and walk away. I think I did it six times. For the same reason a Priest once offered when I asked why some prayers are repeated so much in Catholicism (have you ever prayed a Rosary?), I believe these Priests had me repeat this visualization; it’s awfully difficult for your mind to stray when you’re forced to say the same thing over and over and over. I was focused, and then I was released.
After I toweled off, we walked downstairs and found a note from Janine that directed Father Chris Ortega and Father Jared Cooke to walk down the street to Liz’s house for dinner. We walked out the door, down the front walk and said our goodbyes. As I got into the car I had a giggle and called out to them, “Guys - I can’t tell you how silly writing a letter feels right now!” Before seizing the opportunity to meet with these two men in hopes of getting myself back, I was hell-bent on writing a letter to the dad. That will do it! I’ll show him!, I thought. These guys took me to The Dad instead and it brought an overwhelming peace - way more than penning a letter would have.
What they didn’t do was trash another religion. They didn’t speak of it. They couldn’t have cared less if the family was Buddhist, Baptist or Believers in Bacon. It didn’t matter what the other person’s beliefs were - it mattered that I learn to let go of the hurt, to forgive and to hand it all to Jesus. This is pervasive and central to my decision to become Catholic. In 22 years of being around the Catholic Church, going to Mass, spending time in youth group and men’s group and two priests in a bonus room group, I have never heard another Christian denomination spoken of in an ill fashion. Explanations and understandings and interpretations have been shared, sure - that’s part of learning and growing in the faith. Verbally dismissing, claiming you’re going to hell because of what you believe, hitting you over the head with the Bible (all things my Catholic family has experienced), not even close. Not once.
And about that Bible. People joke about Catholics by saying they wouldn’t know one if they tripped over it. It is prominently presented over the head of the Deacon or Priest at every single Mass and glorified in a huge way. After that, it’s read from a podium; a podium that is purposefully not at the center of the altar so the focus remains on God. All of this with a crucifix hanging above it to remind us that his body is in the tabernacle and so his blood can drip into the cup.
I’m in and feel an incredible peace and contentment for it. Huge love to all who had any part in this journey, especially that patient Catholic girl from New Orleans with whom I now get to receive Communion.