Sunday, January 15, 2012

With and Without You : My Story

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PART I: Without


"God is Good",

those were the words a chubby ten year old wrote on the movable chalkboard during Vacation Bible School at Kenwood Presbyterian Church in the summer of 1973 (Kenwood Pres is mostly known in the area, if at all, as the church Mike Rowe of "Dirty Jobs" used to attend with his parents). Yes, as a little kid I actually loved what I understood was God, even praying nightly the "Now I lay me down to sleep" my mom had taught me, with an added "and please God let my mother hear again and make Colleen normal"

See my sister has Downs syndrome, and it wasn't yet un P.C. to want her to be "normal", even if now I understand her lack of that mysterious attribute to be one of the greatest gifts God ever gave me (although I can't wait to see her on that day we both gets our new bodies).

My mother, besides being deaf, also had been in a catatonic coma for about a year when I was 6, and was never the same after, suffering many bouts of anxiety and depression. This latter part was the cause of a lot of drama and it wasn't unusual for the neighbors to hear her and my dad arguing, with silly me in the middle trying to stop the fighting, and catching a few punches and slaps along the way. Watching too many Errol Flynn movies, I always tried to be the great protector for my mom and lil' sisters . . . I failed more often than not.

A few days after I entered 7th grade I came home from school to find my dad oddly home already, and he sat me down to tell me mom wouldn't be living with us anymore. As an adult I can see how this affected me, but as a kid I was just happy to know the fighting would finally be over . . . or so I thought. It wasn't until a few weeks later when our beloved 11 year old collie "Lady" died, that I remember finally crying.

I was always an emotional youngen, as well as an emotional eater, so I started to pile on the pounds as watching tv in my dark room began to be my recreational activity of choice. Supposedly I was/am a rather a smart individual as well, with an IQ oddly around 165 ( unlike Steve Jobs, my IQ has never translated into $$$). In that same year my mom left, my over IQ'd brain that would cause my father to find me on the bathroom floor one day with me giving the excuse "I ate too many doughnuts".

This wasn't entirely a lie, did I mention I was a fatty?, but it was that earlier I had been having the "who created God, and who created God's creator, etc." thought, and it confused and scarred me so much I started to feel physical pain. As no answer came to me for that question, I than decided I was an atheist. Other thoughts such as "Why would God make my Mother deaf or my sister retarded" and "Why would He make my Father hit me so much" soon solidified that decision.

I would not enter another church for about 10-20 years. I also only mentioned my father's occasional violence so that I can show later how our mutual loving Father would bring healing and forgiveness, and a love so deep for my dad that I never knew possible.

In High School, TV in the dark bedroom was replaced by listening to depressing records in our dark basement, and recovering from my heart's attack - overeating turned to anorexia. I must point out that it really wasn't fear of death that inspired my weight lose, but something far worse to a teenager, the fact that everyone was dating but me (although I wouldn't actually kiss a girl until just before HS graduation).

It was also in High School we found out about my IQ, but I preferred bad grades to good since a "D" or an "E" meant attention from my father, and a slap or an insult is still better than the indifference of an "A" or "B".

Being unhappy and planning for the day I would finally die became my religion, and I attempted first suicide at 19 after discovering my first girlfriend aborted our child who was conceived the night I lost my virginity.

The next attempt would come a few years later, but mainly due to my inability to see any future or purpose for my life, or anyone's life for that matter. Actually, I don't really understand why every atheist doesn't walk of into the woods alone with a shot gun . . .but I'm glad they don't.

I also decided I was Pro-life in High School, but not mainly because I saw how just plain stupid it was that a child should die just so people can have 5 minutes (or less) of what they think is fun. The "it's my body" argument was just as illogical to me, because this wasn't an arm or a leg, but a separate entity living inside, but not really part, of the woman's body. I was also friends with a nice Pro-life Catholic girl who during research for an article, had been told by 3 separate Planned Parenthoods that she was pregnant, which was kinda odd because she was still a virgin.

Also shortly before graduation my best friend had become a "born again" Christian, and I had picked up a book called "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand.

Nothing had ever awakened me before as this novel, and not entirely in a good way. I saw in myself a few of the traits of her hero Howard Roark, but mostly I related to Peter Keating, the poor fool in the book who's ideas and values were based on not what was true but what society of the moment said. This was a sucker punch to my trendy John Lennon given liberal views, and would cause to to forever more look at things "objectively" . . . which much to my fellow Randites chagrin, would in time lead me to the one who is objective Truth.

The microscope of reason and logic would show me the folly of atheism; the prideful arrogance at the core of Protestantism; and finally the fullness of Truth in Christ's church . . .but, I'm getting ahead of myself (O:

So, after taking a year off to earn money as a day laborer, I entered College with a new vision of the world, and as a new vision to the world, for I had lost a lot of weight, and what I kept was muscle. Suddenly I had lost that thing that made girls run screaming in my school days. It now seemed my lap was the best seat at lunch time for young women, and my bag and art supply cabinet a place to find random "call me" notes. A high school teacher of mine even asked me out?

This silly stuff I mention because it is part of a duality lesson God is starting to teach me, as He truly was, and would, continually have me walking a mile in the shoes of another. . .well, except they were mine.

A liberal to a conservative, a fat kid to a buff long haired rocker, an atheist to . . . .

My friend Vic, who had become a Christian, never ever preached to me, but whether he knew it or not, was the first person who ever WAS Christ to me . . .and many times. I still remember him holding my hand, a thing us "guys" just didn't do, on the night he let me weep hysterically after I had found out about the abortion. He is one of the very best people our God has ever put in my life, and it makes me weep again now in the knowledge that somehow, somewhere, he lost his faith.

While I had this new Randite religion, I also never preached it to him, as I was aware of one very important thing - that the day I became an atheist was also a day of sadness. I knew that I did not wish to kill that hope in my friend, as I had in myself.

We were both music people, and he would continue to play in area and national acts, and I would start my DJ'ing at an infamous Hair metal club in Baltimore, as well also running sound for bands (ever heard of a band called U2?). So we drifted apart, as he toured more, and my self imposed exiles during various bouts of depression worsened.

When I wasn't feeling hopeless, I was dating and falling in love with lots of nice gals. Oddly I had a rule during a first date that the young lady would have to hear and agree on my view on abortion, if there was to be a second date. Yep, I was a Long Haired Libertarian atheist Pro-lifer who wouldn't date a girl unless she was Pro-life too . . .so o.k., maybe I didn't have a lot of second dates (O:

Continuing also to work construction during this time as now a Brick layer, I was asked by a local kid if he could labor for us during the summer. Tim is one of the smartest, and basically around great guys I had ever met, and even as a teen had sense of what was "good" that most folks will sadly never grasp. It was he who would first use logic and reason to try to change my view on God, in part by using Ockham's razor (the simplest answer is often the correct answer) to show that it makes MORE sense that this complicated world was created than to accept it "just happened". Still an atheist, but those words never left my noggin'

Granted, it was that I saw Jesus in Tim, more than anything he ever spoke.

O.k., So more years of on and off depression, of falling in and out of love, of touring with bands, and just basically existing. During this time I did become somewhat good at debate, and my favorite party trick was to argue any liberal around, hopefully to the point of tears. I had become kind of an intellectual bully, and is one of the reasons I rarely talk politics since becoming a Christian.

Not long after I turned 30 I met an amazing woman, who yes had to hear my anti-abortion speech prior to the first kiss., and although we never married, would be together for almost nine years.

She would witness me at my most depressed, my most hopeless, all the while gifting me with unconditional love. As I was someone who had been abandoned by his mother, God knew I had to witness an earthly form of unconditional love before I would ever be able to receive His.

During our time together my brother had become a Promise Keeper, and was suddenly a guy I actually liked to be in the same room with. Wishing to bond more with him, despite his living 3 states away, I started to "learn" about Christian things. I even bought the first Jars of Clay cd, as well as attended with my brother the Promise Keeper Rally on the Mall in DC (it's worth stating that though I was still an atheist, I had to admit I felt something very powerful that day). I also remembering feeling a touch of sadness that there were no Catholics at the event (or at least that I knew of), and that somewhere inside my slowly defrosting heart, God was teaching me he desired unity.

At this time another lil' Jesus entered my life. David worked part time with me, and over hearing me mention the Rally on the Mall, came over to talk. I cut him off when he started the "Jesus talk", explaining I was still an atheist, but was just a little more open than before.

Next day at work I find a little note stuck in a book by that Children's author C.S. Lewis. The note read "you seem to respect logic a lot, me too, I think you'll like this, your friend, David" and the book was of course "Mere Christianity".

I read it that weekend, butt clenched waiting to be preached at, but only found logic and reason. This book read like an Ayn Rand essay, but with charm and wit, and dare I say, a soul!

See that was the thing I always knew about the Rand stuff, that it was logical, but also very empty. I knew at my very core, that if it was true, life had absolutely no meaning. Rand was wrong!

While I could agree with Lewis, I wasn't ready to sing with Bob Dylan "I've been saved!" just yet.

The woman I mentioned, who I now lived with, started finding more things for me to read, and for us to talk about. She was not a Christian, but very much a lil' Christ too, for she saw the hope in my eyes when I read or pondered these wacky new Christian ideas, and wanted only for me to know joy.

I worked across the street from a Catholic church, St Anns in DC, that was advertising RCIA, but more as a "want to learn about the Church". So I signed up and started attending the class. Father David W. Beaubien and Deacon Robert Whitaker taught the class, and were both converts to Catholicism, which for whatever reason I respected more than if they had been cradle papists (I would later have the much undeserved honor of helping Deacon Whitaker bring others into the Church through RCIA, and would learn from this humble saint of a man how to truly serve and sacrifice as Christ would).

One day I admitted to Fr. Beaubien that I still didn't know what I believed and he so perfectly replied
" But you are walking in the right direction, just keep walking".
Not judgmental or preachy, but so loving and affirming, as if Jesus himself had uttered those very words . . . and me thinks he did.

Oh, if this is where you think I become Catholic, ya might want to skip a head a bit, although in a few years it will be in this very church that at Easter Vigil I will take the name "Rose"

On Good Friday, as I was getting ready for work, Pat Robertson asked through the TV
"if anyone wanted to know Jesus" and I did, and I got on my knees before the magic box and repeated the "sinners prayer". No blinding light, no rush of tears, I just finished putting on my tie and went off to work. The only strange feeling came when I felt oddly envious as my girlfriend went up to receive the Eucharist, but I couldn't . . .yet.

She had been raised Catholic, and although she didn't know she was suppose to go to confession first after being away so long, did receive most Sundays when we went to "church". I wouldn't find out for some time that she also, while alone on that very day, had said the same prayer. My girlfriend had now become my "sister", and while we would never marry, she would remain always my sister (God has since given her a wonderful husband and an adorable lil' son).

Part II: With

O.K. so now I am a Christian

cue crickets chirping

Now what?

I did admit that I was in love with "my idea of" Jesus,
I did start each day with the Bible
We started listening to Christian music, and going to Christian concerts
We even did the Protestant Church-hop for a while

Something wasn't right . . .oh yeah, you're living in sin, 'causing another to sin, but calling yerself a Christian
Granted, I had attempted our taking a vow of chastity while living together . . .yeah, like that works

During this time I was also praying "Lord, what would you have me be? a Protestant or a Catholic"
Almost every time I prayed that I would hear a still small voice say "you will be Catholic, but not yet"
As if the parables weren't hard enough to understand, this is the answer I am getting?

With our living together, and my awareness of it being wrong in God's eyes, I started to get depressed again. It was also in part because it was hard to work at a job where my faith was mocked, or more to the point, where my love was mocked.

This went on for some time and while she loved me, my history of depression didn't inspire her to want me as a husband either. We just stayed stagnant for a very long time until she, in her ever loving way, realized I needed us apart if I was to grow in Christ and in His joy.

So after much sadness and anger, we parted (but would remain friends, and the rosary that her mother gave me is the very one I will use again tonight).

Moving closer to home I church hopped a lot, not truly knowing what I was actually looking for. I settled on a rather innocuous mega-church near work that I had been attending on Saturdays, while "trying out" neighboring churches. I soon learned it was best to come fifteen minutes late to avoid the Praise and Worship music, as I wanted to be fed not rocked by musical "vain and repetitious prayer".
I attended small group and never missed a Sunday.
I was finally becoming joy filled in my faith, in my life.
But the more I read the Bible,
the more I noticed how un-biblical the pastors' talks were.

While this non-denominational denomination talked a lot about Jesus, it's building didn't have a cross or image of Christ anywhere in it.
Sure, they might put a "fish" on their Volvos, and let their kids have Hollister written on their shirts or "Pink" on their butts, but a cross would be idolatry.
Oh, and we applauded for the "rockstars" leading worship, although once I was greatly impressed when a worship leader said not to clap for them but Him (pointing upward)
. . .but this only happened once.
We would occasionally also have "communion", which I always disliked, as I knew in my heart it was fake, and seemed out of place in this warehouse. It was especially telling how the pastor would always over enunciate the word "remembrance", lest anyone know anything important (or Catholic) was happening.
This was something I have noticed at every Protestant church I have been to as well.

On Easter when they had scenes from the Passion showing on their mega flat screen, I started to realize that this church and it ideas were a fabrication, a fantasy, a movie of the week version of Christianity. I absolutely love the movie "the Passion", but felt a slide-show during a service cheapened both the film and our "worship".

The "church" had actually organized groups to see the film in the theater, but maybe because I was already unconsciously Catholic, I chose to see it alone, as a sort of pilgrimage. I still remember how I felt afterward, of sitting in my car laughing uncontrollably. Not that I found anything funny, but I suddenly felt a joy so overwhelming, a joy that comes from seeing all that Christ did because He loved me . . . .He knew me completely, every sin and mistake, every cruel selfish act, and somehow still said "Michael, for you my child!"
with every lash "Michael, I love you!"

I had been attending the annual March for Life in DC since my early 20s, even as an atheist, but I couldn't find any of theses "Christians" who wanted to attend with me, or had ever attended previously?

One quick note, I did meet individuals who were very much lil' Jesus', but it was the emptiness of the church's pseudo teachings and it's boardroom like focus on "43 kids were saved last weekend" that was showing me this wasn't Christianity (in their acceptance of the silly "once-saved" that I had always known wasn't Biblical, it was rare to count how many of those kids were still "saved" a year later, a "catch and release" style of ministry that was good only for the "stock holders").

This Church loved "Jesus", but I was starting to realize that we worshiped different Jesuses (although I wasn't even sure yet what that meant). Their Jesus could be molded into any thing current trend dictated, but I wanted Christ to mold me!

I also somehow found my self at a new job, working in a Christian company. I didn't know it was owned by a Christian, but he knew I was a Christian when he hired me. As it was located closer to DC, I started looking for a place down in that area.

I found an English basement near Rock Creek Park where the landlord proclaimed "we're all Catholics who live upstairs, and so I am sorry but no overnite guests".
I smiled and said, "where do I sign?".

One of the gals living upstairs was a bright Grad student who always seemed to bump into me in the laundry room, which would lead to hour long discussions on faith and history, and where once she proclaimed "yeah, you're already Catholic, you just don't know it"

I came to really enjoy these talks, and when I heard she was moving out I became a bit sad. Hanging out with my old girlfriend one day, and talking about this young lady who was moving, she knew me well enough to say" wow, you're in love with her" and she made me promise to ask her out.

Oddly, I didn't want to "date" her, 'cause when I thought and prayed over it I realized I wanted to "marry" her.

I finally had become the person who could love, thanks be to God, and I wanted her to be the earthly recipient of that love. She on the other hand hadn't given me a second thought, so when I did profess my undying love for her she kinda looked like a deer in dem headlights (even if I was the one who felt like I had been shot when I left with a "no")

Thankfully she called the next day to explain that it was nice that I was crazy about her, but that I never actually asked her out, so I did, and she said yes!?!

Almost immediately during our courtship she pronounced "I don't think I could marry a non-Catholic"
That night I prayed and heard that yes, it was time for me to enter His church.

I started RCIA the next Sunday , with one of Paula's friends as my sponsor. Of any of the people I saw Christ in it was this man. He was a dad with five kids (one with special needs) who worked three jobs so that his wonderful wife could raise their brood at home. Although He worked way too much, and had very little, he would stop to pray with or for anyone, and offer anything he had to another (after first knowing his family was provided for). He did all this and always had a smile . . .sometimes a tired smile, but a smile nonetheless.

Paula was the perfect gift from God in more ways than mere beauty, which she had in abundance inside and out. Her parents had been missionaries, so this was no Cultural Catholic before me. She had also been a teacher and was studying medieval history in Grad school, so my education began.

She taught me of adoration, that she took me to every Saturday
She taught me of dignity for every individual, especially in the charitable way she spoke of the unfaithful man whom she was once married.
She taught me the rosary, and helped me recite it at my mother's hospital bed
She taught me of Luther the antisemitic monk who wrote sermons about his bowel movements
She taught me of tradition and religion and virtue
She taught me of redemptive suffering, and of "offering it up"
She taught me of saints, some whom would be my friends
She taught me of hard things like sacrifice and chastity
She even taught me I looked better in short hair,
for wanting to truly give her something I had given no other,
under the scissors I went (O:
She taught me conversion was daily, instead of a one time thing
She taught me to truly forgive,
and helped me start to spend time with my dad
(and thanks to this I would be his best man when he remarried)
She also gave me the "Miraculous medal" that I would not take off until a few years later, and only so I could hide it in my Dad's pocket just before they sealed his coffin
(I wanted to make sure our Lady could find him, and take him to her Son)
She taught me that I could love
She taught me friendship as I cried the night my mother died
She smiled when I told her how I thanked Jesus for giving me His mother in replacement for mine
She guided me before my first confession and was with me when I was received into the church
She also may have giggled with my nephew when Monsignor Mosbey called me Rose at my confirmation

Sadly, the thing she also taught me was that she was not to be my wife.

She truly was the love of my life, because through Christ I finally COULD love,
and thankfully she also taught me that to love is to desire the best for "the other", so a few years down the road would find me praying daily for her and Jimmy as they began dating, and rejoicing (alone) on the day they were wed. She had, with God's grace, truly taught me love!

Yes, I now still pray for her,
and that she will now be fat . . .with child that is. (O:

Can I really complain, she gave me the real love of my life, God's most Holy Church.

So did I convert to Catholicism for a girl? no, but for True Love, yes!

Baby Catholic - Michael "Rose" only eight hours old

Part III : Prologue (because conversion is daily)

Duality
/Empathy


For whatever reason, and only in hindsight, I can see the Master's hands as he gave me so many glimpses into "the other". We are called to compassion regardless of how much we relate to another, but empathy is one of the gifts of God become flesh, of truly knowing our pains and struggles (and showing us they can be overcome and offer it up for others), and another aspect of Christ to emulate.

He gave me many hats, some I out grew, and some He burned away

I was chubster who was mocked, and a rocker who was chased
I was a liberal, a conservative, and ?
I was a poor kid who ate hot dogs 5 days a week,
now I live in a beach house and hot dogs are forbidden (O:
I was an atheist, a Protestant, and now a Catholic
A pro-lifer responsible for an abortion
I was suicidal, I am filled by His life
I am thankful oh Lord for all, for I was without,
and now and forever,
I am With

God is Good!

PS : A lil' update, it seems Jimmy and Paula are also now parents . . . Praise God!!!
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6 comments:

Russ Rentler, M.D. said...

Michael, I have to say that brought tears to my eyes and was one of the most beautiful stories I have read in a long time. Thank you for writing it, I know it was hard, and thank you for showing us all the power of God's redemption and the beauty of the Catholic faith! Thank you my brother!

Kristy Z. said...

This is such a beautiful and moving story. Thank you. His grace and mercy endures forever!

Kris said...

Thank you for your inspiring story! God is good!

owen swain said...

Michael, God bless you and Welcome Home.!

No doubt this writing took a lot of work but I imagine it was a blessing as you visited again the great work of grace God's done in your life. Thank you for the encouragement your story is.

This wonderful piece would benefit from an edit (chagrin not sagrin & I am fairly sure you meant but not butt for example). :-) However, you write from the heart and that shines through.

I cam here by way of my friend Russ's link.

D'artagnan said...

Everyone, Thanks be to God,
except for the bad writing, Owen, that is completely of my own doing (O:

Brenda Montague said...

Michael, this is a beautiful story! Thanks for being bold enough to share it!