Friday, October 26, 2007

My Faith/Conversion Story

This, I fear, is going to be a very hard post for me to write. I guess that I just need to get it out of the way. I do not share my faith story very easily; mostly because of the way I behaved in the years after the death of my parents. When one's faith is challenged it is really a very sad thing. Here goes:

I was raised in the Lutheran faith tradition. My mother was Lutheran and my father was Catholic. My father did not attend church. My mother took pretty much sole responsibility for the religious upbringing that my sister and I received. We went to church every Sunday. My mother was extremely involved in the church and, as I grew older, I followed her example. I was an acolyte, I taught Sunday School, and Vacation Bible School, I was involved in the recording of our church service every week so that people who were shut-in their homes could still hear it, and was active in our youth group, and probably more things that I have long since forgotten.

I had a very wonderful and strong prayer life. I spoke to God a lot and spent just as much time listening as I did praying. People may think this odd, but when I prayed, it was almost as if I could actually feel God there with me. It was a very reassuring feeling. By the time I had graduated high school I thought that I was strong and confident in my faith. I had no idea what was in store for me; not a clue.

The downward spiral of my faith began about the time that I moved away from home. I moved to southern Minnesota. Sure, I tried to attend the local ELCA churches in town when I started college, but it wasn't the same. Eventually, I stopped going to church on Sunday. I would tell myself, "It's ok. We are not required to go to church every week." It's was like walking down a slippery slope, pretty soon, I was caught up in the party life at school, and no longer praying. The only time I made for God was when I went home. There were more important things for me to spend time on like friends and parties. The only time I talked to God anymore was maybe before final exams or when I needed something from him. This period of my life saw my faith life atrophy like an unused muscle, which left me unprepared for the challenges that were to come.

After graduation, I stayed in the same town and continued working the job I had worked all through college. I had a few relationships that while one might call the learning experiences; I think that I would rather have done without them. I had a brief bout of unemployment and also began to dabble in tarot cards and rune stones.

I convinced myself that these things were not evil but that they were good. Now, you might look at me and say, "You are dumb to think that", but you need to remember that at this point, my moral compass was out to lunch. I was living alone; away from my family, without a job, and looking for something to believe in. I eventually woke up after doing a reading for a friend that turned out bad. I will not even look at a tarot deck again. I do not want to know the future that bad.

About this time I met my wife. Like I mentioned earlier, I had been unemployed. I finally managed to get a job working with developmentally disabled adults. This is what I did before and I did not really want to go back to that type of work, but I was out of money and out of options. My first day on the job I met her -- she was assigned to train me in on the job duties.

My future wife was baptized Catholic, but her parents switched to the Methodist faith tradition where she was confirmed. When I met her, she was finishing her first year of college and in the process of getting confirmed into the Catholic Church.

She would later tell me that even though her family switched she had secretly remained a closet Catholic. I went her confirmation with her. To my surprise they allowed me to stand with her and her sponsor during the ceremony. I remember clearly as the Bishop anointed her head with Chrism that I could see that he (the
Bishop) was totally absorbed with the Holy Spirit. I could see it in his eyes, and face. I could hear it as he spoke. It was truly an awesome feeling and it was very real. If only I had paid attention to what Jesus was telling to me at Becki's confirmation; it might have saved us a good deal of frustration, anger, and hurt.

Becki tried hard to live as her faith taught her, but it is not easy when the important people (that would be me) in your life do not understand your faith, do not want to understand it, and do not practice their own faith. Initially, I tried to be a Lutheran again. I even joined a local church and Becki supported me. She gave me more support in trying to practice my faith than I ever gave her in those early years, but I was very much into the "Live for you" way of thinking and soon fell away from practicing again.

Becki and I were engaged and part of the preparation process was visiting with a Catholic couple who were already married. We met with them a few times. I believe they were following some sort of curriculum and did talk to the priest about us. I do not remember much, but one thing I do remember was asking them "Do you think that it is acceptable to convert to Catholicism just so that the family can be the same religion?" I asked this question of the husband and his answer was that he thought that wanting the family to be together was good enough reason to convert. (I disagreed with him then--still do.) I mention this event because even though I had been wandering confused and lost about faith; it is the Sacraments that continue to turn my thinking toward conversion. As Becki and I were fast moving toward our next big Sacrament together my mind again turned to thoughts of conversion. This time, just like at Becki's Confirmation, I failed to get the message Jesus was trying to send me.

Becki and I were married in the Catholic Church in 1995 and our first son was born about 10 months later. We named him Christian and his birth brought us a huge amount of joy. It also brought us new responsibilities and the stress to go along with it. My mother and my new wife had a very difficult time. A good deal of the troubles they had were due to our religious differences. My mother would have been happy as a clam if Becki would have decided to become Lutheran, but she made it clear right away that that wasn't going to happen. When it was time to have Christian baptized my mother held out hope that we would do it in the Lutheran church. Much later, Becki told me about a rather tense conversation that she had with my mother about that subject. During the conversation, she was forced to tell my mother ( or remind her because I think she already new) that I was not going to church and since she (my wife) was practicing her faith Christian would be baptized in the Catholic church--and he was.

The stress continued to pile on our young family; there were financial troubles, and struggles learning how to care of a new baby, and continuing relationship problems between my mother and my wife. It was a great struggle. For my part I tried my best to avoid conversations about religion with my mother. Our financial struggles started getting a little better when I got a job working on a technical support help desk in town here. The struggle between my wife and mother went on until shortly after Christmas in 1996. Becki had pretty much had enough; she took a week off of work and she and Christian left me at home and went to spend a week with my mother.
What a brave move on her part. I can't say I would have had the courage to do the same if our roles were reversed.

During the week she spent with my mother, they talked about a great many things and got to know each other much better. By the end of the week they had worked out the issues between them and as 1997 rolled around, the year had the markings of a very good year. In reality, the dark days of my faith journey were just about to begin.

As Easter rolled around in 1997 we were preparing to have my parents and sister for the holiday, but all of that changed on Holy Thursday at about 6AM when we were awakened by the phone and on the other end of the line was my Father. Though the sleep fill hazed in my head I heard him say, "David, this is Dad...Mom...she's dead." I remember asking him, "My Mom?" and then punching the wall outside our bedroom when he confirmed my question.

We spent Easter that year making funeral preparations for my mother. Her visitation was on Easter Sunday and her funeral on Monday. Throughout the whole ordeal, I pretty much pushed myself to stay strong. I tried my best to bottle up the emotions I was feeling. This was a very good thing, because I was angry, oh so very angry.
Letting loose my emotions would have not done anyone any good. I was able to keep myself under control largely because of my wife who stood beside me and was a rock for me. She helped me get through that ordeal more than I can even describe.

When we returned home after the funeral and pretty much broke down and let my anger flow. I was angry with God. I was angry because he took my mother away from me, but mostly, I was angry that he took Christian's grandmother away from him. To her credit, Becki knew I was struggling and she called my Pastor at the church where I was a member but not attending. He came to our house and visited me and I pretty much told him how I felt about God. His message to me what that it was OK to be angry with God, but that eventually, I would have to get over it.

I did not get over it for a long time. We went about our life and I had no time in my life for going to church or praying. I had effectively turned my back on God. At the time, of course I thought God had abandoned me, but now that I look back on it I can see that God continued to shower my family with blessings. One of the blessings was my son Carter. He was born in January of 1998.

Carter was a healthy baby boy and, unlike my first son, he looked like me! My wife was almost positive that my mother had interceded for that. Who knows? When the subject of baptism came up, I refused to discuss it. It was not on my top priority list. Eventually, we stopped even talking about it. Becki tried hard to life her faith and take the boys to church, but I offered no help or encouragement and was at times even hostile to her efforts.

They say that time has a way of healing old wounds and that may in fact be true, but in my case I was stubborn. I did not see that the lack of God in my life had made me into an ugly person. My soul was dried up like a corn husk right before harvest time. That is what it is like to remove God from your life. Where faith was concerned I was not a fun person to live with and it was about to get worse.

In 2001, I went home for a high school reunion and was absolutely stunned at the appearance of my father. I knew that he had been sick, but I was not prepared for what I saw. He had lost a great deal of weight and was unsteady on his feet. His speech was slurred and he had difficulty breathing. Three days later I came back to the Cities and took him to the doctor. The doctor put him in the hospital right away. He was in congestive heart failure and the next day he had a massive heart attack during an angiogram. They managed to get his heart started again, and he was on life support, but they were not hopeful that he would make it through the night.

As the doctor and a nun (we were in a Catholic hospital) were relating this information to my sister and I could feel myself switching into the same "got to be strong" mode as I had done for my mother. This time it was much harder though.

The nun helped me get to a phone where I called Becki. To my surprise she already knew something was wrong and was trying to find transportation to come to the cities with the boys (I had our only car with me). My wife has a way of knowing when someone important in her life is in trouble. I can't explain it. Her mother says it is because she is Irish.

I called my father's brothers because I wanted them to be able to come see him before he died. I left messages for them. While we waited, I asked the nun about the last rites for my father. She said she would try to find a priest. I'd like to tell you that I asked for them because I was sensitive to his religious needs, but I'd be lying. When I was in high school my grandmother (his mother) had suffered a heart attack and when the priest came and administered the Sacrament of the Sick to her she actually got stronger...she eventually survived. I was hoping that it would have the same affect on him. The nun was not able to find a priest and asked how orthodox my father was. I didn't know! She said she could do it and so I let her do it. I did not understand the Catholic Sacraments then. I pray to this day that my ignorance about the sacrament did not imperil his soul.

My Aunt Judy finally called me back and this is where my tough shell broke down. I could barely get the words "He's not going to make it" out of my mouth. The tears started flowing and I lost it. My aunt simply said, "We will be right there, David,"
Then, she hung up.

As the night wore on I sat with my father and watched the assortment of medical equipment keeping him alive whir and click. It did not take a medical degree to see that my father had nothing left to give. His kidneys were shut down despite massive amounts of fluids being pushed into him and a pace maker was all that was keeping his heart moving. When Becki and the kids arrived form Marshall and said good bye I made the hardest decision of my life --to let my father, and only remaining parent, go.

Even though God blessed me by having lots of family around me as I made that decision my anger with him continued to grow and as the months moved on I did my very best to stifle all religion in my house. Becki and the boys did not go to church anymore and that was fine with me.

Not long after my Father's death my grandmother passed away and then one of my dad's brothers. This did nothing to help my situation. I was so very tired of people around me dying and I felt like I had no place to go.

My anger at God continued in full force until Carter was just six years old. We still had not had him baptized. Christian was in second grade and should have been preparing for his first Eucharist. One night while we were having dinner with my mother in-law she jokingly referred to Carter as a heathen. This did not sit well with my wife and, surprisingly, I did not care for it either. She wanted to talk to the church about getting him baptized and Christian enrolled in Faith Formation.

Becki met with a priest and soon Christian was enrolled in Sacramental Prep classes and Carter was on the schedule for baptism. Becki told me about all of this during my lunch break. She indicated that we would need to start going to church again and this led the probably the worst fight of our married life. I did not want to go to church I just wanted them to have the Sacraments and then life would go on as usual.
I pulled out all of the mean things that I had heard about Catholics (even if I knew they were wrong) and tossed them in her face. I said some really dreadful things. By the time I was back at my desk at work, I was sure that my marriage might be coming to an end.

As I sat at my desk, I received an e-mail from Becki telling me that she and the boys were going back to Church and that I could come with or stay home...she didn't care what I did. Then, something bizarre happened. It may well have been my imagination, but I clearly heard my mother’s voice and she said, "David, don't be such a baby." It was so clear that I had to look around, but no one was there. Then a thought occurred to me. My mother, who had a strong faith, would be so very disappointed in me for not being involved in the faith of my children.

The next Sunday, true to her word, Becki took the boys to Church. For some reason, I went along. We rode to church in silence. Becki was still very mad at me. I followed them (about 5 steps behind them) into the church. It was Lent and several things struck me. First, there was a large procession of people led by a purple banner with the words "Journey" written on it. All of these people were smiling and happy. It turns out that these were 9th grade students and their sponsors. They were about to undergo the Rite of Acceptance. I was feeling very alone and unhappy and I wondered if I could be as happy as these people appeared to be. Again the thought about becoming Catholic pushed its way to the front of my mind and once again I pushed it away, however, this time I thought about more than I ever had before and it was getting harder for me to come up with a reason why I couldn't do it. Could being Catholic make me happy like those 9th grade students?

We continued to attend church during Lent and Becki and Christian worked hard to get him caught up with the rest of his Faith Formation class. One of the hang-ups I had about Catholics was the whole idea of having to confess sins to a priest. My belief was that my sins were between God and me. I received a short lesson on this from my Son. We picked him up from Faith Formation on the day of his First Reconciliation and I asked him how it went. He was all full of smiles and showed me a happy face sticker that he had. He told me that he went to see Father with a sad face on and after he told Father his sins he felt happier like the sticker he wore. This amazed me. All of the Catholic friends that I grew up with spoke of Confession as if it were a punishment and here was my child telling me it made him feel better. It gave me more to ponder.

Lent moved into Easter and I was no longer pushing the thought of being Catholic away, I was actively thinking about it. I pondered it on my own. How could I talk about it with Becki after all the hurtful things that I said to her about her faith?

First Communion week was finally here. As it worked out Carter was scheduled to be baptized the day before Christian received his First Eucharist. Carter's baptism was done privately outside of Mass. It was beautiful. It was also the sacrament that broke down my remaining barriers. On the way home, I brought up the possibility of my conversion with my family. My decision was made. A few days after Christian's First Eucharist, I met with our pastor and then the RCIA coordinator and began my journey. Somewhere the anger that I felt toward God evaporated and suddenly, I had a new focus --getting to know Him. I continued to attend Mass with my family and RCIA with my fellow candidates. After almost a year in RCIA, I joined the Church at Easter Vigil 2005.

It is interesting to note that once I let go of the anger that I had bottled up inside me, life got better almost immediately. It was like a dam (my anger) broke and God's blessings began flowing into our family. We were happier, and learned to face our problems together. I guess the real lesson that I needed to learn is that when times get tough rather than running away from my faith I need to remember to run toward it. It is faith that will bring you though the hard times. I cannot erase the past, but I am determined to continue to walk forward in my journey and in the process become the best husband, father and Catholic Christian that I can be. This is my driving force.


Cow Bike Rider (alias, Chris Sagsveen) said...

"I am determined to continue to walk forward in my journey and in the process become the best husband, father and Catholic Christian that I can be. This is my driving force."

Your last two sentences sums it up nicely. Great Post.

Amber said...

Beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it!

Dave said...

Thank you for the comments Amber and Chris. It was hard for me to write.


Ray from MN said...


I enjoyed reading of your "Journey." I was very moved. You write well.

I didn't know about your blog. But I caught your report of Bishop LeVoir's consecration on "Father Z's" blog. That was very well done also. I'll start watching for your posts.

Keep me posted on New Ulm news.

Ray Marshall
Stella Borealis

Anonymous said...

From a fellow convert, wow. I kind of teared up at the end when you talked about Carter's baptism breaking down your walls.

Excellent journey brother!

Tina Fisher said...

Beautiful & heartfelt. God is good! And thankfully, he keeps knocking until we answer His call!

I found your blog by googling "Handmaids for the Heart of Jesus". {I was privleaged to have met Mother Mary Clare yesterday}

Wonderful to have in our diocese.

In Our Lord & Lady,

Tina Fisher