(In I Am New – Part 1: A Product of Secularity, I gave you a brief tour of the first fifty-five years of my life. I left you hanging at the point where, in order to get my life back on track, I decided to participate in a Christ Renews His Parish retreat weekend at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Lebanon, Ohio, in April 2012.)
Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at church that Saturday morning ready to spend the day and night, and then most of Sunday on the retreat. I found myself throughout the day thinking hard about what I was experiencing, and questioning my long established notions about religion. As Saturday progressed, I felt a change coming over me. What I was experiencing was coming from the heart of all these men who were from all walks of life – even scientists, and engineers like me. They had such conviction. They had a contagious faith like I had never seen before. It was pure down to earth sharing on a personal level, witnessing to Christ and sharing their lives and their experiences that had brought them closer to God.
On Saturday evening we were invited into the chapel for prayer. I had been worried about this because I didn’t know how to pray. But, I decided to participate because I had just returned the night before from a visit with my parents, my sister and her family in Missouri. My sister has a daughter who was 13 at the time and who was born severely mentally and physically handicapped. Every time I visited I would leave saddened from thinking about their struggles in life. I was frustrated I didn’t know what to do about it, but yet grateful that my own children were normal. And so, I asked for help in praying for my niece, my sister, and for myself. I sat there and, as these men, led by our Deacon, prayed for me, I felt in my heart something happen. I felt free of the guilt I’d had because my sister’s child was handicapped and mine were not, and I felt released to be able to show more compassion for them instead of hiding from it.
When they had finished their prayer for my niece, my sister and me, I heard another man, whom I hardly knew, say to God, “I know Jerry is out of his comfort zone this weekend. Please, Lord, help him to feel Your presence and fill his heart with Your love. And, Lord, it would be wonderful if you could do it in the next five days.” Little did I know that this man, who was so bold to give God a deadline, and who I now consider to be one of my dearest friends and confidants, had a direct pipeline to Him. After they all wore themselves out praying for me I stuck around and participated in the prayers for the others. It’s difficult to describe the feeling I had other than to say I found a tremendous sense of fulfillment in doing so.
Ezekiel 36:26 – I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
That night as I was getting ready for bed I found my friend Eric doing the same. We fell into a conversation about the day. He knew I wasn’t Catholic and that I had never been deeply religious. I confessed to him what an impact the day had had upon me. I said, “I’m trying, man, I really am. But I don’t know how. This is uncharted territory for me.” I explained how I consciously live my life by trying to incorporate into it Christian principles like: fidelity, compassion, integrity, self-discipline, respect, and service to others, but yet I’ve never felt the pull to make that leap of faith. I had been so profoundly affected by what I had witnessed that day, I knew there must be something else – something more that I was missing. He said, “My friend, you’re basically there already, you’re doing everything the Lord wants you to do and you’re doing it well. Keep your heart and mind open and let the Lord come to you, don’t try to reason him out of the picture.”
I headed downstairs to bed but I was on an emotional high. I thought about what Eric had said. Call it a revelation, or that the message had sunk in, but I finally accepted that I just needed to stop resisting and make the leap of faith and believe. I needed to be like Nike and just do it.
Laying there on my cot, I got to thinking more about the praying done earlier in the chapel. I asked, “What would I pray for if I was praying for myself?” That answer was easy. First, that my wife and daughters know how much I love them. And second, that I get some reinforcement from them that they also love me.
With my mind spinning out of control from all the emotional stimuli it was trying to digest, I couldn’t lie there any longer. I then did something so out of the ordinary that I even surprised myself. I tip-toed back upstairs and I walked through the doors into the church and I took a seat a few rows from the back on Joseph’s side. I bowed my head and I prayed for those two things. I asked to get better at expressing my love for my family, and I asked for help to see the signs of their love. When I looked up I discovered there were two other people also in the church: one was Eric and the other the wife of a new friend. What I didn’t know was that they were both praying for me to accept the Holy Spirit’s Gift of Faith.
Matthew 7:7-8 – Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
That Christ Renews His Parish retreat weekend was just five days before my 55th birthday. In the hours between my prayers that night and my birthday, I received letters from all four daughters and my wife telling me how much they love me, how much they’ve always loved me and, for the icing on the cake, how they have always known my love for them. I’m telling you, as I read each letter I cried like a baby. It was like a huge weight had been lifted from my heart. I had been dreaming of this for years without uttering a word to anyone and all of a sudden I was receiving everything I had dreamed of. This couldn’t have been coincidence. Something else was going on, something else that I had never experienced before. Although I didn’t understand it at the time, from what I had gleaned from the men on the retreat this something else was called the Holy Spirit.
We’ve all heard the saying, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” I read somewhere that the definition of faith is having the attitude of, “I’ll see it when I believe it.” All those arguments which, for three decades, had me conflicted just disappeared. I see it now because I believe it. I know now that with faith, I don’t need evidence.
Romans 4:16 – …. it depends on faith, so that it may be a gift, and the promise may be guaranteed to all his descendants, not to those who only adhere to the law but to those who follow the faith of Abraham….
The weekend was also the catalyst I needed to make new friends. And I made several friendships that I know will last my lifetime. I needed this. You know, Jesus had his twelve disciples but he had his three closest friends in Peter, James and John. With them he shared a deeper and more personal relationship. We all need this.
I found the affirmation of love from my daughters for which I had prayed, and I found the new friendships I had been seeking. But the most important things I found that weekend were not things I came looking for. I found a relationship with Christ, and I found God’s love for me. It was truly an awesome discovery!
Near the closing of the weekend we talked about where we would go from there. After the weekend and after receiving those letters I was on a high like you wouldn’t believe. I had found the spiritual-ness I had been denying. I couldn’t let it end there. The first thing I did was volunteer for the next Giving Team. I felt I needed to be a disciple and that I needed to give back. And, then, I made an even bigger decision. For thirty-one years I had been sitting on the sidelines observing my wife and children go to church. I decided that what an old friend once told me, that I was “Catholic but just didn’t know it yet”, was true, and that it was time to get in the game. I signed up for the next RCIA (Right of Christian Initiation for Adults) session as soon as I could. I was baptized and confirmed into the Church at the Easter Vigil Mass this year. Since that retreat weekend nineteen months ago I have missed only one Sunday Mass. I pray every day, usually more than once. I’m still not great at praying but I think I’m getting better. I read scripture almost every day. I can’t imagine not doing these things. In addition to prayer, I have become active in our parish community. I participate in the CRHP ministry, I am a member of two committees, and I regularly attend two bible study programs. I’m loving every minute of it!
Ephesians 4:22-24 – …that you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.
I have had so many things happen to me in the last year and a half that continue to convince me that God is present in my life and that Christ is walking the path with me that there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that “the juice has been worth the squeeze”. Since that weekend, life is different. It’s better. Not just marginally, but by orders of magnitude. I feel at peace more than ever before and it feels good to help other people. It feels good to pray for them when they are hurting. I count my blessings every day and I am amazed at what I used to call coincidences. I now call them God moments and I discover them everywhere.
I am still learning and growing in my faith. I pay close attention to several men and women who seem to me to lead extraordinarily spiritual lives. And, I try to find ways to put my new Christian principles into action. One particular instance is, I think, worth sharing. On August 21st of last year my Dad turned eighty years old. My sibs and I were trying to figure out what to get a guy who has everything he needs. Then I thought about my weekend experience and that he might like to know that his children love him and that they know he loves them. I suggested we write him love letters such as I had received from my daughters. Everyone agreed. I wrote mine and I cried the whole time I was writing it. There were a couple decades of saved up “I love you’s” in that three page letter. He said it was the best birthday present he had ever received. I didn’t realize, however, that I was giving myself a gift, too, in the realization that I desperately needed to write that letter for my own sake. As Jesus intended, love isn’t worth much unless you give it away.
There you have it. Since I’ve left my old life behind, I sometimes wonder where my new life will take me. I’m pretty sure I’m finally heading in the right direction. One thing’s for sure, it feels good to have my family and many new friends helping me down that spiritual path. And, although I am tremendously humbled by it, it feels good to be asked to help them as well.
Well, I know I accomplished at least the first part of my goal for this post. I’m fired up even more than I thought I would be about preparing for the next CRHP weekend. It’s my hope that I have been as successful with the second part of my goal – to bring you closer to God by letting you see how the Holy Spirit changed a non-believer like me, and how, as a result of His Grace and my acceptance of His Gift of Faith, I Am New.
If you have a personal story of conversion, of renewal in Christ, or of how God has touched you that you would like to share, please feel free to comment. I would love to hear from you.
God Bless You All.