Last week I decided to join some spiritually fired-up men to form the Giving Team for the next St. Francis de Sales Christ Renews His Parish retreat weekend to be held in April 2014.  As I was discerning whether or not to participate on this team I couldn’t help but reflect back to when I was on the Receiving Team at my first Christ Renews retreat in April 2012.  I have casually and vaguely mentioned that retreat weekend in previous posts and alluded to it as a life changing experience for me.  I have shared the experience and the impact it had on my life with my CRHP brothers, and, after much prayer, I’ve decided to share it with you in this and the next post.  It is my hope that, by doing so, it inspires me to become closer to Christ and be the best I can be going forward on this team, and that it inspires you by being a witness to the power of the Holy Spirit.

Since this was truly a life changing experience, I feel you must first have a basic understanding of my life leading up to that weekend in order for you to fully understand the change that took place in me.  This means I will have to condense almost fifty-five years into a few paragraphs.  The whole story is too long for one post so I am going to split it up into two posts:  the first 54 years, 11 months and 25 days will be Part 1 and the next thirty hours will be Part 2.  So, if you’re interested, grab a cup of coffee, settle down into a comfy chair and listen up while I introduce myself to you.  Here goes.

I never know quite what to say when people ask me where I’m from.  I call Dexter, Missouri home because that’s where I graduated from high school and it’s where my parents still live.  But, my current residence near Lebanon, Ohio is the 36th place I’ve lived in my 56 years.  The seven years I’ve lived in this house is almost twice as long as I’ve ever lived in any one house in my life.  I’ve lived in ten states and three cities in the UK.  I went to nine schools before graduating from high school.  

My religious upbringing was minimal.  As a kid growing up we seldom went to church – sometimes at Easter.  My first real experience with religion was when I was in the sixth grade and we moved to England where all the schools are affiliated with the Anglican Church.   I remember we had a few Catholics at school but they didn’t participate in the daily Anglican service.  They waited outside until the service was over and then they came back inside for the Headmaster to give the daily announcements.  These were the first Catholics I had ever met.  They looked like normal people but obviously there was something different about them. 

We lived in England for three years and then we moved back to the States in 1971 in the middle of my freshman year to a drug infested, VD riddled, anti-Vietnam war, hippie population in Southern California.  Fortunately, when my freshman year ended we moved again, this time to my folk’s home town in Missouri.  Talk about some serious culture swings in about six months!  I went from the properness of English prep schools to the Cultural Revolution in California, to the laidback lifestyle of rural Missouri.  In England I had seen how Catholics were treated differently and there in Missouri I observed that Protestants were not all the same, either.  I really didn’t know my aunts, uncles and cousins very well at that point in my life but I learned they were all very religious.  One uncle was a Pentecostal minister, and, if I remember right, the other relatives ran the gamut from Assembly of God, to Church of Christ, First Baptist, Second Baptist, Southern Baptist, and General Baptist.    One of the things I learned as I was invited to go to church with them was that even though they considered themselves all Christians, each denomination had different beliefs, with some differences being slight and others more significant.  And, I learned that some of these differences were so significant that, depending on the denomination of the person you talked to, the people of other denominations might not find salvation because of that belief.  At the time this was a huge contradiction to me, maybe because at my age I was ripe for doubt, so I reasoned they couldn’t all be right and, therefore, they were all wrong and hypocritical.  It soured me on organized religion. 

I graduated from high school and for the next five years of college and two years after college I did what kids my age predominately did – I partied.  Without going into the gory details, let’s just say I had very little moral backbone.  Although my parents always loved me dearly, I know I had to be a disappointment for them.  As the oldest child with two younger sisters and a brother, I didn’t set a very good example for them, either.  And, yes, I even discoed.

But I survived and after graduating and working a couple years, I left Missouri and moved to Houston, Texas where I began working for my current employer.  The first week I was there I met Melinda and a year and eleven days later we were married.  She was the first Catholic I ever really knew.   I went to church with her a few times and I felt okay with it.  There seemed to be a routine about it.  Not routine in a boring sense but routine in the sense of being unchanging.  I’ve always been a history buff and I knew that a Catholic mass was a centuries old ritual based on tradition and meaning instead of like the two hours of free-lance fire and brimstone that had been a turn-off for me at many Protestant services.  (The reader should understand that the comments made above about Protestant faiths were written from a teenager’s/young adult’s perspective.  As a teen and young adult, it was all too difficult for me to understand and accept.  I am now very accepting of the diversity between Christian denominations).  I learned more about what it meant to be Catholic when we went through pre-marriage counseling and I promised to raise my children in the Catholic faith.

So, married life began.  We were like most newlyweds, we had our ups and downs, and we spent as much time together as we could…at least for the first three weeks…because three weeks after saying, “I do”, I was transferred to New Mexico on a project for six months.   Melinda stayed in Houston.  I made it home to see her four times during those six months.  When that project ended I came home and life became a blur for the next six years.  We bought a house and had our first daughter; I spent another four months in New Mexico on another project; we had our second daughter and two weeks later I was transferred to Lake Charles, Louisiana, which resulted in another five months away from family; we had our third daughter; and then I spent the next two and a half years working eighty hour weeks.  I barely saw my family.  I’d had three kids in thirty months and I hardly knew them.  And I hardly knew my wife.  I didn’t have much of a family life.  I’m not sure how we survived other than I know we never stopped loving each other.  While I was working, Melinda would tote three little girls, all in diapers, to church with her and somehow managed to keep her sanity.  She has always been strong in her faith and she prayed a lot for us.  I know my career-induced separation tested her to the max. 

1 Corinthians 7:13-14 – …and if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he is willing to go on living with her, she should not divorce her husband.  For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife ….

People always assumed I was Catholic since Melinda and the girls were.  If asked, I told people I didn’t claim to be anything, and that I had never converted to Catholicism.  And then I would wonder to myself, “Convert?  Convert from what?”  The truth was I wasn’t sure if I was a Christian nor was I sure if I believed in God.  Being an engineer and analytical by nature, I needed proof and no arguments seemed satisfactory.  I remember wanting to believe but I would leave church empty.  It seemed like a waste of my time. 

For 30 years I’d get in some real philosophical discussions and arguments with myself, like: 

“You know, from the beginning of time until 300 years ago, people were in the dark.  They had no scientific proof of anything.  Everything in the world was a mystery and, since they had to attribute it to someone or something, they invented Gods.”

And, “ Jesus may have just been a magician and a darn good mesmerizer.  Maybe people were desperate enough to believe everything he said and did.”

And, “What are Christians today anyway?  Outwardly, they’re people who believe in good and evil.  All of western society is based on Christian beliefs. The world would be chaotic without them.  We need people who believe in these things.  Therefore, there is goodness in Christianity and since I have these same societal beliefs, other than not having faith, I’m really no different than a Christian.  I may not believe in God or Jesus but I definitely believe in Christianity!”

1 Corinthians 1:20 – Where is the wise one?  Where is the scribe?  Where is the debater of this age?  Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish?

I got a break in 1989 when I was transferred from Lake Charles to Liberal, Kansas where I didn’t travel quite as much.  We had time to reconnect as a family and finally get to know each other.   Melinda and I had been married seven years but had only lived with each other for about half that.  I learned how to be a husband and a dad and how special my wife and children really are.  We started to come together as a family.  Life continued to get better even though we moved three more times and had another daughter in the next seven years.

But creating a comfortable work/ life balance still wasn’t easy and I started to look for ways to become a better manager of my time.  I happened upon the author Stephen Covey and his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  I liked how he said it’s not about how much more you pack into your time, but that your time is spent on the important things in life.  He talked about defining your values, about incorporating principles into your life, and determining the most important roles in your life.  I read and internalized his books.  I came up with my own list of Guiding Principles.  I figured out what the most important roles were in my life.  I developed a vision of what I wanted my life to look like. And, every Sunday morning while Melinda and the girls were at church I would review, reaffirm and plan my week according to them.  It helped me tremendously and for many years kept my life from getting too far out of whack. 

Eventually it dawned on me a few years ago something was still not right.  One thing Covey was adamant about is taking care of ourselves physically, emotionally, socially, mentally, and taking time for spiritual renewal.  I did fairly well with the physical and mental aspects, but spiritual renewal – what did that mean?  I didn’t have any spiritual-ness to renew.  I often rationalized that getting out and observing nature, or taking time to re-evaluate my Guiding Principles was enough spiritual renewal.  But, more and more, I was feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled. 

I felt incomplete on the emotional side of life.  I had Melinda and our youngest daughter, Grace, who was still at home, but it was very hard to keep the closeness I needed with my older daughters.  I wondered if they still knew how much I loved them since they’d been gone from home for a few years.  In 2002 a friend lost his son in a car accident.  His advice to me afterwards was, “Tell your children you love them every chance you get because you never know when you won’t get that chance.”  Ever since then my biggest fear in life has been that one of us will die without knowing how much we love each other.  And, ever since, I never miss a chance to tell them I love them. 

And then, socially, I was feeling like I didn’t have many close friends.  Oh, I had lots of people I could call friends, but few close friends.  Constantly moving and not putting down roots prevented me from making close friends.  What I needed were a few individuals with whom I could share life in a deeper and more personal way. 

In early 2012, after living in Lebanon, Ohio for over five years, I became extremely busy at work and life got crazy again.  I focused hard on my roles, values and mission in life but it didn’t help.  Then one day, Melinda handed me a brochure about the Christ Renews His Parish retreat weekend coming up in April.  She had been on a women’s receiving team and two giving teams, but she had never pushed me to go.  She pointed out that the Giving Team had a couple men on it with whom I had become pretty close, and said that if ever I thought I might want to do this then this would be a good time.  The brochure talked about, among other things, time for reflection, reconnecting with what’s important in life, and about meeting other men in the parish.  These were exactly the things that had been weighing on my mind, and so I signed up.  I needed to do something to get my life back on track. 

Matthew 11:28-29 – Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.

(This ends Part 1.  Don’t stray too far away.  I’m saving the best for last.  Part 2 should be ready to post in a couple days and it’s not quite as long.)

One thing I’ve learned in fifty-six years is that we all get to where we are in life by unique paths.  My story may seem familiar to some of you and totally foreign to others.  If any of my experiences strike a special emotion within you, or cause old memories to be exhumed, and you don’t mind sharing with others for what might be their benefit, please feel free to comment.  I’d love to swap stories.

Good night and God Bless.