April 1, 2020

How My Wife’s Catholicism Has Changed Me For The Better: A Birthday Reflection

For you people that don’t know this story, I’ve pulled almost everything off the site that refers to it, so I’m sorry about that.

I got some nice things for my 52nd birthday. A new iPod. (Blue, 4th generation Nano. Be envious.) A book of Benedictine Daily Prayer. (I’m figuring it out.) Birthday cake (Oatmeal. Mmmm) with my wife, daughter and son-in-law. (Their rendition of Happy Birthday somehow made me feel I was boarding a train for Siberia.) A lot of Facebook greetings. Two cards. Many birthday wishes from my students. And right after I’d preached, a large lipsticky kiss on my cheek from a long-time co-worker. (It’s a tradition where I work. My wife approves.)

I missed getting a birthday card from my mom. Twenty-five dollars, as regular as clockwork. I miss hearing her voice on the phone telling me she was in labor for two days and it almost killed her.

I would have liked to go to church on my birthday, but instead I preached for our students. I Corinthians 3:5-9. “On Christians and Those Who Grow Them.” I enjoyed that opportunity.

The greatest gift I have on this 52nd birthday is my wife and our marriage. Particularly this year, as I look back and see how my wife’s conversion to Catholicism has changed me for the better.

When I told my friend Mark what was going on at our house, he said immediately that this was “necessary love.” I’m not entirely sure what he meant by that, but I’ve come to understand it as the love we must have and give in order to survive. It is as necessary as any of the other basic components of life.

We go through processes in life where the immediate and required response seems to be anger, bitterness or rage. I know all about this, because my wife’s conversion initially made me very angry. God’s refusal to play by my rules and the little contract I wrote and carried around made me angry. The “compassionate response” of other Christians left me feeling rejected and blamed. I was hurt and defensive; full of despair and bitterness. At times I was overwhelmed as much as if someone in my family was dying.

You can’t live like that. It will destroy you. It will eat up every kind of happiness, flood your marriage with the sewage of bitterness and poison your thoughts, work, emotions and worship. It will bring you to the middle of life hating the fact that you’re alive and empty of the presence and joy of the God who’s been your foundation for the entire journey.

It feels like you can’t resist it, but with God’s help, there has to be another way. Instead of the bitterness and the anger, I had to find necessary love. Very necessary. Necessary for my faith, my marriage, my sanity, my soul, my survival and my continued ministry.

I’ve discovered at least a hundred ways to question and protest what’s happened in our home, but I’ve also discovered that God’s love is more than adequate for the task of giving me hope, peace and forgiving grace. I won’t list all the questions and protests. There’s no point. Love is necessary and love is present in every place, for every disappointment. God’s not on trial. I’m on the way to Christlikeness. This is necessary love 101.

I’ve made enormous progress in the necessary love journey this year, and Denise has demonstrated most of it toward me. I certainly didn’t deserve the kindness and forgiveness she’s shown me. I think we’ve both learned a lot more than we ever knew about how God can give the gifts of marriage to those who simply present themselves as needy and undeserving candidates.

I’ve learned to actually encourage Denise’s journey into Catholicism. In some ways, I’ll probably always understand more than she does about the “outside” of Catholicism, and I have my share of questions about how she’s navigating some of what she must one day affirm, but I have decided to not only respect her journey, but to encourage and affirm it. (I still don’t like the 80 mile round trip to RCIA. Can we please get that over before winter? C’mon Catholics, pray with me on that one, will ya?)

She’s inside the experience of conversion to Catholicism, and I’m not. God is real for her. He may be confusing to me, but he’s real for her every step of the way in this journey. Arguing against God’s reality or pouting about her ability to discern him are both juvenile reactions.

As a Baptist, I deeply believe in what we call “soul competency.” In matters of religion, nothing violates my wife’s competency to determine her own beliefs about God. Not even marriage or my ministry. It’s my opportunity to learn to love and accept her as someone who belongs to Jesus, but who travels a different road than I do.

I’ve had to lay aside a lot of things that are very, very important to me, and to admit they aren’t as important to God as I thought they were. Things like communing and worshiping together as a family are very important to me, but sometimes being a follower of Jesus in a marriage means Jesus has to be followed- not some ideal about marriage or family.

I wasn’t capable of that kind of thinking a little more than a year ago. I am now, more so every day.

I’ve learned that Catholicism can’t be force-fit into the box called evangelicalism, and evangelicalism can’t be force-fit into the Catholic experience. The terms “catholic evangelical” and “evangelical catholic” still make some sense to me, but my catholic friends have helped me to see that their faith encompasses a whole that is much larger than the typical evangelical assessment (or caricature.)

I’m attracted to Catholicism, but not to the choices that make it possible for my Catholic friends to take in the whole of Catholic belief and experience. I’m still attracted to reformational Protestantism and vital, missional evangelicalism, and I do not believe, as Louis Bouyer wants me to, that Protestants and evangelicals can find everything they are looking for and valuing within the Roman Catholic church.

No, I’ve learned to be a happy enough Protestant.™ I’m happy enough with the Vatican II view of who I am in relation to Catholicism, and I’m happy enough with the essential basics of Protestant evangelicalism to stay with The Solas as long as they are on tour.

But most of all, I’ve become a person who can believe all of this without insisting that others see it the same way that I do. I’ve even learned to love, appreciate and gently laugh at the (now) 138 Roman Catholics who have spent an email (and in some cases, good money on books) trying to convert me to the RCC. (Just this week someone mailed me their phone number if I have any questions. Please don’t send me anything from Steve Ray. Please.)

God has shown his mercy to us in some unusual ways. He’s shown me the unfortunate side of how Christians respond to a cry of lament that they don’t understand. He’s convinced me that among those of us who look at one another as brothers and sisters across the reformation divide and long to love one another as best we can there is far more of Jesus-shaped Christianity than there is among those whose intention it is to argue the other person into the dust and treat the other side as the enemy.

I’ve found a lot of happiness in what we’ve experienced, and I don’t believe the adventure is over. While God isn’t doing it my way, he is leading me to know him better his way. His path, as Merton said, may appear identical to wanderings in the wilderness. But it all his chosen way to bring us closer to himself, to a greater appreciation of the Gospel and to a passion for conformity to Jesus Christ himself.

Comments

  1. Happy belated birthday, Michael. My comment — question, actually — is much more pressing.

    What is oatmeal cake?

  2. With respect to rules of the moderator of this Blog and his wishes I will not continue to discuss the principles of the faith.

    However Brigitte your personal opinion on the matter is fully noted. If you would like to discuss this further please let me know and I will be more than happy to participate in your blog or respond to the issue at hand through E-mail.

  3. Hi Michael. I guess it’s a little late to say Happy Birthday, but ‘happy day’ anyway.
    Thank you for such an open and real post. I grew up in all kinds of protestant denominations and have ended up attending Calvary Chapels. Thanks to my parents, however, I have always had a respect for the Catholic church. One can’t really argue with the way they’ve stood against social evils like abortion and homosexual marriage, etc., when the protestant denominations have waffled and waned continually. After reading your post I have a healthy respect for the challenges that face multi-denominational families (is that even a word?). I don’t think I ever really considered how difficult it could be for a Protestant to have a Catholic spouse, or vice versa. I respect the choices that you and your wife have made and rejoice that we have a God who can work through and above our differences. May we all grow in that “necessary love” you wrote about.
    May God bless your family,
    Caila

  4. Happy belated birthday from me too. You continue to be an inspiration to me.

  5. Dear Giovanni: I am quite familiar with RC doctrine having grown up in Bavaria and attending Catholic Grammar School for 6 years, learning my Latin for years… (a good experience overall.)

    Also, we have had neighbors who were one lapsed, divorced Catholic and one lapsed Anglican who completed the RCIA to be married in the Catholic church and to attend services,– due to our influence (there was no way they could have been Lutheran, as it was too German and too “heretical” for them–though lapsed, he was staunchly English Catholic. We did go to each others churches occasionally out of friendship. We had lovely times together.) (Their marriage still did not work out, sadly).

    So I am not sure you and I could have a fruitful dialogue, especially since you refer to my “intentions” and to my “opinions”. This has my back up. Nothing I posted here is about me, nor are they merely my opinions.

    If you would still like to talk with me, you may comment on any of my posts whether it relates to the post or not. Sincerely, Brigitte.

  6. I’m a convert to Catholicism myself (long story) by way of many interesting byways. My best friends are evangelicals and Quakers 😉 who both (I think) have more in common doctrinally with Catholics than they may realize. (Church structure and governance are another story entirely….) And I too was very well educated growing up Protestant, having always been interested in religion and church history, so I did sit through a lot of reeeeallllyyy boring stuff in RCIA. I brought my knitting to class. 😉

    I am not an uncritical Catholic (I’m incapable of being an uncritical *anything*) and I have been particularly sad to see how poorly educated the majority of Catholics are about even their own faith. Religious education, especially before Vatican II, focused so completely on specifically Catholic things (the rosary, angels, saints, sacraments etc.) that the core teachings of Jesus came in a very poor second in the curriculum. And many of those who taught were themselves very poorly educated, perpetuating a lot of bad theology and bad practice.

    The education of teachers has changed, but not necessarily improved, and the Catholic retreat industry seems now to have discovered and subscribed to the Tacky Theme Generating Service that I regret seeing in Protestant churches (recipe: take a dozen words like seeking, sharing, journey, spiritual, love, light, etc., shake them up in a paper bag, and draw out any two: presto! your theme!).

    As I’ve frequently said and will say many times more, one of the great strengths I see in my evangelical friends is that in their church *everyone* goes to Sunday School — adults as well as children — *every* Sunday. And they study Real Stuff: Jesus and the Biblical accounts. A few Catholics have discovered these riches, but pitifully few. Would that more would do so.

  7. iMonk,

    I just discovered this blog today, and have spent the last 4+ hours reading past posts. I’m a convert to the RCC from my Methodist upbringing, having been confirmed Catholic at Easter Vigil 2007. At the time I was enrolled in a Methodist seminary in Kentucky, and my family (particularly my mother) took my decision rather hard.

    There emerged a gulf between my mother and I that had never existed before – namely the sad fact that she could not receive communion at my church, and I could not receive at hers. I was saddened by this, she was offended. It seemed to her that I was rejecting my upbringing and, worse, my family’s Christianity. This of course is not true. However, repair needed to be made in our relationship. I decided to leave the seminary in Kentucky and move to Florida in order to live near my family, that my life might serve as a witness. My goal was not to convert my family – rather, it was to show them that they need not fear. Their son still loved them. I was not rejecting them.

    I spent a year in Florida, growing in my faith while simultaneously trying to bridge the (real or imagined) divides in my family. With God’s help, I saw improvement.

    My story relates to yours very little, if at all. In the end, I just want to thank you for this post, as it communicates in a much more beautiful way than I can hope to achieve the mixture of pain and joy that is the inevitable fruit of this type of experience.

    Thank you, and God bless.

    Kyle