Tuesday, August 27, 2013

“. . . But God Meant It for Good” (Rick's Story)

     This talk is going to appear in longer form in the Coming Home Ministry newsletter, the one that Marcus Grody produces, so I won’t go into near the detail here. Most preachers have a watch; they normally give me a calendar, so I will try to be brief in the two hours I was given this afternoon.

     How did I get, as the Parable of the Prodigal Son teaches—actually, it’s really, the parable of the Prodigal Father—whose love is extravagantly, irresponsibly, unceasingly, compellingly Prodigal in every regard—to the house of my Father, and return to Catholicism?

     I was baptized and confirmed in a nominally Catholic home. My dad’s career in the U.S. military and in the diplomatic service led us overseas among many moves as our 6-child family grew up, spending years in Panama, Cuba, and Colombia. Despite a Jesuit education into high school, by the time we returned to Washington, D.C. in the late 1960’s, I was a high school student growing rapidly disillusioned with my faith, and with the Catholic Church (if you may remember, the church in Washington DC was in its post-Vatican II loopy phase, and our parish was particularly goofy. By the time I was a cadet at West Point, I had come to describe myself as an agnostic, more to the fact that I enjoyed sleeping in on Sunday mornings instead of mandatory religious services than any burning agnostic conviction.

     A few years later, after I dropped out of West Point, I started attending an informal, evangelical Bible Study in one of the dormitories at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and after a few months I joined the Crossroads Church of Christ and rededicated my life to Christ. The congregation had a large and active campus ministry, with hundreds of college students, and thousands of members—one of the few bi-racial churches in the South. I later made the decision to enter the ministry and prepare in the church’s training program. I was hired as campus minister, later promoted to evangelist, of the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ in Tucson, Arizona, near the University of Arizona campus. I took classes in Old Testament archaeology and biblical languages at U. of A., and led a campus ministry that grew from one lukewarm Church of Christ student to over 400 students in 4 years, mainly through outreach to unchurched students on campus. When I was promoted to pastor, our church continued to grow from about 250 members to over 1000 members. I made a lot of mistakes, especially baptizing Mexicans and poor people as well as college students and new families…the old guard did not appreciate the rapid growth and all the challenges it caused. Many times, I was a thoughtless jerk and rigidly insistent on my own way, and my arrogance and brashness hurt many people. I have apologized many times for the mistakes and sins of my ministry in those years.

     After the first year of my ministry in Arizona, I returned to Florida and married a woman back at the Crossroads Church, who joined me in the ministry in Tucson. While time does not permit me to share all the details, and privacy concerns are also important, I did not realize that my wife was a homosexual until after we had been married. I cannot adequately describe the tears, the conflict, the struggles, the embarrassment and humiliation we both suffered along the way in this rocky relationship. Years later, my wife finally “came out” and asked for a divorce, leaving me to care for our two boys. But I am getting ahead of myself.

     We eventually moved to the Boston Church of Christ and I trained to be their theologian in residence. During this time, I completed another Master’s degree, this one in Old Testament theology, from Harvard Divinity School. My time at Harvard was an opportunity to reflect on my faith and my church, to start to glimpse the sorry state of mainline Protestantism, and to begin what would be a serious study of the Eucharist in the early church. It got to the point where I could no longer preach and teach with conviction that when we observed the Lord’s Supper, we were only remembering the death and resurrection of Christ, a standard Protestant approach. Something else was going on in the experience of early Christian participation in Holy Communion. From the biblical texts, to the Fathers and Doctors of the church, it was growing clearer that there was an unmistakable distinction between the church they were describing and the church of which I was a minister.

     Also growing was my concern that the overtly fundamentalist and overly regimented behavioral expectations in the Crossroads Church of Christ were become far more extreme and abusive in the Boston Church of Christ. I have published several books on this phenomenon, a type of “Christian cultism” that combines the classic behaviors of religious cults with the veneer of conservative Christianity, so I won’t go into it in great detail here about the experience. After a number of years, I finally made the decision to resign from my ministry in Boston. The decision caused a fair amount of controversy, as I had developed a profile as an author, preacher, and speaker worldwide within Churches of Christ. I finally began to speak about our experiences, eventually being interviewed by The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and such television programs as ABC’s “20/20”, the Sunday talk shows, and other news shows. I was also becoming more aware with cult-like groups that had a Christian worldview (I had a focus on my Old Testament studies at Harvard in apocalyptic theology, so the modern-day corollaries were compelling), and began a ministry to help people recruited into these groups. I would come to serve as an advisor and consultant for law enforcement groups dealing with such groups, notably serving (unpaid) with the FBI in the Branch Davidian group activities in Waco, Texas, in the early 1990’s, and the Heaven’s Gate group later that decade. Through our ministry, we helped hundreds of people get their kids back, but the legal, security, and psychic costs were considerable.   I also relocated my family from Boston to the Washington, D.C. metro area, and began working fulltime in a family-owned business in technology. I am thankful to this day that there was an opportunity for me to retrain my skills to support my family in a new technology career, for there were no churches where I could work.

     How I kept a Christian faith in the midst of a divorce, a change in career, and in losing every religious community I had ever known is still something I wonder about. In hindsight, it could only be the comfort and consolation of the Holy Spirit. I came to deeply appreciate the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis (which was the story I first read in Hebrew when I was learning that language years ago), and made several of its lessons my own. As many know, the Joseph story is one of abuse, imprisonment, alienation, and evil that happens to Joseph, but he nevertheless shows an faith-driven ability to not surrender to defeat and discouragement, retaining his faith in God, and eventually ends up as a key leader in pharonic Egypt, able to help the very family members who had sold him into slavery years before. At the end of the story, there is that poignant moment when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, and as they are terrified that he now stood with all the power to sentence them to death. He finally says, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, and for the salvation of many.” (Genesis 50:20) Looking back on my life to that point, I could only reflect with great sadness on all the things I had lost and suffered—a wife and marriage, and the humiliation of having to resign a life in Christian ministry. It was almost overwhelming, but each of these trials served to refine a faith that was still evolving; when all the props get kicked out, you discover how real God’s presence and comfort can be. Steadily, almost imperceptive in progress, through Bible reading and prayer, I felt a growing desire to investigate the Catholic Church.

     Moving to Colorado Springs in 2004 opened many doors that I felt had been permanently closed; at some encouragement from my college-aged sons, I had begun dating again (wow, was that terrifying!), I was granted an annulment from my first marriage for a number of understandable reasons. I met a wonderful woman who was a member of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Colorado Springs (and, of course, to this recovering Protestant, she had to be named “Mary”), and we began to attend Mass there regularly as we fell in love. In a moment that still brings tears to my eyes, I was formally received back into the Catholic Church by Father Joe Damhorst, who had tenderly and patiently guided my thinking, my study, and my steps back into the Faith. Prior to my confession and acceptance into fellowship, “Father Joe” and Mary encouraged me to take a 3-day Ignatian retreat to clear my head, make certain of my decision, and reflect upon God’s guidance and direction of my life.

     So many things that had been lost were now found and reborn in redemptive ways. After dating Mary for some time, we were finally married on August 4, 2006 by Father Joe at St. Patrick’s. Along with Father Joe, the pastor of St. Patrick’s at the time, Father Brad Noonan, began showing me a vision for ministry as a lay Catholic. Father Brad gave me papal encyclicals to read, and recommended other materials to answer my continued questions. When he shared with me Dei Verbum, I devoured it, marked it up, and realized that is was possible, even necessary, for the scriptural foundation of the Catholic Church, and a deeper appreciation for the Word of God than I had heretofore seen among the Catholics I had known.

     For our thoughts today, I think that the prayers of many were always there, including those of my mother, and one of my aunts who prayed every day for me. My dad and I fought about me leaving the Catholic church, then we fought about me being the wrong flavor of Protestant, then we fought about my not speaking in tongues…in fact, there were very few issues in religion that we did not fight about. So let me say this—I don’t think there is any substitute for just shutting up. My discussions with my dad, who himself left Catholicism and became a Pentecostal, are a lot different now. Despite every temptation to offer reply—and every one of my friends will attest to my overwhelming desire to say something, anything—I have been intentionally reluctant to engage my dad, and spend more time praying for him, and deflecting his complaints and gripes for a more opportune time. In 10 years of doing this, he has come to a greater respect for the Catholic Church than argument could ever produce. I send him the link to my homilies (I have a blog; it’s a wonderful opportunity to deliver your homily in what I would call “Protestant standard time” instead of “Catholic fast-food time”, being able to go into matters in more depth). I also got him a subscription to First Things Magazine, a journal that has had a guiding influence on my life of thought for the past 20 years. The agreements we have—my dad, the writers of First Things, and me—on matters of religion and culture and public policy have brought my dad and I together more closely than any argument. The other thing was the St. Patrick’s library; I am by nature a reader and having resources nearby was quite helpful. I think I still have a copy of something I picked up there on the biblical foundation of the Catholic Church.

     My wife and her family were tremendous encouragements as we explored the possibility of training and preparation to serve as a deacon in the Church, and the priests at St. Patrick enthusiastically supported my candidacy. I think it was their vision that there was still something left in the tank that rekindled my vision. It would take 5 more years of difficult study and formation, but sharing the learning and growth together with my wife made the challenges easier to face. There was a lot to “unlearn” as well, as the formation process challenged my preconceived notions about the Scriptures, the church, and how much I really knew about ministry. This biblical scholar had to learn that the ministry is about service to people, being tender, and washing the feet of many, instead of prattling on about what some work means in Greek or Hebrew. That distance from head to heart can be a million miles, and it might take decades to travel.  
But God is merciful and patient, abiding in hesed—abiding in steadfast love and loyalty. In June of 2011, I was ordained as a deacon in the Catholic Church. God had not only led me home, but He had also placed upon me a wonderful and humbling ministry. After all the mistakes and failures, no human agency would (or should) have trusted me with such a task—and every day I am reminded that I am not its equal.

     Without Mary’s encouragement, I never would have made it. I found family and relatives who had been alienated by my Protestant bible-thumping now quietly encouraging our progress. I am grateful to Bishop Sheridan of the Diocese of Colorado Springs, who not only had a vision for my service, but who ordained and continues to encourage me as a deacon. It is also humbling to be a part of the Permanent Diaconate Formation Program in our diocese, serving as an instructor in the Sacred Scripture classes that the candidates and their wives receive. Our formation director, Fr. Larry Brennan, has been a genuine vessel of grace. Every time I have reflected on just why I should not be in this position of great trust as a teacher, teaching our future deacons, he said “Rick, sometimes people who come back have a better appreciation than those who never left,” and he models what grace in action is all about. His love for the Catechism—it is the heart and should of our formation program—has inspired a greater love and respect for this treasure of teaching that we have been given. While I’m not sure about my understanding all the time, there is a great deal of gratitude for this blessed opportunity. In addition to my liturgical service as a deacon at Our Lady of the Pines, it has been a singular honor to be able to deliver the homilies and teach there, too. The parish members have been patient with me as I figured out that Protestant sermons and Catholic homilies are generally quite different (especially in length!). Every now and then, someone will even say “Amen” during a homily, which I appreciate and grew up with. We’ve reached a happy compromise (for most parishioners, I think), and they have come to love our Sunday Sacred Scripture classes, nudged between the 8am and 10:30am masses. Imagine that, “Sunday School” in a Catholic Church!

     God continues to show us new opportunities for service, and our eventual desire is to serve full time as a parish administrator and deacon once I get off the technology management rat race. What once seemed to be only a series of closed doors has been transformed into a wide variety of opportunities and blessings. My wife Mary and I wake up each day more in love than ever; we have the joy of having her father, Norman, living with us, and our participation in all the church activities is a shared joy. Being at church events, writing books and articles, leading retreats, giving presentations and other teaching opportunities, parish missions, and outreach efforts to my Separated Brothers seem to take up every moment we can find. God has truly healed the pain and bitterness of failure, and replaced it with the confidence of knowing that His grace has indeed been poured out on my life. What had been meant for evil, God has truly turned around for good.

     On this feast day when we celebrate the influence of a mother on the spiritual life of a son, I thank God for all those who have been “mothers” and “fathers” in the faith to me, and I wish you every blessing in Christ. Thank you for this opportunity.

On the Feast of St. Monica

August 27, 2013
Black Forest, Colorado

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