I Was Almost a Priest

Like many, my faith journey has been far from conventional. I grew up Methodist in a small town in North Carolina.  My family attended most Sundays.  Back then, going to church meant wearing your “Sunday Best” which for us featured a coat and tie.  I do not need to tell you how wildly unpopular that is for a young boy.  Combine that with being kicked out of youth choir on a regular basis for talking, and you can see it was unlikely I was anyone’s first choice for ministry.   Yet, something about church appealed to me, but I wasn’t sure what.  I certainly experienced a spiritual longing and I had an insatiable desire for self-improvement.  Occasionally this drifted into the religious realm.

Long before the likes of Tom Cruise and couch-jumping, I recall enthusiastically approaching my minister,  Reverend Fred Jordan about this “fail-proof” book I found in the library called “Dianetics”, a primer to the world of Scientology. I didn’t know anything about it, but this book promised everything from increased confidence, the removal of worry, to a noticeable increase in intellect.  I was sure it could even make me taller, although I, and presumably Mr. Cruise, ultimately concluded otherwise.  Or at least, let’s hope so.  Reverend Jordan kindly, and without judgment, redirected me to the Bible.

But the Bible seemed confusing and obtuse to me at the time.  There were interesting stories, but I wanted black and white answers!  I even tried the trick where you conjure up a question in your mind, open the Bible, and then plot your finger down in the middle of the first page you open where you would find the answer to your question.  But Leviticus rarely had the answers for a 13-year-old.

My grandmother sensed something religious in me as well.  Every time I donned a tie for any occasion she would pull me aside and whisper, “are you sure you don’t want to be a preacher?”  Despite my reassurances that I didn’t have the goods, she would still overlook every other person in the family and insist I give the prayer before every meal.

The spiritual yearning continued into high school.  Yearning such as this often creates naiveté or vulnerability, especially for a searching soul.  I joined my friend at her Pentecostal church only to sit in noticeable discomfort as my she rose and shouted out in tongues during a service.  I was jealous of her fervor.  I awkwardly tried to replicate it only to be sternly corrected and informed that the language comes only from God and wasn’t something you could learn through study.

My friends still cringe when I recount desperately burning in the driveway all of my Eagles and Led Zeppelin tapes after my geometry teacher informed me they contained embedded messages from the devil when played backward.  Religion seemed to offer me more confusion and frustration than the clarity and direction I craved.  College didn’t offer a promising outlet either. Usually awash in guilt from a weekend of partying, I would sheepishly attend an InterVarsity meeting, a Christian fellowship group on campus, hoping for some connection.  But I just didn’t fit in.  So for years, I drifted.

And then I met Kristan.

I won’t bore you with the details of our courtship, but let’s just say she was a devout Catholic and I was so smitten she could have been in the Manson Family and I likely would have followed.  We attended church together regularly and something in my soul awakened.  I was drawn to the beauty of the liturgy- the candles, the incense, the prayers, and music.  It was almost as if I was finally given that roadmap to the divine I had always craved.

After a year of weekly classes and study, and after promising my grandmother I wouldn’t “worship beads,” I officially converted to Roman Catholicism. Kristan and I were married in the Catholic Church and I proceeded to be the most obnoxious Catholic in Christendom.  All of our children were baptized Catholic.  I joined the Knights of Columbus and brought my own missalette to mass.  I refused meat on Fridays and loudly renounced behaviors inconsistent with canon law. I collected prayer cards like they were first edition Babe Ruth rookie cards and if a friend was selling a house I would suggest they bury a statue of St. Joseph.   I scowled at people who left mass after communion, convinced they were turning their back on the presence of Jesus.

Yet something else was brewing inside of me.   It became clear I had tapped into something far deeper and meaningful than anything I had ever experienced.  At last, I felt I had direction not only in my faith journey but also in my life as a whole.  For years, I had struggled to find my vocational footing.  I had tried many different jobs and nothing seemed to fit.  I was earning a good living in insurance, but something inside me told me that I was meant for something else.

After a camping trip with some friends who were seasoned in their faith, I discerned something I had never considered: I was called to ministry.  I was on fire.  I hiked out of that gorge with an enthusiasm I hadn’t experienced in some time.  My life had a purpose and I was ecstatic.  Perhaps my grandmother had been right all along.

It wasn’t long before I realized my path to ministry had some obstacles.  I was a married Roman Catholic with, at the time, 4 children.  How could I be a priest? Although not impossible, that path was far too complicated, for obvious reasons.  Perhaps I could be a deacon, I thought.  So I scheduled an appointment with our parish deacon.  My heart sank when he abruptly and devoid of any emotion, announced, “you don’t want to do this.”

Reluctantly I began to look outside of the Catholic Church.  I briefly attended area non-denominational churches, and they were suitable for a time.  In fact, they were fun and exciting. It was like a kid who was allowed to drink caffeinated soda for the first time. Nevertheless, it became clear that the theology didn’t feel right, and the laser shows, expensive technology, and impressive marketing did not provide the lasting faith expression I was seeking. My wife was struggling even more than I was.  She was quickly seeing her dream of the perfect Catholic family dissolve right before her eyes.  It was not an easy time in our marriage.  Yet she resolved valiantly that she would rather be a married “whatever” than a divorced Catholic.  I will always be grateful for this graceful, selfless act of love.

Through a series of fortunate connections, God eventually led us to the Lutheran Church.  The first Sunday, Kristan vocalized unbridled joy to be entering a church with an actual steeple and not needing to insert logo-branded earplugs to dampen the electric guitars.  She and I both embraced the Lutheran liturgy, which closely resembles that of the Catholic Church.  It incorporates many of the traditions and symbols that were so vital to the awakening of my faith and precious to hers.  In fact, the similarities to Catholicism are so close many refer to it as “Catholic Lite”.  We had found our home.

For us, we cherish a faith so close to the one that drew us together, but without the unsettling aspects.  Both of us always struggled with how the Catholic Church, at least in its policies, continues to be unwelcoming to gays, limiting to women, and harsh to those who have experienced divorce.  We also could not support the systemic cover-ups from clergy abuse and bristled when we were handed “voter guides” around election time.  This works for many, but it wasn’t the path for us.

Our lives as Lutherans have been everything we could have dreamed it would be.  I eventually was able to attend seminary part-time while working and earn my degree.  God showed up in extraordinary ways, and I was ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) almost 2 years ago.  I currently serve a church less than 5 miles from my house and the experience has been everything I dreamt it would be.

Occasionally I miss some of the cultural aspects of Catholicism.  It still gives me pause when I’m greeted as “Father” in an elevator or in the hallway of the hospital because I’m wearing my clerical collar. And I notice the looks I get when I enter a grocery store after church, my 5 kids in tow.  I’m sure they think I’m this gallant priest shepherding a gaggle of orphans.

I’ve learned to weave into my faith life all the beautiful elements of the Catholic faith.  I still cherish the beautiful symbols, prayer patterns, and traditions that lead me to God.  It will always be part of me.

But from time to time I still sit in awe of my faith journey.  For all the ups and downs, I remain grateful.  God walked me every step of the way and still walks with me today.  I guess it goes to show you never know where life will lead you.  But when you open your heart and put your trust in God, you eventually find your way.