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.