Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Faith, love, and a long story

Thanks to my wonderful audiobook subscription, I recently "read" the excellent Ben Franklin biography by Walter Isaacson.  In the early parts of the book, Isaacson dives deep into Franklin's religious beliefs.  Ben has an interesting faith, as he has Puritan roots but is a product of an Enlightenment Era perspective that truth is revealed through the logical study of nature, not through an involved God (many would call it Deism).  Add in Franklin's practical nature and you get someone who believes that people should be "Christians" who believe in working hard, bettering his fellow man, and living a moral life.  Since Ben Franklin is a person I deeply respect and try to identify with, I found it interesting to hear the story of him figuring out and writing about his beliefs.

While sitting in adoration a while back, I was thinking Franklin, a recent sermon series on "Being a good agnostic" (which is actually about a reasoned approach to understanding and placing faith in God/Christ), and our decision to Baptize our baby Josie that upcoming Sunday.  I was reflecting on my own path in faith and how I ended up as faithful Catholic sitting in Eucharistic adoration about to Baptize the baby in my arms at our Catholic church while married to a faithful Evangelical Christian and deeply connected into a small group at our Evangelical church.  Yeah, it's weird not only attending but being active in two churches.  It can be frustrating, it can bring tears, it takes up time, and those holding extreme views from both of these sides of Christianity might even say it's unacceptable.  Yet, it's what brought me to the depth of faith I'm at and its the engine of growth that continues to strengthen my faith.  I hope and pray that my wife Kirsten and I wake up one day and stop having differing beliefs, and in particular, as believers in objective truth, wake up believing the same right things, but I find this unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Growing up, I was a very open and accepting person.  I connected well with very different groups of people and tried not to offend or exclude anyone.  This perspective crept into my religious views as well, as it has to many in our generation.  I grew up Catholic, as have my parents and grandparents and relatives as far back as I know about.  As a result, we didn't really talk about reasons why we were Catholic instead of some other kind of Christian -- it just was who we were.  To be clear, I strongly believed there was a God, and that he sent his son to Earth who taught us how to pray and live, and that we need to respect and worship Him and do what he told us to do.  Yet, as a selectively rebellious child, the fact that we happened to draw the Catholic straw from the Christian jar didn't convince me that my denomination was any more true than anyone else's.  By age 17, around the time of my Confirmation, I honestly didn't see strong distinguishing beliefs or characteristics between the different denominations and told my parents that I wouldn't be surprised if I switched Christian denominations someday.

In my senior year of high school, I finally mustered up the guts to ask out my first date, the girl who is now my wife (I was just being picky so I didn't have to deal with a failed dating relationship!).  Kirsten was an active Christian at her Evangelical church.  I went to my church each week, and I prayed on my own, but there wasn't nearly the same depth as my new girlfriend had.  The difference in our churches was always an interesting area of discussion for us, but I didn't realize how this big difference would be my core motivator in understanding and loving God better.

Mid-way through the summer leading up to that junior year, while I was working on the Alight Learning software I co-designed with my friends who took a year away from school with me in 2008-09, I flew back home to attend Kirsten's brother's wedding.  Something about the event really hit me a couple days after as I was flying back to Boston -- that could be me.  I had been dating Kirsten for over three years at this point (and had known her well since second grade) and needed to get serious about whether this was going to work or not.  After a little thought, I realized that there was only one potential deal-breaker -- our differing beliefs.  Before I would give up the faith of my family, I had to be darned sure it was equivalent or less true than the teachings at evangelical churches.  This was the proverbial fire under my butt that motivated my deep learning about Christianity and Catholicism.

Leading up to that year, a friend asked me to be his roommate.  I really enjoyed being around Erik, but I was a bit surprised he asked me to live with him as we didn't necessary hang out a ton outside of group settings (though, to be fair, we were in a LOT of the same groups due to a lot of overlapping interests and friends).  Erik was one of the most amazing people I knew, and also one of the most amazing Catholics I knew, a handy coincidence going into a year with one of the biggest decisions of my life.

As for my learning, I started with Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis).  He begins from a non-believer's perspective and builds up an argument for faith in Christ.  The biggest thing this book did for me was push me off the fence -- Jesus was not a nice guy with nice teachings.  He is either (1) who he claims, the only son of the only God whom we must place our trust in and obey, or (2) a lunatic who has defrauded both the people of his time and every generation since.  It also helped me better understand God's grace given to us at the death of Christ (something I had always known intellectually but didn't really internalize).

Once school started, the group of Catholics that walked over to Sunday Mass together each week now had a new avenue of growth -- a small group.  My friend Jeff (who happened to make up his mind to go to seminary to become a priest around this time) led this effort and we held our weekly discussion in my and Erik's dorm room.  These discussions got me thinking much more deeply about the readings each Sunday Mass, but more importantly, taught me a lot more about the Catholic faith and why we believe what we do.  Jeff and Erik both have an insane knowledge about the Church that I constantly tapped into as we met and discussed.

Along with the group time, the before-bed chats with Erik were the deepest council I received.  He pointed me to apologetics books, helped me think through some of my viewpoints that didn't make sense, and just gave me practical advice when I needed it.

Once we were a semester into school, all of my discussions, reading, and reflection led me to believe that the Catholic Church held the truest teachings of Christ.  This left me a few options: (1) convince Kirsten, using the same information and thoughts that convinced me, to become Catholic, (2) discover that we can be married and use our differences more as a point of growth than division in our life together, and if we're lucky have one of us have a change of heart someday, or (3) break off the relationship since marriage would be impossible.  I tried option (1) for a couple months, but Kirsten had too many deep-seated beliefs that clashed with some of my foundational beliefs.  That left me doing a lot of research on interdenominational marriages.  I was somewhat surprised to find that the Catholic Church was reasonably open to the practice, at least a lot more than Catholic culture would suggest.

When I flew home for spring break that year, I made up my mind and told my parents shortly after walking in the house my intention to get married.  Since I was home for 48 hours, my mom and I found all of my old savings bonds from grandparents over the years and we went ring shopping.  That night I went to my future in-laws house to ask permission to take their daughter in marriage (and thankfully heard a yes!).  After watching Kirsten's Amherst College hockey team win the Division III Championship at the Frozen Four tournament in Mankato, MN, I pocketed the ring and flew back to Olin.  I planned to propose out in the beautiful hills near Amherst that next weekend, but Kirsten was in an unusually bad mood, so I didn't push my luck and waited another week for Easter.  Out on a walk in the woods, I dropped to one knee and she said yes!

The first real shared decision-making about faith took place as we prepared for marriage.  I asked that we get married in a Catholic church with the corresponding preparation courses and meetings so that our marriage would be recognized as a sacrament, something that was important to me.  From there, we asked to take out communion (since over half of the guests were not Catholic and many were used to open communion) and added in the performance of a musical composition written and performed by Kirsten's uncle and cousin.  The wedding itself was one of the best experiences of our lives -- we had an amazing day together with so many friends and family members.

Once married, we immediately (2 days later) were in Rochester, MN participating in our graduate programs (education summer classes for me, physician assistant rotations for Kirsten).  We found two churches that we liked -- a downtown Catholic church and a Christian Missionary Alliance-affiliated Evangelical church in the northwest part of town (Christ Community Church).  We found that, now married, we didn't have the excuse of just attending the local person's church (I went to her church when visiting her in Amherst and vise versa), so we went to two services each week.  After a while, it didn't really feel like a burden -- it was just what we did.  We didn't lay deep roots in either church since we planned to be out of Rochester by the following spring, off to some new place where we would both seek jobs (probably Boston).  Thanks to the incredible draw I felt to my team of math teachers at Byron High School and the good fortune of a new math position being created that year, I had a chance to interview and get hired as full-time staff.  Around the same time, my wife was in one of her favorite rotations in a department at Mayo Clinic that had openings.  She too was able to get a job, so we looked to set down at least medium-term roots and buy a home in Rochester.

As we settled in, we signed up to join a small group of married couples at Christ Community Church.  This group has been amazing and led to the friendships that we treasure most here in this new place.  More than just social, we have done a number of book studies that have continued to develop and improve my knowledge and faith.  In the past year, my relationships with these couples, and especially with the men, have led to excellent discussion, reflection, and growth.

Also around the time we moved, we found ourselves at a 6pm Sunday Mass, a service where priests had been taking turns on rotation from the community churches.  We really liked the priest who had led Mass that night and were curious where his home church was so we could see listen to him more often...and his parish turned out to be less than 2 miles from our house in a building we drove past every day but didn't notice was a church!  We started attending regularly and soon joined as members.  I have gotten involved with a few things, mostly related to youth ministry, and absolutely love the parish, its leaders, and its congregation.

After 3.5 years of marriage and 5 months of being parents, we're optimistic as we continue growing in our faith.  Both Kirsten and I feel deeply connected in both churches, both socially and spiritually.  We are incredibly thankful for the priests and pastors, great music leadership, and the social and volunteer opportunities available to us that all continue to help us grow.  We will need this as we continue to get confronted with some of the fundamental differences in our beliefs in sermons and books, and as we look ahead to more tough decisions such as whether our kids should receive the sacraments of the Catholic Church.

I have very different beliefs than Ben Franklin, but I want to emulate his process of figuring out what I believe, how I came to believe it, and how my beliefs shape my ongoing life.  Like Ben, I want to write about it all as it unfolds so I can have a record of my own journey and can bring in those around me to support and critique me on the journey.