We are pilgrims progressing from time to eternity, and our goal is the Father himself.
He constantly calls us beyond what is familiar and comfortable to new paths of faith and trust.
– Homily of John Paul II | Canberra, Australia, November 24, 1986
My pilgrim’s journey is not a story I would have chosen. The story I would like to tell is of a sure and steady ascent filled with confidence and triumph. The story I have lived has been more like a convoluted descent filled with doubt and loss.
Over the course of my journey, nearly everything I thought I understood about mercy, grace, faith, hope, and even about love fell away, until there was nothing left but Christ. And then Christ brought me home.
Grateful for Good Roots
I was born in 1954 and raised in the farmlands of northern Minnesota. My father died of cancer before I knew him. My mom, sister, and I did the best we could, shuffling back and forth from one relative to another. It was a hard life for a single mom back in the 50s. When I turned nine, Mom married a man ten years her junior. I’ve known siblings with more years between them than my new dad and I had. We got off to a rocky start, but he was a good man, and we eventually figured it out.
At the ripe old age of fifteen, I fell in love with my high school sweetheart. We married in 1973. LuAnn and I have four children.
I’ve been a Christian since my earliest recollections. My family was faithful to the Evangelical Free Church, a denomination with a conservative culture and fundamentalist tradition. I’m grateful for good roots and for the family in which I was raised. I was taught to revere the Scriptures and to treasure my relationship with Jesus above all else.
My family and friends were all Protestants, but I knew very little about what Protestantism meant. I knew nothing about Catholicism.
We had neighbors who were Catholic, but we never associated with them. We distrusted Catholics and despised what they believed, even though none of us knew what they believed. My conservative tradition prohibited alcohol, cigarettes, movies, cards, dances, and rock ’n roll music. All I knew about the Catholics in our town was they were allowed to do those forbidden things. When I first heard the term “Catholic guilt,” I was confused. Why would they feel guilty when they got to do all the bad stuff?
The First Signs of Our Journey
LuAnn and I have walked hand in hand on our journey. We have never — not even once — been out of step with each other. Our mutual quest has been a great gift from our Heavenly Father.
Early in our marriage, LuAnn and I spent a year in Venezuela, working with Evangelical Free Church missionaries. It was in Venezuela where I first entered a Catholic church. Our fellow missionaries took us to a nearby cathedral as tourists, but it became apparent that the visit was intended as a criticism of Catholicism and a justification of our “mission.” I remember the cathedral only as one of the most incredible places I had ever seen. Somewhere, between what our friends were hoping to teach us and what we were experiencing, there was a disconnect. Something was missing between what they were saying and what we were seeing.
Upon returning to the States in 1978, we moved to California, where I earned a degree from Biola University. Following graduation, I served as interim Director of College Ministries at the Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, California under Chuck Swindoll. In 1981, LuAnn gave birth to our first child, James. Soon afterwards, I secured a position as program director and resident musician at Mount Hermon, a Christian conference center near the beaches of Santa Cruz, California.
Though Mount Hermon had Presbyterian roots, it had become non-denominational. We were ecumenical, but that ecumenism was narrow, restricted to Protestantism. Yet it was there where the signs of LuAnn’s and my journey to the Catholic Church became apparent.
Shortly after I began at Mount Hermon, I purchased John Michael Talbot’s album, “Come to the Quiet.” The depth and the serenity of those recordings inspired me to read Troubadour for the Lord, the story of his conversion to Christ and to the Catholic Church. A few years later, knowing my interest in John Michael Talbot and his Catholicism, a friend gave me another conversion story, Evangelical Is Not Enough, by Thomas Howard.
There it was. Someone finally put words to what I was feeling. In spite of my lifelong devotion to God, I had always felt my Evangelical perspective was not enough. I knew there had to be more.
On the inside cover of Evangelical Is Not Enough, I wrote, “For the part of my heart that always knew something was missing.”
Finding Solid Ground
I became friends with a man who attended an Antiochian Orthodox Church just down the road from Mount Hermon. I began going with him to morning prayers. After prayers, we’d go for coffee, where I bombarded him with questions about the incense, the water, the statues, the icons, the altar, the sacraments. I asked questions like, “How exactly do I make the sign of the cross, and why would I do that?” Those were inspiring days. There was definitely more.
Mount Hermon had a small chapel — cozy, quiet and, most of the time, locked. I obtained a key and began visiting the chapel in the early mornings. I would lock the door behind me and practice “being Catholic.” I would cross myself, raise my hands, kneel, lie face down on the old wooden floor, and do something I’d never done before: recite prayers other people had written.
Behind closed doors, I was trying out all the practical and tangible “stuff ” I was learning about Catholic worship and devotion. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I liked it. There was something “right” about it.
The prayers, coffee, and conversations with my friend didn’t lead me to the Orthodox Church. They did, however, introduce me to the historical Church. Before that friendship, I knew nothing about early Church history, the Church Fathers, the first martyrs, or the origins of the great Christian doctrines, not to mention the true source of sacred Scripture. My earlier, fundamentalist view of history extended back only a few hundred years.
With a longer view and a deeper understanding of history, I realized Christ had founded the Church — His Church, the Church which became known as the Catholic Church — in AD 33. A group of Scandinavian immigrants had founded my church, the Evangelical Free Church, in 1950.
Discovering the truth about the historical Church began to change the way I thought about all churches and all truth. I was finding ancient and solid ground upon which to stand and base my faith.
Though we had no thought of becoming Catholic, LuAnn and I had both become discontent with being Protestant.
The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth
As worship leader at Mount Hermon, I began introducing songs from John Michael Talbot into my repertoire. After one service, a couple came forward and asked if I was Catholic. They were cradle Catholics but had never told anyone at Mount Hermon. We became instant friends. Soon the husband, Phil, invited me to a silent retreat for men at a Jesuit retreat center. I loved it. At the close of the retreat, I left a comment card which read, “I never knew God was so big.”
During those early music leadership years, I was more concerned about a song being singable than sensible. As a result, it was easy to sneak bad theology into my repertoire by tying it to the back of a good melody. I was unaware of my ignorance until, after one meeting, the speaker informed me I had sung two songs about the second coming of Christ with two opposing perspectives.
I was embarrassed. How many other contradictions was I guilty of in my singing? How was I to know for sure which songs could stand the test of theological accuracy? What was the standard of measurement for that accuracy, and who held that standard? Too many of us worship leaders chose our songs based on popularity or on how well they showcased our voices and instruments. That had to stop.
The conferences and retreats our staff at Mount Hermon created had a degree of theological consistency, but the myriad of multi- denominational groups who rented our facility brought a confusing array of conflicting doctrinal perspectives and spiritual practices. I was certain we couldn’t all be right. My growing concern was that we might all be wrong.
So I decided to seek the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I decided to take Christ at His word — the living word of His life and teaching, the written word made known through His Scripture, and the word on fire from His Holy Spirit through His Church.
I began asking: “Is there absolute truth — an objective truth that’s true at all times, in all places, and for all people?” I knew there had to be. And if so, “Who is the guardian, sustainer, and administrator of that truth?” I was beginning to realize it wasn’t me. And it wasn’t the Protestant and Evangelical traditions I had inherited.
It was then, amidst my growing realization of truth, when I was presented with an opportunity after which Christianity, as I knew it, would never be the same.
In 1987, during his papal visit to the United States, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass at the Laguna Seca Raceway outside Monterey, California, about an hour from Mount Hermon. I was invited to attend as ecumenical clergy.
The day began with a dense fog limiting vision to a matter of yards. Those low clouds added a heavenly quality, and the music seemed to come from everywhere. As the fog cleared, I began to get a glimpse of the estimated 70,000 people sitting on the surrounding hillsidese. I saw flags and banners. I saw candles in candelabra and men in robes. I saw the altar. I saw the crucifix. It was as if a curtain was being lifted and everything was becoming known.
And then I saw him — the Pope. I knew nothing about him. I couldn’t even remember his name. I had no idea why I was so moved by his presence. And I certainly didn’t understand why, at the close of Mass, as he was airlifted from the raceway, I stretched my hands toward him and wept.
Something changed that day. It was as if I had stepped into a dif- ferent country and culture. I had no idea what was happening, but I loved it. I longed for it. I had been moved deep within my soul, in a place untouched by any other spiritual experience.
Developing a Catholic Spirit
I was beginning to think like a Catholic. I was praying like a Catholic. I was seeking an absolute truth, discovering the historical Church, and expanding my theological understanding. I’d had an encounter with the Pope. Things were changing.
Yet, with all the winds of change blowing inside me, not much changed on the outside. Other than a few new songs in my repertoire, I kept my growing interest in Catholicism to myself. My library, on the other hand, populated by contemporary Evangelical authors, began to change. For some reason, the Catholic author Henri Nouwen was accepted in my circles. I began there. Nouwen introduced me to Thomas Merton, and with that, the doors to the world of Catholic writing and ancient texts flew wide open.
I was discovering a depth of theological intelligence and a breadth of spiritual awareness I had never before imagined.
As our encounters with Catholicism mounted, LuAnn and I began asking, “What are we supposed to do with all this?” The “all this” we were referring to was the gentle, persuasive, Catholic spirit beginning to permeate our conversations and lives. We yearned for the full embrace of Christ we perceived in the Catholic Church.
Sadly, there seemed to be nothing we could do. We felt stuck, tethered to the limited traditions of our past. So we decided to live with the spiritual tension. I would remain in Evangelical ministry but do it with a Catholic spirit. Perhaps, we thought, I could lead people into a deeper and more complete relationship with Christ without revealing the Catholicity of that relationship.
As Close as I’d Get
In 1991, I joined the staff at Forest Home, a Christian conference center in the San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California. But after only two years, I was diagnosed with calcified nodules on my vocal folds and severe scarring on my larynx. Thanks to too much singing in too many difficult and damaging environments, my musical career, my vocation, my employment, and my identity came to a screeching halt.
Frustrated, confused, and questioning who I should be if I could no longer be a singer, I returned to school and earned a master’s degree from Azusa Pacific University.
While at Azusa, I met Richard Foster and became a follower of his Renovare Ministry. I was introduced to spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines. Though Catholic in spirit, Renovare was a Protestant ministry and fell short of introducing me to the Catholic Church. It led me to the doors of the Church but didn’t open them.
Inspired by the Catholic spirit of Renovare, I began regularly visiting Catholic churches and finding, as I had found in that cathedral in Venezuela, they were more beautiful on the inside than the outside. Sadly, I could not yet see the whole truth of that metaphor. I was still a Protestant, still on the outside looking in.
As I learned about spiritual disciplines, I also learned about Secular Orders. I was intrigued. One afternoon, I visited the offices of a Catholic church and told them I was interested in joining such an order. They informed me I’d have to be Catholic, and, unfortunately, I was not. I walked away dejected. Looking back, I have thought what a perfect opportunity for someone to have said, “Oh, but Mike, you can become a Catholic.”
By then, John Michael Talbot had founded an order called The Brothers and Sisters of Charity. They had an Ecumenical Domestic Expression for non-Catholic, married people like me. I became a postulant in 1995. I was close to Catholicism. Yet, as the years of my quest dragged on, I resigned myself to the thought that this was as close as I’d ever get.
The Walls Came Crashing Down
Still in need of work since losing my voice, I cast my nets of inquiry across the nation. In the fall of 1996, I made a Providential stop in Holland, Michigan, where I sensed a voice saying, “Mike, I’m moving here by my Spirit, and I want you to be a part of it.” Believing I’d heard a call from God, I relocated my family to Michigan the following summer.
I assumed we would be arriving at “the Promised Land.” It was not. But God remained faithful to His words. Through a series of divine events and a year of uphill climbing, I became a full time chaplain at a local manufacturing company. My role as a workplace chaplain proved to be the most fulfilling and fruitful ministry I had ever encountered. It was the obvious purpose for that original “call” to Holland.
But just as we were settling in and getting our stride, when things were finally looking up, the walls came crashing down.
On March 15, 2005, LuAnn’s and my firstborn son, Jim, was diagnosed with an untreatable cancer. Eight grueling months later, on November 11, the day after his twenty-fourth birthday, our beloved son died in my arms. Our brave, sweet boy was gone.
Despair and devastation cascaded over our family. Everything parents dread happening to their children began happening to ours.
Our daughter, blinded by her grief, lost her way into drugs and became a heroin addict.
Our middle son blamed God for Jim’s death and turned his back on the church. Then his young bride divorced him.
Our youngest son began suffering panic attacks & night terrors. Then my chaplain job was terminated.
Then my mom died.
Then, then, then … the avalanche of anguish and loss would not stop. Overwhelmed by the layers of grief and pain, I disappeared into a state of numbness and fog. I stopped caring. Even worse, I didn’t care that I had stopped caring. My dear wife was equally lost in her brokenness, but I couldn’t see past my own grief. Rather than being a blessing to her, I became a burden. Those were desperate days that turned into desperate years. I feared for our survival.
I became angry, angry with God. I stopped going to church. I wanted to stop believing in God. The God I had believed in since my youth was not the God I wanted to believe in anymore.
By God’s tender mercy, it didn’t work. I couldn’t stop believing in Him. I discovered that even if you’re able to stop believing in truth, it doesn’t stop being true. I retained my faith, but I did not return to church.
I did, however, return to my library. I read and searched and read some more. I re-read Evangelical Is Not Enough. It didn’t help. Not only was Evangelicalism not enough, nothing was enough. Nothing and no one could console me. No explanation could satisfy the deep lament of my soul. It seemed as if all might be lost.
To Become Catholic
For seven long years, as we tried to endure the death of our son, LuAnn and I were consumed by our daughter’s addiction. She was lost. We were helpless. We were convinced our precious girl was not going to survive her addiction. We were going to lose another child.
Finally, in 2012, again by God’s grace, we took our daughter to a rehab hospital in Buenos Aires, Argentina and left her there for seven months. It worked. She has been clean ever since.
We rejoiced in her recovery, but every silver lining seemed to have a cloud. Debilitated by our loss of income, the financial drain of Jim’s cancer battle, and the high cost of rehab, LuAnn and I were forced into bankruptcy and would eventually lose our home. We will never regret the sacrifices we made for our children and wouldn’t hesitate to make them again, but consequences and debts have to be paid.
During one last attempt to recover from our financial losses, we attended a popular money management seminar, where we met a young couple from the local Catholic parish. Jared and Rhonda invited us to their home. We learned Rhonda was a convert to Catholicism. We told them about our romance with the Catholic Church. They told us about something called RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. They wondered if, after all our searching, we might like to become Catholic.
There it was. Someone finally said the words and suggested we could become Catholic. Who would have thought it? After all those years, we had begun to think that becoming Catholic was like becoming Italian. It was something we simply could not do.
A Risk Worth Taking
The next day I called the parish office, and the following Sunday LuAnn and I were in the RCIA class.
Every class was amazing. We couldn’t have been more excited. Nevertheless, after every class, we’d look at each other and say, “What are we doing? Are we really going through with this?”
We knew if we were to become Catholic, we would run the risk of leaving a lot of friends and family behind. None of them would understand our journey. Most of them would resent our decision and reject our Catholic faith. Some of them might reject us. Yet, every Sunday, as we returned to class, having faithfully completed all our assignments, we were confronted with the incontrovertible truth of Catholicism. This was real, and regardless of the cost, it was a risk worth taking.
An old song kept ringing in my ear: “Not my will, but Thine I choose; no matter what I stand to lose.” Where else could we go? Only the Catholic Church had stayed faithful to the truth. We wouldn’t reject that truth any longer. Our protest was over.
Shortly after we began the RCIA process, the Catholic Church around the world celebrated All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. LuAnn and I, along with everyone in our parish, were invited to carry a candle to the altar in memory of departed loved ones.
We carried a candle for our Jim. We presented it to our parish priest, Fr. Charlie. He blessed us. He blessed our son. He placed Jim’s candle at the base of the altar — at the feet of Jesus. We wept. We had finally found a place for our suffering and lament. We had found a place for our boy. We had found redemption. We had found communion. We had found home.
With great joy, at sixty years of age, during the 2015 Easter Vigil at Saint Francis de Sales Church in Holland, Michigan, LuAnn and I reconciled with the entirety of Catholicism and came into full communion with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
It had been thirty-four years since I purchased that album by John Michael Talbot and had unknowingly taken the first step on LuAnn’s and my journey to the Catholic Church.
Thanks be to God for His patience and loving kindness.
LuAnn and I love being Catholic. It’s like coming home after a long journey and knowing we’re never going to leave again. It’s like having the blinders taken off so we can finally see the whole amaz- ing picture. It’s like being given the ultimate spiritual tool shed, filled with every tool we’ll ever need — all the substance and truth — to explore, explain, and express our lives in Christ and His life in us. It’s experiencing Christ the way He had always intended to be experienced. It’s like falling in love.
We love the sacraments. We love the Mass. We especially love the Eucharist. Many times, upon the completion of Mass, I look at LuAnn and say, “I’ve never been so glad to be Catholic.”
Equal to the joys of the sacraments and the Mass have been the friendship and fellowship of God’s people. LuAnn and I have been welcomed home by so many amazing, Christ-centered, Spirit- filled, Catholic Christians along our journey. We are humbled and inspired by the depth and authenticity of their faith and devotion.
The Catholic Church is a family — a worldwide family. Now it’s our family. And no matter where we go — from town to town, from state to state, from country to country — our family is already there waiting for us. Being home has taken on a new meaning.
A few months after joining the Church, we finally lost our home. We whittled our earthly belongings down to a 10-by-15 foot stor- age space and found temporary housing with generous friends.
Then, shortly after losing our home, LuAnn lost her job. Her career as a medical transcriptionist came to an end as she was displaced by voice recognition technology.
So there we were: jobless, penniless, homeless, and sleeping on a borrowed bed. Becoming Catholic had been amazing. Our spirits had been lifted and our souls settled. But LuAnn and I were physically and emotionally exhausted with a kind of tired you can’t just sleep off. We had been undone by too many years and too many layers of hardships. We feared we had lost more than we could ever regain. We needed to renew and rebuild.
Still sustained by God’s grace, we decided to take another big risk. We couldn’t change what had come to us, but we could choose what to do with what had come. So in June of 2016, we packed the back of our minivan with the essentials to survive, threw a mattress on top, and drove off on a Great Adventure — a Grand Quest to expand our faith, find our joy, restore our hope, discover God’s direction for our lives, reconnect with people and places from our past, and perhaps, by God’s grace, introduce the fullness of Christ and the Catholic Church to our Protestant family and friends who remain, as yet, unaware.
We’re still driving. We’ve traveled on every kind of road, through every sort of weather, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. We’ve covered the majority of the continental United States and parts of Canada and Mexico. We’ve stopped at nearly every Catholic church we’ve seen. We’ve prayed in roadside chapels and worshipped in grand cathedrals. We’ve listened and laughed and cried so hard our hearts ache. As uncertain as life can seem, we believe, by God’s grace, we are being guided to where we still need to go and what we still need to do. But that, my fellow pilgrims, is for the next chapter of this story.
Like many of you reading this, LuAnn and I remain on our journey from here to the Father, Ordinary Pilgrims looking for the extraordinary in every day and around every corner.
And That Is Enough
LuAnn’s and my lives began anew on that blessed Easter Vigil night. It was as if we had been born again. We didn’t become Christians that night. Our conversions to Christ had happened decades ago in our youth. That night we became complete. We were made whole. We filled in what had been missing. We became fully alive Christians — unreservedly, unapologetically, and unashamedly Catholic. And, no matter what we have lost or still stand to lose, that is enough.