I was born and raised in Wichita, KS, in the Bible Belt of the USA. My dad was deeply prayerful and humble and belonged to Gideons International, the group that distributes Bibles and New Testaments to hotels, schools, nursing homes, and hospitals. He was always handing out little Bibles and tracts to people. He had been raised Lutheran, a son of an itinerant Lutheran pastor. I was baptized Lutheran, but my folks left the Lutheran Church in 1958 when I was two years old, for a group I know now is a splinter break off group from the Swedish Lutherans, the Swedish Covenant, now called the Evangelical Covenant Church, headquartered in Chicago (where I now live, incidentally).
My mom was raised Presbyterian, but went along with my dad to whatever church he wished to attend. She was the organist at the Covenant church for about 40 years. My mom taught my siblings and me how to play piano before we were even in kindergarten (she still talks about the long list of songs that I figured out on our piano the “hunt and peck” way, all with one finger). I distinctly remember feeling so good about being able to play Jesus Loves Me and Nothing But the Blood of Jesus. My mom also taught me early on how important the Lord was, and why I had to confess anything bad I did to Jesus right away. She said He had to suffer for my sin, and I wouldn’t want to be “out of fellowship” with the Lord.
Our family attended both Sunday morning and evening services and usually a prayer meeting on Wednesday. In order to prepare for confirmation in eighth grade, I was required to read the thick book According to Thy Word, in which the important principle of “where is that found in the Bible?” is deeply impressed upon the reader. I learned and recited on Confirmation Sunday the Apostles Creed. Though we didn’t know it, these things were vestiges of the Catholic liturgy. At the time, the only Catholics I was aware of were our next-door neighbors.
Lifted up to the greatness of the Lord
As I look back to childhood, the most significant experience, which gave me a longing and love for liturgy — and ultimately the Roman Catholic Church — was going every Christmas Eve to our Uncle Oliver’s house in a different town for a big family Christmas. My uncle was a Lutheran pastor who was always very good to us. After enjoying the big Swedish dinner, acting out the birth of Jesus (in costume, with a carol sung after each development in the story), and opening presents, we attended the eleven o’clock Julotta service, the Swedish Lutheran equivalent of Christmas Midnight Mass. The Lutherans were (and I suppose still are) just one step away from the Catholic Church. At the overwhelmingly beautiful, Lutheran service, my cousin would usually sing O Holy Night. Throughout the rest of the service, they played such wonderful hymns and everyone sang in harmony. Each year, I, with my musical mind, was so lifted up to the greatness of our Lord’s coming to earth. My mom says I told her once that, when I grew up, I really wanted to go to a church like that one.
During those rebellious years of the 1960s and 70s, the Evangelical Covenant church we attended reinvented (what seemed like) every service to try not to be liturgical, because, after all, why should it matter in what order you “do” the church service? What mattered was one’s own closeness to Christ — right?
“Jesus and me”
I certainly bought into the “Jesus and me” spirituality. Our church fostered meeting with other like-minded Christians for fellowship, Bible study, and prayer — lots and lots of Bible study and prayer. There were rewards given for memorizing chapters of the Bible — and I went for it! I read the Bible cover to cover three times during my teenage years and memorized Matthew 26, 27, and 28; John 1 and 3; Psalm 1, 23, 100, and 103; Isaiah 40; and Romans 1 through 8. I also attempted memorizing Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.
That’s a lot of theology to think through, and my developing mind did the best it could. It was not easy to apply all that Scripture and more to one’s life, but I certainly tried. I clearly remember selling my beloved go-cart when I was a preteen to send the money to Billy Graham. I was motivated by love and obedience to God, because of how supremely important it was (and is) to reach as many people as possible with the gospel. I received a personal thank you letter from Billy Graham’s assistant, which I treasured for years.
The Lord’s Boot Camp
I think everyone was struggling with the big changes happening to society and the world then, but I had a refuge in working hard and enjoying some successes playing piano and also bassoon. In high school (1970-74), I became the church pianist, both for services and “special music.” Every week for years, my mom and I worked up piano-organ duets of hymns and gospel songs, which were a delight for us, as well as the congregation. I received a generous scholarship and eventually two degrees in music performance. I still make my living primarily as a piano accompanist and teacher, as well as playing bassoon in an orchestra and with a bassoonist partner, doing programs in retirement homes and teaching bassoon lessons.
Curiously, after being very protected and nurtured all my childhood, I did a rather painful, missionary work trip to Brazil for seven weeks after graduating from college. My mind was already opening to the bigger world through classical music, and, to be honest, I did the missionary trip as a way to travel to another country. (In my evangelical world, you saw other countries by being a missionary.) After learning house-building skills and living in a tent for two weeks at The Lord’s Boot Camp in Florida, on our trip, we built a brick house for fundamentalist missionaries near a tributary of the Amazon River.
That was an exceptionally hard summer. Our leaders stressed keeping up our personal “quiet time,” as this was the thing that would get each of us through the struggles of the trip. I had been taught this during my years in Intervarsity Christian Fellowship during college, and certainly hung on tight to Jesus and the Bible that summer. I went to Brazil not even knowing that it is a Catholic country. When we went to the nearby fishing village on weekends for supplies, there was a beautiful, big white Catholic church in that little town, of which I took a picture and received consolation from just looking at it. No one in our group knew anything about the big white church, but it seemed so incongruent that poor people would be able to have such a much more beautiful building than anything else in the area. We were all so very clueless.
Faith without works
After returning to the U.S., I went to the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, planning to be some sort of church musician or missionary, but still undecided as to what particular direction to pursue. I left after one semester, finding three, awful, non-music, assembly line jobs back in Wichita. The following eight months, I lived at home with my folks, while my dad, who had just retired, was struggling with asthma and other major health problems. I saved enough to return to Moody for their one-year program, which was designed to produce missionaries out of college graduates. A lot of good happened there, and I am grateful for what I received at Moody.
At the end of that year, I was offered a part-time job teaching in the Sacred Music Department at Moody, but would have to get a Master’s degree to keep the job. Therefore, I became a graduate student in bassoon performance at Roosevelt University, in their Chicago Musical College. I worked at a Swedish Baptist church as choir director, at Moody as assistant to the band director, and also at Roosevelt’s music library. After keeping up two years of this, at the same time as trying to become “the world’s best bassoonist,” I was unraveling at the seams. A dear family attending the Swedish Baptist church — Gary and Linda, aging hippies with twin daughters (who became my goddaughters) — took me in, allowing me to pay them what I could afford. Gary and Linda had left the Catholic Church in college during the tumultuous decade after Vatican II. They were so kind, and I wound up living with them for nine and a half years (basically the entire 1980s) while I tried to get a career in music going in Chicago.
It was during this period I slowly became aware of this thing called “the Catholic Church” in Chicago. This Church was much, much bigger and more effective than even the Moody Bible Institute! It was so organized, I discovered, and could do so much more to serve God, because it wasn’t just a little splinter church doing its best. Rather, it was able to cover the whole gamut of Christian responsibility, seriously helping poor people, even doing theology and Church history all the way back to Christ!
One of my first awakenings to the Catholic Church was when I was trying to do as many bassoon gigs as possible. I was called to play in a woodwind quintet for a Thanksgiving Day Mass at (I believe) St. Barbara Catholic Church, in the Near West Suburbs. This was the first time I had been to a Mass or even inside a Catholic church, yet there I was playing bassoon up front! When the offering of gifts happened, since it was Thanksgiving Day, the people brought up food for poor people. The line stretched clear down the aisle and out the door. We played music for what seemed like fifteen to twenty minutes while everyone brought up his or her bags of groceries to give away. I occasionally stole a glance at how much food was coming up, and when I saw all the Jewel and Dominick grocery store shopping bags filling the whole altar area, I was moved to tears — I could barely see the music! A loud voice in my head said, “This is how it’s supposed to be!!”
Since the early 80s, I had a growing awareness of world hunger, and was quite aware, from living in a Christian communal household when in college, of Ronald Sider’s rather leftist, hard-hitting book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Even the title was “convicting”; I read the book with agony in my soul. Besides joining a Lutheran advocacy group called Bread for the World, how much could one, struggling, not-quite-starving musician do? I began to see that obviously groups would have to tackle hunger, which led me to realize that “it’s not just a ‘Jesus and me’ thing, after all” (though I took the occasional homeless guy to lunch at a fast food place when I could). However, the evangelical groups I had been part of always placed actually feeding poor people quite low on its priority list, since the heavy emphasis was always on sharing one’s faith to influence them to faith in Christ, ultimately making disciples and fulfilling the Great Commission.
Up to that point one of the deepest and clearest experiences I had had with our Lord, which took me to a new place of clarity in prayer and understanding, was reading and rereading Matthew 25 in which Jesus is so clear in His explanation of the Judgment in terms of sheep and goats. He says it [the outcome of one’s judgment] all depends on how you treated the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the naked, the imprisoned, etc. Elsewhere, He said, “If you love me, keep my commandments,” and, of course, “faith without works is dead.” After spending my whole life in evangelicalism, these Catholics at St. Barbara’s “got it” so much better than anyone I had ever met! I could share my faith and lead Bible studies and prayer with no problem — maybe even with pride — but Jesus had really made it clear that He wasn’t interested in just talk.
The humble witness of Catholics
Then there was the time I was riding a commuter train to a gig and just happened to sit next to a young woman who started talking to me. I mentioned Moody and learned that she was Catholic. She worked at the Board of Trade downtown and spent her lunch hour organizing and attending prayer meetings at the Board of Trade. What a shock! Some Catholics do share their faith, not only at work, but on the train — with me! This was a new, strange sensation to be on the other side of the faith-sharing experience; and it was clearly me, not her, who had the eyes of understanding opened wider.
Then something happened that marked the beginning of the end of my being Protestant. I had some free time before a concert at Moody and Holy Name Cathedral just happened to be right down the street. I curiously wondered what really goes on at a regular, everyday Catholic Mass, so I walked to the cathedral. Providentially, it just happened to be a few minutes before the five o’clock Mass. Since I had always been told that Catholics don’t really know the Lord and just “go through the motions” of their religion, I sat down and began praying for the people who were entering the cathedral. However, it was the witness of those people in the cathedral that day that had an impact on me: those who arrived before me were already on their knees praying, and those who stayed after Mass kept on praying. After experiencing the profound beauty of the Mass, I was overwhelmed and I just started crying. These Catholics were almost certainly not just going through the motions. I knew God was there more clearly than I had ever experienced. Like that time I witnessed those generous Catholics at the Thanksgiving Day Mass, the voice of the Lord came to me in my mind and said: “This is how I want it to be.” In stark contrast to my prideful Bible knowledge, I secretly knew I wanted the humility these Catholics showed.
Refreshed by Catholic teaching
When I got home that night, I told Gary and Linda about my experience at the cathedral, along with my other experiences. They looked at each other silently, and later told me that this was when they started praying about returning to the Catholic Church. In less than a month, they knew God wanted them to go back to the nearby Catholic church. Since they were already confirmed in the Catholic Church, they just had to go to Confession to be reconciled with the Church. Their daughters entered the Church, too, and I started going to Mass with the family before doing the choir service at the Baptist church where I still worked. For a while, I tried to do the Baptist church choir, because I needed the money, but I soon quit that job.
I received my religious instruction at the Catholic parish with Gary and Linda, who answered many questions and wonderings I had. I especially appreciated learning that the Catholic Church has no problem living with the many mysteries of God and our Faith experience. I had always been taught as an evangelical that you can and should know that you are saved, without doubt or mystery, so that you could evangelize honestly and confidently. I liked that the Catholic Church doesn’t teach “once saved, always saved.” In the summer of 1989, I told Linda I was ready to become a Catholic; Gary agreed to be my sponsor.
Gary and I attended weekly RCIA classes. During these classes, I started to really explore the Eucharist, Mary, the saints, and — a brand new phrase to me — salvation history. I started to face the reality of the Church in the present age, including current Catholic culture in this country and how poorly educated and devoted to Mass many Catholics are. Toward the end of our preparation, one of the priests who worked with us in RCIA left the priesthood to get married. This instance clearly demonstrated the reality that priests are certainly not perfect, either — just like the rest of us. However, they act in the person of Christ when then administer the Sacraments (which is why women cannot be priests; Jesus was male — it’s as simple as that).
It was providential that the new pastor, Fr. Larry Maddock (now recently deceased) could answer every question I had by effortlessly quoting Scripture from his head. With my background, I was impressed with his knowledge of Scripture and of the Lord. I felt as if I could believe what he said about the Eucharist and anything else regarding the Catholic Faith. I believe it was during this year of RCIA that I read Crossing the Tiber by Steven Ray, which also answered many of my questions and wonderings.
I also was reawakened to the Gospel of John. Catholics greatly revere the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6, and Mary’s intercession to her Son is illustrated in John 2. The Wedding at Cana shows that she assists people in everyday needs. Protestants are much more interested in John 1, 3, and 4 (especially since John 4 is about Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well in Samaria and John 3 is the encounter with Nicodemus at night talking about being born again, two of Jesus’s clear examples of how to share your faith). Of course, John 1 establishes the mystical wonder of Jesus as the eternal Word, full of grace and truth. It turns out that I had been taught and memorized good, important chapters and truths about Christ, but not everything!
The heavy burden I had carried my entire life of trying figuring out the whole Bible for myself (a burden I assumed every Christian had to carry) was certainly lifted when it became apparent that the Roman Catholic Church Magisterium had been doing this for many centuries! I had secretly wondered how mentally challenged, disadvantaged people, or illiterate people (which is probably the majority of all people in history) could live good, exemplary Christian lives if they needed to be Bible scholars! Why would only the educated elite be given what they needed for salvation? I knew Jesus had said in the gospels that to whom much had been given, much would be expected, and to whom little is given, little shall be expected, but that just increased the burden on me. What a relief to know and experience that God had provided for these needs in the very organization of the Catholic Mass: Old Testament reading, psalm, New Testament reading, followed by the Gospel reading; an explanation from the priest for the homily; then the Eucharistic prayers and reception of our Lord, Himself! We get to receive the Lord as our savior every week — and some people do it every day! You get the “both/and” in the Catholic liturgy: both the “Jesus and me” experience and the group experience in the immensity of the universal Catholic Church.
Gradually being prepared for heaven
I was confirmed and became a Roman Catholic in 1990. I cantored for about 17 years and currently sing in the choir at St. Ita’s. I started praying the rosary everyday in 1994, and in 1995 the job I have now — accompanying the choirs and providing private lessons for students at a public high school — just fell in my lap! It is certainly a unique “ministry”, thanks be to God. I was introduced to the Liturgy of the Hours by a dear Catholic friend in 1990 and still get to have my precious and necessary “quiet time” with the Lord in the morning and evening prayer. I appreciate the well organized way of praying along with all priests and religious in the world. I have also been able to sponsor two other friends who became Catholic (and hope to do more of that), so evangelizing and sharing my faith still happens!
Everything I was taught as an evangelical has simply been enhanced, heightened, and enabled, and many gaps have been filled in. I am still humbled at times by how much I don’t know about our faith, but I am getting better. I am being gradually prepared for heaven!