God's Perfect Plan
I grew up Protestant, married a Cradle Catholic in 1971 and was finally confirmed into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil Mass on March 3rd, 2010
This is a long and convoluted story, so be patient, but on Sunday evening, October 26, 2014 I had an epiphany about my conversion story and God’s plan for me in His Church, and I feel compelled to record all of it here.
On that particular evening, my wife made a comment to some of the youth in our Parish in a small group that I was leading that made me rethink my entire conversion story. God has a plan for us. Sometimes we often only see it in hindsight.
She told them of her worry and prayers for my spiritual wellbeing and of receiving a clear, audible answer from God, "You don’t need to worry about Michael". For years I have told of my conversion in the simplest of terms but with that one comment, which she had never mentioned to me before, I realized that God started me on my journey in 1965, the day I met her, and he began to train me for His ministry. Further, only lately did she tell me that she received that answer at the beginning of our marriage, perhaps around 1972 0r ’73 and I realized that He was assuring her then that He had a plan, and He always knew how it would play out.
St. Monica of Hippo was the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo. Married at a young age to the Roman pagan Patricius, She prayed tirelessly for 38 years for the conversion of her husband and son. Both eventually converted and her son Augustine was later canonized by the church as well. This story was spoken of in the homely at mass yesterday as I sat in the pew with my wife. It further cements my belief that God created both of us, from the beginning, specifically, each for the other.
The Beginning: I was born to, and raised in, a protestant family. My mother was a Southern Baptist, my father a Presbyterian. We mostly attended the Presbyterian Church, but I suspect that was because of the close proximity to our house more than anything.
As many mothers do to their children, mine forced me to attend our church youth group. I didn’t really kick and scream about it but I remember as many teenagers do, I didn’t want to go. Turns out it wasn’t so bad. There were a couple of people that I knew and I made new friends fairly quickly. And besides, there were girls there!
One evening as we gathered waiting for "Fellowship" night to start, one of the regular girls brought a visitor, a Catholic friend of hers. It was one of those moments with birds, spring, music, or maybe it was just teen male hormones but I remember meeting my future wife as clearly today as if it had happened last night.
God gifted me with artistic and musical talent. In High school I was a rock and roll drummer and it’s one of the things that helped attract my future wife to me. When we graduated High School, I sold my drums, bought a twelve string guitar and began to teach myself to play.
God set the seeds of music ministry in me when I got involved with a Baptist youth choir and band. I played drums, or guitar and sang. I became proficient enough that eventually, I played guitar and sang to my bride as she walked down the aisle at our wedding.
We raised a family with a daughter between two boys, and I confess that we did not do a good job of raising them in the church. We attended both Catholic and Presbyterian churches on weekends when it was convenient. I sat patiently through the mystical mumbo jumbo of the Catholic Mass only because I knew it was important to my wife, not because I understood a word of it. All of our children eventually accepted confirmation into the Catholic Church but they grew, went off to college, married and had kids of their own and all of them pretty much carried the lazy attitude about church going that we had taught them. It’s not their fault, it is mine alone.
God gave me a gentle nudge in 1998. At least that’s the next time I listened to Him, although I didn’t realize it was Him yet. He sent me an offer of a new job in Florida. The closest church to our new home was a Catholic Church just a mile from our house. We began to attend regularly and I even joined the Choir and sang at two Masses every Sunday. In the four years we lived there, the priest who we loved and befriended asked me only once if I had ever thought of converting, but when I told him of my misgivings of being unwelcome at communion, he failed to offer me a reasonable rebuttal with "Well, you just have to understand that." and I continued along as usual, the only Non-Catholic in the group, NOT receiving Communion.
A correction in my training: I used to have an extreme temper problem. A seriously out of control temper that would flare up at anything that disturbed me to the point of embarrassment to my family. I will tell you now that God has His plan and He doesn’t work exclusively inside the Church. He hits you with anything that might get your attention and during a Franklin Planner training session (required by my new employer), the instructor, of no particular relation to the lesson plan said "The only person in the world who can make you angry or upset is yourself." I won’t preach on that idea, I’ll let you mull it over for yourself, but it washed over me like a warm ocean wave and I have seriously never been out of control angry at anyone since that day. God knew I needed that to prepare myself for accepting the peace and love of His teaching. He knew that I could not preach His word with that anger built up inside of me. I needed the peace of Christ, but first I needed the peace in my soul to accept His peace.
An Understanding: Let me say here that after being with a Catholic girl for thirty eight years by this time, I had assimilated and better understood much of the Church's teachings. I was beginning to see the truth in the Catholic Church but there was one sticking point, and this was a big one for me: Why was I not welcome at the Lord's Supper just because I didn’t have a membership card in the Catholic Church? In my Protestant upbringing, although we only celebrated communion once a month, anyone who walked in the door was more than welcome, even encouraged to participate. Catholic teaching seemed harshly exclusionary to me and that single fact kept me stubbornly out of the church for years.
A Bump in the Road: The company I was working for was sold and assimilated into the new parent company. in 2001, 350 families lost their livelihood. I was laid off on the Friday before the attack on the World Trade Center. The combination of events made it virtually impossible to find a new job and after several months of unemployment and fruitless searches we sold our house, cashed in our retirement fund (with a substantial penalty) and went on the road. We visited relatives and friends, stayed in Hotels, and did freelance graphics work from a laptop in the car. It was enough to earn a living but for all intents and purposes we were homeless for three years.
A Seemingly Unrelated Event: (And a whole separate story, see below) While on the road we bought our first new guitar since 1969, in fact two new guitars, an amazingly wonderful sounding but inexpensive new twelve string and an extremely expensive, top of the line Taylor Liberty Tree guitar because (my wife said) "it was beautiful." It is a piece of American history and it was the only time in our lives before or since that we could afford such an extravagance. These were the first truly fine, professional instruments I had ever owned and they were a joy to play. They inspired me to play more often, practice harder, learn more and improve my playing dramatically. Now at the risk of sounding perhaps enamored with material possession, I am convinced that God led me to those two instruments (at a music store in Wilmington, Delaware of all places) as part of His training for me to become a better musician and give me confidence in His musical gifts for leading worship and praise.
A Propitious Move: In 2003 we found ourselves in Upstate South Carolina. We began looking for a Church to attend and believe me, here in the Bible Belt there are more churches than gas stations and we had no shortage of denominations to choose from. On Christmas Eve, of 2003, my ever patient wife suggested that we go to the Christmas Vigil Mass at a Catholic church she had attended on a previous Sunday. It was fifteen miles from our home, much farther than the Baptist church just down the road, but again, I agreed because she is Catholic and this was her desire.
It was at this point that God clearly told me what to do. We sat in the front pew. The priest was a small man barely visible above the altar but something about him made you pay attention and realize that he was deep in holy prayer with every word he said. He was intense while soothing, his words had meaning and prayerfully conveyed the sacredness of the Mass. The music was provided by the Life Band, the music ministry for the youth Mass, so the music was upbeat and inspiring. Having never even discussed the idea of joining any particular church yet, my wife turned to me and said "You should join the choir."
Without thought or debate, when Mass was over, I went to the music director and asked if there was a place for me in the choir. I attended practice on the following Thursday night and haven’t sat in the knave for a regular Mass since December of 2003. In April of 2004 I finally securd a full time job and we settled in as regulars at St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Simpsonville, SC.
Another Seemingly Unrelated Event: I began attending blue grass jams around the Upstate and learned to play improvisationally with others. (Yes, I learned to play well with others. There I said it.) One evening I expressed to my wife that I might like to visit churches, retirement homes, shelters and the like and perform CHristian music to those who would listen. The following Saturday night I was at a local bluegrass jam when a gentleman approached me and said he was the leader of a Gospel trio, who had just lost a member and asked if I had ever considered performing Gospel music. Now by this time I was keenly aware that this was not a coincidence and immediately accepted his offer. I played with those two for three years, learning the ins and outs of leading worship and praise at churches, homes and shelters around the Upstate.
A Request: The youth Mass at our parish is at 6:00 pm Sunday evening, followed by the Life Night for the teens until 9:00. One evening after Mass, our parish Youth Minister asked if I would come over to the Parish Center and play an opening song for the teen Life Night. So I did, I remember the song I played that first night was "Trading My Sorrows" by Darrell Evans and I was impressed that the teens not only knew all the words but sang enthusiastically with hand motions and dancing. It was simply joyful. I continued for several months to play an opening song, then pack up and go home every Sunday night.
A Second Request: A group of adults from the Life Band had started a praise and worship band called "Fish on Fridays" They needed a male singer and they recruited me. We played coffee houses, teen centers and any venue we could find. Contemporary Christian music from Hillsong United, Skillet, Tom Booth, Matt Maher, Rich Mullins, Ike Ndolo, you name it, we rocked it.
Our life teen program has a Fall Retreat every year. A Friday to Sunday in September and Fish on Fridays provided live music all weekend long. So the first year I was in the band we trekked off to a camp in the hills of North Carolina, drums, amps, guitars, keyboard, sound systems, microphones and music.
We played all weekend, the teens sang along, danced, held hands, and swayed and praised together. I listened to the lessons prepared for the retreat and watched the teens pay rapt attention. I saw them play ice breaker games with enthusiasm, swim in the lake and toss footballs or Frisbees during free-time and do all the things teens do when gathered together for a weekend.
Saturday night we were asked to play a few softer, worshipful songs for Adoration. "Aderwhat?" I had never heard the word Adoration used to describe an event. I had no idea what it was. It is by definition never observed in a Protestant Church. It was briefly described to me and we picked out several songs to play as the teens knelt in complete silence for forty five minutes in front of a gold sunburst, cross, lampstand looking thing, with a communion wafer displayed in the center. "What a strange thing." I thought. (and pardon my blasphemy) "Who would have thought that fifty teenagers could stay that perfectly quiet for so long, just staring at a cracker?"
A Clear Message: Retreat officially ends after the 6:00 o’clock Mass, back at the church on Sunday evening. The bus discharged fifty teens and a dozen or so adults onto the grass in front of the Parish Center with all of their sleeping bags, backpacks, suit cases and other assorted gear at about five fifteen. We were lounging on the grass waiting for Mass to start and I asked a group scattered around me, "Did you guys have fun this weekend?"
Tired and barely audible responses, "Yeah."
"What was your favorite part?" (pridefully hoping they would say "the music.") But as one, without hesitation, these actual teens pictured here replied "Adoration."
The Seeds of Understanding!: There is something profoundly powerful going on here. The next thing I know, I’m staying for complete Life Nights. I play a version of the Hail Mary at the end of each night and if I’m not there, the teens will not disperse until they have sung an acapella version of it. Before long I found myself attending the Core planning meetings and I was soon a full official member of the Life Teen Core team, attending training retreats, the Diocesan Youth Conference, National Youth Ministry conferences and teaching at Life Nights for our teens.
A Request From Another Source: Our pastor decided he wanted a new Parish logo, and a branding guideline for all Parish communications. (in my secular job I am a graphic designer) He convened a day long retreat of the major committees and councils of the parish and charged them with creating a parish statement. I was assigned to observe the retreat and create a new logo for the parish, based on the results of the retreat. "Called by Christ, Growing in Faith, Serving with Love" evolved from the meeting. We arrived at a logo, that is basically a graphic representation of our Church architecture and I am informed by the Pastor that I am now on the Parish Communications Committee. Not asked, simply informed in such a way that I cannot refuse.
Apparently God now feels I am sufficiently ready. In the fall of 2009 Michael Cumby arrived at our parish for a three day mission of talks about the Catholic Faith. He is a former Protestant pastor, converted to Catholicism, whose mission is to tour the world, explaining the faith to believers and non-believers alike. He explains the teachings of the church and their basis in scripture, which for me and most other Protestants is extremely important since we generally put all our stock in the Bible. Towards the end of the third day he moves into his grand finale, the Eucharist. And BANG! After thirty-nine years of nudges, taps and outright devastating beatings, I got the message. I understood the transubstantiation, the need for reconciliation and a clean spirit to receive the perfect body and blood of our Savior. I get the scriptural reference to "This IS my body; this IS my blood." It came to me in a wave of perfect understanding that with a physical feeling of quiet and peace washed over me and instantly filled me with the Holy Spirit and a perfect resolve.
I walked out of the church, shook the hand of Mr. Cumby and told him (in front of my astonished wife) that he had convinced me, removed the final obstacle, helped me see the complete and final holy teaching of the Catholic Church, and that I was going to be confirmed. He was a gracious man and he kept in contact with me by e-mail, answering questions and generally showing interest in my conversion during the entire process. I went to our pastor, (the one who had drafted me into the communications committee) informed him of my decision and enrolled in the RCIA class already underway.
I received the Sacrament of Confirmation at Easter Vigil, on April 3rd, 2010.
After hearing my wife’s testimony that God told her not to worry about me, I am completely convinced that God created the two of us at conception, each for the other, and He sent that Catholic girl, the wife He created for me, from a different High School, who I would have never met otherwise, to that Presbyterian Youth Fellowship meeting in 1965 for the express purpose of leading me to the Catholic Church. Everything that happened in my life between then and now, was expressly planned to prepare me to accept that conversion, and be ready to teach and explain the truth of the Catholic faith to others who are following their own paths in God’s plan.
Having accepted His plan, and joined His church, I continue to act as a core member of the youth program, I have taught Apologetics workshops at the Diocesan Youth Conference as well as Music as Prayer workshops both at DYC and at adult Deanery workshops. I have held Apologetics classes for adults and for teens and have created my Apologetics reference web site “TheBibleCatholic.com”. I no longer sing in the Life Band but I lead music at parish ministry leader meetings and at our Alpha Weekend Away retreats, and at prayer vigils at the local abortion clinic.Fish on Fridays has long since driffted apart but one of my great continuing joys in Jesus has been leading music at our middle school and high school youth retreats and especially to offer up God's music during Adoration both at the retreats and in the Church occasionally during the rest of the year.
I am home. I am where I belong, and I am at peace. I believe I am where He wants me to be, where He was guiding me all these years, and I will take any opportunity to talk to anyone who might listen, about my joy in the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.
C. Michael Hager
The Liberty Tree Guitar
Now, just to explain this apparent contradictory materialism:
Before the American Revolution, the Colonists posted circulars about news and mistreatment by the crown, on Liberty Trees, or Liberty Poles, usually standing in the town squares of most villages and towns in the colonies. When war finally came, the British cut these trees down and burned them as cooking fires as an insult to the revolutionists.
When they mobilized to march on New York they bypassed Annapolis Maryland and the two-hundred-year-old Tulip Poplar Liberty Tree survived another two hundred and twenty-two years when Hurricane Floyd damaged it beyond repair and the city cut it down and hauled the wood to the dump.
A landscape architect witnessed the cutting and followed the trucks to the dump where he salvaged all of the wood and attempted to sell it at auction as pieces of American History.
Bob Taylor, of Taylor Guitars heard of this, flew out from California to inspect it, bought all of it and built four hundred acoustic guitars from it, of which we bought number 387.
My wife made me buy it; with hands on hips she said, "That's not a guitar, it's a family heirloom!" Another hindsight observation of her purpose in my life, since being the first professional quality instrument I had ever owned, the joy and ease of playing such a fine instrument led me to more practice, better skills and greater confidence in leading music as worship and prayer.
We can never comprehend God's plans, we can only try and pay attention, and usually only understand in hindsight, exactly what He had in mind all along.