By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 9 March 2013 in The Madera Tribune
Note: This column was not published on the intended date.
Today Catholic cardinals of the world have gathered in Rome for an event of historic proportions.
It is so. My birthday has arrived.
Admittedly many, most likely all, of those religious leaders might be more preoccupied with choosing a new bishop of Rome, and the significance of this day marking my coming out of the womb is lost to them.
I can respect that.
So what have I learned in my 39 years of life beneath the lights of sun and moon? Much and little, I'm sure. As I flip through the pages of my life a few years stand out as the most transformative: 1992, 1995, 2000-2003, and possibly 2011-2012.
By the way, I'm literally turning the physical pages of an autobiography I wrote in 1998, although of course I can only see the more recent episodes of my history within my memory.
What did those years have in common? Suffering and the free gift of God's help to change for the better (also known as grace).
As I'm a firmer believer in recycling, I will quote my own words written in '98 to provide one example: "By the end of the summer of 1994, two hometown friends expressed interest in a relationship, which left me pleasantly undecided. But soon another woman absorbed my attention.
"That August at Drake (University), I overheard someone talking about their Confirmation after the close of an Intervarsity (non-denominational Protestant) Bible study I attended, and I eagerly joined her conversation thinking she was Catholic. After a month of friendship, we began officially dating and that lovely Iowan, Amy, slowly wooed and enraptured my heart.
"At first, I resisted taking the relationship seriously since Amy was Lutheran, but by Christmastime I had resolved that issue in my heart and told my parents of my relationship. To my surprise, they had no problem with it and expressed trust in my judgment. Recognizing the difficulties of the situation, we still agreed that true love and the state of one's relationship with God was of paramount importance in a potential marriage.
"Ironically, my life soon revolved more around my relationship with Amy than my relationship with God. In the late spring of 1995, Amy visited my family in California for over a week before returning to Iowa to work as a Bible camp counselor.
"My feelings for her had grown deeply over the past year, and I began to ponder what I would do next summer when I graduated from Drake University. By mid-summer I had talked privately with my father about the possibility of my moving to Iowa after graduation, but I remained torn over whether I should…"
Alas, it was not to be. That summer I worked two jobs simultaneously yet still couldn't muster the needed funds to return to college that autumn. By September I foolishly held three jobs at the same time. My stress put pressure on my relationship, which already had serious cracks of its own, and she wisely broke it off in September.
I quit one of my jobs and spent the extra time praying to God for Amy's well being. Yet I simultaneously hardened my heart towards God, blaming him for my fate, and became deeply depressed for more than a month.
But in those months God opened my eyes and renewed me in hope. As I later wrote to a friend in March 1996: "I have never endured a deeper and greater sorrow than losing Amy. Yet of all the things Amy ever did for me, the most blessed and beneficial action… was (to) break up with me. In that… she has managed to best pierce the layers and layers of self-deception I had surrounded myself (with) far more deeply than anyone ever has…
"This didn't occur overnight, nor has the process finished. So many days I have felt great remorse and conviction at the realization of the depths of my sinfulness and I think, 'At last, the surgeon's knife has excised the last of the cancer.' Yet so many days the knife has cut still deeper, another set of scales fall from my eyes, and my blindness lightens just a little more. Perhaps I resemble a (peeling) onion far more than Saul of Tarsus."
Naturally that was not the end of my journey. I could tell of similar heartbreaks and growth in those other years: 1992, 2000-2003, etc. While some with steady progress may move, I travel on by leaps and falls marked by pain and its (and my) redemption, the greatest gift life and God have given.