January 3, 2017. Liturgical memorial of the Most Holy Name of Jesus
Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction … We can be witnesses only if we know Christ first hand, and not only through others—from our own life, from our personal encounter with Christ. Finding him really in our life of faith, we become witnesses and can contribute to the novelty of the world, to eternal life. — Pope Benedict XVI
On the evening of Tuesday, February 24, 1987 the course of my life was forever changed. While I was an undergraduate at Florida State University, a young man from Apalachicola, Florida named Chris came to my dorm room to speak with me. I knew him from an English class, and we had chatted a number of times before and after class about common interests. But this night he came to my dorm room to take a really big risk: to share with me the Gospel of Jesus as a member of the Evangelical Campus Crusade for Christ.
I had given up on my own Catholic faith on every level by that point in my life. In fact, going to church made me sick. I despised it. So when he came into my room carrying a tract detailing the Four Spiritual Laws dear to Evangelicalism, I was gleefully ready to pour venom and ridicule on this kind young man. I was the master of biting sarcasm. But he persevered and, facing my interspersed joking-cutting remarks, fitfully took me through the simplistic stick figure drawings of the Four Laws and explained to me (1) that I was a sinner, (2) Jesus died for me, (3) Jesus loved me and (4) He wanted to be my personal Lord and Savior. Chris even sang for me, off-key, one stanza of a song about Jesus. Wish I could remember it. It all sounded so silly and absurd.
But something was happening inside of me. In fact, by the end of his brief time with me it was so intense and disconcerting that I ushered him out of the room hastily under the pretext that I had to meet up with my girlfriend to study. He left me alone, but I knew I was not alone. The room suddenly changed and everything became different — maybe I could say in hindsight, my room became otherworldly. And then (without trying to describe the specifics) Jesus revealed Himself to me in that room. Absolutely shattering. And I knew somehow that He was revealing Himself as Almighty, as the creator and sustainer of all things. It was like I was ushered into John 1:1-3. Jesus was in that room under the form of what Eastern Christians call the Pantocrator, the “Omnipotent One.” I even touched the wall next to me and felt — somehow — He was sustaining its molecules in existence at that exact moment. Utterly chilling.
Then as suddenly as it began, it all ended. But for me, its end was my beginning. My whole life, I knew, was never — never — to be the same. My girlfriend summed it up well when I later shared the experience with her: “You’ve become a freak.”
Yes, a freak of nature and of grace.
My whole reason for sharing this today: This singular grace was given to me through the vivid, real, sincere, bold, personal, simple, focused faith of an Evangelical Christian. He cut through all the thickets that my life-experience had build around my experience of God by giving me a raw introduction to the person of Jesus. Solus Christus. Christ alone. Yes, I later came to disagree with aspects of Evangelical Protestant theology and wholly embraced my Catholic faith. But the fact is, the earthquake of God — Christ — raised me from death through this young man, Chris, who was fully animated by the Evangelical tradition. It was a gift of Providence that has marked my whole life and theological vocation. And after 30 years I have a very long tale to tell of my gratitude to Protestant Christians of every denominational persuasion.
Now and again in this 500th year of Luther’s evangelical revolution, I will write of my indebtedness to various Protestant brothers and sisters over the years whom God has placed in my path. And there are many! Yes, there is a theological dialogue and debate to be had in this year, but there is also need for a serious confession of the extraordinary good God effects deep in the “schismatic” fissures that cut through the Body of Christ. And there, maybe, He pours His choisest wine precisely to heal those fissures.
All of this came to me last weekend as I listened to this popular Christian song by Hillsong, called Oceans. As with so many songs in the Evangelical tradition, it drips with the divine-human encounter, prayer, and the quest for an intimate, transformative and direct experience of the God of Jesus Christ. Though I am not a personal fan of most pop evangelical Christian music, there are some that really speak deeply to me. This is one.
May God reward that young man, Chris, who risked my ridicule 30 years ago. And may He give to us Catholics the same bold spirit that desires nothing more than to bring Jesus to a broken, cynical and alienated world. Amen.