30 years of gratitude to Protestants

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.

12 comments on “30 years of gratitude to Protestants

  1. Thanks for sharing this post… for validating my Protestant roots. I am a devout Catholic now but I arrived there because of the strong emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and devout discipline to studying God’s word.
    Once in daily Mass I asked the Lord why he waited so long to make me Catholic. I reasoned with him that I could have raised my children to be Catholic. I clearly heard him say to me that the path he had taken me on was by Divine Providence. Being a Protestant taught me how to know and study God’s word and his word was to my soul what now the Eucharist was to my spirit and the two are a good marriage!
    I am a Catholic but I have roots as a Protestant and as a result I do not have to cut myself off from my roots to be who I am today!

    • Pat says:

      Thank you for sharing. An active Catholic, I am sometimes jealous of the personal relationship that my Protestant friends have with Our Lord. He has manifested Himself to them, but so far He only guides me through others. I am truly blessed, but would like some of what they have.

      • A holy jealousy! May He reveal Himself to you, Pat, as he knows best suits you. 99.9% of the way He guides me is through others, through the ordinary circumstances and means of life. Those who follow Him thus are more blessed, according to His own words! John 20:29

    • Yes, I could not agree more. Thank you for this testimony! Thank you for being Catholic, in that way. Blessings, Incarnate Word Live

  2. Maureen B.M. says:

    Tom,
    Praise God that 30 years ago you gave your
    “Yes” to God and never looked. When you know
    the truth you want to shout it out to all who will listen.
    You have done that and much more!
    You are an amazingly gifted person. You have made a difference for the good in many many people’s lives.
    Continue to do what you do so well … saving souls!
    God Bless You Always.

  3. Bill says:

    My story mirrors yours very closely. Also a fallen away Catholic, who then subsituted a New Age type theology. After several encounters with Evangelical Christians, who I condesceningly dismissed, the nickel finally dropped on Christmas eve 1981, when Jesus chose to reveal Himself to me. After about 15 years growing in Christ in Evangelicism I retunred to Catholic Church, eternally thankful for God’s Providential journey.

  4. Having joined the Catholic Church after many years of school and upbringing in a Protestant tradition, I must also sing praise to the gifts that influence brought into my life. Learning songs from my earliest age, Jesus Loves Me, What A Friend We Have in Jesus and Jesus Paid It All taught me about Jesus. But where was He? I found him in Mother Church – in the Sacraments – in the power of oil in Confirmation, in his merciful ear in Reconciliation and OF COURSE in the sweet taste of the Eucharist. The object of my song has become an encounter with the Person. Amen.

  5. I am glad Chris knocked on your door 30 years ago. God does work in strange ways sometimes.

    Sr Mary Assumpta

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