AdventWord: Night

December 5, 2018

On Sunday, April 3, 2016, I wanted to die. I was lying in bed, at the end of my rope, after long years of depression, angst, substance abuse, and trauma. This is not the place to go into all the details, but I was at my bottom. Faithless, miserable, and unable to get out of bed, all I could yearn for was oblivion.

Advent Word Night EpiscopalOutside, early in the morning, I could hear my wife and 18-month-old daughter playing. Their laughter floated up to me through the bedroom window. I tried to get up, but I could not. It suddenly dawned on me that I could not go on. I had come to the point where my own will was no longer sufficient. It was not enough. I could not even lift the covers.

I started crying out. Cursing. Cursing God. I let him know just how fed up with it I was. I cursed God’s inscrutability. I cursed his ambiguity. I cursed his silence. Then, when I ran out of curses, I started pleading. “God, please, God, please. I can’t do this. I can’t do this any longer. Please, God, please. God, I want to die, and I can’t do this.”

And in that moment of complete desolation, rage, and surrender, in that moment of standing naked and vulnerable before my Creator, something happened. There was a flash of light. I saw the face of Christ. And I was healed.

All at once it felt like a thousand knots were undone within me. I could breathe again. I got out of bed, looked around, and realized that something was different.

I always told my mother, a woman of considerable faith, that when God decided to show himself to me I would believe. Until then, I would remain Thomas, asking to see the wounds in my Lord’s hands, feet, and side. Without such affirmation, so I told my mother, I would never believe.

April 3, 2016, was Low Sunday, the Sunday after Easter. The day our Lord appeared to Thomas. The day he appeared to me.

On April 6, I went to St. Mark’s, Springfield, the Episcopal congregation in my town, and I spoke about my life to two of the most loving people I have ever met, the Revs. Betty Berlenbach and Victor Horvath. I told them where I had been, where I had come from, and what had happened. Betty told me that what I experienced was called Consolation Without Prior Cause. Victor said that was just a fancy way of saying I had experienced Grace. They both told me I was loved, and they told me I was forgiven. They told me, whether I knew it or not, that I had always been a child of God. And I always would be.

[The Green Mountain Witness team, of which Robert Barton is a member, is dedicated to equipping Episcopalians in the Diocese of Vermont to tell out the Good News of Jesus in their communities. For more information on this extraordinary work, as well as pointers on how to start a similar team in your region, email Titus Presler at tituspresler@post.harvard.edu]

I was baptized on Pentecost of that year. The next year, again on Low Sunday, I was confirmed. The sermon our good Bishop preached that day was on living the Resurrection Life. I listened with tears streaming down my cheeks. For since that defining day when the Lord came to me, I have given my life to him, and I have never been the same. I was saved. I was redeemed. I was resurrected.

And my family life has been resurrected as well. It took me a couple of days to share my experience with my wife. I did not know what to say. How could I express my experience of the Living Christ? How could I describe the changes that were wrought? When I was finally able to articulate the experience, I waited for my wife’s response, wondering if she would think me crazy. She smiled, and said, “Finally! It’s about time!” She had kept her own faith a secret all the years we had been together, quietly praying that I would come to the light she already knew. Today, we worship together, we pray together, and we raise our children in the light of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We are all bound more deeply because of our shared commitment to faith.

Jesus Christ has the power to save – I know that from what Jesus has done in my life. We could say that redemption is his stock and trade. What happened on the Cross is a cosmic reality, which takes place in the eternity that lies outside time. God’s saving act, the path through the darkness which leads to resurrection and eternal life, is a grace that saves us here and now. It is not fire insurance. It is not a ticket we punch to get to Heaven. How could it be? For the Kingdom of God is within us.

And that is the message we must bring to a hurting world. We must go and tell it to all: The Kingdom of God has come near. We must invite others to live in this Kingdom with us, here and now, as redeemed and justified beings. This is the meaning of evangelism for us and the Church. We need to spread the Gospel to all creation, making disciples of all nations. This is the path to peace. This is the saving Word that we must speak.

[The “Spread the Word” series of evangelism articles by team members in the diocese’s biweekly “The Mountain” is available at http://diovermont.org/communications.php.]

As I walk down the streets of Springfield this is what I see: Heroin addicts shaking in the early mornings. Single mothers pushing strollers with the life drained out of their eyes. Old men and women walking alone to their subsidized apartments. Drunks retching and dry heaving as they try to light their first cigarette. Young, angry, and frightened men and women searching for whatever body will willingly have them. I see poverty, decay, and desperation. This is the world I inhabit. This is the world that we inhabit. Like Paul in Macedonia, we are surrounded by suffering souls who cannot bear any longer the weight of an empire which only seeks to use them and discard them. They need something more. They deserve something more.

Jesus Christ has the power to save, and our world is in desperate need of saving. When we go out to do the work that God sends us to do we are not so much evangelists, or missionaries, or even disciples, though of course, we are all those things – no, we are healers, and the medicine we have to offer is the life transforming love of God in Christ. I have experienced this love, and I know you have experienced it too. This love is not something that we can keep for ourselves, dangling from our neck like a crucifix. This love must be shared. This love must be a healing balm that we give to those whose souls burn with the fires of a fallen world. If we don’t do it, who will?

And about church: I chose the Episcopal Church because my faith is Catholic. It is Universal. And as far as I can see, the Episcopal Church is the only church around living out that Universality. Where else can a young person go to practice their faith in the fullness of Tradition while affirming the LGBTQ community? Where else can they practice the fullness of the Faith while affirming the leadership of women? Where else can they go and affirm the beauty of other religious paths? Where else can you love Jesus without sacrificing reason, science, poetry, and open mindedness?

The world needs the Episcopal Church. I need the Episcopal Church. And God is not done with the Episcopal Church. Christ tells us, “This is my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Let us rejoice and be glad in this! Let us believe it. Then let us go out and do the work of the Church in the world.

Jesus Christ has the power to save. Let us bring this exceedingly Good News to every person and creature that walks on God’s good earth! Let us sing it! Let us preach it! Let us live it! Let us not be afraid to look foolish. Let us not be afraid to be vulnerable. Let us not be afraid to share the Good News that Christ is Risen!

Our Lord asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” And our Lord asks the same question of us. I am not sure of much, but I am sure of this: We cannot keep the answer to ourselves.

Robert Barton, a layperson of St. Mark’s, Springfield, is a writer, student, stay-at-home father, and member of the Green Mountain Witness team. This piece originally ran in the June 15, 2018 edition of The Mountain, a publication of the Episcopal Church in Vermont. Read the original issue here.

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