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Be Not Afraid

Per Saelid
February 8, 2021 No Comments

As a young man, I loved listening to Keith Green’s contemporary Christian album So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt. I laughed at the foolishness of the Israelites he described, and couldn’t fathom how God’s Chosen People could experience such miraculous encounters and then fearfully refuse to follow their Savior. Little did I know that decades later, after having experienced many wondrous revelations of God, I would similarly fail to follow.

A Lutheran Upbringing

I was raised by loving parents who in 1963 presented me for infant baptism at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Seattle, Washington. It was a great gift. My parents, both immigrants from Norway, did not regularly practice their faith. In the first decade of my life, I can recall going to church only a time or two with my parents, usually at the invitation of their friends. Even so, I distinctly remember as a young child having an awareness of, and attraction to, a Presence far greater than myself.

At the suggestion of a believing Christian friend, my dad began to take me and my siblings to Sunday school when I was about 10 years old. He would pack us in the car, drive fifteen minutes to the nearest Lutheran church, and leave us there. My first Christian formation, presented by kind Sunday school teachers whose names I no longer remember, planted seeds that began to grow.

I don’t know the exact age, but sometime during my early teens, I realized the Lord was calling me to come closer. I felt an inexpressible love for God who, by virtue of my Lutheran formation, I now knew as Jesus. The attraction was so strong that I committed my life to serve Christ. In my Lutheran tradition, that translated for me into a desire to become a pastor.

Nearly simultaneous to that desire, a missionary pastor started a Lutheran Church nearer our home. He was very kind, and upon hearing of my interest, he invited me to become more involved. I served as an acolyte and lectored at the church and was invited to sit in on pastoral meetings. At the same time, in my private devotional life, I fell in love with the Bible and began devouring it, reading through its entirety, and marveling at its mystery.

Introverted by nature, my high school years couldn’t pass quickly enough for me. A good student, I proudly thought I was ready for college, and having decided to become a pastor, I also decided that I would go to a Lutheran college. And so I did, traveling halfway across the country. My first year of college proved to be quite a shock. I was surprised to find so little evident faith. My first religion class was taught by an apparent non-believer, who within a few sessions had used the science of Higher Criticism to tear down the frail faith of most of my classmates. Only an adult student and I challenged the professor’s weighty pronouncements. My apologetics weren’t perfect, but I knew Scripture well enough by then to push back on some of the basics.

Not finding the faith I’d come looking for, and being surrounded by worldly temptation, I fell into depression and wondered how I could so miserably fail in my attempt to follow Jesus. I returned home after my first year, humbled and quite depressed, still desiring to follow the Lord with all my heart, but realizing I didn’t know how. God seemed so distant.

A God Who Reveals

One weekend during summer break, I was alone at home reading a fictional book by C.S. Lewis. In the story, Lewis described a man surrounded by the presence of God and in direct communication with his creator. The passage resonated with me, stirring a longing deep within my soul. I offered up a simple but very earnest prayer: “That’s the kind of relationship I want with you, Lord.”Suddenly, God was in the room with me, or perhaps it would be better said, I was in God. The experience was far beyond words. Share on X

Suddenly, God was in the room with me, or perhaps it would be better said, I was in God. The experience was far beyond words. Physically, it felt as if a cool electrical wind was blowing from infinity to infinity as it passed through every cell of my being. Psychologically, the peace of God enveloped me, instantly driving away my depression. Spiritually, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God had revealed Himself to me in an undeniable way. The entire experience seemed outside of time, though I think it lasted only moments.

This encounter with God became a pivot point for my entire faith life. In the Lutheran church I attended, discussion about the Holy Spirit was rare, at least in any concrete personal manner. My pastor, a wonderful man, was not comfortable with charismatic experiences. But, as always, the Lord provides.

The following Monday, I had a dental appointment scheduled. In the morning, the phone rang. It was the dentist’s office. They had an emergency to deal with and needed to reschedule my appointment to another day. Just minutes after I hung up, the phone rang again. It was my pastor. He said someone who’d committed to assist a contractor in building an addition to the church had cancelled at the last minute. He asked if I was available to come to the church that morning to help. I happily noted my calendar was now free for the day and said I’d be there shortly. After the call ended, I wondered at the coincidence.

I immediately liked the contractor. He was about 30 years old and filled with radiant joy. He engaged me in Christian conversation as we worked, and it wasn’t long before I shared my recent encounter with God. His face lit up and he began sharing Scriptures that explained what I’d experienced. Everything he taught seemed new to me even though I’d read the Bible often. He spoke of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, revelations from God, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and more. Our friendship grew quickly, and he invited me to go to church with him.

A Non-Denominational Turn

I was impressed by the size of his church, many times my own, with seats for several hundred, all of which were filled. It was an Assemblies of God congregation. The music was good, and I appreciated their enthusiasm for worship. The greatest memory I have of that first visit is witnessing the spiritual gifts being exercised, particularly the gift of prophesy. There were three pronouncements given at that service. The first two, spoken loudly so all could hear, seemed like nice words but carried no power for me. Then a third person prophesied, and it was like God, in the midst of the large crowd, was speaking only to me. The prophesy tore at my heart, convicting me of my pride, an interior hardness that separated me from grace. I wept inconsolably, so much so that I think I embarrassed those seated near me.

As the summer came to a close, feeling quite empowered by the Holy Spirit, I decided to not return to my previous college. I enrolled in a Lutheran Bible college instead. My mind was awakened by orthodox Biblical scholarship taught by committed Christians. What a joy it was to dive into Scripture. My schedule was filled with class titles like The Pentateuch; Isaiah and Jeremiah; and The Gospel of John. I appreciated the knowledge I gained, but also noticed that each professor had his own interpretive lens. Being newly baptized with the Holy Spirit, I was looking for more insight into my own experience. Some professors were happy to address the subject in Scripture, while others shied away from it or rejected it.

During these years, my heart continued to open to the working of God. In addition to the formal Lutheran liturgy which occurred regularly in the school chapel, I joined a small group of students in frequent, informal, Spirit-filled worship. We would gather in dorm rooms, and later, as the group grew, we filled larger spaces on campus. We usually met in the evening, after all the school staff had departed. We were exuberant, joyfully experiencing the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

At this school, I also encountered the first overtly anti-Catholic pronouncement I can remember. Attending a Lutheran Bible college carried with it a requirement to take a class on Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism. The professor who taught the class was convinced that Martin Luther had been Christianity’s savior, freeing believers from the yoke of Catholicism. One day, he pounded the podium vigorously, shouting, “The Pope is the anti-Christ, and the Catholic Church is the whore of Babylon!” He was, of course, just echoing the teachings that Martin Luther delivered long ago.

Despite the anti-Catholic pronouncement, Catholicism wasn’t really anywhere on my radar during this time. I wanted to go deeper in the Spirit and earnestly sought the Lord in prayer. I was drifting away from Lutheranism in my heart and growing suspicious of institutional religion in all its forms, particularly those I perceived as closed to the working of the Holy Spirit. My fellowship expanded to include a circle of men and women in the Seattle area who’d left their respective denominations to worship solely in their homes. We took seriously the foundations of Protestantism, that each man was the priest of his own home and that each was an authority unto himself. We worshipped together in a loving environment, studied Scripture together, exercised the spiritual gifts we’d received, and emphasized the teaching that all believers must learn to recognize the voice of God.I was still a young man, often driven by impulse, unformed in faith from my youth, not properly discerning the shortfalls of my own nature, mixing God’s desires with my own, and even more foolishly at times, projecting my own will as… Share on X

But listening to God while not recognizing any authority can be dangerous. While I was blessed with some amazing encounters, I was still a young man, often driven by impulse, unformed in faith from my youth, not properly discerning the shortfalls of my own nature, mixing God’s desires with my own, and even more foolishly at times, projecting my own will as God’s. This was never done with malice. I was zealous for the Lord, but because I lacked humility, I was not open to correction. I subsequently stumbled awkwardly through several errors. But the Lord, ever merciful, always picked me up and set me back on the path.I was looking for charismatic fellowship to deepen my walk with God, but God was calling me to solitary prayer, a type of prayer that demanded personal discipline and sacrifice. Share on X

One of the many positive outcomes from my time at Bible college was that I discerned that I was not called to be a pastor. I recognized that my gifting was towards the prophetic and teaching, and my desire was to know the truth. As I continued my studies at other schools, I left the Lutheran Church in practice and simultaneously committed myself to strengthening my fellowship with my loose confederation of charismatic friends. We loved and encouraged one another, especially towards deepening our relationship with Christ in community worship. But for me, seeking encounters with God in a group setting proved unsatisfactory in the end, leading me to spiritual laziness. I was looking for charismatic fellowship to deepen my walk with God, but God was calling me to solitary prayer, a type of prayer that demanded personal discipline and sacrifice.

A Deeper Way

My first substantive encounter with the Catholic Church occurred in 1986, by means of a saint, in the basement library of the Methodist university I was attending to finish my bachelor’s degree. I was perusing the religion section for weekend reading material. Seemingly hidden among hundreds of other books, I noticed one in a tattered black binding. I pulled it out and examined it, wondering about its strange title and unfamiliar author: Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. I flipped it open and began to read. I was struck with awe. The author’s words were stunningly beautiful and resonated with truth. As a too self-confident, Spirit-filled young man, I already thought myself “deep.” Just a few paragraphs of St. John of the Cross’ writing convinced me otherwise. I immediately embraced this Catholic mystic, though strangely enough, I never really considered it relevant that he was Catholic.

God then led me on an unexpected career path. I’d seriously weighed graduate studies in theology but instead felt called to serve my country. Following my graduation, a door opened for me to be commissioned as an officer in the United States Air Force. After my commissioning and training as an intelligence professional, I was shipped off to the Philippines. It was there that I met the love of my life, Maribel, who’d left the Catholic Church at sixteen years of age to become a devout Seventh-day Adventist. While our spiritual heritages were quite different, we had a common love of Christ. Maribel joined me on my non-denominational journey. We were soon married and blessed with two beautiful girls and joyfully faced the many challenges of a young family.The military life is one of mobility. Friends are passing, and Christian identity is ecumenical by demand. Share on X

The military life is one of mobility. Friends are passing, and Christian identity is ecumenical by demand. A common facility is used for worship by varieties of religions and denominations. This environment suited me well, as I saw no need to submit myself to any particular religious authority. Maribel and I prayed regularly, were faithful to daily devotions, studied diligently, and fellowshipped with other Christians, mostly in our own home. I continued to drift farther from mainline Protestantism. It became increasingly evident to me that a spirit of rebellion underpinned Protestantism’s beginnings and modern denominationalism. Their schismatic nature seemed inconsistent with God’s revelation. Unfortunately, while the shortcomings of others seemed increasingly apparent, I remained oblivious to the same spirit of insubordination rooted firmly in my own soul, as well as in the form of Christianity I was practicing.It became increasingly evident to me that a spirit of rebellion underpinned Protestantism’s beginnings and modern denominationalism. Their schismatic nature seemed inconsistent with God’s revelation. Share on X

A few years later, in my early thirties, we were stationed in Guam, a small, isolated island in the vast Pacific Ocean. It was here that God would first open my eyes to the Catholic Church.

In prayer, I continued asking God to reveal Himself more profoundly to me. One day, as I was driving through the city of Agana, I saw a small Catholic bookstore. Thinking it might offer something of interest, like the Christian bookstores so popular then in the United States, I stopped and went in. I was a bit bewildered by the unfamiliar Catholic sacramentals that filled the store. A religious sister in a habit approached me and asked if she could assist. I told her that I was looking for something to read but not sure what they might carry. She asked me what authors I liked. I told her John of the Cross. Her eyes opened wide, and she smiled knowingly. She recommended a book by an Anglican author named Evelyn Underhill titled Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. I didn’t know it at the time, but the book, written in the early 1900’s, remains one of the best ever written on Christian mysticism. I happily purchased it. Evelyn Underhill’s writings exposed me to a wide array of Christian mystics. I found myself more and more drawn to the substance and orthodoxy of those who were Catholic. I began to purchase books by Catholic mystics such as Bonaventure, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, Brother Lawrence, and more. My prayer was to go deeper into the Spirit, and these Catholic writers were showing me the way.

Another encounter that opened my eyes to the Church was with a co-worker. He was the first Catholic I’d encountered who was comfortable sharing his faith. He and I had both read Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, which opened a dialogue. It wasn’t long before I realized that my Catholic friend posed a theological problem for me. He was Catholic, and yet at the same time, I recognized him as a brother in Christ. In my mind, it seemed a contradiction.

The witness of my co-worker soon challenged me to reflect on what I believed about Catholicism, an understanding delivered to me by non-Catholics. I wanted to know what Catholics themselves taught. Thankfully, it was 1994, and Pope John Paul II had recently promulgated the new Catechism of the Catholic Church. I purchased one and read through it, fascinated by its spiritual depth and its Biblical heft. It was the most beautiful summation of Christian thought I’d ever encountered. After reflecting on all that I’d read, I came to a glad conclusion: today’s Catholics were Christians, too. Recognizing that, I also began to realize that the lives and teachings of the Catholic mystics I so admired were inseparable from the identity, authority, and teaching of the Catholic Church.

After reading the Catechism and other Catholic material, my intellectual barriers had fallen to a sufficient degree that I could hear the Holy Spirit leading me in a new way. I continued to pray, “I want to go deeper, Lord.” And now I could hear God gently speaking in the depth of my heart: “I want you to go deeper, too. Right this way.” To my great shock, I realized he was leading me to the Catholic Church.

And I said “no.”I compromised my faith, thinking I could live with my feet in both worlds, Catholic in my spirituality and Protestant in my community. Share on X

Lukewarm Christianity

To be fair, I didn’t phrase it quite that way. My response was really more: “I do want to go deeper with you, Lord. But let’s do it my way instead.” In fear, I turned away from the invitation to enter the Church. I was like the Israelites I’d once mocked. I’d experienced miracles in my life and had been gifted with profound encounters with God, but when the Lord invited me to enter a new place of promise, fear stopped me in my tracks. Other than my co-worker and his wife, I personally knew no other living Catholics whom I admired. And I dearly treasured my Christian friends whom I suspected would reject the path to which I was being called. So I compromised my faith, thinking I could live with my feet in both worlds, Catholic in my spirituality and Protestant in my community.

Turning away from God’s invitation had a profound effect on my spiritual life. I still loved God, but the Lord was in truth no longer first in my life, even though I said He was. Like the Israelites, having fearfully turned away from the Promised Land, I began wandering in a spiritual desert. I still periodically experienced God’s miracles, and the Lord still used me to encourage others in their Christian faith, but my interior life stagnated. Over the next twenty years, my double-minded faith slowly withered, and sin crept into aspects of my life. Fruitful fellowship shriveled up, reading of Scripture became like chewing on sand, and prayer felt like a pointless labor.

Humility Through Suffering

Then tragedy struck our family. In 2014, Maribel’s mother died unexpectedly in our home. Maribel was devastated and suffered from post-traumatic stress. In her agony, I could see that she was looking to me for spiritual consolation, some manner of finding meaning in her suffering. And I, because of the poor state of my own spiritual life, had absolutely nothing of real value to offer her.

One day, as I sat in my office at home, looking out the window and humbly reflecting on my ongoing struggles, I asked the Lord, “Why is it like this?”  Immediately, what felt like scales fell off my eyes, and I could see with perfect clarity the moment twenty years earlier when I’d said “no” to the Lord’s invitation to become Catholic. And then God spoke to me, the words ringing like a bell in my head: “Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.” (cf. Heb 3:15).

The revelation crushed me. In an instant I realized that I’d been lying to the Lord, to myself, and everyone else about the true state of my spiritual life. I’d been living separated from God for decades. I wept. I also immediately asked the Lord to forgive me. After composing myself, I turned to my computer and searched for a nearby Catholic church. I wasn’t sure how to become Catholic, but I was determined to find out. After getting the contact information, I sent an email to the parish asking for assistance.

Next, I knew I needed to tell Maribel. She was in the living room reading a devotional. I told her I had something important to share. I said that I was going to become Catholic. I explained that I’d been disobedient for a long time, and I wasn’t going to remain that way any longer. I also said that I would love for her to join me, but I wouldn’t pressure her. I asked her to pray about it.

Maribel was stunned. Her first comment was, “This goes back to Guam, doesn’t it?” She’d known! And her first thought as a fallen-away Catholic was, “Why would I want to return to the Catholic Church? I learned nothing there.” She’d been born into a culturally Catholic Filipino family where Mass was attended, but the life of Christ wasn’t visibly lived out at home. Her first real encounters with the Bible and Christians living a committed life of faith had come through Protestants. But Maribel didn’t reject my invitation. Instead, she took it to prayer, and to her surprise she felt a clear call to join me. We went to our first Mass the next weekend.

The Mass was vaguely familiar to me. My distant Lutheran upbringing was liturgical, so I knew the basic rubrics. I don’t know that I got much out of that first Mass, but for me that was irrelevant. I knew I was being obedient, and I was committed to faithfully following God’s call.My prayer life was suddenly dynamic, as I discovered and embraced the ancient Catholic practice of Lectio Divina. Share on X

For the next four months, God gifted me with an amazing spiritual high. The Scriptures came alive again, and I read through the Bible anew with an additional seven books to celebrate. My prayer life was suddenly dynamic, as I discovered and embraced the ancient Catholic practice of Lectio Divina. I read through the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church again. I read the Apostolic Fathers and many of the early Church Fathers. I embraced the disciplines of fasting and tithing, and so much more. It seemed to me that God, in his love and mercy, caught me up in four months on all that I’d missed out on in the past twenty years.

Eventually, I had to come down from the mountaintop, and a month later, RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) started. Intellectually, I probably didn’t need to attend the program, but it served an important purpose. I was blessed to patiently and humbly walk the journey with others. Maribel discovered that she’d never been confirmed, so she attended alongside me. Her faith was profoundly renewed. My mom, a Lutheran, and my stepfather, a baptized non-practicing Catholic who’d never been confirmed, also came to RCIA. It was a joyful journey that culminated in a 2016 Easter Vigil Mass that was for us a truly family event.

The Journey Continues

Entering the Church Jesus founded and surveying its endless mystery, from sacrament and saints to suffering and scandal, is at times almost overwhelming. For me, living as a Catholic is a glorious challenge, a continuing revelation, and a life of Spirit-filled joy for which I’m forever grateful. Recalling that St. John of the Cross was an important guide for me along my journey to the Catholic Church, I live today within the richness of the Carmelite contemplative tradition, a tradition that points me along the way of humility and love, virtues of which I’m ever in more need. My prayer today remains that of my youth: “I want to go deeper, Lord.” And every day, the Lord continues to answer: “I want you to go deeper too. Right this way.”

Per Saelid

PER SAELID is a retired Air Force officer living near Sequim, Washington. He worships at St. Joseph Catholic Church and assists with parish Religious Education programs, is part of the RCIA team, and serves with the Knights of Columbus. Per is also a member of the Little Flower of the Olympics Lay Carmelite Community.

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