WATCHING GOD REDEEM
Celia Barnett responded to my request for an interview with hesitancy. She said the thought of having people read what she said was disconcerting. It made her quite uncomfortable just to consider it.
I mentioned that often we are able to comfort with the comfort we’ve been comforted with, and that others could be helped by her reflections on her experiences. In particular, I was thinking about how she dealt with her husband Jamie leaving to serve in the Gulf War, his later U.S. congressional campaign, and her son Owen’s bout with chronic fatigue syndrome.
A couple of days later she came to my office at the Journal and sat down on the other side of the desk. Her brow was slightly knit in a frown.
Q: Do you still feel uncomfortable?
A: Yes. Part of the reason is I feel like God has very specific things in mind for our witness and to misuse that would grieve him. And I know in my zealousness at times I have overstepped the boundaries and said too much. I have a fear of sharing in a way that would not be appreciated and of not letting God do the work. That’s something I tend to do.
Q: What is your religious background?
A: My parents were Methodists who changed to the Episcopal Church. My father’s been dead about 13 years. Before he died my brother and I told him that one thing we remembered was a dark time when he struggled with his belief. We both told him that had a major influence on our spiritual development. He was surprised. I learned knowing God is a longtime process, and it’s okay to have doubts and dark times.
Q: Did you ever go through a period of being away from the church?
A: As an adult I haven’t been away from the church but I’ve had something that knocked me down. It changed my faith in God. I’d thought I was a strong person but now I know I’d never been tested. When Jamie was called to Saudi Arabia, it didn’t taken long at all for the strength of my personality to run out.
Q: What happened?
A: I was real afraid, but my church and this community became the body of Christ for me. To be the recipient of hundreds and hundreds of people’s prayers … it was a phenomenal thing. It’s hard to describe the strength I knew I had but wasn’t mine.
Q: What do you mean?
A: It was like a peace that surrounded me that I knew was not of my own making. The way I describe it in retrospect is that my faith wasn’t strong enough to make it without others. It was the faith of this community that I was leaning on.
Q: Were you depressed?
A: No. That was what was so amazing. Somehow I understood I couldn’t make it through without leaning on God and his people. I had my highs, and times of worry. But there was such an awareness of the presence of God …
Part of the problem was that television told you exactly what was happening. When they would announce that the Scuds were coming in, I knew I had about 20 minutes before the Patriots got them. The fear was that they carried chemical weapons. Sometimes I was so scared my knees were knocking. But, there was someone I could call and she would pray me through it.
And then, there wasn’t a lot of time between that and Owen’s illness and the (congressional) campaign. That was a real hard time. There was no way I could get through it without the support of my church and my friends.
Q: How is Owen now?
A: He’s doing fabulous. He’s been considered cured for a year. One of the things with watching Owen I realized what that old saying means: taking one day at a time. Having a child that weak and that sick for so long …
When I see someone who is facing something real huge, one of the things I’m learning to do is to be a part of their one day at a time, because they have been a part of my one day at a time.
Q: Does this happen often?
A: That happens all the time. It makes me feel like a velveteen rabbit with the fuzz rubbed off. When I’ve been with somebody going through their hardest time, I am able to tell them about my dark time. But sometime it’s just being there and interceding with your presence.
Of course, some problems are easier to talk about. Last night my mom called and said her brother had called. He said his son – my first cousin – was going to prison today. He was in an accident where someone was seriously injured. He was intoxicated. None of us knew anything about it.
My problems have always been casserole problems. Things the community can respond to. It saddens me because sometime we, the church, aren’t very good at responding to this kind of dark time.
Q: Why is the verse from John about the vine your favorite?
A: Because I have tried to be apart from him and do things and I’ve seen how fruitless my life is then. I know better, but my tendency is to be self-sufficient and strong and deal with problems without having to pray or lean on the body of Christ. When I’m feeling distraught or fatigued, hopeless or frustrated, I figure I’m going my will instead of God’s.
Q: How do you know when this is happening to you?
A: Certain touchstones. People who’ve been with me recognize when I’m not at peace. Jamie is good at this. When I go though something real hard, Jamie and certain friends can recognize if I am with God or not.
Part of the struggle is how to apply what I’ve learned about faith to the gray, plain days. If I could corral the faith and submission I had then and put it into an ordinary day, it would be wonderful.
My spiritual growth right now is more like cleaning up a dirty house than putting out a fire. Saudi Arabia and Owen’s sickness and the campaign at the same time were like that. Now, it doesn’t feel like an emergency all the time.
Sometimes people will say to me, “I don’t know why God caused this and that.” That really bothers me. Owen’s illness and the war weren’t caused by God, but he still can use them. I can say to people, “Let me tell you how I changed through this.”
Watching God redeem is wonderful. Given the choice to go back through it … no, never … but, I would hate to have to give back the gifts of redemption from those tragedies.