Happy 20th Birthday, Toronto Blessing!

ImageI’ve reached that sad point in life when things begin to make me feel old. Listening to the kids in a coffee shop (and by kids I mean the high schoolers). Not getting things like twirking. Talking about twirking long after its no longer cool. The steady stream of Nirvana albums getting 20 year reissues. But tonight was perhaps one of those nights destined to make me feel old. Christianity Today threw up an article about the 20 Year Celebration of the Toronto Blessing at the Catch the Fire Church (nee Toronto Vineyard). That hurt. Has it really been 20 years since the term “holy laughter” entered my lexicon? Sigh.

I very much agree with many of the sentiments expressed by author Lorna Dueck in her great piece on returning to Toronto. Like Dueck my spiritual life could be categorized or chapterized by this movement. The movement lead by John Arnott and Randy Clark profoundly impacted my life. I am a different person who has led a different life because of Clark. If you don’t like who I am, please feel free to send complaints to Randy Clark (among a few others).

There is a reason I often refer to 1994 as one of the darkest periods of my life. Granted 2010-2011 got hairy but nothing has ever come as close to poor existential angst than this year. I was let go from two jobs. I attended two funerals and two memorial services (the funerals for a set of grandparents- one of which spent a week in the ICU after a crash). A professor who had been mentoring me was also killed in a car crash. Two people from my old high school died (one from a drug overdose and another from a drive-by shooting).

In the midst of this my parents started talking about this “laughing” revival. Honestly newly free and fershman know-it-all Matt thought they had gone crazy. Honestly I wanted nothing to do with this. It looked silly. It sounded silly. It was beneath my dignity.

Then as the stress piled up. Something happened. I got disparate. More than once I came home from class exhausted and depressed and spent an hour or so laying on the floor crying and yelling at God. Raging. I had served him my whole life. While my fellow dorm mates were drinking, partying, and sexing it up, I was serving God. If this is the life I have to look forward to; then I would rather be having sex, I sometimes complained. At least then I would have some release from all this pain and nothingness.

I was asked to go on a summer-long missions trip that next summer (1995 Campus Crusade in Panama City Beach). As I came home from school to wait two weeks before going to PCB, I was tired and scared and frustrated. “How am I going to spend my summer telling people to come to Jesus when I am not even sure I want to come to Jesus,” I yelled at ceiling of my childhood bedroom. “I am about to become the biggest hypocrite on the planet; how can I share something I don’t have,” I worried.

The Sunday before leaving I attended church like the good little faker I was. After a sermon on Ephesians 5:18, which Eugene Peterson translates this way, “Don’t drink too much wine. That cheapens your life. Drink the Spirit of God, huge draughts of him,” the preacher said, “Some of you out there feel tired. You are empty. You don’t have anything left and you need to drink God in. Come on down to the front and let us pray for you.” I don’t think I ran the aisle but suddenly I couldn’t get the front fast enough. Now if you know me, you know I am a very quiet, reserved dude. Once I get to know you and get comfortable, you probably wish you could shut me up; but before that you probably think I am a deaf mute. I don’t like making a scene or attracting attention to myself. I hate people I don’t know trying to act like we best friends. I don’t care for PDA; even from people to whom I’m close. So even as I walked down the aisle I was thinking. “don’t be silly. Don’t get weird. Just stand there stoically let him pray and maybe God will honor your fear of looking stupid in public.” Of course then the dude praying got to the person on my right. I literally felt like I having a panic attack. My legs began shaking. My head was swimming. My stomach dropped. And in the moment I was like “f this… let’s just go with it.” The prayer mover from the person to my right and took a step my direction and suddenly I was laying on the floor with several people gathered around me. I felt… at peace. Cocooned. In my mind’s eye I saw a picture of a little boy and a grandfather… soon I realized it was me and my granddad (the one who had died the previous summer). I felt someone running their fingers through my hair and I heard someone say, “who’s my brave boy… Matt I love you so much… there is no reason to be afraid… I got you in my arms.”

I woke in a daze and for the rest of the day, I felt… beautiful. Wonderful. I can only wonder if this is not a close feeling to be drugged. It was amazing. That night I returned to church to hear a second preacher expound on the same verse. As he preached a wave after wave of bliss washed over me. As he called people to the front for prayer, I stayed in the back laughing… out loud… in public. Wave after wave after wave of good vibes reverberated over me.

I awoke the next morning for my drive south… excited… anxious… ready to be there. I was happy, truly, wonderfully, blissfully happy. Over the next 2 months I spent each Wednesday night on the beach in quiet moments of prayer and in each of those nights I am confident that God met me there. Like a ugly worm, I had crawled into my cocoon that last summer; but this summer I was emerging a brilliant butterfly. Making friends (never easy for me in the past) became simpler. Relaxing (never able to in the past) happened without trying. I was able to just be and I stopped worrying about what others thought.

Over the next year I will luxuriate in the presence of God over and over and over. By the next summer I would be interning at a local church and preparing my lifetime in the ministry (something I had said would never happen). All of those praying for me and with me during that time were people who been to Toronto and come back changed. And best of all they were able to impart that change into my life as well. During my junior year I would attend a Catch the Fire Conference where I was prayed for and saw a vision of myself on the operating table while a group of doctors performed an open heart surgery. I awoke feeling new, better, at peace, and with a new profound ability to love myself and others. I was changed. I would also attend a service at the Toronto Airport Church; there I felt at home, truly at home. I was at peace with my demons and my God.

My Atheist friends and my John McArthury friends can probably explain to me how this was all some emotional, mob-driven something or other brought on my a psychotic break of some kind. They would say I should have been hospitalized not leading high school kids on missions trips to far away lands. They may say I was a danger to myself and those around me.

But if you were there. If you spent time on that carpet in Toronto. If the people in your life had been there. If they had spent time on that carpet. If they came back and talked to you and prayed for you. Then you would know what we who were there know. Then you can join me in calling “bulls**t.” There on that carpet lined with masking tape. In those cries. In those laughs. In those barks. In all that chaos. We touched God, Maybe just for a moment. Maybe just for a brief spell. But God was there. And we touched him. And he touched us. And we are not the same. No matter what else has happened the past 20 years, no one can take that away. God was with us, and we were changed because of it.


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