A Long and Winding Road, part 1

2012-10-21 by . 2 comments

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Scene 1: The Night I Met God

To say I was not one of the popular kids would be a major understatement. I was a typical 1980s-era nerd, a loner who spent much of my free time learning how to get the most out of my TRS-80 microcomputer or exploring the night skies with my telescope. Living in a sports-crazed rural community but lacking athletic ability, the closest I could get to fitting in was competing on the cross country team.

The fall of 1985, my junior year of high school, I could see things starting to turn around. My running had improved enough that I was occasionally getting medals, and people were starting to see me as less of a nerd, and more of an athlete. In October I managed to get a date to the homecoming dance, and afterwards somehow found myself in my first relationship. But by early November, both the relationship and the cross country season had ended; by Thanksgiving weekend I was alone again, and this time I didn’t enjoy it.

On Sunday night of Thanksgiving weekend, I was sitting in my room reading The Scarlet Letter for my English class when I started to feel dizzy and short of breath. My best guess is it was an allergic reaction. I’ve had severe allergies most of my life, but this was the strongest reaction I’ve ever had.

I don’t remember the next few minutes. The next thing I recall, I was on the other side of the room, lying in my bed, breathing slowly to catch my breath. In my confused state I remember thinking, my life is worthless, and I whispered a prayer, “God, if you can hear me, just let me die.”

What happened instead is hard to explain. I slowly became aware of a presence in my room. I couldn’t see anyone, but I had a sense of being watched. The intensity of this presence began to grow, until it was so overwhelming that I was aware of nothing else. The bed, the room, even my own self seemed to be swallowed up by the intensity of–whatever it was.

Years later I was struck by a scene from C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Lewis, imagining a bus trip to heaven, says:

At first, of course my attention was caught by my fellow passengers, who were still grouped about in the neighborhood of the omnibus, though beginning, some of them, to walk forward into the landscape with hesitating steps. I gasped when I saw them. Now that they were in the light, they were transparent–fully transparent when they stood between me and it, smudgy and imperfectly opaque when they stood in the shadow of some tree. They were in fact ghosts: man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air. One could attend to them or ignore them at will as you do with the dirt on a window pane. I noticed that the grass did not bend under their feet: even the dew drops were not disturbed. Then some re-adjustment of the mind or some focussing of my eyes took place, and I saw the whole phenomenon the other way round. The men were as they always had been; as all the men I had known had been perhaps. It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison.

The presence I experienced in my room that night was like what Lewis described–so intense that all the ordinary things of life paled by comparison. But at the time, the only way I could describe it was that I was in the presence of God.

A few days later an acquaintance stopped me in the hallway at school and said, “I was reading the Bible last night, and God told me to share this message with you: ‘From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.’” I asked him what that was supposed to mean, and he said he didn’t know, just that God wanted him to deliver that message to me.

I’ve spent many years trying to figure out what it means.

Scene 2: Problems with Authority

In college I fell in with the Pentecostal crowd. I started attending the Church of the Foursquare Gospel with some friends. The way they spoke about God, as someone who was palpably present in the world, seemed to match my own experience. But I soon ran into difficulties. First was their insistence that the gift of speaking in tongues was intended for every Christian. My own experience suggested otherwise. Second was a pervasive paranoia, an us-against-the-world attitude that left them distrustful of everyone outside their circle.

In my sophomore year, the associate pastor led a college Bible study centered around Edgar Whisenant’s “88 Reasons Why The Rapture will be in 1988”. When I raised some doubts one week in the Bible study, the pastor spoke to me afterward, asked me if I was harboring some secret sin, and accused me of being arrogant and having a problem with authority. I knew something wasn’t right, but at the time I wasn’t sure if the problem was with me or them.

I prayed about this, but didn’t get an answer from God one way or the other.

After a number of talks with my friends, they concluded the problem was that I had done my baptism all wrong. My parents had had me baptized as an infant; it wasn’t a choice I had made myself. So we talked to the pastor about getting me rebaptized, and I was scheduled to get dunked a few weeks later at a Wednesday night service.

I was one of three people getting baptized that night. My friends sat in the front row to support me. But I still wasn’t fully convinced that this was the answer to the questions that were bothering me. I was beginning to suspect that my “problem with authority” was a warning sign that something wasn’t right with this church.

Finally my time came to go under the water, and when I did I heard God’s voice as clearly as if he was standing between me and the pastor. In the brief moment before I came up again, God told me, “Get away from here. These people are hindering your spiritual growth.”

My friends told me that when I came up out of the water I had a look of peace like no one they had seen before. If they had known the reason for that peace, they might not have been so quick to congratulate me.

I tried a number of other churches during the rest of my college years, but never committed to another one. I didn’t want a repeat of that experience.

After college I enrolled in graduate school at Wichita State University. To pay the bills I took a night job in a warehouse. I kept busy enough between school and work that I convinced myself I didn’t have time for church.

But one day on campus I happened to run into a friend from college who was also now at WSU. She told me about a great church she had found, and she invited me to attend. I was reluctant but I agreed to give it a shot. The next Sunday morning found me in downtown Wichita in the Century II Convention Hall, worshipping with the Church of Christ Jesus. After the service I was introduced to some guy that told me he would become my mentor. Something about this struck me as not right. Nevertheless I ageed to meet with him a few times, but it soon became clear that we had irreconcilable differences. I still had a problem with authority–or more accurately, with authoritarianism. Within less than a month I left that church and never looked back.

Through it all I somehow maintained my trust in God, but I was through with church. Or so I thought.

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  • Peter Turner says:

    Wow, this is good writing not to give away the second act, but you’ve gotta read this book it’s a rather striking parallel to what your life, especially the problem with authority part.

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