Can You Hear Me Now?
Throughout my adult life, faith has been a key component of my existence. Like many of us in Mississippi, I grew up in a theologically-conservative environment. The Methodist Church I attended felt to me to be no different from some other the more conservative, evangelical denominations prominent on the Mississippi landscape.
Make no mistake, though: I am very grateful for my roots in the world of John Wesley. One of my primary models of ministry was a pastor at Central Methodist Church in Meridian (these were the days before the formation of the United Methodist Church). His name was John Cook, and though he was not aware of it, he modeled the pastoral life for me. I will be forever grateful for his example. His preaching served as a model for my own – a standard at which I am sure I come up short.
I remember the nights at church camp. A young preacher would come in. All the teenage campers would be gathered in the recreation hall. We had the minds of teenagers and all that implies. I remember specifically one young preacher who thundered to us that one – shaking the gates of hell for us. Scaring us to death. (I am reminded of the saying, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”) It was emphasized that the wanderings of our teenage minds were the work of the devil, and judgment would be awaiting us. He was, in my mind, the sweating evangelist, not unlike the Burt Lancaster’s portrayal of Elmer Gantry.
His proclaimed God was one of expected and required righteousness. An angry God. A God of vengeance. A God of retribution.
That image of God was seared into my consciousness. Seared.
Yet, I loved God. And I heard that God calling to me again and again and again.
Over the years, my life of faith drew me more deeply into a relationship with the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. I was drawn toward the Episcopal Church. It was within that community of faith, and with clergy such as Ted Holt, Mickey Bell, Duncan Gray, Jr., and Sid Sanders, that I found the “God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ.” Again and again, from these and other priests, I heard “the Good News” of a God of grace. And I heard all that within the sacramental ministry of the Episcopal Church.
So much of this was pre-verbal. I could not articulate the experience. My vocabulary and insight were not sufficient. Still, all this, on some level, made my heart sing.
Then began the experiences of transformation. Revelations. Seeing through a glass – but a little better than darkly. Moments of transcendence. The veil is opened briefly. Glimpses of the Holy… the numinous.
Those experiences did not come frequently, but they were moments of profound grace. The Jesuits might call them consolations after experiences of desolation. They came at those points in my life when I realized the futility of trying to do things as I had done them. And it revealed to me a God who was profoundly different from the God I had seared into my mind at church camp so many years before.
Those experiences – those sacred encounters – have come maybe five or six times in my adult life. I do not claim to be a mystic, but these were certainly mystical experiences. Each time, I have thirsted for more. But, I guess, they were meant as viaticum – “provisions for the journey.”
It may be both apt and accurate to say that Moses’ description of the Hebrews – “a stiff necked people” – would also apply to me. It would be accurate because, again and again, I would receive these sacred visitations and self-disclosures from God, but after a short time, I would turn away and seek to live the life of legalism, self-sufficiency, and works-righteousness that I had learned so many years before.
The most dramatic and powerful of all these sacred encounters came in the fall of 2005. Only a few months before, Hurricane Katrina had devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast (and, of course, New Orleans). Life in the diocesan office was frantic, chaotic and overwhelming. I could not imagine what my fellow clergy were dealing with on the Coast. All of us, I think, were running on adrenaline. I was certainly not practicing any form of wellness or self care. It was ministry at hyperspeed.
It would not be long before my attention would be sharply focused. In a meeting which preceded General Convention 2006 – a meeting over which I presided – I experienced something very strange. I later described it as a déjà vu experience on steroids. While no one else likely noticed any change in my countenance, I was aware of something very significant taking place within me. After the meeting, I confided that experience to the chaplain of that deputation meeting, the Reverend Ron DelBene. I described it as some sort of ecstatic experience. Then I headed back toward the office.
However, the sensation which I had experienced during the meeting returned to me in waves. It was repeated again and again over a short period of time. I knew something was awry, so I went home.
Nora was concerned. I went to bed, concerned about the sensations, and also utterly exhausted, physically and emotionally. Nora called a friend, a clinical psychologist, worried that I was experiencing neurological issues. He came by, visited with me in the darkness of my blinds-drawn bedroom, and encouraged me to see a local neurologist. Facilitated by him, I was able to see the neurologist pretty quickly.
Over the next two or three days, I remained in bed – completely spent by the experience of the previous months and the immediately-preceding days. It was in the dark solitude of that bedroom, as I wafted in and out of a conscious state, that I had what may be the holiest experience of my life.
Again and again, the same images came to me. Images from scripture. Especially images from the life and writings of St. Paul. They resonated deeply within me in my semisomnolent state.
The first image was of the conversion of Saul – but a specific account of that conversion. In the Book of Acts, there are three versions of Saul’s conversion – the original “Road to Damascus” experience. First is in Chapter 9, when the conversion actually took place. Then, in Chapters 22 and 26, Paul recounts the experience for his listeners – the cataclysmic event when he was transformed from Saul to Paul; from a persecutor of Christians to a leader of the young movement.
My “visions” focused on the account told in Chapter 26. It is only in that telling that a certain phrase is included. In each of the two earlier accounts, Saul, after being blinded by a great light, hears a voice say, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The voice, of course, is from Jesus. However, in Chapter 26, Paul is telling the story again, this time to King Agrippa. In this account, Paul tells of being struck blind by the light and then hearing a voice says to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.” The last phrase is found only in this passage.
That image came to me repeatedly. And, I should note, I was unaware of the distinction between those three passages at that time.
The other passage which came to me in that semiconscious state was more familiar. I argue that it is the high point of the New Testament. It comes from Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Those days were challenging times. The tests I went through under the care of the neurologist were unremarkable and did not reveal any significant issues. But the spiritual fruits of those days were truly profound, and I have gone back to that spiritual well again and again. I have yearned to return to that experience.
I came from those days and those moments with insights about God and my relationship to Him that were transformative. Sorting through those visions, I discerned certain insights. The first was from Chapter 26 of Acts, and Paul being told “It hurts you to kick against the goads.” I believe that God was conveying to me the truth that I had been kicking against the goads. I had raged against an internal storm. I had striven for God’s grace. I had sought to earn God’s love. I had tried so hard to prove my own worth. God was telling me, “These are already yours. You need not strive so hard.”
I also heard the words of Romans 8 with great clarity: There is nothing that I can do or cannot do that will separate me from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
The echoes of voices from the past – the young, sweating evangelist at camp, the voices within my own psyche – were silenced, but only temporarily. Lessons learned early in life are hard to overcome. As I noted earlier, they were seared into my mind.
Still, I know that God has shown me another way – a way of life, a way of grace, and way of peace. I find myself living between two theological worlds.
Why is it so hard to live into that paradigm shift? God asks me again and again, Can you hear me now? What will it take for me to move from the old life to the new life into which I have been called? That is a question that is raised for me again and again, as I reach the bottom of life, realize my own brokenness, and am reminded that I need not strive for something that has already been given me.
Thinking on this, I am reminded that I am in good company. Hear St. Paul’s words:
“15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… 16I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:15,19-25)
I hear these words in an entirely different way than I have heard them before. These are lessons that I have had to absorb time and again as I have sought to prove myself, my rightness, and my self-sufficiency. The bottom is always a hard place, and it is chastening. But once it is reached, my attention is drawn toward God and the way out of the depths. The bottom can be very therapeutic. There is healing in that moment.
All of this runs the risk of being theological narcissism, and I am aware of that possibility. Instead, I see it as having an important influence on how I preach, how I minister, and how I relate to friends and family. If properly integrated and applied, no experience is lost in the economy of God’s movement in our lives.
I am also aware of the eternal nature of these lessons I have learned. That there is nothing – life, death, whatever may come – which can remove us from the loving embrace of the God of grace.