Friday, July 29, 2011

My Initiations into the Realm of Christian Phenomenon

The year was 1980. I was 21.

I was studying music at Palomar College in San Marcos, CA. Five students who went to the same Calvary Chapel church were in my five music classes. At least one in each class, but in one class all five of them were present. For a five month period we had been debating religious topics almost daily. For the most part they were not very good at debating, and seemed to think of debating as some kind of hardness toward God. (Perhaps Holland Davis was the exception to this.)

I had been brought up in the Christian Science Church as a child, so that was what I knew about Christianity. The late Walter Martin had summed up Christian Science well: it was like Grape Nuts - no grapes and no nuts, it is neither Christian nor science. It is in fact a mothering church to the New Age movement, and a strange amalgam of eastern religious views with the Bible. (Yet, I must say that I am grateful to my grandmother for taking me to her church when I was young. It was an introduction into believing that there was a God Who did supernatural things.)

At some point early in the first couple months of 1980 my five friends decided together that they would not talk to me any further about theological issues. They did not tell me this, they simply avoided talking to me. They had determined that I was becoming "more hardened" to the Gospel.

Yet during this same time I began to experience some dramatic phenomenon. The two most radical experiences are the ones I will relate here.

The Forehand of God

I was driving on Highway 78 coming into Escondido, CA minding my own business thinking about nothing in particular as I passed the Center City Parkway exit. Suddenly, I sensed (which is the only way to explain this because I did not see it, and I did not hear it) what seemed to be a large invisible hand moving towards me - it was moving from outside the truck window on the driver's side. As I sensed this hand moving towards me in a what seemed like a slow but solid motion,the invisible hand passed through the truck window and met my face. I felt a sensation - not painful, but like a slap nonetheless, and my head snapped sideways like I had been physically slapped. I was able to keep control of my little Ford Courier and stay on the road,but my body was shaking, my ears were ringing, and the word "God" popped into my head with a ping just like God speaking to Noah in Bill Cosby's comedy routine about building the ark.

I discovered the next day that the father one of my five friends was praying for me about that same time.

The Backhand of God

My little brother Rob had been attending church for a number of months with a friend of his. One Friday night he asked me if he and his friend could get a ride to concert in Escondido. I wasn't busy, and said yes. It turned out to be a church provided concert being held int he auditorium of a grade school. The Daniel Amos Band, a Christian Country-Rock Band was playing that night. (I only just discovered that they are still together and are touring this summer. Please read this touching story about the singer/songwriter Terry Taylor.)

My little brother asked me if I would join him at the show, and having nothing better to do (no girlfriend to hang with on a Friday, and not being a partier at that time) I decided I would check it out.

I don't remember the show very well, but one event during the show caught my attention. Sometime toward the second half of the show the bass player stepped up to the mic to say a few words. I do not remember a word he said, but that now oddly familiar invisible hand made itself "sense-able" (I certainly can not say it "appeared or was made "visible") to me again. This time I sensed it coming towards my face with that same ominously slow pace from my right side, when it had come fromthe left side previously.

Once again it reached my face, (and of course I did not duck! For heaven's sake! How does one avoid an invisible hand?) and the same painless, but firm slapping sensation snapped my head sideways.

Over the previous couple week's I had been struggling with the phrase "Jesus died for you." I had thought that perhaps it was like a friend who dove on a grenade in time of war to save his buddies, and died in the act, but because my five friends had been repeating "Jesus died for you" like some kind of mantra, I knew it had to be more significant than even a war time act of sacrifice. It was somehow central to the whole message of this Christianity they followed.

As this invisible hand met my face and snapped my head sideways, my body shook, my ears rang, and even while trying to pretend nothing had happened and doing a good job, because no one else noticed a thing (well, I don't think they did) the words "Jesus died for you" ran through my ears as if written over and over on a long narrow piece of ticker tape being shoved in one ear and pulled out the other.

There was no theological explanation with those words, and there I could not have related it in theological terms at that moment, but I now knew that Jesus had died in my place as a substitutionary sacrifice for my sins. I should have been the one dying, but he died in my place.

Two weeks later, after thinking hard about this experience and the words "Jesus died for you" I decided to make my life one of serving this Jesus Who had given everything for me.

My Introduction into the Realm of Supernatural Phenomenon

I am not sure that this would be called my initiation into the realm of supernatural phenomenon, but it was most certainly my initiation into the work of Christ in spiritual phenomenon, and has evidently been instrumental in the development of my own theology and praxis of faith.

Just as I have seen people in these days in which we live having divine experiences, I too was initiated into a realm of the supernatural my an experience neither sought, nor initiated my my own action.

I am aware that this story reads like something from the Book of Acts, or perhaps even from anthropological studies on the initiations of Mongolian Shaman or Native American Medicine Men, but it is my story and it forms some of the theology I hold in respect to the supernatural and God's work among the people of this world.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Divine Experience as a Growing Phenomenon?

My friend Chris told me a story of an experience hearing voices. Driving on the highway a voice told him to move from the left lane to the right lane. As he looked to his right other cars were in the right lane, and the the voice told him he had time to get over. After the cars passed he pulled into the right hand lane, and immediately blew a tire. Looking back on this experience he was not as much surprised that he heard a voice leading him to right lane and a safe place to have a tire blow-out, but he it blew his mind that he had responded simply and naturally to a voice in his head.

Perhaps where I live, and work (on the North Shore of Boston spending most of my time in Salem, MA) as well as what I do (pastor a church in Witchcity); this influences my experiences with other people over much. In 25 years of pastoring on both coasts of the United States, spending a great deal of time with people from many spiritual traditions and world-views, and traveling with some frequency to the UK, I have seen a increase of what appear to be other-worldly experiences in the lives of the people I know.

This circle of friends includes skeptics, Muslims, Pagans, Christians of conservative and liberal traditions, people of eclectic 'pick and choose' faith systems, Americans, Welsh, English, Native Americans, people from the Middle East and the Far East, politically conservative, politically liberal, socialists, capitalists, anarchists, artists, politicians, scientists, drunkards, drug addicts, sexually promiscuous, gay, straight, teetotalers, soccer moms, traditional "nuclear' families, soldiers, social justice activists, married, divorced, single, those who attend church, and many who feel betrayed by the church.

Strangely, in this wild mix of friends and acquaintances, it is almost in every circle that people are experiencing these "divine interactions" (if that is what we want to call them).

Glenn who has been with The Gathering a couple years now tells a story about sitting on the beach in Antigua at sunrise. Suddenly, a blinding light rose up not from the horizon, but from within him. He lost all sense of time - whether it was a second or a minute he didn't know, but in that flash a sense his own sinfulness followed by the great forgiveness of God were made evident to him.

Glenn was not a follower of Jesus at the time. He is today, and Glenn loves to study the Bible. This phenomenon was his transition to living a life in the spiritual pursuit of Christ.

Phenomenon like this dot the landscape of human experience. Some people like Glenn know what to do with their experiences. Others have these experiences and are confused by them, or are uncertain of their meaning. Others still choose to attribute no meaning to them, but merely chalk them up as a moment of touching the divine.

My limited experience with people from a fairly wide spectrum of religious, ethnic and lifestyle backgrounds leads me to believe that many people from many world-views are currently experiencing spiritual phenomenon, and they are not all sure how to interpret their experiences. This may not be happening more than at any other time in history, and I certainly have no evidence to support such a statement, but I would surmise it could be simply by the fact that the world's population is larger than any previous time.

I think the experience of these phenomenon has ramifications for Christianity, and I will follow this post up with some of those thoughts.

What do you think?

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

An Exegesis of Experience?

Yesterday morning at the men's Bible study we talked about allegorical interpretations of scripture, and this led to me giving a short description of the difference between allowing the scripture to speak for itself, and reading things into the Bible. These are commonly called exegesis and eisegesis (respectively) in theological (well, and in most church) circles. Of course, this was discussed because the allegorical mode of Biblical interpretation lends itself to easily falling into excessive eisegesis - especially for the creative mind. Those who quickly connect scriptures and theological concepts together can weave interesting and complicated elements together and quickly justify their own peculiar beliefs. Yet, I can not help but wonder if the line of eisegesis and exegesis might merge into one another seamlessly and properly at times.

Certainly, for most of us, our theological bent is driven by a combination of influence of mentors and teachers, or personal experience combined by study. I most certainly fall into the latter category, most of my mentors had theological views different than my own, Some of them leaned Reformed/Calvinist, and others held Pre-Tribulational eschatology views, in one case a very influential mentor is from the Word of Faith camp - and I am none of these.

Since my theology is influenced most by my own study, I must be honest to admit that there is a high degree of personal experience which informs my theological views as well. In part because my own experiences with God have been so dramatic, and in part because my experiences with life have sometimes been the stuff tall tales are made of.

Here is where I wonder how eisegesis and exegesis might seamlessly meet one another to create one body of movement toward truth.

The Apostle Paul appears to have been excessively influenced by his dramatic experiences with Christ: along the Damascus Road, being caught up into the heavens in visions, and through a life of persecution. His reading of the Old Testament is most definitely influenced by his interactions with Christ, and his reading of the scriptures was therefore born from this experience in which God seems to have implanted truth into Paul. It was an exegesis of life and experience. This in turn seems to have influenced Paul's writings, and he then interprets the Old Testament anew in the light of his experiences.

I read the New Testament - especially the Gospels differently than I did 5 or 6 years ago. My experiences in life have helped me (or is it simply "caused me," without necessarily carrying a beneficial element?) to see some scripture in a different light.

Does God communicate truth through experience to us, and then open our eyes to see things we might have been previously blind to? If so, it seems then that He is working through an exegesis of experience, and then allowing us to take the lessons learned in our experience and find them in scripture.

If this is the case, God appears to be seamlessly, although dangerously interweaving exegesis and eisegesis together to form truth in us. I tremble under the thought of this being a mode of truth communication. To see it in the Apostles and Prophets is one thing. To see in ourselves is another, and this makes the interpretation of scripture all the more baffling - especially since I still hold to the belief that scripture is not of any "private interpretation."