That phrase alone, "I encounter God," will have some readers saying "Amen!" and others saying "Oh brother." That, right there, is the reason I avoid talking about this "thing." Either response bothers me, and doesn't seem right. "You've encountered God? Hallelujah! Prophesy!" or "You've encountered God? Holy crap! Pharmacy!" The feeling that I've received some sort of message from God gives me the impression of being close to God, close to some sort of understanding. The idea that God is intentionally communicating with me, directly, well, it makes me think I might be crazy. The emotion makes me confident; the logic makes me doubt.
I am fascinated by other people's stories about messages from God. Are they similar to mine? How did they know? What was their response? What do they make of it and what did they do with it? Very often the stories are overly dramatic or very specific, and I immediately question the veracity; it's like an embellisher adding too many details, too much gilding on the story. Sometimes the story is told wistfully, like they cannot provide details but have a distinct, memorable impression, and these I tend to accept, or at least they help me believe in the sincerity of the teller, because it seems like something God would do ... guide or suggest but not force or command you. I do not know how God works in this world, but here are three of these "things" for the record. Make of them what you will.
On the Course:
Bentwood Trail Presbyterian Church, I was sitting in the pew, thinking more about my afternoon plans than the message being delivered. Immediately after church I was going to rush home, grab my clubs, and head to the golf course to meet up with 6 or 7 friends. The sermon was on baptism, a topic I typically tuned out for a variety of reasons. At some point I heard the preacher ask 'What would it take for you to believe?' to which I mentally added 'AND be baptized!' In answer to the preacher's question I thought, 'If I break 80 this afternoon, they can baptize me in the 18th hole water hazard!'
Later, as we finished the 4th hole, my playing partner Rob said, "Dude. You're even after 4. You're on fire!" To be honest, after stringing together a handful of good shots, some might even say miraculous for me, on the very first hole I began to worry about my sarcastic promise to God. My previous best score ever was 89, on an easy course when playing regularly. I was a consistent mid-90's player, but could easily shoot 100+ without some breaks along the way. I told Rob, "I'm not on fire, I'm out of my mind. I'll tell you about it later." At the turn Rob asked if I wanted know my score and if I was okay because I was being so quiet. I didn't want to jinx anything so I just said again that I would talk to him about it later and no, I didn't want to know my score. But he looked at me and held up 3 fingers, which I took to mean that I was halfway home with a 39, 3 strokes above par.
I don't even remember playing the back nine. It was surreal. I was consistently landing approach shots within a putt-able range, or if I was farther out I always seemed to have an easy line. On the 18th tee Rob tells me, "I know you said not to tell you, but you need a par for 80." Thanks a lot, Rob. Off the tee I'm in trouble on the left, in the woods, though I typically slice. No choice but to punch it out. I'm 120 yards out, normally an 8 iron for me, but I'm hitting the short irons so well I decide on a wedge. If I put it close enough for a make-able putt, I have my par and my 80. I'm vibrating so much as I stand over the ball that I have to back off more than once. Finally, as I'm adjusting my stance and grip for the hundredth time, I feel a wave of calm that starts at my head and flows down to my feet. There is also this thought, this question, in no specific words which was, "Does it really matter?"
I hit the shot. It takes one hop and sits, above the hole, on the flat, maybe 3 feet away. Easy. I mark my ball and allow everyone else to putt out, all the while asking myself "does it really matter?" I can't decide what the "it" is. Is it the score, or is it the baptism? Is it the flippant promise I made to God, or this bizarre round of golf? As soon as the ball left my putter I knew. I had yanked it left, missing by a few inches. I tapped it in for bogey and an 81. It didn't bother me, because the calm had never left me, and I knew that regardless of my score, it didn't really matter.
I met Rob at his house that day so as we drove back I told him about "the thing." He knew what a thoroughly below average golfer I was. He had seen me spooked and shaky for most of the round. As I tried to explain and verbalize and remember everything that had transpired, Rob just listened and finally said, "When God talks, you should listen." By the time I drove from Rob's house to mine, the doubt and logic had already begun to creep in and I've never come close to 80 since.
Listening for the Call:
Several years later I was on the Pastor Nominating Committee (PNC) at Bentwood Trail. We had been meeting every week for a long time, trying to find the right person to be called to lead our church. We had gotten to the point of bringing candidates to town, to hear them preach at a neutral pulpit, meaning some other church. This particular week the PNC was to hear a candidate preach at Faithbridge Presbyterian Church in Frisco, TX. We had met the candidate, Elizabeth Callender, on Friday, sharing supper at a committee member's house. Saturday we interviewed, toured the church and surrounding neighborhood, and shared a few more meals.
We all liked Elizabeth, but getting everyone to agree that she was "it" was a big challenge. I never expected the process to be easy, and I had struggled with exactly what my role was. I learned the hard way that trying to force a decision based on my own preferences and reasoning was not going to work. Though it took several months I finally realized that we were supposed to be listening for God to call someone, not trying to win an argument or influence a decision. It was an especially difficult concept for me; I doubted that we would "hear" God.
I arrived at Faithbridge early, and rather than lurk at the church I drove through a nearby Starbucks, got a large ... oh, excuse me, a "venti" ... black iced tea and found a bench in the park across the street from the church to drink it, watching and waiting for other PNC members to arrive. On the bench, under the tree, out in the warm weather I thought about our responsibilities, about how I needed to "listen for God" instead of "decide for the congregation." I convinced myself that I had no idea what God sounded like, despite my earlier golf course encounter, and so, desperate for direction, I prayed.
"Gracious God. I'm not looking for lightning bolts and thunder, any sign will do, but please let me see or hear or understand something in worship today about a path forward. In Jesus' name I pray, Amen."
I prayed this out loud, very self-consciously, though no one was around. Almost immediately the doubt set in. Would God answer this prayer, and if he did, how would I know it? It felt so self-serving, like I was praying for a burden to be lifted, that it was arrogant to ask for a sign from God. Oh well. The parking lot was filling up. It was time to go.
I met Linda Wren and a few other committee members in the narthex. We decided to split up and sit in small groups of two or three in different areas of the sanctuary and try not be such an obvious distraction. Linda and I sat near the back in the center section of seats on the left aisle. Faithbridge worshipped in what was also, apparently, a multi-use space ... part gym, part fellowship hall. The chancel was a raised platform in the center of the long wall across from the main doors. The cross was displayed off to one side, which seemed odd since if a cross is displayed it is typically in the center. Once I noticed that, I also saw the reason why ... the center of the chancel would be taken up by a large projection screen. "Great. Please don't let it be a Powerpoint church, I hate Powerpoint," I thought. Off to the side was a keyboard, the only instrument I saw. Sitting beside the keyboard, at a table with a laptop, was a man who appeared a bit frantic. Someone said, "problems with the music tracks again," and I despaired, expecting the music to be some Christian Rock mix-tape.
Soon enough the lights dimmed, the screen rolled down, the projector lit up and the speakers popped to life. The projected image became clearer as the screen descended. The congregation stood and began to sing along with the karaoke soundtrack coming from the laptop. As we stood to sing I let out an audible "Ha!" and Linda gave me her best teacher/Mom raised eyebrow. I shook my head, smiled and began to sing ....
O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
... while looking at the scene on the screen which was a building, alone on the prairie, overpowered by huge purple storm clouds and crisp, bright, thick, many-branched lightning bolts. Thunder and lightning, in a format that made me cringe. God, it seems, does have a sense of humor.
I told the committee at our next meeting about God's joke. It did not result in an immediate, unanimous call for Elizabeth, though several months later she was called, with I believe God's will.
In the Chapel:
Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston was doing a 'Spoken Word' reading, where they read the Bible out loud, from Genesis through Revelation, 24 hours a day, until they finish. They started on Monday morning at 6AM and finished around 1PM on Thursday. Before they began I had every intention of going to listen, if not actually sign up to read, but things happen and you get busy and it wasn't a priority.
I haven't been sleeping that well, for a variety of reasons, and so on Thursday morning at 5-something AM I found myself lying in bed, wide awake and thought, "I've got time to get up, drive to church, listen to the Spoken Word readings for a while and still get back home before I have to start work at 8AM." So, I rolled out of bed, hustled through an abbreviated morning routine, and drove to MDPC. I arrived about a quarter after six. I was a bit concerned as I pulled in. There were only two cars in the parking lot and there didn't seem to be much activity at all, but I grabbed my Bible and headed to the chapel, where they were reading.
At the table outside the chapel was Charlie, the one and only person who knows me by name and sight at MDPC. He's one of the facilitators of the 'New Member/Get To Know MDPC' class we are attending on Sundays, and we've only met twice. I thought it was pretty remarkable, given that I randomly decided to come at this particular time, and that there are 3,500 or so members, anyone of which could have volunteered to be at the welcome table at this time. But I was glad to see him, it made me feel at home, that I was in the right place. He shook my hand and said he was glad to see me. I took a seat on the aisle, a few rows back from the front and wondered where to turn in my Bible as a new reader took the lectern and began to read.
She announced, "First Corinthians, Chapter 15." Happy that it was a New Testament reading, I quickly found the spot.
The footnotes in my Bible divide the chapter as follows:
15:1-11, The gospel of Christ's death and resurrection
15:12-34, The significance for us of the resurrection
15:35-58, The nature of the resurrection
The reader did a wonderful job and I was amazed as I sat, read along and listened. The happenstance of it all, arriving basically on a whim, and walking in to sit down and hear Paul's explanation of the resurrection, on Maundy Thursday, before Good Friday, in advance of Easter Sunday. This seemed to be "the" passage to hear before Easter! No one else was there to just listen. The other people there, like Charlie, had volunteered to greet or to read. It felt like this was being read directly to me, directly for me. And I listened, intently, with hope.
I was not disappointed. All of these words I had heard before, many, many times. This time it seemed fresh, coherent, cohesive, important. The words didn't just want to be heard, they wanted to be understood. Paul's statements, his thoughts, built from the foundation of Christ's death and resurrection, to what it represents, to what it means for us in our daily lives, and finally to the eternal, the ultimate purpose. I felt I was hearing it for the very first time and was amazed.
As the reader began verse 50, my eyes watered and I fought back tears ...
What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this:
flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
Listen, I will tell you a mystery!
We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.
For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.
When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’
I felt that I needed to hear this, at this time, in this place. These words that I've heard hundreds of times, this time, they stuck. They mean something to me. I believe them. Where, O death, who has and will torment me, where indeed, O death, is your sting now that Christ has been raised?
It's now late afternoon on Easter Sunday, and despite my recent encounter, and regardless of the celebration I witnessed in worship today, I feel the doubt making its way into the memory and into the feeling. I was probably tired from lack of sleep. I was probably desperate to find something significant in the experience. It could have just been the poetry and picture from the reading that prompted the tears ... the reader did do a remarkable job of "selling" the passage. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the chapel setting and the familiar words simply triggered a perfectly predictable emotional response. It was probably more fever dream than burning bush, don't you think? After all, they both just make you feel too hot, right?