My First Vision
I didn’t used to be religious. I grew up Episcopalian, and what I learned in Sunday school never seemed to have much relevance to my life. We learned the Bible stories, but not why they were important or what they meant. By age 13, I decided I wasn’t Christian. But I still went to church with my family because I didn’t want to disappoint them. I accepted Confirmation for the same reason, even though I knew I wasn’t being honest.
I struggled with depression and feelings of being outcast by my peers. By 16 years old, I had found drugs. At 17, I got expelled from high school. I also had what I now would say was a religious experience in which I was promised that things would get better, and that if I did what was put before me I would eventually find peace.
Things didn’t get better for a long time. I moved far from my family to Los Angeles, where I could pursue my habits without interference. My habits grew worse. At 25, addicted to heroin, cocaine, and alcohol, I sought help and wound up (after months of struggle) getting sober in AA.
AA strongly suggests seeking God. I didn’t believe in God, but at the same time I couldn’t say I disbelieved in God. I was an agnostic, and I wanted evidence one way or the other. The fact that many times I’d driven home too wasted to see and somehow arrived safely, or that I survived five overdoses, or even that my unbearable obsession for alcohol and drugs had now disappeared, apparently wasn’t sufficient. I tried churches, but didn’t find any that made sense to me. Eventually I became a Buddhist. That led me to do volunteer work in Sri Lanka.
I had another powerful spiritual experience in Sri Lanka when I was 34 years old. At the time, I was thinking about making that country my permanent home. The vision led me to understand that what I would learn in Sri Lanka I was supposed to take home to the U.S., where it would someday be needed. Both of these visions had a common characteristic: they gave me messages about my life, but they gave me no clues about the source of the messages. I remained an agnostic.
But I wanted to understand Christianity. After working with a Catholic priest in Thailand for two months, I could see that there was more to Christianity than I’d seen in my childhood church, or than the evangelists I’d met over the years (some of whom were drunk themselves) had told me. I attended a Catholic university and majored in Theology and Peace Studies. I began hanging out in Campus Ministry, and a nun became my spiritual director. But I still didn’t feel as though I had any evidence for the existence of a God who was present in my life. In 1998, I began to pray, “If there is a God, let me know you.”
This was my quest as, in 1999, the organization I’d worked with in Sri Lanka invited me to help them try to end the civil war there. My first trip witnessed 160,000 people gathering (in the face of political opposition and some fear for safety) to meditate for peace in the capital city in September. During my second trip in December, the rebels had begun an offensive, driving out Sinhalese villagers from what the LTTE considered “their” territory. My team decided to go north to see what these refugees would tell us. We interviewed refugees all day, and that night retired to a compound that our organization ran.
At dusk, the artillery began. It wasn’t a constant barrage, just one shell every five or ten minutes, landing somewhere to the north of us. Meanwhile, by lamplight because there was no electricity, our local host began telling us stories and showing us photos of what he had seen there. Some of the photos were pretty gruesome. The one that touched me most was of a black lump, which our host said had formerly been a young woman who volunteered as a preschool teacher in one of the villages before the LTTE burned her to death.
In the middle of the night, gunfire erupted outside the compound. I heard machine guns, grenades, and RPGs. I couldn’t sleep through that, so I sat in a chair in the common area in the dark. I was acutely aware that the war was raging outside, and I was powerless to do anything about it. I began to ask, “Why, God, why?”
I got an answer. I saw a net, or a loose cloth, with fibers that stretched infinitely in all directions. Each place the fibers met was an event, and they were interwoven in a way I could not understand. A voice said, “If there was no war, there would be no peacemakers. Blessed are the peacemakers!” At first, I thought I was being told that the war existed for the purpose of calling people to be peacemakers. That seemed horribly cruel. But that was not what it meant. I understood that nothing could happen without God’s consent, and that somehow, in some way far beyond my comprehension, there was a purpose to this war– and it was equally true that we were called to try to end it. And I saw that the ways of God are too incomprehensible for a human mind to grasp.
I want to reiterate that I was at the time coming from a Buddhist perspective in which “evil” can be explained by the Three Poisons: anger, greed, and ignorance. Buddhism doesn’t have a concept of God or Evil. That is a philosophical approach that makes it easier to understand war. Address anger, greed, and ignorance, and the fighting stops. I was comfortable with that. Except we hadn’t yet made any progress.
This idea that the war could somehow be permitted by God went against everything I then believed, and everything I wanted to believe about God. In short, it blew my mind.
I returned to Los Angeles a few days later, but found I could no longer function. I’d graduated by now and was doing accounting work to support myself, but I couldn’t work. I couldn’t carry on a conversation. And I couldn’t explain what had happened. I felt like I’d plugged my 110-volt computer into a 10,000-volt main line, and every circuit was fried.
I didn’t realize at first that part of my distress stemmed from Post Traumatic Stress. I had seen and heard violence and stories of violence that I could not accept. Over the next 15 years, I would undergo various types of therapy for PTSD before I gained some measure of recovery from it.
But I also couldn’t reconcile the fact that I, an agnostic, had prayed to know God, and God had revealed himself to me in a powerful and disruptive way. The line from the T.S. Eliot poem, “Journey of the Magi,” haunted me: “No longer at ease in the old dispensation…” That was me.
I’ll tell you the truth: I ran away. I tried to put as much distance as I could between myself and that experience– between me and God. By 2004, I had given up peace work and moved to rural Utah to make cheese in the middle of nowhere. I dabbled in Christian theology that was based on the teachings of Jesus but had no room for God to be present. God had terrified me, and I wanted no part of him.
But if God wants you to go to Ninevah, chances are you’re going to Ninevah. Just ask Jonah.
In 2012, my second marriage ended, and my fiancee got pregnant. I was ecstatic. I didn’t have any children of my own. I couldn’t wait to hear the baby’s heartbeat. But when we went for the first ultrasound and they put the machine on her, there was no heartbeat. She was miscarrying. In moments, I went from ecstasy and anticipation to despair. I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. Then my friend Dave, who’d been undergoing experimental treatment for liver cancer that the doctors said was working, went for a liver transplant, after which he was supposed to be fine. But when they opened him up, they found the treatment hadn’t worked after all. He was full of cancer. They sent him home to die. Once again, hope was crushed into despair. I blamed God. I raged at him. I shouted at him. I demanded to know what kind of God he was.
In doing so, I stopped denying him.
This began my slow journey to becoming a Christian. I started going to church later that year (though my home church was in Denver, 8 hours away). In 2013 I was baptized. In August 2016, I finally accepted forgiveness through Jesus Christ.
The journey wasn’t easy. My wife and I struggled through demonic oppression, mental and physical illness, and financial hardship. Trusting God wasn’t always easy. But that’s what it took for me to be ready. That’s what it took for me to surrender to this simple truth: He is God, and I’m not.
Now the great theological question: Do we have free will? Absolutely. Then how is it that everything that happens is consistent with God’s plan? I don’t know, you’d have to ask him. Maybe you’ll understand better than I do. But I now accept that to be true. The Bible confirms it. Just read the Book of Job (particularly 1:6-12, 38:1-4, 40:6-9, and 42:1-6; see also Lamentations 3:37-38). This paradox is hinted at by Isaac Bashevis Singer’s famous saying: “We must believe in free will. We have no choice!”
Did my wife have a miscarriage so that I would find God? Yes. No. Maybe. Partly. The answer is too complex for me to say with any certainty. My human mind can’t possibly comprehend.
A wise man once said, “Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake.”
I used to think he was wrong.