I have not spoken of this often. Mostly because when I first spoke about it, I was uncomfortable with the responses it seemed to attract. You see, I felt that this experience taught me something I was profoundly unacquainted with and in deep need of. But when I talked about this experience, people seemed to be more drawn towards a fascination with the experience itself and ignored the impact it had on me. So I stopped talking about it. But recently I have been asked to talk about it some more.
I grew up in a home that was for me emotionally abusive. I never felt loved by my parents. As I reached the age of adulthood I was a deeply troubled and dysfunctional individual given to very rigid coping mechanisms and not a few compulsive bad habits. I would not easily admit to it but I was full of self loathing and felt so inadequate to life. But I “knew” that for my own protection I had to keep a good front and keep those sorts of feelings quiet. I did not express them in any significant detail. Instead I became a hyper conservative, rigid, hellfire breathing and hostile fundamentalist Christian. I attended Bob Jones University and loved it even though poor health and a lack of resources prevented me from finishing my degree at that time.
I was particularly hostile because I could be good at it. And being a person of above average intelligence I had what seemed to me to be a very persuasive and well formed theology. To be honest, I was not trying to be a hypocrite, nor was I trying to be difficult. I was actually hoping that this faith that made so much sense to me would deliver me from the agony of my wretched existence. I had hoped it would make me pure, make me godly, that it would turn me into someone God could love.
One night past midnight in the mid to late 1970’s as I sat on my couch I was reading from the Acts of the Apostles and the part about how Peter preached after Pentecost and so many responded to his very effective message. As a young want-to-be preacher I was jealous of his effectiveness and knew I just did not have it in me. And I knew why too. I was a disgusting useless excuse of a human being. I was a harsh husband and father with little to no empathy and I knew the struggles in my heart made me a person no God could ever love. So how could I expect that I could ever be a real preacher like Peter?
As I sat to think it over a series of hypothetical questions came to my mind. I no longer recall how the questions came about but I will never forget the questions nor the way I reacted to them. The first question was: Let us pretend that something has gone terribly wrong in heaven and by some twist of events, Jesus will have to spend eternity in hell and the only possibility of getting him out is for me to stop being such a disgusting low life excuse of a human being. Well, I knew that was impossible. And that provoked the following question: So as it turns out I would stand by and let Jesus spend eternity in hell rather than change?
I knew the answer. My reaction to this was that I embraced the “obvious” reality that I was truly a deeply disgusting human being and that now I clearly understood the extent to which I was willing the universe should suffer without my making a change. I became even more despondent and my self-loathing reached an unprecedented peak. I fell to my knees and prayed one of the most sincere prayers I had ever prayed in my life. I begged God to do away with me. I begged him to put me in hell immediately and to rid the universe of my existence. I hated myself more than ever.
And then suddenly, I was no longer in my body.
I was floating in the emptiness and blackness of space. There were no stars or any source of light. There was no up or down, I was simply suspended in a weightless blackness and in a body of sorts but not my earthly body. I heard a voice saying, “How willing is the Father to give the Holy Spirit to those that ask.” When I first heard that my reaction was to be repulsed. The thought of a Holy God and my disgusting self in the same place made me feel beyond sick; it was in a sense the very torment of hell to even think of the idea. And then I heard it again, “How willing is the Father to give the Holy Spirit to those that ask.”
The sickness would not go away and I resisted, until finally I humbly asked. In the distance what seemed to be millions of miles away with perfect vision I could see a small source of light rushing towards me at great speed. It was so far away that it took several minutes to get closer even though its speed was amazing. Just as it was about to reach my body it suddenly turned into luminous water and it splashed all over me and I was suddenly drenched completely with a rush of water. But more than that what grabbed my attention was the physical sensation of being caressed and surrounded with love and a voice that spoke quietly and repeated for nearly five minutes or so saying, “Bob, I love you.”
I shouted out several objections but the voice simply came back without any change, “Bob, I love you.” None of my objections were addressed and yet I knew they were not ignored, they were simply completely irrelevant. I finally let go of the objections and remained in that love quietly and at rest.
I won’t go into much more of the details, but I spoke to this comforting voice and that voice spoke back. We talked about many things and conversed for about a half an hour. During that discussion I completely forgot to ask any questions about how to change, I totally forgot about how disgusted I was with myself. The time came for this to end and I was told I was going back. I said goodbye and expressed gratitude and relief for having been so loved. And then just as suddenly I came to. I was back in the living room lying on the floor.
But strangely, although the voice was gone, the presence was not. I tried to re-engage in conversation. Nothing. Nothing but presence; nothing but living loved. It made no sense to me but I did not fight it. It took me over 10 years to work my way through a paradigm shift in my thinking about God, about theology. But there were two things that were deeply ingrained from that moment forward. I had lost all ability to hate myself. I still had struggles and disappointments; I was still in need of working through my problems. But it was merely work to do; there was no risk of not being loved. And I knew I was not unique; I knew every human being was just like me; loved with a love that cannot be expressed.
From time to time that presence seems unusual. I remember one time walking into a busy bank to make a deposit for my employer and as I entered the outer foyer it sounded to me as though someone was singing through a loud sound system inside the bank which seemed quite unusual. But as I entered the bank no singer could be seen and no one seemed to hear what I was hearing. I listened to the words and it was a song of delight and celebration over the beauty in the existence of everyone in that bank. When I realized what was apparently going on there was silence.
I have no idea what actually happened. Maybe I am simply an emotional whacko. I have no need to think of that experience as real or fake. I do not care. But from that day forward I have lived loved and it just does not stop.