You may ask yourself—well, how did I get here? —David Byrne
I haven’t always been a religious wacko. I used to be just a normal guy. Okay, maybe normal isn’t exactly the right word. For one thing, I grew up in North Dakota. How normal can that be? But there was a time when I could’ve been mistaken for a normal guy. Okay, probably not. My point is that nobody would mistake me for one now. And it’s not because I have no idea what I do for a living. It’s because I’m a bona fide, card-carrying, wince-wringing, zone-zinging, propriety-popping, savior-slinging, side-show spiritual freak.
I wasn’t looking to join the freak show. It was more like the freak show came looking for me. We’re talking some serious mojo here. Maybe I should explain.
My folks were the faithful church-going type. Hell, back then in North Dakota everybody was the faithful church-going type. Thirty below zero has that effect on people. These days they’ve got more oil rigs than churches. I’m not even sure they know the difference up there anymore. Anyway, my parents hauled me and my sister to church every Sunday. At first it was to a Nazarene church where the preacher closed every service with a seven-hour altar call. Well, it seemed like that to me anyway. It didn’t matter if it was pushing one o’clock or not. That preacher didn’t give up until at least one person came forward to repent. I’m guessing that some of those Nazarenes got themselves saved multiple times just to keep from starving to death.
Eventually my folks moved to a Presbyterian church on the other side of town. The service was more formal and the pastor didn’t expect anybody to get saved, which meant that we got out of there in time for lunch. But at the front of the sanctuary was this giant stained glass window of Jesus. It was really impressive, except, as I soon discovered, Jesus stared right at you no matter where you sat. Every Sunday, all through the service, that 50-foot Jesus stared me down like nobody’s business. I think he knew I was faking it. I spent the rest of my formative religious years there, quietly cringing under that unwavering scrutiny, my head bowed in defense, meditating on the floor of the Lord.
When I came of age I bolted from the sacred stalag and onto the fast lane. The summer before my junior year in high school my best friend introduced me to Washington State’s newest money crop. I soon became a connoisseur of questionable consumables of all kinds, waltzing on white lines, conveying quality contraband, and generally functioning as the de facto concierge for a surprisingly extensive mood-altering underground. The area’s major unlicensed pharmacist was my personal friend.
While attending my hometown college, I worked at a menswear boutique. There I was introduced to fashionable European-cut suits with all the glam accessories. My manager and assistant manager became my upscale party buddies and with them I moved my game to the big leagues. My nights were studded with dance clubs, business mucky-mucks, sultry babes, and, of course, an endless supply of fuel. I cruised the delirious streets in a refurbished ’49 Deluxe Chevy Coupe and often rode my motorcycle to work sporting a white, double-breasted pinstripe suite. I was Gatsby, and this spartan prairie town was my own little West Egg.
Nobody warned me about the speeding circus wagon.
“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle if it is lightly greased.” —John Nesvig
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a swift kick in the ass. Or so my sister seemed to think.
During this time of heady dissipation, my sister somehow got religion. Naturally, she figured I needed to get too. And so, at the very height of my glorious Gatsby-like decadence, she started hauling me on Sunday mornings to all sorts of churches in town, hoping that one of them might show me the error of my sinful ways and get my name down in the Book of Life. It was a tall order, as I was not in the least bit interested in getting saved, but it did provide a few moments of levity. One Sunday morning, as I drove us to church, a huge bag of weed rolled out from under the passenger seat. She picked it up like a Tennessee snake-handler and gingerly handed it to me. I promptly tucked it back under the seat and we drove on without comment to that morning’s Promised Land.
Most of the churches we visited were uniformly forgettable. They all offered their four hymns, an offering plate, and a spiffy pastor expounding a three-point sermon. The folks in the pews were smiley, neat, and respectable ad nauseam. It was like visiting zombie heaven. I was sure that even God must have been bored out of his skull. After the services it was always a great relief to step back into the refreshingly fallen world.
On another Sunday morning I decided to liven things up. Just before we headed out I secretly snorted a long white line of premium powder. By the time we arrived at the newest church, everything was sparking with the glory of God. As luck would have it, the worship service of this particular church was simulcast on the radio. Every moment of the service was carefully choreographed. The worship band was hot. The choir blew the roof off the place. Even the sermon came off like a professional job. It was funny (I sure as hell hope I wasn’t the only one laughing), free from annoying conviction, and—most importantly—over in under twenty minutes. I’m telling you, it was the best church service ever. It’s true: things do go better with coke.
But one Sunday we visited a small, sad looking evangelical church on the edge of town. The scruffy building had definitely seen better days. The sanctuary was old school, with worn pews and worn pulpit; the people seemed worn too, garbed in the finest from the Goodwill fashion scene. These folks were culled from the reject pile. The place even smelled like a Goodwill store. The service began with an old lady gamely banging out an old hymn on a slightly out-of-tune piano. I stood and sat when I was supposed to but could barely stifle my groans. It was the most miserable excuse for a worship service I had ever witnessed. I think even my sister raised the white flag that morning.
When the hymn singing was finally over, I considered staging a grand mal seizure as an excuse to get out of there. But before I could implement the plan, a reedy-looking guy stepped behind the pulpit. He was small and thin—and nearly swallowed by his frumpy three-piece suit. His nose was long and sharp, his eyes engorged by a thick pair of glasses. Along his jaw line sprouted a sparse, wispy beard. He looked like an actor for a cheap Amish slasher movie.
Then he opened his mouth and the bottom dropped out of the universe. His voice shattered the base register, rumbling from the very bowels of the earth. This scrawny preacher man was James Earl Jones on steroids. My first thought was, “Holy shit.” His eyes flashed as he thundered the Word of the freaking Lord. I was stunned. Here was a prophet ripped right out of the Old Testament. I wouldn’t have been surprised if that damned suit of his was made of camel’s hair. He whispered. He roared. He pounced over the pulpit. The place crackled with tension and heat. And—I swear—he never once took his eyes off of me.
I barely got out of there alive. For the next few days I madly tried to erase the scorch marks. I made multiple treks to my unlicensed pharmacist. I nearly forced my coworkers at joint-point to join me in shrill group sessions of smoke-fired religious deprogramming. But to my increasing dismay, I found I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was now in the relentless crosshairs of divine scrutiny. No matter what I did, the specter of some spiritual catastrophe hung, like strange disembodied eyes, over the valley of my desperate ashes. I was a dead man.
Finally, one weekday morning, after days of confused struggle and flight, and with the acrid taste of the previous night’s oblation still on my tongue, I slunk helplessly back to the sad little church.
It would be the end of civilization as I knew it.
You may say to yourself, My God, what have I done? —David Byrne
I waited, dazed and numb, as the kind church secretary informed the pastor that I wanted to see him. She told me that it would be just a few minutes and with a reassuring smile returned to her desk and her work. I nervously checked my watch; it was almost ten. I hoped that whatever was going to happen or not would happen or not in time for me to run home, eat lunch, change clothes, and get to work by one. I was new at this. I had no idea how long the wrath of God usually took.
I tapped my foot and looked around the room. No snakes or Kool-Aid that I could see. No photos of Sun Myung Moon or L. Ron Hubbard on the wall either. Only a faded picture of Jesus knocking on a door. I didn’t know whom Jesus was looking for, but I was glad that he at least wasn’t looking at me. I checked my watch again. The secretary looked up and smiled. “It won’t be long,” she said. Yeah, right, lady. She had no idea that my entire debauched life was projecting before my eyes in HD, no idea that I was nothing but a lump of charcoal waiting to happen, no idea that I had to pee like the Hoover Dam. I just nodded and concentrated on my shoes.
After a few more moments, she stood and gestured me toward the door. This was it. I had no idea what it it was, but I knew that it was probably going to be the biggest it of my entire tilted life. With a deep breath I stepped through the door. And there he was. He sat behind a simple desk cluttered with papers and books, wearing the same suit and beard as last time. But now he seemed much smaller, much less terrifyingly Old Testament. This was no ravening prophet; here was just a little, thin man in spectacles and a frumpy suit. I’m not sure if I was relieved or disappointed. He smiled and stood. “How can I help you?” he asked, offering his hand.
But before I could shake it, before I could think, before I even knew what I was saying, I blurted out, “I want to receive Jesus as my Lord and Savior!” Seriously. I really did.
I blinked. He blinked.
Okay. There are two things that go through your mind in a situation like this. The first is—What the hell am I doing? There I was, up to my armpits in at least six of the seven deadly sins—and an expert in a few more I had invented myself. I was the Mozart of immorality, the Aeneas of iniquity, the Van Gogh of vice for God’s sake! The LAST thing I wanted was to abandon my magnificent moral turpitude to become some bobble-headed Jesus freak.
The second thing that goes through your mind is—What if the Jesus thing is a sham? What if the whole Christian hallelujah God deal is an absurd sideshow? What if church is no more than a 2000 year-old consolation club for rejects, misfits, oddballs, and mutants? What if there’s nobody on the other end of the line? What if Woody Allen was right after all? “Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.”
But there I was. The die was cast. I could smell the bridges burning behind me.
The pastor invited me to sit as he pulled a chair around. He said there was no magic formula, no fancy rituals. All I had to to was pray. I closed my eyes. This was it. The salvation thing was either legit or not, and I was about to find out. “Lord, I want you do be my savior.” I paused, then added, “And make it stick.” That was it. No long flowery prayers. No shimmy and shake. No heavenly choirs. The pastor shook my hand and reassured me that God was faithful and would handle the details. Meeting over.
I drove home to get ready for work with no idea what had just happened. Yes, I had said a prayer which I was pretty sure was sincere, but other than a mild sense of relief nothing seemed all that different. This new salvation wasn’t exactly a letdown, but it was no barn-burner either.
Thirty minutes later the barn exploded.
The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault. —Jim Butcher, Blood Rites
In the beginning was the Word—and I’m pretty sure the word was ambush. If I had known my Biblical history back then, I might have suspected God’s fondness for the burning bushwhack. Apparently he likes to pounce on people once in a while, to take a walk on the blindside. It seems that every so often God enjoys lobbing a nice little bombshell. And if you just happen to be the lucky stiff he jumps—well, too bad for you.
So after my no-frills, no-thrills meeting with the pastor that morning, I drove home from the church wondering what had just happened. Was I saved now or what? How was I supposed to tell? I knew that I was supposed to believe, but believing I was a handsome millionaire rock star sex god didn’t make me one. The world was filled with people who believed totally weird stuff. For hundreds of years people believed that the earth was flat. Lots of little kids believed in Santa. And just a few days ago I had gone to work believing that I was wearing matching socks. There I was, ten minutes into salvation and the whole believe in Jesus thing was already starting to seem a bit shaky.
When I got home, I made a quick lunch, then changed into a suit for work at the menswear boutique. I had landed the upscale job during college. I loved the fancy clothes, the hip clientele, and the life of the perpetual party. The manager and assistant manager had become my good friends; after work we often tripped the starry dynamo together, pulling a well-dressed entourage in our glittery wake. Only a couple of nights earlier my assistant manager and I had auditioned the town’s latest Mary Jane star. I was a member of the social illuminati, counted among the little gods, the town’s arbiters of all things cultured and intoxicating.
I stood in my living room and stared out the window. I no longer knew who I was supposed to be. Somehow I knew that my days of manic debauchery were over, but I had no idea what was supposed to happen now. Was I supposed to be nice guy and go to church a lot? Was I supposed to head to a monastery or stand on the street corner handing out religious tracts? To make matters worse, I wasn’t even sure that God himself was anything more than wishful thinking.
Suddenly, without warning, the invasion began. Reality abruptly shifted, and, as if from an invisible chalice, something incomprehensibly and astonishingly alive began to pour over me. It coursed through me like liquid fire, engulfing me in a roiling, shimmering cloud of utter Being. We’re not talking some poetic enlightenment thing here. Everything I had ever known or believed or experienced was obliterated by this surpassing, alien, and hard-core glory. I sunk to my knees under the weight. “You are real,” I whispered. “You. Are. Real.”
When I was able, I climbed unsteadily back to my feet. The initial onslaught had ebbed, but I was buzzing with powerful and inexplicable energies. Jesus was real—real!—and he had just shredded my entire cosmos. The world was charged with the presence of God. Doubts had collapsed in the face of irrefutable divine assertion. I knew that Jesus was who he said he was. I knew that I had been forgiven. I knew that his Spirit had filled me. Above all, I knew that I had just been annexed. Nothing would ever—could ever be the same.
By sheer instinct I stumbled out the door for work. It is a dangerous thing to loose upon the world a man possessed. A dangerous thing indeed.
“Sometimes when you look in his eyes you get the feeling that someone else is driving.” —David Letterman
I rolled into the parking lot a few minutes before my 1-9 PM shift. The powerful soul-quake that had rocked me earlier now burned in me like magnesium. This Holy Ghost thing was profoundly unlike the highs I was used to. I was immersed in unmediated reality, shockingly alive. Everything around me blazed with a nearly unbearable actuality. The heavens and the earth, and my place in them, had come into sharp focus. The Living God had swallowed me whole. I felt utterly clarified.
Like always, I entered through the back door into the workroom where the punch clock was. Nobody else was back there so I slotted my time card, adjusted my suit jacket, and headed toward the sales floor.
The store was quiet and empty of customers. My boss and the assistant manager were chatting at the service desk in the middle of the shop some thirty feet away, but the instant I stepped onto the floor they both quickly looked up as though startled. Before I could say a word, my manager yelped, “What in the world has happened to you?”
Much later I recognized the significance of this moment. I was showing up for work at my scheduled time as expected, coming through the same door that I used every day, wearing a suit I’d worn to work many times. My hair looked like it always did. I was wearing my usual face too, as far as I could tell. There was absolutely nothing in my demeanor or appearance that was different from any other day that I’d spent with these two guys. Yet, like antelope grazing on the Serengeti that sense sudden danger, they both had snapped to alertness when I arrived. They had immediately detected a change in me, some new force field that had abruptly disrupted the normal tranquil frequencies. It was my first indication that the Jesus thing was not a mere inner experience or a metaphor for some private, personal enlightenment. The Spirit was not a philosophy or religion; he was not my own anything at all. No. This was the Holy One himself made manifest in me; this was the boundary-shattering Presence of the ancient and ineffable Other crashing the party. And although he was in me, he was decidedly not contained by me. The world was his and everything in it—and my buddies, though they could not have named it, could not ignore this striking visitation.
At that time I thought none of this. My boss and the assistant manager were staring at me. Even from across the sales floor I could see the nervous uncertainty in their eyes. Without a moment’s hesitation I spread wide my arms and blurted out, “I received Jesus as my Lord and Savior!” Their jaws dropped with an audible clang. I don’t recall what happened afterward, only that all I wanted to do from then on was tell anybody who came into the store about Jesus. Unfortunately, my sales plummeted. My coworkers could barely stomach me. It was only by God’s grace that I wasn’t justifiably fired.
A few nights later I stopped by my drug dealer’s house just to say hi. He was also a good friend, but I hadn’t seen or talked to him since my rather radical remaking. I parked on the curb, climbed the steps to his front door, and knocked. Being a supplier of dubious pharmaceuticals, my friend was understandably cautious. The bluegrass music I had heard from the stereo inside ceased. I could hear some quick activity that I knew from experience reflected certain precautionary measures. I waited. Finally I heard footfalls coming toward the door. The porch light flared on, then the curtain over a small side window moved aside just a bit. A single eye scrutinized me. The curtain fell back into place and I heard the clicks and clacks of unbolting locks. The door slowly opened to admit me.
“Guess what?” I asked.
He looked at me carefully, then narrowed his eyes and spat. “You became a Christian.”
Somewhere in the night a dog barked.
The trouble with born-again Christians is that they are an even bigger pain the second time around. —Herb Caen
It’s a weird thing to forfeit the deed to your life.
When God forecloses on you, you are, of course, insanely thankful that he has canceled the crushing spiritual debt which had marked you for death. You are delighted that you now have an actual relationship with a God who is no mere idea or human construct. You thrill to an amazing grace that not only obliterates your sin but empowers you to negotiate the troubled waters of a broken world. When God takes possession, you marvel at the coherence of the universe and of your place in the grand story. You are full of hope, confident that good will triumph and that justice will be established. You now know the truth and, like the manual says, it has indeed set you free. Yeah, you’re officially a Jesus freak.
But there is something else too, something deeply unsettling about the Jesus thing. When God annexes you, your tether to the familiar world comes unhitched. Suddenly you are pulled from the only ground you’ve ever stood on. You’re now a stranger in a strange land, a land in which everybody else seems very comfortably at home. You feel dislodged, still in the world but no longer really of it. No matter how you try to adapt, no matter what you do to fit in, you always feel like the odd man out.
The first brilliant rush of salvation obscures its sheer otherworldliness. You’re utterly and gloriously trashed by God’s brazen incursion into your domain. But as the initial shockwave of redemption dissipates, you begin to realize that it was you who were delivered to God’s house, not the other way around. You had thought that you were inviting Jesus into your life, but it dawns on you that, being dead in sin, you didn’t have a life to invite Jesus into. What God actually did was yank your corrupted keister out of the empire of darkness and haul it into his kingdom of light. You’ve had a major change of address, buddy. A revelation like this can totally mess up your plans for the weekend.
Or your life. Since the day of that awkward visit to the pastor’s office and my soul-boggling encounter with the Holy Spirit, I haven’t exactly been what you’d call normal. I’m haunted by the man behind the cosmic curtain and, in spite of the inexcusable fundamentalist bigotry of it all, I’m twisted enough to believe that the culturally maladjusted Jesus of the Bible is still the only way to eternal life. If that doesn’t screw you up, nothing will.
So here I am, almost 35 years later, still working the freak show. It has its ups and downs, but, as they say, that’s showbiz. Besides, where else would my dysfunctions be considered essential parts of the act? We Jesus freaks are a peculiar people for sure, and sometimes the show can be a little too freaky even for us. But, hey, we’re family. It’s actually a pretty good gig.
Cracking the User Manual
In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see. —Isaiah 29:18
“It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.” —Mark Twain
Recap: So there I am, minding my own debauched business, when I get jacked by Jesus, slammed into salvation, hacked by the Holy Ghost, then lobbed, radioactive, back onto an unsuspecting public who generally gape dumbstruck at the God-zombie who used to be me.
But as radically strange as my Jesus jumpstart was, it was only the beginning of strangeness. The initial soul-quake of salvation tends to get most of the press, but it’s the aftershocks that show just how screwed up you really are.
Though I was a novice at this born-again thing, I knew that, in order to make sense of my new link to the Starry Dynamo, I had to crack open the old Bible that had been lying undisturbed for years at the back of my closet. It was a small King James version with a black leather cover and thin, nearly transparent pages inside. I had received it many years before as a fresh-faced graduate of Vacation Bible School. It still had the VBS sticker with my name inside the front cover.
I dug out the neglected book, blew off the dust, and carefully carried it down to the basement where I had set up a small table and chair. I’m not sure why I preferred the spare subterranean setup rather than the much more comfortable kitchen table, but even then I suspected that there was something subversive about this venerable book, something mysterious, otherworldly, even a bit dangerous. It seemed best to crack it in a bunker where I might at least limit any collateral damage.
Now, even back then I wasn’t exactly a Biblical illiterate. I knew a lot of the stories and a good number of loosely rendered Jesus quips. As an English major at college, I had often exploited the Bible to shore up weak arguments, pad anemic critical essays, and fend off annoying Christian evangelists on campus. Until then I had pretty much consulted the Bible like I would Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, as a source of short proof texts to serve my rather shallow purposes. Beyond that I found the Holy Scriptures wholly uninteresting. It had never dawned on me, even for a moment, that the Good Book might actually be—well, good.
But my cursory, self-serving knowledge of the Bible had taught me one very important thing: to study the Bible all you need is the Bible itself and a simple concordance, that alphabetical list of the words in the Bible with citations of the verses where they appear. The concordance would help me chase down interesting threads if there were any to be had (the jury was as still out on that) and I wouldn’t have to deal with some seminary egghead’s theological skew. No pre-mixed academic soufflé for me, buddy. I wanted to chew my Bible raw, even at the risk of religious food poisoning.
I sat down and gently laid my old King James on the table. Next to it I placed the hefty Strong’s Concordance I had just bought. I looked at the unopened Bible. This was the founding document of Western civilization. Here before me was the book that had upended the Roman Empire, conquered the barbarian tribes, the book that compelled courageous men and women to the uttermost parts of the earth. Here was the book that had converted to faith many of the most brilliant minds in history. It was also, I reminded myself, the book that had fueled the crazy Crusades, fired up the Inquisition welcome wagon, and given the world Jim Jones, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jim and Tammy Bakker.
I swallowed hard, then nervously opened it where a narrow black ribbon marked a place from long ago. A sweet, leathery smell that I dimly remembered drifted from the pages. I moved the ribbon aside to discover that it marked the first chapter of the Gospel of John. This seemed as good a place as any to start. Very slowly, very quietly I whispered the first verse:
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
And that’s as far as I got. Something happened, something wondrous—and terrifying. My tentative little Bible study was summarily crushed. As it is written: it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
The Big Bang
He handed me the scroll and said, “Eat this and fill up on it.” So I ate the scroll, and it tasted sweet as honey. —Ezekiel 3:3
I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library. —Jorge Luis Borges
I sat in my makeshift basement hermitage, stunned. My Bible rested on the table before me, open to the first chapter of the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The moment I had whispered the words aloud something detonated in my head. Like some metaphysical Big Bang, my inner being flashed and ballooned like a newborn universe. Without warning I was hurled into an infinite awareness, not my own, one completely beyond my paltry comprehension, vast, ancient, thrillingly terrifying. I found myself engulfed by the ineffable, swallowed whole by the primal Mind of the utterly Other. I sat immobile, my mouth open, plunged in an astonishing revelation: the Spirit and the Word were one! I literally cried out in surprise, my voice startling the basement’s empty spaces.
The Word was no longer hidden behind the Bible’s words. The same Spirit who only days before had shredded my world in a visitation of liquid fire now burst like a shockwave through the seams of human language. This was no literary epiphany, no mere inspired ink on paper; this was visceral, imperative, living actuality. It swamped my cognitive circuit boards and demolished reason’s firewalls. I was in system failure. Divinity had cocked the hammer, pulled the trigger, and blown my freaking head off.
It was one hell of an opening salvo. From that moment I became a Bible-binging fiend. Before work each day, with my concordance on one side and a spiral notebook on the other, I would devour the Biblical texts, flipping from book to book, from Old Testament to New, chasing leads, defining terms, and filling notebooks with observations, impressions, questions, and conclusions. The more closely I looked, the more astonishing and beautiful the Scriptures appeared to me. And always, hovering amid and beyond the text’s many words, there was an unmistakable Presence. The Bible wasn’t merely teaching me about God, it was a place of meeting.
I believe that the Bible was written by humans, just like me, who were witnessing to what they had seen and heard. I came to believe that theirs is a reliable, inspired testimony which points to a reality that is not confined to the words of Scripture. God is not in the Bible, but the Book does faithfully testify of him. As Jesus himself said, “You study the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life. But these are the very Scriptures that point to me.” And those same Scriptures were pointing me toward the God who had so recently gate-crashed my party.
As I marinated in the Bible, clarity grew in me. For the first time life started coming into focus. I began to recognize patterns and harmonies within the relentless chaotic buzz of things. This experience was different from the sheer electric aliveness of the initial Holy Ghost invasion. This now was less an alien occupation than a profound restructuring of my own heart and mind. Out of the deepest reaches of my soul rose a comprehensive sense of meaning through which everything else was discerned and evaluated. Quite simply, the Bible, making good on its own promises, was making me wise.
But as nifty as all this was, I was not in the game to become some lame Bible thumping junkie. It wasn’t the Book I was after; I wanted the peerless Potentate himself. My time in the Bible had only whetted my appetite. I had tasted and seen that the Lord is good, but I was not satisfied with spiritual finger food. I’d downed the appetizers and now I wanted the burn-your-face-off entrée. I wanted the big stuff and I didn’t care if God fried me for raiding his omni-pantry. The Book had hinted of the goodies he stored in there and I’d be damned if I didn’t crash his party this time.
For some, prayer is the key to heaven. For me it was a crowbar.
The fewer the words, the better the prayer. —Martin Luther
I got in a fight one time with a really big guy and he said, “I’m going to mop the floor with your face.” I said, “You’ll be sorry.” He said, “Oh, yeah? Why?” I said, “Well, you won’t be able to get into the corners very well.” —Emo Philips
Billy Graham once said that prayer is simply a two-way conversation between you and God. All I can say is that Mr. Graham has never eavesdropped on one of my little chats with the Almighty. Billy’s prayer time may be like sipping tea with the Queen, but mine tended to resemble a title bout with Mike Tyson.
My basement bunker was more than just the place where I acquainted myself with Holy Writ; it was also where I learned the art of pietistic pugilism. In fact, each day, before I cracked the black leather cover of my Bible, I stepped into the ring for a few hard-hitting rounds with the Ancient of Days. Since God had unceremoniously knocked me to the mat, I figured I’d return the favor by pounding my way into the holy of holies or get KO’d trying. I never did subscribe to the principles of polite spiritual discourse. God meant for me and him to duke it out.
Each morning I descended the stairs to where my table and chair were set up. I laid my Bible on the table, tossed a small couch pillow onto the carpet, kneeled on it, then bowed my face to the floor and waited for the bell. This wasn’t an attempt to be religious, and nobody had ever told me that this was the way I should do it. (My early spiritual development was refreshingly free from dogmatic influences.) The face-plant just seemed the appropriate posture considering whom I was squaring off with. I may have been reckless, but I was not stupid. If I was going to go toe to toe with the Most High, it seemed good counter strategy to get as low as possible.
Since I was new at this prayer thing, I didn’t know jack about divine diplomacy. I had no idea you were supposed to address God with grand words like Thee, Thou, Thy, and Thine, or that when talking to deity you should add -eth or -est to all verbs. I was also ignorant of the many stock phrases required of any respectable prayer, such as if it be thy will or O Lord, we thank thee or we beseech thee, gracious Savior. On the contrary, my spiritual vocabulary was stripped and limited. In fact. there were some days when all I could muster was a simple O God. On those days, I forcibly funneled myself through the narrow aperture of those one and a half words, then thrust like a ramjet to punch through the invisible but palpable barrier above me. Whether the boundary was human limitation or heaven’s reluctance I still don’t know.
So each day I’d call out to the Lord with all my heart and soul and mind and strength. I rarely asked for stuff, though my Bible said I could. I wasn’t interested in prosperity or success or even spiritual gifts (which my Bible said were good things to ask for). All I really wanted was God himself. I had no idea what that actually meant (I still don’t), but nothing else even remotely mattered to me. I told God point-blank: “You can keep everything else. All I want is you!” This wild hunger, inflamed by the tantalizing promises of Scripture, kept driving me to my knees. My house often shook with the private storm of my cries.
There were times when my soul-clench was nearly unbearable. I would thrash on my knees for hours until, exhausted and unsatisfied, I would head off to work. But there were also times when something undefinable shifted and with a deep thrill I’d know for certain that I had gotten someone’s attention. Then, one day, I most definitely got somebody’s attention.
And it wasn’t God.
Visitor from the Dark Side
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. −Ephesians 6:12
Just cause you got the monkey off your back doesn’t mean the circus has left town. −George Carlin
As far as prayer was concerned, I was driven more by zeal than knowledge. The Bible taught me a lot about God and his way of doing things, but when it came to personal adventures in the metazone I was still pretty much a plebe. For one thing, I had just assumed that, in all practicality, God was the only fish in Spirit Lake. I figured a person could swim anywhere without fear of shark attacks.
Eventually I would discover that the Bible included a virtual taxonomy of the creatures who hang out in the heavenly realms. There are the good angels, of course, but they’re not white clones of each other; apparently they come in different flavors. Among them there are messenger angels, warrior angels, musician angels, wrath coordinators, and worship specialists. There also seem to be two higher-level angelic classes: cherubim and seraphim. I have no idea what these mean, but I’m pretty sure cherubim aren’t cute, chubby baby angels packing bows and arrows. Then there are those strange creatures, reported by both the prophet Isaiah and the writer of the Revelation, who have multiple wings and are covered with eyes. Those guys scare the bageezes out of me just thinking about them.
On the other team are the bad dudes. From what I can pick up from the Bible, they once wore white hats too, but due to an attempted coup, they got their angelic butts kicked straight to hell. Since then they make it their business to mess with the human race and do all that they can to derail the divine agenda for the universe. Jesus evicted them whenever he found them, and his disciples carried on the tradition. As time went on, though, the demonic horde apparently found it more effective to work incognito. These days overt demonic activity is mostly the stuff of movies.
At the time I had only the vaguest notion of all this. My limited mission in the otherworld was to bulldoze the divine security perimeter and snag a big piece of God. Meeting the neighbors, on either side of the tracks, was not on my itinerary. It seems, however, that my oafish cannonball plunge into spiritual waters attracted at least one predator.
It was before work. I was in the basement, kneeling on my pillow with my face to the floor. It was one of the “O God” sessions when my whole being converged in a single, laser-like hunger for the divine glory.
My soul convulsed with longing as I raised my head and lifted my hands. Suddenly, everything went ice-cold. My prayer sputtered to a stop. I opened my eyes and looked about me. Something was definitely weird. It felt like the abrupt drop of temperature that signals an advancing thunderstorm. Shaking it off, I attempted to resume praying, but a feeling of deep dread clamped over me and choked the words in my throat. The air grew thin, the room seemed to dim and, as I panted for breath, a definite, malevolent presence began to coalesce around me. Though I didn’t fully grasp what was going on, two things were clear: this thing was not me and it had intention. Desperately I tried to jumpstart a prayer—any prayer, but it was no use. Whatever this thing was had snuffed the connection. The line was dead—and there was an intruder in the house.
I quickly realized that this encounter was directly related to my prayer activity, but I had no idea how to counter such a threat. The thing had effectively shut me down, either by real offensive power or by sheer intimidation. Spooked and confused, I capitulated and abandoned the field. I was outta there. Score one for the bad guy.
Over time I came to understand that this live-fire exercise was another part of my spiritual training. Theoretical knowledge about the forces of evil in the unseen realms is one thing; experiential knowledge is quite another. It’s not easy to dismiss the demonic as invention or misdiagnosis when you have confronted—or have been confronted by—its unnerving manifestation. As Hamlet admonished, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Amen to that, brother.
I was a bit shell-shocked from my unexpected face-to-face with the enemy. The minor demonic skirmish in the basement had opened my eyes. This born-again thing was no religious game. Whether I liked it or not, I had been tapped for a cosmic war involving armies—with more firepower than I could ever imagine—battling for nothing less than being itself. That’s when it hit me: I hadn’t just been saved; I had been conscripted.
Then I got my orders.
“As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” —Acts 4:20
“Those Jesus freaks, well, they’re friendly, but the shit they believe has got their minds all shut.” —Frank Zappa
One of the big differences between Jesus freaks and your average run-of-the-mill religious person is that the Jesus variety are absolutely convinced that everybody else on the planet needs to join the freak show too. Yes, there are a lot of really nice Christian folk out there who mercifully keep their religion to themselves. In fact, unless you actually catch them sneaking out for church some Sunday morning you might never discover their private sectual orientation. These tight-lipped Christians may have mild theological qualms about unbelievers, but in practice they’re pretty much content to reap the benefits of the Cross and American Dream and let the pagans wander their merry way down the road to perdition.
Jesus freaks, on the other hand, wear themselves inside out. For them salvation is something to be advertised and they are God’s billboards along the freeway just this side of the final tollbooth. You can turn up the radio, flip down the visor, and stomp on the accelerator pedal, but you can’t ignore them. To make matters worse, Jesus freaks are convinced that your religious business is their business. Forget the “all roads lead to heaven” tripe; these people have got the freaking map for Christ’s sake and, come hell or high water, they’re going to point you to the Promised Land whether you like it or not. Some freaks may use more finesse than others, but whether they’re wielding a jelly roll or a jackhammer they’re determined to share the spiritual mother lode. This can be a bit disconcerting to the general public and may be a good reason to sanction limited religious persecution.
Which brings this whole episodic freakish account to its (second) intended conclusion. I started writing these posts in order to explain myself to curious bystanders, many of whom knew of my Christian bent but had no idea just how bent I really am. I tried to describe for them my unexpected and rather unreligious encounter with a decisively real God and to trace the early fallout. Basically, I wanted them to know whose fault I am.
I also hoped that my story might remind my faith fellows that the Gospel still has serious firepower. I am living proof that there’s still such a thing as radical redemption. To our progressive culture the message of salvation in Jesus alone may appear quaint or even discriminatory and counterproductive, but I’m Exhibit A that the Blood will never lose its power. I realize too that I may also be one of the best arguments that the Gospel isn’t exclusive enough, but then I’ve never claimed that God is normal. As they say, it is what it is.
Interestingly, in writing this account, I discovered that I was also attempting to explain myself to me. Nobody is more astonished at my transformation than I am. I have never been drawn to religious observance of any kind. Even now I find pietistic exercise generally empty and unfulfilling. My story is not about religious zeal and discipline culminating in spiritual enlightenment. Mine is simply about an extraordinary grace and its strange aftermath. Telling it here reminds me of a love beyond all measure.
It’s my story. It is what it is. And it ain’t over yet.