We’ve been talking about religious experiences this week. The good, the bad, the ugly. Some want to write off all experiences as false and misleading. Others cling to miracles and touchy-feely stuff as the point of contact for their faith. Me? I’m all messed up.
I was saved in a Charismatic Baptist church. Really. Not many of those, I know. It was in 1973, the heyday of the Jesus People Movement and the Charismatic Renewal. The two met head-on in the oldest continuing Baptist church in the state of Ohio, and I met Jesus there one Saturday when I was fourteen. I heard many sermons about the supernatural acts of God and how they were still in evidence today. Faith healers came through, and there were reports of legs that were lengthened and … and come to think of it, that was the main act of healing I heard about. Short legs being lengthened. I heard of a number of these cases, some even at my church. But I never witnessed such a thing.
The gifts of the Spirit were a frequent topic from our pulpit. Well, primarily speaking in tongues. We were taught that if we did not personally have our own “prayer language,” then we weren’t filled with the Spirit. And if we weren’t filled with the Spirit, then we may possibly still be saved, but barely. So most everyone admitted they spoke in tongues, and glossolalia was common in every meeting. But I didn’t really experience the other First Corinthians gifts of the Spirit.
Not, that is, until I went to college at Oral Roberts University. Words of wisdom, words of knowledge, tongues and interpretation were commonly practiced there. Well, that is, by those in charge. Students were to watch, not participate. Unless, of course, they needed healing. Yet even as we heard of remarkable healings that took place on our campus and in crusades led by Oral Roberts and his son, Richard, I never saw a healing myself. And though I heard of financial miracles, with testimonies coming that just when someone was about to be turned out of school for lack of funds they would receive exactly the amount they needed in the morning post, I never experienced anything like that.
When I graduated from ORU, I was seven years along in my faith journey. I had been taught that experiences—healings, tongues, supernatural gifts of money—were the norm. And if I was not experiencing these things in my life, then I was not a “Spirit-filled Christian.” I would be considered second-class, at very best. So I wore a mask, not exactly lying, but at least giving the appearance that all the mighty works that others supposedly did and saw were common in my life as well.
So I went through decades of my Christian life wearing a mask. I said and did all the acceptable things, and pretended that I knew God and was being used by him to do “great and mighty things.” And after you wear a mask for some time, you begin to believe that it really is how you look.
Then, apparently, the real God had enough of my impersonating a true son of his. He began tearing off my mask one painful layer at a time. All those experiences I thought I had and said I lived through disolved. I found myself naked—and ashamed—before God. Thinking I knew it all, I was very surprised to find out I was clueless about everything.
God then took me in front of a mirror so I could see who I really was. What I found was surprising to me. I was a mystic. That’s how I could see God. That’s how I first met Jesus. Not by witnessing a miracle nor hearing a rousing, emotional sermon nor by being slain in the Spirit. I met Jesus by sensing a deep longing, an intense hunger in my soul. I couldn’t put it into words. One minute it wasn’t there, the next it was.
And that is how God has continued to meet me. He finds ways to approach me in books and music and movies. He shows me his face in the sunrise and in the clouds. He surprises me at times in conversations with friends and with strangers. And once in a while he even shows up for me in a church service.
Michael didn’t particularly like the word “mystic.” It wasn’t neat and orderly enough for him. Mystics can be flighty, distracted by a shiny object one minute, then aloof and not attracted by a roomful of shiny objects the next. Most mystics doubt they are hearing God, and many have horrible self-concepts. Mystics don’t understand why God would work the way they think he is working. They may even think he shouldn’t work in that way. But somehow, in a way that is inexplicable to others, they know it really is God, and things are about to get very interesting.
If pressed to explain why I believe in God, why Jesus is all that matters to me, I would say I don’t know. I can’t explain why a God who created the universe would give a wet slap about me. I dont’ know why the King of all kings would get himself dirty trying to help me. I don’t understand it, and anyone who tries to prove it to me doesn’t get it either. But the very fact that I don’t understand and yet somehow still know it’s true is all the proof I need.
I’m not say experiences are wrong. Not at all. Perhaps you are most comfortable with experiences. That’s fine, as long as they are bringing you closer to Jesus. Maybe your anchor is in reason and objectivity. Me, I’m a mystic. It’s who God made me, and now that the mask has been taken off of me, I can see it clearly. This is who I am. I hope I don’t frighten you too much.