30 May 2013

I haven't seen Jesus

(yet) ... but I know some people who have.

I'm not talking figuratively here. I'm talking about occurrences like the one that happened to a Friend, who, in a moment of spiritual desolation had sat down on a bench in the very church whose former pastor (different denomination, if that matters) had attacked her when she was just a child. Having returned for a visit as an adult, she had seen a plaque in the rose garden dedicated to those whose ashes were interred at that church. The plaque named that pastor and quoted Scripture: Well done, good and faithful servant. As she sat there, she looked to her side, and further down the bench, Jesus was quietly sitting with her.

About nineteen years ago, when I was at Friends United Meeting, we published an issue of Quaker Life about boundary violations by religious leaders. A poem by that Friend was one of the items in that issue. Another was an article by Carol Holmes, who wrote about meeting Jesus--literally--when she was a child. I was so intrigued by her account that I have always vividly remembered it. (She's retelling it in her work-in-progress, Choosing Miracles--and she's given me permission to pass along the full story a little further down this page.)

Two other Friends have also told me about their experiences of meeting Jesus. In one case, she was going through a process of bankruptcy when it happened. Another Friend met him during a retreat at Pendle Hill in Pennsylvania.

I have not seen Jesus, though I've been a disciple for 39 years. (Not that being a "disciple" is a prerequisite; Jesus visits whomever he pleases!) With the exception of a couple of periods of deep depression and alienation, I've talked to him at least daily all those years. I've had at least one genuine vision, but it was of the planet Earth at prayer, not of God; and I've had one instance of prophetic knowledge. That's it.

But I'm in community with people who have seen Jesus, and, really, that's good enough for me. Of course I can quote "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (from John 20:29), but it's more than that. When I love and trust and am in fellowship with others, their testimony in some sense becomes ours, held in common. Likewise, my struggles and victories are also ours.

Furthermore, I'd like to think, with Paul, that as we unite our testimonies and gifts and build up the body together, we're growing into the full stature of Christ. At times we glimpse Jesus in each other. And we can be bold to confess that our best hope as meetings, as churches, is to make Jesus real in our wider communities. I remember Joe Kelly at the Friends of the Light Meeting in Traverse City, Michigan, USA, saying that this was their ministry--even though most of that meeting's members were not exactly born into Sunday schools. Many had grown into adulthood believing that they were not fit to step into a church at all, to say nothing of making Jesus real! That old belief was gloriously wrong.

And there might even be occasions where, with all humility, we can acknowledge that you and I as individuals might be bearing the image of Jesus into a situation where we are uniquely able to do that, and required to do that. For example:
A few years ago I heard a story about Richard Wurmbrand. This Romanian Christian minister of Jewish descent publicly denounced communism and said that it was not compatible with Christianity. Due to his unwillingness to compromise his convictions, he experienced imprisonment and repeated torture for his beliefs, Despite his almost unbearable hardships, he never made a negative statement about those who persecuted him. In fact, he was known to pray for each communist guard on a daily basis.

At one point during Wurmbrand's improsnment, one of the other prisoners confronted him in the middle of the prison compound. He said that the way Wurmbrand had been imprisoned and tortured proved that there was no God. Wurmbrand is said to have quietly responded, "If I can show you God, would you then believe?" The man retorted, "Of course, but look at you, look at us! You can't show me God."

Wurmbrand looked at his fellow prisoner and said, "God is like me." Instantly the man fell to his knees and gave his life to Jesus.

(Strategic Church: A Life Changing Church in an Ever Changing Culture, Frank Damazio)
It's hard for me to imagine having either the nerve or the credibility to pull off what Wurmbrand did. But at that time and place, it's not our credibility or our nerve that counts, it's our trust.

Carol Holmes: "Jesus Visits Me."
So that was me in my earliest years. I wouldn’t say I was a particularly devout child. My spiritual life—as best I remember it—consisted of three clear pieces: I liked sitting in Meeting for Worship. The Crucifixion made me feel so sick to my stomach that I didn’t want to go near my Bible. And Grandma went to a church that was like a palace from olden days and smelled good.

That’s why I have no explanation for what I want to tell you about next. (By “that” I mean my lack of devoutness.) We had troubles in the family. My brother was severely dyslexic. My parents had been resourceful enough to get George to the child development clinic at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1930s and get him diagnosed. Pretty amazing of them, as I think about it now. Then, having got the diagnosis, they moved house from one school district to another so he could get better teaching. Still, George struggled and floundered. They even tried enrolling him—at their wit’s end—in a Quaker boarding school for his senior year. It was no good. He ended up dropping out. He came home and got a job in a motorcycle shop owned by the father of a friend of his where he worked on engines. And finally (I have no memory of how this happened) he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force where, sure enough, he was found to have mechanical talent and was sent to school in Texas to learn about airplane engines. When he was done there, the Air Force sent him to Germany where he did maintenance on planes all day and where it was revealed he had another talent, target practice. His dyslexia had given him a compensating gift. He was a Dead-Eye Dick. He simply didn’t miss. Quite quickly, he was put on the Air Force’s competitive rifle team and became a champion skeet shooter. That was how a nineteen-year-old kid from a Quaker family spent his military time during the Korean War years.

It was some time after George went to Germany, because I know I was sleeping upstairs under the sloping eaves of our little Cape Cod cottage, which heretofore had been completely his territory. If my reconstruction of the chronology is right (and there’s no one still alive to ask), I would have been in the third grade. Aside from the excitement of feeling grown up at having a whole floor of the house to myself, above my parents’ ground floor bedroom, I can’t think what else was going on in my life. I don’t even remember what time of year it was. In any event, here’s what happened.

I had gone to sleep. I tended to sleep lying on my stomach. At some point during the night, I was wakened up when I felt the bottom of my mattress sink down with the weight of someone sitting on the foot of my bed. I remember looking over my right shoulder to see who it was--how can I remember that detail when I remember so little else?—and I rolled over and sat up when I recognized the face in the glow of my nightlight.

It was Jesus. He looked like the pictures of him in my story Bible.

He didn’t say anything to me. I didn’t say anything either. There didn’t seem to be any need for words. The peacefulness around us said everything. After a bit, he took my hands in his and the peace got even deeper as we continued to look into each other’s eyes. Feelings of comfort and completeness—as I would name them now; I’m not sure I had the concepts then—also gathered us in. All wordless, all without question, sitting together in silent communion. Then it was over, he was gone, and I lay down and slept.

The next morning at breakfast, when Mother and I were alone in the kitchen (and it occurs to me now that it must have been Saturday or else it was summer, because I wasn’t getting ready to go to school), I told her that Jesus had come to see me the night before. She listened carefully from the sink where she was washing dishes while I told her what had happened and then she said, “That sounds like a nice kind of dream to have had.”

“Mmmm,” I answered and didn’t say more—because I knew it hadn’t been a dream. I finished breakfast and went outside to play alone.

How did I know it hadn’t been a dream? And what do I think now? My answer as an eight-year-old would have been that I’d had dreams. I knew what they felt like. What happened that night was different. It was coherent. There were no illogical elements—like one wall of my bedroom turning into a waterfall or the nightlight becoming a tiny Christmas tree. It was real, not surreal, unless you consider Jesus to be surreal. Which my mother clearly did. Why didn’t I think Jesus was surreal? the equivalent of a waterfall wall or a Christmas tree nightlight? I guess because of the context. He was sitting on my bed in the midst of the reality that was my room at night. He was a matter of fact, as tangible as if my father or mother had come in to check to see if I’d kicked off my blankets. And because his appearance was so matter of fact, I didn’t make a big deal about it.

I probably told some of my friends, but only in the context of something interesting that had happened. Interesting, not miraculous. If what I understood of Quaker worship and Grandma’s holy cards and the stories in my story Bible had any truth to them, then Jesus dropping by to see me one night was all part of that. It was only to be expected. We check in on the people we love. So, of course, Jesus would do the same. That was how I viewed it as an eight-year-old.

Looking back now, I know that I clammed up and went off to be alone because I felt distanced from my mother, looking at her across an abyss that had opened up in the middle of our kitchen floor. My mother listened to my mystical experience and gave it a rational explanation, whereas I had taken the mystical premises she had been teaching me and found the experience rational.

It was as an adult, as odd things continued to happen to me, that I heard about lucid dreams, synchronicity, hallucinations (drug-induced and otherwise), schizophrenic tendencies, temporal lobe epilepsy, and the power of the unconscious mind. I say “heard” because I have not become a student of any of those things. I read a little Jung, but I couldn’t make much out of it. Likewise Freud. I’ve known some schizophrenics in my life. Once, I was able to sustain a friendship for about five years with a brilliant, funny woman who had been in and out of hospitals since she was 19 until, I’m ashamed to say, it became too painful for me to stand by her in her suffering. I passed through the Sixties without taking LSD to my knowledge (although I do admit to smoking marijuana for the first time in the Haight-Ashbury then heading out to the Fillmore to see Gracie Slick, but Gracie didn’t show so we saw this newcomer—Janis Joplin—instead). I haven’t read Karen Armstrong’s Spiral Staircase about her diagnosis of epilepsy and its relation to her spiritual life nor have I looked at Oliver Sacks’s Hallucinations, which came out as I was writing this book.

Mind you, it’s not that I dismiss Jung, Freud, Armstrong, and Sacks. Far from it. In fact, I’ve learned that I had a relative who was institutionalized, probably for schizophrenia. And I suspect that I may have a very, very mild form of epilepsy myself. No, the reason I haven’t pursued any of these explanations for my mystical-encounter stories is that I like letting them be. They’re friends who accompany me, not problems that need solutions. What I’ve found over the years is that it’s other people—my mother, for example—who out of habit (which I think it was in her case) or out of deep need not to come unmoored seek the rational, scientific explanation.

Be warned. I’ll confess it here. I’m inviting you, with my stories, to become unmoored.
"Jesus Visits Me" is an excerpt from a work-in-progress titled Choosing Miracles: A Story of Voices, Visions, and Angels. You can follow Carol's progress at her blog Over My Own Shoulder.

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