A friend of mine, a Christ follower, came over for coffee a week ago. I knew him well enough to know we’d end up talking about spiritual things, but I didn’t expect it to change my life.
I never wanted the Christ. Sure, I grew up in a Christian nation, surrounded by the trappings of the religion claiming to represent the Christ, and yes, I’d given plenty of thought and exploration to the Christ. After all, more than 2 billion people–almost a third of the world’s human population–call Christ their prime deity. I had to give it a fair shake, even though the whole concept and all its attendant paraphernalia never appealed to me. I attended many churches, spoke with many Christians. I saw the hypocrites in all their repugnant glory on the airwaves and in person; I saw the goodness of real Christians embracing the spirit of charity and forgiveness in the form of soup kitchens and random acts of generosity. After weighing the evidence, I ultimately concluded that the Christ figure, the bible, the churches, and all of the Christians of the world could never convince me to become a follower of the Christ.
“You will become a Christian one day,” my Christian best friend always told me with childlike certainty. “I just know you will.”
“No offense, my friend, but don’t hold your breath. It’s not going to happen. It’s just a fact. Christianity ain’t for me. Love you bro.”
I felt sorry for my best friend. One of us would die before he ever saw me become a Christian. He would never see his certainty affirmed, and his faith would be painfully shaken. My heart went out to him, because I knew he was going to be let down. There was nothing I could do about it though; I would never fake it just to do my friend a kindness. My integrity is too important to me. I was a scientist and only a scientist; only the observable was permissible in the court of my mind.
I explored many other religions and traditions as well, and none of them changed me either. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve always found religion and spirituality fascinating. Such rich history, such beautiful promises. The sociology, psychology, and art surrounding religion are neverending sources of sustenance for my voraciously curious mind. I’ve visited dozens of Christian churches, Muslim mosques, Jewish synagogues, Buddhist meditation centers, and various temples. I have explored Spiritualism, the religion of mediums and fortune tellers that sprang up alongside the American women’s suffrage movement in the 1890s. I have participated in numerous Lakota- and Bear Tribe-style sweat lodges with my father, who has always been heavily involved in exploring the Cherokee strand of our roots. I have read deeply and intensely about Hinduism, Taoism, Chinese Shintoism, Paganism, and the old gods of Greece and Rome and the Nordic peoples. I’ve given ear to and participated in rituals of astrology, divination, the Tarot, and various admixtures of supernatural syncretism. All of this research and exploration has made me richer as a person, certainly, and I cherish these experiences but none of them crossed over from my mind to my heart.
There have, I admit, been times when I’ve strained to reach out to a God, or the God, or whatever. I’ve tried to convince myself that I believe in a God, that it might be listening, that it might have power in my life for better or for worse. In my darkest hours of poverty, of existential pain, of despair, I’ve spoken aloud to that God, summoned him in an effort to gain some bird’s eye perspective with which to see my life and restore myself to sanity. But it was always little more than a pantomime.
My culture has for 33 years been planting the seeds of the message of the Christ in my mind. Every Easter, every Christmas, every Lent, every time someone says Jesus loves me, every time I see a church adorned with an ancient torture device on the roof, every time a friend gently urges me to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior, I am reminded that I live in a Christian culture. And yet I never wanted to take it seriously, not really. None of it passed the B.S. test. At best, Christianity on the whole was an obsolete story being kept on life support by a bunch of weak-minded zombies who could sometimes be charitable; at worst, it was a festering cesspool of evil, hypocritical demons whose chief contribution to humanity was genocide in the name of a mythical peace lover.
By the time my friend–not my best friend, but a new friend, one I had hung out with a few times–came over for coffee last week, I had already long come to terms with Christianity as a fact of my culture, and I was at peace with the idea that it just wasn’t my bag, but I would respect other people’s need for it in their lives. That was were it would stand until the day I died.
Over coffee and burritos my friend and I discussed the weather, daily life, philosophy, and finally things of the spirit. I’ve always enjoyed these kinds of talks; I must admit I get a vicarious kick out of communing with other people’s gods. So I went along with it when my friend asked me if it would be okay if he said a prayer for us.
“Sure, let’s do it,” I said. We bowed our heads and he asked God two questions. The first question: “God, how have you been moving in our lives in the past month?” We sat in silence and waited for the answers to come in the form of thoughts for five minutes. The thought I had was that “God” had been “sending” “emissaries” to me–emissaries of light, of the outside world I’d been hiding from, of goodness and positivity. These emissaries were both Christian and non-Christian, in the form of friends and family members that would visit, call, or write. There had indeed been a recent uptick in my social calendar, and I hadn’t realized it until my friend asked God how he’s been moving in our lives.
The second question my friend asked God: “God, what is our next step? It could be little, could be big, but what is our next step in the next few days?” The answer came to me immediately: I must respond to these emissaries by accepting their gifts into my heart, and by becoming an emissary myself–of light, of goodness, of positivity, of generosity. In other words, my next steps in life were to reach outside of myself. That’s good advice no matter how credulous you are towards some culturally constructed deity.
The prayer changed nothing. That’s not when the Christ entered my being and took over my life. That moment came a few minutes later, when my friend was preparing to take his leave.
“Do you mind if I say a prayer for your knees?” he asked me. I had banged up my knees two days earlier when taking a spill on the concrete. They were in pain and very stiff. Walking up and down stairs was a slow chore.
“Sure, why not,” I replied. I had had “healings” before, when I was studying Spiritualism. It hadn’t really done much of anything for me, as far as I could tell. It was hogwash, but why not accept this kind offer from my friend.
I stood and he crouched down so he could place his hands on my knees. He asked his God, his Christ, to heal my knees and restore them to perfect working order, ending with an “Amen.”
“Amen,” I dutifully replied.
That was nice. No discernible change, but that was nice.
But then, as I was showing my friend out, as I took that first step down the front staircase, I felt it. There was an unexpected and highly noticeable reduction of pain. I stopped. I took another step down the stairs. No way. No way.
“Holy s***!” I called out. “Dude!”
“Is it gone? Is the pain gone?” my friend asked not in a hopeful manner, but in a tone that implied he expected it.
“Um, dude. I, uh. I didn’t expect to say this, but, um. The pain is down. By maybe…sixty percent?”
“Great! Let’s do it again.”
“Sure, go for it.”
He crouched again, placed his hands on my knees, and prayed again. “God, we just ask that you finish this job you started, and please restore all health to his knees.”
The pain dropped another twenty percent. I lifted a leg to flex it back and forth in the air. The extreme stiffness was almost all gone.
Smiling, dumbfounded, I thanked my friend and saw him off. I thought about asking him to do another healing–to try and get the pain down to nothing–but this was amazing enough already and I didn’t want to push my luck.
I could have run up the stairs if I wanted to.
Was this the miracle that brought me to Christ? No and yes. No, because even if such a healing were possible, which apparently it was, it was probably just due to some psychological trick. While I was grateful and surprised, this didn’t prove anything. I was happy, but not convinced in any measure.
Back in my bedroom, I sat down in my office chair, closed my eyes and tried to understand what had just happened to me.
And that’s when it happened. That is the very moment when the breath of the Spirit came rushing into me. I had never experienced anything like this before. It wasn’t elation; that’s a mere emotion. This was different. It was as if someone had unlocked a secret chamber of my consciousness and revealed to me the true nature of peace. I was entirely in my right mind, and yet my entire mind was infused with light. I smiled. My eyes welled up.
“I’m alive. I’m alive.” Alive for the first time, ladies and gentlemen. The implications poured into me: I have never been alive, not once. I am experiencing life for the first and, thus far, only time. People talk about being born again, but for me that’s inaccurate. I was born, for once and for all of time past, right then and there. I had entered the world.
Until that moment, I had walked in death. I was nothing but an assemblage of cells and atoms. I was an accident, a freak of nature, a probability matrix. I was a bucket of rocks and a few gallons of water.
I was nothing more than a vessel for pain and suffering and misery and angst and terror. All of the good times in my life, those were just moments when the agony was comparatively more bearable, and all of the bad times in my life, that was when the horror was merely a little bit worse than usual. I was so inured to this state of being that I wasn’t even aware of how bad it was.
I was in hell. I was dead. I was hurting.
And then I wasn’t. My friend, in the name of his God, his Jesus Christ, had healed my knees, but more importantly he had healed my soul. He showed me the way.
My friend’s God has given me life, I realized.
My friend’s God.
Where there was suffering, there is relief. Where there were shame and guilt, there are forgiveness and mercy. Where there was paralysis, there is volition. Where there was prison, there is freedom. Where there was cacophony, there is harmony.
I still don’t have jack squat for “faith”, per se, and I’m still not a “believer”, per se. I don’t even know what those terms mean. But I know what I experienced, and this is my testimony. It’s just the facts as I understand them.
I was right when I said one of us would die before my best friend saw me become a follower of the Christ. It was me. I died. And now?
Hello, world. You’re beautiful.