Saturday, April 11, 2009

Big Spiritual Experiences

Please keep in mind that I am a former evangelical minister who went prodigal for 25 years. This experience happened about two years ago. My world view at the time of this event was agnostic. What does it mean?

The Setting

There was an episode of the original Twilight Zone series that featured a parasite that crawled into a man's ear and slowly burrowed its way through his brain over several days. The experience was so torturous that he had to be tied to a bed, writhing and contorting until the parasite ravaged its way through his head and out the far ear. Exhausted but relieved that he had survived, the man passed out.

When the man awoke, he immediately noticed that he was still restrained to the bed and that two of his friends hovered worriedly over him. "Why am I still restrained?" he whispered upward. One responded "When the parasite came out of your ear, I squeezed it between by thumb and finger and killed it. I didn't realize that it was pregnant and dozens of babies sprayed into your ear." The camera focuses on the man's crazied eyes as he realizes his fate will now be many times worse than the agony he had just survived.

Betrayal is like this. It eats through your brain, destroying whatever it passes enroute to an illusory exit that once embraced, multiplies and opens new and even more destructive paths through your psyche, blindsiding your exhausted optimism that all is well. The minor losses of this horror show are love and trust; depleted, you pray only for a return to sanity and freedom from its restraints, accepting that your new life will include neither.

The Experience

I awoke early one morning with the parasite again pillaging my brain as it did on a schedule no more or less reliable than stormy weather. I had accepted that I had exactly the same amount of control over it as I did the clouds. I tried to quickly think of something more positive, relegating the ravenous memory to the back porch of my soul. I pictured my childhood home and the converted back porch that was my bedroom so that I could push it into the cold, airy space, but it did not relent.

I could not have known, but something entirely different was in store. It was to human learning what a sonic boom is to sound -- loud, surely, but not primarily. The blast of a sonic boom is more about the compression of sound into a smaller footprint of time and so was this a compression of self awareness into a small footprint. I've had epiphanies and this was not that. It transcended that experience, like seeing yourself from the outside with new knowledge and a new perspective in high definition. Others describe a similar transcendent experience at times of grave emotional trauma such as the death of a parent or child. This experience was like they describe but with a blast of information added.

The Environment

I was betrayed by those closest to me, repeatedly, slowly and over a period of time. Once discovered, I began to reel emotionally, spewing hurt like a geyser at full tilt. Every day I waged a war, often in a losing effort. I didn’t understand my own actions as I tried over and over again through counseling, force of will, reflection and hyena-like outcry. Eventually, I accepted small victories like being sane for a couple of days at a time but they went unnoticed by anyone but me, further restraining me to a bed of insanity where none of the dots connected.

Like the restrained man in the opening story, I would then awaken from my spent slumber to find my situation was much worse than I had imagined and I was already living in a world that made no sense to me, where everything that I grasped for temporary respite was yanked from me by denial after denial. And then I discovered that the betrayal continued through all of this, that everything I believed to be a lie and tried to convince myself was true was indeed a lie and that the betrayal continued for a long period of time while my betrayer watched me writhe in agony, desperate for sanity and hoping for understanding or compassion.

Something very important happened upon the second discovery. I realized that the betrayal was not about me, it was about something else, and I regained my sanity. The fog began to lift and I could catch my breath. It would be years before I knew the real driving force behind it all, before I would get true honesty about what had happened and gain true perspective.

The Enlightenment

This is what gushed into my head. My father left my mom, myself and my two brothers when I was about four years old, ending a golden age that I remember well. I would find out years later that my mom, shell-shocked from the experience, hated men for awhile and was left with three boys. I lost my dad and, to a lesser extent, my mom, who was emotionally bankrupt, like all of us. This state would persist for a period of time.

My mom then remarried and eventually had a daughter. My stepfather was a louse and emotionally abusive, at times humiliating me in front of my family. This state would last for an extended period of time. During this time I was told that I had an anger problem because I screamed and yelled and threw things at the slightest provocation.

The revelation is this … I continued to live this cycle for more than two decades always with the same three characters. There is always a “golden age” followed by abandonment that leaves in its trail my mom, the one who trusts the wrong people at my expense and is unable to help with the emotional fallout, and while still off balance from this drama, the one I trust brings another I cannot trust into my life for an extended period of time, piling great hurt upon hurt. I am the one who is betrayed, angry and perpetually questioning his guilt in the process (although a relatively minor player), isolated and feeling like I or my environment must be insane. I am the control group.

I attracted these characters into my life in time intervals that very closely matched the time that elapsed between my father leaving and the end of my mom’s second marriage. I lay stunned on my bed that morning when the main character’s fatal flaw was found. I attracted only two of these characters at the end of each cycle; I adopted the role of the missing player in succession representing my father, mother and stepfather in an unending quest to understand and resolve while my life appeared to be happening to me as an outside observer.

My wife woke up beside. I told her that I had figured it out. “What?”, she asked. “Everything.”, I responded. I left the bed and began earnestly scribbling notes in the vain hope of documenting this enlightenment though it was not the stuff of documentation. It was too fast, too compressed and too loud. It hit me for the first time, for I was agnostic, that intelligent design was part of the process. I could not have attracted the right players and directed them in their assigned roles in the right time intervals. I had a peace that I lost at four years old in the knowledge that having this experience meant that all of the things that had happened in my life to that point were woven into a masterful picture by a great puzzle maker. In this certainty I began to feel a warm glow just to the side and top of my stomach that lasted for days. I floated from formerly mundane moment to the next.

I retold the story to my children, then only twelve and fourteen, almost immediately. My son cried as I explained the cycle that involved his mom and my role in the end of our marriage. My daughter exclaimed wide-eyed “This will change the world!”


  1. I was surprised to find someone else with a similar experience in an Alpha discussion group tonight.

    Rather than describe the feeling of the experience as a "glow", she described it as "electric" but not uncomfortable.

  2. I would like to hear more. From this and previous conversations, I sense that you see a recurring pattern in your life--that you relive your past again and again, each time taking the role of one of three main characters.

    I read that you have successively played the role of abandoned parent, abandoning parent, and interfering louse, each time inviting others to play the roles you do not.

    Without knowing more about your personal history (which you may or may not wish to relate), I'm having a hard time associating this patter with intelligent design. Do you think that God had to set all this up--that it was not enough for you to set this pattern up yourself, whether or not conciously?

  3. Thanks, my old friend. I assume I'll get a fresh take from you.

    I wrestled with the same questions you ask for about 2 years. This is my take:

    Could I have set all this up, as you descibed above? It seems improbable. We've all heard the argument of "The Secret" that we attract to ourselves that which we project, so it's entirely possible that I attracted to myself that which I, hmm, projected? No.

    Did I attract that which I needed? Maybe though this also seems unlikely, there's too many variables involved, and where does the need come from -- in fact, define "need". If I did it by any means, then I was attracting that which I least wanted consciously, imprisoning myself not to make the same mistakes over and over but to make mistakes that I had personal experience with. I did not make any conscious attempt to produce these cycles.

    If I produced them somehow unconsciously, then I might make a good study indeed and we'll both get rich when we explain how I did it, so let's leave this option open.

    My transformation into a theistic worldview from a panentheistic one had more to do with how I received the information that allowed me to finally break the cyle. I described this experience the best that I could as I did to you in a similar experience almost 30 years prior.

    The knowledge of a repeating cycle I might have produced given enough time, but the knowledge of my dynamic role in it surely came from elsewhere. Consider the math when you introduce this variable.

    I then connected this experience with a somewhat similar experience in my 20's, when, under different circumstances, I also began this 3-day experience I have described as "glowing" from the inside, but not in an uncomfortable way. I can feel heat, but not uncomfortably.

    This part of the experience does not last but the buzz from it lasts for months, at least. I would most closely describe it as the feeling you had in the front of your brain when you first met your wife.

    If you throw out world views, as I attempted in my post, doesn't it sound like a description of something supernatural followed by an enduring feeling of being one with it?

    As always, your opinion and your edge are always valued.

  4. This is a link from HonestUncertain on Twitter:

    There are parts of this story that I am highly skeptical of, but I'm highly skeptical in general. Notice how this man describes his experience. I've tried to find these people over the years, people that don't embellish and just relay their experience.

    One of the signs that I accept of authenticity is when someone speaks and tries to clarify what did AND did not happen and does not immediately derive meaning. It seems that if everyone would just tell the whole truth and drop predisposition that we might actually discover something, whatever something is.

  5. I presented this experience as part of my life story at Fellowship Cross Creek in Branson, MO yesterday. When I finished people started clapping (not a church thing) and a lot of people were crying.

    One gentleman said that he appreciated someone bringing the "mystery" back to Christianity. Church members lined up for about a half hour to discuss the ideas with me, one suggested that I should write a book.

  6. Richard, your story on sunday was amazing. You talked about the odds of certain events happening and how there was no way other than God. I think it's only God's will that I was there to listen to you, being a Prodigal myself. Thank you for coming to Missouri.

    Aaron Staggs

  7. Richard, your story on sunday was amazing. You talked about the odds of certain events happening and how there was no way other than God. I think it's only God's will that I was there to listen to you, being a Prodigal myself. Thank you for coming to Missouri.

    Aaron Staggs

  8. Thanks again for your kind reception of a 27-year returned prodigal on Sunday. It seems unfair to me at least to almost hurriedly rush through someone's sacred 51 years of existence on this planet in an hour on a Sunday morning, especially when it involves a painful 27 years of running away from God. What we witnessed on Sunday amounts to me as spiritually open-heart surgery or confession. Thanks for your kindness.

    For those that has asked me, I asked Richard, had he been to church in those 27 years, and his answer was no...and NO believer reached out to or engaged him directly in those 27 years either, despite, as he quoted statistics that indicate, that whether we believe it to be true or not, or they don't act like it is true, prodigals/lost sheep later say, that it WAS meaningful when believers attempted to reach out to them while they were running away from God. As my good friend Mike Justice might say, this is a very counter-intuitive act or behavior...that is to reach out to and possibly be rejected by someone you are attempting to spiritually love or care about. I suppose this would be called Christ's sacrificial love.

    Richard will also be helping Fellowship develop its ministry web presence on the internet, so he will still be around.

    He also wanted me to please invite people to comment about anything he said or keep the discussion going at
    under "Big Spiritual Experiences."

  9. "It hit me for the first time, for I was agnostic, that intelligent design was part of the process. I could not have attracted the right players and directed them in their assigned roles in the right time intervals."

    To me this suggests a belief that God included the events of our lives as features of His design. You could not yourself, consciously or unconciously, have arranged things the way they turned out, so your own agency has at most a peripheral role. Coincidence and luck (both good and bad) have no role at all.

    As I've mentioned before, I think that unless humans have agency and control their own destiny, the concept of God is an empty one. He gets very little from our love and worship, and we from His, if we have no power to decide whether to offer ours and accept His.

    So I believe that you have a great measure of control over what happens in your life, bounded only by others' control over their own. Your past is the cumulative result of the iterative decisions you have made, not a feature of God's design. Since each decision relies on incomplete information about the consequences, some will be better than others.

    I also think you underestimate your ability to seek out and get yourself into situations that either resemble those you grew up with or attempt to improve upon them. Young people from stable families try to reproduce that stability, and those from less stable environments seek to create newly stable ones to pass along to their own children. This is why the normative institution of marriage is so sticky: we are taught that this is a source of stability.

    If you found yourself in unstable situations that resemble your childhood, it may be that you are attempting to figure out why people could behave in such a way by putting yourself in their place. It would not be hard to do so, since in the course of life you are likely to meet many people who share traits with your parents, and gravitating to them would not be difficult. Intuitively, you know that the behavior was destructive for your parents, and that it would also destroy you. But the only way for you to resolve the contradiction inherent in good people (your Mom) behaving in such a way was to live it yourself.

    I am of course not a shrink, and don't even play one on TV, but I would guess that many would tell you that this needn't be a concious effort.

    With regard to your realization of this pattern having supernatural foundations, let me say that I am uncomfortable with this definition of "supernatural." Unless your feelings were manufactured, they are a natural part of the world, and of you. (Remember, I'm the one arguing that if he exists, God Himself must be a natural part of the universe, and that if the universe is a construct of a sentient being it must itself be "unnatural" in the sense that it was somehow "manufactured"). So I accept that term only in the sense that this feeling is some part of nature that we do not yet understand.

    Your experience, then, was certainly beyond your understanding and required explanation. Given your training, and the physical manifestation of the experience, you explained it in a framework built around God, and you may well be correct. But your comparison to that of a first meeting with a future wife--which carries the physical manifestation of an emotional encounter--begs the question: is it "supernatural," or a physical reaction to a very emotional realization that you have repeated the destructive patterns from the lives of others in your own life.

    I certainly don't want to trivialize your experience, nor your interpretation of it. But I think you should consider this possibility.

  10. You believe that I explained the event "in a framework built around God" because of my training? Do you mean my seminary training or my 27 years of agnostic training?

    Without losing any of this to semantics, I described the event as requiring "intelligent design", meaning, intelligence was added in the half second this experience happened that I did not already possess.

    I agree, as I as said previously, that you can sometimes unknowingly attract people in a soulish and unconscious attempt to approach the flame again and seek resolution, but can you do it in repeated time increments equal to the amount of time that was required to put the mechanism in motion?

    Can you then self-induce the 3-day glow experience and this also only coincidentally happening immediately after the half-second enlightenment?

    What are the odds of all of this? Isn't the obvious answer that the God we know intervened to turn around a human He loves that is raging against Him for the human's own good. Isn't this what we all seek, to know a loving and forgiving God?

  11. I struggled to find a word and chose "training." Though "experience" fits my meaning better, I worried about confusing the general term with the experience you described. I would say that you framed this experience around God because of your entire life experience, including your seminary training and subsequent agnostic period. I don't believe you ever "ran away" from God--only that you struggled for understanding of what His existence meant in the context of the events in your life.

    If by "intelligent design" you mean the application of your own intelligence to your analysis of the experience, then I mistook what you said as something much more broad. We can push that off the table into the circular file.

    Yes, I think you can repeat the time increments without much difficulty, and that the odds of this happening are not very long at all. Even if they are, unlikely things happen. What are the chances that I will meet one particular person, in a particular place, at a particular time? Statistically very long indeed, but it happens all the time. I don't think looking at these things as probabilities helps very much.

    Your experience could certainly be a direct intervention by God to save one of His lost children, though it is not clear to me why you think this is more likely than the scenario you dismiss because of its relatively low statistical probability. If it is, it certainly begs a lot of new questions, e.g. why doesn't God do this more often ? Forgive me for saying so, but the suggestion that God took a personal interest in your rage against Him, while leaving others without even an opportunity to know Him, much less rage, seems a bit narcissistic.

    For that reason and others, it seems to me far from obvious that this explains your experience.

    Finally, let me say that we do not all seek to know a loving and forgiving God. I don't.

  12. I get that unlikely things happen all the time but do the math, how unlikely is unlikely? There's a big difference between winning the lottery and meeting a particular person at least in effect.

    The odds that I somehow orchestrated all of this are very low and, as in winning the lottery, the effect is profound. I'm much happier and more fulfilled, as you might expect.

    You are correct on the observation about narcissism and I've struggled with this. However, I'll use your argument here and say that it is unlikely but it happens regularly.

    If you would stipulate the Christian world view for just a moment, then you'll get that there's no positive attention garnered from being the one sheep that wanders off (to borrow Jesus' metaphor). In fact, the implication is that the sheep has nothing to do with it at all. I concede that you must already have that world view for this to make sense, but I wanted you to hear my reasoning.

    I don't like that you've projected your view on my experience by presuming that I came to a Christian view because I had that view in my youth. I get that it works better for your argument but I was hoping we could just analyze the experience without personal agendas.

    In fact, I made the opposite error. I presumed my agnostic world view and my preference for Eastern philosophy on the experience. These are the positions I've held for about 2/3 of my reasoning life. After over a year of reflection, I dropped my world view for another that makes more sense to me.

    It is my intention to expose everything I know about this experience to you more than others as a part of our joint and individual life journeys. I offer it as fodder to your reasoning but don't presume I haven't thought it through.

    I have arrived at this conclusion rigorously and I presume you draw yours in the same fashion.

    My hope is that we can drop the presumptions that everyone else brings to the table in these online discussions and just compare notes.

    The more I tell you about the experience, the more I expose myself to rebuttal. I believe this shows my openness as does my evolving world view.

    As I have said before, maybe there's more truth (any definition) to be had from honest, truly open exploration than there is from the sum total of either of our presumptions or conclusions. At least it's a new angle.

  13. I'm not sure what you mean by "project your view on my experience," but I have to plead guilty if you mean that I tried to fit your experience into my theories about how human beings do things.

    Remember, my view is that the only given in human nature is the need to self-identify. To do this, we compare ourselves to others, and through a variety of socialization processes we come share normative ideas and intersubjective meanings with those around us. These meanings can change over time. So for example, in 21st Century American we have a normative structure of what it means to be a "woman" that differs from that of 50 or 100 years ago. You and I use this meaning to classify women with respect to conformity as well as to self-identify as men.

    These meanings (norms) are dynamic, and contended. By that I mean that as individuals and groups we all seek to favor our own viewpoint/perspective and convince others to share it with us. So for example feminists privledge their own version of "womanhood" and try to convince others to change their view.

    Finally, we socialize our children and other young people in our group. This is why so many people homeschool or send their kids to private schools. Even parents who prefer public schools choose them because of an expectation of a particular kind of socialization. It also helps explain why virtually every church has an active youth group, often with clergy dedicated to it.

    While this implies malleable "truth," it does not necessarily imply the nonexistence of God. Indeed, if God exists, His (and Humanity's) greates challenge might be to overcome the need to self-identify and accept identification as one of God's children, and therefore no different from others in a fundamental way.

    When I attempted to analyze your experience, I must confess to using this framework to guide my thinking. But I meant only to suggest that the nature of the intersubjective meanings you share will color the context in which you place your experiences--you could be expected to frame your experience around something you know. Agnosticism offers no context for what happened to you, but Christianity does, so perhaps you used that framework.

    I don't presume that you did so--sorry if you thought I had made that presumption--and intended only to offer this possibility as one potential explanation. I do not mean to rebut your description of your experience. I did not share it, and recall no similar experience of my own to compare it to, so rebutting your opinion would be presumptuous.

    The way I see it, three possibilities present themselves as explanations for your experience. One is that you had a very emotional realization about the course of your life which physically manifested itself, as other emotions (e.g., love) often do, in easily explainable ways: adrenalin burst, heart palpitations, rising blood pressure, other hormonal changes, and on and on. Alternatively, you experienced something supernatural in the sense that you mentally interacted with the physical universe in a way humans poorly understand, and cannot explain with biological processes, but do not involve divine intervention. Or perhaps "the God we know intervened to turn around a human He loves that is raging against Him for the human's own good," and this intervention manifested itself in the glow you describe.

    Throwing out assumptions about the existence or non-existence of God, I believe that the first possibility is most likely. I come to this conclusion partly because I think the statistical odds favor it (whether or not you constructed the life events leading up to it yourself), but mostly because I can't think of a reason why God would single out prodigal individuals for intervention while leaving His Word virtually unknown to millions, especially since this is tantamount to proving His existence.

    Of course, I don't believe God exists at all, so what do I know about His ways?

  14. Apparently, people are still talking about last Sunday. One small home church group said we ought to write a book. That was the second time I heard that one. That's high praise.

    Pastor Joe Cross
    Fellowship Cross Creek
    Branson, MO

  15. You should definitely write the book.

    I, for one, would read it.

  16. I appreciate the support and your opinion always carries double weight with me, but I think it's fear of failure and fear of success.

    Since the experience occurred, I feel like I've seen a UFO and all I can do is describe it as openly and honestly as I can.

    By definition the experience fosters skepticism and rightly so, but I was there and I can only try to describe it faithfully.

    Imagine for a moment what it feels like to have a highly improbable experience and then to have anyone deny your own experience. I am documenting this here at least and referring others here to read about it and see the full range of comments attached to it. I hope in this openness that any Truth or truth will emerge on its own and will benefit someone.

    My friends in Branson, who took such a big chance on me, for one hour on one day heard me describe this in detail in the context of my entire life and were both transfixed and transformed for one hour on one day.

    I cannot remember anything that I said except "sonic boom" and that only because of a strong reaction from someone listening.

    I remember thinking at one point that it was good public speaking technique to look around and make eye contact with all sides of the room so I looked in front of me and to my left but not to my right. For a moment I could actually focus on faces and my senses returned.

    I quoted from the Bible for the first time a group of verses that my mom said she had prayed for me over these last 25+ years (paraphrased):

    I've (God) heard you rage against me ... so I will put my bit in your mouth and my hook in your nose and send you back by the way you came ... but there will be a small remnant of survivors. (Isaiah?)

    I am one of that small remnant of survivors and this is a part of that story. I'm going to keep telling it until no one wants to hear it anymore and continue to seek all that will be had.

  17. I'm not sure what you mean by "fear of failure or fear of success."

    But let me be clear: I do not deny your experience. Moreover, I do not intend to say that you should not consider this experience the result of a direct intervention by God Himself.

    My only purpose here is to explain why I do not believe that God is behind this experience except in the sense that you evaluate it in that context.

    As always, of course, I could be wrong. And believe me when I say that your opinion and beliefs also carry quite a bit of weight with me. As I try to figure these things out, your analysis is a very important data point.

  18. Sorry I was a bit scattered. I have both a fear of failure and a fear of success about writing a book. I'm paralyzed.

    You do make me wonder but I never doubt you in the battery of an entire discussion or in the context of our entire friendship.

    The experience does polarize people, even among Christians, where one might say that I am being too "mystical" as if I chose to have this happen for some theological purpose. Sorry, I'm doubled over laughing.Another thanks me for bringing the "mystery" back to Christianity.

    I appreciate the Dennis Miller reference. I miss him.

  19. I'm a social scientist trying to figure out an aspect of human interaction. So I find this all very interesting. And to this day when asked for the name of my best friend I still say, without hesitation, "Richard Mayhan." So believe me when I say that though I do not share your worldview, I respect it greatly, if only because you hold it.

    Sit down and start writing (on some level you already have, on this blog). Simply getting the words on paper constitutes success, at least with respect to organizing your thoughts.

    When you write, don't evaluate it as you go along. You can edit later, and I would be proud to help you with this.

  20. That's a generous offer and good advice from the son of an English professor and my best friend of 47 years. We're getting old.

    Alright, here's goes nothin'.

  21. We're never too old to dream one more dream, or complete one more task.

  22. Is that a quote? It's beautiful.

    For the record, like you, my answer in a best friend discussion has always been the same for every one of these 47 years.

  23. I don't imagine that I am the first to express this sentiment, but I was not consciously quoting someone else.

    And thanks--I truly value and appreciate our friendship.

  24. I came across this post on Twitter, where I recently met Richard. And I'm very thankful to have read it. As a baptist preacher, sometimes I can get very discouraged when people run away from the Lord. But the encouragement of people like Richard, who were gone for 25 years, and come back, far outweighs the sadness I feel when one goes astray.

    And as for the discussion that is going on here, I would only say to Scott, the way Richard feels now is simply a product of faith. Much like the way that you feel. You have faith that there is NO God, and that He isn't involved in anyone's life. Richard has found the faith that he "misplaced" for 25 years.

    I do appreciate the fact that you haven't left his side even though his views have changed, but I would like to see you recognize the faith that you have in your own life, and put it where it belongs, in God.

    And if you do, I can guarantee that no matter what life throws at you going forward, you won't regret it.

    God bless you all.

  25. Joseph Cross at 2:10am July 1

    My heart is weeping tears of joy. That Sunday was a very special moment. Maybe we could sing it a few million times in heaven. What do you think?