God

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I’m not religious nowadays, but I used to be; and I took my faith very seriously – much more seriously than most of my fellow Christians did. I hadn’t quite internalized all of the above reasoning just yet, of course, so I never went so far as to join a religious order and devote every single waking second of my existence to religious pursuits, but at some level I did realize that if this stuff really was true – and I believed it was – then it was a big enough deal that it should be nothing less than the central focus of my life. Accordingly, I was one of those people whose entire identity was defined by their faith – the kind of person who, as Dan Barker puts it, “you would not want to sit next to on a bus.” I practically spent more time at the church than at home; I listened to Christian music almost exclusively; I performed in the church band every week; I daydreamed about going into the ministry constantly; I even wrote a short book of mini-sermons and went around sharing them with whoever would listen. And I wasn’t just doing these things out of some dry sense of duty or obligation, either – I felt the power and beauty of God’s grace in every fiber of my being; it was the force that gave me life and animated my every action. When I prayed, it was just as Evid3nc3 describes in his own testimony:

I [had] a relationship with Jesus, and I spoke to him in my mind; I would pray, and I would feel like I would hear answers from him. And sometimes it felt like it was a voice, sometimes it felt like Jesus was speaking to me through my relationships with other people, or through circumstances, like maybe something happened a certain way in my life and I felt like this was a message from God, from Jesus, speaking back to me, maybe answering my prayers.

Likewise, when I worshiped, it was just the kind of rapturous experience Barker recounts having experienced as a former Christian himself (I didn’t attend a church that did faith healings, but the overall emotional experience was largely the same):

When Kathryn Kuhlman started coming to Los Angeles for her regular faith-healing services at the Shrine Auditorium, our choir formed the initial nucleus of her stage choir. I was there for her first regular visit in the mid ’60s and for two years I hardly missed a meeting, remaining choir librarian as the group grew in size, eventually incorporating singers from dozens of charismatic churches in Southern California.

It was the sound of the organ, more than anything else, that established the mood of the place. With its dramatic sweeps and heady crescendos flooding the huge vaulted building, we felt engulfed by the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, breathing in, breathing out, laughing and crying for joy and worship. Here and there a woman was standing, arms reaching upward, eyes closed, praying in an unknown tongue. Wheelchairs and crutches littered the aisles. Hopeful candidates pressed to find a seat as close to the front as possible; the balconies were standing-room-only.

My responsibilities as librarian did not inhibit me from sensing the intense hopefulness of the occasion. Before Kathryn walked out on stage the building radiated that strange, eager beauty of an orchestra tuning up before a symphony. I would often watch her as she stood backstage, nervous yet determined, possessing a holy mixture of humility and pride, like a Roman or Greek goddess in her flowing gown. The audience was anxious. The Spirit was restless.

The organ crescendo reached a glorious peak as Kathryn regally walked out on stage. Those who could rose to their feet, praising God, weeping, praying. It was electrifying and intensely euphoric. I felt proud to be a witness to such a heavenly visitation.

Kathryn would often deny that she was conducting “healing meetings.” She stated that her only responsibility was obedience to God’s moving; it was His business to heal people, and it didn’t need to happen in every meeting. Of course, the people had come for miracles, and would not be disappointed. She often seemed uncertain how to start. She would pray, talk a little, preach somewhat freely, or just stand silently crying, waiting for God to move. He always moved, of course – but the audience couldn’t stand it, this delay of climax. (It was like the anticipation on Christmas mornings, waiting for Dad to finish reading the biblical nativity story before we could open the presents.)

In those early months, before local ministers began sitting on the stage in front of the choir, we singers were placed directly behind Kathryn in folding chairs. I always sat in the front row, right behind her, about six or eight feet from her center microphone, peering past her down into the sea of eager faces in the audience – the faces of people who had come to be blessed. The choir would often sing quietly behind the healings, “He touched me, yes, he touched me! And, oh, the joy that floods my soul! Something happened and now I know; he touched me and made me whole!” It was rapturous. Ecstatic.

After 20 or 30 preliminary minutes, which included a few choir numbers, the healings would begin. People would be ushered up to Kathryn, one at a time, some sitting in wheelchairs, to receive a “touch from God.” She would face the candidate, touching the forehead, and would either ask the problem or directly discern the need. Often the supplicants were “slain in the spirit,” meaning they fell backwards to the floor under God’s presence, often with arms raised in surrender. I sometimes had to pick up my feet when they fell in my direction. Kathryn had a “catcher,” a short, stocky, redheaded former police officer who would move behind the people and soften the fall. He was often quite busy. People would be dropping all over the stage, even choir members and ushers. He rushed back and forth like a character in a video game, never missing, though it was sometimes quite close.

It didn’t matter that the healings were visually unimpressive. We were in God’s presence and a miracle is a miracle. Sometimes an individual would discard crutches or push Kathryn around the stage in the unneeded wheelchair, things like that. But the healings were usually internal things: “Praise God! The cancer is completely gone!”

One very common cure was deafness. Kathryn would tell the person to cover the good ear (!) and ask if she could be heard. “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?” she would ask, speaking louder and louder until the person nodded. Then she would dramatically move away and speak softly to the person, who would jump and say, “I can hear you! I can hear you! Praise God!” The place would fall apart, people screaming and hopping. Miracles do that to people. It was an incredible feeling, an ecstasy beyond description. We felt embraced by the presence of a higher strength, participating in a group worship (hysteria), floating on the omnipresent surges of the organ music, joining in song with heavenly voices.

In one service Kathryn replied to the criticism that some of her healings were purely psychosomatic by saying, “But what if they are merely psychosomatic? Is that not also a miracle? Doctors will tell you that the hardest illnesses to cure are the psychosomatic ones.” God works in mysterious ways.

As I look back on it now, I can see that most of the “miracles” were pretty boring. The excitement was in our minds. I saw people walk up to the side of the stage in search of a healing, before being told by an usher to sit in a wheelchair to be rolled up to Kathryn. When Kathryn quietly told the person to “stand up and walk the rest of the way,” the crowd went wild, assuming that the person couldn’t walk in the first place. I never witnessed any organic healings, restored body parts or levitations. A few crutches and medicine bottles littered the aisles, but no prosthetic devices or glass eyes. The bulk of the “cures” were older women with cancer, arthritis, heart problems, diabetes, “unspoken problems,” etc. There was an occasional exorcism (mental illness?), too. We had come to be blessed and we were not to be cheated, taking the slightest cue to yell, sing and praise God. I think, in retrospect, the organist was the real star of the show, working with Kathryn to manipulate the moods. We were so malleable.

Experiences like that were tremendously affirming. When I was “seeing miracles,” it seemed so real, so powerful, that I wondered who in the world could be so blind to deny the reality of the presence of God. Nonbelievers must be stupid or crazy! Anyone who deliberately doubted such proof certainly deserved hell.

I used to pray and “sing in the spirit” all the time. Riding my bike around Anaheim, I would quietly speak in tongues, exulting in the emotions of talking with Christ and communing with the Holy Spirit. If you have never done it, it is hard to understand what is happening when people speak in tongues. I actually got goose bumps from the joy, my heart and mind transported to another realm. It’s a kind of natural high that I interpreted as a supernatural encounter. I’m certain there are chemicals released to the brain during the experience. (I know this is true of music and the cerebellum, but has anyone studied the brain during glossolalia?) While some of my friends may have been sneaking out behind the proverbial barn to experiment with this or that, I was having a love affair with Jesus. I didn’t think I was “crazy” – I was quite functional and could snap out of it at any moment, like taking off headphones – but I did feel that what I had was special, above the world.

Jesus said that “My kingdom is not of this world,” and I felt like my physical body was just a visitor to planet earth while my soul was getting messages “from home.” It gave me a sense of overwhelming peace and joy, of integration with God and the universe, of being wrapped in the loving arms of my creator. It caused everything to “make sense.” I’m not sure why, but it did. I simply knew from direct personal experience that God was real, and no one at the time would have been able to convince me that I was delusional. I would simply say, “You don’t know.” I had seen miracles. I had talked with God. I knew the truth and the world did not.

It was the same for me. When I was a Christian, the idea that my faith might somehow be false, or that there might be no such thing as God, seemed as absurd as the idea that, I don’t know, there was no such thing as the President of the United States or something (and that all the records and video footage of him had been faked somehow). It simply seemed ridiculous – so much so that it had never even occurred to me to seriously consider it as a possibility. That isn’t to say that my faith was “perfect,” of course – no one’s is. Obviously, if my faith had been completely impenetrable, then I wouldn’t have ultimately stopped believing. But as far as my core beliefs went, my belief in the existence of God was as rock-solid as any belief I’d ever held in my life.

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When the first cracks in the armor finally did start to appear, then, they didn’t come in the form of big existential doubts. I knew my beliefs were right, so it wasn’t a matter of not believing strongly enough. Rather, they were more like what I guess you might call implementation issues. I sometimes felt like something wasn’t quite right with the way I was practicing my faith. Like for instance, whenever I was worshiping in a public setting (like at church), I couldn’t help but notice how I would sometimes catch myself making slightly more visible displays of emotion, or exaggerating my body language, when I knew other people were watching – as if I subconsciously imagined that if my fellow worshipers noticed me raising my arms and closing my eyes and singing even more passionately than normal, they’d be that much more impressed with how spiritual I was. Once I realized I was doing this, of course, it really bothered me; I didn’t want to feel like I was worshiping for an audience, but for God alone. But once I became conscious of it, it was hard for me to worship publicly without feeling self-conscious about how much of it was really authentic versus how much of it was “just for show.” Whenever I worshiped, it always felt like something I was having to do consciously. Try as I might to get completely swept away by the Holy Spirit, there was always some small part of my awareness, in the back of my mind, that felt like it was dispassionately monitoring the whole experience from afar and making conscious decisions about performance and execution, like a movie director directing a scene or something. To be sure, worship still felt like the most powerful and beautiful and real thing I had ever experienced – but at some level, it could also feel almost rehearsed at times. Even on those occasions when I did feel myself being swept up in the Spirit, there was always a small nagging sense in the back of my mind that maybe I was subconsciously “playing up” the experience so it would feel more dramatic, as if I were an actor trying to portray a more emotional experience than I was actually having.

This self-consciousness extended into other parts of my religious life too. For example, there were a few times when I attempted to read the Bible cover to cover – but I never managed to get very far; and the reason was because once again, I wasn’t entirely able to disentangle the way I knew I was supposed to feel from the way I actually felt. Deep down, the truth was I wasn’t actually that motivated to read the Bible for its own sake; I didn’t feel compelled to voraciously devour as much of it as possible due to a genuine desire to know what was written there, or an overwhelming conviction that this was the perfect word of God himself. Rather, I was more motivated to read it simply for the “street cred” that I would have gotten from doing so – i.e. for the moral status and the philosophical cachet of being someone who had really done their homework and knew their stuff. What I wanted wasn’t actually to read the Bible; what I wanted was to be a person who had read the Bible – and that was an important difference, even if it was one that was too subtle for me to even be explicitly aware of at the time.

But why was there this difficulty at all? Didn’t I believe that the Bible was, in fact, the perfect and literal word of God? Well, it wasn’t quite so simple. Certainly, I’d taken the Bible literally when I was younger; having grown up on Bible stories, I had always taken it for granted that Adam and Eve were real people, that Noah’s flood had really happened exactly as described, and so forth. But as I aged and became more aware of all the relevant scientific and historical facts that diverged from these stories, I came to recognize that a literal interpretation of the Bible simply wouldn’t be able to accommodate all the facts; so my way of thinking about these issues subtly shifted from an absolute hard-literalist line to a more abstract one. The more I grew and learned, the more I started to realize that, in fact, maybe what I really believed was not that these Old Testament stories were all literally true – maybe that was too simplistic an explanation for such a richly complex God anyway – but that they were metaphorically true, and that what really mattered was not the exact text itself, but the broader underlying message that permeated it. Sure, the universe may have actually been billions of years old and not the 6,000 years old that the Bible suggests – and sure, the creation of life may not have happened exactly as the Book of Genesis describes – but to take these stories literally was to miss the point; a more sophisticated interpretation would recognize that the six biblical “days” of creation were actually metaphors for eons, that Adam and Eve were actually metaphors for humanity in general, etc. At any rate, I still believed that the Bible was divinely inspired, and I still revered it as a holy source of wisdom. But in truth, I think I regarded it as sort of secondary, in a sense. The real focus of my faith was God himself, not the words written about him. My faith wasn’t so much built around the Bible, but around my own personal experiences of God’s love and majesty, and the impact he had on my own life.

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