Finding an Altered State
The evening began like so many since high school graduation in 1970, the search for the altered state. A week before Easter, 1976, America’s Bicentennial year, I knocked on my neighbor’s front door. Jim Hayes’ voice from the kitchen bid me enter. I walked back to where he and his brother-in-law, John Trail, were sitting. Joining them at the kitchen table I took out some marijuana to roll a joint. Concentrating on the task at hand I paid little attention to the conversation in progress. I lit up with a deep breath and passed the joint to Jim. In his late twenties I believe, Jim was a pretty cool guy, very down to earth, quite gregarious and a pretty good friend. I had not met John before, but these two seemed decent friends. Jim partook, passed the joint to John, and there we sat in the late evening attaining a mellow mood. The two continued their discussion, amicable and animated.
John had been trying to convince Jim of the merits of his conviction that Jesus Christ really was alive, even now, today. He had been crucified, yes, but He did rise from the dead and was still living in the world. John seemed amazed that Jim remained skeptical. “Why don’t you understand what I am saying?” questioned an incredulous John. I began to pay close attention. It seemed to me that something peculiar was in the air besides the haze at the Hayes.
As a child of devout Roman Catholic parents, who themselves had devout parents, I was the second son of six, all becoming Alter Boys. Like my older brother before me I learned the Latin, the gestures, and all the ceremonies involved in celebrating the Mass. As a third or fourth-grader it was quite an impressive position to assist the Priest in Mass and I took it seriously–most of the time. Attending Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation with my family, serving as Alter Boy, saying the family rosary a week out of every year, and attending a Catholic school, I learned quite a bit about the Catholic religion, the many Bible stories, and of course knew about God and Jesus, and the crucifixion and Resurrection. But I was approaching an age that would eventually take me through the late Sixties as a teenager, and those were years of open questioning and defiance of all things authoritarian. The third eldest child among eight, I grew into solitude in spite of such a large family, feeling somewhat more comfortable walking in the woods by myself or with the family dog than spending time with friends, which seemed fewer in number as I rose through the grades of a parochial elementary and high school. And as I grew older I became more disillusioned with the Roman Catholic experience. A few events occurred while I was an Altar Boy to influence that disenchantment and coupled with my noticing a discrepancy between some people’s piety displayed inside the church and their behavior outside, I disconnected intellectually and emotionally from the church. I came to feel that God was more present with me in the natural setting of the woods than in the man-made construct of a church building. So after high school, being permitted the freedom of my own convictions, I stopped attending Mass. I did however continue in my own version of spirituality believing in Nature’s God whom I felt was eminent if not imminent.
Not that I was a saint by any stretch of the imagination. Just ask my family or the friends I did have. I was similar to many of the disillusioned youth of the Sixties and Seventies and could be angry, uncouth, and disrespectful. Though I considered myself to be a pacifist and sensitive I certainly made my share of mistakes. And during a two-year stint in the U.S. Army from 1972 to 1974 some of those would jeopardize my entire future. One mistake in particular resulted in a court-martial that pointed to a near-certain prison sentence. Briefly stated, I was in the company of two friends who had moments before purchased 2 kilos of marijuana and were driving back into El Paso, Texas, when the city Police pulled our car over. Thinking ours matched a car reported in a recent assault on some young kids, we were stopped, searched, the contraband found and confiscated, and a night was spent in the El Paso County jail before we were released the next morning to the Military authorities. Needless to say this caused untold grief and distress to my parents. But I was insensitive to such grief even when my mother flew down for my trial, sitting behind me one late January afternoon in the courtroom. And foolish me, I wasn’t to realize just how fortunate I was, to be acquitted of the charges against me. The evidence was ruled inadmissible, thanks to my attorney’s objection based on the illegal search and seizure rule. Even afterward, oblivious to how close to the precipice I was playing, I continued the same behavior unimpeded, and indeed, perhaps with more gusto.
My lifestyle, the regular use of recreational drugs, continued after an honorable discharge from the service, and while living at home until that fateful evening aforementioned I walked into the kitchen of Jim and Lucy Hayes. The list of illicit substances I consumed included the ubiquitous pot, and occasional use of hashish, mushrooms, and chemicals like THC, acid, and brief use of methamphetamine. And of course, there was always alcohol. Grateful to be home from the Army I was still a fairly angry young man making life somewhat uncomfortable for the family around the house. The face I revealed to my friends, however, was entirely different from that displayed at home. Sullen and balancing a chip on my shoulder around the home, I was mostly carefree and cheerful among my friends as we shared drugs and alcohol and partied in our celebration of life as we knew it. Pretty much your average American kid. And I was oblivious to any effect that my disposition might have had on my parents. They maintained an attitude of strained if respectful toleration combined with prayerful hope for a miracle to shake or wake me up.
In the early months of 1976 I remember thinking to myself as I was upstairs in my room preparing to go out for the evening, “There’s something missing in my life.” It was just a thought. I still remember vividly to this day the moment that thought occurred but I dismissed it and joined my friends for the night’s festivities consisting mainly of goofing around and getting high. I thought I was reasonably happy, had a good job on a land survey crew for the Detroit Edison Company making good money, with good friends, and a family that loved me. I had come through a lot of trials and thought I had grown and even matured by them.
Then in March or early April 1976, as I was sitting at our kitchen table, I picked up a copy of the Reader’s Digest. Opening to an article titled “The Real Meaning of Easter,” I read it with indifferent curiosity. The gist of the three or five-page article was this: Easter could mean one of several things. It could mean concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ that his thoughts, ideas, and teachings could live on in his followers just as the philosophies of the poets and the ancients such as Socrates and Aristotle and Plato live on with their devotees. Another one or two possible explanations followed in a similar fashion to suggest interpretations of the Easter event two millennia ago. The conclusion, though, was that the event occurred just as it is reported in the Bible. That the man Jesus was crucified to death, was buried in that tomb, and three days later actually walked out alive. I finished reading and was not impressed having heard the story before though maybe not in that particular context of options.
None of this was in the forefront of my mind as I visited with my neighbor that weekday evening before Easter. It was merely one more night in a long, endless series. And then I started listening to John Trail’s contention. It was simple: Jesus really was alive and living in the world today. It wasn’t a fable or merely a nice moral story, it was a literal reality. The scene that night would probably seem amusing to an observer, three young men sitting around a small kitchen table, in a tiny, now smoky kitchen, one vociferously attempting to convince a second of the simple merits of his belief in Jesus, and all three stoned on pot. Is that not ironic? Jim sat there appreciating his brother-in-law’s conviction but was resolutely unimpressed. But the message this night was not meant for him. I didn’t think of it at the time but I could appreciate his apprehension. The same thing happened to me while a soldier at Fort Bliss in El Paso. One of my fellow drug-heads recently had a similar epiphany and tried to reason with me with just the same message John was now using. I, too, politely left him to his own belief, claiming that was fine for him but not for me.
On this night though something was different. I heard no voices, I saw no visions. I made no utterances nor changed appearance. Indeed Jim and John were insensible to my silent musings. But suddenly, very suddenly, it all made sense! I had read about Jesus, I heard the Gospel stories, and I thought that was all they were. Stories. But now, it all made sense. Of course Jesus was real! He did die and was raised from the dead and walked out of that tomb!. He is alive! And if he is alive then what does this mean for me? The Son of God was alive right this very moment and wanted to show me something. Very suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, I realized just what it was that was missing in my life. It was a living and personal relationship between the Creator of the universe and His creature. Very aware of the nature of the known universe, having loved astronomy since a small child, being awed with every walk under the starry night sky or exploring it through binoculars and telescope, or when leafing through picture books of galaxies and planets, very suddenly that evening I was introduced to its Creator; and I was awestruck! It only took a few seconds for all this to flash through my mind and heart while the discussion continued between my companions. I never said a word; they talked while I thought. It had been less than half an hour since I entered Jim’s house.
Still saying little I excused myself and walked back to my house, went into the dining room where our family Bible was sitting lonely on the bookshelf. I took it down and opened it to some random page in the Gospels and started reading. I can’t describe the impact of reading those pages with new eyes for the very first time. It was a sensation too deep, too moving for words. I had read the book before, maybe once every year or two, out of mild curiosity, and never at any length. But that night it was completely different. The words were alive. Their meaning was clear and I understood the message in the writing, and just Who was revealed in there, and that this was directed at me in a very personal way. I was numb with wonder. The dope smoker, the profane, the angry young man, was now face to face with his maker, and He was telling me how He cared for me. It was not an event I could take lightly or ignore. This time I couldn’t say, “So what.” I couldn’t shrug it off saying it’s not for me, because it was profoundly for me! God was touching my heart and the consequence was inescapable and unalterable. I closed the book, returned it to the shelf and went upstairs to bed. All of this is still a vivid memory as if it happened yesterday. I got ready for bed and then knelt beside it as I had done as a little boy but now with the wonder and awe still pulsing throughout my being. In whispers I capitulated, and addressed Him for the first time, “You made the universe, You made me.” I asked Him to take me and do whatever He wanted with me. I told him, “I am yours.” A burden with which I had long lived was perceptibly lifted from my shoulders as I climbed into bed that night and I slept the peaceful sleep of one whose life had been inexorably and permanently altered.
I don’t remember what I did in those next few days except that I was constantly reading the Bible. First the large, heavy New Jerusalem version in our dining room, then I bought one for myself. I took it to work and read it in every spare moment and continued when I got home after work home after work. I started at the beginning of the New Testament and finished weeks later at Revelation. Then I started at Genesis and finished the Old Testament almost a year later. And then I read it all over again. And then again. I was hungry, starving really, to fully come to know Him, and there was no other place I could read His own words than the Bible. And I just had to know what He said. I knew that they were His words, and they were alive and speaking to me, revealing to me who and what He is and what He has done in the world, and what He will do. I knew I was very much a sinner. That much was obvious, and painfully obvious to certain others. And because of that Jesus came to pay the penalty for my own sin, and died on the cross and rose from the dead with the power that could raise everyone from their own death if they would accept the gift. It was the gift of faith and restoration offered that night I had accepted gratefully and was rewarded by having Him live inside of my own heart. How awesome is that! The more I read the Bible the better I could give words to what had happened to me. I understood what Jesus told the Jewish scholar, that unless he would become born again he couldn’t see the kingdom of heaven. The learned man was like me with my Army friend, it just didn’t make sense, being born out of his mother a second time! Talk about sounding stupid. But now I understood what that rebirth was about.
My folks didn’t quite understand what happened but they plainly saw a change in me. The following days revealed a different John walking around the house. I don’t recall saying anything in particular to them about that night but I did tell them that I wanted to come with them to Mass that Sunday. It was Easter Sunday. My parents no doubt were beside themselves with glee. But they restrained themselves wondering what was going on. It was the first time I had been to church in years. I think we slid into the first pew that morning and I was reveling in the fact that as we all were celebrating the risen Lord, I was also celebrating my own resurrection and new-found relationship with Him. It was bliss. My youngest sister took note of my altered behavior, too. After some time, Marylou came to understand personally what I went through, herself coming to grips with the struggles she had been dealing with and surrendered herself to God. After everything mom and dad went through with me, particularly those Army years and the many anxious days, that Sunday they now could at last have some measure of peace. They could cope with me around the house now that the chip on my shoulder and the scowl on my face had vanished. With me actually talking to them!
I must have gone to Sunday Mass two or three times before I felt something was lacking. Yes, we were there to worship God and celebrated the sacrifice Jesus willingly made for our salvation, but my craving for spiritual nourishment was not being met. After only a few times back at Mass, the repetitiveness and the seemingly impersonal rigidity became evident to me. The performance seemed rote and mechanical. Sermons were devoid of spiritual insight, it was like a social studies class; get along better with your fellow man, be good, do the right thing. Previously I had thought that I was a good person doing the right thing. I mean I hadn’t robbed banks or killed people; I had tried to follow the Golden Rule, so I was good, right? But apparently that was not good enough. One could not be good enough. My reading of scripture showed me that no one was good. That was why Jesus died for everybody, because “all had sinned and had fallen short of the glory of God.” So I realized that I wasn’t going to get a very in-depth education of the things of God by going to Mass. I needed to find a place I could learn more deeply, to expand on things I was reading and learning in the Word. My Bible reading needed to be accompanied by discussion and teaching.
Ironically, it would be Lucy, Jim Hayes’ wife, who would assist with direction. Not too long after that amazing night in their kitchen I mentioned to her what happened. It turned out that she too had been born again, but after her marriage to Jim, but was not permitted to discuss it with his friends. Lucy suggested that I visit a number of churches to find the style of worship and instruction I might appreciate. And she told me about the one she attended, the First Baptist Church of Wayne, Michigan. After visiting there one Sunday I felt that it was a place that could nurture me as a newborn Christian. It could teach me things, allow discussion and speak of things right from the Bible, using the Word itself as the textbook. It allowed frank and probing discussion of spiritual issues and was not dogmatic about things that they felt were not essential. Those things that were essential were the same things spelled out in the first creeds of Christendom common to all the mainstream Christian groups. It was not a perfect church. I would come to realize that as long as people constituted a church it would have problems. But it was a place where I was accepted for who I was and embraced as a child of God. It kind of felt like family. Eventually, as the years passed I would attend a variety of denominations like Baptist and Presbyterian.
That is how my spiritual pilgrimage began. I voraciously devoured everything I could read about our Lord and the Spirit. I read textbooks, commentaries, lexicons, theological works from both Catholic and Reformed perspectives, studied reference works on the Old and New Testament books, and writings of the early Church Fathers, read novels and catechisms, attended the Detroit Bible College and a Christian liberal arts college, Bryan College, and enjoyed the fellowship of believers who too had entered a personal relationship with God, those who had accepted His free gift of salvation. It was those people from every language and nationality I came to realize was the church universal, the catholic church. Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic, the label wasn’t important, it was the relationship by which we were defined. It will be with these individuals that one day I will share an unimaginably delightful worship experience before the very face of God in our real home, heaven. The journey is decades old now but that is a mere blip in time compared to an eternity enjoying God’s presence. My challenge is to keep from being so heavenly-minded that I’m no earthly good. When I consider the final shedding of this mortal coil with all my continued faults, frailties, and blemishes, compared with being showered in the radiant majestic presence of God himself, it is difficult not to wish to be taken home. Paul speaks similarly when referring to his own approaching death at the hands of his enemies. “But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake,” he confides to his Philippian friends.
All I can do here is explain what God has done for me. Just like Jesus told a man possessed by spirits whom He had healed, when the renewed man rejoiced and wanted to follow and stay with Him. But Jesus told him to go back to his people and tell them what God had done for him. I can only do likewise. Just as John Trail was doing that April night. In searching for an altered state I was shown the ultimate Altered State, the authentic reality.