When Lisa asked me to write about a time when I’ve felt the presence of God, I originally thought the assignment was going to be easier than it turned out to be. Not so much because I’m in the habit of regular kaffeklatches in and with the Presence, but because almost all of my most intense experiences have come in community, or when I’m interceding on behalf of others. And as a result, those stories aren’t mine alone to tell.
There is one story, though, that’s uniquely mine.
When I was in ninth grade, back in 1975 or 1976, I had a dream. It meant a great deal to me then, and still does today, though I’m seeing aspects of it in a different light nearly a half-century later.
In my dream, I was on a class trip to Israel with my (Lutheran) confirmation class. I should note that I never really participated much in class activities, as the girls in our class were very cliquish and I was most definitely an outsider – in fact, this was when I first became a lay reader, as I was allowed to substitute that for regular confirmation classes. But this trip, like summer camp, was required, so there I was.
We were visiting a museum of some kind, filled with dioramas of what various places would have looked like in Jesus’ time – a marketplace, a synagogue, an artisan’s shop. And one of the dioramas was of a child’s bedroom, billed as a room that “could have been” Jesus’. I remember I was skeptical, mostly because the bed was so small any child over the age of two would have had to sleep curled up, but I was still fascinated.
In fact, I was so interested that I lingered after the rest of the class, along with the tour guide, had gone on to the next set of exhibits. I felt that if I was actually going to feel Jesus’ presence anywhere, his bedroom was probably high on the list of possibilities. I closed my eyes and tried to reach out with my other senses.
Finally I opened my eyes, disappointed – and there was a man sitting on the bed. He had longish hair and a beard, and was wearing a flannel shirt, jeans and a belt. (I remember him looking a lot like my ninth-grade social studies teacher, Sheldon Anderson, who always dressed that way in an era when male junior high teachers invariably wore suits and ties, and who refused to cut his hair, though he did keep his beard short to placate the school administration.)
This wasn’t Mr. Anderson, though. This was Jesus.
He smiled at me, and patted the bed next to him, inviting me to come sit down. I demurred, because I wasn’t sure how the bed was supporting him, never mind both of us.
I would give pretty much any non-essential body part to remember more of our conversation than I did or do. But I was about as giddy as a 13-year-old girl ever gets. But I do remember a couple of the important things.
First, I knew I was loved. Completely, just the way I was. This was huge, to put it mildly. My church at the time taught, like so many churches, that God’s love was something we had to earn, and that earning it was next to impossible for sinners unless we first acknowledged what worthless and vile creatures we were. I was also getting a similar message from my family at that point, and between the two of them I figured they were probably speaking for God.
Second, although I don’t remember this being said in so many words, I came away with the assurance that yes, talking with Jesus really was this easy. Jesus was a friend, and he enjoyed talking with me whenever I wanted to. I think this might have been the beginning of my experience as a mystic, the idea that God is everywhere and reaching out to us.
Eventually, though, I broke off the conversation. Not because I was tired of it, but because I wanted to go get my classmates and let them have the same experience. So I ran out of the exhibit, and caught up with my classmates, told them what had happened and tried to get them to come back with me.
Quite a few of them laughed at me – remember, I wasn’t part of the ‘in’ crowd – but a few followed me back to the diorama.
And Jesus was gone.
This is where my interpretation of the dream has taken on a bit of nuance over the years. At the time, I remember feeling acutely ashamed of myself. I’d taken an experience that was meant just for me and used it to try to make myself look like a big shot, impress all the kids who couldn’t have cared less about me.
Now, though, I see it differently. I think I just wanted to share – and that I was being given a glimpse of what much of my future as a mystic was going to look like. Even some of the people who love me best refuse to believe that I – or anyone – can talk to Jesus. And people in general are often uncomfortable with the idea, and don’t or can’t or won’t let themselves share in the experience.
But over the years, I’ve found people who are willing to come with me, to listen for Jesus, God, the Spirit. I’m trying to decide if real life ended up providing the happy ending the dream lacked… or if the dream hasn’t really ended yet.