This is a phenomenon that I share with my uncle Stephen. It has happened to me for as long as I can remember. Certainly as a child it seriously freaked me out. As an adolescent, I'd turn and avoid it. But as an adult... I've simply yielded to it... and I've had inexplicable encounters.
Ok, so they aren't really dead people. But how else do I explain them? They are nearly dead. They are clinging onto life with broken fingernails. The bright sunshine day conceals their terror, their existence in the vacuum of being unseen, unloved, and isolated... due to their own unalive, hollow soul.
Why do they see me? I am sure it is because I saw them long before they saw me. I cannot help it. They glow like beacons from afar. Their faces captivate me and halt my day. Like I said, it has always been this way.
And then they come for me. This part I do not fully understand. It must be my countenance or expression? Maybe they see me like I see them... highlighted and unmistakable. I do not know. What I do know is that EVERY single time they have insights about me. This makes absolutely no sense.
Oh the stories I could tell you... of the seriously mentally ill man who I saw in the hospital right before he made his escape. He told me that I was recently divorced. He told me that he knew I had been a pastor. He told me that he knew I'd served in Guatemala and that I was feeling lost. He was dead right on every account.
I make no defense and I give no justification. I only am here to testify of these extraordinary encounters.
November 2019, the last normal holiday we'd all experience before COVID-19. It was not a normal holiday for me. It was my very first as a divorced man. I was feeling very alone, totally isolated, and quite dark within myself. I was a charlatan, you see? I had been a pastor, a chaplain, a missionary, a husband... and now my identity was a divorced man. I was ashamed and felt useless.
I took walks. Really long walks. I'm talking about walks that could last for hours. I had no destination in mind. No purpose or direction... I simply couldn't sit in my apartment. It was too small and there were too many accusations in my mind that bounced off of those walls. And so one sunny day, like so many before it... I went for a walk.
But that day was different. I had walked to an adjacent apartment complex that had a pond. I walked onto the deck above the pond, laid on my back, put my ear-buds in listening to One Republic, closed my eyes, and shut out the world. I felt peaceful. The warmth of the sun was on my face and my jeans and plaid shirt felt somehow just right in the Indiana sun.
Suddenly I felt threatened and I open my eyes. There was a man literally in my face! He was staring into my face, only inches away.
I immediately pulled away, sliding across the wood deck, my hand going to the .380 concealed in my waistband. I gripped it and stared at him... the air between us thick and electric.
He raised both hands into the air, palms facing me and said, "Hey, whoa... I'm sorry, I have been trying to get your attention." He immediately told me his name and said he was recently discharged from active duty in Afghanistan. He said he came home and he and his wife couldn't make marriage work. He said that he came home broken, and now he was devastated. He said that he'd lost everything he loved and his life no longer mattered. He told me that he wanted to die.
I stared at him. I was a bit stunned. I mean yes, this sort of thing happens... a lot... but it had never been this much literally in my face.
All I could manage to say was, "Why are you talking to me?"
I would have told you that me waking up to a stranger in my face was the most shocking event of that sunny day... but it was not. The words he spoke next upped the ante. "Well, you're a pastor, aren't you?"
I was a divorced, ex-missionary, ex-pastor, ex-chaplain, loser laying on my back with a pistol on my hip. I was afraid, freaked, lonely, bitter, and angry... with the world. With myself. With God. Freaking God! How could He let this happen? Where had He been when I needed Him? When my family needed Him? I'd given Him everything and lost it all.
And now this deranged stranger was calling me out as belonging to GOD? I scooted even farther away from him... as tears fell down my cheeks.
Realization flooded down over me like rain. God had not abandoned me. God saw me here. The realization that I was the one who gave up on God... was arresting. Somehow I gained a new world perspective in that moment. I looked the man in the eye and I said, "How could you possibly think that?"
His response, "I don't know. I was sitting on my balcony, right up there on the fourth floor and I saw you walking towards me from way off. I felt like that I should talk to you and I made a deal with myself that if you came and sat on the deck, I'd come down and talk to you." I just stared at him.
He continued, "Not only did you walk on the deck, but you layed down on it, flat on your back. I've never seen anyone do that. And you wouldn't leave. And so I walked down the stairs, crossed the lawn, and came to your side."
He repeated himself, "You're a pastor, aren't you?" I was laying there with visible tattoos and multiple piercings in my ears. I scrunched my face and said, "How could possible know that?" He said, "I don't really know. I just know that you are." He had me. I confessed, well, I have been. But I'm not any more. He leaned closer, looking me in the eye and said, "Yes you are. You still are, and I need you to pastor me."
I told him that I was divorced, that I'd walked away from ministry, that I still held my license and ordination... but I was a hypocrite! He shocked me yet again as he leaned over, hugged me, and sobbed. He told me that I was the perfect pastor for him.
Over the next hour and a half he poured out his life story. He told me of an early faith in God, and how Afghanistan had beaten it out of him. He seen to much. Done to much. Remembered too much. And suddenly there I was... simultaneously telling him of the God who sees him and loves him, while I was experiencing the embrace of that same God while I spoke.
It was a holy moment. There was restoration that happened for us both. How can I possibly explain this? Here is what I do know. The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Jesus... I know Him. He has been faithful to me always. Always.
As suddenly as the young man arrived... he stood up and announced that it was time for him to leave. He started to walk away, and then turned back and looked at me intensely. He said, "I don't want anything to do with church, but if you pastored a church, I'd attend there. Don't give up. Remember who you are."
And then he turned and walked away.
I was stunned. I'm still stunned. This happened two years ago and I'm just now processing it as I put these words down. You know what is also weird? I've never seen him again. I've walked that same path. I've duplicated my behavior and laid on that deck. But, I never saw him again.
I see dead people... and they come for me. And sometimes, they restore me. And you know what? I'm still a pastor.