August 18, 2006
Old Men Will Dream Dreams: This pastor doesn’t advocate hearing voices, but he happened to hear one
All pastors are crazy; I've known that since seminary. Some pastors, however, have fewer cards in their decks than others. Nick Overduin, pastor of Toronto First Christian Reformed Church, began to question his own sanity after an experience that was beyond explanation.
Overduin now believes God was in this encounter. You may believe otherwise. In either case, reading Nick's account has made me wonder - as more church leaders are rethinking the nature of ministry in a post-Christian culture, is it also time to rethink our assumptions about the supernatural, and its place in our communities?
Who wants to be known as a crazy nut-case preacher that hears voices? I don't advocate hearing voices; I just happen to have heard one.
I did not hear any strange "voices" in my first church. Nor did I feel distracted by the supernatural during my second charge, a University Chaplaincy. In my third posting I was perhaps too busy to hear any divine whisperings. My congregation had 800 members. My fourth church is conceivably the most implausible setting for a semi-mystical deviation. Many of its 120 members are certified experts, executives, or independent entrepreneurs. My wife Nandy and I have been married 25 years, and at first I didn't tell even her. I am writing the episode now partly because I believe it could be sinful to keep it to myself.
About three years ago I woke up one night very suddenly. It was as if I had been jerked from deep sleep into alert wakefulness in less than a second.
I was surrounded by a darkness that seemed thicker than usual. It felt like something or someone ominous was in the room with me.
The blackness around the bookshelves in my office where I had fallen asleep was so substantial that I could see nothing. The space was filled with a conspicuous and crushing sense of dread. My fear increased when I realized that I had been rendered immobile, as if a great weight had been placed over my entire body. I was pinned down.
I began to pray with every fiber of my being. Wouldn't almost anybody have done the same, whether they believed in God or not? Physically, the prayer required fierce resolve just to bring my hands together. I knew it was permissible to pray without folding hands, but for some reason I wanted desperately to fold my hands. I felt I would be completely destroyed if I demonstrated the nerve to pray without first taking up this humble posture.
"What's wrong, God?" I asked when my hands were finally clenched. "Are you angry about something?"
That is when I heard the voice. It was calm but deliberate and focused. It was not loud but clearly audible. I do not know if it was outside the room, inside the room, or just inside my heart. In any case, there was no mistaking what it said. It said, "THE PRAYER OF REPENTANCE."
I was frozen by apprehension, riveted to the bed. Was God angry about the Prayer of Repentance?
I am very proud of the fact that my denomination, the Christian Reformed Church of North America, in 1999 had mandated all congregations use an official Prayer of Repentance for our failure to show sufficient love to homosexual people. As a denomination, we had committed ourselves in 1973 to an official policy of "love the sinner, hate the sin," but we had not demonstrated enough resolve in showing the genuine compassion we had promised. So, in 1999 we urged all the churches to use this well-known Prayer of Repentance. The Synod did not wish to change our biblically-based denominational approach, only encourage greater focus on pastoral love. Many of our congregations in North America, alas, defiantly refused to use the resource liturgically. Now, to my surprise, it seemed that maybe God (if this was God) was not pleased with the official Prayer of Repentance either.
The prayer reads as follows:
Lord, our gracious God,
We have sinned against you.
We have not done the things we ought to have done.
We have not kept the promises we made.
Instead of trying to become a place where persons who love you
and are homosexual could find a gracious dwelling,
We confess that we have continued to build walls.
We have avoided them.
We have been cruel.
We have called names and used insulting language.
We have wished that they would just go away.
Truly, Lord, there is little health in us.
We have wronged these children of yours,
these brothers and sisters of ours,
And we repent of our sins.
We are sorry for what we have done
and for what we have left undone.
Lord, forgive us our sins through the blood of Jesus.
Dear heavenly Father, we love you.
We love you for keeping your promises,
And we want to be like you.
We want to keep our promises.
Help us, Father, to do so.
Help us to love our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers.
Help us love with words and deeds.
Strengthen our resolve to listen to their stories,
to share their pain,
to learn from others,
to walk together on life's journey.
Lord, we have questions.
We do not know everything.
Give us the grace not to act otherwise.
Give us the humility to attend to what we do know.
We do know that life is more complicated than we wish.
We do know that we need your forgiveness for the past
And your grace for the future
As we continually struggle to be the church,
Faithful to your Word,
Faithful to each other.
In Christ. Amen.
"What is wrong, God?" I prayed again. "Why are you angry about the Prayer of Repentance?"
Then the Voice came again. Not loud, but terse and deliberate: IT'S?TOO?LONG.
It is only now, three years later, that I can see some humor in this encounter. But when it happened, I truly felt I was going to die. I did not dare to relate this event to my council or church. I also did not have the courage to tell my wife or best friends.
I truly felt I was going to die. One thing I vividly recall, with genuine gratitude, is that after the voice spoke, the overwhelming terror in the room slowly dissipated. The level of darkness returned to the range that is normal for 4:00 a.m. And the heavy weight on my body receded. I was able to stop folding my hands.
I lay there wondering if this could have possibly been God. I felt that I had been spared from some kind of obliteration, but I did not have a joyful sense of contentment or relief. I had always imagined that having an actual encounter with God would be more beautiful, not something so frightening.
As a pastor in the Christian in the Reformed tradition I have always believed we should be distrustful of anything that allegedly comes from the Spirit of God if it is not based on the Bible. So I was intrigued by the verse that popped into my head while recuperating from the encounter: "When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words." (Matthew 6:7, NIV)
Three years later I can begin to appreciate the humor in this story. The Prayer of Repentance is indeed tediously verbose. It has become quite obvious to me that the prayer is frankly pompous, arrogant, paternalistic, and long-winded. I say this without intending in any way to be mean-spirited towards my denomination, which I deeply love and cherish.
I believe, despite all my scholarly, emotional, and religious reservations, that I may have been given a message by God for the sake of others. But who wants to be known as a crazy nut-case preacher that hears voices? I don't advocate hearing voices; I just happen to have heard one.