Approximately two years ago, I had emergency surgery in Chicago. Thanks to the good people at Northwestern Medical, I am here today to write this blog. Unable to fly home, a good friend drove to Chicago to take my wife, Kathryn, and me home. I will never forget her kindness. However, complications set in, and I was admitted into the Cleveland Clinic. During my ten-day hospitalization, I received excellent care and was tested for a variety of things. I was given a variety of painkillers which my system did not handle well. That takes me to an experience, I wish I could forget.
One evening, they took me for a test. I don’t remember the exact test because I was heavily sedated. Assuming I would be gone for a few hours and the hour was late, Kathryn left me to drive home. When I returned to my room, I was confused. To be more exact, I was completely disoriented. I didn’t recognize my room or any of the surroundings. I was told later, I acted oddly. Odder than normal. In that state I experienced something new in my life. For some unknown reason, I felt alone and unloved. I felt like God had abandoned me. I felt like everyone in my life had forgotten me, my wife, my children, my extended family, my friends, my church family. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember panicking. In an emotional state, my roommate came to my aid. He said, “Russ, everything is ok. You are back in the room and your wife will be back early tomorrow morning.” Slowly the pieces of my life came back together again. I was relieved I was not forgotten. I was relieved I was loved. I was relieved I was not alone, because God was with me. May we never forget that God is always with us. May we never forget God has always been with us. That takes us to our scripture reading.
Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name means God is Salvation, but we simply call him Isaiah. His audience was the people of Judah. To be more exact, his audience was the people of Jerusalem. The Old Testament book that carries his name has been dated between the years 740 BC and 680 BC. In his sixty-six chapters, he speaks of both immediate judgement and future restoration.
We find ourselves in the sixth chapter, verses one through thirteen. It is the climax of the first major section of his prophecies. To be blunt, Isaiah is experiencing God. Let me break down those verses. In the first four verses, Isaiah sees the glory of God. In verses five through seven, Isaiah recognizes his own uncleanness. In verses eight through thirteen, Isaiah discovers his purpose. Clean and forgiven, Isaiah sets his sight on God’s rebellious people and delivers his message of judgement. The words in this passage are both foreign and intriguing to us because they are about a person experiencing God. Experiencing God is one of the deep desires of our life. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) once said, “Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in God.”
The other night, my wife was busy, so I went to a local restaurant to eat. I was alone and the place was busy, so I sat at the bar. The seat next to me was open, but a few minutes later, it was occupied by a man who ordered his food to go. The service was slow, so we sat there in awkward silence. After a few minutes, I spoke to him about the service. Seconds later we were talking. He told me his name. He was married with two children, a boy, and a girl. They lived in a neighboring community. Seconds later, he asked me where I worked. I confessed I was retired, but I had been in the ministry for forty years. He was a little uncomfortable with my answer. We sat in silence for a few seconds, then he asked me, “What do you miss?” I answered, “Not much. I didn’t retire to get away from my liturgical duties, things like preaching, weddings, and funerals. I retired because I grew tired of the pettiness of the church. Unchurched now, he was raised Russian Orthodox. He confessed; he missed the sacredness of that tradition, but he left because of the pettiness of his church. Then he asked me a question that caught me off guard. He asked, “Have you ever experienced God?” It was an excellent question and I have been thinking of my answer since our encounter. As I look back of my life, I have had several experiences with God. They may not have been as vivid as Isaiah’s experience with God, but my experiences with God changed my life. Let me talk about three.
In December of 1974, I was a senior in high school. My soul of restless, and I was uncomfortable with my own mortality. It shouldn’t have been that way. I was raised in the life of the church. My parents were active church members, who made sure I was involved in the life of the church. My home church offered a wonderful youth group, and I looked forward to our weekly meetings. I still consider my fellow youth group members to be the finest people I have ever known. It was one of my fellow members who asked me a question that changed my life. She asked, “Russ, would you like to go to heaven?” She was the prefect person to ask the perfect question.” I responded, “yes,” and we prayed. I felt a peace in my soul that has never left me. I was no longer afraid to die. Let there be no doubt about it, God was there. I could have put my head on his shoulder. That was my first experience with God.
My second experience with God came when I was in college. At that time, the University of Mount Union was called Mount Union College. I had wonderful friends during those days. Each one was planning on going into the ministry. That was not my story. I was studying Business Administration. Looking back, I know God was calling me into the ministry too, but I was filled with self-doubt. Once again, my soul was restless. To escape the school and to be alone, I walked through the backstreets of Alliance, Ohio. As I walked, I prayed, looking for direction. Without warning, God suddenly appeared. My senses became keener. Everything I looked at became more vivid. Everything thing I touched took on a new texture. The air itself became fresher. My heartbeat faster and my spirit jumped to life. When I went back to campus, I was surprised the whole world hadn’t changed. Looking back, I understand that experience to be on sanctification. Like Isaiah, God was setting me aside for a divine purpose. My time in the ministry came naturally to me because God was leading the way. That was my second experience with God.
My third experience with God came during my time in the ministry. It was probably twenty years ago. I was the pastor of the Western Reserve United Methodist Church in Canfield, Ohio. On Easter morning, I preached four times. During the last service the church was full. I was glad to say the benediction because I was tired. I stood in the back of the church shaking hands. As the line grew shorter, I noticed a young couple standing off to the side. They were visitors. Their little girl stood by their side and the mother held an infant. When everyone else was gone, they walked up to me with a request. With tears running down the father’s face, he asked, “Can you pray for my son?” Wanting to be more specific, I asked to hear the story. The baby’s head was growing fast because there was something wrong with his brain. I took them to the altar and prayed. A few days later, I was in their home, and we prayed again. As that visit came to an end, I asked them to bring the baby back to church the following Sunday, so the whole church could pray for him. They did and during that service I asked for prayer warriors. The entire congregation stood up and came forward. Those in the front touched the baby. Those who couldn’t touch the baby touched his parents. In the end everyone put their hand on someone else’s shoulder. I prayed for healing and ended with the Lord’s Prayer. I will never forget standing in the middle of that small mass. As we prayed that prayer together, the Holy Spirit washed over us. On that day my church went from being an organization with committees to an organism, part of the body of Christ. Everyone who left church that day knew the baby was healed. The aftershock of that experience was felt in that church for years to come. That was my third experience with God. Years later, it is impossible to look back on that day and not smile. I am happy to report that the baby grew up and is how a chemist, using his fully functioning brain daily.
These are not my only experiences with God. I have had many. I cannot imagine living without God. Perhaps God is like the air we breathe. He is invisible, but He is vital to our existence. I do not understand people who say they don’t need God or who do not believe God exists. I need God every day and so do you. Who wants to live unloved and alone. Internationally renowned author and speaker Wayne Dyer (1940-2015) once said, “The purpose of life is to know God.” When was the last time you experienced God?