Yesterday, while leading a funeral service for a dear old friend and charter member of my congregation, one of her sons shared an interesting testimony.
It seems that just last week he was working on a house he owns in Texas. While in the back yard he inadvertantly laid down on top of a nest of fire ants. He was bitten over 100 times, had a severe allergic reaction and, while trying to return to the house to get in some cold water, he collapsed and, as he recalls it, stopped breathing.
He immediately heard voices and saw a brightly lit hallway. He cried out, "I don't want to die. I have my wife and my parents to take care of!"
He then found himself breathing again and, although in great pain, made a full recovery without even seeing a doctor.
He said that this experience brought him great comfort when his mother died two days later because now, without a doubt, he knew that there was, indeed, life after death....and in that life there was a God who knew him and heard him when he cried out to live.
While not an active Christian, he was raised in the faith (in our congregation!) and knew the doctrine and stories of the Bible. But it was this experience that confirmed for him the reality of heaven, of God and of life beyond this life.
He also shared that, still in Texas after he had learned his mother had died here in Hawaii, he offered up a prayer, saying, "Mom, please let me know somehow that you are all right."
Immediately a butterfly appeared nearby, fluttered around for a bit and then landed just in front of him on the lawn. After a few moments the butterfly took off and fluttered away.
This too, brought him great comfort. He saw it as a clear sign from his mother that she was in a "good place."
For a moment or two I pondered whether this man was really on to something or was simply, out of emotional need, mistaking ordinary things for being somehow supernaturally significant.
I have concluded that this man was really on to something.
God has repeatedly spoken to us and revealed his glory to us through ordinary things.
For example: To most everyone in the ancient world the star was just a star. But, to the "wise men from the East," the star was an omen, a clear and straightforward indication that a new King had been born....in Bethlehem!
Jesus had his disciples throw their nets over the other side of the boat when they had not been able to catch a single fish. When the followed Jesus' instructions, the nets became completely full of fish, literally to the breaking point. The disciples immediately understood this as a "message" from God.
In the Old Testament, Gideon wanted God to let him know whether what he had been told was true. So, he put a lambskin outside his tent one night and in the morning it was dewy wet (when he asked for that) and on the next night it was completely dry (which had also asked for). This, he knew
was a "vision" from God.
Whether it is a star, a fish or a piece of lambskin, God can take ordinary things and use them to speak to us in extraordinary ways.
This is what signs and dreams and visions are all about: Seeing or hearing or experiencing the real presence of God (and, often, his revealed will) in an otherwise ordinary setting or circumstance.
It does no one any good to try and tell someone who has had such an encounter that it was all a figment of their imagination. The experience somehow becomes self-validating. An experience of God of this kind is by no means experienced as an illusion or unreality. If anything, the extraordinary experience is even more real than the ordinary setting or object that served as the vehicle for the vision in the first place!
I myself have experienced several very powerful (and very subjective) experiences of what I immediately understood to be a direct communication from God. On one ocassion I was miraculously delivered from a completely unavoidable traffic accident. At that moment there was so little hope that I actually closed my eyes in resignation. When nothing happened, I opened my eyes and found that the impossibly tangled convergence of cars had completed disappeared. The nearest car was more than 100 feet away. I knew right away
and without going through any real thought process that my life had been spared for some great purpose.
This incident was a significant step toward viewing my life as being valuable for God and being useful for others.
On another ocassion I had a dream/vision that both chilled and thrilled me. The vision was a overwhelming re-experience of the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit entered the room filled with Jesus' disciples like a rushing wind and with tongues of fire.
I woke up knowing without a doubt
that God had used that vision to assure me that he was empowering me to serve him in some way. At the time I had no idea what that might mean, but I was completely convinced that, whatever God called me to do, I would be given the means to accomplish it.
It is easy, of course, to mistake indigestion for being a message from God. A psychiatrist I once knew was convinced that he had experienced an alien landing and had actually boarded at UFO, travelled with them and then returned to earth.
I cannot prove or disprove that what this man experienced was real or illusory. All I can do is to evaluate his experience from the standpoint of the Bible.
A true vision from God always....and I do mean always
....communicates a sense of God's glory, power and holiness. Such a vision is always an overwhelming experience that confirms some great truth about God or imparts some sense of calling or purpose leading to a deeper faith and a closer relationship with God....and often with others as well. Such a Biblically authentic experience may or may not include the person of Jesus Christ. But, even if it does not, the vision will in no way lead a person away
from Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Lord and Savior of the world. In no way will the experience affirm anything that diverges from the Bible as being the only infallible guide to what we are to believe about God and humanity or how we have been called to live in relationship with God and with others.
If a "vision" does not accomplish these things (and my friend's "encounter" with a UFO produced a clear movement away
from God) then it must be assumed that the experience was a spiritual deception and one that will ultimately produce bitter fruit in the life of the person it has led astray (unless, of course, they repudiate and reject it as being spiritually counterfeit).
I believe that God still "speaks" to people in this way today.
Along with Native American Christian activist Vine Deloria, Jr., I can assert that "a person cannot have a 'mis-experience.' But they can
have a mis-interpretation of that experience."
In this way many non-Christians, have had a "visionary" encounter with the living God yet do not have the knowledge to clearly understand what they have experienced. Part of Christian evangelism is to reach out to these people and take their spiritual experiences seriously, even as we help them look at and understand those experiences in the light of the one true God who has revealed himself most perfectly to the world through Jesus Christ.
Perhaps you, or someone you know has had a "spiritual" or "visionary" experience. It is important always to, 1. Determine whether it was from God or not (does it lead you to
God or away
from God) and then, if it appears to be an authentic God-experience, to, 2. Interpret it in light of Jesus Christ and the written word of God, the Bible.
I do not present myself as an expert in these matters although I strongly believe that many people who do
present themselves as "experts" in these matters tend to make the whole subject far too complicated and the their interpretation far too legalistic than is actually necessary.
Such experiences should not be a surprise....especially for a Christian. After all, it was Jesus who said that, ".....the Kingdom of God is at hand." This means of course that the real presence of God and the way of life God commends is close enough to touch....or to be touched by!
My life and faith were confirmed by what, to anyone else, were extremely subjective and suspicious experiences. To me, however, and to the man at the funeral who was encouraged and comforted by similar spiritual "encounters," God made his meaning just as clear as he did long ago to those wise men, who looked at a star and saw something that no one else had seen.