From the Sky to the River | Finding God and Community on Earth

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My earthly dad grew up on a ranch along the Russian River in northern California. My mom said he was one of those people whose presence would light up a room when he entered.

He was the kind of guy who would climb to the very top of a fifty foot redwood tree to plant a flag in celebration of the end of World War II. I was sixteen months old when he died in the crash of his light plane. For most of my fifty nine years, that singular event dominated my inner life. That really began to change some ten years ago, when I encountered the “River” of God’s blessing associated with Toronto.

I WANT TO FLY

I couldn’t have been much more than three years of age when my attention was drawn one morning to a little plane passing high overhead. I imagined my dad up there, and made some inner connection with him in the sky. For long afterward my memory of that decision included the idea of a rope-like umbilical cord tying me to that little airplane and its pilot.

Only recently have I come to see that decision as not just a response to pain, loss and fear, but also as an expression of the God-inspired yearning for something more than I was finding in my earthly situation.

"Suddenly I knew that I was going to learn to fly."

From my present vantage point, I can identify a number of concrete ways that God answered that early, inarticulate “prayer.” One occurred in the sky, when I was fifteen years old. After hanging around the local airport for years, I began working there after school and on weekends. A flight instructor had invited me along on a flight to check out the radio on an airplane being readied for sale. It was a crisp, clear spring afternoon. Tom had put the little Luscombe into a spin. The nose was pointed straight down, and the bright green hills spun leisurely in the windshield as they rushed toward us. Suddenly I knew that I was going to learn to fly.

That suddenness and certainty were hugely uncharacteristic of me. I had a history of agonizing over even small decisions, and I had real difficulty committing wholeheartedly to anything or anyone. But here there was no struggle, or even deliberation. Inner conflict and fear had not vanished, but somehow I knew this was the way forward. I felt really free for the first time in my life. I see now that God was giving me what was, at that time, my heart’s desire-and more. Tom became the close friend, and mentor, that I sorely needed in those formative years.

Though I loved to fly and enjoyed immensely those years of fellowship with Tom, and others, flying brought up deep, unresolved issues. I ended up turning away from God in my college years, and I channeled my obsessive carefulness into intellectual work in the study of philosophy, where I could make it out it to be a virtue. But the wound in my heart and that inarticulate yearning persisted.

FINDING FAITH

With help from my wife, Nancy, and notable others, I slowly found my way back to church and to growing faith in God. Graduate school had been very hard on our marriage, and seeking help for that led to individual therapy.

Over time, with prayer, I experienced some measure of healing, but things really picked up in January 1996 when I had a powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit at a healing service. That opened up not just a new layer, but a whole new side of my underlying emotional wounds. It also renewed my hope and yearning for God.

"I had no idea I was about to have a truly heavenly encounter."

In July of that year, Stuart Bell, who had been involved in the spread of “The Toronto Blessing” in Britain, came to Pittsburgh. In one of those meetings, I felt convicted to write a letter to my stepfather seeking his forgiveness for attitudes and behaviors that had strained our relationship and been hurtful to the family. I mailed that letter on my way to the next day’s meeting.

A DIVINE ENCOUNTER

When I lined up to receive prayer that evening, I had no idea that I was about to have a truly heavenly encounter with God. For some considerable time I experienced the presence of God, exhilaratingly powerfully, starting around my heart and then spreading throughout my whole body. A woman kneeling beside me, her hand on my heart, gave voice to my silent prayer, “Stay on the potter’s wheel!”

Then there came an invitation to come up higher. I said yes, and felt that I was somehow ascending as though being lifted “up” out of my body, but still feeling the presence of God increasing within me, with sensations that brought to mind the roaring of a waterfall and the thought of dense, liquid “lightning.”

There was a “portal,” a ring of important persons in my life, including some who had passed on. Passing through that, I saw “pictures” of two episodes in my life, the one epitomizing the joy I’d found in flying and the other all the pain and embarrassment I had known. But now the attraction of the first was completely eclipsed by my present experience, and there was no sting of pain left in the latter.

As I continued “higher,” the sense of solidity and exploding life grew to unimaginable proportions. I felt I was experiencing the truth of Paul’s words, “I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” Then there appeared an immense, cloud like pillar composed of innumerable star-like beings. I inquired if certain believers whose witness had encouraged me were there.

Eventually it became clear that I was coming back. As the “descent” began, I somehow knew I would not lose that presence of Christ within me. Otherwise, the thought of returning to normal awareness (if there could ever again be such a thing!), would have been unbearable. Slowly I became more aware of my earthly surroundings, there on the thinly carpeted concrete floor at the hotel ballroom on which I had been lying for some two-and-half hours. I was still joyously “drunk in the Spirit” the following morning. What I had experienced the night before seemed so much more “solidly” real than what I now saw around me.

Others were touched that night as well, including my six-year-old daughter, Anna. It was a great encouragement to me that as I obeyed God’s call to be humbly reconciled to my stepfather, there should be fruit that would extend to my own daughter and to the deepening of the already wonderful bond between us. Once Anna had gotten up from her first time on the floor that night, she immediately sought to be prayed for again. Later on, she eagerly asked if we could start going to renewal meetings every Friday night.

THE EFFECTS OF THE DIVINE ENCOUNTER

A few months later, at a meeting in a nearby city, I had been aware that she had had another special time with God. Sometime after that, the words just popped out of my mouth, “Anna, do you really know God loves you?” To her quick “yes” I responded, “How do you know?”

After thinking for a moment, she started out quite seriously with, “Well, Daddy, you told me, the Bible told me, and ... [after a smiling pause] ... then there was that night on the floor at the hotel...”

"The new sense of belonging has been wonderful balm to my soul."

The deepening of that special bond with my daughter was one way that the Lord was at work, strengthening my once tenuous internal connection to the earth and to people. What impressed me initially about the experience described above was the immensity and immediate present-ness of the God whose life, love, power and peace I had felt surging through me. I knew there was nothing else to live for, or from.

As I continued to soak in His presence and my sense of intimacy and grounded-ness in Him grew, I came to understand and value more and more the growing sense of connectedness with others in God’s family, both on earth and in heaven. That new sense of belonging has been wonderful balm to my soul.

Somehow the “home” I had been seeking in the sky had come to me on the lowly concrete floor of a hotel ballroom. (Interestingly, there was a large portrait in that room of a World War II bomber, a B-25, in the final moments of its forced-landing descent into the nearby Monongahela River.) For me, the process of becoming more grounded proceeded. Early on, I felt led to give up the glider flying that I had taken up a year or so earlier. As much as I enjoyed it, I didn’t have time to spend Friday nights at renewal meetings and Saturdays at the airport.

But more at the heart of the matter was the ache I felt in my heart at the possibility- as slight as it may have been-of leaving my own daughter fatherless due to a plane crash. There were some miles yet to go before my wound was healed to the point that I could let it go, and just rest in the wholeness of the new person I am in Christ.

My grounding process also brought a tangible sense of the presence of God in my body. Not only did this serve to drive home the truth that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, but there was a spontaneous urge to respond to the Spirit’s touch by moving in worship. I can now identify with King David who danced before the Lord with all His might.

"I could never have forseen this shift in my inner life."

Just a couple of years ago, on a weekend retreat, the Lord called to mind that pivotal experience in the sky at age fifteen. From the beginning, I had wondered why that commitment to learning to fly had come to me while plummeting to earth in a spin. I wanted to fly, not come down to earth! Later, when I realized my father’s crash had been a stall-spin accident, I was troubled that I might have a latent death wish. But the Lord brought me to see that His plan was to meet me up there, where I wanted to go, and to give me what was then my heart’s desire. But He was going to fulfill a deeper desire by connecting me to the earthly context into which He had placed me, among the people I love.

The scene in my mind then changed, to the post-crucifixion earthquake scene in the Mel Gibson film, The Passion of the Christ. I was there, riding down in the Father’s teardrop as it fell toward that rocky soil at the foot of the cross. Upon impact, I saw Jesus’ huge left foot come emphatically down, right in front of me, on ground that I now felt part of. There came to mind images from Zechariah 14:1-9:

“A day of the Lord is coming ...On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley ...On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem ...On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.”

No longer do I yearn to meet God, or my earthly dad, in the sky. The idea of being caught up with all the saints to meet Jesus in the clouds certainly still excites me. But even more exhilarating is the prospect of His coming in power on earth. I never could have foreseen this shift in my inner life, but I rejoice in my new sense of solidarity with the whole of creation, and especially the people in it. I long for the day when He will stand on earthly ground and release the fullness of the River of which we have been drinking.