God Encounter; or Not

Before getting into this part of my story I want to mention what a “third heaven encounter” is within the Charismatic and Pentecostal cultures, since this part has much to do with that.  The “first heaven” is the physical realm that we immediately see and experience now. The “second heaven” is the realm of angels and demons on Earth.  The “third heaven” is the realm of God, basically Heaven.  A third heaven encounter is an experience with the heavenly realm of God.  This would include visitations from angels, a physical encounter with Jesus or other Biblical characters, seeing and exploring Heaven as if you are really there, seeing God as if He is really physically there, etc.

My Charismatic phase began in July of 2007 after experiencing and becoming a part of a year long renewal at the church I grew up in.  Before the renewal I wasn’t really a hard practicing Christian.  I believed in Christ, but was starting to lean into agnosticism, because I wasn’t seeing the demonstrated power in my life that Christ supposedly can offer.  I was in a punk band that just got back from a 2 month U.S. tour.  I was getting burned out touring with the band members, because they were always very negative and angry and it got annoying.  I wanted to quit the band, but touring and putting out records was the only thing keeping myself from living an average life.

The last week of the tour I was in Austin, Texas when my dad called me to tell me about all the miracles happening at the church.  He told me about a pastor from Texas who has been speaking at the meetings that had a third heaven encounter with Jesus during a mission trip in Brazil.  After telling of his encounter with Jesus multiple people at the church started having visions of Jesus and angels.  My dad asked me to come to church after the tour to see everything that was happening.  I wasn’t opposed to going to church and liked the idea that miracles might be happening, so I told him I would go.  I have been to these type of meetings before when the church was going through another renewal around the same time  the Toronto Blessing was happening in the mid-90’s.  I was just expecting to see a lot of people drunk in the Spirit, falling down, laughing and crying.

The night after coming back home from tour I went to the church.  The church was packed to standing room only (The church, which is an old YMCA gym, holds about 600 people).  I learned the meetings that were happening started out as a weekend long conference that turned into a nightly meeting with the title God Encounter, after people at the conference were starting to have divine encounters never before experienced in the 40 year history of the church.  The church leaders and the congregation didn’t want to quench the Spirit by ending the conference on the second night, so it was turned into a nightly meeting.  Word got around to the other Charismatic and Pentecostal churches in the area, so people from all over the city were visiting to see what our Pentecost was all about.  The main focus of the meetings was to pray for the city, press into God’s presence and have a divine encounter.

The meeting started with the usual worship routine – beginning with fast energetic songs about the joy of the lord and ending with soft emotional songs about the love of God.  Being a music snob and mostly into punk and post-punk stuff, worship music never really played much with my emotions and influence my spiritual life, so I just sat in my seat and observed everyone worshiping.  It wasn’t until the pastor from Texas started to speak that I felt something in my spirit move. He talked about his visions of Jesus and how angels visit his bedroom at night on occassion.  He talked about how history will be changed.  I don’t know how I got caught up in what he was saying. Maybe it was because I was frustrated where my life was going, tired of negative and emotional vampire friends and wanted something new and exciting in my life. I wanted the visions he saw.  I wanted the miracles.  I wanted my life changed.  I wanted to change the world.  He called everyone up to the stage to be imparted with his spiritual gift of visions and prophecy.  I went up and I was imparted this gift.

I was unemployed at the time, so the day after this first meeting the church asked me to work at the meetings every night because there was no telling when it would end.  For the next year, 5 days a week, I worked at these meetings setting up, tearing down, stacking chairs, cleaning up after people and locking up the building after everyone had left. I became close to a lot of the people who attended and some of the church leaders from all around the city.  I couldn’t get away from the renewal.

These meetings became known all around California within the Charismatic and Pentecostal circles.  Over the year we had visitors from all over the state.  This was going on around the same time as the Lakeland Revival in Florida that Todd Bentley started, so it felt like God was doing something with America and getting ready to bring revival to our generation.  We had well known speakers come in to help kindle the fire like Bill Johnson and his Supernatural School of Ministries from the Bethel Church in Redding, Mark Dupont from the Toronto Blessing, Lance Wallnau came in with his New Apostolic dominionist ideas about the Seven Mountains of Influence and lots and lots of others.  I was surrounded by people speaking about pressing into the presence of God to have divine encounters.  The speakers were always talking about their visions and angelic ecstasies, third heaven encounters with bible characters, healing testimonies and prophecies.  People in the congregation would start seeing and having these experiences. One woman even claimed to see Jesus mounted on a white horse riding between the aisles.  Gold dust, and feathers were seen falling from thin air during worship.  People claimed to have gold teeth and feelings mysteriously appear in their mouth during the meetings.  It seemed like magic was happening all around me.

Dying for my own encounter with God, in the Fall of 2007 I enrolled in the churches Supernatural School of Ministry, where I can learn how to be in the presence of the Holy Spirit, learn to perform miracles signs and wonders and learn the ways the Spirit speaks to me.  I figured an enrollment in this school that Fall was the perfect time to learn how to be the hands and feet of Christ, since our church was going through a revival.  I wanted to see miracles, perform miracles and experience miracles in my own life, but most of all I wanted to see angels and have a divine third heaven encounter of my own.

At this school I learned how to prophesy, give words of knowledge, pray for healing, prepare sermons and speak in public.  We did a lot of street ministry on the weekends.  I did very well in healing and prophecy.  Some of the nights in class were spent in silence trying to hear God and sit in his presence.  This was always hard for me because I could never feel anything or see anything.  Most of my classmates would talk about how they felt the presence of the Holy Spirit and talk about their visions, but I had nothing. This frustrated me.

For months I would lay in my bed every night praying that I would have an encounter with the Lord.  I’d pray for my eyes to be open to see angels.  I’d pray that I’d see Jesus.  Some of those who have had these kinds of experiences would prophesy that I’d have divine encounters regularly.  I looked to those prophetic words as encouragement that someday I will have an encounter with the third heaven.  I’d try to sit in the Lord’s presence while working at the renewal meetings and it seemed the people around me were having these amazing experiences but nothing was happening to me.  I was getting tired.

The renewal meetings came to a quick end after about a year when the pastor from Texas was caught cheating on his wife with one of his assistants.  He was told by the church leaders that he couldn’t lead the meetings any longer.  This was brought up publicly to the congregation at one of the meetings.  The meetings were still to go on without him, but the attendance at the meetings dropped after that night.  I started questioning his stories about his encounters with Jesus and angels.  And I started wondering why people would leave the renewal meetings if they really believed they were experiencing God, with or without this cheating pastor. The meetings were originally about praying for the city and pressing in to have a God encounter. So wouldn’t God’s presence be all you needed to not be bothered by a man who cheated on his wife?  Didn’t the city still need prayer?  When the attendance dropped so did all the stories of divine experiences.

For a couple years I still tried to press on.  I still experienced nothing.  Not one physical manifestation of God, only the occasional dream I’d convince myself was from God.  I never fell down in the Spirit, I never felt drunk in the Spirit and I never cried or laughed or had any feelings take over me.  I wondered if anything was wrong with me.  Was I using too much of my head?

Yes, I was using too much of my head and that isn’t a bad thing.  I started to figure out that it was all just mass hysteria.  The reason the divine encounters stopped when the attendance dropped was because the excitement and stories of everyone in the congregation wasn’t there to make someone think they were experiencing something miraculous.  The other’s who may not have been taken by mass hysteria may have just been lying about their experiences.  The gold teeth and feelings that would appear were most likely always there; no dental records were ever shown.  When I cleaned up after the meetings I never saw any feathers or gold dust left over on the ground or chairs.  After thinking about all that I’ve noticed first hand working at a revival meeting, being part of a supernatural ministry school for a year and taking into account my lack of experience I came to the conclusion that miracles of this kind don’t happen and if I can’t experience God then there may not even be a God.

I Was A Street Walking Faith Healer

I had lots of prophetic words spoken over me about my spiritual gift in healing. Sometimes I would feel a burning sensation on my hand and I took it as a sign that somebody needed a healing prayer. I’d pray and ask God who it may be.  I loved praying for people.  It was always exciting to see God’s healing power used in my hands.  I was on the prayer team at the church I attended, so I got to pray for and see lots of people healed.  It was magical.

My father oversaw a skatepark that one of the churches youth pastor started.  The skatepark was opened two nights out of the week in the church parking lot. About 200 skaters on average would show up each night.  This was a great place to see God’s healing power as there were lots of kids with injuries needing prayer.  There were countless times I’d pray for a kid who claimed to have a fractured finger or sprained ankle and were healed within minutes after putting my hand on the injured limb and call down the power of God.

Being one who use to heal people with the power of God, how can I turn around after seeing the miraculous and become an atheist?  There were a few circumstances I put myself through that made me question everything I have done and seen.

I use to love spending afternoons on the weekend driving around my hometown asking God for direction to find someone specific on the streets who may need a divine encounter.  One Saturday afternoon I was with a friend who also loved jumping out of the boat to pray for people.  We spent about 30 mins in the morning praying for direction. I thought I felt God direct us to a small town outside our hometown, so we got in my truck and drove about 35 mins to this town.  We parked in the downtown area and started walking and asking God who it was we needed to pray for.

We saw a woman in a wheelchair crossing a street.  I knew for sure it must be her.  We ran after her, calling to her.  She stopped, confused why we were chasing her.  I explained what we were doing and asked if we could pray for her.  She said it would be ok.  My friend started the prayer, thanking God for the moment and thanking God for His love for her. I told her I believed God could heal her and she wouldn’t need her wheelchair any longer.  I’ve seen lots of fractured fingers healed and sprained ankles healed by my own hands and have heard a million second hand stories of tumors falling off of people after prayer and paraplegics walking out of wheelchairs at churches, so I believed this would be a great opportunity to see God heal somebody in a wheelchair on the streets, change a life, plus have a great testimony. I asked her if she believed God could heal her and she hesitantly said “yes”.  I knew she was nervous but I was too enthusiastic and I believed it was what Jesus would have done.  So on that hot Saturday afternoon on the middle of a sidewalk in a small California town, I prayed for her and commanded all of her body to be healed in the name of Jesus, on Earth as it is in Heaven.  I really felt she was being healed and it was now her turn to step out of the comfort zone and walk.  I asked her if she was ready to walk and she declined. I could see in her face I made her very uncomfortable and I felt awful about it, but I tried to tell myself it was what Jesus would have done and God was proud I jumped out of the boat to do His work, even if nothing happened.  But I still wondered why God didn’t heal her right there and right then.  We watched her wheel herself down the street away from us as we hoped she would be healed one day.

Another weird situation during my faith healing years, it was just after midnight when a friend of mine called saying he was heading to the hospital across the street from my apartment to pray for an elderly man in a coma. Excited by the chance to maybe see a Lazarus healing from God with my own hands I walked across the street and met up with my friend in front of the hospital. We walked into the emergency room, into the ICU and found his room and snuck in. The old man was in his 80s. He was alone, hooked up to tubes, a breathing machine and whatever else can keep an unconscious person alive. We stood over his bed and began praying in his dark hospital room. 

We prayed and prayed, I wasn’t totally expecting him to wake up from his coma and get out of his bed.  I thought it would be great if he did and I believed it could happen, but it wasn’t expected. We were in his room for about 30 mins praying over his poor old and almost lifeless body and prophesying how great it would be that his family would spend more years with this old man. We felt God say it wasn’t his time to die and even well into his 80s he still had years left in him. We didn’t see him wake up that night.

A few days later I saw my friend and ask him about the old man.  He told me he the next day he the old man had woken up and argued with the nurses.  I was stoked!  I couldn’t believe our prayers worked. Even if he didn’t wake up in front of us that night, it was still unbelievable that he actually woke up from his coma the next day and was aware enough to argue with the nurses.  I went to my home group that night and gave the testimony.

Later that week I found out the old man actually never woke up from the coma and ended up dying a couple days after we prayed for him.  I felt like I was lied to and felt crushed by it.  The testimony I gave to the home group happened to be recorded and played for the church congregation later that same week.  People cheered and told me how awesome it was that our prayers were answered and felt encouraged to pray for their loved ones.  I felt awful and was too embarrassed and overwealmed by their excitement to tell all of them I was lied to. This got me questioning everything. Every testimony I heard from then on was now under my microscope.

I started reading up on the placebo effect, the power of suggestion and other weird psychological happenings that helped explain away all the healings I did in at the skatepark and on the streets.  The fractures were probably never there, the sprained ankles were probably not as bad as it seemed and just went away with a little dopamine and endorphine power.  Some people even told me later that after I prayed they still felt pain, but they just didn’t want to hurt my feelings or they only told me they were healed so I would stop praying for them.

Every big miracle testimony I questioned I found to be exaggerated or lies.  I heard second hand testimonies that got bigger and more extraordinary as the story was passed on.

I never saw anyone with real miraculous healings.  The old man at my church who was severely crippled by a car accident when he was younger didn’t have one inch of healing even after all the prayer he went up for at church.  None of the major prayer warriors could heal him.  None of the major prophets who visited the church that told him he would be healed completely could never do it.  I watched this old man crying for healing numerous times.  It only broke my heart.  And those I prayed for who had terminal cancer never lived to tell of a healing.  I can’t believe in the miraculous healing of God after that.

Sleeping With God

In my last post I gave testimony of my Christian conversion to deconversion.  In these next few posts, I want to write in a little more detail about the spiritual experiences I started questioning that help start my journey into deconversion.

Dreams played a huge role in my life as a miracle believing Christian that had access to the spiritual realm. For a few years I believed the creator of the Universe sent me prophetic dreams on the regular. My dreams were usually filled with angelic encounters, spiritual gifts and healing, prayers and apocalyptic images (storms, tsunamis, earthquakes, etc).  Some mornings I’d wake up wondering what my dreams meant, what God was telling me and how I should use this divine information to better advance the Kingdom of God or help myself and others.

The first time I had a dream I considered spiritual was in my early-20’s.  At the time I wasn’t very active as a Christian.  I dreamed I was outside of the church my dad pastors and someone came up to me and asked me to pray for their friend.  I followed them and saw that it was one of my really good friends at the time, who wasn’t and still isn’t a Christian, that needed prayer.  I started praying for him in my dream and was startled awake by an unseen force holding me down on my bed strangling me.  I couldn’t breath or cry out for help so I started to pray until the unseen force lifted off of me. This made me realize there was something outside of myself; something good and something evil. And I was somehow important enough for these two supernatural forces to fight over me at night.

After that night I didn’t have another dream or experience like that again until my mid-20’s a few years later.

The church I grew up in went through a renewal in 2007 that lasted about a year.  Churches all over California and throughout the country were visiting our church to take part in this renewal.  People were claiming to see angels, feathers and gold dust that seemed to appear out of nowhere during worship, visions and visitations of biblical characters and even Jesus mounted on a horse riding through the aisles and on stage.  It was a very exciting time to be in church.  I really took to the miracles and testimonies of all the things the congregants claimed to see and experience. Almost every night for a few months my dreams became pretty intense and vivid.

In a church that was going through a renewal where people were seeing angels and miracles, I started dreaming a lot about miracles and angels.  My dreams seemed highly spiritual.  I’d wake up sometimes with a euphoric sense that something angelic was in the room. And every once in awhile I’d wake up feeling like something was holding me down and strangling me after a God-given dream and I’d pray thinking demons were attacking me.  I’d tell people about these dreams and experiences and I became known as the guy with a prophetic gift in dreams at the church.  Sometimes I’d dream about people I knew or seen in church and believe it was God giving me something prophetic about the person.  I’d tell these people and some would either feel blessed or creeped out by it. But I felt I was jumping out of the boat and learning how to hear God’s voice through me.

It wasn’t until I started looking into dream theories that I started questioning if God really was giving me these dreams.  I remember reading a Christian dream interpretation book I borrowed from a friend that mentioned if you see a “black or dark-skinned person” in a dream it was symbolic of a demonic force, which I became immediately disgusted by because of it’s racist interpretation.  I couldn’t finish reading the book after that.  I tried reading a couple other Christian books about dreams, but could tell none of the writers had any idea what they were talking about.  There was no critical thought behind their ideas on dreams and was usually based on their cultural upbringing and their personal theological ideas of God.  It seemed way too unstable trying to understand dreams reading books by people who had no understanding of the psychology and science behind dreaming. So I decided I should look into dream theories by secular dream theorists like Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud to help my understanding.

Carl Jung’s ideas on archetype dream symbols and how it plays into the conscious emotional life, the subconscious and collective unconscious really sparked my interest.  I thought maybe this was the way God may talk to us. I started using his theories trying to interpret my own dreams and found it to be a lot more concrete than the Christian interpretation, but the foundation still seemed a little unstable as a way God directly communicated with me.

I downloaded Sigmund Freud’s book “The Interpretation of Dreams” onto my Kindle and this really made an impact on me.  He mentions how people will usually see in their dreams recent things or subjects from the days before the night; for example, if you happened to see a basketball during the day sometimes it’ll appear randomly in your dream at night. I started noticing I’d see images in my dreams of things I barely noticed during the day. This got me questioning a lot about what I’m actually seeing in my dreams and if it even means anything.  I started questioning if the angels and miracles in my dreams were just a subconscious product of the supernatural stories and beliefs coming from the Charismatic culture I was surrounded by at the time.  The more I questioned the more I found it to be true.

The last nail driven into the coffin of God-given dreams was when I learned more about sleep paralysis. The demons attacking me at night were nothing more than my mind waking up before my body, which is actually kind of scary in itself.

My dream life is still very important to me even though God isn’t the one talking to me. It took awhile for me to understand the importance of listening to my dreams without a God and now I see dreams as a mystery of what it is to be a conscious being. And that’s exciting.

Toward the end of my deconversion I had a dream. I dreamed I was alone in a dark church and could see light shining outside behind some curtains. I opened the curtains and the light shined inside the church, so I walked to the back of the church and opened the back door and walked out and into the light outside.