My college and early career life was a series of transitions. I don’t know that the transitions ever ended, but I found myself in an apartment with three other guys in southwest Portland while attending Portland State University. After a year of that, I went to Multnomah University, or “Multnomah Bible College” as it was called when I first attended. There was a midnight curfew, television hours, quiet hours, and a hundred other superfluous rules related to tattoos, piercings, language, and so on. It was a transition year for the school as well, where they had only recently changed the rules to allow students currently attending Multnomah to dance. The school, while I was there and since I left, continued to adjust their rules to accommodate the shifting demographic attending there. It also captured a change in the alumni’s reason for support, and their numbers. Those who believed dancing was a “sin” were dying all the time.
I went from a fairly laid back set of parents who didn’t give me a hard curfew, even on a school night, to having a curfew every day of the week. I had someone checking in on me. My resident assistant was required and expecting my signature on a piece of paper, a sign-out if I was staying overnight somewhere. These rules infected every little thing — I had more freedom when I lived with my parents as a 16-year old. It drove me away from what the school taught, as hard as they tried, and it stood to prove what I didn’t like about Christianity. The surplus of dyed-in-the-wool Republicans gave me ample opportunity to antagonize people with my opinions and statistics on drug decriminalization, the efficacy of the state, sexuality, and health care. That same crowd somewhat overlapped with those who viewed women as inferior to men, though they would rarely articulate it that way. My very first essay in my very first semester at Multnomah was a forty page paper making the case for removing gender qualifications for leadership in ministry. My female teacher loved it, my classmates hated it. There was a sprinkling of pentecostal and charismatic students who had their demonic attacks and dreams and visions, to the derision of their roommates. There were plenty of class-wide debates where the pentecostals, few and proud as they were, would duke it out with everyone else. Those arguments, and plenty of others, would bring people to tears. Serious students would stay long after class ended to continue their dissection of theology and experience. I did my best to stay away from the echo chamber of Christianity, but it still seeped into my mind. It took me over two years to open up the Bible after I graduated. I lost my taste for the Word of God, but I was continually leaning towards the person of God. I wanted God. The Bible became an obstacle to him for a long time, and at times, when my heart is restless, it continues to be.
Those raised in non-Christian homes were the exception at my school. Those raised in the church, I found, were okay with miracles, people hearing from God, talking to God and getting a response, or otherwise experiencing first-hand contact from the divine — but only as long as it was in the Bible. If it was thousands of years ago, behind a wall of transmission and translation, history and tradition, then these God experiences were considered safe. The stories, as far fetched as they come in scripture, were adamantly defended — that was the point of whole semesters of classes. For someone to read the story of Noah’s Art at face value is fine, but it takes some mental gymnastics to make the case that the waters somehow flooded higher than Mt. Everest. Similarly, a cursory reading of prophets, with the donkey emissions and the fecal matter jumping into the narrative, ought to leave reader’s confused. At Bible College, these hallowed texts had long been normalized. I was stuck between the fundamentalists and the modernists, trying to catch the scraps of truth that would occasionally escape the gravity of endless debate.
When it came to an individual’s experience, there was a significant gap. Opposite the scripture’s unquestioned authority was any given person’s God thoughts, or their moments of God encounter. The spectrum was, either people had little to no spiritual or divine experience, or they had a singular experience which was then shouted down by their community. “That doesn’t happen anymore.” Granted, some of it was obvious. There was a guy named Matt who started dating one of the girls in his youth group when she was 17 years old. If it was just that bad decision among a disciplined, wise life, that would have been one thing. He waited until she was 18 years old before he asked her to marry him. The initial dating relationship, the proposal, the whole plan of their relationship was all against the advice of friends and family, but according to Matt it was “commanded by God.” He prayed about it and heard from God that he was supposed to do these things, that these actions and plans were from God himself. As possible as that may be, the man was obviously confusing his penis’s desires with God’s desires. The dating decision? God was cool with it. The proposal? Despite her father’s request to wait a while, God was good with them rushing ahead with the marriage plans. The job decision making, schooling, all of the other things — it was like God was totally okay, and verbalizing as much through Matt’s prayers that he was totally in line. Those kinds of examples, ones that were widely known and claimed in opposition to all evidence to the contrary, served as counter to legitimate God experiences — where there were those brave enough to make that kind of claim.
When I got around to asking people at Multnomah, “how do you hear from God?” the answer was commonly a counter-question. Theology students love their vocabulary, and they’re hopelessly concerned with semantics, so the follow up question would often point to the definition of “hearing.” Audibly hearing God? That doesn’t happen anymore — that was sometimes the claim. Hearing, as in, spiritual hearing? Once in a blue moon, people would point to a spiritual experience stemming from their reading of scripture. But even then, it was awash in their theology of inspiration, where the Holy Spirit imbued them, the reader, with the ability to understand the manuscript’s original intent. There was the all-or-nothing theology of, “If the Bible has subjective meaning for anyone reading it, then anything and everything could be true — and we all know, if everything is true then nothing is true.” I’m paraphrasing, but the objective reality or objective truth from God was, in the rational mindset, mutually irreconcilable with the individual’s experience with God. Reading the Bible was, occasionally, a spiritual experience, even for those who are obsessively academic about their religious texts. Where that happened, they stifled it, didn’t talk about it, or they had to leave their scripture-focused church and go find one at the other end of the denominational spectrum. For me, as I walked through the minefield of Bible College, I didn’t do much of any of that. It was easier to disengage from a community’s dogma. Portland’s general church flavor allowed for that kind of floating in and out, for the most part.
In my own spiritual life, I couldn’t teach people something I didn’t know. The question, “How do you hear from God?” would stump me as well, for most of my life of faith. I could quantify, at times, a feeling or a premonition. I would sometimes even write down dreams and visions, what I sometimes called “waking dreams,” hoping that they would somehow reveal their meaning later on. I had pieced together my own spiritual experiences within my religion, but I had no frame of reference for it. Raised in such a rational, Bible-focused church, there was no expectation of God, with his mouth and vocal cords, to actually speak a word on earth. Sure, our traditions told us he had at one point, but those stories had stood the test of time. Not like whatever I was experiencing, and not like those “otherly types” of churches where people would do spirit things. Who was I to make a claim that God had done that in my life? But God started doing that. It was a few drops at first, then a drizzle. Eventually it was a flood of spiritual experience.
The watershed moment was when a good friend of mine, raised using words like “prophetic” and “spirit” when he talked about God, asked me if I was hearing from God. I didn’t know. I hummed and hawed as we drove down 82nd, when he pressed in. It turns out that there were multiple, recent examples where I had said the same things that God had told him in prayers. They were little things, possible coincidences, like randomly saying “Are you sure you want to play basketball today?” There was some reluctance in him because my friend was coming from the opposite end of church disappointment. In the void of academic scriptural understanding was leadership based on spiritual, emotional excitement. The abuse came not from the information processing, lecture-style up front, but leaders who used the Holy Spirit to manipulate and control their people. That day that my friend and I in the car, doing mundane things, driving nowhere important, changed my life. The turning point in the conversation was when he recollected a month’s past moment where I had created an embarrassing moment for him. Only he knew about it, but he remembered it, and it was the moment when he said, “Okay, Aaron is hearing from the Spirit.” He knew, but he didn’t know if I knew. Without “outing” my friend, it was basically a sex dream that I had made fun of him about — with no foresight, no knowledge, with my friend sharing it with no one in the world ever — where I knew the names, content, style and such of the content of the dream. A sex dream, in case you missed that detail. The original moment, where I had blurted out the dream, I noticed his reaction, but I didn’t understand what I had said or why it was such a big deal. Fast forward months, almost a year, my friend brought it up along with a dozen other things. “How do you hear from God?” he asked me, after nervously, tentatively laying out his case.
It was exciting, receiving some kind of external recognition of my experience with God. I honestly didn’t recognize these God words coming into me. I didn’t think much of the emotional change after my prayers. I didn’t reflect well, looking back, when the prayers for Tim, one of my least favorite bosses, changed me. It changed the way I looked at him, talked to him and about him, it changed my performance at work, it changed the whole thing. I don’t even think that my prayers for Tim changed him in any of the ways I asked God, but the Holy Spirit worked on me through my prayers. That kind of thing happened, powerfully, quickly at times, and these spiritual experiences piled up over time. The conversation with my friend opened my eyes to a new means of hearing from God. It was a maturation process for sure. For clarity’s sake, I will spell it out — no, I did not always listen to the words that were coming out of my mouth. At times, I would have whole, in depth conversations without listening to myself talk, and remember nothing about it later in the week. I’m sitting there with my friend, who’s telling me about things that God has said to him through me, and I’m thinking for the first time in my life, “Oh, so God can speak through me?” This first, external recognition of God’s work in me was eye opening. And it opened up doors that I didn’t know existed. The esoteric, mystical, mysterious person of God was suddenly present daily. Not just locked into the Bible. Definitely not limited to any particular day of the week, or limited to silence. I hate, I loathe the time that I wasted limiting God to such a small piece of my world!
From there, after the conversation with my friend, I did what I always did. I took to the books, the internet, to an assortment of people for all manner of research. I read thousands of pages, volumes on pentecostal and charismatic literature. Church history, and then extra-historical, fictional accounts. I read about the occult, paganism, magick, and the rest. I was a boy discovering girls, in a hungry, dirty, adolescent way, groping for this new reality of life. The metaphysical, the spiritual, anything and everything invisible. It was breathtaking. The academic led to experimentation, and back again. The conversation, then the literature, then to God. God in all of it. I did not know that the polarities were compatible. I did not have to live in the dry, lifeless, Bible-as-literature world of Multnomah Bible College, and I did not have to go insane either. The spiritualists that I found on YouTube, with their ether and their auras were occasionally brilliant but mostly on the level of finger-painters. When one takes the foundational orthodoxy and engages with the spiritual, one finds God. I was taken aback, as I started reading the Bible, noting the Spirit talk throughout. The spirit bread, the spirit wine, the spirit words, all of these spiritual things that Jesus offers — it was like I had never, ever noticed those things before. They had all been explained for so long. Now, they were real.
It was a joke at times, like the “wizard” explanation for anything going awry in a science fiction television show, the way people would talk about Jesus walking on water. I laughed, hearing about a super-Christian who attempted, not unlike praying for healing, to walk on water like Jesus did a couple of times. I found myself, even acknowledging the spiritual reality of my world, only adjusting the limits that I put on my God. Could God let another person, in this day and age, walk on water? My gut-check reaction was, as before, cynicism. God speaking through me? That was scary. Apparently it was happening. My friend continued to point out things that were happening around me, God’s work as well as the spiritual war in which we were involved, until I began learning how to recognize it for myself. Words had new meaning. I went from rationalizing my words, good or bad, to thinking, not just about my words, but with everything — if this Bible stuff is real, the spiritual things with it, then everything changes. I need to watch what I say. The Bible switched from being the end-road for my encounters with God to the means by which I found the person of God. The door that opened, as it was a real, spiritual door, was God as a person. That is, as opposed to a piece of information, a system, or some kind of historical passerby.
The “How do you hear from God?” question remaining for many, I look back at the many whose experience is limited to the study of scripture, and I don’t look down on them. It’s not so much that they are separate, or that I am even any different. I am offering that the change for me was only a change in recognition. God speaking through me, working through me and such was, fortunately, already taking place. It was not, and never will be because of my greatness or my unique skill, but it was life-changing for me to recognize it. To have my eyes opened to the work of God around me was, for me, going from being an ant crawling on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to my then being scooped onto the ground and getting a full view. The Chapel’s painting didn’t change, just as God has always been God, but my spiritual eyes were put in a position to see what I couldn’t see before. The metaphor doesn’t do the reality justice. For someone to read the Bible and then claim that those kinds of things happened, but also that they continue to happen, requires a burden of proof that’s equal to the magnitude of the claim. Living in a post-Enlightenment, rational, post-modern, and some would say post-secular world, reading about the world of the Bible is to read about a whole other world. Even in sharing the same mindset, a hypothetical but impossible idea, the cultures, languages, histories, and every other metric of life is still extremely different. And yet, the spiritual reality, the metanarrative expressed in the Bible is true. This, I think, was taken lightly among the most reverent Bible scholars of my college days. This Bible is true. There isn’t enough ink in the world to explain how, by what means, and why we ought to, for instance, apply the command “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” And regarding that proposition, and the innumerable other attempts at “applying the Bible” to life today, I say, who cares? Let’s start with the person of God, the one found in the Bible. Don’t throw out the Bible, but find the person around which the entire story revolves — imagine a life, a world, a reality in which the Bible story continued until today. Spiritual life interwoven and interlocking with our material lives. And then, granting that the Bible is true, what would that look like? From there, we end up with the question, the one that grants that, yes, you do and you are and you have heard from God, “How do you hear from God?”