After my father's suicide in 1968, my whole world came crashing down around my family and me. He was a physician and a pillar of our small community. It caught us all by surprise. Just two weeks before my 18th birthday, I was left devastated by his suicide. I felt enormous shame like everyone at high school was looking at me and feeling sorry for me. Adults would walk up to me and ask, "How did your father die?" After a while, in my anger I would say, "He took a shotgun and blew his head off." That shut them up! People would drive by our house slowly to see where the doctor shot himself. The local paper had his picture on the front page and it said that he was found with a 14 gauge shot gun by his side. When a year later my mother decided to sell our home, some people would ask to see the house just so they could see the bedroom where he shot himself; they had no intention of buying the home! This is painful for anyone, but you can imagine how painful it was for a teen like me back then.
Like many survivors of relatives who kill themselves, I felt responsible and blamed myself. The night before he shot himself, I walked into the garage and saw him reaching into a small box on a shelf; he glared at me and I scurried away. Later, after his funeral, I found the ammunition box that contained the very shotgun shells he used to blow his head off.
My father killed himself on the morning of Friday, February 2, 1968. I will never forget that morning. My mother had eight children and suddenly we did not know how we were going to survive. My mother was not coping well before his death as a heavy drinker and smoker, and she began to drink herself into a stupor most nights. Even before the death, she was emotionally unstable, but now she would go into rages and become irrational; all I wanted to do was get away to find some peace.
Fortunately, in the fall of 1968, I went away to college in Texas and a year later in 1969, when my mother tried briefly to return to her home state of Oregon, I attended a university there. Though my father set aside money for college, my mother, frightened refused to part with it. We were all living on edge. The Vietnam War was heating up, and anti-war marches were big on campus. The tension of the war only added to the tension I felt at home.
In 1970, out of desperation partly to get away from my mother's craziness, I briefly entered a Roman Catholic religious order on the east coast; I was raised Roman Catholic. Quickly I became disillusioned. Besides, I was getting in touch with my grief and it frightened me. Disillusioned with male authority figures that reminded me of my father, I left an avowed atheist.
In 1971, on the plane back to my home town in Texas 1971 black smoke began pouring out of the first class cabin; the stewardess in the front of the plane turned ashen, and two little old ladies jumped up from their seats and ran screaming down the aisle from the front to the rear of the plane with their hands raised and flailing above their heads. I thought, "What good will that do?" I vowed to face my end with courage and stoic silence.
I remembered my mother telling me, "There are no atheists in foxholes," but I thought, "Well, mother, this atheist is not going to change his mind." So I placed my head down in my lap to brace for the inevitable crash, but the pilot came on and informed us that the black smoke was the result of a malfunction of the air filtering system. (We could smoke cigarettes on planes in 1971.) The black smoke was supposed to be ejected out of the plane, but had been injected into the cabin by mistake. I felt greatly relieved, but I was pleased that I did not panic and run to a "make believe God."
Later, after many ugly arguments with my alcoholic mother when I returned, I left home and was briefly homeless. That summer of 1971, I applied and was accepted to another university and left for studies in the fall of 1971. This was a bold step. I only had money that I saved up myself from summer jobs since age 15, which was enough for maybe two semesters. So, I was under considerable financial stress not knowing where the money would come from for my studies. My mother initially refused access to my father's social security and veteran's benefits for my education. She relented only when there was a month left and I was turning 22. I was already cut off from family and prominent on my mother's hate list.
Grieving my dad and the loss of any stability, I began to roam the large campus and I encountered Campus Crusade for Christ members who preached about Christ and salvation. Infuriated that anyone would peddle a belief in a God that I saw as indifferent at best or incompetent at worst to prevent the pain and suffering that led to my father's suicide, I angrily challenged them. I met another young man who also had an ax to grind with religion; he identified himself as homosexual and was furious at Christian fundamentalists who condemned homosexuals as hell bound. We made quite an atheist tag team. He being a former Southern Baptist with a good memory for Scripture and I a former Catholic with my rage (grief and guilt about my father's suicide) projected onto Christianity. We soon struck fear in the hearts of those preaching on that campus. I would have been afraid of me. I was filled with rage; I was scary.
During that fall of 1971, we had some of those poor evangelists literally shaking in their boots and trembling with fear whenever we approached. One of them told us that we were demons sent from hell to try to steal away his soul. That statement got me wondering. I told my friend, "I never thought of that possibility," and we both laughed, but nervously. I remember shouting, "Satan, loves you." once at a group of Campus Crusade women who looked like sorority sisters from secure upper class families that I envied. They were stunned until finally one of them gathered enough courage to say, "He does not." I enjoyed shaking up their world, even if for a moment. My world had ended and I wanted them to know the loneliness, the hurt, and the sense of abandonment that I felt. That grief was what ultimately was behind my attacks on Christians. I was hurting deeply and wanted others to feel the pain that I felt inside. I felt betrayed by religion and the religious. No one said it, but I suspected that some Catholics from my parish church assumed my father was in hell for committing suicide. I deeply loved my father. He was a flawed man, but a physician who had helped so many poor people. He donated much of his time and medical services. But, now I felt so ashamed, that unspoken shame from my church and others. That shame enraged me. I wanted to fight back.
I saw religion as a curse on humanity and that priests/ministers were leeches on society who cynically exploited the gullible, especially the ignorant and poor. How could there be a God who is all loving, all knowing, all powerful, all good and not prevent my father from shooting himself? Religion that promised a loving God infuriated me. I felt that only those who did not know the shame of suicide could say that.
One time during that fall of 1971, during my short-lived militant atheist days, I met a young man who was affiliated with the Campus Crusade with Christ, although not a formal member. He was not like the others, as he did not have the pat easy memorized answers to our challenges. He shocked me upon admitting not knowing why God allowed suffering. I was impressed that this man was not offended, defensive, or angry about my questions. He did not shout at us and tell us that we were going to hell. He also treated me as a human being not a potential soul for Christ. He actually wanted to know me. I struck up a friendship with him that fall of 1971, though he and I strongly disagreed about religion. About six months later, he invited me to his home in Kansas.
We drove his car from Texas to Kansas during spring break of 1972. His father was a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force and I was impressed that after my friend showed his military dependent ID to the guard at the air base; the guard saluted and waved him on. I met my friend’s parents at the officer base housing; they seemed nice enough, though his mother seemed too nice, sugary sweet nice.
We had some time so we retired to his room. He shared a room with one of his older brothers; he was the youngest of three brothers and the last to leave home. There was one single bed on each side of the room. My friend said that since we had some time before dinner that we ought to pray. That shocked me, as he knew I did not pray. I said, "You know I am an agnostic." (I had decided by then that atheism was as much a faith proposition as belief in a God.) My friend surprised me, and said, "Do you know what your problem is? You are afraid to pray." That startled me, but I rose to his challenge and said, "I am not afraid of anything. I will pray." With that Joe closed his eyes and bowed his head in the typical evangelical Baptist style of praying. I refused to bow my head or close my eyes, but I respected my friend’s integrity so I prayed.
This is what I prayed, "If I have ever done anything to harm anyone, I am truly sorry; and if there is a God I want to know you." Immediately, something like scales came off both my eyes. It looked like the gray scales that I remembered from snake's skin when molting only with the fragile consistency of a cigarette ash. I watched these gray scales drop and via reflex reached out to catch them with both my hands. I felt nothing material. I was just trying to grasp what had happened, when above me a brilliant light appeared. It was the most beautiful crystal clear white light I had ever seen. It was brighter than a million suns, yet it did not hurt my eyes. It filled the entire room with light and the light bleached out everything in the room. The walls, the furniture, the floor, the bedding, our clothes, everything was bleached to the whitest color white imaginable--except for the skin on our faces and that not covered by clothing. Our skin color remained the same. At the very same instant, I was aware that I was in some new kind of time, a timelessness that was beyond time in the usual sense that we know it. I could see my friend still seated with his eyes closed and his head bowed, but he did not seem to notice this same light. The light was alive. It was a being of light. Immediately the light spoke to me, but not in words; it spoke directly to my mind. The being of light said, "I love you exactly the way you are." As soon as this being spoke to me, we were alone in some place that was beyond "place." The room seemed to disappear and it was just this being of light and me. I was not frightened, but I was transfixed on this beautiful being of light.
When the being of light said his first words to me, I felt he knew me perfectly. He already could see my past, present and future. He knew it all in one moment, and so in saying this, he had no illusions about me; he saw my warts and all. Yet, I felt this most profound unconditional love beyond comprehension. It was a relief to be so totally known and loved at the same time. It is hard to put into words. Somehow, I "knew" that this being was loving me at that moment, as if it were all the moments of my existence, past, present and future. He loved me as if I was the most loved human from the beginning of human history to the end of human history. I felt loved as if I were the only human being that ever existed. Yet, I knew that this being loved everyone exactly the same way, and that was no contradiction. At the same time, I knew this being of light awakened some part of me somewhere deep inside, a reserved place made for him and him alone, a part that had some direct knowledge of him that seemed as if it had been dormant and now awakened. I could truthfully say, I knew him even as what and who he was beyond my finite knowing. And so he was like meeting my very best friend, the best friend I had longed to meet all my life. No words can describe this.
I knew him, yet I cannot explain how. I just knew him. It was as if he had been present in every moment I ever felt loved and then far beyond these moments to all moments. He was so alive, so joyful, so free, so mirthful, so playful, and so utterly alive with joy. He radiated joy as if he was the source of all life, joy, truth, goodness, beauty, truth, like a living fountain that continually flowed up, but a living fountain that was its own source of water. This being had absolutely no condemnation or judgment of anyone or me. It just was not there. I felt totally liberated from all the shame I had internalized from my past while in his presence. I felt totally free to be alive and joyful, too. It was like I had come to life for the first time.
Time did not exist anymore, time without time. I know that doesn’t make sense, but that was what it was like, timelessness. I "knew" that I had all the time I wanted with him. There was no rush, no sense of urgency. He was not distracted or preoccupied. For this time, I seemed to have his complete attention. The being seemed totally delighted to be with me. I did not feel self-conscious or awkward. His very essence seemed to be made of love, as if loving was all he could do, but he did so with total freedom, total delight. It was contagious. And, I tell you that no one on earth has ever loved like this being.
Troubled by my own doubts about my masculinity since I was a teen, I decided this was my chance to ask this being a question that plagued me for a long time. So, I asked my question by sending my thoughts to him, which was so natural, so easy, and so effortless, like I had telepathically spoke all my life. I asked him, "Is it alright to be gay?" Now, I know it sounds like a strange question, that question out of all the questions I could ask an eternal loving being, but it was sincere and at age 22 that was my question. Today I would ask entirely different ones and not stop at one question. But, the being of light, laughed and smiled, I cannot tell you how I knew this, but I just knew it. And, with great love in his voice he said, "That is not the most important question." I wish everyone could hear the gentleness, the tenderness I heard in his voice. This is not a God of wrath and judgment. That response really surprised me, as my heart was beating in my throat, when I asked it, and I expected to be given a stern lecture of condemnation. But, the being let me know that he had full confidence in me to figure out what the most important question is. At the same, time I knew he wouldn't give me the most important question, that he wanted me to discover it for myself.
Again, I wish I could convey how I felt so loved by his confidence in me, so touched, so respected. This being of love has such a profound respect for me, for everyone. He did not want to pressure or push me. He simply trusted that I would find out the question and the answer at another time in my life. He did not say when, but somehow I knew it would happen one day. So before I could ask, "What is the 'most important' question, the being of light touched the top of my head. I cannot tell you how I knew he touched the top of his head, but I knew he did; and then, suddenly my whole body became translucent. Amazingly, I could see right through my hands, arms, feet and whole body. I had clothes on but they were transparent too. I could see all the external details of my exposed arms and hands, despite them being translucent. I was amazed. I could see right through me. Then, suddenly, this being of light poured this pure golden light into my translucent body. It was not like ordinary light as it was alive. It was far brighter and purer than the purest gold. The golden light was not material, but I have to say it poured into me from above. It was alive; the golden light was totally alive with pure joy.
Slowly, I could see the golden light fill me up from the soles of my feet, my legs, my lower torso, my upper torso and then the top of my head and overflowing. I felt one with this being, one with its eternal peace, joy, and love—love without a beginning or end, eternal love. I decided right then I did not want to stay on this earth. I had found who I was looking for and I saw that this earthly existence by contrast was no comparison. So, I realized that I could will my soul to leave my body. It was as natural as an eagle taking flight with his wings. So, I did will it, and the being of light instantly vanished. I did not feel lost or abandoned, just wonderful.
Immediately, I asked my friend who still had his head bowed and his eyes closed, "Did you see the light?" At first, my friend thought I was mocking him, but I won him over. He later told me he did see a great light in his mind as we prayed, but he did not see the light in the room. I can still remember this experience as if it happened five minutes ago. And to tell you the truth, it did, but not in a literal sense. When I saw that light at age 22, it is hard to explain. I also saw that light at every moment of my life. That light broke into all my past, present and future. So, I say I can still see that light real and fresh in my memory. And, do you want to know the most important question? At age 58, I think I know it. The question and the answer is the same: love.