Jerry Martin’s Daybook

Abigail and I both like country and Western music, especially old-fashioned gospel – familiar to me from my Texas roots, loved by her despite being a Jewish, sophisticated New Yorker. A few years ago, it was parade day in the small Maine town we were visiting. Across the street, we heard a group making a “joyful noise unto the Lord.” They were from a local church that was featuring a special singer, Diane Muse, the following night. It turned out to be the sort of Quonset church where they talk a lot about the Rapture. Slated to be “left behind,” Abigail slunk lower in her seat. The singing was great and I wanted to linger and thank the singer and preacher, but she was uncomfortable and we rounded our shoulders and slipped out.

But we visited again the next year. This time, Abigail confronted her situation straight on. She told the preacher’s wife that she appreciated the music and the earnest preaching but that she was Jewish and did not share their beliefs. Without a pause, the wife burst forth, “We love Jews!” “Really?” These were Christians who had not forgotten that Jesus was a Jew and that God already had an ongoing covenant with the Jews and, as evangelicals like to say, “God doesn’t break His word.” We were in that same town again in July. They were having Wednesday night prayer meeting, and we went again, hoping to hear some singing. Well, no singing, all talk. To our surprise, the pastor’s wife recognized Abigail and said she had often thought about meeting her before and Abigail’s words had stuck with her. We were greeted warmly by the whole group. I have been less candid. I have not told them about my experience in talking to God. I don’t know what they could do with the information. I have no desire to disturb those who connect with God through their understanding of His earlier big communication, but I have never been sure I shouldn’t say: You know, God may not have gone silent. If we continue to listen, there may be more to the story.
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Images of the Afterlife

I don’t care whether there is life after death.  That may seem odd, but I tend to be a contrarian with regard to my own feelings, a habit since childhood.  So I do not live a roller-coaster of hopes and fears.  My emotions are like the plains of Kansas, so flat water doesn’t know which way to run.  That includes the afterlife.  Still, as long as I had God on the line, it seemed like something I should ask about.

I was reprimanded for asking.  I was told that I didn’t really want to know, I was asking merely because I thought I should, and I should figure out why I didn’t want to know.

At first, I had no idea, but then it came to me.  As I pictured the afterlife, it was boring and lonely, like driving all night on one of those long western highways.

Then I was given a series of images—more accurate ways to picture the afterlife.  The first was to become immersed in wonders of nature of incomparable beauty.  The second was to imagine being an Einstein whose mind now grasped fully all the vast mysteries of the universe, having the ultimate “Aha!” experience over and over again.  Another was listening with full intensity to music more lovely than any the world has ever known.  Or, finally, it was like being in love, but with a vaster compass, sustained over endless time, and receiving boundless love in return.

“Sparks” from God An Autobiography . . .

Enjoy flash insights from God . . .

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“I was in the drop of water.”

Abigail asked if I had ever had any spiritual experiences in the past. At first I said “no.” I had forgotten two events early in life. Well, not actually forgotten, but set them aside. That’s what people do in our secular age.

A woman I know recently took a boat trip up the Amazon. One night, she awakened when everyone else was fast asleep, and went up to the deck. The entire galaxy was splayed across the sky. She was enveloped by the dark sights and murmuring sounds of the jungle, teeming with life in the midst of tranquility. It was an immersion in the universe itself. She did not call the experience mystical or even religious, but it was certainly an epiphany, a moment of intimate connection with the Whole, full of awe, wonder, and reverence.

My friend’s experience was in a more impressive setting than my my two moments. The first occurred when I was just a kid. One of my chores was watering the lawn. I had run water in the shrubs and bent down to turn off the faucet. I don’t know why I lingered for a moment, crouching down, looking at the tap but, as I did, a last drop of water slowly formed on the bottom edge and hung there. I looked at that drop of water in a way I had never looked at anything before. I saw it—how to describe it?—in its full presence, its suchness, its integrity as an independent existent in the community of being. When I later read in Buber about encountering Nature as Thou, this experience came to mind. It was not as if the drop of water had a mind or soul or was looking back at me or anything like that. Yet I no longer saw it as merely an it, merely an item in the inventory of the universe. I saw the drop of water as, in a sense, a member of what Immanuel Kant called the Kingdom of Ends—the community of all beings who should be respected as ends-in-themselves, not just as means for the use of others. This is, of course, language I now use. I don’t know how I would have described it at the time. I was just a kid, after all, and it didn’t seem worth telling.

The other experience was more arresting and consequential. It was a balmy evening during my senior year at Riverside Poly high school. We used to go downtown to one of those old-style, elegant movie theatres. My friends and I were outside, standing around and joking, waiting for others to arrive. Suddenly, I was in a world of my own, enveloped by concentric circles swirling around a center, like a small spiral galaxy. Just as suddenly, the experience was over. It would have been hard to describe even then, but its meaning was crystal clear. Time had disclosed its essence to me. I did not mention it to my friends, who had not noticed my “absence.” I did not tell anyone—whatever understanding I retained I could not have articulated even to myself—but the moment left an imprint. Though not much for poetry, I found myself responding to T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, a deep meditation on the nature of time, and particularly to the lines:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

I developed an interest in philosophical questions regarding time and years later published a phenomenological analysis of the experienced “now” that provided a way of understanding Plato’s insight that “time is the moving image of eternity.”

These two moments—and that of my friend in the Amazon—were divine shafts of light breaking through the clouds, as are many experiences people gloss over and relegate to their mental attics.

Later, I was told,

Think about epiphanic experiences. When did you feel close to Me or most spiritually open?

“I can only remember the two experiences. The first was the I-Thou with a drop of water.”

Yes, that is very significant. What did you understand from that experience?

“I understood the subjectivity of all things … but I’m not sure that is quite right. I did not imagine the drop of water looking out at me or having feelings or the like. I just encountered the ‘suchness’ of it, its full independent integrity, my respect for it, that we were in some kind of relationship …”

That was an encounter with Me. I was in the drop of water. Why not? Where else would I be? I am in everything. You suddenly became open to My presence in that drop of water. You did not think of it that way, and you were right. It is not that I as a great mystical being somehow inhabited this tiny object, but you rightly experienced the drop for what it was, and that is precisely how I am “in” things. As you can tell, I am in each thing “fully.”

“Yes, that is important!”

We were living in Memphis, Tennessee, where my dad was going to college on the G.I. Bill.  We attended my grandmother’s Pentecostal church.  I would listen to what grownups said and try to think whether they were true or not—especially when they contradicted themselves.  If heaven was a place of eternal joy, why didn’t they rejoice when somebody died?  They made way too much of dressing up for church, when what mattered—they said—was the state of your soul.

“Lord, I took things people said seriously and placed the highest value on truth and on being right with God.”

Yes, that is important!

“Lord, what is my role?”

I did not feel like a prophet or seer and, as I started reading about different religions, I found an endless cast of characters—apostles, evangelists, saints, mystics, gurus, shamans, founders of religions.  None seemed to fit me.

“Lord, what is my role supposed to be?”

Just to be a serious reporter of what you are told when you pray.

Okay, that I could do.

 

 

“You will never learn from fencing.”

Giving up my career and risking my reputation in order to tell God’s story involved what sometimes seemed like an intolerable sacrifice.  But, of course, it paled in comparison to the suffering human beings have experienced over the centuries.  Any person who believes in God has to confront the problem of human suffering.  Why does God permit it?

“Lord, does suffering have any purpose or meaning?”

Of course, suffering is what makes life serious.  Imagine a world in which actions never resulted in suffering.  Imagine a world without the pain of regret, without feeling bad about doing something wrong (or) shameful.

“But disease serves no moral purpose.”

Now you are relapsing into fencing with Me on “the problem of pain.”  Just listen.  You will never learn from fencing.

 

“These moments were not empty suffering”

Any person who believes in God has to confront the problem of human suffering. Why does God permit it?

“Lord, does suffering have any purpose or meaning?”

Of course, suffering is what makes life serious. Imagine a world in which actions never resulted in suffering. Imagine a world without the pain of regret, without feeling bad about doing something wrong (or) shameful.

“But disease serves no moral purpose.”

Now you are fencing with Me on “the problem of pain.” Just listen. You will never learn from fencing.

Disease, disaster, aging, death are essential aspects of suffering. “We” live in a physically vulnerable world. That is the essential condition that makes life serious.

“All that’s rather abstract, Lord. What exactly does disease do for us?” I thought of Job’s boils.

Suffering is the test of your humanity. There is no greater test than pain—how one copes with it. It is easy to be nice, faithful, and such, when things are great, but very hard under adversity.

“But, Lord, that just seems perverse—or cruel.”

No, that’s not so. Think about your own times of physical suffering—in the hospital, for example—the shots, the clumsy aide, the itch, the nurse about urinating, those were full of growth.

Those examples brought back memories. A couple of years before these prayers began, I suffered a mild heart attack and was rushed to the intensive care unit. They took blood tests, day and night. There are a limited number of places from which blood can be drawn, and the same spot cannot be used again right away. The wrists are ideal, but mine are sensitive and a needle there smarts. One does not have much power as a patient, but safeguarding my wrists became my prime imperative. One after another blood drawer would come, and I would plead, argue, wheedle, and insist they find some other place to puncture me. Each resisted, then managed to find a spot.

I was transferred to another hospital for the surgical procedure. I was met by a technician who said his name and stuck out his hand—while looking the other way and standing on my oxygen tube. When it was time to go into the operating room, he snatched away my blanket with so violent a jerk it would have ripped out the intravenous insertion if I had not by now been on high alert.

Once in the operating room, I was placed on a slab with my arms flat at my side. Medical equipment loomed above, posing an impressive threat. “Don’t move!” I was told. My nose chose that moment to itch. The itch grew intense, then more intense, dreadfully intense, until nothing existed but me and that itch. Then I understood. I can’t fight it. I just have to live with it, until the procedure is over. I don’t know if the itch went away or what—I forgot all about it.

The procedure went smoothly. I watched the monitor as the surgeon snaked a catheter through an incision in my groin up to a major coronary artery where a stent had to be placed.

Opening an artery is a very serious matter. Bleeding can be life-threatening. The patient has to lie flat and immobile for twenty-four hours. Nurses at my first hospital had been angels in white, but here I was attended by Nurse Ratched’s less charming twin. She seemed to resent patients needing her help. Finding it difficult to manage the bedpan flat on my back, I asked for assistance. She acted as if it were a dirty-minded request and responded by threatening me, “If you can’t manage the bedpan, we will catheterize you!” Finally, I did manage, and it was time to close up the artery. Another patient had told me the closing could be dangerous as well as painful.

“Who is to perform this delicate operation?”

Nurse Ratched gave me the grim news: young Mr. Sizzorhands, the technician whose previous efforts to hurt me had been foiled, would now have another shot. I asked for someone else. “He is the only technician available.”

“I am not going to let that guy lay another hand on me.”

She made it a battle of wills. We went back and forth. Finally I said, “Let me speak to the doctor.”

She said she would see what she could do and, after a time, she returned with a young Asian-American attendant. He had magical hands. I didn’t feel a thing.

My body was recovering nicely, but the whole experience—starting with “indigestion” in the night (I didn’t know that was a heart symptom), calling the office the next morning to find out what nearby doctor was covered by my health plan, driving myself (fool that I was) to the doctor’s office, filling out forms and waiting for some time before going up and telling the receptionist, “I may be having a heart attack,” the quick examination and discovery that I was at that very moment in the throes of an incipient attack, an emergency medical team rushing to my side trying to head it off, being shoveled into an ambulance, the sirens, intensive care, the surgery, the whole ordeal—left me feeling fragile, as if I were made of spun glass. A sharp tap and I would shatter.

They (these moments) were not empty suffering; they even had to do with leading you to Me.

“How so, Lord?”

They focused your attention on your mortality, which (led) you to open your heart fully to Abigail because you realized how precious this love was. And it led to your prayer to serve God.

“The Soul is at one with God.”

 

A few days after my dream, I started praying about daily matters and was interrupted.

Stop.  You’re just rambling, not thinking.  If this were our last conversation and you could know only one thing, what would it be?

I thought, what is it that affects me most personally?  “Lord, is there life after death and, if so, what is it like?”

You flunk.  You have asked Me a question I have already told you the answer to.

“But not what life after death is like.”

The dream I sent you told you that.  You got a glimpse of life after death. 

There is a second reason you flunk.  Your motive is honest but wrong.  You ask only what concerns you.  You ask out of desire, and fear of not getting what you desire.  You should ask in terms of the good of life, of all life, and of what I want for you, not in terms of what you want for yourself.  You should seek understanding.

I tried to step back to see what question my “soul” would ask.  “How can I merge with You?  I’m not sure if that’s the best way to put it, Lord:  be at one with You, at rest with You, at one with Your will?”

The question is adequately formulated.  The goal—one way to describe the goal—is to be at one with God, the God of All.  At bottom, the Soul’s will is the will of God.  The Soul is at one with God.  The Atman language is a bit off target, a bit misleading.

Hindus believe that the Atman or Soul is identical with the Brahman, the ultimate divine reality.

It is not that you and I are literally the same substance, the same particular.  It is that we are “at one,” in perfect harmony, and not accidentally so.  It is in the nature of what the Soul is, that it is at one with God.  Remember that these metaphysical (philosophical) categories are crude and inadequate in the first place. 

Back to your question: how can you become at one with God?  Of course, the answer is that you already are—your Soul, that is.  The task is to come to realize that this is so, to realize it not merely in theory, but in intuitive, felt understanding, in your emotions and feelings, and in practice.

“That’s the goal, Lord?  It sounds simple.  The one-ness is already ‘inside.’  All we have to do is to bring our conscious selves along?”

That is right.  It is the simplest thing in the world.  And everyone, at some level and at some moments, knows it, at least glimpses it.  But it is very difficult to actualize in practice.  The empirical world—the world of desires and the senses—seems so real and is so powerful that is extremely difficult to redirect one’s energy. 

And the empirical world is real, in its own way.  This is not Christian Science.  The world is not an illusion, a mirage.  If it is a mirage, it is one from which you can drink water.  No, you must respect the empirical world while at the same time emancipating yourself from it, not letting yourself be identical with your interests in this world.

“I make many covenants with human beings.”

 

 

 

My wife is Jewish and I was afraid all this talk about Jesus would upset her.  But, like someone who talks too much about the very thing he wants to avoid, I asked, “Lord, did the Jews make a mistake in not being open to the new covenant announced by Jesus?”

Yes.

Oh, no, here it goes!

They became wedded to the covenant, the covenant with the people of Israel in their Messianic destiny.  That was, and remains, a valid covenant.

But it is not the only covenant.  I make many covenants with human beings.  They are all valid and have their own destiny, and work together toward a common destiny for mankind. 

The new covenant of Jesus is not as incompatible with the covenant with Israel as Jews tend to suppose.  It is compatible, but does not supersede, does not erase or nullify, the old covenant.  That is all you are prepared to understand at this point.

I wanted to nail this down.  “Does Jesus replace the covenant?”

No, he fulfills it.

That answer was consistent with the New Testament.  In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.  I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

Like an attorney driving a point home, I asked again, “Does Jesus fulfill the covenant in a way that replaces it?”

No, it remains fully valid.

But, back to my first question, “Should Jews, in Jesus’ day, have accepted him as Messiah?”

Yes.

Okay, Abigail would just have to live with that answer.  “Lord, why didn’t they accept Jesus?”

Many different reasons.  He was too radical, flouted their traditions, spoke a language they found uncomfortable, alien.  It’s not easy to believe.  It is easier to pray for a distant Messiah than to accept a present one.

I didn’t seem to be able to stop myself.  “Lord, was it a sin for Jews to reject Jesus?”

No, no more or less than all those years you did not believe.  It is a sin in a sense, but it is also much of the human condition not to believe.  People are skeptical for good reasons, having to do with their intelligence, as well as bad.

Finally, I went over the top.  “Did Jews kill Christ?”

That’s a silly question.  Did Americans—or Southerners—kill Lincoln?  Some Jews, some Gentiles were equally implicated.  That is a non-issue.

Good.  At least that issue was taken off the table.