All pastors are crazy; I've known that since seminary. Some pastors, however, have fewer cards in their decks than others. Nick Overduin, pastor of Toronto First Christian Reformed Church, began to question his own sanity after an experience that was beyond explanation.
Overduin now believes God was in this encounter. You may believe otherwise. In either case, reading Nick's account has made me wonder - as more church leaders are rethinking the nature of ministry in a post-Christian culture, is it also time to rethink our assumptions about the supernatural, and its place in our communities?
Who wants to be known as a crazy nut-case preacher that hears voices? I don't advocate hearing voices; I just happen to have heard one.
I did not hear any strange "voices" in my first church. Nor did I feel distracted by the supernatural during my second charge, a University Chaplaincy. In my third posting I was perhaps too busy to hear any divine whisperings. My congregation had 800 members. My fourth church is conceivably the most implausible setting for a semi-mystical deviation. Many of its 120 members are certified experts, executives, or independent entrepreneurs. My wife Nandy and I have been married 25 years, and at first I didn't tell even her. I am writing the episode now partly because I believe it could be sinful to keep it to myself.
About three years ago I woke up one night very suddenly. It was as if I had been jerked from deep sleep into alert wakefulness in less than a second.
I was surrounded by a darkness that seemed thicker than usual. It felt like something or someone ominous was in the room with me.
The blackness around the bookshelves in my office where I had fallen asleep was so substantial that I could see nothing. The space was filled with a conspicuous and crushing sense of dread. My fear increased when I realized that I had been rendered immobile, as if a great weight had been placed over my entire body. I was pinned down.
I began to pray with every fiber of my being. Wouldn't almost anybody have done the same, whether they believed in God or not? Physically, the prayer required fierce resolve just to bring my hands together. I knew it was permissible to pray without folding hands, but for some reason I wanted desperately to fold my hands. I felt I would be completely destroyed if I demonstrated the nerve to pray without first taking up this humble posture.
"What's wrong, God?" I asked when my hands were finally clenched. "Are you angry about something?"
That is when I heard the voice. It was calm but deliberate and focused. It was not loud but clearly audible. I do not know if it was outside the room, inside the room, or just inside my heart. In any case, there was no mistaking what it said. It said, "THE PRAYER OF REPENTANCE."
I was frozen by apprehension, riveted to the bed. Was God angry about the Prayer of Repentance?
I am very proud of the fact that my denomination, the Christian Reformed Church of North America, in 1999 had mandated all congregations use an official Prayer of Repentance for our failure to show sufficient love to homosexual people. As a denomination, we had committed ourselves in 1973 to an official policy of "love the sinner, hate the sin," but we had not demonstrated enough resolve in showing the genuine compassion we had promised. So, in 1999 we urged all the churches to use this well-known Prayer of Repentance. The Synod did not wish to change our biblically-based denominational approach, only encourage greater focus on pastoral love. Many of our congregations in North America, alas, defiantly refused to use the resource liturgically. Now, to my surprise, it seemed that maybe God (if this was God) was not pleased with the official Prayer of Repentance either.