Personal Religion Spirituality

Experiencing a Nonproprietary God

There is no Christian church with a more direct, intimate relationship with the life of Jesus of Nazareth than the one I was born into: the Antiochian Eastern Orthodox Christian Church. Its roots lie in the same ground that Jesus walked on, and are deeper than the written Gospels. 

The church, my cultural heritage, and my family background are three strands of the same ball of yarn. Lebanese Christian families, like mine, consider the Phoenicians to be our ancestors. Jesus visited Phoenician cities, such as Tyre and Sidon. It was a Syrophoenician woman of that region who expanded Jesus’s consciousness to include non-Jews in his ministry.1

I had loved my church. I loved the symbolism of the Divine Liturgy, which transformed a limited physical reality into an ineffably sacred time and space. The symbolism is the reality. This was never truer for me than during a particular Holy Week service. As part of the service, altar boys and priests process with a large wooden crucifix. The chanting of the priests, the fragrant smoke of incense wafting through the church, the slow mournful march as the processional cross was carried past the people, transported me to the Jerusalem of two thousand years ago. I was there! Jesus was suffering a grotesque death for me. I wept. There was never another time in my life that I felt more like a real Christian than that night. I felt the love Jesus had for the world. I would have died for Jesus if I could have taken his place.

Nevertheless, I have had a generally nondenominationally-based attitude toward God. There were almost no Eastern Orthodox churches in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas where most of the family immigrated early in the 20th Century. Because of this unavailability of our traditional religion, many members of our family joined diverse Christian denominations, including Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Southern Baptist, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Perhaps the possibility of more-or-less acceptable alternatives to Orthodoxy was planted in my mind at a young age.

For example, when I was about ten years old, I remember speaking to a boyhood friend about a subject I had perfect knowledge of: God. I excitably told him about how God created this beautiful world, especially those great clouds in the sky. I was always partial to God’s clouds. It seemed as though we had talked for about 10 minutes. When I went back inside my house, it surprised me that we had been talking closer to 45 minutes. I was feeling exhilarated and could not understand how anyone could possibly doubt the existence of God. It hadn’t occurred to me to tell the boy about Orthodoxy.

Even respect for other religions is part of my family background. My late cousin, journalist Anthony Shadid, mentioned my father in his memoir, House of Stone. He described an event involving my father, Hana, as a young man in Jdeidet, Marj’youn, Lebanon. A Muslim family owned a restaurant in the midst of a large, bustling marketplace. Nearby was a mosque. On Good Fridays the family would play Christian prayers from their restaurant speakers. At the mosque my father would return the favor. Anthony described what the diners witnessed: 

Every year, diners in the atrium would see Hana, a Greek Orthodox Christian, climb the minaret with dignity, turn to Mecca, and begin to recite the Muslim call to prayer, touching each word with care. Many years later, in Oklahoma, relatives would smile at the mention of this scene…. [because of] the statement that he and the town were making together. For more than a hundred years Hana’s call would be remembered…. In other times, less peaceful, they would marvel at the Muslim’s acceptance of a Christian man addressing their God as their intermediary.2

I am proud of my father. And grateful that Anthony wrote about it in his book, a story to be remembered. 

The idea of miracles was planted early in my young mind. A maternal cousin of mine was head of an international communion of evangelical Christian ministries and churches. He preached and later lived for a time in India, a country he loved. Early in his religious calling he performed charismatic faith healings. As an adolescent at one of his revivals, I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior.

I also went with him to visit an uncle who had suffered a stroke many years earlier. The leg on the affected side of his body had atrophied. While he sat in a chair, my cousin kneeled on the floor holding our uncle’s leg in his hands. My cousin prayed in the name of Jesus that our uncle’s leg would be healed and restored to its proper strength and length. As he prayed my cousin believed that the leg was beginning to heal. Sadly, I didn’t, even though I watched very closely.

My own miracle had already happened when I was 4 years old. Another one of my uncles was driving us to a funeral in a small town some distance from Oklahoma City. His sister-in-law was in front while my mother and I were in the back seat. It was 1950, so all bench seats and no seatbelts. My uncle and aunt had been arguing because we were going to be late and my aunt was blaming my uncle who had always been unhurriable. However, he was speeding along the two-lane country road when a farmer ahead slowed to turn left. His pickup apparently lacked braking lights. My uncle swerved to the right to pass him, but we didn’t quite make it.

I have a few flashes of memory immediately after the crash. Everyone looked dead. My mother and aunt were not moving. My uncle was slumped over the steering wheel. I couldn’t wake them up. Our car must have left the country road, because suddenly, men seemed to just pop up from behind bushes. One man was carrying me on his shoulders. I could see my mother being carried on a stretcher ahead of me. She was repeatedly crying out, “Tommy! Tommy!” I called back, “I’m here! I’m here mommy!” For some reason she was unable to hear me, even though I was yelling.

The story goes that I was transported back home but my uncle had been admitted to the local hospital. He recovered consciousness and asked for me. They told him I was OK and had been taken home, but he didn’t believe them. He thought that I had died and they wouldn’t tell him. They telephoned our family in Oklahoma City and I was taken back to the hospital for my uncle to see me. As far as I know, the farmer was all right.

Before the accident I had been whining to move over to the passenger side of the back seat. I was told that where I was, was good enough, and to settle down. I didn’t. Finally, they let me move. Seconds later we hit the truck. The car door that I had been sitting next to was gone. The car was smashed. My hair and clothes were covered with broken glass but I didn’t have a scratch on me.

Occasionally, the story would be retold. It was a miracle that I moved just in time not to end up wherever the door was. I don’t recall anyone saying it had to be a Christian miracle. 

As an adult I was being counseled by a recovering alcoholic, charismatic Christian, licensed psychologist. What happened to me during a session involving a meditation exercise is what many in the Christian church might identify as a charism, a spiritual gift received from the Holy Spirit. But for me the experience was too large to fit inside any religion’s creed.

My eyes were closed as I described to my counselor the image I had in my mind. I could see myself standing by a two-lane blacktop road with a white stripe down the middle. Standing beside me were my mother, wife, and sister. We seemed to be anticipating something important, but we didn’t know what it was. We waited silently. Oddly, we and the road were all that there was. All else in the scene was a black void. No ground to stand on or sky to look up to. I told the counselor that there seemed to be something pulling my attention off to the right, just beyond what I could see. He suggested that I take a look in that direction. I noticed that the road rose up the side of a very smooth hill, although I couldn’t see anything under the road. At the crest of the hill, there appeared a soft golden halo of light as though the sun were about to rise above the horizon. I watched as a perfectly round glowing ball silently floated up over the hill toward me. As it approached, I lost all awareness of my family in the image as well as my counselor and his office. The golden sphere reached me and I dissolved into the light. I no longer existed as an individual person with an individual history. The soft glow was whole and undivided, yet there was also a sense of a soothing presence. I had ceased to be my self, yet I was never less alone than in that moment of selflessness.

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Additional Resource

Woodward, K. (2000). The book of miracles: The meaning of the miracle stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam. New York: Simon & Schuster.

  1. Mark 7: 24-30.
  2. Shadid, A. (2012). House of stone: A memoir of home, family, and a lost Middle East. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt [pages 44-45].