Called from the Dead: Pt 1


June 22, 2012
By: Dr. Bruce R. Porter

Dear Friends and Supporters,

The following series of posts under the category of “My Journey into Grace” are excerpts from a book I am presently writing. I’m sharing the portions that deal directly with my personal journey into grace as a chosen follower of Jesus the Messiah. The impetus behind sharing these stories are two-fold. First, we were preparing for an important outreach to Italy in late July, 2012, and was part of an effort to raise financial support. Secondly, I thought that others might be encouraged and edified by my experiences in Rome as God mercifully drew me into His eternal family by His mercy and grace. Me, a wretched depraved sinner, and the most unlikely candidate for such love and grace. Perhaps others will find some commonality in my journey, and find the mercy I found.

As I contemplate the history of Italy, it is amazing to consider that this once-powerful area of influence for the gospel of God’s grace has been reduced to such physical and spiritual ruins. It was 41 years ago this summer that I first visited Rome. The impact that had on my life was monumental. It was in Rome that God moved powerfully upon my heart and drew me into His marvelous grace. To be sure, I struggled and resisted, for my flesh and depraved heart blinded me, and I was walking in great deception. I want to share a powerful encounter I had with the Spirit of Grace in Rome. This is rather long, so I’m going to break it up into several installments. I hope it edifies you.

Called from the Dead: Pt 1

 I want to share the story of my spiritual awakening. I call it an “awakening” because my former life now seems like a nightmare. More accurately, it was actually a personal resurrection from the dead, for I was dead in my trespasses and sin, alienated from God, and His enemy. Darkness and deception had taken hold on my soul, causing untold sorrow not only to myself but to all who interacted with me. By God’s mercy in Christ, I was called to life and approval before Him. I only hope that some of what I describe here will inspire and encourage you.
Coliseum Ruins: Rome, Italy, 1971
The gravel crunched noisily beneath my feet as I stumbled through the portals leading into the ancient Roman Coliseum. At nearly 2:00 A.M., the dark shadows formed by the massive structures of this marvel of human engineering were stark beneath the meager floodlights. Taking another long swig from the jug of cheap wine I had been nursing for several hours, I felt a momentary sense of all-too-familiar danger as my eyes scanned the shadows for the presence of a thief or mugger. I dismissed the thought immediately, however, drawing upon a sense of false bravado afforded partly by the wine. More than this however, I had recently come from a year of military service in Vietnam and was hardened by it, having faced death and danger for so long that it felt familiar.Plopping down on some flat stones in the darkness, I began to relax. Questions swarmed through my wine-numbed brain like buzzing bees. What was I doing in this ancient place? Why was I wandering around this city in the middle of the night, stalking the streets like a restless spirit seeking peace? How did I end up here?An Awesome Revelation
Several months earlier, while serving in Vietnam, a vision came to me that would change the entire course of my life. That vision, so overwhelming and compelling, caused me to temporarily abandon my military post and set me on a trek that would take me through Thailand, India, Pakistan, Lebanon, Turkey, Germany, Switzerland, and now finally Rome, Italy. I was searching for truth, stretching my mind and heart to the breaking point in a quest to make sense of what I had seen. One evening at Bien Hoa Air Base in South Vietnam, I had sat up on a tall water tower that afforded acommanding view of the countryside outside our base perimeter. On this night, while I was with some security buddies out on the perimeter, a supernatural revelation came to me that would steer my destiny for the remainder of my days. Our voices were hushed as we watched the incredibly beautiful sunset over the rice paddies and tropical landscape all around us. All eyes scanned the deepening gloom for the telltale flashes of 55mm rockets launched toward our base by the Viet Cong. When these nasty weapons fired off, we had mere seconds to sound the alarm so our guys could dive into bunkers for protection from the vicious shrapnel these things spit out in all directions, ripping flesh and bone. The most frustrating thing about these missiles was that by the time they launched, there was usually no one out there to shoot back at. The enemy used delayed fuses and were usually miles away when the attack occurred.

As the landscape grew darker, my mind began drifting. A question resurfaced that had continually nagged my thoughts for the previous months. “Who are these guys out there trying to kill us?” I knew them only as “gooks,” “the Cong,” and “commies.” On this night I could not help thinking about them as persons and wondered who they really were. This can be a dangerous way of thinking on a battlefield. To empathize with an enemy force trying to kill you can cost your life, and also the lives of others depending on you, if you hesitate to act in a critical moment. In spite of this, I couldn’t help asking the question inwardly. “Why are we all fighting?” Oh, I knew the importance of obeying orders, doing one’s duty, and even some of the political arguments, yet the question seemed somehow especially important to me at that moment. As I pondered this, a flash in the sky drew my attention upward. One of our troops had fired off a phosphorous night flare. The intensely bright light of the hissing flare, suspended by a parachute, illuminated the entire countryside with an eerie glow of phosphorescence, casting weird moving shadows on the ground as it descended. At that very moment, as I stared out across this ethereal landscape, a flash of understanding came over me. It is difficult to tell of it even now, for it shook me to the core.

Glancing back up into the sky, I had a vision of what I can only describe as ethereal, twisted, demonic beings. It was the stuff nightmares are made of, but I wasn’t sleeping. These creatures were flying through the air back and forth with what sounded like snarling laughter screaming from them. They seemed to be pulling strings of some sort, attached to points on the ground. Some of the strings were on our side, and some extended to the fields and valleys beyond our perimeter.

I was completely absorbed with this unearthly vision when a revelation crashed into my consciousness: These demonic beings were controlling people on earth! The strings I saw were like puppet strings, moving those attached to them on earth in ways that suited the hideous beings moving back and forth in the air above me. What amazed me was that there were strings extending down on our side of the perimeter as well as over on the “enemy” side. This was the first time in my life that I even considered the idea of “spiritual warfare.” Prior to that moment, I would have laughed at anyone who even suggested such a seemingly outrageous idea. However, the vision was so compelling, so overwhelming, that I nearly became unaware of my surroundings. I knew somehow in that moment that I was indeed called to be a warrior, but the battleground I was to stand upon was not exclusively the one on which men fought natural battles.

 

(To Be Continued…)

Called from the Dead: Pt 2

After a year of military service in Vietnam, I was a man on the run. The vision I’d witnessed pushed me over the edge, and I became determined to desert, leave behind my country, my family, and everything in my past, to enter upon a quest to learn what my life was really about. Feigning that I intended to go on leave, I emptied all my accounts and began my trek by flying out of Vietnam to Bangkok. From there, I hopped flights to India, Pakistan, Lebanon, Turkey, and finally Europe. My goal was to find a liberal counterculture enclave I’d heard about called The University of the New World, located up in the mountains of Switzerland near Sion, in the Canton of Valais. The name “New World” seemed to offer hope that perhaps I could learn what the vision meant and find my place in this crazy world.
My heart and soul were shredded; I felt old beyond my years. My spirit yearned for answers to questions that seemed to have no answers. The terrible things I had witnessed in Vietnam superimposed their tormenting images as some kind of semitransparent film over everything I gazed upon. I felt as if my youthful innocence had been ripped away from me, like someone had violently torn off my clothes in the middle of an arctic winter, leaving me cold and shivering in the stark reality of a world seemingly gone mad. I had fallen into emotional shock. In this state, I could not contemplate the depths of my own brokenness and felt strangely disassociated from, and unattached to, all that went on around me.
After finally arriving in Switzerland, and a brief stay at the “University of the New World,” I quickly realized that the “University” was a sham–a party school-where rich, mostly American kids from liberal-Leftist families came to indulge their flesh in sex and drug parties every night. During the day in the “classes” I audited, they reveled in neo-Marxist fantasies about how the elite class must one day rule the world without morals, religion, or restraints upon our “natural” urges. In other words, a fantasy “utopian” paradise. My flesh was titillated, and I enjoyed a certain celebrity among them because of my pacifism, desertion, and stand against the Vietnam War. To be honest, I was rather proud of myself and liked living the persona of the brave counter-cultural revolutionary who stuck it to the “establishment.” After a few weeks, however, I became restless and frustrated at the aimless existence of everyone living there. It didn’t take a rocket-scientist to realize that these people were being funded by some of the very people they were revolting against. It just didn’t make sense. Besides, my personal demons were emerging, making me less and less popular among them. I was asking too many uncomfortable questions..
 
One night, I was talking with a girl at a party and trying to impress her by bragging about what a brave, courageous guy I was-standing up to war, injustice, the military-industrial complex-and blah, blah, blah. She grew visibly annoyed with my pride and arrogance, and interrupted my little “brag fest.” Looking me right in the eye, she said something that totally blew my mind. “Jesus never ran away,” she said. I sat there with my mouth hanging open, completely disarmed by her words. It was like being struck by lightning. She was anything but a Christian, and for a fleeting moment, seemed shocked by what had just come out of her own mouth. Getting up suddenly, she walked away leaving me staring at the floor in shame.
Looking back, I think I felt a bit like Balaam the prophet must have felt when his donkey suddenly spoke to him by the power of God, rebuking him. In that moment, I had another revelation and didn’t like it very much. I was flooded with the shameful realization that virtually everything I was doing in my life at that time–even the good things I thought were right–was coming from a totally prideful, selfish, conceited motive. “Jesus never ran away” stung my itching ears. I realized that I was a fearful coward, running away from what I considered wrong, and selfishly seeking my own aggrandizement in the eyes of others. Fear was dogging my tracks, and my entire motive was selfish. I felt dirty and ashamed. I had to escape, and the next morning I left and caught the first train out of Sion. For reasons I cannot explain, I was headed for Rome, hoping to find some answers there.
 
Can These Stones Yet Speak?
A chilly breeze wafted through the colonnades in the Coliseum, interrupting my reverie and pulling my mind back into the moment. I shuddered involuntarily as the cold slab of rock I’d been sitting on drained body heat. Rising unsteadily to my feet, I began to climb to the upper levels of the darkened ruins, my bottle of wine hanging loosely from my hand. I had vainly sought to drown my inner pain and raging thoughts within that bottle, but the tormenting visions of lost innocence would inevitably claw their way back into my consciousness. “What was it she said?” I mumbled to myself: “Jesus never ran away!” I couldn’t escape the unwittingly prophetic words of the girl in Switzerland. The comparison she made between Jesus and my selfishness was unbearable. My shame and cowardice became a heavy weight upon my soul. After wandering around Rome for several days, I was becoming restless and had a growing sense that someone was trying to communicate something important to my tormented soul through these ancient ruins, churches, and weathered monuments.
Gazing down from the stone stands that had long ago held multiplied thousands of cheering, blood-thirsty spectators; I began to ponder what spectacles had once filled this place. I tried to imagine fifty thousand crazed Roman citizens intoxicated by the violent entertainment of battles reenacted before them on the main floor of this stadium. The spectacle of gore and blood, provided by warring gladiators who reenacted historical battles and struggled unto death, drove the raving mobs into near-orgasmic apoplexy as their appetite for ever-greater displays of carnage grew with each new death. At one point in Roman history, the slaughter of Christians as public spectacles only added to their national insanity.
Suddenly, in the dark shadows of the Coliseum, I began to sense a powerful presence surrounding me. At first, I felt nothing but terror. However, after a few moments, the fear melted away and was replaced by a warm sense of security and peace. I trembled as I contemplated the possibility that God might be drawing near to me, even in my wretched and unworthy state. The vision back in Vietnam came thundering back into my mind. I was beginning to think that God had spoken to me that night in Vietnam and that He was somehow calling me into His army of light. Looking back, I now understand that He was beginning to cut the “control strings” of the enemy’s bondage in my life and draw me out of the kingdom of darkness, transferring me into the kingdom of His Son Jesus. The puzzle was beginning to come together…

(To Be Continued…) 

 

Called From the Dead: Pt 3

Whispering Ghosts of the Past

I was mystified a few days before to hear a tour guide describe the suffering and persecution of multiplied thousands of Christians who had been cruelly hunted down and slaughtered in this city merely for the pleasure of bloodthirsty mobs. I found myself deeply moved when I heard these stories. Now, alone in the darkness late at night there in the Coliseum ruins, I could almost imagine I could hear the long-dead ghosts of the distant past, and the deafening impassioned roar of the blood-thirsty spectators as entire Christian families below were eviscerated, burned alive, or torn to pieces by hunger-crazed wild beasts. What was this growing sense of empathy that I felt for these Christians who had lived and bravely died so long ago?
I pondered why these people would seemingly welcome a cruel and vicious death rather than deny their faith in Jesus. What empowerment could possibly enable fathers and mothers to witness their little children burned, drowned, or devoured by vicious animals right in front of their eyes before they themselves died, all the while worshipping God and singing His praises?
I have since learned that the Roman authorities would have allowed any of these Christians to go free had they only made a simple acknowledgement of allegiance to Caesar as supreme authority over all other gods. The Christian had only to place a tiny pinch of incense before an image of Caesar to affirm his preeminence. Most Christians refused to make this blasphemous declaration, instead boldly proclaiming that Jesus was King of all kings and Lord of all lords. Caesar, who fancied himself a god, took a very dim view of anyone daring to declare that he was somehow under the authority of what he thought was an insignificant dead Jew from Palestine.
I was forced to conclude that those early Christians had SEEN something so wonderful, so magnificent and amazing, that all else in this world, even their very lives, lost significance by comparison. What was this mystical revelation that motivated them to sing praises unto their Christ, even as they suffered and died? What gave them the fearless ability to lay down their lives rather than deny their faith in Christ? My emotions were stirred. I suspected that God was touching my life and calling me to a journey I could scarcely imagine. Little did I realize that my quest had already begun . . . .
These questions hung over me like a rain cloud as I finally stumbled out of the Coliseum into the cool morning air. The eastern sky was beginning to lighten with the promise of a new dawn, and the birds began to chirp. Slowly making my way back through the quiet, early-morning streets of Rome to the cheap hotel where I was staying, the encounter in the Coliseum haunted me. But first, I had to sleep off another hangover.
Persecution Above, Prayer Below 
Driven by a power I couldn’t understand, I spent the next several days touring other ancient sites around Rome, but felt especially drawn to the catacombs that surround the city. I recently found this quote from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs:
It has been said that the lives of the early Christians consisted of: “Persecution above ground and prayer below ground.” Their lives are expressed by the Coliseum and the catacombs. Beneath Rome are the excavations, which we call the catacombs, which were at once temples and tombs. The early Church of Rome might well be called the Church of the Catacombs.
I learned that archeologists had discovered some sixty catacombs surrounding Rome. The tunnels stretch out over six hundred miles, and measure in most places nearly eight feet high and three to five feet wide. Along the sides of these tunnels, several rows of horizontal recesses were dug out, stacked above each other like bunk beds. These comprised the crypts into which corpses were laid, with inscribed marble slabs or tiles sealing in the deceased.
Mile after mile I wandered through this macabre graveyard, illuminated only by the guide’s flashlight or oil lamps. It was an eerie place, musty and cold. Looking into the crypts-where the marble slabs had been destroyed by grave robbers-I could see the bones of some of the dead. For many hundreds of years both Pagans and Christians were laid to rest in this place.

When Christian graves were opened-evidenced to be Christian by inscriptions of

Icon of Christ raising Lazarus
(From 3rd Century Roman Catacomb)

crosses and the “fish” symbol-ample forensic evidence of torture and murder was often found. Heads were discovered severed from the bodies, and many bones were broken about the ribs, backs, and extremities. Calcined bones also showed evidence of fire.

In spite of the evidence of horrendous suffering and persecution inflicted upon these poor Christian souls-of whom I now know the world was not worthy-the epitaphs inscribed upon the graves spoke of a sublime, heavenly peace. Here are a few that were discovered and quoted in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs:
“Here lies Marcia, put to rest in a dream of peace.”
“Lawrence to his sweetest son, borne away of angels.”
“Victorious in peace and in Christ.”
“Being called away, he went in peace.”
Bear in mind that these tender expressions, inscribed lovingly by the hands of those who knew and loved them, reveal little of the intense suffering these precious saints endured at the hands of their tormentors, nor any indictment against their murderers.
These inscriptions hold special significance to me in that I have seen these things with my own eyes. My hands have tenderly caressed the bones of some of these inspiring people. The musty smells of those holy underground hiding and burying places remain in the nostrils of my memory. For days, I wandered among the dead in those seemingly endless tunnels, listening to the whispering ghosts of those who had long ago lived and died there. With each step I took down the descending stairways-moving ever deeper into the labyrinth-my respect deepened in equal measure for the amazing commitment these people demonstrated for a Christ they would rather die for than deny.
Often, as I reflect on the experience, I seemed to feel that unseen presence that I encountered in the Coliseum, walking with me through the labyrinths of the catacombs. In a way, it was similar to the ghost of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Story, where Scrooge was shown things from the past, present, and future–things that would eventually form the new man he was becoming. “Who were these Christians?” I kept asking myself. “Why were they so hated and viciously tormented by people in their day?” I soon learned that questions such as these can be dangerous to one’s selfish autonomy.

 

(To Be Continued…)

 

Called from the Dead: Pt 4

The Stones Indeed Cry Out
A few days later, I visited Vatican City and St. Peter’s Basilica and beheld for the first time the incredibly beautiful sculptures and paintings resident there. Especially striking was Michelangelo’s Pieta, depicting Mary, the mother of Jesus, tenderly holding His lifeless body after His crucifixion.
There, in the quiet expanse of St. Peter’s Basilica, I stood transfixed in the presence of pure artistic genius. The Pieta, sculpted by Michelangelo when he was only in his early twenties, was commissioned in 1498 and unveiled in St. Peter’s Basilica in 1500.
With his hammer and chisel, Michelangelo had patiently liberated from the cold marble the sorrowful beauty and tender expression of love on Mary’s face as she gazes lovingly upon her slain son. The beauty of this sculpture is breathtaking, in that it captures the timeless, universal mourning of all mothers who yearn over their children. Michelangelo once said that his sculpting merely liberated the image already present within the stone. I marvel at Michelangelo’s ability to envision such incredible beauty within a plain slab of marble. My hard, prideful heart began to break as I gazed long upon this splendid work of art.

 

Of all the art that touched my soul, however, the crowning moment came when I strode into the Sistine Chapel and beheld the exquisite paintings Michelangelo had rendered upon its ceiling. His labors recounted virtually the entire biblical story of mankind from the creation to Christ. As I examined the various panels, one, in particular, stood out to me. It was the famous depiction of God reaching out his hand to Adam and tenderly touching him with the gift of life.
This masterfully rendered painting struck a deep chord in my soul, and I felt as if a large piece of the puzzle was coming together. Adam is lying naked on an immovable rock, seemingly helpless, with a tentatively raised arm reaching toward God. Adam’s hand is virtually limp, as if without strength, and there seems to be no real effort expended on his part to go to God. It seemed to me that God is making the greater effort. Carried by angels, God is moving toward Adam, straining and stretching out to reach him.
Then it struck me. Was God also reaching out to me? Was He also coming near to my helpless, prideful, arrogant soul? Was He moving upon my heart and drawing my rebellious and unwilling hand toward Him in hope, freely bestowing His gift of life into my tormented heart? This was a difficult concept to grasp, for I felt so unworthy. For the previous years of my life, I had indulged myself in the grossest expressions of sin, giving free expression to my flesh in wanton selfishness. “How could God have any interest in me?” I thought. “And why would He extend mercy to one who has rejected and ignored Him for so long?”
The Master Sculptor Begins To Liberate ME 
Over the next period of weeks, my heart began to soften. Rome’s rich Christian history was making a tremendous impact upon my hardened heart. God’s voice was starting to penetrate my mind and capture my attention. When I think back on this, it was as if the angels of God were whispering over my shoulder, directing my attention to higher things. The depiction of Isaiah in the Sistine Chapel almost reminds me of it.
My personal conversion was not an instant transformation but rather a gradual one. Old habits, attitudes, and thought patterns clung to me. Fleshly gravity like a black hole in space that sucks everything around it into eternal darkness-constantly pulled at my soul. All self-efforts to improve and reform myself ended in failure. Like the childhood storybook character, Brer Rabbit, who vainly fought to free himself from the tar-baby, the more I struggled to be free from my sin, the more entangled I became. My pride wouldn’t allow me to cry out for someone to rescue me, yet an undeniable hunger for more understanding of this amazing God who was apparently reaching out to me began to haunt my every waking hour.
The classic poem by Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven, was as applicable to me as it apparently was to the poet himself.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;  
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;  
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways  
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears  
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.  
Up vistaed hopes I sped;  
And shot, precipitated,  
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,  
From those strong feet that followed, followed after . . .  
Was I an archetype of helpless Adam in Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Had God so loved and chosen me, one so unworthy among the many billions of His creations, that He moved Heaven and earth to find me? Was He also intent upon meeting me in my naked shame with a feebly upraised arm? My heart told me it was so, but my mind rebelled and refused to believe it. Like one of Michelangelo’s unfinished sculpted images, trapped within the stone, I was trapped within my sin, selfishness, and pride. It seemed God was patiently, gently, and skillfully chipping away the dross to reveal the man He created me to be.
Should you ever stand close enough to me during a quiet moment, and listen with a spiritual ear, you may yet hear the soft sound of hammer and chisel as the Heavenly Master Sculptor continues His patient work of liberating me from the stone. He isn’t finished yet, as anyone who knows me well will tell you, but He has promised to never cease His patient labor until He finishes the work He began.
And so it is with us all. If you also heard His voice calling your heart, you can be confident that He is patiently chipping away your dross and conforming you to the image of Christ. He sees a masterpiece within the stone of your life, and will never cease His work until you are fully liberated into the glorious freedom of the Sons of God.
And we know that in all things  
God works for the good of those who love Him, 
who have been called according to His purpose.
For those God foreknew He also predestined to
be conformed to the likeness of His Son,  
that He might be the firstborn among many brothers.  
And those He predestined, He also called; those He called, 
He also justified; those He justified, He also glorified.  
What, then, shall we say in response to this?  
If God is for us, who can be against us?  
(Romans 8:28-31 NIV)  

(To Be Continued…)