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By The Rev. Dr. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA

Executive Director

This article first appeared in The Presbyterian Outlook.

Last Labor Day weekend, I spoke to a gathering of people typically suspicious of pastors: spiritual experiencers who deeply distrust religion. I was on the “Spiritual AND Religious: Bridging Mystical Experiences and Christianity” panel at the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS) annual conference. Over 600 people gathered to share their profound spiritual experiences in workshops, seminars and conversations.

I first became aware of IANDS in 1987 as a chaplain intern attending their two-day training program for doctors and nurses at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C. IANDS was co-founded in 1978 by Bruce Greyson, a medical doctor and the Chester Carlson Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia. He was part of that medical school’s Division of Perceptual Studies, which has empirically studied extraordinary human experiences, including spiritual experiences, since 1967.

What’s embossed in my memory of the conference are those who spoke with me afterward. I spoke with multiple people, and they all said something similar: “Thank you so much for speaking. I love coming to this conference because I can share my spiritual experiences here, but I can’t tell them I’m a Christian churchgoer because so many of them have been hurt by Christians and church. And I can’t share my spiritual experiences at church because they say I was either dreaming or crazy.”

I’ve listened appreciatively to spiritual experiencers since I read Life After Life by Raymond Moody as a teen in 1976. Moody empirically studied resuscitated patients who reported near-death experiences (NDEs) as a medical school student at UVA.

As a chaplain intern, I thought of Moody’s book when Mrs. G, an Italian Roman Catholic, shared a near-death experience after a heart attack. She was immersed in darkness, yet overwhelmed by an amazing sense of love she said could only be God. At the center was the most beautiful flower she had ever seen, displaying luminous colors that don’t exist on earth. Looking to the right, she saw her dead husband smiling at her, and as he walked away these same flowers popped up in every footstep. She told me in her thick, Italian accent, “I tell you this because you listen. I tell my doctor. He tell me I’m just dreaming. I tell my priest. He say I’m crazy and it never happened. But you, you listen. You no tell me I’m crazy.”

After all, our faith is built on these mystical encounters. Think about the stories in the Bible for a minute. They’re full of God-encounters. Many NDE researchers even recognize Paul’s writing in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 as sharing a NDE.

Yet, in my experience, Christians avoid talking about the mystical at church. Even more, we tend to explain away spiritual encounters like healings, visions, appearances and voices. I’ve even seen Presbyterians denigrate religious traditions like Pentecostals and evangelicals that tend to be more open to spiritual experiences. It seems we have a limited scope for the mystical. We can have a call narrative but not a story of healing or visions. Why is that?

I understand why people are hesitant to share their spiritual encounters with Christians. Despite studying spiritual experiences for decades, I’ve generally hidden my interest except in the safety of the churches or organizations I’ve led. Embracing spiritual experiences is central to the spiritually integrated counseling center I lead, where we’re a safe place for clients to share experiences good and bad in therapy.

It was also central to the life of the church I led for 22 years, which grew significantly because we shared and nurtured spiritual experiences. We thrived by attracting people like those who spoke to me after my conference presentation. We created small groups around spiritual and devotional books, including a near-death experience group. We taught classes on spiritual growth. We created intercessory and contemplative prayer groups. We offered monthly prayer vigils and yearly spiritual retreats. We built a public, outdoor labyrinth. I spoke regularly about spiritual experiences in my sermons, offering guidance on how to nurture them and what to do with them. We collected stories from members and shared them with others in sermons (with permission), classes, and in self-published Lenten devotionals.

A great example from one such devotional was shared by church member and friend, Bill, who wrote of taking his sons and a friend to a secret childhood swimming hole amidst the rapids of Slippery Rock Creek in Western Pennsylvania. Unable to find the exact spot, they found another promising one. Before Bill was ready, his boys unexpectedly jumped into the water. The current was too strong, and the boys struggled to keep from going under. Bill was frantic because it was clear that they would soon drown. In desperation, he prayed and suddenly saw his sons move against the current toward the shore as if a hidden hand pushed them through the water. Looking in amazement, he saw the outline of a large hand in the middle of one son’s back. Bill shared this secret story with the church because we were a safe place to share.

There are many types of spiritual experiences that researchers and writers classify including: God-coincidences, God-encounters, Breakthrough Transformational Experiences, Born-Again Experiences, Call Experiences, Miraculous Experiences, After-Death Communication, Nearing-Death Awareness, Near-Death Experiences, Shared-Death Experiences, and more. People in and beyond our churches encounter these things.

These experiences may or may not happen in connection with traditional prayer disciplines and practices such as centering prayer, journaling, mindfulness, lectio divina, fasting, and more. I wonder if our focus on traditional, monastically sourced spiritual practices, can subtly invalidate a wide range of experiences beyond what has become standard. Add to this our tendency to prize intellectual theological reflection, and we see clearly why the church might not feel like a safe space to bring spiritual experiences.

Practices are important, but I’ve seen transformative spiritual experiences correlate more with a radical awareness and openness to God. Perhaps cultivating a mindset, an attitude, a disposition, a “spirit-set” that opens us to experiences of God is more important than mere practices.

We see such radical openness exemplified by mystics such as Brother Lawrence, the anonymous Russian Orthodox monk who wrote The Way of a Pilgrim, the Congregationalist missionary Frank Laubach, the Quakers Thomas Kelly and Hannah Whitall Smith, the charismatic Presbyterian Catherine Marshall, the Episcopalian Agnes Sanford, St. Francis, St. Patrick, and so many more throughout Christian history.

The IANDS conference reaffirmed for me that people outside our churches are having intense, life-transforming spiritual experiences. It also reaffirmed that our churches can grow when we become safe places to nurture and share God-experiences. For that to happen, we must commit to embracing, studying and cultivating a dynamic and varied connection to God. The question is whether we’re prepared to make that shift—a shift others are already making.

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“It’s just not getting any better. We keep arguing and arguing, and all we get is angrier and angrier. I know I’m right, but how do I convince anyone of that? Whatever I say, she/he warps it to make me look like the bad guy. It’s hopeless.”

“I worry most about our kids. They’re depressed, angry, anxious. I don’t know what to do about them. Maybe when this is all over and we split up they’ll be better. I hope so because I don’t see us staying together.”

It may seem like it, but I wasn’t writing about marriage above. I was writing about our culture. We’re helplessly divided, and it’s having a significant impact on the mental health of our younger generations, generating issues they’ll be grappling with for the rest of their lives. So many people blame the pandemic for the rise in mental health needs. Frankly, they were rising before the pandemic. We want to blame outside forces, but it’s our hyper-polarization that’s causing so many to feel lost, anxious, angry, and depressed. The pandemic just poured gas on that fire.

Still, what we’re experiencing culturally is related to troubled marriages. We keep thinking that we can argue our way to resolution, or maybe win a revolution where we just overwhelm others who disagree. If we stay on this path, it will take a generation to heal emotionally from the trauma.

You wouldn’t expect a counseling center to be writing about national and international issues, but since our societal situation impacts the work we do, it’s hard not to talk about it. The reality is that mental health issues have risen exponentially as our national polarization has grown. Yet we’re not helpless in the face of it all.

You and I may not be able to change the world, but there are some ideas from the mental health and spirituality fields that you and I can embrace to bring about healing and greater unity in the situations we all face:

1. Recognize goodness in the other: Whether talking about our polarized culture or our marriages, division grows in direct proportion to the degree we stop seeing good in the other. The less good we see, the more polarization grows. How many divorced people speak of their ex-spouses, who they once cherished, as utterly bad to the core? How many people argue with friends on social media, thinking now that their friends have become utterly bad to the core? Unending conflict prevents us from seeing goodness in the other. A key step in therapy comes as we help the couple to recognize goodness in the other. It may not lead to reconciliation, but it can lead to better outcomes. Culturally we’re trapped in tribal divisions where each side sees the other as misguided, harmful, corrupt, and/or evil. At some point each of us needs to recognize that the other has good intentions, and wants what’s best, but they may just think differently from us. Purposely looking for and recognizing the good in another is a crucial step toward creating a healthier world.

2. Validate the other’s perspectives even if you don’t share their beliefs: A significant issue in any conflict is the unwillingness to validate the other’s perspective. When they share how they see things, we generally don’t listen to what they’ve said. We interpret what we THINK they’ve said. We interpret based on what we believe about them. If we think they’re misguided or wrong-minded, anything they say will be interpreted as bad, even if it’s good. A simple marriage therapy technique for validating the other is having partner B listen to and summarize what partner A has said. Then partner A either confirms or corrects what partner B has summarized. The point is to ensure both sides can accurately articulate the other’s point of view and validate the perspectives behind them, even if they disagree with what’s said. When caught in polarizing arguments, we generally respond to what we think the other is saying based on our beliefs about them. The debate over guns is a great example. Both sides fear malicious people wielding guns. One side feels safer in a world without guns, the other feels safer in a world where they can protect themselves with guns. Both sides have valid concerns and want to reduce danger. So start there by validating the other’s fears and concerns and discuss from there.

3. Look for areas of alliance: Building on the above, marriage counselors look for areas where the couple can work together positively, even if the marriage isn’t salvageable. It might be how to successfully raise the children; splitting income so both sides feel taken care of; or agreeing on how to interact in a positive way. Therapy focuses on creating a trusting and collaborative alliance. To get beyond where we are culturally, we have to create an ethos of alliance-building that resolves problems and builds trust by working together toward a common goal. Alliances begin with stopping trying to prove me right and you wrong, and instead looking for places where we can become allies in seeking a better option together.

4. Consider others from God’s perspective: This is the ultimate for me. I’ve endeavored throughout my life to consider people from God’s perspective regardless of where they are politically, philosophically, culturally, ethnically, racially, and personally. I deeply, deeply believe that God loves each of us deeply and equally and try to live that way. I had a tremendous opportunity in 2008 to speak at a national conference where I shared a B&B with the Rev. Dr. Lloyd John Ogilvie. He was a beloved, internationally-known pastor and chaplain to the U.S. Senate from 1995 to 2003. Over breakfast each morning and a glass of wine at night, he shared stories about his chaplaincy. With each story he emphasized how he endeavored to regard each senator as a person loved by God, and not as the repository for a set of political beliefs. It allowed him to be revered by senators on both sides of the aisles, and to be a wise and guiding voice to all of them. He chose to regard everyone from God’s perspective. Doing that takes so much intention. My work as a clergy spiritual director and clergy coach has me working with pastors from all different theologies and perspectives. What’s allowed me to do so is recognizing that this pastor may not think the way I do or share my theology, but he/she is called by God to love and serve, so I need to start there.

What I’ve written isn’t a magic bullet overcoming division, but it does offer a path, one person at a time, to create healing in our culture that actually could lead to better mental health for everyone.


Executive Director

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Updated: Dec 6, 2023

A pastor I’ve been working with for over 10 years recently shared a cartoon with me. He found incredibly helpful in his work as a hospice chaplain. It’s a quote from Lois Tonkin on the website, “People think that grief slowly gets smaller with time. In reality, grief stays the same size but slowly life begins to grow bigger around it.”

This quote wonderfully captures something our therapists, coaches, and spiritual directors recognize all the time: while we may yearn for a pain-free life, our pain can help our lives deepen and grow—when we let it.

I learned how true this statement was being a pastor for over 35 years, and having done hundreds of funerals. So many people I knew deepened over time as their lives grew through their grief. While grief doesn’t shrink, the pain of losing someone or something can help us become more aware of life’s preciousness. It can make us more aware of God in each moment. It can help us develop wisdom we didn’t have before.

The big word is “can.” Grief, pain, trauma, struggle, and more can help our lives grow bigger when we respond in healthy ways. The converse is also true: a life without struggle can cause life to atrophy. Most of us intuitively know how a pain-free life can stagnate life. For example, have you ever heard anyone say that he or she “graduated from the school of hard knocks”? They’re saying they’ve developed uncommon wisdom and understanding through their struggles.

Many people think that if God is good, we shouldn’t struggle. But that’s not what the Bible teaches. In fact, almost every main character of the Bible struggled, and became more caring, healing, and resolute in their service of God through their struggles. The list of those who grow through pain starts with Adam and Eve, and includes, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, the Israelites, Joshua, the Judges, Ruth, Hannah, Elijah, David, Solomon, Jesus, Paul, Peter, and the disciples/apostles.

Tonkin’s quote about grief has a lot of truth to it, and not only as it applies to grief. For generations counselors have recognized that people in therapy develop strengths, resources, wisdom, and depth they never had before and couldn’t develop on their own. The key is that they decided to work on their pain rather than repressing, depressing, projecting it, and/or inflicting it on others.

When people choose to work on their grief, their pain, their trauma, and more, their lives can get bigger. By now you’ve probably heard of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where a person’s previous trauma causes depression, anxiety, a sense of discontinuity, confusion, and chaos in his or her life. Have you ever heard of its twin, post-traumatic growth syndrome (PTGS)? Mental health researchers have recognized that some who go through trauma transform their lives, making their lives bigger, deeper, and more expansive.

It's this growth that explains why therapy, coaching, and spiritual direction are so important to people suffering long-term life pain. We help people transform their pain and suffering to become more expansive, compassionate, and healing. Most people in the helping professions have experienced great pain in their own lives. They’re trained to help, but they also offer their own wisdom crafted by working on their own pain. This is true of the war-traumatized veteran who now dedicates his or her life to helping other veterans heal physically, mentally, emotionally, and relationally. It’s true of the rape victim who now helps other rape victims. It’s true of the recovering addict who now serves as an AA sponsor or therapist. It’s true of a local, great hockey player who recovered from cancer and how dedicates part of his life to raising money to fight cancer.

I’ve spent my career in two vocations littered with people who suffered grief, trauma, and pain, and tapped into it in the pursuit of helping others—ministry and counseling. It’s rare to find a therapist who hasn’t suffered great pain in her or his life. It’s also quite common to find pastors who have struggled in ways that now allows them to heal others of grief, trauma, and pain.

I’ve often used a phrase to explain the reality of life, which is this: “No one gets out of life alive.” The reality is that life can be, and often is, painful. But that pain can be transformed into hope and healing when we choose growth over pain-induced paralysis. And our therapists, coaches, and spiritual directors are here to help.


Executive Director/Director of Caring for Clergy and Congregations

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