Standing on Interstate 40, west of Greensboro, North Carolina in May of 1972, trying to hitchhike a ride to the mountain town of Montreat, I had no idea that my life was about to be radically invaded and forever changed by a visitor from an unseen realm. My best friend, John Grubbs, had suggested that we go visit a friend of his at Montreat College, and do some hiking and camping in the mountain woods surrounding the campus. We were surprised to see a nice car pull over to the shoulder just beyond us. We had caught a glimpse of the three well-groomed ladies in the vehicle as it passed by, and we both thought, “surely they are not stopping to pick up a couple of scruffy looking, long-haired hippies. They must have car trouble.” But, sure enough, they were indeed stopping to pick us up. We threw our back packs into the trunk and climbed into the back seat. Then the magic began.
The first question out of their mouths stunned us. “Are you angels?” We told them we were many things, but we were not angels. They told us that there was a story circulating around the country of a hitchhiking angel. He would get in the car, and after sitting quietly for a few minutes would turn to the driver and say pointedly, “Jesus is coming.” The driver would acknowledge this statement in some way. After a few more minutes the passenger would again say, “Jesus is coming.” The driver would respond with more emphasis that he heard what the hitchhiker had said. Then, after a few more minutes the man would again say, “Jesus is coming.” The driver would turn towards the passenger and begin to say with some exasperation that he had heard him all three times to find that the hitchhiker had vanished from the car. The three ladies were emboldened by this story and the charismatic Christian conference they had just attended in Greensboro. They took a faith-gamble that John and I might be those angels. Even more amazing was that they had never picked up hitchhikers before in their lives.
Hearing that they were into religion I countered with some of my own spiritual ideas and adventures. A few days earlier I had heard Swami Satchidananda speak on the campus of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. I was sharing some of what I had heard in that lecture when the driver, Carol, suddenly cut me off, and with steely confidence in her voice she said, “Mark, the answer to life is not in hearing or knowing what any Swami has to say. The answer to life is in knowing Jesus Christ and in being baptized in his Spirit.” There was dead silence in the car, and there was a wondrous and mysterious chaos in my mind and soul. I had never heard words like that. They were spoken with formidable and unmistakable authority. “But wait a minute! John and I were the ‘freaks,’ and these three ladies were the ‘straights,’ and it was the ‘freaks’ who through mind expanding psychedelics and alternative lifestyles were the pioneers in finding enlightenment in body, soul and spirit. No way that these ladies with their ordinary, middle class lives could have any advantage in spiritual growth and development. Plus, I was Jewish, and what could a Jew and Jesus have in common?” But here was the crux of my problem. I could not deny as I looked upon Carol with my eyes that I was seeing a luminous aura and peace all around and inside of her. I had been striving relentlessly for over two years through reading, drugs, music, meditation and endless discussions to get what she had!!! But how could she have it and not me?? What could Jesus Christ and his Spirit have to do with anything meaningful and true? Then it came.
The voice. I have heard this voice a few times since. It always comes suddenly, seemingly out of the blue. No fanfare. No preparation. Just a very still, insistent and quiet voice, so quiet that you might miss or dismiss it if you aren’t paying attention. He said these exact words. “Kid, you better believe this, cause it’s the truth.” I sat there quietly as I started screaming inside my own skull. “WHAAAATTTT! JESUS IS THE TRUTH!!! HOW COULD THIS BE???!!!” I knew that I had not created that statement out of my own brain and thoughts. There was absolutely nothing in my ancestry, background, development or life that was the basis for what I had just been told. I knew that I had just been spoken to by someone outside of me. But who was it? I did not know at that time, but I knew that that voice had just spoken to me with an invitation and challenge that required a response. That response was to come one year later. For now, my world was totally shaken. It was like running as fast as you can and then smacking into a brick wall that you didn’t see coming, falling hard to the ground and then looking up and saying, “what is THIS?”
Our three ladies were heading home to Morganton. The day was moving along towards evening and we still had 45 miles to go to Montreat. Carol offered John and I a place to stay in her home for the night. We looked at each other and said, “why not?” We had been quite overwhelmed by this whole encounter, but it did not seem weird to take her up on her hospitality.
The next morning Carol took John and I back out to the highway so that we could continue our journey. I asked her, “what about the Jews? How do they figure into all this?” What she said was cryptic and veiled to me at the time. “The Jews have been blinded.” I thought “blinded?” Blinded to what?” All three of us got out of the car as we reached a safe place from which to hitchhike. Carol looked at John and said with no doubt in her voice, “John, you will be a Christian.” Looking at me she said, “Mark, you can be a Christian.” The precise difference between John’s “will” and my “can” was our perfect, specific parting gift from a servant who heard the message for each soul and delivered it as she was moved. John had grown up in a Gentile family in which Jesus was part of the narrative for their lives. He had almost gone forward as a teenager to believe in Jesus at a Billy Graham crusade. He needed to hear that he “will” become a Christian. Me, the Jew, who had a father who survived the Holocaust in Hungary in World War II, needed to hear that it was within the realm of possibility that I could become a believer in Jesus. Thus, I was safely told that I “can” be a Christian.
Everything from that day on connects inexorably with May 18, 1973. My days were numbered and I didn’t know it. Death was inside of me and all around me. In June of 1972 came the grim diagnosis for my father, Teddy. Terminal cancer. He died on September 17. I was 22 years old and devastated. I was still smoking pot and continuing my pursuit of meaning and truth. I worked with my mother, Harriett, at the gourmet delicatessen my dad created in Charlotte, North Carolina until we finally sold it in February of 1973. I left home and headed back to Chapel Hill, my home away from home. I got deeper and deeper into meditation and yoga. I was back living with my best friend John. Then, one day, an old hippie friend named Steve Evans came to visit us at our trailer and he was preaching Jesus. I intently observed him say to John, “John, you must be born again.” I thought to myself, “I don’t know what that is but I think I need it.” After Steve left, John started praying out loud to ask Jesus to come into his life. I was very uncomfortable with this. John retreated to his room and came out later with some news. He told me that when he asked Jesus into his heart and life that Jesus came in. I thought “whoopee for you, what do I care?” But now I am living with a Christian and he is my best friend. His life starts to change before my eyes. He is reading the bible, he is going to church, he has cut his hair, he looks and acts differently. I dig my heels in for yoga and meditation. I even have some powerful experiences where I feel I have contacted God. But it all fades away. The pillars holding up my life are being pulled out from under me one by one. I don’t sense that I have any foundation or reality on which to base my existence.
May 18, 1973 comes and I wake up with this thought in my head, but not a thought that I logically reached. It was just there, like something given from outside of me but coming from within me. It confessed, “maybe you won’t be able to achieve satisfaction on your own effort.” Quite an admission for a man who had been working very hard to find love, peace and meaning by his own effort! I walk out into the living room and John has a gift for me. It is a Bible with Jesus’s words in red letters. I open it, and am moved by how much Jesus said. John tells me of a movie that he is going to that night called “Time to Run,” and asks me if I am interested. In my vulnerable state, I said I would go. I had always looked for deep meaning in movies. The time for the movie comes later and some friends of John come by to pick us up to take us to the theater. We walk into the cinema and curiously it is in pitch darkness. We find some seats. The movie begins. It is set in California. The main character, Jeff, is a college aged guy who has conflicts with his nuclear scientist father. His girlfriend Michelle likes him but she has had some recent lifestyle changes, and it has strained their relationship. The tension in his home and the rebellion and discontent in his heart leads our hero to leave home in a Volkswagen bus. He has various encounters as he meanders along the beautiful Pacific coast. He picks up a couple who are hitchhiking to a Billy Graham crusade. This is the point at which I become very engaged and gripped by what is happening on the screen. Incredulously, I marvel at how this couple on the screen have the same peace and light about them that I had seen with my own eyes one year earlier when Carol and the two ladies picked John and I up from the highway. Jeff drops them off at the crusade and does not go inside. But he does sit outside in his van and listens to the voice of Billy Graham preaching as it is broadcast outside the arena. As I listen to Graham thunder forth in his clear and compelling way I am hearing and seeing him with new eyes. His words are ringing true. He is making sense. Very serious sense. Jesus is either a madman, an imposter, or he is truly who he said he was, the Son of God. Tears are coming from my eyes as the awareness rolls into my mind, “yes, I know who he is. He is the Son of God.” I don’t know what is happening to me but it is real. I cannot deny it. I have a vision of Jesus hanging on the Cross. It is very powerful and sobering. Jeff comes home to see Michelle, and starts talking to her about Jesus. She takes him to a gathering of other young people who have come to Jesus out of much searching and confusion. Jeff stands up to make a confession that he is ready to stop running and accept Jesus into his life. His parents, so wanting to reconcile with him, show up at this event. The three of them reunite, and the movie ends with a freeze-frame of them hugging. The theater is enveloped in dense darkness as when I entered. A gentle voice comes through the speakers and says, “if you have been moved by this movie please come forward to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior. We have left the lights off so that no one would feel self-conscious. Please come forward if this movie has touched you.” I am sitting there and literally squirming and bouncing in my seat. In one ear, I have the Spirit saying “go forward. You have seen enough and you know you need Jesus. Go for it.” In the other ear, another spirit is saying in a crude and sarcastic voice, “this is stupid. You can’t do this. Just stay in your seat.” After a few seconds of considering these two debating voices, I suddenly spring to my feet and find my way out to the aisle so that I could walk to the front of the theater. I am a long-haired hippie standing up there with all these straight looking people but that did not matter anymore. I knew that I needed what Jesus had for me. A man named Cecil Long took me aside and led me through what many know as the sinner’s prayer. I said each word with firm conviction of the truth of what I was saying, and with a big smile on my face. I stood up into the aisle and then something holy happened. I felt a spiritual film and essence enter my head, go down my neck into my body, down my arms and down my legs. It was the blood of Messiah cleansing me from all sin. I was perfectly clean!! I was filled with an inexpressible joy, and I felt light as a feather. I went out of that theater skipping and dancing. A woman looked at me and in a strong Southern accent said, “Praise God. He’s been saved!!!” There were two things that were very clear to me. One, is that the salvation that Jesus offers is totally free for the asking, you cannot earn it in any way. The other was that I now understood the mystery of what it meant to be Jewish. I now knew that I had a real and living spiritual connection with all my Jewish kinsmen of faith, like Abraham, David, Isaiah and Moses.
Once, I was standing lost on a highway. Now, I was standing found in the presence of the Lord.