Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of Faith, media and culture.

Peter Panagore currently serves as the fifth pastor of the First Radio Parish Church of America which was established in 1926 to utilize the then relatively-new broadcast medium to bring the Gospel to the people. At first that task was accomplished through a literal weekly parish church service. Since then, however, the organization has evolved to embrace other mediums, including television and, more recently, the internet where the minister’s reflections can be heard at (which can also be accessed via mobile devices such as iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, Android, Nook and any video-enabled phone through Odyssey Network’s Call on Faith.

Panagore uses storytelling in his multimedia mission to touch and inspire individual hearts and communicate the positive message of the Gospel while also building interfaith bridges.

Among his most amazing stories is one that involves his own apparent near-death experience. He shared that story with me during a recent conversation. Here are some highlights:

JWK:  You grew up in a Catholic/Greek Orthodox home right?

PETER PANAGORE:  Right….The churches were about a block from each other.  Being the eldest son in the family, I attended the Greek Church with my dad although I was baptized Roman Catholic and also attended CCD and church with my mom.  So, there were many Sundays that I went to both churches.  They met at different times. I was kind of heavily churched.

A result of all of that (was that) the churches – the two of them – often spoke out against each other, not against that particular church down the street but, in general, about heretics, that sort of stuff.  And so I came to understand that both churches can’t be right – although they both said that they were right.  That created some sort of room for me to move theologically.  Because I loved both parts of my family, it was very personal for me.  My Greek family and my Irish-Catholic family got along pretty well but there were (some) fractures between them as a result of…religion.  I broadened my perspective as a means of survival. Understanding that both can’t be telling me the absolute truth led me to the conclusion that maybe there’s more to God than could be said.

JWK: You mean, in just one faith?

PETER PANAGORE: Right. So, I took my pursuit more seriously in high school – the Catholic high school.  In my senior year, my religion teacher …taught us meditation, a form of centering prayer that he learned at local monastery. I began practicing that day forward. It…worked for me and I began my (faith) pursuit in a practical sense.  I (considered entering a monastery) but I couldn’t reconcile not having sex. That was a big, huge thing for me. So…I applied to various divinity schools….(Eventually I applied) to the United Church of Christ for ordination.

JWK:  Are you happy you made the choice to become a minister?

PETER PANAGORE: I’m glad that it gave me the opportunity to be a professional person of prayer and a writer. It seemed to me a compromise between monastery (and) immersing myself completely in the world. It gave me the excuse daily to practice prayer without anybody giving me grief about it.

JWK: At one point you had an apparent after-death experience. Can you tell me about that? 

PETER PANAGORE: Sure. In 1980 I was an exchange student at Montana State University and I had decided for March vacation to do something exciting, some kind of adventure.  So, I posted a note at the Outdoor Club asking if anybody wanted to do any snow caving or winter camping…A fellow named Tim wrote to me or called me – I guess he called me on the phone – and said that he was interested. We had a conversation…We both had a ton of experience backpacking and winter camping. So, we knew that we could trust each other…and we decided we could do this.

Tim (said) he had wanted to go ice climbing at this particular climb in Alberta called Lower Weeping Wall. I had never ice climbed before. I had done some rock climbing. I was a capable rock climber. I wasn’t an expert at it but I was good enough. I’m athletic enough to be able to scramble up a face and…I was handy… Tim was an expert.  He was a lead climber – both in technical climbing and ice climbing.  So, I felt that I was in good hands with Tim.

So, we went out for something like eight days of snow caving and back country skiing…in a place called the Assiniboine Provincial Park in Alberta.  And then, at the end of that, we went for this ice climb which is near the Columbian glacier not far from Assiniboine Provincial Park…So, we went on this climb. It was pretty close to the highway – such as it is, because it’s a relatively untraveled highway…We walked into this climb which is not far from the road. When we got there, there were like five or so other teams climbing. We were the last team to ascend…

Anyway, we went on this climb and we made a mistake at the beginning. The mistake was that we didn’t have all the equipment that we needed.  We made do with the equipment that we had and that slowed our ascent down significantly which meant that we (fell behind on our time).

Everyone else was done when we finished our climb. It was  about a 500 foot climb. We were are the very top of our climb and all the other teams were  packing out and it was close to sunset . It was March and there was ten feet of snow on the ground. It was cold. We had eaten up all our food and drank all our water and we were soaking wet because we sweated a lot and we knew we were in trouble.  We got up to the top…and the sun was setting. We thought “What are we gonna do?” We were sitting on this ledge (that was) five feet long and three feet deep – up against the ice of the mountain. We debated staying there for the night, trying to survive by huddling together but we both knew that that was crazy because we were gonna freeze to death. We didn’t have extra gear with us.  We didn’t have a stove. We didn’t have any extra clothing or any sleeping bags. So, we decided the only thing we really could do was to pursue getting off that mountain.

I’ll cut to the chase a little bit here. There were a couple of (problems) that caused us to be delayed in our descent and the first one was the rope – a 300 foot knot (got stuck on an overhang) and it took us hours to free that.  We got frostbite in our fingers and our toes…We finally got the rope free and we went to our last repel and the rope got stuck again. But this time it was stuck around a corner, jammed into some rocks.  We couldn’t (get free) because I would have had to unclip myself from a very precarious position and probably fall. So, now it’s like three in the morning, four in the morning or something like that.  And hypothermia (was setting in)…

I had been on the National Ski Patrol through high school and for part of college and was very familiar with the symptoms of hypothermia and watched ourselves go through them. We had gone through the stumbling stage, the unable to speak stage, the confused stage. Now, when we’re on this last repel – about 150 feet  up – we were in the blood rushing from your extremities to the chest stage. And, so we both got warm for the first time on our climb and that’s the second to the last thing that happens in hypothermia before you fall asleep.

We knew that…it was over.  The rope was stuck and we couldn’t free-climb down…I kept yanking on the rope trying to get it free. I’d fall asleep and fall off my perch and wake back up when I hit the mountain face and pull myself back up again because I was on a harness…

Then this one time I fell off and I felt myself falling asleep. I felt myself lose my balance but then when I hit the mountainside I wasn’t asleep. I was still awake. There was this opening in front of me. It was like this vacuum that was irresistible sucking at me, pulling me out of myself… I accessed this survival part of myself, this inner drive that I didn’t know that I had.  I forced my will forward so that I would live. I used all of that strength that I had for my survival to fight…being pulled out of myself and I couldn’t do it.  It was just irresistible. It was like being caught in a huge flood and it was sucking me right out.

The next thing I knew,  I was in this vast and infinite void that was dark but I could see. I had no physical body but I had a body. I don’t know to describe it. It’s kind of like a sphere of energy. I was a being without form.  Anything that we would think of as form is not accurate but I had consciousness and was still me and I was me contained as me. I wasn’t just spread across the universe in a million droplets. I was still one thing and I could think but I had no brain.

In front of me was this gigantic portal – like a door.  It was like 30-feet wide and 70-feet high or something like that. I could see into it and there was a…a black tunnel.  I was at the threshold of this thing and it had a veil over it and the veil was translucent and transparent at the same time and it flowed. There was like this flow to it. So, I touched it with my being  and it had life energy in it and when I did that I heard my name called without language – inside myself I heard it but I knew that it came from outside myself and  I knew that I was on the presence of God but I couldn’t see God.

And then this name, “Peter.”  In the hearing of this name I knew that I was fully and completely known, loved and the name contained beauty and truth and compassion and mercy and joy, sweetness  and it filled me. It kind of infilled me…It was devoid of any structure that we’re used to as human beings in this world, including time and when this infilled me with beauty and truth and joy and they were one thing too. They weren’t separate things. They were one thing but, in knowing that I was known, there was no part of me that was unknown and in that I went through a hell.

I suffered all the pain that I caused everyone in my entire life from their point of view. I suffered the pain that I gave them and I felt their pain individually – person after person, event after event in a sequence and juxtaposed and simultaneously I experienced all my justifications and reasons or causations for having caused all that pain each individual time and I judged myself poorly. I was ashamed that I had caused so much pain and I was guilty.

So, those two things were going on inside me and there was this third perspective – this voice from God …had no sound and no language…It was direct communication without words and it was saying to me – God was saying  to me – “ I love you.  I made you. I already know all this about you. This isn’t news to me. I love you anyway. You’re my creature. I made you this way. It’s okay. I love you. I forgive you. I forgive you.” And I was forgiven and cleansed and loved and I understood that I went to heaven with all the pain that I caused anyone…and that seemed to me to be sin…and all the love that I had ever given or gathered, that also was experiential (but) in a different way.  It wasn’t sequential . It was more like one thing.

Anyway, when that was over – all the peace and the compassion and the love, all this truth, all was one again with the sweetness.  I could then see this void that I was in again in all directions. I didn’t have to turn to look. I didn’t have a head. I could see in every direction but I couldn’t see God who was absolutely present with me. It was the one thing that I couldn’t seen.

I said “Am I dead?” And God said “Yes, you’re dead.”  And I said “Well, I can’t  die now.” God said “Why can’t you die now?” And, as I reflect on this later, you know, obviously God already knew,  I don’t know why I had this conversation (but) we did and I said “I can’t die now because I have a sister who’s vanished.”

It turned out she ran away but, from where we sat, she had vanished and it had happened a long time ago. It broke my mother’s heart and caused her a nervous breakdown and the family – although we stayed together, my parents stayed married – we shattered inside ourselves  through an enforced silence, never to speak my sister Andrea’s name, never to talk about her, even though my mother cried herself to sleep every single night for a decade… night after night after night waiting for Andrea to come home.

When Andrea was a baby – maybe seven – not a baby but seven years old — she had an accident and she choked. She kinda hung on a string around her neck. When my mother found her, she was blue. They rushed her to the hospital and my dad stayed with her in the oxygen tent for the 48 hours or something like that. Andrea was never the same. I think my mom blamed herself. It  was not her fault.

JWK: Andrea fell?

PETER PANAGORE: She fell off a bed.  She had a cowgirl hat on and the cowgirl hat got caught on the bedpost.  It was not my mom’s fault but I think my mom must have blamed herself.  Anyway, we weren’t allowed to mention her name at all and every night my mom would cry herself to sleep. My sister Cindy and I and my brother David, we would hear her crying herself to sleep.

So, I said to God, I said “I can’t take another child from my parents.”

And God took me and showed me Earth  and showed me everyone on Earth, my parents in particular, and said “In the way that I love you now, then you know that I love you and I have always loved you this way and you know that and I will always love you this way and you know that. In the way that I love you, I love your parents in the same way. And, because  I love them, all will be well because all has always been well…and you know that that’s true.”

And I knew that it was true.  I knew that all would be well upon my parents death…that upon the death of all human beings, all will be well because all IS well because God loves us – (with) a love that I can’t even explain.

And so I understood that and I said “There’s another reason why I can’t die right now.”  And God said “Why?” and I said because I was in a theater company and I was leaving on tour in like two weeks and we had been in rehearsal for like six months.

JFK: You were an actor?

PETER PANAGORE: It was a college-based group. The director had warned me that…I had better not get hurt or injured on this trip because there were no understudies.”

I told God and he said “Okay.” And I said “Well, I haven’t gone through the door yet.” And God said “No, you haven’t.”  And I said “Do I have to go through the door?” And God said “No.” I said “Well, is this heaven? This unity, this love, this divine indwelling, is this heaven?” …And God said “Yes, this is heaven.” And I said “Well, if I go back to the world can I come back here?” And God said “Yes, you can come back here.” I said “Well, then I choose to live my life.” And God said “Live your life.”

The next thing I knew I was being screwed back into my body, painfully. I felt like I was coming back into my belly again. And then I came to. I didn’t have (any) idea what was going on or where I was. I had no idea.  And my partner Tim had a hold on my shoulder and he was screaming at me (as) I was dangling off the cliff and he was still on the ledge. He was screaming “Don’t die! Don’t leave me here!”  And I kinda came to and I pulled myself up and I looked at him. I pulled the rope again which was tied to my harness and the rope came free on the first pull. We descended and we went into our tent and we performed our necessary first aid for hypothermia and survival.

JFK:  So, the rope was jammed and, when you came back, you pulled on it once and it freed up again.  It freed right up again.

PETER PANAGORE: It freed up again.

JFK:  That’s amazing.

 PETER PANAGORE: Inexplicable.  Anyway, there’s a lot more to the story then this but that’s the essence of it, the bones of it.

JFK:  What happened then?

PETER PANAGORE:  Well, the first thing I did was to not tell anybody. I kept it a secret because it sounded insane to me. I didn’t understand what had happened to me. I had no idea. I had no framework for it. I had never heard of such a thing before.  I mean, I heard about the story of Lazarus but I just had no idea what had happened to me but I knew that I had changed and that I was not the same person that I was before. I found myself living in two worlds simultaneously and I was divided. I was the guy here that everybody could see and then I was the interior Peter that wasn’t here at all.

So, I ended up in depression for a long period of time….The theater tour started like two weeks later  and I fortunately had some very dear friends in the theater (group) but…I didn’t tell them. The first time that I told somebody was on the night before my wedding four years later or so. I thought my wife oughtta know…

I started the practice of yoga and incorporated my contemplative prayer, my chanting – “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on this sinner” – a Greek prayer , the Jesus prayer. I incorporated that into (yoga) practice and I just dove ever deeper in. I went toot divinity school at Yale in part to see what I could learn about others like me.

Eventually, I spoke with a fellow named Raymond Moody who had published a book Life After Life…It came into my hands at some point when I was at Yale. I called him up on the phone because he was in Connecticut and I had a long conversation with him. I came away from that conversation knowing that he believed that I had died and crossed over. The bones of my story resonated with the bones of stories that he had been told. (I finally knew) that I probably wasn’t crazy which I harbored as a secret fear.

That began my healing process which took a long, long time. I’m still going through it. There’s never a moment of any day where I (don’t) know that…I am a full and complete human being. I am a human person but I know that I’m divine with a small “d” and that God is the inexpressible essence of love and presence always. Every day I know that I am not from here.


Tomorrow: Peter talks about how his experience has shaped his life and ministry.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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