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

In this space yesterday, Reverend Peter Panagore talked about a 1980 ice-climbing snafu that resulted an apparent near-death experience that forever altered his outlook on life.  Here, he talks about the years that followed, including his current tenure as pastor of the First Radio Parish Church of America.  Here are some highlights:

JWK: You said that, at the time the incident happened, your sister was missing. Did you ever find out what happened to her?

Peter Panagore: Yes and no. Two (or) three years before this (mountain experience), she showed up. She had been gone for four years…She showed back up in the city, my hometown, for a month. She was part of the Rainbow Family…At the time I think they were the Rainbow Tribe. It was a hippy movement – a gathering that happened and still happens annually in a national park somewhere in the United States.

Anyway, she showed up back up in ’77 with a baby and apparently pregnant. She spent about a month and then she ran away again which broke my mother’s heart again… Thereafter, we knew that she didn’t want us and it became worse for my mother.

So, years go by – years and years and years and years. (It)was my second year in divinity school when she finally came back to us but never quite fully. She was with us for a terrible Christmas – the worst Christmas in my memory  — and eventually died five years ago – maybe it was four — in Miami. (It was) an unattended death. As such, Miami CSI contacted my parents and (we, my brother and I) had to fly down to Miami to find out if she was murdered.  Eventually, we discovered that she wasn’t murdered but there had been a violent altercation the night before and she was found in a place where she wasn’t supposed to be.

The long and the short of that is that six months later the autopsy showed that she had died of a heart attack. That began my mother’s healing process…There’s a lot more to the story than that but that’s kind of the thumbnail sketch.

JWK: Can you tell me more about how the events on that mountain shaped your life.

The near death experience left me in a constant pursuit of the divine.  And, on top of all this, is my natural tendency toward contemplation and mysticism anyway. I mean…when I was six years old I told my mom that God spoke to me and told me that I was going to be God’s priest.  I was standing out under our maple tree. I distinctly heard God say “You are mine.”  So, I went in the house and I told my mother that I was gonna be a priest.  I didn’t know if it was gonna be Catholic or Orthodox…. A priest was the only form of (minister) that I was exposed to.  So, my mom decided to teach me how to cook and sew and iron — things I would have to do for myself because I wouldn’t have a wife, she told me.

And then throughout my whole life there have been mystical theophanies to drive me on.

JWK:  I understand you were hit by a bolt of lightning once.

Peter Panagore: One year later (after the near-death experience)I was with one my childhood buddies…(His) girlfriend wanted to take him to church and he didn’t want to go by himself and so he invited me along.  It was a couple of towns away. After church I’m driving back home in my dad’s VW convertible bug under a blue sky (but) in front of me was the darkest, angriest black cloud I had ever seen. I could see lightning bolts by the dozens shooting out of this thing a mile ahead of me. I thought to myself in a prayer to God, should pull over right now and pull up the roof?  As I thought that, I saw this bolt of lightning come out of the cloud, aim right toward me, go right past my face and strike in the back seat of the Volkswagen. As I looked at it, it was like the sound of an explosion in the car. A side bolt came out of the main bolt and struck in my thigh and I watched it come out my shoulder and back into the main bolt.

JWK:  Were you knocked out?

Peter Panagore: No. Nothing. All I can say is that it scared me like I can’t even explain. For years after that, any time lightning would strike in the yard or nearby me, it was like post traumatic stress.  I didn’t make myself dive to the floor or the ground. I just did it uncontrolably. It took me a long time to get over that….(When) I got home I told my parents “I was hit by a bolt of lightning!” and my dad’s like “Yeah.” I said “Smell me!” I stunk of ozone!…I had the smell of the lightning on me.

JWK:  Have these experiences helped shape your ministry?

Peter Panagore: Definitely the near-death experience. It turned me into a midwife (for) the dying.  Although I didn’t tell anybody about it for 90 percent of my ministry, I used it as a resource as I would sit by the dead or the dying while helping counsel the grieving.

I spoke in Connecticut recently – in the past few months – at a church where I had served (as a youth group counselor and associate pastor).  One of the (former) youth group members came… and he said to me…I went there to Connecticut to specifically to talk about near-death experience – and he said to (me) “You know, you used to say crazy stuff like ‘Heaven is better than life.’ And, when we would ask questions about death and dying, you would be cryptic and leave us wondering ‘What does he know that he’s not saying?”  We used to talk among ourselves about (you) not telling (us) what (you were) really thinking. (That’s) because I wasn’t able to talk about it at the time.

JWK:  That’s because you were still dealing with it yourself.

Peter Panagore: Yeah. Anyway, it left me like kind of a midwife for the dying. And, then as a sort of community minister, I spent a lot of time at bedsides or in hospice situations or at funerals.

JWK:  Did your experience help you in those situations?

Peter Panagore: I tried to help them make the transition into death and to trust God and (to assure them) that they will discover that they will continue to exist upon  their death in the aafterlife.

JWK:  That’s really inspirational. How’d you end up getting involved with the media?

Peter Panagore: Part of my goal of being a minister was to write a sermon a week.  And part of that wasn’t just to preach. It was to hone my skills as a writer. Really what I wanted to do was write. I ended up working for Homiletics Journal as one of their staff writers for about five years.  Having my first serious editor critique my work on a regular basis pushed me as a writer.

Meanwhile, in the pulpit, I tended to be a rule breaker in terms of presentation, instead of just using expository (writing) and speaking in a preacher’s voice, I did all sorts of stuff – storytelling, character development.  I would play people. I did all sorts of crazy stuff in the pulpit like siltwalking or running a chainsaw (without the chain on it) and pushed the bounds of what was normal preaching.  I tried to make it interesting and exciting, artistic and theatrical and, meanwhile, have the depth of thought and the scholarship that would give it weight and truth.

And, so I did this for years and years and one of my deacons has a daughter who was the executive producer of the (The First Radio Parish Church of America)…She had been in church and she had seen me over the years – once in a while. She wasn’t there all the time… So she sent her mom – this deacon – to speak to me and ask me whether I’d consider applying for this job and, if I would consider it, the executive producer would help me get ready.  And so that’s exactly what I did.

JWK:  And you took over in 2003?

Peter Panagore: As the fifth (pastor).

JWK:  What changes did you make when you took over?

Peter Panagore: Each of the (previous) ministers brought their own theology and their own presentation style…When I came aboard the program itself made a shift from three minutes with my predecessor to two minutes for me.  So, that was the first thing that happened.

The program had developed under my predecessor – Rev. Dr. David R. Glusker – into sort of a storytelling format.  Originally, it had been a Sunday morning radio church. We were the First Radio Parish Church of America, literally…Over the years, it became a daily program and then it became a (TV show) during the morning news. It started out as five minutes and then it became four minutes, then three minutes and now we’re at two minutes.

I employed the storytelling format that my predecessor had… I hope I bring art to it in my storytelling. I had a storytelling mentor named Brother Blue who was a world-famous Cambridge, Massachusetts based reverend doctor. Rev. Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill was his real name…He was a consummate storyteller and he would be on street corners in Cambridge. I grew up  listening to him all the time…He’d be dressed in butterflies and all in blue with balloons and bells and ribbons and he would play a character… I would have the great fortune of having him adopt me as one of his students, one of his many students… And I decided that, as a writer, I wanted to be an oral storytellerAnd so I brought poetry and storytelling and writing and writing skills to the presentation.  And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

I have some parameters that the station makes me follow which is fine. I can’t really talk about Jesus all too often. I can talk about Him indirectly which I do a lot but I have to make it approachable (for) everybody…and it has to never contain politics – which is just fine with me.  It needs to reach a broad audience. It has to be written in a clear language and in simple language. I try to give it cadence and poetry. I use the structure of the story and the language of the story to engage the heart of the listener as I try to engage the imagination…and pull the listener/reader/viewer into the story which is only two minutes long. (I) end with a thought for the day and a prayer. Really what we try to do is bring hope and inspiration into people’s daily lives.

JWK: And it available at Call on Faith on the Internet, right?

Peter Panagore: We’re in eleven media modalities. You can get us at the mobile app Call on Faith, and at on the net. We’re on TV here in Maine, on two NBC, Gannett owned, TV stations.  We’re on AM stations and FM stations in Maine. We’re on the web, on Facebook, Twitter, and in Ashboro Magazine in Ashboro, North Carolina.

JWK: You also have a book from Simon & Schuster.

Peter Panagore: Two Minutes for God, available on Amazon.

JWK: What do you hope to accomplish in the future?

Peter Panagore: Well, I’ve got a book about my near-death experience which is in manuscript form at the moment.  I’m speaking with a publisher right now. I’d like to get that out the door in the next year or two.

My long-term and overall goal is to help people understand that they’re not from here and they get to go home, that God loves them.  He loves each one of us wholly and beyond our imagination.  There’s no way to contain it or explain it but it’s complete and whole and loving. That’s my goal.

In terms of practicalities, I want the First Radio Church to continue on for another 85 years – way beyond my ministry – and try to, like a good Boy Scout, leave my campsite better than I found it.

I hope to leave Daily Devotions in better shape than I found it. It was in great shape when I inherited it but I’d like to leave it in even better shape for the next person, whoever that person happens to be down the road.  We’re aiming at some kind of national syndication rollout, God willing. We’re not sure how that’s gonna work or what the components of it are. We have many ideas and a number of irons in the fire.

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

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