by Tuhina Verma Rasche—
I clearly remember my first encounter with Jesus. I was a college student and I was not intending to visit a church for dinner—let alone meet God in the face of everyone I encountered there. I was also not at all intending to encounter the Holy Spirit, and hear that I was worthy and loved in the entirety of who God created me to be. This first encounter changed the course of my life. As a devout Hindu, I never anticipated becoming a pastor in the ELCA. But when the invitation to come and see is extended to a beloved neighbor, the entire trajectory of a person’s life can change.
For me, encountering Jesus was a transfiguration experience. I was led to the mountaintop to see the nature of Jesus—both entirely human and entirely God. It was both thrilling and exhilarating being exposed on top of that mountain, glimpsing a radiant Jesus. I remember feeling terrified by knowing that God is real. I also remember feeling so immensely loved, because God reached out to me. Encountering Jesus that first time was so bright and shiny, I thought every future encounter with Jesus would be of a similar, happy magnitude.
Years later, I now realize that the invitation to “come and see” is not for a single event, but for an accompaniment that will carry me through my entire life. I also realize that sometimes when I’ve been asked to “come and see,” I’ve been entirely oblivious to Jesus’ presence right in front of me. At other times, I’ve expected to encounter Jesus in the grandest way…but was left wondering if I expected too much? And sometimes I’ve been too preoccupied with possibly missing an encounter with Jesus to rest in the potential of encountering Christ. Yet in all my obliviousness, worry and preoccupation, there is comfort in knowing in my bones that it’s not up to me. Despite my best efforts, Jesus will accompany me whether I want him to or not.
One surprising and holy encounter with Jesus came where I was least expecting to meet him: in death. When I was baptized, I became fascinated by the role of death in the rite. I could tell you all about how I was freed from sin and death and resurrected in Christ. I could tell you what it meant to me when the waters of the font touched my head, forever tying me to Christ’s death and resurrection. But this holy encounter did not come over the font. It came in the death of the pastor who baptized me.
My pastor was my personal John the Baptist. We met under quirky circumstances. He’d invited himself to my home for dinner with my husband and me. As a practicing Hindu, I didn’t really know what was happening.
Was this something pastors did to all people? After that first dinner, many others followed. We often broke bread together, sharing our thoughts about daily life, our wondering about the world and faith. During one dinner, I became so full of wonder, that over a cup of tea, I wondered out loud to my pastor: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Weeks later, during Easter season, I stood facing the font—still trying to figure out what was happening. My pastor pointed the way. I had to take a leap of faith to encounter Jesus in his dying and rising. It forever changed me and how I viewed the world.
Then, a week after I was baptized, my pastor recommended that I go to seminary. I thought he was crazy. Then I started seminary. I blamed my pastor for, well, radically changing my life and my spouse’s life by telling me that I needed to go to seminary. But my pastor, in his very quiet, calm and grounded way, said he was just listening to the Holy Spirit. He said this was a message that the Spirit had for me, and that he was the person to tell me, pointing me to Jesus.
Near the end of my internship, I was preparing to return for a last semester of seminary, when my pastor called me. In the classic form of making everything about me, I thought he was calling me to congratulate me on my last week of internship. No. He’d called to share that he had been diagnosed with stage four cancer—cancer that was rapidly moving through his body and damaging his organs. After our conversation, I wept as I had never wept before. I had no idea that my body could contain a shattering heart. I’d expected and hoped that he would be a part of the community to give me a charge at my ordination service. If my spouse and I had children, I’d wanted him to be their spiritual guide as their godfather. Not only was I grieving the physical dying of my pastor, my hopes and expectations for our life together were dying with him. Amid all this death, I really didn’t want to encounter Jesus. If anything, I wanted to be left alone. I wanted to scream and cry and shake my fist at God. I was furious that such a beloved follower of Jesus was being eaten alive by cancer.
But I encountered Jesus the day my pastor died. During a break in the middle of one of my seminary classes, I received a voicemail from a family friend notifying me of his death. I was devastated. I knew death was imminent, but when it became real, I saw Jesus. I saw Jesus was in the faces of those who led me from the seminary classroom to the chapel to cry and pray. I heard Jesus in the voices of those who called to offer peace, in the messages of those who sent their love and encouragement. I knew in my heart and bones that love is stronger than death. In my beloved pastor’s death, I met the resurrected Jesus.
This article is excerpted from the January/February 2019 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full article or more like it, subscribe to Gather.