Carnett: Witnessing God and accepting him are two different things

It was an incandescent moment of enlightenment.

And I blew it off.

Though a revelation for me personally, it served for a considerable time as just a way station for my life's journey, failing to change me in any substantive way.

The "moment" I've alluded to occurred one sultry August evening in 1965 when I was a 20-year-old American soldier stationed in Seoul, South Korea.

Shortly after the midnight curfew had taken effect, I was walking across a U.S. military compound on my way back to my barracks following a night on the town. The compound's gates had been locked down tight at midnight, and I'd slipped through with scant moments to spare.

My proclivity for narrowly beating curfew was uncanny, as well as a bit of a high-wire act.

I'd been exposed that evening to a teeming, restless city of nearly 4 million souls. All around me, for hours, I'd encountered a throbbing cacophony of horns, sirens, aromas, music, jackhammers, voices, laughter, snarled traffic and the stench of open sewers.

The city breathed, groaned and reeked like a living organism.

Suddenly, for a reason I have long since forgotten, I stopped before arriving at my barracks and looked straight up … at the heavens. In contrast to the coarse and maddening metropolis, the night sky appeared silent and wraithlike, a whirling magnificence much like Van Gogh's "Starry Night" — eternal and breathtaking in its dimensions.

Except that at that time I had yet to lay eyes on Van Gogh's painting, and wouldn't do so for many years to come. That Seoul sky is what would immediately enter my mind when at last I encountered the Dutchman's masterpiece.

I'd stared up at the night sky many times during my young life but had never before been similarly touched as that evening. Not then a person of faith — in fact, very much an unrepentant skeptic — within a millisecond I knew that I knew that I knew that God existed. He just did.

I can't explain how I knew; it was a sudden profound and unshakable insight to which I gave assent.

And just as I knew he existed, I also knew that I didn't know him — not by a long shot. But I chose at that moment of personal revelation to continue to disregard him, and I deliberately shoved him back into the recesses of my melodramatic existence.

I wasn't prepared to curb my impulses. I wanted the freedom to engage in stupid and selfish pursuits.

"You're up there, I know," I fully acknowledged, "but I'm not ready for you. Not now. Maybe at some later date."

Reckless arrogance.

"Now is the time," the heavens — and scriptures — trumpet to humankind, and for good reason. Time is every mortal's foe.

Having uttered words of denial, I had no appreciation for the desperate peril into which I'd now cast my seditious soul. I'd gone from doubting skeptic to defiant apostate.

Little did I know that I wouldn't speak to God again for a decade and a half. My silence persisted while a significant volume of water passed beneath my bridge. My life could easily have been taken from me during those years, and I'd have been unregenerate and lost.

Thankfully, he didn't write me off as casually as I'd rejected him. He has no inclination to ape our destructive behaviors. Like the father of the prodigal, he stood patiently aside awaiting my return, with arms eager for embrace.

Only by his mercy did I finally return to that crystalline and whirling night sky — 15 years later.

With Good Friday and Easter Sunday just days away, we Christians worldwide prepare to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and savior. That's good news! Jesus conquered death to purchase for us eternal life.

The empty tomb is more than a metaphor for hope and goodwill. It's rock solid, a guarantee that life exists beyond its observable boundaries — and salvation is available to all who receive the Son.

Christ's sacrifice is a game-changer.

That's the promise of Easter.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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