Suddenly, memories of wandering around in the field behind our house after school. Sometimes with my neighbor Eric, or with my dog Patch, or alone. There was the old barn next to the house that had burned down when we first moved into this neighborhood. Nobody seemed to know or care that I spent time back there, though my mom probably would have had a fit if she’d known. The people who owned the field–the children of the old lady who’d been forced out of her house from the fire–sometimes kept horses or cattle back there. Sometimes they shot clay pigeons and I would retrieve the intact ones and the shotgun shells.
Mostly, I left everything alone. I wasn’t one to pick up and keep other people’s things–a sense of what belonged to others has always been with me from an early age. I liked to be out in that field alone with my thoughts. During the late fall and winter, the field was about as uninteresting a field as you could imagine. Sometimes I would trek beyond it to another field owned by another family of descendants from a different farmer. That field had a large pond or small lake, whichever you preferred. I usually didn’t go that far out of fear of someone seeing me as a trespasser and shooting me, or more likely, collaring me and dragging me to my parents who would have been terribly upset with me.
I just needed to be alone a lot, once the seventh grade began. Before this year, I had been fearless with signing up for plays and standing up in front of class to perform for others. I had ignored my tendency to wander the playground by myself or with my friend Joe as simply being due to my lack of athletic ability–most of the rest of the popular kids were generally playing kickball or huddled together in mass conversations about the popular culture my parents weren’t allowing me to be exposed to. This is all to say that, while the seventh grade ushered in a whole new era of desiring solitude out in nature, it wasn’t completely new to me.
There was a lot of unarticulated misery. I couldn’t explain why I was so unhappy, or why I wanted to run away, or why I was caught up in endless escapist fantasies about some wise old Native American guy out of a later Louis L’Amour novel finding me while I wandered the fields. I was unhappy with life, and I knew there was something more to it than just being a teenager starting puberty, though that was generally how my father would dismiss it.
I was having glimpses into deeper things–I knew that there was more to life and reality than the one I was experiencing, and I wanted to gain access to it. I wasn’t sure if the deeper things were the things that the other kids were getting to see in those movies and shows that were prohibited in my household, or not. I think that I still sometimes get these mixed up, though I should definitely know better by now. I was having this sense of my origination being something bigger and older than the procreation of my earthly self–I knew my Father to be someone other than my dad. The bigness of the Universe was opening up to me, and I was convinced that I was the only person in my family, my town, who knew about this. Of course, this was to my detriment, to be so scornful of my own dad, who had likely had all of the same feelings and thoughts, and was simply unequipped to talk with me about much of anything in life.
My father was incapable of teaching me how to do something even as mundane as shaving. He didn’t want to take me fishing or play catch with me, except after I had worn him down with relentless begging. To his detriment, his refusal to participate in the common rite-of-passage things with his son led me to believe that my dad was someone who simply knew the world on a much more basic and bland level. He worked in an office programming computers and came home and read books. His life before my first memories was sometimes recanted to me, but this was rare and the details were few and far between.
I was surely convinced that at least some of the kids in my class were likely to be aware of the deeper things I was getting access to. For years (even until I was almost thirty and she was long out of my life) I was convinced that TC was full of deep and mystical things. It may have simply been because she was so exotic-looking, having a Cambodian mom and a white, American dad. She seemed almost completely inaccessible to me, but I was certain that given the right opportunity, my deeper self would one day connect with hers.
I suppose I should explain in more depth what I mean by deeper things, mystical things. I do think I had a brief period of being very touched by the spirit world, but I didn’t know what to do about it. The spiritual experiences my mom was having at our Pentacostal church seemed alien to what I was experiencing. My thing, whatever it was, seemed profound and mysterious, quiet and dark, but lovely and beautiful all the same–like gazing into a deep chasm or looking out at the night sky on a clear night far from the city. It was an ancient feeling, like knowing the Druids and knowing the first tribes to arrive in America and their shamans. There was so much meaning packed into all of it, that I was utterly devastated when trying to communicate to my dad why I hated school and our goddamn midwestern life so much. My mother’s spirituality was all about charisma–demonstrating just how noisy and gesticulating you could be in church. The more you waved your arms and danced around while singing the praise songs, the more you spoke in tongues, and the more you went up to be slain in the Spirit–the more authentic of a “spirit-filled” Christian you were.
Knowing what I know now about guys like Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Peter Popoff, Oral Roberts, etc.–the more I have to question the authenticity of so much of that. I know I should tread lightly on those things that I may just not fully understand, but I can see the reality of how those men live(d) their lives–the willingness to take much of their parishioners’ money and keep it for their own grand lifestyles while doing little for the poor in their community–the eagerness to fly around on private jets to save souls instead of fly coach and donate the money to those in need–it all makes me wonder how much of it really was and is an act for them. I think for my mom it was genuine and what she needed to feel like she was advancing in her walk with the Lord, but a lot of times I would leave church feeling vaguely nauseous and usually more than a little frightened. If the Holy Spirit was also the Comforter, these manifestations of the Spirit weren’t comforting to a young boy on the verge of manhood.
What’s more, I didn’t think anyone else in my class went to a church like mine except BD. I was mostly write about that. A few of the popular, preppy guys went to an Assembly of God-type church where much of the really wild Holy Spirit behavior was at least muted and kept to a nice hum of praise-song arm waving with the occasional laying on of hands. But, I was mostly feeling this great divide between who I was at school vs. church vs. home. It was like I was three completely different people. I sometimes wonder how I didn’t end up experiencing full-blown schizophrenia, as my self was so divided and I felt so hopeless when it came to knowing anyone to talk to about it.
My friends in Scouts were indeed my great salvation. They didn’t always have profound answers to match the things I was wrestling with–and why should they? They were my age and we were all also just as screwed up about girls and the changes our physical selves were undergoing. But, my scouting friends were more likely to sit up late at night around the campfire or in a tent and oblige me with a little philosophizing about what it all meant. If I hadn’t had the outlet of Boy Scouts during those years, I probably would have gone crazy or simply shut down to become someone completely incapable of functioning in society.
Of course, the monthly campouts and annual trips to southern Missouri for scout camp also fed my sense of the Universe being this much bigger thing than simply the physical world. All of those nights spent outdoors in many different kinds of weather and temperatures left me feeling much inclined toward spending a lifetime outdoors. The changes that would come with life, and my slow adjustment to being a regular member of society and peer groups would put an end to those woodsman fantasies, but I still have a place inside of me that longs to just live outdoors simply and without much more than a sharp knife and fire-making tools.
I think that some of this led me to have a fondness for monastic living, or I remembered much of the better times in scouts when I was alone with God in nature after I’d read about monks. My first encounter with the concept of monastic living probably came from the Brothers Karamazov, which I read over Christmas break my first year in college. I think I also read this book about an ex-Trappist monk during this time, but I’ve lost all memory of the title (much Googling finally returns who I am looking for — Dance of a Fallen Monk by George Fowler–found in the local public library while home from college–a very conservative town where it seems surprising that they would have carried this title, and carried it right after it was published). I suspect that if I’d read The Seven Storey Mountain at this time instead of this other book, I might have very well embraced the monastic life at that time.
My desire to now become a Presbyterian minister comes by way of Thomas Merton, rather through any parts of my previous life as a Christian, and certainly not due to some lifelong Presbyterian experience where I’ve always excelled in Sunday school. I would almost be inclined to state that if the Catholic Church started allowing married men to become priests, I would convert to Catholicism, even though I know that there are plenty of ways you can be a Catholic priest and be nothing like Thomas Merton. The overarching theme, which I often forget, is one of seeking a more profound and authentic experience with God. Being able to have a profession where I can spend a lot of time in church and with the Bible and theological books, as well as spend a lot of time having discussions about God with a large variety of people–this is the important thing.
In all truth and honesty, I think I will have a much harder time connecting with the lifelong Presbyterians who have never really questioned their faith much, and who probably prefer to be going to baby showers or golf games with their parishioners than sitting quietly in a church office or nursing home discussing what it all means with someone. The boisterous, animated types who are coming from Egelical backgrounds or are likely headed in that direction–I doubt I will connect with them much at all. However, I don’t think I will connect much with the quiet, “frozen chosen” who don’t want to think much about what it all means after seminary, and just like the comfort of the church more than anything.
For me, I will desperately need to connect with the ones who might have been shamans had they been born in a different time and place, or monks, or perhaps priests of a certain kind. I think anyone called to preach the Word of God probably has some of that in them, but we all probably have different ideas about what it means to grow spiritually, if we all even want to be doing that at all.
Even the summer camp chaplains and lay preachers have more of a romantic impact upon my mind’s eye and memories, if only because they talked about God in outdoor chapels or completely in nature itself. The idea of leading a team of young people in worship and with a brief sermon while they are in the open air of the outdoors–this has a great appeal as well. The almighty power of God is more often sensed in the outdoors when you are sufficiently removed from the noises of civilization, than it is sensed in your average sanctuary where hearts and minds seem able to overcome any attempts to be awed by the presence of God.
So, to be clear, I don’t think at this point in my life much of anything else would have made sense to me in terms of a life change. I could have struggled mightily in Waco with the local Catholic church, trying to connect the conservative minds that populated it with the words of Thomas Merton, and eventually perhaps I may have overcome so many obstacles to find myself a professional deacon in a larger Catholic church, even retreating to a monastery in old age if I outlive my wife. But, this seemed to be a choice that didn’t allow me to fully use my talents. I don’t even think the Catholics have the monopoly on being Christian, they just have a lot more history and practice at it, and have practices that are often more appealing–like contemplative practices and being singularly focused on helping the poor.
The American Protestant tradition comes to me as a mixed one–the church I grew up in, the churches I saw people attending in Waco, the attitudes people have toward it which are almost always skewed and warped in one way or another. The classic country chapel–need I throw in roughewn somewhere here to describe the church, pastor or parishoners?– with the humble, somewhat-stooped preacher carrying his well-worn KJV with him everywhere–it is, of course, a dying kind of thing. The old-timey Bible church, be it a Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran or Presbyterian one, is now deserted or filled with a handful of extremely old individuals who cling to memories of growing up there and have generations of family baptized, married and buried in the church. The slightly updated, suburban version of this church isn’t that much more alive, it seems, but does hold some promise and potential for me.
Aside from all of these trappings and notions of what should or shouldn’t accompany my mission and career, I have to relentlessly return to: praying to God about what I should be doing, remembering the utter beauty and simplicity of connecting with God in nature, and returning to seeing all souls as souls whom Jesus loves.
I have to keep reminding myself that I am not on some kind of perfectly linear journey, though it is helpful to have clear goals to share with others so that nobody thinks I am wandering aimlessly at this age in life. I may or may not become ordained in 3-4 years, be an associate pastor for 5-10 years, and then preach as a senior pastor into my late sixties or early seventies in the most perfect American community, following this career with 10 years of lovely travel and grandkids and deep contemplation and prayer out in nature. Likewise, I shouldn’t think of my spiritual progression as some kind of linear thing, either, and this is probably the more important thing to remember. God’s Love and Grace are all-abundant and here all of the time. Who God made me to be is the same person that I was ten years ago, whether I’ve bothered to look closely at who he is or not. I am not running a foot race alongside other spiritual athletes or climbing a perfectly inclined hill, becoming more and more righteous and “saved” with each passing year, perfecting my charity and kindness and love and ability to pray for others. All of these gifts are already awarded to me in perfect measure, as they are to others. I have to simply start accepting these gifts and using them, instead of pretending that I am the one in control who is making everything happen of my own accord.
The career arc that others have for themselves is not mine. The progress of the self is no longer a program of carefully checking my results each month and seeking where and how I will improve. The deeper my relationship with Jesus becomes, the more I see that He has always been there in the exact same way as He was yesterday, and I can rest and do the right sort of work under the light yoke instead of constantly stress and get myself bent out of shape doing the wrong work–which is really just the work of my ego.
I won’t wake up at 60 and look back down a long hill of gradually becoming more and more righteous. I won’t say to myself, man I sure was still a rotten soul at 40, but only half as bad at 50. I do believe that progress and change happen, but they happen on God’s timetable which isn’t a perfectly neat and linear one like I try to force it to be. Some years, I make astounding progress, but again, it’s not really me that’s making anything happen, except for perhaps the fact that I am finally taking more time to just pause and listen for God instead of trying to accomplish as many busy, worldly projects as I can get done. Other years, I may not seem to progress at all, or even backslide, and those are generally the years when I stop listening to God nearly as much, thinking that I can take it from here and get things done on my own without much input from God.
All of this has been said many times before, by many writers, but I am only now just beginning to realize how vital it is for me to see the clear difference between the self that measures progress on a worldly yardstick vs. the self that continually seeks to be renewed by God and lets progress happen on God’s terms.