The spiritual change in Dad included a call to preach. We moved to upstate NY and suddenly I was a preacher’s kid. This resulted in a time of social and spiritual transition. While I never remember feeling external pressure about what to do or not to do in public, I often had internal conversations. It is possible that I made attempts to please others in the congregation, or to please my parents. This never resulted in undue stress that I can remember but this self-talk did become part of my personal spirituality.
Robert Mulholland Jr. suggests that spiritual growth occurs in similar ways to physical growth. He goes on to say that there may be growth spurts but those are not all there is to growth. My own experience tells me this is true. My early growth spurts occurred in the community of youth group and with a network of friends I met at youth camp. A bunch of us were even baptized together at the Hessler’s Pond. Other growth occurred through team sports and other sporting adventures. But often I would find myself wandering through the local forests alone. More than isolation, this was exploration. I became interested in what was living and growing around me. I ran up and down logging roads. I climbed trees just to get a different view. I entered posted land just to see what was on the other side of the sign. I sat quietly and listened. I began to learn to see and hear. The forest was my friend.
Sometimes I would journal. Usually what I wrote down were quotes and facts. The first books I remember reading on a regular basis were the almanac and the encyclopedia. My first journal began on a piece of notebook paper when I wrote down a Chinese Proverb “The palest ink is stronger than the strongest memory.” I was not consistent with writing but this was the start of a practice I continue today. I also began to draw. I suspect I enjoyed life because I practiced things that nurture the soul.
The time I spent alone was not totally a self-generated idea. There were suggestions that made the Christian journey seem like it was intended to be a lone adventure. There was a strong implication that it was in our quiet places that we prepared ourselves for public witness in the congregation and the outside world. This was part of a “boot camp spirituality” that included abstaining from things like skating and smoking. It also included indulging in other things like prayer and scripture reading. These things were the secret to surviving the warfare of the real world. This mentality suited me fine. I enjoyed people, but I did not totally trust them with my own growth or success. I was trying to convince myself I could cover my own back. I was convinced there was nothing I could not do. I had memorized Philippians 4.13 early on.
Overall, I tended to be quiet in conversation. Looking back, I think I had fears of being wrong. It was easier to be quiet than to explain myself afterward. While this may not have been a good social move, it did help me learn to listen. Though I did not utilize silence as a spiritual discipline at the time, I know of its benefits. When silent, one is able to pay attention and listen.
I suppose most of us experience a significant transition during college. Perhaps many of us experience a spiritual transition as well. I can say with some certainty that I did. I entered college as an undeclared major. College only lasts so long but it seemed like we were raised together in that short period of time. I still talk with college friends regularly about things that matter. Camaraderie, as it turns out, is an excellent means of discipleship.
At the same time, I began to enjoy studies. I had always enjoyed reading but began to read very differently. I was introduced to new ways of thinking and began to think critically. Things became less black and white. Life began to feel more like an exploration. Reading began to feed this exploration, and in my case, this strengthened my spiritual experience.
Authors like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien fed my imagination and feeling of adventure. Along with Samwise Gamgee I began to ask “What sort of tale have we fallen into?” We talked about this adventure in the dormitory at night and my sense of adventure continued to grow. The parts of my spiritual life that had earlier been seeds or buds began to germinate. It was during this time that I suspect I changed most. Among other things, the way I prayed changed as well. Trips to the tree line or through the field or to the local lake were times to pray and contemplate scripture. Things I had read or heard or seen became things I wanted to share with others.
Soon I was actively preaching to local congregations. Life as story became clearer. There was a sense that I belonged to a story bigger than me and I became immersed in this story. I remember one clear winter night when I trudged through new snow. I stared at the sky and it dawned on me that the God who was keeping creation in order was also working on me. This was not a new insight, but it was very real. I did not wrestle an angel but I knew I was not alone. Somehow, unknowingly, I had bought into an idea later proposed by Brian Zahnd “It’s probably dangerous to do all of our theology in the close quarters of indoors. Theologians need to be outdoorsmen.”