I know I had posted this chapter earlier, but I seem to have deleted it by mistake. I accidentally posted the first part of chapter 4 last night, thought I had deleted that but it's still there, so I must have deleted this chapter by mistake. And so reading this abandoned memoir on the blog just became more difficult. Sorry for the out-of-order-ness of this. I don't intend to be difficult, it just comes naturally.
Chapter 2: A Life with God
I grew up in the church. Unlike many memoirs you hear about growing up churched, I loved it. Some of my earliest memories involved church and Sunday school. Some of those memories involve me asking to go. I'm just that unusual.
I should first say that not all my desire to go to church was due to spiritual interests. Church was an easy place to get positive strokes. I'm predisposed toward pleasing people, so I early and quickly learned what would please the adults around me. I had a nimble mind suitable to memorizing answers, which delighted adults. Good behavior pleased adults and there were pretty clear rules of conduct at church, easy enough to follow. When I did misbehave, I felt shame in what must be a double measure compared to some of my more rowdy classmates, which probably also pleased some adults. But I was a sensitive kid in a rough and tumble country environment—these were as much survival tactics as anything else. I felt fat and unpopular with my peers, but so long as I had the favor of the adults, I felt safe.
I also found church and Sunday school to be a place to feed my acquisitive nature. You could get stuff at Sunday school. I loved getting the weekly coloring pages and story pamphlets. At that time and place, new coloring books were rare and story books came from the library but not for keeping. Anyone who has seen my library knows I still like to keep books. At Sunday school, I didn't have to wait until my birthday or Christmas to get stuff.
Church also fed my early creative urges. The annual Christmas program gave me a moment on stage, vacation Bible school had lots of crafts to make, and of course always and forever coloring pages every week at Sunday school. I was also good at these things, which also pleased the adults. See the trend? I got things I wanted and I got approval.
All of which to say, I wasn't some extraordinary prodigy saint. I lot of my attraction to church was just plain avarice and narcissism.
But I am also predisposed toward noticing spiritual things. That's where this second beginning really begins.
I had my first mystical experience as a preschooler.
I can't tell you exactly how old I was. I know my family was still attending St. John's Lutheran Church in Paige (the country church), so it was before I started first grade, when we transferred to Martin Luther Lutheran Church in Giddings (the town church). I believe it was a Sunday school teacher at St. John's who said that God was everywhere, all at once, and that God wasn't an old man in the sky far away, but was a spirit, always all around us.
That seems like a pretty big concept to be laying on a preschooler, now, but it struck me as, for lack of a better term, an interesting idea.
Sometime soon after—the same day? Later that week? Later still? I have no idea, but soon after—I was lying on my back in the backyard. I was watching a few clouds in an otherwise fair, blue sky. To say I was meditating on what I'd heard at Sunday school seems silly for a five (ish) year old, but I was thinking about it.
And that's when it happened. I was suddenly aware that, yes, God was up there in the clouds, and God was in the grass beneath and beside me. God was in the crepe myrtle to my right and in the pecan tree a few yards from my head. God was all around me. Everything was shot through with God.
It would be twenty years or more before I knew to call this a mystical experience.
I believe preschool is the exact right age for mystical experience. Adults get too awed by it. They make too big a deal about it. My reaction was something along the lines of, "Oh. Okay. I get it. Is it time for afternoon cartoons yet?" In other words, an adult had told me this thing so I figured everyone knew it already, experienced something like it. I took the presence of God as ordinary. Expected, even. I didn't even bother to tell anyone about my experience in the backyard.
There is something in that afternoon that remains foundational for me. It is, I believe, the closest thing I have had to a conversion experience. It is the experience that I fall back on when I want to discount the existence of God. Had I had the experience later in life, I might have dismissed it as an exercise in imagination. I suppose it could still be that, just a small boy's willingness to believe fairy tales.
Except it wasn't the last time I've felt such things. I don't want this to become a catalog of the times God touched me. Those stories can quickly begin to sound awfully precious in the worst sense of the word. The remarkable thing to tell, however, is the consistency of who I experience God to be. Tender. Loving in a way that turns all our romantic notions upside down. Permeating everything and yet somehow knowing me specifically. Big—Really Big—and concerned with the small.
Obviously words fail. I want to qualify every word. Loving doesn't quite cover it. Omnipresent suggests something I don't quite mean.
Still, I find God strikingly consistent in this ineffability.
I wish I could claim some special good fortune or favor because I've had these experiences, or that I was a better person for having experienced them, but that's not the case. No one I know has been miraculously healed because I prayed for them. I remain impatient and petty in most of my relationships. I know atheists who are really much better people than I am.
I can only claim that these experiences give me peace. Help me calm down in my more anxious, nervous moments. Seems like a small payoff for touching the Ineffable, doesn't it? But there it is. And it's really very good.
The experiences still seem ordinary to me. God remains present and active around me. The mysterious thing to me is that more people don't notice it. This is why I don't engage in arguments over the existence of God. How do you argue experience or, more to the point, the lack of experience? If you haven't felt the presence of God, I don't know that my arguing with you is going to change that. An exchange of "I haven't experienced God" and "yeah, well I have" doesn't much advance the philosophical discussions surrounding this very basic question. Besides, any number of people in mental institutions and correctional facilities would take my side in the argument, even I also wonder what god has touched them. I know my experience moves me to not commit heinous crimes, not yell hateful things at passersby, not invade and overthrow sovereign nations.
But I digress.
The only reason I offer this information is to tell you something about my faith, to give you a context for the rest of this book. Even when I didin't know what I believed about God, I coudln't help but still believe there is a God. This remains an experiential reality through all the changes in my life.
There have been, of course, many changes in my forty-odd years. The biggest happened when I was thirty. That would be the third beginning to my developing theology.