Don’t worry, there are only two parts to this essay. I am writing in response to a marvelous invitation from my online faith community, Faith Village to address the subject.
You will quickly discover that my approach to the topic is narrative, rather than propositional. I have the strong conviction that our stories define evangelicalism more strongly than doctrines or propositions.
To be an evangelical, after all, is to have a testimony.
In addition, I happen to think it is far more interesting than dry dogma. Read on, then for the first portion of my testimony as an evangelical.
When I was a very young child, I remember listening to phonograph recordings of a kindly old gentleman titled “Uncle Ben’s Story Time.” Uncle Ben told Bible stories. His gentle, creaky old voice was full of expression, urgency and wonder. He was aided by sound effects and the occasional voices of others helping him to bring vivid reality to the lives of Joseph, Samuel, David, Deborah, Esther, Samson and many other heroes of the faith.
Later on I remember retiring to the embrace of a large old oak tree to lose myself in Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, caught up in tales of love and adventure. Life was peopled with mythical figures and magical places. Natty Bumpo, Chingachkook and the brave Alice fought desperately against the forces of convention and extinction in The Last of the Mohicans. Scout and Jem worked on the mystery of courage and character in the shadow of Boo Radley’s house in To Kill A Mockingbird. Meg and Charles befriended an angel and battled the nihilistic echthroi in A Wrinkle in Time.
Meanwhile, through the weekly round of Sunday School and my father’s sermons I was immersed in the rhythms of call, conversion, hope, failure, redemption, betrayal and rededication. The small churches my father pastored provided a stage upon which one could witness the extraordinary struggles of ordinary people who alternately revealed uncommon love and managed to wrestle the most noble of human ideals into the mud, these experiences were sometimes separated by mere moments in time. Outside the church, instances of personal agony, terror, hope and joy played alongside the echoes of the sermons and the hymns, wrapping a gestating world in mysterious hues both confounding and sublime.
Woven through all the imaginative fiction and the stark reality of everyday experience were the threads of other experiences.
These experiences had to do with the land. From the endless and sometimes roiling skies of the West Texas plains down into the land of black clay soil in Central Texas, with its live oak and mesquite trees, its chalky limestone bluffs and muddy riverbeds no larger than a Pennsylvania crick, the land served to awaken wonder in my sleeping heart. Creation wooed me with whispers in a language at once achingly familiar and thrillingly strange.
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I rediscovered creation at the age of thirty-eight, when my family moved to the valleys and ridges of North Central Pennsylvania. We lived in an old farmhouse on the side of a valley shaped by glaciers during the Ice Age. After more than a year and one-half in that place, having lived more in the city than in my new home, I walked out onto a Spring day to hear birds calling all around. It was as though they just arrived en masse and had moved in the night before.
I knew that could not be the case. That cloud of witnesses surrounding my life, heretofore unseen and unheard, suddenly made themselves known to me as though summoned to that very moment in time to awaken my sleeping heart. Cardinals, orioles, titmice, woodpeckers, doves, goldfinches, screech owls, barred owls, hoot owls, house wrens, crows, ravens and red tailed hawks all stepped out of the scenery and into my life. From that day I felt their presence with an acute awareness that was impossible to ignore. They became my neighbors and I often felt their presences as a direct address to my own existence.
The quality of awareness that blossomed into my life then was not the same sort of misperception as that which we often experience with pets. Whatever Spot might be experiencing in those moments when we believe him to thinking and perceiving the world like us, the one thing we can be sure of is that we are wrong.
I did not experience the wild animals living around me as taking particular note of my presence. Neither did I believe they were there for my enjoyment, though I came to enjoy them in profound ways. The experience of revelation was just this: they were not created for me. For the first time in a very long time, perhaps for the first time in my adult life, I felt my circle of awareness widening beyond the bounds of what I considered to be “me” or “mine” to include these creatures as they were.
It was the mere fact of our existences together in that place and time that held me enthralled with the conviction that we were part of a community infinitely deeper than human words could express. The fact that I cannot write about them without using human descriptors only speaks to my personal limitation and, I think, to the depth of the mystery I encountered.
A red-tailed hawk hunted the fields across the road from our house. A pair of crows regularly turned him comical as they hectored him, turning agile circles around him, diving into him from above and behind, cawing in alarm and derision over his lumbering attempts to escape their harassment.
I grew to anticipate the nightly concert given by the screech owl living in the woods downhill from our house. As I lay in bed, his voice would enter through the open window in soft, measured whinnies and trills. Night after night I listened to that voice, re-experiencing the frustration of I had known when learning a second language long years ago, chasing an understanding that remained mere steps in front of my hurrying imagination . . .
What are the particular experiences that have shaped your religious and spiritual identity? Leave a comment!