I was about ten years old. First, I have to give the back-story or it won’t make any sense.
Having grown up on the “buckle” of the Bible-Belt, I had been in church at least twice weekly since birth. It was a Bible-believing church to be certain. But any denomination that’s known for regarding every other stripe of modern Christianity as apostate is going to have some problems. The Church of Christ denomination was/is against a lot of things like instrumental music in church, “special music” that does not entail all attendees, Jews, ” fakers” like Mother Theresa and Billy Graham who are just “fooling themselves” in thinking that they are Saved, and every other “Christian church” denomination. (that is not the whole list, I can assure you!)
But my family attended a maverick CofC that was both “pre-trib” and permissive of special music in services. Rather scandalous, really. Just across town there was the “real” CofC that pulled for the party line much better than our CofC did. The private school I attended was happily and implacably associated with the roots of this legalistic strand of Southern society. What’s the opposite of a charismatic church? That was us.
The problem with most of the people I knew was this: they were ignorant of the Holy Spirit in real life as we know it. Either that, or they knew better than to breathe a word about it. The espoused doctrine was that the Holy Spirit’s most recent role in history was to Inspire the Apostles to write down the text of the NT, and then to leave us to do that which had been written. Since it is not possible for sinful people (even Redeemed sinful people) to do what has been written without the Inspiration and the Empowerment of the Holy Spirit, a far-reaching “cessation doctrine” makes for a lot of frustrated and hatefully-uptight church-goers. Attendees are either: (a) smug with their own merits, (b) chronically self-deprecatory in their woe-be-gone condition, or (c) busy covering over their errors as best they can. I learned a LOT about the Bible and about my DUTY as a believer, but the whole “relationship with God” thing was never mentioned. Never. People who even spoke in those terms were considered as odd and dangerous! Likely demonic tricks were to blame for the “feeling”. In actuality, I think people were scared of getting in close proximity to a God of Wrath — and that was how God was viewed. The focus was definitely skewed toward Wrath. “God is love” was rarely preached. Grace was mostly theoretical: a true and troubling theory which few can correctly understand. “God is wrath” was found (made to be found) between every line. As a kid, Jesus seemed “nice” much of the time (not always), but God the Father was angry all the time. OK, perhaps that’s a bit of hyperbole, but it’s close.
The war in Viet Nam had been winding down badly when I was eight. The South sends a lot of infantry; those young men were coming back home in tatters: physically and mentally. I had an iconoclastic run-in with one such returning veteran who was maybe 20 years of age. There was a new shopping mall open on our side of Nashville and it was a big deal to get to go. Back in those days, parents did not have to keep their children within immediate eyesight at all times and I did some exploring of this hedonistic nirvana of consumerism.
Going into an area of the mall that was new to me, there was a certain solitary person before me and I could tell that he was a military man; he had a black beret with an insignia on it. Being a patriotic kid from a patriotic family, I did my best to give him a salute, not knowing that he was one of the many vets who had suffered a mental breakdown while overseas. What he said was largely unintelligible, but he ranted and fumed with paranoid energy that caused real concern for everyone in the area. I was terrified — petrified. It was the instantaneous snap of a harsher reality than I had ever imagined. To be a little kid in the grip of a physically-capable, dangerous, mentally-fractured, military man — energized by the madness of that war and era — I just went catatonic for a while. Sane bystanders rushed in and made it stop. I thought maybe I was in trouble for starting something — just Disturbed through and through. The world was messed up and I knew it. A morose stole across my soul and lingered.
It was about that time that the President was in trouble. I was too small to be much help on the farm, but the TV had older men arguing about some bad things the President had likely done. It was on day after day. Batman didn’t come on the TV, just Watergate hearings and angry old men.
All the troubles and weaknesses that came during the Carter Administration were not yet upon us, but the Bicentennial of 1976 came with a dull thud to me. I was a kid, but I could tell that the country was trying — desperately and disingenuously attempting — to be happy. It’s not pretty to watch a nation TRY to be proud on its day of independence — and fail to be proud. I wasn’t buying it. I knew enough to know better.
Winter in the South sucks most years. It does get cold, but it’s an on-again-off-again thing that has not the momentum and strength of a proper Winter. October is wonderful. But by mid-November, a heavy blanket of impenetrable Grey obscures the source of light for months.
It’s usually like living in a world of indirect fluorescent lighting — that “blueness” is everywhere. There are no shadows, just varying degrees of amorphic dull. The days are short. The snow never gets the chance to build up nicely. The snow melts to ugly crud and the earth gets slippery and mushy and gross– or it’s hard like cement and you can twist an ankle in the frozen hoof tracks of the cattle if you’re not careful.
It must have been a Saturday. Rather early because everything was quiet. It must have been in late February — a warming day like these have been of late here in Montana. It would be my first conscious Spring.
Although I was never much of an athlete, as I approached my eleventh year I noticed that I was getting to be a better shot at the basketball hoop in the side yard. The morning had been typical of Winter in the South — with the grey fuzz of cloud-cover blocking out the direct light with a withholding uniformity. Every once in a while, the net would swish with no other sound but that. And I was alone that day when I saw Spring begin to begin.
On the hill to the north, less than a mile away, a ray of sunlight had found a hole in the canopy! I marveled at the bright — the brilliant — patch of illumination. It was an odd contrast. The hillside was enjoying just one spotlight of pristine, audacious sunshine — while all the world was otherwise befuddled in the dreary dank of Winter’s grey gloom. And I was happy. A thrill shot up from my toes! I stopped with the ball and stared at the patch of beauty that was revealing itself. Although I was not in the light, I was enjoying it from afar and I knew that Winter was DOOMED and the Springtime was breaking in on the world! Gently. Majestically. Certainly.
Then, in the draft of this new appreciation came the illuminating awareness of my own nature — and I correctly knew that I was wrong in the world. It occurred to me that I had taken so many lovely days for granted. It was sharp. The disquietude occurred just as quickly as that spot of sunshine had appeared to lighten the hill to the north, but the morbid and acute and accurate awareness of my own poor character was bearing down on me with all the gravity of a thousand Winters.
“But I’m thankful now!” I muttered from the tenor timidity of my youth. I put down the ball and raised both arms to the sky above, toward the beam that was making the bright patch amidst the gloom, up to the Lord of Heaven and Earth.
But the Lord was not in the light or near the hill. He was, however, very near. He was also beyond the chasm of an unreachable expanse. Without speaking any word, He acknowledged my honest worship. Like Jacob ages ago, I realized that God was in even this place, and I had not known it. This very real and intangible “thing” was what the Puritans referred to as “spiritual affections”. It was the Presence of God. The King of the Universe had acknowledged me. It’s the realest thing that has ever happened to me. He made me aware of His infinite Power. I knew that He knew all things. I knew that he was both Powerful and Kind — that everything was under His control and would work out very well. He wasn’t worried. The tragic wars that ruined so many lives were in His control and would all work out very well. The fallen and torn down leaders of the world would not lead to perpetual despair. All the hollow and contrived festivities of our young nation had been preempted by real Glory. And this God was not so large as to overlook a child’s thin voice. The King of the Universe paused to look at me with kind eyes, and then returned to go about His business.