One of my earliest memories of the Sacred occurred before I became a Christian. I was older than five, but younger than twelve, somewhere in that murky age where the magic of childhood had decidedly faded–I knew that the tooth fairy was really just my mom–but I was not yet old enough to care about explanations, doctrine, methods, or precision. (Come to think of it, I still do not care, and it was evangelicalism’s grand delusion that convinced me that I did, but that is a post for another day).
I was walking on the sidewalk about a block away from my home, where the road ended with a wooden barrier holding a yellow diamond “Dead End” sign the only thing marking the border between the asphalt and a seemingly endless patch of the four foot tall weeds that are ubiquitous in that part of Northern California.
What I remember most is the sky. To this day, it’s my favorite kind.
The kind of sky with viciously dark clouds that have just shed a huge amount of rain and have moved on to soak another neighborhood, and the wind has chased them off so quickly that the clouds behind them have not yet caught up, and there is a break in gloom for the setting sun to come through. I realize now that must be why I was out for the walk; the storm must have been immense, but it had blown away just before dark, and my family wanted to enjoy the dry light before it was gone.
The clouds, in my memory, were so deeply blue that they were purple. The golden sun shone on them sideways in full force, illuminating all the variations of color and the shape of the storm falling out of them. I was dry, staring into the storm.
And the storm stared back at me. Or, rather, something behind the storm was gazing at me.
I stopped at the end of the road. And stared back and back and back, waiting for the feeling to pass. I didn’t feel like I should turn my back until whatever was gazing at me had moved on, like when you see a deer in the woods and stop to watch it until it bounds away.
But the thing didn’t move on. Even when the storm blew further away and the light dimmed and the sky was no longer beautiful, those invisible eyes were still watching me from behind the regular sky. Eventually I had to turn around, because clearly this presence was not going to leave me. It cared about being with me too much. I still felt that mysterious company once I was inside my house. The spell didn’t break.
That is God. That is love. That is truth.
Later, I became a Christian and joined an evangelical congregation. This was mostly because at an evangelical summer camp when I was thirteen I felt a tiny glimpse of those invisible eyes, that Alert Mystery, again. Evangelical Christianity thought it was explaining Jesus and the the Cross to me, but I was looking for words to describe that sky that had stared at me that one evening several years before.
I found myself, as I grew older and doctrines began to layer themselves over my understanding of the world, going back and back to the evening, to that encounter. Asking myself, in the smallest and most secret voice, if this new language I was learning in the church described what I had shared with that Mystery on the storm-drenched sidewalk. Most of the time, the answer was: Maybe. Sometimes. Not really. Kinda?
When I eventually left the evangelical church, I was devastated at the loss of a worldview and community that had come to mean so much to me. It has me, and had guided my choices both important and mundane for years. But I left with a deep sense of confidence and peace, because I was able to answer that constant question with a definitive answer: No. No, this language did not sufficiently describe the loving Mystery I already encountered before I even met the church, and that had continued to be present for me throughout all my years as an evangelical.
When I was an evangelical, I began to layer this language over my encounters with the Mystery: that the Mystery had actually been Jesus Christ, ready to save me, and now that I was in the church I was blessed to have the understanding that He had been guiding me all along into a saving knowledge of Himself and His Gospel. I was grateful, for a while, that I was saved from that awful hypothetical wasteland of not knowing God, and saved into the community of the church and the people who really believed the Bible.
But as the years stretched on and I became more and more crystalized in my orthodox, doctrinal understanding of the Divine, the more that worldview did not actually line up with the Mystery I encountered on a regular basis. Before I knew, and took seriously, everything that evangelicalism taught, I think there was a lot of wiggle room–empty places in my religious education–that allowed me to imagine that the Mystery and the evangelical Jesus were the same. Once I had been in the evangelical world for over a decade, however, the seams of the two simply did not meet up anymore.
It was as though I would learn about Jesus, about the ways of God, at church on Sunday (and Wednesday and Friday), and be engulfed in a feeling I couldn’t name at the time. But it was not good. Now I recognize it as despair, anxiety, and neuroticism. Then I would go home and have a quiet prayer time, or perhaps a walk down the road like when I was a child, and I would encounter the Mystery, always gazing at me before I noticed it. And I would feel peace, and love, and an effervescent excitement that would, ironically, make me feel safe in the doctrines of evangelicalism. “See?” I would say to myself, “The good Mystery is in all those sermons I at church, and I’ve just been making it too complicated.”
But that’s not how it was, not at all. There were commonalties between the two. There was mention of Love, of Grace, of Omniscience, of Omnipresence, of unrelenting attention, of Creation. But in the end, one was just a worldview, and the other was Real.
And the truth is that, as heretical as this sounds, I didn’t *need* evangelicalism. I had already encountered the Mystery, had a meaningful relationship with the Mystery, and understood what I needed to understand about the Mystery before evangelicalism came into my life. I always knew how to access the Mystery, and I continued to know throughout my time as an evangelical (though the language of the church started to dim those encounters towards the end). The Mystery–God–is the one constant in my life before, during, and after evangelicalism.
God is there when the dust settles. When I question, when I change, and especially when I have growing pains and my old church is accusing me of “losing” my faith, God is there. God is here.
And that is always true.