On Spiritual Exploration, Letter 1
A correspondence about life paths and unfolding journeys of faith
This is part 1 in a 6-part discussion between me and JG of. I'm kicking it off with part 1 of our series, "On Spiritual Exploration."
These letters are all about finding a life path: Is it ever linear, or is it more of an epic journey? What has that path looked like for each of us spiritually? Today, I'm exploring the beginnings of my journey to faith.
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How strange and interesting thing to write letters in an age where everyone has a digital calendar and "virtual coffee" is just a click away. But I'm excited to embark on this journey with you and learn how your spiritual experiences have shaped your life's path.
To answer a question that came up when we first discussed this series: No, I don't think a life path is ever linear. I'm ever reminded of little Billy in the comic strip "Family Circus," who never failed to take long, meandering journeys from point A to point B and interact with every interesting person, animal, or thing he came across.
My own life path has been similar, although the movements were more subtle, unfolding over months and years instead of hours or days, each miniature epoch appearing normal as I traversed it and not an inevitable influence on all that came after.
The spiritual has always been present in some way. From childhood, I remember having a real sense of God's existence, if not His presence. I grew up in a rural area 15 minutes from the nearest small town, 30 minutes from the nearest city, and entirely secluded from commercial developments. Most of the nearby houses were summer homes, so we only had neighbors for part of the year. I spent many of my younger days outside, running around, walking trails, swimming, sledding, and playing yard games.
It was hard not to catch a glimpse of the divine in that setting. The Bible says creation itself declares God's existence in a universal language (Psalm 19:1-4), and I believe that's what I sensed in those years.
My family was nominally religious, sometimes going to church on Sunday or reading the Bible together. We believed in God, prayed before meals and at bedtime, and celebrated Christmas and Easter. But faith wasn't at the center of our lives then. God was real, but He wasn't what I would call a constant presence.
I can't know for sure if things would have unfolded differently if He was. What I do know is nothing happens by accident, and there are no coincidences. I can see as I look back how God worked to bring me through pivotal waypoints on my life path to bring me to where I am now.
I'll call my teenage years Waypoint 1.
If childhood was marked by a sense of God embedded in outdoor play, my teens were marked by turmoil and dabbling in darkness. Like most teenagers (or maybe this is unique to teenage girls; your experience may have been different), I went on a quest to find out who I was and reinvent myself accordingly. Which is ironic since I looked to the same generic sources of identity formation that just about every other teenage girl looked to: trends, teen magazines, and the tenuous examples of peers also nurturing embryonic images of themselves.
I listened to too much pop music and wore too much makeup, and yet I also rejected many of the social conventions that characterized the "popular" groups in school. I hung out with the misfits and the nerds because I was one myself, which likely shielded me from some of the more damaging forms of exploration that teenagers often get into. But it didn't protect me from a slow slide into darkness that lasted through my early 20s.
Those years were...bizarre. I continued to acknowledge God's existence, but I had no real connection to Him. In fact, I spent a lot of time running in the other direction. I dabbled in Ouija boards and ghost hunting, attempted meditation and lucid dreaming, and joined a friend in her exploration of telekinesis. From the outside, it may sound like the harmless explorations of young people hoping to encounter powers beyond themselves, but JG, it was treacherous stuff. I had terrifying experiences during those times, experiences of seeing shadowy figures out of the corner of my eye, hearing voices that weren't there, and nearly being attacked by blackness that appeared one night when I was sleeping over at my grandmother's house.
Emotional darkness accompanied spiritual throughout those years. I spent many sleepless hours worrying my friends. Their troubles unsettled me. I watched them go through family conflicts, jump from relationship to relationship, and wrestle with depression and self-harm. I wanted to help them but didn't know how. It often felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders, and there was nowhere to offload it except in myriad journals and endless waves of poetry and song.
You would think getting it all out of my head would help, but it didn't. Looking back now, I'd say it made everything worse. Distilling my thoughts and emotions into tangible outputs gave me an excuse to climb deeper intro the raw and tumultuous parts of myself. I even took up the guitar and began poured out those parts of myself in public performances as I visited open mic nights and played solo shows around the area. My struggles became cryptic lyrics only I understood, frameworks veiling the reality of what was going on inside me. And the deeper I went, the darker it got—an endless cycle feeding on itself.
I wrestled, JG. With feelings of inadequacy, with the sense of never quite measuring up, with anger and frustration and the nagging feeling that I was and always would be a failure. Sometimes, in the depths of that darkness, I prayed. I can't remember what my concept of God was by that point. All I know is that I have old journals where I wrote down some of those prayers, desperate cries to Someone I didn't really understand but was still convinced was there.
I have a distinct memory of praying, one night, that the world would end. Perhaps so that I wouldn't have to feel like I was carrying it alone any more.
And then, sometime during all this, I encountered Waypoint 2: My brother became a Christian.
He and I had been close enough growing up. We had the usual sibling spats, of course, and there was just enough of an age gap that I was still a kid when he entered his teenage years. That wasn't enough to alienate us from each other, but it did mean I wasn't fully aware of what went on in his life other than the day-to-day rhythms of school and time with friends. But I did know enough to see the change his faith brought.
He began going to church regularly and spending time with people he met there. He talked about God and Jesus as if both were real to him and truly present in his life. And he started relating to me with a love and respect that I don't think I'd ever experienced before.
I would like to say that my life got immeasurably better as a result. But you know how it goes with life paths, JG. Where a novel or movie would suddenly come to a turning point orients the protagonist toward the happy ending, real life is full of winding roads, sharp turns, and washed-out bridges.
Instead of appreciating what God was doing in my brother's life, I found much of it baffling and annoying. I didn't understand what was happening, and I wasn't sure I liked it—which I suppose you could say was incongruous because I couldn't stand the way I was, either. Trapped in my own perpetual night, I wasn't ready to see the glimmer of dawn coming over the horizon. Instead, I turned my back to the sunrise and dove deeper into myself.
I didn't know it at the time, but God was following me right into the depths.
I want to tell you how He pulled me out, JG, but first I'd like to hear how your story starts. What did it look like, feel like, begin the journey to where you are now? How has faith—or the pursuit of it—factored into your life path?
I look forward to reading your answer.
Keep an eye onfor JG's reply next week. 🙂
I love the idea of this series. Beautiful opening, Sam. BTW, FWIW, as a guy, I also sought a reinvention in my teen and early-20s years.
I am looking forward to reading these letters between you all.
It's a big topic to tackle...I'm sure you will do it justice.
I'm definitely looking forward to following along and discovering where this 6-part series of letters will go...