A conversion story | 1 June 2014

This was given at Columbus Mennonite’s annual outdoor service at Highbanks Metro Park.  No audio available.

I’m going to talk about two epiphanies I’ve had and how they have led to a conversion in my adult life.

I grew up on a farm, less than an hour’s drive northwest of here, in Bellefontaine, where my parents still live.  We had cows, a large herd of barn cats, and about 140 acres of crops.  There are two creeks that run through the property, and a couple different patches of woods.  It’s a lovely place.  So I grew up surrounded by “nature,” but I didn’t really get it.  I liked being outside, liked doing manual labor and getting dirty, but I didn’t find anything particularly beautiful or awe-inspiring or even interesting about the natural world.   I was interested in people, and I was interested in ideas.  I remember that my brother would sometimes go back to the woods to think or write and I would wonder why in the world that would help anyone think or write.

Two of the more transformative epiphanies in my life have been not flashes of profound insight but rather flashes of profound ignorance.  The first one happened after my two years at Hesston College while I was taking a year off of college with four friends, living in Atlanta for a year to see how the “real world,” really worked.  My goal for the year was to learn about the four C’s of independent, adult male living, about which I knew next to nothing.  Construction, Cars, Computers, and Cooking.  I got a job at a construction site and one time I was taking a lunch break, eating by myself in a house that had been framed, but had not been drywalled, so all of the electrical and plumbing in the walls was visible.  I specifically remember that moment of looking up at this complex network of wood, wire, copper, and plastic, and realizing I didn’t understand anything.  This flash of profound ignorance encompassed not just home construction, but also the entire human constructed environment I was in.  Construction, Cars, Computers, Cooking, and pretty much everything else.  That’s what I get for being a Sociology and Bible major in college.  But in that moment, I finally got it.  I got it that I didn’t get it.  I was an alien to my environment, and my environment was alien to me.  That year I took some significant strides in befriending and becoming more familiar with the world we humans have made for ourselves, even starting to participate in the making of that world, although I would have to say that among the four C’s Cooking came in last place.  Some of those stories of survival will have to wait for another time.

That was 1998, and I was 20 years old.

My second epiphany of ignorance happened ten years later, in 2008, and I only know that for sure because I went back and checked my journals.  It does make for some nice round numbers.  I was 30, I was back visiting the farm, walking down the lane, looking over at Mom’s big garden.  And this is what I wrote in my journal: “I had the sudden realization that I don’t know anything.  At least anything important.  I don’t know how the most basic things of life work – how my body works, how to grow plants, how soil relates with sun and seed and water.  I had the feeling that I wasn’t sure I knew anything that really mattered.  This is both a revelation and slightly discouraging.”

I didn’t immediately make the connection between the Atlanta construction experience and the Bellefontaine garden experience, but when I did, this second experience made me feel like rather than just more information, I needed a whole different orientation toward life.

A significant part of this conversion has been moving from a human life time perspective to a deep time perspective.  It’s probably no coincidence that moving to a deep time perspective coincided with that period of my life of starting to raise children.  This certainly prompted me to start thinking generationally, and when one starts looking at the rest of creation generationally, one is quickly confronted with deep time.  I know that some people struggle to see how evolution can fit together with a faith perspective, but for me it has been liberating and provided a depth dimension to existence that had been sorely lacking.  I love that the atoms in my body were fused inside the core of a star, I love that whales and hippos have a common ancestor, I love that the land surrounding Abbie’s home in Kansas used to be under a large inland sea during late dinosaur times and that Abbie has found many shark teeth in the rocks near her home on the high plains.  I love feeling that sense of deep time inheritance.

A book I read right around that time of 2008 was The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan in which he tells the story of how we got the modern apple, potato, marijuana, and tulip.  Potatoes have stories!  I knew that every person and every city has a story, but what a thought that everything has a story to tell.  “Even the rocks shall cry out,” Jesus said.  And all the geologists said, “Amen.  May it ever be so.”  Being surrounded with stories adds a richness to my life I hadn’t seen before.  Starting to pay attention to these stories has made me realize that the split between the human constructed world and “nature” is not so split as I had previously imagined.  Those plants growing in Mom’s garden have been shaped just as much by human intention and needs and imagination as the architecture of that Atlanta townhouse I helped build.  You can’t tell the story of the modern potato without telling the story of the modern human.

This has also meant that the split between nature and me is not so split as I had previously imagined.  My previous lack of connection to creation could perhaps be linked to what psychologist James Hillman has referred to as, “that soulless predicament we call modern consciousness,” in which only living humans are considered true subjects of experience, and everything else – earth, trees, animals, even people who have died, are considered soulless objects.  This is probably part of the picture, but obviously not everyone, my brother in the woods, for example, has been duped by modern consciousness.

Another important piece of this shift came for me during my Sabbatical in the summer of 2011 when I spent a week at the Arc of Appalachia taking a tree identification course.  More than just learning the names of trees, I felt like I was coming to learn the personalities of trees, the soul of these trees speaking to my own soul, teaching me that we shared a piece of a bigger soul, a bigger story – like discovering long lost family members.  I’m still a little stunned by this, to tell you the truth, and am still stumbling around in this re-enchanted world wondering what it means.  Taking a walk in the woods now has great meaning to me, although I don’t find it a relaxing experience.  All the trees and rocks are trying to shout their story to me at the same time, and it can get a little overwhelming since I barely know their language.

I kind of like feeling stunned and wonder if that’s what Jesus and Buddha were alluding to when they talked about being awake.  I’m still looking up at this complex network of stories, trying to wake up.