When I was young, I was the sort of kid who very much wanted to hear the voice of God. Growing up Evangelical, one hears all kinds of stories about this – how God speaks to us personally, and how we need to obey even when we would rather not – and I took this very seriously. I recall one moment as a child, when I was out in the backyard and thought I heard someone calling me. Knowing well the story of Samuel hearing God in the temple, I wondered if it was God calling me in the same way. Nothing ever came of that, but it is a story that illustrates the kind of child I was – for me, the borders between physics and metaphysics felt much thinner than they must for most people in late modernity.
This I suppose is what many people seem to long for and think of wistfully when they want to go back to a more “enchanted” world that has not had its soul ripped out of it. This is fair, but such people often fail to consider some of the downsides of such a fused vision of reality; the problem for me became manifest, and harshly, through my OCD. Normal children, it seems to me, might be naturally protected by an immediate concern for material things that does not place the weight of thick theological and spiritual concerns on their shoulders. I was not. I was constantly looking to hear the voice of God, and my OCD played to that; my faith told me that, figuratively speaking, God and His will might be hiding behind any and every bush, no matter how unlikely – so I checked, again and again, and constantly worried that I would miss something.
Eventually, I learned to distinguish, at least pragmatically if not emotionally, between the voice of God and the voice of OCD. This came about largely through the recognition that, at least for someone like me with a set of broken internal impulses, the way to know God’s will was not by “feel” or “personal experience” – telling me to do this would be like telling a blind person to see. But those who are blind use other senses and depend on other people, and this is what I did. I turned to the Bible, and when the Bible itself became an object of my OCD – the constant anxiety of worrying about how to interpret a passage – I turned to the communion of saints around me, those living and dead whom I knew to have seen God. I may have been personally blind and directionless, but I could watch their lead and follow them.
The downside of this, though, was abstraction – leaning on others and other senses such as reason was necessary, but it left a hollowness in my heart. The blind still sometimes wish they could see. My method of managing OCD meant that I became reluctant to explore areas of experience and emotion in my faith. I was happy to surround myself with others who could know God in this way, so long as they didn’t compel me to know God after that fashion. And I still insist that this was and often remains necessary for me as I keep working through issues surrounding faith and OCD. But it was not without cost; it meant the death of the child who once thought he heard the voice of God in his backyard.
Fast forward to a scenario two years ago. Fast forward to me, embittered, and angry, and just barely clinging to God. Fast forward to me tormented on the horns of the Anglican dilemma, caught between a church that was so militantly low that it would not even provide ashes on Ash Wednesday, and a church with all the trappings and smells and bells but no fences – one was given perfect freedom to be holy, but also perfect freedom to be whatever else one wanted. And then there was the court case, in which pastoral care was sacrificed on the alter of “proclaiming the gospel” by undertaking huge legal fights over buildings. And then there were the politics in the Christian campus groups that struck a death blow to my endeavors in Christian leadership. And then worst of all there was the death of a close friend, who had been part of our family for the past year, and also part of the close knit liturgical Bible-study refuge that was in many ways one of the few things between me and the abyss.
In the midst of this, I found myself on a plane on the way back from visiting my friend’s parents. I was set to fly into Seattle, drive to Vancouver, and then get on a plane to go to an on-campus interview where I would tell them how many wonderful things I had done in my dissertation exploring suffering and faith. But really all I could think of was that A was dead, and what are any of my accomplishments next to that? I could go and pretend. But a dissertation does not raise the dead.
And then there was the odd moment in the plane when the person I was next to turned to me and wanted to talk about God, and the only thing I could think of was, “How very like God.” I had waited for such random conversations as a child, fervently and in the hope that they would end in the salvation of another, and they never happened. All that had died in me. But here I was embittered and having difficulty justifying my own life let alone my worth as a professor – here I was, huddled up in my seat trying as hard as possible to get others to ignore me – and my seatmate wanted to talk. I still don’t know how he knew I was a Christian. He said he just knew, which is odd because a surly and standoffish person huddled up in the corner of a plane seat and watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer on his computer does not scream “Christian” to me. But there it was. He had found me out. And all I could think of was “in season and out of season” – but this felt like stretching the “out of season” thing a little bit too far. Conversations like this are not supposed to feel like an intrusion, a curse. But there I was. And so we talked about God.
Nothing terribly dramatic happened. He did not fall on his knees and pray the sinner’s prayer. He did not break down crying as I shared inspirational stories with him. But we did talk. He had just come back from a rehab centre, and part of the treatment involved the twelve step program; one of the steps, I learned later, involves surrendering oneself to a higher power, and it was this he wanted to talk about. I do not remember many of the details. I was tired, and I had to talk about the God who might as well have sent Job on a missions trip halfway through the book, for all the good I expected to do. What I do remember thinking is that he was part of the way there with the “higher power” thing, but that it was not quite enough. He needed Christology, and more importantly, Christ. And so I recommended C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. He in turn suggested (as we had also been talking about music) that I should listen to Yelawolf and Macklemore who were (apparently) up-and-coming musicians. I have not listened to them. But now and then I still pray for him.
Here the story comes to an end. I don’t know if his rehab worked and if he was able to quit his addiction to drugs. I don’t know if he got anything out of our conversation. I also reflected later that, even if he did take my advice and pick up Mere Christianity, he might not have liked it, for what can Lewis have to do with Yelawolf? I don’t know, and I am fine with that because even when we know the “end” of a story it may not even in fact be the end – ours is to be faithful regardless, as a friend of mine has put it well on her blog.
But I can say it affected me. The experience had all the strange marks betraying the work of the God who is as much a riddle to me as He is a friend and lover and Lord – He gave me what I had stopped longing for long ago, and fortunately when I was too weary to do anything stupid with it – all I could be was a broken self doing the best I could to talk about the God I knew. But it was still somehow encouraging. All I could think afterward was, “In season and out of season…how very like God.” Deep relationships are all about anomalies – the appreciation of a quirk here, or a personality trait there – and it is in these things we feel the qualities of the people we love most dearly. This had all the marks of such quirkiness – an inside joke of the knock-knock variety that my heart has not readily forgotten.