Like most people my age, I grew up singing Jesus Loves Me, because that was what I was taught. Everybody did it.
Jesus loves me. This I know
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong.
They are weak, but He is strong.
Ah, the faith of a little child — church, Sunday school, a song. The daily ups and downs of youth — including such horrors as the red-haired tomboy I loved moving away or dealing with the neighborhood bully, and the sheer joy of chasing butterflies through the fields behind my house — were all built on the simplicity of that one belief. After all, what could possibly cause harm if Jesus, the Son of God, loved ME?
I was what people used to call a “sensitive” child. I was extremely creative, and my mind was filled with a constant inflow of intuitive and creative thoughts. I could sense emotions in others, and I always felt different. “Stop being so sensitive,” I’d hear while holding back tears for one reason or another. How does one “stop being” themselves?
My father did not believe in sparing the rod. As the middle of 3 boys in our family, my bottom seemed to draw the bulk of his anger. Then there was my mother, who refused to comfort me after such punishment. I felt so alone sometimes. But even at night, crying myself to sleep, that song kept me going. I was a child. It was all I knew. It was all I had.
The seasons changed along with my voice, and I remember well the famous “growing up” speech from my father. “Now, Terry, you’re about to have hair growing in your armpits and around your, ah, your weenie.” The trials and difficulties of life got harder with each passing day, or so it seemed. I escaped into a world of self-doubt, self-pity, and self-inflicted pain. When Linda dumped me in the 7th grade, I blamed myself on the walk home from school by singing a popular late 50s tune, “I ran all the way home just to say I’m sorry.” Sorry? For what? She dumped me!
But such is the confusion of puberty.
There was my music. I was the banjo player in a bluegrass band with my 2 brothers. On the road as a teenager and playing in front of my peers at school was a real “high”. Everybody loved me on stage. I was somebody! But it carried a huge downside, for no one ever knew the real me. Hell, I didn’t even know me, and what I did know, I didn’t like. I was convinced that I was unique, different, and that there was something wrong with me. Though I laughed and smiled, I simply could not find the happiness of my friends. Loneliness and melancholy became my best friends. Nobody wanted me for me, and soon that childhood song about the love of Jesus began to ring hollow.
A stage is a paradoxical hiding place.
Vietnam entered the picture, as I turned the page on the high school chapter of my life. I was a musician. I had nowhere to hide from the Army draft. Friends went and didn’t come back. Nothing made sense anymore, and the thought that the Creator of all loved me was far, far away. A new journey had begun — a spiritual quest for answers beyond the simplicity of a song.
The years that followed took me down roads I pray my children will never have to walk. Drugs, alcohol, depression, suicide, hospitals, mental illness, bankruptcy, 2 divorces, 3 innocent kids, rage, despair, and every religion known to man. You name it; I’ve got the t-shirt. I’ve moved from state to state 11 times in the past 30 years, chasing a career (or running away). I’ve known the joy of business success, and I’ve known the pain of failure. Got the tennis trophies. Got the golf trophies. I’ve loved and I’ve been loved. And so it goes.
And through it all, whether I was up, down or sideways, I always had this nagging sensation that there was something missing, something more to experience, and something more to life itself.
In 1980, I had a mind blowing spiritual experience. It happened in an A-frame house tucked into the woods in the rolling hills of southern Indiana. Simple words from the Bible and a heart with nothing to lose opened a door through which another child was born. My born-again experience was nothing short of miraculous. Overnight, I changed completely.
I gave this new life my all, and it gave back to me. I quit smoking, quit drinking, quit using, quit cussing, and I started going back to church. I was going to be the best Christian there ever was, and I got involved. I went to work for a major, national evangelical Christian ministry. If I was to really find the love of God, I felt, it would surely be in such a place.
Yet still, in the secret place of my heart, the sensation remained. The answer was only partial. There had to be more.
The ministry turned out to be a den of thieves. Nowhere, I believe, is human nature more exposed for what it is than deep in the bowels of “the church”. We lied. We deceived. We bent reality for our own gain. We broke the law, all in the name of promoting that which I knew to be contrary to our actions. The end justified the means. We were hypocrites. It broke my heart. It broke my spirit.
Booze and drugs returned to my life, and soon loneliness and melancholy were with me again. I knew for certain that the spirit existed, that God was there, somehow, somewhere. I just couldn’t find Him.
I began to read forbidden books, written centuries ago that were called apocryphal. I poured over texts written by Christian intellectuals like C.S. Lewis. I studied Zen and the religions of the east. Rumi and the Sufis I adored. I watched and learned from my position as a leader in the world of professional observers. I studied people and how they react to each other and the world around them.
I also studied the behavior and words of atheists and evolutionists. I recall laughing out loud at a program on PBS with the renowned Carl Sagan. The program was about flying squirrels. Sagan hypothesized that these squirrels “developed” their wings over eons, because it made getting from branch to branch easier. I envisioned a gathering of the elder squirrels. One jumped up and said, “You know, fellows, it would be a whole lot easier to get from here to there if we had wings.” Excited, everybody nodded their heads in agreement, and so began an effort by both sexes to “think wings” as they copulated in an attempt to produce an offspring that could soar through the air. The image still makes me laugh today.
But the laughs were few and far between. Inside, a rage was building that exploded one night with my family. I was asked to leave my home and family, and I ended up in a treatment center for alcohol and drug abuse. Addiction is a pit that only those of us who’ve been in can fully understand. And what brought me out of it was the love of God, as demonstrated through people just like me, who helped me see that the only enemy I’d ever really had was me.
But that’s not how I know God exists and that He loves me.
As a little boy, I studied nature. I was a loner and filled my days roaming the fields, woods and swamps near my home. I didn’t go to school for it, but I know things that you can only learn up close and personal. I’ve tried to share some of that knowledge with my children, and that, too, is a learning experience. It is in nature and especially its relation to man that the cornerstone of my true faith is buried.
Man thinks. Nature does. The creative force — that which we know as love — flows from the One who is love through all of His creation in a never questioning, never ending cycle. Only humankind has the power to block it, and block it we do.
Everything in the creation serves the creation and in so doing, the Creator. I recall a very old joke about the uselessness of flies, but even these pesky creatures exist for a purpose. They do it efficiently and without complaint. What good are plants and bugs that cause animals to itch like crazy? I don’t have all the answers, but the hair from itching animals is re-used in a variety of ways, including lining the nests of certain birds. Everything has a purpose. Everything has a place. It is steady, predictable, organized, and wondrous beyond words. The “chicken or egg” question is an easy one for me. Like the flying squirrels, all of life is birthed and exists in the living energy known as God.
We’ve studied atoms through electron microscopes, and guess what? We aren’t solid. We look solid, but we’re not. Nothing is solid. Likewise, liquid is not as it appears. These are the ultimate “optical illusions” of life. And what is the space that exists between the molecules of all life? All of creation shares it, the earth, the water, the wind, and the fire; the plants, the animals, the birds, the fish and every crawling thing; the sky, the planets, the stars and beyond. Time and space are created dimensions within which the creation exists. The Creator lives in no place yet everywhere and has no beginning or end. “I am,” Jehovah told Abraham.
He who is in the sun,
And in the fire,
And in the heart of man is One.
He who knows this is one with the One.
The behavior of humankind, however, is very different. We are lost and don’t know our place in the creation. Unlike the rest of nature, we naturally serve ourselves.
“If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed,” Jesus told his disciples, “you could say to this mountain, ‘Be thou uplifted and thrown into the sea,’ and it would obey you.” What does that mean?
First of all, the mustard seed has faith. It does what it knows to do and grows into an enormous plant. It doesn’t expect a pat on the back or a pay raise. Like the rest of nature, it simply does! That is faith in its purest form. The seed doesn’t need outside affirmation that growing into a tree might be possible. It accepts it without question and does!
But there is so much more to the story, because that profound teaching about tossing mountains into the sea is followed by a lesson nobody wants to hear — that we are all truly unprofitable servants. We want mountain-moving faith to impress our neighbors, to make ourselves feel important or significant, to justify our misery, to be somebody.
That’s the problem. We already ARE somebody. We run from it, because we know something’s wrong. We point, we blame, we avoid, we judge, and we fight. As Pogo said, “I have seen the enemy, and he is us.” The mirror! That’s where the problem exists. For all the good that human beings are capable of accomplishing, every one of us is corrupt at the core. We need God, but we want to be God. As technology closes the gaps on time and space, man grows closer yet to his objective. Thankfully, however, man is NOT God.
In our quest to be God, we view ourselves as separate (and oh so unique) entities. We are not. All is One. We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey. This understanding profoundly changed my life.
I have learned many things in my short life. To know God, I have learned, is to plead the cause of the poor and the afflicted. In so doing, we become like the rest of creation and serve the whole. I have learned that to honestly treat others as you would have them treat you will result in personal loss, but that’s okay. I’ve learned the most important time to beg for God’s mercy is when you’ve conquered a mountain, for that is when we are most vulnerable. I know what it’s like to experience the presence of God, any time and any place.
I see God in the sunrise, when the air is still and the light, as saffron beams, reflects a yellow glow on everything. I see God at the landfill. I see God in the waves of the sea and on the seashore in the tides that regularly wash His oceans clean. I see God in a fallen tree as well as in the wind that blows the tops of the ones who reach to greet Him. I see God in birth, and I see Him in death. I see God in the emotions of my daughters, who give their all in everything they touch.
I hear God’s voice in the music that constantly runs through my mind. I hear Him in songs from the Methodist hymnal and in the rock-n-roll music of youth. I hear Him in the police siren and the sound of traffic. I hear God in a symphony, and I hear Him in a child calling for his mother. I hear Him in a thunderstorm and in the constant hum of a summer night. I hear God in laughter, and I hear God in tears.
I smell God in the burning leaves of autumn and in the air following a spring shower. I smell God in my rose garden and know He exists in that which my dog leaves on the lawn. I smell God when I make love, and I smell Him in the kitchen just before Sunday dinner. I smell God in the ocean breeze and in the shower, and the scent of His fullness fills my being in the heat of August or the cold of January.
I taste god in a chocolate bar and in the mouth of my lover. I taste Him in the new fallen snow and in the bitterness of loss. I taste God in cinnamon toast and asparagus, and I taste Him in my own blood when smacked in the face, literally or figuratively. I taste God when I wake in the morning, even before I brush my teeth. I taste Him in sweetness as well as the sour that makes my mouth pucker.
I touch God when I hold the face of my youngest and tell her I love her. I touch God when I stop to give the beggar a dollar even though the “experts” say I shouldn’t. I touch God when I use the gifts He has given me. I touch God in joy, and I touch Him when melancholy still chooses to visit. I touch His majesty when I hold an injured bird in my hand or stroke my dog’s belly or when I wash the sweat from my body after a hard day’s work.
I know God is with me in the eternal here and in the eternal now, and I know He loves me because of the tangible, measurable way he fills me up when I give that love to others. I know He loves me, because he has enabled me to know Him.
And for it all, I am nothing. And that’s the way it should be. For when I am nothing, only then am I everything.