Image Description: This is the field in Marktoberdorf, Germany I describe below. I took this photo in 2010, five years after my original experience. In 2005, the field was bright yellow with wildflowers. Whatever the season, it’s a gorgeous view.
Through the invitation of a colleague, I’m preparing to preach this week from the story of Jonah in the Hebrew Bible. He and I will be splitting this four part sermon series. The story of Jonah begins with him on the run. He’s heard a clear calling, but he’s moving in any direction except Nineveh, the place where he is called to go. This week, I’ll be sharing stories on that theme. Here’s one that I wrote in September, 2018.
When I ponder an experience of transcendence… a sense that I was in the presence of something much larger than myself, surpassing what I expected… I think about a field in Marktoberdorf, Germany.
I think about how I marched to a field in a huff of anger, then departed with a sense of reassurance and wonder. I didn’t expect any of it, but it was exactly what I needed.
At age 23, I was on the verge of more than one major life transition. It was all a whirlwind of sorts. I was spending twenty days in Germany with the Cardinal Singers, the choir I had performed and traveled with for the last few years. With gratitude, we had been invited to participate in some prestigious competitions, most especially the Marktoberdorf Chamber Choir Competition.
And when I returned home to Indiana… Whew. In ten days, I would then get married, and soon after that, we would move across the country to Austin, Texas. That would be the first time I had moved from home. I chose this… I’m the one who applied to seminary, and I loved choosing this seminary, but suddenly, on the Germany trip, I struggled mightily with the move. I knew I had to do this. No turning back. But I didn’t want to do it.
But what was I thinking?
I kind of panicked.
And I was also angry. I wasn’t ready to leave my friends, especially the people in this choir. We had created something incredible together over the last few years. I didn’t know yet… What happens when people move across the country? Do these kinds of friendships continue, or was I throwing that away?
I wasn’t ready to leave my church community. I had such a rich sense of belonging, and the people there had gotten me through so much. I didn’t know yet… What happens when people move across the country? Will I miss them too much? And will I miss out too much?
During a break in rehearsals, I departed for some time alone. I was infuriated about having to make these choices, potentially about losing so much. With deep frustration, I walked a pathway that was becoming increasingly familiar to me. It was a paved but often cracked, small road with gorgeous trees lining either side. Those trees with their vivid, green leaves lined the entire walkway until about a mile down the road, where everything opened up.
I had discovered this pathway about a week before and walked it many times since. The first time, I didn’t expect the opening, though each successive time was stunning in its own way. The shift was this: This road of trees suddenly opened to unexpected views. The Alps were in the distance on right, and a large, expansive field of wildflowers was on the left.
On this day, I think I was less interested in these, at least initially. I just wanted to be alone. So I walked and huffed. Then I turned left and stood in front of that field of wildflowers.
And I don’t know how to explain this, but something shifted, and I had an experience that felt very transcendent right there in the mundane moment of it all, beautiful though it was. And how to tell this story? Because in one sense, nothing happened, at least externally. There was no great miracle. Nothing fell from the sky. No supernatural action took place before my eyes.
But something happened internally. And it felt deeply spiritual. And I felt the presence of what I would call God, yet how do I name or describe what that means? Above all, I felt a sudden knowing. No voice fell from the sky, but if there would have been one, it would have said this:
There are people in Texas you have to meet, and without them, you will not fully be yourself.
Standing there, that is what I felt and quite suddenly, deeply knew. Something in me then rested in that knowledge, and the anger faded away. I trusted that it would be okay, even a gift to the ones I loved now, for me to become more fully who I was called to become. I knew that was calling me to Texas. I knew that was taking me to particular people in Texas.
And so I went.
When we lived in Texas, I thought of this experience many times. I even told the story a few times too. But I believe all of this resounded most strongly with me when I returned to Texas after the next move, which was to California.
At age 30, seven years after that experience in a field, I flew from Pasadena, California to Austin, Texas, returning for my ordination service. It would be held in a congregation where I did end up meeting an enormous amount of formative people in community.
One night before the service, I was alone in the upper loft of the house where we were staying with friends. I thought about all of this again. Then I wept with gratitude. It was overwhelming… I realized that the very next day, the church would be filled with people present to participate in ordaining me, and with the exception of two loves ones, to a person, the sanctuary would be filled with people I did not know until I made that move to Texas.
Having known them for years now, these were the kinds of people I could not imagine myself not-knowing. Every single person, and all the people collectively… It seemed that they were the fulfillment of that vision, the people I needed to know, the people with whom I would grow more deeply into myself… now with a myriad of names attached.
This was a deep, rich love with names, stories, and commitments attached.
Whatever transcendence is… whomever that Beyond-Presence is… surely, this calls us toward a deep, rich love with names, stories, and commitments attached.