The early years - how do you know?
During my youth my family was very active in the United Methodist Church. In the 1950s and '60s in that region, pastors varied from "Hell-fire and damnation preachers," to those who never mentioned the word "hell," and smiled all the time.
At the age of 13, my religious experiences varied from the imperative "you should not do this... you should do that," to an emotional response to the invitations to follow Christ. Religion was very real to me.
One of the prevalent theological ideas I got from church was that God hates sin, and those who sin are not acceptable to God and can't be in His presence. This certainly follows from a lot of Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) concepts. In those early days, people who sinned might be stoned to death. That shaped a lot of my thinking in my early adult life when I became a fundamentalist - that notion fit right in. But I have to say that this is one of the concepts that slowly evolved all through my life. It simply isn't so. God is merciful and wants people to have a close relationship with Him - they are always acceptable to Him - and He will help anyone who is willing to get over the obstacles they face.
During summers I usually got to go to "church camp," which had a lot of fun "camp" activities and a lot of good religious speakers. There was commonly an invitation to declare yourself to some vocation, such as doctor, attorney, preacher.... They would always ask people to raise their hands who felt "called" or compelled to a vocation, and usually over half the hands went up.
I was always puzzled. How do people know what God calls them to do? The only thing I felt at all moved to do was ministry, but I had no clear feeling about that, and pastors really never talked about how a person might know. I also felt it would be good to be wise like King Solomon. Lofty goal. Probably my interests were equivalent to wanting to be a fireman, which every boy wants to be. So how would a person know what God wanted him to do? We need to get beyond the "still small voice" blanket response.
One cue comes from the school system and vocational counselors. In the school system there are counselors and tests that help people choose vocations. I always leaned toward helping people, which I enjoyed doing. But religion remained a murky area. Certainly the educational system and vocational counselors help people see a wider perspective in which religion can play a part.
So one of the questions written very large in my life was, "How does a person know what God wants from us, both in our vocations and in our daily choices?" I began writing about this in the early 1980s, particularly about the development in the Bible of "knowing God's guidance," and have continued working on this since.
Early adult years - the seeker of truth
My religious experience changed dramatically in high school. I questioned every aspect of faith, from the existence of God to the doctrines of the church. I became a "seeker of truth," which is how I would characterize much of my religious life for the next thirty years. I'm not unique in that spiritual quest. Most young adults and early adults have to strike out on their own and prove what is real and what isn't, that was fed them in their youth.
In late high school I had chosen radio announcing as a vocation, which brought me more social contact, which I badly needed after being isolated on a farm. It was a great confidence builder, and all through life until about age 50 I had recurring dreams known by psychologists as "confidence dreams" in which I was unable to do the radio job. These apparently came during times that I doubted my ability to do some work. If you know me, you know this interpretation is unusual because I have a lot of confidence and believe that people can do anything they want to do - all they have to do is try - and I have mastered many challenges. I also have to consider another interpretation: that at those moments in time the dream symbolized a lack of interest or purpose in what I was doing since in the dream I was distracted from doing the job.
Are dreams important in our spiritual life? The early prophets received messages from God through dreams. But dreams are very difficult to interpret. We dream around 2 hours a night, but most of us forget our dreams on awakening. Actually most people dream about the same things, but universal symbols have not been identified that can easily be interpreted. Our other mental activity at night seems to be a process of remembering what was important during the day, and paring away what wasn't. Important neural connections are reinforced and unimportant ones are broken. Some think that short term memories are transferred to long term. Some think memories are linked and consolidated. The brain is very active while we sleep, and if sleep is deprived we become unable to function. Depriving people of dreaming causes the same problem. People who have lost the ability to sleep are usually dead within a year or two.
Is all of this mental activity connected with dreaming? Dreams are considered by specialists (mostly psychologists), to originate in the irrational part of our brain, and to tell us something about ourselves. Those things are commonly fears, represented in the dream by feelings of anxiety. Dreams typically have an irrational nature, where symbols represent something - usually some aspect of the dreamer - and interpretation usually involves how we "feel" about what we were experiencing in the dream. This seems to work. But there are also other more vivid dreams, and sometimes these bring things about ourselves to our attention. I'm very careful about citing dreams - they apparently have significance, but it isn't always clear exactly what significance. They primarily convey something important about the person having them, and I generally haven't found that dreams tell me anything that I didn't already know.
I had gone to college for a short time for radio announcing and quickly launched a career that burned out for me very early. Talking to a microphone all day by myself, and getting up at 4 am and sometimes working until midnight broadcasting baseball games, became a real drag - not a social adventure. I had limited financial control over my money, which was another real drag. I had a limited concept of how to invest myself in something, which is probably part of why I didn't find it satisfying.
I remember telling my grandmother, when she accompanied me to Chicago for the radio FCC exam (which is no longer required for announcers), that "I was going to change the world." From my perspective there was a lot wrong, and somehow I was going to change some of it.
I remained a seeker of truth. Actually before even leaving high school I was exploring New Age thinking, which I did until I was 28. From an intellectual point of view, New Age thinking was more satisfying. For one thing it got rid of the negatives (such as the religious view of Hell), and provided other answers that made sense.
Over the years I found that New Age thinking is long on answers and short on experience. Religious institutions are also often this way. It's like saying, "God is love," and leaving it at that. If the Ancient Israelites had really understood that part of their religion, the prophets would never have had to come to them and tell them to get back on the right road. Most people need that message of love broken down for them, and need a structure to work within. New Age thinking, good, bad, or indifferent, provides little of that structure. But coming to that awareness, consciously or subconsciously, is part of life and the spiritual quest.
My experience with New Age thinking at least opened my mind to alternatives to standard Christian doctrines, and to the access to God by all people, not just to some select or fortuitous few. It is in seeing differences that you begin to think. New Age thinking also opened my mind to other spiritual experiences, such as mystics and psychics. One interesting thing I found about psychics is that if your mind is closed to their reality, they will eventually convince you of their reality, and a strong "conversion" experience can occur. It's better to know and understand if and when these belong in your belief paradigm.
I joined the Navy during the Viet Nam war era. Seeing that I was in radio, the Navy put me in radio in communications electronics. This is a very technical field, and I worked on everything from test equipment to standard transmitters and receivers to submarine broadcast equipment and a lot of other very technical stuff, requiring very analytical skills.
Looking back, although I felt very confused about my vocation at the time, I know several things. I had a healthy skepticism toward religion, but not so much toward the spiritual. I was a seeker of truth. I liked to help people. I saw a lot of things in the world that needed changed. I had communications skills both in message creation and in broadcast. I can be very analytical. God used all of this later in my life.
For example, I use that experience in radio. To this day I still write and record radio commercials and campaigns for churches. But my later career path prepared me even more for this in that I studied attitude change in psychology and did over six years of marketing and marketing research, as well as studying religious demographics and surveys on religion.
I can be a very analytical person, and God used this later in my life. Remember that thing about "wisdom?" Part of being wise is understanding out how much you really don't know. Technical things weren't exactly me (they gave me little satisfaction), but it served me well for income and disciplined thinking.
I learned a number of things from my early adult experiences: 1) God gives you interests, and uses your experience sometimes much later. You really don't know why you have some experiences. 2) Investing your energy and creative abilities in a field gets you more interested in that career. You're not just along for a free ride - you have to make the vessel go and steer it to get anything out of it. 3) While God calls people, not marketing messages, it helps a lot if we don't get in our own way with the wrong types of message, and it helps if we can purposely help people remove some of the crazy obstacles to faith and church attendance.
Middle adult years - making and living with choices
At some point you have to make a decision about your career and how you are going to make an income. It was a tough choice for me. I still don't know, in my 60s, what I want to be when I grow up. I've learned now that it's not an end goal, but a path that goes on and on and on. I've had several full careers.
Our twenties and thirties are usually devoted to finding our niche in life, achieving and reaching that point where we have established careers and stable incomes. We are devoted to generating an income and raising a family. Sometimes around 35 we make a mid-course correction (which I did) in an alternate education and career, but career and family are still the main course.
On leaving the Navy, I still had this sense that I wanted to help people. After the Navy I entered college to become a psychiatrist. I had the impression that you could "fix" people the same way you fix a radio transmitter: diagnose the problem from the symptoms and replace the defective part (replace defective thinking).
I'm very pleased that I didn't become a psychiatrist. They are mostly into psycho-pharmacology (prescribing necessary medications), and don't do things like marriage counseling. I learned later as a pastor and counselor that defective thinking is rarely the main problem. Most psychological obstacles have emotional causes from experiences that cause faulty interpretations of life events, and defective thinking is more a symptom of that and not the actual cause.
While talk is very helpful and can help get thinking going in the right direction, which helps, the "fix" is more commonly life experience, while being guided and reflective. Counselors, friends, pastors, and others help with guidance and reflection. Those who have had similar experiences are usually the most effective at helping.
God shapes lives through emotionally laden experiences. Change takes a lot of effort, and usually has a lot to do with learning to get along with others. I have to say that I prefer being in the "messaging" side of this: what to think, interpreting events. I would not do as a psychological therapist.
New Age thinking left me in limbo. It went nowhere. Was that my problem or a problem in the philosophy? I can't call New Age thinking a religion, although some people use it for that. It's all over the place - you can find anything you want that makes sense to you, which makes it very attractive. But it's mostly an intellectual exercise, not a life exercise. At least it was for me.
At the age of 27, I was dutifully reading some Christian literature that a friend gave me. I couldn't wait to get it over with. I was totally unimpressed, even contemptuous. But when I got to the last page of the last book, I read a verse about God never letting you go, and suddenly I knew that Christianity was my spiritual home. I didn't suddenly understand all of Christianity. It certainly didn't all make sense. I didn't like much of it. It wasn't a "rational" decision, which was very un-typical of me. But I knew. That was a spiritual experience.
After a few years of leveraging my technical education, I had a revelation about myself. One day I got this strong feeling that I wanted to be a preacher (pastor or minister who communicates). I'm not sure where this feeling came from, but I have to consider it a spiritual experience. I know that it was foreign to who I had become - someone who wasn't all that social and who didn't talk much. I found the idea of becoming a preacher so ridiculous that I began to laugh out loud. I didn't mention it to my wife - the idea was absurd. But three days later I still had that feeling and I was still laughing.
Finally I talked to our pastor about it, who wasn't much help but went with it, and then finally talked to my wife. She didn't laugh. After changing to a different denomination and a few test sermons, I returned to college for the third of four times, to become a pastor and psychological counselor.
As a pastor, two things initially seemed very important. First was correct belief. I still was a seeker of truth and was very concerned that believing the right things was the key to religion and spirituality. This was reflected in my sermon plans, in my Biblical research, and in my counseling. It was reflected in my broad-based educational choice: Indiana University, a state university that patterned itself in many ways after Harvard, with a religious studies program (similar to a seminary). To me it was very important as a pastor not to be misled or to mislead others - that meant being well educated and unbiased.
While I was deeply committed to helping others, my favorite Biblical books reflected my preoccupation with "know the right things." I liked the Apostles John and Paul, who emphasized love and spiritual understanding. I disliked the book of "Hebrews" with its very practical emphasis on "doing." I threatened to tear it out of the Bible. I listened and endlessly studied Biblical historians and modern theologians, to get very accurate backgrounds on Biblical situations and context.
I believe that God shapes each of our lives to desire certain things, but we generally have no idea where it is all going. For example, if you look at the back of a quilt, you see all kinds of knots, and threads going every which way, and it makes no sense. But if you turn it over and look at the front, you see a very beautiful pattern.
It really doesn't make any difference whether you look at this "direction from God," from a religious or a psychological point of view. The result is the same. We have or acquire certain abilities and desires, through God's leading, natural tendencies, and life experience. These abilities and desires change with life experience. My desire to go into the ministry came from a strong desire to help others, a strong belief that a purified belief was important, and a strong dissatisfaction from long-term technical work. But uniquely, it was also a feeling that I should do something that was actually foreign to me at that time. This call was completely out of my safety zone.
My faith has always had a "universal" aspect to it. The basic message and work of God are relatively straightforward in message, although it is a lifetime of work. God brings people back into a good relationship with Himself and develops their faith, helps them overcome their problems and illusions about what is fulfilling, and helps them realize their full potential in their life vocation.* Religion is a vehicle for this that guides spirituality, and I have no problem with religion unless it gets in the way of the basic message and work of God. I have always gotten very upset with those who believe God deals callously with those of a different faith, regardless of what it is. You can't say that "God is uncaring" in the same breath as "God is Love, and is a God of justice." This is a belief that goes to the bone and influences everything I do. But for me, I'm a follower of Christ and trust that his way fully reflects God and is the path to God.
I am using vocation in this instance in a similar way to how Wayne Fowler uses it. Wayne Fowler explains vocation through the eyes of theologian Richard Niebuhr. We are in partnership with God. God's relationship with man is in creating, governing, and redemption/liberation (or as I explained it, bring people into a good relationship, and then leading to opportunities). Our vocation is our work in the world, in partnership with God, in all aspects of our lives, principally in our relationships and dealings with others and our involvement in social justice, work, and business.
Next: Part B of my personal spiritual experience. (See index right -->.)
Let's talk about it. Social Media and One Spirit Resources Blog below. - Dorian Scott Cole.