I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, a hop, skip, and a jump from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I love to hike the Smokies, particularly the climb up Mount LeConte, one of the highest peaks in the Appalachian Mountains.
I usually take the steep, 5.5-mile Alum Cave Trail, stopping at multiple lookout points. But occasionally I choose the 6.9-mile Rainbow Falls Trail, which winds through forest and feels at times like a never-ending drudge. A couple of times, I've walked the 7.8-mile Boulevard, up and down from the high starting point of Newfound Gap. All three hikes lead to a drink of cold water at the water pump next to LeConte Lodge. Refreshed, I walk the narrow half mile to the summit. Although I've hiked LeConte at least 25 times, every trek has been different.
There are many ways to walk with God. Some, like the Boulevard, are smooth, like being born and raised in a Christian home and making a natural transition to personal faith. Others, like the Rainbow Falls, take people so far from the mountain peak that they forget where they are headed. They slog through a leg-wearying, back-wrenching hike until they suddenly break out into freedom.
Others are like the Alum Cave Trail. It moves from Arch Rock to Inspiration Point to, perhaps, catching a glimpse of "the eye" (a gap that sunlight can stream through). The Alum Cave journey to God moves from vista to vista. Not seeing the endpoint until that drink of living water, the hiker is led upward by memorable experiences.
I am an Alum Cave kind of Christian. My walk with God has been a series of vistas at which I changed direction.
Holy Belly Laughs
I grew up poor, but not dirt-floor poor. Daddy and Mama were from coal-mining towns in East Tennessee. Daddy was a railroad man, on the road three out of four days. Mama stayed at home. Chronically depressed, she was hospitalized in the state mental facility several times. Nonetheless, they transmitted to me and my siblings, Mike and Kathy, a rudimentary faith, one that developed over the years and has helped me to face difficult turns on the climb.
In August 1970, I married Kirby, a crucial event in my spiritual journey. Soon afterward, when I was in the Navy, I made a commitment to Christ. I quickly got involved with church. Kirby and I co-led the youth group. But I didn't know Jesus personally—and I didn't know that I didn't know him.
At a youth conference in Southern California in 1971, I was leading a breakout session of youth who clearly had been randomly assigned. When my group convened, the "youth" I was to mentor turned out to be a Lutheran pastor, a church elder, a missionary, and a Christian college student. And I—who had by then known the meaning of Christianity for only months—was supposed to mentor them.
After a plenary by pastor Don Williams of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, our group mused on God's sense of humor to convene a mentoring group of five adult Christians. Then I spoke up.
"Don kept talking about a 'personal relationship with Jesus'," I said, "but I don't understand what that means."
Silence. I could feel the pastor's head whip toward me. "Would you like to understand?" he said.
Soon he and I bushwhacked through 2,000 talking teenagers, and by the time we arrived at a quieter room, there must have been 25 people with us. We sat in a circle as the pastor explained to me "a personal relationship with Jesus" and asked whether we could pray that I would experience one.