Last week, The Seattle School community marked the end of another academic year at the 15th annual Spring Banquet. This year’s theme was Come Tell the Story, an evening of weaving individual narratives into the collective story of who we are. Over the next few weeks, we will share several of the stories that were read at the banquet. May you hear in them an invitation to come and tell your story. Here, Beau Denton, a first-year student in the MA in Counseling Psychology program, shares about the process of learning to recognize the presence of God—even in the places he least expected.
My story, or at least this telling of it, begins in March of 2014, on a mountain in north Georgia. I had recently quit my job and said long goodbyes to friends and family, and now I found myself at the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, preparing to embark on a journey without knowing when or where it would end. There was a journal at the trailhead, a place for hikers to write their names and what they were hoping for or fearing about the upcoming months. “I think I’m out here looking for God,” I wrote. “If you see him…or her…or it…let me know.”
The story continues a couple months later, somewhere in Virginia, when I met a hiker who went by the name of Shep. After a minute of small talk, he set his pack down and looked at me. “Did you find what you’re looking for?” he asked, letting me know he’d been reading my entries in the logbooks and journals along the trail.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not.”
“Maybe it’s not God who’s coming and going,” said Shep. “Maybe it’s us.”
After a twisted knee, an abrupt move to Seattle, and my first year of graduate school, I think I’m beginning to understand what he meant. Over the last year I have been consistently amazed by the stubborn presence of God. In our conversations, in our papers, even in the long-buried stories we wade through with such heartache—God is there. God is here.
That isn’t something I was willing to admit when I started my hike. I had a hard time seeing God in my present, let alone my past. Honestly, I came to The Seattle School in part because I’d heard it was like a hospital for recovering evangelicals, a place where I would be safe in my doubt and my cynicism. That’s been true, to an extent, but the surprising, gut-wrenching reality, for me at least, has been that cynicism is not a satisfactory end point.
For years I used bitterness about past wounds as a kind of shield, protecting me from the difficult work of pursuing wonder and desire. I blamed God for not being present, but the truth is that it’s hard to see when you’re walking through life with your eyes closed and your fists raised. I hadn’t been open to God, and I hadn’t been open to the people around me. I was afraid of being known, afraid that if I let myself be truly seen, the people I loved would be disappointed.
Maybe it’s not God who’s coming and going. Maybe it’s us.
That is the current arc of my story at The Seattle School, where I am continuing the journey that started on that mountain in Georgia: coming to believe that God is present already and always in the texts we read, the places we inhabit, the stories we tell, and especially in the others we encounter. And coming to believe that vulnerability and relationship go hand-in-hand, that the courage to be known yields the wonder of being loved.
Let us never stop reminding each other of that. Let us never stop slowing down, taking a deep breath, and opening our eyes. Let us never stop marking our moments of awareness, the moments when the veil is dropped and in breathless awe we join Jacob the wrestler in saying “God was in this place, and I—I was unaware.”
We gather these moments like stones, and we build icons of the goodness and presence of God and the goodness and presence of each other, reminders of where we have been and where we are going. We do this so that—tomorrow, next week, and in 20 years—we can return to this place with open eyes and open hearts, sit down together, and once again tell the story of who we are.