For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and pray to me and I will listen to you. When you seek me with all your heart, you will find me. -Jeremiah 29:11\
All my adult life, I've been nagged by a sad question: "Isn't there more to life than this?" Over time, I came to understand this question was a nudging of the Spirit, a holy discontent with the ways of the world that was spurring me on to seek more, to seek abundant life, life with God.
I didn't grow up in the church. My mother sometimes brought me and my siblings to Sunday school at the local Presbyterian church, but it didn't stick. My two recollections of Sunday school were watching Ray Barker burn spiders off the wall with his lighter, and sneaking out the window to walk down to the 7-11 and buy candy.
When we'd visit relatives in the little town of Eastman, in central Georgia, they'd take us to the Baptist church. We teenage boys would sit up in the balcony, listening to the preacher rail about how we'd end up in hell if we didn't straighten up. I saw folks dress up pretty and go to church on Sunday, but it didn't seem to change them on Monday. The hypocrisy turned me off to the church.
TAKE A MOMENT Who or what drew you to seek God?
The Holy Spirit first touched my heart during my rebellious college years. Up until that time, I hadn't strayed far from my parents' expectations. I always assumed I would follow my father into the family business. I graduated high school in 1969 and quickly got swept up in the blossoming counterculture, growing my hair and buying into the illusion that our generation could peacefully change the world. As I experimented with "better living through chemistry," my mind opened up to new possibilities.
I began to see cracks in the facade of the American Dream. I was disillusioned by the rampant materialism gripping our country. For some reason, God gave me eyes to see through the widely-held belief that success is measured in money, career, houses and cars.
It was then that I started on a spiritual journey. That quest took me through a study of Islam, Eastern religions and the spiritual practices of the American Indians. I looked everywhere but the Christian church.
My wife Genie and I met in 1971. I was 19, and she was turning 17. She turned down a chance to go to Duke University to stay in Atlanta and go to Georgia State with me. In 1972, Vietnam was winding down, and Richard Nixon declared an end to the draft. I was bored by my studies but excited by the idea of starting a life with Genie, so without the threat of Vietnam hanging over my head, I quit school and we married in October of 1972.
Just two weeks after our wedding, a fire destroyed our apartment, burning up most of our furniture and wedding gifts. Genie and I took it as a message not to hold too tightly to the things of this world. They can be gone in a moment. So we took the insurance money, bought camping gear and took off for a three-month road trip across the western U.S. and Canada.
I had been learning about Native American spirituality through the writings of Carlos Castaneda. In his book The Teachings of Don Juan, Castaneda introduced me to the idea of a "path with a heart." I would translate that today as, "There is a plan and a purpose for your life, a certain path for you to follow." We took off out West seeking the path. This was the first indication I had that there might be a specific purpose for my life, and that I might find it.
As Genie and I traveled through the Rocky Mountains that spring, camping in the snow and discovering the wilderness, God revealed himself to me. I saw Him through His creation. The Rockies, the backbone of our country, struck me in their majestic splendor. I was in such awe and felt so small, and the forces at play in nature seemed so mighty. I knew all this could not be random. My conclusion was, "This can't be an accident; there has to be a God."
TAKE A MOMENT In what ways have you been touched with "holy discontent"?
Christian Schwarz wrote a small book called The Threefold Art of Experiencing God. It contains the best explanation of the Holy Trinity that I have ever encountered. "Early Christians recognized God as creator, experienced Christ as God through prayer, and sensed the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. They experienced God in a three-fold manner," Schwarz writes. "God revealed himself as Creator by leaving the marks of his handwriting on creation. One does not have to be a Christian in order to encounter this type of revelation. Whether I'm a Muslim, Buddhist, atheist or Christian--when I turn to creation I can sense the fingerprints of the Creator."
I know many people who don't claim God but worship the creation. So if you want to understand God, study the creation. Indeed, this was the path to my first experiencing God.
TAKE A MOMENT How has God revealed Himself to you? How do you hear God's voice? What is the source of inspiration for you?
I recently looked back at a journal from the trip and found this notation as we arrived at Rocky Mountain National Park: "It hit me as we drove around that the mountains are my home, that is where I will find my peace." Although we had found home, it would be 25 years before we would live here. Even at that early date, before I was even baptized, I was searching for God's peace.
Here are more notes from the trip journal I kept as Genie and I traveled through Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. To this day, Banff is one of the most beautiful places I have seen. We visited Lake Louise, a beautiful lake nestled in the mountains, fed by a glacier at one end. We walked across the lake ice to the where the glacier fed the lake. We were so taken by the place that we came back after dinner.
As the sunset waned and darkness crept in, we turned and headed up to Lake Louise. We parked and walked up the path beside the lodge to the water's edge. There were two feet of snow on the ground around the lake, and Louise herself was still covered with a layer of ice. We found ourselves alone. The scene was quite different from earlier in the day. From the dark forests to either side came the sounds of birds settling in for the night. The ice on the lake had a blue tint, magnified by the deep blue of the ever-darkening sky. There were a few clouds over the glacier, but directly overhead was clear sky. We could spot weak spots in the ice that we could not see earlier in the bright sun. We walked out anyway, to frolic on the ice. There was definitely another dimension added to the scene by the lonely darkness--an apprehension, a knowledge that there was no one around should the ice fail. We stopped at a spot about a third of the way out and just looked and listened, questioning the universe. The quest for knowledge of this universe overcame us and we gazed in silent respect. I can attempt to describe the scenery we saw, but I cannot describe our thoughts and feelings as we stood, immersed in the stunning beauty and the feeling of the moment. Then we heard a cracking sound as we stepped further, a weakness in the ice, causing us to beat a hasty retreat to shore.
As we walked out on the frozen lake that night, the quiet was incredible. Our sense of awe drew us onward. Then, we heard cracking sounds in the ice. We literally said, "God, if it's time, take us now. If not, you must have other plans for us." In this moment, I knew not only that there was a God, but also that our destiny was in His hands.
TAKE A MOMENT What experiences or settings has God used to touch you deeply? How do you best experience God's presence?
After we came home from that trip, I found work as a carpenter, learning a trade as Jesus had. We were seeking a simple life. Genie went to school and waited tables. We had no desire to be drawn into the story of the world, always craving more, blindly chasing material success.
Genie and I worked to save money so we could resume our travels. An idea began to emerge, a desire to move to Alaska, to the wilderness, to move a century back in time. I had been very taken by the story of St. Francis of Assisi, who cast off all the benefits of family and wealth to live a peasant's life in the country. His authentic way of following Jesus deeply moved me. We began to dwell on the notion, and we decided to test the idea.
The next fall, we took off along the Appalachian Trail, driving north, stopping to hike each day. We went up the East Coast into Maine and onward to Nova Scotia, spending a month on the road camping. After visiting friends, we drove back through Vermont, fell in love with the countryside, and rented a two-room hunting camp for the winter. We were two miles up a dirt road from the booming metropolis of West Rupert in a cabin with no running water, an outhouse, a wood-burning stove for heat and a propane camping stove for cooking.
Through the long winter in Vermont, we found ourselves hitting up against a wall. Nothing went according to plan. We wrecked our truck, couldn't find work, fell ill. By the end of the winter, we concluded that God's path did not lead toward a life in Alaska. I thought, "I don't know where you're leading me, God, but it's obvious Alaska is not it. So we're going to go back home to Atlanta until we figure it out." We returned to Atlanta in the spring with our tails between our legs, feeling defeated.
TAKE A MOMENT In what ways have you "hit the wall"? How did you react? What did you learn?
We worked and saved money all summer for another extended camping trip. That fall, we geared up, drove across the country and spent a week backpacking in California's Minarets Wilderness just south of Yosemite. It was another incredible experience, but our lives took an unexpected turn. We returned from that trip expecting our first child.
We weren't ready, but this was the next step in the path. At the time we were renting a rundown, bug-infested garage apartment near Emory University. Realizing this was no place to raise a child, I bit my lip and went and asked my father for a job. I knew it would be tough working for him, given his critical nature and quick temper. So I made a commitment to stick it out for five years and then reevaluate, to see if we would continue down this path. This proved to be a critical point.
TAKE A MOMENT What led you to your line of work or career? Was it intentional, or did you stumble into it?
Gregg, with mother Milbre and daughter Florrie at an open house at the office, 1975
Our daughter Florrie was born in the spring of 1975. From the start, Genie and I wanted our children to grow up with healthy values. So we found our way back to the Lutheran church. At first, with no background in liturgical worship and no great love for organ music, I found sitting through a Lutheran service painful and uninspiring. Then we visited a church where a man named Vernon Luckey was pastor. Vernon had long hair and a beard, looked like Jesus, and preached without notes while walking up and down the aisle of the small sanctuary. He kept bringing the gospel into the present and talking about how to live the Christian life. He could see God's hand in everyday life, and his stories of encountering the divine in his daily walk were compelling.
For the first time in my life, I saw someone for whom faith was real. I faced a dilemma. I couldn't join the church without being baptized. And I wasn't going to get baptized unless I truly believed. Vernon came to visit us at home one evening. In a two-hour conversation, Vernon led me to Christ. Soon after, he baptized me along with my young son and started me on my Christian walk. God revealed Himself to me through the beauty of the creation. Vernon Luckey helped me see God working through people.
TAKE A MOMENT Did others play a role in helping you come to faith? If you are a lifelong Christian, when did your faith become your own, not just an expression of your parents' faith?
Two years later, friends from church encouraged me to go with them on a weekend retreat called Cursillo (now Via de Christo). The weekend was designed to allow people to truly experience God's love and grace. The Spirit touched me in a powerful way that weekend in 1982. At worship beside a lake at dawn, in the shimmering first light, the beauty of God's creation exploded before me. For the first time in my life, I truly felt forgiveness. It was the beginning of a new day, and I could leave the heavy luggage of my past behind me and look forward.
TAKE A MOMENT How have you experienced God's forgiveness? Have you set down the baggage of the failures and sins of your past?
I realized that this was the same experience I'd had years before standing out on a frozen Lake Louise, looking up at the stars. I could see that it was the Holy Spirit that had touched me in the mountains, and that same Spirit was touching me that morning. Once again, I had a "mountaintop experience," a glimpse of the eternal. But for the first time, I was feeling the touch of the Spirit and experiencing God's grace in a church setting.
TAKE A MOMENT Think of a time you were touched by the Spirit. How did it impact your faith?
I wrestled in the first years after my baptism with whether God was calling me into the ministry. Even though I was a part of the Lutheran church, where the Priesthood of all Believers is a fundamental tenet, I did not understand that a call from God could lead anywhere--not just into ordained ministry. By then, we had two small children and I was working for my father. I could feel God tugging at my heart, but my limited prayer time and nonexistent Bible study did not provide me many answers.
One of the themes of Cursillo was, "Bloom where you're planted--God needs people in all walks of life." So I decided to continue on the path I was on, working in the family business and offering my gifts to the local church, and to wait on God to illuminate the "path with a heart." In my meager prayer life I continued to seek God's will, but mostly I heard nothing. Over the next decade or so, I stumbled across the path a few times, and the energy was incredible. I got glimpses of the holy, and I lived for these rare experiences. But mostly, I wandered through the spiritual desert. Any movement towards spiritual maturity was in fits and starts, with long interludes on the plateau.
God's tugging on my heart revealed the first seeds of vision in my life. Five years had passed since I'd gone to work in the family business, and I took some time to evaluate at the end of the five-year commitment. After some intentional reflection, I realized several things. Genie and I had had our two kids in our early twenties, and we realized they would be out of the house by the time we were in our mid-forties. We would have our whole lives ahead of us (well, the second half anyway). I yearned for meaning and significance beyond just building a business and enriching my family. We set a goal to achieve financial independence by age 45 so that we could walk away from the business and do whatever we felt called to do with the rest of our lives.
TAKE A MOMENT Have you got a vision for your life? A picture in your mind of a preferred future? Take some time and write down your thoughts about how you would like to see your life turn out.
Hitting the Wall in Vermont