There was a retreat for campus leaders just before the beginning of my sophomore year, which resulted in the development of a goal—a campus coffeehouse. As the newly elected president of the Methodist Student Movement, I took part, and I was excited about the idea of a place where people could come to talk informally and explore serious issues of the day—religious, social and political issues. Other campus venues seemed to be purely social or academic, not existentially grounded, and not open to student leadership. When leaders in the Student Senate developed the idea, however, it leaned more toward an intimate center for student performance as actors and musicians, than an organizing center for serious conversation. I publicly criticized the development as a betrayal of the original purpose.
There was a lot of support for the developing performance center coffeehouse idea, and I failed to provide a coherent and attractive vision of a place where we dealt with heady issues. It was embarrassing. Clearly the different visions for using the coffeehouse were not mutually exclusive, and I apologized for my critique. We would get to use the coffeehouse for many different issue conversations and presentations, but my criticism had proven counter-productive for the “Student Movement.” I had alienated some of the people I wanted as allies and dialogue partners.
Other matters added to my emotional turmoil. A trip to Chicago to take part in the SCLC-sponsored open housing marches had opened my eyes to the violence of the opposition to racial integration on Chicago’s southwestern suburbs. The war was expanding in Southeast Asia where the “Ugly American” had colored the conflict. My health was deteriorating. A friend whom I had joined for morning prayer frequently in my freshman year had become obsessed with Hindu yoga meditation, and I was not willing to pursue that for more than the satisfaction of curiosity. I was not finding a way through the spiritual solipsism that had confounded me.
In the middle of the fall semester a new hymnal was published for the Methodist Church, and Choir Professor David Nott invited everyone to the Presser Auditorium one evening to explore the hymnal. I was not involved in the choirs, but music was always helpful when I was distressed, and the prospect of hearing familiar and new hymns attracted me. Dr. Nott led enthusiastically. Then he introduced a hymn and arrangement that was new to him, though an anonymous person had written the words a century before: “I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew, God moved my soul to seek ‘him,’ seeking me. It was not I that found, O Savior true; no, I was found by You.”
I was singing the song and praying the words, and suddenly I realized that the experience was real, and I was filled with a joy that had no measure. “You did reach forth Your hand and mine enfold; I walked and sank not on the stormy sea; not so much that I on You took hold, as You, dear Lord, on me.” Every word added to my joy through the last verse. “I find, I walk, I love, but oh, the whole of love is but my answer, Lord, to You! For You were long beforehand with my soul, Always You loved me.”
I had not yet read C. S. Lewis Surprised by Joy, although John Wesley’s sense of “having his heart warmed” was always entertained in my thoughts. This experience went far beyond either, as I felt so light that I nearly floated out into the night when the program ended. This was the experience of God’s Real Presence.
Real challenges would bring me back down to earth, and the awareness that my ideas of God would always fall far short of the reality of God’s Spirit would keep me from lifting my thoughts too high. There would be more to come than insight, more than comfort, more than strength, more than an answer to my feeble prayers.