A few weeks ago I was staying up on Lookout Mountain, a rangy ridge that runs through the southeast, bordering Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. For fifty years the northern tip, looking over Chattanooga, has been the home to Covenant College, a liberal arts school brought into being by Presbyterians, Scottish Calvinists with a longing for a college reflecting their deepest hopes for the next generation.
In the late 1960s Francis Schaeffer began to be read by a generation of people who were hungry to understand the world, and their place in it. The 60s were a tumultuous time, the whole world seemed in flux and American culture was turning upside down. Schaefer had taken his family to Switzerland in the years following World War II, and was seen as having almost prophetic insight into the meaning of life, with his wife Edith opening the doors of their hearts and home to hundreds and then thousands of young people who longed for someone somewhere who would take their questions seriously.
And all over the world, the pushing/shoving world of the counter-culture of the 1960s, twenty somethings found their way to the little village of Huemoz in the Swiss mountains, asking their honest questions, hoping for honest answers.
I was one, hitch-hiking my way from a commune in the Bay Area of California, across America, flying to Europe, and finally, hitchhiking my way into the honest hospitality of L’Abri, which was the name of the Schaeffer’s work. For months I listened and learned, chopped logs and washed dishes, walked and talked for miles and hours, read and read again, asking the questions that mattered to me, and slowly, slowly began to find answers that satisfied me, heart and mind, soul and strength.
When the work of L’Abri began to grow, and books began to be written by the Schaeffers and their colleagues— Hans Rookmaaker, Os Guinness, Donald Drew and others —there was a deepening interest from people all over America to see for themselves. What is this place? Who are these people? Why are they so helpful to those who seem so hard for “us” to help? And so the L’Abri Conference was birthed, and Covenant College was its home. For several days each year L’Abri descended upon Lookout Mountain, and people came from far and wide, willing to listen, hoping to learn.
A student at Covenant then was a young man named Neal. Though his story is longer and more complex than I can tell here, necessarily with its own heartache and hope, his family endowed an annual lectureship in his memory, the Neal Lectures on True Spirituality. Named to remember a book by Schaeffer which came into being from lectures during those years, the college gives a week in the early fall to honor Neal and what he learned from Schaeffer.
I had the privilege of giving three lectures over three days for this year’s Neal Lectures— and I loved being part of this history, as it is my own history too. Morning, noon and night, I talked with people across the college, from its president and his cabinet to professors and their students; and each morning I spoke to the college at-large, taking up in my own time in my own way the vision of a true spirituality, of a faith and hope and love that makes honest sense of life in a evermore secularizing, pluralizing and globalizing world.
Almost a lifetime ago the Schaeffers began a conversation with consequences, for me and for so many, and these past days have allowed me to think about that all over again. In my months at L’Abri I met people and ideas that have shaped me for my life, the questions I asked then are still ones that I am asking years later, further up and further in as it must be.
Meeting people as I do all over the place week by week, month after month, I am more sure of two things: 1) that we are not so different, all of us, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve that we are, and 2) that our vocations often grow out of our questions, ones that are big enough and hard enough and important enough to live with through the years of our lives. What do we care about? What matters to us? And why? What difference does it all make? These are human questions that everyone everywhere asks and answers, whatever we “do” with our lives— and these are the hours and days of my life, this is the conversation of my life.
(Just outside the guest house where I stayed on the campus of Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, GA.)
This post was originally written for the Commons Blog from The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture.