The Path towards Belief
I was born into a religious southern family. My granddad on my mother's side was active in the Presbyterian Church while on my father's side they were active in the Episcopal Church. Growing up, bible stories and bible readings were a major source of entertainment and Jesus Loves the Little Children was as familiar as Itsy Bitsy Spider.
When the war ended and dad came back from overseas we moved back north to Baltimore and to Prince of Peace Church. Joe Wood was the main Church influence in those years. He was the priest there, holding services on Sundays in a big old granite church that sat on the corner. The alley behind the church held a car repair shop called Gasoline Alley, and a man who had a zoo in his back yard with cages of monkeys, birds and real alligators and after services we could run down the alley and look over the fence at the wondrous things, cars disassembled and flashes of color as the birds flew about in their big cages, a world of sounds and sights and smells far different from the church above.
The Church itself was cool and dark when you entered, the sun through the stained glass windows played and danced across the dark wooden pews as clouds raced across the morning skies. As the pews filled the temperature rose and you reached for one of the paper fans that sat behind the red Book of Common Prayer or black Hymnal. They had a scene and verse from the bible on one side, advertisements for funeral homes or restaurant on the other. Some said "In Memory of so-and-so. Living with Jesus and in the heart of his family and friends.", and when you asked who so-and-so was your mom would tell you to hush.
As you grew older you were expected to attend classes leading to Confirmation. Joe taught all the classes, and he explained that when you were little, and baptized, your parents and god-parents had taken responsibility for your education and acts, but that now that you were growing up, it was time that YOU took responsibility for yourself.
He also said that it was something to really think about. He said you were confirming, or that you might also find that you were not sure or ready to confirm, what it really was that you believed. He said he would be happier if we didn't get confirmed because we didn't understand things than if we did get confirmed just because it was what our parents wanted.
Part of the process, in addition to classes were days when we got to sit down with Joe and just talk. He had a bucket with cokes and Nehi orange and grape soda and we'd sit side by side at a table and just talk. I remember telling him that "Jesus died for my sins and so if I believed in Him I was saved." and his laugh before he said, "Well, then I guess all this is a waste of time isn't it?"
I must have looked confused because he told me to finish my drink and we'd talk more about it the next week.
That was the moment when I think I first began to get some inkling, some hint of what Christianity was all about and that it might not be as simple as just affirmation.
By our next meeting, I was still totally confused. I asked Joe what I should think, and he told me right away that only I could decide that. Even if I decided not to get confirmed, I was growing up and so it was time I started deciding what I was going to do and believe, and not have others decide it for me.
Then he told me a story.
Long before he had been a missionary in China. The village he was in was very poor, the crops had failed and people were near starving. One of the warlords showed up and told the people, if they would abandon their current master and join him he would see they got food. Just believe in him and all will be okay. Any that did not believe in him would be left to starve to death.
The warlord could have saved everyone, he had wealth and more than enough food, but instead he wanted to save only those who would follow him.
“What do you think of the warlord?”, he asked?
The orange Nehi was cold, and I tasted it on the front of my tongue and in my nose. So different from coke, or the grape Nehi and the questions ran back and forth just behind my eyes.
A week passed and once again I sat down with Father Joe. “What did you decide about the warlord?”, he asked.
“Did he really have enough food for everybody?”, I asked in return.
“Yes he did.”, Said Father Joe.
“Then he should have saved everybody, not just those that believed in him.”, I answered.
I was confirmed that year. The Bishop came in as always for the confirmation service. It was majestic, the great pipe organ filling the church with music that shimmered and shined like fine crystal, the colors of vestments and flags, the flowers and their scent, the breeze that came through the louvered windows, the bands of light through the stained glass windows competing with the flowers on the women’s hats.
The front pews were reserved for the little kids and they paraded in, class by class, looking around for mom and dad and waving shyly when they found them in the crowd. Then those of us who were to be confirmed marched in to take our place between the kids and the adults.
Everyone stood up and the Bishop intoned “Blessed by God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”, and a small voice from one of the front rows was heard . . .
“Why is he wearing funny clothes and a dress?”
The Bishop looked back at Joe Wood, and then turned to continue when Joe said, “Great Question. Everybody, let’s stop for a second and let the little children come up.”
The service stopped as Joe walked down to the steps at the railing. He motioned to the Bishop to come on down and to the teachers to bring the kids up.
Joe and the Bishop sat on the steps there at the railing while the kids came up, several vying to see who got to sit in Joe’s lap. Everything stopped while Joe and the Bishop explained to the kids what the various vestments were, what they were called, why they were worn, how even the knots had special meaning. The Bishop let several kids try on the miter and all of them to look at his ring. He even got up (with some difficulty) and went to get his Crosier, his shepherd’s staff. After answering their questions Joe said, “Okay, everybody back to the pews.”, and he and the Bishop got ready to begin the service again, when another small voice called out, “Can we sing Jesus Loves you this I know?”
So we did.
After that the service picked up where it had almost begun and it moved right along. We had the collect and the readings, then the presentation of the candidates. The Bishop began the questioning,
“Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil?”
“I do,” we replied.
“Do you renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?”
“I do, and with God's grace I will follow him as my Savior and Lord. “
The Bishop then turned to the audience and asked, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?”
“We will.”, came the reply.
We, the candidates and all of the people then repeated those Baptismal vows that our parents and God-parents had taken for us so long before.
Bishop Do you believe in God the Father?
People I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
Bishop Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
People I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Bishop Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
People I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Bishop Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
People I will, with God's help.
Bishop Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
People I will, with God's help.
Bishop Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
People I will, with God's help.
Bishop Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People I will, with God's help.
Bishop Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People I will, with God's help.
Then the Bishop laid hands on each of us, and in a soft voice, leaning down toward each one, “Strengthen, O Lord, your servant N. with your Holy Spirit; empower him for your service; and sustain him all the days of his life. Amen.”
I remember on the drive home, all of us packed together in the car, mom and dad in the front seat and IIRC at the time, about 4 kids stuffed in the back, one of my parents asked me, “Well, how do you feel now?”
“I think I can do what I need to do.” I said, “I know that you and GOD will help.”
A few years later my parents decided to send me off to a Christian Boarding School. One day we drove up for the interview. The school was located at the top of a steep hill, and just around the bend at the top of the hill. We drove in through white gates with a Gatehouse on each side, down a driveway lined by small trees to a circle before the big white mansion. On the left about halfway down the drive was another white building, it’s green roof matching the roof on the mansion.
We were met at the mansion by a gentleman who introduced himself as Bob French. He was not a tall man, and not as old as my dad, and he said he taught English and lived in one of the gatehouses. He showed us around the mansion, where we would eat, where the infirmary was, then took us on a tour of the grounds. The dorm was another small white building with a green roof, then up the hill to the building I’d seen as we drove in. It was the class rooms for the upper school, and at one time had been the stables for the estate.
After the tour was finished, they asked me if I wanted to go to school there and I said “Sure.”
On the long drive home my mom asked me what I had really thought about the school.
“Did you notice the piles of books, clothes, lacrosse sticks and stuff that were just sitting around?”, I answered, “I think I’d like a place where you could just leave stuff lying around and know that no one will touch it.”
The next fall I went off to school. I had a new pair of pants and a sport coat and blue shirts and a blue sweater. I was scared, and excited, and St. Paul’s had three inviolable rules, you will not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate someone who did. Oh, you could get in trouble for other things, demerits soon became a reality, but lying, cheating or stealing really were not tolerated. And the students themselves really were the ones that enforced those standards. It was an Honor System.
Living at a boarding school was a new experience. As one of the new young kids you shared a room with three other guys, and life was pretty fully organized. We got up in the morning, dress was shirt and tie, and either a sweater or blazer, and breakfast was at a table by form with the Head Master and most of the faculty. We’d start with grace, and I often prayed that I’d be able to find an egg that was cooked hard as a rock with none of the running yellow part. Day after day GOD watched over me (or maybe the fact that Mary, who did the cooking heard me complaining) and every day I found at least one egg that was really cooked.
After breakfast it was up the hill to Chapel. Every day all the boarders started the day with a short Chapel service, and many of the day students would drift in as well. We also had Sacred Studies as one of the regular classes and every Wednesday a formal Chapel service for all the students. Religion was a normal part of daily life and often included in many of the other classes as well. In math we touched on the contributions made by Islam, in History we touched on the influence of religion in world events, in Biology we looked at the contributions of Mendel and the problems caused by religious restrictions on exploratory anatomy and how that slowed down the advance of medicine.
But the school day came to an end and most of our time was outside of class.
Dark comes early in northern Maryland, and so it was inevitable that most of the time we entertained ourselves. What can be more entertaining to young men than big issues.
Somehow, GOD and religion and mankind’s place in all of this seemed to be a regular topic of discussion. The evenings were long and the conversations often heated. When the weather allowed we’d sit out on the porch, arguing while we waited for our turn up on the ping-pong table, when it was bad we’d sit around in the front room, or visit one of the Master’s houses where we could huddle in front of the open fire letting ideas rise like sparks from the logs.
It was there, in those long conversations where some of the questions raised by Father Joe and my parents began to get resolved. It was a period of opening horizons, my every belief being challenged by minds as quick and intensive as my own, by experience far greater than my own and by whole new moral systems, the Works of Mencius, the Gnostic Gospels, the philosophies of Greece and Germany, the writings of Thoreau and Frost and Twain and Lewis and Tolkien and Hemingway and Camus and Seller and Yeatman.
It was when some of the things became clear.
A GOD that chooses who will be saved doesn’t make sense. A GOD that creates all and then goes through and picks and chooses who will be saved is just plain cruel and arbitrary and not something to be worshiped.
A GOD that wants to be worshiped is just too silly a thought. Maybe some picayune God might worry about what folk thought of Her, like the little girl who worries that her corsage might not be right, too big, or too small, or the guy that worries about his tie not being in style or that people think he looks funny, but GOD cannot be so insecure.
The idea of “Once saved always saved” just made no sense. That’s one of those simplistic ideas that gives folk an out. “Anyone who does something really wrong obviously wasn’t saved in the first place”, or so their argument went. That just felt way to much like a copout and just another example of mental gymnastics, a way of cheating and making excuses.
I think maybe the Honor System was beginning to change from just a set of rules to a way of life.
It was in the second year at St. Paul’s that I went back and really started rereading the Bible and listening to what was in there. That year Mr. French took a bunch of us boarders out one evening to look through his telescope.
The universe got much larger that night, far bigger than the imagination of one teenager, and old perceptions fell away. For the first time I saw a galaxy, not a star, but millions, maybe billions of stars.
That summer I got to spend some time exploring some of the old worn foothills of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. Age was everywhere, in the worn groove in the rock above the pond where Turkey Run cascaded down into the pool where my sister fed the Native Trout, in the layers exposed in the cuts that had been made to widen Route 40 and in the sidings along Hornets Nest Road where it wandered over the hills. There was age in the fossil shells sticking out of the Calvert Cliffs and the giant sharks teeth I found there.
The world got old that summer and the universe got big, very big, awesome and exciting.
Life at a boarding school was amazing. For the first time in my life I was immersed in a culture where everyone was as smart as me and most far smarter. No one, not students, not faculty accepted anything simply on belief. They challenged everything. And that challenge was pervasive. In Sacred Studies we had to build the case for theism, to prove that GOD did exist. Once we could defend that our arguments were torn to shreds and we had to build the case for atheism, that GOD did not exist. In turn, those arguments were challenged and refuted.
The discussions with the other kids were the most challenging. The Masters were often Socratic, asking questions to get YOU to think. The other boarders though gave no slack, took no prisoners. You either supported your position or it was toast. It wasn’t important what the position was, no one cared whether or not you agreed with them, but by GOD you better be able to support what YOU believed.
Life went on. Later in life I got to live all over the United States. I lived in Maryland and Virginia and North Carolina and South Carolina and Georgia and Pennsylvania and Arizona and Texas and California. I got to see old rocks and new mountains and find fossils and explore canyons and see flash floods and experience earthquakes and tornados and hurricanes. I got to meet and work with some of the brightest folk around, ones that constantly challenged me to do new things, learn new things, to grow. I got to spend a couple decades in the company of biologists and in the company of computer folk that were pushing the limits of what could be done. I got to help found a whole new industry, to get in early when no one knew what could be done and when nothing was impossible, to help create the foundation that others later built upon.
Through all of my life, I was blessed to be in the company of people that were running forward, people who created, people who questioned.
Over time I realized that those lessons learned from Joe Wood, from my Parents, from the other kids at the school were correct.
In the beginning GOD created the heavens and the earth.
GOD looked on what he had created and found it was Good.
Through a gift from GOD mankind was given the ability to know what is right from what is wrong.
GOD charges us to try to do Right, and to try not to do Wrong.
GOD is not cruel.
We are not condemned.
GOD chose ALL people.
We will be judged based on our own behavior.
Any other GOD seems small and evil.