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A Pew-Sitter's Search for God
By Houston M. Burnside
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Houston M. Burnside
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFirst impressions and questions
The new school year had just begun. Thirty-plus eager-faced five-year-olds were seated on a large rug in Trish's classroom; eyes fixed on their teacher, they were listening carefully to instructions and explanations about the daily routine of kindergarten. Suddenly a voice boomed out from speakers in the ceiling. It was the principal asking Mrs. Burnside to contact the office at her earliest convenience. Heads turned. The eyes of one of the new scholars in the front row grew large as he excitedly blurted out, "Teacher, I think it's God!"
This kindergartner was making a statement about his theological beliefs: that God exists as a real, divine and powerful person to whom we all must listen, and that God is "up there." Here was an early affirmation of faith. There was no question in this young boy's mind about whether or not God exists or where God lives - all that was assumed. That's the way it is with the very young. Questioning seems to come a bit later - at least for some.
There are at least two ideas about childhood faith that might be instructive. On the one hand the New Testament says such things as "a little child shall lead them," and that "except we become as little children we cannot enter the kingdom." This suggests that childlike faith is a good thing - a thing to be sought after.
On the other hand, Jean Jacques Rousseau is reported to have said "The worst thing about the distorted images of the Deity imprinted on children's minds is that they endure all their lives, so that even when they grow up their God is still the God of their childhood." The easy way out for an individual is to accept these early implanted images and tenaciously defend them against any threat of change. This doesn't take a whole lot of thought. It might take a certain amount of blind perseverance and close-mindedness, however.
Faced with the multitude of life's conundrums, many people (even young people) do rethink these early images and are able to reach some alternative conclusions. To some extent our ideas about God change with age. Joseph Campbell, in his conversation with Bill Moyers, explains that as a boy he understood some of the Indian stories one way, but as he grew older these myths took on ever increasing depths of meaning for him. He goes on to suggest that we learn religious and cultural ideas on one level as a child and as we mature, new and different levels become evident. The way we absorb and understand such cultural stories or myths that deal with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy can reveal how maturity modifies our outlook.
I'm sure the path of my intellectual and spiritual development wasn't too atypical compared with children my age. The psychologist, Jean Piaget came up with several identifiable stages of intellectual development in children and young adults. Lawrence Kohlberg concluded from his research that there were also some identifiable stages to moral development. James Fowler followed up on Kohlberg's studies and outlined six stages of faith or spiritual development. He reacted against his early theological training that tended to assume that adulthood was the starting place for spiritual development and understanding. He saw clear indications of spiritual awareness in very young children. That, of course, makes me feel better because I can see signs of spiritual development in my early years - even if unsophisticated and incomplete. Perhaps others can resonate with this insight.
Kids do ask some basic yet potentially profound questions about life, death and God. At about two they learn to say "no" and use that expression a lot to help control their environment. Around ages three or four they start asking "why?" Sometimes this constant inquiry gets under the skin of adults who, on the one hand make every effort to encourage their young charges, but on the other hand would like to get on with something else than to constantly be challenged with questions not always easy to answer. A big question often asked is "where do babies come from?" Most parents have had to deal with that one - some giving more creative answers than others.
If a small child is lucky she or he hasn't had to deal with a death in the family - or even the death of a pet. If that has happened, however, some natural questions come to the fore: "Will he (she or it) come back?" "Where is heaven?" "How will she (he or it) get there?" "Will God take me to heaven?" The young child might also wonder just what God is like and how God might treat young children. These were the kinds of questions I had as a youngster - especially as family conversations revolved around my father's untimely death. A lot of mystery surrounds death.
For the most part, youngsters take adult answers to life's perplexing questions rather matter-of-factly. At first they accept them automatically. Later, however, some children begin to think about the reliability of these pat answers. For some it starts around the time they are beginning to question the existence of storybook tales and characters.
When children discover that Santa Claus is just a character in a quaint mythical story, other cultural stories passed down from generation to generation begin to take on storybook qualities. The Christmas story of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem is no exception. Preachers and Sunday school teachers try hard to make these Bible stories as real as they can to children as well as to adults. Most of us pew-sitters want to believe what we've been taught in church, temple or mosque. We also want to pass on our beliefs to our children.
Here's the story of what laid the groundwork for my early faith quest. It started with the death of my father.
We lived in Riverside, California where my father managed a cracker and candy factory for Bishop and Company. I had gone to stay with my Grandmother Burnside just a couple of weeks before my little brother was born. My other grandmother, Grandma Gregg, offered to let my mother come to stay with her until after the baby came so she could look after her and the new baby for a short while.
Mom said to my dad, "I'd like to take my mother up on her offer. It will only be for a week or two."
"It probably would be best. I'll phone you every day and I'll be there when the baby is born," replied my dad. "Maybe my mom would be willing to look after Little Houston for us until I can bring you all back home. I'll give her a call."
Dad called my Grandmother Burnside. She and my Aunt Ray were thrilled to be able to have me stay with them in Highland Park for a while. So on a rainy day in February, my father packed the car with things both mother and I would need and we headed out for Highland Park to drop me off and South Gate to deliver my mom to her mother's house.
When we got to Grandma Burnside's house dad took me from my mother's arms and said, "You be a good boy, now. Be sure to mind your grandma and aunt." And with a firm hug and warm kiss, he placed me back into my mother's arms.
Mom held me tight and gave me a big kiss. "I'll miss you. I love you," she whispered.
I was 20 months old.
Three days later my dad's doctor called my mother in South Gate. He said, "Your husband has developed a bad case of pneumonia. We'll give him the best care we can."
Just a couple of days later another call from the doctor told Mom, "I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but Houston didn't make it. He died earlier today."
Dad was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery on February 14 - Valentine's Day. Melvin was born February 22. Mother was still in shock and too weak to attend my father's burial service.
Since my mother now had to find a job, I stayed on with my grandmother and aunt in Highland Park to make things a little easier for her.
Grandma Burnside and Aunt Ray were both very kind and loving. They provided me with a lot of emotional security during those early confusing days, months and years following my father's death.
Grandma always took me with her up the hill to the grocery store, holding my hand all the way. While Grandma prepared dinner each night my Aunt Ray, tired from working all day in the office of a Los Angeles garment factory, would stretch out beside me on the couch and read the funnies to me from the Los Angeles Examiner. She had to spend an hour or more on the trolley. This was followed by a long walk from the York Junction trolley stop, down the hill to our little one-bedroom and a Murphy-bed house in the Arroyo Seco.
My grandmother and aunt frequently talked about my dad. Every Memorial Day (often referred to by my grandmother as Decoration Day) we would make a long and convoluted journey, via streetcar and bus, to Forest Lawn Memorial Park where my dad was buried. Once there we would search the grounds for my father's burial plot. When we found it my grandmother would carefully place a small bouquet of home grown flowers in the little tin cup at the head of my father's grave site. With quiet devotion, grandma would trim away any unsightly grass or weeds that encroached on the flat bronze marker with the small grass shears she brought.
In a way it was almost like going on a picnic. We took along some sandwiches and snacks in a brown shopping bag. It was also somewhat of a spiritual experience. There was a lot of reverence and purposefulness related to these trips. Often I would catch a glimpse of shiny tears trickling down my grandmother's cheek. Aunt Ray would smile at a pleasant memory of her brother. Even though there were some sad moments, we always left with broad smiles and in good spirits.
Grandma became the center of my life. I considered her my safeguard and loving "parent" until I was around eight or nine years old.
Though my mother visited when she could, it was Grandma on whom I depended for comfort, food and a warm bed. Summers were great. Grandma let me play with my schoolmates and make friends in the neighborhood. I loved the freedom she gave me to roam in the Arroyo Seco area of Los Angeles, where we lived. Even in kindergarten, I walked to school alone and could play with friends as long as I returned for meals and was home by dark.
In the early 1930's when I was only five or six, the Our Gang Comedy was popular at the movies. Alfalfa, played by Carl Switzer, was a freckled faced kid with a prominent "cow-lick" which stuck up in the air like a hair spear on top of his head. I was a skinny, red-headed kid also with a freckled face. I can't remember a cow-lick, but people often remarked to me that I resembled Alfalfa.
One day I was skipping along a hard-packed dirt road a couple of blocks from home when a big black sedan pulled up alongside of me. I could see at least three men in dark suits and one woman inside.
One of the men in the car rolled down a window and called out to me, "Come here, kid!"
I stopped in my tracks and looked but didn't move any closer to the car. I remembered what Grandma said about talking with strangers, and the Lindbergh kidnapping case was still on people's minds.
Another man in the car shouted, "Hey, Alfalfa, we know who you are. Come on, get in the car and we'll take you home."
"I'm not him," I yelled back, but they didn't seem to believe me.
A woman got out of the back seat and held her hands out to me, trying to coax me into the car and said, "Come on. We won't hurt you. We'll take you home."
I edged away from her. I looked around for help, but no other cars or people were on the road. I knew I was in trouble. That's when I made my mad dash trying to escape. I didn't know I could run so fast. I was headed home to the security of my grandmother's protecting arms and the comfort of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Just then another car turned the corner and moved in my direction. The people in the first car must have noticed that someone else was coming and took off, their tires kicking up dust.
Grandma was home! I was safe! Nothing could hurt me now! And the peanut butter and jelly tasted great!
We didn't go to church regularly, but when we did go it wasn't always to the same church. I remember visiting a Spiritualist Church, an all Black Christian church where one of my playmates went (I don't remember the name of the denomination), the Highland Park First Christian Church, along with a couple of other churches, whose names I can't recall. My Grandmother Burnside and Aunt Ray didn't seem to prefer one church over any other.
When we did go to church, I remember being impressed by the music I heard and tried to sing. A couple of the churches we attended had beautiful stained glass windows. I would catch myself staring up at the sunlight beaming through translucent images of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments or Jesus talking to fishermen or holding a lamb in his arms. These images drew my attention away from what was being said from the pulpit. The glass picture-stories did, of course, have some spiritual impact on my young mind.
In spite of irregular church attendance there always seemed to be a spiritual atmosphere about our house. Unity and copies of The Daily Word could be found on the end-table next to the couch. There was never any question about God's existence or where God lived. The fact of God's existence and whereabouts was assumed in all our conversations. God was the Heavenly Father who was up there in heaven. We also knew that God cared for us in a special way - especially since we knew that my own father was now up there with God in heaven. I was certain that my father would see that we weren't overlooked in the eternal scheme of things.
My conscious faith journey began when I was a kindergartner. My grandmother took me to the First Christian Church in Highland Park, California so I could attend a vacation Bible school program. As a culminating activity for this multiple week affair we were all taken into the main sanctuary and talked to by a man who must have been the minister. He asked for all those who wanted to follow Jesus to come forward and be prayed for. Since they had just prayed the prayer about "our father in heaven" and I had earlier been made aware that my father, who died when I was not yet two, was there, I thought I had better respond to the minister's invitation. I remember stepping out from the pew where I was sitting with my grandmother and walking forward to the front of the sanctuary with a strong sense of purpose and enthusiasm to join the line of children making the same decision. I really wanted to get better acquainted with God and Jesus, especially since they were up there where my father was - in heaven.
Aunt Kate was my grandmother's sister. She was a Seventh Day Adventist. Aunt Kate was a great deal stricter about her beliefs in God than we were. She came to visit us from time-to-time and always insisted on reading some Bible stories to me. She wanted everyone to think like she did. She was a nice lady and we all loved her very much. When she left the conversation would often drift toward an analysis of her ardent faith and strict religious beliefs and practices. In spite of this mild criticism I have warm memories of her reading the Bible to me even when I was eager to go out and play with some of my friends. I believed she had a special connection to God and to heaven.
After a few years my mother remarried and I went home to live with her, my new stepfather and my younger brother Melvin in Lynwood. As time ticked by, two beautiful little sisters were added to our family - Beverly first, then Linda. My mother and stepfather weren't regular church-goers either, but they occasionally took my brother, my first little sister and me to the Lynwood First Baptist Church.
My brother and I were invited to attend the church's vacation Bible school. Again, at closing ceremonies, we were invited to walk forward and accept Jesus. My brother and I both responded and arrangements were made for our baptism. The culminating activity was a baptismal service. The Baptist church dunked their new Christians completely under water - head and all. Total immersion wasn't much of a problem for my brother or me since we had already learned how to swim. The memorable thing about this ceremony was that the minister baptized both of us together - I mean simultaneously. That was the first and last time I had ever seen that done. This experience, however, has stuck with me as something I'll always cherish, especially since it was an experience I shared with my brother.
Church going seemed to be a reasonable thing for me to do in order to find answers to my emerging questions about God and the here-after. It all seemed rather awe-inspiring and mysterious. People, of course, actually go to church for a variety of reasons. Some go because it's what they've always done. Others go for the social interaction that church provides. Social interaction was probably my primary motive for going to church. There are people who go to church just to be seen. A few go to search for God. Searching is not always the most comforting thing to do but it has the potential of becoming the most rewarding. Searching was a secondary motive for me as a child and teenager. But it was a motive.
Not all church-going was the same for me. After we moved back to South Gate, Mom sent my brother and me over to the Baptist Church just a couple of blocks from our school. The people there seemed rather aloof and not too inviting for a pre-teener whose family had little status in the community. I started to lose interest and felt this church wasn't meeting my spiritual and social needs. I even tried to join the church's Boy Scout troupe, thinking that it might gain me some acceptance - but the meetings were too boring and pointless. We boys spent most of our time just standing around waiting for something to happen.
Excerpted from A Pew-Sitter's Search for God by Houston M. Burnside Copyright © 2010 by Houston M. Burnside. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
1. First impressions and questions....................1
2. A broader perspective....................15
3. Pie in the sky bye and bye....................27
4. From pew-sitter to pulpit-stander....................40
5. A hard hill to climb....................50
6. Home again....................62
7. Back to pew-sitting....................76
8. Searching for common ground....................85
9. Looking for a virtual guru....................94
10. Glimpses of God in the strangest places....................103
11. Learning from family....................112
12. Forward to the basics of faith....................121