Journey Through Religion, Part 1 (Childhood) — H
I wrote the bulk of my autobiography during my 20s. Then, as a separate paper, I wrote specifically on my encounters with religion. These posts are built significantly upon that separate paper. Then, at the end of each part/post, I will give my thoughts on what I’d written.
When I became an adult, I discovered how many had been praying for me and my immediate family. Those praying included Dad’s sisters and mother, cousins, friends, acquaintances, and neighbors. Never underestimate how many quiet watchers are lovingly conversing with God about each individual. If you are an intercessor, thank you for demonstrating that love for others.
Warning on this post: For mature audiences only. Read my comments at the end for more.
“In the beginning…”
Heh. Okay. In my beginning, God was there. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t just know God exists. My immediate family didn’t talk about God, but perhaps I noted that Grandma prayed at mealtime when we visited. Either way, God is.
As a result, I wanted to learn more about Him. So, I asked my sister, “April,” how to do that. Her teenage reply: “I don’t know. Go ask Dad.” (grin)
We were 7 years apart in age, and I was a pesky little sister. April loved me, but other things occupied her mind right then.
I went to Dad. He pointed me to a Children’s Bible Story set and a Bible he’d quietly put in the bookcase upstairs where my sister and I had our bedrooms.
In the Bible, I discovered what other people had experienced of God. Enthralled, I read it for hours, devouring the concepts and principles hungrily…eagerly. In these younger years, my reading stayed in the Old Testament because…well, books are meant to be read from the beginning, right?
Dyslexia and other challenges made me a slow reader. In spite of that, books and the library were a retreat for me. The Bible wasn’t any old book, though. There was something significantly different about it. I drank deeply from the Bible because, through it, I was recognizing God as my Protector, Comforter, Friend, and Heavenly Father. I needed Him!
Whenever my mother caught me reading any of the Bible, she was angry, sneering and mocking. Don’t hold that against her, though. She simply made several wrong choices in her life.
I believe she was seeking experiences with the God she’d learned about in church in her youth. But, I don’t think she sought Him in the Bible. Thus, she was wooed by our enemy into saying “yes” to his advances. She listened to his lies about her and about those around her. I know this because she’d say them.
Looking back, I wonder if there was something that initially caused her antagonism toward Christians. Perhaps it was only what she read, but maybe it was some event from her past, too.
My parents had a big bed with a headboard full of reading material. Mom didn’t seem to mind my browsing there. This is where I found a book about the cruelty in a convent as well as one written to give the negative “inside scoop” from a relative of Mormon leader, Joseph Smith. Also, this was where she kept her stacks of well-worn FATE magazines.
I had watched Mom pore over each FATE issue she received, so I was curious what she found there. They were filled with paranormal stories, most being creative and interesting. That also drew me in to read more, so I understood…until I got to one disturbing story about a couple where the husband was killed in a horrific accident, the wife took his head home, and it came alive to talk to her.
Distraught and horrified with the imagery described, I’d gone to her about it, asking if she believed it to be a true story.
Being a night nurse’s aide in a small hospital, she was stationed in E.R. a lot. She answered my question by telling me a graphically-detailed story about the remains of a man who’d committed suicide by lying in the middle of the highway and getting struck by a truck.
I was confused about the relevance, and her story only served to disturb me further. My internal knowledge of right and wrong told me, then, that a healthy, loving adult would not have told this story to her young child. How long had her mind and heart been this way?
A family story my father and brother told was that they had to pull Mom off of my oldest sister when she had been a teen. Mom had tackled her, was sitting on her, and was trying to choke her. So, something hadn’t been quite right for a very long time.
Voodoo and the occult enticed Mom further toward darkness. She purchased a Ouija board, a preserved rabbit’s foot “good luck” keychain, and a crystal ball, firmly believing in their “powers.” I knew this because she talked about them in that way. She also wasn’t debunking the superstitious and paranormal concepts in TV shows I watched like Bewitched and The Addams Family.
An excerpt from my autobiography:
Dad, I don’t feel good.”
He reached to feel my forehead. “You do feel a little warm. How don’t you feel good?”
“Sick to my stomach.”
“Why don’t you go rest on the couch. I’ll be in soon.”
“Can you stay home today?”
“I’d like to, but I can’t. Your mom will be here.”
Inwardly, my heart fell, but I tried not to let it show. I mumbled, “I know.”
Settling on the couch, I mentally began preparing for the day. I smiled weakly when he walked to my side. He settled a warm blanket over me and nestled a bucket on the floor nearby.
“I’m sorry you’re sick so much, honey.”
“You didn’t do it,” I said, aloud.
Inside, my thoughts added to that statement, silently whirling around but remaining unspoken: “You didn’t do it, but maybe Mom did with the voodoo doll. If I don’t believe in it, it won’t make me sick. Don’t believe, and you won’t be sick. Don’t believe, and you won’t…”
A previous afternoon, as I was staying home (sick again), I’d watched a sitcom where one of the characters had a voodoo doll. Mom must have been watching, too.
Some days later, she beckoned me to come to the upright piano. It was wisest to do as I was told, so I went to her. She got an item from the top of the piano and held it in her closed hand near my face so I could get a good view. Stiff hair was sticking out here and there between her fingers.
When she opened her hand, I saw that it was a homemade cloth doll with long hair, just like mine. Looking closely, I realized she must have saved some from my last haircut. The eyes and mouth were crudely sewn patches of black thread.
At that moment, I had forgotten about the sitcom, so I didn’t know what to make of the doll. I looked up into Mom’s face and wondered what I was supposed to do with it. She was smiling, so was I supposed to treat it like a gift and take it from her hand? But, was this her trustworthy smile? It didn’t quite look like it. Even if it wasn’t, am I to quickly say, “thank you,” so I don’t get into trouble?
I was deciding I’d best wait for her to say something when she brought my attention to her other hand. She had several stick pins on her open palm.
“Do you know what this is?” she said, slightly raising the hand with the doll. “This is you. If you’re not good and do what I tell you to do, I’m going to use these pins in the doll. You know how it works.”
With that, she put the doll on top of the piano where I could just barely see a part of it over the edge. But, I was not tall enough to reach it, perhaps not even if I did have the strength to move the piano bench and use it for help.
Then, showing her teeth in the untrustworthy grin that had been starting to form earlier, she looked down at me, nodded contentment with herself, scowled, and walked into the kitchen.
I stared up at what I could see of the doll and shuddered. I thought of the crystal ball she kept on her bureau and wondered if she’d used it to find out I had stuck my tongue out at her behind her back the day before.
My eyes fell on her “women’s magazines” stacked on the nearby bookshelf. She kept her Fate magazines in their bedroom. These were the good ones. Perhaps she knew I’d looked at one of her Good Housekeeping magazines in the stack, even though I’d been very careful to study and memorize the arrangement before touching them. I’d tried hard to put them back in exactly the same order and the angles of the edges exactly the way they had been in relation to each other.
She stepped back into the room and pointed to the very same magazines on the bookshelf.
As if she had been reading my mind, she snapped, “And, don’t be touching these again.”
It was amazing how she could do that.
She went back into the kitchen, and I just stood there, thinking about her crystal ball.
“No, she can’t see anything,” I assured myself. “It’s just a hunk of glass.”
I started pondering my techniques. I must have been a few fractions of an inch off in aligning the magazines back the way they were. That’s all.
I prayed, “Why is she always so mad at me? I’m trying to be a good girl.”
Sitting beside me on the sofa, Dad chuckled. “I know I didn’t make you sick, honey. I just wish you felt good. I’ll see you tonight.”
He kissed me on the forehead, picked up his briefcase, and left with a wave back at me.
I wanted to scream after him, “Dad, please don’t leave!”
But, no, it was best not to say anything.
Inside, I tried to counsel and steel myself for the day: “She’s going to say and think whatever she wants, so just ignore her. Be quiet and try to feel good. I don’t want to go to school, but it’s better than this. But, if I throw up there, they’ll call Mom to come get me, which will make her madder. So, just lay back and try not to be sick anymore.”
I settled into the couch, steadily feeling sicker, I decided I would be as quiet and unobtrusive as I could all day. If I was barely there, surely she would not find something to get mad about.
Shortly, Mom entered and looked out the front window toward the car.
“Yes, Mom,” I muttered in my head, “the coast is clear to start in now.”
She must have deemed that to be true, for she wheeled around to glare at me.
That look was on her face again. It was a familiar look by now, but no less heart stopping with each repetition. This was going to be a long day.
“Sick yet again. I swear you just live to make me wait on you hand and foot.”
“Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll take care of myself.” I tried to sound as innocent and reassuring as I could. “I won’t be any trouble to you.”
Scowling, she went into the dining room out of sight.
The nausea was really starting to overwhelm me, but I dedicated every brain cell toward thinking about other things – anything but the increasing need to throw up.
I stared at the overhead light and counted dead bugs. I pretended I was an elf, mountain climbing on the drapes as they swished back and forth…back and forth. Oh no!
Thankfully, I hit the bucket. I was still having painful, dry heaves when I opened my eyes to see Mom’s foot beside the bucket.
Her voice pelted me from above. “You aren’t really sick. You just fake it so you can have someone wait on you hand and foot. You don’t care about me or what this does to me. All you think of is yourself.”
Staring at her shoe, I was still overwhelmed with nausea. I felt like throwing up on her foot, but had nothing left. Besides, it would only serve to make matters worse. I had visions of her dumping the bucket over my head in fury.
She snatched up the bucket and fled to the back recesses of the house.
My mind drifted again as I rested my head back on the pillow.
“I don’t think the doll is on the piano anymore. I bet Dad asked about it, and she couldn’t explain it. I bet she still has it, though. Just hidden away somewhere. Probably in the same place as the crystal ball.”
The crystal ball was no longer on their bureau, but I suspected it was in a drawer. I hadn’t seen the Ouija board since I’d refused to “play it” with her. I doubted she got rid of it as I had pleaded with her to do. I figured she’d stuffed it away in her closet.
Now, resting here, no matter how hard I tried to stay awake, I slept. Perhaps she would kill me in my sleep, as I suspected she would do someday. Today, maybe it really didn’t matter.
There were such threats, toward both Dad and I. All this is an incredibly long and complex story all by itself, so I’ll move on.
The important thing to get from this and keep in the back of your mind is that I was right in the midst of a violent spiritual war. And, God, through His Word, was walking me right through that battle zone every day.
It wasn’t all bad. Dad tried hard to make up for all the heartache and scariness. At one point, when Mom was at work, Dad showed me his old antique Bible. What a special treat for me to glance through it! He had gotten it from his parents just before he went to World War II. Nestled on my lap, its weight and the gold-trimmed edges of its thin pages contributed to the image in my mind of its being an old treasure passed down from wiser generations. Before he put it away, he told me it would someday be mine. Wow! What a promise!
During these years of reading, my favorite story was that of Elijah. What fascinated me most about his story was the idea that he had developed such a wonderful companionship with God. In fact, one day when he and God were walking along, Elijah was so enveloped in the interaction that he didn’t even notice when he’d walked right on into Heaven with God. That is the impression I’d gotten, perhaps from the Bible Story series. Anyway, I wanted that kind of companionship with God, a friendship that intense.
I wanted to remember to be in continual communication with God like Elijah seemed to be. So, I wrote on tiny pieces of paper and taped them in strategic locations all around my bedroom. To be a little bit cryptic so as not to get in trouble with Mom, I simply said, “Elijah” and “Remember Elijah.”
Dad, being observant, asked me about them one time, “What’s this?”
Knowing I could trust Dad, I said with enthusiasm: “Every day, I want to think of Elijah and how he was a friend of God’s. I want to be, too.”
Dad smiled. I don’t remember what he said right then, but I imagine it was something encouraging. He was like that. I do remember a time when he put his hand on my shoulder, got teary-eyed, and said, “You are the best thing that has ever happened to me.” Perhaps this was that time.
Dad was the best moral example for me as I was growing up. He did not preach the Bible; he lived it – every day. I have never faulted him for our family’s lack of church attendance. I once asked him why he didn’t attend church. He explained that he’d grown up going to a congregation with strict rules, and his family attended several times a week. In his words, he had “burned out” on church. But, he added, “I want you to feel free to go to church whenever you like, though. Just ask, and I will take you.”
I was around nine years old when a neighbor asked if I’d like to go to church with her. That Sunday, for the first time in my life, I entered a church building.
“Kevin,” my fellow mud-pie maker from next door, and his family were there! In fact, I knew and liked many of the people at this church. Here, I could visit with others about God and do so to my heart’s content. No one would belittle or sneer at me here for reading the Bible. No one here would tell me to shut up, if I talked about my Best Friend. And, because Mom wasn’t there, I thought I’d finally found a haven in which to relax and lower my guard a little.
To top it all off, only the nice kids from school were attending this church, so I wasn’t going to get bullied. I was ecstatic about the idea of attending every week.
There were three or four rooms just off the sanctuary. Kids my age were taken to one Sunday school classroom while I was guided to a different room for kids a few grades younger than me. I admit I was disappointed with that and sat close to the door so I could listen to the adult studies taking place in the sanctuary. However, my teacher came over, closed the door, and encouraged me to pay attention to my “own lessons.”
It disappointed me that the kids were separated from the adult session. I knew what the adults were talking about. I’d read the Bible, and what I was learning from listening in on the adults had real-life application for me at home. I wanted more than Noah’s Ark stories. I needed more than that.
The strangest part for me, though, was when I discovered I was not allowed to take communion. I’d read about this. I knew what the ceremony meant. I was bewildered when my neighbor passed the trays around me and to the adult on my other side. I felt like I was being told I wasn’t good enough to take part.
My neighbor operated a daycare in her home, so that’s probably why she picked up on my curious yet hurt expression. She apologized and explained that I couldn’t participate yet because I needed “to learn the meanings to it all and get baptized first.” What’s more, she added that I couldn’t go to Heaven until I was baptized!
Wait…huh? What in the world was THAT supposed to mean?! I’d have to tell God about this one! Because of experiences at home, I was petrified of water. Not only did I need to overcome that fear to partake of communion, I also had to do it to be with God someday?
I didn’t go to church again for a while. Kevin and I still played together, though. After this first visit to a church, I was very curious and pelted him with questions as we were creating chocolate milk (dirt and water) and carrot cake (grass cuttings and mud, “baked” in the sun).
I’d seen drawings of church buildings in Ideal magazines, and I had noticed some things missing from his. I asked him why there wasn’t a piano in his church.
He said that it was “against his religion.”
“Why?” I asked. I couldn’t fathom why a piano would be wrong.
He just shrugged and added that the only music allowed in church was singing. He added, “We aren’t allowed to dance either.”
“You mean in church?”
“Anywhere. It’s against our religion to dance.”
This was the shock for me. I often twirled and leapt around our grassy yard. Sometimes, I was trying to learn how to fly (without cardboard wings, at this point). Mostly, though, I pretended I was a ballerina like the one that twirled in Mom’s music jewelry box when she opened it. These moments were filled with joy and the kind of inner laughter that comes naturally between children and their Creator, so this prohibition confused me.
I said, “But I read in the Bible where good people were dancing for God. That was wrong?”
“I don’t know. We just aren’t supposed to do it,” he said, handing me a mud chocolate cake (colored black with decayed toadstools).
My experiences at the church and this talk with Kevin sure got me to thinking.
Day after day, I continued to read the Bible and the Children’s Bible Story series. Now, I was searching intently for answers. What is allowed? What is wrong? What is God REALLY like?
Was God this exacting? Maybe I had to look for the best ways to show Him that He’s loved. In my eyes, we all needed to concentrate on keeping Him from getting lonely, since He’d created us in order to keep Him company. If it was wrong to dance and play instruments, what other ways could we show Him we liked having Him around? Maybe I hadn’t understood something.
With these questions in mind, I combed through what I’d read so far in the Bible. I came upon the story of Abraham and Isaac.
You mean, if God is to understand how much I love Him, I have to sacrifice something I love? Just then, I looked down at my cat, trustingly rubbing against my leg and looking back with slowly squinting eyes. He wanted me to reach down and pet him, as usual.
“I love him,” I prayed. “I would do it, I guess…for You. But, he wouldn’t understand. I don’t even understand. This is what You want?”
As I snuggled my feline best buddy, I thought, “If he somehow knew what I was wrestling with, would he be stretched out here so trustingly?” I agonized over this story for a day or two and decided God would have to come booming in to tell me to do it, and I’d have to have no doubts whatsoever that it was Him and knew for sure it was exactly what He wanted. I’m so glad my walk with Him had matured to this point.
Meanwhile, I again found the passage I’d thought about when hearing Kevin describe dancing and instrumental music as being “off limits.” I carefully read again about David singing, dancing, and playing instruments. I puzzled over it for a few days.
Then, I simply accepted a truth that made sense to me.
I figured everyone read the Bible from start to finish like I did. So, the people at church just must not have gotten to the part about David dancing and playing instruments yet. They were adults, but perhaps they read even more slowly than I did.
My thoughts, upon looking back now:
- I find it interesting that the things I experienced around me in my home and saw on TV were scarier for me than stories I read in the Old Testament — those very things that the churches avoid in classes for kids and, sometimes, even in church services.
- There are only a few times I remember going to Dad with questions about what I read in the Bible. When he didn’t understand it either, he said so. When he thought he did, he made sure I knew it was just his opinion about the meaning.
- I think Holy Spirit did a fantastic job working with me on what I read in the Bible. From my viewpoint, my God could do anything. If eyes were gouged out or even if people were killed, He could heal them or bring them back to life, if He wanted. He rescued the three from the fiery furnace, after all. He miraculously replenished the oil and flour for the widow and her son. He brought kids back to life. All that was no big deal for Him.
- To some, Bible stories straight from the Bible are too graphic or scary for kids. However, to me, the Bible didn’t go into gory detail like the stories from FATE or like Mom when she would try to tell me what she witnessed in the emergency room. In modern times, have you sat beside a video gamer and watched the screen as they play some of the violent games? Not much is left to the kid’s imagination. The Bible is tame.
- Dad had simply pointed me to the Bible and the Children’s Bible story series for reading about God. I had access to both. When one looks at the Bible from an adult’s viewpoint, the mature imagination is filled with images and thoughts from all of their experiences and from movies and shows. Even if a kid has some of that imagery and experience, I think Holy Spirit can be trusted to reach that kid as a unique individual, explaining the Bible understandably and in an appropriate way.
- I look back on the story of David and remember thinking in pretty simple terms of David liking someone he shouldn’t because she was already married, then making sure her husband died so he could marry her. That was more than one commandment broken in the same story. That explained it as much as I needed to know.
- Revisiting the story of Abraham and Isaac, maybe you noticed that I didn’t obsess over the idea that a father was going to stab his son with a knife. I’d read in the Bible about the animal sacrifices, yet I fled the scene whenever Dad was about to stun the fish we’d caught and fillet them. Isaac was a beloved and promised son – a human with more value than a fish! Why was I not freaked out? It said Isaac was bound, but my imagination didn’t go to a dramatic scene of Isaac struggling against Abraham. In fact, in my imagination, it looked to me like Isaac was agreeing to it in trust of not only his earthly father but also His Heavenly One. Maybe the son would be brought back? I didn’t know. I just kept reading in trust of God for whatever was going to happen next. And, it worked out. No surprise. Then, see how God worked with me on what it meant in my little world of a cat I adored and how I didn’t turn into a killer.
- Baptism was a scary concept for me because it involved water. I didn’t get that fear from the Noah’s ark story. I was already fearful because of my own experiences.
- I didn’t think in terms of “denomination” back then. I figured all the Bible-reading churches held beliefs found in the Bible…well, for at least as far as they’d gotten in their reading at the time. (chuckle) If something they believed didn’t “jive” with the Bible, I figured they just hadn’t gotten to that relevant area in their reading yet.
- I remember thinking, when I read Mom’s short books about the abusive nuns and some of the stories about Joseph Smith, that these folks just hadn’t read the Bible. It really was that simple to me. Mom was the way she was because she didn’t read the Bible, which was obvious to me from her behavior but also because she didn’t like it when I read it.
- The Bible, especially my favorite part (Psalms), was filled with writing about struggles similar to what I was going through. What a great comfort to know I wasn’t alone! Other people had gone through bad stuff, and God was right there with them the whole time! He comforted me with His Presence, too. In other words, I learned early that: 1) Everyone goes through bad stuff; 2) God is here as a comfort and never leaves, no matter what happens; 3) God steps in and helps when and how He sees fit. This knowledge was sufficient for me.
- My autobiography is filled with personal stories like the one included here. The voodoo doll story scratches the surface of what went on in the life of this little girl. I am still in awe and ever thankful for what God brought me through and how. He is amazing!