This is my first attempt to reflect on my experience of belief. I want to try, as far as I can, to avoid discussing theological concepts or models of belief. Reflecting simply on what I have experienced as a believer. In this first post I recall growing up believing in God.
For introducing me to belief in God I must thank my parents. And also the Methodist church I attended for much of my childhood. Even though my parents were not very religious, Christianity was cultural and an expected part of growing up. When I say they were not religious I don’t mean to imply that they were atheists either, but simply secular through lack of engagement with their own beliefs.
We attended a Methodist church for no other reason than that my parents viewed it as an English equivalent to my Father’s N.G. (Dutch Reformed) denomination in which we were baptized as babies. As far as Sunday school is concerned, the thing that stands out most vividly in my imagination is worship, especially a song called “Jehovah Jirah” and another called “Love the Lord your God”. I can remember enjoying these and other songs, and sang many of them outside of the Sunday school setting – which is strange given my complete inaptitude for all other forms of music.
At home, my mom sometimes read bible stories to us and at night, I will forever remember the “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer. How, as a young boy, I pictured my soul leave my body as I lay down to sleep – hopeful that it had made its’ way to God. And that should anything happen to me while I lay there in my bed, at least my soul was safe in God’s hands.
I also remember the need, sometimes, to pray that prayer, and later the Lord’s Prayer, over and over again. These repetitions arose from concerns that I had become distracted, and had allowed the prayer to be completed on autopilot. This of course seemed problematic since perhaps auto-pilot prayer didn’t have the same power as self-navigated prayer. If this was true then perhaps God hadn’t heard that He needed to “keep my soul”, or “forgive my trespasses”, or “deliver me from evil”. Thankfully I never let the autopilot continue once I had noticed it, and usually I was satisfied that the prayer following the discovery was done with sufficient devotion and care to reach the ears of God.
To this day this habit continues and will often manifest as repeated grace during the first bite of the meal, as I move the focalized prayer at the table to my heart, and there reiterate my gratitude for God’s provision. Likewise, the Lord’s prayer is still at times susceptible to autopilot transmissions, and still I feel the need to bring my focus back to the prayer and repeat whatever was spoken without intention. These early struggles are also discernible in my need to sometimes overemphasize my intention, or meaning, in prayer – in case God misunderstood me and thinks I’ve communicated something unacceptable.
I remember the first time I was hurt by “the church” or rather by members of it. It was the usual bullying that many of us experience at various times when we are young. My experiences unfortunately connected to those who were part of the body of Christ – but also just little boys like myself. And though I no longer connect the hurt to the church, the bullying itself has left deep scars.
I also remember my first unanswered prayer. Oh, there may have been others before this. But this one was different. This was something very personal and something very painful and I wanted deeply for God to change it. I prayed and prayed and prayed, waking each day to find the prayer unanswered. I have no idea how long it went on for or when I finally realized God wasn’t going to answer the prayer. It was an unspoken prayer and nobody knew that I was praying besides me and God. I also have no idea what I thought of God because of this but I do remember the pain of living daily with a reality that I deeply desired to escape and finding no God to take the pain away.
Until I was 16 my outlook on life was narrow and finite. I believed everything I had been taught and had no reason, nor any desire, to believe differently. That was until I read a newspaper report linking God to a part of the brain. Innocently my eyes had fallen onto one of the headlines of the open newspaper lying on the dining-room table. It read something like, ‘Scientists discover God linked to part of the Brain’. In an instant my world changed. Suddenly my clear and solid vision became blurry and unstable. For the first time that I can remember, I had encountered something I had no tools to engage. My childlike faith was never taught about the supposed conflict between science and religion. I had grown up believing that both were true, along with history, geography and everything else. This brief moment would launch me into adolescence in a way that left the rest of puberty looking quiet tame in comparison. In many ways it was the death of my childlike faith.