Faith, Personal

Holding up my hand

On my first day of Kindergarten, my mother walked with me the half mile to school so I’d know the way. I was a little anxious about meeting so many new children, but only a little anxious because I felt tremendously reassured that Mom was taking me there. When the time came I reached my hand up for her to grasp and we left our house. In the warm September sun we walked uphill past the houses that curved along our narrow street. She led me along the Secret Sidewalk, a shortcut between some houses that emptied onto another street that led down the other side of the hill. As we passed the synagogue, Mom explained how Jews in our area walked to services there every Saturday. As we passed a patch of little sumac trees, Mom warned me not to touch them because they were poisonous. As we passed a wooded lot, Mom warned me not to go in because the hippies liked to go in there and she wasn’t sure they were safe. As we rounded the corner and passed the Church of Christ, Mom said that even if the other kids wanted to cut through their property as a shortcut, I was to stay on the sidewalk. I took in everything Mom said, fascinated and excited by how much there was to know about this walk to school. Finally, we reached the corner by the school. Mom explained how to watch and listen for the crossing guard. The guard gave the okay, and we crossed and walked up to the school. Mom left me at the door with a kiss, a hug, and a promise that she’d be waiting at that door when school let out. I felt secure as I walked inside.

On my own twenty years later, I felt alone and lost. I wanted guidance, a path to follow, that would work better than what I had come up with. I felt sure God would have that path, so I wound up in a Methodist church. In time, the pastor sprinkled me on the head and I was in. I did things I thought I should do as a Christian: I attended Sunday school and services every week, I tried to quit swearing and always be honorable, and I helped with the youth group. I enjoyed the people and socialized heavily with my Sunday school class. But I struggled with God, whom I expected to judge me, eyebrow arched and lips pursed, each time I slipped up. And I didn’t understand the church’s rituals. For example, every couple months we took communion. We read puzzling texts from the hymnal and then lined up to eat a little wafer and drink a sip of grape juice. But I didn’t know what it was for! I used to pray, “Lord, I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I pray that you will bless it anyway.” God and His church weren’t making sense. It was easier to just have fun with my friends from Sunday school. CrocusIn time, I became disillusioned with church politics and fell away. I used to blame the Methodists, but something the pastor said to me many times comes back to me now: “Each man must find his own path to God.” I sure wasn’t searching so I might find; I guess I expected the church to show me.

One day, the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on the door and promised that my Bible could be an open book to me, giving me accurate knowledge of God and His standards for me and for His people, the true Christians. I was nervous because of the Witnesses’ notoriety, but the fun young couple who came to study with us soon melted those reservations. Steve, a slight man who bobbed and twitched with nervous energy, enthusiastically shared his knowledge. He dove relentlessly into his Bible looking for verses that answered our questions. Every week for a year, he and his wife, Jessica, drove to our house in a succession of $500 beater cars to study with us. In counterpoint to Steve’s nervous energy, Jessica sat like a reference librarian, placid and poised with a heaping gob of thick blonde hair usually pulled up into a bun and glasses perched on the end of her nose. She could clarify in ten words anything Steve said in a hundred, but she always quietly let her husband speak. My wife and I enjoyed their company and our study. We became very excited and encouraged to find that the Bible could be our sole guide to living a life worthy of the name Christian. At last, here’s the path I didn’t find in the Methodist church! It would be all spelled out for me! I could put on Christ like a new suit of clothes and leave my troubled life behind! But it troubled me that the Watchtower Society seemed to have the right to interpret Scripture for us. Some of their theology and doctrine didn’t add up. Finally, Steve couldn’t explain a particular doctrinal point to our satisfaction, and we began to lose our confidence. A succession of church elders came to try to explain. Finally one elder brought it all into focus for me when he said, “Look, just come to services for a few months, and then you’ll understand and it will seem natural.” In other words, he wanted us to become a part of their culture, and then whatever the Watchtower Society would ask of us, we would do naturally. That seemed flat wrong. We ended our studies with Steve and Jessica, and since we were now apostates they couldn’t see us anymore. We missed them.

Not daunted in finding God’s sure path for us, we found the Church of Christ. They were dedicated to following the New Testament pattern for living a Christian life, and they looked only to Scripture for their authority, not to any man-made organization. White crocusSince part of that pattern required baptism by immersion, my earlier baptism didn’t count and I was baptized again. So the preacher dunked me, my sins were washed away (he was sure to point out), and I was in. We did things we thought Christians should do: My wife taught Bible class for children, I created a Web site for the church, and we faithfully attended twice on Sunday and every Wednesday evening.

On the one hand, I felt secure in the standards for Christians that the Bible seemed to spell out. Forgive. Love your wife as Christ loved the church; that is, sacrificially. Do not divorce, except for adultery. Give as you purpose in your heart, as you have prospered. Above all, do not forsake the assembly of Christians. I just had to do these things, and others the Bible specified, to be right with God. This was the way I was looking for.

On the other hand, I felt secret shame that I could meet few of these standards well and consistently. I didn’t feel good enough. Truly, because of how much I missed the mark, I often doubted my salvation. I compared myself to all the longtime members, most of whom grew up in that congregation, who seemed to be able to do all of these things. Seemed. Much later I saw how many of them had the same secret shame I did. Shame’s brother is fear, which led to members interpreting the Bible ultra-conservatively to be on the safe side. Hairsplitting doctrinal discussions were common. I remember a discussion with a fellow about church leadership. The Bible says that an elder should have children. My friend asserted that a man with only one child should not seek the eldership, just to be safe, because God might really have meant two or more children. “Oh, come now!” I said, “if you had one child and I asked how many children you had, would you say, ‘I don’t have children, but I have a child?’ How absurd!” Yet he held fast to his fear-based conclusion lest he find himself hellbound.

I loved those people, though. They showed my family love during a particularly painful and difficult period of my life. Several men stepped up to encourage me, pray with me, and study with me. Several women reached out to support my wife through the crisis. But a year or so later, fear seemed to seal shut the doors of that love when the elders learned that my family’s past history ran afoul of the church’s teachings on marriage and divorce. The elders considered our story, reviewed Scripture, and then met with us to say that we had no right to each other. They were grave yet deflated as they delivered the message; one elder in his 70s looked physically ill. I felt guilty that this had burdened them so. But our situation had become serious because the church’s teachings spoke of separating and never remarrying. I was distraught. I had hoped for help keeping my family intact, but all these elders could do was tell me their interpretation of Scripture and withdraw awaiting my decision of what I was going to do. When you live by the law, you die by it too.

I didn’t understand the Bible the same way the elders did over this matter, and so we left the Church of Christ. We eventually settled in an independent Christian Church. Shortly after we settled there, one of the elders from the Church of Christ called to ask where we were attending. When I told him, he gasped, said, “Oh! Jim, you were taught better than that!” and quickly hung up the phone. Soon we received a letter signed by the elders disfellowshipping us for joining a denominational church, “denominational” meaning “any church other than the Church of Christ.” Members there were not to associate with us except to help restore us to the faith. As far as they were concerned, we were apostate, no longer Christians.

God disagrees.

Shortly after I came to this little Christian Church, I had this strong sense that we belonged there. I heard a voice gently whispering, “Join here.” Today, if I may be so bold as to say so, I recognize that as the Holy Spirit guiding me. I followed that guidance, but I didn’t understand it. This church didn’t fit the approved pattern I learned about in the Church of Christ. They took up special offerings. Women led singing and sometimes read Scripture to the congregation. NarcissusA piano and a guitar accompanied the singing, and some members clapped and raised their hands with the music. These practices were forbidden in the Church of Christ and made me uncomfortable. But I was determined to stick with it because I felt God led my family there. I allowed that my service to him might not be about certain worship doctrines, and perhaps I’m still to learn that he’ll make use of a church even if it has recently added an electric guitar and drums. I took the uncomfortable step of letting him lead me without knowing the way first.

In hindsight, I can see that God wanted me at this church for what was to come. My marriage didn’t survive, and I was dragged through an extremely difficult divorce. Not only have church members been a great encouragement to me, but both ministers have been personally involved praying for me and encouraging me. I have had lunch with the family minister every week for two years; what started out as a way to help me stay on course has developed into friendship. The senior minister, who grew up in a conservative church from the same family as the Church of Christ, has taught and modeled a great deal about moving away from doctrinal legalism to grace, love, and a personal relationship with God. They helped meet my physical needs by letting me move into the church’s vacant parsonage while I worked through the divorce. I have even been on three mission trips because of this group, which has taught me deep lessons in service and in being served. These Christians have helped me stand firmly through everything that has happened, while also encouraging me to grow spiritually.

Trying to find and follow the ready guide, the list of things I must do to live successfully and in God’s good graces, failed me. I tried my best, but I always fell short.

You see, I missed the lesson when Mom walked me to school on my first day. The lesson wasn’t that I needed to strictly heed all of the things she told me about along the way. Knowing about the sumac and the woods and the crossing guard were useful and important, but not crucial. The crucial lesson was in the simplest and most automatic thing I did on that walk: I reached my hand up for Mom to take. I trusted Mom to guide me to school. I didn’t know where it was, how to get there, or what dangers I might encounter on the way. I didn’t have to worry about it because Mom knew the way and she led me there.

I trusted Mom because she had proved herself trustworthy in my early years. Babies naturally seek to trust, but grown men are wary. Grown men even forget that trust is an option. I sought rules and regulations because they seemed sure. It took crisis to reduce me to surrender where I could finally hear God’s voice and take that first tenuous step toward trust. As my trust grows, I am learning that as long as I stick my hand up, God will take it. He will lead the way, and He will tell me useful and important things about living. I will find life fascinating and exciting, and I will reach my destination safely.

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21 thoughts on “Holding up my hand

  1. Scott Palmer says:

    Jim,

    A moving and insightful piece. Well done.

    Jesus said that “the law is made for man, not man for the law.” I interpret it to mean that rules are meant to help us find our way — not to restrict us needlessly, make us miserable, or lead us to treat others without the love they deserve as children of God.

    St. Augustine said that in this world, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” We can’t understand our world or ourselves well enough to know what to do. We inevitably make mistakes. All God asks is that we do our best: He takes us the rest of the way.

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  2. Dani says:

    Jim-
    I agree with Scott. Well done.

    Scott-
    Your comments were also well said.

    Peace and blessings to you both.

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  3. I like to say sometimes that I’m barely qualified to tie my own shoes. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but it goes to your point, Scott. Over the past few years I’ve been learning essentially what you wrote there. Wow, it’s taken the pressure off.

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  4. Chuck says:

    Jim,

    I really enjoyed reading this. You have a great talent for communicating in writing and the vehicle for your lesson here is very moving. Thanks for sharing a portion of your personal journey.

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  5. Helen says:

    Jim,

    You reminded me of the hills and valleys that I have gone through in my Christian walk. Through it all, I did not let the frailities of ma
    end my walk but it made me stronger. I determined never to let a human make me lose my soul, but to look to my Father in Heaven to cover me with His grace. Each of us as individuals must walk the walk and when we stumble get up and continue to hold to Him.

    Your journey was one I could not stop until reading and I am impressed with your message.

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  6. Darin Batten says:

    Jim,
    “The secret sidewalk”. There are what, maybe fifty kids that grew up in the 60’s-70’s that know what and where that is! At one point the “drive” had about thirty children living on that long block. But as families grew larger, and those houses became smaller, the flight from the area saw the neighborhood dwindle to just a handful. By the 80’s there were so few kids that the term fell out of the vernacular. I just bet that if you were to walk up that street and ask anyone under the age of 18 where the secret sidewalk was you would receive the strangest looks! And I too, remember the same path, having walked the same walk to and fro, but I was one of the heathens that cut behind the synagogue and church most of the time!

    Great story, Jim, and I really liked it. It did not go where I thought it would, but that is the beauty of it.

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    • Darin, it’s really sad how that neighborhood has declined, isn’t it? Back in the day Dad called our neighborhood “Rabbit Hill” because the families were so prolific. And neighbors took some pride in their property.

      Do you remember the mulberry tree near where the Secret Sidewalk curved? And I can’t tell you how many times I slipped and fell on the ice walking down Woldhaven in the winter. I may have brained my damage.

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      • Darin says:

        I think in large part the decline of that neighborhood was in part due to the fact that those houses were indeed just developed as starter homes. They were not intended for family dwelling. If I recall, the late 40’s or early 50’s is when the Miami Hills development was rushed in to accommodate the post-war housing needs. Think about it – none of those houses had a basement nor a second floor. They are just insufficient for raising a family. I wish my folks would have had the wisdom to move like yours did… Oh well, memories! Now they have, for the most part, become slum rental properties. The crime and other issues along that area is just depressing. It is so very sad.

        The mulberry tree! I always hated that tree. You would get your annual new shoes and the next thing they would be stained up and down from them berries! You were lucky: you did not have to learn how to drive up and down those hills in the middle of winter! I’d gladly exchange the brain damage for the one accident I had sliding into a parked car going down the hill!

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        • You’re certainly right; those houses were meant for young families. We moved in ’76 simply because we wanted a little more space. Hard to believe your parents are still there — but I’ll bet they haven’t had a house payment in 25 years by now!

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  7. Mr. Tut and When I entered the first grade
    You have inspired me to write what happened the first day of 1st grade. Thank you because it is a fond memory and I have a spot to put it. Are not blogs a gift from God?

    I don’t even remember how old I was entering the 1st grade. Let me calculate it. Hmm, I was 6 years old. My childhood is sketchy at best. I know I was alive as I am now but my memories are very few. As an adult my first wife said I have selective amnesia. She and my children would remember events I could not. I could not believe those events happened so I just humored them, but I did not fool my wife. I see children, real young children competent to ride public transportation. I could not at that age. I had no concept of a bus stop. It was not until High School did I dare to ride a bus. Still I preferred to walk.

    I remember my Dad was going to play golf and he told my Mom I could take the bus and meet him there. Then he looked at me with a smirk and headed out the door. He knew I was confused as ever. I had a vision what the entrance to the Golf Course looked like. From a distance I could see the horseshoe entrance with ivy wrapped around it and other greenery. Through the entrance I could a man standing on the on the grass. I still can envision or see the Golf Course entrance because it is permanently etched upon my photogenic memory since that time. I have many memories etched upon my photogenic memory, real or imagine that I can see every once a while.

    I now realized my Mom taught me about faith more than any Church has taught me. You see they don’t believe in woman teachers or holding any office in the Church. I think they have moms. She even taught me how to be homeless when the Church was teaching get rich schemes. She just dropped me of at the playground and drove off. Everything was fine. The kids playing as they usually did. I was shy, an introvert, I did not have anything to say, quiet and indifferent, so I just watched the children at play. I thought, “Is this all to it?” Then all of a sudden I heard the sound of a bell and the children orderly entered a building on the far side of the playground. Soon I was alone.

    I knew not what to do. I knew not where to go. I might make matters worse by entering that ominous building. So I just stood there without moving an inch. I was a cry baby until about nine years old. But I was six years old then. Suddenly a gusher of tears flowed from my eyes. It made me feel better but did not help my situation. I looked to the distant building. There was a figure of a man pushing a trash can. It was a sight I haven’t seen before. I still did not know what to do. Should I cry out for help from this complete stranger? He saw me. He began to approach me and I did not fear this man. I guess he was used to children now. He was a Janitor at the Elementary school and I was just a lost sheep. Tears still flowing down to my then wet shirt, I had to wipe my eyes sometimes, and he asked me what was wrong. His name was mister Tut. I looked for him every day for a while; of course I can’t remember how long it was, to lead me to class again. Eventually I knew the way. I never spoke of this to my mother.

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    • I see that my story touched something in you. It was clearly such a confusing time for you. I hope that in time you sorted things out and found your footing.

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      • I was trying to say I was raised walking by faith not by sight. I always jump in the pool at the deep end and I do not swim so well. I even go off the high dive. To qualify to go to the deep in at the neighborhood You have to be able to swim across the deep end. So, I got a running start, dove in the pool, and with arms flaying I made it across. That is the story of my life. Most people are content to venture not out of the shallow end of the pool. Still waters run deep.

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  8. You are right about the confusion. I found a Scripture that really help me. It begins with, “Trust in the Lord.” Then I began living my life with the second part, “Lean not upon your own understanding. Boy, I thought, I can’t rely upon my own understanding and I have done, and do some amazing things.

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  9. JW says:

    Jim, I’m an ex-South Bender like you, and I even went to James Monroe School (long before you were even a twinkle in…..). I responded to one of your flickr pictures a couple of years back, and just happened upon your blog this morning.
    You write so beautifully (I’m an English teacher) and with such tender feeling, it’s a pleasure to read what you’ve written. I also appreciate your spiritual postings even though I’m not a Christian. I hope you’ve continued to find/notice more happiness in your life in the past couple of years.
    Thanks for your blog–it’s truly a gift for me!

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  10. Neil says:

    Jim,
    In following various links from your post about Erskine Boulevard, I finally came to this one, and you have touched my soul with the description of your journey and your description of faith and trust in God deeply revealed to your through your mom. I’m deeply moved.

    I grew up a Methodist and still am one. My first memories of that resided in Grace United Methodist Church over on Twyckenham Drive. My mom was a Sunday School teacher there. She grew up in a very rural Oklahoma Methodist, my dad in a different one in South Bend. I mention this only for reference.

    Thanks so much for allowing yourself to show your vulnerable side. It’s a very manly thing to do.

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