A Childish Faith
(A Deconstruction Observed, Part 3)
by James Pence
17 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:17 NIV).
The details are fuzzy (it was 56 years ago after all), but something changed in me the day our priest, Father Clarke, put his hand on my head and blessed me. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say something awakened in me.
Before then, prayers were something I recited from rote before bed every night. And church was just a place I went with my family on Sundays
That all began to change.
I was baptized not long after we started going to Trinity Episcopal. It was just a private ceremony but I remember it well. Surrounded by my immediate family, I knelt on a tall stool as we gathered around the baptismal font at the back of the church. Father Clarke said some words and poured some water on my head, and that was it.
It wasn’t a big deal to me, but my mother said she was relieved. She’d been worried about me because I was unbaptized.
With baptism behind me, life went on without much change, except one.
I found myself talking to God now.
My prayers were childish. And my faith, if you can call it that, was very transactional.
I remember in the fifth grade being deathly afraid that I was going to flunk geography. I felt a lot of pressure to make good grades, and I didn’t want to have to face my dad if I brought home an F or even a D.
So, I figured this was a prime opportunity to work a deal out with God.
Most Sundays, we recited the Apostles’ Creed as part of the liturgy. One phrase in the creed was, “He descended into hell.”
I reasoned that hell was a bad word (I never quite figured out why it was in the creed!), so I offered God a deal. If he would let me pass geography, I wouldn’t say “hell” when we came to that part of the creed.
So, until I received my report card, when that line came up in the creed I said, “He descended into (unintelligible mumble).”
I passed geography with a C, so I was convinced God had heard my prayers and accepted my offering.
Another time (Also in the 5th grade. That was quite a year!) I’d been sent into the hallway to await a paddling for not doing my vocabulary homework for the past six weeks or so. The teacher had a reputation for being the hardest paddler in the school. So far I’d avoided his wrath, but now I stood awaiting my doom while he finished checking everyone else’s work.
As I stood there, the principal’s secretary came up and went into the classroom. A few seconds later, the entire class filed out and I was told to fall in line. They took us down to the basement to watch a special movie. I don’t even remember what it was. All I know is that I had been at least temporarily saved from a paddling. After the movie was over, we went back to class and the paddling was forgotten. My sentence had been reduced to staying after school until I had caught up with my homework.
The only other thing I remember about that incident is that for years to follow I believed that God had directly intervened on my behalf.
My faith was a childish faith. Immature. Transactional. Superstitious. Perhaps what we would characterize as a cosmic Santa Claus faith.
God was real to me, after a fashion.
And to this day I believe God honored my childish approaches. Those experiences, though far from what we would call biblical, are still very real to me. And I believe they were part of God’s drawing me to himself.
But as I moved through catechism and confirmation—even becoming an altar server—I didn’t grow or progress in my understanding. If anything, I regressed. As I approached my teen years my immature faith began to wane and I slipped back into the church-on-Sunday mindset that characterized me at First Baptist.
That all changed the day Father Clarke looked at me and said, “Jim, have you ever considered going into the ministry?”
All Posts in this Series: A Deconstruction Observed