Some would say I got religion early. Some might even claim that I inherited it from Dad’s family, all the way back to Henry Matteson in the sixteen hundreds. It is true that Henry was a follower of Roger Williams and a non-conformist believer who was run out of Massachusetts Bay Colony for his Baptist beliefs. And it is true that there have been Baptists and Congregationalists in my father’s family for generations since then. But I do not make any claim to prestige because of Henry’s presence in America in the seventeenth century, that he lived on this continent earlier rather than later, since everyone has to be somewhere and everybody has ancestors as ancient as Henry, even if they do not know of them by name. Nor do I lay claim to any piety by association, not even from my saintly maternal grandmother Ma Bertie.
Rather, I think that there is a deep-seated need in every human to look up. Awe is an emotion that is appropriate to man. I felt it early when I looked out on the endless water of the Gulf of Mexico reaching from my feet, halfway to the heavens. Then, I knew that I must always swim only in the shallow end and marvel, at a distance, at the secrets of the deeps. I sensed God was at work in the mighty and marvelous things I saw. I knew God in the simplicity of a child’s trust. The message I heard was plain: the Maker of all that is knew my address, knew who I was and loved me anyway. We called Him “Father.”
My first memories of church are of singing. I see myself sitting beside the piano in a white oak chair. The handle of the piano is as high as my left ear. Brother Mac, the choir director, is trying patiently to help his music makers to learn the melody of a simple song that we will sing in big church just before Christmas. It is Dauphin Way Baptist Church. Mother is waiting for me in the parking lot while I practice; then it’s home to our house in Birdville.
I knew the Jesus script well. He was a baby in December; by spring he was grown and the story grew gorier. There were rumors of an unjust execution and the death of a perfect man who was, somehow, God inside. Because God loved me, he took my place and my punishment. But the full import of that was lost on me. I knew too little of guilt and no shame at all to feel a need for God’s forgiveness. But I knew God, not just things about Him. And who could know God and not love Him? I talked to Him, silently most often but out loud when I was otherwise alone. And He talked to me. Not in audible words but in impression and in peace.
Once, when I was six and after I had been very ill, and I was sure I would die with my father far away in Puerto Rico, I longed for my Daddy’s sure hand gripping mine. Years later, my mother told me what I had said and done. I asked her, “Momma, when is Daddy coming home?”
To this she responded—exasperated and beat down by three sick children and a husband gone forever on TDY, “Temporary Duty,” that nevertheless seemed eternal –“Only God knows.”
“I’ll ask him, then.” I agreed.
I left the house on Flamingo Drive and walked down the gray sidewalk between the gray clapboard-sided apartments to the gray and empty wading pool in the common field. The structure was a square “fort” with a foot and a half high wall, twenty by twenty. It was my special place, a place that was my thinking place, a special place where I talked to God. In half an hour or so I returned and said to my Mother, “Daddy’s coming home. I talked to God. Daddy is coming home.” I pronounced it with such conviction that she was shaken. She called Brookley Field’s operations to see if indeed there was a chance. But they reported that a hurricane was bearing down on Puerto Rico, and they doubted that anything would be leaving the airfields down there. Mother was worried my faith would be shaken. I was unconcerned.
That night Mother received a long-distance call from my father. He would be arriving at 3:00 a.m. She woke me. “Daddy just called. He is on his way home. Let’s meet him at the airport.” I was happy but not surprised. I remember seeing my Dad descending the stairs from the Convair turboprop, he sporting a red goatee. He was home. He had flown out on one of the last planes to leave Puerto Rico before the storm hit. He had flown out on a plane whose propellers he had serviced. His was a faith in his own work. Mine was a faith that must of necessity lie in something greater than me. As a child, however, I felt my premonition unremarkable, but it was not the last time I had such an adventure. Only sometimes the answer was not what I wanted or expected.
My Grandmother, Ma Bertie, had a quiet faith that did not shout or boast of its strength. Hers was like the rocks that lie at the edge of the sea whose strength is hidden deep beneath the surface and is only revealed when the storms crash against them, and they are unshaken. This was her faith. I have sat beside her at the harmonium, the pump organ, and listened to her sing in a high reedy soprano the melodies of the faith from the Sacred Harp Hymnal. The mystic shapes of the notes were like the gamut of her life. Married as a naive teenager to a straight and strong young man who was a good man at heart but was a lover of strong drink, she, nevertheless, stood faithful. The notes sharpened as she learned of the struggle of rearing a family at the turn of the century. During the Great Depression, like other Americans singing the blues in a minor key, she took solace in the hope of her faith despite the privations and the loss of their farm. She was not perfect, this granddaughter of the circuit riding Pastor Thomas Dew, but she was genuine and strong. When I knew her, she was already over seventy and had weathered many storms. She seemed the epitome of resolute faith.
I recall sitting beside her in the Assembly of God church where she attended in Panama City. I was a little frightened by the commotion that swirled around her when all prayed aloud. She held a man’s handkerchief twisted in her left hand and whispered softly, “Sweet Jesus! Yes, Lord!” with her eyes clinched shut. I knew that she asked God for more than she spoke aloud. I was troubled by those who “spoke in tongues.” One sister in particular shouted out at every meeting what sounded to me to be exactly the same babble every time she spoke. Pastor Riddings translated her declaration for the congregation without hesitation. It was always something on point with his sermon. But I did not mind as much the show of their worship when I thought of how they loved “Sister Bertie.” They loved her in warm appreciation and practical ways. They loved Pa, too, even though he did not attend. Perhaps the whole affair was lost on him due to his deafness. I suppose it was to him like the distant incoherent roar of the sea, like the ecstatic tongues that never get translated.
It is told of my Ma Bertie that when a prayer meeting was called at the church to petition the Almighty for rain to end the drought, she was the only one to come to meeting with an umbrella under her arm. Such was her faith.
Ma Bertie’s favorable hymn was “Victory in Jesus.” The affirmation of the words was like the steel bands of a stave barrel; she held together because of what she believed. When she ultimately died of stomach cancer that followed throat cancer, all brought on by years of dipping snuff, she faced it bravely. The scale was returning to “Do.” She hummed the broken melodies of the hymns of faith with the little strength of her failing body. But she was unafraid and was hopeful of an ultimate victory in Jesus.
I have shared that faith for much of my life. I sat in the pew at Hollinger’s Island Baptist Church, realizing that there was something between God and me that I had to get straight. I saw that Jesus had paid the debt of my willfulness and disobedience. My “sin,” Pastor Rusk called it, was getting in the way of my life-long friendship with God. I told Mother after the service that when Brother Rusk told us to give our hearts to Jesus, I wanted to go to the front of the church, take out my heart and lay it on the altar. She arranged for me to visit with the Pastor. He quizzed me and declared that I was old enough and understood enough to make my own commitment. I was nine years old.
I was “dunked” on November 5, 1956. The baptismal pool was deep, and the water was cold. The deacons had put a cinder block in the bottom for me to stand on, but I had to swim from the step to Brother Rusk. “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost…” under the water; “rise to walk in the newness of life!” I rose from the water shivering, but happy. I was proud to show outside what had happened inside of me.
My subsequent adventures in the faith have been much like that icy pool of water. Much of the time I cannot touch bottom and the water chills my soul; occasionally, I do get a toe touch of solid ground, but just for a moment. Nevertheless, I am rarely afraid, since I grip a strong hand of One who has been here before me, just as I did that November night.
I have examined that faith repeatedly over the years. Every time I found that it was indeed real and reasonable. It may have been the faith of my fathers, it may have first belonged to Ma Bertie, then to my mother, but it is also mine.
Some would say I got religion early. I say that I found God none too soon. I found Him for myself and have been making sure of it ever since. What I discovered in my search is that He does not hide when you really look for Him, and you will recognize Him instantly when you meet Him, even if you never saw Him before in your life.