Friday, March 26, 2010

Personal Faith Experiences: The Big Brass Cross

It amazes me at times how often I keep coming back to those initial faith experiences of my childhood. I don't think I'm unique in that. One of the most meaningful for me, one that I find myself revisiting more and more these days for a lot of reasons, was an almost overpowering sense of God's presence.

Now, when I was a kid, growing up in First Presbyterian Church of Anderson, SC (from 3rd grade on), a lot of that early sense of God's presence had to do with how my childhood faith was informed. There were two primary sources, I'm inclined to think.

One was a big blue, illustrated, hardcover book of Bible stories for children. Don't know what happened to that book but I'd love to still have it. Alas. I read it and reread it and savored each of the illustrations, especially the "Old Testament" ones.

The other source was movies — movies like Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 classic, The Ten Commandments. Charlton Heston's thundering Moses. Yul Brynner's cool, suave Rameses. Edward G. Robinson's conniving Dathan. But what really impressed me was the film's depiction of it's main character — God, done so through the limited but awe-inspiring special effects of the time. That visual imagery of God, taken pretty much from a literal reading of the Hebrew scriptures, became my image of God — a kind of Zeus to the tenth power. And I began to wonder why God's presence was never manifested in my life like that.

I mean, after all, there was God — seen and heard in very powerful, real ways: the deep paternal at times voice, the wind which parted the Red Sea, the flickering pillar of fire, the blinding presence on the mountain top whose lightning bolts wrote on stone tablets and which whitened Heston's hair. It was God, not unlike Zeus or Odin; a god who was immaterial but manifested in material, sometimes scary ways. It was a god who was tribal, yet inferred as universal; the one true living god who somehow spoke audibly to people. It was a god not to be trifled with. God's voice was a voice from Olympus. In my childhood mind I could not distinguish between the Hebrew's God and the super-sized deity of that Greek mountain.

That was the God of my youth. He — and God was always personified as male — was awe-inspiring, like Zeus without a body. I wanted that God to be real, to be my God.

So much for my time in Fowler's "Mythic-Literal" stage of faith.

In early adolescence, as I left Zeus behind, I became more and more aware of God's presence in my life in a different way. Often, as I sat in a pew at First Presbyterian, Anderson, listening to the organ play and choir sing, or hanging on the words of great preachers like Richard T. Gillespie or John B. Pridgen, I'd simultaneously stare at the large brass cross which hung on the back wall of the choir loft and be filled with a sense, a very real sense to my twelve or fourteen year-old soul, of God's presence. It was more a comforting, loving presence than the Olympian picture of God I'd developed as a child; a sense that I was a child of God; that God held me and comforted me and loved me like a parent.

One of those personal faith experiences that we Presbyterians find it difficult to talk about is our sense of God's presence in our lives. And I think that's understandable. Often we don't really know what we're feeling or sensing; we think we don't have the language to express it. I mean when's the last time you attended a Session meeting, or even a Sunday school class, and someone talked, in a very meaningful, personal way, about God's presence in their life? I'd like to think we're getting better at it.

An author, speaker and pastoral caregiver, David R. Gillespie's other blog is Southern Fried Faith. He can be contacted at

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