The Influence of Early Childhood on a Concept of God

By Ken Wells - 07/31/2021


Series Two; Blog Forty-Nine

Step 2: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”

 “If you live insane and bizarre long enough you think others around you are the afflicted ones, not you. At least, that was my experience”— KW

When I look back, my childhood was chaotic, crazy, and unpredictable in many ways.  It influenced my concept of God in a big way. When my mom was age 9 she accidentally killed her sister while the two of them played with matches. Her sister burned to death. It was an accident, but until the day she died, my mother carried the weight on her shoulders about killing her sister. During one of her last conversations before she died at age 99, she tearfully said, “I killed my sister!” To combat the guilt from her understanding of God she became a great baseball player in order to get the smile of approval from her parents. Once she gained their approval she lost it with their disapproval of her marrying my dad.

Right around the time my mom got pregnant with her first child, Judy, she and my dad found religion. They got “saved” which then was the preferred parlance for the “born again” experience in religion. They became involved in the holiness movement which emphasized the forgiveness of sins and the concept of being “filled with the Spirit”.  Once filled with the Spirit, my parents became zealous advocates for the church and committed their lives to the promotion of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Both began to find hope and experienced a sense of belonging by fanatically serving God through the church. And did they ever! Whenever the doors were opened in the church, my parents were there. They participated in all of the outreach endeavors. The truth was that the church became the life of my parents.  Though they were poor, they constantly gathered food and clothing for folks who were poorer.  Whenever there was a holiday, it was always shared with those in need. Christmas usually meant that some needy family spent the night at our home and the kids just had to share their beds with the needy family. That was just the Christian thing to do.

My father would drive the church bus to pick up kids on Sunday morning after working all night at a gas station. He also was one of the leaders in the church. He would attend church and then eat dinner and go to bed to sleep for 4 hours before evening church. That was the routine all of my childhood.

My mom would forever be looking for ways to serve the poor. Our church had a family that had 22 kids. She would scurry around town to make sure that all of them had clothes. To help out a woman known as Sister Harris, she would take our clothes to her and have her iron them for 50 cents a basket. I remember that my mom would complain that the clothes always smelled musty when they were returned. Yet, she would continue taking the clothes to her home because she knew Sister Harris needed the money. It seemed to me like my mom was doing her penance for the death of Ailene through all of these acts of service to the poor. She was relentless throughout her life until Alzheimer’s struck her down.

Whenever there is an emotional hole or vacuum in the soul of a human being, people will find a way to fill it. It could be a substance addiction like drugs or alcohol or a process such as baseball, work, religion, or sex. In my family, it included all of the above. Cultic religion offers an escape and folks who are desperate like mine to find meaningfulness in life reach for the escape.  Some remain stuck for the rest of their lives. That is what happened to my folks. The impact on us as children was devastating.

Spirituality is many things and the depth of where it comes from is human struggle.  For me baseball and church have been a rendezvous in a struggle to address shame. My mother or father never faced the shame they carried from their parents. Dad, with all the addictive acting out with alcohol and sex by his father and uncles. never learned to confront the tragedy, sadness, and fear from past behavior of his father’s family.  Mother, with the unresolved guilt of her sister’s death, was never taught to grieve to completion and as a result was hounded by shame throughout her entire life.

Yet we all learn to adapt and create ways to cope with the tragedies that occur in our lives. For many of us, without those coping schemes, we would not have survived the tumultuous childhood that we had to endure.

Many people adapt their coping mechanisms for dealing with shame from one escape to another. My Mom and dad turned their focus of escaping shame from sports to religion. The frenetic adrenaline rush of God and church kept the hounds of shame at bay for a season of time and then both parents participated in high shame behavior by trying to be more, spiritually, to keep from being less. They determined that relentless, undying service toward others in the spirit of saving souls for God would be the path away from shame. The unspoken message was that “if I sacrifice enough for God, then somehow I will be worthy of God’s smile of approval”. This dynamic fueled my parents for their entire lives. This toxic belief and environment nearly cost me my life in religious addiction and workaholism.

Soren Kierkegaard once said that “It belongs to the imperfection of everything human that man can only attain his desire by passing through its opposite”.  Isaiah the prophet stated that “God is both sanctuary and stumbling stone”. For me, the church has been less sanctuary and more stumbling stone. Perhaps Kierkegaard’s insight fits my adventure with church.

If the church was meant to be a safe sanctuary, my experience was more of its opposite. In a peculiar way, through the opposite encounter of chaos and abuse, I have learned to seek and create a spirituality that became a refuge for me.

However, first spirituality became an experience of torture and travail that existed in a house of horror we called church.

It was hammered into me as a young boy to be spiritual. For me, that meant to read the Bible, pray for family and friendship that they won’t be lost but get saved and live right. Evangelistic preaching would scare the hell and sin right out of me. I remember not wanting to drink, smoke cigarettes, and cuss because I was sure I’d go to hell.  The preaching and teaching at the church reminded me of every time I went to church and that was a minimum of three times a week. Most weeks it was between three and five times. My church would teach it’s not enough to get saved, you must not sin and if you do then you backslide. If you die or the second coming of Jesus happens and you did not ask for forgiveness, then you would go to hell. Some dramatic sermons convinced me again and again that there was a heaven to gain and a hell to shun.

I was compelled to worry that others would die and go to hell as well. I took it literally. I constantly feared the Red Scare, that the Communists were coming and would take over our country, signaling the beginning of the tribulation period for Christians. I was taught that the tribulation period meant that Christians must endure persecution for at least 3 1/2 years of the 7-year tribulation period. Then if you didn’t give in to compromise with the world, Jesus would come and take you to heaven. The message I learned to live was “be tough and don’t give in to the devil”. I was even taught that Martin Luther King was a communist troublemaker and infiltrator and was an indication that we were in the last days.

I took it all very seriously. Once, when I was very young, I thought the voice of the Lord told me that the world was coming to an end. I printed up fliers and was on my way to pass them out to all my friends. My brother saved from being publicly embarrassed and ridiculed by tackling me and snatching the fliers from me. I really thought it was my responsibility to warn my friends.  Had Steve not taken the fliers and destroyed them, I would have passed them out.

Worship at church was bizarre. We were described as a holy roller church. I was taught that people did not understand our faith and that we were not the real holy rollers. We reserved that description for people who spoke in tongues and we did not.  But what we did do made up for whatever we didn’t do to earn the title of holy rollers.

During the congregational singing, there was a lot of emotion.  My brother and I would take note to see if Grandma Campbell was well enough to attend the worship. If she was, then there would always be fireworks.  Her attendance seemed to spur the music director to instruct everyone to turn to page 432 in our hymnal, “Amazing Grace”. We were to sing all the verses. On the second verse, those who had experience knew that Grandma Campbell would be cued to “get blessed”.  This meant that her spirit was in tune with the Holy Spirit and she would verbally express her joy.  What that meant is that she would let out a very high-pitch scream in demonstration of feeling divine rapture that would literally scare the hell out of you if you sat nearby.  My brother and I learned to time her expression and would cover our ears.  Everyone else acted like it was normal. It was just understood that little Grandma Campbell was “blessed”.

Sometimes my Grandma Wells would get “blessed”.  She would take the hat she wore and twirl it on her index finger while she ran around the perimeter of the church, shouting “Glory to God”.

Then there was T.A. Murphy.  During the congregational singing, he would get “blessed”.  What was unique and bizarre was that his expression took the form of hurdling the pews from the back of the church to the front. If the church was full, people just formed a path that allowed him to make his way to the front pew. He would be shouting “Hallelujah, Jesus is His name” as he hurdled one pew after another until he reached the front and then would go into a “holy dance”. Add to the picture the saints of the church gathering at the altar and everyone praying out loud, and you see why we were identified as holy rollers. My brother Steve and I were always fearful that one of our friends at school would visit our church and we would be embarrassed to death

In retrospect, given the craziness of church as a kid, it was no wonder that addiction became a valid alternative to cope and manage life. I learned that being an addict is much better than nothing because nothing was pretty much what I got from church.

What ways did your parents demonstrate escaping shame and avoiding unwanted emotional pain in their lives?

Upon reflection, what impact did their escape behavior have upon you? How did your early childhood impact your concept of God in the here and now?

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