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7/30/02                                                                                       View Comments

The Ecclesiastical Mutt or Heretics I have Been

by Robert Hitchcock

I am and have always been an ecclesiastical mutt. My parents were middle of the road Southern and American{Yankee Baptist} when they married in 1960 and I was "Dedicated to the Lord",{a "dry" infant Baptism} in a General Baptist Church when I was born in 1961. My father was in the Air Force {Yeah, OURS!!} at the time of my birth and I cost him a whole whopping $9.60 cents in delivery costs at the Base Hospital. As I grew, Dad would pull out the bill for my birth and bemoan the "fact" I had initially been such a "low" cost investment, but with the broken arms, glasses, ear surgeries for swimmer's ear, I ended up being a high maintenance item. I know the old boy meant it mostly in jest, but then again this was a guy whose idea of a family dinner out was the Golden Arches. In the end his "cheapness was exposes for all to see when my three siblings and I were forced to share one small fry and a medium coke between the four of us just to save money. The good news was we each received our own piece of meat and two small buns to eat. What a guy!!

Our family was the typical 60's white lower middle class/trailer trash{Dad was from Georgia} who lived in the still predominately dairy farms and citrus orchards of Southern California. Dad 's enlistment with the USAF ended around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and he escaped the 'Nam by impregnating Mom with two more kids during the first years of that conflict. Also, his only brother joined the Army and this kept the old man out of harm's way. Uncle Sam had taught Dad how to repair computers and TVs, so this enabled him to find a job in the booming Southern California defense industry.

While my folks really didn't take religion seriously, my grandmothers on the other hand were fairly intoxicated with the Holy Spirit. My paternal grandmother was convinced that I would grow up to be another Billy Sunday and or Dwight L. Moody for two reasons. One I was the oldest male grandchild and two like Samuel's parents she promised to dedicate me to the Lord for his service. Grandma Maude never lacked for hubris.

By "hubris," I mean "FAITH." Grandma was convinced by her reading of the King James Scofield Reference Bible, The LAWD GAWD Almighty was obligated to hear the prayers of a righteous Southern Baptist woman like herself as her desires for me were "Biblical" and God had to keep his word. Failing to get a positive response from on High the first time around with my Dad, she focused the prayer guns on my little bald newborn head and nagged both Yahweh and his Son until she obtained her heart/s desire.

Mom's folks were just a little less fervent in their Baptist faith. They were poor yet hard working Missourians. Grandpa Jim never really spoke of religious things, and rarely attended church as the organ music "hurt his ears." A practicing Mason, he tended to his pragmatic duties of providing for his family and thanking the Grand Architect of the Universe for the beauty of Creation. Of course "Grace" was said at mealtime and I was quick to recite Bible verses I had learned at Sunday School for his amusement. The standard fee of a nickel; for every verse quoted correctly in King Jimmy English was the price of my little show. To this day whenever my eyes stray upon a nickel, memories of this stern Missourian patrician come to mind. He died to young, eaten alive by cancer.

Grandma Louise was the perfect Norman Rockwellian grandmother. Short, squat, white-haired and fond of shapeless flower print dresses of the 1930's she seemed so frail, yet would knock you down with one slap if you "sassed" her too much. She never really expected to be a mother much less a grandmother as she was childless unto age 44. Mom turned out to be her only child, Although She denies it, Mom was spoiled by my grandparents so much so she really should have been born a blue blood along the lines of a Cabot or Rockefeller. She often fancies herself to be a real world version of the T.V. soap opera character Phoebe Tyler of "All My Children.

As Mom's blood kin had migrated to California in the 20/s and 30's, it was with the maternal relatives that I had the most exposure too. I spent many a happy hour at Grandpa Jim's house in San Bernardino and latter Clear Lake when he and Grandma Louise moved to Northern California. This side of the family were involved in a variety of Protestant Churches and even a few obscure sects like the 7th Day Adventists and Church of Christ{Non-Instrumental}. My favorite relatives were Great-Uncle Joe{Grandma Louise's brother} and his chain smoking wife Great-Aunt I\Jimmy. These two lived next door to my grandparents when the latter migrated to a small lakeside community about two hours north of Sacramento to enjoy a quiet retirement.

Joe and Jimmy, as they were known to family members, used to invite me over to their place to play cards and chess. Yep, at the ripe old age of five, I learned to play the game of Bobbie Fischer and Boris Spasky, Not very well, I hasten to add, but enough to give my own Father a run for his money. Also, Aunt Jimmie introduced me into the wonderful world of substance abuse. No, not pot or some other "gateway drug," but the most evilest intoxicant of them all, that is if you are Mormon. Coffee, easily the best "upper" to give a hyperactive five year old. By that age I was a self-absorbed little motor-mouth prick who would yell and or yap at any hapless adult who happened to be foolish enough to pay any attention to me.

The two "Mentors" really disliked my mother for her aloofness towards them and as they didn't have any kids of their own , showering affection on me served to work out their frustrations on several levels. Uncle Joe and Aunt Jimmie were "Campbellites" or members of the Church of Christ, non-instrumental. For the uninitiated, this peculiar sect of 19th century revivalism believes it is the only "True Church of Christ" just as it name says. It is a "Restorationist Church.”

Basically that means that the Church of Christ believes that the original church started by Christ way back in the first century C.E. apostatized sometime shortly after the death of St John the Beloved and ceased to be God's visible representative on earth. For almost 1,700 years there were no true churches or preachers on planet earth until God "restored the church in the embryonic United States late in the 1790's through the fervent desire of independent Bible students who searched the scriptures looking for the marks of a true church of Christ.

A former Scots Presbyterian Campbell and his son, Alexander Campbell rose to become this loose confederation of churches main liners. They along with a bombastic gentleman named Barton Stone essentially founded what became known as the Churches of Christ. This group was known for its emphasis of fervent preaching and in-your-face debates with other clergymen about the essentials of salvation which included the need for the would-be Christian to be baptized by complete immersion by a sanctioned Church of Christ preacher. Also, the churches of Christ were historically known for their emphasis on non-instrumental accapella singing in their worship services. Probably a carry-over from the Campbell's Kirk of Scotland past.

My great-uncle and aunt used to take me to their little church when my folks and grandparents needed a break from my incessant yapping. Strangely, for a hyper-kid , I found it easy to remain still and attentive to the goings on during the worship services. The Church of Christ minister used to rant about the "need to keep oneself unstained by the world" and to study the Bible and no other "profane" literature. I really did not comprehend all of this preacher's words but they sure sounded good. Also, I noticed something interesting about my kinfolks response to this simple gospel message. When in church they would sing the hymns, ass the collection plate, and listen attentively to the "wonderful words of life which flowed from the mouth of their minister. Once they got home, away from the sterile barn-like church building , Uncle Joe would start griping about how boorish the preacher was and he was glad he could see beyond the rigid dogma of their church. Aunt Jimmie would nod in agreement and light up a cigarette.

In short, my relatives were hypocrites! Imagine to my surprise when my less than sanctified Baptist father explained the meaning of the word hypocrite to me when I asked him if he knew any such "critters," He grinned, glanced about to see if any of his in-laws were within hearing range and said "Yeah, boy I do, Joe and Jimmie are a couple of those critters. Comes from believing you need to work your way to heaven." In one of his rare paternal sermons Dad set me straight on people who profess to do one thing and end up going the opposite of their profession. He told me Jesus hated religious hypocrites like the Pharisee the most as they claimed to know what God wanted people to believe and do and the did the exact opposite of they told you to do. The Church of Christ taught you had to do good works to keep your salvation, not to criticize the church leadership, refrain from drinking, smoking, and going to bars and movie theaters.

"Of course, your mom's uncle and aunt disobey their church's commands about these things," Dad said, "that's what makes them hypocrites.' He went on to explain the "superior Baptist understanding of faith and practice as he learned them in Georgia.

According to Dad, the Baptists taught that we were unable to earn our salvation; all that was required of us was to believe that t Jesus died for our sin on the cross, that he arose from the dead, and would one day come back to take all Christians to heaven. ""Ye are not your own,'" Dad quoted the Bible,"'Ye are bought with a price."" The price of Christ's death on the cross to take away our sins meant that once we believed in Christ's atonement {yeah, I know big word for a five or six year old, Dad however didn't believe in "dumbing " stuff down for kids. You either got what the word meant or you could look it up in a dictionary.}, we were "saved.' This meant, "ONCE SAVED, ALWAYS SAVED." You couldn't get out of God's kingdom once he put his brand on you no matter how hard you tried to erase the mark of the Heavenly Beast.

Dad and Mom mouthed this stuff and pretty much ignored most of what past for Baptistic piety. We went to Church Sunday morn and night, Wednesday night family and prayer meeting, and attended a variety of Church functions as we were growing up. At home it was rare for Dad to say "Grace" before meals and or teach us from the Bible and other Christian literature. He did provide for earthly needs for which I am truly grateful. Also he attempted to interest me in little league, Boy Scouts, football, and a variety of other "Approved 1960's male activities. Unfortunately for Dad, I sucked at most sports with the possible exception of football, but he pulled me out of Pop Warner after I cracked a rib, saying, "You are too light to play this game and you hate being a team player. Let's try you out on tennis." Guess his insurance premiums were too high that year.

About the time I was eight, my paternal grandmother finally split from my Grandfather Ross. She left Georgia, moved to California to be near our family and took a job as a L.V.N She never divorced Grandpa as that would be "unbiblical " {even though he was an wife-beater] and chose instead to focus her attention on Dad, his kids, and the Ladies Sewing Circle at her church. This is where the ultimate mind game, "The Quest for God,” began in earnest. Grandma Maude was intent on forcing God into keeping his end of the bargain regarding her oldest grandson. Of course if it was the Lord's will. Grandma always knew how to keep her bases covered when it came to dealing with the Almighty.

Mom never really reconciled herself to the fact that her mother-in-law lived so close. It was around the time that we moved away from the San Fernando Valley into the Inland Empire region of Chino that things really began to fall apart between Grandma and Mom. A wall went up along the lines of two very stiff-ncked Baptist women over the "proper" duties of a Christian wife....Of course neither woman was willing to listen to the "advice" freely offerred for their respective spiritual benefit. Mom felt Grandma was a meddler and a "loose" woman as Grandma left her husband {never mind the beatings the ole lady inderwent at the hands of Granpa Ross}, and the "OLe Lady" politely pointed to my Mom's disrespect to her son as "Head" of the house and Mom"s "Failure" to inculcate Christianity into her grandbabies in word and deed.

There was some truth in both of their postions. Grandma Maude did meddle in Mom's affairs by "visiting too much" and or constanly attempting to take us to children;s functions at various Evangelical gatherings and bopped us over the head wit her Scofield Bible when we missquoted verses. Mom, realyy did not set a Christian example by being the meek and mild submissive wife St.Paul desired all Christian women to be. Her tart tongue, flippant attitudes about Dad and the kids, and the coolness she exhibited towards her immediate family certainly bolstered Granma's case against her. After Mom's parents passed away in the mid 1970's things went further south in the ole hoestead.

Our family continued to make the 10 hour trip by car up the coast to visit Grandma Louise on a regular basis. On at least one trip my paternal grandmother accompanied us and made things much more interesting. Remember my "hypocritical" Church of Christ maternal relatives? Well ye old Lukewarm Campbellites were about to met the female Southern Elijah.This was one family get together for the books!

When Granma Maude found out that her son had married into a family which contained "liberal" Baptists {i.e. Non-Southern Baptists} and "cults" like the Church of Christ and 7th Day Adventists, she was livid. She reached critical mass one morning when she caught me reading a magazine called "Fate" while we were vacationing at Grandma Louise's house.'Boy where in God's name did you get that piece of satanic garbage!" she demanded , ripping the magazine out of my hands. I explained to her that Mom's Uncle Joe had lent it to me to read as he had "no comic books or kiddie books in the house for me to read." Grandma mumbled something about "Screwy Campbellites" and stomped off calling my mother's name. This started the one and only time my mom and her mother-in-law formed an alliance. unforunaely at my Uncle Joe's expense.

Uncle Joe found himself in a bit of a pickle. While he din"t want to see me get into trouble with my "narrow-minded harpy" mother and her new-found ally, he didn't want to confirm my story either. He had always been the "weird" one in my maternal grandmother's family. Quiet and studious, he never bought into the whole clan's Hee-Haw Baptist and Church of Christ religiosity. He was as the Bible says "A dreamer of dreams." As a child he "saw" things and people that were not visible to the other corporeal persons about him. In his youth he had studied Spiritualism, Theosophy, and other early 20th century alternative religions and kook movements. Today he probably would have been a member of the Art Bell Fan Club and a faithful fan of the "X-Files."

The magazine he had given me to read was full of such off-beat topics like ghosts, ESP, strange occurrences, the Bermuda Triangle and psychic phenomena. As I was already an avid fan of Conan and Bigfoot at the age of eight, this seemed to flow naturally for me as a transition into the wacky world of the paranormal. "Fate" and Issac Asimov were the two pillars of my nascent magical worldview. For like my great-uncle, I,too, "saw" people and things that other mundane homospaiens were blissfully unaware of. Finding this common bond of familial insanity became our little secret. Still, my little indiscretion would;d not go unpunished.

My Uncle Joe ratted me out. He admitted owning the magazine and had seen me reading it at his place, He "remembered" telling me to put the magazine back on his bookshelf as he did not feel it was appropriate reading material for a Baptist boy like myself. He insisted that I must have "liberated the magazine while he was giving a "Reflexology " treatment to my father the previous evening, Mollified, my mother ripped the magazine in twain and ordered me to give the cover price as reimbursement for its destruction. I gave him the money {a week's allowance] and gave him the "Bird" as I was led away to face the music. We never spoke much after that, which caused me great grief as he was a fun is somewhat eccentric guy to hang-out with. After my maternal grandmother passed away a couple of years later, no-one on either side of the family divided spoke to either Joe or Jimmie due to some fighting over my grandparent"s estate a large part went to the State, lawyers,and various bankers. Mom blamed her uncle and his wife for this fiasco, a accusation which later proved to be true.

I have spent an inordinate amount of time traipsing down Memory Lane. This is to lay the somewhat rocky and humorous {in a sad sort of way} foundation events that led up to my "first" conversion into the "old time religion." My family with its cast of eccentrics, kooks, rationalists, and just plain folks played a major role in my choice of "accepting Christ as my personal savior and lord.{ Also, there is the strong pragmatic philosophy I inherited from my mother. If the need arises and the opportunely is there, then do what you must to attain your goal. This pretty much sums up the maternal "wisdom" bequeathed to her children.

Mom quickly put her form of pragmatic philosophy to work. She "purged" my room and person of any and all "occult material" and marched me down to talk to the pastor of the Independent Baptist Church our family attended. Dr. Harold Fickett listed to my mom's version of events with the "satanic" magazine and merely groaned and uttered a couple of silent prayers whenever he looked my way. I have to admit that Dr. Fickett was quite the pulpit -pounder and scared the living "be-jesus" out of me whenever he preached on the near return of Jesus Christ to Planet Earth. He was a pre-tribber and knew how to verbally describe the pain and agony of those "Left Behind" on this rock after Jesus "secretly raptured" his church away just prior to the Great Tribulation-the seven last years of man's autonomous rule of the world.

Dr. Fickett patiently explained to me the dangers of playing in the "devil"s workshop and advised me to seek the real power of Christ and become "born-again" by accepting Jesus as ,y personal Lord and Savior. He assured me that if I did so, I would miss the atrocities of the AntiChrist and return to this planet the end of the Great Tribulation period and rule the world with the Son of God for a thousand years. Pretty heady stuff for an imaginative eight year old!

Mom and the good Doctor agreed to have me visit his study once a week for a month or two and to have me study and memorize a few choice Bible verses which would help me to "resist the devil" when the desire to read and or practice occult things came over me. Mom actually started to read the Bible to me and made sure that I read good wholesome Christian material. As a consolation to my loss of comic book privileges, she gave me a handful of Jack Chick illustrated gospel tracts and comic to read. I still collect these nasty evil pieces of racist and illogical literature. Hell, the art is crude yet familiar, the plots predictable, the dialogue putrid, but I'm a lifelong addict to them. Just don't buy the underlying message of Turn or Burn which worms its way through each and every comic and or tract produced by Mr.Chick. Its a damn shame too. Ole Jack is a decent fellow in person and has extended alms and charity to street people and women's shelters.

Dad even got into the gospelizing. One night on a fishing trip he told me the story of the prophet Samuel and how he heard a still small voice calling out his name in the wee hours of the night. Thinking it was his master Eli the Hebrew High Priest, he ran to the old man's sleeping chambers, inquiring as to what he was supposed to do. Eli figured after a couple of late night visits from Sammy that the "Voice" was probably God's and instructed his apprentice to respond to its call the next time it came with ,"Speak Lord your servant is listening." Dad concluded that God would "call" out a seeker's name a couple of times in their lifetimes in order to get them to believe in Jesus and if resisted he would stop "Calling" the hardhearted as we had the gift of free will and God would not force himself on anyone. Apparently Dad was not that familiar with the despotic acts and predestinating power of Paul's God in Romans 8 and 9. At any rate, it was my responsibility to respond to the voice of the Holy Spirit when I heard my name called as I mulled over the message of the Gospel.

A night or two later I woke up in the middle of the night. Dad and I were sleeping in the back of his International Harvester, The woods were silent save for a owl or two, I could hear the faint roar of the Russian River and the stars were out; "Billion and billions of them," to quote the late stoner astronomer Carl Sagan. A perfect night to hear the voice of God I thought and started to think about Jesus, his life, and death and his work on the cross on behalf of my potential salvation. Then I heard it! A faint whisper, then a rasping. Yes! It was my name being called. An audible voice to boot! Excited, I shuddered and faintly said."Lord is that you?" I heard it again, clearer and a weak. "Hush, it is I.." I quickly said the sinner's prayer that I had been taught at Sunday School and invited the Son of God to leave his heavenly palace and take up spiritual residence in my fleshly heart. Or is that the other way around? No matter I accepted Jesus as my personal savior and Lord and therefore became "Born Again" long before President Carter made it chic' to do so.

I instantly felt a sense of warmth and peace and snuggled back into my sleeping bag and promptly fell asleep, but not before thanking God for the gift of his Son coming into my life. The next day I told Dad who said "Good, that'll get your mom off my back and went back to fishing. Gotta love that guy for practical horse sense.!