That Old Time Religion

By Ron Burch

You could say that I inherited my faith. I was born and raised in the church by Christian parents. During WWII, while my dad was in the service, as a wee lad we attended the neighborhood Methodist church in accordance with the beliefs of my Mom’s family. (After the war, we switched to the neighborhood Baptist church—the preferred denomination of my dad’s side of the family.)

I didn’t know the differences then, but as I grew older, I learned all about denominational differences from my grandmother. She said (that unlike the Baptists!) the Methodists danced and drank and sprinkled and believed you could “fall from grace.” She explained that Baptists baptized by immersion like the Bible said you should, and believed “once saved, always saved.” My grandmother continued, saying the Presbyterians believed in something strange called pre-destination that infringed on free will, and Episcopalians and Lutherans lived so loose they had to have a priest to run interference for them with God, much like the Catholics.

Oh, the Catholics—I suppose they were the least understood. The notoriety of the Pope, reciting a Confessional to a priest; other unfamiliar customs like abstinence from meat on Fridays, fasting during Lent, going to Mass and being dabbed with ashes on Ash Wednesday—all visibly separated the Catholic devout from us run-of-the-mill protestants. My grandmother said Catholics worshipped Mary instead of Jesus, and in her mind, that made them only slightly more righteous than heathens. Once, as I returned home from the funeral of the parent of an orthodox Jewish friend, I had forgotten to remove my silk yarmulke. My grandmother spotted it and wringing her hands exclaimed, “Oh Ron, you’re not Catholic are you?”

Needless to say, once informed by my theologian grandmother, I didn’t ask too many questions. Besides, “once saved, always saved” sounded pretty darn good to me.

The church we attended was in northeast Atlanta, near Little Five Points, in a middle-class section called Inman Park. With over 800 members, in the late forties, you could say it was the forerunner of today’s mega-church.

The building itself was a huge two-story brick edifice with tall, white columns out front and big mahogany pews inside. Conveniently fastened to the back of each pew was a rack for the hymnals and the pew bibles, a slot for visitor’s cards and little cup holders for the communion cups.

For the most part, even as a kid I was well-behaved in church. If I was restless, my Mom would slip me a peppermint one at a time from her purse. I’d remove the crinkly cellophane as quietly as I could before surreptitiously popping the sugary morsel into my mouth.

I liked church. I enjoyed the music…especially when the associate pastor would bring out his trumpet and join with the organist and the chancel choir. The sermons were another story. In 1948, there was no such thing as a “children’s sermon,” and I had a difficult time grasping even Baptist theology. The pastor spent a lot of time painting pictures in the mind’s eye of Hell, and spent precious little time on Heaven. As a result, I grew up with a vivid picture of the lake of fire and the anguish of unrepentant sinners, and no idea at all of what Heaven was like beyond the narrow path you took to get there, the strait gate out front, mansions (similar I guess to where the Governor lived), and streets paved with gold.

One theological concept that caught my attention every time was something the pastor called the “unforgivable sin.” Even at only nine or ten years old, I was sure I had already committed it, perhaps while sneaking a look at the lingerie section of the Sears and Roebuck catalog. So one Sunday as we repeated the eighth verse of “Just as I Am” and the preacher pleaded “come on,” I led my parents down the aisle and we joined the church. A full immersion, scripturally-correct baptism soon followed, and while I wasn’t totally sure, I hoped that took care of the burden of the “unforgivable sin” that had been placed upon my heart.

All was not “get saved or go to Hell” for the Baptist, however. In the fall, kicking off stewardship season, we had “round-up time.” For several weeks, everyone attending church would get a ribbon, complete with the “round-up” slogan and a tiny gold lasso, to pin on their lapel. Then on the last Saturday night before Stewardship Sunday, the church would host a huge western barbecue. Folks would wear flannel shirts and jeans and the preacher would show up wearing a white, ten-gallon hat. There was country music, a chuck wagon, a campfire and lots of wonderful things to eat.

Sunday nights were fun too. Similar to today’s informal, contemporary services, everyone was comfortably dressed down. The chancel choir was absent, so the music consisted of casual choruses that most everyone knew from memory. Instead of an organ, a piano provided the accompaniment. The sermons on Sunday night were shorter as well and I liked that a lot.

It was in this environment that I first learned about the “upsides” of sin—“mess up,” “cover up” and “clean up.” The pastor himself was the one who “messed up.” A family man with kids, he was caught making out in the backseat of a borrowed car with one of the female members of the Chancel Choir. Already under suspicion, he had been followed to Lover’s Lane to be confronted on the spot by one of the deacons. Afterwards, it was rumored that the pastor prevailed mightily upon that fellow to change his story about what he had seen. That was the (attempted) “cover up.” The “clean up” began shortly thereafter when the pastor was forced to resign in disgrace.

Although my parents shielded me from the lurid details of the pastor’s wrongdoing, on his last night in the pulpit, as we often did, my grandmother and I listened to the broadcast of the service via AM radio. While a record Sunday night crowd sang the hymn of invitation in the background, the preacher came to the microphone and tearfully asked God and his radio audience for forgiveness.

Now I’m sure the Lord forgave him and perhaps eventually gave him back his joy. However, I’ve learned since that forgiveness in and of itself won’t abrogate the consequences of sin. It certainly didn’t in this case. The pastor lost his wife, his job and his church. The church suffered too. Disillusioned, split apart, and without a dynamic leader, her spirit remained broken for years to come.

Not long afterwards, we relocated to another area of the city and changed churches—several times. I suppose we were looking for what we had lost, but we never found it. For a time we attended the church where the associate pastor had landed. I don’t remember much about it except for the annual revival meetings that lasted six or seven nights.

One evangelist that came to speak at one of the revivals was Cuban. He enjoyed telling about his early revival meetings in this country, saying that while he said he loved the people and enjoyed their hospitality, he found the food terribly bland. So much so, that to “kick it up a notch,” he often carried a pouch of dried chilies that his mom had sent from Cuba. He recalled that one night while he was a dinner guest in another minister’s home, he asked if anyone would be offended if he sprinkled the special seasoning over his food. “Of course not,” was his host’s reply, “in fact, I’d like to try it too.”

His dinner host then proceeded to sprinkle the chilies over his food and take a big bite. Suddenly he lurched from the chair, grabbed his mouth, and ran to the kitchen sink. Eyes watering and red faced, he returned a few minutes later, still coughing and gasping.

“Are you okay, Brother?” the evangelist asked.

“Yes, yes I believe so,” he replied hoarsely. Clearing his throat, the minister continued, “You know, Roberto, I always knew you believed in Hell—I just didn’t know you carried samples of it in your pocket.”

Another guest evangelist used a multimedia presentation, probably the first one I had ever seen. He had one particularly poignant slide of Christ that he said was mystical. According to the evangelist, if you were already in the “Book of Life,” when you viewed the slide, Christ had his eyes wide open. On the other hand, if you were still unwashed and unsaved, Christ might appear to have his eyes closed…perhaps praying for you.

I looked at that slide every night for a week. On three occasions the eyes appeared closed, on four they appeared open. I took that to be a positive sign.

Later, as a teenager, I continued to attend church with my parents. But after getting my driver’s license and my first car, I often skipped  Sunday school, choosing instead to drag race with my friends up and down Memorial Drive.

As an adult, in the early years, my wife and I were at church every time the doors were open. We were youth advisors, I was a deacon and my wife was active in many activities for women. I considered myself a Christian, albeit still with an inherited and somewhat impersonal faith.

That all changed early in 1993.

The very successful business that I had owned for eight years was under siege. The market for our commercial graphic production services had all but disappeared with the introduction of a powerful desktop graphics production tool called the “Mac.”

The lines that for decades had separated the graphics arts industry into highly profitable niche markets were quickly blurred by the capabilities of the Mac, and services that were previously seen as added value were reduced to mere commodities. In a frantic attempt to survive, everyone in the graphic industries—including us—made a desperate attempt to expand our offerings in order to survive. That meant investing in more and more people and equipment to try and provide more and more services. All the while, revenues continued to decline.

Soon I faced a huge crisis. Much of our sizeable cash reserve was gone, and the expected revenue from new products and services was slow to materialize. After buying out two competitors early in the melee, now I was the one searching for a buyer.

I finally found a little interest in my company from a national marketing and publishing company that had been a client. The deal wouldn’t make me rich, but it would save my personal credit, what was left of our savings, and our house which was pledged to secure a large SBA loan. After getting off to a fast start, negotiations dragged on for several months as my company’s financial crisis deepened.

For the first time in my life, I felt totally out of control. I began to search for answers. In less than a month, I reread the NIV Bible cover-to-cover, concentrating on the passages that told of God’s love and caring for us and even the smallest of his creatures. Through study and prayer, I found some inner peace right away. But any relief to my business problems remained elusive and hidden, and the clock was ticking.

Springtime came and even though my wife and I had scheduled a week at the beach, under circumstances that were rapidly reaching critical mass, we pondered what we should do. Another $30,000 payroll loomed at the end of the month, and it didn’t look as though the company would be able to fund it.

We had hoped to have an answer from the prospective buyer before the trip, so we could put the company’s financial problems behind us. However, if resolution didn’t come, we had decided that we would go anyway and use the time to plan our next step.

Early on the day before we planned to leave, I contacted the prospective buyer and laid out the dire circumstances I faced. He promised a call and a decision by the end of the business day. I anxiously waited several hours past the close of business, but by eight o’clock, the phone still hadn’t rung. I shrugged, went home, hugged my wife, ate a bite and we started packing. We weren’t running from our problems, we were going away to catch our breath, contemplate our future and prepare ourselves for the trials that would await us on our return.

After turning in, I began again reading the Bible and praying like I’d never prayed before. In that prayer, I admitted defeat and turned the problem over to God.

Suddenly the phone rang.

The president of the company I had been negotiating with was on the other end. He apologized for calling so late, saying that he’d been in a dinner meeting and then discovered he didn’t have my home phone. He finally found someone who had it. He verbally agreed to purchase my business—as we had discussed—and then said they would continue to employ me as president at my current salary. Even though the minutia of the deal was yet to be worked out, he said to have a great vacation and not to be concerned about the upcoming payroll—they would cover it even if all the papers weren’t signed.

At that point my inherited faith became a very personal one. The heaviest burden of my life had been lifted in what could only be called a miracle—an answer to prayer. In that moment, God became very real to me as One who reveals himself to us even now; One who is still capable of working miracles in our daily lives.

In the months to come, the acquisition progressed on schedule but the transition and culture shift didn’t go as smoothly as everyone had hoped. Promises that “nothing would change” evaporated as everything changed. The financial projections for a quick recovery after reorganization fell short. In less than a year, the assets of my company were folded into the parent firm and my old company was closed.

Since both my payout and my continued employment were directly tied to the future success of the separate business, in the end, I suffered the consequences of my earlier foolish business decisions. I lost my job, the business, the land and the building that I had purchased to house it; along with all the personal loans I had made the old company in a feeble attempt to prop it up and keep it going. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but one that was made much easier by the peace that was in my heart. God had seen me through the worst case scenario and had given me a new confidence to face the worse that life had had to offer.

In a new position that followed, one day when rough times threatened, I was asked by an associate if I was going to stay and stick it out. I replied that I had seen hard times up close. I had once been so close to the edge that I knew what it looked like over the side. As challenging as the current situation might be, it wasn’t even close to being a deal breaker.

Besides, as learned from my grandmother, I’d once been saved and “once saved, always saved!”