(Note: Honey, this post is taken verbatim from a file found on one of your computers the other day. The file itself dates from October 2011, as you were intent on putting together an explanation of your faith journey in order to reach out to your parents, whose spiritual position you were beginning to have serious doubts about.)
Recently, I have had a recurring thought on my mind. It involves the question of how I grew and developed spiritually into the person I am today. I have decided to try to answer my question by putting on paper some early vignettes that I feel were defining moments.
From my earliest recollections, I can still hear my parents jokingly calling me a “Baptipalian” because they would take turns taking me to the Episcopalian and Baptist churches on alternating Sundays. Back then my preference for one church or the other was based on which nursery had better toys, nicer workers, or less annoying other kids. I bonded better with Tammy Clark than with Sarah Draper, so I preferred Baptist.
I also bonded better with the Baptist minister, Reverend Clark. He preached a really good children’s sermon. Even at three or four, I could often understand the simple truths he was conveying, and I felt like he was talking directly to me. He had a friendly and inviting personality, and I think I insisted on kissing him goodbye each week when he was shaking most other people’s hands.
At home we didn’t talk much about spiritual topics, but when I was about five, Dad built a marvelous box of lights and mirrors that seemed to have passages going down and outward into infinity. I was enthralled and wanted to call it “Down the Rabbit Hole.” With my active imagination, it looked like if I could only get through that glass cover, I could fall into Wonderland. Dad patiently insisted that his title for his creation was “My Father’s House,” based on Jesus’ description of heaven to His disciples. Since I spent many hours with Dad listening to recordings of Alice’s adventures, I knew the stories were favorites of his. His insistence on the Biblically themed title confused me at the time, but now I am grateful because I realize it had a profound and lasting impact on my perceptions. Over the years it has been an inspiration that leads me to value the sacred above the secular. As my Bible knowledge has grown, bringing a yearning for heaven’s glories, my appreciation for Dad’s piece and the significance of its title has increased immeasurably.
When I was six, Mom read me one of her favorite books, which remains my very favorite: Heidi. I’m not sure how much sank in at a deep spiritual level at that first reading, but I know I connected with that sweet child my age with hair like mine. I felt her pain, her longings, her joy, and her excitement, and I wanted to understand all the truths she was learning from Grandmamma and the blind Grandmother. By introducing me to this book, Mom taught me wonderful lessons in kindness, compassion, patience, repentance, and forgiveness. If I begin to list in detail all of the parts of the story that are parable-like, this will become a book report, so I’ll try to stay brief. Aside from Alm Uncle’s embodiment of the Prodigal Son story, I think the most profound truth Heidi helps me learn is about how God’s ways are not our ways – thank heaven. People may think the best solution to an unpleasant situation is escape, as soon as possible, but often God has put them in that very place to receive many blessings and to be a great blessing to others. Heidi taught me that I must trust Him, pray, and wait for His timing to work everything out according to His plan, which is always for our good.
When I was about seven or eight, Reverend Clark told a children’s sermon that has stayed with me to this day. He gave each of us a tract to keep, and he read through the story on it. It was a little parable about God giving a man ten apples and only asking for one back in appreciation. The man gave in to his desire to eat the apple, and gave God back the core instead. I recall trying to tithe on my allowance but being so frustrated because it was a quarter, then so relieved when it went up to fifty cents.
Toward the end of third grade, probably not long before the Clarks moved away, Tammy persuaded me to stay after church to attend Sunday school with her. I was hesitant at first and could never have imagined how much I would love it. My first teacher, Mrs. McMahon, brought the Bible to life in a way that unleashed my imagination. I wanted to learn everything about all the fascinating people in all the wondrous stories. I also wanted to please and impress my teacher by remembering everything she taught me and knowing the answer to every question. (I was like that at school, too.)
From that point on, I think I only missed Sunday school when I was sick or out of town. Sometimes Mom decided not to go to church, so, if the weather was good, I’d bike to church just for the Sunday school hour, (usually in a skirt.) In worse weather or when Mom had been to church I was a regular fixture sitting on the decorative cement stair rails, waiting to be picked up.
Many weeks we also had Junior Church which kept the kids busy during the sermon part of the church service. One particular week, the person in charge talked about God and how powerful and important He was; therefore, basically, we shouldn’t bother Him with the small stuff. This teaching troubled me. I knew God loved me and cared about what bothered me; but maybe I wasn’t as special and important to Him as I had previously been led to believe. For several days I struggled with the conflicting concepts.
Meanwhile, I had a favorite bookmark that Grandma (Nanny) had given me. It was gold with a picture of Jesus and the Golden Rule on it. At the top the title “The Golden Rule” was written in a heart that was not fully attached. I liked to play with the heart with my fingers while I read, often by nightlight when I was supposed to be asleep. One day I discovered to my dismay that the heart had broken off and disappeared! I was so sad. I knew it wouldn’t be the same mended, but without the piece, even mending it was impossible. I considered praying about it, but the recent lesson made me hesitant. Eventually, I did pray – apologizing to God for bothering Him, but explaining how much it mattered to me. I felt my prayer was heard and started my search again. For some inexplicable reason I almost immediately checked between the baseboard and the shag carpet under my nightlight, and there it was!
That’s when I truly knew how much God loves me! He loves me enough to care about even my smallest detail and is big enough to help me get through even the tiniest stuff of my day. That experience not only taught me a lot about God, but a lot about people as well. Until that moment it had never occurred to me that any of my teachers could make any mistake. I had never questioned a single thing they taught me; I still tended not to, but from then on I knew the possibility existed.
Over the years, I had several more great and beloved Sunday school teachers: Mrs. Claus, Mr. Johnson, and a college student whose name I just can’t seem to remember. Then in eighth grade, my teacher was Teri Norman. (I liked her so well that I later got permission to stay in her class in ninth grade rather than join the high school class.) I learned a lot from all of them and began to realize that I needed to make the decision I kept hearing about. The scary thing was that it seemed the only way to make that decision was by going to the front of the sanctuary during the closing hymn to pray with Pastor Brown in front of everybody. Some of the lessons might have prompted me, except Sunday school was after church, so by the next week any resolve was lost.
Easter was different, however, because Sunday school filled the gap between the pancake breakfast and the second (regular) service. As I recall, the lesson wasn’t even specifically about salvation, but somehow as a tangent discussion, Teri ended up giving her testimony. She described in detail how she had felt the Holy Spirit prompting her to go forward during the altar call, and how Tom (her husband) had explained to her that this was Jesus asking to come into her heart and save her. As I listened, I knew Jesus had similarly been calling me for a while, and that I needed to answer His call and invite Him into my heart. I didn’t say anything to anybody; I just waited with butterflies in my stomach for the Easter service to be finished and Pastor Brown to extend his usual invitation. When he had and the closing hymn began I went down to the front. He guided me in my prayer as I acknowledged Jesus as the only one who could cleanse me from my sin and asked Him to come into my heart and be Lord of my life. The hymn was “He Lives,” and its wonderful lyrics still ring in my heart:
I serve a risen Savior; He’s in the world today.
I know that He is living, whatever men may say.
I see His hand of mercy; I hear His voice of cheer,
And just the time I need Him, He’s always near.
He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today.
He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives salvation to impart.
You ask me how I know He lives, He lives within my heart
Sometime later there was some sort of special Sunday. Maybe the High School and College groups were leading the worship service, I don’t recall exactly, but the Junior High group was asked to participate. We all had stage fright, so Teri read a parable and we silently acted it out. We all crouched down in garbage bags as seeds, and sprouted as she read our part of the story. I was blessed with the chance to be the Good Seed that flourished, and I felt it. I stood tall and beamed with joy. Mom told me later that she had seen my special smile again; to this day she calls it my “Good Seed smile.” According to her, I broke into the same smile when I first managed to stay standing up as a baby. Then I flashed it at her when I heard my named announced for a “Superior” at the History Fair in eighth grade.
I believe those early years created a spiritual foundation that I still build on today. It enables me to continue to grow in my relationship with Jesus as I develop an ever- deepening bond with Him. I’ll bet that the Good Seed smile appeared at some point during my wedding and Daniel’s birth, too.
And, my darling Rachel, I’m sure you wore that Good Seed smile as He welcomed you Home with the words “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.” Daniel and I miss you dearly, but we know where you are is so far beyond us that we could never wish you back even if it were possible. Just… save a spot at the banquet table for us, will you?