There isn’t time enough in this world to tell the whole story of what was stolen from me, what was lost, and what I held onto fiercely in spite of the batterings my body took during the era known as My Childhood.
I’ve been contemplating a lot of things lately. The other day while listening to Rock of Ages I was flooded with memories of that other me. That me who existed before the abuse. That innocent child who fell in love first with her daddy, and then with her daddy’s God. I’ve a memory of riding in the car with my father on the way to the Green Stamp redemption center. Back then (in the 60’s) in this part of the country, you received a certain amount of Green Stamps every time you bought gas. Dad saved them for me and told me that when I had enough books of stamps saved up, he’d take me to redeem them.
What delicious anticipation to be riding alone in the car with the person I loved most, on my way to getting what I wanted more than anything in the world: a grownup sized white Bible. For months I’d pored over the Green Stamps Catalog, savoring the thought of choosing anything at all. We were poor, so the toys were definitely a temptation. But once my eyes lit on the white Bible, that was it, decision made. I’d only seen a few white Bibles before and they seemed to me to shine with purity and goodness. The white leather gleamed like the first snow of winter, or granulated sugar sparkling in the sun.
Dad boomed Rock of Ages and other favorite hymns while we sped along alone in our own little universe. My feet couldn’t keep still; they kept time with his singing all the while my thoughts raced urgently: hurryhurryhurry! I was half-convinced that all the white Bibles would be taken before I could turn in my books of stamps. I imagined that everyone in the world was drooling over them, longing to smell that unique new Bible smell while caressing them with fevered, awed hands.
When we finally arrived at our destination I burst through the door like a drunk staggering into a tavern desperately in need of that first drink of the day. The decrepit old man behind the counter flashed a yellowed tooth smile at us, and tried to direct me toward the toy counter. But I wouldn’t budge. That Bible lay nestled behind glass amongst mundane items, seemingly winking at me.
“The toys are this way,” he said, turning to the next glass counter. Dad grinned at him and told him that I wasn’t interested in toys.
“She wants the white Bible,” he said, clearly pleased with my choice. There was no mistaking the surprise in the old man’s expression as he raised his brows and gave Dad a considering look.
“A Bible?” he echoed. “We don’t carry any children’s Bibles,” he continued, his voice edged with doubt at this whole puzzling scenario.
“I want the grown-up one,” I piped up. “The white one.”
With an exaggerated shrug of his bony shoulders, and a heavy sigh, he unlocked the glass case with a tiny key, and in what seemed to me like slow motion removed the Bible (the only one, I noted) and handed it to me.
“Well,” he said slowly, scratching an ear, “I hope you . . . enjoy it.”
The joy on my face should have told him there was no way I wouldn’t.
I don’t remember the ride home except that I kept removing the lid from the cardboard box and running my hands over the soft leather. My fortune had just improved and boy was I rich now!
I treasure the memory of that longing for some tangible evidence of God’s love, something I could hold in my hands and caress. To the very core of me I believed that I belonged to Him, perhaps even in some mystifying way on a deeper level than I belonged to my dad whose eyes I could look into, whose skin I could touch and whose laughter comforted and pleased me.
When I was five, probably half a year before acquiring my Bible, I’d responded to an altar call at a camp meeting service. There under that big tent I went forward with a dozen or so others, and knelt in the sawdust to commit the most sacred act of my life: betrothing myself to God. I was the youngest penitent there and as I knelt with eyes shut, I felt the kiss of God. Not literally, of course. Somewhere within my little soul there was such a profound exchange of affection that, when the preacher placed his big hands on my skull and prayed over my life, I experienced something which can only be described as an electrical current surging all the way up my spine to the top of my head, which tingled. When I rose to my feet there was no doubt that I’d be blessed, and blessed good.
But who was this God I’d welcomed into my heart? What was His nature? Was He a good God, a bad God, or perhaps just indifferent? Oh, but if He was at all like my father, there must be nothing but laughter and contentment in His presence, for how could it be otherwise?
Life had much to teach me. I was too young at the time of that altar call to know that loving God and knowing God were not one and the same. That asking Him into my heart and life did not in any way exempt me from the tribulations of this sin-racked world. That loving Him was not meant to be a passive thing, or something which revolved solely around my comfort, my preferences or even my happiness. I had ahead of me a lifetime journey of learning what it meant to truly love Him, and what His love meant to my life.
The pilgrim begins his pilgrimage shod with what he supposes is ample protection against life’s storms. Indeed, he hardly believes there will be storms, so strong is his love for the One who called him to the first step of his journey. Ah, and there’s the rub. For in his zeal and mighty enthusiasms, he’s overlooked or forgotten–or perhaps never realized–that he is but at the beginning of a continuous journey. The first step is not the entire race, it is nothing but a first step. A decision made. An internal YES to the eternal. A covenant entered into, sealed with a handshake (a gentleman’s agreement) or a bowed head or violent tears or a barely audible whispered prayer of self-loathing. A marriage of sorts. The covenant makes possible the marriage, but the marriage must still be worked out and lived one step and day at a time through various trials and boredoms and heartache and fears.
At that tender age I knew none of this. I knew of one thing only and that was love responding to Love. My heart could not have understood what was about to transpire in my little universe, and so my ignorance of the true nature of my spiritual transaction was a necessary, preordained kindness.
(I responded to the Prince’s endearments.)