Photo by Hugues de BUYER-MIMEURE on Unsplash
Fiction story by Kate McCord
I suppose, as a kid, the picture I first developed of God looked a lot like my father. He was always a good and decent man. Stern, though. Keen in his views on right and wrong and how children are meant to behave. Orderly. Quiet. Diligent. “God helps those who help themselves.” And “cleanliness is next to godliness.”
We see God
Our Sunday school teachers sounded a lot like my father, too. Be polite. Sit up straight. Don’t mess up your Sunday clothes. If there were deeper lessons, I suppose they included; obey your parents, and show generosity, kindness, and goodness to others.
God, in our home and our church was long on expectations and short on words.
Everything about our lives was orderly, especially Church. Looking back, I’d have to say that our congregation were all the well-to-do, the successful of our community; business owners, managers, civic leaders, and their wives and children. Families just like our own family.
We dressed for church. “Give God the respect of your best clothes.” My father always wore a suit and tie. My mother and us girls wore dresses, elegant little hats, purses, and matching shoes. I wore Mary Jane’s. For some reason, I remember that.
Jenny, my best friend, went to a completely different church. She never had to dress up. Her school clothes were fine. Plus, people there sang loudly, clapped constantly, and sometimes even danced in the aisles.
My parents didn’t approve. We were reserved, well behaved, my mother said.
But as for heaven, I figured everybody I knew was on their way, except maybe the really bad people, like the guy who got drunk and burned down his own house. Or the other guy who wanted to get drunk and tried to rob the post office. Or the neighbor’s daughter who drank with the boys and got in trouble with something I didn’t quite understand.
Drinking was clearly the common trouble. “It’ll lead you to ruin.” Maybe those folks were still going to heaven, but in the short run, they were bound for “ruination” and that was a terrible enough thing to be avoided.
So in my little childhood theology, the well behaved went to heaven and the drinkers went to ruination. I vowed to follow the right path and avoid the road to ruin. Not that I had opportunity for it. No one in my elementary school drank. So, I considered myself safe.
Jenny completely disagreed.
She spent the entire summer between our fourth and fifth grades, trying to convince me that I needed to be baptized. My mother forbade it. She said I was already baptized, but Jenny said that didn’t count because I was just a baby when it happened. She was sure I had to go down to the river and let the preacher dunk me under water.
By the end of the summer, Jenny’s insistence and the strength of her reasoning got the better of me. The week before school started, I gave in.
We didn’t have to sneak around. In those days, children were sent out to play. So we just walked through town, headed out behind the general store, and followed the path through the woods to the river.
I remember the crowd standing around the river bank; all of them singing and crying and shouting “glory” and “hallelujah” and “praise the Lord”. I recognized almost everyone and was sure that more than a few had already followed the road to ‘ruination’.
Jenny explained that, too. She said God made bad things happen to people who disobeyed him and the only way back was through the river.
as best we can
I suppose it’s in the nature of a child to put themselves in the middle of every story. I remember standing on the river bank next to Jenny, trying to figure out what I’d done to make God so mad at me. I thought about all the times I’d been mean, teased my sister, or lied to my parents. I felt guiltier than I’d ever felt in my entire life.
So when it was my turn, I marched right into the water, admitted I was a sinner and received Jesus as my Lord and Savior. The preacher swung me under water, and when I came up, he called me ‘saved’. No road to ruin for me.
I know Kate’s book unlocked this little childhood memory. I was reading about how “God wants to fill his table” and the God Kate described was completely different than the two my 5th grade understanding imagined.
Kate wrote about a God who wants us to come home. A God who actually wants us to be around him. To be all together and having a good time.
Now that I think about it, my childhood perceptions of God were all confused. In my family, and my church, God was reserved and quiet. He expected me to behave well and if I did, I could stay in his presence. In Jenny’s church, God had a temper. He’d rage against you if you didn’t get it right.
I hadn’t thought about Jenny’s evangelistic insistence for years. Kids. That’s what we were. Children trying to figure out how to do things right. But now, at 56, I’m thinking about who God really is. What kind of a being is he? What’s his heart?
For sure, I’ve outgrown a lot of my childhood misconceptions, but how do I see God, now?
I opened Kate’s book and intended to keep reading, but instead, found myself thinking about my grandmother, my father, and my Uncle Danny.
and our vision clears
It was Thanksgiving and Nixon had just been elected president. My father was pleased. Law and order. No more hippies making a mess of things. Long-haired-un-American-peace-creeps.
I’d never seen a real hippie, but I was already sure they were drinking too much and following the road to ruination. I’d escaped that road just a few months before, so I was still sure how it needed to be done. Of course, I wasn’t about to tell my father that.
Instead, my sister and I sat in the back seat of our father’s sedan and stayed quiet as good girls must.
The whole drive to Charleston, my father talked about Nixon and the war and a mining explosion from another town. “Hard-working, salt-of-the-earth-men. Just like the soldiers actually fighting the war.”
And yes, in my 11 year old understanding, my father was right about everything.
We arrived at my grandparents’ house just before noon. Most of my aunts and uncles and all my cousins were already there. Still, my grandma stopped whatever it was she was doing in the house and ran out into the front yard to hug us girls and gush all over us. That was normal for my grandma and although it felt a little awkward, I secretly loved it.
My grandma was one of the warmest, most kindhearted people I’ve ever known. She could glance at you across the table and you’d just feel a flush of love. Like you were the most important person in the world and everything about you was beautiful. That was a gift she gave people.
That day, she led my parents into the house and left my sister and I outside to play with our cousins. That’s what we were doing when Uncle Danny arrived. Danny was my father’s brother and the baby of his generation. He was only a few years older than me and I loved him completely. But I hadn’t seen him since his high school graduation and then, he was wearing a crew-cut and swaggering with the other football players from his school. I thought he was the best guy in the crowd.
We heard his car, first – a high pitched little chirping horn that stopped our game. We watched a little red Volkswagen Beetle pull up onto the grass and I wondered who it was.
I remember my shock when it turned out to be Uncle Danny, but it didn’t look like him at all. This guy had blonde hair over his shoulders and a scraggly reddish blond beard. Plus, he was wearing bellbottoms and a T-shirt with a peace sign on it. I was sure he was on the road to ruination.
But there was Grandma, running out of the house, down the stairs and wrapping her arms around the hippie in her front yard.
When we saw that, all us kids gathered around him, too. I wanted my turn. But then, my father appeared, head and shoulders taller than my grandmother and I knew from the look on his face that it was time to be quiet and still.
My father scowled at Uncle Danny. Then he growled a few words and I caught my sister’s hand and held it tight.
My grandma wheeled around and shook her finger in my father’s face. I’d never seen anyone do that to him before and it scared the daylights out of me. She snapped. “He’s my son and your brother. I don’t care what he looks like. He belongs here and I’m glad he’s home!”
I stopped breathing.
My father grumbled something, but then he turned and stalked away. Uncle Danny just smiled. I hope I always remember his smile. That, and my Grandma’s hug.
I picked up Kate’s book and wondered if God is more like my grandmother than my father whose sense of right and wrong required perfection or Jenny’s God who punished people with ruination. I realized, I’d never thought about that before.
in our own eyes
I suppose, now that I’ve grown older and seen a thing or two, God looks a lot more like my Grandma. She loved her son enough to look past his shaggy hair and scraggly beard and bell-bottoms and peacenik T-shirt. She looked into his face and saw the boy she loved.
I imagine that’s the way God looks at me, his daughter – the one he loves, the one he constantly invites home, the one whose presence he embraces.
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