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Childhood Interrupted

(I want to clarify that this is part of my faith story, even though it is rendered through a second-person pronoun. I did that deliberately. This device draws attention to the fact that every testimony is a way of talking to oneself, of dialoguing with the multiple voices that God has spoken to one over the years. I also wanted to hide myself, better put, to point beyond my self to others – my grandpa, my chemistry teacher, the fluorescent Dutch, and bearded Anabaptists – who have really shaped my self. And finally, this device has also allowed me to be even more self-aware while hopefully drawing the reader, you, into my faith journey.)


When you were a child, you spoke like a child, you thought and acted like a petulant child.  Then, in December of 1989, the Revolution came.  A runaway from home, you are a teenage bug in the swarm buzzing against the regime.  A torrent of 1980s mullets (business in the front, party in the back), and “I’m-closer-to-God-than-you” bangs, frenzied heads surging over Metallica and Depeche Mode shirts, billows atop billows coursing toward downtown, washing over wide boulevards of concrete and steel, the pride of communism.  Sound waves crash against the city quarters raised as altars to the beloved son of the nation (Fiul Poporului):  “Down with Communism” “Down with Ceausescu” “God is on our side”.  You know in other towns, tanks and AK47s scramble to silence the chorus, to stifle the cries.  And you all are dancing in the streets.  You are told the secret police has snipers all around the central plaza.  But you are headed that way.  What moves you in the range of the guns?  Is it teenage rebellion?  Is it the adrenaline of the prey as it stares hunters square in the eye?  Is it the desire to teach your prudent and faint-hearted parents a lesson about civic courage?  Is it the desire for freedom?  Is it solidarity with those who had already fallen?  You do not know at the time and the old man you are now cannot be trusted to disentangle the strongest motivation from the bunch.  But you do know and you do remember kneeling with thousands in that central plaza on the night of the 21st.  Frenzy muted, heads bowed, all your restless lips trained to recite patriotic poetry now fumbling in unison for the words of Jesus. “Our Father in heaven hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.  Sacred words whispered in the bead of the guns.  You feel God is real that night.  Amid the confusion, homelessness and pathos of what (you now suspect) might have been a wicked farce, you glimpse the peace of a different social order.  And it is as dense as the steel produced for centuries in Resita, the hometown of your youth.

A token of the lily-livered generation lies prostrate on the cement, nearby.  Look at that!  It’s Mrs. Sigmund, your chemistry teacher, a brilliant 50-year-old Hungarian, whose presence usually evokes primal fear and disdain.  Her tongue, more biting than sulfuric acid, still cannot conjugate Romanian verbs properly.  She eviscerates you publicly in class when you do not recall the bonding of some molecules.  You stare her down, mule-like, even when you know the answer.  It’s the game you both play, your nip and tuck, your drama.  But that night, the night when barking fire should have silenced you both for good, her tongue moves in harmony with yours.  Yes.  You feel in your gut that God is real that night.  You glimpse a mysterious force that bonds molecules, vagabonds, and proper scientists together.  And it’s neither the love of Plato, nor that of Mendeleev.

When you were a child, you rested like a child in the gentle shadow of your grandfather’s presence.  Your grandpa plants his gardens and vineyards in ghettoes, among Gypsies and Hungarians.  A friend to outcasts, he speaks to them in their mothers’ tongues.  His rough hands squeeze sweet wine from the grapes of early autumn.  His body leaves behind the aroma of strawberries blended with freshly turned soil.  Grandpa had witnessed the horror of WWII in slow motion, as he was trudged from the Urals to the Black Forest across a disfigured Europe.  But even after his return from madness, he prefers walking to any other means of transport.  You both take long walks together, tracing on foot the tram routes of the city of your boyhood.  You both scamper at the outskirts for some natural hot spring to go skinny-dipping.

Those scrawny, arthritis-ridden knees of the old man become the holy and safe ground of your earliest encounter with the living God.   On them, you first hear the gospel story.  On them, you are spellbound by grandpa’s recollection of God’s faithfulness and grace.  Nineteen young men left for the war from his village.  Only two returned.  And one of these survived without firing a single shot at the enemy.  Your grandpa had become a Christian months before being drafted.  He’d read the New Testament with childlike innocence, and became convinced that following Jesus implies being loving, merciful and humble.  And should you love your enemies as Jesus did, you wouldn’t kill them.  Grandpa’s sunken eyes glitter with delight as he recalls discharging his gun toward the skies, and not toward the enemy exposed in front of him.  One evening you two, grandfather and grandson, walk home.  A group of three or four hooligans approach from the back, clobber the old man over the head, and take off running.  Still on his knees he raises his fallen hat and whispers: “May God Bless Them!”

In April of 2006 you see him again, a week after the Church remembers Holy Saturday, the day when Christ lays Godforsaken in the tomb.  That day you record this entry in your journal:

“An emaciated essence is sitting up on the edge of the bed.  The gentle face now unraveled by age and pain, legs almost entirely paralyzed, eyes moist, fist clenched.  Ethan [your son, 2-year-old at the time] is in purview, holding a baby chick in his open hands.  The old man’s palm opens.  I grab it and start caressing it.  ‘Where’s your other boy?’ he says.  For the third time I tell him patiently that I have three girls and one boy.  He looks me straight in the eyes.  For two eternal seconds his beautiful face contorts in the struggle to find that relevant connection, that relevant memory, something, anything.  Defeat…The muscles relax; a steady stream of tears gushes out.  ‘I don’t understand’ he says.  The sorrow and helplessness ought to resonate to the ends of the earth.  But the mud hut absorbs all light and sound.  And for a moment I have a hard time conceiving how God’s holy breath hovered over the damp chaos.  I shroud his withered body in my arms, and kiss my grandfather’s face again and again.  ‘Christ is risen!’ someone greets me later that day at an engagement party.  I know the convention.  I’m a conventional guy.  But in that instance I cannot be.  I think of the silence, the dread — the Son of God abandoned in a fresh tomb.  I think of old thin bodies, and those watching them, all learning to live with the hard questions of their silent Holy Saturdays.  I close my eyes for one long moment, and then I whisper, ‘He is risen indeed!’”

When you were a child, you spoke and thought like a Romanian child.  Then you, this swarthy, short and stocky product of Transylvania, find a home among the tall, fluorescent, blue-eyed Dutch at the South Bend Christian Reformed Church.  A spiritual home.  A home for your spirit, whatever that is.  You think of it, your spirit, as a perpetual hunger, as a capacity to always be in want.  It’s that part of you that sings along with U2 “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” and dances along with gypsy punks, Gogol Bordello.  So here you are, a nomad and a vagabond cozying it up in Calvin and Alvin’s bosom.  You learn that Christ redeems culture.  You join in the chorus of the totally depraved, reciting aloud written prayers of confession.  You share and weep in small groups.  It’s a strange Christian Reformed Church, indeed!  You inhale and exhale the rhythms of ancient sacred liturgies.  You baptize your favorite pet cat, “Geneva.”  You break bread with vagabonds and Dead Sea Scrolls scholars around the sacred table and around George Marsden’s swimming pool.  Your favorite Calvinist becomes Marilynne Robinson.  And your favorite novelist is a South African, a descendant of 17th century Dutch.  And Len Vander Zee, your pastor, nourishes your famished spirit with a Christ so capacious, so rich, and so beautiful you begin to hope against your nomadic spirit that you just might make home through the wilderness.

You are a living proof that Wesleyans and Anabaptists can thrive among the Dutch, though you don’t care for most tenets of Calvinism save for one or two.  That in Christ God claimed for himself “every square inch of creation.”  That steeling your mind as well as deepening your love is part of worship.  At the same time you are adopted into another spiritual home. Bethel.  Beth-El.  The House of God.  The house of God for a vagabond and trickster and heel-grabber.  Like Jacob, at Bethel you run into some angels.  They tread that sacred space around the shallow ponds and not some ethereal stairway to heaven.  A wise and shrewd brother nurtures your attachment to justice, mercy and Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.  Another shows you generosity of spirit and of wit.  He teaches you how to teach.  He breaks the bread of hospitality with you.  He catches salamanders to delight your kids when your families vacation together.  Your kids remember for years the jokes he tells by campfires, marshmallows crackling, winds gusting in the lazy evenings of a Ludington autumn.

When you were a child, you spoke like a child, thought like a child, and acted like a child.  Then, you met Andrea, the courageous one who will become your wife.  In more ways than one, she makes a man out of you.  A tender irony that you, tentative, self-doubtful and cynical, should be graced with a companion so tenacious, joyous, and hopeful.  Like a female Nathaniel, not an ounce of deception resides in her.  Reading this account over your shoulder she tells you, “you are going to depress everybody,” and later, “tell that I’m the joke in your life.”  She is steely intention. She is supple wit.  She is steadfast love.  You experience the meaning of “beloved” mostly due to her.

When you finally become an old man, God sends you back to kindergarten.  God gives you a nursery of kids and a pocket full of roses.  God also gives you Romanian hip-hop, Radiohead and Metallica, and children with tastes delicate (or crude) enough to bounce to your music.  You are graced to stay in graduate school long enough to extract joyous knowledge from them.  You remember when Alexandra, only three at the time, worries that if Dora the Explorer is a cartoon to you – the watcher, you might well be a cartoon with respect to Dora, or worse, with respect to her.  When you lay Geneva’s corpse into the ground, Alexandra, now six, informs you it’s over, Geneva is gone for good.  Should God resurrect her body, it would be a different cat.  You remember Jordan arguing with you that Jonah perished in the belly of the fish, insisting that at Cana of Galilee the Son of God indulges for a moment the possibility of alcoholism, and openly wishing that Andrea be a planet that would gravitate around her, her entire life.  You remember Ethan, giving his first argument.  “I hate Bob the builder,” he says.  Incidentally, he is wearing a “Bob the builder” tee shirt.  “He’s tiny and he works,” he goes on, “and tiny people shouldn’t work.”  You remember Hannah in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, complaining it’s not good enough for God to be merely alongside of the hurt and devastated.  God, if he is God, needs to rescue; he must intervene.  Hannah also gives you the incredulous stare when she finds out in church school that Jesus was resurrected with holes in the palm of his hands.  She wails, she cries, “Why didn’t God heal the scars?”

Fortified by the wisdom of little children, you are now ready to speak plainly.   Why do you believe in God?  Honestly, you never found Aquinas’ five ways compelling.  No deductive or inductive proof has taken you to that conclusion.  Also, you have no transcendent experience to speak of.  Christ has never appeared to you on the way to Damascus or San Francisco or Bucharest.  The beauty of the Carpathians or of the Rockies is at best a signpost, and signs need interpretation.  Now, in a cool hour, you realize you suffer from a chronic case of narrative immersion.  Engrafted as you are in story of others, you have picked up an orientation, a magnetism toward the Holy One of Israel.  And it frames your experiences, and it makes sense of your life as more than a chronicle, and you cannot shake it off, and you cannot imagine wanting to.  You have met God, as you would a mysterious companion, in the rhythms of other people’s lives: a gentle grandfather, a praying mob, a courageous Hungarian woman, a liturgically shaped congregation, a bearded colleague, an inquisitive child.  You do not know exactly how this happens, how you encounter God in these narratives, but their lives make better sense with God in them than without.  You are trained to theorize about this, of course, but the theory is not the encounter.  And you have seen with your own eyes arthritic and youthful knees alike fold under that gentle and mysterious force that has grasped and magnetized you too.

That is not to say that all stories you’ve lived through are stories of God’s self-revealing.  You do not meet God in the concrete and steels of communism or in the mechanical, unlived faces of capitalism. You do see God most clearly in weak things, in broken tissues, in frail memories, in truncated stories.  The mystery of Psalm 8 becomes a bit more tangible to you over the years.  That God’s majesty is revealed through babbling lips.  That God’s bulwark of protection against enemies is weaved out of inarticulate groaning.  The blind, the halt, the hoboes, the unemployed migrant, the alienated spouse, the decimated American Indians and Australian Aborigines, the mutilated Tutsi, the pulverized innocents of Hiroshima, New York City, and Baghdad, are an essential part God’s own testimony to himself.  Lest you should believe the myth that brute power secures safety, you can never be reminded too often of this testimony.  This is God’s story, this is their story, this is your story: That in Jesus Christ God makes himself vulnerable, God enters fully our sorrow.  He knows first-hand the fumbling of infancy, the pangs of hunger, the sorrow of betrayal, the distressed cries of torture, and the loaded silence of a sealed cave.  But that’s not the end of his life story, and that’s not the end of your story, and that’s not the end of our story.  For, beyond the muted cave, there is a resurrection garden, and the one they called the Gardener is walking again, in the cool of the morning.  And then there’s a lakeshore and fried fish and friends and laughter.


The first half of this writing is based on a meditation I gave at Bethel College for the Faculty Retreat in the Fall of 2008, which appeared as a short article entitled “When I was a Child” in Reflections: A Publication of the Missionary Church Historical Society in the Spring/Summer of 2009.

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