Saturday, July 13, 2013

Reflections On My Childhood, Part III

I have been a bookworm since I learned to read at five years old. I loved Little House on the Prairie, Heidi, and Little Women, as well as history and pretty much any biography: inventors, spies, soldiers, presidents, escaped slaves, authors, businessmen, missionaries, and influential women.

I liked to play in an imaginary world of my own. In my imagination, I always went back in time. I was a pioneer, a forerunner on the prairie, an explorer, a scout sent to tame the wilderness ahead of modern civilization. Or I was blind, exploring my world through other senses. Or I was a conscientious mother to my doll baby, whom I carried on my back while performing my chores, papoose-style. What looked like my pink bicycle was actually my horse, Rosalind, stabled in our garage. Sometimes she was a bay, sometimes a chestnut.

My brothers and I, along with the two kids next door, would go mining in the sandbox. We created a miniature river, waterfall, and reservoir for our play figures to explore. We set up a tent in the backyard and cut up young cucumbers, baby carrots, and tiny onions from our mothers' gardens to make soups in little pots on our imaginary campfire. I can still taste the savory warm water and the tender onion-seasoned vegetable chunks, softening in the summer sun.

Nina was my "best friend". Our parents went to church together. When I was about seven, we joined several families for a Fourth of July picnic at her house and I got to try riding a bike without training wheels. I remember Nina's dad and another dad in the group patiently helping me balance and gently giving the bike a push down the path toward the barn, over and over.

I spent the night at Nina's house several times. We would giggle and play and stay up too late listening to cassette tapes or just reading. Her dad would come in and pray with us before we fell asleep. I remember being surprised that she prayed directly to Jesus ("put angels in my pillow") while I always prayed to God, "in Jesus' name". It was a small distinction, perhaps, but I puzzled over it.

I thought Nina's dad was terrific; he was at ease with kids and his sense of humor kept me laughing. He was a veterinarian and we once got to watch while he performed an emergency c-section on a cow. When he taught our Sunday School class, in a classroom full of desks that also served the church's private school, I repeated his puns in the car all the way home.

Homeschooled during the week, Sunday School was my place to shine. I knew all the answers and memorized Bible verses easily. When I completed one class memorization assignment, the teachers presented me with my own copy of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. When I showed my parents my prize, they wouldn't let me keep it. Fantasy was frowned upon in our home, as were witches--which were not considered fantastic. We returned the paperback to the local Christian bookstore and exchanged it for something safe, without witches.

When Nina came to my house, we were known to spend most of the visit swapping books and reading together. Once, I had to run down to my dad's study, where our fathers were deep in conversation, to find the book I wanted. They looked up as I slipped in and headed straight for the bookshelf. Nina's dad seemed a bit surprised when I selected Tortured For His Faith, by Haralan Popov. I was rather proud of my grown-up taste in literature.

By that time many of my favorite books were about danger and suffering, about spirit and faith in the face of terror. The villains in these stories were communists, atheists, Nazis, Russians, Romans, Germans, southern slaveholders, Catholic prelates, or animistic "uncivilized" tribesman. I learned a lot very young about torture--both physical and mental, about cruelty, about interrogation techniques. I read and reread stories of measured starvation, of brainwashing, of monotony, of forced labor, of families kept apart. I was aware of the psychological effects of isolation, overcrowding, and sleep deprivation. I devoured tales of codes, smuggling, and covert communication.

I also read of missionaries who spent years getting themselves into dangerous situations, then prayed and struggled heroically to save themselves or their families from near-death. Some, like the five New Tribes men in Bolivia in 1942 and the five men who died in Ecuador in 1956, went into the heart of the jungle never to return to their wives and small children. I read vivid accounts of men dying alone (Dave Yarwood in Bolivia in 1951) or being murdered in front of their wives and children (John Troyer in Guatemala in 1981). They were all my heroes.

David Brainerd kept a depressing diary while he tried to save the Indians, but died of tuberculosis (at 29) before he could marry his girlfriend, who followed him to the grave a few months later. William Carey left a great linguistic legacy in India, but the poor wife he dragged there after God "called" him suffered so much trauma in the process that she went mad. Adoniram Judson buried two wives and numerous children in Burma. Bill Borden died of meningitis in  Egypt at age 25, long before reaching the Muslims in China that God had called him to convert.

When we got a video player during my teen years, many of our movies weren't any more cheerful. In one of my favorites, a Japanese man threw himself under a runaway train, saving the other passengers. In the film, his fiancee took it even better than I did, glowing in the memory of his selfless love. Roman Catholics were the bad guys in BJU's gruesome "Flame in the Wind" and the Reformation histories of William Tyndale and John Hus, while other Protestants were the perpetrators in "The Radicals", cutting out Michael Sattler's tongue before burning him at the stake.

We never skipped the martyrdom scenes, though we often jumped over romantic parts of movies, especially if the women's costumes even hinted at cleavage. We even fast-forwarded through scenes in movies produced by Worldwide Pictures (Billy Graham's film production company)! Tenderness and sexuality--beyond a chaste married kiss--were repressed, but cruelty and violence were commonplace. Satan was our enemy, after all, out to destroy us. We were soldiers for Christ and had to be ready to lay down our lives for his standard.

Even at ten years old, I took my responsibilities as a missionary rather seriously. Since I didn't often leave my own yard except to go to church or the grocery store with my parents, my evangelization opportunities were few. My Grammie didn't seem terribly receptive to converting, and she didn't seem very unsaved anyway. My neighbors were all churchgoers. But their friends didn't quite look like Christians. Two girls near my age would come over (to my neighbors' house) from time to time and we would all occasionally play together. A. & A. went to gymnastics and would practice cartwheels on the lawn. Somersaults were the limit of my flexibility, but I had a greater gift: eternal life.

One afternoon when A. & A. were visiting next door, I talked to them across the fence and said I had something important to share with them. They should come to my window in an hour and I would have it ready. As luck would have it, Mom was serving dinner when the appointed time came. I slipped away from the table, opened the window, and began to earnestly try to explain to the girl outside why she should care about what I was about to give her. One of my parents came looking for me and wanted to know what was going on. Embarrassed, I handed A. a pocket-size Gospel of John, shut the window, returned to supper, and indefinitely postponed my illustrious missionary career.

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