Tiptoe......................peeking through the gate

Breathtaking Beauty


I almost missed meeting a breathtaking woman because I was saying hello and goodbye to dozens of my parents’ friends I hadn’t seen for years and wouldn’t see again in this life. They were limping into my childhood church, pushing walkers, frail, stooped, but still smiling at me, as they had 50 years before when they were 35 years old and I was ten.

We all were back to celebrate the 100th anniversary of a church in the midwest that tore my child soul open week after week with fire and thunder; then held out the balm of sweet trios, joyful choruses and prayers so heavy with love and faith that pain and joy fought continually in my soul. The pastor who had stirred my heart to such dizzying heights and nearly drowned me in fear was there, too. He dragged one leg as he approached the podium to preach. His first words were a shot from the bow, instantly resurrecting 1960. The old fire was alive. Day and night, day and night I long for a closer walk with God! Are you given to God? How is your prayer life? Your burden for souls?

When I was ten, he had reported hearing that the Communists would have a bloodbath of 20 million U.S. Christians by the year 1970. With one sentence, my hopes for marriage and children and even graduating from high school were killed. For two years I mourned the loss of my adulthood. But by age twelve, I stood by my bedroom window one Sunday afternoon and decided to talk things over with myself.

Eve, I said, you know you will never live to marry or go to college. You will never have children. But you cannot live like this, with so much fear. So you’re going to have to pretend. From now on, you will pretend that bloodbath will never happen and you will act as though you have a future. By some wonderful mechanism I do not understand, the fear dispersed and I went forward with my childhood, pretending--until I actually believed--that I would live. Now, at age 60, all was forgiven, and I was only grateful for the pastoral fervor that had helped to set my course long before.

After the service there was a reception in the church basement. I looked with melted heart at my old Sunday School teachers. Decades ago, they had set up cardboard walls of Jericho on the table so we could knock them down; they’d handed around booklets of colored papers showing that black sins turn to white by the red blood of Jesus and take us to the golden streets of heaven. Mrs. Taulk had vouched for the truth of the Bible and described the difficult joy of taking in foster children. Mrs. Windall had shared stories about missionaries to Africa who told jungle boys and girls about Jesus. Enthralled, I would retell them to my father after lunch while he rested in his nubby brown recliner. Once he dozed off. How, I wondered, could anyone could sleep through such adventures!

The Sunday School teachers had taught us in tiny cement block basement rooms with light green walls and no windows. Our opening exercises were in a larger room with a piano. There we sang our favorites, Climb, Climb up Sunshine Mountain and Deep and Wide, complete with arm motions. We sat in long rows with the chairs squished together. That was because kids showed up for Sunday School. Fred, a man at our church, liked to draw in the local children through stunts and contests. One year he had the youth pastor squeeze 15 kids into and on top of a VW bug. Large signs on the doors read, Come to Sunday School with Us! In 1957, any kid could hop on and no one worried about kidnapping or seat belts or sexual molestation. In 1960, Fred tried to snag Sunday Schoolers by offering a brand-new product—a transistor radio—to the kid who brought the most friends to Sunday School. Even more chairs crammed the rows as neighborhood kids piled into our crowded opening exercises.

By 7th grade, the magic evaporated and I loathed every minute of Sunday School. Gary and Richard and eight other boys didn’t want to be there. They shot paper airplanes and wisecracked their way through the year while I, the only girl, tried to look interested and answer the questions the miserable Mr. J. dutifully asked. One Sunday, things got so mouthy the teacher took a swing at Richard. An hour later,  Mr. J. stood in church sobbing, begging for our prayers. I probably thought he hadn’t swung hard enough.

Our family had another connection with Fred. Back in the 1950’s we had met him at a plot of land in the country one Saturday, where he outlined his vision for an amusement park, with go-carts, kiddie golf and an ice cream stand. He had the vision but no money. My dad had the money. Dad decided to buy in, along with another partner. Two would provide the capital and Fred would do the work. They would split profits three ways. The amusement park was a great success, partially because Fred was an idea person. Every year there was a new way or two to get kids to Sunday School, and every year there were more ways to bring paying kiddie customers to the amusement park. It succeeded in part because my dad knew how to put the brakes on Fred's more fanciful plans by refusing to pay.

Forty years into the venture, the park was thriving. Fred had moved onto the grounds, along with his wife and a son or two. It was then he began pressuring my father to sell out his share. Dad said he had told Fred no, he wanted the park to be an inheritance for his three children. When I was home from the East Coast, he muttered in disgust, “I wish Fred would let this go. I don’t want to sell out my share. I wanted it to take care of Murray in his retirement.” My brother Murray was a pastor, and Dad was not impressed with the retirement packages, or lack thereof, of most pastors.

Eventually at 90, Dad caved in and sold out for a modest price. So did the other partner. Not long after, Fred turned around and sold the business for nearly eight figures. It looked and smelled rotten to the few who knew. The other partner sued and won in court. My father refused. He had his own ideas about how to settle things. One morning he dressed in a suit and asked my brother to pick him up and drop him off at Fred’s office. Afterward, Murray asked if Dad wanted to say anything. I just needed to tell Fred I forgave him was Dad's simple explanation.

I wasn’t sure I had.

Down in the fellowship hall, I was sampling hors d’oeuvres before catching my plane back East, giving final hugs between bites. It was then I saw the tall young woman standing alone with a little plate of food. She was not tall and elegant, but kind of gawky in her very long skirt and unfashionable glasses. I didn’t want to talk to her. Too many old friends; too little time. But something compelled me to go over. I extended my hand.

Hi. I’m Eve. Do you attend church here?”

The girl looked at me with peaceful eyes.

Hello. I’m Ellen Susan. Well, I used to, when I was seven. I gave my heart to Jesus here in 1962.” Her voice was high and thin, like a child’s.

This woman who could have passed for a college student was almost my age?

And what do you do?” I asked.

Ellen Susan appeared startled by the question. She repeated it quietly.

“What do I do?” There was a pause.

“Well, I worship and praise Jesus all day. I sing and dance to him.”

She said this without drama, out of a great inner calm.

Suddenly, it seemed I was in a garden of roses, where perfumed air hung all around us. This blithe soul, who sang and danced to Jesus all day, had probably given her heart to Him after hearing one of our pastor’s fiery sermons in 1962. I knew all the families in our church and I don't remember hers. She had most likely come to us through a Sunday School stunt designed by Fred. As I stood there in awe of her beauty, a wonderful release swept over me. Things came together and I understood. We sin, we err, we hurt. We love, we inspire, we stuff cars full of kids. And, somehow, through it all, or in spite of it all, the Father who loves us can draw to Himself the Ellen Susans and Eves and even the goofy 12-year-old Richards in Sunday School classes. Despite Fred's worst, God is providing for Murray, who recently retired and told me he did not need the amusement park money to survive. His pension turned out to be larger than expected. Ellen Susan made me glad for all of church, for all of life, even the pain of my own childhood that has brought the joy of healing and release.

As I excused myself from the fresh beauty of Ellen Susan, she bent down and whispered, “Thank you for saying more than hello.

The pleasure was all mine, Ellen Susan. Praise be to Him.