The True King and I

“Relationship with Jesus Christ–not anyone or anything else–is the most precious relationship in life and the only real lifeline.”

When I was five, Grandma Rose started taking me to Sunday school along with my aunts Cheryl and Kathy. If not for Grandma, I never would have seen the inside of a church. This is Grandma’s greatest legacy in my life, and I am and will forever be deeply grateful to her, for there I was introduced to God and His Son, Jesus. I didn’t know until four decades later that this relationship–not one with Dad or anyone else–is the most precious relationship in life and the only real lifeline.

After Sunday school each week, Grandma took us three girls with her to worship service. The sanctuary held a reverent air. People greeted one another in hushed tones and waited patiently for the service to begin. Reverend Simon Kvaale, an elderly native Norwegian, led the service in his thick, broken accent, his unassuming yet commanding presence inspiring veneration in the congregants. After I had learned to read in first grade, Grandma ran her finger beneath each word in the hymnal she shared with me so I could follow along. Each service concluded with the “Doxology,” which I sang with gusto. The resounding bass of the organ played by Mrs. Kvaale filled the sanctuary as Reverend Kvaale wafted down the center aisle to greet his flock, his long, white robe billowing around and flowing behind him like angel’s wings.

I waited with bated breath with Grandma, Cheryl, and Kathy to greet Reverend Kvaale in the receiving line after the service. When he took my small hand in his smooth, warm one, he emanated kindness and patience, which was reflected in his bespectacled eyes and gentle smile as he bowed down to my level to speak to me. In my young mind, a pastor was privy to God’s mind and heart. As such, I believed that Reverend Kvaale reflected God’s character and His feelings toward me: I was safe and loved for myself.

I loved reading Scripture and the weekly lessons in our workbooks, which I often read weeks in advance. Although I found the King James Version difficult to grasp with all its thees, thous, lests, and verilys, I hung onto every word, knowing in some incomprehensible way that I was on hallowed ground, in the presence of greatness. Although I could not fully understand what God was saying through His Word, something deep within me came alive as I read it.

I felt deeply honored when, in fourth grade, I received my first black leather-bound Bible with gold-embossed lettering on the cover. I delicately held and turned its onionskin pages, relishing their comforting softness between my fingers while receiving comfort through their words.

God also showed up right at our front door in the most unexpected form–Jehovah’s Witnesses. Resembling Boris Badenov and Snidely Whiplash, sans the sinister vibe, these mysterious, grim-faced, buttoned-up individuals clad in dark, professional attire carried black briefcases or satchels, leaving hardcover books on the rare occasions when Mom answered their knock and tracts in our screen door when she didn’t. Mom headed straight for the garbage can with their material, but one day, out of curiosity, I asked her if I could read it. She absentmindedly handed the tract to me. Sequestered in my room, I lay on my bed, surrounded by my favorite stuffed animals, studying every word. I recognized Scripture in these writings, yet much of the Jehovah’s Witnesses interpretations struck a false chord within me, although I couldn’t explain why.

As time passed, Mom handed me these tracts without my having to ask, and I continued reading the scripture passages, reveling in every word, embracing what felt in my gut as the truth and discarding what felt off in the interpretations. God brought Himself to me through His Word, providing balm and sanctuary to my lonely, scared mind and heart. Sensing His soothing, constant presence, I instinctively poured out my heart to Him, not in the traditional prayer posture, but rather like having a conversation with a beloved, trusted parent or friend. Although I was often physically alone, I sensed that I was never alone, which soothed me in the most inexplicable way.

After Mom and Dad’s divorce, confirmation class in seventh and eighth grades was the extent of any consistent relationship with church during my adolescence. Grandma’s initiative and faithful transporting me to and from church with Cheryl during my seventh grade year and Kathy during my eighth made it all possible. For one hour every Saturday morning, twelve of us confirmands met with Reverend Kvaale, where we recited our memory work for the week from Luther’s Small Catechism, discussed the lesson, and went over the questions in the workbook. We were also required to read one chapter from Scripture. I soaked up the material in these lessons, relished learning about my Lutheran faith, and diligently memorized every word assigned. Class was held in our damp, austere church basement. What it lacked in aesthetics it more than made up for in serenity, which my mind, heart, and spirit craved. This was one hour during the entire week where I felt totally at peace and safe and could just be myself.

At the end of my eighth grade year, I decided to not be confirmed. I knew that confirmation was a sacrament of the church, one in which I would be making a promise to God, but I wasn’t clear as to what exactly I was promising. Grandma Rose explained to me that I would be promising that I would never drink alcohol, dance, or play cards. How could I make and keep these promises given that, first of all, I had already gone to school dances in middle school, fully enjoyed them, and intended upon doing so in high school? Second, never drink alcohol? How could I make such a promise at the age of thirteen? And third, why on earth was playing cards considered a mortal sin? Certainly there were more damning activities. Still, I could not in good conscience promise that I would never play cards. In my opinion, I was too young to make such promises to anyone, especially to God. I held the firm conviction that it was better to not make a promise at all than to make one and not keep my word.

But I did want Stevie and I to get baptized and was resolved we would be. This was a burning issue with me all throughout my childhood. I had begged Mom and Dad to have me baptized, and when that didn’t work, I rampaged about it, insisted upon it, even resorted to trying to guilt them into it, accusing them of banishing me to an eternity with the devil. Nothing worked. Even Grandma couldn’t convince them. All of our appeals fell upon deaf ears for reasons that are still a mystery.

I told Reverend Kvaale about both of my decisions. He sat studying me a long few minutes before responding, “You are such a mature young lady.” He continued studying me, silent. Then he said, “I really would like you to reconsider your decision about being confirmed. But if you don’t change your mind, I respect your decision and would be happy to baptize you and your brother.”

I announced my decisions to Dad, Mom, and Grandma Rose. Neither Mom nor Dad fought me about Stevie’s and my baptisms, perhaps because I had already discussed it with Reverend Kvaale. Maybe they, too, felt that pastors had a main line to God, and they were not going to mess with that. So on Saturday, May 3, 1975, Stevie, at the age of four, and I at thirteen were baptized in a private ceremony with Terrell and Dortha Morris, Dad’s uncle and aunt, as our godparents. Although Grandma Rose never said so, I suspected she was thrilled and relieved.

Nine years later, on December 15, 1984, I was confirmed in that same church on the day my then husband, John, and stepdaughter, Mandi, became members of the church. Grandma and Kathy were in attendance at that service, sitting in a pew near the back as usual. A full-blooded Norwegian, Grandma never was one for physical displays of affection, not even in private. But after the service, with a shy smile, Grandma softly stroked my arm with tears filling her small, light brown eyes as we stood in the narthex afterward. When I got home, I opened the gift she had slipped into my hand before leaving. It was a simple silver cross necklace.