I have inscribed Isaiah 59:21 in the front of my English Bible. It says, ‘“As for me, this is my covenant with them,’ says the Lord. ‘My Spirit who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever, says the Lord.” It has been such an enormous blessing to see how God’s promises have been fulfilled in the lives of our daughters and then in the lives of their husbands and now in the lives of their children, our grandchildren.
Looking at my grandchildren who are between the ages of 14 and three months, I started to reflect on those moments that I remember God from my own childhood. Living in a farming community and in a large family, children are surrounded by both life and death. You see the births of piglets, chicks, and lambs, which become meat for your table within a few short months. Then you live with three (sometimes four) generations in the house, and births and deaths happen in the bedrooms of your home. By the time I was ten, I had witnessed a couple of deaths in our house and in the houses of the neighbors. I was five when my second sister was born and ten when my third was born. The rest of the family waited outside for the midwife to come and tell us the gender of the baby. Also, parents or grandparents did not have to give an introductory talk about sex because the roosters, ganders, stallions, and bulls were very demonstrative in the backyard.
As an adult, I had a conversation with my Mother about what I remembered from childhood. My first memory of death was of my grandfather being buried. In my mind, I can see the coffin in the middle of our yard, I can see the priest, and I can hear the cantors. My mother and I disagreed about this because she believed I was too young to remember. She thought that I just remembered the story because I heard it from her so many times. We left this as a disagreement between us, even though I think that I am right.
But I am certain that I remember my Father telling me that he and my mother have become Baptists. Until that time, they belonged to the Nazarene Church on his mother’s side and my mother’s family was Orthodox. Now I belonged to three groups – Nazarenes, Baptists, and Orthodox. One time when we went to the funeral of a neighbor, I asked my father to show me where his mother was buried. He told me that she was a Nazarene, therefore she was not buried in the Orthodox cemetery.
The Baptists in our village were known for their songs. We were in church for the whole day on Sunday and we went to church again for prayer on Wednesday and Friday evenings. I loved going to church. These were my people. I also loved that we sang up to thirty songs together each week. In the late afternoons, I would take the geese or the pigs or the cow outside the village. It was on those trips that I would sing all my songs to the Lord; my audience was just God and the animals that I took out to pasture. I felt close to the Lord during these times.
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Before I was ten years old, I felt that God was calling me to be a Baptist pastor. Nevertheless, I continued to go to the Orthodox Church with my uncles. When we celebrated the second day of Easter and the resurrection of Jesus, I would go to the cemetery and rejoice with the other villagers. It was there that the truth of resurrection was preached as the priest gathered the villagers and said, “My brothers and sisters! Do you see all these graves? There are hundreds of them here. There will be a day when all of these graves will be opened, and our loved ones will become alive because the Risen Lord Jesus will come for them.” This service had a great impact on my life and my understanding of the resurrection, and I felt the presence of the Lord there too.
Living under a communist regime did not make it easy to be a Christian. Every Monday morning, my homeroom teacher had to ask me where I was on Sunday (something that he already knew) and tell the class that people like me are retrograde. He reassured them that the communists would soon teach us to be good. My classmates would make fun of me when I closed my eyes to pray for my food. Yet, I knew it was right to give thanks. I still felt close to God during those difficult moments. I was helped in these situations by two things in my life – my wise father and very caring teachers. My father explained that I would suffer because our family was Baptist, but he told me I should always remember that God made me very smart, that God has promised to be with me always, and that he would leave his work and come to my school if I needed him. The three teachers that I had for grade 1, grade 2, and grades 3-4 supported me and helped me to be at the top of the class. When I returned to that school for the 50th anniversary of our class, my teacher for 3rd and 4th grade remarked that having me in her class was a joyful experience.
In my last year at Wheaton College, I spent the summer witnessing about Christ in youth hostels in Europe. One evening I talked about my faith with a student from Iran. We covered the whole Bible from creation to revelation. As we were ready to finish our conversation, he asked me this poignant question: “Was there ever a time in your life when you did not feel close to God?” I did not have to think for long, and I answered that I could not recall a time when God was not known in our family or my life.His answer was one of the greatest testimonies about God’s goodness to me: “You are so blessed. You are one of the few people who have never felt the absence of God in your life.” In that moment and many times since then, I thanked God for my parents who introduced me to God from my earliest days on this earth.