My faith journey began on Great Grandmother’s farm in the Hemet Valley of southern California. The Valley lay at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains which seemed a three or four minute walk to the left down Meridian Street which fronted the property but in truth lay some ten or more miles to the East and good bit more to the North.
Before I begin my story, I must tell you how it was in our corner of the Hemet Valley for I fear that much has changed since and the wonderful world of my early memories is no more. The house was surrounded by orchard, mostly apricot trees up front and walnut trees to the back with a few pear trees and some grape vines beside the barn. Attached to that old barn was a chicken house and yard. In the spring, large boxes of baby chicks would arrive and be placed in long, wire topped wooden trays that stood in front of the chicken yard. The chicks were called biddies and I could play with them if I was gentle. There were handfuls of the soft fuzzy little round peeping creatures that seemed to like being cuddled.
Growing just beyond the edge of the front lawn was a very large palm tree and around its base grew multitudes of crimson and white flowers called Four O’Clocks. The name, no doubt, arose from the plants’ habit of opening their petals in the late afternoon and infusing the air with their sweet scent. This would continue through the night and then at the first light of dawn the petals would close in sleep until the next afternoon. Later, just after dinnertime, the bells of the Congregational Church on the corner to the right would ring out the familiar hymns of evensong.
As a teenager, I remember walking along Meridian Street toward the mountains, freshly bathed after a hot day of picking apricots and full of good food. In those days, before the whole families would come up from Mexico to help harvest the fruit which was the main crop of the local farms along with walnuts and olives. Here and there would be clearings among the orchard trees and one could see campfires and hear the talk and laughter of those gathered ‘round them. The soft strumming of guitars and voices singing songs of love and melancholy would float through the evening tugging at one’s emotions. The ripest of the apricots, having cooked all day upon the heated earth would add their tangy, woodsy aroma to the sweet night air. To breathe was intoxicating and even now, just remembering such evenings sends cool silky prickles up my arms and down my spine.
In my great grandmother’s room a rocking chair sat next to her bed. I liked to climb into it and listen to her stories of coming west and stories about the Indians who lived in the Valley. On her bedside table was a Bible. My mother had taught me prayers from early on but I lacked a clear idea about who God was or why we prayed to him. One day I decided to find out. As I sat there in the rocking chair I asked Great Grandma what that book on her bedside table was. “That’s the Bible,” she responded. “So, what’s it about?” I asked and she responded, “It’s about God.” “Oh, does he live around here?” I asked. “Oh no!” she said “he lives in heaven.” “Well then how did his book get here?” This is what my great grandma told me. “After God made the world and people and all the plants and animals, he wanted the people to know who he was and about what he had done and how he wanted them to live. He wanted to be friends with people because he loved them but he also wanted them to live by his rules. So this is how I think the Bible was written. God would choose a person who would sit at a table and write the words just as he said them. Now if the person made mistakes or grew tired, God would choose another person to take their place. It took a long, long time and many people to write the Bible.”
I had a maiden aunt who was an invalid. She had books of stories from the Bible and would read them to me as I sat with her. She had stories about Jesus as a baby and as a grown man sitting or standing on hillsides teaching people who were gathered around him. To me, Jesus was this flat kid in the picture book. Most of the time he would be lying in a manger which was said to be a sad thing but I didn’t think it was so bad compared to the crib or the playpen in which my baby brother was usually confined. I thought all Jesus had to do to get out of that manger was to take hold of one of the cow’s horns and swing himself out of there.
My Aunt liked to tell me the story of Noah and the Flood. I knew the drowning people were bad, but the look of panic in their eyes caused me to feel sorry for them. None of them got to see the rainbow at the end of the story. Also, I had problems about getting two of all living things into that Ark. That was because of my experience playing with bugs. I would build neighborhoods for them with houses, streets and sidewalks and playgrounds. It was easy to get two roly polies or two ants (not that they were in the least bit cooperative). But just try to get two beetles of the same kind, especially when I had to set all of my captives free before I could come in to dinner each day. I realized that gathering two of every living thing would take a very long time. That’s when I first began to wonder if adults always told the whole truth.
Then one day, at the end of the Noah story, my Aunt Dolly said as she was closing the book, “Now Ruthie there is one thing you must never do and that’s to call someone a “fool”, because if you do that, God will throw a thunderbolt at you.”
I thought about that a lot. I really wanted to see one of those up close. I never thought of it hitting me because I would hear it coming and run very fast and it would stick into the ground beside me. I thought and thought about it and then, one cloudy day I marched up to the barn where my Grandma was candling eggs, took a deep breath and shouted, “You fool, You fool you!” then ran away as fast as I could so the thunderbolt wouldn’t strike the barn. I couldn’t run to my favorite trees because I didn’t want anything to happen to them. I just had to stay out in the open…listening for its approach. When lunch time came I gathered my food and asked if I could eat it on the back porch. Still no thunderbolt. I wandered about the yard for the rest of the afternoon but had to come in for dinner. I ate as little and as fast as I could and asked to be excused. I heard my Grandmother say, “I wonder what is going on with Ruthie,” as I went to my room. Oh, if she only knew! I guessed that she hadn’t heard me what with the noise of the chickens and the tractor plowing behind the barn.
I sat in my room, trying to think of what to do. “Maybe I should sneak out of the house and sleep outside.” Then a voice inside my head, I guess it was my conscience, said to me, “Look, Ruthie, God isn’t going to waste a thunderbolt on a kid. He probably just wrote your name in the Big Black Book! That was it. I was sure that’s what had happened. I spent a miserable night thinking about The Big Black Book. I walked about in a stupor all the next day thinking, I’m going to Hell and I haven’t even started school.”
Dinner time came and went the next evening. No appetite. Why eat when you are going to burn in Hell? Then evensong began and I heard the church bells ring out the hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” I didn’t know the words by heart but I understood them and I remembered the pictures of Jesus sitting on a hillside teaching those gathered ‘round him. I went straight to bed and began praying, “Oh please Dear Jesus, please get God to take my name out of the Big Black Book! I love my Grandma and I’m sorry I called her that word.” Over and over I prayed these words until I fell asleep and in the morning upon awakening, repeated them. And so it went, day after day repeating the prayers. Then one morning I woke up and felt that everything would be OK and said “Thank you” many, many times to Jesus.
I wish I could say that was the last of my sins but we all know that just doesn’t happen at any age. Thankfully, there is always Jesus.
By Ruth Jensen