Here’s a little piece from one of my ongoing writing projects. Enjoy!
We didn’t have a television in our home. “There’s too much trash on it,” said Momma and Daddy. Instead, we had a flat reel-to-reel tape recorder. On it Momma listened to taped sermons, male gospel quartets, and a lady named Deldelker whose voice was full and fruity and wobbled a lot. Sally and I admired the wobbly-voiced lady extravagantly. “Listen to me,” we shrilled to each other. “I’m Deldelker.” And we would summon as full a vibrato as we could manage.
For a few weeks we flirted with the idea of actually becoming Deldelker when we grew up. When Pam heard us she disabused us of this notion.
“You can’t sing,” she told us bluntly. “Nobody in our family can.”
I didn’t know what she meant. Sally and I could and did sing, often and loudly, with full vibrato. One day it got to be too much for Momma. “I don’t want you kids doing that; it’s not nice to copy people,” she said sternly. To take our minds off Deldelker, she put a story tape on for us.
The tape was a mixture: A radio drama of Noah and the flood; Eric B. Hare reading “Chinese Lady and the Rats,” “Pokey the Runaway Bear,” “Sally the Runaway Monkey,” and “Packey the Runaway Elephant,” then, apparently as an afterthought to fill tape, “Little Black Sambo.”
The first time I heard this tape I listened enthralled as God spoke from our tape recorder, telling Noah to get a move on and build the Ark. I heard the people’s exclamations as Noah’s sons started construction and Noah started preaching to his neighbors. I heard his congregation laughing and ridiculing him and his family, then gasping as the animals thumped into the ark. I heard Noah’s last invitation to safety. I heard the door close, the first few droplets of rain, and then a downpour. Thunder crashed.
And suddenly our living room was full of the sounds of terrified people dying in the crashing waters while Noah and his family listened from inside the Ark, righteous, safe, and smug. They didn’t even throw a rope over the side. The pastoral peace of the Ark after everybody outside got done drowning gave me time to catch my breath, but I never really got over the horror of it. Why didn’t they pull the people up on the deck, at least?
I began having nightmares. I was outside the Ark, my family safe within. It took me a long time to die. I learned to busy myself in another part of the house for the flood story, which brought up a new fear. Was I Grieving Away the Holy Spirit by avoiding the terror and guilt the flood story brought? Should I listen, search my heart, and then confess, as Pam did? I had seen her at it, playing, looking thoughtful, creeping up to Daddy or Momma and whispering furtively.
I never knew what her transgressions were, but I understood that most of them were trivial because after one confession Daddy said impatiently, “You don’t have to confess every little thing, Pam.”
I knew from this that Pam’s sins must be positively miniscule, because Momma and Daddy’s usual view was that no sin was too small, no transgression too minor, to keep us outside the Pearly Gates.
This brought up a new worry—how did one sort out which sins to confess? Momma and Daddy’s answer—every single sin—didn’t tally with Daddy’s impatient reaction to Pam’s earnest attempt at fulfilling that obligation. Was confessing a sin unnecessarily a sin? Did I need to confess the unnecessary confession? Maybe it was showing off. Did I need to confess that, too? I was afraid to ask. I couldn’t even pinpoint what my sins were aside from showing off and bedwetting, but my guilt told me that they were real.
The next story on the tape was almost as bad. “Once upon a time there was a little old Chinese la-a-a-dy, and a little old Chinese ma-a-a-a-n, and they lived together in a little old Chinese house. Now, they didn’t know our Jesus. They prayed to a god called Josh.” That seemed a little informal to me, but perhaps that was how they did things in China.
It turned out that the little old Chinese house was filled with little old Chinese rats, which ate all the little old Chinese man and lady’s rice. They talked it over with Josh. “But,” Eric B. Hare informed us, “Josh couldn’t see, and Josh couldn’t hear, and Josh couldn’t do anything. He just sat there, and he looooked, and looooked, and looooked.”
The little old Chinese lady left the house—probably to get away from the rats, I decided. In her wanderings around town she heard beautiful singing. My stomach tightened at this part. Many mission stories involved perfectly happy, executive-type heathens being lured into evangelistic meetings by beautiful singing. Once they heard the singing their lives as happy heathens were over. They had only two choices.
They could get baptized and cope with the fallout. And fallout there would be: the weekly mission stories and Daddy’s recounting of the plot of Brave Men to the Battle, which discussed the fate of the Waldensees in lurid detail, and Some Rain Must Fall, which detailed the life of a missionary woman whose entire family seemed to have died had taught me that Christians had to expect to suffer for the Lord. They lost jobs for refusing to work on Sabbath, lost homes and families.
New Converts in The Mission Fields gave up colorful native dress for a ragged pair of white shorts and a shirt, and then came to America, where the best Adventists were, and lived in poverty. If they chose to remain Heathen, rather than become New Converts, they could be counted upon to stop in at a neighboring hut, get roaring drunk, and stagger homeward. A lion usually got them, although sometimes it was a crocodile or a cobra. Or their favorite child died. God didn’t take kindly to being spurned. He smote back.
When the little old Chinese lady heard the singing I willed her to ignore it and hurry home to Josh, waiting in her nice safe rat-infested kitchen. But this was a mission story. She went in, enjoyed the singing, spoke to the preacher. He told her the story of Jesus. She was sold, had herself baptized, and rushed home to share the good news with the little old Chinese man. He was less than enchanted. His dinner was late, and the rats had been running around. “Cook me some pork and rice, wife,” he told the little old Chinese lady.
“But I am a Christian now,” she replied. “I can’t feed you pig meat any more. I follow the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Lord Jesus Christ tells me not to.”
The little old Chinese man was furious. He had been counting on pork and rice, and now his wife told him that he would be having plain rice because of some god he had never heard of. “If you go to church I will beat you,” he told her. “Josh is good enough for us.”
“Yes,” I silently encouraged the little old Chinese man. “Josh is good enough for you. Make her listen. Show her who’s boss.”
But the little old Chinese woman mule-headedly insisted on her new religion. Moreover, being a New Convert now, she instantly recognized an opportunity to both Witness to her husband and be Persecuted for her Faith, thus killing two birds with one stone. She went to church, returned home, took her beating rejoicing, and then cooked plain rice for the little old Chinese man, who beat her again for not cooking him pork. This state of affairs continued for some time.
The little old Chinese lady spent all her time hanging out with the Adventists and rubbing balm on her bruises. She ignored Josh, who returned the favor, gazing dustily at her while she cooked her husband plain rice in an attempt to lure him into becomine a New Convert as well. Her husband didn’t see the attraction of the Narrow Way and beat her, but it did no good. The rats were everywhere.
Desperate, the little old Chinese man finally offered his wife a deal: If Jesus could get rid of the rats, he could have Josh’s job. The little old Chinese lady wanted to get rid of the rats herself. Besides, she was eager to try a form of witnessing that didn’t involve cuts, bruises and fractured ribs. “All right,” she said.
She and the little old Chinese man sat down in the living room and she taught him how to pray in Adventist. “You have to fold your hands, like this,” she said. “And you have to close your eyes, like this.” The little old Chinese man followed her instructions. The little old Chinese lady prayed. A few rats ran across the floor and out the door.
“Huh,” said the little old Chinese man. “Josh coulda done that.”
The little old Chinese lady said, “Jesus isn’t done yet.” She prayed again. More rats ran out.
“Huh,” said her husband. “Josh coulda—”
“Jesus isn’t done yet,” said the little old Chinese lady, and she got a little snippy about it. She prayed once more. At long last, Jesus got on the stick and did his job. Rats poured out of the walls, out of the rice bin, out of the beds. They raced out the door. Eric B. Hare concluded: “And they never…came back….a…gain. And next week, when the little old Chinese lady went to church, the little old Chinese man…went…too.” Organ music swelled.
Hurrah for the little old Chinese lady, hobbling along on her little old bound Chinese feet. Jesus saved her the cost of an exterminator. I hated that story. I liked the little old Chinese lady with her little old Chinese man. I liked dusty, sleepy Josh. He sounded like a god you could live with. He might not be up to much, but at least worshipping him didn’t get the little old Chinese lady beaten. She didn’t spend her days in an agony of guilt, fearing hell because she knew she had sinned but didn’t know how. Josh let her put a little flavoring into her life, instead of insisting on a bland vegetarian diet. It made me sad when the Little Old Chinese lady forsook colorful, exotic Josh for the gray and chilly world of Adventism.
The runaway zoo animals were pretty much interchangeable. They lived in nice cozy cages, were tended by friendly keepers, ate good food, and dreamed of the wide world. Each found a cage door fortuitously open one day and escaped to wander through the city. Sally the monkey ended up in the hospital. Packey the elephant ended up knocking over parking meters and sitting on cars. Pokey just ended up lonely and depressed. He went back to the zoo on his own.
All three animals went on to live quiet, blameless lives, having learned their lesson: Flight is Futile. Resistance is Useless. Momma generally turned off the tape before Little Black Sambo. She didn’t approve of him. He wasn’t an Adventist, and he only wore a loincloth. Besides, the story of a tiger running around a tree until he turned into butter was not very uplifting. Also it was fantasy. A real tiger would have eaten Little Black Sambo long before butter came into it anywhere.
The stories seemed to have been expressly chosen to highlight my guilt, and the futility of hoping for happiness. Choose the lonely path of obeying God or die. Good Christians welcome suffering. Flight is futile. Resistance is useless. There is no escape; God is the only game in town. Josh is dead.
Eventually the tape broke. Momma repaired it with Scotch tape. It broke again in a new place. She repaired it again. It broke again. And again, and again. Eventually she tired of fixing it. Summer was coming, anyway, and we had no tape player up in the woods camp. The tape disappeared into a cupboard, and from my life.
The tape held many stories, but it took me a long time to pinpoint the single biggest, hardest story of all. God spoke to Noah. God honored the Chinese lady’s faith. God was good, real and present for others, but not for me. This God was actually a great deal like my father as I saw him in those days—a kind, loving, perfect father who was forced to hurt and shame me because I was rotten to my core. God was good to good people. But I wasn’t a good person; all God held for me was a dreary lifetime of failure, followed by the lake of fire that burns forever and ever, amen. I couldn’t help thinking that I might have had a chance with Josh.