I remember believing in God when I was five or six. I’d lost something precious to me and prayed to God to help me find it. I immediately found it and remember being quite impressed. God must be real!
That’s a child’s understanding of God, of course. At that stage I didn’t really equate Jesus with God. I knew about Jesus: about all the good things he’d done and that he loved me. (Probably the first hymn I ever learned was, “Yes, Jesus loves me/ Yes, Jesus loves me/Yes, Jesus loves me/The Bible tells me so.” ) But to me God was simply God.
It takes a while for a child to grasp the idea of the Trinity. (Some people never really understand it.) Or even that Jesus was supposed to be God, too. When I was in the second grade, my teacher told us the entire story of Jesus, from Christmas to Easter and I remember crying because I couldn’t believe God would love us enough to send His son to die for us. But even then, I thought of Jesus as God’s son, not as God Himself.
My mother’s father was a Lutheran minister and I used to love going to his church and hearing him talking about God from the pulpit. I adored him and I’m sure one reason why I believed in God was because he did. I also may have modeled my concept of God after him because he was a wise and loving man who I believed was the only person in the world who really understood me.
As I grew older I did get the message that Jesus was supposed to be God sent to Earth in human form, but all that meant to me was that God was powerful enough to do that. God could do anything! I knew we were supposed to worship and pray to Jesus, but I felt more comfortable with the concept of God as our Father and Creator (the first person of the Trinity). I worshiped Jesus at church and prayed to the Father in private.
Eventually I learned that the Holy Spirit was the third person of God in the Trinity, but that made even less sense to me. I never prayed to the Holy Spirit. He (it) wasn’t God to me; he was God’s spirit working in us. That’s how I understood the Trinity: God as Father created us, God as Son saved us, and God as Spirit changed us. It was complicated but also simple. But I still felt more comfortable praying to just “God.”
When I was in the seventh and eighth grade I attended catechism classes where I was taught all the doctrines of the Lutheran church. At the end of that period I was confirmed as a full member of the church. I still remember the Bible verse that was given to me when I went through Confirmation: “Be thou faithful until death, and I will give you the Crown of Life.” That verse still forms the basis of my faith.
I didn’t attend church that much after I was confirmed. My parents didn’t always go themselves and once I went through confirmation they probably thought their obligation to introduce me to religion was over. We did always attend on Christmas and Easter, often in my grandfather’s church, and I have wonderful memories of the candlelight and silence of Christmas Eve and the jubilant hymns and smell of lilies at Easter.
I remember asking my grandfather questions about God around this time. I was entering adolescence and, like most teen-agers, I was starting to wonder about everything I’d been taught in church and Sunday School. Not only that, but I started dating a Jewish boy when I was sixteen and was trying to learn about Judaism. I eventually decided that I couldn’t “give up” Jesus and decided to remain a Christian.
Then, when I was seventeen, my grandfather, who I felt loved me even more than my parents did, died suddenly of a heart attack and my world turned dark.