My father, however, seemed passively hostile to faith. He was born in China in 1922 and grew up there. His mother's feet were bound, his father had a concubine, and he was given opium as medicine. Of course there wasn't really much of a youth. At sixteen he ran away from his home in the middle of the night before the Japanese overran his hometown near Shanghai. For the next eleven years he fought. First there were the Japanese on the Burma Road, in one of the more horrendous theaters of fighting of the war he would know. This was the land of the bridge over the river Kwai and the "forgotten army." Then there were the communists in the north. These were the years that held his life's horrible hidden stories.
To me, as a child, he felt so tough and so strong and so huge that he didn't seem to need God. Of course, he may have questioned whether God even existed. Or his pain may have been so great that he had little place for the Prince of Peace. I didn't know. He didn't talk about it.
Then again, perhaps he just disliked our little United Methodist Church, as did my two older sisters. It had a stereotypically awful Sunday school replete with felt cutouts of famous biblical scenes. Moses was green, David was blue, Goliath was purple, and Jesus was brown. The services were worse, but then again I was a kid. The pastor, large and red-faced in billowing robes, scared me. Years later, when someone said God smiled, I laughed. God frowned.
But there was another side to my childhood faith. There was Mom reading me the Psalms in the evenings. She showed me stories of daring and adventure: a boy taking on a giant with a stone; a man thrown into a den of hungry lions, only to befriend them; three friends thrown into a furnace of fire, yet untouched by the flames. Church was dull but God wasn't.
Throughout my childhood -- until high school at least -- I never heard words like "saved" or "accept Jesus" or "salvation." There was just God and Jesus, somehow one and somehow different.
Then there was politics. Mine came mostly by osmosis. I remember at the age of five charging through the screen door, breathless from my twenty-third game of baseball with neighborhood friends, in desperate need of water. For weeks on end, it seemed to me, the rest of the family had been gathered around our small black- and-white television set watching something riveting. I paused and saw my first-ever congressional hearing. It made no conscious impression; nor did any of the news about this thing called Watergate.
Far more powerful was my mother's own past political activism. In college, in California, she felt God calling her to serve the poor. She studied nursing at Emory University. She hated it. She told us about the discrimination against blacks by whites, the ghetto housing with no running water or electricity, and the regular denial of medical care to even critically ill black patients. Then there were the stories about her summer living in rural southeast Georgia on an interracial Christian commune. It was a farming collective where men and women of different races lived together to prove that such things were possible. There were shotgun blasts in the middle of the night, cross burnings, and racial hatred of the nastiest kind. She left the South and pledged never to return.