Pondering some thoughts from my Bible study recently, I wrote down the influential Christians in the first fifth of my life. That is, birth through age nine. Not that I'm quite 45-- I have a year, a week, and a day before that's official, if the Lord tarries--but I rounded up.
My first fifth of life was chock full of Christian influences. Of course my parents were the strongest ones, but three women stand above the rest in my spiritual formation in the early years. I remember a couple of people from as far back as preschool Sunday School. The little old lady named Miss Inie was my first outside-the-family model of Christ to me. (Maybe she was only 45, but she seemed like a chubby, elderly, soft old grandma to me.) Week after week she welcomed me to Sunday School and I LOVED sitting in her lap. I don't remember a thing she said, but I'll never forget her love.
The second woman's influence affected me before I was born, but I never knew her. I only knew her husband. He was a gentle, quiet old widower named Mr. Krueger. The kids all knew him as the Candy Man. Every Sunday after church he held out a brown lunch bag full of lollipops and little wrapped sweets. Of course we had to ask our parents-- who often used the candy promise as leverage before church and sized up our rewardability afterwards. I usually got candy. (I'm sure there was more grace on my parents' part than good behavior on mine.) It was Mr. Krueger's wife for whom I get my middle name, Marie. While my mom was pregnant with me, she had decided to name me Zoanna Susan, for two of her best friends. Marie Krueger told Mama several times, "Now, as soon as that baby's born, I want to bless it. I want to be the first to bless that baby." On the weekend of August 26th, the Kruegers went away to celebrate their anniversary. During dinner at a restaurant, Marie died suddenly. When my mother heard the news, she was crushed in spirit, but felt as if Marie had already blessed me by wanting to bless me. Her influence was so precious that Mama changed her mind about my name and called me Zoanna Marie. She saved "Susan" for my younger sister Andrea's middle name.
The third influence in my first nine years was a woman named Lois Long. She lived right next door to us in Alden, Kansas. Mrs. Long was always smiling and very hospitable. When I was in third and fourth grade, she started up a Good News Club in her home. She invited girls and boys who wanted to study the Bible and learn more about God to come over every week during the summer and sit and read and talk about scripture. I think she served ice cold lemonade and sometimes cookies. I don't remember what I learned from the Bible, exactly, but I learned how it felt to have my spirit cared for by someone other than my mom and dad. It meant more to me than going to Sunday School in that I didn't take it for granted. I felt special, like an elite youngster who was valued so much that a busy adult made time in her weekly schedule for me and a bunch of other elementary school kids, and never seemed bothered.
I felt such love from her that I believed she would actually want to attend my little sheltie puppy's funeral. Tot was only ten weeks old when I came home from my friend Barbie's house. Mama said Tot had turned over flat on her back legs in the air, yelped in pain for ten seconds, and then died--right there in the doggie pen outside our house. I cried and cried. I loved my fluffy little Tot. When I went door-to-door in our little neighborhood inviting people to the funeral in our backyard, Mrs. Long was kind and didn't laugh at me. She didn't come, but she must've been so gentle about her "sorry" that I didn't feel stupid for asking her to the "service".
When I went back to Alden for a visit several years ago, I stopped in to visit Mrs. Long. She insisted I call her Lois, but I couldn't. No sooner had I reintroduced myself than Mrs. Long welcomed me in, offered me a seat in her living room, and asked me about my life, my family, and what I had been reading in scripture. It was almost as if I had never moved away-- just gone away-- for a very long vacation, and was back telling her about my travels, which of course included Jesus.
There were other influences in my first nine years, but those three--Miss Inie from preschool, Mrs. Krueger before I was born, and Mrs. Long when I was on the brink of the second third of my life-- are on pedestals in my memory. I thank my God upon every remembrance of Miss Inie and Mrs. Long, and for the blessing of being blessed by a godly woman named Marie before my birth.