THE BREAD OF LIFE - A TESTIMONY
Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life.
He who comes to me will never go hungry,
and he who believes in me will never be thirsty."
(John 6:35 NIV)
At the age of thirty-two I came face to face with the fact that I was not a Christian, even though, as far back as I can remember, I have always believed in God.
My faith – if it can be termed that – was based on the Bible stories taught at school and Sunday school, with some doctrinal teaching thrown in for good measure during confirmation classes. My heart, however, remained untouched. The family Bible continued to gather dust (why would I need one of my own?) and my prayers consisted of asking God to bless various family members (if they hadn’t annoyed me too much) and, of course, desperate supplications during emergencies.
At university I did read Biblical Studies as a co-major course, but all that did for me was force me to read bits of the Bible to complete my assignments.
My religious beliefs became a blend of basic Christianity and New Age thinking. I believed in positive and negative forces, past lives, ghosts as restless spirits of the dead, ESP, telepathy and parapsychology in general, that birth signs were valid readings of character, that heaven and hell were just different states of being and that death would unite my spirit with the positive force of good in the universe. Basically, I had my own unique religion!
During my years at varsity, I sometimes felt the urge to attend church (I missed the hymns) but never so strongly that I actually made the effort.
My wedding proved to be a stronger incentive. Because, you see, in order to float down the aisle in a flowing white dress (pictures of various bridal gowns had been diligently collected for years) I needed a church. So I returned to the church of my childhood, fiancé Barry in tow.
Once the proverbial knot had been tied, we did feel duty bound to continue attending church (after all, we were not complete hypocrites), but gradually, as the pressures of work and married life increased, so church was squeezed out of the picture. Also, I simply had too much to occupy me to spend time philosophizing about my spiritual condition (which, if I had ever been asked, I am sure I would have replied that it was just fine, thank you!). Yes, my hardened heart remained untouched.
One of my preoccupations was caused by a green monster which had the habit of stabbing me in the pit of my stomach. Any attractive woman who came within Barry’s range caused blips on my sensitive radar, and there were one or two who set off very loud alarm bells indeed. (You might be thinking that I was pathetically insecure and you would be right.)
I would go so far as to say that the emotion of fear ruled my life. Fear of change. Fear of the unknown. Fear of loss. Fear of people. Fear of being hurt. Fear of rejection. And the terrible fear of death which would sometimes wake me during the night with my heart pounding and sweat pouring off me as I faced the fact that one day I WOULD die!
All this paled into insignificance, however, six weeks after our fourth wedding anniversary, when we duly became parents.
Motherhood was a frightful shock. Fond imaginings of a sweet little baby gurgling happily in his cot were rudely shattered by the dreaded Colic.
It was set off when he was three weeks old after I had ignorantly, and most unwisely, consumed a delicious curried dish. (Who would have thought breast milk could be affected by spicy food?) He had been niggly before, but this was dreadful!
For five long, long weeks, I slept in snatches – never longer than twenty minutes at a time. (I discovered why sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture.) And because I slept in constant expectation of being wakened by the screaming, I never relaxed. During the daytime I would sit listening to the silence when he did eventually fall asleep from sheer exhaustion. What if he had choked, or maybe burst a blood vessel? (To this day the veins on his temples bulge when he is angry. Seeing it on a baby is alarming, I assure you.)
During one of these episodes of loud silence, I tiptoed into the nursery accompanied by our two miniature poodles. The sound of our approach woke him and he let out a screech to end all screeches. Mickey shot out of the room and Bambi fell flat on the floor in her haste to escape! (However, it was a very long time before I was able to appreciate the humour of it.)
In fact, a new and dark side of my nature was revealed to me. Never have I experienced such anger – anger towards the helpless infant who screamed ear-piercingly and incessantly (to such an extent that he ruptured his belly button!), and a terrible anger towards God, who had deliberately done this to me.
The only good that came out of this was that it drew me and Barry very close together. It was us against the little creature who had come to ruin our lives!
When he was eight weeks old, I returned to my obstetrician and, after one look at my woebegone face, he wrote out a prescription with a confident flourish of his pen. We had already tried so many remedies that I did not have much hope, and once I had the bottle in my hand I saw that it contained a barbiturate. (Had I not sworn and declared that I would never drug my children?)
But I was desperate. With some reluctance I carefully poured a spoonful into his little mouth.
Peace descended on the nursery. Needless to say, all convictions concerning the drugging of innocent babies instantly evaporated, and life gradually returned to normal. Well, as normal as it can be with a demanding infant in the house.
Then, when Dieter was seventeen weeks old, a miracle occurred. He actually slept through the night! Oh, the joy, the utter bliss of eight hours of unbroken sleep!
For another twenty months we had relative peace and during this time I grew to love my baby very dearly
Then he turned two.
Dear, dear, dear, dear, dear!
The early promise of wilfulness came to full fruition.
Let me tell you a story to illustrate my point.
In our lounge was a large plant pot containing a philodendron.
In a walking ring in the lounge was a seven-month-old baby. I am not a great proponent of walking rings but he crawled late and his screams of frustration at being unable to move about prompted me to give it a bash. (I had become quite allergic to his screams.)
He scooted round the furniture towards the philodendron and grabbed a leaf in his little paw and gave it a good scrunch. I said, “No, Dieter”, and took his hand away. He stuck his hand out and grabbed the leaf again. I said, “No, Dieter!” and gave his hand a light tap. He grabbed the leaf a third time. I said, “No, Dieter!” more firmly and smacked his hand harder. He grabbed the leaf a fourth time. I said, “NO, DIETER!” and gave that little hand a stinging slap.
He stuck out his lower lip, looked me straight in the eye and stretched out his reddened hand towards the plant again, although this time he didn’t touch it.
At seven months!
On the bright side, he was born with a terrific sense of humour and a surprisingly well-developed sense of the absurd. When he was four months old, and my parents were visiting, I was sitting cross-legged on the couch in our lounge with him lying on my lap. He was sucking his dummy and watching my face intently. His nap time was approaching, and I leaned towards him with my nose almost touching his and said, “And you, little mister, must go and doedoe, now!” The dummy fell out of his mouth he laughed so hard. I repeated the performance and he laughed again. I was quite fascinated by the amused expression in his eyes as he waited for the repeat performances. Eventually his delightfully infectious chuckle had us all laughing along with him.
He was also born with a thirst for knowledge, and as he was talking almost fluently by the age of two, we had wonderful times together investigating the world.
But our relationship often became a test of wills. And I freely admit that his will was (and is) stronger than mine. However, as I have a stern sense of duty and I saw it as part of that duty to teach him obedience, this led to the most terrible confrontations.
He could be defiant, obnoxiously unpleasant and very disobedient.
At these times I would end up exhausted and in tears, and once again a terrible anger emerged. Anger towards the little monster and towards the ruthless God who had inflicted this child on me.
What had I ever done, in this life (or any other), to deserve this!
When he was seven years old, we discovered that he had a bad reaction to sucrose and that this was the source of his aggressive behaviour. Intake of sucrose would be followed by a short period of very boisterous high spirits to be followed by several hours of an aggressively bad mood. This, allied with his naturally headstrong temperament, made for much unpleasantness, his little sister often having to bear the brunt of it.
The knowledge that sucrose was the culprit, however, made the world of difference.
It armed me with greater tolerance and understanding, and also made it possible to control the outbursts better. It is impossible, however, to get a self-willed, disobedient child to refuse all offers of sweets, cakes and biscuits from school friends, so we still had some nasty episodes.
But this was still five years away and I was already expecting my second baby.
Let me tell you another story.
I fell pregnant with Dieter a few days before we left on our long-awaited and long-saved-for trip to Europe. (Not clever.)
We went to Norway first where everything was still peachy-pie fine excepting that I was unusually sleepy when travelling. But by the time we reached Germany and Austria things were not so peachy-pie fine. My so-called husband had turned into a selfish, inconsiderate swine and to make matters worse, German and Austrian food was nauseating. (Strangely, I had a craving for snotty-looking very soft boiled eggs, which I have always loathed.) Then, after a few unusual puking incidents, I went to a pharmacy and took a pregnancy test. (I don’t have to tell you what the results were.)
Did my husband (and prospective father of my baby) now cherish me and treat me with unselfishness and consideration? Ha! He was worse than ever. And this continued until Dieter was born. Mercifully, after that, he returned to normal. Not perfect, mind you, but normal.
And guess what? Within a few weeks of falling pregnant the second time that man began with his nonsense again! What had possessed me to marry such an insensitive, obstinate jerk!
It was then that it began to dawn on me that perhaps, just perhaps, he was not the problem!
Let’s just say that I become ultra-sensitive and ultra-irritable during pregnancy – like nine months of very bad PMS – and dealing with my two-year-old did not improve matters.
(Just by the way – A few years later, when I cut table salt out of my diet, I never had an episode of PMS again. If I had been eating as healthily as I do now, I would probably have avoided all this, and I am fairly sure that if my system had not been so acidic, Dieter would not have been a colicky baby.)
This brings me to my next life changing event.
My second experience of childbirth was traumatic.
Dieter had been born easily after a six-hour spell of intensely painful labour and I was looking forward to a shorter and less painful time with my second delivery. But after four hours of induced labour nothing had happened, except that the baby was kicking me so thoroughly in my ribs I could scarcely do my breathing control exercises.
A sonar amplifier revealed an erratic heartbeat. The heart was beating very rapidly and then, during the contraction, would slow down until it almost stopped. Then as the contraction eased, so the heart would start beating again faster and faster till it sounded like machine-gunfire.
I cannot say I was aware of being afraid. I just remember feeling absolutely powerless as I listened to my baby dying, being killed by the very process of giving birth. (The umbilical cord was wrapped twice around her little neck.)
An emergency c-section was performed. I was offered an epidural which I refused. How I wish I had accepted!
I started regaining consciousness while I was being stitched up. I remember swooping over a white landscape and I was looking for Dieter. Then I became aware of being tortured... the most indescribable agony in my abdominal area and I could do nothing to stop it.
I screamed at whoever it was to stop hurting me. But the screaming was in my mind. Fortunately, the anaesthetist became aware that I was coming round and sent me off again.
But the damage was done.
From the time of Natasha's birth my health went haywire. Not only did I have a severely spastic colon but I was plagued by a constant cycle of gynaecological problems. Four and a half years and three operations and multiple cauterisations later, I had a hysterectomy at the age of thirty-two.
A week later, a vicious attack of cystitis and loss of bladder control revealed a fistula. Only then was I told that there had been complications during the hysterectomy as my uterus had grown onto my bladder, probably after the c-section, and in the separation of the two, my bladder was pierced.
This was followed by four months of hell.
I had an op to cauterise the fistula in the hopes that it would heal and was then sent home.
I could write a whole chapter on those three weeks at home with a catheter and two small children to take care of. The tube of the catheter had a nasty habit of hooking onto things such as cupboard door handles. Let me assure you that a catheter tube that is suddenly yanked off the bag results in a most unpleasant mess!
After the three weeks were up a scan revealed that the hole had not healed so I now faced another operation with no guarantees, as I was warned that this type of operation had quite a high failure rate.
Never have I known such fear.
I have always been terrified of anaesthetics as I hate being out of control. Every experience was of a sensation of slipping into a deep abyss and having to claw my way back to the top. Now, added to my fear of the operation and the anaesthetic was the fear that I would never be well again.
I am not depressive by nature and have never contemplated suicide, but during this time I really thought it would be quite pleasant just to die. Unless you have experienced constant, uncontrollable urination, you cannot possibly imagine what it is like and how it completely rules (and ruins!) your life.
At this time Dieter was in grade two and Natasha was in nursery school.
When Dieter started school the previous year, I had decided it was time to do something about church attendance. As I firmly believed he should attend Sunday school, this was the ideal time to start going to church. (Once again the hymns of my childhood were a strong attraction. I longed to hear them again.)
My spiritual search had begun.
With the passing of time, I had become deeply aware of an inner emptiness which I could not understand. Why did I feel this vague yet nagging sense of unhappiness? I had been married ten years. My husband and I loved each other and (jealous fears aside) our marriage was not bad. (If you discount the eighteen months of pregnancy.) My children were beautiful, intelligent and healthy (Dieter's sucrose issues and Natasha's eczema aside), even though, occasionally, I could have cheerfully strangled Dieter.
My marriage, though stable, was certainly under stress because of my health, the nature of my maladies having a direct and very unpleasant effect on our intimacy. Aware of my inadequacies, and more sensitive than ever, jealousy still flared easily and unreasonably.
In all fairness though, I must say that during the five years of constant ill-health, Barry never once gave me reason to doubt his faithfulness. I just found it difficult to believe that a healthy male could put up with so much frustration so patiently and uncomplainingly. Also, Dieter's frequently difficult behaviour added to the stress. (We were on the verge of discovering the sugar connection.)
Yet none of this explained the sense of dissatisfaction with my life.
The church I attended had a minister who was a highly gifted preacher. I began to look forward to Sundays just to hear what he had to say. (Thank you, Gavin Taylor. I am one of your success stories.)
I also began to feel challenged, and a year after I started going to church regularly, I attended my first Covenant Service. The liturgy includes the promise below, which is read out loud by the congregation.
Lord, make me what you will.
I put myself fully into your hands:
put me to doing, put me to suffering,
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and with a willing heart
give it all to your pleasure and disposal.
I sat mute. If I had said those words out loud I would have been the world's biggest hypocrite.
For the first time I faced the fact that I was not truly a Christian!
A few years before this, my youngest sister Kathy had become a born-again Christian. This had been the first challenge to my religious convictions.
Since my university days, I had viewed born-again Christians as being Jesus-freak fanatics who had gone totally overboard. Now my baby sister had joined this smug little club!
She began to pepper her conversations with "the Lord", and “Satan” began to feature too. I was also extremely annoyed to discover that she was praying for me. Did she think I was such a bad person that I needed to be prayed for? (Thanks for persisting, Kath.)
This then was the situation when I faced the terrifying bladder operation.
I went to see the minister and tried to explain my fears. I admitted to him that I was not really a Christian, and that I understood what it would take to become a Christian, but that I just could not hand over my life to God wholly and solely. He prayed for me, that I would be aware of God's presence while in hospital and that I would not be afraid.
When I was wheeled into the operating theatre, I was outwardly calm, but inwardly stiff with fear. Owing to previous experience, I had brought a pair of Barry’s thickest, longest socks with me into hospital, as I tend to suffer from cold feet. In spite of the socks, my feet were icy, icy cold.
I was rolled onto the operating table and then, most unusually, left completely alone for a few minutes. (I had never been left on my own in an operating theatre before.) I took the opportunity and looked up into the lights above me and, for the first time in my life, SPOKE to God.
Thus on the 14th April 1983, I gave my life (my physical life) into His hands.
At that very moment, the whole theatre was flooded with a warm, bright, unearthly light. Warmth flooded my whole body (even my feet!) and I was filled with a deep sense of peace – the deepest peace I have ever known.
The anaesthetic was also the most peaceful I had ever experienced. I simply floated away into sleep and when I woke the next second it was all over. And the operation was a success – though my bladder has never been the same since!
In the months that followed, I was aware of an inner excitement. Yet, still I hesitated to give my life to Jesus. I had this ridiculous fear that if I did so, He would immediately take everything I valued away from me. (Starting with my solid walnut dining-room suite.)
Then, a short while before her fifth birthday, Natasha, who had started Sunday school as well by then, came to me one day as I was sitting on my bed and asked me who my best friend was. Thinking myself very clever in grasping this opportunity to teach her a valuable lesson, I replied, truthfully, that her daddy was my best friend.
She looked at me and said, "My best friend is Jesus."
I was thunderstruck. I realised she was responding to what she had been taught in Sunday school, but what overawed me was her simple and implicit trust. I understood for the first time the true meaning of Jesus' words: "...unless you become like a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven." (Thanks, Tash. Your mommy was your first convert.)
This was a further challenge to me. I had to face the fact that besides fear, my pride was also a stumbling block! As a devout old man once said to me: "The door into heaven is very small. You can only go in on your knees."
Six months later, in February 1984, when I was thirty-three, I finally sat on the same spot on my bed where Natasha had unknowingly challenged me and told Jesus that I accepted Him as my Saviour and my Lord.
I waited, expecting to hear heavenly music and to see visions or something, but nothing happened. I got up and went on with my life.
But three changes took place almost immediately.
I stopped swearing. Profanities and vulgarities, and the odd obscenity, used to flow freely from my lips, especially when I was under stress. I became very sensitive to blasphemy as well and stopped saying "my God", which was another favourite expletive.
I became filled with a hunger to read the Bible. I bought myself a new one (the binding of the tattered old paperback from my varsity days was falling apart) and started reading daily. It filled me with excitement and I was only sorry I had so little time. I had to read while the children were at school.
Last, but not least, I no longer found going to church a duty. I wanted to go to church! And if something happened that I couldn't go, I felt positively bereft!
As time passed, changes also took place in my family relationships.
Gradually, my troubled relationship with Dieter improved. His adolescence was a very difficult time for him, because rebellious, highly intelligent non-conformists do not fit well into the school system.
Let me repeat part of a conversation with one of his high school teachers.
Him (in accusing tones): Mrs Oehme, I have been a teacher for thirty-four years and Dieter is the most complex, the most difficult boy I have ever dealt with!
Me (to myself): Try being his mother!
The greatest compliment Dieter has ever paid me was when he told me that if it were not for my support, he is sure he would have become a criminal. Thanks to the changes which had taken place in my life, I was able to give him the unconditional love and support he needed.
The greatest compliment I have ever been paid by anyone was from Natasha who said that she felt sorry for those children who do not have me for a mother! But she immediately, and quite rightly, amended this. "But that was only after you became a Christian, Mommy."
I am sorry to say that many of my children's memories of me from pre-Christian days involve lots of angry yelling. I do still have my moments, though, as Dogs (and cats) of Our Lives will reveal. I have a volatile temperament and a number of sensitive buttons. (Flagrant disobedience; being argued with in loud hectoring tones; inanimate objects which do not work as they are supposed to; these spring to mind.) But as the years pass and I walk ever closer with the Lord (yes, I pepper my conversation now too!), angry outbursts are milder and fewer and further between, and occasionally, I stun my family by not reacting at all!
My marriage also gradually became even stronger and more stable and then, five years later, when Barry also accepted Jesus as his personal Saviour, it truly became very satisfying and good.
Gradually, my fears have left me. In Jesus I have a very positive self-image, make friends far more easily, like people as people, and have become more extrovert (although I am essentially a melancholic introvert). And one day, I suddenly realised that I no longer fear dying!
My problem with anger and unforgiveness took longer and lots and lots of hard work. I bear no more grudges and have forgiven every remembered hurt. I still have not reached the maturity of being able to forgive new hurts instantly, but I work at it, well aware that unforgiveness is a corrosive acid which can actually make you physically ill. (Besides the fact that it makes you a really unpleasant person.)
Looking back, I truly regret that no one was able to reach me during my years of Sunday school attendance. Whether it was the teaching which was lacking in some way, or whether it was purely a case of a hardened heart (or perhaps it was both) I do not know.
I had the idea that because I had been baptised as an infant and confirmed as a teenager, and because I believed in God, I was a Christian.
I find it incredible that in ten years of regular attendance at Sunday school, I did not know John 3:3 which says clearly that unless a person is born again, that person will not see the kingdom of God.
And I consider it a failure of the Sunday school of that time that it was never explained that Christianity is not merely a religion or way of life. It was only after much self-study that I now know that Christianity is, in fact, not about religion at all.
Christianity is about a personal relationship with the living God.
He is my Father and I am His child, born again spiritually through the blood my Lord Jesus shed for me. I am tied to Him through a blood Covenant which cannot be broken.
How much misery and unhappiness I could have saved myself had I belonged to Him earlier in my life. I could have avoided so many of the problems I had with Dieter. Not to mention the episodes of ridiculous jealous outbursts! What peace there is in knowing that even if I am left on my own – whether through death or desertion – I will not only survive, but, with God on my side, I will thrive!
Today I understand clearly why I felt dissatisfied and empty.
I was looking for complete fulfilment in my marriage and motherhood, but there is no complete fulfilment to be found in another human being. No human being can give the satisfaction and contentment that comes from being right with God.
In Him I have peace and contentment, irrespective of my personal circumstances, knowing that He is with me always, that He has a special plan for my life and He wants only the best for me.
My hunger has been satisfied for I now feed on the true Bread of Life.