Earlier this year I told you how God has redeemed the memories of my childhood–specifically, in such a way that the ghosts of my childhood are all beautiful. There may have been unkind persons or those who meant me ill, but by the grace of God they have lost their place in my memory, or I remember them now only for their kindness.
But another memory reoccurred just the other day. It’s unpleasant in its way, but it was an important experience and one that I still need to remember. It returns to my mind at appropriate times, always to my profit, and always with a bit of pain.
When I was nine years old I received my first Bible. Our Sunday school teacher, Laura Olson, awarded it to the person in the class who memorized the most Bible verses. This was before the days when churches gave Bibles to every student. I still have this Bible, held together by a heavy rubber band. It was a remarkable Bible; I thought so then and I think so still: the words of Jesus in red, color pictures along the way, maps in the back, and for the earnest student 3,000 questions covering the books of the Bible. It is the first Bible I read through from beginning to end (the King James Version, the only version easily available in those days), and I read it in its entirety at least eight or ten times before the Revised Standard Version came to birth.
Perhaps two years later another teacher made a similar offer to the whole Sunday school. Again, I won. The teacher, Rae Wetmore, spoke to me a few moments after awarding me the Bible. “Ellsworth, I’m surprised that you wanted to win,” she said, “because you already have a Bible, and the girl who came in second doesn’t have one.”
Rae Wetmore was a nononsense person. She owned a small publishing firm, the Wetmore Declamation Bureau. She belonged to a lovely suburban church, but drove her Packard downtown each Sunday to teach our class of boys at the Helping Hand Mission.
I was smitten by her words, but not convinced. My competitiveness, my pride in winning, and my embarrassing selfishness kept me from responding to what she said. Over the years Rae Wetmore’s question has reappeared on my soul’s screen scores of times when I have come to similar settings of self-seeking and decisions. It has corrected me in ways that to anyone else might seem unrelated.
There’s a sequel to this story. Fully thirty years later, “the lines had fallen to me in pleasant places,” and I was receiving invitations to preach here and there around the country. One came from the Sioux City suburban church to which Rae Wetmore had belonged. When I got there, I learned to my happy surprise that Miss Wetmore was still alive: nearly blind, bedfast, in a nursing home. The pastor was glad for us to visit her.
I introduced myself, reminding her of our class. She recalled the class, but though it was a small class, she couldn’t remember me. She asked if I remembered Jackie Caylor. Of course I did. And Clair Blair, from a disadvantaged home, now a successful businessman. And the Diment brothers, immigrant boys with their German accents. And Gerald and Marion Webb; Gerald had become a Pentecostal preacher. “I remember them,” she said. “Wonderful boys. They had so little and they all did well. But I don’t remember Ellsworth Kalas.”
Somehow, I was amused. And glad. Her main memory of me was better forgotten. And for me, it’s often profitably remembered.
Dr. J. Ellsworth Kalas is former president of Asbury Theological Seminary and pastored for 38 years in Wisconsin and Ohio. He also served as an associate in evangelism with the World Methodist Council.