Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Strong Man, Soft Heart

It was a dark, cold night in December. I was a little girl and lay shivering in my bed in my unheated little bedroom. Sinterklaas was coming!

Sinterklaas was the tall and frightening old man who rode the roof of the high rise flat where I grew up. His black servant Piet would magically make his way into each apartment and leave a little sugary treat in the children's shoes that were left by various chimney breasts and radiators. Mine was stuffed with some hay for Sinterklaas' white horse. My younger sister's shoe held a carrot. She always got the better deal.

The old clock in the living room across the hallway struck three. I threw off the blankets and tiptoed to the door, opening it very slowly. Stealthily creeping across the hallway - cold, cold tiles under my feet - and there, in the dark living room, I could see the mitred silhouette of Sinterklaas leaning against the wall by the window. My heart was pounding in my little chest and my mouth went dry. But I was on a mission. And the mission had to be accomplished or I would never sleep again.

I needed to see those two little shoes. I wanted to see if my sister got the better sugar treat. Maybe she got the ginger cookie in the shape of a clogged farmer's girl while I got the horse-shaped one, the one that only boys should get. Or maybe Sinterklaas had given her the sugar necklace while I got the inferior bracelet. I just had to see, so I ignored my fear and crept towards the coal burner. It was still warm.I looked up to where Sinterklaas was standing and heaved a sigh of relief. Mama had left the ironing board folded upright against the wall. Its rounded top resembled Sinterklaas' mitre.The coast was clear now.

I knelt down by the shoes and looked. A sugar animal peeped out from each shoe. I lifted hers out and held it against the moonlight. It was the smaller, cuter one and it was a lovely pink. I looked at mine: the bigger one, made for boys, and it was a sickly yellow. I knew it. It was so unfair. But wait... Quickly I swapped them over. The pretty little pink one in my shoe, and the big ugly yellow sugar animal in my sister's. But still the stab of jealousy wouldn't go away. So I picked up the yellow one again and took a big bite out of it before putting it back into her shoe. There.

At that very moment, the side door to my parent's bedroom opened, and my father came into the living room, on his way to the toilet. I gasped and started to cry - caught in the act! But my father knelt down next to me, hugged me, then wordlessly lifted me up and carried me back to my cold bedroom. He tucked me into my bed and stroked my hair until I drifted off to sleep again. I felt forgiven for my sins of jealousy, stealing and hating.

That memory has always helped me in my relationship with God the Father. It has always served as a real life example of God's loving kindness, but now that I understand how covenants work, the incident has gained a new meaning. I can't think of either a Dutch, German or English word to describe that quality of gentleness, but the Hebrew language has a word for it: Racham. Clumsily translated as 'bowels of mercy' or just 'mercy' or 'grace'.

My father was my best friend. He may have been impatient at times, forgetful and even tight-fisted, but he was generous with his love for his daughters. We would run towards him when he came home from work, and he would spread out the tails of his coat for Mama and us to snuggle under. "You are mine," he would say with laughter lines crinkling around his eyes, "and everything in this house is mine". And somehow, that meant more to us than the Hollywood words of "I love you". Papa didn't know it, but he was a true covenant man.

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