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"Unless You Come as a Child..."

  • Kathi Macias
  • Updated May 19, 2008
"Unless You Come as a Child..."

Hans was a quiet boy — not by nature, but by circumstance. It wasn’t easy being a five-year-old when there was a war going on. His father was away in the Kaiser’s army, his brother had succumbed to malnutrition, and now it was just he and his mother, Jenny. Two hungry souls in a sea of suffering humanity, waiting in line after endless line for their daily ration of rutabaga soup and dry bread. If all went well, there would be enough soup for their evening meal. If not, they would go to bed hungry… again.


And yet, even if Hans had to lie in bed tonight and listen to his stomach growl as he tried to fall asleep, he knew there would be another sound — a welcome, comforting sound — to drown out his complaining stomach. His mother’s singing; he never tired of it. Shuffling forward a couple of steps as he gripped his empty soup bowl in his hands, he looked up at her. She smiled at him, warming his heart as she laid her thin hand on his shoulder. Hans was old enough to realize his mother was short compared to most other adults in the food line, but he was still young enough to have to crane his neck to see her beautiful face.


For she was a beauty, his mother, despite the pain of having been orphaned at an early age, losing a child, and wondering whether her husband was dead or alive. Beautiful, despite the daily worry of trying to obtain enough nourishment for Hans, regardless of whether or not she ate anything herself — which she often didn’t, as she shared her own meager portions with her remaining son. Hans had heard Jenny’s stomach growl louder than his own many times, even as she sang him to sleep at night.


The young boy with the dark hair and sky-blue eyes returned his mother’s smile, in spite of the pain in his stomach and the ache of his cold feet crammed into the cardboard-soled shoes he had worn for two winters now. Shivering in the frigid wind that howled off the river and pierced his threadbare jacket, Hans marveled at his mother’s strength. Didn’t she feel the cold as he did? Or the hunger? If she did, she never said anything, only smiled her reassuring smile and went on with whatever needed to be done.


How Hans loved the comforting familiarity of his mother’s face. He scarcely could recall his father, who had been gone for more than two years now, or even his brother, who had died a year earlier, though Hans tried desperately to hang on to the memories. But it was his mother’s voice that kept him going, singing to him at night, soothing him, encouraging him, offering him hope where there was no hope. Things would get better, her songs seemed to promise, if not today, then soon… some day… whether in this life or in the next. God watched over them, the songs proclaimed; He loved them, and He would never, ever leave them. Hans clung to the words of his mother’s songs, even as their promises failed to materialize and the war dragged on, day after miserable, endless day. Better times were coming, the lyrics assured him. He had only to wait, and God would bring them to pass.


And so he waited. Through the ever growing food lines and the ever shrinking food rations; the bleak, dreary, freezing winters; the lonely, seemingly interminable vigil, shared only with his mother, as they watched and wondered if Hans’ father would ever return; the long weeks in an impersonal government-run hospital as the frightened, lonely little boy lay on his back, being treated for scurvy while his mother sat at his side, praying and singing….


Then, finally, it was over. The war had ended, and Hans’ father came home. But life in post-World War I Germany was still very hard. A sister and two brothers were soon added to the family. As the oldest child, Hans had to grow up quickly, accept responsibility, and get on with taking care of himself. By the time he was eighteen, he had left home, traveling thousands of miles alone, across the ocean from his native Germany to America, where he hoped to make his fortune and finally realize those better days his mother’s songs had promised.


The long and difficult ocean voyage drew to a close, and the stifling, overcrowded ship steamed into the harbor past the Statue of Liberty with her arm upraised in welcome, but it was 1929. Instead of better times, Hans had arrived in the “promised land” just in time for the Great Depression. And so, once again, he found himself fighting for survival. Only this time his mother wasn’t there to sing him to sleep. This time, with few skills and only a slight command of the English language, he was alone in his hardships, with no one to ease the pain and fear that threatened to envelop him. Soon his childlike heart had become hardened, the soothing, faith-building songs of his boyhood forgotten as cynicism set in and he learned to rely only on himself.


And yet, Hans survived. After one failed marriage, producing two sons he seldom saw, he married again and raised three more children, working two jobs most of his adult life in order to give his loved ones what he himself had lacked as a boy. In addition, after faithfully serving his new homeland in World War II, he managed to scrape together enough money to bring the remainder of his family from Germany to America so they too might start a new life. But each time his now-widowed mother or his wife and children — and even his grandchildren — attempted to speak to him of God’s love, he would have none of it. If there was a God at all, he argued, the Almighty Deity cared nothing for him; therefore, Hans would return the lack of caring and go on with his life without any help from God or His empty promises.


And go on he did, retiring at last to raise Christmas trees on a small farm in the rainy Washington state countryside. But even then, talk of a loving God was rejected — until his hair turned gray and his step slowed, his back stooped and his eyes dimmed. That’s when the voices started, strange yet familiar voices that he simply could not reason away. Still, though he heard the voices singing, calling him from the past — or were they calling him into the future? — he refused to believe. Time and circumstances had taught him the futility of belief in anything he couldn’t see or touch. An aberration, he reasoned. A sign of advancing age, that’s all it was. For there was no other logical explanation for the sweet voices he heard from time to time, voices that tugged at the long-buried memories of his heart as they sang their German hymns of faith and promise.


Once, he confided in his grown daughter about the voices. She, steeped in her own faith, suggested they were angels, singing to him of God’s love and urging him to believe. But he rejected her explanation, and never mentioned the voices again.


Then it happened. Cancer. Heart failure. Hardening of the arteries. A series of mini-strokes. It was just past his eighty-eighth birthday, but Hans was beginning to regress — first, to his working days before he retired; then, back to the time when his children were young, and even before that, to his early days as a young man in America, struggling to find a foothold, a job, a place he could call home. Finally, his English became blurred with German, the native language he had seldom spoken for decades. The weakened old man with the trembling hands, spindly legs, and clouded eyes had returned to his childhood. And in that childhood, he began to sing — sometimes in German, sometimes in English — of a time long ago, a land far away, and a faith almost forgotten. And amidst the ancient hymns, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” sprang from his withered, cracked lips, as Hans crooned to his grateful family, who listened and watched, their eyes filled with tears. The grandfather, the father, the husband had once again become a child, and in the memories of his childhood he had found the simplicity to believe.


“Except you come as a little child,” Luke 18:17, “you will never see the kingdom of God.” Hans could not come as a man — his heart had grown too hard. But he came as a child, and he did indeed see God’s kingdom, shining from the heavens, beckoning him with angel voices to come home.


And so he did. On October 23, 1999, with his family gathered around his bedside at his beloved tree farm in Washington, the little boy named Hans slipped out of his “old man” suit, smiled a final farewell to his loved ones, and was reunited with his beautiful mother as, together, they joined in singing with the angels. A mother’s faith, the prayers of loved ones, and most of all the mercy of God had brought yet another child home.

Kathi Macias is an Angel-award winning writer who has authored seventeen books, including the bestselling devotional A Moment A Day from Regal Books, and the popular Matthews and Matthews detective novels from Broadman and Holman. Kathi has written commentary for Thomas Nelson’s Spirit-Filled Life Bible (Student Edition) and was part of the devotional writing team for Zondervan’s New Women’s Devotional Bible. Her numerous articles, short stories, and poems have appeared in various periodicals. Kathi is a popular speaker at churches, women’s clubs and retreats, and writers’ conferences, and has appeared on several radio and TV programs. A mother and grandmother, Kathi lives in Homeland, CA, with her husband, Al, where she is at work on several writing and editing projects. An ordained minister, Kathi serves as spiritual adviser to the Christian Authors Network and membership chairman for the Advanced Writers and Speakers Association. www.kathimacias.com.