Sometimes, a trip home for the holidays can be a painful experience. Especially when you've changed.
"Hi, Professor Theophilus!" FWAP.
The greeting was Mary's, the fwap was her backpack hitting the floor. Downloading into a chair, she unzipped the pack, retrieved something unrecognizable and plopped it on the desk. "I knew it was there," she said. "Sorry I keep running off with it."
"Then it must be my coffee mug. But why is it swaddled in bubble wrap?"
"I was playing tennis."
Could she have — no, even Mary wouldn't —
"But that's not why I'm here. Can we talk? It's about my family."
"I'll talk about anything you like, but you know that's a little out of my line."
"More in your line than you think."
"See, my family thinks college has ruined me."
A lot of students do ruin themselves at college, and there are a lot of ways to do it. On the other hand, things aren't always what they seem. I asked, "Are you the first one in your family to go off to school?"
She shook her head. "It's not that. My Mom and step-Dad have both been to college. My sister is almost ready to graduate. But they think I've gone off the deep end."
"Does that mean the same as 'gone wild?'"
"I guess you could put it that way." Though Mary had never offered details, I knew that she'd been through some dark times.
"But I thought things had been changing for you."
"You mean, since becoming Christian?"
"Oh, yeah. Completely."
"Didn't you tell your family?"
She gave me a funny look. "Professor T, don't you understand? The changes are what they're worried about." Seeing my face, she added, "It's my faith."
"Oh. So when you said they thought college had ruined you —"
"I meant they thought Christianity had ruined me."
The blurry image whirled into focus.
"Going home for Christmas break was awful," she said. "You couldn't even guess."
"Now that I know what you're talking about, maybe I can. Let's see. You were full of happy expectation ... eager to tell your family how your life had turned around ... full of Jesus Christ ..."
"That part's easy. Go on."
"Then you got home, and nothing went the way you expected."
"That's for sure."
"Your mother took your faith as a personal rejection, and maybe a judgment on her life. Your stepfather said you sounded like a kook or a fanatic. And — let's see — your sister gave you a hard time because you went to church on Christmas Eve instead of joining in the family festivities. Is that about right?"
"Close. The fight was on New Year's Eve, because I wouldn't go out with her in order to — well, never mind. Professor Theophilus, I thought they'd be happy for me."
"Why would you expect that? Are your family Christians?"
"No, but finding out about Jesus was the best thing that ever happened to me. Besides, they need Him as much as I did. I mean do."
"If they knew they needed Him, they would have been Christians already. If they knew you needed Him, they would have told you themselves."
"But I would have been happy for me."
"Would you? Think back. Who first explained the Gospel to you?"
"Knowing Sarah, I suppose she told you how her own life had changed."
"Were you happy for her, then?"
"Well — no. I thought she was a Holy Roller."
"Why did you think so?"
Mary winced with the memory. "She said she wanted to talk with me about Jeeeeeeesssus. I thought, 'Who is this girl?' And she was using The Words."
"You know — the church words. 'Born again.' 'Getting saved.' I thought I'd taken the wrong door and stumbled into a tent meeting."
"How long did it take before you could hear what Sarah was actually saying?"
"Pretty long. For a couple of months I wouldn't even let her speak to me unless she promised not to mention God."
"You were a hard case, Mary. So how did she finally get through?"
"She hung around. And she kept introducing me to her Christian friends. They were nice."
She looked away. "It's still not easy to talk about."
I said nothing.
"One night after I'd hit bottom, I was thinking about killing myself, and even though I didn't tell her, she knew. So she stayed with me. I knew what she was thinking, and I thought, 'If she tries to say 'Jesus' just once, I'll slug her.' But she didn't. Not that night. The next night —" Mary swallowed.
"The next night she didn't say 'Jesus' either, but she invited me to her church. I was too tired to argue with her, so I went. But I was too tired to listen either, and the service was a blur. I heard just one thing — someone read aloud the sentences, 'Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to Him. Come unto me, all you that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.'"
"Was that the night that you —"
She looked up. "No. But that was the night that I started listening."
We kept silence for a minute.
"So what about my family, Professor Theophilus?"
"I think you're going to have to be Sarah to them."
"You mean wait until they hit bottom?"
"Not everyone does 'hit bottom' in the dramatic way you did, at least not in earthly life. But you're right about the 'waiting' part. You have to wait until your family is ready to hear."
She hesitated. "That might be a long time."
"What am I supposed to do in the meantime?"
"Three things. One is to pray without ceasing for the souls of your family members."
"That's not hard."
"Praying is harder than we think, or Christ and the apostles wouldn't have had to remind us so often to do it. The second is to ask your friends to pray for them too — and for you."
"Why for me?"
"Because the third thing is to be the best daughter, step-daughter and sister you can be, and that will be hardest of all. Do you understand why I say that?"
"Because I haven't been a good one so far. But how did you know that?"
"Because although you've told me what it was like for you to hit bottom, you haven't said anything about what it must have been like for your family when you hit bottom."
"They never knew I did hit bottom."
"They might have known or suspected much more than you think. But suppose you're right. It would have been wretched for them to know that your life was falling apart — but if they didn't know, then it must have been wretched for them to learn, at last, just how much you've been keeping from them for the last two years. You'd just shared something precious with them — the news of your salvation — but how could they understand about that? What did get through to them was that even though you almost killed yourself, you never confided in them. What a rejection that must have seemed!"
She paused. "I see why they wouldn't understand about Jesus. And I see why they'd feel that I'd been rejecting them for two years. But shouldn't it matter more to them that my life finally turned around?"
"Sure — if it has turned around. You know it's true, but how do they know it's true?"
"Because I've told them!"
"But why should they believe you? Didn't you keep them in the dark about yourself for two years? If you couldn't tell the story straight for all that time, why should they believe that now you can?"
"But my story's all I've got!"
"No, it isn't. Have you shown them how your life has turned around?"
"How could I do that?"
"It's going to sound dull, I'm afraid. Do you write your family letters when you're at school?"
"Then start. Get the picture? And when you're at home, do you do the dishes for your Mom, shovel the snow for your step-Dad, help your sister run errands, things like that? Are you consistently cheerful, patient and helpful with everyone?"
"Mary, until your parents and your sister become followers of Christ themselves, the Cross will be a scandal to them. Nothing you can do will prevent that. What you can do is offer yourself to Christ as His instrument to draw them to Himself."
"I see what I have to do, Professor T. I'm just not sure I have it in me."
"The old Mary didn't, but that's not who you are any more. Be like your namesake. Remember what Paul said — 'It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.'"
As she stood and heaved her backpack to her shoulder, her cocky grin returned. "I'll let you know how it goes."
Copyright © 2000 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.