I flirted with fundamentalism during my college years. I’d met a group of Christians who talked about their faith with the same zeal as a weight lifter, all beefed up on steroids and vanity, might talk about his health regimen. They called this “being on fire for Christ.” I still wince every time I hear the phrase.
I mistook their intensity for truth and entangled myself within the complex web of their legalism trying my best never to call attention to my propensity to sin, which I just couldn’t seem to shake no matter how hard I tried. I feared their reproach and even more their idea of grace. Mercy as they would have it was more akin to life imprisonment, hard labor over the guillotine, instead of sanctuary.
They’d read Christ’s commandment to go into the world and make disciples and understood it, as they did most things, in quantitative terms. On Friday nights they’d head into town and sweep through the streets, collecting names as though they were trophies and proof of their love for Christ.
“If you were to die this very night, do you know where your soul would go?” they’d cry out to a couple walking hand in hand on their way into the movie theater. Or they’d sidle up next to a man waiting for a bus while immersed in a good novel, tap him on the shoulder and ask, “If Christ met you at the gates of Heaven and asked why He should let you in, what would you say?”
Brash, fearless, and aggressive, they were veritable Custers in the war for souls. By the end of every campaign, all captives—hardened and flagrant sinners as they were—had repented, had prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer,” and had become bona fide Christians, heaven bound. They too had caught fire for Christ and would join the ranks the very next night to continue the campaign and further advance the Kingdom of God.
When it came to sharing my own faith, I took more of a General McClellan approach. I had worked out a meticulous plan for engaging the non-believer and even played the scene out in my mind ad nauseum, but was always hesitant and ever so quick to retreat at the first sign of impending disaster. Even McClellan had a better battle record than I. Painfully aware of the fact that I had yet to lead an actual soul to Christ and fearful that He might come like a thief in the night and cast me into the abyss for my cowardice in sharing His gospel message, I eventually devised a desperate plan.
I went down to the Christian bookstore and found a revolving rack filled with 3×5 glossy tracts written especially for the stalwart Christian out to make disciples. The tracts were 10 cents a piece or 100 for $5.00. Feeling unusually confident and ambitious, I went for the stack of 100. That night, armed with my Bible, a journal and a few of my newly purchased tracts, I went out for dinner.
I nestled myself into a corner table by a window and promptly opened my Bible and began reading, careful to look as though I found every word upon the page to be thoroughly poignant and revelatory. When the waitress came, I looked up at her with large, discerning eyes and smiled softly, hoping my gentle nature might woo her into conversation. The desired effect was utterly lost upon her. She didn’t even make eye contact with me when she asked what I’d like to drink. Instead, she looked to the door at the crowds pouring in. I took this as a cue not to waste her time, ordered a glass of ice water and a cheeseburger with mustard, and went back to reading the Scriptures. The waitress returned shortly after and slid across the table a tepid glass of water and a cheeseburger dripping with mayonnaise. I feel towards mayonnaise the way most people feel about looking at a massive opened flesh wound. But I ate it anyway, knowing that refusing to do so could have eternal consequences.
When the bill came I shoved some cash into the vinyl check book and then retreated to my car to watch as the waitress opened what was really more of a Trojan Horse of sorts, as I had stealthily sandwiched in between the paper bills a tract I had handpicked for the waitress’s presumably lost soul. I wasn’t sure what would happen next, whether she’d shake her clinched fists at the air and curse my very existence or, even worse, point me out to the manager and have me banned for life from the establishment. I was more than relieved when the waitress surveyed the tract, flipping it over a couple of times, and then stuffed it in her apron pocket. I regarded this an overwhelming success and considered the waitress the first soul I ever led to Christ, a trophy for my mantel.
I repeated this exact pattern dozens of times, the only exception being that I started leaving a heftier tip, thinking it might soften the emotional blow a weighted conscience was sure to feel upon the realization of her depravity. Each waitress who did not wad up the tract and toss it to the floor I deemed a victory. These were desperate times, after all.
I once spoke to a group of Catholic young adults about my own journey to Catholicism. On my way out of the meeting, a young Marine caught me by the arm. I could tell he was nervous because his hands shook and his voice cracked when he said, “You know it happens in the Catholic Church, too. Some people only care that you think the right things. They don’t care that you’re dying inside.”
When Maya Angelou passed away the Internet exploded with tributes to her undeniable wisdom. One quote in particular caught my attention: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” It reminded me of a similar quote from Theodore Roosevelt, one of my father’s favorites. While everyone else’s parents sang out, “Have a great day!” my father would roll down the window of his rusty Ford Pinto and yell, “Remember, no one care’s how much you know until they know how much you care!” We’d roll our eyes as we slung our backpacks over our shoulders and slouched into school. But even when you’re twelve you can’t help but take heed of such words.
I’m often asked what the turning point was in my conversion to Catholicism. It’s a hard question to answer, because there were so many important moments along that way. The one thing I can say is that every key moment involved a relationship with someone who cared about me as a person. They did not fear my questions or my struggles with faith but sought to understand them. They listened to me. They empathized, and they offered me hope. I was not converted by being backed into a theological corner. I didn’t lose a debate. I was converted through love.
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