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, promotes 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. I longed for refuge. Freedom.
They’d read Christ’s commandment to go into the world and make disciples and understood it in quantitative terms. The proof of their love of Christ was found in the number of souls they converted.
On Friday nights they’d head into town and sweep through the streets, collecting names as though they were trophies for their fireplace mantel.
“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.
When it came to sharing my faith, I took a General McClellan approach. I’d find a woman sitting on a park bench or in a coffee shop, sit down next to her and compliment her on her shoes. We’d talk about the weather and where we grew up. I’d ask what she did for a living and eventually slip in a reference to Jesus. But I was always quick to retreat at the first sign of impending failure. The slightest curling of a lip or furrowing of a brow would send me running.
I was terrified that Christ would return and discover I had converted no souls. In desperation I devised a plan. I went down to the Christian bookstore and found 3×5 glossy tracts written especially for the stalwart Christian out to make disciples. Unusually ambitious, I bought a stack of 100. That night, armed with my Bible, a journal and a handful of my newly purchased tracts, I went to the Black-Eyed Pea for dinner.
Nestling myself into a corner table by a window, I opened my Bible and began reading, careful to look as though I found every word 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. My effort was lost upon her. She didn’t even make eye contact 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. She returned shortly afterward 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 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 holder and retreated to my car to watch as the waitress opened what was really more of a Trojan Horse of sorts, as I had sandwiched in between the 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 existence or, even worse, point me out to the manager and have me banned for life. I was more than relieved when she scanned the tract, flipped it over a couple of times, and stuffed it into her apron pocket. I regarded this as an overwhelming success and considered the waitress the first soul I ever led to Christ.
I repeated this exact pattern dozens of times, the only deviation being that I started leaving a heftier tip, thinking it might soften the 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. I’d head home gratified that I had saved a soul. But by the time I walked through the front door I was full of remorse, because she—like me—now felt the burden of her sin and could never escape it, no matter how hard she tried.
I once spoke to a group of young adults about my own faith journey. 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 all kinds of churches. 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 from the car window, “Have a great day!” as their children skipped into school, my father would roll down the window of his rusty Ford Pinto and holler, “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, hoping that none of our friends heard him.
I’m often asked what the turning point was in my faith. It’s a hard question to answer, because there were so many important moments along the 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.