Ann transferred from a local Catholic school into public school in seventh-grade just in time for Ash Wednesday. What I noticed first was her modest blouse, skirt length well below the knees, thick knee socks and sensible shoes. Was I looking in a mirror? No, just recognizing the plight of another girl from a strict upbringing. The darkly drawn cross emblazoned across her forehead set her apart. My church used such terms as “marked and set apart.” I was equally intrigued and relieved that my conservative, Protestant missionary parents knew naught that a girl could be marked with a cross on her forehead before skipping off to school in her modest dress ensemble handed down from two older sisters.
Outward appearances mattered a lot to my parents. We were to be a Christian example in dress and conduct. It was impossible to fit in when teen fads dictated zippy mini-skirts or blue jeans paired with plaid CPO jackets. These clothes I craved were deemed, “Uniforms of wanton women, hobos and thugs,” to quote Dad. I laugh uproariously now. It wasn’t humorous at the time. My parents thought sneakers were foolish as they wore out too quickly and couldn’t be repaired to be passed down. Foolishness and worldliness both translated to “No, you’re not wearing that.” Looking at Ann, sporting a cross of ashes, maybe I didn’t have such a difficult row to hoe after all.
It must be dreadfully embarrassing for her to be marked with a cross. Not at all. She wore her ashes and faith with confidence and asked what had I given up for Lent? Absolutely nothing because my church doesn’t do that. I was surprised to learn of yet another punitive measure we were spared. Ann retorted that I must not be a serious Christian and perhaps my faith was a sham. I had always suspected as much, but didn’t know enough to state how our denominations were legalistic twins, and who was she to say such a thing?
In defense, I launched a rocket of lists of what our family was always doing; and that was attending a church related event from sundown to sunset and all the blessed times in-between. Sunday school, church, neighborhood witnessing and handing out tracts, hospital and prison ministry, Sunday evening church, youth group, weekly midweek prayer meeting, choir practice. “So? So, what?” Ann asked, after each item. Oh, I had more: We go early to everything to turn on the lights because my dad preaches the sermons, we are always the last to leave. I have read most of the Bible commentaries and illustrated concordances in Dad’s study. She didn’t know what that meant so she listened for a minute. I expounded on how reading the Bible was a piece of cake compared to digesting a Bible commentary. She was interested that my family had lived overseas in lifestyles of the poor and not famous. My being born on the field had her momentarily stumped. I was a true alien and could list church events all day. We have two-week long evangelistic revivals at our church at least twice a year and not the wimpy one-week kind. We go to camp meeting in the hottest months of summer in a giant, sweltering tabernacle with no air conditioning.
Oh, we suffer. Yes, we suffer for Christ all right. Ann responded, “You didn’t say anything about how much you love God.” She quoted the verse about how man looks on the outside, but God looks on the heart. That was a real verse and I knew it. It was the first time in a lifetime of being deeply convicted of how wrong I usually am. I was impressed. “I didn’t know you knew real verses. Not bad for a Catholic.”
I knew my heart hated everything I was dragged into by my parents on Sundays and all week long at church. It was boring and interminable. I detested our outdated clothes, restrictions, rules, long-winded prayers, the emotional testimonies that got shut down just as they were getting interesting--some folks tended to overshare their guilty sins. One longed for Bernice to get worked up, wave her hankie and jump the pews. The blue-collar Christians at our church were more forlorn than victorious. The church work was unending as war veterans were now arriving by bus from the VA Hospital, shell shocked from Vietnam and nervously standing in line for the warm meal at the end of the long service.
I had a hard and embarrassed heart jaded and crusty beyond my years, but thankfully it didn’t stay that way. I stopped speed reading the Bible and began reading for understanding. Ann and I had great conversations throughout junior high and high school. Her knowledge of her own faith convicted me to love Jesus.
The prophet Joel advises us to rend our hearts and not our clothes. What might this look like?
I believe the beginning of my heart’s rending came from my friend Ann earnestly endeavoring to convince me how wrong Protestants are. Are we wrong? Read, read, read. Do I love Jesus? Pray, pray, pray. Dear heart of mine, melt heart melt and fall in love with Jesus. What is he saying? Keep seeking me. I am the vine and you are the branches. And Ann would say, “You’re not too bad . . . for a Protestant.”