Thirty years ago, my brother used to get me to go with him to the elementary school’s playground to play basketball with the gang. I was terrible at basketball and didn’t like anyone knowing it, but I was often bored enough to play anyway.
The game was open to all, and when one day a group of kids we didn’t know came to play, we cut them in. They played well enough. When the game ended, stacks of religious tracts appeared in their hands. They said they were from the Community Baptist Church and they told us that we had to accept Jesus Christ today or risk a tortured eternity.
“If you haven’t accepted Jesus into your heart, if you died today you’d go to hell, which the Bible calls the lake of fire! You would be in the lake of fire for all eternity! Can you imagine how awful that would be? Won’t you pray with me right now to accept Jesus into your heart so you can be in heaven?”
I was not going to be pressured; I said no. But they persisted, trying to draw me into logical arguments, pushing hard to close the deal. I finally had to walk away from them.
A few years later, a friend of mine asked me to visit her church with her. She said her youth group was a lot of fun and I’d enjoy it. Happy to be asked, I said yes. She said she’d arrange to have the church bus come pick me up on Sunday. I didn’t know where she went to church, but I had not forgotten my past experience with Community Baptist Church when their bus pulled up. I felt on my guard, but everybody was friendly.
The next Sunday afternoon, three high school boys rang our doorbell and asked for me. They wanted to know why I hadn’t been to church the day before. I said that I just visited that one time with my friend. They said, “God wants us to worship him every Sunday. Don’t you want to worship the Lord?” I thought I had just gone to visit with my friend one time, but they acted like they expected me to come back every week. I don’t remember how I got them to go away. But they were back the next Sunday, pressuring me to return. When they came a third Sunday with the youth leader, my father told them that if they ever returned, he’d get a lawyer and sue them for harassment. We didn’t see them again.
I didn’t want anything to do with Christians after that.
Mark was an upperclassman who lived in my dorm my freshman year of college. He always said hello when we passed by. We chitchatted sometimes. And then he said it: “Hey, I’m a Christian. I like to talk about it with people. Would you be willing?”
Fear stabbed at me. “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t want to be pressured about God.”
“Whoa, don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not going to try to push you into anything you don’t want. It’s just that I’ve found that following Jesus is pretty good. It’s made a big difference in my life. I think it can make a big difference in everyone’s lives.”
I’m not sure why I agreed to talk with him. He told me how it was for him to start on God’s path, how he still messed it up a lot, but how God had been patient with him. He told me that God would be just as patient with me, and that he wanted me just as I was. He asked me about what fears I had about starting on that path. We talked at length about them, and he was patient and kind. But my fears were considerable, and I was not ready to give them up. And so our talks came to an end.
But Mark made me feel welcome and accepted at the edge of surrender. When I was ready to take that step years later, Mark had given me a good idea of how to find the path God had prepared for me. Because of Mark, I knew that I should look for simple acceptance, because it was evidence that God’s love was present.
Wherever you are, Mark, thanks, man. I hope to live up to your example.
I’ve told this story twice before, in 2008 and 2010. But I rewrote it this time, to be spare and direct.