Trying to be "good" without understanding or connecting to the reality of God's grace meant living under the constant pressure of high expectations, and constantly falling short. An intelligent woman with six children born in a ten year period, I believe my mother felt those pressures, and I know I did. No matter how many times we confessed our faults or said our prescribed prayers, those religious statues never moved - it felt like the God we were trying to please was too far away to help us. The daily stresses and frustrations of life eventually boiled over into anger and rebellion.
Family and society can put pressures on you, too – pressures to achieve a certain level of education, social status, or accomplishment; conformity to what we think our parents or peers require for acceptance and approval. A childhood memory illustrates how I perceived and reacted to those expectations:
My mother was brushing my hair roughly, because we were all in a hurry to go somewhere. She was yanking at the tangles and commanding me to be still as I tried to pull away. I stomped my foot on the stairs and yelled at her through angry tears, “You don’t love me! You’ve never loved me!!” She replied quickly, still ripping at my hair with the hairbrush, “Of course we love you, I drive you to dance lessons, piano lessons, good schools…” As an adult, I know my mother did these things because she saw that I was bright and she cared very much to be a good parent; as a child, it didn’t feel like love to me at all. It felt like being pushed, pulled, shoved and hurt - pressured to perform, achieve, and behave a lot better than I thought I was. I felt pain in that hurried hair-brushing, and what I really wanted was a hug.
It's amazing to me how quickly I forgot my childhood faith, as if I simply turned out the lights and shut the door behind me as I walked out into my teenage years. I started 10th grade at Bethesda-Chevy Chase HS in the Fall of 1971, the year I turned 14 (I'll explain in a future posting why I was so much younger than my classmates). The Vietnam war, hippies and drug culture of the late 1960's were still very much in the news and part of my world view. I found "acceptance" in the easiest clique of all to join - kids who hung out on the front steps smoking cigarettes, deciding whether to go to class or skip school and smoke pot. I think I skipped more school than I attended at B-CC.
When we were children, my brother and sisters and I used to sneak out of bed and sit at the top of the stairs to listen to the happy sounds of parties where adults from our neighborhood or church were drinking downstairs. I stole my first drink of alcohol at age 12 or 13; it tasted bad at first, but then it felt like a little bit of heaven come to earth. My whole body warmed, and all my worries and pressures disappeared. Sneaking out to parties with my peers, I felt "accepted" at first, more able to be friendly than I normally was. But, to make a long story short, my teenage drinking experiences quickly degenerated from a few moments of illusory “happiness” into something the Bible describes very accurately:
Who has anguish? Who has sorrow? Who is always fighting? Who is always complaining? Who has unnecessary bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? It is the one who spends long hours in the taverns, trying out new drinks. Don't let the sparkle and smooth taste of wine deceive you. For in the end it bites like a poisonous serpent; it stings like a viper. You will see hallucinations, and you will say crazy things. You will stagger like a sailor tossed at sea, clinging to a swaying mast. And you will say, "They hit me, but I didn't feel it. I didn't even know it when they beat me up. When will I wake up so I can have another drink? [Proverbs 23:29-35 NLT]
Without faith, there seemed to be no purpose in life. I sat on the high school steps watching cars pass by in both directions along East-West Highway, wondering why all those people got up and went to work day after day. I refused to go to church or summer vacation with my family. Conflicts with my mother and eventually my friends led to increasing loneliness, a sense of futility and almost suicidal hopelessness. My mother discussed her deep concerns with my grandmother, and it was decided that I desperately needed "a change of scene."
I have to laugh as I tell you the next part of my story! God’s grace is so extravagant, beyond all human logic and reason. Just when I should have been sent to a psychiatric institute or substance abuse rehab (although these were not as popular in those days), my mother and grandmother – who were, to my hurting and rebellious way of thinking, probably the two people I least appreciated in life – sent me to the French Riviera!
Yes, having no idea what to do with me any more, my mother put me on a plane alone at age 15, and off I went to spend the last two weeks of August 1973 with family friends who were vacationing on the Cote d’Azur. We stayed with their friend and business associate, a wealthy real estate agent whose children were away at boarding school. Since wine was served at every meal, I promptly got drunk and poured out my sorrows to this woman after just a few days. She had taken in young people before, and offered to allow me and those two family friends (who were roughly my age) to stay with her for a year, as long as we worked hard in school and kept her fairly basic house rules.
What an amazing opportunity! French high school was hard (about 8 hours a day, plus 2 to 3 hours of homework) – I’d studied French for 4 years, but was pretty much tongue-tied when I first arrived, and literature classes started with the 16th century (equivalent to a non-English-speaker studying Shakespeare). Listlessness faded as I explored the sights, sounds, tastes and experiences of an entirely new culture in a luxurious environment. We went skiing in the Alps, sailing on the Mediterranean, took a weekend trip to Paris, ate Swiss chocolate and gourmet meals... visited Nice, Cannes, St. Tropez, medieval castles and private island beaches. Although I was still a long way from knowing or giving my heart to God, and hadn’t done a thing to deserve this prodigal’s party, I was hugged all year long by the lavish grace and magnificent mercy of my heavenly Father.
When I returned home the following summer, several of my classmates were gone: one died of a drug overdose, others in accidents, one was run over by a train after lying down drunk on the railroad tracks. I was vaguely aware that, had I continued as I was going, any one of those stories could have been mine... but I was spared. Was I helped somehow by the prayers of those oddball teenagers who read the Bible on Monday nights? Did God hear the anguished cries of my mother’s heart? Was He still pursuing the little girl who had shown Him devotion as a child? Whatever it was - His Love, of course - I thank God for His mercy and grace. He saved my life before I even knew Him.
And while he was still a long distance away, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. [Luke 15:20 NLT]
He doesn't treat us as our sins deserve, nor pay us back in full for our wrongs. [Psalm 103:10 MSG]
But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed. [Isaiah 53:5 NIV]
Bonus Track: "How He Loves" - John Mark McMillan wrote this song after the unexpected death of a friend, which shows how God's Love transcends everything, shines even in the midst of & overcomes crushing pain with His brilliant beauty! Kim Walker & Jesus Culture do a great job with this one. "God wants to encounter you, and wants you to feel His Love, His amazing Love... you better just brace yourself!"