(Note: if you haven’t already read my Testimony, you might want to do so, or this won’t make much sense.)
As a kid, two quotes were ground into my memory:
One, “You’ll be the same person tomorrow that you are today, except for the books you read, and the company you keep.”
Two, “You can tell a person’s character by their friends.”
I’m not exactly how these two came to be so important, but all the big preachers and model parents were endorsing it. And all their good kids followed it to the letter; the screening process for their friendship took longer than training for the FBI. And then there was me, who wanted to be the perfect Christian, and who never did anything by halves. I became afraid to even smile at an “unworthy” person, much less talk to them – if our Yardstick Church found out, it might be considered rebellion, and the last thing I wanted to be was rebellious.
So I studiously avoided all but “approved” friendships. For years. It wasn’t hard, given that the church consisted of less than twenty-five members and had a hard time growing, oddly enough…
But one Sunday, when I was about sixteen, a family of missionaries visited from Mexico. At first I was so excited; all my life I’d wanted to minister to Mexico, and I had hundreds of questions. And they had a daughter near my age! In all my life I’d only had one acquaintance within four years of me. It was too good to be true.
And then, I saw their daughter. A trim, trendy eighteen-year-old, who spent the Sunday service sleeping in the van. And she dared come to church wearing pants! Everyone knew that women who wore pants were deceived by the devil; God delighted in ankle-length dresses and head coverings, and the plainer the better. I was toeing the line with my black skirt and white blouse. Surely there was a special curse on her blue jeans…
I was sorely disappointed. Even without meeting her, I knew we could never be friends – associating with a girl who slept through Sunday service, and wore jeans, would be considered rebellion on my part.
However, the girl didn’t seem to sense my judgmental thoughts. She followed me around all that day, not seeming to notice my attempts at dodging her. The other kids in the fellowship were doing even better at avoiding her than I was, including the ones who’d invited her family. So we stood together at the edge of the lawn, watching everyone else play kickball, while the poor girl was shivering in the New England weather. I wanted to give her my coat, but if any of the parents saw me…
At once, my fear turned to anger. These missionaries had devoted their life to serving others, while our self-righteous fellowship was obsessed with debating the periods and commas of the law. They were exhausted from travelling, yet they still made the effort to come to church, even if they did stay in the van. In short, they were doing the work God commanded of all of us. And we rewarded them with rejection and judgement over stupid clothing differences.
It was time to go home then, and I didn’t have a chance to make right with the girl; their family never returned, and I don’t blame them.
I still have the coat I wanted to give her, a continual reminder of that missed opportunity to be a blessing, to serve a sister in Christ.
Three more years passed before my judgmental attitude began to fade, as I realized I wasn’t any more deserving of God’s love and grace than anyone else, and Christianity is not about safeguarding our reputations from the world. I began to think about those quotes again – “You’ll be the same person tomorrow that you are today, except for the books you read, and the company you keep.
I misunderstood this to mean we should only associate with those “worthy” of us – people who were form-perfect, according to our standards of Christlikeness. But how often did Christ associate with “perfect” people? Who of us would have been worthy according to His standards? Not only did He chose sinful humans as His friends, but the lowest in our own eyes: fishermen, publicans, leopards, adulterers. He died alongside thieves and murderers.
If it’s true you can tell a person’s character by their friends, I want my friends to show that I love everyone for Jesus’s sake. I don’t have to adopt their standards or do activities my conscience won’t allow. I only have to be open and accepting of them as people.
I think often of that missionary girl that came to our church. It’s been several years now, but I pray somehow, somewhere, we’ll meet again.
I owe her an apology, and my heartfelt gratitude.