by: Stephanne Morris Marsh
You know, sometimes, there are things that are so firmly imprinted in your memory, that you can recall them in extraordinary detail. People say, that with the passage of time, memories can fade, or that with the retelling of the story, details can be greatly embellished. However, I would argue, quite vehemently in fact, that this memory has neither faded, nor has it been fortified with “extras”. The story I am about to tell you will be told exactly as it happened. After all, no one in my family will EVER forget it! Isn’t that the way it goes with things that embarrass you right down to your toes? I do believe that this was more than embarrassment, this was deep, total, complete, mortification. So, grab a cup of coffee, and curl up in a chair, and prepare to be amused. On second thought, perhaps you should put your coffee down. I don’t want you spitting it all over your electronic device.
The year was 1988. I was 14. Keely was 9. My dad was 36 and my mama was 34. (The ages aren’t really important, but it does add lovely detail, don’t you think?) The location was somewhere on the eastern coast of North Carolina. I shall not name the town, to protect the identities of the innocent. We were “campaigning for Jesus and Ecuador”, itinerating to raise funds for our next 4 years on the mission field. It was a Sunday evening somewhere between Halloween and Christmas, and we were all exhausted. We had a morning service in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and after a quick lunch with the pastors of the church, we had jumped in our car to pound the pavement to the next church almost 4 hours away, for an evening service.
We arrived at the church a little after 5 pm, a little early for the 6:00 evening service. The pastor met us at the door and showed us into a nursery/missionary apartment where there was a bathroom, a bed, a few cribs and assorted nursery toys. He admonished us to make ourselves at home and told us that we could freshen up and rest for a few minutes before church began, because they had prayer in the sanctuary prior to the start of service. He gave my dad a wireless microphone and told him that we could take as long as we needed, that the prayer service usually wrapped up only moments before the 6:00 start time. He told us how to find the sanctuary, and my dad thanked him, and the pastor shut the door.
My mama and daddy stretched out on the bed, careful not to rumple their hair or their clothes, and professed they were going to take a 15 minute nap. Keely and I did what any tween and teen would do. We explored. We looked at all of the nursery toys, dismissed them as too babyish, and kept looking.
To be honest, we were hoping to find some juice boxes, or some of those vacation Bible school cookies, you know, the fake oreos or the flower cookies with the holes in the middle. But alas, there was nothing of the sort. We sat down at the end of the bed and looked at one another.
I don’t really recall exactly how we discovered it, but tucked away, between the bed and the wall, completely out of sight, were two old fashioned pea hampers. They were filled to the top with every missionary kids’ dream. Penny candy and penny toys. In retrospect, it is now obvious that this was left over from a harvest festival or carnival of some sort. There were Mary Janes and Bit O’ Honeys. Now ‘n’ Laters and Laffy Taffy galore! And the toys! There were Chinese finger traps and paper Chinese yo-yos! There were bouncy balls and little maze puzzles! I know you think that these things shouldn’t have interested us in the slightest, however, if you have read the story of the Gummy Bear on the Plane and The Hatchback of the Datsun, then you might just understand that these two simple hampers, filled to the brim with these inexpensive treats was like getting an unlimited shopping pass your favorite store!
I can’t recall if it was me or Keely that grabbed the first handful of candy. But, I do know that we both ate it as fast as we could. We had a great pile of wrappers on the floor in between us, when we decided that we had eaten enough, for the moment. I then leaned over and grabbed two Chinese yo-yos and two finger traps. We sat quietly for a moment playing with them so as not to disturb our parents, but then….somehow, the yo-yo, with a mind of its own, went slightly to the side and smacked my sister in the head. She of course exclaimed out loud, (much louder than was necessary! I mean it was a PAPER yo-yo! But she was always overly dramatic.) and retaliated by smacking me right in the eye with her yo-yo. It was on. We were running, shrieking, hitting each other with the yo-yos, laughing, and trying to see how hard and far we could make the yo-yo fly out.
We screeched to a halt and became completely silent, the only audbile sound was the beating of our hearts, when our dad popped one eye open and glared at us. My mama sat up and asked us rather loudly, what in the world we were doing. She then told us in no uncertain terms, and a little more loudly than I thought was necessary, that “we needed to stop playing with the church’s “junk” and straighten our hair. ” She put her head back on the pillow, and then I heard her shriek. My dad had grabbed a paper yo-yo and slung it at my mama. By then, we were all merrily laughing and slinging the yo-yos hitting each other, and we were all talking about “how much fun it was to play with other people’s “junk”.” In an instant, my parents were off of the bed, and we were having a wild time slinging the yo-yos at one another. Things sobered up really quickly when my mama glanced down and saw the pile of wrappers at the foot of the bed. My mama proceeded to tell us that we had “stolen” candy, and stolen from a church! She was fussing to beat the band. Keely and I were just standing there, when our fun REALLY screeched to a halt. Because all of the sudden, there was a firm knock at the door.
My dad went to open it, and standing there, very red-faced and obviously disturbed was the pastor. He said, “Perhaps, before you start “playing with other people’s junk” and stealing candy, you should make sure the microphone is off!” He then spun on his heel and left us gaping after him.
I cannot even begin to try to describe how embarrassed we all were. There are not enough words! I can’t even attempt to do it justice. Even now, 31 years later, just thinking about it and trying to write about it, my cheeks are flaming red and I want to crawl into a hole. I was mostly embarrassed for my mama and daddy, and I had a sneaking and horrifying suspicion that we wouldn’t be getting a love offering that night. My dad still had to preach! My mama still had to sing, and yes, my sister and I had to still had to sing as well. We ALL had to go out and face the people in the congregation. We had to face them and smile while we were doing it! We all felt sick to our stomachs. My dad grabbed the offending wireless mic and slid the button to off. We soberly returned the toys to the hampers, disposed of our “stolen” candy trash, and straightened the bed. Then we straightened our clothes and our mussed hair, squared our shoulders, and resolutely walked out into the den of lions, errrrr, ummm, the congregation. I don’t think I have ever sat through such a quiet service. I don’t know how we did it. How did my dad preach? How did my mama and my sister and I sing? How did we sit there? I know our cheeks were flaming scarlet in color.
Normally, after a service, the pastor or the deacons would take us out to eat and then give us an envelope with a love offering that usually was enough to pay for our gas to get to the next location, and sometimes, there was even a little extra and a monthly pledge of support, but not this time. This time, we finished the service and we quietly left . That was a very quiet drive back home.
All of these years later, it is still a very embarrassing memory. Every once in a while, I am tempted to giggle when I think of it, simply because it was a rare moment that my dad had “let his hair down” and played with us while he was in his “preaching suit”. We had a glorious 3-4 minutes of having fun with simple toys. When I think back to the moment of my mama sitting up surprised that my dad had popped her playfully with the yo-yo, and my sister and I running around shrieking, it was truly innocent fun. I can assure you that we would have NEVER hurt anyone’s feelings on purpose and we would have never eaten the candy if we truly thought we were stealing it. The pastor had after-all, told us to “make ourselves at home.”
I think what has stuck with me after all of these years is the sadness I felt from the obvious disdain and lack of grace and forgiveness. The embarrassment that we all felt that we had been caught acting like normal people! Y’all, we were a young missionary family! We were tired, we were ridiculously poor, we sacrificed so very much, and there was no grace. No one even attempted to ease or lighten the discomfort of the awful situation with humor. And that breaks my heart. Because I witnessed situations like that more often than I would like to admit, I truly believe that is why I am the way I am. I am constantly cracking jokes, running interference, and trying to smooth things over. I never want anyone to feel like my family and I did in that situation. I mean come on! You had a bunch of mostly older people, praying in a sanctuary, and over the sound system, you hear a young family playing with one another, shrieking with laughter! That should have been hilarious! It should have made the people in the church laugh out loud. But it didn’t.
So, my take away from this has several facets. Please stick with me.
I think that there are many of us that grew up in a church just like the one that is described above. All of the right elements were there, the gospel message was there, but people were judgmental and God was portrayed as an angry God and our “fear” of the Lord was true fear, and not holy respect. That grieves my heart, more than I can put into words. It grieves my heart because so many people have walked away from church and a relationship with the Lord because the standards and the bar that was set was impossibly high. No one can follow all of those rules and live a perfect life, at least not without hiding something, and there are most certainly major things missing. Huge components of what make being a Christ-follower so amazing. Elements like joy and LOVE! That is precisely why God sent Jesus. He sent the New Covenant because the children of Israel couldn’t live by the Old Covenant. If they couldn’t what makes anyone think we could?
Much of my life, I operated from a place of fear. Fear of what would happen if I did or worse yet, if I didn’t do………whatever. Use your imagination and fill in the blank. I had head knowledge. I knew exactly what the Bible said and where it said it. I had head knowledge, but I didn’t have heart knowledge. Having heart knowledge is what makes all of the difference.
I was lucky in that I had an earthly father that I knew loved me. He showed me he loved me by the way he cared for me and our family. I never doubted my father’s love. And that, that is what opened the door for me to finally understand my HEAVENLY Father’s love. I knew I could tell my daddy anything and it wouldn’t change his love for me. Oh sure, he might be disappointed, but he wasn’t going to stop loving me, and I knew surely, he would do everything in his power to help me. It didn’t matter what I did. My daddy was going to love me in spite of whatever it was that I had done.
And y’all, my earthly daddy’s love, as wonderful as it is, is NOTHING compared to the depths of love that the God of heaven and earth has for me and for you.
Many people, however, weren’t as lucky as me. Perhaps you grew up with an abusive father, or maybe even without a father at all. How then, do you reconcile the love of a father and comprehend the love of our Heavenly Father when you have no experience to relate it to? Compound and combine that with the harsh church experience like the one above, and no wonder so very many people are turned off by the thought of “religion” and God all together.
I wish I had magic words or a formula for you to follow. I wish I could just “tell you” and the dawning of complete understanding would light in your eyes. I can try, but I can tell you now, I can’t do Jesus justice. There aren’t enough words to tell you how much He loves you. There isn’t a way for me to describe and explain how it feels to follow Him. I can’t put into words what it is like to Love like He does. All I can tell you is that it is worth pursuing. It is worth figuring out. He is worth finding. He is worth following and He is worthy of all of our love and praise.
If you only knew exactly how much freedom is found in Him. If you only knew exactly what the good news of the gospel truly meant, you would stop everything and pursue Him with your whole heart. If only you knew. Following Jesus and loving Jesus means you live your life differently. Loving Jesus changes you from the inside out. Once you truly KNOW Him, once you truly understand the depth of His love for you, once you understand EXACTLY WHAT He did for you on the cross, once you understand the true concepts of GRACE and MERCY, you can’t be the same. I am living proof.
See, once upon a time, when I just had the head knowledge, I was as judgmental as the people in the church we visited. I was downright mean. I am so ashamed to admit that. I am so very ashamed and heart-broken to think of the damage I may have done, or the people I may have turned off to living a life for Christ because I knew ABOUT Him, but I didn’t KNOW Him. My heart literally breaks thinking of the people I hurt when I thought I was “showing” them Jesus.
See, my Jesus, He ate dinner with the sinners. He wiped the tears from the face of the prostitute, He served and loved people. And they were changed because of His love. The people that came into contact with Him didn’t stay the same. They changed, because of His example. That is all I want. I want to live my life so that others see Him in me. I want to live my life so that people know that I am different. The Bible says that they will know us because of our LOVE. So, go out and love on people today. And hey, if a missionary family comes to your church, love on them extra big. They carry such a heavy load, and I can promise you that they are struggling more than you can see. Offer to fill their car up with gas, or give them a $20 bill and tell them to go get some candy, or to go to Dollar Tree to get some fun toys. I have heard, there are these Chinese yo-yos, and supposedly, they are the best things ever. Although, you might want to tell them they should keep them in the car, church just might not be the best place to try them out.