"Come Back, Barbara"
We are not a family of shouters. We don't raise our voices or even argue much, except in a joking way. And it certainly isn't our style to lose our tempers.
But this day was different. It was late July 1972. The place: Cuernavaca, a lovely paradisal city located on a high plateau about sixty miles south of Mexico City. The setting was a room on the second floor of Chub Vista, the gleaming white main building of the Alpha-Omega center for missionary outreach. It was midmorning. My eighteen-year-old daughter, Barbara, slender and darkly tanned, sat on a low single bed diagonally across from my chair. Near her on another chair was Rose Marie, her mother. Rose Marie is blue-eyed and blond, and at that moment her eyes were blazing.
"Morn, Dad," Barbara shouted, "I don't want your rules and morals. I don't want to act like a Christian anymore! And I'm not going to!"
"Barb," cried her mother, "stop it! Stop it right now!" Rose Marie left her chair and shook Barbara by the shoulders. "You're acting crazy! Listen to me! Do you know what you're doing?"
At that point I joined in with my own raised voice. It was ineffectual. I felt stupid and embarrassed. Then we all began to weep. Barbara with anger and frustration, and Rose Marie and I out of anger and fear for our daughter.
The source of the tension had been Barbara's insistence that she had a right to "personal freedom" in her relationships with men. She was not giving an inch and neither were we. The next moment an angry Barbara bolted for the door and slammed it behind her with a defiant bang.
"Barbara Catherine," her mother called, "come back, come back!" The same words were in my own heart and on the tip of my tongue. But we might as well have saved our breath. Barbara was already downstairs, heading for the swimming pool shimmering in the subtropical sunlight. She had won the battle. We were stunned and felt like fools in our powerlessness.
Rose Marie looked pale in spite of her tan, and I was sick at heart. Everything seemed out of control. I felt that I had been the victim of invisible powers, like Oedipus hastening to his doom under the guidance of an iron, unfriendly fate. And I knew that I had somehow unwittingly contributed to my own defeat.
How had this crisis come about?
About a week before our son, Paul, had called us from our home in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, to say that he was deeply concerned about Barbara. Since he was close to Barbara and knew her well, he felt that she had been spending too much time with some of her non-Christian friends and that they were having a harmful influence on her. He urged us to invite Barbara to Cuernavaca immediately. So after a phone call from us, Barbara agreed to fly down.
At first things appeared to stabilize. Juan, one of the fine young men working with Alpha-Omega, escorted her around Cuernavaca, unintentionally acting as her chaperone. But the bottom fell out the evening the three of us attended a Mexican wedding without Juan.
It was a magic night with the scent of a thousand flowers in the air. The fast beat of the mariachi music, the laughter, and the gaily dressed couples brought out Barbara's innermost longings. It quickly became clear that she couldn't wait to ally herself with some non-Christian man. The way she looked, the way she dressed, and the way she walked sent a clear message to the men around her: Barbara was ready to experiment with the world.
Soon a young man picked up the signals from the pretty senorita. As she sat at his table, I kept a fatherly eye on her, a thing that I did not like to do since our family had always operated on the basis of trust. Nothing particular troubled me, but I had the vague feeling that at the first Opportunity she would jettison our family's moral values without a second thought. What so appalled me was that a "new Barbara" seemed to be emerging. What had happened to my friend and daughter? Inwardly I shuddered.
That evening was a terrific strain, even more for Rose Marie than for me. But what could we do?
We tried what most parents do. Early the next day, in that small hotel in Cuernavaca, we talked to Barbara and tried to reason with her. It didn't do much good. So Rose Marie and I went to our room and prayed. When we returned once more to talk with her, as I described at the beginning of this chapter, the whole scene went off like a bomb. Our words only made matters worse.
After Barbara slammed the door, we sat there in shock and confusion. We didn't say a word. We had always assumed that we had good communication with Barbara, based upon a shared faith. We had always thought of her as a Christian, at least since she had joined the church at the age of sixteen. But now, while we knew she was not acting like a Christian, we still tried to treat her like one. Perhaps this was only a temporary lapse, we thought.
As parents, we were like two people working on a jigsaw puzzle who suddenly discover pieces in the box that do not seem to belong. It just didn't fit together. On the one hand, Barbara was acting like a pagan who couldn't wait to get out in the world "where the fun really is." On the other hand, we remembered her statement of faith when she became a full member of the church. She had spoken with seeming sincerity about Christ's haying changed her life, and she had told us in a moving way what he meant to her.
Had she faked it? It just didn't seem possible. Her Christian life seemed to have been more than mere words. She had had a prominent part in helping a number of people become Christians. In doing so, she had certainly convinced them that she was a Christian. For instance, Jill Hebden, a high-school classmate now engaged to marry our son, Paul, had become a Christian largely through Barbara's example of Christian living among her peers in the local public high school.
Drugs had begun to enter the high school when Barbara was in the tenth grade, and Barbara had spoken out strongly against their use. In fact, her stand against drugs was so strong that it even prompted a school authority to call us and suggest that Barb was creating something of a myth about drugs in the school. In reflecting on Barbara's strength of character, Jill later said, "You certainly could've fooled me. I thought she was a Christian. She read her Bible regularly, and I know she turned down drugs."
So naturally we were taken aback by Barbara's claim that she was rejecting Christianity. But more importantly, we also thought she was implying that she had never been a Christian. It was muted but it was said. Still, we were not prepared to believe it.
In other ways, Cuernavaca was a high point in my life. I had prayed for an increase in my love for God, and although I became ill with dysentery not long after that prayer, still, during that sickness I came to experience God's love in a new way. The fruit of this new knowledge of him turned into a book that I wrote during that time. In a little over two weeks I wrote Repentance and Twentieth Century Man.
As I deepened in my experience of the joy of repentance, it just did not make sense that anyone would want to trade the fulfillment to be found in Christ for the short-term pleasures of the world. The whole thing just sounded crazy to Rose Marie and me, a nightmare that we hoped would vanish in the morning light.
Unfortunately, we were ten years too late to help Barbara. When our daughter was eight, we should have tried harder to face up to the truth about her inward life. But we could not help her now, not through persuasion an.d certainly not by Our losing our tempers.
Barbara wanted freedom—freedom from all constraints, from parents, from church, from God. She was after the happiness that she sensed was to be found "out there," apart from home and Christianity, and she wanted to be happy now. To become happy she opted for the fast lane, determined to step on the gas and pay no attention to cautionary road signs. Like the younger son in the parable of the father's love, she wanted freedom from the parental home via a trip to the "far country."
Unfortunately, I was not like the father in the parable, nor were Rose Marie and I ready to let go of our child and entrust her to God. This unwillingness generated a lot of tension in our minds and made us slow to accept the idea that maybe Barbara had indeed faked many things during her adolescence. Who wants to admit to having been fooled by one's own child? But after Barbara slammed the door in Cuernavaca, we began to realize that it was too late, that she would have gone anyway, and that no one could have prevented her from "wasting her substance on riotous living."
In looking back on that morning, Rose Marie later said, "When Barb announced that she was 'not a Christian and didn't want to be one,' my world came crashing in on me. I reacted with anger and fear. I simply couldn't handle it. My own barriers were too high fix me to be able to open up and deal calmly with what she was saying. I felt humiliated and betrayed."
Later that day, when all of us cooled down, our family's habitual dislike of conflict reasserted itself Rose Marie and I sought out Barbara and invited her to come with us and her younger sister, Keren, on an expedition to the center of Cuernavaca. Beneath the surface the conflict was still there, but we managed to treat each other almost normally as we walked the half mile to the city center.
There we seated ourselves for lunch at an outdoor café. Our sense of humor even returned, at least momentarily. A young boy, probably around nine or ten, saw us. As he headed toward us he quickly transformed himself from a healthy youngster into a beggar with a twisted arm and leg. It was great acting. If I had not seen this little faker walking normally just a moment before, I would have been fooled, but I had seen him walking along the sidewalk and happily talking to his companions, and so had the whole family. So we greeted his performance with applause—but no money. He grinned sheepishly and departed.
Looking back, I can see that his game had in it a certain appropriate symbolism. Do we not all have our little games we play on one another and even on ourselves to get what we want? In our family relationships, don't we often transform ourselves into cripples to get our own way? At that time I sensed that maybe a game was being played in our family, but I was too emotionally drained to learn the rules.
On a profounder level I also sensed that our family was under attack. Dark powers seemed to be ranged against us. As much as I loved subtropical Cuernavaca—with its sharp, clear air in the morning, its brilliant radiance at noon, and its evenings suffused with soft air—all that now seemed second- am I felt the tread of evil walking the earth, laying traps for my feet, and whispering words of despair to my heart: "Give up on Barb, that ungrateful child." But I refused to accept her renunciation of Christ as the conclusive victory of Satan over Christ in her life. I felt I ought to give up, to reject her the way she was rejecting us, but vaguely I felt this would be to play her game. So inwardly I determined to wait on God, to lean on him in the midst of my fears and sense of defeat, and indeed I found a measure of release in this preliminary surrender of the situation to him. I could not call it full peace, but it had in it the beginnings of a quiet acceptance of his will fir Barbara.
As we flew home to Philadelphia in August, we were aware that Barbara was still alienated from us, though outwardly she was civil. As we went through customs in Atlanta, I was still wrestling. My hope was that Barbara, in spite of herself, was still a Christian, that she was simply going through a time of temporary backsliding. But I also suspected that that was my own little game, my own private fable that Barbara had never deceived us about being a Christian. What made it so hard was that I had been deceived by a good friend—not just a daughter. I felt betrayed.
At home in Jenkintown, Barb was eager to get out of the house and spend her time with those friends who had become her new models of conduct, in fact, the very friends that Paul had been concerned about before. Barbara didn't even seem to take seriously her preparations for her first year at Dickinson College. Rose Marie was upset by Barbara's new pattern of escape. Rose Marie needed Barbara to help her with the care and cleaning of our large house with its thirteen rooms. Rose Marie, weakened by major surgery that had taken place not long before our sojourn in Mexico, felt abandoned. As she said later, "I felt Barbara should stay home and get things in order for school, and I told her so. My saying it to her didn't help things. I guess this was the last time I had any conflict with her—there were hurts that went deep—and I don't believe I was open enough at that time to help her with her hurts."
As I sorted through my thoughts that August, I came to more definite answers to the questions that had haunted me. One question that would not go away was this: Why had I let myself be so completely deceived by Barbara? The answer, I thought, was that family pride had blinded me to what she was really like.
More than once when she was growing up I had caught Barbara in deceptions. For instance, there was the time when Barbara was eight and was caught lying about brushing her teeth. At the time we lived in Redwood City, California. To help organize our family responsibilities while I did research on my Ph.D., I made up a hygiene-and-duty chart for the family. Every day each of our four older children was expected to check off the tasks completed. Barbara's chart showed that she had faithfully brushed her teeth every day during the past week. But one day Paul and Ruth presented Barbara's toothbrush to Rose Marie and me. It was as dry as a bone. Acting as self-appointed enforcers, they had been examining her toothbrush for almost a week, and though she had checked the chart, the truth was that she had not brushed her teeth for a long time. What was even worse, Barbara, in spite of persuasion and discipline, would not admit that she had lied. She proved to be extremely stubborn. It was a powerful indicator of something wrong in her inner life, and it was also a call for us as parents to reexamine our approach.
But the truth is that we cooperated with our own deception. We failed to look the unpleasant truth squarely in the eye and do something about it. Most of the time Barbara conformed outwardly to the standards of the family, and we were too easily satisfied with that. We avoided the conflict that would have occurred if we had asked Barbara more probing questions about her values and motivations, what you might call her real wants. In fact, by accepting her superficial performance, we kept her from seeing what her real heart hungers were.
Facing up to this was unpleasant for me. But it was also heating. There were plenty of mysteries in the whole situation and to some extent there still are. But these were tangible truths that I could use in changing my own life. I sensed I needed to humble myself and acknowledge my failure as a parent. This helped clear my mind, and this acceptance led to a new release. / did not want to be emotionally crippled by my failures. Once I had identified them I asked God's forgiveness, and knowing I was forgiven renewed my confidence that he was present and working in our situation.
I cannot stress enough the importance of honest confession for parents who carry a burden of repressed guilt. There is nothing worse than wallowing in failure and enjoying the self- torture generated by it. In that state I am no help to anyone— not even myself. In fact, I am like the Mexican boy, pretending to be a cripple.
So it was not destructive to find out something of my weakness in bringing up Barbara, to admit the wrong and find God's pardon. Released from that burden through repentance, I was, with God's help., able to accept more of the truth about Barbara and to deal with her more honestly. This truth hurt, but it was like the pain of childbirth. I had to accept that our hard work and love had failed in Barbara's case. She was not just our "dear Barbara, with the tender heart," but a first- rate operator, a talented counterfeiter. But she too was being unveiled. Coming to the surface at last were her pugnacity toward us and her determination to turn her life into a disaster.
It was ghastly but it was the truth, and we needed to face the truth. There is no worse evil than to deny evil, to pretend that it is not there. I am not ignorant of human depravity, but I had long denied that it could exist in our family. We are orderly, hard-working people; our home is a place where we feel understood and affirmed. We paid our dues for all of this by succeeding in life. Our unspoken motto was: "Work hard and success will follow."
What we failed to account ibr was that outward conformity to an orderly family life proves nothing. A child can put on all the external forms of Christian life and good order, and not be near God at all. For the parent to fail to look below the surface and to pass lightly over inner motivations is often to let the child put a veneer over life. The inward person is left untouched, and when that happens the inward self can easily become hardened and embittered.
As parents, our grief during this time was intense. We had lost the battle and knew the humiliations of exposure and defeat. But from our present vantage point we can see how it was also entirely under the perfect plan of God, the beauty of which we were not able to see at that time. Then it was like walking through a dark forest on an invisible trail. We could see nothing of what lay ahead, but we made our way along the path with fear and trembling. Yet because our hands were held securely in the hand of our heavenly Father, we could trust the way to his eyes.
But even then we felt God had a purpose in it all, as he stripped away our facade of self-sufficiency. We had placed great confidence in Christian nurture in the home and in Christian private schools. But no one grows into grace through a Christianized environment. No one gets to God by moral self-improvement. You only get to God by being transplanted from your natural soil into the life of Christ by a personal faith in him. In our nurture of Barbara we had unconsciously forgotten these foundational truths.
We were also beginning to learn that we were entirely dependent on God to change Barbara and that eventually he would renew her heart and life. Rose Marie put it even more personally: "At that time I was in danger of complete despair. What kept me from giving up was the knowledge that Barbara did belong to God and that in his own time and way he would bring her hack."
We were slowly learning what Paul so eloquently expresses in 2 Corinthians 1:8— 10: "We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us."