We sat in my shady back yard, in lawn chairs with green striped webbing, on one of those rare summer days—a brilliant sky flecked with fleecy Chagall clouds. Against a background that could hardly be more serene, she was spilling out to me a decade of anguish.

Like so many others, she had grown up in a warm Christian family, then trashed it all for a pilgrimage full of so much pain the wonder is she survived until she was ready for redemption. She had tried on lovers like new clothes, played with drugs of all shapes and colors, and tumbled headfirst into a mystery religion that amalgamated esoteric Hinduism and psychobabble.

Somehow, her long and tortuous journey had led her back to a starting place in the shelter of God’s grace. She had come to me, hungrily, to explore a new faith that would retain the words from her childhood but imbue them with new meaning.

She retraced her anger, calmly: at God, as she had picked at threads on the couch where she had been forced to kneel in prayer during family devotions. At her father, who could not bring himself to say “I love you” and who had hugged her as a child “reluctantly, nervously, as if I had knives in my breasts.” Forgiveness had healed much of the anger from the past. Now, however, she was trying to figure out Christians.

“Do they believe what they say—that people truly are lost, damned to hell? Do they have the slightest notion of what it means to be lost? To be terrified for 24 hours a day, to be shut off from God? How can they go on making potato salads for the church bazaar? Why don’t we all quit our jobs and be missionaries?”

Her voice caught and she stopped for a moment. She was leaning forward, and great, shining tears dropped straight to the ground like raindrops. Her ...

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