Museums have proven both wonderful and tricky places to visit whenever we go to one with our autistic child. They can be loud, crowded, and filled with all kinds of overwhelming sensory input. They’re also easy to get lost in, especially if you’re someone who doesn’t respond to your name when your frantic parents are calling it. And then there are those oh-so-strategically placed gift shops located right near the exit, filled with overpriced items just begging to be seized from low bins and shelves by kids who both do and don’t understand money. Parents then face WWIII as they wrestle their way out the door, precisely when everyone is most exhausted. It’s practically a Darwinian phenomenon—survival of the fittest.
Over spring break my husband and I decided to take our eight-year-old to the New England Air Museum because he enjoys airplanes and helicopters so much. We’ve been there a handful of times now, and each visit has ended with him getting a toy from the gift shop. At first, I was happy to reward him for exemplary behavior in a new, potentially overstimulating environment. But now that he has more or less mastered his behavior at this museum, I felt it was time to turn off the tap, especially since the last ($35!) toy we bought him has been sitting unused at home.
So I tried the old bait-and-switch. Got a dollar store toy, wrapped it, and put it in my backpack. When it was time to leave the museum, I brought it out to open in the car, diverting my son’s attention away from the cash-sucking shop. The toy? A bingo ball that you can spin and withdraw numbered spheres from as they rumble around in the hopper. My son doesn’t really know how to play bingo, but things that spin please him, as do objects that make interesting noises. Check and check.
The bingo ball has been living in our kitchen for a good stretch of days, where newscasts often float in from the living room TV. It sat on the counter as the Derek Chauvin trial unfolded, as reports of deadly shootings and Asian hate crimes across several states poured in. Against this gruesome backdrop, the cleverness of my little ploy melted away. Suddenly the bingo ball seemed to take on new meaning.
When I looked at it, all I could think was: Is this how it is? When you’re number is up, it’s up? You’re the victim of violence or some other bad thing, and there’s not a darn thing you can do about it?
Add to that our ongoing struggle with Covid, which is surging again in several parts of our country (and indeed the world) and life feels very precarious.
I began to think of Scripture, and instantly, Jesus’s grim promise that “In this world, you will have tribulation” came to mind. Now, to be fair, the whole verse reads:
“I have said these things to you that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
I’m going to do a dangerous thing here, and confess that the other two promises Jesus makes in this verse aside from his prediction of trouble—one guaranteeing his peace, and the other his overcoming of the world—did not bring me much comfort at the time. The Savior’s power to save his followers—to save me—from disaster seemed to recede into the background while the prospect of pain and problems wrecking my life overtook my thinking. And I have to ask why.
Two answers come to mind, and they are both a matter of perspective—specifically, the way my darkened heart sometimes views the world and my place in it.
1) The first distortion has to do with how my heart defines reality. There’s an old axiom that divides people into “glass half full” or “half empty” categories. And I agree, people can be born with inherently optimistic or pessimistic dispositions. But then there are those who have suffered accidents, abuse, injuries, illnesses, or other forms of pain and/or trauma. And they are forever branded not only by the experience itself but by their responses to it. In short, they are tethered to a past that may seem way more real than a present they can no longer trust, no matter how much safety and security it may appear to offer.
People who have survived the Bad Thing (and may be left with PTSD) legitimately prioritize the bad over the good, hear the cannon blast over the canary song. And that is because they have to brace for impact, protect themselves from getting hurt again. It’s just how we human beings are wired. For better or for worse, we learn, and we take what we learn into the next situation we step into.
In his book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis illustrates this point most vividly as one devil advises another on how to convince his human charge—a soldier in the midst of battle—to believe the worst of things:
“But there is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried. It turns on making him feel, when he first sees human entrails plastered on a wall, that this is ‘what the world is really like’ and that all his religion has been a fantasy.” 
“Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment.” 
It’s funny. Some people think that the opposite of faith is unbelief, but I find that for me that is not the case. When I struggle to hold onto God’s goodness in a crisis, it’s not that I don’t believe, it’s that I have wholeheartedly, devotedly shifted my belief to the idea that evil somehow owns me and that God remains either indifferent or powerless to shake me free of its grasp.
This faulty wiring goes back to abuse I suffered for many years at the hands of an ultra-religious, mentally ill father. Since college, when I first made the connection between my heavenly Father and my earthly one, I have been pursuing healing to separate those two entities. But my wounds go deep and real, permanent change comes slowly. And so Jesus’s promise of peace and of authority over my affliction don’t always fall upon my ears the way they should. If I am perfectly honest, many days I believe that hurtful things are what’s really real and have to work hard to agree with my risen Messiah that it isn’t so. Death—and all the adversity that it entails—does not get the last word.
2) The second distortion that I have to fight against is the sense of being alone when my number gets called, and I am suddenly confronting a difficulty.
The best way I know how to describe it is spiritual amnesia. I keep forgetting that the whole reason Jesus could speak so confidently about his peace and power right before he was dragged off to be beaten and crucified is that he knew what lay on the other side of his ordeal. He knew that he was about to win a way for his followers to have the very Spirit of God dwell within them as never before (see John 14:16-17).
Ever the meticulous accountant, Matthew balances his record of the great commission (“Go therefore and make disciples…” [28:19]) with Jesus’s revelation of how the apostles are to fulfill it: “And behold I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (28:20).
Alas, I am not as good a record keeper as the tax collector. Having grown up in a household where we did not discuss the things that hurt us amongst ourselves, let alone get outside help, we said our “amens” on Sunday to declarations of God’s presence but lived the rest of the week as if there were some places he just didn’t go.
I remember feeling scared and alone often, as if the emotions roiling inside of me were too freakish or sinful to let out. I survived on the love and understanding I received through good friends, my siblings, and my mother’s tireless efforts to take care of me the best she knew how. But my silence exacted a price: a recurring sense of disconnect, of God “going away,” at various intervals.
A few years ago I started letting myself talk to God as a three-year-old might, because I sensed that that was how he was talking to me. I would hear, “I’m right here. I don’t go away,” inside my head, as if God were going over a lesson in object permanence. The simple echo of it reminded me of a game of tag called “Marco Polo” we used to plays as kids in the pool. The one designated as “Marco” would repeat this name, eyes closed, while all the others responded with “Polos” each time, giving clues as to where they were located in relation to the caller trying to catch them. Limited as he is in terms of his speech, my son does a nonverbal version of this with me, sometimes crawling up into my lap and putting his face against my face for a second, just to make sure that I’m there.
There is a distinct bitterness that arises when one feels that God has left the building just when He is needed most, that He can’t be bothered to take note of those furiously treading water to keep breathing. It sounds crazy to say, but deep and bitter abandonment does get touched by such a small thing as call-and-response, whatever form it might take in a person consciously choosing to give God a second chance to prove he’s not what they may have originally believed.
It happened to me in the grocery store the other day. Once again, I had forgotten my list, and was wearily pushing my cart up and down the one-way lanes, trying to remember what was on it before I ran out of steam and gave up. Suddenly I decided to send up a “Marco.”
You know what’s on the list, right? Can You show me what to get?
Two seconds later I felt a nudge to go down the laundry aisle and then I recalled I needed stain remover spray.
Such a petty thing, you might say. But to me, it was real. It took one point away from the blood-spattered wall and assigned it to happy children in the sun.
I don’t know about you, but if I could have more mini encounters with God like this, more “Polos” reverberating back to me from heaven, or even my own embittered soul, what a difference it would make in my outlook.
Rather than my life being left to cruel and indiscriminate chance, I would be upheld by divine immanence, which is a fancy way of saying that none of the numbers in the bingo ball are my number. They are all—all—his number. He has already accounted for the impact each and every one of them might have on me.
Referencing a money-based teaching of Jesus, our dear tax collector puts it like this:
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore, you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matt 10:29-31)
It helps me to know that before Jesus made his grand statement about peace and power, he had to walk out his own human path of “Marco Polos” with his Father. Day by day, step by step, he learned that God was with him, even when all others might scatter, and that gave him the strength to resist giving his heart over to the darkness, no matter what he might have to suffer.
Jesus knew what was ultimately real for him, and it wasn’t pain, suffering, and death.
I think I’d like to give him more of a chance to define real for me, beyond the pain, suffering, and death that surround me now.
That will involve me sending up a few more “Marcos,” and making sure I don’t automatically privilege the gore over the good.
Will you join me?
I’m eager to see how promises that once rang so hollow can start to evolve into a source of rock-solid comfort.
Together, let us reach for the One who’s been to hell and back and calls himself the “bright morning star” (Rev 22:16). Surely, he has some light and love to cast upon us as we give him our trust, bit by bit, small choice by small choice.
For certainly, inexorably, it all adds up.
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, Inc., 1961), 142.
 Ibid, 144.