While exiting my husband’s car the other day I found something on the floor of the garage: an old cross made of palm stalks that had somehow survived Holy Week from last year. (If you are unfamiliar with the tradition of Holy Week, it reenacts major events in the last week of Jesus’s life. One of these is his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where he was greeted by throngs of people waving palm leaves who believed him to be their political emancipator. Folding the dried stalks into crosses serves as a reminder that Jesus intended to save humanity through a sacrificial death rather than a military coup.)
As I picked it up it seemed a pitiable thing—its edges dried and curled, its safety pin perhaps beyond saving. I would have thrown it straight into the trash had it not seemed to beckon me to take a closer look. But life got busy and I soon forgot about it, only glimpsing it every now and again where I had tucked it away on a kitchen counter.
Meanwhile I embarked on an autobiographical project that dealt with some of the darker pieces of my past. Things that had cut very deeply into my soul as young person, leaving behind wounds that still shook me to my core. To be truthful, I had started quite naively, believing I could delve into certain traumatic memories while still remaining on firm ground, safely distanced from them. Not so. Almost immediately I was pierced through with anxiety and pain, feelings that carried over into the rest of my day, even when I wasn’t writing. The ferocity of these emotions, which I thought I had put to bed years earlier, was my first surprise. The second was this: the return of certain doubts about God’s character. Seemingly out of nowhere I could hear plaintive questions resurface inside my soul with renewed intensity, such as: Why didn’t You protect me? Am I not Your child?
After many days of agitation and discussion with a clinician who knows me well, I decided that I needed to put the project down for awhile for the sake of my mental health. This decision astounded me, because the idea of the book had dropped into my mind intact, complete with an outline for a prologue, epilogue, and chapter headings. This rarely—if ever—happens, so I had taken it as a sign that I should begin work on the book right away, allow the creative juices to flow, so to speak. Now, bewildered, rattled, and paralyzed, I felt stupid for underestimating my vulnerability to the book’s contents and also pretty useless as a human being who was meant to exercise her creative gifts. Like the cross I had salvaged from the garage floor, it seemed I was dried up and good for nothing but the garbage.
As I walked about in the days that followed, hollowed out and pathetic, I could not help but wonder how God regarded me in all this. Wasn’t it His work that I had failed to complete? Was He angry? Disappointed? Into this question surfaced a memory featuring my earthly father, whom I have previously described as mentally unwell and often quite cruel in his treatment of his family. When I was about twelve he moved us from a beautiful condo by the beach to a dilapidated house in a dangerous part of town to start a church for Chinese people living in Puerto Rico. Suffice it to say it was a very difficult transition for me to make at an especially difficult age.
The memory that surfaced was of me asking my father if I could take piano lessons. His answer: he would pay for lessons until the point I could play a hymn and then abruptly stop. As far as he was concerned, the only value in me learning to play was to contribute to the Sunday services we were putting on each week at our new address. My enjoyment of music and growth as an overall human being didn’t factor into the equation at all.
Even at twelve years old I comprehended that his response was utterly dehumanizing, and it certainly underscored the point that when he looked at me he didn’t see a beloved daughter or even a fellow human being in which to invest. Nor did he see an individual for whom he was accountable in terms of his actions and attitudes towards her. Rather he saw a mule he could use however he wanted as he rabidly pursued his goals. I was nothing but a beast of burden.
And so, between working on the book project and meditating on the dried-up cross, I found myself buried under an avalanche of troubling memories. How was I to get out from under these powerful emotions pulling me back into the past?
As so often happens, a passage of Scripture came my way that dug a little hole through which to breathe and let in light. I started thinking about the Matthew and Luke accounts of Jesus struggling through his own agonies in the garden of Gethsemane. The story was fairly familiar to me: the disciples fall asleep instead of staying up to pray; Jesus is visited by an angel to give him strength; Peter lops off the ear of a Roman soldier after Judas betrays his master with a kiss.
What leapt out at me this time was Jesus’s prayer, rendered as: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me, yet not as I will but as Thou wilt.” (Matt 26:39, NASB). Luke records it as: “Father if Thou art willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will but Thine be done.” (22:42, NASB)
In the past I have always focused on the latter half of both verses, i.e., Jesus’s willingness to prioritize his Father’s will over his own, even if that meant having to endure unimaginable torture. This time, however, the first part of the verses came to light, in which Jesus fervently asks to be spared the horrors of Plan A if a Plan B were at all possible. Suddenly it struck me: in asking to escape the crucifixion, Jesus reveals his deep sense of His father’s love for him. He would not be begging for a reprieve in the first place if he didn’t believe that his father would rather protect him from harm than abandon him to hell. In essence, Jesus prays like a beloved son who knows he’s cherished in every circumstance rather than as a disposable vessel who will be discarded once he has served his purpose.
Later on, when he is moments away his from death on the cross, Jesus wails, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt27:46, Mark 15:34) a lament that also supports the idea of him feeling loved by his father for all of his life. For centuries, biblicists have pondered the meaning of this so-called cry of dereliction, but to my ears, it really is quite simple. What we are hearing is the sound of a soul accustomed to divine love suddenly being severed from it. The pain of this emotional and spiritual amputation supersedes the pain that wracks every inch of his body. It boggles the imagination.
Maybe you feel used up and thrown out by the situation you’re in. Maybe you’ve been rejected or abandoned by someone who was supposed to love you for the long run. Maybe it’s been made clear by persons around you that their interest in you goes no deeper than what you can do for them. Maybe something so terrible happened in your past that when you try to move ahead in the direction you feel led, you find yourself immobilized by fear and anxiety.
Whichever the case, I am confident that there is one who watches over you who will never take his eyes off of you, not even for a second. Never turn his back on you or release his grip. Because he knows what it is to be cut off from his lifeline, he will never, ever, do that to you.
Whenever he looks at you, he sees potential, no matter what kind of shape you’re in. So don’t worry about being dried up or rough around the edges. Just come as you are, wanting to be put to good use (especially now!)—a purpose that will bring out the best in you and serve others who have caught his eye and captured his heart as well.
As for my book project? I still think I am meant to tackle it someday, only now I wonder whether the writing of it has more to do with my own healing, rather than the dissemination of certain ideas about God. Jesus’s prayer in the garden has shown me that the Father cares as much about the well-being of his messenger as he does about his message.
If you ask, I think you will receive plenty of piano lessons as you walk out your life, putting one foot in front of the other—despite the unresolved heartache that may linger from the past. I know, it takes courage to dig down and reveal your deep-seated requests. But I think it’ll be worth it this time around. Let me know. I will be doing some asking too.
And let us remember, during this unprecedented time, to pray for all things as sons and daughters of God, not mere donkeys in his service. Such perspective will lend power to our prayers and renew our withered faith.