Some weeks ago my husband and I took our son on a walk that led us to a small bridge. It was about 200 feet in length and spanned a little lake that grows beautiful lotuses in the spring and summer. As we made our way across, I noticed that one of the planks in the bridge had been painted red. It was the only one of its kind and had no plaque or special placement on the bridge that would give a clue as to its purpose. It just seemed to say, “Notice me, as you do those flowers.” And so I did, snapping a photo for further contemplation.
Now, as I look at that picture, I can’t help but think that the plank divides the bridge into two sides—the one you are standing on and the one beyond the red line. And that observation gets me thinking about how often we divide things in half as we walk through our lives: us vs. them, before vs. after, peace vs. problems, desires vs. “dreads.” From the time we enter this world as infants, we hold definite opinions about what we do and do not want in our orbit. It’s amazing, really, how we are hard-wired to have preferences at all. No one can ever accuse us of being an indifferent species.
The red plank on the bridge also got me to ponder phrases such as, “drawing a line in the sand,” or “crossing the line.” Not only are we born with clear push and pull instincts, we also carry around ideas of what is fair and just—what is acceptable and what will not be tolerated as we engage with others. Some of us are more easygoing about letting people be themselves, whatever that may look like. Others of us patrol that red line like soldiers, ready to repel anyone who, by accident or choice, impinges upon the personal spaces and structures we have created to keep ourselves safe and sane.
My hunch is that those who have had their red planks crossed multiple times without permission fall into the latter category. They have become determined not to undergo such violations again.
The problem is, those who serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, those who call the Lion of Judah “Lord,” must confront the fact that he is hardly (in the words of C.S. Lewis) a tame lion. As much as he is benevolent, he is also sovereign, which means he does what he wants as he wants, and we often cannot understand why a God who loves us would let our lives fall apart the way they do when our lines get crossed—or rubbed out altogether.
I’ve known for a long time that mine is a playground sense of justice. I may hold a PhD in religious studies, but my sense of right and wrong formed long before I ever walked the hallowed halls of academia. From the time I was a little girl, I felt different than my peers—no surprise, given the fact that I was a Chinese-American Baptist growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Most students in my class spoke Spanish as their first language and were either Catholic or Jewish. They were allowed to dance at parties—and didn’t attend their houses of worship Sunday mornings, evenings, and Wednesday nights. They seemed freer to be kids, whereas I always felt burdened to be a good “witness” for God, proving by my upright behavior that he was all that our church family claimed him to be.
I felt different within our nuclear family as well, mainly in comparison to my siblings. My eldest sister (by eight years) inhabited her own mysterious world of teenage-hood and devoted much her of her time to playing the piano (which became her chosen profession).
My next closest sister, well, she was a different story. We were only four years apart and her ways of coping with stress was to put her head down and barrel through, sticking to the rules and not complaining. In my father’s eyes, that made her the “good” child and me the “bad,” since I often posed inconvenient questions and expressed much emotion through tears and lament. I was especially hard on my mom, who was the safest person to whom I could show anger. I could be disrespectful, manipulative, and generally difficult with her, and I knew it. Deep down, I was convinced that my mother loved my good sister more than me because she deserved it. She simply was easier to get along with. It all made perfect, dispiriting sense.
Just because I saw these dynamics clearly didn’t mean I could actually deal with them. And we were not the kind of family to seek outside support such as counseling. We were too busy trying to light the way for everyone else, who stumbled in darkness without Jesus, to attend to our own cuts and bruises.
It only got worse after both my sisters moved to the states for college and stayed. I was now the only child in the house when my father decided to go into full-time ministry as pastor of a Chinese church in the Dominican Republic. The transition from my privileged existence in Puerto Rico (where my father worked as a business executive) to third-world life proved challenging, to say the least. I was often depressed, overwhelmed, and physically ill. Meanwhile, my dad spiraled deeper into mental illness as he took up the reins of his new vocation. The pressure to appear spiritually perfect only mounted as my father repeatedly reminded me that he was now a pastor and had a reputation to protect.
If not for the presence of amazing teachers and friends at school, plus my mom’s ongoing efforts to care for me, I’m not sure I would have crossed that finish line into college. Moving to attend Yale presented a whole new set of transitions to make in every area of my life, but these felt emancipating rather than draining. I was out from under my father’s thumb and embedded in an environment with so much sustenance to absorb—socially, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually.
Interestingly, one of the first provisions God placed on my plate was a concept—and quite a powerful one. I sat in a chapel at an evening service, when the speaker suggested that our understanding of God on a gut level was deeply informed by our relationship with our earthly fathers. The second this correlation reached my ears, I knew it to be true and accepted it deep into my heart. That night, a red plank was established in me that divided my life into two sections: the “before” of suffering in bewilderment and the “after” of seeking help for a now-specific problem.
The work that lay before me was to sort out who God really was versus who my father claimed to be as his representative. No one in my life was calling out his hypocrisy and abuse. Nobody really knew what was going on in our house behind closed doors: the physical violence, the crazed shrieking, the constant accusations. Once, when a high school boy who liked me called the house, my dad started throwing chairs around during one of his rants. My friend overheard and asked, “Are you okay?” I tried to play it off by saying my father was merely being “cranky.” What was I to do? We weren’t supposed to tell.
It was at Yale that I first met with a counselor to whom I could finally spill my guts. At one point she inquired, “Do you think it’s right for fathers to terrorize their children?” Of course I answered, “No,” but it would take many more years before that response formed real roots in me. And that’s when the anger emerged. I wasn’t just traumatized by what my father had done, scaring me constantly and labeling me “evil”; I was enraged that such treatment had occurred at all in my life—that God had let it happen.
Now God stood on one side of that red plank and I on the other. And I discovered that I was quite the fist-shaker—you know, the incensed individual who looks heavenward and pummels the air, accusing the Almighty of unfairness or neglect. The Bible is well populated with such people: poets (Ps. 13:1-2; 22:1-2), prophets (Jeremiah 20:7ff; Jonah 4:2ff) and, most famously, Job. So I knew that I wasn’t exactly a heretic as I worked through my acute ambivalence towards God. The term “prodigal” fit much better. As I tried my hardest to grow and heal in God, I always held a small part of my soul in reserve. It remained hidden, ready to hit the road if I detected any hypocrisy or duplicity in my heavenly father such as I had endured in childhood. Again, if not for the loving human community that God surrounded me with to show me what he was really like, I might have ditched my faith for good.
I believe I am getting better. Few of my prayers begin with, “I can’t believe You let xyz happen…” I’ve learned to take a few breaths first and allow the One who claims to be unchanging to show me more of the bigger picture—the details that delineate his goodness—before I burst. Needless to say, this change in itself brings me solace. I don’t want to be at odds with my Redeemer. Fist-shaking is exhausting and drains energy away from the things that require all my resources. I have a nine-year-year old autistic son to raise, and I’d rather do it standing on the same side of the bridge with God than stamping my foot in opposition, bereft of his support.
But it was only recently that I realized another, less practical, reason that I must leap over that red line and into the embrace of the Lion. The week after Christmas, my husband and I took our boy to an amusement park that had been decked out with lights for the holiday. He had an absolute blast, chirping and hopping about like a human exclamation point as we toured the grounds. At one point, we boarded a train that took passengers for a ride around a lake. The conductor encouraged us to sing carols along with him as part of the experience. As I took in the lights and sounds, adding my voice to songs I hadn’t sung since childhood, I tried to be as present as I could to this really special moment, which was a gift. And as I did, an emotion popped up inside me—and it was fear. I was afraid to let go and be joyful.
Thankfully, because the ride was short, I was able to talk myself down and stay present. My heart knew the exceptional moment would soon be over and I didn’t want to miss out on anything. But my mind had been branded with the thought:
Fist-shakers forfeit joy.
When we draw a line in the sand to keep ourselves safe on one side of it, we inevitably cut ourselves off from the unexpected blessings of beauty and love that lie on the other side.
Not that such boundaries aren’t necessary for survival sometimes. Wrestling with disillusionment and anger can teach us to be truthful about what has happened to us and how we could not help ourselves at the time. Authenticity can help us form the very relationships that will heal us by demonstrating that life can be different from the hurt we have known.
Maybe the way to picture it is to imagine that another red line has been bled into the bridge inside us, the space where we keep score. It crosses the first line vertically, forming another bridge we can step across to meet our Maker. And if we feel we are not quite ready, strong, or brave enough, we can gaze into the Lion’s eyes and ask if he’ll cross over to our side for love’s sake. One disciple wrote that our very desire to make contact with our Creator assures us that he has already chosen in our favor:
“We love, because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
Friends, I’m not going to lie and say that we can side step fist-shaking by merely noticing it. Processing your pain and anger takes long, hard work. But what I will declare is that struggling with your areas of suffering is absolutely worth it. That ground is holy ground, where springs of joy flow just beneath the surface. Don’t you want a long, deep drink?
As long as I am alive, I will keep learning. The lesson before me now is not so much how to air my accusations, but when to leave them be for a bit, when to sit still and see if anything—Anyone—responds to my voice.
My child’s joy amidst all those lights, the lifting of my heart on that train, tell me I am onto something. And it is utterly, indescribably, eternally good.
Wherever you are on your journey—at the beginning or squarely in the middle—open your eyes and see the light around you, hear the sound of distant rejoicing.
Won’t you come aboard?