The Christian life certainly is a strange one. I am reminded of that fact as I contemplate a picture from earlier this summer. My in-laws were visiting, and my husband, son, and I, were walking with them on a nature trail near our house. At some point, we reached a park bench and my ten-year-old sat down on it. Behind him I spied a little pink sneaker, perched at a jaunty angle as if to draw maximum attention to its presence, should anyone be looking for it. It had certainly drawn my notice, having experienced the vexation of losing a child’s footwear before.
Funny thing is, I don’t think my son was at all aware of the shoe as he rested beside it. Physically, he was much closer to it than I. Mentally, a million miles away—proving that two people bound in an incredibly tight relationship can have vastly different experiences of the same moment. I would even go so far as to say that the sometimes the same person can carry sharply conflicting thoughts and feelings within their own selves, no matter how devoutly they may ascribe to certain, core beliefs.
In my life, this phenomenon has played out profoundly in my relationship with God. Raised in a highly religious home, I walked through all aspects of church life from a young age: Bible study, musical worship, observance of sacraments (e.g. baptism and the Eucharist), and community fellowship in the form of meals and recreation with other congregants.
In my grammar school years, having God in my life was not a matter of belief but of knowledge. Everyone around me at church spoke of Him in such intimate terms, and often demonstrated His love by the loving ways they treated one another. It seemed obvious to me that there was a God, and that He deserved to be followed and loved back because of all the nice things people said and showed about Him. Simple.
Ever heard of the saying “Charity begins in the home”? To that I could easily add the postscript: “And so does belief.” And that is because whatever is done to a child in a family has just as much impact—perhaps even more—on their understanding of themselves and the world as the words that they hear, however often. And when what is said and what is done do not match up, things move quite quickly from simple to complicated, as if different individuals were superimposing their fingerprints on the same spot—the same, tender soul of a kid. (Maybe that is why Jesus threatened such severe punishment on those who mess with young ones [Luke 17:1–2]). After a while, the markings add up, layer by distinct layer, and become nothing but a dark stain, one terribly hard to sort out, much less remove.
In my home, things got very complicated when my father left a top tier job in the business sector—which he was good at and presumably made him happy—for a position as a pastor of a Chinese church. When I was sixteen, we moved from our privileged, executive-bought existence in Puerto Rico to a completely different lifestyle in the Dominican Republic, which didn’t include such basics as clean drinking water or a reliable supply of electricity. These and other difficulties were compounded by the fact that my father started to spiral out of control in our home, descending into erratic outbursts of rage and violence. A newly minted pastor, he became convinced that I was inherently evil at my core and deserved to be punished for the slightest, perceived infractions. On Sunday mornings and during other church gatherings, however, the man most likely suffering from an untreated (and rapidly worsening) mood disorder projected divine goodness and light. I will never forget watching him walk across the church lawn with a teenage parishioner, his arm slung around the boy’s shoulders in fatherly affection and reassurance as he spoke with him. It was nothing I could remotely imagine happening with me.
And so, as I moved into adulthood, I knew too much to discount a loving God altogether. And yet now I seemed to choke on phrases like “Praise God,” or “God is good (all the time).” The shoe on the bench was as much my shoe as the glass slipper was Cinderella’s. But my faith was something I would have liked to have put behind me whenever I tried to numb out from the pain and confusion that it caused.
In college (finally out from under my father’s roof), I learned through a campus ministry that I was conflating my images of my Heavenly Father and my earthly father. Both had left their imprints on my heart, to be sure, but at the moment, my abusive father’s was dominant. His hatred of me reverberated across the miles between the island he inhabited and my new home in New Haven, which consisted of Yale College and a local church. In both settings I was encouraged to seek out professional help, which I eagerly did, beginning a decades long journey of finding my way back to the true Father I so badly needed to heal me.
Why bring up all of this now, in my fifties? Why not let sleeping dogs lie?
The last conversation Peter and Jesus had before the crucifixion comes to mind. Having heard Jesus turn the bread and wine of the Passover meal into an object lesson on his death, Peter vehemently denies he will ever desert his Lord, even if all the others do. Jesus responds: “Truly, I say to you that this very night, before a cock crows, you shall deny Me three times.” (Matt 26:34, NAS).
Not long after this protesting at the Passover table, Peter finds himself swearing up and down that he even knows Jesus, who has been arrested. When a cock crows the instant the third denial escapes his lips, Peter remembers Jesus’ prediction, flees the scene and “wept bitterly.” (Matt 26:75, NAS).
The next time Peter and Jesus speak, the Savior is fully alive and full of questions for his wayward disciple. Three times and in three different ways, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him, as if deploying the exact number of promptings it will take to cover Peter’s betrayals. Although fascinating in their own right, I am not as interested in Peter’s responses here as I am in Jesus’. Each time he receives an affirmation from Peter that he does, in fact, love Him, Jesus offers a variation on the same theme:
“Feed My lambs.”
“Shepherd My sheep.”
“Tend My sheep.”
(John 21:15–17, NAS)
Having awakened to a new sense of vocation lately, one that involves telling my story of affliction and healing in different settings, I find myself struck by the fact that Jesus’ very first conversation with Peter after his betrayal includes an unnamed number of “lambs” or “sheep” in the mix. For Peter, restoration of a shredded relationship with God is not just a matter of him and the One he has denied. Ultimately, healing intimacy with Jesus will be restored when he cares for those who presumably remain on the outside of God’s love, for one reason or another. Who better to address this group than one who once crossed over to the wrong side at the most critical moment, despite his many promises to the contrary?
Indeed, if we look at Peter’s first sermon to his fellow Jews at the Pentecost (see Acts 2:14–36), it perfectly encapsulates his own experience of being riven in two. Part of him never stopped knowing—believing—that Jesus was the Messiah. The other part was drowning in dark emotions (fear, horror) that he could not overcome.
Indeed, the crux of Peter’s sermon centers upon a similar tearing: the people of Israel knowing their Scriptures so well and yet crucifying the very Messiah those texts identified because of their ignorance and hard-heartedness—their inner darkness.
Apparently, Peter’s no-holds-barred discourse, which so resembles Jesus’ three-question, “going for the jugular” approach was absolutely the right tack to take. Rather than respond with offense or indifference, the three thousand strong crowd metaphorically wept their own tears of bitterness:
“Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter… ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’”
(Acts 2:37, NAS).
“Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself.”
(Acts 2:38–39, NAS).
I italicize the last few words of Peter’s directive because those who feel very far off from God may not realize (as I did not at first) that one of the ways God may be calling them back to Himself is by drawing their worst hurts ever to the surface. They may not know that by speaking their story of deep wounds and inner conflict—first, to healers of such things, and then, to a wider circle—they are, in fact, being brought back to life. Just as the resurrected Jesus brought Peter back to life by asking pointed questions about himself and then speaking aspirational commands concerning others.
It’s as if Jesus were saying: the fruition of your own healing comes when you share your long-term struggles, because the re-knitting of your own soul forms a narrative that will impact others whom My Father loves.
As I look at the picture of the sneaker more closely, I notice that there is a plaque above it, presumably placed there by those who donated the bench. It begins, “In honor and loving memory of…” before naming an individual and those who loved her.
In a very real way, that sneaker belongs to the small child who wore it, whose parents bought it for her. It also belongs to me now, because I have “read” it and have been reminded again that it is indeed the Messiah who holds all things together (Colossians 1:17)—even, and perhaps especially, the parts of me that seem hopelessly ripped apart.
If I let Him, He will walk me down a path that will heal me. There will be rest stops for those times when it gets too hard and I could use a breather. Sometimes I will be allowed to put my burden down and forget it for a while. He knows that I need that, as much as I need to gaze directly at each layer of damage done to me to comprehend it and hopefully overcome it
For those reasons alone He has won my commitment to honor and love Him for the rest of my life. It’s not an obligation—it’s a response of affection, gratitude, and devotion born during the arduous journey of crossing over to a glass half full. A heart that knows all too well that even if I slam up against a wall of unbelief and I can’t find Jesus anywhere, He’s still there, leading me where I need to go.
Thank You for coming to this earth and going before me into the human journey that so often involves contradiction and pain.
Help me to trust You with the deepest parts of me, as You peel back all the layers of my struggle-marked story.
I give to You the parts of me that are near to You, as well as the parts that are far.
Thank You for understanding my doubts, and not holding them against me.
Help me to feed Your lambs as best as I can, understanding that this work is a blessing and part of my own healing.
I pray these things in Your name,