I don’t recall how I got them, or how they migrated to my desk, but here they sit in front of me: a plastic wand with a yellow star on top, and a ring with a fake pink stone—supersized, of course. They are the type of thing I would have loved as a little girl. I could have constructed an entire ensemble around them: tiara in the hair, tutu skirt, matching bling around neck and wrists, perhaps even glittery nail polish to complete the look.
What fun I would have had with these baubles.
Now, as I stare at them, they just look false. And I think that has more to do with my current frame of mind than the fact that I’ll be turning fifty in a short stretch of days. (Surely fifty is too young to be considered crotchety, no? Don’t I need to have had at least eight more colonoscopies before that happens?)
Lately, whether I like it or not, I find myself turning inward in a way that churns up old memories and emotions. The fact that our physical movements and social gatherings are so restricted during this pandemic means that our attention gets fixed on inner landscapes rather than outer. Stuff comes up, and we have to find a way not only to deal with it, but also distract ourselves from it for a much needed break. Perhaps that’s one reason so many of us are putting on weight at this time. Chocolate and potato chips seem like perfectly reasonable points of focus when that chuck-wagon-from-hell circles our brain for the hundredth time.
For me, what I keep noticing is a deep feeling of suspicion popping up repeatedly in different contexts.
Our church has begun meeting again in socially distanced services. As the worship music starts up I can feel my heart shutting down. The words of praise stick in my throat as I attempt to push them out of my mouth. What if they’re just not true?
I pray with others over the phone, hearing myself give thanks, affirm God’s goodness, make requests. And the whole time my voice sounds strange to my own ears, as though another speaks in my place—while the real me looks out upon the world through unbelieving eyes.
I dream dreams in which those I love most regard me without compassion as I fight and struggle to survive. Don’t you see me? I want to scream. What’s happening?!
And as I go about my day, I sometimes find myself cut off at the knees by a crippling sense of grief—sadness as acute as a panic attack, but much more pervasive. As if some part of me wonders just how quickly my life would crumble if the right amount of pressure were applied to certain vulnerable spots—of which there are many.
And to it all, I bring not the wisdom and fortitude of all that I have learned and endured over the last decades of my life. No, the me that surfaces in each of these scenarios of suspicion feels about 13 or 15 at most. She stands inside of me, arms folded across her chest to hide the trembling of her hands. She’s trying to look tough, but inside she’s terrified, which is why she’s also not talking. The tremor in her voice would give her away. But I can read her thoughts, see what lies behind those widened eyes. And what she’s vowing to herself is this:
I’m never going to be tricked. Ever again.
And what I want to ask this surly and scared version of me is: when did it happen? When did you cross over from being a little girl who reveled in the world of pretend to a young woman who cannot tolerate pretense of any kind, in herself or others?
Who hurt you? Or played the hypocrite?
Who let you down?
Because it seems that a vital part of becoming an adult in this fallen world is learning that disappointment and disillusionment are an inevitability. At some point, someone or something you were counting on will not come through, and you will have to deal with the repercussions of that fiasco, no matter how unfair.
As I look back over the narrative of my own life, I can see at least one point where the veneer of “life is as it should be” began to fracture into the angry assessment, “Like hell it is.” And it all started with an episode of physical relocation, or rather, dislocation. Let me explain.
Up until the sixth grade, I lived with my parents and siblings in a touristy area of San Juan, Puerto Rico, where my father worked as a business executive at a telecommunications company. We attended private schools, owned a beachfront condo, rode around in nice company cars. My parents were diehard members of a small protestant Christian church, which we attended three times a week and where they each held positions of leadership.
In additions to these biographical structures, I was also privileged to study gymnastics and the violin. As I moved through my busy, well-rounded days, life more or less made sense because it was filled with good things—all of which came from a good God who wanted only to bless His children. Or so I was told, both in and out of the church. There seemed no conflict there.
But then my father decided that he wanted to try his hand at becoming a pastor, specifically to reach Chinese immigrants living on the island. For a while we held services at home in our condo some Sundays. But it could not accommodate many people. So, my dad resolved to buy a bigger home—one that we could live in and also convert into an actual worship space.
This is where confusion sets in for me, because I know my father was well paid for his job and we lived relatively modestly. We must have had money. Despite this fact, when my father retired early, he bought a dilapidated house across the street from one of the worst housing projects in the area. The first night we spent there the place didn’t even have a proper front door. Someone could have walked in with a gun and tried to rob us. Indeed, a sketchy character did stand out front for a while but never entered. There were voodoo dolls in the trees from former inhabitants. Plants that looked like marijuana in the yard. Rats. I think to myself: what was the great hurry? Why move us in so quickly and expose us to harm?
Even after my parents had some work done on the place, I remember a mouse living in my room. An electrician discovering that the floor there was generating an electrical current because of faulting wiring. The living room curtains couldn’t stay clean because of the black soot coming in off the street. The window panes were metal, not glass. Dark wood paneling made the interior so gloomy. The outside of the house was enclosed with metal fencing. Any way you sliced it, it was a far cry from our beautiful beachfront property. I was so ashamed of where I now lived I refused to ask any of my school friends over anymore. As my isolation grew, depression set in.
Now instead of going to Sunday school, I was tasked with running it for the children who attended our church. My father spoke of the role of “sacrifice” in the Christian’s life. I remember thinking that it should be up to each individual to determine what they wanted to sacrifice for God, not another person. And I could not understand why my parents were suddenly content to live in such a different and (in my view) dangerous environment than the one we had inhabited before. All I knew was that I was desperately unhappy in this low and lonely existence. God no longer seemed the giver of good blessings, but the exacter of heavy tolls.
Slowly, a new impression was taking shape in my heart. Not by means of anything said to me outright, but by every day lived in that hellish house, trying to reconcile the fact that I could not seem to hear the same divine call that had so seized my parents. They were on a mission to save Chinese souls, and because I belonged to them, I must join that effort too.
(This new divergence between my parents’ experience of God and my own was only exacerbated by the fact that I did not really see myself as Chinese at the time. I did not speak the language—Spanish being my second tongue— and I had way more friends from Hispanic, American, and other backgrounds than Asian.)
And so I came to believe that I was not God’s daughter, then, but His worker. A tool He could pick up and put down with no more concern for how she felt about the manner in which she was used than a hammer. And here I thought that He had wanted me to be happy. That He had crafted a special plan for my life as He had for my older sisters—both of whom had flown the coop and were off to bigger and better things in the States. Stupid, stupid me. Things were not as they appeared. At all.
I’ve given considerable thought to what I might give this vulnerable teen who has surfaced inside me at this time. I think she deserves to be recognized for having survived this long and needs something that might help her find rest.
Tucked away in the Elisha cycle of stories in 2 Kings is a strange little tale that features the prophet using trickery to further God’s plans. It might be just the thing, if we dig deep enough.
What?! You might, exclaim—can’t be so. (Adolescent me is looking pretty skeptical too.)
Let’s jump right in. The king of Israel has been battling the king of Syria for some time, and he is greatly aided by Elisha’s ability to predict where the former is going to attack next. Determined to deprive his enemy of the prophet’s aid, the Syrian king surrounds the city of Dothan, where Elisha is currently residing. Early in the morning, Elisha and his servant awaken to find the entire place surrounded by a Syrian army of horses and chariots, who plan to seize the prophet. Naturally, the servant freaks out, believing he and his master are done for. (2 Kings 6:8-16)
Miracle #1: Elisha prays that God will open his servant’s eyes, and voila, suddenly the man sees that the mountain where he and his master are standing teems with heavenly horses and chariots that far outnumber those of the Syrians’.
Miracle #2: Here’s where the trickery comes in. Elisha prays again, in the opposite vein, asking God to strike the enemy soldiers blind. As their vision clouds, Elisha approaches the Syrians and speaks something akin to the language of one of George Lucas’s Jedi, completely bending them to his will:
And Elisha said to [the Syrians], “This is not the way, and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samaria.
As soon as they entered Samaria, Elisha said, “O Lord, open the eyes of these men, that they may see.” So the Lord opened their eyes and they saw, and behold, they were in the midst of Samaria.
As soon as the king of Israel saw them, he said to Elisha, “My father, shall I strike them down? Shall I strike them down?”
He answered, “You shall not strike them down. Would you strike down those whom you have taken captive with your sword and with your bow? Set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master.”
So he prepared for them a great feast, and when they had eaten and drunk, he sent them away, and they went to their master. And the Syrians did not come again on raids into the land of Israel. (2 Ki. 6:19-23 ESV)
Miracle #3: In the heat of battle, rarely does one witness such restraint as the king of Israel shows against his foes, whom he could have so easily slaughtered. (His repeated request to do so in verse 21 only betrays his bloodthirst in the moment). That he pauses to ask permission first from Elisha—whom he addresses with the honorific “my father”—stops me dead in my tracks. Makes the teen in me take notice too.
However impassioned, Israel’s king is no holy-roller so caught up in his desires that he neglects to check in. The fact that he reins in his passions and submits them to the prophet’s authority strikes me as profoundly significant. In essence, he is saying, “Everything in me screams to do it my way, but let’s consider your way in case I’m wrong. In case there’s something I’m missing.”
Immediately, Elisha both honors and chides the king with a straightforward answer: Yes, you are wrong. REALLY wrong. Don’t become someone who shames the Lord by mistreating those He’s placed within your hands.
Miracle #4: Elisha’s words sink in. Doing a complete about-face, the king of Israel goes above and beyond the prophet’s counsel and treats his prisoners of war to a feast before sending them home (whole in body if not confused in mind). This tactic proves most effective, because the Syrians never bother Israel again.
As I lay this text alongside the memory of living in that wretched house, two thoughts come to mind. First, I wonder how differently things might have gone if my dad had had an Elisha to consult—if his mental illness (which I have alluded to in earlier writings) and religious zeal had been tempered by one or two experienced church planters or even good friends who might have questioned the impact such an endeavor would have upon the whole family.
Second, I wish someone had been able to call down a heavenly army to surround that dark space. While the text does not say exactly what those otherworldly fighters did, I assume they had something to do with blinding the Syrians and guiding them into Samaria, thereby protecting Elisha, his servant, and all the Israelites.
Looking back, I can see that there were glimmers of light here and there during my battle. In my mind’s eye I see blue (my favorite color) paint on the walls of my room and satin throw pillows on my bed – my mom’s attempts to make a little haven for me. The church downstairs also had a phone line that ran directly up to my bedroom on the second floor. During the week I could talk as long as I wanted with my friends since it was not in use. Quite a boon for a teen. And I had one Chinese family friend a little older than me who visited quite often. She was part of the church circle so I was not embarrassed to have her over. That was a blessing.
When I get to heaven, I will ask to see the heavenly hands that stayed mine from self harm though I was so depressed and filled with the kind of self loathing that afflicts so many adolescents. To view the guardians who followed me about, steering me to safety, for surely they were there in that house.
For now, suffice it to say that the louder a situation seems to shout in my ears, the more determined I will be to plant my feet and ask for a second opinion, so to speak. If the matter is really that important, then it’s worth submitting before God through trusted people, if possible. After all, more lives than my own will probably be impacted by my choices.
Who knows? When your turn comes you may be honored with the power to show mercy rather than take revenge, to definitively end a conflict rather than prolong it.
You may also get to say to some embittered part of yourself: I’m so sorry about what happened. You didn’t deserve it. I promise to do better in the future. Go in peace.
And in so saying, you may find a true freedom, a true peace from the past. Not baubles, but the real thing.
May these treasures be yours through the freer of captive souls. His name is Jesus.