More than 35 years have passed, but I still think about what happened that hot summer night. My brother, nudging me awake around 2:30 a.m., leaned over my bed and said, “Mom didn’t come home.” As I sat up in bed, fear instantly gripped my body and I felt my stomach sink. “It finally happened”, I thought. I climbed out of bed, went down stairs, and slipped on my shoes. Still dressed in my pajamas, I opened the front door of the run-down apartment where we lived, and began running across the street and down the alley in the direction of where I knew my mother had gone many hours earlier that evening. It was the same place she went every night, the neighborhood bar.
I remember that summer as one of the darkest periods of my childhood. My mom was separated from my step-father at the time, who was an alcoholic and had left town. To try to ease her loneliness, Mom would leave my brother and me at home alone every night to go out to the bars. We lived in a small town and her favorite bar was only a couple of blocks away. Each night she would make us dinner, and then head out for the night. I would often cry and ask her not to go out again, pleading with her to just stay home for one night. I missed her, and I had a deep fear that she wouldn’t come back. Each time she would hug me and tell me not to worry, and promised that she would come home later. And each night she did, until that night.
As I reached the door of the bar that night, out of breath from running, my heart sank as I reached for the door handle and found it locked. Looking around, I noticed through the windows that the inside of the bar was totally dark. The sign on the outside of the building had been turned off. I realized that the bar was closed, and my mom was nowhere to be found. I began to sob and slowly walked back down the alley toward home, climbing into bed upon my arrival. I cried myself back to sleep, believing my mom was gone and that I was alone in the world, afraid of what might come tomorrow.
I woke up early the next morning and started to head downstairs. I passed my Mom’s bedroom on the way, but her bed was empty. I made it downstairs and walked into the living room…and there she was, sitting on the couch. My heart leapt for joy that she had come home, but the joy quickly faded into anger. I was mad at my mom for scaring me, so instead of hugging her I lashed out and began chastising her for staying out all night. Her response stung like a dagger piercing my heart. “Chad”, she said, slowly, “I had a wonderful time last night. Don’t ruin it for me.” It turned out that she had spent the night with a man she had previously met at the bar. A man, like many other men in her life, would use her in the moment and then be gone from her life as quickly as he came into it.
When I’ve thought about the many painful memories of my past, mostly from my childhood, I’ve often wondered how a loving God could allow a child to go through something like this and not intervene. It’s these kinds of memories that have often caused me to struggle with and doubt my faith. The little boy inside of me stayed angry all these years and wants justice. I’ve been angry at my mom for the poor decisions she made that affected me so deeply. I’ve stayed angry at my father for not wanting to be a part of my life. And perhaps most of all, I’ve been angry at God for putting me into such a dysfunctional situation, and for not protecting me from some of the bad things that happened.
For decades, the pain of those experiences has affected my life, and the lives of those that I love, especially my wife and children. My deep fear of abandonment and feelings of worthlessness and insecurity brought out of me behaviors and attitudes that were unhealthy and harmful to me and my family. Years of counseling have taught me that anger is a secondary emotion that stem from a deep, primary wound or fear. So I have been working on getting to the root of my anger in order to once and for all be healed of the pain that was caused all those years ago, so that it no longer has a hold on my life and my relationships. It’s hard, painful work that in some cases may not be fully completed in this life, but rather in the life to come. As the Scripture says when talking about the end of time:
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:4-5)
There have been moments in my life when I have caught a glimpse of what these words mean, when I have gained a brief insight into the glorious future that is to come. One example relates to this very story of the night when my Mom didn’t come home.
I recently attended a conference called “Rewire” that was created and led by Bob and Polly Hamp, of Think Differently Counseling, Consulting, and Connecting in the Dallas, TX area. The overall theme of Rewire is to teach people how to renew our ways of thinking and remove obstacles that may have hindered our connections to our Creator. During a session called “The Rescue”, Bob instructed participants to think of a time in their past that caused them pain, when they were in need of someone to “rescue” them, but no one did. My mind went immediately to the time when I was 10, when my mom didn’t come home and I thought she had abandoned me.
Bob continued by asking who we most related to of the three members of the Trinity – the Father, the Son (Jesus), or the Holy Spirit. I chose Jesus, and then I silently began to listen for the still, quiet voice of God. As I sat there, surrounded by people but lost in my memories, all of those same feelings of anger and abandonment came flooding back, and the questions about why Jesus had allowed this to happen to me also came back, with a vengeance. I thought, “Why should I trust you to heal me or protect me now Jesus, when you were nowhere to be found on that hot summer night all those years ago?”
Around the time I was feeling the most intense emotions in recalling those memories, Bob introduced this question to the group, “Ask Jesus: where were you, Jesus, when this was happening?” Of course, I had already been asking this question of him, but I was merely asking it rhetorically, as a way of judging him since I already had assumed he wasn’t there with me as that 10 year old boy. In the next few moments, I realized that I was wrong.
As I began walking through the events of that evening in my mind one more time, for the first time in my life I was able to see them from a new perspective. I saw myself as that little boy, slowly making his way home from the empty bar with tears in his eyes, but as I entered the dark alley, Jesus was waiting there for me. He took me by the hand and instead of leading me home, he took me somewhere on the outskirts of that small town, to a plateau high above and overlooking the town. I could see the whole town from there. It was the middle of the night, and the lights of the town looked like distant stars. No one could see or hear us there, and that made me feel safe.
After a while, we turned around and looked behind us and I saw a cave. Jesus led me into the cave and though I expected it to be cold, dark, and musty, it wasn’t. Instead, it was brightly illuminated and it shined like gold. I looked over to one side and noticed a bed. Jesus then gently picked me up in his arms and carried me to the bed and tucked me in. Then he sat down in a rocking chair next to the bed and told me it was safe to go to sleep, because no matter what, he would not leave me.
At this point in the exercise, Bob told us to ask Jesus this question: “Jesus, who would you like to introduce us to, the Father or the Holy Spirit?” I asked, and the answer was immediate. At that point I saw Jesus escort the Father into the room. The Father was massive in size, and it took no effort for him to pick me up out of the bed. He held me close and stroked my hair. I again felt safe, protected, and most of all, loved.
Over the past several weeks I have been trying to process what that experience meant. At first, I felt a bit cynical, because though it was a moving, powerful experience it hadn’t actually changed anything I experienced in the past. But God has since been at work, filling in the gaps of my thinking and correcting my long-held false beliefs.
We live in a broken, fallen world. Suffering and death are everywhere, and yet these are ultimately the result of man’s sin. Sin entered the world as a result of the choices and actions of mankind, and it continues to devastate lives. Though all of us have sinned, God loves us, and when we hurt, he hurts. When we cry, he cries. I believe that the vision he showed me of Jesus rescuing me from that alley was a picture of what should have been had God, not sin, had his way that night. God showed me a picture of his heart for that little, lonesome boy, and he wanted me to know that what I experienced that night hurt him just as much as it hurt me.
God does not change our past, no matter how painful it may be. Instead, he redeems it. To redeem something means to make amends for it. The way God made amends for my experience that night and for every other wound I have ever experienced was to send his son to die on a cross 2,000 years ago. When Jesus died there, he redeemed my pain by taking on the blame and punishment for my sins as well as the sins of those who hurt me. In exchange for my pain, he gave me salvation – and freedom. I failed to sufficiently understand this for many years. I thought salvation and freedom were largely reserved for the afterlife. I wanted to hold onto those past painful experiences as a way of feeling justified in my anger. But I’ve learned that the key to healing is to trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ by letting go of the pain and placing the responsibility for the destiny and judgment of those who hurt me into his nail-scarred hands.
I can say that I understand anew the richness and inexhaustible depth and power of that precious verse found in Isaiah 53:5 that says, “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” The past may not be changeable, but we can let it go and thereby rob it of its power to destroy us and prevent us from experiencing the life of freedom that Jesus promised to those who trust in him. The work is finished, we just have to decide whether we will hold on to pain and continue to suffer from it, or let it go and live in freedom.