Faith in the Dark

 

Faith in the Dark“One last drink?” His gray eyes twinkled in the low light.  We were standing on a tree-lined path, shadows from the street lamp cast about us. I should have known to turn back—never trust a stranger friend; no one knows how it will end—but the summer air was warm and he was witty and kind. I felt safe walking beside him into the darkness.

His living room walls were lined with well-worn books. The built-in bookshelves were curved and painted white to match the rest of the apartment; I was comforted by their embrace. He gestured for me to take a seat on the leather couch, and as he left the room, I smiled. On the coffee table sat a thick, abridged copy of the OED.

He returned with two open bottles of beer and sat next to me, not too close. We chatted easily, comparing notes on favorite writers. He grabbed a book from one of the sturdy shelves and handed it to me.

“It’s a coming of age story.” I held the book in my hands, smoothing the faded cover. “Take it,” he grinned. “Borrow from my library.”

When he sat again, his long legs were just inches from mine. “Do you not like that kind of beer? You haven’t touched it.”

I glanced down at the bottle. “Just taking a breather.”

“I wish you had told me,” he said lightly. “I wouldn’t have opened it if I had known.”

I put the cool glass to my lips and took a few gulps. Warm. Dark.

There was a shift in his energy as he stood suddenly, moving past the lamp to the right of the couch, receding into the shadows beyond the bookshelves. I looked after him, and in the darkness, could see the faint outline of a bed.

It was dark when he raped me.

*

It’s strange and somewhat beautiful how our brains protect us from having to deal with trauma before we’re ready. I didn’t realize I was a rape survivor until two years ago, six years after I followed him down that tree-lined path, so romantic in the dim light of the street lamps. Until then I had categorized the event in my mind as something I had brought upon myself, a mistake, a terrible night that I should have been able to prevent. I should have been able to read the signs that something was about to go horribly wrong.

I had messed up.

So I asked for God’s forgiveness. Over and over and over again. It wasn’t the first time I had made a mistake with a man—I should have known better. I felt ashamed and broken.

I asked God to help me forgive this man who had so easily fooled me into believing he was someone special, a kindred soul.

I cried and I begged and I pleaded and received no relief, no restoration. So many tear-stained journal pages, so many prayers groaned out from the depths of my wasted heart, and nothing. No answer.

Fearful. Anxious. Uncertain. The faith that had held me through so many other difficult times suddenly seemed so thin.

And then one day, a few months after my counselor first said the word “rape,” a whisper came from somewhere deep inside me: maybe you need to forgive God.

A startling thought, but maybe it was true. Maybe this sick anxiety I felt about the world and my place in it had less to do with my own missteps and more to do with the fact that I felt unprotected and afraid.

Because truly: where was God that night?

*

Up until the night I was raped, I had felt God’s unwavering protection on my life. I felt it deep in my bones. It didn’t matter how low I found myself, I was convinced of his presence and his providence. The right worship song, the right Bible verse, the right amount of sunlight sparkling on the water, and I’d feel goosebumps prickling my skin, the cool rush of confidence that He is near.

When my father’s job moved us overseas before my freshman year of high school—and I was convinced my life was over—God was near.

When high school romance led to betrayal and binders full of bad poetry, God was near.

When I started college an ocean away from my family and could not remember who I was or wanted to be, God was near.

When the plane crashed into the twin towers and everything I thought I knew about my home country and my faith was thrown into question, God was near.

When I watched our family’s home go up in flames, God was near.

And on other nights, with other men, after drinks and too much flirtation, God was near.

In it, and afterwards, I would praise him and thank him for his unwavering protection.

I felt so blessed.

I never felt alone.

*

Once, as she led me through a guided prayer intended to offer healing, someone I love very dearly asked if I could go back to that dark room that night and imagine God there with me.

Where was God that night? 

As the tears streamed down my cheeks, I tried. But the image of Jesus, sitting on a chair in the corner of the room as the unthinkable occurred was too tragic. The only image I could conjure was a false Jesus: blonde, blue-eyed, sitting with a calm smile and folded hands.

It wasn’t right. That’s not the Jesus I had come to know.

I knew what I was supposed to say – he was there with me, he didn’t abandon me, he was there the whole time – but I couldn’t.

I just wept.

*

My son, an adventurous 18 month old, has been fighting for his independence since the day we met. Active, curious, he wanted to crawl before he could sit up. When he first started practicing his pull-ups on the living room coffee table the summer before he turned one, he fell often and with great frustration.

I’m not quite sure what possessed me to reprimand the floor that hit his diapered bum as he came toppling down that first time and looked to me with sad, anxious eyes. I guess I wanted him to understand I recognized his pain but also to make light of it somehow.

So instead of saying, “Oh, sweetie, good try. It’s okay. Get up. Try again,” I widened my eyes, shook my finger at the hardwood floor beneath him and said, “No, no, no, floor! Don’t you hurt my Jakey!”

He looked at me, confused at first. And then through teary eyes, he offered a smile.

From that day on, it became an inside joke between us. “No, no, no, table!” “No, no, no, block!” “No, no, no, Elmo!”

What I didn’t realize then was how seriously he was taking all of this. Now, whenever my exuberant little boy stubs a toe or trips or bumps an elbow, he is looking for something or someone to blame. “No, no, no!” he declares and looks to me to join him in the refrain.

I guess I realized in that moment, as I watched him topple over, I wouldn’t always be able to catch him, no matter how close I might be. But I wanted him to know I felt the pain right along with him – that I didn’t think it was okay that he was hurting.

There have been times I have watched him from a distance as he runs so fast and far from me, caught up in the delight of the air and the sun and the freedom of being alive, and I know it is only moments before he stumbles and scrapes the palms of his hands. I know it, yet I can’t stop it. When I hear his wailing and I see his tears, my heart breaks and it is almost more than I can bear.

But the worst moment is when I reach him and he looks at me with fear and frustration and anger and it’s almost as if I can see the accusation in his tender brown eyes.

Why weren’t you there? Why didn’t you stop this from happening?

All I can do is open my arms to him, comfort him, and tend to his wounds.

And I can pray that as he grows in understanding, he’ll know the depths of my love for him, even when I’m nowhere in sight.

*

I can’t give a straight answer about where God was the night I followed my heart, full speed, down that concrete path in the lamplight. I can’t tell you his thoughts as my innocent trust in his provision was taken from me, my heart bruised, body battered.

I can’t tell you where God’s will ended and my will began. I can’t tell you if that matters.

But I can choose to believe his heart was breaking as he watched his daughter experience pain.

I can choose to believe he was near.

And I still choose to believe that his arms are open, ready to tend to my wounds and offer me the comfort of his love, both in the light of day and the darkness of night.

Even when I can’t feel it.

Night-Driving-Synchroblog

I just read Addie Zierman’s new memoir, Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark, in less than 48 hours. Her honesty, vulnerability, and gorgeous writing have inspired me once again. In celebration of her book release, this post will be linked to her #NightDriving synchroblog. Visit her website for more info

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Treasure Where the Home Fire Burns

Eleven years ago today my family watched a fire destroy our home. I wrote this piece a few years later and today I share it in honor of the lessons God began to teach me as I watched the flames wreck a house so full of memories. 

Mom and I are sitting in the den when the alarm sounds. We are tense, tired. It’s been quite a year for our family.

Stunned silence passes between us. Surely there is a mistake. But the crackling, the popping, the blackened sheets of wood and plaster that cascade past the window and into the pool can’t be denied.

My brother strides down the stairs, phone held to his ear. “Yes. Our house is on fire.”

He repeats our address and we calmly fall into line, one after the other. I grab the dog. I have forgotten to put on my shoes.

Once outside, Mom turns and runs. Back inside the house.

My brother and I stand on the opposite side of the cul-de-sac, waiting. I am barefoot on the concrete, which would be hot this time of year if it wasn’t for the strange windstorm sweeping across Texas. My toes are cold.

My eyes are fixed on the orange tongue that is lapping at our roof. I always thought fire was red, but it’s not – it’s taking on the color of whatever it touches, like a chameleon, or a dragon. Sulfur, smoke, and freshly mowed grass mingle in the air.

Mom reappears, my handbag clutched to her chest. Breathing heavily, she hands me my bag.

“Thank God, Mom.” I reach out, touch her shoulder.

“You needed your keys. Go move the car.”

My CR-V is a few yards from the house, but the fire is only on the roof. Surely the wind will die, the fire will stop. I shiver.

“The fire won’t reach the car, Mom,” I say. “Can’t we leave it?”

Mom blinks. “Give me the keys.” As she runs to the car I feel something like shame.

When she returns, the car safely moved to the end of the street, she hands me the keys.

As their weight hits my palm, I consider bolting to the Honda, my own coffee-scented, bumper-sticker-slapped haven. I could roll the windows down, blast country radio, high-tail it out of there in five-minutes flat.

Instead, I follow Mom to the house next door. The fire truck pulls up about the same time I realize that after five years of sharing a curb, this is the first time I have officially met these neighbors. It feels absurd to knock on their door and ask for shelter, but no more absurd than the windstorm and the flames.

I use their phone to call my father.

“Dad? You need to come home.”

When I hang up I return to the couch where my mom and brother hover with hollow eyes. Our neighbor has gone to the kitchen to fetch some iced tea. Mom coughs and covers her mouth. She has been in bed for the last week with the flu.

As she removes her hand from her face, her eyes rest on her left hand. “My rings,” she whispers.

Her fingers are naked. She tells me that when she crawled into bed last week she removed all of her jewelry, including her diamond-studded wedding ring and sapphire-rimmed anniversary ring, neither of which I have ever seen her without.

She coughs again – wait, no. She is sobbing. “My rings!”

I reach out, touch her, see the touch of gray under her warm chocolate eyes. I think of the naïve, youthful face beaming from sepia-tone photos, the memories of a girl from the Mojave Desert, dressed in lace as she stood beside my side-burned father.

“Oh, Mom,” I gasp. “Your wedding photos.”

She looks up. “All of our photos.”

I need to escape. Out on my neighbors’ lawn the wind blows ash and heat upon my face. The flame has continued to grow, despite the firefighters’ efforts. The spray from the fire hoses, like the sword of a heroic yet all-too-human prince, seems no match for the dragon, who is devouring our treasures.

Photographic memories and memories of photos intertwine in my mind. Do I remember the kindness in my great grandpa’s eyes, his hands encircling my waist as I perched upon the back of that great dappled horse? Or just the faded photo of his sun-wrinkled, winking smile, cowboy hat and dirty overalls? Without the photos, will I forget?

I think, well, at least I have my journals – oh no. My throat constricts as I imagine the upstairs closet, my trove of childhood treasures, now consumed. My scrapbooks of photos, carefully organized and pasted with stickers and bits of ribbon; my dog-eared, underlined, well-loved books; these riches are all secondary to the boxes of journals, the diaries and notebooks and steno pads that hold in their bindings the story of my life.

Prickling heat rises up my back to my neck and my face as the question why resounds around and within me. Before me, the flame that rises is quiet and slow-moving. I stare into the core of it, pensive and still. The flame seems to change as my vision blurs and flickers, my eyes unblinking, my feet firmly planted in the soil.

It is then I see a vision of a mighty hand, holding the flame, controlling the flame, and beckoning my soul to quiet itself in its presence. The fire, in this moment, seems central not only to my life story, but to the universe.

Love. There is love. A whisper through my mind. Stuff. It’s just stuff. My shoulders, as high as my earlobes, begin to slowly descend, neck relaxing, knots loosening. At what point did the object become the treasure? Could this great flame be like the forest fire that scours the remains of life along its decaying floor? Like the soil in such forests, replenished with nutrients after a necessary evil, could our hearts and our souls be renewed?

I turn from the flame. Dad should be here soon. My family is safe. I should go to them.

*

A few days later, the phone rings at my apartment. It’s Mom.

“You are never going to believe this.”

She tells me that when the first firefighter emerged from the damp, sooty ruins, he approached her with outstretched hands. “We tried to grab anything that seemed might be important,” he said.

“Erin,” Mom barely whispers, “Do you know what he saw, and saved from the wreckage? My wedding rings. The wedding album. And a box of your journals.”

Goosebumps prickle my arms. Having let go, having given in, we are rewarded by the very treasures which we most feared to lose. I wonder: is this what a miracle looks like? Could this be grace? The air seems charged with magic.

I am still in awe a few days later when Dad takes me back to the site to walk through the house. For closure, he says.

After further investigation, my father and the firefighters have discovered more buried treasure: salvaged photo albums, letters, china. My legs are shaking as I climb the crumbling stairs. How was this foundation not destroyed? Up in my room, my guitar lies blackened in the corner, grinning toothlessly. Rubble blocks the path to my closet of childhood treasures, and the wind whistles through the cracks in the brick walls, fingering remnants of paper and ribbon and twine. Yet there is something more. Dad comes up behind me and puts his hand on my shoulder.

“Dad, do you see?”

Shards of glass by the thousands, a myriad of colors, dust the fallen ceiling fan, the throw pillows, the floor. Christmas ornaments, shattered, have fallen through the attic and fill the space with an ethereal light. Rainbows dance on the soot-charred walls, pinpricks of hope in a desolate space. It is magic. It is grace.

Among the wreckage and the ruins of my family’s memories and mistakes, I feel like I am standing on sacred ground.