I was seven. It was spring, and I was in the second grade. Even from my position, with my head on the desk and with the lights out, I could see the golden forsythias waving in the rainy breeze on the hill outside our classroom window. We were being punished. Every single one of us.
We spent a lot of time being punished that year. It seems endemic of second grade--that horrible year when you really, really, really want friends and when you feel every verbal jab and social slight excruciatingly but just have not developed the insight to recognize what you do contributes to the problem. Second graders are perhaps the most vicious children in elementary school, at least, until they turn ten-ish. They are like piranhas, waiting for someone to attack. Piranhas with potty humor.
And even though we were being punished, I recall very clearly what it was like before we were all summarily sent to our seats and the lights were doused. A group of boys was launching matchbox cars across the desks and into the coat cupboard. Points were awarded for damaging the bulletin board. Children were occasionally caught in the crossfire, but if the cars hadn't sustained any damage, hey, no harm, no foul. A cluster of children was dancing to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," having commandeered the tape player in the reading corner, while one child plugged his ears and rocked back and forth because the song scared him. And square in the front of the room, the two queen bees, surrounded by less-alpha females, squared off for a fight. I believe they had one another by the hair and had actually pulled out some clumps when the roaming teacher returned to check up on our indoor recess and thus ordered us back to our seats.
And as bad as being punished was, it was a whole lot better than what it had been before.
People tend to forget that--that sometimes when we ask for intervention, it will mean hardship for us as well. The answers to our prayers can be painful. Sometimes it is the just consequences of our own actions. Sometimes it is simply that we are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes it is growing, healing. And let me tell you, growing and healing hurts.
A year ago this week, an earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan, the little island so close to the country half my family calls home. And it came at a time when I was doubting God's goodness, doubting goodness at all. My friend's child was dying--the second child I had grown to love to die of cancer in two-and-a-half years. My other friend was suspicious that her fiance had cancer (he does. It is not going well). My husband was just beginning a new job in a business that was just starting, and the hours were crazy. Although he'd been working for a couple of months, he hadn't been paid yet (he did eventually get paid. I want to make it clear that his employer was good to him. It just was that tough beginning, and there wasn't anything there yet). We were trying to come up with a way for me to take the kids back to Korea to visit for the summer, and I was afraid.
I was not afraid of my in-laws or Korea, but afraid for my children. You see, they don't do transitions well. Any transitions. We have biting, stimming, accidents, head banging, you name it. And it just didn't seem fair.
The little one had had seizures in Korea, and it looked like we were finally over that. I was totally ready to move on. But we had had school issues in Korea too, and when the doctor suggested that we take both children out of school over the flu season, I was more than happy to oblige. You see, the oldest one wasn't fitting in, and it didn't have to do with multiculturalism and his teachers exclusively. He was very picky about what he would eat. He couldn't stand to wear the uniforms. He'd started scratching his skin open. He had trouble with language too--not one language, both languages. No way I knew to teach him was working, and I know a lot of ways to teach language. There was something much deeper going on. And then, of course, there was the biting, screaming, head-banging, melt downs. It was time to go back to America, a place I felt I could both deal with the school system and get help for what was going on. Only dealing with the school system was more difficult than I thought, and getting my children the help that they needed did not happen easily. It was a fight. And finally in March, I started to make headway.
That's when I break down. That's when I wonder, why? Why does it need to be so hard? Hadn't we passed the tough part? Now that the little one was past the physical danger of sudden and unexpected death, why were we plagued with this bizarre mental health diagnosis? And even though I had known it in my heart, had talked about it with therapists, had been working through the treatments and accommodations, actually seeing it written in black and white and having time to really think about what it meant just broke my heart.
That's just the way I am. Other people stay strong. Not me. When we're finally past do or die and I have a moment to breathe, I collapse. That's where I was last March. And then I watched the earthquake. I saw the footage of the tsunami. Returning to Korea that summer, we watched floods and mudslides. And I was reminded of a passage:
3 A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the LORD[a];
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.[b]
4 Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
Now, the thing is that this passage is supposed to be one filled with hope. It begins with the words, "Comfort, comfort my people," (40:1) and is immediately followed by "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed" (40:5).
You see, it struck me as I watched the footage of the mountain sliding through the apartment building in Seoul...
... that I had just seen a mountain made low, and it was not comforting at all.
I remembered the pictures of Japan from March and the devastation that we still saw as we flew over and stopped briefly there on our way to Korea in June. The rough places had been made plain, alright, but it wasn't exactly "glory." I am not saying that this devastation was all good or bad. Certainly, we saw people banding together. We saw neighbors reaching out in love. We saw people from all over the world lifting up prayers and offering support both physically and monetarily. But I am saying that there was devastation nevertheless.
It also struck me that I have heard plenty of people celebrate this passage. It's in Handel's "Messiah." It opens the Gospel of Mark. We see it as a promise and we forget what comes part and parcel with it:
40: 6 A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
“All people are like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
7 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the LORD blows on them.
Clearly we haven't looked at it very carefully. What are God's words of hope to us? That we fall when He breathes on us? That we are like grass? That we all die essentially? How exactly is that comforting?
I often ponder this.
If we believe the Bible, then essentially, the price for the new covenant was the destruction of the temple and the later diaspora because only then would the system of Jewish offerings be offset enough to allow some Jews to consider Jesus. Would they have prayed for a Messiah had they known?
Was the price of the modern state of Israel the Holocaust? Would so many have longed for it to come had they imagined it?
I don't know the answers, but passages like this seem to beg the questions.
Do we need to be reminded that the day of the Lord is both great and terrible? Who am I to think I would escape judgment? I fear I am back in my second grade class. Even though we are all being punished, I would rather be punished by a good judge than allowed to muddle in the mess of my peers. And I have no doubt that I have sinned and deserve punishment. There will be recompense.
But, as my sister-in-law was trying to drive us back to my in-laws' and I literally saw flooding come at every other road than the one I was on, I came to a conclusion I could live with.
Sometimes, as Psalm 91:7 says, "A thousand may fall at your side/And ten thousand at your right hand,/But it shall not approach you." Yes, I have seen this happen. Repeatedly. There are times I have been miraculously untouched.
But it is no less true that sometimes the terrible does touch us. Horrible things happen. But we also have Psalm 23:4, "Even though I walk through the [d]valley of the shadow of death,/I fear no [e]evil, for You are with me." There is no guarantee that we won't die in valley of the shadow of death, only that if we die, we will do so in the Lord's presence.
I am not exactly comforted, but I know that if I have to choose, I'd rather be with the one who moves the mountains than in the path of the mountains. I have come head to head with what I can't wrap my head around, and that may be okay. I have seen too many answers to pray, seen too many coincidences, known too many things to discount God by whatever name you want to call him. Similarly, I can't reconcile what I see. How can these things coexist? I see them coexist, but I can't understand. Like Jung in Synchronicity, the data may not make sense, but it still exists and one cannot deny it. And like Peter in John 6:60 ff., I am forced to conclude that this is a hard teaching, but who else has the words of life?