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Welcome Home: Becoming God’s Place for Life’s Wounded, Lonely, and Weary

March 26, 2012

Welcome Home:

Becoming God’s Place for Life’s Wounded, Lonely, and Weary


“Then the LORD said to Joshua:  ‘Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed you through Moses.  When they flee to one of these cities, they are to stand in the entrance of the city gate and state their case before the elders of that city. Then the elders are to admit the fugitive into their city and provide a place to live among them.’”

     – Joshua 20: 1-4 (NIV)

“Finally, in a sanctuary for outcasts, I understood the truth. Surrounded by men and women who could not hide their disfigurement, I could see my own.”                                                                                                     

– Neil White in In the Sanctuary of Outcasts

A Sudden Stop, An Unlikely Sanctuary

Life, as Neil White knew it, ended abruptly in early 1993. Convicted of bank fraud, committed as he tried to keep his magazines afloat in the midst of an economic downturn, White found himself sentenced to eighteen months in prison. But, as he would discover, God had a strange twist in store for him, one that would alter the course of his life and of his very soul forever.

As part of an experimental cost-cutting measure by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, White was one of several hundred men assigned to do their time in an unusual venue. The tiny island compound known as Carville had been home to men and women afflicted with leprosy, now known as Hansen’s Disease, for nearly a century. Due to declining numbers among residents, Federal prisoners were assigned to one wing of the isolated campus on the Mississippi River, while the remaining patients, some of whom had been committed there as small children in the early part of the 20th Century, inhabited the other.

During his stay there, White’s wife divorced him, his friends abandoned him, and he wrestled with intense periods of grief and despair. Slowly, however, he pushed past his fear of the strangely disfigured denizens of Carville and forged close friendships with individuals who had found not only peace, but joy in the midst of losses that made his own look insignificant by comparison.

A major shift for White was Carville’s lack of preoccupation with appearance. For people who were missing fingers, noses, hands, and even legs, looks had long since ceased to have relevance. Instead, time was spent on cultivating character traits such as kindness, acceptance, honesty, and simplicity. For the first time in his life, White began attending church regularly, and the Bible began to take on new significance. The man who formerly lied and deceived in order to make enormous house and car payments, who sacrificed integrity for status and appearances, suddenly came face to face with some hard truths.

“The very act of being honest with myself, taking an objective look at my life, was freeing.” He wrote. “I still did not know exactly how to change, but I had discovered some simple truths: A good life with my children did not require wealth. It was vital to be honest, without worrying about my own image. And helping others was more noble than winning awards.”  Like many of us, Neil White found refuge in unexpected places, and God was waiting there to meet him.

I had always prided myself in being a composed person. It was a great source of satisfaction for me that I had the ability to walk through life without betraying the slightest hint of the turmoil that raged beneath an otherwise placid surface. I recall some who knew me well lamenting that I was impossible to read and maddeningly stoic. Problem was, it was all an act.

The reality was that deep inside I was the most insecure and anxious person I knew. I disliked just about everything imaginable about myself; from my weird hair to my enormous feet; from my inherent clumsiness to my social awkwardness; from my inability to be a morning person to my near total lack of mathematical acumen, I loathed all that was me. And so, for more than forty years, I compensated by adopting a mask of arrogance, haughtiness, and downright meanness to keep people at arms’ length. If nobody got close to the real me, I reasoned, nobody would have the chance to reject me. It would hurt much less if I did the rejecting first.

The façade started crumbling away in my late twenties. I started having my first panic attacks while in seminary. Without warning, the person I was on the inside started seeping out in disturbing and embarrassing ways. Not being able to predict when an attack would come, when I might break down and start crying, or how my anxiety might manifest itself in some bothersome physical symptom, filled me with shame and anger. The medication I had to take packed on some 60 pounds no matter how little I ate or how much I exercised. I tried going to counseling, but the mere notion of having to admit I didn’t have it all under control galled me so much that I never bothered to listen to anything the therapist might have to say. I simply put in my time and chalked it up as a waste.

I look back at that decade of my life as a near complete loss. I was a bad husband and father, son and brother, employee and boss. I hid in darkened rooms, slept as much as possible, refused help or counsel, and generally did everything in my power to alienate anyone who tried to help me. I was convinced that if I could just add one more achievement to the pile, I would emerge from my cocoon as a magnificent butterfly who had overcome his weaknesses.

It started with education. But three Master’s degrees and a Ph.D. later, I still felt worthless. I tried making money, starting up and running a successful private practice. I made more money than I thought possible, but also hit the wall of burnout, compounding my anxiety and depression. I tried martial arts, earning a brown belt in karate and a black belt in taekwondo, as well as dabbling in jiu-jitsu, but could always find someone better than me to be mad at. I hopped from job to job to job, always hoping against hope that the next stop would be the remedy I so desperately needed. Meanwhile, my kids yearned for my attention, friendships faded, and my marriage slowly died of starvation.

Like Neil White, I found myself in a place I didn’t want to be with no say as to how long I would be there. Locked up in a mental institution, surrounded by people I wouldn’t have even considered associating with on the outside, crying uncontrollably, and secretly cursing myself for having even failed at the fundamental task of ending my own miserable life, I unexpectedly found my own place of refuge. Amazingly, God was waiting there for me as well.

As the Israelites crossed over the Jordan and into the Promised Land, one of the first guidelines God passed along to them was the need to establish cities of refuge. These six cities were to be placed under the control of the Levites, and were designed as places where people who had made mistakes could find protection until the situation was sorted out and proper judgment could be passed. The Hebrew for refuge used in Joshua 20,(miqlat), is derived from the root for “stunted” or “deformed”, implying that these were to be places that welcomed people who were in some way ill-equipped to cope with what they were facing in life.

Although the old covenant has passed away, I believe that Christ has tasked us today with the job of serving as individual and corporate cities of refuge – people and church bodies who accept and shelter the lost and hurting with the hope of redemption and healing. Let’s look more closely at the concept of individuals as refuge from three different angles.

Refuge as a Source of Hope

In 1984, psychologist Richard Lazarus published the first in a groundbreaking series of studies about the link between perceptions and emotional suffering. In studying patients with chronic medical problems, Lazarus discovered that those who believed that they would get better, even when that belief was neither realistic nor encouraged by the treating medical professional, suffered less emotional turmoil over the course of the illness. Further, he found that patients who believed they had the resources – whether financial, medical, emotional, or relational – to cope with what lay ahead fared better than those who did not, regardless of prognosis. In other words, Lazarus established that human beings are designed to seek refuge, and even when they can find none externally, will create an internal place of hope and comfort for themselves.

God’s command to designate specific physical cities of refuge was a way of offering concrete sources of hope to those who were desperately in need of a lifeline. The Hebrew `iyr (city) denotes a sense of safety or being watched over, but is based on a root word that described a state of awakening, or opened eyes. In this sense, a city, then, is purposely characterized as a space in which the lost, hurting, and hopeless may find not only safety, but a new perspective regarding the opportunities in front of them.

In times of crisis we often seek out the counsel of others, not so much because we think they have answers that will solve our problems, but because we instinctually crave reassurance that all is not lost, that God is faithful and able to make all things new, that we have not fallen beyond the reach of His hand. To paraphrase the words of Martin Luther King, we long for someone to remind us that, even if we are disappointed in the short term, we can still rely on infinite hope to sustain us. As individual followers of Christ we all have the capacity, as well as the opportunity, to share hope and encouragement with those around us. Whether it is taking a moment to bless someone with a hand on the shoulder or a query about their struggles or sitting silently beside a grieving widow or next to a hospital bed, we embody the very Source of hope in the Holy Spirit, who speaks to and through us, even when we have no idea what to say or do.

Refuge as a Forum for Repentance

There is an elegant simplicity to Freud’s concept of the human psyche. Three divisions – the Id, the Ego, and the Superego – run behind the scenes at all times, determining what comes to our conscious awareness and, in turn, how we respond to life’s challenges. The Id is our instincts and animal desires; it seeks to gain pleasure at all costs, and might be analogous to our sin nature. At the other extreme, the Superego seeks to attain perfection in every circumstance; we get our sense of shame and guilt from it, and much of our anxiety and depression evolves from an unchecked pursuit of these things. In the middle is the mediating Ego, which functions on the reality principle. It stands between the unrealistic and unhealthy demands of the Id and the Superego and works to find a reasonable and healthy compromise between the two. According to Freud, and strong Ego equals a healthy psyche.

Problems arise, however, when we hit life’s metaphorical walls, when we fail or are failed by others so badly that the Ego is overwhelmed. Perhaps the Id’s demands for revenge are too strong or the Superego’s constant rehashing of our shortcomings becomes too strident, but whatever the case, Freud theorized that, in order to keep the inmates from running the asylum, the Ego puts in place defense mechanisms – self-preserving distortions of reality – to shield the Ego while it recharges. We get commonly-used terms like “denial,” “projection,” and “repression” among others, from this theory.

The problem we encounter on our spiritual journey is that, where there are unrecognized and unaddressed defense mechanisms, there can be no repentance. When we continue to point the finger of blame instead of accepting our responsibility, we cannot begin to heal, grow, and change. Cities of refuge play an important role here.

In verse 4, refugees are given two simple instructions upon arriving at the city gates: stand in the entrance and state their case.

Stand in the Entrance

The Hebrew for “stand” (`amad) literally means “to be still; to endure”. The picture here is of a lost and hurting person waiting at the crossing over point between bondage and probable death on one side and freedom and healing on the other. The impulse is to force our way in by any means necessary. We may threaten; we might beg and plead; we might lie, cheat, or steal to gain access. God emphasizes the importance here of stopping and waiting. There is a period of “dead space” for many of us between our realization that we need to change and the presentation of that opportunity. We wonder if God has heard our prayers or even cares, but often it is merely a necessary time for us to overcome our defense mechanism and come face to face with the person everyone else already knows we are but whom we have conveniently locked away somewhere.

My “dead” period lasted for almost a year. It seemed interminable, but it was necessary. As I agonized and raged, wept and plead, my defenses fell away and I began to see myself for who I had become – an arrogant, petulant, supremely selfish individual who had lost sight of who God had called me to be and how that should inform my words and actions. Although I was in incredible emotional pain, those closest to me shared that they could almost day-by-day see the person they had known and loved re-emerging from the one I had become over the years. Admitting who we are is a bitter pill to swallow, but the taste helps us fight the temptation to veer back onto that path in the future.

State your Case

This time of waiting has another purpose. The person is supposed to be thinking about how to present him/herself. In other words, they need to get their story straight. The language used for this phase loosely means “speak their speech”. The reuse of the word in the original language is a device to intensify its meaning. This is not a rote recitation of wrongdoings or a perfunctory canned speech; it is intended to be contemplative and introspective.

Life’s tragedies tend to enter our brains via the right hemisphere, the area responsible for emotion and possibility, but they also tend to get stuck there. When the imagery, feelings, and worst-case scenarios cycle around and around the right brain like clothes in a dryer, our negative emotions intensify, our ability to find a way out is dulled, and our sense of paralysis and hopelessness reaches a crescendo. The only way to transfer this data to our left hemisphere – planning, processing, and logic – is to speak or write it out. When we take this vital step, things start to make sense and healing can begin.

Herein lies the value of counseling or accountability partners. An impartial third party can listen without judging, offer unbiased observations, and ensure that we don’t brush off important insights gained. God has designed us such that it is impossible to accomplish this on our own; we must have help to get past our trauma and loss.

Refuge as a Place of Acceptance and Healing

Erik Erikson had a fundamental disagreement with Freud’s vision of human development as purely individual or internal. His reworking of a fairly simple model to incorporate the social aspect of development revolutionized our understanding of what it means to be human. The stage at which we spend a large part of our adult years is a conflict between the need for intimacy and solidarity and the unproductive alternative of isolation and superiority. We cannot, it seems, become fully-functioning, mature individuals without the acceptance and affirmation of others, and herein lies the final value of the city of refuge. The two instructions given those in the city are consistent with this goal: admit him and give him a place.

Admit Him

Perhaps our greatest fear on a social level is that, once we have dropped the façade and allowed others to see us as we really are, we will be rejected outright; doomed to wander alone as a penalty for our shortcomings. The biblical model states that the risk of transparency is to be rewarded with fellowship and acceptance. The Hebrew here (‘acaph) means “to be brought into association,” or “to welcome home”. It is a concrete expression of acceptance and belonging to someone who has no one or nothing to hand onto for support.

Give Him a Place

As Erikson’s theory implies, when we approach life alone, we are weak and powerless, but when we walk the journey in community, we have the strength of the pack behind us. The root word for “place,” used here is from a root word that means “to become powerful,” or “to become valid”. What an amazing opportunity we have to be a part of a fundamental transformation in the life of another human being when we engage in the simple act of welcoming them into our church, our family, or our circle of friends. This side of heaven we may never know just how deeply we have touched the lives of others with our gestures of welcome and love, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant at the time.

Grateful for My Chains

The apostle Paul wrote the letter to the Philippian church from the depths of a Roman prison. In this cold, dark, and desolate environment, it would have been understandable if his words were at the very least muted or sorrowful; yet the Book of Philippians is traditionally known as the Bible’s joy manifesto. From the very outset, Paul is able to give thanks for his chains because they are an opportunity for others to be encouraged, His focus is not on his temporal discomfort, but on the eternal value of his sacrifice.

As Neil White’s sentence at Carville drew to a close, he was faced with many questions. He no longer had a wife or a home to return to. He was a convicted felon without a job or a bank account, abandoned by many of his former friends, and a source of embarrassment to his family. Yet, as his book concludes, we find him in the prison chapel, taking communion alongside the very social outcasts who welcomed him into their home and gave him the refuge he needed to turn his life around.

“I was honored,” he recalled, “to take communion in the same sanctuary where society’s outcasts asked God to console their suffering. I felt privileged to live and work and play in a place that few had ever seen. And I was grateful I had been imprisoned here, in a leprosarium, where I could begin to rebuild my life a different way.”

Take time to look at your chains from God’s perspective. They may merely be the keys to a new and better home; Take time to look at the lost and hurting around you from God’s perspective. They may very well be at your door for a divine appointment with the hands and feet of Christ; Take time to look at your blessings from God’s perspective. They are neither deserved nor guaranteed, but are opportunities to praise the One from whom every good and perfect gift (and different path) comes.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Willa Beth permalink
    March 27, 2012 9:07 am

    Graduation is happening for us all. Thanks for writing your heart.

  2. April 30, 2012 4:08 pm

    Thank you for saying what I needed to hear today.

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