When we deny our pain, losses, and feelings year after year, we become less and less human. We transform slowly into empty shells with smiley faces painted on them.
Scazzero, Peter. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality
My time down the hole and under Pops’ Workshop were times of learning, healing, and growth. My understanding of it continues to deepen. One of the surprising learnings was that God had started this process long before I ever encountered him in his workshop.
As we grow up, we learn many lessons about ourselves and how we fit into and can navigate the world we live in. We hope the environment is safe and stable and that the lessons we learn will help us develop into balanced, integrated people. Sadly, many children find themselves in less emotionally and socially healthy environments. In those cases, we learn lessons that, while helpful or even necessary in that time and place, do not serve us well in our adult lives. Among the unhealthy lessons I learned growing up was that emotions were bad, especially negative emotions. I came to mistrust my own emotions because they were often proved false; at least, that was what I learned. I might have been happy and proud of an achievement at school, only to be told that I should think too much of myself or to be reminded of some unrelated mistake or failure. My happiness was “wrong.” A child cannot reason that their pride or happiness really is an appropriate emotion when the opposite is being demonstrated.
Learning to hide
Negative emotions were particularly bad, I learned. In a household such as the one I grew up in, where alcoholism and codependence ruled, I learned the lesson that appearance was the most important thing. No matter what was going on at home, no matter how you felt, you must show the outside world that all was well. Do not show distress or unhappiness, even if that is how you feel. I learned it was best to put on a mask of normalcy for the world as well as for my family members. If I was angry, hurt, frightened, or anxious, it was best not to let it show; don’t do or say anything that might disturb a fragile equilibrium. As I grew, that lesson grew from don’t show your emotions to don’t have your emotions. The best way to not show your emotions was to simply not have them. Of course, we cannot really stop ourselves from having emotions. But we are remarkably resilient and creative creatures. We can build high and strong walls inside ourselves to bury our emotions deep within; with enough practice, we can effectively deny, even to ourselves, that we even have the emotions at all.
When I did see others in my family demonstrating negative emotions, it was usually in a very unhealthy way. They, too, had tried to tamp down what they felt until it came bursting out of them, usually as a major blow-up over a very minor occurrence. As I grew, I could see that cycle repeating itself in me: I would deny, suppress, and attempt to bury emotions, only to see them burst out of me in a toxic spew. As a young husband and father, those eruptions were damaging to the relationships with those I cared the most about. Not knowing any better, I thought the emotions were the problem. I had no conception that emotions simply are; it is our attempts to deny them that is the problem. I continued to bury those emotions ever deeper.
I denied an important part of who I am, an important part of what it means to be made in God’s image. I was burying a part of myself – a part that needed to be recovered, repaired, and integrated into the whole.
What is in the box?
Looking back, I can see that this need to reintegrate parts of myself that I had set aside was not entirely new. A year earlier, I was at the Alliance of Renewal Churches (ARC) Gathering in San Diego, California. ARC gatherings are jamb-packed with ways to connect with ARC leaders, church members, and other friends of the ARC and to connect with the Lord. There are powerful, spirit-filled times of worship, inspiring and challenging messages and workshops, times set aside for prophetic ministry and healing prayer, and times to just soak in prayer and connect one-on-one with Jesus.
The gathering began on a Friday evening with worship. As that service started, I sensed that something was happening in the spiritual realm. It felt a bit like watching storm clouds gather and feeling the temperature drop and winds pick up. It was not a feeling of dread, but I did have the sense that something big or important, or powerful was coming.
As I prayed during worship that first night of the gathering, I had a vision of an old, dusty, wooden crate. It seemed to be in a dark and lonely dead-end alley. The box was unremarkable and unmarked; it looked like a shipping crate: not at all elegant or refined. It was a cube, about three or four feet long on each side. It looked like it was sealed up and put in that lonesome place long ago and was now forgotten, sitting in the dark, gathering dust. In my spirit, I knew that the box contained a great treasure. It was forgotten but also very important.
If you have conjured up the scene from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the crate containing the Ark of the Covenant is stored away in a massive warehouse, put it out of your head. This box was in a remote, hard-to-find place, all by itself. It was not something you would casually come across, and even if you did, you would likely not give it a second look.
This vision of the box came to me several times. It was always in a dark, forgotten place. I first thought of it as an alley, but it could just as well have been a dark corner of some long-forgotten dungeon or deep cellar. Sometimes I saw rats scurrying around the box, making the location seem more ominous and the box less appealing.
I went to the Lord several times, asking, “What is in the box?” When he was silent, I became agitated. I knew that whatever was in the box was very valuable and very important. I came to believe that somehow “joy” was in the box. This made no sense to me. I persisted in questioning the Lord until he said, gently but firmly, “Wait and see.” To be honest, I interpreted this to mean that I was being given a piece of a revelation and that someone else would supply the rest, that this was a corporate word that I was only a part of. I was entirely wrong. During prophetic ministry that evening no other piece dropped into place. Whatever I was waiting for was not yet here.
The vision of the box stuck with me through the night and into the next day. During worship on Saturday morning, I was again praying, seeking to discern what Jesus was trying to show me through an old, forgotten, wooden crate. Slowly the box’s meaning was revealed to me. I came to understand that an important part of me was in the box. It was a part of me that I had hidden away long ago, hidden from all, even Jesus, or so I thought. Whatever it was, it was hidden so long ago and so well I didn’t know what it was, how to find it, or why I had hidden it away in the first place. I didn’t even know that a part of me was missing! Whatever it was, I had hidden it well from myself. As you might imagine, this was distressing. The valuable and important thing in the box, the thing that was somehow “joy,” the thing hidden away and forgotten, was a part of me, a part I had been without for so long that I had forgotten it even existed.
Continuing in prayer, I asked Jesus if he could take me to the box. I saw Jesus walking hand-in-hand with me through dark and twisting passages. The me I saw in this vision was me as a five-year-old boy. As we approached the box, I (the five-year-old me) felt a little trepidation. Something valuable was in the box, but it was also something I had hidden away. This five-year-old me knew why it had been hidden in the first place. I longed to regain whatever was in the box, but I at the same time, I feared it. I had hidden it away, presumably for a good reason. Could it be safe to take it back now?
In my ambivalence, I feebly and hesitantly tried, with a half-hearted, token effort, to open the box and it remained closed to me. Wondering if it really would be safe to open it, I again asked Jesus, “What is in the box?” This time he answered; the answer came not in words, but as an impression.
It is maddeningly difficult to try to put into words what Jesus wordlessly conveyed. The Lord often speaks plainly, even conversationally. Other times he speaks in images or pictures. And then there are times like this where he didn’t really speak, yet somehow, knowledge or information is conveyed. The lack of words or images didn’t lessen the impact of his revelation, but since what was impressed on me was wordless, I find it difficult to put it into words. The nearest I can come is to say that the contents of the box enabled or activated or completed three things: power, love, and joy. I had already discerned that Joy was a key aspect of the mysterious box’s contents, but the notion of Power caught my attention. I protested to Jesus that I didn’t want more power, that I was already too powerful. Only I was not too powerful. Power, like wealth and intelligence, is morally neutral. Having power or money or intelligence is neither good nor bad. It is what we do with what we are given that determines its moral value. I could use power for good or for ill. I knew that I had been an abuser of power; I had used it to control and manipulate. What I meant, when I said that I was too powerful, was that I did not trust myself to be responsible with power.
Jesus gently shook his head; he seemed a little sad. Not disappointed or impatient, just sad that this was so hard for me and sad for what I had lost for so long. He explained that I am afraid of power because I do not love. It is love, not power or joy that is the key. Love, Jesus showed me, will unleash and free both power and joy in me — if I can take back the hidden and forgotten part of me. What was hidden away was a thing that allowed me to truly love, to love completely and selflessly. Being able to love would allow me to employ what power I have responsibly, in love. In spite of my fixation on power and my past misuse of it, it was clear to me that Jesus’ emphasis was on joy. He wanted me to have my joy back, and that required what was in the box.
Through all of this, I became more comfortable with the possibility of taking back that which I had hidden away so many years before. I asked Jesus to open the box. As if to emphasize his humanity, Jesus did not just will the box open, as I know he could. Instead, he produced a hammer and a pry bar and started pulling off boards. As gaps appeared between the slats that made up the box, I could see brilliant, pure white light streaming out. The light was all the more dazzling due to the surrounding darkness. When the box was opened, I could see that the source of the light was a round object about the size of a volleyball. My first thought was that this “ball” was glowing, but understates it. The ball was the light or, perhaps, was made of light. It seemed bright as the sun but pure, brilliant white. I marveled to see it.
All at once, the ball of light flew out of the box and started bouncing around the alley. Five-year-old me was squealing with delight, clapping my hands with joy, jumping and chasing after the ball of light, trying to catch it. Whatever fear or anxiety I had harbored about this still-mysterious object, it had vanished. I was delighted to see “it” again. I could not catch it, but that fact did not seem to disturb me at all. I was deliriously happy to be chasing it around the alley. After a bit, Jesus reached out his hand and caught the ball. He handed it to me. The tone of the scene changed, from child-like delight to solemnity and gravitas. Joy was there, but we paused as if to let me catch my breath, and I remembered that Jesus had brought me there for an important purpose. This was not about fun and games.
What happened next is harder to understand and harder to describe. Somehow, I took the ball of light into myself. At first, I saw myself swallowing the light whole, but my rational mind, the present-day me watching the scene, rejected the idea as impossible since the ball was much too large. Instead, I saw my younger self hold the ball against his chest and press it bodily inside. As I hugged it to my chest, it was absorbed or melted into me.
As that scene ended, I was deeply impacted. This vision was unlike anything I had experienced before. I was at a loss to figure out what I was supposed to do with it. I had somehow, in some way, regained or was regaining a long-buried, long-lost part of myself. Now what? Luckily, I was at a church conference! I knew a lot of trusted, spirit-filled, wise people to help me sort through this. Surely this vision came at this time so that those trusted guides could shepherd me through my confusion and uncertainty. Unfortunately, they were, to a man, all busy! One was willing and able to help me, but at the last minute had something else he had to do. I was angry that no one had time for me. I felt devalued. I was fearful of delving into this vision and unpacking it alone, and yet, here at the church conference, the place crawling with pastors, no one was available to help me.
Learning to trust
Looking back, I think God had a plan and was at work in denying me aid. One of my flaws is a lack of trust. I tend not to trust myself or my own judgments. I seek outside experts to validate my ideas, impressions, and beliefs. I am convinced that here the Lord was helping me learn to trust myself and, more importantly, to trust him and put myself in his hands without reservation. I was about to discover how sweet the fruit of trusting him can be. With no one available to help me work through the vision, weighty and gnawing on my consciousness, I was left with only one person to talk with: Jesus.
I relied again on my experience with Immanuel prayer, a prayer discipline that helps us learn to see and hear Jesus, both in the here and now and in our memories. Every ARC gathering has a quiet place set aside for prayer. I went there to see what Jesus would say to me about the vision and what five-year-old me had to do with the box and the light ball.
I spent nearly an hour and a half alone with Jesus, praying and journaling. I began, as is usual in Immanuel prayer, by asking Jesus if he wanted to bring up any particular memories. I innocently thought that I was waiting for a yes/no answer or perhaps for a menu of possible memories to choose from. Instead of being able to pick and choose, I suddenly found myself in a very painful memory that I had not thought of in years.
I remembered an episode from my childhood when I was likely about the same age as the version of me I had seen in the vision. My sister, four years older than me, my mother, and I were in the kitchen of my childhood home. I was about the same age as I saw myself in the box vision. My mother was very angry with my sister. I was standing next to my sister, likely enjoying the fact that she was in trouble and I was not. My mother, in a fit of anger, swung her arm to slap my sister. She missed and instead caught me hard across the face. I remembered the stinging pain and awful feeling of injustice. I remembered my mother catching me up in her arms and tearfully apologizing as I wailed in pain and outrage. I remember not wanting her embrace. I wanted to get away, far away. I wanted to hide myself away. I am not sure that it had ever occurred to me before, but it was now clear to me that was likely drunk.
As the feelings brought up by that memory subsided, I asked Jesus where he was when that was happening. He showed me that he had been standing behind me, weeping in anticipation of what was going to happen. He was embracing me even as my mother was. He was saying that he was very sorry, so very sorry that had to happen to me. Rather than bringing me comfort, his sorrow ignited anger and outrage in me. Sorry! What good does sorry do a wounded little boy? Why not do so something, I demanded to know! If he was so sorry, why did he let it happen in the first place? Why did he let me be born into a family wracked with alcoholism? What kind of God is he anyway? If he loved me, why didn’t he protect me?
Had I been more reflective, I might have expected Jesus to meet my anger with his own self-righteous power and anger. After all, that is how I typically reacted to my children: overwhelm their emotions with my own. Instead, he was calm and patient, allowing me to feel what I felt, not telling me I was wrong or foolish to feel that way. He explained that for me to be who I am supposed to be, I needed to be born to the parents I had. Each of us is unique and has a unique destiny. For me to be who I am supposed to be, I needed to be born of those two particular parents. It was not the Father’s will that I suffer my parent’s dysfunction. I am becoming who I am supposed to be by overcoming my parent’s shortfalls, not because of them.
That answer was partly satisfying but seemed to beg the question: If I had to be born of those parents, why didn’t God “fix” them before I was born? Surely that was within his power! The answer came with patience and compassion. The Lord reminded me about free will. Each of us is free to embrace or reject the pursuit of the God who made us and loves us, whose self-giving passion is to restore us so that we can enter into an eternal love relationship with him. For many years I rejected God and had only lately turned to him. Jesus had pursued and called to my parents, as he does everyone, throughout their lives, but they would not come to him. He longed for them, not just for my sake but for their own. He longed for their renewal and restoration, for them to be free to be who they were meant to be. They, too, had kingdom destinies. Sadly, they were never able to embrace them.
This memory and the ensuing conversation with the Lord were an emotional roller coaster. I once again experienced outrage, hurt, pain, and confusion. But I also experienced love and consolation. I was learning experientially that it was safe to bring all my “stuff” to God, even my anger with him. He was teaching me the way to stop chucking rocks down the hole and stopping up the flow of his love.
I paused in my prayer to write what I was experiencing in my journal. Writing down the experience brought fresh waves of emotion. As I wrote about the pain and brokenness, I felt Jesus standing behind me, gently rubbing my shoulders as if to encourage me. He bent down and kissed the top of my head. I was undone. I knew that Jesus loved me; after all, he loves everyone, so he must love me. I had seen him many times and talked to him and heard him reply. Yet his physical touch, especially a simple kiss, blew me away. The very Son of God, co-eternal with Father and the Holy Spirit, he who sits in all power at the right hand of the Father, came to me physically and tangibly to comfort me and show me his personal, tender love. As waves of emotion washed over me, I could feel my resistance, born of my lack of trust, start to break down and melt away.
With my increasing trust and sense of safety, I asked Jesus about the box. He showed me that it was related to the memory he had taken me back to. He helped me understand that I had hidden my love and trust away to try to prevent people from hurting me again. I didn’t completely build the box then, but I started it. I added to it and hid it further and further away over time until it was completely lost to me. This defensive action of a wounded child was effective (if not wise).
Now, this missing part of me needed to be reintegrated. I also asked about the ball of light, wanting to know what it was. Jesus couldn’t give me a label I would understand. He said it is a part of me that lets me trust and love. I asked how I could get it back. His reply was essentially “time”; it would take time for me to heal, to learn to trust, and to love again. The impression I had of me taking the light into myself was true, but not instantaneous or immediate. I would need to keep going back to him to see that God is good, loves me, and is trustworthy. The reintegration of me would take time.
I don’t know what prompted me, but I wanted to see the box again. I again saw the dark, withdrawn hiding place. Where the box had been, there was now just a pile of splintered wood. The box had been completely taken apart, and the boards were broken to bits; there was no chance of rebuilding or reusing that box. I may not have reintegrated the ability to love and trust yet, but if I want to hide parts of myself away again, I am going to have to build a new box and find a new hiding place for it.
I was feeling so loved and so secure during this time I wanted to prolong it. I knew I was receiving an extraordinary grace and did not want to miss anything. I asked Jesus if there was anything else I should know. He told me he wants me to be happy, to enjoy the life and the blessings he has given me. He wants me to serve him with joy and confidence. Joy and confidence were largely foreign to me, but I was starting to believe that they could bloom in me yet, even in my later years. With this assurance, the awesome, transformative encounter with the risen Christ drew to an end. As I now know, it wasn’t the last time he would come to me in a vision; it was just the start.
Writing this now, I am reminded of one more important lesson I drew from this time: Jesus is so hard after me that he calls up and restores to me things that I didn’t even know were missing, things I had put away so securely, so long ago that I had forgotten about them. I no longer think that marks me as unique or special. I believe it is what he wants for each of us: to restore what is lost and broken, to restore us, to restore you.
The reintegration of the fragmented parts of ourselves is foundational for our spiritual health and wholeness. David Benner sums up this truth:
Christian spirituality involves acknowledging all our part-selves, exposing them to God’s love and letting him weave them into the new person he is making. To do this, we must be willing to welcome these ignored parts as full members of the family of self, giving them space at the family table and slowly allowing them to be softened and healed by love and integrated into the whole person we are becoming.
I was in the habit of making some very bad choices. Rather than accept me for who I am, bringing my true self to Jesus, who stands near the hole in the floor of Pops’ Workshop, I often chose to hide myself and not be “real” with Jesus. Hiding some parts of myself out of shame and others due to fear, and others were hidden away so long ago that the hiding places were lost to me. Slowly I was becoming aware that I needed to stop throwing the “rubbish” down the hole. I should instead bring everything to Jesus: rocks, muck, and all.
Even with that slowly-dawning awareness, there was still the problem of the mess already down the hole: the things stopping up and fouling the stream of living water. Jesus told me that the rocks are removed and the muck is cleaned up by repentance. True repentance, true surrender—allowing the Lord to have all of me, not just the parts I think he’d like to see. That is much easier said than done. In my then fifty-five years, I had become adept and hiding myself and my emotions. (At least most of the time, when in public. In private settings, I’m afraid that, like a lot of us, the things I tried to hold in often leaked out. That leakage usually hits those we love and feel safest around.) I would have to learn how to stop hiding, to start bringing my true self to Jesus. That, I understood, would prevent any further fouling of the water. An even harder task remained: how could I clean the mess that was down in the hole?
This is not to say that I didn’t also abuse wealth and intelligence. In my brokenness, I abused those as well. I also don’t want to imply that I no longer misuse power, wealth, and intelligence. Now I do so much less frequently, and I am usually painfully aware of it.
I would hear the same message from my spiritual director at my very first spiritual direction session nearly a year later: “Why not try tempering boldness with love?”
I have learned that when the Lord wants to show you something, he will find a way for it to make sense to your mind, despite our insistence that it “make sense.”
But I can now recognize it as an introduction to how the Lord would be engaging with me in Pops’ workshop.
Emmanuel prayer is usually facilitated by a trained and experienced minister who can responsibly aid and support you as you process what are sometimes deeply painful memories. I do not suggest that you follow my example of attempting Immanuel prayer on your own.
To my knowledge, this was the only instance of physical violence in my childhood.
 Benner, David G.. The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery (The Spiritual Journey) (p. 51). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.