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In the Presence
A Christian Response to Bullying, Part 1
Rebar-Swinging Neighbor Kids
Shortly after we moved to North Africa, sensing the brevity of baby teeth and blanket forts, I got on my knees. I asked God for a home outside the city, a place to be the backdrop for Ashi and Arav’s half-over childhood. And God answered. We found a great place—cheaper than our apartment in the city, big enough to be comfortable, and non-fancy enough for two active, creative kids to enjoy.
We thanked God for our home every day, especially once Covid-19 found us stuck inside for several months. The trouble began when the lockdowns eased, and our kids started playing outside.
The neighbor children threw rocks. They hit with sticks. Once, a kid asked my daughter for her ice cream cone. She gave it to him, hoping to make friends. He threw it in the mud and laughed.
"Go back to America!" My children thought this a decent suggestion.
"Mom, can we move back in with Grandma?"
We talked to the neighborhood parents, who laughed and said kids will be kids. We talked to local friends, who said bullying is just a part of life in North Africa. We talked to the kids themselves, threatening to call the police after one of them threw a piece of rebar down at us from his roof. I may have, in an attempt to go with the cultural flow, threatened to beat a particularly vulgar little boy with my shoe.
One night, some kids climbed the wall of our courtyard, spat on my kids, and ran away. I had nightmares featuring children. Laughing children who broke down the walls of our prayed-for home.
Our local friends told us our kids should learn to throw a good punch, like, yesterday. So, hoping Jesus’ advice about turning the other cheek was a metaphor, we told them to hit back. But we found this only made them paranoid and aggressive.
We revoked the permission to hit. Instead, I became a mama bear. And this mama bear was going to take her cubs to a new cave. Or a new country. Like maybe Bear Country, where the Berenstain bears figure everything out in a handful of tidy scenes.
I got on my knees and told God I was taking the children somewhere else, and could He please put His stamp of approval on the process? I had left other situations for their safety, and with God’s approval, I was ready to do it again.
Well, God? I prayed, sharpening my bear claws. Are we good to go?
I don't always hear a clear answer from God. But this time I did.
“Trust me and wait. Everything will be okay.” This is what God said to me. Trust me and wait. Wait? Didn’t God know about things like psychological damage?! Hadn’t God read all the research out there about bullies and self-esteem and depression and anxiety?!!?!?!
God couldn’t possibly want me to stay where rebar-swinging miscreants were running amok.
“Trust me and wait.” So, half-hoping God’s solution would involve actual she-bears, a la 2 Kings 2:23-25, we waited.
In the Presence of my Enemies
One afternoon, I sat on the floor and read Psalm 23, where David writes that God prepared a table for him in the presence of his enemies. And I wondered how in the world you can swallow your food with wolves staring you down.
I’ve loved Psalm 23 ever since my very first flight. Somehow, meditating on Psalm 23 while taking off distracts me from scary plane crash imagery. You’d think I’d have gotten over scary plane crash imagery after taking well over 100 flights in my life. Nope, it’s still there.
So, Psalm 23 it is. I sit and breathe, and I tell myself, “See? You can breathe. There’s so much air in here! Plenty of air for these hundreds of people who are also strapped into tiny little seats in this tin ca—The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want, he maketh me to lie down in green pastures . . .”
Genereally, I rattle off the entire Psalm but fixate on the imagery from the beginning.
We start out with a nice rest in a green pasture. Now we’re beside still waters, getting our souls restored. Isn’t this nice? We’re walking in paths of righteousness now. How lovely and green and breezy and not at all claustrophobic.
Now we get to verse 4. We are walking in the valley of the shadow . . . of death. Death is here! How did death get into this Psalm?! Death is looming above our heads like it's going to swoop down any second. And then, with death so close it casts a shadow, God prepares a table, and we sit down and eat.
Right in front of our enemies.
It's the kind of peace that lets you enjoy a meal in the presence of your enemies because you know your shepherd has a reason for choosing this path. And because He is there, holding back death with His rod and His staff.
I feel like raising my hand and asking God, “Wouldn’t the sheep have better digestion if they could eat far, far away from their enemies?”
In the months that followed, I thought a lot about David. David went through things with God. He wrote Psalm 59, for example, while in his house—which was surrounded by people trying to kill him.
The Psalms were not written in a vacuum.
Yet the rod and staff of God comforted David. Maybe because God had a plan. God, like a shepherd, saw higher and further. He knew important details, like where they were going and why. So David, like a sheep, trusted that wherever God led, that’s where he was supposed to go.
Sitting there in my house, praying for permission to run from my enemies, I realized that the kind of peace God gives is unique and exceptional. It's the kind of peace that lets you enjoy a meal in the presence of your enemies because you know your shepherd has a reason for choosing this path.
And because He is there, holding back death with His rod and His staff.
As for me? I was in the Valley of the Shadow of Emotional Trauma. The Valley of the Shadow of My Kids Hating Mission Work. The Valley of the Shadow of My Kids Not Liking God Anymore Because They Might Not Think I Did Enough to Protect Them.
I determined to fear no evil. For God was with me.
And I’m glad I waited. Because God was right. But that’s a story for next week.
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A Little Extra
“I am no longer anxious about anything, as I realize that He is able to carry out His will for me. It does not matter where He places me, or how. That is for Him to consider, not me, for in the easiest positions He will give me grace, and in the most difficult ones His grace is sufficient.”
― Hudson Taylor
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