Kindness from Cruelty

by John H. Timmerman

Like cold fingers, the words slip into my heart and squeeze: "With His stripes we are healed."

"But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed" (Isa. 53:5).

The words are clothed in mysteries; too many paradoxes surround them for my mind to grasp fully. In the very pain arises His healing? From the act of cruelty springs kindness? In the suffering He enacts peace?

There was no healing for the sufferer, yet the stripes did heal. They healed us. By the dying we live. This is a mystery. It perplexes the mind and is only grasped, if at all, by the heart. We begin to understand the healing of the stripes only as we begin to see ourselves involved in them.

Twice in my life I have faced the grim reality of bodily dying.

The first time I was 13. A dozen kids packed the sides of an oversized inner tube in a small lake north of town. Each of us tumbled off at one point or another, dove down and out, and emerged to climb aboard again. The water inside the tube was a white froth of kicking legs.

About the third time I tumbled in, a foot connected with my temple and sent me dropping to the black, weed-wrapped depths. With some desperate instinct, even as the darkness crawled inside my eyes, I managed to kick upward. Straight into the circle of thrashing feet. Blows struck my head and shoulders. I tried to shout, underwater, and inhaled water. The darkness behind my eyes deepened. I felt myself slipping backward, falling. Then the kicking above suddenly stopped, a hand reached down, grabbed me, tugged at my arms and shoulders, and hauled me out of the water.

They flung me face down over the edge of the tube while I belched water back into the lake. By the time they paddled back to shore, I was gulping air, pretending everything was all right.

Alone that night in my room, I shivered for a long time, thinking of how close I had come. I laid awake, trying hard to forget it-this first confrontation with dying.

Rain of Death

The second confrontation took place almost precisely a decade later, in Vietnam. During the darkness of the night, a sudden rain of enemy mortars and rockets fell upon the camp. In the space of a half-hour, some 267 rockets landed all around us. Shrapnel and explosions shredded the sandbags. Then the perimeter fighting started, and the sky streaked green and red with tracer fire.

When it was all over, the next day, we tried hard to pretend that everything was all right. But for many nights afterward, I laid awake long into the night.

Dying is loss; but there is another dying-of terrible pain and inconsolable loss-that cuts to the quick of the heart.

The time I died this other way, I couldn't pretend anything was all right. It was a shriveling of the spirit, and it skewed my whole world, I believe a scar remains still.

I grew up during the 1950s, in one of those quintessential American communities that had no clear identity because it changed so rapidly. It was, for the most part, a good neighborhood to grow up in. Neat, unpretentious homes stood side by side up tree-lined streets. There were enough kids around to get up a game of baseball nearly any summer afternoon on the tar playground of the local school. Just below our house, on Neland Avenue, a long hill fell away to Hall Street. It was a joy for sledding in winter, because in those days the city did little salting and the hill was too slippery for cars.

The neighborhood changed nearly daily with the influx of immigrants attracted to its affordable housing. I can remember trailing behind my mother innumerable times as she delivered freshly baked rolls to a newly arrived family. I was as hungry for friends as the newcomers were for rolls.

By the time I was in third grade, I was a typical American kid-gangly, uncoordinated, sporting my first pair of glasses in frames as thick as rubber tires, desperately insecure, frantically curious about the world, grateful to anyone who would call me a friend and share some time.

To the west of Neland Avenue, the neighborhoods had deteriorated quickly. Neighbors spoke of that area as "slums" and put For Sale signs in their yards. But we stayed.

When a family moved in six blocks to the west, my mother was there to befriend them. It was a slovenly, narrow house they had, this family I'll call the Beukemas.

A New Friend

The Beukemas had a son my age, Theo. I was grateful for a new friend.

I helped him with language problems at school. I invited him over to my house on Neland Avenue to play after school. He was eager, willing to come, and as secretive as shadows.

Even then I sensed something was wrong. Too often when he left, I felt a coldness rather than a warmth. But I didn't understand these feelings, not in third grade. Not even when I noticed several of my toys missing. I didn't know what to do about it. I did
not want to do anything that would risk the friendship.

Then one day, he invited me to his house. I remember the coldness when we entered his door. No one was there. Theo chattered nervously. We climbed the narrow stairs to his bedroom. It was barren and cold up there.

He opened the door, letting me in first. The room stood in shadows.

"I Hate You!"

He had made no effort to hide them. He stood, waiting, panting, his eyes fierce, until I saw them. His bed was a mattress on the floor. His dresser a wooden box. And on the box were the toys I recognized as mine. I heard the door shut behind me. I don't remember all the words now. I remember choking, "Those are mine."

"You wanna bet," he said. His fists were clenched.

Theo moved in front of the shut door, slowly pulling the leather belt from his waist. He wrapped it around on hand, the buckle dangling. His breathing was hoarse, his eyes feral as they stabbed me.

"I think I better go," I said.

He shook his head. Then, the words that burned like acid in my ears: "I hate you," he hissed.

Time seemed to stumble and freeze. Then he said, "I'm going to kill you." His eyes were two dark coals burning. He lifted the belt.

Then stopped. "Wanna see what it feels like?" he whispered. Suddenly he dropped his baggy pants and turned around. His buttocks and upper thighs were a welter of striped marks, deep purple and red bruises, some old, some still raw edged and scabbed.

While he stood there, pants down, I ripped open the door and ran. As I careened down the steps, he screamed after me, "Come back! I didn't" Then I was pounding back toward Neland Avenue.

At school we avoided each other, pretending that the other one was not there. So it went, for a long year. The next year he didn't return.

But for a long time afterward those words burned in my mind: "I hate you."

If I'd Been Brave Enough to Stay

Not for many years did I begin to understand. Finally it came to me one night, thinking of one of my own children, when that old memory crawled out of the past. Perhaps someone else-someone Theo wanted to call friend-had spoken those enraged words to him-as the belt fell and lacerated his flesh.

At times I have regretted that I was not brave enough to stay. I was only a boy, but I don't know if now I am much braver before words that destroy and slay the spirit.

Our Lord's Undeserved Suffering

As I think again of Isaiah's words, the mystery of grace and goodness begins to make sense. How I wish I could explain it to Theo now. No child deserves that laceration; no innocence should have to endure it. But I remember that Jesus also suffered undeservedly. He suffered under the whip that tore the flesh; He endured the hatred that tore His spirit.

Here is the bitter truth crouched behind the mystery of such suffering: He-the Innocent One-took upon Himself the punishment for our transgressions, my transgressions. He did this because He loves us, because He loves me. He died, by those stripes and that cross, to set us free, to make us safe. Do you begin to see it with the heart?

The scars of brutality against human flesh and the human spirit cannot be effaced by any earthly power. We cannot escape suffering. The stripes continue to be laid-not always visibly, sometimes like raw, bleeding wounds upon the heart itself.

The stripes drive us in panicked flight from the pain. They drive us looking for a home, a safe place.

There was no safe place for Jesus on that bleak morning. When the whip cracked and snapped across His back, like a scythe ripping the tender flesh, there was no hiding place. Unless it is in our hearts.

Our Healing Lies in Homing

And our healing lies in making our home in Him. The stripes were building stones. "In my Father's house are many rooms," Jesus said. "If it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you" (John 14:2).

He showed us how He built that safe place, the home we run to for healing. It was those stripes, laid upon His flesh, that sawed out the boards, placed the mortar and bricks, and formed the foundation, walls, and roof of the home built in glory.

Those stripes that were laid on Theo's back? They fell also upon Jesus, wrenched the heart of Jesus. The terrible pity I feel as a grown man recalling the past? That pity stood in Jesus' eyes.

There is the mystery: a grace beyond our comprehension that meets the horrors we don't understand. Meets the pain, takes it, and provides heart-healing for it. With His stripes we are healed.

Moody Magazine, April, 1995
Reprinted with permission of the author.

John Timmerman is professor of English at Calvin College

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