Where could I go when home was not safe?
by Abigail* | June 21 2023
“There’s more to life than this.” The whisper seemed to trickle down through the sun-soaked leaves as I watched the trees passing by through the window of the car. Now looking back, it seems strange that “more to life” was a concern for a six year old. But those words felt like honey to my heart, and they stuck to it. Maybe it’s because, though I didn’t have a religious upbringing, somehow these words sounded like an invitation from God.
Invitations were few and far between in my young life. My Gentile mom suffered from various illnesses and didn’t socialize. My Jewish father had walked away from his family and his faith when he married her. He didn’t bring his religion into our home, and he didn’t introduce us to most of his family.
So we lived a quiet life–except for the screaming, the sound of glass breaking, and the rumble of the car’s engine, leaving late in the night.
As age 6 slowly headed towards 16, I spent much of my time working with horses. At the time, I just knew the big animals were more predictable than the people in my home, and the ranch was the only place I felt safe.
When I was 12, a tragic death in the family happened, and my mom slipped deeper into her mental illness. She vacillated between near-catatonic weeks of withdrawal and fits of rage. It was like living with a light switch, and living with the constant fear of what may turn it on or off.
When Dad saw Mom acting violently towards me, he stood off to the side, silent. A few times I tried to talk to my dad alone and suggest that we take Mom to a doctor or get her some help. He would end these conversations by turning his back and leaving the room.
One day when I was 16, I had to leave the house for safety’s sake. Mom had chased me through the house, arms reaching–
I ran out the front door. She had hidden my car keys, so I walked around the neighborhood for a few hours. Her words echoed through my mind: “Get out of here–” Maybe Mom would finally be happy if I obeyed. I should pack a bag and leave for good.
But then the realization hit like jumping into icy water: if your own father and mother can’t love you, then who ever will? It was then that the chilling idea of doing something more permanent than running away came into my head. But even though I didn’t feel close to God, I knew He wouldn’t want me to hurt myself. That knowledge stopped me.
I’d always been too shy to make friends, and now I knew once and for all that my parents had rejected me. God was truly my only hope now. So I walked back home and cried out to Him, “God, I want to know You, but I don’t know how!” But my prayers only bounced off the ceiling.
Even though I wasn’t hearing from God, He must’ve heard me, because six months after I prayed that prayer, He answered in the language I knew best: the language of story.
A friend had given us a novel about the earth’s last days. In the first few chapters, a character comes to believe in Jesus. He gets down on his knees and repents; he decides to trust in God. So I got down on my knees, too, and prayed the prayer just as it was written in the novel, adding in my own, “If you’re real, God, this better work.”
The second I confessed belief in Jesus as my Messiah, the ceiling didn’t matter—God rushed into my room. He filled that space and my heart with a love that I had never known. In fact, His love was so permeating, so powerful, it’s difficult to describe. As I knelt there on the rug, I kept my eyes on the two windows of my room. I honestly thought they might burst from the pressure of God’s presence. It’s like He had been waiting for me to invite Him in all along.
I wish I could say that after that night, everything immediately became easier in our home. But it didn’t.
What is true is that overnight, pleasing God became more important than pleasing my parents.
I found a Bible and read it voraciously. I had peeked at sections before, but always ended up putting it down because it was so confusing. Now, verses from both the Old and New Testaments came to life and flew off the page. They weren’t just words; they were water, and my thirsty heart couldn’t get enough.
God also brought good friends into my life–just a few–but it was enough to make the difference. A neighbor took me to church with her. At a worship service, I met a young woman named Tara who lifted her arms joyfully during the singing. Peace seemed to emanate from her, so I found the courage to ask her, “Where did you get your faith?” She told me about a missionary school she had attended.
By this time I was 19, attending college, though still living at home. I did some research, prayed, and decided the Lord was calling me too. When I told my parents that I would be taking a six-month break from college to attend the school, they called a family meeting.
They had me sit down on the floor while they sat on the couch. Bodies rigid, faces tense, they said these words, “If you go to this school, we will disown you.”
Around that same time, my mom started abusing substances. I knew it was time to get out of that house, or risk turning out like them. As I packed my bags to head to the missionary school, I promised myself two things: I would never get married, and I would definitely never have children.
Some people said I was running away from my problems, but I hoped I was running to the Lord.
When I arrived at the campus, I had a physical ailment that made it difficult to walk sometimes. Not all physical illnesses have spiritual ties, but I know mine did because of the way the Lord healed me.
During a week of teaching on relationships, I realized I needed to forgive my parents. At first, this felt impossible. But our teacher explained that forgiveness didn’t mean what they’d done was okay. Forgiveness meant that God was Judge; I was not. With a strength not my own, I was able to say, “I forgive them.” And while the teacher prayed for me, I felt my spine straighten completely. I knew my illness was healed from that moment!
Releasing the pain to God also made room in my heart to remember some of the good things: like how my mom planted flowers, and my dad loved a good book.
The Lord had started my healing process from the inside out, and I no longer feared the future.
I graduated from the missionary program and headed to nursing school, assuming God would call me to the mission field full time as a nurse. While on summer break, I had the opportunity to meet some of my Jewish family members for the first time and to reconnect with others. I tried to get to know them by asking questions, but when it came to faith, it was difficult to understand each other; they seemed to feel that they had God, and I had Jesus.
But I knew it was only because of Jesus that I could have closeness with God. Jesus himself put it this way, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” (John 14:9).
I met a coworker at the hospital who was also a Jewish believer in Jesus and who gave me a Complete Jewish Bible (CJB). He encouraged me to learn more about my heritage. As I read, I learned some of the original Hebrew words and names of the Scriptures. One word that really stuck with me was “rabbi.”
Of all the mentors, teachers, and counselors I’ve known (and there have been some truly wonderful ones), they’ve all gone home to their regular lives, and so have I. But in the first century, when Yeshua (Jesus) ministered, a rabbi was someone who lived, ate, walked, and talked with his disciples.
A beautiful example of this is the biblical account of Miriam and Martha (sisters, and two of Jesus’ followers).
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38–42)
I would go on to work as an ER nurse for six years. I’m thankful for that time and everything it taught me. However, life became less about a certain vocation, and more about sticking close to my Rabbi.
While I was finishing nursing school, God surprised me by bringing my handsome husband into my life. We have a cross-cultural marriage, which definitely presents its funny moments! He and I can have different opinions on everything—from how much garlic to add to the sauce to whether we should wear shoes in the house. But we always come back to agreeing on two things: we both love the Lord, and we both love the four kids He’s given us.
In recent years, we’ve also agreed on bringing my Jewish heritage into our home. Though my dad didn’t pass his traditions on to us, it’s important to me to pass them on to my children. Learning our history, celebrating the holidays, and having Shabbat dinners together as Jewish believers in Jesus has been life changing and restorative.
Between rediscovering this rich heritage, marriage and children, our faith community, and my writing, life has been more abundant than I ever thought possible.
The wonder of that is not lost on me, especially considering how substance abuse and domestic violence seemed to have run in the family. There are stories about my grandmother and great-grandmother that can’t be written down. Recently, I shared one of those stories with my husband. He looked at me, pale faced, and said, “How are you normal?”
The answer is, I’m not.
I still struggle sometimes with unwelcome memories. The sound of a child crying or a door slamming can trigger a fight-or-flight response. I still flinch when someone reaches towards my face (even if that someone is one of my children).
And I still run.
Yesterday, I ran to my Rabbi (by this, I mean, I told the kids Mommy needed a time-out, then I went to my room, locked the door, grabbed my Bible, and got down on my knees). The book opened randomly to Psalm 68, which is about God saving us from our enemies. But what jumped out at me were the words: “A father to the fatherless … is God in his holy dwelling” (v. 5).
In prayer I whispered, “Lord, I’ve felt fatherless for so long.” Then the voice of God spoke loud, straight to my heart: “You have never been fatherless.”
A few minutes later, with true shalom in my heart, I rejoined my children where they were coloring in the kitchen. We laughed at the baby together and danced while sweeping up.
Only the best Father ever could pull off a rescue like that.
*The author’s name was changed for family privacy.