It was cold, the sky over­cast and gray. The Ohio Riv­er flowed with fright­en­ing force, vio­lent­ly churn­ing debris and mud from winter’s thaw and spring rain. I stood mes­mer­ized by the swift cur­rent, care­ful to keep my foot­ing on the steep, rocky shore.

I was in New­burgh, Indi­ana, for my youngest daughter’s wed­ding. In the ear­ly after­noon, I slipped away for a walk to the water’s edge. Gaz­ing at the rapid­ly mov­ing riv­er, I noticed a line of emp­ty barges mov­ing down­stream, pushed by a paint-starved tug­boat belch­ing smoke.

The sight evoked mem­o­ries from when I would lie in bed on hot sum­mer nights, lis­ten­ing to the long, mourn­ful sounds of the foghorns bel­low­ing on the Monon­ga­hela Riv­er near my child­hood home. Those warn­ings had always felt strange­ly com­fort­ing to a small boy lying wide awake in a dark and lone­ly room.

Coal was our fam­i­ly busi­ness, dug out in pitch dark­ness hun­dreds of feet below the Appalachi­an earth by my great-grand­fa­ther, grand­fa­ther, and father. I remem­ber sit­ting on the river­bank watch­ing long lines of rusty steel barges snaking their way down the riv­er, filled with coal that had been plucked from the ground by peo­ple I knew.

Now I was stand­ing at the Ohio Riv­er, enter­tain­ing mem­o­ries that drew me back to the place where I grew up and the peo­ple who shaped much of the sto­ry that is my life. The nar­ra­tive came alive as I stared at the teem­ing waters at my feet and thought about the past.

I was quite undone on the banks of the Ohio Riv­er. Like the swift­ly mov­ing cur­rent churn­ing up mud from the bot­tom, my mind had dredged up mem­o­ries from the long-ago past, and with those mem­o­ries had come pain from wounds that had not yet healed.

As I stared across the water to the south side of the riv­er, I noticed a mud­dy bank that led to a wood­ed, tan­gled, unpop­u­lat­ed land. I began think­ing of it as it must have been before the Civ­il War when African Amer­i­cans had two total­ly dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences of life depend­ing on which side of the Ohio Riv­er they stood.

Across the riv­er in Ken­tucky, less than a quar­ter mile away, men, women, and chil­dren were held as prop­er­ty, with no rights or priv­i­leges pro­tect­ed by law. They were mis­treat­ed at will, con­sid­ered three-fifths human, and seen as chat­tel. Fam­i­lies were rou­tine­ly torn apart by own­ers who often used Bible pas­sages as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for their vile and vio­lent treatment.

As I was imag­in­ing the suf­fer­ing these peo­ple had faced, an unex­pect­ed thought forced its way into my mind. What if some of the slaves had made the life-threat­en­ing jour­ney across the Ohio, yet had spent their lives on freedom’s side liv­ing by the same oppres­sive rules and bondage of slav­ery? What if they had lived with­out the joy of free­dom? What if they had failed to under­stand that they were val­ued human beings who deserved to be pro­tect­ed and respect­ed? Giv­en what free­dom cost, that would have been tragic.

Liv­ing in bondage on freedom’s side.” Sud­den­ly the phrase that popped into my head hit home. It seemed to per­fect­ly describe my own jour­ney. My ear­ly life had bro­ken some­thing inside me. First it was Grand­pap and the fear he brought. Then it was liv­ing with a dad who was fight­ing to prove his man­hood and a mom who couldn’t attach to me. Then came all the years of grow­ing up in a clan marked in part by addic­tion and violence.

Even though God reached out and took me by the hand when I was a teenag­er, I spent many years on freedom’s side liv­ing in bondage. I was saved but not free. While I had the assur­ance of heav­en, I often felt I was liv­ing in hell. No amount of per­form­ing for God touched the pain that gripped me.

Rather than fight­ing to dis­tance myself from my home and the peo­ple who shaped me, I revis­it­ed them, both the best and the worst parts of my past. The accep­tance, the belong­ing, the sense of fam­i­ly, as well as the alco­holism, the prej­u­dice, the mean­ness, the crazi­ness. Strange love wrapped in a rib­bon of hate.

My Heal­ing Journey

My heal­ing didn’t hap­pen overnight, but once it began, days led to weeks, then months, and ulti­mate­ly to years of deep emo­tion­al healing.

I began read­ing books on mem­o­ry, behav­ioral sci­ence, neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy, and inner-heal­ing prayer. I was pro­found­ly impact­ed by the short phrase men­tal time trav­el­er from Endel Tul­v­ing, an exper­i­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist and neu­ro­sci­en­tist. Tul­v­ing showed that it is pos­si­ble for peo­ple to reex­pe­ri­ence mem­o­ries as a way to process the unhealed past.

If that were true, it occurred to me that I could reex­pe­ri­ence my unprocessed wounds and un-griev­ed loss­es, not just as painful flash­backs, but as expe­ri­ences in which I could encounter God’s heal­ing touch, as Jesus did in Gethsemane. 

It seemed that the Holy Spir­it revealed a path­way to emo­tion­al heal­ing. I shared what I sensed with a cou­ple of trust­ed friends and asked if they would be will­ing to prayer­ful­ly walk with me into the past. 

As my friends and I prayed…emotion boiled out in waves of out­rage mixed with crush­ing sadness.

Not once did the Lord ask me to put a pret­ty face on what was hap­pen­ing. I expressed my feel­ings in the uncen­sored way they had formed a long time ago, foul words and all. Then, in a pow­er­ful moment of trans­for­ma­tion, I was able to see” the Lord with me. I was stunned.

In the sanc­ti­ty of my imag­i­na­tion, Jesus came to my side and enfold­ed me in his lov­ing arms. Ten­der­ly, he said, Ter­ry, I am sad­dened this hap­pened to you. Waves of dis­ap­point­ment and pain poured from my wound­ed soul as I col­lapsed against his chest. 

Jesus placed his hand gen­tly upon my fore­head and a rush of Pres­ence came over me, cleans­ing me from pain I had car­ried for many years. With his touch deep heal­ing began to pour into my soul.

After that encounter, a long jour­ney began, one that start­ed to free me from the prison of my unhealed past. As mem­o­ries of trau­ma sur­faced, I was able to meet the Lord and expe­ri­ence a deep release, one that con­cept-dri­ven behav­ioral sci­ence didn’t touch. 

After what had seemed like a nev­er-end­ing sea­son of mourn­ing, joy began to break into my heart like dawn’s first light.

Related Podcast

Adapt­ed from Some Kind of Crazy by Ter­ry War­dle Copy­right © 2019 by Ter­ry War­dle. Pub­lished by
Water­Brook, an imprint of Ran­dom House, a divi­sion of Pen­guin Ran­dom House LLC, on Octo­ber 8,

Pho­to by Ante Gudelj on Unsplash

Text First Published October 2019 · Last Featured on July 2022

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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