Demolishing the High Places of Self-Blame

by Amy Peterson

In my last night in the city of a closed country, I crept out of my apartment after dark.

I lived on the top floor of the building, but I’d noticed that where the staircase ended, there were iron rungs attached to the wall, leading up to a hole in the roof. I’d been wanting to get up on the roof of this building all year, but “unconventional” wasn’t culturally lauded here the way it was back home. I had a sneaking suspicion that the university would not look favorably upon me hanging out on the roof. This was my last night, though. Up I went.

It was nearly midnight. The moon had been full earlier in the week, but was still big and yellow, hung low in the sky. Summer lightning struck in the distance. I found the Big Dipper in the sky. But mostly I looked across the city, wondering what it would be like to go back to the States. Would it feel like home? Or would I feel like a flower picked from a garden and moved to a vase for ten months, then taken back to the garden and planted again, unable to re-root? Ten weeks seemed too long to be away from this sweet place.

I had no idea, that night, that I would never come back.

For months afterward—no, for years—I would catalog my infractions, the things that might have been the cause of what happened next. I still do it, catalog and flog. There were so many things I didn’t know, so many things I took for granted, so many ways I wasn’t cautious.

  1. I shouldn’t have forwarded an email about the execution of Christians in our country.
  2. I shouldn’t have let a student keep the Jesus film over mid-semester break. I should have warned her.
  3. I shouldn’t have taken the girls to that coffee shop for our last Bible study. We’d sat on the second floor, the only customers there, and I thought we were safe. I thought it was a special celebratory ending to our year together. But we had prayed and read the Bible in public. Why had I been so foolish? I should have been more careful.

I should have been more careful, I should have been more careful, I should have been more careful.

The word translated “high places” (bamah) is repeated 102 times in the Old Testament, mostly referring to Canaanite places of worship, altars on mountaintops and under “every luxuriant tree” (1 Kings 14:23).

When the Israelites prepared to enter Canaan, Moses exhorted the Jews to “demolish all their high places” (Numbers 33:52). It was hundreds of years, though, before young King Hezekiah actually put an end to idol accommodation in Israel. Hezekiah enlisted the help of the Levites and made sure the high places were destroyed, and that true, God-centered worship was restored in the temple (2 Chronicles 29–30).

The Jewish temple had a high place, a bimah, of its own, a raised pulpit from which the Torah was read. Scholars are unsure whether bimah derived from the Hebrew bamah or from the Greek word bema, meaning platform. Bema, when found in the New Testament, is usually translated “judgment seat.” I used to hear pastors use the Greek word in sermons: “When you find yourself at the Bema seat,” they’d ask, “what will Jesus say to you?”

It occurs to me now, as I rehash my mistakes, that what I’m doing is not what Jesus would do if I were to meet him at a high place.

It occurs to me now that obsessing over my own failures and what-might-have-beens is a way of creating my own altar, a bamah to me, a high place where I worship myself as the ultimate sovereign, responsible for whatever happens, good or bad.

Mistakes were made. I made mistakes. But obsessing over my mistakes elevates them as more powerful than God. God is sovereign, and God is good, and God has forgiven me.

It would be at least a year before I was able to believe any of those things again.

 

Excerpted from a new edition of Amys memoir, Dangerous Territory, and reprinted with permission. Amazon affiliate links help support the work of A Life Overseas.

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Amy Peterson is a teacher, writer, and priest in the Episcopal church. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two kids, three cats, and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Before her call to the priesthood, she taught ESL in Southeast Asia before returning stateside to teach in California, Arkansas, Washington, and Indiana. To read more of her thoughts on faith, language, culture, and creation, visit amypete.substack.com.