A Different Lens

Our long and painful history with the church casts a dark shadow over what many people view as a ray of hope.

This morning I was writing a long time email friend about my ongoing struggle with attending church on Sunday. She stopped attending church years before. She has not stopped being the church, however. She has had a long and faithful walk with Jesus, and His love flows through the caring words that she writes to me. Even though we have never met, she encourages me on a regular basis. Our communication is true fellowship filled with weeping and rejoicing about our day to day lives. Even though we don’t meet together weekly, I believe that our relationship is church, and I am very grateful for her. Thank you, Nancy!

We talked about recently how our own upbringing and life experiences effect the way we view God, what we communicate about God and even the church we attend. As I have thought about it, I realize that trauma and abuse have caused me to view God, the church and other Christians through a different lens than I did before I was abused. My therapist once told me that what we see we do not unsee. How true it is that abuse brings about an awareness that others do not have. Abuse in the church has enabled me to recognize group thinking and what it leads to. For our family it led to minimizing the damage of abuse and feelings of abandonment from the people we thought would be in our lives long-term. It has helped me to recognize more easily unhealthy codependent patterns in relationships and narcissistic tendencies in church leadership. I am grateful for what we have learned. I believe it will protect us from getting caught in the same trap again. However, I also recognize that seeing these truths is a double edged sword that not only heals but harms, because it has also made it very difficult for our family to trust any church.

Daily my husband and I pray for wisdom and God’s direction on my commute to work in the morning. We honestly admit to one another and God that we don’t know what to do about our spiritual lives. We long to experience closeness and connection to God, but for us religious services can actually get in the way of this. Our long and painful history with the church casts a dark shadow over what many people view as a ray of hope.

I did not grow up regularly attending church. Our family attended a Methodist church on and off, but I remember very little about my experiences there. I saw glimpses of God in the books and movies that I read to escape an abusive childhood. I prayed for His help when I was lonely and afraid and overwhelmed. When I was nineteen God brought my husband into my life, and we started attending the conservative and reformed church he served as an elder in. After attending this church a few years, the congregation decided to get rid of a pastor we cared about over different political views. In the heat of the election year, true opinions came out, division happened and we left that church and to attend a traditional evangelical church in the community. My husband eventually became a deacon in this church and we started a small Sunday school group together. But after serving in this church a few years, a couple of members of my husband’s family got involved in some very messy scenarios involving this congregation. My husband being in leadership made things more difficult. He felt forced to make decisions concerning his family, and it became an even bigger mess. Once again we were uprooted from a church we had invested time and energy into. It was when we were exhausted, hurting and our wounds still fresh that we made the decision to leave that church and go to different reformed church. And this was the church where our family was spiritually abused by the pastor for ten years.

When I think back about the church experiences that I have had since I started attending church, they cast a long dark shadow indeed. It’s no surprise that we struggle to feel a part of another church. We’ve tried so hard to start fresh, but even after five years it is still difficult.

A therapist I work with recently spoke about one of Dan Siegel’s methods of dealing with overwhelming emotions. He encourages people to use the SIFT method to understand the why behind our painful emotions in an effort to help us deal with them more effectively. SIFT: S, sensations; I, images; F, feelings; and T, thoughts.

Using Siegel’s SIFT method, it becomes clear to me that I am continuing to view church through a traumatic lens.

Sensation: Unable to relax. Tightened stomach. Tightened neck. Inability to focus.

Images: Previous similar experiences in church that resulted in being harmed.

Feelings: Fear. Shame. Guilt. Anger. Disconnected from God. Judged. Grief. Sadness. Remorse. Unloved. Unaccepted. Rejected.

Thoughts: This is not safe. You have messed up and are too messed up to ever be accepted by others or God. God is done with you. You can’t do anything right. Your life will never get better.

Sometimes I am able to see these thoughts for what they are and tell myself that they are not true, focus on something else and not be so negatively effected by them. But sometimes the thoughts get in like a virus and overwhelm my psychological system and the mental misery can last for days. I think most of us fight similar mental battles depending on our own past hurts, and we all have to learn what triggers us, when we are most susceptible to these triggers, and find effective ways to dealing when they do come, however most people do not experience them around church unless they have experienced a similar trauma.

The lack of understanding in the church over psychological suffering that comes from trauma in the church makes church even that much more difficult to attend at times. Even the most loving people in the church who have so patiently listened to my hurt, I think struggle to know how to really help. I think I fear as well that my struggles are just too much for them, because I certainly feel at times that they are too much for me. The reality is that most people are not equipped to deal with spiritual abuse in the church, and I don’t need to expect that they are. When I am not triggered by a negative experience, I see people in the church more clearly … People who are fighting their own difficult battles the best way they know how. The reality is no one person will ever be able to give us everything we need. No one church will ever be able to say all the right things. As my email friend has reminded me more than once, people are a mixed bag of good and bad. We are broken. We are beautiful. From our mouths can flow blessings of encouragement to one another and curses that can crush each other’s spirits. As Steve Brown has said about church, we are “porcupines huddled together in a storm. If you don’t want to get hurt, you need to leave.” With all this being said, it is clear to me that ultimately in order to learn how to deal with our own internal struggles, it is important that we understand ourselves well, what brings up negative emotions for us, when are we most susceptible to them, and what can we do to help us deal with them more effectively. What is it that we really need?

As I process all I have written here, it is clear to me that I need a good understanding of who God is and how much He loves, accepts and values me. I need to know He is with me even when He feels a million miles away. I need to that no matter how many times I haven’t listened to Him, He never gives up on me.

I have a mental image that occasionally comes to my mind of Jesus smiling at me. His eyes are full of empathy. He is pleased with me. He wants me to know it and live in that knowledge. He wants to take away the heavy chains of shame and guilt, sorrow, regret and remorse. He wants me to feel light as a feather free from all of it. He wants to carry me in His arms and take me to rest beside still waters where He rejoices over me with singing. This is the The Jesus who came to me when I was in my 20s and my anxiety was so bad I couldn’t sit still and told me He had seen my suffering throughout my life, and He had been there through it all praying for me. This is The Jesus who whispered to me after ten years of abuse to come out into the light and be set free. This is the Jesus who weeps over sheep who have been stripped bare by a wolf. This is The Jesus whom I love. This is The Jesus I worship when I see another beautiful sunrise or sunset. This is The Jesus I see in the deer walking peacefully across our property or the little silver fish flipping on their sides and shimmering like jewels in our flowing creek. This is The Alpha and Omega. The Beginning and the End. This is the Creator of all things Good. This is the One promising to bring restoration, healing, and peace to a world that sometimes feels as if it has gone mad. This is The same Jesus who hated the pain we are in so much that He got on a cross willingly to take it upon Himself to save us from ourselves. This is The Same Jesus loving those inside and outside the institutional church. He knows our forms. He remembers that we are dust.

Father, forgive them for they know not what they do…

My husband and I will keep looking for This Jesus not only inside our broken churches, but in our day to day lives. It all matters to Him. We matter to Him. This is the only lens that we can truly see Him through.

I am what you are most afraid of: your deepest, most wounded, and naked self. I am what you do to what you could love. I am your deepest goodness and your deepest beauty, which you deny and disfigure. Your only badness consists in what you do to goodness—your own and anybody else’s. You run away from, and you even attack, the only thing that will really transform you. But there is nothing to hate or to attack. If you try, you will become a mirror image of the same. Embrace it all in me. I am yourself. I am all of creation. I am everybody and every thing.”

The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe by Richard Rohr

The Institutional Church Is Not God

Our wounds are where His light gets in and out.

Last night there was a post on Facebook reminding me that seven years ago I became friends with my therapist on social media. Words cannot express how grateful I am for the years of work we did together and the relationship of trust we built. I am not sure that I could have survived without her. Thank you, Sharon.

I also want to take this opportunity to say if you have experienced spiritual abuse, you deserve to find relief and experience healing. Going to a therapist does not mean you are weak. It means you are taking care of the valuable person that you are. It means that you want to live and thrive. It means that you are strong and brave. Good therapy is a gift from God, but sometimes that hasn’t been the message I have received from the church.

Many times I have walked away from a church service believing that if I just had enough faith I would not need therapy. It’s not that anyone says it directly. As a matter of fact, most people in church would probably tell me that going to therapy is a good thing to do. Rather, it’s a message I walk away from conversations, prayers and sermons feeling about myself. It’s a feeling that can cause a deep anger to rise up in me against religious things.

I have learned in therapy that the only way to get better is to honor my feelings, acknowledge them and express them in a healthy way. Writing for me is one of the most important tools I have for expression. I am one of those people who carry around emotions inside myself without even realizing it until my stomach starts to hurt and tell me something has to give.

A consistent painful emotion that continues to come out for me is one of anger and frustration towards religion. This time of the year especially brings it back up again. Five years ago during this time of the year, I couldn’t convince the church that abuse took place. The church leaders wanted that word to go away. They embraced half truths and false peace. They chose denial in an effort to protect the reputation of the church.

Even as the anger rises up in me towards my previous church leaders, so do other emotions; shame, guilt, and regret for the lies that I believed when I was being abused and the lies that I told to protect my own reputation. The words, Forgive them Father for they know not what they do resonate deeply inside of me. The shame and guilt begin to subside when I recognize just how broken and needy we all are; when I realize forgiving others is the only way to forgive myself. However, even after recognizing my own need for continual forgiveness, I still experience feelings of anger and frustration towards the institution of the church. Even as I write this, I hear a voice inside my head say that maybe I am angry with God. I have no doubt that hidden within my heart there are still so many emotions God has yet to bring to the surface, one of which is anger towards God. However, in this case I do not think that much of my anger towards the church has anything to do with a hidden anger towards God. I learned early in my healing journey from spiritual abuse that the only way to keep my faith in God was to separate the institutional church from Him. I have had to allow God to reveal Himself to me in other ways, because it has just been too painful to look for Him in the ways I did before in the institutional church.

Before I was spiritually abused, I was committed to the church. I was there almost every Sunday and Wednesday. When I wasn’t there, I was thinking about being there. I realize as I write this that in many ways the church was a home for me. And therein lies where the deep pain of betrayal is. The place I once believed was home let me down in ways I never believed it would. As an adopted child, I had always longed for a place I could belong. For a long time the church felt like that place. As I reflect back on those days, I realize that in my own desperation I made the church a lot more than what it was ever supposed to be. The church was never supposed to be home. The church was only supposed to be the place that reminded me of my real home in Him.

In some ways, the institutional church is like a movie about Jesus. Whenever I have watched a one, (even with Mel Gibson, as amazing as his portrayal was) it registers with me that no human actor will ever be able to portray the picture of who God really is. Our human understanding of Him will always fall short until we are fully transformed into His image.

We see things in a mirror dimly, but one day we will see him face to face. Nothing on earth reveals Him in all of His fullness, not a movie, not a pastor, and not the church.

Creation longs for redemption. Our hearts long for home. The best we humans can do is reveal Him through our flawed and fractured love for one another while we are here on earth. I think where a lot of my anger comes from is that the church sometimes communicates that it is the only way to God. At least that’s what I believed for a long time.

Sometimes when we believe this lie so much we turn to the church for help that they are not equipped to to give and sometimes are too proud to admit it. When this happens, tremendous damage is done. God created doctors and therapists to do His work. One should never look to the church to replace the work that God has gifted others to do. I’m not saying pastors can’t help, they do. But what I am saying is sometimes they are limited in what they can do. I believe every church should work with doctors and therapists and support their work as part of God’s redemptive plan.

Don’t let anyone tell you that the institutional church has all the answers. Don’t let a sermon make you feel like you don’t have enough faith in God because you are struggling with anxiety and depression. Don’t let another’s prayer make you feel guilty, because sometimes the only prayer you know how to pray is, help. Don’t let another’s facade that they have all the answers make you feel like there’s something wrong with you because you do not know what to do. Don’t think that just because you have been spiritually abused in church that it was God that brought you harm.

Broken humanity disguising itself as an angel of light truly does the destroyer’s work. However, humanity that knows and acknowledges that it is broken reveals the true light of Jesus through the cracks of our souls. Our wounds are where His light gets in and out. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. The Institutional church is not God. It’s a place where we can learn about God, worship God, but it was never intended to replace God.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:9‭-‬10 ESV

Finding a Safe Place

This week I have been spending some time focusing on self-care and finding a safe place for my mind and heart to rest. I have been listening to Getting Past Your Past by Francine Shapiro, PhD. It’s a book that uses the basic principles of EMDR for self-help and healing of trauma. I highly recommend the book especially if you are considering EMDR therapy.

Last week, I worked my last day at a treatment center as an administrative assistant. I had been working there almost three years. I left the facility Friday overwhelmed by emotions and experiencing a deep sense of loss of familiarity, relationships, and purpose. I drove away feeling fear in the pit of my stomach about what was ahead.

Change is especially difficult for me. It always has been. Learning new things and new people feels threatening. I fear rejection. I fear losing control. I fear others who I haven’t had the opportunity to get to know will be people who do not respect my boundaries and trigger me.

I also experience a deep fear of being alone.

Change and uncertainty of what’s ahead brings up the pain and losses of the past. I remember the people and the relationships that I have lost. The family and friends who have left a big empty space behind.

While it is extremely important that we grieve the losses in our lives and honor our pain, it is also critical that we learn how to live and function with our losses and embrace goodness. I confess in those really painful moments this can feel like an impossible task. But it is not impossible. It is a process. I regularly have to remind myself.

Those of us who have suffered from complex trauma at an early age can find it extremely difficult not to go to worst case scenarios when we experience the normal stressors and changes in life. The neural pathways in our brains move towards preparing us for worst case scenarios and how to protect ourselves.

I’ve learned in therapy that we play an important role in healing from trauma. When we learn to pay attention to what we are experiencing in our minds and bodies and practice self care, our brains can begin to rewire themselves. The pathways in our brains can learn to go somewhere besides worse case scenarios.

One of primary tools of EMDR is being able to find a safe or a calm place for our minds to go when we begin to experience the overwhelming emotions of our past traumas. We train our brains through calming techniques and positive imagery to go somewhere besides worse case scenario. It is extremely important that this place be somewhere that we have not experienced any kind of trauma.

For many people, especially Christians, this safe place might be in church. However, if one has suffered from spiritual abuse, church is the very place where trauma occurred. I have discovered that going to church many times does not feel safe. Rather, it is the place where I actually need to practice what I am learning in EMDR.

Listening to Dan Allender’s podcast recently on spiritual abuse, helped me to understand that I have been too hard on myself when it comes to attending church. My attempts to push past the traumatic memories in church have been ineffective. I have gotten into a pattern of thinking that when I feel bad in church it’s because God is not pleased with me. Last week my husband and I prayed for God to help us hear directly from Him outside of church. Then we heard the Allender podcast and experienced the compassion rather than judgement of God. We felt encouraged to look for other ways to experience Him outside of church. My husband and I took yesterday off from church. We spent time outside enjoying nature. We drove out of town and did some shopping and had lunch. It was a good day. It felt safe.

On a side note, I want to say that I have some wonderful friends who are a part of the church. They have been safe people for me. They have listened, loved, helped and encouraged me. They have been the hands and feet of Jesus. However, even for these dear people I think it is difficult for them to grasp how their safe place can feel dangerous to us. Our absence from church and church functions can feel like rejection rather than our own self-care. This is where communication is important. Even as I write this I am searching for the words to say. At the end of the day, all any of us can do is be honest with the people we care about. Even when there isn’t understanding there can still be mutual respect for one another. Those who really care will stick around and try to understand. Those who can’t understand we have to let go of placing expectations on ourselves to keep them happy. We are not giving up on attending church, but we are giving ourselves permission to take care of ourselves.

Listening to Dr. Shapiro’s book last week, I was able to discover my own safe place. It was a memory that I hadn’t thought of in years, but it brought a peace to my heart I desperately needed to experience with all the changes happening.

I found my biological father when I was 19 years old. I drove several hours to another state to spend time with him. Our first night out we went to the bowling ally. We sat at the table eating and smoking a cigarette together. Neither of us smoked on a regular basis. It was simply something we both wanted to do on this night out. As this memory resurfaced in my mind, I felt my stomach relax. I felt heard, loved, listened to and accepted in my biological father’s presence. I felt safe. Even though after this experience I went through a wide range of emotions, I knew in those moments that my Father loved me and that was all that mattered.

As I think back to this memory, I thank God for this reminder. I am able to see that He is a good Father who gives good gifts outside of church. I am comforted to know that He truly does meet us where we are.

The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord , is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the Lord .
Zephaniah 3:15‭-‬20 ESV

Self-Care after Spiritual Abuse

I am too hard on myself.

I push myself to be better than I am.

I want to do everything right.

And keep everyone from getting upset with me.

I realize how much I am doing this to myself when circumstances reveal to me just how out of my control things are.

Then the self-condemnation comes.

I feel overwhelmed, discouraged and wonder if I will ever get any better. It never ceases to amaze me how one triggering event can take my brain to a very dark place.

Most people aren’t able to give us the compassion that we need.

Only the safe ones can.

Especially when we’ve suffered from spiritual abuse.

The same scriptures that give others a reason to hope have been twisted and used to abuse us.

The messages we receive from well intended Christians tell us to forgive. To not get stuck in being a victim. To not let bitterness overtake us. Keep reading scripture. Keep praying. Keep serving Jesus. Keep coming to church.

It’s the best advice they have to give.

These are words that encourage them.

It’s easy to conclude that we must be doing something wrong when these words don’t encourage but rather condemn us even more.

It’s been five years since I last saw the man who abused our family.

And I still find myself believing the lie that the abuse was my fault.

And this lie pushes me to try to be a better Christian than I am and results in me being too hard on myself.

And then I just want to give up.

These are hard things to confess.

I thought I was better than I am.

But the wounds of spiritual abuse run deep.

And just when I think I am moving past them something happens to remind me that they are still there.

The quotes below come from a recent airing on The Allender Center podcast on the subject of spiritual abuse.

Dan: “They’re your guardian. They’re your protector. But they also have access to pass through that boundary and then become your abuser. […] It’s back to mind control. You feel nuts. But then it’s likely reinterpreted that you’re just not trusting God or you’re not believing good things.”

Rachael: “And then it almost feels like part of you goes underground, and then a part of you gets to stay above ground. Which means all this pain in places that actually need a lot of tending, need a lot of care, need a lot of love, are so cut off from God, because it’s now moved into that sense of either being innocent or being stained.”

I realize after reading these words that so much of the time my own pain is hidden from me.

There’s another part of me that can operate and function well on the surface.

This part can go to work and perform well.

This part can go to church and smile, stand in front of the church and read a scripture passage and give others the impression that I am doing fine.

But the reality is there is still so much pain hidden beneath the surface that needs healing.

This podcast helped me to understand how important it is to acknowledge my hidden pain when it comes to the surface.

This painful part of me went underground, because when I trusted the wrong person they used it to abuse and manipulate me.

When someone who is ordained by God to serve, protect and help us trample down our boundaries and get inside our souls and do tremendous damage, the fallout is deep distrust of others and ourselves.

We build walls to protect ourselves.

Walls that give the appearance that we are a lot stronger than what we are.

A couple of therapists gave me valuable advice.

They said to just observe others, especially at church.

To give myself all the time I needed to heal.

I forget this advice a lot.

I get impatient with myself.

I allow the words and expectations of others push me to do more and try harder.

And then I find myself crumbling under their weight.

And the pain comes seeping out.

My husband and I prayed yesterday that God would speak directly to us.

That He would help us to see past people and hear from Him.

And I turned on the Allender podcast and God spoke to the damaged parts of my soul.

And I knew in those moments that God sees our pain.

He knows and hurts for us, too.

He cares and prays for us when we don’t know how to pray for ourselves.

He’s angry about the abuse.

He promises to bring justice.

He promises to wipe away all of our tears.

And He said for me to treat myself with the same compassion He gives me.

I feel the weight of the pressure lift off of my shoulders.

My soul is safe with Him.

I can honor my pain by allowing it to come to the surface for Him to heal.

If your soul has been damaged by spiritual abuse, please know that God understands even when others can’t.

He will not abandon us.

Dan: “We would not be doing this if we did not think there was the potential for deep, deep change. But when you have suffered this deeply in this arena, with the stain of that level of evil, where you have actually come to feel and fear that you are as dark and evil as the person who harmed you, it is very hard to believe that you will have your body back, that this kind of shame which is indelible and permanent will never, ever be able to be escaped, and therefore isn’t it better to just try to isolate, go low, escape from involving. To that I say Hell no, hell no that isn’t true, because Heaven yes, there is actually a redemptive process that will bring you back to regain your body.”

Photo credit

A Healing Response

“Research has shown that the ability of a victim to heal from sexual assault is definitively linked to the response they receive when they disclose.”-Rachael Denhollander

Find out more about this research at: https://buff.ly/2KWRK2M

#EndAbuseEverywhere #SurvivorCare

I had a nightmare last night.

I was being abused again by a man who was supposed to be helping me.

The old familiar feelings of longing for a father’s love, mixed with desire and confusion came flooding back.

It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced these same emotions.

Where did they come from?

Are they still hiding away inside waiting for the right time to come out and pounce on me, my fear is quick to ask?

The only way I know how to deal with these emotions is to write them down.

To bring them out into the light.

To not give my mind a chance to ruminate on them.

To not allow shame to take root.

Darkness is transformed into the light when it is brought out into the light.

I remember that I heard a story yesterday at work that is currently being investigated about a child who is possibly be being abused by a family member.

Her story reminded me of my own.

I felt pain and anger hearing it.

But I didn’t talk to anyone about it.

My mind needed to release what I felt.

And the dream came.

Working in a residential treatment center has taught me how to pay attention to what I feel and find ways to deal with my emotions in a healthier way than I did fifteen years ago when I was abused.

No matter how far away I get from the experience, I still remember the relief from pain that being abused brought.

That’s a hard thing to confess.

I cannot express enough the importance of having safe people in our lives to process our pain with.

Pain creates a deep need for relief.

True relief is not escape.

True relief comes from being honest with myself and God about where my pain comes from.

It comes from a desire for true connection with people who will look out for me and keep me safe.

There’s a big void in my life where a loving, protective father should have been.

Instead, I had a father who brought me harm.

It’s a loss that I have spent a lifetime experiencing.

It’s a loss I continue to grieve.

We do not have an opportunity to grow up and be parented again.

We can only start where we are with the people who are around us.

I confess trust is still hard for me.

But I have come to realize that trust is crucial to my healing.

Trust enables us to receive goodness and hope again.

Without trust and others to connect with my world becomes dull and cynical as my heart grows harder.

But thank God He doesn’t ever stop working the soil of our hearts, so that hope can grow.

People are often the tools God uses to work the soil.

A therapist who lovingly walked and processed with me through my darkest secrets and most horrific pain.

A kind friend sitting across the table in a coffee shop listening to me with compassion and empathy.

A pastor’s wife who believes and accepts me despite my past.

Coworkers and supervisors who have kept healthy boundaries and treated me with dignity and respect consistently day after day.

A husband who has forgiven me time and time again.

Children who love me unconditionally despite all the ways I haven’t been there for them.

All of these and others have been God’s tools and a testimony of His hope.

They reveal to me how much our loving responses to one another bring about His healing and relief.

“Research has shown that the ability of a victim to heal from sexual assault is definitively linked to the response they receive when they disclose.”
-Rachael Denhollander.

I agree wholeheartedly with Rachel.

My own experiences have taught me that the way people respond to our abuse disclosers tremendously impact our healing.

God, grant us the wisdom and grace to learn how to respond well to one another.

To love with healthy boundaries.

To report abuse to the police.

To love without judgement or condemnation.

To listen and learn from one another.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord ‘s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord , that he may be glorified.
Isaiah 61:1‭-‬3 ESV

Once you see the scriptures through a lens of abuse, Hankel told me, you can’t unsee it. This lens makes us cautious to use biblical phrases such as “turn the other cheek” and further complicates traditionally venerated biblical figures—even the “great King David.”

When we preach or write or offer counsel, this lens prompts us to ask ourselves, Would these words be healing and empowering to a person facing violence? And this lens changes the way we see Jesus: publicly abused, but wholly liberated. And if this is how we see Christianity’s central figure, how might we re-center the vulnerable at every level of the church?

Let There be Light by Jenna Barret

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The Gift of Hope

Real hope does not put us to shame.

I spent some time this morning thinking about these words.

It has been fifteen years since I knelt beside a man that I called pastor and asked him to give me something he was not able to give.

Hope.

I did not know at the time how desperately I longed for a father’s love.

I did not know how much pain I was in.

His hug that day caused my brain to wake up to it.

And I believed he was my hope.

But the hope that he gave brought me much shame.

This is the time of the year that it happened, and I find myself struggling more than usual.

Sometimes I find it difficult to read the scriptures and find hope, because I am reminded of this shame.

Sometimes sitting in church I am overwhelmed with memories of it through a song or sermon.

Sometimes, on the really bad days, I wonder if I will carry the weight of this shame for the rest of my life?

How much more can I possibly write about it?

How much more can I possibly say that I forgive?

What else needs to be said to finally put this memory to rest for good?

I wish I knew.

But thank God He meets us where we are, even on the really bad days.

And He reminds me to take life one day at a time.

Trusting that He will see me through even when I wonder if He has abandoned me.

I confess sometimes it just feels too hard.

I heard a pastor discussing spiritual abuse a while ago.

He said that often people don’t know how to stop being a victim after being abused.

His words hurt even if they were true.

It’s hard not to get stuck in being a victim when one has been victimized.

None of us like to believe that suffering can be so out of our control.

We’d much rather assume that a person who is suffering isn’t doing enough.

They just don’t have enough faith.

They just aren’t pursuing God enough.

Reading their Bible enough.

Praying enough.

Surely God would not allow a person to suffer so much.

Try telling that to someone with a cancer diagnosis.

Why is mental illness any different?

It’s so important that we do not judge one another in our suffering.

Only when we learn listen to our own pain and one another’s pain can we bring healing and relief to those who are hurting.

We are not victims.

We are survivers.

We learn to be thrivers despite what we have been through.

I believe it.

But it is a process.

And there is no exact formula for everyone.

God heals us in His own time and in ways that He knows we need.

My therapist has said to me more than once that the definition of responsibility is the ability to respond.

Respond to life’s circumstances one day at the time in a better way than we did before.

Learn from the past.

What we see we will not unsee.

Respond differently.

Respond better.

Speak up.

Be honest.

Be kind to ourselves.

Ask for help.

Never give up.

Look to God for help.

For me this looks like today reading one scripture verse.

One simple promise.

That God’s hope does not disappoint.

His love has not abandoned us.

It is the gift of hope.

And real hope does not put us to shame.

Changes

“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
Isaiah 43:18‭-‬19 ESV

Lately, I’ve been thinking that God is going to change some things in my life, and I am scared to death.

Why do we resist change?

What is it about it that feels like such a threat?

Change means that we temporarily will be in unfamiliar territory where we will feel out of control.

But newness cannot come without change.

As I think about changes, my mind goes back to situations that have not turned out at all like I thought they would.

I was so full of hope when my pastor told me I would be delivered. I believed that God was going to heal me. But then I was harmed even more.

Remember not the former things…

But how can I forget?

I long to forget.

To grab hold of the new.

But what keeps me from it?

Fear of more disappointment and pain.

Is God playing tricks on me?

Can He be trusted to really deliver on His promises?

The conversation in my head sounds all too familiar.

The garden.

A serpent.

Filling her head with lies.

And she listened.

So did I.

So do I.

But how do I not listen and believe his lies?

Especially when changes come.

Especially when I have lost so much.

What is holding me back?

Grief.

So much.

Why can’t I let go?

What do I need to let go of to grab hold of something new?

Control of my emotions.

It is OK to admit that I am not strong.

That I need help.

Getting help makes me vulnerable.

How do I know that I won’t be harmed again?

I don’t know that I won’t.

But I do know now that I have choices even if someone tries to abuse me.

God has given me a voice to stop it and to ask for help.

Not everyone is out to abuse.

Some people care.

It’s ok to let them.

Help me, God.

Help my unbelief.

Help me to let go.

To accept change.

To receive the new.

To hope again.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV

The Power of Love

A few weeks ago, I started to read the book The Power of Attachment. The book by Diane Poole Heller talks about the different ways we connect to one another in relationships, and the importance that our early childhood plays in developing these attachments.

I was born in a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers. My biological mother was raised Catholic. Her parents sent her away to give birth to me. She only held me for a few moments before I was handed over to the State and placed in the home of a foster parent for three months. After three months, I was adopted by my parents. From my baby pictures, I appeared to be a well adjusted and happy child. However, my earliest memories as a child communicate to me that I struggled most of the time with feeling like I belonged. Up until I was in my twenties, I believed that there was something wrong with me. I thought that being adopted and not being a blood relative of my family was what caused me to feel out of place. But then I found both of my biological parents, and realized that I still felt disconnected.

Reading Diane’s book has helped me to see that my lack of connection is about more than being adopted. What it is about is being raised by parents who did not know how to connect with me in a healthy way. Parents who didn’t connect with their parents either. My adopted mother’s mom died when she was just a little girl. She had very few memories of her, and didn’t talk about her father much either. My adopted father’s mother lived until I was in my twenties. He spent a lot of time talking about how she favored his brother over him. His father died when he was a child. His earliest memories were of him shooting up morphine in front of him.

I spent my childhood believing that I was the reason that I couldn’t connect with my parents. Even though they provided for my physical needs, I felt responsible for my own emotional needs and insanely for theirs, too. Sexual abuse taught me that it was my responsibility to meet my father’s emotional needs. It was also up to me to keep this secret from my mother. I had to work really hard to do my part to keep everyone happy. I felt like I lived in a minefield waiting for the next explosion to go off. I thought if I watched my every step I could keep something else bad from happening. Even though it didn’t work, I never stopped trying to make it work. It was the only thing I knew to do to survive.

Diane Heller provides exercises in her book to help people like me who grew up not feeling attached to start a process of feeling more secure. One of the exercises says to imagine having parents who had relationships with others in their lives who met their emotional needs. She said to visualize what it would have been like if our mother had friends she went out with who brought her happiness. As I visualized this, it felt like the knots in my stomach began to relax. Momma did not need me to do everything right to be happy. She was happy all on her own. I wasn’t walking in a mine field where I had to focus on my every step. I could focus on just being myself. I could see clearly through this practice that the reason I felt disconnected as a child was because I never felt the freedom to just be myself.

Other exercises in the book encourage the reader to think about the people in our lives who they felt safe around and remember how these people made them feel. I experienced relief as I thought back to an older couple who were friends with my mom. I stayed with them for a week when my parents went out of town. Their house was in the country. I chased chickens around their back yard. I sat on the porch drinking lemonade and eating homemade goodies. I went to the store and got a brown paper sack full of candy. It felt safe to be myself.

God talks about us coming to Him as little children, but I have so few memories of times when I felt like I could be a little child. I don’t know how to be a child and this has greatly effected my ability to connect with God. I am realizing that I still spend a lot of life feeling like I am walking through a mine field. There has been so much loss in my life that I wonder if I will ever find the freedom to be myself again.

I confess I struggle with feeling angry and cynical about how my life has been. Am I destined to be forever disconnected from God because I do not even know how to come to Him as a little child? I confess it feels impossible to me and with the religious abuse I experienced no where at all feels safe. The only thing I know to do is to continue to be honest about the struggles that I have with God and with others who are safe. In church it has been very challenging to find these people. Too often I hear judgment in their comments or quick fixes that sound more about control than a relationship with God. I cannot continue to sit through conversations like this. I desperately long to connect with God. I want to believe that He is a Father who wants to bring me only good. But these days I’m struggling with this. Even though our relationship with God is based on faith and not by sight, I see how much relationships play a part in revealing the goodness of God to people. Jesus had relationships with people. He didn’t tell them to just believe and walk away. He risked and really cared even though He knew that they would abandon Him when He needed them the most. When I think about this part of the story and Who God is through Jesus, I realize He doesn’t need me to do anything to meet His needs. I can be the kid who chases chickens in the back yard. I can laugh and drink lemonade on the front porch. I can find the relief of just being myself. This is the Gospel. It really is good news. This is the hope that I hold onto even when I feel like I am walking through a mine field. Truly, it’s a miracle that I even believe in Him at all. But faith is a mystery and a gift that we are not responsible for acquiring on our own. I so need God’s help every moment to give me the strength to keep moving forward, but I also need other people who are willing to hang in there in a relationship with me. People who do not need me to meet their emotional needs and keep them happy. People who love me right where I am struggling with all of my doubts and cynicism. I pray that God would help me to be this kind of person to others, too. In a world where half the people do not feel securely attached in their relationships, I believe that this is what Jesus has called us to be to one another. If all we are doing is telling others what to believe and what to do without investing time in relationships, we are missing the life giving portion of the message. I’m tired of cold and empty religion. I’m tired of just surviving. I pray that God would help us to see how desperately we need love and connection to one another. It’s the only way the world can know that we belong to Him. It’s the only way to give each other real hope.

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

Learning to Live with Losses

When someone loses a limb, everyone knows they won’t grow another to replace it. Learning to live with this reality is challenging, of course, but there’s no emotional energy wasted on waiting, hoping, trying to grow a new one. Odelya Gertel Kraybill Ph.D., The Pain of Trauma, Psychology Today

If only we could see clearly what we have lost due to trauma in our lives, maybe we would be easier on ourselves. However, when we look in the mirror we look just like anyone else, and we wonder why we can’t just function like everyone else.In faith communities especially, we hear about overcoming our fears with faith, doing all things through Christ who gives us strength, pressing on towards the goal of our upward calling, and sometimes we walk away feeling like failures when we struggle.I want to be stronger than what I am. I want to go back to being the person that I was before I was spiritually abused, but the reality is I can’t.Making this statement is not about feeling sorry for myself. It’s not about wallowing in self pity. It’s not about being a victim. It’s about being able to recognize my losses and move forward, accepting the fact that I am not the same person that I was. I have new limitations. There are painful reminders that will continue to remind me of the things that I have lost. I cannot just suck it up, fake it til I make it, and move on. I’ve tried and it doesn’t work. Everytime I wind up biting off more than I can chew and regretting it later on.The only way to move forward is to honor my pain and accept where I am in my healing journey.I realized recently that I push myself too much in church. I sit through conversations that bring confusion and pain about God. These conversations cause me to slide back into fear, apathy, and the feeling that I’m struggling alone. An important part of my healing journey has been learning my limitations and giving myself a lot of grace when I am not where I wish I was in my healing journey. It really is ok to struggle and feel weak. These are the times God says we experience His strength the most.Today I deleted half of my friends on Facebook. People who were a part of a very difficult season of life. For my own healing and peace of mind, I needed to let them go. Saying goodbye to some of them was especially hard. I didn’t want to let go of the hope that one day we would have the friendship we had before. But I knew it was time to trust God with what is ahead.Wherever you are in your healing journey, know that God is right by your side and that He is kind, compassionate and loving towards you. Embrace His comfort. Be kind to yourself. We will see the goodness of God in the land of the living again. He promises.

A Good Father

I want my children to know who they really are.

I want them to recognize those things within themselves that make them unique in a way no one else can be.

I want them to feel connected to themselves and their Creator.

I want them to not struggle with knowing who they are.

I want them to know they belong always with us and to God.

I don’t want them to be lonely or afraid.

I want them to rest in knowing we are always here for them and we will never reject them no matter what.

This is love.

It isn’t dependent on anything.

It doesn’t require anything.

It simply just is.

Why do I struggle so much with knowing God wants all the same things for His Children?

Why do I feel so much fear about the uncertainty of things?

Why do I get lost and confused when the outlook is bleak?

The nature of our humanity wants to be in control.

It does not like to wait.

It wants to see the solution.

It experiences great pain when it can’t.

God knows that our humanity is dust.

We get blown away by every wind of change.

For those of us who have not experienced a good example of earthly parents, God knows especially how strong our need for control is? He sees our despair when we just can’t hold it all together anymore.

He is a Father to the fatherless.

He keeps our tears in a bottle, because we are the apple of His eye.

Deep in my heart I know this, but my brain shouts so loud at times I can’t hear it.

I need to be kind to myself and wait for the voices in my head to die down.

How can I trust Him when all I’ve ever been able to trust is myself? When so much in my life has ended badly? My own control hasn’t worked out so well either.

How can I know who He is really when I am regularly reminded of a man who taught me how to twist His words in the one place I learn about Him the most in church? It’s very hard to get past ten years of verses, experiences and songs that ended in such a bad way. Our memory is such a part of our everyday lives. So many of our decisions are based on good or bad experiences that we have had. The profound life changing experiences I’ve had with God are what keep me going back despite all of the memories. The relationships with others in the past who have brought me joy keep me encouraging me to not give up on the church.

Gradually I’m beginning to see that God is a good Father who wants to give us good gifts.

He wants us to know who we are.

He wants us to see our uniqueness and know that we matter.

He wants us to know we belong to Him.

He expects nothing in return.

His love isn’t dependent on anything.

It just is.

Perfect love without fear of punishment.

Dust brought together.

Wholeness.

Life.

The wind blows away only what isn’t necessary anymore.

What’s left is who I really am in Him.

If I chase the wind to catch what is blowing away, I am bringing more pain to myself.

New life calls me to move forward despite the past.

It is hard.

But it is the only way.

To find myself.

To find others who care.

To find Him.

Father, light the path and lead the way with your goodness and mercy.

“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.
Matthew 7:9‭-‬11 NLT