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

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

My Story – Part 1 The Truth that Sets Us Free

It is the truth alone that is able to set us free from the lies our enemy uses to snare us. 

Since I first published my story on this blog, a lot has happened. The hash tags #MeToo, #churchtoo and #silenceisnotspirtual have been appearing regularly in my social media feed. More and more victims have found the courage to step forward and expose the dark secrets of sexual abuse. While I am encouraged by the truth being exposed, I have also been overwhelmed by how much sexual abuse has happened to children and adults inside the church. Boz Tchividjian with the organization GRACE (Godly Response against Abuse in a Christian Environment) has stated that he believes the evangelical church has exceeded the Catholic church in incidences of abuse. This is a terrible tragedy when a place of hope becomes a place where abuse runs rampant. As Christ followers, I believe we must make every effort to protect the church from this. My own personal story is an effort to make Christians aware of what is happening, so that we can prevent further harm.

I wrote my story originally here in 2014. Recently, after discussing it with my therapist, I decided to rewrite my story and leave out some of the specific details that might be harmful to others who were not directly involved if my identity is ever revealed, as well as add some new insights that I have gained since I started the healing process.

I started attending the church where my abuse occurred in December of 2003. My husband, myself and our three kids almost immediately felt a part of this congregation after only a few Sundays. The people were friendly, the teaching was encouraging, and most of all the hurts we had been experiencing in our previous church were no longer right in front of us. My husband’s family had been at our previous church, and we had been caught up in the middle of a lot past trauma that was resurfacing in his family from a lifetime of abuse and manipulation from his alcoholic father. We needed to find a safe haven away from all of that, and believed this church was the answer to our prayers.

The pastor of this church called me out of the blue one day after we had only attended the church two Sundays. He said that he had been thinking about us and wanted to know if there was a good time for him to come visit. A few nights later, he was sitting in our den. He made us feel so cared about that we began to tell him about the hurts we were experiencing from my husband’s family. Up until this pastor came for a visit, we had not had anyone to talk to about these hurts. We were so relieved to have someone listen. And we became fast friends with him.

After a few months, when I was more comfortable with the pastor, I sent him an email asking for advice about a situation in our previous church involving a guy friend who had left the faith. I was beating myself up over the situation, because my husband’s family had told me that I shouldn’t have been close friends with a person of the opposite sex. Even though the relationship had been totally appropriate, I still felt guilty. (This was normal for me. Growing up in an abusive home, I had carried around guilt for most of my life for everything that went wrong. ) The pastor responded quickly giving me encouragement and reassurance. In the email, he also shared how he had formed emotional connections with several women over the course of his ministry, and that it had never been innapropriate. He let me know quickly he welcomed communication from women in the church.

I had never met anyone abused by a pastor before. I had no idea how much this kind of abuse actually happened. I thought it only happened in cults or crazy religious belief systems. I believed if women followed their husband and other male leaders in their lives that they would be protected by God. As our email correspondence turned into more and more phone conversations, I believed that this pastor was just being a good friend and leader to me. The attention he was giving me made me feel very special. He was old enough to be my father, and since my relationship with my adopted father had never been good, I was very happy about this. However, something about the relationship I had with him also began to bring up some past trauma that I had not ever processed with anyone. Memories of sexual abuse by my adopted father began to resurface. I was overwhelmed and confused and started to share with the pastor over the phone what I was experiencing. One day, the pastor called me and said he had developed a strong emotional attachment to me unlike any other he’d had. Even though I was somewhat taken aback by his words, I also felt more whole hearing them. As an adopted child, I had always felt somewhat disconnected from others. I thought his attachment to me meant that I had finally bonded with someone.

In the summer of 2004, the pastor and I met for the first time in his office. The pastor’s wife kept my kids in the church’s back nursery while we sat in his office on the other end of the church. I began talking to him about some of the memories I was having. He listened and told me he believed that I would be delivered from all of the trauma of the past. The pastor asked me what I really wanted meeting with him. I told him that it was to be loved. We had discussed him giving me a hug during our time together on the phone earlier. I believed if he hugged me that it would help me to heal. The moment felt surreal as I knelt on the floor next to his chair and he began to hug me. It felt like a lifetime had passed as he gently rubbed my back. When we got up to leave the room, the pastor looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “I don’t understand this, but I love you.” I was so flabbergasted by his words, that I didn’t know what to say. I think I may have mumbled that I loved him, too. I can’t really remember anything other than being flooded with powerful emotions. All I knew was I believed I had found the person I belonged with. I also believed wholeheartedly that God had healed a deep brokenness inside of me. I was so overwhelmed when I left the church that I literally felt drunk.

However, what I thought was my dream come true quickly turned dark. The next day the pastor called me with devastating news. He said his wife was upset over our hug in his office and she was insisting that he refer me to a counselor. He expressed that he wished he had not even told her about the hug, but he said he had been overwhelmed by the experience and told her without thinking. He said when he hugged me it felt like he had stepped on a rattlesnake. Needless to say, I was utterly confused. I had walked away from the experience the day before believing that God had healed me. Listening to him compare it to stepping on a poisionous snake, turned my hope to shame. I became upset and begged him not to refer me to someone else. As I look back on that time, I cannot help but wonder if that had been his plan all along. He called me a little later and said his wife had reluctantly agreed for me to be counseled by him on the phone. After a few days, we began working through the book On the Threshold of Hope by Diane Langberg. Ironically, Dr. Langberg shared in the earliest chapters of her book about appropriate boundaries when counseling victims of sexual abuse. The pastor talked about it with me. He said he knew he hadn’t kept appropriate boundaries with me. He even said others in ministry would call what had happened abusive. He said that no one could understand the relationship we had except God. And I believed him.

It was understood that he could not touch me again in front of his wife. However, our meetings continued. I’d go by the church to see him when it was safe to get a hug. He came by my house sometimes, too. Everytime I was with him those first few months, I felt like I was drunk. I had no idea at the time that what had actually happened was I had become addicted to him. As more and more memories of my past began to resurface, I became even more dependent on him. There were days I didn’t even want to move out of my bedroom as the memories of sexual abuse that came up as a result of our counseling flooded my mind. It was difficult for me to even take care of my kids I was so traumatized. He talked me out my despair, so I could get up and do what I needed to do. Sometimes our phone conversations went on for hours, and we didn’t miss one day of talking. I continued to believe it was because he was the person God had put in my life to take the place of the father I had always wanted.

As I look back on those times, I can see clearly now that I was disoriented, disconnected and sometimes even totally dissociated from reality. It’s still difficult not to feel shame over how decieved I was, and it’s important that I remind myself that I was mentally very ill and vulnerable during this time. I remember even begging him to adopt me and believing that he might actually do it. But then one day after I’d begged him to do this, he dropped a bomb on me. I say a bomb because it crushed all of my hopes about our relationship as soon as it hit. He told me, “Not only do I love you like a father would a child, but I love you like a man would a wife.” He said, “If we lived in another time and place, I would marry you.” Then he made me promise I would take that secret to my grave. He also said that we were soul mates. In those moments, everything changed for me. The lie I had always believed about myself that everything bad that had happened to me was my fault flooded my mind. I believed my adopted father’s sexual abuse was my fault. I believed something dark inside of me brought it out in him. I believed that I had done the same thing to this pastor, and that no one could love me the way they were supposed to.

I believed I was bad and I accepted the sick and twisted version of what I convinced myself was the only kind of love that I was worthy to receive; sexual abuse.

Everything went downhill from there. It’s not helpful to talk about the details to me or anyone else, but a secret relationship continued for almost a decade after that. I learned to live a double life. I learned how to keep secrets even though they were crushing my soul. Even though I tried really hard to convince myself that what I was experiencing with this pastor was love, God wouldn’t let me believe it.

My heart was in chaos and pain every single day, because God never stopped pursuing me.

I have been blogging here for four years now. Every blog has been an effort to understand what happened to me and how to protect myself from it happening again. I’ve met many others on this journey who have shared stories which have been remarkably similar to my own. They are so resembling my story that it feels like abusers all use the same playbook. However, I’ve come to recognize it isn’t actually a playbook they are following, but rather a carefully crafted plan laid out by a very worthy adversary who knows us and our weaknesses better than we know them ourselves.

It is the truth alone that is able to set us free from the lies our enemy uses to snare us.

The truth about ourselves and our weaknesses.

The truth about our legitimate needs.

The truth about how much God loves us no matter what.

His perfect love casts out all fear.

In Christ Jesus, we have been set free.

We are no longer slaves.

He must increase.

We must decrease.

No man can ever take His place.

He does not share His glory with anyone.

These truths are the treasure hidden in the field that once we know it is there we will sell everything to aquire it.

Because we know how priceless it is.

Don’t stop seeking the truth.

God is truth.

We meet Him when we are honest with ourselves.

Honest with each other.

And honest with God.

He is real.

Don’t give up.

My story is a testimony that He is a God who keeps His promises.

Even what the enemy meant for evil, God will work it for our good.

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”
Matthew 11:28‭-‬30 NLT

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Galatians 5:1 ESV

You are Faithful Forever

Perfect in Love

You Are Sovereign over us.

Michael W. Smith

Something Real

I wholeheartedly agree that it’s better to be out of church than in the wrong one.

I just finished reading Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Ester. Before I purchased this book, I didn’t have any idea how beneficial and encouraging it would be to me as a survivor of spiritual abuse. I did not know how similar our stories would be. Though Elizabeth grew up in a very legalistic cult called The Assembly in California, and I experienced abuse from a mainline denomination that puts a lot of emphasis on grace and not legalism, the effects of spiritual abuse that I have had are much the same as those Elizabeth experienced coming out of a cult. Her story was a huge comfort to me, and if you haven’t read it I highly recommend it. There is also a Ted Talk Why I Left an Evangelical Cult given by her sister, Dawn Smith, that is very encouraging. I’m amazed by the resilience of these women, and hope that I can one day experience the freedom to share openly about my own spiritually abusive situation without feeling so much fear of rejection. Elizabeth and Dawn have let me know that it is possible to get to the other side of spiritual abuse and offer hope and healing to others. I believe that one day my day will come, but I also know that right now it’s ok to be where I am in the healing process, and blogging anonymously here. No matter where you are in the process of healing, please know it’s ok, too.

Elizabeth describes her struggles in the book with severe anxiety at church. Like us, her and her husband tried attending church not long after they both left the cult. After much mental anguish, Elizabeth was encouraged by her counselor to take a break from attending church to give herself time to heal.

We, too, have struggled so much the past three years with attending church. My husband and I have visited eight different churches since leaving our abusive church, three we stayed at for a significant period of time time, five we visited once and never went back. We stayed out of church for several months and always felt like something was missing from our lives. We’ve consistently listened to podcasts associated with Keylife Network, because of their consistent emphasis on God’s freedom, grace and love. They have been a lifeline to us. But we have continued to feel that there is something missing from our lives, and we have come to realize it’s less about church attendance and more about relationships with people who truly desire to know God.

After Elizabeth leaves The Assembly cult, and begins to attend a Catholic church without her husband, Matt, who also left The Assembly, he is frustrated and declares:

After everything we went through in The Assembly, why would you want to go to a church that regularly makes headlines with scandals by men in authority?… What else is drawing you there? Why are you always looking for something better?”

Elizabeth responds:

I’m not looking for something better, Matt. I just want something real.

Her words ressonate with me in a powerful way. Ever since we left our abusive church three years ago, I’ve been looking for something that has taken us through the doors of one church after another only to come out disillusioned and empty handed. I have been looking for something real and for whatever reason have not been able to find it. Maybe because it hasn’t been there. Or maybe because I’ve been too afraid to find it.

Recently, I had coffee with a friend who shared with me about her own frustrations with the church. She’s worn out with the narcissistic leadership, codependency, and rules based religion taught in the church. She longs for something real, too, but based on our conversation that night she’s given up on finding it inside a church building. She is not alone in her conclusion. Others who have been through similar experiences are leaving the church as well. I would be the last one to tell them they are doing something wrong. My mother-in-law, after being married to an abusive man for over 20 years, came to the conclusion and said it to us regularly, “It’s better to be alone than to be married to some people!”

I wholeheartedly agree that it’s better to be out of church than in the wrong one.

The question is, is there a real one?

Honestly, I’ve almost come to the same conclusion my friend has many times in saying that true fellowship is not found in traditional church. However, when I look back to times spent with good friends who were a part of the church, I realize that this statement is not true of my experiences. I still miss the genuine relationships I had with others in our previous church. Once I began to break away from the suffocating relationship with the abusive pastor, I began to find room in my life and heart for other people. Even though I didn’t find the words to tell them the truth until I exposed the pastor’s abuse, I had very much wanted to tell these few people the truth. And I still miss them very much.

In writing this blog, I have found fellowship and understanding from others who have not judged me. You have been a safe place. You have been my church. Many of you have similar stories. Many of you long for the same thing I do. I so appreciate your support. But I’m still looking for something real in the church.

If you’ve followed much of my blog, you have walked through the doors of these churches with me. You have experienced the hope I have felt as well as the disappointment and disillusionment with the church. I think I have said to myself after every church that this is the last one. I won’t go down this path again and be disappointed yet again.

And here we are into our fifth week at our ninth church in three years. Maybe some of you are thinking we are a living example of the word insanity. Maybe we are crazy. Or maybe we are crazy like a fox as Steve Brown likes to say. No matter what conclusion you come to, this is our story – we have not given up hope.

Recently, I had coffee with a female deacon from our latest church. After the damage I’ve experienced from abusive men, it’s refreshing to talk to a female leader in the church. She listened to my story and shared her own painful one. Ironically, her and her family left the same denomination we did. This past Sunday we learned that the pastor of the same church grew up in The Assembly cult. I was blown away because I’d never even heard of the cult until I watched Dawn’s Ted Talk the day before.

I wonder what God is doing?

Maybe this church is different.

Maybe it’s something real.

“Ask and keep on asking and it will be given to you; seek and keep on seeking and you will find; knock and keep on knocking and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who keeps on asking receives, and he who keeps on seeking finds, and to him who keeps on knocking, it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will [instead] give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will [instead] give him a snake? If you then, evil (sinful by nature) as you are, know how to give good and advantageous gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven [perfect as He is] give what is good and advantageous to those who keep on asking Him.
MATTHEW 7:7‭-‬11 AMP

Don’t give up hope. God knows what we need!

Helping Those Who Are Traumatized by the Church 

Traumatized people need to know first that God cares about their pain.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord ’s favor has come. ”

Luke 4:18‭-‬19 NLT

I watched a snippet of a sermon from a church in another town a couple of days ago.  My husband is considering a job change which could eventually cause us to move.  Even though church has been a source of great trauma for our family, we still very much want to be a part of a church. We believe that God created us for fellowship with one another. We agree with God that it is not good for us to be alone. But after listening to five minutes of the message from this church,  I turned it off. The pastor was doing what I have heard quite a few pastors do, and that’s criticize those who do not go to church. He actually called the person who had written an article about not going to church stupid.  I don’t know about you, but I do not believe criticizing someone who does not go to church, is an effective way to encourage people to attend church.  I believe the most effective way of getting people to come to church is providing an environment where they understand that Jesus meets them where they are.

I watched the video Hope Rising created by the  American Bible Society again last night. It addresses the issue of helping those who have suffered from trauma connect with God. The video points out that people who suffer from traumatic experiences struggle to connect with God until they have worked through their trauma. Traumatized people need to know first that God cares about their pain.

God does care about our pain. So much so that the Bible says He keeps our tears in a bottle. When I allow myself to think about this truth alone I am moved in the deepest part of my soul. The Bible also says God is near to the brokenhearted. A bruised reed He will not break. A smoking flax He will not put out. These truths are a healing balm to my hurting and traumatized soul.

I believe a lot of churches do a good job of teaching these truths to their members. The heart of the Gospel after all is Jesus loved us so much that He died to save us from the brokenness and sin in this world. However, for those of us who have been traumatized by religion attending church can be exceedingly difficult. And when pastors preach that those who do not go to church are stupid it definitely does not help!

I recognize that for those in ministry it is difficult to meet everyone just where they are, especially those who have been harmed by the church and find it difficult to attend.  How can a pastor help someone who struggles to come to the place where he has been called to teach? I think it is important to note that Jesus spent a lot of time talking about false teachers and the damage they cause. He warned that false teachers would continue to increase in the church.  The Apostle Paul also warned about the same thing.  So one way pastors can help those in their congregation who have suffered from abuse in a religious environment, is take the time to acknowledge that abuse does occur in the church and have a plan to deal with it when it does before it happens!  I am absolutely heartbroken over stories of abuse that I read about happening in the church today and the pastors who are covering it up or worse blaming the victim. This is an insidious thing. We in the church of Jesus Christ must acknowledge that abuse does occur in the church. We need to give those who have been abused in the church permission to talk about it and to grieve it.  We must bring it into the light where it can be talked about and heal. As long as we are more concerned about our reputation and not those who are hurting in our congregations, we will not be effective in carrying out the hope of the Gospel the way God has called us to.

Another thing that I believe that churches can do to help those who have suffered abuse in the church is remind them it is OK not to attend church. When someone you know has been abused by the church does not attend, let them know that you care, but also remind them it is OK to take time away, too. Send them a link for the sermon and ask them how you can pray for them.  Also, equip others in the church who are empathetic and willing to meet with those who are hurting one on one. In my own personal experience,  one on one is less intimidating than a group. We are all on different journeys and sometimes we can traumatize one another without meaning to.

The most important thing is be patient and don’t push. If a person who has been harmed by the church needs to sit on the back row every Sunday for five years or more, then let them.  Give them space, but also let them know you care by reaching out from time to time.  This will go a long way in helping with the healing process that will only come with time and gained trust.

I read a quote from Diane Langberg recently that trauma is the biggest mission field of the 21st century.   It is more important now more than ever that we in the church be equipped to serve in these areas. This includes ministering especially to those who have been harmed by religion.  I encourage you if you are in ministry, take the time to educate yourself about trauma and abuse in the church.  

Here are a couple of websites that are very helpful :

Global Trauma Recovery 

Trauma Healing Institution

God, PTSD and Choices 

And despite my PTSD, in the depths of my soul, I know that He is a safe place for me.  

Show me the right path, O Lord ; point out the road for me to follow. Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me. All day long I put my hope in you.

Psalms 25:4‭-‬5 NLT

I struggle with PTSD. I have for most of my life. I did not want to believe that this condition was something that I would have to learn to live with, but the more I’ve learned through counseling and reading about PTSD, I have had to accept that it is something I suffer from.  I read a New York Times article recently about PTSD and it’s causes, symptoms, and the new treatments that are proving to be successful. Bessel Van der Kolk, a psychiatrist whose whole life has been been spent learning about trauma, also author of The Body Keeps the Score, has made a lot of headway in helping people with PTSD live with trauma. I’ve come to understand from his work how being exposed to trauma can cause even the normal things in life to be exceedingly difficult at times for those who suffer with PTSD.  Those of us struggling with PTSD have to learn how to live with memories that sometimes play on an endless loop in our minds. Treatment often involves dealing with the traumatic memories in an environment that is safe until one becomes desensitized to the dedlbilitating effects of the memories.  I am still very much on a journey of learning how to live with PTSD. The more I’m learning to deal with the pain of the trauma from my past with my counselor and with safe people who understand, the more hope I have that I can function in life with PTSD.  I’ve also discovered the more I am able to remind myself of God’s presence constantly with me and keeping my soul safe, I also find the effects of PTSD are becoming more manageable in my life. But I have to be honest, living with PTSD is still difficult, and what makes it even harder is that others who are not struggling do not understand why simple choices can be so hard.  Please know if you are suffering with PTSD that God understands your struggles and He does not ever condemn you for what you are having to overcome.  He has compassion for you and grieves with you in your pain. I believe that knowing this is the most important truth that we can cling to when the effects of trauma feel overwhelming. 

I have discovered that a sure way to trigger my PTSD is to give me an important choice to make.  It’s about way more than choosing what flavor ice cream or what kind of K-cups I want for my coffee machine, even though sometimes I find these simple choices challenging, it’s about deciding about something that will totally disrupt my daily routine. Ultimately, the serious choices we are called to make at certain times in our lives remind us how really out of our control circumstances can be. And for those of us who desperately cling to control for security that is tough! 

Very little about our circumstances have been predictable since our family left the place we’d lived our whole lives.  I took it for granted how much the familiarity of the place I’d always called home gave me the comfort of predictability. I believed that moving would give our family the opportunity to start fresh, but I had no idea how difficult starting over would be. Just because we change location does not mean that we change who we really are and the obstacles we must overcome. As a matter of fact, changing location produces a whole new set of problems. 

I don’t mean to be discouraging if you are considering a move. Moving was the only choice I believe that our family had to keep ourselves together and sane. We desperately needed to get away from the people, places and things that triggered so much pain in our lives. God had not given us the grace to stay there, and He was compassionate to our cries to get out and opened the door quickly for us to move.  

However, so much has been unstable since we moved. Our children have struggled to make friends. We’ve drifted in and out of churches that we’d hoped would be where we belonged. We’ve felt like strangers in a strange land having lost the familiarity of the place we had always called home. Although our children have begun to make friends and we believe we’ve finally found a church where we belong, my husband is on his third job and has recently had to cut back on his hours due to recent back surgery and his continued struggles with depression and anxiety. I’m currently out of work after quitting a job in a work situation recently that triggered me terribly, and now I am faced with the dilemma of where to go to work again. 

I was asked to make a choice last week about going back to place I’d worked a year ago that I had grown to feel a part of, but due to budget cuts I was laid off quickly with little notice. It was a change that took me by surprise and yet another loss that I had to grieve.  The amount of hours I’ve been asked to work this time are not certain. I’ve also been warned that the things may still be unstable there. Although, I need the work I became overwhelmed by the possibility of going to work and things being unstable again. I’m so very tired of things changing. I long for some consistency and stability in my life. 

When one suffers from PTSD, triggers cause the warning system of our brains to override the thinking parts of our brains. This has been the case with making a decision about this job. My fear of change and losing control kicked my amygdala into overdrive, but finally after talking to my husband he was able to get my prefrontal cortex operating again. He encouraged me to take my time in making a decision and not to jump into anything I was not certain about.  I’ve applied for other jobs that have the potential to provide tasks more consistent with my talents and offer the potential for more stability and potential growth. This week is the last full week that our children are out of school.  It’s also the week that I have asked the Lord to open opportunities for another job that He may have for me or encourage me to go back to where I was and trust Him with the uncertainties. Change is coming whether I want it to or not! 

Trusting God with major choices is really difficult for me. There’s so much about His role as Father that I am still seeking to understand.  The traumatic relationship with my own adopted father is almost impossible not to project onto God at times. How can I learn to trust God as a good father when the man who raised me caused me to lose so much of who I was? Also, how can I trust Him as a good Father when a man in a position to teach me about Him also led me astray?  Sometimes it seems impossible. 

But yet for some reason God has given me the grace to hold onto my hope in Him. My faith, though miniscule it may be at times, continues to keep me moving forward believing that somehow He is directing me towards what He has for me. And despite my PTSD, in the depths of my soul, I know that He is a safe place for me.  

Surely God hasn’t brought me this far to leave me hanging in uncertainty. 

I love Daniel’s words in the closing season of Rectify.  Daniel is also a sufferer of PTSD as a result of trauma he suffered from being on death row for 19 years.  Daniel has struggled to adjust to so many changes in his life after being released from prison. Much is uncertain about his future, but he holds onto hope that something better is ahead. 

Daniel:  Somewhere in all of this I’ve managed to fight for myself for some reason – to fight for my life for some reason and I survived for some reason and here I am still for some reason and me not knowing that reason doesn’t diminish or invalidate it or disprove its existence and that’s what I’m going with today, Mr. Stern. No promises beyond that.

John: Words to live by, Mr. Holden, for today.

We are here for a reason, even though sometimes that reason isn’t clear. The pain we’ve suffered has not been in vain. We are still here despite what we have been through. Today, we can move forward trusting that God is with us and promises us a future and a hope. Today, we can rest in the fact that He is transforming what the enemy meant for evil into our ultimate good.  

And even though I still don’t know what choice I’m going to make, I know when the time comes God will direct me in the way that I should go. 

Who are those who fear the Lord ? He will show them the path they should choose.

Psalms 25:12 NLT

Dear Pain

I know if I do not deal with my pain when it comes that sooner or later my pain will deal with me.

Yesterday,  I was given an assignment by my counselor to write about the painful emotions that I felt as a child that crop up as an adult at adult at times when I do not want them to.

Most of us avoid pain any way that we can. Some of us numb it through drugs, alcohol or sex. Some us talk ourselves out of believing that it’s really that bad. Some of us never slow down enough to feel it.

I’ve tried in every way possible to avoid pain, and I still do not want to deal with it now. I’d much rather binge watch Netflix with a large bowl of popcorn, however I know if I do not deal with my pain when it comes that sooner or later my pain will deal with me.I have learned from a lifetime of stuffing pain that the day always comes when I cannot do it anymore. 

Ten years ago, I had been strong for so long, pretending I had it together, that God was taking me to a happier place away from all of my childhood memories. That He had given me a new victorious Christian life. But I discovered I was wrong. I could not control my pain anymore. It controlled me. 

I started watching the show Rectify last night on Netflix.  It’s the story of a man, Daniel Holden,  who was on death row for 20 years. He is released on a technicality and to be retried for the murder. But while he is awaiting retrial,  he goes home. In one scene, the main character hugs his sister in law for a brief time. Daniel  becomes overwhelmed with emotion at the loving touch of another human being. He doesn’t want to let go. The desperation from not receiving touch for so many years is clear. He clings to her for dear life unleashing the powerful force of grief he felt from being untouched for so long.

My emotions were locked away for most of my life. I desperately longed to be heard as a little girl, but it was clear that my parents were not equipped to deal with my pain. I’ll never forget the night my parents were upset with me when they caught me talking to an ex boyfriend who they did not like. They jumped the gun believing that we were getting back together. My mom left the house devastated, leaving me alone with my adopted father. It didn’t matter how many times I tried to explain that I was just trying to keep a peaceful relationship with this boy, my adopted father would hear none of it.  He got angrier and angrier at me and my ex boyfriend. He eventually got a handgun out and put it down on the coffee table. He screamed that he would kill him if he came to our house.  I was so upset that I began screaming I wished I could die. My adopted father said he didn’t care and continued to rant about how he’d kill my ex boyfriend if he came.  It was clear that I was not being heard and that telling him my pain would only continue to escalate the situation. I called my cousin and asked her to come pick me up.  When she arrived at my house I stood out in the yard screaming into the darkness, but I knew if my adopted father heard that he did not care.

Even after I got married and had my first child, my adopted father was still letting me know that my pain was not safe with him. A week after having my first child, I was in the hospital with an infection.  He came to visit and I was crying. He actually got angry with me. He declared that I’d better hold it together or they might send a psychiatrist in for me.  He then said I should be grateful, because my mom was stuck at my house with my baby.  I was crushed. Not only had he made me afraid to cry but also guilted about my mother babysitting while I was in the hospital. When I look back on these times, it’s clear why I learned to bottle my emotions up.  It was the only thing that kept me safe. And it became a pattern of life into my adult years.   

But then I met a pastor who was a father figure to me.  He encouraged me to open up to him about my feelings and he responded with concern. When he hugged me for the first time I was like the character in Rectify and clung to him like a person who had been locked away for decades without love. His hug gave me life like I’d never experienced before.  But if you’ve read my story, you know it didn’t take long before the lack of boundaries turned my relationship with him into an abusive one that lasted 10 years. 

It’s clear looking back today on my life that my pain and finding a safe way to express it is crucial to my life.  The older I get the more I realize that I’m less able to stuff it anymore. It is more likely to come flooding out at time when I don’t want it to, and if I overreact around others I’m left feeling ashamed and responsible once again for not being in control of my emotions. 

My counselor told me yesterday that responsibility is the ability to respond. But when we feel ashamed we feel stuck and unable to respond well.  I realize for a large part of my life I’ve been ashamed of my emotions because of the way my parents reacted to them.  I learned at an early age that allowing myself to feel what I was created to feel produced negative results. Therefore, I learned to stuff emotions that would not be acceptable. I learned to behave in ways that kept others happy with me even if those ways were not a true reflection of how I felt. Therefore, I also took responsibility for their bad behavior, too! 

I’m still on a long journey of allowing myself to feel the emotions God intended for me to feel. Pain lets us know when something is wrong. Pain also motivates us to ask for help from God and others. I realize my relationship with God is also lacking because even with Him I try to express what I think He wants me to feel rather than what I really do, but God knows my heart. He looks past all of my trying to hold it all together and His Holy Spirit prays for me even when I don’t know how to pray for myself.  The thing that amazed me the most about God when I first felt His presence was that He heard my pain and He comforted me.  He was a safe place to release my pain, however my efforts to try to be a good religious person caused me to lose sight of that.  Also, painful circumstances in my life knocked me back into a self protective mode of trying to control things around me by not expressing what I really felt honestly to others. And it made me an easy target for a predator. 

Certainly, after all the painful circumstances our family has been through, my tendency is definitely to hold my feelings in and protect myself and others from them.  I saw how my desperate need for love took me to a very dark place. But I’m realizing these days that it wasn’t my feelings that were ever the problem. It was not being able to deal with my feelings in a healthy way that was. Of course as a child, I didn’t know another way to deal with my emotions. I could not help the situation I was born into. None of that was my fault.  As an adult who had not learned a better way to cope, there were also certain elements outside of my control. I have learned like many of us do through brokenness that my way does not work anymore and I need to try another way. I realize my fighting to escape my childhood emotions are not working anymore and it is time to give them space in my life to be expressed in a healthy way. 

I think the reason I have been so afraid of these emotions is that I think they will cripple me again. I fear that I won’t be able to function like I did when I first started to open up to my former pastor about them. But I’m beginning to see finally that these emotions can come out in healthy ways if I will allow myself to be honest about them with God and others who are safe to share them with.  

When we are able to be vulnerable with God and with others, we find that our powerful painful emotions begin to lose their power in our lives.  The shameful lies that we believe about how we should feel begin to die in the light with friends who understand and we learn to respond better. The shame we feel about our emotions  are transformed into truth when can share them honestly with those who know how to listen. My heart breaks to hear that so many leave the church because no one understood their pain, and tried to fix them without even listening.   When we do not know how to deal with our own pain, we can’t help others deal with theirs either. 

I’m learning slowly to share bits of my story with friends who are not afraid to share their story with me.  I cannot express enough how this has changed so much for the good for me. I no longer feel desperate like I did when I went to my pastor for help. I no longer feel so very alone. When others listen compassionately, it also helps to give me a glimpse of the compassion of God, and enables me to be honest with Him. 

Even with all in learning about my pain, there is still a lot that is there that I haven’t been able to release. There are still memories stuck in my subconscious mind that I am afraid of how they will make me feel.  So today I’m writing a letter to my pain (an assignment from my counselor), to give it permission to come out when it needs to, so that it won’t come out when it has to.  More than anything else I want to stop feeling crippled by overwhelming emotions that keep me stuck.

If you can relate to some of what I’m writing here, maybe you can consider writing one of these letters, too or reaching out to a safe friend who will really listen.

Pain isn’t meant to be stuffed. It’s meant to be felt and motivate us to pay attention and get the help we need.

Dear Pain, 

I know that you are there, because you come out at night when I’m trying to sleep and cause my mind to listen when things are finally quiet. I’m sorry that it takes this for me to actually listen. 

I know I avoid you when I’m craving another donut or yearning to numb out in front of the TV. I don’t know why it’s just so hard to feel what it is that you want me to. 

I am beginning to see lately that you really are not a bad thing. You help me see what I need. You help me understand the things that continue to hurt me. 

You shouted no when my adopted father touched me and let others bring me harm. You knew I was just a little girl and that this was not supposed to be happening. You were not something to be ashamed of when I felt really bad. What happened was a terrible thing and dear Pain you let me know that it was. 

I know I have allowed control to push you over and over back inside. It’s been bullying you around for too long. Control really is the adversary that I need to let go of because it’s what’s brought me harm. You have been the one who has consistently said that the harm happening in my life was wrong.  So I thank you for that. 

I also know I try to minimize what you make me feel as well. I tell myself that whatever it is it’s really not that bad, but you want me to see the reality of all that is going on before it gets any worse. Oh how I wish I’d listened to you when you tried to tell me things were really bad. 

I think I’m figuring out you are more of a friend than a foe.  I don’t like the way you make me feel but I know you are necessary for me to be healthy and whole. I invite you to continue to guide and direct me in the ways I need to go. And I will try to do a better job of cooperating with you. 

Liz

Trapped 

But God has me trapped, too, because I know without Him I have no hope at all.

​Powerlessness, the inability to redirect the family heartache, stop the physical touch of the abuser, or silence the hollow screams inside the heart, is a reality that is endemic to all human-kind, but is faced by few. We are all helpless, but only those who have been radically deprived of the inherent freedom to choose and the legitimate desire to redirect that which is wrong will know how truly powerless we are in every endeavor that matters the most to us. Powerlessness is no gift, but the consequences of facing our helplessness, as victims of abuse and even more as sojourners in a world that is not our own, can open the door to new vistas of power and a radical taste of what it means to be free.

Dan Allender The Wounded Heart 

Last week I experienced the suffocating pain of being trapped. The heaviness of another’s expectations felt like a load of rocks on my back. I put myself under enough pressure, so when another person puts pressure on, it feels like too much for me to bear. 

The worst part of this pressure is feeling like I have no power to change it, like it is somehow my fault. Temporary relief comes in getting away from it and driving through the window of a fast food restaurant stuffing my face with salty fries. At least I can make the choice to bring myself pleasure through food, but afterwards my stomach says this was a mistake! 

To feel weak brings great shame. When I lose my cool with another person because of the pressure that they are applying and then they tell me that I’m wrong to get upset, I feel like it’s all my fault. I feel powerless to change the other person. I feel powerless to change me. I feel trapped in a small cell of circumstances beyond my control. 

I felt like this when I was a little girl and he asked me to come in his room to sleep under the electric blanket to stay warm. I felt powerless to say no. I feared what would happen if I did. So I chose to go with him and keep him happy, because he was my father and I didn’t have a choice.  When the abuse happened, I determined it must be my fault, because I’d made the choice to sleep in the bed with him.  I felt ashamed. 

He told me the consequences of telling the truth would bring us both great harm. I felt the pressure of living a lie every single day. I felt ashamed and he was the only one who brought me relief. I was weak and vulnerable when I asked him for help. He was the pastor and should have known better, but still he chose to cross the line first. And I chose to follow him into the ditch . Once again I felt the shame of making the wrong choice. Once again I felt weak, powerless, and trapped. But this time I was an adult who could get out, yet felt powerless to until ten years in and suffocating under the pressure I could do it no more and finally spoke the truth. 

Last week I had a few things to say to God on my way to work. Why was He allowing this pressure to come on me again? Why was I so uncertain, ashamed and blaming myself still for other people’s choices? Why do I still struggle to know that I am His child? Why am I not able to hear from Him? Why is it so very hard?  Haven’t I been through enough? Still I get silence, and it made me angry and thoughts of just throwing in the towel on my beliefs briefly flashed through my mind. 

But God has me trapped, too, because I know without Him I have no hope at all. 

Finally, the prayers for wisdom are getting answered as I’ve ranted to my counselor, friends and my husband. In their kindness to just listen I’ve heard the words coming out of my own mouth and realized my frustrations go way past my current circumstances. They go all the way back to a little girl who still feels trapped. 

God, why didn’t you rescue me? Why wasn’t there another way to save us other than allowing evil to roam the earth and do so much damage? Why am I unable to change without feeling so much pressure? Why can’t there be an easier way?  Why must we count it all joy?  

Looking in the distance to the hills that He created, I recognize these questions are too big for me to answer. But it still makes me angry, because feeling trapped seems like the most unfair place to be. Gripping the steering wheel my silent scream is heard by only Him. 

And I realize that’s just what He wanted to hear. My anger is not rejected. He loves me just the same. He reassures me that I am His child. I can use my voice and choose what’s best for me and my family in these circumstances and He will be with me when I do. I am not powerless over my choices anymore. 

I am free. 

for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

2 Timothy 1:7 ESV