Category Archives: Abuse

It’s A Conspiracy!

Can we discuss “the peace that passes all understanding”?

I have heard that phrase for years. I remember hearing it as a child and wondering what it meant and how I was supposed to get something that I didn’t even understand.

Don’t get me started about trying to understand something that says, in its title, that you will not be able to understand it.

But I digress.

“The peace that passes all understanding” turns out to be one of the Christian code-phrases we hear about when millennials and agnostics write about the Church; words and phrases that appear to have no context for meaning if you are not already faithful.

I’ve got news: I grew up in the Church and accepted Jesus as my personal savior when I was only five years old, and I still did not understand lots of those Christian code phrases.  It isn’t because you’re young or seeking or simply unfamiliar with the Church; you don’t understand the code phrase because…well, because we Christians hardly ever take the time to define what the heck we are talking about and we pastors can be even worse.  We just throw the phrase out there like it means something and expect everybody else to understand it intuitively.  The evangelical movement has a ton of these phrases:

“Walking in victory with Jesus”

“Growing in grace”

“Die to self”

“Washed in the blood”

“The peace that passes understanding”

“Pray a hedge of protection”

There are plenty more but I figure you’ve probably gotten the point by now.  I remember hearing these phrases and wondering what they meant but never really asking for an explanation. Even when I did ask for clarification, the answer I received was often just as baffling as the code phrase itself.  “Walking in victory is when you have grown in grace enough that you are able to ignore the attacks of the Enemy and follow the will of God wherever it leads you.”  Okay, so how do you ‘grow in grace’ enough to ‘walk in victory’?  “You grow in grace when you ask Jesus to wash you in His blood and help you die to self.”

The explanations were kind of circular in nature.  After a while I just gave in to the thought that perhaps my experience of faith would explain these concepts to me and I would finally understand what no grownup seemed able to fully explain to me.

Don’t get me started on why I thought growing up would cause me to understand what other grownups were incapable of explaining despite their advanced age.

But I digress.

The problem with these Christian code-phrases is that they can lead to a conspiracy of lies around what it is to experience the Christian life.  It makes it sound like good Christians don’t experience fear or anxiety or depression…after all, they have the peace that passes all understanding!  And of course, they don’t struggle with finances or with adverse situations, because they are “walking in victory with Jesus” and victors aren’t losers! Only losers struggle.  If you’ve truly ‘grown in grace’ then you probably ought not to curse or lie or speak unkind words…in fact you can’t be even remotely sinful…because growing in grace implies that you are continually becoming more holy and holy people are squeaky clean!  And goodness knows that those who ‘die to self’ don’t act selfishly since their ‘self’ no longer matters.  Those who have ‘died to self’ just give and give and give and never get tired of giving because they receive all they need from Jesus…

Really?  Because that’s a bunch of BS.

Christian life is full of struggle and fear and pain and failure and sin and self-focus and self-care and prayer and reflection and growth in grace…

There! I said it!  One of those Christian code-phrases makes sense to me!  I understand growing in grace, because I came to understand grace when I became a Methodist.  Grace is an unmerited gift from God that helps me become all that God created me to be, by drawing me deeper and deeper into a relationship with God, which slowly changes me until I am conformed to the image of Christ.

Oops! I just used another Christian code-phrase.  In fact I used several.

The truth is that these phrases do have meaning.  Some are symbolic (since no one really bathes you in blood, thank goodness) and others are more representational of Christian life and faith as it is actually experienced, because I really should become much more like Jesus Christ as my relationship with Him grows deeper and stronger. To me, becoming more like Jesus (more Christ-like) means that I should be more loving and accepting of those on the margins of society and that I should actively seek social justice and equality for all people.  The Jesus I know is a bit of a rabble-rouser.

I want to get back to the conspiracy of lies.

In all honesty, the conspiracy of lies starts as a conspiracy of expectations. I grew up in a fundamentalist, evangelical faith tradition that emphasized orthodoxy (right belief).  We were taught that orthodoxy would lead to orthopathos (right experience). In other words, believe the right things and you will experience the right things.

That’s a powerful draw to faith!  Think about it—according to that concept, believing the right things will lead me to experience the “right” things: peace, prosperity, happiness, success, achievement…you name it, whatever this culture deems “right” is what I will get if I believe in the right ways.

Here’s a few things that our culture does not deem “right” despite their frequency in the general population:

Poverty

Domestic Violence

Divorce

Having children who commit crimes or use drugs

Addiction

Mental illness, including depression and anxiety

Unexplained or chronic illnesses that are difficult to manage

Wow.  Just wow. Can you imagine what it’s like to grow up believing that none of these things should happen to you if you have “right beliefs”?  And it doesn’t help to acknowledge that (of course) these things ‘happen’ to Christians, it’s just they don’t persist and (of course) Christians count on their faith to give them “victory in Jesus” over all these circumstances.

This is how you end up with a conspiracy of lies.  If right belief means right experience, then I better not let anyone know that I am having the wrong experiences, and if I do tell the truth for a brief moment, I better not let anyone know that my wrong experience is persisting.

The funny thing is that Jesus told us that He is “the way, and the truth, and the life”. (John 14:6) He also said that if we continue in His word, we are truly His disciples and we will know the truth and the truth will make us free. (John 8:31-32).

Does the “truth that will set us free” include telling the truth?  I think so. I also think it means that we will stop fearing the truth as if it will destroy us and invalidate our faith.  Get real people! We worship a Savior who cried out “My Father, my Father, why have you forsaken me?” as he hung on the cross, dying.  Jesus didn’t say that to quote a Psalm and look impressive. Jesus said that because it was His experience as He died a horrific death.

If Jesus didn’t lie about His pathos…and I don’t think we should either.

Skip the conspiracy…both the conspiracy expectations and the conspiracy of lies…and stick with the Truth.

It’ll set you free. Trust me on that one.

Are You Listening?

This election has been frustrating for me, mostly because of the rash of evangelical faith leaders who have spoken out in favor of Trump. Recent revelations about Trump’s behavior have caused a number of them to withdraw their support but there are a few, especially Jerry Falwell, Jr., who continue to endorse Trump, even to the point of saying the allegations don’t matter. If I think about it for very long I get so angry that I am almost boiling hot because I cannot understand how a faith leader can support anyone who openly admits to sexual misconduct, and when I say sexual misconduct, I mean sexual assault, unwelcome sexual contact, and voyeurism (Trump has admitted to walking in on Miss USA pageant contestants while they were changing clothes and partially or totally nude.)

While Trump’s behavior disgusts me, Jerry Falwell Jr’s continued endorsement of Trump infuriates me.  Does he not perceive how his continued support for Trump also endorses the idea that women are objects to be used? Does he not understand the message he sends to victims of sexual assault? Does Graham not perceive that God calls ministers and priests to be the protectors of the weak and defenseless, not the yes-men who kowtow to the rich and powerful?

The saddest part is that I know, intimately, the power of a preacher’s words. My own story and my recovery from sexual abuse was heavily impacted by the words of a preacher.  I want to share my story with you because I believe that we need to fully understand how our words (both spoken and unspoken) have a profound impact and the power to change lives.

Shortly after I found out that I was pregnant with my first child, I began to have memories of being sexually abused.  My abuser molested me sporadically from the time I was approximately 3 years old until I was 8 years old.  Trying to deal with the memories was very difficult because the emotions were overwhelming and the memories so disturbing that they impacted my ability to function on a daily basis.  I no longer felt safe in the world and every man (except my husband and my father) seemed threatening. I was always on the edge of tears and struggled to not fall back into the eating disorder that I had struggled with as a teenager.  I was so consumed with fear and overwhelmed emotionally that I had difficulty thinking clearly and focusing at my job became almost impossible.  Combine all that with the hormonal fluctuations that go with pregnancy and what you get is a hot mess, and let me tell you that I was a hot mess every day for months on end.

Despite the difficulty I had functioning, I did my best to maintain my routines and one of those routines was going to church on Sunday mornings. As worship began that particular Sunday morning, a woman in the back of the Sanctuary rang a hand bell.  The sound of the bell resonated through the room and then we stood for the call to worship.  I forgot all about the woman with the hand bell until she suddenly rang it again in the middle of the announcements, which was odd because she rang it while the pastor was speaking and the pastor didn’t seem to notice.  She continued randomly ringing the hand bell throughout the service: once during a hymn, once during the Scripture reading, and even several times during the pastor’s sermon.  It made no sense and I was rather jarred by the sound even though the sound of hand bells is normally soothing to me.

The pastor’s sermon was a bit odd as well.  He was preaching on a passage from the Old Testament: 2 Samuel 13:1-22, the story of the rape of Tamar.  Who preaches on that?  And considering the hot mess that I had been for several months by that point, I didn’t really want to hear about sexual violence against women. I had enough to deal with just trying to deal with the sexual violence done to me.

The sermon focused on Tamar’s rape for quite a while.  The preacher highlighted the ways that Amnon (the rapist) treated his sister Tamar as an object to be possessed and used for his needs and his pleasure without regard to the consequences for Tamar.  He stated that not much has changed since then and pointed out the ways that women are still objectified, possessed, and used by men. He preached about the ways that society devalues women and children, counting our lives and our experiences as less valid than those of men.  He especially focused on how society silences women and children when we speak up against the violence done to us because it’s just so unpleasant to hear…and then how they ask how we came to be alone with the man who abused us, as if his choices were our responsibility.   The whole time he spoke, the woman in the back of the sanctuary kept randomly ringing the bell.

The preacher highlighted to us the many ways that the Church has silenced victims of physical and sexual violence by insisting that we need to stop complaining and forgive our abusers, often before we have actually had a chance to recover from the abuse.  He became visibly angry as he spoke, accusing the church of refusing to be a refuge for victims because dealing with their suffering makes us uncomfortable and God forbid the Church should have to bear a little discomfort in the face of human suffering and exploitation. He reminded us that our demand for the victim’s silence was nothing more than another act of violence against the victim.  The bell rang again.

By this time, I could hardly contain myself.  I was doing everything I could to remain seated and hide my tears.  Then the preacher explained the bell ringing in the back of the room; it had rung every six minutes since the service had begun because every six minutes another woman or child in the USA becomes the victim of violence or exploitation.  He said that the worldwide statistics were much worse, and as he said that, the bell rang faster and faster…

I ran out of the room and into the church restroom where I hid in the stall sobbing and trying to breathe.  It was close to twenty minutes before I could calm down enough to sneak out of a side door and sprint to my car.

Later that day I called the preacher at home.  When he answered the phone all I could choke out was “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” and then I hung up.

Years later I found out that he was called before the leaders of the Church and heavily criticized for his sermon.  They told him that nobody needs to hear a sermon like that.

I did.  I needed to hear that what happened to me mattered, that it mattered to God and that God expected it to matter to the Church.  I needed to know that the Church was supposed to be a refuge for me, a place where I didn’t have to hide the mess I had become because of the abuse.

That day, that one sermon…that sermon saved me more than I can say, and I have never forgotten the power of the pulpit to welcome someone into the safety of the Sanctuary or to shackle them in silence and shame.  The words spoken in the pulpit are so powerful that they can even lock someone outside the door of the Church and make it clear that they will never be welcome.

Franklin Graham Jr, are you listening?

This Post Makes Me Sick

Earlier this week, one of my colleagues in ministry was arrested by the FBI and charged with producing child pornography.

I am a minister and a trauma counselor, and right now I am torn in all sorts of ways.

Reading the news releases about his arrest made me physically sick.  Even as I write this, the same feelings emerge: a deep sense of sadness, an ache in my chest, my stomach turns, and I have an overwhelming urge to sit and cry.

The hardest part is remembering that being charged with a crime is NOT the same as being guilty of a crime, and this is where I find myself feeling torn. I have so many emotions, simultaneously.

You see, whether my colleague is guilty or not, many lives will be destroyed because of these charges.

If my colleague is not guilty, his reputation will still be destroyed.  People will always remember him as the minister who was charged with sex crimes against children.  His friends and family will always wonder what happened, why he was accused, why he was arrested.  His career is in shambles.  He is no longer a minister in our Church.  He has lost his job.  How will he get hired anywhere else right now?  He is charged with a heinous crime…and no one wants to hire someone who may have harmed a child, whether they have been declared guilty or not.  Charges like this will impact him emotionally, financially, and it will shake his partnership with his significant other (SO) and his family to the very roots.  It is entirely possible his relationship with his SO will not survive this test, as many relationships cannot get through accusations as grave as these.

In so many ways, if my colleague has been wrongly accused, his life has been destroyed.

On the other hand…

If my colleague is guilty, his life is over.  He goes to prison.  His family is marked with his crime forever, and his SO will have to deal with the repercussions of this crime whether they leave him or not.  His family will always have to deal with this—every holiday, every birthday, every visit to the extended family becomes a moment to remember why he isn’t there.  And oh dear God if there are small children in the family…don’t you wonder?  Did he hurt them too?

But if my colleague is guilty, the damage to his life and his family’s life is nothing in comparison with the damage done to the children he exploited and abused.  And this is where the physical sickness starts in the pit of my stomach.

I have spent way too many of my days at work comforting the victims of sexual abuse. I have spent far too many hours trying to help them find a way to feel safe in the world, to feel safe enough to go to work, to go out in public, to make friends and decide they can risk trusting those friends…you cannot imagine the amount of damage done to their ability to feel safe on a daily basis as they go through the simplest of tasks.  “But Tina”, you say, “doesn’t treatment help?”  Yes, treatment helps…to a point.  The longer the abuse went on, the earlier it started in their life, the larger the number of people who participated in the abuse, the more grievous the abuse…those things can create lasting scars that no amount of treatment can erase.  It’s like being a veteran of war: you can get treatment for the PTSD that war creates, but no amount of treatment for PTSD will change the physical deficits left behind by the injuries of war.  The scars persist.  It is the same with sexual abuse: the more serious the abuse, the harder it is to eradicate the scars.  It’s not that there isn’t hope—it’s just that we can’t erase the past, no matter how hard we try.

And so I find myself torn between what I know of my colleague, what I’ve experienced of him and the friendship that we had, and the knowledge of what these charges may mean.  The part of me that wants him to be not guilty is horrified by the injustice of what that would mean to his career, his family, and his life.  Being not guilty of a crime this severe doesn’t stop the public from punishing you for simply being accused.  But if he’s guilty…the idea of the devastation his crime leaves behind makes me sick to my stomach and makes me ache in my heart for his family and his victims…and for him, because if he is guilty something is very broken in his soul.

And then I feel that I need to address an obvious question: If my colleague really is a pedophile and abuser of children, how did I not notice that something was wrong with him?  After all, I am a trained trauma therapist who works with people who have been sexually abused every day. You’d think that I’d realize it if I was in the presence of a predator, especially a person who preys on children.

The answer is NO…I had no sense that anything was wrong and as for the colleagues I have spoken to, neither did they.  The truth is that unless you witness someone doing something wrong or one of their victims reveals the truth to you, you will rarely know that someone is a predator until they are caught.

We would all like to believe that the monsters among us are easy to see, that if a monster came close to us that we would immediately sense the danger and would take steps to reveal the monster and get them arrested.  That is a lovely thought, but it is perilously close to being a fairy tale, and it keeps us blind to the truth.

The sad and terrible truth that each and every one of us has a monster within, and I don’t mean the potential to be a monster.  I mean that each and every human on the face of the earth is, in some part, a monster; what determines the size of the monster within is how much we feed it and how much we let the monster come out to play.  The monster within me is my anger, and I am ashamed of how vicious I can be when I don’t control my anger.  I wish this wasn’t true about me but it is true, and if I hide that truth from myself I can guarantee that my monster will bite someone—hard—when I am not paying attention.  I have lashed out in anger more often than I want to admit to and have had to apologize to more people than I want to admit to.  On the other hand, I guess I should be pleased that I had the good sense to apologize and admit to my bad behavior, because the problem with monsters is that most of us won’t admit that we have a monster within at all.  We deny that our monster exists, and in doing so, give it free reign to bite and terrorize the people we love and the folks who have to work with us.  If you admit that you have a monster within, you can do your best to control it, to deny it emotional food, to refuse to let it ‘come out and play’.  However, if you deny that you have a monster within at all, then it will come out and play whenever it can, whenever circumstances invite your inner monster to respond.  If he’s guilty this is what led my colleague to such horrible, devastating actions—he fed the monster and let it come out and play, and look what it did and how many little children are left bleeding in its wake.

It would be easy to simply label my colleague a monster and lock him away and forget that he ever existed, but I beg you not to respond in that way.  If he is guilty, yes, we should put him in prison and keep him away from the rest of the world for our own safety.  But please don’t just walk away and forget that you, too, have a monster within. Please don’t go on pretending that your monster never bites anyone, never behaves in horrible ways, never makes you ashamed of yourself.  If you are brave, please…own your inner monster. Admit to having a monster within and then set about starving that monster…refusing to give it space to play or emotions to feed on. Refuse to entertain thoughts that awaken your inner monster. Get help—even professional help if you have to.  Do whatever you have to do so that you can put your monster on a leash and take control of it.

All the children who have ever been eaten alive by a monster deserve a world as free of monsters as we can create.  Please…

Please.

From this page to God’s ears.