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Is The Church Ever a Refuge for the Abused?

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Is the Church Ever a Refuge for the Abused?

This question came up in a recent twitter thread in response to outrageous comments which have resurfaced made in 2000 by yet another leader of a major Christian denomination (Paige Patterson, President of the Southwestern Baptist Seminary, part of the SBC).  These comments, similar to John Piper’s comments in response to how women should respond to their abusive husbands, are quite literally nauseating to those of us who have suffered at the hands of abusive husbands.  But they should be nauseating to every decent human being, too.  These statements are inexcusable and yet, both men, prominent leaders in Christianity, refuse to retract their words.

Additionally, new high-profile cases of pastors and church leaders committing, covering up, or being dismissive of the damaging impact of abuse in their churches seem to be coming to light each week.

It makes everyone wonder, is the church ever a refuge for the abused?

While these cases are horrific – I mean truly and thoroughly horrific – it would be wrong to denigrate the whole of the body of Christ with the same broad brush.  We have a shamefully long, long way to go in righting these damaging wrongs against the vulnerable in our midst, but there are some shining examples of loving pastors, elders, and church leaders who are desperately trying to understand these issues and their impact, stand for righteousness, protect the vulnerable, and be the agents of change in this culture of cover-up.

I know – I am blessed to be a member of one such church.

My pastor and elders are by no means experts in the fields of abuse of any kind – they would be the first ones to admit to that.  But they have sought to faithfully – and lovingly – walk beside me on the darkest path I could ever imagine.

They have been humble enough to learn – though the learning curve has been steep and difficult for all involved.  They have been gracious enough to be challenged by a deeply wounded family and yet remain compassionate and kind at all times.  They have been willing to re-think positions they’ve held dear in light of newly acquired understanding of the dynamics and impact of abuse.  And they have wrestled with their own hearts about how to respond in faithfulness to scripture and compassionate care for my children and me.  And because of all of this, they have also had to endure false and ugly accusations against them because of their willingness to stand against evil.

This has not been an easy road for them or for me.  This has, at times, been a torturous process.   It has been years-long, and we’re still not on the other side of it all.  I have had to be both sufferer and tutor on a path that I don’t know how to navigate either.  But these men have been willing to try to see with new eyes what it means to shepherd, protect, and defend one of the flock who was being devoured.  They didn’t know how to fight this battle before I came along, but they have been willing to learn and then learn some more in order to do so well.  My pastor, in particular, has been doggedly faithful in leading them in this.

I know that I am in the minority.  There are too many – far, far too many – abominable stories emanating from pastoral responses like the ones above.  The norm is for pastors, in their woeful ignorance and sometimes arrogance, to think that abuse is a marital problem rather than an insatiable desire for controlling power and domination emanating from an idolatrous worship of self.  Those of us who love Christ and understand his call to all of us to be humble servants in his kingdom need to relentlessly call for our leaders to be knowledgeable and discerning in the issues of abuse of all kinds.  But let us also, with reverence and deep appreciation honor those who, like Jesus, use their power and authority to bend low, protect, deliver, and help set captives free.

Is the church ever a refuge for the abused?  It is grievous that the question has to even be asked this way.  Jesus would take cords and make whips out of them for those dishonoring the character of his Father with such callous disregard for his little ones.  But thankfully, there are faithful, Christ-honoring shepherds who love him, and his flock enough to stand up for the oppressed, stand against their abusers, and defend against harm.

Thank you strong and gentle shepherds – your reward in heaven is great.

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How Could This Happen?

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I wept as one young woman after another came forward and bravely faced him. I silently cheered them on as the tears freely fell down my face and onto my shirt – I didn’t care who saw me. These brave women faced the demon who had tormented them and they survived. They will remember that moment, too, and it will strengthen them when the black memories seek to haunt them – and they will. Along with many, I look forward to hearing their stories of victory and grace that surely will be told.

Besides the sheer weight and magnitude of the evil done (which, in truth, is incomprehensible), a number of things have struck me hard with this story as a result of questions that are being repeatedly asked. In an effort to help the church become better equipped at walking alongside abuse survivors, I’m writing today to both educate and, hopefully, equip the body with tools of understanding and discernment to use when facing abuse in their midst. The questions I’ve repeatedly heard are, “Why didn’t they tell someone when this was happening to them?” “Why didn’t the other adults who knew do something?” and “Why was it so easy for this guy to convince people he wasn’t abusing anyone even after credible allegations were made years ago?”

Why didn’t they tell?

A common thread through almost every single testimony was that of the victims not knowing what was happening to them when the abuse took place. It’s difficult for many people – people who have no history of abuse – to comprehend how someone could not understand where moral, ethical, or legal boundaries ought to be when it comes to touch, behavior, demands, or even language. People tend to imagine themselves in the shoes of a sexual abuse victim and believe they know what they would do. They think – rationally, calmly, and from the safety of their homes and abuse-free lives – that they either wouldn’t put up with what these victims endured or that they would report it immediately. But that is so far from the experience of a victim that it is neither realistic nor reasonable to expect.

It was clear from these testimonies that all of these girls and young women were vulnerable to ongoing sexual abuse because they did not know that what was happening to them was abuse. They were expertly lied to. Little children simple can’t know that what is happening to them is inappropriate adult behavior until someone explicitly tells them so. They are dependent on the adults in their lives to teach them what is right and what is wrong. When a trusted adult abuses them and tells them that this is a “normal” procedure (or some other lie), they can do nothing but believe them and to accept the behavior as normal and right. They might know they don’t like it. They might know that it hurts. But child victims don’t know that what is happening to them is wrong. Because it’s usually done by someone who is trusted, it is accepted.

But even young women can be easily convinced that the abuse that is being perpetrated upon them is something they must accept. Abusers always enjoy a position of power over their victims – if they didn’t the victim wouldn’t submit. There is vulnerability inherent in abuse, no matter what kind it is, and no matter how old the victim is. But there is another dynamic going on for victims as well. Unless we are given specific information about what abuse is, where the boundaries are, and when to tell, we tend to generate a personal definition of abuse as “something worse than what I am experiencing.”

Seeing one’s self as a victim of abuse is repulsive. As noted above, child victims simply don’t know that they are victims, and the truth is, adult victims rarely see themselves as victims until someone else points it out to them. In fact, it typically takes a long, long time to come to terms with the fact that someone you love and trust is hurting you for their own pleasure, gratification, and/or satisfaction. A long time. It presents as a cognitive distortion of such magnitude that it is very difficult to come to accept as truth. This was also evident in many of the testimonies given last week.

Additionally, and not insignificantly, victims are not stupid. They know full well what it will cost them to openly accuse their abusers of their crimes. The goal of coming forward might be to get abusers to stop, but it often doesn’t happen because of how difficult it is to make abuse charges stick, and to be believed. It is a very common experience for telling someone about abuse to come at an indescribably high price to the victim. Victims have already been terribly wounded by the abuse – not many want to open themselves up to wounding again by the shaming, blaming, and attacking that will surely come if they tell.

Why didn’t adults do something?

A second question I’ve heard surrounds the incomprehensibility of adults knowing that something was amiss with this man and yet they did nothing to stop him. It is hard to detangle the complex web of complicity, cover-ups, and failure on the parts of so many adults in authority, but it is clear that many had opportunity to do something to protect the vulnerable but failed to do so. Complicating the very disorienting truth of not understanding what was happening to them, victims did tell, but what we know from testimony after testimony is that they were not believed, or that their stories were minimized or ignored, or worst of all, they were made out to be the ones doing something wrong by calling a trusted adult’s character into question. This is a very common experience for abuse victims – both children and adults, and the damage done by this is incalculable.

Authority figures of all sorts – parents, coaches, administrators, trainers, and medical personnel knew about this man’s abuse and did nothing. They were dismissive. They were indignant at the accusation (rather than the abuse). They worried that they would forfeit their positions, be cut off from the sport they loved, or miss out on the gold medals (ie – their glory) they coveted. They were willing to sacrifice child after child on the alter of fame, power, and prestige. Some didn’t want to make waves. Some thought they wouldn’t be believed. Some didn’t think it was bad enough to make a stink about. All of them are culpable. All of them bear a heavy weight of responsibility. And the same will be true for each of us if we suspect that abuse is taking place and don’t do all we can to stop it.

The only appropriate response to a report of abuse is to move heaven and earth to make it stop. Period. Nothing else is more important. Not protecting the perpetrator’s reputation, not waiting to try to figure out if the victim’s story makes sense, not protecting a system’s reputation, or a complicit adult’s aspirations, wealth, or career – nothing. The betrayal of the adults in these girls’ lives and their failure to protect them before and after the abuse is every bit as bad as the abuse itself. I’m glad to see that this is not ending with one man’s sentencing because there are many who failed these girls. And this is a very common experience for abuse victims, too. We would do well to listen to their excuses and examine our own hearts very closely to see if there is any similar thinking lurking there. Any time we “don’t want to be bothered,” or “don’t want to make a fuss,” or want someone else to take care of it, we are doing the same thing that these complicit adults did.

How did he get away with it for so long?

The third question I’ve heard many ask is, “Why was it so easy for this guy to convince people he wasn’t abusing anyone even after credible allegations were made years ago?” As all abusers do, this perpetrator went to great lengths to cast doubt on his victims’ claims. Even after he was convicted, he continued his attempts to try to excuse his behavior, explain it away, or deflect attention away from what he did in order to try to minimize both the charges against him and any possible consequences he might need to pay. His tactics ranged from distorting the truth and calling abuse a “medical procedure,” to calling into question the veracity of the testimony of his young victims.

As I was scrolling through social media to see what people were saying I ran across a very encouraging series of Tweets from Wade Mullen (@wad3mullen), professor at Capital Seminary and Graduate School in Pennsylvania which address this issue head-on. Mullen offers a list of 12 tactics abusers use to disorient and confuse both victims and those trying to make sense of what is being said when a victim comes forward with an allegation. These are classic abuser tactics, and Mullen puts them into a concise form so that we can learn to recognize them when someone is trying to deceive or confuse us.

Mullen’s list is below in its entirety. It is excellent. It takes a messy, confusing set of tactics abusers use to discredit their victims and obscure the truth and helps us see what’s really happening. Clarity, above all else, is needed when dealing with those who consistently distort and misrepresent the truth. It is encouraging to hear Christian leaders speak truth into this topic. It often takes a long time to realize what is really happening in many cases of abuse – perhaps this helpful list will make it easier to clear a way through the fog in less time. As I’ve written before, trauma stories are often disjointed and messy when they first come out. It is easy to become frustrated with a victim’s lack of clarity and the way the details come out in “bits and pieces.” It is the nature of trauma to render victims speechless, but Mullen’s list helps explain the things abusers do to make it even harder for victims to be clear enough for others to understand and believe them. Hopefully you will begin to understand why those walking alongside need to be patient – and careful – to listen well to victims of abuse.

Here is Mullen’s list of 12 ways abusers attempt to redefine what they’ve done:

“Lately, #metoo and #churchtoo and now #175years victims have been emboldened to share their stories. In response, some abusers have issued statements in an attempt to define the “incident” in the way they want everyone to define it. Here are 12 of the many tactics we’ve seen recently:

  1. The details of a victim’s story are disruptive to the image of the abuser. Therefore, abusers will give it a label and say nothing more about it. Her details may destroy their definition of the “incident” and reveal coverup of a crime, not a mistake which the abuser regrets.
  2. Although he was an adult in a position of authority and trust, the abuser gives the impression it could have been consensual and typical. This tactic is called blurring and hides the truth without putting the abuser in the indefensible position of telling an outright lie.
  3. Abusers take every opportunity to mention the abuse took place a long time ago in a place far way. We tend to care more about recent harm done to those close to us (our own children). By amplifying these gaps in time and place, they create distance between you and the story.
  4. Abusers place great focus on their “redemptive process.” By using qualifiers like “full” to describe responsibility and “every” to describe the steps taken, they promote themselves as exemplary models of redemption. We should then trust them when they say it was “dealt with.”
  5. a) Abusers use a very subtle tactic I call polishing. Just as your shoes look better after you polish them, which in turn improves your overall appearance, abusers polish the people who have known about their abuse but have nonetheless supported him. b) By stating the behavior was known by other leaders and relatives who have continued to support him, abusers use them as a witness to their narrative. Now followers will have to reject the witness and credibility of their leaders and friends if they are to reject the abuser.
  6. Even though the story is about pain inflicted on the victim, attention is given to the abuser’s pain & how saddened he is. This is called supplication and it causes his followers to pray over him, applaud him, and call him worthy. Sadly, he receives what the victim never did.
  7. Abusers can be quick to say “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong” but real apologies include a full and complete confession without explanation or excuse and an offer to accept penalizing actions. Restitution begins immediately with the victim and includes cooperation with the law.
  8. When abusers can’t refute a story, they try their best to dilute it. Diverting attention away from the crime and toward the perceived positive outcomes like lessons learned and the good they have done since, causes followers to view negative events in a positive light.
  9. When abusers state how uncharacteristic this behavior is of them, that they never engaged in similar behavior before or after the incident, they are trying to convince people they should not be linked to this kind of behavior. It may be true, but it doesn’t need to (be) said.
  10. Abusers may make a big deal about their pursuit of forgiveness and make it more important than the pursuit of examination. However, truth must precede confession which precedes forgiveness which precedes change. Forgiveness is exploited when it prevents discovery of truth.
  11. Abusers will try to conform themselves to the side of the victim, so as to keep people from taking sides. When they claim to be on the side of the victim and offer healing, but avoid the truth, they put the victim in a trap. When she doesn’t concede she’s seen as unforgiving.
  12. Abusers will abuse the Bible by quoting passages on mercy, love, compassion, grace, and forgiveness. They boost teachings that will serve their cause and belittle teachings that threaten their image (truth, justice). It’s another trap that seeks to pit you against Scripture.

“Abusers who engage in this complex process of managing the impressions others form of them will always confuse their targets. It is easier to manipulate and control confused people. The abuser will then influence their thoughts so that they voluntarily act according to his plan.”

The only thing I would add to this helpful list is that when the abuser’s attempts to reframe the story fails to convince anyone that the victim isn’t telling the truth, he will go to great lengths to smear her reputation, and call her sanity and trustworthiness into question. This, too, is a classic tactic. These are good to know and understand as you wade through the many, many stories coming out into the light. All of these are common experiences for victims of abuse.

What can the church do?

Believe that abuse takes place in all the places you would never suspect. Believe allegations of abuse – the incidence of false reporting is rare, and it should not be used as justification to not pursue the truth. Protect the vulnerable, seek justice for those who have been oppressed.

And, beloved church, as we seek to minister to every sinner – abusers included – let us not focus on the things abusers say, but much more on how they conduct themselves over the course of time and through the testing of stress, struggle, and consequences. Abusers who are truly repentant will abhor all that they’ve done, not seek attention for any of it. They will seek the victim’s well being – even if it costs them much. Abusers need to be held accountable because the temptation to abuse again will be incredibly strong, and will be a life-long battle.

Victims, on the other hand, need much care. They will almost certainly need counseling with qualified counselors, and a lot of patience, love, and compassion as they try to learn how to carry their stories of abuse with them for the rest of their lives. As Christians, we love stories of forgiveness and redemption – and we should. Our Savior bent low to rescue us from our own filthy messes. But when it comes to abuse, we must not be easily fooled into believing words of repentance and change. As C. H. Spurgeon noted, true repentance can be seen when we dread our sin “as the burnt child dreads fire.” Until that is evident in an abuser’s life, we would be wise to question everything.

May God be glorified, church, as we arm ourselves with knowledge and seek to find ways to respond that bring no further harm to the vulnerable, even while seeking to call the guilty to repentance.

Enough with the #MeToo stuff already

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jilbert-ebrahimi-33575Enough with the #MeToo stuff already, right?

It’s not going away, is it?  Every week more men are being confronted and exposed by angry women.  Enough already, right?

Christian women are among those reporting, too, however, we, the church, are very uncomfortable with angry people.  We want things quickly tied up into neat theological packages.  We think that because we can read from the “angry” parts in our Bibles to the bits that talk about settled trust in God’s righteous dealings with wrongs in the space of (maybe) ten minutes or so, that our anger, grief, or pain should be dealt with in about the same amount of time.  Sometimes we’ll give it a week or two, but that’s about our limit.  We know that’s silly, but still, we recoil when we hear someone express how the crimes of those in power have impacted their lives and made them angry.  So enough with the angry women and all the tiresome dredging up of old wounds.  Just move on, right?

Beloved church, it’s time to wake up.

John 13:35 says that people will know we follow Jesus because of our great love for one another.  But the very, very sad truth is that a woman can call a Domestic Violence hotline and get more care and compassion than she can from far too many churches if she tells someone there she has been victimized.  They believe her story – we want her to prove it.  They listen to her halting, disjointed words that are almost impossible for her to get out – we get frustrated because she doesn’t make sense.  They ask questions that help her think – we don’t say anything because we don’t know what to say.  They offer real and material assistance to help her get safe and get out of the destructive relationship – we debate whether or not she should go.  They follow up with her to make sure she is stable and safe, they offer counseling, and make sure her children are ok, too.  We… usually don’t.

We have no excuse.  We are wrong to ignore this – painfully, willfully, persistently wrong.  We can no longer claim ignorance.  #MeToo won’t let us – neither will the statistics that reveal the church has the same problem the rest of society has.

When the #MeToo movement hit social media I wondered what the response in the church would be.  To my great disappointment, it has been largely a continued silence or a collective whine about how angry all these women are.  (Individuals are crying out for justice, but churches are not.)  There was even an article touted by people I respect called #MeToo, But God, which was a call to neatly (and quickly) tie up the package of pain that these women bear into tidy theological boxes that make us feel more comfortable but actually increase the pain of the already wounded.

I think that a part of our problematic response is that things like #MeToo lump all manner of sexual misconduct into one complaint.  We publicly agree that all sexual misconduct is wrong, but we privately acquiesce to some of it.  Sexual innuendo in the office doesn’t really seem that bad to some.  “Harmless” touching doesn’t seem like something to really get that upset about – women have been dealing with that sort of thing for millennia, right?  Well, I would argue that is part of the problem.  But even if you think those sorts of claims can hardly be categorized as “sexual harassment” please be careful of your blanket responses to the “lumped together” complaints, too.  Many of the #MeToo participants have been attacked, abused, and treated as worthless garbage by those who exercised positions of power or authority over them or were supposed to love and care for them.  They have been traumatized and typing six characters on a social media post is the closest they’ve ever come to telling anyone.

These are your family

Beloved church, we cannot continue to have so callous a disregard for the broken and the suffering in our midst.  We must learn what we need to know in order to come alongside the hurting in a way that actually offers comfort and care.  These women are our sisters, mothers, daughters, and friends.  They are sitting in the pew next to you.  They are teaching your children, holding your infants, and helping you love Jesus.  They are your family.

I agree that the only hope in all of this is God’s redemptive work, but I also know the desperate struggle of wrestling with the dual realities of the abuse of power and God.  The agonizing wrestling that seeks to reconcile a good God knowing about the abuse and him doing nothing to intervene is not as simple as adding ‘but God’ to the end of ‘me, too.’  Think about how difficult it is to get to the place where you might be able to say, “I was molested, but God,” or, “he raped me, but God”… Try to fill in the rest of that sentence  “… had a perfect plan for my life that included violence that radically changed everything and distorted all that I believed before”??  While this might be true, I hope you can see that it is an intensely difficult truth to grapple with – one that requires a great deal of wrestling with God over a long period of time.

Adding, ‘but God’ will make you, the listener to the story feel much better. But it won’t help the woman in your church fighting for faith.

Grieve with those who grieve without insisting they say things in a way that helps you feel more comfortable with their pain. If you can do that, you may indeed comfort them and eventually have the standing in their lives to help them discover the ways they can include the, ‘but God’ parts – when they’re ready to do so. Taking them there because that’s what you want to hear is neither comforting nor helpful. You end up being like Job’s friends and have the potential to add more pain and do significant damage to an already wounded person.

Let them be angry if they are angry – you probably would be struggling with anger, too.  But don’t stop there – ask them if they would be willing to tell their story, then listen way more than you speak.  The story may come out in bits and pieces, it might not seem to make much sense, it may be fuzzy and unclear (kind of like the #MeToo narrative) – listen anyway, and don’t draw conclusions about where you think she ought to be. Just be there and listen, and try to imagine the gravity of what she is telling you.  She has witnessed evil incarnate and that is no small thing. Please be gentle.

Redemption will be revealed, but not by you

There is redemption to be revealed in every one of these stories, but the victim needs to uncover it.  But listening (or not) will reveal something about us, too.  Standing with someone in pain is also painful. None of us wants to stand there for very long without relief.  Your presence in their pain communicates a great deal.  Do not underestimate this.  But ignoring it communicates something, too.  It communicates that their grief does not matter to us, that their painful wrestling with God is not significant, and that what we value most is theological accuracy and not the human being wrestling with it. I have been blessed by a few faithful comforters along the way.  But I have encountered far too many who have lacked the strength and courage it takes to walk alongside suffering well.

This coming Sunday is Right to Life Sunday.  It is about the dignity and value of each life.  It is not essentially about life vs death, but it is about the inherent value and worth of each human being made in the image of God.  Sexual trauma shatters that image for each victim.  We see ourselves as worthless, invisible, and discarded.  And part of that message comes from being silenced into obscurity.  You can help restore it if you simply listen and seek to understand.

Jesus showed us how when he entered into the grief of, and wept with, Mary and Martha over the death of their brother, Lazarus.  He went to them, and he wept with them, knowing full well that the very next thing he was going to do was show them, ‘but God’…

Being a Neighbor to those Deeply Suffering

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Being a Neighbor to the Deeply Suffering

The shock of it all was numbing.  My mind – every ounce of energy I tried to find to think – was flailing to make sense of anything at all.  People were talking at me, but I couldn’t mentally connect one word to the next much less understand what they were saying.  I couldn’t figure out what was happening.  My world was collapsing around me and no one could tell me why.  My chest ached with a pain I had never experienced before, and I struggled to breathe and simultaneously try to hold back the sobs that shook me despite my inner protestations for them and everything else around me to stop!  Just stop!

When deep suffering strikes people are left incapacitated.  Whether the blow is physical, emotional, or something else, it knocks us breathless, so that even gasping for air feels like more than we can bear.  An indescribable, wordless, whirlwind of unanswerable questions and unidentifiable emotions flood over us until we feel, often, that we’d rather die than go on.

Do you know what to do to help someone in that state?  Do you know what to say – or sometimes more importantly, what not say to them?  Do you know how to be bodily with them in a way that is genuinely helpful?  How do you find what you need when someone else’s pain threatens to drown you, too?

These are questions I have asked and been asked many times in recent months.  They come from genuinely concerned people whose deep desire is to do something that will help, but whose experiences don’t come close enough to know what that kind of suffering is like.  “What can I do?” isn’t a question that is only asked of the sufferer – it’s one that helpers ask of themselves as well.

Suffering is something that every believer will experience – we are assured of this in scripture.  (1 Peter 4:12) But suffering is not something we are particularly well prepared for.  We live our lives as if suffering only happens to other people, or, more insidiously, less faithful people.  But that is not what the Bible teaches.  Instead we can bank on suffering if we’re Jesus followers.  And since this is the case, we ought to be prepared both for the suffering and the sufferers.  But it is all too common for those surrounding the sufferer to stand by helplessly asking the person whose world has just been torn apart, “What can I do?”  It’s not only not helpful, it’s insensitive and sometimes cruel to ask them what they need.  But what can we do?

Fortunately, Jesus has offered some very practical instructions to all of us who want to comfort people in their distress.  We can be prepared, at least to some degree, to be genuinely helpful in the face of unimaginable pain.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), Jesus does far more than instruct us on who are neighbors are.  He instructs us on what loving our neighbors looks like, too.  I think if we’re willing to pay attention to the details of the story, we will see some intensely practical concepts for walking with those who are unable to bear the burden of suffering alone.

Know that suffering overwhelms

The first man in the parable was traveling and was attacked by robbers who overwhelmed him.  They stripped him of everything, wounded him severely, and left him for dead.  There are many things that we encounter during the course of our lives that are difficult – really difficult.  They test our strength and stamina, they push us to our limits, and they sometimes make us want to give up.  That is not the kind of suffering we are talking about here.  Sometimes those things are not suffering at all.  Those are hard things, and sometimes we need help, but we use the resources God has given us and we get through.  Deep suffering, however, overwhelms our normal abilities to cope.  Deep suffering renders us helpless – stripped naked of all the resources we had.  You’ve no doubt heard people say things like, “I felt like I got hit by a truck,” or “I felt like I was drowning,” or some other iteration of being swallowed up, buried, or overcome.  All of these kinds of expressions try to articulate the sense of encountering something beyond our ability to cope.  People in these situations don’t just want help, they need it.  They are desperate for it.  Deep suffering overwhelms and renders us helpless.  Those suffering before you don’t just feel like they are drowning – they are.  Physical and emotional pain can render us deaf and blind to everything else going on around us.  Don’t expect much of anything from a traumatized sufferer – they are incapable of directing you.

Respond with compassion

The Priest and the Levite in the parable saw the helpless traveler and did nothing.  We don’t know what they were thinking, but we know from the story that they saw the man, that they made sure they were on the other side of the road – close enough to see, but far enough away to stay uninvolved – and we know they continued on their way.  But the Samaritan saw him and had compassion.  Unless there is something incredibly hard-hearted about a person, it is normal to have compassion on someone who is in distress.  In my experience, and from listening to many other sufferers, many people feel compassion toward a suffering person.  Lots of people say with sincerity, “I’m so sorry.”  It might be easy to take this for granted, but it must be recognized as the necessary first step in being a loving neighbor and actually helping someone who is suffering.  Compassion literally means with suffering (from the Latin, com – with, and pati – suffer).  It is a picture of entering into the suffering of another.  It starts with a stirred heart that is troubled by the pain of another, but real compassion – Christ-like compassion – cannot be satisfied with emotion only.

Move toward the sufferer

In the parable, Jesus said the Samaritan went to him.  We might overlook this because it seems so basic, but the Samaritan didn’t stay safely on the other side of the road and yell, “Hey buddy!  Let me know if you need anything, OK?”  He went to him.  He stopped what he was doing, changed his direction, and went to where the man was lying in the aftermath of what had overwhelmed him.  There is no way to make an assessment of need without going to the sufferer.  This means that we will encounter a bloody mess sometimes (both literally and figuratively!).  It means that, depending on how overwhelmed the sufferer is we will likely need to move toward him or her without an invitation, without instructions, without knowing what we are getting ourselves into.  Yes, it’s scary, but this is one of the hard things that will stretch you and increase your capacity to deal with the stuff of human existence.  The sufferer you’re looking at didn’t have the luxury of deciding whether or not to be overwhelmed.  Go.

Skillfully dress the wounds

The Samaritan saw what had overwhelmed the traveler and took action.  The traveler was bleeding.  He was in pain.  He was naked.  He was alone.  Most sufferers are all of these.  Their wounds may not be visible, but they are just as devastatingly raw and exposed.  As a former cardiac nurse, I can tell you that pretty much nothing else matters if your patient is bleeding out.  The hemorrhage has to be stopped or all will be lost.  After that, nothing else can be addressed with a patient if they’re in intractable pain.  Measures need to be taken first to soothe the excruciating.  Healing has to start to happen first, then the patient can begin to engage.  The Samaritan skillfully applied life-saving measures by stopping the bleeding, cleaning out the wounds, and preventing infection from setting in.  We can help suffering people by skillfully taking measures to protect them from further injury while they are incapacitated and defending them while they recover.  Sometimes this will be as simple as shielding sufferers from insensitive comments or questions.  Sometimes we will need to guard the door (or the phone) so that they are not repeatedly overwhelmed.  Sometimes we will need to hold their heads while they cry or vomit out the unbearable thoughts and emotions that have swelled to flood levels decorum can no longer contain.  It’s going to be messy and ugly.  Do whatever needs to be done with sensitivity and care.

Use your resources

The Samaritan put the wounded traveler on his own animal and transported him to a safe place.  We may not need a donkey, but we may need to use our cars and other resources to get the sufferer to where he or she needs to be.  Sometimes they will need to be transported to a hospital and sometimes they will just need to be taken away from their environment for a little while so that they see that there is life outside of their misery.  We may need to drive someone to a safe house, or to a cemetery.  Or we may need to be willing to bring them to our homes where they can sit in quietness and safety from further threats.  We may need to use our time or money or efforts or comfort or ease as we love our suffering neighbor, but we will need to use what we have.  If we’re willing to help sufferers we will be called upon to use our resources.  It will be costly, and inconvenient, but it will be worth it.

Take care

Most Christians are fairly willing to do all of the above.  We are willing to jump into action when called upon, and graciously use our resources when a need pops up.  We make meals, clean bathrooms, drive, and even pay bills.  But here, right here is where we tend to fall down.  We’re busy.  Our schedules are full.  We have things we were planning to do as well as people waiting for us to do them.  We don’t have time to take care of suffering people.  Taking care of someone – tending to their wounds of body and soul – however, is a slow process that takes great quantities of time and patience.  But we are not a patient people.  We want things to be cleaned up quickly and we want the sufferer to be able to tend to his or her own needs without too much delay.  We tend to lose resolve around the two-week mark, but deep suffering often takes months – or years – to traverse.  Not surprisingly, those who look back on their suffering point to the people who were willing to be with them and take care of them over the long haul as the ones who got them through and helped them the most.  The reality is, the sufferer sitting before you in bewildered confusion at all that has crashed down on them doesn’t really expect you to be able to explain the inexplicable – they just want you to be speechless at it with them.  They want to see you in the room, not leaving but staying.  They want to hear your breathing (and occasionally your voice).  They want to feel your hands, your hugs, and even your heavy sighs that mirror their own as you hold them tight as if trying to hold them together while they feel like they’re flying apart.   Be willing to spend time with the suffering and take care of them.

Enlist others and support them, too

The Samaritan in the parable was on his way somewhere.  He put everything on hold to help the suffering traveler he found.  It was not what he had planned – no one can plan when suffering will strike.  But he was willing to do all that needed to be done to ensure that this man in desperate need was cared for.  We must be willing to do the same.

But no one can put their life on hold forever.  If you’re walking alongside the suffering, you will get to the point where the sufferer’s needs are greater than you can handle on your own.  You will need to do as he did – enlist others and then give them what they need to aid the sufferer.

Jesus said, “And the next day he [the Samaritan] took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’”  There is so much packed into this sentence.  When the Samaritan could stay no longer, he enlisted the innkeeper, gave him what he needed to care for the traveler, and promised to return.  He made sure that the innkeeper knew that both he and the traveler would continue to be supported.  In telling the story this way, Jesus shows that the Samaritan was not only willing to help the wounded traveler, but the innkeeper and anyone else the innkeeper needed to employ as well.  Jesus knew that helpers often need help to be able to help effectively.  Many times deep suffering requires a team of people.  It is profound and overwhelming to the sufferer and to those helping as well.  Following Jesus is a group activity, and this is one of the many reasons why.  Be ready as a church to help the deeply suffering.

Don’t say much

One final note of instruction that is easy to miss unless you’ve spent time on the sufferer’s side of all of this is to not say too much.  The Samaritan didn’t say much.  In fact, he didn’t say anything at all to the suffering man – he only spoke with the innkeeper in the parable.  Sometimes arguing from a position of silence in scripture is a difficult (and potentially dangerous) position to take.  But having been in the position of the traveling victim, I’m standing firmly on this one – don’t say too much to someone in deep suffering.

Words are inadequate to describe the indescribable.  Explanations are ineffective for the inexplicable.  And asking someone who is in agonizing pain to tell you how they feel is a bit ridiculous, really.  Let them talk if they want to.  Ask a question or two so they know they can, but mostly, just be with them and listen to their grief.  Let them cry, or sob.  Let them sigh, or moan.  Let them speak inarticulately or not at all.  When you must speak, use short sentences and small words.  Use gentleness in your tone of voice – even when they rail at their circumstances.  Job 6:26 says, “Do you think that you can reprove words, when the speech of a despairing man is wind?”  People who are suffering say things they wouldn’t normally say and don’t really mean.  Just let it go, remain calm, and remind them that you’re still there, you’re not afraid of the mess, and you’re not going to abandon them.  The pain of suffering becomes bearable when there is someone to endure it with you.

Conclusion

Beloved church – we must not be surprised when suffering comes, either to us or to those around us.  We must, instead, be prepared for it to happen.  Our own suffering proves whether or not we have faith – when everything is stripped away and we are wounded and exposed we find out quickly what we really believe.  If we are running to God – even in hurt and anger and disbelief – the proof is there.  It might be weak faith, it might be trembling faith, it might be doubting faith that says, “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief!”  But that is faith that is proven, and that proof is a gift, that we will be thankful for eventually.  But we must also be prepared to care for the suffering in our midst.  We must be willing to put our own things aside – our schedules, our priorities, our expectations – and bend low enough to stoop down to help the wounded soul who has been left decimated by the side of the road, helpless and desperately needy.  That’s actually what Jesus did for each of us.

My path of deep suffering is not over – I am very much in the raging waves and tossing winds of it.  Some minutes are good – most are a black, confusing, thick fog.  I am part of a great church with a kind and loving pastor and we are struggling together to learn how to walk this road with integrity – learning from and teaching one another as we figure it out by trial and error.  It’s hard to be both sufferer and tutor at the same time, but I’m convinced that God is teaching me even this so that I might be used to help others as he builds his kingdom.  Until then, I pray for strength to continue to walk one painful, faithful step at a time.  Learn from those who do this well.  Teach those who don’t.  Walk together with the ones who are suffering deeply.  You will bless them, of course, but you will be blessed too, for you will teach, and you will learn, a great deal about your Savior.

Christmas Letter to My Kids

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Christmas Letter To My Kids

This was a hard, but beautiful Christmas in our family.  Heartache causes us to reflect and to look for beauty that will come out of ashes.  My kids amaze me with their grace and their capacity to love through all of it.  I could not possibly be more thankful for each and every one of them.

The following is a letter I read to them Christmas morning.  I know many people have to look for good through the lens of suffering and this time of year intensifies that.  I hope this will encourage others as well.

Two Strange Passages for Christmas

To My Beloved Children:

I want to read you two passages from the Bible which, at first, might not seem appropriate for Christmas, but I think you’ll understand why I chose them by the time I’m done.

The first is from the book of Genesis – from the story of Joseph.  This is near the end of Joseph’s story – after his brothers had been so wicked and envious of him that they plotted to kill him, sold him into slavery instead, lied to their father and told him Joseph had been eaten by a wild animal, and Joseph had suffered years of slavery, loneliness, unjust imprisonment, and through a myriad of sovereignly appointed events, had risen to enormous power in Egypt.  These years had shaped Joseph and had put him into a position to organize the Egyptians to store up vast amounts of grain during years of plenty because he knew that years of famine were coming.  But Joseph’s family didn’t have such stores.  Their father sent all but one of his sons down to Egypt because they heard there was food there.  The story is a little long, so for brevity, I’ll tell you that it had been many years since Joseph had seen his brothers and when he did, he was both relieved and filled with apprehension.  He remembered all they had done to him.  When he saw them after all those years, he recognized them, but they didn’t recognize him.  He decided to test his brothers to see if they had changed.  If you read the whole story, you’ll see that they had changed… some.  Joseph brought his entire family to safety in Egypt where they stayed and flourished, but when their father eventually died, the brothers revealed that they had not ever really reckoned with what they had done.  Here’s what they said:

“It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.”  So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’  …  Joseph wept when they spoke to him.  His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.”  But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God?  As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”  Genesis 50: 15-20

Nothing Wasted

The point of the story is this:  God used even the evil that Joseph’s brothers had committed for good.  He used it to accomplish his good purposes.  Through all the hard and painful events of Joseph’s life God made him into a humble, powerful leader.  He used it to save the lives of millions of people by giving Joseph the wisdom and strength he needed to rule well.  And he used the wickedness of Joseph’s brothers to save them too.

Nothing is wasted that God ordains.

The second passage I want to read to you is from Matthew 23.  Jesus was talking to a large crowd of people who had gathered to hear his teaching.  The crowd consisted of people who genuinely wanted to follow him, some people who weren’t sure what they thought, and there was also a group of men called Scribes and Pharisees – religious rulers who were supposed to lead the people in all God’s ways.

But there was a huge problem.  The religious leaders – the ones who had full access to the scriptures and knew all the things God had told his people, were using their positions to fleece the people.  The  truth was so mixed up with lies that it was impossible for the people to know what God really required.  And they had become harsh and cruel.

Jesus said:  you say one thing, but do another.  You’ve played games with peoples’ souls and they follow you to hell – becoming even worse than you!  You’ve made it appear to those you should have been caring for that you were being faithful, but really you were feeding your own greedy desires at their expense!  You’ve neglected and taken advantage of the ones you were supposed to protect and care for!  You do not examine your own hearts but cast judgement on others!

But after he brought all these charges against them he mournfully cried out, saying,

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  Matthew 23: 37

Freedom to Grieve

So – why did I choose these two passages?

First, these have been a huge comfort to me and I wanted to share that with you.  This is a hard time in our family and it would be silly to try to act as if it were not so.  But I am convinced that God is working – even through all these hard things, and yes, even through the wicked things that have been done against us – for good.

Second, I want you to know that it’s ok to grieve over the way things should have been.  I’ve often asked, “how does one grieve over something one has never had?”  But then I remembered Jesus’ lament.  The Scribes and Pharisees were terrible leaders.  Their indifference to the suffering they caused was wicked and cruel – they should have shepherded, but didn’t.  That caused Jesus to grieve deeply.  We can grieve, too.

But very shortly after Jesus lamented over this, he was taken away, beaten and tortured and hung on a cross to die for them – for us.  He wept over the way things were, and then laid down his life to change that.  He might have wept bitterly, but he did not become bitter.  He loved.  We can do that, too.

That’s why he came.  That’s why we have Christmas.

I love you guys.

Mom

The Incredible Gift – and Power – of Being There

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I have seldom heard such crushing news that I couldn’t bear listening to it.  I have heard many hard stories.  But this one broke my heart and almost made me run – almost.

I sat and listened as a woman told of her journey that began as a Christian physician in a worn-torn, Muslim-majority country which weaved its way through bombings, bullets, and resettlements as a refugee.  Her journey brought her to the US, where her faith in Jesus strengthened her yet again to learn English, a strange culture, and to start life over again as an adult.  It was all too much for her husband who left her with a young son to care for, so now she’s doing it on her own.

But none of this is what broke me.  None of this was new to me, and (hopefully this doesn’t sound callous) none of this surprised me.

Since she told me she was a believer, I asked if she had been able to connect with a good church here – had she found community among other believers in the US who were helping her cope with the arduous task of beginning again?  Her answer is what made me catch my breath and try (unsuccessfully) to hold back tears.

She said, “I go to a good church.  The people there – they have been kind, very kind.  The Word is preached, and they have been very generous.  They have helped me find a home and work.  They have helped me with my bills.  They have helped me figure out how to go to school and how to get needed help for my son.”

And then it came…

“But they leave me alone.”

She said, “In my country, if I was having a very hard day – 7 or 8-hour surgeries where I didn’t know if the patient would survive, babies born dead, limbs shattered because of guns – anything – I could call my brothers and sisters in Christ and they would be there.  They would dodge bullets if they needed to – THEY DID!  They would come to me and be with me.  They would let me cry and let out my anguish without running away from it.  I could endure all of that because they were always there.”

She went on, “You asked if I have found community with my church here.  Not like in my country.  People here don’t know how to sit with someone in pain, but my brothers and sisters there did.  They knew they couldn’t take your pain away, but they weren’t afraid to sit with you in it.  My church here is kind – but they run away from things that are not comfortable.  And my life – my pain – is not comfortable for anyone.  So, they leave me alone.  I am very alone.”

If that doesn’t break your heart, there is something very wrong.  I felt overcome with sadness for my new friend, but also a deep, deep sense of shame and grief for my beloved brethren here.  I know that what she said is too true.  We don’t know how to sit with people in pain.  We don’t like being uncomfortable.

I found myself asking, “What kind of suffering does it take to wake us up?”  If a refugee who has been so terribly traumatized won’t do it, what will?  If abused women and children won’t do it, what will?  If death and disease and trials that brake us won’t do it, what will?

Beloved church – dear, kind, generous church – we must wake up to the tremendous power of our presence in another’s life.  We don’t need to know the answers – most of them are unknowable!  But we do need to show up.  We need to let people cry and pour out their anguish and pain.  We need to be patient when they need to do it again and again until the storm is past.  Suffering doesn’t care about schedules, and no sufferer will trust you with their story if you can’t first sit in the presence in their pain.  We need to be there – and stay there while the storm rages.  And since the weight of suffering is so great, sufferers usually need multiple helpers.

We don’t like to make ourselves vulnerable to the discomfort of much of anything really, let alone sitting in the presence of unrelenting suffering.  None of us wants pain.  We don’t know what to do with it.  We don’t know how to just let it be.  But we’re called to bear one another’s burdens – it’s what makes us different from the world around us. It’s how we demonstrate Christ’s love.

What keeps us so distant?  Work?  Sports schedules?  School plays?  Ministries that keep us running around with zero time to spare?  These are not bad things, but none of them is good enough.  We are called to die to ourselves for the sake of the gospel.  If a brother or sister is naked or hungry, we feed them well enough, which is good.  But if one is in prison (and what sufferer wouldn’t describe intractable pain as prison?) we are told to visit thembe there. 

We all needed flesh incarnate to understand the love of God.  We see it in Jesus – Immanuel – God with us.  But we learn it from one another.  We learn it from someone demonstrating it to us.  God uses us to reveal his incarnate presence to others.  Think about the awesome privilege that is:  you, a frail and faulted human being have the honor of representing the living God in this way to a hurting soul.  This is a powerful gift to humanity.  Take it up – cheerfully, gladly, reverently.

Who is there in your life right now that you can give some of yourself to?  Who is there right now who is suffering and lonely?  Who is there who is aching for another human soul to simply show up and be there with them?

Go.  Be there.

When Ripples of Sin turn to Waves of Grace

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I’m currently drowning in a sea – one that I did not want to be swimming in let alone drown in.  I didn’t want to have the billows overwhelm me.  I didn’t want to be gasping and choking for breath.  But I am here, and I know enough to know that these billows are sovereignly appointed ones, meant for my refinement, strengthening, and cleansing.

The sea I’m taking great gulps from as I struggle to keep breath in my lungs and my head above the surface is the fallout of sin.  It’s called the Sea of Painful Consequences.  Aftermath.  Carnage.  And while I’ve made plenty of my own cesspools of filthy, disgusting, wretched piles of careless, willfully arrogant, loathsome sin, this sea isn’t my doing.  It was done to me.  I can’t fix it.  I can’t repent of it and ask Jesus to clean it up.  I can’t make amends for it or beg someone else to forgive it.  I am victim to it.  And yes, I still see it as sovereignly appointed for my ultimate good.

But I must admit that I have struggled – really struggled – with watching how the ripple effects of this mess have affected so many more people than just me.  My children, their friends, my pastor and elders and their families, my community group – my whole church has been affected.  Friends, family, co-workers – it seems there isn’t anyone my family knows who hasn’t been tainted by it.  And we know a lot of people.

I have been grieved to hear how young women who I have mentored are struggling with watching it happen.  “If it can happen to you,” they say, “it could happen to… anyone.”  I have winced as I’ve listened to precious loved ones tell of their pain and sorrow and ongoing struggles with the unanswered questions…why?  How?  What for?   I have wept at the profoundly deep and far-reaching effects that the sin of one individual has had on so many, many people.

“Lord!”  I’ve cried.  “Please stop this!  Please contain it!  Please prevent it from continuing to spill over into cup after cup after cup!  It’s one thing to have been ripped apart – I hate it, but I can bear it if that’s what you want.  But does it really have to hurt them, too?”

But that is how sin is, isn’t it?  It’s so much more vile and destructive than we ever want to think about, much less admit.  It is, admittedly, easier to see this when it’s the result of someone else’s sin.  But our sin – yes, my sin and yours – has the power to destroy life.  And every life it touches is stained and soiled by its polluting mess.  We mess our own lives up when we give into wickedness – but we mess a whole lot of other lives up as well.

It ripples and ripples and nothing stops its effects until it spends itself fully and wastes everything in its wake.  Watching it from a front-row seat has sometimes caused me to be given over to despair.

But I’ve recently learned something about God, as he’s been teaching me about the hard, ugly reality of sin.  And that is this:  where sin abounds, his grace abounds all the more.

When one of my young friends was talking to me recently, shedding tears because of the pain that this sin has caused her, I was sad – so sad –  that my mess has touched her, too.  I cried and silently prayed, “Lord, help her.  Why should this sweet young mom have to struggle like this when she has nothing whatsoever to do with what has happened?”  I told her how sorry I was that this was hard for her, and wished with all my heart that she didn’t have to bear any of this burden.

But God spoke to me in the next second when she said, “But don’t you see?  God is showing me things I never would have seen before through this.  He’s showing me how to pray in ways I didn’t know I should pray, and he’s giving me insight into sin that I don’t think I’ve ever even thought about before.  Watching you walk through this is teaching me.  Your faithfulness is encouraging me.

And I realized in that moment that this is how our good God works.  This is how grace abounds even more than the sin.  He takes our filthy, tangled sin messes and uses them to reveal to us that his mercy is greater.  He can take those ripples of sin and make waves of grace come from them.  He can use one man’s sin to reveal himself and his patient, merciful, kind, and gracious character – to many –  in greater measures than the sin can ever destroy.  He can teach and grow and strengthen and mature through it all in a way that overcomes it all.

And isn’t that exactly what he’s done?  Sin entered creation through one man.  And it has been passed on to each and every one of us, because we all sin.  But God doesn’t let that be the end of the story.  He changes the death-sentence-endings through grace and replaces them with life.  “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”

Grace is bigger than sin because God is bigger than sin.  Grace is more powerful than sin because God is more powerful than sin.  Grace is able to breathe life into dead things – dead people – because God delights to breathe new life into cold, dead, broken hearts.  Grace and mercy and provision and care is the end of the story – not overwhelming pain and sorrow and sadness.  They last for a while – and they are, indeed, exceedingly painful.  But they do not have the final word.  God does.

In the end, love wins because God has already won.

Love wins by turning ripples of sin into waves of grace.

Love wins.