Category Archives: pain and suffering

“Do I matter?”

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“Do I matter?

Have you ever been repeatedly irritated by something someone says?  You know – a quirky phrase misused, or a chronically mispronounced word?  The kind of thing that tempts you to want to correct, even though it’s not really worth embarrassing someone over?

That’s what the phrase “you matter” is for me.

It’s a sort of mantra these days, a slogan, or (if I’m generous) perhaps people intend it to be a conversation starter.  An acquaintance of mine says to me, “you matter” on a regular basis.  And to be perfectly honest, it’s just plain irritating.

I know what she’s trying to communicate – that my life has significance and meaning in the world.  But that is not what she is saying – at least not to me.

I know very little about her – we’re not friends.  There’s no mutuality to the relationship.  I spend time with her on a regular basis because of circumstances, but the level of intimacy required to know whether or not I matter is not there and for her to keep saying it is, well, irksome.  Maybe I’m just being a pedantic jerk – I don’t know – but every time she says it now I want to ask her, “tell me – to whom?”

OK, I get it.  In the great, grand scheme of things, everyone “matters.”  As Christians we believe humans are made in the image of God, and therefore we have inherent dignity and worth.  Human life has significance.  Most reasonable people agree with this even if they wouldn’t put it in these terms – it’s generally accepted that we shouldn’t be indiscriminately killed or consumed as food.  There is a quality about being human that is different from being an animal or a plant.

Apparently, some would argue that taking up space in the world as a human, then, is the essence of “mattering.”

I would not be among them.  Instead, I would argue that “mattering” only makes sense in the context of a relationship.  The significance and importance ascribed to one person must be valued by another.  In other words, the sentence is incomplete if we stop at, “you matter.”  We need to complete it by saying, “you matter to me.”  “Mattering” has to be in relationship to someone else or it’s nonsense.

To matter at all means that you are connected to another human.  Being human carries inherent dignity and worth, but you can have dignity and worth and be utterly alone.  If you matter to someone, it means that they have regarded your dignity and worth as something worth attending.  You are seen – your personality, your strengths, your character, your perspectives and thoughts, your hopes and dreams, and even your fears – as worth investing in, worth knowing.  Your presence will have been noticed – and valued – by another soul.

 

To matter to someone is to be held in a place of priority – to be “special” to someone in some way.  To matter to someone is to be regarded as worth investing time, resources, effort, and care into.  To matter to someone means your well-being is important to them and your flourishing is something they are willing to work toward.  In its simplest terms, to matter to someone means that you are cared about, and cared for.  It may not always rise to the level of love and affection, but it always rises above “the crowd.”

We respond warmly to it and derive a sense of our own significance and worth from it.  To matter to someone is to be significant and important to them.

That is what it means to matter. Mattering is always in the context of a relationship.  It’s absurd to think of it any other way.

So, why does all this talk about mattering matter to me?  Because as a survivor of abuse, I have often wondered – do I matter to anyone?  Is anyone interested in who I am – not just in what they can get from me but for what makes me a person, an individual, me?  It’s a question every survivor asks, so hopefully this public wrestling with words proves at least somewhat valuable to others.

Abuse strikes at the very core of a person’s identity.  It is inter-personal betrayal in the most foundational level of relationships.  Treachery that comes wrapped in the guise of what should be loving, safe relationships but are instead abusive, destroys a victim’s concept of having any meaning or significance in the world at all.  It makes sense that being exploited by the people you should matter to twists and distorts the idea of mattering at all.  Survivors not only struggle to understand the people and circumstances that surround them, but they struggle to understand their own selves, as well.  When those closest to you don’t serve to protect your being, when even your own skin can’t protect the core of who you are, what can?  Children growing up in loving, healthy environments never wonder if they matter to anyone – they know they do and inhale it with the air they breathe.  But this is not so for those who have been damaged and shamed by abuse.

Diane Langberg, PhD often speaks of how we need to learn about the abstract through the concrete.  She talks about how Jesus used ordinary things that even peasants would be familiar with – like water, bread, and wine – to teach us who he is and what he is like.  We all needed Jesus to be a man – the concreteness of God “in the flesh” – to really be able to understand his heart.  I think the same is true with the concept of “mattering” to anyone.

How can an individual understand that he or she matters to an invisible God if they’ve never known what it is like to matter to another human being?  How can they understand that “being used by God” is not the same as being used by those who abused them?  How can a person possibly understand what it means to have significance and meaning outside of a human relationship, if they’ve never known it inside one?

You see, mattering to someone is how we can come to understand that we matter to God.  We need the more tangible experience of mattering to someone “in the flesh” in order to understand that we even could matter to God.  The question, “Do I matter?” can only be answered in the context of a relationship, and the conclusion, “yes, I matter,” can only be arrived at through the experience of a relationship where we are appreciated, valued, and treasured simply because of who we are.

Sometimes people ask, “How can I help you?  What can I do for you?”  when they learn about my struggle.  It’s a hard question to answer because I don’t know if they mean really do something or if they don’t know what else to say.  But If you really want to help a survivor of abuse, let them matter to you.  See them, know them, love them for who they are.  Let their flourishing be important enough to you to pursue.  Don’t look at the abuse only but appreciate their strengths and their character.  Learn of their creativity or depths of compassion.  Care about what is important to them and what they’re hoping for.  See past the damage and the work they need to do to become whole again, and delight in the complex, multi-faceted human being they were created to be.  Let them really matter to you so that they can taste and see the goodness and care of the One to whom they matter the most.  Answer their question, “Do I matter?” with, “Yes!  You matter a great deal to me,” for I have a sneaking suspicion that coming to believe that we might matter to someone is the gateway for believing that we might be loved.  And that, beloved church, is what survivors need to know the most.

 

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Somewhere Tonight

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Somewhere Tonight

Somewhere tonight there is a child whose reality will become her nightmares.

Her tender, neglected frame will have forced upon it hauntings that will never leave.

She is learning how tickles can turn to torment and

Breathless laughter to wide-eyed confusion and pain.

 

Somewhere tonight probing fingers and greedy mouths will penetrate her soul

Words and other things of shame and degradation will sear deeply into her forming self

Twisting, distorting her unlived life into invisible disability.

She will limp forevermore from wrestling with Evil personified as trusted foe.

 

Somewhere tonight her still-forming mind is doing the sensible –

Escaping the inescapable – trading wholeness for humanity, soundness for survival.

Somewhere tonight division, though protective, becomes her greatest vulnerability,

And the leaving in her mind a soothing, but self-imposed prison.

 

Somewhere tonight this child-turned-victim will fall asleep uncomforted.

She will wake, and no one will believe the permanent damage being done.

So she will conclude that she is vile, filthy, unseen, unknown, alone –

Accepting lies from those who should be truth-tellers.

 

It is for her I press on, this nameless, precious child.

It is for the knowing of her, seeing of her, and hearing of her silent cries.

It is for her I speak until she can whisper her own story

To her I speak from my own:

 

Though you will search, little one, a life-time from now

For meaning and explanation, none will come, save one –

Evil persists, endures until the end – and you, dear, cherished, beloved child

You will be asked to bring Light into that deep, black pit you know so well

– to rescue, redeem, and lift up another, because Mercy and Love endure forever.

When even the “good guys” don’t get it…

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What do you do when even the “good guys” don’t get it?

Not long ago I had one of the most perplexing conversations I’ve ever had.

While I was waiting to speak with someone else after the morning worship service a man – a leader – came up to me and started a conversation.  He is one of the good guys.  Kind.  Compassionate.  Caring.  His wife is beloved.  His children are happy and stable.  He genuinely works hard – and gladly – for the welfare of the flock.

And that is why this conversation was so perplexing.

He leaned over to me, and in an effort to be lighthearted and engaging, he said, “Did you notice that it was the women who were the ones who commented on what the angels were wearing?”

I blinked in disbelief in what I had just heard.  I couldn’t help but simply stare at him with an open-mouthed lack of response.

He was referencing the sermon text, Luke 23:32-24:53, which covers Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, and the events that followed.  The text mentions that when the women who went to Jesus’ tomb with spices for his dead body, “two men stood by them in dazzling apparel.”

He continued, “Isn’t that just like women?  I can be talking to my wife about something and she can’t remember any of it, but then she’ll say, ‘Oh yeah! That’s the night I was wearing my skirt with the frills on it and the big flowers,’ and then she remembers.”

I didn’t recall it being recorded that the women mentioned this in the text – surely it came out at some point, but the Bible doesn’t draw any attention to the women talking about clothing.  I finally said, “I don’t think the angels’ clothing was really all that important to anyone at the time.”

And then I couldn’t help myself.  Since he was still standing there, willing to continue in conversation, I said, “Actually, what I did notice from that part of the story was that Jesus’ resurrection was revealed to those women first, that their immediate response was to share that glorious news with his disciples, and that the men didn’t believe them.  And it occurred to me that men not believing women, simply because they are women, regardless of the veracity of what they are saying, is still a problem.”

Now it was his turn to blink with an open-mouthed lack of response.

I went on, “_________, with all due respect, and I mean that sincerely, what you just said is offensive.  We have a serious problem with men thinking that women are dimwits who don’t care about serious, theological truths and issues that genuinely matter.  This thinking is such a distortion in the church that it  makes this a place that is ripe for abuses of power and authority to take place.  At the heart of this is an attitude of superiority and a devaluing of women.  While we give verbal ascent to both sexes being equally made in the image of God, we don’t really live it out as we should.  It’s not a joke.”

To say that he was surprised by my response is an understatement, but to his credit, he was willing to continue to engage.  But the way the conversation went after this has sent me spinning for months.  He said, “OK, tell me this.  Don’t you think that the whole #MeToo stuff is going a bit far?  Don’t you think that there’s a lot of claiming of victimhood when it’s not really true?  I mean, guys are afraid to flirt now – what’s so bad about a little harmless flirting?  Everyone is so worried that they’re going to be accused of sexual harassment that they can’t even ask a woman out on a date.  And what can a man possibly say in his own defense?  Don’t get me wrong, I agree that sexual harassment is wrong, and we shouldn’t tolerate it, but I have to ask, in light of all that is coming out with the #MeToo stuff, what about the men?”

The truth is, I wanted to yell at him – rail at him.  I was honestly flabbergasted at what he had just said.  “What about the men?!  Are you kidding me??”  THE MEN?  I’m sorry – did you just say that OUT LOUD?

Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to not want to embarrass either of us, and the inkling that he was genuinely asking me a sincere question.  An annoying question, an ignorant question to be sure, but a sincere one, nonetheless.  And so, I answered him as best I could.  I tried to give him a little education on the scope of the problem.  I gave him a few statistics – and told him that every study done shows that the problems of abuses of power are equally as bad in the church as they are in society in general.  I explained to him that #MeToo encompasses every kind of sexual misconduct from unwelcomed sexual advances (including some of the “harmless flirting” he mentioned) to gang rape and sex trafficking and every unimaginable thing in-between.  And I tried to explain to him that even in our congregation – this group of God’s people that we both love dearly – it has been exceedingly difficult to have anyone understand the nature and impact of being a lamentable member of the #MeToo “stuff”.

His response to all of that made me sad.  Really, really sad.  He said, “I know, I know, but what about the men?”  I had tried to address many of the reasons that sexual misconduct should be taken seriously, but I hadn’t answered his biggest concern – that he might be falsely accused.  I tried one more time.  “___________, false accusations are wrong.  Period.  There is never, ever, an acceptable reason to accuse someone of wrong-doing when it isn’t true.  You will never hear me defend that.  But the reality is that the incidence of that is very, very low.  Yes, we need to be on-guard that men are not also victimized by false allegations.  But please, please don’t get hung up there.  The problem of sexual misconduct is incredibly vast.  Many have been victimized by it and many continue to be. It causes life-long suffering in many cases.  It stems from a fundamental view of women as less than – less entrusted by God spiritually, less intelligent, less wise, less worthy of respect simply because they are women.  It comes from attitudes of entitlement – why should women have to endure ‘harmless flirting’ if it’s not wanted?  What do you say to your daughters when men view them as nothing more than merchandise for their own greedy pleasure rather than human beings with dignity, worthy to be respected?  Please – you have got to look at this differently.  You have to see how un-Christlike this is!  You have to see the opportunity for men to stand up and be the ones correcting other men from viewing women this way – in the work place and in the church.

He said, “Oh, I definitely see where this kind of thing is a problem in the workplace.  But I don’t agree that we have that much of a problem in the church.  We value women here as co-heirs with Christ – equal but different….  Hey listen, gotta run.  It’s been great chatting with you.  Enjoy the rest of your day.”

And that was that.  I have no reason to believe that any of what I said (or anyone else for that matter) has resonated with this man.  There has been no acknowledgement of this, no follow-up of any kind.  And so I am left saddened by the ineffectiveness of my words and the depth of misunderstanding revealed in his.

The saddest part of this for me was that he is one of the “good guys.”  A man who loves his family, is well-regarded in the church and community.  He cares about people – he really does.  He just doesn’t value us all the same way.

This is the level of ignorance we are dealing with – all of us.  Things like male privilege, white privilege, national superiority, and every other kind of thinking that creates an “us” and a “them” are so ingrained in us that it will take a huge amount of effort to fundamentally change the thinking that is involved around these inherent wrongs.  It is profound.  It is not universal, but it is pervasive, and those who are blind to their own ignorance are the hardest to reach with the truth of it, however kind or caring they might otherwise be.

I have puzzled over this conversation many times since it happened.  It has served as a reminder that many of my brothers (and sisters) have a long way to go in understanding so many basic things.  But so do I, for it has also served as a reminder that Jesus has been incredibly patient with me.  He has had to speak slowly and clearly to me because I am frequently too dense to understand what he is saying.  He has had to repeat things many times because I am prone to forget what he just taught me.  And he has had to lovingly rebuke me when my stubbornness (or laziness or arrogance) has interfered with progress on the path of righteousness.  I want to be like him – loving enough to slow down and be clearer, loving enough to be patient and kind in the face of sluggishness, and loving enough to be unalteringly committed to truth and righteousness even when it is unwelcome.

This is what we do when even the “good guys” don’t get it.  This is what we’re called to.

To Be Blessed

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IMG_2452Sometimes… you just have to share the encouragement in your life…

Last night my 2 youngest kids (ages 18 and 20) came into my home office around 1030pm. I was writing and they were totally interrupting, but I learned a long time ago to lay everything aside when your young-adult kids want to talk.

They were just chatty, silly even. They just wanted to be with me, which I love. They’ve both struggled a LOT this year, so this sweet, normal slice of life was good to see. My son (the 20 year old – who was about 7 in the photo above) was playing his guitar, asking me to listen to some new things he was working on. This is a particular gift to him, because this has always been a particular irritant to the abuser in his life – he hated when my son would just mess around on the piano or guitar, especially if it interrupted his tv watching…

I taught my son the first few things he needed to learn on the guitar, but he has far surpassed my abilities. He knows, however, that I love to listen and learn from his ‘working stuff out’. So he will often say, “hey, Mom – listen to this…” and play some bit that he’s finally mastered. Last night, he showed me a complex fingering and strumming combination he figured out. It was a sweet moment.  I said, “look at the amazing skill God has worked into your hands!”

Then I looked down at my own – tired, wrinkly, worn. I let the regret that had been building during a rough day slip out and said, “I used to have nice hands, but like so much else they’ve just been used up.” My son stopped playing and, in all seriousness said, “Mom – your hands are beautiful. I LOVE your hands!”

Then he got up, came over to where I was at my desk, took both of my hands in his and with a rare glimpse into the tenderness of his young-man heart, he looked me in the eyes and said, “Mom – these hands have taught me so much. They’ve taught me all the good things I know. These are the most beautiful hands I’ll ever know. They’re not used up – they’re just showing how much you’ve loved us and given to all of us. They’re beautiful Mom, don’t ever think otherwise.”

It was tender and sweet and so encouraging. It was a moment to savor and store up in the treasure of good memories we are trying to build together. It was especially beautiful because it was spontaneous and so heart-felt.

All three of us reveled – and shared – in the sincere encouragement that was given.  That’s a wonderful thing about encouragement, isn’t it?  It’s contagious.

His heart-felt blessing to his Mama opened the door, too, for the conversation to shift to both of them sharing deep hurts they are working through, but also deep thoughts they are wrestling with God over. It was profoundly moving to sit there with these two young souls whose suffering is shaping them, too. This journey is being used by God to shape my kids’ stories, too. I was blessed by what my kids shared with me last night, and as I reflected on what they’d said, I realized that they will be able to bless others in due time with what they are learning and becoming because of all of this. It can be brutal to watch your kids struggle. But moments like these show that much can be happening beneath the surface.

These hands have worked hard to bless my family – and I don’t regret a moment of that. My son rose up last night to tell me how I have blessed him through that loving service, but in doing so, he blessed more than he will know for a long, long time. I suspect, however, that in genuinely blessing me, he went away blessed as well. That’s how blessings go, isn’t it?  They multiply.

“What do you do when your friends are rapists?”

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“What do you do when your friends are rapists?”  Is a question I ran across in a blog post written by Shane O’Leary on Theology Corner.  I have to admit to being both intrigued and horrified by what I read.

Shane does an excellent job of describing the inner-turmoil that everyone goes through when they’ve learned that someone they’ve known and trusted is accused of (or confesses to) something as heinous as rape.  The swirling fog of dissonance is real and it’s difficult to shake off and gain clarity.

I commend him for putting it out there, really – it’s an honest and accurate depiction of the wrestling match that goes on inside a person’s head.  “What should I do???”  But I was deeply saddened that he never answered his own question.

Shane offers three scenarios (I don’t know if they’re real recollections of actual events or if he made them up for the sake of the piece). Regardless of whether or not these particular stories are real, they are indicative of the kinds of real life scenarios that ordinary people might run into in the course of their own friendships.  Three women in three different settings are devastated by what “good guys” have done to them.  Three women’s lives are forever changed by the actions of “friends.”  Three moral dilemmas that Shane – and maybe you – faced where doing the “right” thing is eclipsed by doing the expedient thing, doing the loyal thing, or in fact, doing nothing at all.  In each of the three cases, Shane knows the rapist as a friend – not as a rapist.  The grappling with the truth of that horrible reality while at the same time trying to figure out what he should do in the face of it all (if, in fact, he should do anything at all) is the whole of the post.  I recommend reading the post yourself.  If nothing else, I hope it makes you think deeply about the times you’ve been faced with (or will be faced with) doing the right thing when it might cost you dearly.

I don’t know this author.  I’d like to think that his choice of leaving the questions unanswered was a stylistic decision purposefully used – to make his readers think, perhaps, or make them uncomfortable enough to ask the questions in their own circles of friendships or colleagues to try to find answers.  But it has become painfully clear that in the face of crisis, most of us don’t know what to do.  We might wrestle with the questions, but often we wrestle long enough that the opportunity to do anything at all passes and our de facto decision to do nothing has been made for us.  These are matters too serious to leave hanging in the thin wisps of theory – we need to start actually offering some concrete solutions to one another.  We need to be prepared for the day when we’re faced with this heavy responsibilities.  We need to know what we will do.

In response to Shane’s repeated question, “what do you do when your friends are rapists?”  I’m posting my response.  Hopefully this at least gets the conversation started:

Dear Shane:

I deeply appreciate the honesty that you share here – the wrestling and the fog are real and you describe them well. I hope these things represent the real inner-turmoil you have had if these are true stories. They are for me.

As a victim I will offer my suggestions – I’m not a therapist, I’m no expert, I have no formal training to say this is what one “ought” to do. But since you ask the open-ended question with such eloquence, and seem to be genuinely asking, I will offer a possible answer.

You do the right thing.

You put yourself in the shoes of the victim and do the right thing. The protective thing. The honorable thing. The God-glorifying thing. You imagine that these girls are your sister, your mother, your close friend if you have to, but you do what Jesus did – bend low, serve the needy, the vulnerable, the oppressed, the wounded. You lift up, you rescue, you resuscitate.

You go back and admit where you’ve failed – where you’ve retreated from standing firmly against sin and shrunk back as a coward hiding behind ignorance. If you’re not guilty of these crimes yourself (and everything you’ve described is a crime) you ask the victims if they want help in reporting the crimes. You ask them if they need help in finding help. You tell them you believe them. You tell them that what happened to them was not their fault. You offer to walk with them through the ugliness of the pain and the torturous path of healing and you keep that promise no matter what.

You do what the Good Samaritan did and set your life aside for a time to help the battered and bloodied victim of criminal activity survive and heal. Oh God! What will it take to wake us up? You do the right thing, Shane. You do the right thing.

Regarding your friends who are rapists? You let the consequences of their criminal activities have their full (hopefully redemptive) effect. You report them. You call them out. You risk the relationship for the sake of righteousness if that’s what it costs, but you do the right thing here, too. And then you walk with your friends, if they’ll let you, through the pain and the ugliness of harsh discipline by a loving Father who loves them too much to let them continue in the paths of wickedness without calling loudly, “Come home! Come home!” If they are really your friends, you will love them too much to let them continue down those roads, too.

It’s not that knowing what the right thing to do is that hard. It’s doing it.

Do the right thing, Shane. Please, do the right thing.

Humbly,
Laurie

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.