Sunday, October 22, 2017

Thoughts on the "Me, Too" Campaign

I participated in the "Me, Too" campaign through Facebook. I chose not to share my story there because some in the past did not respect it. Some even blamed me for my perpetrators' actions, for not telling, and for not stopping the abusers in their tracks. The first Christians I told were visibly uncomfortable and sharply admonished me to forgive. Several years ago, God blessed me with godly counselors and empathetic friends, who gave me safe places to tell my story, validating it with their tears, allowing me to explore the impact it had on me, my life, and my relationships. They also helped me see I was protecting my heart in ways that hindered my relationships and ability to love.  

I wasn't going to blog on this, but I have been reviewing a workshop I took on systemic spiritual abuse and came across this quote and changed my mind, "If no one remembers a misdeed or names it publicly, it remains invisible. To the outside observer, its victim is not a victim and its perpetrator is not a perpetrator; both are misperceived because the suffering of the one and the violence of the other goes unseen. A double injustice occurs--the first when the original deed is done and the second when it disappears." (Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory, p.29) Essentially, both continue to live lies. That is why so many are speaking up now. The burden of the secrets and living a lie are exhausting. This has been going on way too long and we can't change what we don't acknowledge. 

From my experience, sexual harassment looks like the teenage boys lining the hallways in school who, looked girls up and down, making lewd sounds and comments as they passed. It was comments about the size of my breasts and being told it was a way of saying how smart and beautiful I was. It looks like a group of guys coming into the PE office when I was alone, talking crudely about their sexual conquests. It looks like a group of teenage boys in the youth room, congregating so they could ogle girls walking in. It looks like a group of college athletes cat-calling and yelling horrible names, leaving me shaking to the core. It looks like the man my grandfather's age where I worked, whose friendly chatter turned to bedroom talk. It looks like the "friendly greetings," with guys eyes resting on my chest. It's a glance behind me to find a man I considered godly staring at my rear. It looks like the medical professional crudely commenting about my breast and refusing to numb me as he sewed me up after childbirth. Just to head off those questions: Yes, I dress modestly. No, I wasn't in the wrong place at the wrong time. No, I wasn't flirting, I tried hard to be invisible. 

I also experienced sporadic sexual abuse starting when I was four. I didn't have words for it, but knew something inside my spirit shifted and I would never the same. As any preschooler would, I tried to figure out what in me caused the abuse. As an adult, I woke up to find a strange man touching me. My husband chased him away and just like before, I blamed myself. But, as preschooler I had no cleavage and as a woman asleep in my own bed, I wasn't asking for anything. 

I both loved and hated being a female. I loved carrying, giving birth and nursing, but I hated that simply by being a woman I could cause "good men" to stumble. I hated feeling forever unsafe in my body. And when harassment happened within the churches I attended and I addressed it, I was told I must have misunderstood, maybe they just had a bad day, or we women should dress more appropriately. It wasn't me, it was patterns of behavior unchecked and men not being accountable to be the men God has called them to be.  

I can't solve an entire culture's moral problem in this little space. However, I can go out on a limb and be a prophetic voice to the church. We forget local bodies aren't Christ's true church. They are organizations that in the language of parables contain tares mixed with the wheat, goats with sheep, wolves dressed in sheep's clothing, and people who are white washed, spiritually dead beings. So, when someone comes forward with stories of past abuse or current allegations, doesn't this mean we should not dismiss them or silence them with platitudes. Doesn't it mean, we should not ask questions or make statements like, "Are you sure you saw what you said you saw?" "He (or she) is such a good person, they couldn't have." "What did you do to cause him to stumble?" "You want to keep this quiet. We can't hurt his good name, destroy his career, or mess up his family." 

I hope every church gets training in how to prevent and respond to both sexual harassment and sexual abuse. There is a temptation to protect the church over the victim and that is wrong. There is a temptation to twist the Scriptures in an false effort to protect God's name. When I volunteered with youth, I heard accounts of harassment, abuse, and pressure put on girls by "good Christian boys" to "put out." Confronting it only resulted in more lectures on women being modest. In our support groups, I hear stories of women who as kids were abused by dad's who attended church or by Sunday School teachers, deacons, and elders. I also hear stories of gals who were abused by youth pastors or other youth workers. Some told and were silenced either within their own family or within their churches. That is spiritual abuse of the worst kind. 

Isn't it time for churches to do some self-reflection? Do men understand God's call on their lives to define what it is to be a man by the Scripture, not by locker room talk, sexual conquests, or how uncomfortable they can make a woman feel when they stand in a pack? It is time for churches to become extremely proactive about protecting the vulnerable and confronting evil when it is presented. Jesus didn't hide the flaws of the religious system of His day. He overturned tables, cracked whips, and cleaned house. Every woman wounded by abuse or harassment longs for a safe church and a safe church isn't a perfect church. It is a church that believes the wounded, protects them, and deals with sin. In today's vernacular, maybe it is time to do some throat punching to protect vulnerable sheep. 

When we refuse to do what Jesus did to protect His flock, we become complicit and have the propensity to become white washed toxic systems filled with spiritual abuse that deeply wounds. Christ didn't protect the system over the sheep, He turned it upside down. The first day the "Me, too" campaign hit Facebook, my friend Katie messaged me and said, "The Lion of Judah is on the move!" I believe she is right. Let's guard our hearts, our minds, and our mouths so God's character is seen in the church. Let's be quick to confess our faults and our tendency towards complicity. I attend a church that provides support and help for those who have been wounded and that is a sacred work of the church. We want to be proactive, letting the Lion of Judah's roar be heard reverberating through the church so God can be seen as He truly is--holy, just, loving, gracious, and good. 



Tuesday, October 17, 2017

From Mess to Masterpiece

This week my church studied Romans 8:28-30, which contains the popular truth that God works all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purposes. I had the privilege of writing devotions for the week on this passage. I grew up hearing evangelists claim that problems were solved by coming to Jesus, but I personally didn't find that to be true in my own life. In fact, life got a whole lot more complicated when I did. As I wrote the devotions, I came to the conclusion that God is concerned about the trials people endure. Christ groaned, sighed, wept, and got angry when people were struggling with weaknesses, in bondage to sin, suffering, and being misled or taken advantage of. These verses assure us our suffering doesn't prove God is displeased with us, nor prove God has deserted us in our need. We can trust He has a two-fold plan in our suffering--our good and His glory. By our good, I mean the process of growing in His image. Suffering has a way of exposing hidden sin that needs cleansing, of exposing our deepest heart desires to know Him, and of showing us when our faith is weak or misplaced.

I realized God doesn't author stories of perfect people, He authors redemption stories of imperfect people just like you and me. He is glorified when sinful, dead hearts come alive. when ugly pride melts into humility, and when rebellious spirits give birth to obedient ones. He is glorified when shattered hearts are stitched together by His hands and when broken relationships are restored. He is glorified when doubts are dissipated by faith growing strong, when our weaknesses drive us to our knees so His strength can be manifested in us, and when the strong desire to sin is thwarted by a choice to hang onto Him in our ambivalence until victory is secured. He is glorified when unforgivable things are fully forgiven, when His image in us that is so deeply marred by sin begins to shine through our messiness, and when praise is found on our lips during times of suffering.

The Bible is full of stories of people whose suffering was used by God to both mature and reveal God's glory to them. There was Abraham and Sarah, the infertile couple living in a culture worshiping fertility gods. After years of intense longing and years of living with a dream unfulfilled, they were given a baby in their old age--a baby who allowed them to see God is the God of life, The God who would not share His glory with false idols of stone gave them the baby named "Laughter." Laughter--because their laughter of unbelief was turned into laughter of ecstatic joy!

Then, there was Daniel and his three friends. The first faced a den of lions for his faith and got to see the mouths of hungry lions held shut by God's own hand. The other three were cast into a raging inferno after bravely declaring their faith in the face of great persecution. In their suffering, they got to see God who joined them there, preserving their lives in such a way that when they were taken from the furnace they didn't even smell like smoke. What a beautiful picture of Salvation we were given in their story of hard. God not only worked it for their good, but ours as well. 

There was a man born blind who encountered Jesus, who made mud from dirt and saliva and anointed his eyes, instructing him to washed in the pool of Siloam. He came back seeing, finally free from a sad life of begging. But, instead of rejoicing with him, the religious leaders did all they could to discredit the story he was living. When he should have been rejoicing, he was being harassed. Yet, the more they questioned him, the more he pondered the One responsible for his miracle. He went from understanding Jesus was a good man, to grasping He was a prophet, to fully embracing the truth that He was the Son of God. 

Then there was the woman who met Jesus when she came to a well midday to avoid harsh words, judgmental stares, and clicking tongues that came with the scandalous life she lived. He knew she had been publicly declared an unfit wife five times and that it left her brokenhearted, craving to be loved with a love strong enough to stay. Jesus led her through a spiritual discussion, preparing her heart to receive Him by faith. He gave purpose to her suffering by helping her see that it was Him she truly craved and by using her--a scandalous woman--to bring salvation to the community that despised her. Her passion and her willingness to share Him with those who looked down up on her tells us how completely she trusted Him and that Jesus can use this sinner to bring others to Him.

Then, there is Jesus. His darkest days were filled with persecution, betrayal, desertion, illegal trials, and ambivalence that rocked Him to the core. His suffering included being mocked, beaten, stripped, and suffering the cruelest death one could ever suffer. But it was in His suffering when all looked the most hopeless that Hope was bought. For, as He hung on that cross the Enemy was defeated, the wrath of God was satisfied, and a divine exchange occurred--our sin for His righteousness.  

I could tell you many stories of how God worked things to my good. Like the time He had His faithful servant, Reuben, call me to remind me God was greater than the Enemy, not knowing how badly I needed the reminder. Like the time God used a prayer director to defeat a lifelong stronghold of believing I was invisible to Him, and showing me how intimately He was involved in my healing journey. Even the traumas I experienced in childhood have been redeemed by Him, to deal with pain. They have been used in miraculous ways to bring God's truth and love into the lives of hurting women in ways that leave me humbled by His work. 

Finally, verse 30 contains past tense verbs that drive home the truth that God works all things for good. "And those who He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified, He also glorified."  I love the past tense verbs! All the messy we see from this side of heaven is seen so differently by God. He is proclaiming to us that He doesn't just see the messes we are now, He sees us as we will be when He glorifies us. The mess we see from here is Him weaving the clothes of glory that we will wear at the Marriage feast of the Lamb. 





Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Power of a Decision

I recently attended a workshop on marriage taught by Ted Cunningham. He stated that there is power in making a decision. He was talking about unmarried couples who come into his office for counseling. He said they often tell him they never made a specific decision to live together. They just slid into it. They went on a few dates, then began to go back to one of their apartments after their dates. Before long, they began to have sex and for convenience sake, they began to spend the night occasionally. Then, they started bringing over a few things at a time. It happened more and more often until one had completely moved in. Next they bought a dog or had a baby and were in a relationship with joint ownership of a child or a pet with no commitment. These couples then come to see Ted when one feels convicted and wants to marry and one doesn't. He often asks them if they had purposefully made decisions along the way if they think they would still be together. Many of them say, "no."

As I was listening to him talk about the power of a decision, I realized how many areas of life we tend to slide through. When we do that we end up in situations that violate our consciences, which result in our sinning against God, which result in our doing things that are detrimental to our health,  or destroy our  relationships.

The first time I became aware of this concept was when one of our kids was hanging out with some friends whose parents' rules were stricter than ours. We had tried to convey to him to respect all parents' rules. One night I gave my son permission to go with his friends somewhere, not knowing the other parents told their kids, "no." They went, but when the kids dropped off our son, their parents were waiting in their car outside of our house. The next day I could tell our son was struggling and took him to lunch to ask about the night before. He said they went where they had permission to go and ended up through a series of little choices doing things the boys didn't have permission to do. He said they didn't overtly make the decision to disobey, that one thing led to another. He said he had felt convicted at one point and knew they shouldn't be there. He didn't encourage the boys to disobey, but did not say, "no" either. He apologized to the parents, but sadly, they believed our son betrayed their trust and didn't let him hang out with their kids anymore. All of them were great kids and usually responsible and respectful as a group. They just slid, not realizing they needed to be making decisions to do good and right on a daily, hourly, and moment by moment basis.

In my own life I identify "the sliding" in all sorts of areas. My husband and I can slide into laziness in our marriage. We can fail to be proactive about loving each other well and fail to nurture our marriage. We never decide to not express love, nor do we make a conscience decision to neglect our marriage; we just slide into patterns during busy seasons and don't regroup. When we do that we hurt each other and fail to love the way God wants us to love. We don't intentionally decide to neglect our marriage, we just skip doing those little things and big things that strengthen our marriage and make it one that reflects Christ's love for His church. We have to decide daily to be proactive, not just slide along. We must choose to love well, to pray for one another, to be fully committed to each other, to guard our hearts and our minds, and to seek counseling when we get stuck. Even more importantly, in the process of conflict resolution, we must continuously decide to not fight each other, but to passionately fight for our marriage.

I have also seen the sliding pattern in my struggle with a long term eating disorder. I never made the decision to have an eating disorder, it started in high school with a fad diet when I wanted to lose a few pounds. Then after a traumatic event, it slid slowly into unhealthy compulsions to over-exercise and not heed my body's signals of hunger. It grew worse as I found I could avoid emotional pain by focusing on the numbers on the scale or the numbers on a dress label. It continued for some time because I felt powerful and a false sense of being spiritual as I didn't "need" food and had such great self-control. Then periods of dieting followed by periods of binge eating, both of which became a way of coping were so automatic, that if I was making decisions, they were at a subconscious level. When I entered counseling, I had to work hard to relearn to make those daily, hourly, and even moment-by-moment choices to feel, to choose health over starving, compulsive eating, and exercise. I had to consciously acknowledge God by eating what He provided. I still choose to decide to guard my heart by not reading about diets and weight management and refuse to look at magazines with airbrushed photo's that trigger my unhealthy thinking. I decide to process feelings that trigger the desire to starve or binge. I decide to proactively take every thought captive to Christ's truth or this hot mess will be sliding back into self-contemptuous thoughts and self destructive behaviors.

It is also easy for us all to slide in our commitment to the church. Some slide into the habit of not attending church regularly. It begins with one Sunday and then it becomes a couple of weeks in a row and then before we know it, we haven't been in months. Then pride sometimes makes it difficult for us to go back. Some slide into the habit of not using their gifts to serve the body. It could be a busy season in life or just that they took a needed break and just never made the decision to plug back in. Some slide into holding grudges by not working quickly through conflicts that happen when believers rub shoulders. Maybe someone got angry and wanted to process it before they dealt with it and before they knew it, so much time passed, it seemed inappropriate to resolve it. Sometimes churches let overt sin slide, causing many to get wounded. Some slide into disconnected states in which they do not care for or receive care from others in the body. It can start with business. We may even think about calling someone and just let it slide. We may be disconnected because we are going through difficult times emotionally and just let it slide instead of resolving pain that keeps us from wanting to attend church.

I had five children in eight years and I look back and realize we often slid into business. In retrospect, had we not slid through much of life, we could have made conscious decisions that would have been better for my kids, us as a couple, and helped us to really use the gifts God gave us, rather than living a frantic pace to which God never called us. We slid into business to the point we didn't see and attend to some of the needs our growing family had. As a Christian woman, that business kept me from things I needed to be a healthy mom--things like building relationships with other moms who loved the Lord and desired to grow as believers, as wives, as moms, and as daughters trying to navigate complicated extended family relationships.

We can all slip into sinful patterns. Seldom do we choose to become addicted to porn, alcohol, and drugs. Seldom do we wake up first thing in the morning and plan to destroy another's heart with gossip. Seldom do we wake up and plan to destroy our family through adultery, through drug addictions, or through illegal activity. The list could go on and on.

I had a friend who was encouraging me to make a needed change and I was being very indecisive about it. The friend gently pointed out that no decision was in itself a decision and that there was more power in making an actual decision. I thought about it and realized they were right. Living with lots of indecision was a way that I could avoid taking responsibility for my choices. The avoidance came out of fear--fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of hurting others, the fear of disappointing someone, and the fear of God being unhappy with me. I have since learned a lot about living in grace and truth and am realizing that I can live life honoring God when I choose to make daily, hourly, and moment by moment decisions to honor Him. When I put on the armor of God daily and ask God to mold me and to live through me and trust Him to do so. When I make and own my choices, I know I sin less, manage the eating disorder better, have more joy, and give more attention to my relationships. My relationships are more godly when I consciously make decisions daily to honor Jesus, to live out of self respect, and love others well. Finally, powerlessness--that emotion that can so easily trip me up is minimized when I am proactively making decisions to honor God.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Cities of Refuge

Several years ago, my youngest son came home from school and asked if I would take him to see one of his friends. I didn't know the friend, so I asked him why he needed to go see him, expecting him to tell me they had a group project. But, he told me that the boy's mom had come to pick her son up from school and had let him drive home. Then, on the way home from school, an elderly lady who was walking her dog stepped off the curb when her dog ran into the street and the student, who had the sun blaring in his eyes, didn't see her until it was too late. The woman passed away and the student had not returned to school and our son wanted to see if he was okay. I took him over to see his friend. And when I dropped him off, I warned him that his friend was not going to be okay and that there would not be anything he could do or say to make him feel better. I encouraged him to just sit with his friend. 

I am sure my son thought I was just being a "Debbie-Downer," but, I wasn't. When I was a sophomore in high school, I was sitting in the front seat of a car going down a country road late at night and saw lights to the side of the road. Then suddenly, I saw her laying in the road, in the headlights, and couldn't respond in time to prevent the driver from running over her. There were different stories about how she had ended up in the road that night, and I do know that even if I could have screamed the driver would not have been able to stop in time to miss her. I worked through some of the trauma of that night in counseling and thought it was way behind me. 

Then, recently, one of my dearest friends asked me where God was in all the suffering of the hurricanes. Even though we were close in high school and I had anorexia, she had no idea of the amount of trauma, shame, and sorrow that I lived with when we were teenagers. So, I shared with her some of the hard things I had been through and how I believed God had used those things to prepare me for the ministry that I lead. I was trying to convey to her that, through the healing process, I had experienced great intimacy with God that I would never have experienced without having experienced the traumas.

Within a week, a mutual friend posted an article written by Alice Gregory titled The Sorrow and the Shame of the Accidental Killer. In it, Gregory tells the story of Maryann Gray who was in an accident in which she hit a child with her vehicle, causing the death of the child. She described eloquently the feelings Gray experienced, the vows she made in the aftermath, and how she managed to live with the sorrow and the shame over the years. It remained pretty much a secret from most people until there was an accident in which an 86-year-old man plowed into several people, killing them. Many were so angry at the man and therefore, believing it to be accidental, Gray spoke up, sharing her own story and the compassion she felt for him. Out of her telling her story, others who had similar experiences began to tell theirs as well. 

I could relate to the shame she described and the vows she made. I remember sitting right behind the family of the deceased lady, from the accident I had been involved in, during baccalaureate service as her son graduated with my brother. I felt deep shame and wanted to hide. I hated witnessing the pain their family faced during that graduation, having just lost their mom. I felt sorrow so deep and suffered from flashbacks and nightmares for years. And I still experience PTSD when I am riding in cars. Some of the people who were in accidents were treated with compassion and mercy in the aftermath, but our family didn't talk about things. So, it was no surprise that even my closest friends from that time didn't know I was in the car that night. 

Maryann, who is a secular Jew, shared with the author something she had come across in the Old Testament--Cities of Refuge. God had instructed Moses to set up six different cities that were to be cities of refuge for people who killed a person accidentally. When they entered the city, a tribunal would meet with them and determine whether he or she was eligible for sanctuary. Those who committed premeditated murder were turned away and those who truly killed accidentally were allowed to stay and were protected from those who might want to avenge the death of a loved one.

When Maryann first learned of the concept she was overcome with gratitude and said, "The Torah was talking about me!" She became obsessed with the concept and researched it extensively. As she talked to Rabbis, she learned the purpose of the cities was also to allow individuals to share some of their pain with a community. Even the tribunal offered a place to tell the story. Maryann said she realized she could have moved, lived, and worked without so much shame in a welcoming refuge community who knew about her story and her pain. She said, "If I had been exiled to a city of refuge, I might not have needed exile from myself." She had longed "to live in the world with acceptance and with opportunity, but also with the acknowledgment that in running over this child something terrible happened and it deserves attention." 

When I read the article. and processed the concept of the cities of refuge I, too, was overwhelmed with gratitude for the sweetness of God who made provision for people who carried the great sorrow and shame of accidental killings. I realized how differently I might have navigated life had there been a safe haven, a place of support in the aftermath of our accident. Shame has a way of silencing and separating us from others. It also has a way of separating us from parts of ourselves that have to keep the shameful secrets until God Himself brings them to light and provides safe people who are willing to hear the stories and sit in the sorrow with us. What I experienced so long ago did give me a compassion that runs deep and rises strong when I hear or read about others who were involved accidents of all kinds resulting in killings--motor-vehicle accidents, falls, firearm mishaps, and accidental poisonings. I also feel strong feelings of compassion for those who like me, were not directly responsible, but left wondering if there was something they could have done to prevent or stop an accidental death. I hope someday churches can offer safe havens for those struggling with this type of shame and pain. Many churches do offer safe places for people to process trauma and grieve losses...maybe those places are in the process of becoming “Cities of Refuge.”   


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

No Longer Living Condemned

Our church is doing something new and different. We are studying the 8th chapter of Romans for eight weeks and I love it! When I was a young wife and a mom and had a house full of preschoolers, we were living in the south. We attended a little Southern Baptist church with a pastor who taught verse by verse through different books of the Bible. He would stay in a book as long as it took to get through that book thoroughly. He loved to teach the Word and welcomed any and all questions. This study has been bringing up a lot of memories because Romans was one of Nap's favorite books.  

If anyone had asked me when we moved to Mississippi if I was a believer I would have said yes without hesitation. But, in reality I lived in a great amount of fear. It began to surface right before we moved there when the church we attended started teaching out of the book of Revelation. At night I tossed and turned and had trouble going to sleep. And when I did fall asleep, I would often wake up crying from horrible nightmares. Not long after we had settled into our new church in the south, the pastor decided to teach out of Revelation. I quickly told him about my fears and said to him I just hoped I would be ready when Jesus came back. He looked puzzled and said something to me that day that I meditated on for years. He said, "Jesus paid the price for your sin. What more is there for you to do to be ready?" I didn't have an answer for him that day and we stayed at that church so I could face my fears of Revelation after agreeing to read and discuss Mark Cambron's book, "Come, Lord Jesus!" 

Later on, the pastor taught through the book of Romans. When he got to Romans 8:1, my heart did about 10 flip-flops and I wanted to stand up and shout. I began to understand that morning that because of what Jesus did on the cross, there was now no condemnation for me. My view of God radically began to change as I let that truth sink in. I no longer saw God as a distant far off deity sitting up in heaven, just waiting to condemn me when I made a mistake. I began to see Him as a ever-present Father, intimately involved in every part of my life. I became settled and assured of my Salvation during that time. 

Though I sat under that great teaching for 7 years, it took me many more years to realize how much I still lived under condemning thoughts. I faced them on a daily basis. Every time I made a mistake, big or small, I believed I deserved the worst punishment possible. Every mistake resulted in my thinking negative self-condemning thoughts--thoughts like, "Lord, how can you love me with all the wrong I do? How can you love me when I hurt people with my words? How can you love me when I am such a bad person, (wife, daughter, sister, mother or friend)? How can you love me when I am so angry? How can you love me when I am so needy? How can you love me when I can't love others like you do? How can you love me when I can't fix broken relationships? How can you love me when I am so imperfect? How can you love me?" And sadly, some of the condemning thoughts were not even for things I had done, but for things others had done to me. “How can you love me when I feel so dirty?”  

I know the Enemy originally planted those negative thoughts in my mind. But I had rehearsed them over and over until they became a part of my everyday thinking. And those thoughts--they stirred up negative feelings and caused a self-hatred that ran deep to the core.

I knew I was supposed to do spiritual warfare, but the thoughts were so pervasive they had become a stronghold in my thinking. I was so ashamed of the thoughts I kept them a secret. Even when I tried to take them captive, I couldn’t think of positive thoughts with which to replace the negative ones. The true things God said about me in His Word felt like lies, which meant the negative thoughts were too much to battle alone.

Those thoughts were there a long time. I even remember telling the pastor in Mississippi I was the worst sinner ever. He chuckled as he opened his Bible and showed me the verse in which Paul claimed that title as his. He tried to normalize sin and grace for me, but I needed to wrestle with those concepts for a while to make them my own. Over the years, I grasped the truth that there is no temptation that is not common to man. That means that sin itself levels the playing field for all of us. And through the book of Romans I learned that we all fall short and all need a savior. That includes those who are good, those who are bad, and those who are legalistic perfectionists. I came to believe it is okay to hate sin, but not the sinner, even when that sinner is me. 

One night during one of our high school discipleship groups a girl shared that she was struggling with believing and feeling her sin was forgiven when she confessed it. I prayed for wisdom before I answered, because I knew this had always been a stronghold for me and I was speaking to myself as much as to her. 

We looked at verses together. The first was Romans 8:1. "There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus." We agreed because of the blood of Christ that there is no condemnation for those who believe in Him. We agreed that all sin was covered--past, present, and future and that if God didn't condemn us, we should not be condemning ourselves either. We agreed that our condemning thoughts had their source in the Enemy and discussed how different the conviction of the Holy Spirit felt than the condemnation of the Enemy. 

We also turned to 1 John 1:9 and reiterated that truth, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." We realized that it was God's job to cleanse us and that our self-condemnation had not been very fruitful. We also agreed when we are condemning ourselves, we are listening to the evil one, not believing God, and we don't trust God to be true to His Word. Lastly, I shared that from my own life I had learned that condemnation always kept me stuck and miserable. It was never a successful motivation for spiritual growth and change. I shared with the girls that God's goodness combined with godly sorrow over sin leads me to change, not hating and berating myself. We decided that night if Christ came and died in our place for sin and His death satisfied the Father, there was nothing more that we could add to it. Christ paid it all. It is amazing how confession of sin tends to humble us, but condemning ourselves reveals a sick pride that drives us to live with focus on self rather than a focus on Christ. 

I can't help but wonder how different the lives of other perfectionists would be if they grasped God's truth and were no longer living condemned by their perfectionism, but instead, were resting peacefully in His grace. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Death of Marriage

The marriage relationship is an interesting, but complicated relationship. It can be a source of both great joy and deep pain. My husband and I met in college, quickly fell in love, got engaged, and got married within eight months. The extent of our premarital counseling was the pastor telling me he knew we loved each other, but he didn't think I had a realistic picture of marriage. Because I was a compliant person, I nodded and smiled in agreement, but in my head I was yelling, "We will always love each other!" 

After we got married and graduated from college, my husband went on to get two more degrees. During my third pregnancy, I woke up with a man in our bedroom touching me. My husband woke up and chased him out of the house. But that intruder--he kept on intruding through flashbacks. I developed PTSD and couldn't sleep and when I did sleep, I woke up screaming. And when I was touched unexpectedly, I screamed blood curdling screams that scared all of us. Neither of us realized that abuse I had experienced earlier in life, and a car accident, in which there was a death, had set me up for what I was experiencing with this new trauma. Little did I know that the man I married, who had been raised by a mother who suffered with mental illness, had at some point vowed that he wouldn’t marry "crazy." And screaming at a man who was no longer there, and screaming at little children who looked to me for safety looked “crazy” to him. What I needed most in that scary irrational time of flashbacks was to be taken in his arms and hugged and comforted, but I was met with his tendency to withdraw and anger—an anger that covered up his big fear that I might end up like his mother. He needed reassurance that I was okay and would not end up in a mental hospital like his mom, but neither of us could give the other what was needed. During that time, we both grieved the loss of the marriage we thought we would always have.

Recently, our pastors preached a sermon series on marriage. During one of the sermons I was triggered and I felt volcano type anger rising in me. Everything the pastor said, I agreed with. Heck, he and I have even talked about collaborating on a marriage book. Yet, I was seething inside. I realized later that the anger came from remembering a time I had gone through a conflict in a church and had been encouraged by leaders not to use my voice and being told to just take personal responsibility instead of blaming felt like that. It also was triggering because it resurfaced the frustration I felt early in our marriage of desperately wanting to have a marriage that reflected Christ and in our brokenness feeling stuck and unable to get there. We were stuck because we had many misconceptions about the role of submission and leaders, and I felt like I lost my voice and ceased to be the person God had created me to be in order to be a “good wife.” It also came from the baggage we both brought to our marriage—baggage that we were afraid and/or unwilling to unpack. The sermon was on personal responsibility and I had tried so hard to take responsibility in our marriage, but that in and of itself didn't take away the pain we both experienced and didn’t fix the dysfunctions with which we were both struggling. That took a lot of time in Christian therapists’ offices after which we began to move forward slowly--so slowly--and I began to find out who Christ created me to be and to heal from the wounds I had come to the marriage with. Dysfunction is still something with which we both struggle because those patterns are so deeply entrenched. Yet, we just celebrated our 43rd anniversary--43 years of really, really good and 43 years of really, really hard and 43 years I wouldn't change for the world.

As I listened the sermon, I prayed about the anger I was feeling and a picture popped into my head. It was a picture of an old wooden coffin. On the front of the coffin was a sign with the word Marriage calligraphed on it. The lid was on the coffin and there were some large railroad nails already pounded into it and there were other nails laying on top with a hammer waiting to be hammered. I could see words etched into nails and I realized those were the things that are killing our marriages.

One of the nails had the words "marriage redefined" on it. When God designed marriage, it was to reflect His covenant with His people and that covenant was born of love and demonstrated through the sacrifice of Jesus. Marriage is to be a covenant relationship in which agape love drives each to give fully and sacrificially, sealing the covenant with a sexual union. Our culture has redefined marriage into a contract relationship. The difference is that a contract says, “You give me what I want, when I want it and then I will love you” and vise versa. This creates a strong fear of the possibility of abandonment and a flurry of activity driven by fear, which gets expressed in anger, frustration, control issues, depression, and even withdrawing. The contract kills trust, transparency, and grace and has contributed to the serial monogamy that has become rampant in our culture and our churches as well.

What many don't understand is that God designed marriage not just to reflect His covenant, but to also provide a proving ground for sanctification. It is the place where sin can’t go undetected, for even dark and sinful secrets have symptoms. It is the place where selfishness, self-absorption, pride, uncontrolled anger, defense mechanisms, and self-protective actions get exposed. As we work through issues and confront one another in love those these things get resolved and changed over time. If we divorce instead, those things remain and they become the nails in the next marriage as well. Sometimes those things nail shut the coffin on not just one marriage, but two, three, four, five, or more. Another nail that goes along with this is a lack of commitment. Both our families had several divorces and we soon realized we had to take the "D" word out of our vocabulary because it was an extreme trigger for both of us. When people live under that threat, there is no safety in the relationship and people become fearful of being real, of asking each other for prayer, and of confessing their faults to one another. It makes them feel like they have to be perfect and they aren’t so they either were a mask to cover imperfections or they just give up and withdraw, refusing to change. 

There were several other nails clumped together. Those nails were premarital sex, extramarital sex, pornography, perverted sex, sex for hire, and masturbation. Sex was designed by God to seal the covenant of marriage. He designed it in such a way that chemicals are released in the body during orgasm that help a couple bond emotionally to one another. Every time a couple has sex, they are renewing their vows and creating a stronger and stronger bond. When those nails get hammered into a marriage, it destroys that process. Sex outside of marriage causes guilt and shame and when people have multiple partners, use porn, or masturbation they move away each other and from loving and serving each other to self-serving gratification in a way that kills the physiological process of bonding.  

There were other nails on that coffin--nails that included domestic violence, overt control, power-over relationships, toxic shame, contempt, addictions, untreated mental illness, physical illnesses, impatience, and ungodly speech. Many of which come out of unresolved pain and anger, sin-filled hearts, from misunderstanding God's design for marriage. For sake of space, I will only address words. Only 7 percent of communications is conveyed through words. The rest is through facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. We can wound each other through all of those avenues. We have all heard the expression, "If looks could kill, I would be dead!" And who wants to move toward someone who gives dirty looks and eye rolls? Those looks on a repeated basis are unnerving and break trust and hammer at the heart of the other. And when one balls a fist and hits the other hand while speaking, or stands over them as they verbally assault the other and call them horrible names, or comes up behind them and whispers threats in the ear only they can hear—oh, it strikes fear in the heart, breaks trust, destroys bonds, numbs the heart, and kills the soul. And the words themselves they can be hateful and biting, literally tearing a heart into shreds. When one gets isolated and only hears they are ugly, stupid, ignorant, too much, not good enough, crazy, and a host of other ugly lies, they will begin to believe the lies. 

We don't always realize the absence of words can also kill a marriage. That would be when someone's arrogantly refuses to say anything kind, loving, and gracious, exhibiting anger through passive aggression. We are told that we are to encourage each other and build each other up. We have been instructed to love one another and husbands have been instructed to treat their wives with honor and wives to treat their husbands with respect. Overtime the lack of honoring, respect, and love can literally starve a marriage to death. This is because it starves hearts of the love they were designed to give and receive. Some of the word nails might seem insignificant, but I believe we can destroy a marriage one word at a time. 

We are created with a great big God-shaped hole in our hearts and we often come to marriage, trying to get the other to fill the hole only God can fill. But as the body of Christ, could it not be that God may use a spouse to fill a part of that hole? And if that is so, why would we not want to bless the person God has called us to love. We are instructed to have covenant marriages and instructed on how to love inside that covenant, why would we refuse to love well and refuse to deal with the sin in our lives? When we refuse to do so, do we not perpetrate the worst kind of abuse--spiritual abuse? I know I don't want to abuse the covenant God designed and I don’t want to take advantage of God's grace to me by making my spouse feel unloved and stuck in a miserable marriage. I want to do my best to love well.

But I also know there are marriages in which spouses are committed to stay true to the covenant of marriage and they are married to a person not willing or able to take their responsibility seriously. The committed spouse will live in a state of grief because they desire the marriage to reflect God's glory and they know it doesn’t. There are some that are grieving because they know or sense their marriage bed is defiled by others or by pornographic images burned in the mind of their spouse—air brushed pictures that don't change with child birth or age with time. They also have to battle the subtle lies the enemy speaks over their pain either through their own misconceptions or others who don’t understand the nature of porn and sex addiction who think they just need to try harder so their spouse will be have. I encourage others, not to just suck it up, but to get help. They don’t have to resolve to suffer in silence, wearing a mask that belies pain they feel. I believe God wants each one of us to fight for marriage! I also believe our churches need to get educated about these things and then get involved by confronting the porn epidemic along with a lack of people committed to working on themselves and their marriages.  

I have found a lot of marriage books through the years that helped me hold on to hope in our rough patches. Bill and Pam Farrell have several that are fun to read—Men are like Waffles, Women are like Spaghetti and Marriage Whirlwind for starters. Other authors that write on a more serious note Ed Wheat—Love Life for Every Married Couple, Timothy Keller—The Meaning of Marriage, and Christopher and Rachel McClusky—When Two become One. We want to be humble enough to learn to love well and to relate to each other in ways that create safety so we continue to grow. I’m confident God never intended us to just survive marriage, He wants us to flourish in both the good and the hard so we become all He created us to be and enjoy true intimacy with Him and each other. I am a better person for having married my husband. I came to our marriage, making it all about me and God has used our rough spots to build my faith in Him, to expose my sin and selfishness, and to expose the wounds I needed to understand and have healed. He showed me my own tendency to wound another as well and that is not easy and I will continue working on that until the day I die. Marriage isn't a short-term commitment or a curse to be endured. It is a beautiful covenant designed by an infinitely wise God who desires to fulfill His glory in His people to show the world what His love is like--committed, sacrificial, constant, edifying, and, yes, at times even confrontational. Marriage done His way satisfies the human heart’s desire.

As I drove home the day I saw the picture of the coffin in my head, I realized the source of those nails was the Enemy who wants to destroy God's image in us and in our marriages. It occurred to me we have to decide daily to refuse to do the Enemy's bidding to hammer those nails in. Instead of fighting each other, we can choose to fight the one seeking to destroy us. Instead of hammering those nails in the coffin for him, why don't humble ourselves and begin to take out the nails we already hammered and resurrect our marriages to be all God wants them to be. We don’t have to change partners to change our marriage. We can choose to act out of who we want to be and become people who love and honor as Jesus does.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Those Detrimental Labels

The Bible makes it clear that mankind was created in the image of God. Each of us is created individually to reflect His glory in unique ways. We are created to fulfill purposes He designed us to specifically fulfill. Yet, we live in a fallen world and as a result most of us (if not all) have negative core beliefs so deeply entrenched that we don't even realize they are there. These beliefs tell us things that are contrary to God's truth. These beliefs drive our thoughts, attitudes, decisions, and actions. They govern how we feel about ourselves and others, how we interpret life, and how we view our circumstances, events, and others' actions. They even govern how we treat ourselves and how we treat and respond to others.

I believe core beliefs begin as labels. Some of those labels begin in childhood when we don't know how to correctly interpret life, relationships and experiences. When we misinterpret words, events, and others' actions we often end up applying shame-based labels to ourselves. Think of children who grew up neglected and abandoned. They often faulted themselves, assuming the labels of not good enough, too stupid, too ugly--and any other too they believed kept them from getting their needs of love and nurturing met. Think of the children who have been abandoned either physically or emotionally by parents' who are incapable of loving well, drowning in addictions that caused role reversals, or simply leaving to start another family somewhere else. They label themselves as defective, unloved, unneeded, unwanted, and not enough.

Think of the children who were being sexually abused or exploited. They labeled themselves as dirty, disgusting, trashed, used, vile and ruined. In addition, when no one noticed the pain they were in or responded to their cries for help. they added other labels like invisible, not worth saving, shameful. Think of the children who grew up with others labeling them with ugly names, harsh words and racial slurs. Words like Ugly. Fat. Chunky. Stupid. Different. Slut. Worthless shaped their view of themselves. Think of the messages given by others that turned into labels given. Useless, Insignificant, Unneeded, Ugly, Stinky, Dumb. Crazy. Ridiculous. You are....You fill in the blank with what you heard. It could be the source of a label you wear.
 
Think of teens dating, who are giving gave away their hearts, their bodies, and their souls outside of God's plan and then having their hearts trampled and tossed away like the evening garbage. Think of those whose "No's" were disregarded or silenced with threats of violence or shame. Think of those who were given labels by bullies, indicating they didn't even have a right to take up space, breath air, or live.

Think of women who are living in a media-driven culture that defines beauty as size two, flat stomach, space between thighs, and certain skin tones whose are not genetically designed for that. Think of women whose husbands define beauty by the air brushed porn they view--pictures burned in their brains--pictures that don't age over time, don't shift with child birth, or don't experience the pain of arthritis and other debilitating diseases. Or the men who were labeled worthless, stupid, or dumb by frustrated parents, thoughtless teachers, angry wives, hateful bosses, or resentful co-workers.

The source of all negative labels originates with the enemy of our souls--even the ones spoken by people, implied by the actions of others, or assumed by us due to our experiences. I know this because he is source of every lie that goes against God's truth. I was given permission to share the link to an amazing video. https://youtu.be/V2hc_LIdEmc In this video Isabelle sings about labels. In it there is a scene in which she portrays a model being squeezed into clothing too small as her beautiful face is being painted with harsh black makeup designed to hardens her gentle sweet beauty. She finally gets up and walks out of the photo shoot, stripping off the corset type clothing and washes off the makeup, showing her refusal to be made into something she isn't. That is powerful!

I was sharing with my husband today about the video and all the different ugly and painful labels with which I  used to struggle and a few that still remain a constant battle. I told him it was in my Christian counselor's office I had that moment Isabelle had that caused her to walk off the set. It was there that I first identified and opened up about all the hateful, ugly labels I had heard, I had assumed, and that I continuously reiterated in my negative thinking until they had sunk so deep they ran through my mind of their own accord, causing self-hatred to run hot through my veins. It was sitting in that office over a period of time with her reminding me of truth that helped me see those labels were lies of the enemy. It was there that I began to recognize the power I had to refuse to let the media, our culture, the abuses I had experienced, the hurtful words that had been spoken over me, the hateful actions of others towards me, the false accusations being hurled at me, and harsh judgments being spoken about me label me as defective, dirty, unloved, too fat, too ugly, too stupid, invisible, unworthy, too unloved, too much, not enough, and inadequate. Those things had become so deeply entrenched I had to choose the truth of what God says about me over and over--truths like I am fearfully and wonderfully made, I am beloved, I am beautiful, I am saved, I am sanctified, I am chosen, I am cherished, I am whole, I am of sound mind, I am seen, I am heard, and and I am clean. I have had to let the love of God and His truth continually wash over me to get rid of the labels and let Him be my source of worth. When I understood how I had let those labels define me and how they were destroying me, I became passionate about fighting the lies and helping others fight their lies and help them absorb what God says about them and worked it into our Passionate Heart Ministry.

Understanding labels helped me understand the power of words whether spoken or withheld. If we tell a child over and over and over he is lazy, he will be lazy. If we tell children they are worthless they will begin to believe it and act out of that belief. If we tell a girl she is a slut repeatedly, she will fulfill the label with her life. If we refuse to speak kindness or love into someones heart, they will begin to believe they are unloveable. If people refuse to make eye contact with a homeless person, he will begin to believe he is invisible.

I wish we all understood the labels with which we all struggle. Those labels keep people from being all God created them to be. When we don't understand our own negative labels, we will end up labeling others in detrimental ways. If we let the truth of God and His love wash over us, our negative labels will be replaced by His Truth, enabling us to become more than we ever dreamed we could be. Then we will be in a place to help others remove the labels etched into their souls by repeatedly encouraging them with the truth of who they were created to be. And our God who only creates beauty and He ascribed worth to each of us with his own blood.

Introduction

Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!