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.

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!