Oh church, where have you gone?

silver imac near white ceramic kettle
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You may have noticed my tag line by now – clergy abuse survivor. I hesitated to identify myself as such. It can be limiting. Plus it might open me up for presumptions and false judgements.

But by readily admitting something key (and ugly) that molded me and my faith — those of similar belief as I hold might give me more credit; not less.

Being a clergy abuse survivor means that I saw directly into the nest of at least one of the (evil) birds Jesus said would roost in that yeast-inflated mustard tree. I realize I just mixed parables there–but yeast represents sin, and I personally believe that Jesus’ mustard tree parable was more along the lines of the church growing through unnatural inflation; than it was a sign of robustness and good health.

I think that’s why I am a little disturbed by this new way of ‘doing church’ — where we sit in front of a screen and tune in to a sermon or a pared down Sunday service and think that we’ve just had church together. And I’ve actually felt this same disturbed feeling in my heart before– it’s actually brewing for at least a decade. Back when it first started, I sensed we were ill prepared for what lie ahead. And now I see just how right I was to feel that way.

About five years ago, a minister friend and I were chatting. He was sharing some of the burden he felt for the congregants under his care. I recall saying to him, some of what I had felt stirring my heart, which went something like this:

“If something causes the church to go underground, into hiding, is your congregation ready and prepared, do they know how to have church themselves in their own homes–alone or with one or two or three? Because the way I see it, the task of every minister should be teaching every person and family and home they serve how to survive and keep being and doing church when there is no longer a church building to go to. And I do feel that someday churches will be hit with something, and our only option might be our own homes.”

My friend went silent at that curveball which he hadn’t seen coming. Then he slowly nodded. I was not sure if he fully got my sense of urgency; so I continued explaining how at our house, we had been doing just that. We’d been practicing ourselves, confessing sins, praising in songs, doing our own communions, praying more, skipping church services so that we could figure out what it meant to be the church in our own home. That way, if and when the time came; we knew how to do it on our own if needed.

I’ve been out of touch with my minister friend since this virus hit, and last I heard he had moved to a new, small congregation from the one he was serving back when I shared an urgency I had felt so strongly on my heart. So I have no idea if he began implementing some changes to prepare others for a time like this. Or if he fell back into the same old routine; where the minister holds court at the front and most everyone else participates simply by showing up.

Unfortunately: I had lost touch with my own strong feeling, and had slipped back into the easy participation of sitting and listening, being polite and withholding, instead of fully participating, diving full in, to a church gathering of two or more. So when our small fellowship stopped meeting recently, my husband and I tuned in to an online sermon and church service the next Sunday morning.

And we sat in silence and listened. Speaking to one another a little bit, later, about what we’d heard.

But that isn’t church.

There is no intentional coming together of the living body, in watching a screen.

The following week everything inside of me seemed to go awry. I was irritable and unkind. Finally, the dam broke and I found myself crying out, though I tried not to yell,  — we are doing this all wrong; we need to have church ourselves! A time where we sputter and wing it and bake some bread to break just for us and cry out in prayers–and it’s awkward and messy and beautiful just the same. Because this thing we did last Sunday where we sit passive and listen is no different than watching Netflix or the news. That is NOT church. And my spirit needs church more than ever right now…

Not to say there isn’t value in listening to online sermons. There is. I am ever thankful for the internet connecting us to one another and the ready information we can still seek and share (it may not always be the case). And if someone is truly alone with no ‘two or more’ to gather with, then online fellowship has to suffice in this hour. But a screen in place of a person isn’t church. If we don’t physically gather, we are in danger of hardening our hearts. For it is all too easy to become passive watchers; rather than active partakers in worship and study. If by and large most of us tune in to a screen, and tune out the urgings of our own hearts for real contact, what does that say about the church in this hour?

Zoom and Skype may bring us closer to that real connecting point; much more like face to face. Which is important. Even the apostle Paul knew the value of meeting face to face thousands of years ago.

If we have two or more people in a home — we can still do church and we can still be church. Gather together. Open the Bible and study and expound, the Holy Spirit will be the teacher. Enter into the initial discomfort of singing worship without a worship leader’s guidance, and saying humble unplanned prayers together. For Jesus has promised us He is there wherever two (or more) are gathered. Believe it. Don’t forget it.

The reason I forgot all that once burned in my heart about how to ‘be the church in my own home’ is quite simple. It was some mixture of laziness and complacency and a yearning for an easy sense of comfort rather than temporary discomforts which bring a more lasting satisfaction.

Laziness, complacency, and seeking momentary comforts are a dangerous combination in this hour.

So this week the two of us muddled through our own thing. Coming together quite simply.

My week, so far, has gone about the same as last; lots of curveballs and weirdness and a few health scares too. There is no magic fairy dust exemption of reality; merely from gathering as a church. But my heart is much more settled now that I know we still have a true gathering church after all; and it meets with Jesus at my own table.

 

Soap Works Well Against this Virus

person washing his hand
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In elementary school I learned that some of my friends had mothers who washed their mouths with soap for saying a ‘bad’ word. As a young child I listened, curious, to these strange new confessions of ‘soap in the mouth’. My eyes grew big and my cheeks red as my classmate’s seven-year-old eyes turned to quiet little me. Had I ever needed soap in my mouth?

Yikes. I was still trying to grasp the idea of a mom or dad putting soap into a child’s mouth. Still trying to figure out what my classmates meant by ‘bad words.’ I believe I just shook my head no. Hoping they thought that meant I hadn’t said any bad words and not that my parents were bad parents to me. Because the latter was something so unbearably shameful that I tried to hide it most of my life.

I started to learn the difference between bad words and good words sometime after I started Sunday school and Kindergarten. Words and phrases which earned open laughter at home, had a deafening effect in a classroom. One time at church I landed in really big trouble. That correction was doubly shameful for me; as the teacher was shocked and quite angry and the other children stared at me in a mixture of confusion and horror– then avoided me.

It is far better to learn such lessons from private applications of bitter soap than from a publicly bitter rebuke. The memory of the teacher’s scolding and my classmates responses can still bring me shame to this day. Meanwhile my peers return home to visit aging parents and likely now appreciate once getting ‘soaped’.

If we love others, we will remember this and quietly try to rebuke, to discipline, to ‘soap’ them in private, before they inevitably get soaped publicly.

Oh, were I to have known the joy of parents and close adult caretakers who actually cared enough to privately correct and discipline me as a child! I would have gladly tasted soap on my tongue for the chance to have known that kind of love.

But I have now learned to be glad for their lack of discipline. I believe what I missed actually helps me long for and embrace God’s discipline for those He loves. Now I often ask for, and WANT God’s discipline in my life. 

With all that’s happening in the world there is a frequently repeated statement from experts that ‘soap works well against this virus‘.

Which has me pondering the spiritual connotation of soap, including a wayward child getting his mouth washed out with it. Can our mouths/tongues be chock full of germs? Uh, YES, both literally and figuratively. Often with the things of God there is a direct spiritual correlation to what is happening in the natural world. Which is the reason I am pondering the strange fact that simple soap will work against this awful virus…

Surely that means something?

As shared above, my formative years were spent learning all kinds of uncouth utterances and then having to learn the hard way that was not acceptable in some places. I eventually picked up on how my adult caretakers, and the minister in my family (the same one who molested and assaulted me), said naughty words in ‘close’ or ‘select’ company; but did not talk the same at church or to the general public. My abusers chose their words depending on their audience. But in private it was clear that no real soap had been applied to their tongues.

This ‘pretend soap’ strategy worked. People in church and community thought highly of my adult caretakers, while they continued to do as they pleased privately.

So I began to do the same. I pretend soaped my own mouth too. Words laughed at, at home, were carefully restrained in church and in school. And while I felt wonderfully free with no sting whatsoever to my conscience, I know now that I was growing more rotten inside each time I unleashed profanity in private.

Then came teenage years when I thought openly cussing in public was cool! I already knew how to use swear words with ease. Whereas some of my friends had to practice and think about it. Plus they still had to hide their dirty mouths from Mothers and Fathers- who continued to threaten them with soap. Lucky me, I only had to tone it down in church and school!

In time it was the Holy Spirit who urged me to clean up my mouth. So it was never a ‘mother threatening to get the soap’ nor is it now my own hypocritical efforts to look like I am ‘clean’. Rather, it is the Holy Spirit which convicts me when I slip into old cussing habits (hard to break things that were a part of you since toddlerhood).

Growing up in that environment, and as a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, I know well that the church can be full of leaders and people who ‘pretend soap’ themselves.

And now that it could be deadly to skip the soap in a public restroom, I think it’s a great time to talk about spiritual realities. I believe it has always been DEADLY to our spiritual life, to ‘pretend soap’ ourselves, particularly so as professing Christians. To gloss over those hypocritical areas we all have and to continue to resist the discipline of God is numbing to our conscience. Hopefully the current circumstances might be that wake up call for some. Because I sense we Christians are being urged to stop the pretense and to start truly living under Holy Spirit discipline.

Before this crisis hit I appreciated ministers who urged their flocks to ‘repent’ and I was leery of those who didn’t. Most of the ministers I still follow (it’s dwindled down to only a few now) were watching for signs of Jesus return and were urging repentance long before this virus occurred. Now that it has hit, I am even more leery of those ministers and leaders who are not giving a clear call to repentance. But I still listen to a wide variety of general Christian content as youtube often picks up the next sermon randomly and I’ll keep listening in; more now than ever.

And some of those fresh sermons are making me uneasy. I am taken back to where I was earlier in my therapy processes when certain ministers had mannerisms which triggered flashbacks and trauma to my childhood abuse at the hands of a minister. Some of that is still from past abuse, undoubtedly. As I know well what it is to be bound to a church leader who claims to use ‘the soap’ while he’s reminded unwashed; casting off germs left and right with all he touches. But before you dismiss this entirely as ‘just a trauma survivor response’. What do you think of the hour in which we now live? Do you, as I do, believe that any minister not clearly urging people to personal repentance in this hour is missing something so key that one begins to question if he (or she) is actually soaping up himself?

So if any church leaders are reading this, please, I urge you, if you feel led to tell us to do our Christian service and go check on our neighbors and to keep giving money to the needy and all that, great, those are good and noble things — but please at least add in some concern about CHECKING OURSELVES for unrevealed sin, SOAPING OURSELVES with frequent repentance and truly being ready and watching for Jesus’ return.

I also wonder if this virus and it’s unique consequences on church attendance is being allowed to reveal those who merely claim to be in Christ Jesus. I pray I am not among those who Jesus casts aside as false followers….as it is quite clear to me that the hour is late. Which makes anything I might try to hide from confession to Jesus– dangerous.

As a Christian the most important thing is that I remain wholehearted toward God, myself, and trying to lead others closer to Jesus as is possible (without losing my own faith in the process). Which is why I listen soooo carefully to the message coming from that youtube screen.

I’m listening for the sound of soap bubbles…

As for me and my house– I hope to have cleaned my own doorstep and hands WELL before I hit the streets in service and/or evangelism. For whatever I am carrying WILL spread. Jesus is the soap. My sin is the virus. My efforts to hide my sins on my own and ‘appear clean’ in areas I am not; might be even more deadly than an ‘open kind of sin’– to myself and to others!

Now is not the time to be ‘fake clean’–to keep hiding the dirt and germs. Rather it is the time to wash them away by the blood of Jesus.

Remember: Soap works well against this virus. It doesn’t kill it, per say, but it does remove it until another exposure. Much like continual repentance works against our sin-state.

We are going through much more soap than usual in our home and at work. Today I want to start saying The Lord’s Prayer every time I wash my hands, as the length of time spent washing, and getting into a discipline of regular prayer, are both so important.

And indeed, around the world we are all having greater contact with soap. For those with eyes and ears to see and hear, I do believe that is revealing a spiritual warning and an urging to be in greater contact with the true and only purifier : Jesus Christ and His shed blood for all. Like bleach kills a virus; His shed blood kills our sin.

It is, perhaps, just a private warning for now. But eventually any lack of discipline and any failure to ‘soap up’ will become painfully public.

Few things bother me, after so much therapy to address my childhood traumas, and a lot of time devoted to healing — I am in a pretty good place now.

Yet the reaction of my Sunday school teacher and a room full of peers, to words I didn’t even know were ‘bad’ when I uttered them ‘at church’ as a small child, continue to bring a sense of shame and regret to my heart whenever my mind goes to that painful memory.

I have made peace with it because I see the lesson in it. I believe that memory needs to remain as a thorn of warning for me; and perhaps others. Because as a result of that experience I had, I can safely say that no one wants those things we do or say that we have no idea are ‘bad’–yes, nobody will want those things to be publicly disclosed. It’s unbearable when that happens.

How, then, do we avoid hidden shame being revealed, given that when we are blind, we don’t even know what it is which we cannot see?

We trust the scriptures which say there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. And we know that God publicly exposes us sometimes for our own good and learning; or with those who have resisted beyond all His efforts to discipline privately. We can ask Him to be the soap that reveals and kills any hidden germs we don’t even realize are hidden. We put the time in with ‘soaping our hearts.’ We read the Old Testament and the New Testament and let it work on our hearts to reveal our sins. If we have hard areas, we ask God to rip them open. If we need healing, we take time to stay home and heal. We make prayer and scripture a daily habit and practice as common as brushing our teeth and washing our hands. We take communion. We remember that ‘wherever two or more are gathered’…Church can meet at home, a married couple + Jesus counts as a gathering too.

Since I appreciate those who try to privately squirt some soap in my mouth, or eyes, or ears, I pray someone out there appreciates my effort to do that here.

As for me: I hope I do not run or resist or twist my head and shut up my mouth, but willingly open it and ask to be shown exactly where I am still in need of correction. And to then receive His efforts to correct me. Even if it tastes bitter.

Most soap does. It’s kinda the point.

How Social Distancing Triggers Survivors-(And why I’m Choosing a Quiet Life Instead)

since social norms and expectations have been so drastically altered—I feel emboldened to embrace what I wanted to be all along; before abusers got ahold of me; before authority figures felt they could tell me what I ought to be doing with my own body…

These are difficult times for all. Isolation ‘suggestions’ (rules) are being made and mandated by authority figures. Even ministers are developing new social norms for Christians; with the move to online church services and meetings. My own small fellowship has stopped meeting. My husband’s small Bible study has gone online. Most people are willing to follow these suggestions, believing it is for the greater good. My adult children are now working from their homes. They’ve mentioned coming to our home for a bit since they are working remotely anyway. But they have not done so; yet.

For a survivor of sexual abuse, this is a time that is rife with new fears and old traumas. As an abused child I was unable to develop internal guidelines about boundaries and personal space. ‘Go give your cousin a hug and kiss’ or the dreaded, ‘come sit on my lap’ were frequent commands. Child experts now stress how important it is not to force a child to touch someone if they would rather not.

But I didn’t have that choice as a child. If it was suggested that I sit on the lap of an adult relative; or go for a long drive with an adult family member, I knew I had to follow the suggestion. I felt powerless in the face of my perpetrators. My main caretakers had me in a state of helplessness. Extended family members further groomed and exploited me, long into adulthood. When I left my childhood home for one of my own, the perpetrators of my childhood continued to cross boundaries through harassing comments over the phone or unannounced visits to my home. Wherein I again felt, and believed myself to be, powerless to stop it.

Coming into the realization that I had personal space, and choice, and that I could choose who to let into that personal space (and that ‘family members’ didn’t get an immediate free pass to be there) was an ongoing and costly process. And I am still patching holes in those boundary walls around myself.

I can almost hear the voice of a former therapist as I type this: Remember that boundaries are walls with gates! We don’t want to wall ourselves in completely. Rather, we get to choose what and who to let in the gate!

As I see the current social distancing rules being implemented, it gives me pause. I once again feel powerless. Following the ‘rules’ as they are being handed down makes me uneasy, even as I know it is the right thing to do. I am once again fighting a familiar childlike fear— that I’ve done something horribly wrong and that this is all my fault somehow. That I shouldn’t have taken that airplane trip I felt it was still okay to take…because to disobey an authoritative suggestion, in any way, means I’m a bad girl. (Even if the authority suggesting it is evil.)

My husband keeps saying he doesn’t care if he gets sick himself. But he just doesn’t want to be responsible for making someone else sick. Which only makes me feel guiltier for being so concerned about myself. Traversing the recent thoughts in my head is like walking through a minefield.

Needless to say: Obeying these new social distancing commands doesn’t give me a senes of calm and peace.

And how can it? These are unprecedented times. We are sacrificing our relationships and our mental well-being in an attempt to protect our collective physical health. Something that can not fully be protected anyway.  Oh, I’m not suggesting that social distancing isn’t the correct response. Again: I’m practicing it myself. I haven’t left the house in days. I am simply pointing out that this action will also have consequences, and all the more so for the vulnerable amongst us- the elderly, the infirm, the disabled, the mentally ill and any of us who have already survived major traumas. Pray for these people. Check on them. Be there for them. Have patience with them in their fears.

Because this is a particularly difficult time for those of us who were already struggling. But as is often the case; those who have not suffered much themselves rarely stop to consider the plight of the already suffering.

It seems like this time of social distancing would be an introvert’s dream. In some ways, it is. As an abuse survivor, I shy away from people who like to draw in too close when talking to me. I need my space. I like to be alone. I like being in a grocery store where the other people in the aisle keep their distance from me (and then some). All the more so because I never had that sense of personal space growing up. But it also made me sad. Being told to isolate myself triggers old memories. Memories of a time when I was so isolated, as a child, that the frequent loneliness was a constant physical hurt in the back of my throat. Then I hardened myself, afraid to get close to people for different reasons. All because the choices with what to do with my own body were not my own to make.

My health has never been ‘good’; and that also gives me pause in the midst of a global pandemic. Many people who have lived through traumas end up with autoimmune issues and disabilities. I am no different. I’m still figuring out what, exactly, is wrong with me physiologically. I am no longer willing to be told by authorities in white coats that I’m ‘just an anxious’ person with psychosomatic symptoms. The biggest step I made for my own mental health came in realizing that there is something physical going on with my body; likely the result of past traumas, that no doctor has yet to be able to explain. Let alone diagnose and treat.

So to know that I am ‘amongst the vulnerable’ due to my physical maladies unleashes fresh grief for what was taken from me. A surge of fresh anger comes too; as I realize the full extent of damage my perpetrators caused me. How those early attacks against me left me vulnerable and weak in so many areas; including physically.

I realize all over again just how costly sexual abuse is to a child. How it remains crippling to a victim who was not given proper help or timely intervention. In order to try and protect myself physically— as a child stuck in an ongoing abusive situation— I harmed myself mentally instead. Believing I was a bad girl and keeping emotional distance from everyone was easier than believing the truth: that I was in constant danger from caretakers who were not actually caring for me.

I see the toll that that old manipulation of my body and mind took on my future relationships. Particularly those with my spouse and children. I see how it left me vulnerable to fear. Weak in times of national and global crises, and all too willing to quickly sacrifice my mental health and relationships in order to survive—to just physically get through it—whatever IT may be. In the past this has resulted in many moments of paralyzed inaction where I did what was expected of me by others. Instead of what was truly born of my heart and calling in life. I don’t know what it will look like for me, walking forward into a future where nearly everyone seems: a bit paralyzed.

All I know is that I’ve had so much time stolen, and, given my broken mindset, went on to waste a lot of time myself. Time that I could have been cultivating peace and joy instead of living a bit paralyzed by fear.

As a note I wrote to myself years ago, and still have posted on my fridge reminds me:

Triggers aren’t the problem. Avoiding pain is the problem.

This recent virus, and the worldwide social upheaval it has caused, has been like a grenade thrown into a giant barrel of triggers. I imagine it’s similar for other trauma survivors. If not, I’m glad to hear it! As for me: where do I even start assessing the pain? Sigh. I have to start with underlining and reaffirming my belief system and let it unfold from there.

And I believe what was meant for evil will be used by God for good. Perhaps God is using this time to show me the remaining hard areas of my heart, which weren’t as tender and soft as I’d thought. Hard areas which are ready to be ripped open, and must be ripped open for me to keep walking with Jesus. (Deuteronomy 30:6, Matthew 13:15). Well, even so: I am shocked at how many of hard spots remain. I thought I’d made more progress than I had.

Another way to put it: I am shocked at the size of the healing onion I’ve been peeling. I thought it was like a basketball.

It’s more like Pluto.

  • A ‘healing onion’ metaphor is something those of us in recovery, (from most anything), often talk about. There are so many layers to that onion! And each one hurts. The eight hundredth layer of onion makes me cry just as much as peeling back the first layer did.

And so as I look forward, to a future that on the one hand looks scary and isolated, I see how influenced I remain by ‘outside suggestions’ and how necessary it is to tune all those out and figure out what to let in, and out, the gate of my heart.

I also see an opportunity to do something that I’ve always wanted to do more than anything else; without a lot of social pressure to conform to something else entirely.

It has always been my desire to simply live a quiet life and to teach that to my children. But abuse and social norms and a desire for popularity, deep seated people pleasing, familial expectations and the need to make a living ($) kept me from doing what I wanted to be doing within my own properly walled life–back when the children were young. Now that they may descend back home for a bit-perhaps I can get a second chance to correct a few things.

And since social norms and expectations have been so drastically altered—I feel emboldened to embrace what I wanted to be all along; before abusers got ahold of me; before authority figures felt they could tell me what I ought to be doing with my own body…

I am encouraged that some of what I did not freely give my own children, in their childhoods (when I was still blinded from the fog of abuse), might now be freely given. Somehow. Someway. But first I need to live it out myself.

Underneath the handwritten refrigerator note that reminds me:

Triggers aren’t the problem. Avoiding pain is the problem

I am posting two Bible verses. Meant to guide me into the future.

  • Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before. Then people who are not believers will respect the way you live, and you will not need to depend on others. (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12)
  • Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near. (Luke 21:28)

I seek peace. Contentment. A quiet life. Wherein I can freely feel both pain and joy; as it comes and needs to come. Quietly peeling that Puto-sized healing onion and being okay with that task; day in and day out. A walled up and fortified home with a gate, and a door and a front porch that opens to the good and stays firmly shut against the bad. While the greatest source of hope, transcends even the hardest pains and the best moments of pleasure left on earth, and hinges entirely upon Jesus’ return for me.

For: surely, I now believe the hour of His return is quite near.

But if you are reading this, and it has triggered new fears: Please know there is still time to repent and be saved. Romans 3:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Confess that sin state to God. And then call on Jesus. John 3:16-18 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”

Not that I am suggesting anything here. I am offering up the Word of God as it was offered to me.

I freely choose to repent. I choose to believe. I choose to forgive those who have hurt me. In spite of many well meaning (I have to believe?) Christian suggestions to do just that, it was somewhere between the Holy Spirit’s leading and my own heart desiring Christ–that I chose, and continue to choose, those things–entirely on my own.

Because a forced choice, a softly suggested choice, a groomed choice, a vague feeling of obligation and guilt–all that is meaningless, and I believe, can even be meant for evil.

“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear. And grace my fear relieved.” John Newton (a former slave trader).

That’s exactly what it was like for me in my own conversion. The fear of God gripped me and then calmed me.

My abusers, the minister who molested and assaulted me, the evil powers and principalities that rule this world– couldn’t, and still can’t, take away my simple free will choice to follow Jesus. I am affirming that choice in this writing. Because if ever there was a time for such affirmations–it is now.

Now that that’s been affirmed: I will continue to peel away at Pluto. And quietly work; hoping to fly under the radar until I either die or Jesus comes for me in the clouds.

Maranatha