Oh church, where have you gone?

silver imac near white ceramic kettle
Photo by MockupEditor.com on Pexels.com

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.

 

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