Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Living Loved

With the New Year just days away, I've been thinking of my word/phrase for 2016.  I inadvertently stumbled on the practice of naming my year in 2012 as a way to remind myself that though my marriage was breaking up that I had not been, was not and never would be "alone."  So 2012's word was "Never Alone."  After my world exploded and I began the task of rebuilding and recovery, the building blocks of starting over became paramount so 2013's word was "Provision."  In 2014 I focused on three words "Prosper, Transform and Delight," while I sought "Healthy Connections" in 2015.

Reflecting on the past twelve months my focus on creating healthy connections is amusing to me at this point in time.  At the time of choosing the year's focus, I had just re-entered the dating scene after over three decades of being married and was realizing just how easy it is to get sucked back into toxic relationships.  It still amazes me that at the end of 2015, I am remarried to a man without addictions and am enjoying an incredibly healthy marriage--not perfect but healthy.  My remarriage has required additional adjustments for my children but we are all finding our way in a new blended family.

One of the challenges of remarriage and a healthy connection with my spouse is accepting the reality that I am loved just as I am.  So I am naming 2016 the "Year of Living Loved."  Living loved is more than knowing that I am loved; it is living as someone who is dearly loved.  The difference is greater than the 18 inches or so between my head and heart.  Living loved means that I no longer hustle for acceptance; it means that I do not base my worth or value on what others think of me or on what I do.  Living loved is operating out of a system of grace and favor rather than tit for tat or quid pro quo.  Living loved means that my striving can cease; I simply rest in the fact that I am loved--nothing more and certainly nothing less.

Learning to live as one dearly loved must begin in my relationship with my Higher Power.  If I can rest secure in His love and care, I will find value, meaning and purpose that are not tied to my striving, abilities or performance.  "Those who feel lovable, who love, and who experience belonging simply believe they are worthy of love and belonging" (Brown, Daring Greatly). Most of us do not feel worthy of love and belonging--it is not a message that is necessarily communicated to us by families of origin (though in an ideal world it would be), employers or even friends.  We humans are fickle, judgmental and prone to criticism and idealism.  Our love is often conditional, even when we are trying to love unconditionally.

But God's love is unconditional, lavish and bigger than our misunderstandings of Him (Jacobsen, p. 185).  I recently spent a week with my adorable granddaughters and was reminded again of just how much I love them and how fiercely protective that love is.  Living loved means that I "awaken to each new day confident that the Father delights in me like a parent over his newborn child" (Jacobsen, p. 181).  It means living with "eyes wide open, looking for ways in which Jesus is making Himself known" to me each day (Jacobsen, p. 183).  It results in a quiet trust that no matter what may come, I will be ok because I am loved.

Learning to live as one dearly loved means that I can accept my faults and failures without a need or urgency to defend, explain, rationalize or minimize.  Jesus taught us to love others as we love ourselves (Mark 12:31), however, the problem in our world is that so many of us do not love ourselves so we cannot possibly love others as they deserve to be loved.  By learning how to love my flawed and imperfect self--by extending grace and mercy to myself and silencing my inner critic, I will be better able to love those around me, to offer grace, kindness and a nonjudgmental acceptance.  I've noticed in recent months that my heart overflows with love for others and it seems to be directly correlated to the measure with which I love myself.  What may seem selfish and self-centered is actually a prerequisite for reaching out in love to others.  Living loved is not just for me, it seems.  It benefits others as well--imagine that!

The world is a hate-filled place these days with politicians, clergy and the media spewing hate-filled messages intended to further polarize and divide us.  It is time for us as a people to embrace love--love for our Higher Power, for ourselves and for those around us.  We can only love our broken world to the extent that we allow ourselves to be loved by One greater than us and to the extent that we love ourselves.  I am choosing to live loved in 2016.  Will you join me?

* He Loves Me:  Learning to Live in the Father's Affection, Wayne Jacobsen

Saturday, October 24, 2015

What Happens in Childhood Does Not Stay in Childhood

Childhood is a relatively short period of time compared to the average lifespan.  And yet so much of  what happens during those formative years impacts the individual for decades.  A landmark study that actually began in 1995 illustrates this convincingly.  It is known as the Adverse Childhood Experience Study and is "one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being.  The study is a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente's Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego."  Source

The ACE Study has followed over 17,000 enrollees in Kaiser's health plan who underwent a comprehensive physical exam as well as completed the ten-question ACE Test.  Data from the study revealed "staggering proof of the health, social and economic risks that result from childhood trauma."  Source.  ACE scores can range from zero to ten, with ten reflecting the highest number of adverse childhood experiences by category.  It is important to note that the ACE Test does not account for the total number of adverse experiences in each category throughout childhood but rather the number of categories of adverse experiences an individual encountered.

The ACE Test asked participants about ten types of childhood trauma:
  • Three types of abuse (sexual, physical and emotional)
  • Two types of neglect (physical and emotional)
  • Five types of family dysfunction (having a mother who was treated violently, an alcoholic or drug addicted household member, family member imprisoned or diagnosed with mental illness, divorce or separation of parents)
The study revealed that childhood trauma is far more common than previously believed and that the consequences of the trauma last a lifetime.  Individuals with an ACE Score of 4 had increased prevalence rates for the following behaviors:

Source 1   Source 2 
 
Clearly, what happens in childhood does not stay in childhood.  We focus a lot on the horrendous impact of child sexual abuse and molestation, as we should.  But there are other harmful experiences that negatively impact a child for life that we should be just as concerned about.  Improving the quality of the parents' marriage, making sure mom is not treated violently, dealing effectively with depression, addiction and other types of mental illness that may be present in the family as well as having a zero tolerance for abuse and neglect of any kind are all incredibly important aspects of a child's life that we need to pay critical attention to.  We can never give up on the important task of ensuring that our children have safe, healthy environments so that they can enjoy a long and productive life.

But what about those of us who are already grown?  We may recognize and acknowledge that the environment in which we grew and developed was toxic and we may already be struggling with some of the consequences that the ACE Study revealed.  Is there hope?  YES, there is.  Simply acknowledging that what happened in childhood happened to us, that we did not cause it, we did not deserve it and we were powerless to prevent it, begins the process.  We change the questions from "What's wrong with me?" to "What happened to me?"  There is power in naming our experience and acknowledging it as trauma.  And by dealing with the trauma, with the help of qualified individuals, we can change the outcome--we can minimize or eliminate the potential health and behavioral risks that our ACE's have created.  We commit ourselves to practicing good self-care, mindfulness and gentleness with that frightened, traumatized child within.  By re-parenting our inner child, we ensure that what happened in our childhood stays back there and does not continue to impact our present or our future.

Our goals when it comes to childhood maltreatment are twofold:  we must do all that we can to change the culture of violence, exploitation and maltreatment that exists today so that tomorrow's children fare better than yesterday or today's.  And, we must commit ourselves to caring for our first child--ourselves--and to healing those hurts of yesterday.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Reflections on Trust Post Betrayal

Under the best of circumstances, trust is hard but after a betrayal it is significantly more difficult to attain or to retain.  Recently, I set out for the park because my almost-three-year old granddaughter loves to go to the park and I love to make her happy.  I had never been to this particular park but her parents assured me that she was a great little navigator and could lead us right to it.  As we set out, I realized that I was placing the safety and security for both of us in her tiny hands--I hadn't a clue where we were going and the weight of that slowed my steps and caused me to cling to her just a bit more tightly.  But sure enough, she led us straight to the park where we had a lot of fun together.  While I was pushing her on the swing I contemplated yet again this thing called "trust."

Webster defines trust as the "belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest and effective."  Trust develops in infancy and is rooted in those first attachments with parents who consistently provide for the helpless child's survival and relational needs.  Childhood and adolescence offers multiple opportunities to learn that not all are trustworthy and to gain the tools to navigate the experience of broken trust.  However, if we have experienced "good-enough" parenting, we approach friendships and intimate relationships with a level of resiliency and an innate ability to trust.

But what happens when we have experienced a devastating betrayal of trust in a close relationship?  Is it possible to trust again?  These are critical questions because trust is essential in any relationship but particularly so in an intimate one.  Part of learning to trust again is learning how to hone in on indicators of deception.  Evasive "dodging" of poignant questions, "fuzziness" on key details and a tendency to fudge the truth on non-essential information are warning of potential deception.  My ex-husband and I once argued for hours on what constituted a lie.  It reminded me of Bill Clinton' famous "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is," during his impeachment hearing.  To me, deception involves intent to deceive; my ex preferred to focus on technicalities, insisting that if it was technically true, even if the intent was to deceive, it was not a lie.  Deception destroys trust and those who have been betrayed are profoundly impacted by even the slightest "white lie."

A recent article in the on-line edition of Psychology Today addressed the epidemic of deception that exists in our culture and the impact that it has on an individual and on their ability to trust again  The author points out that deception "contaminates your entire sense of self.  It throws you off-kilter, makes you question your perceptions . . . [you] lose faith in [your] ability to determine what is real and what isn't."  Source  And compounding the betrayal of trust that deception creates is our culture's penchant for embracing the sinner and blaming his victim for falling prey to his deception.

We love the "bad boy finds Jesus" scenario and are quite happy to give perpetrators a second and third chance.  A "repentant" offender or perpetrator, is often welcomed back into the embrace of a church or community.  Like the wayward prodigal, his "return" is celebrated, his sins forgiven and he is restored.  His victims, however those he deceived and defrauded find that they are often blamed for being gullible and naive--for falling for the offender's lies.  This societal attitude taps into the inherent shame, embarrassment and humiliation a victim feels, fuels self-doubt and pretty much guarantees that she will remain silent about her betrayal.

Daring to trust again after profound betrayal is essential to wholehearted living and loving but it
involves the fiercest of battles.  The process of trusting again can feel like what I experienced recently when trying to return a rental car in a strange city.  I drove through dense fog and darkness relying solely on the step-by-step instructions provided by my smart phone.  Trusting again is taking that giant leap of faith, believing that there is still good in the world, that small electronic gadgets or almost three-year olds may know something that we don't We step out in faith that may feel blind, keeping an eye on the horizon looking for familiar "landmarks" (aka indicators of deception), listen to our gut, and cautiously move forward--one step or one mile at a time.  And hopefully, the destination that we arrive at is a relationship that can restore our broken trust and help to heal our wounded hearts.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Tale of Two Granddaughters

In a few days I will be getting on a plane and flying to an adjoining state to meet my newest granddaughter.  She, like her sister, arrived on a Sunday morning after a somewhat frightening pregnancy.  Unlike her sister, she weighed in at a whopping 7 pounds, 9 ounces and was screaming from the moment of her birth.  My son and daughter-in-love christened her "New Life," a name quite appropriate to where our family is in the healing journey.

"Grace" announced her imminent arrival just days after our world and our hearts exploded into millions of fragments.  Our family was forever changed but Grace came to remind us that as long as there is breath, there is hope.  Her coming was prophetic, though we did not know that at the time.  She announced the promise of a future to our family at a time when our past was disintegrating before our eyes.  She brought joy to our hearts and continues to be a constant reminder that grace is an undeserved and unexpected favor.

I must admit that when our family experiences a significant event, I still experience conflicting emotions.  Though I am happily remarried and very grateful that pedophilia and addiction no longer color my world, a new grandbaby is a poignant reminder of what we have lost.  Life is not the way I envisioned it would be at this point; my kids no longer have an intact parental unit.  My children's father and I will not share in this part of the journey that we began together; our paths have diverged, if ever they were really united.  So it is a bittersweet time.

The conjoined twins of pedophilia and addiction strike at the heart of everything that is good and sacred about the vows we make to one another.  They destroy truth with lies, fidelity with betrayal, and love with self-interest and self-gratification.  Survivors flail about in the debris of the destruction they bring, trying desperately to make sense of the senseless.  There seems to be no end to the suffering and pain they inflict on those closest to them, their primary and secondary victims.

But grace promises that there will be new life.  Grace proclaims that this is not the end of my story, that there is life beyond the devastation and destruction.  Grace points to a newness of life--a life that can be marked once more by truth, love and fidelity.  Grace provides the space for a resurrection to take place.  And our family is currently experiencing this resurrection:  new relationships (including remarriage), new jobs, new homes, new dreams, new adventures, a restored sense of hope for the future and a new baby, appropriately named "Life."

So this weekend as I tickle "Grace" and cuddle "Life," I will express yet another prayer of gratitude.  My two beautiful granddaughters are tangible proof that life is good, that hope is alive and that we have more than survived, we are thriving.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

"To Thy Own Self Be True"

A scene from one of my favorite movies comes to mind when I think about this famous quote from Shakespeare's play Hamlet.  In Runaway Bride, the main character, Maggie, just cannot make it to the altar though she tries many times with different fiances.  As the daughter of an alcoholic father, Maggie has learned the art of disconnecting from her needs and desires in order to become what significant people in her life want her to be.  Each fiance likes his eggs prepared a different way so in complete conformity, Maggie orders her eggs prepared in the same fashion.  She has lost that essential part of herself, which is why she can never commit to another.

The process of discovering or rediscovering one's true self--not the self defined by relationships, prescribed roles or occupations--is the core of recovery and healing.  It is finding the answers to questions such as "Who am I?" "How do I want to be in this world?" and "What do I really want to do with this life I have been given?"  Answering these questions is not as easy as one would think--it can be pain-staking and grueling but the answers are found only by being completely honest and authentic.

To live a fully authentic life means that we demonstrate both an outer and an inner authenticity.  Outer authenticity requires a congruency between what we say and do with what is really going on inside of us.  Our words and behavior line up with our true self.  Inner authenticity involves knowing ourselves and maintaining an awareness of our inner states--our values, beliefs, emotions, thoughts dreams and fears.

I am discovering that it is one thing to live a fully authentic life while a single woman and another entirely as a married individual.  I've lived my entire life trying to measure up to the standards and value system of others and trying to conform and contort myself into shapes that fit the expectations of significant people in my life.  Capitulating to the belief or value system of another is as familiar to me as the back of my hand--it is my default setting.  I value my relationship with my spouse and want to please him so it is incredibly easy for me to abandon myself in favor of whatever idea or notion he espouses.  Not that he requires or even asks this of me--this is something entirely within me that still needs healing and transformation.

I'm impressed by some of the words that Steve Jobs shared with graduates at Stanford University six years before his death:
"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life.  Don't be trapped by dogma--which is living with the results of other people's thinking.  Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice.  And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.  They somehow already know what you truly want to become.  Everything else is secondary."  Steve Jobs

I have known the enslavement of living with dogma and the opinions' of others.  Recovery of my true self has involved a lot of emotional sifting, sorting and discarding.  Living out of my true authentic self means that I no longer espouse beliefs that I was told I had to embrace, nor do I conform to roles prescribed for me or affirm values that do not reflect my most cherished beliefs.  I am learning how to be me, an original work of art created by an Artist who specializes in capturing the true essence of an individual.  And like Maggie, it began with something as simple as deciding how I like my eggs.  I have learned that you need to know yourself in order to be true to yourself and that once you discover your true self you have to guard against abandoning or compromising that truest you.  And everything else is simply secondary.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Kicked Out of My Life

Among the items on my bedside table are two framed photographs of my only daughter--one taken when she was a curly-headed three year old and another when she graduated from high school.  As I glanced at them this morning while making the bed, my heart broke yet again.  For a number of reasons, I am in yet another cycle of grief--it rolls in unexpectedly and while it is not as intense or all-consuming as it once was, it still requires processing through the pain that betrayal and loss have brought into my life.  This morning as I held the picture of my curly-headed toddler, I grieved for the life that I've lost.

I resonate with the feelings of another betrayed wife who bravely pulled the curtain back on what infidelity and sex addiction really look like within the privacy of a marriage.  She writes, "Sometimes I feel like I am sleepwalking.  I don't recognize my life now.  I feel like it must surely belong to someone else.  It is a good life in many, many ways, but it does not feel comfortable in that I don't feel like it belongs to me.  It's like wearing someone else's clothes--the feel, the smell, the look is all wrong.  I don't know how to explain it."

Life post-betrayal is full of paradox.  While I am grateful to be living in truth and authenticity, free of pedophilia, and am deliriously happy with my new marriage, I am homesick.  I'm homesick for the familiar life that I no longer have.  My ex-husband's arrest on child pornography charges brought a tidal wave of change into my life, all at once.  I was anticipating some changes because six weeks prior to his arrest we had decided to divorce.  But his arrest dramatically changed those plans.  I did not know it then, but I was entering a period of imposed change.

According to Dr. Patricia Wiklund, imposed change results from a life-changing event that you couldn't predict, didn't cause, don't want and can't avoid (Wiklund, Patricia, Lesson One of e-course for women of child molesters).  Change that we anticipate and plan for is exciting but all change carries with it stress and loss.  Imposed change, on the other hand, is not planned for and does not result from a personal choice--another or circumstances beyond our control imposes it upon us.  Here is some of what I recorded in my journal five months after my life exploded:

"I guess I'm also realizing how much of my old life was cut off and thrown away.  I smashed a 25th wedding anniversary photo of us, threw away my wedding bouquet and our anniversary album.  These parts of my life have been consigned to the trash heap--so many years.  So many years.  So much of who I am and what I have lived for is now in the trash.  Where do I go from here?  How do I redeem this?"
And
"Life as I knew it ended five months ago.  Life as I anticipated it ended.  My budding career--my hopes and dreams--all died five months ago.  I don't know what or who I am or should or will be.  I am in a place I never wanted to be in--literally and figuratively.  A dusty, congested, barren place that I now call "home."  Maybe I enjoy seeing the barren hillsides surrounding this new home because they symbolize my internal world--barren, without life, future or hope.  I don't know--just know that I am waiting.  Waiting to see who I will become when I grow up--hoping I get to grow up before life's hourglass runs out of sand."

There were many layers to the grief I experienced when I wrote those entries and even today as I
write these words.  Loss has marched through my life in so many different forms during the past few years but of all the varied types of loss, that of imposed change is the hardest to contend with.  No one asked me if I wanted my door broken down or if I wanted my life displayed on the evening news for all to see.  I wasn't consulted about any of these changes; they just came.

So today, I honor the grief that has come yet again.  I allow it to wash over me and acknowledge that I feel like an alien in my own life--an undocumented, non-resident in a world that is no longer familiar to me.  And I vow to take this grief and make meaning of it by sharing the journey with others who similarly grieve.  It is time to tell the truth about pedophilia, sex addiction, infidelity and betrayal.  It is time to reclaim that which we have lost as a consequence of imposed change--ourselves.  It is time to own our story and to tell it with vulnerability, courage, and determination.

It is only when we dare to show up and allow our stories to be heard and ourselves to be seen that real societal change begins because it begins in us.  This is how we change a climate that sanitizes and minimizes the pain of sexual betrayal and loss.  We stand up and say "ENOUGH ALREADY!"

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Tamar's Tears

One of the things I love about the Bible is that it does not shy away from telling stories that reflect the whole spectrum of the human condition. The accounts of two women named "Tamar" provide an interesting framework for understanding some of the insanity we see in our culture today--both inside and outside of organized religion.

We encounter the first Tamar in Genesis 38 where we are told that she was the daughter-in-law of Judah, one of Jacob's sons.  Tamar's husband died, and as was customary in that patriarchal society, she was given to her brother-in-law as his wife.  Women in that day had no right to own property so depended upon their husband or sons to provide financial security.  The only option for a woman to earn a living outside of marriage was to work as a prostitute.

Tamar's brother-in-law opted to enjoy her body for his own sexual gratification but refused to impregnate her.  When he also died, Judah promised marriage to his youngest son but Judah did not keep his promise.  Tamar, facing certain disgrace and destitution, posed as a prostitute and was impregnated by her father-in-law.  When Judah was told that Tamar was pregnant, he ordered that she be burned to death but quickly backed down when she provided evidence that he was the father of her unborn twins.

The second Tamar was King David's daughter and she was raped by her stepbrother.  Dr. Steven Tracy in Mending the Soul:  Understanding and Healing Abuse has identified a number of primary characteristics of abusive families or systems (i.e. churches, organizations, etc.) that are revealed in this troubling Biblical account.  They include:
  • The needs of individual family members are highly expendable.
  • Reality is very difficult to discern.
  • The victim is made responsible for solving needs they didn't create and could never legitimately satisfy.
  • The family's shiny exterior belies a dark inner reality.
  • Vulnerable family members are not protected because no one really wants to know the truth.
  • Abusers use force to get their sordid way.
  • There is no straightforward healthy communication, and many of the verbal messages are contradictory and confusing.
  • The victim's response is futile.
  • Power is used to exploit.
  • Abusive families are emotionally unstable.
  • The victims are shamed, blamed, and demeaned.
  • Members are isolated and lack intimacy.
  • A strict code of silence is enacted.
  • Abusive families deny and distort proper healthy emotions.
  • The wrong ones are protected.
One doesn't have to search very long to see these characteristics glaringly present in so may of the troubling revelations of molestation, abuse and infidelity in today's headlines.  Three immediately comes to mind:

  1. Josh Duggar's outing as a serial adulterer, porn addict and child molester, while posing as a model for religious piety and purity.
  2. Bill Cosby's legacy of drugging and raping women for decades, while posing as a role model for family values and morality.
  3. Judicial decisions that favor the rights of the perpetrator over those of the victim. 
Behind these tragic headlines are victims, who like the two Tamar's, cry bitter tears that are never seen, acknowledged or valued.  Men are still privileged over women and children and are often seen as mere objects to satisfy the needs of the men in their lives.  Men who struggle with sexual compulsions and addictions are either hailed as "real men" or shamed into silence and secrecy.  And neither the victim or the perpetrator is offered qualified help that will begin to heal the pain and disease.  Everyone suffers in such a system.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Inside Out: My Islands

I do not normally enjoy animated films but made an exception and recently went to see Pixar's Inside Out with my husband and daughter.  What an amazing film that creatively illustrates the interaction of emotions, personality and memories in the brain of an 11 year old girl who has experienced significant loss.  The main characters of the movie are Riley's emotions:  joy, fear, disgust, anger and sadness.  Additionally, islands represent the different aspects of Riley's personality--those values that define her as a person.  The islands are powered by core memories, which are memories assigned greater importance to Riley and thus stored in "Headquarters," a humorous pun for a movie focused on the inner workings of the human brain!

My husband and I were discussing the movie yesterday and trying to name our own islands.  It was an interesting endeavor that provoked deep conversation.  It provided an opportunity for me to process yet again the ways that loss and betrayal have impacted my personality and core memories and thus inform my emotions at any given moment or in any given situation.  I think we too frequently underestimate the impact of loss and betrayal on our psyche and overestimate our ability to quickly heal from devastation.  It is a process and it takes time, patience and a commitment to allowing the pain to bring about personal transformation and growth.

So what are my islands?  What are those core values that now define me as an individual?  And how have they been impacted by the experiences of the past few years?

My Faith is definitely a core value that continues to be a central defining aspect of my personality.  But my faith is not the same as it was pre-disaster.  My faith is not in organized religion because the organized church has let me down in significant ways and actually conditioned me to accept unacceptable behavior.  My faith is in a God who loves--extravagantly and without condition and my goal is to continue to learn to live loved every day.  There is a huge gulf between my head and my heart when it comes to knowing that I am loved and it is a gulf that I continue to work on shortening.

Authenticity, integrity and trust are character assets that I value both in how I interact with others and what I expect from those within my intimate circles.  I am a recovering people-pleaser, addicted to the approval of those I interact with.  A people-pleaser strives to determine what it is that is expected from them in order to gain approval and then they contort themselves so as to meet those expectations.  Authenticity, integrity and a true sense of self are sacrificed on the altar of the perceived expectations of significant others.

The islands of faith and authenticity are connected in that if I am truly living as one dearly loved by God, I will be less concerned with people pleasing and more secure in my intrinsic value as a human being.  I will live a more authentic life in that more and more I will allow my true self to be seen and my false self to fall away.

Healthy relationships forged by meaningful connections with those in my world are another organizing aspect of my personality.  I was tempted to call this island "Family" because certainly family is incredibly important to me, particularly post-disaster.  But the term "family" does not adequately describe the breadth of relationships that I currently enjoy.  "Family" denotes a familial connection, either by birth or marriage, but often those connections are not healthy so we create families of choice rather than birth.  Healthy connections are marked by mutual respect, love, acceptance, authenticity, integrity and trust.  Healthy connections are boundaried connections.

And the islands of faith, authenticity and healthy relationships are connected in that if I live as one dearly loved and strive to allow my true self to be seen, I will seek out other like-minded individuals for meaningful connection.  I will focus my attention on those healthy relationships because I will believe that I am worthy of connection; relationships that do not meet the health-bar will disappear from my life.

Service to God and others is the fourth island/core value of my personality.  Last night my husband and I entertained in our home for the first time since our marriage.  A couple from our church is experiencing a particularly painful family situation and it was a joy to just offer them the gift of hospitality, a wonderful meal and meaningful conversation.

The importance of this island's connections to the preceding three cannot be overstated.  If my service is an attempt to gain recognition, acceptance or approval, then it is not offered authentically.  If, however, my service is offered because I am living as one dearly loved who is worthy of connection, it can be a powerful gift to a hurting world.

Play is my final island and is probably the most challenging one for me.  I have always been the responsible first-born and organized my life around work and commitments.  My grandmother used to say that I was taking care of babies when I was barely out of diapers myself.  And she was right.  Learning to play--to allow that little girl inside to come out and frolic in the sunshine or rain is not easy for me.  But I am learning the value of laughter, and am rediscovering the joy of play and am determined to make it a more regular part of my life.  Having a partner who is a big kid at heart helps significantly.

And once more, the connection between the islands is important.  It is only as I live loved, strive for authenticity within healthy connections, offer my true self in service to God and others that I am free to learn how to play.

These are my core values--the islands that capture the essence of my personality and provide the framework for how I now live.  Had I written this article before my life exploded, I would probably have had a few of the same core values but they would have been expressed in a very different voice.  I am still learning the value of loss and my perceptive husband suggested that it may be another of my islands.  I'll have to think about that for a bit but for now see it as a gift--not one that we eagerly want to open but a gift nevertheless.  It offers us an opportunity that rarely comes in any other form and if we embrace it and let it unfold in our life, rather than suppress, deny or numb it, it will transfor us.  We will change and the change will be a definite improvement.

What are your islands?  What values form the bedrock of your personality or how you organize your life?  I challenge you to begin to know yourself from the inside out!


Monday, June 29, 2015

Why Love Matters: Thoughts on Supreme Court Ruling

In light of recent events in our nation, I am departing from my usual topic to add my two cents worth to the public debate.
 
Over three decades ago, I stood in my living room and held my baby brother's hand as he disclosed his childhood molestation to me and then "came out" as a gay man.  That moment is forever etched in my memory because in that moment, I felt the tension between what I believed and what I felt for my brother.  I saw his tears and I felt his pain and confusion and I knew that he was in for some difficult days, particularly in the responses we both anticipated from our rigidly conservative pastor-father and his church.

Over the years our relationship has been tested again and again over the "gay issue."  We have had times of intense closeness and times of estrangement--times of being able to set aside our own ideologies and simply be present with one another as well as times we allowed our differences to overcome our love for one another.  I have been moved by dozens of conversations with him, his husband and their friends--conversations that explored the depth of pain so many gays have felt from organized religion.  My brother and his friends showed me another side to the "gay issue" and my relationship with them has forever changed me.  I'm not so certain anymore of the correct "Biblical" response to the "gay issue."

This issue has become a rallying cry for extremists on both sides of the divide and it dismays me.  I have watched both camps become more and more polarized to the point that individuals like me--who are not certain that either side has the corner on truth--are rejected as either bigots or heretics.  It seems that compassion, empathy, love and tolerance have been sacrificed on the altar of certainty, absolute "truth" and political correctness--be it within organized religion or outside of it.  There seems to be no middle ground or shades of gray on either side of the issue.

I confess that I don't understand the scant Biblical references to homosexuality.  I've read theologians with sound hermeneutics who have come to vastly different conclusions on what the Bible does and does not say about the "gay issue."  As a woman I have been victimized by those within organized religion who have interpreted passages regarding the role of women in the church and within marriage as very exclusionary and second-class.  It wasn't that long ago that people of color were "righteously" discriminated against by white "Christians" and churches--a stances that was based on poor exegesis of Scripture.  The Church does not have a great track record when it comes to dealing with these social and relational issues but rather a very messy, painful history of clobbering the marginalized with the heavy hand of Scripture, as they interpret it.

I wonder if this is what Jesus was referring to when he chastised the original Religious Right--the Scribes and Pharisees--against "Straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel" (Matthew 23:24).  He despised their practice of putting the Law ahead of grace--majoring on the minor infractions of the Law while ignoring the weightier provisions mandating justice, mercy and love.  In the attempt to be true to their understanding of Scripture, may within organized religion have abandoned compassion, empathy, justice, mercy and love in favor of certainty and absolute rightness.

The Supreme Court decision will be debated for decades to come and regardless of where one stands on the "gay issue," the Court's action has serious consequences that we are only now beginning to explore as a nation.  It is unfortunate that in the political activism that all sides are engaged in, the larger, weightier questions are lost. Extremists on both sides of the divide have made gay marriage a "make or break" issue, which is sad.  Rational, respectful discourse based on tolerance has evaporated and rather than building a bridge to unite us, we are now separated by an even greater divide.

My baby brother was 18 when he came out and while we both are much older, I still feel the tension that I felt then--between my faith and my love for my brother.  I am no closer to having a conclusion now that I can live with than I was then.  I do know, however, that my responsibility is to love my brother--unconditionally and lavishly--just as I have been loved.  I am not his judge and for that I am grateful.  I am willing to live with the uncertainty if it means I can embrace all of my gay brothers and sisters in love and compassion.  I choose to be vulnerable rather than to be certain; to love rather than to be right; to pursue justice and mercy for all rather than to sit in judgment on those who do not conform to my idea of right living.  The Supreme Court ruling did not change my commitment to these values--not at all.  Call me a heretic or a bigot, if you will--I still choose love.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Why Activism Matters


Over the past few days, the blogging world has been very active with the Josh Duggar and Karen Root Hinkley stories.  For those of us who have been impacted either by spiritual abuse and/or interaction with a pedophile, these “stories” are felt deeply and our anger is rooted in the trauma we have experienced and that we see others experiencing.  It is a deeply felt pain of identification that time and distance do not heal.  We are angry at the injustice, ignorance and our sense of impotence in the face of such evil.  It gets exhausting—anger may be an empowering emotion but it also becomes exhausting, especially when it seems that real change is elusive.

Sometimes it feels like it would be easier to just give up, bury our heads in the sand and sing a happy song.  But our anger and grief matter.  They matter a great deal and we cannot afford to be silenced on this critical issue.  It may be uncomfortable to be angry and to fully identify with the pain of others, but it is the catalyst for creating the change we want to see.  And it is critically important that change come.
 
Men and women who stood against the injustices, excesses and abuses of organized religion, social norms and punitive laws made change through their activism.  They got angry and decided to do something about it.  Reformers and change agents risked personal safety, reputation and anonymity in order to draw attention to a problem and to mobilize public support for change.  None of the major battles of reformation within organized religion and society were undertaken passively—they resulted from a burning anger at injustice and a commitment to do something to force change.

Our anger and subsequent activism matter; they matter a great deal.  Organized religion must change its approach to women and children and it must change its perspective on pedophiles. And we must channel our anger into positive action until change comes.  Our activism matters because:
  • Our children matter!  They deserve to grow up in a community where predatory behavior is not tolerated.  Childhood sexual abuse has been termed a “soul slayer.”  It destroys a child’s sense of worth, value and spiritual connection with God.  It is not innocent or harmless!  If we allow the severity of individual acts to be judged on the basis of whether they occurred over or under clothing, penetration was achieved or not, or any other attempt to minimize the impact on a child’s emotional and spiritual health, we are culpable as well!
  • Perpetrators are incredibly skilled at deception and manipulation.  Pedophilia is not something that can be prayed away; it requires years of intensive therapy with individuals specifically trained to deal with sexual orientation/addiction issues. And even under the best of circumstances, it is incredibly resistant to change.  Church leadership who think they can control, contain or manage a pedophile intentionally places the children in the congregation at risk.  And the church leadership must be held accountable, by their congregants and by the courts. 

  • It is time for the needs of victims to be prioritized without question.  We can quibble about theological differences of opinion regarding gender roles, submission in marriage, the role of women in the church,  recognizing that theologians may legitimately differ on what Scripture teaches with regards to these sensitive topics.  However, we must no longer tolerate further abuse or insensitivity towards those who have been victimized.  And we certainly must not remain silent when we see instances where the needs of the perpetrator are prioritized over those of the victim.  Victim-blaming must stop and we must not stay silent when we see it occurring.
The greatest tragedy that could possibly come from these two horrific stories (and all the other untold ones we have yet to hear about) would be if we allow ourselves to forget, to become distracted and to turn from the battle that we now see clearly.  The time for change has come.  If you and I do not take up the challenge, who will?  If not now, then when?  If not us, then who?

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Heartbroken and Angry

Two recent news accounts of childhood sexual molestation, child pornography ad the church's response have reignited anger and sadness in my heart.  I have felt for a long time that the evangelical church is facing a crisis much larger than what the Catholic Church faced when it comes to perpetrators operating within its walls.  Churches are probably the last safe hideout for perpetrating pedophiles and it seems that the more conservative the church, the greater likelihood that molesters are at work.

The first story involves TLC reality star Josh Duggar's admission to sexually molesting numerous little girls a number of years ago.  When the molestation came to light, his father kept it a secret for at least a year--he then told the church elders who buried the story for a number of months prior to alerting the authorities.  Josh was sent to what was first called a "training center" but it turns out it was only a family friend who simply put him to work.  There is no evidence that he received professional counseling and certainly nothing seems to have been done to provide therapy and support for his victims.  The police detective who took the complaint is a family friend and it turns out is now serving a 56 year sentence on child pornography charges.  No charges were filed against Josh.

And then there is the story of Karen (Root) Hinkley, a former missionary to Asia with her ex-husband.  While overseas, it was discovered that he was using child pornography for his sexual gratification.  The sending agency brought them home and he found shelter in his very conservative church.  The church indicated in an email that Jordan Root knew that he could be arrested at any minute but assured its congregation that they were taking good care of him because he was "repentant."

Karen courageously filed for an annulment of their marriage and it was granted.  The judge granted an annulment rather than a divorce because she alleged that the marriage was based on fraud--that she had been deceived from the beginning.  I wish I had thought of that strategy!  When the church discovered that the Root's marriage had been annulled, they placed Karen in church discipline for taking such an action without their permission!  Meanwhile, the real villain, the real danger to children, the man who has admitted to criminal behavior and to pedophilia is in the safe harbor of his delusional church.

Both stories illustrate what is so very wrong in conservative evangelicalism:

  • Male privilege & double standards:  It is still a man's world in far too many corners of the globe and especially so in fundamental religions.  When men misbehave, it is chalked up to "boys being boys."  However, when a woman is even perceived to have misbehaved, the hard hammer of judgment falls on her.  Churches who insist on the submission of women within marriage or in the church create an atmosphere where men can do no wrong and women can do no right.
  • Cheap grace & pseudo-repentance:  All that the skillful and manipulative perpetrator must do is admit that he has "sinned" and seek restoration.  Little thought seems to be given to verifying his version of the "sinful" events or of acknowledging the real seriousness of these crimes and the very real threat these perpetrators pose to innocent children.  He says he is sorry, that he is all better now and church leadership takes him at his word.  Our children pay the price for this stupidity.
  • Women & children are expendable:  Because women and children are not valued as highly as the men in the community, their pain is not validated as significant as that of the males.  Their wounds are not properly tended to; indeed they are often not even recognized.  The unstated understanding is that women exist for a man's pleasure--not too far from the women as property mentality!
  • Religion is used to control the narrative rather than to seek justice:  Jesus defined true religion as one that cares for the poor, the widow and the orphans.  Partners of pedophiles may not be widows in the truest sense, but they have been abandoned in a profound and catastrophic way.  And violated children whose parents and/or church fail to protect them vigorously and seek justice for them are orphans.  Instead of protecting the vulnerable and abandoned, the church seeks to control the story, contain the damage and sweep it all under the rug, unless of course, the perpetrator is a woman.
I'm angry.  I'm disappointed in the institution I have been a part of for my entire lifetime.  And I'm sad--sad for the victims whose cries are ignored or stifled--sad that the Gospel is so perverted by those whose aim is control and power rather than justice and mercy.  Dear God, save us from ourselves!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Who Gets to Control Me?

For the majority of my life I have ceded control of my life, including decisions, beliefs, values, and morals to others in an attempt to gain approval.  I first wanted God's approval and was taught that the only way to get that was through works, holiness and perpetual repentance.  The theology I was raised in taught that while I might live a life of holiness (without which no one can see God), if in a moment of weakness I sinned and God returned before I had repented, I would not be taken in the rapture.  God was a tyrant who was mercurial and not to be trusted.

The family I was raised in was incredibly dysfunctional, and still is.  I was taught that the only way to have my needs met was to go along with whatever dictate the family issued.  Someone was always "in" in the family and and someone was always "out."  You never knew when your status could change from favored one to disfavored one and you never knew why the status changed.  It just did.  My family still insists that I live by the rules and roles they have established for me--after 58 years nothing has changed.  But I have.

The churches I attended have provided the same message--you can't lead even though God has gifted you with leadership capabilities because we don't believe it is scriptural.  You can't wear makeup or cut your hair or wear pants because we have determined that it is not within the standard of holiness, as we define it.  You must submit to you husband in everything because he is your spiritual head--it doesn't matter that he is a child molester and has turned to child pornography for sexual gratification.  Just go home and keep him happy.  Don't think for yourself and for goodness sake, don't make decisions for yourself!  You are a woman, a weaker vessel and it is because of you that sin entered the world.

I married a man who, though I thought he was prince charming, turned out to be a very very sick man.  I sensed from the very early days of our marriage that something had changed--that he didn't fully accept me or maybe even love me.  So I made vows to make myself into just the kind of person he wanted.  He didn't like country music, neither did I (but I really did enjoy some of it).  He didn't like sports, neither did I. He didn't trust personality profiles or psychological testing, then neither did I.  Always wanting to please and always knowing that I never measured up.

And then in a horrible traumatic way, I learned what it would take to please him.  And were it possible for me to do or be what he desired, I would refuse.  I simply could not/would not become a child again.

A number of months ago I wrote about the most horrible but best Christmas gift I ever received.  I didn't know it then but it was my Emancipation Proclamation and Declaration of Independence wrapped messily in one announcement.  He no longer wanted to be married to me; we made the decision to divorce.

For three years, I have struggled to survive and to recover from a lifetime of appeasement and approval-seeking.  For three years I have worked hard to identify those areas of my life that created vulnerabilities and made me willing to sacrifice myself on the altar of another's desires and preferences.  I have learned that I made those sacrifices in order to try to control something that I did not cause and could not cure.  I have learned that I ceded my personal power to another, that I gave myself away--that I betrayed and abandoned my inner child, that young bride and now a middle-aged woman.  I did this to me.  This is my sickness.

So in the quest to rediscover or maybe discover for the first time this self that I had so abandoned, I made the decision to date and recently accepted a wonderful man's proposal of marriage.  It is a decision that has been met with incredible resistance, anger and rejection by some in my family.  And the choice is offered to me again--acquiesce or be rejected and/or abandoned.  Change course or we will offer you the gift of the silent treatment.  Go back to the way you've always been, stay in the role we know you for or I/we cannot/will not accept you.

This time the answer is a resounding NO!"  I will not abandon myself again for the sake of another, no matter how much I love that person.  I shouldn't be asked to.  It should not be a requirement of love given or received.  My responsibility now is what it always has been--take care of me.  It is sad that it has taken me over five decades to figure this out.  But I've learned this important lesson and my vow to myself is to never cede power over me to another.  I am the only one who gets to control me.  In reverence and submission to my PapaGod, it is my job to make decisions for myself.  It is a sacred duty that I owe myself and I am determined to fulfill it at last.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Words to the Broken Woman that was Me

I recently read the heart wrenching words of yet another woman betrayed by her pedophile partner.  Her shock, dismay and fear resonated deeply within my heart--how well I remember those days--days when fear of the future overwhelmed any sense of hope that my children and I could possibly emerge from the nightmare that had suddenly enfolded us.  Words of comfort sprang into my mind--I wanted so much to communicate hope and healing to yet another broken woman whose life, marriage and world had just exploded.  I wanted to tell her what I needed to hear when I sat in my own grief and anguish and yet I know that she cannot hear words of comfort just yet.  For now, she simply needs to cry and she needs individuals who will create and hold space for her to do just that.

So allow me to talk for a bit to that wounded woman who was me just three short years ago.  Here is what I want her to know; these are the concepts I have learned by living them.  This is an assurance that I can offer from the perspective of distance, time and healing.  This is my letter to my own self and to all women who discover that their lives are not what they believed them to be.

Dearest Broken Woman,

I see you sitting in the ash heap of what once looked like a beautiful life.  You are devastated by a betrayal of incredible proportion and you fear what is yet to come.  You sift through the soot and debris looking for something that remains--some remnant of the life you once knew.  The intensity of your aloneness is profound; you feel like a pariah, a leper, an untouchable.  You are raw from the pain and your eyes have shed more tears than you thought was humanly possible.  You long for human comfort and compassion but unfortunately have learned already that few are able to be present in the way that you need them to be.  I am so sorry, so very sorry.

I want you to know that this is not the end of your story or your defining moment.  You will survive this because you are far stronger than you ever imagined.  This devastation is not the final chapter of your life; there is more, so much more--and it will be good.  You will laugh again and experience joy and maybe even love.  You cannot imagine that at this moment but it is true.  You have a future and a hope and your needs will be provided for.  I cannot tell you how but I know from experience that they will be.  And though you feel completely alone, you are being held close by the God who collects your tears and saves them in His bottle.  He has not abandoned or rejected you; this did not catch Him by surprise.

Please hear me when I say this:  you did not cause this, you could not control it and you certainly cannot cure it.  Maybe you've tried (assuming you knew what your partner was up to).  Whether you knew or not, you certainly tried to maintain a good relationship with him, working hard to keep him interested and connected with you and your relationship.  But this is bigger than you and you bear no responsibility for the crimes he has committed.  Repeat that to yourself again and again until it begins to sink into your heart.  You did not do this and you certainly do not deserve it.  This happened to you; you did not do it.

You grieve for your children.  Whether they were victims of his perpetrating behavior or not, they have suffered a grievous loss--a loss of innocence, trust and a parent who may have been a good father to them.  But your children are stronger than you think and they are incredibly resilient.  They are suffering and their lives will never be the same but living in truth always trumps living inside of a falsehood, even a pretty one.  As difficult as this time is for them, they are learning important truths about their father--truths that with love and support may empower them to make different choices in life.

My dearest sister, please don't give up.  It may seem easier to just end it but don't add that to the burden your children must bear.  You will see better days; the memory of this pain will never go away completely but the intensity of it will diminish.  Don't opt for a permanent solution to a temporary problem--choose to embrace life, even the pain it brings because in the end, life is good.  This devastation will be redeemed and one day you will look back on this incredibly painful time as a necessary and good thing.

Hang on!  Reach out to at least one trusted person when you need to; don't be afraid to tell your story again and again and again and again--as long as it takes to digest what just happened to you.  Give yourself space and time to heal and don't be afraid to feel the pain when it comes.  Know that grief is much like the waves crashing on the shore--it comes in quickly and envelops one in pain, confusion and despair.  But just as sure as it came in, it will recede again.  Take a deep breath and plunge into it because that is the path to healing.

You are not alone--there are many of us--far too many to count.  You are not alone and you will survive.  I promise that you will.

Your sister,
Brenda

Thursday, February 5, 2015

An Emotionally Unavailable God

My recent posts on connection have spurred additional thinking and pondering, which may or may not be a good thing.  Without question, we were designed for human connection and in its absence we break, we hurt and often we numb.  But we were also designed for spiritual connection and without it have a void in the deepest part of our core.  It is this spiritual void, along with the lack of solid and healthy human connections that drive so much destructive behavior--destructive behavior against self as well as against others.

The Creator designed men and women to join in the connections and interactions that the members of the Godhead enjoy.  Our first glimpse of the Creator at work is of a God who designed all of His creation to be interactive and dynamic--to be a creation of connections.  We see a God who came and walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden that He had created for them and we see the enemy of God coming in and attempting to destroy that sweet communion and connection.  The Genesis account indicates that after they had disobeyed God, Adam and Eve were ashamed and hid themselves from God.  Shame, that nemesis of connection, the originator of disconnections, was born in a Garden designed for connection.


It occurs to me, however, that much of religious teaching and theology paints a picture of a God who is unavailable for emotional connection.  He is a mercurial tyrant, waiting for us to make a mistake--the hammer of his judgment is always ready to fall on unsuspecting and feeble mankind.  Scripture taken out of context and poorly interpreted is used to support this portrait of an unloving, untrustworthy and dangerous task master.  And all of creation trembles in fear rather than dare to draw close to this god, as we were designed to do.

I grew up in legalistic "holiness" churches where frightening scenarios of end-time events was regularly stressed.  According to the theology I was taught, no matter how "good" I was, if I had not attained a significant level of "holiness," I would not see God.  Furthermore, even if I lived a righteous life (and really, who can do that?), if I had one bad thought or one unconfessed sin and the Rapture occurred, I would be left behind.  I remember riding on a city bus one morning and becoming quite anxious that maybe the Rapture had occurred and I had been left behind.  I anxiously scanned the faces of people in the bus and those we passed in cars and on street corners, looking for someone that I knew was a Christian.  I finally got off the bus, raced to a pay phone (remember those?) and called home.  I can still remember the palpable relief I felt when my mom answered the phone.

So God was not available for emotional connection--He was dangerous and I lived in fear of Him.  It is impossible to connect authentically and transparently with someone that we are afraid of.  It is just not possible.  So, while I have been "religious" all of my life--a regular church goer, a BA in Bible and a MA with some significant graduate classes in theology, etc., I have not felt a deep spiritual connection to God--I have felt that void and emptiness in my core.  And I know that I am not alone.  Indeed, this is the condition of all of humanity.  We are seeking to fill that God-sized hole with everything but connection with God because we have been taught that He is unapproachable.

www.comfortprints.com
For me, the path to connection with God has required letting go--letting go of teachings that make no sense in light of the Gospel message--that of a God who sacrificially gave of Himself in order to reconcile His creation to Himself.  The Gospel message is a message of unconditional and extravagant LOVE--not of retribution and punishment!  It has required reevaluating all that I was taught and studying the Bible with fresh new eyes.  It has involved reading works by authors who have dared to challenge the "status quo" of religious teachings--people such as Richard Rohr, Paula D'Arcy, Paul Young and Rob Bell, to name a few.  And it has involved rocking a sweet granddaughter, with such love in my heart that I felt I could not contain one more ounce.  If I, as a flawed human being am able to love someone as much as I love my sweet grace baby, how much more does PapaGod love me?

God is not unavailable for emotional connection.  Connection is what He is all about.  We have just been fed notions about him that did not originate with him.  And it is time to let them go and reach out for the God who is there and who is available--the God who is waiting with longing to connect with us.