Hiding from help

“Why do you get angry at any adult who really cares about you?” my sweet, kind, and bewildered friend confronted me when I was in high school.

“What? No, I don’t. I just can’t stand ultra-concerned types.” I put so much sneered emotion behind the words “ultra-concerned types” that one would have thought I was plagued by obnoxious, overly-zealous, heavy-handed, intruding busybodies trying to bulldoze over me and seize control of my life.

“But why get so angry when they care about you?” she asked again, mentioning some specific examples of kind, wonderful adults.

I brushed her off, muttering something about how I suffered at the hands of “ultra-concerned types” and their annoying ways. I rather angrily denied that I was angry, and then changed the subject.

It took me over three decades to find out the answer to my friend’s question.

Back then, and for those many years afterward, I was hiding a deep dark secret, one so deep and so dark that I could only cope by refusing to think about it, by pretending it away. That didn’t work well. As a teenager, I was filled with the constant, overwhelming sense that there was something very much wrong with me, but I had no idea what — and I never connected that sense with the hidden burden I carried. Fear, shame, and secrecy had become a way of life for me. So had a form of denial so profound that it was almost as if I’d created an alternative reality for myself.

I had to keep people at arm’s length. If anyone, especially an adult, got too close and actually looked into my eyes, they might know whatever it was I dared not face.

At the same time, my innermost being was desperately crying out for help, and my greatest desire was to be rescued…from what, I dared not think. The memories of some of the wonderful adults who managed to overcome my defenses long enough to plant seeds of hope in my bruised and battered, locked up heart, cause tears of gratitude as I write. There was, for example, the youth director from another church who spent a Friday night playing bumper pool with me, laughing with me, having fun with me, and treating me as an interesting person of value and importance. I don’t remember your name, my brother, and I never saw you again, but you were like a ministering angel to me that night.

Then there was Mr. Bottaro, my tenth grade English teacher. He told me, when I was attempting to argue with him about a paper I’d written, “Someday I’m going to break through your façade.” Façade? I fumed angrily. What on earth is he talking about? The nerve of him! The next year, even though I was no longer in his class, he would often stop me on campus and ask how I was doing. He never believed my polite responses or automatic answers. “No, really,” he would insist, his eyes trying to search mine for the truth. “Come up to my room and see me,” he would urge, no matter what I answered. I knew he saw…something.

Finally I decided to take him up on his offer. I would sit in front of him, let him look in my eyes, and tell him that there was something terribly, seriously wrong with me but I was too afraid to try to think about it. Surely he would be able to figure it out. That was my plan, anyway, to beg him to help me, when I arrived on campus early one morning. I was on my way to his classroom when another teacher stopped me with devastating news.

Mr. Bottaro was dead of a massive heart attack.

It took over 30 years for me to try again, to sit across from someone else and let him try to figure out what on earth was so terribly, horribly wrong with me. But, as desperate as I was for help, I didn’t make it easy for my therapist. I hadn’t just erected protective walls around my growing mountain of secrets — I’d planted prickly cacti outside the walls, dug a moat, and filled it with alligators. Then I stood in my watchtower, safely out of reach, and threw rocks at anyone who dared commit the heinous crime of caring in ways that made me uncomfortable or threatened my defenses. My therapist did not have an easy time gaining my trust, and overcoming my anger and fear.

Exposing our dark secrets to the light of day — it’s scary stuff, I tell you. Absolutely terrifying. I do not exaggerate when I say it came close to killing me. But hidden secrets can never be healed, and there is no freedom comparable to living in the light. There are burdens we were never meant to carry alone.

I’ve been on the receiving end of the prickliness when I ventured too close to someone who did not wish to be known, who feared what I might discover. I’ve experienced what it’s like when others lash out in fear and panic because a secret has been exposed. So now I know both sides, and I understand.

Until recent years, I had no idea what true freedom was. I was in survival mode, always feeling as if I were on the brink of chaos, barely holding things together. My life was a carefully erected house of cards that might fall down at any moment, and I couldn’t let anyone know. The fear of exposure — even exposure of some of my more trivial flaws and failings — was crippling. The worst is that this didn’t just effect me. I raised six beautiful, wonderful, amazing children in a climate polluted by my fear, isolation, and secrecy. By the grace of God, they are now much stronger and healthier than I could have ever hoped.

The enemy of our soul hates freedom. He hates the light. Stay in the dark! he urges us. Don’t let them see who you really are! Don’t even admit to yourself how desperate your situation is. Deny. Minimize. Hide. Cover up. Isolate. Live in secrecy. Get angry at anyone who refuses to play along. Break relationships with those who care for you and try to help. Live in fear!

That house of cards? Trust me, once you start walking in freedom and truth, you won’t ever miss what you were once so desperately protecting. Experiencing true healing is more than worth the temporary pain of bringing shameful, dark, or painful secrets out into the light.

Walk in the light. It’s absolutely beautiful out here!

Easter in the midst of grief

On this Easter Monday, while praying for someone who recently experienced the devastating loss of a loved one,  I was reminded of words I wrote back in 1990, to be published in a church devotional booklet:

Easter…it has held a new, triumphant meaning for me since I discovered that you can’t really celebrate the victory of Easter without being devastated by Good Friday; one is meaningless without the other. When I was 19 years old, my beloved Opa died, my mother’s father, a man who had completely opened his heart to me and captured mine in the process. Even when he was a continent away, I felt his love.

A brutal, painful heart attack took his life not long after he had celebrated his fiftieth wedding anniversary. My mother, who had the privilege of being with him when he went home, told me his last words were a prayer of praise, ending, “Jesus is the victor! Hallelujah! Amen.”

Grief is far more than emotional. It is a pain so intense that it is physical, devastating, exhausting, all consuming.

Easter came in the early days of our grieving. My mother and I stood together in church, singing the familiar Easter hymns, tears flowing down our faces. It was then that Easter became real to me — truly real — dynamic and immediate rather than historic. I was amazed that my heart could be simultaneously filled with such great joy and such aching sorrow.

Someday I too will be snatched out of this life. Someday I will stand before my Savior, along with all the saints who have gone before, and I will shout with my Opa, “Jesus is the victor! Hallelujah! Amen.”

That is what I celebrate at Easter.

Why I’m glad that I’m no longer a Calvinist…

…and some other rambling thoughts about suffering and stumbling.

I wrote this as a comment on a blog a few months ago:

I wish I had the rest of the day to respond to individual posts. As many of you so eloquently and heartbreakingly described, grief and suffering HURTS. Jesus showed us what true compassion and grief looks like when he wept with his friends over the loss of their brother — even though Jesus knew full well he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. Later, Paul would remind Christians to weep with those who weep, to bear each others’ burdens.

And, you know what? Doing that HURTS — not as much as the actual pain of the one grieving, but it hurts to sit with someone in their pain and totally open your heart, allowing their pain to invade your safe little bubble. It’s scary to admit that we don’t have neat, tidy answers to difficult tragedies. It’s scary to admit similarly devastating blows could strike us as well. So we blame people for their own pain in a self-righteous and desperate attempt to promise ourselves that this same sickness, this same tragedy, will never come near us. And, if it does, we will handle it better. We are made of stronger stuff and better theology, so we will never hurt as much as those other people. That’s what we tell ourselves.

I know. I was that person…until my world exploded about 6 years ago, and years of running from pain and being all “praise God, the past is in the past!” came crashing down on me. Thank God that I had left Calvinists and Calvinism behind before then.

There were no easy answers. I did not heal nicely, or neatly, or tidily. It was messy. I stumbled and fell a lot. I sinned — not by grieving or hurting or being a mess, but by actual sins. I met a ragtag group of beautiful fellow sufferers who showed me what true, loving acceptance looks like. The best thing that eventually came out of the evil that Satan intended for me — and he intends evil for all of us because he is all about killing, stealing, and destroying — is that God showed me that he is a redemptive God. Sin and evil and sickness has no silver lining, but God can redeem the worst thing. And the best way he redeemed all that ugliness in my life, all the pain that came to a head in recent years, is that he revealed himself to me as the perfect, loving Father that I’d never dreamed he could be. It was in relationship with him — and some of his representatives who shared his love — that I have been able to walk out my healing journey. (It has felt like stumbling and even being dragged more than walking at times.)

This longwinded comment is to say that I think when we begin to comprehend the enormity and tenderness of God’s love — especially in the midst of life’s ickyness —when we begin to experience how deeply personal and intimate his love is for us, it makes all the difference. The Calvinist view of God is much safer. It keeps God at a comfortable distance. God up close and personal is beautiful and healing beyond all comprehension, but it’s also overwhelming. After all, this is the God of the universe we’re talking about.

My world has been rocked. My heart has been broken. I’ve lost my taste for nominal Christianity. I have no easy answers. Sometimes all I can do is hug someone, pray for them, and weep. And that hurts, even though compassion is a good hurt, a good heartbreak.

That’s what I was running from when I was a Calvinist. I needed a small, safe, understandable, predictable God who provided security and a safe haven from pain and messiness. What I’ve found now is this huge, wild, mysterious, incomprehensible God who has captured my heart, melted and broken it, healed and tenderized it — and turned my world upside down.

I wish everybody could know that wonderful, amazing, magnificent God.

About the smallness of man’s theology 

Recently I was involved in an online discussion of John Piper and Calvinism. I had especially taken issue with something Piper said to victims of child molestation about the abuse they suffered: “And so you try to say there is no sense in which the sovereign God willed that, you will lose God for the rest of your life.”

My first response to that statement was admittedly made in anger:

God did not will my molestation, my rape, or any other of the evil things I suffered in my life — especially not in the sense John Piper says. Is God sovereign? Yes. Are we puppets on a string? No. Missing from all this is the concept of free will, but the hyper-Calvinists don’t seem to believe in that anyway.

This statement of Piper’s makes me angry. Furious, in fact. Because it is a lie from the pit of hell, and I don’t say that lightly. Thank God that I did not encounter this when I was struggling with the whole question of where God was when horrible things were happening to me or to people I care about.

I have NOT lost God. I am closer to Him now than ever before in my life. That includes during my time spent in the Reformed theological camp. I understand God’s love much better than I ever have. I trust Him much better. It is His love that has brought me a greater degree of healing than I ever thought possible in my wildest hopes and dreams.

My life, especially over the past two years, exposes Piper’s statement as a damnable lie. Don’t believe it. Not for a second.

ACK!! I’m so angry that I better stop before I get to ranting.

The next morning my anger and indignation was gone, and I posted this:

I am alive today because God does intervene in people’s lives, and He graciously and mercifully rescued me out of the dark theological quagmire that people like Piper are trapping people into. The God of the Bible is not as small, mean, petty, and easily defined as they claim. He is, to our puny human minds, simply incomprehensible. There is no answer this side of Heaven to the tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will.

I’m alive today because the real God — the God that Jesus revealed — captured my heart. It turns out He didn’t ordain or will or cause the awful crimes committed against my person, nor did He merely look the other way. He HATED what was done to me, and it was His outrage, His heart for the oppressed, His compassion, His extravagant love, and His wild, scandalous grace that not only saved my life but won my heart.

Calvinism has a ready answer for everything because they believe in a small, easily explained God. I have had to become content with mystery — a lot of mystery — because the God I worship is too immense and great for human comprehension.

He is also a loving Father whose tenderness and intimacy continues to break my heart — in the best of ways. He’s the great, awesome Creator of the universe, full of power and might, powerful beyond all understanding…and He’s my Papa, my Daddy, my Abba.

I can’t wrap my brain around that, but it’s true.

Last night I was furious at Piper. Today I want to weep for Him. If only God would wreck his theology the way He wrecked mine!

Today, my prayer is that you — and each reader of my blog — would encounter the real, living God, in a new and fresh way.

Why it’s hard to believe us

Spend any time around those of us who are sexual trauma survivors, and you will hear account after account of how people — even our own families and loved ones — disbelieved us and sometimes went so far as to take up the side of the predators, rapists, pedophiles, and abusers who perpetrated against us. It is such a common occurrence that, when I encounter the opposite, I am deeply moved. Once when I met parents who stood by their daughter even when others insisted she was just “crying rape”, I was so touched by their family’s story that I hugged them, thanked them profusely, and started crying!

Today I read something that was linked to in the comments on one of my previous posts. It is an open letter from a pastor, a humble admission of his serious error, that says, among other things: “Though I never doubted that Jamin was guilty, I trusted his account of the circumstances more readily and longer than I should have, and conversely I disbelieved the victim’s parents.” He describes the sex offender as, “deceptive and highly manipulative”.

It’s hard to believe us when our perpetrators and predators are accomplished manipulators. After all, unless our abuser was a complete stranger who jumped out at us from the bushes, he first somehow gained entry into our lives, and usually managed to deceive enough people to gain a position of trust. Those who prey on children need to be somewhat accomplished con artists in order to deceive not only the child, but everyone around the child.

We, on the other hand, usually are not skilled liars and manipulators. Furthermore, we are traumatized, and traumatized people don’t always behave in a way that others might find credible, reasonable, understandable, or even likable. We are trying to piece together horrible events, trying to make sense of them, trying to sort them out in our minds, trying to deal with the horror of it all, or perhaps trying to escape thinking about our nightmarish ordeal at all. That’s bad enough, but then there are everyone else’s reactions to what happened to us, and not all of those reactions are helpful or healing. In fact, all too often, the reactions of others only adds to our trauma.

Our abusers, on the other hand, are not traumatized. They seem calm and rational, with a well thought out and plausible-sounding answer to every question. If they are serial predators, they have honed their “act”, and know just what to say or do in order to manipulate, and play on the sympathies of others.

In the immediate aftermath of trauma, we don’t always “make sense” to other people. Our stories don’t always sound believable. Usually we can’t bring ourselves to say much, and what comes out may be a chaotic jumble. We may get things out of order, remember things differently a few days or weeks later, only let a few details out in dribs and drabs, and be afraid to talk about major aspects of what happened to us. We may try to protect our abuser, if he is a family member or loved one. We may feel intimidated into silence. We may be too upset to admit the most shameful aspects of our abuse.

Years after my rape, when I finally told as complete an account of it as I could to my therapist, I halfway expected him to say that it sounded too unbelievable, too weird, too unlikely. I expected questions like, “How bad could it have been if you went to work the next day?” or “What do you mean, you have no idea of the extent of your injuries?” or “How convenient that there are those gaps in your memory!” or “What on earth is that nonsense that you supposedly ‘went away’?” I expected him to poke holes in my story, to cross-examine me as if I were on the witness stand, and to tell me that mine was the fishiest-sounding rape story he had ever heard. I was shocked that he believed me, shocked that he never cast one suspicious look in my direction, shocked that he didn’t try to blame me in the slightest for anything that happened that night.

Then again, he was a therapist. My anguished telling of what had happened to me wasn’t the first, or tenth, or even hundredth sexual trauma account he’d ever heard, and he knew all too well what trauma does to us, even years later.

Pastors don’t know these things, nor do they have the experience and training of my therapist. Ordinary people don’t either. But, unfortunately, many are arrogant and assume they know things that they don’t. They sit judge and jury over survivors and their families and judge us less than credible, because we cannot make them understand. Sometimes they are even joined by other survivors — who have not walked far enough in their healing to have enough empathy and wisdom to do otherwise — who help rub the salt of skepticism and disbelief into our wounds.

We understand that our predators seem believable and trustworthy. After all, they had to dupe us and set us up before they could betray us. But you will probably never understand how deeply you wound us when you believe them over us.

Please believe us. Please.

And, if you’re reading this, and you have any reason to think that you may have added to a survivor’s trauma by your lack of support, please — in the name of all that is good and holy — humble yourself and apologize. Let your words be a healing balm. You may never know how desperately that survivor has longed to hear you ask forgiveness.