False narratives

There are people who believe we create our own reality, or that we somehow attract into our lives the events — even the worst of trauma — that happen to us. Some of that sounds new-agey and off-putting to many Christians, yet a similar ideology has crept into many churches as well. Recently I posted the following to a discussion of some of the impact Norman Vincent Peale’s positive thinking message has to this day:

Many people have no idea how much Peale’s positive thinking ideas have infiltrated so much of Christianity, and have impacted people who have never even heard of the man. I have a friend who would not even tell me what she had been diagnosed with and — when I insisted on knowing — she whispered the name of her condition as if she was forced to pronounce some horrible obscenity and hoped no one would actually hear it. Her reason? She didn’t want to “come into agreement” or “speak out” anything negative.

…then there are those who refuse to “hear a bad report”. I’m all for not listening to gossip, but I think it’s silly to avoid negative news about someone, and I think it’s dangerous and immoral to silence those who are victimized by someone else. There is nothing righteous about burying one’s head in the sand and refusing to hear anything that might make us uncomfortable, challenge our worldview, or even cause us distress.

I wonder if these people, who claim to be Christians, actually read their Bibles. Thing is, the Bible is full of “bad reports”. The prophetic books of the Old Testament seem to be focused on getting people to wake up and face some hard truths about themselves and about their society. The Psalms are not “happy clappy songs”, but are all too often laments. (I didn’t understand this as a kid: why did God not punish King David for all his complaints, and why on earth were they included in the Bible?)

That’s not to say that those of us who claim to be Christians should be all doom and gloom, and focused on negativity. But I would think that those of us who claim to have an eternal hope, those of us who claim to be in relationship with the God of the Universe, would be able to be capable of facing reality without playing all sorts of mind games, pretending away what we don’t like, and claiming that perception matters more than truth.

Today I was reminded of a flip side of this: negative thinking versus positive thinking. Actually those are not the only two alternatives, contrary to what some people have insisted. “Negative thinking” — focusing on the negative to the exclusion of the positive — is just as much in error as its opposite extreme.

Perception never matters more than truth, even when it is our own perception.

For most of my adult life, I believed a false narrative about God and about myself. That doesn’t mean that everything I believed about God was a lie, or that I was delusional about myself. While most of what I thought and believed was based on truth, the way I lived my life, the way I interacted with people, the way I prayed, the way I interpreted situations — all that was woven together in such a way that was not completely true. I am still unraveling the general narrative I created about life, and holding it up to what I now know and believe to be true.

A big part of therapy for me was what I eventually called “replacing lies with truth”. A wonderful couple that ministered deeply to me preferred to call it “replacing ungodly beliefs with godly beliefs”. Much healing has come to me as a result of pondering the question: Will I allow myself to be defined by my past experiences, traumas, and sins, and by what people tell me about myself, or by the God Who created me, loves me, and knows me best?

For years, the people I was most comfortable with were those who agreed the most with the narrative I’d woven together to make sense of my life. I was filled with self-blame and shame, so it felt familiar to hang out with people who blamed me and shamed me. There were a lot of things about me that I viewed in a negative way, and I thought people were a bit daft if they didn’t agree with me. Now I wasn’t all negative — in fact, I would get quite annoyed at people who didn’t affirm what I thought to be my good points. While I don’t believe in what some call the “Law of Attraction”, I do believe that we tend to choose to associate with people who feel familiar, who agree with us for the most part, and who don’t try to shake up our entire worldview. So, whether it’s intentional or not, we often tend to befriend and even marry people who will reinforce our beliefs about ourselves, about God, and about the way the world works.

I’m reminded of a woman I know who married a man who — even before marriage — described her in rather negative terms, and let her know by word and deed that she wasn’t very important to him. And you married him? several people asked her. Even after the things he said and did to you, the way he insisted that his friends, family, and career would always come before you? She would answer, “I couldn’t blame him. He was right. I’m not that important, and I should be thankful that someone like him would even want to marry me, with my past and all my faults.” She and her husband may have been in agreement, but it was with a lie.

For years, I believed that certain things I had done left me somewhat tainted. Yes, God forgave me, but… Because of that, I surrounded myself with people and with churches and with teachers who agreed with me, who reinforced my narrative about a God who forgives but somehow isn’t quite able to wash every last stain of my sins away. I even allowed someone close to me to repeatedly remind me that I was not “pure”.

And then…well, I realized the lie of that. What upset me most — once the lie was exposed — is not that it was a false accusation against me, but that it was a false accusation against my Savior, as if His blood shed on the cross was not fully capable of cleansing sins as grievous as mind. (I’ve written posts about that, and about the whole “purity culture” thing on this blog, as I’ve worked through much of the false teaching I once eagerly embraced because it made understandable the pervasive sense of shame I carried throughout my teens and most of my adult life.)

Today I’ve been pondering some of that. I feel as if I’m still basking in the wonderful aftermath of receiving the Sacrament of Confession. I am more at peace, and less defensive, about the fact that I am prone to wander and sin — and yet I am more grieved by that propensity than ever. It seems contradictory, but it isn’t. I realize how desperately I rely on my beautiful Savior…and more and more I realize that this doesn’t make me a uniquely flawed and terrible person, but just a human.

Besides, even if I once was all that terribly flawed and horrendously awfully sinful as I once believed, not even the faintest stain of that now remains. Yes, I still sin. Yes, I still have flaws and failings. But the new narrative — the truthful narrative — of my life is that God did not create some cosmic mistake when He formed me together in my mother’s womb. In fact, some of the very things that I thought were flaws and defects, or that others think are flaws and defects, might actually be the way He intended to make me all along. Thank God that He is still working on me and that, as He promised, He will bring that good work to completion.

That’s the narrative worth embracing.

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!

The trouble with empathy

There is a big problem with trying to become a compassionate person filled with empathy for others.

It hurts.

In fact, it will cost us. Big time. We will end up with broken hearts. Our entire outlook on life will change. We will find ourselves identifying with the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the marginalized, the abused, the weak, the very young, the helpless, the broken, the poor, the downtrodden, the messy — the type of people our culture ignores or disdains.

The Bible tells us to “weep with those who weep”. That isn’t a “pink verse”; it doesn’t say, “…unless you are an American man, in which case you can just pretend to be John Wayne and ride off into the sunset, thus avoiding the whole uncomfortable, emotional scene.” If you are some sort of manly man who never cries — or a woman who doesn’t want her mascara to run — you don’t get a free ride. Weep. And, if you can’t weep, because you aren’t compassionate enough or humble enough, pray for God to break you. Trust me, He will.

We also don’t get to decide who is worthy of our compassion, and what circumstances are deserving of our tears. The Bible doesn’t say, “Weep with those whom you have questioned thoroughly to make sure they didn’t somehow contribute to their own misfortune; otherwise brush them off and walk away…or you can self-righteously condemn and blame them for all the ways in which you think they messed up and brought tragedy on themselves.” It doesn’t say, “Only weep for what is a big major deal to you, and tell the people you think are whiny crybabies to suck it up.”

Jesus identifies with our weaknesses — even when we are being vile and rotten sinners. Even when we are being wimpy. If we claim to be His followers, what makes us think we can be so stingy and withholding of our empathy, love, and compassion?

If we really want to be like Jesus, it will cost us everything. We will eventually end up meek, lowly of heart, and well acquainted with grief. We will anguish over our inability to bring healing to every broken heart and to set every captive free. We will weep over the Jerusalems in our lives. We will share in the fellowship of His sufferings. Our lives will be poured out like drink offerings.

The good news about empathy is that it brings healing to others in a way that we may never know or comprehend. About five years ago, I went to my first retreat for women survivors of sexual trauma. There were three men there who profoundly impacted me because of the way in which they conducted themselves. Most of us had never experienced having men serve us — I mean, really and truly serve. They didn’t make a big deal and announce they were serving us. They were too humble for that, and neither wanted nor expected anything in return, because their motive was unselfish love and compassion. They didn’t “serve” by leading us, exercising authority over us, teaching us, telling us what to do, monopolizing our time and attention, or taking on roles of prominence and prestige. They just cared for us. It was so sweet and so genuine — and an aspect of godly masculinity that few of us had encountered before — that it was one of the most healing aspects of the retreat.

God gave one of those men some special words of encouragement for me during a meeting, and I was thanking him for it afterward. He knew next to nothing about me, and knew absolutely nothing about my life story, other than what could be assumed by the fact that I was at a retreat for sexual trauma survivors. As we stood outside in the Oklahoma sun, God gave this man a sudden flash of additional insight, a glimpse into a part of my identity that I kept hidden. At first I tried to argue with him…no, I’m not that…but he was right. Then he said, “What happened to you was so…” and he described my rape with a word that I had never dared speak aloud, except in those early months and years after the rape, when I would stand in the shower every morning, head leaning against the hard tiles, weeping, weeping, weeping, and those very words — oh, God help me, it was so … — those words would come out in muffled, anguished cries from the deepest, most wounded part of my soul. Years later, this man I had just met was saying, “That’s why it hurt you so much.” And he was right.

Then, with my permission, he hugged me oh so carefully, and he leaned his head down towards mine and whispered in my ear in a choked voice, “I am so sorry. I am so sorry they did this to you. I am so sorry.” And this big strong man, this man who didn’t really know me but who chose to identify with my pain and anguish and devastation — he wept for me. I felt his tears fall on my shoulder, like the most precious, healing gift. He knew. He understood. And he wept.

I want to be like that.

The best part of asking God to give us hearts of compassion and empathy is that we get to know Jesus more as we participate in His healing work, and as our hearts break for the very things that break His heart. That’s our reward…to know Him. And He is so worth it, every tear, every heartbreak. The people we love are worth it. But He is our greatest reward.

There is, however, one terrible dark valley that we have to walk through first, and it’s the real reason we run from empathy. We know, deep down inside, that eventually we will be forced to identify with, to allow ourselves to feel, the very pain we have caused others. We won’t be able to weasel out, if we choose the way of Jesus, if we heed His voice. We won’t be able to say, “Oh, she was being overly sensitive”, “He needs to man up and stop overreacting to every little thing,” “I was just venting”, “She provoked me”, “I was under a lot of stress”, “It wasn’t that bad”, “Yeah, but what about what he did to me?” “Wait, I can explain!” “I thought I was doing the right thing!” “I had no idea!” Our excuses will turn to ash in our mouths. Our lies will be exposed. Our attempt to minimize and deny will condemn us. We will end up face down on the floor, weeping, what have I done? what have I done? oh, God help me, what have I done? 

Weeping with those who weep is all the more devastating, and all the more necessary, when we are the cause of their weeping.

There is a prayer I am too afraid to pray: “God, please show me how I have hurt others, so that I may ask forgiveness.” I am still too cowardly to face the entire truth. I don’t think I could bear the full experience of that pain…and the knowledge that I inflicted it. God help me.

At the same time, I need a tender heart, a loving heart, a compassionate heart, a broken heart. And those in my life need me to have it…for their sakes.

Difficult to watch, difficult to face

I recognize that this abortion a difficult, difficult subject…a polarizing one…and a deeply personal one. But I can’t turn the other way and — no matter what your beliefs on the subject — I hope you can’t either.

That’s why I hope, if you haven’t watched this particular video already, that you watch the video I am embedding below.

Yes, I know that the Center for Medical Progress has come under fire from those who disagree with how they have edited the videos they are releasing about Planned Parenthood. But this latest one…is there really a context in which what is depicted and described could be seen as a good thing? Is there a context in which this is something that we as Americans should not even feel the slightest twinge of guilt or unease about? Is this really something we should all support?

If you are pro-choice and you were in the place of the Procurement Technician on the video, would your compassion for women seeking abortions and your desire not to thwart medical research make you react differently? Would you be less willing to walk away from her job? Would you be more comfortable with cutting open the face of a fetus whose heart you had just seen beating — all in the name of medical science, of course? Would you think it all right to be pulling the brains out of babies that might possibly still be alive?

I will be honest. I cannot imagine any context whatsoever that would make what I saw and heard in this video any less hideous or disturbing.

Holly O’Donnell admitted that she started crying when holding the fetus she describes on the video. She said, no matter what benefits there might come from the role she played in procuring the brain from this unborn baby, “I don’t want to be that person”.

Can we honestly say she is wrong, misguided, too sensitive, too sentimental, too squeamish? Is she not advanced enough in her thinking? Are we to conclude that she is anti-woman and anti-science?

Or could the practices these videos are exposing possibly be wrong and barbaric? Are we willing to admit that Planned Parenthood might not be the paragon of virtue, compassion, and morality so many believe this organization to be? Could our culture have gone too far in embracing any and all abortions? Could our medical ethics be flawed? Could it be time for us to face the truth of what we are allowing ourselves to become as a people — no matter how uncomfortable and disturbing that truth might be?

Over the years, I have read and heard many eloquent defenses of the pro-choice position. It is not my intention to turn the his blog post into argument or debate about whether to not abortion should be legal. However, I cannot help but wonder — does being pro-choice require one to embrace everything that is in the above video, and to defend even the most barbaric practices surrounding abortion? Are there no limits to the pro-choice position? Are there no abortions that are morally wrong?

I might as well admit it: I am pro-life. There was a time when, as a rape trauma survivor, I was unsure about whether or not abortion in the case of rape or incest was morally defensible. My position has become more firm as I’ve listened to the stories of those who have been conceived by rape and incest, as well as those who have conceived children under the same conditions. We extinguish the wrong life, in my opinion, when we abort the innocent child resulting from sexual trauma. While I know that nothing can undo the unspeakably damaging and painful trauma of rape or incest, I cannot dismiss the compelling stories of girls and women who view their children as redemptive…even life-saving…after the worst trauma of their lives.

Mine is not a popular position, to say the least. I have been reluctant to state it publicly, not wanting to offend people I care for and respect, some of whom who view the pro-life position as hateful, ignorant, backwards, intolerant, and anti-woman. To be honest, I fear being painted with that same brush by speaking up.

A dear friend of mine, who travels the world over on missions of mercy and compassion –because she has one of the biggest, most loving hearts of anyone I’ve ever met — insists that it is her love for women that has caused her to be even more strongly anti-abortion. Women from vastly different cultures and religious backgrounds have opened up to her when she requests, without a hint of coercion or condemnation, “Tell me about your abortion.” She has heard the stories most of us never hear, because — even if we ask — our agendas and opinions tend to get in the way of our compassion. (I’ve told her my deepest darkest secrets, so I know how gently she receives women’s experiences and truths, receiving them as a sacred trust.) She used to be pro-life because of the babies. Now it is the women, the mothers, who have convinced her even more. She wants to spare women from having to live out the abortion experiences, and their aftermaths, that she keeps hearing about, over and over and over again…

Christian testimonies and life stories

My husband has one of the coolest testimonies in the world. He can’t remember a time in his life when he didn’t love Jesus. He never wavered, never backslid, never rebelled, never let up or drifted to the point that he ever felt the need to “re-dedicate” his life to Christ. He has remained steadfast from early childhood until now.

My mother’s testimony is much the same. Well, the details are different — she had a dramatic conversion at the age of 5 and lived through the war in Nazi Germany — but the steadfast, unwavering part is the same.

I simply cannot relate to people like that. Of course, it goes both ways. They look at me, baffled and dismayed by my history of flaky sinfulness, and say things like, “I just prayed that God would make me hate sin”, or “No, I never wanted to rebel,” or “I love Jesus too much to be even tempted by such things.” For example, when I was in my teens, my mother often told me that just the thought of kissing any other man but my father was so unappealing that it made her feel sick to her stomach. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that her only daughter was, in contrast to her, a lust-filled perv: icky guys were nauseating but I found the thought of kissing cute guys quite appealing. (Thank God I was weird, awkward, shy, and uninteresting to most teenage boys.)

People like my mother and my husband seem to have an easy strength, a serene confidence, that is beyond my experience and comprehension. They are like Daniel in the Bible — if he did anything wrong, it was so trivial that it isn’t even part of his story. Compared to them, my story is sin-laden and ugly. I’m a walking disaster — a chaotic bundle of ups and downs, highs and lows, starts and stops. Sometimes I think they might need even more prayer than I do. After all, how on earth can they keep from getting disillusioned and disappointed as they watch me run, fall, stumble, wander, and lurch my way through life? Oh, wait…they are made of sterner stuff. I’m the one who gets disillusioned and discouraged. They do what they always do — stand firm and steadfast in the Lord.

They have been spared so much, so very much. I wish people like my mother and my husband could somehow bottle whatever it is that they have, could somehow impart their secrets to the rest of us, so that less lives would be littered with the debris and wreckage of mistakes and regrets. I want my children to follow in their footsteps and not mine.

Sometimes I wonder if my problem is not so much that I possess some terrible character flaw — a greater propensity to sin, rebellion, and weakness — but that I really do not love Jesus enough. After all, what greater motivation is there for faithful obedience than love?

Then I remember something Jesus Himself said: “Who is forgiven much, loves much.” My therapist has mentioned that I tend to extremes, and I have to admit that there is a passion in my life that seems missing in those who do not struggle. There is something that has been borne of desperation, of pain and deep grief — an intensity and zeal — that I don’t see in the lives of those who are calm and steady. They have been spared the lows, but also the highs.

In the end, I have to admit that I wouldn’t change my prodigal story for theirs. Yes, I have regrets. But I have seen and experienced beautiful, powerful, amazing redemption miracles  — and that’s something those who are constant as the northern star can only guess at.