Category Archives: Personal Growth
Will & I have reached a number of milestones in the past year. We have both turned 30 (well, Will does that tomorrow), leaving behind the years of all our friends getting married and entering the years where all our friends are having children or climbing career ladders. We’re both finishing school – I finished a degree last May, and he’s finishing one at the end of this coming fall semester. We’ve moved to a larger apartment and begun talks with a financial consultant about our current and future financial planning, including retirement and beyond. Suddenly, we feel as though we are being tossed into a new stage of life, ready or not.
With these milestones comes a series of decisions requiring discernment and thoughtfulness in the coming months. And with those decisions, transitions and changes will follow. Transitions and changes bring with them excitement, anticipation, hopefulness. But they can also bring heartache, sadness, and struggle. Some transitions and changes bring all of these at one time.
As I ponder the weight of my own transitions, contemplating the changes that life will inevitably bring us in the coming months and years, I sometimes forget that all life is a series of changes and transitions that come with a myriad of good and bad components. And we can choose to dwell on the negative and hard parts of change, or we can seek to find the “new normal,” the peace, or even the joy in these movements toward new life seasons.
Our natural world is made of seasons that bring hope of new life in spring but with the onslaught of storms; joys of snow in winter but with the death of the lush vegetation around us; beautiful colors of fall but with colder, darker days; brightness of summer sun but with scorching heat and drought.
After a particularly hot & miserable week, I spent some time on my porch one late evening contemplating the cooler evening air, and the appreciation I had for summertime grew, despite the miserably hot week. I recognized the brilliance of red Mars and cool, blue Venus. I marveled at the large, bright moon. I breathed deeply in the freshly mown lawn and growing sweet basil. I listened to the quiet space of midnight with no cars, no people – just a gentle hum of crickets.
…And I realized that this is the stuff life is made of – and when the breezes of fall come, and my basil plants can no longer thrive outside, I will find new ways to enjoy a new season, drinking in all that is good about this new place, this new change.
Are you in a change of season? How can we stop to marvel at our new seasons of life so as to appreciate change? Let’s stop and smell the basil this summer evenings, and let’s join others on their journeys, even if their transitions may not be anything like our own.
We are not alone as the seasons change, and with time, we can come to truly appreciate even the hardest transitions of our lives as we embrace the new season around us.
Cross-posted from the RRCB Pastor’s Blog
During the Thanksgiving season, which at least on social media begins on November 1, we often get to hear what so many people are thankful for. We get a daily dose of thankful words from our Facebook friends with hashtags like #NoticingGrace. The “Living” or “Religion” sections of our newspapers and online news services have opinion pieces on thankfulness – “20 Reasons to be Thankful” “How to be Thankful Around Your Disagreeable Family Members” “Being Thankful in a Time of Terror” “How Being Thankful is Good for Our Bodies”…and the list goes on.
Thinking about thankfulness has made me wonder what exactly we are overcoming with our gratitude. Unlike the authors who are excited that gratitude lowers blood pressure (which, yes, is fantastic), I was more curious about what gratitude, and not just the November short-term version, does for our souls. What is it about our human struggle that thankfulness helps?
The answer is: probably a lot of things. But one in particular came to my mind that I think influences much of our spiritual and bodily lives, one I struggle with daily – Anxiety.
I read the Matthew passage above and very much want to be consistently non-anxious, knowing how much God provides and is among us. I want to be able to trust that much. Yet, life throws curveballs: I am busy, I get overwhelmed, tragic and frustrating things happen. And off goes any hope of that non-anxious existence.
Theologian Paul Tillich says that a major function of being human is our tendency toward anxiety. And he says it is not just about anxiety given to us by life’s circumstances, but that our very existence is anxious about its being. In his book The Courage to Be, Tillich tells us that anxiety is a deeply-rooted problem of humanity grounded in our fear of nonbeing – that we have an end. This leads to feelings of meaninglessness and emptiness. We are inherently worried creatures.
But there is hope.
Being anxious is not the end game, and there are ways to accept our anxieties of nonbeing while simultaneously moving toward fully being. But how do we do this?
Jesuit theologian Anthony de Mello said, “You sanctify whatever you are grateful for.” In other words, cultivate that which is not anxious; be thankful. By doing this, you make holy and important those things instead of your anxiety.
This kind of gratitude does not come easily, though, especially when we are already in the throes of anxiety. It likely will take small steps of movement toward gratitude before we begin to slowly turn away from our worry. Taking moments every day (and not just every day in November) to be thankful for the small things – birds, lilies of the field, fluffy dogs, sunshine – can provide little movements toward a wholeness of being that keeps us from focusing our anxiety of nonbeing.
Jesus wants us to take time to notice what is right here in our midst. He calls us to believe that God is among us in everything, providing daily reminders of our relationship to God’s hope in the small parts of life that provide us joy and hope. By being thankful for these small things, we take steps toward wholeness that decrease the anxiety in our souls and make living a more joyous undertaking.
Being thankful is the antidote to our worry – by placing our attention on that which is holy and wonderful, we look away from that which we cannot change. By seeing the birds, lilies, food to eat, homes to live in, friends and family – we look away from the sickness, struggle, depression, and death.
May we be a grateful people, able to heal our souls of anxiety through the grace of gratitude, this season and all year round!
 Note that I and others are fully aware of the legitimate need for medical and therapeutic intervention for anxiety and depressive disorders that keep us from being able to find gratefulness – but once someone is able to be grateful again, perhaps after talk therapy or medication, the advice to find small moments of gratitude to move toward fullness of being still applies as we tend to our souls.
[Cross-posted from RRCB Pastor’s Blog: http://www.rrcb.org/2015/11/overcoming-anxiety-with-gratitude/]
Many of my graduate colleagues have made and will make the decision to skip on the graduation ceremony for their Master’s degree (or second Masters, or Specialist Degree, or even PhD). And truthfully, the second or third time you get a degree, you do feel a little annoyed at all the setup that goes into getting ready for graduation.
The school will likely require you to:
- Go to one or two different places on campus (or “grounds,” if you are at UVa where word choice matters in such things) to pick up your allotted tickets for the ceremony(ies).
- Go possibly even to a third place on campus to get your complimentary cap and gown (but of course pay for anything else, like your master’s hood…now remind me who on earth would bother wearing a master’s gown with those dumb sleeves without the hood…aren’t the colors kind of the point? Well, you owe them more than the $50K you’ve already paid. They’ll get that last $36 from you). (And yes, both #1 and #2 will have to happen even if you are no longer taking courses and living in another city. It would be a terrible burden on the school to just mail you that stuff. Sigh.)
- If you’re like me, this traveling will require taking time off work – that annoying place you need to be if you’re to pay the bills. Then you will get home with that wrinkly mess of a gown and have to iron it if you’re not to look like you just rolled out of bed when you graduate. Ironing…as if anyone has time to do that anymore! (or knows how…)
- You’ll have to then make plans with any family or friends to find parking on a hot May day somewhere on campus and build in enough time for everyone to make it to the ceremony place(s). You’ll stand around in line in the hot sun and wait for hordes of undergrads to get their acts together while your measly handful of graduate students sweat through their extra layers of robes, stoles, hats, and hoods. You’ll be making plans to find food among the throngs of family members and graduates. You’ll be trying to remember what that email said about where to stand, which hand to get the diploma with, and when to smile because they’re taking your photo.
- You’ll listen to speeches that are generally aimed at the “Class of 2015” but you’ve forgotten what year it is with the full-time job, thesis, and adult responsibilities. “Class of 2015” is something 22 year olds are excited about. Your main work was done when your thesis defense passed. The speeches are mostly just pomp. You’ll feel a little old among the hundreds or thousands of undergraduates.
So why? Why would I do this again? This all just sounds like tons of preplanning and dressing up on a hot day to waste time for a degree that will arrive via postal mail in a few weeks regardless of whether I show up in my robe.
Here are some of the reasons to go ahead and walk despite the trouble:
- You will ritualize that which is finished. Rituals are a deeply meaningful part of human identity. We bury our dead. We put rings on our left hands and recite vows. We practice religious rituals like baptism and dedication. We humans find closure and hope in our ritualizing important moments in our human experience. Graduation ritualizes a major accomplishment. It provides us a meaningful way to complete our academic endeavors.
- You get to shake hands with those who nurtured your academic journey. After your defense, you crashed from exhaustion but then had to keep working and being an adult. But on this day, for that little ceremony (especially if you have a smaller departmental ceremony like I did), you have a little bit of time to appreciate the joy of completion with those who taught you how to survive this academic world.
- You allow your family into your academic bubble. They get to meet those professors who taught/tortured you. They get to hear straight from your professors that you were a good student and a survivor. They get to see a little of the department that has helped shape your academic mind for the last two+ years. So often family does not get a chance to “get it” from the source. For these few moments, they do. They experience a little piece of your life they otherwise might not ever see.
- You rarely regret it. Save a few schools that don’t do the pomp and circumstance right, you will find only joy when you take the time to walk in a graduation ceremony. You’ll have photos of you in your garb with your family (preferably before any outdoor ceremony made you sweat like a pig). You won’t forget the many times someone congratulated you, recognized you, and honored the fact that you have achieved a great deal. We all need to hear we’re doing well. We all need to feel that recognition. And while anecdotally I have heard many tales of feeling bummed for not walking in graduation ceremonies, I have not had many tell me they were sorry they went.
- You will stop long enough to let your achievement sink in. For so long, you have spent countless hours prepping coursework, reading, writing, producing. You have been in class with people who make you feel invigorated and smart, as well as less intelligent with every word you utter. You have been on a roller coaster of emotions and effort. Finishing your last class is so surreal that you just walk away kind of numb. The affirmation of graduation lets you stop long enough to really wrap your head around that you have completed something big – not just the daily drumbeat of coursework, but what now has become a degree that will forever change your life, whether it be by simply having new knowledge of the world or by providing you a new credential for your professional life.
While I wish the process were a little easier to get prepared and that there weren’t 20,000 things to remember for the day of graduation, I would not trade a moment of that hot, sweaty day of two ceremonies and constant “congratulations” from everyone I met.
I would not trade the celebration of finalizing the immense workload from the last two years – my academic triumphs and my emotional survival. For once in this two year saga, I got something more than a good grade or a passing “interesting thoughts, Libby.” I finished a graduate degree from a prestigious institution with a side of handshakes and smiles.
We’ve probably all had someone tell us they are a spiritual person, but not very religious. Oftentimes, for me, this is after the mention of my chosen profession. “Oh, you’re a minister – yeah, I used to go to church many years ago, but it just didn’t agree with me. It’s just so…[fill-in-the-blank: hypocritical, boring, etc.]. But I am still very spiritual. I believe in God. I’m just not very religious…” [awkward pause] “Oh, but I’m sure your church is really great!”
Why yes, it is. RRCB has one of the most beautiful and meaningful worship service structures I have ever attended or been a part of. It has the depth of meaning, the story-in-song, the aesthetics of a cathedral, all with a Baptist, soul- and Bible-affirming twist. And when we’re not worshiping, we’re doing the work of the Body of Christ. We are feeding the hungry, creating community, visiting the sick, affirming one another.
And yet – do you ever feel like you or someone you know involved in so many activities suddenly realizes that doing this, while it is philanthropic and good, no longer touches your soul in ways that God becomes more present?
Perhaps it is because you’re too busy to see Jesus (e.g., Martha). Perhaps you just never “got” the whole life-as-prayer or devotional time; it feels awkward. Perhaps there is still some doubt as to the veracity of God, but you definitely see good people and want to be a part of their good work in the name of this God you haven’t really gotten to know yet.
We are all somewhere on this faith journey.
I think it can be easy for us to fall into the trap of good works. Not in the self-righteous sense, but in the sense that we are doing a lot of good work with good hearts but never finding the “God moments,” missing the connection to the Divine in our work.
In his sermon this past Sunday, Mike Clingenpeel told us how very connected we are with technology and yet how very disconnected we can become from our Source, the Vine to our branches.
So, what are we busy Christians to do about this disconnect? How do we stop being religious but not spiritual?
I think the answer lies in our recognition that our spirit needs the same hard work as the missions we endeavor to pursue as a congregation. One theologian, Baron von Hügel said that we have three dimensions: the intellectual, the institutional, and the mystical. We must nourish all three to be well-rounded People of the Book.
That mystical, or spiritual, part of us is often lost in our very logic-laden, post-Enlightenment, exuberantly busy world. We want neat, tidy ways of doing life. But mysticism seems to “waste time” and requires a lot of sitting alone and cultivating personal disciplines that will interfere with our daily lives, force us to face our deepest fears and longings, and drive us to see everything we do in a new Light.
Learning Spiritual Practices is a lot like learning to manage your time to study in school. It requires some persistence, some mess ups, and some ongoing changes of pace as we grow and learn. I would encourage you in the coming weeks to join me in a journey to beingreligious AND spiritual. Here are a few steps to help us get started (adapted from Thirsty for God by Bradley P. Holt):
- Learn to sit attentively in silence. Sit up straight, spine perpendicular to the floor and with both feet on the floor. Close your eyes. Relax. Find a comfortable place for your arms and hands. Let your muscles relax, moving from feet to head. Become aware of your breathing. Take deep breaths, in through the mouth, and our through the nose. Now you are in a state of relaxed alertness. As your mind wanders, it can be helpful to mentally move those thoughts away. If you have a candle, you may wish to symbolically view those distracting thoughts burning in the flame and disappearing. Silence is not easy and you should not blame yourself if it takes a while to settle into this kind of activity. Start small. Do 5 minutes of silence then 10, 15, 20 as you become more comfortable. You will likely find a kind of disruptive peace in these periods of still. You will find God’s still, small voice. [Note: if you cannot find quiet in your homes – I hear you moms and dads of young ones! – Remember that our chapel is open every day during business hours for meditation and prayer. It’s made for it – drop by on your way into work or whenever you have a break!]
- Take a walk. Focus on your body’s rhythm – heartbeat, breathing, muscle tensions. Breathe in the freedom of being outside of a box (room). Imagine yourself on a walk with God. Look up at the sky or tall trees – see the vastness of creation.
- Pray. Many of us are quick to offer a prayer of thanks for a meal or a request for something specific, but perhaps extend your “praying as talking to God” (mostly asking for things) to include praying in other ways that inform communication with God: Gratitude, Praise, Wonder, Confession, Complaint, and all the other ways we relate to other people. Prayer is not just one way of speaking, it is all communication we have with the Divine. It is our whole relation to God. Broaden your relationship with God but broadening your practice of prayer.
- Write about your life. You could start by placing your date of birth and today’s date on far ends of a sheet of paper. Revisit places, time periods, events in your life (whether spiritual or ordinary, as both affect us). Which of these major events or places or people in your life have most affected how you view Creation, God, Church, and good works? Which of these moved your soul? As Denise Bennett told us on Wednesday night at Telling Our Faith Stories, the process of telling our faith stories begins with outlining those parts of our lives that have meaning. When did you receive or give a particularly meaningful gift? What place in your life holds sacred value? How does your family celebrate, mourn? Do you have unconventional family members or friends? Who has shaped you? After you have written these down, begin to share with trusted friends your journey. Ask them the same questions. Christian friends walking this same spiritual journey with you will provide space to be accountable for disciplines and to share, laugh, and have community together as you experience God in deeper, more profound ways in this walk of faith.
[cross-posted from the Pastor’s Blog at http://www.rrcb.org/2015/05/religious-but-not-spiritual/ ]
Stress Faith, Hope, and Love
The winter season. The new semester. The new financial year. We are firmly into 2015, and already it may seem to some of us that the year is out to get us. We have so much to do and so little time to do it. Combating stress and worry is rarely simple. Most of us struggle to “leave it to God” or remember that God’s “eye is on the sparrow, who neither reaps nor sows.” Are there ways to approach stress through our faith positively without simplifying a deep struggle? Yes, I think so. How can we begin the process of alleviating our worries?
- First, seek help. The darkness of winter days and the end of a brightly-lit season can leave anyone feeling down. Add to that the stress of a new year and new responsibilities – well, you get the picture. There are pastors at your church, friends in your community, and professional health care members who are dedicated to supporting you. Don’t let that opportunity pass you by if things are tough.
- Second, say “no.” There is no shame in saying “no” for your own health. Many times, those of us who are heavily involved, caring people often think that if something is to be done we must do it ourselves! But this is far from true. If a project or activity overburdens you, ask for help! Crashing and burning will prevent you from doing your best on the next project. Say “no” to the one now that induces more stress and trust those around you to handle things in your absence.
- Third, understand that worry is not a character flaw. It is both a mental/physiological state (some of us struggle with more worry than others due to our neurotransmitters and life circumstances), as well as a spiritual/soul state (we all struggle to trust God and are friends of Nicodemus, who just could not understand how simple God’s grace is).
There will be many parts of life that create for us stresses we can hardly bear. And to be ready for those times, we must prepare beforehand or be ready to stop when necessary. Worry is certainly normal and understandable. It is also beatable, with work, time, and support. What are some spiritual ways to alleviate and/or prevent excessive worry?
- Open space in your days for quiet. This will be difficult for many of us – we are overscheduled, overworked, and overtired. But space in one’s day leaves room for God’s Spirit to groan for you as you work out your stressors. This time of no connectivity (turn off that phone, email, TV, etc.!) will not only allow you to empty space into silence, but it will also create space for God to speak to you in that still, small voice.
- Open space in your week for movement. God created us with whole bodies. We were never meant to sit at a desk and worry. God made us to move, interact, and be alive in so many other ways. Whether it’s a walk through the neighborhood with family or friends or dogs, or some roughhousing with the grandkids, or simply making sure to move around in some small way every day, it will make a difference in your stress level. The scientists tell us that sitting is no good for our body chemicals, but moreover, most of us feel the effects of a motionless life as we try to face our daily stresses with so little strength. Get up, get moving!
- Whatever is true, noble…praiseworthy – think on such things. Our over-committed culture is also predominately negative. We only criticize ourselves; we don’t lift ourselves up. To stop worrying about one’s appearance or successes as a primary focus, one must first change the inner negative voice. This might require some professional help, or it might simply require a daily inner reminder about that voice. If there is space to hear God, listen to that voice, not your inner gremlin. Thoughts of the Spirit are true, noble, and praiseworthy – not negative or hurtful.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he said “Faith, Hope, and Love” are the backbone of Christianity. Faith, not worry. Faith that God will provide (Hope). And Love to conquer all Fear. May you find ways to move your Stress to Faith and thus embrace God’s Hope and Love. And may we all support each other as we work toward better balance in our lives – Mutual loving relationships are the only way we will all be able to make space for God among us and alleviate each other’s struggles even as God works in our inner selves.
(originally posted at Pastor’s Blog for River Road Church, Baptist: http://www.rrcb.org/2015/02/practical-faith-dealing-with-stress/)
“Disability” has become a dirty word in our society. We are conditioned to believe that anything that slows us down from the rat race of modern life is something to be lamented.
We have laws and practices in place to “accommodate” such disabilities to ensure a fair shake for all, but these are formalities that are government requirements, not mindful ways institutions deliver health to their employees or students (because apparently a requirement is the only way to get most places to recognize, accommodate, and help people succeed in health and career).
But is it fair when we stigmatize those who cannot perform to our ridiculously high standards, making them feel less than worthy?
Are those with “disabilities” actually worse off? Or are they the very ones we should all look to for guidance on healthy lifestyles?
I propose that many of the disabled are actually some of the most able of us all.
Recently, I had to prove myself “disabled” in order to balance my grad school life and home/work life. I was required to submit copious documentation and pour out my psychological history to multiple levels of the university, just to get a break on three course credits.
Now, to be sure, graduate students are some of the most ratty racers on the planet. They have more to do than most other jobs combined. Their work never stops – they’ve never read enough, written enough, presented enough. And they choose this lifestyle. I chose this lifestyle.
But I didn’t choose to be predisposed to anxiety and depression. And I cannot go back and change my history to remove those things that exacerbated the symptoms of my disease. I can only treat my condition with therapy, medication, and healthy lifestyle choices. I can only accept my “disability” and do my best to keep up with the ridiculous standards for graduate students (built by the male, monastic hierarchy of old).
In treating my disability, I must attend biweekly therapy sessions and take daily medication to relax and to sleep. I must eat a balanced diet, avoid alcohol (especially more than one serving in a given sitting), and exercise as often as possible. Otherwise, I am miserable, depressed, and anxious about every little thing. I lose my focus, my mojo.
And my focus and mojo are what make me a great student. My tenacity and determination and creativity are my strengths. These are the non-negotiables in my careers as a student and a paralegal and a minister.
Most graduate students struggle to keep a balanced lifestyle. Unless they come from copious amounts of money and/or have a huge nest egg or sugar daddy/mama (ha!), they are poor, strained, and it’s a daily struggle to remember to eat at all, much less eat well. And working out? Well, that’s a tough one – when do they have time to put down the books or get away from the computer?
My disability insists I be more healthy. It reminds me daily of the need to take time with loved ones (and not create the “graduate widow(er)” at home). It makes me so aware of my happiness, my priorities (faith, husband, family, school – in that order). It makes me sleep 8+ hours every night. It makes me eat well (and fights me hard when I don’t). It restrains my indulgences and keeps me dedicated to my regimens, and it lets me off the hook from those regimens when they rule my life too much.
My disability is my strength, not my weakness. And anyone who sees my need for reduced course load as a weakness (“you’re just not cut out; you can’t handle the pressures if you’re this overwhelmed; you aren’t good enough for this program, or any grad school”) is simply uninformed about what a disability is.
The disabled are the strongest, most determined people. They fight their own illnesses and limitations daily, make the tough decisions to get accommodations in the face of academic or other stigmas, and they still succeed in what they do – sometimes further than the able-bodied in the programs. Yeah, they may take a little more time. Yeah, they might need to take different kinds of courses or work through different programs to finish their work in other ways. They might even take a break and tend to their disability for a few weeks or months or years.
But they will finish, in spite of all that. And they will be the same amount of smart and successful as anyone else in the program. And they will have done it against all odds. And they’ll probably do it in a much healthier way – in mind, body, and spirit.
So before you throw around the “disability” word as some kind of insult, remember that we “disabled” are some extremely hard workers who overcome more than most “regular” folks ever will. We’re superstars, and we’re just as amazing and intelligent as anyone else in our field, perhaps more so in some ways.
A Follow-Up Post to my previous post
Even when you take a major step to end the cycle of abuse (often leaving the abusive partner entirely), you will face hurdles. Life can throw some doozies at you sometimes. Be prepared for these. Know the aches are worth it.
And then – rediscover YOU. Not the hidden/fake you that has plagued you all these years.
Yes, you’ll likely be in a legal or familial or emotional battle about your leaving your abuser. But this time is a time of recovery, and it does not have to be all hurt and pain.
This is the time where he no longer controls you. Where you get to know you – without his words hanging over you.
Find your inner beauty. Love yourself.
You will find strength in yourself you never knew existed.
You will make hard decisions. You will probably hurt a little. But you will recover. You will grow stronger. And you will be a voice for the voiceless when you are able to stand tall, honest, and lovely again.
“Controllers, abusers & manipulative people don’t ask themselves if the problem is them. They always say the problem is YOU. This was a huge problem for me as I tried to get help, because I was very willing to convince everyone that the problem was me ~ I believed it so deeply because it was what I had been taught for so long.” Darlene Ouimet
“For years I mistakenly focused on what was wrong with me when nothing was actually wrong with me. It was when I shifted my thinking to ‘what happened to me’ that all kinds of doors opened and I was able to move forward from coping to conquering.” – Darlene Ouimet
If you think you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, I encourage you to get help. Start by identifying what is happening. Then reach out – perhaps it isn’t good to reach to certain people in your life – call an anonymous support line, reach out to a counselor, or find a local support group. You do not have to do this alone (though some of you might choose to at first).
Here are some preliminary resources if you feel like your spouse is being abusive:
Know what it is:
“But He Never Hit Me” – “Emotional abuse is not a relational problem, a symptom of an unhealthy marriage (although it can certainly cause both of those). It is a heart problem, stemming from the abusive person’s un-Christlike drive to attain and maintain dominance. Emotional abuse is a habitual sin that seldom goes away on its own. The church needs to treat it accordingly.”
Know who to call:
Tell someone, anyone you trust – or call a professional. Mayo Clinic has some good tips on who to call.
And there is always the National Domestic Abuse Hotline: 1−800−799−SAFE(7233)
Whomever you call – a friend, a counselor, a hotline, be ready to be honest. Don’t hold back details. Only when the truth is revealed can recovery begin: Abused No More
To begin, this blog post has been a project of many months. For years in a previous relationship, I was abused. It took me years to understand what that meant, much less admit I was allowing it to happen to me and that I had no self-esteem because of it. But, here, after being free of abuse for over two years, I have put into words much of what I struggled with over the seven years (four married) in that previous relationship. Following this autobiographical post, I will be posting some topics about how we as Christians must address the issue of marital abuse as a topic of major importance in the church. Giving love and life is our job, and women (mostly women – though note: a good number of men will experience this too) need to know they are worthy, loved children of God who matter – and do not deserve anything doled out by their hurtful spouses. I firmly believe ending the cycle of abuse (which almost always means fully severing abusive relationships) is the only way to redemption – for both the abused and the abusers.
What does “marriage” mean for the woman who has no control?
She cannot fathom the abiding and trusting love other women have for their husbands (though she tries her very best to mimic it socially).
She keeps silent as her girlfriends recount their husbands’ good deeds, deep love, and generous gifts – even in their imperfections, they are praised.
She holds her head low when others are celebrating – because no one in her home will celebrate her successes (or support her in her failings).
She is alone, even as she is forcibly encouraged to stay home with her husband. She paints a fine picture of the perfect household – she’s got a little house, some pets, and a lot of lies to tell others about how good life is.
She tries to forget what he says to her – that she is a slut if she wears clothing he deems inappropriate, she is cheating on him if she sees a friend away from home, she is a terrible homemaker if she comes home late and asks for help, that her family is horrible/ridiculous/unbearable, that her faith community is backward and boring, that he knows her inmost secrets and could tell anyone if she dared utter bad things about him, that she is ugly (and also by his silence never speaks of her beauty).
She wants nothing more than this man she married to appreciate her, be proud of her, love her unconditionally. Those vows are ignored.
She makes excuses for his absence at major functions or bad attitude or poor spending habits.
She hides behind a thin veil of happiness and lives on the love and joy others give her and experience around her, even as her own joy light diminishes.
She grasps for reasons to love him – she cares about him, she wants him to be well. To be kind. To stop yelling.
She tries to bargain with him – pleads with him to be reasonable and offers alternatives to constant conflict.
She begs him to stop screaming.
She gives in to his demands to avoid the fighting.
She cries herself to sleep.
When they are out together, she longs for real companionship, but he keeps his distance – he will not hug her, hold her hand, or kiss her. She is ashamed and embarrassed that she is not publically loved like her friends. She pretends to be fine with it. She acts like it’s totally normal to be so different. She hides her hurt.
She tries to keep life going – busying herself with other tasks. If her tasks keep her away too long, the phone rings, a jealous husband on the line screaming at her, blaming her for his problems at home, and accusing her of adultery – as she sits, alone, after a long day of hard work, and remains completely faithful to the screaming man she cannot seem to please.
She cries herself to sleep.
He insists on spending money on himself, making poor investments. She is chastised if she even considers spending money on herself: “You don’t need any more clothes.” “Your relaxation doesn’t matter” (even as his tools, equipment, and other items do matter). So she quits asking and chooses to never buy anything for herself, hardly. Her first priority must be keeping money available to prevent the financial arguments.
She no longer matters – only keeping the peace does.
She continues to withdraw into herself, pretending to the rest of the world that nothing is happening – lying to herself and to everyone else. She cannot face the truth.
She cannot admit to anyone else what is really happening, how helpless she feels.
He makes her feel useless – in the home, in bed, as a minister, a student, a friend.
He sighs and complains at her actions, from her decision to attend school to her lack of desire for the hateful man she’s married to.
She holds her dogs tightly – the only unconditional love in the home.
She cries herself to sleep.
She keeps hoping this is normal marriage stuff, but her gut tells her differently.
He blames others when he doesn’t succeed: “It’s their fault it’s not done – they are just horrible people ruining my work.” “You are the one who had me start this stupid project.” But he was too prideful to ask for help, and instead spent his time angry at his own failures, using that anger to verbally punish his wife – the one thing he felt like he could control.
She stayed afraid of him. Afraid of a man who promised to love and cherish her.
Every day was walking on eggshells – she never knew what would set him off. And some days, she was just plain scared of him.
He would get so angry, yell so loudly – he would be in her face, demanding and accusing and putting her down.
He’d bully her, belittle her, blame her, and shame her. He’d leave her alone to hurt. He’d never apologize (except for when it was for his own gain).
He’d be so abusive with his words and actions, it felt like the only thing left to do was assault her physically. He always held his hands back from doing physical harm – but only just barely, sometimes.
And without “valid” abuse (i.e., physical harm), she decided it wasn’t “real abuse” and would stay silently, enduring it all, without telling anyone what was happening – after all, “he didn’t hit me.”
And therein lay his control.
By NOT hitting her, he controlled her. He continually abused her yet she had no “valid” reason to leave. She had no escape, or so she thought.
As a devout Christian, “divorce was not an option.” And on she stayed, even when his words tore her down – she stayed, afraid to so much as change the radio station in the car or come home a few minutes late – not because he would physically beat her, but because she wouldn’t ever hear the end of it. Maybe a few minutes of screaming. Maybe a few hours. Maybe days or weeks or months or years.
She was never safe to be honest about her feelings. When she tried, she was shot down. When she threatened, she was scared into submission. When she insisted on counseling, he scoffed.
And she hid. She hid all her pain. She carried the weight of the world on her shoulders. She could not genuinely smile or enjoy herself. She just pretended it was all not happening…
Until she could pretend no more.
Little by little, she was encouraged. By books. By thoughtful professors. By Christian leaders. By friends who likely had little understanding of what she was going through (she had quite a guise).
But she began to see not simply how awful he was – but how beloved she is. She began to understand that a child of God is a creature of great worth who deserves the very best from those around her – and who should settle for no less in her closest relationships.
She began to see herself as beautiful.
As these changes occurred in her, her marriage did not change –even with forced counseling and ongoing begging her spouse for relief.
But change is not easy. It might take weeks. Or months. Or even a year and a half.
And when the dust settles, the light becomes visible. Through personal counseling, she girded herself with strength.
In a few weeks of deep, contemplative thought, she found herself, bags packed, headed to her parents’ house. She had never felt so free.
She finally stood up for herself.
She finally was treating herself the way God meant her to be treated.
Notes from Epiphanies, 5-9-12
We worked in small groups to talk about faith, doubt, and how we integrate these in our Christian communities.
Question 1: When you think about faith, what does it look like? Is it a steady flow of understanding/feeling? Or is it an ever-changing and evolving process?
Describe faith. Is it Belief? Knowledge?
Dictionary Definition of Belief: “Mental acceptance of a proposition, statement, or fact, as true, on the ground of authority or evidence; assent of the mind to a statement, or to the truth of a fact beyond observation, on the testimony of another, or to a fact or truth on the evidence of consciousness; the mental condition involved in this assent.”
Is it more than that?
Lauren Winner, in her book Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis says this: “Faith…meant more than intellectual assent to a set of doctrines. It was a commitment of the whole self, a hope and trust that, if genuine, ought to be the foundation of an entire way of life and vision of the world.”
“On any given morning, I might not be able to list for you the facts I know about God. But I can tell you what I wish to commit myself to, what I want for the foundation of my life, how I want to see.”
Question 2: What do we do when we are personally confronted with unbelief?
Lord, I believe; help me with my unbelief!
Read this article and think about how faith and doubt are interwoven in our lives:
Perhaps faith is more like a promise (a quote, also from Still): “What you promise when you are confirmed is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that that is the story you will wrestle with forever.”
In small groups, we discussed a time in our own life when doubts overcame faith (much like the story above, we all had moments of severe doubt). We concluded that our doubts are as much a part of our faith journeys as our moments of strength and unwavering dedication.
Question 3: If, as we have seen and read and heard, doubt is simply a part of the faith journey, how can we help those in our midst who are “in the middle of things”?
Lauren Winner Calls this our “Mid-Faith Crisis” as Christians – she means there is a point at which we are no longer giddy about our new faith and eager to learn more. But neither are we at a point of peace and wisdom.
“The enthusiasms of my conversion have worn off. For whole stretches since the dream, since the baptism, my belief has faltered, my sense of God’s closeness has grown strained, my efforts at living in accord with what I take to be the call of the gospel have come undone. And yet in those same moments of strained belief, of not knowing where or if God is, it has also seemed that the Christian story keeps explaining who and where I am, better than any other story I know. On the days when I think I have a fighting chance at redemption, at change, I understand it to be these words and these rituals and these people who will change me. Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith. And yet I continue to live in a world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone. I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wander. And yet glimmers of holy keep interrupting my gaze.”
Questions to ponder:
- What brought you to mid-faith? Was it a crisis? Was it multiple crises? Was it just a “whole life of straight-forward churchgoing” or a life of wandering?
- What has church done to help you through the middle?
- How can you help others in the middle?
Perhaps the simple answer is that by realizing we all have doubts in the midst of faith and we also have faith in the midst of doubt, we move closer to understanding and supporting our fellow humanity in their wrestle with the Divine and what it means to be faithful, even when it seems impossible. We then know we have to take the time to understand that faith has steps, and one cannot move from step to step without moments of deep turmoil and struggle. [Nerd check: A good (yet a bit tedious) book on this is James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, which incorporates both psychology and theology to discuss the “stages” we go through in our faith].
Many thinkers before us have helped us better understand the intricacies of faith and doubt and how they both nurture and deliver us. God can and does meet and love all of us whether we are new, eager Christians, in the middle of a Mid-Faith Crisis, or we have moved to a deeper, more profound faith – and that is a promise worth celebrating!
I hope we all can avoid the pitfalls of describing the doubtful as weak or faithless and instead celebrate their struggle to understand and walk alongside them as we seek to understand the nature of God and how we should live as Jesus did – together.