Review of Unbroken by Madeleine Black

Unbroken: Used, beaten, but never broken. My story of survival and hope. Madeleine Black (2017).

Rape is horrible, no matter how we describe it, no matter what words we choose—rape is still horrible. Madeleine Black in her book uses words, graphic words, to tell the story of her rape and close brush with death. As difficult as the book is to read, this book needs to be read—by survivors of rape, by families of those who have been raped, by friends who want to help but may not not know how to respond.

And it needs to be read by those who get impatient, frustrated, and exclaim “Just get over it!” If only it were that easy. Madeleine takes the reader through the process of dealing with rape and all the associated emotional, mental, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of rape and survival.

At the end the reader discovers that the road to “get over it” is something each rape survivor wants to do. But it can’t be done with an impatient shout or frustration from a friend, family member, or even the survivor. There is so much more to it. Madeleine writes:

I have been a victim of a crime that leaves you silent, and there is so much that stays hidden in that silence. It not only protects the perpetrators, but it also keeps the victims in the shadows, drowning in their inappropriate guilt. Now, my strength is my voice and I intend to use it, not just for me, but for others who aren’t able to speak up yet. (p. 266)

As you read the book, Madeleine walks you through the horrifying details in essentially chronological order. That means at the beginning she will generally describe the rape and associated death threats and degradation. But it isn’t until much later in the book that she gives the full details—and it is so bad that she provides an appropriate warning about the graphic nature of the events surrounding the rape. Why that approach? Because Madeleine is living with the reality of the rape, which means some events are blocked from her memory as a defense mechanism. The frustration and despair of rape includes gaps in memory. She couldn’t get past it, because she didn’t and couldn’t have the entire story in mind. The reader takes the journey with that hole in her memory—she lived that way not having answers, fighting at times to remember, thus, the reader experiences it that way, too. Consider how many years Madeleine endured those struggles to get to this point in 2017. A one week immersion in her book does not fully give the reader the understanding of what it means to “get over it.”

I have known people who have experienced horrible circumstances. Neighbors fought in World War I, one was a Bataan Death March survivor, my father, uncle and father-in-law all fought in World War II. When I was in the Navy I met several former POWs of Vietnam. Our commanding officer came to the squadron the same month I did. He was a POW for 6½ years, severely injured and was in the hospital for 15 months upon his release. I persuaded him to tell of his experiences. So every week for a year he walked us through captivity and torture chronologically from the time he was shot down until he was released. As a pastor I have ministered to and cared for rape survivors, so I was not a newcomer to the agony of many who had endured severe trauma and major accompanying (often hidden) issues.

Yet, even with that background, this was a difficult read for me. I was surprised when I got about half way through the book—I had to stop. I didn’t read for two weeks. Very uncharacteristic for me. Puzzling: how could I be hung up on reading it? After considerable reflection I finally discovered why it was so hard for me. I thought I had the answers to “help Madeleine.” But what I was really doing was trying to re-write her book, from a different perspective so that it would get to the point where I had all the answers. Yeah, I know—how arrogant and disappointing! I had failed at the one point that had always been a strong point of my ministry— listening to the person on his/her terms.

That seems so obvious but I wonder how many critics of rape survivors approach it the same way, hence the exhortation “Just move beyond it!” By doing so, we fail to understand what really happened and what the teller of the story is presenting to us and lived through. Once I came to this realization, then I could go back and read the book, in other words—let Madeleine tell the story on her terms in her way. And then I could finish the book.

While reading, I gave Madeleine updates on my progress (or lack of). She wrote several times “It gets better, stay with it.” I did stay with it, and I am glad I did. My heart aches with what she endured, my heart rejoices that she came through decades of profound struggle. And now she has a voice to add, an important voice, a strong voice through her book and through public speaking. If you or someone you know (male or female) has been raped, seek help. There are many resources. Madeleine’s book is a valuable resource for every person.

Thank you, Madeleine for your story, your perspective, and your encouragement. Well done!

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Violence and Our World

The events of the past few weeks have raised violence, front and center. The sermon text on Sunday was Mark 6:14–29 (ESV).

14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 17 For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and abound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not,  20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.

21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” 23 And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, gup to half of my kingdom.”

24 And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.”  25 And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

26 And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27 And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28 and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his hdisciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

This rather gruesome account is timely to say the least. We live in a broken world, with sinners doing what sinners do: sin. The recent events throughout the US and the world make it appear as if violence is not only increasing, but seemingly winning the day, the battle, and even the war. If we had only this text for contemplation, we might conclude that evil does win. A “righteous and holy man” is killed at the whim of a Queen who hated his message.

But did evil win? God had sent John as the forerunner to announce the coming of the Kingdom of God with the appearance of the King (Jesus). His focus was not just pointing a finger at people. Rather his call was for people to repent, each person to repent.

John appeared, baptizing in gthe wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Mark 1:4–5 ESV)

His message hit close to home: repent of your sins. Note what he did not proclaim: “Point fingers and blame others for your sins.” And yet that is often what happens. “Yes, I know my sins, but nothing like those peoples’ sins.” Ironically, John does not allow excuses for sin. Like Nathan before King David (“You are the man!” 2 Samuel 12:7),  John is blunt.

Herodias was convinced that if she could have John killed then the accusations would stop—for her and Herod. But the sin remained, the accusation of John stood, because it was God’s judgment, not some wild self-righteous do-gooder. Even killing John did not alleviate the problem. Interestingly in less than 100 years the entire family line of Herod the Great (this Herod’s father) was completely erased.

Context helps

The context of this passage is significant: In the immediately preceding verses, Jesus had sent His disciples out to do the following:

So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.  (Mark 6:12-13)

That is, John’s arrest and death were mentioned immediately after Jesus sends out the twelve. It was their proclamation and miraculous signs that attracted much attention, continuing what John began, and that caused Herod to remember what he had done to John.

Not only that, but notice what happens when the disciples return.

The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. (Mark 6:30)

Jesus’ words to returning disciples

This initial missionary trip must have seemed like a mountain top experience for the disciples. The message was heard, people responded, people were healed, demons were cast out. We might expect a celebration meal, regaling others with what they experienced. Instead Jesus responds:

And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” (Mark 6:31)

Jesus knew the weakness of us humans. With John’s death, it appears as if evil has won a major victory. With the report of the disciples, it appears as if they have won a major victory. But Jesus knows that more is going on than this temporary battlefield report. So he takes them away for rest.

My reaction would be: “Jesus, look what has happened. Why stop now?” The battle against evil is not lost when John is killed. Nor is the battle against evil won by the wondrous things the disciples have experienced.

The Final Confrontation with Evil

Jesus knows that the approaching battle, His battle, will take place on a cross, a sign of defeat for Him, and a sign of victory for His enemies. There it will appear as if evil won once for all. But not so! His death was to pay for the penalty that the sins of all the world had earned. Herod’s, John, Jesus’ disciples, and everyone person in history, including you and me.

But Jesus’ resurrection from the dead showed that the devil’s apparent triumph was an illusion. Sin, death, and the devil could not hold Him or win over Him.

The Message of Victory Continues

For us as Christians, the real message is who Jesus and what He has done. As Paul put it: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Notice that this is not a simplistic statement and then all is taken care of. Paul writes much about the implications of this in the life of the Christian. But unless this is front and center, everything else will fail, no matter the intentions.

The temptation for us as Christians is to look to the sword, power, intimidation, voting, etc. to be the real basis for action in this present world. If so, we have settled for temporary fixes for something much deeper, more profound. At times it will appear as if evil has triumphed, like with John’s death. Other times, we will exult in “our victories” like the disciples. But ultimately the goal of “winning” is not determined by temporary fixes, temporary measures, temporary victories. Winning is losing all and getting heaven.

In a world filled with violence, the only effective, long term message is one of God’s lover for sinners in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. All other attempts will be short-sighted, stopgap, and frustratingly ineffective

As Christians we will continue to proclaim the victory of Jesus Christ, even in the face of enemies, or death itself. As P{aul wrote to the Corinthians:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 15:54-57)

 

 

Pastoral Formation and Churchmanship

I had posted this a year ago last month. But I think it needs to be read again… by me and other church leaders.

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When someone raises the issue of pastoral formation and seminary education, the focus always leans to the theological education. And rightly so, because a solid theological education is important for pastoral formation. In traditional terms we speak about four areas of theological education: exegetical, systematics, historical, and practical. Each area assists in providing the necessary tools, experience, and knowledge to effectively carry out pastoral duties in the congregation.

But other aspects influence Pastoral Formation. Here are four critical components in that formation: spiritual formation, character formation, catechetical formation, and Churchmanship formation.

1. Spiritual Formation

Spiritual formation involves three realms: worship, Bible reading/study, and prayer. Luther wrote about spiritual formation for all Christians:

 Oratio (prayer), Meditatio (read/study), and Tentatio (affliction)

This is vital for spiritual formation and growth. I leave tentatio out of this discussion at this point, only because it affects all areas of pastoral formation.

Worship: What kind of worship experiences has a seminary student had? Does he live in a congregation that has only one form of Divine Service? Where and how does the student learn about the great traditions of divine service? What can be done to help him learn not only history but also to practice that? As part of our seminary training, we examine how to best form the pastor regarding worship and leading worship. For online seminary this is a particularly challenging area.

Bible Reading/Study: In Peter’s second letter he writes about end times and the Christian in the midst of waiting for Christ’s return. His last words express this point of spiritual formation:

…but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:18 NAS)

It might be a surprise to some, but pastors struggle with daily Bible reading and study. They study for preparing to preach a sermon or teach a Bible study. For some that is the extent of reading/studying. But the issue of spiritual formation is “How can someone grow spiritually without regular, consistent Bible reading and study?”

When I visit with seminarians and pastors I will ask what they are reading. Some respond with the latest theological books (which can be good). My concern, however, is what are they reading in the Bible. I then say, “If I ask you what you are reading in the Bible, you should ask me what I am reading.” So, for the record, my wife and I are reading through 1 Samuel, last night it was chapter 24. In my private reading I am reading through Genesis; last night I read chapters 28-30.

Bible reading and study are the means to grow in this knowledge. Yes, many theological books can help. But they can never replace Bible reading. To do so is to stunt the seminarian’s spiritual growth. When a student learns Greek and/or Hebrew then the desire is to also read the Bible in those languages. If we are not reading God’s Word daily, regularly, then we are short circuiting God’s desire for spiritual growth. Ultimately the seminarian/pastor will have little to nothing to offer his people in sermons and teachings.

Prayer: Prayer is speaking to God. It is the human response to God speaking to us in His Word. Prayer is individual and corporate. It is often easy to get used to leading prayer in the corporate worship setting. But it can also become mechanical. The right entry phrases, the right endings, the appropriate statements of petitions.

When prayer is individual and privately with one or two other people, then the words may not come so easily. Instead prayer is the outpouring of a heart devastated by sin. Prayer reflects the struggle that we face in a sinful world. Prayer reveals our broken hearts, our desire for answers, our pleas for mercy. And many times it is joyful, but quiet contentment to praise God with hymns, songs, and spiritual songs. Prayer isn’t necessarily learned by a book, but by imitating a praying person. I have grown much in this area in the past four years because of a group of people who pray, pray, and pray. Philippians 4:6-7; Ephesians 5:18-20; 6:18-20; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; and many other Scripture texts can be used to encourage and grow in prayer.

2. Character Formation

Most people are surprised to learn that there is only one talent/gift for a pastor: “he is apt to teach.” Everything else about the formation of a pastor has to do with character. And so little is written/spoken about this. We have a seminary class, Pastoral Theology and Life, in which we explore this whole concept of character formation.

It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and cthe snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:1-7 NAS)

This is a challenge, but also an encouragement to those whose who serve as pastors. It does not mean that pastors are perfect in all of these areas. But unless he wrestles through each of these, he is only examining his life to satisfy “what can I get by with?”

Character formation affects all relationships: with God, with spouse, with children, with members, with neighbors, with outsiders. Notice how especially negatives in vv. 3-5 highlights the need for self-examination. For me, the one about “keeping his children under control with all dignity” became a four decade battle and challenge. I almost left the pastoral office three times because of that. I have known some who struggle with drugs or alcohol. In reality, every pastor fails in these areas whether in deeds or in the thoughts. As always, when we fail, we confess and seek forgiveness (1 John 1:8-9), but we also recognize that there may be further consequences.

One particular issue that affects the current state of the church is that the pastor is not to be “pugnacious, but gentle” or as one translation has it, “not a bully but gentle.” Unfortunately the internet provides a platform for bullies in the church. But even worse is a pastor who is a bully, whether on the internet or especially in his congregation in his dealings with people.

Paul provides the proper perspective on character formation, for everyone.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; (Galatians 5:22-23 NAS)

3. Catechetical Formation

Catechetical formation is not “how to teach the catechism.” It is much more comprehensive than that. Catechetical formation refers to the entire approach of the congregation in “growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Thus, it includes catechism instruction, family devotions, family and church gatherings that reflect the life of grace and mercy, shaped by proper distinction and application of Law and Gospel.

How easy it is for the pastor to be distracted from this essential task. Meetings are important, but they do not direct the congregational life. Activities are important, but they can divert energy and interest away from learning the essential truths of the Christian faith.

Catechetical formation also involves a consistency throughout congregational life. Hymns, prayers, and readings done in worship form the basis for shut-in visits, hospital visits, family crises ministry. That is the faith confessed, and expressed, in worship is not about a la-la land, but of real life, lived in the trenches as well as on the mountains. Thus, catechetical formation provides the threads that unite and emphasizes the Christian life and growth. In our seminarian curriculum we have a course, Catechesis, in which we explore the dimensions of catechetical formation.

4. Churchmanship Formation

Of all the areas mentioned, Churchmanship formation is the least mentioned or even acknowledged as important. Yet, when Churchmanship is missing, everyone suffers. So what is Churchmanship?

In church life, life can be messy for the church and for pastors. Churchmanship calls pastors and lay leaders to stand up to do what is right, whether it is popular or not. Paul gives some guidelines here:

The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality. Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin. (1 Timothy 5:17-22 NAS)

Note, then, that Churchmanship is not taking charge as if you are the only one who knows what to do. It means that sometimes when the system is broken, the pastor identifies areas that need fixing, but not going on a vendetta against someone. In cases of difficult discipline, the pastor is a churchman who takes the avenue that is appropriate and consistent with the sin involved.

Churchmanship may also involve leading the congregation, the area group, or the entire church body in a way that will be difficult, challenging, frustrating but ultimately good for the body. This means that a churchman will listen to advice, seek consensus if possible, and move with deliberate yet responsible steps to achieve the goal.

Sadly, over the past four decades in church service, I have seen many examples of poor Churchmanship. When I quoted Peter above, it was a continuation of a previous thought. Now look at it in context:

You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:17-18 NAS)

But sometimes, silently I have observed Churchmanship demonstrated that was outstanding, but was seldom, if ever, recognized as Churchmanship. I have had the pleasure of knowing churchmen who upheld the highest integrity and concern for the church at large. One of my professors (now deceased) in seminary was not the flashiest, but I refer to him with the accolade: “a gentleman scholar.” My hope is that in the seminary, the other professors and I can follow that path.

Abuse and Hermeneutics

Note: If this article hits too close to home—stop reading and call your counselor or pastor now.

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Wow! What a combination! How can either of these be related? I have considered this for the past few weeks and hope to make some sense in the connection between the two topics.

Abuse

As a pastor, I have found the issue of abuse is real. As an environment is created for trust and safety, then stories about abuse begin to trickle out. Stories of pain, fear, uncertainty, shame, guilt, etc.

Abuse is serious and more prevalent than many pastors and churches think. Denial does not work, does not address the issues, does not help those abused, does not give the abusers help either. It is a systemic problem in the church.

One theme continued to come up in these discussions:

“Why don’t the churches and spiritual leaders acknowledge this problem?”

“Where is there support in the church for abuse victims?”

“Why don’t most people in the church believe me about abuse?”

These questions stayed in my mind over the past few months. As a starting point, in our own church we pray for those who have been abused and for the abusers. But these questions are deeper than even that. “Why don’t people understand?” I have taught Hermeneutics in our seminary the past five years, and in fact, I am teaching it this quarter. And that led me to a startling revelation. Is this question (and solution) really a problem of hermeneutics?

Hermeneutics

In general terms, hermeneutics is “principles of interpretation.” How do we interpret what is written, spoken, seen. In everyday living we unconsciously use some kind principles of interpreting each of these. In specific terms as a Bible teacher, we use this to refer to principles of interpretation applied to the Biblical texts.

There many approaches to Biblical hermeneutics. The one I have found the most helpful over the past 35 years is one presented by Dr. James Voelz in his book What Does This Mean? (Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Post-Modern World), and also his video and audio lectures in iTunesU.

I will not cover everything in the book, but one specific aspect of his approach is key in Biblical interpretation, and now critical in interpreting abuse. One of the challenges of interpretation is asking the question: “What does this mean?” Voelz notes that the word “mean” is used in three different ways (Voelz uses the term “levels” to separate the three):

1. What is the sense of the text?

2. What is the significance of the text?

3. What is the implication of the text?

Consider one example Voelz addresses: Luke 7:14-15

And He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak. And Jesus gave him back to his mother.

Level 1 interpretation: 

Taking the words at face value as marks on the page. So: Jesus healed a dead young man and gave him back to his mother.

Level 2: interpretation: 

This significance of this event (action) is provided in the following verse by what the people surmise what had happened.

Fear gripped them all, and they began glorifying God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and, “God has visited His people!” (Luke 7:16)

Scripture does not often provide a level 2 interpretation. And sometimes what is recorded as level 2 is wrong—no, not that Scripture is wrong, but that someone’s interpretation of an event is wrong, i.e. when the Jewish leaders claim that Jesus is demon possessed (John 8:48).

Level 3 interpretation: 

What is the implication of Luke including this event? In other words, at this point we are looking at the author to see what it tells us about the author’s motive, audience, etc. This is by far the hardest aspect of interpreting a text, and there are few resources to help.

Note how confusing this could be if people in a conversation claim “This is what the text means” and they use a different “level” to give an answer. Thus, I think Voelz gives us a helpful map through this confusion as we look at the Biblical text via the three levels. He also shows that this can be used to interpret actions as well as words.

Understanding Abuse using Hermeneutics

The light came on for me when I put together that Voelz’s three levels not only applies in Biblical interpretation but in all interpretation. That is, we also interpret events/actions that happen in everyday life. And this brings us back to abuse.

So I began asking how to interpret abuse? For the sake of illustration I am presenting a hypothetical case that involves a man physically abusing a woman. This can equally apply to sexual abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, etc. Also, abuse is not limited to men as abusers.

By using three levels we can begin to sort out not only what happened (level 1) but also how to interpret the actions (level 2) and how to interpret the “author” (abuser) (level 3).

Level 1: 

The man hits a woman repeatedly. Level 1 seems relatively simple, but we are isolating one event. As the abuse continues then each Level changes. But in public the abuse is not “evident.”

Level 2: 

There are really three responses to interpreting what happened: abuser, abused, outsider.

For the abuser: “She just wouldn’t listen to me. I wanted her attention.”

For the abused: “I love him and trying to do what he says.”

For the outsider: “Look how his wife tries to please him.” (the outsider never sees the effects of abuse, at least initially, so only interprets what they see her do in public, namely trying to appease him.)

Level 3: 

There are also three responses to interpreting what happened: abuser, abused, outsider.

For the abuser: “What is wrong with her?” (the abused tells something about her but the evaluation/interpetation is controlled by the abuser)

For the abused: “What am I doing wrong that I can’t please him?” (the abuser tells something about herself but from the abuser’s perspective, guilt, shame play a major role here)

For the outsider: “That couple looks so happy, what a model of love for others.”

Notice that each level illustrates different interpretations depending on the role each plays in the “action of abuse” and the one who controls the narrative interpretation at each level.

The deadly part of this cycle is that the abuser controls the interpretation at all three levels for himself and her. And typically the abuser knows how to say and do things to bring the abused wife back to him. Thus, it is now at least understandable why it takes a woman who is physically abused to leave the man seven times before she finally does leave for good—if she lives long enough.

So what?

So much more can be explored in this topic. But this may help set the tone for understanding what happened and the consequences of interpreting at each level.

Where does the church fit into this? In one sense the church is the “outsider” in the above scenario. Notice what happens then. The abuser controls level 1 (he will abuse at will). He controls at level 2 (changing the interpretation as time goes on), and he will always blame the one abused (level 3). The narrative the church accepts (level 2) is also controlled by the abuser. And at level 3, the church hears about the abused, but only as interpreted by the abuser  (“the fault lies with her”).

What happens if the abused woman begins to speak out, to identify what happened (level 1), what is the significance of what happened (level 2), and to tell about the abuser (level 3)? Ironically, she is seen as not truthful because she is attacking a person (level 3) and not the situation (level 1) and therefore “she doesn’t really get what happened” (level 2). It’s almost as if she is abused once again when she is met with anger, hostility, etc. because “she is disturbing this fine relationship.” Her pain, experience, value as a person is challenged at the very time that she needs genuine support.

This is already a longer post than I usually write. But there is so much more to write about. My goal in this post is to give the church some insight into abuse and begin to interpret abuse in all three levels and see where the pitfalls exist for the church and especially church leaders. My hope is that this will generate open discussion about this church problem.

And ultimately my hope is that the church begins to deal with abuse and provide love, care, and help for the abused, the abuser, and all family members involved.

Let’s go back to those questions from the abused:

“Why don’t the church and spiritual leaders acknowledge this problem?”

“Where is there support in the church for abuse victims?”

“Why don’t most people in the church believe me about abuse?”

Are we listening to the questions? Are we interpreting in light of what the abuser is saying, and the abused is afraid to say anything to contradict that? Now we have something to think about and come to grips with in the church. Abuse is real—the pain, fear, guilt, shame, anger, frustration are real. The Gospel is specifically there for this situation.

I have discussed this understanding of abuse with other people, and they find it helpful. May you find it to be so, too.

Psalm 34:18 (MEV)

The LORD is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the contrite of spirit.

Ps 147:3 (MEV)

He heals the broken in heart, and binds up their wounds.

Isa 61:1 (MEV)

The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor;
He has sent me to heal the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;

Luke 4:17-18 (MEV)

The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. When He had unrolled the scroll, He found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
because He has anointed Me
to preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the broken-hearted,
to preach deliverance to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed;

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All promises were fulfilled in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). Now those promises continue in the Church‘s life and proclamation of Jesus Christ. May it be so in the Church today.

Rare Bird — quotes

Quotes from Rare Bird

My review of the book led me to realize I seldom quoted Anna. So, this post is a string of quotes from the book that are especially meaningful to me.

Anna’s thoughts about what she said at Jack’s funeral.

As I read the words I’ve written, I feel filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s as if I can speak forever, and I want to. I am full of light and energy. I want to run to the rear of the church and lock the doors, keeping us here for all time, remembering Jack and what made him special, and talking about God and eternal life.

In that moment I am sure of the hope of heaven, and I don’t want anyone to leave until they are too.

Later I’ll lament to Tim that there was so much more to say about Jack that I’d forgotten, but while I’m speaking, it feels as if God is using the words in a way that reaches beyond the simple little stores of home and life I share. I hope those listening get a glimpse of Jack and God, and will somehow be changed. (pp. 74-5)

Death changes Anna and how to view life, and especially church.

But what about the rest of the church? Is Jack’s death going to be just another sad story, a blip next to concerns about worship styles and staffing? Even in my shocked state, it’s clear to me that God is on the move through Jack’s death. I am able to recognize this because the inconsequential, everyday concerns that have always distracted me have fallen away in the wake of the accident. I’m not sure how long this will last, and I don’t want to squander anything I’m learning. It needs to be shared.

But I am the most unlikely person for the role. I have neither the stamina nor the inclination to proclaim any new revelations. I am tired. I am hurting. I don’t feel like being God’s cheerleader. And what’s the point of sharing anyway, when this knowledge has come at so high a price? That living our lives as if we are in control is an illusion? Won’t every person who lives be able to learn these truths on his own, through the inevitable losses to come? (pp. 91-2)

A highlight for Margaret, Anna’s and Tim’s daughter, comes later when she meets Justin Bieber backstage, and attends one of his concerts. Smiles all around, until…

The first act comes out and launches into a song called “If I Die Young.” Our family and friends watching at home must have let out a collective gasp. I bite the inside of my cheeks, willing myself not to cry as they sing about a mother losing a child and the child asking God to send a rainbow to shine down on her mother.

I listen to the words, still in disbelief that I buried my child. Outside, the torrential wind and rain finally stop and the sky clears. A friend visiting the city snaps a photo of what she sees over the concert hall as we sit inside. A rainbow. (pp. 128-9)

Reflecting about those who grieve:

I used to be fairly unsympathetic with grievers, at least on the inside. This could have been because I’d lost my mom so early and realized that since grief was going to come to everyone in time, people should just learn to deal with it.

Maybe I was afraid that exposing someone’s pain to the light acknowledging it would somehow make it worse. That it would cause them to dwell on it rather than live life. Maybe I thought they would then want too much from me. It it could be that I was just woefully bad at math

….

Of course I never said any of these out loud. I guess I just didn’t get that you can’t apply math to grief. Loss is loss is loss. Of I realize I have a healthy daughter and husband. I love them deeply. But the balance of the two here cannot negate the loss of the one “there.”

Stupid math. (p. 146)

Anna reveals more of the longer term realization of loss.

Children died in flooded creeks, hospital beds, refugee camps, and the family minivan. It happens. I fear I may have another lesson in letting go. I don’t want to let go of our past. I don’t want to let go of the family I dreamed of and worked for and prayed for. And I don’t want to let go of this idea of fairness that somehow lingers from my childhood, even though it now feels stupid. Because it says that I can do something. That my love and hard work and what I pour into my children will amount to what I think it should. But when I get caught up trying to make life fair, it threatens to mire me in anger and bitterness.

Where does faith fit in? Can I somehow have faith that God sees the bigger picture? That justice is His job, not mine? That He will make all things beautiful in His time? That I was not put here to play God, to decide who is safe enough and who is reckless, who lives and who dies? (pp. 174-5)

Identity in light of loss…

Someone points out to me that there is no label or title for a person has lost a child. Widow, widower, or orphan won’t do. Is this lack because child loss is so repugnant, so out of the natural order of things, it can scarcely be named? Can we not dig and find a Latin or Greek root that could lead us to a term for ourselves?

I’m not sure if labels help anyway, as we struggle to figure out our identities in light of loss. (p. 180)

Anna writing about the group of moms grief group, all who lost a child.

I’m not sure how sharing the broken, hurting pieces of our lives helps us, but it does. Rather than wallowing in despair, this group of scrappy women cheers each other on, determined to find a way to live the lives we have now. And in sharing our loss, we somehow gain. That is the mystery of a community that grieves. (p. 186)

Anna writes about the house and what it meant and means for moving forward, and the tension between past, present, and future.

How being in our house brings comfort because it is Jack’s home, but it hurts so much that I can’t seem to thrive here anymore. How Jack’s death has brought many people closer to God and to their children, but has left us lonely and bereft. How can I feel disappointed at God in the same moment that I marvel at His care for me? (p. 188)

Anna as she explains the move to a different church. This is very close to home for me.

It feels a bit weird to be at a different church, even just part-time, but if we’re learning anything, it’s that life is weird. I take communion, but I don’t serve it anymore. I am not here as a leader or a giver. I don’t go out of my way to meet new people and make them feel welcome and comfortable, as would be my instinct. Instead I am here to partake and absorb and let God’s words fall down on my head. I soak up the truth of who He is. I tell Him I am open to receive grace and comfort. I remind Him I trust Him, even though His ways are not mine and I am still sad and hurt. (p. 190)

Breaking the bowl (read the book to find out about that one)… and more.

I guess the only thing that is certain to me now is that the small God I followed before, the one I must secretly have believed would spare my family pain if I just didn’t ask for too much or set my sights too high, is somehow not big enough to carry me now.

That little God isn’t the one who comforts me when I despair. Not, it’s a big God, who loving voice reminds me of my mother’s, who gently whispers to me, “I know, Anna,. I know, honey. I know.” (pp. 218-9).

These are just a few highlights that really resonated with me, helped me rethink and reflect on my own losses (two immediate family deaths and two other deaths of people very close to us within 6 months).

Thank you, Anna, once again.

Rare Bird — Book Review

The book no one wants to write… the book everyone needs to read.

I have read many books over the past 55 years, ranging from theological to history to biography to technical. Of all of them I would have put two books in the above category, until now.

Weak and Loved by Emily Cook (about her daughter’s seizures)

And She Was a Christian by Peter Preus (about his wife’s suicide)

Now, the third one, Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson (about her son’s death). This is a book about her son’s death and the family’s journey in the trail afterward. 514slwUS0PL._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_

I had read her blog accounts over the past 4 years, getting bits and pieces of the story. Yet I did not have any further insights. This book covers the details of Jack’s death, and immediate reactions. But even more Anna reveals the depth of the loss and the path that she and her husband followed, and their daughter.

Anna writes in such a way that she draws the reader to want to be at the river’s edge shouting for someone to help Jack, or Anna, or Margaret, or Tim… She reveals the torment, the futility, the “what-ifs” that inevitably arise in such circumstances. The tale of tragedy and the brokenness of life was gripping, and I wanted to read it all in one sitting.

But I could not. The pain, the agony was too much. At one point I couldn’t read it for 5 days, it was too overwhelming for me. I can’t even imagine the days for Anna and the family. She couldn’t put Jack’s death and her life aside for even an hour, like I could with the book.

Anna offers insights throughout a 2-3 year process of living with this. As a pastor I have seen people respond with love for the family when a death occurs, but often the continual support begins to wane after a few weeks or months. She doesn’t give us a short snapshot of this process. Because there is no short snapshot. Instead she walks the reader through the long path of grief. Anna also describes the changing nature of her grief, letting us see the depth of grief, but also the extent of the grief. Not very often do people learn about what she went through without having gone through the experience itself. Anna provides a flashlight through her own experience so that we can walk that path, yes, in a sense with her, but more importantly with someone close to us who is walking that path.

We lost our son for many years, not through death, but through prison and then him going missing for 17 years. Many times in my own despair I thought, “If only it would end. The unknown is too difficult.” We grieved throughout that period. But after reading this book, I realize that even an end does not stop the hurting, the loss, the grieving.

In another way, though, Anna helped me to realize something of our grief based on what she experienced. There were things, events, etc. we could not participate in or go to. Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries were not celebrated because the pain was too much. Sometimes people were constant reminders of what we lost. Anna describes this sense of loss so well.

I also found that I could not share with many people what I was experiencing (it took many years for me to learn how to communicate), because I realized that many people didn’t understand, and sometimes what they said was hurtful (even though not intentionally). Anna also shares with the reader the sense of gratitude for those faithful people who stood by them in the darkest days, weeks, months, and yes, years. Loving, helpful people who sometimes just allowed her to cry. We experienced Christian friendship like that, too.

When I was stationed in the Navy in 1974, my only uncle died at age 49. My grandmother was 64 at the time (two years younger than I am now). I remember standing beside the casket and she said, “No parent should ever have to bury her child.” That memory is clear to me today as it was 41 years ago. And Anna’s book is a monument to those words.

And yet… my grandmother continued to live through that. And Anna has lived through this loss. This book is a book of loss, despair, anger, frustration, courage, and strength, all because of God. As Anna explored aspects of death and coming to grips with it, she shows to the reader, the winding path she is on, but ultimately the path which Jesus walked with her. This is a book of help and hope for everyone. It is memoir of loss and love, and the God who is present through it all.

Looking back now, because the sense of loss was so close to me, yet nowhere near the loss that Anna and her family experienced, I don’t think I could re-read it right now. It is too emotional for me. I marvel that Anna could even write what she did. And I am very grateful for what she did. It truly is…

The book no one wants to write… the book everyone needs to read.

Thanks, Anna, for opening your heart on such a personal, deep level.

How long, O Lord?

The Psalmist wrote: “How long, O LORD? Will You hide Yourself forever?” (Psalm 89:46).

For many Christians that refrain becomes not just a lament of the moment, but a searing reminder, day after day, year after year. “How long, O LORD?” A sense of abandonment by God. Perhaps you are thinking such a thought is unacceptable for a Christian to utter. For one who has been through the agony, the thought is a frequent companion, and the words express the painful, long, unending wait.

The person calling out to God does so in a loud wail and in a soft whimper. The intensity is not shaped by the volume but by the breaking heart.

Sometimes the plea is met with a bargain, “God if You… then I…” Other times with a complaint, “What have I done to go through this?” And even with a condemnation, “Yes, Lord, I have sinned and this is my punishment.” But even that does not remove the plea.

It can be hard for others to minister to a person who has the ache of “How long, O LORD?” The drain can be overwhelming just listening to it, let alone living it. It is little wonder that many feel the loneliness even among Christians. I treasure each person who walked with us at various stages of our own 37 years of uttering the cry within our hearts.

Having lived that cry of “How long, O LORD?” for 37 years, I have a few observations to make about myself and others. See Too important and The ugliness of the missing. At times the intensity of my cry was such that a full day was too much to handle. If I could make it to mid morning… if I could make it to lunchtime… if I could make it to bed time… if I could only get to sleep, one night.

Tears, anger, frustration, pity, edginess, sadness, helplessness, yes, they were part of my diet for 37 years. Sometimes the periods of relief (no calls from the police, etc.) were so welcomed that I would feel guilty for the break.

Time was measured, waiting for an answer to “How long, O LORD?” For years it seemed as if time stood still. Looking at the clock seemed the obvious solution, as if the time would pass more quickly. But for what benefit? My own discomfort, angst, relief? Yet, measuring time only amplified the sense of “How long.” Yet 37 years gives me a perspective of Paul’s desire for the unbelieving Israelites in Romans 9:

I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Romans 9:1-3)

That, too, was on my heart.

Not “How long?” But “How Amazing!”

A little over a week ago our son sent a letter to us, confessing his faith in Jesus Christ. He wrote about this being the first time he had peace in his heart. Bible reading has become a staple for his daily spiritual life. Not only has he received forgiveness from God, but he is learning to forgive himself—as Paul wrote: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 8:1). Knowing what he had been through physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, this is monumental!

In the letter he also thanked us for always loving him, even when he was the worst. He had often said over the years that he could not figure out how we could still love him after all he had done and said. I told each time that it was because of God’s love in Jesus that we could love him. (We love, because He first loved us. 1 John 4:19). Now he is believing and receiving it.

Paul also wrote,

for He says, “at the acceptable time I listened to you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.”
Behold, now is “the acceptable time,” behold, now is “the day of salvation” — (2 Cor. 6:2)

So what has changed? We obviously are rejoicing. But as I do so, I am quietly reflective on all this. Was the 37 years of pain, uncertainty, fear, heartache worth it? Absolutely! Was it a living hell? Many times it was, but I would not trade one minute of the 37 years for the joy now of our son confessing Jesus Christ as Lord. In other words, I no longer think in terms of “how long?” But rather, how each moment was part of God’s working in his heart, even unknown to us. Indeed, how amazing!

Our son is learning this truth every day:

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11)

“How long, O LORD?” is now answered with: “Forever!” Because of our common confession in Jesus Christ, we have an eternity to share with our son. I won’t even have to count minutes, hours, days, weeks, years, or decades, as I had been. Now is the time, today is the day of salvation.

And we give thanks to God for His patience, love, mercy, and amazing grace—to all of us! The plea changes to praise in song!

Amazing Grace