Tuesday, June 21, 2022

The Spectrum of Fatherhood

I made a Facebook post on Fathers Day that caused quite a ruckus. Many who read the post either misunderstood what I said or didn't read what I said or disagreed with what I said or felt that what I said was entirely inappropriate for the day. One person took my words as an opportunity to lash out at me personally. That post has since been taken down but the sting lingers. 

Here is what I said: 

Wishing some of my friends a Happy You-Are-No-Longer-Under-the-Iron-Thumb-of-Your-Tyrant-Father Day! 

You know who you are. 😙

Here are some of the reactions I got: 

-I ruined Fathers Day for everyone else.

-I was making others feel guilty for posting positive things about their fathers.

-It is hard to be a father and we need to give fathers grace.

-Good fathers are so important for the functioning of society.

-Absent fathers are behind many mass shootings.

-Praise should be public and criticism should be private.

-I caused fathers to wonder if they are good dads or not. 

First, the primary audience of my post: I have a number of friends who grew up in the patriarchy movement. This is a movement that elevates the father to king and ruler supreme of his home and family. While some of these men may be very kind and can handle this level of absolute rule, other men use this as an opporunity to rule with an iron fist. Along with this patriarchy movement has come an especially odd thing called the Stay at Home Daughters movement. This movement views female offspring as possessions of their fathers. These girls are raised that their only function in life is to serve their fathers until their fathers hand them over to their husbands. The girl goes from the possession of one man to the possession of another. In addition, the only viable life option for these girls it to become a wife and mother, therefore homemaking is really her only needed skill in life. Therefore, no higher education is needed. I have friends who had to take college classes in secret because their fathers would not have allowed it. Most often these men hold control over their families, not only financially, but with threats of spiritual danger or doom should someone leave the fold. If this sounds like a cult, BINGO! 

I know women who have fought long and hard to get to a place of freedom. As you can imagine, Fathers Day is a hard day for these women. A kind, loving father is beyond their comprehension. Of course, there are guys who grew up under such structures as well who have their own issues with that system. I'm sure Fathers Day is a minefield for them as well. 

I also know plenty of people who grew up in families that weren't part of the patriarchy but where fathers were quite abusive in a variety of ways. They, too, may feel relief at not being under the control of these men. 

So, I wrote that post for these friends. An "I want to acknowledge and celebrate with you" post. In no way was a saying anything else. 

In no way did I say that all fathers are bad.

In no way did I say that it is wrong to post about fathers.

In no way did I say that fathers need to be perfect to be celebrated.

In no way did I say that fathers aren't important.

Anybody who has read anything else I have written knows just how strongly I feel about the role of fathers. Shoot, I preached an entire sermon on June 12 about the impact a father has on one's view of God. And on this very Fathers Day I posted a tribute to my own husband who was and is a kind and good father to our children. 

In reflecting on what caused all the ruckus, I boiled it down to a lack of spectrum thinking. We need to be able to see much of life, including fatherhood, along a spectrum. At one end is the perfect father who doesn't exist but who many may aspire to. At the other end is the tyrant: the abusive father who devoirs and destroys his children in any variety of ways, using them for his own ends. And in between are all the other fathers, working at various levels of effort with their individual temperaments and gifts and skills and ideas and saddled with their family histories and traumas and life experiences and particular circumstances. 

It is incredibly important to understand the spectrum lest we put everything into categories of black and white. When we see things in black and white, we ten interpret a mention of a tyrannical father as saying that fathers are bad or unnecessary and that the only way to not be a tyrannical father is to be a perfect one. That's just not true. 

For years I have walked alongside a number women who have been in abusive marriages. One thing they regularly run into is that, in trying to explain to others their situation, others will say, "Well, my husband and I had this problem and ......" or "Well, all marriages are hard....." or "Well, what on earth were you expecting???" and so on. Leslie Vernick, a therapist who specializes in working with people in destructive marriages has a wonderful article I regularly point people to. In this particular article she points out the difference between a Diffucult Marriage, a Disappointing Marriage, and a Destructive Marriage. And there is indeed a difference. A huge difference. If we refuse to acknowledge that difference then we will try to understand our friend trapped in abuse as being in our same situation of a difficult marriage and we will minimize the severity of the situation and try to thrust on this friend our own pat answers. We have to understand that marriages are on a spectrum from the very healthy to the horribly abusive. 

It is the same with families. 

It is the same with mothers.

It is the same with fathers.

If you don't understand this then it is time for you to do what I call "expanding your frame of reference." 

I expand my frame of reference by asking questions. By listening to people's life stories. By reading memoirs. By educating myself in a variety of ways. This is impportant so that when someone says, "My husband and I are having trouble in our marriage," I know to stop and ask questions and gently draw out what she is saying rather than offering a pat answer of what has worked for me. 

If you think that when I say "tyrant father" I am talking about some guy who wants so badly to love his children well but yelled at his kid out of fear or overreacted to a poorly cut lawn, then you don't know what a tyrant father is. 

If you think that my congratulating my friends for being out from under their tyrant fathers means that I'm demeaning the role of father, then you don't know what a tyrant father is. 

If you think that it is inappropriate for rejoicing with my friends at their hard-won freedom, then you don't know what a tyrant father is. 

If you can wrap your head around what the difference between all the other fathers out there and those fathers who use and abuse and rape and pillage and manipulate and maim and control and enforce and all, more often than not, in the name of God Almighty, then you should be thrilled, as I am, that those people who grew up trapped in such oppressive systems are finally free. 

I was trying, in my own imperfect way, to redeem this holiday for them with a nod to their freedom.



 


Monday, June 13, 2022

A Father's Day Sermon for the Rest of Us

(This is the bulk of a sermon I preached at House of Mercy in Asheville, NC on June 12, 2022)

 

 “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. - Luke 15:20-24


A couple weeks ago Matt and I went to the Wyeth exhibit at the art museum. It included art from several generations of the Wyeth family. The work of Andrew Wyeth was by far my favorite. It resonated with me in the Average Joe, low brow, slice of life sort of way. Wyeth once explained his work this way, he said, “I paint my life.” 


I can’t paint worth a lick, but I like to write. And, in the spirit of Andrew Wyeth, I could say, “I write my life.” It is what I know. And so when I preach, well, I preach my life. It is one thing to know about God by reading and studying theology. It is yet another to experience him. 


So this isn’t so much a sermon as a story. It’s my story. It might be your story, in some ways, too. 


Before I say any more I want to give a trigger warning here. I am going to be talking about the impact of a painful or nonexistent relationship with a father. For whatever reason some of us tend to feel things more rawly and intensely in a church setting. If this is hard for you, feel free to step outside or get some space. I get it. 



Next Sunday is Father’s Day. I always dread Father’s Day. 


It seems to me that there isn't a holiday out there that divides up the Haves and the Have Nots like Father's Day. Every year the posts are there. I scroll down my Facebook news feed and they hit me in the face. And punch me in the gut. Tributes and photos of beaming fathers and smiling daughters. Accolades. Special memories. He was, to them, a source of wisdom and strength. A friend. A rock.


With each post, I wince. My heart cries out. Not only for my own pain but also for the pain of so many who will never know that kind of love and care and support and security.


There seem to be so many of us who hurt in this way. Death, divorce, desertion, dysfunction. The entire country is buying cards and giving presents and having cookouts to celebrate a relationship that is beyond the comprehension of so many. A Hallmark spotlight on a gaping hole.


The solution for us, supposedly, is to just think of God as our father. 


After all, Psalm 68:5 tells us that God is a father to the fatherless. So if your earthly father was cruel, disinterested, rigid, impossible to please, abusive, or just plain gone, we are told that there’s a quick fix. God will fill the void. 


As if it is that simple.


For some people the word “father” is a beautiful word. For others the very word "father" stirs up confusion or frustration, anger or numbness, sadness or terror. Whatever their experience, they view God as a cosmic form of their earthly father. 


God as cruel tyrant 


God as harsh disciplinarian.


God as demanding perfectionist.


God as detached workaholic. 


God as angry drunk.


God as groping rapist. 


God as disinterested. 


God as powerless. 


God as gone.



I had a father.


My father was one of those World War II flyboys. A Navy pilot in the Pacific Theater. A hero to many. Smart and good looking, he liked to win friends and influence people.


I am the youngest of four children. My parents were older when I was born and by the time I came along my father had emotionally checked out of the family. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t afraid of him. Being a former Navy officer ,he had high and strict expectations and did not tolerate mistakes or childish behavior well. We were not a good combination, he with his stern demeanor and me with my overly sensitive, timid nature. More often than not he terrified me. I kept my distance from him best I could. 


My parents’ marriage was not a healthy one. My father was a serial adulterer…he really liked the ladies and they liked him back. My mother was not exactly healthy in other ways. 


Over the years my father was at home less and less and then one day, shortly after my 14th birthday (and shortly after I had gotten braces, AKA “the grill of shame”), my mother informed me that she and my father were getting a divorce. Over the next week I saw personal items and pieces of furniture piling up in our garage and then on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving I came home from school…the garage was empty and he was gone. I will never forget that day. The image of the garage, empty of all that was his, that image is burned into my brain. My soul. From then on I was on my own. I lost not only my father, but, in many ways, my mother, that day. 


After that I saw my father  just once a year, even though he lived in the same town. He had moved on in life, marrying his young and perky girlfriend. Every so often he would call me and ask me how old I was. It wasn’t until college that I gathered up the courage and made an effort to connect with him. It wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. Eventually, as I grew into adulthood, we found some common interests such as genealogy (he was super proud of being descended from a Lexington Minuteman) and the weather (he stayed in his condo on Pensacola Bay and videoed a hurricane…severe weather makes me positively giddy), but his ability to go further than skin deep was nonexistent. After a while I quit trying. And then, 19 years ago, he died. 


I do not tell you this to garner pity (I cannot stomach condescension). I tell you this because I know that the entire idea of God as father can baffle, frustrate, or terrify people.   


I want you to understand this is the reality of a lot of people. If this isn’t your reality, you can thank God. If this isn’t your reality, perhaps you can at least understand why others struggle. 


If this is your reality, you are not alone. I am here to validate your pain. I get it. I share it. 


So often when things are hard we want to rush in with a fix. A quick fix. A spiritual bandaid or theological solution. 


The problem is that mere head knowledge doesn’t solve the problem of an opposite lived experience. 


A friend shared her experience with me. She has a wonderful father, but the man she married was another story altogether and was abusive to both her and her children. And then he left.  She contrasts her own experience with that of her children: 


“Personally, the concept of God as a Father is easy to grasp. My father is a wonderful father so the idea of God the Father is like a warm embrace. It's comforting and not difficult for me to trust. However! My children? They struggle mightily with that. Both have significant trust issues. My son struggles with abandonment issues and the idea that he is "good" enough to love unconditionally. My daughter has never dated (she's 24) because she's fearful and that translates into her relationship with God - she views Him as a punitive figure, just waiting for her to screw up so He can punish her. Or worse, He intentionally sets her up to fail so He can punish her like her earthly father did.” 


Both my friend and her children had the exact same TEACHING about God. But teaching and even seeing sometimes aren’t enough. She adds: 


 “I also find it interesting to note that, at least in my family, seeing that excellent example of fatherhood in my father and even in my brother makes no difference. They are able to recognize that both men are good, godly loving fathers but that does not translate to their lives even though they are both very close to my dad and brother.”


And I will say from my own experience of watching my husband love and care for our children so well, it still did not translate into my life either. Sure, Matt can love our children but there is no way God could possibly love me. 


And therein lies the problem. Just learning about God as father doesn’t change the lived experience that has so seared the negative image of God in our hearts


A common understanding with trauma is that if trauma comes through relationship, then healing should come through relationship as well. 


I love that idea. But how do you get there?


I grew up in a matriarchy of sorts. In reality, there were almost no men in my life. My father was gone. My brother disengaged from the family. I had no grandfathers in my life. No uncles (both parents were only children). No close family friends. No “father figure” at all. I went to an all girls’ high school. Studied in a field in college dominated by women. 


Moving into adulthood, the primary place that I encountered men was in…the church. (Facepalm.) Y’all can imagine how well that has gone. 


A few years ago I told my husband that the vast majority of men in my life  have either ignored me or sought to correct me. And then he watched it happen. Over and over again. And I have since realized that that dynamic is only a continuation of the one with my father. Ignore or correct. Either I don’t matter or I’m doing it wrong.  Rather than reversing the dynamic with my father, the church compounded it. 


How we in the church treat people matters.


And even further exacerbating the problem is the common teaching regarding fatherhood itself, especially in the more traditional, conservative circles and certainly in the circles we were in when raising our children. This is a world that believes that the duty of fathers is first and foremost to enforce obedience and discipline in their children. Think about it. Dad is the one who brings the hammer down. Who hasn’t heard, or said, “Just wait til your father gets home.” 


So the idea of father ends up bringing with it a sense of dread. Hard lines, strict rules, high expectations. Get. with. the. program.


 Is that a father?


 Is that God?


Back in 2019, a full  38 years after “getting saved” or “turning my life over to the Lord” or whatever you want to call the spiritual experience I had the summer of 1981, well by that fall of 2019 I was ready to toss God and everything associated with him out the window. I was so disillusioned by what I had seen and experienced by people and institutions claiming to represent God that I just couldn’t hack it any more. I couldn’t read the Bible without a pounding heart and a wave of nausea. God, his word, his law, his authority, had been used to beat me up and pummel me into submission. Who would want to have anything to do with a God like that? I felt like I was falling off the cliff of belief. It was my Dark Night of the Soul. 


But for some reason I started reading Jesus. And I took note. What he did. What he said. What he didn’t do. What he didn’t say. I was scared at first because I was terrified that Jesus would turn out to be just like those who had been in spiritual authority over me but who only ignored me or corrected me or told me I was never good enough and I wasn’t doing it, whatever “it” was, right. I braced myself. 


What I found was Someone entirely different. 


In Luke 6: I read a story about Jesus and his disciples walking through a field on the Sabbath and his hungry disciples picked the grain and ate. It made the religious guys mad. I read how a man with a withered hand showed up at the temple and Jesus healed his hand, again on the Sabbath. It made the religious guys madder. I read how Jesus responded, as so often he does, with a question: “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” I saw that this Jesus  wasn’t seeing rules. He was seeing people. It was the people with their needs that were so important to him. 


In Matthew 23-I read about Jesus taking the religious elite to town. 

“They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” He goes on and on, verse after verse, taking down the religious performance of the Pharisees and the horrific impact it can have on others. “You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” This Jesus knew a thing or two about religious elitism and abuse and it made him very, very angry. This Jesus gets it. 


In Matthew 19: I read how the people brought their children to Jesus and he welcomed them without chastising them, lecturing them, catechizing them, training them, correcting them, making them chore charts, or shaming them. When his disciples wanted to chase them away, Jesus said, NO! "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." I saw that this Jesus valued children who could do nothing for him. He valued them as they were in all their developmental immaturity and messiness. 


In Luke 10: I read about a man who was robbed and beat up and left on the side of the road. And the “good and holy and right” men were the ones who left this wounded man in the dust (some of y’all know what THAT’S like) and it was the foreigner, the one who was less than, the one who was seen as dirty and unworthy, who shows his heart and his care for others. He is the hero of the story. This Jesus cared less about status and knowledge than empathy and compassion. 


In Matthew 9: I read about a woman who had bled for 12 years and was beyond help. She reached out and touched the garment of Jesus and he turned to her. He didn’t berate her. He didn’t ignore her. He spoke to her and healed her. He even called her “daughter..” Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” 


He saw her. He saw so MANY who needed healing. They were invisible to everyone else. They were dirty to everyone else. They were full of shame, heaped on them by everyone else. But this Jesus saw. And healed.



In Luke 7- I read about a woman who showed up at a dinner uninvited. Not only was she a woman (not exactly one to be valued in his circles or, for that matter, in some of ours either), she wasn’t exactly Miss Pious Polly Perfect either. But she washed his feet with her tears and poured out an entire jar of perfume and the religious guy got all uppity about it and Jesus honored her while the religious elite condemned her. He saw her actions as beautiful and a reflection of her heart. He did not shame her. He did not condemn her. He did not tell her that she needed to “repent” the “right” way and jump through their hoops. This Jesus accepted her, forgave her. 


In John 11-I read how Lazarus died and his sisters, Mary and Martha, in their grief and  despair, both lob accusations against Jesus. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” He didn’t  wag his finger at them for having little faith. He didn’t  berate them for telling him where he should have been. He didn’t admonish them for their tone of voice, “Watch your tone of voice with me, young lady!” This Jesus wept. He wept. He joined them in their grief…and wept. 


AND 


In Luke 15-


I read about a son who did everything wrong. And hit rock bottom. And at his rock bottomness decided to return to his father, in hunger and shame, not knowing what to expect. I did NOT read about a father who stood aloof with his arms crossed waiting for his son to prove himself and pay back all that he squandered. I did NOT read about a father who said to him, “You are dead to me.” I did NOT read about a father who gave his son the silent treatment or lashed out in anger. I read about a father who saw his son returning (had he been watching for him? I think maybe he had), had COMPASSION ON HIM, ran…RAN to his son, and embraced him. I read about unconditional love at its finest. I read about a father that is not interested in power and control and authority, but love and compassion and relationship. 


And I fell in love with THIS…THIS Jesus. 


But even then: 


Jesus=good

God the Father=scary


But somewhere along the way, a strange thing happened. I heard words in my head. Not an audible voice (don’t y’all worry), but I heard them nonetheless. They were Jesus’s words from John 14:9: 


Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. 



Did y’all catch that?


Jesus says ANYONE WHO HAS SEEN ME HAS SEEN THE FATHER.



If you have seen me…the one who has compassion, the one who sees the invisible, the one who heals the sick and restores the sight to the blind regardless of WHETHER OR NOT THEY HAVE EARNED IT. The one who welcomes the small children (without lecturing them on their behavior or asking if they’ve made their beds first and memorized their catechism)  and says that the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them. The one who rips into the false piety of the religious elite and then eats with sinners. The one who sees women, welcomes women, entrusts women. The one who cares  more about people than the institutions they are part of. Do you see?


Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father


Whereas your father may have been harsh, Jesus is gentle. 

Whereas your father may have been cruel, Jesus is kind.

Whereas your father may have been a tyrant, Jesus is a servant.

Whereas your father may have laid heavy burdens on your back, Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light. 

Whereas your father may have ignored you, Jesus sees you, even in a crowd.   

Whereas your father may have left, Jesus walked among us, he came to us as Emmanuel, God With Us. And is still here with us by giving us the Holy Spirit.



Hebrews 1:3 says, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being..”


If we want to know what God the father is like, we need to look no further than Jesus. 



What now?  


Know this: If you have had a bad experience with your father, you are not alone. And you aren’t the problem, even though it may feel like you are. You can grieve and mourn the father you didn’t have and the one you did. You can grieve the hole that was never filled and the scars left from harsh hands or harsh words. God knows it is hard for you. He grieves with you.


Know this: If you had a great relationship with your father, you can embrace this gift and show sensitivity to those who do not and who do not even have a category in their heads for God as a good father. You can understand the impact of this complex relationship and tread tenderly there. 


Know this: If you ARE a father, you can be aware of the cultural expectations of fatherhood. Especially the ones that force you to be someone God didn’t create you to be in order to whip your family into shape. Extrabiblical mandates are a burden you and your children were never meant to bear. 


And know this: If you are a father and despair at this point that you have failed your children,  you can ask God to show you how to make it right, how to bring healing to your children. If that is not possible, through estrangement or death, please know that God is a God of mercy. You can pour out your heart to him and allow him to be YOUR gracious father. He can also do the seemingly impossible. 


And for us as a church, we can understand that we can be a place of safety and vessels of healing for people who have known deep pain. We can be for each other what we didn’t have as children. We can give and receive that unconditional, incarnational love that fathers should have given. Healing may not come quickly, but it can come by dropperfuls of grace and mercy.


A few weeks ago in our small group Shawn Stewart was talking about his adult children and I heard these words come out of his mouth: “I think I need to be really tender with my kids right now.” My head exploded. You don’t hear this. You don’t hear fathers talking about being tender. And yet Jesus was so, so tender. 


Shawn’s words were a very concrete reminder to me that, like Henri Nouwen said, “fatherhood is not about power and control but about love and compassion.” 



  









Monday, May 30, 2022

A Punch to the Gut

April 2022. I was in my hometown. As we drove past the Episcopal church where I grew up, my sister commented on how large that congregation had become. My response was a kneejerk, "Of course. People tend to flee to the Episcopal church when they have been beat up by evangelical one." To which my sister replied, "That's what Mama did."

It was a punch to the gut. My heart broke open.

Let's back up a bit.

My mother grew up in the First Baptist Church of our mid-sized southern city. She was beat up by the cliquishness, the snobbery, the judgment she met there. She fled to the Episcopal church in college, finding a way to connect with God without the self-righteous trappings of her childhood church. Throughout the years she was the target of many of the neighbors (complete with "I Found It" bumper stickers), all wanting to evangelize her and see her get saved. Again, the evangelicals came to beat her up.

I grew up in the Episcopal church. When I "got saved" or "accepted Jesus" or "became a Christian" or whatever phrase you prefer to use, I was 17. It was all new to me. I plunged headlong into evangelicalism: Campus Crusade for Christ, Southern Baptist Church, then the PCA. For decades. Until I realized that I, too, had been beat up by the evangelical church.
Starting in my late teens and ending when I was 45 and my mother died, I held myself to be superior to her in her theology, in her doctrine, in her understanding of scripture and how that played out. Wen I realized what I had done, it just broke me.
For the past 7 years I have been dismantling, untangling, deconstructing what it means to believe in Jesus and what the church is called to be. I have been on the receiving end of both covert and overt spiritual abuse. I have read the books and listened to the podcasts and even been interviewed on podcasts for my perspective and experience. I have been outspoken against spiritual abuse in all its forms.
And yet that day in April, I realized that I had been an abuser.

Do you know what it does to you to realize that in your desperate need for space and identity, you have abused someone else? When you realize that you caved to the pressure to evangelize your family? You bought the lie that your church's way of expressing faith in God was the only possible manifestation of belief? When you reflected in disgust that "right" theology was better than living without judgment?

It's a crazy balance to strike. My mother was so insecure that anybody who did anything differently was a threat. Disagreeing was taboo. Differentiating, become my own person, was a challenge. Being who I was created to be and not just an extension of her or her "prized possession" (if she was happy with me) was a long and arduous journey full of minefields and pitfalls.

Was she, in many ways, emotionally and verbally abusive? Yes.
Did she look to me to meet her emotional needs? Yes.
Did I need to break away and develop my own personhood and my own idendity? Yes.
Was it hard when she felt threatened by my leaving her church? Yes.
Did I have emotional baggage with her choice for expressing her faith? Of course!
But did I need to establish my beliefs and church choices as superior to hers? Absolutely not!

A few years ago we housed a few college students for a few days while they were in Asheville as part of a church trip. One evening they all started talking about their challenges of evangelizing their families. It was clear that they no longer saw their family members as people but projects. Inferior in many ways. And it was their job to convert them. I felt sick.

When relationships, the most precious thing we have, the thing we were created for, become weaponized, spiritually monetized in a way, we are no longer loving like Jesus.
How many overzealous college students or arrogant theologians have damaged, sometimes irreparably, relationships that should never be part of an agenda? Is it possible to be Jesus to people without having to convert them or fix them or stuff them into a box?
I don't know if any of y'all have ever come to the realization that you have at times been the things you hate most. It was a horrifying, sobering realization for me.

Please know that if your point of interacting with your family is to convince them that you are right, that your flavor of faith expression is better than theirs, that, in order to have your approval, they have to jump through all the right hoops, then you are pushing them farther away from God, not bringing them closer.

What can you do?

You can avoid categorizing people based on whether or not they agree with your set of presuppositions.

You can seek to love people without an agenda.

My mother's gone now. She died 13 years ago this month. I can't go back and say I'm sorry.

What I can do is fall on my face before God and ask for forgiveness.



Monday, May 23, 2022

Trauma Informed

I mentioned in a post yesterday that it is time for all churches: pastors, leaders, even the congregation, to become trauma informed. As Diane Langberg says, "Trauma is the mission field of our time." 

A friend rightly expressed concern. It is very easy for the traumatized person to be looked down on. Seen as inferior. Broken. Someone to be fixed. This dynamic in itself is retraumatizing. So I need to explain a little more what I mean.

The healing of trauma never comes by way of being yet another person's project. That is dehumanizing and only reinforces the impact of trauma: the loss of power, the loss of control, the loss of voice, and often the loss of connection. To truly come alongside those who have trauma means to listen, listen, listen and learn from them. To give them the voice they had taken from them. To empower them to make decisions about their life. To give them the agency to know what they need and move forward. To enter into their journey so that they know they are not alone. 

To me, trauma informed means that these leaders DO NOT treat someone with a history of trauma as a project. Nor do they treat any effects of trauma as sin or some spiritual problem, such as a lack of prayer or faith in God. To be trauma informed means to have at least a bit of a grasp on how incredibly complex the human brain is and how it records traumatic events or toxic relationships and development deprived of oxygen of love and acceptance.
A truly trauma informed person will not view the traumatized as a someone to be fixed but as a miracle that has made it this far. And will recognize that healing comes little by little, step by step, over a lifetime.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Church Planting 101

If I could train church planters, this is what I would teach them: 


-Learn to listen to people. Listen more than you talk. Listen to understand, not to respond.


-Listen to the stories of people who have suffered. Listen to the stories of people who have suffered at the hands of the church. This is your training ground. 

 

-Talk to people who have lived in the city for a long time. Talk to those who have regular contact with unbelievers. Talk to those who know the lay of the land regarding churches. Talk to those who have a handle on what people really need rather than coming in with your own assumptions. 


-You are planting a church. Get a clear idea of what a church is. This is not a missions organization. This is not a soccer team. This is not a seminary. This is not the army. This is a church. A church is for the care of the believers. The church is the hospital. If you dash out of the gate to rake in large numbers of unbelievers without having established a church, you are courting disaster. It is like running to the battlefield and dragging the injured to the site where you plan on building a hospital some day. It does them no good. Think of how you are going to care for all those people who you want coming in your doors. If you haven’t a clue, then stop what you are doing and become equipped. 


-Know what you can and can’t offer. Know the local resources. The homeless shelter. The domestic violence organizations. The substance abuse programs. The mental health resources. 


-It does way too much damage for someone with needs, be they spiritual or physical or emotional, to come to the church in hopes of finding care, only to discover that the church has no idea whatsoever how to help you and they may even think that isn’t their job. People's needs don't get in the way of ministry. They ARE ministry. 


-Beware of false advertising. Don’t tell people all the things the church will do for them and be for them once they are a member and then not follow through. 


-Because all of your pastors and church planters and elders are men, take special care to focus on the needs of the women. It is natural for men to be more comfortable with other men. And I know you are cautioned out the wazoo about not being in compromising situations with the opposite sex. But you have to understand that all this discomfort and all this caution, in practical language, means that women are not getting the attention and pastoral care that they should. They are also not being heard and their wisdom is not being mined the way it should. If you feel you must have another person with you when you meet with a woman, make sure you still focus on her and not the other person. If you meet with a couple, don’t just talk to the man. 


-Be careful with your authority. Be careful with how you leverage it. You are not their ruler. You are their pastor. Their shepherd. Their servant. 


-Welcome questions. Know that you don’t know everything and take the posture of a learner. 


-Learn to take feedback without becoming defensive.


-Don’t be afraid of people who have had bad church experiences. These people aren’t the enemy. They very well may have learned a good deal about what makes and breaks a church. Learn from them. 


-Be careful that you don’t treat those in your congregation like cogs in the wheel. Their value is not in their production. Their value is in being created in the image of God. 


-Watch out for numbers. Any time you put a numerical goal on your ministry, you turn people into products. 


-While I am sure that you are all well versed in theology, do a deep dive into the issues that impact the lives of your people. Become trauma informed. Learn the dynamics of abuse. Know the difference between a hard marriage and a destructive one. Don’t assume all struggles are “just a sin problem.” 


-Let your people have their time together. Do not try to impose an agenda on every get together. “Just hanging out” is important, especially in a culture where people are so separated from one another while working from home, etc. That building of community is important. Even if they aren’t reading the Bible every time. Even if they aren’t praying every time. Being together while not performing or being evaluated is holy ground. People desperately need it. 


-Respect people’s opinions. 


-Be careful about imposing templates on things because it is easier. People don’t fit always fit  inside the cookie cutter. A cookie cutter approach can sever important limbs. 


-If you feel you need to bring the hammer down on the congregation, do it gently and do it in a place other than the worship service. Nobody is going to want to bring an unbeliever to church if they never know when they are going to get slammed by the pastor in a sermon. 


-Know your audience. Prepackaged sermons can do tremendous damage in the wrong context. 


-Watch out for the game plan. God’s agenda may be different than yours. It’s ok to be feeling the way along as you go. 


-If your church is to be congregationally governed, then let the congregation do some governing. Beware of wanting to have complete control of everything. 


-Seek out the marginalized. It might be tempting to draw only those like you and cool into your inner circle but you can learn a lot from those who get left out. Jesus is there with them. 


-Before you jump into ministry, deal with your own junk. Know yourself, your bent, your personality, your insecurities. Deal with your past. Address any trauma. I think anybody who is going to do important Kingdom work should spend some time in therapy with a licensed professional counselor. Consider having a psychological evaluation. Know this: your unaddressed past will affect your ministry.


Monday, May 2, 2022

Communion

For a while we had something beautiful. 

Every single week a small group of us from church met together. We alternated weeks being out somewhere, such as trivia night at a brewery, with meeting for dinner in someone's home. Yes, we might have spiritual discussions and yes, we did frequently share concerns and needs for prayer and, yes, we did often pray together, but the focus was on our relationships. Intentional community, it was called. 

This group of people became my lifeline, my family of sorts, my refuge during some terribly hard years. I lived for Tuesday evenings when I knew I could show up and be me in whatever mess I was in. And they knew I was there for them. Always. And outside of Tuesdays we still got together for hiking and game nights and such. Life together. It was the closest thing I had ever experienced up to that point to what I think true fellowship looks like. 

A new pastor came along and changed things up. He brought an agenda. Each week became a specific Bible study with questions and answers and asking one another spiritual questions about sin and repentance. The tone changed. The atmosphere changed. The streams of living water dried up and I was faced with a desert of spiritual expectations and forced piety. When we questioned the changes the leader of the group asked, "But don't you love the Word?" The pastor blasted us in a sermon, proclaiming we were to "say no to casualness of faith...just hanging out and doing things together because it makes us feel good." He told my husband that the change was not up for discussion. Drop it.

And like that, just like that, what had been so very beautfiful to me was gone. This all happened amid a growing concern over other serious issues and I quit attending church. And then we left the church altogether. Another story for another time.

I was left to grieve and grieve deeply what I had lost. And yet there was a hefty heap of shame on top of it all. Why was the transition from hanging out and loving one another to a structured spiritual time together so hard for me? Did I "love the Word?" Or didn't I? 

I had always longed for a sense of community and felt oh, so bad for wanting it. In church cultures where deep dives into theology or telling "the lost" about Jesus were the true marks of a heart after God, my hunger for connection was seen as avoiding the hard truth that Jesus should be all I need. 

Why was the loss of this little community so devastating to me? When reading Krispin Mayfield's book, Attached to God, I found my answer. 

And rather than try to cut and paste bits and pieces, I'm going to share most of the entire section:

Therapist Francis Broucek worked with many clients in families where the mode of relationship was to meet a parent's strict standard. This created a sense of self that put value in the person's performance. He found that in the most important relationships, where "a connection should be, there is only the experience of being evaluated or evaluating oneself." It doesn't always have to be negative judgment, but that every interaction was based on how the child was peforming, how they were doing, rather than the parent coming close for closeness' sake. For these clients, the relationship was all assessment, absent of true connection. 

For many of us, this mirrors the spiritual tradition we've been given. Most facets of religious life have been about determining whether you are following God in the right ways. How close are you? What are you supposed to be doing next? Are you growing--or backsliding? What is God trying to teach you right now?

,,,Broucek found that this same prompting between parents and children created shame. It's not surprising since in the absense of connection. we begin to conclude that the disconnect is because there is something repulsive about us. The more we continue to focus on our performance and progress, the more we feel shame. When we believe that shame is due to sin, then we try to get it right--or confess our way out of shame. But if we're going to heal from shame, we need relationships that go beyond evaluation. 

As Broucek reflected on our need for a connection that creates sanctuary in a world of evaluation, he thought about the importance of interactions that aren't rooted in evaluation, assessment, standards, or measuring up. Searching for a word to describe a relationship that is nonevaluative, he decided simply to call this kind of connection "communion." 

Communion. That is what I had. That is what I lost when the template of spiritual performance and evaluation was slammed down on a precious group of people. 

Mayfield had started this section of the book by saying that in order to understand our belovedness, we need to experience it. We need to be able to connect with God and with people minus the constant state of evaluation and performance. 

Some of my friends and I have a regular conversation that goes something like this: "Why are friendships with church people so much harder and more awkward?" I think this explains so much. We have been somehow convinced that our own connection to God is dependent on our performance and part of our performance is policing the performance of those around us. Thus we admonish and exhort and chide, we goad and sharpen, we lob scripture bombs, and often suffocate with the silence of disapproval. But we don't listen. We don't treat one another with respect. We don't necessarily treat one another as beloved. We don't believe that connecting for the sake of connecting is beautiful in and of itself.  

(True admonishment and exhortation, when necessary, should only come in the context of strong connection and community. Otherwise it does way more damage that good.)

Why was I so grief-stricken? I had lost communion. I had lost communion in the name of God. 

I know my processing of this has been long and rambling but it now makes so much sense to me. Reading this short passage in a very excellent book (I highly recommend reading it) proved to be lightbulb moment in my understanding of my hunger for connection, community, communion. It helped me understand my grief and why that loss was so very profound. And it helps me know what I, what we all, really need. 




Monday, March 14, 2022

Tender Parts

I was born with wonky knees that make them more vulnerable to injury. There are certain activities that I just can't do. I've learned to manage. But 7 years ago I was walking across the yard, minding my own business when my left knee was t-boned by a couple of roughhousing dogs. My knee traveled east while the rest of me was still headed north. With great pain and gnashing of teeth I hobbled into to the orthopedic walk-in clinic (poorly named, I say) and commenced on a months long journey to recovery, which ultimately included surgery to "clean up the mess." My knee has never been the same.

Oh, sure. I can do most things as before, but at times of excessive use or undue stress or maybe just the weather, my knee will again give me fits. It seems to be even more vulnerable to knee injury. More in need of care. There are times I hate my knee. It makes me feel weak. Old. Limited. Right now it is even a bit swollen. I know it needs an extra level of care, more physical therapy, and maybe more intervention. The way my knee was created coupled with the past injury mean that my left knee may never be as whole as my right. There may always be times when I hurt. Or limp. 

My insides aren't so different. I was created a bit wonky. Perhaps more sensitve than most. More prone to anxiety, depression, and the fluctuations of the emotional weather. More vulnerable to injury. And during times of emotional heavy lifting or undue stress, I feel the weight of the world and the weight of my own insecurities and insufficiencies all the more keenly. And even though I have done hard work toward healing, sometimes the pain comes through. I suppose there may always be times when I hurt. Or limp. 

I know that healing never goes in a straight line or trajectory of success upon success. I know that the road forward can be sickening because, like Interstate 40 through the Pigeon River Gorge, you can be headed eastbound and find yourself facing west and south and north on a dizzying ride that is anything but linear. 

I know that life is less like an escalater and more like a spiral staircase, where you pass by the same things over and over again, each time, hopefully, with more wisdom and insight than before.

But sometimes when you touch on those tender spots again...and again...and yet again...it still hurts.

Recently those tender spots have been screaming out. Those old insecurities, so imbedded in my story, have been gone over with a neon colored hilighter, so bright I need a pair of sunglasses. Why? I don't know. Exhaustion? Overuse? 

I'm comparing my knee to someone else's. I'm comparing my skills, my competence, my strength, my backbone, my energy, everything about who I am and my value in this world...

As I write this, my knee throbs. I know it needs extra care. My insides throb as well. May I give them the tenderness and attention that I give my knee. 


Monday, January 24, 2022

Emotions At Play

 A while back I needed to write a letter to a group of men detailing my concerns about a serious matter. My husband read it and then suggested removing the emotion. "Only the facts," he said. "They won’t be able to hear you for the emotion," he said. "They won’t take you seriously." Sigh. 


A few years ago I was part of a group pulling together questions for a congregational survey. Many of my questions were “Do you feel…” They were changed. Changed to “Do you think…” There was clearly a discomfort with feeling. It was not of significance. Not to be trusted. Feelings were not valid. They didn't matter. 

There are some crazy ideas out there. The most recent articulation of one of those crazy ideas comes from a guy named Bnonn Tennant who seems to have hit the mother lode of crazy ideas. Here is what he says:

 "Scripture says women are not to teach, and it is because women can be a lot more gullible and a lot more prone to being swayed by feelings of others or swayed by feelings of themselves."

 

Oh, REALLY? 

I have seen the very people who rail against emotion stand up in anger and berate others. I have seen them jump to defensiveness, cower in fear, explode in outrage.

The problem isn’t emotions. The problem is not recognizing emotions at play.

Fifteen years ago I had a real estate client who was eager to move his family to Asheville from a different state. This man was a highly successful in his line of work and even boasted of the celebrities in his neighborhood. He let me know how much his house was worth (over $2 million) but that his expectation was to get a house for about a third of that value in Asheville (isn’t this always the case?).

After looking at so many houses (my record of 24 in one day), he was exasperated and understandably so. The housing stock and topography around here make for so many more variables when house hunting.

Him: “How does anybody ever make a decision?”

Me: “Well, sometimes you just fall in love with a house.”

Him: “You are clearly not used to working with as savvy of a buyer as I am. I NEVER allow emotions to get in the way of my business decisions.”

Well, he didn’t fall in love with a house. But his wife did. I mean REALLY did.

This house was priced well under what he expected to spend and so he made an offer. A low one. And the negotiations went back and forth a number of times, each time with him moving an inch when he easily could have afforded to move several feet. I was baffled. It met all the criteria. It was a great deal, even a great business deal. And his wife and daughter loved it. And after one round of negotiations I questioned what was going on. He replied, "You don't understand. I just can't let him win." 

Hmmmm. And you don't let any emotions color your business decisions? 

He moved on. We looked at close to 70 houses. He made offers on several other houses but would never agree to any terms. 

After four months of working with this man the truth finally came out. He was not ready to make the move. It felt too much like retirement for him. It made him feel old. 

I don't know if he ever caught on to the irony of his comment. From where I sat I could see his emotions playing into an awful lot of his decisions. 

We all have emotions that impact us. And that is a good thing. Emotions can tell us a lot about ourselves and what is going on our lives. Emotions are like the dashboard lights on our cars. We best pay attention. 

Emotions aren't a bad thing. They do not hurt us. But refusing to acknowledge when they are at play, well that can do a tremendous amount of harm.