Thursday, October 20, 2022

Trauma and the Empathetic Witness

We all hear a lot about trauma these days. It seems to be a sort of buzz word, perhaps becoming so common as to lose its meaning. And yet we are hearing about trauma for a reason. Science is catching up to what so many of us know: that an event or series of events so painful and so profound can change us and even cripple us, sometimes for life. 

There are different kinds of trauma. There is what I've heard called the "big T" trauma: the natural disaster, horrific warfare, the unthinkable catastrophe that comes out of left field. That is what most people think of when they think of trauma. And those events certainly fit the bill. PTSD is very real. 

And yet there is a different kind of trauma. I've heard it called the "little t" trauma. Sometimes it is  developmental trauma. Sometimes it relational trauma. They call what follows complex-ptsd or c-ptsd. And complex it is.  

So why do some people cruise through hard events with nary a scratch and others wrestle with the intense mental and emotional and even physical pain and disability for years...or a lifetime? Especially when it comes to the "little t" trauma, what make trauma...well...trauma? 

"Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness." 

When I first read this quote from Peter Levine then it all made sense.  It is the "in the absence of an empathetic witness" that is, to me, the most crucial point. It certainly has been in my life. When I think of the hard things in my life, the most painful events by far, especially in my childhood, happened when I was utterly and completely alone. There was nobody to turn to. Absolutely nobody. Even now when I try to describe those times, the pain can take my breath away. 

I think that some types of family dysfunction are so much more damaging than others because some things are absolutely isolating. There is nobody to turn to. 

Let's look at the Adverse Childhood Experiences, the ten traumatic experiences measured the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Study, what do you have? 

-Abuse: verbal and emotional, physical, sexual

-Neglect: emotional, physical

-Separation or divorce of parents

-Domestic abuse of mother

-Mental illness of household member

-Substance abuse of household member

-Incarceration of household member

Abuse within the family is isolating. Neglect within a family is isolating. Nobody talks about it. If the abuse or neglect isn't physical, nobody even recognizes it as abuse. You are alone.

If there is a death in the family everybody comes running (unless it is a suicide, of course). If there is a divorce people turn the other way, or worse, point fingers. The child is left to navigate these waters of loss or change alone. 

Substance abuse within the family is a hush hush situation, especially among the tidier in society.

And then there are the horrific secrets of sexual abuse...
And if you get the courage to tell someone and are met with unbelief or blame, all hope of an empathetic witness is gone.

While all of this is tragic, the worst part is that the church can compound it all, by ignoring the wound, by not recognizing the intense internal injury, by minmizing the pain, or blaming it all on your sin, thus compounding the trauma and leaving you to believe that not even God is an empathetic witness.

Far too many of us have had the opposite reaction. When we disclose our stories we are met with the silence of disinterest, discomfort, disbelief, or disapproval. Or we are chastised, exhorted to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, lose the "victim mentality," and repent of our sin. There is no way to quantify the damage this response does. Not only is this a cruel response, it is a horrific representation of the character of God. 

I recently finished the book Trauma in the Pews by Janyne McConnaughey. For the first time I understood why church has been so hard for me. (I would recommend anybody and everybody who goes to church to read this book.) One of the things she points out is how absolutely essential it is for church to be a safe place to tell our stories, stories that perhaps never before had an empathetic witness. 

McConnaughey says:

The litmus test for trauma-responsive faith communities is how leaders and laypeople respond to the vulnerable sharing of trauma.  

So what can we do? We can listen to people as they share the hard, hard things in their lives. We can listen and learn. Listen and weep. Listen and connect. Listen and affirm. Listen and validate their pain. Listen and see. We can be a village of empathetic witnesses. 

Thursday, September 15, 2022


It never ceases to amaze me how drawn we are to measuring life by the numbers. Not just measuring life but measuring our quality of life. Measuring our success. Measuring our worth.

But quality and quantity are not the same thing. 

But we measure nonetheless. We are so drawn to it, sometimes helplessly so, like starving ants to a picnic full of sugary goodness. 

We look at the numbers, longing for them to validate our existence on the planet. Our worth in comparison to everyone else. Because we are convinced that we are not enough. 

So we measure.

The miles we run. 

The trails we hike.

The pounds we lift.

The pounds we weigh.

The number of wins.

The number of sales.

The number in our bank accounts.

The number of children we have.

Even the number of souls we save. 

Because we really do think that our worth can be defined by the numbers. 

And it is a lie from the pit of hell. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Ginny Unleashed

Every so often somebody says something that turns your life upside down...or right-side up. The words are so powerful that you remember exactly when it was and where you were and what you were doing when you heard them. 

It was last week. I was in the basement. I was painting. 

I was listening to the Uncertain Podcast with Katherine Spearing (Hi, Katherine!). She interviews Polly and Bob Hamp and they are talking about abuse and trauma and they basically say this: "Freedom is not about the control of behavior but the unleashing of identity. The beautiful thing inside of you isn’t only to be embraced but also unleashed. The world needs that from you. The world needs what you specifically have inside. If you don’t embrace it then you can’t unleash it." 

The world needs what you specifically have inside.

Wait, what?

There is something inside of me that I should embrace?

There's something inside of me that should be unleashed?

There's something inside of me that the world needs?

This concept rocked my world. It literally took my breath away.

I have always been taught that all that is in me is wrong. Or bad. Or sinful, even. I have always felt that perhaps I shouldn't exist after all. At least not in my current form. 

It has been so easy for me to absorb the messages. The "Why can't you be like ______?"

From early on I was the Bounty Quicker Picker Upper of the "shoulds," from who I should be as a daughter and a student and a friend and a wife and a mother  and a professional and a Christian. Everywhere I turned the pressure was there to be someone I was not. Someone I am not. 

Perhaps if I can do more, try harder, perform better. Perhaps if I could be less sensitive, less emotional, less opinionated, less exhausted, less vulnerable. Perhaps if I could be more organized, more amitious, more driven, more intelligent, more competent, more upbeat...more "godly", more victorious, more confident, more resilient, more healed. 

Perhaps if I could be someone else. 

It never occurred to me that I should not only embrace who I am (ok, kind of keeping it to myself)  but that I am to unleash who I am.  And why? Because the world needs it. The world needs who I am? The world The world needs...ME! 

How is it that I am almost 59 years old and I am just hearing this? Never mind. What matters is that I am hearing it. 

I want to embrace. I want to unleash. I want to believe that the world needs what I specifically have inside. Even if it is unconventional. Even if it's messy. Because it's beautiful. 

Get ready, world. Get ready to meet Ginny Unleashed. 😃


Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Stick Figure

I just finished Stick Figure by Lori Gottlieb. It took me all of two days. It is written with the words from the author's own diary from 1978, when she was 11 years-old, and chronicles the development and details of her eating disorder and it hit way too close to home. But it was also an incredible reminder. A reminder of just how hard it is to be a girl at that age. A reminder of just how powerful the messages are that we send each other. A reminder of the incredibly powerful hold that diet culture has on females. A reminder that things really haven't changed all that much in 45 years.

I remember it all. I remember the message that being fat was the worst possible thing that could ever happen to you. I remember the shelves of diet books in our home. I remember the ways we would compare if our legs touched at the tops or our collarbones stuck out. I remember when our weight was on our drivers license and the heavier among us, or even just the self conscious, would scribble out the weight with a pen. I remember comparing waist sizes on our Levis. I remember EVERYONE wanting to be thin. I remember finally losing weight and getting the thin body people always wanted and finally, finally, FINALLY I was good at something.

And I remember the fear. The intense fear that no matter how much weight I lost, I needed to lose just a little bit more in order to have a "buffer." I remember the horror of gaining a pound, which meant that I was blowing up, uncontrollably, and my life as I knew it was over and I would be one of those sad, fat women who nobody loved.

I remember being so stuck and so hopeless. This book brought it all back.

It has been 41 years since I hit bottom. I never, ever, ever want to enter that hell again.

So when you see me pushing back...pushing back on the diet culture and the fitness culture (because nobody wants to admit to dieting to be thin any more), it is because I remember. I refuse to jump on any bandwagon, be it the organic one or the keto one or the intermittent fasting one or the vegan one or the "sugar is poison" one (it is also delicsious). I refuse to go with the special supplements that will fix all my ills except for those of my bank account (they are always super expensive).

The reality is that the horrific diet culture of my teens is still out there. It has just grown up. Now I go to the menopause support group on Facebook where I think I can find camaraderie for my achy joints and my saggy skin and the fact that I am indeed a brainless wonder with no ability to remember anything whatsoever and, while I do find some comfort with my menopausal travel companions, I also find an awful lot of women pushing their solutions to weight gain with "before" and "after" photos and descriptions of their insane personal training agendas and I am 14 all over again. And I.WON'T.GO.BACK.THERE.AGAIN.

Listen, people. The messages out there that say that you won't amount to anything unless you attain a certain body size and shape are just toxic. Yes, I know it is important to be healthy. But you can be healthy in a lot of different sizes and a lot of different ways and what good is a rock hard, super fit, thin body if your life is consumed with what you eat and how much you move? (I have to say this because I always get pushback from people who think I am encouraging them to "just be fat and not try.")

Eating disorders are real. Body dysmorphia is real. Exercise obsessions are real. And they can all be horribly destructive. They can literally suck the life right out of you.

I am staring 59 in the face and weigh the most I have in 35 years and that's ok (even though every article tells me how I have to stave off menopausal weight gain). But sometimes I have to revisit my former self to remember just how ok I am now. There is nothing out there worth the obsession over weight or diet or exercise.

And there is a lot to be gained (pun intended) in letting it go.

Friday, July 15, 2022

On Comparison


I have heard over and over ad nauseaum that it is bad to compare yourself to other people. Bummer! It's the one thing I'm good at. (Somehow the other person is always prettier, smarter, fitter, wiser, kinder, tougher, more talented or gifted, more successful, etc.)
Anyhow...apparently comparing yourself to other people can result in all kinds of discontent and discouragement. We go to some nasty places when we compare, typically either arrogance or despair. (Despair is my forte.)
This afternoon I stood and watched the end-of-the-week ceremony for my granddaughter at her day camp and sure enough, here come the awards. Really, all they had was one award for each group. The Christlikeness Award. (Sigh.)
At first I didn't even know what to do with that. The traits that were mentioned were not necessarily traits that I connect with Christlikeness but traits that are more likely from inborn temperament plus brain wiring. The jumping bean with ADHD doesn't have a chance against the highly compliant "good girl," no matter what the conditions of each one's heart.
That led me to thinking about just how problematic award ceremonies are. I know, I know, everybody rails against "participation trophies" and how we are rewarding mediocrity but seriously, people, not everybody can be the best. Not everybody was created to be the best. And when we build an entire childhood rewarding being the best how the hell are we not supposed to turn into adults who are forever comparing ourselves to each other?
The Bible talks about the "lesser members" being all the more important. We know that our body parts that don't get a lot of fanfare are absolutely essential. And yet we develop the young of our species telling them that only one of them is the best. And only one of them gets the recognition. And only one of them is worthy of being celebrated.
It sucks.
What if instead of measuring each kid against the other we found something beautiful in each kid and encouraged it? One kid might be encouraged for her kindness, another for her generosity. One for his courage, another for his gentleness. Not only will kids no longer be pitted against one another to be the winner but they will perhaps start looking for the beauty in each other.
And maybe when they grow up they won't strut with arrogance or wallow in despair because comparing won't be on the radar. Beauty will be.

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. 


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: 


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?


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.