(You can read all of this week's stories of lament here.)
Jesus gave us a litany of last words as a Sufferer; we refer to them as the Seven Last Words of Christ. The deathbed words of the Suffering Servant provide a framework for the stories of lament I'll be sharing here this Holy Week.
I'm grateful to the writers of the mourning stories on the blog this week. Their words and courage have helped form me in my understanding of suffering. On this Holy Saturday, as we wait what sometimes feels like an especially long day for the release of resurrection, I've chosen to share in more detail some of my own story. I first shared these words six years ago at a Good Friday service in our church in Austin. While I'd shared often in confidential prayer and teaching sessions and with individual friends, that service was the most public setting I'd chosen many of these details. I've also referred to everything you'll read here at one time or another on the blog, but today's post puts things more plainly and is, by far, the most public sharing I've ever done. It's possible that I've been writing this blog for twelve years just so I could get the courage to share today's story. I'm understandably nervous.
I hope only that the words of my story will encourage you to turn toward the Christ who lived, died, and was buried in order to take the place of every single sin you've ever committed and every single sin that's ever been committed against you. Only He can fully bear that weight, but in his mercy he allows us to help bear each other toward the cross. Like so many other of my friends, church community, and family members, each person who's told their story here earlier this week has, by their courage and humility, acted as a fellow burden bearer. I hope you'll take comfort, not only in these online witnesses to suffering, but even more in the community around you. May you seek and find fellow burden bearers to walk walk with you toward the tomb today.
I was born 9 months and four days after my parents were married, my father an associate pastor in a tiny church in the Adirondack mountains of northern New York state. A few years later, after a short stint in a Washington, D.C. ministry role, we moved back to my father’s hometown where he took a job as a youth pastor in his home church, an old church in a very conservative denomination. It was during the years we lived in the downstairs apartment of the missionary house adjacent to the church parking lot that I prayed a prayer one night before bed that Jesus would come into my heart and save me. It was during these years -- somewhere between my second and fifth birthdays -- that I was sexually abused by a man my family should have been able to trust.
Soon I had a little brother and a little sister and my parents wanted to move us to a house with a yard. They chose a developing suburb in the back roads of a neighboring town. Our house was tiny and inexplicably covered with a lot of faux blue marble and grey paneling. But it had a yard -- two whole acres for us to roam, for my father to plant a garden, for my mom to hang a tire swing. It was also in the lower corner of this yard -- over a woodsy hillside, toward a soggy creek bed filled with fallen logs, broken beer bottles and a rusted-out Volkswagon that is forever etched in my memory -- that a teenage boy my family should have been able to trust, on the pretense of taking me for a walk through the woods, sexually abused me when I was approximately six years old.
Another significant event took place in this house that, in the way of foggy childhood memory, has become inextricably intertwined with my memories of abuse: my father broke away from the church of his denominational upbringing and began pastoring an overflowing living room full of the most backward group of people you’d ever want to meet -- new Christians, disillusioned Christians and fake Christians -- began meeting each week in one living room or another as the first sanctuaries of the church my father would pastor for the following twenty years.
Our little congregation of church misfits began to outgrow the living room and took up worship in the musty storeroom of a local Christian bookstore. It was in this building that I began to more clearly understand what it means to be a preacher’s kid.
As a perceptive child, hyper-observant but ill-equipped to interpret what I observed, this is what I remembered from those years: Lots of people liked to approach my family after Sunday service to tell us how much they loved our father, and then lots of those same people would call our house every day, often late at night, to tell him all of their problems. Later, these very same people seemed cranky instead of happy; they frowned a lot at my family, and said really angry things about our father during church meetings. Lots of those same people would then stop coming to church.
Somewhere inside, my wires got jammed and I began to interpret people getting angry with my dad to be directly connected to all of the emotional and financial hardships our family suffered quietly, behind the closed doors of our home. Since I was already convinced by the shame and confusion of sexual abuse that something was terribly wrong with me, I concluded that it was my responsibility to protect myself, my parents, and my siblings in what felt like a capricious, threatening world. I began to build mini-campaigns to make sure that everyone who came to our church would think my dad was such a good pastor that they would never frown or say mean things during church meetings, and, most importantly, that they would never leave our church. At home, I determined to make everyone happy with a mishmash of survival strategies that included, but was not limited to the following: never have a dirty bedroom, never weigh too much, and never make anyone, anywhere angry with me.
I didn’t sleep very well and I cried a lot.
I probably got this idea -- that I could be good enough to keep people from being angry and leaving our church -- from watching the way my father tried to be such a good pastor. How he picked up the phone every time it rang, even during dinner -- and it always rang during dinner. I decided this must be the reason he was gone so often to meet with people who needed him. I decided that it must be more important to let people do whatever they wanted, say whatever they wanted, and think whatever they wanted about us than it was to risk losing them to church. In my child mind, I interpreted this dissonance in our home and in our church, to mean that Jesus must want our family - and me, in particular - to commit my spirit into the hands of people rather than God. This is what I interpreted it meant to be in ministry.
In my pain, I vowed that when I was grown up and in charge of my own life, I would never, ever marry a preacher, live on a preacher’s salary, or sit in a church meeting that I didn’t feel like sitting through. [Note: even though this is a somber reflection, it would be totally appropriate to laugh out loud here since I am, in fact, married to a preacher and living on preacher's salary. It should be known, however, that I often refuse to sit through church meetings that scare me.]
It's only been in the last dozen years that I've begun to recognize how much damage this behavior of pleasing people at all costs has done. I began to realize how, without knowing it, I’d decided as a little girl that the best way I could love Jesus was to never say no when an unsafe person intimidated, disrespected, or violated me. I guess I thought his crucifixion was enough to take the place for other people, but not for me.
God has gently and persistently invited me to walk into healing and restoration for all of these misunderstandings and misplaced loyalties. It seems to me that He has found every means necessary to reorient my confused, abused, lonely, ashamed, and terrified heart to what is good and true and beautiful about Him, his world, and his people.
Some of the ways He's met me have been in small, almost imperceptible moments that bit by bit have accumulated into making me new. Other moments, while on the surface might seem small, have had the effect of being knocked over by an ocean wave and resurfacing on a brand new, beautiful shore of health and wholeness.
One of those knock-out experiences occurred about thirteen years ago. I'd joined a small group of women who met to sort out together the ways we’d been relationally, emotionally, and sexually broken. It was in this group that I first said the words out loud to people, other than a counselor or my husband, "I think I've been sexually abused." I had stammered my way through the confession because I'd become convinced that my story - so sketchy in my memory, still so foreign to my understanding of myself as one worthy of protection - that the women would doubt me or ask me to get my story straight before they could pray for me. Instead, they overwhelmed with their kindness, and prayed for me and with me. They offered me one of the greatest gifts I've ever received: they believed me.
On another night, a year later, I tried to articulate to the group this deep wounding I'd experienced growing up as a preacher's kid. At that time, Brian and I had begun to sense God calling him to pursue ordination, and while my heart was open and eager for that calling, a huge, unhealed part of me was terrified.
The woman leading our group, Sherry, leaned over and looked me straight in the eyes. She worked to hear me -- to listen to my heart and to understand my words. I said that I was exhausted by the despair of believing that there was no justice available to fix me. All of the injustice I'd experienced in my life felt jumbled up and unresolved. I felt like I'd already prayed and tried so hard to be well, and that I'd come to the end of my healing journey with no hope it would ever get better.
When I was done talking Sherry did a funny and totally unexpected thing. She leaned forward toward me. She spread her arms out and looked me straight in the eye. She said, "Tamara, I am so sorry for what we have done. We have hurt you and your family for all these years. We didn't know we were doing it and I am sorry for that, too." As she spoke, I felt like the Holy Spirit helped me imagine a word balloon holding a caption over Sherry's extended arms: This Is What Jesus Did. This is Injustice for Injustice.
Sherry had never personally hurt or violated me (or anyone else in my family, as far as I knew). Yet she was taking on the burden of responsibility. She was apologizing on behalf of the people I'd carried around in my memory all of these years. She stood in the place of the guilty (or at least those I considered guilty) so that I could have a place to drop the burden of wounding, bitterness, and unforgiveness.
Somehow, God used this very simple apology to act as a healing salve on some of the most excruciating pain in my spirit. In one unexpected moment, I found a way through the place I'd been stuck for so long.
On another occasion which deserves a longer, separate telling, an older man whom I barely knew offered me a similar gift. We were gathered at a week-long training session to help us learn how to walk with people toward relational, emotional, and sexual healing. We learned by first receiving that kind of help for ourselves. One evening in the large group of both men and women, the teacher leading the training invited anyone in the room who'd been sexually abused as a child to come to the front of the room so that he could pray for us. I tried to cement myself to my chair because I absolutely did not want to be part of any such group. I'd become more open to sharing my story in small, confidential settings, but this felt too big, too exposed, and, honestly, too out of my control. Frankly, I wanted to control what my image as a "victim" looked like and I didn't know if I'd want to be seen together with a group of broken people who might look and act like a version of a victim that repulsed me. It sounds ugly, but it's true.
I went forward anyway.
As soon as my feet moved toward the front, something hard and choking dislodged in my spirit. It rushed out in tears. So many tears! Brian was across the room praying for others and unable to comfort me. When I returned to my seat, still wailing, there was only this man - who unbeknownst to him - carried a resemblance to one of my abusers. He and his wife reached over and pulled me into a group hug. Like Sherry's simple act of moving toward me, their tenderness set something right in my spirit.
These are two examples of several similar healing experiences, yet I still carry much pain and much fear. In the past two years, in particular, I've been walking into the face of one of my greatest fears as I learn what it means to be married to a priest. For the rest of my life, my husband and I will be working out our vocation as ministers to God’s people.
Lent has become a touchstone in my journey toward wholeness and healing. Each year, I carry a little bit more of the grimy places of my hard heart to the cross and bind it there to our crucified Jesus, to be buried with him. I keep needing to be saved from this death.
I need resurrection, yes, but I never want to skip the burial because this is where all the old things are laid to rest. Only when they've been completely killed can they be made completely new.
It was during the darkest hour of betrayal, forsaken even by his father and his God, that Jesus said these words, “Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit.” This act marked a final moment of epiphany, as the hardest hearts watching that day replied: “Surely this was the Son of God.”
It was Jesus’ unwavering allegiance to the one true God that caused him to lay his own soul into the only place worthy of its keeping, his Abba Father’s hands. His willingness to suffer the injustices of all the world made a way for me to lay down my own wounded, abused and betrayed self and entrust my whole self to the Abba of Jesus, “Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit."
(You can find links to all of the Retrieve Lament stories from previous years here.)