Monday, 15 October 2018

Letter To An Old Friend

Dear Friend,

The first time we met was just after I'd been abandoned by my abusive first husband. On the opposite side of the world from our home. With a suitcase of clothes. And an infant son.

I desperately needed a friend. I needed an ally. I needed compassion. I needed to be held. I needed a safe and loving place to share all my raw emotions - all the hurt and anger and grief and fear - which kept swirling around and around in my heart. I needed time to heal.

You were a friend. You and your home-group were the hands and feet and heart of Jesus for me. It was life-giving, and life-changing. And I will never forget that, or cease being grateful for it.

Many years have gone by since then. We haven't seen each other or talked much in recent times. But the memories and echoes of your friendship have been tucked away in my heart all this time.

The other day we met up again to share a meal. Almost the first thing you talked about was your current church experience. Then you told me a story about a "miracle" of reconciliation between you and a christian brother. I tried not to react. I fought down the feeling of being judged. Of being manipulated.

I know you would have heard things about us. About me. You were probably told that I am just "bitter and unforgiving". By people who also deny that anything bad happened to me. But I tried to convince myself that it was just a co-incidece that you mentioned it.

Then you told us about two important christian leaders who had put aside their differences to appear together in public, for the sake of the gospel. I asked if you knew what that relationship looked like when they were out of the spotlight. You were offended and defensive. I apologised.

The conversation moved on. To more talk of religious activity. About taking the gospel message to the streets. I tried to agree how great that was, but couldn't help asking what happens to those people after they say "the sinner's prayer". I asked about what might happen to them in a church which refuses to acknowledge, let alone clean up, the mess in its own front yard.

I'd hesitated, not wanting more anger from you, but not willing to pretend the elephant hadn't entered the room. I explained - I was hoping you would be a safe person to talk to about these things.

So you told me that you had been unjustly treated by a "pastor" in a meeting one time. I asked you to imagine how it would feel if the reality of that meeting just kept repeating, with no end in sight. You offered the "no church is perfect" argument. I explained this was about fruit, not perfection. You said we need to admit our own faults. I told you I had and that it had been used as weapon against me. You talked about forgiveness again. I reminded you, again, that I had long since forgiven.

You made it clear you were uncomfortable about the subject, so I explained that the reason I talk about it is to give people a glimpse into the toxic brokenness of the system - and because my story represents the story of countless others. Real people who have also been deeply damaged by the church. People whose lives have been derailed, because of the abuse, and the judgement, and the rejection they've endured at the hands of christians.

Yet, despite everything I shared, you told me I needed to go back to church...

I believe you meant well. You said it was because I needed to be loved. I do appreciate that. But you couldn't seem to hear me when I told you that the only way I'd be loved in that setting was if I submitted and smiled and stayed silent. Your own angry reaction to my earlier question perfectly demonstrates what I can expect in that environment. It is not a safe space, and I do not need it!

And I don't need any more people in my life willing to diagnose me from a distance, based on what they've been told about me. I don't need any more easy, religiously-correct answers. I don't need to be told what I 'should' do - or be blamed and shamed if I choose to do things otherwise.

What I DO need is respect of the agency that God himself has granted me. I need you to trust me with my own faith journey. I know it doesn't fit with your expectations or experience, but my faith is both genuine and valid. You haven't really seen me during these past few life-changing years. You haven't walked with me through this faith-shifting time. Being different doesn't make me 'wrong'- it just means I've explored territory that you haven't. The truth is I no longer fit into the religious box you're used to. But that's ok, because God no longer fits into it, either.

Friday, 22 June 2018

Abuse: The Gift That Keeps Giving

If you ever experience abuse of any sort, you will discover that you eventually come to a point where you have to make a choice. Do you stay silent, or do you speak out? Do you tell the truth, or live a lie?

Saying it like that makes it sound kinda easy and straight forward - but here's the catch:

Both choices involve pain. 

Both choices will cost you. 

Both choices lead to loss.

If you remain silent you will remain 'acceptable'. You will retain your community. You will keep your relationships. Your reputation. Your job.

But you will live with the pain of having to always hide the truth. Of having to constantly play a part. Of feeling endlessly isolated and alone. You will have to endure seeing those who squeezed your heart dry, smile and play the innocent. And you will know deep down that others will be harmed, and that your silence enabled it. You will lose your voice. Your truth. Your integrity.

If you speak out you will discover the sheer relief of simply saying it out loud. Of telling your story. Of giving yourself permission. You will also find fellow survivors who can encourage and support you, and reassure you that you are not alone. That you are not crazy. That it wasn't your fault.

But you will make people angry. You will be blamed by those who don't want to feel uncomfortable. You will be attacked by those who don't want to believe that their idealised (and idolised) leader has feet of clay. You will be shunned by those who would rather not know that their loving friend or family member can treat others so heartlessly. You will lose friends and family. You may even lose your job.

Even though at times it will feel like "heads, you win - tails, I lose", you do have a choice.

------------

I experienced abuse. And I made the choice to speak out.

I did pay the price. There has been pain and loss.

People did become angry. They did attack me and shun me.

And the truth is that it wasn't just a one-time event. Abuse is the gift that just keeps on giving, because I continue to live with these realities - the lies, the disapproval, the damaged or lost relationships.

And sometimes, as happened this week, I find myself talking to old friends for the first time in years, and having to face the choice all over again. To face the loss of friendship again. To face the pain of rejection again.

And I chose to tell the truth. Again.

Even as I write this, I don't know how my friends will receive that truth. I don't know what cost I will bear for that choice. 

(I don't want to lose their friendship. At the same time I acknowledge that if they reject me for speaking out, I'd already lost it anyway.)

But these days I am confident of who I am (and of who I am not). And I know what prices I am willing to pay (and which are beyond my capacity to afford). And I know that I am worth it (and that not everyone will be able to see this).

And - as unexpected as it was - those things are also gifts that surviving abuse gave me.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

The Elephants In The Church

In a recent interview with Christianity Today*, Rachael Denhollander (a survivor of Larry Nassar's horrific reign of abuse) pointed directly at the elephant in the room and clearly named it. The elephant is, of course, the truth that the church is not a safe place to look for help when dealing with abuse. In fact she said it is actually one of the worst places to seek help!

But she wasn't finished. She then looked slightly to the right of this animal and identified it's twin brother - the vilification and shunning of those who dare to expose abuse within the church.


She was under no illusions that the support she had received from evangelical christians in exposing Larry Nassar's abuse was very much tied to the fact that he was regarded as "other" - an outsider and therefore fair game. Evangelicals of all sorts claimed her as their own and held her up as a sterling example of 'christian' courage and forgiveness. Yet when she addressed the issue of the cover-up and enabling of child sex abuse in the church, she was suddenly "mistaken" and making "false accusation[s]". Her own abuse was used as a weapon against her - because she was so wounded, she was seeing things that just weren't there!

But she is intelligent, articulate, and - despite being labelled, judged, and shunned - she is refusing to sit down and shut up. She is standing her ground. And she is pushing back! 

She is pushing back against an institution which, on the one hand, is well-known for advising victims of abuse to simply "forgive and move on", or suck it up for the sake of appearances or even submit to their abuser's supposed "God-given authority"; and which on the other, has a long history of silencing, shunning, and further abusing those who attempt to expose this evil in its midst.

Of course the irony is that this same institution has habitually held itself up as both model and arbiter of all that is righteous and pure in the world. It has regularly condemned "sinners", railed against "the world" and pursued power to enforce its own moral code. And in doing so, it has far too often achieved nothing but to drive people away from the One who came, not to judge and condemn, but to prove his outrageous love. The One who put power aside - consistently rejecting its allure - and cared so little about his own reputation that the religious leaders ruled him unfit to represent their god.

So maybe it's time for a new plan - one that looks a whole lot more like Jesus. And maybe that needs to start with acknowledging those elephants are there; admitting that we invited them in; and cleaning up those stinking piles of their dung!


* I highly recommend you click through and read it!

Friday, 26 January 2018

When Christians Refuse to Follow Christ

"...if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and while there you remember that your brother has something [such as a grievance or legitimate complaint] against you, leave your offering there at the altar and go. First make peace with your brother, and then come and present your offering." - Jesus Christ


While this seems to be a fairly unambiguous instruction - which comes straight from the lips of the One christians profess to follow - I find it mind-boggling how often the exact opposite happens in christian circles. I'm particularly appalled by how many 'leaders' there are who refuse to engage with their brothers and sisters; who seem to have no interest in even listening to their 'siblings', let alone  making peace with them; and who continue to silence and shun those who voice their legitimate grievances.

I know there must be leaders out there who do deal with disagreement and discord - I have heard stories that they exist - but like unicorns and faeries, I have yet to encounter any of them myself. In fact, in the aftermath of the bullying and abuse I experienced at my ex-church, I asked a variety of people to sit down and talk things through, and yet none of the men who saw themselves as 'leaders' would do so.

And the couple at the centre of the power play consistently declined to meet with me unless it was with their pet "counsellor". (And as he had already told me that the church would collapse if this couple left it, I had my suspicions regarding his impartiality.) Three years later, when this couple attempted to take me to court, I offered professional mediation as an alternative way of dealing with things, but still they refused.

For some time, I thought that this behaviour was an aberration - that most christians took seriously Jesus' call to "leave your gift in front of the altar" and "go and be reconciled" with your brother or sister. Maybe there was just something in the water of this little church that led to such craven behaviour.

But then it happened in my "christian" workplace, too. As the office manager, I was dealing with a case of bullying amongst the staff when my boss suddenly stepped in and sidelined me, protecting the bully. Despite the testimony of several witnesses, this man decided to believe the lies of the bully and made several accusations against me based upon them. When I showed him proof that they were not true, he simply refused to acknowledge the evidence, and then ignored my repeated requests for a hearing on the matter.

Surely that was an unlucky co-incidence? Lightning might have struck twice in the same place, but...

...then, at the end of last year, it happened again! An incident at my son's 'christian' school exposed a situation which seriously disturbed both my husband and I. It led us to contact the principal whose behaviour and attitude we had found highly inappropriate. After it became clear that our email communication was not going to be fruitful, I offered to meet face-to-face in order to attempt some resolution of the matter. Apparently he appreciated the offer... but he was quite certain he understood us and therefore had no interest in pursuing my offer. (Of course, knowing what someone thinks and understanding why they do so, are worlds apart. But that's another story.) Once again it was a case of thanks, but no thanks.

Now, never let it be said that I don't profit by my experience! And I had reached the point where I'd actually come to expect this reaction, so I wasn't in the least bit surprised by it. And as experience has also taught me there's no point in pushing the issue, I didn't waste my breath any further. (I'm a great believer in letting people make their own choices in life.)

But that doesn't mean I think it's ok, or that I can respect it. And it sure doesn't mean I can reconcile it with those words of Jesus, who we each say we are following.

More importantly, what it does mean is that each time it happens, the credibility of christianity takes another blow, and it's most often from those who speak the loudest about their religion - and who lament the longest about how 'the world' won't take them seriously. But when people see us refuse to work through our disagreements, or deal with our discord, then I'd say they are wise to dismiss us. Until we can demonstrate we are not afraid to work through disputes, or contend for peace in the midst of conflict, we actually have nothing to offer. And I think it's about time we were honest with ourselves about that fact.