Friday, March 22, 2013

Between Me and God (and everybody else)

Note: This is Day 3 of the Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week. Thank you so much for hearing my story and many of the other stories out there. The need for hearing isn't gone and the need for healing for many will continue. Please hear our call, and the many others that you can find at Shaney's linkup.

So, in several conversations with people, particularly in my parents' generation, the inevitable question has been: "Can't this be between you and God?" Or if they didn't have a problem with my story, but were uncomfortable with others, "Why does it need to be public?" When I was a kid, my Ma made us memorize Scripture. And I'm grateful for that. One of the verses we memorized was Ephesians 5:11, "Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them."

That verse always troubled me, because I wasn't sure what it was telling me what to do. As a high schooler, I wasn't particularly good at reading Scripture in context (and I have hundreds of articles and devotionals that went out over the internet to prove it). I thought maybe it could mean being something of an activist, or demonstrating the moral superiority of Christians over non-Christians. Sounds logical, right? But that wasn't it at all.

In fact, Ephesians 5 is addressed specifically to Christians. And the Holy Spirit is telling Christians to live as the children of the light (goodness, righteousness, and truth being key characteristics). It also suggests that Christians can act like children of darkness. And the things that are in the darkness are shameful.

Well, that clarifies it, right? Not really. The shame of what is kept in darkness is terrible. What's in secret and kept in, and untold is ungoodness, unrighteousness, and untruth. And what is kept in the darkness still has the power of shame over those who live with it.

But that just addresses your head, right? I can make rational, exegetical arguments all day long, and you might believe me, but it won't change what we do in our churches and with our friends who feel like they are nomads without a home or exiles that don't quite fit where they are, and some may be prodigals who have no intention of going back. Christians, we've got a love problem. Because, sure, it's between me and God. But it's also between God and His people.  We should be able to talk. We should be able to share our stories. And most of all, we should be loved for it. Because we're hopefully the same people that the Holy Spirit fills and has "speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."

I wish more churches were like this awesome symphony. I wish more people had asked the hard questions about where I was and helped me understand that being crushed wasn't a spiritual discipline. Particularly, I wish someone would have backed my parents up. I wish they would have prayed with them, prayed with me, and just been there to advocate for me.

Pastors and future pastors, as someone who wants to be among you and to consider you a "fellow worker" and "co-laborer" in ministry, let your ministry be characterized by gentleness and truth. "I don't know" is fine. Being uncertain about people's callings is fine, but don't discourage them. If anything, consider your call to be helping them find their fit and their vocation, not showing and telling them everything it isn't. Those are little things. What I really want you all to pay attention to is this:

Preach the Gospel. Not wormy-grimey views of human beings, but a healing message for people who have been crushed, broken, and torn by every assault of the world, sin, and the devil. And recognize that the world, sin and the devil have used the church to do their work. Offer grace. Offer love. Jesus came for the sinners and the lame and broken. We have much to be forgiven and much to be healed, and we will love much when healing comes. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Sin. Grace. Faith.

So, on the first day I shared the soul-scarring I experienced. It was shattering and difficult, challenging steps I had made in hesitant faith brought on in the name of soul-care. I dug my heels in and defended it too. Because I was convinced that God's blessing, being entrusted with leadership and pastoral ministry could only come through hard work. Only if I endured it. Made my case. Put my best foot forward and held out.

One of the immediate affects of this was that I became intensely introspective. I was already very introspective due to several experiences during my teens. I mistrusted myself, my judgment, and especially mistrusted the notion that I had any more room in life to screw up. The next blunder would be the end of me. No more grace. Now, notice-- I was never told that. It was never preached that I only had so many opportunities until there wasn't any left. In the middle of all that, there was still the words that Jesus died for my sins--all of them.

But they fell on ears that were now hard of hearing. I was so pressured to be maturing and developing in character to acknowledge I'd slipped up in any serious way. There was no space for confession and repentance, and thus no space for grace to take root and grow in my life. In my fear of condemnation and disqualification, I was actually taking myself further from the grace I needed as a Christian-- forgetting the grace I would need as a pastor. So, I looked to myself with fear at what was in me. I looked at Ethan and other leaders in the church with fear for what they could decide about me. I looked at my family with fear of disappointing them or shaming them by being disqualified from ministry. All my safe places I craved approval from-- approval I felt like was contingent on behaving myself and not screwing up.

So, after two years of this, I walked into the doors of a church that was preparing to launch a few blocks from the college I went to. It was a whole world I'd never experienced before. Liturgy. Gospel. Hymns. Plain English, not Christianese. Sin. Grace. Faith.

Sin. Grace. Faith.

Sin. Grace. Faith.

I have been in this community since 2009, as a guest, as a long-term guest, now as someone who is confirmed and hopeful for a future as ordained ministry. Until recently, meeting with the pastor in this community was still like a job interview, when that was definitely not what Nathan (not his real name) was looking for.. Then I started to realize that I was holding back from someone who only wants to know me as I am. I was trying to prove myself to someone who accepts me as a brother and is willing to discern with me what my calling looks like.

Grace is preached. Grace is received. I can confess my sins, be taken to the Cross, and know I am so totally and utterly free. I still have to remind myself I can trust my pastor. I have to get over my nerves do my best to talk like a normal person. I'm slow and awkward about it...but Nathan and the other leaders at my church have been patient with me. They're talking to me. Sharing grace with me. I've got a long way to go and a lot more practice at being this free....but it's good, and I'm growing and healing.

Note: More stories at Joy in this Journey.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Soul-care leaves soul-scars

Note: This is a first for me. I haven't told these kinds of stories before. But this is important for me to do-- and for those who are close to me and didn't know, this isn't on you. It's not your fault. So don't take guilt that doesn't belong to you. Part of why I'm telling this story is I feel like it's important for people to realize that women aren't the only victims in spiritual abuse. It happens to anybody and everybody, sometimes in severe degrees, and other times in lesser degrees. But each story is important, and I've come to realize that just because my story isn't "as bad" as so many others doesn't mean it shouldn't be heard. Please receive this in the grace that it is offered. This isn't written with bitterness and resentment, but with healing and forgiveness. To that end, all names have been changed to protect the identities and stories of those involved. Thanks to Hännah at Wine and Marble for the chance to share. Head over there for more of our stories.

"It would be so good for your soul if you would reconsider this."Ethan told me. I'd been at the church for more than a year. I'd left my family. Left my home tradition. Left people who had loved and encouraged me into pursuing pastoral ministry and preaching the Gospel for the rest of my life. I was working desperately to ge tinto decent relationships with the people at this new church. I had found out that many of the homeschooling families that I had grown up around were involved in this church. That was a good sign. Plus, there was a girl. Men will do almost anything to be near a girl they like.

But back to the conversation. Ethan shared with me his own story and pursuing ministry. Then he came back, to me. "These challenges were so good for my soul. I was challenged, and had to work hard and really think deeply about being beyond myself, and accepting the decisions of those who were given the authority to care for my soul." I smiled. Thanked him for his care. Accepted the promise that he would continue to pray. And went home.


I had done enough running and fighting my sense that God was calling me to ministry on my own and had FINALLY timidly accepted it. My previous pastor had been so encouraging and loving. But with some theological shifts in college, I thought I had to move to a different church. I thought I needed to have that call affirmed by someone else. And suddenly, my hesitant and hopeful acceptance of a call to ministry was being challenged, put under the microscope. In the name of caring for my soul. I would have to show him what God had showed me.

When I shared these challenges with my parents. They were flabbergasted. Over and over again, they asked me if I really should be in this church. Over and over again, I told them I was right where I was supposed to be, that God had called me there. That I was home and that Ethan cared for my soul.

Again and again, my mom invited me to come back. To be with a church family that had affirmed and encouraged me in Christ, saw gifts where I hadn't, and shared their ministry with me. Again and again I defended Ethan, defended his authority to direct, discern, and care for me.

Ethan didn't mean anything maliciously. He felt burdened by my sense of call. Heavily weighted by my desires to be a pastor. It made me feel guilty watching him struggle with it. Wouldn't it be easier for me to give in to what he wanted?

Suddenly, every conversation with my pastor was a job interview. I was struggling with so many issues. I needed truth. I needed grace. But anything I could have admitted to him would seem like a mark against me being considered for ministry. I vetted every word for things that might make me seem less qualified to be ordained. I couldn't share these things. And they started tearing away at me. My parents saw it and urged me to other places. But I had drunk the kool-aid. Discernment and direction as pastoral care marked me and burdened me. They became a load to heavy for me. My soul was scarred-over through the many repetitions of this vicious cycle of job-interviews.

Instead of confidence, I learned fear.

Instead of trust, I learned suspicion.

Instead of grace, I found the law.

Instead of love, I found worry.

And it hurt.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Colleges, Church Planting, Country Music, and too much alliteration

Back where I come from 
Where I'll be when its said and done 
I'm proud as anyone 
That's where I come from
(Back Where I Come From, Kenny Chesney)

I'm a sucker for country music. I grew up on the great sounds of Alabama and George Strait and many others. Pittsburgh has three genres: country, rap, and 80s rock, and I've got bits of all those in my music library, but country still dominates (that may change at some point). There are several aesthetic and theological reasons I appreciate country music, but even if all those were overturned, I'd still listen to it, because it takes me back home and puts me back with my family.

When I quit running from a call to ministry, I was still pretty committed to it being on my terms -- and particularly, on my turf. I was going back home. I'd plant a church in my old neighborhood. That was the plan, anyway.

And then I graduated college. I applied to jobs with churches near and far (mostly near). With no success, I kept going with my education. By the end of that next school year, I tried churches again-- again mostly near. No success, so I kept going. I'm now nearly three years out with a completely different set of commitments; being Anglican is one of them. Ordination is, in many ways, out of my hands...and thanks to several encouraging words and thoughts at the Anglican 1000 Summit (held in Wheaton last week), I'm finally okay with that.

But I'm also coming to grips with the reality that I might not be heading home anytime in the near future. I doubt that either of my degrees, or the crazy experiences I've had because of them, will go to waste. I'm still praying and working towards planting churches. I'm also looking forward to working with students in that context. How? Maybe plant churches on their campuses. Where that will take me, I don't know. And that's alright. There's many conversations remaining, a semester to finish. One hood out of two to walk away with, and then 30 credits remaining before I get that last hood for my M.Div.

Hopes. Prayers. Dreams. Hoods. Collar. Students. Grace.

And, maybe, somewhere in that, visiting back where I come from.