The Father of Mercies Comes Near

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)

Mercy is defined as getting that which we don’t deserve. If I get pulled over for speeding and the officer lets me off with a warning, we would say he had mercy on me. He gave me the gift of passing on an offense that should have cost me time and money.

From very early in the Bible, God identified Himself with the label of “merciful.” In Exodus 34:6, God passed before Moses and said these words to him: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” This phrasing of God’s character can then be found all throughout the Old Testament. The Israelites repeated it to each other and to their children.

We see hints of this same language in 2 Corinthians, but Paul calls God “the Father of mercies.” What does this mean? If He is the Father of mercies, that means He created mercy in its essence. It comes from Him. But we also notice that the word is plural (‘mercies’), meaning there are many kinds of mercy that God has created for His children. His mercy is diverse based on what we need at any given time. Paul then specifically includes that He is the “God of all comfort.” Comfort is a form of God’s mercy that is demonstrated specifically when His children experience trial and suffering.

God’s comfort has been dear to my heart all my life. I experienced lots of fear and anxiety in my childhood and teenage years. When I first read Proverbs 18:10, I clung to it: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.” Despite the many fears I faced, I believed the Lord was my leader and protector. But I also learned something that eventually proved untrue: If I trust the Lord, terrible things won’t happen to me.

When I was 17, I was sexually assaulted. Everything I thought I knew about myself, others and even God seemed to be turned upside down. I was forced to look sin and suffering dead in the face, and what I discovered is that it comes to all people, no matter how well they perform. 

I was also forced to contend with what I thought was true of God. I believed He was a merciful God, that He protected His children. So how could this have happened? As painful and heartbreaking as it was (and still is) that I experienced assault and all the consequences of it, that experience opened up a door in my heart.

It took quite a while for me to walk through the door. I felt really stuck for a long time. But all the while I felt the Lord calling me forward into something new. When I finally opened my heart and mind to healing, I began to see Jesus again.

When I was in my twenties, someone wise reminded me that Jesus suffered the most horrific assault that could ever happen – abuse of all kinds. He was mocked, spit on, beaten, stripped naked and laughed at, and physically exposed to everyone watching. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked the Father to spare him from this abuse if possible. He didn’t want to experience it, but he was willing to do it. Why?

Hebrews 12:2 says he did it “for the joy set before him.” What was that joy? The joy that carried Jesus through his crucifixion was the New Covenant. The creation of a new family to bring into his Father’s kingdom. The possibility of reconciling our relationship to God so that we could be united to Him forever. The cross is a literal picture of how much Jesus loves us, and how much the Father loves us (who was willing to send His only Son through such horror in order to adopt us.)

Because Jesus experienced every kind of suffering, including abuse, I can be assured that He understands and is walking with me through my suffering. Jesus’ mercy means that when I’m overwhelmed and tired of fighting and grieved to my core, He’s experiencing all of that with me. And He has suffered so that my suffering will only be temporary.

Hebrews 4:14-16 says, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Jesus is our great high priest. He leads us in our faith and has made the ultimate sacrifice for our sin. He leads us into the throne room of grace, where we receive mercy from the Father. And we are invited to enter that place in any and every moment of need.

In walking through that door of healing, I learned that God hates abuse and suffering of all kinds. He created a world that was meant to be free from these things. When sin entered, it fractured everything. But when Jesus came and took the penalty for all sin and suffering, you and I were given the right to be called children of God. This doesn’t mean suffering ends, but it means we are not alone in our suffering. We have a great high priest, king and shepherd through it all. We still have to fight, but now we have the weapons of spiritual warfare. We are equipped with what we need to sustain us till we get home.

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Deep Breathing: Healing Anxiety and Trauma

“Don’t forget to breathe…very important.”

“The Karate Kid” was a movie we watched over and over again when I was a kid. If you’ve seen it, you remember Mr. Miyagi, the unassuming master who taught a bullied teenager the art of karate. Breathing was one of the primary lessons. It seemed almost comical to me that Mr. Miyagi had to remind Daniel to breathe during his exercises.

It’s not comical when I’m working with someone who’s very anxious or who needs healing from past trauma. Many trauma survivors have lost touch with their bodies. Sometimes it’s because their bodies betrayed them in a moment of terror. They wanted to run away or fight off their attackers, but their bodies froze and they were unable to defend themselves. Sometimes their bodies responded hormonally to physical touch that was unwanted, and they now hate those responses. Sometimes they simply stop listening to the signals their bodies give them because they don’t trust themselves to know what to do in difficult situations.

Getting back in touch with our bodies is a primary step in healing from trauma and anxiety, because we need to learn to trust ourselves again. We need to grow in the belief that our bodies are good, created by God and given to us as a gift. If you’re an abuse survivor, you may be cringing as you read these last two sentences. That makes complete sense. But if we want to heal, we need to reconnect – with ourselves, with others, and with God.

Even if you’re not a survivor of trauma, I want to encourage you to try the exercise I’m about to recommend. We all carry stress and pain in our bodies, and deep breathing is a way to release that stress and pain. It’s a way for us to exercise dominion in our bodies, to decrease stress and increase rest so that we can function with sound judgment and wisdom.

Diaphragmatic Breathing:

I recommend you sit in a comfortable chair with a high back so that your head is resting against something. You can also do this exercise lying down, although some people find it uncomfortable. The point is to be as comfortable as possible.

Close your eyes and take in the deepest breath you can, expanding your belly like a balloon. This hopefully takes six to eight seconds to achieve. Hold the breath in your abdomen and chest for three to four seconds, and concentrate on the sensation of being full of breath. Then slowly let the breath out of your body, which should take twelve to fourteen seconds. As you let the breath out, concentrate on how your body feels. Are their muscles that seem tense? What parts of your body feel relaxed, and what parts are holding pain?

Complete the exercise again, only this time concentrate on relaxing the muscles that seem tense as you exhale. Complete the exercise at least four more times, each time gaining greater muscle relaxation.

I recommend doing these breathing exercises twice a day. What you’re doing is teaching your body to respond to stressful moments by taking deep breaths. When we exhale slowly and relax our muscles, we’re activating the parasympathetic nervous system – the “brakes” of our nervous system. We need to tap the brakes when things get stressful, but we have inadvertently taught our bodies to keep the pedal to the metal, so to speak, when we’re stressed. We have learned that the answer to stopping stress is to work harder and get more done. The opposite is true.

Here’s what I noticed when I started doing these exercises (and many others have told me the same): when I consistently practiced these exercises while I was comfortable and at rest, my body started to automatically take deep breaths when I encountered something stressful during the day. Just like lifting weights helps a person be stronger for moments when they’re lifting the grocery bags or a child, deep breathing exercises helps us gain strength to de-stress in moments of tension. Try it out and send me a comment with your results!

What Makes an Event Traumatizing?

It’s a tough question, because we love to use hyperbole in order to bring emphasis to something. For example, a student may say it was traumatizing to come into class and suddenly be expected to take a pop quiz. A mom may say she was traumatized by having to stand in a long line at the store while her child hollered. Can these things traumatize us? Possibly. Just about any negative life circumstance can produce trauma, but we have to be careful with how we talk about it. We should never make light of it.

At the core of traumatization is helplessness. Any event, series of events or season of life can produce a sense of helplessness. When this occurs, we feel backed into a corner. We feel that we’ve lost our sense of dominion. “Dominion” is the word used to describe the gift God gave to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He commanded them to be fruitful, to multiply, and to have dominion over every living thing that moves on earth. This is a high calling given to all humans. When we experience traumatization, we sense that our dominion is reduced, even taken away. Not by fault of our own, but because of sin trampling everything in its wake.

So what is helplessness? When your choices have been taken away, or when you’re so paralyzed that you’re unable to make the choices you want to make, you’re experiencing helplessness. At our core, we are not helpless beings. We are not meant to be at the complete mercy of someone or something else. Even babies are given a sense of dominion because they are able to cry out in order to be heard and seen and cared for. But what happens when cries go unnoticed over a period of time? What happens when a person experiences something grievous and has no one safe to ask for help? What happens when an event is so terrifying that the body shuts down and cannot respond by fighting or fleeing? This is helplessness.

Helplessness can occur in a vast number of settings and situations. This is why I cannot tell you through a blog post whether your circumstances were traumatizing. What I can say is that if you feel a strong sense of helplessness and you don’t have the resources to return to a state of dominion within a reasonable time frame, you may become traumatized. Not everyone who experiences a “traumatic event” becomes traumatized. (I use quotation marks because the label “traumatic” is culturally influenced and changes over time.) But let me give you a list of things that can easily be traumatizing:

  • Abuse of all kinds (sexual, physical, emotional, financial, verbal and spiritual)
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Natural disaster
  • Motor vehicle accident
  • Combat exposure
  • Captivity
  • Life-threatening illness or injury
  • Severe human suffering
  • Serious injury, harm or death you caused to someone else

These events may seem obvious to some, but here are some less obvious things that also can be traumatizing:

  • Bullying
  • Racial discrimination
  • Loss of a career or lifetime dream
  • Financial ruin
  • Being stuck somewhere without help
  • Getting lost and not having the resources to find your way
  • Witnessing any of the events in the first list
  • Listening to stories of trauma from others (as happens for counselors and other helping professionals)
  • Rescue work (such as firefighters, police officers, game wardens, park rangers, etc.)

Have any of these things happened to you? Did you feel a sense of absolute helplessness? Did your body respond by becoming numb, by heart palpitations, by shortness of breath and/or severe muscle tension? Did you have anyone you could safely tell about the event?

Finally, it’s important to note that some people experience terrible events but somehow do not develop traumatization. In my next post, I’ll explore with you how to learn whether your negative life events may have been traumatizing. Stay tuned, and please share this post with anyone you think may be helped by it.

I’d also love to receive your questions and comments. This helps me plan future posts, so please send me a reply!

The Trauma of Racial Injustice

The past few months have brought the whole world together onto common ground. COVID-19 makes everyone nervous, no matter where we live or how much money we have or how strong our immune systems are. The sentiment I most frequently hear from people is that we’re all ready for it to be over. We’re eagerly anticipating a downturn in diagnosed cases. We’re watching the news for reports that smart people in laboratories are working tirelessly to find a vaccination and an effective treatment. We have hope that we’ll get through this, because we have history to rely upon. We’ve seen other diseases vaccinated. We’ve watched the economy turn around for the better. We’ve been encouraged as businesses increase supplies and take measures to keep people safe. Hope is a powerful force that keeps us all moving forward.

But what if we couldn’t see over the horizon into something better? What if we watched as scientists stopped believing COVID was dangerous and decided to give up trying to create a vaccine? What if ranchers and farmers stopped supplying their goods to stores so they could have more for their own families, thus emptying everyone else’s food supply? What if nobody took action to help those who lost jobs because of this pandemic? What if hope diminished and even disappeared because everyone decided just to fend for themselves and ignore the plight that others are facing?

As I’ve watched the tragedy and atrocity play out regarding the murders of George Floyd and so many others, I’ve been struck by the overwhelming juxtaposition between how many of us view the COVID-19 crisis and how we view racial injustice.

We have hope that COVID will end and all will be well again. African Americans don’t have history on their side to remind them that things will get better, that other people will use their positions of influence to support, defend and advocate for them. Instead, they look at history and see a cycle of violence that continues to roll over and over through countless generations. I’ve heard people asking why people have to protest so strongly. This statement proves that we don’t understand. We are only seeing from our white perspective.

I’m a trauma specialist. It’s what I’ve studied for 20 years. When I see what’s happening in our nation, I’m not a bit surprised at the protests and riots. I don’t advocate for violence, but I can see how it happens. A woman who lives with an abusive husband runs out of choices pretty quickly. She tries everything she knows to work within the system she’s been handed. When nothing works, she has two options: she can decide she’s the one who’s wrong and figure out how to obey his every demand (even though that doesn’t stop the violence), or she can rise up. In order to rise up, she has to have hope that something can get better. She has to believe she is worth being protected and loved. She has to have outside support from those who are not being abused. And sometimes when she rises up, she screams. Sometimes she pushes back. She senses that she has no other way to make her voice heard.

This is the same scenario I see playing out on a systemic and national scale.

I’m white, and I’m growing to realize how much privilege and power my whiteness gives me. I’m also learning that we white folks love to pat ourselves on the back about how much progress has been made in racial equality. My stomach turns as I think about the abusive men I’ve encountered who say the same thing about their marriages.

Maybe we are expecting a tall glass of iced tea and a foot massage because we mowed the backyard on a hot day (using our riding lawn mowers), when there’s a 40-acre plot just out of sight that’s overgrown with weeds and grass up to the waist. But that plot of land isn’t infringing on our afternoon pool parties, so we’ll leave it be. Not until that overgrowth and chaos comes to our doorstep will we venture to do anything about it. And even then we may just try to pass the work off to someone else.

I am not stating that all white Americans are the abusers and all African Americans are the abused. I’m simply pointing out that the trauma inflicted against African Americans is abusive, and we must advocate for their healing, hope and equality. Those of us who have stood by passively and watched as abuse has occurred are culpable as well. We have kept silent, and we have chosen to defer the work to someone else. We may care, but we feel powerless to make change. We may grieve with our black brothers and sisters, but we’re afraid to do the wrong thing. We’re way past due to advocate. To stand alongside. To create change that will last longer than just one turn of the cycle.

Seeking to understand brings hope. Safety brings healing. These are principles in trauma care. Black Americans have experienced trauma after trauma, and our job is not to control the narrative. Our job is to come near, to advocate, to use our power for helping others. Most of all, our job is to point people (including ourselves) toward the only Hope that will ever change the world. That Hope is Jesus Christ.

I long to see justice flow down. I long to see hope revived in every heart. I want to be a part of the healing.

If this post resonates with you, please share it. I’m planning to write more on the subject of trauma and racial injustice. I’d love to hear from you about this topic! Please leave a comment or complete a contact form. 

 

The Abuse Crisis in the SBC: Where do we go from here?

I attended the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission (ERLC) National Conference last weekend, where I experienced both encouragement and frustration. Of course, I should expect this from a conference focusing on caring well for the abused. The SBC has a long history of covering up heinous acts of oppression and violence, so I entered the space with skepticism. In June at the Southern Baptist Convention, we prayed prayers of lament and heard stories of abuse within Southern Baptist churches. An advisory group (made up of some of my heroes in abuse and trauma care) published a handbook for pastors on how to care for victims. The ERLC chose to spend their entire conference training leaders on how to care for victims and survivors. But something stung at a heart-level for me as I sat listening to testimonies and lectures. These well-meaning and long-awaited endeavors are only the very first baby steps. I feel nervous about celebrating too quickly.

At the age of seventeen, I was sexually assaulted. When I worked up the courage to tell my youth minister, she looked at me blankly and asked what I was wearing when it happened. Praise God I had the wherewithal not to listen to her anymore. But it left me alone, with no one to help me process my pain. I had hoped she would give me resources and show me how to find a good counselor. Consequently, I spent the next several years in silence. 

Our heavenly Father has allowed my painful story to create a passion in me for His glory to be revealed in the Church through the healing of His vulnerable ones. For twenty years I have looked around wherever I’ve lived and sought to follow the call of Jesus to bind up the brokenhearted. It’s been a beautiful journey, and I’ve learned so much along the way. Sitting at the ERLC Conference, I felt encouraged to hear about others who are doing the same all throughout the world. I realized how isolated I’ve felt all these years. Now I can connect with others, and hopefully we can grow together.

How do we do it? What are the next baby steps for us to take in this process of caring for the abused? Here are some steps I’m taking.

I’m tending my own garden. I cannot give what I do not possess. If I aspire to guide and empathize with others, I must be rooted and grounded in the love of Jesus, abiding in the vine. I must hear His voice clearly (which only comes with regular practice). I must continually pray Psalm 139:23-24, because His searching of my heart must be continual. My own growth and healing must be happening all along the way, and I should never assume I’m complete. To do so would be absolute arrogance. I believe that many ministry leaders are hiding their own wounds of abuse, and this is dangerous. If we cannot get help ourselves, how can we lead others to the help they need? My counselor and a few close friends provide safe spaces for me to process the ways in which the pain of others exacerbates my own pain. I think all those who lead others need to have such people in their lives. 

I’m creating safe spaces for survivors. I felt nervous at the Southern Baptist Convention because pastors were given a mandate to commit to the Caring Well Challenge. It’s not that I don’t think the challenge is good – I’m so grateful for clear steps toward growth. But what I wanted them to tell us is that before we charge forward in a grand step-by-step endeavor, we must locate those in our midst who have suffered abuse and ask them to teach us. And locating them does not mean announcing from the stage that survivors have permission to come find a leader to share their stories with. We must create spaces for safe interactions. We must stop asking them to do all the hard work of figuring out who to talk to and when. Something our church did this past spring was to hold a service of lament (including worship and testimonies), followed by a set-aside time in which members could go into the chapel and talk with an elder or deacon. Now that the ERLC Conference has ended, we’re creating a survey that allows people to check a box indicating they want to talk with an elder or deacon privately. I’m hopeful we’ll all get creative in orchestrating spaces in which to sit with victims and survivors.

I’m thinking about abuse care in ALL ministries within the church. Opportunities to care for the abused can’t only happen in our recovery and counseling ministries. People don’t usually self-select to join an abuse recovery group, and they usually don’t indicate on a counseling intake form that they want to heal from the wounds of abuse. They don’t feel safe talking about it, so we have to pay attention and ask good questions in everyday interactions with those in our church families. What questions do our small group leaders ask during accountability and prayer time? What opportunities are we missing when we train our children’s ministry volunteers, when we create our worship sets, when we plan our sermons, when we develop curriculum for membership classes and Bible studies? The possibilities are endless for ways we can demonstrate our love for those who are suffering. We just have to think holistically about it. 

I’m building an army. Abuse care is beautiful and fulfilling. It’s also painful and exhausting. I cannot do it alone in my church. And even if I could, I shouldn’t. As I’ve heard the stories of those in our church family who have suffered (or are suffering) abuse, I’ve begun to ask for their involvement. I’ve asked if they’re willing to write down their stories to be shared with our elders. I’ve asked them to pray that more people will feel safe to come forward with their stories. I’ve asked them to help organize events and sit on advisory teams to help our church continue to do this work well. You’d be amazed at the resilience and power lying beneath the surface in a survivor of abuse. We think deeply. We fight hard in prayer. We cling to Scripture. We see injustice clearly. We have great ideas. A pastor is short-sighted (and perhaps even foolish) who engages in the Caring Well Challenge without enlisting the leadership of those who have been quietly fighting the fight for years. This includes both survivors and their close friends and family members. (Note: Some survivors are not yet ready to engage in leading others. It’s important to assess where people are in their healing journeys in order to care for them as they seek to care for others. I’m planning to write about this soon.)

One final thought: I’m praying hard and want to encourage the leaders of the SBC and ERLC that the call to care for the abused cannot be a flash in the pan. Victims and survivors would rather we not discuss this at all than to discuss it for one year and then never speak of it again. I hope the SBC will create a position or committee designed to continue this endeavor and keep it as a priority among Southern Baptists.