Why you, dear church, are not equipped to deal with our stories.

TRIGGER ALERT – SEXUAL ABUSE. (Also, if you’re sensitive to criticism of the Australian Christian Churches movement, or church on general, or else generally in denial about how many victims and perpetrators are in the church and haven’t been made “all better now”, you might find this triggering also.)

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Recently, a friend of mine shared with me how the evening bible study group she regularly attended decided one night when she wasn’t present to change the agenda of their group meetings. They would no longer be doing a bible study together, but would instead take it in turns to tell their “testimony” – their conversion story, or a report of some miracle or transformation God did in their lives. My friend was mortified. Not only was she averse to telling her “story” to the group, but felt if she did, several members would probably be traumatised or offended by it. She knew the group structure was ill-equipped to deal with the subject matter. You see, my friend was sexually abused as a young child. This has impacted her life dramatically. She knows from thirty years of experience most people in the church context are not only unprepared to hear her story, but unprepared to deal with it in any meaningful way. It baffles and confuses them; emotionally, spiritually and theologically.

Knowing the people in the group as she did, and understanding the purpose of the exercise was not to help each other deal with life events but to “glorify God” and have a fun time getting to know each other better, my friend was presented with three choices.

1) Confront the group about the decision to change the agenda, pointing out how the group was structurally unprepared to deal with any issues which could come up, initiating a discussion around how this decision could force group members to “censor” their story, be dishonest about their truth in order to “fit the script” of how a “testimony” is meant to roll out, and could leave members open to rejection, abuse or judgment.

2) Say nothing about the abuse and censor her story leaving out the uncomfortable bits.

3) Make excuses and leave the group.

What do you think she chose to do?

Don’t you feel sometimes like we set each other up to fail?

Many of my concerns about this particular situation regard the assumptions apparently made by the members of the group about:

1) The clean, neat way God always brings about a happy ending – NOT.
2) The misguided confidence often held by church folks about their capacity to handle sensitive and life-impacting issues and situations.

In my experience, at almost every turn, particularly in the more charismatic denominations, members are encouraged to over share, bear their deepest vulnerabilities and express their emotions. Yet, as the complexity and intensity of the issues society brings the church increases, the expertise and complexity of skill the church is bringing to bear in dealing with them is largely not keeping up.
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Not long ago, I attended a church orientation course where, after just a few hours together, the ministry team responsible for handling counselling in the church staged a mock counselling session for the benefit of the group, to show what was likely to happen should someone come to them for counselling. As they went through the motions, it became clear the particular topic used for the demonstration was actually triggering one of the counsellors doing the staging. She choked up and began to weep. My alarm bells immediately went off. My experience and training indicated to me the demonstration needed to terminate and the person needed to be taken aside to be supported, and the group needed to be debriefed about what just happened. But this did not occur. The counsellor, now clearly distressed, insisted the mock up continue. I was horrified.

This situation ought never have been allowed to continue. In my opinion, as a trained group facilitator and supportive care provider, this modelled unsafe emotional practices. It demonstrated to the (new) church members present a couple of things –

1) Normalisation of emotional triggering – it happens here, sometimes in public, so get used to it.

2) When triggering happens to you, you’re expected to self manage it.

3) When triggering happens to someone in front of you, your role is as a spectator or observer, so ignore any responses you have. Don’t get involved, this is just a “show”.

The whole situation was handed very poorly. I called the pastoral supervisor the next day to voice my concerns but it was clear they didn’t think it was a problem. “Oh, she gets emotional all the time, she’ll be okay.” Of course she will. She’s an experienced counsellor. But what about the people present who saw this middle aged, normally very composed person break down into tears, effectively while she was doing her job? And what does this say about how the church culturally and professionally handles people, their issues and their emotions?

See, the thing is, just because Christianity as a spiritual and social entity has traditonally acted as a kind of catch-all for vulnerable people, doesn’t mean Christianity as an institution and culture is at this time well-equipped to cope with what’s being brought to it. Or what the church itself and the people in it are inflicting upon people inside it. Some come to church having been horrifically abused, and the church was the only safe place they knew. However, we now know the church isn’t any safer than the society surrounding it, and to tell people otherwise is to deliberately and horrifically deceive them.
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The church – particularly the more contemporary, charismatic denominations – must make a conscious decision to be more self-aware concerning it’s own capacity to cause harm and damage to people – advertently and inadvertently – and to equip itself to cope adequately with the complexity of issues people come with. And not just come with. A great many people get some of their biggest messed-up-ed-ness while they are in the church.

The current situation with Hillsong and the ACC response to abuse and pastoral care of victims and perpetrators must be not merely a sad monologue of historical events, but a an inclusive conversation about the future. We need to decide how to better be the body of Christ. We can no longer pretend these things don’t happen in our churches. Mark my words – if you feel squirmy hearing about the Houston’s and the current enquiry, better prepare yourself. There will be more of this to come.

And mark these words. IT IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW.

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In the past, we’ve been wont as Christians to hand people the script from which they may read to us the story of their Christian experience. You were bad, messed up, dirty and sinful. You were out, excluded, imprisoned and broken. But now, now you’re one of us. And we here are not those bad, nasty things any more. Tell us the story of us, be our trophy of grace, we said. We want our heroes of redemption and all-fixed-upped-ness. But a great many of us are not all fixed up. We are not only not sure we are forgiven for what we did, we are not sure we can forgive it.

Let’s face it. The church has within it victims of paedophiles, and some of them are not okay. It also has within those who are the pedophiles, and we are seriously misguided if we think they are any more okay and all-fixed-up-now than the victims are.

Our churches are filled with the abused; healing people who, unlike the ones who cannot understand their suffering, do not equate silence about what was done to them with forgiveness or with it being over. Many are told they’ll know when they are healed because they can tell their story and it won’t make them cry. Many have never had the opportunity to actually tell that story, and when they did, the abject inability of the ones who demanded they share it to cope with the content was soul destroying, and another kind of silencing.

You want our stories, but often not because you wanted to help us heal them. You wanted our stories because you wanted to use them to promote your capacity to love us despite them. You wanted our stories because you wanted us on your resume. You wanted us to be your trophies of grace. You wanted us to show how your God can fix anything and anyone. But we do not yet know that to be true, because not only are we, the abused, still wandering in the wilderness of our pain, but the abusers are wandering through your flocks, unhealed and unfixed and lost in their own wilderness of pain.

And even though, church, you say you want us, you are not ready to hear and accept our stories. You are still trying to muffle, to edit, to censor and to manipulate them. You think you know what a healed story looks like. A rescued child. A redeemed whore. A welcomed prodigal. A restored pariah. Those are the characters we have written into our church story of grace. But what happens when the soul before us cannot read the script we’ve handed them?

Church, get ready. You think this is messy? It’s about to get messier. The ones we thought we could trust are about to be tested. What was committed in and to the dark is about to come into the light. And we are going to be horrified when we learn about it. But we are going to have to learn to deal with it. Because it’s coming.

The long-haul.

Your healing is not a one-time event. It’s a life-long journey.

Some days you won’t notice your healing as it happens. Your waters will be calm and your rhythm will be even. These days, you’ll wonder if you were ever really hurt to begin with.

Other days, your healing will be rocking your boat and breaking your anchor ropes. You’ll feel like you never began getting better, that you’ve been sabotaged, set back and maybe even sunk under the waves, doomed forever.

But don’t buy into that.

You are healing. You’re growing every day. You’re becoming stronger and wiser, loving yourself more and coming closer to forgiveness. It’s happening, dear heart. Have faith.

When they said healing you would be a one-time event, that wasn’t true. That reflected their attention span, their willingness to be available for you, and not your reality. They laid their hands on you, said their prayers, invoked their god. You remember every word they said to you, scratching at those crumbs as they fell to the ground, licking your palms to take every bit inside you. But they walked on down the line, onto the next one, and the next, and promptly forgot you ever even existed, didn’t they? Leave those part-time amateurs. Forget those preachers of a false gospel. What they lack, you have in spades. Patience. Faith, Respect. Determination. Integrity. When it comes to becoming well and whole again, love can do a thorough job, so you never need walk this path again.

Love takes time, and only love can heal you properly, in all those deep, deep places. You need commitment – most of all, from yourself. Buy into your healing for the long run. You, darling, are worth it. Gather allies who love and appreciate you, the real you, not those practitioners who are in love with their own talent and results, who have no patience to wait for the marrow-deep, the real, lasting repair. They’ll push off as soon as they see you can’t build their reputation, and to them, you’ll always be a project, a success story, a testimony to their success.

Be a testimony to your own success. Buy in for a long-haul healing. Darling, you are so worth it.

For my dear friend, thank you for sharing your heart with me today. So proud to know you.

Love, Jo xxxx

Victim Fame – Fifteen Minutes Is Never Enough

I spent about three hours this morning working on a blog post you’ll never see. I’m not sure why I decided to write that post when I woke up today, but I think the conclusion I’ve come to this evening about it has made the exercise worthwhile.

The piece basically justified for my readers all the reasons why I write what I write about, why I think Christianity needs a kick up it’s backside, and why I love and hate church at the same time. It detailed all the things that have happened and the decisions I’ve made, all the circumstances and mistakes and crap that has been dispensed, by me and others, which were then labelled church or worse, as something associated with Jesus. The post gave times and dates to my teenage pregnancy, my early wedding, my mental illness diagnoses, the cancer, the breakup of my marriage and my husbands alcoholism. It told about my roles and responsibilities and positions I’ve held in churches, my qualifications and my experience – or lack of it. It was the post I thought might fill in the gaps for my readers in terms of them wondering where I get off talking about something as lovely and special as church as in such critical terms. My post basically said how I know what I know, and why I think what I think, and gave evidence and statistics to support my case. For your benefit. So you would know I’m not making it up.

But then, when I got about seven eighths of the way through the post, I thought, what is actually the damn point of this?

It’s just a dumb old victim story.

I know a victim story when I see one, in fact, I think we we all do. Victim stories are dead boring. They’re those well rehearsed tales of woe meant to convince you to take the unfortunate persons side against some past perpetrator; who often is just some poor bugger who once offended us, but has had the intelligence and fortitude to move on and forget the whole incident ever happened. Victim stories prop up the wounded, sad little identity of the person who was once hurt, wronged or offended. Victims never lose track of their stories; they are engraved on their palms like stigmata – a carefully journaled record of everything the victim must never forget. If they ever do, intentionally or inadvertantly, they will be forced to change somehow, to progress, to evolve, get better, or –  God forbid – to forgive and forget. And this can never happen.

And then, later in the day, I caught myself doing it again. A friend told me how she bumped into an old acquaintance of ours a few days ago, and without even thinking, away I went. “Oh, yes, remember the time that blah, blahdy, blah, and that was so bad for me because blah, blah-blah, blah blah….”. Out it all came before I could even help myself. It was only on reflection I realised my whole relationship with this acquaintance was now pretty much defined by one time they’d done something that wasn’t in my immediate best interests. And I thought that remembering it that way was pretty sad, and stupid, of me.

Hard-core victims hold on to their stories like old rock stars hold onto their hairdressers. If they change, they know people won’t recognise them any more. A victim identity doesn’t care that it makes the person who has it appear to be a sad, morose human being, trapped in the past. The victim willingly accepts the fame being a victim brings them in exchange for their dignity – but fifteen minutes of this kind of fame will never, ever be enough.

Now, I’m not talking about people who’ve been genuinely and shockingly hurt, abused or damaged; I’m talking about self-pity. Some of the best people I know have every reason to remind others at every opportunity exactly what horrible thing was done to them, and God knows, many of us need reminding what horrible things have been done. But I personally hate the word “victim” because it denotes an exchange of power away from the person who has been hurt. At some point in the process, justice, grace or dignity must be instated to the injured party, and the fame of victimhood exchanged for the anonymity of health and wholeness. It’s a hard lesson to learn, and unfortunately some of us never learn it.

I never liked that term “cancer victim.” I never fought cancer – I’d have been punching way below my division. Sometimes shit just happens and you need to just name the shit, get mad at the shit and then get a damn bucket and broom and deal with the shit forever. I never felt like anything that’s happened to me has been anyone else’s fault but my own, mostly. People have done crappy things, for sure, but I have to take responsibility for my part in it. I hope I do, most of the time.

When I tell you about stuff that’s happened, it’s not because I want you on my side, or want you to think I harbour any ill-will. I’m still a little cranky about some things, it’s true, but only because I see many times where the dumb thing that happened to me was avoidable, and is about to happen all over again, because nobody learned anything the first time around. That would be dumb. I in no way resent dumb things, stupid, things, hurtful and confusing things happening except where they are rendered useless in effecting positive change by ignorance, denial or lies. To be frank, the reason I write so much about church is because many things which could be great opportunities for positive change for Christianity and for churches are wasted because people can’t deal with being exposed or demoted, or ever risk just being plain old wrong. Ever.

So, anyway, I decided to give up my list of times and dates of all the things that happened to me that qualify me to whine and criticise and challenge the church. It bored me after a while just writing it, so I was pretty sure it was going to be boring for you reading it. I was thinking, they’ll be reading this and going “And I need to know all this because….???”  The fact is, we are here, now. Life is what it is, in this moment. The past doesn’t matter, but the future does. I mention the past not to elicit your sympathy – I don’t need it. I’m great, really. I mention the past to help shape the future. I tell my story to perhaps help you own yours, certainly, to help you tell yours. I open myself up for scrutiny because I feel I have nothing to hide and nothing to fear. If I mention others, it’s not to lay blame. I assume they have long since moved on, or forgotten what I’m even talking about, or at best might share a laugh or a solemn moment remembering with me. I hope so. I like to think I’d do the same.

Can I encourage you – give up your victim story. It’s time to give up that ten minutes of sickly-sweet, self-indulgent, self-centred, deliciously wounded fame for a happy lifetime of being a peaceful, wise, healthy nobody. Surrender your times and dates and lists and accounts – it’s time to move on, it’s time to grow up. The world needs more grown ups. People need hugs. You know, many little kids are more grown up than a lot of adults are? Ever had a hug from a little kid that felt like your grandma? Old souls – the world needs more of ‘em. I want to be an old soul, not a perpetually wounded, cry-baby one. I want to tell war stories, victory stories, not victim ones.