Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment and my seminary, Biblical Seminary, have teamed up to offer a 3 credit course for seminarians on the topic of child sexual abuse prevention and response. This course will run on our Hatfield campus on Monday nights during the month of June. To my knowledge, a course like this has not been offered before. I highly encourage you to send your pastors or church leaders for some continuing education.
Category Archives: Christianity
This weekend, Foundations Christian Counseling is hosting a 2 day conference, Counsel From the Cross at Spruce Lake Retreat. I will be speaking Friday night (8 pm) on “The Cross, the Church, and Trauma: Making the Church a Safe Place for Victims of Trauma.” Use the 2nd link above to register for the day or the weekend.
First published November 2013 at www.biblical.edu, this continues to be my primary experience today and so I offer you it again, slightly revised.
Thanksgiving is that time of year when we get together with family to enjoy good food, maybe a football game, and to be thankful for God’s provision during the past year. Sometimes, though, we don’t feel all that thankful. Yes, we recognize that God indeed has given us many good things, things like food, water, salary, housing, and the like. We acknowledge that we have no rights to demand these things. We acknowledge that there are many who are far worse off. Given recent events, we can imagine how much more blessed we are than those who refugees from civil wars in the Middle East.
And yet, despite our knowledge of grace and mercy, there are times when all we notice are the broken things in our lives—our bodies, our families, our communities.
I confess this is my state this Thanksgiving. I won’t bore you with the details but I struggle to stay focused on the many good things God has given me.
But it might surprise you that though I am noticing a lot of brokenness, I am not embittered or angry with God. I am full of lament. I lament the length of time it is taking God to act in some matters. I lament how much active and passive hatred for the other is present, even in there is in our Christian communities! Have we not lost love for those we consider outsiders? I lament that Jesus has not returned and ended death and suffering.
I am thankful for lament
Here’s what I am thankful for. We serve a God who has encouraged us to lament to him. Laments are cries of our heart where we question God (sometimes even accuse as in Psalm 89), cry out for relief, ask for understanding, and grieve over sins done by self and others. Think about this for a moment: what King in all the earth not only invites such communication but even writes words for his subjects? He is not afraid of our questions or our complaints. Giving him such can be an act of worship.
Enter Isaiah 64. Isaiah is a book of confrontation of sin, call for holiness, prediction of judgment, and vision of restoration. In addition, we find windows of Isaiah’s lament for what is going to unfold for Israel. Listen to portions of his lament and some of my commentary:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you.
Ok Lord, act already. Do it! What are you waiting for?
But when we continued to sin against them [the vulnerable, the righteous], you were angry…all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags…no one calls on your name…you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.
We so deserve your wrath Lord, but we are wasting away here Lord, if you don’t help us!
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father, we are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure O Lord…Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are your people.
Lord, we know you are our creator. We deserve no special recognition. Yet, remember we are your image bearers. Oh Lord, shape us, don’t destroy us.
Thankful I can vacillate?
Notice how Isaiah 64 and other laments (e.g., Psalm 42-43; Habakkuk, the book of Lamentations) bounce between recalling God’s goodness, questioning his plans, grieving own sin, yet imploring God to vindicate. Are these writers wishy-washy?
I don’t think so. Too often we think the best theology is all neat and tidy:
Problem + Victorious God = No Problem
While this will be true one day, it isn’t yet. And so we lament in vacillating and non-linear ways. Even as we proclaim God’s sovereign power, we also acknowledge that we are in great turmoil. These laments give us examples of how to hold on to our faith even as we have no answer for the moment. We are not required to end on a happy note. Look back at Psalms 42-3. See how the Psalmist cries out in despair, recalls better times, enjoins himself to hope in God, but then again remembers that he is great pain. Notice that neither Lamentations nor Habakkuk end in victory for the “good guys.” Lamentations, like Isaiah 64, ends with a question mark—“if you haven’t forgotten us already?” Habakkuk acknowledges the victory of being able to praise God in a terrible famine, but that doesn’t remove suffering or the reason for the lament in the first place (ongoing sin by Israel and her destruction by a pagan nation).
So, I’m thankful this season that we worship a great God capable of holding our laments and recording our tears. I am thankful that I do not have to pretend all is well for fear God will strike me down. He knows my pain. He has suffered in every way and so is a High Priest who can relate to my feelings of abandonment. And he is working for our future Good. But for now, I can lament that it (victory) hasn’t arrived in its fullest form and take comfort in a more realistic equation:
Problem + Presence of God = I Lament and am Not Alone
The first words of Alwyn Lau’s “Saved By Trauma” essay remind us that the work of Jesus Christ on the cross is the foundation and center point for all of Christianity.§ Without the cross, there is no Christian faith.
The Christian faith is centered around the historical trauma of the suffering, death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus. Christian theological reflection starts from and eventually relates back to the work of Christ. Indeed, for some theologians, the resurrection points back to and affirms the cross. The apostle Paul’s declaration that the Christian pronunciation is essentially “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23) ontologically entrenches trauma, destabilization, and anxiety at the heart of kerygymatic [sic] proclamation. (p.273)
Sit with that last sentence a bit. Christianity is at its core or essence a faith wrapped up in trauma. Yes, there is an all-important resurrection, but a resurrection cannot happen without a traumatic story (false-blame, injustice, torture, abandonment, and death). If Christianity is ANYTHING, then it is a faith that takes seriously the impact of brokenness.
So then, Lau makes an important next point about what a Christian theology should provide:
Theology proffers a distinct vocabulary to talk about personal and interpersonal wounding and trauma; the Christian community approximates a traumatic community. (ibid)
Victims of trauma ought to find great comfort and help from Christian leaders and communities because they observe a community that really gets their experience, both by word and deed.
Are we that community?
Or, are we a bit more like Job’s friends? Consider Lau again,
Job’s friends, in presenting all kinds of explanations for why Job suffered the tragedies he did, were attempting to obscure the trauma of the truth of evil in the world. Job’s disagreement–and God’s eventual vindication and endorsement of his views over against that of his friends–demonstrated resilience in the face of such tempting illusions of closure. Job refused to look away from the void in his pain. He refused to accept cheap solutions to the problem and “causes” of his suffering. (p. 274)
To become a safe community for victims of trauma, we must continue to highlight that God and trauma are put together (albeit willingly) for eternity in the abandonment and death of Jesus on the cross. In this God takes trauma (injustice, torture, and death) into his own being–no longer does it exist in creation. Again in the words of Lau, we need a “theology of Holy Saturday” if we are going to show that “hope can be spoken of only within the context of injustice, negativity, and despair; the joy and the Lordship of Christ takes place in and through sickness, death, and sin.” (ibid)
“If God’s being cannot be comprehended without factoring in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ…” (p. 275) then consider this statement:
“If indeed God suffers in the cross of Jesus in reconciling the world to himself, then there must always be a cross in the experience of God as he deals with a world which exists over against him.” (quote of Paul Fiddes in Lau, p. 275)
God is defined by trauma. But he, unlike creation, is not weakened by this trauma. Rather, Lau encourages us to see that “the God self-revealed and depicted in the Judeo-Christian tradition is a begin who, out of love for the created order, chose the trauma of death as a central facet of God’s self-definition.” (276) In an immeasurable act of love that had been present in God from eternity past, God chooses self-sacrifice to break the power of sin and death. And since this love is not temporal, then neither is God’s character ever without the knowledge and drive to reconcile a people to himself–even through trauma.
So what? What if we really understood God’s experience of trauma?
- The church would follow her head in the care of the most vulnerable even at the cost of her own comfort and safety. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory.” (Matt 12:20, quote of Isaiah 42:3)
- The church would regularly make room for lament (individual and corporate) as acts of faithful worship. Like Thomas, we need to see the wounds that remain in the risen Christ.
- Hope would be illustrated in her ability to equally cry out about the “not yet” part of God’s present kingdom even while she looks for the “already” present redemption and healing. There is as much hope in Psalm 88 and Lamentation 3 as there is in Revelation 21.
§Lau, A. (2016). Saved by trauma: A psychoanalytical reading of the atonement. Dialog, 55, 273-281.
Given the news in the last 24 hours about one politician’s indecent language (and his subsequent “apology”), it seems like a good time to review the human tendency to defend ourselves and shift blame. We’ve been doing this since Adam and Eve blamed others for their fall. But rather than shrug our shoulders or think we are better then politicians, let’s use this opportunity to remember what constitutes a good apology. Consider reading some of these previous posts and discussing with your friends. Ask yourselves where you need to grow:
This Saturday I will be attending and presenting Cairn University’s Faith in Practice conference hosted by their counseling center and department (free but you need to register). I will be speaking about how we can make the church a safer place for adult victims of abuse and trauma. If you want to peak at the slides, click here: 2016 Cairn U Presentation.
The presentation that I will do will only be one hour so that limits what I can do. What I wish I could do is also talk much more about the systemic factors that make churches less safe places for vulnerable people. While we can all grow in better understanding the nature of trauma and how to walk alongside victims, our institutions can be systematically harmful, even when the individuals within the system have no intention to hurt others. Thus we need to keep examining the ways our systems operate that can be toxic to some. While this presentation doesn’t cover these questions, it can be good to ask,
- How do we handle recent or older allegations of mis-handling difficult cases?
- How do we handle allegations of child abuse (the victims, the family, the alleged perpetrator and family, and congregation)?
- Are we a safe place for people who are broken and not all tidied up?
- Does our system allow for ongoing lament? (Corporate and individual)?
Take a minute right now and consider what churches you know would make your list of “influential” churches? What criteria would you use? Number of members? Growth? A well-known and revered senior pastor? Active in the community? A killer social media presence?
G. Campbell Morgan talks about influential churches in his commentary on the book of Acts. In discussion of the Spirit-led apostolic sermon in Acts 2, Morgan notes that influence then meant that the people were amazed at what they saw, interested enough to inquire (even if they were “perplexed” and even dismissive) and were attracted to join. How did these churches show lasting favor? Beyond the initial flame of the first days of growth, church members giving generously to each other indicates “influence.” When members are willing (not coerced) to give out of their own hearts then that church can be called influential.
The influential Church is the company of loyal souls who ‘continue steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, and in the breaking of bread and the prayers,’ who eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, who manifest in their individual lives and corporate capacity the strength, the beauty, the glory, the compassion of the Christ. Wherever there is such a Church you will find the Church that has favour with the people.
In 1924 when this book was published, here’s the kind of church that Morgan felt was called “influential” for wrong reasons,
We call a Church influential now because of the kind of people that attend it, because of the money which it raises for philanthropic objects.
I suspect we could add to this short list other forms of “influence” as how many people visit the church website, the number of times quoted in Christianity Today, or the number of satellite locations.
Is your church influential?
I suppose a few key questions might help us assess our own churches:
1. Are we better known, as a corporate body, for being compassionate or correct? Would your church be attractive to new refugees coming into your community?
2. How connected are the people who regularly attend? Would new attenders want to join in smaller cell groups?
3. Are outsiders perplexed and amazed by what the church is doing and teaching? For example (and these are examples admittedly come from my domain of counseling), does your church ever say anything about mental health issues? Does your church talk about the scourge of addiction–in a compassionate way? Does it talk about domestic violence in ways that do not suggest that staying together is more important than safety?
These questions should not be asked so much of the individuals within the church (though that isn’t a bad thing to do) but of the corporate identity.
Last February, BTS held a public dialogue on Temple’s campus entitled: From Protest to Process: Law Enforcement, Race, and Trauma, How Can the Church Become a Healing Community (the title tells you academics were involved in the process–but the topic was anything but just academic). During the Q and A time, there were several questions about what the church can do to help.
Any answer has to acknowledge that getting our heads and hearts wrapped around the problem and our wills engaged to be part of the solution is a monumental task–because it calls us to a place of discomfort. Take a minute and consider Dr. Shannon Mason’s initial two minute response: Can the church become an open wound community? Or will She prefer to close the wound and pretend that what is underneath is healed? While Dr. Mason’s illustration can be difficult to stomach, it is nevertheless apt!
Soon after the dialogue, I wrote the following just published piece for the BTS faculty blog. I list two small steps that suburban, predominantly white, congregations can take towards making a difference in our even more racially charged world. Surely we can do more that what I suggest, but if we don’t start with ownership of the problems, how will we ever engage?
Finally, you might think that race in America is a hopeless case. It sure seems so. But one-by-one, if we can have an impact on one person’s life, and that person has a positive impact on one other…then everything is possible. It may not be in our life-time and that is okay. We are not called to win the battle but to run the race set out before us.
Why does Jesus enter the world as he does? His entry into the theodrama is both obscure and dramatic at the same time—obscure in that save but a few shepherds and angels no one witnessed or knew the significance of his first days. Yet his entry into the world could not be more dramatic and shocking. God is either a crazy, histrionic, attention-seeking God…or God wants us to see something he is willing to pull out the stops to ensure we pay attention.
His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.
Truthfully, Jesus could have entered our world any way he wanted. He could have ridden an asteroid; he could have just appeared in the temple and shocked Zechariah out of his robes; at least he could have been born to royalty. But no, Jesus comes through a virgin teen girl from Galilee—about as nobody as you can get.
Impossibly dramatic. But there’s more drama to come.
Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
This bit of Scripture is more unbelievable than a virgin birth. Mary should have been stoned to death. Joseph should have been the first to accuse in order to clear his family name from everlasting dishonor and shame. If he did not, he could have risked being stoned himself, because who would have believed him when he said, “it’s not my child”? Yet, he did not choose the path of his culture and even the path of the Law. Rather he chose first to be discreet and second to consider his dream to be from God. And if you think this is not dramatic enough, notice that Joseph not only got a quickie marriage to protect his wife but he also chose not to pursue certain marital privileges until after the birth of Jesus—more signs that God wants to show us something dramatic is taking place.
Impossibly dramatic. But wait, there is more to come.
Whether to escape local gossips or out of desire to comply with a command from a distant Roman emperor, Joseph decides to take pregnant Mary and travel about 100 hundred miles south to Bethlehem. There Jesus is born, not in the safe and warmer confines of a house but in some shelter designed for animals.
She gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Laid in a trough. If you’ve ever been in an active barn…consider the smell! Impossibly dramatic.
Surely now, the story can follow a straight line. King Jesus is on earth and soon will take his rightful place, recognized by all. No, we are not quite there yet. A bit more drama is coming.
An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream…”take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt.”
Virgin birth, unusually protective fiancé, musty stable, and now we add to the story this: refugees fleeing in the middle of the night to former enslaving Egypt to avoid certain death. Can it get more dramatic? Frankly, it did. Imagine travelling on foot or donkey to Egypt from Bethlehem today, even with our helpful gadgets. It would be most dramatic, worthy of a best-seller!
So, why does Jesus enter the world like this?
It seems to me that God is trying to tell us at least two things.
- My love for you is so deep that it requires a dramatic entry. I will arrange the stars, bring wise and simple to worship; cause the rich to part with their wealth, put a ruler (Herod) on notice, impregnate a virgin, and miracle above miracle, move a man to ignore the blight to his own name and to take a publicly tarnished woman as his wife. I, God, will not wait for you to come to me. I will move heaven and earth to pursue you.
- My love for you is so deep that it requires that I experience your weakness and struggle. You have a high priest who sympathizes with your suffering. I will know poverty; I will know rejection; I will know obscurity; I will know what it is to be a refugee. I will take on your pain and one day, I will extinguish it forever.
The Christmas season is a good time for Christians to examine who they really serve. Sometimes, in the chaos we call “life” we can lose sight of who we worship. Last September Diane Langberg gave a twenty minute challenge to her audience about the dangers of confusing culture and Christendom with Christ. In her talk she explores the deception we mistake Christendom for the church. When we do, we fall prey to blind guides and to the temptation to protect institutions over being the hands and feet of Christ to the vulnerable. We fall prey to seeking power (or maintaining it) over speaking and being truth.
And for those who are not tempted to mistake Christendom for Christ, another danger exists. It is easy to become jaded with the church and want to abandon her as unhealthy. We can trust in our shrewd critique of the wrong things within the church. Yet, she calls us not to be toxic or arrogant. That will not serve the church well.