Truth to Power

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In today’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples how to settle their disputes. Jesus explains that they are to deal with conflicts between two parties and, if that does not work, then to address it openly in the company of others. The final step is to bring it to the church.

I’ve written many times on this blog about domestic abuse and how it has impacted my life. I’ve written about how it has affected my relationship with my former Catholic parish. I’ve called out the Catholic Church’s lack of response to domestic abuse. While the Catholic Church doesn’t openly condone domestic abuse, it doesn’t openly work to end it either. Imagine if the efforts to end domestic abuse rivaled that of the efforts to end abortion. And I’ve pointed out the missed opportunities that the Church has had to be supportive of empowering women in general. For a recap, you can read Accountability, Reading the Synod, Life Reclaimed, Love In The Ashes or Morning After Reaction: Like A Girl. 

So great, we all know I have a big mouth and a small but loyal readership. Is the leadership of the Catholic Church really knocking themselves out to see what I have to say? I somehow doubt it. So I did what Jesus told me to do. I brought it to the Church directly. Speaking truth to power, I took it directly to the bishop in the form of a letter that I fully expected to go unanswered. When his secretary called me ten days later and told me he wanted to meet with me, I almost keeled over.

Between my own experiences and some of the research I had done over the last semester, I had learned precisely how unprepared the parish priests are to deal with domestic abuse situations. There is no training on domestic abuse or the cycle of violence – none at all – not in seminary and not beyond that. And yet, they’re responsible for preparing couples for marriage and counseling those whose marriages run into difficulty. There’s a USCCB document about domestic abuse that offers some thoughts on the subject but most of the priests I’ve talked to don’t even know it exists. This lack of training is precisely what I called out in my letter to the bishop.

I requested that the Church begin addressing a number of things on a parish level.

  • To recognize abuse victims when they present themselves and to assess their immediate safety. When a victim makes any sort of indication that there are abusive behaviors in the home, they have to be told they have an option to leave if they don’t feel safe. The initial response can’t be to try to salvage the marriage.

 

  • Knowing where to refer victims for the specialized counseling they need and how to help them contact the local domestic violence shelters. This type of crisis counseling is highly specialized and it can’t be up to the parish priests to handle it. But they must know where to send victims to ensure they get the help they need to recover. Also knowing how to help a victim get in touch with a shelter can be the difference between life and death.

 

  • Knowing where to refer abusers for the specialized counseling they also need, which is not simply anger management classes. Anger is an emotion. Abuse is a choice. Abusers have their own unique issues and they also need specialized long-term counseling. Their need for power and control is not all that different from a drug addict seeking their next high. And until they are ready to accept full responsibility for their actions, nothing will change.

 

  • Accountability for abusers. Far too often, abusers escape any real consequences from the civil authorities. In the Church, there are no consequences whatsoever. A known abuser should be held accountable for their actions, up to and including moving an abuser to a different parish to prevent contact with the victim.

 

  • Safe sanctuary for victims. The sacraments offer healing and grace. Victims need to be able to access the sacraments, without fear, in order to heal. The ability to be active in parish life should not be contingent upon trying to avoid contact with their abuser.

 

  • Raising awareness. The Catholic Church devotes a lot of time and energy to raising awareness of causes it cares about: abortion, religious freedom, immigration etc. Domestic abuse is a sin against the basic human dignity we all share. And it’s time the Church started talking about it openly.

 

I spent nearly an hour with the bishop going over where things fall far short of what is needed, both in general and in my specific situation. We talked about solutions, including the way the Lutheran churches handle situations where the abuser and victim are in the same parish. Ultimately, he promised me that he would address this with all the priests of the diocese at the convocation of priests and they will work to find ways to address each of the concerns that I raised, including some form of accountability for abusers.

And so now I have brought the issue to the Church. I have done what is within my power to do and it is now out of my hands. I will be watching closely to see what happens. I’ve made a conscious effort to keep my jadedness in check and to take this one bishop in this one diocese at his word. Seeing the Church, even on a local level, finally address the issue of domestic abuse would bring a great deal of healing to survivors like myself.

My Way Isn’t Working

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Patience is a virtue. It isn’t one of mine. Now if stubbornness were a virtue, I’d be golden. Don’t be misled, I don’t mean the never-give-up type of perseverance that has brought me through some really rough times. I mean the hard-headed, I-got-my-Irish-up stupid type of stubborn that has a tendency to land me in trouble. Yeah, there’s no spiritual reward in that kind of stubborn. Trust me on that one.

Still nursing my injured foot, I lasted five whole days on the crutches before I did anything overly stupid. Then I decided I could cook dinner and hobbled around the kitchen on one crutch to do it. Not only did I make the foot incredibly sore but I also burned my hand in the process. Given another four days, I decided to walk the half mile from my lousy commuter student parking space to my sociology class using only one crutch, not taking into account the fact that I had to then walk back. I was in tears by the time I got back to my car. That was three days ago and as of this very moment, I’m sitting at the kitchen table, with my foot iced and elevated, crutches by my side, sipping on a cup of strong Irish tea and pondering ways to bake a batch of snickerdoodles without putting weight on my foot – or if there is any way I can get away with putting just a little weight on it.

My younger son watched me get up yesterday and head into the kitchen on one crutch and called after me, “Uh, Mom, should you be using TWO crutches. You’re never going to get off them if you keep this up.”

Darn kid. Why did I ever teach that one to talk? But he makes a valid point. I know if I use both crutches and stay off my foot as much as possible, it doesn’t hurt and the swelling goes down considerably. So why do I keep trying to do what I usually do? Because I can’t stand not being able to do things for myself and in my own way. Because I can’t stand having to ask for help. Because the only way for this foot to heal is to be still and wait.

Be still and wait. I’m perfectly fine with being still. Sometimes. At times of my choosing. For finite amounts of time. Oh alright, I’m okay with being still when it’s on my own terms. And waiting – also, for finite amounts of time and on my own terms.

How many times have I needed God’s help and wouldn’t ask? How many times did I decide to limp along and make things worse rather than be still and wait for the healing or answers or guidance that I needed? How many times am I going to charge ahead with only half of what I need? How many times am I going to let my stupid pride trip me up, both spiritually and physically? What’s going to take to get through this thick head of mine?

Maybe spending a third week on crutches will get me to sit still and ponder these questions. Maybe after a batch of cookies…Hey, this office chair has wheels, I’m sure I can manage on my own.

Okay. Okay. I’ll admit it. I can’t stand being laid up because I can’t stand not being in control because not being in control scares the shit out of me. But I also have to admit, my way isn’t working. Maybe it’s time to let go, be still and wait.

What I Wish My Church Knew (About My Divorce)

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November 7, 2008. Divorce finalized. That’s my anniversary now. And it’s a very lonely one marked by no one but me. Being part of church community after a divorce can be extremely hard and there are some things I wish I’d been able to say over the last seven years but could never quite find my voice. So these are the things I wish my church knew about my divorce.

I need you to believe me.

When I say that things were bad, I need you to know that what little I’m able to bring out words is a thousand times bigger and darker than what I can manage to express. When I come back to you after the divorce saying I need help to negotiate a way for myself and my children to be a part of the community because my ex has now decided to joined as well, I honestly need your help. It’s not a bid for your attention or some game to slam my ex. I don’t feel safe, whether that’s physically, emotionally, or spiritually doesn’t really matter. Church is meant to be a sanctuary, a safe place, and you are the one I’m trusting to help me find that space. I need practical, pragmatic solutions not platitudes or a lecture. I know it’s messy. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t need your help.

Sometimes I lie when I say I’m okay.

When you ask me how I am, look at me. Really look at me. See the circles under my eyes and the tear stains on my cheeks. Hear the strain in my voice. Because there are days when it’s just easier to say I’m okay than it is to explain why I’m not. I know you really don’t have the time after the service to listen about the umpteenth battle over child support or the way my kids have started talking to me the way their father used to or how much it hurts that the guy who I really enjoyed having coffee with will never call me again because dating a divorced woman with teenagers was more than he wanted to handle. I know you have a hundred other people to say hello to this morning so I’ll say I’m okay even when I’m not. And something as simple as hug or a reminder that you’re there if I need to talk goes a long, long way towards letting me know it’s okay to not be okay.

Just because I’m in pain doesn’t mean I’m bitter or unforgiving.

The pain of divorce doesn’t end when the ink is dry on the divorce decree. And that pain changes over time. But that doesn’t mean I’m bitter or unforgiving. I will celebrate a thousand little victories this year that you will never know about and I find great joy in those things that would be silly or mundane to anyone else. I will change my hair or wear that shade of nail polish or go out to dinner alone and it that will feel like I’ve conquered the whole world, because for me, I have. But you’ll never see that. You will see me flinch when you preach against divorce when we read Mark 10. You will see me cringe when you preach about marriage. You will see my tears when you preach about forgiveness. Yes, I am in pain. But that doesn’t mean I’m bitter. And forgiveness for me is everyday thing. Especially when, because of the kids, I still have to be in contact with the one who hurt me so deeply. Instead of assuming I need to let it go or to move on or that I’m resentful, ask me what hurts and then listen to my answer. Listen to what I don’t say and ask me about that too. I already have a lot of people who make assumptions about my life, so please, please don’t be another one.

I feel invisible.

I hear your sermons on marriage and against divorce. I hear your sermons about relationships, including the relationship with God and how you use a good marriage as your example. I feel left behind as I don’t know what that looks like and I don’t know that I ever will. I see happy couples renew their wedding vows during a service and it’s bittersweet for me. My marriage was real. It no longer exists, but it did once. I went into it with such huge hopes and dreams and when I took my vows, I meant them. Seeing couples who have stood the test of time gives me hope that such love is real and possible and I love that you hold them up and celebrate their love. But I wish the church that offers an annual service for all married couples to renew their vows would also hold an annual service of healing for those of us whose marriages imploded. Give me a litany of my defeats and my victories and let me celebrate that by the grace of God I have survived what I thought would destroy me. Acknowledge that I exist and that my situation is not so uncommon. I know a lifetime marriage is the ideal but show me that I’m not alone and that I still matter as much as I did when I was a married woman. Show my children that church is a place of healing for the broken times in life.

I am more than my grief.

I have been divorced now seven years and one day. I lost everything in my divorce, far more than mere property. I came away with my confidence destroyed, my reputation under attack and my dignity in shreds. But I have worked through my grief. I spent time in your support groups and made retreats with other divorced people. I have spent time in therapy and remain in spiritual direction. I have learned who my friends are and sadly, who they are not. I’ve grown and changed and I’m in a different place now. I’m looking for new ways to connect with people. I want room to grow and a channel for my pain. Give me a space to be constructive, beyond working with other divorced people. See that I am more than my divorce. Let my experiences help to improve your pre-marriage preparation program or your marriage ministry or both. I know where I made my mistakes. Let me share that wisdom. Ask me how my divorce has changed my relationship with God. My answers might surprise or inspire you.

These are only some of the things I wish my church knew. What little I’m able to bring out words is a thousand times bigger and darker than what I can manage to express. It’s a question no one has ever asked me but it’s an answer that needs to be heard. We’re all so many different people in so many different situations in life, sitting in your pews, seeking so many different things and in so many different ways. Maybe it would help if you would ask the question: What do you wish your church knew? And then, without judgment, listen to the answers.

A Tale Of Thorns & Lawnmowers

My Week of Guided Prayer wrapped up this morning. I suppose I should’ve seen it coming when the week started off with a few days of reassurance. Remember this? We got through this together and you’re still in one piece? Remember? Well sucker that I am, I thought maybe God and I might spend the entire week sort of reminiscing on how He never abandoned me. Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday were full of all these little reminders of hard times but ones that stand out so clearly as times only God could’ve brought me through.

Then Wednesday happened. The scripture readings and the book I had been reading coincided with all the subtlety of an Acme safe being dropped on my head. I talked to my director, who by Tuesday had been aptly dubbed by my mother as “NotRon”.  NotRon told me she felt like quite certain I was being pruned. It was just the image that came to her and as soon as she said it I knew she was right. I also knew exactly which passage in John she was talking about and we circled back to again on Thursday and Friday.

I watched my neighbor lovingly prune her rosebush earlier this year, carefully cutting away all the dead stuff and tossing it aside into what became a huge pile. Later in the summer, that bush bloomed beautifully. I’ve never seen it with as many roses as she had this year. Okay this is an image to work with – right? Well, I had a rosebush once. It was kind of small and scrawny but I loved it. Then my brother ran it over with the lawnmower. It almost recovered. Then he ran it over again. At which point, despite my best efforts, all I had dead thorn-covered stick in the ground. After the last few days, I can now tell you that when it comes to pruning, what may be from the gardener’s perspective a careful and loving pruning, from the bush’s side feels every bit like getting run over by a lawnmower. Twice.

Adding to the overflowing *joy* that was the result of being safe-dropped and lawnmowered, twice, my schedule that I so carefully cleared decided to take on a life of it’s own. My ex-husband decided to use this week to rid my ex-house of not only my ex-stuff but also of many things I had saved from the boys’ earliest childhood. He showed up at my house twice, sending the boys in carrying boxes of stuff to pick through, deciding what I could keep and what could be tossed while he waited in driveway. Meanwhile, at my house, my mother had also decided she needed this particular week to purge stuff and suddenly anything and everything of mine was in her way. By Thursday night, thankfully, she had stopped. She sat and watched me quietly as I sorted, for the second time, through a box my ex had dropped off, tossing aside the cards full of lies and the calendar I’d hung in Andrew’s nursery to hide the hole my ex had punched in the wall next to my head. 17 years later, I was suddenly back in that room, a scared 25 year-old new mom using my bare hand to brush the sheetrock dust out of the crib and out of an infant Andrew’s hair.

When I finally got ready to go up to bed, Mom asked me, “Is it traumatic? To see it all again?”

“Yes. Very.”

End of conversation. But somehow it was enough.

IMG_2529I spent Friday morning at the beach and finished the book. I went home and holed myself up in Andrew’s Man Cave for a few hours until it was time to meet one last time with NotRon. Feeling every bit like a dead thorn-covered stick in the ground, I journaled for awhile and I looked at a picture I had stumbled across mid-week. It captured so perfectly what I felt. It came alive for me. A heart desperately trying to fly away, branded Useless, wrapped up in barbed wire and chained to a huge weight. And I know, really deeply know, what that heart feels like. Every time it tries to break free, the barbed wire cuts in deeper and the chain drags it right back down until it slams into the ground like an out-of-control kite. There’s nothing to do but wait to be held still by strong steady hands, wait to be cut loose, and wait to be carefully untangled. The words trust and surrender and pruning and deeper healing have all been batted about this week. But I think the words that will probably stick with me the most are these:

So if God is waiting around for the same heart to feel nice, loving, warm, pink, fuzzy things about someone who is my enemy, well, I think God might be waiting a while. So I wondered if maybe the prayer part of the “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” bit was about how we love them. Maybe my little “God, help me not to be an asshole” prayer was the smallest little opening for God to do God’s thing.

-Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber Pastrix

Somehow God doing God’s thing sounds less scary to me than surrender. Maybe because it sounds like God actually knows what He’s doing and isn’t just gassing up the lawnmower.

Me Too

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It had been a crazy day to top off a crazy week. Thursday was winding down and not fast enough. All I wanted was to get to 2:30 so I could go home. I just needed my day and my work week to be over. I was tired, stressed and achy. At 2:20 my boss called. She needed us to call a client right away. My coworker was already late leaving and would already have to rush to pick up her daughter at school. I had a little time before I had to go get my son. “Go.” I told her. “I got this one.” I didn’t feel like it. I needed to get some detailed information from the client and there was no telling how long this could take.

Please, please, please let this be an answering machine, I prayed as I dialed.

“Hello?” It was the wife.

Shit! Seriously God?!? Was an answering machine too much to ask for?!

So I introduced myself and asked my questions about the husband. She explained that she needed insurance for herself as well. She said she’d be harder to help as she has a chronic illness. She sounded ready to cry.

Okay, maybe I have a few minutes.

“I understand what that’s like.” I explained, “I have rheumatoid arthritis and I know making sure your doctors and drugs are covered is so important.”

“Me too!” She suddenly brightened up and grouchy as I was, so did I.

We went on to spend the next forty minutes, long past quitting time, talking about how we were misdiagnosed for years, how we finally got the right diagnosis. We discussed the weather and the havoc it wreaks on our bodies. We talked about what it felt like to deal with the undercurrent of skepticism from people around us and the frustration of being treated as if having a flare is somehow our fault. We delved into the feelings of guilt that come with not being to do the things we used to be able to do so easily – working full time being one of those. We touched on the anger we felt towards doctors who wouldn’t listen to us or treat us as human beings with thoughts and feelings, choosing instead to see us as guinea pigs, case numbers or both. We compared treatment strategies and the fear of the misjudging the complications from the drugs we use versus the damage the disease itself can do.

When we finally hung up, she was noticeably calmer and more upbeat. So was I.

Alright. I admit it. I needed that. Thank you, Lord. Okay. Quit smirking damn it.

As the conversation replayed in my head later that night, I realized how easily I fall into the trap of hiding or outright lying about how I’m really feeling. It’s not because I think people don’t care so much as I know they can’t truly understand. If you don’t know what it’s like to feel betrayed by your own body, you can’t truly relate, no matter how much you want to. It’s easier for me to just keep quiet than to try to find the right words to explain.

Yeah. Me. A writer. Struggling for words. I hope that paints a bit of the picture.

The problem with keeping those feelings hidden from others is that, after awhile, it becomes such a habit that I start keeping them from myself too. How many times do I have to be reminded that the secrets I keep are the ones that poison me slowly? Obviously, I needed one more.

This reminded me of another conversation, one I had shortly after I had filed for divorce. After an exceptionally raw session with my therapist, he told me, “Chris, you’re trying to get somebody to completely understand the pain that you feel. It’s never going to happen. No one will EVER understand it. That pain is yours and yours alone.”

That statement knocked the wind out of me. I cried uncontrollably for two days. Then I walked into church at the end of the second day and stood before a statue of Jesus, beaten, bloodied and dressed in the red robes and crown of thorns. As I looked into His face, it suddenly hit me full force that He knew. He knew my pain. He knew ALL of it. He’d been right there with me through all of it, not watching it but feeling it with me.

I guess I needed to be reminded of that too.

It’s funny how much healing there can be in those two simple little words: me too.