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One Can’t Rush The Process of Forgiveness: A Personal Story of Sexual Trauma

A picture of the author in front of a large rock

The author

Sexual trauma. Two uncomfortable words to see in print and to write about, particularly in the church. Sex is still a taboo subject in the church in the year 2018, although church folks are having quite a bit of it – whether it is wrong or right, single or married, ethical or unethical, or even scandalous. The point I am making is this: not talking about sex in the church does not mean the church is avoiding the trauma that is continuously happening with its members, congregants, guests, visitors, and so on.

Unfortunately, sexual trauma happens too often to too many girls and boys every day in various homes, church spaces, schools, parks, and more. It doesn’t care what race, gender, ethnicity, religion, denomination, time of the day or week nor time of the month. All it cares about is what it needs at the time when it is ready to feast on the innocent and unconsenting bodies.

The needs of sexual trauma are to control, manipulate, and distort the minds of both the perpetrator and victims. Many do not survive its wrath.

I lived to tell my story of how I wrestled this evil spirit of sexual trauma, although I wish it could have been for only one night like Jacob. I have spent years purging the damage and residue of its grips from the depths of my mind, spirit, and soul.

Even now, it is difficult to write about my experience; toiling over this piece thinking of a way how I can tell my story. Where do I start? How much should I tell? Do I even want to remember those events of my life? This is a part of my narrative. Sexual trauma had its tentacles in shaping the woman I am today, unfortunately. But, no glory will be given to sexual trauma for no good thing it has done in my life, but all good things come from God.

Due to the invasion of sexual trauma I had no choice but to desperately search for wells in dry places in my adulthood, particularly when I was pressed to forgive and love my perpetrator by church folks. I know that Scriptures teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31) and to be kind and forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32). Throughout my young adulthood, other believers urged me to forgive and love my perpetrator. This request seemed to be in support of the perpetrator rather than in my best interest of getting healed.

It seemed unimaginably unfair to me. It was so disheartening that my body was violated. My trust had been broken. My mind had suffered from flashbacks and the entrapments of withdrawals as I navigated my altered life. Too many burdens for anyone to bear alone.

Why do have to be the responsible one to love him and forgive him in order to receive my healing? Why are people quoting these Scriptures to me in the midst of my trauma without even asking me how am I doing? I believe people sometimes rush the process of forgiveness and place unwarranted pressure on victims of trauma to forgive their perpetrators. Read more

dark coffee in small cup with saucer decorated with flowers on a wooden table top, looking from the top

A Young Christian Woman and a Young Muslim Woman Walk into a Cafe

dark coffee in small cup with saucer decorated with flowers on a wooden table top, looking from the topA young Christian woman and a young Muslim woman walk into a cafe…no, this isn’t the beginning of a joke. Interfaith jokes rarely include women – in fact even more serious images of interfaith relationships depict male priests, rabbis, imams, or monks gathering for a meal, a drink, or a football game. These images are often quite moving, serving as powerful reminders that God is at work through many religions and giving us glimpses of hope that we can get along. But such images are also not as accessible to me as a young clergywoman nor, I suspect, for the many people who see them as feel-good niceties that don’t have any real influence on how we understand God. I want to offer a new image for interfaith relationships from my own life, one anchored in the messiness of life and friendship and featuring young women:

It was one or two in the morning, so we were not in a cafe, but we’d had so much Bosnian coffee that day that we still couldn’t shut our eyes. We hadn’t seen each other in person for a few years so we had plenty to talk about: married life, new jobs, what it is like to be young women leaders in our communities. But, of course, we instead were talking about which Turkish soap opera actors are the cutest; at least, until Đana’s voice became serious: “Can I ask you something?” “Of course,” I responded, but I was still scrolling through overly dramatic stills of scenes from the soap operas we had been talking about. She asked, “What is this Trinity? God is one. How can God also be Jesus, a human?”

This was not the question I was expecting. As often as we spoke of God throughout the years of our friendship, I was wary of talking about theology and doctrine or even Jesus because I didn’t want to seem pushy, offend her, or hurt her. Đana is a Muslim who was targeted for genocide when she was a child by people claiming to share my faith in Christ. But now Đana was asking me (at a ridiculous time of day and while I was looking at pictures of Murat Yıldırım) to talk about my Christian faith. Her question challenged me to identify the difference such stories and doctrines made in my life, and why they matter. Read more

Lawful and Beneficial: An Exploration of Faith and Academic Freedom

As we begin a new semester, and a new school year, after the summer we have had as a country, I am thinking about academic freedom. In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes twice that “all things are lawful but not all things are beneficial” (6:12 and 10:23). Paul was likely responding to a saying in the community at Corinth with the “all things are lawful” part.

There are, as with many Greek words, different ways to translate the second half: is he saying that not all things are edifying? profitable? expedient? helpful? I choose to translate it “beneficial” because I think that covers pretty much all those other options. All things are allowable, but not all things are beneficial. As a seminary professor and Christian, I think of this as a good way to consider the topic of academic freedom.

The academy (including Christian college, seminary, or secular state institutions), is a place where ideas should flow freely. Mistakes should be made, and even encouraged, so that everyone in the community (professors and students alike) can learn and grow. I often assign readings that I agree with wholeheartedly — readings that have challenged my thinking and broadened my perspective. I also assign readings that I don’t agree with, because they are important to have as part of the conversation in the class.

My students can expect to be challenged in their thinking in my courses. Read more

Faithful Families: An Interview with Traci Marie Smith

Faithful Families has new material, expanding on Seamless Faith. Which faith practice were you most excited to add?

Though it is a sad practice, I was grateful to write a practice for pregnancy loss. It’s something that was requested in more than one workshop and small group discussion. Losing a child before birth is heart wrenching and awful and it’s hard to know how to talk about with other children. Also, the church hasn’t done a great job of opening up opportunities for families to grieve and remember together. ​I was also excited to add a practice on tolerance and the golden rule for families that are interested in raising children to be kind and knowledgable about religions other than their own. ​

As you’ve shared your books with parents, churches, pastors, and Christian educators, what has surprised you? What stories have you heard of how faith practices have helped children and families to learn and grow? Read more

Harnessing Courage: A Review

harnessing-courage nov 2016Over the years, I have often wished that “regular” people better understood life with a significant disability. As an Episcopal priest who is completely deaf, I’ve struggled with the writing of authors who were able-bodied and exploring disability as a theological construct or something which needed to be overcome. As a hospital chaplain and a parish priest focused on pastoral care, I need something written from the inside, which described both the highlights and the lowlights of life with a significant disability, and which asked the reader to engage the author as an intellectual equal.

Laura Bratton’s book, Harnessing Courage: Overcoming Adversity with Grit and Gratitude, is an excellent entry into this category. The story of one young pastor’s journey into blindness and the world of disability resonated strongly with me, and it has the potential to fill that niche of dialogue with those who have no disability and who seek to understand. It will also be a useful tool to those who are beginning to work through a new diagnosis which may result in disability. Read more

reed on pink background

O Gentle Savior

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen one in whom I delight;

I will put my Spirit on him,

and he will bring justice to the nations.

He will not shout or cry out,

or raise his voice in the streets.

A bruised reed he will not break,

and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

Isaiah 42:1-3

reed on pink backgroundThe pastor read these words from Isaiah: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench…,” and suddenly I was listening. Read more

friendship bracelets

Who I Am With Them

friendship braceletsI have been best friends with the same four women for over 20 years. It’s only now that we’re in our 30’s that we’ve realized how fortunate we are to have sustained our friendship for so long. What a gift it is to have friends who have known me as a little girl, a young woman, and into middle age, who have witnessed the successes and failures of every stage of life, and who have loved me through them all. However, this intimate knowledge of my life is not all that my friends offer me. It has taken me some time to recognize and make peace with this, but part of the gift of their friendship is that my friends do not respect or even acknowledge my calling as a minister.

Initially, we five were drawn together because we lived in the same neighborhoods and were in the same classes at school. We “played well together” at an age when that was the most important part of friendship. As the years went on we experienced our share of falling-outs and at times (as all friends do) hurt each other deeply. But we stayed together, and what had once been playground compatibility slowly and mysteriously transformed into a mature love.

Always, this love was enriched by our mutual love of God. As children, our religion was simple: we all went to different churches in our Bible Belt community, but the bottom line was that we believed that Jesus had saved us. My friends were Church of Christ, Southern Baptist and Presbyterian Church (PCA). I was United Methodist. When we were small, we thought ourselves quite a charmingly diverse little club of Christians. But as we grew older and learned more about the differences in our theologies and how these played out practically in our lives, the religious tensions grew. By the time we were teenagers, I was feeling the heart-slap of these tensions. One Sunday, one of my friends told me she wasn’t allowed to step foot in my church because my church was “liberal.” The most obvious difference between our churches was that my denomination ordained women, while theirs had explicitly condemned women pastors. Read more

Giving Online Dating a Try

Online Romance

Online Romance

It’s no secret that dating is hard. As women, we’re still trying to achieve equal pay in the workforce, so dating can often take a back burner to work. For clergywomen, dating seems to be especially difficult.

A few years ago, I began to notice the same dating advice coming up again and again in conversations with friends: “Have you tried online dating?” At first, I was a bit put off by this. Perhaps I read too much into the suggestion. My thought was this: clearly my friends think I cannot possibly meet anyone wearing my Geneva Robes and clerical collar, so an online profile where a man can read all about me and then find out I’m clergy might be the best route. While wearing my collar, I was once told by a congregation member, “You’ll never catch a man in that.” I assumed my friends were thinking the same thing.

With the question of “why online dating?” looming over me, I finally polled the audience, my group of Facebook friends, to see what I could find out. I asked anyone I knew to simply answer a question – why would you suggest online dating to a single person?

One distinct, clear, and concise answer appeared over and over – people meet people online. It’s a thing. It happens. It’s real. The statistics are out there, today over 25% of relationships begin online. Everyone, and I mean everyone, knows someone or is someone who met their special someone online. My assumptions about my friends’ advice were squashed, their suggestion had nothing to do with me being clergy, it was a real, honest, heartfelt suggestion. Try online dating.

For years I’ve thought that being clergy meant I needed to have more faith than the average person. In the dating realm, I needed to have faith that God would bring me the right man. I wasn’t supposed to have doubts or fears about my future as a wife and mother, I must have faith. More than one person has actually said to me that my career is all about faith, so I should have faith, it should be easy. But faith is actually hard, for clergy and laity alike.

Jesus tells us to ask and the question will be answered. He never said the question would be answered right now or that we were even asking the right question, he simply said that God will answer. Because of this I recently posed this question to a group of singles from The Young Clergy Women Project, “Would you like me to pray for you to find a partner and would you pray for me?” The response was wonderful. Dozens of women asked to be prayed for and offered to pray for me.

So after I polled my friends on “Why try online dating?” I prayed about it. It may sound like a silly thing to ask God, or it might seem silly that I didn’t ask God in the first place, but I finally asked. Unfortunately, God isn’t a genie who answers at my beck and call, so I haven’t gotten a clear answer. I’ll let you know if I figure it out. But until then, I’m willing to give it a shot.

To Be or Not To Be… A “None”

July 2014 Emily and brothersMy brothers and I were raised in a medium-sized Presbyterian congregation in a small southern city. We went to Sunday school, worship, and the Wednesday night program. Our parents were at various times youth advisors, ruling elders, worship leaders, and members of a supper club. We liked our pastor; we liked our church. But by college, none of us felt comfortable saying the Apostles’ Creed. Today, after a rather unusual conversion experience in college, I am a Presbyterian minister. My younger brother lives and works in India with his wife, who was also raised Presbyterian. He is both skeptic and seeker, and is not currently affiliated with any faith community. My youngest brother is agnostic at best. The three of us remain close friends, however, and religion is not a taboo subject. These poems explore our various experiences of being “nones,” a growing category of young adults in America today who identify with no faith tradition. The first poem is a meditation on the term itself—as viewed from each of our perspectives. The second poem takes on the voice of my youngest brother, the true none. The third adopts the perspective of the middle child, and the final one tells my own story. My challenge as a poet is also my challenge as a Christian and as a sister—to really listen to the other without moving too quickly to judgment.

I. Prologue: none

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the US public—and a third of adults under 30—are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling. —“‘Nones’ on the Rise” (2012)
I like it.
It has a nice ring.
Faith? None.
Religion? None.
God? None.
Obligations? None.
Objections? None.

* * *

No one way to say God.
No one way to say Truth.
No one way to say Love.

* * *

No one to call Maker.
No one to call Savior.
No one to light on your lips like a tongue of fire.
No one to praise when the vista brings tears to your eyes.
No one to call Abba Father when the bottom falls out of your life.
No one to bless your beautiful, broken self.

* * *

The difference between
a “none” and one
who believes is so small really.
A penned arc,
an answered prayer
a slight tear in the tightly woven
fabric of assumption and experience.

II. A none’s integrity

There’s a lot about church I like, an open-minded one at least.
Community outside work, volunteering, discussions of
meaning, ethics. I see the value of that.
The problem is worship. If you don’t believe in God,
the whole thing is pretty awkward, if not bizarre.
I don’t mind being a spectator; why
should church be any different from the rest of my life?
But I can tell they think I am one of them, a Christian, a believer,
a setter-aside of the obvious absurdity of absolute truth claims in a pluralistic world.
I want to represent things as they actually are.
It’s like why do people say I love you?
It means something different to everyone, so what does it even mean?
They should say instead, I feel great when you’re happy.
Or, I want to protect you. Or, I’m hanging up now. Good night.

III. An almost-none’s almost-story

Everyone wants a story,
but the slide into something
less than faith but not quite
atheist isn’t terribly
climactic. It’s having
more questions than
answers and being in the middle
of ten thousand things and moving
every couple of years and loving
every idea and sensation and riding
an auto rickshaw to work and seeing
the Muslims on their knees and the Sikhs
feed their fifty thousand daily and thinking
about the people in churches
like moths at a front porch light,
but still kind of hoping
that something
bigger than our monkey brains
will reveal itself.

IV. I too was a none

I was raised Presbyterian
in a sea of Southern Baptists,
went to church camp, learned the creed, knew myself
loved by God and Sunday school teachers.
I liked that every sermon ended with a question;
it gave me permission to start asking,
as I wondered whether my parents really believed.
By college, I loved the preacher’s son but not the Lord—
Jesus just a character in one holy book among many.
Myself just another “none” among the too busy—
Friday and Saturday nights our mad worship,
sleeping in, our half-Sabbaths of recovery.
Because overachievers may be mistaken
for believers and young Presbyterians
were in short supply, I found myself
nearly nineteen, a “youth advisory delegate”
at the Presbyterian version of Congress in Long Beach,
eyes glazing over, backside numb from
never-ending meetings, hearing speech after speech—was this
a leadership opportunity or a desperate recruiting attempt
by the league’s worst team? Jesus was the last
person I expected to see—assuming him to be
bound to the errant page, icon of a different age,
having been passed on the right and left
by football, science, and the American Dream.
Meanwhile, the protesters gathered
decently and in order
a circle of white shirts and rainbow crosses
outside the sanctuary doors—
Soul Force ready and willing to fight injustice
with a few hundred handshakes and a smile.
Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist soldiers raged nearby,
signs proclaiming the good news
that God hates—well, you know, and
it occurred to me then
where God most certainly was not,
but before I could follow that thought
to its logical conclusion I was shaking
hands with a smiling man,
whose innocuous spiel I could barely hear,
as a torrent of emotion rushed over me—
centuries of pain caused by fear and loathing in La Iglesia
(“Perverts,” “Keep Away From Our Children,” “Abomination,” “SINNER”)
and when I came up for air, a voice in my head saying,
“Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.”
And there he was, the Jesus-I-Didn’t-Believe-In in my face,
saying, “Here I am, outside the Church,
what are you going to do about it?”
And that was only the beginning
of the Acts 10 reenactment—first the weird visitation
to declare the unclean clean,
then the partnered gay pastor
knocking on the door of my life,
then the Spirit pouncing again and again
when I least expected it, and sometimes
even when I demanded it—putting the Lord my God to the test
with all the hubris of a spoiled child.
Maybe the only cure for a None
is a healthy dose of the One,
who is
(unfortunately for America)
(thank God)
not for sale.

Changing Communities

bath timeEvery time I bathe my one-year-old son, I think of baptism. Baptism leads my mind to community. Each time the water runs down his hair, I’m reminded of my changing community. 

When I was finishing Seminary, we had to write a 30 Page “CREDO” statement of our beliefs as a culmination to our years of studying and working.  Though I had dreaded writing it because 30 pages seemed so long (though it really wasn’t since I regularly wrote 20 page papers), I found it was actually difficult to write because it was too short.  How can one person possibly sum up everything she believes in only 30 pages (and not one more!)?  I focused on community created in Christ and spent 30 pages talking about how important I felt community is in the life of the believer and the Church, how the Sacraments bring us together as community, and so on. I had always been a person that had a church community, youth group, small group Bible study, and so on that I belonged to.  I only knew how to believe as one who is a part of a faith community.  My faith and belief have always been so strongly tied to my community that they are hard for me to separate in my mind.

One of the first things I started thinking about when I found out I was pregnant in 2011 was the community of faith that my child would be raised in.  My denomination practices infant baptism, and I believe that a large part of baptism is about the parents and community committing to raise the child in the faith and child being introduced and formally included into the life of the church.  Baptism calls the child into a life of faith and gives him his vocation as a follower of Christ.  It is an important Sacrament. When would we have him baptized?  How were we going to get all of our family (in two different states) in the same place at the same time to allow them to participate in this special event in my son’s life and also the life of the Church?

Then I left the ministry.  I announced I was pregnant one Sunday.  The following Sunday it was announced my call was coming to an end in the congregation.  I was four months pregnant when I left the church.  We visited churches in the area for a while, and tried visiting after he was born too, but found it challenging given napping, routines, and an uneasiness with unknown childcare workers in unknown congregations’ nurseries. 

I struggled with this sudden lack of community.  This was the first time in my life I could recall not having a community surrounding me, especially at this special and sacred time in our family’s life.  I spent many hours contemplating what to do about his baptism.  Where should we have it done?  When would make sense?  What community would we join in order to surround him with his Christian community?  Who were we asking to help us raise him in the faith and nurture his calling from Christ through baptism?

As my son’s first year came and went, his baptism did not happen.  Many hours of contemplation later, my husband and I have decided to have him baptized in the church I served in as a Seminary Intern.  It is the place we both feel at home, and we return there two or three times a year when we are in town (It’s 500 miles and 3 states away).  When we walk in the doors, we know we are home and we are loved.  It is a very special community and we treasure our time with them!  We’ve spoken with the Pastor, who is also my mentor, and she has agreed to it.  Now we just need to find a time that works for the church, our families, and our travel schedule. He’s already one now, so my sense of urgency is less.  He will not sleep peacefully through it and will instead wiggle, squirm, and make noise, and it will be ok.  It will happen when it happens, and we will all celebrate.  It will be good.

At his first birthday party this past November, we all gathered around to sing “Happy Birthday” and have him blow out the candle on his cake.  It was in that moment, as I looked around at all the friends and family who had gathered to celebrate his birthday, that I realized something.  THIS is our community.  These are the people we love and who love us.  They are here to celebrate our son and his first year with us.  THIS IS OUR Community.  Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends from playgroup, neighbors, friends from middle school through college. It was beautiful chaos as the kids played and ate. We are truly blessed to have so many wonderful people in our lives.  This community had been there all along. I was just so focused on one particular community that was missing in our lives that I completely missed the greater community that we belong to.  

We still don’t have a local church family.  I don’t know when we will find the one that we fit into and will be the local community that helps us raise him in the faith.  We have a lot of church baggage that needs to be emptied before this process will likely happen.  Until then, we will keep singing “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves The Little Children” before naps and bed.  We will keep reading to him the stories of our faith.  We will keep teaching him about how he is called to live a life of faith in this world.  And I will keep remembering his baptism yet-to-be each time I give him a bath.  The water running down his hair and over his face will continually remind me that we are loved.  He is loved.  We have a community that surrounds us and loves us.    And I look forward to the day that we can formalize his baptism.  Until then, lather, rinse, repeat.