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

a plain confessional box with a small window next to an arched stained glass window with a cross in the middle and light streaming through

Holy Hearing & Holy Forgetting

a plain confessional box with a small window next to an arched stained glass window with a cross in the middle and light streaming through

Lenten confession

When it comes to confession, Anglicans have historically leaned hard on the “none must” part of the traditional phrase, “all may, some should, none must.” Confession is a scary thing to contemplate. It’s too Catholic. It’s too old fashioned. It’s too …. vulnerable. Many Episcopalians and Anglicans I’ve met aren’t even aware that private confession is available to them. It’s a rare thing to see drop-in times listed on the sign outside an Episcopal church, the way there often are on Catholic ones.

While it’s true that we don’t believe sacramental, private confession is a requirement for every Christian, over my years as a priest, there has scarcely been a greater privilege than to hear the confessions of penitent sinners, and proclaim to them that their sins are forgiven. The first parish I served was pretty high up the candle, so I had heard ten confessions before I did my first baptism. Some people made appointments to come and see me before a big gnarly medical procedure that frightened them. Other people came during drop-in times, because it was routine for them. A habit. Whatever their reason, they all left with their shoulders a little lighter for the sharing of something that had burdened them.

As a semi-regular penitent myself, I’ve felt the lightening of the load that comes from receiving the good news that my sins are forgiven. No matter what I’ve done, no matter how big a mistake I’ve made, God forgives me. No matter how mad someone else might be at me, no matter how much I still might need to make amends to them, God forgives me. I’ve recently gotten into the mindfulness trend of building stillness into my day, and sitting quietly with a meditation app when I get stressed, but there is no app like hearing another human being who has heard the very worst things I have ever done respond by telling me God still loves me.

No matter your denomination, no matter your relationship with the tradition of private, sacramental confession, there is value to the ritual of making regular, intentional confession. While it’s something you could begin to practice on your own – lighting a candle, perhaps, and kneeling in the privacy of your own room – I strongly believe that having a human listener is what makes private confession so powerful. For many people, one of the benefits of therapy is being able to tell another person your worst thoughts, the worst things that ever happened to you, and to have that person tell you that so many others have experienced that same feeling. That you’re “normal.” We so often feel very alone, and it’s comforting to hear that other people are in the same boat.

So if you can, find a confessor. Some evangelical traditions have relationships called “accountability partners.” What if you found someone, not to judge you and keep you to account, but to tell you, regularly tell you, how much God loves you in the face of the worst things you’ve ever done? Someone you could trust to keep that secret? While Anglican sacramental theology would encourage that to be an ordained person, entrusted with the authority to administer God’s sacraments, there’s no reason that for Christians with different theological views it couldn’t be a trusted friend of any order of ministry. Read more

painting of a bearded man with eyes closed and calm look on face, with hands held open with fingers pointing upward, near the face

Confession: Holy Peace

John 20:19-23

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

painting of a bearded man with eyes closed and calm look on face, with hands held open with fingers pointing upward, near the face

Waiting For the Word

Anyone who knows me well has heard my story about confession. Actually, you don’t even have to know me well to have heard my story because I’ve preached on it, I lead with it in my book on confession, and I often use it to describe what it feels like to hear a confession.

As an Episcopal priest, I have the honor of occasionally hearing people’s private confessions. These are sacred moments when people get to lay down the burdens that they have been carrying – burdens of guilt, shame, and the pain that comes from knowing you have done something that has put you out of relationship with those you love. In this role, I continually run up against the need to let the weight of my own sin go as well as helping others do the same. It is an awesome responsibility. And because of my story, I know the importance and magnitude of what can happen when that option and gift is denied to someone.

My story goes something like this: When I was young I decided I would like to try private confession. As an Episcopalian, I’d only experienced corporate confession on Sundays. Since my church did not openly advertise the rite of reconciliation, I decided to go to a local Roman Catholic Church on Ash Wednesday (by skipping class with my friend – which was the first sin I was planning on confessing). They were offering private confession to those who wanted to begin Lent free from the burden of their sin.

As I took my place in the surprisingly long line up, I began to catalog my sins. My trespasses and brokenness began to weigh heavily on my soul. I thought of more and more ways that I had “wronged” God. By the time I finally took my turn in the confessional, I was not only on the verge of tears, I was incredibly elated by the idea of being able to “get rid” of the sins that had tarnished my soul.

As I stepped in the confessional, I decided that I should not add to this list of sins by lying to the priest and told him right away that I was not a Roman Catholic. I told him that if he would listen to my confession, I would feel lighter and understood if he could not offer me absolution as an Episcopalian. He replied, “No. Please leave now.” Read more

Teach Me to Forgive

The author and her son

The author and her son

As many mothers do when their young ones run toward them, I scooped up my four-year-old son. Together we enact this move on a nearly daily basis, but this time, my lifting him into my arms was out of the ordinary. This time my son had wiggled out of his seat in order to make a beeline toward me as I was leading the confession and absolution of sins. My son is still learning what it means to have a mom as a pastor; I am still learning how to handle the stress of these unpredictable experiences in which my roles as mom and minister collide. We are learning together.

In the moment that my son wiggled his way down to the floor and stood beside me, I felt afraid that his actions might be interpreted as a commotion. He held my hand and mirrored my actions as I turned to face the altar and the congregation. That seemed innocent enough. But then he began offering nonsensical words as I read the official words of absolution from our hymnal. I felt as though I was dedicating an enormous amount of energy to being both a loving mother and responsible pastor, all the while hoping that none of my parishioners would sense my anxiety or grumble about having been distracted during worship.

But then I had the blessing of seeing what everyone else saw during those moments. One of our church members shared with me the photo she had taken as my son and I led worship in tandem. When I saw what had happened from my church member’s perspective, all the stress I’d felt melted away. It was replaced by joy that my son felt comfortable enough to participate in worship with me and gratitude that my congregation had welcomed a little child to lead them.

As I have taken more time to reflect on this photo, I am reminded of all the ways my son forgives me, even though he may not realize it. He has forgiven me time and time again for my mistakes: for the times I have yelled, for the times I have been too tired to follow his routine, for the times I have hidden myself in the pantry or bathroom just long enough to take a breath and a break, even if that meant leaving him outside the door crying. He offers his forgiveness every time he wraps his arms around me, every time he gives me a hug, every time he grabs my hand or brings me a book to read. Every time he hears “I love you” and responds with “I love you, too.” Every time.

My son’s words of absolution might have been gibberish, but that doesn’t mean they were any less real. My son teaches me how to forgive, and now this treasured photo reminds me to forgive myself. They both help me to remember why we say words of absolution in the first place: In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven. Thanks be to God.

The Day Both Everything and Nothing Changed

A sign made by members of Emanuel AME invites others to join them in the work of forgiveness.

A sign made by members of Emanuel AME invites others to join them in the work of forgiveness.

Until June 17, 2015, I had the privilege of referring to Charleston, South Carolina as: the charming city in which I met my husband, the enchanting city in which shrimp ‘n’ grits and sweet tea grace most restaurant menus, the Southern city in which my sister grows summer squash. If you, my YCW sisters, were planning a trip to Charleston, I would urge you to snag a spot on a wooden swing at Waterfront Park and to stay put until the sun sets and the stars glisten over the water. I’d give you a map of cast-iron gates older than your great-grandmother, restaurants serving buttered biscuits the size of cantaloupes, and a rainbow row of Victorian houses lined up on the harbor. I’d point out the Spanish moss that hangs like Dali’s surrealist clocks from thick, gnarled tree branches. I’d encourage you to take a sabbath, to do some self-care in the form of dancing barefoot to the grace notes of a live jazz band in the town square.

But on June 17, 2015, everything changed. Read more

Practicing Together

ForgiveYourselfDuring the season of Lent, my church has been studying a variety of Christian Practices.  Together – in sermons on Sunday morning, as well as book study groups throughout the week – we have explored practices like Hospitality, Discernment, Healing, and Testimony.  Together, we have grown in faith.  Together, we have learned about God and one another.  Together, we have discovered new ways of being the Church.

While I would love to say that our study of Christian Practices has been all sunshine, lollipops, and roses, I can’t do that.  Certainly, there are some aspects of these many practices that are easy and fun to do.  But, some of them are downright hard.  Some of them require that we face things that we have been trying to hide.  Some of them force us to let go of things that we have been holding onto for so long that our knuckles are white from the death-grip we have on them.

The practice of Forgiveness is like that.

It was the chapter that I had been dreading.  Having been deeply hurt by individuals in a previous call – wounded to the point of almost abandoning my call to ministry – I was less than excited about the subject of Forgiveness.  And, I soon discovered that I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t thrilled with having to talk about it.  On the morning before our study group met, a woman who had just joined the study group the week before called me to check which chapter we would be studying.

“Well, we will be studying the chapter on Forgiveness,” I said, trying to hide my own hesitancy to deal with the topic. 

“Oh,” she said, clearly upset by the mere mention of the word.  “I’m not sure I can deal with that. Maybe I should skip this week.”

I completely understood her desire to avoid the study.  Frankly, I wanted to run away from it, too.  But, my responsibility to both encourage and challenge those in my care as pastor took over, and I invited her to come and meet with the group.  “It is a safe space,” I heard myself saying.  “You don’t have to speak or share anything if you don’t want to – just come and listen.  I’m sure that you aren’t alone in your feelings about the practice of Forgiveness.”  Little did she know that we were kindred spirits.  She thanked me and agreed to come.

Now, I know that God’s Spirit is present wherever two or more are gathered in God’s name.  And I know that God’s Spirit has been (and is) at work in the congregations I serve and the study groups that I lead.  But, God’s Spirit was really there the night that we discussed the topic that terrified me and my elderly friend.  I could tell that the Spirit was with us as soon as the meeting started.  Normally, I have to practically beg someone else to offer the opening prayer (they all like to stare at me, expecting that the pastor can pray the best out of everyone there).  That evening, however, I didn’t even have to ask.  One of the other participants offered to pray before I had even uttered a word!  I realized in those first few moments of our meeting that this was going to be a very different kind of study that night.

The older woman who had dreaded the thought of even coming to the study that night opened up to everyone, confessing that she just didn’t think that she could ever practice this practice of Forgiveness.  “I just can’t,” she said.  “I was hurt so badly, and I can’t seem to let it go.  I want to let it go.  I want so desperately to move on with my life and stop being so angry and bitter because of what happened to me.  But, I don’t know how to do it.  And that really frightens me.  I am worried that I am losing my ability to love.”

Her words hung heavy in the air, and I found it hard to take a breath.  I simultaneously felt her pain and mine – and it was almost too much to bear.  “What do I say, Lord?”  I silently pleaded with the Holy One to give me guidance.  “I am this woman’s pastor, and I don’t know how to help her!  I don’t know what to say, because I don’t know how to do it.  I have the same worry.  I have the same fear.  What do I say?”

As I thought those exact words, the person sitting next to me said, “Sometimes, there are no words.”

I nearly started to cry.

“Sometimes, there are no words,” she repeated.  “Sometimes, we are so overwhelmed by our past that our future is hard to know what to say.  It is hard to know where to go and what to do next.  But we know that we are told to forgive one another.  Even when we are afraid that we will never hear an apology… Even when we may never be forgiven by the other person…  That’s what we’re supposed to do.  And it is hard.  But…while Forgiveness is hard for us to do, Jesus has the strength to do it.  When we hand things over in prayer, Christ can do the things that we don’t have the ability to do.  The tricky part is, we have to let go of it so God can do it.”

The other members of the group went on to talk about practices that they have used to “let go and let God”.  One woman shared how she created a box that she called her “God Box”.  Every time she thought about the person she was trying so hard to forgive, she would write that person’s name on a piece of paper and put it in the box – literally giving it to God.  She testified that she discovered that, over time, she wrote that person’s name less and less, having finally realized forgiveness.

As we talked and shared, opening up about our own struggles with the practice of Forgiveness, there was a real sense of peace that started to spread in the room.  Shoulders relaxed.  Brows unfurrowed.  Arms unfolded.  Teeth unclenched.  When the chime of the clock indicated that it was time for our meeting to come to a close for the evening, we sat in silence for a few moments – just drinking in the grace that we had all experienced in and through the conversations moments before.  Finally, my kindred spirit – the older woman who had worried that she was not even going to be able to sit through the study group that night, for fear of the topic – spoke: “Maybe what we all need most is to practice forgiving ourselves for not always being comfortable with the practice of Forgiveness.”

We all said in unison, “Amen.”

I left the book study a changed person that night, and I don’t think I was the only one.  In the weeks following our discussion of the practice of Forgiveness, we have all commented on how we have been able to do better at practicing that practice.  Why?  We have realized that we are practicing it together.  Several of us created “God Boxes” of our own, writing the names of people and situations that we struggle to forgive, and giving them to God – again and again.  And little by little, we are making progress toward real forgiveness.  When we clung to the notion that we had to do it all by ourselves, it was too much to bear.  Now, we realize that we can help one another carry the load – and help one another carry it to the Cross.  Together, we are practicing – forgiving others and forgiving ourselves.  Thanks be to God for the gift of kindred spirits with whom we may practice our faith.