Me Too: Wounds of the Spirit, Scars of the Soul

95CD73CB-3B8E-44AB-B1F4-4057D76D838FFor weeks now, women have been making heart-rending declarations β€” β€œMe too,” they cry, as they reveal their experiences of past sexual abuse. As for me,Β I say, β€œme too.” Add my name to the mournful list of women who have endured the pain of sexual trauma.

I was sexually abused literally dozens of times, by many men. The abuse began when I was about four years old and continued throughout my years as a young child. Sexual abuse did not stop through my teenage years. And even as an adult I faced sexual violation. Never, not one time, was it consensual.

Questions always bombard sexual abuse victims:

Who was the man who sexually abused you?

It doesn’t matter. You wouldn’t believe me. You would refuse to believe that I was sexually abused by more than one teacher, by a coach, by a Baptist deacon, by a Baptist missionary, by an employer, by my father and several of his poker playing friends. You wouldn’t believe it because you know them to be β€œmoral, upstanding men” who are a part of your community.

Why didn’t you tell anyone?

I did tell. I told many people about every act of sexual abuse I endured, naming every man who hurt me. But I knew all the while that people simply would not take my accusations seriously.

Didn’t you believe that telling might have brought these men to justice and have prevented them from abusing other children?

No, I did not believe those men who caused me suchbdeep hurt would ever face the consequences of their crimes, because most of the people I did tell simply did not believe me. The men were known and respected and no one wanted to challenge that.

Why did you wait so many years to tell?

There are several aspects to this question. First of all, as I said, I did tell certain people who didn’t believe me. Not being believed serves to silence a victim who just doesn’t want to be labeled a liar, an attention seeker, a trouble maker, or worse, an emotionally unstable person.

Secondly, and most importantly, the passing years never take away the pain for someone who has been sexually violated. Sexual abuse is something you never forget. After 55 years, I still remember the time of day, being called into the teacher’s office next door to the classroom, the way he smelled, everything he said and did, and exactly what I was wearing. He was a person I had looked up to and admired. But on that day, he inflicted a permanent wound of my spirit which would become a scar on my soul. Once again, I mourned the loss of my childhood, of the innocence of a young child.

In these days, newsfeeds are constantly reporting the allegations of victims coming forward to say β€œme too.” Β The women have named their abusers β€” Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore, Al Franken, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, George H. W. Bush. Ben Affleck, Roger Ailes, Lockhart Steele, Michael Oreskes, Mark Halperin, John Besh. Roy Price, Chris Savino, and the list goes on to name perpetrators in present time and perpetrators from the past. I do not say this lightly, but I have wondered just how many men might be holding their breath, hoping beyond hope that their victim(s) won’t expose them.

Wounds of my my spirit, scars of my soul

The unspeakable wounds heal in time, but the soul’s scars remain. And every reminder through these many years β€” a smell, a memory, a color, a song, and the cries of the women who are saying β€œme too” and telling the stories of their abuse. All of these are triggers that bring back the sharp, stabbing pain of the old wounds from long past. That’s what I have lived with throughout my entire lifeβ€” multiple assaults, multiple times, multiple men.

We can come forth and tell our stories. We can give voice to our spirit’s wounds, no matter how far in the past they may be. We can speak of our soul’s scars. But the reality is that we will be judged as women who have fabricated a false story of sexual abuse for some sort of personal gain.

How dare we ask why a woman would wait forty years to bring light to this kind of story! For since the day it happened, she lives with vivid memories, feelings of shame, fear of relationships, the disappointment of betrayal by someone she may have admired. There is a catch in her throat when she speaks of it, and there are tears, lots of tears along the way.

Wounds of the spirit, Scars of the soul

The writing of Saint Francis de Sales describes the depth of this kind of pain with this thought:

The soul is aware of the delicate wound . . . as though it were a sharp point in the substance of the spirit, in the heart of the pierced soul . . . This intimate point of the wound . . . seems to make its mark in the middle of the heart of the spirit, there where the soul experiences . . . feels.

– Living Flame of Love 2.1

So is it any wonder that this kind of wound would leave a permanent scar on the soul?

I am deeply saddened, but also gratified, that so many women are speaking out. I hope beyond hope that their courageous stories will give light to a dark, dark sin that has destroyed so many people for so many years. I pray that we will have the moral, ethical, spiritual and political will to crush the societal culture of abuse and violence and in its place create safe spaces free of fear for every person, every child, every young girl, every woman.

At times, I really want to expose every single man that abused me. But I want peace more. I want a serene spirit and a quiet soul. I want to rest in a prayerful place where my heart can call out to a God that desires for us a world of peace, communities of care, homes that are havens of safety. I want to see God ennoble people of faith to wrap their arms around the hurts, pray for God’s light to dispel the darkness, and live out their sacred calling to be agents of a better, more excellent way. May God make it so.

 

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Goodbye, Cotham’s!

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“it wasn’t just the food that made me love Cotham’s.”

The person posting on Facebook lamented the loss of a historical landmark in Scott, Arkansas. A roaring fire leveled the country store/restaurant last night, and in the fire were memories of days gone by. Cotham’s Mercantile was erected in 1917 and since 1984 served as the go-to eating place for local farmers and visitors to Arkansas. It was a place frequented by politicians, notable visitors, and families who wanted to get a taste of Cotham’s enormous Hubcap hamburgers, onion rings and a hefty serving of Mississippi Mud Cake.

There is a Cotham’s in the City, of course, but it is an understatement to say that it is definitely not Cotham’s in Scott. It’s simply a citified facsimile that barely bears any resemblance to the original. For sure it does not carry the years of memories that come from a place of such cultural richness.

Cotham’s was a frame building with leaning walls and unlevel floors. It was nestled on the side of a little-traveled country road under towering moss-covered trees. The back of Cotham’s was on the water, a bayou of murky, marshy water teeming with fish, other wildlife, and a stately stand of cypress trees, their gnarly knees growing above the surface.

So why write about a burned down restaurant in the Arkansas countryside? Because it’s the end of an era. Because it is a landmark that holds treasures of day’s past. Because it is a place whose walls heard many family tales. Because you could buy a hamburger or a bag of nails there.

Most of all, I should write about it because we will miss its quaint ambience, and because future diners will miss the experience of being there, right off the road, backed up to a boggy bayou. All kinds of history moves on and we move on with the years. We cling to the past and become melancholy over the changes we experience.

Goodbye, Cotham’s. And thanks for the memories. Thanks for the sad reminder that life moves forward at its own pace and that we must savor every moment, every experience . . . every hubcap hamburger.

Remember Me

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Aging brings up many questions about life, the past, the future. I think all of us wonder if we will be remembered. Will our accomplishments live on? Will anyone remember us? Did we change the world in any significant way? Will we leave any kind of legacy?

As always, Bishop Steven Charleston shares wise and wonderful insight.

Not many of us will be remembered for what we have done, though we may have accomplished a lot. Institutions change, communities move on, new faces appear, priorities shift, different challenges present themselves. As important as we once were, we fade into the mist. What remains is not what we have built, but who we have inspired. The lives we touched will go on. The minds we opened, the hearts we cherished, the spirits we set free: it is in relationship that our names are remembered. It is in how well we shared our love that we transcend thoughtless time and live on in ways unchanging.

– Bishop Steven Charleston

When I take stock of my life’s accomplishments, I am pleased with myself and proud of what I have built. But it is so very true, as Bishop Charleston says, that all of us fade into the mist and what we have built falls into decay as new things emerge.

So will we “live on in ways unchanging?” I think we will. I also believe that if we are remembered at all, it will be by the people we have inspired, the lives we have touched, the hearts we have cherished that cherished us in return. And that’s the very best way to be remembered.

She Gave Me Wings!

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She made broken look beautiful and strong look invincible.Β She walked with the universe on her shoulders and made it look like a pair of wings.

This quote makes me remember Ethel, one of my most cherished friends. Ethel was my hero. She inspired me to dream and always held hope high so that I could see it. She walked beside me during difficult days and challenged me to stay the course. “Tie a knot in the rope and hang on,” she would often say. And when I would fall into the dust, despondent and exhausted, Ethel gave me wings.

Most people knew Ethel as someone’s wife, someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother, because she always loved them more than she loved herself. She always used her energy to raise them up, to push them forward, to champion their hopes.

To me, Ethel was my dearest and most loyal friend, almost like a mother. I could not be despondent for very long around Ethel. She wouldn’t allow it. I could not be broken and stay that way. Ethel would gently pick up the pieces and help me find beauty in my brokenness.

Ethel was the matriarch of Providence Baptist Church of Little Rock, a new church start, and the first Baptist church in Arkansas to call a woman as pastor. I was that pastor. I moved into that ministry position after a grueling ordination process that lasted for almost a year and ended in my home church refusing to ordain a woman. Their refusal to work with me toward ordination was a devastating blow.

But Ethel was certain that ordination would come in time, at the right time. She quoted this verse from Habakkuk, one of her favorites, every time my resolve faltered and I was ready to give up.

For the vision is yet for the appointed time;
It hastens toward the goal and it will not fail.
Though it tarries, wait for it;
For it will certainly come, it will not delay.

– Habakkuk 2:3

Although Habakkuk was surely not writing about the denied ordination of a Baptist woman, his words rang true to Ethel and were encouraging to me. Together, Ethel and I “hastened toward the goal” that did not fail. We waited for it and it did come, seemingly out of nowhere.

On a Sunday evening, I received a phone call from the pastor of a church in El Paso Texas, who was the former Executive Secretary of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. After a brief getting-to-know-you conversation in which he told me that he had become acquainted with my ministry through a colleague who happened to be my hospital chaplaincy mentor, he stunned me with these words.

“Our church voted this morning to ordain you.”

“But you don’t even know me,” I said, shocked, taken aback and just a little confused.

Oh, but we know you very well. We have talked about you for weeks in our church. We know you are a chaplain. We know where you went to seminary. We know you can preach and even sing. We know you were a Southern Baptist Foreign missionary to Uganda. And if you were appointed a missionary by our Foreign Mission Board, you are qualified to be ordained so that you can continue your ministry.

I could barely respond. I knew only that I needed to think.

“Let me think about this for a few days and send you some information about me.”

And so I sent them a copy of my life story so they could be sure, even if I was not. Ethel said, “‘Though it tarries, wait for it; For it will certainly come, it will not delay.’ Now let’s pack up and go to El Paso.”

Thirteen friends, members of Providence, traveled to El Paso. My family drove 953.4 miles, and I was ordained in El Paso, Texas on April 29, 1992 by a church I did not know that became my community over a weekend.

Ethel left this world many years ago, much too soon. But she is still my hero and I miss her terribly. Does she watch over me? Is she, as some people like to think, an angel of God with a pair of wings? I’m not at all sure of that, but I know one thing. Every time things get hard, I hear her words, “Tie a knot in the rope and hang on.”

She gave me wings!

Broken Crayons

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I remember the sheer excitement of getting a brand new box of crayons. It was nice to get a box of eight crayons. At least they were new and I didn’t have to search through an old, ragged box of broken crayon pieces. When I got a new box of twenty-four, I knew it was a special day. But getting the jumbo box — sixty-four crayons and a crayon sharpener — left me ecstatic.

Getting that jumbo box never got old. I never lost my sense of excitement when I opened the box. Those crayons started my love of color and the sheer joy of putting colors on paper.

Those new-box days were rare. More often than not I searched through bits and pieces of crayons that had long since lost their points. They would still color, but coloring was not such a joy when all the crayons were broken.

Still, coloring with broken crayons was a reality of life. I made the best of it and even managed to create a few masterpieces. Once in a while, I would come up with a new way to use them, like melting the pieces between wax paper sheets and making “stained glass.”

Now that I’m grown, I realize that life is filled with broken crayons. I use them anyway and do the best I can with the pieces. The important thing is not to give up on your broken pieces. Use them. Create with them. Try to enjoy them. Marvel at your own colorful masterpieces. Don’t despair over broken crayons. Broken crayons still color!

Forever Young

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I have been experiencing neck pain for the last few days, a reminder that the years have taken their toll. Sometimes, I have almost forgotten how it felt to live without pain. I can barely remember waking up from a night of sleep with no body aches. I don’t remember what it was like to feel young.

These days, though, pain has its way with me. It is a difficult thing to age. They say it’s not for sissies, and I completely agree with that. As Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in Ulysses, we are “made weak by time and fate.”

But I love the thoughts of this short passage:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

– Alfred Lord Tennyson
From Ulysses
(As quoted by M in Skyfall)

It is so true that I am not now “that strength which in old days moved heaven and earth.” But I am strong in spirit. My heart feels the strength of deep love. In years, I have aged. But in my soul, I am forever young. Thanks be to God.

I love the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s song, “Forever Young.”

May God bless and keep you always, May your wishes all come true.
May you always do for others, And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars, And climb on every rung.
May you stay forever young.

Forever young, forever young. May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous, May you grow up to be true.
May you always know the truth, And see the lights surrounding you.
May you always be courageous, Stand upright a
nd strong.
May you stay, stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy. May your feet always be swift.
May you have a strong foundation, When the winds of changes shift.
May your heart always be joyful. May your song always be sung.
And may you stay forever young.

Ethel

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I’ve been thinking about Ethel, one of the most loyal and dearest friends I have ever had. At times, I am quite sure she watches over me from her very special place in heaven. That comforts me, but makes me miss her all the more. Ethel came into my life when I was going through a dark time. She stuck close, in fact, through many difficult days, making all the difference in the world for me.

Ethel was like a best friend and a mother all rolled into one incredible package. I was her pastor for nine years. She offered me love and care through thick and thin. During the early days of our friendship, my light went out. Life was dark and dreary, and I was facing evil days. At least that’s how it felt for me. Ethel was a spark that rekindled my spent light. She helped change my life.

A friend posted this quote on Facebook yesterday. It so closely describes what Ethel meant to me.

β€œAt times, our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Β –Β Albert Schweitzer

Ethel lighted the flame within me. And what’s more, she taught me how to keep it lighted and how to make it through the dark times. Rest in peace, my dear friend. You meant so much to me.

Forever Friends

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What a wonderful reunion with Suzanne, my best forever friend. We had not seen one another in over forty-six years. As teenagers, we were inseparable. Many people called us the twins, and it’s true that we did look alike. We did some wild things as teenagers, not bad things, but silly things. We danced together, we sang, we listened to Otis Redding, we dreamed about boys. We did things that teenaged girls do, and we always did them together.

How did it happen that we lost one another for so many years? Why did we not stay in better touch? That’s an age-old story, losing touch with even the closest friends. It feels like we wanted years and years of a deep friendship.

When we greeted each other with a long hug, we both cried tears of joy. Being together for a few hours was glorious, and it felt as though we had never been apart. We rehashed good memories, talked about old friends, shared pictures of our children and grandchildren.

I’m so glad we made the effort to meet and spend some time together. I’m glad that true friendships never end, they just take up where they left off. I enjoyed spending time feeling like a teenager again. It made me forget my poor health, my aches and pains, and my age for a few hours. It made me feel the feelings of a teenager again, and that was a refreshing break.

Today’s life lesson: Memories are life-giving. True friends are forever friends. Try to keep them near.