Month: November 2011

Why Penn State and Syracuse Matter…

At the Leadership for the Church in Mission conference the week before last, Prof. NT Wright ranted against the media obsession with the Penn State scandal.  I get it.  For Wright, the American news media is quick to jump on a sensational story, missing the more subtle stories of injustice in the states and around the world.  But I’m convinced this story is a moment of hope and opportunity for those who’ve been silenced by high profile, high-functioning abusers.

Having heard dozens of abuse stories over the 13+ years I’ve been a clinician and a pastor, there are few harder to stomach than these.  Somehow, we expect awful stories to emerge from those who live with so little already.  It’s when abuse breaks through in a middle/upper-middle/upper-class context that we shudder.  Not us.  Not here.  Not him.  Not her.

The facts about child sexual abuse are debated, but even the most conservative estimates place abuse of young girls well over 50% of the population, and young men well over 30%.  When Dr. Dan Allender came to speak at Reformed Theological Seminary Orlando in the mid-90’s, he shocked our conservative Christian campus with alarming stats.  2/3 of your female congregation have experienced sexual abuse.  More than half of the men have. “No way,” a buddy of mine whispered.  “A bunch of therapist BS.”  Yet, I suspect many of my seminary peers are not doubters today.  Spend enough time listening to people’s stories and you can’t deny it.  Sinister, stomach-turning child sexual abuse is far more pervasive than we think.

And that’s why the Penn State and Syracuse stories matter.  I’ve listened to and read sports commentary on this for weeks now.  So much of the intrigue is around how this could happen.  Someone said to me the other day, “It’s hard for me to believe there are Jekyll-and-Hyde types of people out there.”  Even among people we trust.  Even among our sports heroes.  Even in your church.  And perhaps even among your leadership.

But why does it matter?  It’s not a stretch, at this point, to believe that many who knew the alleged abusers at Penn St and Syracuse failed to sound the alarm.  Many, I’ve found, simply don’t get the damage of sexual abuse.  “Abuse?” one church elder once said to me.  “Isn’t that a strong word?”

“Yes, I replied.  It’s a very strong word.  It speaks to the depth of violation.  And, as a Christian, I can’t help but do everything I can to emphasize it.”  Why?  Because “abuse” assumes a vandalism of shalom, of God’s glorious intention for human dignity.  Abuse speaks to a violation, a violation of the dignity of a human image-bearer.  Abuse strips the victim of God-given beauty and innocence.  It introduces a pre-pubescent child to an adult world not only before her time, but from the perspective of an extremely dysfunctional framework.  It’s perhaps the most confusing, identity-shattering act that can happen to a child.

Over the years, I have counseled many adults who were abused as children.  Most have been very high-functioning.  You see, abuse sets many adults into a pattern of inner control and self-protection which allows them to compartmentalize and manage pain.  Many do this so well that they become extraordinary doers, successful in their field because they can absorb the blows.  But, many don’t even remember they’ve been abused until well into their adult life.  Memories can be triggered in a variety of ways, but when they come they can flood the victim with a rush of recalled scents, sounds, and sights which rattle them to the core.  Others do remember after the original abuse occurs, but vow to stay silent, to protect themselves, to protect the abuser, and to protect family members (…and teammates, coaches, etc.) from a reality which can radically disrupt a community.  Regardless, an abuse victim lives in a tightly-controlled inner world which protects him from the wildly frantic outer contingencies which cannot be controlled.  Who can blame him?

And this is why Penn State and Syracuse matter.  Wherever dignity is destroyed, wherever innocence is robbed, wherever shalom is violated and vandalized, Christians must be at the front lines, protecting and defending the innocent.  The level of outrage we, as Christians, feel must be proportionate to the outrage some Christians express over abortion, others over the poor, and still others over theological imprecision.

Penn State and Syracuse remind us that grown men who are respected and idolized can have secret lives, preying on the innocence of young children.  It can remind us that our need to protect others, though overwhelming at times, should never trump the ‘truth that sets us free.’

And, it should awaken us to an epidemic.  Imagine a disease that affected 50% of the population.  Let’s imagine this disease manifested in scarring and boils all over the skin.  Let’s imagine it drove its victim into shame, self-sabotage, and isolation.  Now, imagine this as a very real epidemic among the sexually abused. And consider the implications.

Men, consider the women you objectify.  Though beautiful and enticing as you view them on a web page, they have likely experienced soul-killing objectification from their earliest years.  Most, statistics would validate, have experienced sexual abuse of some kind.  Their reality assumes that they are meat for male consumption, and not image-bearers made for innocence, beauty, and dignity.

Women, consider the little boys men have become, especially as portrayed in television and media.  Consider the emotional deprivation boys experience because their fathers have no idea how to orient them to mature male adulthood.  Consider the obscenely sexualized world a young boy grows up in, and how few men are willing to step in to say, “Enough.”

There is something noble when the typically sexualized male sports commentator becomes sick to his stomach because older men are abusing younger men.  Now, let’s take the challenge to go further, and see this as an epidemic that impacts young men and women.  And let’s become adults, mature adults who are willing to call abuse abuse, who are willing to sound the alarm when any vandalism and violation of shalom occurs.  This may require us to tackle our own issues, our own blindspots, our own tendencies to sexualize, minimize, compartmentalize, or manage our own pain.  But real courage, Christ-like courage, invites us into the pain and difficulty, breeding honest, vulnerability, and truth, for the sake of God’s great love for his image-bearers.

That’s why Penn State and Syracuse matter today, far more than they’ve ever mattered, even amidst championships and victories.

Henri Nouwen on our Secure Identity as the Beloved

The life of Jesus refutes this dark world of illusion that entraps us. To return home is to turn from these illusions, from dissipation, and from our desperate attempts to live up to others’ expectations. We are not what we do. We are not what we have. We are not what others think of us. Coming home is claiming the truth. I am the beloved child of a loving Creator. We no longer have to beg for permission from the world to exist.

To all the women who feel crazy with a narcissist…

Dear “Crazy”:

Yes, I know you’ve heard that word over and over again.  Remember the night you just couldn’t take it any more?  He wouldn’t listen, but he sat there sitting with that look…you know the look…as if to say, “You know how nuts you sound right now?”  And then calmly, rationally, methodically, he laid out your issues one by one.  And you slapped him…

Yep, now you’re crazy.

Crazy is the feeling you feel with a narcissist.  If it’s not a feeling on that popular “Feelings Chart” marriage counselors hand out, it should be.  It’s that moment you think and feel, “Maybe I am really out-of-my-mind…he seems so certain and I’m feeling so confused…maybe I am a bad Mom, maybe I am a bad wife, maybe I should just ‘get help’ like he says and realize what a good guy he is.”

Narcissists feign emotion with the best of them, but lack real empathy.  They can appear calm and clear, cooperative and seemingly open, charming…even sensitive.  A young therapist can be easily drawn in to his convincing orbit.  Many times I’ve sat with a younger supervisee who says, “He seems really great, but she seems like a basketcase.”

I’ve been down this road many times with many narcissists.  Crazy thing is, I’ve grown to really care for them.  I’ve come to enjoy working with narcissistic men because I know what they don’t yet know…that deep down, they’re vulnerable little boys who need to be loved.  But that doesn’t mean you need to feel this.  In fact, you may need space.  You may need to get out.  You may need to protect yourself.  And you certainly need to take care of yourself…or, in my perspective, allow yourself to be loved by One who won’t subject you to this emotional and psychological abuse, One whose heart breaks for you in a way that his doesn’t.

But hear this – though you feel crazy, you are not crazy.  You may be broken.  Confused.  Fragmented.  Trapped.  Stuck.  But at your core, you’re loved more deeply than you know, and valued more profoundly than you feel.  Your dignity and sanity, at some level, has been stolen, but your work now is to begin listening to a more gracious Voice.  And you need to feel all the permission in the world to get to a place where you feel safe, where you can begin to recover, where the sanity can end and real healing can begin.

Finally, a word about your responsibility.  I know what you’re thinking.  You’ve done stupid things, said stupid things.  Yes you have.  I don’t buy into this whole, “He’s the abuser, you’re the victim” thing, in large part, because we’re all more deeply broken and confused than we know.  Yes, you’ve blown it too.  But what sets you apart is your willingness to own your own stuff and to heal.  You are a victim.  And you are responsible. Yet, unlike him, you have empathy.  You feel.  You are capable of repenting.  You can be rightly grieved for how you’ve hurt others.  And so, you’re well on your way to healing.  And part of that healing with involve discovering your own story, why you are susceptible to the crazy-making ways of the narcissist, and how you might self-sabotage, too.  It’ll be a hard journey, but a good one.  And you’ll feel much more clear and whole in the end.

After reading this, I hope you feel a little less crazy.  But do me a favor.  Find community – preferably your church, a safe pastor and therapist, people who will look you in the eyes and tell you the truth about yourself.  And late at night, when the voices of confusion enter again, listen for the whisper of One who says, “I love you.  You’re not crazy.  You’re my beautiful daughter.  It’s time to leave Egypt, and fix your eyes on the promised land.  Your slavery is over.”