Friday, November 14, 2014


I listened to my son's most recent sermon this morning.

Growing and Waiting Patiently

Several quotes resonated with me as I thought about advice I have given recently to women emotionally trapped in abusive relationships, still hoping God will somehow miraculously change their abusive husbands.

As I have said many times: 

It is a rare thing for God to make an instant change in anyone, absent their engagement and participation. That is not typically how He works. He changes us in slow, painful processes -- processes that require our cooperation. His processes require a desire to see ourselves and grow as we follow His guidelines for our lives. Even those of us who embrace the process often find growth and change to be difficult and slow-going.

Danny was obviously not talking about staying in abusive relationships while waiting for slow change to happen. He was talking about the importance of grace, and God's patience with us. But several statements reminded me of a time in my life when I was desperate and God was comfortable with my desperation. Even when I couldn't see it, He knew there would be light at the end of my tunnel and redemption for every painful experience.

These are the quotes I typed out while listening:

"God is frustratingly willing to let it get desperate."

"I wish He wasn't so comfortable with my desperation."

"He's comfortable with the story entering dark times."
"God is really, really, really, really patient. And our growth is going to not be really, really, really, really fast. It's going to be slow. And that's part of the story. There's no quick fix here. And it's going to be desperate sometimes."

These statements apply not only to my own slow growth and the frustration I often feel with myself. These statements apply to the circumstances we face in life that make us feel desperate, including interaction with people whose behavior is dark and causes us to suffer. As I heard these words, I reflected on times I felt like I couldn't hold on for another day. Yet I was frozen in fear of God's rejection if I made the wrong choice. Add to that my fear of the unknown and my paralyzing self-doubt and you have a recipe for a holding pattern that kept me emotionally battered for decades.

Those years were indeed dark. There was no quick fix. And it WAS desperate at times. Those decades are a part of my story. But they are not the whole story.

God has brought the brightest light directly from the darkest places of my life. This applies to the sins I committed as much as the sins committed against me. He has brought good from all of it. It was never fast or easy. There was suffering. There were tears. There was even the occasional, "God, do you even care what's happening to me?" But He had a purpose in the timing of every detail. And He was patient with me through it all.

His grace was present even before I could comprehend its magnitude.

Sometimes I wonder if I was "trapped" as long as I was because God was patiently waiting for me to grow; to stop being a willing victim and become a participant in my ultimate deliverance. Not only did He never wave a magic wand over my abusive husband and miraculously change his behavior; He didn't wave a magic wand over me and "bestow" courage or wisdom. He allowed me to acquire both in a slow process involving mistakes, suffering and self-examination.

I'm thankful for the process ...
not only because I grew stronger,
but because through it I discovered His grace.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Gratitude for Caregivers

I had the privilege of being interviewed for this post: Attitude of Gratitude: Sarah Cannon Blog

I have done my share of caregiving in my life. I have also been on the receiving end.
And I'm thankful for both experiences.

BEING the Caregiver:

My mom and Uncle Gene

My mom was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer in 1986 and passed away (two weeks after her 49th birthday) in 1987. I was one of her primary caregivers. Those seven months were among the hardest, but also some of the most satisfying and rewarding months of my life. I wouldn't take anything for that time with my mom and the memories of our relationship flourishing into something it had never been prior to her illness.

My ex-husband had many issues from mental health to numerous surgeries. I had plenty of caregiving duties in that long, abusive marriage. Unlike caring for my mom, caring for an abusive husband was unrewarding. There was little gratitude outside of the desperate moments. I had no value apart from meeting needs and demands. Sadly, I didn't earn "personhood" or gratitude or respect for any of my sacrifices or for my devotion. I was grossly unappreciated. But I still do not regret being a devoted caregiver. The reward for that period of time came much later, but it came nonetheless. And all those experiences equipped me to be a better friend and mentor in my present life.

My dad was healthy until he hit the age of 60. And then he was diagnosed with Parkinson's and CLL, which were followed by triple bypass surgery and several other surgeries over a period of years. I was not his primary caregiver. My brother was. And he did an excellent job right up to the end of my dad's life in March of this year. Dad lived with my brother's family for over three years. I am so proud of Todd and Sue (his wife) for the way they unselfishly devoted themselves to Dad's care and needs. But I'm more than proud, I'm grateful. Their care for him was a gift to our whole family, not just to Dad.

My husband was diagnosed with CLL in 2007. His mom was diagnosed with CLL a few months later in 2008. I am the primary caregiver for both. I have kept records of their journey. I thoroughly researched prognostic markers, other patients' experiences, specialists, treatments, you name it, wanting to make sure they were well-informed about every decision they would be confronted with.

I accompany them both to every doctor visit, treatment, bone marrow biopsy and CT scan. I sat beside them during every infusion they ever received. I helped see my mother-in-law through a touch and go bout with pneumonia in 2011. She was in the hospital for three weeks. I spent almost every day with her and many nights in the hospital. She lived in our home for several months while beginning a clinical trial, since she had weekly and then bi-weekly appointments in Nashville and lives in Evansville. (I suggested she stay with us rather than making so many three hour drives back and forth.) And then she spent some time with us after her pneumonia because the recovery was a process even after being released from the hospital.

My caregiving role these days is light in responsibility. John and Marian are both in a long season of remission as a result of treatment with Zydelig (formerly CAL-101/Idelalisib). Both are in good health and living unrestricted lives. Marian is 82 and she's still hitting the dance floor on a regular basis. John takes more time for himself than he ever has, coming home earlier than he used to and planning frequent getaways for rest and relaxation. But when we're home, he's still at the dealership six days a week and arrives there between 6:00 and 6:30 am. He doesn't have a lot of energy by the end of the day, but he has far more energy than I have in the morning.

Neither of my patients are in need of my constant attention physically, but I still try to look out for them in little ways. And I'm always here for emotional support if needed. I will always go along as an extra set of ears for every doctor visit. And both know that should we hit another bump in the road (there have been several in the past), they have me to lean on in whatever way they need me.

NEEDING the Caregiver:

In 2012, I had bilateral foot surgery to remove Morton's Neuromas in both feet. We were right in the middle of relocating from Tennessee to West Virginia. I scheduled the surgery immediately following the delivery of our furniture to our new home. I spent the weekend getting everything set up and unpacked as much as I could. And then I drove back to Tennessee for the outpatient surgery. A very sweet friend offered to be MY caregiver in the first couple weeks of my recovery. She took me where I needed to go and made me oh-so-comfortable in her home. John had to be at the new dealership. I knew I was better off spending those first two weeks with a friend and close to my surgeon's office just in case I had any issues or complications. My recovery went smoothly. And once I was ready, John came to Tennessee and retrieved me. I still had to spend weeks resting my feet as much as possible. But at that point I was not in need of a caregiver.

Twice in my life I have suffered with frozen shoulder. I once spent weeks incapacitated by a fissure in a delicate area. And I've been stopped in my tracks by sciatic nerve pain a couple of times. Although short in duration compared to lifelong suffering, all these episodes of chronic pain felt long and excruciating to me. And there is a huge difference between the times when I had a loving caregiver (John) and when I did not have a compassionate companion.

I elaborated on all these caregiving experiences to illustrate that we will all be on both ends of the caregiving experience in our lifetimes. If you haven't been both the giver and the recipient yet, I assure you that you will be. And there is much to learn from both experiences.

There is a blessing in each opportunity.

Obviously, we feel blessed when someone comes to our side willingly and because they want to --  not purely from a sense of duty. Every time I told my brother how much I appreciated what he was doing for our dad, he assured me he was doing it because he wanted to, because he loved Dad and he knew he was the obvious person to step into the role. He and Dad were always very close.

I have embraced caregiving opportunities because I wanted to as well. Caring for my abusive ex-husband was definitely the most "duty-oriented" and the least rewarding because I felt so unappreciated and taken for granted. I was manipulated constantly and struggled with unreasonable emotional demands. But I can look back on those times now with a sense of satisfaction that I loved unselfishly and without reciprocation. I feel good about the effort I made to be a good wife and caregiver despite the outcome of the relationship and the lack of gratitude received. Why? Because the way I responded to those challenges says something about my character and the person I am. And it is that much sweeter to care for loved ones in my present life who do appreciate every little thing I do for them, having the contrast between now and then.

Caregiving is rewarding, but not easy.

When you are the caregiver for someone in a health crisis, your life is not your own for a while. Your normal routine goes on the back burner. Sometimes you feel like you, as a person, are on a back burner. And when you are caring for a demanding and ungrateful person, you don't even feel like you have a burner. The one common aspect of every caregiving experience, though, is that you need to make sure you have emotional support in whatever way that is meaningful for you.

Don't be a martyr!

Lean on friends or other family members who are available for you. And don't beat yourself up for being human. You won't respond to every situation perfectly. You will occasionally have selfish thoughts and feelings. You'll want to run away and catch your breath (not literally, but emotionally). You may crave solitude. You'll need breaks. Be assured that you are normal in all these perceived weaknesses.

When my mother-in-law was staying with us, I sometimes imagined (in a rather paranoid way) that she was mentally observing everything I did (and didn't do) on a daily basis. I projected thoughts and opinions onto her -- mainly from my own insecurities and my long history of feeling the weight of others' expectations of me. Fortunately, my mother-in-law loves me unconditionally and I can admit stuff like this without repercussions. She really cared about my feelings and my stress. And she was always expressing gratitude, which affirmed me and reminded me how much I really wanted the role of her caregiver. I would do anything for her. And I know it goes both ways. I am blessed with an amazing mother-in-law. And it means the world to me that she feels the same way about me as a daughter-in-law. (Hopefully that doesn't sound boastful.)

My hope in sharing these caregiving experiences is that you will be inspired in both roles. Whether you are the one giving care or receiving care, it's equally important to communicate love, value and compassion. When it comes to things like chemotherapy and pneumonia, it seems to me like it would be harder to be the patient than the caregiver. But I've heard many patients (including my husband) say that he thinks it's harder to be the caregiver. I think it's probably an apples and oranges kind of comparison. Both roles are challenging. GRACE is needed in both directions.

It's always helpful to put yourself in someone else's shoes.

If you've only been on one side of this experience, perhaps this post has given you insight as well as inspiration. We all need to give and receive care, even when there is no crisis. But when a person is dependent on the care of others, it's essential to make sure that person feels valued and not burdensome. Remember that, in most cases, they would be doing the same for you as you're doing for them if the roles were reversed. (Unless, of course, you're sure that would be not be true. And, in that case, you can laugh privately about the irony.)

I assure you of one thing: You will still reap the love you sow. God will simply find another avenue for blessing you if you are not blessed with a grateful recipient of your care.

Sometimes delayed rewards are the greatest blessing of all.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Making a Difference

Last month I gave a keynote speech about making a difference in the fight against domestic violence and abuse. I was asked if I would be willing to share the transcript of my speech for the benefit of those who were not able to attend and I promised to share it on my blog. However, it was a 30 minute speech and I don't think many of you would stay tuned in for over 5,000 words in one blog post. So I'm going to share an abridged version. I'm going to remove a personal story I already shared in a previous post (3 Simple Things...) and I'm going to omit some of the longer quotes from Mending the Soul because you can read the book yourself and I urge you to!

After being introduced and thanking the audience for coming, I explained that I am not a professional speaker and I do not pursue speaking opportunities. I had quite a bit of anticipatory anxiety while preparing for the occasion because I always want to do my best and there is so much information to cover. But I'm passionate about advocating for abused women and children. I know how it feels to be abused. I know how good it feels to overcome abuse. And I know how rewarding it is to help others feel encouraged and less alone. That's why I wouldn't dream of not accepting the invitation to speak. And so, I began...

Tonight we honor victims who have tragically lost their lives to domestic violence this year. I can’t explain – even to myself – why the outcome for some is tragedy and the outcome for others, like me, is triumph. I’m so grateful to be living a completely different life today with a husband who loves and values me. But I can honestly say that I’m thankful for my past, too, because my experiences have enabled me to connect with other broken people who need to heal in the same ways I have needed to heal.
I'd like to talk about the role we play in our communities, especially our religious communities, in keeping women trapped in abusive relationships and how we can become more compassionate, and more sensitive to the victims who are all around us. I bring my faith to this discussion. I’m a Christian and my convictions flow from my faith. My abuse has not hardened me or caused me to reject God. But I know abuse has resulted in those struggles for some. Abuse undermines faith. So if you are here tonight and do not share my faith in a good God, I don't think less of you. I only hope I will say something that resonates with you and helps you to feel the reassurance and comfort of God’s love for you.
I’d like to begin with my early years, when the template for my life and my choices were being assigned to me by my parents and my church.

These are pictures from my childhood. The first is my kindergarten school picture. The second is from a wedding I was in (by far the best “dress up” game I ever played).
As a 5-year-old kindergartener, I was outgoing, expressive, and affectionate. Not so different from the fifty-five year old woman I am today. My first school boyfriend was Brett Barker. We had such a crush on each other, and were always together on the playground. We told our teacher we were going to marry each other when we grew up. She was amused and thought we were cute. So when my mom came in for her parent/teacher conference, my teacher told her about our little romance and our marriage plans. Her memory of this conversation came flooding back to her while reading my first book, Breaking the Chains. She said, “Your mom’s expression turned serious and she gently but emphatically informed me: 
‘Oh, no. Shari will marry in the church.’”
My former teacher went on to tell me, “I thought your mother’s reaction was a bit odd. After all, we were talking about 5-year-olds. I didn’t really think you would grow up to marry each other." She didn’t know much about our church or our beliefs back then. She said, "I thought your family was lovely and you kids were so well-behaved. But after reading your book, I understand why your mom said that to me.”

Well, I did marry within our church … eleven years later ... at the age of 16. My ex-husband was seven years older than I was, making him 23, at the time of our marriage. Sadly, marriage was the biggest thing in life I had to look forward to. And there’s only one reason I was even allowed to date this person. He went to our church.

I think we all tend to live our lives with certain illusions of safety and, on the other hand, a few irrational fears.
I’m pretty sure one of my parents’ big fears for me at that time was that I would have premarital sex. And that fear had to have played a role in their consenting to this destructive union. At 16, in the state of California, I couldn’t legally marry without my parents’ consent.  
I believe my parents’ most harmful illusion was that being in the church and marrying in the church offered some kind of protective covering from danger and the harsh realities of life. I’m sure there are other similarities, but I know one parallel between churches and the NFL is that you’ll find abusers in both.

Within one week of the wedding, my new Christian husband began to abuse me verbally, emotionally and physically. And even though he didn't hit me that first week, he was violent and intimidating; holding me against a wall and drawing his fist back as though he was about to hit me. He was six foot four and weighed over 300 pounds. More than twice my size. I was no match for him physically or verbally at that point. I was just a kid, as so many of us are when we make life-altering choices. Without any real awareness or understanding of what I was doing, or the consequences the next 27 years would bring, I began to play my role as enabler and protector of an abuser.
Afraid of displeasing God and being judged  by those around me, I kept my abuse a secret for many years; trying to navigate this turbulent relationship by walking on eggshells, not rocking the boat, lavishing praise on a narcissist, and attending church four times a week; trying to prove myself to God and other people.

I’d like you to think about something as you look at this next picture. This is my immediate and extended family at the wedding of my son and daughter-in-law in 2002. My abuser is standing just above me with a beaming smile on his face. Don’t we look like a nice, loving couple?
If you’ve read my second book, then you know what was going on behind the scenes. But if you don't know those details, you wouldn't have a clue that this was one of the toughest weekends of my whole life. I had to check into a hotel room to get away from the stress I was under at home. And you’d never have known - from the smiles on our faces -- the hopelessness and devastation I was feeling or what a mean, vicious bully this guy was.

I was determined our problems would not cast a cloud over my son’s big day. I was also determined I would not let my abuser rob me of the joy of this occasion. I was doing what I'd had to do so many times before. I was sucking it up and making the best of difficult circumstances, always trying to rise above.
You’d also never know from this picture why my son asked his dad to be a co-best man in the wedding. You couldn't have known he was manipulated into doing so, and he feared long-reaching emotional consequences if he didn’t bestow this “honor” upon his dad. His dad had been dropping hints for years about being his best man. And my son complied rather than deal with the repercussions that would accompany the wedding if he didn't. But if you didn’t know all that, you would think: Wow. They must be so close. He must be such a great dad.
You would have never guessed how abusive my ex-husband was by his behavior in a social setting. My in-laws didn’t know how bad it was. They always believed his version of events. And he’d been smearing me for years to his family. Some of our old friends who have now read my book have told me that even though they knew he could be a jerk, they were shocked at the extent of his cruelty. Although he had an explosive temper and was often caustic and sarcastic, he also had a charming, witty side to him. He could be generous - especially if there was glory in it for him. And the thing that helped me deal with the level of stress in our home the most was that we actually laughed a lot. Abusers are not ogres every minute of every day. They will usually have some positive traits too. And if you only see them at their best, you'll be in disbelief that they could ever actually harm someone.

It’s so important for people to understand this: You cannot necessarily recognize an abuser by his public persona. You can’t always detect abuse in the demeanor of those being abused either. We victims become experts at making the best of things. It’s not that a victim is trying to present a fa├žade or be phony. I was never trying to do that. It’s a coping strategy. And you become very good at it – because you have to.
Friends who recognized the abuse have told me I lived in denial. I may have been in denial, but it wasn't conscious denial. I knew he was mean. I wasn't in denial about that. But I tried to focus on what was good because I thought I was trapped in that life. For years after marrying John, I had nightmares that I was still trapped in my previous marriage.

Those who witnessed my abuser’s dark side certainly perceived he was difficult to live with. And many felt for me. But because I did such a good job of rising above my circumstances and was always trying to put him in the best light with others, you could have been around us frequently and still never suspected I was suffering actual abuse.
He loved to make fun of me. His jokes were almost always at my expense and I’d see friends look at me for my reaction to the putdowns, but I laughed rather than get upset. So they believed the jokes must not hurt my feelings. The truth is I hated being put down and made fun of all the time. It was embarrassing and hurtful. But those were the least of my challenges and I had to choose my battles. I was always trying to rise above the mistreatment.

We're hearing so much about domestic abuse in the NFL recently. And I'm thankful the topic is being discussed. But the discussion can focus so much on one subset of people that we lose sight of how widespread this problem is. And then the whole conversation becomes centered on the NFL instead of the real issue. Domestic violence is a problem that touches every segment of the population. Abusers are everywhere; in every race, class, economic status, and social environment.

¨ One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. And one in seven men. 
¨ "Family Violence" can include everything from cursing and verbal and emotional abuse to hitting and slapping, to more extreme forms of physical neglect. Breaking things. Slamming doors. It's not only about beatings.
¨ Abusers are everywhere and many of them attend church.
¨ Numerous studies reveal that abuse seriously undermines religious faith.
¨ We ask the wrong questions. We must ask ourselves why we are inclined to question, blame and shame a victim rather than confronting the evil behavior of an abuser. Sadly, this happens even in our church communities.

It's understandable to wonder why a woman stays with an abuser. But the question can be asked in a way that supports the victim. For instance, if you ask, "What are your fears if you leave?" or "What are the challenges you face in trying to leave?" the victim will feel your concern. However, if you ask the question in a way that makes a victim feel she must justify herself or defend her choices, she will probably feel shame and embarrassment.
Sometimes we continue on a familiar path because we truly cannot see the choices we actually have.
Empowering women to get out of abusive relationships will often require someone illuminating the path of choice they may not be able to see right in front of them. That is precisely what professional Christian counseling did for me. But I had to seek it outside my own church community. There were no qualified people in my church to give me the help or understanding I needed.
I can’t answer the why question for anyone else. But here’s the biggest reason I kept hanging in there:
As a Christian, I believed staying forever was what God expected of me. And my religious environment reinforced that belief. Today I know that God did not expect me to submit to abuse. But it took four years of Christian counseling with an educated professional counselor - someone who understood the destructive nature of abuse and my role in it - before I could even imagine that God might not expect me to stay forever. I had to learn that "While God can and does use suffering to build character, there is no virtue in enduring avoidable suffering" (Dr. Steven R. Tracy, Mending the Soul).

My counselor helped me to recognize that instead of being noble and self-sacrificing, I was enabling ungodly behavior. He defined my role in a way I couldn't embrace as positive. He helped me see that I could choose to respond differently if I wanted to be a healthier person spiritually and emotionally. But before I received intensive counseling, I didn't believe I had a choice. And if you don't believe you have a choice, you don't have one. So...
“Why do women stay?” is the wrong question. And when I hear it asked in a tone of voice that implies moral superiority, I sometimes think of the expression, "They brought it on themselves." I wonder if shaking our heads at a victim who doesn't leave, essentially blaming someone for their own problems, takes us off the hook in our own minds; we won't feel a responsibility to reach out and help. Since we're not really sure what we can do anyway, I think sometimes this can be an effective way to detach from someone else's suffering guilt-free. Maybe we do it unconsciously.
I'm a mentor and friend to a group of women in an online community of support. One of them asked a question I wasn't sure about recently. So I went to a few resources from professionals and ran across a Q and A forum where a victim asked a similar question. And to my shock, someone (not a professional) responded to her this way: "Why do you not leave? Are you dumb?"

Even though we might never dream of saying those words to a victim, the suggestion that only a fool would stay can be conveyed simply with a facial expression or tone of voice. And I can say this from my own personal experience: a victim already lives in a continual state of self-doubt, self-blame and toxic shame.
If you haven’t experienced abuse, all the explanation in the world probably still won’t make sense to you. And that can result in a victim feeling she is on trial in the eyes of others. When we look at a victim in disbelief and ask why she stays, more likely than not, she feels judged by the question. At best, we are over-simplifying her situation and her fears. But the biggest frustration for her is that a victim knows she can’t make you understand her circumstances no matter how hard she tries. If you've walked in her shoes, as I have, you just get it. If you haven't, you don't.
Take me for example. How could I expect someone with a healthy view of God to understand that I believed God would be mad at me for leaving an abusive husband? I'm sure that sounds ridiculous to some. But some of you understand because you know there are men and spiritual leaders in every community who are telling abused women that God does not allow them to divorce their abusive husbands. So, for a Christian woman who is concerned about pleasing God, the situation is even more complicated. Some will frown on her for staying, while others will frown on her for not staying. In religious communities, there is often spoken and unspoken pressure on the victim to tolerate abuse.
God hates divorce. Those are words I remember hearing as a young person. Of all the sins one could be guilty of, in my mind it seemed that the only unforgivable sin was divorce. It carried a life sentence. If you were abused, the only hope you had of freedom was if your abuser cheated on you sexually. God didn't make any other allowance for you to divorce is what I was always told. But doesn't the Bible also say that God hates liars? Who of us has He not forgiven for telling a lie? His grace is sufficient in all our brokenness.
Don't misunderstand. I still believe God's desire for marriage is a lifelong  commitment between the same two people. But I am so thankful I know there is forgiveness for a failed marriage. And God does not intend abused women to carry the guilt and shame for sins committed against them.
I mentioned that I had nightmares for years, even after being married to John. In my dreams, the emotional abuse I was enduring felt intolerable. But the heaviest, most suffocating element of every dream was the weight of how I perceived God. In every dream, I felt trapped in the sense that I so wanted to escape, but God was making me stay. Consciously, I never blamed Him. But that perception of His expectations had been deeply branded into my subconscious mind.

This book is one I can't recommend highly enough to anyone who wants to increase their understanding and knowledge of the wounds of abuse. The author, Steven Tracy, is a professor of theology and ethics, and his wife, Celestia, is a family therapist and abuse survivor. Together they are the founders of Mending the Soul Ministries. This book is comprehensive in its approach to understanding all forms of abuse. If you only read one book on this subject, I would urge you to read this one.
In his book Mending the Soul, Dr. Tracy explains...

“Abusive families (families in which abuse takes place) are identical to and yet radically different from other families. While abusive families typically blend in with all the non-abusive families in their neighborhood, they have certain distinct traits that contribute to and result from the abuse. It is imperative for us to understand these traits; if we don’t, we cannot minister effectively to abuse victims—in fact, we can ultimately create additional hurt and damage.”
“It’s vital for families and churches to focus on listening to, empowering, and protecting abuse victims. It often does little or no good to spend time reasoning with unrepentant abusers.”
Surely none of us would want to create additional hurt and damage for a victim. But lack of understanding and compassion does hurt and damage victims. Are we willing to invest ourselves in better understanding so that we can avoid damage through ignorance?
Abuse is rampant in society and you never know who you are unintentionally influencing or judging with your words. We may be having lunch or in a Bible study with a victim and not even know it. Unintentionally, our lack of insight, understanding and compassion may have a profound effect on a victim's life and self-image as much as any sermon she hears in church. And if we are in a position to minister to others as a leader, how much more should we want to avoid causing pain through a lack of understanding?
This question is before US: How do we as a community – in our churches, our families, our workplaces and neighborhoods – make a difference? How can we more effectively confront abuse and hold abusers accountable? How can we reach and empower victims instead of putting them under a microscope of shame?
I can't answer all of these questions in a thirty minute speech. But Dr. Tracy thoroughly addresses questions such as these in Mending the Soul and that's why I'm asking you to read his book. I'm hoping my conversation with you tonight will inspire you to read it.

At this point in my speech, I read a lengthy passage from Mending the Soul. I have not asked permission to reprint portions of the book so I urge you again to buy and read it.
Dr. Tracy explains that "abusers consistently demonstrate an extreme break with reality in their pervasive denial of responsibility." And abusers tend to harshly judge others.
"Christian leaders must recognize this dynamic, lest they buy into the abusers’ lies and contribute to victim blaming. Furthermore, abusers must be held to the highest levels of accountability. Nothing less than total ownership for their abusive behavior should be accepted by their churches; anything less contributes to their denial and in essence justifies their sin." ~ Dr. Steven Tracy (Mending the Soul)
In my second book, I chronicled many years of abuse at the hands of a person who could be intentionally cruel. I was not a perfect wife and I don't portray myself as that. I made a lot of mistakes. And I enabled my own abuse. But I did not cause him to abuse me. And that's an important distinction that needs to be made if we are ever going to hold abusers fully accountable for their actions and help victims to heal.

Abusers constantly shift blame to their victims. They are deceitful. And their hypocrisy allows them to be harshly judgmental of others. Their behaviors are largely a result of the abusers' own shame that they are unwilling to deal with, according to Dr. Tracy. Once you understand that, they are easier to recognize.
Dr. Tracy explains that "abusers are expert at manipulating people in order to justify their abuse to themselves and to others, as well as to maintain control and protect secret wishes and plans. They often apologize in order to minimize the abuse, be forgiven, and assuage any guilt. Likewise, they may want to gain sympathy from other family members or to appear remorseful in the eyes of a court.... They may want to maintain power and set up a scenario that facilitates reabuse."

Once their abuse has been exposed, abusers will often ask their victims' forgiveness. But Dr. Tracy cautions readers that it's important to remember "an apology is not a sure indicator of repentance, and it often serves to help them convince themselves they are good people who don't have a serious problem. Clearly, counselors and church leaders must be wise with regard to the characteristics of abusers and the dynamics of abuse, so they don't confuse a manipulative confession or apology with genuine repentance."
"The Bible repeatedly condemns covering up, overlooking, or relabeling evil" (Dr. Steven Tracy, Mending the Soul, based on the following passages of Scripture: Psalm 74:8-9, Isaiah 5:20, Micah 2:6-11).
All good and decent people should care about justice. For those of us who profess Christianity, we must not deceive ourselves that we are truly following Christ if we are not committed to opposing injustice. The opposite of love is not hate; it's apathy.
If we can be aware of injustice and not be moved with compassion to relieve avoidable suffering, where is the evidence of our faith? The Bible says we (His disciples) will be known by our love.
I saw a small independent film recently that spoke directly and movingly to the issues of injustice, integrity and apathy. It’s called CALVARY and it’s a very difficult movie to watch. There’s a lot of crude language and it’s gritty in its subject matter. It made me uncomfortable from beginning to end. But the message is powerful.
Most of you will probably never see this movie but I don’t want to spoil the impact of the ending for those of you who will. So I will limit what I share. Throughout the movie, there is a person who has suffered greatly because of childhood abuse. He is damaged to the point of seeking revenge on an innocent person; because he was innocent.

In an emotional scene, this victim of sexual abuse and violence asks a priest these two questions shortly after the priest has lost his beloved pet. First: "Did you cry when your dog died?" (The audience has seen the priest's reaction to his dog's death, which was quite moving.) The priest answers honestly, "Yes." And then the adult victim asks the priest, "Did you cry for any of the innocent children who were abused at the hands of priests?"
If you are watching this scene with any integrity whatsoever, you feel a knot in your stomach and have to ask yourself the same question. How many times have I cried over my own suffering? And how many times have I cried over the suffering and injustice inflicted on others?
These are questions that should make all of us uncomfortable; especially if our goal is to be salt and light in a dark world.
As I was working on this presentation, a friend shared these inspiring words in a Facebook post. I knew as I read them that these are the words I'd like to leave you with tonight.


One tree can start a forest;
One smile can begin a friendship;
One hand can lift a soul;
One word can frame the goal;
One candle can wipe out darkness;
One laugh can conquer gloom;
One hope can raise your spirits;
One touch can show you care;
One life can make a difference;

I hope each of us will become convicted and empowered to put these words into action.

Additional content from this speech: 3 Simple Things Anyone Can Do for a Victim of Abuse

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Dear Me (from 75-year-old me)...

This post was not my idea; it was a suggestion from another blogger in the Intentional Blogging Challenge. Thanks, James. This is indeed a challenge, but one I have been eager to take on. Once I got started writing, I found it hard to stop. I finally finished it late tonight (Monday) and when I hit publish it was after midnight Eastern Standard Time.

As you read this, remember that this is what I HOPE to be saying to my younger self twenty years from now. If any or all of these hopes come to pass, I will be blessed.

Dear 55-year-old Me,

I remember this day (the day you are reading this). You can't wait to see your four grandkids this afternoon after taking care of some exciting business; closing on the condo that is within a few miles of their house. Your home away from home in Nashville is going to host many of your best memories. I know, since I'm reflecting on the days you are now living. And, as you say so often, these are the best days of your life.

I would urge you to savor each moment and take no day for granted. But I see that you are already well aware of how precious time is; how important people and relationships are in life. I'm proud of you for knowing that ... ahead of the curve. John teases you that you have "a firm grasp" on your mortality (rather than simply being "in touch" with it). Well, good news! You're going to make it to 75. But your firm grasp will keep you grateful for every year, which is the best way to grow older. Continue on the path of gratitude. It's become even more rewarding at 75.

You have invested wisely, my dear. I am reaping the harvest of your investment in the lives of others. The love you've tried to pour into family and friends while you were a younger woman is returning to me in abundance. Your grandchildren, nieces and nephews know they are special to you because you looked for ways to show them and tell them from the time they were little. They like you at 75; they don't just love you. They still look forward to hanging out. They don't feel obligated to spend time with you; they want to. This is what you always hoped for. It is my reality.

Oh yeah, we are still taking "girls trips" to the beach and having a blast! Karlie is now 40, Lexi 38, Ashley, 35 and Nicole, 30! They are all beautiful inside and out; they are happy, and you are (no shock here) so proud of them. Your nieces' husbands have never minded their annual trip to the beach with Aunt Shari. You have an extremely close relationship with each of them. And Maddie, who is now 21, started going with us several years ago.
Right now you are still young and healthy for your age, but should that change, you have at least one niece who is an exceptionally gifted and compassionate nurse who promises to look after you if you need her. (I doubt this surprises you. You know who I'm talking about, since she's already on her career path.) The others have not quite figured out what direction they are headed as you read this. So I won't share their future choices with you. Just know they all chose well and are accomplished women in their own right.

Your nephews are healthy and happy. And though you don't take them to the beach annually, (because, hey, it's a girl thing) they know they are no less special to you. It's just a different relationship.

Your munchkins are all in their twenties now! Joshua is approaching 30 and Maddie is in college. Those rehearsal dinners you hoped to be present for in the future? Two of them have already happened and you are a great grandmother! You enjoy a close adult relationship with all of your grandchildren. And you are a devoted Great Grandma Shari. (Now you are 'GG' and I wonder why you ever had a problem with a cutesy name for yourself.) You have made so many amazing memories with each of your munchkins. And calling them munchkins has taken on irony because they are all taller than you in 2034. They know how deeply you love them. And you've made a difference in their lives. Good job, Grandma Shari. Grandma Jane would be so proud!

Back to 2014; I know how much you are looking forward to this Thanksgiving. Although you lost your dad this year, your relationship with your siblings has never been better. There has been so much healing and restoration in the family. You can't wait to have a fun family holiday with your brothers and their families again. You hope it means as much to them as it does to you, and you're pretty sure it does. (Tears are filling your eyes right now.) I am happy to tell you that it only gets better and better from here. Both your siblings are growing older in good health and you've had many good times together over the last twenty years. The wounds of the past have faded into nearly invisible scars that only serve to remind you of how far you've come as a family. The healing you've experienced at 55 has already surpassed your expectations. But you have a lot to look forward to in the next 20 years!

Your relationship with Danny and Rebecca has grown closer with every passing year. You do your best not to give unsolicited advice (slipping occasionally). Your biggest fear is still being a burden. And they assure you that you never will be. Rebecca still says she won't mind taking care of you if you are ever unable to care for yourself. And you know she means it. You've always known. You knew the day Danny married her that she was as much a gift to you as she was to Danny.

You have written two more books for a total of four. You never did try to write fiction. But God has allowed you to touch many lives and you continue to hear from readers you helped by sharing your story. You have never regretted being transparent and vulnerable in your writing. I encourage you to continue, as I know you will.

As the years have progressed, you have regained more of the friends you once thought you had lost. But I can't tell you which ones. At 75, you are completely at peace with the ones you lost -- even though you still love them.

By 75, you're going to be amazed at how much better you are at waiting on God's timing and God's sovereignty over every aspect of your life; especially when it comes to relationships.

Remember when John was diagnosed with chronic leukemia (CLL) in 2007 and your fear of losing him almost crumbled you emotionally for a while? Remember when God spoke to you on your back porch and asked you to trust Him and not "the prognostic markers" for his future? Well, we just celebrated John's 80th birthday with all the family and a few close friends. The drugs that were unproven when he began his clinical trial in 2010 have changed the landscape of CLL and he's a poster child for the successful maintenance of blood cancer. He's doing great (and still seeing Dr. Ian Flinn). I remember how much you wanted to be married to John longer than you were married previously. You passed that goal a few years ago.

At 75, you have been without your mom for close to fifty years. And yet the person you are most looking forward to a long conversation with in heaven STILL is your mom. At 55, you are hoping she would be proud of you if she were here. But at 75, you know she would be.

The icing on the cake of your life is that Marian, John's mom, is still dancing (ever so cautiously) at 102. Her 100th birthday party was a BLAST! She is the coolest Great-Great-GraMarian! But we stopped letting her cook Christmas dinner once she hit 90. 

I remember how thankful you were for your Howerton family from the day you met them. I know you have always loved your brothers and sister by marriage, as well as the additional nieces and nephews you were blessed with through marriage. You'll be happy to know they are all living good lives. You are close in heart, even if you don't get to see them as often as you'd like.

Remember how much you hoped to be a sweet old lady? Well, you are on your way. But you still don't think of yourself as old at 75. You aren't thrilled with your looks. You don't really identify with the woman in the mirror. But you recognize yourself in your smile. Your smile still radiates joy, happiness, and gratitude for your blessings. Congratulations on focusing more on inner beauty than your aging face.

Thank you for all the years you faithfully exercised. That has played an important part in my being a young and healthy 75. And thanks for putting up with the Invisalign teeth straightening this year. I still love having straight teeth and still wear my retainer to preserve the good results.

I realize I am mostly telling you the things you've done right. I don't want to make it sound like you haven't made mistakes between 55 and 75. You have. But you've learned how to show grace to yourself and accept your imperfections as you have matured in your faith and trust in God. Take comfort in knowing He is bringing you along every day in spiritual growth. But the biggest part of that is learning how to trust Him. If I told you everything about the next twenty years, you wouldn't have to develop in faith and trust. And so I wouldn't even if I could...

But you're safe because I'm writing "as if" it were 2034. 

I don't even want to think about how quickly the next twenty years are going to go by. I just want to appreciate every day. Because I don't have to hear from 75-year-old me that every day is a gift.
This I know.