Touching His Robe–Jaws of Hell excerpt

Friends, I know you are probably expecting a “mitzvah” post today. I’m sorry I just don’t have one in me right now.  Halloween puts me on edge every year, though I am not exactly sure why.  I’m emotionally treading water here and hoping November 1st will come quickly.

I have big plans for November.  I recently completed the rough draft of my book Touching His Robe: Reaching Past the Shame and Anger of Abuse and in November I will begin the revisions and polishing.  For today I have decided to share an excerpt of the first chapter.   Enjoy!

The Jaws of Hell
The Jaws of Hell public domain picture

The Jaws of Hell

I looked at the “safety card” in my hand. It was divided into sections: suggestions for coping, kind words from friends, and phone numbers including the suicide hotline.  I folded it and put it back in my pocket.  It wasn’t enough. Questions reverberated in my mind: Am I God’s Orphan? Did He push me off the train, or just turn away and leave me?  I told myself it no longer mattered because I had a plan, a suicide plan. Like Job, I cursed the day I was born.

But it had not always been this way.  As a teenager with two alcoholic parents, there was one night my parents didn’t bother to come home. I lay awake frantic that they had either been put in jail, or they were in the hospital. Prayer got me through the night and I began to know my Comforter. From Arizona, where I was born, through my experiences in Venezuela, Alaska, Utah, and Washington, He was my Guide. He led me to a wonderful husband. When a miscarriage at 12 weeks broke my heart, He mended it. When death also claimed a teenage niece and nephew, He wept with me. As my husband’s business failing, subsequent job layoffs, bankruptcy, and foreclosure dropped me to my knees. He was my Staff. When life-threatening health issues frightened me, He calmed the troubled sea in my soul. Truly He was my Bread of Life.

Then, memories of childhood sexual abuse began to surface. I became acquainted with a pain that surpassed anything I had experienced before. And I felt utterly alone. Where was my balm of Gilead, my Savior now? I could not feel Him. I became angry. How could God allow this to happen to me, and why had he forsaken me when I needed him the most?

I grieved the loss of this relationship along with the pain of the past. I turned to the church seeking comfort and answers, but well-intended messages of forgiveness only increased my pain. If I were a better person, I thought, I could forgive. Shame, like a black mold, filled me until one day when I did feel the Savior reaching out to me I turned away from Him. I saw myself as an emotional leper. “Unclean, unclean,” was my heart’s mantra. Without Christ, I was adrift. For a short time, I considered atheism and yet He had been too much a part of my life to let go.

Does this sound familiar to you?  Have you felt alone and forsaken?  If you have, you are not alone.  These feelings are common among survivors.  There are examples in the Bible of others who felt forsaken.  The story of Job could be our story.  Job had done nothing wrong and yet suddenly the jaws of hell gaped after him.  Christ, who is our example in all things, was innocent and yet on the cross He cried out, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?”

My abuse started when I was about four and continued for several years. I understand your pain. If I could I would just sit with you and listen to your story. I would hear your pain in as much or as little detail as you want to tell it. And I would say I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. That should not have happened.

But I can’t sit with each of you, so I will do the next best thing.  I will share my story, and how I found Christ again.  What Christ whispered to me through the scriptures He says to all.

In this chapter, we will talk about the jaws of hell, the feeling of being forsaken, and feelings that cause us to feel this separation.  Through the rest of the book, we will talk about scriptures that can help you not only overcome those feelings, but feel a deep closeness to the Lord.

When the Jaws Open

What does it mean to have the jaws of Hell open after you? We can track the phrase back to medieval times. In the Vercelli Homilies (prose believed to date back to the 10th century), Satan is compared to a dragon swallowing the damned. The image was used in medieval art as well. “Hellsmouth”, the entrance to hell, was portrayed as the gaping mouth of a monster. This image was common all over Europe and continued until the end of the Middle Ages. Usage continued later in renaissance theater. An entry would be painted to appear as hell’s mouth and during morality plays actors playing demons would dramatically drag sinners to their doom. Eventually, they simply called any trapdoor on the floor of a stage the hellsmouth. In Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, they called the entire space beneath the stage “hell” and the choir loft the heavens.

The idea continues to intrigue men’s minds. The term jaws of hell can be found in many current day song lyrics. But what does all this have to do with us?

Generally we think of separation from God as being due to our sins. But what if as Job we are separated from God, during a time when we need Him most, through no fault of our own?  Could this not be truly called the Jaws of Hell?

Spiritual Obstacles

Shame is a huge obstacle for us survivors of abuse.  Almost immediately as my memories began to resurface, I was overcome with a deep sense of shame. I felt like a rotten apple. People told me the abuse wasn’t my fault. Logically I knew they were right and yet still, I also felt deeply that I was full of worms, invisible to the eye, but spoiled just the same.

Shame did not come into my life alone. It brought a companion, anger. Anger was a really uncomfortable visitor because as a child I had never been allowed to express it.  As the spark of anger grew into an inner bonfire, I had no idea how to extinguish it.

Anger whispered terrible things to me. “If God really loves you, why did He allow this to happen?” I knew all the Sunday school answers about why God allows bad things to happen to good people, but those no longer seemed sufficient. This was not a philosophical question, but a deeply personal one.

With the return of my memories, I lost something else–trust. Trust is huge issue for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Most abuse occurs by someone the child knows; a family member or friend of the family. When we are hurt and betrayed in such a grievous manner by someone who was supposed to help us, we learn not to trust again especially authority figures, even God.

A Door Opens

Thus far I have painted a very dismal picture, but there is hope.  One day, I told my spiritual leader I could not bear the thought of the Savior approaching me with outstretched arms. I preferred to have rocks fall on me rather than face him.

He pondered that for a moment and then said, “Remember the woman who came to Jesus and touched His robe? Maybe you could do that . . . just touch his robe.”

The words resonated within me like a perfect chord on the piano. Yes! Even though I was full of hurt, mistrust and fear, there was a part of me that yearned for the once close relationship I had shared with the Savior. Perhaps I could just reach out and touch His robe.






My Personal Road to Emmaus

Oops!  I owe you a blog post.  If you are new–I post on Mondays and Thursdays (except for yesterday apparently.)  I have a good explanation though.  Seriously!

LDS Temple Washington, D.C.  public domain wikimedia
LDS Temple Washington, D.C.
public domain wikimedia

Yesterday was an important day for me.  I went to the temple for the first time in about three years*.  For those of you that are not LDS (Mormon) just think of it as a special form of worship.  Mormons go to church weekly on Sundays and that is a one form, but going to the temple is a higher form of worship.  You can read more about it HERE if you are curious.   For my readers that are members of the church, I just want to say–yes I had a current temple recommend all that time.

Why haven’t I been to the temple for so long and what changed now?  Great questions.  I’ll try to explain.

The temple had always been a symbol of peace for me.  A place where I could feel closer to God than at any other time–until the memories of my childhood abuse began to surface.  Then I was filled with such a sense of filthiness and shame, that the temple became a place of pain.  The last two times I had gone were so painful that it has taken me three years to return.

So why now?  Because I have at last come to a place (thanks to a lot of therapy and soul-searching) where I no longer feel the burden of shame about what happened to me.  Yes, the shame was very deeply rooted.  Getting rid of it was not simply a matter of someone telling me “it wasn’t your fault”.  Many people told me that, I simply couldn’t believe them.

And today?  Well, today was bittersweet.  I felt comfortable at the temple again . . . at last!  It felt like coming home after being away for years.  And yet, something was missing.

There is still a part of me that was there before that I have not been able to reclaim.   It’s like coming home, but one of the family members is missing.  What I mean is, I went to the temple and I felt at home.  I was grateful to be there and to feel some peace . . . and yet, I still don’t feel that I have completely reclaimed the closeness I once felt with the Savior.

I used to wonder if perhaps it was just me that felt this separation from God (after abuse or assault), but then I did a little research and studies show that it is quite common (just as feeling anger is often part of the grieving process.)  What I can’t find the answer to is why this happens.

I had always been taught–and I taught it myself–that the Lord never moves away from us, we move away from Him.  And as such, we can repent and move closer to Him when we are ready.    But this separation I feel from Him is not due to my own sins.  There may be some that will argue that my anger toward God was the sin that caused this, but I disagree.  I think that the Savior understands my pain, anguish, and yes anger, and He is NOT punishing me by withholding His presence.

There is a scriptural support for my theory.  In Isaiah 54:7, the Lord is speaking and He says, “For a little while, have I forsaken thee . . . ”

The first time I heard this scripture, I thought, “Aha! So you admit it Lord.”   Again some might say that the Lord had temporarily forsaken Israel because of their sins, i.e. they moved away from Him.  But there is another scripture that shows that sometimes we can feel distanced from God during our darkest moments, through no fault of our own.

That scripture is found in Matthew 27:46.  Christ was on the cross and called out, “My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?”  Christ had done nothing wrong, and yet in one of his darkest moments, He felt alone.  In Psalms 22:1-2 KJV, we find these same words and more (perhaps some of you can relate to this, I sure can)

1 My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?

2 O my God, I cry in the day time, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.

I do not know all the reasons this separation–the jaws of hell–happens.  But I believe it is something like the road to Emmaus.  Remember in Luke 24 we read the story of two of Christ’s disciples who were walking down the road discussing the recent events of His death. How confused they must have been.  How heartbroken.  Then Christ joined them.  He walked with them and spoke with them about their loss, but the knowledge that it was Him was kept from them–for a little while.

I believe this is how it is for all of us who struggle with the jaws of hell.  We are not truly alone, Unbeknownst to us, He is there walking beside us, perhaps carrying us. And in time we will be reunited with Him just as the disciples were.

Now let’s return to Isaiah 54:7 again and read the full verse:

For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee.

There is a song, My Kindness Shall Not Depart From Thee by Rob Gardner that uses this chapter from Isaiah.  It has been such a strength and comfort to me.  I want to share it in the hope that it will be for others as well.  (And yes, I have shared a different version of this before, so if you get that–familiar, but unfamiliar–feeling it’s probably not de ja vu.

Note: this is post is an example of what my book, tentatively titled:  Touching His Robe: Reaching Past the Pain and Shame of Abuse  is about.

* Clarification, I did go recently for my nephews wedding.  But that was a different situation.

Forgiveness: What it IS and ISN’T

The Voice Within by Neil Crosby CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Flickr
The Voice Within by Neil Crosby CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Flickr

I often get quite annoyed when the topic of forgiveness comes up.  I am afraid this leads people to the false conclusion that I don’t believe in forgiveness.  Actually, I think it’s a beautiful thing.  What I object to is what I view as our culture’s misunderstanding of it.  To illustrate, here is something I wrote awhile ago, in a fit of frustration:

I am not Dorothy.  This is not Oz, and forgiveness is not a pair of magic ruby slippers that will take me home. Why is this concept so hard for people to understand? Maybe I am the one that does not get it.  Perhaps having a happy childhood where you feel loved and secure gives you the power to believe in fairy tales, unicorns and four-leaf clovers. People talk about forgiveness as if it is Aladdin’s lamp–just say “I forgive” and peace will instantly come into your heart and all your troubles will fall away.   I forgive okay?  I forgive a thousand times over if that will make the pain go away.  I will do it. I FORGIVE So why don’t I feel better?

Therein is my frustration.  Now let me illustrate how it can be beautiful.

When my mother died, I felt angry, very angry.

I’m tempted to tell you why I was so angry so that you will see my point of view and not think I am a heel.  But I’m going to resist. It’s all behind us now, no point in rehashing it.  I hope you will trust me–I’ll leave it at that.

Remember the movie Ghost with Patrick Swayze?  I imagined something like that, my Mom’s ghost watching me and I ranted and raved and told her all the things I couldn’t tell her when she was alive.  The day before I left for the funeral, I spent time in therapy ranting some more.

Then Wednesday, I got on a plane to fly home.  As I sat there contemplating the days ahead, I made a startling revelation.  I wasn’t angry any more.  All the anger, i.e. the pain–was gone.

I want to make this point perfectly clear . . . I did not consciously “let it go”. It let me go.  I simply didn’t feel the anger and pain anymore. I think what happened was that all my life, I felt a need to protect my mother.  I couldn’t tell her how I really felt.  So when she died, I finally allowed myself to feel the anger and let it out.  Because I did that, the anger was resolved (buried feelings don’t die). At last, my anger was gone, the pain was gone, and I felt peace.

And because I felt peace, I forgave my mother.

This is how (in my saner moments) I always thought forgiveness would happen. Exhibit A is my post Forgiveness is Not a Magic Bullet.  In that post, I shared a story from the Old Testament about David, Nabal and Abigail.  In short, David and a group of men were working for Nabal protecting his sheep from highway men (robbers) for a pre-determined fee.  However, when it came time to pay the fee, Nabal pretended he had never made the agreement.

David gathered his men and made a plan to march on Nabal’s house and seek their revenge.  While they were on the way, Nabal’s wife, Abigail met them on the road.  She gave them everything that Nabal had agreed to pay them, and then asked them to forgive HER.  David and his men accepted her offering.  In this story, Abigail is a “type” of Christ.  Like Abigail, He comes to us, and heals the wounds that other’s sins have caused us and then asks us to forgive Him.*

Notice that the debt was paid, and the wound healed, BEFORE forgiveness was requested.  This is how it happened for me.  I could not heal until I worked through those feelings.  Denial based forgiveness does not work.  I needed to have the freedom to express my feelings and  work through them. Then I could see the gifts that the Lord has given me to replace what I had lost.  Peace filled in the empty space where anger used to lie.

Forgiveness IS a beautiful thing.

Photo Attribution here

*Many thanks to author James Ferrel who illuminated this scripture for me in his book, The Peacegiver.

Monday Mitzvahs: Don’t Hesitate, Reach Out!

Sometimes when I am thinking about what to write for Monday Mitzvahs, I think about the things that have been done for me.  Today I would like tell you about a mitzvah that is very close to my heart.  To help you really understand, I need to give you a little background.

I started attending church regularly when I was about ten years old.  It was always a solace for me, a home away from home, a place of peace and then without warning that changed.  There are many reasons.  But suffice it to say the church didn’t change, the people there didn’t change, what is taught there didn’t change.  But I did.

I was drowning in pain and sorrow, and I would go to church the same lessons the same scriptures that had once comforted me, now wounded me.  The full explanation of why is longer than I want to get into now, but briefly:

  • DID was part of it.  My “system” whisked away the spiritual part of me to protect her from the memories that were about to begin surfacing
  • Lessons on forgiveness made me feel more alienated from God
  • Lessons teaching that God gives us adversity to help us grow no longer made sense to me, and left me with more questions than answers
  • Lessons about family were torturous, because my childhood home was not a happy one
  • Even Christ-centered lessons that should have been a comfort hurt me because I felt so estranged from him.

In short, I was a mess.  Most Sundays made me cry and I dreaded them.  One Sunday in particular, one of my leaders said he was going to speak to a small part of the congregation that he felt inspired to address.  I felt so hopeful.  Would he really say something that would speak to my heart?  Maybe!

But he didn’t.  He had some other group in mind.  The disappointment that I felt was the proverbial last straw.  The pain was so great that I got up and walked out the door.  Not  just out of the chapel, but right out of the building.  I was done.  Absolutely done.  I planned to never enter that building again.  How could God ask that of me?  No more.  But then  . . .

A woman’s voice called out behind me.  Until I heard her voice, I had thought I was alone, so I turned to see if she was calling to me.  She was.

She said, “You look really upset.  Is there anything I can do?”

Tears come to my eyes remembering that moment.  That wondrous feeling that someone cared.  Someone saw me, saw my pain and cared.

I asked her to walk with me.  So we walked around the outside of the building, and I told her as briefly as possible what was going on with me.  She listened to me and told me she understood because she is a Survivor too.

I don’t remember her name, and I don’t remember what she said–but I will never forget that she saw me in pain and came to help.  For that I call her an angel.

Because of her, I went back into the building that day, and have continued to attend church.  It’s getting better.  I still have bad days, but it’s a lot better.

Now back to our mitzvahs.  What if she had given into the fears and self-doubt that we all have?  If the roles were reversed, would I have followed her or would I have thought, “That woman looks sad.  I should go talk to her–but what if I say the wrong thing?  What would I say anyway?  I’m sure her family or someone who knows her will help.”

My own self-doubt and fears might have kept me from helping.  And yet, thank goodness she didn’t let her self-doubt and fear defeat her.  She didn’t hesitate.  She acted.  She reached out to me.  And I will always remember her for her small kindness that meant the world to me.

Sadly, the world is full of pain, but we can help.  Don’t be afraid, try not to hesitate, just reach out.

Reaching Out For My Star by GNAHZ  CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 deviantART
Reaching Out For My Star by GNAHZ
CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 deviantART

Monday Mitzvahs were inspired by Linda Cohen’s book, 1,000 Mitzvahs

Photo attribution: Reaching Out For My Star

Easter: He knows our Shame

Lucy Toner

One of the many difficult things survivors deal with is an overwhelming sense of shame.  I remember well how it crept into my life, like a horrible disease that begins with symptoms that are almost unnoticeable, then grows in severity until it becomes crippling.

I fought it. Know that I did.  I didn’t go down without a fight, but while my logical and surface part of my mind told me “what happened was not your fault”, my emotional and much deeper rooted belief was that it was.  It happened because I was bad.

One day I was asked to substitute in one of the children’s classes at church, the 4 yr olds.  I panicked.  I felt too unclean, too ashamed to be with those sweet little children and talk to them about the things of God.  I felt I had no right to speak of such things.  I was startled by this, but powerless to overcome it.

Then I was asked to give a prayer in a meeting…something I had previously enjoyed.  I couldn’t do it.  I was embarrassed to say no, but I would have been even more ashamed if I had said yes.  How could I speak to God on behalf of the group?  I couldn’t.

I stopped sharing comments in classes.  I had previously loved teaching, or giving a talk, but I could do none of them anymore.  What felt like the greatest blow was when I went to the temple.  The temple had always been a place of peace and comfort to me, but no more.  While I was in the temple, I felt miserable, ashamed, unworthy.  The pain was terrible.  I tried again another time with the same result.  My peace was taken from me.

I am doing better now.  I have begun to pray in church again, and well who knows…perhaps soon I will feel ready to speak or teach again. I am thinking of going to the temple soon…it has been a few years, maybe it is time.  I hope it is.

The reason I am sharing this today…of all days…Easter…is for my fellow survivors.  I know your shame and your pain.  I know that telling you it is not your fault will not be enough to make it go away.  But I want you to know, that the Savior understands our shame.  He can help us, and we can turn to Him because He knows.

Philosophers throughout the ages have asked “why does God allow bad things to happen to good people”.  I have asked that question myself, as a deeply personal question, not a philosophical one.  I don’t know the answer, but I find comfort in knowing that Christ suffered too, so that He could help us with our pain.

He chose to come to earth during the time of the Roman rule.  He chose to be born in poor circumstances.  He chose to associate with people who were outcasts, the lepers, the sinners, the tax collectors.  And when it was time for His death, He allowed Himself to be killed in the most shameful way the Romans could think of.

The usual Jewish form of capital punishment was stoning.  Pilate seems to have given them permission to do this, and yet that would not appease them.  They sought for crucifixion precisely because it was shameful.  Even the Romans did not use it for their “good” citizens.  It was reserved for slaves, and the most base criminals.

They always chose to do crucifixions in public areas, like well-traveled roads, so that people would see those  who were being crucified, see them there naked.  Romans disrobed the people being crucified and attached them to crosses like animals, intentionally, they wanted the experience to be dehumanizing.  And all this in addition to the physical horrors.  No one deserves that sort of death, but especially not Christ, who had spent his life serving others, teaching, healing and uplifting, and yet there He was.  Innocent and treated with shame.  We, survivors, are too often weighed down by a shame we don’t deserve.  Christ understands.  He has conquered death, and overcome shame.  He can help us do the same.

Photo Attribution: Lucy Toner