(This is my last monthly column, “Bridge Work,” in Ministry and Liturgy Magazine. I am so grateful for Ada Simpson and Donna Cole for these past ten years.)
On the other side of surrender
I listen to many heartbreaking stories of people who have been sexually abused as children. Most people never heal from their early days of profound hurt. I hear from both men and women that every aspect of their adult lives needs to be negotiated and reexamined in view of the tragedies and crimes that were committed upon them in their youth.
I recently sat with a woman who was given up for adoption because her parents abused her physically and emotionally. She told me that her only child was so disruptive that she seriously wanted to give him away. She pondered abandoning her child as she herself had been abandoned. She reached out to doctors and to me for words of comfort and relief.
Adult women and men, who have experienced betrayal of trust as children, struggle to surrender to life in every matter of relationship, education, work and creativity. To give over oneself to anything in life is not easy when there is little reason to know for sure if that surrender is in a person’s best interest.
This is certainly the case when a person who has been abused in any way tries to pray. I listened recently to a man who has struggled with his sexuality for many years. He cannot trust people to love him because of the negative stereotypes within him that tell him that real love is simply not possible. He finds this obstacle in his life of prayer as well. He is never sure that God will forgive him. He finds it difficult to be generous when the threat of condemnation is always within his heart. He finds surrendering to God nearly impossible because he does not know if love is on the other side of the surrender. He does not know if he will be held in the arms of Jesus’ mercy or the piercing judgment of a vengeful Father. Being vulnerable to rest in God’s love is a lifelong reality for so many people.
I recently spoke with a woman who has struggled with her weight all of her life. Her struggles go back to being abused. She told me that she had just recently joined a gym. She explained that surrendering her body to a male trainer triggered her abuse trauma again. Just the simple act of allowing a man to show her how to exercise opened up for her much emotional pain.
I tell these stories as I pray again with the gospels for the Lenten season. This woman caught in adultery is now being blamed for her life, her sexual sin and her place within the community. There is no account of the man with whom she was involved. She is taken publicly to a circle of condemnation. Jesus ponders the situation and kneels down to write or play in the sand. I cannot help but think he wants to wipe away sin, abusive relationships and our judgments of people from not only the woman but from each one of us as well.
I cannot image how this woman in the circle of judgment could ever surrender to God when all of these men represent religion. I cannot imagine her pain as she stepped into the trap of piercing criticism and ignorant blame. Jesus saves her, he runs after the condemning attitudes of his counterparts. He wants liberation not only for her but also for the men in the circle, as well as for people in every generation. Jesus crouches down and thinks about his role and the beauty of his own surrender to the will of the Father.
The Lenten liturgies challenge us to surrender every aspect of our lives to God. We are called to let go of sin, doubt, shame and the pieces of our past that cast a shadow over our relationships, even with God. This prayerful surrender is not easy for many people. To give away the burdens of pain that weigh us down is never easy no matter who we are or what our childhood patterns have been.
Lent is not just a time to give up candy or not to swear in public, but a radical change in the patterns that hold us down and keep us from love. This surrender is to connect our human stories, even profound abuse and neglect, with the redemptive story and ultimate surrender of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.
We enter the desert during Lent. We walk with the older brother and the prodigal, younger son. We climb up a mountain to witness Jesus’ transfiguration and we wait for God to be patient with us like the fig tree. We all will eventually bear fruit. We all want to live and heal our past hurts on the other side of our surrender.
As liturgists and musicians, we cannot take this Lenten season for granted or think that we just need to get through it. We should bend down with the woman and look over Jesus’ shoulder as he writes in the sand. We must remember that people need these intense days of witness so that surrendering to God will ultimately bring the love of Christ that will set us all free.