Being Fully Human, cycle of violence, divine within, domestic violence, Easter, emotional abuse, Jesus, mary of magdala, partriarchy, resurrection, sexual abuse, shame, social isolation, women

A Call to Resurrection

Surviving Domestic ViolenceIn my book Sacred Sex I retell Will Willimon’s experience preaching in a croweded auditorum. He was given an introduction that far exceeded what he thought he would deliver and he remembered a teacher saying something like if you aren’t sure you have enough to say, say it louder. So he got up before the congregation and said, “And what is the most significant event our faith has to offer?” Then he bellowed out the answer, “The Erection!” Now that’s one Easter message I would have enjoyed hearing!

My message won’t be quite that provocative. I believe the Easter story and the Easter myth itself transcends the barrier of religion and that even if we don’t follow the Christian calendar, we can still find value in its premise. So I want to approach this story through the eyes of Mary of Magdala and dedicate this message to the women who have struggled throughout history into our modern times to find a place of genuine acceptance and inclusion as equals in society.

Mary at the Empty Tomb

What a poignant Easter text we find in John 20:10-18, so sad and so beautiful. Mary has come to the tomb of her beloved Jesus. You can imagine how she must have felt. Numbness fighting to still the shock still reverberating in her. Going through the motions of preparing the body, the one last way in which she can feel close to the teacher she followed and the man she most certainly loved. Feeling lost and alone and yet finding some comfort in these rites and rituals.

And then even that solace is taken from her. There is no body to touch or to cry over. There is no last time to speak her sorrow while gazing at the face she held so dear. Instead there is the certain knowledge that the joy has gone out of her life, that feeling of hollow emptiness and despair. The sense of being small and insignificant and utterly alone.

Indeed, 2000 years ago, women as a whole were considered small and insignificant. Women were nobodies. Women were property. They had few of the rights of men. They could not be witnesses in court or file for divorce. They could not be taught the Torah. They were to be nearly invisible in public. Public meals were for men only, and if a woman did show up she was assumed to be a prostitute. Women lived on the margins of society.

Jesus’ Treatment of Women was Scandalous

And for a brief period of time, Jesus elevated Mary and the other women he interacted with to a glorious height of equality. His actions toward women were nothing short of scandalous. He defended them, spoke with them, healed them, ate with them, and even learned from them. Mary was part of the intimate group that traveled with Jesus. She knew personally the warmth of his unconditional love.

And now so profound is her despair that when Jesus speaks to her she doesn’t even recognize him… until he speaks her name. When she is named, when she is recognized for who she is at a time when she feels again as if she is nothing. When she is recognized for who she is at a time when she has lost everything. When she is recognized for who she is, she recognizes her Teacher. She is filled with new life. In a very real sense it is Mary who is now resurrected.

So why in this moment of mystical reunion would Jesus torment her further by telling her not to hold onto him? Shouldn’t he have swept her into his arms and held her as she wept? Shouldn’t he have offered her words of comfort and peace, assuring her of his presence, promising her this was real and that he was there, right there with her?

John wrote the most mystical of the four Gospels that were included in the official Canon. In it Jesus is always using common language to say something beyond the obvious. So when Jesus says, “Don’t hold onto me.” Was his statement as obviously cruel as it sounds or could it be that this man who so often used common language to point to the spiritual is at it again? “No Mary, you don’t have to hold onto me. You don’t have to cling to me, because everything you saw in me is now in you. That same divine presence that you sensed in me, I now challenge you to see in yourself. This is what I came to teach and show you. See in yourself the Spirit you saw in me.”

Mary’s Call to be Fully Human

In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, a Gospel that did not make it into the Canon, Jesus tells his followers that the son of Man dwells inside them. And Mary responds by saying that Jesus is calling them and us to be fully “human.”

Perhaps to be fully human is to recognize that what Jesus says is true. To understand that it is within our humanity that we are all resurrected. Perhaps it is only in fullness that we learn not to belittle ourselves and dismiss our gifts and abilities. Perhaps it is only in human fullness that we come to realize that we are also fully divine.

The Terror of s

I’d like to tell you now about another women. I was returning with a group from Extended Grace from a Renaissance Festival when we stopped at a gas station. One of the teenagers with us went into the restroom where she was approached by a young lady asking her for help. Her name was Tanika and she looked barely 16 years old. Tanika explained that her boyfriend had beaten her for the last time and that she had finally left him for good. But he had followed her and when she stopped at this station for gas he took over her car with her child in it. I called the police. I left Tanika with the police officers and my card and told her to call if she needed any help connecting with legal assistance or a shelter.

None of us expected to meet Tanika that day or to find ourselves face-to-face with the terror of living in abuse. More often we can ignore the problem. More often it stays behind closed doors. But as unusual as our encounter with Tanika proved to be, there is nothing unusual about domestic violence. In the United States, someone is beaten by their intimate partner every 9 seconds. For 12.4 million people, home is not a safe place. Today even many teenagers view violence as an unavoidable aspect of their relationships, and 1 in 3 will experience physical or sexual abuse or threats during the year.

The face of abuse is shared by all races, all ages and all socioeconomic classes. Domestic violence has severe physical and emotional consequences for its victims. And while 1 in 3 women will be victims of abuse sometime during their lifetime, studies also show that as many as 1 in 4 domestic abuse victims are men. The FBI reports that 2/3 of all marriages will include violence at some point. Domestic violence is just as real and just as prevalent in heterosexual and same sex relationships.

“People Like Her Just Like to Get Hit.”

I never heard from Tanika again. According to the frustrated police officer, her boyfriend was in a lot of trouble for a lot of things, but in the end Tanika never pressed charges. The officer was angry with her – and obviously ill-educated about abuse. I was dismayed when he said to me, “People like her just like to get hit.” I tried to explain. I tried to help him see. I hope I made some impact.

Why would anyone stay in a violent relationship? This is probably the most commonly asked question – and for good reason. It seems so logical and obvious that these victims should just get out of the house. But the reality is that there are a lot of barriers to freedom. The reality is that the most dangerous time for a person who is being battered is when they leave. A full 75 percent of women who are killed by their partners are murdered after the relationship is over or as it ends. But that’s only one of the barriers to freedom.

Another is that many women and men don’t think of themselves as being abused. Abuse is generational and those who have grown up in abusive homes are far more likely to become the victims of the perpetrators of violence when they have grown. Abuse at its core is about control. It’s one person scaring another person into doing something. And it’s not just physical abuse but sexual abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse and financial abuse. Domestic violence may include insulting and name-calling, isolation, intimidation, and threats, which may be directed at children or other family members.

Cycle of Violence

Another important concept to understand is the Cycle of Violence. The relationship doesn’t start out being violent. In fact, the abuser most likely begins as a seducer, buying presents and showering praise and attention on their partner. Eventually, though, this calm gives way to a tension-building period. In this phase, minor incidents begin and communication breaks down. The victim feels the need to placate the abuser and “walk on eggshells.” Eventually, the tension is released in an incident, which may take the form of physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

The next stage is a return to seduction as the abuser apologizes and may cry. A honeymoon stage ensues complete with gifts. And promises are made that it will never happen again. But at the same time, the victim is blamed for provoking the abuse, subtly planting the idea that it was their fault and that they can keep it from happening again. As time goes by, the abuser denies that the abuse ever took place — or at least that it was as bad as the victim claims.

In the calm that follows, the incident is forgotten. Some of the promises are kept and the victim is left with hope that the abuse is over. As the tension building stage begins again, the victim remembers that it is their responsibility to behave in a manner that will not bring about the abuse — which eventually recurs no matter what they do. The entire cycle may take more than a year to complete – or as little as a few hours.

Another barrier is religion. We all know that you cannot possibly use scripture from any religion to justify abuse. Nevertheless, we also know that scripture can be misused. Citing passages to “submit to your husbands” or to “turn the other cheek,” Christian men and women often feel compelled to stay in abusive relationships because of their marriage vow. For this reason, victims of abuse often feel doubly abandoned by God.

Beating Ourselves Up

When all is said and done, I find the best explanation for why people stay in abusive relationships was captured by Don Miguel Ruiz. He said that if you are with someone who is beating you up more than you beat yourself up, you will leave. But if you are with someone who is beating you up just a little bit less than you beat yourself up, you will stay forever. I also believe that people who beat up other people, never beat them up more than they beat themselves up emotionally.

I know Ruiz named my experience. I used to believe in my own unworthiness. My life was so flawed. I was so flawed. There was all this crisis and trauma in my life. I had failed at so many times in my life. I wanted somehow to make a difference, but realized that I probably never would. Then I met Dr. Rudy Featherstone, a truly incredible man. He as a retired professor of theology. A proud black man with snow white hair who spoke glowingly of his wife, his children and his grandchildren. And most joyful person I think I have ever met.

Recognizing the Divine Within

Rudy really shook me up that day. I couldn’t argue with him. Whatever energy permeates our universe, I am part of that universe and that energy is necessarily part of me. When I am fully human, when I am fully me, then I have to admit that the package of body, thought and emotion that is Barbara Lee is not all I am. When I am fully human, I realize that I am also divine.

This is the Good News of the Easter story. It is the refreshingly good news that has been proclaimed throughout the history of all faith traditions. It is the life giving good news that we can never be separated from God because however we define God, we live in THAT and THAT lives in us.

Odds are you know someone who is being abused – even if you don’t know it yet. There’s a good chance that someone hasn’t glimpsed the divinity within themselves. As helpless as we often feel, there are things you can do to help. Let them know you understand domestic abuse. Tell them clearly that it is not their fault and that there is NOTHING they can do to prevent the violence. If they choose to open up, listen nonjudgmentally. Offer to help with childcare, transportation and storage of valuables. Encourage them to contact Every Women’s Place or the Center for Women in Transition or to call the domestic abuse hotline.

A Reason to Hope

Try not to get discouraged. And above all, try not to blame. Victims of domestic abuse are suffering already from a great deal of shame and a sense of hopelessness. Don’t blame yourself if they don’t make the decision you would choose for them. Your role is to offer friendship, hope and a space for the possibility of change. It isn’t your responsibility to fix someone else’s world. More than anything victims need you to model what a loving relationship really looks like. They need a reason to hope.

I am pretty public now about my own history of abuse because I have met too many people who only trusted me with their story after I shared my own – after they knew that I would not judge them for the circumstances they were in.  As a result of my experience, I ended up founding and chairing the Muskegon County Domestic Violence Healthcare Initiative. In that role, I gave a presentation on Domestic Violence at the Lion’s Club. After presenting all of my information, I opened it up for questions. A man sitting in the middle of the room who didn’t even bother to stand up said, “I know someone whose wife won’t let up on him until he hits her. Sometimes there’s just nothing else you can do.” And a number of others seemed to nod their heads and murmur their agreement.

There is NO excuse for violence. Not against women, not against men, not against children. There is NEVER an excuse for one person to use violence in any form against another.

Domestic violence alters the landscape of our lives and the lives of those we love. Violence by an intimate partner, rips deep valleys through the sense of self; builds mountains of shame and guilt and isolation; twists, bends, and distorts notions of love and relationship, and shatters into rough and jagged pieces the spirit of hope.

A Prophetic Voice

We need to be the prophetic voice. We need to be the voice of Jesus and Dr. Rudy Featherstone for Mary of Magdala and Tanika. We need to call all of those who suffer at the hands of abuse by name so that they may also be resurrected to new life.

Individually we can make a dramatic difference in the life of a friend or loved one. Together we can create a society in which we will no longer ignore or excuse acts of domestic violence. It begins with us, it begins here and it begins now.


Spiritual Inquiry Discussion Question:

Is domestic violence caused by the patriarchal values of our culture, or is domestic violence caused by individual socioeconomic and/or psychological factors (e.g. substance abuse, mental illness, unemployment)?

acceptance, alone, Being Fully Human, belonging, community, family, purpose, self esteem, social isolation, social media, social trends

A Family of Choice

Barbara Lee High SchoolEighth grade was excruciating for me. I was raised in a family, as most of us were, without having a lot of choice about those relationships. People were just there to connect to or not. School wasn’t that much different. The only thing that mattered was geography and because I lived in a certain place, I went to a predetermined school. Because we moved when I was in second grade, the kids I went to school with all had previous relationships with each other and I struggled to find a place I belonged. That only worsened as I got older. By the time I got into sixth grade I wanted more than anything to just disappear or even to be hit through no fault of my own by a runaway train – which would be quite a feat in Fruitport!

I was a desperate for community.

The need for community is in our blood. Human beings throughout all of history have formed themselves into clans and tribes. It is only in our relationship to others that we define who we are. It is in community that we find our identity. It is in community that our sense of esteem grows, that we gain a sense of purpose and accomplishment.

We all need a place of belonging – perhaps now more than ever, as we struggle with the realities of broken community, fragmented society, and disrupted family systems. If we don’t find it, we live more and more in isolation. We experience more and more emotional, spiritual, and social brokenness.

For me, the gift of community finally arrived in ninth grade. That was when I got the courage to try out for a play. And I was cast. And life changed. The group of Upstagers at Fruitport High School became my first family of choice.

You Are Not Alone

A family of choice is a community you belong to because you want to. A place in which you feel at home – or in some cases much better than at home. Relaxed, happy, confident. A place where we discover we are NOT alone – that we share similar thoughts or enjoy similar activities with other human beings. If we are lucky, we feel so comfortable that we show a side of us that doesn’t normally come out as we negotiate the complexities and demands of our every day lives. If we’re lucky, we play.

As we choose to be members and friends of this community, we also receive the gift of being accepted by the community. For unlike our parents, our siblings or even the people sent to the same school as us, a family of choice receives us not because in some sense they have to, but only because they want to.

Families of choice are nothing new. I think of the group my grandparents met with once a week to play bridge and other card games. Or the bowling league my father participated in for years. One of my friends grew up where there were regular neighborhood block parties. My mother found a family of choice by joining Weight Watchers. And back then all of us went to church.

But today those opportunities can no longer be assumed. Sociologists speak of having three places: the home, the work environment and one other place. The other place was often church or a civic club, or a group gathered around a sport or a hobby. Then a few years ago a sociologist wrote a book called Bowling Alone and called attention to the fact that we are becoming more and more isolated in our society. More recent reports show that social media, while providing an easier way to connect, is ultimately leading to more social isolation as we post or tweet in place of face to face communication.

Community Means Better Health 

In the early 1960′s some remarkable research was conducted in the town of Roseto near Bangor where the rate of heart disease was far below normal. Roseto was a town of 1600 Italian-Americans. Every home in the town had three generations living in it and the sense of community was very tight.

Teams of medical researchers spent time in Roseto trying to determine why the rate of heart attack was so much lower than nearby Bangor. Was it diet? No, Rosetans shared a typical American diet. Was it genes? No. Other Italian communities had heart attack rates similar to the national average. Was it healthy habits? No. Rosetans smoked as much as people in neighbouring towns and exercised as little as people in neighbouring towns, and met the  national average for obesity and high blood pressure. Was it the physical environment? No, there was no significant difference between Roseto and neighbouring towns. Was it a short term statistical anomaly? No, the trend held up over a fifty year study.

In the end health officials did eventually track down the secret to good health in Roseto – ready for it: it was simply a close sense of community, with very strong bonds of family and friendship. The head of the research team wrote in his report: “In terms of preventing heart disease, it’s just possible that morale is more important than jogging or not eating butter.”

Interestingly, the initial research team predicted that the health benefits would diminish as successive generations ‘Americanised’ and lost their tight knit sense of community. Today, over 50 years later, this prediction has proven sadly accurate.

Social Trends 

When we face the realities of isolation and the brokenness in our own lives, in our own families and in the very fabric of society, we find we need more than ever to find a place of belonging. Equally important, if we don’t find a way to include a third place as part of our life, we run the risk of finding a third place as an escape from our life.

Some of the latest trends in society have been identified by a futurist with the wonderfully playful name of Faith Popcorn. She identified a number of social trends and three of them very specifically speak to what C3 is all about and why we are positioned to be a highly sought after family of choice.

First, is Anchoring. Anchoring is reaching back to one’s spiritual roots in order to take what was secure from the past and use it to be ready for the future. Here at C3 we regularly celebrate our own roots while also exploring the roots of different traditions and ideologies giving us tools to both deepen and expand our spirituality in order to feel secure when tomorrow is so uncertain.

Second is Clanning. Clanning is the act of belonging to a group that represents common feelings, causes or ideals. Clanning is how we validating our own belief system. My friend Reed Schroer talks about being a weirdo and the need he has, not to give up being a weirdo, but to be in community with other weirdos. Here in West Michigan, many of us find ourselves as the anomaly. There are plenty of places that our beliefs and attitudes would not be accepted. But here, in this community, we are united by a common mission, vision and set of values. We have found our fellow people!

The third is Egonomics. Egonomics points to the fact that to offset a depersonalized society, we crave recognition of our individuality. So even as we find those things that bind us together in common community, we also want people to see us as the unique individuals we are. And that is one of the things we do best. Here we recognize and deeply honor the individual spiritual journey and we let people be who they are. True community is not a melting away of individuals into a common, lumpy soup. It is the deep valuing of each individual as a unique expression and incarnation of the life force.

Families of Choice Aren’t Perfect 

But families of choice are not perfect. They come with the same pitfalls as any relationship and may show the same dysfunctional patterns of any family system. I didn’t suddenly get self-esteem and emotional healthiness because I was accepted in the community. We carry into our relationships of choice all the things we learned and are in the relationships we didn’t choose. There is the same danger of selling our selves short, living out old scripts, and being less than our authentic selves. There is the same danger of trying to control and change others, of not allowing them to be their authentic selves.

As we continue our journey we will need to be patient and gracious with each other. And we will be urged to continue doing our own work to deepen our own authentic identity, because when we become more whole and integrated individuals ourselves, then we naturally seek to bring that same depth and wholeness to our relationships as well.

When I led Extended Grace there was a gentleman who became part of my leadership team, but that took three years to cultivate. The first six months he attended Extended Grace, he did so in his car in the parking lot, too frightened to come inside because of the rejection he had experienced in other communities. As we find that we are no longer alone, we will naturally reach out to invite others to join us knowing that there are lots of other people out there who are also desperate for a place to belong. And as we invite others to join us, we will need to remain aware that others will come here with their own baggage and history and we need to meet people where they are and invite them to participate only as they are able.

We are community when we share our stories with each other, when we make ourselves vulnerable to each other, and when we take time to listen to and honor the stories we are told. For every story you are offered, every story I am offered, is a gift.

 An Investment

When you find a family of choice, it is time to begin making an investment there. We spend years setting aside money for our retirement. Investing in relationships and in the health of this community identity reaps similar benefits. When life is hard and pain is real, the skills we learn by living in community and the network of relationships we build will provide us with the comfort, the security and the joy we need.