In the past week I have spent time with the women in my life who are closest to me. We spend time in relationship over good meals, warm, cozy cups of coffee, jogging at sunrise and sometimes – just chatting over the phone. These women have kept me safe, they have allowed me to practice boundaries in our relationship, they have confronted me in love, they have cried with me and laughed with me, encouraged me along my journey and reminded me to “stay the course”, they have embraced me rather than shame me. They have shown me my value.
I think about these women and how they have given me hope and always point me back to the One who can ease my pain and heal my wounds. They are my community.
My journey didn’t always have healthy community. In fact, I have been very wounded by the Christian Community. At the beginning of my story church was an unsafe place, filled with critical and judgmental behavior from others and I learned to hide my struggles in life very quickly! I learned church was a place that we protect the family image at all costs. Church was a place where you project a picture of perfection. Church was a place where you pretend. There was extra pressure to live in this type of environment as I was raised in a Pastor’s home. I was told repeatedly that Pastor’s kids must behave above reproach. It was assumed that Pastor’s kids don’t struggle – and they know everything about the Bible. I wasn’t allowed to be dysfunctional or have brokenness or woundedness. Over time, I learned that church is a place where we hide from God and community. So where can a little girl go then when she is alone, hurting and lost on the inside?
In adulthood, the message of hiding from God and community was compounded when I was told not to speak of my husband’s sexual addiction. So, while living in a church “community” I was hiding a deep, dark secret that was growing in my home. My marriage was abusive, and my marriage was plagued by a man’s sexual addiction. I had no resources, no help, no information, and no one to talk to. I struggled to keep the façade and protect the family image. Consequently, I spent the next 8 years of my marriage and my adult life in the church yet drowning in complete isolation. So where can a woman go then when she is alone, hurting and lost on the inside? When her “community” has instructed her it is not okay to share out loud? My PTSD symptoms from betrayal trauma got worse and worse – I struggled with anxiety, depression, hypervigilance, control, weight gain, binging and purging, and the list goes on… I lived my life on a deserted island trying to “keep it all together” but getting further and further away from God and others. I was completely isolated. Maybe you can relate? I could be in a room full of people yet feel utterly and completely alone. I was lonely in my marriage and my life.
It wasn’t until years later and the surrender of my own heart to the Lord, that I found a support group for partners of sexual addicts. In this community I was met with empathy and compassion. I could share my fear, frustration, grief, loss, turmoil, struggles and victories. I finally realized what it means to have SAFE and healthy community and the more I experienced community, the more I experienced GOD!
I have learned along my journey that being in community is THE most influential piece of becoming a Heroine of my story. Living in community with God and others means I will be shown my value. When I know my value, I turn from being a victim of my story – to an OWNER (the heroine) of my story. I will begin to RESPOND to circumstances, rather than REACT to circumstances. I will USE my VOICE, rather than LOSE my voice. I will make EMPOWERED choices, rather than being paralyzed by fear. When I am in community with God and others I can…
- Experience safety
- Experience accountability
- Experience Jesus
In his book, Safe People, Dr. Henry Cloud defines the qualities of a safe community. The best way to look for safety – is to see how Jesus modeled safety, He was the embodiment of safety. His book goes on to say Jesus provided three things for safety in relationship: dwelling, grace and truth.
- Experience Safety
When I am in community, the safe people can sit with me in my pain and struggle. My community comes alongside me and “resides (dwells) with me there”. Are you familiar with the story of Lazarus? When Jesus found out his dear friend had died – he wept and experienced profound sorrow and emotion in front of his community. He empathized with the loss Mary and Martha both experienced for their brother. He also confronted their lack of faith and asked them to BELIEVE that he really was the Son of God and had the power to provide. Upon raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus told the community to “Unwrap him and let him go!” NLT John 11:44
43 Then Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!”
44 “And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound in graveclothes, his face wrapped in a headcloth. Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him go!”
This story provides a profound visual for me because I have experienced community in this same way. Not only have I seen my community weep and experience profound sorrow on behalf of my losses and my struggle (just like Jesus wept for the girls’ loss) – I have also experienced my community gather around me to unwrap the graveclothes that I have been wearing for the past 30 years.
My graveclothes represent my hurts and wounds from childhood. My graveclothes represent the distorted beliefs that I struggle to untangle, my graveclothes represent the spiritual DEATH I experienced from living in decades of isolation, my graveclothes represent the deep pain of betrayal trauma.
As I have exposed my graveclothes to a safe community of women I have seen the results in my behavior and my inner narrative: The women in my community have formed a circle around my grave clothed body and one by one they have walked to the center of the circle where I stand and have taken one piece of cloth off at a time. Sometimes it hurts, like ripping off a bandage from an almost healed wound – sometimes that wound re-opens as the air and light begin to expose the new flesh. These women have stripped off the shame, survival and isolation and have clothed me with empathy, unconditional love, and healthy relational intimacy. This to me is a picture of how my community “dwells” with me in the process of post traumatic growth.
When my friend calls me post-divorce and checks on me Thanksgiving Day, and when she saves me a seat at church EVERY Sunday morning – she dwells with me there. When another friend sits and cries with me over the loss of my marriage and family – she dwells with me. When another friend allows me to say “no” and practice boundaries with her – she dwells with me. When a friend looks me in the eye and tells me “you are a good daughter – you are worthy, you are loved” – she dwells with me. When my Pastor listens, empathizes and validates my experience – he dwells with me. When a woman from my support group calls me and talks me thru my panic attack over the phone – she dwells with me.
>My dear sister, do you have a safe community unwrapping your graveclothes and dwelling with you?
- Experience Accountability
A part of the process of stripping the graveclothes includes exposing myself to my community. Allowing them to see that some of these graveclothes are due to my unhealthy choices, fueled by my distorted beliefs. This might be the scariest part of living in community. If I choose to “expose” the graveclothes that are from my own doing – I must be willing to face the fear of: rejection, and this haunting lie: “but if people only knew who I really am…” It is in this place I must open myself up to receive grace and truth from my safe people – exposure to community is Biblical and exactly how Jesus modeled it.
“Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are spiritual should GENTLY and HUMBLY help that person back onto the right path… Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.”
NLT Galatians 6: 1-2
Early on in my journey for post traumatic growth I realized that I found more freedom and break thru every time I “exposed” my struggle. This could be a struggle with a distorted belief that caused a victim mentality. For example, I may be stuck in a loop of shame that causes me to feel anxious, frustrated, overwhelmed, trapped, and helpless. OR, I could be dealing with my own relapses and acting out; for example, trying to rescue, fix or control others, escape behaviors or avoidance. When I expose these things and “report on myself” as my counselor likes to call it – I am exposing it to the light, and it will have less power over me. I love this quote by Francis Frangipane:
“Do not hide your darkness; expose it… for as long as darkness remains in darkness, it rules you. But when you bring darkness out into the light, it becomes light. When you take your secret sins and boldly come unto the throne of God’s grace and confess them, He cleanses you from all unrighteousness.”
I believe it is important to confess in community as well. When we experience our own exposure to community, we engage in vulnerability; the opening of ourselves in order to receive cleansing from the Lord – THRU THE COMMUNITY. We will experience what grace FEELS like. We will experience what unconditional love FEELS like. Transformation cannot happen without vulnerability. If it is a SAFE community, we will be received and accepted despite our honest struggle. We can be our REAL SELF in relationship.
Jesus put it this way:
“I am the light of the world. If you follow me [exposure/vulnerability in community], you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light [grace and truth] that leads to life.” NLT John 8:12
Dr. Henry Cloud says this about experiencing grace and truth thru our community:
“Grace says that you are accepted just like you are, and you will not be shamed or incur wrath for whatever you are experiencing… Truth in relationship implies honesty, being real with one another, and living out the truth of God (this includes accountability and confrontation) … We must be honest about our faults without condemning one another.”
My greatest points of healing have come from exposing the graveclothes that keep me trapped in victim mentality and shame. Then allowing myself to be vulnerable and open to the grace and truth that the women in my community provide for me. They hold me accountable and help me to live my best, healthy life.
>My dear sister, do you have a community that will receive your graveclothes with grace and truth? Will they hold you accountable in a loving way without condemnation and shame?
- Experience Jesus
This by far is the sweetest most intimate part about living in community. Jesus shows up IN COMMUNITY! Jesus shows up when my co-worker checks on me during the week, Jesus shows up when my mentor lovingly confronts me in addition to telling me I’m loved. Jesus shows up when my friend reminds me that I am chosen, holy, and redeemed.
For those of us who have experienced a tremendous amount of spiritual abuse and rigid rules – it is hard for us to experience God as a loving Heavenly Father. We need our community to be the hands and feet of Jesus and show us what it is like to be valued by Him, to be loved by Him and to experience the empathy He provides. Jesus is loving, he is not critical, condemning or judgmental. He is not punishing, harsh or distant. He is close by, empathetic, and emotionally available for each of us.
“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father! Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I speak are not my own, but my Father who lives in me does his work through me.” NLT John 14:10
We need to see an embodiment of empathy and that is Jesus –if it is a SAFE community – it will provide this for you. You will experience the love Jesus has for you thru another human’s words and deeds. We can be wounded in community, but we are also HEALED by community. The very thing that the enemy used to try to STEAL your identity and value is THE VERY thing that can be used to RESTORE your identity and your value. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and receive this healing thru your community. Allow them to SHOW you Jesus and what it’s like to be in relationship with him.
In his own struggle with trauma and depression David cried out:
“If only one person would show some pity; if only ONE would turn and comfort me…” Psalm 69:20
>Have you ever felt this way before?
My dear sister, safe community can be the answer for this cry. You are not alone. Community has the power to embody the characteristics of Jesus. Community can hold space for your thoughts, observations, emotions, your hurts and wounds. Community helps remove the graveclothes; it validates, it empathizes, it helps us to see our reality for what it truly is – it can provide feedback and understanding for what is going on in your honest struggle. Safe community clothes us with new perspectives making us wise and healthy.
Whatever your cry, sister, God has ALWAYS had an answer for you – an answer I believe, He provides THRU A SAFE community:
“[Woman] I have CHOSEN YOU and will NOT throw you away. Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I AM YOUR GOD. I will strengthen you and HELP you. I will hold you up with my VICTORIOUS right hand.” NLT Isaiah 41:10
You are not alone.