voice, value, vitality: the face of healthy community

There's so much stuff that's wrong in the world today.  

I guess that's always been true, but with the explosion of social media, the amount of wrong seems overwhelming at times.  

I mean, I used to live on an island in the South Pacific.  No TV, no internet, no phone, snail mail every two weeks if the ship happened to stop by.  

Mostly we got our news by listening to the Voice of America.  The.  News.  In.  Easy.  English.  

I'd be twitchy by the end of the first sentence.  In-depth reporting it was not.  I missed out on both of Bill Clinton's administrations that way.  With all that blue dress stuff, I count myself lucky.

 Makira, Solomon Islands,  Photo:  Andy Bruner

Makira, Solomon Islands,  Photo:  Andy Bruner

Now I live in Dallas.  I have unlimited access to media, and with the overwhelming flow of endless information, I sometimes wish myself back on the island.  (Until dinner time.  Then I want to call for pizza.)  

I wonder this:  what am I supposed to do with all this information?

I find I am just too old and too tired to sustain a great level of outrage for every single thing I find outrageous.  

Believe me, I find many, many things outrageous.

I'm often tempted to throw something up on the blog here and rant.  

But mostly I pray the prayer that Anne Lamott taught me:  "Help!"


Today there is something I need to write about.  Not just to be outraged, although the story is pretty outrageous.  

But so that we can all learn to look with open eyes at our communities of faith, and asses how healthy or unhealthy they are.

If they are healthy, oh happy day!  If they are unhealthy, it's time to get busy.

Here's the nutshell of the story:  Bob Jones University, a very conservative Christian college, has brought in the nonprofit organization, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), to investigate how the university has dealt with sexual abuse.

(Hint:  when the GRACE team gets called in, sexual abuse has not been dealt with very well.)

According to this news article, released yesterday:

"More than 100 people have come forward to GRACE investigators, and the report is due out in the next few months.  Boz Tchvidjian, the head of GRACE, believes Christian organizations across the country have failed victims in similar ways, and that the Protestant world could in fact be 'worse' than the Catholic Church."

Did you get that?  It's not just BJU.  The whole Protestant world needs to take a good hard look at itself.  

That's not THEM.  

That's US.  Anybody who sits in a Protestant pew on a Sunday morning.

While only a few people are the actual victims in a situation like this, many times there are systemic patterns that make the environment a safe haven for potential abusers.  

And while only a few people are the actual abusers, many of us can blindly participate in the patterns that create the unhealthy environment.

Edmund Burke famously said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Too many times in unhealthy Christian environments, good people do nothing.  

The problem is, we don't know what to look for.  What's healthy?  What's unhealthy?  

As I said a couple of weeks ago, I am not much interested in the nitty gritty of theology.  I'm mostly interested in how people get treated on the other end.  

How people get treated is the biggest clue to me in whether a theology, whether a system, is healthy or unhealthy.  

Jesus said it this way:  "By their fruits, you shall know them."  (Matthew 7:16)

So here's how I judge healthy.

Diane Langberg is a Christian therapist who works with the victims of sexual abuse.  She has identified three key components of healthy personhood:  voice, relationship, and power.  These, she says are our gifts from God, and these are the things we find devalued in abusive situations.

When we honor the personhood of ourselves and those around us, we are honoring God's loving intention for healthy community.

Alliteration helps me remember better, so I'll call these elements of personhood voice, value, and vitality.

Voice:  we should be able to speak up, ask questions, and have our story be respected.  When we are told to sit down and be quiet, when our questions are dismissed, and our story is devalued, we are not in an environment of Godly truth.  Simple as that. 

Value:  we should feel valued and welcomed in relationships.  When we are isolated and rejected, accidentally or on purpose, this is not an environment of Godly truth.

Vitality:  we're supposed to be powerful people, growing more and more into the image of God.  When we feel powerless, helpless, hopeless and ignored, this is not a place of Godly truth.

Langberg says this:

"Again and again throughout history, whenever one human beings acts toward another in a way that is not rooted in the truth of God, the same results occur: silence, isolation, and helplessness.  this devastation can occur in milder forms, as when one person speaks sharply or critically to another.  We have all know the experience of being rendered silent in the face of a cutting remark.  Severe destruction occurs whenever one human perpetrates an atrocity against another.  It is here, in our understanding of the nature of personhood, that we can begin to grasp the evil perpetrated in the life of a human being when trauma occurs."  (Diane Langberg,  Counseling the Survivors of Sexual Abuse)

Whenever we have a system or a family or an organizational culture that produces silence, isolation, and helplessness in its members, we've got a problem.  It may not necessarily be a sexual abuse issue yet, although it's an attractive environment for abusers, because it is a place that essentially does not function in the truth of God.

A healthy faith community is a place of voice, value, and vitality for all its members.

He is the Vine, we are the branches.  All necessary, all valued, all growing together.

How do you feel in your faith community?  

  • Do you have a voice, and is your voice welcome?  
  • Are you honestly, openly, truly valued in loving relationships?  
  • Are you experiencing an emotional and spiritual vitality that leads to love, joy, and peace in your life?

Remember this as you evaluate:

God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.  2 Timothy 1:7

(Next time, I'll talk about what to do when you find yourself in an unhealthy community.)

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knowing what you know

I am a little bit addicted to TED Talks.  I liked them on Facebook, and now they send me all these high-octane, deep dark chocolate morsels of wonderfulness for my brain.

So yesterday I watched this talk by Margaret Heffernan, called Dare to Disagree.  She says that good information is not enough, because all too often, we're willfully blind to what we already know.  

We're too afraid of conflict to let ourselves know what we know.

But disagreement and conflict, Heffernan says, is the way we know more and get better.  When we allow ourselves to keep doing things the same old ways, without questioning, without stirring the pot, we can actually end up causing harm.  

(Think about the days when doctors didn't wash their hands.  Eeesh.)  

She says that we have to let ourselves know what we know.  And then we need the will, the talent, and the moral courage to use what we know in the service of good.  

Heffernan's field of expertise is organizational culture, but what she has to say applies to where I live, in the world of counseling therapy.

Because an awful lot of what I do is giving clients permission to know what they know, and supporting them to have the moral courage to create conflict if necessary, to live in the truth of what they know.

And, if you've read my Manifesto, you'll know that I won't ask my clients to do what I won't do myself.  So I have to know what I know.  And I have to have the moral courage to create conflict at times, to live in the truth of what I know.  God help me.

 photo:  Michael Bruner

photo:  Michael Bruner

When we don't allow ourselves to know what we know.

When we live in willful blindness.

When we live in fear of conflict, in dread of disagreement, enslaved to What Everybody Else Will Think.

Then we base our life on lies and the truth slips away, far from us.

God's gift to us is power, love, and a sound mind.  (2 Timothy 1:7)

The Truth sets us free.

Not lies.

Not fear.

Not slavery to What Everybody Else Will Think.

So, today.  

Let us all know what we know, fearlessly, powerfully, lovingly.

Let us live in freedom and truth.

And let us be a haven of freedom and truth to those around us.

"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."  Nelson Mandela

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the real truth about those ideal, "boring" men? they're kind of hard to find.

Ann Voskamp wrote an article in praise of "boring" men that has been viral on my Facebook feed this week.  


Basic premise:  a lifetime of dedication together is better than the over-the-top romantic/sexual brouhaha you'll find in various forms on the internet.


She gives this advice to her sons:

"And a man begins being romantic years before any ring - romance begins with only having eyes for one woman now - so you don't go giving your eyes away to cheap porn."

She talks about how her husband has only ever had eyes for her.

Also awesome.

But--you knew it was coming--***asterisk.  


Some women get to have that "I only have eyes for you" guy, which is great for them.  

But what about the rest of us?

***About half of women my age (40 something) are dealing with a situation that is significantly less than optimal when it comes to that particular standard.

***As for younger women?  Probably 80% of college women are going to end up with a guy who's had significant pornography exposure.  

The stats vary, but they go something like this:

80% of teens.  47% of Christian homes.  53% of Promise Keepers.  All viewing porn.  Starting about age 10 these days.  


We've spent several decades hoping that guys would figure this out.  I don't see it happening.

God said in the Garden, "It is not good for the man to be alone.  I will make a companion who will help him." (Genesis 2:18)

I love this:  God sees a man in trouble, he sends a woman in to help.

Let's start helping. 

Women before us have been queens and judges and prophets and warriors.  We can do it, too.

To get battle-ready, we need to understand a few things:

1.  God redeems.

Many of us have worked hard to have the ideal marriage.  When that ideal fails, we fear it's all over.

And that is just not true.  When the perfect ship has sailed, and we are out of options, God still works.  

Andy and me?  This is our story:  God redeems.  

God doesn't redeem because our life is a chocolate sundae and He just needs to stick the cherry on top.  God redeems because we are in deep trouble, and His redemption is essential to the next breath we take.

I may be out of options, but God is not.  He redeems.  That's his job.

2.  Sometimes perfection is just not all that perfect.

As one of my battle-ready friends wisely said yesterday, "Doing things the right way can actually be a way of avoiding emotional intimacy."

Having our "perfect" marriage fall apart was the best thing that ever happened to us.  

It was painful and scary, for sure.  

But it was an opportunity to be honest, to get real, to be vulnerable and connected with each other like we never were when we were "perfect."

And guess what.  

I would not trade away the life I have now for a pornography-free past.  

True story:  I am grateful.  For everything.

3.  Get connected to resources.

Get information.  Here's a post we did a while back that includes advice and resources.

Get your internet filtered, using a good resource like Covenant Eyes.  I love CE because it's internet-based; if it gets uninstalled, if the settings get changed, we get a message.  I would not feel secure with a "parent-controlled" filter.  

Get help:  individual therapy, Celebrate Recovery, a 12-Step group.  The offender needs to own the problem and work on it, to restore trust by being trustworthy.  The injured person needs a safe place to feel emotions, work on boundaries, and move toward forgiveness and healing.

4.  You are not alone.

Look at the statistics!  You are NOT the only one dealing with this.  

Almost every single time I tell my story in a new setting, somebody lets me know that they are struggling too.  That's one of the incredible joys of telling my story: the community that gets built.  

We can fight through this together, as a band of sisters.  


Wish your guy was more "boring"?  

Wish Al Gore had never invented the *^$###!! internet?

I hear ya.

But listen to me now, because this is what I know:

God's redemption is way better than my perfection.

And all of us together can be on the side of that redemption, strong and courageous.

Even though our romantic ideal has failed, God never fails.

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hello. my name is inigo montoya.


The Princess Bride is a movie full of fabulous lines.

"We are but poor, lost circus performers." 

"See!  The Cliffs of Insanity!" 

"Life is pain, highness.  Anyone who says otherwise is selling something." 

"You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles." 

Perhaps the most-quoted line from the movie is this:  "Hello.  My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die."  

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excuses for everybody and nobody

I used to think that we all agreed on certain things.

  • If you hit your wife, that's bad.
  • If you sexually molest or verbally abuse or physically neglect your child, that's horrible.
  • If you have a pornography habit, or if you sleep around, then surely surely surely, something is wrong and you have difficult emotional work to do.

But then it turned out that people with patterns of incredibly harmful behaviors toward other people would come in to therapy and say things like this:

Everybody makes mistakes.

Nobody's perfect.

In fact, the more egregious the behavior, the more likely the offender would be to say something like this.  With great conviction.

And I would sit and listen, just struck dumb by the whole thing, because:

  • It's true.  We all do make mistakes, and not one of us is perfect.
  • I'm going to be judgmental if I call bad, bad.  Because I'm not perfect.  I've made mistakes
  • The offender appears to sincerely believe that "nobody's perfect" is an adequate explanation for anything and everything.

For a while now, I've been trying to untangle this whole mess in my head, and here is what I've come up with so far.

1.  There is a difference between mistakes and abuse.  

All of us make mistakes, no doubt about it.  We get mad, we get pushy, we want what we want, and it's not pretty.  We have to apologize and forgive and move forward.

However, in an abusive situation there is a power differential.  The offender is bigger, stronger, the adult, the parent, "the spiritual leader."  And the offender uses that power to hurt another person, in order to meet their own needs, physically, sexually, emotionally.

In the process, the offender creates a mental system that allows the abuse to be acceptable to himself or herself.  (Nobody's perfect.  Everybody makes mistakes.  I was drunk.  She asked for it.  I'm the husband, and she has to submit.)  This set of excuses has been repeated, probably for years.  The offender can deliver the excuses with ease and even sincerity.

Scripture talks about this:  "God gave them over to a reprobate mind" (Romans 1:28).  They've said it so long that they believe the crazy.

But other people's crazy doesn't have to be our crazy.

We own our own stuff, we acknowledge our mistakes.  And we know abuse when we see it.

2.  Knowing where the line is?  That's not judgmental.  

Abusive, addicted people hate it when draw the line, because that stops the gravy train.  Their world depends on having victims to victimize.   And they need for people to be deceived by the crazy, or at least be confused enough not to confront it.  That helps keep their reprobate-mind-mental-system intact.

When you say to an abusive, addicted person, "That is a lie, and here is the truth," you may get a big backlash about how mean and judgmental you are.  That's no fun.

Or, you may say to an abusive, addicted person, "That is a lie, and here is the truth," and the person may be able to hear it and get out of their mess.  This one we like a lot better.

Either way, being able to tell lies from truth is not judgmental. 

Being able to tell truth from lies is a necessary life skill called good judgment.

3.  Excuses appear to be kind, but they are not.

When we make excuses for the offender, then excuses are all she's got.

Under that reprobate mind, desperately chanting "No big deal, no big deal," is a person who needs to lay down the burden of guilt and shame, repent, and receive the relief of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is available for all of us, but only when we stop the excuses and face the truth.

"But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says 'Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology...' But excusing says 'I see that you couldn't help it or didn't mean it; you weren't really to blame.' ...And if we forget this, we shall go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses. They may be very bad excuses; we are all too easily satisfied about ourselves."  C. S. Lewis, "On Forgiveness," The Weight of Glory

I think abusive, addicted people DO know that they're over the line.  They DO know what they've done.  And they have so much guilt and shame that the excuses are about the only thing holding them together.

When we hear those excuses, it can be confusing.

But there is so much more available to us than excuses.

We have repentance.

We have forgiveness.

And, by the gift of God, we have redemption.

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banana bread brings life lesson

A couple of months ago, I reorganized my recipe notebook.  It was nothing fancy, just a little spiral-bound notebook that a friend had decorated for me, back in 1995. The thing had survived years on a tropical island and multiple moves around the world and it was a mess.  The batter splatters were deep enough in some spots to bury a mastodon.

I had tried at different times to type the recipes into the computer, but what a pain!  It took forever!

And lately I realized how much I like having my recipes in my handwriting.  I have a few recipes from each of my grandmothers.  Their handwriting.  Their batter splatters.  I love those.

Plus, my recipes are the record of my life.  I have lived a life in which daily cooking is required.  I remember the people and places that inspired me to copy them down and keep them and use them over and over.

I remember having the Chocolate Chip Nut Bars at Mary Lou Walker's house, right after our orientation in Papua New Guinea.  We had just spent 4 weeks in a leaf house on the back side of a tropical swamp, fearing for our lives from the malaria mosquitoes and the giant pig in the village that ate kittens.  Chocolate Chip Nut Bars reminded me that good things could still happen in this world.

And there's the Hunan Beef recipe that always reminds me of the Yacht Club restaurant in Madang, PNG where the menu--for years--listed their version as Beef Human.  We always ordered it, enjoyed it, and hoped it was a typo.

There are the Christmas recipes I made every year in the Solomon Islands.  One year I even made egg nog from scratch.  (Brief bout of insanity.  I'm better now, I swear.)

There are the Fudgy Oatmeal Bars that Beth served us the night I was in labor with Michael.  We were playing Scrabble and Andy laid a seven-letter word on a triple word score.  I have never played Scrabble with my husband again.  But I have made the Fudgy Oatmeal Bars many, many times.

The Coconut Cookies I made all the time.  Once we were having local friends over for dinner in the Solomons, and I forgot the sugar in these cookies.  I thought they were awful, but our friends loved them.  I made hundreds of them for Libby's wedding reception, and I must have remembered the sugar, because Americans ate them, and they all disappeared.

Jenny's PulKoKi recipe, with soy sauce all over the page.

Karen's bagel recipe, which is fabulous and healthful and which I have never made while standing on American soil.  Tortillas, yogurt, donuts, ditto.

So, even though the pages were shredding off the spirals, I couldn't throw the notebook away.  But finally, a  couple months ago, I found a half-size binder.  I cut the pages off the spirals and put them into sheet protectors.

All the archaeological evidence of my life and my handwriting, preserved.  And I can wipe the pages down if I splatter.  Perfect.

Except I edited just a tad.  I threw away a few pages of recipes I had never used.

And one of those pages, apparently, had my banana bread recipe on the back of it.  Which I didn't realize until this morning when I had three bananas in the brown-spotted state of banana bread perfection.  So I'm flipping through my perfect new binder and I can't find my recipe.  I can't find it anywhere.

And I am seriously, not kidding you, starting to experience some anxiety.  Some tension in my shoulders.  The stomach clenching, the breathing a little shallow.

Searching in cupboards, in old recipe boxes.

Nothing.  Nothing.  Not good.  Not good.

Bananas degrading as we speak.  Houston, we have a problem.

I managed to pull out of the death spiral just enough to get out the old red-plaid Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, and attempt a new recipe.  Even though I could tell it wasn't quite right.  It wasn't really normal.  But I did what it said.  (Mostly.  I added chocolate chips.  Because, clearly.)

And the new recipe turned out even better than the old one.  (Except it needs a little salt, IMHO.  And the chocolate chips are staying, for sure.)

Andy and I were watching a movie last night.  An old one (1994) called Before Sunrise.  It's a first-love kind of movie, both main characters in their early 20's.  And all they do, in the whole movie, is talk.  About life and love and growing up.

And at some point, the girl, Celine, says that her parents are wonderful.  But that it's been hard for her to be her own person, to make changes, because they are so nice.  It would be easier, she said, if they were bad.  I could be myself more easily that way.

She's feeling the tension of something comfortable that holds you down, keeps you from moving forward and finding something better.

And the banana bread was kind of the same way this morning.

I have this life that's nice.  It's comfortable.  It works.  It's my normal.  There's no huge reason to change it.  If it were terrible, I might be motivated to make it better.  But, it's pretty good.  It freaks me out if I think I will be forced to change it.

And then the new thing, that I resisted and dreaded and had no reason to embrace, turns out to be better.

So.  Life lesson brought to you this morning by banana bread.  Who knew.

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Just before he died, Johnny Cash covered Nine Inch Nail's powerful song, Hurt. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3aF9AJm0RFc]

Every time I watch this, I'm struck again by all the ways we hurt ourselves.

And sometimes I think Christians have it the worst, because in many circles, there's a fair amount of pressure to look better than we really are.

Maybe we feel like we have to protect God from the ugly.  Or other Christians can't take the truth about how bad we really feel.  Or maybe it's the need to "be a good witness."

Whatever the reason, we plaster on the spiritual band-aids and suck it up.

Have faith.  Be strong.  Trust God.  Lead a Bible study.  Pray more.  Better.  Longer.  Deeper.  Higher.  Wider.

There's nothing really wrong with any of those things.  Except they can be so terribly dishonest.

A stiff upper lip may keep us looking good on the outside.

But inside?

We are left with the pain, the loss, the grief, the injustice.

Unspoken, unheard, ignored, dishonored.

Eventually there is a Grand Canyon between what we look like on the outside and how we feel, deep down inside.

And this is where, I think, "I hurt myself today" starts to happen.

Whether it's cutting or substance abuse or food addiction or sexual stupidity.  Or performance or perfectionism or perkiness or helping others until we're half dead.

We throw one thing after another into that dark chasm, and it's never enough.

We hurt ourselves today, on the outside.  To avoid what is inside.

And tomorrow we'll have to hurt ourselves more.

Unless and until we're finally willing to go into the pain, into the loss, into the grief.

And that is likely to be a scary, disruptive, and lengthy process, mostly beyond our control.  Like they always say about therapy:  "real expensive, no guarantees."

But here is where Christians have it the best.  And I have to quote Brennan Manning in Abba's Child:

"The apparent frustrations of circumstances, seen or unforeseen, of illness, of misunderstandings, even of our own sins, do not thwart the final fulfillment of our lives hidden with Christ in God."

I think God always leaves us with the choice.  Are we going to keep hurting ourselves today, for the momentary relief?  Or will we take a deep breath and a leap of faith into the truth that sets us free?

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During media-free week, my husband and I celebrated our 25th anniversary in Canada.  We flew to Calgary, rented a car, and drove through Banff and Jasper National Parks on the way to Vancouver, hiking and taking 750-plus photos along the way.

I didn't miss media at all.

Why would I?  Pinterest, schminterest.

Real life was way too awesome.

(And yes, the water really is THAT color.)

But what about when life is just normal, and not way too awesome?

I think that's when obsessions can creep in and take over our lives in unhealthy ways, until we're lost under an avalanche of way-too-much.

Food or spending or possessions or clothes or media.  All the stuff we've talked about in the Summer of 7, plus a bunch of other areas we haven't covered at all.

We use that stuff to make ourselves feel better when we're disappointed in our marriages, hurt by our children, upset with our parents, overwhelmed by stress, needing a way out.

And the reason we use it is:  it works.  For a little while.  And then we need another hit.

Essentially, we become hoarders of whatever it is that makes us feel better when life is less than awesome.

In therapy, when we come across a problem like hoarding, we work it from the top (the behavior) and the bottom (the underlying pain).

Yes, we want to stop unhealthy behaviors before they do even more damage.

But unless we identify and process the emotions that drive the behavior, we'll end up with an emotional yo-yo diet:  try hard-give up-try hard-give up.

So, here are some steps toward processing emotions and getting free of whatever has us in a mess.

  • Tell the truth.  It's sometimes easier to start with writing it down, before you say it out loud.  Journaling helps.
  • Name your emotions.  No need to get fancy.  One of these four will work:  Sad, Glad, Mad or Scared.
  • Acknowledge your needs.  For example:  I need emotional connection.
  • Examine your losses.  For example:  My marriage is not the emotionally nurturing place I had hoped for.
  • Take responsibility wherever you can.  For example:  I am afraid I'm not really loved, so I act tough and strong. 
  • Allow yourself time and space to grieve the things you can't change.
  • Hang out with healthy people who love you and encourage you to grow.
  • Trust God.  Profoundly wonderful things can happen when we stop trying to hold the world together, and truly put ourselves into the hands of God, with our hearts wide open and our expectations at the door.
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