I have an unsettling statistic to share with you. At present, in our country, there are 3,000,000 ongoing cases of child molestation. That means, while you are reading this, three million children aged 13 and below are being victimized by sexual predators. These are only the cases we know about, so that figure is likely a very conservative estimate. Today, Nearly 40 million adults bear the scars of sexual abuse in their younger years at the hands of strangers, caregivers, parents, siblings and clergy. Mostly at the hands of people they know quite well.
Even in the safest place a child should know – a Christian home.
The beautiful young woman who wrote this hauntingly beautiful piece is a friend. “Jane” (a pseudonym of her choosing) was sexually molested by a family member and has courageously agreed to share her story with you. My wife and I have known her – from afar – for better than twenty years and, like so many situations like these, would never have guessed this was her story.
This may be one of the most moving – and important – posts to ever appear on Green P@stures. Jane’s story may be equal parts ugly while gorgeously and tenderly written, but it brings into the light the issue that the protected secret of sexual criminal activity – of all types – in the church and in Christian homes must be addressed.
Jane is an overcomer. Questions linger, yes, and scars remain, most certainly, but she has been brought into the safe pasture of Christ and has known His healing grace intimately and has even found the ground to worship Him in the “garden of her heart.”
Thank you, Jane. Your life is beautiful.
“Close your eyes and imagine your heart is a garden….What does it look like?… What shape is it?… What is growing in it?…And where is Jesus in it?”
The first time someone asked me that, during a time of prayer, I imagined something very like the walled garden in Francis Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel, The Secret Garden. A beautiful garden full of rose vines, with trees and an abundance of flowers near overgrown in a tangled beauty. Walls covered in ivy. A hidden place, open to the sun and sky but protected and safe. It even included the small, dark, abandoned cottage in Burnett’s garden, barely noticeable in the riot of rose vines. And Jesus was a Dickon-like figure, helping me tend the garden.
That this garden is how I would imagine my heart when prompted hardly surprised me. The Secret Garden was a favorite among the many books I fled to live in as a child when life became unbearable. When my step-father, the new daddy I’d prayed for, turned out to be a nightmare.
Who expects a respected church leader and Bible college student to be a child molester?
No one, it turns out. Certainly not the eight-year-old me who couldn’t even begin to comprehend or understand what was happening.
I knew my family loved me. I knew Jesus loved me. I knew everything that happened was part of God’s plan.
And I knew about God’s plan. I’d spent all of my life in church and Sunday school and Christian school, and I’d learned about God’s plan in the Bible. How all the amazing “coincidences” in the Old Testament story weren’t coincidences at all, but were God carefully working out his plan. And how even more so, all the “coincidences” around Jesus’ birth and life were as intentional as the most carefully written story.
Even the horror of the crucifixion was part of God’s plan.
So what was I to think of the horror of this plan? For part of the plan this too had to be, since nothing could happen outside God’s plan. It simply was, and I couldn’t understand it or avoid it, only try to endure it. To find a way to live with it.
And I did. For too many years. I lived with it by fleeing into books, stories that offered friendship and love, adventure and wonder, difficulties and sorrows but always hope. I lost myself in other lives – many of them happy, many as difficult and troubled as that of Mary Lennox, but all of them definitively other.
My life – the reality of it – had not only become unlivable, it had become invisible. No one saw, so no one helped.
But God saw. I knew that, too. God saw everything.
And God didn’t help.
Somehow I never questioned that he loved me.
God loved me, and he didn’t help me.
So being loved by God stopped being safe before it had even occurred to me that it should be. Being loved by God stopped being something I could enjoy without me even realizing it. Years later when a friend mentioned in passing that we enjoy being loved by God, the whole thing felt utterly alien to me.
What do you do with hopelessness when it becomes just the stuff of life when you’re eight years old?
And yet God was there – in Sunday school and church, in songs and scripture, in the vivid prayer conversation I’d had with him for as long as I could remember.
But he wasn’t there.
In the nightmare, he wasn’t there. In his place was only stillness and silence and preachers quoting Romans 8:28.
I couldn’t bear to look at where the God who loves me wasn’t, so I just didn’t go there.
I was too young to be thrust into the heart of the problem of evil. (We are always too young.)
It wasn’t until God remade the garden of my heart that I realized that first vision was more than just a familiar and beloved image from a favorite childhood book.
It was indeed a place of great beauty – beauty that reflected all that God had made me and all he made me to be. But it was also a place of walls rather than freedom.
Jesus was indeed there, helping me learn to care for all the life and beauty, but that small, dark, nearly hidden cottage (the one that isn’t actually in the book, though I remembered it there) – that was the place of God’s absence, of God’s silence, that I just avoided looking at much less approaching.
When God remade the garden of my heart, it was in another vision during another time of prayer. This time, the vision came without a prompting. It came instead with daring to remember.
The particulars of what happened in my childhood were never something I couldn’t remember. Instead those memories were packed away in a shoebox in the back of the closet of my mind. I knew exactly where that box was, and was careful to avoid it – careful to avoid the torrent of overwhelming and unbearable feelings (and realities) that came with those memories.
But this time, in prayer, I was asked to remember, and in fear and trembling I did.
I found myself trapped in the most primal darkness, stuck so deep in the thickest and most despairing of swamps, entangled in the harshest of briers and vines.
Drowning in helplessness and hopelessness and despair.
And in a sudden instance I felt myself grabbed by Jesus and yanked out of the darkness and stuckness and thrust out into the vastness and brightness of a sunny mountain meadow surrounded by distant peaks. And I ran free through that sunbright meadow straight to a brightly lit house in its middle and into the utter safety of my Father’s arms.
I understood that this was the garden of my heart now – still filled with the beauty of creation, but the walls had been replaced by the freedom of endless adventure; the small, dark, nearly hidden cottage with the bright mountain cottage that was the home my Father had made for himself in my heart (though I knew somehow that home contained it all); and somehow, all that had to be avoided was replaced with the utter safety of his embrace.
The questions were all still there and all still important, but they couldn’t get in the way anymore. They couldn’t come between me and the safety and joy of being loved by my Abba.
And it is in his arms of love, in that house filled with light, in that sunbright meadow, in those wonderfully wild mountains that I ask those questions now and wrestle with answers – and the lack of them.
I don’t believe the nightmare was part of his plan anymore, because this is his plan and was all along. And all that darkness could do to rip me out of it was defeated on the cross. This is the victory won there – when the God who is love came and absorbed the force of all the violence and evil this world had to throw at him, and then got up and walked away unchanged – resurrected and still the God who is love.
I don’t believe the nightmare was part of his plan because God is not the author of evil.
He is the victor over it – he is love, life, and light.
It is only because he never stops thinking about us that any of us exist, move, and have our being. And even when we suffer or commit the gravest evil, he never stops thinking about us – loving us. That’s who he is.
We are still free to ignore his plan. To do the many things we do that have nothing to do with who he is or who he intends us to be.
God does have a plan, and he will accomplish that plan. I’m just not sure any more that plan has a lot do with all we credit it with. I’m not sure God does much interfering in the things we (or others) choose.
I don’t think he’s constructing history to meet his ends. Because I believe he already has his ends. And from that place of victory he calls us toward him, in the middle of the mess of this world – through the mess of this world and into his victory that is leaking into it.
Most of the questions I live with still aren’t answered, and the questions and the mess only seem to multiply daily. I’ve come to doubt that answers exist, or if they do, if they’re the point at all (though I can’t seem to break the habit of looking for them).
Sometimes we can try so hard to find meaning in the meaningless that we miss the pain in the painful – the reality of how far things are from the way they are supposed to be.
What I’m beginning to learn to look for, though, is the victory in the middle of the mess. That’s where Jesus is.
Endnote: if this story is yours and you need to talk to someone – even Jane – we can help you find the help you need.