The past year and a half, it has been hard for me not to define myself by my trauma. I have been through some things. I have had some long, complicated experiences that have been arduous to process. Years worth of mess to sort through. And it has been hard not to stay stuck.
I’m sure others have experienced trauma much worse than mine, but my story is this: I got hurt in a place I thought was safe. A church. A particular church that I loved with all my heart and to which I gave all of myself.
Now I’m in seminary faced every day with the question of what role the church will play in my future. Not to mention challenged to question assumptions I’ve had about the Bible and God my whole life. Talk about cognitive dissonance. Yet I have not wanted to admit for even a moment that this was too much for me. Why would it be too much? I have had my seasons of stepping down and stepping back! Long seasons! We must move on at some point, right?
In order to move forward, I made sense of my experience by taking a big, broad brush and labeling my 7 years in Korea, Trauma. Then I cast a big, broad brush over myself and labeled myself, Damaged and Hurting.
I was being honest at least, right? Good enough.
Some breakdowns are dramatic and loud. I have had many such breakdowns over the last several years. But there are slower, quieter breakdowns, too.
Over the past 6 months, my body has been in a constant state of breakdown. Aching, tired, never quite healthy, sometimes intensely sick. It has taken me a long time to figure out how to respond. I tried to rest it out. I tried to pray it off. I tried all sorts of vitamins. I tried walks and singing (which have definitely been the most life-giving activities of late). But finally, when COVID lockdown started and I literally thought I might go insane, I received the extra push of desperation I needed to prioritize my well-being. I finally reached out for counseling, round 3 of the last few years. (Third time’s the charm, right?)
The Mysterious Healing Process
Counseling isn’t necessarily a magic formula. Not all therapists are created equal, for one. But for me, this time of intentionally sifting through the layers of hurt has been quite fruitful. It has been the extra push I needed to face my trauma and also to see it for what it is.
I’m nowhere near done the process, but I just have testify: God’s healing power is real!!
Church buildings used to be associated with safety and warmth for me. When I stepped into a church service, even amongst strangers, even with unfamiliar traditions, I felt peace, a sense of rightness. Not anymore. Churches are now associated with danger. When I step into a service, I assume I am unsafe. I am on my guard for what lies might be spouted at me from the pulpit, how people might be fake and manipulative, how leaders might try to use me.
I don’t expect to be cared for, not anymore.
For this reason alone, envisioning any kind of pastoral job in my future has been impossible of late. A church is the last place I would want to work.
But recently, things have been shifting inside me.
To be honest, there have been days I’ve wanted to give up altogether. I haven’t had hope for my future. Having poured out everything and seen it come to nothing. . . I just wanted to give up. I just wanted to stop trying. I couldn’t see what reason I had to hope. All I could see was my failure, my loss, my TRAUMA.
Recently, I was crying out to God about all this. I felt disappointment-fatigued. I had no more strength in me to hope, to “believe,” to take steps forward. I didn’t even know what questions to ask God. We’ve had many conversations about everything that happened. Yet still, I wasn’t whole.
I decided to light a candle as my prayer, a wordless prayer for hope. (One of my seminary classes in which we have been studying various church traditions inspired me––I do learn some beautiful things in my classes.)
So I lit the candle and lay on my bed, shattered. And then, after some tossing and turning and bawling, I saw a vision of Jesus I have seen in the past: Jesus standing in the Sea of Galilee, mending some fishing nets. He looks up as I approach, and he smiles, happy to see me. (That smile is everything.)
On this day, I looked at him, unsure what to say, uncertain what to ask for. But seeing him, something was already shifting inside me. Before me was the Healer, the Messiah, the only Teacher who is good. He drew close to me and touched me. “Do you want to be well, my Daughter?” he asked.
“Yes,” I whispered.
Of course, I thought to myself, Jesus is the healer. Of course he can do anything. He doesn’t have to reason me into transformation, he can just change me with a touch.
He asked again, “My daughter, do you want to be well?”
I looked him in the eyes, beginning to wonder what strings might be attached to my restoration. Would I have to serve again? Would I have to give? Would I have to return to the church? “Yes,” I said.
His hand on my stomach, he asked me once more: “Do you want to be well?”
I nodded, my eyes fixed on his startlingly deep ones. “Yes.”
Then I realized why we were standing in the water. He was about to baptize me. (Despite being a seminarian, I’m not ashamed to admit that I don’t understand the theology of this, so please don’t ask me. But it did have something to do with resurrection and cleansing, that I’m sure of.) Jesus submerged me under the water, and as he pulled me out, I could feel his strong arms around me, embracing me, pulling me up. And I can’t explain it, but afterwards I was different.
It felt like a miracle.
There have still been wrenching tears and questions since that day, so it wasn’t exactly a cure-all. But it was something. Something profound. It reminded me who my God is. It reminded me why hope is never lost.
One more moment I want to share: Even more recently, I was in a place of brokenness again, so I lit my candle again and lay on my bed. This time, I didn’t encounter God in a tangible, visceral way. Instead, I was re-experiencing moments of trauma, the most painful moments of the last couple years. I felt the helplessness, heartbreak, and devastation all over again, and tears were streaming down my face.
“It was so hard,” I told God. “It was SO painful. I never want to go through that again.”
But you handled it well, God said.
I frowned, unsure I had heard correctly. (When I hear God, it isn’t an audible voice, but more like a thought in my head. It’s certainly possible to hear wrong.)
“I didn’t know what to do,” I argued back. “That was what was so painful! I was overwhelmed! I felt helpless!”
Yet you survived, God pointed out. You didn’t know what to do. But then you figured it out. Not all at once, but step by step. I’m proud of you for not leaving when you wanted to run. And I’m proud of you for stepping away when it was time.
It didn’t hit me until much later (after I subsequently fell asleep and then went about my day) that something had shifted inside me at God’s words. Once again, something had changed. It was like a veil had been lifted. It was like this heavy load that had been burdening my shoulders for so long was simply removed. Quietly. Imperceptibly. It was just gone.
I feel like I can see again. I can see a path ahead. I can see that the path does indeed continue forward. I can even imagine myself going out there and praying for people and singing over nations and doing all the ministry things I love. It is crazy.
I may not know what the future holds, and I’m sure hard times will come that hurt like hell, that seem overwhelming. I’m sure situations will arise when a feeling of panic will grip me, and I’ll think, “I don’t know how to handle this!”
But then I will.
Not because I’m superwoman, but because that’s what life is. You don’t know how to handle everything in advance; you figure it out as it comes.
Having been through some things, I know now a few more warning signs to be alert to. Having reflected on my painful experiences, I understand a little more what I am not responsible for and what I am. And I know from firsthand experience that even the worst failure is not the end.
It might be the end of a dream or the end of a community. It might be the end of a career or a plan you had mapped out for yourself. But it won’t be the end of everything.
My life is not over. And I am more than my trauma. I’m beginning to see it.