I was shamed in church as a child, but now I have a miracle!
God can turn shame into confidence. He can give us the ability to see an old wound in a new light, forgive and then heal.
There are things we look back on with certainty, sure that we have all the information. For a long time, that was how I saw something that happened when I was little. Come back with me, for a moment, to the 2nd grade. This is where my experience with social anxiety and fear at church began, but don't worry -- now I have a miracle! The following is a little intense, but keep reading to see how God consoles us in our afflictions, and gives us beauty for ashes (Isaiah 61:3).
I'm 7 years old and in the 2nd grade, and very excited to take communion for the second time at our school's weekly religious service. Sitting in the front row, I know I won't have to wait long for my turn, but things don't go as expected. The tall clergyman doesn't stoop down to give me communion, he tosses it. As I watch the thin, round wafer roll off my hand and fall to the floor, I realize, I have dropped Jesus on the floor!!! When the clergyman angrily yells, "Pick it up!" I'm confused. When I remove Jesus from the filthy floor, do I give Him back? If not, will I get in trouble for eating something off the floor? When he yells again,"Well, EAT IT!" I know from his expression and tone that I must be very bad.
Walking back to my pew, I feel so much shame. I try to pray, but a wave of unstoppable face spasms and tears take over. For the next 20 minutes, everyone lined up on the left side of the church must pass by me to get back to their pew. This includes my classmates grades 1- 8, teachers, and the extra-faithful elderly congregants in the back. With the glance of each passing church member, my shame intensifies and the crying worsens until it becomes punctuated by loud, uncontrollable gulps for air. I'm sure I can be heard all the way to the back of the church. What does everyone think of me?! Do they think I'm bad for dropping Jesus? Are they disgusted that I ate something off the floor? Is there any way to say that it wasn't my fault? Was it my fault? I cry throughout the rest of the service, wishing one of the really nice teachers would come and get me out of there, but no one does. My parents try to comfort me later, but their explanation is beyond my understanding. When the clergyman isn't "in trouble," the feeling that I must be the one who is bad sticks. Every week for the next 6 years I worry that same clergyman will be giving me communion. What if it happens again?
That, and intensely difficult experiences later on at a religious high school, led to some real struggles in adulthood. As my husband would later point out, I was quick to think God was "punishing me" whenever things in life went wrong, and I had lots of confusing ideas about God that I could rarely put into words, let alone understand. Then, there was the inexplicable social anxiety (only at church), uncontrollable compulsions to prove my worth (with other church members), and the emotional triggers regularly experienced (again, only at church!) For a long time, it was very confusing to pinpoint what this was and where it was coming from. Simply put, at a young age, fear and insecurity had been introduced into the context of my personal spirituality. Like a low background hum, they were always there, just below the surface and often in the form of a thought -- You know, you aren't as good as everyone here.
I struggled for 15 years, but 3 years ago, I began to experience miracles -- they have continued to stay with me, and I've experienced a lot of healing. Key to untethering myself from fear and shame at church, false ideas about God, and compulsions to prove my worth, was facing old hurts in EMDR therapy -- with my Savior Jesus Christ at my side. He has helped me understand the past and my worth; even the worth of those who hurt me.
It was early on in an EMDR session that I remembered, out of the blue, something my mother said after the incident with the clergyman. She'd said that he suffered from "mental illness" from The Vietnam War, and this was the reason for his outbursts and why he did strange things like get up in the middle of church to empty the trash. I hadn't been able to grasp that as a child. When the information came back to my mind 40 years later, I understood. After the traumatic experience of war, that clergyman had been expected to go back to his duties, with little to no help healing his mind. The spiritual mistreatment hadn’t been intentional -- his mind suffered. How do you minister to others when you yourself are broken?
Knowing the reasons for hurtful behavior doesn't automatically make the pain go away, but empathy can be the first step. For years, I had envisioned myself storming into that clergyman's office as an adult demanding an apology. "You made me drop Jesus! And then you shamed me in front of everyone!!" I had no idea God had something much better in mind -- the opportunity to learn compassion, empathy, and even love for someone who hurt me. About forgiveness, it has been said:
“Forgiveness is not a feeling; it is a commitment. It is a choice to show mercy, not to hold the offense up against the offender. Forgiveness is an expression of love.”
– Gary Chapman
I know our Savior Jesus Christ brings light into places where it does not exist. With some things, such as with suffering from the after-effects of spiritual coercion and mistreatment, we may sit in darkness for a long time. Healing can be complicated and messy until additional information trickles in, pointing us to what needs to heal. When that understanding finally comes, it's like a faucet. It keeps flowing! Sometimes even now, new details and light keep coming. For example, recently my mom told me that the teachers at my school were so upset by the incident between me and the clergyman, that they made sure he no longer led services for students.The adults involved had decided to keep that a secret, to avoid gossip amongst the students. While knowing that would have spared me some anxiety as a child, I don't blame my teachers or parents for not handling it "right." Would you believe, I've made mistakes as a parent when it came to the same exact thing?
I was reminded of this, when I read a story on Instagram several weeks ago, of a woman whose father stood up to a fellow church member that had shamed her while participating in an ordinance similar to communion. Reading her story, stung a little. She was a young teen at the time, and didn't feel prepared to renew her commitment to The Savior that day by taking the sacrament. Her personal decision was infiltrated by an adult who kept handing her the tray, not accepting her decision to pass. Ashamed and infuriated by his insistence, she ended up taking the sacrament. When her father understood what had happened, he immediately confronted the man. He let him know that he was great error to have inserted himself into what should have been a personal decision between his daughter and her Savior. That story reminded me that I had not been able to stand up when a fellow church member shamed my teen, right in front of me, for the same reason. You would think that of all people, I would have been able do something! Instead, it became another moment where I was overwhelmed by shame, and reacted like a child. At the time, I didn't have the tools to do what needed to be done.
The sting of that experience with my teen, and smaller sting of the clergyman who shamed me as a child, has been swallowed up in my Savior's peace and capacity to heal. Today, is different. I now have the capacity to peacefully stand up. I would even stand up for that clergyman who shamed me, I'd advocate for his healing and needs. My Savior has given me compassion, He has consecrated my afflictions for my gain, and He's given me confidence. That childhood experience of "dropping Jesus," is precisely what later helped me more fully pick Him up. For that, I love and trust my Savior forever.