I want to thank Martha Sue Hall at the Joyful Refuge Ministry for asking me to be the guest speaker at their ladies retreat and Bible study on May 3rd and 4th. They were studying 1 Peter 1:3-9. The topic is rejoicing with joy despite the circumstances. At first I thought I was the last person to be speaking on that considering my distance from God as an abused child and as a damaged adult. Then a friend said, “Who better to speak on finding joy than you? If you can find joy in Christ after all you went through, someone in that room will need to hear how you did it.”
Several people told me afterwards they wish that their friend or daughter could have been there to hear it. I offered to send a written copy of my talk to them and I have decided to post it as our May blog. So many people struggle through Mother’s Day and Father’s Day because they never had the kind of parent they deserved. I hope this will be a source of inspiration to those men and women. This is what I said at the Joyful Refuge Ministry:
I wish I could say I grew up in a Christian home and that I’m just full of wisdom and knowledge, but nothing could be further from the truth. What I can offer you is transparency and a different perspective on the message in 1 Peter. My story is not the story I would have written for myself or for anyone else. I can’t even tell you that I have reached the point of being grateful for my childhood. What I can tell you is that because I have had to struggle to work out my faith, it is deeper and stronger and more unshakable than it might have been otherwise.
What does rejoicing with joy despite the circumstances look like in the heart of an severely abused child whose worst abuse is alienation from God? That’s what I want to talk about tonight. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “He has planted eternity in their hearts.” When a child cannot choose or even understand rejoicing, God himself plants a seed of hope within that child. It doesn’t look like rejoicing at that point. It looks more like survival.
Maya Angelou, the great American poet and writer says, “Of all the needs a lonely child has, the one that must be satisfied, if there is to be hope and a hope of wholeness is the unshaking need for an unshakable God”. I can tell you that was an absolute truth throughout my childhood. I learned about rejoicing with joy slowly over a period of many years. 1 Peter didn’t make sense to me for a very long time. But I have come to understand some things from this passage:
1: God loves us with a covenant love; a love that he will never break. 2: Despite what our life is like on this earth, we have an inheritance in heaven and 3: God is using our suffering for good. It has taken me a lifetime to own those truths, but it is the foundation I stand on today.
My three brothers and I were born into a family where domestic violence and sexual abuse were a daily occurrence. My father was an alcoholic and a sex addict. My mother was mentally ill and very physically abusive. She instilled in us a deeply held belief that counseling is a tool of the devil and that we must keep family secrets secret and that no one wanted to hear anything I had to say anyway. My mother beat all of her kids, but she particularly disliked me because I was the only girl and she saw me as competition in her life. So I became the target of her anger and the least protected by her.
At the age of 3, I had the first of many surgeries to correct internal damage from my father’s sexual abuse. My mother had such misguided religious convictions that she used scripture to excuse and condone the abuse. Over and over we heard her quote scripture that the man is the head of the household and the family was subject to him and his decisions. Children should obey their parents at all costs and we should forgive immediately if we felt someone did us wrong. Feelings were not acknowledged of even allowed so we grew up being numb and out of touch with our feelings and reality.
Our home life was so violent that by the age of 5 I developed an alternate personality; a stronger, more stoic personality who took over when I was no longer able to cope with the trauma in my life. I had no awareness of that alternate part of me. It totally replaced my conscious self, so consequently I spent my entire childhood thinking I was crazy because I could not remember events that had happened – sometimes just moments before. It seems I was always trying to reorient myself to time and place.
At the age of 7, I quit speaking for over a year. I had witnessed my father trying to rape and then drown my favorite cousin who was 13 at the time. He told me if I ever said a word to anyone he would cut my tongue out. From that moment on, I didn’t say a word until I grew into another phase of cognitive reasoning and figured out that he meant I shouldn’t say a word about that particular incident. Around the age of 8, I began to speak again.
It was a very dark and confusing and isolating start to life. Only by the grace and power of God, was I able to eventually fight my way out of that psychological prison.
Someone once said that a picture is worth a thousand words, so I brought a visual for you today. These pictures are pictures of me, but more importantly, they are representative of all severely abused children. Notice that traumatized children do not smile.
In the first picture, my brother is 2 ½ and he’s trying to connect with our father at every point. His arm is around his neck, His hand is resting on our father’s leg and he’s leaning in with his full body. My father is holding me; more or less. Notice his hands. That’s not the way you hold a 2 month old baby. There’s no protection, no tenderness, no appreciation for his children on his face or in his body language.
But this picture is so representative of our father. He was lazy, unemployed most of the time; almost always drunk. I have no memories of him ever cutting the grass or changing a lightbulb or doing anything constructive or helpful around the house.
In the second picture, you can see the fear and mistrust on my face and in my eyes. This was the age I began having surgeries to correct the physical damage my father caused. I was 3 years old. In the third picture, at age 4, I was holding my dress down so the photographer wouldn’t touch me. Most of the other men in my life had; my father, his brothers and his friends so I distrusted all men throughout my childhood. The next picture is my school picture the year I quit talking which was second grade.
There were two bright spots in my childhood. One was my grandmother who lived 5 hours away and whom we saw several times a year. The other was a beloved next-door neighbor lady who was in my life from the age of two. She only had one child, a mentally retarded and blind daughter who was 2 years older than me. Originally, I was just a play mate for her daughter who later passed away, but as years went by, Mrs. Jones became my surrogate mother and taught me what it’s like to be accepted and loved and what motherly love is all about. To finish up with the pictures, this is my grandmother after she broke her hip about one year before she died. Then Mama Jones with my grandson on his 18th birthday and the last one is of her on her 90th birthday.
At the age of 9, I had an encounter with God all alone in my back yard. I was laying on the ground watching the clouds go by, when the Spirit of God began to wrestle with my spirit. I thought about life and death and making a commitment to God. My view of God at that point in my life was that he was a bigger, meaner, more powerful daddy. I could not promise to serve a heavenly father who would treat me just like my father did, but I could accept Jesus. A Sunday School teacher had once told us that Jesus is our friend and I desperately needed a friend. Also, I viewed Jesus as an abused child, thinking his cruel father nailed him to a cross. Once again, God met me where I was and he accepted my childhood faith. It truly was the size of a mustard seed and it would be many years before I understood the true character of God and could accept him for who he is.
I entered my teen years totally devoid of social skills and carrying a load of shame so heavy that I could not make eye contact with anyone. I was stripped of self-confidence and unable to say no to anyone for anything.
When a child lives in survival mode, they don’t dream. They stumble one day into another without much thought of the future. In fact they live in a mindset known as “because there is no future” and they simply survive the moment.
Children get their concept of God from their caregivers. Despite the fact that we were in church every time the doors were open, my experience taught me that God could not be trusted and that he hated me and would punish me at every turn. I felt my best chance to protect myself from God was to keep my distance. I was terrified of God and the devil so I felt there was no hope of rescue anywhere.
When I was 14, a boy in my neighborhood told me he was in love with me and was going to marry me some day. I panicked because I didn’t know how to get out of that. I didn’t want to marry anyone but I literally did not know how to say no. So in desperation, I went to my mother for advice. Her words to me were, “Well, you must have done something to make him fall in love with you, so I guess you’re stuck with him now.” That was such a typical response from my mother. Everything was always somehow my fault and there was always a huge price to pay for my mistakes.
I told this boy that I had promised my grandmother I would graduate from high school, so I couldn’t marry until then. At that point, graduation was four years away. I hoped he would forget about it or find someone else, but he didn’t. And so, right after graduation from high school, I married despite the fact that I knew I wasn’t marriage material. And because good Christian girls don’t get divorced, I stayed married to him for 20 years.
Almost 3 years into the marriage and just 3 days before my 21st birthday, I could not handle the stress anymore and I overdosed on pills. Somewhere in that hazy realm between life and death, I decided I wanted to live, even in all the sadness. I mumbled something to my husband and he called an ambulance which saved my life. I was determined that if I had to live in this world, I had to have something to live for. I attended church regularly but there was not a lot of spiritual growth.
During that marriage we adopted two girls eight years apart. When my first daughter was born, I was a teller at a bank, but within a few short months, I knew I had to quit work. In typical survivor fashion, I didn’t trust anyone else to take care of my child. I also knew I had to earn an income, so I started my own licensed in-home daycare business. My intention was to do childcare until my daughter started school and then return to the banking business.
I found to my amazement that I thoroughly enjoyed everything about my new career. I discovered genuine laughter for the first time in my life. The uniqueness of early childhood, their literal interpretation of things, the crafts and field trips and rainy day fun, the preschool learning, and the hugs and kisses from such innocent little lives all bound me together in a way that nothing else could have satisfied.
Those children were the glue that held me together and distracted me from my miserable marriage. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Lord was redeeming my childhood. He gave me back the years the locusts ate away and allowed me the opportunity to play that had been robbed from me in my own childhood.
After 20 years, I finally felt God was releasing me from the marriage. It was as though a concrete block had been lifted from my shoulders. I could walk straighter. I could think clearer. For the first time, I felt the freedom to plan for a future. My husband was not a bad man. In fact he had and continues to have a kind and tender heart. We were just two immature kids looking to each other to meet our emotional needs.
I was 38 when I divorced and within months, I enrolled in Kennesaw State University which was Kennesaw College back then. I went into counseling and began to seek the truth of God’s character and of His word. Scripture took on new meaning and I felt myself becoming a new person in Christ. But I was a long way from understanding people.
A few years after my divorce, I married a man who was an excellent con-artist and I fell for his lies. It was a very short-lived marriage because after we were married just 3 weeks, he threw me against the wall and choked me until I passed out. I had at least recovered enough from my childhood to know that his behavior was unacceptable and I filed for divorce. The impact of that relationship left me devastated physically, emotionally and financially.
Years later I met a wonderful man of God who taught me what love is. He took my childhood in his stride and he waited patiently while I spent 6 years learning to trust him and my own decisions. We finally married in 1999. Jim McDonald was a tender warrior in every sense of the word. He was a proud former member of the United States Marine Corp, a spiritual giant who taught Sunday School for many years, and after we were married just 6 months, he began fighting the biggest battle of his life – a 14 year struggle with a rare and debilitating form of mouth cancer.
In the summer of 2012, I felt God telling me to start a week long recovery retreat program called Racheal’s Rest in honor of a girl Jim and I both knew who had died two years earlier.
Tomorrow I will tell you about Racheal’s Rest but for now I will just say that Jim supported the idea and immediately got the paperwork started; something I would never have accomplished on my own.
On September 12, 2012 we received our 501c3 tax-exempt status. Exactly 12 months later, on September 12, 2013, Jim passed away. His last act of service to the Lord on this earth was to start Racheal’s Rest.
In September of 2013, Jim and my beloved second mother had both been on hospice care for almost a year; he with head and neck cancer and she with pancreatic cancer. They both died within days of each other. He actually died the day of her funeral.
I remember giving the eulogy at Mama Jones’s funeral, and hoping my husband wouldn’t die before I could get back to him.
And this brings us to my personal story of Rejoicing With Joy. When I was a child, I begged God to make it stop. I would have been happy if he had just made one thing better; the poverty, the hunger, the sexual abuse, the beatings, the utter spiritual confusion, the constant arguing and fighting in the house, the medical issues I faced. I begged God to make it stop and He didn’t. So I became disillusioned with a God who seemingly didn’t care. I tried to cling to his promises, but my ability to trust had been thoroughly destroyed at a very young age. And my experience taught me that God was at best, distant, and at the very worst was punitive and angry.
Perhaps it was my fear of being punished by God, but for whatever reason, I have always been obedient to Him even when it didn’t make sense and even when I didn’t want to – and most of the time, I didn’t want to. I obeyed God for the same reason I obeyed my parents, trying to avoid getting hurt.
But God was always redeeming my life. When I look back at my life, I find it very ironic that my mother made me truly believe that no one ever wanted to hear my opinion, and yet today people pay me to hear my opinion. She said counseling was a tool of the devil and I became a Christian counselor. And the little girl who was silenced for an entire year of her life at the age of 7 now talks for a living. She told me that education is not for girls. It took me a long time to overcome that message, but I finally started college at the age of 38 and at the age of 60, I received my Ph.D.
All the pieces of my life are still coming together and God is carefully crafting each of us to be who He wants us to be.
Today, rejoicing delivers me from the memory and the pain of the past. Rejoicing in the Lord helps me regain strength, composure and balance within myself. For most of my life I was unable to praise God because I was angry with God, confused about God, felt punished by God, was terrified of God.
I rejoice now because I can look back and see 5 ways he worked all things together for good.
#1. He replaced my abusive childhood with 25 beautiful years of working with children in a fun, healthy environment with the laughter and play of infants and preschoolers. In the safety of my own home without the threat of authority figures, he restored my youth. As a child, no one applauded me as being worthwhile. As a day care provider, I found all the appreciation I lacked in childhood, because the parents were so grateful knowing their children were safe and happy. The average childhood is approximately 12and a half years before children enter another phase of life – the teen years. God gave me twofold that amount of time to enjoy the activities of childhood. Some of those children now have children of their own and they stay in touch with me so the blessings continue. To know they still want to see me, fulfills me in a way I can’t even explain.
#2. Second, He replaced Satan’s lies with biblical truths which changed my faulty thinking which changed my future.
#3. Thirdly, He healed the abuse and hurt of my past with true love from a man who loved God more than anything and me second only to God. Psalm 103:5 says: Who satisfies your years with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle.
#4. The 4th way was through Psalm 27:10 which tells us, “Even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord cares for me”. Though I could not see it at the time, God replaced what I did not receive from my own mother with Mama Jones and she was in my life until 5 years ago. She died at the age of 90. Because she did not have any living children and because of our close relationship, she was a grandmother to my children and a great-grandmother to my grandchildren. God provided family to me even though I have no contact with anyone in my family of origin.
5. And lastly, God replaced all the false messages I received about myself with healthy, adaptive thoughts and behaviors through my own personal counseling and later through professional training. God traded honesty for secrets and allowed me to tell the whole world my family secrets for my own healing and to help others heal.
It took 62 years to get an answer to my childhood question of why God didn’t make the abuse stop. Now I see that if I had not experienced all the things I did, Racheal’s Rest would never have been formed. It is the only program of its kind in the world. Had I not experienced the childhood domestic violence, the poverty, the sexual abuse, the religiosity, the medical trauma, the abusive husband, and the deaths of those closest to me, I would not be able to empathize with most of the victims who come to us for help.
2 Corinthians 1:4 tells us that “God comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort others”. Now I know why God allowed the evil to continue because what man intended for evil, He intended for good.
I mentioned Ecclesiastes 3:11 earlier. Ecclesiastes 3:11 in the New Living Translation Bible says, “Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.”
So God has given us a desire to know the future, but never gives us the satisfaction of fully understanding what he does. We have the capacity to understand the world of nature around us and we can sometimes see God’s wisdom in our lives but we cannot see the future.
So we have to trust in the sovereignty of God. The God who is outside of time, will one day reveal to us how all our stories combine to create his overall story of love and redemption. Until then, we praise him in the storm, in the darkness, in the confusion of this world. We don’t have to be grateful for the circumstances, but we have to know there is a God of love who wants what is best for us, who grieves with us in our sorrow and who hates sin with a passion. The same God who is close to the brokenhearted collects our tears in a bottle and uses them to bring beauty from ashes.
Losing my husband broke my heart. Losing my mother at the same time was unbearable. I was used to talking to him and about her and talking to her about him. Then they were both gone and I was utterly alone. As I listened to taps being played at Jim’s burial, I had a moment of raw grief, but at the same time, I had a peace that only God provides, knowing I would be okay; knowing I was safe in the Father’sarms. The pain was mingled with relief that he was no longer suffering and he was with the God he adored. That was my defining moment of rejoicing with joy with the hope we have in Jesus Christ. There was a cohesiveness to my grief. At the same time I felt myself falling apart, I felt a supernatural power holding me together. As Christians, we do not grieve as one without hope.
Psalm 40 is my testimony. In closing, I want to read it to you from the Living Bible version, but it is beautiful in any interpretation. Psalm 40:
I waited patiently for God to help me; Then he listened and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out from the bog and the mire, And set my feet on a hard, firm path and steadied me as I walked along. He has given me a new song to sing of praises to our God. Now many will hear of the glorious things he did for me, and stand in awe before the Lord, and have no confidence in those who are proud, or who trust in idols.
O, Lord my God, many and many a time you have done great miracles for us, and we are ever in your thoughts. Who else can do such glorious things? No one else can be compared with you. There isn’t time to tell of all your wonderful deeds. It isn’t sacrifices and offerings which you really want from your people. Burnt animals bring no special joy to your heart. But you have accepted the offer of my lifelong service.
I have told everyone the Good News that you forgive men’s sins. I have not been timid about it, as you well know. O Lord. I have not kept this Good News hidden in my heart, but have proclaimed your lovingkindness and truth to all the congregation.
O, Lord, don’t hold back your tender mercies from me! My only hope is in your love and faithfulness. Otherwise I perish, for problems far too big for me to solve are piled higher than my head.
Meanwhile my sins, too many to count, have all caught up with me and I am ashamed to look up. My heart quails within me. I am poor and needy, yet the Lord is thinking about me right now! O my God, you are my helper. You are my Savior; come quickly, and save me. Please don’t delay.
I would like to close by leaving you with these words from Romans 15:13. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Please pray with me:
Heavenly Father, thank you that you are the great Kinsman Redeemer; that you provide healing to all who come to you. Lord, when our earthly fathers and mothers don’t watch over us with tenderness, you are there, loving us with an everlasting love. Thank you that your son, Jesus Christ, has redeemed us from sin to bring us into a right relationship with you. We are so grateful that love heals what hurt divides. I pray for each lady here today that you will bless her and keep her and grow her in your wisdom. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen