Children

Awaiting that Day: A Meditation on Death, Lament, and the Possibility of Hope

Today I will join hundreds of other people in remembering something that no one wants to be true, the loss of a child. My dear brother in Jesus, Pierson, was more than just a little boy. His family has rightly described him as a superhero, and this is exactly what he was. A resilience and energy that could only come from some secret ability. A capacity and desire to live life to the fullest, even when it was complicated by an enemy that never left his side. A smile (when you didn't get a growl, which still made you smile) that lit up a room in unforgettable ways. A quiet soul, until he opened up, and then there was no place for you to speak. 

I was not nearly as close to Pierson as so many, and yet he has left an indelible mark on my life (and countless other people can say the same). One memory I will always cherish stands out:

Kris was throwing an event for the children's ministry at church last summer and was hosting an art party. Pierson was there painting his heart out, making sure that every color received ample use. But the adult size table, plus the easel on top made it quite a stretch to reach the top of the canvas for my little friend. Before you know it, he was sitting in my lap and we were collaboratively painting a masterpiece on my canvas. I would imitate his every move. He thought it was hilarious. He would put the back of the paintbrush just under his lower lip while he considered the next color. I would do the same, and a virtually simultaneous sigh of consideration would emerge. I must say, it was a brilliant work, and I couldn't have done it without him. He took the painting home. I took that memory with me and will never forget it. 

In my academic work I focus especially on questions of trauma, human suffering, and death. What is the Christian response to these things and how can Christians understand what God has done in Jesus as Good News in a world filled with so much pain? One might think that someone who has devoted their life to the exploration of these questions would have something meaningful to say at a time like this. But in many ways, I am at a loss for words. 

I have spent the last six months trying to think of "what I would say" to people who find themselves in this place, who are trapped in their circumstances and suffering and who want nothing more than to be delivered, to find hope. When Pierson died we told our boys and tried to create a space for them to process that their friend would be absent in a way they had never experienced before. We asked if they had any questions, which they did, and we did our best to answer them. Then my youngest asked this question:

"When God remakes the world, will Pierson be there?"

"Yes," we told him, "yes he most definitely will." But hope for the future is an incomplete solution to the reality that he has died. Christians believe this because we understand that death (the result of the Powers of Sin and Death) is an enemy. Not only is it an enemy, but it is one that Christians believe has been broken in the death and resurrection of Jesus and will ultimately be defeated when the Triune God makes "all things new". 

This dissonance, that Christians have hope, and that death is a terrible thing which the work of Jesus is in the process of overcoming, has given me a new appreciation for the richness of lament. 

Lament in Scripture is most often associated with the subset of the book of Psalms classified as lament psalms. Within this group there are subsections of various styles and contents. (For a great book about this see Glenn Pemberton's Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms.) Here is what I am learning in this season about lament:

Lament is not sadness, or grief, or anger. It can be any of those things and more. But at its core, lament is a witnessing to God of the ways in which our lives in the world are not as they should be. They are sometimes a form of protest, or a plea for deliverance, or an accusation of injustice. In the end, they all in their own particular way say, "The world isn't supposed to be like this."

My children should be wearing their superhero shirts today because they are playing with Pierson, not because they are gathered to remember his life which was taken from him. The innocent shouldn't suffer, and frankly, no one should. Christians understand this because we await a renewed world in which grief and pain and death are no more. And the gap between the world we await and the world in which we live brings us pain and longing and even hope. 

I have full confidence that the God who raised Jesus from the dead and who broke the power of sin and death in the cross and resurrection will make all things right in the end. Tonight I will join millions of Orthodox Christians around the world as we shout Christo Anesti! (Christ is risen!). And we will join our voices in the liturgy that has sustained the church for centuries:

Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee from before his face!

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life
.

This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!

It is this hope to which we cling on days like this. The hope that Christ has defeated death and is the giver of life. But what do you say? How do you speak to what did happen, not what we hoped would happen? The following is where I have arrived in reflecting on the loss of my dear brother in Jesus, Pierson. This is my testimony as I gather with others today to lament to God and confess my hope in the resurrected Son of God:

I believe that on that Day, when the Triune God remakes the world, that death and suffering will be no more. And on days like this, I wish that Day was yesterday. Christo Anesti! Maranatha!

Mother's Day (A Sermon)

This is a "sermon" that I preached back in 2012 when I was still in full-time ministry. It was my attempt to move beyond the typical Mother's Day sermons that focus exclusively on those women who have had children and raised them well. I do not think that this is intentional in many churches, but for many women this is a day that is more painful than any other, and this is what I sought to mitigate in the small way that I could. I read this sermon verbatim as it is written here...

Saint Augustine and his mother Saint Monica.

Saint Augustine and his mother Saint Monica.

Monica, mother of Augustine, prayed for years that her brilliant but undisciplined son would be saved. When she sought the counsel of her priest, he listened as she poured out her heart of love and her intercession for this prodigal. At the conclusion, the priest said, “Go on! Leave me alone. Live as you are living. It is not possible that the son of such tears should be lost.” (I think when a mother’s prayers arrive in Heaven, they go to the head of the line. When Hannah gave birth to her baby, she was so thrilled that God had heard her prayers, she named the child Samuel—literally, in the Hebrew, it means: “Heard of God.” His very name proclaimed that God had heard his mother’s prayers!)

Some of you know the Augustine story. Monica prayed that he would not go to Rome, which was then such a wicked place. But he slipped away and went anyway…and came to Christ there.

Monica is quoted as saying the following in Augustine' s Confessions:

Such things was I speaking, and even if not in this very manner, and these same words, yet, Lord, Thou knowest that in that day when we were speaking of these things, and this world with all its delights became, as we spake, contemptible to us, my mother said, “Son, for mine own part I have no further delight in any thing in this life. What I do here any longer, and to what I am here, I know not, now that my hopes in this world are accomplished. One thing there was for which I desired to linger for a while in this life, that I might see thee a Catholic Christian before I died. My God hath done this for me more abundantly, that I should now see thee withal, despising earthly happiness, become His servant: what do I here?”

In many ways I feel totally unable to speak about the special role that we honor today, Mothers. 

This is in part because I know that being a mother is more complex, more complicated, and more difficult than most of the sermons I ever heard about this day growing up. 

So what I want to do briefly is look at a couple of ways that motherhood is spoken of in Scripture and then take up the ancient practice of Christian preaching which is offering a blessing on a special occasion. 

Paul writes to Timothy of the influence of his mother and grandmother in the formation of his faith…

I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. (2 Timothy 1:3-5)

Jesus speaks about those who lose family to follow Jesus and participate in the Kingdom of God…

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30)

Paul describes what has been true for many people down through time…

Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too. (Romans 16:13)

I do not wish to pretend that motherhood is easy, or painless, or simple and straightforward. I do not want to pretend that everyone in the room has had great experiences with their own mother's or that there aren't regrets and hurts from being a mother as well. Life is more complicated than that, the world is more broken than that, and the church needs to be more honest than that. 

But what I do wish to say is that the God of the Universe is a good God, that he is love and mercy and redemption and grace and power and wisdom and compassionate. 

That no matter your experiences, no matter your choices, no matter your shortcomings, regrets, failures, or victories… God loves you and we thank God for you. 

Down throughout church history it has been customary to offer blessings on special days. These blessings typically hold three things in common.

(1) They are specific to the occasion that they address.
(2) They seek to acknowledge the complexity and realities of life in relation to God.
(3) They seek to point us back to the one who makes all things possible, Jesus Christ. 

I have spent some time looking at various blessings written down through the centuries and this is the blessing that I have composed for this special occasion… Mother's Day:

A BLESSING ON MOTHER'S DAY

To mothers, both biological and adopted, connected by blood and by experience, torn apart by circumstance and sometimes by choices…

To those who have given life both in birth and in formation, to those who have lost life before birth and before old age…

To those who have done what only mother's can do, 

To those who have been "the perfect mother" and to those who live with regrets, 

To those who are close to their children, and to those who feel like they are a million miles away, 

We bless you today, on this day, Mother's Day. 

To those women who have given birth to a child this year, 
     We celebrate with you the gift that God has given. 

To those who feel the pain of children long desired but never received, 
     We grieve with you the too often secret pain you have borne.

To those who have experienced miscarriage, failed adoptions, and kids who have run away, 
     We mourn your loss and ask for your forgiveness when we have been silent or even worse, indifferent.

To those who have longed for children, but for whatever reason have been unable to have them, 
     We love you and we are sorry for the times that we have failed to be sensitive in our words and actions. 

To those who have been "mother's" to others who are not their children, 
     We need more people like you both in the church, and in the broken world in which we live.

To those who have close and meaningful relationships with their children, 
     We celebrate this day with you and thank God for his grace.

To those who have complicated, painful, or non-existent relationships with their children, 
     We sorrow with you and thank God for his grace, while we pray for redemption and reconciliation.

To those who have close relationships with their own mother, 
     We thank God for that intimacy. 

To those who have suffered at the hands of their mother, 
     We acknowledge you and love you as our own. 

To those who lost their mothers whether recently or so many years ago, 
     We mourn with you today.

To those who have experienced weddings, graduations, and the general experiences of growing into adults, 
     We are proud of you for coming through them with grace.

To those who have gone through school tests, medical tests, emotional tests, and tests of patience with your children, 
     We are encouraged by your patience, your faith, and we stand with you as these will continue to arise. 

To those who will have an emptier nest this year, 
     We both celebrate and cry with you. 

To those of you who long to be better mother's, 
     God's grace will provide and we will commit to you as well. 

To those who long to make things right with your children, 
     Remember that God's redemptive power can cross any boundary, any brokenness, any pain. 

To those who struggle with their children today, 
     Remember that even the young Jesus almost gave his mother a heart attack on more than one occasion.

To those who feel like all they do is struggle and experience stress and frustration, 
     Remember your investment is never in vain, and that God uses your faithfulness to change the world.

To those who are bursting with pride today both with their mothers and their children, 
     We celebrate with you today.

For those of you who struggled to get out of bed this morning, who would rather be at home because of the pain of this day, 
     We love you and are encouraged by your faithfulness. 
     We pray that we may be more sensitive and more proactive in being a blessing to you and yours. 

To the men in the room, love your wife and love your mother's as Christ loved the church. 
     Give yourself not as "the husband" or as "the son" but more deeply than that as a servant of Jesus Christ. 
     Don't let today be the only day you do the dishes, help with the kids, or say kind things to grandma. 
     Recognize that your wife and mother and grandmother are made in the image of God, 
          They are precious to him, they are like his mother or grandmother or bride. Honor them as such.

To the women in the room, we thank you for who you are and what you mean to us as individuals and to this church. 
     We would not be who we are and where we are if it was not for you. 
          We haven't always done a good job of honoring you, thanking you, appreciating you. 
          We haven't always loved you as you have loved us. 
               For that we ask for your forgiveness and grace. 
     May we be people who honor and encourage and bless you from this day forward for whom God has made you, precious children of God. 

"The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace."

And in the words of the Hebrew writer...

"Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen." (Hebrews 13:20, 21, NIV)

An Encouter with the Flannel Jesus...

In the church that I grew up in there was a rite of passage that you had to go through if you were in elementary school. It happened in the Winter and Spring of the fourth grade. It was absolutely unavoidable in my day, you simply had to go through it and hope you came out on the other side. No, it's not some kind of hazing or some intense "proving ground" as we prepared for our teenage years. It was Mrs. Gorton's fourth grade Sunday morning Bible class.

Perhaps the worst part of this experience was that the primary teaching method was the dreaded flannel board. This came with a seemingly endless supply of clouds, boats, loaves and fish, and Jesus in the same outfit that he always wore (it almost made you wonder if he had two outfits). The 12 Apostles all looked like brothers or at least cousins and they were all about 2 inches shorter and reasonably less handsome than Jesus. How could a kid like me ever survive six months of Bible class with this inhumane mode of teaching?

Mrs. Gorton was legendary. She had probably taught this class for well over a 1,000 years if not more. Her material never changed, her voice was firm, any form of distraction or not paying attention was greeted with a no tolerance policy. I'm sure she would have sent me out of class back to my parents had they not both been teaching at the same time. (I dodged a bullet there.)

For all the complaining, dread, and clock watching that I did in that cold classroom with the movable wall partitions and table with gum on the bottom I see things a little differently now. You see, this wasn't the last time that I interacted with Mrs. Edna Gorton. A few years older (not many) Mrs. Gorton has fallen victim to an agressive form of Alzheimer's and was in a nursing facility way across town. One week we decided that the youth group was going to go visit and sing hymns to/with Mrs. Gorton and those at her nursing facility. Two confessions here that I still think about: (1) I didn't even notice she wasn't around and (2) when I found out we were going to see her those same feelings of dread and impatience came rushing back. But something happened that night that I will never forget.

It was a cold night and the church van was jammed full. This was one of those nights that no matter how many layers you had on or how long the heater in the van had been running it was still cold. We pulled up to the nursing home and hesitantly went in. We went into this large open room that had a fountain in the middle and rather sizeable trees in large pots all around the outside. It was like a little oasis of life and warmth from the ice world we had just been in.

We finally found Mrs. Gorton and I couldn't hardly recognize her. She wasn't wearing her glasses that I'm sure she had had since maybe before I was born. Her frame had withered to not much more than skin and bones, she couldn't stop drewling, and was completely unresponsive to any engagement whether verbal or by touch. So we just began to sing circled around her wheelchair that she was restrained in because she lacked the strength to keep herself in it.

The first song garnered no response. The same with the second. The third song which wasn't in our music that had been prepared for us was My God and I. We knew it because many of us had just sang it at a funeral. We finished the first phrase "My God and I..." when Mrs. Gorton sat up and smiled. Her jaw began to quiver and her hands curled up. I wasn't sure what was happening. By the middle of the first verse we could tell what was happening. She was singing!! She joined us as we reached these words of the first verse...

My God and I walk through the meadow's hue;

We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter,

My God and I walk through the meadow's hue.

She lowered her head and went silent for a few moments. The third verse came around and the preacher started it with extra fervor and volume. And again Mrs. Gorton came to life joining us this time for the entire verse although still with eyes that were as blank as before.

My God and I will go for aye together,

We'll walk and talk as good friends should and do;

This earth will pass, and with it common trifles,

But God and I will go unendingly;

This earth will pass, and with it common trifles,

But God and I will go unendingly.

A with a smile on her face she took a deep breath and bowed her head and that was the last we were able to really interact with Mrs. Gorton.

I never saw her again. I don't know how long it was before she passed away, but that last time that I saw her, in retrospect, was probably one of the defining moments of my life.

You see I learned something about myself, Mrs. Gorton, and God that night. (Although I must admit I didn't learn it fully that night, but only after time and experience and some serious growing up.) I learned that in my arrogance and impatience I had severely limited the extent to which God was able to teach me and shape me. I learned that God works in ways that seem trivial, silly, or sometimes even downright insulting to our intelligence (Balaam and his donkey come to mind here).

More importantly I learned something about crusty, scary, old, and unpleasant Mrs. Gorton. I learned that in fact she wasn't any of those things (well, except old). In fact, she knew intimately something that I in some ways still haven't wrapped my mind around. For her, Jesus wasn't a white guy who always wore a white robe with a blue sash and brown sandles with his hands always lifted in some unnatural position. Jesus was alive, he was a dear friend and the one who set her heart on fire so that even after her mind had been devoured by her Alzheimers her spirit burst forth at the thought of God as her dearest friend and companion.

I'll never forget that flannel board. In fact, the last time I was at Northwest in the resource room I went and pulled out a flannel Jesus just to remember what she had taught me. An encounter with the flannel Jesus ultimately changed my life.

I hope someday to have the intimacy with God that was so obvious in my beloved Mrs. Gorton. I can't wait to tell her someday how thankful I am for that silly little flannel board.  

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7, NIV) 

#SilentCofC: The Mission - A Story of Abuse from the Mission Field

The following is an actual narrative from current missionaries on the field in the Churches of Christ. These details are accurate but the names of all people in this narrative have been changed to protect both the victims and the missionaries who themselves were threatened with the revocation of funding and received death threats because of their bold and God-honoring response in opposing the perpetrator and serving the victims.

THIS IS REAL. LISTEN CLOSELY.


Introduction

The Mission is a corporation formed under the laws of the state of Texas. The Mission is recognized by the IRS as a registered 501C(3) nonprofit organization. For Missionary A and his wife Missionary B, there is no separation between ministry and business, and that sound Christian ministry practices and sound Christian business practices go hand in hand. From day one Missionary A’s business background and entrepreneurial drive coupled with a conviction of excellence that both Missionary A and Missionary B share are what have set the The Mission approach to ministry apart from many others. The convictions that are shared by Missionary A and Missionary B to make the tough right decisions, all the time, even when it does not feel like it will work out, are undoubtedly one of the major reasons that God has blessed this ministry the way he has.

Independent Missionary Background

Missionary A had known Independent Missionary all of his life. He grew up at the church that Independent Missionary’s family attended. Independent Missionary’s wife taught Missionary A in Sunday school and Independent Missionary also had 3 children who grew up there with Missionary A. Independent Missionary worked in law enforcement and was a respected member of the community. Independent Missionary and Missionary A were a part of a mission trip to Developing Nation. This trip impacted both of their lives.  Finally Missionary A quit his consulting job and moved to Developing Nation to work full time in ministry and about the same time Independent Missionary, now retired, also began spending extended periods in Developing Nation, 2 – 3 months at a time. 

It became apparent within just a few months of Independent Missionary’s arrival in Developing Nation that some of the interactions that he was engaging in with young ladies, ages 12–16, from the local church of Christ were not appropriate. After rumors started going around that were affecting the church that Missionary A was working with at the time Missionary A decided he need to talk with Independent Missionary. On a trip back to the US, Missionary A asked to meet with Independent Missionary. In this meeting Missionary A confronted Independent Missionary about his interactions, the rumors, and that as Christians we need to flee from the appearance of evil. Independent Missionary did not receive the observation well, he became very agitated and said that he was doing nothing wrong and so therefore he did not need to change anything just because there were rumors going around.

After this interaction Missionary A decided that it was no longer wise to be associated with Independent Missionary. Up until this point they had partnered together on some projects in different communities. Independent Missionary had a long list of churches, donors and civic clubs in the US from whom he was able to pull resources. However, the risk seemed to be too great.

By 2003 there was one family in particular that Independent Missionary had taken a liking to, the Perez family, 5 orphaned kids, ages 5–15. Their mother, a member of the church where Missionary A & Missionary B’s efforts had been focused early on, had recently passed away. The only thing that the children now had was a house that she had left them but no way to provide for themselves. Independent Missionary took it upon himself to take care of the family. This appeared innocent early on. When the oldest sibling, Juana, began cleaning Independent Missionary’s house and spending extended periods of time there, everyone at the local church began to wonder what might be going on. In late 2005 Juana became pregnant. Now with no income and no one to take care of her she approached The Mission for medical assistance. The Mission provided prenatal care and was present when the healthy baby girl was born. Juana has dark hair, dark eyes, and a dark complexion. The baby girl has strawberry blonde hair, blue eyes, and a very light, Caucasian complexion. The resemblance of the little girl to Independent Missionary was obvious to everyone who saw her. Juana, the mother, however stuck to her story, that the father was a local boy who had run off. By now, it was a common knowledge among all of the local Christians that Independent Missionary was the father of this child, regardless of whether or not Juana would admit it. The little girl was the spitting image of her father.  Unfortunately, it’s not a crime to commit adultery, and unfortunately by the time Juana had become pregnant she was 18. As disgusted as Missionary A and Missionary B were there was not much that could be done other than to distance themselves from this man as much as possible. 

Shortly afterwards Juana’s younger sister Sonia, only 15 years old, came to Missionary A & Missionary B and asked to talk. What she had to share was a heart breaking story. When Juana, in her third trimester, told Sonia that she needed to go to Independent Missionary’s house, and to do whatever he wanted to do. That their family depended on his support, that he had taken good care of them, and they needed to take care of him. Sonia hesitantly went to Independent Missionary’s house, not fully understanding what her sister was talking about. The ensuing rape, which was described in detail, had traumatized Sonia severely but she did not feel like there was anyone who she could go to. Many families in her community and in her church respected Independent Missionary because he gave so many gifts to so many families. No one would believe Sonia or if they did they would probably not support her since this man had given them so many gifts. 

Missionary A & Missionary B did not hesitate in their decision to take Sonia to child protective services. There she was interviewed by the social worker and taken for a forensic physical exam. The findings of the exam supported the details of Sonia’s story. Sonia was then placed in a foster home. 

Independent Missionary was actually in the country while these initial interviews with Sonia were taking place but since the justice system moves slowly and it would take a long time for the DA’s office to act on the information Independent Missionary was not at risk of being arrested. Missionary A was compelled to confront Independent Missionary, as a Christian brother, in Developing Nation, but after discussing with Missionary B they decided against it, fearing that he might harm Sonia after finding out what she had reported. Shortly thereafter Independent Missionary returned to the US. Once the formal investigation was completed a warrant for Independent Missionary’s arrest was issued. A board member of The Mission, also a member of the same church as Independent Missionary, met with Independent Missionary face to face to confront him on the charges in Developing Nation. Independent Missionary, as expected, adamantly denied the allegations. Independent Missionary was informed that if he returned to Developing Nation that he would be arrested. Soon The Mission board member, Independent Missionary, and a few other men familiar with the situation were asked to meet with the elders of Independent Missionary’s church. This meeting did not go as expected. Independent Missionary’s long time relationship with the eldership, his well respected presence in his community, and his law enforcement background influenced the elders. The elders believed his story that this was nothing but a little, poor, orphan girl in Developing Nation out to get some money and that Missionary A had no idea what he was talking about and he had fallen for the scam. 

Unfortunately this is a defense that has been used before by pedophiles that have abused children in third world countries around the world. It’s a very easy explanation, the victim must be lying, they must be after money, and unfortunately many Americans have given the benefit of the doubt to the accused instead of investing just a little bit of time to do some due diligence about the situation and the victims rarely see justice and the predators continue to attack children. 

By late summer of that year Independent Missionary was ready to return to Developing Nation, defying all logic and advice of his friends. This time he was indeed arrested by the police only a few days after his arrival. Videos of Independent Missionary handcuffed and shackled and being led into the police station filled the evening news. However, within 24 hours he was free, and placed under house arrest to await a hearing. Independent Missionary hired the best that money could buy in this small town, and that meant a very shady lawyer. Sonia & Juana were now both at risk as well as Missionary A and Missionary B’s family. Both Missionary A and Missionary B were subpoenaed to testify in a court in a small town in a third world country. The missionaries did not get much support and encouragement from the US, that they had done the right thing. One “mentor” even told Missionary A, “this is not your fight.”  However, Missionary A and Missionary B believed wholeheartedly that if it was not “their” fight then whose fight was it? Who was there to “Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy" (Psalms 82:3)?

The Verdict

The shady lawyer’s defense was that this was a “gringo” power struggle and that it had nothing to do with the young girl. The lawyer, after discovering where Sonia was living, approached her and intimidated her into signing a document stating that the whole story had been made up. Then the lawyer went to work to try and cast doubt about the family. However, the evidence was quite compelling, a former house keeper with a baby girl with a striking resemblance of Independent Missionary, and physical exam that backed up the rape charges, however poor families who’d been recipients of Independent Missionary's gifts showed up in droves to support this man. In the end the judge found that there was not enough evidence for the case to proceed and Independent Missionary was released.

In the parking lot of the court Independent Missionary’s lawyer boasted to the government attorney, “You see, in our country money talks, my client is guilty, and my client walks free”.

In the End

  • Sonia was left with severe trauma and no justice.
  • Juana was left with trauma, a child, and no way to support her family.
  • Christians in a small community were misguided to learn that what is wrong might not always be wrong if you can get something from it.
  • Missionary A and Missionary B were threatened with a slander lawsuit if the details were made public in the US.
  • Missionary A and Missionary B were labeled as naïve and ignorant by Independent Missionary’s elders, major financial supporters of The Mission, for having believed the report and for not having handled the situation directly with Independent Missionary.
  • Long time relationship with these elders and their church were strained and eventually they parted ways.
  • A precedent was set across the ministry of The Mission that sexual misconduct, by anyone, would not be tolerated.
  • Operations manual of The Mission children’s homes directly reflects Missionary A and Missionary B’s commitment to protecting children.

Today, Independent Missionary is now single. At 65 his wife left him. He now lives in Developing Nation and continues to have teenage girlfriends and continues to “help” churches of Christ that fall victims to the US Dollars that he has to give away. 


Rather than offer immediate answers, I think it is important for us to sit with the tension that this true story naturally creates.

We need to think about the ways in which we engage in ministry both within our congregations and in other contexts. What protections are in place both for the children of our congregation, but also for those to whom we minister, particularly in places where the power imbalance is deeply exacerbated by poverty, illness, or cultural difference?

This same pair of missionaries who brought us this heart-wrenching narrative will soon be sharing with us some important and practical ways in which this kind of horrific story can be prevented in the future. Along with some other reflections, their contribution will be an invaluable resource for this conversation.

Please lift them and all the others (and there are other missionaries with the same experiences whom I have heard from because of this series!) who have given their lives to serving far from their homes who must confront and protect the innocent to whom they have dedicated their lives, even with great consequences. God will not fail to reward them for what they have done on behalf of the innocent.

#SilentCofC: The Trust Deception (Jimmy Hinton)

Today's guest post is from my new friend Jimmy Hinton. He serves as the minister at the Somerset Church of Christ in Somerset, Pennsylvania. He writes often about issues of abuse at his blog and is in the initial launch of his new ministry, Church Protect. Jimmy's journey into helping the Church think about the scope and cost of child sexual abuse came in the aftermath of learning that his father, a Church of Christ minister, was a pedophile with dozens of victims. His voice is important in our fellowship and I am thankful for his contribution today.

WARNING: Jimmy doesn't sugar-coat the nature of abuse. This is important, but for some, especially those who have been victimized in the past, it may serve as a trigger. For the rest of us, please consider Jimmy's honest and unsanitized perspective as an exercise in learning empathy for victims of this horrific evil.


I had just spoken as a keynote at a large conference for professionals who deal with abuse.  For many theological and psychological reasons that I won’t unpack here, I take a strong stance that pedophiles should not have access to our children, even (especially!) in worship.  A man came up to me after my speech and said, “You’re a preacher and you say that pedophiles and children should be separated.”  “Yep,” I said unflinchingly.  “Let me just ask you, where is the trust and forgiveness in that?”  I assured him that mistaking forgiveness and trust is a grave mistake.  They are not the same thing.  We can forgive people who should never be trusted again.  It’s a strange notion that we somehow magically believe that people who say, “Sorry” will never struggle with temptation again.   

This man’s response is not uncommon among church leaders.  I regularly get challenged by people who have never spent time either with a pedophile or with their victims.  They haven’t had to face the reality of witnessing the lies, manipulation, and denial from pedophiles.  Nor have they heard the horror stories from survivors who were humiliated, stripped naked, poked, prodded, and caressed with the tongues and fingers of their perpetrators.  I have.  And I acknowledge what the Bible and psychologists both agree upon—Children need responsible adults to protect them.

When I shared this man’s response with my ministry partner, who happens to counsel incarcerated sex offenders, without hesitation he offered me the following advice. 

“Always keep a 3x5 notecard and a pen in your pocket.  Next time someone is adamant that you are ‘unfair’ and need to integrate pedophiles into your church, take down their name and personal number.  Write down their home address as well as their church address, number, times of service, etc.  And just tell them, ‘You know what?  You’re right and I’m wrong.  Pedophiles do need a place to worship among children.  We are not equipped to make that happen but we are willing to pay for the flight, bus ticket, gas, or whatever to send the next pedophile we meet directly to your home.  Thank you so much for agreeing to integrate them into your own home and church.’” 

Now before anyone draws too harsh a judgment, let me be clear.  I want pedophiles to be redeemed.  I’m not arguing that we ban them from church unless, of course, they show no signs of remorse or repentance.  What I’m arguing is that, according to the Bible, we have the highest calling to protect our children and so, pedophiles who have repeatedly perpetrated upon children have no business being surrounded by them.  We should offer an alternative worship service without kids where temptation does not cause a repentant pedophile to stumble.  We do it with drug addicts.  We don’t serve booze to alcoholics.  So why do we insist that we serve our children on a platter to someone whose appetite is so insatiable that he or she has repeatedly stripped a child of their clothes, innocence, and decency?  God “does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33), so why do we? 

The most common cliché I hear from churches who insist on not taking any precautions to protect their children is this—“We have a group of volunteers we trust so why would we upset them by demanding background checks and watching over them every time they want to serve?”  Great question.  Let me tell you about a story of a man who trusted his own father. . . who happened to be a well-respected father and preacher!  My dad has dozens of victims who all have dramatic stories of shame, pain, and humiliation.  He was able to gain access to children precisely because everybody trusted him.  Let me also tell you about hundreds of other people who have shared similar stories with me as I listen to their painful stories.  They all tell a similar story: “Nobody questioned my abuser because he was the guy everyone loved and trusted.” 

I can assure you that if you are, like I was at one time, looking for the creepy guy standing behind the bushes by the ice cream truck, you’re looking in the wrong place.  A successful pedophile is not someone who offended a child and got away with it.  No, a successful pedophile is someone who offended children over and over while gaining the love, respect, and trust from those closest to him.  The successful pedophile is the last person anyone would suspect as an abuser and the first person someone would choose to care for their kids.  And there is a lot of success out there, especially in our churches.  My dad once wrote me from prison, “Churches and Christian daycares are the easiest places to offend.”  Touché. 

I call this the “trust deception.”  We Christians are deceived precisely because we want to trust.  Dr. Gene Abel did a massive study among over 1,000 pedophiles and found that 93% of them identified themselves as religious.  That’s a huge deal!  We picture pedophiles as monsters with 3 heads who deny God and mock Jesus.  It’s simply not true.  The vast majority of them believe in God and identify as Christians.  The reason I make such a huge deal about this is because religious people typically go to church!  If 93% of pedophiles are religious, that means the majority of pedophiles are frequenting your churches.  It gets worse. 

The reason churches are among the highest risk for sex offenses to occur is that we have created the perfect storm.  As the famed Dr. Anna Salter once told me, “They (churches) are such inviting targets.”  There are 3 main ingredients to our Molotov concoction: 

  1. Christians by nature are generally naïve.  Quite honestly, we don’t want to know what kinds of things happen outside our own happy bubbles.  It disrupts our happy time and forces us to think about something tragic and actually do something about it.  Let’s be honest—prophets like Jeremiah weren’t exactly known for gaining converts through uplifting sermons. 
  2. Churches are desperate for volunteers.  When someone—heck when anyone—volunteers to help out, especially with kids, we describe them as “gifts from heaven.” 
  3. We wrongly trust everyone because “church folk” are safe people and church is a safe place.  Wrong!  Going to church makes a person a trusted individual no more than standing in a garage makes them a car.  The only way church will be a safe place is if we make it a safe place.  And this can be done.  The refusal by many church leaders to adopt healthy policies to protect their kids is mind-numbing. 

There are 42 million survivors of child sex abuse in the United States alone.  As someone who does church consulting and regularly conducts workshops on abuse in the Churches of Christ across the nation, let me tell you, it is an epidemic.  Am I an alarmist?  No, I’m a realist.  Just in the last few months, I’ve had somewhere around 100 survivors of child sex abuse share their stories of churches either actively covering up accusations of abuse or just flat out denying that it happens.  Shame on us.  We can do better than this for the very children Jesus called us to imitate.  Christ became indignant when his disciples blocked them from coming near him.  How much more indignant should we become when church leaders deny children a safe environment to worship?  Children should not have to cower in fear every time they enter an assembly to worship.  Let’s vow to do better at preventing abuse.

#SilentCofC: The "Victim" and the Church (Ron Clark)

Ron and Lori Clark

Ron and Lori Clark

Today I have the privilege of sharing with you a contribution from Dr. Ron Clark. Ron is a church planter and minister at the Agape Church of Christ in Gresham, Oregon. Ron has served in numerous capacities related to abuse and violence including the Oregon Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Task Force, The Engaging Men Project (TEMP), and the co-founder of Community Against Domestic Violence. He is the author of numerous books and articles, and is a leading voice in Churches of Christ about how we engage issues of abuse and violence both in our churches and our communities.


Victim.

The word seems to strike fear in us not only as we say it, but as we think about those we know who are victims, have been victimized, or have family members who suffered as victims. It also seems logical to us that we remove the word from our vocabulary by empowering the word so that we can be “victors.” Victors has a better sound, connotation, and memory. However we forget that whenever there is a victor, typically there is or are victims. Yet for us it is a matter of avoiding that which is uncomfortable. Since victim connotes helplessness, suffering, and vulnerability—we opt to be victors instead. In addition to this we become, like the many other humans researched who observe an act of bullying and side with the bully or do nothing, people who collude with and empower the oppression of victims. Whether or not it is intentional, we side with the victors rather than the victims.

As Christians and people of faith this seems contrary to the God we serve. Since the beginning of time Yahweh and, later Jesus, seemed to stand opposite the oppressors and for the victims.

“Your brother’s (Abel) blood cries out to me…” Genesis 4:10

“I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt, I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering…” Exodus 3:7

“Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.” Exodus 22:21-23

“Yahweh is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble…who does not ignore the cry of the afflicted…” Psalm 9:9, 12

“If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered…” Proverbs 21:13

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the empire of God…” Luke 6:20

“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers/sisters of mine, you did for me…” Matthew 25:40

“The Son of Man has no place to lay his head… (meaning that Jesus was homeless).” Luke 9: 58

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and drowned in the deepest lake/sea…” Matthew 18:6

The crucifixion of Jesus was an act of “humiliation” (not humility), a word used for sexual assault victims, the oppressed, and marginalized people of this world.

Throughout the Biblical text God is the god of the oppressed, the marginalized, the suffering, and those society has deemed unworthy. Additionally this group is also silenced. They have no voice, no one to represent them, and no one to understand their pain. Those who marginalize them do so because they have chosen the path of oppression, affliction, and a display of power over others. However, these “privileged” classes of people are also the groups confronted directly by Yahweh, the prophets, apostles, and Jesus himself. Their only hope of salvation is to hear the cries of the marginalized (victims) as the prophets exclaimed to their kings.

“Therefore O king (Nebuchadnezzer), please accept my advice. Renounce your sins by doing what is right and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed (poor). It may be then that your prosperity will continue.” Daniel 4:27

“’Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father (Josiah) have food and drink? He did what was right and just and all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares Yahweh.” Jeremiah 22:15-16

When we ignore the cries of the oppressed, marginalized, poor, or victims we collude with their oppressors. First, we assume that they deserve to be oppressed.

Homeless people are viewed as lazy and unwilling to work, rather than being part of a system that prevents them from receiving help.

Rape victims are blamed for being over sexual, underdressed, or sexually expressive and therefore responsible for this sin. We assume that every male is incapable of self control and must have been tempted by them. “Boys will be boys…” Boys who are raped are seen as deserving it because the must have communicated effeminate signals to “real boys.”

Abuse victims are considered to be women who over exaggerate their suffering. Those with bruises “must have pushed his buttons,” while those abused and controlled verbally and emotionally are considered “too sensitive.”

Does it amaze us that the most common age of sexual abuse victims are young girls age 10-15? How many times do we circulate rumors about “school girls” and young girls making up stories and false accusations? Is it possible that they are targeted because offenders know we wont believe them? Is it surprising that many of them, when sharing their story, state that they felt that no one would believe them?

Women in prostitution and pornography are believed to be fully in control and in charge of their own futures. They are seen as the aggressors, rather than the pimps who brutalize them and their customers who also exploit them.

Male violence victims are told that they need to “man up” and victimize other males.

Boys who cry are also told to “man up” and be stronger. They are also given female or gay labels if they don’t “man up.”

Trauma survivors are told that they need to “get over it” and move on.

Victims suffer unjustly. There is no valid reason for people to be oppressed, tortured, terrorized, or ignored in their victimization. Those victims who experience horrible acts of human oppression many times find acceptance and solitude by being intoxicated, high, or under the influence of various substances. Substance abuse exists among them because they hate living in reality and believe that people will not accept them.

The sad news concerning this—they all have a God who hears their cries, feels their pain, and suffered the same humiliation, shame, and rejection. Jesus also was homeless, poor, humiliated, and a victim of unjust suffering. Before Jesus became the Lord of the upper class—he was the Savior of the marginalized.

Unfortunately the Church, for centuries, has tried to dissect the Biblical text to find meaning for the oppressors, victors, and those with privilege. We worry about their forgiveness, their healing, and making a community where they can move forward and enter leadership again. For the victims we say, “Forgive, Forget, Move On, and Get Over It.” If they are revictimized, it is considered a small price for a community to be viewed as forgiving and loving the sinner. In doing this we ignore the voice of the ones among whom Jesus lived, ate and drank, and cry out for justice. We also silence their voice so that they will not speak up. Who would blame them, no one wants to be known as a “nagger” or “prophetic.” However, this is how oppression, privilege, and injustice thrive in communities. If we remove the voice of the victim, then we can all move forward and be victors.

When we listen to the voice of the marginalized we should find the empathy and compassion to respond to their needs. If we are allowing the Spirit of Jesus to live within us, we naturally move toward their voice and turn our ears to their suffering. We see ourselves not as oppressors but family who also suffers victimization. To be a victim introduces us to a community in which we are family and have each other’s best interest in mind. We also become more sensitive in our outreach and ministry:

Each time we discuss pre-marital sex there are a percentage of people who were molested by a family member, or coerced into sex by a male in their church. They believe that they are guilty because their victor told them they were.

When we speak negatively concerning divorce there are a large number of people who left an abusive or dysfunctional marriage to establish peace and safety in their family. There are also men and women who divorced their spouse because they wanted their children to live in a peaceful, healthy, and non-addictive home. For them it was not only an option God gave them, but an act Yahweh practiced during the Babylonian captivity. Sometimes divorce has to happen.

When we call people to turn their victimization into a victory we ignore the fact that Jesus/God, like them, was victimized on the cross, during the Babylonian captivity, and the violation of the Hebrew covenant. Victory came through justice, and the repentance of the offender, not the victim. The resurrection is new life and a new kingdom—where peace and justice reign.

When we push victims to forgive, without discussing the repentance of the offender, they are forced into a unhealthy relationship. Repentance precedes forgiveness. Forgiveness is the act of a victim who has been validated, given amends, and feels a sense of healing through the words of the oppressor. They also feel safe because a community names the oppression and offense as a sin, not their victimization.

When we talk as if victims enjoy living as victims we have not heard their story—their stories involve a desire to heal and get better.

When we assume young girls are exaggerating sexual assault, coercion, or clergy misconduct we tell them that victims’ testimonies are not as credible as offenders. We also assume that young girls (and sometimes boys) enjoy the shame of being a victim to horrible acts of male violence, oppression, and infliction of pain. History teaches us two things concerning this issue:

1.     Offenders are not open and honest with the truth. They often lie.
2.     Males tend to lie as well when it comes to sex

Our response as a faith community is to not only imitate Jesus/God, but to understand that a major quality of God involves “hearing the cries of the little people.” The voices of the victims are being silenced in churches, synagogues, and other communities of faith. Continually victims tell us that no one cares, not even God. However, the spiritual community has a powerful opportunity to advocate for the voiceless by giving them a voice.

When we say, “I believe you…” we empower their testimony.

When we understand that some people have different moral codes, not because they are rebellious, but because they have been taught by their oppressors that this behavior is desirable, we help them to move to change.

When we realize that victims will only speak in a safe environment, we create safe spaces where language is used to encourage rather than shame, hugs and intimacy involve compassion and holiness, and oppression/oppressors is/are confronted and called to repentance.

When we hear the voice of the marginalized, and allow God’s Spirit to live in us, we not only feel compassion and empathy, we feel anger at the injustice we see. We understand the anger of Yahweh and the prophets, Jesus and the apostles, and those throughout Christian history who have advocated against racism, economic oppression, gender discrimination, and human affliction.

When we stand beside them we not only suffer with them, but we understand the heart of Jesus who was criticized for eating with sinners and tax collectors (Luke 5:30; 7:34). We become as they are, humans in the image of God needing acceptance, support, and justice. We see their ministry and speak to Pharaoh, “Let my people go…”

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are oppressed. Speak up and judge fairly by defending the rights of the poor and afflicted.” Proverbs 31:8-9

#SilentCofC: Our Theological Assumptions About Children are Dangerous

I have this deep conviction that shapes the way I think about the world, my faith, and my place in God's mission:

ALL OF OUR PRACTICES ARE EMBODIMENTS OF OUR THEOLOGICAL CONVICTIONS (ABOUT GOD AND THE WORLD) EVEN IF THEY HAVE NEVER BEEN ARTICULATED.

Yesterday's introductory post to this conversation has absolutely exploded. With 200x the traffic of any other post I have ever written and with emails and Facebook messages coming in from around the world we have clearly struck a chord. Painful stories from victims, messages from people who were ostracized for their bravery to expose abuse, people asking "have you ever heard about _____?". The narratives are heartbreaking, and a number of them will be featured here in the coming days and weeks.

But today, I want to explore what I think is one of the most important underlying realities that have made addressing this issue all the more complicated in Churches of Christ. What I am about to suggest may be seen as controversial by some and offensive by others, but it is written out of deep love and respect for our tradition and from a genuine concern for the children (including my own!) in our churches and their formation in the way of Jesus.

What do our practices say about the value we place on children?

Worship Practices

Typically (and I am thankful for one that the congregation I attend is a wonderful exception) children are not utilized (and certainly not our young girls!). While I understand that this some will suggest that this is merely for pragmatic reasons, I believe that this also betrays a much more elemental theological assumption that I will explore shortly.

Education Practices

Our children are typically segregated from the rest of the church for their education from birth through college age. I recognize the need for age-appropriate formation, but this practice (distance from the "adults") again underlines and reinforces the root conviction that we need to talk about.

Mission Practices

Our children have little (if any) role in the larger mission of the church. Perhaps bringing some change for the missionaries, or being taught about basic moral principles (like kindness, sharing, and obedience... not particularly Christian traits), but they are not (in my experience) treated as "equal" in value or in their ability to contribute to the work of God in the world.

So what is the underlying theological conviction here that I believe makes our children more susceptible to abuse (sexual and otherwise) and neglect (spiritual and otherwise)?

WE DO NOT TREAT OUR CHILDREN AS EQUAL MEMBERS OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD. WE INSTEAD TREAT THEM AS IF THEY ARE "CHRISTIANS IN WAITING" OR POTENTIAL CONVERTS WHEN THEY REACH THE APPROPRIATE AGE.

The results of this unspoken (and perhaps unconscious) assumption are the following:

  • Sometimes we view the formation of our children as the duty that should be filled by those who are willing. We spend time begging, recruiting, or relegating certain adults to a "life sentence" of "children's ministry" (why isn't it just ministry?) and in congregations of all shapes and sizes it can be a perpetual challenge to maintain. Well, guess who is always willing to go above and beyond?
  • A child's "distance" from the life of the church creates a dangerous "gap" in their formation. Our unwillingness to allow children to participate fully in the worshiping life of the congregation (for example by denying them admission to Communion, not allowing them to lead the congregation in the ways that they are able and gifted, and the total exclusion of our girls) creates within our children a great disconnect between their lives and the lives of (adult) members of the Kingdom of God. Well guess who is willing to tell them what God "wants them to do"? (Remember what we said in the previous post about "stayers"!)
  • Our segregation of children minimizes "safe" adults. If an abuser has placed themselves within our children's formation in our churches (bible classes, Vacation Bible School, youth ministry, short-term mission trips) and the children are largely isolated, or more accurately, segregated from the rest of the church, we have significantly diminished the number of safe adults which our children can know, love, and seek help from in instances of abuse.

For more about this read my previous post:
A Gospel Big Enough for Little Ones?


One of the conversations that we need to have in Churches of Christ is not merely about prevention policies and procedures for addressing disclosures of abuse. We need to talk about the underlying assumptions about God, the Gospel, and the mission of God in the world that shape the way our churches treat and shape and protect our children. The consequences are too high for us to do otherwise. After all, it was Jesus himself who said:

"If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea." (Matthew 18:6, NRSV)

So, are our children as important as we say they are? What kinds of changes in our practices and language would need to take place to address some of the things that I have only mentioned briefly here?