On October 5, 2013, I had the privilege of speaking at my church, Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in Mountain View, CA. It was an honor to be part of the teaching team for the annual Women’s Conference, composed of keynote Dr. Gloria White-Hammond, and five fellow workshop speakers: Each uniquely gifted and passionate about seeing women healed and made whole.
For the 2013 theme of “Journey to Wholeness,” I spoke on Faith and Disappointment: My journey as a special needs parent weathering a faith crisis when our son was diagnosed with autism.
Today’s post is the first in a four-part series, a transcription of my 45 minute presentation. I pray it might be helpful for anyone working out Faith through Disappointment.
“Faith Through Disappointment”
The Big D: Disappointment
I’m guessing that some folks, when you were choosing a conference workshop and read the abstract for this one, you may have honed in on one particular word: “The BIG D” of DISAPPOINTMENT.
I don’t presume to know what Big D’s might be represented in this room. But I’ll jump right in by sharing mine.
My Big D came through Disability. This is a picture of my family in 2002, when we went abroad to serve on foreign missions in Central Asia. When we returned a year later, our 18 month old wasn’t talking, so we had him checked out for a speech delay. We figured he might be confused over the multiple languages he’d heard. But we were devastated when he was diagnosed with autism instead.
I won’t go too deep into the clinicals of what autism is. But emotionally, it meant the sudden “death” of the perfect, normal child I thought I had; having to accept that at age two, our child would probably not speak, have meaningful relationships, friends, go to college, get a job, get married or raise a family. He’d be dependent on us the rest of his life.
Practically, it also meant spending over $120,000 out-of-pocket a year in therapy, medical expenses, and ongoing legal battles with school districts and insurance over medical coverage.
That single piece of paper completely wrecked my life. With the diagnosis, I suddenly had a “crippled” child, and my faith had been crippled, too. What followed the Big D was several years of depression, disillusionment and bitterness towards God. We both needed urgent intervention.
Now, let’s put a pin in that for just a moment. Let’s fast-forward nine years, to now.
Explain my joy!
Today, most folks who know me well, know I’m a pretty joyful person. I think my friends would say I’m even fun, right? How did that happen? My family’s journey gives me opportunity to boast: I’m either crazy, lying, or God really is that good. Good enough to transform a test into a testimony. From time to time, I do get asked, “How did you get out of it?” The easy answer would be, “Jesus inside!” But what does that really mean? I’m not into pat, chirpy or simplistic answers. How did I go – how am I continuing to go — from HOLE to WHOLE?
As I was praying and preparing for this workshop, “Journey to Wholeness,” I realized that it boiled down to four essential elements I’ll call the “FOUR GETS.”
1) GET REAL – Let yourself get angry
I wish I could tell you I responded to the diagnosis in a “Super Christian” way. Nope. I was PISSED. At the time, my husband was the worship leader at church. Every weekend, he’d go up to exhort the congregation to praise God for His goodness. Meanwhile, his wife would be sitting in the back pew, arms crossed, scowling and fuming. I just wasn’t feelin’ it.
I felt like the Israelites who had just excited the slavery of Egypt in glorious procession, only to hit a wall a few steps out at the Red Sea, “Uh, I just gave an effusive testimony about how great You are. Did You purposely set us up to fail? Did You lead us out here to die??” I felt duped, trapped and stuck.
Give yourself permission
I come from a cultural background that deeply values saving face, honor, looking respectable and not exposing weakness. On top of that, I was a longtime Christian, church staff, and married to highly visible church leader. It felt like a quadruple whammy. For some reason, I felt obligated to put on a “Praise the Lord!” mask, and just “fake it ‘til you make it.” As if an all-knowing God might be offended at finding out how I really felt!
But the reality is you can’t sustain faking your way around pain for too long. Something has to give. Giving myself permission to be real with my pain, loss and anger was THE most important, therapeutic thing I ever did. It was first base.
Ephesians 4:26 says, “In your anger, do not sin.” The Bible affirms that I’m permitted to feel angry. If someone steps on my foot or hits my child, I’m fully allowed to feel upset. But I’m not permitted to sin, by hauling off and slugging back.
The alternative if we don’t process these strong emotions in a healthy way (e.g. stuffing it, denial, faking it)? Psalms 32:3-4, “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away…” This verse is talking about guilt over personal sin. But grief affects us the same way.
Like guilt, grief clogs up your spirit. You’ve got to do something with all that emotional constipation, the toxic feelings stewing within you. If you can’t digest or process it on through, healthily, then you kind of have to let yourself “throw it up,” to allow healing to happen.
Be real, be responsible
Being real also required being responsible with my grief. There’s a difference between being authentic vs. just unthrottled, as nasty as I wanna be. I’m not saying I always got that balance right: It’s a tricky and important balance to get right.
For me, it meant being responsible and selective whom I shared my heart with. Thankfully, I was blessed with safe friends. They may not have understood what I was going through, but they provided a safe haven for me to process my grief.
But even more critical (and safer) than the best of friends, I took my stuff to the right place. Joni Eareckson Tada wrote a wonderful publication entitled, “Anger: Aim it in the right direction.” God is big enough to handle our grief, even our anger. Our feelings matter to Him and He honors our human emotions. It was He who bundled us with passion, feeling and emotions, after all. Point and process these powerful feelings it in the right direction.
So I funneled my grief and anger up. Not wanting to overburden my friends (who meant well, but simply couldn’t understand. Nor did they have answers), I poured out all my raw feelings and thoughts into a private journal. For years, I brought it. And like the Psalmists, I let God have it.
In essence, I wrote my own book of Psalms: my own, modern-day interpretation of “WTH GOD?!” As Pastor Hurmon highlighted in his message series, “How to get through what you’re going through,” 65 out of all 150 Psalms are of lamentation. When we don’t know even what to say or how to articulate how we feel, we can let the timelessness of Psalms provide tracks, pre-written grooves, to align our hearts. These can express the inexpressible groanings of our spirit.
Think of your own personal “Big D,” and let’s read some of these together,
Long enough, God— you’ve ignored me long enough. I’ve looked at the back of your head long enough. Long enough I’ve carried this ton of trouble, lived with a stomach full of pain. Long enough my arrogant enemies have looked down their noses at me.
~ Psalm 13:1-2, The Message
I’m standing my ground, God, shouting for help, at my prayers every morning, on my knees each daybreak. Why, God, do you turn a deaf ear? Why do you make yourself scarce? For as long as I remember I’ve been hurting; I’ve taken the worst you can hand out, and I’ve had it.
~ Psalm 88:13-15, The Message
This is getting reeeeeeally real. We know that David wrote many of these Psalms through a lifetime filled with struggle, failures and drama. This is the same David who became known as the “man after God’s heart.” David was real before His God. His pain, loss, confusion and anger were real. But so was his faith in an even realer God. God is big enough and gracious enough to handle our bewilderment, anger and grief. Bring it to Him. Brang it. Aim it in the right direction.
“Hurt people hurt people”
Again, emotional toxins have to go somewhere, especially when suckin’ it up or suckin’ it down is not working. If we don’t resolve these appropriately, if we refuse to take them before God in earnest, we will leak that bitterness sideways. And too often, it will impact the very people closest to us, who are trying to support us.
I know I’ve been guilty of inadvertently emitting negative vibes due to unresolved anger and unmet expectations. This bitterness seeps out in hyper-sensitivity, self-centeredness and second-guessing people (assuming the worst.) In my self-victimization, I end up creating a tense atmosphere that puts off even the most well-meaning friends and family.
My passive-aggressive, snide comments makes others guarded in their interactions with me. People become afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. So they keep their distance — for their own protection. They don’t want to abandon us because they genuinely love us and want to help. But they’re fearful of approaching or initiating, too. After all, who’d want to walk into a minefield?
A trepidation, coolness or relational wedge develops, which I in turn misinterpret as, “See?! They never cared all along!” Mutual feelings of unspoken resentment and low-grade hostility can evolve. They feel trapped and helpless, not knowing how to help and fearful of getting it wrong (lest they face my wrath.) And I’ve managed to alienate the very people I need most, and need closest. It becomes easy for me to become a hardened, cynical and self-proclaimed Mommy Martyr, “It’s all on me! Nobody is willing to help me.”
It’s a tragic, lose-lose situation. I desperately need help; and people want to help. But ironically, I’ve made it so hard for them.
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