When Your Thoughts Are Unthinkable

after sexual assault

I wrote this essay for the blog at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Albany, NY because I spoke there May 20 and 21. What an energetic and responsive congregation!

 

After I got raped, one of my problems was that my thoughts were unthinkable. This problem joined other, more pressing ones. Where could I be safe? Where could I sleep? And how could I get through the impending hours of darkness? I continually felt like I was jumping out of my skin.

I’ll admit that I’d never been terribly comfortable in my skin. I was raised by Calvinists, after all. Everything important was housed from the neck up. But after the rape I couldn’t just escape to my head. My very thoughts—such as they were—became heretical. They weren’t complete thoughts, just words lying in proximity to each other. Profanity. The divine name. Unanswerable questions. I tried to stop the words from lining up, but when I got tired enough, they did, and taunted me: “Where the eff was God?”

To back up — the rape occurred in 1978 when I was a senior at Calvin College. Two masked intruders broke into the home I shared with housemates. They held us hostage for hours, then took turns sexually assaulting us at gunpoint. After the criminals left and we got loose from our bonds, we debated whether or not to call the police. That conversation was a work of theology, although I didn’t realize it at the time. We were trying to reclaim our sense of agency because complete strangers had just taken something that we would never regain.

That semester I was taking Linguistics and World Religion. I was a true believer in the Reformed doctrine in which I’d been catechized. But the sovereignty of God was no longer a comforting thought. Had God willed this awful experience? Who, exactly, took away our agency?

“Put it behind you,” our professors advised. Yes, that was the response of our faith community — deafening silence. Meanwhile, the denomination was embroiled in a fight over the ordination of women. Male pastors debated: What does scripture say on this issue? But I knew what they were really debating: What’s a woman good for?

Eventually I found my way to the Presbyterian church, to seminary, and to ordination. I have been in ministry since 1990. When my own daughters became college-aged, I realized I had unfinished business about the trauma I endured. I wanted to figure out how, exactly, it shaped me. So I began to write. What message did I want to convey to my daughters about living in a woman’s skin? That writing became my memoir, RUINED.

I am passionate about the life of faith, which isn’t a thought exercise. Discipleship is living as God-breathed beings on a God-created planet. We live in bodies, and women’s bodies are too often in peril. The church can break its silence and become a powerful support to victims of sexual assault. There are more of them in your pews than you think.

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Blood is Thicker Than Water

A Reflection on John 19:26 "Woman, Behold Thy Son"

This is a guest post by my sister, the Rev. Susan Joy Huizenga. She preached this sermon on Good Friday (4/14/17) at the Aleda E. Lutz VA Medical Center; Saginaw, MI. Some of you know Susan from an earlier post about being a living kidney donor.

 

One day when I was about twelve years old, my sister Beth demanded to know all about a conversation I had with a friend in the neighborhood. She thought I knew some sort of secret, and she demanded to know.

“She made me promise not to tell” I objected.

My sister persisted “Come on, Susan! Blood is thicker than water!”

To the best of my recollection, I never did cave into Beth’s demand. But I got the point. Blood is thicker than water.

In New Jersey, when I was growing up in the 1970s, the mafia was much in control of certain aspects of life. Also, we lived in an Italian neighborhood. The ideal of family and clan loyalty was strong. Later, while I was working in Trenton NJ, the students were discussing the TV series “The Sopranos” and one of the students stated emphatically “I cannot watch that. My friend’s father was killed by the mob. It hits too close to home.”

{Law Enforcement realized they could not keep up with the number of murders and mayhem that this mob crime situation presented to them. Lawmakers and law enforcement got together and passed a law RICO to take out the financing of the operation. It worked. So the mob is still there but much diminished in power and scope.}

Hearing this ancient story about what Jesus went through, reminds us that thinking ‘might makes right,” or the rule by those with swords, or the fear of protesters, or the incompetence of those in authority, or inadequate human systems … none of this is new!

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Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became humanHaving become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.

Eugene Peterson
Philippians 2:5-8, The Message

Why I’m Glad I Wrote a Rape Memoir

Sexual Assault Awareness Month -- You Are Not Alone

There are times when I feel sorry for myself. You too? I hate having the particular story I have. I hate that I spent years writing it down. Why did I go through all that agony? Then I get a letter like this one, and my self-pity washes away, like sidewalk chalk after a rain. What’s left behind are the stories that need to be told — in print and in pixels — words which will never completely disappear.

Dear Ruth — Thank you so much for sharing your story. I’m still sobbing after reading it straight through the last 3 days. Thank you for pouring out so much of your agony and fury onto the pages of your book. It is a perfect document.  I found myself, while reading, getting lost for moments as if I were reading journal entries of my own describing the pains, confusions, and piercing cries of “WHY” to God.  Thank you for not resisting God’s love, and for being willing to be used in people’s lives such as mine… used to offer a ray of hope to hang on.  Reading your words was the first time I knew I wasn’t alone.

You found me and I found you. We are not alone.

Speak it. Speak the truth of our stories.

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“Thirsty? A sermon on the Samaritan Woman at the Well”
by Rev. Ruth Everhart

 

The text is John 4:5-42, the story of Jesus’ encounter with a woman at the well in Sychar.

Thirst is real, and water is a justice issue. When Jesus spoke with the woman at the well, he implicitly challenged every cultural assumption about who is worthy of his time and conversation. But this shift has been slow to percolate through the cultural layers of church and society. Rev. Ruth Everhart considers the Samaritan woman’s story in tandem with her own, because gender still shapes a woman’s world. How did living water trickle through the layers of an oppressive church system and the horror of rape at gunpoint? Because the living water is still available, and still ever-fresh. (Year A, Lent 3)

If you’re looking for video resources for Holy Week, either for personal use or to share with others, you may be interested in this video about the Via Dolorosa. I’ve been in correspondence with the videographer, Eran Frenkel, since 2013, and look forward to meeting him in March 2018 when I return to Jerusalem.

Not everyone is able to make a physical pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which was one of the things that compelled me to write Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land. I used words to set the scenes, share my experiences, and unpack what the pilgrimage meant for me. But if it’s possible, I encourage you to also watch images and video like these — filmed on location in Jerusalem — to add texture and immediacy to your armchair pilgrimage.

Here are links to three other videos I’ve featured in the past. If you go to The Jerusalem Experience website you will find many more videos. I’d love to hear your reactions to all of these resources, or perhaps suggestions for others!

Silence & Snow

March 2017 at Holy Cross Abbey

Do you enjoy silence? My spirit is happier when I have the chance to immerse myself in the quiet of a prayerful place.

This week I was on silent retreat at Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, about an hour’s drive from my home. I used to come here regularly — during the decade I served Poolesville Presbyterian Church (2002-11). I used my continuing education funds and time. But instead of working on another degree, I would simply occupy a quiet room in a place fueled by the rhythm of monastic prayer.

More than five years ago, I quit my job as pastor in order to focus all my energies on writing. I found it challenging not to be employed. I created some sources of income: becoming an Air BnB host, supply preaching, and doing administrative work. Some of that activity was in response to financial need, but some was my strict sense of needing to pay my own way, even in our marriage.

One of the “extras” I cut from my life were retreats at the monastery. I told myself I could write in my own study and indulge in silence all day long if I liked. Still, it’s not exactly the same. There is something unique about coming to a place set apart and saturated in prayer. That sense of consecration is what draws people like myself, who come to make a retreat.

Last September I began as the pastor at Hermon Presbyterian Church. With continuing education funds once again available, I was happy to return to the Abbey. As always, I had a list of projects to work on and a stack of books to read. But I also spent hours each day wandering in beauty, sitting in chapel, or simply staring out the window. As a bonus — I happened to be here for the one significant snowfall of the year. There is no prettier place to be when the world is hushed by snow.

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Review of RUINED at the Christian Century

So happy to share Bromleigh McCleneghan’s very thorough review of my memoir at the Christian Century. I especially appreciate how she puts my experience into a larger cultural context: Though the context of Everhart’s rape and its racial dynamics are unusual, the fact of it is not. Approximately one in five American women will be raped or otherwise sexually assaulted in their lifetime; the risk is even higher within some demographics. This reality is reason enough for clergy to read this book.  Read the whole review here.