It’s difficult to turn on the TV or scroll through social media without seeing another breaking news story about sexual assault and someone in a position of power. If your mind is full of questions and frustrations, ours is too.
This weekend, we’re joining the conversation to talk about God’s heart for the abused and how to get help when it feels like life is anything but good. If you know someone eager for answers about where God is in all of this, invite them to a location. Pastor Matt Brown will be facilitating an essential conversation about sexual abuse with his wife Tammy Brown and Sandals Church worship leader Christina Crowley.
Our blog this week highlights some of Christina’s story…
I was 7 years old the first time I heard the three little words, “Don’t tell anyone.” Little did I know those words would become the bricks I would use to build my walls of self-protection.
I was excited for the day. Our neighbor across the street invited me and some of my other little friends over to help him do work in his backyard. Because I was only seven, he asked permission from my parents. He was going to pay each of us $10.00 for a couple hours of work. I couldn’t help but think of all the candy I could buy with that.
We had fun together, laying stones and planting flowers. When our time working came to a close, the man walked all of us out his backyard gate to go home. As I was getting ready to walk through the gate, he closed it and said he wanted to thank me differently. He said that I was special and he liked me best out of all the girls. Then, he began to kiss me. Immediately, my stomach felt sick. He led me into his garage where he continued to molest me.
I remember every detail of those scary moments: what he said and did to me. It was eerily dark. I could hear the laughter of my friends playing right outside the garage door. But, I couldn’t talk or scream or anything. I was just frozen. One of the worst parts was when the man’s mother walked into the garage and saw me there with him. She just turned around, closed the door and went back into the house. Why didn’t she rescue me? At some point I believe God gave me the courage to speak, saying, “If my mom looks out the window and sees my friends playing she’ll wonder where I am.”
Those feeble words must have made sense because he let me go, but not before firmly whispering in my ear… “Don’t tell anyone.”
LIVING WITH STOLEN INNOCENCE
Sadly, that was the first of many times my innocence would be stolen though sexual abuse from people I believed to be trustworthy. The abuse done to me would lead to abuse I would do to myself in the years that followed. Promiscuous behavior and dangerous relationships, a deep need for approval by boyfriends and others, a twisted view of my worth and a feeling of being overlooked led me to struggle with an eating disorder and a suicide attempt. I’ve done some really bad things that have filled me with deep guilt and embarrassment.
Naturally, I didn’t tell anyone.
Years of pretending that I was okay eventually became my primary way of functioning. No one ever knew the depths of shame I carried. I developed the skills of being the one in control, strong and self-reliant. I felt I didn’t need anyone, anyway. My walls of self protection grew thicker and higher.
A SAFE HOME, AN UNSAFE HEART
Fortunately, in the middle of this chaos I grew up with two amazing parents who planted seeds of God’s love deep within me. We went to church and volunteered there. But I didn’t talk to my parents about my struggles and I definitely didn’t talk to God. It didn’t matter what anyone else said, ugliness is what I saw every time I looked in a mirror. I was never good enough. I felt that if I volunteered more, did more, and tried harder to forget the past, I could undo some of the mess I’d made with my life. I had to fix my own mistakes.
Though God’s perfect grace was not even a thought, it was the only medicine my young, broken heart needed.
A GIFT TOWARD HEALING
At the height of my abuse, my parents bought me my first guitar. I had no idea how much that guitar would be a lifeline of truth, comfort and healing for me. I memorized church songs about who God was and how much He truly loved me, all of me. Music was the only place that helped me forget the grossness inside. For the first time since that fateful day at the age of seven, I felt safe when I sang, even safe with God.
Many years passed, and with my guitar in hand I began leading worship within the church. I wrote songs that would help me express my heart about my painful past and my hope for a better future. Jesus was my ultimate rescuer and I loved to sing about it! I didn’t have to keep him on the outside anymore. I learned to trust and let him inside my walls.
I found deeper places of healing as I grew to understand that Jesus saw my filth and still loved me.
Yet, even with this new found hope, part of my wall of self protection stayed intact. I couldn’t let others see the real me…especially others in the church. People would look at me differently if they knew what was done to me and worse yet, what I had done to myself. They wouldn’t want someone with my past leading them in worship. However, God was preparing to teach me that it’s impossible to fully let Him in without letting others in, too.
LEARNING TO BE REAL
I was at the lowest point in my adult life when I found Sandals Church. I was coming out of a very painful church experience that had brought back to mind my sexually abusive past. For the first 9 months we were at Sandals Church my husband and I basically hid in the back and didn’t talk to anyone. I started to hear over and over again about this vision to be real with self, God and others. As Pastor Matt explained and modeled what that meant, I realized I had no clue how to make that a practice in my own life.
Being real was the antithesis of every way I had lived.
My other church experiences, especially in a position of leadership, never encouraged authenticity in any form. “Fake it till you make it” and “Don’t talk about the bad stuff” were two rules that influenced my life. Because of these opposing spectrums, I felt conflicted.
One morning at church, I recalled a book I’d read years earlier. It claimed that God wants to use our greatest pains and turn them into our greatest ministry. I thought there was no way that would be part of my story. My greatest pain was my sexual abuse and I didn’t talk about that. But God began to move in my heart.
As I looked over the hundreds of people at Sandals Church, I began to wonder how many other men and women had stories like mine. How many other people walked in the door every week feeling desperate to be known and deeply loved but at the same time feeling that if people really knew their junk they’d be rejected? How many others wished that the church would be the one place on earth where they didn’t have to hide behind their walls?
God’s heart for the hurting and broken grew inside of me. I felt God say, “I can handle their truth and so can this church. This is the place I’ve led you to open your mouth and share your story and invite others to do the same. Healing and freedom is waiting!”
I wish I could say that I was immediately obedient. But after months of prayer and waiting for God to change his mind and pick someone else, I finally met with one of the pastors. I told someone. I shared that I wanted to walk with people as they heal from their past of sexual abuse and the effects that stem from it. He was so helpful! He just listened and championed for this next level of authenticity. I talked about my bad and ugly places. I also shared the hope and healing I’d found in Jesus. Learning to identify trustworthy people in situations like this one gave me the freedom to slowly open my heart again. God showed me more of himself through the healthy embrace of others at Sandals Church.
Through being real, I found I was worthy of love by God, others and even myself.
Being at Sandals Church has given me the courage to come out from behind my wall of self protection and find sincere acceptance. I’m learning that it’s okay to need help from others. I don’t always have to be the strong one.
I’m learning to confess that I’m not a good Christian girl. I never was and I never will be.
I still battle some of the demons from my past. There are scars on my soul that are a reminder that I’ve been badly damaged. But by Jesus’ wounds I’ve been healed and made whole. No one can ever take that away from me.
RESCUED AND LOVED
Now, when I play music and lead worship for our church, it’s from a place of knowing I’ve been rescued, not from a long list of bad experiences, but from a lifetime of condemnation. Instead of remaining quiet, I want to use my voice to tell everyone that I know God sees and loves me with an unconditional love despite what I’ve done. It’s a love that calls to each of us, “Come out from your hiding!”
Interestingly, all this time I thought that I was the one in control of tearing down the walls I built to let God and others in. But it was never my own efforts, not even in my healing. God was always the one at work.
Now, instead of listening to the voice that says, “Don’t tell anyone,” I want to be the voice that tells everyone, “God can heal you and make you new. You don’t have to be good on your own.”
The words in this passage from the Bible describe what God in all of his gentle love and goodness did as he reached in and rescued me…
‘I waited patiently for the Lord to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along. He has given me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see what He has done and be astounded. They will put their trust in the Lord.’ Psalm 40:1-3 NLT