Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Hope is a Verb

A friend of mine, Ray Waddle, a journalist and author, turned a phrase recently in regard to American culture that caught my ear. He spoke of the “merchandise of darkness” in referring to the manner in which the church inculcates itself into being bought out by American societal values. It’s not that we haven’t heard, or read about the church’s need to return to its core values as a mirror that reflects culture rather than adopting it, or that we need to return to the nature of being a “change agent” within our society. Many know this reality and are actually trying to reclaim our heritage within the Reformed tradition as prophetic voices amidst the screams of fear and the rancor of anger. There are days when I believe our nation is nothing less than a portrait of the Edvard Munch painting, “The Scream.” Viewing this painting is a terrifying microcosm of life as much of the world understands it.

Ray’s words, however, have given me pause to turn them inside out. After all, it was Jesus who was proclaimed to be “the light of the world.”  The old Latin phrase lux lucet in tenebris – the light shines in the darkness- stretches the human mind to imagine a better world. It stretches the heart to yearn for a brighter one. What if we were to begin purchasing “the merchandise of light?” It may not be for lack of trying, but unless we confront the darkness there is little way for us to invest in the promise that light always prevails.

Much of the world has “bought into darkness.” That’s a hard, cold, hopeless feeling of reality. There’s’ a God-given promise, however, from a higher power beyond our understanding. In the opening to the Book of Genesis, God separates the light from the darkness. It takes courage, conviction, and finding one’s voice to “scream” at the darkness, and to tell it to go away. To do this means believing that light can overcome the blackness of despair.

I read another interesting phrase at about the same time as Ray’s. It’s from David Orr an environmentalist in Oberlin, Ohio. He was quoted as saying that “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.” Though his focus is on earth science and specific environments where’s he leading change for the better, his words carry the weight of theology on their shoulders. Church people should be about changing the earth and everything that dwells within. That includes individual lives, and community evils. We’re not simply about confronting evil and declaring sin where it abounds, but we are about going the extra mile of overcoming it. It’s not enough to proclaim sin and label sinners because as sinful human beings we often get both “sin” and “sinners” wrong. Our tendency is to make a list of what are the sins we are against, and hence, to pronounce judgment on those who don’t abide by our list of rules. We do this, I think, to protect our comfort zones.

The All in All knows I’m on all kinds of people’s list as an outright sinner. Some pray for me “without ceasing.” That’s not a new phenomenon in my life as a pastor. There were prayer groups where I attended seminary who prayed for me and our professors on a nightly basis. I don’t mind people praying for me since we all are in need of prayer, but prayer can become possessed by an arrogance of those who believe they are right and everyone else is wrong who believes something different.  As my mother taught me early in memorizing Bible verses and wise sayings: “Judge not that ye be not judged.” Such human arrogance also can produce a conformity of boredom where we are frightened that “God is making all things new.” So, by God, let’s keep God as far away as we can, and Jesus words of comfort the only one’s we choose to hear. Let’s not comfort the comfortable, or condemn the sinner, or we’ll never move beyond our words.

“Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up,” is another approach to life. I know this less travelled trail more and more.

In retirement I’ve given much of my time and energy to finding a way to “do church,” not simply to “be church.” Both are important, but one without the other is like greasy water from dirty dishes. What do you do with it but let it flow down the drain to the local treatment plant. “Doing church” through my leadership role with The Healing Trust, a Nashville based, non-profit that provides therapy and resources to adults suffering from childhood sexual abuse has carried me on a journey not of my own choosing. I thoughtfully accepted the position as President of the Board of Directors because of our core values and our helping role of redeeming lives. Part of my work background as an Executive Presbyter in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is about organization and administration. I had little idea how quickly this new role would carry me into the painful land of those walking their living hells of shame and isolation.

Hope is one of our keys words, alongside safety and trust. The sexually violated come by none of these words easily. “Hope” is a lost word in the environment of the abused. It is for too many far beyond their sense of reach. Trust and safety are also words of journey. They are learned through experiences where trust is earned and safety is felt through the unquestioning acceptance of others. Grace is also word we often use as a means of allowing people to understand unconditional love. Shame doesn’t disappear by itself. No life is rebuilt through individual resolve, but through the support and encouragement of many others. A shamed, wounded individual can learn to trust; find safety; and discover hope.

The mission of The Healing Trust is not simply about changing individual lives one at a time, but about changing an environment of abuse where one in five young women in the United States is sexually abused  by the age of 18, and 1 in 7 men. This is our nation’s out-of-sight-out-of-mind epidemic.

Believe me. I know. I spent a year with a good man who was deeply wounded named Vii. He’s now one of my best friends. We wrote his story of healing together over nearly a year of mostly weekly meetings. I knew- and so did he- that I would have to earn enough trust for him to help me write his story. We also intuitively understood that we would have to nestle ourselves in a cocoon of safety. We found our space of safety in a peaceful prayer room of a local church near where Vii lives. We learned together about a power we both refer to as All of All, or Papa Being, in our trips on “Papa Being’s Big Waters Tour Bus.” Ours is an unconventional God whom we know through unconventional language, though some of it seems very biblical to me. We don’t need the mostly used name of “God,” however, to talk about, or experience something bigger than who we are alone, or together. Our “God,” or higher power, defies capturing in the weakness of language. We experience this being through the emptying of shame, the dismantling of guilt, the courage to be, and our common bonds of love without restraints. For us hope became a “verb with its sleeves rolled up.”

If you’re reading these sentences then try to trust in one thing if you are a victim of any form of shaming abuse, or know someone who is. There is hope. It’s as real as the therapy The Healing Trust provides. Don’t feel hopeless because you have to say I have no insurance or means of paying for counseling. We’ll find a way to provide what you need. Don’t mistrust hope because you’ve been so deeply shamed that you feel there’s no way out from under its burden. There is. My friend Vii is living proof of this. He and I can speak of this with you together as mutual voices of bringing the possibility of hope into your life, or the life of someone you love. He is by virtue of his journey a “hell walker,” or one who now can walk over the coals of fear unburned. I am his humble voice who carries his words in my inner being. I am a “professional student” by nature who reads insatiably, has several degrees behind my name, and whom some call “doctor.” I’m a pastor with a fair share of humility in the company of survivors. Vii has taught me more about life- and about myself- than what I learned through classrooms and reading, or even over 45 years as an ordained minister. I stand humbly in his presence, but we have a story to tell which we can share with you together. It’s a story of hope with its sleeves rolled up.

We will come to your home, to your church, civic, or community group regardless of its size. We’ll dialogue with one another and with you about the redemption from shame, and therapy that brings wholeness. Ours is a message about helping persons thrive as whole human beings.

Let us hear from you if you, or someone you love needs help. You can contact us at 615-323-2232, The Healing Trust hotline, or by sending me an e-mail at We’ll return your e-mails and calls as quickly as we get them. You can be as anonymous as you choose. We know it’s often hard to make the first call for help. All e-mails and phone calls are confidential and will not be used in any manner publically, or with individuals.

You’ll also find a wide variety of resources and contact information at our website:

Since reading is my avocation, I also recommend the purchase of Conversations with Vii Aboard Papa Being’s Big Waters Your Bus: The Spiritual Journey of Recovery of a Sexually Abused Child. It’s available through  in both print and Kindle editions.

 Phil Leftwich

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