The Lazarus Project

Resurrecting hope for Christian victims and survivors of family violence.

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Showing up for God-Appointments

   Last week I attended an international conference on Violence Abuse, and Trauma in San Diego.  This was my third time attending, and it was an experience I will never forget.  At the previous two conferences I attended, I was presenting—but not this time.  At first, that was a little strange for me, but I later came to see the wisdom of God in it. 

    You see, I had no idea when I registered for it months ago that I would have become so sick that I could barely stand up, or even walk.  As the days before the conference came closer and closer, I prayed and prayed that God would heal me and strengthen me so I could go to the conference.  I knew that I needed to be there.  But my body would not cooperate.

    First, I got either food poisoning or an intestinal flu back in early August.  I had a fever, chills, vomiting, and couldn’t even keep water down at one point.  I couldn’t tolerate any solid foods—even jello—and so was on clear liquids only (water, tea, Gatorade and white cranberry juice) for over 3 weeks.  At one point, my husband wanted to take me to the hospital as I had no energy at all and was getting no nutrition, so I had very little to fight back whatever organism it was that was attacking my body.  But just the week before, a dear friend had given me some powder for a nutritional shake mix that I found I could mix with water (as my body couldn’t tolerate milk), and I began to take it a half-cup at a time.  That was really the only source of nutrition I had during those three weeks I was so sick, and that is what kept me out of the hospital.

    But as I was beginning to recover from this, another attack on my body occurred: I developed costochondritis, an inflammation of the cartilage where the ribs attach to the sternum.  Initially, I had thought I’d just thrown a rib out (because of an old injury—when my abuser threw me up against a wall and separated my ribs from my sternum—and it remains a point of vulnerability to me).  This happens often enough, and I usually just go to the chiropractor and she puts the rib(s) back in.  It usually hurts, but is not debilitating; it’s like having a broken rib.  One can still function, despite the pain.  But when the costochondritis developed, it was as though 8 ribs were out, on either side of my sternum, and as if the cartilage between the ribs and the sternum was on fire.  I felt as if a Summo wrestler was sitting on my chest, and I could only breathe very shallowly.  When I went in to see my chiropractor again, she was frightened to see me panting, white like a sheet, and only able to walk with great difficulty.

    This is not the condition one is usually in when they go to a conference, but that was the condition in which I found myself.  The costochondritis had cleared a little, but I still was unable to eat anything.  I was so weak at one point that I couldn’t stand, so my husband had to finish packing for me, as I sat and watched.  I wondered, how am I going to be able to cart my luggage around and walk all through the airport like this?  He said, “I don’t usually tell you what to do, but if you didn’t have to go, I would tell you to stay home.”  But I knew I had to go—not only for the continuing education credits I needed for maintaining my professional credential, but because I knew God had something there for me, though I had no idea what it was.

    I got through the plane ride okay, and gathered my luggage at baggage claim.  But then I had to carry it a very long distance to get to ground transportation, and by the time I got to the hotel, I was in so much pain and I was so weak that I knew I had to lay down.  Thankfully, the hotel let me register early, and a bellman showed me where I could get ice.  I filled 4 gallon-sized Ziploc bags with ice, laid towels on them and iced my aching back and chest for almost an hour before the opening plenary session of the conference began.

    The first day of the conference, I had my first God-appointment.  I walked into the breakout session on the clergy response to domestic violence, very slowly.  Another attendee noticed that I was obviously in pain, and mentioned it in a caring, concerned way.  “It’s only pain,” I answered. “It’s a part of life.”  We spoke for a few moments, and I told him about the ministry of the Lazarus Project.  He told me that he was a professor at a seminary in Southern California and was responsible for providing training to the batterers’ intervention program providers.  The session was about to begin, so we agreed to talk afterward.  When the session concluded, we spoke for over an hour, and he allowed me to interview him for the book I’m working on about abuse in the church.  Thank God for that divine connection!

    The following day, I was hurting even more than I had the day before.  I began the morning bathing in Epsom salts, and went off to my first workshop of the day.  I was walking very slowly, and so I sat at a table in the very back of the room, so I wouldn’t have to walk too far.  At this workshop on the intersection between domestic violence and child abuse, a researcher whose work I’ve admired for years presented, and after the session was finished, I wanted so very much to talk with him, but I was hurting too badly to walk up to the front of the room to speak with him.  I waited in my seat until he was finished talking with all the others who had gathered at the head table with the other speakers.  As he was on his way out, dragging his rolling briefcase behind him, I mentioned to him how much I appreciated his work and how often I had referred to it in my writing.  And then he did the most unusual thing—rather than simply acknowledging me and rushing off, he pulled up a chair and sat down next to me, and we talked for about a half-hour.  He shared with me his concern about parents who crossed the line and were actually abusing their children under the guise of discipline.  “But how do we get the word out to the Christian communities of the world about this?  They think they have a God-given right to spank their children,” he told me, mentioning specifically the scriptures in Proverbs about the rod of correction.  I shared with him that if we approached it as something that contradicted their faith, they would never hear any message, no matter how well-intended.  “But,” I offered, “if we can communicate with them in a way that understands that we honor their belief in the Bible as the Word of God, without challenging it, but perhaps bringing a truth that is derived from it, that would be better.  It’s less threatening that way.”  I told him what I had learned as a single mother who had gotten a lot of pressure from my religious community to use a rod of correction, but that a Jewish counselor had shared with me that the Hebrew word for “rod” in those proverbs was the same as the word in Psalm 23: “they rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”  The rod, he told me, was a shepherd’s crook, not an instrument of beating.  He told me, “No shepherd ever beat their sheep.  The rod was used to guide the sheep.”  When I learned that truth, the pressure from the community no longer affected me, for I now knew what God intended and understood that my refusal to use it was not disobedience, but was honoring the Holy Spirit within me that told me that physical violence against children is wrong.  This speaker was relieved and inspired after our little chat—and I was, too.  This was my second God-appointment at the conference.

    The following day, I saw a woman outside the restrooms that had been in the first workshop I’d attended.  She’d mentioned that when she had gone to counseling with her pastor and disclosed that her husband had abused her, he had told her she was mentally ill.  I’d wanted so much to talk with her about that comment, but had been unable to on the first day.  She’d said she’d wanted to talk with me, too, so we spoke in the hallway for a few moments.  Finally, I had to ask that we sit down a bit, as I was still very weak and in a lot of pain.  We sat for about a half-hour and she shared her story with me; I shared mine with her.  I encouraged her, telling her that her pastor was wrong and that he did not speak for God when he had said such cruel things to her in her moment of need.  “He will have to stand and given an account one day for what he said to you,” I told her.

    I had three God-appointments on the last day of the conference.  At a workshop, one of the presenters mentioned that she had fallen down and had broken her shoulder.  What a trooper!  Even with her arm in a sling, she was still standing and presenting.  I didn’t speak to her after the session, but admired her fortitude.  I did speak with the other presenter, who had, in that session, disclosed for the first time that she had been sexually abused by her family.  “I’ve been telling my story for 20 years,” she said, “but I never told that it was my family that was the perpetrators.  I was a little afraid to tell that, but I figured that this conference was the place to do it.”  I talked with her afterward, telling her I knew how much courage it took to disclose it, as I was a survivor and also told my story publicly, and greatly encouraged her.  We made a connection that I know ministered to her heart.

    At a post-conference institute, I met three researchers who had done a study on what women want from their pastors and congregations regarding domestic violence.  This was vital information that I wish very much to include in my book.  I spoke with them for some time following their presentation, and was so grateful I had come!  My final God-appointment occurred later that day, after the conference ended and I was awaiting my ride to the airport.  Into the lobby of the hotel, walked this same woman with the broken shoulder. She inquired of the bellman about getting a shuttle to the airport, and he informed her that if she had not already reserved one, that her chances of getting one at that late point were rather slim.  I stepped up and told her that I had hired a private car to take me to the airport and that I didn’t mind sharing the ride.  The driver arrived just minutes afterward, and I told him that she would be joining me.  He had no problem with it, and quickly put my bags in his trunk.  The woman, however, did not ask for her help with her bags, so I called a bellman over.  I believe that she must have been on some powerful pain medication, as she was oblivious—so I tipped him for her.  Along the ride to the airport, she related that she didn’t have a direct flight on her return trip, as she had on her flight out.  The driver asked which airport she was flying into to catch her connecting flight; she wasn’t sure.  He convinced her to check her ticket, and we were so glad she did—her flight was at a completely different terminal than the one where I was to be.  If he had dropped her at the same one, she would never have gotten home. And with her condition, with a broken shoulder and hopped up on pain pills, it could have been disastrous.  We dropped her first, and I asked the driver to make sure she got disability assistance at the airport with her bags and getting to the right gate.  I gave him an extra tip on top of the 18% I’d already authorized on my card to thank him for going out of his way.  I have no doubt that this was no coincidence, but that God had me be there at that very time to help that woman with the broken shoulder to get home safely.

    All in all, it was a wonderful trip that I could have missed entirely had I only focused on how poorly I was feeling.  A friend of mine once told me that all we have to do is position ourselves—to be in the right place at the right time—and to expect God to show up and do His thing.  He certainly did that at this conference!

 —Christine Hagion Rzepka

Posted on 09/30
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