The Lazarus Project

Resurrecting hope for Christian victims and survivors of family violence.

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A Christmas Miracle

 

 

      “It’s Christmas!  It’s Christmas!” I shrieked with joy. My little honey-colored pony-tails wagged in the air like pom-poms attached to my head while I jumped up and down on my parents’ bed in excitement, signaling that it was time to wake up.  Christmas morning was the only time we were allowed to jump on their bed—and even the big kids enjoyed it. Then we dumped out our stockings on the bed, surveying our cache of goodies: oranges, bananas, apples, and all kinds of nuts—the kind that required a nutcracker: filberts almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts (I never could open them—I couldn’t get my little fingers to go around them and hold the nutcracker at the same time!).  We gobbled up the chocolate kisses and miniature Reese’s peanut butter cups, and tore into the little wrapped gift or two. 

   After the revelation of the stocking’s contents, we ran into the living room while still in our pajamas, to open presents—a undertaking that lasted sometimes two or three hours.  One person was designated as “Santa,” who would be the person to retrieve gifts from under the tree, read the name of the recipient and the giver, and then pass out the gifts.  I wanted so much to be Santa, but since I could not read yet, I was dubbed “Santa’s Elf,” so I handed the presents out.  As the youngest of five children, I’d been a true believer in the jolly old man.  All my brothers and sisters had kept up the charade.  We’d sit around the Christmas tree, curiously shaking the shiny packages arrayed around it, which taunted us for days or weeks before that special day when we were finally able to open them.  We’d wink at each other if, after opening them, the gift-wrapped boxes contained what we had guessed they were.

     But a few years later, there was no pretense of a happy Christmas morning.  We lived with my mother, in a run-down mountain cabin, twenty miles from town.  Being extremely poor, we were not looking forward to Christmas that year, as we literally had nothing to give one another. 

    I determined nonetheless to make the holiday season a joyous time, and had invited Tanya, my girlfriend from school, to stay for the weekend.  Two scrawny eleven year-olds, she and I trotted off into the woods to cut down a Christmas tree.  We hiked up the side of the mountain, and chose the smallest tree in the forest.  I took out my rusty axe and began chopping.  Tanya took a turn after I got tired, and we kept hacking at it for what seemed like hours.  At one point, while I chopped, the axe head flew off.  “Ooops!” I chuckled, until a sudden blow to my leg knocked me onto my bony butt. 

    The unbearably dull axe head explained not only why it took so long to chop the tree down, but also why it had not taken off my leg when it struck my shin bone.  A long gash appeared: broken skin, though not very deep.  It bled only a little, but it hurt a lot.

    We had succeeded only in making a dent in the tree.  Hacking away on the other side of the trunk, we screamed to warn each other and ran for cover whenever the axe head would fly off the handle again.  Once we’d produced a good-sized dent on both sides of the tree, we took turns doing an equally absurd thing: we kicked at the trunk to try to get it to snap.  Finally, grabbing the top of the tree, I pulled it down to the ground, so Tanya could jump on the trunk, trying to break it off.  Because we were both only about 60 pounds, we couldn’t do much damage, though.  When she got tired, we switched positions.  Eventually we were successful in our insane mission, and then trekked back to our cabin with both of us dragging the poor, abused fir tree. 

    When were finally home, Tanya and I needed help getting the tree in the door. Hubert, my mother’s boyfriend, grabbed the trunk end and tried to shove the tip of the tree through the narrow doorway: Tanya and I stood on either side of the door, cramming in the branches while he pushed, as the three of us struggled to get it into the house.  Pine needles fell everywhere, and our bare arms were scratched all the way past our elbows. Finally we got the tree inside, and tried to stand it up--but found that it was too tall by about four feet.  Rather than repeating the unfruitful efforts of before, Tanya and I let Hubert tackle the problem of cutting it down, which he did—from the top. It looked so pathetic, but at least we had a tree!  Hubert got a bowl of water and put it under the tree to nourish the mangled trunk, and our dog promptly lapped at it, splashing all over the carpet.

    After all that effort, Tanya and I had worked up an appetite: she looked into the refrigerator, hoping for a nice cold gallon of milk --and found the shelves bare. 

    “I think we have a jar of peanut butter and crackers in the cupboard,” I offered.  She eagerly opened the solitary box in the cupboard, finding only two or three crackers among the crumbs at the bottom.  Tanya finished them quickly, and we then had to deal with the task of cleaning the sap off our hands.  Our water had frozen in the pipes under the house.  There was only light dusting of snow on the ground, so Tanya and I went outside and gathered the small white patches into a pot, and melted it on the stove.  We wiggled our sticky fingers in one inch of icy water at the bottom of the pot, trying to wash our hands, but the dirt and pine needles in the water stuck to the sap.  We jumped the fence two miles down the road to use the facilities at a campground.  We fit in among the dirty kids playing there anyway, and didn’t arouse any suspicion. 

    Later on, she got hungry again.  “Ignore the hunger pangs,” I told her, “and they’ll go away eventually.  I’ve gotten so used to it that I don’t pay attention to them anymore.”  But Tanya kept complaining.  Since we had no food (and no money to buy any), Hubert went out late that night to a potato field and pulled from the earth the eyes and the starter pieces that had been used for the next year’s crop.  He brought home little pieces of potato with wormholes, eyes, and scars from the trowel of the harvesters.  He plopped them into a pot and tried to cook them without water.  I tried the faucet once again, but still nothing flowed.  Finally I convinced him to stop, since the potatoes were scorching, and smoke began to fill the cramped kitchen.  It still hadn’t snowed, and we had no water to boil them in.  Tanya hungrily gnawed on the potato, raw.

    She and I missed the school bus on Monday, where her parents had planned to pick her up after school.  We were stranded in the mountains.  Because we had no telephone, she and I walked the four miles to the bar to use the pay phone so her parents wouldn’t worry.  Arriving later that night, her mom and dad stared at our bare decapitated Christmas tree in the living room, while Tanya excitedly told them about our adventure in the woods and showed them the gash on my leg.  They politely listened, shook their heads in disbelief, and quickly left. 

    The next day, my family and I were shocked when we came home.  The refrigerator, which had been empty the day before, was chock full of milk, vegetables, meat, cheese and butter.  The freezer was stuffed with ice cream, frozen pies, more meats, and TV dinners.  The cupboard was filled with crackers, cereal, dried pastas, soup mixes, cookies, and loads of canned foods.  And to my amazement, under the tree were all sorts of wrapped presents, including a beautiful molded-glass bottle of bath bubbles for me!  I could hardly wait until the pipes would thaw so I could take a long luxurious bubble bath in it.

     Thirty-some years later, I was able to be a part of a Christmas miracle myself, benefiting a client of mine who had lost all of her teeth to abuse.  After reading an online article requesting donations to acquire the funds for her dentures, a compassionate reader pledged the entire cost of her dental care.  Just as Tanya’s parents came through for us so many years ago, ensuring that we had something to eat, so this anonymous donor’s generosity enabled her to have the ability to eat.  The Christmas miracle of my childhood came true once again.

--Christine Hagion Rzepka

Posted on 12/17
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Holding onto our pain versus holding onto God

    Those of us who have been abused in familial relationships (either by our parents, by our siblings, or by our dating partners or spouses) have deep wounds that cause pain that can last for years. And any time there is a deep wound, the pain is deep, as well. It will not go away overnight. There is no magic anesthetic that will erase it all, not matter how much we desire one. We may seek to anesthetize that pain by destructive behaviors such as drinking, abusing drugs or food; but it can be less easily recognized patterns of behavior such as constantly watching television, excessive novel reading, or pouring ourselves into our work—anything to distract our minds from the pain. The tendency to do this is called avoidance.  Avoidance keeps us from ever dealing with the root problem or ever dealing with our “stuff”—we prefer to avoid it instead. I know of one woman who chose the path of avoidance, and stayed there for thirty years. 

     Just as often, some victims choose hold onto the pain of the past, and cling to it as tightly as Velcro.  These victims keep rehearsing their hurts and repeating their story again and again to anyone who will listen, as if the sympathy of others would be the healing balm for their wounded soul.  Please don’t mistake my meaning here: it is important for us to tell our story, and for us to be believed. But it is not necessary for us to continue to do so, year after year, decade after decade. These victims carry each memory of each victimization as if it was a badge of courage, and they display them as though they were combat medals on a decorated soldier’s uniform. Rehearsing those hurts never leads to healing; instead, it leads to bitterness and unforgiveness.

     But there is another way: rather than anesthetizing ourselves to pretend the pain does not exist, or allowing that pain to become the basis of our identity, we can choose instead to offer that pain up to God, to allow Him to heal it.  Like a little child reaches out his hand so his loving mother can see the boo-boo on his finger and can “kiss it and make it all better,” so can we hold the boo-boos of our heart up to Him.

     At a recent retreat, I had the privilege to minister to a woman struggling with this very thing. She happened to be in a wheelchair, and I had been dealing with severe back pain, as I had thrown my back out just four days prior to the retreat, so I was seated on a stool.  It was very awkward for a moment as I tried to position myself, with one leg in between her feet, as they rested on the footrests of the wheelchair. As I was ministering to her, I sensed a blockage, so I asked her, “If I say the word, ‘forgiveness,’ does anyone in particular come to mind?” She nodded her head and replied, teary-eyed, “Yes. My father.” I asked her if she had forgiven him. “I thought I had,” she said, “but I still have all these feelings.”  I told her to think of each of those feelings as though it was a bit of clay, and I asked her to take each of those bits of clay and to put it all into one big ball of feelings.  I held the ball as she kept adding to it, and I asked her to identify those feelings, as we added them to the ball of clay: pain was the first among them, followed by disappointment, anger, bitterness, frustration, and many others. 

     Then, God shared with me the strategy that would be key to her healing, and I said to her, “You know that in the Old Testament times, the people would go to the temple to make a sacrifice, and would lay it upon the altar, right?” She nodded again.  I got up from the stool and stood alongside it. “I would like for you to pretend that this stool is that altar.  If you are willing, would you present this ball of feelings to the Lord, and give it to Him as your sacrifice?” She nodded again. Then I warned her, “Now, you know that if you give it to Him, you can’t take it back again, right?”  She replied, “Yes. No return address.” 

   “Are you willing to give it to Him? “ I asked. “I don’t want you to feel pressured or coerced in any way. The choice to do this is yours and yours alone.”  She said, “Yes. I am ready to give this up.” So, together, we placed this ball of feelings upon the altar, and we prayed a prayer, releasing it to the Heavenly Father.  Just then, the pastor whose church was hosting the retreat came by, and said to her, “I have a feeling that before the end of this retreat, you’ll be walking and dancing.” I’d had that feeling, too, but I’d been afraid to say it aloud.

    Later in the retreat, I saw her standing, with the empty wheelchair behind her. Someone told me later that she was looking for me, while I’d been ministering to someone else.  I found her at lunchtime, and she was walking along with the rest of us. I embraced her and told her, “Next comes dancing. And I’ll be dancing right along with you.”

    By the end of the retreat, she was dancing. And leaping. And praising the Lord.

    But I don’t think she would have been doing any walking or dancing if she hadn’t first been willing to give up the pain that she had been holding onto for years.  That pain had defined her—and, maybe even disabled her— but once she was able to give it up, emotional healing followed. And her physical healing came trailing after.

   The wounds of our past can be healed, if we will lift them up to The One who has the power to heal them.  But He will not take them from us until we are first willing to offer them to Him.

 

--Christine Hagion Rzepka

Posted on 11/15
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