A Shelter from the Storm

A Sermon for Sunday October 12, Domestic Violence Awareness Sunday in the PC(USA), Psalm 23 and Isaiah 25:1-9, (The Voice translation)

This summer, as I was looking at curriculum and choosing topics to present to the High School Youth Group, I decided on “ethics in college sports” for a Sunday night in mid-September. It seemed to be a timely and relatable subject:

Many youth are athletes and/or college sports fans.

We live in the South where college sports are king, especially football.

And there are always ethical issues about cheating, sportsmanship, etc.

13388859But in the week leading up to the lesson, news agencies reported on three separate incidents where NFL star running backs were caught in domestic abuse scandals. The incident that garnered the most attention revolved around Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens who is seen on video punching his then fiancé, now wife Janay Palmer, in the face and knocking her unconscious inside an elevator of an Atlantic City casino.

The NFL player scandals immediately stirred up dialogue about domestic violence on talk shows, social media and office break rooms, and I knew that I needed to bring that conversation to our High School youth.

Every few years, the High School Youth Group engages in a lesson on teen dating and how to spot the occurrence of abuse in a relationship.  Anna Brown led that lesson several times when she worked with the High School Youth Group for more than a decade, and I have picked up that practice during my six years at Pleasant Hill.

I remember talking about dating and abuse with the High School Youth Group in 2009 when one of our young women shared her experience with an ex-boyfriend who had verbally abused her. She spoke openly about the pain and shame that she felt being told that she was unworthy or useless. She talked about how hard it was to be in a relationship that was controlling and manipulative. And she explained that it was the help of family, friends and the church that allowed her to end the relationship and enabled her to see how much she was valued, appreciated and loved in the eyes of others and God.

So similarly, when the High School Youth Group gathered in September to talk about dating and abuse, some of the youth told stories of friends and relatives who were victims of domestic violence. Another youth expressed their bewilderment over seeing a male neighbor on their street get hauled away by the police for allegedly striking his wife.  And one of our advisers courageously shared her story of how a boyfriend verbally and physically abused her in college. The adviser expressed how the love of family and friends and the awareness of her self-worth, which helped her get out of the relationship and eventually heal and become whole.

Suffice it to say, it was a powerful evening in which we ultimately affirmed that God created us to embody love instead of indifference, hate and abuse.

indexI carried that experience into the following Monday as I began preparing for today’s sermon.  And while looking at the lectionary passages on the Presbyterian Church (USA) calendar and discerning what I should preach, I discovered the denomination had set aside this particular Sunday of October 12 to address the issues of domestic violence.

Feeling the Spirit stirring deep in my heart, I realized the conversation about domestic violence needed to continue in this sanctuary. And my hope is that the conversation and the stories will go beyond this place and me.

I understand this might not be the topic you expect or want to hear about in worship. Pondering the nature and effects of domestic violence are uncomfortable and unsettling …even if you’ve never personally experienced that type of abuse.

It would be much easier to sing lovely hymns and hear a nice word about Jesus and then go on with our day without a care in the world.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with worshipping in that manner…some of the time.

But if we always enter and exit this place with rose-colored glasses, we miss out on seeing what an active, restorative God is doing in an actively broken world.  At Pleasant Hill, we are all about the motto “Connecting Faith With Everyday Life,” which means we wrestle daily, even in our worship, with how our faith and belief in God intersect with the details of our lives, i.e.

How my faith connects with my understanding of the pain that a loved one, friend, neighbor, stranger or I experience.

How my faith connects with my realizing that “worship, witness and service are inseparable” and that just “as God is concerned for the events in everyday life, so members of the community in worship appropriately express concern for one another and for their ministry in the world.”

How our faith connects with our being responsible as a church to routinely raise the issue of domestic violence to break the code of silence and help us as a congregation to focus on the violation of God’s will for families and to recommit ourselves to directing our ministry toward addressing the brokenness in families within and beyond the church.”

How our faith connects with our calling as the body of Christ to care for and nurture the parts of the body that have been broken, abused and deemed unworthy.

In other words, we can’t “connect faith with everyday life” and not discuss heart-wrenching issues like domestic violence, especially when there are people walking through the darkest of valleys—fearful of the evil that has or will be done to their hearts, minds, bodies and souls.

According to the Presbyterians Against Domestic Violence Network, the malevolent act domestic violence is defined as:

A recurrent pattern of assaultive and controlling behaviors directed toward an intimate partner. The violence can be actual or threatened and can cover a wide range of behaviors. Many people think of physical, sexual or verbal assaults, but subtle forms of abuse are also common: isolation, humiliation, ridicule, threats…These learned behaviors are used to control the victim and they cause physical and psychological damage. Anyone can be a victim of domestic violence; there are no specific categories of typical victim/survivor profiles. Likewise, abusers come from all contexts… Domestic violence has no boundaries. It cuts across all religious, economic, racial, cultural, educational and age lines.[1]

Many organizations devoted to domestic violence prevention also point out that many victims, most of whom are women, stay in an abusive relationship because they…

feel responsible or that they deserve the abuse

think that jealousy and possessiveness are signs of love

are threatened by their abuser if they try to leave or express any dissatisfaction in the relationship or marriage or mention the abuse to others.

 still love the abuser

 believe they are breaking the covenant of marriage by leaving

 believe that their faith requires them to forgive the abuser and save the marriage at all costs

want to prevent the abuser from harming their children and pets

 may not have the financial resources to care for themselves and their children apart from their partner

 may not have access to supportive services in her community or lack knowledge about those services

may have come from an abusive family and think that this is normal and expected behavior.

 may not have anywhere to go and no one to turn to for help[2]

When there are people—mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters, friends, co-workers, neighbors, our child’s schoolteacher or the postal carrier—suffering right under our very noses, we have to speak out against the abuse.

refuse-abuse-640_s640x427 We have to acknowledge that domestic violence happens everywhere (even to people of faith) and that abuse is always inexcusable. We have to be open to creating a safe and welcoming space where victims and survivors can share their stories of abuse without judgment. And we have to be willing to speak out so that the cries of others might be heard.

We can no longer be silent knowing that 1 in every 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, or that an estimated 1.3 million women in the U.S. are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. [3]

We can’t be silent when 85 percent of the victims of domestic violence are women, or when females between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence.[4]

We can’t keep silent when nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide experience physical abuse from a dating partner in a single year, or when one quarter of high school girls have been victims of physical or sexual abuse or when 3 million children have witnessed domestic violence in their homes annually.[5]

And we certainly can’t keep silent when there are victims and survivors of domestic abuse sitting in the pews, and more among us who will potentially suffer.

We have to be voices of hope for the hopeless, voices that attest to the reality of a living God who, in the words of Isaiah,

makes marvelous and beautiful wonders;

stands up for the poor and weak, giving them comfort and empowerment

provides protection from the relentless heat and torrential rain

silences the arrogant sounds of violence

swallows up oppression and death

gently wipes away all tears and deflects scorn and shame

and saves us so that we may rejoice and celebrate the gift of life

This God, whom the prophet describes, intends for creation to live in harmony—in trust, love and mutual respect—with one another.  This same God strongly opposes abuse and violence, violations of the Creator’s desire for us to live as beloved creatures. And this God stands mightily on the side of the abused and oppressed.

ruth-patzloff-psalm-23Like a shepherd, this God, writes the psalmist, walks with the abused.

This God leads, restores and comforts those who have been threatened and mistreated.

This God walks through the darkest valley with a staff to ward off predators.

This God prepares a table for the abused, a feast overflowing with mercy and goodness, even as the abuser lurks nearby in the shadows.

This God brings blessings of peace and love.

This God brings hope.

And God’s hope can show up in some surprising ways.

For Lizzie Hampton, it arrived in the form of Rainbow Village, which has been dedicated to breaking the cycle of homelessness, poverty and domestic abuse in Gwinnett County for more than 20 years.  Here is Lizzie’s testimonial which was filmed in 2010:

Before I came to Rainbow Village, I was in denial. I was in a domestic violence relationship and I decided to leave my home. My name is Lizzie Hampton. I was in the Rainbow Village program from 2003-2004. The reason why I decided to leave was because of the things I experienced in my home, which was mostly verbal, emotional and mental abuse. And for so many years, I thought that wasn’t really abuse. I thought physical abuse was really the key to being abused. It can be a cycle in your children’s life if you don’t get free. I was in the program for one year. … The turning point for me was they gave us opportunities to be able to meet with a full-time counselor. And the caseworkers and the people who worked at Rainbow Village were mentors to me. When I met with my counselor, I was able to vent my feelings about what I went through. My children were able to be a part (of the program) and talk about their feelings and (participate) in the afterschool program. All of it was very important in all of us getting back to being healthy again. Rainbow Village had classes about being abused and the right way to be treated. And it woke up my eyes to realize that I deserved to be treated in a loving and kind way. And it taught me about myself, self-esteem and how to love myself. It taught me how to be a better mother. It taught me how to not look back on my experience and beat myself up. It taught me to go forward. I would like for women to learn from me to not be in denial of their situation and circumstances that they’re dealing with in their home; to get help because there’s so much help out there for them; and they’re not alone. And to go forth and reach the skies because the sky’s the limit to what God has called them to do and be on earth. Spiritually, I am loving God more, seeing who he has made me to be. I didn’t love myself before. I didn’t think of myself as being beautiful. Now I know who I am in Christ and I know he fearfully and wonderfully made me to be where I am.[6]

If you’ve been abused or are being abused by an intimate partner, know that you are a beautiful creation of God who is fearfully and wonderfully made, deeply loved and cherished.

Remember always that you didn’t do a thing to deserve the abuse. It is never your fault. Never. Your. Fault.

Tell someone your story and share your pain so that you can receive help and escape a situation that will only get worse. You are never alone. There are pastors and church members who will support you.

Heed the advice from Lizzie Hampton, currently a board member of Rainbow Village and an employee of a Gwinnett County elementary school, who says:

Go forth and reach the skies because the sky is the limit to what God has called (you) to do and be on earth.

images-67And finally, as one who grew up with domestic violence in his home as a child and survived and is standing before you now,

cling tightly to the truth that no matter how much the oppressive winds and rains threaten to weigh you down,

this living God, whom we worship and adore, and whom we put our hope in,

will always be a shelter from the storm.

Amen.

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[1] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/phewa/presbyterians-against-domestic-violence/
[2] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/phewa/presbyterians-against-domestic-violence/
[3] http://www.ncadv.org/ and http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/
[4] http://www.ncadv.org/ and http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/
[5] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/phewa/presbyterians-against-domestic-violence/ ; http://www.ncadv.org/ and  http://www.loveisrespect.org/
[6] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcmNlpnOQno

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Resources for Domestic Violence Awareness and Prevention

Ahimsa House: Helping People and Pets Escape Domestic Violence (71 % of victims entering domestic violence shelters report that their abusers threatened, injured or killed the family pets)

Love Is Respect

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

The National Domestic Abuse Hotline

Presbyterians Against Domestic Violence Network

Rainbow Village: Breaking the Cycle of Homeless, Poverty and Domestic Abuse

World Health Organization International Statistics on Domestic Violence