Weathering the Storm: Walking Together through Abuse

As I write this article, I’m looking through the window in my office, observing a rain storm that began quite suddenly: within 10 minutes of having looked outside to see sunshine, I witnessed swirling tree branches, a rapidly darkening sky, and a heavy downpour of rain. This morning when I left my home, the weather was predictably sunny and warm, conditions that told me the day ahead would be bright and calm. How many days do we step outside with a general sense that our day will progress without a storm, without giving much thought to how things could change over time? Unless we see or can predict inclement weather when we begin our day, we often feel there is no reason to expect a major change.

 

But what if we think we’re equipped, we think we have a good sense of how our environment will shape up, but suddenly things shift, our surroundings become dark, frightening, and dangerous?  We would, understandably, be fearful and might feel quite stuck. What would we find most comforting? I suspect it would not help us to hear someone from outside of our storm say, “Just leave, get out!” or “I saw this coming, why didn’t you?” In fact such a response might lead us to feel quite alone in our darkness. What if, on the other hand, a friend or family member reached out and told us, “I’m concerned for your safety, and I’m here for you whenever you need me.” Then, even if we weren’t prepared or able to find our way out of the storm at that moment, we’d know someone cared enough to take the journey with us when we’re ready.

 

Perhaps by now you’ve guessed I’m not speaking only about weather. Since October of 2016, I’ve had the privilege to volunteer at Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS) in Madison, holding one-on-one appointments and safety planning with clients who want to learn how DAIS and other community service providers can empower them as they live through, or as they decide to leave, an abusive relationship. Through my training and conversations with victims, I’ve learned that an abusive relationship never begins as abusive - there is a cycle of behavior on the part of the abuser (only some of which is abusive), which the victim may not recognize for some time. It’s so important to recognize that no one chooses to be abused, and an abuse victim never holds culpability for that abuse, regardless of when or how it occurs.

 

Each victim has a unique perspective, one that not even those of us trained to recognize and respond to abuse can ever fully experience. Acknowledging this is the first, crucial step for those of us who want to help a victim of abuse. We may have ideas about how or why abuse is occurring, we may feel we know how best to respond to that abuse, and we may think that if someone doesn’t leave an abusive relationship they are somehow responsible for their situation. All of these assumptions are faulty, and they can be extremely detrimental if we allow them to color our interactions with victims of abuse. Instead, if a victim discloses their abuse to us, or if we only suspect it, we can show up in a way that will empower and support them. Here are three ways to do that:

 

  1. Take the time to listen, and offer a safe, comforting environment. Reassure them that you will keep their words confidential, that they are their own best decision maker, and that you are there to help if needed.

  2. Let the survivor guide the conversation and be the decision maker. Practice active listening. Whether a victim discloses or only implies abuse, let them know you’re concerned for their safety, and that you support them regardless of their decisions. Do not urge or push them into making a decision they may not be ready to make - doing so could put them in more danger.

  3. Provide DAIS resources. Provide a blue wallet card - available outside my office or on the bulletin board in the church kitchen (Fitchburg) - or recommend the DAIS Help Line (608-251-4445 or 800-747-4045), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Consider calling the Help Line yourself with any questions or fears you may be experiencing.

 

In an article entitled, “Preaching About Domestic Violence Is Hard - But We Must,” Pastor Phil Haslanger (Memorial UCC, Fitchburg), provides important context for the call to faith leaders - and we are all faith leaders, church family - to respond to domestic abuse:

We say that while we take the commitments of marriage very seriously, those commitments may not be used as leverage to keep someone in an unsafe relationship. We say that while we value forgiveness, that does not free anyone from the consequences of mistreating another. We say that whatever understanding one has of the roles of spouses in a marriage, that does not give permission for one spouse to engage in violent or abusive behavior toward the other. We preach because if we keep silent, if we ignore the human cost and spiritual degradation of domestic violence, then we are failing the people we are called to serve.

 

As I finish writing, the sky has already begun to clear of clouds, not an hour after the storm began. How quickly my outlook turns sunny again. How quickly I forget that, for those whose lives are marked by frequent, unpredictable, violent storms, the sun grows ever dimmer despite its brightness for others, and fear of a storm dictates so many of their decisions. How vital it is for me to recall I can and ought to walk with those experiencing storms, without attempting to drag them along into my sunny perspective. Today I pray, “Jesus, help me to recognize that people struggling in abusive relationships have the ability and dignity to discern when and how to move toward the brightness of an environment where the storms of abuse aren’t as likely to occur. Grant me your strength and lens of unconditional love so that I might lend my ears to listen and my hands for support.”
 

2017 Graduates

 

This spring, Higher Ground was able to celebrate some talented, faithful, compassionate young adults as they graduated from high school. We are so proud of these students and would ask you to join us in recognizing who they have become as children of God, and also in praying for them as they begin new chapters in their lives.   I am honored to highlight these students for you, so you can celebrate their achievements as well. This year, I asked their parents to take time to consider who God created their child to be. What makes this student unique? What special contribution has God called your child to add to His kingdom? What three words best describe your child? Here are our 2017 high school graduates!
   

JENNA ACKER: Independent, Adventurous, Compassionate

                Jenna, daughter of Ray Acker and Sharrie Nechvatal, is driven by her compassion for all of God’s creation.  She loves traveling and camping. She is devoted to caring for animals of all kind, especially her childhood dog, Piper. On mission trips, Jenna could be found caring for and comforting pets and strays alike just as often as she was pouring into the people we were serving. Jenna has a unique way of being able to see the best in people and see them through God’s eyes. She especially enjoys working with older adults and hopes to use her CNA license to work in a nursing home this summer.  Jenna was created with athletic talent as well, using that specifically on Verona’s High School Cheer Team as well as the LaCrosse team. An active leader in Higher Ground, Jenna enjoyed going on the mission trips where she was able to put her compassion for others into action. Jenna plans to attend UW Platteville in the fall to study Psychology and Special Education.

   

KATE HETTENBACH: Adventurous, [Strong in] Faith, Compassionate

                Kate, daughter of Bart and Karen Hettenbach, has always had her faith as a strong and central part of her life. She was faithful in being a part of the Higher Ground community, as a participant in mission trips, lifeGroups, retreats, and service projects. Kate has been created with strong leadership skills and developed those skills leading and planning for Higher Ground gatherings and as a middle school mission trip leader. She is a great model of servant-leadership.  Kate also developed those leadership skills while participating in DECA (a business club) in high school, holding leadership positions in the group and going to State competitions for 3 years.  Passionate about athletics, Kate participated on cross country, basketball, and track teams for West High, playing on the varsity teams for basketball and track. This fall, Kate will attend UW Whitewater to study Social Work.

   

BRYCE HOPPE: Hardworking, Inquisitive, Kind

                Bryce, son of Greg and Nikki Hoppe, has used his gifts both in the community and athletically. Bryce is passionate about swimming and theater. He was part of his high school swim team and USA swimming. He used his talent in swimming to work at the Ridgewood Pool and Verona Natatorium. Bryce also enjoyed using his gifts while participating with the Verona Area Community Theater. Created with a heart to serve others, Bryce also volunteered at the Badger Prairie Needs Network. This fall, Bryce will attend the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and plans to be part of their swim team as well.

   

RENATA JAEGER: Strong, Loyal, Compassionate

                Renata, daughter of Pete and Dannie Jaeger, loves music, theater,  and making the world a better place. She has a passion for justice, equality, and fairness. She believes everyone is a child of God and lives that out in how she serves and interacts with others. She has a strong work ethic and strives to show her best work in what she does. Renata has always wanted to explore different cultures and see different places where God is working. Renata loves kids, restoring justice, and seeing God’s world so mission trips have been a perfect avenue for her to use her talents! She attended all the high school trips and helped to lead the middle school trips. Renata was also created with gifts in art and music and enjoys expressing herself in these ways. She has been in performances at West High and has helped lead Higher Ground’s band for many years. Next year,Renata will attend UW-Madison to major in Dual Language Immersion Elementary Education with an emphasis on International Studies.

   

JACOB SCHAEFFER: Diligent, Takes Initiative, Determined

                Jacob, son of Timothy and Daris Schaeffer, has shown himself to be a mature, faithful, kind young man who has brought a welcome insight and steadiness to our Higher Ground community.  He loves sports, playing basketball for 1 year and soccer for sports. Jacob enjoys classical music and has also taken piano lessons. Passionate about history, Jacob enjoys reading stories from history with his family. When he was in 4-H, Jacob discovered he was good at archery, air rifle, and making rockets. Jacob has a servant heart, developed through 15 years in his AWANA community, and participation in FLAME (performing arts group) choirs. Jacob’s interests are in Math and Engineering, and he plans to pursue those interests next year through online classes or Madison College.

   
As I reflect on this year’s graduating class, three words come to mind – Compassionate, Motivated, Leadership. This group of students is motivated to live out their faith and work to make our world a better place. In each of them I see hearts that reflect Jesus’ - hearts of compassion and love, seeing others as God sees them. Their compassion and motivation combined has provided Higher Ground with fresh, bold leadership - servant leaders who go first, serve others, and model love in action. It has been an exciting journey watching these young people grow in their relationships with Jesus and explore the unique ways that God has created them. We don’t have to wait to see how God will use them in the future – we can tangibly see how God has used them to already impact our Church community, their neighborhoods, and our world. It has been a true honor and privilege to walk alongside and learn from these young people. Well done, good and faithful servants!
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Catalyst Stories

There are some exciting stories being shared about Catalyst Curriculum!  As a reminder, “Catalyst Curriculum” are lifeGroups that are taking a close look at missional living and what it means for them as they live life together, on mission with Jesus.  Here are just a few quotes from those who have experienced the training and are now teaching it in their lifeGroups:

 

“After going to the Catalyst training my husband and I have noticed we are more aware of what is going on around us.  I find myself putting my phone down at the bank to talk more to the teller, or just to start conversations with people.  Instead of reading a book while giving blood I had a conversation with the lady and learned a lot about her life.  We asked a waitress if we could pray for her and found out her Grandma has cancer.  We have had multiple situations like that this last month.  And once you start doing it, it really comes naturally.”  

 

“It was a challenge to teach the 10 children (age 8 and under) about listening to Jesus… but as we played games and listened to one another we were able to make a natural connection to listening to Jesus.  They are starting to understand!”  

 

"The Catalyst Curriculum has been great! What it has done is teach us -- step by step, in bite-sized pieces -- HOW to do what we're all TRYING to do, to actively love the world as God loves us. We've been able to adapt each lesson for the young kids in our group, helping them to find ways to share God's love, too -- through volunteering or even just asking that lonely kid at recess if she wants to play. All of the curriculum is directly tied to the Bible, so it's easy to see how the lessons directly stem from God's Word. Catalyst has been interesting and engaging, and it's exciting to be taking steps toward actively being Jesus in our neighborhoods."

 

“We had a great first week teaching the material in our group and some rich discussion.  There was also some resistance as we wrestled with some of the content.  It’s not bad when there is resistance, it means it is getting real and people are really trying to own their walk as they follow Jesus.”

 

God is working!  How encouraging to hear what happens when we follow Jesus and practice living out what we are learning.  How great it is when people are willing to just give it a try!  

 

We are offering the Catalyst Training again -  August 11, 12, 13 and August 25, 26, 27 - for anyone that is interested.  Perhaps you were not able to attend back in April, or you may have been unsure what it was about.  Take advantage of this exciting opportunity.  You can email Amy Meyer - ameyer@livelifetogether.com -  if you are interested in attending the August training weekends or if you have any questions.  We would love to have you join us!
 

The Church is Not Like Family

Today I want to reflect on the role of the church in our lives, motivating us to follow Jesus and share his saving love. God encourages us through Paul, in Hebrews 10:23-24, to appreciate the church:

Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.

 

The following article by Pastor Dhati Lewis (Blueprint Church, Atlanta) also outlines how close the church really brings us, to God and to one another.

 

Of all the word pictures and metaphors used to describe the church, one stands out above the rest: family. In fact, it is so much of the essence of the church that it cannot even properly be called a metaphor. Metaphors describe what the church is like or similar to—light, flock, field, building—but family is not metaphorical; it is a literal description of the phenomena we know as church. The church is not like family; it is family.

God is literally our Father, Jesus is literally our elder brother, and we are literally brothers and sisters in Christ. Family is the primary way the early church identified themselves. This can be seen by the fact that the word “disciple,” so prevalent in the early part of the New Testament, disappears after the book of Acts. It is replaced by the term “brother” in the rest of the Bible. Family dominates the self-understanding of the early church. We could argue that this is because of Paul’s letter, but it didn’t come from Paul. It is deeply rooted in the revelation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The Christian Identity as Family

Our creeds and confessions focus on Trinitarian orthodoxy, but Matthew 3 emphasizes the revelation of God as a family. What the revelation of Jesus Christ introduced into the world is that God is more than what we thought, namely that God is family. In our adoption as sons [and daughters], we are brought into the experience of what God has always been. In church life, we are usually more concerned about orthodox statements that express this reality than we are with living out the experience of family.

Paul consistently threads together the Fatherhood of God and believers’ relationships with one another. He cannot think of God outside of His “Fatherness,” and can’t think of believers outside of their ‘brotherhood.’ Our problem is semantics. When we say church, we don’t think family. We have to understand that we are not simply planting a church, we are not starting a Bible study, we are not starting a 501(c)(3); we are establishing a family.

What are the implications of this insight for our everyday lives? Let’s start by asking this question: as family members, how (well) do we appreciate and embrace the support we all have among fellow Jesus followers here at the Church and share that support with those whom God has placed in our lives?

 

At our most recent faithBuilders “Equipped for Mission” series (Prioritizing for Missional Living, held in April), we discussed how easy it is to compartmentalize our faith/church lives, seeing the ways we ought to share Jesus’ love with others as extra tasks to be done, or as fitting into our lives only if we first accomplish the mundane duties a given day or week requires. We then asked, “What happens if we shift our perspective to one reflective of our missional God, prioritizing missional living within the relationships and communities we already occupy?”

 

Brothers and sisters, God has placed and equipped each one of us uniquely to connect others to Him by following Jesus’ example - listening to, truly being present with, and responding in love to the people we see each day. Think about your upcoming week, and ask yourself who in your life might need some special care or a listening ear, and make a point to reach out to them! I’m praying Jesus’ words for us this week:

 

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21).

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Dependent on Christ

What do you think of when you hear the word cancer? Would you ever consider that cancer might be a blessing in disguise?

 

In October 2012, we were waiting for the results from a colonoscopy. Mark was still feeling the effects of the anesthesia, and was incoherent. The doctor entered, head down, eyes focused on the chart in his hand, not meeting me eye-to-eye until I heard him say, “It’s cancer.” I jolted, not expecting it. I wanted to see the pictures. I wanted an explanation. How could this be happening? I was stunned, fearful, with so many emotions churning in my brain. Visions of mounting medical expenses, the financial impact on our family, and questions filled my mind: “Will Mark be able to work? Will I need to quit my job to care for him? What about our commitment to the Church and other charities counting on our financial support? Will we lose our home?” I felt so alone, nauseous, buried in my thoughts of an uncertain future of life with a spouse with cancer.

 

“FOCUS,” I heard my brain cry… “you must listen for the next step.” The Doctor told me that our primary care physician would be calling to set up an appointment for a CT scan:  “We’ll check to see if the cancer has spread.” More fear, more uncertainty and feelings about financial fears crept in; as if hearing the word “cancer” wasn’t enough, now I heard two words: “cancer” and “spread.”

 

Mark was still a bit incoherent as I directed him to the car. I gripped the steering wheel  and headed home, still reeling from the news that my husband had cancer. In my head I keep repeating, “Think of the blessings, think of the blessings,” and then I felt some comfort repeating it out loud. Later, Mark didn’t remember a thing about the ride home or the next few hours. I just knew that I wanted to get home so I could cry -- no, more like sob uncontrollably. I was waiting for directions from our physician about scheduling more appointments, a CT Scan, surgery, not knowing what would be next. I was processing the news, wanting to pray; but pray for what, and with whom? A little voice said, “You need to pray with someone,” and Amy Meyer popped into my head. Why Amy? I needed a calming voice to help me process this unexpected news. What unexpected plan did God have for our family and why did it involve colon cancer?!? Colon cancer, you know, the cancer that just so happens to be one of most common and deadliest cancers. So I called the Church and Amy just happened to be there. We prayed, and I cried, and we prayed some more. I couldn’t tell you what we prayed about, but I can tell you that her calming voice is what I needed to hear.

 

The next day we went in for the CT scan. I didn’t know how long it would take, so I was prepared with books and my smartphone. I thought I’d try to get familiar with the Bible app that Mark downloaded because it might come in handy. As I was waiting I thought, “I’ll check out the New Testament, something short and sweet to get my mind off of things.” I’d never read 1 Peter, so I zeroed in on the 1st chapter. Tears streamed down my face as I read verses 6-8:

You rejoice greatly in this, even though you have to suffer various kinds of trials for a little while, so that your genuine faith, which is more valuable than gold that perishes when tested by fire, may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus the Messiah, is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him.  And even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, because you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.   

 

I kept reading, the words in print appearing blurry due to my still-streaming tears, and at the end of the chapter I read, “All human life is like grass, and all its glory is like a flower in the grass. The grass dries up and the flower drops off but the word of the Lord lasts forever. Now the word is the good news that was announced to you” (1 Peter 1:24-25). I felt RELIEF and was uplifted; this was the good news I was longing to hear. Though I felt my faith being tested, I also felt so much comfort in my new go-to good news verse from 1 Peter.

 

And then an amazing thing happened. That very next Sunday, the selected reading was from 1 Peter 1. I listened with renewed ears to this faith-rebuilding message. As the days unfolded after the diagnosis and successful surgery, the financial fears subsided, and God provided so many blessings:

  • I learned that Mark’s chemo was covered at 100%.  The cost for the first treatment was over $17,000. Mark would need 12 treatments and he was able to withstand all 12 chemo treatments.

  • Surgery was covered at 100%, as was a week in the hospital.

  • I was promoted to senior retirement plan consultant, which included a significant salary increase.

  • Mark missed very little work during chemo which started mid-December, 2012 through May, 2013.

  • We increased our contributions to the Church and continued supporting other charities.

  • We started regularly attending faithBuilders, and received spiritual support from our lifeGroup.

  • I shared more prayer requests and this continues to provide me with peace and comfort.

  • Mark’s health continues to improve. October 11, 2017, will be 5 years since his colon cancer diagnosis.  

God put people in place at just the right time during our faith journey. And when we put our trust in God, we realized that, yes, a diagnosis like cancer could be a blessing in disguise.