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I received this note from a kid at school the other day. I especially like the second line. “I love God and Jesus so you have to love God and Jesus.” I can hear her attitude loud and clear and it cracks me up. This sweet, innocent child of God has some bad theology to sort out. But don’t we all?

I hope a kind soul gently breaks it to her someday that not everyone is going to love God and Jesus. I hope they go on to tell her that regardless of what others choose to believe about God (even choosing to live against God) doesn’t negate the way God expects her to respond to them. She still has to be kind to them. Still has to protect them, go the extra mile for them, feed them, visit them, walk alongside them, and help them. She still has to show them Jesus even if they refuse to see him because loving someone doesn’t mean accepting the choices they make, it means accepting the Christ and his wildly, radical call to love your neighbor.

I hope someone opens a Bible and shows her that Jesus died for us while we were still enemies so we have no excuse to exclude or mistreat ours. Maybe they’ll also show her the Gospels and she’ll realize that our Savior built a church on relationships not rules and regulations. Maybe she’ll strive to be a friend to others regardless of how or what they choose to believe. Maybe she’ll be so moved by the way Jesus loved, healed, and associated with sinners that she’ll eagerly welcome them and do the same. Maybe she’ll be so busy she won’t have time to protest, oppress, or ignore others made in the image of God.

I hope she chooses not to listen to some in the church when they say love is a nice idea but won’t work in the real world. Jesus certainly thought it would. I hope she sits with the outcasts and hears their story. She might find out they loved God and Jesus all along.

More than anything, I hope someone gently teaches this sweet kid that loving God and loving other is what we have to do and we have to do it in a way so genuine, others might even decide to love God and Jesus, too.

 

sky-earth-galaxy-universe

(This particular article isn’t really about politics. But it is about my life and the profound changes that have taken place. This is my continuing story–this is about being in a brand new place, emotionally, spiritually, and otherwise…)

This world, good old planet earth, is desperately broken. I am not talking about pollution or global warming. I am not speaking of a new ice age or climate change brought on by human activity.

Those things can be debated, debunked, argued, or dismissed—depending on your take.

On the other hand, Paul tells us in the Book of Romans that we have all followed in the path of Adam and Eve—we have all sinned—and the wages of that sin is death.

Indeed, creation itself suffers the burden of our sin.

Romans 8:20-22, For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it—in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now.

It is a broken world we live in, a broken world inhabited by horribly broken people.

Undeniably, sin has left its mark. Evil has scarred this planet, disfigured our bodies, and mutilated our lives. Ultimately, disobedience to God has left us with what an old hymn calls a crimson stain.

Yes, we have a broken world filled with broken people. And while I might wish to remain anonymous, I cannot: Hi, my name is Les Ferguson, Jr. and like you and everyone else, I am broken. I am broken and sometimes in ways still to be discovered or acknowledged.

Here’s a truth you can bank on: Broken people are hurt people.

Even worse, hurt people hurt people.

On October 10, 2011, with the murder of wife and son, I became undeniably aware of just how broken my world could be.

Those of my family who survived did so scarred, broken, damaged, and hurt. And by now you should know that hurt people hurt people.

I wish I could tell you that I was or am an exception to that rule. I wish I could tell you, but I can’t.

I just recently spent a week in the Florida sunshine. It was beautiful. And while I forgot about my troubles for a while, the world kept turning. And while it did, brokenness after brokenness made itself evident over and over again.

In a world of heartache and despair, if we are not careful, we will become blind to the beauty of the life God intended for us to live (and I know this first hand). Even worse, we will forget about The Great Physician…

After this, a Jewish festival took place, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. By the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem there is a pool, called Bethesda in Hebrew, which has five colonnades. Within these lay a large number of the sick—blind, lame, and paralyzed [—waiting for the moving of the water, because an angel would go down into the pool from time to time and stir up the water. Then the first one who got in after the water was stirred up recovered from whatever ailment he had].

One man was there who had been sick for 38 years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew he had already been there a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to get well?” “Sir,” the sick man answered, “I don’t have a man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I’m coming, someone goes down ahead of me.”

“Get up,” Jesus told him, “pick up your mat and walk!” Instantly the man got well, picked up his mat, and started to walk. (John 5:1–9a HCSB)

I wonder if you see yourself in this story.

I certainly see me…

Maybe you are not an invalid or totally dependent on the care of others.
Maybe you are not financially strapped.
Maybe you are not fighting an addiction.
Maybe you are not divorced and struggling.
Maybe you are not unhappy at your job.
Maybe you are not wrestling with your purpose in life.
And maybe, just maybe, you have never had to cope with grief and loss.

Those are some mighty big maybe’s, aren’t they?

And even if you can maybe say you are healthy, whole, sane, happy, and satisfied with life, there is still the sickness of your sin, the crimson stain of your soul…

Back in our text, John tells us this man had been sick and suffering for 38 years.
That’s a long time.
That’s a lifetime.

Did you happen to catch all the ways he was both alone and not alone?

Verse 7 says there was no one to help him in the water. Why was he alone? I cannot say for sure, but I can speculate from my own experience. I can guess that if he and I are alike, then we were alike in how we handled our pain.

And it is all very circular—hurt people hurt people. And in our pain, we also isolate ourselves. The more we hurt, the more we hurt. Pain causes us to isolate ourselves and pain causes others to isolate from us.

There is a world of lonely people out there. Hurting and hurting. And we are not alone, we just fail to recognize how others hurt just like we do.

But there is another scenario we might also consider (big stuff coming here…). Yes, hurt people hurt and isolate. But sometimes we build our lives around our struggle. We give it meaning. We infuse it with good intentions. And before you know it, it—-whatever it may be-—becomes not only our routine, but our identity as well.

The Great Physician did not come so that you or I could have or live a victim mentality. Our tragedies, pains, failures and heartaches do not have to define the entirety of our lives!

Jesus came to heal.
Hallelujah!

You may not see your struggles go completely away. You may have some degree of pain the very rest of your life. But the Great Physician, the great healer of our souls—-the one who washes away our sins—-the one who redeems, restores, and reconciles can change even the worst perspective.

This I know.
This I know.

Writing here today is proof positive of the Great Physician’s work in my life.

There was a time in which I hurt so badly that my pain became the pain of others. And I didn’t give them a choice. I hurt, so I hurt.

But eventually the emptiness of my loneliness couldn’t be sustained any more. Eventually I grew tired of being angry. I grew weary of making my pain my identity.

Enter the Great Physician.
Forgiver of my sins.
Healer of my heart.
Restorer of my life.

Like me, your healing may not be as instantaneous as the man in our text. Some aspects of our curing may take a lifetime. And truthfully, some things may not be completely cured until eternity calls.

But regardless, our healing will not begin until we hear and answer the same question Jesus asked: Do you want to get well?

The great Physician now is near, The sympathizing Jesus;
He speaks the drooping heart to cheer, Oh, hear the voice of Jesus.

stethoscope_and_heart   Do you want to get well?

Les Ferguson, Jr.
Madison/ Ridgeland, MS.

Photo Credit: Andrey Popov http://www.dreamstime.com/andreypopov_info#res10054844

Photo Credit: Andrey Popov

This is the first time I have ever written for Wineskins. For those of you who blog here frequently, my next statement may seem absurd. I feel like a rock star today. Yes, I know that’s crazy. It’s just that Wineskins was a part of my journey. A stack of print edition copies over two decades old remain in my library. My faith really came of age during the era when this magazine was first published. So, to be asked to write something associated with Wineskins had a special meaning to me. It may be the only time I ever do so. Still, I am grateful.

Ironically, Matt invited me to share on a subject that has been at the epicenter of my pain. My wounding began with sexual abuse and sadly the shaming and legalism of my early experiences in Churches of Christ was all too formative. I was a very messed up 20 year young man in the US Marines when I surrendered to God’s grace. Trying to make sense of those painful memories became more complex when I took human life in combat only a short time later. Trauma was fused to my DNA. Several years of marital misery, sexual sin, and lots of therapy followed. Still, today I am at peace with my past because of the healing journey in God’s grace. That should not surprise as God is the Master at repurposing broken lives for our healing and His glory.

Parallel to my healing journey I felt called by God to ministry. To increase my competency as a helper I became a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. I’ve practiced for twenty years and have specialized in the treatment of trauma for over a decade. During that time, I led a group for church leaders who have sexually compulsive behaviors and I have treated hundreds of individuals and couples who were sorting through infidelities, sexual abuse, and other related traumas. I teach at the University level in my field and I have been in full-time ministry for over 17 years. There are an infinite number of subjects about which I am completely ignorant. This is not one of them.

The main reason so many church leaders struggle with the question of what to do when it comes to helping someone with sexual issues is that they have not done a thorough job working on their own. This failure to talk honestly with people from the pulpit or in private is about their own history and deep-seated shame produced by an ongoing silence in their life and that of their family of origin. This silence will have potentially devastating effects on their marriage, their children, and their congregation because they are not providing appropriate information and biblical guidance about their own sexual development.

Modeling a healthy relationship with your spouse, others, and most importantly, God, is every bit as important as the actual conversations we have with our church and family about sexuality. The first task church leaders must approach is exploring and discussing our own beliefs and feelings about the subject. I realize that is a challenging task and for some of you it is a potential hornet’s nest. Before your own fears and frustrations cause you to hang up on me, please let me offer some words of encouragement. As I have dealt with my own sexual issues and other traumas and walked alongside others doing the same, I have become all the more convinced that God is lovingly in control of each of our journeys, if we let Him. As you face the possibility that the task of exploring your own sexual beliefs and experiences is a potentially painful one, I would like for you to consider that you will be doing so for the benefit of God’s kingdom. Your willingness to grow in your sexual wholeness can be a tremendous gift to all.

In my professional experience I would say that the leadership in churches runs behind this issue and says too little too late. Even if they do successfully transmit information about biblical sexuality, leadership does not often realize how crucial it is to take the conversation to the next level. Our churches need to know a lot more than your XXX sin is bad, be accountable, or go to Celebrate Recovery. I believe one of our primary tasks in leadership is to teach and model healthy relationships and to create a vision in the hearts of our people for the rich, fully developed relationship that married couples can enjoy and to understand that we don’t cease to be sexual beings when we aren’t in the context of marriage.

Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can’t have effective discourse with your church until you have successfully completed your own work. No one is perfect and wholeness will elude all of us during this lifetime. It is a process of exploration and some issues may even need to be deferred to a later time for one reason or another. How then could or should it be necessary to have done everything in your own process before you can lead effectively? If that were true, none of us would have a chance. So take this seriously but relax. Deal with your stuff at God’s pace and if you are married give your spouse the grace to do the same.

I believe the fundamental issue is that leaders be conscious of being on that journey and that we be appropriately transparent about that as we are led by the Spirit. A common theme for every person with whom I have worked is the plastic, spin control life that they managed to live. Let me add myself to that group as well. I mean, it’s as if we have never read the Bible. Is it not populated with the biggest bunch of sexual screw ups you have ever seen? Yet, they were leaders. One of the few people in all of scripture that comes off looking like he has it together is Daniel and he was probably castrated when he was sent to live at court. I’m not recommending that for anyone because we are still sexual beings even if we were paralyzed from the neck down.

Still, the myth of a leader who has it all together, figured out, stands head and shoulders above others is the prototype for too many churches. Has anyone read the story about King Saul? Experience has taught me that far too many leaders try to hide personal problems and work them out on their own. It drove Saul mad and it will do the same thing with us. That is why I am not a big proponent of some of these online support groups or classes because they are really thinly veiled places where you can trick yourself into believing you are in some sort of genuine community. As I write this @priestDavid is taking confession via SnapChat. Really? Remember we call the wireless world a “virtual” community not a real one. It is no substitute for help with skin on it. Confession literally means agreement. We are called to live a life on the outside that agrees with what is going on inside.

Difficulty talking to each other about sex can be caused by a few problems common to many people. First, you might have some sexual difficulty. In the age group 18-59 sexual dysfunction is prevalent at a rate of 43% for women and 31% for men. For those over 60 years of age that number increases. Second, you may have a history that causes you shame about who you are sexually. When I began acting out sexually at a young age in the 1970’s there was not a lot of healthy information available. While there was a time when I would direct a lot of my blame at the church or sadly towards my parents, I accept today that there was very little cultural awareness of this subject at that time and living as a victim of my past is not going to make things better today. But, living as a victim as I did for so long breeds fear, suspicion, and worst of all…secrecy. In recovery I learned a mantra whose truth is powerful and liberating, “You are only as sick as your secrets.”

Read Paul’s take on this. “We have spoken freely to you…opened wide our hearts to you…are not withholding our affection…my children – open wide your hearts also” (2 Cor. 6:11-13). He discussed sexual issues and my understanding of his writings suggests he had the same battles other women and men have. If you are a leader or a parent or an influencer of some sort…that is, if you are human, God has called you to a full new life…one where you can be who you are in Him. The struggle to live and be fully human as God created us to be brings pain. Oh, but it brings great relief as well. Try it. It’s like Green Eggs and Ham. Try it. You’ll like it. (That’s a nod to Dr. Seuss week).

The problem is that those of us in leadership often fear seeking help because we don’t want to be exposed and lose our job or power or whatever your idol is. Look, you are going to lose it. It may not be because you get busted for sexual behavior but it will be related. Your shame will come out in other ways and impair your relationships. What you will do depends. But, for those who don’t seek help I typically see a lot of finger pointing and blaming. “My elders….” or, “This church member…” Trust me; it has more to do with you and your unresolved issues than it has to do with an elder who has a control problem or a church member who has an axe to grind about your theology. Get help!

A reputable therapist is not going to report you unless you are a danger to yourself or others or for reasonable suspicion that a child has been abused. I served a church in the Deep South, for over a decade and my shepherds knew I was in recovery. They were very supportive of me continuing to attend a group and see a professional as needed. One of the first things I did in preparation for our move to Massachusetts to plant a church was to set up a system of accountability and ongoing recovery. I go to a support group facilitated by a licensed therapist every other week and I have since developed redemptive relationships with men in that group and elsewhere in New England.

OK. So where should I go for help or where should I send someone else? First, I would say that it isn’t necessary to seek out someone who is a Christian. If there is any consolation for my deep shame it is that it led me to believe that I was the chief of sinners and if there would ever be hope I needed to see the individual with the best training. To my biased surprise, one of the most outstanding therapists I ever worked with was a 67 year old woman divorced from a former alcoholic Church of Christ minister. She didn’t have a favorable opinion of God or the church. She was a consummate professional and was not interested in imposing her values on me but she did share those personal details in the course of our work. I am convinced God used that therapeutic relationship to do some healing for two people.

I ask you, “If your child were going to have brain surgery tomorrow, would you prefer Ibrahim Azar, M.D. an agnostic of Iranian descent, lauded as one of the best talents in the field or Jim Bob because he got his undergrad degree from Harding?” (No offense to my alma mater and both Ibrahim and Jim Bob are fictional characters) Sure there are a few Ben Carson’s out there. But, if you believe that the kingdom of God is bigger than the church, and I absolutely do, then you can appreciate that the skills this person has acquired have come from God whether or not they choose to acknowledge that.

What skills? You need to encourage people who are sorting through sexually compulsive behaviors to find a therapist who has a lot of training to deal with trauma. The first place I would recommend checking is the International Institute of Trauma and Addiction Professionals. If your DNA demands that you see a Christian or that this person must have some sort of understanding about Churches of Christ then contact Marnie Ferrie at Bethesda Workshops, Richard Blankenship and crew at Capstone in Atlanta, or Onsite Workshops which is owned by Miles Adcox (son of Jimmy and brother of Russ). They can help you or they can refer you to someone they trust.

Next, people need a group. We are wounded in relationship and we will heal in relationship. I believe in individual therapy but I’ve always referred my clients to a group that I led or to one that was led by others. Celebrate Recovery is a great program. It doesn’t deal with the trauma related aspects of recovery but it is still good stuff. There are also Christian groups around the country that do have trauma recovery as a part of their process. L.I.F.E. Recovery offers support groups in almost every state and they often know of connections that are not listed on their website. If you don’t know what I mean by trauma recovery; don’t worry, just point people to help. I don’t expect you to know this stuff. But, I promise you that EVERY (I am not prone to making blanket statements) EVERY compulsive sexual behavior is related to trauma.

There’s a lot of other things I could say like get an accountability partner, pray more, study the Bible, be in Christian community, computer monitoring, read a book, etc… You already know that. What I am saying is take it to the next level. Don’t be satisfied that you have really pointed people to help if you have told them those same old things. They need those things but an experienced professional and a group are imperative. What’s that you say? You did it without these recommendations? Probably not. Yes, the Spirit of God can spontaneously heal people. More likely, God used some informal support group and counseling experience or you may just not be acting out right now and you are hanging on for dear life trying to convince yourself and others that things are better. Really? Not messing up isn’t recovery. Jesus said that he came to, “give life to the full.” That’s recovery.

Next, I know a number of churches that have developed relationships with counselors over the years who provide services to their congregations. Just because a person is a licensed therapist does not mean that he or she is the best resource for every situation (think general practitioner vs. cardiologist). Help people find the best resource first and then let them make their own decisions. Don’t default to a good ole’ boy system. If you really think they can’t afford help, then see what you can do as a church to assist. I don’t recommend paying for everything. People should have some skin in the game. Someone in your church right now is struggling. No, several people are struggling. Be proactive as a leadership and set some resources aside.

Finally, I’m not a sin snob. That is, sexual sin is a convenient target for this sort of attitude (especially if it involves same gender attraction). I could enumerate a long list of personal sins that I battle – pride being one of the worst. Thank God for His grace, for the reconciliation through Jesus at the Cross, and the power of His Spirit. Please don’t be that church leader or that church that holds people with unhealthy sexual behaviors to a different standard than other sin. We all have a battle. This is just one among many.

Eric Greer

Missional Greer

P.S. If you have read this far, visit my page on 500 For The Fallen and consider sponsoring me as I run to honor some fallen mates.

I just completed my first full month of preaching at the Lake Harbour Drive Church of Christ.

I still find it hard to imagine. After all the pain, hurt, anger, frustration, and humiliation, I find it so hard to believe my current situation is real.
And yet here I am.

On the last Sunday of the month, June 29, 2014, I stood at the back doors of the auditorium to greet church members and visitors alike as our worship time came to an end. I love this old time-honored tradition of shaking hands and giving and receiving hugs. (And for new preachers, who understand, secretly playing the game called Guess That Name!)

At any rate, as I was standing there pressing the flesh, one sweet lady in particular stood out. Yes, I guessed her name wrong and after we laughed a bit about my obvious struggle to remember names, she made a really strange comment.

“Thank you for being vulnerable.”
My immediate response was to say thank you. And then my brain kicked into a higher gear.

She was thanking me for being broken.
She was thanking me for being vulnerable.
She was thanking me for not wearing a mask or pretending all is well.

Truthfully, I don’t intend to be that forthcoming. I don’t want to be vulnerable. I don’t want to have anything in my life to be vulnerable about.

Being vulnerable isn’t something I willingly choose.
No, I’d rather be a turtle with a hard exterior shell. I’d rather be able to pull myself inside–to hide away from those who might seek to exploit my vulnerability or pain.

Being vulnerable isn’t something very pleasant to see.
No, I’d rather not have weaknesses or faults or struggles.
I’d rather be able to thumb my nose at the world and never let them see me sweat.

Being vulnerable isn’t something I want to acknowledge.
No, I’d rather not have my brokenness exposed.
I’d rather pretend to be whole and complete, untouched, unfazed by the brokenness of this world.

I want you to see strong, fit, and able.
I want you to know me as capable, challenging, and engaging.
I want you to see me as a preacher at the top of his game—a guy who can wax elephants better than most.

But the truth is simple.
And harsh.
And sometimes quite ugly.
No, almost always ugly.

I am a broken man.
Broken.
Busted.
Banged up.
Flawed.

And since many of you know of my heart-breaking past, you might be tempted to cut me a little slack or give me a little grace. When you’ve been through such a life-altering, reality shaping tragedy, how can you not be broken?

Do us both a favor and don’t go there.

Do.Not.Go.There.

Nope. Don’t go there.
The last thing we need is anybody trumpeting our brokenness. We don’t need folks displaying an affected brokenness as some strange way to connect with people—to wave and holler as if to say, Hey, look at me!

It’s not a mark of honor.
It’s not a badge of courage.
It’s not a symbol of strength.

It’s my reality.
It’s where I have come from.
It’s where I still am.

Yep.
See yourself in this picture yet?

It’s our reality.
It’s where we have come from.
It’s where we still are.

Vulnerability is not about using some weird Christian pick-up line.
On the other hand, being vulnerable is about honesty, need, and dependence.

It’s about being honest with our self, each other, and God.
It’s about being truthful.
It’s about shinning light into the dark corners of what we say, what we think, what we feel, and how we act.

Being vulnerable is being honest about our need.
It ‘s about recognizing our own inability to affect the answers.
It’s about recognizing our dependency on God for what is broken and flawed.

I don’t want to go to church where everybody is a mess.
But I do.

Vulnerability demands we recognize we don’t have all the answers and we aren’t all that well put together.

The quicker we acknowledge our brokenness while being truthful about our struggles, the sooner we will be able to sing…

I can barely stand right now.
Everything is crashing down,
And I wonder where You are.

I try to find the words to pray.
I don’t always know what to say,
But You’re the one that can hear my heart.

Even though I don’t know what your plan is,
I know You’re making beauty from these ashes.

I’ve seen joy and I’ve seen pain.
On my knees, I call Your name.
Here’s my broken hallelujah.

With nothing left to hold onto,
I raise these empty hands to You.
Here’s my broken hallelujah.

You know the things that have brought me here.
You know the story of every tear.
‘Cause You’ve been here from the very start.

Even though I don’t know what your plan is,
I know You’re making beauty from these ashes.

I’ve seen joy and I’ve seen pain.
On my knees, I call Your name.
Here’s my broken hallelujah.

With nothing left to hold onto,
I raise these empty hands to You.
Here’s my broken hallelujah.

When all is taken away, don’t let my heart be changed.
Let me always sing Hallelujah
When I feel afraid, don’t let my hope be erased
Let me always sing Hallelujah.
Let me always sing Hallelujah.

I will always sing
I will always sing
Here’s my broken hallelujah.

(A Broken Hallelujah!)

I love the fact that this church called a broken man to preach. I love the fact that they recognized long before I did that we are all broken. And I am so glad that together our vulnerability shows…

Here I am bowed, beaten, gimpy, and broken.
It’s not a mark of honor.
It’s not a badge of courage.
It’s not a symbol of strength.

It’s my reality.
It’s where I have come from.
It’s where I still am.

Broken.
Vulnerable.
And yet, very, very happy.

When we embrace our broken nature, healing begins. That’s a message all churches might consider.

How vulnerable are you?

Les Ferguson, Jr.
Lake Harbour Church of Christ
Ridgeland, MS

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