Surviving and Thriving – Jen Grice Provides Encouragement for the Journey (Review)

Grice_coverby Marie O’Toole

After turning in the first draft of my own manuscript to the publisher, I was very pleased to review Christian author, speaker and homeschooling mom Jen Grice’s excellent book, “You Can Survive Divorce: Hope, Healing and Encouragement for Your Journey”.

So much of what is offered to abused and/or divorced Christian women is anything but hopeful; impedes healing by fostering shame; and even if well-intentioned, is often discouraging.

Far from accepting labels that divorced Christians are “damaged goods”, like any good Christian counselor, Grice starts off by offering the reader hope. She starts by comparing the pain of a failed marriage to Joseph’s story in Genesis 37. She emphasizes that what was a brutally painful and life-changing ordeal can be used by God for good, and to enable her to not only survive but thrive and minister to others in similar situation

In first chapter, she points out that the platitude “Time heals all wounds” is a fallacy – many women are still holding onto wounds and unable to heal, even years (or decades) after their divorces.

“Where could I turn with all of the hemorrhaging pain? Who would heal me?” was a question she often struggled with herself.

Grice does not deny the unique pain that ending a destructive relationship causes. Insightfully she states:

“We cannot bypass the process by using the world’s comforts. That only delays the process and often sets us back, because we add more pain we have to then face, once we finally deal with it. Grief is just put on hold when trying to “move on” while still healing. Not only does taking baggage into a new relationship hurt the relationship, but after that rebound relationship ends, the already hurting heart is hurting ten times more.”

Going straight to the source of healing and restoration, she compares the visceral pain to the woman with a bleeding disorder in Matthew 9:20-22 who desperately sought out Jesus. Time is not a healer, and healing will not be a “one-time thing”, she cautions the reader.

Grice also gives practical advice regarding new relationships:

“Many jump into dating too quickly without healing and dealing with their own issues first. I’ve seen countless women remarry only to divorce a second time shortly thereafter. This is because unhealthy people are drawn to unhealthy people. If you were in an unhealthy relationship in the past, the chances of getting into another unhealthy relationship are much higher. We gravitate toward what we know to be “normal……and if He allowed you to escape from oppression the first time, He doesn’t want to see you go back to that same situation again. Trust Him to guide you into this new chapter of life.”

Grice candidly shares a little of her own hardship and acknowledges: “I had felt for too long that if my husband was able to reject me in such a cruel way, multiple times, I was just that unlovable. I was tired of feeling worthless and unaccepted.” This is a common emotional struggle women in abusive marriages experience. “While married, I would often feel bad for even breathing, not understanding that my Maker, who saw me as His masterpiece, had loved me since before I even started breathing.”

Grice reminds the reader of the continual, unconditional love God has for His daughters – even when they don’t feel it. He changes the identity we put on ourselves, by making us truly know how accepted in the beloved we are.

Re-iterating the cliché-sounding “God loves you” for a woman going through the pain of divorce is crucial to her healing, because subconsciously the pain and rejection common to our marital experience makes us question (on an emotional if not intellectual level) God’s personal love for us. Trusting God to want to heal us cannot happen without a deep-rooted assurance of His love, which sounds too good to be true during such a brutal season. Grice puts it this way:

“During my lowest points, I understood “God loves you,” but I didn’t feel that in my heart. My heart was filled with words said to me and about me, throughout my entire life, which sought to tear me down. The words left scars that turned into voices that told me I wasn’t worthy. They were words I believed about myself.”

After the crisis she was in made her tell God she was “done” with Christianity, Grice felt the Holy Spirit intercede on her behalf:

“Just then I started feeling a lot of love and compassion I had never felt before. I had been a confessing Christian for over fifteen years, but it was in that moment that I finally felt I was loved and accepted. It felt as if my daddy was looking down on me, chuckling, saying, “I know you didn’t mean that! I still love you so much, my child.”

Beloved Daughters of the King

Emphasizing that God sees past our pain and into our hearts, Grice transitions to what it really means to be daughters of the King and how that should shape our identities, rather than focusing on the hurtful labels others have put on us (and we have come to believe about ourselves) or the hardships of our circumstances. While it is difficult to focus on the Cross when worried about health insurance and paying the bills, remembering that earth is not our home and God has numbered the hairs of our heads should calm our hearts, as it did Grice’s during the early stages of her divorce and subsequent healing.

In Chapter 3, Grice writes about appropriate self-care (and cautions against numbing the pain rather than working on the healing).

“Self-care had never been in my vocabulary. I was told I was selfish for wanting to do things for myself…..But all the psychological abuse I had endured, plus the stress and feeling totally overwhelmed, had taken its toll on my body. Putting everyone else first was killing me from the inside out, and I knew I would die if I didn’t start seeing myself as equally important as everyone else.”

She discusses others’ expectation that we should heal on a certain time-table, and feeling rushed through grief. These expectations often lead to a temptation to self-medicate with drugs, alcohol or food (rather than walk through the grief process with God). Self-care, rather than self-hatred, enables us to love others and to serve God. Drawing these truths together, Grice effectively demonstrates how the reader may walk through a life-altering situation back into an effective life that glorifies God and edifies others (which she refers to as “producing ripe fruit”).

Dealing with toxic people by remaining calm is important way of keeping one’s stress level low, as is spending time with God, which impacts health and other relationships. Self-education on abuse issues or other aspects of healing is another practical suggestion Grice makes, as is setting healthy boundaries and closing social circles to ensure healthy, edifying relationships are in place.

Survival Strategies

The early days after a divorce are mere survival – doing the bare minimum to get by, numb, before crashing into bed to do it all over again the next day. Extreme exhaustion and the pain of grief controls one’s life in this stage. “Now is the time to get your household in order,” Grice advises, “before the kids get used to pushing over mom and manipulating the situation…Be consistent and intentional in how you’re working through the issues and reclaiming your home and your family.”

While not denying your feelings or exhaustion, this is imperative to “making progress each day toward the goals of healing your life and your home, while giving yourself grace as you move from merely surviving to enduring, and then to thriving.” Grice recommends continuing to eat as a family, pray, read the Bible together, and to call family meetings to establish ground rules for the new home situation as ways of maintaining order, normalcy, and continuing to rely on God during this difficult season. Each child should contribute in age-appropriate ways to the smooth running of the new household, which enables them to also feel a sense of responsibility and stability.

Creating (and sticking to) a budget is an important consideration for all single mothers, and as Dave Ramsey suggests, establishing an “emergency fund” should be the first step. Most newly-divorced mothers find that they now have no support system, including from their churches (which they have often had to leave). The Christian support group, DivorceCare (which I was also a part of), is a very helpful resource for newly-single mothers finding their way. Sacrifices, as well as government assistance, may be in order. As fathers will often have more means to provide the children with “treats” during this time, Grice admonishes guilt-plagued mothers to avoid competing for the children’s acceptance but rather to stand their ground on financial matters.

Helping the Children

While relying on support and making practical strides towards order and financial independence, Grice spends considerable time considering how to help the children of divorce suffering behind the scenes. This is a very important consideration, often overlooked in resources geared towards struggling women. While acknowledging that parents are not responsible for the choices adult children of divorce make, Grice reminds the reader that God loves our children even more than we do, and to seek Him in the day-to-day parenting choices we make to help our children through their unresolved trauma and pain.

“If you want to heal and grow as a family, and help your children to move on to be healthier adults, then you need to seek God to help you be the best parent you can be while working on your own emotional healing and growth.”

Often unable to identify their own feelings, younger children may regress in their development and older ones act out, unconsciously feeling guilt that they were part of the reason for abuse and/or divorce, or blaming the innocent parent for the separation. (Divorce Care for Kids, offered in many churches, helps provide a safe community for children to identify and articulate their feelings). Creating a safe haven in the new home where children are safe to vent and are protected from “triggers” (including violent media; unhelpful practices or new boyfriends/girlfriends) is part of the healing process for children, and re-building trust through honesty and communication (without tearing down the other parent) is crucial. Teaching our children to have healthy boundaries in all of their own relationships is part of preventing the cycle from replaying out in the next generation.

Accepting the path before her for a newly-single woman means not only embracing God’s future for her, but also trusting that God will “parent” her children in the ways she cannot control even after she has done her best to lead them.

Being Stuck in the Desert

“I heard a pastor once say (paraphrasing), “God closed the Red Sea not only to save the Israelites from the Egyptians who were chasing them, but also so that they had no passage back to their oppressors.” God knew they would think it easier to go back. Many separated or divorced women feel that as well because of guilt and shame. They get stuck in the desert because they’re unable to see God’s plan or purpose, even for their divorce.”

Understanding God’s heart for the oppressed and those cast aside leads to the trust necessary to let Him bring us out of the desert, and into the new life He has prepared for us – not merely to survive; but to thrive in His service. The “Red Sea” door has been closed; notwithstanding the judgement of others, a woman in such circumstances must learn to trust and lean on God alone for her vindication and direction. Wasting nothing, God puts the pieces of shattered lives back together so that His daughters who have been through this painful desert may be a witness and source of strength to their sisters walking the same path. “Giving the past purpose is part of your healing,” Grice writes. “Divorce doesn’t define who you are in Christ. And those who walk in the light will never walk in darkness again.”

Grice’s words to women in destructive marriages or who have been through divorce speak life and healing. It is refreshing to see a Christian author speak so candidly about the raw pain one experiences at the tearing of a “one flesh” union, regardless of circumstances; yet she refuses to leave it there. Drawing on her own experiences and those of other women she has counseled, Grice infuses the reader with hope and an unwavering commitment to the Word of God. She continuously leads the reader back into the arms of the Father she may have felt abandoned her, reminding her that her strength comes from Him alone – not the opinions of others; false identities she has applied to herself; another man; or any other ‘empty cistern’ that may give her temporary relief.

Both in this book and on her blog, jengrice.com, Grice uses Scriptural principles to guide hurting women to re-claim their identity in Christ, no matter how long they have been in the desert. She guides against bitterness, gives helpful practical advice, and gently exhorts the reader with Scripture passages to strengthen her on this hard journey. Renewing an unwavering trust in the God Who loves her is the key to renewing strength, reclaiming joy, and thriving in ministry for a Christian woman post-divorce. This book is a valuable resource not only for these women, but also for counselors and families of divorced women in order to learn better how to love them as Christ does. It is a privilege to review and recommend it.

The Problem with Church Membership Covenants – bad doctrine hurts God’s people

A modern distinction of the Neo-Cal movement, signed “membership covenants” have no basis in Scripture and are one of the hallmarks of a cult. One of the issues I write about in my upcoming book about spiritual abuse, “Broken Toys”, I was happily surprised to see my friend Tim Fall has already done so.

Tim's Blog - Just One Train Wreck After Another

The Old Testament is full of covenants God made with his people: Edenic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic. If those aren’t familiar to you, don’t worry. The point is that God makes covenants – a type of binding promise – with his people.

Today we live under the new and lasting covenant Jesus established. It had been promised in prophecy centuries before.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:31-32.)

Under this New Covenant, God enables you to know him intimately.

“This is the covenant I will…

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“My best friend has just been hospitalized. How can I help her?”

spital

From “Ilira”

By Marie O’Toole

All of us, at one time or another, have had a friend or relative in the hospital. Sometimes it is the sudden onset of illness which leaves a patient’s family members in a bewildering situation. Other times, and unfortunate accident can lead to months of treatment and physical therapy. Whatever the situation, medical crises are times when friends and family are most needed. What are some practical ways you can be a “friend in need” while a loved one is sick or injured?

When Visiting at the Hospital

Being alone in a hospital is often frightening, and it is always boring. You will surely want to visit your friend, but check the hospital’s policy first on guests (what hours they are allowed; if she is in the intensive care unit, if she will be able to receive visitors at all). If your friend has just given birth, be sure to ask her wishes before you visit – not all new moms want visitors at the hospital, and would prefer you come to see her and the baby once they are at home.

Three things to keep in mind when visiting at the hospital:

  • Be respectful in the length of time you stay. Depending on your friend’s medical condition, she may need more quiet rest than you realize, and she may not be able to focus on a conversation for very long. This is especially true in cases of serious illness or if she is on pain medication, which cause extreme drowsiness. If she is sharing the room with another patient, do not stay longer than an hour as longer visits make it difficult for the roommate to rest.
  • Wash your hands with anti-bacterial soap before entering the room. Many infections are spread in hospitals, and the first line of prevention is frequent hand-washing. If your friend has a compromised immune system, (for example, if she is receiving chemotherapy), this is crucial. Precautions such as masks and gloves are often used by visitors with cancer patients, as well. Being especially careful with hygiene (and postponing a visit if you are sick yourself) is very important for your friend’s well-being.
  • Letters (and other personal touches) mean a lot. While enduring a tedious hospital stay, patients will appreciate the knowledge that friends are thinking of and praying for them. It’s fun (and helps the time pass more quickly) to look at photo albums and remember things you’ve done together, read personal notes, or enjoy a book you’ve selected with her in mind. Books make excellent gifts, as do electronic devices. Avoid bringing balloons, as many patients have latex allergies.

Depending on how sick your friend is and her personal wishes, it might be a good idea to avoid bringing young children to the hospital. Also, visits in the evening should be avoided, especially by several people at once. You will want to be considerate of the other patients on the unit, and noise created by visitors may make it difficult for them to rest. Keep in mind that your friend may not be able to focus on you or even stay awake for a long visit, and that is perfectly ok. Friends and family members visiting patients with extended illnesses or lengthy hospital stays often bring knitting or other things to keep their hands busy while just sitting quietly. It is not necessary to engage her in conversation all the time; your presence itself is comforting.

When She Returns Home

Don’t forget your friend still needs you after discharge. If she has a family, they have likely pulled together to take care of her and each other during her hospitalization, and practical help would be a blessing to them. Once she has gone home, some ways to serve her as she continues to recuperate are:

Shopping. This is the single-most difficult task for someone recovering from an illness or injury. An offer to take a list from her and purchase what she needs may be greatly appreciated.

Cooking. Each meal provided by a thoughtful friend means one less evening she will have to be on her feet in the kitchen. Preparing meals that can be frozen for future use (for example, soups; moussaka; roasted meat) is always a good idea.

Child care. If your friend has small children, offering to take them on outings or watch them for a few hours so she can rest can be a real blessing to her. Caring for young children, while a joy, takes much energy and so taking them for a few hours will give her some much-needed rest.

When a woman has been hospitalized, her family feels her absence very keenly and will surely need this help. The compassion you demonstrate by visiting with her and making sure her needs are met after she goes home will encourage her tremendously, and help her to recover more quickly.  Don’t forget that when you are assisting your friend, you are also serving the needs of her husband and children (if she has them) and being the “fragrance of Christ” (‘’’ 2 Corinthians 2:15) in this way.

“Shoqja ime e ngushtë sapo u shtrua në spital. Si mund ta ndihmoj?”

spital

Nga Marie O’Toole

(“Ilira”, Maj 2017). Perkthues: Elson Farka. (Lexoni në anglisht ketu).

Të gjithë ne, në një moment të jetës, kemi pasur një mik apo të afërm në spital. Ndonjëherë është pikërisht fillimi i papritur i sëmundjes ai që i lë anëtarët e familjes së pacientit në një situatë të pakëndshme. Herë të tjera, një aksident fatkeq mund të çojë në muaj të tërë me trajtime dhe terapi fizike. Pavarësisht situatës, në fatkeqësi të tilla mjekësore, miqtë dhe familja janë ata që i duam më shumë pranë vetes. Cilat janë disa mënyra praktike si të tregohesh një “mik i vërtetë” kur një person i dashur për ty është sëmurë ose i plagosur?

Gjatë vizitës në spital

Të qenit vetëm në spital është shpesh e frikshme dhe pothuajse gjithmonë e mërzitshme. Ti me siguri dëshiron të vizitosh shoqen tënde, por si fillim informohu me rregullat e spitalit për vizitorët (orari i lejuar; nëse ajo është në reanimacion, nëse ajo mund të takojë vizitorë). Nëse shoqja jote sapo ka lindur fëmijë, sigurohu ta pyesësh për dëshirat e saj para se ta vizitosh – jo të gjitha nënat e reja duan vizitorë në spital, dhe preferojnë më shumë vizitat sapo ato të kthehen në shtëpi me foshnjat e tyre.

Tri gjëra që duhet të mbash mend kur të shkosh për vizitë në spital:

  • Respekto kohëzgjatjen e vizitës

Në varësi të gjendjes mjekësore të shoqes tënde, ajo mund të ketë nevojë për më shumë pushim sesa mendon ti, dhe mund të mos jetë e aftë të përqendrohet në bisedë për një kohë të gjatë. Kjo është veçanërisht e vërtetë në rastet me sëmundje të rënda, ose nëse shoqja jote po merr mjekim për dhimbjen, e cila mund të shkaktojë përgjumje ekstreme. Nëse ajo është në të njëjtën dhomë me një paciente tjetër, mos qëndro më gjatë se një orë sepse vizitat e gjata e bëjnë të vështirë që ajo të pushojë.

  • Laj duart me sapun antibakterial para se të hysh në dhomë

Shumë infeksione përhapen në spital, dhe hapi i parë i parandalimit është larja e shpeshtë e duarve. Nëse shoqja jote ka sistem imunitar të ulur, (për shembull, nëse ajo po trajtohet me kemoterapi), kjo gjë është shumë e rëndësishme. Masat paraprake, siç janë vendosja e maskës dhe e dorezave, përdoren shpesh nga vizitorët e pacientëve me kancer. Të qenit e kujdesshme sidomos me higjenën (dhe shtyrja e vizitës nëse je vetë sëmurë) është shumë e rëndësishme për mirëqenien e shoqes tënde.

  • Letrat (dhe gjërat e tjera personale) kanë domethënie të madhe

Gjatë qëndrimit të tyre të gjatë në spital, pacientët do ta vlerësonin shumë faktin që miqtë po mendojnë dhe po luten për ta. Është kënaqësi (dhe të ndihmon të kalosh kohën) të shikosh albumet e fotografive dhe të kujtosh gjërat që keni bërë bashkë, të lexosh shënimet personale, ose kur asaj i pëlqen një libër që ti e ke zgjedhur kur po mendoje për të. Librat janë dhurata të shkëlqyera, ashtu siç janë edhe pajisjet elektronike. Mos sill tullumbace, sepse shumë pacientë kanë alergji nga lateksi.

Në varësi të gjendjes shëndetësore të shoqes tënde dhe të dëshirave personale të saj, mund të jetë një ide e mirë që të mos sjellësh fëmijë të vegjël në spital. Gjithashtu, vizitat gjatë mbrëmjes duhen shmangur, sidomos kur ka shumë vizitorë në të njëjtën kohë. Duhet të konsiderosh edhe pacientët e tjerë, sepse zhurmat që bëjnë vizitorët mund ta bëjnë të vështirë për ata të pushojnë. Mos harro që shoqja jote mund të mos jetë në gjendje të përqendrohet te ti, ose të qëndrojë zgjuar për shumë kohë, gjë që është krejtësisht normale dhe e kuptueshme.

Miqtë dhe anëtarët e familjes që vizitojnë pacientët me sëmundje kronike, ose ata që qëndrojnë gjatë në spital shpesh marrin me vete shtiza për të bërë punë dore, ose gjëra të tjera sa për të mbajtur duart e tyre të zëna, ndërkohë thjesht rrinë ulur në heshtje. Nuk është e nevojshme të bisedosh me të gjatë gjithë kohës; vetë prania jote është inkurajuese.

Kur Ajo Kthehet në Shtëpi

Mos harro që shoqja jote ka nevojë për ty edhe pas largimit nga spitali. Nëse ajo ka një familje, me shumë mundësi ata janë mbledhur së bashku për t’u kujdesur për të dhe për dhe njëri-tjetrin gjatë qëndrimit të saj në spital, dhe një ndihmesë sado e vogël nga ana jote do të ishte bekim për ta. Pasi kthehet në shtëpi, disa mënyra për t’i shërbyer asaj teksa ajo vazhdon të shërohet janë:

Të bërit pazar. Kjo është shumë e vështirë për t’u realizuar nga dikush që po shërohet nga një sëmundje. Të shkosh të bësh pazar dhe të blesh listën e gjërave që shoqja jote ka nevojë është një ndihmesë e madhe për të.

Të gatuarit. Një vakt i gatuar nga një mik do të thotë një mbrëmje më pak për të qëndruar në këmbë në kuzhinë. Përdorimi i ushqimeve të ngrira për t’i konsumuar më vonë (për shembull, supat; mishi i pjekur) është gjithmonë një ide e mirë.

Kujdesi për fëmijët. Nëse shoqja jote ka fëmijë të vegjël, do të ishte një bekim i vërtetë për të nëse ti del shëtitje ose kujdesesh për ta për disa orë. Fëmijët e vegjël, edhe pse janë gëzim familjar, kërkojë shumë përkushtim dhe kujdesje e cila të lodh shumë dhe kështu shëtitjet për disa orë i mundësojnë shoqes tënde një pushim shumë të nevojshëm.

Kur një grua është e shtruar në spital, familja e ndien shumë mungesën e saj dhe me siguri edhe kjo e fundit do ketë nevojë për ndihmë. Dhembshuria që ti i tregon gjatë vizitës dhe siguria që nevojat e saj janë plotësuar pasi ajo shkon në shtëpi, mund ta inkurajojnë jashtëzakonisht shumë, dhe ta ndihmojnë për t’u shëruar më shpejt. Mos harro se kur je duke ndihmuar shoqen tënde, ti je duke u shërbyer edhe nevojave të burrit dhe të fëmijëve saj (nëse ajo ka) dhe në këtë mënyrë je gjithashtu edhe “aroma e Krishtit” (2 Korintasve 2:15).

Open Letter to Adult Children of Patients

interp

 

By Marie O’Toole

Dear Son or Daughter:

I just interpreted for your father or mother. It may have been our first encounter; or I may have had the pleasure of knowing him or her for a good many years. The medical encounter proceeded just as always: pleasantries; information relayed; test results discussed; plan of treatment considered.

Today you worried that you offended me.

You didn’t.

You see, we medical interpreters are a perceptive group with thick skin. And we care about your parent, who is far more than the medical record number we write on our Service Verification Forms.

I realize, as does the healthcare provider, how well you speak English. Even moreso, how you care for your ailing parent. You are your parent’s best advocate, and that’s why I appreciate your presence. Some of you work in healthcare in the United States; some of you have battled diseases such as cancer yourself. All of you, it seems, come to the exam room far better equipped than I, a mere linguist, to help Mom or Dad make the best healthcare decisions for him or herself.

And of course, you all understand the constraints of HIPPA law; consent forms; waivers of services (if you decline my services). None of this is personal, and the implications of serious illnesses such as cancer naturally make a family want to turn inward.

I am often an uninvited witness to your very personal pain. I get that. And I respect it.

More than that, I am incredibly grateful to YOU.

Sometimes, the doctor pauses mid-sentence in order to allow me time to consequitively interpret his or her sentence and as I do so, you pick up on the fact that I don’t understand where he or she is going with it. Focused purely on linguistics, I may have missed the gravity of the situation and you interject something. No, you did NOT offend me. Do not apologize, as you often do, for reeling off crucial medical information that only you would know during an appointment. You have all this information in your head; the physician needs to know it.

I am there purely as an interpreter – a conduit of language. I am not the one who has sat up with your mother or father countless nights, through nausea, pain, or other symptoms. Do NOT apologize for interjecting.

Sometimes you catch my eye, as if to communicate the gravity of what the doctor is saying. This is especially true when we are with an oncologist, and timeframes such as months and years are being relayed. The relief you all show at not having to be the interpreter in those situations is palpable, and I sense your deference to let me interpret this painful information from language to language.

As I do my job, I hope and believe I do not come across as overly-clinical and sterile. Once, when interpreting a terminal cancer diagnosis, I had to fix my mind on getting the accents on the correct syllable and noun declension so that I would not burst into tears myself. As a mother, I dread the pediatrics floor. As a daughter, I pray not to be in your shoes.

You asked the physician additional questions in English, and feared I was offended. I wasn’t.

You see, there is only one person who matters right now: your mum or dad. You have information inside your head that neither I nor the doctor are privy to; by all means, share it. I’m no stranger to cross-conversation (hey, I lived in the Balkans for years!) so I can easily interpret the additional information simultaneously into mum or dad’s ear. Stop worrying about me and focus on your parent.

I saw how relieved your eyes were today when I interpreted every word the doctor said, with the appropriate gravity – and YOU didn’t have to be the one to deliver bad news. The brief second of eye contact we made spoke volumes, and in that moment I again realized that we are a part of a team. Team “Your Parent”.

You corrected a mistake I made, and feared I was offended. I wasn’t.

Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. I lack the hubris, even after 16 years in the profession, to think that I am incapable of making an error either in medical terminology or syntax. I learned Bulgarian as a young adult, so while I may enjoy near-native fluency of the language, I carried my medical dictionaries around for years after becoming certified as an interpreter. And you know what? Many times, your English is better than my Bulgarian. I realize that I still have an accent in Bulgarian, even after 25 years. Please rest assured that your proficiency in English does not offend me.

And thank you for allowing me to enter into what is, often, an incredibly sensitive and painful time for your family. I have often (MANY times!) been racked with guilt after leaving an assignment (a precious encounter with your mum or dad, and often you) that I had to impersonally rush off to my next assignment with an LEP (Limited English Speaker) at a neighboring hospital. I worry that I come across as cold, uncaring, and impersonal. I rationalize such thoughts by reminding myself that I am an interpreter; not a patient advocate. And healthcare professionals are trained in the art of emotional detachment from their patients.

See, I missed that day. But many years of experience of having the privilege of being part of your intimate circle has taught me much.

The Bible says to rejoice with those who rejoice; and mourn with those who mourn. This morning, I interpreted for a gentleman whose cancer remains in remission. Good news is easy to interpret, and I’m objectively glad for him. This afternoon, your father presented with additional malignant growths outside the area of radiation, and I had to interpret hard facts. I am deeply sorry. Maybe I don’t always show it in the exam room, especially as new pages come in, but I truly do care and want everything to be alright.

A few of you have found me on Facebook or social media, and thanked me for my “compassion” towards your ailing parent. I am ashamed to admit I did not even remember being particularly compassionate, even though I truly did care – I was concerned that my rushing off to another appointment would be seen as coldness.

We are a team, you and I. You have the best interest of your beloved parent at heart; and in a professional, much more detached way, so do I. At BIDMC, (one of the hospitals at which I interpret), their slogan is “Human First”. I am a human…..a mother; a sister; a daughter; first – I understand to a certain point what you are going through, and can empathize. And then I am a medical interpreter. Trained; linguistically adept; and socially neutral, completely at your service.

Thank you for allowing me to be part your “team”. Please know that I love my career, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to speak into your parent’s life, even if only as an interpreter. A reassuring glance; a smile, a hand squeeze….these are the things people remember. If I incorrectly conjugated a verb in Bulgarian, I beg your pardon. And I thank you for your indulgence in accepting my assistance as a linguist on your parent’s team.

I love and value every one of you.

Respectfully,

Marie O’Toole

BulgarianEnglish Interpreter

Spreading Your Wings – Even When They’re Broken

Spreading Your Wings – Even When They’re Broken

By Marie O’Toole (formerly Notcheva)

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We are so thankful to Marie for writing a guest post just for our ministry! We have long since supported and respected Marie for all she has endured. Marie is the author of “Redeemed from the Pit” and “Plugged In: Proclaiming Christ in the Internet Age”. She is also a trained counselor, who is now focusing her ministry on helping emotionally abused women. She is currently writing a third book – on abuse women endure, and the Church’s failure to address it.

 

 

Fourteen months ago today, I stepped into the kitchen of my new home – a two-bedroom apartment – to find that my landlady had left me a case of rice pilaf, hot cocoa and eggnog mix, a bottle of steak sauce, and tins of chocolate cookies for my children. It was, by far, the kindest gesture any Christian made towards me during the painful month of my divorce.

My landlady, a woman approximately twenty years my senior, understood first-hand the stigma of being a divorced Christian woman. Happily married now to a loving man, Cheryl had also gone through the pain of betrayal and subsequent difficulty that comes with suddenly finding oneself a single mom.

Paying it Forward

I realize I am far, far more fortunate than the women helped by Give Her Wings. This is why I support their ministry, not only financially but also by speaking up for abused women and writing about the secondary abuse we often face from our churches. Where the Church has largely failed to help women who have had to escape abusive situations, ministries like Give Her Wings and secular programs have stood in the gap. Fortunately, I have never faced homelessness. I have two degrees; a rewarding and well-paying career as an interpreter, and my children are well beyond the age where they would need childcare. Following months of intimidation attempts by my ex-husband, I was able to hire a lawyer and am now receiving child support. The other “mamas” are not so lucky – I am painfully aware that Give Her Wings is often the only resource standing between them and abject poverty.

During the journey of the last year, however, what I’ve come to appreciate is that moral support and encouragement from other Christians is even more important to “getting back on my feet” than a steady paycheck. And by “feet”, I mean my spiritual groundings. The worst part of emotional abuse is that after time, you start to actually believe you deserve it. Even when we finally wake up, and realize that the abuser is the one with the problem (and not us), the struggle to leave is compounded by those who enable the abuser (and shame the victim, trying to paint her as the villain for standing up to the abuse). All too often, abused women’s churches are guilty of this. Secondary abuse by clergy is insidious, because we have been conditioned to believe these men speak for God. The all-too-common practice of trying to convince women to ‘reconcile’ with unrepentant abusers is a horrible sin, which only compounds the woman’s pain.

When you have left an abusive marriage, it is vitally important to get connected to a loving, Gospel-preaching faith community. Telling women that ‘abuse is never grounds for divorce’ is not biblical, nor is shunning or excommunicating them when they leave. Once the marriage covenant has been broken by abuse, women need godly counsel and compassion that will help restore their identity as daughters of the King. There are many good churches that will do that. Even if you have been hurt by a church, there are others that will help heal your wounds. My current pastor and many people in my church have done just that, and it has been vital both to my healing and to restoring my trust in Christians again.

Coffee and Compassion

Last year, my former pastor harassed me (mainly by email) for 10 straight months following my divorce. The harassment turned to blackmail three weeks before Christmas, when I was threatened with defamation if I refused to repent of the ‘sin’ of leaving my abuser (this was four months after I resigned membership from his church). Exhausted by the 50-60 hour weeks I was working in order to survive, and worn down by the pastor’s constant gas-lighting, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Without his knowing the details of my situation, my new pastor emailed me one morning simply to ask how I was (no one at my former church had ever done that). Alarmed by my answer, he and his wife arranged to meet me at Panera Bread that very afternoon…..where he let me cry and shared the Gospel with me for three straight hours. Two women in the church, around my mother’s age, subsequently ‘adopted’ me. They would often invite me over for coffee in weeks following. At Christmas, I learned that someone had anonymously donated a ‘love offering’ to me so that I could buy my children Christmas gifts.

Throughout the whole ordeal, I was surrounded by strong, Christian friends who lifted me up at my lowest points. Most of them are members of other churches, but all are strong believers. Yet the dichotomy was striking in how one church’s leadership took the stance that I was the one in sin, simply for standing up for myself; whilst another church emulated Christ’s role as a Protector and Defender of the innocent. It would have been impossible to hold onto my faith in God if I had not been embraced by His children in this way. Spiritual abuse can be the most damaging type of all, because it skews your view of God. If an institution claiming to act in His Name is systematically tormenting the weakest and most vulnerable members of His Body, the sheep will be so beaten down that eventually they will leave. In His mercy, Christ has provided true shepherds – like my current pastor – who continuously reveal Him to the hurting. Relentlessly, he takes me back to Scripture to show me how we are all a part of “His Story” and partakers of His grace.

Remembering Our True Identity

One of the most important things my pastor has taught me is simply a “refresher course” on what I’ve often counseled women myself: finding my identity in Christ; and not in the opinion of others. After 11 years serving and fellowshipping at Heritage Bible Chapel, I saw the side-long glances and heard the gossip started by women I had previously considered friends. None of them knew the real story, but at least a dozen women in that church had known (or suspected) I was in an abusive marriage. For months after I left, my former pastor continued to spin his version of the story, even going so far as to Facebook-message friends of mine invitations to have “conversations” about me with him. It seemed the torment would never end.

Yet Pastor David and my other spiritual mentors continuously reminded me that Jesus Himself was unjustly slandered, and to continue to focus on His opinion of me….not that of others. It is a hard lesson to learn, but nothing else will bring us the inner peace and lasting joy in Christ that we so desperately need in trials. He also counseled me to forgive my prior church leadership, who are simply deceived in their hearts. Like Paul massacring early Christians, they actually believe that what they are doing is an act of service to God.

The journey is long, and unexpected roadblocks often come up. The most difficult struggles are not always financial, but rather spiritual. Surviving after divorce, even absent spiritual abuse, is incredibly difficult. No one can do this alone and thrive. There are many who will try to break your wings; do not let them. Seek out instead those who will help you heal, and enable you to soar again on wings of eagles. If you are depressed, get help. Give Her Wings can help you find a safe, Bible-preaching church in your area, and is starting to compile a directory of trained counselors (including myself) equipped to help you. There are many soldiers in this battle, and you are not alone!

“Unë i Kam Pasur Flokët si të Tutë”

Nga Marie (Notcheva) O’Toole

hair_albLexoni në anglisht ketu.

Në karrierën time si përkthyese në mjekësi, një nga vendet ku kam punë çdo javë është një spital shumë i njohur i kancerit në Boston. Me një arredim të bukur të brendshëm dhe një staf të dashur e të mirëtrajnuar për të ruajtur dinjitetin e pacientëve, ai të jep më tepër ndjesinë e një hoteli me 5 yje, sesa të një spitali. Kjo bëhet qëllimisht: kanceri është një sëmundje e tmerrshme, sinonim me vuajtjen dhe, çfarëdo mase rehatie që u ofrohet pacientëve dhe familjeve, është hartuar për t’i ndihmuar që t’i largohen atij tmerri.

Dhimbja që kanceri shkakton nuk është vetëm fizike.

Kati i kemoterapisë

Jo shumë kohë më parë, isha ulur në një pavion te kemoterapisë me një pacientin tim (një burrë i moshuar nga Bullgaria me një prognozë të mirë). Trajtimet zgjasin disa orë, kështu, mbasi ndihmova pacientin të nënshkruante formularin e Pranimit të Trajtimit, u rehatova si pa mendje duke parë Instagramin dhe Facebook-un në telefonin tim. Një grua e re që po merrte kemoterapi e ulur ndoshta 2-3 metra përballë meje, dukej sikur nuk po m’i ndante sytë. Nuk dukej e lumtur. Askush të cilit i futen helme në trup nuk pritet të duket i lumtur. Sa herë që ngrija kokën, ajo largonte shikimin.

Të tretën herë që ktheva sytë në drejtimin e saj, e pashë në sy dhe i buzëqesha. “Mot i çuditshëm, apo jo?”, ishte fraza e mençur që doli nga goja ime. Duke e shpërfillur komentin tim, ajo zbrazi çfarë kishte qenë duke menduar:

“Unë i kam pasur flokët si të tutë”.

Toni i saj i zërit ishte i përzishëm. Ishte vështirë të dalloje se çfarë moshe kishte, sepse kemoterapia ka edhe efektin anësor të fryrjes së fytyrës së pacientit. Të kuptuarit sa është përhapur kanceri, opsionet e trajtimit dhe pritjet e jetëgjatësisë ndonjëherë duken më abstrakte sesa humbjet e momentit, të flokëve të fertilitetit, të bukurisë fizike për gratë. Pashë e shokuar që përveç infermieres, isha e vetmja grua në atë dhomë që kishte flokë. E shoh këtë çdo ditë dhe duket sikur jam bërë më pak e ndjeshme. I shikoj pacientët si “raste mjekësore”, por nuk mundem të futem plotësisht në dhimbjen e tyre, ose në ankthin e një gruaje të re për humbjen e flokëve.

Dhe këtë doja.

E ruajta kontaktin me sy. “Më vjen shumë keq që ke humbur flokët,” i thashë. “Duhet të ketë qenë shumë, shumë e vështirë për ty.” Sytë iu mbushën me lot dhe vetëm tundi kokën. Jam e sigurt që nuk kishte nevojë t’ia kujtonin që “do të të rriten prapë” ose t’i thuhej “Oh, janë vetëm flokë!” për të njëmijëtën herë. Ishte dhimbje. Ajo kishte nevojë që dikush ta pranonte këtë fakt.

Edhe flokët e kokës suaj janë të numëruara

Si të krishterë, ne jemi kaq të shpejtë për t’u fokusuar në “gjërat atje lart” dhe në “frytet shpirtërore”, saqë është pothuajse një tundim që t’i kalosh përciptas gjërat e përkohshme (si puna e humbjes së flokëve), ose edhe të kapërcejmë shqetësime të tilla si thjesht kotësi. Por dëshira për t’u dukur dhe për t’u ndier e bukur është kaq thellësisht e ngulitur në të gjitha gratë kudo, saqë ta ulësh këtë si një vogëlsi, do të ishte e pashpirt dhe e pandjeshme. Unë besoj se ky aspekt i kancerit është më i vështirë për gratë sesa për burrat (burrat më të vjetër ndonjëherë edhe bëjnë shaka për rënien edhe të atyre dy fijeve që u kanë mbetur). Për një grua, nuk është aspak shaka. Është një tragjedi e pashoqe. Nuk është e mundur, e as e përshtatshme, të futësh me forcë një shkak të tillë hidhërimi, në kallëpet teologjike. Është shumë më e rëndësishme që thjesht të tregosh përkujdesje…, ashtu si Krishti do të bënte, dhe bën, për çdo aspekt të jetës së saj (Luka 12:7).

Dashamirësia e thjeshtë shpeshherë ndodh larg zyrave të këshillimit. Si mund ta këshillojmë një grua që hidhërohet për humbjen e flokëve të saj, apo për heqjen e gjirit? Ne sigurisht që duhet t’i ofrojmë sigurinë që ajo prapë është e bukur në sytë e Perëndisë dhe që ajo duhet ta besojë të ardhmen e saj në duart e Tij. Ka, me shumë mundësi, shumë mënyra se si ne mund ta inkurajojmë atë në marrëdhënien e saj me Zotin ndërsa përleshet me dhimbjen e një sëmundjeje (ndonjëherë drejt vdekjes). Por nuk ka nevojë të jemi këshillues (apo të dimë shumë teologji) për të ofruar atë lloj kujdesi për të cilin një grua ka nevojë dëshpërimisht në kohë të tilla.

Prova e recipetave

Të nesërmen u ktheva në të njëjtin spital për të përkthyer për një grua të vjetër që kishte humbur njërin gji. Ky nuk ishte një takim mjekësor. Ajo do të bënte prova për një recipetë dhe protezë të veçantë në butikun e spitalit. Asistentja gazmore e ndihmoi pacienten që të zgjidhte një palë recipeta të modës me ngjyra pranverore; u sigurua që gjithçka të ishte në simetri; disa herë ia përsëriti se sa mirë i rrinin. Dhe gjëja më e bukur ishte se ajo ishte krejtësisht e sinqertë. Kur pacientja i mori recipetat, filloi të qante ndërkohë duke i kërkuar falje asistentes për shenjën e saj të shëmtuar të mastektomisë. Gruaja e re fshiu lotët, e përqafoi atë dhe e siguroi që ajo ishte e bukur.

Kjo, shumë më tepër sesa testet e gjakut apo rezultatet e skanerit, është shpeshherë çfarë një grua ka nevojë të dëgjojë. Qe një moment tepër prekës, dhe përforcoi një mësim në përkujdesje që dua ta mbaj mend jo vetëm në këshillim, por edhe në jetën e përditshme të krishterë. Të gjitha gratë kanë pasigurira, dhe kur ne jemi të ndjeshme ndaj nevojave të njëra-tjetrës për inkurajim dhe siguri, Perëndia gjithmonë na jep mundësira për ta ndërtuar njëratjetrën.

Një nevojë e vlefshme për bukuri…dhe dashuri

Kaq shpesh në dishepullizim, ne jepemi kaq shumë pas teologjisë dhe “parimeve biblike” që zbatohen në një situatë (që janë kyçe, sigurisht), saqë harrojmë nevojat e thjeshta, bazë, që janë dhënë nga Krijuesi. Sigurisht që rritja shpirtërore është e një rëndësie më të lartë se pamja. Askush nuk do ta mohonte këtë, dhe është ngushëlluese të kujtosh përkufizimin e Perëndisë për bukurinë: “një shpirt i butë dhe i qetë” (1 Pjetri 3:4). Por kemi edhe lejen që të “qajmë me ata që qajnë…. të pikëllohemi me ata që pikëllohen” (Romakëve 12:15). Edhe nëse janë të pikëlluara “vetëm për flokët”, apo se kanë humbur bukurinë fizike, gratë, ashtu si dhe burrat, janë bartëse të imazhit të Perëndisë dhe dëshira për të reflektuar bukuri është e mirë, legjitime dhe, kur kanalizohet siç duhet, është një dëshirë e perëndishme. Kur vuajnë këtë lloj humbjeje personale, gratë nuk kanë nevojë për fraza apo vargje nga Bibla që janë ngazëllyese. Ato kanë nevojë për përkujdesje, përqafime, siguri që ato akoma janë të bukura dhe kanë shumë për të dhënë. Dhe ndoshta kanë nevojë për një mike që t’i nxjerrë për të blerë recipetat apo ndonjë shall të bukur.

Trusting God to Open Doors (Interview with Ajkena Çela)

By Marie (Notcheva) O’Toole

010Ajkena Çela was three years old when the sound of praise and worship songs drew her mom to church in their Lushnjë neighborhood. Her mother gave her life to Christ soon thereafter, and Ajkena attended church with her regularly. By age nine, she had a strong understanding of personal sin, and already was following Christ. Her biggest childhood dream was to study in the United States, and she prayed fervently for this. When she turned seventeen, God enabled her to move to the US to graduate from high school while living with a host family in Glendive, Montana. Helped by her sister Suela, who works in community college admissions, she was able to earn a two-year degree in Science….but she wanted more.

“I wanted to complete a Bachelor’s degree, but it was only possible with a full scholarship,” she explains. “I was waiting to hear from Boise State University in Idaho, where I had applied.” Nervous, Ajkena constantly checked her email and shared her fears with her older sister. “I was freaking out,” she says. “I was praying, but I was not really giving it to God. Suela reminded me simply, ‘If God wants this to work out, it will. Trust Him! If it does not work out, he will certainly open other doors.”

Taking her sister’s advice, Ajkena immersed herself in her day-to-day life in Glendive and forgot to check her email. A few nights later, she learned that she had won the scholarship, and cried tears of joy. Ajkena, now studying Kinesiology at Boise State, recalls, “It bolstered my faith immediately, but God had already been with me so much that I shouldn’t have been surprised.”

Waiting on God to answer her prayers hasn’t always been easy. I first met Ajkena at age 15, when she was a part of her Lushnjë church youth group attending summer camp. Ajkena stood out as a young woman with unusually strong principles, an unwavering faith in God, and a beautiful singing voice. (She could sing Christian praise songs equally well in both English and Albanian, switching flawlessly between the two languages during evening events). Once camp was over and she returned to “real life”, however, things weren’t so carefree.

Missing her Father

Ajkena and I kept in touch through Skype, and I learned that she was struggling with her father’s recent return from Greece. Her father had been working there since she was one year old, and due to geographic distance they did not have a close relationship. Ajkena only knew his voice. “I will never forget his sacrifice for our family, or how my parents sacrificed their marriage in order for my sister and me to have the best food, clothes and education. But I thought that I’d never be able to fill the “hole” in my heart, of my father not being with me when I needed him the most.” God used this painful experience to mature Ajkena and she says her heart is now healed. “I am where I have always wanted to be. I let God heal my relationship with my father, and now I love him more than I could ever imagine.”

Coming to America

In 2013, Ajkena arrived in Glendive, Montana. It was a dream come true….but Ajkena faced new challenges that would cause loneliness and isolation, and force her to examine who she was in Christ. “I didn’t expect life in the US would be so different,” she says. “I was missing the warmth of Albania. In the US, there is less hugging, touching and emotional support from people. At first, I thought people around me were rejecting me, but over time I realized ‘that’s just the way it is; they’re not ignoring me.”

Getting accustomed to the cold climate of Montana, detachment of people, and countless cultural oddities (such as the use of artificial flowers for home décor) was just the beginning for Ajkena. Soon, her faith was tested when she entered the world of American college life. She attended church, but did not feel connected in her small town. Loneliness is common for university students when they leave home, but Ajkena was half a world away from her home and church family.

She began eating for emotional reasons, and gained weight. “American food has a lot of sugar and I started to eat more to combat stress. There are two types of women in the world – those who don’t eat when they are emotionally upset; and those that eat more. I am in the second category,” she says. Ajkena was trying to fill a spiritual void. “Growing up in church in Lushnjë, we were given real spiritual ‘food’. But here, my faith was not being fed.” Her steadfast immersion in God’s Word and reliance on Him kept her faith strong during those three years. She read her Bible daily and prayed, but says “I was downcast, but not hopeless because I knew God was with me.”

Finally Feeling at Home

True to her strong convictions, Ajkena focused on her education and her personal walk with God. Then in May 2016, she received the dreamed-of scholarship and moved west – to Boise, Idaho. Finding a new church, Ajkena says, “I finally felt at home! Bose is a bigger city than Glendive, so there were more people to befriend. I found other people who also felt disconnected!” This common ground with other believers helped Ajkena mature in her faith. “While I was going through my struggle to find community in Glendive, I was not judging anyone. I focused on not letting culture or nationality divide us. We are defined by the same God; we have the same Bible. Despite our nationality, socio-cultural influences, as true Christians, we define ourselves as citizens of God’s kingdom….who love and obey in the same way,” she says.

Having finally found her niche, Ajkena feels free to love others because she is so secure in her identity in Christ. “After my third year in Glendive, I learned how to love all kinds of people and realized this is life. I’m always going to have a good connection with people who think like me, but I am better able to love others for who they are.”014.jpg

For as long as I have known Ajkena, this young Christ-follower has always had an optimistic attitude towards even the hardest battles in life. Much stronger than she looks, she works hard in all she does but has learned first-hand that the battle belongs to the Lord. “When you let Christ change your identity, you trust Him to do great things through you,” she reflects. “When you take big steps toward loving and accepting and having compassion for other people, just the way they are, it is completely His power.”

Rrugëtimi i Sonila Potter

ilira_christmas_16Nga Marie Notcheva

Ky artikull është publikuar në numrin dhjetor 2016 “Ilira”.

Sonila  dymbëdhjetëvjeçare  donte një akullore. I futi duart ngadalë në xhepat e palltos së vjetër të të atit, duke parë mos gjente ndonjë lek të blinte një. Ajo që gjeti në fakt e intrigoi: një varëse me një burrë të varur në një kryq. E hutuar shkoi tek e ëma, e cila po bënte darkën. “Ma, çfarë është kjo? Kush është ky burri?”.

E ëma u kthye me kurriz nga soba, me një vështrim të frikësuar në sy. “Ku e gjete këtë?”, – e pyeti ajo. Liliana, nëna e Sonilës, kishte arsye të fortë të kishte frikë në vitin 1989: familja e mbante të fshehur origjinën ortodokse greke të babait të Sonilës nga frika e ndëshkimit nga regjimi Hoxha-Alia. “Çoje atje ku e more Sonila! Është mall kontrabandë”, – e paralajmëroi Liliana. Më vonë ime më më tregoi sekretin se kryqi portretizonte Jezu Krishtin dhe që Ai vdiq për mëkatet tona. Ajo më tha që, “Nëse i lutesh, Jezusi do të të dëgjojë”, – sjell ndër mend Sonila. “Ajo më ndaloi rreptësisht t’u tregoja të tjerëve për Të, sepse mund të na arrestonin të gjithëve”.

Shembulli pa fjalë i një nëne

Edhe pse Sonila kishte një besim fëmije dhe donte të dinte më shumë për këtë Perëndi i Cili e donte, vetëm kur u bë 15 vjeç, në vitin 1991, mundi të dëgjonte Ungjillin dhe të kuptonte kush ishte Personi dhe vepra e Jezu Krishtit. “Lutesha si fëmijë kur prindërit më treguan për Perëndinë, por nuk kisha njohuri për mëkatin”, – thotë ajo. “Në vitin 1991, kur filluan ndryshimet, misionarët po shpërndanin Ungjillin e Lukës të përkthyer në shqip në një kishë në Tiranë dhe aty mora një kopje. Isha kaq e etur për ta lexuar! Në faqen e fundit ishte një lutje dhe ndihesha sikur më në fund po më hapeshin sytë”, – thotë ajo. “Ndërsa lutesha, fjalët më dilnin drejt e nga zemra. Më në fund kuptova dhe qava ndërsa ia rrëfeva mëkatin tim këtij Zoti, të cilin më në fund mund ta njihja. Ndjeva dashurinë e Perëndisë që më mbështolli të tërën në kuptimin e vërtetë të fjalës”.

Tashmë e lirë për të shkuar në kishë, me nxitjen e prindërve Sonila shkoi në njërën nga kishat e para ungjillore në Tiranë. Pavarësisht vështirësive të jetës në fillim të viteve ’90, si Sonila ashtu edhe vëllai i saj, Genti, u bënë ndjekës të Krishtit, dhe kjo vinte në një farë mënyre edhe nga kuraja dhe besimi i prindërve të tyre. “Ime më ishte këshilluesja ime më e mirë”, – thotë Sonila. “Në fund të jetës së saj, ndërsa vuante nga tumori, më tha: “Mos qaj për mua, Sonilë. Po shkoj të takoj Bariun tim”. Ishte një shembull të cilin vajza e re nuk do ta harronte kurrë dhe dëshmia e nënës së saj mbolli një dashuri të thellë për Perëndinë dhe të tjerët në zemrën e Sonilës.

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Pak pas mbërritjes në Hollandë, 1998

Kur mbushi 20 vjet ajo kishte pasion për punë misionare dhe dëshironte fort ta shihte Ungjillin të predikohej te njerëz të pashpëtuar në Azi dhe në gjithë botën. “Në moshën 20 vjeçe nuk dija pothuajse fare anglisht dhe nuk kisha shumë të holla. Mendoja: ‘Si mund të më përdorë Perëndia mua, një shqiptare që s’di anglisht?’. Kështu që u luta që Ai thjesht të dërgonte dikë tjetër”, – sjell ndër mend ajo. Por Perëndia kishte plane të tjera. Po atë vit (1998) Ai hapi një derë për mua që t’i shërbeja në një hostel të rinjsh të krishterë në Amsterdam të Hollandës. Kisha mundësi t’u flisja për Ungjillin bujtësve në hotel dhe t’u shërbeja në nevojat e tyre emocionale. “Në një konferencë të krishterë në të cilën ajo mori pjesë bashkë me një shoqen e saj amerikane, ato vendosën të bëhen misionare dhe të shërbejnë për dy muaj në Filipine me YWAM (Të rinj me një mission). Menjëherë paskëtaj, Sonila pati mundësi afatshkurtra misioni në dhjetë vende të ndryshme aziatike, ku shërbeu me fëmijët, adoleshentët dhe nënat e reja që jetonin në varfëri ekstreme.

Studio për ta treguar veten  të miratuar…

Ndërsa pasioni i Sonilës për t’i shërbyer Perëndisë rritej, po kështu shtohej edhe dëshira e saj për të mësuar. “Zoti më dërgoi në një shkollë biblike në Gjermani për më shumë mësim dhe njohuri më të thellë të Fjalës së Tij”, – thotë ajo e mahnitur. Me një njohuri më të mirë të anglishtes, ajo tashmë mund të punonte si përkthyese vullnetare e Biblës Wycliffe dhe në Shkollën Biblike Capernwray në Angli. “Ndërsa shërbeja në Azi, lindi në mua një përkujdesje dhe dhembshuri për njerëzit, por më mungonte një njohuri e gjerë [doktrinare]”, – thotë ajo. “Po mendoja të studioja psikologji që të bëhesha terapiste, duke menduar se kjo ishte një mënyrë e mirë për t’i ndihmuar njerëzit. Fatmirësisht, shkolla biblike ofronte kurse këshillimi biblik. Lexova në internet mbi ndryshimin mes këshillimit biblik dhe se ku bazohej psikologjia… dhe vërtet e ndjeva se Perëndia më mbrojti nga e tatëposhta”. Sonila mori diplomë të shkollës së lartë në këshillim biblik dhe më vonë një diplomë të dytë nga Wayne Johnston, Presidenti i Shoqatës së Këshillimit Biblik dhe një Dishepullizimit, duke ndjekur kurse në internet dhe duke studiuar në mënyrë të pavarur.

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Me Peter Reid, Drejtor i Kolegjit Biblik në Bodenseehof, Gjermani, 2001

Ardhja në Amerikë –  Sfidat dhe Mundësitë

Në vitin 2006, burri që do bëhej një ditë bashkëshorti i Sonilës, po shërbente me ushtrinë amerikane në Afganistan. Sonila, e cila jetonte në Angli, e ‘takoi’ Emmett Potterin në një komunitet të krishterë në internet. Dy javë pas bisedës së tyre të parë, Emmett-i dhe Sonila u takuan në Londër. Po krijohej një miqësi dhe Emmett-i i dhuroi Sonilës një DVD të kreacionistit Kent Hovind që ta shikonte para se të kthehej në Shqipëri.

“Ne e vazhduam komunikimin për disa muaj dhe më vonë Emmett-i erdhi në Shqipëri për tri ditë dhe u takua me familjen time”, – thotë Sonila. “Sa herë kishte pushime, ai vinte në Shqipëri dhe ne u martuam në vitin 2007. U deshën tetë muaj që të më dilte viza, dhe kur mbërrita në Miçigan (SHBA), organizuam një ceremoni të dytë martesore”. Ata jetuan gjashtë muaj në Miçigan dhe më pas u zhvendosën në Masaçusets, ku kanë jetuar këto shtatë vitet e fundit. Nuk është e lehtë të jetosh besimin e krishterë në Amerikë, dhe çifti, që ka tanimë tre fëmijë të vegjël, është përballur me sfida.

“Ka një ndjenjë shumë më të fortë komuniteti në Shqipëri. Kur të vijnë miq për vizitë në shtëpi, ata janë pothuajse si familje për ty”, – shpjegon Sonila. “Këtu kjo gjë mungon. Ka ftohtësi,Sonila4.jpg një ndjenjë largësie, veçanërisht këtu në Masaçusets. Kisha thotë që është një familje, por njerëzit vijnë e ikin… rrallë i sheh të vijnë për herë të dytë. Nuk gjendet ajo ndjenja e miqësisë së vërtetë, e të investuarit në jetët e njëri-tjetrit, siç e kemi ne në Ballkan. Jemi prej kaq vitesh këtu, por nuk ndihemi tamam pjesë e një ‘familjeje’ të kishës”, – thotë ajo.

Është çështje tjetër pastaj të rritësh fëmijët në njohjen e Krishtit. Shkollat e krishtera janë të shtrenjta në SHBA dhe Sonila e pranon që ka presion nga ambienti përreth për të kompromentuar bindjet që ka familja e saj. “Ne nuk e festojmë Hallouinin dhe as u mësojmë fëmijëve që të besojnë në Plakun e Vitit të Ri”, – shpjegon Sonila. “Festat janë për të lavdëruar Jezusin
dhe vetëm Atë. Të tjerët jo gjithmonë e kuptojnë apo respektojnë vendimin tonë në këtë drejtim”. Sonila aktualisht po ndjek studimet master në edukim fetar dhe po jep mësim në një shkollë të krishterë, kur bindjet e saj kanë hasur sfida.

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Me instruktorin në Kolegjin Biblik në Bodenseehof, 2001

Krishterim pa kompromis

“Më pëlqen shumë të lexoj nga puritanët”, – thotë gruaja shqiptare që ka një librari të tërë mbushur me komentarë në anglisht. “Shkrimet e Thomas Watson dhe Thomas Brook janë të preferuarat e mia dhe librin e Richard Baxter “Kura për trishtimin” e përdorim shpesh në këshillim biblik. Sot predikojnë një ‘ungjill të holluar’. Në të kaluarën, këta burra të mëdhenj flisnin për mëkatin”, – thotë ajo. “Charles Spurgeon, Princi i Predikuesve, nuk kishte frikë t’i paralajmëronte njerëzit për të keqen”. Sonila flet se si mungesa e dëshirës që shumë pastorë amerikanë kanë për të predikuar mbi mëkatin është një nga arsyet pse kompromisi dhe lëshimi moral janë kaq problem në disa kisha amerikane.

Megjithatë, ishte nëpërmjet ar- dhjes fillimisht në Angli dhe më pas në Shtetet e Bashkuara që Perën- dia hapi shumë më tepër dyer mundësish që Sonila Potter t’i shërbente Atij. Nuk ka mundësi më të mira për studim teologjik dhe tani Sonila i përdor këto në shërbesën e saj si këshilluese biblike. Ajo tashmë ka mundësi t’u shërbejë grave në dy gjuhë, çka është një pasuri e çmuar (jetojnë 16,000 shqiptarë në shtetin e saj Masaçusets dhe ka pak apo aspak kisha ungjillore shqiptare). Dhe me hirin e Perëndisë, kjo nënë me tre fëmijë është plotësisht e lirë t’i rrisë fëmijët e saj në dashurinë dhe njohjen e Perëndisë, pa pasur nevojë t’i fshehë në xhepa xhaketash simbolet e besimit të tyre.

The Cost of Being a Brother: A Review of “The Voices of Redlands”

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By Marie Notcheva

Reading The Voices of Redlands, an account of spiritual abuse at a California house church, was an emotional experience.  It affected me on a deep level, and even kicked my maternal instinct into high gear. Primarily narrated through the testimony of former church member, John Baldwin, the story follows the systematic intimidation and subsequent excommunication of several people, most notably John’s friend, Ryan Ashton.

The fellowship in question is known as “Monday Nights,” which meets in the Southern California town of Redlands. Comprised by mainly young adults and led by two brothers, Jared and Seth Gustafson, when the group’s teaching became influenced by “Hyper-Grace” theology, Ryan expressed concern. Hyper Grace, as Ryan found out, is a modern incarnation of the ancient heresy antinomianism and soon led his church family into multiple instances of drunkenness, sexual immorality, naked exhibitionism, and other behaviors as explained in multiple testimonies. Ryan’s voice was dismissed and he was accused of “slander” by the Gustafson brothers, as a transcript of one of the secret meetings shows. (Slander, by definition, must be both untrue and malicious in intent. Ryan’s statements were neither.)

The close-knit community was practically a family to Ryan – the individuals he most loved and trusted. Rather than engaging his concern or encouraging him to continue being a Berean, the group’s leadership convened secret meetings and unilaterally decided there would be no discussion of theology; Ryan was to be ‘disciplined’ for his insubordination; and he was even pressured to receive psychiatric counseling—presuming mental illness where none existed was one way the Gustafsons tried to discredit Ryan.

“Matthew 18” being referenced to excommunicate him, Ryan was told “Don’t quote us unless it is uplifting or encouraging” and was censored from publicly sharing anything the group taught.  Given  a contract to sign outlining his three options: 1) obey (apologize for questioning the leadership and keep silent); 2) be excommunicated; or 3) obey and subsequently leave the community. What followed were months of emails and social media messages between the membership; culminating in a ‘trial’ and  Ryan’s subsequent excommunication.  Monday Night’s members were ordered by the Gustafson brothers to “shun” Ryan or face the same consequences if they had any fellowship or communication with him.

All this because Ryan dared to question Jared’s aberrant doctrine.

Turning on a Brother

It is difficult to convey to outsiders the psychological impact a high-control religious group has on its members, and the tremendous emotional harm that can be done when the group turns on another member. Without support from anyone but the few who gave their testimonies in The Voices of Redlands, Ryan naturally spiraled into depression. The cruelty of this ‘shunning’, coupled with defamation of his character and false accusations took a toll on Ryan’s health in other ways—his weight dropped, clumps of his hair fell out, and he suffered tremendous anguish at losing the only family he had known. As a reader I wanted to intervene and protect this young brother somehow; and call off those who would destroy another’s life in the Name of Christ. Watching God work as John Baldwin’s testimony unfolded was instructive and insightful.

Perhaps because Monday Nights was a house-church and not a mega-church under the leadership of a well-known celebrity, this story and the alarm bells rung by Ryan and John Baldwin have been largely unheeded by Southern Californians. Jared Gustafson is fairly well known among many churches there, but what Ryan discovered and how he was treated has been kept a secret. Until now.  What John’s testimony exposes, far more than the teaching of Hyper Grace, is a form of spiritual abuse that is all-too common to authoritarian churches in this country.

When “Discipline” Becomes Abuse

“Church discipline” are biblical buzzwords that become   weapons in the hands of  some religious groups. Many people might be aware of church discipline cases going awry—as was the case in The Village Church case (a Calvinistic/Reformed congregation), which resulted in its pastor, Matt Chandler, apologizing for their misguided attempt to ‘discipline’ Karen Hinckley for divorcing her pedophile husband.  The Voices of Redlands demonstrates that coercive group-think is not limited to conservative churches. Monday Nights is at the other end of the spectrum, influenced by Bethel Church’s charismatic leanings and two brothers at its center. The Gustafsons have such a magnetic hold over their friends that no one in Monday Nights has an issue with their Instagram posts of nude pool party photos. How the brothers manipulated their friends and other local churches to treat Ryan is only the tip of the iceberg.

In the middle of John’s testimony, Ryan himself provides commentary on “the bystander effect” which is common in abusive situations. The bystander effect is a diffusion of responsibility which leads to collective apathy when an individual is being harmed. Most of the people in this fellowship and their families were swayed not only by Jared’s erroneous teaching, but also forced to disassociate themselves from Ryan. All dissent was censored, and threats of being disfellowshipped were imposed from the Gustafsons. This, perhaps, is the part that bothered me the most: even those who knew him turned the other way when Ryan was thrown under the bus by Jared and Seth.  Their charges against Ryan were not true, as John’s testimony makes clear.

In his interlude “The Anatomy of Spiritual Abuse” on page 66, Ryan writes:

“One of the hallmarks of abusive situations is the many layers of protection and enablement that exist for the abuser…..Circling the wagons in self-protection and stifling dissent are what toxic communities do, not the Body of Christ. Underscoring its insidious nature, whereas physical and emotional abuse is intentional because it is only manipulative, spiritual abuse can be unintentional through distorted biblical beliefs.”

It was these beliefs, and not the individuals, that Ryan confronted. He stood his ground personally, and then publicly, firmly rejecting the antinomian teaching the Gustafsons embraced, expressed concern for young believers being led astray – but was never truly heard by anyone. Instead, Ryan’s character was attacked and all of his relationships were terminated by the Gustafsons. The emotional effect of this was extremely traumatic, as John saw his friend deteriorate. Ryan wrote how even those parents and adults he reached out to marginalized him – “deeming emotions to be unChristian, anger at injustice to be sinful, and even the act of speaking out as gossip” (p. 68). Having been on the receiving end of such treatment in a high-control authoritarian church, I can understand in a small part his sense of betrayal and frustration. I was relentlessly pressured, and threatened with excommunication, for leaving an abusive marriage, thus this observation really resonated with me:

“Victims are often demonized and labeled the aggressor when resisting abuse, while cavalier justifications for inaction allow many Christians to walk past the wounded guilt-free and without offering help, besides maybe flinging a Scripture verse from afar with an air of sanctified indifference…. Jesus bore the Roman whip, yet today the Body of Christ bears lacerations from abusers who revel in the impunity from passive bystanders (p. 68-69).”

One couple involved in Ryan’s life even encouraged him to listen to Bill Gothard’s “Basic Life Principles” to address his “bitterness”. Another couple pressured him to go through The Landmark Forum, a cultic victim-shaming conference that brainwashes people into believing they are responsible for their own relationships falling apart. In these and many ways, the adult Christians in Redlands have dropped the ball in protecting their own children and tried to silence Ryan and John multiple times when all they wanted to do was warn people about what the Gustafsons are influencing Monday Nights to become.

The Healing Power of Forgiveness

Rather than give up, Ryan has relentlessly sought to reconcile with Monday Nights. For three years, he has tried to explain why he was so concerned, and also why Monday Nights’ reactionary defense of the heresy (and shunning of Jared’s detractors) was wrong. Ryan’s was naturally angry and upset with the injustice, but standing his ground, what is astonishing (and speaks well of Ryan’s character) is that his genuine love for these people remains and is the catalyst for this book. He truly does want reconciliation, and has not “written off” Monday Nights at all, despite the unimaginable pain the ‘shunning’ and slander caused him. John Baldwin’s love seeps through the pages, as he and the others testifying through  “The Voices of Redlands” demonstrate in page after page of how many times they tried to get through to their friends, but were disbelieved, dismissed, lied about, and ultimately shunned also. John and Ryan even delayed the book launch for several months when it appeared the leaders of Monday Nights would engage them in conversation. After months of stonewalling, and prayer on the part of the editorial team, the book and website was finally released to warn Redlands and the Church world about how Hyper Grace and spiritual abuse can change even the most sincere and loving of groups into what Monday Nights has become today.

Still, Ryan burns with a love and desire to forgive and reconcile with his abusers. There is not even a hint of bitterness, as many would label those who expose abuse and falsehood. As Ryan himself states:

“My hands are open to whatever is ahead. I have nothing to protect since it was already taken from me. I have no aim in this endeavor besides seeing this situation resolved and healed. I have been at the brink of despair and much worse, yet the fact I remain alive and writing to you all means Jesus already won that battle. All other trials are nothing in comparison. We love Monday Nights and pray for them. I am sincerely grateful to be a brother to them, and to all of you. I am still learning how to be a better brother; how to be tender, speak graciously, and respond with hope. I am here—hands open, heart open, ears open—not to be abused again but to demonstrate my love and the true grace of God.”

The Voices of Redlands  by the end is less an expose of a particular church or errant doctrine than it is a call to action for us all. When standing up for truth is seen as unloving; when victims are coerced into apologizing to their abusers; when sincere believers blindly follow their leaders spinning their version of a story at the expense of an individual, there is a serious problem in the Body. It is to our collective detriment the Christians in Redlands haven’t done more to intervene in Monday Nights, since injustice there is an injustice everywhere. As John, Ryan, and the others make clear, we are all connected, and our indifference to spiritual abuse as a church culture needs to be confronted.

Spiritual abuse takes many forms and is hard to define. John and Ryan take pains to describe it, so even those not directly involved in similar situations can discern it. “The bystander effect” has unknowingly lulled too many Christians into paralysis. It is never the wrong time to stand up and defend one of our own. Telling this painful story took enormous courage for these Voices of Redlands.  I am grateful to John Baldwin and the eight other witnesses for telling the truth about what is happening in Redlands. Ryan Ashton is just one of the many Christians who has been blacklisted and blackmailed into silence, yet he chose to not only speak up, but pursue reconciliation with his abusers. His quest deserves to be read, and this wake-up call needs to be heeded.

“The Voices of Redlands” is available as a free download here.