Karen shouted back and threw a small couch pillow at me. It hit my shoulder.
As it hit, something snapped inside of me. No longer was I a 34-year-old pastor and husband, arguing with his wife of 12 years, the father of four daughters. Instead, I became a little boy.
I felt seven or younger.
No longer standing, I was cowering on the floor of my treehouse behind the Hawkeye house I lived in as a kid. Fear consumed me. A tall mustached man behind me was hitting me on the shoulder and seething through gritted teeth: “Don’t.” Hit. “You.” Hit. “Ever.” Hit. “Tell.” Hit. “You do and I will kill your dog…” I was crying and whining back,
“Don’t hit me. Don’t hit me. Don’t hit me. I won’t. I promise.”
Those words escaped my adult mouth there on our brown carpet by the rust-colored couch.
If you want to end an argument, this does it. But this was real. I was little, on the floor of my treehouse, sobbing.
I felt a gentle hand on my back, and heard Karen saying, “What’s going on honey?” From her perspective, I had been hit with a pillow. But on the floor in our living room in San Jacinto, California, fear flooded me as I was being hurt and warned. As my sobbing resided, I looked up at Karen, and said with a certain knowing, “I was sexually abused.”
It had come to me in a thunderbolt of revelation. We both knew Karen had been sexually abused. We didn’t know to what degree at this point in our marriage, however, we had been doing healing work through counseling.
In that moment on the living room floor, I knew the abuse had begun in March when I turned five and ended in March when I turned 8. The perpetrator was the associate pastor of my family’s home church. His name was Sherwood. That night, I stood shakily, winded as if I had tripped and fallen headlong while running.
Beyond the horror of the flash memory, I felt confusion. I had always liked Sherwood. I thought he was cool. I had no memory of him I could draw on as anything but positive. For all the years, I had buried the abuse under the positive veneer. It was difficult for me to imagine he could’ve done something so heinous. And yet, there he was. Hitting me. Telling me, “Don’t you ever tell.”
A few months later in a counseling session with Joni, a woman Karen and I had been meeting with both separately and together, led me to pray through the memory. We began with me, the little boy, out in the yard. She asked me what he was feeling. “Afraid,” I told her.
“I am sitting by the Mulberry tree holding Miss Plum, my cat. Her fur is soft. She’s purring.” I paused, sitting in the office, yet also by the tree. I began again, “There’s someone inside I don’t want to get me.”
She asked if I am feeling this fear anyplace specific in my body. “I feel like someone is touching my genitals,” I said. Then, the memory rushed back. I had been hiding from him in the closet in my brother’s room. From there I could see to their metal bunk beds. Sherwood had found me there and fondled me. I sobbed as I told of this, filled with pain, horror, fear, anger and rage. I had run outside and sat by the tree, then run to the treehouse. He had followed me there, and hit me multiple times, telling me “Don’t. Ever. Tell.”
Sobbing uncontrollably in her office, I saw image after image of the ongoing abuse, in the house next to the church, on the ski trip, in the bathroom, he had pursued and used me. I screamed as I realized what he had done to me. I felt dirty and ugly.
That day there was no way to walk through all these points of trauma. So, Joni led me to the edge of a creek in my imagination and encouraged me to dive in. The water felt icy cold, in the office I inhaled quickly as one does after diving into cold water. But, the water washed me clean. All the dirt and ugly washed away. I stepped out naked and clean, made new somehow on the other side. There Jesus met me and wrapped a white robe around me. He tied it with a rope, then, he picked me up. I was little as he held me and rocked me in His arms.
Even though from that time I knew how pervasive the abuse had been, lasting for three years, at every opportunity Sherwood had had, I left Joni’s office that day, believing,
“That should take care of it.”
That day I didn’t know my flights into anger, my overeating, my need to please, my fears of sex, my inability to handle money, my struggle with ministry, and my fear of male friendships etc. were rooted in the shame, brokenness, and trauma I had experienced with Sherwood.
His actions compounded the brokenness I already had experienced in childhood. So rather than “take care of it,” the revelation and first steps in healing simply unlocked more pain, homosexual desires, anger, and a barrage of same-sex images. It was like a key had been turned to a long-locked closet, and once the door was opened, like pandora’s box, it could not be closed again. Rather than Joni’s prayer being a “one stop” meal, like a drive-up window at a fast-food restaurant, I stepped, a bit unwillingly into a healing journey.
In one of the most famous Psalms, the 23rd, the psalmist wrote, “He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I’ll fear no evil.” God leads not around but through the dark “valleys” of memory and pain. But with the Psalmist so is my experience, Jesus never abandoned me to the pain but was constant in saying,
“I am with you.”
This knowledge has sustained me in this 28-year journey of healing. I’m not done with the journey, I don’t imagine, but I can say I’ve seen giants defeated, shame uprooted, and hope and joy established within me.
So much of the healing has been in friendships with men who have helped rebuild what was broken as they put skin on Jesus in my life. Thanks for joining me as I share some of my journey.