CONTENT WARNING: This article will be addressing sexual abuse and the church. If this is a topic that you find objectionable, please stop reading now.
What I describe below is something that, until now, I have told no one other than my wife and my eldest sister. Even my parents went to their graves not knowing this happened.
I am sharing the incident here (from a high level), not to elicit sympathy, or pity, but rather to establish a baseline for examining our attitudes toward God, and toward faith in his Son, Jesus Christ.
Searching for Something
I was fourteen years old, a high school freshman with a faint, but growing interest in spiritual matters, particularly Christian matters. I had a sense that there was something more … something beyond myself, and I was convinced that it somehow involved this God thing.
Despite the fact that devotion to Jesus was exceedingly unpopular among my peers, even actively opposed by some, at the age of fourteen, I set out on my spiritual quest. I was determined to figure out that larger-than-me reality.
I had a friend in a neighboring community, about ten miles away, who invited me to attend a church camp with him, just outside Topeka Kansas. Of course I accepted the invitation. I was on my quest!
New Friend at Church Camp
The camp was overwhelming for me. I saw and heard things I had never before seen or heard. This was particularly true of the music. Since early elementary school, music had been a strong influencer in my life, and the music I was hearing at this camp was unlike anything I had previously heard or sung.
The Worship Leader (at least 10 years my senior) seemed to pick up on my enjoyment of the music and took me under his wing. We became friends, and I was honored to be singled out as the friend of this older, influential man.
Throughout the week, that friendship grew and intensified. This guy really liked me, and he even invited me to participate in a youth retreat at his home church in Nebraska, where he was the Youth Pastor. I was not even a Christian, so I did not see what I could possibly contribute to such an event, but I was so deeply honored to be asked that I enthusiastically agreed.
The relationship continued on this track until the last night of the camp, the night that he sexually molested me on my camp cot. He had been grooming me all week for just that moment.
Puzzling Response of Camp Leadership
When I was able to escape the attack, I found the Camp Director sitting alone in the chapel, seemingly in prayer. I seated myself behind him and sobbed out what had just taken place. Rather than offer comfort, the director’s reaction was to turn away from me and cry out, “Oh, Jesus, no. No. Please Jesus no.”
Forty years after the fact, I am still astonished that he offered no comfort to the traumatized fourteen-year-old attendee at his church camp. His only concern was with the fallen state of his Worship Leader.
The following morning, as everyone’s parents arrived to take their happy campers home, the Worship Leader approached me in the parking lot, fumbled out what seemed to be a prescribed apology, and then had the gall to ask if I would still come to his youth retreat in Nebraska.
This man should not have been allowed within 100 yards of me, and indeed, should have been sitting in a Topeka jail cell, but the leadership of this camp seemed to believe that some sort of relationship resolution could be accomplished if we could just “talk it out.”
How does one not completely write off Christianity after a nightmarish experience like that? Indeed, beyond that, how does one attend seminary and work more than a decade in full-time ministry having undergone such an experience?
There is no doubt that events like those described above happen on a regular basis. The church presents a forum for both vulnerability and power. It is a cultivated garden in which abusers can nurture and practice their craft.
Many who experience traumas similar to my own will be inclined to equate church abuse, elder abuse, or pastoral abuse with God abuse. When we entertain such a view, however, it is indicative of misplaced trust and respect on our part.
If I am trusting in church or body, I will be disappointed, because that trust is misplaced. The church, the elders, the pastors … these are flawed human beings, just as I am and just as you are.
The body of Christ will let me down. Pastors will let me down. Elders will let me down. But God will never let me down.
God is not the one who molested me on that cot. That was done by a hypocritical, sinful, perverted man who was allowed into a position of power he should never have been in. He let me down, but God did not let me down.
The sinfulness of humanity does not nullify the goodness and the love of God. As Paul said emphatically in Romans 3:4, “Let God be true though every man is found a liar.“
Yokes and Heavy Burdens
Jesus said in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden.” Is there anyone breathing oxygen to whom that does not apply? Life is hard. Burdens are heavy!
The good news is that Jesus did not say merely “Come to me,” but rather “Come to me, and I will give you rest!” Rest! Relief from your burden.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. – Matthew 11:29, ESV
When a man in the Middle East wants to buy a yoke of oxen, he will go to the place where they are sold, most likely a location on the edge of the village. There will be a number of oxen from which to choose, as well as a small field nearby where he can work the oxen together to test them out.
The man will make his selection, yoke the oxen together, lead them to the field, and work with them for a time. He wants to see if he has a well-matched pair.
He is looking at their disposition as a team. He is looking to see if one is taller than the other causing the yoke to tilt uncomfortably. He wants to see if one is strong and the other a little weaker. If so, the stronger ox will eventually be injured by pulling with a weaker ox, as the strong ox is bearing the repeated strain of the greater load. The yoke will twist with every use resulting in damage, sometimes irreparable damage, to the stronger ox.
The man may plow with a half-dozen pair of oxen that day till he finds the matched pair.
Please note that in Matthew 11:29 Jesus did not say, “Let’s get you yoked up, sister…” No. He says, “Take MY yoke upon you…”
Jesus is willing, as the Son of God, the strong ox, to allow himself to be yoked to you … to me. Jesus is willing to plow the fields of my life yoked to a much, much weaker ox. Jesus is willing to bear the heavy burden of life that, without him, I would find so wearying – even overwhelming.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Matthew 11:30, ESV
We have all heard the lessons on the “well-fitting” yoke, and how that phrase can just as accurately be translated, “My yoke is well-fitting.” And that’s good. But what I want us to see is that last phrase – “My burden is light.“
Take a long, hard, honest look at the burdens you are carrying. Some of us are carrying overwhelmingly heavy burdens, and it is time to let those burdens go. Accept what Jesus is saying here, and jettison that burden. Carry it no more.
One thing we know with certainty is that when I am carrying a heavy burden, that burden did not come from Jesus. And if my burden is not from Jesus, then I should not be carrying it. Jesus said his burden is light.
So come to Jesus, you who are weary and heavily-burdened, and you will find rest for your souls.