Eight years ago, Bill and I flew to Minneapolis to meet with a couple of counselors, Dan and Sharon at the Minnesota Renewal Center. Life had taken a toll on us. Division in the church my husband pastored, revelation of weakness and even sin in our own lives, and the pace of life had worn us down, left us on empty.
Leaving the kids with family in NC, we arrived in MN for a week of “intensive counseling.” Every day for five days, we met with Dan and Sharon. They prayed, they prodded, and at times they even provoked us to acknowledge:
- feelings we had buried so deep,
- thoughts that had gone unspoken, and
- fears that had settled in our hearts and dulled our capacity to love.
They also provided us with tools that we still use in our own lives and to help others.
One of these tools was this grid.
Childhood Adolescence Young Adulthood Adulthood
We sat with Dan and Sharon in their very ordinary office in Minneapolis, MN. We had been through several days of counseling. Quite frankly, it was mostly about Bill. He was the pastor. He was why our denomination footed the bill for this “intensive.”
But on Thursday, the attention turned to me. I had been mostly honest, participating in conversations, bringing stuff to the table I felt was relevant, exploring my role in how we had gotten to a place of near burn-out. But by Thursday, I knew that this wasn’t just about getting us healthy enough as a ministry couple to jump back in the ring for another go-round. It wasn’t only about Bill sorting through his call. God had something for me … beauty from ashes.
With Bill, Sharon, and Dan, I brought out a struggle that had resurfaced in my life in the midst of the stress, a pattern of disordered eating, as shameful as it is, a pattern of purging. This behavior had begun in my teenage years as a means of controlling my world and coping with stress. When I accepted Christ as a young woman, I knew that this behavior needed to stop. I knew it didn’t honor God and I was learning that real freedom came not from me attempting to control my world, but trusting God who really is in control. But just wanting a behavior to stop isn’t enough. I struggled to let the purging go completely and I seemed to fall back into this so unhealthy coping mechanism during times of stress.
Pregnancy, for nearly seven years straight, gave me a reason to stop, a reason outside of my own will, my own health, and the health of the babies I carried. And so I did. But, by 2004, I was past the pregnancy years and the stress of life, the out-of-controllness of my life revealed the chink in my spiritual armor. This behavior, this purging, crept back in, just a few times.
- I was appalled.
- I was ashamed.
- I was afraid.
As I sat in that office with Bill, Sharon, and Dan, I knew I had the opportunity to bring this struggle out to the light. I could bring it out and face it with some help, or I could make light of it, bury it, and just try to conquer it, me and Jesus. I chose to bring it out.
Now, I need to tell you that my sweet husband knew what was going on. He had been praying for me. He had talked about it with me. He didn’t understand, but he loved me. And he knew that this was my deal to tell. He was not going to bring it out to these counselors. That was up to me.
So I took a deep breath, and I laid it out there. Me, a thirty-eight year old pastor’s wife, was struggling with this so very unhealthy coping mechanism. I was so afraid.
Fear had kept me bottled up and closed off. But, when I laid it out there, I learned that I had nothing to be afraid of. Sharon and Dan were not surprised, angry, appalled. They were not embarrassed for me. They didn’t tell me I was disqualified for ministry, a terrible wife, a terrible mother.
Sharon handed me a box of tissues as my mascara ran down my face. They gathered around me and prayed. And then we sat back. We had work to do.
“Cindy,” Sharon said, “it’s not surprising that an old pattern of coping surfaces when you encounter stress. And you and Bill have encountered stress. In church life, Bill, as the pastor, is often the target of people’s frustration, anger, and dissatisfaction with the church, but also with themselves. While Bill gets the direct hits, you, as the pastor’s wife, get the shrapnel. Cindy, this shrapnel is a blessing.”
I smiled through the blur. I didn’t particularly like the idea of targets, and bullets, and shrapnel, but I knew it to be true.
Dan joined in. “It’s a blessing because the shrapnel is hitting areas of your life right now that God wants to heal.”
Dan pulled out a piece of paper and drew a grid, similar to the one I gave you above, the one I gave you on Monday. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “Cindy, here’s how healing begins.”
1. List key events.
Using the grid, begin in your childhood and list key events, particularly painful ones, that you consider to be shaping influences in your life. Be honest. Take your time.
If you were with me on Monday, you’ve done this. And, here’s the new part …
Once you’ve written down these key events, give yourself the freedom to connect dots. You may find that events you have boxed off and buried are related. Make these connections. Pray and ask the Lord to help you make these connections. And then mourn.
Here’s what this assignment looked like for me on that cold, damp, Minnesota spring day. Bill and I drove to Como Park Conservatory. Once inside this tropical oasis, Bill and I separated.
While Bill did his own processing and praying, I sat on this bench in, pulled out my grid, and began to list key events from each quadrant of my life that had caused me pain.
Now, I want to be honest. My painful experiences may be nothing compared to what you have gone through, but they produced pain in my life.
- Some of the pain was stuff I had no control over.
- Some of the pain was stuff I had brought on myself.
- Some of the pain was the stuff of living in a fallen world.
For the first time, I wrote this stuff on paper.
I had become so good at keeping it buried, keeping it hidden, and just going on with life. I had become good at living a dual life without even realizing it, the good girl on the surface but with secrets hidden below. I had believed the enemy who wanted me to keep the pain locked up. As long as I kept it buried, I couldn’t get healing. And, I resorted to unhealthy behaviors to cope. I was cooperating with the enemy who came steal, and kill, and destroy. I was missing out on the fullness of life offered in Jesus. (John 10:10)
I wrote about fifteen key shaping events in my life, and then I sat back and looked them over. I had never connected the dots. I hadn’t wanted to connect the dots. As I read, I began to cry, to mourn. Right there in this public place, I began to cry.
Now, honestly, I wouldn’t recommend that you do this in a public place. I’d recommend you get someplace by yourself where you have time and space to think, to connect, and to mourn.
I’ll bring this all together, this How to Experience Your Own Great Exchange (Part 3). I do want to make it clear. I’m not a trained counselor. What I’m sharing are tools that have been given to me from wise trained counselors in my life, tools that the Lord has used to help me experience my own great exchange that I’m passing on to you.
Between now and Friday, get some time by yourself. Divide your life into quadrants, and begin to list the key shaping events in your life that have brought you pain. And then, take the time to prayerfully connect the dots, to cry, to mourn. If you’d like some prayer support in this journey, I’d love to come alongside you. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.