Let the dancing commence!

This day I dreaded, the semicircle of doctors with solemn faces and folded hands...today they dug deep with probing fingers, frowning. But after each had taken turn and a conference of heads bent together and muttered measurements, the heads lifted like girls in a chorus line with lipstick smiles and jazz hands. The largest lump, rubbery and flatter, the others DISAPPEARED...yes, all 50+ of them, in a week! They murmured consternation, "things like this just don't happen", poor senior Dr. A shaking her head, referring to her notes and her resident, trying to say yes, she did really feel them just a week ago! They say there is no doubt Amy is cancer free. The surgery tomorrow is cancelled. We are headed home! Words cannot express...

Amy plays while we wait for the oncology team in the doctor's office this morning

Linked up with Michelle

The last day of the waiting: Prayers for Amy's surgery

Then {Folly Beach, 2009; Before her world came crashing down}
Ribs dip down
into the cavern of your abdomen
I trace blue veins like roadmaps under skin
peaches and cream
in the incandescent light
of the lamp at 1 a.m.

my eyes feel electric
red rimmed
for the tears were spent a week ago
and now everything is raw
the finger that traces
the soul that won't rest
the mind that races
the lips that can barely murmur prayer

surgical soap stinks 
and it stings
i think i'll take you to the hotel pool first
and we'll swim away from fear
into the night shadows
and dreams of a summer set free

i chase away thoughts
of carrying you into surgery
with it's smells of chemicals and gas
the smiles of macabre on the gasman
trying to put mom at ease
some are just butchers and thieves
dressed up in thousand dollar suits
after they wash off the blood sweat burnt flesh

i pray his name - japanese -
that he cradles your neck like i do
like it's fine china to be carved before firing
that he's an artist or magician
maybe even kind
that there's another Artist there
who touches you with healing
and sets us all free from nightmares

Tomorrow, we head to "Mother Mayo" in Rochester in the pre-dawn to meet with Amelia's cancer team, and, later that afternoon, the surgical team that will perform the surgery to remove three suspicious lymph nodes from the right side of her neck on Friday morning. At least that is the plan. (Plans have ways of changing.) This week, Amy has developed a head cold, and Aaron and I are nervous about the surgery because she had a head cold going into her tonsillectomy in 2009, directly after which she developed her brain infection and became our quirky "special needs" daughter forever. We now know that her brain infection and the problems that followed were vaccine related and that the infection was probably already brewing when the tonsillectomy was performed, but the head cold still makes us nervous. Amy has not had a vaccine since, on the advice of her medical team, who diagnosed her with a rare immune disorder that causes extreme vaccine reactions.

Heading into tomorrow's appointments and Friday's surgery, we have several pressing praying requests. Some of them may seem a little odd, as prayer requests often are when you're looking at a potential cancer diagnosis. Over the years Aaron and I spent as pediatric nurses, we witnessed some very frightening things, and we are concerned about how to avoid them with our own daughter. We'll lay them out for you here.

  • Once you pursue traditional medical care, or "enroll" your child in that system by seeking care at a major health center like Mayo, you may be forfeiting your parental rights to make certain choices about withdrawing your child from treatment there. For instance, if you mention wanting to seek a second opinion, potentially delaying treatment, child protective services may be called, and a judge can temporarily place a hold on your parental rights and place your child under the care of the state for medical decisions so that cancer treatment can commence immediately. We are unsure we want to go ahead with chemo and more surgery immediately following the first surgery, so it will be important that we choose our words wisely and that the person we speak to is compassionate about our wishes.
  • New medical students, residents and interns typically start their rotations in July. Thanks to my "ins" in the medical community, I found out that Mayo's new group comes off central orientation July 16. This means that any surgeries performed prior to July 16 will be with surgical residents and interns with 1-2 years of operating experience, and any surgeries performed after July 16 will be with residents and interns with 0-1 years experience. This means that we need to get information quickly and get surgeries done in a timely manner, or wait a little while (into August maybe?) until the new doctors get their feet wet to avoid unnecessary complications with Amy's surgeries, which will be much more extensive if she needs more than the simple one on her neck this Friday.
  • If - and this is a very long-term "if" - Amy has lymphoma, and doesn't respond well to the primary treatment using surgery and chemo, we are very much on the fence about pursuing a bone marrow transplant for her. We did not save umbilical cord stem cells for any of our children. One of her siblings or cousins may be a close match for her, and in that case, we might choose to give it one shot. But otherwise, we would probably choose to stop treatment at that point. We watched too many children suffer a very horrible death to go through an anonymous donor transplant that is a poor match for Amelia. Again, getting the medical community to cooperate with stopping treatment would be quite a hurdle to get over. And having the strength to stick with our decision would be one of the hardest things we would ever face as parents and as a married couple. This is just something to keep in your prayers if you are a long-term thinker.

Now {Folly Beach, 2012; A photo to celebrate healing, I thought}
Amy has several possible roads out of surgery on Friday. If you wouldn't mind praying for each of these, I've listed them in the order we're praying for ourselves. We're really praying hard for the most benign results. It would be miraculous and marvelous in every way if we could just come home Friday evening and resume normal life as if none of this had ever happened (with the exception of the spiritual growth God provides in leaps and bounds whenever a spiritual crisis of this magnitude presents itself).
  1. Amy comes through surgery with flying colors, tolerates anesthesia well (she has had horrible trouble coming out of anesthesia in the past) and is able to come home to Wisconsin Friday night. The initial in-surgery biopsy of the lymph nodes shows nothing unusual, and final biopsy results show idiopathic (unexplained) lymphadenopathy (swollen lymph nodes). Life goes on as usual at the Thul house!
  2. Amy comes through surgery great, tolerates anesthesia well, and is able to come home Friday night. Initial in-surgery biopsy reveals infected lymph nodes and they are able to identify the infection either right away or with longer cultures in the next 3-5 days. Home (oral) treatment is possible and successful and life goes on as usual at the Thul house!
  3. As above, but hospital (IV) treatment is required for infection. No complications, the infection is contained, doesn't spread to her brain or other important organs, provision for finances to stay in Rochester for the necessary time period, and we come home within a week and then life goes on!
  4. As above, but initial biopsy is inconclusive. We get to bring Amy home Friday night! Biopsy over the next week shows cancer. We have time to prepare Amy and the other kids, as well as our own hearts. We are not in hospital lock-down at Mayo and we can pursue a second opinion at another major medical center as well as research other therapies. Amy begins treatment in early August.
  5. As above, but initial biopsy shows cancer. May the Lord protect and provide for Amelia and all of us as we go through the scariness right in the moment with all of the kids including Amy. If this scenario plays out, she may have another surgery early next week to implant a device to allow her to start chemo, as well as a surgery to remove the other affected lymph nodes and any other spots of cancer that might show up on PET scans or MRIs that would be done. She would stay in the hospital for at least one week to initiate treatment and then come home to receive weekly or biweekly treatment at the cancer center in Eau Claire. These last two would obviously require big adjustments for our entire family!
This week, Amy's lump seems to be staying about the same. It is pretty hard, but still easy to move around, which makes Aaron and I feel better about it. Then again, mine was easy to move around, too. Darn past experience!! Makes it hard to have hope and stay positive. Amy makes it easy, though. She is brave, matter of fact, and nonchalant about the whole process. We've described the surgery over and over to her, but her short-term memory isn't the best so she seems to forget a lot of the details (probably better that way, in my opinion). She accepts that it needs to happen and thinks it's funny that she might have "cansah" just like Mama, asked me if I would lose my hair with her, and said, "Well, it's a good thing I like hats!" with her characteristic chuckle and shrug of the shoulders. She is a sweetheart and an example to us all as she determines in her mind to be braver with each blood draw, each physical exam, each surgery, each procedure. She always describes how she acted the last time and pinpoints one behavior she's going to work on, and then eliminates that. She is a hard worker and is already setting her mind to improving her character through this whole experience. I wish I had the same self-control and will-power this little dynamo of a five-year-old has! I should take a video of her, so you could all see what I'm talking about. Vlog tomorrow, perhaps?!

Thanks for lifting us up in your prayers. They mean so much to us as we walk forward into the unknown. The uncertainty is certainly hardest on Aaron and I, and probably the grandparents, aunties and uncles, and dearest friends who are walking through this trial at our sides. We all love Amelia so intensely, and have faced almost losing her before, which makes us even more tenacious about our love for her little person. Katy is pretty broody, too, and I think tomorrow will be a difficult day for us all. I need to get going and pack our bags as well as some fun activities for the waiting room and hospital rooms on Friday and possibly beyond. How do you pack for 1 day or 7? Cancer or not? 

Please post this blog button all over the internet and rally prayer for my daughter as we face the coming weeks.


Linked to Joy

The one ingredient for wherever you are

It's funny how you can think you've failed at something before you're even half done. My children are beautiful, transcendental almost, smart as whips, hilarious, easy on the eyes, little gemstones of people. But there are days when I think I've failed them hopelessly, and a good friend of mine similarly gifted in sarcasm laughs with me over an old joke: 

They are only 8, 7, 5 and 4. There are many years to set right the chaos and the lost chances, the depression, the days I've spent wandering the floors of this house walled up in my own brain, the days spent studying for my PhD, the days spent grieving things maybe too hard, the days spent trying to be perfect and the days lost giving up on perfect and giving in to totally way less than perfect instead.

There have been many days redeemed already, but a struggling perfectionist often fails to remember those, and Satan crowds in and threatens to steal small joys all the time. There is a revolutionary out there who is beating a strange new drum, marching like the Pied Piper, singing a strange song that captivates and it truly teaches us, the recovering perfectionists, and we drop everything and climb this alien hill listening to her song with only one verse: COUNT JOY. She doesn't say, forget sorrow. She doesn't say, life will be easy. She doesn't say, you will not fail. She doesn't say, it won't matter that you fail. She just says, COUNT JOY. 

I started, this simple, paradoxical, and yet difficult practice, first on paper and now mostly in my head. It is odd to me still, how it whips my head the opposite direction, away from the mesmerizing power of grief, shame, dirtiness, failure, imperfection, poverty, and questions without answers. A bird flits by silent, and a day full of failures is lost in the splendor of one moment. A daisy on the lawn, and I forget about the unmown long grass in the symmetry of six white petals and one yellow center. I turn my swing around, and the fingernail moon catches my eye and a dark night of depression is light again and the tentacles of a nightmare loosed and forgotten. Yet a little verse nags at me - "weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth..." (2 Timothy 3:6b) - oh, let that not be me! A love of knowledge, a women always with many pans in the fire, head easily turned by this new theory or the dozen books on the nightstand, a new way to cure poverty or another way to bring peace in this war-torn region of Africa... How do I fight this? Not with more of anything. But with less. 

I don't need more answers. I don't need more faith. I need a certain kind. Faith like a little child.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me." (Matthew 18:1-5)
I find my answer on a bookmark in the book I've been reading for months, the one in the bathroom that I can't swallow unless I read it a page at a time. It's a picture Rosy drew for me, one of hundreds she's delivered to my bedside table, and on it is my answer about how I'm parenting and my answer about how I am to live this torn and tattered life of questions without answers. On one side of an imperfectly cut paper heart, in black and white, is the word HOPE. And on the other, in a rainbow of colors, is the word LOVE. This child, at age 7, knows.

You may be a missionary far afield, holding the beauty of a fragile orphan in the palm of your hands. You may be on Wall Street, juggling millions and striving for integrity in a business plagued with character demons of all shapes and sizes. You might be a nurse trying to slog through a dozen patients and still provide loving care to that one individual that tugs at your heart strings through your overworked shift. Are you the Starbucks barista who hands desperate soccer moms love in a steaming cup with a smile and a "have a nice day"? Do you check peoples engines or sell them used cars to help them make it to their next big payday? Or are you the mom down the street who's slogging through mountains of dirty laundry, mapping out Charlotte Mason homeschool curriculum and trying to make good choices about organic food for your brood?

Wherever you are in life, you are commanded to be like a little child in faith. Close your eyes and jump. I remember two glaring details about being a child: being horribly afraid and being dangerously adventurous. I was, at the same time, plagued by fear and amazingly immune to it. I was afraid because I was small and vulnerable, but I was often unafraid because I had no idea what to be scared of. Looking back, it's a miracle any of us survive the jumping from high places, pummeling down steep hills, and racing across monkey bars, bleachers, logs over streams or anything else we dared to do in childhood. Yet in Psalms 116:6 it says, The Lord protects those of childlike faith. So squeeze your eyes shut, just like you used to do, and let go. You don't need the kind of faith that moves mountains. You don't need to be the sage that fills commentaries or writes an amazing blog filled with nuggets of knowledge, answers to poverty, or solutions to world peace. You simply need to hold one little truth, a Holy piece of truth, always in the palm of your hands, always deep in your heart, and always on your lips. The King James Bible said it this way:
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think [dwell, fix your mind] on these things. (Phillipians 4:8)
Rosy Thul, at age 7, simply said, HOPE; LOVE. Ann Voskamp says, Count 1,000 gifts. An old hymn says, Count your blessings, name them one by one; count your blessings, see what God has done.

I may fail at a million things a day. Some days it feels miraculous to clothe, feed, and love my children enough by days end. To greet my husband with a smile and a kiss, and sometimes yes, I'm still in my pajamas when he walks through the door at 5:30. It's a stretch to get the cats some cream and let the dog out the door to run the woods by 9 a.m. I drink cold coffee many mornings. I don't even crack my Bible by noon on a good day. I have no idea what I'm going to do about homeschool curriculum for the fall. All my plans for kids sports, hobbies, pool dates, and our already struggling home chores are on serious hold until we find out if Amelia will be in chemo in July.

But I am not a failure. I am just a child. Loving. Learning. Counting up joys. And holding fast to the only thing I know for sure. That Jesus is God, He is my hope and my rescue, my peace and my provider, and He will keep us and help us until the end of our days, whatever comes.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will fail; where there are tongues, they will cease; where there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love; but the greatest of these is love. (I Corinthians 13 NKJV/ESV exc.)

It's just like falling in love

I'm in the land of dreams, that sunset-gold bright hazy world where light floats on the breeze like cotton in the spring and there's magic layered on magic. I'm talking to a friend about to be married, explaining the difference between how you fall in love with a man and how you fall in love with a baby.

You fall in love with a man tentative, even though it feels like a brick wall falling, love booming miraculous and echoing loud through the halls of your heart that have been aching to hear those sounds since the beginning of time. You don't know anything about him, this alien life form all hairy and full of new smells and sounds and coming into your shared space one morning with his raggedy t-shirts from old concerts and jeans stained and smelling of gasoline, a bunch of tools you don't know the names for, shampoo you'd never buy from the dollar section, and socks on your floor, boxers in the bathroom, and hair. Everywhere. (Don't cry to me about clogged drains with long hair, boys. It's payback for the million times we've swept around the tub surround, believe you me.)

My very first non-date with my future husband
But a baby is a whole different experience. They explode out of your body in this other-worldly, out-of-body don't-care-if-you-refuse-drugs you may as well have taken heroin before hand sort of experience, and there they are on your belly that you'll never recognize again anyway, slippery, slimy, blue and squealing like a piglet, and something shatters inside you in a silent and irreversible process that you can't orchestrate or prevent, and you are in love. Now, having a baby is different for every mom. But for me, there was nothing alien about my babies. Not their smell, not their sounds, not their bodies, not their schedules, not the way they latched on to my breasts, which I thought would be the weirdest part of it all (how I thought that would trump, *ahem*, the way they entered this world, I don't know, but I thought it would). 

Sniffing Caleb at 8 weeks, 2 weeks before I was diagnosed with cancer
I spent 24 hours a day either smelling or nursing my babies. I rarely washed them because they seemed perfectly perfect the way they were. (Okay, I'll admit it. About day three, they started to smell like goat cheese, and so did I, and so I showered with them in this incredible - albeit crazy, hippie, and potentially creepy - experience of a co-shower. I didn't bathe them in an actual bathtub unless we were at Grandma's where this weirdness would be, well - weird. Or until they were six months old and I'd come out of my baby-having induced coma and become a baby-escaping psycho instead.) Incredibly, I can't find many pictures of me smelling them. Kind of like I have about 4 photos of me kissing my husband even though I kiss him all the time. Curse of the photographer - you're always on the other side of the lens. And there's no way I'm posting pictures of me nursing them on my blog. Although I did make my husband take photos of me nursing them so someday I can look at them and remember. I doubt I'll ever show them to anyone else, unless maybe the girls want to see them if they go crazy, gung-ho hippie when they have their own kids in similar fashion to their own mother who made the switch from conservative, short-cropped hair SUV driving snowboarder to baby-wearing, co-sleeping, baby-sniffing, coo-coo for CoCo Puffs baby lover in less than 5 minutes postpartum.

Sniffing Caleb when my hair started to grow back 4 years into my cancer battle in early 2012.
The thing about love is, it doesn't matter how it forms in your heart, how it grows once there, or whether it's the curious, still-getting-to-know-you kind of love I have for my husband of ten years or the ferocious, lioness, kill-you-if-you-look-cross-eyed-at-my-cubs kind of love I have for my four kids of 8 years. And the kind of panic that love can bring out in you - that's exactly the same, no matter what kind of love you're talking about. 

Panic is all around these days. Panic that I'm failing - again - as a wife and mother. Pain in my heart and pain in my body have got me cocooned in my bed again, slipping down the slippery depression slope faster than I can pull myself back up it with meds and coping skills and therapy appointments. How can you hold a heart together when it is breaking? I still don't have an answer for that one. 

Panic that we are not ready - our family is so unready - to face another season of storming. If Amelia does have cancer - something that the doctors seem to talk about more matter of factly with every passing doctor's visit and I'm trying to get to a place of mixed denial-acceptance (?) about - how are we going to shore up for this one? Where is Jesus on this stormy sea? Will He come and stall the storm or is He going to have us ride it out until we think we're dying like the disciples? Katy is head over heels for sports, and needs time outside every day with Aaron or I, feeding her dreams, fueling her body. Rosy is at some 7 year old angst-ridden cross-roads, trying to find her identity, wanting to be herself in our family, pushing for some freedom to follow her own dreams. We need to find ways to make it happen for her - an instrument, a sport, some art lessons - something that is just hers, something to captivate her heart and make those eyes glow again and her little soul sing. Amy's too tired to want much of anything. We're focusing mostly on building her up physically for the physical battle to come - focusing on immune health and trying to put a little meat on her bones in case chemo is in the works for her. Caleb is his usual fitful, boundary pushing self. He needs more to do, no doubt about it. More structure, more boundaries, more to engage his mind and his body. And here's where you can queue the "Mom's failing" music again. So many things to do, and I feel like I can't even get meals on the table or my house cleaned! How can I meet the needs of their souls? And how do I decide what to put first? How can I meet soul needs in a house full of chaos but how can I put off soul needs until I quell the chaos who knows when? 

When did love get so complicated? 

There is panic about my marriage. It is so easy, in times of stress, to slip into old habits of survival. He goes to sleep early, and I stay up late, dogged by nightmares and insomnia, and we are two ships passing the night and intimacy is a rare thing. We've learned how to be comfortable together in these seasons, but fear is an old enemy that launches into my soul, and I worry that I'm abandoning him out of selfishness and that he won't want me the way I am now and he will find comfort somewhere else more attractive, less real, less raw. We cry together, and he holds me in my dark moments, and I hold him in his. We both have faith that there will be better days again, nights in the darkness when we are safe in each others arms and the bedrock of marriage that God guards and planted and protects will still be there. 

In the cracks and crevices, in between the chaos and the sticky floors, the dishes piled high and the surviving of the busy schedules crammed with doctors appointments and kids ball games and trying to find time to have fun as a family, there is always joy. Twenty minutes on our bed looking through old photos with the kids remembering days before cancer when we were two kids in love with babies to sniff and toddlers running around buck naked and a clean house with just a smattering of toys and dinner always on the table at six and long kisses after his work day. He puts on the telephoto lens and captures a gold finch flitting in the afternoon sun and we look at those images together and my heart melts right into his, and we are one, two made one, two pieces of one whole, two halves that found each other in a big wide world of strangers. We struggle to keep our eyes open in the cold dark night at the drive-in movie theater while the kids sleep in the back of the suburban and his big brown hand finds mine and he anchors me, in the silence we remember that we love this, we love the same things, and when life is over and done it will be reduced to moments like these when we loved each other and loved the same fleeting beauties on a sea of changing circumstances and through every hardship and difficulty. Two cardinals fly by the porch while we perch in sorrow, a male and a female, and suddenly it is my grandpa and grandma, three years now gone to heaven together, and we remember their love story of loss and brokenness, and the tears dry and we are laughing at this little wink from heaven that life goes on and life is soon over, and remember that, though time is short and times are tough, we are a cord of three strands not quickly broken.

When did love get so easy?

Abandoned to Satan: Shunning Part 5

This post is the third in a series where Trudy Metzger describes the excommunication meetings that occurred when she left the Mennonite faith tradition. Trudy is now the mother of 5 and an avid blogger about spiritual abuse. Best of all, she offers her services as a lay counselor and mentor to those recovering from spiritual abuse! All you have to do is click this link to request her services. In her bio, Trudy writes: ...my greatest fear is that someone will look up to me, admire me and be let down because they perceived me to be something more than I am. Something more than anyone is capable of being. Who am I? I am me. What is my passion? God, people, truth, justice and mercy. Why do I blog? Because we all learn from life experience–our own and what people share. I blog because I want to encourage you, challenge you and inspire you. That’s why I read, that’s why I write. You can get to know Trudy better at her blog, http://trudymetzger.com.

Having decided to leave the question of whether my hair was dyed, or not, between me and God, the preachers moved on. The meeting dragged on, and on. I was numb.

They concluded that I was not living in victory and my priorities were not as they should be. And, as a defeated Christian, who had defied the church constitution regarding musical instruments and watching TV, and because I was not making an effort to come home for weekends, I would need to be excommunicated and treated as an unbeliever and a heathen.
While I was still welcome to attend church, I would be treated as an outsider. I would be ‘marked’.  They would make an announcement on Sunday. Without them saying so, I was well aware that the announcement would be made throughout the ‘sister churches’, so they would know not to ‘greet me with the Holy Kiss’, if I showed up at church.
I felt a strange sense of relief and terror almost simultaneously. Being freed from the burden of countless man-made rules and religious agenda, was like breathing pure air for the first time in years.
The freedom was, well, freeing. But, with no ‘truth’ to counteract the lies of experience I was vulnerable and fearful, creating conflicting emotions. If ever I felt bipolar, it was in that moment.
And then there were Bible verses that had been used to instill fear, mostly by my father, causing me to believe that excommunication had the power to sentence me to hell. (Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18) Little did I realize that these verses had nothing to do with making up rules not grounded on Scripture, and then judging people by them as though they were vile sinners. Nor had they taught me the verses were Jesus condemned Pharisaical religion. I only had enough information to mess with my head. I left that meeting more confused than I had ever been.
Arriving back at Grandma Katie’s house at about 10:30, I immediately disappeared into her basement. An unused, moist-smelling, family room with an old couch became my haven. I needed time alone. To think. To feel. To adjust.
I curled up on that old couch and sobbed. My thoughts were broken, scattered. Were they good tears? Bad tears? Did God hate me? What if they were right? Would I go to hell for not being ‘one of them’? Had I rejected the ultimate truth? Would the devil now slowly invade me? Overtake me? Destroy me?
My body shook with a blend of terror and uncertainty, as I continued sobbing uncontrollably.
Suddenly I sensed something in the room.  Someone…  a powerful force. As abruptly as the sobbing had started, it ended.  It would be more than twenty years before that memory would return and with it, an understanding of what took place in that moment, as my heart cried out to God.
In my early twenties, when I started working through the abuse of childhood, youth and eventually elements of Spiritual Abuse, I asked God, “Where were You when this was happening to me?” I listened. I waited. And I sensed Him there, suffering with me. I was not abandoned. I would later learn that this was ‘Theophostic Healing’, or something similar to it.
It was only in the last several years that I revisited the memory of excommunication, for the first time since it happened, to explore what happened to my heart. What I felt. What I believed because of it. As I did, the scene in that basement returned. I was alone. Abandoned. Rejected. Hated by God. Weeping and crushed at the very core of my being. At least that is what I believed.
The memory of the couch returned. The moist-smelling basement. Then the sudden awareness of a Presence. I recalled the fear I felt, wondering if Satan really was coming to claim me. I didn’t even ask God where He was. The instant that moment returned, God gave me a vision of Jesus, standing in the room with me, watching over me.
Nothing had changed in the Heavenly realm, based on that moment with a handful of preachers. I was still loved. Accepted. Understood. I was His.

And after the storm, 
I run and run as the rains come
And I look up, I look up, 
on my knees and out of luck, 
I look up.

Night has always pushed up day
You must know life to see decay
But I won't rot, I won't rot
Not this mind and not this heart,
I won't rot.

And there will come a time, you'll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
with grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.

And now I cling to what I knew
I saw exactly what was true
But oh no more.
That's why I hold, 
That's why I hold with all I have. 
That's why I hold.

I won't die alone and be left there.
Well I guess I'll just go home,
God knows where.
Because death is just so full and man so small.
Well I'm scared of what's behind and what's before.
~Mumford and Sons, After the Storm~

This part 5 is the final post in a series on shunning in the Christian church. If you have a guest post to share, please find me at http://TurquoiseGates.com and leave a comment or contact me to let me know, as I may periodically continue to offer guest posts on the subject. Please refrain from rude comments directed toward the brave souls who have stepped forward to explain these painful chapters of their live. If you have a post, old or new, about shunning or church discipline, please link up below so we can read YOUR story! What do you think about church discipline as it is practiced "according to" Matthew 18? Feel free to link to your post, old or new, using the link-up tool below, and add your story to ours.

In the Aftermath: Shunning Part 4

Tereasa's Story: Part II
Tereasa is the author of His Pen on My Heart, where she blogs about freedom in Christ, healing from spiritual abuse and raising special children. She is a story teller, painting pictures with words and drawing the reader close to her heart. Her desire is to encourage those who are hurting and point all to Christ, the healer of our broken hearts. The abusive church she and her husband were a part of with their children is not related to any denomination and she wishes to keep the church's identity anonymous. You can read more about her family's escape from an abusive church and their journey to healing in Reflections of a Survivor. To read Part I of Tereasa's story, click here to read yesterday's post.


The days that followed  our escape confirmed that our decision was right. We were love bombed for a week.  If they had been permitted by the shepherd, members would have driven four hours to bring us back to them. Our phones rang incessantly and our email inboxes were filled with pleas to return. The pain of their cries was almost unbearable. Words of love were spoken, but ever so subtly the conditions were made. “Be people of integrity… Repent and return... Love the shepherd and follow the teachings… Follow the order of God and hold to the statement of faith.”

Threats were also made in the form of concerns. “What will happen to your children without the protection of the community? How will your marriage survive if not planted in the church?”  Guilt was used along with fear, “You are forcing the church back into immaturity… You’ve hurt the body of Christ… You’ve allowed Satan into your hearts.” They even used their children to write us letters begging us to return! The ultimate threat which locked the door came in a final email, “We’ll know soon whether or not your leaving was God’s will.”

Both love and fear were used as a means of control.  Their attempts to have us return were no different than their attempts to make us conform. The use of control and power to manipulate others to serve oneself is abuse.  In living there and by leaving there, we were spiritually abused.

Upon leaving the community, we returned to our previous hometown. Close to family and friends, far from those who loved us conditionally, we have a better chance to recover. The process has not been without grief and fear. All of us, including the children, have had to work through very intense emotions.

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Even though we are far away, we continue to live daily with the community.  They have been with us in our dreams and in our habits. Healing from spiritual abuse is like tending a garden. With consistent labor, the weeds decrease. Occasionally, surprises break through the soil and need to be removed before they grow and take over what is good.

We often feel like we’re nearing the end when another depth of hurt or another hurdle of healing must be faced. Perhaps, this will always be the case. The experience is like any other, a part of who we are. When circumstances arise, we come to new levels of healing.  It will be like climbing a mountain in a circular fashion.

There will always be things that trigger remembrance. Honestly, I do not want to forget. I love the people we left behind.  Nothing will change that. While I do not intend to purposely walk back into their lives, I do hope to be available. I hope that when another leaves, I can be there for support.
Next week I will be in a place where a chance meeting is possible and part of me is afraid.

It is not the first time I have feared, though.  The last time I was afraid, I asked the Lord what to do.  He reminded me that there is no fear in love. 
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”  – 1 John 4:18
It is the very verse by which the shepherd taught that if you fear, you do not love.  I now know that I need not fear punishment because I am in Christ who is love and it is by him that I am perfected.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” - Romans 8:1
If I ever run into anyone from the community again, whether it is next week or next year, I will stand confident in the love of Christ.  I will offer that love, as well. It will not be natural for me to do so, but it will be possible by the grace of God. I will do this because the freedom I have found in Christ is more than I deserve.  When others are shunned I will be there to hold their hands as they recover.  I will help them tend the garden and climb the mountain.  

That is why I am so thankful for this series. If you find yourself in a place of fear and confusion… If you feel that you are alone and wonder if you will survive life beyond abuse and abuse and shunning, there is an entire community of bloggers who have walked the path before you and have overcome.  You are not alone. 

"I've watched how lies can die in foregivness" - Witness, Nicole Witt

This post is part 4 in a series on shunning in the Christian church. If you have a guest post to share, please find me at http://TurquoiseGates.com and leave a comment or contact me to let meknow. Please refrain frm rude omments directed t owardthe brave who have stepped forward to explain these painful chapters of their live. If you have a post, old or new, about shunning or church discipline, please link up below so we can read YOUR story!

Escape in the Dead of Night: Shunning Part 3

Tereasa's Story: Driving Away
Tereasa is the author of His Pen on My Heart, where she blogs about freedom in Christ, healing from spiritual abuse and raising special children. She is a story teller, painting pictures with words and drawing the reader close to her heart. Her desire is to encourage those who are hurting and point all to Christ, the healer of our broken hearts. The abusive church she and her husband were a part of with their children is not related to any denomination and she wishes to keep the church's identity anonymous. You can read more about her family's escape from an abusive church and their journey to healing in Reflections of a Survivor.

My heart beats faster and my breathing becomes shallow when I think about shunning. My first thoughts are steeped in confusion. “Were we shunned or did we shut them out?” questions the broken record in my mind. The answer is fuzzy because the shunning was subtle.

“Why did you leave the way you did?” a friend asked. “Why not stay long enough to pack up your things and say goodbye?” (I welcome questions, because talking about it clears my thoughts and solidifies my stance.)

Simply put, it was the safest choice. We knew the alternative would destroy our family. The church we had been a part of for over a year was abusive and was known to divide families. Already, I had been told to choose the church over my husband if he did not agree with the teaching. The children would be told the same thing.  If we stayed long enough to say goodbye or even pack our things, the emotional stress would have torn us apart. Leaving immediately and without warning was the best decision.

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The church was a community with a very close-knit family atmosphere. Most of the members lived within walking distance of each other. Our daily lives were intertwined. We not only worshiped together, we worked together, taught our children together, ate together and more. It was not a commune, but it was close.  With that came a deep sense of belonging and being loved. The system was built in such a way that members were almost completely dependent on one another.

Dependence made it very easy for the shepherd to control the lives of the sheep. Not only were members dependent on one another, members were increasingly dependent on the shepherd. Love equaled obedience. Since it was taught God spoke through the shepherd, obedience to the shepherd meant obedience to God. If you did not obey the shepherd, you did not love him.  If you did not love the shepherd, you did not love God.  Sadly, this toxic theology was veiled in a shade of love and mixed with twisted scripture, making it ever so difficult to discern.

We had seen what happened to those who disagreed and we had occasionally been on the receiving end of it. Those who questioned were called doubters. Those who disagreed were dissenters. Those who did not conform were rebellious and those who left were said to be captured by Satan.

The teaching was that because there is one Spirit, any who thinks differently from the shepherd (who speaks from the Spirit) were being led by an evil spirit. It provoked fear and kept people quiet. Even in homes, one who brought up questions was said to put doubts in the other and was called a spiritual bully. Therefore, it was thought to be dangerous for a woman to ask her husband for understanding. It was even considered abusive for a man to share his concerns about the teachings with his wife. People were encouraged to go to the shepherd alone for the sake of unity.

We had taken our questions to the shepherd; we even dared to share a few with each other. As a result, we were publicly reprimanded.  Even that was subtle, as names were never used. The rebukes were passive aggressive and stated for a general audience so that all would learn, but everyone knew who the shepherd was speaking of at any given time.  The result was often anger and resentment toward the one who had brought the harsh words upon the crowd. Even that was shrouded in a cloak of love. The passive aggression behind the smiles and hugs were enough to suffocate anyone into obedience.

We knew what would happen if we continued seeking truth in that place. Seduced by the love of the community, we would eventually buckle and lose the connection Christ had died to give us. In order to survive emotionally, we would have to allow the shepherd to become the high priest Christ intends to be.  We would thus waste away spiritually.

On the other hand, we could continue to fight for truth and endure the conditional side of love. Our children would be turned against us and our marriage would be threatened. We would be love bombed while simultaneously having our rebellion held over our heads.  The emotional roller coaster would be comparable to that experienced by a battered wife.

It was the realization of that association which showed us what to do. This was not a time for games.  This was a matter of spiritual life and death. It could even affect the life of our marriage and family. Once the decision was made, we knew it was time to go.  We worked into the wee hours of morning to prepare after the children had gone to bed.  Then we left while everyone was at church the next day. (You can read about our escape in detail here and here.)

Some might say that because of the way we left, we were not shunned.  It is true that we were not asked to leave.  In the post to follow, however, I will show that shunning is not always blatant. It is not always neatly packaged and delivered as an act of disfellowship. More often than not, shunning is subtle and relayed in manipulative messages.

I'm the one that drives away
I am a street light shining
I'm a wild light blinding bright
Burning off alone

It's times like these you learn to live again
It's times like these you give and give again
It's times like these you learn to love again
It's times like these time and time again

I am a new day rising
I'm a brand new sky
To hang the stars upon tonight
I am a little divided
Do I stay or run away
And leave it all behind?
~Times Like These, Foo Fighters~

Update on Amelia

Amy went back to Mayo yesterday to see the oncologist (cancer doctor). The news was not good. I think I am in denial, or my heart is too heavy to process the emotions I'm having. Amelia's lump is harder, with more defined borders. Last week it was described as rubbery, more consistent with a "regular" swollen lymph node. This week it feels like a cancerous lymph node. The doctor said she thinks there is now about a 50% chance Amy has lymphoma. She wants Amy to finish out her course of antibiotics just in case it makes a difference. She also said there is still a small chance it is a viral infection, and is hoping the immune doctor we see on Friday will give us some other explanation. Amy is scheduled for surgery to remove several lymph nodes on the right side of her neck on June 29th. On June 28th, she will meet again with the oncology doctor, this time a team of doctors who will outline a possible course of treatment, and she will also meet with a surgical team who will come up with the best plan for her surgery, since she has had a notoriously difficult time with anesthesia in the past because of her brain abnormalities after her brain infection and brain damage in 2009.

The doctors expect to be able to perform the surgery using a drug that Amy has done well with in the past, Propofol. They are hoping to use a small incision about a 1/4 inch long, and use a vacuum tool to extract the numerous lymph nodes through the small incision. Then the lymph nodes will be frozen and examined by an oncology pathologist who will give us a definite diagnosis about lymphoma. Meanwhile, Amy's recovery should be fairly easy. The only complications they foresee is her response to the anesthetic. It will take up to a week to get the results back about whether or not it is cancer.

Meanwhile, Amy seems to be getting worse with each passing day. On Sunday, she attended church in her winter hat, an owl hat we bought her for Christmas, that garnered a lot of compliments and some funny looks. She is dressing in winter clothes because she is so cold, despite temperatures in the 80s. A woman at church knit her a prayer shawl, which she wears around the house and has been very thankful for because of the added warmth. She has four blankets on her bed at night and wears fleece footy pajamas and a winter hat, but still comes to our bed shivering with cold and begs for our down comforter. During the day, she takes multiple breaks for naps in my bed and sits on the porch on the swing while the other kids play. All of this is very uncharacteristic for the most active of our four children. She is obviously sick with something. We just don't know what yet. Trying not to borrow worry from tomorrow per the verse sufficient unto each day are the trials thereof (Matthew 6:34), we accept her latest quirks as added cuteness from an already quirky and enigmatic little girl who regularly charms us with her antics.

A quick look into lymphoma gives me a little more hope. It is likely that, if this is what Amy has, it is non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, because of her age. It also probably the aggressive form, because so far it looks like her bone marrow, liver and spleen are not involved even though she already has symptoms of lymph node enlargement (yeah!). The 5 year survival rate for this type of lymphoma is 63% and the 10 year survival rate is 51%. That is very similar to odds I was given for my cancer and it looks like I will be beating the 5 year odds.

We need your prayers, oh, we need your prayers. This is so overwhelming for Aaron and I. We both have had days of deep depression, so deep we are weeping for help from the Lord. As former pediatric bone marrow transplant nurses, we can list off dozens of favorite lymphoma patients, most of whom are dead, and this adds to the weight of our current situation. Even the doctors acknowledge this when I tell them about our background. They know that this adds to our anxiety - and at the same time makes us more knowledgeable. Please continue to lift up Amy's health - but also our whole family and the emotional ups and downs of this new journey we are on together as a family as we wait for surgery and diagnosis.

Please post this blog button all over the internet and rally prayer for my daughter as we face the uncertainty, grief and fear of the coming weeks.


Please treat me like a real taxpayer: Shunning Part 2

I've loved and left two churches in my life. The first, the church I was raised in. The second, a home for 10 years, all of my adult life after coming back to the church after fleeing during high school and not returning until I felt obligated after having children of my own. Both churches practice "shunning", which Webster's defines as "to avoid deliberately, especially habitually", or "avoid", "dodge", "eschew" or "weasel out of". Societal shunning is the type practiced by churches: members who have supposedly stepped out of line are confronted, first by the person offended, then by a group, finally by the church, then barred from attendance, and eventually cut off from all association or friendships within the church membership (per Matthew 18: read interesting commentary on this passage here and here). The culmination of this passage on "church discipline" instructs churches to treat those excommunicated as "infidels and taxpayers" (i.e. Gentiles). In it's purest form, it forever damages the very relationships Christ instructed us to hold dear; in it's worst form, it allows pastors to discredit anyone who dare privately or publicly critique them.

Shunning rocketed me into a downward spiral that ended in the deepest depression I've ever experienced. The accusations made drowned out even the voice of the Word as I struggled to believe what God says about me, not men. I Corinthians 2:5 was deeply comforting: "That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God." The refrain of Jason Gray's I Am New helped me block out the voices of the most ruthless accusers:

Now I won't deny
The worst you could say about me
But I'm not defined by mistakes that I've made
Because God says of me
I am not who I was
I'm being remade
I am new
I am chosen and holy and I'm dearly loved

Too long have I lived in the shadow of shame
Believing that there was no way I could change
But the one who is making everything new
Doesn't see me the way that I do 

Forgiven, beloved
Hidden in Christ
Made in the image of the Giver of Life
Righteous and holy, reborn and remade
Accepted and worthy
This is who we are now... 

So why am I sharing this story today? When you first find yourself being shunned, it's a wound so deep and so layered, it's almost impossible to talk about. Then too, you don't want to bring it up for fear of damaging any lingering friendships you still have hope for. When you're accused of gossip, the last thing you want to do is talk about anything. You install a triple filter system on your tongue, scrutinizing everything you say, pray, type. Because it is hard not to believe what is being said about you. You second guess everything you thought was true. It's been almost two years now, and I've felt the growing weight of this story God allowed me to experience and, I believe, wants me to share. I know there are others who've walked the same painful road, some who've hidden their wounds and their shame for decades. I want you - yes, you, hurting and discouraged redeemed sinner - to know you are not alone.

When I left my childhood church, I lost every friendship I'd made in the 15 years I'd attended. Every. one. The same thing happened, although more slowly and painfully, when we left our church of 10 years in 2010. Ironically, while my husband and I were accused of gossip and slander, the pastors who orchestrated the shunning process used not only the recent accusations, but also sought out information about a sin committed when I was a teenager to discredit us, as if God had done nothing to change me between age 14 and age 32.  Wrapped up in that story was the story of my abuse as a child. It felt like that abuse dagger was stuck in my side still, and maybe this time it would be there forever. It felt like the sins God had wiped from His memory were forever emblazoned on my forehead for all the world to see. How my sin of "gossip" - seeking counsel about a reference letter that made accusations about the causality of my choices and our health situations - counted, and their choice to spread stories of my life without me present did not, I will never understand.

Every morning, I got on Facebook to find a few more people had "unfriended" me (oh, for the pre-Facebook days when "unfriend" wasn't even a word!). After an initial onslaught of letters, messages, phone calls, and pleas for our repentance and return, some loving and some nasty, church members were eventually instructed not to interact with us at all, not even online - to unfriend us on Facebook, block phone calls, avoid us in public, and quit reading my blog and other online interactions. When I ran into former friends in the grocery store, some turned on their heal and walked in the other direction. It felt like a slow, 6 month long surgery done without anesthesia. At the end of it, I was paralyzed by the fact that a large number of people in our small city now knew details of my personal life that I had struggled to share within the intimacy of my own marriage.

Clearly, the Bible makes room for discipline of a willfully sinning member. Yet, in the harshest texts (primarily Matthew 18), the instructions are to treat that sinner as a "pagan or tax collector"; apologists point out that Jesus ate and conversed with and accepted hospitality from both (think Zaccheus). Pagans and tax collectors were only disbarred from the most intimate form of house church. Thus, a normal, although less intimate, amount of interaction is surely allowed within the scope of Scripture.

I found it easier to forgive what was done to us than what was done to our children. One by one, they lost every little friend they had, until it was just us - just them, their siblings and cousins. Never before have I been so thankful for the closer, unalienable ties of our close-knit extended families, who were as horrified by the treatment we received as we were. 

One of the few things that brought me comfort through this darkest and most difficult period of my life was reading the stories of others who had gone through the same thing. It made the attack feel less personal, and I was able to see things from my former friends perspective - they were just trying to obey their leaders. I think some of them grieved the process almost as much as we did. We weren't the only victims in the shunning process. The whole body of Christ suffered.

I opened God's Word to the story of David and Jonathan, and oh, how I hungered for a friendship like that! Jonathan, forced by his own father to expel his best friend David from not only the temple but the kingdom, fasts for days, escapes the castle to bring food and weapons to his friends, and weeps endless hours over the fracture in their relationship. Eventually, Jonathan dies in battle alongside his father, and David's grief is boundless. Here indeed, is a friend who loves at all times (Proverbs 17:17). Why was there not even one good friend in the church we left who came after me to bring me food and weep with me?

I read several books that helped me through this time - most notably David Johnson and Jeff vanVonderen's The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority in the Church (available for preview here). A growing forum of excommunicants from the same small denomination we'd been catapulted out of was also a comfort. It also helped to understand the grand scope of the practice of shunning: we are not alone! Even the particular sin we were accused of - gossip/slander - is a very common rationale behind shunning: in a 2008 article on the increase in excommunications trending nationwide, The Wall Street Journal states there is...
...a growing movement among some conservative Protestant pastors to bring back church discipline, an ancient practice in which suspected sinners are privately confronted and then publicly castigated and excommunicated if they refuse to repent. While many Christians find such practices outdated, pastors in large and small churches across the country are expelling members for offenses ranging from adultery and theft to gossiping, skipping service and criticizing church leaders. The revival is part of a broader movement to restore churches to their traditional role as moral enforcers, Christian leaders say. Some say that contemporary churches have grown soft on sinners, citing the rise of suburban megachurches where pastors preach self-affirming messages rather than focusing on sin and redemption. Others point to a passage in the gospel of Matthew that says unrepentant sinners must be shunned.
To the shock of the secular community as well as many within the Christian church, 10-15% of Protestant evangelical churches practice shunning, which translates to an overwhelming 14,000 to 21,000 U.S. congregations. While excommunication is something we often associate with Amish, Mennonite or Catholic faith traditions, this practice is alive and (un)well in a variety of church movements. The Wall Street Journal report also notes the two dozen lawsuits in the last decade through which shunned ex-church members have attempted to recover damages for defamation, negligent counseling and emotional injury. In 2003, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a pastor for ousting a family in which the woman was charged with gossip, setting the stage for a national tidal wave of such lawsuits attempting to shed light on a painful and often very private episode in the lives of those shunned.

When you're shunned, you often lose everything except for the clothes on your back - friendships, spiritual support, community, and sometimes even jobs and family relationships can be impacted by the very group of people called to love and support you. Singles who are excommunicated may even find themselves unwelcome in their own home, if that home is shared (as it often is) by other church members. For our family, it was a barbaric experience that cut our children off from every one of their friends and their home-school group, as well as exposing my husband and I to torturous accusations that ate away at our spiritual well-being and mental health.

Yet there is such hope as you emerge from shunning! Deeper relationships, richer love for family, a deeper understanding of the personal nature of your relationship with God, strengthened ability to rely on Him alone for your needs, and perhaps even a stronger and healthier church family await you! A year and a half later, we are part of a new church where our children are thriving and we are relearning trust in our fellow members. God has prospered us financially, physically, and emotionally as we've walked as a family into recovery from this ordeal. As hard as it is now to run into former friends, these encounters have a simpler, bittersweet edge to them. Once you've made peace with the fact that these friendships are over, you can begin to look back with fonder memories and more grace for those who hurt you. If we are to be Christ-like in all we do, then we must look on our accusers and abusers with love, as Christ did the tens of thousands who shouted for His condemnation. If the Perfect One quietly and gracefully endured the ultimate penalty for moral crimes He did not commit, we must be quick to forgive and to reach out with the olive branch of peace.

Part of reconciliation is acceptance of wrongs done and the conscious act of moving forward into your emotional and spiritual recovery. Christ does not wish us to be spiritually stunted by the actions and words of others. He desires us to be full, unabashed servants living out the lessons of the Cross in our daily lives, even in our interactions with those who wounded us. And while it is important to recognize that wrong has indeed been done, it is also important to forgive. When you can name something, you can put a label on your forgiveness. Yes, you've been hurt - worse than you ever imagined possible. But you CAN be made new, even after this onslaught. It is the beauty and awesomeness of all-surpassing grace. It is the hope at the heart of Christianity - that we can be transformed by both bad experiences and good. It is how we make sense of all pain in this world: it draws us ever closer to the One who will one day rescue us from this fallen and painful world.

you didn't have to cut me off -
Make it like it never happened and that we were nothing -

Now you're just somebody that I used to know.
Somebody That I Used to Know, Gotye

For further reading, consider 

This post is Part 2 of a series on Shunning that will include several guest posts from others who've undergone this painful process. Feel free to link up to your own posts, old or new, if you've written about being shunned. You are no longer an outsider - there is a group here waiting to call you "family" and welcome you in Jesus name!

Whatever you do to the least of these: Shunning Part 1

A friend loves at all times,
and a brother is born for adversity.
Proverbs 17:17

Every time they fight, I remind them, "Don't forget. Your sister is your best friend, and she will be for the rest of your life." This has always been true. But never more true than the past two years.

I left the church silently and by increments between age 14 and age 18 due to the child abuse I suffered in the church. I didn't walk through church doors again until my brother, part of a college church plant, begged me to bring my piano fingers to his band in 2001, when I was 22. I didn't start attending on a regular basis until my first child was a toddler, when I was 26. And I didn't open my heart to others at a church until I was 28 and diagnosed with cancer. Still, I held people at arms length. I felt like their prayers and their support were conditional, as though I was often in the position of supporting them emotionally rather than vice versa. Something finally changed around 2009, when God sent two particular women I never would have pictured being friends with into my church and I dropped my guard. And so, 16 years after I started holding everyone at arms length, I finally held someone close again. I opened up my home. I went into homes. I even napped at a friend's home. I spent long lazy afternoons with friends. It was one golden year of Christian community.

And then the other shoe dropped. Accused of a sin neither my husband nor I felt convicted of committing, we were slowly but surely expelled from our community in a cloud of foggy accusations coupled with affirmations of conditional love - if only we would repent, we would be welcomed back with open arms.

When all was said and done, the entire church was instructed to completely avoid us - in person, online, on Facebook - even to stop reading my blog. We found ourselves completely alone. We used to entertain frequently. We were left with no one to entertain. One by one, our friends dropped out of our lives, some with painful goodbyes, some with a simple "unfriending" on Facebook and silence. Many nights, when we went into the children's room for evening prayers, we had to deliver the news that another family that included some of their closest friends had chosen to stop contact with our family. There are no words for how devastating those conversations were - for us as parents, or for them as children. How do you explain to children - ages 6, 5, 4 and 2 - that their friends can't be their friends anymore, simply because we no longer attend the same church? Because their parents think that Mama and Papa did something sinful?

We brainstormed together, with the kids. We joined a 4-H club. We signed them up for summer ball clubs. We go to homeschool events and weekly homeschool physical education and swimming classes. We called neighbors to try to establish more regular visits. But there is only one set of homeschooling neighbors - and their girls are 5 and 8 years older than my eldest. There is only one other family in the neighborhood - all boys, and their parents prefer to be left to themselves, like a lot of people who choose to live in the country. Two years have gone by, and none of my children have a single friend within their age group outside our family. Not one.

I've watched my children hide themselves in public, draw themselves inward. Try to blend in. Hide their individuality under a facade of "sameness". Listen for a long time and then try to strike up conversations around what they've heard the other kids talking about. They're afraid to be outsiders. Individuals. Free thinkers. I hate that. I hate what this has done to them. They have always been free spirits. I don't ever want them to feel like they need to conform to make friends. I also see them turning into loners, kind of like me. My oldest daughter especially has a "devil may care" attitude about friendships these days. Who needs 'em? If they don't need me, I'm fine without them, I can see it in her face. At her coach pitch games, she's a star athlete, and she should be one of the crowd. But the rest of her team is joking around on the bench, and she stands hugging the fence, intent on the action, ignoring their antics. Building up her walls. I want to go in there with a sledgehammer and break down her walls and show all of them her beautiful, tender, intelligent, funny heart. I want her to whip out one of her hilarious accents for them, or tell her to do one of her practical jokes. Because she'd make a great friend! The truth is, she has to work through the wounds inflicted on her just like I have to work through mine. And I have to remember that God can heal her just like He can heal me.

We're part of a church now. Real members. We plan to be there for a long time. The youth ministry is thriving, and the kids are happy with the size of their classes. They talk a lot about the loud, rowdy boys. I have one friend from "before church" who attends there, and there's hope for an emerging friendship with her family. Will it materialize? Can I overcome my fear of developing another friendship within the context of church, where I've been burned so badly twice now? Last time it took me 16 years to overcome my doubts and fears. I simply can't afford so long a healing this time around. I owe it to my kids to trust God again sooner. But the heart is slow to do what the mind may quickly realize.

I still have this question: are church friends really friends? Friends who love at all times? Wouldn't a true friend love me when I'm sinning, wouldn't a true friend love me no matter where I go to church? Wouldn't a true friend understand how deeply and irrevocably shunning damages me and, even more importantly, my tender and innocent children?

And deep in my heart, the most painful question is: if you can't love these kids of mine, these sweet, funny, endearing, beautiful, gregarious kids of mine, how could you possibly love me?

The friends that by God's grace are left - the "brothers born for adversity" - sisters and cousins.
This week, we're going to take a deeper look at the practice of shunning in the Christian church. You'll hear a little more about my experience, along with the experiences of several guest writers who have their own stories to tell. What have your experiences been with shunning in the church? Have you been shunned? Have you ever participated in shunning someone? What is your take on Matthew 18? Have you ever thought about how shunning affects children?

If you'd like to join, link up with a post old or new about your own experience with shunning in the church below. Please include the community graphic in your post so we can find each other.