Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pentecost 21-C: What we can do about domestic violence

Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

Note: October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The Abuse Prevention Council here in Shelby, which serves victims of domestic violence, asked me to write a sermon that could be shared with other clergy in our area to be preached on this date in the hopes of raising awareness and eliciting a compassionate response.

(A true story.) Early in my career as an advocate for victims of violence, my life and my approach to my work as a shelter director were transformed by a toddler… a little 4-year old girl named Lizzie. Lizzie suffered from fits of rage, something commonly seen in children who witness or suffer extreme violence at a very young age.

Lizzie’s rages usually lasted 10 to 20 minutes at a time and were triggered by sounds, smells or events that were connected to her memories of abuse. During these rages, Lizzie was unresponsive to reason. In fact, she would try to hurt anyone who tried to comfort her or stop her from hurting herself.

The doctors and therapists brought in to diagnose and treat Lizzie, told her mother and me that Lizzie needed to learn very clear boundaries around her behavior, and that we all had to be diligent and consistent, immediately interrupting Lizzie’s violent behavior and rewarding her good behavior. Lizzie will respond, they said, when the limitations on her behavior are clear to her.

Well, we tried. For weeks, every time Lizzie went into one of her rages, her mother, supported by our staff, worked hard to gently, but firmly interrupt the violence, using time outs, rewarding good behavior, putting Lizzie in what they called a “restraining position” so she couldn’t hurt herself or the one holding her. We did everything the therapists had suggested, but Lizzie wasn’t responding. In fact, her violence towards herself and others during her rages was increasing.

Lizzie’s mother and the shelter staff began to fear Lizzie and her rages.

One late afternoon, I was talking with Lizzie’s mom in the living room when another woman who was staying in the shelter returned home, carrying a large package. She asked one of the kids playing outside to help her close the door behind her. As sometimes happens, when the little boy closed the door, he slammed it shut.

Lizzie, who had been playing quietly on the floor in front of us, jumped up, ran behind the little toy kitchen in the corner of the room, and curled up on the floor in a fetal position. A rage began to overtake her, and her mother responded immediately, per the instructions given by the therapists.

But Lizzie would not be comforted. She hit and kicked at her mother, biting at her and screaming ugly things. When her mother tried to pick her up to put her into the restraining position, Lizzie wriggled out of her arms and began running at full speed into the furniture.

Her mother, totally overwhelmed, sat down on the floor, put her hands over her face, and began to cry.

I caught Lizzie in my arms as she ran across the room, sat down on the floor, and began to rock her in my lap. As Lizzie screamed and struggled to get free, I spoke softly to her, saying only that she was loved and that everything would be OK. I held her firmly, but not in the restraining position. She punched and swung at me, even bit me once on the arm, but I continued to softly speak words of love to her.

Eventually, Lizzie stopped struggling and rested in my arms, her breaths short and sharp from her recent tantrum. A minute later, Lizzie looked up at me, her eyes still puffy from crying and asked, “Am I a good girl?” “Yes, darling, Lizzie. You’re a good girl.” I assured her. A moment later, Lizzie was asleep. That was the last fit Lizzie ever threw.

By the grace of God, I realized in that frantic moment that what Lizzie needed wasn’t boundaries or limits or discipline. What she needed was tenderness and the assurance that she was loved.

Being only four years old, Lizzie lacked the words she needed to describe how the violence she had witnessed and suffered made her feel. She was too scared to tell anyone that she thought she must be bad and somehow to blame for the nightmare she lived. She was too little and too vulnerable to speak her greatest fear – that she wasn’t loved. So instead, she acted out. Like the woman in the parable of the unjust judge, Lizzie did what she could to get the justice she deserved.

Those who listened with earthly ears couldn’t hear Lizzie’s pleas – but God did – and just like Jesus promised in the parable, God acted swiftly to grant her justice.

God cares deeply about the powerless, the vulnerable, and the abused - and so should we.(Ref: Jn 3:16-17, Mt 25:40)

That’s why today, as we remember that October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, we open ourselves to hear the pleas of those in our midst who suffer. Last year, the Abuse Prevention Council here in Shelby, provided shelter to 107 women and 56 children. They advocated and filed for 818 orders of protection hoping to keep these women and their families safe from their abusers.

Even though most cases of domestic violence are never reported, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that:

• an estimated 1.3 million women are assaulted by their intimate partners each year.
• boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults.
• 30% to 60% of those who abuse their intimate partners also abuse children in the household.
• the cost of intimate partner violence exceeds $5.8 billion each year, $4.1 billion of which is for direct medical and mental health services … and yet…
• less than one-fifth of victims reporting an injury from intimate partner violence sought medical treatment following the injury.
(Taken from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Facts Sheet at ncadv.org)

Imagine the cost if the other four-fifths of victims were reporting these assaults and seeking treatment for their injuries.

Statistics like these can cause us to lose heart. How can we ever make a dent in a problem of this magnitude? Well the simple answer is: we can’t, but God can.

What we can do is be the faithful ones the Son of Man desires to find on earth. We can be proclaimers of the Love that came to live among us, gave his life for us, and reconciled us to God. We can be the mouths that speak hope and the hands that offer safe, tender, healing comfort.

To be the kind of faithful instrument God can use, we must make ourselves ready – and we do that by being prayerful – which is the point of Jesus’ parable in Luke. Prayer is a discipline, a strength we build by practice. Prayer makes us ready, individually and corporately, to be evangelists, proclaimers of the Good News in favorable and unfavorable times.

Prayer enables us to be the light of Christ’s love in the darkest moments in the lives of our sisters and brothers who suffer. Prayer is that grace, that gift from God, that enables us to taste and share the reconciliation Christ achieved for us, and as the psalmist says – it is sweeter than honey to our mouths.

But unless our prayer brings us to do something real to manifest the love of God in our world, it is fruitless.

Here’s what we can do:

• we can inform ourselves about domestic violence. Our local Abuse Prevention Council (APC) can help, or go online to ncadv.org
• we can financially support the APC and their efforts to rebuild the broken lives of the women and children they serve
• we can volunteer our time, talents, and expertise to strengthen the services the APC can provide
• we can pray. Prayer is not the least we can do. It’s the most we can do.

Let’s close, then, with the sweet taste of this prayer
(called For the Oppressed):

Look with pity, O heavenly Father, upon the people in this land who live with injustice, terror, disease, and death as their constant companions. Have mercy upon us. Help us to eliminate our cruelty to these our neighbors. Strengthen those who spend their lives establishing equal protection of the law and equal opportunities for all. And grant that every one of us may enjoy a fair portion of the riches of this land; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(The Book of Common Prayer, 826)

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