I received my name after being born. Not because my parents wanted to see my face before giving it. But because my mom just knew I was a boy. Surprise! No “Sam” here. Just “Melissa.”
Drawing and writing were my favorite pastimes growing up. I won my first art contest in kindergarten. The awards kept coming. By high school, I had a small art scholarship to take to any college. But I never finished.
Life experience has been my education. Testing and growing me in the lab.
At the young age of 19, I married my highschool sweetheart. Now his Bride, he whisked me 350 miles away to the Music City of Nashville, Tennessee. He studied full time and worked full time, while I had babies. Four wildly unique humans, born five and a half years apart, to be exact, named me Mama. They are all grown up now. Our oldest daughter and bonus son recently gave us our first grandkids. They call me Mia.
On the homepage, the text over the black and white photograph reads that my smile is a miracle.
A miracle is something that cannot be accomplished by the natural, but only by the supernatural power of God.
Little me wore that same full-face, eyes-lit-up grin effortlessly. Here’s photo proof of me at six years old. I felt I could accomplish anything then, as every little girl should. Then:
Something shifted. A light is extinguished, and a smile is lost.
At age 10, these eyes are heavy with secrets, though I managed a bit of a smile. I shudder at the horrific memories, fearing shame will creep back in, and that I will diminish the catastrophic damage done, even now.
Another picture remains hidden in a stack because it still pains me to see the emptiness of the young face staring back at me. It is my sixth-grade photo. The year I began to understand an inkling of what happened to me.
Besides my parents and family who named me Melissa, Bride, Mama, and Mia, other people and happenings named me.
Cruel kids on the school play yard. Too much time alone. My sins and failures.
Darkness lurked around the many corners of my childhood. A friend’s older brother sexually assaulted me and repeatedly raped me in the woods when I was only seven years old. For the next three years, I endured too many sexual victimizations to count by another person. At age 10, yet another friends’ teenage brother assaulted me in an outdoor closet.
As a result, I thought something must be wrong with me, that I somehow caused such bad things to happen.
We moved the next year because my parents opened a business in another city. Though the active harm stopped, the poison of it continued to invade every part of my being. I was alone a lot, and fear consumed me. (My aim is not to dishonor here. I believe they did the best they could at the time, not knowing the loneliness increased my fears and paralyzed much of my ability to function normally.)
Art kept my mind off things. But when I couldn’t shake the horrors, I wrote. A deep thinker all my life, weaving words together gave the pain a place to bleed onto the page, expressing the rescue and hope my young heart wished for. The stories and poems were always about other people. I never intended to tell what happened to me.
I grew up in what would now be called a megachurch. It became an easy place for more predators to hide, even among the staff. Hidden in plain view was one “pastor” whose charisma and talents covered a diabolical strategy: patiently groom the weak and lonely with kindness, offer what she’s missing in life, however long it takes, until she’d never suspect assault.
Every heinous crime he inflicted stripped me of all belief that God could love me. Believing I was nothing more than a massive disappointment to God left me certain I would be to everyone else, too, if they knew. So, I hid my story from my family, my friends, and eventually my husband.
Carrying so many secrets gave birth to a lie that I was a fraud – another name to bear.
But our God is a name changer.
As instructed at a women’s conference, I hand-scribbled those false names on this red-framed label:
They weren’t the truest part of me, though they felt very true. The woundings of my past reframed my identity. But Jesus came to frame it back right.
My healing first began around the age of 27, when all my ways of self-protection began to unravel. Nineteen-year-old me thought I could simply marry, move away, start a great new life, and leave the past behind me. So why, after eight years, was I miserable? Why was I so angry at my husband? Why couldn’t I rest at the end of a day until every little toy, every single shoe, and every dirty dish were in their proper places? Why was I so exhausted?
I sensed something was not right within me, but I couldn’t understand it. So, I prayed. I didn’t know what “healing the brokenhearted” meant at the time, but, in the months and years that followed, that is precisely what Jesus began to do in me.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn, to console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness… (Isaiah 61:1-3)
Reverting back to the conference where we wrote our false names, next, we were told to come to the front and pick up a new name, framed in gold. This is the word that persistently stood out to me as I walked the altars.
The anointed One came to heal me. He is healing me still. And in the healing, named me appointed. Not because of anything I have done, but because He loves me, and knew I would tell the story of His redemption and transformation.
About the time I felt secure in God’s love again was when the 4-wheeler accident occurred. That security was fiercely tested.
The youngest child’s face was crushed, resulting in a string of 11 reconstructive surgeries over a span of eight years, with long, crazy recoveries. (one example: sleeping upright in a recliner, wearing a hard protective face shield, tucked tight as a burrito so she couldn’t roll over on her face, for as long as six months). The oldest daughter was driving, and incurred long-sustained injuries, too. But because her injuries were less obvious, the impact on her was overlooked by many. As the driver, false guilt and depression riddled her. In the aftermath of it all, both girls were tempted at times to take their own lives.
All four of our kids were riding in the orchard that awful day. I was with them. Our whole family was traumatized by everything that followed, each in his/her own way.
As a mama, I kicked and screamed and curled my fist.
My once happy oldest girl sobbed on my shoulder how she didn’t understand. Questioning how, up until the accident, we’d been so “blessed”? But now, apparently this calamity meant we were no longer under God’s hand of blessing?
The youngest, free-spirited one became poor in spirit, quiet and withdrawn.
Somewhere along the way, wrestling with the church’s often misuse of the word, I remembered Jesus’ words,
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.Matthew 5:3
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.Matthew 5:4
Realizing it was going to be a very long road, I begged of God in the beginning, if we must go through this, please bring beauty from ashes as You promise in Isaiah. Please, God. Please.
Just one year into the process of surgeries and the girls’ depression, we lost our home during the Great Recession. Already broken, we were now displaced. Homeless.
So much of my faith was tested and questioned, and wrought.
I was sick and tired of everything I’d heard both outside and inside the church about suffering. Too much of it fell short.
I began to plea:
I want to know the Truth about suffering from You and You alone, God, was my cry. Who are You in suffering? What does it mean that You are good? How do I make sense of Your Word in all this?
Many healing answers have come. We are no longer reeling as we once were, but we are still mending.
I’ve held onto pain so long until it broke my body. Chronic illnesses have exploded within me the past few years. Once vibrant and healthy, I’ve nearly forgotten what it feels like to be well. My counselor said the body knows grief before the mind does. Further, my acupuncturist and MD explained that sometimes the body doesn’t process trauma until long after the stressful event has passed. When we slow down to focus on healing, the body sometimes exhibits all it has carried and all we have internalized during the prior years of surviving.
Suffering has a way of further uprooting old trauma.
I felt like I had digressed from all the heart healing God had worked in me the previous decade before the accident.
Sifting through the splintered pieces in counseling, I now understand that suffering will often expose the places in us that need deeper healing or greater holiness. That there are many layers to a wound. It wasn’t that I had gone backwards. But my reactions to what our family was enduring were revealing places within me that needed more of God’s love and life and Truth where I’d lost trust long ago.
I began asking Jesus to come again to every wounded place in my soul. To come for the little girl, the teenage girl, the mama who just wanted her family to be OK. Minister to me again the ministry of Isaiah 61.
However many times it takes. Just come, Jesus. Don’t stop ’til I am whole and wholly Yours.
I am finding pain and joy coexist. And no matter how many times deferred hope made my heart sick, hope keeps rising despite it. Because, Jesus.
It is from these pages of my story and our family’s story that I write. Ultimately, God is the Author and Hero. The Word that guides my words, I impart to you.
Dear one, let us bravely face our pain with Jesus, together, you and I – until all our false names are blotted out, and we hear Him call us by our true name.
Our Family’s Story – The Orchard
More on Sexual Abuse & Clergy Sexual Abuse with resources
A Letter to My Husband (& Children) on Our 25th Anniversary
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