Friday, September 19, 2014


After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying,

"Do not fear, Abram,
I am a shield to you;
Your reward shall be very great."
Genesis 15:1

In 1990, during the early morning hours, a man broke into my mother`s apartment, held a knife to her throat, mocked her, threatened her, and raped her.  Although he left her alive, something in my mother died that day.
Throughout her life, Mom has been a victim of abuse.  Her father abused her verbally and physically.  When she met my father she saw her chance to escape.  On her eighteenth birthday they were married.  She soon discovered that he was even worse.  She would try to anticipate his wishes to avoid his rage, but who can know the whims of a drunken man.  After an exceptionally brutal beating, Mom expressed her truest self when she courageously gathered her three sons and left my dad.  I thank God for her courage.  That choice has always been an example to me that I do not need to live under oppression and it set me free from living any longer under my father’s wrath.  She left with another man and soon married him.  Although not as violent as my father, he too drank too much and would often act in oppressive ways.  The relief was so great that we overlooked his controlling ways and periodic fits of rage.
When I was ten, my step-father took his own life. He got mad about something we boys had done.  He fought with mom and she took us to her mother's for our safety.  The next morning, she called Grandma and told her that he had killed himself.  We were stunned.  I remember vividly the numbness that fell over our whole family.  Even in this state, Mom brought us all together.  She was a rock.  She was brave and strong.  I admire my mom for the amazing power she showed to raise three teenage boys all alone.  But in one night in January 1990, Mom became frightened.  Maybe it was the straw the broke the camel`s back.  I do not know for sure.  But Mom has been different ever since.
Because of the rape, Mom married a man who would be the worst of her abusers.  He offered her safety from the intruder.  In exchange, he demanded total obedience. One day when he felt she was slipping away, he pressed a pistol to her chest and squeezed the trigger.  In God’s grace, the weapon misfired and Mom was able to escape.  Two months later, Mom met Jesus.  Her faith has set her free from so much destruction.  Although she has regained some of her fearless confidence, she still longs to be safe.  She is afraid of unlocked doors.  She winces when she sees someone who is similar to her attacker.  I admire my Mom and I weep for the burden she must carry.  I do not blame my mom for being afraid.  I would love for her to be fully free, but I understand that her wounds are greater than anything I can even imagine.  She is fighting just to survive.  How can a man sunbathing on the beach criticize the swimming technique of the survivor of a shipwreck who is struggling against the tide to reach the shore?  Mom is worthy of my admiration.
            A member of my church once confided in me, "Vince, you know how deeply the rape affected your mom.  You know that that single violent act scarred her for life."  I nodded.  "I was raped every day for years by my step-father."  What do you say to such a revelation? How do you even understand the wounds this woman bore?  To this day, I am deeply grateful that my friend is still alive.  She is struggling to be a better mother and wife.  She has not given up the fight but as she walks through this life, she has a noticeable limp.  The wounds inflicted by her step-father will be with her throughout this life.

            Each of us is wounded in life.  Our wounds may not reach the severity of Mom`s or my friend's, but we have been hurt.  Mom and my friend live, trying to find some way to be safe from the wounds they experienced.  Their methods are different.  Their fears are slightly different, but their primary objective is the same.  They cannot bear the possibility that someone might hurt them again.
            Lee Cox, in his book Raised on Fear, tells of his own struggles to overcome the fear that defined him.  During an argument with his girlfriend, she pointed out something that he had done which was wrong.  Lee turned over the table and cussed at her in his rage.  He recognized that when she pointed out that he was wrong; he assumed he would be punished.  His father would punish him with severe beatings and demeaning insults.  Lee could not bear such punishment, so he lashed out to protect himself from what he anticipated but could not bear.           
           At times like these, when I was feeling really good about what a great guy I was, I was most vulnerable to criticism.  At the instant I heard I was “wrong” or “bad” I went from feeling great to feeling like the worst person on the planet.  Being wrong meant I needed to be punished, and I was not aware of anything except that I had to stop her from hurting me.  I saw myself as justified in whatever it took to stop her.  I did feel bad afterwards, but not like I had done something wrong, just that she had forced me into protecting myself that much.  I actually hatred Marian for hurting me.[1]

            How do we face life after such pain?  We must find something to shield us from the pain.  Most of the time, we learn to build and trust self-protective strategies.  Lee Cox used his anger to protect himself.  Many victims of abuse use the same abusive tactics with which they had been oppressed to protect them from the oppression they fear.  There are many different strategies we adopt and use based on our experience and the severity of the perceived threat. It seems heartless to encourage a wounded person to drop their guard, but although these strategies are understandable, each one is actually self-destructive.  Each self-protective strategy replaces Jesus as our shield, our protector, our mediator. 
            In 2006, I was playing a pickup game of basketball.  I came down with a rebound surrounded by two other players.  My foot landed partially on one another players foot and rolled.  Because I was pinned between two players, I could not fall to the side.  The result was a severely damaged ankle.  The recovery would take around a year.  Even after the ankle was healed, I remember being nervous when anything got too close to my ankle, especially when it was a sudden movement.  It was over a year before I would wear sandals again.  Even today, eight years later, I am a little hesitant walking down steep hills.  My injury affected the way I live.  I am much more cautious and overly protective of my ankle.  Sometimes, my caution is unnecessary, maybe even irrational.
            As we experience emotional pain in life we become protective as well.  I call these emotional wounds in our life, “bruises.”  When we have a bruise, we wince whenever anything approaches the bruise.  Although we do not consciously think about the bruise, we are continually aware of it and act to keep it safe. In our effort to protect our emotional bruises we can build lifelong self-protective patterns that are unhealthy, preventing our own growth and our effectiveness in reaching others.

Think about self-protective strategies as shields.  The purpose of a shield is to come between you and a dangerous weapon.  As I write this chapter, Hamas is being accused of using human shields in Gaza.  They fire their missiles into Israel from schools and hospitals, trusting that Israel will not return fire on a school.  Hamas trusts children, injured, sick and care givers to stand between them and the Israeli bombs.  In ages past, war was predominantly fought hand to hand.  In such a battle, it was important to carry an offensive weapon such as a sword and a shield to block the enemy's blows.  The warrior hides behind his shield awaiting a moment of safety so that he can strike against the enemy.
We use our strategies in exactly this way.  First, we believe that we are at war.  We see the world around us as dangerous and the people around us as threats.  Instead of seeing the needs around us and responding to God’s call to care for others, we lift our guard.  We see the world in this way because we have been attacked.  People express displeasure at us when we do not follow the crowd.  Maybe they laugh at us--thereby communicating that we do not measure up--or they may mock us, get angry at us, or physically harm us.  In each of these situations our value is challenged and our safety removed.  We believe it is safer to assume people are dangerous, than to risk such harm. (Isn't that the point of "stranger danger?"  Because some children have been harmed by strangers, we teach our children to be afraid of every stranger.  While providing safety to children, it also prevents truly loving people to express that love to the children.)
            Not only do we live as if we are at war but we hide behind our shields.  We may use conformity as a shield.  As long as we fit in, we will not be attacked.  We use charm or anger, buying gifts or being needy, cynicism or Pollyanna style optimism.  Many people resort to books like How to Win Friends and Influence People as a shield to help them win in the warfare of this life.  Others seek to control everything around them.  These become the abusers, whose shield is an effort to control life so that it will not hurt them again.  They justify their actions, often blinded to their abuse, but in the end they are hiding behind a shield.
            The Apostle Paul talks about shields in Ephesians 6:11-17.
Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.   Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.  Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness,  and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
He begins by reminding us that our battle is not against people but the evil one.  So as we spend so much time strategizing about the people around us, we miss the real issue.  While we are supposed to be reaching out to others with love, we are busy hiding behind our shields ready for the next attack.  And the world is perishing around us. 
When Paul speaks of the Christian's shield, he calls it the "shield of faith."  How is faith a shield?  Peter may enlighten us as to that question.  He says that Jesus endured the hostility of crucifixion by "entrusting Himself to the one who judges righteously.[2]"  Jesus believed that His Father would care for Him.  He knew that even if He died, He would live because his Father had promised.  His faith "extinguished all the flaming arrows of the evil one."  Peter tells us to follow Jesus in this.  It is better to be comforted by Jesus than to avoid pain (Matthew 5:4[3], 11:28-30[4]).  We may acknowledge this in our mind but believing it provides a shield.  Believing in the nearness of God and His sole ability to meet our needs extinguishes the flaming arrows.  They lose their power in our life.
            You have likely heard of Napoleon complex, or short man syndrome.  It is the idea that a man under 5' 9" will try harder than taller men in order to compensate for their sense of inferiority due to height.  While this can be a generalization, the reality is that some short men do try harder.  This is a self-protective strategy that brings some good into their lives.  While this strategy may provide the drive to accomplish important tasks, it also drives people away.  It hides a deep insecurity and leads the individual to pretend to be more.  This person is afraid that shortness may define them.  Therefore they create an elaborate facade to hide their perceived weakness.
            Often, our shields are not as helpful.  They provide some semblance of control over life, but they also build barriers between us and others that prevent us from receiving the intense love of God and from impacting the lives around us.  These shields which we hope will protect us become the instruments that disrupt our relationships and prevent us from accomplishing God will in our life.
            Therefore, we need to learn what shields we have built and what bruises they protect.  By identifying these shields we can take our wounds directly to Jesus for healing.  We know that we may have to walk around with scars from the previous wounds; we may be wounded again; but we are committed to go to Jesus with our pains.
            Ellen is a warm and friendly woman.  If you were to visit her church, she would likely be one of the first to greet you.  She genuinely loves people and she shows it.  She often reaches out to new people and begins to build a quick bond.  She will cal a couple of times each week, initiate meetings and pray for the new friend.  This lasts for a few months and then Ellen meets a new friend.  Just as quickly as it started the relationship seems to end.  She is investing in someone new.  Ellen does not even see this pattern.
            Why does she do this?  Ellen, like many others, enjoys newness but there is more.  When Ellen was eight, her best friend was Susie.  They spent all of their time together and shared their secrets.  One day Susie broke their confidence and told another girl one of Ellen’s most treasured secrets.  Ellen was embarrassed and betrayed.  As adults we could deal with this quite easily but for an eight year old it was devastating.  Ellen knew that she should not have trusted Susie.  She would not let anyone get that close again.  Thus began her life of many relationships.
            We all have shields.  What are yours?
            When Maya Angelou was young, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend.  She told her brother who told the rest of the family.  The man was arrested, convicted and then incarcerated for one day.  Four days after his release, he was murdered—it is believed by Maya’s uncles.  Maya felt responsible.  She felt that by telling her brother, the man had lost his life.  She did not speak again for four years.  Her wound led to the errant idea that she cost the man his life.  She was not rational—due in part to the trauma—failing to see that his crime against her cost him his life.  As a small child, she had to process all of this emotion.  She jumped to the conclusion that she caused his death with her words, so she quit speaking.  Imagine how impoverished this world would be, if Maya Angelou had never spoken.  That is what her shield would have produced, but God…

Caged Bird
A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.[5]

[1] Cox, Lee, Raised on Fear (Milltown, MT, EVE Foundation, 2004), 68.
[2] 1 Peter 2:23-24 “and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; “
[3] Matthew 5:4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
[4] Matthew 11:28-30 "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.  29 "Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS.  30 "For My yoke is easy and My burden is light."
[5] Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird” from Shaker, Why Don't You Sing? Copyright © 1983 by Maya Angelou. 

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About Me

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I have been a PCA pastor since 1993, having been a pastor in Arizona, Florida, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and as the Team Leader for MTW’s work in Scotland. I am currently the Senior Pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in York, PA. As a pastor, my desire is to help everyone I meet live out Psalm 73:25, “Whom have I in Heaven but You, and besides You I desire nothing on earth.” I love my Wife Robin, my two sons, Patrick and Michael and my daughters in law, Britney and Emma.