Theodicy & PTSD

For the RevGalBlogPals’ “Faith and Illness” column this week, I expounded upon my experiences of faith through the lens of PTSD, which I first wrote about in a chapter of Denial Is My Spiritual Practice. Here’s the column:

There is no safe space in the world.

Not your neighborhood. Not your home. Neither the middle of the forest nor the middle of the city. Not your favorite vacation spot. Not your beloved church. No place — familiar or foreign — is absolutely guaranteed to be safe.

(There aren’t really safe people either. “For all have sinned and fallen short” is a fancy religious way of saying that anyone can hurt you.)

Almost ten years of traumatic experiences & gaslighting changed my mind about safety.

Literally. Changed my mind.

Changed my brain.

The brain that, in my youth, saw the world as her oyster and laughed in the face of challenges, in my adulthood has spent nearly twenty years running on the adrenaline of fight or flight or freeze. It looks at the world through lenses that see only echoes of trauma — trauma and not joy, trauma and not hope, trauma and not Good News — and the pain that it sees, to be clear, is not delusional but experienced. It’s a veil of injury that I cannot escape, that I am ashamed to name, that my entire body-mind-spirit are constantly keyed up to identify & resist.

And the problem that results from my brain’s synapses constantly rehearsing, re-firing, repeating their best defenses against worst case scenarios is that they biologically & spiritually allow little room to believe in restoration … little room to believe in grace … little room to believe that God is anything but responsible.

“But look at all you’ve done,” some people say, as though it’s as simple as handing me their rose-colored glasses to rewire my brain.

“But there’s nothing to fear here,” some people say, as though their own sense of security is more authoritative than my lived experience.

“You exaggerate your stress,” others say, as though they’d prefer that I disguise my symptoms better … or is it that I disguise my symptoms so well they don’t believe I have an illness?

PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, is an illness in which the brain, body, and spirit fail to reconcile an experience of trauma into the past, unable to recognize safety & recovery in the present. While many people experience trauma, not everyone with an experience of trauma has PTSD. PTSD is more likely to develop for those who suffer trauma over time or at a young age, who are shut down by others unwilling to acknowledge the injury, and/or who do not have a support system with whom to process the injury. Unable to “close” the story of trauma, mind-body-spirit are overloaded as they try to manage the ongoing flood of trauma information alongside the day-to-day responsibilities of life. Studies of PTSD treatment methods — and studies of the disorder itself — are still new enough that medical & psychological opinions differ as to best practices. Some who live with PTSD are aided by medicine, some by exercise & body movement, some by neurological exercises, some by relationships, and most with some type of therapy.

And, of course, everyone with PTSD is different in their response to the disorder and to treatment, and in their intersection of faith with PTSD.

So I can only speak for myself when I offer the following requests to my clergy colleagues and to the Church about PTSD awareness & hospitality to those who live with it:

  • Practice making room — in your own faith, in your sacred spaces, in your congregation — for pain that doesn’t have easy answers. I have no tolerance for Good News that hasn’t wrestled candidly with bad news or that needs a pretty bow of theological tidiness. Pain does not need placation; it needs presence. 
  • It’s possible to be mad at God and still be in the Church. If you really need your God to be always good & always faithful & always above questioning, that’s fine, but my God and I have a pretty contentious relationship owing to the overwhelming evidence that God has abandoned a lot of people to the sinful horrors of this world. We just passed the third anniversary of the massacre at Emanuel AME Church, for example, and maybe you’ve noticed the global humanitarian crisis of hatred & inhospitality toward migrants and refugees. One way or another, every church and person of faith needs to take seriously the problem of theodicy; for better or for worse, those of us who live with PTSD have a pretty good handle on that theological quandary.
  • Please don’t treat me as a hero for surviving trauma … or as a victim for experiencing an ongoing illness. I’m not your metaphor for what God can do, and I’m certainly not your case study for coping (although I’m terribly skilled at denial, if you’ve read my new book with Martha Spong). Please welcome me and those like me who live with PTSD into your church as a whole person — with pains and flaws, with dreams and gifts, just like every other sinner & saint.

It remains true that I’d rather avoid sharing details of my “dirty laundry” — including details of my health — in public forums, yet I know I’m not alone in needing a Church that is unafraid to acknowledge pain & trauma and to be present without solutions for the work of healing. Our faith communities fail to testify to the wounded & resurrected Body of Christ if they lack a theology that takes Katie Cannon seriously when she notes, “Our bodies are the texts that carry the memories and therefore remembering is no less than reincarnation” (as quoted in The Body Keeps the Score).

cross-posted at RevGalBlogPals

Horses Speak of God

I’ve seen horses change lives. I’ve seen books change lives. A book about horses that reminds us to “sit centered and deeply” in God is sure to foster miracles.

In Horses Speak of God: How Horses Can Teach Us to Listen and Be Transformed, author Laurie M. Brock (and her horse Nina) demonstrate the importance of nurturing faith with our whole selves — in mind and body and spirit, in work and play and relationships. Like horseback riding, our lives and our faith require ongoing reflection, a willingness to listen, and the humility to stay engaged. When we neglect these spiritual disciplines, horses (among other friends) remind us:

“Relax your grip.”

“Work with me.”

“Try again.”

It could be a horse making its opinion known to a rider. It could be God nudging any one of us. The message could tell us something about our posture in the saddle … or about our fears in life. The experience might be a pleasant canter … or a hard fall.

In all, through all, is life. In all and through all is holiness.

Whether you ride or walk, love horses or prefer a nice indoor plant, Horses Speak of God is a beautiful book that will gently invite your self-reflection and encourage your spirit to (re)attune itself to God’s leading.

Go easy.

Trust the discomfort of unlearning and relearning.

Give up a little bit of control.

And let the intuition of horses teach you the good news of God’s mysteries.

(For more from Laurie Brock, follow her fabulous blog.)

Raising White Kids (Book Giveaway)

If you’re a white parent of white children and you’ve been wondering how to begin equipping your children (and yourself) to understand & resist racism, Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America by Jennifer Harvey is a good, non-intimidating starting point … and I have two copies of Raising White Kids to give away, courtesy of Abingdon Press. Check out the details at the end of this blogpost.

Jennifer Harvey offers informative, non-anxious space for white parents of white children to understand the development of racial identity, to experience grace for the mistakes that inevitably accompany parenting, and to be attentive to the ongoing work of equipping white children to resist racism. White parents who find themselves wondering how to raise race-conscious white children will find Raising White Kids to be a helpful and practical starting point.

But it truly is only a starting point. If you’ve been digging into critical race theories and engaging anti-bias material, some of Raising White Kids will feel rudimentary — such as understanding the difference between individual bias and systemic racism.

If basic tips & practical encouragement are precisely what you’re seeking to help you put your convictions about the importance of anti-racism together with the importance of parenting, Raising White Kids can help you begin the work of race-conscious parenting … but then be sure to keep going. There are additional critical conversations for white parents to have with their white kids that Raising White Kids doesn’t resource. Two in particular that come to mind for me:

1. Relationships: Raising White Kids doesn’t explicitly encourage self-reflection on white families’ choices of social spaces, circles, and relationships. A variety of research on anti-bias suggests that relationships across lines of race are critical to lessening racial bias, and many of Jennifer Harvey’s own stories reflect this impact. (My daughter, in her 50% Black – 50% white high school, would promptly debunk those studies by telling you about the racism on display from her white peers despite their daily engagement with students of color.) The types of relationships that can lead toward lessened bias have deeper roots than simply “parallel play,” and so as parents it’s important to ask ourselves, “Who do our kids see us loving and who do our kids see us choosing as our neighbors?” Raising our kids to understand race & racism is intellectual work, but demonstrating anti-racist commitments through our daily habits & relationships is spiritual-emotional-corporate work. (Sidebar: choosing to move into a predominantly non-white neighborhood as part of that location’s gentrifying “flip” is not a demonstration of anti-racist commitments.)

2. Faith: Raising White Kids isn’t written with an explicitly religious perspective, which is perfectly fine, but if you’re a white parent of white kids and you’re raising your kids in a predominantly white church, the hard truth is that the whiteness of your theology will need some intentional work and prayerful exorcism. The white Jesus in your children’s Bibles, the pale Jesus in your church’s stained glass, the framed & faded picture of white Jesus knocking at the door, even a beloved crucifix — all of these and the theologies they represent are literally & figuratively enmeshed with colonialism, with racism, with chauvinistic saviorism. And sometimes the faith-filled desire to teach our white kids that they are urgently needed for anti-racism dances on the line of white saviorism. Jennifer Harvey acknowledges briefly that the work of anti-racism is a work that whites join, not start, but I wish she had asked of her readers, “How do white parents teach white kids to resist racism while not inadvertently teaching their kids that they are (or should be) the heroes of anti-racism?” For a closer look at the problem of white saviorism and an excavation of white faith, I recommend James Perkinson’s White Theology.

I am a white parent of Black children, so Raising White Kids isn’t for me. I’m not the intended audience. I wanted to read the book for that reason. I also didn’t want to read the book for that reason. But whites talking to whites is essential anti-racist work, and it’s a task Raising White Kids undertakes. As Ijeoma Oluo wrote last year, “As much as I’d like you to see me — as much as I’d like systemic racism to simply be a problem of different groups not seeing each other  — I need you to see yourself, really see yourself, first. This is the top priority.” Raising White Kids takes this priority seriously and meets parents on the landscape and in the language of the white privilege of their children. White privilege talks to white privilege.

Unfortunately in my experience, white privilege talking to white privilege has a bad habit of tiptoeing around white comfort, and it’s the privileging of white comfort that makes me uncomfortable with this book.

Several years ago, I wrote that “conversations about race that do not result in conversions about race miss the urgency of the Gospel.” While I assume that Jennifer Harvey aims to achieve conversions about race as it relates to the parenting of white children, I fear that Raising White Kids spends so much time & tone on treating white parents of white children gently that it threatens to be yet another uneventful conversation about race. For heaven’s sake, the book handholds parents through the work of understanding that it’s not disastrous to say the “R” word (racism) and not “prophetic” to talk nicely about MLK once a year.

White comfort is presumed to be the route to white conversion.

The lack of de-centering discomfort in Raising White Kids is practically the definition of white privilege. Harvey illustrates her own employment of such privilege when she shares the story of deciding whether to take her kids to a #BlackLivesMatter protest following the killing of Michael Brown: “We have to make careful judgments about whether or how to engage our children in dialogues about realities so serious, heavy, and frightening that they may be simply too much for them.” As a parent of Black children, whether and when to have those dialogues are not optional.

Of course, we whites all need to start learning somewhere, somehow, sometime. My own learning has included some massive & public missteps, and it’s still not done. It is never done.

So after Raising White Kids helps you get started, I encourage you to seek out books about race & racism that don’t center whiteness or white comfort. Dig deeper into white discomfort by engaging the sociological, theological, fictional, poetic works of authors of color. And for a better understanding of the development of racial identity, don’t just read Raising White Kids‘ summary of Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Go and read Tatum’s book in full.

But first, if Raising White Kids can be useful to you, drop me an email with the subject “Raising White Kids” by Thursday, March 1st at 5:00pm eastern. All names will be placed in a hat for a random drawing, and I’ll contact two winners for their mailing addresses to send the free copies of Raising White Kids. None of the email addresses that I receive as a result of folks entering the book giveaway will be shared, and you won’t receive unsolicited emails from me after the giveaway has ended.

Lenten Book Studies: Intergenerational

The joy of books (one of many joys) is that even browsing their spines helps my brain wander & imagine & reconsider. New ideas come to mind, or I find a word that I’ve been missing.

So it’s no surprise that I was browsing my bookshelves and started to imagine what an intergenerational book study might look like in a congregation this Lent. I pulled five books in particular that have refreshed & inspired my perspective at different times, imagining what might be possible if these books are used separately or together for a creative, interactive, all-ages Lenten experience:

What to do with such an array of books this Lent? I suspect you have a few creative souls in your midst who can develop ideas from these books to engage many ages around the same table, but here are some brainstorms to get you started:

BIBLE STUDY with Children of God + Praying in Color: For a Lenten small group that will include participants of many ages, begin with a coloring prompt for prayer (or a praying prompt to color?) with young and old alike putting pens & crayons & markers to paper. Ask each one to say something about the prayer they’ve colored, and then read a Bible story together. The younger ones can create & color their own pictures to tell more about the story, while the older ones can talk about how they hear this story anew in Desmond Tutu’s retelling; you might find that the appropriate groups for this activity are not younger/older but extroverts/introverts or creators/thinkers. The two activities of praying and storytelling will not likely take more than an hour, so I recommend pairing these activities with a shared meal.

MOVEMENT with Sacred Pause + Dancing with Jesus: Get your small group moving this Lent! Pay attention to God by paying attention to the body, God’s temple & vessel. Use the voice & body exercises in chapter one of Sacred Pause as a warm-up, and then learn one of Jesus’ hip dances. All ages can do these body movements, and some of the younger ones can also be the dance leaders for the group! Then get your small group outside: take a walk together, sit in the grass and breathe, visit a playground or park. Increase the warm-up exercises with each meeting, and then walk a little farther or play a little harder or explore a little further when the group is outdoors.

HEAD GAMES with Wordplay + Sacred Pause: For the thinkers and inquisitive types in your congregation — or perhaps a confirmands/adults combo — a Lenten small group that dives into faith language could be a hit! Use the chapters of Sacred Pause for the content of the small group’s meetings, and then assign a Wordplay article for participants’ reflection between meetings. For example, use Chapter 8, “Tipping Sacred Cows” from Sacred Pause to discuss the ways we value Scripture, and then spend the week individually meditating on Wordplay‘s article about “magnetic” to dig deeper into our attraction to (and idolization of?) particular words in faith. The art in Wordplay can also provide a Lenten challenge for your small group of thinkers to express themselves artistically.

There’s simply no shortage of resources and ideas to use for Lenten small groups in your ministry or congregation. Find a book that resonates with you, think outside the box about making your group inclusive of many ages and learning styles, and expect to witness your small group’s growth of creativity & relationship & faith!

Lenten Book Studies: Writing to God

For many years, I’ve written prayers as an occasional faith exercise, but prayer-writing as a spiritual practice really took on rhythm for me in a small group setting one Lenten season almost a decade ago. The intentional time in community — writing, reflecting, sharing, encouraging — deepened the impact of written prayers for me, and greatly informed the ways that I invite others to create their own small group experiences of prayer-writing.

For those who feel hesitant in prayer or in writing (or both), prayer-writing in a small group can be an intimidating premise, yet the small group experience is precisely what we need to remember that we’re not alone in our praying (or writing) struggles. In a small group of prayer-writers, we discover moments of grace and delight. We  practice focus and silence together. We learn from one another’s journeys. We take prayer “out of our heads” and engage breath & body & conversation & fellowship.

To write prayers in your own small group this Lent, I suggest inviting persons who enjoy writing as well as those who are seeking a fresh approach to prayer. Find a regular time to meet; weekly meetings are great for building rapport in a new small group. Choose a meeting place where everyone has room to write around the same table. Sometimes the church is a logical meeting space, but I encourage writing groups to meet in non-church locations; the change of scenery provides a tangible reminder that prayer goes beyond our church walls. My practice is to begin meetings with short writing prompts before introducing a scriptural prompt for prayer — using Writing to God: 40 Days of Praying with My Pen or crafting new prompts.

For detailed tips on leading a prayer-writing small group this Lent, and for six weeks of guided writing resources and prayer prompts, download my free Small Group Guide for Writing to God. You’re also welcome to drop me a message to ask questions about your prayer-writing small group.

Want to read more? Expand the generations of prayer-writers this Lent by using Writing to God: Kids’ Edition with the children in your life at home or at church.