Earth’s Joy

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness…
Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving.
Psalm 100:1-2, 4 (NRSV)

I was tired before the pandemic overtook our days, our news, our livelihoods. Far from dancing my way into God’s presence, I was crawling to the gates with my body tired and my tongue dry.

Maybe you were too.

Maybe you are now.

Thank goodness – thank God – that all the earth is still making its own joyful noise, chirping and thrumming and blooming and waving without minding our weariness.

Across the street from my home, the neighbor’s yard is resplendent with the gladness of dandelions – perhaps the most stubborn flower I know in its determination to be friendly.

On a now-quiet Chicago beach, a pair of endangered piping plovers are blissfully building their nest, dancing their courtship, and dining on God’s banquet of insects and crustaceans.

Through the streets of Samsun, Turkey, a large flock of sheep recently wandered and grazed, not minding the rightness or wrongness of their path, only noisily joyful for bites of grass along the way.

Across national parks and nature reserves, bears and boars and cranes and turtles are expanding their territories and visibility, no longer constrained by tourists and traffic.

In the relative quiet of quarantine, scientists report that the earth’s natural noise is remarkably quieter – and more measurable. The crust quakes less, the ocean’s waves resonate further, the volcanoes’ rumbles are more evident.

While humanity observes a season of silence – whether from virus or fatigue, with grief or frustration – all the earth continues to sing God’s praise.

Teach my heart to retune its song to joy, O Creator. And when my song is quiet and my tongue is heavy, tune my heart to hear your praise sung by all the earth.

written for the Daily Devotional

Pit of Despair

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.
– Psalm 31:9-10 (NRSV)

I do not wish the Pit of Despair on anyone—neither The Princess Bride version, nor the poetic biblical version, nor the version I’ve experienced: major depressive disorder. The depth of depression’s hopelessness is a Mariana Trench beneath a vast ocean, a place in which there are no guiding lights, a pressure under which breath is labored, a reality so far removed from others that it seems certain no one can hear you scream.

In the depressive distress of such a Pit of Despair, strength of spirit and body fail—even though we might still appear to function at full capacity in daily life.

In the chasm of grief, joy in life and purpose is utterly sapped—even though some of us who live with depression continue to laugh and nod in conversation.

In the vacuum of depression, any possible doorway of escape seems hidden or inconceivable—and every friendly gesture seems a mockery of our isolation.

The psalmist is consumed by the fatigue of her body, hopeless with the dread of adversaries and neighbors alike, locked away from community by the delusion of worthlessness.

Only one remains trustworthy: “I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God’” (31:14). Only one can navigate the Pit of Despair to find the psalmist: “Let your face shine upon your servant” (31:16). Only one shows up faithfully: “My times are in your hand” (31:15).

Thanks be to God, who not only shows up in the Pit of Despair but also in the grace of therapists and the miracle of medicines. Thanks be to God, for the incarnate presence of friends who shine for those of us drowning in the trench, that we might be encouraged that a way out is possible.

Be gracious upon our minds, bodies, and spirits when we are depressed and weary. Even in the deepest chasm, remind us that we are not alone.

written for the 2020 Lenten Devotional
(a Stillspeaking Writers’ Group product)

Reviews: Denial Is My Spiritual Practice

Since the release of Denial Is My Spiritual Practice (and Other Failures of Faith) earlier this year, my new book co-authored with Martha Spong, I’ve been touched by the messages of appreciation for the book from readers who find in its pages a sense of companionship through their difficult days. Their messages remind me, too, that I’m not alone in struggling to make sense of God when life is difficult.

Many messages from readers are personal and private — a DM or an in-person conversation — but some of the feedback from readers is also public in the form of book reviews. I’m grateful for the reviews being written about Denial, including:

  • RevGalBlogPals’ book reviewer and Lutheran pastor Julia Seymour writes, “If there was such a thing as a spiritual grief group, this would be the book I would recommend. The grappling with scripture, where its promises deliver and where they don’t, is simultaneously consoling and provocative.” Here is her full review.

 

  • Blogger and Episcopal priest Rosalind Hughes encourages, “I recommend that you acquire yourself a copy, read it, savour it, and then keep it close for those moments when, for the sake of faith or sanity, you need once more to find yourself reflected in the mirror of another soul, another spirit, one that has wrestled with God, and, against all expectations, lived to see dawn’s light limping across the valley.” Read her review written for Episcopal Café.

 

  • Jennifer Burns Lewis reviewed Denial for The Presbyterian Outlook: “The authors’ facility in providing a biblical frame for their doubts and denials and dance with God is a striking feature of this book. With strong and graceful articulation, they connect their own journeys of faith with the biblical narrative, informing the reader’s understanding of their lives and of Scripture as well. I’m so glad that the authors chose to present their lives with such candor and honest reflection. The essays in Denial is My Spiritual Practice are a breath of fresh air and good for the church.”

 

  • Author and blogger Laurie Brock wrote about Denial, “[The] deft narratives of love, hate, fear, fragility, gratitude, doubt, frustration, joy, and more love are excellent reflections for any person of faith who needs to hear the words of God that life is hard, hurtful, and messy and is glorious, joyful, and loving and all of these are necessary.”

 

  • Joanna Harader, a Mennonite pastor and blogger at Spacious Faith, notes, “This book, for all its honesty, has a misleading subtitle. While the stories they tell may indeed reveal the ‘failures of faith’ to operate in the ways we churchy people might expect, it is ultimately a book about the success of faith. Not that faith is successful because Martha or Rachel or any of us are spectacularly faithful, spiritual, people; but that faith is successful—it abides with us, it pushes us, it carries us through hard times.”

 

  • Author and Presbyterian minister MaryAnn McKibben Dana writes of Denial, “Read this now.” Her review continues: “Here is a book that deeply resonates and that I gratefully admire. I’ve been on somewhat of a personal crusade to embody ‘World’s Okayest’ lately, and this work shares a similar ethos: life is messy, grief-riddled, traumatic even. It is also beautiful, interesting, and grace-soaked.”

Thanks to these reviewers and to other reviewers whose feedback I’ve not linked here, and certainly to readers who have shared their affirmations and their stories in response to Denial.

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

3 of 3: Rachel

If love favored her,
life betrayed her.
Hardly a fair trade
and if she had been given
a choice
who’s to say
she wouldn’t have preferred
life?
What do we remember:
we remember her weeping,
not her loving,
not her living;
we remember
the wail of her death.
Tell me:
if it were you,
which would you choose —
love without life
or
life without love?
. . .
Me too.

.

The beauty and truth of story is found in its ability to speak in new ways, no matter how familiar the words. Scripture is full of such stories for me, familiar tales that offer new truths & always-needed truths over and again. This piece is the third of three short reflections listening for truth in the stories of Jacob and his wives Leah & Rachel.