Fire and Brimstone

On the wicked, God will rain coals of fire and sulfur; a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup. For the LORD is righteous. (Psalm 11:6-7, NRSV)

Is God still righteous if the wicked thrive?

Maybe you’ve noticed that there are children weeping in the streets because their parents have been taken from them–by immigration officials, by gun violence, by war.

Maybe you’ve noticed that there are people raging around the world because the systems that should support their lives have undermined them: governments spend money more readily on teargas than on education, corporations prioritize profit over community, religions love orthodoxy more than understanding.

Maybe you’ve noticed your own spirit, listless and wondering “How long?”: how long will hearts bleed, how long will discouragement weigh down souls, how long until hope is realized.

But still wars are waged and walls are built. Still wealth inequality skyrockets and gun sales surge.

Fire and brimstone aren’t raining down to engulf AK-47s.

Coals are not being stoked by the breath of God to incinerate white nationalism.

Is God still righteous?

One of the most essential classes of my seminary years focused on the problem of theodicy–the question of whether God can be good when evil still exists. Our class texts were the novels of Toni Morrison. The answers to theodicy that we found in Morrison’s novels, if they could be called answers, were complicated and sometimes discouraging. Perhaps God’s righteousness can’t be defended in the face of evil. Perhaps God’s goodness can only be found in part and in fleeting moments.

But finding answers wasn’t really the point. The point was to do the work of seeking them: to gaze honestly at trauma and evil, to look hard for hope, and to dig deep for love and life.

I don’t know if God is still good. I suspect God’s righteousness is tarnished, at the very least. But we’re called to keep searching for it–and searching for one another–through the fire and brimstone.

Sweet Jesus, the world is a mess. The wicked thrive, and violence multiplies. Find within us what we long to find within you: goodness, mercy, and love.

Written for the UCC Daily Devotional

Preorder: Disciplines 2020

I’m delighted to have contributed to the forthcoming Disciplines 2020, the popular annual devotional from The Upper Room that is now available to preorder.

The week of reflections I’ve written are part of the Lenten season for 2020, covering texts such as Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of dry bones and Lazarus’ resurrection from the dead by Jesus. Across seven Lenten days, I wrestle with God’s timing, with the courage of faith amidst despair, and with the frustrating wonder of divine mystery.

My writing for Disciplines 2020 also includes this random confession:

When I was a young girl, I wanted to be either Miss Piggy or Wonder Woman; both are strong “can do” characters who take care of themselves (Miss Piggy with her fist, Wonder Woman with her lasso). They are larger than life, stronger than average. They could stand on their own. Yet I am neither superhero nor Muppet nor deity.

It’s quite possible that this not-so-secret longing still holds true for me.

Disciplines 2020 features 53 writers who previously contributed to the beloved Weavings journal, including Don Saliers, Deborah Smith Douglas, Roberta Bondi, Michael Downey, and many more.

Preorder now for the September 2019 release!

Review: Paul and His Friends

Last year, a delightfully illustrated children’s book was released, introducing young readers to the leaders of the early church. Paul and His Friends: A Child’s First Book about the Apostles, written by Rebekah McLeod Hutto and illustrated by Jacob Popčak, is a feast for the eyes and a much-needed addition to Sunday school bookshelves.

With Paul as their traveling guide and narrator, children meet Paul’s network of friends and learn about their contributions to the life of the early church: the hospitality of Ananias, the leadership of Lydia, the faith of Timothy, and more.

The imagination of Jacob Popčak brings each of Paul’s friends to life as an animal, chosen specifically to illustrate certain characteristics of each friend. (Priscilla and Aquila are wise elephants. Timothy is a shy gazelle.) The illustrations truly make Paul and His Friends stellar. From a camel to a badger, a hyena to a rhino (or a unicorn?), the early church leaders are shown to be as diverse as they surely were across the regions to which Paul travels.

The story itself is really two-in-one, which creates an awkward trip for the reader at the juncture of the two. The book’s first theme — Paul’s introduction of his friends in the early church — yields to a second theme — Jesus’ lessons on friendship — without clear transition of the narrative perspective as Paul’s first-person voice goes missing for four pages. (Is it Paul who’s reflecting on Jesus’ ministry? Is it the book/author who’s inserting this lesson about Jesus?) I suppose it’s an odd observation to say that Jesus is misplaced in a story about the church … but in this particular book, the interrupted narrative does indeed read as though Jesus is an obligatory afterthought.

That said, Paul and His Friends could be an excellent basis for a three-lesson series on friendship, whether in Sunday school or children’s sermons, using those odd breaks in the narrative to distinguish the three lessons:

  1. Learning the names of the early church leaders as introduced by Paul, and remembering that it takes many people (friends) to work together to lead the Church;
  2. Discussing the actions that comprise friendship, including the ways we respond when one friend hurts or disappoints another;
  3. Highlighting the diverse gifts that we all bring to friendship, using the book’s epilogue about animal characters to celebrate each child’s unique personality and participation in community.

Paul and His Friends is a visual delight and a useful educational tool, which will be an asset to many bookshelves in homes and churches!

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