Thursday, February 25, 2021

"You Hate the Church!"

Last summer I received a message from someone I had known for a very long time. She leveled at me a number of accusations. One of them was, "You hate the church." I can see how people might think that. I speak often about the church and the harm it has caused. I don't speak as often about its beauty. I don't rush to defend it. I don't push it on other people.

My relationship with the church has been a complex one. But I don't speak out against the church because I hate it. On the contrary. 

In November 1989 I sent an 11 page letter to my mother. It was a letter explaining to her why I had distanced myself from her. I tried to spell out the dysfunctional and unhealthy patterns that I had seen and that I had endured, I gave examples of what those patterns looked like and I let her know the effects those had on me. I let her know that I wanted a relationship with her, but I wanted a healthy relationship with her. And I couldn't go on with the status quo without speaking out against so many of the harmful dynamics that were destroying our relationship. 

Why did I do this? Because I hated her? No. Because I loved her. The fact that I loved her made me more vulnerable to her dysfunction and abuse. So in order to shine a light on what was marring our relationship, I spoke up. 

I do the very same thing with the church. I don't hate the church and yet I hate very much of what it has become. Just as I could still love my mother but hate the criticism and the guilt manipulation and the toxic enmeshment that she expected, I can love the church universal while hating the cultural manifestations that we see front and center. 

If I had hated my mother, I wouldn't have given her the time of day. I would have cut off contact and just vacated her life without an explanation and without hope of a future. I didn't do that. I told her that, in order for us to have a relationship, these issues needed to change. In order to have a relationship, I suggested she seek out some counseling to help her understand what I was saying. I did this because I loved her. She was destroying herself and she was destroying me. 

So when you read my sometimes harsh words about the church and think, "Oh, there she goes again. That girl just hates the church and I need to put her in her place," please know that that is not the case. I long to see the church as it really is and as it should be: a body of those caring for one another and bound together by their need for a Savior, a refuge for people in need of kindness, compassion, and redemption , and a truthful representation of the character of God. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

When Billy Graham Is Wrong

Three years ago today I stood in a quasi-paved area between a Swannannoa gas station and Athens Pizza and watched as Billy Graham's body made its way through the Swannanoa Valley before leaving the mountains he loved for his burial in Charlotte. It was a moving experience. Saying goodbye often is. 

I have always had so much respect for Billy Graham. While his calling and his methods were not my cup of tea, he always at least seemed like a kind and compassionate man, able to bridge many gaps in our fractured world. He seemed to me a more accurate representation of the character of God than many or even most notable Christians out there and certainly a vastly different man than his famous son. 

Because of this I was surprised, dismayed, and even angered last week when my sister sent me the screen shot of his "My Answers " column in the Chattanooga paper. 


Q: I am addicted to some prescription drugs. Is that the same as addiction to drugs and alcohol?

A: From the writings of the Rev. Billy Graham

Volumes could be written on the problem of drug addiction. Millions of barbiturates are swallowed every night to help the nation sleep. Millions of tranquilizers keep people calm during the day. Millions of pep pills wake people up in the morning. The Bible warns that these flights from reality bring no lasting satisfaction.

There is widespread anxiety in people’s hearts today. While battles rage around the world and storms gather in the human spirit, depression steals rest from our souls. This is an unfolding phenomenon that grips hearts with indescribable fear. Society is caught up in a powerful windstorm by turning to drugs to calm their hearts and minds.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have reported that anti-depressants are now the most prescribed drugs in the United States. They are sometimes called the “designer drug.” In an interview on CNN, one physician stated, “It’s hard to believe that so many people are depressed, or that antidepressants are the answer.” This doctor is wise, indeed. Drugs are not the answer to man’s troubled condition. There is only one answer to the travail of this present age, and it is found in the pages of God’s Word, the Bible.

While it is important to be under the responsible care of physicians when battling emotional trauma, do not dismiss the peace of mind that comes from the Great Physician. Jesus brings deliverance to those who are weighed down. The Bible encourages us to think on things that are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, and of good report. It is good medicine for our minds and hearts (Philippians 4:8).

(This column is based on the words and writings of the late Rev. Billy Graham.)

My head exploded and my heart broke when I read this. Here is the most respected man in the Christian world equating taking antidepressants with prescription drug addiction and basically saying that the only answer to depression is the Bible. The insinuation is that if you have Jesus, you don't need antidepressants. This is the mentality that has pervaded the church for decades upon decades and has been used to marginalize and oppress those who have struggled with anxiety and depression. 

While I don't believe that Billy Graham intended to be cruel here, the result is cruel, nonetheless. This is what happens when misinformation gets passed on as gospel and when someone who is proficient in one area (theology) makes pronouncements about an area where he has no training and apparently little understanding (mental health). This happens all the time. Unfortunately, these words are coming from likely the most trusted human in Christendom. 

My thoughts as I read through his answer:

-Yes, people take these medications he mentions for a host of reasons: some responsibly and with the careful supervision of a physician and others out of a need for self-medication and addiction.

-It is often the untreated mental illness or unresolved trauma that leads to self-medication and addiction to opioids, benzos, and stimulants. Opening the Bible, while a wonderful step in seeking spiritual truth, will NOT in itself heal trauma or manage mental health issues. 

-"Turning to drugs to calm our hearts" with regard to depression is a harsh way of putting it and that mentality is what causes so many people who might benefit from antidepressants to write them off as unbiblical. 

-"Drugs are not the answer to man's troubled condition." Oh, sheesh! Antidepressants are a tool. A TOOL. And, might I add, a very useful tool and sometimes the only tool available to many people. There are so many reasons a person might benefit from antidepressants even aside from depression management. This isn't to say that they are the ONLY tool, but they are a useful one. 

-It is totally possible that many, many people need both Jesus AND antidepressants. I know I do. 

I don't know WHEN Billy Graham wrote these words. It certainly wasn't recently, unless somebody is receiving his telegrams from heaven. I don't know who thinks that, in light of all of the new information we have about the physiological and psychological effects of trauma, the impact of hormones on mental health, and the physiology of depression, and the causes of addiction, it is a good idea to publish in newspapers across the country antiquated views of the use of antidepressants. 

All I know is that this ideology is still out there and it is still being perpetuated and used as a weapon against those who suffer intensely. While I certainly agree that coming to an understanding of a good and compassionate God who sees us and hears us is incredible comfort, we often need more. We may need therapy. We may need community. We may need medication. 

I have watched so many people I know suffer because they feel that they must not have enough faith in God if they need medication. I have watched entire families suffer when a person refuses to acknowledge their depression and take medication which could hugely improve their quality of life and relationships. 

How could this wise and compassionate man be so misinformed? How are we going to change this if the Powers That Be keep perpetuating misinformed and dangerous ideas from powerful people? 

I long for the day when those who have the respect and authority and the voice within the Christian world can grasp the complex maze of mental and emotional health and speak with compassion, intelligence, and wisdom, without offering simplistic solutions. 




-


Friday, February 5, 2021

Birthday Apology

If she were still alive, my mother would turn 97 years-old today. But she's not. She died almost 12 years ago. Some days it seems like yesterday. Others it seems like an eternity. 

It is no secret that I had a strained relationship with my mother. She was a kind woman, much of the time, and a generous woman, but she was a very self-absorbed, emotionally needy woman and she looked to her children to fill that gaping void in her life and give her the validation that she craved, even if it strangled the life out of them. 

I spent years as an adult trying to walk the fine line of loving and honoring her without being sucked into the vortex of unrealistic expectations and a dysfunctional, enmeshed relationship. I wasn't terribly graceful at it. 

While I was there at her side when she breathed her last, I was not able to have that deathbed conversation like you see in the movies. Sometimes death is a very private and intimate affair but hers was not, what with family members filling the room, none of us ever having witnessed the end of a life. 

Then again, I wouldn't have known what to say anyway. Some things need time and life experience before you have that kind of clarity. 

The past several years have beat my faith to a pulp. I have had to do a lot of dismantling. Deconstructing, if you will (though I know that word means different things to different people). Before you call me a heretic, please know that I have not thrown everything away. Only the non-essentials. I have stripped it all down to the very basics. I had to. 

But sitting amid the rubble of my faith, one thing stood out to me and broke my heart: my arrogance. My arrogance that it was up to me to correct my mother in her beliefs, in the way she related to God. My arrogance that my churches were better than hers because mine taught all the right beliefs and hers was wishy-washy. My arrogance that I knew better what the Bible said. My arrogance that knowing the right theology was better than a childlike faith. 

Oh, that arrogance didn't form out of a vacuum. It was taught. It was pushed. I was told it was my duty to save my family members. I was told that a proper "worldview" would fix everything. In attempting to keep my mother at a needed emotional arm's length, I often used my superior theology to put her in her place. I say this to my shame.  

To be totally honest, I was relieved when she died. The relief came on so many levels, as did the grief. But one thing I took comfort in: even if in life she couldn't believe that I loved her because I couldn't love her in her in the language of enmeshment, I am convinced that now she knows. She sees clearly. 

I can't go back to that day in May 2009 when she let go of this world and stepped into the presence of God, but if I could, I would say this: I'm sorry, Mama. I am so, so sorry for my arrogance and for my trying to stuff you into an Evangelical box. It was so wrong on so many levels and I know it did so much damage for me to insinuate that God could only accept you if you jumped through the right hoops. I am sorry I didn't leave room for you to wrestle through your relationship with God in your own way. I am just so, so sorry. 

I couldn't say it then so I'll say it now. 

Oh, and Happy Birthday, Mama. I miss you. I really do. 



Thursday, December 31, 2020

So Long, 2020

Well, it is the end of 2020 and I will gladly say along with everybody else on the planet, "Good Riddance!" It has certainly been one helluva year. 

Earlier today I was revisiting a season of life from 2017 that was hard. So hard I really did despair of life itself. There was a time in the spring of that year where it was blow after blow after blow of more stress and complications of life than I was able to handle. I distinctly remember standing up at church, telling people that I understood how some people are so beyond hope that they choose to end it all, and begged my church family to remind me that somehow, some way God was making something beautiful out of it all. 

I compared that season of life to the disaster that has been 2020. Both very hard years, but very different kinds of hard. And I realized that, while 2020 is not a year that any of us would want to repeat, the hard has been so much more bearable. 

The difference is camaraderie. 

What I have suffered in 2020, pretty much everybody has suffered. We understand each other's pain. We can empathize. We can commiserate. We can "me, too" all over each other. At every turn we read articles about why things are so hard. How many people are struggling to make ends meet or how loneliness has skyrocketed. We can all bemoan together the polarization of society. Whichever camp we fall into, we can find others in our camp. And those of us who are too liberal for some and too conservative for others even can commiserate with one another. Even the Island of Misfit Toys is getting rather populated. 

The difference between 2020 and any other year is that suffering has been normalized. 

I have had some really rough years in the past. I remember saying, at the end of 2019, that 2011 was a horrible year. And 2014 was a horrible year. And 2017 was a horrible year. And I was really just getting kinda skittish about 2020, math being what it is and all. 

But all those other years, the hard things in my life were private. Many of them seemed to be of my own making. If I had parented better or worked harder or could just suck it up enough then things wouldn't be so bad. My pain was hidden and, in some ways, it was my hard life was own damn fault. Or so it seemed. And all the while everybody else's lives seemed to be on cruise control. 

There is a lot out there written about what kind of pain gets support and what doesn't. I've even written on it a time or two myself. A death gets support. A divorce does not. A physical illness gets visitors and casseroles, a mental illness gets silence and shame. It is the aloneness that is so devastating.

There is something about collective suffering that makes it easier to swallow. When we are all carrying a load, it seems lighter. In some ways, years like this year level the playing field, even if just a little. Toilet paper was scarce...everywhere. Kids were out of school...everywhere. Parents were pulling their hair out... everywhere. 

Even in the midst of all of the conflict over major issues and minor ones (and people will fight over EVERYTHING), there still seems to be the universal recognition that all of this is hard. For whatever reason, that acknowledgement is incredibly comforting. Pain acknowledged is less powerful than pain ignored. 

So while 2020 has been a rotten, rotten year and the future is still so unsure, I can't say that, at least for me, it has been the worst year ever. I am incredibly thankful for the honesty, vulnerability, and compassion I have experienced and witnessed this year. Thank you, my friends. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

On Underachievement

Yesterday I posted the books I read (completed, not just opened) in 2020. All of them were nonfiction, as per the usual. Why do I read nonfiction? Mainly because I love it. I love information. I love learning. My favorite toy in childhood was our World Book Encyclopedias (1965 edition).

People tell me I should read fiction. Fiction makes me anxious. I can't explain it other than to say I feel like I need to be learning. Always learning. Maybe I am making up for something.

When I was 11 I went through a battery of psychological testing to find out what was wrong with me. What was wrong with me was anxiety and depression (and OCD, though that wasn't a diagnosis in 1975) and the fact that I had a high IQ. I was classified as gifted.

To get into my high school (a private all-girls school which was then grades 7-12), we were given an IQ test. Then our entire grade was divided into five classes, depending on IQ. Everybody knew which class they were in. I was in the top class with all of the smart people.

Within a year or two that literal classification broke apart. Some of us in the "smart" classes fell away while some of those in the more average classes excelled. By ninth grade I was in danger of failing certain classes such as geometry (I put together my end of semester theorem notebook while drunk). I honestly didn't care. I didn't care about school at all.

It wasn't until my junior year that I started opening a book and trying to learn. Unfortunately, my eating disorder made it hard for me to think clearly and was able to retain almost nothing that I learned. My grades got better as a senior and I was able to pull myself up in my class ranking so that I graduated as 42nd out of a class of 67 (yes, that was AFTER I pulled my ranking up).

College wasn't a whole lot better. Those preliminary classes didn't make a lot of sense to me and I was still bogged down in so much angst over life that I just.didn't.care. I wanted somebody to love me. That was it. Again, it wasn't until my senior year in college that I opened a book and actually began learning the stuff that interested me.

So, why do I read nonfiction? Well, to a certain extent it is what I love. And yet, I think so much of it is trying to make up for lost opportunity. I had an incredible education placed before me and I pushed it away.

I suppose I was (and perhaps still am) the classic underachiever. An underachiever is someone whose performance is considerably less than their ability. The only ability that I have ever had has been academic (oh, and dieting, but we all know where that got me).

In trying to understand my underachievement I came across this article about gifted children and depression. Reading these words were like looking into a mirror.

Gifted people of all ages have unique traits that may make them vulnerable to this form of depression. They tend to be highly sensitive, intense, empathic, passionate, idealistic, and likely to analyze things more thoroughly than most people. When they notice injustice, mistreatment of others, poverty, and abuse of power in the world, they can feel hopeless and alone and wonder why those around them appear to be unconcerned about these things.

That was me. That IS me. There are so many things in the world that I see and need to process and want to address that I just don't have the time or energy or mental or emotional bandwidth for some of the more common activities that are our cultural metrics for success. I lack the drive many people have to perform. I lack the ambition. I lack the energy. Alas, I also lack the confidence.

But reading this article helped me understand that my underachievement wasn't just because I was lazy or incompetent or crazy, though I was told that I was all of those things, it was because I was, and am, wired differently. And when my wiring met my circumstances, the result was not a stellar report card. So where does that leave me now? I think I will still want to read nonfiction. My appetite for information and understanding is as strong as ever. But hopefully I will quit beating myself up for all those years of wasted education.

And maybe, just maybe, I'll pick up a work of fiction, just for the fun of it.

 

Monday, December 28, 2020

2020 Book List

It is December 28 and, unless I get the chance to speed through one of the four books I am reading right now, this will be my list of books I read in 2020.

As I read through this list I realized just how hard of a year it has been, my book choices reflecting my hunger. This past year I did not read for fun. I read to understand. With the exception of a handful, the following books were chosen in my attempt to make sense of my own experience and the world around me. 

In some books I found validation, in others healing. During a year of so much loss, including the loss of a dear community, I found within these books comfort that what I had experienced was indeed a thing and that I was not alone. I found confirmation that my concerns had been valid. I found words to help other people make sense of their own experiences. I found hope for a healthier culture out there. Somewhere. 

My plan is for my 2021 reading to be considerably less heavy. And yet I don't regret immersing myself into this incredible collection of books. 

-Broken Trust: A Practical Guide to Identify and Recover From Toxic Faith, Toxic Church, and Spiritual Abuse by F. Remy Diederich

-Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating Healthy Christian Cultures by Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys


-Courage, Dear Heart: Letters to a Weary World by Rebecca K. Reynolds


-Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk, and True Flourishing by Andy Crouch


-When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community From Emotional and Spiritual Abuse by Chuck DeGroat


-Images of America: Swannanoa by Anne E. Chesky Smith


-The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days by Frederick Buechner 


-The Seasons of Life by Paul Tournier


-Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero


-Post Traumatic Church Syndrome: One Woman’s Desperate, Funny, and Healing Journey to Explore 30 Religions by Her 30th Birthday by Reba Riley 


-The Confident House Hunter: A Home Inspector’s Tips for Finding Your Perfect House by Dylan Chalk


-Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving


-The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby


-This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers by K.J. Ramsey


-Born With Teeth: A Memoir by Kate Mulgrew


Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristen Kobes DuMez


-Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After a Hurtful Church Experience by Carol Howard Merritt


-When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions by Sue Monk Kidd


-A Brave Lament: For Those Who Know Death by Andrew Bauman and Christy Bauman


-Narcissism in the Church: A Heart of Stone in Christian Relationships by David C. Orrison PhD


-In the House of Friends: Understanding and Healing from Spiritual Abuse in Christian Churches by Kennett J. Garrett


-Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church by Diane Langberg


-A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing by Scot McNight and Laura Barringer


-Something’s Not Right: Decoding the Hidden Tactics of Abuse--and Freeing Yourself from Its Power by Wade Mullen 


-Stumbling Toward Wholeness: How the Love of God Changes Us by Andrew J. Bauman


-The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other by Charlotte Donlon  


Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Accepting Limitations

Accepting my limitations, possibly even embracing them, has been what I have come to see as a developmental task, perhaps a spiritual discipline, over the past year. 

It's hard, it really is, to accept our limitations. Especially because we are taught to believe we don't have any. We can be anything we want to be. If we can believe it, we can achieve it. Don't let anything get in the way of your dreams. Do more, try harder. Just do it. 

And yet, we can't. We can't be everything to everybody. There is so very much in life that we have absolutely no power over. Our lives cannot be a trajectory of success upon success, though it seems like some have certainly cracked that code. We can't do it all.

Peter Scazzero says, "Often we have larger fantasies and wishes for ourselves than our real lives can support. As a result, we work frantically trying to do more than God intended. We burn out thinking we can do more than we can." 

And sometimes those fantasies and wishes aren't coming from within. There are so many pressures out there. Pressures from work, community, family, friends. Pressure from culture in general. Pinterest. Instagram. Facebook. Photoshop. Motivational videos. Fitbits. And on and on. The pressure to perform...to be the best, or even a mediocre, worker, spouse, parent, child, friend, neighbor, citizen. To have the fit body and the classy house and the happy clients and the full bank account and the satisfied spouse and the thriving kids and, in some circles, the effective ministry and the proper spiritual disciplines and the right theology all the while keeping the peaceful demeanor and having no needs....DANG! It is all too much. 

Some people seems wired to do it all. And to do it all well. Most are not. So much goes in to your ability to perform be it genetics, temperament and personality and wiring, family of origin, life experiences, training and education, passions, priorities, circumstances. The reality is that all of us have limits. Some of us more than others. 

And the reality is that we can't do it all. And nobody should expect us to. 

Peter Scazerro again states, "Getting off our thrones and joining the rest of humanity is a must for growing up. A part of us hates limits. We won't accept them. This is part of the reason why grieving loss biblically is such an indispensable part of spiritual maturity."

I've spent years beating myself up over my limitations. It was such an incredibly healing thing to hear that not only is it OK to have limitations, it is important to accept them. It is part and parcel of growing up. Learning to grieve what I cannot do is as important as learning to pursue what I can. I think I can get on board with that.