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.