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Meeting God in Broken Places: A Review of The Shack

God the Father

When the novel The Shack was published in 2007, everyone was talking about it, particularly its unusual portrayal of the Trinity. Jesus as a Middle Eastern carpenter was hard to dispute, but the Holy Spirit in the personified form of an Asian woman? God the Father represented as a black woman seemed to raise the most objections. None of these struck me as quite the dangerous heresy they were being declared by more conservative folk, and religious fiction isn’t usually the section I target in Barnes and Noble. But the book was gaining popularity and my congregation was reading it. They wanted to know what their pastor thought of the ideas in the book, many of which were new to them, and so I read the book out of obligation.

With the recent movie release, clergy are in a similar position of being asked what we think about The Shack. Frankly, I didn’t expect to like it much. I found the book alternately pedantic and vague, and too blithe in its treatment of grief and guilt. The latter statement might also be made of the film, which moves at Hollywood pace through tragedy, fallout, and recovery. Still, I was moved by its portrayal of a man trapped in loss and shame who meets God and finds the ability to forgive himself.

The characters of the Trinity are compelling and provocative, if we can set aside the need for absolute theological accuracy at every moment – and after all, who has ever represented the Trinity with absolute theological accuracy in any single statement or metaphor? This version of the triune God is personified separately, in a way that brings out their vitality and relationship. That each person of the Godhead appears as a person of color was to me a relief and delight. And although it’s not explored in detail, “Papa” is played by the same woman, Octavia Spencer, who offers the young Mack pie and empathy in his abused childhood. Plenty of commentators have had difficulty with God being portrayed as a black woman. Some of our people may well have questions about the gender and skin color of God, or about God being visually represented at all. But it seems to me to be downright biblical that God appears to Mack in the one form that he might accept as benevolent. Isn’t the whole story of Scripture rife with examples of God appearing to humankind as we are best able to perceive and receive God? Isn’t this the story of Jesus, God made one of us so that we might see divine love personified? Read more

Healing and Hope: Carol Howard Merritt’s Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church

Unlike Carol Howard Merritt, I grew up in a small, progressive American Baptist congregation. In my church life, I grew up in a place that invited questions, encouraged me to pursue deeper meaning, and embraced me wholly as I was created.

However, I also attended church camp. I loved camp, and it helped shape my faith and taught me about relationship with Jesus Christ. But the church camp I attended was staffed by Christian counselors who came from more fundamentalist congregations. They came from belief systems that upheld patriarchal roles and were concerned with saving souls before camp ended on Saturday morning, and the best way to do that was to make us feel that we needed to be saved before we returned home. The jagged knife of Scripture was used to create wounds that declared that I was a sinner, in a way that made it seem very shameful, that I had done something purposefully bad to separate myself from God; that because my hormones were going wild as a teenager, I had fallen short of God’s perfection. I wasn’t good enough. I had to be saved by Friday night or I might not go to heaven.

I was healed through good preaching, fellowship, and friends in college. I experienced further healing in seminary as I began to learn about the historical and cultural context of those scriptures, the same verses my camp counselors had used but hadn’t understood themselves.

Healing Spiritual Wounds is a book for all Christians (not only those who have come out of a fundamentalist background) because all of us have been harmed at one time or another by churches or church institutions that failed us. Read more

Dwell with Me in Darkness

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I just want to know, God.
When you spoke about binding up the broken-hearted,
right there between good news for the poor
and release for the captives,
who did you have in mind?

 

Is there space for those who,
long past the point that it’s socially acceptable
to drown one’s sorrows in ice cream,
still find cheeks wet with tears?

 

Amidst all the brokenness of this world–
boundary lines breached as nation rises up against nation,
tears in the fabric of society as the rich distance themselves from the poor,
fractures in the inner being, splits in the psyche,
relationships ruptured by a hastily spoken word,
cracks in the climate of a planet gone hot–
amidst all this,
can you be attentive also to a broken heart?

Bring out the best binding cloths, God.
The ones that can bear the strain of a spirit torn in two directions.
Stitch together the divided halves of my heart.
See all that is raw,
Behold the places where life-blood pulses behind the woundedness,
Touch tenderly.

 

For all your humanity, the scriptures give us no indication
that you ever wept when waking up to emptiness on the other side of the bed,
or had to summon words to tell mutual friends that two had become one,
but not in the way you’d hoped.

 

But surely you know something about broken-heartedness, don’t you, God?
You who were one-time sorry you made humankind;
You who cried over Jerusalem
and wept real tears when they told you Lazarus was dead;
You who know the betrayal of friend,
the anger of crowds,
the abandonment of the cross;
you know how the heart can break
and ache
and bleed.

 

Three days of darkness, and you broke through those graveclothes meant to bind.
Let it be the same with me, O God.
Bind me up, dwell with me in darkness,
and then let there be life.

On Healing and Time

Shorigin_2448288816e had heard about Jesus, so she came up behind him through the crowd and touched his robe. For she thought to herself, If I can just touch his robe, I will be healed. (Mark 5:27, 28 NLT)

This unnamed woman in Mark 5:25-34 is my soul sister.  As a lonely teenager, isolated and invisible, I took comfort in Jesus’ awareness of her: he picked her out in the mob pressing against him and honored her courageous act of faith and trust, an act as simple as touching the hem of Jesus’ robe.

Recently this woman’s story has grown in significance, as I not only relate to her loneliness but to her pain.  The story has become more meaningful…and more challenging.

Illness – stomach pain and unrelenting heartburn – attacked over two years ago.  Doctors disagreed on the diagnosis and argued over the best way to treat the illness.  Despite my best efforts to change my diet and sort through opposing medical opinions, my health deteriorated.  I lost too much weight, my skin took on a grayish quality, I couldn’t eat without feeling sick, and my body stopped making estrogen, a source of grief for me and my husband as we had been trying to conceive.  The stress of it all debilitated my spirit and my sense of self.

Mark shares few details about this woman; he does not even give her a name.  We know she hemorrhaged for twelve years before encountering Jesus; we know she suffered at the hands of many doctors, who drained her savings.  We may extrapolate that her unrelenting bleeding isolated her from community members who cared about ceremonial cleanness.  Likely she was told by religious leaders that her suffering was God’s judgment of her sin.  We also gather she was desperate enough to try something crazy, pushing through a large crowd in order to touch the garment of a well known healer, believing that touching Jesus would heal her.

This season of illness has allowed my imagination to wander through the gaps in this woman’s story.   I expect that her suffering at the hands of doctors was not only physical but emotional.  Countless times, I read about or was told by a doctor of a “silver bullet” treatment plan.  If I paid for an expensive blood test to identify food intolerances, I would see progress; if I would try the Paleo diet, my gut would heal; if I went for acupuncture weekly, I would experience relief; if I would simply take an acid reducer, or conversely, not take the acid reducer but instead supplements, I would be well.  Once I acknowledged that I had stomach issues, I encountered fellow sufferers, and I learned about surprising strategies that worked for others – aloe vera, acidophilus, yoga, even electro-shock therapy!  I never went as far as trying electro shock therapy, but I did try everything else, with no great improvement.  Whenever a new solution did not work as quickly as I hoped, my discouragement deepened.  After awhile, my hopes faded.

For this reason, I am astounded by the woman’s willingness, after twelve years of failed solutions, to garner enough hope to touch Jesus.  What made her confident that this audacious act would work?  It impresses me that she was willing to risk drawing negative attention to herself if touching Jesus did not work.  If she remained unhealed, she could have been blamed for making this popular rabbi unclean.

My heart rejoices that this crazy display of faith worked for the woman; after twelve long- suffering years, she finally experienced healing.  My heart also aches, because this has not been my story.  Many people have prayed for me over the past two years.  Some have laid hands on me and anointed me with oil.  Several months ago, I admitted to my spiritual director, “I feel like God is ignoring me.”  I have wanted a miraculous healing, defined by immediate, long lasting relief from pain.  I did not care at first whether God or diet or medication caused the healing.  I just wanted to be well.

Instead, healing comes slowly, at a tortoise pace.  I took a seven-month medical leave of absence and only recently returned to my work as an associate pastor in a large Presbyterian church.  I take six medications and several supplements every day and carry around pill-boxes like my older congregants.  I diligently guard my diet, my exercise, and times of rest.  If I fudge in my self-care, my body reacts immediately.  My resilience grows day by day, and I am encouraged by improvement.  My skin is no longer gray, I am slowly regaining weight, and I am less stressed and know myself better.  But, I am not well yet.

Rather than rooting myself in the outcome of this woman’s story – in her miraculous healing – I return to where I started as a teenager, with the conviction that Jesus notices my suffering and does not ignore me or leave me to face my pain and frustration alone.  God’s presence travels with me, in moments of clarity, in glimpses of healing, as well as in discouragement and doubt.  Through it all, I continue to come back to this soul sister, grateful for her trust and her courage.

At My Wits’ End

Psalm 107:23-32 (St. Helena Psalter)

Some went down to the sea in ships,
         and plied their trade in deep waters.
They beheld your works, O Lord,
         and your wonders in the deep.

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In 1995, I was a junior in college. I had the opportunity to study abroad, and so I did. I was bright, curious, and ambitious. I thought I was ready. I thought it was the kind of thing a student like me, a person like me, should do. I chose the program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I was a double-major in Religious Studies and Anthropology, with an interest in archaeology; and I was a lifelong Christian, curious to see the land where my faith was born. Jerusalem seemed like an obvious choice.

The study abroad program started early in August with a Hebrew language immersion class, before the school year proper began. I arrived in Jerusalem with many other students from around the world, and we settled ourselves in the student lodgings at the secondary campus, across town from the university.

Jerusalem was beautiful and surprising and strange: that great, golden, hilly city, full of the ancient and the brand-new, all mixed up together. I was entranced by walking the streets of the Old City, buying trinkets from merchants on streets that Jesus may have walked; seeing the Wailing Wall, last remnant of the Temple where Jesus preached;  traveling to the Negev and to Galilee, as the landscapes of the Gospels became real in my heart and mind as never before. Every day was breathtaking.

Then you spoke, and a stormy wind arose,
         which tossed high the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to the heavens and fell back to the depths;
         their hearts melted because of their peril.
They reeled and staggered like drunkards,
         and were at their wits’ end.

I’ve started with what was good and exciting about the trip, but truth be told,  it’s difficult to separate that out from what was hard about it. I was kind of a mess before I even got there. A month before I left the country, my boyfriend of three years broke up with me. It was my first big heartbreak. I hoped a change of scene and the adventure of the trip would help, but in reality, it just meant that I was separated from my family and friends when I needed them most. I made some tentative new friends among my fellow students, but frankly, I was in too much pain to try very hard. I was also struggling to come to terms with the politics of Israel, the sharply-drawn religious and ethnic lines, which I hadn’t given much thought before setting foot in the country. I heard the word “Arab” used as if being Arab automatically meant bad and dangerous, as in, “Don’t walk around the campus at night, an Arab could get in.” I met and talked with Palestinians, I listened to their stories. I refused to find them intrinsically dangerous. The scorpions in the bathrooms – those scared me.  The young Palestinian Christian man who met with me to tell me about his people and their plight – he wasn’t scary at all.

Then, about three weeks into my time there, on August 21, 1995, I was riding the bus across town to the main campus first thing in the morning with other students when another bus, half a block ahead of us, exploded. Five people were killed, including the suicide bomber. A hundred were injured, many severely. My memories of the day are jerky and confused. I remember people running away from the accident site in horror and fear, and others running towards it to offer help. I remember a kind young Israeli woman who lived in a nearby apartment and gathered me up, with several other stunned international students. She took us inside and made us tea, and eventually put us in a taxi to school. I remember arriving at school, finally, in the middle of the day, to find classes cancelled and grief counsellors meeting with students to help us process. They were, unfortunately, well-practiced at handling such events.I remember calling my parents to tell them I was safe. They were asleep and hadn’t even heard the news yet.

Coming on top of everything else, that explosion nearly shattered me. I was utterly overwhelmed. I had no inner resources with which to rebound or rebuild. I was isolated, displaced, miserable and terrified. I felt completely vulnerable, and almost completely alone. The exception to the almost was God. In the days following the bus bombing, I remember spending the evenings sitting on the hillside near our dorms, looking out over Jerusalem – the golden city, the great, holy, broken city – and reading the Psalms from the small red Book of Common Prayer that I had brought with me, a gift from my campus ministry community back in Bloomington. It was then that I discovered Psalm 107, and especially the section that begins, “Some went down to the sea in ships…” That story about the adventure that turned terrifying – I recognized it immediately and deeply as my story. My heart was melted within me. I was at my wits’ end. I read the Psalm and its promise of salvation, again and again, and again and again I prayed: Just let me survive this. The physical danger to my body, the deep pit into which my soul has fallen… Just let me survive.

Then they cried to you in their trouble,
         and you delivered them from their distress.
You stilled the storm to a whisper,
         and quieted the waves of the sea.
Then they were glad because of the calm,
         and you brought them to the harbor they were bound for.

My parents wanted me to come home immediately. They’d been worried about me already; they knew this was too much. But I refused. Coming home to another ordinary year on campus felt like giving up. It felt like a failure, and I was afraid it would be the last straw that would break me completely. But because I was a very lucky and loved and privileged young lady, my parents were able to work with the people at my university  and make me another offer, some days later: I could come home, rest, re-pack my bags, and join the study abroad program at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, instead. It didn’t start until October, and several of my friends were going. Given an attractive alternative, I was persuaded to come home from Israel, repack my bags with plenty of sweaters, and fly off to England. Looking back, I feel incredibly blessed by this opportunity. Canterbury was a very healing place for me, charming and beautiful and among friends, and with the spires of the cathedral, the spiritual center of world Anglicanism, always on the horizon. My year in Canterbury was happy and deeply restorative. It did feel, finally, like arriving at the harbor I was bound for.

At the same time, I have never forgotten how deeply I was shaped by the journey, and the storm. During my weeks in Israel, I sank as low as I had ever sunk in my young life. And what I learned was that even when the deeps were closing over me and the light seemed so far away, there was something solid down there in the depths that let me push off, and push up towards the surface and the light once again.

Those days in Israel made Psalm 107 into one of my core texts, my heart-Scriptures, one of the places I go again and again to remember that experience of God’s faithfulness.  To remind myself to trust, all over again, that I will, eventually, arrive in the harbor for which I am bound.

Bent Over Backward

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A couple of weeks before Christmas, I threw my back out. When I say “out,” I mean O.U.T. Sitting still was a struggle and an unintentional turn of my torso had my body writhing in pain. I blame it on too many church committee meetings and the endless onslaught of emails that keep me hunched over my computer for more hours than I care to count. An avid athlete and only 25 years old, the first time this treacherous pain struck, my initial response was denial—this can’t be happening, I am too young, I exercise, and most importantly, it’s almost Christmas—doesn’t God know how bad the timing is?

Perhaps it was because of my physical ailments that when I was asked to develop a bible study on women in the Gospel of Luke that the story of Jesus healing a woman who was bent over for 18 years (Luke 13:10-17) stood out to me like a sore thumb or rather, a bad back.

This story has enough meat that it will preach, but it’s also familiar enough that our eyes can glaze over when we rush it rather than read it. That’s what had happened to me in the past; but this time, with my back out and a bible study to facilitate, I was forced to slow down and reread this story of healing, wholeness, and holiness with new eyes and newfound empathy.

The women’s bible study group I facilitate has been meeting for over 10 years, long before I arrived at the church. Facilitating the bible study is one of my favorite parts of my job because it is a place where the vertical and horizontal aspects of our faith so clearly intersect. Through reading, reflection, and lively discussion, the words on the page become the Living Word as the group’s collective energy, questions, and reflections, combined with the presence of God’s Spirit, shed new light on how we are to love God and live in the world.

With questions about healing, wholeness, and holiness at the forefront of the discussion and feeling the literal ache of being bent over (we read the story while standing bent over to get a feel of what life must have been like for the woman in the text), our discussion began.

If you haven’t read this story in a while, do. It’s one that bears rereading. First of all, a miraculous healing occurs. Second of all, far from this healing being a miracle that only Jesus, God incarnate, could perform, when it’s broken down, it becomes clear that this miracle is more possible and probable than any of us could have ever imagined.

The story begins with Jesus teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. In the synagogue is a woman who is disabled by a spirit, which has left her unable to stand up straight for 18 years. Whereas others may have passed her by, Jesus notices and engages her.

Jesus was a pro at seeing people as they were—people with gifts and goodness as well as with struggles, problems, sickness, and deep pain. If this story teaches us one thing about miraculous healing, it is that healing happens through relationships and community, through acknowledging and engaging with one another.

The next thing that happens is that Jesus speaks to the woman. In our bible study, women talked about caring for young children and aging parents and the power of talking to rather than about their loved ones. What does it mean to speak to people who are in pain or experiencing illness, to pray with rather than for them?

I don’t know why this woman was bent over and I don’t know why I threw my back out (although moving boxes of Christmas decorations may have had something to do with it). What I do know is that there is a deep connection between the physical, spiritual, and emotional and that Jesus makes this connection. He doesn’t try to diagnose the women’s psychophysical issues; he simply speaks to her and says that she is free from whatever it is that’s holding her back and keeping her down.

Finally, Jesus touches her. This woman experiences the touch of another human being, perhaps for the first time in 18 years. Can you imagine what it must have felt like for her to be touched? It’s no wonder she stood up and shouted for joy!

When I read about this woman’s response, I imagine her standing up straight, raising her hands with spirit fingers, and beginning the first-century equivalent of “the wave,” or at least a dance party. How could she have done any less?!

Yes, and I imagine this woman’s community being able to see, perhaps for the first time in a long time, this woman as she was, a daughter of Abraham, rather than someone to be ignored or discarded. The crowd rejoices at what’s happened for by one person being healed, greater healing and wholeness is brought to them all. It must have been quite the par-tayyy!

At the end of our bible study, the women and I stood and engaged in a body prayer. My back was still aching, but my spirit felt renewed. The rich discussion reminded me that healing, wholeness, and holiness are deeply intertwined and healing—even miraculous healing—is possible when we take time to see, to speak to, and to touch one another. When healing happens, we have no choice but to shout with joy and give thanks, as we realize that each time one of us is healed, greater wholeness and holiness is brought to us all.