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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

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.

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.