Friday, February 24, 2017

Book Review: Healing Spiritual Wounds by Carol Howard Merritt

Carol Howard Merritt's latest book, Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church (HarperOne) hit the shelves almost three weeks ago, which is almost an eternity in the reviewing world, but in my defense: it took me a long time to read through the entire manuscript because every few pages I had to put the book down in order to honor and process everything that was being said to me from a place of sheer vulnerability and honesty. And then I would pick the book back up again and re-read the words I had just pored over. It's that good, and that profound.

Carol has built her reputation as a Christian writer and speaker off of the systematically-laid out vision for a new church that first came through in her debut work Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation, but Healing Spiritual Wounds is a bit more organic and much more introspective. Recognizing the Jonah-esque internal turmoil that is increasingly commonplace for people raised in the faith and feeling the need to then leave it, Healing Spiritual Wounds is part-how-to guide, part-testimony, and part-apologia for the church's own complicity in the emotional scars that so many people bear today.

Given that subject matter, you might expect such a book to be a genuine emotional drag, or at least a slog to get through. And while yes, at times the words on the page *are* difficult to read, it is often because they are supposed to be difficult to read. If there is a common denominator to be had across Carol's body of work, it is that she is a pastor and writer unconcerned with what I have come to term as the "Church of Be Nice and Chew With Your Mouth Closed." Not that there isn't virtue to chewing with your mouth closed--there is--but that such virtue is dwarfed by the far more soul-sized virtues that Jesus enumerates in Matthew 23 as the "weightier matters:" justice, mercy, and faith.

In these virtues, it is imperative to recognize that the church has at times failed both its adherents and its communities--a case that Carol makes not with wrathful fire or blithe indifference, but with carefully chosen words of care and compassion for both the church and the people whom it has hurt, people of whom Carol recounts throughout the book as realizing that the presence of the church in their lives was akin to a poison which required an antidote.

If it is painful to hear of the body of Christ seen, and likened to, a poison, it should be: realizing the harm done in the name of Christ by profoundly flawed people is a painful process. And it would be easy for a book on such a topic to simply be an exercise in pain, but that is emphatically not the case in Healing Spiritual Wounds, as Carol presents a blueprint of sorts for the healing that must take place--healing not only for individuals hurt by abusive churches and communities, but healing for the church itself as a living, breathing entity still very much capable of the sort of kingdom-building to which it was commissioned in by the Risen Christ in the Gospels. This blueprint centers around her fundamental belief in the love of God and its radically deep, inclusive, and lifechanging nature, and it serves as the good news of a book that may otherwise bear a foreboding title for many.

And from this good news we get a sense of the depths of Carol's hopes in and for the church. There is a great deal of work to do in building the body back up after the waves of sex and financial scandals, the use and endorsement of conversion therapy, and now after the 2016 elections the selling-out of previously strongly-held principles concerning modesty, humility, and sexuality in order to elect Donald Trump as president.

But we are a resilient people, and with the tools that Carol proffers to us in this book, we can stand to be even more so going into the future. Because God knows, seeing the pain and violence taking place already in 2017, we shall surely need those tools, and her words. If you are interested in learning more about how people have come to heal with their church-inflicted injuries, or if you yourself are struggling with the pain of past church experiences, you very likely will not regret the time and money you sink into reading this book.

Vancouver, Washington
February 24, 2017

Disclaimer: I have maintained a friendship with Carol for several years ever since inviting her to speak at a regional church conference. However, I was not materially or financially compensated in any way for my review, and all opinions in this review are mine, and mine alone.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

You Regret Your Vote. What Next?

Earlier this week, the Twitter account @Trump_Regrets was the subject of a fascinating New York Times article which noted that people were regretting their votes for Trump for a wide swath of reasons, but especially because they now feel personally hurt or harmed by Trump's complete lack of presidential behavior and judgment in the past four weeks. The tweets themselves might be a source of schadenfreude in my more grumpy moments, but truthfully, they're really quite heartbreaking to read.

Here's just a sampling:

I believe all of these folks when they say that their regret for having voted for Trump is sincere. And while confession is generally good for the soul, part of confession from a Christian perspective is always what comes afterward: penance. We teach that repentance must not only be sincere, but substantive--it must result in not just a change of heart or nature, but also in spiritual fruit that you and others can benefit from.

So, if you have come to regret your presidential vote last November, what can you do to repent, to show penance? Here are just five ways to do so:

1. OWN YOUR VOTE. Don't try to diminish it by saying you had no idea that Trump would do the things that he has spent the past four weeks doing--plenty of people were trying to warn you of that, and for whatever reason, you chose not to listen when the moment of truth in the voting booth arrived. This isn't me saying "I told you so," this is me asking you not to try to sweep your enabling of Trump under the proverbial rug, because it is important for the efficacy of ways #2-5.

2. If you have friends who are genuinely worried about their well-being because Trump represents an existential threat to their livelihoods, listen to them. Really listen, too. Don't talk over or interrupt them. Ask them how you can help them. Then, do what they ask of you without debating them or playing devil's advocate.

3. Put your money where your mouth is. Donate to the ACLU, Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, or any number of other organizations doing the good work that needs to be done during the next four years. If your finances allow, set up a recurring donation.

4. Get involved yourself. Attend a protest. Write or call your Congressional representatives and senators. Explain exactly how and why you came to regret your vote and ask them to act as a check on Trump's various excesses.

5. And finally, remember this profound feeling of regret that you feel now when Election Day 2018 and Election Day 2020 both roll around, and cast your vote accordingly, with forethought, care, and deliberation.

This list is by no means exhaustive. It is meant to be a springboard, not an index. I encourage you to get creative with regret (man, we clergy really don't say that enough, do we?). I hope that, instead of just wallowing in it, you can find life, energy, and meaning in it. Our consciences exist to make us better people, and I pray that for you just as much as I pray that for myself.

We're in for a long four years, brothers and sisters. Be there for one another. Even if you weren't before. Especially if you weren't before.

Vancouver, Washington
February 18, 2017

Friday, February 10, 2017

I Follow an Executed Savior

This week in Mississippi, state lawmakers advanced a bill that would bring back execution by means of firing squads, gas chambers, and electric chairs in response to lawsuits claiming the inhumane nature of lethal injection is exacerbated by the illicit nature of the procurement of the drugs used in execution protocols.

Reading the stories about this bill initially, I thought it pretty standard fare for the death penalty-happy South, which has typically used capital punishment as a means to rid itself not of the worst of the worst criminals, but of violent black people while more frequently sparing the lives of its violent white people (a phenomenon that is most certainly not limited to the South--rather, quantitatively, most executions take place there, especially in Texas and Virginia).

And truthfully, the firing squad may in fact be more "humane" (air quotes very much intentional) means of execution. By this point, drug companies that want no business in state-sponsored death have refused to sell their drugs to state governments for the purposes of executions, which in turn has forced those state governments to search for alternate drugs from alternate sources, usually shady compounding pharmacies that operate on the very boundaries of DEA and FDA law--and likely sometimes over said boundaries.

Put a different way--it would be like, instead of going to a government-regulated marijuana dispensary (which I'm not condoning either) here in the Pacific Northwest, you instead went to the home of your friend's sketchy-as-balls friend who hands you a bag of something that may or may not in fact be marijuana. And then it is used by the state to kill you.

So I'm more than happy to see lethal injection go the way of the dodo. Honestly, I always saw it as a convenient sort of mask that shaded from us the true sadism of what it is we were doing, which basically entailed forcibly paralyzing a person and then inducing a massive and painful heart attack until they died. All of which they may or may not have felt--but could not register pain thanks to the paralytic--because the sleeping agent administered at the very start may or may not have actually worked. It's a lie to tell ourselves that we execute people humanely--we execute pets more humanely than we execute people.

None of which might matter to the fine folks down in Mississippi, but it sure as hell does to me, if for no other reason than I serve, follow, and worship a Savior whose execution by the state was not only unjust, but torturous as well. If there ought to be a common maxim in Christian political ethics, it must be that regardless of whether you believe in killing in self-defense or as a part of just war theory, Christians do not gratuitously kill, and certainly do not gratuitously torture.

Yet capital punishment constitutes both of those things. It is not as though methods like lethal injection have made us more humane, no, they have simply masked our sadism, and in truth, we were always that sadistic. We still are.

While the shock and awe I have seen from friends so far is the mention of methods like the gas chamber and the electric chair, what bothered me most about this entire story is a thrown-away line in the middle of the Washington Post article--the legislator sponsoring this bill is, among other things, a Baptist pastor. And this pastor-turned-lawmaker spoke of the need for justice for the parents of a daughter raped and killed twenty-five years ago.

To which I would simply say--justice has and is being served. Life imprisonment without parole is human justice, and this condemned wretch who did this still awaits God's justice. After all, it was Paul (who himself, like Jesus, was unjustly executed by the state) in Romans 12 who wrote, "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'"

I want to know what this pastor-turned-lawmaker does with verses like these. I want to know what he does with the reality that he, like me, professes faith in, and allegiance to, an executed Savior.

I wear a cross around my neck for a reason--it isn't to identify me as a Christian, although it does. It is to remind me that in the inhumanity of the cross there lies my own humanity. It might well have been me crucified and hurling insults at Christ like the two who were crucified alongside Him did. Not because I would have been a violent rebel against Rome in a past life, but because Jesus wasn't a violent rebel against Rome and yet He still found himself flogged and crucified. Which means that it could just as easily have been me up that cross too.

It is, by the by, why the cross I wear is also equal-armed--an equal-armed cross, in the tradition of the Red Cross and the flag of Switzerland, represents peace. I find peace in the knowledge that I follow an executed Savior. I find peace in knowing that it was not enough simply for Christ to die and be resurrected, but that we had to kill Him and yet He was still brought back to us.

I hear similarly moving sentiments from many of my colleagues about the power of the cross, and I would well imagine that this fellow in Mississippi might say something similarly reverential about the cross as well. But it is hard for me to see how the cross has made him a better servant to his fellow children, not when he seeks still more crosses upon which to lash the bodies of the wretched.

But was not one cross enough? Did it not take one death of a single condemned man to save the world?

Why can we not leave our barbarism at that?

It is something that I continue to fail to comprehend.

Vancouver, Washington
February 10, 2017

Image of church and cross courtesy of Wikimedia