Overdue Books: Healing Spiritual Wounds

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Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church

Carol Howard Merritt

I have a small stack of books for which I’ve promised to write book reviews.  I finally made the time to read them and sketch out my thoughts.  These reviews will be appearing in my blog this week.  Also reviewed this week are Lee Hull Moses’s More Than Enough  and Still A Mother, edited by Joy Freeman and Tabatha Johnson.

Ten years ago or so, I picked up a copy of Carol Howard Merritt’s Tribal Church. For many of my colleagues in ministry, it was a touchstone book: with clear-eyed analysis and a knack for narrative, Merritt told a story that resonated with a new generation of ministers who brought hopes for more innovative, just, and creative ways of doing church but ran into structures that were often counter-intuitively bureaucratic, oppressively hierarchical, and downright stodgy. As I watch my denominational and ecumenical contemporaries come into their own (we Gen Xers are all at least 40something these days–even Millennials have a hard time calling themselves “Young Adults” anymore!), Tribal Church  is one of a short list of books with lessons that still resonate.  Merritt is a gifted memoirist, but her books always goes beyond her own story.  Such is the case with Healing Spiritual Wounds.

Wounds could not have been an easy book to write.  Merritt tells her own story of a journey from fundamentalist Christianity to a spirituality where “God got bigger.”  She dares to dig into memories that range from uneasy to painful, and she frames her time growing up in a family, church, and Bible college that drew delineations between parent and child, church and member, school and student so sharp that the resulting scars are hardly surprising. Merritt paints the days of her life in fundamentalist Christianity in bold colors:  dress codes and rapture pranks at Moody Bible College pop off the page with wicked attention to humor, and the more hurtful, often violent underbelly of a faith that makes demands without giving nurture comes through with dark clarity.

There is, however, a gorgeous lightness when she tells of her “a-ha” moments that pushed her to a more generous, open, and life-affirming Christian vision.  Serendipitous relationships and hard-won epiphanies–even painful ones–lead Merritt to discover faith-filled alternatives to misogyny, homophobia, supersessionism, and an abusive theological anthropology.

What makes Wounds so unique is that Merritt intertwines pastoral skill with her gift for memoir.  Solid exegesis and history are woven into the narrative, as is a deep care for folks who have taken similar paths. She tells the stories of so many folks she encounters–old friends, neighbors, strangers at parties–and how she has journeyed alongside them as they’ve worked on their own healing as they discover a Christianity so different from that of their fundamentalist childhoods. While Merritt grinds no axes here, she fearlessly confronts the roots of a rage she comes by honestly, and she deftly reminds us that healing is something that must be done intentionally.

Which leads me to the only part of the book that didn’t initially “work” for me.  Each section concludes with an exercise, sometimes directing a journaling discipline, sometimes a private or group liturgy, sometimes a meditation exercise.  I initially bristled at their inclusion, wondering if such exercises take away from the power of a memoir.  I found myself asking what a book like this is for –should we not let stories speak for themselves?  Do such structured exercises distract or augment?

As I reviewed my notes, however, I rethought my reluctance.  Ironically, it was a quote from Merritt’s  evangelism professor at Moody that led me there:

“I know. It’s terrible,” Dr. Fisher, the course professor, said while shaking his head. “You take an evangelism class to talk about evangelism, and here I am going to make you actually do evangelism.”

Perhaps it should have been obvious–this brave book is not simply a memoir of healing, but it’s an invitation to others who’ve found themselves weighed down by the harm that is often done in the name of God.  And Merritt, as theologian, thinker, pastor, and coach, doesn’t just talk about how to begin a new type of faith journey, she sketches a blueprint for the “doing,” too.

Overdue Books: More Than Enough

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More Than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of Excess

Lee Hull Moses

I have a small stack of books for which I’ve promised to write book reviews. I finally made the time to read them and sketch out my thoughts. These reviews will be appearing in my blog over the next week. I’ll also post reviews of  Carol Howard Merritt’s Healing Spiritual Wounds and Still A Mother, edited by Joy Freeman and Tabatha Johnson.

In the middle of sketching some notes on Lee Hull Moses’s More than Enough, the Greek word “Oikos” came to mind.  In addition to being the brand name of a popular type of yogurt, oikos referred to the household, a social cornerstone of the Ancient Greco-Roman World.  As with most words, however, oikos has a life and relevance beyond itself–it’s the root of “ecumenical” and “ecology,” for example. In the literary context of the New Testament, particularly its narrative books, the oikos is often an important place–sacred conversations are held, intimate meals are shared, people are healed, the word is made flesh, all who are gathered catch a glimpse of a world beyond their imagining.

 Oikos came to mind because all of the other phrases that I could come up with to describe Moses’s book–“Public Theology” or “Pastoral Memoir” seemed inadequate.  While More than Enough is both of those things, it seems to me that it is perhaps better described as a theology of the Oikos in both its widest and most intimate meanings. Like a “House Musician,” or “Poet-in-Residence,” Moses writes as a “House Theologian”–weaving insight into what she observes about the spaces she inhabits.

Whether she is writing as a guest in the unfamiliar home of old friends in Nicaragua, balancing the complicated life of parent, pastor, and partner with her own household, or making her way to the State Capitol–A “people’s house” if there ever was one–as part of the North Carolina “Moral Mondays” movement, Hull brings both pastoral self-awareness and theological insight to her own life, her own relationships, and her own call to ministry as she engages a critical question:

How Do We Live Well?

Through her storytelling, Hull invites readers into honest struggles with global inequality, our dual lives as consumers and citizens, and the contradictions of middle-class privilege.  It’s familiar territory for those of us who are constantly juggling our hope for justice with keeping up with our to-do lists. It’s honest, and quite funny– you laugh along with her daughter discovering the delight and power that comes from a protest march, and if you’re like me, you’ll roll your eyes in an all too familiar way when she tells the story of her electronic-banking family scrambling to find a check.

But Moses does she simply serve up comfort food, nor does she offer simple, contrived solutions to big questions.  Instead, she writes like the sort of preacher I learn the most from: She  weaves her own story deftly alongside the scriptures of our tradition, conversation with colleagues and role models of our shared denomination, and insight from innovative ethicists and practitioners, and admits her struggle, even as she points toward possibility. Though she promises, almost apologetically, to not make her readers feel too guilty (A challenge when you also dive deeply into stories of vast economic inequality, considerable injustice, and the sheer busy-ness of American life), her book is at its best when it challenges her readers.

For example, in a chapter on Lament, she announces what sort of book this is not–a journey to self in the pop-psychology sense.  Instead, she gently pushes her readers to embrace how relationship, community, and justice are part of answering the question of living well. She even includes her own lament at the end of the chapter. She nails the power of the form, articulating a word of hope for a world that desperately needs it. The Prophet Moses is indeed in the house.

Pointing toward a rich abundance that’s hard to quantify, but easily named in those not-quite-ordinary moments that happen more often than we might assume, More than Enough stirs the prophetic imagination, waking up our households, calling us to embrace the bigger joy and the grander hope.

 

What do we do?

It looks to be a Christmas
warm enough for hiking.

We will kick up the leaves,
decide which fellow travelers we greet

With a ‘Happy Holidays’ and which we
greet with a ‘Merry Christmas”

And because this year is different
from all other years, we will peak

inside each and every house to see
which ones light their candles

despite the lack of oil. Despite
the lack of snow, we will still

light our own candles in the deep
of a warm winter’s night, proclaiming

both a myth and reality; a belief
and a certainty.

And certainly, I will remember the
gifts of this season, a trail

open for bonus days, stockings
that keep my boots from chaffing my

feet, and a sunset that staves off
the darkness just an hour more.

Some mornings

Some mornings

Dreams are the cost

Of waking.

The kind that

Feel both tragic

And ordinary

Foreign

And real.

Last night

I dreamt I was

Back in college

The semester’s

End was near.

I had done nothing

All semester

And no one reminded me

No one could tell me what I hadn’t

Done, either

I would be leaving.

I would fail.

I awoke, trying to hazily

Remember if that actually 

Happened, nearly twenty

Years ago.

Jameson Flat

You have been a hundred places
since you last called it home,
though you only called it that
for a number of months.
When the sky turns gray,
you can’t help but wonder
if you might ever again Make
your way there
or if you might even still
remember how.

Introduction to Theodicy

She believed that evil
was, ultimately, something
banal.

She liked to tell her students
that she learned about original sin
sharing a refrigerator with two roommates.

The darkest cruelty she ever experienced
was brushed off by a high school principal
who would drink himself to death years later.
“Boys will be boys,” he shrugged. “You’ll survive.”

Boys will be boys. Dogs will eat their own shit.
It’s how things are. People who would never in
their life put a child in an oven or sic a dog
on one or drop the bomb will, at the same time,
never lift a finger until it affects their property’s value.
There’s nothing supernatural about evil. It is what we do.

“It’s like trying to wrestle a Rubik’s Cube,”
she liked to tell her students. “Don’t try so hard.
All this talk of God and ‘Why?’ We love to say that
we are the builders and the discoverers and
the makers. We forget that we are also the
ones who pluck, the ones who break, and the ones
who cover it all up.”

Still, there were nights, when the old puzzle
with which she always opened her first 8:50 AM
lecture of the Spring Semester:
“If God is Good, God is not God; If God is God,
God is not Good” kept her up till all hours.

She turned it on all of its sides, tried to make
the pieces fit, the colors match. They never did.
Perhaps it is not what they do, she’d muse, twisting
her wrist one more time, on a hunch and something
like a prayer.