Book Review: Healing Spiritual Wounds

Book Review

Carol Howard Merritt, Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God after Experiencing a Hurtful Church
(New York: Harper One, 2017), hardcover, 232 pages.

HealingSpiritualWounds

Carol Howard Merritt, known for her insightful writing in the Christian Century and her previous books* offers a gentle work for those who have endured mistreatment by the Church. This book is not intended has an apologetic for “why” one should be in a church, or even be a Christian. Rather, it is intended to help those who are struggling to redefine faith’s role and want help finding the path back to belief and wholeness.

I began this book in the throes of the flu, and thanks to “flu brain” was not able to finish it as quickly as I wanted. But a few weeks, ago, as I read and reflected over her words, I was encouraged that, once again, she has brought clarity and a much-needed re-teaching of one of Christianity’s main tenets: Love God, love yourself, love others.

The book is grounded in her own spiritual journey and invites the reader to begin their own path of healing and discovery. Can one find a place peace and wholeness away from an internal conflict about a “God of love” and the way religious people act? Carol suggests there is a way, and it is in a place of peace and being “in God.” She shares her own realization that her “inner skeptic” (p. 5) was searching for God, even in the midst of disappointment and pain. And she invites the reader along to ponder their own places of raw hurt, discouragement and doubt.

This is not a “how-to” book. Merritt doesn’t give you simple formulas and Bible memory verses to “fix” yourself. Instead, she models a way of meditating on the Sacred text, on seeking God in the unspoken words of the suffering, and then she provides creative exercises for reflection in the journey back to wholeness. The author is clear in her own realization that “religion heals… but also brings suffering” (p. 8) and names the knife-in-the-gut wounding from the Church’s teachings that are sexist, racist, homophobic and politicized.

Carol groups the “spiritual wounds” we may experience around seven distinct areas, each with their own path for healing: healing our image of God, recovering our emotions, redeeming our broken selves, reclaiming our bodies, regaining our hope, reassessing our finances, and being born again. Each area of spiritual wounding offers vignettes from her own life, stories from the struggles of others, and exercises for reflection. The process begins with understanding our own experiences of religious wounding, not just what we experience, but where we have wounded others. I have started a collage recommended in the chapter “Finding Shalom” and it has been very thought-provoking, one that I will be working on for a while!

As a trained chaplain, several of the chapters reminded me of my own work in my spiritual identity and pastoral identity. In particular, the chapter on “Healing Our Image of God” took me back through the process of experiencing the “life-giving God” through a process Merritt calls “communal and personal” (p. 55). I remembered how I learned to experience God outside of a list of do’s and don’t’s. How photography, poetry, writing and music changed the “replay” of God’s work in my life. It was soul-stirring.

Other chapters had equally thought-provoking moments and I know I will want to return to this book for a more lengthy reflection, perhaps with others in community and accountability. It is not a quick read! You might want to make it your summer reading project, or schedule it for Lent 2018 (as this year’s Lenten season is underway).

For those who have struggled against a “father” image of God that conjures up the worst memories of the Church’s patriarchal abuse and misuse of scripture, I encourage you to get this book and dig deep. Merritt writes: “We don’t always realize that we’re working under patriarchal conditions because we’re so used to them; it’s like not knowing when we’re breathing polluted air” (p. 202).

Rediscover that God is not a white male, nor an authoritarian killjoy, and is completely and utterly bent on the loving work of restoration and reconciliation – with you. And me.

*(Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation and Reframing Hope: Vital ministry in a New Generation)

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Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God after Experiencing a Hurtful Church. Carol Howard Merritt. New York: Harper One, 2017. Hardcover: 232 pages. ISBN-10: 0062392271

Disclosure of Material Connection: I was provided this book without cost from the publisher and was not required to give a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Book Review: The CEB Women’s Bible

cebwomensbibleWhen the package with my review copy arrived in the mail, my first thought was, “Please, don’t let it be pink!” 

Thankfully, it was not! (And lest you think I am exaggerating, do a Google search for images of “women + Bible” and see what you find!)

As I skimmed my review copy, it was easy to see the intent of this edition of the Common English Bible: “to focus on stories of women, named and unnamed…”1 inviting the female reader to encounter the Scriptures with new insights and responsiveness to the written Word. For women in particular, it has been difficult to see ourselves in texts which appear to ignore women entirely, or relegate them to subservient roles in society. This invisibility was the cultural norm in ancient times, but causes many women today to question why the Christian faith is relevant in the modern world. Are our voices meaningful? Do our experiences and perspectives matter? Are women in general valued by God?

I was already acquainted with this version of the Bible. The Common English Bible was published with the intent was to bring the sacred text into “common” verbiage, without becoming a paraphrase. The translation guidelines were rigorous, and included men and women scholars. I use the CEB in my personal devotions and enjoy the approachable and clear rendering of the sacred text.

For this edition, the editors and commentary were all written by women. The individual books each have an introduction which provides background on the text, including a historical and cultural context. The introduction also highlights specific issues which will interest most women readers as they study the Bible.

I personally appreciated the indices which included: Named Women, Unnamed Women, Articles (indexed canonically and alphabetically), a list of discussion questions based on the Revised Common Lectionary, and (unusual in my experience) an index for the maps. These will be helpful resources for the novice or experienced Bible student.

For a recent sermon on John 9-10, I read and reflected on the passages using the CEB Women’s Bible. The reflection included in John 9 by Mandy Sayers on “Beggars” coincided with my previous personal study on the place of beggar in ancient society, and the radical, life-changing experience of encountering Christ — for the beggar, and for any of use who experiences the change that comes with following Christ.

My only quibble with this translation is that the gender of the Divine is consistently rendered as male. It remains an ongoing frustration for me, and many other women, who struggle at times to identify with The Holy when the pronouns for God are always a “he”… While I have cultivated the practice to “read over” the gendered pronouns, it remains a translation issue that has not been solved to my satisfaction.

Familiar faces and names are among the editors and contributors. I am delighted to see the variety of denominations, traditions and settings which they represent. The breadth of voices in this edition will inspire many women in their study of Scripture. I recommend it highly for your study and spiritual growth.

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The CEB Women’s Bible.  (c) 2016. Abingdon Press.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I was provided this book without cost from the publisher and was not required to give a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

1 from the Preface

Book Review: The End of the Island

IMG_9952In a chaplain’s world, theodicy is that delicate and difficult balance of the gut-wrenching work of understanding why the Divine allows evil and human suffering. Human as we are, there is such a temptation to distill the work of theodicy into neat little pieces. As if pain, suffering, loss and grief would EVER be done “neatly.”

Many books attempt to express this through allegory or rigid theological systems. Instead of a systematic expression, however, Tucker places his allegory in a kind of contextual theology. Thus I approached this book with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Jeffrey Tucker takes as his muse “The Happy Prince,” a children’s short story written by Oscar Wilde. (You can read it on-line here…)  In the postscript of his book he delves into some of the influences of that story in his work as a chaplain. It’s worth reading first before you delve into the topics his work contains. I would have liked him to develop his own perspective on why he thinks he might be the Prince. It would have given his story a better foundation, for this reader, anyway.

The book is organized around the narrative of an old man traveling “to the end of the island” – a journey he feels he must make as his “time is short.” The “journey” is expressed via short vignettes, spread out over several chapters, each addressing a different question as it relates to human suffering. The questions include:

  • Where is my Suffering?
  • Where am I in my Suffering?
  • Where is the Divine in my Suffering?
  • Where is my Human Support?
  • Where are my Hope and my Deliverance?
  • Re-Defining Forward Movement
  • Finding the End of the Island

On the journey, the old man meets several individuals who help him re-examine what he is experiencing, where he is going, what he hopes to find, and what other lessons might be part of his journey. I particularly liked the author’s reflections in chapter 4 on “Where is the Divine in my Suffering?” His analogy of God being in both the tidal wave and the tidal marsh were poignant and personally meaningful to me.

At first, this structure is somewhat confusing and disjointed. (Perhaps a better “How to Use This Book” section is needed?) However, because of the nature of the questions which Tucker addresses, having “space” in between the sections of the old man’s story is helpful for allowing the reader to engage and reflect. This is not a book to read at one sitting. In fact, if you rush through it, you will miss the beauty of the struggle in this journey we are all on – of life and death, of hope and discouragement, of suffering and release.

Tucker’s premise is that our life’s journeys are not about “solving” the problem of pain. It is not meant to provide simple strategies or pointers. There aren’t Bible verses to read and write down your reflections with Jesus as your Best Friend in suffering and God always bringing healing and relief. (In fairness, there were many places where I found it was easy enough to be drawn back into Scripture and journal. It just was more raw than pretty, honest than victorious.)

This book is also going to make the more conservative readers among us a tad uncomfortable, for the author invites us to dwell with the wider views of spirituality, and to engage in mindfulness practices around the journey we are all struggling through. However, you will be invited to explore fresh and new ways of walking through your own personal, painful, rough patches. And that, in itself, is enough. For God is enough.

As the author says, “The totality of all our questions will never be resolved completely. For remember, I am talking here about movement – not a neat, linear journey.”

Here’s to the messiness and the reality that God is there in the mix. Always.

*****

The End of the Island by Jeffrey C. Tucker. © 2016 Eugene, OR. Resource Publications (Wipf and Stock): Paperback, 156 pages.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I was provided this book without cost from the publisher and was not required to give a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Book Review: “Ruined” by Ruth Everhart

TRIGGER WARNING: Rape; sexual assault.

ruined

As a mother, I’ve had more than enough good advice to pour into my daughters’ ears.  (I’m sure, in fact, I’ve said TOO much!) Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to say, “here is my story… learn from it!” But Ruth Everhart’s memoir is one of courage, honesty and integrity.

The setting of her memoir could be near any of a number of college campuses. It was a Sunday evening, after church. A houseful of Christian college women were forcibly held and raped at gunpoint… and lived through the experience. Ruth and her friends survived a night of chaos, distress and violation.

It’s a club no one wants to join, this sisterhood. It’s a story no one wants to hear. To live through. To have to testify about to a room full of strangers. To somehow pull the shards of your life back together and try to finish college, go to graduate school, get married, have children…

To compound her recovery, Ruth had to navigate the restoration of her sense of safety and worth. She had to redefine what it meant to be a single woman in a purity culture of high moral expectations. And, somehow, she had to find a way to experience wholeness and forgiveness… despite the label she felt she would wear forever… RUINED. Or, as the judge called the victims at the sentencing of one of the perpetrators, “marred and scarred.”

Ruth’s greater story is the one of how she recovers her understanding and perceptions of God. For how could she hold to the tenets of a faith that allowed this horrible event to occur? Where was God when she was raped with a gun to her head?

As she wrote:

It had been more than a year and I still couldn’t live with the implication of what I’d always believed: that everything happens according to the will of God. The God I loved simply wasn’t that monstrous…”

In the process, Ruth found ways to overcome being a prisoner of her past. She fought her way past the most visceral of reactions to claim her healing. She shares the process of moving from victim to survivor to overcomer. It wasn’t a straight line, for like all of us in the healing process, there are zigs and zags in the road to wholeness. She discovered a way to take the hard parts of her life and allow God to not only release her from them, but to become a woman God would use, as she says, “not in spite of them, but because of them.”

I won’t spoil Ruth’s story for you… because I think as you read her experiences and reflect on her spiritual journey, you will ponder the way of your own. You might also consider the injustice done to women through the patriarchal systems of the “purity culture” of fundamentalist Christians. You will also have to reflect on that notion of God’s grace — how it reaches us and transforms us. And that in itself will be a blessing.

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Ruined by Ruth Everhart. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.; Reprint edition (August 2, 2016).

Disclosure of Material Connection: I was provided this book without cost from the author and was not required to give a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

BOOK REVIEW: Daddy, this is it. 

Daddy, this is it. Being-with my Dying Dad by Julie Saeger Nierenberg. Self-published (c) 2013. http://www.createwriteeneterprises.com ISBN: 0-9919-2070-8. Paperback 72 pages.
This simple, autobiographical volume shares the journey of one daughter with her father through hospice. Julie writes about the real, painful journey of walking with her father through his diagnosis, treatment and eventual admission into hospice. As one person’s story, it brings a limited viewpoint. But those of us who work in palliative care settings or hospice need to reflect on what her story could teach us.

My take-aways included:

Listen for the back story. What was he concerned most about? Being unable to see. Being alone. Not being able to see his wife (in the next room). It’s those “little things” that support a higher quality of life for the patient.

Find ways to help the patient stay involved in the lives of their family and friends. Skype is probably the best way I know to help people stay connected. Grandchildren. Friends. Church. Exercise partners (in this patient’s case), the “Hill ‘O Beans” walking buddies. Being pro-active and at times, an insistent advocate for the patient is a necessary part of helping them feel connected to the important relationships in his life.

If you are the chaplain, be engaged, be involved! The biggest disappointment for me was that there was no mention of the support of a chaplain in their journey. There may have been one (spiritual care providers are essential in the whole-person care of hospice) but either his/her impact was minimal, or the family refused chaplain visits. There was mention of the nurse, social workers and “sitters” but not the rest of the interdisiplinary team. The logical conclusion is that, at least in Tulsa, chaplains are not as prevalent or engaged in whole-patient care. I hope that’s corrected now, over 2 years later.

And finally, Keep telling your story! Other need to hear it!  Whether one is a practioner or a family member, we need to hear the ways that lives can be enriched, supported and encouraged as we walk this hospice journey together.

 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I was provided this book without cost from the author and was not required to give a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Book Review: So Not Okay: Mean Girl Makeover

SO NOT OKAY is the first of three books in a pro-active series on bullying by Nancy Rue. It is juvenile fiction in content, but its topic extends far beyond the age group.

The book centers around a middle school girl named Tori who has to learn how to stand up to a “Queen Bee” named Kylie and her friends. Tori discovers how to “take back” her control over friendships and her attitude towards others.

Among the other themes are learning how to stick up for your friends, what it means to truly be “best friends” (hint: it doesn’t mean being a doormat!), and how to go about getting support and help when it’s needed.

Anyone who has made it through middle school and high school knows the effects of bullying. Rarely does anyone make it to adulthood without enduring some kind of mockery. In a world where the bullied student responds with firearms or IEDs, it is important to teach alternative ways to “fighting back” — ways which demonstrate self-control, self-respect and self-awareness.

Ms. Rue’s book touches a chord. You remember what it was like to be scared to present in front of the class. You feel those gut-wrenching moments of ridicule and frustration. You relate to the quandary: tell or stay silent? stay with my friends or go to a “cool” clique?

There is also an excellent role model for Tori. Lydia, a research assistant for Tori’s father, has real life experience in dealing with bullies, disappointment and taunting. Her gentle guidance and example help Tori and her friends come up with a solution.

While I think it would be a great book to get in the hands of older elementary school students and middle schoolers, I think I am little too old to judge it for certain! My plan is to share the book with some students at our church and get their feedback. But – I feel certain that they will be encouraged, challenged and strengthened by this book. The book has some Christian content as its backbone, but it would not prevent someone from another faith group from gaining valuable lessons from its pages.

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So Not Okay: Mean Girl Makeover, by Nancy Rue. Published by Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN. (c) 2014.

Soft cover: 284 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1-4003-2370-8
Disclosure of Material Connection: I was provided this book without cost from the publisher and was not required to give a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Book Review: All That Bright Light — A story of love, murder and healing

michellemiller

Courtesy of Michelle Basch, WTOP Radio

The cover shows a blurred image of balloons rising over a football field at sunset. It was a sight that must have been viewed through eyes blurred by tears at the Rockville High School stadium that night.

The friends, family and teachers of Michelle Miller gathered to offer words of hope, grief and joy, even as they struggled to understand why a 31 year old Army recruiter, Adam Arndt, shot first Miller and then himself in a murder-suicide. They lofted helium balloons with messages of love, hope and courage.

“Release the balloons,” a clear, young voice booms through the sound system.

We have been waiting for this moment. It is truly awesome as hundreds of brightly colored balloons seem to light up the sky as they float through the last rays of fading sunlight.

For a few moments the stadium is silent as we all watch our balloons, which like Michelle’s bright spirit, are now heading for the heavens. (All That Bright Light, page 28).

Coming to grips with a loss this devastating seems impossible. How does one find a way to make sense of it? Why did a young woman, full of joy, vibrancy and promise, have her life ended in such a brutal way? How do you embrace your faith, your family and your sense of fairness? What do you do when you feel that justice has not been served? Can you forgive? How do you forgive?

These and other questions flow thoughtfully and with reflective  realism from the author, Alice Miller. A psychotherapist, she has  been the consoler and counselor to others who were in deep grief. Now, just weeks before her beloved granddaughter, nicknamed Lulu, was to graduate from high school, she was killed by the 31-year-old Army sergeant who recruited her for an Army ROTC program.

This is a story that breaks the heart. And it is a story of conflict between the Army and a heartbroken family.

Alice shares her personal journals from this tragedy, from the moments they found out that Michelle was dead, to the grim details of her death. She talks about the outpouring of love, meals and care that surrounded the family. She writes of her own grieving process, one that she fully understands is not over.

Grief, I have learned, is like a cocoon, which from the beginning has encased me in its pain. Now, gradually I need to learn to emerge from that sorrow if I am every again to fully embrace life. The hole in my heart may never go away, But time, I believe will smooth the rough edges. The hole, however, remains. (All That Bright Light, page 128)

The title is taken from the words spoken by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis when she responded to the outpouring of love and condolences upon the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. All his bright light has gone from the world. All of you who have written to me know how much we all loved him and that he returned that love in full measure.”

When someone is murdered, the spark of their love and life is no more. At least, not on this planet. As Miller writes,

“Your bright light may be gone from this world but I know that it will shine through into the next.”

For those who have experienced this kind of traumatic loss, you will find a companion in the grief and anger that the author knows so well. For those who wonder at the ways that injustice, especially when accompanied by crimes of rape and physical assault, you will hear the passionate plea for accountability. For those of us who are parents, there is the practical reminder to go home and hug our children and those we love.

I recommend this book. Though Alice finds peace through her Christian faith, she does not insist that you follow her path. She offers perspective through her own pain and grieving. She admits where she is struggling and invites you to carry your own losses with realism and honesty.

All That Bright Light  underscores the simple reminder that we need one another. We also need to stand up for those who have been rendered voiceless by other’s criminal acts. And most of all, we need to give one another space, time, and comfort to grieve and grow through these difficult losses.

The lessons from this book reminded me of this quote from Mother Teresa:

“Spread love everywhere you go: First of all in your own house…let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.”

So may it be.

All That Bright Light: A Story of Love, Murder and Healing, by Alice G. Miller. Self-published. November, 2013. Available on Amazon.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”