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.

Grief and God

In late June, I had the opportunity to present a workshop on Grief and Loss. It was good for me to think about and put into words some of the things that I know to be very important. It was also a cool event – meeting up with other Christian Feminists at the EEWC Gathering!

Among the topics I touched on were some of the new paradigms for viewing grief and the mourning process. The most important point to me (aside from the obvious one that all of us will experience grief at some point in our lives) was the emphasis on learning from grief, not thinking it is something we have to get past. It’s a touchy point, because so many of us get stuck on the platitudes of well-meaning people.

Our grief stories are important.

In the process of reflecting, writing and talking about them, we discover where the pain has continued to nestle, and where we still “love with a limp.” It’s not that we have to act like everything is OK. Instead, remembering that we have been broken, we invite God into the process of reclaiming some of our former selves, even if the shape has knicks and dents and cracks.

kintsukuroiI used the example of the Japanese art of kintsukuroi. Instead of hiding the broken places, the artist uses a resin that has gold dust in it (or sometimes silver or platinum). The philosophy of this process suggests that the breakage and repair become a part of the object; transformation rather than perfection is the goal.

There are stories in the scars; beauty in the broken and repaired. We are still useable and needed, even if our brokenness shows. We do not have to be pre-grief-perfect!

Our culture struggles with this idea that grief can be good, that the pain of loss can be transformative. In the Christian subculture, there is a pervasive need to chirp happy little phrases like, “He’s not in pain now.” or “God must have needed another angel.”

Not only are these phrases unhelpful (we know that death means an end to suffering), but at times they are theologically wrong!

  • God does NOT need another angel! (Angels are created beings, like humans, and I think that God knew how many were needed.)
  • “You can have another baby…” (Ahem. “Can” is a medical opinion and I don’t think you’ve done the exam to make that judgement.)
  • He/She is in a better place. (Soteriology and eschatology aside, the person grieving is missing the PRESENCE of the person who died.)

So WHY do sincere, loving, well-meaning people say these things??

I suggested to my workshop participants that there are several reasons:

  • To “fix” things – They see that someone is hurting and they genuinely want to help
  • Personal distress – It brings up old wounds and they don’t want to go there
  • Misunderstand “grief” – Many, MANY people think grief has a timeline. It does not. (Simplistic answer for simplistic people.)
  • Pressure – They want things to get back to normal. In reality, what we are learning through grief is how to get to a “new normal.”
  • Foot-in-mouth disease –  We’ve all done it. Said exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time. We grow from it, forgive, and move on.

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I ended my workshop with a short service of remembrance.

It began with a video I created with an original reading set to music by Yiruma.

On the front table were candles and a set of river stones wrapped in cotton fabrics and tied with a jute twine. Inside each package was a small heart with this instruction:

Keep me as your remembrance stone.
When you are ready to let me go,
give me back to Creation.

Participants were invited to select a wrapped stone and share with us the life event or person that was still a source of grief. The stories which came up surprised the participants, some of whom were friends and never knew the depths of grief that others were experiencing.

The stones were then taken home by each participant, and they were encouraged to leave the stone some place, either mundane or deeply personal and significant, when they had come to the place that they were ready to move on. There was no time line. That was not important. Rather, each person would work to a place of readiness to leave the most intense period of grief behind.

The cloth wrapping around the stone and the jute will decay. The paper will dissolve. But the stone, like the memory of the one we grieve for, will continue.

We concluded the service with a responsive reading written by Jan Aldredge-Clanton and a blessing written by Sally Coleman. 

It was amazing to watch the Holy Spirit do the knitting work of transforming love. I put the pieces out there, but God put them together.

soli deo gloria 

“Never Stop Improving” – When life is more than a home improvement store

photo 3We recently went through ten weeks of a major home remodeling project. We are thrilled with the outcome — all bathrooms are updated, and more importantly, repaired. (There are no more leaks into my living room. This is a good thing.)

There is a problem with having a shiny new space in our home. Everything else starts to show its use and wear. The comfy couch in the basement has accumulated cat hair. And clutter. The countertops in the kitchen have crumbs and piles of… stuff. And the patio furniture shows the results of my very amateur use of spray paint. There’s spray that “traveled” from what I was painting to nearby grass and lawn furniture. Oops.

(Here’s a tip: Use lots of plastic sheeting to protect a large area around where you are spraying. LOTS.)

As I go about my work and home routines, though, I keep seeing the logo of a local home improvement store and their new tagline: “Never stop improving.” And I sigh. I’d love to work on several projects (there’s an ever-growing list) but I resist. And clearly, this is a “first world problem.”

You gotta hand it to these home improvement stores, though. They know how to feed an itch. Looking good is never good enough. You need to be magazine perfect. You need to look like the glossy photos of a “PinterLUST” pin.

Spiritual growth is not like this. It’s not driven by lust, by greed, by wanting more “stuff.” It is cultivated by tending to the qualities and attributes of Christlikeness, building them in to one’s life and heart. Though it is a continuous process, the reason why it is never complete is far different than a home improvement project.

Consider the words of Peter (I Peter 1):

By his divine power the Lord has given us everything we need for life and godliness through the knowledge of the one who called us by his own honor and glory. Through his honor and glory he has given us his precious and wonderful promises, that you may share the divine nature and escape from the world’s immorality that sinful craving produces.

This is why you must make every effort to add moral excellence to your faith; and to moral excellence, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, endurance; and to endurance, godliness; and to godliness, affection for others; and to affection for others, love. If all these are yours and they are growing in you, they’ll keep you from becoming inactive and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Yes, I’ll “never stop improving” in the way I live my life and reflect God to others. But not to make myself look better than you. Instead, it’s a result of wanting to BE the Love I have experienced.

And that’s all Grace.