Carol Howard Merritt, Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God after Experiencing a Hurtful Church
(New York: Harper One, 2017), hardcover, 232 pages.
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)
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.
Cross-posted from Facebook…
At the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. yesterday, I carried many names on my stole. It was an honor and a privilege. When someone asked me, I could hardly talk about it without getting teary. There were many among my family and friends and coworkers and patients who could not go… and I was aware of your reasons.
So this is for you…
Perhaps you didn’t go to the Women’s March near you and are having some regrets. I’m thinking of all you who have a case of the woulda-coulda-shoulda’s. I’ve gotten a few PMs and wanted to say this…
I want to thank you for reading our posts, listening to our stories and being in the moment, vicariously. While your voice may have been missed, you can start speaking up now.
HONESTLY? Now comes the hard part. Now is when we need each other. Now is when we need YOU. Your voice. Your gifts. Your focus. Your prayers. Your anger. Your integrity. Your wit.
This movement is JUST BEGINNING.
When the celebrities leave the stage, the busses go home, the pink hats come off, the signs start collecting dust, the pundits start mocking and dissecting us… NOW is when we are all needed.
To keep each other honest.
To ask the hard questions.
To be intentional in including ALL of us in the next days and weeks.
To read, write, think, discuss, pray and do things in ways we have never done them before.
To volunteer for causes and issues we are passionate about.
To support nonprofits who are the only backstop some folks have.
To watch our elected officials like a hawk and write them/call them/badger them.
To trust each other more and be less pissy. (Can a pastor say that? YES I CAN.)
I had a distinct honor to be able to march. I went as a white woman of privilege to bear witness. I left hoping to bring more into the story. So may we all.
I don’t speak for you.
There. I said it.
I also don’t speak for people who look like me, dress like me, work with me, worship with me, or live near me. And, most importantly, I most definitely do not speak for someone who is nothing like me!
I am just… me. A wife and mom. A hospice chaplain. A progressive Baptist. A pastor. An LGBTQ+ally (and yes — I asked and was told that I am. If that matters.)
I look like women who voted for Trump in large numbers, and that pisses me off. (White, middle class, Christian.) I supported Hillary and contributed to her campaign. I tried to influence the hearts and minds of people around me to vote for her. And apparently, I was not very good at it.
Election night, I had tears in my eyes and felt frustrated. I had no words for those closest to me who were also devastated. I heard their fears. I was distressed with them. I am deeply worried about them because of the rhetoric and abuse we all heard from Trump during the campaign. They are vulnerable because of who they are.
Here’s what I have learned in the last few days… (Sorry it’s in bullet points. I don’t have time to create fantastic, in-depth prose.)
I am trying to make a difference where I am. Today. Tomorrow. Next week. Next year. In my context. Wherever God takes me.
I will do this imperfectly. Incompletely. Ignorantly. But I will keep trying.
I will continue speak up against hate speech whenever I witness it.
I will keep learning. Growing. Praying. Reading. Listening. Serving. I’ll wear a safety pin and a rainbow bracelet. And sometimes, a cross. And I’ll try to do a better job of being an example of Christ in the world.
soli deo gloria
*It used to be that when someone wore a cross, they were expected to act “Christianly”. But today, the cross has been co-opted by political entities within American politics. It seems that a safety pin might better express my effort to be a welcoming, affirming and listening presence, without the trappings of a particular religious group.
**[edited to add] This does not mean he has my approval or my trust. (Bless his heart.) It means I am fulfilling a Scriptural admonishment to pray for those in authority.
TRIGGER WARNING: Rape; sexual assault.
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.
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.”
what’s on my heart.
I have only
and the promise
that You, O Lord,
will walk through this valley
in this place of grief.
I have only
and the blessing
of knowing Your peace,
as our hearts
are in pieces.
because (quite honestly) my well is dry.
I have only
of the resurrection
and that You, O Lord,
watch our laboring steps
and shower us
Rev. Deb Vaughn
June 26, 2016
It wasn’t in the plans for our senior pastor to come down with some form of the Maryland “plague.” Nor had I planned on preaching tomorrow. As I did some chores and cooked dinner this evening, I meditated on the verses for tomorrow’s service. I read her manuscript (which is wonderful) and now it’s time to refocus and make it God’s Words through me…
It is a wondrous thing to have just spent the last day with some wonderful clergywomen. We listened, talked and dreamed. More will come from our time together in the days and weeks to come. But for now, my focus turns to the sermon prep I need to do.
I am not worried nor anxious. There is a sense that God has brought me through many twists and turns to come and partner with this congregation and be a part of what the Spirit would do in our corner of Christendom.
As I sat with Scripture tonight, I stopped to re-center, breathe and remember…
… deep breaths
… long talks
… friends on this journey
… Christ at the center
… the Eucharist shared with loving hearts and hands
What God can do next will exceed my expectations.
Holy Spirit, come.