What’s it like to share your stories of loss to a room of hundreds? Wm. Paul Young (author of The Shack), Reba Riley (Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome), and Christian Piatt (PostChristian) are about to find out — and help others do the same. The three bestselling authors are launching a two-stop tour — "Where's God When..." — in Seattle and Portland on May 16 & 17, to help others hear, and share, their own stories of grief, heartbreak, and healing.
Sojourners sat down with the authors last week to talk loss, return to faith, and what it’s like to coordinate a tour focused on hard questions about God. Interview edited for length and clarity.
Catherine Woodiwiss, Sojourners: What’s your loss story?
Wm. Paul Young, author, The Shack: The language of loss is something I’m quite familiar with.
The older I get, the more I’m cognizant of the fact that loss is a common language, but it isn’t a language inside our faith communities that we learn to speak very well. A lot of times not even in our homes. For a lot of us, it was not safe and not allowable to do so. So this is an opportunity to sort of put our arms around a community of people. I think that’s the direction we have to go to find some healing, for not just ourselves but for our communities and for our world. We’ve got to be able to talk about what we have in common.
Christian Piatt, author, PostChristian: I got kicked out of the church at age 17, had a bible thrown at me on the way out the door, and actually for a decade had completely lost my faith, my community, my identity as a Christian, everything. But it was music, in a safe, sacred space, that helped me. Music saved my life. And it opened me back up and melted away ten years of scar tissue, and I haven’t been the same ever since.
Reba Riley, author, Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: This weekend is my birthday weekend — my 33rd — and that’s significant because my book actually opens on my 29th birthday, when I was very ill. And I realized my spirit was even sicker than my body. I was on the floor of my closet, having this physical and spiritual breakdown. Regardless of how we get there, we all at some point are on the floor in the closet of our lives. And where is god in that? And the answer that I found was is that God is right there with you. I couldn’t see that four years ago.
Sojourners: You all articulate your losses in a faith context. Are the conversations you’ll be having all couched in relation to God?
Piatt: I don’t see it as explicitly Christian. If people [come to the show], even if they only have faith in love, the basic goodness of humanity, and maybe they don’t believe in God, for me that’s plenty to work with.
Young: Loss is no respecter of religion. It’s an equal opportunity offender. It’s belief-resistant — it doesn’t care whether you believe in God or not. That’s the framework that we enter into and tell our stories. Loss is a common language, even more so than faith or church or God or any of that. It’s a much more common language.
Sojourners: Do you have any sense of who will be in your audience? Are there people you’re hoping will show up?
Piatt: There’s been this imaginary line, or an actual brick and mortar wall, between the so-called sacred and the secular. And of course you know I’m in Portland, which is the most secular city in the entire country, so if you sit around waiting for people to wander into your church in order to be community, you’re going to be alone most of the time. I think we are trying to bring what we believe is the best of our faith and the best of our community experiences through narratives, music, media out into the world.
Riley: Everybody’s been broken. Life breaks everyone. And we’re all on our own healing journeys. What I found ever since I started talking about, you know, the specific condition of spiritual injury, I thought I was alone when I was going through it in my 20s because I didn’t know anyone else, and ever since I started talking about it I realized there are millions of people who have this. And there’s so much power in saying you’re not alone. So that’s what I’m trying to do. If you’re willing to show your scars and how they’ve healed then it is healing for others.
Sojourners: Are you nervous to show these scars in front of a crowd?
Young: I’ve done it a lot. So I know what it’s like. It’s amazing. I trust that the Holy Spirit shows up in those moments, because I never know exactly what’s going to be tender. It actually makes a difference who comes and who’s a participant. It’s not a static thing at all, it’s very dynamic. How would we ever know that God can actually heal broken hearts unless people stand up and say, “My heart was broken?”
Piatt: I guess I come from a place of blissful ignorance. I’ve been speaking like this to people for I guess 8, 9 years now, and I was shocked when people would come to me and say, “Wow, your vulnerability is so courageous, you’re so brave,” and I was like, I don’t know how else to be in the world! By default I guess I kind of fit that place that people are looking for.
Riley: Yeah, these guys have both been doing it for like a decade...[laughter]. I have not. So I’m having to put on my courage shoes. But I’m thrilled to have to opportunity to talk about my story.
Sojourners: Do you hope or expect for audience participation, too, or are you keeping it performative?
Young: No, that’s definitely what we’re drawing it toward. Everyone’s used to performance art, and maintaining that sense of separation. Relationship is not about separation. So the movement of the whole evening is towards participation.
Piatt: I’ve seen that people are really just looking for permission in a lot of ways to share about this stuff, and once they’re given the green light by someone who at least does it first, then the floodgates kind of open up. So I’ve spoken to people about this tour and invariably they have a similar story, whether it’s regards to organized religion, or personal heartbreak, or family dissolution, or what have you — they have had some point at which they’re broken and feel completely isolated. And have had just as many transcendent sorts of experiences of inexplicable joy and healing, as well.
Riley: We want to give permission to feel what you feel, because at least in the Christian subculture that I grew up in it was like, if you were a real Christian, you were happy, because Jesus saved you. It was this idea of almost put-on joy. There wasn’t room for grief. So I didn’t have tools to deal with that kind of brokenness because I wasn’t supposed to be broken, I was supposed to be joyful in the Holy Spirit!
Young: Something both Christian and Reba mentioned is creating space for people to experience themselves — and story does that. So everything is built around story. A lot of thought has gone into this has been how do we craft the evening in such a way that it’s an invitation, not a restriction or impediment.
I don’t think we lament well. I don’t think we know how to grieve very well. We all get hurt, and then we don’t know how to grieve, put words to it, voice to it, and I think that’s part of what we might be able to help people learn to do, even in bits and pieces.
Piatt: My hope is that afterwards, on the way to wherever people came from, that this will start conversation and they will feel encouraged that they are not alone.
“Where’s God When…” will be in Seattle on May 16 and Portland on May 17.
Catherine Woodiwiss (@chwoodiwiss) is Associate Web Editor for Sojourners.