In a death-denying culture, how do we learn to accompany the dying and the grieving?
I wasn’t really expecting painful things to happen to me.
I knew that pain was a part of life, but — thanks in part to a peculiar blend of “God-has-a-plan” Southern roots, a suburban “Midwestern nice” upbringing, and a higher education in New England stoicism — I managed to skate by for quite some time without having to experience it.
After a handful of traumas in the last five years, things look different now. Trauma upends everything we took for granted, including things we didn’t know we took for granted. And many of these realities I wish I’d known when I first encountered them. So, while the work of life and healing continues, here are ten things I’ve learned about trauma along the way.
The Native American narrative remains largely unknown in U.S. majority culture. It is glaringly absent in most school curriculums, and remains unheard in modern dominant politics. One crucial stream of Native culture I’ve recently come to learn about is the destructive legacy of Christian-run Indian boarding schools.
What began with genuinely good intentions (in those days, “European” norms were viewed as superior, “sameness” seemed like a good idea, and the threat of legitimate genocide lingered over tribes) rapidly deteriorated, with Christian boarding schools becoming institutions of forced assimilation and abuse.
Beginning in the 1800s and lasting into the 20th century, Native children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to live in boarding schools. Finding the task of “civilizing” Native adults beyond its ability, the federal government delegated the task of “normalization” to churches, which could educate, or, inculcate, children from a young age.
After learning about Jesse Lewis, a six-year-old who died in the Sandy Hook shooting a year ago this Dec. 14th, I’m thinking about scratching out the name Jacob in Psalm 146 and writing in Jesse.
Psalm 146, verse 5 says, “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God.” I’m wondering if scratching out Jacob and writing in Jesse, at least in these upcoming weeks, might be a way of praying to transform anger and resentment into love and forgiveness.
Jesse was a pretty amazing six-year old who loved adventures, mud, a golden yellow bear, and his big brother. His mom says he was “full of courage and strength,” so much so, that in the midst of the unfolding tragedy Jesse stood still and told his classmates to “Run!” In so doing, he lost his life.
Scarlett Lewis, Jesse’s mom, returned home after the unthinkable tragedy only to find something wonderful Jesse had scratched onto the kitchen chalkboard: "Norturing, helin, love." His mom knew immediately these were Jesse’s last words to her: Nurturing, healing, love. In her book, Nurturing Healing Love: A Mother’s Journey of Hope & Forgiveness, Scarlett tells the story of her journey to forgiveness and hope as a legacy beyond anger and resentment. She begins, of course, with Jesse’s story.
I have to say, one of my very favorite things about Jesus is how he does whatever he wants to and could really give a hell about how other people feel about it. Yeah. I just find that endearing — especially when he irritates the nice religious people. That’s secretly my favorite.
In our Gospel text for today Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on a Sabbath when he sees a woman with a crippled back. He saw her, called her over and said “Woman you are set free from your ailment.” He reached out and touched her and she stood upright for the first time in 18 years and praised God — which seems like a win. Except for that then the leader of the synagogue throws a little tizzy about how that kind of thing should not be happening on the Sabbath. Further proof that super religious people can just be so helpful, can’t they?
Especially when they seem to value parameters over people – which should sound like a familiar story …
Stories of churches denying your call to ministry because you fall outside the parameters of which gender is allowed to be ordained and stories of churches denying you the Eucharist because you fall outside the parameters of what kind of sexual orientation is allowed to receive the means of grace and stories of churches denying you a place in community because you just weren’t sure if you believed in God and that falls outside the parameters of doctrinal purity – well, these kind of stories are sadly bordering on cliché around here. We hear them all the time.
A few years ago I wrote a book about the experience of watching 24 consecutive hours of bad Christian television. My friends and family signed up for an hour each to watch along with me. The whole thing was insane, but things got especially crazy around 1 a.m. when a show called the Power Team was on. Now, thePower Team are a bunch of enormous steroid-muscled men who hold really loud Christian rallies in which they tear phone books in two and break 2x4s over their heads by the power of the Holy Spirit. And they talk a lot about what “the Lord” had done for them. It’s impressive stuff.
Anyway, so our own Andie Lyons was watching with me along with my friend Jerry. And the three of us watched in stunned silence for a moment trying to understand what it was we were seeing, at which point Andie finally said “so wait, basically they break stuff for the Lord?” and I answered yes, and then Jerry said “big deal, I break stuff all the time,” to which Andie asked, “but is it for the Lord?” and Jerry said, “well, it is now!”
Honestly the only reason I told you this story is by way of saying that I’m not a fan of the over-use of the term “the Lord. ”Like when people say “I just love the Lord,” I just never really know what that means. The way it’s casually thrown around makes me uncomfortable especially after Harry Potter, since Voldemort is called the Dark Lord. I just, I don’t know, I’m not saying it’s wrong, I’m just saying that for whatever reason, I can’t handle it.
A movement of lay advocates speaking out against sexual violence is gaining steam in the faith communities. But are similar efforts happening inside church doors?
When it comes to leading denominational conversations on sexual violence, clergy across traditions express twin reactions: encouragement over the protocols already in place and the efforts of fellow advocates; and frustration with a culture of silence around sexual violence in the church. Despite strikingly different experiences across denominations — and church by church — the clergy, church staff, and seminarians who spoke with Sojourners are in agreement that addressing this issue in one’s own house is complicated at every level.
The result: a loss of potential by the American church to be a leading and vibrant institution of radical vulnerability and transformative healing.
Most of us are too familiar with this story: an Upper Midwestern Baptist minister claims that “God made Christianity to have a masculine feel [and] ordained for the church a masculine ministry.” Or a Reformed Christian pastor mocks the appointment of the first female head of the Episcopal Church, comparing her to a “fluffy baby bunny rabbit.” Or a Southern Baptist megachurch pastor in California says physical abuse by one’s spouse is not a reason for divorce. Or numerous young evangelical ministers brag about their hot wives in tight leather pants.
Fewer of us are familiar with this story: Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon. Tamar protests her brother’s advances, citing the social code of Israel, his reputation, and her shame, to no avail. Their brother Absalom commands her to keep quiet, and their father, the great King David, turns a blind eye.
What do these contemporary statements above, delivered into cultural megaphones with conviction and certainty, have to do with the Old Testament rape and silencing of Tamar? The difficult answer is, quite a lot. The narrative dominance of these stories rests on power and control, which — whether intentional or not — speaks volumes about whom the church serves and what the church values.
Several years ago, Amee Paparella was an eager student at a state university in Ohio. A conservative Christian, she quickly signed up to join the campus ministry. What she found in the group surprised her.
“It was so misogynistic,” Paparella recalled. “My leaders perpetuated this hyper-masculinized idea of God as physically a man.”
Over the years, Paparella wrestled to reconcile this image of God with her own faith, often to the discomfort of her peers. But an incident of sexual abuse within the ministry proved the breaking point. When it was discovered that a young man had been abusing his female partner, also in the group, the campus minister and student leaders responded by encouraging the young woman to stand by her man and to pray with the other students for his healing.