Easter Thoughts: God’s Joy and Ours

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Happy Easter!

As I mentioned earlier on the blog, I gave up doubting my intuition for Lent. That’s a practice I certainly hope to continue through Easter season and beyond. I often “give up” things that have a religious stamp of approval but are actually blocking me from hearing and trusting God.

Lent was unusually hard for me this year, not because of what I gave up, but because I no longer needed a prescribed season of gloom as social cover for my dark moods. To the contrary, I was just beginning to understand joy and self-acceptance as my birthright when seven weeks of self-abasing Bible verses slapped me upside the head.

The doctrine of redemptive suffering, so prominent in this season, has also generated increasing cognitive dissonance with my trauma recovery framework. I’m edging closer to John Dominic Crossan’s view that Jesus didn’t die for our sins, but because of our sins–in other words, that suffering in itself is not holy or divinely commanded, but rather a side effect of perfect love tangling with an imperfect world.

That’s why I liked this Holy Week essay in Fare Forward, a moderately conservative online journal of Christianity and culture. In “Transactional Salvation”, Leah Libresco says we typically misunderstand Lenten disciplines as if the pain was the point. But God demands no payback or proof of our devotion.

It can be nice do something flamboyantly generous for a loved one, and Christ praised this impulse in the woman with the alabaster jar, but exhausting ourselves in arbitrary ways has the potential to remind us less of the woman with the costly oil, and more with all the other painful, pointless-feeling sacrifices we practice on a day to day basis.

It is often better, whether during Lent or as a Friday discipline, to choose to offer God something that doesn’t seem arbitrary or arduous-for-the-sake-of-being-arduous, but something that is good for us, that we trust God will receive well because He delights in our good.

More than any other relationship, God’s interests are united with ours. The “sacrifice” God wants is for us to do what is truly good for ourselves.

This Easter, what obstacles will we give up, to make way for clarity, courage, and compassion?

 

Survivor-Centric Liturgy: An Example from Inclusive Church (UK)

Inclusive Church is a UK-based resource for making the Church of England more welcoming and sensitive to diversity around sexuality, race, class, disability, and mental health. The latter topic caught my attention during my ongoing search for materials for a trauma survivors’ Christian study group. What’s great about Inclusive Church is that they see the disabled and mentally troubled not merely as categories of consumers to be reached with an existing product, nor as objects of Christian charity, but as co-creators of theology from the standpoint of their lived experience. That’s been the goal of my “Survivors in Church” series on this blog as well. It disappoints me that most Christian books recommend using faith to suppress the socially uncomfortable symptoms of trauma, such as anger and rumination on the past, rather than heeding their radical challenge to faith.

This article from the Inclusive Church’s mental health resources page, “The Secret Holders and Bearers”, is by two community mental health chaplains who are willing to take up that challenge. In the portions quoted below, they consider how some standard prayers in the Sunday Eucharist service may reinforce abuse survivors’ distorted sense of themselves as broken and powerless. We need much, much more work like this.

…Are we prepared to be changed, transformed, outraged, and can the secret-holders enable our secrets to be borne more gently, even if they need to remain hidden for a while? Can we bear to hear when the practices and the theologies heard in some churches have not contributed to the empowerment of lives and voices but to their continuing silence? Even where genuine expressions of compassion and pastoral care have embedded the idea of ‘victim’ rather than the radical Gospel idea of partner and co- theological agents?…

…Let’s hear their words and attend afresh to our own and let’s attend to our liturgical language, see again the symbolism and architecture of our services and hear the clamour and the whispers, the invitations and the barriers that inhabit the theology in our liturgy and hymns. I am not saying that the brief account of these liturgical examples are wholly problematic but they are an example of a presently largely cataphatic liturgy with very little liturgy of lamentation and an apophatic perspective that speaks so much of human experience and especially the lived reality of those with long term and abiding mental health issues:

Just some examples from the present Common Worship Order 1 Service for Holy Communion:

Confession Prayer: We have wounded your love and marred your image in us (so many secret holders bear the woundedness that is wholly the responsibility of others and blame themselves throughout their lives and have been forced to blame themselves, lives overwhelmed by guilt. We tentatively suggest that such a statement echoes the feelings they already have about themselves, ‘knowing’ they are wholly unworthy of any kind of love, let alone the love of God).

… Lead us out from darkness to walk as children of light (on the face of it, who could argue with such a sentiment? However it represents a larger problem with the ‘darkness’ imaginary that suffuses Christian liturgy and theology. So many of us, in so many different ways, have found the metaphor of darkness wholly positive and therapeutic and the prospect of light almost unbearable at times. We need to look again at these intimately related metaphors.)

Prayer before Distribution: We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs… (We know this is an optional prayer but nevertheless, and because it has been taken wholly out of context from a biblical story which effectively says the opposite, a sense of unworthiness just before we break bread together is, for all of us, and especially for those who live every day with an overwhelming and unbearable sense of unworthiness, wholly unfortunate directly before the gathering at the feast. We are worthy, all of us; we do not have sinful bodies but beautiful bodies and minds. Neither of us, personally, has been able to say these words for a long time because of our own inner battle with a sense of unworthiness imposed upon us by others).

Lenten Reading: “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision”

 

 

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In Holy Week, which begins next weekend with Palm Sunday, Christians all over the world meditate on Jesus’s suffering and death. Catholics and some Episcopalians enact the liturgical drama of the Stations of the Cross, depicting the events leading up to the crucifixion. There are many ways to find ourselves in this story, a large cast of characters with whom to identify, both guilty and innocent. And sadly, there are many LGBT people who feel crucified by the church itself, cast out and forbidden to imagine a Christ who is for them and of them.

Douglas Blanchard’s 24-painting series “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” stretches loving arms across this divide. A new book by Kittredge Cherry (Apocryphile Press, 2014) brings these images together in book form for the first time. Cherry, who curates the Jesus in Love blog about LGBT spirituality and the arts, here gives invaluable in-depth commentary on the paintings’ inspiration and their place in art history. Each chapter includes a prayer to say while contemplating the image, like a Stations of the Cross liturgy. Toby Johnson, formerly of Lethe Press and White Crane Review, closes the book with reflections on new directions in gay spirituality.

This suite of paintings is radical by virtue of its traditionalism. Inspired by 15th-century master Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts of the Passion, and visually quoting famous works such as the Isenheim Altarpiece, these paintings boldly situate themselves in the mainstream of Christian iconography. At the same time, Blanchard transforms the meaning of those scenes by placing them in contemporary urban settings that include LGBT characters. The Jesus figure, a clean-shaven, simply dressed, handsome young man, could be (but does not have to be) read as gay. There is no doubt, though, that his followers include people of diverse sexualities, gender identities, ethnicities, and class backgrounds, while the crowds attacking him bear close resemblance to the hellfire-spouting protesters on the fringes of Pride marches.

I found this book very helpful for my own prayer life. I would love to have a stronger heart-level connection with the person of Jesus, but often struggle to connect with the ubiquitous beard-and-bathrobe representation of the Savior, which feels cliché and remote from my experience. I felt a stronger bond with Blanchard’s Jesus, who could be a divinized version of my imaginary gay best friend/novel protagonist, or simply a safe male friend and ally to my queer family. I also loved the depiction of the Holy Spirit as a female angel.

Whether or not I picture Jesus as the man in these paintings, this book gave me permission to imagine “my own personal Jesus” in the way that speaks to my soul. What makes him Christ is not his gender, his archaic clothing, or the straightness and whiteness that Western orthodoxy has attributed to him, but his works of love: speaking truth to power, creating community for outcasts, laying down his life for his friends. By that measure, the Jesus in this book is the real deal.

Get your copy here!

Watch the video “Introduction to the Queer Christ” at the Jesus in Love blog. It includes a selection from Blanchard’s “Passion” and other artists featured in Cherry’s book Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More.

The Priesthood of All Survivors

I’m having doubts about my place in the church.

As I overcome trauma-induced beliefs that made me fear direct communication with God, I have less need for a giant mediating structure to serve as a lightning rod. As I gain confidence in my own perceptions, and in the availability of forgiveness for my faults, I have less need for sermons saying how everyone “should” feel and act.

I still long for a community centered on Christ. I want to give and receive the support, spiritual insight, and deep friendship that a shared faith journey can offer.

However, as I work towards higher levels of psychological integration and adulthood, I have to be part of a community that’s consciously working the same program. As I choose to break familial patterns of nonconsensual intimacy, I have to be part of a community that’s organized by consent and choice, not guilt-tripping the unchurched.

Such a community doesn’t form spontaneously in every group of people that calls itself a parish. It either has to be steered in that direction by an insightful pastor who is willing to yield power to the laypeople, or assembled outside church walls by the individuals who need it.

C.S. Lewis once wrote that the local parish, precisely because of its randomness, teaches the spiritual discipline of learning to share fellowship with people for whom you feel no natural affinity. This is an important practice, but I think he was wrong that a person’s hand-picked circle of spiritual friends is more likely to be a group of yes-men than the traditional church. Intentional communities can be diverse if they make a commitment to be so. (See, for example, the Freedom Circles at the Becoming Church program that I visited this spring.) Plus, there is a difference between the fruitful discomfort of listening to people outside your own race, social class, etc., and the pain of being a survivor in a church that doesn’t prioritize relational safety.

What about the sacraments? My mystical, physical union with Jesus in the Eucharist is my strongest reason for choosing church attendance over quiet reflection with Morning Prayer on my iPhone. When I see my fellow parishioners approach the altar rail, our relationship becomes solemnized, revealing a dimension of interconnection beyond ordinary acquaintance. I sense the possibility of the Body of Christ. It isn’t something I can access in solitude.

Surely the official church still has a monopoly on this power…or does it?

Feminist Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether wrote the following in her book Sexism and God-Talk (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983).

The residue of clericalism gives even liberal Protestants the impression that the administration of the sacraments is a function that most especially must be exercised by persons set aside in specialized ministry. But, in fact, representation of the community in rites of baptism, forgiveness, or Eucharist depends very little on specialized skills of learning. It is significant that the New Testament contains many words for special charisms and skills, but that they are not identified with special offices responsible for the sacraments of baptism or Eucharist…

…[As] people become empowered to make their contribution to shaping the worship life of the community… leadership does not disappear but assumes its true functionality when it is liberated from clerical monopoly over ministry, word, and sacrament. Leadership is called forth from within the community rather than imposed on it in a way that deprives the community of its own self-articulation. (pgs. 209-10)

This radically Protestant idea had never occurred to me. I set it aside as a memorable curiosity for several years, until now, when I realize I need a healthier reason to stay than “Where else can I go?”

Codependence taints the American church’s strategies for retaining members. A quote popped up in my Twitter feed from a progressive evangelical blogger. On the Internet, I’ve seen it variously attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, Chuck Swindell, and Chuck Colson. “The church is a lot like Noah’s ark. If it weren’t for the storm outside, you couldn’t stand the stink inside.

As a relationship move, this is like telling your wife, “Go ahead and try to leave. You couldn’t make it on your own.” It’s a counsel of despair, casting would-be reformers within the church as whiny children who won’t accept that life isn’t perfect. Actual children, to survive, have to convince themselves that the “stink” of their dysfunctional families is better on balance than the “storm” of an outside world where they’re not yet capable of living independently. But we’re adults now. “The world” is us. A church held together by fear and shame can never help its members recognize toxic interpersonal patterns in their own lives.

When I first became a Christian, I was a young woman fighting for the right to marry and leave my abusive home. I resonated with the church’s self-presentation as a tiny raft of stability adrift in an ocean of danger. When Christianity told me that human beings were helpless and sinful, I was relieved, because that was how I felt all the time. It was validating to be able to admit my imperfections to a supportive community, not like my home where any flaw would be pounced upon. Like my mother, the traditional church faced the fact that the world is full of bullies, sexual predators, and plagues of locusts–which is true, up to a point. The church promised safety without isolation, a huge step up from my life before.

So my disillusionment with church makes me feel very guilty and sad. I feel like I’m abandoning the institution that helped me reach escape velocity from my biological family. But this, too, is part of growing up. In Buddhist teacher Phillip Moffitt’s essay “Healing Your Mother (or Father) Wound“, he speaks of initiation as the fourth and final stage that good parent figures must complete, to release their protégés into adulthood with a blessing.

I’m reminded of Ray Bradbury’s short story “Jack-in-the-Box“, where a paranoid mother creates an elaborate ruse to convince her son that their house is, in fact, the entire world. When a crisis forces him to venture outside, he at first thinks that he must be dead:

Everything before him was new. Odors filled his nostrils, colors, odd shapes, incredible sizes filled his eyes.

If I run beyond the trees I’ll die, he thought, for that’s what Mother said. You’ll die, you’ll die.

But what’s dying? Another room? A blue room, a green room, far larger than all the rooms that ever were! But where’s the key? There, far ahead, a great half-open iron door, a wrought-iron gate. Beyond a room as large as the sky, all colored green with trees and grass! Oh, Mother, Teacher…

The story ends with a policeman bemusedly describing the strange kid who just ran past him.

“…He was laughing and crying, crying and laughing, both. He was jumping up and down and touching things. Things like lampposts, the telephone poles, fire hydrants, dogs, people. Things like sidewalks, fences, gates, cars, plateglass windows, barber poles. Hell, he even grabbed hold and looked at me, and looked at the sky, you should have seen the tears, and all the time he kept yelling and yelling something funny.”

“What did he yell?” asked the pedestrian.

“He kept yelling, ‘I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m glad I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m glad I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead, it’s good to be dead!'” The policeman scratched his chin slowly. “One of them new kid games, I guess.”

He who loses his life will find it…

 

Hail Thee, Festival Day!

Happy Easter, dear readers! Today we celebrate the miracle of God’s love triumphing over sin and death. Two years ago, on Holy Saturday, my own little miracle came into the world:

Shane had a wonderful time at the Easter service today at St. John’s. The handbell choir was his favorite!

I bit my nails less frequently for Lent. Because I knew you all were watching.

Survivors in Church: Insights from Disability Theology

A couple of weeks ago, I asked my therapist, “Will I ever get to the bottom of this pile of bad feelings, or is this my life?” I was going through another patch of nightmares and becoming frustrated. No new information was coming up; the incidents were way in the past, by now more thoroughly re-processed than Cheez Whiz.

I’d been operating with this image of my psyche as an overstuffed closet. As long as I was awake, I could keep holding the door shut, but every time I fell asleep, some junk would fall out. Eventually, though, wouldn’t I run out of old junk? Then I would have reclaimed my entire closet, to fill only with things from my fabulous new life!

But my therapist was like, “Nah, it doesn’t work that way.”

Some feelings will shift, she said; some memories will lose their charge, others will remain very painful but arise less often. However, PTSD is for many people a lifelong chronic condition. As Buddha said about suffering in general, the biggest thing I can do to ease my burden is to stop resisting it. Stop being surprised and frightened when it flares up again. Stop being angry at myself for not being “done” healing. There is no “done”.

I was thrilled!

It was a relief to stop blaming myself for my scars, and the survivor-introvert-Highly Sensitive Person in me loves predictability. But also, I was overjoyed that now I had a name for the liberal Christian indifference toward survivors, which I’d been awkwardly calling “normalcy privilege”.

Ableism.

On one level, the liberal church does a lot to ensure access for people with disabilities. Our parish, for instance, is one of the few congregations in the area with a sign language interpreter every Sunday. We’re undertaking a heroic capital campaign to add an elevator. The priest adapts the liturgy to say, “Those who are able, please stand”.

But as is usually the case in liberalism, the model is inclusion for the disabled, rather than disability as a standpoint for liberation theology. The latter, more radical posture would mean that the able-bodied/neurotypical people in charge would de-center their own experience, and invite the disabled to share what Christianity looks like in our lives.

For instance, where do we situate ourselves in the many gospel stories about Jesus healing mental and physical illnesses? (I’m treating the demon-possession stories as examples of mental illness because those were the manifested symptoms, but I don’t mean to imply the demons weren’t also real.) Liberal sermons about these stories are more likely to assume a non-disabled subject position for their audience. “We” are encouraged to emulate Jesus by healing others, or to overcome “our” prejudices about sharing fellowship with mentally challenged people. I will say that our church has made some progress beyond this narrow paradigm, through sermons about personal and family struggles with addiction, such as this beautiful meditation from lay preacher Vicki Ix at God Is Always More.

When we only talk about disability in the context of healing, that’s problematic in its own right. Of course those who feel afflicted want healing. Of course those who empathize with others’ affliction want to offer them something to hope for. But in reality, some conditions are incurable. While I don’t rule out miraculous divine cures, I feel that most of our energy should be directed toward overcoming obstacles to the disabled person’s functioning as an equal in our church, just as she is.

The pressure to manifest a spiritual happy ending can actually impair recovery. When there is healing, particularly for psychological conditions, it may not even be recognized by the non-afflicted, because they’ve been steeped in the ableist cultural narrative of triumphing over the disability rather than embracing it. For example, survivors who claim they’ve forgiven the abuser and released all angry feelings get more credit for being “healed” than survivors who have gone deep enough into recovery to feel righteous anger and finally love themselves.

Alongside the theology of healing, we need to develop theology that honors the disability as an genuine alternative way of being in the world. This is how some hearing-impaired people feel about Deaf culture. The autism community also includes many who want to celebrate their neurodiversity rather than eliminate it. In my recent post about survivors’ spiritual gifts, I suggested that the church could learn something unique from our trauma history and how we adapted to it.

The foregoing discussion owes much to Kelby Carlson’s essay “Crooked Healing“, which I found when Googling disability theology. Carlson, a music student and evangelical Christian, suggests that disability can be a vocation and a symbol of the universal human vulnerability that calls for God’s grace. Some quotes follow, but please read the whole thing here.

…It might seem strange to some that, as a lifelong person of faith, I would find the other’s desire for prayer to be so hard to respond to. Prayer is supposed to be an instrument of gratitude, intercession and doxology. But as a person with a disability, there is a shadow to the element of prayer cast over any interaction that directly involves my disability. As someone with a chronic (and, barring incredible medical advances, permanent) disability, this is a perennial problem I must navigate as a member of the church and aspiring theologian. On the face of it, this request for prayer seems harmless, even beneficent. But it is nearly always accompanied by an explanation: “I want you to be healed.”

But what is wrong with this? Doesn’t the Christian religion hold out hope of ultimate healing? Doesn’t God promise physical restoration to those who have faith in his righteousness? Don’t we, as people of God, long for the day “when there will be no mourning, nor death, nor crying, nor pain?” Insofar as this vision seeks to give a glimpse of a new creation, reconciled to God, where we are in full communion with each other and with Triune Being, than I can only heartily affirm such an idea. But lurking beneath such a portrait is something that is far more troubling. It is the erasure of the past, and the elimination of disability as a means of living well before God…

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…The project of constructing a theology of disability needs to steer between two unhelpful shoals. The first shoal is a kind of non-redemptive liberation theology. Liberation theology is generally conceived of as a project to free marginalized people from oppressive theological systems. Unfortunately it tends to ontologize whatever its marginalized category is—for example, conceiving of God as ontologically “black”, “female”, or “disabled”—and thus reconstituting the relationship between God and the world in such a way that God is eternally hostile to categories outside of that ontology. This way of conceiving of theology is unhelpful because it both goes beyond Scripture in adding to God’s attributes and refusing to stand under Scripture and acknowledge God’s desire for universal reconciliation. In this way much liberation theology is fundamentally “non-redemptive” because it collapses finite reality into infinitude. This is especially unhelpful for disability because it cannot acknowledge a progressive or redemptive goal into which disability might fall.

The opposite danger is to collapse disability into a grand narrative of sin in such a way that redemption of disability becomes redemption from disability. For those suffering with chronic disabilities, this means that their continuity of identity is effectively destroyed by an anomalous resurrection. Resurrection as conceived this way is not a renewal and transfiguration of an old creation, but an erasing of the old to make way for something completely new. This leaves those with lifelong disabilities left with no theological anchor by which they can live out their experience in relationship to God and the world…

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…There are few things more potentially useful to the disabled experience than the idea of vocation. Vocation places disability in a wider spectrum of the sacred calling. It implies that disabled people and their able-bodied counterparts are on equal spiritual footing. More than that, it suggests that disabled people can be seen as conduits for God’s grace and service rather than it only images of a broken creation in need of “fixing.”

This doctrine of vocation restores the image of God to the disabled. In response to the worry that disability is evidence of sin, one can reply precisely to the contrary. While brokenness itself is evidenced of a creation longing for release from bondage, an individual’s disability is, subversively, a venue for Christ to display his glory…

The theology of the cross is a particular way of doing theology that disabled people can uniquely understand. It is the theology that acknowledges the “visible” things of God: namely the cross of Christ and visible suffering as the premier way of “seeing” God. God’s grace is manifested, paradoxically, in that which appears weak and nonsensical. In this view, one cannot blithely skip over the cross as a simple means to God’s vindication and resurrection. This results in an anemic view of suffering: something that is meant only to be patiently endured in the hope that perhaps someday things will get better. In contrast, St. Paul offers a paradigm for understanding weakness and suffering that is directly consonant with the theology of the cross [the thorn in the flesh]…

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…The cross brings all ideas of human weakness into itself. Individually, the disabled can recognize the cross as the nexus of their relationship with Christ in his weakness, and realize that possessing a “thorn” is a means of grace in weakness rather than shame. Ecclesiologically, the disabled can be recognized as, in an important way, ikons of Christ’s redemptive suffering…

Have a blessed Good Friday, dear readers.

Donal Mahoney: “Easter at the Nursing Home”

Reiter’s Block welcomes back regular reader and contributor Donal Mahoney. The characters in Donal’s poems are drawn from our everyday life, but the issues they confront have cosmic significance. They’re fresh and down-to-earth yet also timeless, as the gospel stories must have sounded to their original audience.

Nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart prizes, Donal Mahoney has had work published in various publications in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Some of his earliest work can be found at http://booksonblog12.blogspot.com/.

Easter at the Nursing Home

When bread
is this good
a morsel

will suffice
and when wine
is this good

a sip is enough
for the wraiths
and specters

coming toward
the altar now
on crutches

walkers
in wheel chairs
celebrating

the last Easter
some of them
will know

as they await
a resurrection
of their own.

A Tale of Two Devotionals

Every year I receive two Lenten devotional booklets from charities that I support, Food for the Poor and Episcopal Relief & Development. The charities have similar missions to relieve poverty in developing countries, through direct aid and (in the case of ERD) micro-lending and educational projects to help the locals become self-sufficient.

The booklets, though, are quite different. FFP’s cover image is a soft-focus painting of Jesus bowing his head in prayer, while ERD’s is a photo of smiling African women working at their small business. Both booklets start each day’s reading with a Bible verse. FFP follows the verse with a one-sentence personal discipline resolution, such as “I will do something kind for a stranger today” or “I will fast from a meal and spend the time in prayer”. ERD’s daily readings are 2-3 paragraph reports on projects like well-digging in Nicaragua.

Reading these side by side each morning, I have complicated, confused feelings. It’s good for me to have an additional daily practice to meditate on Bible verses, and to keep the poor in the forefront of my mind. Yet I struggle to find anything that speaks to my own spiritual state.

ERD’s happy tales of service projects in faraway places epitomize the liberal mainline churches’ flight from belief in a Savior who is not ourselves. It’s not that these projects are wrong — although distance can dangerously oversimplify the actual benefits and downsides of foreign aid. Rather, it seems to me like an unfortunate narrowing of our spiritual imagination when we transform the church into UNICEF, especially if we’re partly motivated by a wish to dodge theological controversy.

When I hear “Feed my sheep,” I don’t just think of the bottom layer of Maslow’s need pyramid — literal food, shelter, etc. People need to be fed with consolation, defense against injustice, insight into our sins and sorrows, transformative hope. Not only do I fear that the Church of Social Work can’t offer me this food, I am more saddened by the sense that it doesn’t value my gifts, as it doesn’t support my vocation to feed others in these ways.

FFP’s is what I would consider a true devotional guide, giving daily prompts for self-examination and repentance. Here, I can’t blame my discomfort on the church not being church-y enough. This booklet is focused on quintessentially religious concerns. Instead, I’m realizing that maybe I don’t want to become the person that Christianity seems to say I should be.

Take, for instance, the resolution “I will forgive someone who has hurt me”. The only people I’m still angry at are the abusers in my past. They haven’t acknowledged their wrongdoing, let alone repented and tried to make amends. They probably aren’t capable of it, and I wouldn’t be safe spending time with them to find out. Does forgiveness have any meaning in such a one-sided context?

Beyond that, it’s not
conducive to my sanity to be obliged to forgive my tormentors. Sanity
means feeling whatever way I genuinely feel about them at the moment,
and seeing the situation as clearly as possible in all its complexity.
That freedom is the only antidote to the brainwashing I endured.

Maybe I’m taking this too seriously. Maybe they’re talking about cultivating a state of mind that doesn’t take offense easily, being quick to forgive irritations and mistakes by people who I know are basically trustworthy, when my reactive ego doesn’t get in the way. But although that’s hard work worth doing, I don’t think the command was meant to be watered down like that. Jesus said “Forgive those who persecute you”, not “Stop glaring at your husband for using the sink when you want to make breakfast, and instead thank him for washing the dishes.”

This forgiveness thing is pretty central to Jesus’s teachings. I want to be honest and not twist the Scripture so that it “really means” what I believe is wholesome and holy. But I also don’t believe that forgiving an abuser is some spiritual ideal that I, in my brokenness, have not yet reached.

I became a Christian because the religion’s understanding of human nature rang true to me. I hope I don’t have to leave because it no longer does.

Good Christians Don’t Feel…

Lent gives Christians a refreshing opportunity to bring the topic of sin out into the open. In this season, we’re reminded that Christ’s love takes away our shame and sets us free to be honest. Hopefully this invitation generates not only personal repentance but critical thinking about what we consider sinful, and why.

Contemplating the Seven Deadly Sins, for example, I’m struck by the fact that they’re all feelings or states of mind, not actions. True, a lot of our day-to-day misbehaviors are the mindless result of bad dispositions that we’ve allowed to become habitual. If I approach others with a routinely suspicious and fault-finding outlook, people are less likely to respond to me with intimacy and candor, which then perversely confirms my distorted view that everyone is a cold-hearted liar.

On the other hand, we can be deprived of a crucial tool for healing when careless over-generalization misidentifies the emotion as the sin, rather than its unskillful expression or unfair choice of target. Fear or anger may be a perfectly rational response to conditions in a person’s life, now or in the past. For some, those conditions were so extreme or long-lasting that the emotional response is neurologically ingrained, not amenable to shutdown by an act of willpower. When the religious community judges and stigmatizes the emotion itself, that person is impeded from coming out of denial and learning the emotion’s true cause.

In the conservative church, where faith is the primary command, fear may be targeted as a sign of failure. The liberal church, which prioritizes social harmony and benevolence, may struggle to have a nuanced conversation about anger. As we Episcopalians unpack our legacy of establishment privilege, we should take a fresh look at our checklist of sins from the perspective of the oppressed — those who “hunger and thirst after righteousness”, those whose anger has a just cause and represents a step toward self-determination. In a paradigm where there are only benefactors and sufferers, this perspective goes unheard.

Anger is the torch by whose light we see what has been done to us. Do we douse it because fire can sometimes go out of control?

In her book Sermons for a Lesbian Tent Revival, radical feminist playwright and activist Carolyn Gage includes a provocative (and funny) exposition of “The Seven Deadly Sins and How to Bring More of Them Into Your Life”. I don’t endorse all of Gage’s work — like many Second Wave rad-fems, she’s offensively transgender-phobic — but when she’s on, she’s on. Here, “Sister Carolyn of the Sacred Synapse” analyzes the varieties of angry experience, better than any preacher I know:

Okay, but what about Wrath? Sister Carolyn believes in Wrath. She believes a woman’s Wrath is sacred. What does the dictionary have to say about Wrath?

1: strong vengeful anger or indignation
2: retributory punishment for an offense or a crime: divine chastisement

Divine chastisement. Yes ma’am!

And where does this word come from? It comes from an old English word for “twisted”. And that is when you are trying to turn one way and something is forcing you to turn the other…and it is SQUEEZING you, sisters…just wringing the breath out of you. Like trying to know the truth when someone is feeding you lies. Like trying to be free when someone is trying to control you. Like trying to do something radical and counterclockwise with your life, but finding out that all your old conditioning is just going to keep twisting you clockwise.

WRATH. Yeah! Like loving a planet when it’s being ruined. Like caring for your sisters and seeing them have to live every day in a war zone. WRATH. Like raising your children and seeing the whole world geared up to violate them…Yes, sisters, bring it! Let’s get our Wrath on! (pgs. 142-43)

Lent at My Fingertips

For several years, I’ve had a quirky practice of giving up so-called good things for Lent: going to church, for instance. One year I gave up Lent for Lent. But this year, that seems like a way of avoiding focus in my spiritual self-assessment — “giving up” something so large and vague that it doesn’t generate any concrete changes in my moment-to-moment living.

So I’m giving up biting my nails for Lent.

Hundreds of times a day, my poor tortured cuticles and I will have to find another way to cope with boredom, anxiety, or the need for comfort. I’m not committing to any showy promises that I’ll say a prayer each time I avoid snacking on my epidermis. I’ll be lucky if I make the time occasionally to inquire into the feelings beneath the bad habit. Who knows, maybe there are no feelings. Overthinking my own motives is another behavior I could gladly give up for Lent.

I’m going with the smallest, most specific change I can think of this year, because I can be honest with myself about what it is and whether I’m doing it. My perspective on the big issues of Christian faith is in such flux that no major action feels satisfying or sincere.

For instance, living with a baseline of constant, object-less fear is something I would like to change. Some would say that God would take this burden away if only I had enough faith — that I’m choosing to be stuck in the past, to dwell on the times I felt abandoned rather than the times when God’s felt presence or human allies supported me. Or the reverse interpretation could be true: as I finally apprehend how awful my past was, I experience God’s absence at a whole new depth. What follows from this? Is “God the Father” compatible with coming into my full strength as an adult? Or is trauma healing not a theological problem at all, but primarily a matter of slowly retraining the nervous system? In that case, religious promises of instantaneous deliverance ring hollow.

I’m unlikely to have an answer for these questions in the next two days. The best I can do is resolve to respond to fear with more mindfulness and less compulsive, self-destructive behavior. And it starts at my fingertips.