Good and Evil : God and Us

I have always thought that suffering makes theologians of us all. In times of crisis or despair, we turn to religious traditions or an intuitive sense of meaning to understand our experience.

The last few years of our social history — including the election of an unfit president, whose term culminated in an attempted insurrection at our nation’s capital, repeated police killings of Black men in the streets of our cities, an increasingly visible global climate emergency, and a two-plus year COVID-19 pandemic — has so disturbed our sense of human progress, justice, and order, that we have few words with which we can describe our current discomfort.

Look around you. There is no shortage of meaning making going on. Some feel a growing loss of personal power and blame Black and brown people for it all. They hoard guns and show up at street protests and state capitals armed with assault weapons. For others, anxious times call for self-protection and isolation, so they move their families ever farther away from people, stocking their bank accounts and pantry shelves so that they might turn away from the world’s chaos. Still others have chosen to frame the simple public health concept of wearing face masks in public as an assault on their personal freedom, joining vehicle convoys that clog the highways and city streets.

And then there are the rest of us. We are exhausted and worried, but still showing up for our jobs, checking in with parents in Florida, getting to the grocery store, and trying to help our kids through another unusual school year. We are just trying to figure it out.

Now the despot leader of Russia has launched an invasion of Ukraine. This country was once part of the former Soviet Union, but since that change 30 years ago has been proudly independent. Death, displacement, and destruction are the consequences of this war, begun by the maniacal greed of one man and his government. As the world responds to assist Ukraine, he threatens to use Russian nuclear weapons.

While we may be half a world away, media bring views of this suffering and chaos right into our homes. Many of us, already exhausted by the demands of the pandemic have felt an increased sense of helplessness in the face of such evil. The age-old question of evil looms large again. Where is God in this terribly broken human world? Can we expect God to be of any real help? If not, what’s the use of belief? Looking up from our televisions and laptops at one another, we wonder how all this makes any kind of sense. And then we try.

Here’s my try.

Invasions during peacetime are acts of evil. While such chaos can seem like a supernatural force, it’s not: evil is us, an embodied human event. It’s not some personified being or invisible spirit, at loose in the world, stalking the vulnerable, harassing the faithful. Evil is humans raging and running others over seeking power, seeking to hurt, get revenge, control, land, influence or prestige. Embodied evil kills lives, families, buildings, bridges, economies, history and fragile trust.

So then, where is God? We can look for God in the same embodied way. God is spirit until God embodies love in us. God is made visible, discernable, when human beings act with care, compassion, and justice. Halfway around the world, we can embody God for our Ukrainian neighbors: we can contribute money to relief efforts, we can pray, uniting our spiritual and mental energies toward peace. We can open our minds to the necessary political support of human refugees and migrants everywhere, waves of people just like us, fleeing their own land for basic safety.

As a Christian, this is my theodicy, my understanding of a divine, omniscient God in a chaotic and sometimes evil world: God can only be really known in our world when embodied: in words, relationships, and actions of human love, mercy, and justice.

This is how we see God, and how I understand who Jesus was: the unique embodiment of God’s being. In the daily struggle to be human, may love guide your decisions. That’s where you will find the divine.

(Published originally for the Savage Pacer March 14, 2022)

Racism & Me

How I have come to understand my own racism through my life experience of sexism in the church.

            We value learning in our church community. I hope yours does, too. In our small Tuesday night book group we have been reading the new book “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” that is challenging us to see American culture and our participation in it with new eyes. The author, scholar Dr. Ibram Kendi, candidly recalls his own struggle as a young black man to see his own participation in the racist structures in our culture. He then encourages us to become people who stop using the term “racist” as a personal slur and instead see how we all, majority white and minority persons of color, live in a society that has organized itself around the myths and values of white control and racial superiority.

            This is not a comfortable critique. I grew up in the 1960’s in a solidly middle class, white Protestant, small town family, with two working parents and a public-school education. I was taught to believe that we are all equal though different. That with the right skills and education anyone can succeed. That we may have different skin color, but that somehow, we should overlook that and carry on. I remember my parents and their friends saying things like “We don’t see color” as evidence of racial sensitivity. The only persons of color in my high school classes were foreign exchange students. Racial issues like Jim Crow segregation, civil right demonstrations, lynching and race riots were far removed from my day to day experience in Connecticut: those were the terrifying problems of the post-Civil War south and impoverished inner cities, where true bigotry was on display.

            When I spent a couple of summers working at a church camp in the lakes region of New Hampshire, I didn’t anticipate the tension and fear that descended upon us one week when two busloads of children from majority black Roxbury, Massachusetts were dropped off. Years later I wasn’t sure what to think of the dozen or so black classmates at my very white Lutheran college who stuck together like glue everywhere they went and who seemed to shrink into the background when in class, or my black friend who became his class president and seemed to hold that same group of black kids at a distance and with some distain.

            I take my education and spiritual life seriously. I never in my life have consciously belittled or spoken words of hate toward a person of another race because of their skin color. But I have participated in the way our majority culture can’t or won’t see the way we have historically created a rigid racial hierarchy; whites at the pinnacle of this value system, and persons of various shades of skin tone, from light to dark, in descending rank. I didn’t spend much time wondering why Native reservations or black urban neighborhoods were chronically poor and underserved. I have not been seriously concerned that my Lutheran denomination is the whitest church in America or why. I have given modest intellectual ascent to preferential hiring of persons of color or college admissions while wondering if it does any good.

            Until I became a woman pastor, that is. I was ordained into public ministry 35 years ago. A young, idealistic, energetic minister, eager to begin serving Jesus as a preacher and community leader. But I immediately began to understand in my bones what systemic prejudice looks like and how it functions every day, in every situation, because I was now the unwelcome minority. I was the female body, the female voice, the female profile, who was getting up every morning to lead an organization that was founded, organized and imagined at every level by white men. Many welcomed me and cared for me. But that welcome was a weak counterweight to the attitude, comments, assumptions and barriers I faced every day in the church. It became clear to me quite quickly that in virtually every way, women are not conceived to be legitimate religious leaders. And that men and women, of every age, economic status, educational level and perspective participate in this gendered culture. I am still amazed I lasted 20 years in this system. It became such a personal burden and just wasn’t getting better the longer I stayed, I finally decided to leave the pulpit, change careers, and re-enter the pew.

            It has taken me years to better understand the ways race and gender have organized everything in America from neighborhood real estate and poverty, educational disparity and health care, pregnancy leave and lack of childcare support to the lack of diversity in corporate boardrooms. I am still learning and repenting. I believe these are the groans of our culture, struggling in these days of amazing political polarity around issues of race and immigration, to recognize the hierarchical systems we live under and must reorganize if we are to become a real democracy. My prayer is that if you have read along this far, you will join me in this continuous personal and structural awakening.   

            It takes a commitment to be open to experience we don’t share. To put down our automatic defenses and listen to voices who are trying to express their experience. To tolerate the discomfort when we feel unsettled. Where can you begin? Try listening to new podcasts like “1619,” watching videos like “13th” on Netflix, reading recent books like “Between the World and Me” and “How to Be an Anti-Racist”, and innumerable fiction works by minority authors like “Medicine Walk” and “Indian Horse.” We can help make our country better for everyone if we begin to understand that racism is built into our society, and it is going to take some deconstruction before we heal.

(originally published Savage Pacer, Online/print 11/13/19)

Biblical Literalism is the Disaster

September came hard as massive hurricanes slammed into our nation’s Gulf coast. Like many, I found myself completely distracted and immersed in the round-the-clock news coverage of the damage. When it comes to bearing witness to destruction, we seem unable to look away. While the information does soothe our need to know and connect with important people and places in our lives, too much information can damage our emotional balance. We must turn and turn again to the present of our own life, and help as we can with donated blood, money and specific resources to relief agencies. This is how communities recover; this is how we can help.

Yet we are meaning-making beings. We naturally tell stories of what happens in the world so we might order and understand what can feel like chaotic circumstances. Some of those stories involve theology, or talking about God. Preachers pounding out prayers, sermons, articles and social media comments, as they do. Believers repeating them. And some of these God stories make me sad and upset.

Despite centuries of passionate and careful study of the Biblical texts by both Jewish and Christian scholars, research that helps readers understand how this big library of old stories, poems, hymns, histories, letters and Jesus narratives is put together into a single volume, there are still those who read the Bible as if it were dictated word for word by Jesus himself to a single scribe somewhere. They pull verses and stories out of their original context, ignore the subtleties of language, form, history, and culture and proclaim the words as current truths about God.

This literalism has led one strain of popular theology to declare that hurricanes, earthquakes and destruction of land and people as evidence God’s wrath. This way of reading scripture has harmed untold numbers of people who have sought comfort, direction and help from God in times of disaster. This perspective takes as a starting point the way that the people of Israel, over 3,500 years ago, made sense of their own suffering.

The Jewish people are descendants of a tribe of people who believed they were God’s chosen nation. The only way those ancient people could reconcile that closeness to God and their suffering was to tell the story that both good and evil come from God. That included natural disasters, physical and mental disease, and war with neighboring tribes. Suffering? That must be God’s punishment. It made sense three millennia ago. It makes no sense now.

Jesus came fifteen centuries later and challenged that older way of thinking. If you read through the different versions of his story in the New Testament, you will read how he frequently challenged that theology. In several healing stories, people wanted Jesus to tell them who was to blame for someone’s suffering: a tower fell and killed several men; a child was born blind; a man was lame from birth. Part of his healing ritual was to tell the suffering that not only were their sins forgiven – the old way of thinking – but to “get up and walk.” There are dozens of these stories of Jesus’ compassion and healing, most of whom he heals without a judgmental word; just a command, and a touch.

Christians can disagree about much, but to continue to use meaning making from 3,500 years ago to talk about contemporary disasters and suffering is irresponsible and useless. Historic storms? They are a result of our complex dynamic atmosphere, now threatened by human environmental pollution and ocean warming. Earthquakes? Science has long ago discovered the massive pressures of our earth’s crust’s plates moving over time. These are scientific stories of meaning we can trust.

Is God our creator? Oh yes. But to assume that God’s action in the world is toward destruction is to fail to look at Jesus. Jesus’ life and death was a song of praise to a God of love and mercy, of healing and hope, of struggle for the sake of this difficult human family. If you’re hearing anything else from your church or religious media in these difficult days of natural disasters, wars and rumors of war, you’re not hearing the Good News.

 

(Published first in the Savage PACER 9.16.2017)

When Severe Mental Illness Strikes a Loved One

Book Review: “I Am Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help” by Xavier Amador, PhD.  (Vida Press, 2012)

For the last 20 or so years, brain research has helped doctors and therapists understand that the serious mental illnesses of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are diseases of brain function. During the century before the “Decade of the Brain (the 1990’s)”, these rare and frightening mental diseases were blamed on bad or inadequate mothering (the “schizophrenogenic mother”), thanks to the early theories of Freud and subsequent generations of psychology, puzzling over the cause and treatments of such life-altering and permanent mental illnesses.

In his wonderfully personal and helpful book “I Am Not Sick,” Dr. Amador explains that the primary feature of these severe mental illnesses is the core belief that the sufferer is “not sick.” In medical terms, this disbelief in their illness is called “anosognosia”  (ã-nõ’sog-nõ’sê-ã). Sufferers may be homeless, talking to voices in their head, unable to sleep or put together a clear sentence, believing that aliens have made inroads to their cells, but to these ill brains, the beliefs and thoughts are as real as sunlight and gravity.

If you have ever been in a relationship with a loved one who has become mentally ill and whose illness has this feature of anosognosia, you know that trying to convince them to get to the hospital for treatment or to take their medication is a futile, frustrating, and relationship damaging exercise. But this is how almost everyone attempts to get their loved one’s the help they need to be safe and recover.

In his best-selling book, Amador explains the model of engagement that he has developed over 30 years of living with his older brother, who was a schizophrenic, and working as a professional forensic psychologist and therapist. He walks the reader through this counter-intuitive but effective model that listens, understands and collaborates with the sufferer, who, in the end, must participate in their care in order to get better.

He calls this program “LEAP,” which stands for Listen, Empathize, Agree and Partner. Utilizing the tools familiar to therapists of Client-Centered/Active Listening, Cognitive-Behavioral, and Motivational Interviewing models, Dr. Amador provides tools, examples, and scripts as examples of learning to use this strategy with loved ones who need help.

I read this book as a way to help one of my clients, whose loved one is beginning to demonstrate marked personality changes, delusions and strange behaviors. As we talked about how to be helpful short of calling 911, this book has become a welcome addition to my library and therapeutic models. If you have someone in your life you are seriously worried about and wonder how to help. I urge you to get this book or log onto his website, LeapInstitute.org.

 

Healing Traumatic Memory

If only life was one long, beautiful, inspirational journey. But it’s not. Some of us know that life can include experiences of such fear, helplessness and pain that we wonder how we survived. Over time, and with support, most of us get back to what we would call our normal. Yet others of us discover no matter what, we just can’t.

We call these experiences psychological trauma, the kind of experiences that steal our mental equilibrium. Many traumas have their origin in childhood; our bodies and minds are dependent, small, developing and vulnerable. The younger we are when they occur, the more impact they may have on the way we learn to relate, think, feel and trust the world around us.

Traumatic memories happen within the brain when we survive a life-threatening event and experience overwhelming shock, loss, fear, horror and helplessness. The words we have for what we experienced are just not enough to explain it to others. Motor vehicle accidents, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, parental neglect and addiction, domestic violence, plane crashes, witnessing homicide, military combat, escaping house fires: these are among the experiences that can overwhelm our emotions and capacity to bear what we have seen and known. The memory of the experience is stored in a kind of jumble in the brain, never blending into what we would call our normal sense of self, our everyday explicit memory.

Neurologists, psychologists and other researchers have made wonderful strides in the last 30 years in understanding how trauma effects the brain. And as the science of trauma becomes clearer, so has the clinical work of seeking effective treatments: treatments for the post-trauma effects that are expressed in our bodies in the form of chronic pain, sudden panic attacks, visual and auditory flashbacks, depression, anxiety, relationship and work problems, addictions and patterns of emotional dissociation.

First generation psychological care for traumatic memory was talk therapy; some relief was attained by patients helped to fully describe their experience in a private, compassionate therapeutic environment. Second generation care added strong prescription medications to calm the nervous system, limit emotional affectivity or target psychotic symptoms. What the most recent research has shown is that both methods are insufficient; talking uses the cognitive portions of the brain without adequately engaging the emotional and survival systems, systems that were in charge during a trauma, and dulling trauma memories or disengaging them temporarily with psychotropic drugs won’t heal the damaged and chronically misfiring memory patterns.

What does work is helping the sufferer to carefully, artfully, and in a controlled and focused way to re-experience the memories, feel the experience again in the body while expressing the energy, body movements, sounds, sights and postures that were suppressed at the moments of helplessness, dissociation and physical restriction. To think the thoughts that seem too terrible to think, and to help the mind link up the original memory to the fuller, day to day explicit or narrative memory that we live and work in every day.

This is what the work of Francine Shapiro’s EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing (SE), Albert Pesso’s Psychomotor Therapy and Pat Ogden’s Sensorimotor Approach all seek in their similar models: to have the sufferer become integrated with their physical bodies, those same bodies that have experienced the trauma, to feel, tolerate, express, observe and rewrite their story in the present sense of the self.

All this is to say: there has never been a time in human history where more can be done to help the trauma sufferer than now. If you are besieged by physical and mental echoes of a terrible event in your past, please seek out care from a psychotherapist trained in the newer trauma resolution techniques. Many of us have found peace where there was no peace, and wish the same health and healing for you.



Suggested Reading:

Waking the Tiger, Peter Levine

Getting Past Your Past, Francine Shapiro

Waking: A Memoir, Matthew Sandford

Yoga for Trauma: Mary NurrieStearns

Racism and Trauma

For decades, family therapists and other mental health professionals and researchers have believed that trauma in one generation can be expressed in the genetic code and passed as psychological suffering and vulnerability in following generations. This fact has been demonstrated in animal studies for years, but few human trials have followed.

A research team at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, studying the DNA and mental health of survivors of World War II Nazi atrocities and their children, have newly demonstrated genetic changes in the children of these survivors. The Guardian article of August 21, 2015 describes the changes in a specific gene sequence associated with the regulation of stress hormones. What therapists have seen in their practices has begun to be proven in the laboratory: when emotional and mental trauma happens to us in our early life, it can change our genes, and those changes can be passed down to our children.

It helps to explain the increased mental health issues in children of Holocaust survivors, victims of political terror, accidental trauma, severe poverty, famine and the progeny of African slaves in the United States. This “epigenetic inheritance” can linger for generations and effect the culture, as it has done in the Jewish communities around the world after 1945.

The continuing hurt, vulnerability, anger and rage expressed in Native American tribes and African American communities in the United States against the majority white population can be understood as both cry for justice in the present, and a echo of generational trauma that was endured for nearly 300 years on our nation’s shores.

We have a responsibility as a nation to be struggling to heal the racial injustice and majority privilege that still stains our daily interactions. And therapists need to recognize the layers of trauma that their clients of color may bring to their offices, seeking healing for individual pain that may have been generations in the making.

UPDATE: Here is the link to the mouse study with traumatic epigenetic changes in following generations : Nature Neuroscience, Volume 17, Number 1, January 2014:
https://tinyurl.com/y7zblcwe

On the brink of a PTSD breakthrough

Today I was talking with two different clients about the research done at the VA in Minneapolis in veterans experiencing PTSD – finding in brain scans that traumatic memory seems to “reside” in the right hemisphere of the brain, right above the ear. So happy to have located a story on this research, and want to pin it here 🙂  On the brink of a PTSD breakthrough
Thanks to Dr. Apostolos Georgopoulos for his continuing research!