There are few areas in Christian life that demand responsible theological response more than the experience of evil and tragedy. In my experience, both as a pastor and trauma survivor, those same situations act as a magnet to harmful, faith-killing responses based on theology that places responsibility for trauma or tragedy firmly in the hands of God.
I was happily surprised and deeply moved by the perspective offered in Dr. Thomas Jay Oord’s newest book “God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love After Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils”. Oord’s theology on God’s character and the reality of evil is laid out in five compassionate, articulately written and universally accessible chapters, each one concluding with reflective questions that will help groups and individuals process what they have just read.
From the beginning, Oord makes clear that the individual doctrine outlined in each chapter is interdependent on the other four. The most central of these doctrines is, in my view, the first: God Can’t Prevent Evil. It is based on the theological assumption that the love of God is inherently uncontrolling, a statement expounded on more fully in Oord’s previous works. If we believe, as Oord argues, that a love that controls is not really love, than control even in cases of evil becomes impossible because it is against the nature of the God who is love.
Oord’s insistence that God CAN’T control will (as he himself admits) be incredibly unsettling to many readers. I think many Christians have seasons when we need desperately to relax into the arms of a God who tells the waves when to crest and the birds when to fly. But framing the impossibility of control in terms of God’s loving nature makes it, for me, a persuasive argument. Oord reviews more traditional perspectives based on a belief in God’s omnipotence (God controls everything, God chooses to control some people/situations but not others, etc.) and is honest about their strengths and weaknesses. The alternative he offers is striking: asking how far the love of God goes, and whether a love that could act to prevent evil and doesn’t is really love at all.
(The answer is a resounding no).
The remaining four chapters lay out four theological statements that strengthen or refine the first: God Feels Our Pain, God Works to Heal, God Squeezes Good from Bad, and God Needs Our Cooperation. In addition to providing Scriptural and theological support for each statement, Oord includes the stories of individuals who have experienced trauma and tragedy and found conventional theological explanations unhelpful or even harmful.
As both a pastor and parishioner, I’ve heard myriad ways in which people make sense of tragedy. Many do so by attributing it to the will of God, focusing on the mystery of His ways to manage more troubling thoughts about the divine choice to harm. While I would not presume to tell a survivor how to make their peace with God, I think many would benefit from the opportunity to consider another option: one in which God neither sent the harm nor stood by and allowed it to take place when He could have done otherwise.
While “God Can’t” is of special value to those currently wrestling with questions of God’s goodness, I believe it’s an equally valuable addition to the shelves of all who profess faith in Christ. What we believe about God’s intervention--or lack thereof--in the circumstances of our lives impacts what we say and how we respond to our friends, our family, and our communities at large when tragedy strikes.
I am still questioning and processing several statements in the book, and likely will for some time. There are a few points of biblical interpretation that I question; stories in the Old and New Testament that, in my view, beg particular assumptions of the book. But the overarching perspective has succeeded in gathering the fragments of my heart, the wounded parts that view God with mistrust. I think that is why I found myself brought to tears as I read. The doctrine of the omnipotence of God, however loosely I held it, has nonetheless wielded great power over me as I have processed trauma and tragedy in my own life. To be given the glimpse of an alternative--one that keeps the Trinitarian Father, Son, and Spirit but refuses to put a whip in that God’s hands--has been powerful and healing in and of itself.
Note: This was originally posted on November 27, 2016
Dear God, I need Advent.
I need the lights flickering in the darkness, the purple and pink against the wreath of green.
I need the swollen belly of Mother Mary, her patient, jubilant waiting for a baby she didn't plan, for the conclusion of a pregnancy she never foresaw but nonetheless saw through.
I need the Eternal, flesh-and-blood beacon of hope to clear my glassy-eyed view of a world I both know and no longer recognize.
Dear God, I need Advent.
Dear Jesus, I need Advent.
I need the creeping, humbling movement towards Your birth; the steady, unfaltering flow towards a life beginning and ending in a human cry.
I need the jubilance of Aunt Elizabeth, the kicking fancy of Your cousin John in her womb as he heard Your mother enter their home.
I need the striking, steely confidence of peasants in Nazareth and Bethlehem and Judea; the assurance that You, O Son of God and God-With-Us, lived your 33 years among the poorest of the poor.
I need the reminder that You were shielded and cared for by the humble time and time again when You, Infant Lowly, could not shield or care for Yourself.
Dear Jesus, I need Advent.
Dear friends, I need Advent.
I need the breathless, despair-battling waits on nights that fall too early and last too long.
I need the glorious anticipation of a Redeemer come down to earth, nurtured and grown in the belly of a Woman like me, a Woman whose courage encourages me.
I need the company of shepherds and angels. I need the exquisite yearning that arises in counting down the weeks until I join an eternal choir that declares "Glory to God in the highest!"
I need the Divine descent to incarnation that I, and all of my [human] race, might be raised up.
I need Advent with every fibre of my being.
And, thank God, Advent is here.
(Originally posted in 2012. Even truer today).
My plan in this alphabetically-inspired series was to write a post about the boys and man in my life when it came time for their name-letters. But since I'm planning to cover the M with Modesty (such fun!), which will usurp my husband's name (Matt), I'm opting to write about him here, under the L.
Love. It works too. Love is the beginning and the end to my thoughts on Matt.
I fell in love with Matt in Israel. [Yes, Israel]. We were both there as American students studying abroad, along with about 100 other remarkable people from all over the United States and a few other spots around the world. We met in Jerusalem, where our school was, but I'm not sure if that's exactly where the "in love" came about. I know that I started to fall in love with him in Ein Gedi, hiking through the oases near the Dead Sea. And I know I was definitely in love by the time we went to Galilee a few weeks later. Where it happened between those two places I can't say for sure, but it was probably Jerusalem (and that's not too shabby of a spot, you know)?
As luck would have it, Matt came to Jerusalem already in a relationship, while I was very single. I blame those details for why it took so long for me to realize what an incredible guy he was. But once I started to clue in, it was a quick free fall on my side into in-love-ness. Matt was so patient. So wise. So compassionate and interesting and so terribly good looking! I knew, very quickly, that he was, if not the guy I'd been looking for, exactly the kind of guy I should be looking for. And I was more inclined to think it was the former, not the latter.
I never said a word about how I felt while we were in Israel out of respect for his relationship. But after we got back, I got an e-mail from Matt a week or so later indicating the relationship was over.
And, maybe 48 hours later, I wrote to let him know that I was in love with him. Because I was crazy.
Love is crazy sometimes.
As it turned out, he was in love with me, too. And so we committed ourselves to each other, despite being 3000 miles apart, despite being precisely at the stage in life when everyone is most suspicious about such commitments working out.
We spent the next year and a half apart, completing our degrees at our respective universities. We visited each other every 2-3 months (with one four-month period in which our physical separation, my burgeoning feminism, and mutual communication catastrophes almost ended everything). After graduation I went off to Central Asia for the summer as part of an internship, and Matt (brave man that he is) went to my parents' home for the summer to work for my dad.
I came back from Central Asia in early August for my twin sister's wedding. And three days later, Matt asked me to marry him with a beautiful ring and a bottle of Israeli wine in tow.
Looking back, it seems a bit crazy. We had spent such (relatively) little time together. But love is crazy sometimes.
We got married after being engaged for 2 1/2 months, hurried along by our impending entrance into graduate school. About a month after that we moved to Kansas City for what was one of the most difficult 1 1/2 years of my life. Kansas City didn't agree with either one of us, and the first year of marriage is a bruiser anyways. We had gone there on my lead, and though Matt never said he resented me for it, I resented myself. It just plain wasn't working, and we doubted it ever would. A few friends of ours were at Regent College in Vancouver and loving it, so we looked into going there instead. And decided, together, to go.
As I've written about before, I got pregnant with Isaac after we were already full-steam ahead in our plans to move. Knowing I would give birth after just one semester, I expected that Matt would be the full-time student and I would postpone my studies. But when we talked about it, Matt suggested exactly the opposite. He would start part-time, I would start full-time, and we would see how it worked out from there.
How it worked out from there is that I completed my Master's degree and Matt didn't. He still hasn't. I don't think he knew that it would be so when he first made the decision, but we both realized quickly that it would likely mean just that. He gave up his education for mine. He worked full-time to pay for my schooling. He took care of our sons on the evenings and weekends so I could keep up my studies. And in all that, he never faltered or bemoaned the cost (and it cost a lot, emotionally as well as financially). He supported me in school and ministry through four years of graduate school until I finally got my degree.
Looking back, it seems a bit crazy. Matt could have insisted I postpone my degree until he finished his, and I would have done it. He could have, at any point, persuaded me that too much was required of him for my education's sake, that he was doing all the giving with none of the getting. I am amazed actually, looking back, that he didn't do just that.
Except that I know, 12 years now into being in love with him, that it's the kind of man he is. It's the kind of man I sensed he was in Ein Gedi, in Galilee, in Jerusalem. I sensed he was patient, and he is. I sensed he was faithful and persevering, and he is. And it means all the more to me now, for I know now that not all men turn out to be the kind of men we first think they are. Sometimes the ones who seem best are simply the ones putting on the best show.
I take it as grace--completely undeserved--that Matt was the real deal. Matt is the real deal. He was and is worthy of my love. And I am working, for the rest of my life, on being worthy of his.
I was holding my palm leaves Sunday, Lord, waving them and singing as my daughter marched around the sanctuary. She held a tambourine and had friends to follow, so she let fly her normal self-consciousness and bounced on the downbeat while we in the pews sang.
She didn't know what she was celebrating. But then, how many in the crowds did that day so long ago?
It was a desperately beautiful thing to be able to celebrate at all. My morning before the service was spent reading about and mourning the deaths of worshippers in Alexandria and Tanta. Our Egyptian brothers and sisters gathered with their palms just as we did on the other side of the world; they chanted, they praised, they prayed.
Why were they killed on such a day of joy?
There is an ugly appropriateness to the timing, if we look for such things. You set Your face against the night by entering the Holy City as a king on Palm Sunday, but Your departure five days later was on the terms of the violent and powerful and afraid. Our brothers and sisters in Egypt have long known persecution, but year after year they choose to enter their sanctuaries for worship. This year, like You, they departed on terms not of their choosing.
Here I am again, staring down the age-old cruciform paradox: I will never look comfortably at You beating a path of suffering and calling Your disciples to follow You. The cross still disgusts and terrifies me. And yet, I will never cease thanksgiving that in being lifted up to death, You set Yourself eternally on the side of victims of violence.
O Lord of Tanta and Alexandria, of Aleppo and Sana'a, have mercy on us. O Lord of Tanta and Alexandria, of Aleppo and Sana'a, teach us to walk in Your ways.
Why did they, and why do we, show up Sunday after Sunday, year after year? Do You know, Lord, I haven't been stopped asking that question over this past awful year and a half? What's it all for, this gathering and singing and eating and departing? Haven't we better things to do, better places to be, better ways to spend our time?
The question lingers, growing or shrinking in intensity. Sometimes I go to church with my family. Sometimes I stay home alone. And yet I was discomfited and disoriented when I realized I might have to miss the service this past week. Of all Sundays, I wanted to be at church the day we wave the palms. Of all Sundays, I wanted my kids to be at church the day they march up the aisles with their tambourines and palm branches shouting, "Hosanna!"
Religious-born PTSD means most superficialities have been killed off. The spectacle isn't enough to draw me to church anymore, and I no longer have a job that requires me to be in the pew. My reasons for going on Palm Sunday were simpler, more body and home than anything else. I wanted to be with the people who recognize You as king. I wanted my children to wave the palms with the communion of saints who choose century after century the Way that leads through Jerusalem.
I still puzzle over why we go to this place or that, with this people or that people to find You, to worship You. Some days the answers I "know” as a Christian and ordained person do not suffice. There are things I will never believe again this side of exile, and things I never want to believe again.
My brother Peter asked You once, "To whom can we go?" when You knew some of Your disciples weren't sure they could follow You anymore. I used to feel his certainty, but I know now that there are other places to go, other paths to take.
I could walk away from a life of faith altogether. I have dropped it several times like a scalding pot only to pick it up again when I trust it is safe to do so.
I could abandon the faith in which I was raised and choose to practice a different one. I have looked elsewhere these past 19 months, scanning my eyes over different faiths and no faiths and everything in between. There are many ways of seeking and living what is good and right and true.
But both of these require the one thing I know now I can’t do: I can’t leave You behind. And since I cannot leave You, nor even wish to, it seems far better to learn again how to walk with You.
You, Jesus, who rode into the Holy City accepting the part given you with its glory and ridicule.
You who washed the feet of your disciples like a mother scrubbing up her young.
You who broke bread and poured wine and drank the cup of bitter abandonment.
You who dared to love when love lay down with betrayal and delivered you to death.
You who rose as its Conqueror.
I walk beside You, carefully, cautiously, a bit fearfully. As Your people have from Jerusalem to Alexandria and Tanta and beyond.
And yes, we are afraid.
But You are with us.
And where You are is where we want to be.
I had forgotten. That is my confession and my creed.
I had forgotten how lost and alone I was when, seventeen years ago, I boarded a plane with a friend to travel halfway around the world to study in Israel for a semester. I had forgotten how wounded I was upon leaving, how the previous year's hurts and disappointments had shattered my sense of security and suffocated my sense of God.
I had forgotten how, upon arriving, that lostness and aloneness remained for such a very short time because I was so quickly absorbed by and healed within a community of good and decent people.
I had forgotten how far God seemed from me for the first month or two. How I, as a student of religion, had in many ways reduced God to a topic of conversation; an endless Object of speculation and cynicism given begrudging respect, and always at a distance.
I had forgotten how one night God came near. How one minute I was studying Hebrew and the next I was stunned and overwhelmed by the depth of my need for Him. And not only of my need, but the vastness of His love for me. I had forgotten what it was to be lost and then found, and to know that even "lost" is a matter of perspective--how He had never misplaced or overlooked me, however much I had felt it to be so.
I had forgotten what it meant to be brought to life in the company of people who took God seriously. What it meant to know that those who prayed at the dinner table also sought God in the morning and at night. I had forgotten what it was for a 20-year-old woman to be gently and in some ways unknowingly directed towards God by peers who gently but knowingly practiced their faith in Him with kindness and wisdom and joy.
I had forgotten what it was to walk the ancient stone city and be spoken to not so much by the religious sites but by the faith lived out by flesh-and-blood women and men. I had forgotten what it was to be surrounded by the humble faithful, to have my cynicism and criticism quieted by respectful, wholehearted adoration of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
I had forgotten what it was to meet Jesus in the beauty of the land where He grew up; where He healed, where He preached. The sacred sites themselves did not engender intimacy with Him, as it did and does with others. But sitting on the water's edge and hearing the light lapping of the Sea against the shore--that drew me near to the fishing, walking, calling Saviour Who chose this place to spend most of his three years of public ministry.
I had forgotten all of these things, and for nine beautiful days I learned again how to remember. I walked the same places, and was overwhelmed at times by memories of beloved people, so powerful they seemed at times to be resurrected to the present.
But of course, they weren't. Apart from my husband, the people who had helped form my faith and made Jerusalem home weren't with me and it was the past that seemed so alive, not the present. There was always the temptation to sink back in the past; to revel in it and treasure it to the point that the present seemed a shadow, a step backwards, a disappointment.
There was only one good Way to go: forward. Allowing and acknowledging grief that the precious season of my life, 17 years ago is over and, simultaneously, to open my heart in deep and endless gratitude. Gratitude for the time I had with the beautiful people who shared it with me (including the man who has shared everything with me since). Gratitude for the time I had now, as a proper adult and mother of four, to revisit a place of such joy and remember and learn again why it had been so.
It is enough. It is more than enough. Whatever uncertain, disquieting questions linger about my life at this stage, I know what I have been given, and it is enough. I remember now what I had forgotten: the richness of people and places and nourishment God has given me along the Way, particularly for those precious, powerful three and a half months in 1999 when I fell in love with Him.
I don't need to recreate it. It is enough to know that it was, and enough to know that He was, and is, and will be.
Yes, you. I see you. I know the troubles that have lashed themselves to your arms and legs, holding you in place and making it hard to breathe or sleep at night. I know the thoughts that plague you in the dark and deprive you of peace during the day.
Yes, you. I hear you. I know the tearless pleas that rise up from your lips; the asking, the begging, for this one thing to change. I know what you want fixed or, better still, to disappear altogether. And more than that I know the aching why.
Yes, you. I am before and behind you. I am hemming you in, as an older brother of yours once sang long ago. I am still a resting place, a holy hammock cradling you as you hide from your fears and troubles and sorrows. I am Father and Mother and Sister and Brother, holding you closer than your deepest hurts and most terrible, terrified trembling.
Yes, you. Perfect, broken, wonderful, priceless, pushed and pulled and pieced together you. This is a mighty season to be gotten through, but get through it you must and get through it you will. For the divine spark that lies within is not only of My doing, it is also of yours. It flies forth in the presence of Divine flint meeting human steel.
So remember this, dearly beloved you:
You are strong, even when you feel weak.
You are brave, even when you feel afraid.
You are mighty, even when you feel small.
You. Will. Overcome.
Because you see, I made you Myself.
*Sometimes I take the liberty of transmitting into writing the encouragement I have received from God in the Scriptures, through prayer or from His people. This is one of those times, and I offer the words with love and humility.
My husband took away my phone the other day.
Okay, that’s not true. I was on my phone, chillaxin’ on the couch, when he told me he thought it would be better for my mental health if I wasn’t on Facebook so much.
And I scoffed and sputtered and grumped and grimaced. Such a judgmental man, how dare he!
But as soon as he left the room, I put away my phone. I did some chores, studied some Hebrew, made some food. And had a much better rest of my day.
Social media is my hatchet these days, my weapon, my sword. There is a lot to be challenged by way of policies and rhetoric and how we describe or denigrate one another. There is much to be denounced and protested and torn down.
I know what I want to tear down: misogyny, xenophobia, fear-mongering, disrespect. I want to tear down baseless suspicions that render hearts implacable and cold.
The tearing down is easy. It’s clear. It’s precise.
But what do I want to build?
I don’t have to look far to answer that question. I see my kids in their coming and going, their fighting and snuggling, and I know I want to build up my life with them. I want to slow down enough to hear them out and help them to hear out others, too. I want to build a home that is safe, both physically and intellectually, where they can ask questions and sort out their troubles in the confidence that their parents love and care for and respect them. I want to build my home as a place of nourishment, where my kids can be fed in their bellies and fed in their hearts so that, whatever they face when they leave, they go out better and stronger than when they came first came through the door.
I want to build up my marriage. By the grace of God I still adore the brown-eyed, teasing, still sometimes inscrutable man I married fifteen years ago. And yes, I adore him in spite of the fact that we have both changed—kids, career, loss, and illness can’t help but change you. There has been some terrible pain along the way; things to forgive, things for which to be forgiven. But we are in this thing--this whacky, terrifying, upending thing called life--together. 100%. And I want to build our marriage over the next 15 years to be even stronger and more life-giving than the first fifteen have been.
I want to build a stronger community around me. And that doesn’t mean going out and laying the foundation for The Next Big Thing, be it a program or organization or whatever. It means putting time into some of the many good things that are already taking place. It means hearing people's stories and telling my own. It means taking the bus more than driving alone and watching out for my neighbours, both literal and figurative. It means keeping well enough to gather with people at church, at our neighbourhood house, at the soccer field or at the boys’ schools. It means accepting invitations and extending more of my own. It means volunteering with organisations that make our neighbourhood, our city, our country more connected, even if just an hour or two a week.
I want to build up my own strength. I want to get well again, and if it means putting away my phone then good, I'll put it away (thanks hon!) If it means reading a book instead of downloading another hair-raising article, then okay, I'll read the book. If it means yes, engaging online or in person in these days when such engagement is necessary, then good; but if it means disengaging when appropriate and disengaging as a matter of discipline and health then I will strive to do that, too. Because everything else I want to build up--my home, my kids, my marriage, my community--is impacted if I don't make the effort to keep myself well. It is good and holy work to keep oneself well; to build up one's strength, to keep nourished in mind and body. If I have learned anything in this past year and a half, it is that.
What do you want to build? And with whom do you want to build it? In a time when so much calls to be halted or torn down, what calls out to you to be tended or built up? The writer of Ecclesiastes makes clear that there are time to do both! To build up and to tear down. And sometimes there are times for doing both at the same time.
May the building up of what is good and the tearing down of what is not be clear. And may you and I have strength for the tasks, amen and amen.
The house is almost completely still. The heater has just kicked on behind me, but the kids are at school and our super cool, very old dog is fast asleep at my feet. No one is talking to me. No one is clinging to me. No one is fighting with anyone else.
And. Every. Muscle. Every. Cell. Has. Settled. Into. The. Silence.
Quiet and stillness are saving my life right now. Or at least restoring it to me before the beautiful, noisy madness descends again. My cousin helpfully pointed out the life-saving nature of quiet in a world inundated with noise; even more in the age of the iPod, the radio, the Wii.
When I was working full-time and on the path to burnout, I had one day off every week. I spent it with my youngest two children at home, mostly doing housework but also some play. It was time for which I was grateful but which was, unsurprisingly, completely absent of anything like quiet and rest.
When I went on medical leave, the first thing I noticed was how quiet it was when, unwell at home, I was all alone. And that quiet, paid for two days a week with my daughter being cared for by her babysitter, helped bring me back to life.
To this day, quiet and rest are saving my life.
What is saving your life right now?
Barbara Brown Taylor was asked that question after exiting ministry, and I find myself returning to it often these days. The unwelcome drama of US politics and my own obsession with it has stilted my recovery; I respond frantically, with more writing, some marching, phone calls to officials, and less sleeping. I am frequently tense and strained.
My husband says I should stay off of my smart phone, opting out of my habit of gorging on news and jumping into online conflict. And of course he is right. But I am also looking for things to hold onto; bits of joy or steadiness that can keep me afloat. In the deluge of bad news, it is easy to get overwhelmed and be blinded to what is present and normal and beautiful.
So what what else is saving my life these days? And what is saving yours?
My children, as usual, are saving my life. The oldest two are keenly interested in the politics that keep me up at night, but at the end of the day, the needs and interests of all four draw me into the most life-giving tasks I have: grocery shopping for their lunches and dinners; trudging with them through the snow on our way home from school; reading fairy tales to my littlest ones before putting them to bed (which still requires snuggles from Mommy before they can go to sleep); giving my full attention to my more-often-listening-than-listened-to second son and being amazed at his emotional intelligence and self-knowledge; reading a book next to my oldest son after everyone else is in bed while he, my most social of social butterflies, does his homework (he says it helps to have someone around, even if we're not talking).
My children are saving my life right now.
What is saving your life?
Books are saving my life right now, as they have before and no doubt will until I die. I read article upon article these days about this or that travesty of justice, but they leave me spinning like a top, ready to crash to the ground at any moment. Books--good-books--pull me upright when life has me bowed to the ground. My sense of perspective and purpose grows steadier when rooted in the words of the great storytellers, teachers and leaders who put them to paper.
I have multiple books that have passed in and out of my house these past months courtesy of our local public library. In between, I turn back to my favourite re-reads: at the moment it is Harry Potter, which seems appropriate given the real-time takeover of the Muggle government in my country of birth. Harry's story pulls me just enough out of my own [sudden thought: I am living my own story! YOU are living your own story!] that I can reenter less burdened by the heaviness of all that is happening around the world.
Books are saving my life right now.
What is saving your life?
Preparing for our impending trip to Israel is saving my life right now. I have taken to daily Hebrew practice and could swear I gain a few years of life every time I do. Dag, fish! Bitzah, egg! Anachnu ohevim basar, we love meat! I started studying Hebrew when I was 18 years old so it settled nicely in my then-squishy brain. I still throw it at my children and husband or the vacuum/printer when it feels appropriate: "Mah zeh?" (What's this?) "B'emet?" (Really?) Akhshav! (Now!) They tolerate it (albeit with rolled eyes) and sometimes even verbally respond. But I am excited to use the language again among people who actually speak it.
(Thinking about this cracks me up; my poor family, they put up with so much living with me.)
Practicing Hebrew is saving my life right now.
What is saving your life?
Followers of Jesus tend to think of salvation only in terms of The Big Things. And, to be sure, there are good reasons for it. But for me, right now, it is the little things that, woven together, lift up my head and set my feet more firmly on the path that is my own. As one who believes in a God-made-flesh, in eternity wrapped up in tiny mortality, receiving life and power in the small and ordinary is a perfectly logical, perfectly magnificent way to be saved.
When I was a teenager, there was a man in our tiny, tight-knit community who was crazy.
And by that I mean, of course, that he was mentally ill.
I was afraid of him.
It didn't help that his appearance fit every stereotype about craziness. His long, curly hair stuck up around a balding pate, earning him the nickname "Pauly" after the 90's comedic actor (and similarly coiffed) Pauly Shore.
"Pauly" didn't speak, at least not that I ever heard. I think maybe he talked to himself (speaking of stereotypes) but whenever we saw him, but I never heard words come out of his mouth directed at other human beings. He walked around our town alone, sometimes pausing to send an unflinching stare at an object or individual.
One time his stare was directed at me and my friends, a table full of precocious teenage girls. It was uncomfortable. It was troubling. But that was all it was. As usual, he stared until he was done staring, and then walked off.
When I went home, I complained about it to my father. I didn't think "people like that" should be allowed in public, making others uncomfortable. They should be kept somewhere else, on their own, in some kind of guarded space away from normal people.
"You sound very much like someone you don't like right now," my dad said, as I got particularly heated and uncharitable at my plans. He was, as usual, getting to the heart of the matter and hinting at my obsession with a person who had similar ideas about the mentally ill: Adolf Hitler.
I wept indignantly and denied it. I stalked out of the room.
And I never forgot the conversation, nor complained about crazy people again.
Because of course, my dad was right.
Do you know who wants to be mentally ill?
Do you know who wants to admit they are mentally ill?
But some of us are learning to admit it publicly, by the support of our friends and family or not; with the help of a culture that is slowly but surely changing the way it talks about mental illness.
I have a mental illness. I was diagnosed a year and a half ago.
In my stronger moments, and with the right people, I describe myself as crazy.
I use the word when a mass shooting occurs in the U.S. and the nauseating cycle of blame and shame begins: "Hey, don't rush to blame this on mental illness," I say as I read claims that guns are not the problem in shootings (which by definition involve a gun).
"I'm crazy and I don't go around shooting people."
I use the word also when describing engagement with other, more severely mentally ill people: "They were totally crazy. I mean, I'm crazy, but they were CRAZY."
I hear people talk about the need to destigmatize mental illness, and that's what I'm trying to do when including myself--an apparently healthy, fairly normal person--among the crazies. But I drop the term in less familiar settings because, in common parlance, crazy people are scary people. Crazy people are unpredictable and prone to violence.
I'm mentally ill, but I'm not prone to violence, and I try to give a heads up about what I'm feeling to give predictability to actions related to my illness.
"I'm not feeling very well, I might need to step out for a minute," I say when my ears start ringing, a sure indicator that a panic attack, unchecked, is not far behind. Or, "Just so you know, my anxiety level is about HERE," I say, gesturing to my chest or collarbone or throat, "So we may have to stop talking about this."
"This" is almost always church-related: theology, questions of vision and mission, cultural challenges. My sickness manifests itself precisely where I used to feel strongest, most certain, well-trained.
I prefer to say I am unwell or sick, leaning especially on "unwell" because not everyone sees my sickness as such and frankly, unwell sounds more respectable. I am unwell enough to be prevented from working for pay. I am unwell enough to have to still avoid certain situations and even certain books or discussions. I am unwell enough to need treatment, but it is not the kind people typically think of when they think of debilitating disease. I don't need surgery, I need antidepressants and therapy, regular doctor's appointments and a lot of self care.
"I am not well today," is how I let Matt know my PTSD is flaring up and we may need to change our plans. He takes such warnings seriously and is willing to adjust as he always has. My husband. God should give all sick women such husbands, amen and amen.
An easy way to beat myself up is to think about all the women and men in the world who have been through far worse than me and have to make do with far fewer supports. My husband tells me this isn't helpful to them or to me. And of course, he is right.
This much I know: being sick in a country with a social safety net is better than being sick in a country without one. Being sick in a country that is fighting to destigmatize mental illness is better than being in a country that says mental illness is something you should just "get over" and until then should be a carefully guarded family secret.
The reality is that all kinds of people get sick, sometimes in their hearts, sometimes in their guts, sometimes in their minds. All kinds of people get injured, sometimes in their bones and sometimes in their brain matter. Which begs a few questions:
Do we as families, as faith communities, as nations, reserve space for people who get sick?
Do we extend dignity and respect to those who get sick in the head?
Do we as families, as faith communities, as nations, invest resources in preventing sickness and, when it comes to it, in helping sick people get well?
Do we also invest resources in those who have a sickness of the mind?
Do we support the families of the mentally ill and help them shoulder the burden? Because, stigma or no, mental illness brings cost and difficulty as every illness does. I am now completely dependent on my good husband for my house, my food, my clothing. I am a financial burden instead of a fellow earner. I have thrown off the shame that I was saddled with when I first became ill, but I must name the reality, for it is the truth.
"I want to be well Lord," I prayed the other night, after being reminded of how much I can't do now that I used to be able to do. "Please make me well!"
It's been a year and a half since I stopped working. So long! I went on leave thinking it was a temporary setback. I thought I would be back at work within a few weeks. I certainly thought I would have "gotten over" the symptoms by now and been either at my church or in an even more challenging assignment.
But no, I am still not well, and I don't know what to do about it.
Except keeping taking my medicine (and I call it medicine instead of medication, but that is a whole 'nother post) and do more therapy and go on runs and keep pushing the borders of my capacity gently, slowly; willing to withdraw and wait if what I want to do is beyond what I can do.
I read the Bible a few weeks ago for the first time in months. And it was good.
I had a conversation about church vision with my brother-in-law. And I didn't panic.
I listened to a sermon. I had to, simultaneously, draw pictures in the notebook I always carry to keep myself grounded, to keep my anxiety from rising beyond levels unbearable; levels that would force me to stand up and walk out of the church.
My pen skimmed the surface of the paper; I pressed down harder to create an image I could focus on. One minute passed, two, three. Eventually my nerves settled, and I stayed in the pew.
People ask me if I want someday to go back into ministry. Want is a funny word in this situation, because want and can really are two different things when you aren't well. Returning to ministry is not on my List of Things to Do because it is so far beyond my reality of Things I Can Do.
So what can I do? That I can answer, though it changes day by day. And it's where it is important to keep my attention right here, right now.
Today, I can write. Thank God.
Today, I can cook and clean and care for my children. Thank God.
I can go to church when I can go to church. Thank God.
I can pray. Thank God.
I can be with friends and out in public without being too overwhelmed. Thank God.
I can read some theological perspectives on the hows and whys of this extraordinarily strange time in history. Thank God.
I can argue. I can love. I can even, sometimes, dream.
I am unwell. I am a little crazy. But I have help and I have hope.
And for now, that is all I need.
I was raised evangelical, which means I was raised to be suspicious of anything resembling adoration of Mary, the Mother of God.
Also, we weren't supposed to call her the Mother of God.
She was just Mary, "No more a saint than you or me!" as my dad explained it.
Funny thing though: in our heavily Catholic region in south-central California, there was a Catholic channel that was freely available to all with a TV and antenna. And, when our 80's sitcoms or cartoons weren't on the air, and we were really, really bored, my sister and I would watch it.
And from that channel, we learned to pray the prayer they call "Hail Mary."
Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, Amen.
Now when I say we learned to pray it, I really mean we learned to say it. Because of course we weren't supposed to "pray" to anyone but God, even though Hail Mary isn't a prayer to Mother Mary so much as asking her to pray for us. But we weren't even trying to do that. We were just memorizing something cool and slightly foreign to our stripped-down, Protestant sensibilities.
The words of the Hail Mary lay dormant in my brain until the last of my four miscarriages, when I stopped being able to pray (except in public as part of my job). And please don't think there was some sort of hypocrisy at play; I wasn't pretending when I spoke to God publicly, and I wasn't pretending when I couldn't speak to Him in private. If there was any hypocrisy it came from the cells of my body which allowed and disallowed prayer at their own will.
(Do cells have a will? Maybe not, but trauma does things to cells that make it seem that it is so.)
In private, I looked away from God. He was there, but I couldn't, as it were, stare Him in the face and talk to Him. I could look to His side, around Him, away from Him. But I couldn't look at Him in prayer, which of course is what we're doing--turning our full selves to this Creator we love or fear or trust.
In looking to God's side, I caught a glimpse of someone I could talk to: His Mother. I saw her in Bible stories (which I could still read), alternately encouraging and pleading with Him, wrapping Him in swaddling clothes as a baby or nagging Him (and I mean that in the best, most honourable way) to perform miracles when miracles were clearly what was needed.
Mother Mary came into my side view, and I felt I could trust her. So I turned my full attention her way, trusting that if I started talking to her, the Mother of God, she could in turn talk to her Son (who I trusted and yet clearly didn't trust enough). I said the words I had learned as a child, over and over again: Hail Mary, full of grace...
And I felt something like peace. Something like love and rest and calm.
When I first went on medical leave last year, I couldn't say any sort of rote prayer: not the Lord's Prayer, not Glory Be, not Hail Mary. I spoke to God in short, desperate cries: "God help me! Please help me!"
I knew that others were praying for me too. And, without any plan or intention, I started enlisting not only Mother Mary's help in praying but also the departed of my friends and family. In church-speak we call these people part of the "Communion of Saints." A month into leave, crying while walking home, I called out to members of that Communion whom I had known and who had died: my father, my grandfathers, some of the parishioners I had pastored and buried. "Dad, pray for me! Grandpa, pray for me! Cloe, Lena, Ernie, pray for me!"
C.S. Lewis once wrote on this very action: "There is clearly a theological defence for it; if you can ask for the prayers of the living, why should you not ask for the prayers of the dead." (Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly Concerning Prayer) I read his words long before attempting the practice, but they came to my mind when I did.
Of course I can't prove that those of the dead I asked prayed for me, and some of you may think we are so firmly in bizarro land that you can't believe I could think they did.
Still, I asked them to pray. And I felt confident that somehow, nearer to the Throne, their prayers were doing good on my behalf.
As a mother four times over, and as one who laboured all of Christmas Day with my firstborn son, Mary looms large in my mind every Advent and Christmas season. In a world where courage and bravery tend to be framed in physical strength or violence, a teenager giving birth in a stable is a striking counter-image.
This year on Christmas Eve, I lay in bed with my youngest two as their electric anticipation mellowed into soft, rhythmic breathing. And I pictured myself, laying down next to Mary in her post-partum recovery in that stable. I didn't want to bother her, or take her attention away from this Child to whom she had just given life (SHE gave life to God! What magnificence!) I simply wanted to be near her; to companion her in her weakness and mighty strength. To watch her care for God.
We had multiple illnesses and one tragic death hit our family this season. For each one of these beloved, I would go to sleep and re-awake in the night asking Mary to pray for them. At this stage of recovery I trust God--fully, completely. And I trust His Mother--fully, completely. Just as I ask my friends and family to pray when loved ones are hurt, or sick, or dying, I ask Mary--Theotokos, God-bearer--to pray for them too.
Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with Thee.
Blessed art Thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.