From book, “Healing My Religion”.

During the spring semester of my freshman year of college, I decided to enroll in a class being taught by one of the most popular Religion professors at my university. The class was called “Psalms and Old Testament Wisdom Literature”. The course title alone was enough to convince me that by the end of the semester I would become a 19-year old near-expert on ancient biblical wisdom.

Turns out, here is the only thing I remember from that 4 1/2 month long experience: President George W. Bush declared war on Iraq.

My professor, an Ivy League educated Baptist minister and Vietnam War veteran, walked into class the morning after President Bush made his announcement with a guitar under one arm. After closing the door behind him, he was silent for a long time. When he finally spoke, he invited us to pray with him. When he prayed, his words were thick with grief. After he finished praying, he got out his guitar and put melody to the most mournful of the biblical Psalms:

Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint;

O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish.

How long, O LORD, how long?

Turn, O LORD, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.

No one remembers you when he is dead.

Who praises you from the grave? I am worn out from groaning;

all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.

(Psalm 6:2-7).

My 19-year old self was stunned.

No “man of the cloth” – and certainly no professor in a business suit – whom I had ever known had engaged with a political crisis in this way. The only explanation I can really remember him offering to our class on that day was this: “How many of you have been to war? None? Well, I have. And let me tell you this: war is hell. Hell on earth”. He said this with a kind of solemnity that shocked me.

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?

O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.

(Psalm 22:1-2).

“You’ve heard people say, ‘there are no atheists in a foxhole’?”, he asked us. “Well, in my experience there were only atheists in foxholes. The idea of benevolent God seems impossible when you are surrounded by hell”.

My heart is severely pained within me,

And the terrors of death have fallen upon me.

Fearfulness and trembling have come upon me,

and horror has overwhelmed me.

(Psalm 55:4-5).

He continued to sing until his singing faded into silence. The silence that followed continued until the clock on the wall signaled the last second of our scheduled time together. I don’t remember who left the room first, or how we managed to do this at all, but I do remember that when I did finally walk out of that classroom, I felt ill.

“Of course war is hell”, I thought. “Why has no one else ever said this to me before?”, I wondered. “And why in God’s name have I never really let myself consider this before?”. The day before when I had learned about the President’s declaration of war, my response had been very detached. I remember that I said a quick prayer of protection for the troops, resolved to trust God with the outcome, and reminded myself of the promise of eternal peace in the after life. “What the hell was wrong with me?”, I marveled.

Suddenly – and I do mean suddenly – I was extremely troubled. Troubled by the thought of war, and troubled by the realization that I had never been truly troubled by it before then.

The idea of war was so far removed from me – both historically and geographically. Born in 1983, I only had vague recollections of yellow ribbons being tied around trees during the Gulf War. My dad had been drafted to Vietnam, but was excused from duty because of legitimate health concerns. My maternal grandfather had done clerical work in WWII, and my paternal grandfather had served in the Navy in WWII. Yet, neither one of them had ever discussed it with me – other than to tell me about their visits home, their relief when the war ended, and the people they met along the way.

The following Sunday while attending church, my pastor mentioned the war, and prayed that the men and women fighting in the war would “seek God’s face”. He then invited us to trust in “God’s sovereignty” and the promise of eternal life for those who believe in him, and then moved on to the regularly scheduled programming.

I sat in my row of chairs feeling supremely disappointed. “Is it possible that I learned emotional detachment from the church itself?”, I wondered.

After the service was over, I sat alone for awhile and tried to recall a time the church had invited me to weep and groan in response to human suffering the way my professor had earlier that week. I knew that I had cried quite sorrowfully over my own ‘sinfulness’ on many occasions, and that I had shed happy tears during baptisms and faith conversions, but I couldn’t remember having ever been shown how to get down onto the ground level of human despair alongside those who were feeling it.

Later that evening, during my regular end-of-day reflection time, I thought about how Jesus responded to the pain of the world.

I didn’t doubt that he had faith in God’s goodness, of which he preached about regularly. Nor did I doubt that he trusted God during times of great pain, which he demonstrated quite dramatically. And yet, when confronted with human pain and suffering, he wept. He healed. He reached out. He cried out. He touched the people no one would touch. He talked to the people no one else would talk to. He lived amidst pain. He died in pain. He went willingly into hell himself, and he emerged with physical, touchable scars. Nothing about his life, ministry, death, or resurrection was removed from the pain of being human.

He was human himself, after all.

It took me weeks, maybe months, or perhaps years to understand why and how my “Psalms and Wisdom Literature” professor’s real-world engagement with the Bible impacted me so viscerally, but it made me feel thirsty for more of the same.

 

 

Who Is The Good Samaritan Today?

On this Christmas eve-eve day, I want to honor Jesus by remembering one of his most famous teachings, the parable of The Good Samaritan. If this story is familiar to you, please resist the urge to be bored for a moment. I promise I am heading somewhere new….

About two weeks ago, I published this holiday card on the internet, and it got a bit of a viral reaction:

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An overwhelming majority of the responses to this card were positive, and many people let me know that the card’s message encouraged them to make a donation to organizations assisting Syrian refugees. However, I also had the unfortunate opportunity to read through a surprising amount of anger and hostility. Some of it was directed at me, but most of it was directed at Middle Easterners, Syrians, and Muslims.

As I’ve attempted to make sense of those comments, I’ve often thought about Jesus’s story about “The Good Samaritan”. Let me set up the context for you here:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

(Luke 10:25-29)

And how does Jesus respond? By telling a story that portrays a Samaritan – a religious and cultural group despised by most Jews at the time – in a positive light.

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.

A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.

So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii [a decent sum of money] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

(Luke 10:30-35).

This story would have left Jesus’ audience with their jaws on the floor.

A Samaritan as a spiritual hero??! Two noble Jewish professionals cast in a less than esteemsble light??! These two ideas alone would have turned the world upside for many of the people standing there that day.

So, then Jesus turns the original question back on the questioner, an “expert in the Law”, and asks him to answer for himself:

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

(Luke 10:36-37).

To me, this story has several lessons:

  • One: the people outside of your cultural and religious groups are also your ‘neighbor’.
  • Two: your assumptions about others can often be wrong.
  • Three: if someone needs help, and you are able to offer it, do this.
  • Four: your own religious identification is meaningless if you are unwilling to practice it’s decrees.

Now, for the millions of people out there that don’t believe in Jesus’ teachings, I have absolutely nothing to say to them about how they should or shouldn’t feel about these instructions. But for the people who claim Jesus as their savior or their teacher, it seems pretty clear to me.

I often wonder if we might be well-served to imagine updating this story with modern references, and renaming it “The Good ________”. (Fill in the blank with whatever your personal, cultural, or religious biases may be).

How then would we be able to respond to each other?

 

Hard Teachings.

Jesus said, “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you”.

Yet, how many of us actually commit to this each day? I certainly haven’t been able to point to myself as a shining example of this quite often enough. However, I do happen to have a little psychological secret to share that may help.

Herman Hesse articulates this secret best when he says,

“If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part yourself. What isn’t part ourselves doesn’t disturb us.”

If that sounds improbable to you at first, I will give an example:

There was a period of time when I felt really loathsome towards someone in my family. I was very critical towards her for many years, and sometimes still catch myself remembering something she did or said years ago and get a brief little jolt of white-hot fury. I used to say things about her like “she thinks she knows everything absolutely!”, “she has no respect for other peoples’ perspectives”, “she makes me feel small for not believing the things she believes”, “she makes me feel shallow, superficial, and vapid”, “she regards me with suspicion and contempt”, and/or “she doesn’t love or respect me”.

This went on for years.

Eventually, I had the merciful opportunity to study the experience of “hatred” from a psychological perspective, and something begin to change for me. During this time, I learned that hatred – different than anger or constructive criticism or fear – is basically useless, other than to signal to the hater that some aspect of themselves has fallen into shadow. (<– click on that link before reading any further). According to psychological theory, hatred arises to alert us about some shadow aspect – or unconscious part – of ourselves.

So then, what did I do with this new knowledge about hatred? Thankfully, I decided to use this insight to re-examine my feelings towards the family member I mentioned above. It may not surprise you to learn that I soon began to realize that SOOOOOOOOOOO many of the things that bothered me about her were things that bothered me about myself.

Here’s the abbreviated list:

  • I too was guilty of withholding love and respect from her.
  • I too was guilty of minimizing her perspectives, and thinking that mine were superior.
  • I too was guilty of regarding her as one-dimensional and shallow.
  • I too was guilty of treating her with suspicion and contempt.

“Well, hot damn”, I thought, “she and I were the same!”. I hated her behavior towards me precisely because I was doing the same damn thing to her. Not wanting to admit this to myself, I had spent years caught up in these really awful feelings towards someone I wanted to love.

A Peruvian Shaman once said it to me this way:

“That which we won’t admit about ourselves comes to possess us”.

But, here’s the good news: we have a way out of this trap! When we are caught up in hatred towards anyone in particular or any group of people, the best hope we have for softening that fury is to try to acknowledge the unconscious, ugly parts of ourselves that we might be projecting onto them.

Many times, when we are able to sincerely soften ourselves towards someone else, in time, they too will soften. Sometimes they may even soften almost immediately. I mean, just think about how disarming it would be for you if someone walked up to you and said, “I need to apologize for feeling all this ugly stuff towards you for years. I didn’t realize that a lot of that ugliness was really about me, and not about you”. Boom. How open do you suddenly feel? Maybe for some of us it would take more time, but for me, a confession like that is so relatable – and so brave – that I am inclined to start thinking of that person in near-heroic terms.

As the Buddha says,

“Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love”.

I admit it. This is a hard teaching. It’s hard for me. It’s been especially hard for me in this current political climate at times. It’s hard for most people I know. It’s probably been especially hard for most people I know in this current political climate too. But. Show me the person who can regularly soften their heart and mind towards the people whom they could also readily hate, and I will show you a person who has genuine communion with something Holy. Or, as Jesus says, “to show that you are children of your Father Who is in heaven“, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. (Matthew 5:45,44).

Grace and peace,
Whitney

Another excerpt from the book.

When I was 12 years old, my parents started sending me to a Christian summer camp located in a much deeper part of the Bible Belt than I had been raised.

During that first summer at camp, I spent two weeks living with the nicest, most encouraging strangers I had ever met in my life. The people I met at camp seemed to value me simply for breathing, celebrate my uniqueness, and care deeply about the things that troubled me the most.

I won literal awards – in the form of actual medals and ribbons – for simply being myself.

One afternoon, I got presented with a ribbon for giving “110%” of my effort during a water-skiing lesson earlier that morning. On another occasion I received a standing ovation in the dining room for something so insignificant that I cannot even remember what it was now. At the end of the two-week term, each elective activity gave out some kind of award to a very large percentage of it’s participants, each cabin gave a special award to each camper, and the camp gave out many gender-specific awards to a handful of campers in each age group.

I often felt like I was being baptized in accolades.

And it wasn’t just the camp staff that made me feel special. The campers who had been attending this camp for years before me were also surprisingly skillful at round-the-clock encouragement. It probably helped that there were ribbons given out for being an excellent encourager, and often times campers were singled out for public praise if they had behaved in especially generous ways towards other campers. Yet, if you asked any of them why and how they were so relentlessly kind towards their peers, they would always tell you it was because they loved Jesus, and because Jesus had said that “we should treat other people the way we would want to be treated” (Matthew 7:12, paraphrase).

Being the beneficiary of this spiritual benevolence probably would have been a positive emotional experience for any adolescent girl, but for a girl who had spent the last three years being somewhat mercilessly harassed by her peers at school, this was sublime. By the time my parents would arrive to come take me home, I didn’t want to leave.

At the wise old age of 12 (and a half), I didn’t consider the complexity of my experience, nor the simplicity of my impression. I didn’t think about the uniqueness of my isolated environment, and the positive reinforcement it provided. I did not consider the multiplicity in anyone’s motives – i.e. ribbons and medals, “bonus points in heaven”, and/or something more inspired. Neither did I care about whether or not there would be strings attached to the sense of inclusion I had been offered that summer. All I could comprehend back then was that Jesus seemed to make people want to be kind and good towards one another.

Frankly, he made me want to be kind and good too. (Still does).

At some now-forgotten moment during my two-week stay in this camp, I became pretty passionately convinced that Jesus was the all-encompassing answer for me. But. Here’s the catch: I also became simultaneously certain that Jesus was the answer for everyone else too. Earnestly, I often thought to myself, “if only everyone else could get to know Jesus like the people at camp know him, then they too would start acting in loving, gracious ways, and the whole world would be so much better”!

And this, my friends, is how an ‘Evangelical’ is born.

Or, perhaps I should say: this is how one young evangelical was born.

Yet, as it is with all births — expelled along with wondrous new life, you might also push some poop out onto the delivery table.  In this case, alongside the instructions about how to treat others with generosity and love, I also learned that being a follower of Jesus meant that the good things I did were just as important as the bad things I did NOT do. In fact, I often got the impression that manifesting an abundance of love or grace towards my fellow man was not as meaningful as avoiding a very important list of explicit and implicit “don’t”‘s:

Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t do drugs, don’t have sex outside of marriage, don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t swear, don’t lust after anyone, don’t have gay feelings or “tendencies”, don’t be jealous, don’t be lazy, don’t lie (unless the truth is impolite), don’t gossip (unless you can disguise it as concern), don’t dress provocatively, don’t dance provocatively, don’t make men feel uncomfortable in general, don’t disrespect your parents, don’t challenge your elders, don’t ask questions no one can answer, don’t be a downer, and don’t be too ambitious.

Now, if that sounds a bit more like a “Southern Manners Manual for Making A Nice Christian Girl out of Your Teenage Daughter”, and less like “The Ten Commandments” or
“The Sermon on the Mount”, it might be because THAT’S WHAT IT IS.

(… once again: more later).

Let’s talk about poverty.

Along with a related personal story, a friend of mine recently shared the following quote on her own blog:

“This is what we seek: a compassion that stands in awe of what the poor have to carry, rather than standing in judgment of how they carry it”. — Father Gregory Boyle

I don’t know about you, but I am in a position to hear a lot of opinions about how federal and state social services foster “dependence”, and/or encourage poor people to “take advantage” of the system. A vast majority of the people who have said things like this to me also call themselves “Christians”.

In a moment, I am going to have a little ‘come-to-Jesus’ with Christians who feel that this kind of attitude towards the poor is reasonable. But before I do that, I want to offer up this PBS documentary, called “Waging A Living” (click the green link). There seems to be an incredible amount of misinformation and assumptions in the world about what it’s like for people who have a full-time jobs, or several part-time jobs, and still don’t make an income above the poverty line.

Now, beloveds, I would like to kindly but firmly remind us what the Bible says about the poor:

Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. – Proverbs 14:31

If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. – Deuteronomy 15:7-8

When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. – Luke 14:14

Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses. – Proverbs 28:27

If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. – 1 John 3:17

There’s more, but I’ll leave us all with that for now. Seems crystal clear to me: shall we not aim for Father Boyle’s aspirational compassion? (Prayer hands).

Grace and peace,

Whitney

Excerpt from my book…

Healing My Religion (Working Title)

For my daughter, Evelyn. My hope is that I might leave you in this world with a sense of how the Sacred is alive within you.

And for my grandmother, also Evelyn, who loved me like Christ loved her.

Disclaimer:

This is not a story about a prodigal return to my Christian origins after years of living in sin. By many people’s standards, I am probably still ‘living in sin‘. Instead, this is my literary attempt to wrestle with my own religious tradition, acknowledging both the pain and the joy it has offered me.

Part I

Chapter 1 (In The Beginning)

I was born and raised in a suburb of Kansas City, KS – just outside of the “Bible Belt”. My parents took us to church every Sunday, and taught us to pray before dinner and before bedtime every day. I don’t think I knew that there were people who called themselves Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus or Sikhs until well into my early adolescence, and I did not get exposed to a single piece of thoughtful dialogue about any of those spiritual perspectives until my junior year of college.

This is the backdrop for my earliest religious sensibilities.

My parents were – and still are – very decent, very hard working, and very generous people. They have always modeled to me a general benevolence towards humanity, which they would likely ascribe to their religious sensibilities. For me, however, being raised by socially responsible parents did not completely inoculate me against some of the uglier aspects of church culture.

Like most busy parents of small children, my mom and dad could not supervise every single Sunday School lecture I received, nor mediate every interaction with other kids or their parents in our wider Christian community. And at some point along the way, one of my Sunday School teachers (note: these were often volunteer parents, and not necessarily seminary graduates) explained to me that the only way anyone could expect to get into heaven was if they believed Jesus Christ was God’s only Son.

So, I’m 7 years old, and I repeat this revelatory new information at school one day.

I don’t know why I said it, other than that it had been said to me, and I had a pretty bad habit of sharing the secrets adults shared with me. I want to believe that somewhere in my 7 year-old brain, I must have thought I was trying to be helpful. Like, “Hey guys, FYI, there’s this religious test coming up that you do NOT wanna fail – the consequences are brutal. So, here’s the cheat sheet! Catch you on the flip side!”

Appropriately, many of the children in my elementary school class were upset by this announcement of mine. My teacher, and my parents were also very upset. And thank God they were, because it was my first big lesson in how religion could hurt other people, and that made an enormous impact on me.

(….. more later).