Heartbeat: A Travel Blog

I am very decidedly a “city person.” So much so that, during seminary orientation last year, when some new friends invited me to “go exploring” with them I assumed they meant exploring downtown. They meant exploring a state park. So off I went hiking.

For the past 4 days, I hit the road and spent time in Nashville, Tennessee, “Music City USA” with population nearly 700 thousand, and in Bryson City, North Carolina, a little Smoky Mountain town with population 1-2 thousand. City person as I am, you can imagine which location I expected to enjoy the most. But you’d be wrong.

In Bryson City, I was struck with the gift of the small town, the gift of getting away from home, work, school, and errands, trading them all in for a slower pace and quieter place even just for a couple days.

No computer. Sometimes no cell signal or WiFi to enable staring at my smart phone as so many of us are apt to to do these days. Just me and the friend I was visiting, deciding at any given moment whether to go shopping for fresh produce on a farm or tubing on a river or contra dancing at the Sneak E Squirrel (no joke).

At dusk, my friend and I went to a park with varying lengths of hiking trails, each leading the hiker to a waterfall. Unprepared for a long hike, we selected a very short but (in my opinion) very steep trail.

After a series of steep steps, I stopped and put my hand on my chest and told my friend between breaths, “My heart’s beating really fast.”

“That means you’re alive!” she said joyfully, putting her hand over her chest to feel its rhythmic beating.

“I guess that’s true. I’m alive!” I echoed, reaching a hand to my racing heart as well.

20286778_10209104929289986_4948139808650309407_oBy this time we had reached the base of the waterfall, where we could stand on a little bridge looking directly at the water streaming down the rock face in front of us. For a quiet minute we just stood there, hands over our hearts as if pledging allegiance to God’s good Creation.

On the walk back, we marveled at the fireflies making the air around us glisten. Stars on earth,  we called them. Angels of the forest.

Before leaving the park, we rolled up our jeans and took off our shoes and stepped into the cool river water. Looking out into the evening, I found nothing to feel — no past griefs or future fears — but the natural elements presently surrounding my senses. The air and water on my skin, sand and rock under my toes, birds and bugs singing in my ears, setting sun before my eyes.

Maybe it was like the line from Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being Wallflower: “And in that moment I swear we were infinite.”

Because we are infinite. It just takes stepping out of our finite schedules to see it. Setting aside for a second the nine-to-fives, meeting agendas, school syllabi, and whatever other conceptions of time may constrict us. (Liturgical calendars still allowed, in my opinion.)

A lot of people travel in the summer, and if you’re one of those people I’d challenge you to make that travel a pilgrimage — an intentional journey open to spiritual discovery.

Pilgrimage surprises us — like the surprise of my “city person” soul riveted by the river.

Pilgrimage helps the heart beat.

Pilgrimage reminds us we’re alive. 

Religious Trauma and the Binding of Isaac

1200px-sacrifice_of_isaac-caravaggio_28uffizi29“Deceived, tied up, and held at knife-point — all by his own father? Because God said so? Talk about traumatic!” an older lady exclaimed.

I was sitting in a lectionary Bible study this morning, discussing the story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19) as many lectionary users may have done today. And let’s just say the conversation wasn’t easy. The bunch of us, perhaps especially those who are parents, appeared aghast at a God who would lead Abraham to the point of so nearly killing his son Isaac.

What stood out to me was the group’s conception of the event as traumatic.

This summer, I’ve been doing some particularly focused reading on the topic of religious trauma, starting with the work of trauma therapist and contemplative activist Teresa Pasquale and moving next into the pastoral perspective of PCUSA minister and writer Carol Howard Merritt.

According to Pasquale, “trauma in a religious context can be seen as any painful experience perpetrated by family, friends, community members, or institutions inside of a religion” (Sacred Wounds, 22). Some of the more difficult yet all-too-real case examples that Pasquale cites include sexual abuse perpetrated by religious leaders and ostracism of LGBTQ persons initiated by religious leaders. She goes into great detail regarding types of trauma, types of trauma responses, symptoms and treatment of PTSD, and more.

In my seminary studies this past year, I learned that one of the lenses through which I might conduct Bible study (and through which, it turns out, I enjoy conducting Bible study!) is through the lens of trauma theory. This simply means reading biblical narratives with an awareness of the psychological experiences occurring within and among the characters.

What psychological experiences might be occurring within Abraham, for example? Fear. Dread. An anxious hope that indeed, as promised, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering,” thus sparing Isaac from death (Gen. 22:8).

And Isaac? Shock. Anger. Betrayal. An anxious, adrenaline-filled relief that, in the very last second, indeed “Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son” (Gen. 22:13).

Two truths are evident:

  1. The binding of Isaac qualifies as a traumatic event — an instance of religious trauma to be exact. I can imagine Isaac triggered for years to come, sweating or hyperventilating or experiencing other panic symptoms at the sight of normally neutral or even good things such as firewood, knives, an altar, or his own father. I can imagine Isaac as a teenager reminding his father of the event during times of familial conflict. (“You almost killed me that one time! What kind of loving father does that?”)
  2. God provides. The keyword “provide” occurs at least three times in the story, in verses 8 and 14. What’s more, in two of those occurrences (verse 14), Abraham names the place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Naming of people and places was a significant act in the ancient world, which suggests God’s provision as a significant theme of this story.

Importantly, Truth #2 does not negate Truth #1 — lest we try to become entirely saccharine about what’s happening here. God’s provision in the end does not give us permission to ignore a person’s painful process leading up to the end. A story that only looks at the end is no good story at all.

And, on the flip side, Truth #1 does not negate Truth #2 — lest we try to become entirely cynical about what’s happening here. A painful process does not give us permission to ignore God’s provision in the end. A story that neglects to look at the end is no good story at all.

What does this have to say to survivors of religious trauma?

First, religious trauma is real. As Pasquale wrote:

“I want to validate your hurt. If you have been negatively impacted by others’ actions or the experiences you have had inside a religious or spiritual context, I am so sorry. I am terribly sorry the places, spaces, and faces who were supposed to show you the ultimate expression of love showed you something negating” (Sacred Wounds, 21).

Isaac, I want to validate your hurt. I am so sorry.

Second, survivors of religious trauma can have hope. God provides in the end. Or if you prefer to think of it this way: life provides. Life keeps going and life can provide family, friends, helping professionals, and/or communities (whether religious or not) that have some goodness in them if we’re willing to see and receive it. Life provides breath and body and beauty, exemplified in the “healing exercises” Pasquale offers centered around breathing, grounding, and forms of art therapy. In short, life provides.

Isaac, I want to share in your hope. I am so thankful.

It’s hard for the hurt and the hope to coexist. But I think that’s what the story of the binding of Isaac, and the story of any religious trauma, has to tell. It’s not an easy story. But it’s a good one.

Life and Death Theology

18891899_10158913660800531_6923670952198184857_oEarlier this summer, I had the privilege of helping with Duke Divinity School’s Summer Institute for Reconciliation, a week-long conference that brought together about 100 leaders working at intersections of faith and social justice around the U.S. and around the world.

One morning, we heard remarks from a joyful gentleman named R. Simangaliso Kumato, president of Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary in South Africa.

At first, Kumato sounded like any of the administrators at my own seminary in the U.S., clicking through a series of PowerPoint slides describing his institution and its strategic goals. One slide displayed the question “How do we form transforming leaders for the Church and the nation?” The answer, in short, was a predictable combination of academics, spirituality, and community.

But, then, he elaborated:

“We do not have the privilege of doing academics just for the fun of it. We have to seek the issues that are at the heart of our society. Our studies must lead to personal change and policy change. Our theologies are life and death for us.”

As soon as Kumato started into this impassioned plea, I was riveted. In my divinity-school world — as students in any area of academia might experience — we sometimes think we have the privilege of doing academics just for the fun of it. We wouldn’t always call it “fun,” especially not during finals. But we’re doing academics often for primarily or even purely personal reasons, for grades or success, for the expectations of parents or grandparents, for the next hoop to jump through on the way to ordination or a doctorate or whatever it is we aspire to. We take electives, sometimes in obscure thinkers and theories, based on a “whatever floats your boat” or “whatever fits your schedule” mindset. And that’s all valid.

Actually, it’s a bit more than valid. I’m convinced that being enthralled by a pursuit — even an obscure academic pursuit — is beautiful and useful to the world. As Howard Thurman has said: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

So who’s right — Kumato or Thurman? Do we ask what the world needs or not?

Yes and yes.

What the world needs is people who have come alive. I need to come alive and my neighbor needs to come alive. As Kumato put it, my studies must lead to personal change and policy change — change at a me and my neighbor kind of level.

But people aren’t coming alive. To be quite frank, people are dying.

From his South African context, the president of Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary knew this full well. He told us some about post-apartheid South Africa, about tensions over race, gender, and sexuality, about violent attacks and “corrective rapes” in which men (Christian men, to be exact) aim to change the orientation of lesbian women by raping them.

“Our theologies are life and death for us.”

You might think, “Well, that’s South Africa. Circumstances aren’t that bad everywhere.”

But, no. It looks different in different environments, but it’s still true. Tensions over race, gender, and sexuality in the U.S.? Check, check, and check. Black men in their cars are killed. Young women on college campuses are raped. LGBTQ teens are bullied by peers and excommunicated by families. Pretty sure I saw each of those stories in the news in the last 24 hours.

“Our theologies are life and death for us.”

What’s theology got to do with it? Plenty.

Our theologies tell us, at a minimum:

  • who God is (full of love, full of wrath, or somehow some of both?)
  • who God’s people are (inherently good, inherently sinful, or somehow some of both?)
  • how to treat those people (with kindness, with correction, or somehow some of both?)

Side note: I think the answer to each of the above is “somehow some of both.” But that’s a blog post (or a book because, good Lord, those are big questions!) for another day.

Theologically, if I think God is angry at me, that’s a recipe for shame and depression. If I think a person or people group is not as holy as me, that’s a recipe for oppression and violence.

So, we do not have the privilege of doing academics (certainly theological academics, but other academics too) just for the fun of it.

To say this lesson has been “humbling” or “convicting” feels like an understatement.

This is a reminder to do academics for a reason. For lives to be spared from sources of literal or figurative death and secured into sources of literal and figurative life. For life and death theology.

 

Nevertheless She Persisted

In January she watched as women’s marches took over downtowns around the world, complete with pink pussy hats and witty posters and various sorts of ideological disagreements.

In February she started hearing the catch phrase, based on Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s experience of being silenced mid-speech: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless she persisted.

She felt sad and slightly sick at the reality of it all. The reeling, repressive, recurrent reality that she — and, yes, so many shes — had also been warned, given an explanation, and pushed into a place of persistence.    

il_340x270-1139220768_r5dpIn March someone sweetly offered her a gray t-shirt with “nevertheless she persisted” emblazoned on it in some cool typography.

She felt sad and slightly silenced at the assumption of it all. The assumption that persistence could be explained with a t-shirt. That the pain of a person — an entire people group in fact — could be summarized with a slogan. Perhaps especially the assumption that it was empowering to quote a past tense catchphrase to someone engaged in present-tense struggle.     

In April her grandmother suddenly passed away a few days before final exams were to take place.

In May she spent some time focused on a funeral and family and friendships, then some more time focused on final exams and papers — while fighting through a couple sicknesses and surprises along the way.

Most mornings it was unusually hard to get out of bed. Most weeks her therapist asked if she still wanted to keep going (as opposed to quitting or taking a leave of absence) on the career path and life path she was on. After a long pause and deep breath, she said “yes” every time.

Because that’s what persistence looks like, friends. It looks like Senator Warren publicly standing her ground. But it also, probably more often, looks like you and me day after day just getting out of bed and taking deep breaths and saying “yes.”

As you may have guessed by now, this is my story I’m telling. The story of my second semester of seminary to be exact.

I don’t share it to complain that things were hard, though sometimes they were. And I don’t share it to boast that I got through it, though it seems I did.

I share my story to say that persistence takes a lot longer than 140 characters. It’s harder than a hashtag, more tenuous than a t-shirt, more complex than a catchphrase. So complex that, when I took a seminar on “nurturing leaders for resilience” last week, we defined resilience as the capacity to rebound from shocks or setbacks, calling upon and/or creating a core of physical, psychological, social, and spiritual resources.

So, psychologically speaking, persistence looks not only like a muscular marathon runner (though I’m sure they’re very persistent indeed) but like a relay race of resources.

It looks like therapists, friends, family, self-care, self-talk, a little chocolate, and a lot of choosing to say “yes.”

It looks sometimes like triumphant endings and more often like a long series of brave beginnings. As St. Benedict has been attributed with saying: Always we begin again.

bba3b09aba78d5b327e5de0239e69c60Call me a monk, but I like those ancient four words (always we begin again) much more than the modern three (nevertheless she persisted).

For months I took quiet offense at the over-simplicity of the “nevertheless she persisted” line. Now I just want to at least amend the phrase, to recognize the duration and difficulty involved in persistence. I want to say “nevertheless she is persisting” or “nevertheless she will persist” or maybe “nevertheless we will persist.”

I will. We will.

Because persistence is never over. And persistence is never a solo sport. It has to be an always. It has to be an all of us.

Always. We. Begin. Again.

In Memoriam: A Reflection on the Life of My Grandma

The reflection I delivered today at my grandmother’s memorial service:

I have been blessed beyond measure to have Ellen Rust as my grandma. From a very young age, I always knew that Grandma loved me and my family with an unwavering, godly kind of love. She would call me her “little angel” and leave lipstick kisses on my cheeks. She would come to grandparent’s days and piano recitals. By the time I was in college, she would offer me clothes straight from her closet – like the outfit that I’m actually wearing today.

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The last time I saw my grandma, January 2017

Now, I’m 26 and completing my first year of seminary at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. And I assure you: Ellen Rust has helped to make that possible.

Last week, when I learned of her passing, a chaplain at the seminary asked me: “Do you think there are ways that you’re similar to your grandmother?”

I thought for a long second and finally said, “You know. She would sometimes tell me that when she was young she wanted to go into the ministry. But she wasn’t sure she could because she was a woman and she didn’t have the money for seminary and probably some other reasons.”

Well, Grandma, I think you did go into the ministry. The ministry of encouragement. Support. Responsibility.

Like last fall when she called me up on the phone just to check on me and the conversation went something like this:

“Are you learning things up there at school?” she asked.

“Yes, lots of things,” I said.

“Well, that’s good. Are you going to church?”

“Yes, ma’am.” (Little did she know I would be an intern at that church some months later!)

“Are you gonna go vote for the president?”

“Yes, definitely.”

“Well, sounds like you’re doing real good.”

Simple as that. In the midst of an often complicated world, she knew her values: Education. Faith. Civic responsibility.

And maybe the value I remember most? Prayer.

When she had a short hospital stay in 2015, I went to visit and found her in good spirits. We talked, I prayed for her, and then from right there in the hospital bed she insisted on praying for me. I’ll never forget that, as I was getting ready to leave, Grandma told me this: “Every night, I lay down and talk to Jesus. Sometimes it’s real short, because I fall asleep and all. And sometimes it’s real long, because I tell him all about my day. And he listens real good and says, honey, you’ve had a pretty good day. And I say thanks, Jesus, I guess I have.”

So, even today, when I think about the life and legacy of Ellen Rust, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus is listening real good and saying, “Honey, you’ve had a pretty good life.” And I imagine Ellen in glory laughing, “Thanks, Jesus. I guess I have.”