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. Lo and behold, 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 might guess which location I enjoyed most. But you’d probably guess 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 a bit worriedly, “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 with a laugh.

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 a 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.

Door of Hope: A Photo Essay

From last week’s lectionary readings:

“Therefore, I will now allure her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.
From there I will give her her vineyards,
and make the Valley of Achor* a door of hope.
There she shall respond as in the days of her youth,
as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.”
~ Hosea 2:14-15

*Achor = trouble, struggle. So, yes, you might say God will “make the Valley of Trouble a door of hope.”

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St. John’s College (Santa Fe, NM)

They say “when God closes a door, He opens another one.” Or maybe this: “When God closes a door, He opens a window.”

But, I’ve started to think of it this way: “When God closes a door, She opens a paint bucket and builds some beauty.” God makes beauty out of boring, color out of chaos, veritable art out of valleys of Achor.

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Church of the Incarnation (Dallas, TX)

A little late afternoon light reaching through a darkened door, making possible a stained glass window prayer? Telling us where in the world we are? Door of hope.

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Duke University Chapel (Durham, NC)

A wash of morning light moving slowly over a threshold, marking the passage of time? Telling us when in the day we are? Door of hope.

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Church of the Holy Family (Chapel Hill, NC)

A church door red as the blood of the lamb that was slain, as though all who dwell there might be marked by mercy and life while sin and death pass by? Telling us who and whose we are? Yes. What a door of hope.

 

First Quarter Faith

Something unexpected happened today. I was deeply inspired…wait for it…by a football analogy

Today at work some colleagues and I watched a video clip of a sermon called “Last Minute God.” My colleagues, all at least 10-20 years older than myself, then described seasons of their lives when God had seemingly shown up at the “last minute” after they’d spent many years waiting and wondering.

My boss, who I’m quickly learning has an interest in college football, brought up the recent BCS championship between Florida State and Auburn, in which Florida State was significantly behind during the first half but caught up by the end and won.

“Any of us could be like that too,” she encouraged. “You could be worried about something, things could look rough…but you’re just in the first half of your game.”

Then, she gestured at me. “My goodness, you’re just in the first quarter!”

First quarter? I’d never thought that way.

I think too often we view milestones, such as a graduation, as the end of the game rather than the end of part of the game. It’s as if we see freshman year as the first quarter, sophomore year as the second quarter, and so on, all the while aiming to get a diploma that says we won. In the grand scheme of things, however, graduating doesn’t signify “You won!” but rather “You’ve warmed up. Now go play.”

If, like me, you’re young and prone to worry about the future (or even if you’re old and worry about the future — after all, we’re all young if we take eternity into account), keep playing. You’re just in the first quarter. 

Choose Life: Because Christ Is "Coming My Way"

This has been a hard week for a lot of people.

About 2 Fridays ago, megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s son committed suicide at 27. Last Friday, author Brennan Manning passed away at 78. Monday, Boston happened. Tuesday, Virginia Tech was commemorated (perhaps especially at Virginia universities like mine). Although there’s lots that I could read and lots that I could write about any of these things, I don’t know these people or situations well personally, so I don’t want to be so bold as to write much about them.

However, I do know I can pray for people directly involved.

I do know I can pay attention to how news of tragedy is affecting those indirectly involved or not involved — myself and others. (If news of tragedy elicits suicidal ideation, this recent article can help: “6 Ways You Can Respond to Suicidal Ideation” from Mental Health Grace Alliance)

I do know that today is “Word-of-God Wednesday” on my blog, and whatever happens the “the grass withers and the flowers fade, but the Word of our God remains forever” (Isaiah 40:8).

In Rick Warren’s letter to his congregation, informing them of Matthew’s passing, he expressed deep admiration for his son’s perseverance — and rightly so. In so doing, he said something I find intriguing:

“I’ll never forget how, many years ago, after another approach [to treating mental illness] had failed to give relief, Matthew said, ‘Dad, I know I’m going to heaven. Why can’t I just die and end this pain?’ But he kept going for another decade.”

What on earth can we say to this line of thinking? What did Pastor Warren say? I have no idea. More importantly, what does the Bible say? I have some idea.

The Bible tells us that we should choose life:

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” – Deuteronomy 30:18-20

According to this passage, we should choose life because:

  • choosing life will help our children — or potential children or potential legacies in general
  • choosing life allows us to continue growing toward loving God, listening to His voice, and holding fast to Him
  • “the Lord is your life”; He made us to begin with (Psalm 139:14)
  • “the Lord will give you many years”; He is making our futures (Jeremiah 29:11)

What’s more, the Bible tells us that we should choose life as opposed to choosing death because the kingdom of heaven has come, can come, and is coming again to earth. As is sometimes said around Easter time: “Christ has come. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Because of this, we have hope that the Immanuel (a.k.a. “God with us”) who was with us still is with us and again will be with us. In the meantime, we can connect with God through the Bible, prayer, and through the “deposit” of himself that Christ left us in the form of the Holy Spirit.

One way to summarize this is the way that Christ teaches his followers to pray in the “Lord’s Prayer”: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”

This suggests that we aren’t supposed to desire to get to heaven temporally sooner. Personally, I don’t think it suggests that we’re supposed to desire heaven to get here temporally sooner. I think the Lord’s Prayer calls us to pray for — and act on — bringing the kingdom of God to earth by loving God and others right here, right now.

This song, “Coming My Way” by The City Harmonic, featured in a video about Brennan Manning, has helped me understand and reflect on this concept:

As this song suggests: Christ is coming toward us in this life. We don’t need to wait till death or usher in death to come to him.

He’s here. He has a mission for us. He has a kingdom for us. And that’s something to live for.