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.

Why Seminary?

“A woman asked me at lunch today — not in a confrontational way, but just in the I’m-confused way in which it often comes — ‘And why are you going to seminary?'” – Dr. Greg Garrett, Crossing Myself: A Story of Spiritual Rebirth

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that (and asked myself that) I’d be a wealthy woman.

First, there’s the answer that, well, I think God told me to. Insert mic drop here.

Then there’s the professional, practical answer about pursuing education and experience to be equipped for work in my field of interest.

There’s the intellectual answer that, as Frederick Buechner writes in Now And Then: A Memoir of Vocation, I want “to learn about Christ — about the Old Testament, which had been his Bible, and the New Testament, which was the Bible about him; about the history of the church … about the theological systems that the passion of his original followers, and of Saint Paul in particular, had been distilled into. No intellectual pursuit had ever aroused in me such intense curiosity, and much more than my intellect was involved, much more than my curiosity aroused.

And then, there’s the stories. Oh the stories.

How I perked up in 9th grade world history, in which I was honestly apt to doze off, when I heard mention of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, a title that roughly translates into English as “the highest of theological knowledge” or “the sum total of theological knowledge.” I would later learn that this difficult work comes in multiple volumes totaling over 3,000 pages, and I will likely ever tackle only a tiny percent of it. But, I will never forget feeling so unnaturally fascinated nonetheless.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHow, when I was 16 years old, I stumbled into a youth program at Duke Divinity School which involved spending 2 weeks at the seminary praying, singing, serving, hearing theology lectures that were way over my head, and then attempting to discuss and apply them. At the end of the 2 weeks, I learned that it was possible to perhaps one day do that kind of thing for 2-3 years  — as an intensive training to perhaps do that kind of thing vocationally for all my years. My jaw dropped at the realization. And my spirit clenched onto the conviction that that’s precisely what I was going to do.

How the conviction has lived in the back of my mind for years while I play a life-size Game of Life, taking one step forward and two steps back, through college and first jobs and countless conversations and applications.

How, when I was 23 years old, my mom asked me to officiate a short graveside memorial on what would have been her father’s (my grandfather’s) 100th birthday. I pestered a priest for some advice and somehow patched together a quilt of Bible verses and BCP prayers for my part-Baptist, part-Episcopalian family. When I invited the tiny congregation to share their remembrances, all my grandma wanted to say was this: “You drank too much, old man.” My mom sighed and said something sweet and I said amen. It was undoubtedly awkward. And God was undoubtedly there.

How many times friends have asked me where God was when they were diagnosed with depression, date raped, or dealing with anorexia. Asked me what God thought about their Muslim friends or LGBTQ family. Asked me what the Church thought about such-and-such social issue or why we practice such-and-such sacrament. Over and over, my answer has been “I don’t know. But I’d like to sit with you and consider your questions just as much as we can.”

How very much, in those maybe-ministerial moments, I longed to engage those comrades’ concerns in a more robust, informed manner — something I believe seminary will help with.

I tell these stories to know who I am. We all have to, I think. Have to gather up our stories to know who we are. Whether aspiring to be a pastor or poet, professor or pediatrician, so many of us have stories of those moments when we just knew we had to do something. The career day, the field trip, the toy stethoscope or telescope or microscope we played with as children — longing all the while for the eventual real deal.

To return to Dr. Garrett, who opened this blog:

“Do I think that in [a couple] years when I complete seminary, I’ll be ordained as an Episcopal priest? I don’t know. And you know, it almost doesn’t matter. What I do know is that as long as I have life and breath, I’m going to try to be a Christian. I’m going to write and teach and preach and live in a fashion that shows how thankful I am. … I’m going to try to be the healing hands of Christ in a broken and hurting world. That’s all I know. And really, that matters more than anything else, any title you could put in front of my name, any collar you could put around my neck.”
As I start seminary next week (strange to say), life is going to look very different in some beautiful ways and busy ways, some sweet and some stressful. I don’t expect to blog as often, although hopefully still at least once per month. But I do expect to collect stories. Stories of trying, as Dr. Garrett said, “to be the healing hands of Christ in a broken and hurting world.”

Carry Each Other

In Anne Marie Miller’s book Permission to Speak Freely, Miller describes a meeting with Jamie Tworkowski, founder of the mental health non-profit To Write Love On Her Arms. Over coffee, Tworkowski says something like this:

“So there’s this song U2 does called ‘One,’ and there’s a line in it that says, ‘We get to carry each other.’ I read an interview recently where Bono talked about how it makes him mad when people sing that line wrong. They sing ‘We have to carry each other’ instead of ‘We get to carry each other.” So basically, he said if you sing it like we have to carry each other, we’re missing the privilege of it. We don’t have to — we get to. It’s an obligation, and stretch, and it takes so much effort. But in the end, it’s a privilege that we get to carry each other.

Let’s just say, in recent days, I’ve seen a whole lot of people — a metroplex of millions, in fact — get to carry each other.

Because on Thursday, July 7, I officiated the evening prayer liturgy at my church, mentioned then the names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and afterward lit two candles there in the chapel. It was one small way of carrying their souls up to God, my prayers a little like the smoke rising from the candles.

That night, I could hear helicopters and sirens from my home about two miles from downtown Dallas, where a tragic shooting was unfolding. My housemates and I sat together on our couch and watched the news, dumbstruck, as the surreal events on the screen took place mere miles away.

thanksgiving squareAnd, on Friday, July 8, as my whole city grieved, I headed back to the church for a semi-spontaneous noonday requiem, similar to the various services and vigils cropping up all over town. We sang hymns together, heard a homily together, cried with and communed with and carried each other.

A friend from far away called Friday and asked how I was doing, and I said: “There’s just a sense of heaviness sitting on my heart and over my city.”

Heaviness is the only way I know to describe it. And, what do we do when we see someone carrying something heavy? We help each other. Almost instinctively, we help each other with heavy boxes and bags. It’s only natural, then, that we should help each other with heavy hearts.

I see this in the Bible when the apostle Paul exhorts us to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Or when the gospels tell a story of people coming to Jesus, “bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men” — and when they can’t get to Jesus they keep on carrying the paralyzed fellow up to the roof, bust through the ceiling, and lower the dude down to Jesus.

I see this in the writing life when I’m working on writing a book-length memoir, which is a project I’ve been pursuing with some degree of diligence this summer. The thing is: memoirs are personal. The word “memoir” comes from the same roots as the word “memory,” after all. It’s memory after memory after memory — hard and humorous and hopefully insightful — all linked together at least somewhat logically by the end. But, until that pretty, paperback end comes (if it comes) the process is heavy. It’s more of my own stories than I’ve ever carried at one time, in one Word document. And, somehow, maybe because of Anne Miller and Jamie Tworkowski and Bono, I’ve decided to let people in my life carry these stories with me. Not because they have to, but because they get to.

When I finish drafting a chapter, it gets emailed to the person of my choice. Not for editing yet or even proofreading. Just for carrying. Chapter 2 goes to my priest, chapter 4 maybe to my mom, chapter 11 definitely to my therapist, and so on. That way, I’m not loading all the stories onto any one, single person, which could help me avoid dependency and help supporters avoid compassion fatigue. Moreover, this spreading-the-load creates community.

Story by story, chapter by chapter, when you have to hold the heavier things in your life, which sometimes you will, here’s what I hope: I hope you have a community, a Dallas, a church, a family. And in that community? I hope you get to carry each other.

“One love, one blood, one life, you got to do what you should.
One life with each other: sisters, brothers.
One life, but we’re not the same.
We get to carry each other, carry each other.
One, one.”
~ U2, “One”

Hey. Thanks For Caring.

I’ve heard it said that generally what homeless people essentially long for is for someone to care about them. To look them in the eye, learn their name, and ask about their day — that kind of thing. And I’ve agreed with that in theory.

But today I agree with that in practice. Because today I met Laura.

See, on the way home from work, I stopped at Target for ice cream. (Nothing else. Just ice cream. Because I drive by a Ben & Jerry’s cookie core billboard every other day and today I finally caved to the cravings.) When it was time to check out, I realized I had no cash, paid for my ice cream with a credit card, and requested cash back. After tucking the cash into my wallet and the wallet into my purse, I headed out to my car.

Before I could get to my car, a young woman approached me. She had long brown hair and tanned skin and maybe half of her teeth. She had a massive bruise on her forehead and a khaki bucket hat trying in vain to cover the bulging bruise.

Shyly, she asked if I maybe had any money to help her get to a motel that night.

[Confession: I have never given money to a stranger. Occasionally food or water, but never money. And I probably wouldn’t have this time except that literally five days ago, at a women’s Bible study, where we’ve been discussing the Sermon on the Mount and the beatitudes in particular, we discussed the topic of mercy. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Our Bible study leader that day challenged us very specifically to think about how we react to the homeless people we see daily on our city streets, how we have or have not shown them mercy in the past, and how we might extend mercy moving forward.]

Standing there outside Target, I stopped and sighed and sincerely considered giving her my Ben & Jerry’s (maybe even grabbing two spoons and eating it right there with her on the sidewalk!) and settled on saying this: “What’s your name?”

“Laura,” she said.

“And how are you doing today, Laura?” I asked, genuinely not sure where this was going or how long I intended to play counselor in the parking lot.

“I’m hanging in there,” Laura said, sounding both strong and sad. We looked at each other. Then, looking away, she added: “You’re gonna make me cry with all these questions.”

“I just want you to know I care about you,” I said slowly. And, sighing again, I reached into my purse and slipped out some of my newly-acquired cash — because how in the world, I thought, could I spend money on my own frivolous, dairy-based desires and then turn around and spend nothing on this new friend facing real fundamental needs?  Handing it to her, I said: “Please be safe tonight, OK?”

As I walked away, she called quietly after me: “Hey. Thanks for caring.”    

Now, I’m not saying that I did everything right, that I changed Laura’s life, or that she changed mine (although maybe she did, just a little bit). There’s questions to be asked, social issues to be raised, and things I could have done differently in my meeting with Laura. Various parts of me wish that I’d stayed with her longer, offered her something more, taken her to a homeless shelter, women’s shelter, or hospital.

For now, what I’m saying is this: There’s power in presence. There’s power in story. I’ve experienced it time and time again. There’s power in stopping and sighing and sincerely considering spending something on behalf of someone — spending time, spending money, spending something.

What if, I wonder, we looked into the eyes of more Lauras — whether that’s baristas or barbers, neighbors or no-names? What if we learned their name? Asked about their day?

What if we had more conversations that left people calling quietly after us: “Hey. Thanks for caring.”

The Gift of Advent

advent-wreath11As a kid, I’m pretty sure Advent meant little more to me than the chocolate-filled calendars that Grandmother sent over around Thanksgiving (which I’ve since learned to be liturgically inaccurate, as they tend to start on December 1st regardless of whether that’s the actual first Sunday of Advent). There was an Advent wreath off to stage right at my big Baptist church, but as soon as it was lit up went the light show and off we went singing anthems about “Joy, Joy, Joy.”

At some point I wondered: What about those of us who for one reason or another — whether due to melancholic temperament or mental illness or the mere fact that it’s cold outside — have a hard time with “joy, joy, joy”?

The gift of discovering the season of Advent, for me, has been its gradual introduction of joy.

As a writer, I know that good stories build. There’s an introduction, characters meet, suspense rises, hints are dropped like gingerbread crumbs to lead the reader along.

And, as a reader of Scripture, I know that God’s stories build too. They build for 40 days and 40 nights of flooding. They build for 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. And apparently God took 9 months to come to us, to be like us and with us (which makes me wonder what Mary was doing and thinking and feeling all that time).

I’m glad that God’s stories build. It doesn’t provide the instant gratification of, say, chocolate Advent calendars. But it does provide enduring identification of God’s story with ours. It’s like God saying: “Take your time with finding your way — or your way back — to life and light and joy. It’s OK to take your time. I did.”

A while back, I was at a wedding reception and happened to be really not in the mood to be at a wedding reception. Getting dressed up and hearing a homily about love and smiling perfunctorily for pictures was quite enough. Then, it happened. A friend dragged me to the dance floor…then encouraged me to dance…then, in an admittedly well-intentioned effort to raise my spirits, reached out and lifted my cheeks into a smile. It stung for a second — first on my cheeks, then in my spirit. That quick exchange communicated that my less-than-joyfulness was essentially unacceptable.

Advent tells me that God isn’t out to lift my cheeks into any forced, festive smile. Rather, God is interested in lifting my life — even if it takes a while.            

Advent tells me that less-than-joyfulness (acquired joyfulness?) is actually remarkably acceptable — commendable even. 

Advent says that, no matter what the Hallmark cards and holiday commercials say, you don’t have to have “joy, joy, joy” now. You just have to start living into the story of joy. One page at a time. One step at a time. One candle at a time.