Healing Spiritual Wounds

an interview with Carol Howard Merritt

Have you ever been wounded by a church, or do you know someone who has been?

Have you ever wished you had the right book on your shelf, something solid and helpful you could read and pass along?

That book is finally here! It is destined to become a classic.

Carol Howard Merritt’s book is called: Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church.

I am privileged to call Carol a friend. We labored together in a writing group, and I know firsthand that she has mastered her craft. What’s more, she has wisdom, theological depth and ministry experience. I believe her book will help many, so I was thrilled to write an endorsement:

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“BIRTHED: Finding Grace through Infertility”

a memoir about infertility that will be a blessing to you

Do you know someone who is struggling with infertility? Perhaps this is the story you live, but hide from others. Or perhaps you have a different but similar sort of heartache. Do you know the feelings of repeated loss and grief, which bring a sense of hopelessness?

My friend Elizabeth Hagan has just written a memoir about her experience with infertility. I am so pleased to tell you about her book — for two reasons. I have been privileged to know Elizabeth while she lived this story, and while she wrote this story — an experience that has covered nearly a decade! I can tell you that Elizabeth is a woman who lives with integrity and passion, and every word of this book reflects her experience of living as a follower of Jesus while her heart was breaking. There is nothing forced or false about any of these sentences. I can also tell you that Elizabeth has grown so much as a writer over that decade! What she has achieved in getting these words onto the page is truly remarkable.

I urge you to buy and read her book! You know someone who needs this book.

Here are some of hard-won lessons you will glean from sharing Elizabeth’s journey:

~ When life doesn’t go as you plan, something greater might be emerging beneath the surface. Live through the pain and you will get there!
~ There are no “one-size” fits all answers to a fertility journey, medically, emotionally or spiritually.
~ It is okay to live into the mystery — the mystery of not knowing how you will bear a child, when or if at all.
~ Infertility does not have to be a silent journey. Connect with my story. Connect to others who’ve gone through it too. Let friends and family who can bear with your pain love you through it.
~ A long season of grief doesn’t have to destroy your marriage or friendships. It can in fact bring you closer.

Learn more at Elizabeth’s website, Preacher on the Plaza.

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Thanks for Your Prayers!

Update on the Kidney Transplant

I posted about my sister Susan offering to donate her kidney to a woman named Buddi, a refugee from Nepal who attends her church. I thought you’d enjoy this picture — both women are still recovering in hospital. Thanks for surrounding the procedure with your prayers! Join me in offering up prayers of thanksgiving, and continued prayers for the blessing of complete recovery and full health.

Buddi Suppa, recipient, and Susan Huizenga Cleveland, donor.

Buddi Suppa, recipient, and Susan Huizenga Cleveland, donor.

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ ~ Matthew 25:37-40

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Please Pray for a Kidney Transplant

my sister Susan is the donor

Susan speaking at Dad's Memorial Service. 6/22/16.

Susan speaking at Dad’s Memorial Service. 6/22/16.

You know how some people would “do anything for you”?

My sister Susan is making that phrase real. She is donating her kidney to a woman who attends her church.

That’s right — one Sunday during Announcements, it was reported that Buddi, a refugee whom the church was assisting, needed a kidney. Without a transplant, she would not be able to have her young daughter join her in this country.

Susan thought — Wow, I could help Buddi AND her daughter, and what could be cooler than that? So she had the test done and the match was made.

Susan told me about her plans a few days after we had the memorial service for our Dad. We were sitting together in church — she attends the same one as my parents — and she elbowed me and said, “Look at that woman in the communion circle, wearing that purple outfit — I’ll tell you something about her later. Her name is Buddi.”

kidney prayer stone

I will resist calling this a “kidney stone.”

What she told me was rather shocking, and to be honest, I wasn’t ready to hear it, not right after we buried our father.

A few weeks later I was in Michigan’s upper peninsula, walking along the shore of Lake Superior, when it struck me that the rocks were as smooth as I imagine an organ to be. I searched for two rocks that seemed the right size to be a kidney. I left one with my mother, and brought the other one home to keep on my desk. I hold it as I pray for my sister. Sometimes when you don’t know what words to use, it’s good to hold something and be silent.

The surgery is scheduled for Monday, September 12, at 7:30 a.m. at Mercy Health St. Mary’s in Grand Rapids, MI.

Please join me in lifting up prayers for a successful outcome for both donor and recipient! Pray as you will. My prayer will go something like this . . . .

Gracious God, watch over Susan and Buddi during their kidney transplant. Be with the surgeons, that they may be skillful and precise and effective in their work. Be with the nurses and all medical personnel, that Buddi and Susan may be surrounded by competence and care. Alleviate their pain. Grant them safety under anesthesia, and successful surgeries. May they each make a full recovery. May Susan’s left kidney begin the work of filtering Buddi’s blood, to restore her body to well being. May Susan’s right kidney take up the work of its sister organ, and be adequate to its task. Please Lord, grant successful surgery for both of them, and full recovery for both of them. Be with the loved ones who wait for news, especially Susan’s husband, and our dear mother. We pray this knowing that you are the Great Healer. We commit Susan and Buddi to you. Amen.

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Counting Dad’s Days

Week 1 & Week 2

Dad’s medications were already organized by the time I arrived at the house, dispensed into two identical trays which had been labeled with a Sharpie: Week 1 and Week 2.

I noticed the organizers on the dining room table, and for a moment wondered which of my sisters had filled the plastic compartments — my older sister Mary Lynn, who’s a nurse — or my youngest sister, Susan, who’s a hospice chaplain? I didn’t ask because it didn’t matter. And there was so much else to know.

How to help Dad in and out of his hospital bed, for starters. Mom had asked us to move Dad into his chair, now that he’d woken up from a nap. The hospice people had shown Susan how to move Dad safely. We used a wide webbed belt that clipped around Dad’s chest and had large cloth loops attached. The loops would give us something to grab onto. So Dad sat up and Susan clipped the belt around him. Then we got positioned, one of us on either side of our father.

“Slide your whole forearm under his armpit, like this, and use your other hand to grab the loop, like this, and 1-2-3-UP!”

Hold. Pivot. Re-position. And gently release him into the chair. Get him comfortable with pillows.

“Do we leave the belt on?” I asked. “Or should I slip it off?”

“Leave it,” said Dad. “For next time.”

“Does it remind you of that passage in the gospel of John?” I asked Dad. “About getting old and having a belt put on you?”

Dad didn’t respond at first, and I thought I’d been obtuse.

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Wishing You Perfect Lighting this Christmas

One reason we like TV is that it presents our world as more than it usually appears to be. I’m thinking of shows like Mad Men or The Good Wife or Parenthood or Masters of Sex, where characters effortlessly wear beautiful clothing, even when long days stretch into late nights, where women are never seen without full makeup, and where the sets, whether homes, offices, restaurants, or courtrooms, are more beautiful than those actual places would be. Each color palette is carefully conceived, the lighting angles are flattering, and the tilt of the camera and its length of focus brings out the emotion in an actor’s expression.

We know that in real life those characters — at least if they were us — would be slipping off their high heels, falling asleep from that much drinking, or looking in vain for a bench at the Hall of Justice. But is there something more that’s different between the screen world and the real world? Do all of the cinematic components create a false reality, or do they help us see the reality that we are often blind to?

We share many store lines with the characters we watch. We have a career that rises and falls — but not as captivatingly as that of the dapper Don Draper. We have relationships that are stretched and strained and patched back together — but not as poetically and decisively as the marriages on Parenthood.

Call this “heightened reality.” I have been working on a manuscript for many months, and I am aware of the literary devices that authors employ to heighten reality. Sentence structure, repetition, alliteration and word choice — they help create a mood and sense of flow. Since I’m writing a memoir, I’m aware that, in a sense, I’m creating a screen version of my own life. I have mixed feelings about the whole process!

But as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day approach, I wonder if one of the treasures of the season is the dose of heightened reality the holiday gives our everyday lives. We treasure a candlelight service because the darkness, the music, and the candles create that slightly-blurred version of reality that’s gorgeous, and helps us notice what’s really going on underneath. On Christmas Eve that underlying reality is the story of the Incarnation — God become a baby for the sake of Love.

In our minds the story has the shine of a gold-foil Christmas card — the cold slab of a manger becomes a rustic crib, the aches of a young mother who gave birth after a long donkey ride becomes a pleasant journey, and the poverty of a straw-strewn birthing room is orchestrated with choirs of angels.

Both versions of the story — the nitty-gritty and the gold-foil — are true. In fact, the Christian life is founded on the truth that underneath ordinary life courses the Kingdom of God.

But most of the time who can pay attention? We are busy dressing in off-the-rack clothes, managing our ordinary careers, and doing the best we can with whatever marital or non-marital state we may find ourselves in at the moment. It is all very humdrum, most of the time. So we tune in to the heightened reality of our TVs to be reminded of the beauty and richness that lies under the surface of reality. It’s just more obvious when the lighting is perfect.

This Christmas, I wish you “perfect lighting” so you can enjoy a heightened dose of reality, right in the middle of your own life. Personally, that’s what I’m hoping for.

I hope we all find that reality in the crumpled wrapping paper, the misshapen Christmas cookies, the lights that blink out at the worst possible moment, and the spouse who wakes up with morning breath. Because coursing right underneath all of that, is the beautiful shining thing we call Love. It is the same Love which undergirds our Planet and each of our lives, every day. We just see it better when the lighting is perfect.

Rembrandt etching nativity

Adoration of the Shepherd: with the lamp, by Rembrandt

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What Do You Regret? An interview w/Michelle Van Loon

MichelleToday I interview Michelle Van Loon about her new book If Only: Letting Go of Regret.

The book launches on July 1. This interview is part of her blog tour.

If Only Letting Go of RegretI only met Michelle once IRL — for the briefest of hugs — but I often read her blog — it’s called Pilgrim’s Road Trip, so how could I not! I am frequently struck by Michelle’s authenticity. I thoroughly enjoyed reading her book.

Ruth: Regret is a very personal topic. Why did you decide to write this book? Was there a particular event that was the genesis of this project?

Michelle: It seemed as though I kept having variations of the same conversation with dozens of people who were smack-dab in the middle of their transition into midlife. They would say things like “I wish I could re-do my kids’ childhood now that they’re leaving the nest”, “I should have finished college”, “What a mistake it was when I married/divorced”, or “If only I would have spent more time with my parents while they were still here.” Spiritual growth at midlife includes coming to terms with the fact that there are no real do-overs in life. I also realized that these deep regret had the seeds of spiritual growth and potential for maturity sown into them, but few of us seemed to have the tools for processing those regrets well. In the church, we create space for confession of sin during many worship services, but rarely deal with regret in a meaningful way. The unintended message from this is that we should be able to move on once we’ve confessed. I was dealing with my own life list entitled “If Only”, and discovered that God could redeem and repurpose my regrets if I was willing to go beyond simply acknowledging that they existed. My own experience and those conversations with my midlife peers sparked my writing, but I realized that the topic had universal appeal. We all have regrets.

Ruth: The topic of regret applies to both men and women, but you often address a woman’s experience. I found this to be affirming. Did you intend for the audience to be mainly female, and if so, how do you hope the book gets used?

Michelle: You’re right – regret is an equal-opportunity “employer” in terms of gender! However, I did imagine I’d be speaking to women with this book, and wrote with a female audience in mind.

Ruth: Your writing style is fun. It doesn’t belabor a point and often uses a fresh image or turn of phrase. I suspect that you write many words that are edited away to achieve this. As a fellow writer, I want to ask: What’s your writing process, overall?

Michelle: Only a fellow writer would recognize that I wrote many words, deleted most of them, rewrote some of them, then deleted three-quarters of the new crop of words. I wish I could turn off my internal editor to spin out a lousy-but-functional first draft, but those lovely times of “flow” are very rare for me. I write at an excruciatingly slow pace, and surf the internet too much as a master procrastinator at the beginning of every writing project. That endorphin-releasing flow happens for me when I’m editing a second or third draft.

Ruth: You cover many biblical stories which are quite familiar, for example: the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, David and Bathsheba, Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery. You do a good job of quickly setting the context of these stories. As a preacher, I know how shaping it is to live with a text in our heads. So let me ask: Which of these stories has the most resonance in your own life at the moment, and why?

Michelle: Great question, Ruth! I love how God’s Word reads each one of us. Whenever I walk around with a passage for a few days meditating on it, that passage is my new favorite. But if I had to select just one story from If Only that continues to resonate with me, it would have to be the account of the prodigal sons in Luke 15:11-32. I can be like the rebel son and the goody-two shoes son; I want to be like the father in the parable. I want to reflect the kind of love my heavenly Father has for me to the prodigals of both kinds he has placed in my life.

Ruth: Two phrases recur throughout the book: the Holiness of God, and our Divided Heart. Would you say these are pivotal ideas for you? I’m curious if there’s some connection between them, or perhaps a story you’d like to share?

Michelle: I have had a prayer partner named Meg for over a decade. We once lived in neighboring towns and could meet for prayer. For the last several years, we meet by phone most Friday mornings. We began to realize during the course of our conversations with one another and with God how compartmentalized and fragmented parts of our lives were. Those compartments were a handy coping mechanism, at least for me. I could keep painful childhood experiences in one slot, a bad break-up in another one. And it worked for me, as it does for so many of us. But what was I supposed to do now that the Holy Spirit showed me the contours of those compartments? Meg and I began praying Ps. 86:11 (“Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.”) out of simple conviction that those compartments were hampering our respective maturity – and likely harboring sin, too. God has been answering that prayer – in his wholehearted purity, in his unfailing mercy, in his truth-telling love. The book is the fruit of some of what God has taught me as Meg and I have continued to pray that prayer.

Ruth: This book is deeply personal. In chapter nine you talk about your own mother, and her spiritual legacy, in a way that is very honest. Since your relationship was conflicted, that must have been difficult to write. What is it that you hope readers will take away from that section in particular?

Michelle: I don’t think I could have written that story one moment earlier in my life than last year, to tell you the truth. But I knew it was time to share this story, as it created a template for regret in my life that shadowed so much of the way I’d learned to live. So many families have secrets, and the effects of those secrets echo for generations. They keep us from experiencing the flourishing life Jesus promised to those who followed him. I hope readers will consider their own family stories, and the way in which shame and regret have shaped those stories. I also hope readers can discover the way in which God is at work in their lives, rescripting and repurposing past regret into new life.

Ruth: The last question seems rather obvious: Do you have any regrets about writing this book?

Michelle: Not a single one! I am praying that If Only can encourage readers to face their regrets and discover that God has been there with them, every messy step of the way.

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Bethphage in Jerusalem

entering the Palm Sunday Chapel

Do you love the Palm Sunday story?

There is a Palm Sunday Chapel in Bethphage, just outside the old city of Jerusalem. It’s a Franciscan chapel situated on the road that passes by the Mount of Olives — a person might take this road to travel from Jerusalem to Jericho.

ImageAccording to the gospels, Bethphage is the spot where the disciples procured a donkey for Jesus, which he then rode into Jerusalem as the people waved palm branches. If you and I were on pilgrimage in Jerusalem this Holy Week, we might walk this same road. (Incidentally, this is along the path pictured on the cover of my book.)

Me, in the chapel at Bethphage, which is known as the "Palm Sunday Chapel."

Me, in the chapel at Bethphage, which is known as the “Palm Sunday Chapel.”

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A Refrain for Lent: Living Water

Saturday is World Water Day. Sunday’s lectionary text is the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, found here (via Bible Gateway).

Here’s a refrain I long ago adapted from somewhere. For months I had the words perched on the windowsill near the sink so I could hum it as I did dishes. Why not make up your own little tune?

Living Water, like a river

like a fountain, like the sea.

Living Water, ever flowing,

ever rising, rise in me.

Tubing on the Shenandoah River last summer

Tubing on the Shenandoah River last summer

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The Problem of Mr. & Mrs. Bates

“Some scenes may not be suitable for all audiences.” So begins Episode 2, Season 4, of Downton Abbey.

Since a costume drama is not my husband’s first choice in entertainment but he’s willing to watch it with me, I teased him that he might be rewarded with a bit of titillation — perhaps a love scene with a flash of bare breast?

But how wrong I was.           SPOILER ALERT!

The warning applies to a scene of sexual violence, when Anna Bates, the lady’s maid, is accosted in the kitchen by a man named Green, the valet of a visitor to Downton.

Thankfully the attack and rape happen off-stage so we don’t witness the violence first-hand, but we see the effects on Anna. In subsequent episodes we see the effects on her marriage. Anna’s husband, Bates, doesn’t know what’s happened, but knows only that something drastic has come between him and his wife. She is suddenly cold to him. He blames himself. Anna, for her part, is cold because she feels this violence has tainted her. She feels no longer good enough for her husband. The dialogue here is spare, and piercing. It’s painful to see a beloved character so traumatized.

To complicate things, Bates has some sort of violence hidden in his past, so Anna has reason to believe that he might kill the rapist if she tells what happened and who did it. She wouldn’t mind if vengeance was exacted, but she fears that her husband will be hanged for doing so. Even after she finally tells him what happened, she hides the identity of the rapist. In the complicated dance of gender and violence, Anna is protecting her husband from the violence of his reaction to the violence done to her own body.

As my twenty-something daughter says, “I have so many feels about this.” So do I.

Some people are upset at PBS and Julian Fellowes for this particular story line. Some say that a storyline about sexual violence is gratuitous, or unlikely, or soap opera-ish. To me it is none of these things. History tells us that sexual violence happens to a lot of women. Why shouldn’t it happen on Downton Abbey? A war breaks out, a young woman dies in childbirth, a young man is killed in a car wreck. The general category is crap that shouldn’t happen but does.

It’s a tragedy when a woman is raped, no matter which century such a crime happens. But in every century this crime does happen. What are it’s after-effects? In Downton Abbey, as in real life, these after-effects are potent, even on people who don’t know the secret. I find this to be particularly wrenching and true to life. Rape has the power to destroy a marriage, even when it’s kept secret. Perhaps especially when it’s kept secret.

Yet, in further episodes we see that the secret revealed continues a different sort of destructive path. Where can this end?

The great fiction writer Willa Cather once wrote: There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.(Source: O Pioneers!)

The story of sexual violence is not a pleasant refrain like a lark song. But it is a repeated human story. It leaves a tremendously wide and powerful wake.

How does the experience of sexual violence shape a particular woman and a particular marriage and a particular household? This is why we watch.

My only comment to Mr. Fellowes might be this: I wish that the local parson had a larger role in the show. I would love to see a more overt inclusion of the life of faith in all the goings-on at Downton.

What do you think the parson would say? Would you like to write that dialogue? How might grace be at work here?

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