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Spiritual Abuse and Asking for Help

The people and stories I encounter in my ministry are not always easy ones to hear. They are weighty with pain and hurt. In these stories, there is almost always a point at which the person reached out to a religious leader asking for help and guidance.

A woman whose husband was physically abusing her was told that she needed to stick with the marriage because “God hates divorce.”

A woman who was being consistently being sexually harassed at church was told, “he is a good man and a servant of God. Your job is to submit to your husband.”

A woman was struggling with depression and wanted a recommendation for a therapist or a psychiatrist was told, “God is strong enough. You just need to pray more.”

Again and again, people reach out for help only to be told, there is no help. The dogmatic teaching doesn’t allow for divorce, victims speaking up, or needing help outside of the religious community. And instead of offering wholeness and freedom, the community of faith offers more hurt, more pain, and more isolation.

If you know that you know that you that you know that you are spending eternity in heaven then what you experience here on earth doesn’t matter all that much. If you have the peace that surpasses all understanding then you can overcome anything that you encounter.

This is spiritual abuse.

When we cling so tightly to doctrine over the people who are sitting before us bearing their souls, we are missing the gospel message. The gospel is not about continued and consistent hurt and brokenness. The gospel is about freedom and wholeness. This is why the Divine came to earth to offer new life.

When we focus so heavily on eschatological destinations, we miss out on living and being here on earth. We miss being in community with others who breathe the same Divine breath that we do. We miss out on seeing the miraculous transformative power of the Divine here among us working, changing, and offering hope to people desperately asking for help, asking to be seen, asking to be heard.

May our eyes be opened to see those who surround us and hear their needs, rather than explaining those needs away with an easy dogmatic answer.

 

 

Spiritual Abuse and Mental Illness

Sunday’s lectionary gospel passage was from Mark 1:21-28.

1:21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 1:22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 1:23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 1:24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 1:25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 1:26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 1:27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 1:28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

It’s important for us to spend some time discussing and reflecting on this passage because we are not comfortable with the idea that there are unclean spirits or evil spirits that not only could change our lives emotionally and mentally but could cause us to physically convulse, are we? This is not a term or situation we are familiar with, but it is something that we confront and encounter as we read the gospel accounts of Jesus and his ministry. Modern interpretations lean towards the understanding that someone with unclean spirits would be the equivalent today to someone who struggles with mental illness or perhaps some sort of physical disability that cannot be overcome with mere focus and attention but needs a miraculous healer like Jesus.

In too many cases, this interpretation has become dangerous because pastors and teachers will tell people who struggle with mental or physical illness that they just need to pray and ask God for healing and not pursue any kind of medication or therapy offered by science. The Healer can heal everything and no matter what kind of mental illness or mental health issues you struggle with, you just have to pray more and believe more and you will be healed 

This is spiritual abuse.

For 15 months I led a weekly chapel service at Transitions Homeless Shelter. The number of people who I encountered who were struggling with mental illness was astounding. I have to admit that my encounters to people with mental illness up to this point have mostly been with people who have done the good and important work of recognizing the struggle they have, naming that and seeking good and whole care from experts. This was not the case at Transitions. I encountered people who were struggling desperately for their lives and their souls. I encountered people who didn’t have the money to fill their prescriptions, didn’t have the healthcare options to seek help, and people who had completely given up. I encountered these people at Transitions because that’s exactly what happens to people who have struggles we don’t understand. They end up on the outskirts of society, away from the public eye, and apart from our awareness. This was true in Jesus’ day and time as well.

And in limiting our understanding of those who are in need of Jesus’ healing and hope, we are not creating sanctuary in our communities of faith. Instead we are creating a place where we our assumptions are reinforced and where people have to come put together rather than their real and broken selves.

This is spiritual abuse.

Jesus welcomed all. Jesus did not shy away from the man with the unclean spirit. Jesus spoke to the man with the unclean spirit. Jesus healed the man with the unclean spirit.

What are we going to do as we have come into contact with the gospel truth that Jesus Christ has the power to call our unclean spirits? What are we going to do with this account of someone who is so vulnerable and in need? Are we going to keep studying and learning more about the power of Creator God in the form of a human or are we going to continue to engage in spiritual abuse that shames and blames people who are struggling with mental illness. People struggling for survival. Children of God who are desperately searching for hope and healing. 

The choice is up to you.

Running Into the Light

This morning was only my second run in my new shoes, so there was certainly some discomfort. Running in new shoes always reminds me of how out of sorts I have been. It reminds me that rather than tuning into the aches and pains that had been accumulating, I have kept running unwilling to stop and pay attention.

And maybe that’s what happens to most of us in the midst of the holiday season. We keep running not really sure when the running will stop, but knowing we have to move on to the next present to wrap, the next meal to cook, the next family to visit. Eventually, you can’t keep up. Either your body hits you with a cold or the flu or someone in your family collapses in fatigue because the pace is too fast and too much.

Too fast and too much: a good description of our American culture. A palpable force that surrounds us and impacts the way we see the world. A force that drives us to buy more, consumer more, and want more.

Maybe 2018 was supposed to be the year you slowed down, the year you ran more and already you are overwhelmed with your failure because of the lack of time and the amount of catch you’ve had to do from the holiday break. That’s been me, but this morning I put on my new running shoes, knowing it was going to hurt and I ran into the rising sun, basking in the revelation that God is with us. Emmanuel.

A Year of Grieving

What a year it has been for our family! This year has held numerous joyful surprises as well as profound grief. Three of our friends from our first congregation passed away this year as well as close family friends. These are people who held and taught our children. Walking closely with others always brings great joy but then also immense sadness when they are not with us anymore.

For a long time, I fled from grief. I turned my mind to autopilot and the things that needed to get done effectively removing myself from the situation so that I didn’t have to truly feel grief. This year I found I couldn’t run anymore. I couldn’t ignore the impact the people we lost this year had on me, my ministry, and our family. I couldn’t ignore the way the grief of thinking we were going to welcome a new life into our hearts and hands doesn’t disappear, not even after those nine months have passed.

I have tried the best I know how to grieve, not rushing the process, not explaining the process, just being in the midst. This has been extremely difficult for me. It’s driven me to practical action like getting life insurance again and finally creating a last will and testament. It’s slowed me down in the quiet mornings when Ben is up before the sun is up and we are sitting in silence playing with trains. Because I know those mornings aren’t guaranteed. I know because I’ve walked with families and people who have found this to be brutally true.

It’s made me analyze and retire some of the trite phrases we use as we try to console people in the midst of grief. It’s made me struggle and wrestle to find the light, love, and joy in the memories of the times we spent with the people we lost and hold onto those not just with the mind, but with body and soul.

Grieve was not the word I chose for 2017. Grieve chose me this year asking me to be real and honest in a way that I know will follow me into this next year and the years to come. Thanks be to God that Jesus wept and grieved and so can we.

The Physical Impact of Spiritual Abuse

It is difficult to ascertain the lasting impact spiritual abuse has on victims. Although we are beginning to understand that prolonged anxiety and fear have an impact on victims as well as having a long-term psychological impact on victims, it is difficult to understand how this impact manifests itself in overall health.

Whenever an emotion is triggered in us, our bodies are instantly and unconsciously affected in very specific ways….To be healthy and functional, we need to be able to feel and connect to all of our emotions at different times, even to the less pleasant ones.

For victims of spiritual abuse who have experienced prolonged periods of anxiety and fear (i.e. stress-filled emotions), the journey to becoming healthy and whole emotional beings is often a long road. Victims of spiritual abuse must first identify themselves as having experienced spiritual abuse, then they must begin to understand their own triggers, then and only then can they work their way towards controlling their emotions in these trigger areas. This process may take years to implement.

In the meantime, their bodies and minds have experienced “survival mode” emotions:

Biologically and evolutionarily, all “negative,” or distressing, emotions, like fear, disgust, or anxiety, can be thought of as “survival-mode” emotions: they signal to the body and brain that our survival and well-being may be at risk, and are specifically designed to motivate behaviors and bodily responses that can most effectively deal with those risks and threats.

Being in a surivial mode for long periods of time greatly affects a person’s ability to truly feel love and joy:

when we’re in homeostasis we tend to experience positive emotions and feelings, like joy or love, and when we’re in survival mode we tend to experience negativeor distressing emotions and feelings. Indeed, the activation of a negative emotion like fear is precisely what throws our brains and bodies out of balance, into non-homeostasis or survival mode.

This only touches the emotional impact of spiritual abuse. The physical impact of spiritual abuse can include sleeplessness, digestive issues, migraines, heartburn, difficulty breathing, social withdrawal or isolation, and a myriad of other possibilities.

I have many people who come to me who are experiencing physical issues. As we talk and I get to know their story I begin to understand that the physical symptoms they are experiencing are unresolved spiritual abuse they have experienced. We are connected heart, soul, and mind. When we have experienced abuse in our souls, our spiritual selves, this can’t help but impact our minds and our bodies.

It’s a difficult thing to analyze and come to terms with who we are and what we have experienced, but doing this hard work leads to becoming more whole and healthy beings: in body, mind, and soul.