“What’s Wrong With Me?” – Reflections on Pray Away, Part 2

Disclaimer: Pray Away is a documentary film on the harm caused by the ex-gay movement that promotes changing one’s sexual orientation through reparative (conversion) therapy. Please be aware that the film can be very difficult to watch, especially if you have been hurt by the movement. The Pray Away website offers “tips and resources to prioritize your mental health before, during, and after viewing the film.” If you think it may trigger trauma, you do not have to watch it. If you have already watched it and need support, please reach out to a safe person. For those who have not suffered at the hands of this movement, please watch it. We need you to listen to these stories. Pray Away released August 3 on Netflix.

Below the trailer for the film is the second in a series of reflections inspired by the film. You can read the first post here.

Official Trailer for Pray Away.

“What’s Wrong With Me?”

One point of resonance I experienced while watching the documentary film Pray Away was when Julie Rodgers reflects on how she understood her self-harm. She reads from her book, Outlove:

“The first time I burned myself, I was sitting on a curb outside of the church after a Living Hope meeting… As the cigarette burned low, without giving it much thought, I shoved the burning end of it into my shoulder and listened as the skin on my left arm sizzled… Shortly after that night, I sat alone in my room, lost in a whirlwind of fear, agony, and self-loathing. That’s when I remembered the cigarette burn and the wave of detachment that flowed through my body the moment the fire seared my skin… In the years that followed, when the anguish became unbearable, I would return to this routine: burning straight lines into my shoulders and tending to the wounds to self-soothe.”

In the midst of this experience, she says she was severely depressed and didn’t know why she was overwhelmed or sad. “I always felt like such a freak. Like, oh, ‘What’s wrong with me? I’m a total maniac – burning up and hurting my own body.'”

The ex-gay narrative that provided an interpretive lens for her life led her to believe she was the problem. As she details in her book, she came “to see how my story functioned to serve a particular agenda.” It was “rearranged and interpreted to serve [the ex-gay] narrative.” Her “testimony” was meticulously shaped by the leader of the ex-gay ministry she was involved in, and she had no other interpretive options for the experiences of her life. She blamed herself – What’s wrong with me?

It took being confronted by other survivors of the ex-gay movement to expose the ex-gay narrative as false. Hearing the stories of those who had escaped the ex-gay narrative and come to understand themselves and their experiences outside such an oppressive paradigm, was critical in Julie’s journey of shifting her own understanding of her story. “It was absolutely devastating, and I think for me, it was the first time that I identified more with the survivors sharing their story than I did with anybody from Exodus. These stories of deep, deep pain shook me down to my core. Feeling like they were in many ways sharing my story. I remember feeling like I was sitting on the wrong side of the circle.”

She and so many others, myself included, when confronted with the trauma experienced within the ex-gay movement, saw its toxicity. As Randy Thomas says in the film, “When the Lisa Ling show came out, I knew then that Exodus was death, and it was destruction. Because those survivors were looking at us right in the face. And we could no longer excuse it away. We could no longer deny it. And that Exodus could no longer promote the idea of change, because that was a lie.” The Lisa Ling episode referenced, God & Gays, aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network in 2013 and is available for viewing on Amazon Prime Video, but you can watch the trailer here.

As I’ve reflected on the guiding story that animated the ex-gay movement, I cannot help but see how that narrative was created, reinforced and given legitimacy by Evangelicalism’s telling of the “gospel.” Within Evangelicalism’s worldview, the question “Who are we?” or “Who am I?” sets the stage for the drama of salvation within which “the gospel” is “the answer” to the problem of humanity. I can remember unfolding the sections of the Romans Road tract as part of my evangelistic efforts to “lead people to Jesus,” so they could “get saved.” Step one of that road is a sort of opening chapter for the story that shaped my life from the moment it was taught to me as a teenager. Who are we? We are sinners.

I want to let you on the inside of how this story shaped my young understanding of myself, God and life. Over the last couple of years I have been going through my old journals and doing some narrative analysis for a future writing project. Below is a narration of a few early parts of my life in the voice I’ve reconstructed from those journals and memories.

9 years old: We are moving to a new town and this weekend I get to sell anything I don’t want anymore in a garage sale. This is my chance to get rid of all my Barbie stuff. I don’t know why my parents keep giving me these toys. I don’t like them. I don’t play with them. Who wants to dress Barbie up in frilly outfits? Not me! Maybe I’ll earn enough money to buy a few more Micro Machines. Or Legos. Now those are my favorites. Of course, only when I’m tired from playing outside – climbing trees, riding my bike. We’re moving to the country. I hope that means we will get to go hiking and fishing and camping more often. Getting dirty and swimming in rivers – what could be better than that?!? Maybe Mom would let me get rid of some of those girly clothes I hate too. Every time we go clothes shopping, she tries to pick out something dumb with flowers on it. Yuck. I hate that stuff. And dresses? No thank you! I’m so uncomfortable in that stuff. Why is it such a big deal to her? So what if people call me a tomboy? I know she doesn’t like it. Maybe she doesn’t really like me.

13 years old: Katie* slept over last night. We laid outside and watched the stars and talked. I’ve been having these feelings. I really wanted to touch her, to hold her hand. I just wanted to be close. I felt kinda nervous even thinking about that. She’s my best friend. I always tell her everything, but I’m too scared to tell her this. She’d probably freak out, maybe hate me and stop being my friend. I mean, it’s weird. Why do I feel this way? Last week at school I kept looking over at her in Math class, and I got totally distracted because the thought of kissing her kept popping up in my mind. Picturing it made me feel butterflies in my stomach. But then I was afraid that someone might know what I was daydreaming about and I forced myself to stop looking at her. There’s something wrong with me. Why am I like this? If my parents find out, I’m dead. They’ll hate me too. I’m already a failure of a girl. Now this? I’m disgusting.

15 years old: We’ve been going to church for a few months now. When my mom found out about my feelings for Katie, she flipped out and now I’m forced to be here every Sunday. I even have to go to youth group every week. I mean, people are nice enough, but I know why I’m here. “Satan has a hold of you!” That’s what my mom said. I don’t know, maybe it’s true. The pastor keeps preaching about how sinful we are. How we don’t have hope without Jesus. I’ve always tried to be good. I get straight A’s. I follow the rules. I do my chores. But there’s this thing inside of me. They say it’s an abomination. It’s against God’s will. So, I guess that’s my sin. That’s proof that I’m separated from God, that I deserve hell. I’ve been trying to forget about Katie. About my feelings. I’m not allowed to see her anymore anyway. Maybe this will go away. Maybe if I can get rid of it, my parents won’t be so mad at me. Maybe I won’t be so messed up. I think I need to accept Christ. This is too terrible. I’m too sinful. I need God’s forgiveness. We’re singing now. The pastor is asking if anyone wants to come to the front to pray for Jesus to enter their life and save them from their sin. My heart is racing. I feel sick. I have to do this. There’s no other way that I’m going to be ok, that anyone will love me.

The “gospel” I encountered in that small Southern Baptist church gave me a story through which I learned to see everything. My young mind was anxiously asking – What is wrong with me? How do I fix it? The story began with: You are a sinner – unclean, broken, unworthy of love and belonging. The shame I carried as a teenager trying to make sense of my feelings and desire to love and be loved was reinforced by the Christian story I received. It told me that pretty much nothing about my body could be trusted – my feelings, desires and thoughts were part of my evil flesh. During adolescence, as I was trying to understand my changing body, I was taught that what it was revealing was the worst of the worst.

Even after responding to that altar call and begging God to forgive me, I was terrified that the corruption within me would disqualify me from God’s love. Throughout high school I tried with all my might to resist temptation, suppressing every thought and feeling for girls. I committed to being obedient. I excelled at bible study and memorizing scripture. I volunteered at church. I evangelized my friends at school. I started and led our campus’ first Christian club. I took the True Loves Waits purity pledge. I publicly declared my faith by praying early in the morning at See You At The Pole. I fasted during the 30 Hour Famine. I ended up going to a Christian college. Remember, I am an enneagram 1. I spent every ounce of energy I had trying to be perfect so that somehow God would not change his mind about loving me, that he would not revoke my salvation.

It was on the foundation of Evangelicalism’s story that the ex-gay narrative seemed to offer hope. The following passage is highlighted in yellow in the Bible I voraciously read as a teenager: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, NIV). Exodus International proclaimed, “Freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.” The ex-gay promise fused with the gospel and “overcoming homosexuality” became synonymous with “being saved.” My parents gave me ex-gay books and newsletters to read as part of their attempt to help heal me. The ex-gay narrative offered an easy to understand explanation for why I was “same-sex attracted” and how I could change. My next blog post will focus on that narrative and how it held me hostage for 15 years.

Faced with the damage done by the ex-gay movement, it is important to see how its harm is one manifestation of a dangerous theology that defines humanity primarily as sinful and separated from God. The ex-gay enterprise is legitimated by Evangelicalism’s anthropology. The shame generated by such a self-concept sets us up to, as shame researcher Brene Brown says, “stand outside of our story and hustle for our worthiness.” Exodus claimed a way out from the shame of homosexuality. However, as explored in Pray Away, it deeply traumatized people, partly because it sent us further into shame. The narrative we tried to live from abused us, killed many, and continues to inflict harm through the ministries still claiming it as “good news.” Pray Away uncovers the toxicity of the ex-gay movement, and I think we also need to interrogate the larger narrative within which it gained traction.

In Pray Away, Julie, once trapped by the self-blaming answer to the question “What’s wrong with me?” recognizes what her teenage self did not: self-harm was “a result of the system and the culture around me that made me hate myself.” She writes in her book: “I’ve heard depression described as anger turned inward. Perhaps that’s what I was doing in my room all those years ago: I took the rage I felt about living in a body that couldn’t be submitted into the kind of body it was supposed to be – a straight body, a feminine body, a good Christian body – and I lit it on fire.”

* Name changed

“How Did I Believe That?” – Reflections on Pray Away, Part 1

The release of Pray Away, a documentary on the ex-gay movement that promotes changing one’s sexual orientation through reparative (conversion) therapy, has been on my calendar since its August 3 date was announced. So, Tuesday morning I woke up, turned on my television, opened Netflix and pressed play. Because of my previous involvement within the ex-gay world, I knew watching would be difficult. The Pray Away website offers “tips and resources to prioritize your mental health before, during, and after viewing the film.” To label this film (or this post) with a “trigger warning” seems obvious, and, doesn’t come close to matching the gravity of the experience of watching this film. Please, please, please care for yourself if you choose to watch this film. If you have already watched it and need support, please reach out to a safe person. Though this is an incredibly important film, if you think it may trigger trauma, you do not have to watch it. For those who have not suffered at the hands of this movement, please watch it. We need you to listen to these stories.

Below this sneak peak from the film is the first post in a series I will share over the next several weeks of reflections inspired by this film and from my own experiences as a survivor.

“My whole entire life was structured around not being gay.” Julie Rodgers in Pray Away.

“How Did I Believe That?”

Days after graduating from college, I boarded a plane from California to Orlando, FL. Alan Chambers, Executive Director of Exodus International, invited me to join the Exodus team and I accepted, believing that God was calling me to use my story to help others find “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.” My job as Publications Manager was essentially to be the ex-gay storyteller. I worked to help others share their testimonies of “freedom” and crafted communications that promoted the message of “change.” I was 22 years old. I had been shaped by the ex-gay narrative since my parents found out about my same-sex attractions when I was 15. They turned to Exodus’ message to “save” me. It was like a dream come true to join this ministry as my first job out of college. I thought, This is what faithfulness to God looked like. This was a place I could belong. I could make a difference here. Though I left the staff 10 months later, the narrative shaped my life for another 10 years.

I joined the staff of Exodus International in May 2002 as Publications & Office Manager.

Yesterday I sat across the table from a pastor who asked me, “Did they really believe it?” From some perspectives, it may seem unbelievable that those leading the ex-gay movement really believed their own message. In the film, Yvette Cantu Schneider reflects on her time as a leader in the movement: “I spent a lot of time thinking – How did I believe that? And how was I involved in it for so long?” She answers her own question later in the film when she comments on the new wave of leadership and testimonies moving the current ex-gay movement forward. “It’s such indoctrination. All of the lingo that they use, and the pattern of the testimony and even the pattern of their lives.”

For most of my life, I’ve been drawn to the way story functions in human experience and meaning making. For a while now, I have specifically been thinking about the way that the ex-gay narrative shaped reality for so many of us, keeping us holding on to it as a guiding vision for our lives long after it even seemed plausible anymore. Yes, we believed it. We devoted our lives to it. We learned to understand our lives and our identities within its boundaries. It became the script for absolutely everything.

One of the reasons this narrative was so powerful is because it was completely at home with the larger narrative so many of us already embraced: that of conservative Evangelicalism. Confessing “Jesus is Lord” meant obediently resisting the temptation of same-sex attractions, and “salvation” meant “freedom from homosexuality.” In a story where a holy God cannot look upon the dirty sinner, and in a culture where “homosexuality” evokes such disgust, of course we believed that the forgiveness we needed is forgiveness for such abhorrent feelings, and of course the salvation we needed is deliverance from such darkness. Yes, as Yvette said, the pattern of the testimony serves as a powerful tool of indoctrination. But it is not just the pattern of the ex-gay testimony. The ex-gay testimony is a product of the larger story that provides its worldview and stamps it with divine legitimacy. “Every society needs a narrative that justifies why it is how it is and does what it does. Such a narrative is the realm of religion, the rituals and stories that connect individuals into a sense of being ‘a people,'” writes Wes Howard-Brook in his book, Empire Baptized: How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected, 2nd-5th Centuries. “The first step in establishing… legitimacy was an increased association between the [authority figures] and divine authority.” There is immense power-influencing belief when spiritual leaders are teaching “God’s will” from “God’s word,” and are providing evidence through testimonies. I’ll unpack this more in this series of reflections.

In the film, Julie Rodgers mentions writing a book to “make sense of my experience.” Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story released June 22 and I highly recommend it. Julie beautifully examines the experiences of her life within the ex-gay world, inviting her readers along her journey of weaving together new meaning for her life. As she says in the film, “I suffered trauma, and it definitely resulted in extreme forms of self-hatred, but I survived. I’m really happy and I found somebody that I love so much. And we’re doing well, but not everybody is.” She survived. But not everybody does.

Randy Thomas, former Vice President of Exodus International, acknowledges in the film those whose lives have been stolen: “As a leader, I had been trained to acknowledge the loss, but to rationalize it away, to go into denial. And I hate that I did that. And for many people who don’t commit suicide, we’re killing ourselves internally by not embracing who God created us to be.” In the months I worked with Randy, I knew him as someone who was committed to helping others. His motivation for submitting his own life to and leading others along the ex-gay path was to help alleviate suffering and offer hope. Yet, when asked, as he describes, “What do you think about the blood on your hands?” he says, “Right now, all I know is that I am afraid to look at down my hands.”

Regardless of our intentions, every single one of us who provided leadership within the ex-gay movement contributed to the pain and suffering of those impacted by it. Though we were also trapped by its narrative, though we suffered our own pain and losses, though we were manipulated and used, our investment in it did so much damage. The ex-gay movement stole years from me. And it killed so many others. My complicity in the movement is part of what fuels my passion to work for LGBTQ inclusion in Christian spaces now. I am not doing penance, as if good work now will somehow pay for damage done. Nothing can make right what was done. As I said in my post a few weeks ago, as someone who wants to invest in justice and flourishing, this work is part of embracing and offering my full and truest self. This work brings me to life, and my hope is that it will also be life-giving to others.

Pray Away is available to watch on Netflix. In the next post of this series, I will share more about how the ex-gay narrative, as it was situated within the larger Evangelical narrative, functioned in my own life as I tried to make sense of my experiences and faith. In other words, I’ll explore how I came to believe this story and internalize it as my own.

Official Trailer for Pray Away.

Shame, Liberation & Choosing Our Story

When launching this blog last April, I encouraged us to reflect on the stories we live by. What narratives shape the way we see the world, the way we make sense of everything – faith, identity, meaning, and all of our beautiful and painful experiences? While listening to an episode of The Liturgists podcast on shame, one of the contributors, Hillary McBride, reflected on the messages we hear and live by (sometimes without being aware we are doing so) in shame systems. She says, “There are certain messages that we carry in shame cultures that make it really hard for us to thrive as human beings.” As we begin this new year, I’d like to encourage you to evaluate how these messages may be shaping the story you live by. Listening for and identifying these can help us deconstruct them in order to build something that promotes flourishing.

Message #1: Control

“You have to be in control, otherwise bad things will happen. And if bad things happen then someone needs to be blamed. And if you can’t blame somebody else, you are blamed.”

Message #2: Perfectionism

“You always have to be right. Because if you’re not right, then you have no value here.”

Message #3: Denial/Silence

“We don’t talk about hard things. There’s a no talk policy. We don’t talk about things that are wounding. We don’t talk about how you’ve been hurt. We don’t talk about how I’ve hurt you. We don’t talk about that here… Don’t talk about the things that you need. Don’t talk about anything important. Don’t talk about anything vulnerable.”

Message #4: Disqualification

“The things that hurt you don’t matter here because they’re not as bad as somebody else’s pain… I’m sorry that that happened to you. Or maybe not. But it wasn’t as bad as what happened to [fill in the blank]. So your pain doesn’t count.”

Message #5: Unreliability

“Don’t expect things to go the way you want them to. Don’t expect consistency. You can’t trust anybody. You’re just gonna get let down again.”

Message #6: Incompleteness

“Don’t ever try and finish anything. Don’t ever try and go to the hard places or let yourself be seen. It just won’t happen. And if you do try it, you’re gonna be pushed away and denied.”

Ultimately, shame messages produce disconnection, often by an overarching story of exclusion. “We don’t do those things here. And if you want to be fully you, that thing isn’t welcome. That part of you isn’t welcome. That thing that you want to say, or want to acknowledge, not here… You don’t dress like that in this community. You don’t love that person. You don’t talk like that. You’re not interested in that.”

Belonging is core to human well-being; thus “rejection is threatening to our vital sense of existence to being alive.” Especially if we feel we cannot escape shame’s story, in order to survive, “often we’ll choose to cut [the unacceptable] part [of ourselves] off just to stay loved.” There are unlimited ways we try and “protect ourselves from not being hurt. But they end up costing us. They end up costing us the experience of being fully human and fully alive.”

Hillary McBride asks, “What does it take to undo shame?” She draws on Brené Brown’s work when she proposes,  “Shame needs to be spoken, it needs to be talked about. It needs to be acknowledged. Not just the shame itself, but also the thing that we’re feeling ashamed of… What we need is to undo that aloneness, to take our pain to someone who says, ‘I see you.’ And not everybody is safe to do that with.”

brene - shame quote
From “Brené Brown Talks to The Shriver Report: The Power of Shame on Women Living on the Brink”

One reason we may be unsafe for someone else trying to find liberation from shame is that we have not done that work of liberation in our own lives. Then when we encounter someone else’s shame or pain or struggle, it threatens the stability of our own constructs of self-protection. If we cope with our own shame by silencing or controlling or living out any of the shame scripts, we have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Disrupting that control or breaking that silence might mean we have to face what we want to avoid. It is easier to extend that silence or control onto the person on a journey of liberation. When we do that (even subconsciously), we create unsafe spaces that serve to protect the shame system rather than promote healing for anyone within it.

I am incredibly thankful for the people in my life who have offered me safe space to work toward liberation “with fear and trembling.” As I have invested in that journey, I have noticed an increased capacity to be present to others wrestling with shame and pain, and that has opened up opportunity for us to mutually support each other toward greater wholeness and flourishing.

Walking this journey requires an intentional choice again and again to live out a different story. That may mean deconstructing the current dominant narratives influencing your life so that you are able to reconstruct a story in greater alignment with your values and wellness.

I would be honored if you’d share an experience you’ve had or piece of wisdom you’ve learned in your own journey. I would also love to hear your articulation of the story by which you aspire to shape your life. I’ve used the language of “liberation,” especially in relation to shame – what does that look like for you? What other words or phrases resonate with your journey?

This year let us courageously identify the stories at work in our lives, choose an ongoing journey toward the stories that lead to our (and all of creation’s) flourishing, and share those stories so that we might learn from and support one another.

Certainty & Worldview Crisis

There is so much death in this world. I’ve come to think about death broadly as anything that diminishes life. I’ve borrowed the term “deathliness” when referring to that which threatens, disrupts or damages life or wholeness. When face to face with the pain of deathliness, it is common for us to experience a dissonance that feels like it could rip apart our life and world as we know it. If we believe the world is one way and we are confronted with something that suggests it is not the way we believe it to be, we may feel threatened. Our anxiety may be triggered when faced with incongruence because it reveals a crack in the certainty upon which so many of us build our faith.

American evangelicalism seems to crave and protect certainty to such a degree that many have deemed certainty its idol. Pete Enns, in his book, The Sin of Certainty, identifies this impulse in the way we think about and use the bible. How many of us have heard, “I don’t follow man’s interpretation; I follow the bible”? What about “The bible clearly says…”? If you disagree with me about something I hear the bible saying, then you are either deceived or willfully rejecting the bible’s authority.

As I said, there is so much death in this world, and as our experience of dissonance intensifies, our anxiety is increasingly triggered. Thus we find ourselves desperate for security, a sense that “it is going to be ok,” and when our security is dependent on certainty, it becomes a matter of life and death to restore or protect that certainty. Enns writes:

Our beliefs about God – which is to say our thoughts about God – are precious to us because they give us a sense of who we are and our place in this chaotic world… And so when our beliefs are threatened, the instinct, understandably, is to guard them fiercely, to resist any move as long as possible, to make the stress go away, and to stay in the comfort of our familiar spiritual homes.

But in resisting, we may actually be missing an invitation to take a sacred journey, where we let go of needing to be right and trust God regardless of what we feel we know or don’t know.

The key to seeing this unsettling discomfort as a sacred rather than damning task is to decouple our faith in God from our thoughts about God. That way faith doesn’t rest on correct thinking…

No one just “follows” the Bible. We interpret it as people with a past and present, and in community with others, within certain traditions, none of which is absolute. Many factors influence how we “follow” the Bible. None of us rises above our place in the human drama and grasps God with pure clarity, without our own baggage coming along for the ride. We all bring our broken and limited selves into how we think of God.

Anyone getting nervous yet? As someone who has spent much of her life dependent on intellectual performance for a sense of self-worth, of “being ok,” this strikes a nerve. Enns continues:

Here is the temptation: we can forget that we are human and delude ourselves into thinking that we can transcend our tiny place in the human drama and see from on high, as God sees. It turns out that is not really one of our options. Walking the path of faith means trusting God enough to let our uh-oh moments expose how we create God to fit in our thinking. But that is hard work. And that is really the deeper problem here.

When we are held captive to our thinking, moving to what is not known and uncertain is automatically seen as a fearful development. We think true faith is dependent on maintaining a particular “knowledge set” and keeping a firm grasp on a tightly woven network of nonnegotiable beliefs, guarding each one vigilantly, making sure they all stay above the water line no matter how hard the struggle – because if what we “know” sinks, faith sinks right down with it…

[T]his fear of losing a handle on certainty leads to a preoccupation with correct thinking, making sure familiar beliefs are defended and supported at all costs

Aligning faith in God and certainty about what we believe and needing to be right in order to maintain a healthy faith – these do not make for a healthy faith in God. In a nutshell, that is the problem. And that is what I mean by the “sin of certainty.”

It is sin because this pattern of thinking sells God short by keeping the Creator captive to what we are able to comprehend – which is the very same problem the Israelites had when they were tempted to make images of God (aka idols) out of stone, metal, or wood. For ancient people, images made the gods present for the worshippers, something tangible to look at to let them connect with the divine realm. But Israel’s God said no. Any images shaped by human hands limit God by bringing God too far into alignment with ancient conceptions of the divine…

When we confuse God with our thoughts about God, however, those thoughts can become idol-like – getting in the way of the real thing, hindering rather than aiding a life of faith.

During the years I taught the Jesus & the Christian Community courses at Fresno Pacific, many students experienced deep anxiety when faced with a challenge to what they had always believed or been taught. If I’m not sure of this, then what can I be sure of? For many, “being sure” is their only way of holding on to “truth.”

This kind of experience is akin to what Brian Walsh describes as “worldview crisis”:

[I]f the gap between our worldview and our actual experience becomes too great – if actual experience seems totally unrelated to our worldview – then we have a worldview crisis on our hands… In such a situation the very ground on which you stand is uncertain, you are no longer sure of who you are, what the meaning of life is, what you are to do or where you are going. Ultimate questions that once had some form of ultimate, faith-committed answers are reopened and such a reopening is usually horrific.

Walsh outlines three basic responses to this kind of crisis: the first is “reformation.”

The reality of life leads an individual or a community to a refocusing or a reforming of their worldview. At best, this refocusing can occur in such a way that the initial faith is left mostly intact. In fact it might even appear that the reformation brings the worldview even closer in line with the founding faith.

Sometimes, however, such a worldview reformation is not possible because the gap between reality and worldview is simply too great and the worldview seems to be compounding the problems, not being a creative source of their solution. In such a situation, a culture (or at least sensitive members of a culture who do not allow their worldview to be ideologically co-opted into further legitimation of intolerable socio-historical conditions) suffers a crisis of confidence and identity. And as the worldview suffers collapse, the entire world seems to come crashing down with it. It is at this point that all reformations and adaptations seem to be mere window dressing, not really addressing the fundamental problems.

This brings us to the second response Walsh outlines: conversion.

[C]onversion [is] the abandonment of one worldview for another. In other words, the reality which has discredited a particular worldview also dismantles the faith which underlies that worldview… [and] one is necessarily set on a quest for a new faith.

The third response Walsh identifies is the one I see at work in our current socio-political context. Christians on one side of a given issue are fighting against anyone on the other side of that issue, including other Christians, claiming that the Bible is on their side, proving them right. There is simply no other way to see things, and anyone who questions or threatens their positions are marginalized as morally corrupt and inferior. Walsh writes:

[The] third possible response to a worldview crisis… is perhaps the most prevalent and, in the context of a declining culture such as ours, the most dangerous. It is what we could describe as entrenchment. In a time of crisis we often witness a conservative backlash and entrenchment. Rather than creatively dealing with the crisis, cultures (and individuals) tend to dig in their heels and hang on to what they’ve got. A survivalist mentality emerges, and we witness a culture-wide recommitment to the very worldview and the very faith that seems to be discredited by one’s historical reality. At times such a recommitment takes on the character of a revival service – “give me that old time religion of faith in human progress and the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Sadly, this stance of entrenchment has characterized much of the cultural response of evangelicalism. Many of the calls “back” to the Judeo-Christian heritage of our culture, which we hear from many an evangelical/fundamentalist pulpit, are, in fact, thinly veiled calls to recommit ourselves to the Western worldview and way of life that is presently crumbling.

An especially egregious example of entrenchment can be seen in certain Christian responses to the tragic events of September 11. Anne Graham Lotz said in an interview*:

[O]ur nation… seems to be shaking its fist in God’s face and telling him to get out of our politics, get out of our schools, get out of our businesses, get out of the marketplace… it’s just stunning to me the way we are basically abandoning God as a culture and as a nation.

Lotz specifically identifies LGBT rights advocacy and teaching evolution in schools as proof of a culture that has abandoned God. She said:

I think that’s why God allows bad things to happen. I think that’s why he would allow a 9/11 to happen… to show us that we need him…

The chaos on every level [in America] is just God turning us over to ourselves… There is silliness, there is craziness, there is the most illogical rulings – the one in North Carolina on HB2 – which is to protect our children in bathrooms and locker rooms, has become something where the justice department is suing us for something that is just common sense… To me it is evidence that God has backed away, and he has removed his hand of blessing, favor, protection, and he’s just turning us over to ourselves. That’s a very frightening place to be. But the Bible says, that… if God’s people would humble ourselves and pray and seek his face, and if we would repent of our sins and stop pointing our finger at everyone else, if we as God’s people would get serious about the sin in our own lives… he will heal America.

This kind of worldview is not new. In fact, I hear it in the words surrounding our Old Testament reading from Lamentations. Chapter 1-3:21 is filled with deep anguish over the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. The poetry sounds like a funeral dirge:

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations1 (1:1)

Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. (1:3)

The Babylonian exile was one of those world shattering events that pushed God’s people into a worldview crisis. How does God’s chosen people make sense of their defeat, the destruction of their temple? If Israel’s God is the Creator and King of the universe, how is it possible that Babylon won? Doesn’t that mean that their god is actually the sovereign god? If the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob can be defeated, the entire identity of Israel collapses. What’s the answer?

Jerusalem sinned grievously, so she has become a mockery; all who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness; she herself groans, and turns her face away. (1:8)

How the Lord in his anger has humiliated daughter Zion! He has thrown down from heaven to earth the splendor of Israel… The Lord has destroyed without mercy all the dwellings of Jacob; in his wrath he has broken down the strongholds of daughter Judah; he has brought down to the ground in dishonor the kingdom and its rulers. (2:1-2)

As I prepared for this morning, I read through Lamentations to try and situate our section from chapter 3, and I found myself very troubled. Today’s text, 3:22-33, if read alone, reminds me of the encouragements many Christians offer those who are struggling in one way or another. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:23).

Seriously? Jerusalem is burning to the ground and God’s people are being taken into captivity, and this is where you turn? This is what you sing in your worship services as you remember this tragedy?

The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. (3:25-26)

The author of Lamentations has done nothing but weep and wail over the horrific devastation Israel has experienced, and all of a sudden he’s spouting nonsense about waiting quietly for salvation? Where is a lament psalm when you need one? Or how about a psalm calling for God’s vengeance on Israel’s enemies? I suppose that comes later:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock! (Psalm 137: 8-9)

Somehow, our author finds solace that even though God is responsible for handing his people over to his enemies, “the Lord will not reject forever” (3:31). Just a few verses earlier, we hear, “He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the LORD’” (3:16-18). And now we get, “‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’” (3:24). Our passage ends with, “Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (3:32-33).

After reading Lamentations through, I turned to Psalm 30, and I have to say, I didn’t feel any better.

Imagine with me. We’re living in the time of Israel’s united monarchy, and our great king David’s psalm is the worship song chosen for the dedication of the temple: 

I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me. O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit. Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. (30:1-4)

Standing before the temple, we probably feel a sense of security we’ve never known before. We remember that we were slaves in Egypt. We remember the wandering in the wilderness where a generation died. We remember crossing the Jordan River and memorializing God’s deliverance and provision. We remember the battles we won in order to take our land: the walls that fell before us, the men, women, children and livestock whose blood we spilled. And now, our little kingdom that’s surrounded by foreign powers, can finally rest easy because we have a king, and we built a house for God. If God isn’t going anywhere, then we’re safe.

The song includes an interesting dynamic in David’s experience of God:

For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. (30:5)

By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed. To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!” (30:7-10)

David connects his suffering to God’s anger and turning away. He tries to bribe God with future praise in order to get him to deliver him. “If I die, God, who will praise you?” He makes an appeal to God’s character. “God, if you let me die, how will that make you look? It certainly won’t uphold your claim to faithfulness.” Basically David is saying, “God, if you are who you say you are, if you want us to continue to worship you, be on my side.”

This is the worship song we’re singing as we dedicate this temple. Might we be bargaining with God as we sing? “God, look what we did for you. We built you a temple. We will worship you. Now, remember, you have to keep us alive, you have to keep your promises, if you want us to keep worshipping you.”

For the last several months I’ve been studying about inclusive justice, and a large focus of that study has made me more aware of power, privilege and oppression. I’ve been able to further develop ideas I’ve been wrestling with since I encountered scholars like Walter Wink in college. I think the experience I’ve been wrestling with while reflecting on this morning’s texts has to do with the ways my ears have been tuned to listen lately.

The lectionary selection from Lamentations largely isolates the statements of hope and praise from their context of deep crisis and dissonance. What we’re left with is:

Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father; there is no shadow of turning with thee; thou changest not thy compassions, they fail not; as thou hast been thou forever wilt be. Great is thy faithfulness! Great is they faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand hath provided. Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

At what point does our worship attempt to silence or control painful reality or God? In such cases, who is put at greatest risk? Who benefits? What rhetoric do we employ to protect our worldviews and avoid uncertainty?

I am not saying that hoping in God, praising God, or expecting God to provide and save is misguided or wrong. What I want to say is this:

Our thoughts about God shape the worldviews we use to make sense of life, so we need to be aware that our desire for security, often via certainty, tempts us to absolutize those worldviews. The deathliness that results from the ideological wars being fought every day should remind us that our certainty is not the foundation of faith: it is not what will save us from the anxiety we feel when the world does not make sense; it is not what will heal injustice; it is not what makes for peace. The kind of entrenchment we see by religious leaders desperate to maintain power and security through certainty runs counter to Jesus’ gospel. His life, teachings, death and resurrection expose our all too often upside-down thinking.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

The gospel reading for today is the story of Jairus, a synagogue leader, begging Jesus to come heal his deathly ill daughter. On the way a woman suffering from twelve years of bleeding is healed when she touches Jesus’ cloak. Jairus’ daughter dies, and when Jesus arrives, seemingly too late, the mourning has begun.

When deathliness presses in on us, threatening to destroy the world as we know it, faith reaches out beyond what we think we know, beyond what options seem possible, beyond the systemic injustices that seek to sacrifice those on the margins so that the privileged can maintain their power. Faith reaches out for Jesus whose healing brings new life in the face of death. It is the story of Jesus that prompts me to wonder – how did the contextual limitations of the author of Lamentations influence his thoughts about God being an angry diety unleashing his wrath on his people? Is that understanding of God and interpretation of Israel’s experience true to the God revealed through Jesus? How do we wrestle with the tension between what we find in our Old and New Testament texts? How might that tension inspire us to evaluate our worldviews and seek to learn from a diversity of perspectives? If our faith was released from its dependency on certainty, how might we be freed for new life? Might Jesus be taking us by the hand, saying, “Little girl, get up!” There is life beyond what we see and know. May we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

 

Sermon given at First Mennonite Church, Reedley on July 1, 2018, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost.

Lamentations 3:22-33, Psalm 30Mark 5:21-43

* I listened to audio files posted to a website that does not seem to be working at the moment. I could not find the entire interview online. I will try to fix the link or find another source soon.