Recently I sat with a client in my practice who shared that she grew up in a fundamentalist church in which she was told that suffering was the way to experience God. Her life experience included physical and sexual abuse. Her child-mind internalized that God and pain were intertwined and now in her 50’s, she is re-creating that relationship with a new perspective.
Over the years, I have encountered others who suffered at the hands and words of rigid religious dogma and doctrine that was used as a control, rather than connection with a loving and compassionate deity. What some might consider standard operating procedure in their way of worship could easily be seen as terrorizing and abusive. Words that shame, cause fear, have anyone believing that they will fall out of God’s loving embrace would fall into that category. At the extreme end of the spectrum are acts of sexual abuse and other ritual enactments.
I grew up in Conservative (not political) Judaism which is the middle ground between Orthodox and Reform. Nowhere in the teachings, I heard in our synagogue or home was there a hellfire and brimstone aspect. The closest thing was the liturgy of Yom Kippur in which we prayed to be inscribed in the Book of Life for a sweet new year. It had me wondering about all the people who died in any given year. Had they done something wrong? I later came to accept that life happens. People get sick, experience loss and some die. People who do good, die. People who do ill, live. Where’s the justice in that? Some things simply are. As I was growing up, I heard about those who bought into the idea that unless adherents believed as they did, they were sinners who were eternally damned. Imagine being told that as a child…the nightmares that might ensue.
While writing about this concept on Facebook, friends offered their perspectives:
“This is why I strayed from Catholicism. I didn’t believe that a “loving” God would let such a thing happen…… Worshipping nature is much better for me.”
“I think that what you are talking about is plain old ordinary abuse. Real connection with any mainstream religion is lacking in such cases.”
“I wouldn’t call it spiritual abuse I’d call it religious abuse we create our own heaven and we create our own Hill and children generally have help from their parents… when I was little my mother told me that if I got caught in the rain I would catch my death of pneumonia… as a young woman I did almost catch my death of pneumonia…. until one of my messages from God so to speak saw her speaking those words to me… and luckily for me I got it I now go in the rain all the time… I haven’t had pneumonia in 30-40 years.”
” My thoughts are that teaching damnation … is spiritual abuse.”
“My definition of religion has always been Love, or so it should be. I found that the definition of that word is almost impossible. I tend to think of it as of the spirit, the human spirit. By believing in a power of sorts is greater than we are is comforting and anything that takes one’s breath away is spiritual. I have watched over the years, people thrust their idea of God down the throats of those who waver. Who are we to tell people what to believe. Certainly, we can give suggestions but hammering what we believe, home, is not one of them. Being a history buff, I see that the majority of wars occurred through religion. Regarding the life of Jesus, we can see he was the direct opposite of what is happening in the world now and would be horrified were he to return now to see what has been done in his name. The Inquisition, for example, WW2, the Crusades. I could go on and on with that one. I do not have a specific religion. Like you Edie, I was ordained at the New Seminary in New York City where our motto is IN ADDITION TO RATHER THAN INSTEAD OF. Some of the most generous, loving, caring, courageous individuals I have had the honour of knowing over the years, have no religion but they personify how it could be if others would recognise their contributions to those in need. The three of my quartet who have left this planet were such people. A truly loving example of freedom of thought was a mentor who was a Dominican nun. Sister Mary Daniel. She showed courage during the frightening years in Cuba where she was sent to help bring people to the States. (just a sudden thought of how she would feel with the immigrant situation today). She was a devout Catholic and when I was struggling in life, took me to her heart and helped me. I remember being in the chapel with her and saying that I didn’t know what to believe, that I was torn between faith, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism. I was very distraught. So she said ‘Jesus’s mother was a Jew so you have two of them right there’. She never judged, never tried to change my mind but gave such supportive love that she herself renewed my faith. So I am Interfaith which means to me, freedom of thought and expression. I love that story of going to the beach and putting sand in both hands with one hand holding it as tightly as possible and the sand flows through the fingers. the other hand remains open and the sand lies still.”
“…but true love and friendship
will draw you together
far better than roarin’ the horrors of Hell!”
—The Parish of Dunkeld
Today is marked as International Women’s Day. Created in 1908 in response to global inequality, it called 15,00 in NYC to march for women’s rights. All these decades later, some of the same issues are present. Even though the wage discrepancy has improved, women still make only .80 cents for every dollar men with the same qualifications takes home. Misogyny is common and all too frequently institutionalized. With the current administration, it has skyrocketed.
Some took part in marches, runs, rallies, art showings, performances and on-line virtual gatherings. Others chose to take the day off from their work as a means of demonstrating how valuable women are. The saying, ‘Women hold up half the sky,’ reinforces that value. A contingent of women joined in the Day Without A Woman strike. Others chose not to walk off the job since they could not afford a day without pay and some were concerned with the possibility of losing their job. There were a few ways of supporting the cause, including:
- Women take the day off, from paid and unpaid labor
- Avoid shopping for one day (with exceptions for small, women- and minority-owned businesses).
- Wear RED in solidarity with A Day Without A Woman
I chose to engage in the second and third, as I saw a few clients and volunteered at a women-owned and operated equine rescue farm where I offered Reiki for the horses.
I woke up this morning thinking of the women in my life who have inspired me and helped me to become the one who is writing these words. First and foremost is my mother Selma Weinstein who believed in me beyond the beyond and now, on the others side of the veil, still does. My grandmother, Henrietta Hirsch (a.k.a. Giggie) was my live and in person angel, l until I was 4 years old and when she passed soon after, has been with me, keeping watch. My sister, Jan Weinstein-Sparta who raised her three children and is now caring for her granddaughter, in the midst of her own health issues. My aunts (my grandmother’s sisters) who were among 13 sibs; most especially my Aunt Katie who was a role model for fun and lightheartedness and my Aunt Edith who lived to be 103, whose independence and longevity astounded me. My dear mentor Yvonne Kaye has been a stalwart symbol of resilience and re-creating herself as she has taught me (much like my mother) that I can do anything I set my mind and heart to. Each of these women had/have a fire in them that fuels/fueled their actions.
I think of my women friends (some cis-gender, some transgender) who bravely step into each day, not knowing what awaits them. Raising children, raising animals, raising food, raising consciousness, raising spirits. In their names, I honor every day as sacred and a time of action.
Who are your Inspiristas?
Here’s to all of the women who uplift us!
I am an interfaith minister who was raised Jewish and was taught that God watches over us orchestrating outcomes and is a Source and Force to whom we pray, hoping for a particular outcome. I learned about Christianity from friends who grew up in that faith, read the New Testament in high school, questioned who the historical Jesus was and was introduced to the spiritual teacher he became. The Trinity made no sense to me in my youth as I wondered how God could be three in one. It was when I immersed myself in my studies in preparation for ordination, following the lengthy illness and ultimate death of my husband, that I had a greater sense of the scope of my own spiritual path, which included the understanding of the multitudinous ways the Divine can be viewed.
I was eager to watch the newly released movie The Shack that was based on the book by the same name, written by William Paul Young. I knew the storyline and was prepared for witnessing the anguish of a family whose beloved child was murdered. As a therapist who has worked with those who have experienced trauma and loss, I know the turmoil, guilt, blame, anger and second-guessing that goes on. I also am abundantly aware that parents desperately attempt to understand how a God of love could allow that to occur. They carry an immense amount of pain that I can only imagine. Relinquishing it, even if they wanted to, may seem like asking too much.
The main character Mack, played with genuine emotion by Sam Worthington whose Avatar role brought him to my attention, is a man whose relationship with God is fractured as a result of his own childhood abuse and an action he feels compelled to take to protect his mother and himself from the alcohol-fueled rage of his father. A foreshadowing of the appearance of God occurs in his childhood, but he has repressed that interaction. He has buried the pain in his heart even as he marries and has three children of his own who he adores. One thing I was pleased to see was that he broke the abuse cycle, as evidenced by his interactions with his family.
Although he spends time in church, it is his wife played by Radha Mitchell, who is the spiritual anchor for him. He is kind of along for the ride. God seems to ring hollow to Mack. He befriends a fellow church-goer played by Tim McGraw who is the narrator for the movie. Octavia Spencer and Graham Green are the feminine and masculine incarnations of God, (called by the familiar name Papa), Jesus is portrayed by Israeli actor Avraham Aviv Alush and looks like I imagine the historical Jesus would have appeared, with dark curly hair and beard, speaking with a middle Eastern accent. The Holy Spirit — called “Sarayu” in the film — is portrayed by Asian actress Sumire Matsubara. Each of these embodiments of the Divine was represented in forms which I can see the God of my understanding appearing and sounding. Although the imagery was Christian, the message felt universal. The takeaway was about love and forgiveness, about relinquishing anger and bitterness and refraining from judgment.
I particularly appreciated the line about Jesus not wanting slaves, but rather friends and family. This is a God without the hellfire and brimstone that so many espouse and instead, a Creator and Sustainer of compassion and reconciliation. Little wonder why many fundamentalists have difficulty with the expression of spirituality in this movie. These manifestations of the divine are about love and not fear. Some protest that it is not scripturally accurate. It wasn’t meant to be. It is a work of fiction and expressed the faith of the author and the arduous Hero’s Journey that the main character takes. It invites us to see Spirit in all forms. If we were made in the ‘image and likeness of God,’ why wouldn’t the Divine take the form of an African American woman, Native American man, Middle Eastern man and Asian woman? How limiting is to believe that such portrayals are blasphemy?
Mack and his middle child struggle with their respective guilt for the disappearance and brutal murder of Missy and at the end of the film, his admission that he was so mired in his own suffering that he wasn’t able to acknowledge hers, transforms their estrangement into closeness once again.
What touched me deeply (without giving too much away) was the idea that we imprison ourselves with our judgments and swamp our own symbolic rowboats with our fears and an inability to relinquish the past. I consider how I judge those whose behaviors harm others. In the eyes of God, according to the film/book, they are no less worthy of love. I may justify my anger and desire for retribution, but it keeps me from fully embracing life.
Some of my favorite quotes:
Papa: “Just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.”
Jesus: “Remember, the people who know me are the ones who are free to live and love without any agenda.”
Mack: Is that what it means to be a Christian?”
Jesus: Who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian.”
Mack: “No, I suppose you aren’t.”
When we can accept that God is “especially fond of us,” no matter how many times we, in our human frailty, stumble and fall, it is then that we are healed.
I have been musing over this thought for quite awhile. I had wonderful, loving and generous parents who did all they could to raise successful, well-rounded kiddos. I was diagnosed with asthma shortly after my grandmother died when I was four. My parents responded with medical intervention as I needed it sometimes and encouraged me to be physically active and didn’t baby me. Many’s the night they would be up with me, as I struggled to take in and release oxygen. Sitting in the bathroom, taking in the shower steam was a healing balm. I recall my mother inhaling and exhaling with me as if willing me to breathe. Regular doc visits and allergy shots were part of the routine. As we were sitting in waiting rooms, my mother and I would engage in educational activities, such as playing with flashcards, spelling words and reading stories to each other. She never missed teachable moments. I am convinced that is how I became such a voracious reader and lifelong learner. I joined a swim team at the suggestion of our family doctor, to expand my lung capacity. Swimming became a long-term activity, as I became adept at freestyle and butterfly and still have the well-developed shoulders as evidence. From ages 11-18, I competed on local and regional teams and from 18-20, coached kids in my community. All of that hard work clearly paid off, since these days, asthma is not a constant presence and kicks in only on occasion.
Mom and Dad modeled and instilled pro-social values, kindness, responsibility, cleaning up after yourself in all ways ….stuff like that. Goody two shoes that I was, I made choices to steer clear of majorly poor choices, partly because I felt I owed them staying out of trouble. I think the most daring thing I did in elementary school was playing hooky one afternoon, by leaving the grounds to go to a friend’s house at lunchtime and not coming back. We got caught. No major consequences ensued, even though my heart was pounding in trepidation that there might be.
Not that I would have intentionally acted irresponsibly, for my own sake, but also because I felt high maintenance enough with asthma. Although I didn’t have the ability to verbalize it at the time, I didn’t want to be even more of a burden than I felt like I was at times. I deliberately excelled so as to ‘balance things out’. They never demanded excellence from my sister and me, although they wanted us to do our best. I expected it of myself. I wanted them to be proud of me and I know they were anyway. I guess I wanted to increase the odds of that. Since they invested so much in me, I wanted to show them that their faith in me was warranted. Bizarre thought, since as a parent, it is my responsibility anyway and I want to have faith in my son, no matter what. Perhaps when we stumble is when we need it even more.
I imagine that they are beaming from the Other Side, as my dad passed in 2008 and my mom joined him in 2010, proud of most of the choices I have made. I still endeavor to be low maintenance, not leaning too heavily on people in my life. Instead, I have remained the go-to person. Sometimes the balance feels off and I need to regain my footing.
In my career as a therapist working with people who DO make unhealthy/unwise choices that impact on others, I sometimes find myself questioning whether they have thoughts like that. I have a judgment that no one has the right to deliberately harm another in word or action, regardless of their history or wounds. Being consciously aware of our patterns helps. When people are lost in addiction or mental illness, they sometimes don’t have that awareness that their actions impact others.
I see myself as being low maintenance. I’m no saint. I get petulant and pouty sometimes, but I don’t often let it spill out onto others. I wonder if other people here have overcompensated for childhood experiences in positive ways and negative ways. Do you make decisions based on how they will affect others? Did you get into trouble as a reaction to life experiences or stay out of trouble for the same reason?
I would love to start a conversation here.