I want to be asked to take the stand. I want to be a witness testifying in God‘s defense. I have heard God blamed and blasphemed. In the confessions of battle-weary patients in a psychiatric hospital, I’ve refrained from speaking in God’s defense when they have pressed charges against their Creator.
The hardest allegations to refute come from people who have told me that, in their abuse as children, they cried out to a God who never rescued them. The abuse continued. The need for healing leaves a gaping hole in their emotional and spiritual well-being. Many of them had parents who took them to church regularly, which complicates their theology. “If my parents modeled their faith in acts of cruelty, what does that teach me as an impressionable child? Why would I care about their God?” But something in that childhood religious training awakened a receptive spirit and they believed. They sang about Jesus’ love. They went to Sunday School and learned Bible stories. Yet very different lessons were taught behind closed doors. Many of these patients have spent a lifetime trying to resolve the disconnect between a powerful God that was preached at them and the everyday cruelty they endured.
I have no easy defense for their suffering.
It’s interesting to me how easily people blame God or badmouth Jesus for their life circumstances when they’ve never really invested in a spiritual relationship. It would be as if we blamed our benevolent Uncle Max for all our problems when we never really met Uncle Max face-to-face. He’s invited us to his house for dinner. He’s sent us birthday gifts that we have torn into. We haven’t taken the time to get to know him or thank him. But, when the chips are down and we can’t make sense of the latest crisis, Uncle Max‘s name surfaces. With vehemence, we excoriate the ways he has hurt us.
In the last year I can’t tell you how many times I was sure I had heard it all, only to discover that yet another story leaves me speechless. I no longer find it difficult to believe the statistic I heard many times in parish ministry that one in seven children suffers abuse, most often at the hands of their parent. When those children grow up, they are very likely to struggle with their mental health which prevents them from completing their education or choosing good partners for themselves. One in four men and one in three women are abused by their partners. These are the individuals I sat with on psych units, inviting them to share their story. Through tears and a clenched jaw, they cried out their abandonment not just by those adults entrusted with their care. They felt abandoned by the deity from whom they sought peace.
This confusion began with abusive parents whose love the children seek almost no matter the damage the parent has done. A child’s default is to love their father and mother. Patients I met in their 50’s and 60’s were still trying to make that relationship work with their octogenarian bitter parent. The elderly parent continued to curse them and reject their overtures of love. The message was consistently cruel over the years: “You are a burden to me!“ Grown children have wept with me, aching for their parents’ affection before death separates them.
I always commend people for their desire to find an authentic faith when they could easily and understandably ditch the Church completely. Atrocities committed in the name of God would repel most of us for a lifetime. However, many patients clung to a barely flickering divine spark deep within that continued to summon them toward a divine Rescuer and loving Parent.
On the in-patient units, my empathy as a chaplain fueled a desire to find a fail-proof lesson that would assure them of God’s love. I wanted to wave a magic wand over their chaos that would bring healing and restore faith in God. I have learned that they won’t easily hear my assurances. It’s presumptuous for me to think that I have the answers when, in fact, they have been the ones to teach me so often! My theology, cultured in a delightful childhood, often contradicts their experience. Maybe the only solution to their pain is to blame someone who can’t physically retaliate.
In my imagined lesson, I want to remind them about sin, that three-letter word that packs a punch. It reminds us that something other than God‘s will has a grip on our world. We experience trials in our communities and in our families. Some difficulties stem from our own decisions and others result from what others inflict on us. God gave us free will. All you have to do is look at the reactions to mask mandates during COVID to know that we are a people who cherish our free will! “I’m entitled to my opinions and my own choices,” we have yelled. I want to remind these patients that the alternative to free will is a scripted life where God is puppeteer and we are puppets with no choices to make. Some days that may feel like a relief! But few of us would want to be reduced to life as pre-programmed robots who can’t choose whom to love and how to shape our day. Free will is given in equal measure to all. Some use their freedom responsibly and others abuse it, even harming those closest to them. I was reminded in a conversation recently that “Hurt people hurt people.“
Folks who weep about the abuse of their parents will tell me how their grandparents abused their parents. The destructive cycle stretches back generationally and the pattern continues. Many of my patients told me they swore they would never do to their children what was done to them. Many of them greatly improved on their parents’ example and I lavished praise for their commitment toward mercy. The easiest course is to do what was done to us. But so many in my “congregation” this year courageously changed course, raising their own children with great kindness and vulnerability. They used their free will to foster rich family relationships. Even so, they could not let go of the yearning for their elderly parent’s love.
The evening before my final day of work at a Christian mental health hospital, my husband and I went to an outdoor concert to hear Emmylou Harris. We have not followed her in our adult lives. I can’t say that her music has ever been meaningful or known to me. But the venue is a fantastic setting that always entertains and it was a heart-warming evening. I appreciated Emmy Lou‘s banter, perhaps because she is a wise 75-year-old woman who has been humbled by life. She smiled as she stated, “I had one helluva happy childhood. No one’s supposed to. Well anyway, I had nothing to write about … so I made stuff up.” She laughed and the audience did too. She understands what a gift it is to lack tragic content for her songs. She acknowledged that she writes sad songs because those seem to connect with her audiences. The lead-in act was Mary Chapin Carpenter who is equally talented. She commended her band for always being willing to perform her musical laments. In an interview she made this comment: “When songs make that connection, you don’t feel so alone in the world.” That kind of emotional connection is what Carpenter says she’s looking for when she’s seeking out new music: “I want it to take me somewhere and bring me to my knees and make me cry or make me feel great.” At Carpenter’s concerts, her longtime fans laugh when she introduces yet another melody in a minor key. Carpenter says she was inspired by something she heard many years ago from a musician who was asked why she sang so many sad songs. The singer replied: ‘Sad songs make me feel brave.”
One of the greatest strengths for those who wake up to discover that they have been given an in-patient room on a psychiatric unit is the fact that they are not alone. They emerge from their broken lives and whatever recent chaos landed them there and are given an opportunity to share their stories. Very common themes of shame, anger, hurt, and grace surface regularly. I have been so moved to witness the tenderness that emerges from those who have been lifelong victims. With shoulders slumped, they quietly admit to fellow patients that they give too much to others with nothing given in return. The well has run dry. Heads nod around the room. People confess that they have done foolish things. They take responsibility for creating a wedge between themselves and their loved ones. But they’re also weary of being judged by those same people, mistrusted even in their healthy moments because of their past. They admit to being criticized for having a mental illness.
In those groups that I was privileged to lead, people listened to one another and became brave. Brave to share their hurt. Brave to encourage one another. Brave to begin to hope for a different future. Courageous enough to believe that God is there for them even if they felt ignored in earlier times of need. I am so humbled and impressed with the courage of the patients I have met over the past year. I can relate to Emmylou Harris who named her own childhood as rosy beyond all deserving. There is no crime in that. In fact, those of us who have such a strong foundation are often called upon to offer strength to those for whom the water is choppy, the boat is flimsy, and the swimming skills were never taught. Emmy Lou Harris and Mary Chapin Carpenter “lead groups” through their music. At a good concert we laugh, we cry, and we sing in harmony because it is our life‘s song as well.
We are each invited to find the places where our voice can make a difference; where our voice can point to an ever-present God who knit each of us together in our mother’s womb. The psalms introduce us to One who has never slumbered, never missed a step we have taken. We may not be able to convince those who have been particularly damaged in life of our personal faith convictions. Rather than debate and pressure people into accepting our way, we model it through our kindness. Rather than taking the stand to preach our theology at others and expect it to fit their experience, we offer prodigal acceptance. All of these graces were extended on a regular basis by a compassionate and capable staff in the psychiatric hospital where I was privileged to serve.
On the final week of my chaplaincy, I was able to lead a morning group on a unit that includes folks who struggle with addiction. These patients know how to go deep because they have faced their demons and some confess to having been spared from death more times than they can count. They learn to speak their truth in 12-step program meetings. I wondered what I should choose as my last topic after a year of being blessed by their vulnerability. I decided that the lesson on forgiveness always elicits rich sharing. The class members readily acknowledged their need for forgiveness. Some gave specifics for their embarrassing antics for which they carried great shame. Some spoke of attempts made in vulnerable conversations to ask family members for forgiveness. Most of them said it was particularly difficult to forgive themselves. They encouraged each other. They spoke of the community fostered on that locked unit because folks dared to be honest about the fact that they needed forgiveness. As always, they were the wise teachers and I was in their debt.
After the class I realized that forgiveness is a central theme for me. When my license plate fell off my car and was lost the day before the quarantine began, I had an opportunity for a vanity license plate. What I ultimately decided on was this: 4GIVTOO. Our world would be a healthier, more peaceful place if more of us engaged in the courageous conversations of these patient groups. We need greater trust to confess our sin to one another, to admit to our struggles of faith, and assure one another that God is good and has saved us more times than we will ever know.
We have been forgiven over and over again. Like the fresh morning breeze, each beginning gives us hope for a new day. I don’t need to take the stand in defense of a God who has managed quite well to direct the universe. I show my hubris when I assume that my perspective will be universally appealing. My Christian duty is to listen empathically to those around me, trusting that their perspective will offer me healing even as I do my best to shine Christ’s light into broken places.
I readily forgive because I am forgiven too! Thanks be to God.