Friday, January 25, 2013

Overcoming Distrust of Emotions from Scandalous Ideas (A Response to Rachel Held Evans' Scandal of the Evangelical Heart)

I'm amazed at how moved I was this morning by the words of two great women of mercy and strength. Of Rachel Held Evans' latest blog post, Cindy Foster wrote:
Can't help but admire a woman who will ask these kinds of questions publicly and in writing for the entire world of faith to read. Takes more faith and guts than most of us will ever have. Gotta read this!!
Cindy is a the loving mom of many that she raised with her husband who co-pastored a Fundamentalist church. She chronicles her journey out of the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement through honest and moving posts at Baptist Taliban and Beyond.

For those of you who have not yet heard through discussions like this one around the net, Rachel Held Evans' latest book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, recently hit the book stands, nooks, and kindles. I felt very validated to discover that our critics offered both of us the same denials and protests because we shared several of the same conclusions about those who follow patriarchy.

Somehow the different varieties of ducks don't want to admit that they all pass the “duck test” and even fly together all too often. I was told that the Southern Baptists were deeply offended because I classified them with homeschooling's “Biblical Patriarchy” in a workshop a few years ago, even though they invite this “fringe” to share their platforms, even as keynote speakers. We're just not supposed to notice, and we're not supposed to say anything when we do. ;) But I digress...

Several elements of Rachel's new post jumped out at me for a whole host of reasons.

From her post entitled The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart
It’s strange to think that doubt has been a part of my life for more than ten years now.
But the questions that have weighed most heavily on me these past ten years have been questions not of the mind but of the heart, questions of conscience and empathy. It was not the so-called “scandal of the evangelical mind” that rocked my faith; it was the scandal of the evangelical heart. 
Perhaps in reaction to the “scandal of the evangelical mind,” evangelicalism of late has developed a general distrust of emotion when it comes to theology. 
It’s a decision I make every day, and it’s a decision that’s made my faith journey a heck of a lot more hazardous and a heck of a lot more fun.  It means that grinning monster, doubt, is likely to stick around for a while, for I know now that closing my eyes won’t make him go away. It means each day is a risk, a gamble, an adventure in vulnerability and trust, as I figure out what it means to follow Jesus as me, Rachel Grace—the girl who cried for Zarmina, the girl who inherited her mama’s bleeding heart and her daddy’s stubborn grace, the girl who digs in her heels, the girl who makes mistakes, the girl who is intent on breaking up patriarchy, the girl who thought to raise her hand in Sunday school at age five and ask why God would drown innocent animals in Noah’s flood, the girl who could be wrong.

Befriending Doubt and Fear

I recently kissed my own “grinning monster” and was prompted to pull out an old book to revisit a wonderful story. In the Friels' seminal book about the secrets of Adult Children of dysfunction, there's a story about a girl who makes a brave and daring journey over a mountain to see her grandmother, soon hounded by two different monsters on the way. When she comes to a fork in the path through the woods, each terrible, loud monster beckons her to take their path. For reasons she can't explain, she obeys her hunch, following one path (and one monster) instead of the other. Half of the mountain soon begins so shake and fall away, and she realized that if she'd made choice to follow that other path, she would not have survived. Her monster approaches her and suddenly looks kind and compassionate to her through his wise and loving eyes. The girl suddenly jumps up and kisses him on the nose. The monster then tells her that his name is “Fear.” He explains that avoiding something important that he's trying to communicate is like following that other monster whose name is “Destruction.” “ learn to make friends with me, then you will have Wisdom...No matter how attractive, nothing good ever comes from destruction.” (pp 191-3)

But there were other elements of Rachel's post that tugged at my heart – or rather pierced it. After the event that brought Kiss Your Monster On the Nose to my mind recently, I thought about how the rules that I was taught at a very young age about who I was and what was expected of me had so adversely affected my basic emotions. When Rachel mentioned that little girl that she once was, I couldn't help but to think about the similar things I have been meditating upon. What fills our hearts and how can we change them? One of the foundational principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and what a Christian will identify as spiritual warfare maintains that emotions follow thought. When we believe fallacious rules about life, we will experience disappointment. By having realistic beliefs about how life works, who we are, and how we should be, our emotions will be better balanced (read more here). We won't ride through life like we're on a wild roller coaster ride of drama.

Rachel's post explores how some of the harsh ideas that we hear in Evangelical preaching and the hard ideas of the gospel must be equally balanced with the ministry of grace and the concerns of the heart.  She echoed Walter Martin's statement that we must have good fruit in both our lives lived and in our doctrine, but we Christians often get fixated on doctrine to the exclusion of everything else. 

Though my following example concerns a personal issue, I hope that it will illustrate the process of at least one way that we can go back into our memories to stand along side that five year old we once were as we raise our hand to ask the hardest of questions.  And for those who respond to those little ones today, I hope to share some insight into the tremendous power you hold to nurture and shape the children in your care.  

As a gadfly and dissident who also asks such questions, I know that they are not always welcomed. The strength from the mouths of babes can provoke surprisingly harsh responses from adults who are too afraid to admit that they don't always have the answers. I also learned to be so grateful for the rare, wise mentor who had learned to kiss their monster on the nose, for they actually celebrated those questions, understanding them as necessary step in the development of the Berean. God doesn't call us to commit intellectual suicide, but we must also be honest when we cannot comprehend something or accept it. We must learn that doubt is a function of discernment, a tool we must develop so that we can learn to use it to clarify belief.

The Thought Seeds of the Heart's Scandal

I was four years old when I can remember my first conscious moments of having a conversation, what I believe was my first memory of words themselves in context of continuity of events. This experience taught me several, serious foundational moral lessons, some sound and some terribly flawed. Even then, I think that I understood on some level that those lessons were wrong because they taught me shame, anxiety, and futility in a very pure form at such a young age.

As a post-Great Depression child, my grandfather desired to instill in me the habit and benefit of saving money, and he inspired me to collect pennies. In an annual tradition that continued through the rest of my childhood, in his visit just before Labor Day, we would take the pennies to the local amusement park and I would “reward myself” for my diligence by paying for my own tickets. But what became a cause for celebration of the love I shared with my grandfather also became a foundational lesson of maladaptive thinking that I would struggle with for decades.

While learning the new, important ritual of counting and wrapping pennies on a late summer afternoon, a little girl my own age came by for a short visit. I joyfully told her how excited I was about this process and of my promised reward. That evening, when it came time to collect the pennies I'd saved all year for the grand event, I couldn't find them anywhere. Everyone was angry.  I learned what I would now call pure panic, and it had a frantic quality. I learned helplessness, confusion, and sadness that day, and I recall them well. I was reprimanded verbally, lectured about the diligence of saving again, and about how to be careful with things, especially money. I learned how it felt to be bathed in shame. I don't even recall if we went to the amusement park or not. But I remember the events that followed.

The Thought Seeds of Shame

I assume that within a day or so, the mother of the neighbor who had visited me that day that I'd counted my pennies and placed them neatly in the red paper rolls called my mother. She'd found her daughter with rolls of pennies, and the child confessed that she'd stolen them from me. You might think that I experienced vindication. No. What followed revealed the rules my mother believed about the world, what Chris Thurman wrote about in his book, The Lies We Believe. My mother believed that when you exhibit good behavior, you will always encounter good circumstances. The flip side of this belief is also true to my mother, so bad circumstances can be assumed to result from bad behavior. These are different corollaries of the fallacious idea that “Life is fair, no exceptions.” It also revealed something about my mother's level of personal worth and likely how she was esteemed by her own parents. It revealed her own heart, so she poured the contents of it into mine, emptying that which she thought was best to give to me: her shame.

I was lectured and painfully shamed verbally, and I would wear those wounds and still bear those scars in my heart. It was explained to me that people don't do bad things unless they are provoked, and the only conclusion that could be believed was that I had “provoked” this other child to jealousy by my actions. I was charged with the moral crimes of pride and bragging. My mother defended the other child, and upon me, she bestowed the blame that belonged to her for her offense. I was punished for lying about what I had done, and more so when I protested and claimed innocence. The confusion was so great, and I felt what I would now call terror, worse than anything I believe I've experienced since, because of the intensity of the embarrassment and other emotions my mother expressed. I vividly remember feeling emotions that I would now describe in my adult language as a fear of impending annihilation.  I thought of these events in school when I learned that respiratory patients in distress often express feelings of "impending doom." 

The next time I visited that neighbor's home, the girl who'd stolen from me whipped out more rolls of pennies and laughed, taunting me that she'd managed to hide a portion of them from her mother.  I didn't know what to do, so I went home to tell my mother, and I have no memory of what happened to the rest of the pennies.  Rather than understanding these new events as some evidence of perhaps the greed and jealousy resulting from the other child's immaturity, my mother interpreted them as proof that I was quite corrupt, on so many levels. 

I was again punished and shamed harshly to the point that I felt like I would disintegrate and wished that I would. This, folks, is my first dynamic memory of speaking with people and using words in conversations. I learned that I was damned and evil, regardless of what I did, and speaking the truth on my own behalf resulted in even greater punishment. I leaned that I was responsible for other people's behavior, without question, and in any given situation, I was the probable cause of a bad outcome. I learned that questions and self-advocacy were verboten, and though the truth was always demanded of me, I learned that there were times when speaking the truth resulted in an even greater punishment and shame. I learned that I had to please people, too, and I learned that this was usually a futile pursuit. And I didn't realize it at the time, but I would live to learn that bad, fallacious ideas had hard consequences. I learned how to be self-deprecating.

The sad thing of it is that my nature is honestly generous, and I would have shared those pennies with that neighbor if she'd asked for them.


When I started to peel the many layers of emotions away with a therapist I'd sought for treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as an adult, I realized that these early lessons touched every part of my life in pervasive and harmful ways. These malignant beliefs had actually limited my ability to cope well with the trauma that followed, the trauma for which I sought counseling. I healed through a process of identifying the negative, false beliefs that undergirded the feelings that made havoc of my life. At the core of many other traumas and beliefs, I traced most of them back to these first lessons of spoken and unspoken lies. Those malicious seed-ideas sprouted into much emotional pain and anxiety that I carried through most of my adult life.  Reflecting on this today, I cannot help but consider the lessons we teach young children when we engage their questions in religious settings and the impact that this can have on how those children will approach God, faith and religious life in their adulthood.

My therapist, my witness and ally, walked with me through the heartache as we chased down every one of the beliefs that I'd developed through this experience. A part of me had so internalized these horrible beliefs so deeply into my heart that I never really fully let myself experience the pain of them. I'd never learned to master them, and I'd run from them through behaviors and distraction, though they remained in my heart as vivid, real memories, as though they were ongoing. My therapist sat with me as I went through the process of chasing down every monster, desensitizing to each one until I could kiss each of them on the nose.

So often she would remind me that I was no longer four, and we imagined what I would do if I could intervene in those memories as an adult. We used imagery to face down the fear in those situations. I gave to myself the gifts of honor and trust that my mother didn't have to give me (because no one had given them to her when she desperately needed them). I went back into those memories, declared the truth, and acted on my own behalf to stand beside that frantic, helpless, confused, ashamed little girl to declare her deliverance. And then I rescued her by moving out of those memories and delivering my child heart from the bondage of the past. The principle and technique works because there is a part of the mind that doesn't distinguish between reality and fantasy, and by injecting true beliefs into the revisited memories, you can actually free the mind from the compulsive bondage that accompanies these types of “flashbulb” trauma “associated” memories.

This process became a new and creative way by which I stirred up the gift of God within the deepest recesses of my own scandalous heart. And I found that in that process of revisiting that memory, I called upon Jesus to stand with me, too, setting at liberty that bruised child. He just appeared there to me, standing beside my mother and me in my mind's eye, bringing healing and compassion to the both of us. From that image flowed my own compassion for my mother which became profound empathy and forgiveness.

Lessons and Challenges of Scandal

Many people flock to high demand religion like patriarchy because it boldly promises to provide people with help to transcend pain and difficulty. For many, it provides a means of power which they use to ward off their own ill feelings. We all feel the limitations of our humanity and should then have reason to better understand our dependency on God's precious grace. But some of us go through the motions, spouting doctrine while forgetting matters of the heart. Christians who lack the abundance of God's love and trust in Him pour their own lack into the very people who look to them for direction, hope, and comfort. They can only share with others that which they have in the abundance of their hearts themselves. Many only share shame, fear, and condemnation, all in Jesus' name. In their purity of doctrine, their hearts wax cold and icy, and they lose their First Love if they ever indeed possessed Him.

The scandal of the evangelical mind creates the scandal of the evangelical heart. (Mark Noll says that the scandal is that there is no evangelical mind anymore, perhaps why our hearts can end up suffering lack. Or we allow our hearts to meditate on the wrong things.) Action and emotions follow thought, and as we think in our heart, so we are.

What is it that we have in abundance, and what is the treasure of our heart?  Who can know it?

The challenges that follow require bold and radical realism, painstaking honesty, and faith. We have to be about the hard work of chasing down those monsters to make them our friends, God's gifts to us. Often, we have to call upon God Himself to enter the deepest, darkest places in our hearts to ransom us from the past.  We only need bid Him to take us there.  This, my friends, is where real spiritual warfare takes place. If we cannot manage to do it alone, we can enlist allies to walk with us.

And another challenge remains still. When we are faced with the scandals of our own hearts, and when fear and discomfort greet us, what will we do? Will we yield honestly to the God who is greater than our hearts, or will we resist Him all the more?

Will we require those around us to bear the discomfort that we don't want to feel by deflecting it through shame and blame onto others? Will we even give it to little ones to carry? Will they languish in shame for decades thereafter? What will you say to the five year old budding Berean Rachels in your Sunday School class when they ask the hard questions? Will you make them a receptacle for your own shame for having no pat answer to give them? Or will your heart be full of love for them, seeing discernment growing as their hearts learn how to think? What will you model for them? I hope that through your own actions that you teach them just how to go about kissing their monster on the nose.

Bravo, Rachel. Bravo.

I dedicate this post to my best friend's daughter who at the age of four literally stood up, put her hand on her hip, and announced that there could never have possibly been a worldwide flood. I love you, Cherise!

May we always be ready to rise to the challenge to foster such discernment. For moms of the Rachels, Cherises, and Cindys of the world, I highly recommend reading Cynthia Tobias' book, You Cant Make Me, but I Can be Persuaded.