VERSION 1.22 by Carolina Rutz
DEDICATED TO THE MEMORIES OF
THE REV’D DR GEORGE WOLLENBURG
Past President of the Montana District of the LCMS
SPEND A BUCK
Winner of the 1985 Kentucky Derby
Today, I want to give advice on coping with spiritual trauma. It is my hope that you will find comfort and hope.
Based on various Facebook posts, I wanted to focus on the tiny steps to recovering from spiritual trauma. By spiritual trauma, I define it as an occurrence in which an institution of the Church have smothered the faith of the Christian. It can last for years and if not addressed holistically, may cause spiritual and physical death. I am a survivor of such trauma and it took many years for me to recover. These posts are small and will contain addenda over time. This is NOT a comprehensive guide, but it is a starting point to recovery.
Several disclaimers: I am NOT a professional. This is just advice from a survivor that may work for you. You do need the help of mental health professionals and clergy. I urge you to seek help. And if you are suicidal, STOP READING AND CALL A SUICIDE HOTLINE.
I am writing this from a Confessional Lutheran, High Church perspective. I worship in a very liturgical congregation and my theology can be explained in heavy detail from the Book of Concord. I espouse the use of Liturgy and Sacraments as agents of healing as well as using traditional devotion tools in order to meditate upon Christ.
I am an Autistic woman. This means that I approach matters differently from neurotypical minds. It was because of that I was deemed unworthy to serve the Church. I will do my best to make my posts easy to understand.
THE WORST THING TO DO: SUFFER IN SILENCE
I know that it is hard to maintain faith in Christ when your parish or organization affected you adversely. There is the shame and self-blame aspect, as it is easy to say “there is Something Wrong with me; otherwise, this would not have happened.” It is one thing when you suffer the consequences due to gross sin on your part. But when someone unjustly sins against you, that is a different story. God Himself has condemned that mode of thinking when Job’s “comforters” said the same thing about Job’s character when he suffered immensely. With that in mind, you are tempted to retreat and isolate oneself from fellow Christians, fearing that they would do the same. The worst thing you want to do is to suffer in silence because you are more likely to leave the faith entirely. Thanks to Facebook and other networks, one can reach out for assistance from fellow Christians. If someone does not assist you by prayer and mercy, find another person. You may have to reach out to people outside your church structure. I managed to talk to various people out of state and even one who is affiliated to another confessional Lutheran synod.
This is why you need to reach out to a trusted clergy outside the circuit, state, or even outside the denomination. He may suggest attending another congregation. He will suggest a counselor or mental health professional. He may offer help to bring those who harmed you to accountability.
THE CRUEL LIAR
Your brain is a cruel liar. It replays the trauma in your mind and reminds you of how God is evil and how you are worthless. That was the worst feeling I had. It tells you these lies often, and you believe them after so many times of replay. I would have agreed with Stephen Fry, and made a mental note not to visit Ireland in the future, if I have a future. As a result, I became a functioning maltheist, resenting God for working through His professors at the seminary and how he could define any thing good because He is God and I am just a mere puppet, waiting to be destroyed.
It is the worst feeling I ever encountered and I have experienced it off and on for 11 years. No wonder Martin Luther threw an inkwell at the devil in Wartburg Castle. I bet that was the reason why he thought Dame Reason was a whore.
What worked for me: good medicine. The knowledge that these are misfirings in my brain and as soon the meds kick in, I would feel better. I would ramp up the self-care. Frequent visits to the Sacrament. Confession. Sleep. Distractions like testing out a Linux distro or crocheting a hat or reading the Daily Racing Form. Work. Lots of work. For years, I did not care if I drove to Ohio weekly or Muncie biweekly for peanuts. I was happy knowing I was needed.
Another thing that helped me were companies and organisations giving me a chance to prove to the world I am very useful. When my brain starts up with these lies, I reminded myself that I had a large territory in NE Indiana and Ohio working for Crossmark. I reminded myself of the hours I put in for the Ohio LinuxFest. And I remind myself of the job I am in right now. Then I would repeat the Jesus Prayer reminding myself that God is suffering with me and He is with me.
Despite how I felt, it is a good thing that my faith is not based on my feelings. I had to rest my convictions upon concrete truth. I was not alone: so many Christians throughout history suffered these thoughts, the dark night of the soul. One Catholic saint, I found out later, felt absolutely nothing throughout her life– just doubt and her nagging thoughts of disbelief. Yet she pressed on by daily prayer and church services. When presented by these lies, she disregarded them and only relied upon Christ.
What is self-care? It is caring for your own needs. It is NOT selfishness. It is respecting yourself. When one is unwell, you want to take care of yourself so you can function and eventually take care of others. When dealing with trauma, it is important to learn how to heal out. Instead of self-harm or neglect, I consciously went the opposite and respected my body. I ate what I like within reason. I would outsource household tasks as I sucked at executive function, and learn coping mechanisms when an actual trigger occurred. (This is not the pop “snowflake”/”Social Justice Warrior” concept, but an actual psychological occurrence that causes anxiety attacks.) Your goal in self-care is to make yourself stronger.
There are various legit websites that focus on self-care. The gist of self-care is to meet the basic needs of survival and necessary daily tasks. For years, I mourn and it affected various things. I felt I was like a rōnin, a soldier without his master. I felt God has left me high and dry without recourse. My husband tells me that he will help me. You need the help of a strong support system, whether it is friends, family, or professionals. The first few years, it was very difficult as I was a pastor’s wife at Shepherd of the City in Fort Wayne. My one regret is I did not tell the congregation about my situation and I really needed the prayers and support of my congregation. Starting with Facebook and my blogging and finally being open about my struggles, I manage to cultivate a support group of friends and family. Isolation is not the solution. “Sunlight” is the answer.
I start with establishing a safe place in which you can regroup and think things over. If you can find a positive place to feel at ease, it can be near as your backyard or hours away. It was hard to pray at church as I was burnt, but it was much easier to focus at home or at a quiet spot like Barbaro’s grave at Churchill Downs, which I visit twice a year. If you ever visit my home, you will see Derby-related artwork in the dining area and in my bedroom. No cliche statues of Buddha or cheap waterfall fountains or plaques with that cheesy Papyrus font. I do have three religious things in my safe space: my Bible, the Book of Concord, and a set of prayer beads.
Consider my shrink’s office: it is welcoming with couches and personal pictures and tasteful calm decor. Anyone who is in the rebuilding process should save up to set up their own safe place at home. Sometimes your safe place is a nook at a local coffee shop (tip your server generously), sometimes your library, sometimes in another church like the Cathedral in Fort Wayne, where I can light a candle and watch the flames flicker in its holiness. Just find a place and sit in silence.
FACING AND DEALING WITH SPIRITUAL TRIGGERS
Before we go further, I must make a comment on the concept of triggers. The pop culture especially the “Alt-Right” makes light of them as the meaning of “trigger” was morphed from “an outside stimulus connected with a particular trauma that provokes a PTSD or an anxiety attack” to “an offensive concept that provokes hurt feelings and anger.” It is a shame that people do not understand these concepts and as a result, we dismiss and trivalise the traumas of various groups: battle-affected veterans, sexual assault survivors and others who were wronged and abused by authority figures. So I wanted to clarify the concept of a trigger before I talk about being reminded of the past incident.
After you find a proper space, it is a good idea to avoid further personal harm by avoiding certain things that you associate with the trauma. In my case, I avoided reading The Lutheran Witness and reading theological books. I picked up the magazine and I would see a deaconess dressed in blue and I wondered why am I too damaged to serve the Church? I would cry for hours.
I am glad that I actively avoided drama in the LCMS subculture as they would talk past each other and I would be reminded of various wrongs. Rarely, I visit discussion groups where people talk past each other and accused each other of rank heterodoxy. I am embarrassed at how my Lutheran subculture would consume itself, where institutions would reject people because of disability, where theology organisations would turn against each other and accused each other of not being faithful to the Confessions. Instead, I participated outside the bubble. I was active with the Open Source Movement. I rather read about the newest Ubuntu distro than dealing with the umpteenth argument about gender and the Orders of Creation on Facebook. That’s not to say that doctrine does NOT matter. But how you deal with angry drama llamas does matter as you know that they do not really know how to “Speak” the “Truth” In “Love.” Sound and fury, like Shakespeare would say. I would get my theological enrichment from my local pastor and podcasts from Pirate Christian Radio. Passive listening, not active infighting. It is okay to receive teaching and remain in the sidelines during discourses.
Eventually, you want to deal with outside ‘triggers’. This is where cognitive behavioral therapy is an appropriate protocol for dealing with these triggers. I would address these triggers with its underlying message. In my case, there were three messages I receive in a particular trigger: “You are unemployable and useless”, “You will live a miserable life while others are more blessed than you”, and “God thinks you are despicable”. I had cognitive behavioral therapy as I try to bust these three dangerous myths.
I made an action plan to prove these trigger messages wrong. First, I went to Ivy Tech Community College to get a computing degree. I figured that since I know how to set up a web page and my classmates would enlist me to remove viruses from their desktops, I can be a computer technician. That was when I took a mandatory Linux class. That class was the starting point of how I got involved with the Open Source movement. I received a good grade, maybe a B or an A– and the professor told me that I should attend various conferences. One of them was the Ohio LinuxFest. I decided to volunteer and learn as much as possible. I was accepted by real humans, many of them living a postmodern postChristian existence. I became part of their planning committee for several years, and my involvement helped me land a job in merchandising after graduation. It was outside my field, but it is a legit honorable job and I must start with small steps.
These first two myths could be overcome, but the most pernicious lie that persisted was the last lie that God despised me. After all, He did destroy the children of Achan and permitted the devil to ruin Job’s life. It was the Liturgy with its constant structure together with solid preaching that repeatedly challenged this lie. Sometimes, I would leave the service early, especially when the cantor play “What God Ordains Is Always Good.” It took all my strength not to shout out “BULLSHIT!” But I felt compelled to return week after week, brute force. That was when I received the strongest support from various Confessionals who too suffered unjustly from various people from the Synod. They cared for me and prayed for me when I told them what happened. With encouragement and with medicine, I realised the myth was a misfiring of the brain that that Satan would exploit to drive me away from God.
I still avoid the Lutheran Witness. I figured that I have better things to do than to intentionally hurt myself. As for that hymn, I would think of two things: the time I received a major job promotion that paid more than what would a deaconess would make, and my friends at the Ohio LinuxFest. I would also add the time when 1997 Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm gave me a kiss.
A DIGRESSION ON HYGIENE
You must address the physical aspects of your body. I told you about self-care, right? I consciously use make up for that reason. I want to build up myself. I love makeup and beauty products. The choice to use them or not is up to you. Having say that, learning about makeup is loads of fun. I would swatch lipsticks and post them on groups like Specktra. I would review new products and frequent the MAC counter or Sephora. The purpose of a hobby is to better oneself. I love to put on colorful lipsticks and eyeshadows and profess my own beauty and love for beautiful things.
Now for traditional masculine people, you too can improve on self-image. I think of fine colognes, shaving products, grooming for men. I would buy a bottle for Preggie as I picked up my own scent. You do not have to invest $150 for a bottle of Creed or Bond No 9. Even a bottle you buy at Walgreens would do the trick.
The point is that good hygiene will help you heal. We know, take a bath regularly, brush your teeth, put on clean clothes. But if you are going through the spiritual turmoil, it is most important. It reminds me also of what Jesus said about looking proper as usual during a fast.
Speaking of hygiene and clean clothes, I would make a digression as an Autistic woman. My executive function is impaired. So I look for easier ways to meeting basic needs. You visit my daily closet, I have mainly black pants and t-shirts with a horse racing or Kentucky theme on them. Years ago, it would have been free geeky shirts from trade shows. Clean body + clean underwear + clean pants + clean Kentucky Derby shirt = dressed up for today, whether it is church, dining, or shopping. Less time, less fuss. You can adapt this for your own needs. If you want exclusively a few things from an upscale store, go ahead. Flannel shirts and jeans? No problem. Just make sure you and your clothes are clean.
You must also relearn to eat properly and consciously make an effort to have a regular eating schedule. And I must urge you to see a physician and/or mental health professional as well. Your body is not your own, it is a gift, even if people do not appreciate yourself.
One of the privileges of living in First World countries, as well as other industrialised countries is travelling for pleasure and respite. I enjoyed my trips to Portland Oregon during my pursuits in the computing industry. But I visited Kentucky the most. It’s four hours away and I could see Churchill Downs or Lexington and come back in the evening if I was insane enough to drive 8 hours total in one day! Driving takes a lot of mental energy (see: the spoon theory), so I would fly twice a year.
CFW Walther, who was one of the Lutheran theologians in the 19th century, suffered from mental illness. That is right, our first Synodical President suffered like I did! What helped him were periodic respites. He would read and rest and eat well.
Most people here in the United States can afford to spend a weekend away from home. Even if it’s for me just to head north to Shipshewana for Amish/Mennonite culture for a day, you can enjoy respite. I also loved Columbus Ohio for the LinuxFest and noshing at North Market.
Like Morrissey with his love for Mexico, I love Kentucky. It was where I found great healing. One year ago, I was at Churchill Downs, realising I would have never enjoyed it if I were to commit suicide years ago. This year, I visited with my friend for the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. I felt blessed when I got kisses from Derby winners. These horses did not care if I was a theology reject. They see that I come in peace and love and they responded in kind. This is why I told my family that I want my remains at the Winner’s Circle at Churchill Downs.
After self care, don’t rush in the process. Start small. Focus on your vocation first as spouse, parent, or employee. You are doing God’s work just by being these three or by being a child or sibling or neighbor. Do not be afraid to ask for help. If you can afford it, you can outsource some task every 2-4 weeks. Today, my parents help out with daily chores. Dad mows the lawn. Mom does laundry and food prep. Preggie is now at a nursing home, his medical needs taken care of as his dementia advances. This helped me greatly as I am establishing myself in my career in the gaming industry. For 11 years, I focused on my merchandising jobs while taking care of my husband. It was a heavy burden as not only I dealt with spiritual recovery, I was making sure Preggie is doing well. But two years ago, I cannot fulfill his medical needs. Once I secured a nursing home for Preggie, I cleared out the cruft out of the house and outsourced the estate sale work as well as cleanup. It was around the same time the speed of my spiritual healing picked up. I received the right medicine. God directed me to a good job that became my career. By simplifying my life, I have more time to focus on my work and rediscovering my childhood passion for horse racing. God gave these joys that later gave me a greater purpose. I did not mind getting my hands dirty bussing the tables. It’s good busy work.
Involvement with the Church: it is up to you how you want to worship. Take your time. I did not observe Lent until last year. I occasionally attend Bible Study, but I mainly worship and then head back home for errands and job. What is not negotiable are regular visits to the Sacrament.
I regard my Irvine classmates with love and respect. Several of us are aware of spiritual burnout, whether it is personal or someone they knew. They too practice self-care and sought help from professionals. But what the Irvine Confessionals are aware of is the need for the fundamentals of our faith. In our faith tradition, it is located in the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. When I felt that “I can’t even”, I would remind myself that I needed the taste of forgiveness and grace for the day. It was very tempting to ditch attending Church and visit Barnes and Noble. But I needed a concrete reminder that God is still at work in my life. That is where the Lord’s Supper comes in.
“If it’s just a symbol, to Hell with it!” So said Flannery O’Connor regarding the Eucharist.
I was tempted to switch denominations and give the Lutheran Church a solid Eff You. But I could not. Why? Because of the fundamental truth it taught me, especially in the Sacrament. What did Jesus said? “This is My body…this is My Blood, given for you for the remission of sins.” I do take these words seriously, especially during bouts of maltheism. The wilderness years of old had God feeding His people manna. I had Holy Communion. I needed to be forgiven. It was the promise without any asterisks attached to it.
I remained Lutheran because it is the best thing to what I believe as a Christian.
It is difficult to address those outside the Christian faith, as I do not have that perspective, but I reckon much of this can be applied as you see fit. If you must join another denomination, go to a church that offers the Real Presence. Not juice and wafer memorial meal. The actual Body and Blood. No professor can restrict me from partaking at this most sacred meal.
Prayer: That was a difficult thing to do. It was because I feared the worst about God. In my effed-up mind, I believed that God was capricious and arbitrary enough to do whatever He wanted, so don’t bother. But even in my anger I prayed in silence. I was on autopilot during Sunday worship. But my soul yearned for release.
So I laid in bed in silence, hands folded and said not a word. I would sleep knowing God knew my thoughts and He was strong enough to withstand them.
I actively avoid prayer journals and Lectio Divina-type of mystic prayer. You do not know whether the “still small voice” is of God or of your unwell mind… or WORSE.
I would pray the Our Father at times, which is what you are invited to do as a Christian. It encompasses what a human really needs in life. Simple and elegant. It is enough. If you are doubting the goodness of your Father, the Eastern Orthodox has a small prayer you can use to repeat when you have those episodes. It is called the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is a simple way to counteract the pain and still be connected with God.
I now use that with a set of prayer beads that my friend Ramona Porter made for Confessional Lutherans who desire a tactile way to meditate. The beads are small in your pocket, not conspicuous to show off. When my friend and I were at Barbaro’s grave, I showed them to her and explained how to use them. She thought it was quite nifty. If prayer beads are “too Catholic”, you can hold a small pocket-size cross in your hand. If you are confronted by episodes of spiritual distress, you can reach for your cross or beads and calm down so you can resume your normal activities.
Whether you use beads or a small prayer, what matters that your awareness that your soul groans in intervention, the Holy Spirit– our Ombudsman– is before our Father presenting our cause.
I know this is a long list, please read in sections, skip over and come back as often as you wish. It will get better over time. You must remember that you need to take care of yourself during this difficulty. This will heal you faster. You will realise you need God more than ever. Even if you are faithless, God is still faithful to you.
Now, I write these words in honor of my spiritual awakening 11 years to the day after the professor told me that I was not suitable for church work. Last year was the year I got to move on and have a proper career and a renewed faith in a good God. Maybe you are in the middle of upheaval, months or years. I will say this: over time, it does get better. It was a snail pace. But I am thankful that I am doing much better, thanks to various people. So I want to pass this along as I want others to help themselves heal out.
To those who read this, I want to thank you for taking the time to read. Feel free to pass this along to anyone in need. There are also resources I would recommend reading. Rod Rosenbladt has The Gospel for Those Broken by the Church. Jonathan Fisk has Broken. Pirate Christian Radio has a collection of sermons you can listen to while you are recovering. Any constructive feedback is welcome. I will post these notes to my website. Thank you. And may God’s mercy be yours.
WRITTEN 9 MAY A+D 2017
TUESDAY OF THE FOURTH WEEK OF EASTER