Sunday, July 11, 2010

Summertime Unease

The summer is a difficult time to be a church-attending believer.

The pews empty, what with church education programs closed down for summer break, clergy finally taking some long-anticipated vacation time, choirs enjoying their evenings free of rehearsals and every other family traveling somewhere. Some congregations do better than others, having a longer visiting clergy list to draw from, or a deep bench of talented musicians to call on to carry the songs and liturgies along.  But the offering plates are dangerously lean, and the newsletter articles about the summer mission trips are anxious and urgent in their optimism. In those congregations where there is literally nothing between services, the hours pastors walk the halls of an empty building during a 3 service Sunday is deadening to their spirit, believe me. The church seems more dying than asleep.

The only up sides I enjoy in summer church are easier parking and longer Sundays at home. Not good indicators of a strong communal future.

I have never felt the demise of the traditional Protestant parish to be so urgent as I have in the last two years. I'm sure my late optimism was driven into me, having graduated from a traditional Midwest Lutheran seminary full of teachers and administrators educated and serving in the heyday of the institutional Church, the 1950s and '60's.  A changing American church? They didn't see it coming. Or if they did, they looked the other way. Ordained in 1984, I remember all the years of denominational articles, letters, programs, trainings and trips to stimulate the parish life I inherited. I knew I was captain to a ship taking on water. Members expected strength, growth and spiritual pride in their church. I bailed faster, and felt the panic deep within me. Some of that panic propelled me out of parish ministry in 2004. In the six years since, I've been quite focused on my training and work of family therapy. But I haven't left.

I struggle with this common distraction and panic. Everywhere I turn, the denomination I claim as my own seems lost in a scramble for relevance. Liturgy, once rich with words and movements and rhythm has been replaced by giant screens flashing PowerPoint versions of reworded creeds. I am numbed and bored, and I don't seem to have a place any more. The denomination I claim to be my second church home keeps moving along with a common liturgical focus and broad social net, but seems nonplussed by its lack of growth and aging congregants.

There is a new time of the Church coming, but I can't see around the corner just yet. I've been reading the New Testament book of The Acts of the Apostles in the one hand, and Phyllis Tickle's 2008 The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why in the other.  This summer, with empty pews and open parking lots, the questions seem particularly urgent. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

Trauma leaves its mark on immune system genes - health - 06 May 2010 - New Scientist

I have often thought that trauma changes the body's response to the environment.This research confirms my personal experience that PTSD can predispose one for cancer, particularly those of the lymph system, the body's center of immunity.

My continuing hope is that future discoveries can lead sufferers to more rapid resolution of PTSD symptoms, and thereby saving their body from expressing DNA changes.

Trauma leaves its mark on immune system genes - health - 06 May 2010 - New Scientist

My Latest Article

 Be sure to let me know what ideas this raises for you.  L

Can Gay Families Teach Us About Gender Identity?

Father's Day devotion from Pr. Peter Strommen

Peter is currently the Lead Pastor at my former congregation, Shepherd of the Lake Lutheran, Prior Lake, MN,
has written such a beautiful and wise devotion about faith, family and gender, I just have to share. Thanks, Peter. Awesome.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Helplessness = Trauma

I have been thinking about my, and our, experience of helplessness in the face of the Gulf oil disaster. About what it feels like in our bodies to be continuously exposed to experiences in the world that we can't control but which have large, perhaps even life changing effects on our lives.

In the last 50 years or so, psychology as a science has become increasingly wise about experiences that wound the soul. The kind of happenings that lock up a part of our brains, quite literally, from easy connection to the rest of our inner experience and cause us to emotionally get stuck in the memory. We call these experiences traumas. Trauma with a capital T.

In the current mental health definition of post-traumatic stress syndrome, a person witnesses or experiences something life-threatening, shocking, and horrific, but with one key experiential ingredient : they feel powerless.

Powerlessness is what seems to turn a terrible experience into a Trauma; the inability to respond. Being able to do something in the midst of a rape, or fire, shooting or car accident seems to be the way that human beings help themselves mentally manage the horrors of life.

In all of human history, with the exception of the last decade, the way that human beings were exposed to the darkest part of life was that they lived it. Civil war, tornado, forest fire, genocide, death in childbirth were all experiences limited to the people who lived them in the Now. The average person may have heard about a battlefield massacre hundreds of miles off weeks after it was all done; the sinking of the Titanic days after the ship sat at the bottom of the ocean. The physical distance and the oral or written account were buffers from the sense of immediacy of pain. And while illness, death, disease, and war came very close to everyone, the human struggle had a local feel.

I am concerned for us in the age of constant media exposure. Not only do we hear about the devastation of Haiti or Guatemala after earthquake, we are taken there by professional as well as citizen video, blog, radio, television and internet streams. Rivers of emotional information, rushing at us day and night, eliciting in most of us sense of chronic helplessness. We are being exposed to suffering not in the scale of a single lifespan, but on a world-wide scale, a level most of us can't possible sustain. And the only way that most of us have of being less helpless, of sending money, is a weak antidote to the larger emotional burden the river of news places on us.

When we watch the oil wash up on the unique marshlands at the mouth of the Mississippi, or see a dead dolphin or pelican laying on the beaches of northern Florida, we layer yet another experience of helplessness on our brains. Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq. Over and over. It's trauma, with a small t.

Will we all become a species so accustomed to the experience that we will adopt what is called a "learned helplessness," where sooner or later nothing moves us any more, and we emotionally disconnect from the needs and suffering of others?

What do you do to limit the exposure you and your family have to trauma you can't fix, suffering you can't stop, horror you can't control? How can you spare yourself and your children from emotional wounds of trauma caused by round-the-clock media?