Healing Spiritual Wounds: A Conversation with the Rev. Carol Howard Merritt
The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt is a parent, pastor, and writer whose wise words are an inspiration to many people, including me. I am honored that she took the time to talk to me about her work, and I’m excited to share our conversation with you now.
I highly recommend that you follow Carol on Twitter to read her thoughtful takes on current events and matters of faith, spirituality, and what it means to live well. And make sure you pick up a copy of her latest book, too, which we discuss below.
Your most recent book, Healing Spiritual Wounds, offers paths forward for adults who have been hurt by church communities—including the ones who, as you say, “tried to break up with God but can’t seem to make the split final.” What is it that keeps pulling so many of us back to God? Is it some kind of conditioning we experienced as kids or is it something deeper than that?
I suppose it’s both—conditioning and something else, but how to define that “something deeper” is difficult. I feel it. When I do simple things like go for a walk and I see the sky enflamed in color, or the earth bursting with one of its seasonal showcases, I think, There has to be something behind the absurd beauty, and I sense that I’m a part of whatever it is.
Or when I hear that someone is hurting, and I reach out my empty arms with this powerless feeling. I’m unable to comfort or help them, and so I begin to mutter a prayer. I sense this connection to beauty or that longing for some force with whom I can plead mercy.
I usually settle on Friedrich Schleiermacher’s language. He calls that pull and yearning a “feeling of absolute dependence.” Many of us like that sense of being connected to something greater than ourselves, and so we long for that mystery, even when we have been battered by the church. I think some of us are just wired for it.
As a pastor, how do you understand the relationship between religion and spirituality? Can one exist without the other?
Yes, religion and spirituality can get along quite well without one another. There are plenty of religious communities that lack any soul, and we have lots of deeply spiritual experiences without the help of religion.
If we think of religion as the institution or the structure, it can provide some permanence—a building, a schedule, a budget, and a set of beliefs. If it’s healthy, religion can also provide a system of checks and balances against abusive leadership or beliefs. For instance, before I could be ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), I had to go to three days of psychological testing and evaluation. They were obviously trying to weed out Jim Jones and his Kool-Aid.
I think the best religious groups are a conduit for the spiritual and the sacred. I mostly sense the connection between religion and spirituality with soaring art and vast humanitarian efforts.
When we look at history, we can see that some of the most enduring architecture was constructed by churches—from the amazing cathedrals to simple slat-board structures. The church has commissioned great glass work, sculptures, and paintings. We have cultivated artists through iconography. When we look at music, we know that composers arranged extraordinary sacred music.
I can also sense it when we feed one another—through the church food pantry, soup kitchen, and eucharist. When the dance between the two—religion and spirituality—works, then it can be amazing, bringing out the best of humanity.
How has being a parent changed your definition and/or understanding of spirituality?
To be honest, I used to be a little annoyed when people would suddenly show up at church when they had a child. I was worried that they were relying on the church to modify their child’s behavior, that I was responsible for their kid’s weekly reminder to not steal cookies from the cookie jar.
Then, I had a child and my perspective changed, because I recognized that parenting was a deeply spiritual experience. Having a child sparked a sense of awe within me. Going through the process and feeling that overflowing love that connected me to her was deeply spiritual. I held her, smelled the top of her head, and kept thinking, “Where is all of this emotion coming from?”
Then, when she was a bit older, my daughter seemed especially wired for the sacred. At a young age, she began asking what happened when people die. The neighborhood kids brought dead birds to me and asked to have services for them. And she had an innate sense of fairness and justice that religions try to encourage (of course, the sense comes out most strongly when kids feel wronged). All these things that religion strives to do—make sense out of death, give comfort to one another, and seek justice—she began doing from an early age.
That’s when it dawned on me that parents weren’t just looking for some sort of behavior training. Often parents were having a profound spiritual experience themselves. And, many people needed a community to navigate big questions, facilitate compassion, and understand longings for justice.
In Healing Spiritual Wounds, you share this important observation: “Our idea of God can be crucial, not only for our personal lives, but also for the whole of society.” Could you talk a little about how some people’s idea of God as violent or tyrannical causes problems for all of us?
When I think about my experiences as a child, I remember the fear that grew up every Sunday, when our pastor began the altar call. We would sing “Just as I Am” and he would tell us that God wanted to save us from hell. I would whisper the Sinner’s Prayer, in the hopes that I would avoid it. I wouldn’t go up to the altar, because I didn’t want to make a scene every Sunday, but I was scared that I somehow lost my salvation, or that I didn’t have it in the first place. A stark panic rose up and I would plead with God to save me from the fires of damnation.
Of course, I hadn’t done anything that week that should have made me think that I deserved an eternity of torture. I hadn’t even done anything worthy of a scolding much less unending torment. I just had a very warped view of God. And I believe stoking that fear within our community not only affected my development, but our formation as a community.
I began to understand this more when I read neurological studies on how religion affects our brain. They said that when we worship an angry God, it actually stimulates the amygdala, that part of our brain that triggers anger and fear. The thing about fear is that it not only affects us, but it can travel between people, because we are emotionally wired to one another. If we worship an angry God who invokes fear, then we not only have an emotional and chemical fear response within ourselves, but it is contagious and spreads through the whole congregation and even the whole society.
We can see it with our current political situation. People are trying to understand why White Evangelicals are President Trump’s most faithful base, since he epitomizes the moral failings that they have scorned in the past, and his policies don’t match what the Bible says we should be practicing.
I think it’s the emotional response that Trump causes. It’s easy for Trump to get a crowd riled up at a political rally when he talks about “rapists and murderers invading our country.” It invokes fear, which spreads. And the tactics work best on White Evangelicals, because they have been conditioned for that type of fear. And now that fear is affecting our whole society.
The good news is that peace works in the same way. When we worship and meditate on a peaceful and loving God, those emotions can spread as well.
Could you share some language and/or activities that you recommend for parents to use as they try to help their kids develop a healthy, happy, loving relationship with God?
I have to give a shout-out to my friend Traci Smith. Her book Faithful Families is full of wonderful activities.
First, I think it’s important to realize that each child is different and will connect with God in different ways. One will love creative expressions of faith. They might have a mystical bent and enjoy free-form praying. Other children will relish the rituals of a memorized prayer, or prayer cards. Others will enjoy a more intellectual approach and they might want to delve into questions, like free will versus destiny. (I have been having a lot of discussions with my teenage daughter on this topic, after watching The Umbrella Academy). So, it’s important for parents to understand and honor a child’s approach to God, even if it’s different than your own.
Gratitude walks. With each step, take turns naming something you’re thankful for. You can start with the ground below you and the air you’re breathing.
Scavenger hunts. Help children to nurture awe by seeing all of the amazing things around them. Let them go on a scavenger hunt in your yard, picking one thing from every color of the rainbow, five different kinds of rocks, or examine the different kinds of plants growing in your lawn. Or if you only have access to a public space, you can ask them to collect different colored leaves in the fall. If they are artistic, you can ask them to draw the plants, rocks, and leaves. If they are more scientific, see if they can identify them. As you do this, you can connect the beauty of creation with God our creator.
Practice meditation. Research emerges constantly about 1) how children are feeling more anxious, and 2) how meditation soothes anxiety. While we probably can’t get our kids to settle down for a 20-minute mindfulness ritual, we can take them to places that help them to breathe. Going to a cathedral and lighting a candle or taking a kid to a park and looking at the clouds moving across the sky can help children to slow down and breathe deeper. If you can’t go to a space that helps with contemplation, encourage them to take six deep breaths. J. Dana Trent writes that is enough to help us change our physiology. Some counselors use the same sort of technique and call it “settling the glitter.” Giving children these tools will help them for the rest of their lives.
Love as a litmus test. Your child will learn all sorts of things about God, from friends, television, or books. As you talk about them, always use love as your litmus test. You can say things like, “Well, we know that God is love. Does that sound like a loving God?” Help them to answer the question and ask it for themselves.
Rev. Carol Howard Merritt
Rev. Carol Howard Merritt is a minister whose writing, speaking, and teaching is anchored in theological wisdom and sociological insight. She’s a sought-after keynote speaker, especially on the topic of ministering in a new generation. The award-winning author of Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation, Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation, and Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church, Carol is a frequent contributor to books, websites, magazines, and journals. She is a regular writer at the Christian Century where her blog is hosted.