By Karen Whistler
Spiritual Trauma. If these words send a chill down your spine, you may have been harmed by toxic theology or damaging church practices. I am so sorry if that is your experience. As I have learned, these situations are so deeply violating and disorienting. It cuts down to our core sense of belovedness when God is used as a justification to control others or a weapon to instill a sense of fear. All too often the church, which should be our sanctuary, has been the source of harm. This is real. And it is not okay.
This post is quite personal to me. I didn’t have the language for it until recently, but a number of years ago I spoke at my previous church of the wrestling I had with faith amidst tremendous suffering. What I didn’t realize until years later was the extent of how my suffering was exacerbated by my faith community and messages from the pulpit. I felt grateful to land in the safety of the church where I first shared my story, but the lasting wounds are still being untangled in my heart and faith.
My very own counselor, Hillary McBride recently released a podcast in collaboration with Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries that I pray will transform lives towards healing. We met Hillary when I was pregnant with our second child, nine years ago. She was part of a birth trauma counseling program through BC Women’s Hospital. Hillary helped Nate and I prepare to enter into the delivery room after a dangerous and volatile experience with our first child. She has been my therapist ever since.
In the compelling Holy/Hurt podcast, Hillary explores what trauma is, as well as what it does to our bodies, minds, and spirits. She explains just how insidious spiritual trauma can be, particularly when our identity and sense of belonging are tied into the church families that have caused us harm.
Leslie Roberts from Sanctuary Mental Health unpacks her own experience and announces the Holy/Hurt podcast here.
This podcast is meant to be experienced in order. So, start at the beginning. Hillary dives into the technicalities of what we know about trauma. She validates the messages our bodies send us when things are not okay. Bodily messages that in my own church experience were labeled as “sin” and disobedience because they were viewed as questioning doctrine—further driving a wedge between the intuition of my spirit and my desire to obey “God” and be good. In truth, I’ve come to understand that these signals were the Divine voice of love speaking Wisdom to me.
Honestly, I had to pace this out series out. To listen, to pause, then to give myself space to process before continuing on. If you do embark on listening, please be gentle with yourself. Whatever comes up is real and is telling you something. Listen to your body and pay attention to what the spirit brings up for you.
And if Spiritual Trauma is not your experience, I challenge you to listen. To learn and to ask yourself how we as a body can create space for the spiritually wounded that is safe and honors the loving intent God has for each of us.
If you like Hillary’s work, here are some additional resources from her:
Mothers, Daughters, & Body Image: Learning to Love Ourselves as We Are (Link: https://hillarylmcbride.com/mothers-daughters-and-body-image/)
The Wisdom of Your Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, and Connection through Embodied Living (Link:https://hillarylmcbride.com/the-wisdom-of-your-body/)
Other People’s Problems: (Link:https://www.cbc.ca/listen/cbc-podcasts/186-other-peoples-problems) a podcast where Hillary broadcasts real therapy sessions to reduce the stigma of therapy.
Podcast episodes featuring Hillary (Link: https://hillarylmcbride.com/media/)
By Karen Whistler
When we lived in Vancouver, BC we knew a number of people who collaborated with or had affiliation with an organization called Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries.
“Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries equips the Church to support mental health and wellbeing.”
They ask the question: “How can a church become a sanctuary? A place where people with mental health challenges can feel safe, supported, and a sense of belonging?”
Sanctuary has developed useful curriculum in the intersection of spiritual formation and mental health. The Sanctuary Course is available for free on their resource portal. Admittedly, I signed up for the course years ago but failed to completed the coursework. The content is well crafted and delivered from an organization that tenderly holds space for all experiences under the umbrella of faith. Writing this is a good reminder to myself to dig back in!
Over the past year, Sanctuary has been collaborating with the music collective The Porter’s Gate. The final album was released last month. A few singles were shared leading up to the full album launch (some, featured on the Awakened Brains Playlist! Many of these songs already feel like old friends.
With stylistic variety, the album reiterates again and again God’s endless pursuit of us within our darkest thoughts and places. The lyrics remind me that I am held. They carry a weight that transcends abstract notions of God’s love to a tangible sense of belonging to one another.
Stream on their website. https://sanctuarymentalhealth.org/sanctuary-songs/
Additionally, “Since 2020, Sanctuary has devoted October to running a month-long mental health awareness campaign. With this week being Mental Illness Awareness Week in Canada and the U.S., and World Mental Health Day on October 10, it is a time of year with increased public interest in mental health.”
Access their 5-day devotional here.
Sanctuary will also be releasing content on social media channels throughout October. More information available on their blog. As we enter into the darkness of fall, I implore us all to consider holding space for the mental health of ourselves and others as a part of our spiritual practice.
By Becky Brown
Music has infiltrated my head and my heart. It's not my fault. I was surrounded. It was there in church, at camp, in school, at home, and in the car. It all rubbed off on me and then the music started pouring out of me too.
I write songs to process my angst (and haircuts). I sing to mend the tears in my heart. I sing to put my children to sleep. I sing to bring light to the dark nights of winter. I sing to make the joyful moments a bit brighter. I sing because I can't not sing.
And I blame you. I blame my parents (my dad has an amazing operatic yawn). I blame the band and choir directors of my youth. I blame the sopranos who stood next to me with their stronger voices. I blame the Indigo Girls. The people may come and go, but the music lives on. You can't stop it.
By Pastor Marietta
Each week the Little Doves students and staff gather in the sanctuary for chapel. We sing songs and pray and hear stories and bless ourselves and each other. Recently we've been learning some new songs that we want to share. These videos come to us from sermons4kids.com. Check out these videos and learn the actions to share with your kids!
By Karen Whistler
I can’t tell you how I found Joan Chittister, but I can say I have a propensity for reading footnotes, reference notes, and bibliographies. Since discovering and devouring The Monastic Heart: 50 Simple Practices for a Contemplative and Fulfilling Life I subscribed to her newsletter The Monastic Way.
For the month of August 2023, the newsletter was framed with our life as a melody. Her unpacking of this metaphor touched me deeply. Joan recounts how her love of music became a grievous longing after losing her piano at age 10. She then reflects on how fruits of grief and losses in our life can’t often be recognized until God weaves them together much later. I found her words soothing to all the unfinished yearnings and closed chapters of my own journey.
Each newsletter includes a short daily meditation. August carries the theme of music throughout each day. I recognize August is nearly over, however these are valuable no matter the day. This week, I enjoyed reading through the list and selecting one to sit with in a moment of silent reflection.
A few examples:
Thursday, August 3: “Music,” Victor Hugo wrote, “expresses that which cannot be put
into words and that which cannot remain silent.” Like music, life is made up of both spoken and unspoken elements. Getting the right relationship between the two is what makes it beautiful.
Friday, August 11: “The music of my life drips into the soul, low and dolorous, high and excit-
ed, until finally, we come to hear the song we’re meant to sing. Then, it won’t matter if anyone
else hears it or not”
Read the web-friendly version here.
See the print layout here.
I am curious how you respond to this thick use of metaphor? Does the use of musical language to describe life strike you as too heavy-handed or does it resonate with your experience?
By Karen Whistler
In July, Pastor Marietta held two events with Poulsbo-based Christian therapist Nita Baer, MA around the concept behind the book The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life by Lisa Miller.
I am still waiting for it from the library but look forward to diving in myself. As a congregation, we explored the value of spiritual formation. Specifically, Nita explained how experience with a loving divine presence outside of oneself contributes to developing resilience and contributing towards mental wellness.
Along with those events, Pastor created a phenomenal playlist. I’ve been listening on repeat for myself and the family. Many of the songs have been replaying in my head subconsciously. I am happy to have these lyrics bouncing around.
During a weekly newsletter, Pastor shared this video of the song Be Kind to Yourself . Andrew Peterson gives the story of writing this song after a conversation with his 12-year-old daughter. She shared the negative thoughts and feelings she had about herself. This tugged at his compassion, as a dad who tenderly felt love when his daughter was hurting.
In the midst of a challenging week, this song came to me in times of chaos. As it played over and over in my mind, a reflection emerged. I turned on the song and took notes as the lyrics washed over me.
The following is my reaction. I start with a love letter to my children, then realize most of this song is what I need to hear myself. I am curious to hear what jumped out to you in this song and others in the playlist. Please share!
“You've got all that emotion that's
Heaving like an ocean
And you're drowning in a deep dark well
I can hear it in your voice that
If you only had a choice
You would rather be anyone else
I love you just the way that you are
I love the way He made your precious heart
Be kind to yourself
be kind to yourself”
So much of my attempt at parenting is captured here. All I want the kids to know and believe (trust in) is that “I love you before you did anything, deeper down to the core of every fiber, my Love extends to every detail in the way you are made.” And that my love pales in comparison to the Divine Love of the God who created you.
I do feel myself catch on the “He” who made the precious heart. My heart longs to find God beyond the Patriarchy of the strictly male God who yields authority and control. And in this place on my path, I even resist putting our assumptions about God in a box. I struggle to find words that capture my beliefs other than “the Divine is good. Creator God is the author of peace, love, and justice. You are made on purpose, made with Love, and are Love.”
From here my mind dives into musings on what I want my kids to know, deep down. The closest I can get to “doctrine” right now is still so fuzzy:
Humans have a lot of stories about their experiences with God. We can learn from them. Religious traditions are built on those experiences and stories. What society or pockets of culture think and feel about those stories shifts over time. Your relationship with God will shift and grow as you do. God is forever pouring out love to you. Jim Finley talks about “devotional sincerity” as sign of response to that never-ending Love.
Church and being part of a community of people pursuing Love and seeking Justice are helpful ways to navigate those stories. Here you can lean into developing/growing/fostering/building the skills to listen to the Loving heart of God in one’s own heart. (Because this world is hard and confusing and that voice of Love gets clouded over easily. Loving relationships are the key to staying healthy in heart, soul, and mind.)
As a parent, my hope is this: Through all the complexities, hardships, failures that happen within a family and as a part of growing up--not to mention internal battles of worth--I hope the message of God’s actual Love comes through.
Above all, I pray the “love” we teach doesn’t end up skewed into some burden. I pray it is experientially felt and understood in the depth of their being. I have to Trust the Divine Creator to pour Love into my children. My faith tries to hold to the belief this possible. Even when it’s easy to stack up evidence to the contrary.
The still, small voice is there. I believe they can and will hear it and respond.
“I know it's hard to hear it
When the anger in your spirit
Is pointed like an arrow at your chest
When the voices in your mind
Are anything but kind
And you can't believe your father knows best
I love you just the way that you are
I love the way He's shaping your heart
Be kind to yourself
be kind to yourself”
Father in this instance being the songwriter, writing a song to his daughter. But I get hung up on the Christian-ese baggage of capital F “Father” God. This isn’t true here but is probably used that way somewhere … and I am uncomfortable with the tendency in church to do so.
And God as the ultimate expression of Loving parenting isn’t a bad metaphor. Just the “father” as loving authoritarian is not helpful. Also, God as Man ...man as power… I’m over it.
But the “I love you just the way that you are” coming both from this individual Dad to his kid AND the notion that God feels that about creation including individual humans....which means me...is true and difficult to hold.
“How does it end when the war that you're in
Is just you against you against you?
You've gotta learn to love, learn to love
Learn to love your enemies too"
The way the enemy as self is played out is very clever. And helps me move from projecting ideas in this song on my kids to letting the lyrics do work in me.
The question posed here is an important one. With an equally profound response.
You against you against you
Gotta learn to love...your enemies too.
Played out in my head over and over. A good reminder when my thoughts are assaulting my belovedness.
“You can't expect to be perfect
It's a fight you've gotta forfeit
You belong to me whatever you do
So lay down your weapon, darling”
Now that I am letting God love me through this song, here is what I needed to hear:
- Forfeiting the fight to earn my worth
- Laying down weapons (patterns of negativity towards myself)
- Believing when someone says “I love you”
All phenomenal life skills. The work and growth and beauty in this difficult life can be unearthed through these lessons. And yet, it is heartbreaking how hard this is to accept and experience.
The “you belong to me” idea snags. In culture “belong” is used within romantic relationships. Songs, movies, etc. use the phrase and it bothers me. In the church “belonging” to God can be even more insidious. Both places “belong” is spoken of with analogies of property, ownership, and “being marked.” Uncomfortable, and all too often conveyed as benign is the casual use of humans as property.
And also .... Belonging is spoken of within the research of Brene Brown, other social workers, sociologists, and psychologists in a very different way. The deep felt sense that you belong and are accepted equates to believing you matter and have worth. Disability communities, diversity communities, and chronic illness communities have leveraged this core need for Belonging in our advocacy work.
Right now I am working to equate “belong" with acceptance rather than ownership.
“Take a deep breath
And believe that I love you
Be kind to yourself
be kind to yourself
Be kind to yourself
Gotta learn to love, learn to love
Learn to love your enemies
Gotta learn to love, learn to love
Learn to love your enemies, too”
Ending with a practical action item, like all good sermons.
Take a deep breath and believe you are loved. I am grateful for this song in my head, doing God’s work in me.
By Karen Whistler
When you see someone’s messy house or catch your reflection in a mirror and realize your shirt is stained and you are looking unkempt overall, what are your first thoughts?
Whether you struggle to stay on top of the never ending stream of personal logistics or seamlessly keep your space pristine...you need to hear this: How to Keep House While Drowning Or read the transcript available here.
How to Keep House While Drowning by KC Davis is a landmark book for developing self-compassion. Last summer, I discovered the book on a friends coffee table and devoured it in one sitting.
KC Davis starts with the assumption that care tasks are morally neutral. AND, she proclaims: there is no such thing as lazy, which is fairly mind blowing in a culture where “cleanliness is next to godliness” and sloth is often referred to as a “deadly sin.” Initially, KC’s ideas made me deeply uncomfortable. She speaks about the particular challenge of neurodivergent brains (which includes two of my children), so I got curious and kept reading.
One of her core ideas is: “You don’t exist to serve your space, your space exists to serve you.” It comes with “believing you are a person that deserves to function.” The power is in the dignity restored when personal care tasks shift from a moral weight to a functional purpose.
Personally, this book opened my eyes to another person’s perspective. I needed to see that my high expectations around cleanliness, organization, food, and family activities can be rigid and not always helpful. The ease in which I can break down and execute the steps for a variety of tasks isn’t natural for everyone. With self-compassion, I also had to acknowledge that formerly “simple” tasks are no longer easy for me given my current limitations.
Most importantly: my view wasn’t the only or “right” way. And this extends beyond the home to a wide spectrum of culturally held beliefs that define why people “succeed” or “fail” in life.
In addition to loosening the grip on the expectations we have for ourselves and others, KC Davis is also a therapist. She unpacks how what is often labeled as lazy are actually signs of a person struggling. We all need support, accommodation, new skills or resources at different times in our lives. As KC puts it: “Shame is the enemy of functioning.”
Since I read her book, I’ve come to approach others--no matter the circumstances--in the context of their struggling. I’ve been able to tangibly sense where compassion replaces judgement in a very deep way.
One thing we often repeat in our household:
Everyone is trying their best.
If someone is showing up in concerning ways, that IS their best right now. It might mean they’re really struggling.
How can we have compassionate hearts, and what action can we bring when we notice ourselves or another person might be struggling? We’re likely not going to fix the challenges in anyone’s life, but even bringing kindness can be transformative.
Take a listen to the podcast, read her book, or spend time on her website.
In what ways has my view of God been shaped by moralizing effort, performance, and self-sufficiency?
How do these views impact the narrative I have of myself and my capacity for self-compassion?
How do these views impact my view of others and the narratives I have about their successes or failures?
Do I hold beliefs that “moralize” neutral behaviors? In what ways do those beliefs support or impair my ability to see the belovedness of myself and others as divine children of God?
By Karen Whistler
On Sunday, Pastor Marietta touched on a phrase that is dear to my own journey: Self-compassion.
In my personal history, self-compassion and letting God love me are intimately linked. Only when I accept my own belovedness with tenderness towards myself, do the defenses that keep God at arms length break down.
In late spring of 2021, I have a distinct memory of opening up to self-compassion. I allowed kindness toward myself to be the defining source of how I constructed my self image. As my attitude towards myself softened, God was able to expand to fill in a bigger, more generous view of themself as the source of that loving-kindness.
I spent decades feeling the only way to serve or help others was to ignore my own needs or put myself down. Through experiencing self-compassion I came to know the great paradox: only by experiencing God’s utter acceptance within my own brokenness can I truly bring love to anyone else, AND let them love me in return. Pastor Marietta tied this idea beautifully in the sermon. She connected how our experience of self-compassion carries forward into compassion we bring to assembling the personal care kits for people who are incarcerated at Mission Creek Correctional Center for Women near Belfair.
When I began exploring the power of self-compassion, one thing I did was listen to a meditation on Psalm 139 by Maria Gullo at least 1-3 times per day, every day for over a year.
I still return frequently to this recording to remind myself how my own creation is infused with Love. I also listen to a number of other practices by Maria Gullo including this one on accepting our belovedness.
During that time I also found a guided meditation on Christian Mindfulness that transformed my view of myself and my view of God’s attitude toward me. Unfortunately, that exact recording has been removed. But they posted something similar: Christian Mindfulness by Methods
Components from the practice that I return to often:
Still your body and mind, focusing on your breath, as you contemplate the Holy Spirit as the Ruach, or breath, of God’s Spirit filling your body with life.
“I accept your acceptance of me...”
“I confess that you are always with me and always for me.”
“I receive into my spirit your grace, your mercy, and your, care.”
Just this week, the podcast Hidden Brain re-posted their episode with Kristin Neff. She is a psychologist and researcher who unearthed the power of self-compassion. Kristin’s website is aptly named https://self-compassion.org. She has studied the personal and interpersonal benefits of self-compassion.
Kristin Neff is an Associate Professor at University of Texas at Austin. She is a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research, conducting the first empirical studies on the topic almost 20 years ago.“
Kristin Neff also has practices on Insight Timer. There are a number to browse through. If you are struggling with a difficult judgement towards yourself, her Loving-Kindness With Self-Compassion meditation is helpful.
I find the benefit of listening to meditation practices is that these words become my thoughts. And these thoughts build up my character and flow through into my own words and actions. Self-compassion is something I lose easily. I have to return to square one often, but the pursuit worthwhile and the fruit is Holy.
By Karen Whistler
One of my favorite authors is Henri Nouwen. The legacy of Henri carries on through the Henri Nouwen Society, which produces a podcast called Henri Nouwen, Now & Then. For this initial post, I will share the connection with Spirit of Life that inspired me to start contributing to the Spirit of Life blog.
Pastor Marietta’s time at the Mission Creek Correctional Center for Women near Belfair has been such an encouragement to me. She has shared prayer requests and updates from the women that I hold dear. Knowing Pastor’s heart for the incarcerated, two recent Now and Then podcast episodes piqued my interest.
Director of the Henri Nouwen Society, Karen Pascal, interviews two individuals involved in ministering to the incarcerated around the globe about how they utilize Henri’s book, Return of the Prodigal Son
Karen speaks to Denis Jacobs, founder of John Israel Ministries who ministers to prisoners in South Africa about his Father to the Fatherless initiative developing curriculum around Return of the Prodigal Son: Now & Then Podcast "Prison Ministry & The Prodigal Son".
Karen then speaks to the CEO of Prison Fellowship Canada, Stacey Campbell. They discuss building on Denis Jacobs’ work building Father to the Fatherless curriculum and implementing in Canada, where they both reside: Now & Then Podcast "Father to the Fatherless” .
I highly recommend both episodes. Let us all to continue to pray for prisoners worldwide and specifically the women of the Mission Creek Correctional Center for Women. I also encourage spending time on the facility website. In a deep dive of curiosity, I learned a lot about the facility and got a small sense of what life is like for the women who live there. This helped me feel more connected to them as I prayed for the specific needs that were shared.
Pray for Pastor Marietta’s presence preaching Love to those who attend her worship services.
In Peace and Gratitude,
Spirit of Life member Karen Whistler is a fount of information and joyfully shares her encounters with theology, spirituality, biblical witness and life. She will be posting here from time to time, inviting us into her world. Enjoy! - Pastor Marietta
My name is Karen Whistler. You’ve probably seen (and heard!) the Whistler crew either in person (we come in hot!) or online (our 3 kids waving into the camera). We started attending Spirit of Life in early January. Each in our own ways, we are grateful to have found such a safe and loving church community. Recently, Pastor Marietta asked if I would like to share with the church some of the resources I come across. My answer: Yes! I am constantly discovering exciting articles, songs, podcasts, books, you name it with so much enthusiasm and a deep dive to share. I don’t really do social media, so I end up texting and emailing anyone who might be interested in my latest “find.”
I would like to preface with a brief bit about myself and a very personal story.
My husband, Nate, and I moved from Seattle to Vancouver, BC in 2010 so I could pursue grad school at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. I focused on Design Thinking and research methodologies. For years I built a career as a strategist around applying Systems Thinking principles to User Experience and Customer Experience for a wide range of companies and organizations.
If all of that is gibberish, read: It means I think a lot about what we feel and think when we encounter experiences — a room, a website, a book, a train ride, an app, a set of instructions, all have an impact on this journey we call life. Each of us bring a lot to the table that impacts our interpretation of each moment and interaction.
We lived in Vancouver for 12 years, had 3 kids, and I experienced a series of health challenges culminating in disability. Last summer, we started our transition back to Washington. Our family landed in Port Orchard to be near my family (who had recently moved to the area) for support.
Since 2021, I have been primarily bedridden/housebound with something called Severe Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (often referred to as ME/CFS), This video was sent out within the community for “Severe M.E. Day” on August 8. This seems like an intimate personal detail to disclose in an introduction, but it is an all-encompassing (yet difficult to explain) part of our family’s life. I also share this story because there is a direct connection to what lead me to contribute resources to Spirit of Life.
First of all, my illness means I spend a LOT of time in bed. During the early days of being near-completely bedridden, I had to reconcile with the real idea: If I am never again able to contribute to society or my family or my kids, then who am I? In this place, I was gifted by a deep-felt presence of Divine Love. Through a guided meditation app, I was introduced to what Brennan Manning called the Relentless Tenderness of Jesus. I had to allow this love into every crevice of my heart, mind, and soul. It was profound. As my body continued to be so very sick, my soul was renewed like never before. I am Love and can be a conduit of Love—if and when I get the chance to be in the presence of others.
ME/CFS comes with a lot of sensory aversion. Often I cannot withstand any light or sound. When I am able, I listen to guided meditations, and podcasts. I read books, newsletters, and—more recently—the wide world of Substack content.
I use this time in bed to bathe my mind in things that reinforce Love. Over time, I have collected a number of resources. I’ve learned and unlearned significantly as I follow this path of allowing myself to be loved so that I can be Love in my small corner of the world.
With cognitive impairment, my brain can often only comprehend small bits of information, if anything at all. By investing in practicing lovingkindness toward myself, I made peace with not being able to recall what I hear or read. I view this process as learning to trust my body and Spirit will use whatever it needs. This has been an evolving act of faith. I have to trust what my mind cannot recall will show up in its own way.
Through this journey, my gut reaction to feeling intense Love has been to share. When I feel filled with passion by something I hear or read, I immediately think of who else might need that content. Typically, I begin texting or emailing. Since Pastor asked me to share on this blog, I’ve began thinking up a post.
So, that is my heart. I am coming to Spirit of Life with the things that have been life-giving to me and trusting that someone in this community will be filled up in my sharing.
With Peace and Gratitude,
Sign up for weekly email updates. It is the best way to find out what is happening at Spirit of Life!