Anchoring Rituals, Part 1 with Dr. Chelle Stearns and Matthias Roberts

When we are rocked by trauma, loss, chaos, and uncertainty, it can feel like we are “lost at sea” without an anchor or clear direction. How do we begin to make sense of our lives and what we hold as true when we have left a familiar land?

Join Dr. Dan Allender for part one of this two-part conversation with Dr. Chelle Stearns and Matthias Roberts as they reflect on their recent class at The Seattle School for Theology and Psychology called, “Lost at Sea.” Next week, we’ll continue the discussion around rituals that can anchor us in hope and help us make sense of our lives in the midst of ambiguous waters.


About our guests:

Dr. Chelle Stearns is an Associate Professor in Theology at The Seattle School for Theology and Psychology. She has a PhD in Systematic Theology from University of St. Andrews in Scotland, an MA in Christian Studies from Regent College, and an undergraduate degree in music from Pacific Lutheran University. Her academic work has focused on the interaction between theology and music, and she loves to talk about the Christian imagination. She is also passionate about trinitarian theology. As one student recently remarked, “You really do dig this trinitarian stuff, huh?”

As a violinist, she brings with her a background in teaching violin and performing in chamber and orchestral settings. She also has a long history of serving in the Church as a musician, teacher, and worship leader. Little known fact: her stage debut was at the age of 3 months, as she was ‘kidnapped’ by her older cousins to play the role of baby Jesus in the church’s Christmas pageant.
Dr. Stearns lives in Ballard with the other Dr. Stearns, whom she affectionately refers to as Dave.

Matthias Roberts (he/him) is a queer psychotherapist, podcaster, and author of Beyond Shame: Creating a Healthy Sex Life on Your Own Terms (Fortress/Broadleaf, 2020.) He hosts Queerology: A Podcast on Belief and Being and co-hosts Selfie alongside fellow therapist Kristen Howerton. Matthias holds two master’s degrees, one in Theology & Culture and one in Counseling Psychology from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology.

Matthias’ work has been featured by O: The Oprah Magazine, Bustle, Woman’s Day, Sojourners, The Seattle Times, and many others. He is a Fellow at the Allender Center, a nonprofit helping survivors of trauma and abuse heal by stepping courageously into their stories of pain and harm. In his psychotherapy practice, Matthias specializes in helping LGBTQ+ people recover from religious and spiritual trauma so they might live confident and fulfilling lives.

Matthias writes and speaks nationwide about the intersections between gender, sexuality, mental health, and theology. His newest book, Holy Runaways will release in Fall 2023.
Find Matthias on Twitter, @matthiasroberts


Episode Transcript:

Dan: Well today, I have the privilege of being with two of my colleagues and friends after we just finished a class called Lost at Sea. Now, what we’re gonna do is move into the category of trauma and ritual, particularly through the lens of baptism. It may not be like the most moving beginning where you go, I am so gripped, I cannot wait for what happens in this podcast, but let me introduce my colleagues and friends, and then we’ll begin a scintillating conversation. First of all, Dr. Chelle Stearns, who has been on the podcast many times before: a renowned, brilliant and compelling theologian who teaches at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. 


Chelle: Great to be here, Dan.

Dan: Anything that I said about the introduction that you’d want to add, because, did I say scintillating as well?

Chelle: You did say that. Yes.

Dan: Okay. All right. Well, I’ll just say folks have so enjoyed having you on that. I could just turn the whole time over to you, but of course, I’m too rude to do that. Nonetheless, Matthias Roberts, who gosh, Matthias to begin just sort of listing something of your remarkable being, I’ll just say, Matthias labors with us in the Allender Center as both a facilitator practitioner and theologian and theoretician, has a podcast called Queerology and is the author of Beyond Shame: Creating a Healthy Sex Life on Your Own Terms. And I say both with anticipation, but also let you say whatever you wish Matthias is in the middle of writing a second book, which really is, you know, the first book often goes not easily, but well, but the second, it’s just not usually pleasant, but anyway, Matthias,

Chelle: Meaning, meaning the writing process, not the content I just wanted to.

Dan: Thank you. Thank you. Yeah. Well, let’s just say that is going to have to happen that clarification of some of my less than wise remarks, but yes, the brilliance of the content assured, the complexity of getting it in print, not so easy. So Matthias welcome.

Matthias: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.

Dan: So how is the second book coming up? We check in with you in this gestation process. Yes.

Matthias: The continued answer is slowly.

Dan: Slowly.

Matthias: Slowly, ever so slowly, but we’re, we’re getting there.

Dan: Good. Well difference. What I want to do is just open the door to what we did, not that we can make the class available, but the benefit of the class, at least from my standpoint, is it opened the door to a new window language metaphor for talking about trauma. And that term “lost at sea,” will open the door eventually, particularly in our second conversation about the issue of ritual, the need for a process of meaning-making that occurs, particularly as we’ll see through baptism, but holding off on that, wanna just begin with what was that class about for you? And what do we want to talk about today about the nature of trauma?

Chelle: It it’s, it’s difficult to say. Cause I have had these conversations with people and they were like, well, what are you teaching right now? I’m like, well, I’m teaching a class called lost at sea and people are intrigued. But they’re a little confused, like, so you’re reading

Dan: Moby Dick.

Chelle: Moby Dick. Yeah. Are you reading, “Old Man in the Sea” which some students did, but really it’s, it is more of like a provocative title, but it’s also a container because you can talk about certain kinds of loss. And the specificity of the kinds of loss that we talked about were more about ambiguous loss. So when people drown at sea often there is not a body to be mourned over. There’s an ambiguity to certain forms of, of death, certain forms of trauma. And that was really what we focused on in the class. And sometimes we don’t talk about really ambiguous loss very well. And so I think that’s, for me, that was one of the big windows that opened up. But in addition to that, like looking Dan, this is like a lot of your work, but looking at more of a biblical theology of water and sea and the interaction with water. And I mean, some of it is especially for the Hebrew scriptures. I mean, for both the Hebrew scriptures and the new Testament, this idea of this text emerging, out of a people that has been in the desert a lot and lives next to sea in a certain sort of way, um, means that water is precious and it’s, something that’s sought out. And even it’s very representative of being cared for and held by the creator of the world. So the symbolism in and of itself is just very, very rich generative and we haven’t even gotten into baptism yet, but, you can kind of see the beginnings of a conversation right there.

Dan: And we’ll come back to the word sea in a moment, but just Matthias, as one of the ones who brought this class into being, what did it, what did, what does lost at sea mean for you?

Matthias: Yeah, I think one of the most striking themes that I saw you two play with that we played with in the class was this idea of how do we work with the reality that something can bring both life and death in some ways simultaneously, the reality of water being so life-giving, so needed, but also that reality that it can quite easily bring death. And for me, that, that leads me so many places, but with what Chelle’s saying, that ambiguity of what happens when something has brought life to us. I mean, the book that I’m working on right now is all about faith and loss of faith, but also rediscovering faith. And that reality that I think a lot of people are in of when faith once brought life and now is bringing what feels like death, how do we work with that? The loss, and then the recreation and those things really stuck out to me as we waded into these waters.

Dan: Well, and the pun itself is actually quite true. Like we are walking into water in a way in which eventually, you lose even the, the ground below you. And that, that sense of the ambiguity of loss or the ambiguity of trauma more often than not we see trauma usually as an event that has a very discrete clarity of a beginning, middle, and an end, and often a deep violation of human dignity in all forms of abuse that would be true. But there are times in which we’re in periods of loss that don’t actually have the construction of a clear beginning and a clear end. And that’s part of the ambiguity. And so water, I love the way you put it Matthias, it’s both life giving, and yet it has the potential to destroy. And I kind of look at, you know, the evangelical world. I look often even at our own institution, how often it has, has been both life-giving and yet killing, death, and holding the complexity of that together. It’s watery. And I think we all felt some degree of the fluidity of, we wanted to find this for our class, for you, the audience, and yet, water itself is a very strong, literal, concrete reality, but also a very profound metaphor. So even as you both think about your own experience of trauma within that ambiguous frame, I’d love to know where your minds go as to how is the class, how is this material helping you think about your own experience of trauma in the non-event clare, beginning, middle and end?

Chelle: Yeah. I think where my mind immediately goes is in some ways, and I think this is true of most academics. You want, you become an academic because you’re trying to figure things out, but also you kind of wanna control things.

Dan: Yes.

Chelle: And you usually have like a long form of being able to understand, put things together in a concerted sort of way. And I think part of this material has really undone me a little bit because it really gets into, it’s made me go back to places in my own life where I realize I really don’t have resolution. Where I have lingering grief that I’ve just kind of moved on from, because I can, and yet that’s the problem of certain forms of grief or certain forms of death that just because you’ve moved on doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still linger within you. And so there have been moments even in teaching this class that, really, I mean, I remember Dan, you and I, we would kind of pause, like we recorded all the lectures together kind of back-to-back. And there were moments where all of a sudden something would come up and, you would ask me a question off camera, and then I’d be like, I don’t think we have time for this now, but it was like, it was interesting to feel even how it stirred, you know, things around, well now I don’t wanna talk about it…

Dan: Isn’t that true? And again, no requirement to do so, but I mean, the fact is with these kind of losses and I, some of it for me is the reality that, you know, my career is not over, but it’s pretty much over. I’m not striving, I’m not working and coming to this. I don’t think I’m gonna retire, retire, but coming to kind of an end of an era, it you know, it’s a transition and most transitions have both loss and some anticipation, but when you’re looking ahead as a 70-year-old, you’re not looking forward to, shall we say the things that a 30 or 40 or 50 year old might. And so that kind of ambiguous loss has been really entering into this notion of aging is a form of lost to sea. You can’t really get grounding to say I’m 70. Well, okay. But what, what’s the meaning of that? It, it doesn’t have, you know, I mean, I know I’m in the category of elderly. That’s what I learned with COVID that anyone 60 and over is elderly. So I’m well into that category. And the beginning of losses, like moving from one portion of my life career to another, I’ve begun, reflecting on the losses of starting a Mars Hill Grad School, the losses of friendship, the losses of collegiality with certain folks. I mean, you know, this class bit my butt, in terms of opening the door to, as you put it, well, Chelle, like lots of unaddressed losses that even being able to name as it’s the sea and where something in the sea that is dangerous and alluring. And yet oddly at times, comforting and reassuring. Watery worlds are ambivalent and with a lot of ambiguity,

Chelle: Yeah. And what’s funny to me is what’s coming up is what’s the difference between certain kinds of loss, death, and how we talk about trauma. And in some ways this class has blurred some of those categories and in weird ways really differentiated. I don’t know, Dan, if you wanna talk about that.

Dan: Well, I’m curious Matthias, just going back to that question, how did, what, what got prompted for you as you began engaging this concept that trauma has this quality of ambiguous loss.

Matthias: I can’t help, but put it into my own context. My own life and then the reality of who I work with as a clinician, which is primarily LGBTQ people who grew up in faith context and those places of in my life. I grew up in the church. I, you know, was “saved” at four years old. The church brought my faith, brought profound goodness to my life. And that realizing that I was attracted to men and the disconnect then that was formed. The reality that faith, particularly like Christian faith, reduces the risk of suicide in virtually every American demographic, except for LGBTQ people. And so those questions of how do I hold onto a faith that is life-giving. When also I have this part of me that tells me I cannot do that, or that other people are telling me, I cannot do that. There’s a particular kind of trauma there, loss there. I think this class brought me back into all of those places of the ambiguity. How do we hold these things together? Um, and find life again, where, where there has been death.

Dan: so to put it as bluntly as, as a gay man, you have lived in an environment that drowns you and saves you simultaneously.

Matthias: Yes. Right.

Dan: Which is freaking maddening

Matthias: Yes.

Dan: Yes. So, as we went through this class, obviously a lot got stirred for all of us. And to invite you as an audience, to begin to think about the issue of where, in some sense, your own faith tradition actually creates madness, confusion, a lack of stability or solidity, you know, as you speak, I can’t help, but think in terms of the reality of how currently in our day, so much of abuse and trauma and sexuality, you know, came out years ago with regard to the Roman Catholic church is now beginning to come out, in you know, certainly the Southern Baptist. But, I could literally show you 10 different articles I’ve been sent or discovered about churches, just beginning to address the issue of broken, but also particularized sexuality that is creating so much antipathy confusion. And in one sense, blame shifting in order to resolve the ambiguity. And in that ambiguity, you know, we’re actually asking people to walk into the sea and that I would love to get both of you talking about what is the sea given your own life and world experience? What does the sea mean as you think about the reality being a gay man or the sea mean for you Chelle with regard to the process of you making decisions about how to live out your unique theological focus, which isn’t only, but is largely the interplay of arts, music, and trauma, which means you are weird.

Chelle: I am. I often think of myself as like amongst the island of misfit toys. So, and yet at the same time, I’ve often been struck when I’m talking to people, how evocative that combination is, and can be, especially when I think about sea, one of the first things that drew me to, into this topic was really stories like that linger on generation after generation, after generation. Whether they’re mythologies or whether there’s certain kinds of story that get told, because there has been significant loss at sea. And so there’s a whole kind of realm of music there’s realms of mythology. One of the stories we worked with within this class was the silky tale or the seal woman tale. Where this kind of movement between a creature being a seal that can become a human or a human that can become a seal, obviously represents this. That in betweenness, the twoness of identity and the living right next to death. And this idea of can, can those people come back maybe for, after they’ve been lost in sea, and that’s part of the seal woman mythology, especially in the Faroe islands that we were talking about, um, or can we go and visit those who have left us? And so there’s a definite ambiguity around that. So in some ways that’s where the arts kind of take us. And so there’s, and yet at the same time, when we go theologically, one of the questions we ask is, so how do we live next to death? How do we live on the shore line? What does, what happens? And I’m reminded of something that Shelly Rambo, this image that she has of when there is extreme trauma, when there’s something that happens often, the lake begins to drain a bit and we begin to see what was hidden underneath. And so there’s also this very complex, again, we’re talking about generation after generation, after generation living with ambiguous loss, um, especially in island nations, but that’s true of all of us in some sense, but that idea of the waters draining just a little bit, and then we realize what has gathered under the waves that we thought were hidden, thought were gone, and yet are very, very present to us every day. So that’s kind of maybe, and then how does God work with that? Like, how are we, I don’t wanna say saved from that because we’re not saved from the experience of it. And I think that’s one of the hard things about trauma is no matter how good of a Christian or how faithful you are, this is the reality of life we suffer. Um, we have deep abiding heartaches, and the question is, how do we answer that? And in many ways, it’s that Jesus comes and is so vulnerable with us side-by-side. So vulnerable, not only in the incarnation, but this is part of like, when we get into the conversation about baptism, this idea of Jesus entering the waters, even just the symbolism of Jesus entering the waters and what happens in the midst of that. Whether we’re talking about the story of him walking on waters, stilling the sea, but we have an embodied vision of how God enters into the chaos of our lives. And so for me, that, I always go there, not as a kind of, narcotic or to try to make myself not feel, but more of how God suffers with us and is in the storm with us.

Dan: Matthias.

Matthias: Well, I mean, I think about that, that journey of what it, like in order to get lost at sea, you have to leave the land. And that, I mean, for me, the land was the faith of my childhood, the community of my childhood. And in some ways being forcefully ejected from that, but also leaving by choice. There’s a, both/and there, and going out into the waters. And in some ways, I’d be curious to hear what two think about this, but I think anytime we leave what we know and we leave the security of land, I don’t know that we could say it’s capital T trauma, but to step into a boat and to enter the unknown, like, there is something terrifying about that, something disorienting about that. It requires a different level of trust. And I think the image that keeps returning to me, Chelle, you mentioned it a little bit, the way that God enters the chaos and that idea, I think is Genesis 1:2 where scriptures talk about the Holy Spirit that hovers over the chaos before there was land, before there was form. Other translations say the spirit that hovered over the waters. And what does it mean to meet this more kind of wild spirit in that chaos, in those waters that may… maybe not as different from what is on land, but is going to be a very different experience of what it means to meet that spirit from what we know.

Dan: The concept of sea, particularly for the Hebrew Bible is a place of chaos. And you’ve both used that word, but we see even in Revelation 22 with the renewal of the heavens and earth, there’s this strange phrase ‘”and there will be no sea,” which like, no, wait a minute, there better damn well, better be a sea. But the other side to it is it’s actually a statement more along the lines of the sea holds terror. It holds in one sense death, and it is the embodiment of chaos. And one of the things that the, the class prompted me to be a little bit more aware of is we’re not just talking about the ocean. Sea was a concept of a body of water that both could bring life and could bring death. So a lake, certainly the Sea of Galilee, which is not a sea it’s a lake, uh, is the sea, but also rivers can be a sea. So when we’re talking about this, we’re even talking about the ambiguity of the meaning of the word sea, but go back to those two words that, you know, life itself, but trauma, always opens the door to ambivalence, and that is being divided, fragmented, a sense of, I hate this, and yet there may be something redemptive in the middle of it. And then ambiguity is, I can’t see, clearly I can’t come to a point where I know what to do and how to do it. And so with all ambiguous loss, there will be a heightened degree of ambiguity and a greater sense of this intersection of, as you described at Matthias, you know, being ejected, but leaving. In so many ways, certain kinds of evangelical churches, you became an exile and in that a stranger, and therefore there’s both loss, but also anticipation. And that is so hard for us to hold together, let alone individually, can I bear your ambiguity? Can I bear your entry into ambivalence? And I go back to the, one of the comments that you said about theologians, but I think it’s just as true therapists and everybody else, we want control. And that’s what the sea will never let you have is a sense of being able to gain control. So whether it’s a marriage, friendship, working in a Christian organization, whether it’s having children, whether it’s doing a podcast or finishing your second book, you’re in the middle of the interplay of the sea’s ambiguity and ambivalence, is that fairly well said?

Matthias: Mm-hmm.

Chelle: Yeah. Well, Mathias. I don’t know if you’ve read Ursula Le Guin’s earth sea novels.

Matthias: No.

Chelle: But it just totally reminds me like this idea of, well, there’s two questions I would have. One is that, you know, what happens not to get into the earth sea novels too much, but what happens when, in some sense you break the covenant, I’ll just say it that way of a community. And then you have to go out to sea, which is the main character. And he has to come to the whole theme of the first book is that he has to come to terms with himself. Like he has to find his own sense of how he is in the world and in the further books, because he’s able to do that, even though he’s kind of in some sense, lost at sea. But eventually he learns to talk to dragons and the dragons seek him out. And so I, I do wonder about even being lost at sea as feeling that sense of exile, and yet at the same time, finding different lands that you never knew before. And so like, I’m so intrigued. So here’s my second question. I’m so intrigued. Why faith? Why not just leave? Why not just leave the church behind? Why not just leave faith behind, um, when in so many ways you felt really betrayed.

Chelle: And I only ask this because you’re actually writing about it. So

Matthias: Yeah, yeah. For me. And I wanna ground this solely in my experience because it’s not everyone’s experience but I cannot escape that presence of the spirit that feels like it has been with me through it all. And in some ways that that promise or that whisper of, there is something better. There is room within this faith for me, cause I believe there’s room within God for me. Or God has made room for me. And I can’t shake that, but it also requires that profound wrestling anger, leaving, truly leaving in some ways to then find those other lands.

Dan: Well, it, the framework that we’re beginning to name is, look, trauma no one chooses, no one wishes to be exiled, no one wishes to be in a position. I mean, there is a kind of recreational boating, I suppose, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about going to sea, to find life and actually being willing to acknowledge that in this environment though, I may find the fish, the bounty, the fruit to be able to live back on land. I may also lose my life in doing so. And that intensification, I just because of a conversation recently with a young couple being able to ask them the hard question of are you aware that as you enter into this covenant called marriage, that things could turn disastrous, there could be revelations of who you are and who you may become that may lead you to some of the most severe suffering of your entire life. And it was a context that there’s reason to have been asking that question and they were well aware of their own heartache and it began to open up a conversation of what a risk, what a profound risk it is when you take a job, when you take, a partner you’re now in a position where you have no clue what the weather will be. And we, uh, check our weather apps, we look to make sure that we’re going out in safe environment, but what each of you have put words to is where do we find solidity when everything feels like you want me to bless ambiguity and ambivalence? And part of our answer is absolutely. Don’t go seek it. It will find you, and it’s inevitable in all forms of individuation. When you leave land, you will enter levels of risk. But I think the question that you posed Chelle to Matthias, I wanna come back to, and that is how has baptism, how has in some sense, the rights, of a memory, but also the ebenezer of anticipation. How has it grounded you enough to live in the ambiguity? And I think that’s a question Mathias will come back to as a gay man who has suffered much in the context of the evangelical community. How is it that your faith has grown? And what does it mean to, in some sense, be grounded in a watery world, in something of the paradox of the grounding of baptism. So look forward to joining you both for our next conversation.