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Author: Merianna Harrelson

I am the Pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship and Director of Ministrieslab providing tools and resources to churches, clergy, and lay people to meet need. I am always looking for a good cup of coffee and a great book to read.

Spiritual Abuse and Justification

The question of how prominent evangelical leaders can continue to support a president whose morality and ethics are questionable is perplexing. How can the same people who questioned Obama’s religious beliefs and berated Clinton’s infidelity defend and justify our current president again and again?

Loyalty to Trump has involved progressively more difficult, self-abasing demands. And there appears to be no limit to what some evangelical leaders will endure. Figures such as Falwell and Franklin Graham followed Trump’s lead in supporting Judge Roy Moore in the December Senate election in Alabama. These are religious leaders who have spent their entire adult lives bemoaning cultural and moral decay. Yet they publicly backed a candidate who was repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct, including with a 14-year-old girl.

The simple answer is that the president finds himself affiliated with the right party and evangelical leaders will back this president because he represents the party they want in power in Congress and in the White House. The acrobatics they must engage in order to justify and continue to support him are merely exercises in ensuring power is kept in their own political party. To address the merit and inaccuracies of their theological reasoning in their support of the president is to threaten their power. These discussions whether in person or on a Facebook comment thread quickly deteriorate into naming-calling, debasing, and dehumanizing rhetoric.

This is not surprising or shocking to me as someone who grew up with these language patterns. In fact, I too default to this type of rhetoric when at levels of stress or uncertainty. The only goal is to be right regardless of the hurt or pain caused in the quest to be right. Ryan Stollar notes:

Fundamentalism is an obsession with getting ideology right, rather than a dedication to doing right by people.

This issue-first rather than people-first religion doesn’t allow evangelicals to admit they were wrong or misguided in their justification and support of our current president. To make such an admission, would be to admit that they had misheard God or misinterpreted the idea that “God used Pharoah and God can use anyone.” The whole basis of fundamentalism is to protect and defend the “right” ideology and so no matter what is revealed about this president, the connection with Russia, or the abuse towards women or foreigners, the voice of the white evangelical right will remain in support of this president. It has to in order to prevent an unwarranted theological crisis and a threat to the evangelical, political power.

Those who bravely call out evangelical leaders who support the president find themselves an outsider to a community and people who once respected their voice and insight. This threat of exclusion is so strong that it causes people to recant and repent in order to be welcomed back into the fold:

A day after a Religion News Service interview portrayed retired pastor and author Eugene Peterson as shifting to endorse same-sex marriage, the evangelical leader retracted his comment and upheld the traditional Christian stance instead. “To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything,” he said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

This is spiritual abuse at its most powerful.

Spiritual abuse threatens and excludes in order to keep power in the hands of the powerful. But spiritual abuse must also have a theological basis in order to withstand criticism of seeking power. The theological basis for defending our current political state and president is justification or “an acquittal of guilt.” And this is what evangelical leaders have provided for the president: justification for past cases of infidelety, sexual harrassment, and abuse; justification for language they would not approve of from their congregants; justification for debasing and dehumanizing attacks via social media. This justification will continue along with the spiritual abuse that defends it because evangelical leaders are concerned about losing political power and favor.

There is no defense against this type of theology. Those who engage in debating or disarming this theology will find themselves excluded and debased. Instead, what we who are concerned and weighted down by our current state must do is invite those who are questioning and wondering into sanctuaries where they can challenge the theology and rhetoric they have been taught. We must be compassionate and kind rather than belittling and accusatory. We must not name call. We must not call those who have been raised in these communities ignorant. We must be radical in our hospitality of inclusion. We must extend table fellowship full of grace even to those who might later betray us.

This is the work of hope and healing and indeed the work of Christ Jesus who offered new life to all people.

Accidental Resurrection

Three years ago during the Lenten Season, I felt such strong compassion for a bush in our yard that was being strangled by weeds. I could tell the weeds had so entangled this bush that the weed was literally taking the life from the bush. There were no blooms on the bush, but only dead limbs. I decided part of my Lenten practice was going to be to free that bush from the weed that was strangling it.

I am not a gardener. I do not have a green thumb, but I was determined. The weed was thorny and hardy. It didn’t come away from the bush easily. It put up a fight. In fact, it took me two sessions and numerous pricks in this bed to extract the weed from the bush. I watered this bush wanting so much for it to bloom. But it didn’t. I could see that there was life in the limbs again in the hints of green, but there were no blooms. The following Springs were the same, no blooms, but small pieces of evidence of life and growth.

I was disappointed. There were no Easter blooms. There were no butterflies that Spring to come to the butterfly bush. I was even more disappointed when I found out that what I had actually helped to resurrect wasn’t a butterfly bush at all, but rather a Bradford Pear tree that had been struck by lightning years ago. The tree had been removed, but the stump and roots remained.

My sweat and toil had accidentally resurrected a tree, not a bush. See I told you,  I am not a gardener. This accidental resurrection has been a running joke between me and Sam and the congregations I have pastored of my lack of gardening ability.

Yesterday as I pulled into the driveway, my breath caught. I spotted this white bloom. One bloom next to the rose bush we planted for our one year wedding anniversary. One bloom in the midst of a rainy and dreary day. One bloom after three years of no blooms. One bloom of hope in the midst of the darkness and wilderness of Lent.

For me, this is the picture of my own journey to weed out the effects of spiritual abuse in my life. The spiritual abuse that almost strangled me. The spiritual abuse that made me doubt who I am and my own worth. The spiritual abuse that threatened to overtake me. It’s been a long painful journey, but that one bloom is the perfect picture of the journey. I never thought I would be where I am, just as I never thought I was helping out a tree. What I’ve found on this journey of healing and wholeness is that my roots are strong. There is still life and hope. Resurrection does indeed come accidentally in the most unexpected and surprising ways.

Ashes to Ashes

Last week was full to the brim with responsibilities from all the different things I do for “work”: pastor, freelance writer, publisher, and part-time employee at Lutheran Seminary. It doesn’t usually happen like this. Usually the different vocations don’t collide into each other, but this week they did.

Thankfully, I had help from my incredible family who left me notes to remind me where in my office I had left the ashes on Sunday so that I would be able to find them again for our Ash Wednesday service. These little hints of connection reminding me that the work isn’t only our work. It is the work of a community and a family. It is the work of gathering together to emabrk on a journey of darkness hoping for the light of revelation and deeper connection to Creator God and to each other.

And in the midst of this reminder of darkness, I was invited to partner with Koinonia to draft a grant for their summer enrichment program. I had to brush off my old teaching and literacy teacher books. I had to gather data and analyze data, something I haven’t done for 10 years. As I sat at my computer, I thought about the way the experiences we have matter and come back around in truly miraculous ways. When I left the teaching profession to answer a call to pastor, I was heartbroken that I had wasted time and money pursuing a career I wasn’t going to end up in. I should have started sooner I told myself. I should have been a religion major in undergraduate. I should have…

But last week reminded me that when you answer a call to follow after God, nothing is wasted. No experience. No expertise. These ways in which we are unique and individualized make it possible to partner together to bring the kingdom of God here on earth in all sorts of communities and all sorts of articulations.

You are dust and to dust you shall return.

Lent reminds us of the fleeting nature of these physical bodies. We can spend that existence in “should have’s” or we can accept that God is calling us to deeper connection to each other and to Creator God. If we choose the latter, dust miraculously turns to life and hope and light in our work, in our vocation, in our families, and in everything we do. Let us walk into the darkness, not in fear, but in hope that we meet Almighty God calling us and inviting us to work to bring the kingdom of God here on earth.

Spiritual Abuse and Asking for Help

The people and stories I encounter in my ministry are not always easy ones to hear. They are weighty with pain and hurt. In these stories, there is almost always a point at which the person reached out to a religious leader asking for help and guidance.

A woman whose husband was physically abusing her was told that she needed to stick with the marriage because “God hates divorce.”

A woman who was being consistently being sexually harassed at church was told, “he is a good man and a servant of God. Your job is to submit to your husband.”

A woman was struggling with depression and wanted a recommendation for a therapist or a psychiatrist was told, “God is strong enough. You just need to pray more.”

Again and again, people reach out for help only to be told, there is no help. The dogmatic teaching doesn’t allow for divorce, victims speaking up, or needing help outside of the religious community. And instead of offering wholeness and freedom, the community of faith offers more hurt, more pain, and more isolation.

If you know that you know that you that you know that you are spending eternity in heaven then what you experience here on earth doesn’t matter all that much. If you have the peace that surpasses all understanding then you can overcome anything that you encounter.

This is spiritual abuse.

When we cling so tightly to doctrine over the people who are sitting before us bearing their souls, we are missing the gospel message. The gospel is not about continued and consistent hurt and brokenness. The gospel is about freedom and wholeness. This is why the Divine came to earth to offer new life.

When we focus so heavily on eschatological destinations, we miss out on living and being here on earth. We miss being in community with others who breathe the same Divine breath that we do. We miss out on seeing the miraculous transformative power of the Divine here among us working, changing, and offering hope to people desperately asking for help, asking to be seen, asking to be heard.

May our eyes be opened to see those who surround us and hear their needs, rather than explaining those needs away with an easy dogmatic answer.



Spiritual Abuse and Mental Illness

Sunday’s lectionary gospel passage was from Mark 1:21-28.

1:21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 1:22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 1:23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 1:24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 1:25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 1:26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 1:27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 1:28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

It’s important for us to spend some time discussing and reflecting on this passage because we are not comfortable with the idea that there are unclean spirits or evil spirits that not only could change our lives emotionally and mentally but could cause us to physically convulse, are we? This is not a term or situation we are familiar with, but it is something that we confront and encounter as we read the gospel accounts of Jesus and his ministry. Modern interpretations lean towards the understanding that someone with unclean spirits would be the equivalent today to someone who struggles with mental illness or perhaps some sort of physical disability that cannot be overcome with mere focus and attention but needs a miraculous healer like Jesus.

In too many cases, this interpretation has become dangerous because pastors and teachers will tell people who struggle with mental or physical illness that they just need to pray and ask God for healing and not pursue any kind of medication or therapy offered by science. The Healer can heal everything and no matter what kind of mental illness or mental health issues you struggle with, you just have to pray more and believe more and you will be healed 

This is spiritual abuse.

For 15 months I led a weekly chapel service at Transitions Homeless Shelter. The number of people who I encountered who were struggling with mental illness was astounding. I have to admit that my encounters to people with mental illness up to this point have mostly been with people who have done the good and important work of recognizing the struggle they have, naming that and seeking good and whole care from experts. This was not the case at Transitions. I encountered people who were struggling desperately for their lives and their souls. I encountered people who didn’t have the money to fill their prescriptions, didn’t have the healthcare options to seek help, and people who had completely given up. I encountered these people at Transitions because that’s exactly what happens to people who have struggles we don’t understand. They end up on the outskirts of society, away from the public eye, and apart from our awareness. This was true in Jesus’ day and time as well.

And in limiting our understanding of those who are in need of Jesus’ healing and hope, we are not creating sanctuary in our communities of faith. Instead we are creating a place where we our assumptions are reinforced and where people have to come put together rather than their real and broken selves.

This is spiritual abuse.

Jesus welcomed all. Jesus did not shy away from the man with the unclean spirit. Jesus spoke to the man with the unclean spirit. Jesus healed the man with the unclean spirit.

What are we going to do as we have come into contact with the gospel truth that Jesus Christ has the power to call our unclean spirits? What are we going to do with this account of someone who is so vulnerable and in need? Are we going to keep studying and learning more about the power of Creator God in the form of a human or are we going to continue to engage in spiritual abuse that shames and blames people who are struggling with mental illness. People struggling for survival. Children of God who are desperately searching for hope and healing. 

The choice is up to you.

Unexpected Turns

Last week, I found myself back in the classroom after two and a half years. Part of my position at Lutheran was to process applications for the Spiritual Direction Certification Program: a program and certification I had never heard of. Spiritual Direction has been a part of the Catholic tradition as well as central to Eastern faith traditions. While there are similarities between these faith traditions, “Christian spiritual direction is help given by one believer to another that enables the latter to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow intimacy with this God and to live out the consequences of the relationship.” (The Practice of Spiritual Direction, William A. Barry &William J. Connolly)

The more I learned about the certification program, the more drawn I was to the idea that one could train to help people to hear and find God’s voice in his or her own life. In a world that is so full of words and noise, there is great confusion. We can’t tell the difference between God’s voice and the voices of power and privilege. We can’t tell the difference between God’s voice and the voices of greed and oppression. We can’t tell the difference between God’s voice and the voices of religious leaders who misuse and abuse their positions of leadership.

Our listening skills have been overshadowed by our quick responses and heated defenses. We speak over people wanting only to be heard, rather than to hear. In our desire to be heard, we miss the opportunity to commune with Creator God who has always been willing to listen and converse with us. We seek affirmation from likes and comments and retweets because we can’t hear God whispering around us, inviting us to something deeper and more meaningful.

Perhaps what we’ve been desperately striving for is alive and well in listening and responding to the Divine at work among us. Emmanuel, God is with us, if we but open our hearts and minds.

Spiritual Abuse and The Fear of the Outsider

I can remember distinctly the Sunday School lesson in which we talked about Catholics. Their church across the street was expanding and it provided a natural topic of conversation, but that conversation wasn’t one of excitement or shared enthusiasm for their community of faith growing. Instead, it was a conversation of wariness with a clear message: they were outsiders.

The prevalence of this belief in my upbringing made it confusing when someone pointed out that Catholics weren’t, in fact, another faith. They were actually more similar to Christian beliefs than many other faith traditions. I was confused even further when this person explained gently that other denominations were also not other faiths, but just different articulations of Protestantism.

Focusing on the similarities between our community of faith and other communities of faith would confuse the message that we were believers and everyone else needed to be converted to our faith, the one true faith. The fear of the outsider was palpable.

The outsider posed an untamable and uncontrollable influence. The outsider brought questions and challenges to the strict dogma that was taught. The outsider invoked compassion and partnership to solve problems like poverty and hunger and homelessness. The outsider inherently challenged the power and hierarchy that existed.

And so the focus on the outsider was one of evangelism, friendship with the hope of conversion. A conversion which would lead to membership only when this former outsider expressed belief in the dogmatic teachings. Infant baptism would not be accepted; only full immersion believer’s baptism. Homosexuality would not be condoned. Divorce would be strongly be counseled against in any and all cases.

The outsider was welcome as long as the outsider looked, spoke, and acted like an insider. This is spiritual abuse because it reduces humans to numbers. It allows all traces of inequality both economically and racially a simple theological bandaid: “They are in that situation because they are not true believers.” It keeps wealth and power and prestige in the hands of the elite and it teachers disciples of Christ to turn a blind eye to those in need unless they first are converted.

This is spiritual abuse and it has infected our society, our governing bodies, and our churches.

Spiritual Abuse and Standing Ovations

I didn’t realize it was strange to some Christians to clap in the middle of a worship service until I was twenty. Clapping was an expression of gratitude common in worship services I attended as a child, especially at Christmas and Easter. I always understood the clapping to be a sign of gratitude for the experience, but in the churches, I visited there was a quiet reverence during worship. An awe and wonder signified not by more noise, but by silence and solitude. Worship wasn’t about anyone who led the service or led the music. Worship was about encountering Creator God who breathed life into humanity and wondering how on earth that could have happened.

This week, a Memphis megachurch pastor admitted to having being involved in sexually with a minor. His congregation responded with a standing ovation. Their response didn’t surprise me. I have stood clapping more than once in church and during worship. But something about this story didn’t sit right with me. While I admire this pastor’s admission in front of a crowd of people, there is something missing. Calling this a “sexual incident” rather than sexual misconduct against a minor, alleviates the legal ramifications of this pastor admitting to having committed a felony. This change of language was not an accident. This was spiritual abuse.

Admitting to something without accepting the full ramifications and consequences isn’t something we should be modeling as ministers. Instead, this partial admission exerts the power and privilege that he as the pastor of a megachurch holds. He holds the attention of thousands of people. He holds the respect of thousands of people and what he has done with that attention and respect is used it to make himself feel better about committing a crime.

This is the spiritual abuse that plagues our society making congregations feel as if they are the judge and juror of pastors’, polticians’, and president’s misconduct rather than our legal system and rather than God. If there are enough likes, if there is enough clapping, if there is a standing ovation than the wrong and hurt and pain that has been committed is ok.

It is never ok for anyone to harm a child, no matter the position, no matter the power, no matter the number of people they influence. It is never ok for a person in power to seek justification from an audience without submitting themselves to the legal process that governs our country.

This situation is an accurate picture of the country and culture we live in. We applaud spiritual abuse and people using their power and privilege to avoid the legal system because we believe we are the ones who know whether someone is good or bad and whether an act is right or wrong.

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise but as wise…

We’re quick to like and love and retweet. We’re quick to applaud when we are entertained and offer standing ovations when something surprises us. This is what our consumerist culture has taught us. This is what has infiltrated our communities of faith.

It’s up to us to learn the difference between living for applause and living for God.


Where I Come From

This December, I have been immersing myself in local authors. Most of these authors have written and recorded what it was like to grow up in a mill village. I didn’t know my hometown was so centered around mill life until I started working as a second-grade teacher. My principal took the time to take all new employees through the apartment complexes and neighborhoods where our students lived.

I remember when he drove through the mill village and how all the houses looked the same. He told us that since the mill closed down 5 years prior, the demographics changed from 80% white and 20% African Amerian and Hispanic to 80% African American and Hispanic to 20% white. He also explained that because the mill owners moved out from the area, the mill village became low-income housing, owned by someone outside of the state and very rarely maintained. In other parts of the city, mills were being renovated to office buildings or restaurants or commercial buildings, but in this part of the city, there was no renovation planned.

It matters where we came from both in our family history and in the culture and heritage of the place we reside.

Here are the stories I read:

Read about where you came from. Learn about the stories your city, your family and you are built upon.

Running Into the Light

This morning was only my second run in my new shoes, so there was certainly some discomfort. Running in new shoes always reminds me of how out of sorts I have been. It reminds me that rather than tuning into the aches and pains that had been accumulating, I have kept running unwilling to stop and pay attention.

And maybe that’s what happens to most of us in the midst of the holiday season. We keep running not really sure when the running will stop, but knowing we have to move on to the next present to wrap, the next meal to cook, the next family to visit. Eventually, you can’t keep up. Either your body hits you with a cold or the flu or someone in your family collapses in fatigue because the pace is too fast and too much.

Too fast and too much: a good description of our American culture. A palpable force that surrounds us and impacts the way we see the world. A force that drives us to buy more, consumer more, and want more.

Maybe 2018 was supposed to be the year you slowed down, the year you ran more and already you are overwhelmed with your failure because of the lack of time and the amount of catch you’ve had to do from the holiday break. That’s been me, but this morning I put on my new running shoes, knowing it was going to hurt and I ran into the rising sun, basking in the revelation that God is with us. Emmanuel.