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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.

Waiting in the Parking Lot

I’ve heard from many Toddler Mamas that you will do a lot of waiting. Waiting for your toddler to eat, waiting for your toddler to speak in more than just those words and phrases, waiting for your toddler to buckle his or her own shoes, but on Monday I found myself waiting in the middle of the parking lot.

This wasn’t a sit-in protest of being hurried out of the line of cars or onto the next activity or next stop on our list of things to do. This was a sit and see. He was genuinely interested in the touch and feel of the asphalt. He was fascinated with the way the shadows were playing on the gray surface and that he could make the shadows move by moving his hand. He was in awe.

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 

In the midst of Advent, there often isn’t time to be in awe. We are booked to the brim with shopping and celebrations with family and friends. We are waiting and preparing for children’s programs and worship services. In the midst of all the hurrying, there is time to wait and wonder, even if it’s a in the middle of a parking lot watching shadows.

What Did You Expect?

I find myself asking, “What did you expect?” as I enter the Advent Season this year. I expected to be a teacher until retirement. I remember clearly sitting in the new employee’s meeting at 22 and hearing that I could retire in 30 years. I couldn’t imagine being in the same job for the 30 years, but I could imagine teaching for 30 years.

Now I find myself planning and preparing for my fourth Advent Season as a pastor. I certainly didn’t expect to be a pastor and preacher.

But Creator God has a miraculous way of hearing the parts of our hearts that even we ourselves silence. The Divine whispers, “What if…” in a way that makes us dream of the unexpected and hope for things yet to come. Those longings speak to our souls, to that Divine spark nestled within us.

Advent is a season to give voice and space to those longings, to shed our expectations of how we thought things were going to go in our own lives and dream and anticipate new life. When we allow the Divine this voice and space, I can guarantee you will say, “I didn’t expect that.

Expectation, Anticipation, and Revelation

As we worshiped together during the first Sunday of Advent yesterday, I shared with my congregation how difficult it sometimes is to manage the expectations of what this season is supposed to be. This is the season of love, joy, hope, and peace and we are expected to eagerly await the coming of the Christ Child and yet for so many of us the season brings only expectations of grief.

I have struggled against the expectations of how I was supposed to behave as a woman raised in a conservative community of faith. When I expressed a call to live out my faith, I was met with the response that I would make a great minister’s wife and that my calling as a teacher was just as important as a call to ministry. Underneath these comments were the expectations of what I could and couldn’t do as a woman. Those expectations didn’t fit who I was and who I was called to be.

And as this Advent starts, I am feeling the weight of expectation to bring hope, peace, love, and joy, but as I shared yesterday I am filled with grief this season. I am filled with grief for friends and family who are celebrating this season without loved ones who they have lost suddenly over the past year. I am filled with grief for my youth who have lost classmates and encountered unexpected death much too soon. I am feeling grief and disappointment that the expectation we had that this Advent season would bring the birth of the Christ Child and another child for us will not be realized.

While I hold this grief for us and for those we love, the anticipation of the Advent season is beating in my soul. This anticipation can only be held alongside the expectation of grief because of the revelation that the Divine is among us and indeed with us. The Divine is still whispering that this season is a special season of revelation of how God is with us. God is with us in our grief. God is with us in our disappointment. God is with us in our joy. God is with us in our peace. God is with us in love.

And God is with us in hope.

Hope that invites us to shed the expectations of how we are supposed to act, what we are supposed to say, how we are supposed to worship, what we are supposed to sing and who we are supposed to be in this season. Hope that instead invites us to simply experience the presence and wonder of the Divine. Hope that anticipates without fully understanding what we are anticipating.

May this Advent upend our expectations with the anticipation of the Christ Child, the revelation of the Divine here among us.

A Day of Reckoning and Sexual Harassment

In light of the allegations of sexual misconduct by famed Today show host Matt Lauer and long renowned voice actor, Garrison Keller, apocalypse language has entered into more and more news reports. People are beginning to understand the vast and pervasive nature of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault. This does not occur in only one profession, in one race or in one socioeconomic status. It is everywhere in our culture. To be sure more and more reports will surface as victims begin to understand that their voices are being heard finally.

This week I preached in chapel from the little apocalypse in Mark 13:

24 “But in those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
    and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.

I have to be honest, in my teaching and preaching, I have shied away from apocalypse literature because of all the sermons, Sunday School lessons, churchwide movies that emphasized the Rapture and the end of times. Recently, though as I’ve studied the prophets and the gospels and Jesus’ own words, I have realized that apocalypse literature is a very important part of being God’s people. Indeed there will come a time when we are all held accountable for our actions and the way we treat each other here on earth. That day is coming for many who have abused their power and used their privilege to sexually harass, sexually assault, and sexually abuse co-workers. That day is coming for those who have used their power and privilege to oppress, shame and guilt others.

But before we rejoice and revel in the fate of those who have met their day of reckoning, let us remember this day will come for all of us. We will be held responsible for the poverty and homelessness that we walk past and the times we ignore our neighbors in need.

Stay awake to the Divine moving in this world urging and inviting us to join something bigger and more powerful than the powers and forces here on earth.

The Difference Between Persecution and Accountability

I’ve heard the cries of some U.S.  evangelicals claiming that they are in the midst of persecution. I don’t pretend to know exactly what another person is going through, but I wonder if perhaps what they are experiencing is not persecution but accountability. There is not one of us who revels in being held accountable for our actions when we know what we’ve done is wrong. I see it in the face of our ten-year-old and hear it in the fierce defense of our seven-year-old.

But we must be held accountable when our actions, our decisions, our theology harm children. Our most important calling here on earth is to protect and foster our children. We aren’t doing this well. 1 and 6 children live in food insecure environments in which adequate food supplies cannot be obtained at some point in the year, resulting in food quality or quantity being greatly reduced. 1 in 10 children will experience sexual abuse before their 18th birthday.

When I read stories of people supporting men who have abused children for political office and the attempt to use theology to justify child abuse, I know we have a long way to go. We cannot divert attention or responsibility by calling accountability for our actions “religious persecution.” Religious persecution is what the pilgrims were experiencing when they feared for their lives, took a harrowing journey across the sea, and tried to build a life with next to nothing in a new world they had never seen. Religious persecution is NOT being told that you should not harm a child or that you will be held legally responsible because you have harmed a child.

The number of people who attend a weekly worship experience has steadily declined according to Pew Research Center and not just for the people who identify as “nones.” Church attendance has declined for those who still claim to be Christians and this has left a serious gap in accountability. In the absence of weekly teaching and worship, a do-it-yourself theology has arisen that allows an individual to find justification for his or her actions without the accountability of living in community with other people.  My decisions and my interactions are different because I know the stories of the people in our community of faith who are suffering loss and serious illness. My decisions and my interactions are different because I know the couple who was homeless who come to our church for food, prayer and comfort. My decisions and my interactions with children are different because of our policies about how to keep our children safe in our church community.

We need more accountability, not less. We need more people who are willing to engage in communities, and who will challenge them and remind them how much work we still need to do to create safer communities for our children. To be certain, as our children grow and mature, they will be the ones who hold us accountable for what we have and haven’t done to protect them.

Sexual Harassment Doesn’t Take Holidays

This year as my family takes a breath and rest, I am reminded of the number of people for whom the holidays are anything but a break. I’ve heard too many stories over the past two months of people for whom family gatherings were full of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or sexual assault. And because it’s family, they are expected to gather and they are expected to be grateful even while suffering abuse and harassment.

Family isn’t always safe. Holidays aren’t rest for everyone. In our culture of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sexual abuse, downtime is much too often a window for abuse.

Even as I am grateful for the number of people who are talking and discussing what they have experienced in hopes that we can reveal the depth and breadth of our culture of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault and change it, my heart is still heavy for those who will experience more abuse in the midst of the holidays. If we take a break from talking about how we can do better, how we can be better, then we aren’t helping. We must remember, especially in the midst of the holiday, that there is still so much work to be done.

Forgiveness and Sexual Harassment

The #metoo campaign has died down, but it has stayed with me. My stories, the stories I’ve read and the stories I’ve heard from people who weren’t ready to share their stories in a public forum all continue to whisper through my thoughts.

The ones that are the most difficult for me to hear are the stories that involve the victims of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault being forced to sit in the same room as the person who abused them and forgive them in front of a third party. More often than not, these stories of forced forgiveness take place in the church with a spiritual leader, which couples the sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault with spiritual abuse in a way that doubles the impact of the victim’s trauma.

This is difficult for me as an ordained minister. I believe strongly in reconciliation and forgiveness and am actively trying to teach our children that when you harm someone with your words or your actions it’s on you to make peace and to restore that relationship. I also strongly believe that a victim of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual abuse should be given the choice to seek sanctuary away from the person who victimized them.

And maybe that’s why these stories of forced forgiveness burden me so much. The victim’s voice and choice is again taken away in these instances creating not a restored relationship but another layer of abuse on top of what the victim has already experienced.

I do believe people can change. I believe that some of those who have participated in our culture (because it is ours, all of ours) of sexual harassment have participated because of learned, unexamined language patterns. I believe there’s hope for us to overcome this toxic culture we have created (because we all have created it together) not with forced forgiveness, but with time to heal and become whole again and that we can create a culture where all people are valued, not shamed and abused.

At least that’s what I am going to keep working towards.

That’s not “just John Doe.” That’s Sexual Harassment.

Sexual harassment lives in systems like workplaces, family, and communities of faith because systems always aim to keep homeostasis or a place of stable equilibrium. If there is something that threatens that stability or equilibrium by asking for changes, a system resists those changes.

It’s why in systems like families, workplaces, or communities of faith, it is common to hear comments that are sexual harassment responded to with, “That’s just John Doe.*” It may be a co-worker or an uncle or a grandfather, but almost always John Doe holds a position of power in the system. Therefore, questioning or challenging John Doe would be detrimental to the individual who challenges John Doe.

But that’s not “just John Doe.” That’s sexual harassment.

When sexual harassment goes unanswered because of the position of the person who sexually harasses, we teach those who are victims that if you have enough power and privilege, the rules don’t apply to you. The issue of sexual harassment in our culture is so prevalent that it is going to take a concerted effort to eradicate it from our systems, from our families, and from our speech. This can’t be done by single individuals. This has to be all of us working together to challenge systems harboring and protecting sexual harassment.

Together we can do this. We can imagine better systems. Systems that protect creativity and kindness. Sytems that change the world for the better.

 

 

*John Doe is a placeholder name.

That’s not a compliment. That’s sexual harassment.

It was not long after Ben was born that I was attending a minister’s conference. Ben was in tow, but it was still wonderful to be able to speak about the changing dynamics of church and congregations and to feel like a professional again.

I was riding high on conversations with good ministers when someone stopped in one our conversation and said, “Wow, look at you, you’ve lost all the baby weight. Good for you.” I forced a smile on my face and made my way to a different part of the room.

There was no part of the conversation I had been in that he had joined that had to do with weight loss or post-partum recovery. The conversation this male colleague joined just long enough to make “an unwanted or obscene sexual remark” was about that how to rethink giving patterns as ministers.

“But he was offering you a compliment.”

No, that’s not a compliment. That’s sexual harassment.

His comment revealed that not only had he checked out my body in that professional conference, but he had enough knowledge of the way my body looked before I had our baby to compare before and after. I had not made public any goals for weight loss on social media. I had not been discussing post-partum weight loss in that setting or in the conversation he joined. He didn’t see me as a colleague in ministry nor did he, in that moment, treat me as a colleague in ministry.

Why didn’t I say something? Because as a young minister just getting started in what purports to be a welcoming and affirming Baptist world, I didn’t want to cause waves. This is where reporting sexual harassment is difficult for those who experience it. Inevitably, there are ramifications for the person who reports sexual harassment and because sexual harassment occurs in a professional setting, those ramifications directly have to do with job security and income.

Sexual harassment won’t stop occurring until those with power and privilege step up and take a stand for those who have little power in the systems and networks of professionalism. Sexual harassment won’t stop occurring until we come to an understanding that sexual harassment happens everywhere: in churches, at minister’s conferences, in doctor’s offices, in business offices, in Hollywood, and in the tech industry.

Will we have eyes to see? Will we have ears to hear the stories? Will we have mouths that say enough is enough?

That’s Not a Joke, That’s Sexual Harassment

I was filling my car up with gas, when I heard a car drive by. The male driver yelled, “Hey, hey can I take a pretty Mama to lunch?” My back was to the car as it drove by, so I didn’t turn around. I was worn down. I didn’t have the energy to face sexual harassment, name it, and fight it in the parking lot of a gas station.

Sexual harassment is defined as:

harassment (typically of a woman) in a workplace, or other professional or social situation, involving the making of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks.

But too often when I have pointed out that a comment is sexual harassment, the response I’ve received is, “It was just a joke. I was only kidding.” It’s not a joke. It’s an attempt to make a person feel uncomfortable and unsafe. It’s testing boundaries of professionalism to see how someone will respond and react. And it’s always directed at an individual, usually a woman, to exert power over that individual.

It’s not a joke. It’s sexual harassment. It’s sexual harassment when it’s spoken out loud. It’s sexual harassment when it’s sent in a text message. It’s sexual harassment when it’s sent in a DM on social media.

Until we, as a society, can be brave and courageous enough to name sexual harassment when we experience it and when we hear it, we will continue to have 1 and 3 women who report that they have been sexually harassed in the workplace. We will continue to have to wrestle with the fact that

Every 98 seconds someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. That means every single day more than 570 people experience sexual violence in this country.

We have created a culture where sexual harassment, violence, and abuse is normal. It doesn’t get us riled up. It’s so common, we just gloss over it, explaining, “We all make mistakes.”

I want to create something new. I don’t want this to be the culture my children grow up in. I don’t want to have to tell my girls that they should report these incidents, but they probably won’t have any action that follows the report.

Thanks be to God, for good people working and hoping that we can together create something better.