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Author: Merianna Harrelson

I am the Interim 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.

On Writing and Speaking about Spiritual Abuse: Why Me?

I can remember the summer when a group of youth led a worship service at a small church and were told only the guys could be the ones who preached during the Sunday morning service. The reasoning was that the churches where we were going wouldn’t or didn’t support women preachers. I thought this might very well be true as a woman who preached was much different theological from a woman who led Bible study for kids, but still there was this question lodged within me, Did the church where we were going not support women as preachers or did the church who was sending us not support women as preachers? 

And as I wrestled with this question, I wondered as I often did, Why me? Why did it seem that these questions always came to my mind sinking deeply into my heart and soul causing me to wonder about whether all churches believe women couldn’t be preachers? Why was there just an inkling of doubt about the teaching and preaching I heard about the role of women? Why was there something within me that bucked the idea that my purpose in life was to make sure I didn’t get pregnant until I was married and then get pregnant without complications? Why me?

More than once I voiced my concerns to adults and was told, “Why do you feel like you need more? Why do you feel like you need to speak?” I answered honestly then as I do today, “I don’t know, except I feel called to preach and teach and ask questions.”

The doubt and fear that was instilled into me when I voiced these questions about the inequality that existed was spiritual abuse. It was a way to silence opposition and coerce obedience to a certain set of expectations. Obedience to this set of expectations maintained and kept power in the hands of the powerful decision makers. 

And I just wonder if perhaps I’m not the only one who found herself in the midst of communities of faith where something felt off, not quite right. I wonder if there were others, are others like me who are beginning to feel the unsettled realization that there is more to know and who indeed want to seek and find Truth.

Questions lead to a journey of discovery not only of who God truly is, but who you really are. As you find yourself in the midst of this journey, I hope what you will find is what I have found, my true self, the way my individual light and life can make a difference to those who are hurting. What I hope you find is the strength of a community of other people who have asked tough questions and have found Truth. When you do find your true self, the Divine, and Truth, peace and wholeness will envelope you in the light of love for yourself and others.

 

Why Spiritual Abuse is Difficult to Consider

I can remember where it started. I was sitting in the back of a classroom at Gardner-Webb School of Divinity. I was in my first year of seminary, and I was hanging tightly to the friendships I had made during orientation. We were far enough into the semester that we had gotten past our surface-level introductions. We had already seen each other break down in tears over midterms and in sharing our stories. We were now in the deep waters of walking this journey of answering a call together.

I remember hearing the term spiritual abuse as one of my classmates told her story. She told a story that sounded so similar to mine even though we grew up in different faith traditions, in different communities of faith, that I was speechless. This is what I had been told it meant to be a woman. This is what I was taught I could and couldn’t do, but surely I hadn’t experience spiritual abuse, had I?

If I started to consider that perhaps the theological teachings I had always believed were in fact being used to manipulate, coerce, and silence, then what? I couldn’t possible come out of this realization with a faith that was intact. I was in seminary for goodness sake, I couldn’t question to the point of having to reconstruct and analyze every teaching in just three years, could I?

But then I heard another story and another story. Woman after woman, man after man who were told they could or couldn’t do certain things because “people would leave the church,”  because “women weren’t called to do that,” because “it would cause a split the church,” because “that’s not the way things were done” over and over again church leaders using their power to control and maintain the status quo. Again and again passionate, gifted ministers being put into holding patterns being coerced into “waiting their turn.”

This is spiritual abuse.

Spiritual abuse results in power retention in those who already have power. There is a whole generation of young people who were raised in churches and communities of faith tainted by spiritual abuse whose voices, ideas, and, yes, spiritual gifts have been silenced. We need these voices in our communities of faith. We need these people to speak up and speak out about their experiences with spiritual abuse. We need these stories to come to light so that our communities of faith may become places of hope, healing, and wholeness rather than places of hurt, abuse, and brokenness.

This is not an easy journey.

It is not easy to consider whether we have experienced spiritual abuse. It is not easy to ask ourselves the tough question of whether our communities of faith are places wrought with spiritual abuse, but this is the confessional work the season of Lent calls us to do.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

When we leave our spiritual practices, protocol, and patterns unexamined, we leave room for spiritual abuse to occur over and over again. May this season of Lent be a time of reflection and analysis. May Almighty God give us strength on the journey.

How total depravity of humanity and biblical submission impact women

I stepped out last week to share my wrestlings with the theology of depravity of humanity and offered instead the suggestion that perhaps we were created inherently good. As I have thought and read about total depravity, I have found that this theology is often taught in connection with biblical submission or the idea that men and women were inherently created different, each having a unique role. This belief often manifests in the practice of not ordaining women as deacons, ministers, or allowing women to preach or teach men.

The impact of these two theologies combine to impact women drastically. Total depravity teaches women that they are inherently flawed. Biblical submission teaches women that they are inherently lesser than men and are restricted in what they can and can’t do. The compound effect of these two theologies is a vast number of women who believe, “I am not good. I am not enough.”

As a baptist woman in minister, I have found it doesn’t really matter if you grew up in a community of faith who taught total depravity or biblical submission because the impact of these two theologies have now made their way into our culture. The result is women who believe they are broken and that they have to try to be good enough. The manifestation of this constant attempt to try to live up to standards that are based on these theologies is to attack other women and remind them that they are not good nor enough.

If you aren’t sure this is true, ask a woman minister who has been the loudest and fiercest in objecting to her answering her call to ministry. I can almost guarantee you, her answer will be other women. I’ve heard this story over and over again.

The recent campaigns to stop mommy wars is a good and important step, but until we uncover the heart of the matter of where the need and desire to shame and guilt each other begins, these efforts will only cover the surface.

How about I start?

I not only believe that you are inherently good, I believe that you are enough. You as a woman are enough. You as a woman are inherently good.

I believe wholeheartedly that the true self that lies at your very heart is good and enough. I don’t believe you are lesser than. I don’t believe you are lacking, flawed, or stained. I believe at the very core of who you are resides the divine breath.

I believe that you are godly and good in the very essence of who you are, not because of what you do or don’t do.

I believe, we as women, have believed in theologies that keep power in the hands of the powerful and maintain hierarchies in religious institutions. And I believe, we as women, will be the ones who change this as soon as we start believing that we are good and we are enough.

You are inherently good.

For years, I believed in the depravity of humanity. In other words, because of what took place in the Garden of Eden involving Adam, Eve, and a serpent, the rest of humanity inherited a sinful nature. It was preached over and over again in churches, youth camps, and revival events. “Everyone must repent because all of us bear the mark of original sin.”

Even through my seminary years as we studied the theology of sin and the theology of good and evil, I couldn’t grasp a firm understanding of what it would mean to consider that perhaps humanity was not in fact inherently evil or sinful. I couldn’t fathom the possibility. It was too much for my theological framework to bear. I knew if I took that one block out and analyzed it, deciding whether it fit into my understanding of theological history and interpretation history the whole Jenga tower of my fragile theology would tumble.

I have always believed I was not good enough. Not that I was bad necessarily (even though the voice of religious authority in my life ensured me that even though I was saved, I was still sinful by nature), but there was always more I could be doing to gain favor with the Creator God. I believed that my role in this life was constantly try to make up for my sinful nature through any and every means possible, knowing all along that I was fighting an uphill battle I would never overcome.

In my studies as an educator, I believed strongly in the power of a strengths-based perspective rather than adhering to the deficit-perspective that the age of accountability and standardized testing was capitalizing on. Even though I had students who couldn’t read in my third grade class, I worked tirelessly to find some sort of written communication they understood whether that was a video game, a label on a t-shirt, or even their own name. And there was always some strength that could be built upon. That strength gave them confidence and courage to keep learning. 

What if the same were true of our faith? What if instead of reminding ourselves and our congregations of the sinful nature, of the depravity of human souls, we instead, for argument’s sake, consider the possibility that humanity is inherently good? What if it was the very divine breath that was breathed into our nostrils started a transformation in the Garden of Eden not towards evil, but towards good?

It’s taken me six years to even offer this as a possibility, but I am overwhelmed with evidence that suggests that perhaps this is in fact closer to our human nature than what Calvin suggested. In the midst of the 2015 flood relief, I saw people of a mobile home community who had been without potable water for one week desperate for survival, make sure that other people had water before they did. I saw them self-monitor making sure everyone got one case of water before ever taking another case for themselves.

I see this every week in our work at the homeless shelter. When stripped of power, position, and privilege something miraculous happens: community and fellowship. If there is one person who has a bag of cough drops, she shares it around the table making sure that everyone gets one, even if she doesn’t know if she will be able to buy another bag.

Perhaps it is the fear of losing our power, privilege, and position that reveals our insecurity about who we are and why we were created. In this uncertainty, we become disciples of the hierarchy and importance of our culture’s values: beauty, wealth, and comfort. We become such ardent believers that we disguise our very core nature. Perhaps it is in the best interest of our culture’s need to preach consumption that we are reminded again and again that we are not pretty enough, not wealthy enough, and not comfortable enough that we engage in transactions that make us witnesses to a gospel of the depravity of humanity. Perhaps this is not of God, but is of the gods of capitalism and consumption.

If we believe that inherently God’s creation is good as Creator God uttered after each day of creation in the Genesis 1 account, then we will treat each other differently. Instead of looking for flaws, we will look for each other’s strengths. Instead of distrusting intentions, we will believe in the goodness and the divineness that was breathed into our lungs to give us life. Instead of attacking each other with divisive words, we will instead choose to encourage. Instead of engaging in business and activities that bring about the kingdom of a culture of consumption, we will instead invest our time and resources into the subversive acts that uproot this culture and bring about the kingdom of God.

Maybe it just takes one voice crying in the wilderness:

You are good.

Creator God, said so, and so say I.

Why it’s hard for me to talk about my spiritual abuse…

“Some people have called me a rebel-rouser..” I explained to a colleague recently.

She couldn’t contain her laughter at this statement.

I may come across with comfortable with this identification, but you have to understand, I came from a background of striving furtively and desperately to obtain the label of “good Christian girl.” My conservative background asked me to be someone who I was not and taught me to deny parts of who I was. And I chose to follow.

There is no doubt within me that I, like many millennials raised at the height of the evangelical movement and the purity culture, experienced spiritual abuse. While I am sure this is true, I shy away from identifying myself as one who experienced spiritual abuse and instead take up my sword and shield in attempts to protect others from practices that lead to spiritual abuse…or in other terms rebel rousing.

And in the moments when I shy away again from myself and my story wanting and wishing away my experiences, I understand that this is just another way of masking my true self striving furtively and desperately to obtain the label of “thoughtful progressive Christian.” It’s hard to admit that I would shed one false pursuit just to take on another one repackaged and renamed.

Instead of creating yet another presented identity, this Lenten season, I am giving up all those masks and instead am striving furtively and desperately for wholeness and healing. 

I know there are others of you out there, trying to process through what you’ve experienced. Trying to reflect and analyze the triggers you experience that send you into the spiral of uncertainty and doubt, those spirals so familiar and so frustrating because you thought you had overcome. I know it feels like a riptide that pulls you out to the deep water of fear and shame and humiliation. I know at times you are too tired, too overwhelmed, and too lonely to fight anymore. Me too.

I know that when you do share your story, more often than not you experience another helping of shame and guilt on top of what you have always experienced. I know people come to you and tell you to stop telling your story because you are making churches or pastors or families look bad. I know there are times when you feel so lonely and out of place, the same sort of lonely and out of place you felt in your community of faith knowing instinctively all the way to your core, that there was something just not right about what you were being told about God, about scripture, and about faith. Me too.

I know you get accused of making a big deal out of nothing or trying to make a name for yourself of causing a fuss, of asking too many questions, of hoping for too much. But I also know that even now in communities of faith across America in places of worships, in homes where small groups gather, and in coffee shops were people are being mentored, spiritual abuse is still happening.

Spiritual abuse is happening in conservative communities of faith. Spiritual abuse is happening in moderate communities of faith. Spiritual abuse is happening in progressive communities of faith. Spiritual abuse is happening.

For those of us who have wrestled through the understanding and realization that we experienced spiritual abuse, now more than ever we need to tell our stories. We need to question. We need to challenge. We need to struggle with our own stories and experiences. We need to rebel rouse, not so that we can try to obtain another false identity, but so that we can heal and become whole.

And so that others like us can do the same.

 

On the Spiritual Discipline of Confession

As a part of the Lenten season, we have included a prayer of confession as part of our worship service reminding ourselves that we are dust and to dust we shall return:

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have done wrong, and strayed from your ways like lost sheep. We have followed the desires of our own hearts too much. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we should not have done. O Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer of confession. AMEN.
Even though I knew it was coming as part of the service, I still found myself struggling through the “we have done those things which we should not have done.” Even though it was a communal confession, the truth of those words overcame me.

Confession as a spiritual discipline was not part of my upbringing. My understanding of the confession that took place across the street at the Catholic church was that it was an excuse to keep on sinning because it allowed you to do what you wanted to do, receive absolution, and go on your merry way.

I was so wrong in my understanding of this deeply spiritual act. 

For me, the admission of being wrong or of having conducted myself in a way I don’t believe honors nor represents what it means to be a follower and disciples of Christ is gut-wrenchingly difficult. I was taught to be right, to be certain in regards to matters of faith and the Bible. I was taught to have the answers ready at any moment and somehow in that teaching, I was never taught how to be wrong and to come to terms with being wrong.


I was comfortable admitting I was a sinner because everyone was a sinner, but when it comes to specific matters and circumstances, I pass the blame and redirect the conversation with ease and often without detection. I defend and deflect ensuring my perspective and view is heard while avoiding the whole question of whether I heaped shame and guilt on another child of God. There’s always a reason why I “did the thing I shouldn’t have done;” and because I have a reason, I hope I could just avoid the whole question of responsibility and culpability.

And even in those moments when I recognize and acknowledge that I have “done the things I ought not to have done,” publicly confessing to that is not something I’d like to do. But confess I must not only because it’s Lent, but because this is an important spiritual discipline.

Until we can rid ourselves of the need to be right, we are only dust and to dust we shall return. When we can confess to our dusty nature without abandon and truly embrace this part of our very being not just on Ash Wednesday, not just during Lent, but always, then and only then will we be able to have room to be love and kindness to those we meet.

It’s not until we can confess to those parts of ourselves we’d rather not admit are there that we can offer peace and light to others when their dustiness shows in the same way ours does in “doing the things we ought not to have done.”

O Lord, in your mercy, hear this my prayer of confession.

Am I Doing this Right?

As I was burning the dead plants from our garden in preparation for our Ash Wednesday services, I was overwhelmed with uncertainty. Am I doing this right? While we practiced baptism, leading communion, and discussed funerals and marriage ceremonies, we never burned ashes. Perhaps it’s because the celebration of Ash Wednesday isn’t all that common in baptist churches or perhaps it’s because there is ample opportunity to buy ashes already burned and ready for imposition. Perhaps it’s because part as communities of faith, we often assume that the way we’ve always done things will hold up.

As I watched the dead plants become ash while trying to keep our 16 month old a safe distance from the flame, I remembered the first time I had seen someone bearing the mark of the cross on an Ash Wednesday. It was my best friend who I knew attended the Catholic church across the street from my Southern Baptist Church and when she arrived to school, I tried to clean her forehead hoping to save her from embarrassment of having dirt on her head, which is what best friends do in middle school.

She stopped my hand as I tried and said, “It’s a cross. I went to mass this morning because it’s Ash Wednesday.”

I didn’t know what to say. I was embarrassed to wear my cross earrings to middle school and often hid my WWJD bracelet under my long sleeves, but here she was bearing the mark of the cross on her forehead for all to see. Her profession of faith and confession that she was dust and to dust she would return didn’t match my understanding of Catholics as “the others” and “nonbelievers.”

19 years later, as a I prepared the ashes for our own Baptist Ash Wednesday service, I was overwhelmed with the question: Am I doing this right? Am I including all? Am I welcoming all? Am I remembering that we are all the people of God overcome with our own dustiness at times and wanting only to find the divine breath that made us come to life? As a minister, am I challenging our human tendency to group ourselves into us and them, believer and nonbeliever, faithful and unfaithful? Am I questioning the times that we turn a finger to blame someone else for handing us the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil unwilling to admit that we did indeed take a bite?

And as the tomato stalks that had yielded fruit only to be eaten by bugs and plagued by blight turned to ash, so too did my question. Maybe it isn’t whether I am burning ashes “right” or ministering “right,” but rather that I am a witness to the miraculous power of creation to die and rise again. I am a witness that out of dust can come to life because the Divine walks among us.

On Teaching Communication

Having a 15 month old is….busy might be the best adjective to describe our lives right now. Just as soon as you have one sock on and are trying to remember where you’ve placed the other sock, you have to interrupt your search in order to remove the hair dryer from your son’s hands and close the cabinet from which the hair dryer was taken. You look down at your feet, trying to remember what you are looking for only to hear something banging into the bathtub, which you hope isn’t that borrowed book from your friend that you now have to air dry out. And as you go to investigate that banging sounds, you realize you still haven’t found your other sock, not to mention your shoes.

In the midst of all the quick, moment-to-moment decisions, you also look in awe at the way this little mini human who used to be so easy to contain is exploring and discovering the world. You look for opportunities to introduce him to words and objects as he points at things and calls, “da ba ma.”

“Yes, that’s right, that’s a dog with a ball,” hoping that you are encouraging the development of language in a whole and healthy way. When he looks at you and mimics the same number of syllables, you realize that he is listening and learning in a way that he never has before.

As a minister, I can’t help but wonder about the task and calling we have as proclaimers…that is one who speaks out the word. Isn’t our role the same as parents of toddlers learning to master the language heard everyday in his or her home? The great weight of bearing the responsibility of teaching a mini human to communicate weighs heavily on my shoulders as does the responsibility of teaching, or especially in our current political and social context, re-teaching the people of God how to communicate with each other and those with whom they disagree.

The examples of discourse we have heard and read in the midst of the political season we have just weathered have made it more difficult for those of us who are attempting to use language and the power of words to offer hope and healing. How can we offer love and peace when our conversations and feeds are full of hate and attack?

At times, I am tempted to repay hate-filled speech for hate-filled speech, and then the gospel lesson for the week is “You’ve heard it said, an eye for eye, but I say love your enemies.”

Love demonstrated in action. Love demonstrated in language. Love demonstrated in the frustration of trying to find your other sock. This love filtering through every word and deed will teach us how to communicate, but more importantly, how to commune with one another.

Thanks be to God for 15 month language learners who help us remember why learning to communicate with love is so very important.

A New Hope

Yesterday, New Hope Christian Fellowship called me to be their pastor and I said a wholehearted YES!

A New Hope…started a journey and ongoing battle between the dark side and the Jedi. A journey that has continued onto this generation in the form of new characters, missing story pieces, and a bond of love for Star Wars between parents and children. Perhaps new hope does just this, unites us, challenges us, and invites us to participate in a greater story.

Anew hope…If there has ever been a time that our world and our church needs anew hope, doesn’t it seem like now? As a millennial, I have certainly found myself in periods of church hopping and church knocking and church blocking. All of these stages and phases indications of my desire to find a place to serve where my experiences match the need surrounding a community, but I know so many other people who are looking for communities of faith to belong to. People to gather to worship with. People to gather around the table and eat with. People to call when life is so overwhelming that you know you can’t do it on your own.

People looking for a new hope. Thanks be to God for the community of faith called New Hope Christian Fellowship who are dedicated to learning, growing, and ministering to the community together. What a joy it is to be called Pastor by you!

 

“Do not resist an evildoer.”

This week’s gospel’s lesson is not an easy one:

5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’

5:39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;

5:40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;

5:41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

5:42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

This is as an important lesson to us as modern day disciples as it was to Jesus’ disciples. Jesus was trying to prepare his disciples for the resistance they would certainly meet as they followed him. Bringing the kingdom of God here on earth was not going to be met without tension and conflict.

And as I read these words in preparation for our weekly chapel service at Transitions with ministrieslab, I knew I had no words, no divine inspiration to offer to a people group who had experienced so much systemic discrimination.

And so I didn’t.

I read God’s word, the word of Jesus to his disciples aloud, begging the Holy Spirit to let these words and truths find a home within my soul and mind and then I listened. I listened to story after story from this makeshift, ever-changing congregation who shared of the times they had encountered people at gun point and had not attacked or responded in kind. I listened to stories of domestic abuse and wondered with the person whether it was wrong to leave that relationship when the gospel says to turn the other cheek. I listened to stories of loved ones stuck in cycles of abuse and heard the hope for their future in the words of their significant others. I heard stories of regret and resurrection lives changed because they finally learned to turn the other cheek and love the very people they didn’t want to talk to, eat with, or be associated with.

I heard God’s voice again and again in the voices of God’s people. God’s people in a group room crowded with too many chairs in a homeless shelter on a rainy Wednesday morning singing “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine,” and I knew this is what we must do.

We must not resist evildoers, but love them, really and truly love them, not merely tolerate them.

We must give generously to anyone who begs from us without judging them for how they might use what we give.

We must turn the other cheek, again and again, as Jesus did, even unto death.

This is the word of the Lord to his disciples.