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Author: Merianna Harrelson

I am the Pastor of Garden of Grace United Church of Christ in Columbia, SC and the Director of Consulting at Harrelson.Co. I am always looking for a good cup of coffee and a great book.

Just Breathe

Since high school, I have had breathing issues. There was this one drill in my training for field hockey that always left me struggling to breathe, which led to a doctor’s visit where I was diagnosed with seasonal asthma. I was prescribed an emergency inhaler and allergy medicine and considered myself lucky that this was a seasonal occurrence that could be solved with medicine.

In college, I had breathing issues during a different season while training for the club sport I played. I concluded that I was in a different environment and that the allergies were impacting my lungs differently. By this time, I had become used to not being able to swim the length of a swimming pool and having to have my inhaler with me at all times.

In seminary, I ended up in the urgent care receiving a steroid breathing treatment on Easter weekend of my second year. At this point, I had student insurance that didn’t cover my inhaler and didn’t have any extra money to buy the inhaler outright. I remember being in the stairwell between classes crying to a helpless insurance agent about how much I needed the medicine and begging him for any avenue to get the medicine covered.

This was the same semester I was in preaching practicum and ended up having to excuse myself from class after I had preached because I was coughing uncontrollably. It wasn’t until this point at twenty-six years old that it dawned on me that my breathing issues could be attached to something deeper, a signal my body was giving me to try to catch my breath and gain perspective.

There has been a lot written recently about the body’s connection to trauma and the signals that our bodies give us to attend to this trauma. It took me twenty-six years while I was in the midst of filling pulpits all over the western North Carolina and receiving feedback from my preaching professor that it seemed like I was out of breath in the middle of my sermons that I made the connection between being breathless and living into my call.

My anxiety was causing my heart to race and the shortness of breath. I was doing something in the form of preaching and seeking to become a pastor that I wasn’t supposed to do according to my evangelical upbringing. It made me nervous and uncertain and anxious. My body was giving voice to that anxiety.

Even now years later, there are some Sundays where the word from God for the people of God in the form of a sermon feels so weighty and dangerous that my breathlessness returns. I struggle to remember my call to deliver God’s word no matter how risky or controversial. I struggle to step boldy into this identity as pastor.

My body isn’t over the spiritual abuse I experienced. It still pops up in the form of not being able to catch my breath at times, but I haven’t used an inhaler in four years. Sometimes our bodies are trying to bring us to healing and wholeness even when our minds aren’t quite ready for it.

Pain, Pain, Go Away

A recent NPR report revealed that 20% of adults in America are living with chronic pain. This issue is so prevalent that medical schools are now having additional coursework for aspiring doctors pertaining to pain management so that they will be able to treat this pain epidemic thoughtfully and holistically.  How do we help those who are in pain while also combatting the opioid crisis that plagues our society?

Others are asking the question, where is all this pain coming from? Those who are asking this question often reference the seminal text on trauma and the somatic response to the trauma: The Body Keeps Score. The author suggests that even when we are years past the traumatic event, our bodies hold onto the memory of the trauma for much longer.

Jamie Lee Finch in her recent book, You Are Your Own says:

There are ways to help surivors recognize that the physical and psychiological reactions resulting from traume are messages – attempts from the body to try and expain what has happened. Imbalances, illnesses, anxietiesm and pains are signal flares from our deeper selves searching for rescue (78-79).

We are not well. We are hurting. We are in pain.

We need healing. The type of healing that can only come from the gospel of light and love and resurrection.

May God grant us the courage to embark on the journey of deep, soul-filled searching. May God grant us the community to sustain us along the journey.

 

Mine, Mine, Mine

Recently, we have watched Finding Nemo with our three-year-old and when the seagulls came on screen screaming, “Mine, Mine, Mine” as they watched Dory and Marlin flip on the dock, his cackle filled the room. I can remember the first time I saw the movie and I thought these silly birds were funny too, especially in the end when they crash into the sail of a boat and keep crying out, “Mine, Mine, Mine”.

As I was listening to the news yesterday, I was overwhelmed with the subtext permeating the current administration’s policies. Immigrants seeking refuges are separated from their loved ones and treated like prisoners. Refuges from a country so devastated by a natural disaster that just missed our coast are sent back to the rumble rather than being welcomed into a safe haven. The homeless are being rounded up and placed in holding facilities. Over and over again the message is, “Mine, Mine, Mine”. We are not sharing. We are not helping.

While to some this is a message of strength and power and taking back what is really ours. These messages only reveal the scarcity and fear with which this administration makes decisions. The need to control situations and take ownership by snatching away opportunities for a better life from others is a scarcity mindset. There is only so much and so I must grab as much I can.

This is not the gospel message. Constantly seeking to take over and to take from is an exhausting way to live. Constantly monitoring who has spoken against you and demanding that they apologize or rescind what they have said takes up all or your time and attention.

When you live in this defensive posture, you aren’t really living. You are reacting.

The words of Jesus reminds us that we are to have life and live it abundantly. The thief, on the other hand, the gospel writer continues, comes to steal and destroy. There is no peace. There is no joy for those who are constantly stealing and snatching away from others crying out, “Mine, Mine, Mine”.

This is a time to live into abundance. To give generously to all those in need crying, “Ours, Ours, Ours”.

Waking up to Death

One of the hardest aspects of the Lenten season is to the constant reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. As a preacher, I welcome the times in the church calendar like now where scripture lends itself to the promise and hope of resurrection and will come again.

For some, the Lenten season is not one that matches the church calendar but begins instead with the darkness of a diagnosis or the sudden decline of a loved one. These reminders in the middle of the church calendar catch us off guard. Because although we all know that we are dust and to dust, we shall return, we often push this realization to our subconscious.

We are life and death in one. Always moving towards death, but also living and breathing. It the paradox of our humanity.

When we have these moments when we are reminded of just how fragile life is and how much we can’t control how much time we have, we wake up to death moving this reality from our subconscious to our conscious thoughts. When this move happens, we tend to find time for what’s most important. We tend to treasure moments that would have been commonplace. We tend to worry less about clothes, money, and possessions because in matters of life and death those become unimportant.

For those of us who have lost someone, we love deeply and have found sleep, waking up to the realization that their physical presence is gone is so very difficult. And we have to wake up to the death of that loved one, again and again, day after day.

Waking up to death actually wakes up to life…and gratitude…and hope.

 

On Being a Revangelical

When I voiced a call to ministry, I found myself an outcast of my spiritual home of twenty-six years. As a woman who was raised Southern Baptist, my voicing a call to preach and pastor was beyond the fundamentalist theological views of my home church. From the vast number of women and men and nonbinary individuals who have shared their stories so openly, I know that I am not alone in finding myself wandering in a spiritual desert by coming out to who I was called to be. There is a whole community of people who are joining together to try to find sanctuary, ask questions, and share their stories in order to find wholeness and healing. This #exvangelical community has created books, podcasts, conferences, and all sorts of spaces for people who found themselves homeless.

Throughout my journey of being called to pastor and preach, I have followed this community appreciating the courage and vulnerability with which so many people have shared their stories, their lives, their pain, their abuse, and their trauma. Indeed there is something powerful about knowing that you are not alone and you are not the only one who has been disowned by a community of faith.

But I never identified myself as #exvangelical.

I could never put my finger on why exactly until recently. In the second Democratic debate when Major Pete made this statement:

“And for a party that associates itself with Christianity to say that it is ok, to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents,” he said, “that God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

Something deep within me resonated with this statement because this is exactly where I have been stuck. I have never not considered myself evangelical. I believe in the gospel. I believe the gospel offers freedom and hope and healing and wholeness to all of those who have been oppressed, abused, silenced, ostracized and downtrodden. And I believe in spreading this message of hope.

I haven’t identified myself as an evangelical because of the political connotations associated with the term “evangelical.” I haven’t identified myself as an evangelical because of the way it has become synonymous with the religious right and the fundamentalist oppressive, abusive theology that has caused so much hurt and pain and disembodiment.

Between this statement and my partner’s parsing of the Greek meaning of the term evangelical around the dinner table, I am finally ready to say that I am evangelical or perhaps a revangelical, returning to an identity I used to wear proudly as I tried to convert my middle school friends and offer them eternal salvation.

I am no longer interested in converting people, but I am interested in continuing to accept the invitation of partnering in the wonderful, mystical, and transformative work that the Holy Spirit is doing here on earth within and among us.

On the Road Again

On our trip back to Asheville, the kids and I noticed the smell of a skunk. Our three-year-old loves to point out when we smell a skunk because one of his favorite episodes of Curious George has George getting sprayed by a skunk multiple times. He has to take a bath in tomato juice, which is very silly to a three-year-old.

I didn’t think much about it. Smelling skunks along the road as you travel is something I remember from my childhood travels as well. It is a part of traveling in the south.

But then, we noticed a second skunk. This was within an hour of the first on we smelled and my antennae were up. Since beginning the journey towards reconnecting to my intuition, I have begun to notice when the cosmos repeats sights, smells, and occurrences. Smelling one skunk was not unusual. Smelling two skunks in the course of such a small distance was unusual.

I asked our oldest to look up what it meant to smell or encounter a skunk. Although she wasn’t sure why I was asking, she looked it up and we both discovered this:

Skunk symbolism is presenting you with the perfect opportunity to become more confident in your interactions with others. In other words, you must realize that you can meet life’s challenges with a calm and peaceful heart.

We were on our way to take our oldest girls back. The first weekend trip we had done since the long visits of summer. To be sure, I needed this reminder, this wink from the universe to meet the challenge of sharing children with a calm and peaceful heart.

Sometimes when we open ourselves to being present and to being a part of the deeper work of being connected to yourself and the world around you, you get the reminder that you need at just the right time.

Too Sick To Pray

The news of babies been shot as they are in their cars with their families…

I’ve been too sick to pray, Lord
That’s why we ain’t talked in a while
It’s been some of them days, Lord

The news of a Category 5 Hurricane creeping closer…

Never needed You more
I woulda called You before
But I’ve been to sick to pray

The news of two transgender women murdered in SC…

Remember the family, Lord?
I know they will remember You
And all of their prayers, Lord

So much work to still be done…

Well, I reckon that’s all, Lord
That’s all I can think of to say
And thank You, my friend
We’ll be talkin’ again
If I’m not too sick to pray

Let Mutual Love

13:1 Let mutual love continue. 13:2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 13:3 Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

This week’s lectionary from Hebrews has struck me deeply as it provides such a contrast to the divisiveness that exists within our country right now. There is no mutual love. We have kids and parents who are our neighbors imprisoned and instead of identifying with them, there is often defense for why they deserve to be there. This is not the kind of community the author of Hebrews envisioned for those who were seeking to come together to work out what it meant to live following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

As I reflect on why and how we arrived at this place, I find myself wanting to blame leadership, those who voted for the current leadership, and those who continue to defend the decisions of the leadership. By blaming, I am able to detach myself from the responsibility of where we are. It provides me relief, but not relief for those who are suffering.

We can’t offer mutual love to our neighbors of to those who are imprisoned until we find love for ourselves. We know that we are not at home or at peace with ourselves because of the opioid epidemic that is taking the lives of so many individuals and so many families. Right here in South Carolina, lies the center of this crisis. A recent study revealed that 3 out of every 4 Americans are considered overweight or obese, increasing the occurrence of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and heart disease.

We are not well.

We do not love ourselves. We overmedicate and try to find self-love in other places only to realize we are hungry for more and deeper meaning in our lives. We want to be connected to each other and to the Divine, but we settle for something surface-level and fleeting.

Mutual love begins with finding a way to love ourselves wholly and fully recognizing that we are beloved children of God where the Divine breath resides. When we fully accept this, then we simply can’t look at others the same way. We feel their suffering. We feel their loneliness and once we feel these things, we find ourselves overwhelmed with love for them. 

Let mutal love continue.

On Finding Yourself

Recently we were at a friend’s birthday party at one of those jump jump places. Our three-year-old loves them, but as a mom carrying an infant, they cause my anxiety to sit at the base of my throat. On average there are about fifty-seven times I convince myself that I have lost my child and I am a terrible mother only to discover a minute later that he is in one of the ball pits.

The funny thing about this experience is that the three-year-old never once finds himself lost. He is fully and wholly engaged in having fun flinging himself off of multi-level spaces and jumping on every single surface (something he tries to do every day at home). As I marvel at his tenacity and his sheer joy, I sometimes wonder if I have lost myself.

Being a member of the clergy means I hear more frequently and more quickly about deaths. I hold space for people to find sanctuary sharing their stories of abuse, neglect, and loneliness. I am the one people call when they are in a difficult time of waiting for medical diagnoses for themselves and for loved ones. This is such sacred work and I am honored to walk these journeys with people.

As I hear these stories, I think about how I found myself by voicing a call to pastor. I found myself in answering the call to deliver God’s word to God’s people. I think about my first call to pastor and how many people I asked me, “How do you like pastoring?” and I answered without hesitation, “I love it. I know this is what I was created to do.” I found in answering the call to be myself.

There are so many voices that can distract and take us away from ourselves. Voices of religious leaders telling us that we can’t be who we are created to be because our very beings create a theological crisis for their understanding of gender, sexuality, and marriage. Voices of family members passing on guilt and shame rather than love and encouragement. Voices of colleagues and classmates who saw something in us that they wanted and so tried to belittle and demean us. Voices swirling in our hearts and minds making it hard to find ourselves.

Perhaps the most powerful and reconciling work we can do is to find ourselves.

Because when we do, we will find the image of God residing there within, breathing in our lungs, offering us the miraculous power to become.

On Waiting in Uncertainty

A couple of weeks ago the lectionary text was from Genesis when three strangers appeared to Abraham. He offered them hospitality, rest, and retreat. They offered him the assurance that that word he had heard from God was indeed coming. Sarai, his wife, who was by the tent heard the promise that she was going to have a child and she laughed. One of the strangers pointed it out to her. She responded, “I did not laugh,” and then comes one of my favorite lines in Bible, “Oh yes you did laugh.”

I think Sarai denied having laughed because she knew that this was an important message. A message that was from the Divine. A message that was changing their lives. A message that encompassed all her hopes and dreams and all of her years of waiting.

The laugh was not one of unbelief as she has so often been characterized as having, but rather a laugh that gurgled in the deepest part of her soul. A laugh because the very thing she had been waiting and dreaming and hoping for couldn’t possibly come true now.

The season of waiting is so very difficult because we don’t know how long the waiting will be. Waiting for test results. Waiting for a call to a ministry position. Waiting for a child. Waiting for a relationship. Waiting in line at the grocery store. Waiting for a train to pass by.

Whatever we are awaiting, there is something with us that urges us to action in the midst of waiting. We feel like we are supposed to be doing something else besides waiting because waiting is doing nothing. Just today I was at a railroad crossing and I saw the first car and then the second and then the third turn around and go a different way because they simply couldn’t wait for the train to pass by.

Waiting makes us feel powerless. Waiting makes us feel anxious. Waiting makes us feel vulnerable.

None of these are emotions we would choose. All of these are difficult. So, we run from waiting not wanting to feel powerless, not wanting to feel anxious or vulnerable convinced that in the meantime we can do something to make the waiting go away.  As hard as we try, the waiting creeps back to our lives and to our attention.

Whatever you are waiting on, be assured that waiting is a spiritual practice that asks everything of us and asks us to empty ourselves before God. This is good and important work. Waiting asks us to remember that God is with us and God will not leave us and God keeps God’s promises. Breathe deeply in the waiting. Once we settle into the waiting, our eyes will open to many ways God is working and moving among us and within us.