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Author: Merianna Harrelson

I am the Pastor of Garden of Grace UCC and Co-Director of ministrieslab providing tools and resources to churches, clergy, and lay people to meet needs. I am always looking for a good cup of coffee and a great book to read.

Developing Critical Literacy

One of the aspects of our current cultural conversation, especially in regards to a digital presence, is the observation that many, many, too many people don’t know how to distinguish between a reliable source and an unreliable source. Many, many, too many people don’t know how to search and find multiple perspectives. This is something that impacts our ability to make compassionate connections and conversations with each other as well as our ability to make informed and educated decisions.

For me as a reading professional, this is a heartbreaking reality because this is what my graduate work focused on: how to develop critical literacy. This was a bit of a revolutionary goal for me as a teacher in high poverty schools because there was so emphasis of developing grade-level literacy BEFORE developing critical literacy. But are they really different? I would argue that critical literacy, digital literacy, and researching skills like distinguishing between reliable and unreliable sources are all a part of literacy. If that is the case, then what we have is a literacy crisis.

I appreciate and support parents, teachers, and indeed ministers who are making efforts to include diverse voices into their own personal reading as well as in their instruction and curriculum. While including authors and voices from different perspectives and backgrounds certainly is important, it is not the only tactic we can take to develop critical literacy.

One of the best books, I’ve ever encountered and that is powerful no matter the age of the audience is Voices in the Wind by Anthony Brown. Buy this book. You will see how one day in the park can look so different because of the person who is experiencing that trip to the park.

We love Sandra Boynton books because they are fun and silly, but there are two books that ask readers to look at a story from multiple perspectives by having almost the exact same page in both books.

The top spread is from But Not the Hippopotamus and the bottom spread is from But Not the Armadillo. We can’t read one book without reading the other book now with our three-year-old and then lining up the books just like this to compare and contrast the two pages. This is an amazing critical literacy experience in a fun and non-threatening way.

Our other favorite is We Are in a Book by Mo Williems. This book invites the characters to break the third wall and realize that they are characters in a book. What a powerful way to illustrate that there is a greater story and that it is not only about us.

The best way we can overcome the literacy crisis we have is to work within ourselves to ask good questions and to work with the people in our lives: children, parents, congregants to look at a story from multiple perspectives and different voices with a calm and understanding presence. Sometimes using children’s literature makes practicing that just a little easier and more fun.

On Due Dates and Expectations

It’s been one week since Baby Girl’s due date and yet we are celebrating three weeks of having her as part of our family. We knew when we were given her due date that we wouldn’t make it all the way to that date because of our labor and delivery experience with our three-year-old, but we didn’t know that she would be a January baby instead of a February baby. As I walked through her due date day, I thought about how due dates really just give us an idea of when a baby might come and not a hard and fast rule.

I was shocked to learn while talking to some of my clergy colleagues that many of them looked at due dates on papers and projects as just that, a guideline. That isn’t me. A due date has always been a hard and fast rule about when something must be done. It would never be acceptable to turn something in after the due date. The only option would be to turn something in early.

But these conversations got me thinking. Why did I hold this perspective while there were many people who held a different perspective and understanding of due dates? To be certain, my place as a white female who grew up in a conservative upbringing plays a role in my understanding and perspective as does my family of origin, but even more so my perspective is tied to my desire for events to go by the calendar and by a plan. It makes me feel safe and indeed in control when I know what’s coming, but more importantly when something is coming. It makes me feel prepared and successful and productive to get something in by the due date. All of this whispers of my desire to have a handle on things.

In just three short weeks, that’s been challenged. Baby girl didn’t come on her due date and that’s exactly when she was supposed to come and when she needed to come. I didn’t get to make the decision on that but had to trust my doctors and their expertise and their experience. I had to depend on them to offer important guidance and I had to let go of my own expectations for when she would join our family. All of this whispers of what we are called to do as disciples. We are called not to be in control, but to depend, trust, and let go of our own expectations in order to be open and ready for what God is calling us to do and how God is inviting us to participate in bringing the kingdom of God here on earth.

Thanks be to God for missed due dates and upset expectations!

On Being an “Experienced” Mom

The last two weeks have been filled with the awe and wonder of new life. Memories of the first days of our three-year old’s life have flooded back in as we get into a routine of feeding and sleeping and being a family all together. Yesterday I took our two-week-old for her two weeks check up and the doctor said, “Do you have any questions?” and I only had one. I can remember that appointment with our son being filled with questions. Is he ok? Is this normal? Am I doing this right?

As the pediatrician was dictating notes to her nurse to go into our daughter’s chart, she said something that struck me: “Mom, is an experienced mom and nurser.” I was caught off guard. I immediately thought: Mom, whose mom, her mom? I hadn’t thought about the fact that I am no longer a first-time mom, at least not of a newborn. I’ve done this before. This idea still hasn’t sunk in.

This week was also marked with the arrival of a parenting book compilation in which I have a short piece. As I reread my own words and my reflections about when I first became a mom five years ago, I realized that five years is a significant amount of time. Five years does mark a threshold that is often called experienced or is listed as a time interval for having experience in a field or profession.

If that’s the marker, then I am also an experienced preacher, an experienced pastor, and an experienced puppy mom. How in the world did that happen?

I guess it happened somewhere in the minutes that made up the 1,825 days of the past five years. The interactions, the challenges, the conversations, the sleepless nights, the minuscule decisions and the time in silence and solitude reflecting, seeking, and wondering if I was doing any of it right.

And all I can think about is all the times that I wish I had been fully present in those moments rather than lost in what ifs and maybes. Because really the challenge no matter how long we’ve been at this parenting thing or this pastoring thing is just that: to be present and to be aware of where we are. To understand, at least in part, that this moment, this conversation, this interaction won’t happen again in the same form or the same place or the same time.

I don’t really think I am experienced at any of this because our daughter is different than our son and our older two girls. This church is different than the other churches I’ve pastored and perhaps that’s where you get labeled as experienced. When you know that you don’t really know and can fully and freely admit that you need all the help you can get from parenting books, from pediatricians, and most importantly, for me, from a partner who is right there beside you traveling the road full of moments with you.

What a Difference a Week Can Make

Maybe it’s just me, but after we found out we were pregnant, I had February 1 in my head and in my heart. This was the day I just knew we were going to have our baby. Because of Ben’s dramatic entrance into the world, we knew we were going to have another c-section and we knew that we would not be making it to her January 7 due date. Our hope was to make it to 39 weeks, which is the longest our doctors would let us go with a scheduled repeat c-section.

I was thrown off when I finally saw the doctor who delivered Ben. She explained because of the way things progressed last time, she really didn’t want to take any chances that I would go into labor and that we would get into an emergency situation. She gave us two dates to consider: one just before 37 weeks and one just after 37 weeks. Suddenly, I felt like I had lost a week. But when was I going to find the bottle warmer and the infant car insert? What about the events at work I had planned? What about that one more week of work I had wanted to squeeze in before her arrival?

What a difference a week can make! Suddenly none of those questions matter at all.

This week, I’ve walked around in wonder that our sweet daughter is already here, healthy and full of life, even though she was a bit early. Her arrival to this world was so much different than our three-year old’s. We knew when she was coming. We knew what time we needed to be at the hospital. We knew what floor we were going to. We knew the routine and patterns of the hospital. We knew what the operating room looked like and what it meant to have a c-section. We knew what it was like to have a newborn.

And yet all that knowing still didn’t prepare me for the awe and wonder when I looked at our sweet baby’s face and said, “Happy one week, baby girl!” What a difference a week can make! I can’t imagine spending this past week any other way than holding and caring for this baby.

This past week has been filled with the memories of becoming a mother, of learning to feed and change and care for a baby. This past week has reminded me how much else there is my own daily life and in my heart and mind that is distracting and really unimportant. This past week has made me stop and rest. This past week has made me marvel at the truly incredible gift that is new life.

And I can’t imagine this week being filled with anything more meaningful and more important than loving this newborn.

What a difference a week can make!

I’m so glad I was wrong about her birthday.

 

The Best Books I Read in 2018

For the last two years, I have participated in the reading challenge on Goodreads. I’ve challenged myself to read 50 books. In 2016, I read 23. In 2017, I read 34. This year, I read 47. I’ll also challenge myself to read 50 books this year. It’s good to recognize challenges often take longer than a year to achieve.

Here’s the list of books I read.

While I recommend almost everything I read this year, I wanted to think about the five books I read this year that most impacted me and why. Books change us and challenge us to see the world and our own realities differently. These five surely did.

  1. The Hate U Give by Angela Johnson: Part of my commitment this year was to read from a variety of different perspectives, concentrating especially on female voices and underrepresented voices in the publishing industry. The Hate U Give is by far one of the best books to offer a new perspective through a first-person lens.
  2. The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd: I remember when I first encountered The Mermaid Chair and I thought to myself, “How did I not know this author existed?” I had this same experience when I discovered that she had theological writing I had never encountered. This book is especially significant and important for anyone who was raised with certain expectations of what it means to be female because it is her journey of finding the Divine Feminine. As she wrestles with who she has been and wrestles for who she will be, I found myself and my story again and again in her words.
  3. Silence by Thich Nhat Hanh: This year I started a certification program in Spiritual Direction. As part of that program, I read one book each month. With these requirements, I have encountered new authors and new ideas that have deepened my understanding and my connection to the Divine. This book in particular opened by eyes to just how noisy our lives are and how important silence is to balance out all the noise. Hanh points out how much we resist silence because of how noisy our world is and how we are missing something deep within because of all the noise.
  4. Blessed by Kate Bowler: Although most people know Kate Bowler for her book Everything Happens for a ReasonBlessed is her dissertation work. In this book, she recounts the history of the prosperity gospel and its influence in popular culture as well as religious institutions. As she makes her way through the story of this movement, so much about how our modern congregations view the world, giving, and involvement in the community becomes clear. If you think that this movement doesn’t impact you or your church, you’ll discover how much it actually does as you read this book.
  5. Raising Human Beings by Ross Greene: As our youngest has gained more and more independence throughout toddlerhood, it is important to us that we are fostering not only his physical and mental development but also his emotional development. This book is excellent if you are looking for ways to stretch those little daily decisions, interactions, and communications to a bigger philosophy of parenting.

Perhaps 2019 will finally be the year that I will reach that elusive 50 book goal, but regardless of whether I do or not, my commitment to read and to read as much as I can won’t change. Because it’s in reading other people’s words and seeing the world through other people’s eyes that our own view of the world expands to include other perspectives.

A Year of Strength

Setting intentions for your day, your week, your month, and your year serve to center your mind and connect your heart and your mind to each other. Many people use the approaching new year as a time to signal goal setting and intentionality. For some people, this manifests into a word or a mantra, something easy to remember,  repeat, and return to as life inevitably brings the unexpected.

For me, this process has always worked in reverse. I don’t choose a word at the beginning of the year instead about this time every year, the word that has followed me throughout the year finds me. Last year, the word grief found me. As I reflected on the amount of grief our family had experienced, I began to understand that what we had experienced and what we had walked through together would shape who we were as individuals and as a family.

This year has been a year of strength. I spent much of the first three months of this year running and training. I was able to move back up to running five miles at a time, something I hadn’t been able to do since I was in seminary. I began to understand in a real and deep way the role spiritual abuse has impacted me. I walked more closely to my incredible partner as I wrestled with my past and began to recognize triggers and address longheld hurt that I had buried deeply. I started a certification program in spiritual direction to engage the Divine in deep and ancient ways. We found out we were pregnant and wrestled through the grief and uncertainty and memories it brought back of our loss last year. This year has ended with an invitation to step out of my comfort zone and serve as the pastor of Garden of Grace UCC. Truly, this year has been one of strength.

After a year of grieving, these opportunities to experience the Divine and to connect more deeply to my partner and family overwhelm me with gratitude. Gratitude that the invitation to grow and learn still exists. Gratitude that the Divine still calls and invites us to participate in the bringing the kingdom of God here on earth. Gratitude that we are never alone in our journey and that even when we can’t comprehend or understand where our story is going, we are still surrounded with the love and presence of Creator God.

To be sure, this year has asked me to dig deep to places I didn’t necessarily want to go, but strength comes from the deepest and darkest places. There were tears and soreness and growing pains, but as I stand on the edge of a new year, I know I am walking into that newness and this new season stronger than I have been. This makes the journey worthwhile.

I can’t wait to see what 2019 holds!

The End is the Beginning

We’ve been waiting and hoping for this day to come. The day that we celebrate the Divine Incarnate in the form of the Christ Child. The end of Advent is the beginning of the Christmas Season. The twelve days of Christmas: a holy number for a holy journey to Epiphany. This stands in stark contrast to our culture that teaches us to count down to presents and today is what we have been waiting for.

12 days to wonder and awe at what the meaning of the Divine here on earth is. 12 days to look for signs in the sky that promise new life and transformation. 12 days to hold onto hope, peace, joy, and love and carry them close to the heart. 12 days.

And as I think of what these next 12 days will bring, I believe that they will bring assurance that God is with us. I believe that they will bring the promise that God loves us. I believe that they will whisper an invitation to you to join this great journey.

For Christmas is not over, it is just beginning.

A Season of Rest

The last three years of the Advent season have been particularly powerful in the way they have changed me. Three years ago, I traveled the Advent season nursing a newborn and being nursed by an incredible partner back to health and wholeness. The strangeness of not preaching during the high and holy season provided space to wonder and awe in new life and new identity. The following two seasons of Advent were filled with hope and grief. Wondering whether I would carry the promise of new life again and grieving empty arms after the promise of new life and the unexpected loss of new life. This year, I’ve traveled the Advent season the same way Mary did with swollen ankles, restless nights, and the knowledge that this new life will change everything.

This Advent season whispers of a new season of life not only for us as a family, but for me as a minister as I anticipate stepping into the role of Pastor at Garden of Grace UCC. As this new journey nears, I can’t help but carry the promises of the advent season with me. For thirty-three years I have been Baptist, even in the seasons when I was worshipping with Lutherans, Methodists, and Episcopalians,  I have been Baptist. With the new year, I will begin the journey of dual recognition of ordination in the UCC. My identity as a minister and as a person is changing.

And yet, there is a part of me that feels like I’m giving up hope. Since I walked into my first seminary class, I have held onto hope. Hope that there would be a Baptist church that would call me as a pastor, even though I was a woman. I have held onto hope that systemic sexism would be named and perhaps even changed. I have held onto hope even when comments like, “There is no woman who could ever pastor such an important church,” and “We did have women candidates for the pastor position, but they were all eliminated pretty quickly,” and the stories of sexual harassment of Baptist women in ministry from colleagues, parishioners, and denominational leaders burdened my heart and mind. But this season is a call for me to let the hope that Baptist women will be fully and wholly affirmed go into the hands of the Divine.

With the new year, there is a new call for me: to treasure this new life and new season for us as a family and for me as a minister. It’s a call to rest and immerse myself in the full inclusion and affirmation of me as a minister, not as a woman minister, but as a minister called to lead God’s people. Thanks be to God for this new season!

On Being Ordained for Five Years

Today marks the fifth anniversary of my ordination, a mile marker I remember every year as there are so many women who have sought and fought for ordination for themselves and for generations of young baptist women that would follow them. Even more, I think it’s important to remember the women who are in traditions, even baptists traditions, where ordination is STILL not a possibility and who cannot in their context live into their calls.

As I reflect on the past five years, I am in awe that there are now three congregations who have called me as their pastor. Three congregations who have recognized the call I felt so strongly in a closet in Greenville, SC eight years ago. A call I was so scared and terrified to express because I knew once the words left my lips, there would be no turning back. A call that was an invitation to participate in God’s work here on earth through preaching and teaching and developing partnerships and singing in a homeless shelter in Columbia, SC and making crafts in summer enrichment programs and soliciting national companies to donate food to those who are food insecure and tiling floors and developing curriculum and remembering and reflecting and loving and praying and hoping and so much more.

Five years ago, there is no way I could understand what this journey would entail. I couldn’t understand what it would mean to walk beside God’s people bearing their joys and their griefs; their hopes and their dreams. I couldn’t understand the immense privilege of being invited to the sacred spaces of people’s families and stories. I couldn’t understand the bittersweet feeling of being called to another congregation when you have walked so closely with people for years.

There’s so much I couldn’t understand, but what I did understand in that small room on highway 378 when I sat with my ordination council was that most pastors, especially female pastors, don’t make it to the five-year anniversary of ministry. In fact, Fuller Theological Seminary estimates the attrition rate of ministers to be between 30-40% five years after being ordained. Although these numbers vary from denomination to denomination and depend on whether the minister holds the senior pastor position or an associate minister position, we know the rates of clergy burnout across the board are climbing.  The duties and responsibilities of clergy continue to increase as budgets continue to dwindle and criticism permeates through the pews. Clergy, even young clergy, suffer at higher and higher rates from obesity, hypertension, and depression. Research continues to reveal the nature of pastoral work creates an island of isolation. Pastors are constantly confided in but don’t often have an outlet to process the weight and burden of what they bear on behalf of their congregants. This creates a dangerous environment leading to burnout, depression, and even at times suicide at higher rates than other professions. The struggle against burnout, depression, and suicidal thoughts is even more difficult as preachers are upheld as lighthouses or hope; people who aren’t supposed to struggle with these things.

Even knowing all this about the current climate for pastors, I sat in that room looking at the people gathered for my ordination council and answered the question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” by saying, “In parish ministry.”

I knew my call was to journey with God’s people. I knew my call was to preach in hope that people’s eyes would be opened to the Divine fingerprints that reveal God is with us, inviting to witness the mysterious transformations that surround us if we will but open our eyes.

My partner, Sam, delivered my ordination address five years ago and he said, “I told you not to do this” and we all laughed, but he was right. There is nothing about being called that has been easy. God has constantly asked me to step into the unknown, to challenge my own notions of the Divine, to introduce new possibilities to congregations and to follow after that still, small voice. Thanks be to God for the support and encouragement of a partner and a family who is with me every step of this crazy, called life.

I won’t pretend to know what the next five years hold, but I pray that I will have the strength and courage to continue to live a called life. A life that doesn’t always make sense, but always holds revelations of the Divine at work among us.

Divine Weavings

I am notoriously bad at putting lights on the Christmas tree. The first couple of years I put the lights on the tree, it looked like the tree had a been wrapped in a single line of lights. It was nice and orderly, but not aesthetically all that pleasing. Now, my approach is a bit more haphazard. I like to weave the strands of light up and down and around trying to make it look like the little bulbs of lights are appearing from out of the branches in a magical kind display. I take time to stuff the green strands as far back towards the trunk of the tree as possible so that at least upon first glance, you can’t see the way all the lights are connected.

There’s something about the tiny burst of light and the hidden strand that connects them that is mystical. And as I get up in the cold, dark morning and make my way over to the tree to turn on the lights, I am reminded of the Advent season. In this season, we try to trace the light of the world as it gets closer and closer to earth. We travel the journey of hope, love, joy, and peace getting closer and closer each week.

It’s a magical, mystical season in the church calendar. A season that asks us not to look at the single lights, but the divine weavings, the strand that holds all the lights together. Even in the midst of the influx of news about children being separated from their parents, children not receiving health coverage, and tear gas being thrown at children, I have seen little lights shining. But I’ve lost track of the divine weavings. I haven’t been able to find as clearly the strand of divine and holy work tucked away, invisible to the naked eye.

As Advent season draws near, there is a whisper calling in the darkness, “Search for the light.” And as my ears and heart open to that invitation, slowly a strand begins to appear. Emanuel, God with Us, here on earth working and weaving; Light to light; hope to love to joy to peace.