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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.

Desert Longings

The Old Testament lectionary passages have been following the story of Abraham and Sarah and I’ve been struck by these foreigners wandering around in the wilderness as I have prepared to preach each week.

God called Abraham to leave his home and become a wanderer and a stranger. Abraham knew God was calling him to leave, but he didn’t know where he was going except that it was a land God had promised him. He also knew that God had promised to make him the Father of many nations and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, but he didn’t know how that was going to happen since he was old and his wife was barren.

And so we come to Abraham and Sarah in the desert. They are alone. They are living outside of communities and places they know, but as they have journeyed, they have created high places…places that they have encountered God. Abraham is sitting at one of those high places called the sacred oak of Mamre when suddenly there appear three strangers walking towards Abraham in the desert. For the Israelites who would hear this story, their ear would immediately perk up. Strangers who suddenly appear have the possibility of being divine messengers. And so they would listen to this story of Abraham with great interest as to what he was going to do next. In these types of stories, not just in Israelite texts, but also in Ancient Near Eastern stories, extending hospitality would often result in a blessing at the end of the story.

And in the midst of the desert and the wilderness and the uncertainty of where they are going Abraham and Sarah are reminded that God does not forget God’s promises. God even sends divine messengers to us in the desert when it seems impossible that God’s promise will be fulfilled, but too often we are focused on the next step and we forget that welcoming the stranger might just be entertaining angels, angels whom God has sent in order to remind us of the promises God has made.

If you’re like me than your journey of following God includes some laughable moments. Moments when God calls us to believe in the possible. Moments when God calls us into the desert not knowing where we are going to end up, but just that God has promised to walk with us on the journey. Moments when it is hard to believe in anything but the dust and lifeless we see around us.

And I think sometimes we miss these reminders of God’s promises because, like Sarah, we don’t give way to our desert longing. We don’t give voice to the call God has placed on our life, and we don’t welcome the stranger in order to hear the divine message God has for us.

We don’t invite strangers into our homes expecting or believing they might be Jesus or God. In fact, if we are really truly honest with ourselves, we have a hard time inviting strangers into our churches, a place where we should welcome anyone we see walking our way because we have gotten our idea of hospitality backwards. Instead of being welcomed, we should welcome. Instead of being fed, we should feed those in need. Instead of waiting for strangers to come to us, we should be running to greet and welcome strangers.

If we like Abraham welcomed God into our homes, if we got to know God as we sat around our table as served God supper, then our lives would look considerably different, wouldn’t they. Rather than our being the ones to go to God’s house, we would be the ones preparing and serving God. We would be welcoming God instead of being welcomed by God.

When Abraham and Sarah left their home, they didn’t know what lay ahead. Certainly there were enough threats in the desert that could bring their lives to an end and yet they went anyways. When they welcomed the strangers, they could have been bandits or thieves, and yet they still welcomed these strangers, just like the beautiful community of faith at Emmanuel in Charleston.

We have to get to the point as believers and followers of Christ that we not only listen and study the words, but that the study and belief we have moves us to action. We have to get to the point that we welcome the stranger in the radical, generous hospitality that Abraham demonstrated and the radical, generous hospitality that Jesus demonstrated. The radical, generous hospitality that might ask us to give up our possessions, our homes, and even our lives.  

And when we remember that the God of Abraham is Creator God who brings life out of dust and brings life from a barren womb. We are reminded that nothing is impossible with God and as a result we too will offer radical hospitality to the strangers we meet. And when we do, we still start to see a difference in this world full of violence. Instead of hate, we will see love. Instead of hunger, we will see full bellies. Instead of loneliness, we will see fellowship. Instead of helplessness, we will see hope in the faces of strangers we are eating with and fellowshipping with and those strangers might just look a lot like God, once we get to know them.

Wise Women Road

On Monday as we were leaving Mullins after visiting our grandparents, we ended up heading the wrong way. There was a detour because of road being repaired from Hurricane Matthew that brought us to stop. As we were rerouting, thanks to Waze, we ended up on a dirt road. I glanced at the road as we turning onto it just to make sure that we were finally headed in the right direction.

It read: Wise Women Road.

I laughed not only because so often when I am traveling I have to make U-turns or turn around, but because perhaps there was a greater meaning for this particular turn around. Perhaps five-minute of losing our way was the perfect reminder that sometimes wisdom comes from turning around. Sometimes finding your way means turning around. Sometimes wisdom comes from detours and road closures.

And sometimes teaching your daughters about wisdom means teaching them to admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and to laugh at how it all whispers of bigger meanings and teachings.

 

Fairy Gardens

I can’t believe LC just turned 7!  We have dubbed this her fairy, magical birthday because so many of her gifts have to do with fairies and magic, and I am loving it. The idea of creating a fairy garden to hold your dreams to escape from this world and to gain perspective is important for her at this age. The idea of tending to something like beans and wheat grass everyday to remind yourself to care for some other living things is powerful. But more importantly to remember to imagine and dream and wish and believe in something that you can’t quite understand or put your finger on is so important.

We ask a lot of our girls who travel between homes and communities. We ask them to be strong and brave and resilient. We ask them to be flexible and adaptable in a way I never was asked at 7 and they have stood strong.

But sometimes, they just need to be kids and imagine a world full of fairies and magic dust and wishing stones and dream stones and mystery.

On Clinging to Hope

I don’t know how many time I’ve uttered the phrase, “I hope so” in the past, but I know it’s too many to count. But the importance of hope and finding hope didn’t really resonate deeply in my heart and mind until six weeks ago when our family went to see the ultrasound of our second baby, a secret we had been keeping quiet hoping to reveal to our community of faith and family and friends the excitement of new life in the midst of Eastertide when we all need a reminder that new life keeps showing up riding the waves of the resurrection. But what we hoped would be a time of celebration has become a season of grief, a sharp juxtaposition of almost life in the midst of Eastertide.

There was no heartbeat at the ultrasound, which would ultimately lead to our experiencing a miscarriage.

Where were we supposed to put the hope of of celebration? Where were we supposed to put the hope of new life? Where were we supposed to find new hope?

For me, this has been a deeply spiritual journey to discover what hope is. Dickinson’s words took on a new meaning as I realized, “Hope is a thing with feathers,” means that hope can simply float away without any warning rather than something “that perches in the soul.”

“Now faith is the confidence in what we hope for and assurance in what we do not see.” But did I still have faith in new life? Could I still hope when we wouldn’t see the life we had dreamed and envisioned when we found out we were pregnant?

And suddenly, I understood Sarai standing at the tent listening to strangers telling her what her life would. And certainly, I have laughed just like her.

Hope? Have you read the news? Have you been to the emergency room or noticed the number of people who are jobless, homeless, hungry? Hope? What’s that supposed to do about anything.

But as I’ve walked with this grief, I’ve come to understand that hope isn’t wishful thinking. Hope is a statement of belief of the revolutionary, life-transforming belief that God who has done the impossible will surprise again. God who overcame death and offered new life will revive again. God who created life out of dust will create again. 

And I believe.

And I hope.

I don’t believe or hope in any specifics in regards to our family, but that God will still whisper and call me to create alongside of God. I believe and hope my eyes will open to see how pastoring a church named New Hope in the midst of deep grief isn’t just coincidence, but the divine presence walking beside us in the midst of the pain and suffering life brings.

The Importance of Where You’ve Been

More often than I’d like to admit, I wish there was something different about my story. I wish I was involved early on in communities of faith who welcomed and affirmed women in ministry. I wish I could have started in ministry sooner. This doubt and uncertainty leads me to wonder about the investment of both time and money in my educational career.

I worked for five years in a classroom of some sort and yesterday I found myself back in the classroom in on the second floor of a church working with students from high poverty and supporting an incredible ministry called Koinonia. As I drove to the church, there was certainly a bit of anxiety fluttering in my stomach as I wondered whether my teaching muscles were too stiff and out of practice to work, but as soon as the students walked in, I knew that teaching would always be a part of my story.

My experience teaching students in high poverty settings has led me to develop and lead a VBS for kids in government-subsidized apartment to teach ESOL and welcome strangers into the United States. Yesterday  that experience led me to model and team teach with an elementary education major who is about to head into student teaching. Now, I am sure that there are some who would look at this and say that God’s plan for me was to have me to teach and have these experiences and then to move into ministry.

Maybe.

But maybe there is a reality in which I could have lived my calling to ministry in a classroom setting and done good important work.

Maybe the journey of our lives isn’t so much about a particular setting, but about the realization and understanding we have as we are where we are. Maybe the experience of being a disciple of Christ isn’t about particular actions, but about a particular mindset of serving and loving others. Maybe God is in classrooms and churches and coffee shops and grocery stores whispering to us to see the divine interrupting our lives, changing our paths, looping our paths, inviting us to be a part of something much bigger than ourselves.

Maybe God is asking us to stop worry about where we are called and instead worry about who we are called to be.

“Where does your husband pastor?”

Today as I was dropping off our son at his half-day school, I was introduced to a woman who was visiting. The woman who introduced me said, “And this is one of our moms who is also an excellent baptist minister.”

I smiled, keeping an eye out for Ben as he explored the lobby.

The woman who introduced me to the visitor went on her way leaving the two of us to continue the conversation.

“Where does your husband pastor?” the visitor asked me.

“I’m the pastor, actually,” I responded with a smile.

“Oh, wow….that’s great,” she responded, obviously taken aback by my clarification.

It was interesting to me that even though the woman who introduced us was clear that I was both mom and pastor, for this visitor, those two things didn’t go together or fit into her schema. I didn’t take offense because I know she was taking a lot in as she was looking around, but also because, to be honest, meeting a female baptist minister still isn’t that common, especially in the heart of the Bible Belt.

Maybe, as she continues on her way, she’ll pass along the word that she met a female baptist pastor. Maybe the next female baptist minister she meets won’t get the question, “Where does your husband pastor?” Maybe when her daughter or granddaughter or one of their friends explains to her that they are called to ministry, she won’t be shocked or surprised because she’s met a female baptist minister before.

And maybe the next time I see her and we’re able to have a longer conversation, I’ll share that my husband is an ordained baptist minister as well, just to keep her on her toes!

On Finding New Hope

A year ago, I was in the throws of the pastor search process with two churches, both full-time, benefitted positions; both a part of what I thought was the next step in my ministry. As I waited between the first and second interviews, I began packing boxes in our house convinced that we were moving to a new phase and a new place. By the end of June, one church  went completely silent. There was no communication after months of scheduling interviews, emails back and forth, and meeting people in the church. Then, nothing. Not even a response to emails. Just silence. The second church called to let me know that they were calling another candidate, a great choice for them,  someone I knew and respected.

I was left dumbfounded and shocked. I had been so certain that I was being called to full-time ministry and a different place. It was so strange to be in the midst of dreaming and visioning what was next in exciting, new ways and then to find out so close together that neither of those were a possibility. No one told me about the hurt and disappointment that the pastor search process brings.

While I was in the search process, waiting to hear from churches, I started doing pulpit supply at a CBF church start in town called New Hope, a great community of people. I kept telling them that I could do another couple of weeks as I waited and they kept asking me to come back. In the midst of my shock and disbelief that what I thought was next was not in fact next, I kept coming to a community founded on hope, new hope.

Their story was one that was filled with their own stories of pain and disappointment as they moved from different communities of faith to form something different. They had been hurt by the church and yet they still believed that the gospel could change and transform lives. They clung to hope even in the midst of their pain and suffering. In fact, the verse they decided was the foundation of what they were creating was 1 Peter 1:3:

By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…

And I just happened to be doing pulpit supply for this community of faith as I encountered the uncertainty and chaos of transition in ministry.

The image of the wilderness is not one that we can ignore as ministers. God called God’s people out of slavery into the uncertain future of the wilderness. Abraham was called away from his home to the wilderness. Jesus before he began his ministry was tested in the wilderness, but it’s not something we often talk about as communities of faith.

The wilderness teaches us that there really is no way for us to plan our future if we are following God. God is always calling God’s people to new journeys, new names, new identities, and new life just when we feel we have our feet on solid ground. But in communities of faith, there is a theology of comfort and security running wild, rather than the people of God running in the wilderness.

For me, the journey in the wilderness lead me to new hope in the form of a community passionately clinging to hope as their foundation rather than comfort and security. I’m not sure I could have found this new hope had I not first experienced the disappointment as I wandered in the wilderness of the unknown.

Thanks be to God, for continuing to upset and disrupt this minister’s life in truly miraculous ways.

Let the Sun Shine In

After four days of thunderstorms, the sun is out this morning. The storms brought a breeze I thought wouldn’t return to Columbia again until September after last week’s 90 + days. Last week was so hot even the grand magnolia trees were looking withered as they tried to pull up water from their deep roots.

As I looked at those magnolia trees towering above me last week, I thought of people who are trying desperately to hang on in the midst of the blazing sun of the wilderness; uncertainty surrounding them in the form of sickness, the unexpected loss of loved ones, and unsure job prospects. Like these magnolias, the wilderness sun was asking them to pull up every last ounce of hope from their deep roots of faith.

And then the rain came. The clouds opened up delivering hope in the form of water. The reminder of our baptism. A vase of flowers. A text message. An unexpected dinner that didn’t have to be cooked, planned, or prepared.

These unexpected thunderstorms providing rain at just the right moment is how the magnolia will survive through this hot Columbia summer. These moments where we realize someone has been thinking about us as we are traversing the blistering sun of the wilderness is how we will survive as people of God. These small acts showering us with the hope as they sustain and restore our souls.

 

Reversing Your Running Path

This morning, I knew it was time, but I didn’t want to.

I didn’t want to run the 3.5 mile course I run on Fridays in reverse. I didn’t want to because I knew it would disrupt and disorient me. Yes, I know all of the reasons as a runner why you should reverse your familiar paths. I know that if you don’t then your shoes wear down in very specific unhealthy ways. I know if you have a nagging recurring injury that reversing your running path can reverse the negative impact on that injury and reorient any compensating behaviors you’ve accidentally taken on. I know this, but I just didn’t want to.

I knew it would mean not seeing my familiar markers, knowing exactly how much further I had to go. I knew I’d encounter the shortcut option 2/3 into my run instead of 1/3 into my run. I knew that I wouldn’t know the exact number of blocks I had to run before the next turn because I wasn’t as familiar with the path from another angle. More than anything I knew that it would mean encountering a hill that rose incrementally and steadily rather than a steep short hill where I could clearly see the end in sight.

But I knew this was good for me and so I did it reluctantly.

As I ran from the safety of the sidewalk, I realized I couldn’t see clearly what was coming towards me, but rather that I heard what was coming first. As I ran I depended on my ears rather than my sight. I could feel my nagging right hamstring relax with relief as my left hamstring took on more. And I began to realize that reversing my running path was very similar to the discipline of renewing my mind as Paul reminds us in Romans 12:

12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual[b] worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

As someone who experienced spiritual abuse, it is so easy when I encounter something challenging to fall back into the familiar path of dogmatic, closed theology where everything has a reason and everything has an answer. It is much, much more difficult for me to reverse that pattern of thinking and lean into the disorientation of not having the familiar markers of known answers to the unexpectedness of life, but this doesn’t produce growth. This produces an unhealthy attachment to the theology that doesn’t fit and isn’t applicable at best and theology that hurts and maims at worst.

As I rounded the corner to the end of the run, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was finished. Done with reversing the path. Next week I could return to the familiar, known path. I looked down at my watch. I ran 25 seconds faster each mile than I had last week on the familiar, known path.

Maybe disruption and disorientation is what produces strength and growth as it wakes up our other senses and other muscles to something new.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: On Needing Control and Order

“So I see your child has your OCD a little bit, eh?”

I laughed at my friend’s comment shrugging it off as a funny quirk, but as I wrestled with this a little more, I began to uncover another remnant of the spiritual abuse I experienced growing up.

There was always a reason. It didn’t matter if a youth died unexpectedly or a minister engaged in an affair or if someone committed suicide, there was always a reason. God always had a plan. God’s will would always be done. Explanations and reasons that brought about an orderly understanding of the unexpectedness you’re bound to encounter if you live in this world long enough.

There was no room for chaos. The unexpected when encountered fit into a nice, neat theological box of certainty. In times of uncertainty and fear of the unknown, I feel myself reverting back; depending on order, not wanting to ride the waves of chaos; clinging desperately to what I was taught rather than leaning into experiencing the Divine.

There have been too many experiences already in my short tenure as a minister where I have encountered people hurting, gasping for breath after the unexpected wave life has thrown at them. As they have looked at me and asked, “Why?” I haven’t been able to offer those boxed answers of certainty; those flimsy, life-preserver reasons that we toss at people to avoid feeling their pain. Instead, I have tried to look at them and say, “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know, but here’s a warm towel and some cold water and I’ll sit right here with you.”

As we near the raging wind that brought tongues of fires to hover over the followers of Christ, I can’t help but wonder how I can avoid the numerous times chaos, the wilderness, the unknown, the rushing wind is a part and indeed central to the narrative of those who follow God. Perhaps in trying to tame Creator God and the Holy Spirit, we are missing the opportunity to participate in the magical, mystical, unexplainable work of the Divine.