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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.

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.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: Having an Opinion

Elisabeth and I have embarked on a new adventure called The Minister and The Mystic. This new podcast is more real and true to our experiences and our stories . As we have talk each week, I become more and more aware of the impact spiritual abuse has had on my life. It’s overwhelming and scary to admit because I want so much to shed the past and move forward. Elisabeth gives me the courage to recognize and claim the spiritual abuse I’ve experienced as part of my story and yes, even part of my identity.

Part of that identity are leftovers and holdovers from the adherence to a strict set of dogmatic beliefs. One of these beliefs was the idea that women didn’t have their own voice in decision-making whether that be in church or in their families. I didn’t realize how much impact this teaching had on me. I didn’t realize the number of times I still pause in my closet asking myself what impact my decision about what clothes I choose to wear will have on other people; remnants of false teachings of sexuality that a woman is the one responsible for tempting a man by dressing a certain way.

I didn’t realize how I had been conditioned to anticipate and plan for other people’s needs to the point of forgetting my own needs. I didn’t realize how in conversations I had been conditioned to be a silent listener rather than an active participant who voiced opinions and experiences. I didn’t believe my opinions, my perspective, my take on the world mattered because there were absolute truths that superseded my voice.

I thought I didn’t have a choice in forming my voice. I thought I had to weigh my opinions against all the other voices swirling around in my head. These are the voices of spiritual abuse I must silence in order hear my own voice.

“What do you want?” my husband often asks me.

“I don’t know,” has long been my response because what I wanted was so entwined with other people’s wants and needs.

Slowly, but surely I am finding the courage to say what I want. Slowly, but surely I am wading through all the voices in my head that say don’t speak up and am sharing my opinions. Because my voice, my opinions, my story matters.

And so does yours.

Making Room at the Table

It’s been four years since I stepped into the identity of pastor for the first time. I’ve become accustomed to the people I meet in the Bible Belt who are shocked to find out there is such a thing as a Baptist woman pastor. I’ve become accustomed to the conversations and debates about what fully including women at the table means for the future of the church and the future of the Baptist identity. I’ve become accustomed to the resistance, shaming, and spiritual abuse that come from those who are scared of losing their power and control over the new seating arrangements at the table.

Sheryl Sandberg has become renown for encouraging women who want to become leaders and decision makers in the business world to “lean in” and take a seat at the table rather than hovering in the background of conversations and meetings. Taking a place at the table shows confidence, competence, and courage all important aspects of leadership.

But what she doesn’t cite is the fallout that follows once women take a seat at the table. Inevitably, when women start to take more seats at the table, there is less room people who have traditionally occupied those seats. As women begin to step confidently into their calls as ministers, as pastors, as leaders, as decision-makers, those who have been in power will feel challenged and threatened. There will be disruption and confusion because the table isn’t set as it always has been. No one is sure of their place or their power anymore.

This is what we need. We need disruption. We need to turn the tables. We need a different table setting. We need tables full of as many voices and perspectives as we can find. We need to bring out the table leaves and add more room and more seats. We need to sit beside each other sharing fellowship and needs. We need to bump elbows sitting beside each other sharing space, sharing food, and sharing ideas instead of fighting over seats like children in a game of musical chairs.

There is room enough for you. There is room enough for me. There is room enough for all.

Eastertide

I didn’t grow up in a community of faith that observed the church calendar, so the different seasons we celebrate throughout the year are still fascinating to me. Right now we are in the season called Eastertide. I love the image of riding the wave of the joy and resurrection throughout the next fifty days.

As I’ve thought more about it, the realization has washed over me that the joy of the Resurrection wouldn’t be quite as joyful without the deep grief of the Crucifixion. And so the life of the disciple is the ebb and flow of grief and joy, doubt and hope, peace and uncertainty. Back and forth, ebbing and flowing, as we follow Jesus Christ.

In those times of low tide when joy and resurrection seem but a damp, dim line far upon the shore, may we remember this. In the times of high tide when the pull of grief and doubt into the ocean seem impossible, may we remember this.

May we not teach only the high tide of Christianity, but recognize that grief and doubt and uncertainty are part of the Easter story, too. Pain and suffering, joy and hope, all wound up together in Eastertide washing over us over the next fifty days.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: Alternative Facts

I ran across an article yesterday that there is archaeological evidence that in the early Christian Church there were female priests. Female priest administering communion. Female priests depicted with raised hands offering benediction, blessings, or perhaps even the word of God. I was shocked because I hadn’t heard this story. I was convinced that this was breaking news only to discover that the article was almost four years old.

Four years that there have been discussions about the role women played in the early church. Four years in which I have been ordained and called to pastor and I had no idea the conversation was going on. How could I, a woman in ministry, have missed something so relevant to my own life experience and calling?

Because we hear what we want to hear. Researches have discovered that the power of stating something that is false, is just as powerful as stating something that is true because:

“Once formed,” the researchers observed dryly, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.”

Impression is just as powerful as Truth? Surely not! Doesn’t Truth win out?

Even after the evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,” the researchers noted. In this case, the failure was “particularly impressive,” since two data points would never have been enough information to generalize from.

The Stanford studies became famous. Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now. Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way?

Evidently not. We believe what we want to believe. We don’t research to determine if what we are saying or what we are passing along is Truth and once we leak these impressions, they’re hard to shake in our own minds and in the minds of the people we’re sharing with.

If there is a place where this happens again and again, it’s in communities of faith where reason is often placed on hold and making a leap of faith is encouraged, but when faith begins to be tainted with manipulation and coercion, when false impressions are giving with the purpose of oppression and silencing people, it is not faith. It is spiritual abuse.

It’s hard to swallow the truth that there are ministers and communities of faith who are interested not in the work of God, but in increasing their own wealth and their own power and their own prestige. But there are. It’s hard to swallow the truth that there are victims of spiritual abuse who have been told they aren’t good enough and shouldn’t trust themselves on purpose to ensure adherence to dogmatic teachings. But there are.

These are not alternative facts, but real people’s stories.

Perhaps churches wouldn’t be in decline if we were able to accept this Truth rather than clinging to impressions of what we want to be true, but I know some of you won’t believe this because you don’t believe study after study that reveals the churches are in fact in decline. This is what happens when the need to cling to impressions is stronger than the desire to search for Truth.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: Stealing Power

As we were watching Sing this weekend with our kids this weekend, we laughed as Mr. Moon climbed up and over to the neighboring building when his theater lost power in order to plug into the power from his neighbors. The scene reminded me of the beginning of one of my year’s of teaching. The school had undergone major HVAC renovations over the summer, which required a corner of the classroom to be dry walled to contain the new equipment.

In the case of my classroom, this eliminated the only working outlet in my classroom in which I was supposed to teach technology and plug in a laptop cart. The other outlet in my classroom was shorting out pencil sharpeners, so plugging in the laptop cart could have been disastrous. The solution became to procure a large surge protector with a long chord and to steal power from the connecting classroom. Not a good long term solution, but in the short-term, it solved the power issue.

The lectionary passage from John’s gospel this week talks about Jesus appearing to his disciples, but there’s something in the passage that I haven’t noticed before. Jesus breathes on his disciples, much like Creator God the creation account breathes into the dust and brings that dust to life.

20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20:20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 20:21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 20:22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 20:23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

The power of the divine breath giving new life to disciples paralyzed by fear. Re-creation with the divine breath.

As disciples of Christ, we have all ended up in times of fear of paralysis. Times when hiding behind a closed door seems like a much better option than going outside to see what has happened and what it means to walk in the aftermath of a loved one dying; what it means to walk in the realization of a terminal illness diagnosis; what it means to walk with a new identity that we never meant to receive, divorced, homeless, unemployed.

In those moments, we feel completely powerless. Our fear and uncertainty has sapped any reservoir of power we had saved up. In those moments, we can’t find an outlet that will give us the power we need to get up and go out. Again and again in communities of faith and in family units, I see people who are in the midst of crisis trying to sap the power from other people. They try to steal the power that others who have walked through difficult times have found by becoming co-dependent, by taking and taking and never giving anything back.

This is spiritual abuse.

Our power should not be stolen from other people. Although in the short-term it can solve our power issue, it’s not an effective long-term solution. You will have to move from person to person, community of faith to community of faith, sapping people and communities of their power until you are left alone. Our power to overcome our paralysis of uncertainty can only come from Creator God and the Risen Christ who have breathed the divine breath into our dustiness and our fear and transformed us into new creations.

I Need Maundy Thursday

This Wednesday during our weekly chapel service at Transitions, we observed Maundy Thursday. We washed hands and took communion with the youth of New Hope Christian Fellowship and as we fellowshipped, we remembered the night Jesus supped with his disciples and gave them instructions to remember. Last night we gathered at New Hope to observe Maundy Thursday with foot washing and communion and darkness.

This day that is so often skipped in the days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday has become important to me. I need Maundy Thursday. I need to know that those who walked closest with Jesus looked at him that night trying to understand what his was saying, but not able to understand. Because I too have these days of darkness where I hear the words of Jesus, but don’t know what they means. I need to hear the declarations that those who followed Jesus most closely would not deny him, knowing that in just hours, those words would prove untrue. Because I too declare I won’t deny that I have been called to follow as Jesus’ disciple and then deny that call. I need to hear the uncertainty and the confusion in the voice of the those who followed Jesus so closely on that night. Because I too find myself sitting in the midst of uncertainty and confusion.

I need this part of the story of what it means to be a follower of Christ. I need to be reminded that uncertainty about the future, doubt, and darkness are a part of what it means to follow after Christ. I need to be reminded that this journey asks me to be vulnerable and uncertain and yet to still follow, even when it’s in darkness.

5 Best Parenting Books of the Last 17 Months

Tomorrow, Ben will be 17 months! It’s hard to believe that we’ve been caring for this mini-human for 17 months swinging from days where it all feels natural and days where I am desperately scouring the internet and parenting section of the library to figure out what is going on.

Over the past 17 months I’ve read a lot of parenting books and thought I’d share my 5 favorites and why they struck a cord with us:

Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People: Moses and McCleneghan offer the theology that we as ministers and pastors don’t often think about: the theology of our homes. How do we initial create spaces of sanctuary in our homes as we do in our places of worship? How do we manage the balance between home and communities of faith? This was gifted to me by a fellow minister and still sits by my bedside table for reference.

Parenting Without Borders: I’ve written about the profound impact this book has had on me because of the way it brings me out of the American parenting culture and into a world of parenting. This reminds me of my experiences in Germany and that I want this part of my experience to filter into my life as a parent as it is so much a part of who I am. It also brings great perspective to the parenting wars that exist and how these are completely irrelevant in other cultures.

Simplicity Parenting: This book. It reminds me of all the reasons I am overwhelmed and overcome with the stuff that accumulates in our home, but this isn’t just about stuff, it’s also about the over scheduling and anxiety that we pass onto our children when we don’t allow them to just be kids. Kids are looking for safety and security, schedules and patterns, this creates strong, secure attachment that will follow them throughout life. It will challenge you to simplify the stuff in your life, both physical and social commitments for the sake of your children.

Unlatched: The Evolution of Breastfeeding and the Making of a Controversy: In the days and nights that breastfeeding was so overwhelming and I wondered if it really made a difference, this book brought me hope. This is a fascinating read about the benefits and importance of breastfeeding and the history of the “breast is best” debate in America. Great read.

Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: I have to thank a fellow mom from our story time group at the library for this suggestion! It is a great read in helping to understand where gender identity originates and small ways that you can work with your own kids to create an understanding of gender that includes all types of boys and girls.

Parenting is a team sport, we need each other sharing resources and sharing stories! Happy reading : )