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Author: Merianna Harrelson

I am the Pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship and Director of Ministrieslab providing tools and resources to churches, clergy, and lay people to meet need. I am always looking for a good cup of coffee and a great book to read.

On Missions

Last week I took six youth, one college student, and one young professional down to Conway, SC for Youth Missions Week. I am not a youth minister, but when I found that 25% of my current congregation was youth, I knew there was something missing in the life and work of our church. We needed our youth to have meaningful experiences. We need our youth’s questions and wonderings. We needed to invest in mission experiences and devotion times and jumping in pools and getting caught in the rain. These are the experiences that help our youth understand what it means practically to live a life as a Christian.

And so we packed up three cars with suitcases, food, and crafts and headed to the coast not knowing exactly what we would encounter. We knew of the good work Palmetto Missionary Baptist Church was doing with Palmetto Kids. We knew that partnering was powerful and so we showed up with willing hearts and willing hands to help pitch in. As it turns out, the teachers and youth groups that Palmetto Missionary Baptist Church usually have come to help them in the summers weren’t able to come this year: the same year we felt called to partner with them in their work. Crazy how the Holy Spirit moves and works things together, isn’t it?

As we taught and played game and painted and crafted, we were overwhelmed by the connection we formed with the Palmetto Kids. How could that happen so quickly? How could we do more to help at risks students? Our work was tiring, but inspiring. The faces of those kids, the laughter, and tears as we worked and studied alongside each other is not something we will soon forget.

This is church.

A Seesaw of Awe

This week our summer officially started as we had all three children. We spent our late afternoons in the pool of a generous neighbor who let us come swim and take a reprieve from the summer heat. My heart began to fill in ways it hasn’t in our long Spring of not having all three kids together as I watched them laugh and splash and play together.

Before I left for the pool, I asked Sam if I could wear my Apple Watch in the pool because I had heard that it had been redesigned to be able to keep track of movement and exercise underwater. He assured me that I could and I was amazed to see a notification come in while my wrist was submerged underwater. How in the world could I be getting a signal underwater? I was even more amazed at the fact that I could swipe down to read the notification underwater. Wasn’t submerging electronics underwater once the death wish from which technology never returned? I don’t pretend to understand the innovation that is going on in the world of technology, AR, and VR, but I know there are people much smarter than I who are pushing the limits of what technology can do and the problems technology can solve. I have the same awe for these innovations as I did for the robots that would come by my fifth-grade classroom from the robotics teacher’s students down the hallway who just happened to become my husband.

And then I started reading the news about asylum-seeking families being separated at the border and for the second time in the week I was speechless with awe. This was not an awe of innovation, engineering, and imagination. This awe was a speechless, helpless awe. How can a people capable of designing a device that can be submerged underwater and receive text messages and notifications also be the same people capable of claiming that families seeking safety from violence, abuse, and abject poverty earn the right to be separated from their families?

I will not pretend to understand what asylum-seeking families have already undergone in order to decide to make the dangerous journey to a promise of a better life. There is no way I can possibly imagine the fear, uncertainty, and sheer terror of having to uproot your whole family, your kids, and your life with the hope (not the certainty) of starting something new. I cannot because of my privilege.

Our family has just a tiny taste of separation as we share our older kids, but this is in no way the same separation as what these asylum-seeking families are undergoing. We know our children are going to a safe place. We know that they will have food and they will go to school. We know where they are and yet still many times as we are saying goodbye the separation is unbearable. Just recently our 2.5 was clinging to his older sister begging her not to go and there was nothing I could say or do to make it better. At that moment, I felt so helpless to offer anything that would help except the promise, “We’ll see her again soon, buddy.” But these families don’t have that promise. But these asylum-seeking families can’t offer that promise. They don’t know when and if they will see their children again.

I’ve been pulled back and forth on this spectrum of the awe of our capacity as humans to create and innovate and with our capacity to separate and distance ourselves from the suffering of other people with explanations and reasonings that those people deserve the suffering they are experiencing. Here’s what I know is true: we together as humans are smart enough and innovative enough to do better. We are reducing our abilities and our capacities when we demean and belittle each other. We are creating more tension and strife when we staunchly insist on defending our worldview and perspective. There is no question that we can do better, the question is will we do better?

My hope is that we will.

Because we certainly don’t know when we will find ourselves in need of asylum, shelter, and safety with only hope to guide us.

Re-Rooting

I can remember clearly the first game we played. It was a network/web that was created through yarn tossed back and forth from person to person. We were a group of young clergy gathered together because of a generous Lily Grant and because of CBF Global’s mission to connect, encourage, and assist young clergy. In order to throw the yarn to someone, you had to find a connection to that person. I watched as the yarn went back and forth. These four people had been to a youth summer camp together. These three had been in seminary together. These two were serving college ministry in the same state.

I was the last one chosen.

I hadn’t been involved in CBF growing up. I was raised SBC with SBC roots running from both my mom and my dad’s side of the family. I was the only one from my seminary represented. I was the only senior pastor from my state. I was one of three bi-vocational ministers and one of only two female senoir pastors. I was in a whole new world. Still baptist, still connected, but for the first time I was an outsider.

This week both SBC and CBF will meet for their annual gatherings in the same city. Many people are watching and waiting to see whether the SBC will allow Patterson to preach to those gathered after his dismissal. CBF will gather for the first time after its momental decision to abandon the discrimentatory hiring policy against LGTBQ individuals. This is a historic week in baptist life.

I think back to those early days of ministry as I was coming to terms with my background of spiritual abuse. It was difficult to do the digging up of bad theology and to recognize the way spiritual abuse lingered in my own heart and mind. I didn’t feel at home in the SBC and I didn’t feel at home in the CBF because my bi-vocational life was so different than those who were called to full-time ministry positions. My lack of experience or relationships in the CBF maybe me feel even more like an outsider.

It’s taken me years to re-root myself. My fundamentalist, conservative baptist upbringing taught me to be certain of what I believed and that I was right in those beliefs while others were wrong or misguided or backsliding. I was convinced my sole purpose was to evangelize the world, even to those who called themselves Christians, but were not baptists. As I entered ministry, I was certain I was called, but my seminary education brought more questions rather than answers about biblical interpretation, interpretation history, and traditions in the church.

I don’t think you ever truly recover from spiritual abuse. I am pretty confident that I will always question and be sucipicous about hierarchy in the church, especially unquestioned, unchecked power in the senoir pastor position. I know that I will challenge and agitate to fight against systemic oppression, especially when biblical text is used to defend that oppression, but maybe these are my roots after all. Baptists have always challenged and agitated and fought for every single voice to be heard. Baptists have valued individual expressions of faith and personal relationships with Jesus Christ.

Maybe I have found my roots after all, right where they began, in historic baptist tradition.

Living in the Shadow of Those Women

I have been thinking a lot about the women in 1 Timothy, specifically the ones referenced in 1 Timothy 2:11-14:

11 Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. 12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

What provoked these strong words from the author of 1 Timothy? What happened  that the transforms this epistle from general teaching to specifics?

To be certain as a woman who was raised Southern Baptist I was taught these words. These were the expectations of God for me because of my gender and indeed these were the gender norms I was born into because of Eve’s transgressions. For twenty-five years, I bore the weight of these expectations and the reprussions of these women and even of Eve for no reason other than the fact that I was female.

I didn’t, however, hear a sermon preached about 1 Timothy 2:8:

I desire, then…

No, these words from the author of 1 Timothy were not his own, but were from God because of the apostleship claimed in the previouse verses and because all scripture was God-breathed. There was no question asked about why this would be the desire of the author nor any discussion about why this instruction was given so clearly in this text, but in another epistles, like Galatians, the claim is:

28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

I’ve wrestled with this passage because as I voiced a call to ministry as a baptist woman, I knew I was going to encounter resistance. I knew my call to preach and pastor would result in difficult conversations. What I didn’t know was that in being who I was created to be (not who other people told me I was created to be), I would be a theological crisis.

By answering a call to ministry, I tested the understanding and interpretation of scripture. I have been condemned to hell and judgement too many times to count (and these are the nicer reactions) and it all comes back to these women. The women addressed in 1 Timothy and the women addressed in 1 Corinthians 14. Epistles weren’t generally written to try and dictate theology, but rather were written for a specific occassion or purpose. Once I learned this about the epistle genre, I couldn’t help but wonder what in the world was going on with this women?

Was there an intense mommy war going on about whether women can work outside of the home or whether they should stay home with their children? Was there an intense debate about whether it was better to breastfeed your own child or make use of a wet nurse? Did one woman call another woman a bad name or God forbid say she had put on a little weight? Was it an outside conflict that had entered into the holy and sacred worship space? Or was it something more specific, like what kind of wine should be served at communion or whether wine or grape juice should be used or maybe who was in charge of the altar flowers that week? It had better have been something so very important because the ramifications of the argument or disagreement in the stark reprimand that women should be silent in these two communities of faith have been felt for over two thousand years.

It’s hard to believe these women could have that much influence.

Then again, if I think about my own journey, it has been women, not men, who have delivered the harshest, most soul-cruching blows in my search to answer my call to preach and pastor. It has been women who have told me how to dress (and not dress) in order to look more like a man in the pulpit. It has been women who have accused me of “just trying to make a name for myself.” It has been women who have told me that I was wasting my time seeking a theological education when I should be out serving the Lord. Not to mention the women who have told me that my heels were too high, my dress was too short, my pants were too tight, or that I needed a little more blush because I looked too pale.

Certainly, I have had wounds from men as well, especially religious male leaders, but these wounds haven’t been the hardest for me. The wounds from the women, the ones who I hoped would support and affirm me not just because we were women, but because they too have experienced the uphill battle for equality in our sociopolitical context. Thanks be to God I have found love and support and encouragement in some women, but the soul wounds  still aren’t healed.

Maybe the women to whom the author of 1 Timothy was writing and the women in Corinth didn’t know the precedent they were setting. Maybe they didn’t have any way of understanding the vast impact they could have on women 2000 years later, but we do.

We know the way that theological intpretation can turn into dogma and doctrine. We know the devastation that comes when we finally understand what is happening and voice our concern together only to have our united voice and concern rejected. We know the powerful way that women can unite against another woman even when it means supporting and affirming an abuser and a misogynist. We know because we are living in the sociopolitical and theological aftermath.

We know our power. We know that we have the power to unite or to divide. We know we have the power to harm or to destruct. We know we have the power and yet again and again we use it against each other rather than to create something new and beautiful.

I’ve held anger for these women addressed in 1 Timothy and in Corinth and indeed the women who delivered those soul-crushing blows to me as I pursued my call, but if I’m honest with myself, I’m thankful for these women because they have helped me realize just how powerful my voice can be.

May my voice be one of reconciliation and healing.

When Dreams Come True

I don’t know about you, but within me there are dreams and wishes that I hold close to my heart. Sometimes these dreams are never uttered and never spoken. Something about dreams feel fragile as if exposing them to light or to the spoken word would scare them off and make them disappear forever, never to be seen or heard from again. Something about dreams feels intensely personal. The revelation of dreams feels vulnerable and intimate in a way that is often uncomfortable. Dreams reveal the most passionate and the most intimate aspect of who you are and what centers and anchors your very being.

As a reader, there was one book that was so influential in my understanding of the written word that it has followed me throughout my life. I first encountered the author, Lois Lowry in my fifth grade English Language Arts class where we read Number the Stars. I can remember my draw to the way she told a story; a story of history, but through the eyes of a young girl. And then I happened upon The Giver in sixth grade. Our English Language Arts teacher was new and didn’t last but a couple of years in the school I went to, but the book I read during free reading has stayed with me for 21 years. The world Lowry created was so foreign and so familiar at the same time. It was my first taste of dystopian literature, which I have loved every since. The Giver was the first time I understood symbolism and figurative language. This unlocked an understanding within me that words were an invitation to new worlds, new understandings, and new adventures.

As a young college student learning to become a teacher, we were given the invitation to read The Giver again and I gladly took it seeing with new eyes the way the story could be an invitation to young readers and writers. We engaged in a heated debate about whether the characters at the end of the book survived or were lost to death or oblivion. As I taught, I read portions of this book as mini-lessons hoping and praying that one of my at-risk students could hear the invitation to imagine and dream about other worlds. Last year in a conversation with my friend, Elisabeth, she encouraged me to reach out to authors who had meant something in my life. I searched for an email address and composed a letter about the impact of the book Son on my life:

Just last year, I happened upon Son (how I had missed it, I’m not sure) as I was recovering from an emergency C-section that left me feeling out of place.

Your words have followed my journey in life and have opened my eyes to possibility and hope. I am now a pastor (something my community of faith would have never supported) and an independent publisher. Thank you for teaching me courage and bravery through your characters and helping me to see in full color.

And this response came:

Thank you so much for writing. Letters like yours remind me why I do what I do. Congratulations on your son and best wishes for the future. Lois Lowry

I had no idea if it was truly her response or an agent or social media manager, but it didn’t matter. I was awe-struck. A year later in the same month, Lois Lowry was scheduled to come to Columbia for a series of events highlighting the power of Storytelling. There was a Thursday night event and a Saturday morning family event. I went to both amazed and astounded to hear her voice in person. She recounted in her Thursday lecture about a series of emails she had with a young student, and I knew then she was the person who had responded to my email. The line was long on Thursday night and although I had brought my books to be signed, I didn’t wait in the line.

On Saturday morning. she spoke again and because we had missed the morning signing, the line was short to have books signed after she spoke. I took out my stack of books stuttering trying to explain how much each of them meant to me and how glad I was that she was still touring and speaking. My heart was beating quickly, my palms were sweaty. This is what happens when dreams comes true.

It would have been easy to explain all of this away. A series of unconnected events. Meeting an author isn’t all that uncommon. Having books inscribed and signed isn’t all that uncommon either. But meeting the author of the book that first introduced you to symbolism and whose book called Son you discovered only months after having your first child and then seeing your name in that author’s handwritten is something magical and mysterious.

But none of this would have happened had I not uttered aloud my dream: to hear and see Lois Lowry in person. A dream long held within, never hoping to see the light of day because she just doesn’t tour in the part of the country where I live very often and million other practical reasons that try to shadow the light that dreams coming true brings to the world.

Dreams coming true, our true selves being brought to the world, always whispers of connections much more mysterious and mighty than we, in our limited understanding, can comprehend. That’s why we must let these dreams flow forth from our hearts and our souls. We must risk letting these dreams out so that the magical mystery of hope can flow freely into our world.

Spiritual Abuse and Power and Position

This week, a statement made by Paige Patterson in 2000 has resurfaced. The reaction to his statement eighteen years later is much different than the initial reaction his statement received. This is a significant shift. It is enough shift that some people are calling for Paige Patterson to retire and move on. Patterson is known for his role in changing the direction of the Southern Baptist Convention and for his leadership at Southwestern Seminary. The expectation of men in Southern Baptist Culture that touts complimentarianism as the only option for male/female relationships, especially men who have risen to most powerful position, is to be respected and not questioned on matters of faith, marriage, and biblical interpretation.  Calling for Patterson’s retirement marks a shift in his following and unquestioned power that may indicate his influence is waning. When powerful people feel power slipping away from them, they often double down on their efforts to try to maintain control and their position. Patterson’s recent public statement seems to be just that.

Just as Patterson used his power to counsel the woman in his 2000 statement to stay with her husband even though she felt abused, so too is he using his power to say that those who are questioning and challenging his biblical interpretation are full of hate. This is spiritual abuse. When one sex or person is given unquestioned and unchallenged power to speak on behalf of God, sexual abuse, domestic abuse, and physical abuse are soon to follow. Even though Patterson claims to never have abused a woman, recent allegations over other powerful male pastors leave room for doubt. The #churchtoo movement has revealed again and again how powerful ministers use religion to abuse and coerce women.

Power and position are dangerous privilege. The allure of being listened to, respected, and followed is hard to shake, but when the lines of religious leadership and power blur, this is spiritual abuse. We have to free our understanding and interpretation from power and position because scripture and Jesus speak too often to power and position to overlook.

A Season of Abundance

For the last three days, I have been a part of the MEI Grant program in Decatur, GA. As we have talked about the financial burden of young clergy, the changing dynamics of the economy, and the outlook for the role of the church and the minister on the future, I have been overwhelmed with new hope and new vision. It is so easy in ministry to be tunnel vision. We move from one week to another, especially when high holy seasons are so close together. There is always so much to do. I haven’t met a minister who says, “I think I am doing everything I can for the church.” We all want to do more and be more.

Ministers also have the pull of their families and many times other vocations (in fact, 21% of ministers, yes full-time ministers, have another job). This is not unusual to the current state of what it means to work in America, but the role of the minister is different. Whether you are full-time or bi-vocational, the ministry is a distinct profession because you are never “off.” There is no such thing as a part-time minister because of the great weight of walking people through the unexpected and predictable in order to encounter and experience the Divine. There is a reason why burnout among ministers remains so high in the first five years, not to mention that most ministers are in worse health than their congregations. Ministry is an isolated and often isolating call.

And yet it remains essential to the life and work of people and indeed to our country. While ministers carry the weight of being the presence of God through the good and bad, so too do we bear the weight of holding onto hope and holding onto to light in the midst of our current sociopolitical context. We are the ones people turn to in times of darkness and hopelessness. We are the ones offering the invitation to encounter the miraculous, transformative power of the resurrected Christ.

This time to be with other ministers who are working as hard as they can to offer this light and hope into the world has been refreshing and renewing. A certain and definite reminder that we as ministers are not alone that there is a rich abundance in fellowshipping together, learning together, and growing together during this Eastertide season of abundance.

Burning Low

As we gathered together yesterday for our BWIM SC Vespers service and to celebrate CBF SC General Assembly, I wondered if the other ministers gathered were burning low. Advent and Lent were very close together this year. Easter was early and it was one of the worst flu seasons in years. My colleagues were visiting people in the hospital, tending to children with the flu, and battling the flu themselves.  And as the Spring chilly air brought in the season of Eastertide, I wondered if my colleagues breathed a deep breath as well.

As I watched these candles drip and burn throughout the service, I thought about the demainds of high holy season calling ministers to offer hope and light and love over and over again. I realized the nearness of these two high holy seasons that left almost no time to rekindle between before the next one started had burned me low. The evidence of the Spirit in the swaying of the flame hadn’t left. The light of hope and love hadn’t left, but I felt myself fading.

And while I complained about the contraints of my physical body lamenting the fact that I caught the cold and coughing right before Easter Sunday instead of right after Easter, I realized how much I take for granted. I pride myself on my energy and my health rather than expressig gratitude to Creator God these privileges and blessigs. And perhaps this minister, five years into ministry, needed the reminder that my strength, my energy is not my own, but only through Christ Jesus and the resurrection.

May the God of hope and light rekindle you in the assurance that new life and indeed new strength can be found in Eastertide.

Spiritual Abuse and Hidden Lives

When I heard about the resignation the president and Chief Executive of the SBC’s Executive Committee, my atenea went up. Even before the story of the “inappropriate relationship” came out, I wondered if there was another story, a hidden story, that hadn’t been shared before. Many would claim that the #metoo movement has been a reckoning for white, males who have enough power and privilege to keep silent the women who they have abused, harrassed, and mistreated. Decades of stories are coming to the surface raising the question, what is the real story of how our society operates?

As these stories arise, the question of why the evangelical support of the president who has been accused of multiple accounts of sexual harrassment hasn’t wavered is becoming clearer. It’s because many of these evagenical leaders share the hidden life of sexual harassment and “inappropriate relationships” with our president shares. These leaders, like our president, hope that enough power and enough money can keep these stories hidden and out of the public eye. But these leaders, like our president are realizing their power is waning. They are losing the ability to keep up their public personas while keeping hidden the ways they have exploited and oppressed women behind closed doors. Keeping these stories silent while preaching and proclaiming the word of God and calling others to repentenace is spiritual abuse.

As a country, we reflect on the assassinaiton of MLK, Jr. fifty years later and we have to wonder what is the hidden life of our country? A country that would extinguish a voice of challenge and change at such a young age. A country that has decades of stories of abuse and harrassement rising to the surface. A country that has in its very foundation racism and sexism. We must learn to confront these difficult truths within ourselves and within our country if we have any hope of rebuilding.

Eastertide offers us the time in the church calendar to contemplate what resurrection and new life mean, but we will never get to the new life if we don’t first die to the selves that seek power and privlege and self-promotion at the expense of other individuals.

Whispers of the Divine

Have you ever been in a meeting talking about someone only to have them walk into the same place where you are sitting?

Have you watched a rose bush bloom for the first time this season just as Holy Week?

Have you walked into a store and heard one of your favorite songs just beginning?

Have you searched high and low for your car keys in the midst of Holy Week only to be met with a mischievous toddler grin?

Have you seen the sun and moon clearly at the same time hanging in the sky?

Have you seen two rescue pups unrelated, but raised as brothers, snuggle so it’s difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends?

Have you smelled the aroma of dinner wafting through the air?

Whispers of the Divine, calling, “Come and follow me.”