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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.

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.”

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

Holy Week has always reminded me of the best and the worst that resides within me. To walk this road is to walk through the agony of realizing all the ways we could be better to each other and all the ways we could use our talents to cause good. But like the disciples, the closer we get to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday the more we are overcome by our fears.

I lived in fear for a long time. Fear of voicing a call to preach. Fear of finding a place to pastor. Fear of being myself. It’s a terrible place to live full of restless existence and dark nights of the soul.

My biggest fear as a pastor has been to make any kind of political statement. To be sure, my sermons and teachings include calls to help those who are helpless and comfort those who are grieving, but never a statement about the state of our democracy or a statement about political candidates or their views. The discussion and debates are too divisive and too dehumanizing that I haven’t even wanted to wade into the water.

This year I’ve commiteed to speaking to power and privilge in a more conscientious way because the more I have researched and the more I have come to understand, the more I am certain that we are not living in a democracy. We are not a country established and run by the people and for the people. We have become a country dictated by unchecked power and unchallenged privilege. We are not living in a democracy. We are living in a meritocracy.

In this country, children are starving and dying at schools and at churches. This is not a country for the people of the people. This is a country controlled and abused by those in power and those in privilege who are sacrificing themsleves and indeed our children to the god of greed.

And so I must speak up and speak out about systemic abuses of power and privilege.

“I’m disappointed in Sen. Graham’s sponsorship of the CRA, especially as he knows how many people in South Carolina are caught in the payday lending debt-trap. The negative impacts of payday lending have multiple consequences: local businesses have been forced to close, individuals are struggling with depression from financial stress and families have broken up as a result of these unjust products. We desperately need stricter regulations and voices from South Carolina standing up for our families.” Rev. Merianna Harrelson, Pastor New Hope
Christian Fellowship.

South Carolinian Leaders Oppose Repeal of Payday Rule

It’s time for us to be a country for the people and of the people again.

Robing Up

I didn’t grow up in a baptist tradition where the ministers robed. I knew it was a part of other faith traditions. I knew there was a rich history of why clergy robed and that it was a way to distinguish the person as a person who was not only trustworthy, but also a servant to people and communities. It was also a way that the pastor or minister recognizes that his or her life is dedicated not to individual gain, but to peace and healing in the world.

In my current minsitry context, I robe during high holy seasons and on high holy days. Being back in the routine of robing has been a minute of respite between the Sunday School hour and our time of worship. It is a moment of reflection: Are the words I am about to utter my own or God’s word for God’s people? Am I offering peace and healing? Am I following after Christ as I am asking these people to do?

This week my robe has been on the go as I preached at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary and then at New Hope to celebrate Palm Sunday. As most things that are in my car (also known as the Great Abyss by my husband), my robe has been moved from the front seat to the backseat and back again. On Friday afternoon as we drove to Asheville, it ended up next to the car seat where Ben found it useful as a blanket during his car nap.

I looked at him and thought about the children and teens marching during the March for Our Lives rally. I thought about what a different world he was born into than I was. I couldn’t keep the tears from streaming down my face. I wish his reality didn’t include school shootings at elementary schools and a high schools and music festivals and bombs mailed in packages. I wish his reality didn’t include lock down drills and assault weapons. I wish with all my heart that there was something as a mother I could cover him with that would keep him and all other children safe so that they could not only grow, but thrive.

It is the same feeling of helplessness I felt as a teacher in high poverty schools. The same feeling that overwhelmed me as I discovered that some of my students didn’t have homes, some of them didn’t have beds, and many of them didn’t know whether they were going to have food for dinner or not.

As Holy Week begins, I wonder if just maybe there is something for us in the cries of these children and students and indeed in a toddler reaching for a ministerial robe as a blanket. Perhaps instead of demanding that our voice is heard and that our opinions are law, we should instead shift our concentration to covering our children with care and love and most of all safety. Maybe we should stop talking, stop debating, stop assuming, and just listen and repsond to their needs before our own.

Lord, listen to your chidren praying. Lord, send your spirit in this place. Lord, listen to your children praying. Give us love, give us power, give us grace.

Spiritual Abuse and Justification

The question of how prominent evangelical leaders can continue to support a president whose morality and ethics are questionable is perplexing. How can the same people who questioned Obama’s religious beliefs and berated Clinton’s infidelity defend and justify our current president again and again?

Loyalty to Trump has involved progressively more difficult, self-abasing demands. And there appears to be no limit to what some evangelical leaders will endure. Figures such as Falwell and Franklin Graham followed Trump’s lead in supporting Judge Roy Moore in the December Senate election in Alabama. These are religious leaders who have spent their entire adult lives bemoaning cultural and moral decay. Yet they publicly backed a candidate who was repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct, including with a 14-year-old girl.

The simple answer is that the president finds himself affiliated with the right party and evangelical leaders will back this president because he represents the party they want in power in Congress and in the White House. The acrobatics they must engage in order to justify and continue to support him are merely exercises in ensuring power is kept in their own political party. To address the merit and inaccuracies of their theological reasoning in their support of the president is to threaten their power. These discussions whether in person or on a Facebook comment thread quickly deteriorate into naming-calling, debasing, and dehumanizing rhetoric.

This is not surprising or shocking to me as someone who grew up with these language patterns. In fact, I too default to this type of rhetoric when at levels of stress or uncertainty. The only goal is to be right regardless of the hurt or pain caused in the quest to be right. Ryan Stollar notes:

Fundamentalism is an obsession with getting ideology right, rather than a dedication to doing right by people.

This issue-first rather than people-first religion doesn’t allow evangelicals to admit they were wrong or misguided in their justification and support of our current president. To make such an admission, would be to admit that they had misheard God or misinterpreted the idea that “God used Pharoah and God can use anyone.” The whole basis of fundamentalism is to protect and defend the “right” ideology and so no matter what is revealed about this president, the connection with Russia, or the abuse towards women or foreigners, the voice of the white evangelical right will remain in support of this president. It has to in order to prevent an unwarranted theological crisis and a threat to the evangelical, political power.

Those who bravely call out evangelical leaders who support the president find themselves an outsider to a community and people who once respected their voice and insight. This threat of exclusion is so strong that it causes people to recant and repent in order to be welcomed back into the fold:

A day after a Religion News Service interview portrayed retired pastor and author Eugene Peterson as shifting to endorse same-sex marriage, the evangelical leader retracted his comment and upheld the traditional Christian stance instead. “To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything,” he said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

This is spiritual abuse at its most powerful.

Spiritual abuse threatens and excludes in order to keep power in the hands of the powerful. But spiritual abuse must also have a theological basis in order to withstand criticism of seeking power. The theological basis for defending our current political state and president is justification or “an acquittal of guilt.” And this is what evangelical leaders have provided for the president: justification for past cases of infidelety, sexual harrassment, and abuse; justification for language they would not approve of from their congregants; justification for debasing and dehumanizing attacks via social media. This justification will continue along with the spiritual abuse that defends it because evangelical leaders are concerned about losing political power and favor.

There is no defense against this type of theology. Those who engage in debating or disarming this theology will find themselves excluded and debased. Instead, what we who are concerned and weighted down by our current state must do is invite those who are questioning and wondering into sanctuaries where they can challenge the theology and rhetoric they have been taught. We must be compassionate and kind rather than belittling and accusatory. We must not name call. We must not call those who have been raised in these communities ignorant. We must be radical in our hospitality of inclusion. We must extend table fellowship full of grace even to those who might later betray us.

This is the work of hope and healing and indeed the work of Christ Jesus who offered new life to all people.

Accidental Resurrection

Three years ago during the Lenten Season, I felt such strong compassion for a bush in our yard that was being strangled by weeds. I could tell the weeds had so entangled this bush that the weed was literally taking the life from the bush. There were no blooms on the bush, but only dead limbs. I decided part of my Lenten practice was going to be to free that bush from the weed that was strangling it.

I am not a gardener. I do not have a green thumb, but I was determined. The weed was thorny and hardy. It didn’t come away from the bush easily. It put up a fight. In fact, it took me two sessions and numerous pricks in this bed to extract the weed from the bush. I watered this bush wanting so much for it to bloom. But it didn’t. I could see that there was life in the limbs again in the hints of green, but there were no blooms. The following Springs were the same, no blooms, but small pieces of evidence of life and growth.

I was disappointed. There were no Easter blooms. There were no butterflies that Spring to come to the butterfly bush. I was even more disappointed when I found out that what I had actually helped to resurrect wasn’t a butterfly bush at all, but rather a Bradford Pear tree that had been struck by lightning years ago. The tree had been removed, but the stump and roots remained.

My sweat and toil had accidentally resurrected a tree, not a bush. See I told you,  I am not a gardener. This accidental resurrection has been a running joke between me and Sam and the congregations I have pastored of my lack of gardening ability.

Yesterday as I pulled into the driveway, my breath caught. I spotted this white bloom. One bloom next to the rose bush we planted for our one year wedding anniversary. One bloom in the midst of a rainy and dreary day. One bloom after three years of no blooms. One bloom of hope in the midst of the darkness and wilderness of Lent.

For me, this is the picture of my own journey to weed out the effects of spiritual abuse in my life. The spiritual abuse that almost strangled me. The spiritual abuse that made me doubt who I am and my own worth. The spiritual abuse that threatened to overtake me. It’s been a long painful journey, but that one bloom is the perfect picture of the journey. I never thought I would be where I am, just as I never thought I was helping out a tree. What I’ve found on this journey of healing and wholeness is that my roots are strong. There is still life and hope. Resurrection does indeed come accidentally in the most unexpected and surprising ways.

Ashes to Ashes

Last week was full to the brim with responsibilities from all the different things I do for “work”: pastor, freelance writer, publisher, and part-time employee at Lutheran Seminary. It doesn’t usually happen like this. Usually the different vocations don’t collide into each other, but this week they did.

Thankfully, I had help from my incredible family who left me notes to remind me where in my office I had left the ashes on Sunday so that I would be able to find them again for our Ash Wednesday service. These little hints of connection reminding me that the work isn’t only our work. It is the work of a community and a family. It is the work of gathering together to emabrk on a journey of darkness hoping for the light of revelation and deeper connection to Creator God and to each other.

And in the midst of this reminder of darkness, I was invited to partner with Koinonia to draft a grant for their summer enrichment program. I had to brush off my old teaching and literacy teacher books. I had to gather data and analyze data, something I haven’t done for 10 years. As I sat at my computer, I thought about the way the experiences we have matter and come back around in truly miraculous ways. When I left the teaching profession to answer a call to pastor, I was heartbroken that I had wasted time and money pursuing a career I wasn’t going to end up in. I should have started sooner I told myself. I should have been a religion major in undergraduate. I should have…

But last week reminded me that when you answer a call to follow after God, nothing is wasted. No experience. No expertise. These ways in which we are unique and individualized make it possible to partner together to bring the kingdom of God here on earth in all sorts of communities and all sorts of articulations.

You are dust and to dust you shall return.

Lent reminds us of the fleeting nature of these physical bodies. We can spend that existence in “should have’s” or we can accept that God is calling us to deeper connection to each other and to Creator God. If we choose the latter, dust miraculously turns to life and hope and light in our work, in our vocation, in our families, and in everything we do. Let us walk into the darkness, not in fear, but in hope that we meet Almighty God calling us and inviting us to work to bring the kingdom of God here on earth.

Spiritual Abuse and Asking for Help

The people and stories I encounter in my ministry are not always easy ones to hear. They are weighty with pain and hurt. In these stories, there is almost always a point at which the person reached out to a religious leader asking for help and guidance.

A woman whose husband was physically abusing her was told that she needed to stick with the marriage because “God hates divorce.”

A woman who was being consistently being sexually harassed at church was told, “he is a good man and a servant of God. Your job is to submit to your husband.”

A woman was struggling with depression and wanted a recommendation for a therapist or a psychiatrist was told, “God is strong enough. You just need to pray more.”

Again and again, people reach out for help only to be told, there is no help. The dogmatic teaching doesn’t allow for divorce, victims speaking up, or needing help outside of the religious community. And instead of offering wholeness and freedom, the community of faith offers more hurt, more pain, and more isolation.

If you know that you know that you that you know that you are spending eternity in heaven then what you experience here on earth doesn’t matter all that much. If you have the peace that surpasses all understanding then you can overcome anything that you encounter.

This is spiritual abuse.

When we cling so tightly to doctrine over the people who are sitting before us bearing their souls, we are missing the gospel message. The gospel is not about continued and consistent hurt and brokenness. The gospel is about freedom and wholeness. This is why the Divine came to earth to offer new life.

When we focus so heavily on eschatological destinations, we miss out on living and being here on earth. We miss being in community with others who breathe the same Divine breath that we do. We miss out on seeing the miraculous transformative power of the Divine here among us working, changing, and offering hope to people desperately asking for help, asking to be seen, asking to be heard.

May our eyes be opened to see those who surround us and hear their needs, rather than explaining those needs away with an easy dogmatic answer.