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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.

Spiritual Abuse and Grief

I didn’t realize the disconnect until I heard a reflection from one of my friend’s about the experience of attending a funeral and having an altar call. An altar call is a common part of evangelical communities of faith that invites people attending to “get right with the Lord” to “rededicate their lives” or to “make a profession of faith” or more simply to join of a community of faith with a congregational polity.

All of these terms are insider terms, I’ve heard my whole life. It didn’t ever seem odd to me to have an altar call at a funeral because altar calls were as common a part of the worship experience as singing the Gloria Patri or the Doxology are to other communities of faith. These liturgical elements of worship don’t stand out when you are one of the insiders who is accustomed to them.

But when we change funerals to celebrations of life, which there is good reason both theologically and emotionally for doing, we also run the risk of confining grieving loved ones to an expected reaction to death. When we say, “well, at least he or she is in a better place” or the like, then we are saying that you, loved one of the departed shouldn’t be upset or sad because you wouldn’t really choose this existence over heaven, would you? Guilt and shame and anxiety heaped on top of grief.

This is spiritual abuse.

Instead of dictating how people should respond to the shocking reality that someone they loved isn’t here, what if instead, we opted to not shroud death and grief in canned theological responses and simply allowed people to grieve, whichever and whatever way they needed to grieve in that moment, in that day.

A key part of spiritual abuse is coercion to a set of expected behaviors. Grief is not expected or controlled nor should it be. One of the reason communities of faith are so full of spiritual abuse is our need for control, predictability, and order.

But what if God is found not in the predictability and order, but in the unpredictability chaos that is life and death. Perhaps this week more than any other week as we follow Jesus and his disciples to the cross, we would do well to feel the loss and chaos and grief the disciples and loved ones in Jesus’ life felt as he was crucified on the cross. What if instead of skipping over Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to get to Easter morning, we sat in the grief and confusion and chaos of death as so many in our communities of faith are.

Perhaps then we could sit with those who have felt grief and loss so deeply and actually minister to them rather than adding spiritual abuse to their lives in a time of vulnerability.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: You are inherently full of possibility

This week’s passage from Romans is particularly difficult for me. Hear now the word of the Lord from Paul’s letter to the Romans in chapter 8 beginning in verse 6.

The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

This idea of being in the world and not of the world is exactly what Paul is talking about here. When we concern ourselves with things of the flesh than we are concentrating on death because this physical flesh that we reside in will eventually die. We are dust and to dust we shall return

When we concentrate instead on things of the spirit than new life, resurrection, and transformation are possible. Now this does not mean that we shouldn’t tend to and care for our physical bodies for how can we do the work of the spirit if our flesh is not strong enough?

It took me a long time to realize that just like that dust and pollen in the Spring cling to our clothes and cars, so too did the dust of bad theology that taught me to believe that I was inherently bad, insufficient, and inadequate cling to my heart and soul.

Even after three years of theological training, three years of consistent preaching and ministry, only now can I read these words of Paul without guilt and shame overcoming me.

See because I had been taught to read this as an admonishment to overcome my flesh, my sinful nature, the guilt and shame of being sinful always came with this passage. What if instead of believing that we were inherently bad, we realized that at every moment we have the possibility of choosing for our flesh, our dust, or choosing the breath and spirit of God. Perhaps we are not inherently bad or sinful, but rather inherently full of possibility. If we realized this, then we would know that our bodies, our flesh is neither inherently good or inherently bad, but instead it is all about how is it is used. Your flesh in particular. The one God created with your unique passions and gifts.

This is what Paul was trying to remind the Romans of and what perhaps we need to be reminded of today: you are in the Spirit and the spirit dwells in you. You are in the Spirit and the spirit dwells in you.

When you remember this and you let this settle into your soul, then you realize what you can do. You can help those in need. You can become a woman pastor. You can lead a chapel service at the homeless shelter. You can bring the kingdom of God here on earth because you are in the Spirit and the Spirit dwells in you.

As I encounter people at Transitions each week in our chapel service and in communities of faith who have been reminded again and again of their dustiness rather than their spirit-filled possibility, I know that this message of hope is revolutionary. Just as it would have been in Paul’s time.

If we did the important work of not giving into the fleshly temptation to participate in a culture that degrades, devalues, and divides, but instead respected, valued, and welcomed people regardless of whether they agreed with us or not, then wow the things that could happen.

Indeed the kingdom of God could come here to earth.
I know it’s possible because you are in the Spirit and the spirit dwells in you. Just let the spirit of God reach out a fleshy hand to dust off the dustiness of bad theology, past hurt, and the belief that you’re not enough and let’s breathe new life and new hope into a world in desperate need of something different.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: The Power of Story

Today has been filled with community and fellowship and celebration as part of CBF SC 25th Anniversary General Assembly. I couldn’t help but be a bit overcome and overwhelmed by the stories of those who gathered together to help form BWIM SC and CBF SC.

Because it’s this power of story that helped me to uncover the spiritual abuse I experienced. It was meeting and hearing that there were baptists who gathered together and worshipped with women who preached and led worship and chaired committees that slowly opened my eyes to another whole world of possibility.

If there were communities of faith and baptist state and regional groups who gathered together and welcomed and affirmed women in ministry, then maybe this calling that had been wrestling within me trying to find its voice wasn’t something I had to keep telling to be quiet. Maybe I just needed to find a fellowship who worked in cooperation with us each other, who built each other up, challenged each other, and communed together.

And maybe the more we tell our stories, the more people we can help recover from spiritual abuse. Maybe the power of story is just like the power of the spoken word that brings light into the darkness and life from the depths.

Spiritual Abuse and Isolation from the Outside World

It isn’t a coincidence that your dentist, your doctor, and your even your hair stylist all went to your church. Part of communities of faith in which spiritual abuse occurs is the isolation from the outside world. This might be hard to uncover, especially if you weren’t living in a bunker like the women in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but minimizing exposure to the outside world is a facet of spiritual abuse.

It might occur in doctrine and teaching about the dangers and temptations of the outside world, other communities of faith, or even in other spiritual practices. By damning the outside world, other communities of faith, and other spiritual practices, there is a dependence on the true fellowship of believers that emerges. This fellowship and community is only available for those who adhere to the rules. If you find yourself as a back slider or having broke a cardinal rule, then you find yourself on the outside of the community. Ostracism is a practice that has been used political, socially, and religious in order to elicit unquestioned adherence to a certain set of beliefs and values. Sound familiar? This is spiritual abuse.

For those who go venture into the outside world, there is often discussions about what it would take to bring the individual back “into the fold,” or back into the unquestioned adherence. Guilt, shame, and anxiety are often used in trying to get the individual to return. This can take the form of a trusted friend saying, “You just aren’t yourself lately,” or “God has just told me that I really need to be praying for you,” or “I’m concerned about you. I just want God’s best for you.” These sentiments cause self-doubt, self-doubt that leads to the need for guidance, guidance that can only come from spiritual authorities, therefore maintaining and sustaining power in the hands of the powerful.

If this is your experience, please know that there are others on “the outside,” those of us who have wrestled and are journeying towards wholeness. You are not alone. You are not lost.

Perhaps in fact you are well on your way to finding your true self and your true calling. Thanks be to God for your courage and your perseverance.

The Role of Doubt in Spiritual Abuse

If you are wondering if you have experienced spiritual abuse and you find yourself in a cycle of uncertainty, this doubt may be an strong indication that you have indeed suffered spiritual abuse. Doubt plays an important role in spiritual abuse in that it makes the victims of spiritual abuse doubt themselves and doubt their strength. If you doubt yourself, then you need religious leaders who have authority over you to tell you who you are. If you doubt your ability to interpret scripture, then you need religious leaders to interpret scripture and tell you how it applies to your life. Doubt produces a co-dependence that sets the foundation for the coercion and manipulation of spiritual abuse. Doubt keeps power and authority in the hands of religious leaders.

It’s this doubt that I find the hardest to overcome because it has crept into my ability even to decide what I want for dinner. I get so overwhelmed and overly concerned about speaking my mind and making a decision that would impact others. This toiling in uncertainty and anxiety is a sign of spiritual abuse.

When we doubt our true self and our instincts, then our potential impact is diminished. It isn’s hard to understand what role this doubt, anxiety, and uncertainty plays in women. If communities of faith can focus spiritual abuse silencing and oppressing women, then the collective power and potential of women can be diminished and controlled. This is not a coincidence. This is spiritual abuse.

In order to overcome spiritual abuse, victims must wrestle with the doubt and anxiety of making a wrong decision or not being sure of themselves. It is essential that instead of weighing decisions based on what others will think about me or whether others will get upset with me, decisions are weighed against Truth and Light. Does this bring more Light and Truth? Does this bring more hope and healing?

It may seem misguided to think of making a decision about dinner in light of Truth and Light and hope and healing, but when we do, then we begin to understand that some decisions just aren’t worth the doubt and anxiety we choose to continue to wallow in because they just don’t matter on a greater and higher plain. Asking these questions, will release us from the spiraling of the inconsequential and invite us into higher and greater work. When we can release the doubt and anxiety that spiritual abuse has brought into our lives, we are free to be our true selves: children of God and children of Light transforming darkness into miraculous Creation.

Spiritual Abuse and Homelessness

Yesterday as we gathered for our weekly chapel service at Transitions Homeless Shelter, I was nervous.

We usually follow the lectionary and the passage this week was from John 9:

9:1 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.

9:2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

9:3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.

I knew from the conversations and prayer requests I had heard each week that there were many people who were gathered who had heard these common refrains from religious leaders and people about their situations. “You need to get up and get going. Find some work, whatever it is and just do it.” “You’ve made some bad decisions and this is where those decisions landed you.” “You have to work. You can’t be lazy. You have to work hard for the blessings God has for you.”

As I read the gospel passage, I just asked one question, “How many of you have been told you are where you are because you have sinned, which is what the disciples are assuming about the blind man that Jesus encounters.” Hands went up around the room and heads nodded.

Before even hearing their stories, people assume they know why these gathered at the homeless shelter had ended up homeless. Many of the people they encountered were Christians, disciples, just like the disciples in this story, who were repeating beliefs about how someone ends up homeless and the connection to sin.

Jesus said to the disciples and to those gathered yesterday for chapel, “Neither this man (or you!) nor his parents have sinned.”

When we assume people have sinned and as a result have ended up homeless, we relieve ourselves of the responsibility of analyzing the vast privilege and racial inequality that exists in our society. A society that benefits certain kinds of people and delivers devastating blows to others. This is spiritual abuse. It is using religion to alleviate the role we play in continuing privilege. This is not the gospel.

When we assume that the only thing people who are homeless need is to be saved, we miss the opportunity to see the rich and real faith that exists in the hearts and souls of people who are homeless. This is spiritual abuse. When we assume people aren’t saved because they are homeless, we are defining and restricting Christianity to a certain race and socioeconomic status. This is not the gospel.

Maybe Jesus asks his disciples to welcome the stranger in, to clothe those who are naked, and to give food to those who are hungry because when we do, we get to know people instead of labels, and we begin to understand that we are the very ones who have caused the stranger to be excluded, people to be naked, and people to be hungry. Maybe Jesus asks us to do unto the least of these as we would do unto him because then we would uncover the spiritual abuse that blinds us to our responsibility to bring the kingdom of God here on earth.

And maybe the disciples in the gospel lesson are asking the very questions we should be asking out loud, so that Jesus can teach us how our beliefs need to be challenged and examined.

 

On Writing and Speaking about Spiritual Abuse: Why Me?

I can remember the summer when a group of youth led a worship service at a small church and were told only the guys could be the ones who preached during the Sunday morning service. The reasoning was that the churches where we were going wouldn’t or didn’t support women preachers. I thought this might very well be true as a woman who preached was much different theological from a woman who led Bible study for kids, but still there was this question lodged within me, Did the church where we were going not support women as preachers or did the church who was sending us not support women as preachers? 

And as I wrestled with this question, I wondered as I often did, Why me? Why did it seem that these questions always came to my mind sinking deeply into my heart and soul causing me to wonder about whether all churches believe women couldn’t be preachers? Why was there just an inkling of doubt about the teaching and preaching I heard about the role of women? Why was there something within me that bucked the idea that my purpose in life was to make sure I didn’t get pregnant until I was married and then get pregnant without complications? Why me?

More than once I voiced my concerns to adults and was told, “Why do you feel like you need more? Why do you feel like you need to speak?” I answered honestly then as I do today, “I don’t know, except I feel called to preach and teach and ask questions.”

The doubt and fear that was instilled into me when I voiced these questions about the inequality that existed was spiritual abuse. It was a way to silence opposition and coerce obedience to a certain set of expectations. Obedience to this set of expectations maintained and kept power in the hands of the powerful decision makers. 

And I just wonder if perhaps I’m not the only one who found herself in the midst of communities of faith where something felt off, not quite right. I wonder if there were others, are others like me who are beginning to feel the unsettled realization that there is more to know and who indeed want to seek and find Truth.

Questions lead to a journey of discovery not only of who God truly is, but who you really are. As you find yourself in the midst of this journey, I hope what you will find is what I have found, my true self, the way my individual light and life can make a difference to those who are hurting. What I hope you find is the strength of a community of other people who have asked tough questions and have found Truth. When you do find your true self, the Divine, and Truth, peace and wholeness will envelope you in the light of love for yourself and others.

 

Why Spiritual Abuse is Difficult to Consider

I can remember where it started. I was sitting in the back of a classroom at Gardner-Webb School of Divinity. I was in my first year of seminary, and I was hanging tightly to the friendships I had made during orientation. We were far enough into the semester that we had gotten past our surface-level introductions. We had already seen each other break down in tears over midterms and in sharing our stories. We were now in the deep waters of walking this journey of answering a call together.

I remember hearing the term spiritual abuse as one of my classmates told her story. She told a story that sounded so similar to mine even though we grew up in different faith traditions, in different communities of faith, that I was speechless. This is what I had been told it meant to be a woman. This is what I was taught I could and couldn’t do, but surely I hadn’t experience spiritual abuse, had I?

If I started to consider that perhaps the theological teachings I had always believed were in fact being used to manipulate, coerce, and silence, then what? I couldn’t possible come out of this realization with a faith that was intact. I was in seminary for goodness sake, I couldn’t question to the point of having to reconstruct and analyze every teaching in just three years, could I?

But then I heard another story and another story. Woman after woman, man after man who were told they could or couldn’t do certain things because “people would leave the church,”  because “women weren’t called to do that,” because “it would cause a split the church,” because “that’s not the way things were done” over and over again church leaders using their power to control and maintain the status quo. Again and again passionate, gifted ministers being put into holding patterns being coerced into “waiting their turn.”

This is spiritual abuse.

Spiritual abuse results in power retention in those who already have power. There is a whole generation of young people who were raised in churches and communities of faith tainted by spiritual abuse whose voices, ideas, and, yes, spiritual gifts have been silenced. We need these voices in our communities of faith. We need these people to speak up and speak out about their experiences with spiritual abuse. We need these stories to come to light so that our communities of faith may become places of hope, healing, and wholeness rather than places of hurt, abuse, and brokenness.

This is not an easy journey.

It is not easy to consider whether we have experienced spiritual abuse. It is not easy to ask ourselves the tough question of whether our communities of faith are places wrought with spiritual abuse, but this is the confessional work the season of Lent calls us to do.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

When we leave our spiritual practices, protocol, and patterns unexamined, we leave room for spiritual abuse to occur over and over again. May this season of Lent be a time of reflection and analysis. May Almighty God give us strength on the journey.

How total depravity of humanity and biblical submission impact women

I stepped out last week to share my wrestlings with the theology of depravity of humanity and offered instead the suggestion that perhaps we were created inherently good. As I have thought and read about total depravity, I have found that this theology is often taught in connection with biblical submission or the idea that men and women were inherently created different, each having a unique role. This belief often manifests in the practice of not ordaining women as deacons, ministers, or allowing women to preach or teach men.

The impact of these two theologies combine to impact women drastically. Total depravity teaches women that they are inherently flawed. Biblical submission teaches women that they are inherently lesser than men and are restricted in what they can and can’t do. The compound effect of these two theologies is a vast number of women who believe, “I am not good. I am not enough.”

As a baptist woman in minister, I have found it doesn’t really matter if you grew up in a community of faith who taught total depravity or biblical submission because the impact of these two theologies have now made their way into our culture. The result is women who believe they are broken and that they have to try to be good enough. The manifestation of this constant attempt to try to live up to standards that are based on these theologies is to attack other women and remind them that they are not good nor enough.

If you aren’t sure this is true, ask a woman minister who has been the loudest and fiercest in objecting to her answering her call to ministry. I can almost guarantee you, her answer will be other women. I’ve heard this story over and over again.

The recent campaigns to stop mommy wars is a good and important step, but until we uncover the heart of the matter of where the need and desire to shame and guilt each other begins, these efforts will only cover the surface.

How about I start?

I not only believe that you are inherently good, I believe that you are enough. You as a woman are enough. You as a woman are inherently good.

I believe wholeheartedly that the true self that lies at your very heart is good and enough. I don’t believe you are lesser than. I don’t believe you are lacking, flawed, or stained. I believe at the very core of who you are resides the divine breath.

I believe that you are godly and good in the very essence of who you are, not because of what you do or don’t do.

I believe, we as women, have believed in theologies that keep power in the hands of the powerful and maintain hierarchies in religious institutions. And I believe, we as women, will be the ones who change this as soon as we start believing that we are good and we are enough.

You are inherently good.

For years, I believed in the depravity of humanity. In other words, because of what took place in the Garden of Eden involving Adam, Eve, and a serpent, the rest of humanity inherited a sinful nature. It was preached over and over again in churches, youth camps, and revival events. “Everyone must repent because all of us bear the mark of original sin.”

Even through my seminary years as we studied the theology of sin and the theology of good and evil, I couldn’t grasp a firm understanding of what it would mean to consider that perhaps humanity was not in fact inherently evil or sinful. I couldn’t fathom the possibility. It was too much for my theological framework to bear. I knew if I took that one block out and analyzed it, deciding whether it fit into my understanding of theological history and interpretation history the whole Jenga tower of my fragile theology would tumble.

I have always believed I was not good enough. Not that I was bad necessarily (even though the voice of religious authority in my life ensured me that even though I was saved, I was still sinful by nature), but there was always more I could be doing to gain favor with the Creator God. I believed that my role in this life was constantly try to make up for my sinful nature through any and every means possible, knowing all along that I was fighting an uphill battle I would never overcome.

In my studies as an educator, I believed strongly in the power of a strengths-based perspective rather than adhering to the deficit-perspective that the age of accountability and standardized testing was capitalizing on. Even though I had students who couldn’t read in my third grade class, I worked tirelessly to find some sort of written communication they understood whether that was a video game, a label on a t-shirt, or even their own name. And there was always some strength that could be built upon. That strength gave them confidence and courage to keep learning. 

What if the same were true of our faith? What if instead of reminding ourselves and our congregations of the sinful nature, of the depravity of human souls, we instead, for argument’s sake, consider the possibility that humanity is inherently good? What if it was the very divine breath that was breathed into our nostrils started a transformation in the Garden of Eden not towards evil, but towards good?

It’s taken me six years to even offer this as a possibility, but I am overwhelmed with evidence that suggests that perhaps this is in fact closer to our human nature than what Calvin suggested. In the midst of the 2015 flood relief, I saw people of a mobile home community who had been without potable water for one week desperate for survival, make sure that other people had water before they did. I saw them self-monitor making sure everyone got one case of water before ever taking another case for themselves.

I see this every week in our work at the homeless shelter. When stripped of power, position, and privilege something miraculous happens: community and fellowship. If there is one person who has a bag of cough drops, she shares it around the table making sure that everyone gets one, even if she doesn’t know if she will be able to buy another bag.

Perhaps it is the fear of losing our power, privilege, and position that reveals our insecurity about who we are and why we were created. In this uncertainty, we become disciples of the hierarchy and importance of our culture’s values: beauty, wealth, and comfort. We become such ardent believers that we disguise our very core nature. Perhaps it is in the best interest of our culture’s need to preach consumption that we are reminded again and again that we are not pretty enough, not wealthy enough, and not comfortable enough that we engage in transactions that make us witnesses to a gospel of the depravity of humanity. Perhaps this is not of God, but is of the gods of capitalism and consumption.

If we believe that inherently God’s creation is good as Creator God uttered after each day of creation in the Genesis 1 account, then we will treat each other differently. Instead of looking for flaws, we will look for each other’s strengths. Instead of distrusting intentions, we will believe in the goodness and the divineness that was breathed into our lungs to give us life. Instead of attacking each other with divisive words, we will instead choose to encourage. Instead of engaging in business and activities that bring about the kingdom of a culture of consumption, we will instead invest our time and resources into the subversive acts that uproot this culture and bring about the kingdom of God.

Maybe it just takes one voice crying in the wilderness:

You are good.

Creator God, said so, and so say I.