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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.

Spiritual Abuse and Mental Illness

Sunday’s lectionary gospel passage was from Mark 1:21-28.

1:21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 1:22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 1:23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 1:24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 1:25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 1:26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 1:27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 1:28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

It’s important for us to spend some time discussing and reflecting on this passage because we are not comfortable with the idea that there are unclean spirits or evil spirits that not only could change our lives emotionally and mentally but could cause us to physically convulse, are we? This is not a term or situation we are familiar with, but it is something that we confront and encounter as we read the gospel accounts of Jesus and his ministry. Modern interpretations lean towards the understanding that someone with unclean spirits would be the equivalent today to someone who struggles with mental illness or perhaps some sort of physical disability that cannot be overcome with mere focus and attention but needs a miraculous healer like Jesus.

In too many cases, this interpretation has become dangerous because pastors and teachers will tell people who struggle with mental or physical illness that they just need to pray and ask God for healing and not pursue any kind of medication or therapy offered by science. The Healer can heal everything and no matter what kind of mental illness or mental health issues you struggle with, you just have to pray more and believe more and you will be healed 

This is spiritual abuse.

For 15 months I led a weekly chapel service at Transitions Homeless Shelter. The number of people who I encountered who were struggling with mental illness was astounding. I have to admit that my encounters to people with mental illness up to this point have mostly been with people who have done the good and important work of recognizing the struggle they have, naming that and seeking good and whole care from experts. This was not the case at Transitions. I encountered people who were struggling desperately for their lives and their souls. I encountered people who didn’t have the money to fill their prescriptions, didn’t have the healthcare options to seek help, and people who had completely given up. I encountered these people at Transitions because that’s exactly what happens to people who have struggles we don’t understand. They end up on the outskirts of society, away from the public eye, and apart from our awareness. This was true in Jesus’ day and time as well.

And in limiting our understanding of those who are in need of Jesus’ healing and hope, we are not creating sanctuary in our communities of faith. Instead we are creating a place where we our assumptions are reinforced and where people have to come put together rather than their real and broken selves.

This is spiritual abuse.

Jesus welcomed all. Jesus did not shy away from the man with the unclean spirit. Jesus spoke to the man with the unclean spirit. Jesus healed the man with the unclean spirit.

What are we going to do as we have come into contact with the gospel truth that Jesus Christ has the power to call our unclean spirits? What are we going to do with this account of someone who is so vulnerable and in need? Are we going to keep studying and learning more about the power of Creator God in the form of a human or are we going to continue to engage in spiritual abuse that shames and blames people who are struggling with mental illness. People struggling for survival. Children of God who are desperately searching for hope and healing. 

The choice is up to you.

Unexpected Turns

Last week, I found myself back in the classroom after two and a half years. Part of my position at Lutheran was to process applications for the Spiritual Direction Certification Program: a program and certification I had never heard of. Spiritual Direction has been a part of the Catholic tradition as well as central to Eastern faith traditions. While there are similarities between these faith traditions, “Christian spiritual direction is help given by one believer to another that enables the latter to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow intimacy with this God and to live out the consequences of the relationship.” (The Practice of Spiritual Direction, William A. Barry &William J. Connolly)

The more I learned about the certification program, the more drawn I was to the idea that one could train to help people to hear and find God’s voice in his or her own life. In a world that is so full of words and noise, there is great confusion. We can’t tell the difference between God’s voice and the voices of power and privilege. We can’t tell the difference between God’s voice and the voices of greed and oppression. We can’t tell the difference between God’s voice and the voices of religious leaders who misuse and abuse their positions of leadership.

Our listening skills have been overshadowed by our quick responses and heated defenses. We speak over people wanting only to be heard, rather than to hear. In our desire to be heard, we miss the opportunity to commune with Creator God who has always been willing to listen and converse with us. We seek affirmation from likes and comments and retweets because we can’t hear God whispering around us, inviting us to something deeper and more meaningful.

Perhaps what we’ve been desperately striving for is alive and well in listening and responding to the Divine at work among us. Emmanuel, God is with us, if we but open our hearts and minds.

Spiritual Abuse and The Fear of the Outsider

I can remember distinctly the Sunday School lesson in which we talked about Catholics. Their church across the street was expanding and it provided a natural topic of conversation, but that conversation wasn’t one of excitement or shared enthusiasm for their community of faith growing. Instead, it was a conversation of wariness with a clear message: they were outsiders.

The prevalence of this belief in my upbringing made it confusing when someone pointed out that Catholics weren’t, in fact, another faith. They were actually more similar to Christian beliefs than many other faith traditions. I was confused even further when this person explained gently that other denominations were also not other faiths, but just different articulations of Protestantism.

Focusing on the similarities between our community of faith and other communities of faith would confuse the message that we were believers and everyone else needed to be converted to our faith, the one true faith. The fear of the outsider was palpable.

The outsider posed an untamable and uncontrollable influence. The outsider brought questions and challenges to the strict dogma that was taught. The outsider invoked compassion and partnership to solve problems like poverty and hunger and homelessness. The outsider inherently challenged the power and hierarchy that existed.

And so the focus on the outsider was one of evangelism, friendship with the hope of conversion. A conversion which would lead to membership only when this former outsider expressed belief in the dogmatic teachings. Infant baptism would not be accepted; only full immersion believer’s baptism. Homosexuality would not be condoned. Divorce would be strongly be counseled against in any and all cases.

The outsider was welcome as long as the outsider looked, spoke, and acted like an insider. This is spiritual abuse because it reduces humans to numbers. It allows all traces of inequality both economically and racially a simple theological bandaid: “They are in that situation because they are not true believers.” It keeps wealth and power and prestige in the hands of the elite and it teachers disciples of Christ to turn a blind eye to those in need unless they first are converted.

This is spiritual abuse and it has infected our society, our governing bodies, and our churches.

Spiritual Abuse and Standing Ovations

I didn’t realize it was strange to some Christians to clap in the middle of a worship service until I was twenty. Clapping was an expression of gratitude common in worship services I attended as a child, especially at Christmas and Easter. I always understood the clapping to be a sign of gratitude for the experience, but in the churches, I visited there was a quiet reverence during worship. An awe and wonder signified not by more noise, but by silence and solitude. Worship wasn’t about anyone who led the service or led the music. Worship was about encountering Creator God who breathed life into humanity and wondering how on earth that could have happened.

This week, a Memphis megachurch pastor admitted to having being involved in sexually with a minor. His congregation responded with a standing ovation. Their response didn’t surprise me. I have stood clapping more than once in church and during worship. But something about this story didn’t sit right with me. While I admire this pastor’s admission in front of a crowd of people, there is something missing. Calling this a “sexual incident” rather than sexual misconduct against a minor, alleviates the legal ramifications of this pastor admitting to having committed a felony. This change of language was not an accident. This was spiritual abuse.

Admitting to something without accepting the full ramifications and consequences isn’t something we should be modeling as ministers. Instead, this partial admission exerts the power and privilege that he as the pastor of a megachurch holds. He holds the attention of thousands of people. He holds the respect of thousands of people and what he has done with that attention and respect is used it to make himself feel better about committing a crime.

This is the spiritual abuse that plagues our society making congregations feel as if they are the judge and juror of pastors’, polticians’, and president’s misconduct rather than our legal system and rather than God. If there are enough likes, if there is enough clapping, if there is a standing ovation than the wrong and hurt and pain that has been committed is ok.

It is never ok for anyone to harm a child, no matter the position, no matter the power, no matter the number of people they influence. It is never ok for a person in power to seek justification from an audience without submitting themselves to the legal process that governs our country.

This situation is an accurate picture of the country and culture we live in. We applaud spiritual abuse and people using their power and privilege to avoid the legal system because we believe we are the ones who know whether someone is good or bad and whether an act is right or wrong.

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise but as wise…

We’re quick to like and love and retweet. We’re quick to applaud when we are entertained and offer standing ovations when something surprises us. This is what our consumerist culture has taught us. This is what has infiltrated our communities of faith.

It’s up to us to learn the difference between living for applause and living for God.

 

Where I Come From

This December, I have been immersing myself in local authors. Most of these authors have written and recorded what it was like to grow up in a mill village. I didn’t know my hometown was so centered around mill life until I started working as a second-grade teacher. My principal took the time to take all new employees through the apartment complexes and neighborhoods where our students lived.

I remember when he drove through the mill village and how all the houses looked the same. He told us that since the mill closed down 5 years prior, the demographics changed from 80% white and 20% African Amerian and Hispanic to 80% African American and Hispanic to 20% white. He also explained that because the mill owners moved out from the area, the mill village became low-income housing, owned by someone outside of the state and very rarely maintained. In other parts of the city, mills were being renovated to office buildings or restaurants or commercial buildings, but in this part of the city, there was no renovation planned.

It matters where we came from both in our family history and in the culture and heritage of the place we reside.

Here are the stories I read:

Read about where you came from. Learn about the stories your city, your family and you are built upon.

Running Into the Light

This morning was only my second run in my new shoes, so there was certainly some discomfort. Running in new shoes always reminds me of how out of sorts I have been. It reminds me that rather than tuning into the aches and pains that had been accumulating, I have kept running unwilling to stop and pay attention.

And maybe that’s what happens to most of us in the midst of the holiday season. We keep running not really sure when the running will stop, but knowing we have to move on to the next present to wrap, the next meal to cook, the next family to visit. Eventually, you can’t keep up. Either your body hits you with a cold or the flu or someone in your family collapses in fatigue because the pace is too fast and too much.

Too fast and too much: a good description of our American culture. A palpable force that surrounds us and impacts the way we see the world. A force that drives us to buy more, consumer more, and want more.

Maybe 2018 was supposed to be the year you slowed down, the year you ran more and already you are overwhelmed with your failure because of the lack of time and the amount of catch you’ve had to do from the holiday break. That’s been me, but this morning I put on my new running shoes, knowing it was going to hurt and I ran into the rising sun, basking in the revelation that God is with us. Emmanuel.

Holding Onto Advent

This is the longest I can remember our having our Christmas decorations up. Because our celebrations and traditions center around sharing kids, there have been many years where we haven’t gotten our Christmas tree until the second or third week of December. This year we went to get our tree the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  This morning, the Christmas tree is still lit as we await Epiphany.

There’s something magical and mystical about celebrating and studying peace, hope, joy, love and the arrival of the Christ Child and then holding onto each of those until Epiphany. It’s something that we often miss in our haste to celebrate a new year and get things back in order after our Christmas celebrations.

This time invites us to include peace, hope, love, joy and Christ into our lives in the quietness and the stillness. This time invites us to wonder and question what including these things into our lives year-round would really mean.  It’s a time as a Baptist who didn’t celebrate the Christian year that I’ve missed most of my life, and one I hold dearly to now.

May the Christ Child continue to fill us with wonder and awe as we draw near to Epiphany.

The Best Books I Read in 2017

For the last two years, I have participated in the reading challenge on Goodreads. I’ve challenged myself to read 50 books. In 2016, I read 23. In 2017, I read 34. And this year, I’ll also challenge myself to read 50 books. It’s good to recognize that sometimes challenges take longer than a year to achieve.

Here’s the list of the books I read. 

While I recommend almost everything I read this year, I wanted to think about the five books I read this year that most impacted me and why. Books change us and challenge us to see the world and our own realitites differently. These five surely did.

  • I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) by Brene Brown
    • I’ve read a lot of Brene Brown, but this is my alltime favorite. This book describes the inner struggle we have as we wrestle oursevles into the people who can make a difference in the world.
  • Small Great Things by Joci Picoult
    • This one was insanely difficult to read. Picoult tells this story through the eyes of the different individuals’ eyes who are involved in a situation with racism, white supremacy, and love for you children. This was gut-wrenching and eye-opening in the way that makes you rethink the way you see the world.
  • Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
    • The beauty of this book is the compassionate responses by Cheryl Strayed. It is a compilation of essays by people who are writing into an advice column called Dear Sugar. These writers tell their most intimate struggles and hopes and Cheryl Strayed responds with care and love (albeit sometimes tough love). Everyone is fighting a great battle. Things are never what they seem.
  • The Body Keeps Score by Bessel A. van der Kelk
    • This is the most important book I read this year. As someone who has survived and overcome spiritual abuse, this book was crucial to my understanding how to move towards healing and why I still have such strong reactions to certain situations. The body keeps score of trauma, but healing and wholeness is possible.
  • Simplicity Parenting: Using the Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne
    • As someone who wants to raise whole and confident children, this book helped give permission to say no to our kids and to opportunities when it’s just too much. Children have exponentially more stress on them at an early age. Although some would be quick to say this is the connection to the digital world, it isn’t. It’s parents who overfunction and want their children to be successful at all costs. Payne reminds parents the most important thing we can do for our children is to raise them with the least stress and the most security we can provide. It is a struggle to fight against the go go go of our consumerism culture, but a fight worth fighting for our children’s well-being.

I have a stack of books reading for 2018 and close to twelve books that I have started I hope to finish in 2018. Thank goodness that there will always be more books to read!

A Year of Grieving

What a year it has been for our family! This year has held numerous joyful surprises as well as profound grief. Three of our friends from our first congregation passed away this year as well as close family friends. These are people who held and taught our children. Walking closely with others always brings great joy but then also immense sadness when they are not with us anymore.

For a long time, I fled from grief. I turned my mind to autopilot and the things that needed to get done effectively removing myself from the situation so that I didn’t have to truly feel grief. This year I found I couldn’t run anymore. I couldn’t ignore the impact the people we lost this year had on me, my ministry, and our family. I couldn’t ignore the way the grief of thinking we were going to welcome a new life into our hearts and hands doesn’t disappear, not even after those nine months have passed.

I have tried the best I know how to grieve, not rushing the process, not explaining the process, just being in the midst. This has been extremely difficult for me. It’s driven me to practical action like getting life insurance again and finally creating a last will and testament. It’s slowed me down in the quiet mornings when Ben is up before the sun is up and we are sitting in silence playing with trains. Because I know those mornings aren’t guaranteed. I know because I’ve walked with families and people who have found this to be brutally true.

It’s made me analyze and retire some of the trite phrases we use as we try to console people in the midst of grief. It’s made me struggle and wrestle to find the light, love, and joy in the memories of the times we spent with the people we lost and hold onto those not just with the mind, but with body and soul.

Grieve was not the word I chose for 2017. Grieve chose me this year asking me to be real and honest in a way that I know will follow me into this next year and the years to come. Thanks be to God that Jesus wept and grieved and so can we.

Decorating the Tree

I can remember decorating our Christmas tree growing up. All of the six kids came together to decorate the huge live tree that had been strung with colored lights. The majority of the ornaments I remember hanging were ornaments we had all made in school, Sunday School and Missions activities at church. With six kids, those ornaments really added up.

But I can’t say that ever thought much about what it would be like to hang ornaments on the tree that came from my children I hadn’t imagined their pictures of their little handprints or even their names. I hadn’t thought about whether they would be girls or boys because for the longest time the tree Sam and I decorated still had those handmade ornaments I had made; a gift that had been given to me from my parents.

I was walking by the tree going to grab my keys and I saw this picture. The girls hanging next to one of the first ornaments Ben has made. I had to stop for a minute. A picture I had never imagined, there hanging on our tree. Three kids surrounded by colored lights. Three kids full of light and love. Three kids who helped decorate (or in Ben’s case undecorate) our tree this year.

The longer days and the break from school make the holidays a time to make memories and also to remember how far we all have come since the last time we decorated our trees and houses for this season, something Europeans have been doing for hundreds of years.

Sometimes peace and joy in this season come in the form of tiny handprints and pictures from years ago hanging on a triangular tree that represents the Trinity, the presence of God with us no matter what your journey had held. Thanks be to God for Divine light shining in the dark season of winter.