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Spiritual Abuse and The Process of Untraining

I found myself in an uncomfortable situation this week that reminded me of my conservative, evangelical upbringing. The semon was similar. The tone was similar. The lack of space for questions or discussion was similar. I found myself shifting in my seat trying to comprehend how I had ended up in a situation that reminded me so much of my past.

If you have childhood trauma of any sort, then you, too, know that these triggering events can creep up on you. Sometimes you can anticipate and predict what is going to take you down into the spiral of where you have been. The doubts. The questions. The emotions. And sometimes these triggers surprise you and threaten to drag you under the wave of remembering when you haven’t had time to take a good, deep breath.

Your mind begins the process of wondering, “How did this happen? How am I here again?” When this happens it would be easy to be hard on yourself telling yourself you haven’t made any progress because here you are again in the whirlwind of self-doubt and uncertainty. It’s easy in these moments to beat yourself up because you put yourself in a triggering situation.

But if you look hard enough in these moments, you can see and recognize little moments of light. If you offer yourself grace and space, then you will see that you behaved differently than you have before. You reached out for support or your center remained steady even in the midst of the situation or you were able to talk about the event in safe community.

Your eyes are opened and you can see that slowly, but surely you’re untraining yourself. Maybe you will never get rid of your past, but you this time you were able to not let the past take over. You were able to bring yourself back to the present. Back to your home.

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.

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 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.

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.

What Did You Expect?

I find myself asking, “What did you expect?” as I enter the Advent Season this year. I expected to be a teacher until retirement. I remember clearly sitting in the new employee’s meeting at 22 and hearing that I could retire in 30 years. I couldn’t imagine being in the same job for the 30 years, but I could imagine teaching for 30 years.

Now I find myself planning and preparing for my fourth Advent Season as a pastor. I certainly didn’t expect to be a pastor and preacher.

But Creator God has a miraculous way of hearing the parts of our hearts that even we ourselves silence. The Divine whispers, “What if…” in a way that makes us dream of the unexpected and hope for things yet to come. Those longings speak to our souls, to that Divine spark nestled within us.

Advent is a season to give voice and space to those longings, to shed our expectations of how we thought things were going to go in our own lives and dream and anticipate new life. When we allow the Divine this voice and space, I can guarantee you will say, “I didn’t expect that.

One Year Ago…

One year ago, I accepted the Interim Pastor at New Hope Christian Fellowship. The joy in my face is evident after months and months of rejection emails from churches that led to self-doubt and uncertainty wondering whether the sharp turn I took in my life in order to pursue a MDiv and become an ordained minister was what I was supposed to be doing or whether I had indeed “heard wrong” as some suggested when I shared a call to preach.

And I know you’re out there. You ordained ministers, without a place to serve right now. I know you still check the lectionary passages and your weeks still move around sermon prep and Wednesday Bible Study prep. I know you’re out there wondering the same thing.

I had the privilege of serving on an ordination council for a young Baptist woman in ministry this week and I wanted to say so much but culled it down to this:

Hold fast. Remember this moment of affirmation and confirmation right now because you’ll need them during the restless, sleepless nights of self-doubt and uncertainty. 

Hold fast. Minister and preach the gospel any way that you can in the homeless shelter, in the lives of friends going through difficult times, to your own heart, keep doing the work God has called you to do and you’ll find your way.

Spiritual Abuse and Female Sexuality

I have this feeling in the pit of my stomach, that intuition so long questioned and quieted, that there is a seismic shift occurring. A shift that is turning back time to a society where women are overtly oppressed and discriminated against rather than the subtext of our culture and conversations. 6.5% of senior pastors and co-pastors in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship are women. That number is rising even as women were called this past week to serve as pastors and co-pastors. At the same time, the gender pay gap in the White House has tripled in 2017. This is the tension and conflict that is being a woman in 2017, swinging from hope to disappointment again and again and again.

Perhaps it’s Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale that brings to life how quickly a society can turn, how quickly citizens can lose their rights. Perhaps it’s that I can’t get through a week without being confronted with false views of female sexuality that are tied to theological reasoning passed on unexamined generation after generation. The same theology recycled and reused even though technology has changed, the average age of marriage has changed, and churches are in decline.

Or perhaps it’s my own wrestling to try to overcome the lingering impact of growing up in a purity culture so stringent that my biggest fear as a high schooler was getting pregnant, which transformed into the fear of not being able to get pregnant after I was married because female sexuality was so tied into a woman’s ability to reproduce.

Attributing all of female sexuality to the ability to reproduce is spiritual abuse.

It silences expression and creativity. It silences conversation and questioning. It silences a woman’s voice and choice.

It’s not until women start listening to themselves, to that intuition long questioned and quieted, that sexuality will not be full of spiritual abuse, but wholeness and healing. I experienced spiritual abuse, especially surrounding my sexuality, but I am not a child anymore. I don’t have to keep experiencing spiritual abuse about my sexuality. I can listen to my own voice, my center, myself, the one becoming stronger and more sure-footed with God’s help.

On the Road Again

I glanced at the notification that popped up on Waze. “Congratulations! You’ve driven 500 miles this week.” 500 miles? I thought to myself. That can’t be right, can it? I thought back to Saturday where I drove to Asheville and back to Columbia with two tired girls who had just rocked a swim meet. I thought about Monday where I had the honor to lead Bon Air Baptist in The Privilege Walk and a Bible Study related to their work with Palmetto Missionary Baptist Church in the Myrtle Beach area. Then I thought about the annual worship gathering for Baptist Women in Ministry in Atlanta.

What a week.

It was the kind of week that has left me road weary. Although it was refreshing and inspiring to lead the privilege walk with this group of youth, I know there so many who don’t want to engage or examine their privilege much less use their power and privilege to help others. Although it was refreshing and inspiring to gather with Baptist Women from around the country, there are still only 6.5% women who hold senior pastor or co-pastor positions in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

There’s still so much work to do and so few people who are willing to do the hard work of breaking down privilege and breaking down gender stereotypes. There are even fewer people who are willing to acknowledge their privilege (rather than defend their privilege) and use their voice to dismantle institutional sexism.

Even though I’m road weary, I’ll keep driving, keep teaching, keep worshipping, and keep writing for the women who have survived sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace and have been in tears this week because of the blatant reminder that America is still a culture of sexual harassment and sexual assault. I’ll keep driving, keep teaching, keep worshipping, and keep writing for those in socioeconomic situations whose voices are ignored and whose healthcare needs are decided by power and privilege. I’ll keep driving, keep teaching, keep worshipping, and keep writing for those two tired girls and their younger brother to have a healthier, more whole way of living and being themselves.