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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.

“Where does your husband pastor?”

Today as I was dropping off our son at his half-day school, I was introduced to a woman who was visiting. The woman who introduced me said, “And this is one of our moms who is also an excellent baptist minister.”

I smiled, keeping an eye out for Ben as he explored the lobby.

The woman who introduced me to the visitor went on her way leaving the two of us to continue the conversation.

“Where does your husband pastor?” the visitor asked me.

“I’m the pastor, actually,” I responded with a smile.

“Oh, wow….that’s great,” she responded, obviously taken aback by my clarification.

It was interesting to me that even though the woman who introduced us was clear that I was both mom and pastor, for this visitor, those two things didn’t go together or fit into her schema. I didn’t take offense because I know she was taking a lot in as she was looking around, but also because, to be honest, meeting a female baptist minister still isn’t that common, especially in the heart of the Bible Belt.

Maybe, as she continues on her way, she’ll pass along the word that she met a female baptist pastor. Maybe the next female baptist minister she meets won’t get the question, “Where does your husband pastor?” Maybe when her daughter or granddaughter or one of their friends explains to her that they are called to ministry, she won’t be shocked or surprised because she’s met a female baptist minister before.

And maybe the next time I see her and we’re able to have a longer conversation, I’ll share that my husband is an ordained baptist minister as well, just to keep her on her toes!

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: Having an Opinion

Elisabeth and I have embarked on a new adventure called The Minister and The Mystic. This new podcast is more real and true to our experiences and our stories . As we have talk each week, I become more and more aware of the impact spiritual abuse has had on my life. It’s overwhelming and scary to admit because I want so much to shed the past and move forward. Elisabeth gives me the courage to recognize and claim the spiritual abuse I’ve experienced as part of my story and yes, even part of my identity.

Part of that identity are leftovers and holdovers from the adherence to a strict set of dogmatic beliefs. One of these beliefs was the idea that women didn’t have their own voice in decision-making whether that be in church or in their families. I didn’t realize how much impact this teaching had on me. I didn’t realize the number of times I still pause in my closet asking myself what impact my decision about what clothes I choose to wear will have on other people; remnants of false teachings of sexuality that a woman is the one responsible for tempting a man by dressing a certain way.

I didn’t realize how I had been conditioned to anticipate and plan for other people’s needs to the point of forgetting my own needs. I didn’t realize how in conversations I had been conditioned to be a silent listener rather than an active participant who voiced opinions and experiences. I didn’t believe my opinions, my perspective, my take on the world mattered because there were absolute truths that superseded my voice.

I thought I didn’t have a choice in forming my voice. I thought I had to weigh my opinions against all the other voices swirling around in my head. These are the voices of spiritual abuse I must silence in order hear my own voice.

“What do you want?” my husband often asks me.

“I don’t know,” has long been my response because what I wanted was so entwined with other people’s wants and needs.

Slowly, but surely I am finding the courage to say what I want. Slowly, but surely I am wading through all the voices in my head that say don’t speak up and am sharing my opinions. Because my voice, my opinions, my story matters.

And so does yours.

Making Room at the Table

It’s been four years since I stepped into the identity of pastor for the first time. I’ve become accustomed to the people I meet in the Bible Belt who are shocked to find out there is such a thing as a Baptist woman pastor. I’ve become accustomed to the conversations and debates about what fully including women at the table means for the future of the church and the future of the Baptist identity. I’ve become accustomed to the resistance, shaming, and spiritual abuse that come from those who are scared of losing their power and control over the new seating arrangements at the table.

Sheryl Sandberg has become renown for encouraging women who want to become leaders and decision makers in the business world to “lean in” and take a seat at the table rather than hovering in the background of conversations and meetings. Taking a place at the table shows confidence, competence, and courage all important aspects of leadership.

But what she doesn’t cite is the fallout that follows once women take a seat at the table. Inevitably, when women start to take more seats at the table, there is less room people who have traditionally occupied those seats. As women begin to step confidently into their calls as ministers, as pastors, as leaders, as decision-makers, those who have been in power will feel challenged and threatened. There will be disruption and confusion because the table isn’t set as it always has been. No one is sure of their place or their power anymore.

This is what we need. We need disruption. We need to turn the tables. We need a different table setting. We need tables full of as many voices and perspectives as we can find. We need to bring out the table leaves and add more room and more seats. We need to sit beside each other sharing fellowship and needs. We need to bump elbows sitting beside each other sharing space, sharing food, and sharing ideas instead of fighting over seats like children in a game of musical chairs.

There is room enough for you. There is room enough for me. There is room enough for all.

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.

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.

Like His Brothers and Sisters: A Sermon on Hebrews 2:14-18

I grew up in a small, private school, which means there was no mistaking whose family I was a part of. I had four siblings who had gone before me, three brothers and one sister who all told me who was the best teacher to have in each grade and what classes I should take. Inevitably at some point in the school year, I would get a comment from a teacher that I was “just like my brother” or “just like my sister.”

I can remember distinctly as I was looking at colleges wanting to cross every college my siblings had been to off my list because you get to a point where you just want to be your own person not such and such’s brother or sister. It didn’t happen that way. I chose Furman where my grandfather, my aunt, my uncle, my cousin, and two of my brothers attended because sometimes even when we want to step out, we have to acknowledge that there’s a reason we are like our brothers or our sister, because we actually are.

Our passage today is part of the readings in the lectionary for The Presentation of the Lord in which Jesus is presented in the temple 40 days after his birth. Now, it might seem odd in our baptist tradition that we would even mention this holiday or feast day called Candlemas, but this is significant because it has been 40 days since we celebrated the birth of Jesus. 40 days, the same number of days that the people of God wandered in the desert. 40 days, the same number of days that it rained while Noah was on the ark. 40 days, the same number of days that Jesus will be tempted by the Deceiver in the desert. 40 days, a signal that of a time of trial and tribulation.

What have your last 40 days been like?

Not only is the number of days significant here, but the fact that Jesus was indeed presented in the temple, something that Jewish families would have done regardless of whether their child was the son of God or not. This is a tradition and ritual that reminds us of the very humanity of Jesus. The fact that Jesus as a baby did the things that babies did at that time. Jesus was like us.

Hear now this reminder of Jesus’s humanity from the book of Hebrews chapter 2, verse 14.

2:14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,

2:15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.

2:16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.

2:17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.

2:18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

I don’t know about you, but this week, I needed to be reminded that Jesus suffered just like his brothers and sisters that is to say you and me. I needed to mark this 40 day journey passed the birth of Jesus in which we all celebrated with hopeful hearts with this reminder that although Jesus was born with angelic declarations, he also suffered whispers and plots of death from the political leader of the time. He and his family had to flee for safety because of these whispered plans. I needed to be reminded that Jesus wasn’t born into a time where there was a guarantee of safety, comfort, or ease.

Jesus was born like us.

The problem is that so many of us have accepted the truth that we’ve heard somewhere or another that life is supposed to be easy. That for some reason or another if we are suffering than we are doing something wrong, not living the way we are supposed to be living or living for ourselves and not for Jesus. Somewhere we have picked up on the idea that to be a follower of Jesus means to be blessed without trials and tribulations, but our understanding of being blessed is to have an easy comfortable life.

I can’t find that in God’s word. What I find is this reminder that the son of God came and walked the earth as a child, as a teacher, and as a messiah and in all of those things there was suffering. There was suffering of being persecuted with words and ostracized by religious leaders. There was suffering and temptation in the desert hungry, tired, and thirsty. There was suffering from the weight of responsibility of teaching and leading. There was suffering in betrayal of his closest confidants, his disciples.

There was suffering in all aspects of Jesus’ life, so then to be a follower of Christ is not to be without pain and suffering. But I’m not talking about the pain and suffering that we share in our community of faith during a time of prayer. I am talking about the pain and suffering that finds you in the night. The pain and suffering that crucifies you, leaving you only able to cry as Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.”  If you are suffering right now, it does not, absolutely does not mean that you are not following Christ. In fact, if you are suffering, it might mean you are closer to walking in Jesus’ footsteps than you have ever been before.

It took my until two years after I had graduated college and I was in an apartment in Germany alone depending on the hospitality of strangers that I realized even though I was like my brothers and sisters, I didn’t have to follow in their footsteps or in the footsteps of my parents or in the footsteps of the community of faith who raised me and who believed that women shouldn’t be preachers. It took me being across an ocean alone to realize that all the times that I followed in my family’s footsteps, believing wholeheartedly that that is what I was supposed to do, I was missing an opportunity to be who God created me to be.

When I stepped out of that path of certainty and stepped into the wilderness that God was calling me to, I truly didn’t think there would be a community of faith who would want me to preach or walk beside them in their suffering and in their pain and also in their joy and hope because the path was so very foreign to me. But here we are trying to be Christ followers together.

I’ve lived my whole life in fear…fear of doing the wrong thing, fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of disappointing my family, my community of faith, my friends. Fear  of falling outside the will of God, this mystical concept that I couldn’t ever seem to grab hold of, but others saw so clearly. Fear of alienation. Fear of being alone. Is this where you are? Do you feel like you are wandering a foreign lonely path? Fear brings death not life. In order to  live, we must let fear die.

God is with you, just as God was with God’s son as he walked and ministered, stopping on his journey to see people in need and meet those needs. You are not alone for Creator God sent God’s son to this earth to share flesh and blood, trials and temptations, pain and suffering, hopes and fears, with you. Creator God sent God’s son to earth to free you from the temptation of believing you are not good enough, you are not strong enough, you are not smart enough. You have the freedom of a new path, not one that is absent of suffering, but one that follows in the footsteps of Jesus who knows that very suffering and can offer you the strength you need on this journey.

This is the word of the Lord.

Conflicted Identities

Citizenship is the common thread that connects all Americans. We are a nation bound not by race or religion, but by the shared values of freedom, liberty, and equality.

Because of the choices my ancestors made, I am an American citizen and as an American citizen I have certain rights:

  • Freedom to express yourself.
  • Freedom to worship as you wish.
  • Right to a prompt, fair trial by jury.
  • Right to vote in elections for public officials.
  • Right to apply for federal employment requiring U.S. citizenship.
  • Right to run for elected office.
  • Freedom to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Because of the choices I have made, I am a Christian, a disciple of Christ:

23 Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

I am an American Christian. I am an America who is a Christian? I am a Christian who is an American?

Identity isn’t easily defined as we live, work, and engage with other people in the communities in which we live. Circumstances can suddenly change our identities from spouse to widow, from employee to unemployed, from homeowner to homeless, conflicting our identities and understanding of who we are.

I have a bit of experience with conflicted identities. I introduce myself by saying, “Hey, I’m Merianna. I’m a Baptist minister,” and more often then not my self-identification in the Bible Belt of SC doesn’t make sense to people. A woman who is Baptist and a minister is not an identity many people have heard of and certainly not met. And here I stand.

But I’m not only a Baptist minister, I am also a publisher seeking out stories to share with communities and people. Stories that transform and challenge. Stories that shape and guide as the many books I’ve read have shaped and guided me. Both of these professional identities are central to what I believe my calling is in this world, but these identities are conflicted identities. Sometimes the formatting has to wait until the sermon is written. Sometimes the grant writing has to wait for the manuscript to be edited. I balance both of these identities in an attempt to be fully and wholly who I was created to be.

I am a stepmother and a mother. I have three children whom I strive to love, challenge, and guide. Both of these identities are central to who I am at my core, but these are conflicted identities. At times, I choose to be stepmother first forgoing a 14 month old bedtime for dinner with cousins or a drive in movie with friends. Still other times, I choose to be a mother first rocking a 14 month old to sleep listening to squeals in the bathtub. The only way I am able to balance these conflicted identities that threaten to rip me apart as I watch our children leave each other with prayers and hopes that videos, pictures, and Facetime will sustain their relationship until they see each other again is because I have a partner in Sam who is walking beside me, challenging and pushing me not to see the conflict and tension, but what comes from the wrestling: a new identity.

Maybe the quarrels among us over what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be an American are outward manifestations of inward struggles of conflicted identities. Perhaps we have never considered giving up our birthright as Americans because we have never been as hungry as Esau coming in from the wilderness taking a bowl of stew from his brother’s hand while giving up his birthright with his own hand. Maybe we have never considered that to be an American and to be a Christian might actually be conflicted identities rather than harmonious identities.

We must all wrestle with who we have been and who we will be. Perhaps it won’t be in the night as it was for Jacob who had to return to those he had deceived, those he had taken advantage in his pursuit of the happiness of securing his future. But the wrestling will come and the choice will be presented again and again: who are you?

If I have to choose, I choose God over country. I choose bringing the kingdom of God here on earth by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting those in prisons of homeless and exclusion.

May God grant you the guidance and strength as you wrestle with your own conflicted identities. May God grant you the perseverance to get up, even as you limp away from the wrestling, and walk towards the new identity of who you will be.

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