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On Clinging to Hope

I don’t know how many time I’ve uttered the phrase, “I hope so” in the past, but I know it’s too many to count. But the importance of hope and finding hope didn’t really resonate deeply in my heart and mind until six weeks ago when our family went to see the ultrasound of our second baby, a secret we had been keeping quiet hoping to reveal to our community of faith and family and friends the excitement of new life in the midst of Eastertide when we all need a reminder that new life keeps showing up riding the waves of the resurrection. But what we hoped would be a time of celebration has become a season of grief, a sharp juxtaposition of almost life in the midst of Eastertide.

There was no heartbeat at the ultrasound, which would ultimately lead to our experiencing a miscarriage.

Where were we supposed to put the hope of of celebration? Where were we supposed to put the hope of new life? Where were we supposed to find new hope?

For me, this has been a deeply spiritual journey to discover what hope is. Dickinson’s words took on a new meaning as I realized, “Hope is a thing with feathers,” means that hope can simply float away without any warning rather than something “that perches in the soul.”

“Now faith is the confidence in what we hope for and assurance in what we do not see.” But did I still have faith in new life? Could I still hope when we wouldn’t see the life we had dreamed and envisioned when we found out we were pregnant?

And suddenly, I understood Sarai standing at the tent listening to strangers telling her what her life would. And certainly, I have laughed just like her.

Hope? Have you read the news? Have you been to the emergency room or noticed the number of people who are jobless, homeless, hungry? Hope? What’s that supposed to do about anything.

But as I’ve walked with this grief, I’ve come to understand that hope isn’t wishful thinking. Hope is a statement of belief of the revolutionary, life-transforming belief that God who has done the impossible will surprise again. God who overcame death and offered new life will revive again. God who created life out of dust will create again. 

And I believe.

And I hope.

I don’t believe or hope in any specifics in regards to our family, but that God will still whisper and call me to create alongside of God. I believe and hope my eyes will open to see how pastoring a church named New Hope in the midst of deep grief isn’t just coincidence, but the divine presence walking beside us in the midst of the pain and suffering life brings.

“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: 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.

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.

 

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.

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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