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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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Small Great Things

It just happened to be my turn on the hold list at the library to read Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. It just happened to be my turn to read this incredible book on the week of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday when the title of the book comes from a Martin Luther King, Jr. quotation:

If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.

It just happened to be my turn to read this book that tells the story of a black woman who has struggled against racism her whole life, but has never wanted to admit it. It just happened to be my turn to read this book when women all across the country are preparing to travel to Washington, DC to march and if they can’t go to Washington, DC, then to join together in their own communities to march and walk together.

It just happened to be my turn to read the inner thoughts of a white supremaist who tells his story from his perspective in this book on the week we elect a new president. It just happened to be my turn to read this story of a black women, a privileged white woman lawyer who is a public defender, and this white supremaist and how their stories and lives interact.

It just happened, this week, of all weeks that this story enters my life reminding me that the small things that we do to listen to stories we don’t want to hear, people we don’t agree with, and try to understand each other better can indeed be truly great things.

What We’re Reading with Our Girls

As we were traveling to see family, Sam and I were listening to a NPR interview with the author of Lab Girl. She was talking about the difficulty she has had as a woman in a male-dominated profession.
Tom Ashbrook asked if she would thought that she would ever be able to operate in her profession, after the many discoveries and awards she has been given, without gender being an issue. She laughed and laughed again and then responded, “No, I think gender politics will always be an issue.”

And I wondered about our girls. How are we going to raise girls who are resilient and independent? How are we going to teach our girls that they can pursue and succeed in any profession and field they feel passionate about?

My teacher instincts tell me that introducing them to books that question and challenge gender stereotypes is really important. Here are some of the ones we are reading and we read and read with our girls:

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Stephanie’s Ponytail is a brilliant book that shows how having your own style despite what other people think about you is empowering and often leads to people following you. It also cautions about the power you have when you are a leader and have people who are looking up to you. Powerful message for independence and responsibility.

 

 

Paper Bag Princess falls into the category of fractured fairy tale because while it has the elements of a fairy tale, it changes the roles. The princess is the one who rescues the prince in this story and she does it without batting an eye. The questions and conclusions that have come from our reading this book are certainly worth rereading at every opportunity!

 

MH just got this book and she loves it. It is chock full of nonfiction stories of powerful women who were successful. It also included instructions for knot-tying, camping, and other outdoor activities that some would say were for boys. The content area reading strategies she is developing is an added bonus!

 

The story of a girl who doesn’t judge a giant for just being a giant and who travels to giant country and defeats the giants eating other children? Yes, this is one of our favorites for sure!

 

This one. Matilda harnesses her powers to help those who have been oppressed by an evil headmistresses while also defying and overcoming her family of origin. Wow, just wow. I need this one as much as my girls!

 

The hardest aspect of parenting is that you don’t know how your kids will turn out. You can’t be certain that what you hope you are teaching them settles down into their hearts and souls and becomes a very part of who they are, but we can try. We can read them stories with strong female characters who challenge powerful people and beings. We can reread these stories telling them that their style, who they are, is unique and special. We can talk after these stories about how we can use our power and leadership to do good and to be kind to others.

And we can hope that in reading and talking, we too learn these lessons.

Wrinkled Joy

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We finally got our Christmas decorations up this weekend. We were waiting until we had our girls again and I wasn’t quite ready to move from the season of gratitude into a season of waiting and searching in our home. Couldn’t I teach our kids more about thanksgiving lasting all year if we just left up those decorations?

But as I watched them walk around the tree light debating over which tree would be easiest to pick back up if their younger brother decided to try to pull up on it, I knew we needed this season. And so we climbed the garage to get down the boxes marked Christmas and there at the bottom of the ornament was joy wrinkled and waiting.

Wrinkled joy.

The joy of the birth of the Christ Child wrinkled with the realities of a year of uncertainity and grief in so many ways. Joy that has been packed away, waiting to be brought out for this season of Advent. Joy that just needs to be shaken and ironed out.

Or maybe, this is joy wrinkled by the truth of a messiah born in a manger surrounded by outcasts. Maybe this wrinkled joy is exactly what we have been awaiting.

On Finding Sure Footing Again

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Just yesterday, I wrote to our BWIM SC newsletter list how the election results had left me off balance and unsure of what we could do, what we should do. I wasn’t sure because I hadn’t ever been here before and although I had a pulse on the influence of our president elect in more conservative congregations and communities, I still didn’t think his voice would be enough to drown out all the other voices who had come together.

And I’ve been in a state in which hands have been offered and I have stood up, but much like Ben when I’ve tried to get him to walk holding my hands, I’ve sat back down pursed out my lip and pouted. I wasn’t ready to walk yet. I wanted to be carried.

Then today, I saw the pure joy in Ben’s face as he took three unprompted steps from the coffee table to the chair, something we have been seeing off and on over the Thanksgiving break, but this time it was different. He was doing it on his own. He was stepping out. I guess it’s time for me to do the same; to admit that even in the midst of uncertainty, still I am called to write, to study, and to preach.

I have no doubt the road ahead for Ben will be filled with bumps and bruises as he gets his sea legs. I know the same will be true for me, but I hope like him I will step joyfully and courageously into this next phase and stage of ministry and motherhood as we walk together.

“I’ll Keep Getting Stronger”

I know some of you were left nursing reopened wounds in light of the presidential results and the discussions and rhetoric that has followed. I certainly was knocked off balance, but sometimes you’re watching your one-year old dance to a Sesame Street song and you recommit yourself to the work of reconciliation that you have been called to do.

“I’m never going to give up…I’ll keep getting stronger.”

A Week Ago Part 2

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A week ago, Sam called to tell me that he had been in a wreck, which lead to a series of events that took over our week including doctor’s visits, insurance calls, and rental car arrangements. It wasn’t how we were expecting to spend our week and there were many times last week that I asked, “why did this happen to us?”

And then I on Wednesday when I picked Ben up, I got his first ever school craft. A simple reminder of the season of Thanksgiving that we are approaching. I looked at that footprint and remembered in the hospital the first attempt to take his footprints were too bloody to take home because of the glucose tests they had to do by sticking his heels and I remembered the week Ben was born and how I was left speechless by the miraculous power of life and birth and breath in Ben.

And a week ago I was reminded again of the beauty of life and breath as Sam walked away from the car wreck. I breathed deeply as I held this simple picture because even though our lives were overtaken and redirected last week, we were still together as family.

This is not an easy time to be a parent, to be a minister, or to be a family. It is hard work to redirect our thoughts to being thankful and grateful. It is is hard work to try to engage in the important work of trying to speak love into the divisive rhetoric we hear, read, and often repeat. It is hard work to stop and reflect and imagine what we could become together if we are thankful instead of ungrateful, selfless rather than selfish, and understanding rather than defensive. But this, this is the hard work we are called to do as partners, parents, and ministers.

And for a community of people who are working towards these same goals, I am thankful.

This is My Story

I was born and raised up in a red state. I grew up in a community of faith where the men running for local offices were prayed over and had hands laid on them – the same practice for the men who were elected as deacons and the men who were ordained to the Christian ministry.

Some of these men had affairs, were accused of sexual misconduct against women. They were forgiven and given a second chance and a third chance and… In the same community of faith, women who were in abusive marriages either sexual, verbal, or physical were counseled by men to stick with it because of the sanctity of marriage.

I grew up in this community of faith where men determined whether my shorts were too short, my shirt too low, my bathing suit too revealing. I was taught the most precious thing I had to offer a man was my purity. I was taught that the worst thing was losing that purity. I was taught to be a “lady in waiting,” “to be submissive,” and “to prepare myself to be a good wife and mother.”

I grew up in a culture of Friday night football where young boys were held up as heroes. I grew up in a culture of Saturday football where coaches were spiritual guides and male college athletes were celebrities who could got what they wanted and girls were expected to give that to them.

I went to a conservative liberal arts school in South Carolina where I dated Southern gentlemen who opened the door for me, called me darling, and then joked with their fraternity brothers about whether I was a girl to “marry, screw, lose.”

I grew up thinking that women couldn’t lead, preach, or desire to do either. When I discovered at 25 that this wasn’t everyone’s story or experience, I was shocked and heart broken and then I was angry at the culture and community of faith who had created this worldview.

I remember sitting in disbelief with the understanding that there were communities of faith, there were local communities who didn’t treat girls and women the way I had been treated, but rather encouraged them to become who they wanted to be and find their own identities. And then the question that rattled in my mind and heart was simply, “Why didn’t you tell me there were safe places to grow and explore? Why didn’t you come find me?”

Last night’s presidential election didn’t shock me. This is the America I grew up in.

If you are disappointed and shocked, I’ve been there. You didn’t know the America I grew up in existed. You grew up in communities of faith and families and communities who supported and encouraged you and taught you could be anything. Thanks be to God for your experience.

But that’s not what many of us grew up in. That’s not my story.

This will not be the last time now that your worldview has been shattered that you will be disappointed, hurt, and overwhelmed. You will feel more and hurt more because your eyes have been opened to the reality that many of us have been living in for a long time. You will be disappointed when communities of faith who say they support women go with the male candidate again because you understand this contributes to white male privilege. You will hurt as you hear stories like mine. Stories of people from the LGTBQ community who have been told they cannot serve in faith communities because of who they are. You will hurt when you hear stories of sexual assault, rape, and spiritual abuse in communities of faith who have vowed to be open and affirming and cover this behavior up without dealing with the systemic culture that allows for this to take place. You will awaken in middle of the night with the understanding that there are children in your community who are starving from hunger.

This reality is not a pretty one, but when our eyes our opened we are moved to action. When we act, there is hope for transformation. And when we get to work in the reality in which we live, you will get to know more stories, more people who are fighting just as hard as they can, not to change things, but to transform this reality you have just awoken to.