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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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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.