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We Have Vastly Underestimated The Needs That Surround Us

As we awaken to the reality that our country has elected Donald Trump as it’s next president, I hope what we have also awakened to is the reality of the needs that surrounds us. 47 million people live in poverty according to the 2014 creating a poverty rate of 15%, that’s 2.3% more than at the height of the 2007 recession. In 2015, there were 17.7 per 10,000 people who live in homelessness. In one year, 10 million men and women are victims of domestic violence.

The need for the hope of something great for many, many people is real.

These statics haven’t changed overnight because we elected a new president. These are needs that are ever-present and have become more prevalent since 2007. In this period of recession and recovery, our faith communities have lauded and celebrated legacies of white male privilege in leadership positions patting ourselves on the back for accepting applications for women to serve in leadership positions, but never actually calling them (at least we had a female presidential nominee, that’s progress!). The teachings in our communities of faith, retreats, and trainings have focused on self-care and spiritual formation rather than community-care and spiritual transformation. We have created a reality we wanted to believe: that we our communities of faith are welcoming and affirming of all people and are relevant in the changing dynamics of our society.

But our eyes have been opened this morning.

We must now wrestle with the truth that we are participants in the privileged culture that favors some and not all. We must wrestle, no matter who we voted for, with the times that we felt we should have said something to challenge and question the systemic discrimination we have encountered. We must now wrestle with the truth that as ministers, followers of Christ, and communities of faith we have failed to offer hope in real and tangible ways that connect to the deep needs that surround us.

May this morning bring heartbreak for the part we have played and resolve to play our part in bringing out real, systemic change that meets the needs of our fellow Americans.

On Being a Woman Ministering to a Homeless Population

Part of my story is that my gender has always been an issue in my call to ministry.

It was a theological conundrum when I voiced a call to preach because of the faith communities in the baptist tradition who don’t believe my call, my ministry is of God, from God. It is a question I have had to approach with the churches where I have preached, served as interims, and engaged in the pastor search process: “And would I be the first woman pastor? Would that cause conflict?” My gender has always been a part of where and when I push and where and when I hold back waiting, reflecting.

Since May, I have been ministering to the homeless population in Columbia and have never once felt that my gender was an issue. There are no questions about whether I am called to ministry because we are in the midst of ministry. There are only smiles and warm greetings when our son accompanies me in our worship or service. There are no questions about my authority to teach or administer communion.

But sometimes when I share the work I am doing outside of this open and affirming community, there are hesitations. “Is that safe?” “Did you say there were all men in your chapel service last week?”

The unspoken question hangs in there air, “Are you sure a woman should be ministering to the homeless? What if…” This unspoken question laced with assumptions that those who are homeless are dangerous and unpredictable.

But these are mothers, fathers, grandfather, grandmothers, sisters, brothers, wives, and husbands.These are people just like me who need a community of faith that doesn’t judge, label, or exclude. People in need of hope through worship and the bread and the cup that Jesus offered his own disciples.

Thanks be to God for this dangerous, unpredictable community of faith that challenges my privilege while giving me great hope.

 

Enough is Enough

I have followed and read almost every story, comment, and response following the release of the video capturing the toxic culture of sexual assault, misogyny, and violence against women that plagues our society. I have written why we don’t share out stories in the midst of the this peak into the justification and defense of participating in this culture. I have written and wrestled with the truth that spiritual abuse lives and thrives in our communities of faith because we are afraid to talk about sexuality and sexual assault in our communities of faith.

I have cried and mourned that my reality as a girl who grew up in a fundamentalist community of faith may also be my daughters’ reality. I have hoped and prayed that the allegations and spread of this video would ignite a fervor, a revelation, a revival among those who are fighting for the equality of women only to be disappointed and disheartened by the defense and endorsement of the pastors, ministers, and fellow women of this behavior. And in my disappointment, I have fallen into the same mindset of fear and shame over who I am and moved to the shadows of silence and oppression because it is where I am comfortable and what is most familiar.

And then I listened to Michelle Obama voicing her hurt, her outrage, and her commitment to keep fighting. I listened and was reminded of the women who are standing strong and standing up, even though they are being criticizes, intimidated, and condemned by those whose power is threatened because their shadow lives and beliefs are being brought to the light. I listened and quieted the monsters of shame and vulnerability that told me to disengage from conversation because my voice didn’t matter and wouldn’t make a difference.

Michelle is right, enough is enough.

If you think the follow up to this video’s release that the system is rigged is not carefully, calculated political divergence, it’s time to open your eyes. The system is rigged, but not because it is exposing powerful men who use their power against women. The system is rigged because a conversation about sexual assault, sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, and violence against women is way overdue and because women who venture to stand up and speak out are still met with skepticism, intimidation, and mansplaining. If you don’t think these responses aren’t carefully thought out to keep power in the hands of the powerful because there is a viable threat to that power being overturned, it’s time to open your eyes.

I know the pain and humiliation that comes from opening your eyes to the realization that you have been played, manipulated, and tricked. I know it causes you to doubt yourself, your instincts, and the very core of who are, but it’s time to get over ourselves, our own insecurities, our own self-doubt in order to create something more for our children.

Our oldest just turned nine.

I remember turning nine.

There is no way I want her to remember this.

Let’s keep fighting.

Why We Don’t Share Our Stories

The release of the video on Friday that reveals the rape culture in America and the reason there are so many women who have stories of sexual assault, sexual violence, and rape was appalling to many. And in light of this video, there were many, many brave women who shared their stories. Stories of being raped, of being groped, and of being intimidated, threatened, and bullied by men. But there are many more women who haven’t shared their stories. Women who can’t share their stories because the abuse they experienced were in churches, were by deacons, were by ministers. These women who experienced not only sexual abuse, but spiritual abuse were forced to sign clauses and agreements that prevent them from sharing their stories in order to preserve a facade of holiness and righteousness that doesn’t exist. These women were shamed into this silence in order to preserve the institution of church and the hierarchy of power that excludes and oppresses them. These women were told that if their stories got out the church would split, contributions would drop, and it would be their fault.

What the evangelical response to this video has revealed is that they have contributed to this rape culture, this spiritual abuse and in standing by someone who has participated in this culture and has risen to the power and influence of being a presidential candidate, they hope that their secrets and positions are protected and preserved.

If these stories can’t be shared because of threats and bullying, then it up to us as the people of God to create space for healing and hope for those who have not only experienced sexual abuse, but had spiritual abuse heaped on top of those experiences. We have to be willing to ask tough questions of our leaders and practices. We have to be willing to say no to religious leaders who have histories and pasts of sexual assault, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment. We have to be willing to be brave for those who can’t share their stories.

Thanks be to God for those who are already standing up for the oppressed, the silenced, and the abused.

Believing When You Cannot See

Since Easter, I have been ministering in this space of uncertainity and doubt, wondering if I heard correctly that I was supposed to step out into the unknown yet again. Sam and I are celebrating a new phase of life as he takes on a new position as Director of Marketing for a Columbia-based company and as we create ministrieslab, but this is not where I expected to be.

But this has held true for so many aspects of my life. I didn’t expect to teach overseas, I wished and I hoped, but I didn’t expect it. I didn’t expect to be a private school teacher, but I was and I met my partner in life, in parenting, and in ministry. I didn’t expect to change careers, especially after investing in an advanced degree in education. I didn’t expect to find a church that would call a female pastor because of the people who told me that churches weren’t ready. And I certainly didn’t expect to be experimenting with the future of the church through a pop up worship experience.

But more than anything I didn’t expect to be living a life without a long-range, color-coated plan like the ones I made every year before I started teaching. Each time I have been overcome with the wrestling of my call to ministry, I have been asked to step into the unknown. I have been asked to confront my need for a plan and my fear of not been successful. Each time I have followed that call into the unknown, I have discovered more about myself, including my privilege, my assumptions, my stereotypes, and my past. And each time, I have found a community of faith that supports and encourages me on the journey. Sometimes those words of encouragement are dreams that the person offering them could step into the unknown. Sometimes those words of encouragement are in the form of questions and intrigue.

I can’t find evidence in scripture that we get the whole plan and get to see before we believe, before we follow, but again and again we do find crazy God and Jesus followers who are stepping out, without knowing fully what they are stepping into.

So, I’ll keep packing communion elements and taking them to people who need to hear that they are loved, that they are valued, and that they are children of God welcomed to table fellowship with God as we worship the crazy journey that is following after Christ.

Do I Call You Reverend?

Yesterday at ministrieslab, we were able to partner with the weekly feeding ministry called Crossroads at First Baptist Asheville. We were invited to lead a time of devotion and to extend an invitation to partake in communion. After the devotion, as I was walking to the communion table a man stopped me, “Reverend? Do I call you Reverend?”

“Sure, you can or pastor or Merianna, whichever works for you.”

“It’s just I’ve never met a woman pastor or reverend.”

“I get that a lot,” I said with a smile.

“I’d like to take communion.”

“Great, I’m just heading that way. Would you like to walk with me?”

“No, I mean I’d like to take communion, but I’ve never been allowed to.”

“At ministrieslab, the table is open to anyone who would like to partake.”

“No, what I mean is that the churches I’ve been to have told me I wasn’t good enough to take communion.”

Finally, I stopped and listened to his story. Finally, I heard what he was saying.

In his 63 years of life, he had been an outsider. He had been to many churches and had been raised in church, but more often than not, he found himself in situation after situation where he was not welcomed, but ostracized because of the color of his skin, because of his life’s story, because he was different.

And after I had listened, we walked to the table. He broke off a piece of bread as I said, “This is the body of Christ broken for you,” and then he dipped the broken bread into the cup as I said, “This is the blood of Christ given for you.” He took the bread and a huge smile filled his face.

His first communion at 63.

This is hope. This is healing. This is love.

This is ministrieslab.

 

Why I Won’t Try To Convince You To Support Women in Ministry

A couple of days ago, I was speaking to an older gentleman about my call to ministry. I told him about voicing a call to ministry and pursuing and obtaining a seminary degree. I told him about some of the challenges I had met along the way as a woman from a Southern Baptist background who voiced a call to preach. At the end of our conversation, he said, “You have dissuaded me from believing that women can’t be pastors. I’m still working on it, I’m old school I know, but your story helps.”

I was surprised because I hadn’t been trying to dissuade him or convince him of anything. Instead I had just been sharing my story. His words have followed me and helped me understand that part of my ministry will always be being a baptist woman in ministry. Because of this part of my identity, I will often find myself in conversations with people who disagree that women should be pastors or agree.

If I know the conversation about whether women can be ministers is going to be part of my journey and part of my story, then I can make my call to ministry about convincing people I am called and I am a minister, filling my time with defenses and debate tactics, and being on guard ready to give an answer about why I am truly called or I can concentrate on living into my call, doing the work God has called me to do, and being the hands and feet of Jesus. I’ve giving up on trying to convince anyone to support women in ministry. There’s too much ministry to be done to those who have been outcast and ignored. There’s too much hurt in need of healing. There’s too many chances to offer hope in the midst of so many hopeless situations.

We spend much too much time as ministers, as churches, and as members of society trying to convince and convert each other to our way of thinking. If instead we concentrated on being ourselves and listening and respecting the people we encounter giving each person a space and place to tell their stories, then perhaps we would end up dissuading and transforming people without even meaning to.

Wouldn’t this make our calls and our ministry and our churches radically different than the dissent and hatred we hear every day?

You Don’t Look Like a Minister

As I was getting a cup of coffee before heading to teach a youth Sunday School class to follow up the work we had experienced together at ministrieslab on Sunday morning, the woman who took my order asked me, “Are you headed to the hospital?”

“No, actually heading to teach a youth Sunday School class. I’m a minister.”

“A minister?” she responded the surprise filling her face. “You don’t look like a minister. You’re too young.”

“Well, my baby did sleep a little better last night,” I responded jokingly. I thanked her as she handed me the cup to get my coffee. As I was filling it up, I noticed that she had made her way to where I was behind the counter.

“Pray for me,” she said.

“I’d be happy to. Do you have something going on?” I asked.

“No, just pray for me,” she said as she looked down at the dish towel in her hands.

“I will,” I said trying to give her a minute to elaborate if she wanted to.  “Thank you for the coffee,” I said as I headed out the door.

As I took a sip of my coffee, I realized that even though I didn’t look like a minister or look old enough to be a minister, when it came right down to it, it didn’t matter to her. She needed someone to pray for her and whether that person was old or young, male or female, straight or gay, conservative or liberal, didn’t matter. What mattered was someone who noticed her as a person and took the time to linger and listen just for a minute.

In my seminary days, I would have carried her comment that I didn’t look like a minister around. I would have commented that there was no way people were going to see women, especially young women as ministers when there are programs that reiterate a stereotypical ministerial look of white, male over 45 who appears distinguished and dependable. I would have commented that these programs only reinforce the stereotype and make it harder for us young ministers and especially female ministers to get a foot in the door for a calling and profession we’ve sacrificed greatly to answer.

But more and more I am realizing there are so many minister who look the part, but aren’t there for God’s people, especially for those who find themselves on the outskirts of society. The people who have been told who they are is not what a Christian looks like and not what a volunteer in the church looks like that I know my ministry will continue in coffeeshops, in homeless shelter, and in youth Sunday School classes who have given up a summer day to see and to serve those in their community who are different than they are.

Thanks be to God that we don’t have to look a certain way in order to be a disciple, but instead we just need to answer the invitation Jesus extended: “Follow me.”

 

On Needing Each Other

Whether I like to admit it or not, I need help. I need help as I learn to be a stepmother. I need help as I learn to be a mother. I need help as I continue to learn how to pastor. I need help as I continue to encounter the disappointment and discouragement that comes with being a Baptist woman who is called to be a preacher.

I need you, women who have traveled this road longer than I have, to continue to tell your story with openness and authenticity. I need you to tell me why you didn’t give up hope and why you’re still Baptist when it’s so difficult to be a Baptist woman in ministry. I need you to share your experience. I need you to revisit those dark and difficult places that brought you to where you are today. I need to hear your story.

And I need you, who find yourselves in positions of power and privilege, not to let guilt over that place of privilege distract you. I need you to be brave and risky. I need you to use your power and your privilege to speak for those who find themselves on the other side of power and privilege. And if you do, I promise to do the same should the roles be reversed one day.

We were meant to live in community with each other. We were meant to hold each other’s stories. We were meant to work together to bring the kingdom of God here on earth.

Let’s get started.

Worship When Life Has Not Gone As Planned

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The call Sam and I felt to start ministrieslab to pop up in the midst of need is indeed a call from God to minister to God’s people, but I didn’t realize it was a call to question my own privilege. Privilege that blinds me to need. Privilege that causes me to think I know how to help people. Privilege that makes me believe I know how to plan an authentic and engaging worship service because I hold a MDiv.

Privilege that’s challenged me every week over the past eight weeks as I walk into Transitions Homeless Shelter. As I walked in today, our pianist was practicing, but this week it was different. He had gathered a chorus with him, a chorus that gladly agreed to sing as part of our service. As they ran through Amazing Grace, more and more people came in the open door and set down as I set the Lord’s table for communion.

And with the music, came worship.

Worship not that I had planned, but that the clients at Transitions led. Worship that came from their hearts, their concerns, their voices, their experiences, their needs. Worship led by God’s people. Worship that transformed my understanding of what worship truly is.

I come from a tradition of carefully-crafted worship services with orders of worships, written calls to worship where the leader and people’s parts are clearly labeled, and where those who lead the service often don’t worship because they are concerned about ensuring that everything goes as planned. Today, I didn’t have to start the worship service, but instead I was invited into worship with this community of faith.

There is a beautiful truth that exists in this integrated community of faith: life has not gone as planned. In this community of faith, race, gender, and sexuality don’t matter because the truth that we are all in need transcends all those labels. It reminds me a lot of our chapel experiences at Gardner-Webb School of Divinity that invited us to worship together, black and white, old and young, male and female, and all kinds of different sexuality.

Perhaps instead of planning worship so carefully, we should instead plan on placing ourselves in the midst of need. Because there in the midst of need, we will surely find the presence of God.