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“Do not resist an evildoer.”

This week’s gospel’s lesson is not an easy one:

5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’

5:39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;

5:40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;

5:41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

5:42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

This is as an important lesson to us as modern day disciples as it was to Jesus’ disciples. Jesus was trying to prepare his disciples for the resistance they would certainly meet as they followed him. Bringing the kingdom of God here on earth was not going to be met without tension and conflict.

And as I read these words in preparation for our weekly chapel service at Transitions with ministrieslab, I knew I had no words, no divine inspiration to offer to a people group who had experienced so much systemic discrimination.

And so I didn’t.

I read God’s word, the word of Jesus to his disciples aloud, begging the Holy Spirit to let these words and truths find a home within my soul and mind and then I listened. I listened to story after story from this makeshift, ever-changing congregation who shared of the times they had encountered people at gun point and had not attacked or responded in kind. I listened to stories of domestic abuse and wondered with the person whether it was wrong to leave that relationship when the gospel says to turn the other cheek. I listened to stories of loved ones stuck in cycles of abuse and heard the hope for their future in the words of their significant others. I heard stories of regret and resurrection lives changed because they finally learned to turn the other cheek and love the very people they didn’t want to talk to, eat with, or be associated with.

I heard God’s voice again and again in the voices of God’s people. God’s people in a group room crowded with too many chairs in a homeless shelter on a rainy Wednesday morning singing “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine,” and I knew this is what we must do.

We must not resist evildoers, but love them, really and truly love them, not merely tolerate them.

We must give generously to anyone who begs from us without judging them for how they might use what we give.

We must turn the other cheek, again and again, as Jesus did, even unto death.

This is the word of the Lord to his disciples.

A Case of Privilege: A Pastoral Confession

There were reasons to believe that one of my students need to be referred for testing to be considered for additional resources. There were trainings engrained in my mind that told me as a third grade teacher part of my responsibility was to catch these types of situations to give students the best opportunity to access their potential and their abilities.

And so I did what teachers did and scheduled a parent teacher conference. I knew that there was something that had happened to my student during his mother’s pregnancy. I knew that the symptoms I was seeing were textbook examples of fetal alcohol syndrome or a drug-related infiltration from mother to child.

I knew.

She filled out the paperwork and when the question asked, “Was your pregnancy normal?” she checked yes. As I watched her glide over the form, my eyes bore through the little check she had just made. As I tried to keep my demeanor welcoming, my anger flashed. How could she say she had a normal pregnancy? There is absolutely no way that her child was not exposed to some kind of drugs or alcohol. It’s just not possible. She’s lying because she doesn’t want to confess to what she did while she was pregnant. 

I knew I was right. I knew she was wrong.

I told colleagues my righteous indignation flaring. How could we do what was best for her child if she didn’t answer honestly? How could we get anywhere if she lied to us, the very people trying to help her child?

And suddenly I was sitting in a chair at Transitions Homeless Shelter across from a woman who was pregnant. A woman who was pregnant and homeless. A woman who was pregnant and starving. A woman who was pregnant with no healthcare, no access to birth control, and with very limited access to prenatal care. A woman so consumed with the exhaustion of survival of finding food every day or finding a place to sleep each night that she could not even consider what was best for the child growing within.

My God, forgive me. I confessed.

My privilege was so blinding in that first year of teaching that I couldn’t imagine a woman who was pregnant who didn’t know any other community, but a community with alcohol and drugs. I couldn’t imagine a woman, a mom who didn’t know how to best care for her body while she was sustaining another life. I couldn’t imagine a woman who couldn’t read or research to find out about what her body needed to help her child. I couldn’t imagine a woman so scared of losing her child that she filling out of form in front of mandatory reporter overwhelmed her with anxiety. I couldn’t imagine because of my vast amount of privilege.

Instead of peace, I offered her anxiety. Instead of hope, I offered condemnation. Instead of scaffolded learning, I offered her resentment and belittlement calling her ill-informed. Instead of love, I offered her disdain.

Thanks be to God for second chances, years later.

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 are you doing all the way out here?”

“What are you doing all the way out here?” I asked her as we both shirked from the cold wind.

She started to tell me and then stopped, “Hey, wait I know you. You’re the lady who gave me that bread that you dip into that juice in that tall cup.”

“That’s right,” I smiled realizing I had recognized her before she had recognized me. “You know the cold weather shelter is open tonight. Don’t you want to go there where it’s warm?”

“There’s too much drama there,” she explained.

I hesitated not knowing at all what to say. Wasn’t it worth enduring drama to be warm? It was below freezing outside, surely it was worth dealing with people so that you didn’t have to sleep outside.

“There’s always someone who is looking for a fight and it’s just not worth it,” she continued.

I was trying really hard to understand where she was coming from, to understand the world as she saw it, knowing that privilege was hindering a connection. I was trying to respect her voice and choice, knowing that telling her what she should do would disrespect her humanity in ways she had experienced over and over again.

I had seen first hand what she was talking about, people in desperate situations guarding their reputations and their identities fiercely. I knew she was speaking truth, but I also knew there was no way I’d ever completely understand.

A humbling realization.

She had seen more death than I had seen. She had felt more desperation than I had seen. She had felt more hunger than I had. There was a gap that divided us, a gap I’ve been working for eight month not to eliminate or justify or defend, but simply understand.

But maybe on Wednesday I would see her again and that gap would be bridged for just a moment as we worshipped and fellowshipped and celebrated the Lord’s supper together, side by side.

Sometimes You Forget…

Sometimes you forget that what you’ve experienced and been through is not what everyone else has experienced and been through. Sometimes you forget that sharing your story and experiences might be exactly what someone else needs in that moment. Sometimes you forget that you can offer hope and understanding by just sharing who you are.

I hold a Master’s in Literacy, something I forget about in my day to day being because teaching isn’t my profession. I also hold a Master’s in Divinity, something that is more in the forefront of my mind as I prepare to preach and worship with the amazing community of faith, New Hope Baptist Fellowship.

Sam also has teaching experience and theological education and as we journey together as parents, we are trying very intentionally in what we do and say to raise and foster kids who are compassionate, aware of the needs that surround them, and who understand that they each have something they can offer no matter how old they are to offer love and hope.

One way we do this is by what we read to them and in front of them. Here’s what we’ve been reading lately and why we chose it:

I love this book a teaching friend gave us when Ben was born because it teaches kids that even when you have always seen yourself to be a certain way, there is always a chance that you will encounter someone who will change and transform you.

 

Peter Reynolds is brilliant in how he addressed the magical, mystical element of creation for young readers. This one in particular shows that even when the people around you try to discourage you, you shouldn’t give up what you love to do. Also, being the voice of encouragement to someone can change their whole perspective.

 

Not only does Mo Williems write the Elephant and Piggie series incorporating the 100 site words for first graders, he also hits the nail on the head in topics. This is one of our favorites for teaching that waiting and patience often allow us to experience something miraculous.

 

 

We love this one for the way it plays with rhyme and meter, but also for how it reminds us that there is always need surrounding us. When we barrel over other people, they won’t be quite as willing to help us when we need help.

 

Looking for specific age suggestions for your own children or grandchildren? I’m happy to help! I love talking about children’s literature and the powerful impact it can play in teaching our children.

A Hand Reaching Out

masjid

When Ben and I arrived to jummah prayer service at Masjid Al-Muslimiin, we were immediately welcomed by women of all ages. A teenage girl approached asking what Ben’s name was and then helped me with my headscarf. As I looked around the community gathered in the courtyard, I was speechless that there was a whole community of faith who gathered right off the busy street of Garners Ferry in Columbia on Friday afternoons whom I had never encountered. How many times had I passed the sign and not wondered about this community?

And as we gathered in the small room designated for the women sitting on the red-carpeted ground, I was overwhelmed by the sense of community that was palpable in the body heat of the women and children gathered. I resisted the urge to keep Ben close and let him wander through the sea of arms and legs just as the children for whom this was their faith family were doing. He tried to follow another little boy out of the door, but before he escaped, a hand reached out to stop him. It was a hand of an elderly woman in a burka and as he turned to look into her face, her smile spread across her face. She passed him a lamb stuffed animal to play with while whispering to him in Arabic. He sat beside her mesmerized and I stopped and watched as I held back tears.

We insist on so many boundaries and barriers in our American culture. We insist and protect our privacy, our right to free speech, our right to worship or not worship, our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are missing so much life-giving, life-affirming love that comes from sitting together and reaching a hand out across those boundaries and barriers. Thanks be to God for this community of faith for their courage in inviting us, outsiders, into their community of faith for truly this is divine, mysterious, transformative, radical hospitality.

“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.”

On Bearing the Weight of Responsibility

There’s still a part of me that can’t believe the election results. A part of me that feels stuck in The Truman Show or Westworld or a narrative that takes an unexpected turn. I can’t believe the results because once I do believe them, I will have to bear the weight of responsibility of the role I played in these results.

I will have to admit and accept the times I wasn’t willing to engage or listen to someone who didn’t believe as I did. I will have to admit the times I have ignored, minimized, and judged complaints or hardships as no big deal from those I decided were too privileged to truly understand being an outsider. I will have to admit that I didn’t know there were so many people for whom our president-elect would strike a chord and speak to their realities in a way that offered hope.

But even more than these admissions, the hardest admission will be admitting that as a minister, I haven’t pushed hard enough to welcome and affirm all. If I’m honest with myself I have welcomed and affirmed those who have agreed with me, affirmed and supported my call as a woman in ministry, while holding those who don’t agree with me at arm’s length.

Most merciful God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done, and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart; I have not loved my neighbors as myself. I am truly sorry and I humbly repent, for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on me and forgive me; that I may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Episcopal Book of Common Prayer

I accept the weight of the responsibility of the part I played in the divisive, defensive, and judgmental rhetoric and all the times I have left undone the opportunities to offer hope and healing my neighbors, all of my neighbors. Thanks be to the merciful God who offers resurrection and new life.

Does a person who is homeless get to vote?

Yes, if…

they register to vote using a shelter where they are staying or listing the corner streets where they stay.

Yes, if…

they have lived where they are for 30 days.

Yes, if…

they have a valid ID.

Yes, if….

they have sent in an absentee ballot to where they were previously registered to vote.

Yes, if…

someone has taken the time and effort to help them get to a place where they can register to vote.

Yes, if…

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t have to overcome too many “ifs” to cast my vote this morning.

#vote