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The Power to Condemn and Spiritual Abuse

I’ve been condemned to hell more than once. I’ve been on personal prayer lists, Sunday School prayer lists, and prayer lists of communities of faith because I have “stepped out of God’s will” and “off the beaten path.” When I expressed a call to preach and pastor, it caused quite a few theological crises because as a woman I wasn’t supposed to be called to preach or pastor.

There are a couple of possible reactions that someone, like me, who presents a theological crisis to an individual or a community of faith, receives: acceptance or condemnation. If an individual or community accepts the “wanderer”, then the others within the faith community may also begin to question and challenge the teachings of that community causing more to wander away. If this “wanderer” is condemned by an individual or a community of faith, then the equilibrium is kept. Power is kept in the hands of the powerful. Followers are reminded of what happens when you step out of line: you become an outsider. The power to condemn is a purposeful use of language that maintains control and order.

The power to condemn is a purposeful use of language that maintains control and order while keeping power in the hands of the powerful. This is spiritual abuse.

Because I was born and raised in this theology, I know the line of reasoning. So, when I am condemned to hell, I don’t merely accept this conclusion but attempt to diffuse it.

“But I thought only God could judge or condemn someone.”

“That’s right, He is the ultimate judge.”

“Then, why are you condemning me to hell for answering a call to pastor and preach.”

“I’m not. I’m just…I’m just saying you need to be careful.”

“Ok, thanks, I will be.”

My response may sound flippant, but these encounters have been intense and painful experiences for me. In more than one instance after I have been condemned to hell, I have ended up in my closet crying and doubting myself and my call wondering whether I was indeed “off the beaten path” and “out of God’s will.” The reason spiritual abuse is so powerful is that it produces self-doubt, shame, and insecurity. It cripples those who have experienced it from being their true and whole selves.

If you haven’t condemned a fellow human to damnation and warned them of the danger of the path they are taking, it would be hard for you to imagine this conversation or interaction. But as someone who has both condemned fellow humans to damnation as well as wrestled with the inhumanity of that use of language, I understand the impact it can have.

As Hurricane Irma draws near, people are looking for something or someone to condemn; they are looking for a theological reason for Irma and Harvey to have hit where they have hit. “Ahh Orlando, isn’t that where the Pulse nightclub is?” I hope you haven’t heard these types of theological explanations for the disaster and devastation as I hope you haven’t heard them for you being yourself, but if you have, know that you are not alone.

I’m here “out of God’s will” and “off the beaten path,” ready to welcome you and affirm your courage and bravery in being who you are.

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.

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.

The Role of Doubt in Spiritual Abuse

If you are wondering if you have experienced spiritual abuse and you find yourself in a cycle of uncertainty, this doubt may be an strong indication that you have indeed suffered spiritual abuse. Doubt plays an important role in spiritual abuse in that it makes the victims of spiritual abuse doubt themselves and doubt their strength. If you doubt yourself, then you need religious leaders who have authority over you to tell you who you are. If you doubt your ability to interpret scripture, then you need religious leaders to interpret scripture and tell you how it applies to your life. Doubt produces a co-dependence that sets the foundation for the coercion and manipulation of spiritual abuse. Doubt keeps power and authority in the hands of religious leaders.

It’s this doubt that I find the hardest to overcome because it has crept into my ability even to decide what I want for dinner. I get so overwhelmed and overly concerned about speaking my mind and making a decision that would impact others. This toiling in uncertainty and anxiety is a sign of spiritual abuse.

When we doubt our true self and our instincts, then our potential impact is diminished. It isn’s hard to understand what role this doubt, anxiety, and uncertainty plays in women. If communities of faith can focus spiritual abuse silencing and oppressing women, then the collective power and potential of women can be diminished and controlled. This is not a coincidence. This is spiritual abuse.

In order to overcome spiritual abuse, victims must wrestle with the doubt and anxiety of making a wrong decision or not being sure of themselves. It is essential that instead of weighing decisions based on what others will think about me or whether others will get upset with me, decisions are weighed against Truth and Light. Does this bring more Light and Truth? Does this bring more hope and healing?

It may seem misguided to think of making a decision about dinner in light of Truth and Light and hope and healing, but when we do, then we begin to understand that some decisions just aren’t worth the doubt and anxiety we choose to continue to wallow in because they just don’t matter on a greater and higher plain. Asking these questions, will release us from the spiraling of the inconsequential and invite us into higher and greater work. When we can release the doubt and anxiety that spiritual abuse has brought into our lives, we are free to be our true selves: children of God and children of Light transforming darkness into miraculous Creation.

A Vow to Create

The spiritual practice of engaging in a vow of silence is a discipline that comes to us from the monastic tradition. It’s a spiritual practice that is centuries old. The idea being that that silence “is a means to access the deity, to develop self-knowledge, or to live more harmoniously.” Silent retreats have been opened to people seeking a re-centering and a renewed focus.

But at this time and place, a vow of silence is not what I need. I need a vow to create. I need to engage in the holy work of trying to create order out of chaos; beauty out of pain; joy out of grief.

I vow to create sanctuary: safe places to explore what God is calling you to do and who God is calling you to become.

I vow to create time and space for reading, research, and reflection pursuing this journey of becoming.

I vow to create table fellowship sharing the body of Christ and the cup of salvation with those gathered around God’s table.

I vow to create journal entries, blog posts, poetry, and, yes, maybe even a book to share stories, ideas, hopes, and dreams.

I vow to create chocolate chip cookies, pumpkin muffins, banana bread, potato soup, and broccoli and cheese soup to offer nourishment to body and soul.

I vow to create towers of cups and blocks that most certainly will be knocked down by a 14 month old accompanied by cackles and giggles.

I vow to create new recipes, not knowing if they will be good or bad.

I vow to create bathtub explorations that involve pipes transformed into snorkeling gear in underwater adventures.

I vow to create french braids that will probably fall out and have to be re-created.

I vow to co-create alongside the people of God using their God-given gifts to change the world.

I vow to co-create alongside Creator God, working and striving, however slowly, towards….

And it was good.

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.

Old Paths, New Insights

Sun Through the Clouds

I found myself running the stop sign run at my parents’ house this weekend. It’s uphill to the end of their street where a stop sign sits at the crossroads to the main road. As I tried to convince my legs and lungs that I had done this run many, many times before, I remembered the summers I spent training for field hockey fighting the same grueling incline, but this was different because instead of worrying about increasing my speed or pace, I was just worried about making it to the stop sign and still being able to breath. As I was running my thoughts weren’t preoccupied with homework and papers, but was busy working on Sunday’s sermon and an ordination homily.

I was overwhelmed by the familiar sounds of crickets, of horse tails swishing, of the leaves rustling, sounds that are hard to find in my busy life. I watched one yellow leaf fall to the ground and heard the wind and watching Fall slowly creep in, one leaf at time. I neared the middle of the path where the woods hid houses, I remembered to watch my feet for critters crawling across the path to the other side of wooded sanctuary. I sidestepped as a millipede crawled by.

As my feet hit the ground, I knew that this is what life is: it’s the seconds and minutes that we often run through not noticing anything or anyone around us until we come to those stop signs. The ones that stop us in our tracks, make us gasp for breath because they remind us of how fleeting life is. Those are the moments that stop our busy minds and feet, but once we are stilled, we don’t know where we are. And in those moments of grief, of uncertainity, of wondering what life is all about, we often ask where is God?

God is with us and among us in the swishing of horse tails, in a single, yellow falling leaf, in a crawling millipede, if we but open our eyes to see.

The Stillness and the Silence

The streetlights had not yet gone off. There were murmurings from the houses that families were waking up to go to school, to go to work, to start the day. As Willie and Waylon and I ran by, the stillness and the silence of the day surrounded us.

The quiet was a stark reminder of how much noise I have in my life. The dishwasher running, baby toys singing, collars jingling. Noise that reminds us of life and of discovery, but also noise that distracts and dictates a busy life jumping from one activity to another. In the midst of these distractions, I find myself often running from the stillness and silence rather than running to the stillness and silence. I create more noise: fingers typing on a keyboard, hymns hummed while cooking, always moving about.

And after the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire came a gentle whisper.

In creating and craving noise, I wonder if maybe we are missing God.  When we quiet our minds, our bodies, our souls, we, like Elijah, we might be invited into the presence of the Lord. When we do, we might uncover that our calling to follow God is in the midst of the noise of God’s people tearing down altars, breaking covenants, and even in the midst of prophets being killed.

But it’s only in the stillness and silence that we uncover our tendency to run when God’s call asks us to risk our statuses and our privilege. It’s only in the stillness and silence that we discover whether we will follow after God only when convenient or comfortable or whether we will follow God not knowing where the path leads.

The Sound of Sleeping

Summertime brings longer visits with our girls and longer times when all three of our kids together. Last night as we came back to our house, the 7 month old and I from a week at General Assembly and Sam and the girls from a trip from Asheville, the house slowly began to settle into the sounds of sleep that heavy breathing that turns into snoring. Willie, ever the nanny dog, wandered from room to room checking to make sure he heard the soft snoring or quiet from each child before finally settling in our room.

As I listened to the sounds of sleeping taking over our house, I thought of those overnight visits at grandma’s house in which we are all nestled into one room: Ben in the pack and play, the girls on pallets in the floor, and how well they sleep when we are all together. Our western idea of family is that we have rooms for the kids, rooms for the parents, rooms for cooking and eating and living. But this wasn’t always the care. We aren’t too far removed from a time when there were one-room homes. Homes in which everyone was together. Homes in which you could always hear the sounds of sleeping as you nestled into bed at night. Homes where you didn’t need sound machines to mimic the white noise of living and sleeping in close proximity to each other.

And churches were the same way: one room to gather for worship, one room to gather to pray, one room to gather for news. But as we have “advanced” we have built bigger buildings. Buildings with more walls, more divisions, more opportunities to sort and label each other, more opportunities to be separated forgetting that just on the other side of the wall is another human. Perhaps if we concentrated on gathering together, of occupying the same space where we can hear each other cough, sneeze, and breathe, we would be reminded of each other’s humanity. Perhaps if we concentrated on gathering together, of occupying the same space we would begin to question why we built the walls and divisions in the first place. Was it to allow more people in or has it kept people divided and separate?

Perhaps if we gathered together and occupied the same space without words spoken and settled instead into being present with one another, we would hear each other’s breathing and remember how miraculous that breathing really is. Perhaps if we gathered together and occupied the same space without words spoken, our breathing would start to develop a harmonious rhythm as we slowly began to breathe together. And perhaps in the synchronized rhythm, we would hear the sounds not of sleeping, but of peace beginning  to wash over our churches and communities as we sat together without worry or concern of being attacked, labeled, or excluded, and instead breathing that divine breath Creator God shared with us.

You Cannot Serve

I remember in seminary, discussing a case study in which someone was asking to become a member of Baptist church. In the case study, the person had been baptized as an infant and did not want to be rebaptized. This was rich fodder for us as future ministers because many of us were serving in Baptist congregation who had similar membership requirements. The discussion was important because membership in the case study, and in many of our ministry contexts, was tied to the ability to volunteer or become a deacon. In the case of the person in the case study, the church refused to offer this person membership as many of my classmates concluded would happen in their own ministry contexts.

In other words, the church gets to decide who is in and who is out. Is it a wonder why there is a stark decline in membership? Every year 2.7 million church members fall into inactivity. Not only are people not becoming members of congregations, but those who are members aren’t involved anymore. If you can make it through the membership hoops that many congregations require, you still might be told you cannot serve based on your gender or your sexual orientation. For many communities of faith, wanting to volunteer to serve is dependent on fitting biblical interpretation that excludes and discriminates against women and members of the LGTBQ community.

If you have never been told because of your gender or because of your sexual orientation that you cannot serve as a volunteer at a church, then you have a privilege many people don’t. If you have never doubted that you would be able to be involved in church activities included leading Sunday School, chaperoning youth trips, and serving as a deacon, you have a privilege many people don’t. If you have never been told, you cannot serve based on who you are, you have a privilege many don’t. There is too much to do and too much need for churches to be deciding who can and cannot serve God and help those in need. This is spiritual abuse.

If you find yourself as one of the many who churches have told you cannot serve because of who you are, join us at ministrieslab.