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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.

 

 

The Future of the Church and Spiritual Abuse

I was asked recently by a reader whether I thought there was a connection between spiritual abuse victims and the repression of spiritual gifts, which made me think about a connection that has been ruminating in my heart and mind for quite awhile. From the number of people I have heard from who have experienced and are recovering from communities of faith that engaged in spiritual abuse, I have to wonder whether the use of spiritual abuse to coerce unquestioned adherence is the culprit for the decline we see across the board in mainline Protestant congregations. If spiritual abuse results in power retention in those who already have power, then there is a whole generation of young people who were raised in churches and communities of faith tainted by spiritual abuse whose voices, ideas, and, yes, spiritual gifts have been silenced. Those young people raised in these community of faiths would now be adults. Adults whose age happen to correspond with the missing demographic in most churches: the millennials.

Perhaps the rise of the nones and the decline in church attendance is because of the rampant spiritual abuse that has crept into and overtaken our communities of faith. Perhaps the next generation of church leaders and ministers weren’t ever allowed to voice or express their calls to ministry, and so instead have found places to express their calls to ministry in other ways. Perhaps the next generation of ministers have created churches in bars, nightclubs, clothing stores, financial advisor offices, and restaurants because that’s where they have been able to find employment. These would have been ministers can’t help but pour drinks, DJ, restock shelves, plan for your retirement, and serve food without using those spiritual gifts that found no place in their communities of faith. They, like Mary and Joseph, have found no room or warmth in churches and so instead have formed congregations, places of worship, and spaces for others like them to bring their gifts to lay at Jesus’ feet in the most unlikely places.

And now churches are interested in drawing in millennials because churches are starting to realize that millennials have overtaken Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation. Churches can no longer depend on the financial safety net of Baby Boomers. So, churches are desperately trying to woo the millennial back into their sanctuaries and back into giving pledges with overhauls in worship style and book studies about millennial culture, all the while avoiding the difficult conversations about spiritual abuse that’s being practiced through exclusion of members of the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and women. Those who have experienced spiritual abuse and have fought the hard battle of recovering and found faith again, are not going to be willing to participate in communities of faith still tainted and overrun with spiritual abuse practices.

The most important issue our communities of faith need to be addressing is not the decline in church attendance or giving, but why this is happening. Answering that question will require churches and church leaders to take a long, hard look at how they have participated in a culture of hate, exclusion, and spiritual abuse. But don’t expect these conversations to happen without a fight. Those who have engaged in spiritual abuse practices in order to maintain power have proven they are willing to use any means, even holy scripture, to protect their positions of power and privilege.

When It’s Too Much to Bear

So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

I’ve heard this passage preached many times and always the conclusion I heard was that God has not given you more than you can handle nor will God ever give you more than you can handle. The times in my life when the brokenness and pain and evil that exists in our world has been it’s too much to bear, I have always felt a deep sense of shame. I’ve put on a brave face and acted as if the brokenness and pain and evil doesn’t exist and refused to listen to stories or remember because if it’s too much to bear, than my faith is not strong enough.

But I’ve looked at this passage again and I think this is another example of a passage of scripture that has been misinterpreted through our individualistic, self-centered, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, American Christianity. This is a letter to the church of Corinth and when Paul uses “you” here, he’s not using the singular form of you. He’s using the plural form.

In other words,

God is faithful and he will not give y’all be tested beyond y’all’s strength.

It’s not that we as individuals have to be strong enough to bear the brokenness and pain and evil in the world. It’s that the church, the people of God, our communities of faith have to be strong enough to bear the brokenness and pain and evil in this world.

But our churches can’t get to this kind of strength until we stop using the church for our own financial security, self-worth, and salve for our insecurities. Our churches can’t get to this kind of strength until we stop avoiding looking at the brokenness and pain and evil in the world in our Bible studies, in our prayers, and in our preaching. Our churches can’t get to this kind of strength until we stop making church about us and start being real and authentic and honest.

When it’s the brokenness and evil and pain is too much to bear, we need the church to stand strong, but in a time when brokenness and evil and pain are so prevalent, the church has fallen. Be careful, if you think your church is standing and not talking about the brokenness and evil and pain that exists. Y’all, too, will fall.

The Temptation of Spiritual Abuse

Now that I am a religious leader and a religious authority, I understand how quickly patterns of spiritual abuse can be established, even when you don’t intend to do so. I understand that sermon preparation can change so easily from exegesis to isogesis, from relaying what the biblical text says to what I want the biblical text to say. I can understand how the pulpit can transform from the holy desk to a soapbox to share my opinions and beliefs rather than to encourage each individual in the congregation to wrestle with the text.

Because as a spiritual leader, inevitably, you find yourself in situations where you are asked what needs to happen or what the church should do in response to a situation or what a biblical passage means and it’s so tempting in those moments with all eyes on you to answer authoritatively and confidently providing “the right answer.” After all, isn’t this why you went to seminary? Isn’t this where the long hours in the library and in commentaries and in research were meant to bring you?

When we, as religious leaders and authorities, become the only voice of authority for our parishioners, we miss the opportunity to shepherd our congregations. Shepherding is walking beside God’s people, gently guiding them to the path God has called them to follow, allowing them to live into the call to be disciples of Christ, not us. But having disciples, having fans, people who believe that we we do and what we say can’t ever be wrong is tempting in a life of ministry that is often lonely and asks us to give our whole selves to serving God’s people.

The temptation to use our positions of power as religious leaders and authorities is tempting, especially when we believe we are using our power for good, but our call is to speak God’s word to God’s people, not to be God for God’s people. May we be reminded of the holy work we are called to do and the very real temptations that are part of that calling.

The Signs of Spiritual Abuse

As one who has awakened from spiritual abuse, I feel the great need to share my story in order that others may have the space and the place to voice their experiences and begin to heal. My hope in sharing these signs of spiritual abuse is that we may be able to uncover and recover from the misuse of religion and church and transform religion and church into a vehicle by which hurt and pain are healed not inflicted.

To that end, here are some signs of spiritual abuse that may help you as you are ministering to those who have experienced spiritual abuse or as you yourself heal from spiritual abuse:

Guilt and Shame: In a culture of spiritual abuse, guilt and shame are used as motivators of allegiance. Individuals who question or challenge the belief system are shamed by religious leaders so that their voices are not heard. With this shame comes guilt. With this guilt comes low self-esteem and the feeling of not being good enough, faithful enough, or devout enough. These are all tools used to maintain power in the hands of those in religious authority.

Anxiety: In a culture of spiritual abuse, there is always someone watching, at least this is what spiritual leaders and authorities tell individuals in that belief system. This ever-present watchful eye produces anxiety for the individual who is constantly trying to make “the right decision,” in order to be considered good and faithful. This anxiety often leads to extreme indecision because the individual is always looking to the religious leader or authority for “the right answer.”

Pride: In a culture of spiritual abuse, the religious leader or authority has an answer for every situation and every circumstance. The religious leader or authority then teaches these answers and response to his community of faith. Knowing “the right answer” brings pride to the community, but sharing “the right answer” with those who don’t know brings even more pride, so that conversions and re-dedications to “the right answer” are celebrated, counted, and exploited.

Exclusion: In a culture of spiritual abuse, there is a us vs. them subtext that runs through all teaching and preaching. Most often this takes the form of the unbeliever and the believer. Sometimes this takes the form of “the world” and us. These strict dichotomies are dangerous because they do not allow for the individual to be unique. Group normative faith expressions are celebrated and individual expressions of faith are guilted and shamed.