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Reversing Your Running Path

This morning, I knew it was time, but I didn’t want to.

I didn’t want to run the 3.5 mile course I run on Fridays in reverse. I didn’t want to because I knew it would disrupt and disorient me. Yes, I know all of the reasons as a runner why you should reverse your familiar paths. I know that if you don’t then your shoes wear down in very specific unhealthy ways. I know if you have a nagging recurring injury that reversing your running path can reverse the negative impact on that injury and reorient any compensating behaviors you’ve accidentally taken on. I know this, but I just didn’t want to.

I knew it would mean not seeing my familiar markers, knowing exactly how much further I had to go. I knew I’d encounter the shortcut option 2/3 into my run instead of 1/3 into my run. I knew that I wouldn’t know the exact number of blocks I had to run before the next turn because I wasn’t as familiar with the path from another angle. More than anything I knew that it would mean encountering a hill that rose incrementally and steadily rather than a steep short hill where I could clearly see the end in sight.

But I knew this was good for me and so I did it reluctantly.

As I ran from the safety of the sidewalk, I realized I couldn’t see clearly what was coming towards me, but rather that I heard what was coming first. As I ran I depended on my ears rather than my sight. I could feel my nagging right hamstring relax with relief as my left hamstring took on more. And I began to realize that reversing my running path was very similar to the discipline of renewing my mind as Paul reminds us in Romans 12:

12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual[b] worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

As someone who experienced spiritual abuse, it is so easy when I encounter something challenging to fall back into the familiar path of dogmatic, closed theology where everything has a reason and everything has an answer. It is much, much more difficult for me to reverse that pattern of thinking and lean into the disorientation of not having the familiar markers of known answers to the unexpectedness of life, but this doesn’t produce growth. This produces an unhealthy attachment to the theology that doesn’t fit and isn’t applicable at best and theology that hurts and maims at worst.

As I rounded the corner to the end of the run, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was finished. Done with reversing the path. Next week I could return to the familiar, known path. I looked down at my watch. I ran 25 seconds faster each mile than I had last week on the familiar, known path.

Maybe disruption and disorientation is what produces strength and growth as it wakes up our other senses and other muscles to something new.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: On Needing Control and Order

“So I see your child has your OCD a little bit, eh?”

I laughed at my friend’s comment shrugging it off as a funny quirk, but as I wrestled with this a little more, I began to uncover another remnant of the spiritual abuse I experienced growing up.

There was always a reason. It didn’t matter if a youth died unexpectedly or a minister engaged in an affair or if someone committed suicide, there was always a reason. God always had a plan. God’s will would always be done. Explanations and reasons that brought about an orderly understanding of the unexpectedness you’re bound to encounter if you live in this world long enough.

There was no room for chaos. The unexpected when encountered fit into a nice, neat theological box of certainty. In times of uncertainty and fear of the unknown, I feel myself reverting back; depending on order, not wanting to ride the waves of chaos; clinging desperately to what I was taught rather than leaning into experiencing the Divine.

There have been too many experiences already in my short tenure as a minister where I have encountered people hurting, gasping for breath after the unexpected wave life has thrown at them. As they have looked at me and asked, “Why?” I haven’t been able to offer those boxed answers of certainty; those flimsy, life-preserver reasons that we toss at people to avoid feeling their pain. Instead, I have tried to look at them and say, “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know, but here’s a warm towel and some cold water and I’ll sit right here with you.”

As we near the raging wind that brought tongues of fires to hover over the followers of Christ, I can’t help but wonder how I can avoid the numerous times chaos, the wilderness, the unknown, the rushing wind is a part and indeed central to the narrative of those who follow God. Perhaps in trying to tame Creator God and the Holy Spirit, we are missing the opportunity to participate in the magical, mystical, unexplainable work of the Divine.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: Having an Opinion

Elisabeth and I have embarked on a new adventure called The Minister and The Mystic. This new podcast is more real and true to our experiences and our stories . As we have talk each week, I become more and more aware of the impact spiritual abuse has had on my life. It’s overwhelming and scary to admit because I want so much to shed the past and move forward. Elisabeth gives me the courage to recognize and claim the spiritual abuse I’ve experienced as part of my story and yes, even part of my identity.

Part of that identity are leftovers and holdovers from the adherence to a strict set of dogmatic beliefs. One of these beliefs was the idea that women didn’t have their own voice in decision-making whether that be in church or in their families. I didn’t realize how much impact this teaching had on me. I didn’t realize the number of times I still pause in my closet asking myself what impact my decision about what clothes I choose to wear will have on other people; remnants of false teachings of sexuality that a woman is the one responsible for tempting a man by dressing a certain way.

I didn’t realize how I had been conditioned to anticipate and plan for other people’s needs to the point of forgetting my own needs. I didn’t realize how in conversations I had been conditioned to be a silent listener rather than an active participant who voiced opinions and experiences. I didn’t believe my opinions, my perspective, my take on the world mattered because there were absolute truths that superseded my voice.

I thought I didn’t have a choice in forming my voice. I thought I had to weigh my opinions against all the other voices swirling around in my head. These are the voices of spiritual abuse I must silence in order hear my own voice.

“What do you want?” my husband often asks me.

“I don’t know,” has long been my response because what I wanted was so entwined with other people’s wants and needs.

Slowly, but surely I am finding the courage to say what I want. Slowly, but surely I am wading through all the voices in my head that say don’t speak up and am sharing my opinions. Because my voice, my opinions, my story matters.

And so does yours.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: Alternative Facts

I ran across an article yesterday that there is archaeological evidence that in the early Christian Church there were female priests. Female priest administering communion. Female priests depicted with raised hands offering benediction, blessings, or perhaps even the word of God. I was shocked because I hadn’t heard this story. I was convinced that this was breaking news only to discover that the article was almost four years old.

Four years that there have been discussions about the role women played in the early church. Four years in which I have been ordained and called to pastor and I had no idea the conversation was going on. How could I, a woman in ministry, have missed something so relevant to my own life experience and calling?

Because we hear what we want to hear. Researches have discovered that the power of stating something that is false, is just as powerful as stating something that is true because:

“Once formed,” the researchers observed dryly, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.”

Impression is just as powerful as Truth? Surely not! Doesn’t Truth win out?

Even after the evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,” the researchers noted. In this case, the failure was “particularly impressive,” since two data points would never have been enough information to generalize from.

The Stanford studies became famous. Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now. Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way?

Evidently not. We believe what we want to believe. We don’t research to determine if what we are saying or what we are passing along is Truth and once we leak these impressions, they’re hard to shake in our own minds and in the minds of the people we’re sharing with.

If there is a place where this happens again and again, it’s in communities of faith where reason is often placed on hold and making a leap of faith is encouraged, but when faith begins to be tainted with manipulation and coercion, when false impressions are giving with the purpose of oppression and silencing people, it is not faith. It is spiritual abuse.

It’s hard to swallow the truth that there are ministers and communities of faith who are interested not in the work of God, but in increasing their own wealth and their own power and their own prestige. But there are. It’s hard to swallow the truth that there are victims of spiritual abuse who have been told they aren’t good enough and shouldn’t trust themselves on purpose to ensure adherence to dogmatic teachings. But there are.

These are not alternative facts, but real people’s stories.

Perhaps churches wouldn’t be in decline if we were able to accept this Truth rather than clinging to impressions of what we want to be true, but I know some of you won’t believe this because you don’t believe study after study that reveals the churches are in fact in decline. This is what happens when the need to cling to impressions is stronger than the desire to search for Truth.

Spiritual Abuse and Grief

I didn’t realize the disconnect until I heard a reflection from one of my friend’s about the experience of attending a funeral and having an altar call. An altar call is a common part of evangelical communities of faith that invites people attending to “get right with the Lord” to “rededicate their lives” or to “make a profession of faith” or more simply to join of a community of faith with a congregational polity.

All of these terms are insider terms, I’ve heard my whole life. It didn’t ever seem odd to me to have an altar call at a funeral because altar calls were as common a part of the worship experience as singing the Gloria Patri or the Doxology are to other communities of faith. These liturgical elements of worship don’t stand out when you are one of the insiders who is accustomed to them.

But when we change funerals to celebrations of life, which there is good reason both theologically and emotionally for doing, we also run the risk of confining grieving loved ones to an expected reaction to death. When we say, “well, at least he or she is in a better place” or the like, then we are saying that you, loved one of the departed shouldn’t be upset or sad because you wouldn’t really choose this existence over heaven, would you? Guilt and shame and anxiety heaped on top of grief.

This is spiritual abuse.

Instead of dictating how people should respond to the shocking reality that someone they loved isn’t here, what if instead, we opted to not shroud death and grief in canned theological responses and simply allowed people to grieve, whichever and whatever way they needed to grieve in that moment, in that day.

A key part of spiritual abuse is coercion to a set of expected behaviors. Grief is not expected or controlled nor should it be. One of the reason communities of faith are so full of spiritual abuse is our need for control, predictability, and order.

But what if God is found not in the predictability and order, but in the unpredictability chaos that is life and death. Perhaps this week more than any other week as we follow Jesus and his disciples to the cross, we would do well to feel the loss and chaos and grief the disciples and loved ones in Jesus’ life felt as he was crucified on the cross. What if instead of skipping over Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to get to Easter morning, we sat in the grief and confusion and chaos of death as so many in our communities of faith are.

Perhaps then we could sit with those who have felt grief and loss so deeply and actually minister to them rather than adding spiritual abuse to their lives in a time of vulnerability.

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.

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.

Spiritual Abuse and Homelessness

Yesterday as we gathered for our weekly chapel service at Transitions Homeless Shelter, I was nervous.

We usually follow the lectionary and the passage this week was from John 9:

9:1 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.

9:2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

9:3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.

I knew from the conversations and prayer requests I had heard each week that there were many people who were gathered who had heard these common refrains from religious leaders and people about their situations. “You need to get up and get going. Find some work, whatever it is and just do it.” “You’ve made some bad decisions and this is where those decisions landed you.” “You have to work. You can’t be lazy. You have to work hard for the blessings God has for you.”

As I read the gospel passage, I just asked one question, “How many of you have been told you are where you are because you have sinned, which is what the disciples are assuming about the blind man that Jesus encounters.” Hands went up around the room and heads nodded.

Before even hearing their stories, people assume they know why these gathered at the homeless shelter had ended up homeless. Many of the people they encountered were Christians, disciples, just like the disciples in this story, who were repeating beliefs about how someone ends up homeless and the connection to sin.

Jesus said to the disciples and to those gathered yesterday for chapel, “Neither this man (or you!) nor his parents have sinned.”

When we assume people have sinned and as a result have ended up homeless, we relieve ourselves of the responsibility of analyzing the vast privilege and racial inequality that exists in our society. A society that benefits certain kinds of people and delivers devastating blows to others. This is spiritual abuse. It is using religion to alleviate the role we play in continuing privilege. This is not the gospel.

When we assume that the only thing people who are homeless need is to be saved, we miss the opportunity to see the rich and real faith that exists in the hearts and souls of people who are homeless. This is spiritual abuse. When we assume people aren’t saved because they are homeless, we are defining and restricting Christianity to a certain race and socioeconomic status. This is not the gospel.

Maybe Jesus asks his disciples to welcome the stranger in, to clothe those who are naked, and to give food to those who are hungry because when we do, we get to know people instead of labels, and we begin to understand that we are the very ones who have caused the stranger to be excluded, people to be naked, and people to be hungry. Maybe Jesus asks us to do unto the least of these as we would do unto him because then we would uncover the spiritual abuse that blinds us to our responsibility to bring the kingdom of God here on earth.

And maybe the disciples in the gospel lesson are asking the very questions we should be asking out loud, so that Jesus can teach us how our beliefs need to be challenged and examined.