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Words Floating Overhead

For as long as I can remember, I had words floating overhead and in my head and around my head. But for a long time I didn’t have many words to share. I was an incredibly shy child.

For a long time the words floating overhead were overwhelming, intimidating, and unreachable. I knew they were there. I knew they were there for me. But I didn’t know how and when I was supposed to grab them and let them enter into the world of conversations and discussions among people.

I remember in high school the words weighing heavily on my shoulder when I was being encouraged to prepare to be a godly wife and to learn what it meant to be a lady in waiting. I remember thinking to myself, but what about these words. These words that need to be said. Words that need to be heard.

I tried to articulate this and was asked why it had to be me who spoke. Why was I the one who had to share these words? Couldn’t I give these words to a father or brother or my future husband to speak?

I knew I couldn’t because these words are my words; words only I can share. But I also knew these words weren’t words that people would want to hear. They were pot-stirring, trying-to-get-something-started words.

And so for years, I left them there floating overhead not wanting to stir anything up, wanting people to like me, not wanting to disappoint.

But these words are too important now.

Something has to change.

We can’t keep identifying as people of faith and not seeing each other. We can’t keep pretending to be people of faith and engage in an economic system that offers us privilege while our neighbors starve. We can’t keep calling ourselves Christ followers and not associate with the very people Christ ate and fellowshipped with.

And we can’t keep justifying our places of privilege because it makes us comfortable or because we are scared for the future of our families. There are too many of our neighbors who have been afraid of their futures and afraid of whether they will have a future for too long. If we loved our neighbor as ourself, we would be fighting against systems and institutions that discriminate, exclude, and belittle.

But we don’t.

We love ourselves. We love our houses. We love our stuff. We love our privilege.

Spiritual Abuse and Alton Sterling and Philando Castile

Two men were killed by police authorities this week. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. If you are like me, you want to know how and why this happened because you can’t sit in the truth that this is the way the world is and this is the way the world will be because #blacklivesmatter.

In the case of Philando Castile, the name of the officer involved has not been released.In the case of Alton Sterling, the names of the police officers involved in the fatal shooting have been released. Information has been released about Howie Lake II. He was put on leave in 2014 for his involvement in another shooting while on duty. He also won the “life saving” award in 2015.

And if you continue to dig, then you can find out that he went to a private, Christian high school called Parkview Baptist High School in Baton Rouge. A school that upholds the “Old and New Testament verbally-inspired by God and inerrant in the original writings.”  A school whose students are “committed to a biblical worldview and Christian values.”

The intermingling of church and state has serious ramifications in how our society and public institutions operate. When we have police officers outside our churches controlling traffic, protecting people of certain churches, a powerful message is communicated. When we have security guards in some communities of faith and in others, a stranger is welcomed in regardless of skin color, we know something is not right.

If we think religion doesn’t impact politics and government authority in America, we aren’t being merely naive, we are being complacent with communities of faith who teach some are better than others, whether that be in regards to race, gender, or sexuality. This is spiritual abuse.

Churches must have the difficult conversations that challenge privilege and instead loving our neighbors as ourselves. Churches must have the difficult conversation about welcoming all people in radical hospitality regardless of race, gender, or sexuality.

Churches must not be the place we were go to feel safe, but where we go to find Jesus. And we will only find Jesus in our churches if our churches include the people Jesus fellowshipped with, not the religious authorities, not the government authorities, but the ones oppressed, excluded, and yes even killed by those authorities.

 

The Importance of Naming Spiritual Abuse

As I hear more and more stories of spiritual abuse, I am discovering that many people who are victims of spiritual abuse shy away from saying they experienced spiritual abuse. I understand their sentiments because to name yourself as someone who has experienced spiritual abuse is to identify a community of faith as a place where spiritual abuse has taken place. If you have experienced spiritual abuse, then you know the consequences of questioning this type of power.

So, thank you, to those readers who have shared their stories with me. It has made me feel like I am not alone, but more importantly, you have done powerful work for those who are in the midst of spiritual abuse because you have named their experience as something real. By naming and claiming your experience as spiritual abuse, you have given life to the truth that spiritual abuse happens and is happening in communities of faith.

When God asked Adam to name the creation in the Genesis 2, it was a demonstration that Adam held dominion over these creatures, dominion that Creator God had entrusted to Adam. In the same way, those who lead God’s people have been given called to name what God is telling God’s people about themselves. When ministers and spiritual leaders, name one of God’s creations as unworthy or excluded the process of naming becomes labeling. Instead of this act of naming being life-giving, it is life-draining.

Using God’s calling as a minister to promote some as more worthy and more important is spiritual abuse. Naming this act of spiritual abuse, reveals the misuse of dominion and how easily naming can become name calling.

To you who have been called names by religious leaders and followers of Christ, hear now the word of the Lord:

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

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.

A Mass Shooting and Spiritual Abuse

Yesterday, the alternate reading for the lectionary was Psalm 5:1-8:

Psalm 5:1-8
5:1 Give ear to my words, O LORD; give heed to my sighing.
5:2 Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray.
5:3 O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.
5:4 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you.
5:5 The boastful will not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.
5:6 You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.
5:7 But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house, I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you.
5:8 Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.

I was drawn to preach this psalm this week even though it asked me to wrestle with the misinterpretation of an Old Testament God who is full of wrath and encounter an Almighty God who does not delight in wickedness and hates all evildoers. Even as I preached this psalm and reflected on the mass shooting in Orlando, I knew what was going to happen. I grew up in a community of faith that turned passages of scripture into justification for theological dogma regardless of their historical or literary contexts. This community of faith did the same with current events. Nothing would shake the dogmatic teachings they believed in, not even death, not even 50 deaths, not even the deadliest mass shooting in American history. I knew even as I preached that there would be people who would take to social media and spread their message fueled with spiritual abuse to anyone who would hear it, disregarding the lives lost and the families mourning. I knew there would be people who claimed that those who had been murdered somehow deserved it because of their sexual orientation.

This is spiritual abuse.

Clinging so tightly to dogma that it prevents compassion, grief, and love in the midst of death does nothing to spread God’s love and bring the kingdom of God here on earth. Instead it excuses us from loving our neighbor or welcoming those who have been systematically discriminated against and numbs our hearts and souls to the point of reducing human life to a lesson to be learned. This kind of biblical interpretation frees the believer from any action and encourage hate-filled judgement recited like a trained parrot.

But even in the midst of this spiritual abuse that tries to claim that these lives lost were worth nothing, there are voices rising up, voices full of creativity and love, full of the resurrected Christ that offer new life. May I be one of those voices that proclaims loudly that those 50 people held the divine breath within them as a creation of Creator God. May I continue to wrestle with my own dustiness that threatens to convince me that this life is too fleeting to offer any real change or hope to the world acknowledging the divine breath within my own soul that promises transformation if I but breathe deeply.

Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.

I’m Sorry You Felt That, But…”

I haven’t always talked about the things that are difficult to talk about, the things no one wants to talk about.

I used to avoid conflict and difficult conversations like mosquitos in the summer SC heat. The reason I didn’t push or probe or question was because often when I did, I would get the response, “I’m sorry you felt that, but…” followed by an explanation of how my instincts and intuitions were wrong. I heard it so often that I learned to silence and squelch the feeling I got that something was just not right.

And I know I am not alone.

I know there are many, many people, particularly women, who have found themselves in discriminatory environments and practices and have voiced what they instinctually and intuitively know is wrong only to be met by, “I’m sorry you felt that, but…” This rhetorical dismissal of a legitimate concern about creating equality for men and women, members of the LGTBQ community, and immigrants and outsiders, is something we can’t say we feel sorry about and then dismiss the way we continue to protect and maintain the status quo with an explanation that alleviates our guilt.

This is privilege at its worst.

I simply can’t ignore the way rhetoric is used to create spaces that are unsafe for victims and the marginalized because when we do, we continue to create entitlement and privilege that leads to systems that protect the abuser and discriminates against the victim. We create systems where former children’s ministers are not held accountable for inappropriate behavior and are then employed by school districts and charged with inappropriate contact with a child. 

Dismissing and belittling someone’s experience by saying, “I’m sorry you felt that, but…” sets the stage for continued silencing, oppression, and manipulation. Silencing, oppression, and manipulation set the stage for sexual harassment, molestation, and sexual abuse. And when this happens in communities of faith and theological interpretation is added for dismissing someone’s concern, it becomes spiritual abuse.

When you say nothing, do nothing, and dismiss others by saying, “I’m sorry you felt that, but…”, you are contributing to silence and oppress voices that matter; voices that have already experienced too much hurt and pain; voices of the people who Jesus ate with and healed.

 

 

A Story of Spiritual Abuse

She had been a member of the youth ministry for six weeks. She had just moved to the area and although her family had always been to church, it hadn’t been this kind of church. She was immediately picked out by her Sunday School teacher who told her she was a “bright young woman.” He explained to her that he hoped he could help her discover more about who God was calling her to be.

He offered her books. Books that explained a woman’s role and the importance of guarding her chastity as her most prized possession. She was flattered by his compliments and his attention, but something about the books and his Sunday School lessons didn’t sit right with her. At her old church, there had been men and women who gave announcements, who read scripture, who participated in the worship service. In this church, there was only a row of suits every Sunday facing the congregations like kings in the high-backed chairs waiting to be served.

Her Sunday School teacher asked her about the books he had given her and she explained that she had a lot of questions. He told her she could ask any question she wanted to and that it was good that she was learning and engaging with the book. The next Sunday, she asked her question in Sunday School in front of the whole class.

“So why aren’t there any women who take part in the worship service?” she asked as he finished announcements.

“I didn’t ask if there were any questions,” he explained as his face began to flush.

She looked down at the table, took out her Bible, and didn’t say another word. After Sunday School, he came over to her. She knew she had done something wrong, but she could’t figure it out. Hadn’t he told her to ask questions? She knew he was not happy.

“You’re rebellious. God is not pleased,” he uttered as he brushed brusquely past her.

Rebellious? For asking questions? Was God really not pleased with her? Surely, he would know whether God was pleased, after all,  he was a Sunday School teacher.

Do We Have to Welcome and Affirm All?

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As the conversation about gender and sexuality is more prevalent in American culture, the question, “Do we have to welcome and affirm all?” is circulating in churches.

Some churches are responding to these conversations and this question by expressing their rights as religious institutions to express condemnation and judgement. Some churches are responding to these conversations and this question by expressing that it seems like churches are being asked to be politically correct and not faithful, even calling on people who have been saved from homosexuality to speak out. Some churches have even decided to identify as welcoming, but not affirming, but have found grave difficulty in the practical implementation of this theological tenet.

Yesterday, as I lead worship at Transitions with Ministrieslab, I was struck by the reflections of those gathered about being homeless and how people perceive you. “I know this sounds crazy and most people won’t believe me, but homelessness is the best choice I made because I chose a life away from addiction and constantly being in that environment. This is my new life.”

I can’t help but feel the same way. As a woman called to preach, coming out as a woman preacher was the best decision I made. It caused me to cut ties with a past of spiritual abuse and step into a future full of resurrection.

But my story, the stories of members of LGTBQ community, and the story I heard at Transitions challenge the church that has created discriminatory membership practices that teach some people are welcomed and affirmed by God and others aren’t. As churches and denominations continue to debate whether they should welcome and affirm all, those of us who have been rejected, silenced, and treated as outsiders will continue to gather, continue to worship, and continue to tell our stories.

And once churches and denominations have settled on this question, they just might find themselves without members as the rest of us work to bring the kingdom of God here on earth by partnering with organizations who are busy helping rather than busy debating.

You Wouldn’t Want to Work in That Church, Would You?

As I have shared some of my pastor search experiences as a female pastor, I have often gotten the response from colleagues, “But you wouldn’t want to work in that church, would you?”

“That” church is meant to describe churches that “aren’t ready” for a female senior pastor. At first when I was asked this question, I wholeheartedly agreed, “Yeah, you know it’s not really worth it if a church is not ready,” but recently I’ve changed my response.

The thing is I am not applying to Southern Baptist Churches who publicly announce that they don’t allow or call women as senior pastors and disassociate with churches who call women as pastors or associate pastors because they don’t believe women are called to that type of leadership. I am applying to churches who are affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a fellowship that claims as one of its founding principles support of women in ministry. These are the congregations who are supposed to have a place and a voice for women in ministry.

“You wouldn’t want to work in that church, would you?” Well, actually yes. I do want to work in a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Church. I want to work in a place that supports and affirms women in ministry and churches who affiliate with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship churches are supposed to be those places for women in ministry.

But they aren’t.

And even as this is openly acknowledged, the sentiment as I share my story is still the same, “You wouldn’t want to work in that church, would you?” And this sentiment comes from male colleagues. Male colleagues who don’t have to worry and wonder about whether they are being rejected from pastor positions because of their experiences or because of their gender. Now that I think about it, this response to the systematic discrimination that exists in our churches sounds a whole lot like mansplaining.

Yes, actually I would like equal opportunity to apply and work in my profession as you do as my male colleague. Yes, I would like to lead and guide a congregation to stop participating in spiritual abuse that oppresses and silences women solely because of their gender. Yes, I would like to work in “that” church because pastoring “that” church is what I have been called to do.