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A Hand Reaching Out

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

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

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

Spiritual Abuse and Name Calling in the Purity Culture

I didn’t know I grew up in the Purity Culture. I didn’t realize that my age corresponded to a growing movement called True Love Waits that reached national attention right as I entered a conservative, evangelical youth group. I didn’t realize that for years and years the church governed mostly by men had been determining and deciding what was best for women’s bodies. I didn’t understand that the message of the Purity Culture often led to women who were guilty and ashamed and prime targets for rape.

All I knew is I didn’t want to be called any names.

I didn’t want to be called “whore,” “slut,” or “easy:” all names that heaped shame on the head of girls in my youth group who were considered to be “on the wrong path” and “unequally yoked” to bad influences. More than anything I didn’t want to be one of the girls who fell into this category. I’m not sure I knew what any of those names meant, but I knew what they implied: a girl who was living for herself and not living for God.

This is spiritual abuse.

This fear of being labeled of being shamed has been difficult to overcome. It’s why hearing a presidential nominee use name calling and guilt and shame as motivators to action sounds a little too familiar. But the labeling in the Purity Culture and in evangelical circles is so important to eliciting the type of behavior desired from congregants that is hard for many spiritual leaders to rid themselves of this practice, even spiritual leaders who wish to engage in healthy and whole practices of ministry.

The implementation of the Purity Culture is inundated with spiritual abuse practices like name calling that distract and defer from the message and intent of the gospel. These practices and the Purity Culture have left many, many millennials who were raised in the midst of the rise of the Purity Culture lost, shamed, and broken after years and years of faithful attendance to church.

The future of the church is in the midst of this brokenness. This brokenness caused by the institution of church. This brokenness caused by good intentions and failed implementation. This brokenness that has left scars and bruises in the next generation of church goers.

To minister now is to minister in the midst of this hurt and brokenness. It will take minister who are vulnerable. Ministers who openly and honestly address their privilege. Ministers who have advisory teams to determine whether they are engaging in spiritual abuse. Ministers who meet people where they are.

And ministers who are mobile because these who have been hurt and broken are going to have trouble returning to the place where they were abused, shamed, and broken.

When We Come Together

I’m sitting at the local coffeeshop in my hometown, running into family and friends, and in general looking out the window in awe at the way the city has changed. There was a group of people who came together with a vision for making Spartanburg into a place where there was food, books, and coffee that they wanted to eat, read, and drink.

When we come together with a vision about what could be, it really is incredible what can happen. Is it going to take time? Yes. Is it going to take hard work? Yes. Are there times that they didn’t think it would pan out? Absolutely.

If more ministers and clergy were willing to admit that church could be better, imagine what we could dream up. If more churches were willing to admit they needed to change because of the changing dynamics of technology, jobs, and the economy, imagine what we could envision. When we come together to find solutions, we create a future for the church and this crazy gospel message that keeps transforming lives.

When We Carry Each Other’s Burdens

Although we might like to think the church models that are currently in place exhibit the gathering of people trying to interpret and understand the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the 1st Century, they don’t. Our American churches much more closely resemble corporate America with hierarchies, hiring policies, and operating systems implemented directly from the business world.

To think that this model is going to continue to survive in an economy where businesses are having to be innovative and creative in how they engage customers and consumers is naive. The business model from the 1950s isn’t working for businesses, so it certainly won’t work for churches.

Part of the issue with the way our churches are operating is that the pastor and ministers serve as the CEO, vice president, and COO of the church. In this model, the responsibility of the success of the church and the church’s viability falls on their shoulders.

But this isn’t the only responsibility of the ministers. The ministers are also the ones who are to bear the burdens of grief, guilt, shame, sadness, pain, abuse, frustration, confusion, hopelessness, and hurt of the entire congregation. Even in a single-staff church whose membership is forty people, the ratio of burdens to burden-bearer are much too high for sustainability. It’s simply too much for one person to bear in the current economic context of declined giving and membership. Is it any wonder that the rate of  clergy suicide and clergy burnout continues to climb?

Our model is broken and if the decline in giving and church membership and rates of clergy suicide and burnout aren’t red flags that get our attention, perhaps a look back at scripture will open our eyes:

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Paul is suggesting here that to be a community of faith is to bear each other’s burdens, not cast our burdens on those who have been called by God to lead and guide God’s people. In the midst of a letter that reminds God’s people that there are those who will come and deliver a false gospel (ahem model something of God after American culture), perhaps this is just the reminder we need as the people of God. When we commit to a community of faith, we aren’t committing to a preacher or a minister, we are committed to each other. To journey with each other, to hurt with each other, to carry one another’s burdens.

When we carry each other’s burdens, we become evidence of God working in and among God’s people. When we carry each other’s burdens rather than transforming our ministers into burden-bearers, we just might be working to ensure that there will still be pastors and ministers called by God who are alive and vibrant to lead the church into the future.

$1.50 Grace

I went to the library today expecting to fess up to the fact that I had turned in an overdue book because it was a new release, and I just wasn’t quite finished with it. I knew what I had done and even if I had forgotten the email notice addressed Merianna Louise Neely Harrelson certainly got my attention as the use of my full name did when I was a child. I had calculate out that the amount I would owe would be about $1.50. I even had cash for the occasion.

So, I was very surprised when I brought my stack of books to the checkout and admitted to having a a late fine only to find out that there was no fine on my account. I knew I had received an overdue notice, but there must have been a grace period extended even on new release non-renewable items, even for repeat late return offenders like myself.

The librarian smiled and said, “Well, that’s something unexpected and nice for today.”

I smiled in response and started to think about that $1.50. It doesn’t seem like much, but it could be a pack of gum of box of mints to help us get from Columbia to Asheville on one of our many trips back and forth. It could be a water or pack of peanuts at a gas station when Baby H is desperate for a snack.

And it could be just a little bit of the divine creeping into regular life reminding me that there are always opportunities to see people and to help people no matter how little the gesture may seem.

Therapy Thursday: A New Place

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This week Willie went to visit two different places. In addition to the seeing Mr. Joe, we were also asked to visit another assisted living community. It was exciting to be asked to go to a new place and visit new people.

There’s something about bringing Willie with me that invites a conversation. Today, I heard about collies and basset hounds whose ears hung to the floor. I heard about growing up during the time of WWII. I heard about first family cars, first electricity, and first TVs. As they pet Willie, their words flowed.

Remembering is powerful. Remembering that we are not alone and there are people around us who one visit can make a world of difference.

National Running Day

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I thought I was going to miss out on National Running Day.

On Monday, I was taking the pups for a long run when Waylon decided that he was going to say hey to a security guard on the trail. He crossed in front of me (a big no no, for leash training) and I wiggle stepped on the side of the sidewalk and faceplanted. Yes, I mean all the way down, sprawled out on the trail. The security guard saw me and helped me up and we all hobbled back to the car. Waylon seemed unaffected by the whole incident. Willie was very concerned and confused by the whole experience.

This isn’t the first time that my love of running and playing sports has lead to this kind of mishap (when my mom watched me play basketball, she used to say that I didn’t need to mop the floor, they would do that after the game because I spent some much time sprawled on the court), and I am sure it won’t be the last. When you love something enough, you’re bound to incur some scars and bruises from that love. For me, it only makes me want to try to get back to a nice run more. It made running seem a little less available. I had to pay attention to taking care of my leg and foot in order to get them back into good shape.

This morning, braced and bandaid-ed I hit the trail again. Although I debated not bringing the dogs, I knew what our running time meant to them, too (although I did watch Waylon much more carefully). So, I did get to go running on National Running Day, and I got to take my running partners with me.

Even when you fall or fail, getting back up and being able to run again is the only option when it’s really something you love.

My Mimi’s Desk

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Last week on ThinkingOutLoud, Elisabeth and I talked about our work space (no not Office Space). I realized that I had more of an abstract working place than a set work space. Because I have been in school for the last three years and working on top of that commitment, work has been squeezed in at any place and any point possible. This wasn’t out of desire as much as out of necessity.

So, what do you do when you transition from one life stage into another? For me, I move furniture.

There’s something about Spring that makes me restless to switch things around. Maybe it’s because of all my years in school and the moving that’s involved in ending the Spring semester and finally having a break or maybe it’s because of my years of teaching where Spring meant cleaning up and closing down or maybe it was my conversation with Elisabeth and seeing her work space that inspired me.

Wherever the inspiration originated, I’m glad it came. I went to my parents’ house on Saturday and dad and I wrestled my grandmother’s secretary down the steps and out of the front door. (My husband gives me a hard time because we always leave the drawers full when we are moving furniture. Apparently, that’s not the most effective moving method!) As we squeezed it into the back of my Subaru, I looked back and thought, yeah this is going to be good.

And as I sit here and type this listening to our service from Sunday as it uploads and sneaking peaks at my favorite books stored in the bookshelves above, there’s something inside me that thinks, I could sit here for hours and write. There’s something magically about sitting at a piece of furniture that I honestly never noticed in my grandmother’s house and knowing that somehow it has made it’s way here to our house in Columbia. It’s not just history, but the story of where this piece has been. It’s the story of me, too.

But for now, that story will have to wait to be written until after graduation!

Still in Seminary

I immediately went to my room when I came in. I had already seen so many pastors who knew lots of people and I was alone. Sure, there are other seminarians here, but we are a different class. We attend Newcomer’s Breakfasts and How To seminars. 

See, we aren’t there yet. We aren’t full-time ministers or pastors yet and so this experience is much different for us. For some, it’s an obligation because of scholarship money, but for the conference it’s a way to get cheap labor, too. We won’t be the ones who are taken out to eat at Joseph’s the extremely fancy restaurant in the hotel. We will be the ones directly traffic and cleaning up afterwards. 

After all, we’re “still in seminary.”  

All So I Could Finish Internships

I just counted. 

I’ve been an intern 9 times. 6 of those without pay. 3 of those for more than 40 hours a week. 

In college because I was an elementary education major, internships or practicums were part of the requirement. As I rushed between classes and fulfilling the 20 hour practicum requirement, I was frustrated by the number of tickets I received finally explaining to the campus police that there was no feasible way that I could mark in my assigned parking lot and make it to class and to the classroom for my internships. No day passes they explained, but I could change my parking sticked permanently if I wanted, so I did and walked half a mile to my campus apartment everyday so that I could complete my internships. 

When I was a senior and my fellow seniors were enjoying their last days as college students with their light loads and tons of free time, my cohort and I were driving sometimes 3 hours a day to work as teachers. 40 hours a week, plus commuting, plus grading and planning and class. In addition, to pay for the gas and food I had to take on a tutoring job and work as a RA for my apartment building. There were many nights I would close the RA office at 12 and wake up at 4:45 am to get to school an hour away on time. There was one week I slept 18 hours for the whole week, so that I could complete my internship. 

When I went to work as a English Teaching Assistant in Germany, the story was the same. Many hours. Set stipend. Add more jobs. All so that I could complete my internship. 

When I returned from Germany, I worked as a UELIP intern in DCPS. I paid rent and bought groceries and paid for gas even though I wasn’t earning a cent in my 60 hour a week internship. I remember walking in my first day and my supervisor saying, “Thank goodness, the summer interns are here. We can actually get caught up.” Great for them, but overwhelming for me. But I did it, finding extra jobs all so that I could finish my internships. 

You get to a point where you begin to question whether the idea that if you get a good internship, you will get a good job and be promoted because of the experiences and the connections you have made can in any way be true. 

Then, I decided to switch tracks and pursue ministry. In other words, all those internships, all those hours, all those oatmeal meals, counted for nothing. I was going to have to start all over. 

I’m two internships into this career path and I’m finding the same thing to be true. When you are labeled “intern,” people just expect that you can add items to your to-do list because you received a stipend. You’ve been paid, so what’s the problem? The problem is this. I’m going to school full-time, working another job and working this internship and still have to take out student loans and use every bit of credit I can find to make ends meet. Even though you don’t understand that and don’t see me, I will still do my best work even if it’s more than we initially agreed upon and way, way more work and time than you think it is, all so I can finish the internship.

And so that I can finish internships forever.