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Author: Merianna Harrelson

I am the Pastor of Garden of Grace United Church of Christ in Columbia, SC and the Director of Consulting at Harrelson.Co. I am always looking for a good cup of coffee and a great book.

200,000 deaths

This weekend, we reached another terrible threshold. The death toll in the United States has passed 200,000 people who have died from COVID-19. 200,000 families torn apart. 200,000 patients whom healthcare officials have tried to help.

If you didn’t know that we had reached this monumental number, it’s because there is so much to distract us. There is still school and work and college football to keep us occupied. Already you can see the seasonal displays in stores and on social media feeds. Everything that is trying to make us think that life is semi-normal.

But it’s not normal for 200,000 to die in six months in our country. It’s not normal to not talk about that. It’s not normal for us all to feel that collective grief and not have a place to talk about that weight and why doing simple things seems so difficult.

200,000 is a number difficult to comprehend.

Two hundred thousand deaths is akin to losing the entire population of Salt Lake City or Montgomery, Ala. — a devastation.

We’ve lost the equivalent of whole cities. We’ve lost entire families to COVID-19. Whether we actively think about the deaths or not, we can feel it. We can feel the suffering of people deep within us. We may try to distract ourselves and our minds. We may try to numb ourselves from this reality, but deep within us, we know that there are other humans suffering.

The question is how will this knowing change us?

On Being Curious

“Mama, do you have any questions for me?”

Our four-year-old almost always starts his day with this question. He is so curious. He wants to know as much as he can about everything from the names and planets of Star War characters to how and why hurricanes form. He wants to learn every letter and how to spell all kinds of words. He just wants to learn.

When do we lose this innate curiosity? When do we become convinced that the way we learned something is that way everyone learned something? When do we stop wanting to learn?

Maybe it’s because I was trained as a teacher or the fact that I never taught the same grade twice, but there was always something in me that wanted to read a new book and find out about a new place. But there is a subject I would prefer not to learn more about.  I have to admit when it comes to learning that I was wrong about something or that I have participated in unjust systems, there is a part of me that wants to pretend like I don’t know.

Austin Channing Brown says in her book, I’m Still Here:

Our only chance at dismantling racial injustice is being more curious about its origin than we are worried about our comfort. It’s not a comfortable conversation for any of us. It is risky and messy.

May God grant us curiosity and community to explore what we discover.

On Loving Our Neighbor

This past week the lectionary came from Romans and it talked about loving our neighbor, a concept that we most often associate with the sayings of Jesus recorded in the gospel. What struck me about this instruction in Romans is that it comes after the reminder in Romans 12:1-2 to “offer our bodies as living sacrifices” and to “renewing of our minds” so that we “do not conform any longer to the patterns of the world.”

Following this passage, in Romans 13 is the reminder that we are all uniquely gifted and beloved. Each of us having something important to offer the body of Christ. The mention of the body of Christ here in Romans might sound like 1 Corinthians 12 and it is similar. Here the indication is that we can’t recognize our belovedness or the unique gifts and talents we have that bring important and good things to the body of Christ.

And then and only then can we love our neighbor. Perhaps the amount of foundational and soul work that has to be done before we can get to the mindset and wholeness is what is really preventing us from loving each other deeply. We can’t love our neighbor because we haven’t renewed our minds and we are beliving the cultural language that creates us vs. them. We can’t love our neighbor because of the cultural influences of consumerism that wants us to believe that we are not enough or that we are flawed in some way that a product or service can cure.

We can’t love our neighbor because there is so much soul work to do before we can get there. There is more to the division and divisiveness that permeates our American society. There are deep soul questions, “Will my life matter?” “Am I worthy?” “Am I good?” “Am I enough?”

May God grant us the ears to hear below the surface of noise. May God grant us the heart to have compassion for those who are seeking answers to deep and important questions.

On Creating Sanctuary

Over six months ago, churches all across the United States scrambled to answer the question, “How do we worship online?” We have fought and struggled with technology and with the Divine wondering when we would have to stop answer this question and when we could safely come back together.

I can remember distinctly the first Sunday of worship and the way I purposefully and intentionally created an outdoor chapel on our porch knowing that the signs of Spring blooming as a backdrop would serve as the perfect picture of hope in the midst of uncertain times.

Just two short weeks later, I discovered that the Columbia heat isn’t great for devices and that when they overheat, they just turn off abruptly stopping and cutting the connection not caring whether you were in the middle of preaching or not. This interruption led to creating an indoor chapel with my grandmother’s quilt draped over boxes for a makeshift altar and a painting of a cottage in the woods surrounded by flowers.

Now that the seasons are changing and the breeze is whispering of cooler weather and beautiful changes, I am asking the Divine to help me create again. I am searching our home for inspiration asking myself not how to we worship online, but rather how do we create sanctuary?

On Noticing

One of the ways that we find reconnect our body and our souls and get them back in communion is to notice. It sounds like a simple thing and it is, but we are so busy moving from one thing to another that we often forget to notice.

When I woke up this morning, I noticed some pain and soreness. I noticed that my right hamstring, the one that has always given me trouble since that one time I overtrained after a half marathon, was sore. I noticed that I had some soreness in my core where I did some work to yesterday to strengthen my core after carrying and caring for babies. I noticed that I didn’t have the heaviness under my eyes that I have had so many mornings. I noticed that it was later and that the children had slept a little longer.

My noticing turned into gratitude for rest for the children and relief from the heaviness under my eyes. My noticing turned into plans to take my run a little slower today to not strain my hamstring anymore. My noticing turned into thankfulness for the time in the mornings to not rush to school, but to be present in the new day’s light.

Noticing reminds us that we are not just a mind. Noticing reminds us that we are not just a physical body. Noticing gives space for our souls to speak to us and to bring us into the new day with intention, reflection, and gratitude.

“Mama, can we sit for awhile?”

This morning our walk was different. The air was cool and the wind was gusty sending leaves changing colors whirling to the ground. This is a season of change. The inbetween-ness of summer and fall. The new routines and new schedules. The new unexpectedness of whether the morning will feel like hot and humid summer or just a little chilly.

The light is different too. It’s not the morning light of summer that promises sunburns and sweat beading down your back. It’s softer, warmer, and more welcoming. Easing into the day rather than starting the day bright and brilliant.

As we were walking on our Saturday path that leads us to a trail, the four-year-old looked at me and asked, “Mama,  can we sit on that bench awhile?” I smiled. Maybe he too was noticing how things were changing. Maybe he too wanted to bask a little longer.

“Let’s do it!”

We watched the leaves whirling and twirling and laughed as hair got blown in our eyes and then back out just as quickly. We talked about the new books we had found at the Little Free Libraries along our paths. We talked about how we might have to get some of our long-sleeved clothes out. We waved at walkers and laughed at dogs chasing squirrels.

There was nothing particularly significant about our conversation except that there was time for our conversation. There was time to sit on the bench and notice and wonder. There was time to be together.

This gift of time is changing us, inviting us to slower pace, beckoning us to reconnect to each other and the world around us.

On Grounding

In the midst of all the changes we are experiencing and the way our sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive, it can be very easy to disconnect from our bodies and our souls especially. When we are constantly reacting to decisions and news because we can’t think ahead, then we move into an automatic kind of motion. Our energy becomes chaotic.

Even though there is so much uncertainty, there are ways that we can ground ourselves in our bodies and in the right now. In fact, grounding ourselves is one of the ways that we can stop our sympathetic system from firing incessantly.

Grounding is finding yourself within your body and soul. It is finding your center and holding your center. When we ground ourselves, we let go of wanting to control the things around us. Grounding also ignites our immune system and increases blood flow, something we all need right now. Grounding is reconnecting to the world around you most of the time by touch the earth with bare feet, removing any barrier between your feet and the earth.

We are disconnected from ourselves and we are disconnected from the earth.

Reconnecting ourselves to the earth reconnects us to ourselves. Reconnecting to ourselves reconnects us to each other. This is a reminder we desperately need right now.

How are you Feeling?

In the midst of the global pandemic, we are feeling everything. We are hopeful and happy in one moment only to become distressed and grief-stricken the next moment. We are vacillating between emotions so frequently as we try to find equilibrium that we are exhausted, depleted, and some days even numb.

One of the things we ask in circle time every day is, “How are you feeling?” We are trying to help our four-and-half-year-old have space to express what he is feeling and know that there is space and a place for his feelings.

More and more adults are also taking the time to journal or ask themselves this simple question: “How are you feeling?” each day. Rather than reacting, taking time to reflect and track on our feelings is an important practice for our mental health.

To help counteract the negative effects of a quarantine situation, keeping a daily schedule and an emotions and activity tracker can help foster motivation, reduce stress, and may act as an anchor in helping to re-center you.

You may think, there is no time for me to add something else to my plate as I am managing and trying to balance work and family responsibilities, but using something like the chart above can allow space for us to tune into our selves, our souls, and our spirits.

This work is so important as we are intaking so much change and so much fear at such a rapid pace.

So, how are you feeling?

Shadows of Loss

One of our favorite things to do as we are on our morning bike ride and walk is to find our shadows and watch how they change as we turn onto new roads and the sun rises higher. As we were walking the other morning, I found our shadows seemed to be everywhere. Their presence was prominent in a way that reminded me of all the things that we are carrying right now as we mark six months of this new life.

Tara Haelle recently wrote about this as we try to find our equilibrium:

The destruction is, for most people, invisible and ongoing. So many systems aren’t working as they normally do right now, which means radical shifts in work, school, and home life that almost none of us have experience with.

A shadow we can’t ignore. A shadow following us as we try to walk paths we thought we knew.

David Kessler, the world’s most renown voice on grief describes it this way:

Yes, and we’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.

A shadow of grief. Shadows of grief merging together in long and intertwining ways that make our steps heavier.

Kirsten Weir says this:

As the pandemic has evolved, people have had to confront a series of losses: The loss of a sense of safety, of social connections and personal freedoms, of jobs and financial security. Going forward, people will experience new losses we can’t yet predict.

Robert Neimeyer, PhD, the director for Portland Institute of Loss and Transition says:

We’re talking about grieving a living loss — one that keeps going and going.

A shadow that we can’t escape. A shadow that follows us wherever we go. A shadow that keeps showing up reminding us our lives have changed and our lives are changing.

And so we keep walking on the paths that we thought we knew discovering new revelations and new depths of our strength.

Holding On

Going to the library has always been a part of our weekly routine. It is a place where I always found comfort and a place I knew I wanted our kids to find refuge. One of the last memories of “normal” life was a field trip to the main library branch where not only as there trees growing in the middle of the building, but the lower flower is also all for kids.

I was quick to sign up as a parent chaperone because I knew that I wanted to see our four-year-old as he took it all in. We explored books and then enjoyed a puppet show about the three little pigs while the thirteen-month-old tried to get to the puppets.

I remember sitting next to a fellow teacher who was a doctor and asking her what she thought about COVID-19. I remember being concerned, but none of us knew how much life would change and that in just a few short weeks we wouldn’t sit beside someone in a closed-in space without a mask on. I didn’t know that the idea of field trips would be something that was not a guarantee, but a logistical nightmare because of transporting kids on an enclosed bus and changing locations. I didn’t know that so many of the places that were field trip destinations would be closed to big groups.

At the end of the scheduled activities, the kids were allowed to check out books. Our four-year-old chose a book called My First Book of Girl Power, a book about superheroes and one in series from which we had checked out multiple different books. This book throughout closing school and changing schedules and not seeing our older sister became a companion and comfort. This female pastor and literacy teacher loved that he was clinging to the concept of female superheroes and a book during uncertain and unknown times.

Because libraries closed, we didn’t turn in this book until we got a notice that it was due this week…six months after our field trip and indeed the memory of a life we used to live. We turned it in with masks on at a drive-through window at a distant library branch where we were picking up our hold items, but before we did, we took a picture reminding ourselves of the field trip, this good book, and that we would be able to check it back out soon.

May we pause to remember, even when it’s painful and may we hold onto hope in superheroes and good books.