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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.

A Season of Remembering

October always marks a season of remembering for our family because it is when our family became a family. This year Sam and I celebrated six years of marriage and six years of creating and learning and growing together. There’s a lot about this season that feels familiar with the high chair back in the kitchen and the inspections of the floor for legos that might find their way to the mouth of a curious younger sibling, being partners not only in life but at work, too. In other ways, this season feels all new. Having a middle schooler for the first time, having four kids in four different schools, moving into a new office.

I find myself wanting to remember everything about this moment. The cars that find their way to the fall centerpiece. The toys strewn across the living room. Sparkly pumpkin costumes. Blanket-built forts. The late-night conversations with my partner about theodicy, parenting, and the origins of the Ceaser salad.

I wonder if the most miraculous work of the Holy Spirit is the way that we become and create family together. The way that we bring in tastes, experiences, personalities, passions, and dreams to live together in one space. Maybe the way that we create together and live together and eat together and cry together and hurt together and dance together is exactly what it means to be church.

Maybe in trying to figure out what our calling in this world is, we find our way home first. Then suddenly, the world and our place in the world looks a little bit clearer and a little bit easier because we aren’t alone on the journey.

Falling for Anything

A recent Atlantic article recounted the impact of the constant noise of our society has on an individual. While we may consider the background hum or low volume music in the coffee shop and grocery store to be inconsequential, research is showing that this constant drum has an impact on our ability to center ourselves and to hear ourselves.

There is so much noise. There are so many voices vying for our attention. There are so many stories and narratives begging for our attention. We diagnose ourselves, our friends and strangers we encounter with Enneagram numbers, Myers-Briggs letters, and a host of other ideas and philosophies.

In the midst of all the noise, we are falling for anything that will explain who we are and why we are here.

We want to understand why we react and act the way we do. We want to understand why we are here and what our purpose is in the limited time we have here on earth.

In the midst of all the noise, it is getting more and more difficult to find our own voice and the voice of the divine whispering not in the form of gifs or quotations or charts. Rather that still, small voice calls us inward to the deepest parts of who we are to explain all the good and all the missteps we have made and are making.

The journey inward is arduous and painful.

It is why we distract ourselves with all the noise.

But the only way into fullness and wholeness is to journey inward into the silence and into the uncertainty of finding our voice in the midst of all the noise.

The brisk breeze met me

as I opened the door.

 

My body and mind sigh

with relief

after the days and days

of extended summer.

 

“Finally,” I whispered

to the dawning day.

Finally, the weather matches

the date on the calendar.

 

Finally, the intrusive Columbia summer heat

has been quelled.

 

Finally.

 

And even in the midst of my gratitude,

I miss the blazing sun.

How long, O God?

The lectionary psalm this week is speaking to the concerns that so many people have with the current administration in our country. Children put in cages. Abuses of power. Insider politics. Secrets and promises.

While it is important and good in our call-out culture to speak out and speak up, we must also remember to “Take delight in the Lord,” remembering that the work we do is not our own work. It is work that the Holy Mystery is also working on. We are not alone in crying out for help. We are not alone in wondering when justice will roll down. We are joining the cries of this psalmist and indeed the children of God for generations before us.

37:1 Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, 37:2 for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb. 37:3 Trust in the LORD, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. 37:4 Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. 37:5 Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. 37:6 He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday. 37:7 Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices. 37:8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret–it leads only to evil. 37:9 For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.

A-light-ment

Yesterday was the first day of Fall or the Fall Equinox. It marks the time when there was as much light as there was darkness. From here our days will start to have more and more dark in them. It’s a time that some people feel as if they are losing the light, but for me, Fall has always been a time of a-light-ment.

There’s something about the way the light comes through the kitchen window in the Fall that makes me feel calm and at peace. The sun shining straight into my windshield in the mornings reminds me of the new day and the new opportunities to offer light to the world.

Just as our cars need alignments every so often and our backs need adjustments after hours sitting in our cars and sitting at our computers, so too do our souls need a-light-ment. We need the reminder that the season is changing, that the trees will soon be letting go of their lives and storing up for the dark and cold of winter.

Although we may not like change or be ready for change, change still comes. Notice the way the light is moving. A-light yourself to the gentle breeze, see the possibility that a new season brings.

Just Breathe

Since high school, I have had breathing issues. There was this one drill in my training for field hockey that always left me struggling to breathe, which led to a doctor’s visit where I was diagnosed with seasonal asthma. I was prescribed an emergency inhaler and allergy medicine and considered myself lucky that this was a seasonal occurrence that could be solved with medicine.

In college, I had breathing issues during a different season while training for the club sport I played. I concluded that I was in a different environment and that the allergies were impacting my lungs differently. By this time, I had become used to not being able to swim the length of a swimming pool and having to have my inhaler with me at all times.

In seminary, I ended up in the urgent care receiving a steroid breathing treatment on Easter weekend of my second year. At this point, I had student insurance that didn’t cover my inhaler and didn’t have any extra money to buy the inhaler outright. I remember being in the stairwell between classes crying to a helpless insurance agent about how much I needed the medicine and begging him for any avenue to get the medicine covered.

This was the same semester I was in preaching practicum and ended up having to excuse myself from class after I had preached because I was coughing uncontrollably. It wasn’t until this point at twenty-six years old that it dawned on me that my breathing issues could be attached to something deeper, a signal my body was giving me to try to catch my breath and gain perspective.

There has been a lot written recently about the body’s connection to trauma and the signals that our bodies give us to attend to this trauma. It took me twenty-six years while I was in the midst of filling pulpits all over the western North Carolina and receiving feedback from my preaching professor that it seemed like I was out of breath in the middle of my sermons that I made the connection between being breathless and living into my call.

My anxiety was causing my heart to race and the shortness of breath. I was doing something in the form of preaching and seeking to become a pastor that I wasn’t supposed to do according to my evangelical upbringing. It made me nervous and uncertain and anxious. My body was giving voice to that anxiety.

Even now years later, there are some Sundays where the word from God for the people of God in the form of a sermon feels so weighty and dangerous that my breathlessness returns. I struggle to remember my call to deliver God’s word no matter how risky or controversial. I struggle to step boldy into this identity as pastor.

My body isn’t over the spiritual abuse I experienced. It still pops up in the form of not being able to catch my breath at times, but I haven’t used an inhaler in four years. Sometimes our bodies are trying to bring us to healing and wholeness even when our minds aren’t quite ready for it.

Pain, Pain, Go Away

A recent NPR report revealed that 20% of adults in America are living with chronic pain. This issue is so prevalent that medical schools are now having additional coursework for aspiring doctors pertaining to pain management so that they will be able to treat this pain epidemic thoughtfully and holistically.  How do we help those who are in pain while also combatting the opioid crisis that plagues our society?

Others are asking the question, where is all this pain coming from? Those who are asking this question often reference the seminal text on trauma and the somatic response to the trauma: The Body Keeps Score. The author suggests that even when we are years past the traumatic event, our bodies hold onto the memory of the trauma for much longer.

Jamie Lee Finch in her recent book, You Are Your Own says:

There are ways to help surivors recognize that the physical and psychiological reactions resulting from traume are messages – attempts from the body to try and expain what has happened. Imbalances, illnesses, anxietiesm and pains are signal flares from our deeper selves searching for rescue (78-79).

We are not well. We are hurting. We are in pain.

We need healing. The type of healing that can only come from the gospel of light and love and resurrection.

May God grant us the courage to embark on the journey of deep, soul-filled searching. May God grant us the community to sustain us along the journey.

 

Mine, Mine, Mine

Recently, we have watched Finding Nemo with our three-year-old and when the seagulls came on screen screaming, “Mine, Mine, Mine” as they watched Dory and Marlin flip on the dock, his cackle filled the room. I can remember the first time I saw the movie and I thought these silly birds were funny too, especially in the end when they crash into the sail of a boat and keep crying out, “Mine, Mine, Mine”.

As I was listening to the news yesterday, I was overwhelmed with the subtext permeating the current administration’s policies. Immigrants seeking refuges are separated from their loved ones and treated like prisoners. Refuges from a country so devastated by a natural disaster that just missed our coast are sent back to the rumble rather than being welcomed into a safe haven. The homeless are being rounded up and placed in holding facilities. Over and over again the message is, “Mine, Mine, Mine”. We are not sharing. We are not helping.

While to some this is a message of strength and power and taking back what is really ours. These messages only reveal the scarcity and fear with which this administration makes decisions. The need to control situations and take ownership by snatching away opportunities for a better life from others is a scarcity mindset. There is only so much and so I must grab as much I can.

This is not the gospel message. Constantly seeking to take over and to take from is an exhausting way to live. Constantly monitoring who has spoken against you and demanding that they apologize or rescind what they have said takes up all or your time and attention.

When you live in this defensive posture, you aren’t really living. You are reacting.

The words of Jesus reminds us that we are to have life and live it abundantly. The thief, on the other hand, the gospel writer continues, comes to steal and destroy. There is no peace. There is no joy for those who are constantly stealing and snatching away from others crying out, “Mine, Mine, Mine”.

This is a time to live into abundance. To give generously to all those in need crying, “Ours, Ours, Ours”.

Waking up to Death

One of the hardest aspects of the Lenten season is to the constant reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. As a preacher, I welcome the times in the church calendar like now where scripture lends itself to the promise and hope of resurrection and will come again.

For some, the Lenten season is not one that matches the church calendar but begins instead with the darkness of a diagnosis or the sudden decline of a loved one. These reminders in the middle of the church calendar catch us off guard. Because although we all know that we are dust and to dust, we shall return, we often push this realization to our subconscious.

We are life and death in one. Always moving towards death, but also living and breathing. It the paradox of our humanity.

When we have these moments when we are reminded of just how fragile life is and how much we can’t control how much time we have, we wake up to death moving this reality from our subconscious to our conscious thoughts. When this move happens, we tend to find time for what’s most important. We tend to treasure moments that would have been commonplace. We tend to worry less about clothes, money, and possessions because in matters of life and death those become unimportant.

For those of us who have lost someone, we love deeply and have found sleep, waking up to the realization that their physical presence is gone is so very difficult. And we have to wake up to the death of that loved one, again and again, day after day.

Waking up to death actually wakes up to life…and gratitude…and hope.

 

On Being a Revangelical

When I voiced a call to ministry, I found myself an outcast of my spiritual home of twenty-six years. As a woman who was raised Southern Baptist, my voicing a call to preach and pastor was beyond the fundamentalist theological views of my home church. From the vast number of women and men and nonbinary individuals who have shared their stories so openly, I know that I am not alone in finding myself wandering in a spiritual desert by coming out to who I was called to be. There is a whole community of people who are joining together to try to find sanctuary, ask questions, and share their stories in order to find wholeness and healing. This #exvangelical community has created books, podcasts, conferences, and all sorts of spaces for people who found themselves homeless.

Throughout my journey of being called to pastor and preach, I have followed this community appreciating the courage and vulnerability with which so many people have shared their stories, their lives, their pain, their abuse, and their trauma. Indeed there is something powerful about knowing that you are not alone and you are not the only one who has been disowned by a community of faith.

But I never identified myself as #exvangelical.

I could never put my finger on why exactly until recently. In the second Democratic debate when Major Pete made this statement:

“And for a party that associates itself with Christianity to say that it is ok, to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents,” he said, “that God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

Something deep within me resonated with this statement because this is exactly where I have been stuck. I have never not considered myself evangelical. I believe in the gospel. I believe the gospel offers freedom and hope and healing and wholeness to all of those who have been oppressed, abused, silenced, ostracized and downtrodden. And I believe in spreading this message of hope.

I haven’t identified myself as an evangelical because of the political connotations associated with the term “evangelical.” I haven’t identified myself as an evangelical because of the way it has become synonymous with the religious right and the fundamentalist oppressive, abusive theology that has caused so much hurt and pain and disembodiment.

Between this statement and my partner’s parsing of the Greek meaning of the term evangelical around the dinner table, I am finally ready to say that I am evangelical or perhaps a revangelical, returning to an identity I used to wear proudly as I tried to convert my middle school friends and offer them eternal salvation.

I am no longer interested in converting people, but I am interested in continuing to accept the invitation of partnering in the wonderful, mystical, and transformative work that the Holy Spirit is doing here on earth within and among us.