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In the Midst of the Current

One of my friends asked me the other day if there was something in the air. Our three-year-olds had both had similarly difficult mornings getting going and wanting to determine their own schedules and as good pattern seekers, we were trying to figure out what it was about this specific day that was causing them such consternation.

It’s a funny question when you think about it because there is always something in the air. People in India are finding out that what is in the air can actually be very dangerous. It is so difficult to see what is in the air and so we often forget that we are in the midst of a current.

Just like water has currents, so too are there air currents moving and changing all around us. We are in the midst of a current of air constantly moving and changing. This has a great impact on our body chemistry and indeed on our children’s body chemistries.

There is always something in the air. An invitation to remember that we are in the midst of current, but a small part to play in the energy and movement all around us.

In the Midst

I was updating a dear friend on Facebook about where our family was and what we were up to last week and she responded: “In the midst of ministry…” That phrase, “in the midst,” has been walking with me over the past week.

It fits so much of this stage of life. Our nine-month-old is in the midst of getting a tooth, a process that has seemed to take forever. She is also in the midst of learning to sleep through the night. Our three almost-four-year-old is in the midst of developing his independence, his voice, and his passions. We are in the midst of the school year with four kids in four different schools spanning from middle school to nursery school. We are in the midst of getting settled into a new office space, a new phase of our company’s identity and history. We are in the midst of our first year at a new church with an amazing community of faith.

It’s easy when you are “in the midst” to want this season and this phase to be over. Your life seems like it is in constant transition and is constantly changing. And it is.

You aren’t sure what each day or night is going to hold. You wake up with one kid coughing and try to hide the other kids from him praying that the cough doesn’t go through every single member of the family, but just a small percentage. But in the midst of all the uncertainty and all the changing and transitioning, there are small glimpses of what life may look like in two years or three years. There the overwhelming moments of all four kids dancing and laughing together. The disbelief that an office door now holds the logo and name of something you have built from an inkling, an idea that just wouldn’t stop waking you up at night.

This is the part of being in the midst I love. The awe and wonder that each new day holds.  The invitation to witness the miracles of growing mini-humans. The collaboration and creation of working with your partner where work and life and family all meet in the midst of this rainy October day.

On Being an “Experienced” Mom

The last two weeks have been filled with the awe and wonder of new life. Memories of the first days of our three-year old’s life have flooded back in as we get into a routine of feeding and sleeping and being a family all together. Yesterday I took our two-week-old for her two weeks check up and the doctor said, “Do you have any questions?” and I only had one. I can remember that appointment with our son being filled with questions. Is he ok? Is this normal? Am I doing this right?

As the pediatrician was dictating notes to her nurse to go into our daughter’s chart, she said something that struck me: “Mom, is an experienced mom and nurser.” I was caught off guard. I immediately thought: Mom, whose mom, her mom? I hadn’t thought about the fact that I am no longer a first-time mom, at least not of a newborn. I’ve done this before. This idea still hasn’t sunk in.

This week was also marked with the arrival of a parenting book compilation in which I have a short piece. As I reread my own words and my reflections about when I first became a mom five years ago, I realized that five years is a significant amount of time. Five years does mark a threshold that is often called experienced or is listed as a time interval for having experience in a field or profession.

If that’s the marker, then I am also an experienced preacher, an experienced pastor, and an experienced puppy mom. How in the world did that happen?

I guess it happened somewhere in the minutes that made up the 1,825 days of the past five years. The interactions, the challenges, the conversations, the sleepless nights, the minuscule decisions and the time in silence and solitude reflecting, seeking, and wondering if I was doing any of it right.

And all I can think about is all the times that I wish I had been fully present in those moments rather than lost in what ifs and maybes. Because really the challenge no matter how long we’ve been at this parenting thing or this pastoring thing is just that: to be present and to be aware of where we are. To understand, at least in part, that this moment, this conversation, this interaction won’t happen again in the same form or the same place or the same time.

I don’t really think I am experienced at any of this because our daughter is different than our son and our older two girls. This church is different than the other churches I’ve pastored and perhaps that’s where you get labeled as experienced. When you know that you don’t really know and can fully and freely admit that you need all the help you can get from parenting books, from pediatricians, and most importantly, for me, from a partner who is right there beside you traveling the road full of moments with you.

Overripe

With all of the traveling I did last week, there were aspects of my weekly routine I had to let go; one of which was checking to see if we had any vegetables that were ready to be picked in our garden. If I’m honest, I forget to check the garden and tend the garden even when I’m not traveling (please don’t ask about the recent flood of the fairy garden I was supposed to be looking after), but I’ve tried to make the garden a cognizant and consistent part of my routine.

When Ben and I finally got the chance on Friday to check to see what had grown after a break in the rain and storms, we found this. I had to look up why this cucumber was so yellow-y orange. I found out it was overripe. It had been left on the vine too long. We could have still tried to eat it, but it would have been sour and bitter; much less appetizing than the cucumbers we’ve enjoyed so far this summer.

This cucumber reminded me of the vast number of churches who are overripe. They have too much building, too much financial responsibility, and have spent too much time tending to their own needs rather than picking the good fruit they grow and feeding people hungry for real, authentic food. These churches have turned sour and bitter. They aren’t appetizing to those who are searching for refreshment and homegrown nourishment. As a result, their overripe buildings are becoming emptier and emptier.

It’s heartbreaking.

Just like finding this almost good cucumber. If I had only gone out two days earlier, just to check, I would have been able to enjoy a little cucumber and tomato salad or a cucumber sandwich, I’ve told myself again and again. And too many churches are stuck in this mindset as well. “If only we hadn’t engaged in that building campaign years ago….” “If only this pastor had stayed one more year…” “If only…”

It’s easy to live in the “if only,” but what if instead churches did what I did this morning with the help of my three kids. Go tend your garden. Pull up the weeds. Harvest the good fruit. Discard the overripe fruit of sourness and bitterness. Open a fresh bag of soil and spread it out. Drag the hose around the house, no matter how hot it is, and water what plants you have left. Something will grow.

There is still time. There is still sun. There is still a Creator God who brings life out of dust.

Thanks be to God for the invitation to create, to get dirty, and to get to work growing the kingdom of God here on earth. And if there happen to be cucumbers along the way, we’ll enjoy those, too.

A Hand Reaching Out

masjid

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

photo (29)

 

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.