Don’t you wish your members were just like me?

For those of you who are not Presby-geeks, I apologize for the series of posts that are about to follow… the short story is that Beau Weston wrote a paper for the denomination, which stated that we needed to Rebuild the Presbyterian Establishment.

I’m part of a group who responded to the paper. I joined the esteemed voices of Jose Luis Casal, J. Herbert Nelson II, and Cynthia Holder Rich, who are from various backgrounds, ethnicities, and positions in the church.

I’m white, and I’m a pastor. So as I thought about what I brought to the conversation, I figured that the one thing that I had going for me was that I was young (okay… so I’m 38… which means I’m really stretching this “young” label). I write about ministering to men and women in their 20s and 30s, so my responses center around that viewpoint.

Weston discusses my paper on his blog:

Merritt takes it for granted that the niche of the entire Presbyterian Church is to draw people like her – “writing as a woman who grew up a conservative Baptist and converted to Presbyterianism.” Her strategy for contextual evangelism is “in this particular time we can especially minister to those who are leaving politically conservative evangelical megachurches.”

Welcoming people who are leaving the Evangelical movement is not the core of my outreach strategy, it’s just one sentence from the paper, tacked on to a pleading hope that we “broaden our focus, from not only welcoming those who ‘know what it means to be Presbyterian,’ but also to inviting and accepting men and women from a variety of backgrounds.” So it seems a bit unfair to boil my position down to me wanting a church chock-full of people who look like me.

But, that’s okay. Pastors in growing churches often draw people with similar struggles and hopes. And, I suppose the same could be said for a certain latte-sipping academic white guy, who wants to make sure that the establishment is rebuilt with tall-steeple church pastors and executives. I mean, the last time I checked, most of those types are… well… white guys.

All snarky jabs aside though… reaching out to recovering fundamentalists isn’t a bad strategy. The fact that a new generation of Evangelicals is leaving their congregations goes far beyond my ministering from my small context and experience.

The Emerging Church movement is full of people who grew up Evangelical, and now they’re questioning what they had been taught. Sometimes EC gatherings feel like a Fundamentalists Anonymous group. UnChristian documents the negative attitudes of a new generation toward Evangelicalism. Christine Wicker reports a study that suggests that roughly over 1,000 people leave the Evangelical Church every day.

I’m not happy about this trend. It makes my heart ache, because most of those men and women are leaving Christianity, and leaving for good. So please don’t read this as some sort of sheep-stealing vitriol. (And, yes, I realize that there are PCUSA types who are Evangelical…)

It is just that my experience of the Presbyterian Church was different from the conservative Baptist Church in which I was formed. The leaders of my denomination showed me grace when I had been told that women could not be ordained. The church was there, giving me encouragement, education, and mentors to guide me. They taught me how to be a leader, even as a 22-year-old woman.

Not only that, but so many men and women surrounded me, as I wrestled with my faith, telling me it was okay to doubt, because my eternal salvation did not rely on my personal conviction from one moment to the next. I was held in a community of grace, and God could handle any question that I might spew at God.

It was such good news to me… and I have seen that it’s good news to so many others.

We have a strong and vibrant history of social justice and spiritual traditions. We have a connection with God and the world for which so many people long. And if I’m looking at the future of my beloved denomination, I’m not betting that efforts to rebuild its establishment is going to do much good. The world has shifted too much from the 1950s. We need a new strategy.

And focusing our efforts to reach out to a new generation–a generation who is ethnically diverse and longs to make a difference in the world–that is what gives me hope for vital ministry.

God’s Anointing

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Text: Luke 4:14-21

I’m starting on my third book now, and I’m writing about the experience of healing from religious abuse. Moving from the conservative religious upbringing and becoming a progressive, female pastor is a huge shift. I’ve spent a lot of time, sorting out my beliefs. Trying to figure out what has been damaging to my self-esteem, my sexuality, my friendships, and attitude toward others. I am thinking about the people who have come into my office during this past decade in ministry.

As I’ve thought back on my history and remembered the stories of others, I hold my breath as I think about the wounds that religion has caused in the lives of so many people, so many of my friends who have suffered abuse from fathers who demanded submission; gays and lesbians who felt that they had to choose between divine love or human love; people who felt emotionally manipulated into a conversion experience, or rejected by their families and friends because of the shunning that was encouraged by churches; women who felt subordinate to men because of the teachings that they learned in Sunday school.

But as I write, I also cannot deny that even though religion wounds, it is often the balm that heals as well. It makes me think of the ointment that was poured over people for medicinal reasons in biblical times.

There was a practice, called anointing. Anointing is an extremely old ritual that is used in all sorts of religions—Hinduism, Judaism. In fact, it’s a practice went back farther than that. It seems that in ancient traditions, there was a sense of life flowing through the blood and fat of animals. There was something sacred about the fat. So when a hunter killed a bear, and he wanted the bear’s courage, he would take the fat of the bear and smear it on himself, welcoming the courage into himself.

This sense that power or the qualities of a person could be passed from one person to another is evident in the Bible. In some cases, it’s almost like passing along an inheritance. For instance, when the great prophet Elijah ended his time here on earth, he gave to his spiritual successor, Elisha, a double portion of his spirit.

Anointing is used throughout the Bible, for different purposes. In the beginning of fledgling country of Israel, the act was used to set men and women apart. Prophets were anointed, and prophets anointed the new kings. Even before the king was chosen by the people, he was chosen by God, through this ritual.

Anointing was used in more ordinary ways as well—as an act of hospitality, the smell of the sweet oil would fill the home, inviting and comforting guests. It was used for medicinal purposes, as the oil acted as a soothing balm for wounds. And men and women anointed bodies to prepare them for burial.

It is important in the life of Jesus as well. One of his first acts of Jesus’ ministry (or at least the first that’s recorded in this gospel) was the one that we read, where he reads from the scrolls:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

As we think about this act and about Jesus—especially as we remember how prophets and priests anointed each other and anointed kings in these ancient rituals—it is interesting to note that Mary is the one who anointed Jesus, right before he died. Lavishing expensive perfume on him, and bathing his feet with her tears, Jesus turned to her, and said that the good news that Jesus preached would always be told in memory of her.

And it just might be true. After all, Jesus is called “the Christ,” which isn’t his last name. The theologian Paul Tillich says that we ought to saying “Jesus the Christ,” because Christ is his title. It means “the anointed one,” and from what we know, she is the one who anointed Jesus. She gave him his title.

Jesus stood up at the beginning of his ministry and said that God had anointed him and she prepared him for the end of his life, pouring the oil over his feet, weeping tears, in this loving and tender gesture.

I know a little bit about anointing myself. We have similar ancient rituals. In other congregations that I’ve served, I have anointed babies when they were baptized. I marked their heads with oil and the sign of the cross, to note they are a part of the Body of Christ. A Christian, a little anointed one.

We do the same sort of ancient rituals when we lay hands on one another in ordination. When you think about it, it is quite amazing. The hands that surrounded you represent a chain that connects you with leaders who go back decades. The chain of arms connect you with men and women whose courage, creativity, and wisdom have kept this church vital for over a 150 years. It always gives me goosebumps when I think about it.

And I know about anointing on a personal level. This sort of thing happened when I went to my grandmother’s home in South Carolina. I had been called into my grandmother’s room, because she had stopped breathing, her heart stopped beating, and she was dying.

We took each other’s hands, made a circle, and began singing “Amazing Grace” and reading Psalm 23. I looked around at the women who were gathered. I could see them, a gathering of preachers and teachers, in some form or fashion. They had worked hard in their congregations. My grandmother had been a matriarch in her congregation. My aunt had cared for people as a nurse for years. My mother and my other aunt led a ministry with developmentally disabled people.

I’m pretty sure that all of these women, at one time or another, had believed that a woman should not be an ordained pastor. But we were gathered there, nonetheless, with our different ministries.

It was a beautiful moment. There was no oil there. But I could not help but have the sense that the strength that my grandmother embodied was flowing there. The bear-like courage with which she faced life was making its way from her, to all of us, from generation to generation. And, inexplicably, my mother turned to me and said, “You are an anointed one.”

The scene was so powerful that when it was over, the hospice nurse took my grandmother’s vital signs, looked at us, shook his head, and said, “Y’all just got her all riled up again. What are you doing? She’s not ever gonna wanna leave this room!”

I smiled. And something happened to me in the experience. I am not always proud of the religion that formed me. I am often ashamed that it is a tradition that often includes hatred and manipulation.

But something happened to me that day, because I was able to embrace my history, and acknowledge that even though my has been a source of pain, it has also been a place of healing. Like a balm, that was poured over wounds, that anointed the feet of Jesus. That gave him the title “Christ” and allows me to live as a Christian.

You are anointed ones. You have been called out to bring the good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.

photo by madbronny52

Eternal Life

I just got off the phone with Bishop John Shelby Spong. I interviewed him for the newly revised God Complex Radio. The podcast will be available on the 29th.

I had so many things that I wanted to ask him, so many things that I wanted to pull apart. I wanted to agree and disagree with him. But, with his disarming, cordial, and (it seemed, from our short conversation) loving demeanor, I mostly listened.

He wrote a new book, and his last book, Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell. In it, he looks at death, and, it seems finds new meaning in life.

He talks about religion as an imperfect, human endeavor, and tells how he became more and more alienated from traditional church life…

Increasingly, I saw the church as an organization for the spiritually immature, as a body of children vying for the affirmation of the heavenly parent. I saw the church engaged in a medieval attempt at the manipulation of the divine, and all for our benefit. I saw it increasingly turn into a retreat into unreality. Worship became not communion with the power of life and love, but a drama in which clergy starred. God was addressed in the chanted language of the Middle Ages, language that enhanced little more than the clergy’s desire to perform. Church life seemed more and more dedicated to behavior control, and church politics was always about who’s out and who’s in.

It’s hard for me to read these words. Even though I agree with much of it, I also wear the title “Rev.” I work for the church, alongside many men and women who often have dispiriting jobs, face acute criticism, and are trying to find a bit of hope to share.

Yet, it’s good for me to read them. Bishop Spong is reading the ancient stories and examining the rituals in the midst of scientific realities and the search for truth.

The most beautiful thing about the writing and about our conversation was that emanating love. Bishop Spong has found meaning in the mystical tradition that seeks union with God. Instead of imagining God as “other,” God is the ground of our being.

We talked about being at the bedside of our parishioners. What do we say? Though Bishop Spong does not think that religion should offer meaningless words of comfort, we are often there holding the hand of the dying.

I remember being at the bedside of a woman—a truly beautiful person (and I’m not just saying that because she’s dead). She drew me to her and asked in a whisper, “What’s going to happen?”

I replied, “When you die?”

She said, “Yes.”

And I told her that I didn’t know. I told her that I was not compelled by golden streets or crystal fountains. That imagery did not suit me. But, drawing from Eckhart, I thought that the love of God, from whence she emanated, would surround her and embrace her. Nothing could keep her from the love of God. Not life and not death.

“I see pools,” she replied.

And I never heard another word from her.

I think that Bishop Spong’s new vision is similar. God is the source of love and the source of life. The goal of the church should not be to make us more religious, but to make us more human.

Hope for Haiti

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I wanted to give myself six weeks from my shoulder injury before I started blogging again. My doctor said it would take that long to heal. Although I didn’t believe him, he was right. It took that long to heal.

The pain has been gone for a little while. My shoulder just reminds me that something is wrong every once in a while with sharp jabs that last for a few seconds. And I’ve had some overwhelming exhaustion. But, the great news is that I haven’t had any more problems with the shoulder dislocating, so it doesn’t look like I’ll need surgery.

Actually, now the pang I’m feeling is guilt, about writing “great news” on a day like today.

In Haiti, the devastation is overwhelming. People are trying to dig men and women out of the rubble with their hands. I am getting emails from people who don’t know if their friends were caught in the quake. Thousands are dead.

Being a religious person in this sort of situation gives me some hope in humanity, because we find out about the many people who have been working there, trying to make things better for a poor country. Often they are there with a church group, or because of their faith. As soon as the disaster hit, I could think of a number of friends who have dedicated their lives to the people of Haiti.

It’s almost enough to drown out Pat Robertson’s remarks. But not quite.

Are you looking for a way to help? Here is a list of relief organizations that my husband put together. I have a friend and member of our church who has been working with the Quixote Center. I have been impressed with their work. Give and pray. Give and pray.

photo by Jan Sochor