A few years ago, at UNCO (a conference I attend annually almost religiously) I was pouring my second cup of coffee in the cafeteria when I saw Carol Howard Merritt writing on a bunch of small pieces of paper. As I walked by, she looked up and asked if I could help her.
“Sure, what are we doing?” I asked as I took a seat at her table.
“I’m writing permission slips. We’re going to hand them out at the closing gathering as a way to let folks know they can go do the thing they want to do. They don’t need permission to be who they are or to do what they believe God is calling them to do. We need to stop waiting for permission to do the important things on our minds and in our hearts.”
I took a blue sharpie and starting writing phrases like: You have permission. Just do it. Yes, you can. Go ahead; do it. Today is your day. And the one that I got – This is your year.
I carried that permission slip around in my wallet for more than a year.
That was a stellar year for me and my congregation. We created a third vocation for our community of faith - a Wellness Center. And I wrote a memoir.
You see, my friend Carol encourages life – full life. The kind mentioned in the Gospel of John, chapter 10, when Jesus says that he came to “give us life – full life.”
My friend, Carol affirms full life – so much so that she wrote a book on how to embrace full life even when the community of the guy who desires to give us full life beats the life out of us.
Carol has a similar background as me. She went to Moody Bible Institute; I went to Oral Roberts. She has been a faithful follower of Jesus since her earliest days. She has memories of church and prayer meetings and bible studies that mirror my own. She also has painful family memories that are intertwined with her faith formation – just like mine.
In our childhood and youth, we learn of faith while we are learning to be people. And then more often than not in our early adult life, we spend a lot of time with and money on therapists trying to separate the two. As a pastor, I have cared for so many people who have baggage from conservative Christian homes. This may be offensive, but one of my seminary professors told us that when she was raising her children, they were allowed to watch anything on television except Christian broadcasting. Christian dogma, or any religious dogma, is the hardest thing to unlearn.
Carol's book doesn’t seek to help someone unlearn dogma. Instead, it creates a path for full life, despite dogma. She's has even created a path alongside dogma. But the book isn’t for the faint of heart because she asks a lot from the reader. She asks us to remember moments of pain, grief an confusion. She questions the the picture of God we hold in our deepest hearts and she turns it upside down while still treasuring that very picture.
Carol, like so many of my friends and colleagues, have persisted in relationship with the church despite being chastised for our questions, our gender, our sexuality, our beliefs and interpretations of the Bible. Even though you may never know it, there actually is a robust herd of followers of Jesus who do not consider themselves evangelical Christians. We have a whole other way of understanding faith and God and our world and one another and ourselves. And we still call ourselves, rightfully, Christians.
There still are a lot of people who persist in attending church to sit next to people who are different, sometimes odd, almost always needing something in life – love, acceptance, rest, forgiveness, peace and maybe permission. But as many who have persisted with the thing called church, there are a lot who have not. There are a lot of people who have given up because the very place that should have offered them love, hurt them or rejected them. Carol shines light on some of that rejection: abuse, patriarchy, gender identity, sexual identity, body image, finances and even fear of emotions.
If this sounds like you or someone you know - maybe this is your year or their year. Maybe this is the year to remember the pain, grief or confusion of faith and religion. Maybe this is your year to turn your image of God upside down while still treasuring it. And if this is your year, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Carol Howard Merritt.
PS: Seriously... don't worry. She would happily guide you whether you have any intention of darkening the door of a church again or not. I promise. This journey is worth it regardless of the religious outcome.
Books I'm currently reading:
The Post-Quarantine Church: Six Urgent Challenges and Opportunities That Will Determine the Future of Your Congregation