I woke up this morning in deep dark funk territory. You know it, yes? That mapless bog of unfocused angst reeking with a sense that you should be doing something else! but no clarity as to what that something is or how you should summon the energy to do it? That one.
For me, the funk is almost always tied to a lack of writing time. Words are my anchor to the human race, and I can’t drop the daily practice of communing with them without also relinquishing my hold on sanity. I know this… and yet my relationship with writing is a complicated and painful one that I walk away from on a regular basis. All it takes is one day of tasks clamoring for absolute precedence; others step into their place the following day, and within the week, I am clinging to a defeatist mantra, a lifesaver carrying me out to open sea—I can’t do it all, I’m not enough, I have to let the inessentials go, let the hobbies go, let anything remotely falling within the self-care category go. There is no time for self-care selfishness, no justification for pouring valuable hours into something without direct and measurable benefit to my family. I can’t do it all; I just have to suck it up and accept that there is no room in my life for writing.
The funk inevitably follows, though I can sometimes power through for weeks before admitting I’m lost. Sometimes. Other times, the crash follows hard on the heels of a busy weekend, and I wake up to a beautiful wide-open morning with complete paralysis of soul. When this happens, there is little I know to do. Nearly every option I come up with is dredged in my sense of futility and promises to make me feel worse about myself. Wash the dishes? Sure! If you’re okay with my letting the occasional plate shatter on the floor in a fit of Kirkegaardian misery or my stabbing the occasional husband with an errant steak knife. Go for a run? Why not! I need another reason to feel the breathless, side-crampy extent of my failure at life. Read the Bible? Clearly you don’t know much about my mangled relationship with that particular text. Work on taxes? Are you f-ing kidding me??
However, I say nearly every option because I have discovered one—am discovering one—that lifts me out of the bog rather than engineering new sinkholes under my feet:
Now, before you indulge the mental picture of me in the lotus pose with a beatific smile and a halo of silent tranquility gracing my head, please understand that I am awful at this. Truly terrible. My meditation practices would give the Buddha high blood pressure were he unfortunate enough to witness me sitting crookedly against a pile of sofa cushions with my phone timer ticking down twenty minutes beside me. All the worse if he could see my mental process, which involves a lot of chasing thoughts down rabbit trails and yanking myself back on a leash and precious little of the focused silence I’m trying to achieve.
Still, I’m always shocked when the timer goes off and twenty minutes have passed in the guise of three. I know I’m terrible at meditation—buzzing around the spectacle of my own spiritual practice, hyper-aware of everything from my newness at this to the sound of traffic outside—but it works anyway. While my mind spends those twenty minutes fighting its golden retriever tendencies with all its might, my overwrought soul gets a twenty-minute vacation. It sips margaritas on the beach and naps under the palm trees and returns to me in a kind of time-warp glow. I might not be stumbling onto enlightenment or ascending to new spiritual heights here, but I am giving myself a desperately-needed break from my own mental bombardment.
Meditating makes me realize how much attention I typically give to each and every thought that comes bounding into my head, how I ascribe equal importance to them all even when logic would demand I place some on hold for more appropriate times and throw others out on their destructive asses. I have no thought-filter. I simply absorb and interact with each new string of mental clatter as if it were valuable and urgent and true. Purposefully deprioritizing the yammer in my head, however, is showing me how subjective it all is—how reflective of emotion and circumstances and the weather outside my window. It is not all true, and almost none of it is urgent. When I forcibly silence my thoughts (or at least try to) is when I finally begin to understand them, to see their origins and motives and what it all means for my penetrable heart.
You should know that the funk didn’t entirely disappear with my meditation this morning. The twin pests of impatience and indecision were waiting on the other side of those twenty minutes to be swatted away again and again throughout the day. The difference was that I had the energy to swat them away. I had the optimism to lace up my running shoes and head to the park before lunch. I had the confidence to push all the complications and doubts and martyr complexes to the side and start writing this for no other reason than that I needed to write it. I had a lookout tower there in the funk, above the funk.
Tomorrow, I very well may wake up neck-deep in the muck and malaise again. If not tomorrow, then next week, or the week after. It’s going to happen again. But maybe next time I won’t need to cycle through my roster of futile options before admitting that less is more and what I really need to do is to not do—to sit and be and fight-rest my way toward the silence that lifts me up and out
Do you meditate (or have you ever tried it)? Are there any meditation practices that work especially well for you?
Trigger warning: child abuse.
We were at a dinner party some time back when a conservative Christian dad at the table joked about how many hours he had to wait after his babies were born before he could begin spanking them. I immediately focused on my lap, not trusting myself to look at the man. I was afraid that one more glimpse of the self-satisfied grin on his face would sever every attachment I had to civility. I twisted my napkin into cardboard and tried not to listen the precious dinnertime chatter of his little girl with mine. Even after all these years, a child’s laugh can undo me, and no one wants a dinner party to turn into a nuclear meltdown.
I still think about what I would have said to the man had I been unable to keep a lid on my thoughts that day, but it’s a futile conjecture. For one thing, common sense says that no one’s mind is likely to be changed by a dinner party debate. For another, conservative Christianity usually holds that men’s opinions and theological interpretations are superior to those of women; God-given authority is a trump card that would have rendered my hand ineffective from the beginning. However, the most disturbing reason my words would have been discounted that day is that I have lived through child abuse. I would have been viewed as emotionally compromised and irrational because I have intimate knowledge of the topic at hand.
In the thirteen years since beginning to work through the repercussions of my childhood, I have heard two common reactions among fundamentalist Christians when the word “abuse” is attached to fundamentalist Christian practices:
- “I’m so sorry that you were abused, but your situation was extreme; what I do isn’t abuse.”
- “You have a distorted and psychologically imbalanced perspective of what constitutes abuse; you are making up this victim mentality for your own selfish gain.”
One response sidesteps blame; the other flings it back. Neither acknowledges the victim’s validity as a first-person witness or the relevance of his or her first-person pain.
Perhaps I should take a step back and clarify what I mean by abuse, especially within a Christian context. I work by a very simple definition of “abuse”—using a position of power to harm another person.Therefore, sexual abuse is forcing sexual harm on another person, physical abuse is forcing physical harm on another person, and spiritual abuse is forcing spiritual harm on another person. The first example is universally accepted as horrific, but the latter two are especially prevalent within fundamentalist religious lifestyles.
Take the concept of “divine authority” assumed by many church leaders, husbands, and fathers, especially throughout the Patriarchy Movement in which I grew up. Wielding a position of spiritual power, these men can manipulate their congregants or families into serving them, submitting to them, and accepting their every word as truth. Actually, I see very little difference between spiritual abuse and the more mainstream emotional variety; they both employ shame, withheld approval, verbal aggression, and intimidation. Spiritual abuse is simply emotional abuse on God’s letterhead.
The harmful effects of spiritual abuse might be difficult to quantify, but they’re real enough to those who face the herculean task of working through them. I can personally attest to just how mentally and emotionally draining it can be to push back against the teaching that you are inferior in God’s eyes. Imagine having your sense of who-you-are systematically destroyed while your protests are decried as sin and then having a new, subservient identity installed in its place. No more freedom to think for yourself or make your own decisions, no relief from the fear that you will anger God (or his henchmen), no confidence, no autonomy, no self-worth—these are the effects of spiritual abuse, and no matter how often the term “godly authority” is thrown around, bullies are bullies are bullies THE END.
Physical abuse is a less obvious practice of fundamentalist Christianity, but brave souls like Elizabeth Esther have done much to raise awareness of the parenting techniques often endorsed as God’s will and focused on breaking the child’s. By spanking their children for infractions ranging from direct disobedience to grumpiness, many parents believe that they are training them in accordance with the Bible, and some actually believe that spanking will save their children from hell. While I grant that most parents would never take this philosophy to the extremes that have landed a few families on primetime news, and while I do not think that spanking one’s children indicates a lack of love, I would like to bring up the following points that shape my thinking on the topic:
- Can we be honest that “spanking” is simply a euphemism for an adult striking a child? If a child repeatedly strikes another child, whether it be with a stick or a pipe or his hand, we call it “hitting.” If an adult does the same to another adult, we call it “beating.” When an adult does it to a child as a disciplinary tactic, we call it “spanking” and often overlook violence that would disturb or anger us in different settings.
- Inflicting physical pain on children can certainly condition their behavior and subdue their independence as promised by spanking proponents like Michael Pearl, but it neither imparts a change of heart nor teaches anything specific about the behavior being punished. Some parents say they are teaching their children self-control, but spanking is not a natural consequence of any choice a child might make, so I would argue that their children are learning coping strategies rather than genuine self-control. (Protective coping strategies I picked up as a child include lying, redirecting attention toward a sibling, and hiding.)
- While some Bible verses from the Old Testament book of Proverbs can be (and are) used in defense of spanking, Jesus both speaks at length about and demonstrates in person what loving our fellow human beings should look like. He preaches non-violence and inspires people to changes of heart through kindness. He flips notions of power and authority on their heads, and just in case we might not think his teaching applies to how we treat children, he gathers a group of unruly kids into his arms and tells us that his kingdom belongs to them. When in doubt over the Bible’s seemingly contradictory teachings, I go with Jesus.
- Spanking depends on parents’ sheer physical dominance (or, in the case of older children/teens, parents’ ability to withhold food, shelter, human interaction, etc.) to purposefully cause pain to those in their care—using a position of power to harm another person. Beyond the fact that this sends a deeply confusing message to children, who themselves are not allowed to use physical dominance to get their way, it fully fits the definition of abuse.
I realize that criticizing a popular parenting technique like this is not too far off from coming unglued at a dinner party. To be honest, I’ve put off writing about this for a long time because I didn’t want to face the effects, both the emotional strain of dialing up my childhood and the potential backlash from parents who feel attacked. It would be fifty shades of hypocritical for me to tell others what they should believe and how they should raise their own children, and “abuse” is not a word that can be applied lightly. I’m wading through serious territory here.
But the seriousness of abuse is precisely why I’m taking the chance to speak up today. Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week is bringing survivors out of the woodwork, and I’m standing up with them—not because I enjoy playing the poor pitiable victim or because I want to spread another layer of guilt on this grace-starved world but because the truth matters. You deserve to hear the whole story, the practical conclusion to bookshelves’ worth of theory, the reality on the other end of the power spectrum. You deserve to know the emotional impact of philosophies that many people accept as God’s will despite their misgivings.
In turn, I trust you to accept my perspective as valid rather than irrational or compromised by my being “too close” to the subject. This isn’t an FBI investigation we’re talking about; it’s life. It’s experience. It’s the intersection of theology and practice, the correlation between what we believe and how it affects others. If we believe in a God of love and grace and peace, then we need to be closely examining philosophies that produce the opposite, and that means listening to the uncomfortable stories, taking them to heart, and working to right wrongs however we can.
Here is my own uncomfortable story: I am a survivor of child abuse. Under the approval of fundamentalism and the Patriarchy Movement, I endured years of severe spiritual and physical abuse, including some that veered over the line into sexual abuse. I helped the perpetrators to cover it up, even when instinct screamed at me to protect myself and my younger siblings. (That dinner party joke about spanking infants is no joke, and I don’t know if I can ever fully forgive myself for the things I enabled through my silence.) I grew up fearful and ashamed, with helpless fury often spiraling downward into depression. I battle those same feelings in adulthood, with the addition of panic attacks and other physical manifestations of PTSD, and there is not a single aspect of my daily life that is not affected in some way by what I endured as a child. Not one.
My saving grace has been a long, slow discovery that God is not the mastermind behind my abuse. I’ve had to shed thousands of assumptions along the way, prying my clenched fingers from fears and shames that I had thought were part of my identity, and there are thousands still to go, but I know that the divine source of light and love is not responsible for the way power was used to hurt me all those years. I do struggle heavily with why God allowed the abuse to happen, but it comforts me to think that he didn’t send down preventative lightning bolts from heaven for the same reason that he didn’t make me spend the rest of my life in a falsely constructed identity: because he does not abuse his power. He doesn’t force or manipulate or use his position to demand subservience. He is about as far from the patriarchal standard as a deity could get.
And in coming to recognize this, I’ve been able see ways in which God was with me all along—providing moments of comfort and flashes of joy, stopping me at the brink of suicide, guiding me toward a life far, far away from my past and its triggers where I can heal in peace. I know it doesn’t make sense to some people that I would have anything to do with the God whose name was plastered all over the abuse I endured. However, uncovering God’s real identity is helping me more than anything else to uncover my own, and if this makes me emotionally compromised, then I’ll wear the stigma proudly.
This is my uncomfortable story, this is my song. (Part 2, about parenting after abuse, here.)
More uncomfortable story-songs from this week:
The Day I Died by Caleigh at Elora Nicole
Paved With Good Intentions by Hännah Ettinger
God is Love by Sarah Moon
The Cult That Changed Everything by Kiery King
How Spiritual Abuse Has Affected Me by Jessica Bowman
Spiritual Abuse and How It Shaped My Identity at Defeating the Dragons
After Steubenville by Ann Voskamp
As soon as I opened Facebook this morning, the site recommended two pages for me based on my friends’ likes:
Guns and Shooting.
Guns and Shooting, and my friends’ names alongside pixelated thumbs of approval. Guns and Shooting, and a Facebook feed bristling in defense of assault rifles. Guns and Shooting, and quotes from religious figures implying that God allowed the tragedy as an act of revenge on a school system that no longer sponsors him. Guns and Shooting, and the caps-locked screams of loved ones fighting for their unhindered right to weapons of destruction.
As a culture (and I speak in sweeping generalities here), we Americans have accepted that violence can only be counteracted with more violence. We see war as 100% necessary and place our hope in the Jack Bauers of the nation. We think that the only way to defend ourselves from guns is to put more guns into circulation. We claim that if only the Sandy Hook teachers had been packing heat, Friday’s tragedy would have been averted. We believe in our hearts that we will have to use deadly force against another human being at some point in our lives, so it’s best to be prepared. We state that guns don’t kill people, people kill people, but we forget to count ourselves among the potential killers because we’re on the good guy team.
We respond to the massacre of twenty young children by defending the weapons that killed them.
As a child, I had fun shooting targets and small animals, and the cold cruelty of a machine made to destroy never entered my mind. Guns were just something every family kept in the coat closet. Even at university, when a classmate was expelled for stockpiling weapons and ammunition in his dorm room, I absorbed friends’ indignation on his behalf. “He would never use them to hurt anyone!” we all said. And on this point, we were probably right. My classmate enjoyed hunting, and where could he store his gear if not in his dorm room?
However, our university had rules in place to reduce the risk of mass murders, so they expelled the student who, regardless of motives, had stocked up on devices specifically designed to kill. And this is what the gun debate comes down to for me—risk reduction. No, there is no amount of legislation that will prevent psychopaths or terrorists from enacting violence. Yes, there will always be a healthy black market for weapons of destruction. Yes, people should have the right to defend themselves, especially on their own property. No, peace is never guaranteed.
But can we just step back for a moment from the mentality that violence is our birthright? Can we stop letting fear dictate our morals? Can we have the courage to take a fraction of the risk off the shoulders of innocent schoolchildren and hold it ourselves, in their stead? Rather than amending our lifestyles and outlooks and job descriptions to include more violence, can we consider amending the availability of its instruments?
I am not arguing to abolish gun ownership altogether, though my husband and I believe that as followers of Jesus, we need to take his teachings on nonviolence to heart. However, we need to talk and talk hard about why civilians are allowed to own assault machinery, why it’s easier to get bullets than to get Sudafed, and why the fiercest fight in the aftermath of Newtown is waged on behalf of the murder weapons.
We need to consider what we are saying about human life with our thumbs-up.
On Violence by D.L. Mayfield, who shares her thoughts on how to do radical pacifism
Breaking News, Bearing Arms by Rebecca Woolf, whose husband is with her today because of his stance on nonviolence
Do We Have the Courage to Stop This? by Nicholas Kristof, who shows that we’re more worried about regulating ladders than about regulating firearms
Speed Kills by William Saletan, who holds Friday’s tragedy up against school attacks outside the U.S.
God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule by The Onion, who brilliantly, profanely, and heartbreakingly speaks the obvious
Love Your Enemies by Jesus, who lived it
Feel free to add your own suggested links in the comments!
I am not an angry feminist. In fact, I’ve never thought of myself as any kind of feminist; gender inequality was never more than an infrequent blip on my radar, and part of me secretly thought that outspoken feminists were like kids whining because their friends have more toys than they do—technically correct, but irritatingly focused on the comparison game instead of gratitude for their own unique lives.
I grew up a pastor’s kid and have been a full-fledged member of eight separate churches, plus a visitor at many, many more, and rarely have I heard a women’s Bible study discuss anything except 1) submission, 2) homemaking à la Proverbs 31, or 3) modesty. We as women in the church do not discuss the power of our prayers. We do not discuss our spiritual gifts or how God might have uniquely equipped us to use them. We do not discuss the strong female leaders of the Bible. We do not discuss the fact that our church-approved roles as women seem to be cobbled together from a select mix of Paul’s instructions and sitcoms from the 1950s. We do not discuss the damage done to our hearts every time men in the church label our gender as defrauding, disruptive, or deceived.
No. We discuss how a too-tight shirt will cause our brothers in Christ to stumble, how assertiveness or reluctance in the bedroom will drive our husbands into sin, and how not keeping our homes in order is a matter for repentance.
Boom. Apparently I’m not as apathetic toward gender inequality as I’d thought. I know I wrote about male-female roles last week, but that was in a very personal scope, untangling my own thought processes from fundamentalism. This is something bigger. This is about a lie that is such a universal part of the human experience that we only recognize small parts of it at a time.
Like the part that says darker skin is inferior to lighter skin.
Or the part that says inhabitants of one country are inferior to those of its next-door neighbor.
Or the part that says people with empty wallets are inferior to people with 401(K)s.
Or the part that says humans with higher estrogen are inferior to humans with higher testosterone.
This lie that has so thoroughly infiltrated our way of thinking says that one category of people can be worth less than another… and nowhere is this more disheartening to see in practice than among followers of Jesus.
I grew up in a very extreme subculture of Christianity which relegated women to husband-helpers, children to automatons, and Democrats to hell-fodder. Rare varieties of prejudice thrived in that sealed-off environment, and I happily recognize that the perspectives I grew up with are not the norm. However, most mainstream churches still support the doctrine that women, by sole virtue of their gender, are less qualified than men to make decisions, offer advice, or—God forbid—lead. If a woman believes that her true gifting is that of a pastor, most Christians would either take that to mean she is deceived (Eve’s contribution to our sex) or channel her controversial calling into “acceptable” outlets, like teaching children’s Sunday School or possibly running a women’s-only group.
Most churches don’t forbid women to braid their hair, though a Bible verse speaking against that very thing is followed by a verse calling wives “the weaker partner.” The latter is accepted as God’s truth and used to demean women’s minds, skills, and hearts while the former is understood as a) metaphorical, or b) culturally irrelevant. The same thing happens over and over again throughout the pages of this book we call our foundation. I know of very few pastors who still teach that women are saved through childbirth, but the following chapter’s mandate that deacons be men is followed unquestioningly. Women are no longer required to remain silent in church, but they are usually prohibited from teaching men—which makes two different interpretations of the same verse. Reading a single line of Genesis, we latch on to the fact that woman was made to be man’s “helper” while failing to read the rest—“a helper comparable to him”—or noting that the Hebrew word for “helper” is most often used throughout the Bible in reference to God. (Providing help makes God worthy of devotion but women worthy of disrespect? Please explain the logic of this to me.)
How can we believe that both male and female reflect God’s image but the male reflection is superior? How can we think that men have individual and divinely-inspired purposes in life but that women are universally designed for one lifestyle? How can we possibly justify thinking that one soul carries more weight than another because of the body attached to it?
I see this men-lead/women-submit mentality as just another facet of the insidious lie proclaiming that some demographics have the right to lord over others. Once God’s name is attached to the lie, it becomes harder than ever to uproot… and meanwhile, women are absorbing the idea that God thinks of them as less and men are shouldering burdens that were always meant to be shared and the church is missing out on the beautiful power of men and women contributing their strengths in harmony. It’s heartbreaking and discouraging and utterly maddening… which I guess qualifies me as an angry feminist after all.
My mind weighs more than it should today. I have to concentrate to hold it upright and centered above my shoulders instead of sinking a slow depression between them. The #adventwindow words have gotten me again. This time, it’s “choose”—a dare, a remonstrance, a permission ripe for the picking. I’ve been staring at it for three days now, this weighty word pasted to an otherwise empty page, and the only response I’ve conjured up is a question: How?
This year, more than just about any other in my memory, has been strung up like a commercial trawling line with others’ expectations for me. I would say I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve let down this year, but this isn’t the kind of thing easily forgotten. I can recall every email, every phone conversation, and every hard-staring face that has let me know I am not entitled to my own decisions.
As much as I value honest writing, this blog isn’t the right place for sharing these particular details, for rehashing every he-said-she-said and amassing indignation. Part of me would love to vent, get a flurry of “You’re clearly in the right!” sympathy comments, and then return to the mess of life in a protective aura of superiority. However, the other, wiser part of me knows that venting is a demolition tactic, not a restorative measure, and that it simply isn’t who I am.
Who-I-am is a relentless seeker of purpose and perspective, and that means digging past crumbled emotions to locate the foundation beneath. I have to confess though—I’m stumped when it comes to “choose.” So many decisions in my life right now seem armed to the teeth. In work, relationships, and even service opportunities, my path has already been chosen by others who are ill-prepared to hear me say “no.” These aren’t usually people I can just ignore or write out of my life, and their disappointment with me registers in the same sharp key as regret. The more firmly I try to plant my feet in the best decision for myself and my little family, the more I feel like a traitor… and the more I realize that the other party wants me to feel that way.
This scenario never fails to send my thoughts into a tailspin. Am I letting myself get bullied into a powerless version of my own life? Am I letting my soul get trampled in my quest not to disappoint anyone else? Or… is this just a normal part of living in community and loving others well? Is the regret I feel a healthy reaction to my own selfishness? Is it that I’m divvying up my “one wild and precious life” to the most insistent bidder, or is it that I’m clinging to my own minor wishes above the wellbeing of others? Is my people-pleasing guilt instructive or destructive?
I really don’t know. I rewind situations even as recent as this week and play back my words in slow, critical motion. How could I have held my ground instead of caving into pressure and agreeing to the other party’s terms? How could I have asserted my decision without sparking resentment? How could I have separated the codependent mesh of friendship and favors so that my “no” would only touch the latter?
As much as I might wish for obvious, quick-fix answers, I realize that isn’t how any relationship works, especially not the one between my mind and my heart. This is the stuff of life and breath and plot-twist and resolution, all of us learning what it means to occupy planet earth together while growing ever more into ourselves. There are no perfect comebacks. I’m never ever ever going to know the right thing to say at the right time, and it’s probably best for my sanity not to figure it out later either.
But still… I really wouldn’t mind having all the hidden motivations and truths of each tense situation laid out in alphabetical order and paired with solutions. I want to have the power to choose how I allocate my time, energy, and resources no matter how anyone tells me I should. I would love the freedom to follow what I call heart-nudges (some people call it divine prompting) without the clamor of differing opinions pulling me off-track. I’d pay big bucks biscotti (hey, it’s what I’ve got) for the assurance that “no” is as valid a word as “yes” and is in fact part of a healthy decision diet.
However, the whole point of “choose” is choice—individual, intentional choice—and it becomes a different beast altogether when I read it as an invitation. Go ahead—choose! Choose choosiness. Choose the power to choose for yourself even when there are no assurances and choice sounds like a trick question and you won’t be able to make everyone or maybe even anyone elsehappy and no one has read you your rights and you know the other party will be grading your decision with a red marker. Choose anyway. You are cordially invited by your value as a human being to pick your own actions differently than other human beings might do on your behalf. No R.S.V.P. required.
I just have to hope that the “how” will come with time.
Do you ever feel like you have little power to decide certain aspects of your life for yourself? How do you navigate the line between selfishness and self-care when your decisions might disappoint others?
I decided years ago that I was done with the creation vs. evolution debate. As a Jesus-follower, I often hear earnest sermonizing that God created all life forms in six literal days and that science is trying to undermine the truth of our Bible, but I no longer take on that conversation. My personal belief is that the creation story in Genesis is highly figurative and that God in science are on the same team, but I could be mistaken. Honestly, I don’t care. I see a divine fingerprint on the world around me, but the method of its origin has no bearing on my faith. It’s simply a non-issue to me.
I’ve taken the same approach with the sexual orientation subject too. Nearly all Christian denominations openly condemn the homosexual and transgender, but I never saw the point in getting worked up over it. After all, I’m straight. I can hardly claim to understand, much less consider myself an authority on those with other sexual orientations. Yes, there are passages in the Bible decrying homosexuality, but the Bible is a complicated book, and I didn’t see a personal need to delve into the linguistic and cultural nuances behind those passages in order to polarize my stance. The issue simply didn’t affect me.
That was before someone very dear to me shared the story of her husband—a conservative pastor and Quiverfull dad—admitting that he actually identified as female and of their transition to a same-sex marriage. I was stunned. My lack of a position on the whole subject left me in a philosophical no man’s land as I tried to wrap my mind around their story, and my own longsuffering spouse can attest to the many hours I spent talking myself through it. I kept trying to put myself in Melissa’s position, but I just couldn’t imagine finding out that my husband had always felt his deepest identity to be female. More, I couldn’t imagine coming out myself and continuing our committed, affectionate relationship as he became a she.
It finally dawned on me that I was trying to understand things from the wrong angle. My body and soul genders match each other, and my romantic inclination is as conventional as it comes; I’m not going to be able to conjure up the transgender or gay experience any more than I could picture myself a tsar. But I don’t need to. I don’t need to feel what my friend is going through in order to hear the emotions of her story, see the awe-striking love she and her spouse have shown each other throughout, or understand the way people’s reactions affect them. I don’t need to twist my mind around in search for empathy. It’s been right here all along… and so has my stance on the issue:
Love matters most.
Jesus said that when a religious leader asked him for the greatest commandment, and it’s one of my favorite things in the Bible. All those lists of laws and thou shalt nots are both summed up and solidly trumped by love. You would think, according to some sermons I’ve heard, that Jesus accidentally forgot to exclude homosexuals when he said “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But this same Jesus met with scathing criticism from the churchy crowd for his habit of hanging out with prostitutes, cheats, and other flagrant sinners. He had dinner with outcasts and approached people considered too vile for interaction, and you know, he never once remembered to launch an anti-gay campaign. He was too busy teaching how to cultivate peace, live authentically, and stop burdening our fellow human beings.
I realize that unconventional sexual orientation has become a huge moral issue to many people, and it’s often seen as grounds for terminating friendships. In the case of Christian communities, many adopt the strategy of trying to shun the offending person into repentance. Bullying can take the form of anything from hate crimes to prayer meetings to constitutional amendments, and we’re only kidding ourselves if we claim that our repugnance is rooted in the Bible. The Old Testament puts pride, eating pig meat, and doing things to gain popularity in the same category as gay sex, but the cultural stigmas on those actions have long since been lifted. If you pick up a clam on the beach today, you’re not going to face a religious firing squad even though touching shellfish is listed as an abomination in the same section of the Bible most often used to bash homosexuals. Like it or not, every single Christian interprets the Bible through a cultural filter, so I think it’s about time that we acknowledge our prejudice for what it is.
I imagine that some people are ready to jump down my throat right now with theology books in tow, but I’m less willing to join in the debate now than I was during all my years of disimpassioned neutrality. It really all comes down to this one truth beating in my heart:
The Bible says homosexuality is an abomination!
But love matters most.
God intended marriage to be between a man and a woman, period!
But love matters most.
If I remain friends with gay people, they will think I’m condoning their behavior!
But love matters most.
They’re unnatural and perverted and mentally unsound; they need to be cured!
But love matters most.
What if my child turns out gay?
Love matters most.
No matter our fears or aversions, our power as a majority group to put others down, or our arsenal of theological ammunition, love matters most. Jesus summed up centuries of religious law in this, and I don’t believe for one second that he meant “love” as an abstract semantic device that we can claim over the people we’re shunning. Jesus’s love was always hands-on—touching the sick, embracing muddy children, tearing off hunks of bread for the hungry, washing his followers’ feet—and he charged his believers with carrying out his heart for people. He charged us with grace, freeing us forever from the responsibility of judging or condemning each other. His is a legacy of radical community, beautiful in its unconcern with convention or religious respectability, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be a part of it… right alongside my friend.
I’ve linked to this before, but it’s worth a second read: A Mountain I’m Willing to Die On
It popped up on my Facebook feed last summer once, twice, fifteen times before I started seeing it discussed on prominent blogs. Entire circles of social media lit up at once in a universal Aha! moment at the idea that we are doing a grave disservice to little girls when we compliment their beauty. Lisa Bloom’s article is fascinating and powerful (if you haven’t read it yet, it’s well worth three minutes of your time!), and I am grateful that voices like hers are being heard over the endless glittery din of beauty propaganda. I appreciate her point that commenting on a girl’s beauty disrespects her mind and sets her up for a lifetime of body image issues. However, I also disagree.
I grew up within an extreme religious subculture that required parents to squelch their parental instincts in favor of specific protocol. Our lifestyle encouraged education and Colonial-era homemaking skills while discouraging physical beauty, so most of the compliments I heard growing up fell under the category of accomplishments. My parents freely celebrated my brains and talents, but what I heard even more acutely was the silence when I’d model a new dress.
We didn’t have a television and I wasn’t allowed to look at magazine covers at the grocery store, but some innate girlish part of me had an idea of what beautiful looked like, and I knew it wasn’t me. Few things throughout my childhood hurt as badly as looking in the mirror each morning and feeling sure that if I were even the tiniest bit pretty, someone would have mentioned it to me. I despised my fair skin, my strawberry-blonde hair, and my gangly legs with their perpetually skinned knees, and I absolutely loathed the freckles splattered across my cheeks. In fact, I carried such a low view of my appearance with me to university that I had no response the first time a classmate told me I was beautiful. Clearly, the man was a few fries short of a Happy Meal. (Love you, dear!)
Self-esteem is an ongoing issue for me, but I determined early on not to pass my history of mirror-hate on to my two daughters. The first half of my strategy is by far the hardest: appreciating myself. Every disparaging comment I make about my figure, every gesture of disgust or embarrassment, every dismissal of compliments is soaked up immediately by my girls’ big blue eyes, and it’s scary as hell to remember that I am their introduction course to womanhood. My words about myself will affect what they see in the mirror for their entire lives, and you know what? That day when they survey their own stretch-marked mama bodies and feel like someone rearranged them without their consent and consider the merits of muu-muus and wonder where to even begin with the concealer, even then they will be radiantly beautiful. Which means I have to accept the possibility that I am too.
The other part of my strategy is less about reversing thought patterns and more about giving my instincts permission to love unabashedly. My girls are both artistic, imaginative, curious, and kind; they do brave things and learn from mistakes, and I let them know how much I admire them for it. They are also beautiful. It’s the truth, and my defense against mother-bias is that I’ve never met a little girl who wasn’t beautiful. Their innocence and mischief, their uninhibited smiles, the darling gaps of missing teeth, the residual glow from heaven’s handprint… pure beauty, yes?
I can’t keep such precious, transformative truth a secret, so I tell them. I talk with my daughters about books and brains, but I also let them know how their loveliness fills my eyes to overflowing. It’s just a comment here or there, nothing pre-meditated, but when their daddy smiles proud and tells them they’re beautiful, both six-year-old Natalie and four-year-old Sophie respond in delight: “I know!” There is no trace either of self-deprecation or of conceit (though I’m working with them on a more socially acceptable response) and not even a whisper of wishing they were different. They are beautiful, just as themselves, and they know it.
I follow the same philosophy when talking to the girls’ friends. Their appearances are never the focus of conversation, but I also don’t ignore their new haircuts or sparkling smiles or the outfits they cheerfully cobbled together themselves. I am all too aware of the images and ads that will dog them their whole lives about not being skinny or tan or fashionable enough, and I hope that my voice carries more than its share of weight when it tells them that they are enough. Even in first grade, they are inside-and-out beautiful, and I want them to know this to their core before marketing campaigns try to convince them otherwise.
I believe that we are doing a grave disservice to little girls when we ignore any part of who they are in an effort to control their priorities. I believe that our instinct to celebrate their loveliness in addition to their intelligence and courage and talent exists because we are meant to be holistic beings—soul, spirit, mind, and body. I believe that beauty and brains are in no way mutually exclusive and that we need to stop perpetuating the myth of Either-Or. I believe that our children need to hear every bit of the good we see in them and need to hear it often enough to start answering from a place too far within them for media onslaughts to touch…“I know!”
Everywhere, it seems, I’m reading about Lent, and I’m trying to let the words sink in, but they float just above my level of comprehension. Ashes, fasting, sin, mortality, dust to dust… Maybe it’s because I’ve never attended a church that practiced Lent (though I know that’s not a prerequisite to participation). Maybe it’s because I’m on such tenuous terms with organized Christianity. Maybe it’s because words like “sin” and “fasting” shut me down trigger-quick with oppressive memories.
My being with you this year doesn’t just refer to posting more often. The internet offers a shiny, gilt-framed backdrop for whatever image of ourselves we want to project, but it’s a hollow allure, this self-sponsored PR. If I’m only offering a mirage of who I want you to think I am, any attempts at connection will vaporize with the illusion, and I believe that connection is the reason we are on this planet together. Thus, with = authenticity.
Are you ready?
As far back as I can remember, the Easter season has symbolized a very personal kind of brutality to me. The story of Jesus’s crucifixion is horrific, no matter the religious paradigm. A man who devoted his adult life to teaching kindness, spreading hope, standing up for the marginalized, and living out compassion is tortured to death by religious leaders who feel their legalistic system threatened. The injustice is instantly recognizable, the tragedy deeply felt. And it is all my fault.
That’s what I was taught from the beginning, that the shards of glass ripping his back to shreds, the iron spikes hammered into his wrists, the agonizing hours on the cross as his lungs collapsed were all my fault. It sent me into hysterics as a young child. Hearing the unthinkable details of Jesus’s suffering and then being told I was responsible was too much for my heart to handle intact. Jagged, uncontrollable laughter spilled through the wound, and my guilt doubled. No punishment was enough.
“Jesus died for your sins.” I swallow hard every time I hear this line at church, wondering what concept it is shaping in my daughters’ minds. I know that many people take it as a message of hope and love, but I have trouble seeing the barbarism behind the statement. Death by torture is somehow the sacrificial equivalent of my imperfection? Is it not enough to acknowledge my need for redemption without also accepting the blame for Jesus’s death? More often than not, these questions have led me down a spiral staircase of doubts from which I couldn’t see hope, not even a glint, through my anger at God for orchestrating such horror.
I can’t turn off my mind or cauterize the raw edges of my heart against pain, but I have learned to look through new eyes. A few years ago, my friend Rachelle Mee-Chapman’s article Your Kindergartner Did Not Kill Jesus, and Neither Did You helped me see the Easter story as a powerful continuation of Jesus’s life rather than a violent tit-for-tat. Gerry Beauchemin’s book Hope Beyond Hell showed me a God of love instead of torture. Other resources, music, and open-minded conversations have helped me find a third path beyond blind acceptance of religious dogma and angry rejection of the whole Christian construct. I can now love Jesus honestly, without having to shoulder or celebrate his death.
I admire those of you who make sacrifices during these forty days in order to draw closer to God, and I want you to know that I respect your ashes. They aren’t for me, though, at least not in this stage of my life. I’ve spent so long pinned in the dust by Jesus’s suffering that meditating on it now would be like returning to a prison. Perhaps I will be able to do it one day when my new perspective is strong enough to cocoon old wounds. But for now, I’m focusing on words and life instead of sin and death, meditating on the kindness Jesus taught rather than the evil he suffered. My soul was designed not for guilt but for grace—bright, sweeping, extravagant grace that becomes especially personal to me when I meet with God here on this third path and (s)he loves my split heart a little closer to wholeness.
Photo of Vesuvius snapped on Easter morning 2010
I am absolutely positive on this one point: I had no idea what Daniel and I were getting into when we started this Kickstarter project. Of course, had I known, I would have waited for sometime when I had a month off work, excess energy, and aligned stars guaranteeing our success, which would have been never. There’s definitely something to be said for just squeezing your eyes shut and taking the plunge. Things get done that way.
But goodness. The past few weeks have taken an industrial-sized ice cream scoop to my insides and scraped up every last speck of energy. Every. single. day. Through the giddy fun of setting up our fundraising page, I failed to see that it would become our full-time job this month—managing websites, editing media, socializing, networking, writing, writing, writing, and asking people to exchange their hard-earned money for our dream. I don’t use the word “our” lightly, by the way; the only way this campaign has been possible on top of my teaching schedule has been sharing the load with my nerdy rockstar husband… who is also keeping up a day job. We haven’t been sleeping much.
If you want to know the truth, though, the most draining thing so far has been the emotional effort of all this hoping. I dearly want to see this gamble pay off, so every new minute sends me swinging between elation and despair. The hopeful calm in between feels as impossible as the $10,000 I’m asking for. I can’t help comparing my project to some of Kickstarter’s wild success stories and then slumping lower because I don’t have their thousands of Twitter followers or their corporate sponsorship or their professional video shoot. I know jealousy isn’t attractive, but this is me, real.
I want this book to happen. I want the chance to work from home this winter writing it. I want to be present for my little girls again instead of dashing off to work every day. I want to follow my creative impulses and devote my time to what gives me life rather than what saps it away. So many wants… yet the word itself makes me cringe at my own selfishness. Only the thinnest line has ever separated gratefulness and guilt for me.
However, I can’t agree to live without hope, without reaching toward what matters even when that hope feels undeserved. This book is part of a larger vision for our family, and dismissing the idea because of misplaced guilt would be like coating a kaleidoscope in concrete. So we’re doing this now, knowing that the other option is never and clinging to color for all we’re worth.*
*Which we hope is at least $10,000.
I wasn’t going to write this week. I had made peace with that, or as much peace as a woman can have while digging around in her bottomless purse for an inhaler while trapped in the fast lane (metaphorically. mostly.). However, despite the lists piled around my ears (not metaphorical, these), I can’t seem to close my computer right now and dash away. Perhaps it’s best to go with instinct on this one.
So here’s the scoop—The sky has been falling steadily on us for the last several weeks, and sometimes miracles are the projectile du jour, and sometimes bad news pelts down like a hailstorm of cinder blocks. I’ve done a lot of ducking and a lot of internal pep talking, but mostly I’ve been working my brain down to the bone in an effort to help us survive the next month or two. It remains to be seen if this will make any difference or not, but I have to try.
The worst thing for me about living each day “di corsa”—on the run—is that I check out of my own life. I’m not the marathon runner in our family, but I imagine that this is what it feels like to get into that mental groove and see nothing beyond but a finish line. I have my blinders on and my focus given fully over to effort, but the glaring problem in this scenario is that I don’t see a finish line. I only see a falling sky.
I am probably employing just a tad more drama than our situation actually warrants, but I’m surprisingly bad at Zen when worries compound and I can’t get out of the fast lane to examine them properly. I’m distracted and rushed and knotted up and pretty thoroughly disconnected from All That Is Important.
So I’m skipping town. I’ve been invited by none other than my business-tripping crush to be his date at a banquet on Lake Como this weekend, and I’m going to put on my best impression of elegance (maybe in the back of the closet?) and pretend to be a celebrity for one glitzy evening, and hopefully, as the mood shifts from Chicken Little to Cinderella, I’ll be able to plug back into my own story.
And if it doesn’t work… well, every banquet needs a drama queen, right?