I didn’t expect to write two angry-at-abusive-mindset posts back to back, but here I am. This needs to be said.

Christians take romantic relationships too seriously.

Not even just courtship-only Christians, or virgins-until-wedding-night Christians. Pretty much any sincere Christian who wants to serve God and honor him with how they handle a romantic relationship is going to be prone to this obsession with doing things right.

Let me back up.

Now, first: I have no regrets with how my life so far has turned out. It’s mine, it’s beautiful, it’s messy, it’s hard, but I have been a survivor and I have grown through hardship and become more me, more whole.

But. I feel that I was told some things which are common assumptions for most Christians, and I now think that these are unnecessary and harmful. So I’m going to name them.

1) Christians are given special knowledge about God’s will for their lives because they can have a relationship with God, so they should to get things right in romantic relationships because otherwise they’ll be a bad witness for the gospel. Subtext: the world is screwy and doesn’t get sex or love right because they don’t know Jesus, but we can because we do know Jesus. Sub-subtext: it’s us vs. The World.

2) Christians don’t need to fool around because they believe sex outside of marriage is wrong, and they should be able to get things right in relationships because they have Jesus, so it should be possible to find your mate quickly/early on without dating around a lot. This will show the world how we get it right and make them curious about Jesus because we’re different, and getting married at 22 instead of 28.

3) If assumptions #1 and #2 are true, a Christian couple can actually manage to be virgins on their wedding night, so all Christians really need to try to live up to this standard. There’s no good reason not to achieve this. If you don’t, your faith is probably weak and you’re a bad witness.

4) We have to submit to our authority structures in the family and in the church to be accountable in our relationships. Unbelievers don’t believe in God so they don’t have any respect for authority or accountability or consequences, so they’re more likely to sin sexually in a romantic relationship or just do what feels good instead of being responsible, committed, or mature. Christians know we are sinful and our hearts may want to be just like the unbelievers, so we need to be transparent to authority and have our fathers, mentors, and pastors help and guide us and let us know where we’re in sin, being lazy, or hurting our significant other in how we act in our relationships.

5) You may not end up with the one you’re with, so don’t do anything that would be committing emotional or physical infidelity. If your desires are uncontrollable, you probably need to marry the person you’re with, because it’s [somehow] less of a serious sin if you end up getting married.

6) Dating early (15-17) is okay as long as you are serious and committed to “honoring God” with your relationship and have older, wiser people involved.

7) Christians can have better marriages than unbelievers even if certain things in a relationship are harmful or immature, because knowing and practicing biblical gender roles and committing to your marriage vows will honor God’s plan for your life and he’ll give you extra grace for keeping your promises when it’s hard.

I saw a lot of people acting on these assumptions inside the Christian bubble, courtship-minded and not, complementarians and egalitarians, homeschoolers and mainstream Christians. The folks at my Christian college seemed to all be in a rush to be paired off at the end of senior year and married by the end of the summer after graduation. The folks in my homeschooling community back home similarly pressured themselves to pair off and get married and have babies — it was as if they felt like real adult life couldn’t commence if they weren’t settled down and married. Most of them would never dream of living on their own (away from their family of origin) unless it was to get married. [That’s an extreme that’s less common, but you get the point — real life starts when you’re married.]

Even my husband and I rushed to get married because we were trying to sate the intense pressure we felt from my dad and others to “get it right” — and for whatever reason it wasn’t seen as a good option to break up or take more time to be sure that we were sure, or that we were mature enough, or had done all the single-life things we wanted to do before getting married. My dad certainly pressured us to find those things out, but it was because marriage was seen as the endgame, not because it would make us better individuals.

I have a few thoughts on how to why these assumptions are harmful and how we can improve the way Christians approach dating/romance, but I’m just getting the conversation going, really.

Dating doesn’t have to be huge, serious, or marriage-focused. Maybe it can just be getting to know people and yourself. Maybe it can just be enjoying a person for who they are, and maybe the romance can just naturally flow from that sweet spot where connection and friendship meet. Maybe taking all those crappy purity metaphors too literally restricts us and makes us more naive and vulnerable to abusive situations than we should be. It undermines healthy emotional development and a right sense of boundaries to commit yourself to this complicated, authority-and-shame driven path where it’s easier to “mess up” than it is to enjoy a person and learn from your relationship with them, and then either move on, or continue to grow in trust and intimacy in a wholesome manner.

And dating relationships should never, ever be focused on proving a point about Christianity “getting it right” or some other bizarre evangelism-by-example tool. That goes against the truth of grace and the power of the incarnation. Relationships are human. We’re going to do some things right and we’re going to hurt each other. Jesus became human, not to show us how to do it right, but to meet us where we’re at and free us from shame.

Let’s talk about this. What do you think? How can Christians avoid making the subject of relationships and romance a legalistic fear fest? How can we practice healthy boundaries and emotional growth in romance? And can we please, please talk about how a right theology of the body would improve everything about Christian dating assumptions?


I’ve avoided saying these words to myself for a long time, but it’s really the most accurate description:

When I was 12, my family moved from California to the east coast to join a cult.

I haven’t felt at home anywhere since.

***

There were other factors, of course. Economy, family ideals for finding a supportive community for a family with young kids, etc.

We left the little yellow house where four of my younger siblings (there would later be four more) had been brought home, we left the friends I had grown up with and my first true best friend, we left the mountains and the sea and the sand, we left my mom’s widowed mother and my dad’s parents, and we left the only state and culture we had ever known.

We packed up a trailer, we squeezed ourselves into a little blue minivan with peeling paint, and we drove into the desert for two weeks of cross-country insanity.

When we arrived, we were love-bombed and surrounded by people who made us feel welcomed and at home in this new community. I was plopped down in the thick of 12-year-old-girl cliques, with all the political trappings of Sovereign Grace Ministries and their organic social pecking order based on appearances of humility and godliness.

And then there was the culture shock, as opinionated, confident me and my honest and blunt mother both felt squelched by passive aggressive social cues and vague disapproval from the women in our church.

I was so homesick.

***

In our new home, I shared a 10’x10′ bedroom with my younger sister for 6 years, my mom locking us into the arrangement with the words, “Well, you guys really need to learn to get along. I think you should be roommates for a while.” We fought for space, for privacy, for emotional safety. We never got it, not there. I withdrew into books, she into self-loathing. I stayed up late at night reading, because it was the only time I could be quiet and alone in a household with nine kids and heavy expectations. She hid in the bathroom and disappeared into self-isolation because everyone else was louder and more obviously needy than she was.

We’re only just beginning to discuss with each other how miserable that season was.

There were lots of reasons I looked forward to moving out and going to college, but getting space, quiet, and privacy was one of the things I hoped for the most. My parents laughed and told me not to expect that.

***

In college, I ended up in a dorm room that was almost twice of my bedroom back home. I had a wonderful roommate and it became a haven.

But nine months later and I was home for the summer, and I found I wasn’t welcome in my old space anymore. Space was tight and my sisters had rearranged the rooms while I was gone. Every break after that, I found myself feeling more and more transient, displaced, an intrusion.

I did internships in the summers. I lived in the basements of friends of friends. I lived in spare bedrooms and on old army cots. I lived in dark places and I set aside things that defined me so I wouldn’t offend. I put up with things that were personally revolting or emotionally oppressive to make it through.

I told myself, “I can do anything for a month.”

And I did. I loved people and explored new places and was hurled into discomfort and grew in the awkwardness.

But I couldn’t put down roots. Everywhere I slept, I knew that these places belonged to someone else, that I couldn’t cultivate anything, create anything, or impose myself on the place and space in any lasting ways.

I pared down my belongings. I invested in writing rather than drawing or painting. I cooked instead of gardening. Creativity oozed out in other places while I wandered.

I craved dirt I could love. A patch of earth and life that I could live with and care for and belong to.

***

Living in the little basement apartment has been hard for me.  I have a deep, psychological craving for light. I leave for work before it’s fully light out, and I walk out of my office building and the sun has already set. Winter’s dark season eats my soul every year.

But I’m a survivor, I say, to steel myself against it all. I can take it for a long while before I crumble into my own need for light, privacy, and space. After that, it becomes a slow slide into mental static. Other things start to bother me more. Dust and funky smells become more than a mild irritation, and then clutter becomes nails on a chalkboard and I shut down.

And then I snap, one way or another. I create, I organize, I clean, I cry, I sleep it off. I try to combat the transience and feeling of being lost, but it never quite goes away.

I had a basil plant outside our window. It was a little thing to love and care for, but it died. We don’t get enough light inside to keep anything green alive. The little cat is a comfort, but she doesn’t belong there, either. We are wanderers, pausing here until April. Then we’ll be gone, no matter what lies I tell myself now with paint and organizing and new bookshelves.

And I don’t know where we’ll go next or when I’ll find a home. I don’t belong here. I’ve been away from California for too long.

I dream of places where I belong, but they don’t exist when I wake up. Every place I live is borrowed, and no space I inhabit knows my name or touch.

***

This is the plight of the modern, the evangelical church kid who always worshiped in high school gymnasiums, the child of that American generation who will move anywhere for a job, the ahistorical American culture sinking its teeth into my humanity, the product of concrete suburban purgatory.

We need place. We need belonging. We need dirt and sunshine.

This is where the conservation of the conservatives and the humanism of the liberals meets with a kiss. This is where the incarnation reveals to me my own nature and reminds me of the Father’s promise of things made right. This is where I pray and know that I am dust, and am thankful for that connection to this beautiful earthy home.

And maybe someday, I’ll find myself at home, belonging to a membership of land and people in the way God intended.

Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us—a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.
– T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding III


As much as I have been hurt by pretenses of care by Christians, as much as I am cynical about church ministries and the level of care they actually give, I must observe something.

I am surprised and delighted to discover: all those things we’re supposed to, pretend to do? Sometimes they happen organically, spontaneously. Sometimes the body of Christ takes hands and lives in your friends, listening, helping, caring, praying. And my cynicism melts, and I am truly thankful.

People toss around “blessed” and “blessings” like “Good morning” and “I’m fine.” It usually doesn’t mean anything and sounds banal. But sometimes it’s real. I am blessed. These people have blessed me.

Real grace really can be passed on from one member of the Body to another in hurt and loneliness. For those who are truly being the Body out there, without playing favorites or currying favor: thank you. You are blessed.

 


Sometimes I wonder how I sound to the rest of the evangelical world, to those who weren’t subjected to fringe patriarchal teachings from grace-forgetting complementarians, those who never fought the fear that comes with legalism from your pulpit, those who don’t have to shake the guilt hangover from their childhood churches or Christian communities. Those from idyllic, happy homes, where brothers and sisters didn’t have to be guilt-tripped into showing compassion, where you were always accepted and loved, no matter what.

I try not to sound angry when I write. I try not to sound bitter. Sometimes I am a firecracker when talking about these things in person, but those emotions shouldn’t really bleed through here, where I seek to analyze, to process, to examine the larger trends which ended up creating or influencing my experience in homeschooling communities, in churches, in my family and others. I don’t tell my story to point fingers or to throw a pity party on the internet. I write because I have found that I’m not alone in my experiences, and we’re all processing very similar things, and it’s easier if we can do that together. If we can talk about it and name the things that hurt us, it becomes smaller and we don’t walk around holding our pain close to our chests, burning us up in silence. I write because I believe wholeness is possible. Because I know that grace is real. Because those in authority over us weren’t malicious and didn’t understand the fallout from their teachings.

But it must look strange and be somewhat perplexing to those who haven’t grown old early as the oldest child in a big family, who didn’t have to question God’s goodness because of a church twisting the scriptures, who love freely because it’s easy and safe. And it must be confusing for you to know how to love us, when we say things like “I need to take a break from reading the Bible” (What! Are you abandoning God?), “I need to take some time off from church to detox” (Is your church bad? Don’t neglect the fellowship of the believers! Christianity can’t be lived out alone!), “I just want to have a good relationship with my parents, but it’s so hard when we disagree on these issues” (Wait, can’t you just agree to disagree? or They’ve hurt you a lot! Just step back from them–it’s a toxic relationship.), etc. And it must be very perplexing when you say any number of these or similar things . . . and we react by clamming up, or tell you long and upsetting stories, or get defensive and angry. It’s exhausting and frustrating for both of us.

So, how can you love someone who is recovering from spiritual abuse? How can you show us Jesus and love and understanding, without making us feel afraid or pressured into an emotional wholeness we don’t yet possess?

Be patient with us. Chances are, this is going to be a long process. It’s likely we could be “recovering” or “deconstructing” or “processing” (whatever word we happen to use for this healing process) for years. We may not ever be whole again. Church will be hard. Family events may also be hard. Don’t get impatient if it takes a long time.

Allow us the freedom to set boundaries. Don’t pressure us into things we aren’t able to do–you never know when you might accidentally “trigger” a flashback or that voice inside our heads that wants to keep us trapped in fear, guilt, or self-loathing. Most of us never knew to say no to things we weren’t comfortable with or weren’t sure we liked. Often we’re trying to build healthy relational boundaries from the ground up, and it’s a huge deal for us to be affirmed in choices that fly in the face of our past fears or guilt-trips. Examples: saying no to over-committing to serving at church or community volunteer stuff; saying no to things we were taught to be guilty about for no good reason (those burned by modesty and courtship teachings, especially); trying out new things that were socially frowned upon (short hair! piercings! tattoos! dancing! normal alcohol consumption! TV shows!); doing drastic relational overhauls to cut out negative or triggering relationships. It may be weird or hard to understand, but it’s a fundamental part of recovery. Read up on codependent relationships to understand some of what we’re reacting against and why boundary setting is so vital.

Listen. Therapy is great and we probably all need it, but we need our friends, too. We need what I like to call “a normal radar”–someone who will listen to us rehash where we’ve been and tell us “no, that’s not normal/healthy” or “yes, most people feel that way! You’re not alone. It’s not wrong.” Sometimes we’ll talk and talk and it won’t make a ton of sense, but just having someone willing to listen and be kind to us is a really healing thing. It tells us we’re not crazy and we’re worth caring about. We need that.

Don’t judge us/correct us/freak out if we’re angry. This goes along with boundary setting. Basically, most of us were in situations where unhealthy boundaries were practiced and we let a lot of people manipulate us. We didn’t know better then, but we’re starting to realize how wrong it was, and it’s normal for us to have a lot of retroactive anger, at ourselves, at the pain we have to work through now as a result, at those who taught us the things that damaged us.

Let us experience healthy familiesIf we’re estranged from our families because of disagreements over the past/our church experiences (a lot of parents feel personally rejected or attacked if their adult kids start making life decisions based on different interpretations of scripture or personal values) and you have a particularly healthy, happy family, include us! But don’t make us a “project,” because we can see through that and it makes us feel patronized. On the other hand, happy families may be too hard for us to interact with, because of the personal contrast. If we want to stay away and create some space, it’s probably because we’re not ready to go there yet.

Buy us books. Recommended books for those coming out of spiritual abuse are:

I’ll take reader recommendations for other books like these in the comments section!

Don’t lecture. Kind questions to make us think things through more deeply will be helpful, but please don’t try to talk us into conforming. Not yet. If we’re in this recovery process, it’s likely we’ve been worn out with well-meant lectures from parents and pastors, and we need some space to figure out what we believe, independent of authorities telling us how to think. As part of the boundary-setting process, we’ll probably end up rethinking what we believe about issues like homosexuality/gay marriage, abortion/pro-life movement, inerrancy of scripture, etc. We have to learn to believe things for ourselves. Give us the grace to ask hard questions, to doubt God and faith, to investigate the terms of our moral compass, to change our minds.

Go with us to visit other churches. We may want to visit different types of churches, but we’ll probably be too self-conscious to go alone. Offer to be a church-shopping buddy, and be the best friend who gives us a call to rescue us from a date gone bad–be confident and help us leave if the service is upsetting.

Watch your lingo. Christians often have some form of dialect, riddled with clichés and catch-phrases from our church culture. We say “blessed” and “hedge of protection” and “joy” and “thankful” and other similar things, and it’s pretty normal inside of Christian groups, but it sounds weird to the rest of the world. When we’re recovering from spiritual abuse, these phrases can carry emotional connections to bad experiences, guilt trips, or just a suffocating environment. Say that you’re happy, not joyful. Wish them good luck instead of blessings. Tell them you’re glad, not thankful. All those things may be true, but you’re not really compromising anything by making your language slightly more neutral. And you’re probably going to become aware (in a healthy way) of ways you’ve become lazy in your speech and relied on clichés rather than descriptive phrases.

Distract us. Sometimes we’ll get so wrapped up in sorting through memories and experiences that we’ll forget how to relax and have fun. Help us loosen up and find balance, not allowing the past to dominate our emotions today.

Encourage us to write. For some of us, journaling and writing can help us get things out and think things through. It can be very cathartic.

Readers! What else has helped you? What do you wish your “normal” friends understood about this process and how to relate to you?


I feel like I should have posted more this week. I know I wanted to write another Immodesty Rail post, and I wanted to tell you about the author readings and book signings I’ve been to this last month (Lorin Stein, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins). But it’s been an exhausting week, and some people took offense at my post on loneliness, and my sister is moving, and I’ve been remembering that I’m an introvert and the emotional fullness of this week  has taken its toll. I’ll get y’all caught up soon. But when I’m ready.

For the time being, I’ve found some noteworthy pieces worth your reading attention. 

Golden Sea, Makoto Fujimura

Makoto Fujimura, one of my favorite Christian thinkers and a gifted artist, lost a lot of his more recent work in the rising waters of Hurricane Sandy. There’s no insurance money or FEMA help for the damage done to the gallery and his art, and they’re taking donations to try to repair the damage.

Justin Welby is the new Archbishop of Canterbury. I admit I was hoping John Sentamu would get this post, but we will see how Welby does.

Rachel Held Evans writes her best post yet, and what I think should have been the preface to her latest and highly controversial book. This is a fantastic read.

A Christianity Today blog post on reading modern-day assumptions into the Bible and Mr. Mom.

My dear friend RoseAnna reflects on what she’s learning in dating after her divorce about grace and people.

The Greek island Ikaria is, according to the New York Times, the island where people forget to die.

Preston writes a beautifully poetic post on what the phrase “pro-life” evokes in his mind.

I just discovered this blogger this week, and I was surprised and impressed at his love poems–they’re quite good.

This may very well be the best thing I’ve read all week: The Trinity in Gender DebatesIt’s the perfect follow-up to this post I read earlier, where Libby Anne observes that Debi Pearl’s concept of wifely subordination is based on her assumptions about the Trinity (which I found to be hugely problematic and borderline heretical). I recommend reading the Love, Joy, Feminism post before reading the first essay, to understand what this looks like in practice before digging into the theological nuances of such statements.


This week’s collection is a little more light and brief than the last few have been. Enjoy!


“Like industrial sex, industrial eating has become a degraded, poor, and paltry thing. Our kitchens and other eating places more and more resemble filling stations, as our homes more and more resemble motels.” – Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating”

One afternoon during college,  a professor was lecturing on the idea that college is a sort of like slash and burn farming–we are raised in communities and they nurture us, and then we leave them (with all of the gifts and wisdom they have invested in us) and we go to college. There we feed off the riches of the professors and the learning community there until we suck them dry and walk off with our degrees. And some of us go home and reinvest in our original communities, and return to them what they gave us. But most of us follow the jobs and go wherever we can find work or the career options we like best, and leave behind two communities we have benefited from, but have not given returns on their investments.

And he then asked us what we were doing, there in that town at that little college, to invest in the community while we were there. We mostly looked at our notebooks and vigorously pretended to be taking down every word, not wanting to get called on. So he changed the question: “do you know where your water comes from?” And when we again looked stupid, he proceeded onto his conclusion, visibly irritated with our lack of interest in the place we had chosen to live for those four years.

***

When we moved from California to Virginia, I was just about to enter high school. I suppose it was unusual that my first (and initially, biggest) culture shock was the realization that I didn’t know the crops or the flora and fauna of our new region. The county where I had grown up was highly agricultural and I knew the seasons and the implications of a weather pattern on the crops around us. I knew to recognize artichoke fields, and to pray for rain for the broccoli farmers, and I could tell you all about the process of harvesting cotton or walnuts or oranges. My favorite smell was in early April, when the air became alive with the scent of orange blossoms. I visited the local water reservoir with my homeschool co-op and we toured the dam and learned where the water came from and where it was treated and how it got to us. I could recognize birds by their calls and tell you where to look for them, and I recognized the different types of pine trees in the nearby mountains by their different needles and cones.

But when we moved to Virginia, I felt bewildered. I couldn’t recognize or name anything, there were very few farms near us, and I didn’t know anything about what foods grew well in the area or when they were in season.

Over time, as I learned to cook more and helped with the shopping for the family, I began to get a feel of the seasonal rhythm of the Virginian produce (ever lamenting the fact that those things requiring a Mediterranean climate would never be quite as good on the East coast–I haven’t had a good artichoke in years). And I slowly learned to appreciate it–the peanut soup and boiled peanuts, the eastern shore crab harvest, the fall apples, the local wines, the sweet corn, the venison, etc. I have acclimated, and I am able to navigate eating locally with some degree of skill now.

Obviously, this is important to me because that’s one thing I love about my dad (his awareness of the geographic attributes and produce the region where he lives). But it’s important for Christians in a larger way, too. If eating isn’t just something we do for fuel, and if Jesus affirmed the physical world with his incarnation, and if we are made to be stewards of the earth, we have an obligation to shop for our food in a way that reflects these things.

I feel frustrated sometimes, with other conservative Christians who assume that issues of environmental concern are just “evolutionist” or not worth their time. For them, loving Jesus is enough for life. And…strictly speaking, they’re not wrong. But to use “loving Jesus” as a carte blanche to ignore ethical living on the earth is indulging in a sort of Gnosticism that allows disinterest in where one lives and how one lives in that place, which runs against the concept of human stewardship of the earth and the embodied Christianity that Jesus established in his incarnation.

There are  a lot of causes related to this idea of stewarding the earth well, and many of them are silly or reactionary. It’s hard to know how, in this industrial age of suburbia and mass production, to live well in the place one lives. To do so entirely holistically would be overwhelming–so much of our society is built around ignoring place and refusing to let the unique nature of a geographic locale influence how we live. Everything must be standardized, democratized, universal. We transplant ourselves to new place, following jobs, and don’t think much about being affected by where we live (except to grumble about various inconveniences). And it’s hard to actually go off the grid without cutting oneself off from relationships with everyone else on the grid, which would be ideologically contrary to the concept of Christian community and fellowship.

I live in a place and I am part of a physical community, whether I like it or not. Wendell Berry calls the idea of belonging to a community “membership.” But membership doesn’t (according to Berry) come by just living in a community. It requires active participation in it to the point that you identify with the community and the community in return chooses to identify itself with you. This requires more than just living in a place, commuting to your office, and then coming home and getting groceries at the supermarket, taking out your trash, and checking your mail. It means interacting with your neighbors, it means making the land better than how it was when you came to it, and the people richer culturally. Suburban “bedroom communities” are the antithesis of this idea of real community and membership therein. And I would argue that it is the thinking Christian’s obligation to choose wisely how to become invested in the membership of his or her physical community.

So how to do this? Determining how you choose to live well in your physical place will be a rather individual decision. But some basic steps to get started might include: learning about your town or county, perhaps by attending a meeting of the local planning commission, to understand the ways land is being used where you live, and why; or perhaps you might do research to learn about the food co-ops available in your area, where you can purchase produce seasonally from local farmers. You might see if you can find a local butcher, and purchase humanely raised meat. Or you could start a small garden in your backyard or on your windowsill, and make compost from your refuse.

All these things take time and deliberate effort, so it’s worth being thoroughly careful to make sure that you do these things out real conviction, rather than jumping on a fad because you feel guilty.

***

  [Following up next week, we’ll have a guest post by the delightful Marianne, with a sort of Eating Locally 101 for those   who interested in the practical elements of this.]


Last night, I was on a street corner in NW, checking the bus times on my phone. It was later than usual and I was in a hurry to find the nearest bus home.

A man in a burly overcoat approached me. It isn’t that cold out, I thought, as he walked up. In his hand was a little bunch of posies, like the ones my little brothers bring my mom in April. Those are usually short stemmed, with bits of grass and weeds crumpled in the fistful. This, however, was carefully arranged, with little bits of this and that fixed to look just right.

“I’d like you to have these,” he said to me, holding up the flowers.

I glanced down the street for my bus, attempting to convey the DC vibe of  I’m-busy-don’t-harass-me (practiced to avoid NGO volunteers asking you to sign their petitions or donate your pocket change). “Oh!” I said. “But I don’t have anywhere I could put them.”

“Put them in water.” He was grinning now. “Do you know what these are? These are mums, this is evergreen, this is boxwood, and these are hydrangeas.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond (and I knew he wasn’t naming them correctly). “They’re lovely! But I don’t have anywhere to put them right now.”

“They’re for you. I want you to have them.” He put them in my hand, and I couldn’t refuse. “But,” he said, “I’m homeless, and I’m hoping I can find a dollar. Can you help me?”

I was undone. I only had a couple of pennies in my change purse, after stopping at the office vending machine for a snack in the afternoon. The night before I had given my only cash to my husband for bus fare, and I just don’t keep cash on me habitually.

“Oh my gosh,” I said, “I wish! I don’t have any cash on me or I would. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay!” he said.

“I can’t take these,” I said. “You should give them to someone else.”

“No,” he said, and he stuck his hands in his coat pockets and started to cross the street. “I want you to have them.”

***

This encounter left me stunned. DC has a lot of homeless people, and the juxtaposition of this homeless man meeting me on the same street corner where I had seen Jill Biden two weeks ago was unnerving. I don’t really know how I should be relating to them, and I don’t have much to offer. My expensive-looking phone came to me as a good deal at little cost, and I try to look snazzy like all the other Dupont Circle commuters, but I’m just faking it.

We don’t have a home of our own to open up, and I feel nervous about interacting with these people (like offering to buy them lunch instead of giving them change) because of your standard mom lecture about women traveling alone and predators and rape and pickpockets. Some of this is common sense, some of this is bullshit, and most of it is just me being a Christian who hasn’t been outside the bubble of the middle class church world enough. I felt sick and ashamed and convicted. 

And then I remember, with some irony, a discussion with a friend about the phrase “become like gods” in the book of John, and what it actually means in terms of our orthopraxy. My guilt at receiving this bit of beauty without being able to give anything in return – is this not a microcosm for grace? I, who am to be as Christ in the world, got given something beautiful I didn’t deserve and didn’t buy. And it upset me deeply. 


Previous posts in this series: Loving Your FoodEating in Community, and Jesus Ate.

For the benefit of my readers: I write this for Christians, with the understanding that communion is a sacrament and an essential, regular part of a healthy practice of faith and a healthy church. For my own part, I am of the Anglican persuasion, believing in what is called the doctrine of “real presence” (as opposed to transubstantiation or the idea that communion is simply a memorial act). 

Anglican service in Portland, ME last week.

As I touched on in my last post, Jesus eating, as a man with ordinary people, transformed the manner in which we as Christians and humans can relate to each other and food. But that Jesus ate is really the fluffy part of his reinvention of community and eating through his incarnation. The real weight of this new perspective comes in his institution of the sacrament of communion. Every time he ate was either a foreshadowing or echo of this act, and every time the church gathers, we dutifully walk through the ceremonial reverencing of this act and acknowledge our odd but profound need for it.

The most sacred act of the church is the practicing of the sacrament of communion. This is really rather odd. It’s crass—the idea that we receive grace and sustenance because God died and we can eat his body and blood? It’s a repulsive concept in the elemental ways. Perhaps as a result, most evangelical churches skirt around the reality of what is implied by communion by sanitizing the sacrament  into a mere memorial act, a bread-and-wine mimic of the last supper to honor Christ’s final hours. The idea in these circles is that we eat the bread and wine a few times a year to remind us that Jesus broke bread and drank wine with his disciples as a foreshadowing of what would happen to his body, and so the church now mimics this last supper to recall what was done to his body for us. It’s tidy and clean. All symbolic, no gore, no rush to do it every week. This perspective is Gnostic, which is to say, it is a heretical mockery of the real thing.

Gnosticism is often explained in terms of its mysticism and achievement of holiness via secret knowledge and gradual initiation into said knowledge. But the reason it existed (and is still alive and well in a new form in the church today) is because the humanness of Jesus and the physicality of the cross and resurrection and ascension were difficult paradoxes in the ancient world. It didn’t sit well in the context of philosophies like Stoicism to have a God who affirmed the body. To accept the paradox of incarnation and Jesus as fully God and fully man would require believers to accept the worth of one’s own flesh and physicality. Instead, Gnosticism simplifies Christianity and removes this paradox, and allows Christianity to be all about the intellect, spiritual experience, and the knowledge of truth.  There is little value in the body or the physical life—because the flesh is wholly sinful, it should be dominated and made as irrelevant as possible to the spiritual life. The creeping discomfort of the Gnostic Christian with the physical aspect of being human undermines the sacraments and the daily routines of life. It says that your time is better spent in the Word than studying for tomorrow’s test at school. It says that prayer is more valuable than doing household chores. It says that worship songs are inherently better than any other songs. It says that art should only ever be beautiful, because only the true things are beautiful, and the nude body is always pornography and that a mundane or grittily gross scene from real life can’t be true art because it has ugliness (e.g., Thomas Kincade and his ilk). In essence, Gnosticism is an impatience with the realities of daily life and the sin and ugliness and slow realities of a physical body, and tries to practice Christianity as a sort of pre-heaven escapism by devaluing anything that is physical or mundane or ordinary. [My apologies to Dr. Messer for the content of this paragraph.]

Now, I understand the impulse of this skewed perspective. Life as a physical being is contradictory, and the most beautiful and the most gross are usually two sides of the same thing. Sex, for example, is a beautiful union where the purest of passions can be expressed in the safety of your lover’s affections and embraces. But it’s also a gross bodily function with funky noises and awkward angles. Likewise, eating can be an almost spiritual experience if the food is really good. But you still have to digest and pass it later. Childbirth, as well: it’s a life-changing and beautifully holy moment when a baby is born and takes its first gasping breathes and begins to cry, and suckles at the breast of its mother. But there’s also blood and mucus and feces to be cleaned up, and the mother may have tearing, and will usually be exhausted, pale, with greasy hair, and sweat trickling down her face. These ugly and gross sides of these events are things we’d like to do without, but because we are physical beings in a physical world, we cannot. Likewise, to sanitize communion as only a memorial act is an immature escapist impulse. We are physical beings, Jesus is a physical being, his death was a physical act, and communion cannot be just symbolism. To treat communion as if it was just symbolic is to cheapen his death in a way that is dangerous and irreverent.

[Before I continue, I must ask my readers to do me a favor: be comfortable with mystery, and don’t expect of me a theologian’s precision. I am not trying to give a completely thorough, systematic apologetic for the theological nuances of “real presence” in communion. I gave up on being Presbyterian in part because of the OCD-like obsession with a wholly reasonable theology. Paradox is an essential part of the Christian faith, and I am not equipped to be an educated defender of it. I am only trying to impart here my layman’s understanding of the significance of communion as a physical sacrament whereby God imparts grace tangibly to his people.]

So here we are: Gnostic Christianity creates a bad substitute for the real meaning of communion. Having explained this, I can now continue onto my larger point: Jesus ate and because he ate I can eat with a holy enjoyment of food and fellowship, imitating his united experience of food with people as a centering activity for healthy relationships.

Jesus was God incarnate, and as God incarnate, he achieved a restoration of relationships in the context of food as good and a guiltless pleasure.  When he ate the Passover feast with his disciples he made this personal, as he broke the bread and passed the cup and said to them “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” Suddenly it became more obvious what he meant during a talk with leaders of the Jews, when he said to them,

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. I tell you the truth, he who believes in me has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” – John 6:44-58, NIV

Jesus’s body as manna for his people is, clearly, symbolic of God’s provision of the appropriate salvation for the needs of his people in the physical wilderness wanderings and in the spiritual desert of the old covenant isolation from God without blood appeasement for transgressions. This is an appropriate metaphorical parallel for Jesus, as the sacrificial Lamb of God, to draw. Whoever fed on the manna was saved; whoever puts their faith in Jesus’s sufficient sacrifice on their behalf is saved.

But it’s much more literal than just this, as became evident during the last supper. Jesus reiterated the literal command to eat his flesh and drink his blood, passing the bread and wine as physical symbols of this. He was there with them in this shared, communal experience, and partaking of it was in a way, the last seal of the fellowship existing between the disciples and with their Lord.

And when Jesus died on the cross, bleeding and mangled, and the propitiation for sins was achieved, the reality of partaking in the supper as partaking in his death and living by his death—both physically and spiritually—the deeper truth was made firm. At the command of Christ to remember his sacrifice by sharing the bread and wine as they shared in his body and blood whenever the disciples gathered together, the routine of communion was established, and fellowship with each other was renewed by the common need and the common cup, and the Holy Spirit sustained the fellowship and blessed the act of communion to the church.

This is, sort of, what is implied by the term “real presence” in communion: Christ is present through his Spirit when the believers gather in his name, and Christ is made tangible in the body and blood, the bread and wine, and the Spirit restores and renews the faith of the individual believers taking of this food, and restores and renews the unity and fellowship—the communion—of the church, of the saints.

And because of this, I say that tangible grace is directly imparted to the soul of the believer who partakes of the sacrament of communion. To take part in this sacrament requires nothing of the believer except for an acknowledgement of his sinfulness and need of spiritual food, his need of grace, and his need of fellowship with other believers to sustain his faith. (This is why, in the Anglican church, one joins in a congregational confession of sin and hears the words of peace from the scriptures, and then offers the hand of peace to the other congregants, before processing to the altar to kneel [an appropriate posture for those dependent on Christ for life] and receive [not take, but passively receive, reflecting our helplessness and God’s willingness to meet us just where we are in our worst selves] the sacrament and the blessing.) Grace is unmerited favor poured out with generosity from God on man—communion is the most physically real experience of grace in its purest, most elemental form a believer can have.

I like how one author describes it,

“Not only is Christ present at the altar, but He also gives Himself to us. As we eat the bread, we are receiving, in an intimate and personal way, His body that was broken on the cross. When we sip the wine, we are receiving His blood that sealed the covenant, assuring the forgiveness of sin. We are literally united with Christ—Christ crucified, resurrected, and ascended—bridging the gap between here and Golgotha, now and eternity.

It has been said that this contact with Christ is more direct and closer and more intimate than what His disciples enjoyed. Again, Christ comes to us. It is not something we do, but something Christ does, which we have only to receive. The Lord’s Supper is nothing less than the Gospel. . . .

There is nothing vague here. There is no need to worry about my decisions or whether or not I have been elected to be saved or whether or not I am sinful. In the Sacrament, Christ gives Himself to me. All of His promises and everything He did for my redemption and forgiveness on the cross are made so tangible, I can taste them. I am touching, in fact, the risen Christ, as the first disciples did. And God’s Word, ringing in my ears as I take this nourishment, tells me that His body and blood are for me. That means that my sins are actually forgiven, that I can be assured of God’s favor.” (The Spirituality of the Cross, Veith)

Because God incarnate as the man Jesus made such a big deal of instituting the sacrament of communion food, for the Christian, can never again be just something we put in our mouths to give us energy. Seriously, just reread the gospels with an eye out for the phrases, “body and blood,” “eat my flesh,” and for the idea of Jesus as food for eternal life. It is a central theme in his ministry, intertwining elegantly with his affirmation of the physical body as he walked about the country healing the bodies of those who believed, and eating with them and knowing them intimately through that fellowship.

God has taken flesh and eaten with us and made the very act of eating together with him and others a vital part of how we relate to him and each other. I would argue that a church isn’t a church if it’s not celebrating communion together regularly, because without it, our fellowship is only a heady and intellectual, rational sort of relating to God and to each other. With communion, our practice of faith and our need of grace and our need of each other suddenly become powerfully physical, and we must be united to take the elements in a sacramental, reverential way. It is the literal lifeblood of the church.

In our church on Sunday mornings, the priest prays over the elements and when he is done, he lifts them up for the congregation to see, saying,

The gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.

And when I kneel to take the bread, he says to me,

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for you, preserve your body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your heart by faith, with thanksgiving.

And then as I am given the cup,

The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for you, preserve your body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for you, and be thankful.

Some versions of the liturgy has this, instead:

The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.
The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.

The wedding feast of the Lamb. The body and blood on the cross. The breaking of bread with the disciples and with the faithful, socially despicable. The God of holiness in human flesh, hungry. Jesus Christ, the bread of life.

Eating can’t be done just for its own sake ever again. It is now Christ-haunted.

{This post was written with this song on repeat in my “mental stereo.” Go listen.}

Iron and marble, wood and stone
Craftsman’s chisel, hammer and nail
All the straight lines form our gath’ring place
At the Altar of God, at the Communion Rail

And the powerful and common, we all come alike
With our faith so weak and our souls so frail
To dine upon the promises of Christ the Lamb
Kept safe for His sheep at the Communion Rail

I can’t help but watch this blessed parade
Of strangers and neighbors, we all fall and fail
We come to have our lives made new again
And to return our thanks at the Communion Rail

And a great cloud of witnesses surrounds us out of time
We will follow their footsteps beyond this earthly veil
We will all join together at the Supper of the Lamb
And we glimpse that shining time
At the Communion Rail

We will follow their footsteps beyond this earthly veil
And we glimpse that shining time now
At the Communion Rail 

Bob Bennett, “The Communion Rail”


In my first food post, I mentioned that I believe it is anti-Christian to have a merely utilitarian relationship to one’s food. Maybe this is a bit of a stretch, but I think it’s worth considering.

I think that prior the fall, food was good and our relationship to it was utilitarian in the manner of good things taken for granted. This wasn’t wrong—eating was good, food was good, and we ate because our need for food was pure and good. We ate when we needed to, and it was good and nourishing. God had called it all good. Its existence was a reflection of God’s provision of good things for all our needs. The fall changed this by introducing (through the act of eating) corruption into man’s relationship with God, with himself, and with nature.

After the fall, eating became much more complicated. Eating could have negative effects—it was possible to eat the wrong thing, eating something spoiled or poisonous or harmful. Nothing was forbidden, but not everything was safe. We still ate for necessity, but the relationship of humans to food became not just a hearty utilitarian goodness, but was now a craving neediness driven by fear and insecurity. Our dependence on God for provision was not blissful as it had been prior to the fall—we were still just as dependent physically, but a rift now permeated our relationship to our food and we could no longer just eat good things and be full. We had to work hard for our food, growing it  by warring with the land, and offering for our blood guilt sacrifices of the first fruits. Our dependence wasn’t just limited to our every day need to eat—it also required that we give up the first of the harvest and of the flocks to the altar fires, to satisfy the terms of our destroyed relationship with the Creator.

The law given to Moses refined this relationship (between God and man) in new ways and allowed for some better ways for man to draw near to God. But the law—designed to highlight man’s inability to atone for sin despite all good works—still emphasized that the fall had removed from us a pure and good relationship with food. Under the law, dietary restrictions were abundant, food was regulated and sacrificed, and the burden of guilt and work was heavy.

To this day, dietary restrictions are still the hallmarks of  most law/deity appeasement-bound religions (Muslims, Hindus, practicing Jews, Mormons). Food is restricted and forbidden because man is not trustworthy with it, and eating the wrong thing is an easy way to taint oneself. Even absent religion, it’s a common part of secular culture to associate food with guilt or righteousness–eating is “indulgent” and eating too much or rich things is “sinful” or “being bad.” You “make up for it later” with exercise or eating disorders. Our relationship to food often (oddly) reflects our relationship to grace.

The most unique part of Christianity is our belief in the incarnation of Jesus. God becoming man, and thereby validating humanity, the human body, and human life by taking on a body and human needs—this is the most radical, paradoxical concept, especially for a religion that also teaches the utter otherness and holiness of God, and the depravity of man. The incarnation is polarizing, so opposed to the concept of God as other and man as fallen. Because we Christians hold this utterly illogical and bizarre thing to be true and because it is such a huge assumption, it necessarily effects every element of the faith.  If Jesus was a man, he had to deal with sibling spats and learning to obey his parents. If Jesus was a man, he has a body and natural bodily functions (this may explain his sympathy on those suffering physical ailments as a major element of his earthly ministry). If Jesus was a man, he had to eat, sleep, and have social interaction.

To me, this reality—that God took on a fully human body and life—can be a real comfort for Christians suffering from depression, body image issues, eating disorders, sexual desire and sin, loneliness, and fear.

In the gospels, we see how the incarnation of Jesus meant that his humanity required him to relate to food, and here I lean in and start taking notes. How the sinless Son related to food is, to me, an obvious pattern of how the redeemed can relate well to food.

The most striking thing, I think, is how normal he was.  He was hungry. He took account of others’ hunger. One of my favorite stories about this is in Luke’s rendition of his first appearance after the resurrection to his disciples—he arrives at the house, reassures them that he’s not a ghost, and the first thing he says is, “Have you anything to eat?” Jesus needed food and Jesus affirmed this need in others with great tenderness. When he fed the 5,000, it was out of compassion for their hunger. When he defended his disciples to the Pharisees for breaking the Sabbath, it was in defense of their hunger and eating the wheat kernels in the field: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Eating was more important than keeping the man-made religious laws.

Jesus ate almost exclusively in community. His tenderness toward the physical hunger of others is a repeated theme, and food and eating are like the punctuation marks of his ministry. He joined in with the community for celebrations, and was thoroughly engaged in the merrymaking. Jesus liked his food and drink with people. With “sinners,” usually, distressing the religious teachers with his hearty engagement with those who were seen as incontinent or debauched. The perceived sinful excesses of the quasi-religious were the good things that Jesus affirmed.

One of the most-used metaphors for the kingdom of heaven, in Jesus’s stories, is that of a wedding feast. In all of these, he is the bridegroom, and the bride or the guests are those who choose to welcome and follow him. This metaphor takes on flesh at the last supper, and at the meals eaten with his disciples after his ascension. The wedding feast is symbolic of God’s new relationship to his people—God is the overjoyed host who wants to bring in the whole community to have dinner with his Son, to celebrate the Son. The Son is the bridegroom inviting everyone to share his wedding feast. The Son is the manager of an estate, holding a feast of the best of the land to celebrate the harvest. The guests are the dirty, the prodigal, the faithful idiots, the poor, the outcasts. The least likely is the one called to sit at the right hand of the host.

And again and again, Jesus instructs his disciples to practice hospitality in the same way their Father in heaven does. Invite the poor, share your food, eat generously, feed the lonely. Food and community are inseparable in his mind. You eat to be with people, you are with people to eat. Your table is open to those in need. This isn’t just throwing food at anyone who walks in your door—this is a full familial welcome where everyone joins in, preparing, eating, cleaning up, talking, living.

The young church took this seriously (and lots of home churches do this today, too). Worship was centered around eating together. Breaking bread together was to build bonds of unity. Communion didn’t start as just a wafer and a sip of wine—it was often part of a full-out meal. And this, too, was the early church’s primary evangelistic tactic—you’d invite someone to dinner, and the church would gather, and the love and fellowship would be tangible. Jesus would be made real by the generosity and love there at the dinner table.

This sharing of the table was made even more open when the church decided to open up the table to Gentiles and to non-Kosher foods. We see Peter and his vision of the sheet, and then welcoming Cornelius into the fold. We see Paul rebuking Peter for only eating with Jews, like a Jew, to impress people. Paul rebukes the church for forcing guilt on each other in regard to meat sacrificed to idols—it’s not wrong, he says, but don’t make your friend sin if he thinks eating it is sin. Be generous to each other in the grey areas.

The establishment and meaning of communion engraves this further, but: Jesus ate, with people and relationships as the compass rose for how he used and related to food. Food is useful, but eating in community, with generosity, would seem to be the real purpose of eating. Not for energy, not for health, not for a certain BMI, not because he just had to. Because eating together is the most true way relationships are made.

[next in this series is a post on eating and communion]

Previously: Loving Your Food, Eating in Community