And we’re baaaack. Commonplace links went away when I stopped reading blogs for a month or so.

This week there’s been a fantastic rash of posts on virginity and Christian culture, and I’m really excited that this is being discussed.

I have been hesitant to say so, but I have become increasingly convinced that the concept of virginity is a concept created for male power/social control and not a medical or spiritual reality (and for those suffering from homeschool sex-ed or abstinence-only sex-ed and don’t know what I mean by this, go watch Laci Green explain). I have also discovered that the Bible really isn’t clear on the question: is consensual premarital sex between two consenting, adult, and committed individuals sinful? Instead it seems to suggest that sexuality is wonderful and powerful and deeply intimate (and therefore either so very good or so very damaging), and that God’s best plan is for sex to be a safe place for mutual benefit and love and pleasure and possibly procreation. Marriage is logically the place where this can best happen, but there’s no indication that it’s the only place it can happen. 

[That is what I think. We can disagree.]

So, here’s the best posts on virginity that I’ve read this week. Go read and ponder and soak up the grace.

Virginity: New & Improved — Elizabeth Esther

Whenever we seek to improve upon virtue, we are actually creating an idol. Furthermore, by elevating virginity to the ethereal realms of unicorns and angels, we place an unfair burden upon the shoulders of real, human beings.

And that’s what concerns me the most. The New & Improved Virginity places a heavy weight of shame upon women—even those whoare virgins.

I was a virgin and I didn’t feel “pure enough”  because I’d kissed a couple boys before my husband. I was a virgin and I felt horribly defiled because I’d discovered this crazy, secret thing called masturbating. I was a virgin and I was disappointed to realize that my ‘sacrifice’ didn’t automatically result in a happily ever after marriage.

I was a virgin and I felt superior to “damaged” women. The purity culture showed no compassion for me so I had no compassion for myself or women who had “chosen” to “give away” their virtue.

I am damaged goods — Sarah Bessey at Deeper Story

And so here, now, I’ll stand up and say it, the way I wish someone had said it to me fifteen years ago when I was sitting in that packed auditorium with my heart racing, wrists aching, eyes stinging, drowning and silenced by the imposition of shame masquerading as ashes of repentance:

“So, you had sex before you were married.

It’s okay.

Really. It’s okay.

There is no shame in Christ’s love. Let him without sin cast the first stone. You are more than your virginity – or lack thereof – and more than your sexual past.

Your marriage is not doomed because you said yes to the boys you loved as a young woman. Your husband won’t hold it against you, he’s not that weak and ego-driven, choose a man marked by grace.

And the coup de grace, delivered by Emily Maynard at Prodigal — The day I turned in my v-card

I’m done blanketing all sexual experience outside of marriage as sin and never acknowledging that abuse can happen within a marriage. I’m done with Christians enforcing oppression in the name of purity.

I am not a virgin or a non-virgin.

I am a human. I am Emily.


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.

 


[This is one of the promised posts about why I chose the name “Wine & Marble.” Communion has been a huge part of my spiritual life and binds me to Christianity in a way I can’t really understand or explain. I’ll tell my story and perhaps begin to work it out.]

Sometimes I wish I could shut off the part of myself that subconsciously breathes in and out scripture verses memorized long ago, the part of myself that is perpetually mulling over questions of faith, the part of myself that is bound to the idea of Jesus. For some reason, it’s indelibly part of who I am. I can turn most of that part of me and my experience off if I need to (it’s right there next to the “pretend you weren’t homeschooled/aren’t ignorant about pop culture” switch in my head), but the sacrament of communion has made leaving or forgetting my faith complicated and impossible. If it weren’t for this, I think I might have left the Church for good, long ago. But the offering up of the Body and Blood every week for my crooked self’s physical and spiritual renewal is stronger than my apathy and I am transfixed by it.

When I was a small child, my desire to “be right with Jesus” (the idea was vague, but I understood that it was essential to ending nightmares and live without fear) was united and inextricably joined with a craving need to take communion. I wanted to take the cup and eat the bread with a desire that is still the deepest of any I have yet experienced. I was only four or five, but I had a powerful need to be right with Jesus (which is a whole other topic–in the evangelical culture there’s a lot of fear-based pressure on little children to say the sinner’s prayer) which was centered on this assumption: I couldn’t take communion until I understood and could explain to my parents what it meant and had said the sinner’s prayer and accepted Jesus “into my heart.” Conversion and accepting Jesus was a way to get to communion and there was nothing I craved more than to participate in that ceremony.

Every Sunday I watched the communion ritual with awe and desire. I wanted that and everything it seemed to be about.

When I was maybe 5 or 6, I remember visiting my grandmother’s Episcopal church for the first time. The candles, the hush and reverence, the prayers and the kneeling–these were new elements of my church experience, and I felt both delighted and annoyed. I liked the loud praise band and worship dance of our Vineyard church, but this new mood was better suited to communion, and the beauty of it enchanted me. I remember how tender the priest was with the elderly parishioners  bringing the chalice and the wafers to their seats, blessing them right where they were. The body of Christ was brought to his people, and it was fitting.

Shortly thereafter, communion was served at our own church one Sunday. I don’t remember if they did it once a month there, or twice a year, but it was infrequent. And it was a big deal in my mind, though [obviously] not in the minds of those leading that church. I asked my mom if I could take part, and she pulled dad and me out of the service into the foyer. Dad told me that I couldn’t take communion until I could tell him what it’s significance was and why it was part of the church practices. [The thought of this amuses me now.] I told them what I could grasp: it was representing Jesus’s body  and blood after the cross and we took it to eat and drink because it reminded us of how he saved us. This was satisfactory, and I took communion for the first time that Sunday. I was baptized about a year later. [Again, how odd.]

***

A few years later, I was in Awana and was inundated with Baptist guilt-trips that caused me to fear for my salvation over and over again. I told myself that I had first believed that day I took communion for the first time, but fearful of my own anger with my younger siblings and losing my salvation over it, I walked the aisle again. Twice I prayed in fear, ashamed and wondering if God would be angry at me for trying so many times to “get saved.” Once was at a Billy Graham crusade event–my dad was with me.

“Let’s go down,” I said.
“You’ve already been saved!” he said.
“I need to do it again,” I said, and started walking, not looking back to see if he was following me.
“She’s rededicating her life to the Lord,” the older woman whispered to him when he joined us on the football field a few minutes later, as Crystal Lewis began to sing over us.

***

In the middle of these years of fear and shame and walking the aisle again, as I questioned my salvation nearly weekly, I found myself becoming callous to the ceremony of communion. I needed it, and it happened once a month at the church we attended at the time, and I was glad to participate and receive it. But the bread was a sweet, eggy bread made by some dear soul in the church, and I was always stuck late after the service while my family helped take down the sound equipment. My friends and I were all at that rowdy age where you’d catch us sneaking down forbidden hallways, climbing onto roofs, hanging upside down from trees, begging the teenage boys to let us play chicken on their shoulders, etc. And we were hungry after a long 11am service.

So we stole the bread, bit by bit. Nibbled it under the bleachers, giggling in the streams of dust-filtered light. “It’s for us, anyway!” we said. “And we’re hungry–Jesus wouldn’t mind.”

After several weeks of doing this, we got caught and reprimanded by the pastor. He spoke of eating and drinking wrath upon ourselves and told us to ask our parents for snacks, instead. So we stopped.

But maybe we were right, after all. It was for us.

***

Later we moved across the country for a church, and I was 12 and lonely and hungry to understand more about the faith I professed. I wanted to make it my own and I read and talked and asked questions.

At this church, they did little different from the others–communion once a month or less frequently, little cups of white grape juice passed in trays (white to prevent stains in clothing), little pieces of matzo or water crackers, broken in a basket on a napkin.

More organizational structure at this church and fewer spirit-led moments or maybe just the absence of California chill caused me to feel stifled, and communion began to hold no power. It was something that happened, and when it did we were prompted to meditate on the gore of the cross, on the agony of Jesus and his separation from the angry Father. Mood lighting was introduced, synthesizers were played. The first year or so I was truly moved by these things–they were new then. But month after month with no script change and no shift in focus away from the cross the rest of the time, and soon the potency of the moment was drained. The cross, the cross, the cross, the cross. Pull your chairs in circles, meditate on your sin. Pray for forgiveness with each other. Eat the bread. Drink the cup. Raise the lights. Sing about how you love the cross.

There was no resurrection hope, no advent, no saints rejoicing in new life. Only your sin, the cross, his death, your fault. Meditate on your sin.

Not knowing better, I found myself attending a similar sort of church for the first two years at college. Communion was every week there, and while it felt more genuine as we went through a corporate confession and received a pastoral benediction and sang hymns that celebrated new life, I was still numb. My Sin and The Cross were my blinders and I was only moved when I felt particularly filthy or like I had something truly awful to pray about during the confession.

***

And then. And then. 

I found myself caught up in a different church through my social group. It was an Anglican church with communion every week and grace preached from the pulpit like a relentless storm.  The sermons alone were the perfect antidote to the legalistic naval-gazing of SGM teachings, but the communion was really what brought me back every week. I couldn’t resist it. It called to me, I needed it. Like when I was small, this was a source of life and I found myself craving it all week long. It wasn’t particularly remarkable–wine in a chalice, pita bread torn to bits, lining up pew by pew and walking forward to receive it, recessing to a hymn led by some barefoot student playing guitar.

But the mood was set by the fixation on grace, on healing, on acceptance. And I felt little shards of healing tear me to pieces every time I processed and accepted the gifts of Jesus given for me. Grace was being made real by the physical act, and it knew my name.

Shortly thereafter I went to England for a short class trip in January, with the rector of that church and a professor and an armful of books on the Inklings. Our focus was on Epiphany–the season, the writings on it by these authors, and the Anglican church teachings focused on it. Our study took us to an evensong service almost every evening, and we were immersed in the Book of Common Prayer every day. We visited Salisbury, Ely, Canturbury, St. Paul’s, Westminister, St. Mary’s, Christchurch, and Little Gidding. We took communion every day. It was sustaining and beautiful and holy, and I let the rhythm and art of the BoCP prayers become part of me, journaling them, twisting them into my poems every night. And despite the daily ritual of it, I found myself shaken by it every time. The Eucharist was breaking me, healing me, stripping me of old lies and fears and letting me relearn how to open up and welcome the burning love of Jesus.

***

After college, after getting married, I was at a small church. My husband was obligated to attend as part of his job in the church office, and I went with him. But the observation of communion there was as bad as the soulless communion experiences I had in the nondenominational churches I grew up in. They did it infrequently, saying things that seemed like they were trying to remember how the Anglican service went, but not really sure of the right order or phrases. There was a lot of emphasis on the death of Jesus, a lot of emphasis on remembering. But it all turned from harmless to sour for me when the pastor said that communion was a memorial service for Jesus, like a memorial service we might have after the death of a friend. Nothing more. Just: he has died, let us remember him.

That’s when I took my Harry Potter books to read outside in the sunshine during communion Sundays thereafter. Sometimes we squeezed in an early morning service at a friend’s Episcopal church. “So we can have real communion before we go to our church,” my husband said. When he left that job and we were free to find our own church, I was very glad.

Since then, we’ve been at an Episcopal church near home, where the Eucharist is celebrated with reverence and joy. The priests exude tenderness and love for the congregation, and I am again finding myself soothed and healed each week by confession, communion, absolution, and the washing of the Word.

Last Sunday I came to church emotionally drained and fragile. It had been a rough week and painful things were raw and in my face. The words of joy in the hymns (Advent hymns are almost all about promises of hope and joy) were biting, rubbing the hurt. And when I realized that this service was lessons and carols (which doesn’t usually involve the Eucharist), I fell to pieces and had to leave.

Why? I’m not entirely sure. But I know this: a church service should not be about a teacher or a leader (the focus should not be on the sermon, meaty though it may be). The heart of the gospel is fully encapsulated in the Eucharist, and this should be the focal point. It’s about God meeting us in the flesh, healing us where we’re at, sustaining us in his love and self. I need the physicality of it. I need the mystery and the healing of Emmanuel. It’s everything.

[and it won’t let me go]


This year, because of our tiny apartment space, we can’t have a Christmas tree. It’s not really a big deal, but we’re just babies at this marriage thing, and we don’t own Christmas decorations or a good Christmas music collection, and I haven’t even gotten around to buying cookie cutters for Christmas cookie exchanges. Last year, our bitty little fake tree on the end table was our sole Christmas decoration, and I loved it for existing and proving to me that we are indeed our own little family, and that our apartment counted as a home, etc. Those silly newlywed sentiments really mean a lot when you’re away from your hometown and family for Christmas and have to create that reverent, beautiful atmosphere for yourself.

So, it’s silly, but I feel so blah in general this season, and I think I’m in denial about even trying to make our little place cheery or festive. And I’ll admit, I’m mostly excusing it because there’s no space to put even a miniature, child-sized tree anywhere in our apartment. (Until we get a dresser, I’m lucky if there’s a place for me to sit on the floor to stretch, even! I’m really going through a laundry basket phase in my decorating. Books are out, folks. Laundry is in.)

We’re less exhausted this year–Kevin’s job with normal hours makes me thankful, especially now that he’s passed the initial probation period and is a full-fledged employee! But other circumstances are colliding and some nights I feel really happy with myself if I manage to have cheese and crackers for dinner and write or read for an hour before succumbing to exhaustion and watching Doctor Who until one or both of us dozes off.

I’ve been in this season of “deconstruction” for about three years now. I’ve been processing my experiences in a spiritually abusive church, working through my turbulent transition from assuming courtship was The Way To Go to realizing how unhealthy and harmful that whole mindset is,  and trying to reorient myself with a healthier understanding of key doctrines relating to grace and works, sanctification, personal holiness, fellowship, the purpose of church, gender roles, etc. It’s been a nonstop freight-train ride of uncovering stifled emotions and memories and questioning many, many things.

But I think I’m starting to burn out. Recovery is hard, and processing the sheer volume of assumptions that I needed to re-evaluated and reconstruct has been exhausting. I’ve been highly analytical, and have ended up neglecting the emotional healing I needed just as badly.

I’m broken [there is a tender Savior who walks with me].
I’m emotionally stunted [he sends his Spirit to fill and renew].

I’m starting to come to a place where I think I’ve got a good understanding of what went wrong and why there are so many of us hurting in these same ways. But it’s exhausting to keep up with the constant critique of materials put out by the teachers and writers who influenced and hurt me, who hurt so many like me. It’s worth it, still, for those just starting to see hope and who are coming into grace and freedom in Jesus from legalism and manipulation and fear. But it can be too much to constantly wallow in it all.

So I’m going to admit that I can’t and shouldn’t do it all. That I need to step away and breathe deep and look around me. That I need to concentrate on finding and making beauty, rather than constantly analyzing.

I’m going to try to enjoy my little home, not avoid or deny that it is where I live this Christmas. I’m going to try to rest and enjoy being with my husband, rather than letting myself be overwhelmed and OCD about our time and money and relationships. I’m going to pull out my sketch book again. I’m going to listen to music again. I’m going to cook if I feel like it.

This is my Advent fast: I’m going to stop reading blogs and articles and essays and books. I’m going to rest my mind. I might read fairy tales or short stories or poetry, but that’s it. Nothing analytical. I’m not going to indulge in a Thomas Kinkade fantasy world, but I have been persuaded that my mind and heart need a break from thinking overtime.

Tonight I went for a walk with my sister-in-law, had pho with my brother, and went to church and made an Advent wreath. We lit the first candle and Kevin read the collect for the first Sunday in Advent. I hid all the wonderful deep-thinking books I’ve been working on reading, and I’m going to take this holy season to acknowledge my humanness and frailty and re-learn how to rest, to appreciate people and beauty, and worship by quieting my mind.

For Jesus is coming, and this is a holy time.

 


It’s been a quiet week for me online. I’ve been working ahead on some things, and hopefully I’ll have some more regular posts up next week. While this is a few days late, here’s some great reading to ease the end of your weekend.

The Gifts and Benefits of Doubt, Experimental Theology

Preaching Grace is Risky Business, Internet Monk

Plutarch and Paul on Husbands and Wives, newlife

An Open Letter (from a conservative Christian to her lesbian friend. Read the response and the follow up post as well.)

Modesty is a Chameleon, Soul Nation

Is your clothing made by slaves?

Marriage isn’t the silver bullet for all social problems, and we shouldn’t pretend it is: The Magical Mystery of Marriage, Dianna Anderson.

Why I’ve Stopped Living Like Each Day is My Last, Elizabeth Esther

The One Thing About Being A Therapist, Nicole Unice

Valerie Eliot passed away this week. Maybe scholars will have access to his papers now!

Susan Wise Bauer, Washington Post. I never loved her homeschooling stuff, but I’m really excited to hear what she’s up to now.

How To Live Without Irony, NYT blog

Gay Men Will Marry Your Girlfriend, College Humor (ridiculously funny)

The word of the year is “GIF.” Here’s how it was chosen, in GIFs.

Favorite meal this week: Cheeseburger Buns

Lauren went to Three Rivers and Sequoia National Park and now I’m ridiculously homesick.


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?


Worldview textbooks and classes bother me. They were good for addressing my middle school cravings for knowledge and understanding of the outside world and how other cultures and religions understood God or the numinous. But they left me hanging.

I have always desired to know more. I was the restless twelve year old who complained to mom that I had read all of the books in the house and I was bored. I amused my fiancé when I told him that some days I didn’t wish very much for heaven, because who could be tired of this life when there are so many more books to read and so much more to understand here on earth? While naive, I have benefited greatly from this relentless hunger, and I think my faith, in particular, is stronger for it.

This hunger has given me freedom from stagnation. Those worldview books I read in high school? Some people read them and stopped there. We all grow up Christian, reading our Bibles and going to AWANA and doing sword drills. We know what the Bible says. We know what the worldview books say about what Muslims believe, about what Buddhists believe, about Hindus and feminists, atheists and postmoderns. We get our nice little high school worldview inoculation and maybe a booster shot in college. And we go to church and talk with our good Christian friends, and we talk about evangelizing and taking evangelism classes or sponsoring an orphan. We vote pro-life and we eat organic. And then we enter the malaise of idyllic suburban hell, where no one asks questions, no one offends, no one drops everything and does anything radical.

There’s been a lot of ink shed on this condition in the last few years, and I am excited to see people getting up and doing things. We are privileged and we are starting to acknowledge it and awkwardly dance with the world outside of our Christian bubble.

I went to a Christian college, I worked for a Christian-run NGO. I did the church thing and the care group thing, I invited my public school friends to church events and outreach events. I explored the Church and learned as much as I could about Presbyterians and Pentecostals, about Baptists and the new reformed movement. I’ve been an acolyte and I’ve danced with a worship dance troupe with praise flags. I admire and am curious about Catholic ethics and Orthodox mysticism. I stopped reading my Bible for a long time before starting back up again this year. I’m surprised and delighted to find myself teaching Sunday school and singing in our church choir. I’m reading tons and asking questions and learning so much.

But I’m discovering that this is, perhaps, somewhat rare. Asking questions, shaking down the dusty upper shelves of my faith, rearranging, saying I don’t know, discussing ideas at length for the intellectual exercise of walking out someone else’s assumptions in a conversation–this has been the most healthy part of my spiritual life. I am so small and so inexperienced. But when I find a bit of truth, I like to beat the bushes and see where it came from and why and how it works. And the beauty of it is this: Jesus has met me in all of it. Jesus loves his Church and the Spirit is active in just about every part of the Body.

Shedding old assumptions and gaining a more vast, nuanced, balanced perspective of who Jesus is and what the Church is and can and should be–this has been my health and my blessing, found by accident in the last few years of processing painful situations and spiritual abuse from my old church. I’m so excited to discover healing and community with other believers after years of seeming spiritual dryness and walking this path alone. I’m not afraid to ask hard questions about my faith and my assumptions. I have been led to this place. God knows what he’s doing and where he’s leading me.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
– Is. 55:8-11, NIV

I’ve been talking with some friends about not having a static faith and being willing to ask the hard questions and doubt your previous assumptions. Chryssie and Joanna are linking up with me today, and we’d like you to join us! If you want to share your discovery of God meeting you in your doubting and questioning, write a post about it on your blog and link to it in a comment, or (if you don’t blog), just comment and join the discussion. 

“If one grows up in a Christian home, generally one tends to learn and understand God via what their parents or Church taught them.
That’s not a bad thing.
It becomes a bad thing when you limit yourself to only what you were taught by your parents or your Church.
Faith doesn’t just stop accruing.
One day you don’t just graduate from faith school and it’s all over.
No. We continue learning about God throughout our lives.”
– Joanna, Torches Together

” When I tried to explain to someone what I was feeling, I felt like I had to quickly reassure said person that I wasn’t running away from God; in fact, I was running to Him! The looks of cautious disbelief I got were numerous. Seriously, though, was I running away from or to God? Deep in the recesses of my mind, I didn’t know. I still feared the conditionally loving God I thought I knew.  The questions that ran through my mind were overwhelming and yet I still tried to block them out and pretend that all was well. Those questions soon became like trying to hold oil in my hands. I couldn’t hold on to them, and they started affecting more than just wanting to not go to church.”
– Chryssie, “To doubt or not to doubt” 


I’m terrible about reading my Bible regularly. Reading the ESV or NASB still gives me flashbacks to sermons from my spiritually abusive church, or to high-stress mornings with my family during our years at that church.

But my relationship to Jesus hasn’t been stunted. It’s grown stronger, and I’ve stopped being afraid like I used to be.

Talking with a friend today, I realized that one thing that helped me to see God as a caring Father and allowed me to respond to Jesus without fear was when I chose deliberately to change the words I used in my thought and discussions of God and religion.

In Sovereign Grace Ministries, it’s common to say “God,” “Christ,” “the Father,” and in other circles I interacted with, people used “the LORD” (in writing) or “the Lord” (spoken), and even that phrase so often repeated like a verbal tic in oral prayer: “Father God.”

When I left SGM and spiritually abusive environments behind, I had to find a way to stand the idea of God, to reassure myself that I hadn’t believed falsely, and that God was kind, intimately caring, patient, loving, forgiving.

I left fighting panic every time I opened my Bible.  I found myself unsure if I could ever pray sincerely again.

And then I started reading the Gospel of John in The Message, and I realized: God is a useful word, but it’s an abstraction. Abstractions are hard to connect with if you’ve been hurt.  So I did an experiment. I would use the name Jesus instead of all those other names. If I could bring myself to pray, I would pray to Jesus. If I talked about my faith or lack thereof, I would use his name. If I was journaling, I would write about Jesus, not God, not the Father. Jesus.

As I did that and as I kept reading in John, my anxiety eased up, just a little. Seeing Jesus as the man who loved women, loved the broken and hurting, who understood and was patient with those without strong faith–this is the same God I intellectually knew I worshiped. But just seeing him as Jesus, instead of Christ or God, helped me feel just a little bit safer, a little closer to healing.

If you’re hurting, if your Bible is terrifying, if prayer is deafeningly silent: take a step back and reintroduce yourself to Jesus.


Shortly after her breakup with her serious boyfriend of two years, a friend confided in me that she worried that no good Christian guys would be interested in her, because of the things she had done with her ex.

“What sorts of things?” I wondered. Her response: nothing more than your average youthful makeout sessions, which was understandable considering she ended things after a long relationship and about two weeks before he planned to propose.

And yet she felt guilty and wondered if the next guy she dated would reject her because of what she had done.

She is not alone–almost every “good Christian girl” has worried about this. Some become paralyzed with guilt if they’ve “gone too far” or lost their virginity. Some feel guilty and can’t handle it, so they numb themselves and stop caring about physical boundaries or balancing trust and intimacy in a relationship, telling themselves they’re used, so why does it matter now?

I worried about this, too. At one point in our engagement, Kevin and I talked very seriously about calling things off for various reasons, and I found myself panicking, wondering, “If we break up, then what? Would any good guy be interested in me, knowing I was engaged to someone else? Would he resent the physical elements of relationship Kevin and I had?”

***

I call this “purity guilt.” And I am now convinced that this guilt is the wrong and natural result of a flagrant misunderstanding of real purity and real grace. But because we grew up in the purity (and courtship) culture of evangelical churches, we don’t know better. This guilt is the natural correlary to my last one on modesty and lust in its abuse of the law and corresponding misuse of grace. For what I can tell, it’s predominantly a female issue, but I’d be really eager to hear from the guys if this runs both ways.

***

When I turned twelve, my dad took me to a jewelry store where we picked out a ring to be my “purity ring.” Most of the girls around my age at our church were getting purity rings with precious stones for their birthdays, and my parents had planned on using this occasion as a sort of coming-of-age ceremony where they could talk to me about saving myself for marriage (e.g. maintaining chastity until after the vows—the technicalities of this were nebulous). After presenting me with the ring, they asked me to sign a document stating what “saving myself” meant to me and what I was promising (this was quite vague–I was twelve). However, this promise became nuanced with a lot of unspoken assumptions as I grew older.

The “godly” girls in our church made their purity promises too, saying things like “I will save my first kiss for the altar,” and “I will not hold hands until after I am engaged,” and “I will not tell a man I love him unless he is my fiancé.” I probably wrote down similar things in my little contract, which my parents and I then signed and stuck in my 7th grade school file. Here’s one like mine, that my friend Carley signed (along with her dad and her pastor–talk about weird).

This sort of thing was (and still is) not entirely unusual. What’s more unusual are the parents who try to enforce these pledges later on. Most don’t, trusting the self-consciousness and guilt of  the memory of these promises to keep their daughters making wise decisions. Some, however, like my friend Carley’s parents, try to hold their daughters to the letter of the law. Carley ended up eloping with her husband, because her white parents wouldn’t approve of him because he is black.

Her situation, obviously, was more rare, but the obsessive concern about girls’ purity/virginity is a troubling constant in the evangelical world.  The idea of Christian girls and virginity as a precious commodity is a value in Christian culture going back to the very beginning of the church, when many young believers chose martyrdom over marrying or sleeping with an unbeliever. These are the women of the Catholic canon of saints, and for good cause–their dedication to their faith is admirable.

But their situation and culture isn’t the same as ours–they were dealing with rape-or-death situations. We are instead dealing with young couples exploring intimacy in (often) healthy and normal ways. But girls like Carley and me are still urged to save our first kiss for the altar or asked by our parents to have short engagements, because “the temptation is too great.” And when we discover that holding hands or kissing is actually nice and doesn’t suddenly hurl us into sexual sin, we become confused and struggle with guilt: were the things we taught wrong? Or am I just being callous to sin? Am I ruining my hope of a good sex life in my married future by doing these things now?

This emphasis on sexual sin is turning good and natural things (the existence of my sex drive, discovering how my body works, kissing my boyfriend goodnight, etc.) into hotspots for guilt and shame. The gospel of Jesus doesn’t teach that sexual sin is somehow worse than anger or gluttony, and Jesus didn’t ration the grace he gave for the sexually experienced. Instead, he ate with prostitutes and protected the woman caught in adultery from stoning.

Sexual sin is real. But why have we made it out to be more than it should be? We have inflated the concept of sex to a spiritual high (which it can be, but this ignores the physicalness and humor and ordinary joy of it), and so the sexually inexperienced good Christian girl is plagued by fear of ruining this future experience by her participation in any number of normal and healthy physical elements of a normal and healthy dating relationship.

Furthermore, we’ve allowed ourselves to make this a gendered double standard: why is it usually no big deal if a young Christian guy is sexually experienced, as long as he’s repented and trying to stay pure? Girls don’t get that sort of treatment. Virginity is “lost,” and suddenly the girl is “damaged goods.” We girls feel guilty because it’s culturally normal to make us feel guilty. The church accepts this as okay without much of a second thought (and only mild lip-service to “second chances”) because this practice, called “slut-shaming” by those outside the church, has for so long been culturally normal.

Before I get into the grace & guilt part of this, I must say: Did you know that, physiologically speaking, it’s impossible to tell if a woman has ever had sex or not? The hymen is sometimes present, sometimes not. Sometimes there’s no bleeding the first time she has sex. Sometimes, it’s impossible to have sex for the first time without significant tearing. Every woman is different, and the idea of “virginity” is an abstract concept, impossible to prove physically. (Feminist author Jessica Valenti theorizes [not a 100% endorsement, but a very interesting read] that the concept of virginity originated as a way a man could prove without a doubt that his son was his and should inherit his property and goods–if the wife was a virgin at marriage and he was vigilant and sure of her faithfulness, then the son was his and the inheritance safe. The Old Testament concept of virginity reflects this feudal mindset in the law.)

Our culture has some messed up assumptions about purity and girls, and we’ve woven them into the Bible’s teachings on sexual fidelity and made purity 1) the woman’s responsibility, and 2) all about technicalities and rules and “how far is too far.”

My brother got a purity ring, too, and I commend my parents’ equal treatment of this issue , regardless of gender. Some Christians don’t just make it a girls’ issue, but this is not very common.  Modesty is the girl’s job, and it’s easy to make purity the girl’s responsibility, too.

The whole idea of “purity rings” and virginity as the highest sexual moral good is based on some fundamental assumptions made by about sexual sin being somehow “worse” than other sins, and this is problematic. Sexual sin is serious and can have more significant emotional effects on a person, but it’s no more damning than any other sin.

Parents who teach these detailed, legalistic approaches to purity often bring these things up (and even urge their daughters to make these purity promises) when they’re only 12 or 13. At this age, girls are often still in that blissful twilight of childhood where self-consciousness is still rare and interactions with other people happen without ulterior motives or fear. They simply don’t understand what they’re promising.

When purity and modesty issues are introduced, these young girls experience a rude awakening to fear of self and fear of interacting with the other sex–boys are no longer just boys, but sex-obsessed animals. This fear of self and sex and men is perpetuated throughout adolescence with modesty talks and sermon illustrations of girls who slip up and get pregnant out of wedlock, and the purity guilt (over flirting, over slips into “immodesty,” over sexual desires) is increased.

The New Testament teachings on sexuality don’t say that virginity is the highest good, that those who have sexual experience and aren’t married are dirty and unworthy of grace, or that setting physical boundaries is either a guy’s responsibility or a that keeping physical boundaries is a girl’s job.

Instead it says: flee sexual immorality. Be content, and if you can’t be content, get married. Don’t take advantage of each other, but treat each other with respect. Be faithful to your spouse. Don’t abandon your commitment to someone in the name of piety. Love one another. Mutually defer to one another in love.

Sexual purity for a couple considering whether or not to pursue marriage is never really spelled out  (at least not along the lines of the purity teachings my peers and I received from the pulpits of our churches). Sex is held in high value and reserved for marriage. But the guilt and the shame that follow the uncomfortably detailed teachings about purity and virginity–these can’t be found.

Jesus loved unconditionally. He didn’t die for us to wallow in fear that our sexual sins or infractions of a man-made purity code would ruin our marriages or future relationships. Sex saved for marriage is ideal, but Jesus’s best for us is a life lived without shame, with forgiveness and grace and unconditional acceptance by the Father.


Here’s your week’s list of reads. Discuss in the comments if something rubs you wrong or you’re curious about why I chose to feature a piece.

Some politician named Mourdock made a statement that, out of context, was highly offensive to feminists/rape victims. Basically he believes that Babies = Gift From God, so he assumes that while Rape = Bad, Babies (from rape) = still Gift From God. But what it sounded like was that he was suggesting that rape victims be thankful they got raped, because Babies, you guys! Here’s one of many posts on this from the perspective of the offended party. I posted it on Facebook yesterday, with this commentary, and we had a lively discussion:

I am consistently bothered by WASP men who jump on the comments about rape and pregnancy (like Akin and Mourdock) with their comments about no exceptions for abortion bans, because babies! Life! Imago Dei!

Yes. Technically these men are correct. Morally, they have the high ethical ground.

But there is a hollow lack of compassion in these over-eager attempts to comment on the correct moral choice for a rape victim, and it seems to me that their privilege in our society as straight white Protestant men has blinded them to the pain and anguish of such a situation and led them into turning these women into abstractions, useful for political gesturing. This is wrong. These women are real people, loved by God.

Can we give rape victims the respect of not making them abstractions for our political discussions? It’s not sweeping the issue of life as a gift from God under the rug to respect these women and let them grieve privately. It’s not endorsing abortion to respect their experience (and your lack thereof) to hold your tongue and not paint in broad strokes how you think they should act or feel. 

Life is a gift from God. Your ethical patronizing is not.

I highlighted this wonderful, wonderful post on relationship and obedience in parenting by my mom in the comments on my last post (which, oh my. Got so much traffic. Really blown away by you all. Thank you.) and everyone should go read it.

A NY Times blog addresses the horrific agricultural situation in America, and suggests a simple fix (which may or may not be the best option, but it’s worth reading).

My good friend Eric writes an essay against legalism as part of a series he’s doing. He suggests that labeling people (he jokingly calls those who habitually do this to organize their world “Labelists”) is contrary to God’s law of love, and undermines the gospel, and promotes legalism. Loving it so far.

The Diocese of South Carolina has broken off from the Episcopal church over longstanding differences of opinion on issues of orthodoxy. Our rector used to be part of this diocese. Pray for the Church.

A beautiful, beautiful essay on the Book of Common Prayer in the New Yorker. I love this so much, as I attended several evensong services at Salisbury, and it’s still my favorite cathedral I’ve ever visited.

For those of us who have been hurt by fundamentalist Christianity, here’s a reminder from Peter Enns on why we need to still love these brothers and sisters in Christ.

A funny way to teach yourself to detect the passive voice in your writing.

Random House and Putnam Penguin are considering a merger. This would be horrific for the book selling industry, and is largely the natural reaction to Amazon and da gubbamit. Support your local independent booksellers, kids!

There is a style guide for web typography. I’m in love.

I spell my name with an umlaut (keyboard shortcut alt+0228, fyi) and so of course I loved this little essay on umlauts and Volapük.

My 6,128 Favorite Books: an essay on reading in the WSJ. Lovely. Those who know, know. And if you know, you will love this piece.

fascinating article on memes in political journalism and what they do to the political discourse.

The State of the Short Story, by the editor of The Paris Review, Lorin Stein. I’m a sucker for short stories. Stein explores how we read and why we read short stories.

Happy Friday! I’ll have another post for you tomorrow, as part of the series on food