I’m not really thinking about Christmas much right now. There are too many pieces of life still unresolved this December. I can’t see very far ahead–this is driving in fog with my low beams on, not knowing when I’ll arrive where I’m going. But I’m still walking forward, or trying to.

This past weekend I spent most of my free time revisiting my undergrad thesis on Derrida and T.S. Eliot, immersing myself in that headspace after years of absence. I’d forgotten about pieces of it, absorbed them so thoroughly into my thinking that the origin of the parts had become obscured. One of these pieces that became so much a part of me is Derrida’s concept of à venir.

I spent last year’s Advent season meditating on the idea of it being a penitential season. It was for me, a time of preparing the self, stripping the distractions, waiting for the arrival of the Christ child. It was a time of soul-stripping, and I had no idea how few things I’d be holding in my hands by the time it was over. The year before was much the same — feeling pressed in, pressed down, holding my breath as I let things go and slapping God’s name on it to make sense of it all.

There is so much brokenness. My brain is on overdrive, filled with stories. The pain of the people dear to me is a loud white noise in my head, keeping me awake at night. The idea of Advent being a time for introspection and penitence is still true, but it doesn’t fit this year. This year I can’t “God’s sovereignty!” myself out of the questions I carry, all balled up in my pocket.

Revisiting that thesis for my applications made me laugh. I’d tied up the loose ends in pretty bows at the end — I had succumbed to the internal pressure of working with Derrida at a Presbyterian college, leaned a little too hard on the Christianity-fixes-this-tension conclusion. Derrida didn’t go for answers, for tidy bows. That’s the whole point — he saw how uncontainable language and ideas and belief were, and talked about it. And the moderns couldn’t cope with the tension he embraced.

So now to explain: à venir. It’s Derrida’s term used to describe the space of tension between the idea of a thing and it’s actualization. It’s that time when you’ve had an idea for a recipe, pulled together your ingredients, and you’re waiting for the timer to take it out of the oven and see if it turned out how you hoped. It’s the moment between when you, a poet, have an idea for a poem and sit down to write, and when you give it to someone to read for the first time, and wait breathlessly to see their face and know whether or not you succeeded at yanking them into that first moment when inspiration struck.

À venir means “to come” or “forthcoming.” It’s the same root from which we name this time of year Advent. And Advent is about this, the tension of anticipation. That which is to come — we have no idea what it will turn out to be like, but we know it’s coming, and we wait, fully present.

I chuckle, because it seems that I’m not alone in feeling the anticipatory discomfort this year. Cara blogged yesterday, saying

I’m sitting here, in the present tense, realizing that I’m breathing somewhere between has come and will come, between Advent and Adventure.

Sarah wrote on it, too.

Now that I have wept, now that I have grieved, now that I have lost, now that I have learned to hold space with and for the ones who are hurting, now I have a place for Advent. Now that I have fallen in step with the man from Nazareth, I want to walk where he walked into the brokenness of this life, and see the Kingdom of God at hand. Now that I have learned how much I need him, I have learned to watch for him.

Advent is perhaps for the ones who know longing.

Two parts of the same à venir tension: adventure and longing; hope and grief. Advent, the penitential season. Advent, the season of tidings of great joy. Advent, the birth of the one who is to die. Advent, the birth of the King who will reign forever.

Advent, the messy season of the soul at its most human and most holy — when we don’t know what’s coming, we don’t know what we need, and we’re waiting and getting so antsy for something to change that we half don’t care what it is.

Maybe that’s why all my favorite Advent hymns are in minor keys? It’s a season of being unresolved. We may have a great hope, a great faith, a Messiah we watch for, but the beauty of à venir is in the surprise.

I like to hope I’m a lot more open to the surprises that may come this season, after a year full of them. But I know I’m not, not really. I love creature comforts, tidy endings, white hat/black hat thinking. Yet, that’s just not real. Real is nuance. Real is discomfort AND extravagant beauty mashed together in the same day. Real is unresolved melodies that are left unfinished.

And real is our very human, very beautiful innate ability to hope in the midst of crap. Even if it’s just the anticipation of sleep at the end of the day, or a warm cup of coffee in the morning, or a hot shower when it’s all over. We hope. That’s what we do. We look forward to things. And that’s the heart of being human, the heart of à venir. It’s the unquenchable spirit of Advent, and ideally of Christianity. Hope without ceasing, right? A God who cares, intimately. A God who took on flesh, who took on our tension and our humanity, our existence of nobility of soul and thought plus farting and tears.

Some days I don’t know if I believe, or if I do, what I know. But it’s human to hope, and it’s Christian to hope, and the messianic impulse of expectancy is strong. Things can get better. Things should get better. Love is real, and it is healing. The Incarnation is mystifying and surprising and good and I expect no less of final redemption. I don’t want a bow. I want a minor chord, I want the slice of surprise of the unresolved, the unknown. It’s more true.

À venir. God is with us. And it’s uncomfortable and surprising.


Okay. Okay. I’m fed up with the annual Summer Modesty Argument On The Interwebz.

Here’s the rundown:

1) Modesty keeps men’s uncontrollable sex drives in check! vs. NO THAT’S RAPE CULTURE

2) God commands modesty to honor his creation, your body! vs. Uh, modesty is a shame thing and that’s the result of the fall.

3) Modesty makes a statement about What Your Heart Really Wants, so be a good witness! vs. Rape culture, again! I wear what I want, and I’m not asking for anything, AND Jesus doesn’t depend on my clothes for his Kingdom, thanks.

4) Everything in our culture is so sexualized! Wish we could go back to the Good Old Days. vs. Let me give you a history lesson! Everyone was having sex and covering up is a cultural standard, not a godliness thing.

And then, there’s the one that set me off last night, which basically argues that I need to cover up to protect my God-given dignity as a woman.

I want to tackle this idea that my behavior, clothing, or other external things dictates the way church people perceive my dignity. I know it does. I grew up in the thick of modesty-shame culture in SGM.

The message of modesty = dignity was clear, though perhaps not defined in such a reductive fashion. But if your listeners (or readers) are coming away with an idea that’s false, the burden is on you, the teacher/speaker (or writer) to use your language clearly enough to eliminate miscommunication. And so I feel it fair to take on this idea in the manner in which it was received and assumed to be true.

Here’s the beefy quote on this from the article in the Atlantic yesterday:

Here, there is freedom for individual women to practice modesty not primarily to preserve men’s sexual purity, but to preserve their own dignity. To show in outward form the inward truth that they matter to society for their minds, their leadership, their passions, and their talents–talents that have nothing to do with how many heads they can turn. Modesty can become a form of female power.

Female power can take LOTS of forms. Usually by transgressing against a social expectation and rewriting some rules. I get that. I applaud that. Some of my favorite things about feminism is how it’s transgressing social orders as those who are traditionally marginalized are empowering themselves and speaking up.

But my dignity is not won or lost by my clothing OR my level of empowerment. And when we’re talking about my body and dignity and working with the assumption that our motives for this discussion are in keeping with pursuing orthodox Christianity, then I’ll take further issue with this.

If you separate my dignity from my physical self, you’re assuming that my spiritual self is “better” or “holier” than my body, and you are 1) demeaning Christ’s incarnation (and thereby devaluing the sacrament of communion), and 2) embracing Gnosticism, a classic heresy. 

God made humankind in his/her image and called us very good. God is not gendered, and we happen to be, but that means that ALL of us are in the image of God. Then, the fall happened, and THEN humans were introduced to shame and shame introduced clothing.

  1. Bodies made, called good.
  2. Sin/shame introduced, clothing happens.

My dignity as a human being comes from the fact that God made me and called it good. My body is inseparable from my human experience and identity, and my body is inseparable from my identity as a Christian, because it was through my understanding of the incarnation that I was able to overcome modesty culture shame about my body and re-embrace it as beautiful and good. Same goes for my sexuality, actually.

Don’t buy the lie that “modesty” will win you respect and dignity. If it does, it’s in a fear- and shame-centered legalistic culture, and Christ died to set us free, not bind us with more shame. My dignity doesn’t need clothes. Or your respect.

 


This summer and fall I did a series of posts on incarnation and eating (my two great passions in life), and the [pompously pseudonymous but] excellent and genial thinking fellows over at The Hipster Conservative decided to run the series as a long essay.

If you’re new around here, please go read! This is one of my favorite pieces I’ve done yet.

I would argue that it is anti-Christian to have a merely utilitarian relationship to one’s food. If God Incarnate as the man Jesus made such a point of instituting the sacrament of communion and said that the bread was his body and the wine his blood, food can never again be just something we put in our bodies (“fuel” says that horrible industrialist metaphor) to provide energy for our day. God has eaten with us and made the very act of eating together something that he not only identified with, but made a vital part of how we relate to him and each other.

<< Read the whole thing here. >>


My purpose with almost everything I write here is to communicate two things: 1) you are not alone and shame is not from Jesus, and 2) it is possible to develop an authentic theology of the body and live as an embodied sexual being and experience both healthy boundaries and real grace.

These two things have never been more true than for this post.

Please be gentle with me and with each other as we discuss this.

To begin, I’d like to tell you a story.

***

I didn’t have much of a sense of shame or self-awareness when I was young. I happily shed my clothes to play in the sprinklers in the front yard, and scandalized the neighbors (I was banned from playing with several neighbor kids because going nekkid in the sprinklers at 5 years old on a hot California afternoon in July was being a “bad influence”). I finger painted in my panties in our backyard at six, proudly drawing a red H on my chest and prancing around with it to show my parents. I skinny dipped in my best friend’s backyard pool with no thought that anyone wouldn’t do such a thing if given the chance.

I chatted up strangers at the grocery store and asked impertinent questions like “when are you going to have a baby? why is your skin brown? how old are you? do you know Jesus? do you like being fat?”

My mom used to say that God had given a child like me to introvert parents “to stretch us out of our comfort zone.”

And one summer evening, when I was 7 or 8, it was one of those evenings where the light fades late in the day and small children are restless in bed because they can still hear friends playing out in the street and the blinds are still glowing with sunset light. And as I was trying so very hard to be obedient and stay in bed and be quiet and fall asleep, I discovered a secret.

A few weeks later, my mom checked in with me and discovered me touching myself and we had a talk about it. “It helps me fall asleep quickly, Mom!” I explained.

“Well, it’s not really a good habit to get into,” she said. “Try to sleep with your hands away from your private parts.”

So I complied. Or tried to.

I was hooked. It felt amazing. But I managed to refrain more often that not, and kept it from becoming a habit.

Until I was 15 and more stressed than I had ever been before, with so much constant chaos at home, little privacy, regular demands on my time to babysit and help the family, lots of pressure to keep up in school (I was falling behind due to the chaos of toddler twin brothers and another infant in the house). And I was increasingly isolated from my peers as more and more of the things they became involved with were Things Our Family Doesn’t Do (movies, NCFCA debate, ballroom dance club, teen “care group” at church, top 40 radio, pop concerts, etc.). On top of all that, I found myself no longer getting along well with my roommate sister, and the constant tension between us over how to decorate our 10′ x 10′ bedroom, when lights-out should be, who could play music when, etc., sucked us both dry emotionally.

And so, to relieve the stress and distract my affection-starved self, I became addicted to sneaking romance novels from the library and reading them behind my school books. But after a while, I became fed up with the clichés and stock characters, and replaced this with a habit of masturbating when I was stressed and overwhelmed.

Dear reader, I didn’t realize that I was doing it to relieve stress, but looking back on how incredibly tense those three years were, I see it all now: that was my primary outlet and it was because I craved  affirmation, connection, unconditional love, and I wasn’t getting it at home and I couldn’t get it elsewhere AND. and. I was 15 and newly horny as hell. I thought instead that I was horribly perverted and a vile, filthy sinner.

I have the pain-laced journal entries from those three years to prove it. Usually confessory, they read something like this (spaced out at about two of these entries per week):

1) Frustration over some conflict with family member (during which description I beat myself up for being bothered by these things at all and ask God to make me more loving, loyal, content, peaceful).

2) Grief and appalled shame that I masturbated AGAIN.

3) Thanking God for being good to me even if I’m such a horrible worm and detestable in his eyes (cue long dramatic description akin to that found in Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”).

What happened, between the mild conversation with my mother (who, to her credit, never ever told me that masturbation was a sin or that my sex drive was wrong or shameful) when I was 8 and this perpetual emotional self-flagellation for my wickedness?

A couple of things happened: first, I got caught up in a church culture where shame and self-loathing were used by authority figures to prey on the insecurities of their congregants for the purposes of social control. Second, I became displaced when we moved from California and lost a lot of my self-confidence when I was introduced to Southern social expectations and felt the pressure to conform to [what seemed to me] bizarre standards of dignity and politeness. Suddenly I was immersed in a culture where sinner, sinner, sinner was emphasized spiritually, and girls were expected to be ethereal, saintly, soft-spoken, and elevated above the physical.

Happy little dirt-and-trees-and-creeks-and-loud-laughter-and-louder-ideas me was totally lost, and I was overeager to perform well and please everyone. But I had this secret.

And so I was caught in an overpowering sense of fear, shame, and guilt. I was the messed up one, the girl who wished she could attend the men’s retreat session on lust and pornography. The girl who was afraid to date someone because what might happen if I “woke love” and my desires increased more than they are now?! I was embarrassed because I liked my body, and all my friends hated theirs and dieted and binged and cut and hid theirs under frumpy clothes. I did, too, for fear of boys looking at me, but secretly I dreamed that someone might notice me beyond my frumpy clothes and see that I could pretty and desirable if I got a chance to try being so. And they all chattered on about what the most romantic proposal might be and who’d end up having the first baby, while I wondered what it might be like to be kissed and wondered if I was the only one among us who felt this way.

The rest of the story goes like an American rags-to-riches story, where I steeled myself with the power of shame and I fought hard and worked harder at school and chores and keeping busy, and I read myself to sleep at night and eventually broke the habit. I was free.

And I swore to myself that I would never tell anyone. Not even my husband. Because it was too dark and shameful and no one could ever know that I was that sort of person. 

***

Here’s the thing, though. That wasn’t a victory.

I killed a habit. But I sold my soul to shame in order to do it.

And the problem wasn’t whether masturbating was right or wrong. The problem was that I was using it to cope with stress. I sought out the cathartic high instead of facing the real issues I was living with — loneliness, anxiety, fear, anger. It could have been any number of things — I could have discovered cutting, I could have developed an unhealthy relationship with food, or become obsessed with working out or studying. But instead I developed an imbalanced, unhealthy relationship to my sexuality.

But like any “addict,” I supplanted one addiction for another to overcome the initial habit: I replaced masturbating with emotional self-flagellation.

And I never addressed the most fundamental missing puzzle piece to this whole thing: I never bothered to pair up a grace-centered understanding of myself as BOTH a child of God and a sexual being.

Stopping the “addiction” didn’t fix what was broken.

***

I’ve been thrilled to see so many wonderful faithful saints raising their voices to challenge the shame-centered Church teachings on virginity. This is a start to healing in the church that has long been needed.

Here’s my bone to pick with the Church on this: we can’t possibly create healthy marriages and a healthy theology of the body (and ourselves as sexual beings) if we assume that men are the only ones with sex drives, the only ones tempted to seek out titillation, the only ones prone to thinking with their genitals.

I’m sorry. That’s bullshit. My vagina likes to try to make my decisions for me, too.

Men are no more rapists in their natural state than I am asexual in my natural state.

These caricatures deny us both our humanity and a chance at a decent conversation about our sexuality and bodies and God’s intent for these beautiful, mysterious, pleasurable, soul-touching things we’re capable of creating when joined together in the fullness of human connection.

Limiting the conversation to “guard your heart” and “porn is wrong” and “don’t have sex, you’ll be damaged goods” is cheating ourselves out of mature discussions about why these things work the way they do, why our bodies are important, why emotions are beautiful and powerful and dangerously good, and traps us in a black-and-white world where we can only think with childish terms of understanding and control the deeper, more mature intuitions of our emotions and bodies with the blunt tool of fear and shame.

Shame as a tool for control creates perversions and nullifies grace. It does things like: twisting developing sexual habits so that some of my peers can only get off when they feel shame or pain; preventing virgin newlyweds from having happy and safe honeymoon sex because they’re unlearning years and years of fear-based self-control; letting married women think that sex should/can only be on their husbands’ terms of use/desire (e.g., she should only be turned on by what turns him on because they’re soul mates/made for each other/designed for each other); keeping married couples from communicating about what they like/don’t like in the bedroom, because of unspoken expectations about How Sex Is Done; etc., etc.

I’ve known people who got married and couldn’t have sex without having panic attacks, throwing up/feeling nauseous, tensing up and being unable to follow through with penetration (both him and her), feeling dirty and ashamed for desiring one’s spouse, for asking for any sexual favor from one’s spouse, and the list goes on. This is directly caused by the Church (okay, fine, the evangelical church) abdicating from a nuanced, mature, intellectual discussion of a Christian understanding of sex and the body jointly. These two things should never be discussed in isolation from each other.

I am not just a soul. I am an embodied being and my body is who I am just as much as my soul is. God made me this way and called it good. And part of this existence is that he made me a woman and he gave me a healthy sex drive and my body is good and I like sex.

And sex is spiritual AND physical, intimate and natural, meaningful and a bodily function. All together. At once.

Masturbation is natural and not necessarily sinful on its own. But objectifying human beings for sexual pleasure is wrong just as it’s wrong to be addicted to anything. Both choices are compromising to the soul.

But the worst is shame. An appropriate grief for sin is right and good. But dwelling on your sin and obsessing to the point of self-loathing? Jesus never taught that.

Perfect love casts out fear. Living life with delight in Jesus and in the grace found in relationship with him sets us free from fear, from shame, from being chained to shame or lust or arrogant self-righteousness.

Instead we receive each day with the promise of wholeness through identifying ourselves with Jesus and living without fear.

Dear friends. You are not alone.

Don’t be afraid.


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.

 


[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.

 


We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
– T.S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi”

Last year, I started writing this post. But life swallowed me up and my job was difficult and my husband started working at a restaurant, and suddenly our life was stretched too thin for me to think real words anymore.

I was having a discussion with a friend (who is now a new sister!) and she asked me something or other about how I felt about Christmas coming. I paused. I felt strange answering her question honestly, because she probably expected something about how happy I felt about decorating or making Christmas desserts, or how good it would be to spend the holiday with family. But I was weary and emotionally drained, and I told her that I liked the season of Advent, anticipating Christmas, because it is a penitential season. I said that I always feel more like fasting than feasting while I wait for Christmas.

She asked me to explain what I meant and got me thinking on this. Since I still feel this way a year later, returning to the Advent season, I think I will return and finish my thought.

Advent is a season of anticipating God’s arrival in the flesh, of waiting and watching. It is much like Lent in this yearning and anticipation. But Lent is a time when Jesus was on earth with his disciples, and I feel it’s more appropriate to be meditating on mortality, penitence, and abstinence during the time leading up to the incarnation, while we prepare for his arrival. The time leading up to Jesus’ birth was a time of silence among the prophets, and the Spirit had left the temple, I’m told. Everything was centered on keeping the feasts and waiting for the Messiah, not unlike the Jews still do today. There was an absence of God’s presence among his people.

Likewise, during Advent, we wait and we watch. We hunger for the coming of Christ the baby like we hunger for heaven or for his eventual return, because it parallels that scene so well–the common yearning for God with us. We speak of heaven: Jesus is coming. But not yet. Reflect and watch and pray.

Advent is a picture of where we are now, everyday. We don’t find Jesus in the plenty–though we can. Instead, he more often comes to us in the silence, in the waiting. We anticipate him and grow tired. But then he comes and finds us in the aches and pains and weariness.
And then he dies. And Easter has so much power and might and life and joy, but we know the promise of heaven best in Jesus incarnate. So we wait for the “second death” when we live with him, like the Eliot poem says.

The magi saw the Christ, they rejoice, and then they go home, tired and weary. And they wait for death with quiet reverence and anticipation of the promise fulfilled in death by the baby king. And like them, we wait for his arrival at Christmas just as we wait for death to unite us with him in the flesh.

This Advent (which starts on Sunday), I’m going to be meditating on the incarnation and on mortality. I’m going to be choosing something to fast from in the spirit of Lent, and I will break my fast at Epiphany in the spirit of the resurrection promise made in the incarnation of Christ. Join me?