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 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.

 


My husband’s family is very musical, and we spent much of the weekend singing this and that, or listening to them jam on various instruments. Kevin, some of his brothers, and their uncle prepared a rousing performance of “Bamfield’s John Vanden” by The Bills, and it was the highlight of the musical festivities.

[thanks to my lovely mother-in-law for recording this on her iPhone]


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 often struggle with jealousy. I go to a wedding where the couple is wholeheartedly celebrated by their parents on both sides, and I feel small and petty watching them from the sidelines as they make toasts and can’t say enough positive things about their children. I would hear friends talk about how restful their mid-semester breaks were at home and how much their family went out of their way to make them feel welcome, and I fight resentment. I see newlywed couples who glow idiotically and have no financial woes or inconveniences, and I wish them well and bite my tongue. I feel like these people haven’t earned their blessings, and I resent that no matter how hard I worked to keep everyone happy and do the right things, I never had what they have.

Yesterday I was plunged into this lonely place again (which is never about the other person, just about the contrast they provide)  during a sermon on baptism, when the pastor started talking about unconditional love in families.  He was saying, how in the kingdom of God, you are unconditionally loved once you’ve entered in (he was alluding to entering the “family of God” by being baptized as infants, and how there’s nothing the baby does to earn this welcome and this family and this unconditional love), and it’s never, ever about performance. The relationship with God is to be a safe place where you are loved by the Father without regard to how you’re performing or pleasing him. Whether or not you are agreeing with him. Whether or not you’re “good.”

Then he commented that this is how it is in healthy families–the parents love their kids by the merit of being their kids, not by merit of obedience, or agreeing with the parents’ viewpoints, or performing or behaving a certain way. The love doesn’t change, because the relationship between parents and child can’t be affected by any of these other things.

And I shriveled up inside, tuning out the rest of the sermon in my effort to not cry, there in the choir stalls. I have never known that kind of love in my family, in general. My mom understands it and gives it, but she is spread so thin that it cannot change the the overall tone of interactions in my family, which is (and has almost always been, for generations) marked by a tone of “what have you done for me lately?” and “why should I help you?” and “you don’t meet my standards, so I don’t have to care.”

The first time I saw real, unconditional love was in Kevin’s family. When I met him, the way he talked about them was just so exuberantly positive that I wasn’t sure it could  be genuine. As I got to know him a little better, I learned that he felt that he was sort of the “bad kid” (comparatively–they are such well-mannered people. I think this just happened because he was louder than the rest of them), and then when I met them all, and saw how they gushed over him and held him in such high regard, I was floored. Even if he wasn’t just exactly the way they hoped he might be, they still adored him and were so pleased to be his kin.

And being there with them was like a balm to me, though I did fight jealousy when I saw the contrast. Unconditional love can exist in families. It’s not a myth. You can disagree with each other over serious ideological issues, and still have a deeply loving, nuturing family.  It’s possible. I kept arranging my breaks from school, and later my weekends so I could spend more time with them, soaking up the healing atmosphere there.

I ache, wishing that I had that in my own family. Maybe it’ll happen one day, but probably not for years. And until then, I’m reminding myself again and again: Kevin and I can do it differently. We can be like his family.

But I’m still not whole, and sermons about unconditional love make me ache. I have to unlearn so much. My jealousy is a holdout of both my own pain and my still-twisted mindset of needing to earn good things, of needing to perform a certain way to get love. I’m hurting my marriage with this mindset, and I’m realizing I’ve damaged a lot of friendships because I loved conditionally and never realized how ugly it was because I didn’t know anything else.

Conditional love is a damning thing.


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.


Marianne is one of the most interesting people I have ever met, and I’m excited to have her do a guest post! She graduated from my alma mater some years before I came through, and is still a legend in the English department, especially because of her play interpretation of Till We Have Faces (which I saw performed–it’s incredible). I first met her at a church function. She was this snappily smart woman, knitting something intricate at lightning speed, and making everyone laugh. I was in awe. 

According to herself: Marianne teaches theatre in Pittsburgh and cooks a lot of stew in Grove City. She has a lot of ideas about food, but only shares them when asked. Her latest obsessions in food and fashion can be found at her blog, The Eternal Student.

***

When did I become crazy? Once, I was an ordinary, sale-shopping, pasta-loving, fast-food eating girl in her early twenties. Now, my family thinks I’m a crazy hippy, pioneer-days-recreator, food nazi.

Brief background: I was born with a condition called Holt Oram that affects the arms and hands and heart. Thankfully, my heart is quite healthy. But my left arm has always been severely shorter than the right, I was born without a left thumb or radius, and my wrist was severely clubbed. Orthopedic surgeries as a child corrected some of the problems. At the age of eighteen, I first heard of an amazing new procedure to lengthen bones that had been just imported from Russia. I had prayed fervently my whole life that God would make my arm grow, and finally, at twenty-five, I had my left arm lengthened—a painful process of incremental bone stretching. I gained over two inches in three months. I drank gallons and gallons of milk, despite my lactose intolerance (the agony!), and took calcium supplements at alarming doses. Despite that, after two years, my bone remained stubbornly broken. The doctor shrugged. I was a “slow bone grower.”

I lived in France with that broken arm. I even got married with it broken! Four months into my newlywed life, I had one last surgery to fix my arm—the bone was sanded down, forcibly rejoined, and held together with a plate and screws. From that day onward, I researched everything I could on bone health. Somehow, I stumbled onto the hope of raw milk. For the first time I heard of a dentist named Weston A. Price and read his book for free online.  During these years, I heard about Wendell Berry, and I devoured all of his collections of essays in a week. I became a devotee of the French Women Don’t Get Fat philosophy of food and pleasure. Michael Pollan’s recommendations in In Defense of Food, and the food detective word in The Omnivore’s Dilemma were captivating.

I heard about and read all of the books by an outspoken farmer in Virginia named Joel Salatin.  I took cod liver oil, drank a quart of raw milk a day, and ate plenty of butter.  And in six weeks my bone was healed. I also gained fifteen pounds in about six months, but I felt so strong and healthy for the first time in years.

What I discovered in the course of my years of reading and my experience with my own health has changed the way I view food. I no longer look on food as I did in my teens as a necessary evil—a source of needed fuel but something to be controlled obsessively to avoid weight gain. In my twenties, I learned to cook, mastering various national cuisines—food as hobby. I can cook Thai, Italian, Mexican,  French, and Indian—take your pick! In France, I liked nothing better than to buy a crusty half-baguette, and 100 grams of liver pâté at the market and eat the two together as I wiled away the day reading novels. Now, I make my own chicken liver pâté, my own sourdough baguettes, and a whole slew of bizarre fermented beverages to replace my beloved diet Pepsi. I’m no longer a serial dieter, nor am I a hobbyist. I’m a busy professional woman who has spent three years slowly building the skill set to practically live out what I’ve learned about food, nutrition, and agricultural economics without falling into debt to do it.

Changing patterns of food acquisition and consumption takes a lot of time, research, study, and money. But I encourage you to start looking into our American food culture and economy and to question the unexamined assumptions with which we have all grown up. Though apple pie is American, rejecting Little Debbie will not make you unpatriotic. As I sketched out, my awareness that food is embedded in social, historical, and economic structures grew as a result of both my reading and my time living in France. France is a nation that takes the connection between what we eat and the land on which it is grown (the terroir) very seriously. They protect local, artisanal food production. They have banned genetically modified organisms. They promote the manners of the table, the traditions of food preparation, and the life rhythms necessary to eat leisurely and healthfully (two-hour lunches, can you imagine?).  We used to have those traditions here, in the United States. We could have that again.

If you are interested in these issues, do check out the authors and websites that I have linked. If you want to get started reforming your pantry and your plate, here are my tips:

1. Start small. Pick one thing to change. I began with milk. I found a local farmer through the Campaign for Real Milk website and I started there. You might want to give up soda pop. Or replace your frozen pizza habit by making a pot of stew once in a while and freezing that in convenient portions for when you don’t have time to cook.

2. Work within your budget to make priorities. There is a reason why Whole Foods is called Whole Paycheck—it’s expensive! Our family prioritizes in the following way:

  • We buy local, humanely raised meats first. We believe that our animal-product consumption should not depend on the mistreatment of animals. Joel Salatin raves about how his farming practices allow pigs to be pigs, not meat-production machines so overwhelmed by stress that they bite off each other’s tails. We’ve seen our pig running happily in “hog Heaven” on a Beaver Farm, and I petted the nose of the cow that has given us over thirty pounds of delicious roasts and steaks. Doing this, we average about $4/pound. We recently splurged on grass-fed lamb for $7/pound.  Our milk is $5.50 a gallon, which includes the cost of delivery.  Local eggs are between $3 and $4 a dozen, but even at that price, eggs are still one of the cheapest sources of protein and necessary vitamins like vitamin A.
  • Next, we purchase our produce locally whenever possible by frequenting the farmer’s market, growing a garden, and joining a winter co-op. Local, small farms use fewer pesticides overall. The produce is also much fresher. We can also buy honey, jams, pickles, breads, soaps, and meat through this co-op.
  • If we can afford it month-to-month, we buy needed items from the “dirty dozen” list at Whole Foods or Trader Joes.
  • We round out the pantry thanks to Aldi’s amazingly low prices: beans and rice, canned tomatoes, rice cakes, peanut butter, frozen shrimp and wild-caught salmon, chocolate, nuts, and other treats.
  • I cook almost everything from scratch but we do buy convenience foods for the few nights a month when we just can’t bring ourselves to cook: bottled spaghetti sauce and pasta, frozen Aldi French fries to go with pan-fried hamburgers, boxed vegetable soups and quesadillas or grilled cheese. We try to eat one or two meatless, bean-based dinners a week. Our philosophy toward food is best personified by the cookbook and manifesto, Nourishing Traditions.

***

What do you think? How would you like start to eat locally/ethically? I’m not sure where I will start, beyond shopping at the farmer’s market and being more aware of my choices. But I’d like to do more along these lines soon. 


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.