When I posted about Dannah Gresh’s concerning (and poorly composed) chapel sermon at Grove City College on Tuesday, I figured I wouldn’t get much response.

I guess I assumed that most Christian leaders are like those I grew up with — ensconced in their own success and emotionally unmovable when criticized rightly. Pastors and teachers I encountered along my path were usually those who would listen gravely to what you had to say, and then effectively smile and pat you on the head with some platitude or smooth response, and never really hear your hurt or perspective. There was no empathy or genuine concern about how they affected people. Usually, what got their attention was the threat of bad PR, not a hurting individual.

Since then, I’ve learned that there are good pastors. The pastor who cared for me during my last two years of college, the pastor who’s been praying for me as I work through hard personal things right now, the professors at Grove City who have a ministerial relationship with the students under their watch. These individuals (with their relatively small spheres of influence) have given me a lot of hope, personally.

But when it came to those with big public ministries, I retained my cynicism. From where I sit, I have observed that fame does things to people. It looks like it’s easy to be wrapped up in the numbers and the tour and the new topic or book and forget that there are real people receiving and engaging with your message. That people are sometimes basing their whole spiritual life on your ideas and what you say deeply impacts the decisions they make and the way they live. I think it’s for this reason that James reminded his audience that teachers will be judged more strictly.

So. When I posted yesterday, I didn’t know what to expect, but I certaintly didn’t expect Dannah Gresh to personally respond. And I never expected her to respond with gentleness and apology, with an attitude of “please let me make this right.” But I thought I’d at least make sure she was aware we were talking about her message, and I posed this on her Facebook fan page:

FB dannah gresh

I didn’t think she’d respond. I sort of half-assumed she’d even delete the post. But she didn’t delete it and she did respond to me.

And, oh my. This gives me hope for the Church in new ways. Here’s her comment (she posted the same comment on Shaney’s piece, though not on Dianna’s):

dannah gresh comment

Not long after the comment went up, I received an email from her with an invitation to talk over the phone and continue the conversation. We’ve corresponded briefly, and she’s for real. This isn’t a stop-the-bad-blogs-from-talking-about-me move. This is a real, heartfelt desire to avoid the rape culture elements of the Christian purity movement and a sincere attempt at engaging us here.

I’m excited to see where this goes. She still hasn’t addressed Dianna’s concerns about her use of the word Hebrew word “ahava” (which, to be fair, I’m not educated enough to seriously address the nuances of the translation) and the rape of Dinah, but I’m hopeful that she will.

The purity movement is so well-intended, but it’s strayed into legalism and modesty checklists and straw man caricatures of feminism and blaming the victim. This is not okay. But perhaps there’s some hope for addressing these issues, after all?

***

A further clarification for those who felt like her story was certainly hyperbole (which it did turn out to be) and that those criticizing her sermon were “nitpicking” — words mean things. You can’t excuse someone’s careless words on assuming the best about their intent when they have such a big public presence. If she said it in a public forum, it’s up for public discussion, and it’s her job to communicate clearly to avoid sending the wrong message about abuse.

I know we’re all Christians and it’s a good impulse to try to be nice about things, but that’s not appropriate in situations like these, where she was speaking to (guessimating based on my years attending GCC chapels) an audience of 500-700 students and is regularly publishing mainstream Christian books and leads a multi-level ministry to young people of various ages and helps run a blog about  these topics. Statistically speaking, there are those who were in her audience on Tuesday morning who are currently in abusive relationships or have experienced abuse, and without her clarification, the message they heard was “don’t be needy,” “don’t fall in love,” and “being thrown against a wall is okay if your partner really loves you.”

This is why her clarification and engagement with our concerns is so, so important and encouraging.

Thank you, Dannah. Let’s keep talking.


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.


Coming out of a spiritually abusive situation is incredibly difficult.

The first and biggest step  is seeing the abuse for what it is and allowing yourself name it. Saying, “this isn’t normal; this shouldn’t be this way,” is the watershed moment which allows you to begin see what’s wrong and why.

After my moment, I needed about four years to process it all. And I didn’t realize the effects of it at once – my understanding of the severity of my situation deepened as various life experiences uncovered it more and more.

When I started dating my husband.
When I saw how the courtship model was hurting my friends.
When I saw God at work in churches outside of our church group.
When I went to England with a group of friends and an Anglican priest, who heard my story and exclaimed, “What! That’s so messed up. That’s not normal.”

Emo shot from said England trip. If I was cool, this would be on Instagram.

Emo shot from said England trip. If I was cool, this would be on Instagram.

This affirmation of my experience, of my observations, was the validation I craved. I needed to know I wasn’t crazy, that I wasn’t dishonoring God by thinking these things, and that the situation I had found myself in was indeed unreasonable. Talking with others coming out of Quiverfull or Christian Patriarchy communities, I’m struck by how much we all need to be told this. We’re not crazy, this is not normal or healthy, and Jesus has more for us than this.

After these things began to unravel for me, I hit a wall with reading my Bible. I couldn’t do it. I was a college sophomore, double majoring in English and “Christian Thought” (theology), and my understanding of how to read was being gutted and scrubbed. I found myself discovering that the meditational,  charismatic methods of interacting with scripture I had grown up with were emotion-driven and tended to make me the center of my study, bastardizing any good-feeling scripture passage to soothe my emotions.

And then I realized that my entire relationship to my faith was centered around a daily feeling of the Word, not a real relationship with God or an understanding of Jesus. With my emotional presets on “GUILT,” I flailed and floundered, distressed that I didn’t know how to read my Bible, agonizing over why I didn’t feel like it anymore.

***

It’s been about four years since I found myself dead to scripture in my daily devotions. Since I stopped reading because I began to hear in my head the voice of the pastor whose teachings so damaged my family every time I opened an ESV. Since my devotions stopped being habitual (for the first time since middle school) and occurred only out of emotional desperation.

It’s hard admitting that. In the circles I grew up in, it was hard to look someone in the eye and confess that I hadn’t read my Bible in a week. To say that I haven’t seriously read my Bible on a daily basis in four years is to have to fight condemnation. I am not a “bad Christian.” I am not a “backslider.” I am not “abandoning my faith.” But believing these truths is hard when I think about the number, the days it represents.

But healing takes time. It’s so slow, and we’re so busy, and the Spirit works at a pace we can stand to bear. I have desperately needed this break. I needed the time to detox, to stop hearing other people’s voices, to find myself craving God’s presence once again, and not being afraid of how I should read his Word.

Just last year, I realized that reading Eugene Peterson’s The Message didn’t set me off. So I savored that as I could. This year, I’m excited to find that the NIV version doesn’t make me feel like that pastor is reading his opinions to me through a proof-text passage. It’s safe. I can read it and think on it with integrity, and not be afraid. As a result, I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve actually wanted to read it on almost a weekly basis.

“Baby steps, baby steps.”

It’s a slow process. I’m on the mend. Other things suggest this, too. I find myself using words like thankful and grace again, without grimacing and deleting them to rephrase my sentence without religious jargon.

***

If you’re recovering from spiritual abuse, be patient with yourself. Don’t let the emotional habit of guilt drive you into a premature fix.

The best advice I got last year was from that same Anglican priest. “Follow the pain,” he said. And I was uncomfortable with that, because, really, who wants to do that? But giving myself the time to journal, to talk through, and to ponder the pain I was feeling allowed me the space to begin to heal for the first time.

We are so often rushed, so hurried to be the next iteration of our future selves, to improve, to expedite, to control. Be patient with yourself. Healing takes time.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s okay!” he said.

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

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

***

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

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

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


I started following Micha Boyett’s blog after I discovered her series on St. Benedict. Her writing has a gentle, incisive graciousness which I find beautiful. This morning I opened my feed reader and found this post on “Marriage and the Easy  Yoke.” I love this bit toward the end:

I can’t pretend to know much about marriage. Eight years is only 2nd grade in the education of married life. We’re only just now learning cursive and multiplication. We have a long way to go. But what I’m learning is that … Only grace oils the bitter places so the machine can run, so you can smooth each other out.

Her post is in response to this one on Her.meneutics, and in light of these two other responses to it. Reading those after Micha’s post, I’m bothered by how easily the author of the first post assumes that marriage is easy (without any discussion of hardships she’s walked through to back this up) and we should stop worrying about how hard the first year is supposed to be, etc. Like the first response by Kristin Tennant notes, it’s a bad idea to assume that your story or experience in marriage is the true one and read your experiences into other people’s lives. That said, I feel a little more kinship with the author  (Grace) of the second response: who are you to tell me that a good marriage is an easy one?

Kevin and I haven’t had a particularly hard marriage so far, and we’re not very far in yet, so I shouldn’t speak too loudly. We have a lot of time ahead of us before we stop being babies and earn the title of “seasoned.” But that said, in just the last 17 months, we’ve faced unemployment x2, frustrating jobs, evening shift work hours, depression, a move, debt, not having a church home, serious family tensions, a car accident, and more. It’s been intense. Not impossible, but difficult. These external factors have in turn exacerbated various issues in our relationship with each other, and the strain has been really exhausting at times.

We were talking about this yesterday, reflecting on our Saturday bike ride and how, while we had a good time, there were moments of tension based on ongoing issues, and by the end of our ride we were very emotionally worn out. But a little patience with each other’s weariness helped a lot, and we ended up having a quiet evening together, just being together and not asking much of each other.

Kevin commented that, for us, loving each other doesn’t always look like happy feelings and tender romantic moments. We’re both broken people with issues that make us hard to love and be loved. Sometimes, all we have to offer is insecurity, or anxiousness, or frustration. Sometimes we’re just too raw to make much of an effort to do “sweet” and “thoughtful” things. But there’s no one else we’d rather do this marriage thing with. Kevin concluded, “we can worship God with whatever emotion we bring in the door. He accepts us as we are–we don’t need to always put on a mask of happiness in order to be in a relationship with him. And it’s the same way with each other: we should be patient with each other, of course. But we don’t need to only bring the correct and proper emotions to each other. We can bring whatever we are at the moment.”

It’s been true. There is grace to be patient with each other’s broken places, even if I’m not always as tender as I should be when he’s weak (or vice versa). Marriage is the hardest thing either of us has ever attempted, and I want to be careful not to make it sound like it’s been all that awful. It hasn’t–but it hasn’t been hearts and flowers and Disney moments, either. But we’re best friends and I know he is a good-hearted man trying to love me the best he knows how. And I think he knows the same of me.

I doubt that our experience is universal, but I think it’s a pretty common one, too. I am really thankful that I have a good man to work this marriage thing out with and who makes the rough spots worth it all.

If you’re a newlywed, just enjoy your first year. If it’s sweet, don’t borrow trouble by worrying about what-if-it-gets-hard? and just savor the season. If it’s really rough, don’t feel alone. Plunge into community and get counseling, and let yourself enjoy the glowy moments when they come.