I love hearing testimonies of the saints and often find myself wishing they were a more regular part of corporate worship in churches. Recently I was pretty excited when City Reformed in Pittsburgh asked me to share how God has worked in my life. Hearing people’s stories is always a great encouragement to me, so it was touching to (hopefully) encourage others with my own. I ended up being pretty nervous - it's not easy to be vulnerable about personal experiences in front of a church. But the chance it gave me to really reflect on God’s work in my life, having to process and articulate it, was invaluable. I’ve been doing a lot of that this past year – processing God’s work in my life – so I’ve decided to share some of my processing here on the blog. I’ll start today with the testimony I shared in church.
It might be obvious, but trying to sum up a lifetime of God’s work in my heart is really difficult. As I’ve thought about it over the past few days, though, I think it comes down to two significant things. First, my will. And second, my identity.
I’ve always been a very strong willed person, and while this can really be a great asset in life, it also means that I can often find myself in conflict with others. A lot of my memories from growing up involve fights and debates, not only with my parents, but also with my siblings and friends. Simply put, I don’t naturally like having to submit to a will that I disagree with.
I never really connected this aspect of myself with my spiritual life until I was eighteen, though. I grew up in a believing home and thankfully I had a lot of wise people around me with whom I could discuss my more intellectual questions about the gospel. By the time I finished high school, I remember that most of my big questions about the meaning and reliability of the gospel message had been answered. So instead of struggling with doubt, I came to a point of struggling with the call to submit to Christ.
I distinctly remember lying in my bed one night not too long after turning eighteen and realizing that I had no doubt about the truth of scripture and the truth of the gospel, but for the first time admitting to myself that I hated God. I simply just didn’t like the idea of needing to submit my life and my will to something above me. But admitting this to myself really terrified me. Because I didn’t doubt the reality of God or the truth of scripture, I knew that willfully rejecting God was an honest choice of damnation, and I didn’t really want to be damned.
After arriving at this conundrum that night, I spent one of the longest and most “emo” weeks of my life basically just sitting around on empty park benches trying to puzzle out this battle between my will and what I knew to be true. But if you ever find yourself going through a midnight of the soul like I did, don’t expect any sudden revelations or blinding light moments. It took me a long, slow year of processing to ultimately work through this conflict.
But by the end of that first week, I had arrived at a few conclusions at least. Most importantly, I realized that because God’s will is bigger than mine, he would have to choose to let go of me in order for me to really escape him; but, from what I knew from scripture, it didn’t seem like he would do that. I had a vision that God’s will kept me in his hands. I could shake my fist at him and I was free to express my anger, but I could not just loose myself of his grasp unless he desired to let me do so. My will was beat. I could now start the process of learning about and learning to love the God whose will would always be stronger than my own, and I consider that time my real spiritual rebirth.
The second main work God has done in my life involves my sense of identity. Beginning in my childhood, I have moved nine times across three continents. This may sound exciting, but I have always desired a sense of belonging and home. I think for some people, so much transition is pretty easy; but, for me it has brought about a lot of deep rooted struggles that are often expressed in the dual needs to belong and to prove myself.
These two issues came to a head, though, when I moved to China in my mid twenties to work for a campus ministry and within six months of arriving, I found myself so sick that I couldn't get out of bed for about half of every month. I eventually discovered that I was suffering from asthma, but all I knew for many months was that I had gone from being a successful student and worker in the US to what pretty much felt like failing as a missionary. To make matters worse, I was in a strange country and struggling to build community. My sense of identity was challenged to the core as both my feelings of belonging and my ability to prove myself were taken away from me.
But amazingly, that time was the closest I have ever been to the Lord. Having all of my supports taken away from me forced me to fully lean on Christ for my sense of self. All of the worldly things that usually shape my identity were gone, but I didn’t lose myself because I discovered that as a child of God, my identity is ultimately in him. I could lose everything while far from home and still be ok because I was at home in my identity in Christ.
I tend over analyze most things, but these two ways that God has worked in my life are not simply in my head. They have had serious practical results, namely, that I am a less contentious and less fearful person. That doesn’t mean I do not still struggle with these things, but when I look back to my earlier life, I can see a difference. Learning that there is a will larger and stronger than mine has given me a freedom to repent of my sins and to trust in the provision of God. Learning that my identity is completely in Christ has started to free me of my need to prove myself and of my fear of what people think about me.
Since getting married and moving to Boston, I’ve continued to learn and grow a lot. I’m learning about the holy fear that comes when God answers a prayer you were taught to pray from the time you started speaking. I’m learning that marriage demands more of me and gives more to me than I could ever have imagined. I’m learning that loving the church requires a painful level of humility and a supernatural level of grace. And I’m learning what it means to work hard for something you want and believe in without making it an idol. Ultimately, I’ve been learning about the amazing and sweet abundance of the Lord – that his blessings are unpredictable and incredible, and that he gives far more than I deserve.
And while all of these more recent lessons are good and have been so important, I still find myself needing to learn about finding my identity and home in Christ, surrendering my will to his. These are lessons I expect will continue with me all of my days. As I anticipate how God might keep working in my life along these lines, I find myself contemplating how he wants me to learn to rest in him, letting both of these lessons lead me to greater peace.
Our God is a good God, and I hope this testimony of my own relationship with him encourages you in your own.
So I know in the grand scheme of things I haven't been married that long - only four years. If anything I say here seems totally out of whack to those who have been married longer, please let me know.
Recently I've been thinking about when sex is the worst. And this is what I've come up with: sex is the worst when I want to be worshipped.
My husband and I have a really great sex life. I haven't shared notes with others, but I personally consider ourselves as having a good sex life because a) we like to have sex with each other, and b) we find sex with each other interesting and satisfying. I'm sure there are more clinical definitions of a good sex life out there, but to my mind I'm not sure what more I could really want.
Nine times out of ten sex is great. But I've recently been thinking about those tenth times and wondering what leads to them. Of course there are the obvious factors - one or both of us is tired, or someone ate too much ice cream and is bloated. But even those really obvious factors don't explain why sometimes sex just can fail to be what I know it to be most of the other times. Tiredness and gas produce laughter and mutual sympathy, but sometimes there is something else - something that creates distance and separation.
During those times sex just feels off. It feels like I am looking for something I can't get and as a result, I become petty and demanding. Why can't my husband treat me in a certain way? Why doesn't he do this? If we want to get down to the nitty gritty, it usually looks like me hoping he would start doing things like writing poetry, staring ceaselessly at me, weeping at my very ravishing presence. You get the idea. In short, why won't he fulfill all of my romantic aspirations (that I usually don't give squat about, but matter terribly when I'm in that certain kind of mood)? Surely something is wrong with him.
I went through one these bouts some time ago, and I kept growing more frustrated until one night it struck me - what I wanted was to feel worshipped in sex. I was suffering and making Trey suffer with me because, really at the end of the day, what I wanted was for sex, and everything leading up to it, to make me feel exalted and nothing short of glorified. Which, after all, is the backbone of all romantic thought. Haven't all of our stories told us that this is what sex should do - make you feel like the sole person in the world that matters? That a natural part of sex (especially for women) is the idea that your partner will be consumed by your very ravishing presence? Shouldn't my husband be literally going out of his mind just to be with me?
I can't speak for men, but as I've been thinking over these past few weeks, I find the above to be particularly true for women. Just think about it. Whatever perspective the story might come from - traditional, feminist, something in between - the climax of a romance is usually when the man becomes so hot and bothered by the woman that he can't get her out of his mind. Then they have sex (I'm counting more traditional narratives that end with a wedding). Women love that image, but what is it that they love about it? Is it the sex? No, it's what the sex represents - that the man has fallen at her feet, so distracted by her that the world must wait. Most romances kindle sexual appetite far less than they kindle the desire to be the center, the focus, and the purpose of another person's attention.
And that is a bad recipe for sex.
When I think about the good sex we've had it has never had anything to do with how much Trey is falling at my feet, and everything to do with how much we are giving to each other. In fact, many of those times have been a surprise, coming at times when sex is simply the result of fun companionship or when we are sharing one another's burdens. In short, sex is the best when I am not waiting for Trey to be breathlessly overcome by me.
The wife of the pastor who married us once told me that sex was best when both partners were working to please the other. I agree with her, but I also have had to learn that this statement doesn't necessarily mean a loss of self in sex. Rather I think it has more to do with understanding the self as with and for the other. It simply means that sex is an act of companionship, of mutual play and enjoyment. It is not an act of worship.
In a world influenced by discussion of the male gaze we are attempting to teach men not to view women as objects, but on the flip side, are we teaching women not to view themselves as idols to be put on a pedestal? During a recent trip to NYC, I saw The King and I on Broadway and started rereading Louisa May Alcott's An Old Fashioned Girl. These Victorian and 1950s cultural relics clearly articulate that women are deserving of breathless adoration, but I was surprised when a few days after getting home I introduced Trey to When Harry Met Sally and found the same general idea. These three stories all have very different views on sexual expression; but they all share a common idolization of women, encouraging us to see ourselves as something to be got.
I am actually pretty traditional in my views of men and women. I think it's good for men to value women and to treat them with respect. I like being wooed. But there is a difference between respect and reverence, and that difference can set a woman up for success or failure in the bedroom. Women, we are not made to be revered. Sex really isn't different than anything else in life, and I for one have found that desiring reverence does not work well for me in just about every other area of life. Just like it does in relationships, work, relaxation, etc., if you're anything like me, the desire for reverence, or worship, will most likely kill your sexual appetite, rather than fuel it.
One of my all time favorite quotes is from Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She says, "Here she comes, running, out of prison and off pedestal; chains off, crown off, halo off, just a live woman." Gilman wrote these words in critique of Victorian ideals, and I find them to be applicable today in my sex life. I don't need Trey to give me a crown or a halo to have great sex. I simply need to run to him as I am - a live woman.
Some weeks ago I came across something on Facebook that deeply saddened me. I realized that a friend's life is rapidly moving in a certain monumental direction, and while her announcement received the praise of hundreds of friends, this decision is something I'm pretty sure will be destructive. In the end only time will tell, but when I saw the announcement, I felt a lot of guilt. I've been out of touch with this woman for more than a year and we were never close to begin with. But there were times when she tried to bring me into her inner circle, and then there were times when I tried to befriend her. But the connections never really happened. It grieves me knowing that even if I started pursuing her now, by the time we could even start approaching the topic at hand in a context of trust, some things would be too late. It would be a very different conversation - how to deal with the results of the decision, rather than whether to go through with the decision.
I've worked in student ministry for the past eight years and I've faced these situations over and over again; but these things aren't relegated just to those who serve professionally. Everyone understands this dilemma - the guilt we inevitably face in attempting to love and serve others. Call it "ministry" or call it "loving your neighbor" or call it just plain old "friendship," but in my experience, the very act of engaging another person in the hopes of being Christ to her all so often leaves behind a hundred doubts. In the attempts at loving another person, how many times have you left thinking, "I should have done that differently," or "If I only I had noticed that." Often, it simply feels like a long series of wake-ups to other people's realities only a few moments, or days, or years too late.
After all of this news broke, I went for a walk with one of my dearest friends and I shared the situation with her. Because she loves people, she also understands this struggle and shared with me some of her own stories about regrets she has for not being there for certain people. We both have so many stories of times and situations that seemed to make sense, but in hind sight, as someone's life is falling apart, we look back and think about all we could have done to help them. Like me, "guilt" was the word she used over and over again to describe how it feels.
For a moment, let's be honest - more than fear or selfishness, I think it is guilt that actually keeps us from loving people as we should. Not guilt in the cosmic sense preachers and psychologists refer to, but specific guilt about specific people that we know we have failed in our attempts to love. It doesn't take long in trying to love people before you realize that you are your biggest obstacle in doing so.
In my attempts to be Christ to others, I have a body count. A long list of women that I tried to serve and whom I have utterly failed. Some of those relationships were from my work with students, some of those are just my personal friendships. Some of them are my family members. In some of the cases the circumstances were so murky and confusing that I am not really sure what happened. In some cases it is blatantly clear that I sinned against a sister. Or that she sinned against me and I simply couldn't handle it. And it is all of these cases, all of these people, that tempt me to disregard my fellow human beings moving forward. I mean, who doesn't think that they want to help and love people? Most people are taught some general idea of the rightness of that desire from an early age. But how in the world are you supposed to continue wanting to do so when it becomes abundantly clear that you often have just as much a chance at becoming their greatest stumbling block as their greatest blessing?
Loving people produces guilt. When we have all tried it and seen ourselves fail, we are left with a vortex of doubt and shame. In myself, I know that I generally trend in one or the other of two directions when that vortex arrives. I either become defensive - it was the other person's fault; no one could have known; the system is to blame. Or I cease to care - there isn't really a problem anyways; no one person can shoulder that many burdens; I need to take care of myself, too, you know. But all of these excuses are just covering up the real problem - I feel terrible that someone I know is suffering either from their own sin or from the brokenness of the world and I didn't do anything, or enough, about it.
For the last couple of years, I dealt with a good bit of burnout in ministry. Some of that was due to being too busy and the time of life. But a lot of it - in hindsight, probably most of it - was due to a really painful relationship. I failed a student miserably about three months before she moved away from Boston. Without a doubt, there was a lot that was her fault. But as equally without a doubt, I let so much pride and stubbornness rule my actions that my face burns with shame thinking about it. She wouldn't talk to me for three months because she was so mad at me and during that time I sank deeper and deeper into self-pity. I gave up on the possibility of me being able to be a blessing. I could list off all sorts of reasons why sometimes things just don't work out, but really, I was just seething with the guilt of a lost opportunity.
During that time, and in the years since, I came to realize more than ever that repentance must be a daily occurrence in the life of anyone trying to love another person. No matter what kind of advice or training is out there for people hoping to serve other people, there is nothing that will keep you going in ministry, whether professional or personal, other than repentance. Unless your heart is being drawn into open confession before the Lord, no amount of devotions, or fellowship, or team building, or strategy development, etc. can take the place of simple and consistent repentance for your failures before God. Otherwise, you'll either go crazy trying to defend yourself or you'll go dead with apathy. We cannot live with guilt - it chokes and kills any impulse within us to love others.
This is what you often don't hear from people ministering to others - from pastors and parents, from social workers and student leaders - that the people we are the most afraid of are ourselves. We try to talk about all of the ways God is at work transforming lives, but we rarely talk about how God is transforming our own lives. We don't openly talk about the times those we serve are so failed by us that they don't speak to us for three months.
But the gospel is real. And it is the only, only thing that can accomplish true ministry. The reason I can love people is not because I am that strong, but because I know that my love doesn't matter in the end. There is a bigger love and a bigger story for all of these people. For whatever crazy reason, God chooses to use small, unloving, broken people to demonstrate that. Maybe it's the only way to demonstrate it. We often talk about Christians demonstrating God's love and we usually mean doing so positively. But maybe the times we fail also demonstrate the love of God by demonstrating his patience and kindness to those he calls his own.
In the end, loving people is only ever going to reveal more of my own brokenness to myself. If that's the case, then I am going to need to learn to repent more. The good news is that through Jesus, that is possible. In him, I am free to repent and without fear. I can look at my friend on Facebook, name the ways I failed her, and freely repent of them. I do not have to hide, I do not have to live in guilt. Only then will I have the courage to love again.
(Artwork: "Two Part," by Patrick Fisher)
I was recently remembering a few shocking conversations I had about love in the months leading up to my engagement to Trey. As with everyone seriously considering whether or not to marry a particular person, I was having a challenging time really knowing if I loved my boyfriend, so I occasionally asked married friends when they knew they loved their spouses. Most of the answers I received were pretty standard, pat answers. And by now, I've forgotten every one of those answers. Except for two.
My brother got married a year before I did. He had been pursuing the same girl for seven years, since the middle of high school. I figured that if anyone understood knowing when you love someone, it was him. So one summer afternoon while I was feeling particularly stressed over my relationship, I found him out on my parents' hot and stuffy third floor and asked when he had known he loved my now sister-in-law. In typical fashion, my brother cut straight to the chase. "I knew I loved Bethany when I asked her to marry me."
I was shocked and incredibly displeased with the answer. I told him to make sure Bethany never heard him talk like that, but he laughed at me. I pushed for for further explanation and he struggled to go into more detail. But eventually he landed on telling me that you don't really love someone until you decide to love him or her. Romance and dating have uncountable feelings associated with them, but love doesn't exist without the decision to love. His answer didn't really satisfy me, but I left with a lot to mull over.
Sometime later that summer, I was out for coffee with an acquaintance. We weren't close friends, but we talked for a long time about my dating life and whether Trey and I would get married. I asked her the same question - when did she know she loved her husband? Without any hesitation, she bluntly answered, "I fell in love with him when we got married." Again, I was shocked. If I remember correctly, I almost choked on my coffee.
How could anyone give such an answer? How could anyone give it as shamelessly as she did? She wasn't embarrassed to make such a statement. She didn't blush and say, "It's kind of sad, and one of my biggest regrets, but sadly, I didn't really love my husband until we got married." No, instead she was honest, forthright, and giggled! This was her experience and she wasn't shy about it. Along with my brother's answer, I was now very confused. But I didn't immediately dismiss these thoughts. I continued to contemplate these answers and ponder over their meaning.
By the end of the summer, I had agreed to marry Trey. I still didn't feel like I had great insight to the definition of love, and I sometimes felt fearful that I didn't know what it meant to love someone enough to marry him. But I knew I wanted to marry Trey, even if I still felt confused. I didn't doubt that I wanted to marry this particular man and spend my life with him. But I couldn't quite put a finger on whether I knew, really knew, that I loved him. Marrying my husband was the single greatest step of faith I have made thus far in my life. Not because I didn't deeply respect, or enjoy, or feel attracted to him. But because, as with all skeptics, I didn't feel like I could know what love for him really was.
Looking back on the first six months of our marriage is looking back on one of the strangest times of my life. In so many ways, those six months were magical. Truly some of the best times of my life. We were long-distance for the entirety of our dating and engagement, so simply being in the same place brought with it a certain kind of heady joy. Everything seemed so relaxed now that we could just sit next to each other on the couch and watch TV, rather than talking on the phone every night. Being in each other's physical presence was a treat. Discovering sex together was incredible. Not incredible because it was instantaneously everything it would ever become, but because it was the entrancing exploration of virginal youth. Even fighting together was good. It was painful, and at times bitter, but it was good, so good to be working towards unity and understanding, laying the foundation of our lives together fight by fight.
And yet, throughout all of this wonder and growth, I was still nagged by the question, "Do I really love Trey? And if I do, how do I know I do?" This question that lingered on in my mind was the single most difficult part of my first year of marriage. I didn't think about it often, but sometimes it would enter my head late at night as I tried to fall asleep. Or when I felt incredibly homesick and wanted to go home to my family. Or when a fleeting attraction to another man crept across my consciousness. It wasn't rational, and it wasn't predictable, but every now and then this question would arise and it would leave me deeply disturbed, sometimes for days.
I wish I could tell you about the one spectacular thing that completely erased this question from my mind. Instead, it was a totally random and quiet night. I can't even recall what took place that day. But one night about six months into our marriage, I lay in bed as Trey fell asleep as I asked myself the same question I had been asking for almost two years. "Do I love Trey? Do I know that I love Trey?" And without any hesitation or any explanation, I knew that, yes, I loved this person more deeply and more truly than I had ever loved another person before. I knew that this new certainty didn't invalidate or belittle the love that I had felt for him before. But as an intense warmth of emotion washed over me, I knew I had reached a new place in our relationship. I wanted to love him, not just be married to him, or have sex with him, or enjoy life with him, but I wanted and decided to love him. And so I did.
Being the internal processor that I am, I never told Trey about any of this until sometime this past year. One day I tentatively told him that I didn't think I really, truly loved him until after we were already married. It didn't surprise him and he kind of laughed when he heard it. He knows me in ways he himself often doesn't understand.
We celebrated our third anniversary in May. I've been thinking a lot about how hard it was for me to know if I loved my husband and how simple the answer to that question now is. I've been thinking a lot about the difference between knowing you want to marry someone and knowing you love them. I've been thinking a lot about my culture's inability to distinguish between the two and how much that stunts my generation's ability to healthily consider marriage. I've been thinking a lot about how previous generations lauded the growth of love, describing it as a blossoming flower - there, in existence, but needing to grow beyond the bud into its full glory. Love is not something that comes upon you, but rather it is something you choose, and once the choice is made, it springs open into a radiant splendor.
I love you, Trey Nation. I know I do.
Weddings are most often big and beautiful declarations of love between a man and a woman. Sometimes they are flashy, sometimes quietly artistic, and usually highly emotional. Whatever the budget, weddings are a time for individuals and families to lay aside other important endeavors and invest what they can into the creation of a new family. They take a lot of energy and a lot of focus.
In the West, we commonly talk about a wedding being the primary time for a women to "express herself," carefully arranging even the smallest details to reflect her beliefs, tastes, whims. If she wants to feel like a princess, her wedding will involve sparkles and tiaras. If she is an environmentalist, she will work to make her wedding as green as possible. If she is a musician, great care will go into arranging the music. The list of things to express is as varied as women are. Every bride has been told, "It's your day." We've all had conversations with women who are greatly concerned with displaying the best things about herself through her wedding. The West looks at a wedding and expects an answer to the question, "Who are you?"
We need to pause here and consider how much pressure women are under by believing the idea that their weddings must demonstrate who they truly are. So much of the stress surrounding weddings is first and foremost stress concerning identity. Even the bride who declares, "I don't care about all of these silly details!" is often still trying to tell the world something about herself. She is still telling us what to think of her as much as any other bride.
If this is all true, and weddings have become the primary place for women to express the things they identify with, then I've come to realize that weddings really incredibly fragile and tender things. And the women behind them even more so. How can an event and the woman behind it bear not only the weight of a covenant and vow, but also the brunt of ultimate self-expression?
I first started to see this problem in myself when I got engaged and then married. Up until my engagement, I had exhibited many different attitudes towards weddings. As a little girl growing up, I idolized them and dreamed of the day I would act and feel like the fairy princesses I dreamed of being. In high school, I believed a wedding was an inevitable dream and would never have doubted my chances of wearing the white dress. By college I started to develop a more critical attitude. A hint of scorn started to show towards other women who openly obsessed about their future wedding day. Though a wedding still loomed large as my secret heart's desire, I thought it best to approach it circumspectly and realistically.
In the five years between finishing college and my own marriage, I mostly harbored bitterness towards weddings. Really what I harbored was bitterness towards other women's weddings. I hid this jealousy under a veneer of criticism concerning "wedding traditions" and "frivolous expectations." The amount of money, time, and energy given to weddings became ridiculous to my mind and only the closest and dearest of my friends escaped my all out exasperation with wedding season. I declared to myself that I would not be like every other bride if I ever found myself planning a wedding. I was going to be sensible, after all, and avoid throwing myself into the unnecessary craziness of obsessing about insignificant things. My three main goals were to never make wedding planning a bigger priority than all of my already established relationships and responsibilities; to never obsess over what I perceived to be the silly and superfluous "details"; and to make sure the wedding was a community event, not something isolated from the people involved in every aspect of my life.
But once the ring was on my finger, and real decisions had to be made concerning an actual wedding, it felt like something slowly and powerfully started to take over my mind. I cared about everything connected to the wedding and obsessed over every detail. But it wasn't an obsession that led to joy and delight in the coming day. It was an ensnaring obsession that more often than not led to insecurity and worry. I could not let go, because in my mind, the decisions being made weren't about an event, they were about me. For example, if I had never been a girlie girl, but chose pink bridesmaids dresses, what did that say about me? My girlfriends were all surprised with this color choice, as was I, so how could I not contemplate what these physical details told the world about the changes romantic love was creating within my personality?
As I broke everyone of my three "goals" concerning weddings, it felt like I was slowly loosing ground to a version of myself that I never wanted to exist. I felt guilty about putting so much time into the wedding, but I didn't know how to not think about it. I became more and more isolated over the period of engagement, one of the primary things I had promised myself would not happen. I wasn't being the person I wanted to be, but I didn't know how to be free of this thing that was so incredibly important.
I continued to muddle through this minefield my entire engagement, through the wedding day, and into the first months of marriage. Of course, I often found peace in knowing that in the light of eternity, the details of the wedding didn't matter. In the comfort and love of my fiancé, I knew that the vows we made were the most important part of the whole thing. And of course my wedding was one of the most wonderful and amazing experiences of my life, blessing my husband and I deeply as we committed our lives to each other before the Lord.
But I started to realize something was really wrong when I continued to obsess about my wedding after it had taken place! For days, then weeks, then months, I found myself going back over the details of the wedding. Had everything been as I wanted it to be? Maybe if I had just changed a few things here, a few things there, then it would really have been ideal. I fully acknowledge that some of these things can be chalked up to personality - it's rare, but sometimes I really can be a bit of an OCD psycho.
But who among you married women of my generation hasn't dealt with some of these feelings when you first get your wedding pictures back from the photographer? You scour them, desperately hoping that the photographer has captured the true atmosphere of the day, the one that you skillfully crafted and planned. You look to make sure that you are captured as you want to be, according the image that you picked for yourself on the most special of all your days. And if something, anything in the pictures didn't turn out how you hoped? You have to admit you feel like a key piece of the wedding, a key piece of your identity, has been lost.
So let's pause here. What am I trying to get at with all of this musing and soul sharing? Frankly, I believe modern weddings have become a quagmire of idolatry in our generation's drive to create their identities. Women are being trapped within their own drive for self-expression when it comes to their weddings. I spent a lot of my first year of marriage chewing the cud on this topic and here are the conclusions I came away with.
1) We need grace.
Your identity is not found in your wedding. Christ has made you free and given you a new identity! You do not need your wedding for anything - anything - to tell yourself or the world who you are. That is Jesus' job, let him do it. If you want an environmentally sound wedding, and styrofoam plates show up, the blood of Jesus covers you. If you want to lose ten pounds and instead gain twenty, the blood of Jesus covers you. If you want to create community by inviting everyone you know, and your parents will only pay for half of the guest list, the blood of Jesus covers you. If you want to walk down the aisle to Sufjan and your best friend insists on singing a duet, the blood of Jesus covers you. Create beauty and do good in your wedding, but remember that not a single thing on that day can stick to you like the sweet blood of Jesus. Claim it is as the strongest identity you have.
2) Think upon the wedding feast in heaven.
Because of your new identity, you know where all of this is headed - think upon it in the months leading up to and following your wedding. Whether your wedding turns out exactly as you dreamed up, is an unmitigated disaster, or just more normal than you're content to accept, it is only the faintest foreshadowing of the real wedding we expect to attend. Relish the good things about your wedding as a foretaste of heaven and mourn the disappointing things about your wedding as the remnants of a fallen world, but in both, keep your eyes on heaven. With the whisper of heaven in your ear, the work of a wedding will become sweeter and the disappointments less tragic.
It took me months before I could think about my wedding without worrying over everything that went wrong and what people would think about it. But I learned that with your identity soaked in the blood of Jesus and your mind caught up in the winds of heaven, the anxieties and frustrations of "your day" can blow away like the chaff of yesterday. There are many things I still wish had ended up different, or better, about my wedding. But when I think back on it, I delight in the beauty that was created not because of what it said about me, but because "...Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know if part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known." The feast of Christ is coming and I could see its approach on my wedding day.
"Now Peter and John went up together to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a certain man lame from his mother's womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms from those who entered the temple; who, seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, asked for alms. And fixing his eyes on him, with John, Peter said, 'Look at us.' So he gave them his attention, expecting to receive something from them. Then Peter said, 'Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.' And he took him by the right hand and lifted him up, and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. So he, leaping up, stood and walked and entered the temple with them - walking, leaping, and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God. Then they knew that it was he who sat begging alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him."
In a very short while, I will return to a place I once knew. I loved this place dearly and most often remember it with nostalgia. But when I am honest with my feelings, I remember primarily that this was the place where I learned about suffering.
I learned about suffering there in many ways. I suffered in relationships. I suffered in pride. Mostly, I suffered physically as the billowing pollution squeezed my lungs and besmirched my face. But in addition to these personal sacrifices, I witnessed the painful, blatant, and twisted suffering of others. This was in itself its own kind of suffering.
The suffering of others was visibly present every day, from the elderly trash collectors who had been pushed off their land to the mangy dogs who scrounged for food until they wound up dead in the streets. These things, however, were commonplace. These were the things that after the first few weeks ceased to cause me inner turmoil or distress. They wove their way into the fabric of society the way many of Dickens' most pathetic characters find their own important places within the narrative. These things were wrong and broken, but they seemed to have their place.
But there was one place where the suffering was so great and so visible that it continues to haunt me. If I used the bus to make my way downtown, I had to get off at a particular stop and cross a bridge to enter into the shiny wealth of the city's finest shopping mall. Upon exiting the bus, I would start to walk quickly, holding my breath, trying to mentally prepare for the sights that awaited me.
The bridge always contained beggars, and it always contained some of the most pitiful the city had to offer. All were maimed, most with their eyes gauged out. Some had been burned so wretchedly that they looked like living mummies. They sat in silence, often perfectly still, simply waiting for benevolence to find them. I was told early on that most of them had a pimp, Slumdog Millionaire style, and that giving them money would be fruitless. One day, I passed a man kowtowing violently against the sidewalk. A mixture of drool, sweat, and blood flowed from his head as he methodically beat, beat, beat his brow against the cement pavement. A crowd had gathered around him to watch, but no one acted to stop him. No one moved, they simply just gazed in silence as he begged for their assistance.
In the power of such ensnaring suffering, I felt completely powerless. I didn't speak the language, and I couldn't cause disturbances of the "peace." For the duration of my walk across the bridge, I shared physical space with these people, but the chasm that spanned my plenty and their need seemed as big as the whole earth. The barriers which separate people are often larger than space; the languages, systems, governments, alienation, gender, and myriad other issues stared me in the face and pointed at my inadequacy to bless, to heal, to comfort, to bring justice.
The more frequently I walked across the bridge, the more my soul screamed at God. I started to pray when I passed them by - internally mournful, screaming prayers. It was the only thing my mind could latch onto as the panic arose within my soul.
One day I remembered the above passage from Acts. There was no way for me to do anything for the beggars - or was there? I started to consider whether I truly thought prayer was "doing something." When I, a child of God, am in the presence of suffering and pray, do I understand that I am actively at work? Is my understanding of prayer, of God, of myself as joined to Christ full enough to believe that when I pray, I am not being passive? According to scripture, is prayer not the most aggressive thing I could do? Like Peter and John, I looked at these humans living in terrible suffering and I understood that my hands were tied. But, my status before the Redeemer is not hindered by the evils of the world and so I prayed.
These are the reflection that regularly got me across the bridge, but now, as I contemplate returning, I've begun having doubts. Yes, prayer is the primary weapon against evil, and yes, it was a good response to what I witnessed. But to my sorrow, I have realized that I never looked these people in the eye. In my rush to get across the bridge and in my desperation to deal with the turmoil in my soul, I really was still primarily focused on myself. I prayed for their deliverance because I felt uncomfortable. I rushed across the bridge because I didn't want to feel the pain. I never made eye contact because the possibility of making a connection was a degree of terrifying my mind couldn't hold.
One of the most striking phrases in the above passage is the sentence, "And fixing his eyes on him, with John, Peter said, 'Look at us.'" This description of the connection between Peter and the beggar is terrifying. Who has this kind of confidence when dealing with the brokenness of the world? Who dares to look suffering in the eyes and request that it look back? I can't image what results would ensue from consistent interactions such as this one. I shrink from asking myself what might have come about if I had truly looked at the suffering on the bridge. I don't know what would have happened. But I know it would have challenged both me and those begging.
Right now, I am afraid of returning. I am really afraid of being confronted once again with the degree of suffering found in the world. But mostly, I think I'm afraid of myself. I'm afraid of how I respond. Will I rush across the bridge or will I look into the eyes of those who live a life I cannot fathom? Am I more afraid of the first, or of the unknown answer to the latter? I do not know.
"Where did this beauty-intelligence false dichotomy come from? ...The women I met at the conference last month shattered these kinds of paradigms—and my own ugly prejudice against beautiful women. They were articulate, curious about the world, deeply kingdom-oriented, and passionate about much more than hair and facial products. Physical beauty for them seemed important, but clearly (and rightly) not as important as global and eternal questions and concerns. They gave me a new model for what it means to lead as a woman—not as a woman trying to hide their femininity, like so many women in leadership, especially in male-oriented workplaces, feel they must do."
If you have ever judged a woman for being too beautiful, automatically chalking her up to superficiality and shallowness, read Katelyn Beaty's recent little confession on Her.menutics. Like her, I am often guilty of this false dichotomy and find myself repenting of such an attitude. Her thoughts were convicting and refreshing, reminding me of the many amazing women I have struggled to appreciate for completely illegitimate reasons, but by the grace of God have learned to love and admire.
By the age of 10, I had wanted a dog for most of my tender years. I imagined playing with it, taking it for walks, grooming it, all of which periodically led me to beg my parents for the realization of this pet. Due to our many moves and rental abodes, the habitual answer was "no." Eventually, my family landed in Pittsburgh and bought a house in my tenth year of life. This in and of itself felt like paradise and I once again reinstated the petition for a Snoke family dog. It seemed unlikely for us to move again, we had say over the house, and most importantly, we had grass. So one day I mustered up the courage to write a note of promise to my mother and father. I don't remember the particular phrasing, but the sum of what I wrote was, "If you let us get a dog, I promise with everything in me to be responsible for it, even the gross stuff. Please, please, please, please." I wrote it from the bottom of my heart and snuck downstairs to place it on my mother's desk, not having the courage to hand it to her directly. I went back to bed and prayed against reason that this note would somehow finally have an impact.
Well, the note disappeared. There wasn't an immediate response, which was a new and interesting development. For a while, I resisted the urge to bring it up in the hopes of displaying grown up detachment. But eventually, I could not hold back any longer and ventured questioning my mother to ascertain if she had actually received the note. Of course she had and I remember a quite serious conversation in which she leveled questions at me to ascertain the level of seriousness and commitment in my young heart. Oh, I wanted that dog so badly, I promised and promised to be faithful to the note and suggested my mother keep it and use it in times of unfaithfulness on my part should they ever arrive, which of course they never would! If she would just let us get a dog.
I started looking at the classifieds for free puppy adds in the newspaper. Every week, I breathlessly pulled out the printed sheets and imagined each and every breed mentioned. Then, things started to get really serious. On trips to the library, my mom started pulling dog training books of the shelves and bringing them home. She read up on the most hardy breads and how to tell if a puppy has a passive personality. One day, she announced her desire for us to get a beagle. I can still see the picture on the cover of the beagle book she was reading. We. were. getting. a. dog. Joy!
Sometime the next summer, the glorious day finally arrived. My mom's research plus my faithful classified search stumbled upon an add for free beagle puppies. They were a bit older than most puppies looking for a home and came from a farm outside the city. By now, everyone in the family was bursting at the seams with excitement and on a Saturday, we piled into our baby blue Dodge Caravan and headed for the farm. Elation sat in every seat.
After a clamorous ride, we pulled into a long driveway and immediately noticed a kennel with two adult beagles and a hoard of four puppies greeting us with howls as they jumped on the fence. We climbed out of the van and as my parents went to talk with the owner, I and my three younger siblings scoped out the puppy situation. Eventually the adults joined us and the one male and three female puppies were set free to run around the property. Two of them were highly energetic and the children immediately took a liking to them. My mother on the other hand, did not. The farmer had temporarily nicknamed them Houdini and Ankle-biter, certain bad omens for future prospects at dog training. We turned our attention to the other two. One trick for discerning a puppy's disposition my mom had read about was to pick the dog up on its back and hold it like a baby. If it struggled to get free, it would have a more active personality. What you wanted was a dog who contentedly lay passive in your arms. My dad bent over and picked up the third female and flipped her over. She lay there quietly and then suddenly reached up and gently licked his beard. She had long, soft ears and big, brown eyes. My dad said, "We'll take this one."
Ecstasy broke free and the children rushed to pet and meet the new addition. We bundled her up in a box and put her in the car, excited to start the hour long drive home. As we pulled out, the little puppy started shaking, displaying what was to be a lifelong malady of nervousness to the point of being sick when in moving vehicles . We children thought it was all purely amazing, not knowing how pathetic the poor creature would always be when it came to travel.
The puppy's six new owners commenced on the long and difficult task of choosing a name, again resorting to tips my mom had gleaned. We were instructed to think of a two-syllable name ending with an "ah" or "oh" sound since such names were supposedly easier for dogs to recognize. Somehow this task proved a lot harder than originally expected. How many pet names can you think of that fit this criteria? An early suggestion in the conversation was Sarah, but it was quickly dismissed as too much of an actual name for "real" people. But by the end of the drive home, we faced a serious shortage of other viable suggestions and decided it would have to be Sarah.
And so Sarah became a part of our family.
Happy Valentine's Day, everyone! I've made a mix every year since 2004, but have lost all the song lists older than 2011. But... here is this year's mix and I've included the last two as well. All tracks can be found on Spotify. Enjoy!
Valentine's Mix 2013
1. Sunday Kind of Love - Etta James
2. Too Busy Thinking About My Baby - Marvin Gaye
3. Something In The Way You Are - Kimbra
4. This - Ed Sheeran
5. I Won't Give Up - Jason Mraz
6. It's Alive - A Fine Frenzy
7. Baby, I Love You - Aretha Franklin
8. Paris Nights / New York Mornings - Corinne Bailey Rae
9. Young Blood - Birdy
10. A Rockin' Good Way (To Mess Around) - Dinah Washington, Brook Benton, Belford Hendricks
11. Sweet Lover - Aretha Franklin
12. The Walk - Mayer Hawthorne
13. Two Way Street - Kimbra
14. Now Is The Start - A Fine Frenzy
15. Lego House - Ed Sheeran
Valentine's Mix 2012
1. Saw You First - Givers
2. Laundry Room - The Avett Brothers
3. Closer Than Yesterday - Renaissance
4. Desire - Ryan Adams
5. Roses and Wine - Diego Garcia
6. Sea of Love - Cat Power
7. We Found Love - Boyce Avenue
8. You're The One That I Want - Angus & Julia Stone
9. My Funny Valentine - Over The Rhine
10. Poison & Wine - The Civil Wars
11. If There Was No You - Brandi Carlile
12. Nothin' On You / My Love / Rocketeer - Boyce Avenue
13. Northern Wind - City and Colour
14. Tomorrow - Ryan Adams
15. Home - Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
Valentine's Mix 2011
1. I Don't Know - Lisa Hannigan
2. Lay Me Down - The Frames
3. Twice Today - Pearl and the Beard
4. The Curse - Josh Ritter
5. We Still Bleed - Val Emmich
6. Part One - Band of Horses
7. My Little Girl - Jack Johnson
8. Sideways - Citizen Cope
9. Runaway - The National
10. Waiting - Norah Jones
11. Lost in Singapore - Pearl and the Beard
12. Lille - Lisa Hannigan
13. See How Man Was Made - Josh Ritter
14. Between Two Lungs - Florence + The Machine
15. Mistakes - Pearl and the Beard
16. Your Face - The Frames
17. Aaj Mausam Bada Beimann Hai (Today The Weather Plays Tricks On Me) - Mohammed Rafi
In the attempt to broaden my Woody Allen repertoire, I requested Annie Hall from Netflix almost three months ago; unfortunately, it sat forgotten on a shelf until tonight when I finally decided Trey and I needed a little cultural education. We enjoyed the movie well enough, but really, apart from the typical review I could write (Woody is a sad, but brilliant man; Diane Keaton is charming and absolutely deserved her Oscar; the sexual revolution has been as full of hypocrisy as anything else; were the 70s really that drug infested?), I only have one real takeaway from the film and it has nothing to do with Annie Hall. In fact, it has to do with (500) Days of Summer, or as I will now be calling it The 2009 Movie That Completely Ripped Off One Of Woody Allen's Most Brilliant. I mean, really, the two films are almost identical! Except that one was an original idea with iconic scenes and dialogue delivered by some of Hollywood's greatest and the other was a hipster rip-off by someone who either didn't care enough about the history of film to know he was copying a classic or who did know exactly what he was doing and had the gall to recognize that the average American under 30 wouldn't. The most surprising thing is that nothing has changed in 30 years concerning our views on wisdom; the moral of both movies remains the same - romantic/sexual relationships burn us, but we need them, so let the cycle continue.