Let's Talk About Sex, Part 3
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)
My brother wrote a song recently and within it exists my childhood. With the opening lines, memories flood into my mind's eye in soft dappled light. The song starts soft and beautiful and my childhood is quietness and melody. The windows of Illinois graduate student housing and screened doors that lead out to porches overlooking cornfields. German walking paths and a trampoline. Learning to say prayers and goodnight songs singing the ABCs. I see four heads, my siblings and I together. Moments on the couch, in the woods, in the back alley - shades of brown descending into blonde, blue eyes melting to brown.
And then chaos breaks loose and the memories move in rapid motion. Movement is everywhere and childhood becomes one large scream that contains all of the joy and anger of growing up. I am throwing rocks at my siblings, afraid of their togetherness against my isolation. We are playing tag and catching fireflies in summer evening hours. We walk the dog endlessly around neighborhood blocks. I am left at the table to eat food I don't want. Roller blades, scrunchies, and beaches. The American landscape whizzes by outside a minivan window, there and back and there again. We try to learn to listen to each other as we're told to do, but tears, depression, anger, yelling, and fear are so much of what we hear. Porch swings and thunderstorms. Junker cars and flat tires. Teasing about early romances, helping put the pieces back together when the heartbreak comes. We have each other’s backs at school dances. We compete with each other and it hurts. But always pride, pride, pride for the wins of each individual.
And then at the 3:45 mark my mother's hands appear in a benediction over us. The chaos of life parts and over us is spoken a blessing. Sanctification works itself out in painful and brutal slowness. But she is there, speaking peace and kindness. A moment of silence, a pause in the storm, and my father's bass breaks through to push us all ahead, deeper than we knew we could go. With my mother's hands over us and my father's bass keeping us in motion, we four go forward into the world and see what lies therein. It is terrifying and amazing, a beautiful melody and a chaotic reality entwined together.
And as we embark on transcontinental visits, weddings, and graduations, we four stay banded together. There are long distances and years of ache, but I see the dappled light go with us and we four still descend from brown to blonde, from blue to brown.
Lives unknown by fame.
And it’s tempting to hope
In the dream that caught your eye
But it’s left your heart undone.
These shoes are all worn out
From chasing flawed designs
And they’ve left me alone.
Now I’m bold enough to trade
Ambition for some rest.
Hearts restored through shame.
I envy your peace.
There’s nothing left to lose
When all your pride is gone.
The simple things in life
Are all that’s left to do
When you realize your heart
Has hope for something more
Than all your dreams can give.
Souls unseen by time.
Now it’s waiting for you,
The life you’ll have again
When this sorry world is gone.
When I Fell In Love
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.
Sometimes I feel like there is fault line that runs between single and married women. It can often feel like women on both sides of the divide are gazing across at each other, wondering what is going on over there, on the other side, without ever attempting to cross the divide created by one adorned little finger.
When I was single, I remember trying to interact with the married women I knew. I remember feeling like they didn't really listen to what I had to say. It seemed like they were always so quick to give me advice that always summed up as "Just wait and it will all work out." Then they would launch into their own personal experience finding a husband as if it somehow was the golden ticket for finding a man. To be honest, though, I didn't really listen back. I found their advice irritating, if not sometimes silly, and quickly chalked them up as not relatable.
Now that I'm married, I still feel the gulf. My single friends like to do things more spontaneously and later at night. They are always with other singles. They somehow both want and are offended by my relationship advice in the exact same way I was some years ago. I'm on the other side of the divide now.
What I often find myself wanting to tell my single friends is that marriage isn't a piece of cake. I remember so many married women saying this exact thing to me and reacting to it really negatively. Of course, I thought, but at least you have what the rest of us want. Honestly, it felt like a queen complaining about the weight of her crown to a peasant looking for food. To my mind, marriage was hard, yes, but it seemed like winning the game we were all playing and with that win certain doors to life and status opened up.
But now, I do know it's not a piece of cake. Any person in a healthy marriage will tell you marriage is beautiful wreckage. It involves the total collision of two people traveling at high speed in pursuit of their own wills, and nothing but a major accident brings them together. It is an incredibly beautiful thing. But marriage is also an incredibly painful thing.
I believe that the pain of life is what can and ought to bridge the chasm between the single and the married. After all, the honest truth is that this side of heaven, we all live our lives in grief. Grief is the pain that exists in us from knowing things are not as they should be. We all have a myriad of things which cause us grief throughout our lives and being able to enter into another person's grief together with them is one of the most humble and humane expressions of love a person can offer.
Being single was painful. There was a persistent grief to it that I hated. My body was frequently grieved by the denial of sexual desire and I remember shedding tears many times over the frustration it produced. Grief was present when everyone else had someone to love and look at, someone to take pictures with, someone to cherish. It was painful to wonder if my singleness was a sign of my immaturity, my lack of beauty, or my inability to interest a man. Every birthday was another reminder that I had yet to enter into the "inner-circle" of married life and standing on the outside looking in caused me to grieve deeply over my unfathomable loneliness.
Being married is painful. Many of the specific griefs of singleness are gone, but none of them entirely. Instead they have simply morphed into new married versions of themselves. My sexual desires can now be fulfilled, but because sex is not about one-sided individualized fulfillment, it can become a disappointing or twisted thing if not guarded carefully. I do have someone to love and look at, but I have not known any pain worse than when that love is out of joint. Singleness brought the dull pain of absence, but marriage ushers in the sharp stabbing pain of a knife. There is simply no pain like being wounded by your best friend and no remorse like being the one who plunged in the knife.
No one lives a life without brokenness. If we want to foster better relationships between single and married women, if we want to go deeper in each other's lives, if we want to jump over the chasm, this is what we must understand. No one is carefree, no one is satisfied. Married women need to take seriously the pain of their single friends without rushing in to offer advice. Single women need to understand just how difficult it can be for married women to be open and honest about the grief they experience in their marriages and stop idolizing something they don't understand. If we took time in our communities to be truly honest with each other and to listen to each other's stories, we would see that we have more in common with each other than not.
After all, God's daughters know that this side of heaven is a world that is still awaiting its full redemption. But that redemption is coming and it is real. In the meantime, whatever story our lives tell, there will be beauty amidst the grief. Singleness is not just loneliness, but it is also freedom, and whimsey, and exploration, and openness, and community. Marriage is not just a collision, but is also the refiner's fire, and surrender, and passion. All of these things are good. All of these things are to be desired and celebrated in their time. Let us support and encourage each other as sisters, weaving our stories together across the fault line.
Twenty-Four: The Girls
I spent the past weekend with my mom and sister. As Ruthie stated in her post earlier today, it was a long time coming. The last time we had a true girls weekend was when I moved back to the United States after living in China for two years.
That was an amazing time together, but also challenging in its own ways. I was going through extreme culture shock, my sister was at the end of college, and my mom was just getting used to life as an empty nester. It was the first weekend we had gone away just as the girls and it was the starting point for us learning how to settle into our own and each other's lives.
And settle we have. Many things about who we are today feels much more familiar and comfortable. Though all three of us still have great challenges and uncertainties ahead, we are all three much more certain of where God has us right now in relationship to ourselves and to each other. It's a beautiful thing.
The most beautiful thing to my mind is how we talk with each other these days. Thinking back over the weekend, I realize that we talked about a lot of really deep and important things - things about our lives, things going on in the family, things pertaining to friendships and community, things concerning the church, things concerning our biggest hopes and dreams. But I can't pinpoint one time and place that we discussed these things. The conversation freely flowed in and out, meandering along with us around the city.
These women know me and I know them. We don't have to worry about being open with each other, because it's all just out there to see and understand. And that is something for which I am truly grateful.
Eighteen: People Are the Priority
I've been really busy the last couple of days and haven't had much time to write. Even now I'm pretty tired - I've been spending a lot of time with people and even though I love every single one of them dearly, this much time interacting with folks makes me want an adult sized hamster ball in which I can roll around without bumping into anyone. Don't worry, I'll be fine once I've had 24 hours to reset and then I'll be up for whatever society may throw at me!
It's at times like this that I am particularly thankful for who my parents are and the ways they instilled their value of people in their children. Neither of my parents are really people persons. That may surprise some of you who know them - they are constantly surrounded by people!
My mom and dad are really different from each other. My dad is a scientist who loves academic discussion and debate, especially when it intersects with faith matters. I wouldn't (and nor would he) say that he has the most natural people skills. His mind is always off in another world, thinking thoughts. My family often jokes that he wouldn't have made it in this life without my mother to look out for him in all practical matters.
He is one of the least judgmental men I know, in the truest sense, meaning simply that he will not harm or reject you though he may strongly and harshly disagree with you. I have never known him to believe a person couldn't change and for that I respect him deeply. My dad believes every person is complex and worthy of grace. Even though he jokes about his lack of people skills or inability to enter into people's emotions, I have seen him serve those in deep distress in remarkable ways simply out of conviction of his responsibility in Christ regardless of his particular gifts.
To many, it would be shocking to think of my mom as anything but a people person. It's simply impossible to count how many women she has let cry on her shoulder. Her love for and patience with young women, and in particular young mothers, has left a mark on her community. From my best friends in college to the strangers she sits next to on planes, everyone I've ever know has loved talking to my mom. Just as we tease my dad about his absent mindedness, we tease my mother about her incredibly ability to not only strike up a conversation with anyone and everyone she meets, but to strike up such a conversation that she somehow induces them to tell her their whole life story. She always claims she doesn't do anything to induce this phenomenon, but we all know that isn't true because she's an expert at the strongest magic of all people skills - listening.
Despite all of her gifts, though, I'm not sure my mom is truly a people person. At the core of her being, in her heart, my mom is hobbit. Whenever she has a day to enjoy simply as she pleases, she gardens and piddles around the house in relative solitude, singing along to her favorite music while she cooks something truly delicious.
And this gets to what I appreciate about my parents. They are not amazing people. They are not the people who get singled out as natural movers and shakers. They are not the people who enter a room and attract people magnetically with their presence. Rather, they simply believe that people matter. And they have made conscious, sacrificial, and sometimes painful decisions according to that belief in order to make people the priority.
To my mind that is what makes a difference in this world. Living in Boston and witnessing on a daily basis communities that do not make people the priority has sobered my perspective. It's so easy for Christians to think that the most important thing is for people who are gifted at relating to people to excel at using those gifts. We assume that caring for people is just one of many potential gifts people can have. If you are a people person, use that gift. If you are not a people person, use your the other gifts you have been given. But what the world needs is not more people with perfect people skills. We do not need more professionals. What we need is ordinary people who, whatever their gifts might be, are willing to make people a priority and bear the burden to whatever degree of discomfort that might inflict upon them.
I don't find it easy to spend all day every day interacting with people. As the child of my parents, I inherited both their good and bad traits when it comes to people. In some ways, I am gifted. In others, I am not. But at the end of the day, it's not the particular gifts from my parents that matter. When I am tired from the people I interact with from work, and church, and community, and life, it's not my excellence or failings that make a difference. What matters is the knowledge that the God I serve and to whom I give my allegiance sees the human beings around me as of paramount importance. And therefore, as his servant, I have no right to do any less. Like my parents, if that is my motivation, feeling tired at the end of the day from all of the people I've seen will seem small and insignificant in the light of eternity.
These two articles are spot on and they are excellent food for thought. I've found them deeply challenging and hope you do two. We simply have to rethink what it means to be the church. Period.
"Do you realize what you’re asking of me? I did. I was asking him not to act on his same-sex desires, to commit to a celibate lifestyle, and to turn away from an important romantic relationship. Yet as I reflect on that discussion, I now realize I didn’t fully understand what I was asking of him. I was asking him to do something our church community wasn’t prepared to support. I was asking him to make some astonishing and countercultural decisions that would put him out of step with those around him. In many ways, I was asking him to live as a misfit in a community that couldn’t yet provide the social support to make such a decision tenable, much less desirable. No wonder he walked away...
The sexual demands of discipleship will become more plausible and practical to our gay (and straight) single friends if they see everyone in the community taking seriously all the demands of the gospel, not just the sexual ones."
"Today, whenever I listen to “Whole Again” or “Undo Me” or the spine-tingling “Martyrs and Thieves,” I’m sad.
Sad because of the painful choices Jennifer’s parents made in the name of “self-discovery” and “self-expression” that led to harmful repercussions in the lives of their children.
Sad because evangelicalism’s lack of ecclesiology and reliance on experience has led to so many strange and harmful expressions of faith.
Sad because even though Jennifer had the integrity to be honest about her life rather than continue to make money under false pretenses, she received ridicule and insults from Christians she once wrote for.
Sad because of the way faith gets privatized to the point that the exclusive Savior’s inclusive call to repentance seems too narrow a road to freedom.
Sad because evangelicals are so quick to catapult converts into the limelight before they’ve had time to grow in wisdom and truth.
Sad because of the pain many of our gay and lesbian neighbors have endured within a church culture that calls sinners to repentance but not the self-righteous.
Sad because, apart from affirming her sexuality, I can’t see any way that Jennifer would think someone could love her.
Sad because many Christians find it easier to love positions rather than people, while others believe it is impossible to love people without adopting their position."
Four: Lone Wolf
I turned 30 this summer. I've been reflecting on a lot of things about my life in the last year, but one thing I've thought about most is how difficult it is for me let people into my life. Whenever I hint at this with friends and acquaintances or mention that I consider myself an introvert, people act really surprised. I have so many people in my life. I have always been pretty social and when I'm around people I tend to engage. Nonetheless, the fact remains that at the turn of my third decade, I find myself reflecting on the lack of input from others into my life.
I've started to see this as a significant problem, particularly when it comes to my relationships with older women. Simply put - I do not know any older women who regularly speak into my life apart from my mother. Thankfully, I have an amazing mother with whom I can speak openly. She is the greatest source of advice and counsel in my life and I would never ever want to replace her. But surely, there should be more women than my mother speaking into my life? While she is the wisest woman I know, that doesn't mean only her experiences are valid in regards to my life. We are made to live in community that includes our family relationships, but also extends beyond it.
As I've started to think more about this over the past year, I've had a difficult time figuring out why I feel like such a lone wolf. Is it my fault that there aren't older women investing in my life? Am I not putting myself into situations where I could be meeting such women? Am I not listening to whatever women already are in my life?
While I truly do not know the answer to these questions, I do keep coming back to a few thoughts. Recently, my husband told me I am the most intense person he's ever known. This was not a criticism and it came up as a passing comment in an unrelated conversation. But it's stuck with me because while ten years ago such a comment would have been crushing to me as someone desperate to be liked and enjoyed by all, these days I just kind of nodded my head and said, I know. I know I'm intense. I have a lot of thoughts and opinions and I stand by them. I don't mind being an intense person.
But I also have started to realize that it gives people a really false understanding of who I am. It's funny how the offhand comments of the ones you love most stick with you forever. Another observation made by husband in the last year truly surprised me. He told me that though I may be an interesting person in my "public" personality - intensity and passion usually ratcheted up to level ten - it's in my weakest moments that I'm compellingly beautiful. I laughed when he first said this, and I still think it's a funny thought, but when I consider his observations in the light of sensed lack of older women investing in my life, I realize that most people around me probably have absolutely no sense of who I really am. I wear my passions on my sleeves, but I don't wear deepest fears and insecurities and hopes on my sleeves.
Women love to help people. Women love to help women. But I think women really love to help women who are open with their needs. Women don't usually like "intense" women. I don't usually like intense women and I'm not sure I would much like myself if I were not me!
So I'm just going to make this general statement. Don't assume that anyone has their stuff together. Don't assume that intensity and independence mean a lack of desire for input. I can't tell you how many times in the many cities I've lived in as an adult that I have desperately longed for an older sister to simply ask me a question or two to see how I'm doing because I couldn't get past my own personality to bring up my struggles.
"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.