From the Basement

January 2, 2011

Happy New Year: A (more personal) Update

Filed under: Faith,Grad School,Writing — jeannablue @ 3:23 am
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You crown the year with Your goodness

And Your paths drip with abundance.

Psalm 65:11 (NKJV)

My dad has reminded me of this verse lately – it’s been at the heart of the sermon series in his church, and I’ve been letting those words just marinate, becoming firm in my heart. He crowns the year with His goodness, and His paths drip with abundance.

I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions, because New Year’s Resolutions are made to be broken, but it just so happens that the dawning of this new year coincides with the tail end of the graduate school application process, so – there are many changes (in some cases, returns to previous habits) that will be happening this month, the first of which is blogging. I miss writing daily (or almost every day) just… down to my bones, I miss it. So I’ll be blogging regularly again.

And there are a few habits that, since moving to Dad’s, have fallen by the wayside that I’ll be picking back up. First and foremost, going to church. And, frankly, connecting with a body of believers. I have my excuses, and they’re just that – excuses – for not having connected with other believers in the last year. Even if I’m only here for eight months (and since I’m getting married this August and then hopefully going to grad school, I will only be with my dad for eight months), I still need to plunk myself down in a church and get involved in a small group. My social life is composed of Skype and phone dates with faraway friends, and what’s more, I need to dig into God’s word and have conversations with other believers in person, in a structured study. I haven’t had that for a long time, and I’m a little nervous. My fiancé and I were informed by the results of a premarital counseling questionnaire that I am “low” on the pleasing factor and not very socially inclined – that is, I recharge by being alone and can come off as proud, arrogant, cold, and hostile when I don’t know people. I tend to self-isolate when in new territory, especially with other believers, which is not good, so I’m pushing my boundaries. I started going to church again tonight, actually, at a church downtown that has a service on Saturday nights. It was a good service, and there’s a “women’s welcome” next weekend that I’m going to go to. I have never been to one of those so that will be interesting.

Second: getting back in shape. I actually enjoy cardio and was really good about keeping up with it in college. So going to the gym and jumping on the elliptical is not a problem for me. More difficult will be moderating my diet and maintaining a weight lifting regimen. Frankly, I am the heaviest I have ever been in my life. My clothes do not fit (I’ve gone up a size), I am physically uncomfortable, I can tell that I’m slower, and my flexibility is fleeting – and flexibility is something I’ve never had to work on, so that more than anything freaks me out. Also, I’m getting married, and a wedding goes a long way in giving you a deadline to get in shape by. I don’t need to drop a ton of weight – just tone up, trim down a bit, and get back to (a more fit version of) the size I was before. That will make me very happy – and self-control is something I need to work on, anyway.

Third: reading. For the first time, I did not read my reading goal. I wanted to read 50 books in 2010 – I read 48. Darn it! Grad school and job applications are largely to blame, since they sucked my life toward the end of the year, but I got a slew of new books for Christmas that I am eager to dig into. Also, reading is just better for the mind than internet-surfing, and it makes me a better writer.

Fourth – maybe finish the novel I started last year and abandoned in August.

While major sources of stress in my life are mostly gone (I’m finally working, and the grad school apps are almost done), a few have entered. Wedding stress continues and there is family drama that promises to make this year the most interesting year yet. I have body image issues to keep working through, and relying on the promises of God is a must. Digging into scripture is crucial – these last few months have been very dry on that front and I miss it. I miss a close relationship with Jesus; he’s sort of been on the backburner lately and while we go through dry periods, it’s still not good.

On the plus side, I’m happy to report that my jobs are going very well and living with my dad is turning out better than expected.

Okay: this mostly personal update is coming to a close. I hope to be with you tomorrow or Monday talking about something in scripture, or possibly my review of the Disney film Tangled, which I have now seen twice (once on my birthday and once again with my fiancé when he came to visit – yes, he went to see it with me). I am quite happy to say that my predictions in an earlier blog did not come true; it blew me away, to be honest.

Wishing you all a blessed start to the year. No matter the circumstance, the year is crowned with His goodness.

October 1, 2010

Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God

I’m attending the 2010 Desiring God National Conference in Minneapolis, MN this weekend — the title of this post is the theme of the conference. I attended three smaller sessions this afternoon and took eight pages of notes — I definitely plan to post my notes here on the blog. Tonight marks the first main session with a headlining speaker. Sadly, Rick Warren won’t be live, as was expected. Something has come up with someone close to him that necessitates his staying at home this weekend. But he’ll be joining us via video broadcast, so we’ll see how that goes.

My dad’s birthday is tomorrow, so it’ll be a nice bday celebration for him, getting to hear the wisdom of the likes of R.C. Sproul, Al Mohler, Thabiti Anyabwile, and Francis Chan. Sunday morning is the closing session with John Piper. Audio of the headlining sessions will be available soon after the sessions on the Desiring God website.

September 3, 2010

And the Bride Wore… ?

Part of the reason I’ve not been blogging (on top of spiritual lethargy) is due to the fact that it’s a very, very busy time in my life: I just got engaged! My fiancé visited a few weeks ago, and he popped the question in a bookstore – very romantic. Suffice to say, we’ve been working on wedding planning.

My future father-in-law is a pastor, which means he’s doing the ceremony. He’s been wonderfully flexible, given that his son and I are not likely to pursue a traditional ceremony, but he raised the issue of the bride wearing white. This has sparked an inner debate for me, as I do not have strong feelings about wearing white and indeed am quote open to a variety of colors. Consider this my personal exploration of the issue.

To be sure, there are scriptural foundations for the bride wearing white. The basis for the claim is that the relationship between the husband and wife mirrors that of Christ and the church, and that as believers (the “bride of Christ”), we are washed “white as snow.” White symbolizes purity; the wife is, as it were, a pure gift for her husband. (Obviously, I start thinking, why doesn’t the groom wear white? Because shouldn’t the groom also be representing himself as pure for the bride?)

Of course, white dresses are supposed to be the mirror of an inward state: that is, a clean, pure heart before God. And I think we all know that plenty of brides who wear white do not have that inner heart attitude, just as many brides who wear color (in some form) surely do.

I think that if this has meaning for the bride and groom, it can be a beautiful thing. My main issue is that this is a suggestive tradition, not a prescriptive one. Just because sin leaves that crimson stain doesn’t mean that Christians refuse to don red, or indeed, that red isn’t found as a decorative color in many churches. And black is the powerful symbol of death, and yet we find black in churches and the clothing of churchgoers. And I know of many bridesmaids who have been dolled up in red and black by their friend, the Christian bride. So I can’t help but wonder if we take this color thing a little too far.

It seems like we pick and choose. Because the church is described as white, and because the bride represents the church, well then, we think, she should wear white! It seems we forget that the church is not literally white (whether we’re talking about the building and the people who fill it). Rather, it’s a beautiful metaphor, a visual clue for our limited human minds to help us fathom the greatness and wonder it is that God can look at us and, in Christ, find us clean and pure.

Incredible. Utterly incredible.

I think that the bride wearing white is a lovely symbol. (I think that a groom wearing white would be an even lovelier compliment, but, curiously, the church doesn’t seem too hung up on what the groom wears.)

But it’s dangerous to get so caught up in symbols that we forget what it is they’re representing. It can lead to thinking that if the symbol isn’t portrayed, then the purpose behind the symbol is also lacking. And nothing could be further from the truth.

The important thing for a Christian couple on their wedding day is not what they’re wearing. It’s the attitude of their hearts, towards each other and towards God. Christian weddings can – and do! – happen without the trappings of tradition: the dress, the flowers, the cake, the fancy readings. And those weddings are no less Real before Christ than are the ones that seek to include every tradition.

Here’s my question: if the bride’s heart is in a right condition towards Him and her future husband, is Christ displeased if she is not wearing white?

I cannot help but answer no. It is her heart and her faith that please him. Let us not be fooled into thinking that abiding by the traditions – however lovely they are – renders us obedient. Devotion to traditions can flirt with the line of legalism, of being bound by self-inflicted “rules.” (It is also worth noting that white wedding dresses are a largely Western custom.)

There are some subjects on which scripture is unfailingly clear (salvation, grace, “no one comes to the Father but through Me”). But on others, there is much silence, a point that has also been made by my future father-in-law. There is much said of marriage, but little of weddings.

Indeed, on the subject of weddings, the word of God leaves much room for interpretation. And just as there are Democrats and Republicans alike who are devout followers of Christ, so too are there “traditional” and “non-traditional” weddings which honor Christ as the center of that marriage.

The white wedding dress, then, is a choice – a beautiful choice, not a rule to be inflicted on every bride who follows Jesus. To those who defend its necessity, I feel compelled to ask a few questions:

  1. What shade of white? Are cream, off-white, ivory, and champagne acceptable choices?
  2. What color should the groom wear?
  3. There are some colors that have powerful symbols in scripture (red = sin, black = death) – are these wise choices, if we are considering the symbology of colors in a Christian wedding?
  4. Is it acceptable to have a color accent on the dress – for example, a blue sash or a gold lace overlay?
  5. There are explicit injunctions to modesty in both the Old and New Testaments. Where do we draw the line? There are many dresses on the market that are backless, have slits, or that are tea-length or shorter – not to mention the mermaid/trumpet styles, which hug the curves before flaring out below the hips or knees. And what necklines are acceptable? Are strapless, sweetheart, portrait, halter, or otherwise “low” necklines modest?
  6. There are also injunctions against extravagance. The following could be considered extravagant adornments: trains of any length, elaborate beading, antique lace, expensive fabrics, crinoline, lace overlays, fancy veils and headpieces, etc.
  7. The cost of the dress. We are called to be wise stewards of our money, which begs the question of whether a four or five thousand-dollar dress that will be worn once is a wise investment.

A few things to consider.

(Please note that I’m pushing those questions and issues as far as I can – I don’t think tea-length dresses are immodest anymore than I think a blue crinoline is extravagant.)

Last but not least is the question of beauty. It is readily assumed that most brides, regardless of creed, ethnicity, political belief, sexual orientation, or lifestyle, want to feel beautiful in a way that is authentic to themselves. Why do I bring up the question of beauty? Because, and this is so important, I don’t think you can read the Song of Solomon and say that Christ does not want the bride to feel beautiful, spiritually but also physically. The state of her heart is important – but so too is feeling content in her beauty before her future husband and Creator. Indeed, He extols His bride as beautiful time and time again.

Song of Solomon 4:1, 7, 9

How beautiful you are, my darling!

Oh, how beautiful!

Your eyes behind your veil are doves.

Your hair is like a flock of goats

descending from Mount Gilead….

All beautiful you are, my darling;

there is no flaw in you….

You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride;

you have stolen my heart

with one glance of your eyes,

with one jewel of your necklace.

On my wedding day, I will promise lifelong commitment, fidelity, and love to my beloved. We will make vows to each other before witnesses and, most importantly, our savior, Jesus Christ, the third (and central) cord of our relationship. And we will become one, man and wife, united in this life until we are parted.

What I’m wearing is really not that important.

August 5, 2010

Suffering & the Christian Church: A Question

A question I’m wrestling with right now:

How do I reconcile the call to suffer with the fact that I was born in the USA to parents who did not have the means to travel internationally? I’ve never been out of the country. Never witnessed an atrocity. Am living a plush middle-class existence. Even in the face of economic crisis and unemployment, my parents are (thus far) still employed with health insurance and enough money to cover dental and vision costs w/o insurance. I. Am. So. Effing. Blessed.

So how exactly can I claim the promises of God and a “mature” (snort) faith when I am obviously not suffering?

(It should be noted that this post comes in the middle of a meltdown over how awful the writing is going and doubts as to whether or not God wants me to write, etc. etc. etc., blah blah blah)

It’s coming in the middle of extreme emotion, but the question is honest. Obviously, the answer isn’t for every American Christian to move to third-world countries, get rid of all possessions, eschew all dreams/hopes that extend beyond basic survival, and minister to other people (or is it?).

How do we reconcile the two?

Thoughts from a Christian Feminist

I am a Christian. I am also a feminist. I triple majored in English, Politics, and Women’s Studies in college – suffice to say I sought answers in feminism that I could not find in the church. In the church, I saw leaders who told women they should stay at home, who said women’s primary purpose was to be wives and mothers. There were fellow congregants who stood aghast when I declared my ambitions, who were equally appalled at all the original oratories I took to speech competitions on gender pay equity, violence against women in advertisements, and women and the presidency.

For a long time, it seemed like I was on the outskirts of both groups. I was too liberal for the church, and I was too church-y for my women’s studies classes, what with my views on, well, the church (or rather, should I say, Jesus Christ).

For the last decade, any mention of Ephesians 5 has been enough to make my blood boil. Suffice to say that I grew up in a home where headship was abusive and un-Christlike, even after my father’s conversion. Male headship was something to be feared. A husband could do anything he wanted to the wife, and she had to obey for “the good of the family.” And let me tell you, much as I heard pastors rail against abuse and male domineering within marriage, I watched again and again as pastor after pastor ignored my parents’ situation. (It is my personal opinion that for every pastor out there willing to confront an abusive marriage in his congregation, there is one who cowers in his office, fearful of confronting it, hoping he can just pray it away – particularly if it’s not life threatening to the wife and children. Cynical? Maybe. But it’s just my two cents.)

So to say I have baggage regarding marriage is an understatement.

But over the last few months, the Lord has really brought me to a place where I’m reconsidering crucial questions within a biblical light – often for the first time. It’s grace. Total grace. I still have fears, and the desire to control is very strong within me, but I’m learning – slowly – what marriage is about, what it was intended to be. (To spell it out, I affirm Christ-like headship and submission.)

Part of my reluctance in discussing this is that feminism is viewed as an enemy by prominent Christian theologians; it is very much figured as a war on the church. I’m in a unique position in that I am intimately familiar with both sides of the war, as it were. I’ve read Grudem and Piper (the experts on complimentarianism), and I’ve read “evangelical feminists” like Craig S. Keener. It goes without saying, given the Women’s Studies major, that I have read at least the basic texts in each major feminist theory. (Which is – I think – more than Grudem and Piper can say, given some of their arguments.)

This post was inspired by something that struck me tonight; it’s a very small point but I do feel the need to introduce it within its larger context. A friend recently blogged about her frustration with extremism in the feminist blogosphere, and the discussion brought up issues of identifying as a feminist and as a proponent of gender equality.

The term equality has never sat very well with me. It posits a binary in which Man is Equal and Woman is Unequal; at its core is the assumption that women need to be “brought up” to men’s standard. And man is not the standard!

This is what I love about Christianity: it eradicates having “man” or “woman” as the standard – Christ is the standard. Look at how Christ treated women – he was an absolute feminist, for at its core, feminism is about acknowledging the value of men and women, and how much more can you affirm the value of both sexes if not by offering both eternal life? (Notwithstanding the fact that both were created in God’s image to begin with.)

Like I said, small point.

I’ll be blogging about feminism and Christianity in the future, but can I leave you with some thoughts? Both “sides” – the church and “feminism,” so called – make terribly general assumptions about each other. Of particular concern to me is how the church discusses feminism. The Great Commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds, and Faith is not an excuse for:

a)    Rash generalizations (e.g. feminism is responsible for the downfall of the family)

b)    Not doing your homework (e.g. not reading feminist texts and theory)

c)    Poor arguments – the result of being uninformed and general

And it seems that most discussions of feminism in the church today are, frankly, all of the above.

This is not to say that writers like Grudem and Piper have not produced outstanding scriptural exegesis on passages like Ephesians 5 – quite the contrary. Piper in particular gives the best explanation of Ephesians 5 I’ve ever heard. While they sometimes push too far for my liking (e.g. stating that mothers should not work), I think they’ve done outstanding work.

It’s when the church starts blaming feminism for everything that it displays a remarkable lack of self-reflection…

But that’s the beginning of another post.

P.S. Here’s a link to one of Piper’s sermons on marriage, entitled “The Beautiful Faith of Fearless Submission.” http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ByDate/2007/2088_The_Beautiful_Faith_of_Fearless_Submission/

July 14, 2010

The Light in the Tension

I haven’t been posting regularly due to a two-week excursion in which I visited various family and friends in four different states. Five modes of transportation, one great lake, and countless cups of coffee later, I’m a little tired but mostly rejuvenated.

Curiously, though, I’m not feeling rejuvenated in my writing. This is a really strange sensation. I wrote a lot at the first lake I visited (the “From the Lake” post), but after that… not much. I write longhand on yellow legal tablets, so I spent a lot of time typing up those notes, but aside from that – nada.

I attended church this last Sunday with my boyfriend’s family (the last stop on the trip). During the sermon, the pastor briefly discussed what he called “the tension between promise and fulfillment.” Those of you who have been reading can certainly understand why this phrase appeals to me; you’ve read my thoughts and prayers as I learn to negotiate the teeter-totter that is unemployment/contentment. But over the last two weeks, I’ve shared that information with a lot of people and, honestly, I’m a little burned out. I’ve spent so much time explaining that I’m focusing on my writing that I’m… err… not focusing on my writing.

These conversations have stoked the fire that is expectation. Expectation is one of those double-edged swords – on the one hand, it’s good to have goals, expectations, hopes, and dreams. But on the other hand, those expectations can turn into little monsters, things that make us cower in the corner because they seem too big. And I’m going to quote Nelson Mandela, who quoted Marianne Williamson:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.

Sometimes, I’m as afraid of the work it will take to achieve as I am of total failure. It’s the tension between promise and fulfillment. For example, I know I will finish the novel I’m writing. This is a promise I’ve made to myself that will be fulfilled. But sometimes (like right now), I’m like a deer in the headlights, scared stiff in the middle of the road. My own expectations have spiraled out of control, and as a result they’ve halted my progress, halted my running.

This seems to happen when I forget the foundation of the promise. The foundation is the knowledge that writing is a gift from God. The foundation is knowing that He didn’t give me a gift and a calling only to leave me out in a barren wasteland. When I am centered on him and him alone, and not on myself and worries about success and reaching people and whatnot – in that, there is peace and security and love. There is no fear when we are walking in the light.

Marianne Williamson continues:

We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.

In Philippians 2, Paul says that we shine like “stars in the universe” in the midst of darkness and depravity. And Jesus calls us the “light of the world.” When we are walking in him, we are walking in the light.

His light in us is the gospel: his love, his mercy, his graciousness, his forgiveness, his faithfulness. And that light is manifested in many ways: relationships, words, actions. Through writing. Through acting. Through dancing. Through singing. Through… (your gifting here).

As the childhood song goes, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!” The song exhorts us as children to not hide our light, or to let Satan “pff!” it out. What a powerful message this is for adult believers. Don’t hide your light – don’t be ashamed of the gospel or of the form ministry takes in your life. And above all, do not be discouraged. As Angela Thomas writes in Do You Think I’m Beautiful?:

In case you have missed it, there is a battle going on. The battle is for your soul. And if your soul belongs to God, Satan will go after your heart and your mind and your passion. You will still make heaven, but eventually he will turn up the fire and try to scorch your dreams, your enthusiasm, and your very life. …. As long as you and I are hauling that stuff around, Satan wins. And I’m so tired of him winning. (180)

Matthew 5:16 says, “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

Lately, my light has been dim. The beautiful thing is, all we need to do is look to the Lord for comfort, renewal, joy, love, peace. We can sing praises over our barren places and watch our Redeemer tenderly and faithfully work that land. What was (or is) barren can be fertile. What feels dry can be watered, renewed. What once was dim can shine anew.

In the tension between promise and fulfillment, there is light.

July 10, 2010

Acts 17 & Women

I’ve been traveling lately, hence the lack of consistency in posting. I’m currently hunkered down in the backyard of my boyfriend’s parents; I’m visiting them and am enjoying a cup of coffee and some quiet reading time on this most beautiful morning.

I was reading Acts 17 today, and the main thing that struck me was the mention of women. The chapter isn’t long – 34 verses – but there are three separate mentions of women, all within the context of coming to believe in Christ.

verse 4: “And some of them were persuaded, and a great multitude of the devout Greeks, and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas.”

verse 12: “Therefore many of them believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men.”

verse 34: “However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.”

In the first two instances, it is emphasized that these are prominent women among the Greeks. The third instance is particularly interesting to me – this is after Paul preaches to the philosophers of the Areopagus. It says some men joined, but it lists Damaris among the men, even though she’s marked as a woman. She is included – overall – in the group of men.

I haven’t done an in-depth study on this chapter, but I’ve been searching online and have yet to find an article or commentary that deals comprehensively with these three references. The book of Acts on the whole makes frequent mention of women, but three mentions of prominent, in one instance probably educated, women coming to Christ – wow. This is huge.

I’ve been searching for commentaries on this chapter, but have yet to find one that explicitly discusses the references to women. I did, however, find one website detailing the notes of John Wesley, an 18th-century theologian, and his comments were too priceless not to share. Of verse 4, he says:

Of the principal women, not a few — … In the case of true religion, which always implies taking up the cross, especially in time of persecution, women lie naturally under a great disadvantage, as having less courage than men. So that their embracing the Gospel was a stronger evidence of the power of him whose strength is perfected in weakness, as a stronger assistance of the Holy Spirit was needful for them to overcome their natural fearfulness.

Well then.

I don’t want to get off on too much of a tangent, but Wesley’s comments – however antiquated – are reminiscent of a practice I’ve been thinking more and more about: that is, allowing our understanding of culture to infiltrate our spiritual understanding of gender. Arguments about the “cultural lens” or an innate “bias” don’t hold up here, because to follow Christ is to alter our entire worldview. Wealth is one of the best examples I can think of – scripture runs contrary to the wisdom of the world. We think very little of hearing that message on Sunday morning, yet we are content to let our understandings of gender fly under the radar as non-essential, secondary issues. And what damage this has done. I’ve been in too many churches that longed for the good old days (my words there), where “men were men and women were women.” Think 1950s Cleaver family.

When it comes to gender roles, I think the church is far too reliant on cultural tradition. And then it’s surprised when women rise up against that tradition, not recognizing its complicity in cultivating that discontent.

But that’s another post.

In the meantime, I am thankful that scripture documents the conversion of faithful women and men, exhorting us in our faith even today.

June 28, 2010

On Love & Experience

Tonight, I want to talk about love and experience within the context of romantic, Christ-centered relationships. This isn’t an overly comprehensive essay – just some of my thoughts on the matter.

I’ve been in a relationship for over a year and a half now, and it’s serious. We’re also in a period of long distance, and I know that I’m more prone to doubts and fears when I’m away from him. Something I’ve struggled with over the last few months is owning the fact that in times like these, I am barraged with lies. Self-doubts fester in me, infectious, and they creep into old wounds and plop themselves down and act like they are exclusively My Issues and not lies that I can rebuke.

One such lie is the lie that I don’t have enough life experience, that maybe I’m being over zealous. It is, after all, the first rock-solid, healthy, long-term relationship I’ve had (note the emphasis on healthy). So – why not wait a little while? Break up for a little while? See where life takes both of us? Who knows, maybe we’ll find other people.

Notwithstanding the fact that this thinking makes me sick to my stomach (the first sign that it’s not an expression of me), there are other reasons that it’s a lie and clearly not of God.

I’m going to step out on a limb here. My hypothesis is that experience is (or can be) the antithesis of trust. For the purposes of this post, I’ll venture to say that experience in relationships does not necessarily teach us how to love or, indeed, the very nature of love.

When we speak of being experienced, it seems – most often – to refer to sexual experience. That’s not the focus of this post, but I do want to briefly address it. I think that the following excerpt says it best. Josh Harris, author of the controversial I Kissed Dating Goodbye (I still don’t know how I feel about that book), was interviewed a few years ago on secular radio, where he was grilled on his virginity and lack of experience. But his response to this particular question left his interviewer speechless.

Taylor: So what’s going to happen when, let’s say you get married and you get to the honeymoon suite and she’s lousy in bed?

Josh: Well, I won’t have anything to compare it to.

A Christian man or woman’s sexual experience or lack thereof is a different post – but I did want to throw that in there to emphasize the point that experience does not necessarily correlate with: better sex, better relationship, better intimacy.

If anything, experience erodes our ability and/or willingness to let God into the picture. Personally, this happens with writing all the time. I’m only recently learning to pray about my writing; I’ve been doing it for so long that it feels like second nature. I’ve read dozens of writing books, written hundreds of thousands of words in my lifetime… and am only beginning to learn to include God in my process. “But I know what I’m doing,” I say. “But I know what I want to write about,” I say. “But I know my process! I know what I need,” I say. He pretty much just laughs and shows me how to do it better. Everything I thought I knew about writing is being tossed out the window. Okay, maybe not everything. I still abide by the As Few Adverbs As Possible rule.

Experience (oftentimes) begets pride. In parenting. Loving. Careers. Even ministry. “The way we worship has been working for years. Why fix what ain’t broke?” And that’s only one example.

When we have experience in relationships, we can convince ourselves that we know how to love when in fact it is Christ in us who teaches us how to love. It’s about remaining tender to his heart and to his leading. It’s about learning how to live out 1st Corinthians 13. It’s about choice.

This is such a radical concept in my life right now. God has been teaching me so much about choice over the last year – choice in worship. Choice in quiet time. Choice in writing. Choice in loving.

The qualities of love – which are, at their core, the qualities of God, who is love – are not based on “a fancy or a feeling,” to quote Jane Austen. They are not organized like “If you’ve loved one person, go to step A. If you’ve been in several relationships, skip to step C!” Rather, we are called to love others simply as Christ loved us. These are the qualities we are called to cultivate in our relationships:

  • Patience
  • Kindness
  • Does not envy
  • Does not boast
  • Is not proud
  • Is not rude
  • Is not self-seeking
  • Is not easily angered
  • Keeps no record of wrongs
  • Does not delight in evil
  • Rejoices in the truth
  • Always protects
  • Always trusts
  • Always hopes
  • Always perseveres
  • Never fails

There is not a qualifier on these qualities, e.g. “be patient IF you feel like loving them.” No – I am called to practice these characteristics on the days when my mother is driving me up the wall. When my sister ignores me and stays in her room. When I don’t feel like loving my boyfriend. When the excitement isn’t bouncing off the walls.

These are characteristics that grow as we grow in our relationship with Christ and, yes, as we practice them over time. I’m not denying the value of experience – just suggesting that we not take it as the ultimate litmus test.

Ultimately, your ability to love is not based on the amount of relationship experience you have; it is a direct correlation of your relationship with Christ – how you understand and receive his love, and how you apply it to your relationships. Similarly, the depth of your commitment is not measured by the number of partners you have (that is to say, the number of people you’ve ruled out) but rather by your mutual commitment to Christ and to the qualities of love that you are cultivating in your relationship.

Relationships are like gardens; they need to be tended, watered, weeded, and sometimes just enjoyed, basked in. We garden because we love to look upon beautiful things, or because we love to reap the fruits of our labor and enjoy fresh produce on the table. I don’t want to take the food metaphor too far, but it is similar with relationships: we are designed to desire love, to want to bask in it. To quote the film Moulin Rouge, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”

And, I would note, your experience with gardening is most often grown when you tend the same garden year in, year out, learning the nature of the soil, how much water to use, the way the light and shade fall at different types of day, the animals to ward against, the flowers that look best together. It is not much use if you begin a garden only to abandon it half-way through; you learn how to begin a garden, but you don’t learn how to tend it, nurture it, preserve it, keep it.

We’ve all had different experiences in life and in love. I have friends who have fluttered around like butterflies from flower to flower, enjoying the process and maintaining their integrity. I’ve had girlfriends who married the only man they seriously dated, and their marriages are things of beauty. And I have friends who have been in serious, long-term relationships only to have the relationship end after several years; I have marveled at how they still found joy and truth in the process.

A friend recently came to me seeking advice for maintaining a long distance relationship. The only advice I could give was, keep seeking after the Lord. If you are seeking after the Lord and your partner is seeking after Him, truly and honestly, with all your being, in prayer or reading or however you connect – if you both are seeking, then you both are finding, and you both are growing. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.

Quick memo: not all Christian relationships end in marriage (thank goodness), and I’m a firm believer in not putting that pressure on people … so that’s another post that’s currently brewing.

In the end, our God is too great to be boxed into patterns. One size does not fit all. This morning in church, Pastor Mike joked that there’s a reason we’re not given a formula for salvation, or else the church would find all sorts of ways to constrict people. The same applies to love. There’s not a formula for relationships given in the Bible – we’re simply told that love is the highest commandment, to first love God and then to love each other. We are given the qualities of love. But we are not told how to apply them, or an ideal number of relationships pre-marriage. Thank you Lord for that freedom! For the mercy! For the fluidity, the flexibility, the awesome adaptability and creativity that Jesus uses to bring people together, friends and spouses, parents and children, co-workers, colleagues, peers.

We truly serve an awesome God who loves us and who seeks to give us good gifts. My prayer is that I can trust him enough to accept this awesome gift of relationship that he’s given me. To trust him, to trust my boyfriend, to trust myself.

1st Corinthians 13:13: And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

April 26, 2010

Sexuality & Youth Group (part one)

So for those of you who were counting on me just blogging about writing, the job hunt, and the occasional encouraging scripture, well… no. I’m all about full disclosure. So let’s start talking about an issue that is close to my heart.

Sexuality and youth groups – specifically, youth groups in America today. This is a subject I could write a book on. Heck, make it broader – sexuality and the church. Specifically, women’s sexuality and the church.

Okay, too big. Narrow it back down: sexuality and youth group. Sexuality and girls in youth group.

I have been involved in several youth ministries throughout my – err, youth – and I’ve found that, in almost every one, sexuality was a taboo topic. This is my interpretation of the various youth leaders I interacted with:

Oh. My. Gosh. You have sexual desires? Evil! Evil! Sex is bad until you get married, don’t you understand? Stay away. Do not kiss. Do not touch. And for God’s sake, don’t get involved with people who aren’t Christians. Only Christian boys will understand that you need to have certain physical boundaries. Since they are Christian boys, they will never pressure you to have sex. But oh, we forgot to tell you, they are visual creatures and God help you if you wear anything larger than an A or B cup bra, because everything you wear is going to make them stumble. Not just skirts with slits that go up to the knee. No. Turtlenecks will make them stumble – yes, that includes the kind you wear that you think are okay. But let me tell you something: clunky knit turtlenecks are NOT OKAY! Boys have no control. Protect your brothers’ eyes! Don’t make them stumble!

And in the meantime, we are going to completely disregard any discussion of your sexuality because you a girl and thus you will not have sexual desires until you get married at which point God is going to flip the ON switch and then suddenly, you are going to become a tiger in the bedroom. Which will be okay, since you’ll be married.

*look at other youth group leaders* Have we avoided any actual discussion of these girls’ sexuality? *sigh in relief* Thank God!

Get the picture?

I recognize that plenty of people have different experiences, more positive experiences. But what was written above is, honestly, not too far removed from what I was told in the various middle and high school youth groups I both participated in and visited. Yes, that includes the bit on clunky knit turtlenecks.

In the interest of avoiding an overly long entry, I think I’m going to break this subject down and visit it periodically. What I want to talk about today, though, is what I believe to be the most common oversight in youth groups today:

Who, girls? Not our girls! Girls do not struggle with sexual desire.

Oh, yes they do. Not every girl, of course – girls are people, too, and in every group of young women, you will find a variety of struggles: pride, envy, jealousy, lust, perfectionism, a need to control, bullying, foul language, drinking, drug abuse, eating disorders – and the list goes on. But it is absolutely crucial to acknowledge that, yes, teenage girls (and even pre-teen girls) may very well struggle with their sexuality.

Youth leaders are doing their girls a grave, grave disservice if they neglect to discuss this topic with them. Girls may struggle just as much as boys in keeping physical boundaries up. While “don’t have sex” is certainly a common-ish discussion in youth groups, I can almost guarantee you that many girls in youth groups today have never heard their female leaders talk about masturbation, porn, and/or erotica. Guys in youth groups get these talks (or so my boyfriend tells me). Girls don’t. As a result, girls who struggle with this may operate in a world where they think they are abnormal, weird, disgusting, dirty – they are under the misconception that these things are normal and okay struggles for guys but oh my gosh, how could they be struggling with this? How do they handle it? They think, what’s wrong with me?

I know this because I was one of those girls. I struggled with sexual addictions throughout high school and into college, addictions that felt like strangleholds, chains. They were sources of shame and guilt that, at times, crippled my spiritual walk. In the last few years, I have been recovering, thank you Jesus. It’s been a long road.

But I also know this because I co-led a women’s bible study for two years on my college campus (I was in it all four years), and I shared my testimony on this subject several times.  I was often met with surprise (from girls for whom this wasn’t a struggle) and quiet understanding (from girls for whom it was). Over the years, I have had multiple young women approach me saying, “I don’t know who else I can share this with. I thought it was just me.”

I have tears in my eyes as I write this. I think that freedom from this sort of struggle could begin so much earlier in young women’s lives if they were told up front, by their parents and their youth leaders, “God created you as a sexual creature. These desires are normal. This is not something to be ashamed of. This is not something you lock away. This is a part of you, just like your emotions and your mind, that you give to God. This is a part of you that He created, that He loves, and that was made to be good. You are not alone.”

There are lessons of self-discipline, surrender, and spiritual growth that go along with that message, but telling girls that is a start. Quite simply, we fear what we don’t know. And when sexuality is never discussed, when it is taboo, when it is a mystery, goodness sakes – we’re almost asking for trouble in our youth groups. We forget that the perfect love of Christ casts out all fear. Lord, give us the freedom to walk in that conviction.

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