The Girl Under the Bed

This past week, I remembered a story I heard long ago and hadn’t thought of since.  It came from an old professor of my Dad’s, who told of his own Grandfather’s mission work in India.  He passed by many sad scenes on his daily commute…most disturbingly, markets where little children were being sold into slavery.  One day, something in him snapped, and he just couldn’t stand it anymore.  He marched into the market and bought one of the young girls for sale, and took her home to his wife and newborn baby.  The girl was wild and terrified…and immediately ran to a back bedroom and slid under the bed.  She refused to come out.  She screamed and cried. His wife brought her a bowl of rice and beans and slid it under the bed.  The girl violently pushed them away, spilling the rice all over the floor. They continued for hours to try and coax her out.  They spoke in her native language of Hindi as they assured her she was safe…that all they wanted was to care for her.  Nothing worked.  Finally, the missionary rose from the floor, and quietly left the room.  He returned with his own newborn baby in his arms.  He knelt down and gently pushed his baby son under the bed towards the girl hiding and crying in terror.  A few moments passed, and the crying stopped.  Instead, they heard soft cooing, and looked to find the girl holding the baby in her arms, gently rubbing his hair and his face.  Finally, she came out from under the bed, and accepted the love and freedom that would give her a brand new life.

This Christmas Day, it’s the scene I’m playing over and over in my head.  God so loved this world…this demented world in which children are sold as slaves, where genocide devastates whole nations, where families and marriages are destroyed, where a love of money exploits the weak and poor, where greed makes contentment impossible, where loneliness is chosen over community…that he gave his one and only son.  God had tried to get our attention…he had tried to coax us out from under the bed.  He had tried to show us that we were free…that the shackles we wore weren’t real…we had created them ourselves.  We couldn’t understand it.  We chose to stay under the bed…to continue as slaves when we’d been made free.  So he did the most risky thing imaginable…he pushed his only son under the bed to us.  He became more vulnerable than any of us could imagine.  He sent his son to be born to a teenage mother on dirty hay, surrounded by farm animals.  Most amazing of all, he did this knowing that that tiny baby would grow up to be rejected, beaten, and crucified by the very ones he came to save.

Jesus has been pushed under the bed to us.  A perfect bundle of love that casts out all fear.  And we don’t have to do anything to earn it.  It isn’t a trick, or a manipulation tactic.  This is a new type of love…the only kind of love that is real and lasting.  It is a love the world doesn’t understand, which is why we crucified it.  It’s a love that expects nothing, but compels everything because it GIVES everything.  It’s a love that changes us forever…that gives us an entirely new life.  Jesus came so that we might have life.  A more abundant, free life than we could ever have imagined possible.

On this Christmas Day, I hope you are surrounded by the people you love the most…that you have enjoyed watching your carefully chosen presents be opened…that you’ve eaten delicious food…and that you have laughed a lot.  More importantly, I hope you are basking in the glory of a totally free, abundant life…one that was only made possible by a sacrifice none of us can imagine ever making ourselves.  Today is the day of Immanuel….God literally with us in the flesh.  It is the celebration of a day our lives were changed forever…that we were drawn out from under the bed into freedom.  Hallelujah!  Christ is born!

“Behold the sin of man…behold our broken hearts…behold the Lamb of God!”

“So God throws open the door of this world—and enters as a baby. As the most vulnerable imaginable. Because He wants unimaginable intimacy with you. What religion ever had a god that wanted such intimacy with us that He came with such vulnerability to us? What God ever came so tender we could touch Him? So fragile that we could break Him? So vulnerable that His bare, beating heart could be hurt? Only the One who loves you to death.” -Ann Voskamp

Merry Christmas!

 

 

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Jesus

If there’s one thing I’m learning at this point in my life, it is that Jesus Christ is absolutely and utterly compelling.  He stood for all things grace-filled, sanctified, and counter cultural.  He was hardest on those who claimed to be pious and religious, and most loving towards those who openly confessed their brokenness and need for him.  He would be standing on the Mexican border with food, water, and job offers.  While the religious community hurled insults at gays, he would be quietly scribbling in the sand.  He grieves with us when his daughters are reduced to sex objects…and quietly whispers messages of strength, love, and value.  He created our different colors, and delights in the beauty of their uniqueness.  He designed us, his people, true ‘evangelicals’, to be known by our love. Then, he came to our broken world in the flesh and died to show us how.  This is a sad time.  But it’s also a critical time for true followers of Jesus.  We have a grand opportunity to be lights high on their stands, to be salt that hasn’t lost its saltiness.

The Message version of Galatians 5 feels appropriate today:

“It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time:  repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation  of mental and emotional garbage, frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness, trinket gods, magic show religion, paranoid loneliness, cutthroat competition, all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied-wants, a brutal temper, and impotence to love and be loved, divided homes and divided lives, small-minded and lopsided pursuits, the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival, uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions, ugly parodies of community.  I could go on.

But what happens when we live God’s way?  He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard-things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity.  We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people.  We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

Legalism is helpless in bringing this about;  it only gets in the way.  Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good-crucified.”

 

 

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Replacing Worry with Christ

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Have you ever watched a group of teenagers play Musical Chairs? Well, it’s hilarious and frustrating. Mostly because it’s SO SLOW. Getting them to actually move around the circle of chairs is almost impossible…because they all do the nervous-half-sit on every chair they pass. They’re staring at the person controlling the music the entire time…trying to predict the moment the music will stop.

This, I’m afraid, is the way I often live my life. I am a chronic worrier. If I’m honest, my tendency to worry is a direct result of my need to control everything. I’m sorry to tell you that, if you’ve ever done dishes at my house after a party, I probably thanked you profusely, waited until you left, and redid them. I have never delegated easily, or at all. I worry so much when I delegate that I would rather just do it myself. I like to be prepared for things. I never want to run out of anything I need, so I always have extra on hand. In a time of uncertainty, I am always going to prepare for the worst possible outcome in hopes of minimizing pain and frustration en route.

I love the language of Philippians 4:6 in the Message:

“Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let your petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.”

There is definitely a portion at the center of my brain reserved entirely for worry. I often think, “If this ONE thing got better, I would be so relieved!” That never happens though. Once a particular problem is solved, the worry portion of my brain is immediately filled with another big something…or lots of little somethings. It’s ALWAYS full, and overflowing into every aspect of my life. Like striving, worry is another form of chosen slavery.

What WOULD it look like for the “worry” section at the center of my brain to be replaced with Christ? It sounds really, really nice…but what does that mean at a practical level?   If you think about it, the antonym of “worry” is “trust.” If we’re worrying, we’re not trusting. We’re living as if everything depends on us.

With small worries, sometimes this means fast-forwarding in my head: if this person does my dishes, and they aren’t done EXACTLY as I would have done them, what’s going to happen? Are they going to miss the ONE germ that happens to make me sick? Seems unlikely. Is that knife they just put in the dishwasher that I usually hand wash going to be completely ruined? Probably not. What am I so afraid will happen? Giving up control is so hard sometimes…even in little things. But we have to trust that, if we give up our need to control, everything will probably work out JUST fine. Sometimes, better! When I find myself worrying about the smallest things, it’s usually an indicator that I’m striving for perfection.   That I’m focusing on small and unimportant details that keep me from growing…and being. A collection of little worries can fester and control us…and keep us from connecting with important people in our lives. They can be a block to intimacy. Ultimately, the constant, small worries can hinder us from abiding in the presence of God.

It’s a different ballgame with big worries…when real trials come our way. Some problems we encounter feel incredibly scary. Maybe we’re facing fear after a serious diagnosis. We face possible loss of a loved one, either by death or divorce. We watch as one of our grown children makes decisions that worry us. We face financial difficulties after a lost job…and months of fruitless interviews. Sometimes our trials linger…and the uncertainty seems to be unending. Replacing worry with trust in these times is incredibly hard. It’s hard enough, in fact, that the Bible has a lot to say on the subject. James tells us to “consider it pure joy” when we face trials, because they will test our faith and develop perseverance. He goes on to say that we will find complete maturity in perseverance through our difficulties.

Romans 5:3 says:

“There’s more to come: We continue to shout out our praise even when we’re hemmed in troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary-we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!”

Can this be true? Is it possible that, in the midst of extreme difficulty, we can replace worry with expectance and excitement? Is it possible that we will never be left feeling shortchanged? It is if we know who God is. God never said he would prevent our pain. The truth is, we wouldn’t want him to anyway. Pain helps us explore the depths of our humanness in a way that little else can. A line in one of my favorite books, The Language of Letting Go, claims, “Our capacity to feel pain will eventually be matched with our capacity to feel joy.” We spend a lot of time in our lives avoiding pain. We try to run away from the storm, when the secret to replacing worry with Christ is actually to turn around and face it…to let the rain fall on our faces…to plant our feet boldly and confidently in the strong wind. Christ promises to stand there with us. Even better…he promises that, if we can stand there and trust him, we’ll end up in a much better place than we were before. As it says in Romans, we’ll be flooded with more blessings than our hearts can hold. When we run from pain or fight to avoid it, it doesn’t make us happier…it makes us numb.

I am so tired of living a life of worry. It has bled me dry…robbed me of joy, and kept me from living the abundant life God promised. I have spent so much time living in worry over the future that I’ve often missed the joys and gifts of the present. I’ve exhausted myself trying to outrun and outsmart pain instead of taking God’s hand and standing in it. I have made a decision to wage war on my life of worry. I am determined to feel the peace that comes with filling that part of my brain with Christ. 1 Peter 5:7 says: “Live carefree before God; he is most careful with you.”   I can give my worries to God. I can trust him. He’ll be more careful with me than I’ll be with myself. He sees everything outside of my tiny view. I know this in my head…but how to know it in my heart? Here’s my plan, since I like practical takeaways:

  1. Keep God’s record of faithfulness to me on the forefront of my mind. When I’m facing a trial, big or small, I need to pause, look behind me, and remember that God has never wasted an ounce of my pain.   I’ve lived enough life at this point to know that, when things don’t turn out the way I expect, it’s because God has something better planned. His record of faithfulness to me is impeccable. I can’t think of a single trial, big or small, that did not land me in a better place than I was before.
  2. Acknowledge the fruitlessness of my control/worry. But seriously…when does worry or control ever work? Does it change what’s going to happen? I’ve made a lot of bad decisions in moments of panic…when I was filled with worry. That’s when I grasp for control, and that always causes more harm than good.   Worry doesn’t change anything about my circumstances, or whatever I’m worried about. All it does is make me miserable and keep me from abiding with God in the joy of the present.
  3. I can make a list of things I’m thankful for. This is a pretty powerful tool. In a moment of worry, I can stop, make a mental list of the blessings in my life, and suddenly…I realize that I have it pretty good.
  4. Constantly ask God to guide me with his spirit. As I said in a previous blog about striving, this has been a life altering prayer for me. I ask God multiple times a day to fill me with his spirit…to guide my thinking, my decisions, and my emotions. Matthew 6:34 says:

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” 

If I’m constantly asking God to send his spirit to guide me, and then keeping my eyes wide open and alert to all he is doing in my life, the word says I’ll never regret it. I’ll never be left feeling “shortchanged.” I’ll never be the kid in Musical Chairs who’s left without a chair in the end. The promise is, if I keep my eyes on Jesus…not behind me, not ahead of me…but on HIM…I will be prepared and ready for whatever comes my way. If I seek to stay completely focused on the presence of God RIGHT NOW, I can be assured that I am safe…that I am on the right path. I can be certain that, even if that path doesn’t lead me where I expected, it will be GOOD. Better even.

“Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own. Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track.”

-Proverbs 3:5

 Here’s my favorite part of all of this: God wants me to bring my worries to him…EVEN THOUGH those worries mean I don’t trust him fully. I can pray through tears and sweat and tell him that I believe him, but ask him to help my unbelief in the same breath. He is THAT loving and merciful. When something difficult comes my way, I can trust him one minute, doubt him the next, and he’ll listen and help me no matter how many times I come to him with the same fear. He’s THAT good. He’s THAT loving.  That is a God worth giving up control to.

Could someone remind me of all of this tomorrow, please? Or…in an hour? 🙂

What’s YOUR advice?  How do you replace worry with Christ?

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The Cell Is Open! We are FREE!

 

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I’m a striver. Always have been. I work hard, I push hard, and I never stop “doing.”  If I’m at home, I’m probably coming up with some chore or project to do. If I’m watching a show, I’m probably working at the same time. I say “yes” until my plate is so full that feelings of insanity seem normal. I’m always going to make extra food for the potluck because I’m afraid there won’t be enough. Did I miss a day of exercise? I’ll just double it tomorrow. I’ve been a striver for as long as I can remember. That’s also why I don’t remember ever really feeling peace.

Striving is absolutely exhausting. I run myself ragged, only to feel guilty at the end of a day because I’m not doing enough. It was such a normal way of life for me for so long that I didn’t even realize how exhausted I was until just months ago, when I hit my rock bottom. Nothing seemed to be going right. I was unhappy with other people, unhappy with myself, and just plain miserable. A loving mentor asked me what my relationship with God was like. I told her I respected God…that I wanted to obey him, but that I struggled to believe he cared for me personally. She gently suggested that it was ONLY through an intimate relationship with God that I would find the peace I so longed for.

I was desperate enough to start reading and studying. I found a reflection question that asked, “If a relationship is a two-way street, what can YOU do to build a relationship with God?” I thought first about the typical answers…I could read my Bible and pray more I guess. But isn’t that the same, old, tired answer? It’s the one I’ve always had, and it only leads to more failure, and more guilt. As I thought more about it, I realized that I couldn’t possibly have a relationship with God if I didn’t believe he cared for me personally. I thought about all the times I wondered if God was intervening for me…if he was present in the details of my life. Every time, I would quickly explain it away. “He’s too busy. He has much bigger fish to fry. This is just a coincidence.” Maybe God cared for me personally, maybe he didn’t. But how would I ever know if I kept immediately explaining him away?   I made a commitment to stop doing that….to see what would happen. What did I have to lose?

It was unnatural at first. Impersonal. Something would happen, I’d start to feel like it was from God, then would quickly explain it away. I’d think to myself, “No. You said you wouldn’t!” So I would simply pray a prayer of thanks to God for the gift he gave. It felt silly and fruitless…like talking to a mirror. I did that for a little while…until, slowly, more and more “gifts” started coming. It started getting a lot harder to explain them away…and harder to deny that a loving, personal being had to be hearing me. Slowly, my prayers started changing. They became more confident and specific. Praying became less about what I should be doing, and more about what I wanted to do. It became a first instinct. I found myself wanting to learn more and more about this being I was praying to. I found a copy of the Message on my shelf. I opened it and landed in Romans. I read this verse in chapter 5:

“We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand— out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.”

And this in Romans 10:

“Say the welcoming word to God—“ Jesus is my Master”— embracing, body and soul, God’s work of doing in us what he did in raising Jesus from the dead. That’s it. You’re not “doing” anything; you’re simply calling out to God, trusting him to do it for you. That’s salvation.”

I couldn’t put it down. I read for days…chapter after chapter. I underlined and highlighted. I posted favorite passages on the wall. I read about the fruits of the spirit as if it were the first time. This lofty list…kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, self-control…I’d striven so hard to be those things, and with little luck. It was suddenly so clear. These were fruits…of the spirit. I didn’t have to work hard to become them at all. They grow naturally if the spirit is present in my life.   I took action in prayer. I started asking God to pour his spirit over me…to fill me to the brim with his wisdom. I asked him to guide me…to show me what to do and what to say.

Sure enough…fruit has started to grow. I find myself thinking more before I speak. I am less tempted to eat a second helping…or to buy something I don’t need. I feel joy in the midst of difficulty. I find myself WANTING to keep my commitments, instead of feeling obligated to them.

I threw open my doors to God with so much anticipation and excitement…only to find that he’d been there, hand out…all along. He didn’t wait for me to become lovable. He loved me already. He set me free long before I left my cell. He showered me with gifts and blessings long before I gave him any credit.

Ephesians 1 says that life with God isn’t just barely free…it’s ABUNDANTLY free. It goes on to say that, when we participate in the work of knowing him personally, he gives the gifts of endless energy and boundless strength. Ephesians 2 says,

“Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role.”

And 2 Peter 1:

Everything that goes into a life of pleasing God has been miraculously given to us by getting to know, personally and intimately, the One who invited us to God.” 

Knowing Jesus personally isn’t a “perk” of Christian faith as I’ve so long thought of it. It’s a pre-requisite…and the ONLY one at that. A life of striving leaves us exhausted and resentful…and with the feeling that we can never do or be enough. Most importantly, striving causes us to miss the entire message of the gospel. It keeps us from knowing the fulfilling, abundant life given for FREE by the blood of Jesus. I love Matthew 5 in the language of the Message: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you, there is more of God and his rule.”

I go to a wonderful church with a lot of incredible people…many of whom are strivers like me. We DO so much. There’s a lot of incredible talent and ability packed in that small chapel on Sundays. Lately, we’ve been in a season of heartbreak. Many in our body are encountering serious trials. At first I found this discouraging. Now I see it so differently. God is giving a group of strivers a grand opportunity to find him in our weakness…to discover the slavery of striving, and exchange it for a life of abiding peacefully in his presence. He is not a God of deprivation…but of abundant freedom. It’s ours. It was ours long ago…while we were working and striving in vain. All we had to do all along was ask.

My favorite striving scripture of all: Galatians 2.

“What actually took place is this: I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work. So I quit being a “law man” so I could be God’s man. Christ’s life showed me how, and enabled me to do it. I identify myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you, or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not mine, but is lived by faith in the son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me.”

If you’re a striver, like me, you’ve been missing out on how good God actually is. I’m just at the beginning of figuring that out, and already, I’m blown away. He is so, so loving. His love is beyond compelling. It makes me want to live as far in the light as possible…to discard all of my old ways of living and thinking. Why have we been afraid to talk about grace for so long? Is it because we don’t want sinners to have a “free pass?” How ironic! That is EXACTLY the message of the gospel. We all have a free pass because of the blood of Jesus. And when we get even just a taste of that love and forgiveness…we will NEVER want to go back to our old lives. Striving leaves us exhausted and bound. Asking and abiding…and simply saying, “thank you,” makes us FREE.

If you’re thinking, “This sounds nice, but where to even begin??” I actually have some practical advice! Here’s what I did…and maybe it will help you too!

  1. I didn’t fully understand grace because I wasn’t honest with myself about the sin in my life. It took me actually writing out the deepest, darkest thoughts in my head…my greatest fears, my resentments, my priorities. Seeing it all on paper like that made it pretty clear to me that I needed grace. For me, identifying my greatest fear was a turning point. MOST of the sinful patterns of my life were developed out of that one fear.
  2. I read about the character of God in the language of the Message. All versions are great…but the Message gave me a fresh perspective. It put things in a way that made me want to keep reading. Get the kindle version on your iPhone. You can highlight and bookmark!  I literally wrote down character traits as I read…examples:  redeems, reconciles, is vulnerable, LOVE, etc.  In my study time, I coordinate the verses I read with traits I’m discovering.
  3. Every morning when I wake up, I pray specifically that God will fill me with his spirit. I ask the Spirit to literally control my mind. I ask God to take away any desire that isn’t from him. I ask him to make my heart exactly like his. That one prayer has had a dramatic and noticeable impact on my life.  This would be hard without my suggestion in #2…hard to know if we’re becoming like God if we don’t know the heart of God!  That is KEY!

There’s a lot more that has come out of this…but this was my start!  If we truly want to guard against Satan’s attack…we can have a long, honest conversation about striving.  His greatest fear is that we would rest fully in the love of our Father instead of acting as if we can do anything in our own strength.  May God continue to reveal how LOVING he is to each of us…may the message of our worthiness because of him…not because of us…give us the peace and freedom that we so long for.

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For February: Not-Your-Typical-Anniversary Post

I was ten years old when I committed my life to Christ.  My family and our closest friends gathered in the auditorium of College Church, and I professed in front of them that Jesus had died for my sins, and that I was ready to die to myself.  My Dad baptized me, and then we circled around and sang and prayed together.  At the time, my greatest problems were that my best friend had invited someone else to spend the night instead of me, and that my bedtime was unjustly early.  Still, I remember being so confident in that moment that God was with me and for me…that he loved me.  

With every new life stage, I have questioned the commitment I made on that day.  As a teenager, the challenges I faced were stronger and more painful.  I experienced rejection and bullying at school.  We moved to a new city.  I was preyed on by an older man.  In my 20’s, I experienced the pain of unhealthy relationships, constant uncertainty about the future, and wrestled with huge questions about human suffering.  

In my late 20’s, I had a total spiritual and emotional breakdown.  I had spent most of my childhood and college years looking judgmentally on those who were just “going through the motions.”  When my own passion for God seemed to disappear, and I realized that I was doing exactly that…going through motions…it all came crashing down.  I came close to rejecting the idea of God completely, and even scoffed at my 10-year-old self for having made such a naive commitment.  Did I even know what I was saying back then?  Did those words even mean anything?  

Six years ago on Monday, I made a different type of commitment on the day of my wedding.  I had written our vows with conviction, misty-eyed as I reflected on the weight and meaning of the words I was about to say to another person.

I wrote:  I take you to be my husband, from now until death, loving what I know of you, and trusting what I do not yet know.  I will love you enough to risk being hurt, trust you when I don’t understand, weep with you in heartache, and celebrate with you in joy.  I will do my part to make our home a sanctuary of warmth for anyone who enters into it, and will serve alongside you as your equal partner in life.  I will love all of you, with your strengths and your weaknesses, and I will pursue you.  I will never, ever leave you.  The commitment I make to you today will always transcend my feelings, and I acknowledge that the power to do so can come only from God, in whose hands I place this union.”

At the time, we had already been to counseling together.  We had already argued, and we had already hurt one another.  I truly believed I understood and was prepared for the challenges ahead.  Still, I was naive.  I had no idea how hard it was really going to be to lay my life down for another person.  There have been times since then…sometimes minutes, sometimes months…where I’ve questioned the commitment I made on that day.  Did we really know what we were saying?   Did those words even mean anything?  

At the beginning of each school year, we create a list of expectations and norms as a staff.  These usually include specifics on how we will treat one another, what our attitudes towards our students will be, and how we will respond to feedback.  It’s always pretty easy to make that list, because we’re energized and excited after a summer break.  We’re ready to be together again, looking forward to seeing the faces of our students, and anxious to implement improvements in our classrooms.  We sign our list of norms, and post them on the walls of our work rooms.  There’s a reason we make that list in July, and not in February.  In February, we’re tearing our hair out, resisting the urge to update and send out our resumes.  We’re frustrated with each other, frustrated with our students, and checking the weather hourly in hopes that we’ll see snow in the forecast.  It is exactly FOR this time that the norms were created.  We didn’t write them for the first day of school…we wrote them because we knew how we would feel in February.

It was easy to say my vows to Dan on our wedding day.  We were all dressed up, and surrounded by our family and closest friends.  It was all so new and exciting, and I was ready to face any challenges that were headed our way.  When the challenges come, which have been much greater than we anticipated, I remember that it is FOR these times that I said the vows.  They weren’t for my wedding day…they were for February.  In the same way, I couldn’t divorce God in the midst of my spiritual breakdown those years ago, even though I so wanted to.  It was too much a part of my DNA…and that’s because of the commitment I made when I was ten.  It wasn’t meaningless at all…in fact, it was FOR my times of doubt…FOR the challenges that were so much greater than the ones I faced in grade school.  It may be true that I had no idea what exactly I was committing to, but I meant the words I said with every fiber of my ten-year-old being.  

“Going through motions” has taken on a whole new meaning for me these past few years.  Sometimes, that’s called “obedience.”  If I felt passion for God all the time, or for my spouse, what would have been the point of making the commitment in the first place?  In a season of passion, love feels easy and exciting…just as it did on my wedding day, or at my baptism.  I had no idea what exactly I was committing to on those days, but it is FOR the seasons that the passion and love seem to disappear that the words were spoken in the first place.  

I have never loved God more than I do today.  I have never been more committed to the promise I made to him when I was ten.  I am also confident that, when I am 50 years old, I will look back on this very time and think think about how naive I was when I was 34.  Still again, when I’m 70, I have no doubt I will look back on the commitments I held to so strongly at 50 and think, “I had NO idea what that really meant.”  But those promises…those commitments…they are true.  They mean something.  They are what keep us afloat when February comes.  

 

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Purity Culture: (A post that will seem very strange and confusing if you did not grow up in church or go to a Christian college.)

 

imagesI’ll never forget the first time I learned about sex at church. My fellow 8th graders and I were sitting in a brightly lit classroom at College Church, watching with morbid fascination as our teacher walked us through the “Ladder of Purity”. I honestly don’t remember all the levels of the “Ladder of Purity,” just that heavy and light petting occupied two of the rungs: scarring terminology, albeit memorable. After we had labeled each level in our notes, we began to analyze: at which point on the ladder have we gone too far? Is it when we start kissing lying down? Is it before that? Thankfully, my parents had already talked to me about sex, so I knew even in 8th grade that this sex talk was missing the mark. That fateful Sunday night, my classmates and I were introduced to a way of thinking that is often referred to as “purity culture.” We were hooked.

Purity culture followed most of us into high school, when its principles became even more engrained. We got purity rings, went forward at the invitation song, and read books that compelled us to kiss dating goodbye. Purity culture continued to consume much of our thinking as we went on to attend Christian universities. We would go on dates, go too far, cry, pray for forgiveness, feel horribly guilty for a few weeks, and then repeat the process. We asked our boyfriends/girlfriends that same question we’d asked in that classroom in 8th grade…how far is too far? Once in a while, one among us would do the unforgivable…they’d go “all the way”. We’d whisper about it, shocked that they could allow things to get that far. We would pray for them, and smile awkwardly as we passed them on campus. I’ll never forget a conversation with one such friend after he told me he’d “gone all the way.” After expressing my dismay, he grew very frustrated. “How many couples on this campus do absolutely everything besides have intercourse? You’re telling me that that one, final step really makes me so much worse?” Instead of recognizing that he was calling me out for my very legalistic attitude towards purity, I spent weeks and months worrying about his soul.

Purity culture, sadly, followed many of us into our marriages. It may have even been a big part of the reason we got married in the first place. Purity culture had surrounded the idea of sex with so much hype and nervous energy that we didn’t know how to process it all. For some of us, this translated into expectations of sex that could not possibly be met, which may have in turn perpetuated or created an addiction to pornography or fantasy that destroyed intimacy with our spouses. For others, it translated into deep, dark problems with insecurity. For many, probably both.

I have been grieving, in recent years, for those of us who grew up in church purity culture. Here’s why: every talk about modesty, virginity, or protecting our “greatest gift” sent one, loud, clear, legalistic message: Sex is the most important thing you can ever give someone, so save it. As a result, I grew up believing that premarital sex was pretty much the worst sin you could commit (besides being gay of course). Well meaning youth leaders, preachers, or bible class teachers may have thought they were teaching us a message that would help us combat what we learned from pop culture, which centered around flaunting your sexuality. If you think about it, though, the messages from purity culture and pop culture were one and the same: Sex is the most important thing about you. It’s the best and most exciting thing you have to offer.

It may seem, at this point, that I do not think sex is sacred or special. I can assure you that it is quite the opposite. Sex, as I understand it, is a physical expression of intimacy between two people that are committed to each other. It can certainly be fun and exciting, but like any other part of a relationship, it takes work and selflessness. I fear that, in many churches these days, the negative effects of purity culture have caused the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction: a direction that causes us to think very little about the sacredness and weightiness of sex.

Dan and I don’t have kids, but the most reasonable way we know of to think through our beliefs on things is by imagining what we might teach our kids. I often imagine what kinds of conversations I might have with my daughter one day, should I have one. Do I want my daughter to wait to have sex until she’s married? Yes. Absolutely. Not because that’s the greatest thing she has to offer someone, but because I don’t want her to create those bonds of intimacy with someone who will go on to break her heart. I want that for her, not because I think her physical gifts are inherently important, but because SHE is important. Will I tell her she’s “worth waiting for?” Yes. But I will make it very clear that I don’t mean she’s worth waiting to have sex with. Do I want her to dress modestly? Yes. It will be a strict requirement in our home. Not because I think it’s her responsibility to protect men from lusting, but because I want her to spend her life seeking a different kind of attention. I want her to be noticed for her intellect and her deep thoughts…for her sense of humor and her confidence. Similarly, I want my son to grow up looking for those things in a woman. I want him to have realistic expectations of sex, and to see it as only part of building a strong, healthy intimacy with another person.

Instead of abandoning purity culture altogether, we have to create a new, holistic purity culture: one that emphasizes so much more than just physical purity. One that teaches our kids to value their intellect, capacity for depth, and ability to love and serve others above all else. We have to talk to them openly about sex, and do our best to set realistic expectations of it. We have to stop shaming, and start talking. A lot. And early. If we do this well, we won’t ever have to introduce the “Ladder of Purity”, or ask them how far too far is. They’ll make the right decisions about sex because their idea of purity is so much higher and more complex than what we were taught in 8th grade bible class. They’ll want to create intimate bonds only with those who value all of those other things about them. I’ve written a lot about he oversexed culture that surrounds us. It is a very real threat, and has a frightening capacity to shape our self-perceptions in powerful and lasting ways. The purity culture of old made well-meaning attempts to combat this, but ended up creating a different kind of sexual obsession. Culture says, “Sex is the most valuable thing about you, so flaunt it.” We came back with, “Sex is the most valuable thing about you, so guard it!” If we really want holistic, healthy purity culture, we have to speak in a different language all together. May we be empowered to speak more openly on this subject with our spouses, our children, our parents, and our friends. Let’s build a different kind of purity culture together.

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Miley Cyrus, Sex, and Corinthians 6: The Sequel

In my previous post, I expressed my feelings about the recent Miley Cyrus incident, and the sexually perverse culture that produced it.  Since it’s never helpful to harp on a problem without talking solutions, I wanted to share a few ways that I believe we can make a difference.  I welcome any feedback!

I mentioned in my last post that I felt there was nothing more threatening to our generation and the next than the misuse of sex, and yet, many religious people never talk about it.  We’d much rather focus on things that aren’t so close to home.  If we want our culture to change, we’re going to have to be brave enough to look at ourselves in the mirror.

1.    It takes two to tango.  Or in this case, twerk.  As always, a female put on a slutty performance, and we completely blamed her.  We didn’t blame Robin Thicke, the producers, directors, choreographers, or any of the other misguided “master”minds.  This is a recurring issue in our culture.  The same thing happens in modesty talks at churches.  We say things to teenage girls like, “It’s hard enough for guys…don’t make it harder by dressing that way!”  Now, clearly, I’m a huge proponent of modesty, and I understand the sentiment expressed in the phrase above.  I do think it’s a mindset that sets a damaging precedent.  I have had multiple female students over the years who come to me crying because they were molested or raped by their Mom’s boyfriend or husband.  If they tell their mothers, they either don’t believe them, or accuse them of acting or dressing in a way that welcomed the advance.  While this is extreme, it’s rooted in the same mentality we convey to our teenage girls in churches.  If you ask any of my teenagers how I feel about modesty, they’ll giggle and make fun of me.  I’m known around these parts as a huge stickler in that regard.  Any time I correct a young lady who’s dressed inappropriately, I always say, “Girl, your body is a TREASURE.  It’s beautiful and wonderful, and none of these boys deserve to see it.”  I may get an eye-roll, but I always see a spark in their eyes.  A glimmer of hope that they’re worth more than they thought.  It’s amazing how much it sinks in if they hear it enough.  During the incident at the water slide that I described in part 1, I one of my girls even yelled cross to the boys, “Boy, you ain’t done NOTHING to deserve this, so you might as well walk on.”  I was one proud Mama.

Every year, we have to break up some big drama between girls, and it’s always over one boy.  Last year, I think there were literally 10 girls fighting over the same boy.  He was talking to them all, telling them they were his girlfriend, and then “cheating” with everyone else.  Every time this happens, the girls are mad at the other girls, not him.  It sounds juvenile, but you see the same thing happen with adults.  Girls are extremely hard on each other. Again, this is not shocking.  It’s the scenario that our culture sets up for us.  We’re forced to compete with completely unrealistic standards, and trained to believe that our worth lies in our desirability to a man.  Instead of standing together in support because of the enormous pressures we face, we go on the attack:  criticizing and sizing each other up.  This has to stop!

So let’s stop placing blame squarely on female shoulders.  Men are responsible for themselves, just like we are.  Women and girls are up against it, and we should be linking arms and singing anthems of self-respect.  The last thing we should be doing is criticizing and blaming one another.

2.  Parents:  Don’t be naïve, and don’t compromise.  Disclaimer:  I’m not a parent.  I realize that it’s presumptuous of me in some respects to write about this.  I also think, in some ways, it’s easier to be objective if you DON’T have kids.  That said, I spend most of my time with teenagers, teach classes to and on parents, and was once parented myself.  Hopefully that gives me at least some credibility.

When it comes to parenting, I see two major problems that contribute to this epidemic: many parents are either naïve, or they’re aware, but feel powerless to do anything but compromise.  An example of a naïve parenting move:  allowing your child, boy OR girl, to have a computer in the privacy of their own room.  An example of a parent who feels powerless:  allowing their daughter to wear shorts that are too short because they couldn’t find any longer ones at the store.

When it comes to naivety, there’s only one solution:  make a concerted effort to be more aware.  Don’t implicitly trust your children.  Some people don’t like that kind of talk, but don’t misunderstand me:  I’m not saying your kids are bad, I’m saying that they aren’t yet equipped to handle huge responsibilities, like media intake, by themselves.  That’s why they live with you until they’re 18.  It’s your job to equip them to make good choices.  If you don’t know what they’re watching, who they’re talking to, and the kinds of things they’re talking about, how can you do that job well?  It is possible to know these things about your children without stripping them of their autonomy.  In fact, they’ll probably resent you more in the long run if you DON’T.

As for parents who compromise, if we’re really serious about making a dent in this huge mountain of a problem, we will have to make some serious sacrifices and unpopular decisions.  I recently read a blog by a father explaining his strict rules about technology to his sons.  Here’s the link:  http://charlesmartinbooks.com/blog/entry/an_open_letter_to_my_boys

He spoke with authority as he explained his strict rules, all the while explaining that they were in place because of how much he loved and valued his sons and their mother.  The criticism he received in the comment section was discouraging.  It made me sad to see how many people completely missed the point of what he was doing.  These days, strict parents are not popular, which is where the sacrifice comes in.  Parents have to be bold and daring enough to set strict limits in an unlimited culture.  If we set limits that are rooted in love, and are transparent with our children about the reasons behind those limits, they will thank us for it…eventually.  Chances are, they recognize how much your limits translate to love long before they admit it.

As I said previously, I’m not a parent, but I spend most of my time with teenagers.  Soulsville, where I teach, runs a very tight ship.  We set very strict limits, and hold students to incredibly high behavioral standards.  However, we have a good reason to back up every rule…a reason that is ultimately life-giving for the kids.  We don’t hide our reasons either.  Every year, students get frustrated with our rules and transfer to other schools.  In almost every case, those students come right back.   They see what goes on in schools where there are no limits, and run back to Soulsville as someone might run to a shelter in a storm.  I believe firmly that it works the same way with strict parents.

Let me reiterate:  I believe strict rules should always have a purpose.  If you can’t think of one, the rule shouldn’t exist.  “Because I said so” should be removed from the parenting repertoire.  Your child should obey you immediately, yes, but they should have an appropriate time to ask you the “why” behind the rule, and you should be able to tell them.

My parents were pretty strict about certain things.  My short shorts example comes from my own experience.  If the stores weren’t selling modestly cut shorts one summer, we just didn’t wear shorts.  When it came time for prom, my Mom said, “We will not compromise our standards of modesty, but we will search for as long as it takes to find something you feel beautiful in.”  I love the Cosby Show for this reason.  They rarely said “no” without saying “yes” to something else.  They told Vanessa she couldn’t attend that sketchy Halloween party, but pulled out all the stops to throw an awesome alternative party at their house.  In fact, we can get lots of great advice from the Huxtables.  Here’s the thing:  being a strict parent who sets limits is actually much more work.  I can see why parents don’t want to do it!  If we truly care about breaking these negative cycles in our culture, we won’t compromise our standards regardless of the additional work or scrutiny it may place on us.

3.    We can broaden our definition of “fidelity.”   This is a really important solution to me.  If we want to combat an oversexed culture, we have to think hard about the way we honor our partners.  It’s a running joke in my family that my parents will never even comment on the physical attractiveness of another person other than each other.  Sarah and I like to tell the story of the time we were watching Meet Joe Black, a movie devoted entirely to providing lusty shots of Brad Pitt.  In our minds, no one could possibly deny his sexiness.  Mom was in the kitchen during one particularly sexy scene, and we turned around and said, “Okay, Mom…seriously…you HAVE to admit that he’s hot.”  She came back with her usual response:  “I think DAD’S hot.”  “Ugh,” we both said, rolling our eyes.  Mom came over and sat on the couch with us as she muted the TV.  “Please understand,” she said, “I’m not blind.  I know it might seem silly, but Dad and I make the intentional decision every day to honor each other to the fullest degree, even in matters that might seem harmless to the rest of the world.”  That really stuck with me.  Ever since, I cringe when I hear a husband or wife make remarks about how hot or attractive someone else is.  Harmless?  Maybe…but if I don’t allow myself to sexualize another person in ANY way, doesn’t that show honor to my partner in the fullest sense?  If my husband and I could honor each other just a little more, wouldn’t we want to do that?  Our culture is so incredibly oversexed, and we are so desensitized to it.  Much like an alcoholic can never take a drink again, it seems that we should be going to extreme measures to protect ourselves from harmful sexual narratives that can damage our relationships in both subtle and obvious ways.  I obviously used one very specific example here that you may or may not agree with.  The point is, “fidelity” is a loaded term that means so much more than just not having sex with someone else.  Another disclaimer here:  it might be easy to read what I have just written and assume that I have reduced “fidelity” to a purely physical context.  I am focusing on that aspect of fidelity because of the nature of the blog, but could write a whole separate blog on how concentration on the physical aspect of relationships is very damaging to them.

Conclusion:  If you read to this point, wow.  I know I wrote a lot, and expressed many strong opinions.  As they say in the 12-Step community, “Take what you like, and leave the rest.”  I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions if you’d like to share them.  I recognize that these are highly sensitive issues with many different, complex, and valid perspectives.  There have been several experiences in my own life that have forced me to face realities about the way sex is portrayed in our culture, and what I have discovered is devastating.  My personal hope is that solution-oriented conversations on this topic will become much more prevalent in our culture than they are now, whether they’re happening in TV network board rooms or inside of our church auditoriums.  This stuff is important.  Incredibly important.  We have to talk about it, and we have to be part of a solution in our culture at large.  Even more importantly, these conversations should be happening regularly in our own homes.  May we all find the support and courage we need to make that happen.  

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