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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Leave the Duggars Alone.

Let me preface this by saying, I have never watched 19 Kids and Counting.  I also feel no loyalty to the Duggar family, and would likely not agree with them on many things. However, that could not matter any less right now.  The most recent news released about Josh Duggar’s secret online dating accounts have produced yet another batch of low hanging fruit…that the social media world, as usual, can’t resist.  I have been shocked at the number of people reposting the story, many of whom seem almost excited that he’s screwed up again.  What does it say about us, as a culture, when we delight in someone’s tragedy?  What does it say when we use something as serious as sexual addiction to throw stones for political gain?  Can this really be who we have become?  Josh has a wife.  Children.  His sisters, victims of Josh’s sexual disease, are real people.  This story represents real and lasting pain for every single person involved, and if that doesn’t compel us to show compassion and respect, I don’t know what will.  Is nothing sacred anymore?  It’s as if Josh gives us all an excuse to forget about the depravity and sickness in our own lives.  He gives us a chance to continue to stigmatize a problem that is so much more prevalent than any of us would like to admit.  We need to leave the Duggars alone, and have real conversations about the widespread sexual issues that plague our culture…that have left very few of us unaffected.  Soapbox ended.

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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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My Hobby Lobby Blog (Superfluous, I know.)

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First, please note the sarcasm in my picture choice.  Now let’s move on.  There’s nothing I love more than shopping for my next crafty project as a jazzy piano version of “Softly and Tenderly” plays over the loudspeaker.  However, as much as I love Hobby Lobby, I’m fairly disturbed by yesterday’s events.  Not so much the landmark ruling in their favor as the comments I read from right-wingers celebrating said ruling.  I know, I know.  I’m not supposed to read the comments, but it’s my summer break, and I was tired of cleaning out closets.

I know that there is no shortage of blogs on the subject.  I read many of them on both sides.  I have very little to say on the constitutional soundness of the decision, as I’m about as far from an expert on the subject as one can be.  I will only say that it seems like people on both sides of the argument are using pretty liberal and heavy-handed interpretations to support their positions.  Hmmm…kind of reminds me of another popular book…but I digress.  I hope my perspective on the Hobby Lobby fiasco is unique, but if it isn’t, I got to procrastinate the impending job of cleaning out the attic.

My feelings on the subject (since you asked), come from two perspectives:  First, Mrs. Hen, the high school health teacher.  I spend a significant portion of my class curriculum on sex ed.  Sometime over coffee, I’ll tell you some hilarious stories.  For now, I’ll tell you that Sex Education opportunities in our country are grossly inadequate.  If you don’t believe me, next time you’re hanging out with friends, ask them how they learned about sex.  Go ahead!  Guaranteed entertainment.  Chances are, answers will range from ridiculous misinformation to the complete lack thereof.  In communities of poverty, multiply the severity of these answers by…well, 100.  Add in a lack of resources and education, and we have a bona fide problem on our hands.  Lots of the comments I read yesterday said some version of, “I don’t care if you use birth control, but I shouldn’t have to pay for it.”  Spoken like someone who doesn’t get out much.  Sorry, but it’s true.  As I read comments like that, I get a funny picture in my head of the commenter entering an inner city classroom for the first time for a sex ed Q and A.  At the end of the session, I picture that same person running around like a crazy person to every pharmacy and planned parenthood in town, scrambling for any free birth control they can get their hands on, and then chucking them at each student in the classroom.  “You want more?  I’ll come back tomorrow,” they’d say.

You see, what they’d realize is that they’re “paying for it” in one form or another.  I find it super ironic that the same people who are claiming “victory” at this decision tend to get super testy about welfare benefits.  Do they not know that with every newborn child, the welfare check increases?  I suppose they do know, because I hear them ranting about it on Fox News.  Do they not see a direct correlation?   The inconsistency baffles me.

The second and more important perspective to me is from Rachel the Christian.  It seemed that the most common comment I read was some version of, “Another victory for religious freedom!”  My heart sank a little more after each comment.  A victory?  It’s a victory to blur the lines of religion and corporate enterprise?  Seems like some pretty scary territory to me.  Hobby Lobby is not a church.  It is a highly successful corporation.  When we treat corporations like churches, we’re operating on shaky ground.

More importantly, many in the Christian community are celebrating a decision that only solidifies our reputation as divisive, exclusive, uncompassionate, and out of touch.  Once again, we look like a group of people that focus highly disproportionate energy advocating for those who are unborn instead of those who have been born already.  We look like the same people who fight to defend our right to stand outside and picket an abortion clinic, instead taking classes to qualify as a foster or adoptive parent.  We look like the same people who fight to the death to keep the couple down the street from getting married, instead of fighting for an investing in our own marriages.  We just look…petty, as my students would say.  James 3:17 calls wisdom from Heaven “peace-loving, considerate, full of mercy and good fruit.”  We have to err on the side of compassion…acknowledging that we don’t always know everything we think we know.  Fighting a political battle as a Christian doesn’t qualify as a victory.  Using the individual decisions we make in our lives to practice the kind of wisdom described in James?  Now THAT’s a victory.  A victory for Christians happens when a church welcomes someone on the margins.  It happens when a troubled marriage is restored.  It happens when a previously unwanted child is adopted and loved.  It happens when a victim forgives their attacker.  It happens when we serve the poor.  We have to be known by the things that we love and the people we serve.  Yesterday’s decision causes more people to know us by what we hate and how we protest.   I feel hope when I see pockets of Christian people spread all over the world who are actually trying to be known by their love, who are full of mercy and good fruit.  May the silent action of these groups overshadow the loud voices of the rest.

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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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Miley Cyrus, Sex, and Corinthians 6

In case you’ve been fasting from television and social media the past few days, here’s a brief summary of Miley Cyrus’s performance at Sunday’s VMA awards:  She stripped down to her underwear and twerked and gyrated before a live audience full of celebrities with their mouths on the floor.  At one point, she stomped around the stage aimlessly as if she was looking for anyone or anyTHING to have sex with.  Crass, I know, but there really is no other way to describe it.   Facebook and Twitter were in a frenzy, and talking media heads were using words like “gross, perverse, sad, and shocking.”  It certainly was all of those things,  except one:  I don’t know how anyone could be shocked.  When it comes to sex, our culture becomes more saturated with poison by the day.  Are we really acting surprised that someone got sick?  For so many people, this story seems to be about another ex-Disney star breaking bad.  For me, this is a symptom of something much, much deeper.

Our culture celebrates sexual perversion.  It’s used by advertisers to sell just about everything, sung about on the radio, and used as a punch line for the most popular comedians.  Pornography is an acceptable form of entertainment, and it’s normal to go to strip clubs the night before you get married.  It’s probably the biggest reason Dan and I don’t plan to have kids any time soon.  We can’t stand the thought of bringing a daughter into a world like this.  She’ll have to stand in the grocery store line and look at headlines about how long it took the next Kim Kardashian to lose her baby weight.  Some boy will inevitably ask her to send him a picture of herself in her underwear over social media.  She’ll be bombarded with images on billboards of what she should look like.  She, like any other young woman in our culture, will grow up worrying that she’s not enough.  I can’t stand the thought.  If I have a son, he’ll start receiving pop-ups while he’s on the internet in elementary school.  He’ll be bombarded with those same billboard images as my would-be daughter, shaping his expectations in a way that no real woman can really satisfy.  Sex in our culture is about performance.  It’s not about intimacy.

Miley Cyrus’ demonstration of this wasn’t very subtle, but it wasn’t out of the ordinary either.  Every year during my unit on Human Sexuality, I ask students to bring magazine ads that use sex to sell their products.  Here are just a couple that students have brought in in the past, mostly out of men’s magazines.

Warning:  graphic images ahead.

 

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We are literally using gang rape in advertising now.  I challenge my students to count the number of commercials, bill boards, and magazine ads that use sex to sell in a subtle or obvious way, and the answer I get is always, “Almost every single one.”

Part of my job is to teach the young women in my classes that they’re worth so much more than this…and to convince the boys not to see women in this way.  Last week during an event on campus, I attempted to give our seniors some good, innocent fun by renting a big waterslide.  I told them all to wear dark shorts and t-shirts:  Church of Christers, you would have been proud!  A collection of neighborhood boys started to form near the site, and they started shouting degrading sexual messages at our young ladies.  Security had to run them off several times.  I watched as a couple of the girls ran across the street, looking nervously over at the boys who were shouting at them.   I’ve walked with my female students through their neighborhoods before, and watched them quickly pick up speed as a car full of men slows down beside them.  It’s an instinct:  a product of the reality they live in every day.  I’m overwhelmed with deep sadness every time I look out over my classroom and see all of the beautiful young girls who are so desperately trying to get the sexual attention they’ve been taught to expect.

Miley Cyrus is no different.  She’s trying to get the kind of attention her culture tells her she should get.  The poison has desensitized us.   It’s everywhere…in forms we recognize and in forms we don’t.  It’s hurting all of us.  It’s giving us false expectations, it’s making us feel insecure, and it’s creating the worst kind of disease:  the kind that keeps getting worse because you don’t know you have it.

Regardless of how you feel about the sanctity of Scripture or the concept of sin, it’s hard to deny the wisdom in these words from 1 Corinthians 6:  “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.”  That’s why we were all so disturbed by Miley’s performance.  We were watching her essentially commit a sin against her own body.  She was disrespecting herself in front of millions of people…something most of us only do in secret.

It discourages me to see so many religious people up in arms about things like gay marriage and Obamacare while this poison spreads like wildfire.  If you’re going to be upset about anything, it should be this.  I’m not sure there’s anything we should be more worried about for current or future generations.

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Expectations

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations.  In a sense, much of the pain and frustration I see around me is a result of false expectations.  The reverse is also true.  Much of the joy I see around me is a result of proper expectations.  A trite example might be that I didn’t get as frustrated waiting in line in Africa as I do in America.  In America, I expect for service to be efficient, so I’m very angry when it isn’t.  In Africa, I expect it to be terrible, so I’m pleasantly surprised if it’s anything but.

Expectations play a powerful role in our overall attitudes, and ultimately, our level of joy.  I’m not a parent, but I was parented, and it seems to me that perhaps the greatest task of parenthood is providing children with proper expectations.  Doing so has a direct impact on the level of joy they will experience throughout their lives.  I started thinking about this at Christmas as children told me about all of their gifts.  I remembered the feeling I used to have when I would wake up and see the presents Mom had so lovingly wrapped for us.  Especially during our years in Africa, our presents were hardly impressive.  I remember one year that Joel got a toy Walmart truck, and I got a pad of stick-on earrings.  We got some other little things as well, but to us, those gifts were huge.  We couldn’t have been more excited.  In contrast, so many of the children I see opening gifts today are working through a mountain of presents that will be used briefly, only to be quickly discarded in the next garage sale for a quarter of their worth.  That makes me really sad.  Not just because of the wasted toys, but because of the false expectations.  It creates a standard that may be difficult or unwise to maintain.

The same thing happened when I got my first car.  Now, I recognize the fact that, culturally speaking, getting a car at all when I was 16 is absurd to many.  By American standards, though, my car was nothing to brag about.  My parents gave it to me for free…a very generous gift considering they didn’t have much at the time.  My light blue Honda Civic from the late 80’s was mostly rusted where cloth interior used to be, and both the bumper and the muffler fell off at one time or another.  One time I drove all the way home from school with my muffler half dragging behind me.  I couldn’t drive it in the rain because the windshield wipers didn’t work.  That old car set a very helpful expectation for me, though.  When I get into my ’91 Acura Legend with a sunroof, I feel like I struck gold.  Finding a car within my budget isn’t much of a challenge, since I’m so easy to impress.  I always worried about my friends from wealthy families who were given brand new SUV’s, setting an expectation for them that they may not ever be able to meet in a financially stable way.  Parents have to set quality of life expectations that can be maintained in a realistic way over time if they want their children to make choices in their lives free from the pressure of high materialistic expectations.

Proper material expectations are extremely important in our over-indulged, entitled culture, but they’re not the most important.  Parents are also charged with the task of setting proper relational expectations for their children, and that’s the REAL joy make-or-break.  Dads are supposed to tell and SHOW their daughters how she should be treated by a man.  If he doesn’t, she’ll take what she can get one day in order to get the attention she never got from her father.  Proper expectations in this case can save a woman from years of unsatisfying and unhealthy relationships.  Similarly, mothers set expectations for their sons on how he should be treated.  Mothers who do everything for their sons and expect little from them set them up for failed relationships as well…for no wife-to-be could ever be expected to maintain such a standard of care…nor should she be!

Some parents don’t expect their children to take responsibility for themselves.  They jump to their child’s defense at every possible moment, never allowing them to face the consequences of their actions.  Children who grow up this way are victimized later in life by these false expectations.  When I have students like this, I always ask them what they think their college professors would say if their mother came in on a rampage against them about a test grade they deemed unfair.  If they grow up believing that life should always be fair, than the natural unfairness of real life will be crippling.

Yesterday, I posted about a new trend I’ve been seeing around school.  Many young men come to class with two, three, four, even five scarves at a time around their necks.  I realized that the design and color of the scarves seemed feminine in most cases, so I began to ask questions.  As it turns out, boys try to convince girls to allow them to wear their scarves as a symbol that they “like” them.  Traditionally, the girlfriend’s scarf is worn first, and the others are layered on top.  The girlfriends, I’m told, are fine with it.  This may seem like silly teenage stuff, but it’s the symbolism that cuts me.  I’m devastated at the expectations being set, or likely continued, for these young ladies.  They are being groomed to believe that their worth is in attracting a man, even if that man is chasing many other women at the same time.  The expectation for boys is that they should try to “conquer” as many girls as possible, implying that’s where their worth is found.

False expectations destroy marriages, too.  It always makes me sad when people talk about married love as a lost cause:  “We all know what happens to the sex once you get married!”  Talk like that indicates false expectations that are engrained in our culture.  If we don’t expect our marriages to be passionate and exciting, we won’t put the effort in to make them that way.

I’m convinced that my job as a teacher is to set expectations for my students, and in many cases, reset them.  If they believe that they are worthy of being treated with respect and dignity, they are more likely to act respectable and dignified.  If they expect to be used and ignored, they will most likely act in a way that invites those who would use and ignore them.

I’m convinced that expectations aren’t just important, they’re everything.  I’m taking pause in my personal life so that I can re-evaluate my expectations in several areas that have gone wrong.  I want to be a person with expectations that are real and meaningful, so that I can experience true joy, and spread that joy to others.

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