vulnerability

When A Question Broke My Heart

“I’ve already had sex. That means God can’t love me. Right?”

My heart died a little the day the eighth grader asked me that question. It was in an abstinence support group I was leading in one of the local public high schools. No religion allowed. Just the facts, ma’am.

This brave, broken girl was only 14 years old, on that rocky divide between woman and child. And she was already sexually active. She came from a “good” home: two parents, stay-at-home mom, father who brought in the big bucks after working long hours. They lived on an island of privilege in a sea of borderline poverty. They attended a large church. She spent as much time at church functions as she did at school extracurriculars. I share this because I’m shocked by how many christians believe if they the parents do everything right, their children will remain virgins until marriage. Or at least until they are engaged. Because, oh my God, sex! It’s evil, it’s wrong. Avert your eyes, my children, until you say I do, and then through some sort of magic, sex becomes the right thing to do. It’s your duty, don’t you know.

Our group met once a week in the high school, a school she attended because her parents wanted her to be in the world while learning to be not of it. As a facilitator I had gotten to know each girl’s story, teased out what they knew about sex – biology and psychology. Who were their mentors and teachers of all things sexuality. While the majority of girls learned about the birds and the bees from their health class – with a little additional exposition from a parent or older sibling and continued “education” from peers – this girl had learned only about abstinence within the hallowed halls of church purity culture. Don’t do it. Save yourself for marriage. You are your virginity and once that’s gone, well, you will always be a broken doll. Why? Because Jesus and Pastor So-And-So said so.

She was shamed into remaining pure. And that shame, plus lack of knowledge, kept her at her older boyfriend’s beck and call.

She had been pulled from the units in health class that focused on reproduction and sex education. The wisdom of youth leaders and her parents would be enough to keep her pure until she married. She was kept so busy she shouldn’t have time to think about boys. Or dating. Or, God forbid, sex.

But she joined my group. A voluntary group where the focus was on abstinence and how to make good choices, but my focus was on relationships and education. Perhaps some of my experience, some of my hard won wisdom could help even one of these girls. I wasn’t going to preach purity to them. Instead, I helped them understand they had options. And how to weigh the consequences of those options. Some of this was totally outside of where my girls were developmentally, so I tried so hard to have open dialogue and to be a safe person to come to with questions. I was not there to judge. I was not there to parent. My job was to educate.

Since all the girls in my group were sexually active in one way or another, I asked them the question “How does having sex make you feel? Is it like how you thought it would make you feel?” One by one all the girls admitted feelings of shame, confusion, anger. So we talked about that. One girl loudly blamed the boys she had sex with. It was always about them, never her. Maybe she needed a real man. So we talked about what was normal developmentally at various ages. About statutory rape. About consent. We spoke of birth control. Of saying no and what coercion can look like. About the fact that guys get to say no as well. We talked about abstinence and how that may be appropriate developmentally. And how that at any time one could choose to be abstinent, just as one could choose to be sexually active. We spoke about abuse, self-esteem, and how hard it is to be the only one who feels like she isn’t doing it when the rest of the world is. How once we have sex, we will forever carry around something from that person with us. We discussed consequences.

Then one week we talked about how sex made them feel, deep, deep down inside. Ashamed. Scared. Loved but afraid that love will go away if we say no. Powerful, but only for a little while.  Uncertain. Special. Dirty. Confused.

And that was when she raised her hand and whispered her fear that God could no longer love her.

My heart was breaking and I wanted to cry as I asked her why she thought that God couldn’t love her. Not wouldn’t or shouldn’t. Couldn’t. Like if there was one single act a human could perform that would cause God to turn away from us forever, that act would be sex outside of marriage.

She told us all in those quiet words that she was told by her youth pastor that a girl who has sex before marriage is forever damaged. That God prizes our purity above all. She painfully recounted how her parents would speak of the child of another family in church with condemnation. Why? Because this child had gotten pregnant at the age of sixteen. How horrible it was. How the troubles this family was now seeing were due to the sin of the child. And that the sin of the child was likely due to the sin of a parent. The rotten apple doesn’t fall far from the sinful tree. How another family was reeling from the news that their college aged daughter had been raped. Well, you know how those liberal state schools are – a breeding ground for sin and temptation. They should have sent her to a faith-based school. She was probably asking for it, anyway, with her skimpy shirts and short skirts.

I wanted to take those parents in hand and smack them. I wanted to share some words with that youth pastor. But even more, I wanted to take that girl and wrap my arms around her and tell her God loves her. God believes in her. And that we are not defined solely by our past or present. I shared my story. Molested as a young child by male babysitters. My own acting out and promiscuity. A boyfriend in college who was a predator and decided that broken me was just who he was looking for. Years of shame, anger, pain. Of carrying the guilt that wasn’t mine and acting out in unhealthy ways – not because sex is an unhealthy activity, but because of my motives.  And above all, of learning that God loves me.

He loved me when I was being abused. He loved me when I was the one doing the abusing. He loved me through it all. And that right there – that is humbling, my friends. It didn’t matter what was done to me or what I chose to do, God loved me through it. That didn’t negate the natural consequences of my choices, or the fact that I had to deal with the consequences of the choices and actions of other people. Consequences don’t just go away because God loves us. But that love, that perfect love, that can help us work through and heal from those consequences.

God’s love isn’t something that is relegated only for the pure. And who can judge purity anyway? God’s love is for all of us. God’s forgiveness is for all of us. For all have sinned. All have missed the mark. All have wandered from the law. All. Of. Us. And guess what. God loves us anyway.

This is what I was able to tell this girl. I didn’t tell her she needed to repent – so many in the church have the concept of repentance wrong anyway. I didn’t tell her God would forgive her. I told her what she needed to know. God does love her. God will always love her. That won’t make the physical, emotional and psychological consequences of having sex go away. But it removes the shame. And once the shame is gone, we can have open conversations about those consequences and whether we are willing to continue paying them or whether we want something different. She had been continuing having sex because she felt she was already so broken there were no other choices. It wasn’t the boys she was having sex with telling her this. It was her church. It was her parents. It was a culture that prizes virginity and purity more than it prizes people.

I don’t know where she is now. It’s been fifteen years. I hope she’s found a life she wants to live. I pray she knows God loves her with a fierce and holy love.

Please, dear Christians, think about this girl who was so broken because someone told her that her virginity was valued above all else, that sexual purity was the standard God was holding her to and to step outside of that was to invite the wrath of God. Think about her the next time someone comes to you with questions. Or comes to you broken. What are you going to live out for them? Are you going to condemn? Heap coals upon their already fragile heads? Or are you going to love them as Jesus loved? It’s not our place to judge. It’s not our job to save. It’s ours to love. We got that so mixed up somewhere along the way.

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Of Plants and Personalities

I have am the caretaker of four plants: three orchids and one geranium. It surprises me that the orchids in my care have survived this long, especially the one that I’ve had for almost four years. They have thrived when other plants have given up the ghost and they continue to delight me with gifts of new growth and periodically, of those wonderful flowers orchids are known for. All they require of me is water, some humidity, a little food once a month, and that I pay attention to the amount of direct sunlight they get per day. Orchids, I have learned, far prefer indirect sunlight.

The geranium, she is another story. This particular plant was purchased on a whim when the neighbor boy down the street came door to door selling plants to earn money for his band trip. The plant arrived in full bloom, healthy and happy in an outdoor hanging basket. She was hung on our deck where she would receive the right amount of light and, when it rained, a lovely soaking of water. I deadheaded her over the summer months, watered her when the rain was stingy, and enjoyed the riot of pink and white flowers she offered me for my trouble.

When summer came to a close and Jack Frost started drawing on the roof tops and windows and icing the trees with hoarfrost it was time to make a decision about the geranium. I could let her die, as I have for so many other annuals in the past. Or, I could bring her inside and nurture her through the winter. My husband convinced me to take door number two and I have been caring for this finicky plant ever since.

People are as diverse as plants. Perhaps even more so. In these last few months as I’ve had time to reflect and ponder (not always a good thing, let me tell you), I’ve learned a thing or two. Or perhaps it’s not that I’ve learned them, it’s that I’ve remembered them.

I have a dear friend who I love like a sister. I admire the hell out of her, I really do. She is tenacious and stubborn and sensitive and insightful and compassionate and seeks to understand. She is a warrior when it comes to her children and her marriage. She is not only willing to walk the hard road if it is the better path in the long run, she walks that path with her head high and thinks nothing of reminding God of what He has promised her.  She is beautiful inside and out and one of the strongest women I know.

It is her tenacity I have been observing in the last few months, her unwillingness to succumb to melancholy or self pity. Her drive to resolve and/or fix and issue. She is always pushing forward, always creating momentum. In this way, she is much like my husband. He’s a fixer. There is an issue, he has this internal drive to fix it. He’s not as gentle about it as my friend is, especially when the issue that has been observed is something I need to seriously address.

And this is where I differ from both of them. Yes, I want to resolve things as well, but I don’t have that strong internal drive to be tenacious. Or if I do, it’s on vacation and has been so for some time. I admire that drive while at the same time feel exhausted thinking about the energy and focus needed to stay the course. Next to my dear friend (and my husband) I feel like a sloth. I don’t attack issues. I come up to them as though they are a skittish horse, slowly and almost as though I’m not paying attention to it. I know it’s there, oh I’m constantly aware it’s there, but I tend to wind my way toward the issue, stepping toward it, acknowledging it, then stepping away to ponder what I learned in that encounter. I don’t have that singular focus, and have wondered for years if I have some form of ADD. It’s not that I’m distractible, though I am. It’s more that I need to give my subconscious time to work out parts of the issue without my conscious self getting in the way.

It seems to take forever for there to be progress when I look at myself and compare that to my friend’s journey. Sigh. I said it. Compare. I so admire my friend and her approach to life that when I look at my own I feel like something is wanting. I cry tears of frustration when I ask God why it seems to take so long for me to get to a new level of relationship with Him, why insights that appear to come to others so quickly take me forever to obtain. Why I hear Him tell me to rest when what I really want is to stop going around and around the same issue time and time again.

What has this to do with my orchids and my geranium? In addition to plants be so varied and different, with different needs and different optimal growing conditions, plants also accept what they are. My geranium doesn’t appear to want to be an orchid. My orchids seem genuinely pleased to be what they are and as long as I provide them with the right amounts of light, water, humidity and plant food, they flourish. I had to learn new ways to care for my geranium. I’m still learning it’s idiosyncrasies and needs. And am learning to not despair when leaves yellow and die. For every leaf and ever stem I need to cut back, a proliferation of new leaves appear to grow to recover the space. I’m awed with the tenacity of my geranium. It wants to thrive despite my often inadequate care.

I am not my friend. Or my husband. They have their strengths and their journeys. I can admire them. I can learn from them. But I should not try to be them. Maybe that’s why God tells me to rest, so I can give myself a break from, well, me and my desire to be someone I’m not. What I can take away from my friend’s journey is that her relationship with God is authentic and a living thing. Maybe I’m never going to have her level of tenacity or her ability to create forward momentum. Maybe what I can learn from her is to be real with God and to expect and anticipate Him being real with me. Maybe I’m asking the wrong questions when I ask God why or why not. Maybe instead I should ask what now. What does He want to give me now. Who does He want to be for me so I can grow, so I can overcome. So I can be more the person He created me to be. Maybe, instead of striving to embody what I admire in my friend, I should find those things God has placed within me so I can admire His handiwork. Just like I admire the nuances and complexities He created within the plants in my care.

It’s Enough To Drive You Crazy If You Let It

I woke up this morning to the sound of my dog panting in my ear, urging me to get up and start my day. Which I did. If he’s not bothering the husband and resorting to me, that means he must go outside. NOW!

I sluggishly got out of bed, threw on a robe, and escorted the wee beastie to the door, where he promptly went outside and did his business. I let him back in and returned to the bedroom, ready to fall back into bed -and hopefully more blissful slumber – when I glanced at the clock. Holy Crap, it was 9:00am. I was so late for work! Why didn’t my husband wake me before he left for his job? Why didn’t my alarm go off? Where the gods conspiring against me?

I rushed to the shower, leaving a trail of pyjamas as I went, turned the water on full heat and let the inferno burn the cobwebs from my brain. Just as I was shampooing my hair it hit me.

I am no longer employed. All this rushing around was due to a habit honed through years of holding down a job. And as of last Friday, I no longer had a job. 

This is not a bad thing. I was not fired or downsized. I tendered my resignation because I was burned out and my health was now at risk. I needed to step away from the stress and the deadlines and the stress of other people in order to let my body reset. I am not Wonder Woman, and yet for the last year, I had been ignoring the signs and pushing myself to meet expectations and deadlines at work. And it finally caught up with me. 

So I’m on a self-funded sabbatical, if you will. For the next three to six months instead of focusing on my ‘career’ and working outside the home, I will be venturing forth on a journey of healing. Whole person healing. 

What does that mean? My husband asked that question. He understands that I need time and patience and perhaps medical therapies to wrangle my health issues under some semblance of control. And I’m laughing at the word control because believing I had everything under control is part of what got me into this situation in the first place. So not control, then. My body and I need to come to an understanding and in order to accomplish this I need the time and space to allow for healing to take place. I will have good days. I will have bad days. I will continue to push my body’s boundaries and my body will continue to push back. We’ve become strangers, my body and I, and this time is necessary for us to get to know each other anew. 

That’s only part of what I envision. I also want to spend time connecting with God in a deeper, more relational way. I want to work on some toxic thinking through the use of methodologies such as DBT and the 21 Day Brain Detox. I want to clean and declutter my living space so both my husband and myself can enjoy our home in a new way. I want to eat a healthier diet and find ways to move my body that I enjoy. I want to spend time in nature. I want to reconnect with my creative side and write start writing fiction again – only this time without fear and self-judgement. 

That’s a lot to ask of 3-6 months. I look at it this way – this time where I am not employed will give me the space and time to start and to gain momentum in these areas. Momentum I hope to carry with me when/if the time comes where I need to step back into the corporate world. This time will also give me space to explore possibilities. I’ve been closed off and blind to possibilities for so long, it’s strange to think that I have permission to explore them. 

This entire venture is strange to me, which is likely why at 9:00 am this morning, day three of my sabbatical, I had a freak out and starting furiously rushing around. It hasn’t completely settled within me that the expectations and pursuit of career are on hold for a time and my focus can be on, well, me. 

 

Am I Standing Still?

As I write this, we are 36 days into a new year. I used to love New Year’s Day. There was this bright promise of a fresh start. The sort of fresh start that came with the beginning of summer and the end of a school year with nothing but freedom ahead until September. And reprised again with a new school year, new teachers, new things to learn. New beginnings. Yet, when New Year’s spun around, it didn’t seem to spin with it any new beginnings. It seems to…stand still.

I look around me and I see the same things I see every day. Home renovations that drag on and on. Assignments at work that I feel woefully unequipped to fulfill. Snow. Bitter cold. A Father who seems rather silent.

Winter is a time for the land to lay fallow, dormant. The land is allowed to replenish nutrients and, in some cases, heal. Sometimes healing takes more than a season. Sometimes it can take years. Land that has been deeply saturated with toxins takes decades to rejuvenate and become fertile once again. Much activity takes place beneath the surface and what looks still is full of unseen activity.

I feel like that land. Tired and battered and barely gasping with life, now lying dormant. That new beginning? It feels so far off in the future that it might as well not exist right now. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe I need to stand still in order to grow.

I didn’t realize just how scared I was until last year. I’ve been through therapy. I’ve been a therapist. I’ve worked as a life coach and have worked with a life coach. All of this is to say, I’m no stranger to doing the work. I am responsible for my happiness; that task doesn’t fall to anyone else. So, when a mirror was held up to me I had to take a long, hard look. Sure, work had been done and I had grown and become a stronger person. Stronger for what?

This last year has taught me, or rather reinforced for me, the truth that God will give us what we need to become a little stronger, a little more who He knows we are. He wants to provide for us, to be for us what we need in this moment. And when this moment is finished, He wants to be what we need next. To think that we’re finished, that the overcoming and growing and healing is finished is perhaps arrogant. Phew, I dealt with my borderline grandmother. That was hard work. But, hey, I’m finished now. I’m complete. Right.

I’m a trained therapist, you would think I would know better. Life is a process. A journey. We have victories along the way and God does indeed provide what we need in this moment. And a little more because He knows what’s ahead. There’s another beginning somewhere ahead of me. There’s another story to write, another passion to pursue, another layer to my purpose. But right now, it’s time to lay fallow. To renew. To grow. And perhaps to learn anew who God is for me. To spend time in a word that is near and dear to my heart and rely upon the Holy Spirit to write it upon my heart. And give it meaning in a new way.

In a sense, isn’t that a new beginning? It’s not the lush growth of spring or the wildness of summer. It’s not the loamy richness of autumn. It’s the rest of winter. Resting is not standing still. It’s allowing for rejuvenation and healing. It’s finding that secret sacred space in the Holy Spirit where our wells are filled to overflowing within the empty and broken places inside us. It’s a quiet revolution that yields a quiet strength.

Who Needs Sleep?

I can’t sleep. I would love to blame this on my husband’s propensity to snore, but alas, this is not the case for tonight. My mind is full of other things. Not spinning out of control in a spiral of self-doubt as I am wont to do. No, I’m reflecting on my experiences over the last few weeks, encounters I have had with a woman who is called to spiritual warfare. Marji is a spiritual counselor, one whom I had heard of prior to last month, but not someone I thought I would ever see in a professional capacity.

Each of us is the product of two people joining their DNA. Within that genetic mapping are things such as eye color, bone structure, body type. Personality traits are in there somewhere, though personality is also molded by environment and experience. I believe we are also given familial curses and blessings of a spiritual nature. These can pass through to us from generations of ancestors past or from the very people who donated chromosomes for our own development. Ever wonder why tragedy befalls certain families generation after generation? Could it be that they are just unlucky? Perhaps. Or perhaps there is a curse on their family line, some agreement an ancestor made with a demon, wittingly or unwittingly. Legal ground is given and passes through the family for generations. A spiritual entailment, if you will.

Generational curses on a family line. I buy that. I struggled with this concept several years ago. Why would God punish me for something one of my great-great-great relative did so very long ago? But what if it isn’t God punishing us as proxies for another’s sin? What if generational curses are something else entirely?  What if one of those greats gave consent for evil and made agreements that allowed for legal access to all those who came after? What if God wants to do a good work in us but until we recognize the generational issues and break those agreements, we have reached a plateau in our growth?

I had reached a plateau. My mind knows so many truths about God, about my identity, about what a relationship with God can really look like. Yet I was stuck, unable to move past the knowing to the being. Nothing I tried worked. And I continued to feel as though I was living under a fog. Something wasn’t right. When somethings isn’t right with our bodies we see the doctor. When something is wrong with us spiritually, who do we call? I called Marji.

After two sessions with Marji I know something has shifted. I’m thankful for Marji’s part in starting me on the process. But I am in no way carrying around the illusion that after some prayers and renunciations I am finished the work. Life is a process. There are going to be seasons of growth and seasons of rest. I am in a season of growth.

I’m not sure how I feel about everything Marji said or did during our time together. I don’t think anyone person has an absolute picture of God and the grand scheme of His plans, so I try not to discount others when they say or do something that feels contrary to my experience of God. There is this one thing that is niggling at me, and it doesn’t feel quite right. I don’t know if it’s because Marji’s knowledge is a bit more expanded than my own, but when we spoke of chronic illness I was taken aback with her view.

If I understand Marji correctly, her view of illness chronic illness and disease is that it is a physical manifestation of a spiritual issue. Not necessarily sin per se, but oppression of our spiritual nature. I walked away from our sessions feeling like she believed that my chronic illness should now be healed because I have taken back legal ground in my spirituality and that part of my being is no longer being influenced by negative agreements.

I’m not sure where I stand on healing. I know people who have been healed of epilepsy, fibromyalgia, chronic pain. And not through medical intervention. So I believe there can be complete and total healing of the body. I also know people who have prayed for physical healing and their cancer was not put in remission, but their inner lives were strengthened and emotional wounding was healed in astonishing ways. Do I believe in healing? Yes, absolutely. Do I believe that illness in the body is a manifestation of what we believe or of our spiritual health? I’m not going to say no to this. I’ve seen too many things to say no. Read too much on epigenetics to say no. However, I do not believe that our physical afflictions are so easily addressed through spiritual means.

In a perfect world, in Eden, there would not be sickness, mental illness, relational dysfunction, poor self-esteem, abuse, greed…any of the things that impact and afflict us today. We do not live in a perfect world. Our bodies degrade as we age. Our genetic stew can predispose us to certain ailments and issues. And some of these may follow us to the grave. Does this mean we have done something wrong, made a misstep somewhere in our spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental journeys? I don’t think so. If that were the case, then the small child who has cerebral palsy has done something wrong to deserve such an affliction and God is a capricious God who doesn’t look at us with love and care, but with judgement.

I feel like I’m speaking out of both sides of my mouth with this. What I can say is I don’t have the answers and I am not comfortable with a world view where sickness and suffering is always because something is wrong in the spiritual. I feel like that world view doesn’t look at people as holistic beings, but wants to separate out the spiritual and the physical. Wants to always look for cause and effect.

I’m the first to admit it’s nice to be able to put things in neat little boxes, label them, tape them up, and put them on a shelf. I don’t know that life can be reasoned through this way. I wish it was that easy. Good and bad. Black and white. The world is full of shades of grey. Mystery. Unknown. It’s the human struggle to bring meaning to our world. To struggle through the unknown and explain it. Many good things have come from this. And I know in this period of growth that’s part of the process – the struggle. And admitting what I thought I knew and believed, well, maybe I didn’t have the full picture and need more information. And maybe I need to let some things go and have faith that if it’s really important for my salvation, for my health and wellbeing, the answers will be there. Eventually.

These are the thoughts that can keep me up at night.