We’re Better Than Alright

It’s been raining for the last few days. I love the rain. I want to dance in the rain, call down the thunder and revel in the electric charges that slither across my skin. I used to. Not call down the thunder. But I used to dance and spin, my face to the sky and just breath in God.

I wonder why I don’t do that anymore.

I’ve been asking God for a sign. For something just for me. Something that tells me He loves me. That Her kindness is a mantle covering me. I had a sign last summer when I saw orcas breaching the ocean’s surface in a stunning display of strength and beauty. I love orcas. If I believed in spirit animals, they would be mine, these amazing wolves of the sea. Something stills and settles when I see them in nature. Something roars with pain when I see them in captivity.

But I live far away from the ocean so orcas can’t be my only sign. I need something else I can carry with me.

During one of my rain-soaked errand runs I turned on the radio and this song started playing. It’s about love and loyalty but I felt this zing through my soul. This might have been penned as a haunting love song, but it took on a deeper more personal meaning as the words flowed over, around, and through me. Between the Raindrops by Lifehouse. I have some of their music on my iPod, and sure enough this song was lurking there. I don’t remember downloading it. The only album I remember gettings is No Name Face. Regardless, there it was. I’ve been playing it on repeat. That zing is still there.

Sometimes we need a reminder that we aren’t alone. We need to know that God smiles on us. That He’s there with a smile and a promise. Those obstacles, He’s not going to let us figure them out on our own. He’s right there, walking between the raindrops with us.

I needed this promise in a visceral way I can’t explain. The chorus undid me, still does.

Walking between the raindrops
Riding the aftershock beside you
Off into the sunset
Living like there’s nothing left to lose
Chasing after gold mines
Crossing the fine lines we knew
Hold on and take a breath
I’ll be here every step
Walking between the raindrops with you

And then there’s the second verse that holds this acknowledgement. The world is f’ed up sometimes, but God promises to stay. I don’t think this is what the writers of the song had in mind. but I see God saying these words to me. Together, you bet we’re better than alright.

The world’s such a crazy place
When the walls come down
You’ll know I’m here to stay
There’s nothing I would change
Knowing that together everything that’s in our way
We’re better than alright

Sometimes we need a sign. Something we can hold on to. I’m holding on to this with both hands.

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Why You Gotta Be So Mean?

I was expecting the usual quiet between the morning get-to-work-on-time rush and the just-finished-working-out crowds when I entered my favorite café. It seemed that as soon as I sat down, that quiet buzz quickly turned into something frenetic and loud. Distracted, I gave up all pretense of writing and used my laptop as a prop as I settled in for some people watching.

As I sat covertly people watching, a couple of women sat down at the table behind me. They wore the typical suburban housewife uniform of yoga pants, running shoes, designer t-shirt (no logo, thank you very much), and immaculate fleece jackets in subdued tones. It wasn’t what they were wearing that struck me. It was how easily they verbally eviscerated another woman in their circle of “friends”.

This absent third-party apparently tried too hard and yet not hard enough. Her parenting style wasn’t aggressive enough. She was too permissive with her children while also being too restrictive. Poor kids weren’t allowed to go see an R rated movie. Who puts those restrictions on a 16  year-old? Gasp!

From parenting, they moved on to attack her clothing, her car, her marriage, her involvement at church, her desire to work part-time. This woman did nothing right. Right as they were in the middle of tearing apart this woman’s career of choice, she walked into the café. These two women smiled and waved at her, motioned her to their table. They were all concern and goodwill when she sat down and conversation shifted away from her character assassination to how everyone’s spring break vacations went and what summer activities was everyone planning for their precious snowflakes this summer.

I left the café soon after. I had started to feel too deeply my own woundedness and found myself wanting to judge this group of women only knowing them through this single one-sided interaction. It was time to go and immerse myself in something beautiful so I could remember that deep and profound goodness exists. As I left I prayed for beautiful encounters for all these women. We all need the healing that comes from beauty and good.

Later that evening I witnessed something that chilled me and made my claws come out. A daughter had just completed her very first recital, with an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction. Nothing awful, it seems her skirt wasn’t fitted correctly and shifted around on her hips to the point where she had to futz with it during a portion of her recital. No biggie, right? Her older siblings brutally mocked her for it. I get sibling rivalry. What I don’t get, and never condone, is attacking a sibling, removing all joy from an experience or an accomplishment, and in return attacking the identity of another person. Even minimizing their place within the family or society. The parent started to say a few distracted things to move the older siblings away from verbal flaying, and then did  something unthinkable. The parent actively encouraged the mocking by suggesting they ask others who were going to attend the recital later in the weekend to see if the skirt continued to be a problem.

This is not done. This is giving permission to be mean and eradicates any sense of kindness and compassion. It encourages finding fault and exploiting it. I had to say something, especially given that the family in question are practicing evangelical Christians. By encouraging such behavior, you are not modeling Christian values, you are modeling meanness and divisiveness. You are making it okay to cause others pain. And you are doing so to your own family. There is NO place for this. Ever!

I wish I was shocked by this behavior. That it wasn’t normative in circles of faith, or in society in general. I wish I could say I have never been on the giving or receiving end myself. I haven’t given into this type of behavior in a long time, but I recall a time when it was so easy to sit with a small group of women and pick someone apart all in the name of care and concern. Nothing is further from the truth. Speaking ill of someone is not care. It’s not life-giving. It steals goodness and care. It breathes life into malice. Nothing good can ever come from gossip and character assassination. Healthy relationships aren’t built on a foundation of unkind interactions. And while lashing out may be a symptom of a deep hurt or insecurity, that also doesn’t make it okay. It’s a maladaptive interrelational strategy that does immense harm.

I see this play out in Christian circles all the time. Gossip can be given a pass if one is speaking about another out of concern. It’s almost assumed  everyone knows everyone else’s business and as long as you promise to pray for the individual or family in question, the careful deconstruction of personal and private matters is allowed. And we can be so mean to each other. It reminds me of being the poor family in an up and coming neighborhood in a small town. I had to take the judgement and the ‘poor dear, God bless her’ attitudes with a smile. I had to be okay with “well, dear, we’ll pray for you” when things were hard instead of having someone come alongside me and show me kindness. When kindness was offered, I was too cynical and disbelieving to accept it.

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he replied, quoting from the Torah and said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40). He said we were to love, first God, then ourselves, and then everyone else. 

What is love? If we look again at the Bible, love is seen in every word and every work of God. There is even a passage that is read during weddings that clearly shows us the characteristics of love.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.                                                                                               (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

It’s right there for us in black and white and no where do I see any exceptions for gossip, for tearing down character, for meanness.

I don’t always live this. It’s hard to live up to. But that’s the joy of being human. To be human is to struggle toward becoming our better selves. It’s also important for me to remember that God feels this way about each and every one of us. The passage above, that’s God. If God is all things good, then God is indeed love and loves us all. If we are to love God, we come closer to God’s heart and begin to understand that God is patient, God is kind. God keeps no records of wrongs. Wrap yourself up in that amazing, life honoring goodness. In that love.

It’s difficult to be mean when I see just how much God loves me. You. The world.

You’re Never Going to Break My Soul

Days like today I’m glad I’m not a parent. My maternal lioness is pacing and roaring, wanting to slash at something. Someone. It’s a little disturbing just how much my inner lioness wants off her leash.

One of my dearest friends is feeling deep emotional pain. The kind of pain that is born from cutting betrayal. I want to curl myself around her and protect her from her husband’s cold rage and his gaslighting. I want to walk up to him and punch him in the balls, pack his bags, and kick his ass on his way to the curb. My lioness claws as me, begging me to let her out. She will protect to the death. She will deliver swift justice. Then she will lay down at my friend’s feet and purr, letting her know that things will be okay.

There are words for what she is going through. The words are dark and are spoken in hushed tones, if spoken of at all. Abuse. My friend is being abused by her husband. Why? From what I am aware, because he doesn’t like himself and he doesn’t like his life. He’s likely jealous of the relationship my friend has with her daughters. He’s tired of being asked to step up and be a good father, a good husband. He earns a very good living and is very good at his job. Brilliant, in fact. He’s been courted by companies who are willing to pay him extremely well to do what he does.

When he comes home, it’s like he regresses to a teenager. He plops down on the couch and wants to play with his iPad or play video games. Or sleep. He doesn’t help with the house. He doesn’t clean. He doesn’t take care of the house or the yard. He ignores his children at best and gaslights them at worst. My friend carries the heavy load of maintaining the house, raising and loving her children. If she doesn’t do it, things don’t get done. Does he help? Only when it is asked or demanded of him, and even then begrudgingly. I’ve seen this in action. If he is asked to step out of his comfort, he lashes out and punishes. It’s insidious. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you just think something is off. I know what to look for. I worked with abuse victims for a few years. I was one.

There is a death occurring. My friend has lost her hopes in what her marriage could be. She’s lost who she thought her husband was and the potential of their partnership. She’s lost feeling safe in her own home. These deaths cut like knives into wounds that haven’t been allowed to heal. The emotional and psychological hits keep coming.

Abuse is never okay. NEVER. It doesn’t matter if a person has a deep well of self-loathing or if a person feels trapped in a life they didn’t sign up for. No matter how angry, how desparate, how hurt a person is, it’s never okay to lash out at others. It’s really not okay to play games, fuck with another person’s perception of reality. Crazy making is a special hell. A former boyfriend was a master at this. He lied with such sincerity everyone around him thought he was broken and vulnerable. When someone came too close to seeing his true self, he started in with comments designed to make a person doubt themselves. Doubt the truth. With emotional emotional manipulation meant to shut the person down.

I questioned my sanity for almost two years. I started to believe that I had a problem. I took responsibility for the sexual abuse he dished out and for the emotional manipulation. For making him so angry he wrestled me to the ground and used brute force to subdue me and degrade me. Most of the time he didn’t even need to touch me. A well placed comment sent me to my metaphorical knees begging him to love me, trying to convince him I was sorry for whatever imagined slight I had undertaken. I was putty in his hands.

It took therapy with a highly qualified therapist and a year in prayer demanding God show me what was real before I felt any sort of balance. By the time I met my husband, I had a firm grasp on what had occurred. And yet it wasn’t until I was working with victims of abuse that I was able to apply that word to my own experience. I had been abused. I didn’t deserve any of what he had dished out. I wasn’t broken or crazy. It took me longer to realize that the church generally has very naive views about abuse. Many men and women are encouraged to stay in an abusive marriage. The abuser is believed over the victim because most abusers are cunning and master manipulators. Wives are banged over the head with the call to submit. Where is the call to love? Abuse is not love. It never was. It never will be. So women, and men, stay, believing if they just love their spouse more purely, if they can fix themselves (lose themselves) to become better christians, better spouses, better at anticipating behavior and adapting their own, the abuse will stop. Spouting bible verses and higher standards to this type of situation does not work. It reinforces the abuse. It leaves a person not only abused by their partner but by the very faith community that should be holding people accountable and a safe haven for the vulnerable.

Love does not fix abuse. You cannot love the abusive behavior out of someone. Therapy, the willingness to see the self clearly, learning new skills such as anger management, and remorse can help an abusive person. It may not be enough to restore a relationship, however. You know what? That’s okay. There is no guarantee that any relationship that has been systematically destroyed can be restored. God doesn’t promise this.

Knowing what I know about spousal/partner abuse, knowing my friend, I have a hard time leashing my inner lioness. I need to. She doesn’t need me to slay her dragon. She needs my love and compassion and unwavering support. She needs me to speak the truth, but to also speak love and hope. When she is unable to see a future where she is free to be herself in all her beautiful glory, I can hold that future for her. And I demand that God take note and hold her husband to account. Abuse, no matter whether it is intentional, premeditated, or not, is never okay. NEVER. I believe God will step in and provide restitution for those who suffer at the hand of someone else. God is so much bigger, so much kinder, so much more than we can imagine. I’m not naive enough to believe that everyone in an abusive situation will be able to leave it. Or have the resources to heal on the most foundational of levels. But God sees all the suffering.

I pray that for my friend, God will recompense her for more than what her husband has taken away. That God will hold her husband to account for his beliefs and actions. And that she will be free. She is strong enough. She is resilient and resourceful. She is not afraid of the truth. Not afraid of entering into the often difficult work of healing and skill building. She is, quite honestly, amazing.

If you know someone who is being abused, please do more than pray. Educate yourself. Speak with compassion. Find resources so when your loved one/friend is ready s/he can take the steps to move forward. Love them. Always love them. Don’t judge the decisions they make out of self-preservation. Cry with them. Laugh with them. Walk beside them. Enter in. Hold a better future for them. Be patient. Be kind. Be honest and compassionate. Speaking as one who was abused and had no one who believed me while I was in it, believe them. Stand witness to their stories. Be willing to walk alongside them for as long as they need you to. Be a safe place. If you need to do your own work in order to be that safe place, do so. The world is a messy place. Relationships can be messy. Don’t be afraid to love someone in all their messy glory.

Sex: The Good, The Bad, The Christian

Sometimes my world swirls in chaos and I get lost in the kaleidoscope colors. I need to choose a sliver of light in the prism and grab hold. In my current state of chaos I have grabbed a sliver of incandescent blue light. A light that represents sex, a subject that has been on my mind as of late.

I like sex. When it’s good, it’s hot and sticky and so full of sensation that I want to stay in that moment forever. I love getting lost in sensation, having the focus of my world narrow down to just the two of us. To just touch and taste and smell and sound. When it’s good, sex transports us to that island where two people are so focused on each other, the rest of the world fades to black. Oh god, is that good.

When it’s bad, sex can erode a person’s sense of self. I’m not talking about the sex a couple has when they are just learning each other, that potentially bumbling and inadequate sex. Nor am I talking about abusive sex. That’s a whole other blog post. I’m talking about selfish sex. Sex where you feel coerced or lacking.  When the silent treatment is used to punish. Or when a partner is so caught up in what s/he wants that no thought is given to the other. When sex is requested when there is anger or hurt. Angry sex may seem like a good idea in novels and movies, but in reality, it sucks. We use what should be one of the most intimate of acts and we punish each other.  Or we lay back in silence, fuming, not allowing ourselves to sink into the pleasure, creating a rift in relationship that devastates.

I’ve had my share of good sex and bad sex. I far prefer good sex. I’m a sensualist. I process and experience my world through not just my intellect and spirituality, but also through my senses. I have been known to sit on a beach with my eyes closed, just listening to the rush of waves, feeling the subtle dampness on my skin, breathing in the lush green scents. Or tilting my head to the sun as though every pore could absorb that radiant heat. This is how I experience my world. And during good sex, all my senses are heightened. During bad sex, well, those same senses are heightened as well. Which may be why the bad sex is so easy to remember.

Emotion enhances memory. Negative emotion can actually enhance memory more than positive emotion (online citation). If sex was bad due to anger, shame, even hate, that experience may be logged with more accurately than sex that was achingly beautiful. Have enough of this bad sex and we may find ourselves conditioned to associate sex with anger, sadness, shame, despair. The joy is gone. The delight in discovery is swept away. No longer do we rush toward our partner with lustful abandon. Sex becomes something to avoid or to endure. We lay back, spread our legs and try to think of England. Or we come at the act with such disgust or anger that sex becomes a war zone with you as a key combatant.

Sex should never be used as a weapon. Shame should never enter the bedroom (or living room, dining room, backseat of the car, or wherever you might enjoy getting freaky). Coercion, anger, disgust have no place with sex. I don’t know all the answers as to how to eliminate the darker side of sex. I know it can be done. My husband and I, we aren’t perfect. We have used sex as currency. We have used sex to punish. We can admit to what we are doing and we can work through healing. Thankfully, we have had far more good sex than dark sex. And through curiosity, education, and practice we are able to overcome inadequate sex. Trust and communication are so important. Lose one or both of those and…it’s going to be bad.

What does this have to do with my blog? Well, my last post was about sex and shame, two words which should never ever be seen together. How are we supposed to know what sex can be like if we don’t educate ourselves? If we don’t talk about it? How are we supposed to feel good about ourselves as sexual beings if the messages we hear are only about the darker side of sex? Or about shame?

I am a christian and I love sex. I have experienced the dark side. I have had sex used as a weapon against me and I still love sex. Why? Because I was able to talk about it. I had people at various points in my life who were willing and able to help me figure out what sex is really supposed to be and how it could make me feel. God created me with primary and secondary sexual organs. God gave me, a woman, an organ where it’s sole purpose is pleasure.  I have a partner who has a high sex drive and while not always willing to go where I want to go, understands that sex is about sensation as much as it can be about intimacy.

Too many people, too many Christians, don’t talk about sex. There is little discussion about sexuality, sensuality, or how sex is more than procreation or marital duty. Sexuality is more than the Kama Sutra or pornography. It’s not just an act. Sex done right is the most intimate expression of relationship, of love. It satisfies a hunger deep within us we didn’t even know we had.

It’s beyond time to  start the dialogue. I hope you join me.

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.