american christian culture

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.

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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.

Identity Crisis

There is something that has been gnawing away at me for some time. It claws at me when I read articles about Christian ministries taunting atheists with billboards. It infuriates me when I become aware of teachings in the church that create more shame-filled rules we can’t live up to. It slaps at me when friends jokingly ask for permission to skip church for reasons other than illness. It breaks my heart when I hear it subtly wend its way into sermons and bible studies at church.

What is it? Identity. Or rather a lack of understanding who Jesus is and what that means for a Christian’s identity. I am still learning about my identity in Christ and some days I feel as though I’m on shaky ground. But I know enough to know this:

  1. God is amazing and we are made in His image so that must make us pretty amazing, too
  2. Failure is not a bad word. We learn as much if not more through failure as we do through success
  3. Asking questions about our faith and what we believe about God is okay
  4. There is a lot of fear out there in the Church, a fear of change, a fear of not being right, fear of not being good enough, fear of what others think
  5. When we are touched by the astounding love of God, fear starts to take a backseat to joy
  6. What the Church needs, what the world needs, what you and I need is not another set of rules we can never live up to or shame when we fail to meet expectations

What we need is a lot more Jesus and a lot less religion, fear, shame and condemnation. We need compassion and kindness and acceptance. We need God, not some bull shit that’s passed around as The Way. This got me thinking, as I do, about who God really is and who His bride is really supposed to be. I have to say, I don’t think we have it right most of the time.

Think for a moment. What if the Church were to shed its rules and religion? What would happen if we no longer had to sit in a pew on Sunday and attend programming during the week to be considered a person of faith?

What would the Church and Christian ministry look like if we stopped wasting time shaming people and started loving people? Not for who they are, but for who God says they are? What if we took Jesus’ teachings to heart and instead of debasing and degrading our enemies, we prayed for them and loved them ans showed them compassion?

What if we stopped preaching and started listening? Not just with our ears but with our hearts? What if we allowed our hearts to break for the broken? What if we cared for the widows and the orphans instead of leaving that for the government? What if we stopped judging and started seeking to understand?

What if we were unafraid of change in the culture around us? What if we stopped digging in our heels when it comes to belief systems that just don’t work and embrace seeking the truth?

What if instead of trying to isolate our youth and children from the world around us we taught them that critical thinking and faith can go hand in hand and that loving God does not mean hiding away from the world? What if we started talking to our youth and children about what is happening in our world with regard to sex and consumerism and lifestyle choices and talked about what Jesus did with the tax collectors and the prostitutes and the forgotten. What if we showed them that instead of condemning others for harmful choices, we teach them to have compassion? And help them understand that love is stronger than hate?

What if we stopped pitting creationism against evolution and admitted that science and faith both have a place in the world and at the end fo the day we don’t really know how the earth was formed, just that God was behind it all? What if we stopped being afraid that science could really one day debunk God as a myth and start embracing science for what it is, a tool to help us understand the world in which we live?

What if we stopped being gnostics and stopped treating the flesh as evil? What if we admitted that God loves sex and sex is a wonderful thing and God wants us to enjoy it? What if we stopped trying to hijack marriage as a Christian institution and treat it as the civil contract it really is? What if we talked of healthy boundaries and loving others as we love ourselves instead of talking against dating and sex before marriage and abortion? What if we did away with all shame language when it comes to people and their choices?

What if we let go of our fear of failure and embraced the messiness of life and the gift of second chances? What if we were the first to extend the hand of hope and healing instead of slapping down with shame and fear? What if we started to see ourselves as new creations instead of sinners saved by grace who still battle a sinful nature? What if sin wasn’t the issue anymore?

What if we finally stood up for who we really are in Christ instead of standing against all the things we think are wrong with the world?

The Church has been having an identity crisis, it seems, ever since the first century. I’m not telling you to throw the baby out with the bath water because the Church is the Bride of Christ and before we decide we love her or hate her we have to remember one thing. We are her.

Every single one of us is part of the Bride. If Jesus loves us in the way a good and caring and compassionate man loves his wife, then we need to start looking at ourselves differently. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about because you haven’t experienced that kind of love, I suggest you look at some very well written romance novels, especially those written by Nora Roberts. The love between a man and a woman is an epic thing that is never taken lightly in a solid romance novel. I should know, I read a lot of them.

Jesus looks at us not as we are or as we think we are. He sees us for who we really are. Who God created us to be. I know it’s radical, but God looks at everyone this way. Everyone. God created everyone in His image, not just a chosen few. If we start here to really look at who we are, think of everything that changes. For those of us who live in relationship with God we can let go of all the false beliefs that hold us hostage to fear and shame. We can start to love ourselves and know ourselves anew. And we start to look at everyone around us the same way.

Our identity, it starts with Jesus and with compassion and truth.If any one tells you anything different, thank them for their opinion and love them. They may not understand they have an identity crisis.