Sex Culture, Christians, and a Call for a New Conversation

THE WRONG CONVERSATION
Recent discussions sparked by John Crist’s public confession have led me into a strange land, one where I spend a lot of time thinking about the generational differences of sexual behavior, beliefs, and norms. What I’m realizing, now more than ever, is that the western evangelical Church (the Christian subculture I am a part of) is woefully ignorant about what is actually happening in the sexual culture of today’s teens and young adults. This is especially apparent when sexual sin and misconduct within the Church become the topic of public debate.

Photo by Alejandra Quiroz on Unsplash

After the story of John Crist broke, many prominent Christian voices asked, not for the first time, how we can best address and care for those who “fall” into temptation, commit “sexual sin,” and experience “moral failure.” Usually, by the time the Church starts to engage in a conversation publicly, individual churches are already engaging in similar conversations. Individual churches are talking about sexual temptation, sin, and moral failure – from the pulpit, in our small groups, at youth group. There’s no shortage of books, studies, or sermons on sex, sexual sin, and how to avoid it. Our problem isn’t that we’re not having the conversation – our problem is that we’re having the wrong conversation.

Most people who are familiar with the sexual culture of today were not surprised by John Crist’s confession, his behavior, or the behavior of the women who willingly engaged in sexual activity with him. (For the purposes of this post, I am only referring to Crist’s confessed behavior and not the allegations made against him.) Crist’s behavior is well within the norm of sexual behavior today. He is not unique, unusual, or an outlier among single Christian men. His actions are, sadly, typical. And that is why the Church’s conversation about sexual sin and moral failures misses the mark: it assumes a collective moral standard, namely that sexual activity (intercourse, oral sex, sexting, etc.) outside of marriage is wrong, is a sin in the eyes of God. But what if there is no collective moral standard?

If that’s the case, and I humbly suggest it is, then we need to stop, back up, and begin a new conversation. A conversation about what we really believe about sex. Not just what we say we believe but what we actually do, how we act, how we live, how we treat ourselves and other people with our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls.

This post is just my small way of opening up that new conversation. Of bringing to light what hides in the shadows. I know this post is ridiculously long but only because there is a TON of information, provided not only by me but by unnamed collaborators who also believe it’s important for you to read this. You may think you can’t afford to spend time reading it, but we think you can’t afford not to.

An Unlikely Divide
I think it’s safe to assume that most church leadership is over the age of 35, consisting largely of Baby Boomers and to a lesser degree, GenXers like me (there are simply fewer Xers in the world). Admittedly, we’re not exactly poster children for sexual restraint. Boomers led the free-love sexual revolution, and Xers carried on the practice, albeit minus the free-love ideology. At first glance, one might think that makes Boomers and Xers less likely to experience a wide ideological gap between them and the next generations. However, in some ways, I think it has blinded them.

Personally, I viewed my pre-Jesus self and my generation as widely accepting of sexual activity outside of marriage. The generations that came after us, Millennials and iGens (or GenZ), didn’t seem all that different. As a result, I assumed that I understood, at least on a basic level, the sexual landscape of younger generations. I was wrong.

Entering the Christian subculture as a young adult blinded me in other ways. For example, when I became a believer, I came to understand that sex outside of marriage was wrong. Not just because someone said so, but because I experienced its emotional and spiritual consequences. I was, as we say in Christian circles, convicted. Therefore, I assumed that most other people must experience these same consequences, and if they just took a moment to examine themselves, they would ultimately experience the same conviction. Again, I was wrong.


GENERATIONAL DIFFERENCES
So what’s so different about this generation of teens and young adults? I mean sex is sex, right? Ummm sure…but sex culture changes. And wow, how things have changed. Over the years, I have had the privilege of getting to know some of these teens and young adults. What a gift they are! And how honored I am that they have given me a glimpse of what it’s like inside their universe, including the sexual atmosphere of their generation. In turn, I’ve shared with them about the sexual behaviors, beliefs, and norms of my generation. It has been more than an education – it has been a re-education – for all of us.

Look, for some of you, this next section may be a little uncomfortable, shocking, even painful. The truth hurts sometimes. But it’s necessary. However unlikely the sexual culture generation gap may be, it’s real. And it’s significant. And until we understand the differences, we, the Church, can’t have an honest or effective conversation about the issues of sex and morality.

A few notes before you continue:
1. My “Back in My Day” personal experiences and observations below are that of a white, female teenager from a non-religious, non-traditional, non-affluent family, growing up in a predominantly white, affluent, New England suburb in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
2. Those of younger generations from whom I’ve learned are mostly, but not exclusively, Christian females growing up in families of varying socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds in New England.
3. I can only address the differences between Christian and non-religious sex culture (if and when such differences exist) when commenting on current culture; this is because I was not familiar with the Christian subculture as a teen or young adult. 
4. What follows is explicit because it has to be. Proceed at your own risk. 

{ 1 } The Bases
I start with The Bases because this is often a teen/tween’s first introduction to the sexual norms and expectations of their day. They are a crude and immature measurement of sexual behavior, because they are created by and for immature individuals. 

Back in My Day:

  • 1st Kissing
  • 2nd Male touching a female’s breasts
  • 3rd Male touching a female’s vaginal area
  • Home/4th Sexual intercourse
  • Of note:
    • Oral sex, anal sex, and females touching males were not included in The Bases. They were not exactly anomalies, but they were not the norm.
    • Language surrounding The Bases was primarily about how far males advanced with females. One commonly asked males, “How far did you get with her?” and one commonly asked females, “How far did you let him go with you?”
    • Heterosexual sex was considered the cultural norm and the bases reflected this.

Today:

  • 1st Kissing and any above the belt touching by/of either person
  • 2nd One person touching the genitals of the other person
  • 3rd Oral sex performed by/for either person
  • Home/4th Sexual intercourse
  • Grand Slam/5th Anal Sex
  • Of note:
    • Oral sex is on The Bases and expected before sexual intercourse.
    • Anal sex makes a bonus appearance. Perhaps not quite a norm but more normalized than generations prior.
    • Both males and females touching each other are included and assumed in The Bases.
    • Sexual relations can include a variety of gender combinations.

{ 2 } Oral Sex

Back in My Day:

  • As seen above, oral sex was far enough outside the norm that it was not even on The Bases.
  • My peers and I did not talk openly about oral sex often. It seemed there was still something a bit taboo about it.
  • Personally, I believed that oral sex was far more intimate than intercourse. When I told someone of today’s generation that, while I was sexually active before marriage, I had never performed oral sex on any of those partners, they were jaw-drop stunned.

Today:

  • Unquestionably considered the norm
  • Males expect oral sex very early in a relationship. So much so that males (Christian and non-Christian) are known to ask for oral sex moments after a first kiss. Imagine a man, on a first date, after some kissing, unzipping his pants and pointing to his penis while looking at his date with expectant demand. This is the real world.
  • Within Christian teen culture, oral sex is viewed as the way to have sex without “losing your virginity.”

{ 3 } Photos and Videos of a Sexual Nature, Sexting

Back in My Day:

  • Any personal photos or videos of a sexual nature were considered borderline pornography. (Pornography was not widely accepted nor easily available.)
  • People who participated in sexual or nude photos/videos could face ostracization by their peers, and painful, demeaning labels.
  • Of note:
    • At that time, photos and videos were much more difficult to obtain. One had to take a photo on a camera with film; bring the film to a developer (ensuring that at least one person would see the photos); then pay for and pick up the photos when they were completed.
    • Personal video cameras were rare.
    • Videos and photos existed in hardcopy and, if lying around, could be found by anyone.

Today:

  • Sexting, digital photos and videos of a sexual nature sent to others via text and phone apps, are the norm. These photos and videos can range from flirty to suggestive to nudes to recorded masturbation.
  • Photographing and recording sexual activity between two or more people is also more common.
  • It is not uncommon for individuals to send nude photos of themselves to one another before ever meeting in person.
  • Of note:
    • Sexting, short for “sex texting”, is a direct result of advances in handheld digital technology such as the camera phone.
    • The social lives of most tweens and teens today are inextricably linked to handheld digital technology. So it makes sense that all of their social interests, including their sexual interests, would find expression in digital technology.
    • One young individual points to a “culture of secrecy” that has developed around sexting, which may help fuel its prevalence. Secret messaging apps, photo hiding apps, and apps like Snapchat with disappearing messages, allow teens to not only avoid getting caught by attentive parents, but also to experience the thrill of “getting away” with something.
    • While some parents are ignorant of what their children may be doing on their phones, many are not. However, even the most conscientious parent will have a difficult time keeping up with the technological savvy of today’s teen. For this reason, more restrictions are rarely successful in curbing such behavior. Various sources agree that open communication about sexting is the key to parents even having an opportunity to address these issues with their children.

{ 4 } Online Dating and Hook-Up Apps

Back in My Day:

  • We had no internet.
  • Personal ads for relationships existed but they cost money and were inconvenient; few people used them.

Today:

  • A plethora of apps range from things like Christian Mingle to Tinder.
  • Hook-up apps are used to find a sexual partner, often for just one encounter.
  • Before agreeing to meet in person, people often exchange nude photos to determine whether or not they want to have sex with that person. (Apparently on hook-up apps penis size really does matter – too big or too small can both be deal breakers.)
  • Of note:
    • One night stands via online dating and hook-up apps are not just for the younger generations. This practice is seeping into older generations. I was recently told about a divorced middle-aged man looking for a new, long-term relationship who was shocked by how many women his age were only interested in one night stands.

{ 5 } Sex, Love & Exclusivity

Back in My Day:

  • While sex outside of marriage was morally acceptable, sex was still considered a big deal.
  • Sexual intercourse, even outside of marriage, was expected to take place within a loving relationship.
  • Teachers and other adults warned us about the emotional consequences of sexual intercourse, and urged us to only have sex within a mutually loving relationship.
  • Exclusivity – only engaging in sexual activity with one partner over a period of mutually agreed upon time – was expected. People who did not honor exclusivity often faced negative social consequences from their peers such as anger, rejection, demeaning labels, etc.

Today:

  • The prevailing cultural message is that sex is not a big deal.
  • Sex has, in many ways, been reduced to a simple exchange of services.
  • One does not have to be “in love” or even in a romantic relationship with another person to engage in sexual activity with them.
  • Exclusivity is not expected. People may have multiple sexual partners in one day, or at one party, without facing negative social consequences from their peers.
  • Of note
    • While sex is, in theory, reduced to an exchange of services, many individuals still experience emotional consequences when engaging in sexual activity with others.
    • Individuals of the Christian subculture appear to be more likely to save sex for a loving relationship and to expect exclusivity, even if they aren’t waiting for marriage.

{ 6 } Virginity, and When to Lose It

Back in My Day:

  • Expectations: While people were generally not expected to remain virgins until they were married, when and how one lost one’s virginity mattered.
  • In practice: Most of my peers did not wait until marriage to lose their virginity.
  • A female losing her virginity was significant. She often wanted to wait for the “right person” which usually implied being “in love” with that person.
  • When a female lost her virginity, especially if she lost it earlier than many of her peers, her peers would consider it news and spread said news among their social circles.
  • Males were expected to lose their virginity as teens and when they did, it was often seen by their peers as an accomplishment. Conversely, if a male remained a virgin longer than most of his peers, he could be labled as weak, unmanly, defective, or gay.

Today:

  • Expectations:
    • Secular culture: people are not expected to remain virgins until marriage.
    • Christian subculture: individuals are taught that sex outside of marriage is a sin, and not part of God’s best plan for humanity, because it has signficiant physical, emotional, social, and spiritual consequences.
  • In Practice:
    • In both secular and Christian culture, the majority of people do not wait until marriage to have sex.
  • Many individuals now see losing their virginity in terms of “I just want to get it over with”, and it is spoken about very cavalierly both before and after. Some individuals schedule their first act of sexual intercourse with a friend or acquaintance as if it were as simple as meeting for a cup of coffee.
  • Though they do not always, Christians who have sex before marriage seem more inclined to wait for the “right person”, someone they love, and/or the person they want to eventually marry.
  • Of note:
    • A variety of surveys and polls have confirmed that there is very little difference between the sexual practices of Christians and non-Christians today.
    • One can’t ignore the fact that men and women are getting married later and later in life. In 1960 the median age at first marriage was 23 for men and 20 for women; but by 2018 the median age at first marriage had increased to 30 for men and 28 for women! Those who are saving sex for marriage are waiting a long time.

{ 7 } Reputations

Back in My Day:

  • The number of sexual partners one had mattered. The more partners you had the more your reputation diminished. Women were generally expected to have fewer than men. (Where all my math people at?)
  • “Slut-shaming” was so common and accepted that the term “slut-shaming” did not even exist.
  • Females who had engaged in sexual activity early and/or with multiple partners were particularly vulnerable to being judged, picked on, ostracized, and labeled.
  • A teenage female I knew was institutionalized for having sex with, what was considered at the time, too many partners.
  • Males were rarely slut-shamed in the same way that women were.
  • However, males known to have many sexual partners outside of committed relationships, or who did not honor exclusivity when in a relationship, or who dumped females shortly after having sex, were often accused of “using women” and might be called a “male slut”, “man whore,” or “womanizer”.

Today:

  • The number of sexual partners one has does not have the same effect on a person’s reputation as it once did. This will differ in the Christian subculture; to what degree can depend on that person’s family and individual church.
  • “Slut-shaming” is no longer considered acceptable.
  • Of note:
    • This change is due not only to the normalization of sexual activity outside of marriage, but also to the growing awareness of and refusal to perpetuate gender bias in all areas, including sexuality. For example, why would a woman who has five partners be a slut and a man who has five partners be a stud? People today are pushing back against these stereotypes.
    • You can see the cultural shift in reputations related to sex if you watch old episodes of Friends where the characters ask one another how many partners they’ve each had. Rachel and Monica, both in their mid-twenties, each only report a handful of partners. They are reluctant to share and express their fear of being judged or shamed. Compare that to shows today in which even prostitution by teens and young adults is being normalized as “sex work” when that money helps pay the bills.

{ 8 } Contraception

Back in My Day:

  • We had condoms, birth control and surgical abortion readily available.
  • The rise of AIDS factored significantly in our decisions about whether or not to use condoms.

Today:

  • In addition to condoms, birth control, and surgical abortion, young women today have access to chemical abortions (the abortion pill RU-486) and Plan B, often called the “morning after pill”, which can prevent pregnancy if taken shortly after sex.

MALE/FEMALE DIFFERENCES
There is just so much here to talk about, I honestly think I could devote an entire post to it, so I’ll just point out a couple things:

  • If nothing else, women appear to have more agency, and equality today. For example, Back in My Day, The Bases gave women little agency as they all measured when something was done to her. Today, The Bases more clearly indicate that she is an active participant who both acts and is acted upon. Additionally, there is less of a double-standard when it comes to sexual activity and one’s reputation.
  • The converse of this is that the pressure has increased for women to engage in sex with a partner before they are ready. Because more women are willing to have sex outside of marriage or meaningful relationships, men have more options and less incentive to wait for a woman who isn’t ready or is waiting for marriage.

DIFFERENCES IN CHRISTIAN CULTURE
Again, too much to cover so I’ll just point out a couple things:

  • Not so different after all:
    • The majority of unmarried evangelical Christians engage in premarital sex. As mentioned previously, study after study has shown very little difference between the sexual behavior of evangelical Christians and their non-religious peers.
    • Christians use dating and hook-up apps to arrange sexual encounters.
    • Christians, especially teens and young adults, sext. A lot. They sext their partners, peers, friends, and acquaintances.
  • Within their culture, Christian women are still more likely than non-religious women to face a double-standard when it comes to sex. For example:
    • Christian women who have sex young, outside of marriage, or with multiple partners, are more likely to face judgement by their peers than young Christian men who engage in the same behavior.
    • Young Christian women are also more likely to face pressure, judgement, and even punishment from Christian authority figures (parents, teachers, pastors) for “inappropriate behavior” (ranging from clothing choices to hand-holding to sex) than are young Christian men who engage in similar behavior.
    • At the same time, Christians who don’t engage in premarital sex are often viewed as odd or unusual by many of their peers. It is a no-win situation, especially for girls.
  • In recent years, many young adult Christians have shared how the evangelical Christian purity teachings of the late 20th and early 21st century (sometimes called the “sex prosperity gospel”) negatively impacted their view of sex, themselves, Christianity, and God. There were many things wrong with this teaching, which focused heavily on works and shame, running contrary to and often entirely missing the gospel of Jesus Christ. If you care about teens and young adults at all, I recommend you find out more about this.

WHY IT MATTERS FOR THE CHURCH
Well, if you’re still with me, I’m impressed. That was a lot of information. Even if you don’t read another word, I will feel that I’ve accomplished my main goal today – which is to inform people of the gap that exists between generations when it comes to sexuality.

For those of you who want to stick around, I just have a few more things to say about why this matters.

This is the New Norm
Like I said before, John Crist’s confession did not surprise me at all. I am (reluctantly) aware of (too many) young men who practice this same behavior – many of whom receive positions, awards, and honors for their Christian “leadership” and “integrity”.

As I read the original article by Charismanews.com, I noticed that several of the young women interviewed (and even the author) did not seem overly concerned about Crist’s choice to engage in sexual activity outside of marriage. Rather the emotional energy seemed focused on the fact that he was in relationships with multiple women at once. Indeed, it seemed that some of the women would have been fine with Crist engaging in sexual activity (sexting, sex, etc.) outside of marriage just so long as he was doing those things with them, and only them. (This was not true of all women interviewed, and again does not pertain to the allegations of sexual harassment.)

Most single Christian teens and young adults aren’t getting caught up in the moment and “going too far”. They aren’t battling their urges and giving into temptation once in a while. They are consistently engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage. It is the norm.

That said, this doesn’t mean all single Christians are participating in sexual activity outside of marriage. Some are waiting for marriage. Some are participating in certain kinds of sexual activities and abstaining from others. Some who previously engaged in sexual activity felt it was a mistake and are now practicing abstinence.

This also doesn’t mean that all sexually active single Christians believe sex outside of marriage is morally acceptable or without consequence. Some believe it’s wrong but have a difficult time waiting. Some wonder if biblical teachings about sex are still relevant today. Some think it’s ok to have sex with a person they love or intend to marry. Some don’t know what to think.

So even though we acknowledge that sexual activity outside of marriage may be typical for single teens and young adults, we don’t want to assume we can predict the behavior of every teen, young adult, or single Christian. And we don’t want to assume that people who engage in sexual activity outside of marriage have no concern for the morality or consequences of sex. It’s likely that they are thinking about it. They do care. But they are also trying to navigate a highly sexualized culture at a time in life when their brains and bodies are screaming for sex. It’s tough to think straight when your brain is sloshing around in a soup of testosterone.

I guess the bottom line is that issues surrounding sex and healthy sexuality are extremely complex.

The Church is Having the Wrong Conversation
And yet, the Church’s response to Crist’s confession has been overly simplistic, focusing on “moral failings”, “warnings for leaders”, and “sexual addiction” (which may be a valid issue but doesn’t excuse bad behavior). As mentioned previously, the problem is that most of these articles, and many of the conversations we’re having in our local churches, assume a collective moral standard that sexual activity (sexting, oral sex, intercourse) outside of marriage is a sin. Yet, if the majority of single Christians do not adhere to this moral standard, if they aren’t convinced that sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong, if sex outside of marriage has become the norm, then there is no “failure” to speak of and the entire conversation is built on sinking sand.

It’s time for a new conversation.

A New Conversation
So what does a new conversation look like? I think it looks like starting over. I think it looks like clearing all the cards off the table and taking a brutally honest look at our cultural landscape. I think it looks like asking questions. Listening to the answers. And giving everyone an equal voice.

Photo by Korney Violin on Unsplash

Maybe we could start with questions like: “When you were growing up, what were you taught about modesty? Dating? Sex? How does that affect how you see yourself? How you see others? How you see God?”

I can’t be the only one who wants to know more about how decades of shame-inducing purity teaching has shaped generations. I mean seriously….Do you know that some girls have been told that once they have sex they’re like a dirty sock and no one wants a dirty sock? Or they’re a stick of gum and after sex it’s like they’ve been chewed up and spit out and no one wants used gum? Where’s the hope in that? Where’s the gospel in that? I don’t remember Jesus telling the adulterous woman that she was a dirty sock or chewed up gum.

I want to know our mistakes so we can learn from them. Are there things the Church is doing today that might be harmful? What can we do better? And, perhaps above all, are we fostering a gospel-centered culture? Even a gospel-centered sexual culture? Those are the conversations I want to have. Those are the conversations we need to have.


WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? 
I wish I could offer you more direction but I’m no expert and I’m new at this, too. My gifting is more in the realm of prophet which means I’m pretty good at “speaking truth” about a problem but not so fond of creating a five-point plan to address the problem. That said, I really don’t want to leave you feeling discouraged or frustrated. So with the help of some friends, I am offering a few ideas about how we can move this new conversation forward.

  1. Learn. Read a book or some articles about cultural trends in sexuality, the effects of purity teaching, the impact of digital media on relationships and mental health, and how these things are shaping lives. Here are just a few suggestions:
    1. Sexting the Night Away, youth and youth ministers respond to the prevalence of sexting among teens
    2. Sex and the iWorld, by Dale S. Kuehne
    3. Pure, by Linda Kay Klein
    4. Sex, Jesus, and the Conversations the Church Forgot, by Mo Isom
  2. Consider those in your life with whom you could have open, honest conversations about these issues. There is great value in talking with people who are different than you and who don’t necessarily agree with you. In these conversations, remember to listen well, build relationships, and be respectful of one another, even when you disagree.
  3. Whether you’re a leader, parent, volunteer, young adult, or teenager, think and pray about how you can encourage your church leadership to have more informed and honest dialogue about sexuality.
  4. I invite you to add your own ideas in the comments section. For those who would rather not respond publicly, I’ve created an online form where you can respond anonymously with your story, feedback, and ideas. I’d love to hear from you.

FINAL THOUGHTS
Well, it’s FINALLY time to wrap up this beast of a post, which is unlike anything I’ve ever written before. Thank you to my collaborators, editors, and readers for taking this wild ride with me.

I hope and pray that in some small way our time here together will help spark a new conversation. One that looks like more than just starting over and talking openly.

What else does it look like? I think it looks like judgment-free space and building trust, freedom to ask hard questions, and courage to give honest answers. I think it looks like disrupting false peace, like flipping tables in the marketplace of our own ideas, so in the face of reality we can know true peace. I think it looks like the gospel. I think it looks like drawing a line in the sand and refusing to throw the first stone, or the second, or any stone at all. I think it looks like remembering the Bible is a love story to redeem and not condemn. I think it looks like hope. I think it looks like Jesus.

© Nichole Q Perreault

Playing Potter

Photo by Ricardo Mancía on Unsplash

i can’t see
you
can’t see me

trapped behind these
glass brick eyes
inside the lies we wear
like make-up
spread thick
slick, with a spackling knife
layer slapped
upon layer

we play Potter with counterfeit clay
covering lines
and carving new ones
making mud masks that
bury us alive, that
harden into barrel helms
heavy on our heads

necks bent beneath the
weight of myths
we can’t remember
shoulders hunched
around our hearts, a blockade
gazes fixed on fingers
we can’t even look each other
in the eye anymore

Would it matter if we did?

© Nichole Q. Perreault, July 2019

This poem was written in response to my poetry group’s July prompt “differences”. The first line popped into my head and inspired the rest of the poem. 

 

Rejection

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

It’s Rejection that kills me
pain so similar to grief,
it’s like dying,
like being stabbed in the place just between my shoulder blades,
like being punched in the stomach with a lead fist,
like having a hand shoved into my chest, fingers wrapped around my heart
…and squeeeeezed…
slowly at first, because Rejection likes to watch the pain creep up my neck, over my face, into my limbs, my fingertips, so that I can’t move.

Rejection likes to watch me die.

Continue reading

He Held the Door

Written in response to  the Weekly Writing Challenge | Fifty:  …write a fifty-word story. Not five thousand, not five hundred, but precisely fifty words. Writing a word limited story was challenging –  I would much rather try to write a 50 word poem. But even so, the story below is true: 

Her grandparents waited in the car while she, 12, ran in to buy their tobacco. Times were different.

On her way out, he held the door.

“Thanks,” she smiled.

“You’re welcome,” he nodded.

She climbed into the backseat.

“That was your father,” grandma said. “He held the door for you.”

10 Facebook Statuses You’ll (Probably) Never Read & What it Means, if Anything

1. Look, I gained 20 lbs.!
Do I blame you for not advertising the new, softer, rounder you? Duh. Of course not. Take my profile pic, for example. It’s from a NYC wedding I attended over a year ago. I’m wearing contacts, make-up and a formal gown. It may be the best photo I’ve taken in 10 years. That’s the me I want people to see. I don’t want them to see 6:30am, gray-haired, bespectacled me. In my defense, it is called “Face”-book. Besides, I wouldn’t want to embarrass the kids. Yeah, that’s it. I’m doing it for the kids. Point is, maybe your boyfriend’s ex doesn’t look quite so fine as her FB page implies. I mean, you did see those celebrities on The Talk without make-up, didn’t you?

2. My husband forgot our anniversary. I don’t even know why we’re still married.
OK. So, I’m guilty of posting a brag on my man here and there. But for all the good things I post (which isn’t much because I’m not the gushy type), there’s at least an equal amount of crappy stuff that goes unposted. And, barring newlyweds and the ridiculously blissful, this is true for most of us. Because marriage is hard. Sometimes, it’s really hard. Not that I recommend posting all your couple troubles on Facebook…talk about a sure fire marriage-killer! But maybe next time you come across Sally’s post about her best-ever husband who makes her breakfast in bed every morning and serenades her with loves songs written just for her each night – maybe you’ll remember that even if her husband is perfect (which, trust me, he isn’t) the rest of us are slogging it out in the trenches of love, just like you.

3. We’re struggling financially and now our house is in foreclosure. #soblessed
I write this from a desk in suburban Connecticut, where UGG’s, a North Face fleece and an iPhone are practically requirements for middle school. Imagine what it would be like to endure foreclosure while rubbing elbows with lawyers and brokers at the winter choral concert. It was bad enough having to explain to my kindergartener’s friend how we get on without a garage. I’m so tired of feeling like our financial value mirrors our personal value. This is America, after all…you know, give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses…right?

4. See me and my boyfriend in this pic? Aren’t we the cutest? He gave me an STD and now I’m pregnant. He’s taking me to get an abortion tomorrow.
I know. I know. You’re in love. For real. Like totally. And it’s going to last forever. Yes, I know, for some of you that’s actually true and aren’t you cute? But for most of you, it’s fantasy. So when you see a pic of Ashley-Ann and her sweetheart Lance all snuggled up under the blankets “just watching a movie” remember that when she gets pregnant, catches herpes or gets her heart broken, chances are she won’t share a photo of that. In part, because those who once envied her will then judge her, when what she really needs is support. Lesson: Don’t set your relationship goals by what you see on social media.

5. I didn’t get the promotion I wanted and my boss says I suck.
No one wants to be told they don’t measure up. And sometimes we do measure up and still get passed over. Haven’t most of us been there at one point or another? Of course, no one is advertising their professional failures online, likely because they’re hoping to actually get another job. (And now that companies purchase social media records of applicants, this is probably a good plan.) However, rest assured, you are not alone. And you are more than your career.

6. My son was arrested for DUI. My other son is an A student plagued by perfectionism. And my daughter’s addicted to prescription drugs (which she stole from me).
Now this one’s tricky, because posting negative stuff about our kids online would just be bad parenting. And of course, we all love our kids. We think they’re adorable and funny and talented and loving and generous and compassionate. And they are! But they’re also challenging, demanding, selfish and struggling through this life like the rest of us. They aren’t trophies. We can’t use them as the measuring rods of success. Let’s not put that on ourselves. Let’s not put that on them. Don’t compare. Don’t compare. Don’t compare. Just do the best with what you have and trust God to fill in the rest.

7. The dog has fleas, the kids have lice and the house has bed bugs. #partyatourhouse
When it comes to honesty, some things are off limits. With cleanliness being what it is in America and not wanting to be treated like we’re under quarantine, we keep these little things to ourselves. (Which, in a literal sense, is perfectly fine.) But isn’t hiding exhausting?! If I can’t tell you my dog has fleas, are we really friends?

Photo by LiveLifeHappy

Photo by LiveLifeHappy

8. I prayed and God didn’t answer. I worshiped and felt lonelier. I read the Bible…nothing.
How easily we equate a “positive attitude” with being a “good Christian.” Failing to live in victory? Bad Christian. Are you complaining? 40 years in the desert for you. Haven’t heard from God? You must have an unrepentant heart. I, too, am tempted to think that if I’m struggling, I must be doing something wrong. But what if I’m struggling simply because I live in a fallen world? What if there is no explanation? Sometimes, life is just painful and confusing. Ask Job. Or read this book and see if it makes sense to you. Bible quotes are encouraging – seriously, they are – but I need spiritual transparency, too. How else can we travel this road together? And how else can we let others know that following Christ is more than putting on a happy face?

9. I spent the weekend doing homework, staring at the ceiling and wondering why I’m the only one not out having the best time ever. #imaloser
I can’t imagine living as a teenager today, feeling the need to prove my own self-worth with photographic evidence of a booming social life on Instagram, Twitter, FB or wherever. Just trying to find a hairstyle acceptable to the middle school powers-that-be was enough for me. (Especially after my Annie perm debacle.) But at least I didn’t have to worry about someone snapping a shot of my bad hair day and sending it into cyberspace for all eternity. Anyway, remember, no matter how old you are, much of life is ho-hum, looking a lot more like Lorde’s Royals video than My Super Sweet Sixteen. And that’s ok. Mountaintops are great for inspiration but life happens in the valley.

10. You don’t really know me and I hope you never do.
Really, this sums up all the others. In many ways, it sums up social media entirely.

I believe that deep down we all want to be known – truly known, understood, accepted and loved. At the same time, we spend most of our time hiding because we’re afraid that if we are truly known, we will be rejected. So we hide…behind our achievements, behind our looks, behind the personas we create for ourselves, behind the personas people create for us, behind our busyness, behind our defenses.

Social Media feeds this part of our human nature, enabling us to be known by many but only as the person we want others to see. We can live like mini-celebrities, presenting ourselves to the world however we wish while hiding all the ugly bits. The problem is everyone is doing this. And because we are so easily deceived, we begin to believe that the happy, shiny faces of our “friends” are real and constant. Then they, in turn, believe the same about us. Thus, we create this vicious cycle where we think we are relating to each other but instead we are isolating ourselves.

But that’s not what I want. Not really. And I don’t think it’s what you want either. The question is, will we settle for the superficial connections we make online or do we have the courage to seek genuine community and real relationships? It’s risky. Believe me, I know! Because there’s a part of me that hopes you never really know me. But there’s another part of me that desperately hopes you do.

So my advice to you is not that you give up Facebook or that you bare your soul online, but rather that you think about the time you spend there. Why are you on social media? What is it doing for you? Are you honest about who you are? Do you spend too much time comparing yourself and your family to others? How can you connect more honestly with others? I don’t know. Just a thought.

Written for the Weekly Writing Challenge, Dear Abby.

In the Mirror

The following post was written for the Weekly Writing Challenge of WordPress.com.

Every scar holds a memory.

When I was little, my mother used to wince at the sight of it. 42 stitches from my scalp to my eyebrow. There are others…smaller ones…including the one inside my upper lip. Sometimes, I still run my tongue up and down the jagged ridge that cuts from the edge of my lip to where the skin meets my gums.

The memory is my mother’s, not mine. An empty aquarium shattering over the hard skull of her 14 month old daughter. Blood. Deep red. Heavy.

Washing glass from her little one’s hair while she waited for the ambulance.

“No time!” the police officer shouts. “I’ll drive you in my car.”

My father screaming, blaming. The officer leaves him behind.

Doctors whisking her baby girl into surgery.

“Will she be okay?”

“We’ll have to wait and see.”

Wait and see…and be questioned by protective services. It’s the standard protocol, they tell her.

Wait with empty arms as her little girl sleeps a dreamless sleep in a cold, sterile room down the hall. Wait as they pick glass splinters from her baby’s soft skin, as they stitch the broken, delicate flesh together. Wait and see the new face. The face of a memory she can never forget.

A memory I can never remember.

In the mirror, I see the only face I’ve ever known. Scars from a memory I own but cannot find.

I don’t remember my father screaming or the officer leaving him behind. I don’t remember my father much at all. But he left a scar too. Sometimes I can feel it – running along the outside of my heart -the jagged edges I sewed together to close up the cavity he left when he left us behind. It’s not a pretty scar. I was only a child, not a surgeon. But I needed to stop the bleeding…to keep the life from spilling out of me…to stop the world from getting in.

Like the scars on my face, this heart-scar is a part of me. It’s the only heart I’ve ever known, shaped by so many memories: memories I love and memories I loathe, memories I can’t remember and memories I never made at all, but could have, had he stayed.

Scarred hearts beat funny sometimes. And they ache…for what was taken and what was never let in.

Looking in the mirror, I ask The Surgeon, “Will she be okay?”

He gently rests a hand – a hand carrying scars of his own – on my heart. Knowingly, his eyes smile into mine as he whispers, “We’ll have to wait and see.”

A Love We Cannot Fathom

The other morning as I was praying for a friend, these words just poured out onto the pages of my journal. About halfway through, I realized that this message is not just for one particular friend (though it is certainly for you, my dear) but for all of us. Happy Easter, my friends.

What if we just stripped away all the theology, all the questions, all the seeming inconsistencies of life … and just let Jesus love us?

What if we took a step back from our toil, set down our work and opened our hands. I would like to sit in a chair – perhaps a rocking chair – and rest my tired feet and aching muscles. And then, what if we just sat back with nothing left to do but receive His love?

No need to labor over this or that. Forget about if you’re doing a “good enough” job. Stop fretting over whether you said this right or thought that right. Just stop and let Him love you.

Because His love just is. There is nothing you can do to change it. You can’t increase His love or decrease His love. His love has no limits – past, present or future. His love is perfect, bottomless and complete. God’s love just is.

So what if instead of thinking about love, trying to figure it out, you just sit back, relax and open your heart?

You may say that you don’t get it – this love. You wonder, how can you receive His love when you can’t even fathom it? Here’s the thing: you will never truly be able to fathom the depths of His love because it’s His love… and He is God.

But you can experience His love. You can receive His love.

When you were a child, you didn’t understand or fathom your parents’ love. How could you? An infant, a toddler, a child, a teenager can’t know what it is to love with a parent’s love. They can’t even begin to understand such love.

Oh, but they receive it! Like a dry sponge, they soak in every ounce of love their parents will give them.

And so it is with God. We don’t have to understand His love….we just have to receive it.

He loves us. Whether we love Him or not. His love never changes, never runs out, never gives up. His love for us, for me, for you… just is.

And this love is more faithful, more powerful, more rich and deep and warm and consuming and freeing and nourishing and redeeming and forgiving and compassionate and nurturing and constant

Photo by natasha555

Photo by natasha555

and merciful and gracious and fierce and healing and completely free… than any love we’ve ever known.

His is a love we cannot fathom. But it is a love that is ours.

Let go of your toil. Let go of your work. Let go of your need to figure it all out. Let go of every last shred, every little thread, every tiny cord of control. Let go so that you can open your hands and receive.

Let go. Let go. Let go. And let Him love you. Let Him have you.

He waits. He waits at the gates of your heart for the moment you will turn the lock, pull back the heavy doors and let Him in.

He waits. He longs to give Himself to you. Receive Him. He is yours.

Lessons from Grandma

I haven’t posted anything in quite some time, but I have been writing! Today I want to share an excerpt from that writing. It is about my grandmother, the most influential woman in my life after my mother.  She passed away 3 years ago this August and I miss her as much as I did the first day she went away. This post is not only about her, but about me and just a few of the life lessons she taught me. I hope they speak to you and bless you as well.

Grandma. 5’ 10” with short, dark-blond hair (before it went white) which she set in curlers weekly for that June Cleaver kind of look. Not that my Grandma was much like June Cleaver. Gosh, I’d probably catch heck if she heard me comparing her to June Cleaver! Kim Novak…or Angela Landsbury…maybe she would like those comparisons better. After all, Grandma traded in skirts and dresses for elastic waisted, pocketless denim or polyester slacks long before I came along. And whenever she was at home, the only thing she wore on her feet were those toeless, backless, slide-on, terrycloth slippers. I guess she figured if clothes weren’t comfortable then they weren’t worth wearing.

I, along with my brother and mother, had the privilege of spending more than half my childhood living with my grandparents. While she didn’t work outside the home – and she cooked, cleaned, washed and ironed on a schedule you could set a watch to – my Grandma, Arlene was her name,  found no bliss in her domestic duties. Domesticity was her job. Period. She lived for the moments in between. Those filled with piano playing, crossword puzzles, game shows, family visits, apple pie with cheddar cheese, diet coke, Pall Mall non-filters, Murder She Wrote and Fred Astaire.

One afternoon, when I was about 10, I came home from school with an assignment. I plopped myself down on the floor in front of the chair where she sat.

“Grandma, I have to ask you a question for homework. If there was one thing you could have done differently in life, what would it be?”

“Oh, let me see,” she said, resting her elbows on her knees and rubbing her wrinkled hands together. She turned her blue-green eyes to the floor to think, then looked back up at me and said, “Well, I probably wouldn’t have had so many kids.”

I, the firstborn of her fourth and very last child, stared back, wide-eyed, slack-jawed.

“I think I would have stopped after the first one. Raising all those kids…ah.” She waved her hand as if brushing away all the chores of childrearing. “Then maybe I would have gotten a job or something.”

She said it so casually, so matter-of-factly. My mind reeled. My grandma – the most dependable, reliable, non-threatening person I knew, one whose love I never doubted and whose care I never lacked – just wiped my name from her book of life!  I imagined the consequences: my mother, my aunt Joanne, my uncle Gibby, my cousins and me…all gone. Uncle Thomas and his kids the only survivors. How easily she dismissed our familial line!

I took a breath and checked myself, searching for any internal hurt or anger. There was none. In fact, if I hadn’t been so shocked, I might have even laughed. Geez Gram, I thought, you can think those things if you want, but maybe you shouldn’t say them out loud…to your grandchildren!

But I found that I couldn’t hold it against her. Rather, my appreciation for her grew. She had hopes and dreams beyond motherhood and housewifery; she wanted more than us. I wondered what held her back. Was it falling in love with grandpa that caused her to settle down and have kids? Was it her limited education? Or just a lack of options for farm girls in the 1940’s? Whatever the case, she wanted something different and yet her dutiful, personal sacrifice betrayed none of those regrets.

My grandmother was the solid ground beneath my shifting sands of life. Borrowing from singer Sarah Evans, “she was steady as the sun.” Faithful. Predictable. Available. Consistent. She loved us all and would stand by us until the end. Of that I had no doubt. That day, I saw in her, perhaps for the first time, the incomparable value of a life sacrificed for others.

She was no saint. I’m pretty sure a woman who at times shared vocabulary with sailors can’t be canonized. And her insistence that “that Mary, she wasn’t no virgin” probably wouldn’t have won her any votes either. But she was ours and nothing, not even her own dreams, would change that.

At that moment, I made a point to tuck this little conversation away, knowing that someday, when I was old enough, its retelling would make us all roar with laughter.

I learned a few more things that day. I learned that while our choices matter, life is bigger than our choices. And that our regrets don’t have to define us. But perhaps, most importantly for me, an unplanned child, I learned that our plans might not always be the best plans.

How precarious was my entrance into this world! What if my parents never met? Never dated? What if they’d chosen to abort me? It was 1973 after all.

Or what if my grandma had stopped at just one child and went off to get a job instead?

Life is not only bigger than our choices; it’s bigger than me, bigger than all of us. That day, I stopped asking “What if?” and began to wonder “Why?”

Why was I here? Why was my mother here? My grandmother? Anyone?

I was Curious.

Promises

Promise me you’ll never leave. Promise you won’t tell. Promise to help me, no matter what. Promise you’ll never hurt me. Promise you won’t turn your back on me. Promise you’ll never give up on me. Promised me you’ll never forget.

Promises. We ask for and give them so easily. What does a promise mean to me? To you? Why are promises important?

For the last month I have been reading about promises kept, even at the most difficult times. About soldiers who risked their lives to save a woman who had earlier shielded them from the sword of her own countrymen. Not only did the soldiers save the woman, but they rescued her whole family as well. In the midst of a raging battle, the soldiers fought their way down city streets, back to her home, bringing her and her family to safety. They did this not because they loved her, not because they were a search and rescue team, not because they feared her. The soldiers rescued her because she asked them to and, in gratitude of her mercy toward them, they promised her they would. It was as simple as that.

I also read about a nation tricked into making a treaty with a neighboring village. The villagers claimed, rather convincingly, to be something they were not. The nation would never have entered into the treaty had they known the truth. Even still, when the national leaders discovered the deception, they honored the treaty. One day, a coalition of five enemy states attacked the village. Without hesitation, they called on the very nation they had deceived and pleaded for military support. As a man of his word, the national leader agreed. He then traveled with his entire army throughout the night until arriving at the village. The next morning, and for what seemed like days, they waged war on the invaders and successfully defended the villagers in perhaps their most difficult battle ever. Why? Because in allying themselves with the villagers, they had made a promise, of not only peace, but of unity.

Promises. What kind of promises have you made? Have you ever been tricked into making a promise? Or maybe you just feel like you didn’t get what you bargained for?

I read about another promise. The promise of a father. He was the father of the two soldiers and of the deceived national leader. The father had raised his children to be strong, faithful, compassionate, wise, loving, patient and honest – not because he told them to, but because he too was all those things. Their father had never made a promise he didn’t keep and he never would. In honor of their father, these sons did the same. A promise made was a promise kept.

For the last month or so, I have spent most (not all, but most) of my writing time deep in preparations for our summer play and camp. I have so much I want to write about that I’ve begun to envision the topics piling up before me like a stack of sweet pancakes just waiting to be devoured. But there is no time for self-indulgence, there is a script to be written! So, in an effort to be faithful to my blog and my commitments at the same time, I have combined the two.

By now, some of you recognize the soldiers, the woman, the leader, the villagers and the Father as characters from the book of Joshua, and our focus for this summer’s program. These last few days, as I think of the story of Joshua, I see a sweeping account of a Father’s faithfulness to his children and his determination to keep his promises, no matter what the cost. As a testimony to their Father, the children live with the same passionate, sacrificial integrity.

Do I take my promises and commitments seriously? Will I honor my commitments even when they fail to meet my expectations? Will I keep my promises, no matter the cost? Am I aware of how my faithfulness reflects on the Father who risked everything for me? The Father who promised He’ll never leave. Promised He won’t tell. Promised to help me, no matter what. Promised He’ll never hurt me. Promised He won’t turn His back on me. Promised to never give up on me. Promised me He’ll never forget. That’s a Father worth keeping promises for – am I willing? Are you?

Something to think about!

Hungry Anyone?

If anyone had told me a month ago, that my next favorite book would be about a futuristic society that punishes their citizens with high-tech, Hollywood style gladiator games, I would have thought they were crazy. But when my cousin showed me The Hunger Games movie trailer on his phone at Christmas, I was hooked before I even had the book in my hands! My daughter and I spent two nights reading it aloud to each other, alternating chapters. Shouting when it was time to trade the book, “Hurry! Give it over!” or if the person reading paused to catch her breath, “Keep going! Read! Read!” On the last night, we stayed up until 2:00 a.m. sustaining ourselves with granola and chocolate just so we could make it to the end. Which of course was only nominally satisfying….because it is a trilogy!!! We devoured the next two books in a matter of days.

A book that keeps me up at night is one thing. Lots of books keep me up at night. So how do I know if a book’s really gotten to me? If, when I get about 50 pages or so away from the end, I stop reading, because I just don’t want it to be over, don’t want to let the characters go. When I pick it back up, I take my time, savor those last few pages. Even with my daughter waiting anxiously to talk about the final book that she’d already finished, I read the ending slowly, mourning its passing with the turn of each page.

The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins, hardly lacks attention on the blogosphere. In fact, I may be the last blogger in the world to write about it. That’s why I am not going to give the standard review, critique the book or conjecture about whether this trilogy is a rip-off from a Japanese novel with a similar plot, as apparently some have suggested. (The one thing I have to say regarding those rumors is that good writing requires hard work, creativity and talent, and while these books might not rise to the level of classic literature, they are riveting. That doesn’t happen by accident.)

For those of you wondering if you should read the book, I will offer these general thoughts: Many people may be turned off by the overall concept, the graphic violence or the complete lack of anything spiritual in such a dark world, but the novel itself isn’t dark, like say The Golden Compass. The Hunger Games trilogy is about hope and the power of life to endure, spring up even, in the most neglected of places. If your kids read it, I suggest you read along with them so that you can discuss it together. My daughter and I are still talking about it!

So why am I really writing this post? What do I have to share of any real substance? Well, perhaps nothing more than to say this book confirms the relevance of Christianity’s message and the power of its imagery even in our post-modern world. I am not suggesting The Hunger Games is a Christian book or even that the author was using Christian themes. In some ways, I think Collins was avoiding religion altogether. Why else would she have created a society who faced death every day, but spent so little time thinking about the afterlife or searching for meaning? Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining! Just acknowledging that some of the treasures I found hidden in this book were likely not put there on purpose.

*Spoiler Alert* The next several paragraphs contain some spoilers. I tried not to give away too much, so I think you could read it without ruining the books or movie, but proceed at your own risk!

First, I find that the premise of the story – that a higher power, The Capitol, rules over the masses by deceiving, oppressing, enslaving and dividing them, causing them to fight one another instead of their real enemy, the sinister President Snow and his government – is not all that different than the spiritual battle depicted in Christianity. Are we not being deceived on a daily basis? Are we not oppressed by doubt, fear, self-righteousness, pride and resentment? Do we not war with one another, if not with swords and guns, then with words and emotions?

Then, there is the love story. Peeta, who represents hope, practically oozes all things good and light. He is a baker, an artist, a natural leader and a man willing to sacrifice his own life for the one he loves, Katniss. In fact, at one point he dies and – wait for it – comes back to life. I’m pretty sure I don’t have to spell this one out for you, but the material’s too good – I can’t not write about it.

At a pivotal moment in their relationship, when they are far from home and in danger of dying, Peeta gives Katniss a locket with pictures of her mother, sister and best friend, Gale. Gale, like Peeta, is in love with Katniss; however, Katniss is unsure of who she loves, unsure if she is even capable of love. While Katniss doesn’t know what she wants, Peeta is unwavering in his love for her. When she needs him, he is there. When she pushes him away, he loves her from afar. When she’s at her worst, he loves her anyway. As they look at the pictures of her family and Gale, Peeta offers Katniss his life, asking her to let him die in her place – he wants her to live, to be happy, to marry Gale and have a full life, even if that means giving her up, giving everything up. That, my friends, is sacrificial, selfless love – the truest form of love there is.

Do humans universally long for this kind of love? A love that sacrifices oneself to save another? If our music, movies, plays and books are any indication, then we must. Images of heroes surround us – heroes that can save us, from loneliness, grief, pain, danger, self-obsession, self-loathing, even death. So it should come as no surprise that so many people love these books. Whether we know it or not, the story stirs something deep within us.

Finally, as a baker, Peeta literally feeds and nourishes people in a starving community. This, I imagine, was no accident on the author’s part because he is ultimately the one who satisfies Katniss’s deepest hunger. I can’t help but smile a little at his name, which is actually a homonym for a kind of bread eaten by millions of people the world over. But I wonder if as Collins was writing Peeta, she considered the One who truly satisfies.

We, every one of us, are part of a Hunger Game. Only this is no game. This is real. Look around you. Think about it. Why are you here? Who’s really in control? Are you still a slave to the unseen powers of this dark world? Do you know who your enemy is? Are you hungry? Starving for the truth? Desperate for something…or someone to satisfy your soul?

He’s out there, you know. Your Rescuer. The One who said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” is all the food your starving soul needs. And He’s the only chance you have of getting out of this arena alive.