Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sex and the Gospel, Pt. 4: God's Protection

In my last post, I wrote about my experience in class where the professor-- and a few students-- shared some of the most hurtful, degrading memories of their lives. I wrote about the tendency to avoid those memories for fear of what questions we might have to face in light of them; about how truly crying out to God and asking, "where were You?" is scary because it involves the possibility of more pain ("what if I ask and find out He doesn't care? or that He thinks I deserve what happened to me?") I have had some of those fears and so I've avoided asking God the hard questions. A friend shared some words from her journal that reflect her own wrestling, and they were richly instructive and comforting to me. 

Whether you've experienced sexual abuse or brokenness-- or whether you've suffered in a completely different way-- these words may be healing for you!

 “God, if you really love me like you say you do, WHY DID YOU NOT PROTECT ME FROM_________???!!! (Fill in the blank with the most traumatic experiences of your life). I am persuaded that this pain-driven question (and underlying accusation) tramples the seeds of faith in every human heart.  As I wrestled with this question in my own life, the Lord led me to the realization that our suffering and confusion is greatly compounded by our impoverished understanding of the nature of God’s protection. 

When we think of God protecting us, what we mean is that we wish him to prevent painful things from happening to us. In reality, God does precisely this for every one of us every day of our lives. Indeed, we wildly underestimate the degree of destruction and chaos that would envelop us were God not keeping it at bay. In a world as sin-saturated as our own, trauma should/would be the norm, save for the proactive mercy of God. That there should be so much good in our lives that tragedy stands out as the exception to our everyday experience is a completely unmerited miracle. Were we privy to how much evil God restrains and from which he shields us on a daily basis, we would dissolve in worship and trust.

This being said, the scope of God’s protection is infinitely more robust than our limited concept of “prevention.” Throughout Scripture, God's people cry out for him to preserve them, rather than demand to be spared from experiencing trying circumstances altogether. The dictionary defines “preserve” as: "to keep alive or safe, to maintain, or to prevent from spoilage." How many “dangers, toils, and snares” have we lived to tell about, so faithfully has the Lord kept us alive and “maintained” us through each one?  Truly, we have been “persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Cor 4:9)  Perhaps most profoundly, from what manner of spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical “spoiling” does he preserve us not only in the midst of trials, but often times by virtue of them?  

Imagine what greater evils may have loomed ahead had we been permitted to proceed unhindered. Yet, given the character of our Savior, is it not entirely possible, even likely, that God ordains the tragedies in our lives as part of his masterful plan to preserve us from unfathomably greater ones?  In truth, I have no idea what would have become of me had _____ NOT happened to me. It is pride that presumes I would have been “better off” had I been spared this pain. When I entertain this interpretation of my story I am effectively heeding the voice of the Snake who is ever accusing God of “holding out on me,” of keeping from me my greatest good. 

Thank you, Lord, that you have preserved me through, perhaps even by, the most painful experiences of my life. You love me too much to let me “spoil”; I praise you for your severe mercy. The dictionary says to “protect” is to “care for, champion, conserve, cushion, give refuge, sanctuary, or shelter, support, insulate, preserve, shade, watch…”  When I carefully reflect on even the most grievous experiences in my life in light of this glorious portrait of authentic protection, I can finally, earnestly affirm that You have never failed to protect me. Hallelujah!" 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Sex and the Gospel, Part 3

This past week, one of my professors lectured on sex and the gospel. Yes, it came at a very relevant time in my own life and ministry and yes, we talked about sex at seminary! We talked about how our sexuality is one of the most beautiful aspects of all creation, a whisper of what sweetness and intimacy will be enjoyed between Christ and the church; and yet how the assault on our experience of our sexuality is one of the most graphic examples of how much evil hates beauty. Those who have experienced abuse, shame, or degradation in the area of their sexuality know what this means! 

What I'm learning is that "abuse proper" is devastating, but often just as destructive are "normal" experiences like name-calling, shaming, and exposure to the abuse of others (ie. pornography or inappropriate games, etc.). My professor shared a scene from his own story when his middle-school P.E. coach called him fat, in a creatively cruel and public way. He described it as a knife ripping through his soul. I didn't question the weight of that encounter because I could name a number of experiences from my own life that had a similar effect. Hearing him share, however, opened my eyes to the reality that both "big" and "little" offenses can radically shape our self-perception.

I wrote a little bit about how my self-perception was shaped by the shame of sexual abuse. It took me years to even realize that I needed to process the events that shaped me, and more years to really get started actually doing it. The utter chaos that ensued when I began contemplating peering down the deep well of my brokenness revealed to me how committed I was to doing the very opposite.  How often I'd rather hide from the memory of those experiences than examine how they've wounded me. How it feels safer to believe the lie (I am fat; a poor excuse for a girl; a fag; a whore) than to feel the pain of the offense. It's easier to live with any answer-- "I just attract creeps because I'm a slut"-- than to live with a hard question-- "God, where were you when this happened to me?" or even, "Is this how YOU see me, too?"

to be continued...


Saturday, March 17, 2012

More Than What I Do

This past week, Michael and I went to Red Oak, Texas to stay in his grandparents' little country house for a few days. I don't know if this is me getting old, but it has become such a blessing to be able to spend a few days resting, recuperating, and restoring every now and then. Sleeping late, drinking coffee, reading, cooking, sitting on the porch, staring out the window (we saw three road-runners! Yes, like in the cartoon!) were like medicine for my soul. Having a very "busy" personality, it has taken practice for me to actually enjoy a weekend of "slow." In fact, it still takes practice; but it's well worth it! 

Another aspect of my "busy" personality likes to say that God couldn't possibly be pleased with me doing anything other than, well, doing. What am I "doing" for God? How am I accomplishing anything? How is sitting around and having a good time giving Him glory? The last few years, God has been changing my mind about that. 

He's invited me to take time to notice what He's made. (Texas wildflower, bluebonnet!)

To come up with monster pancake recipes and praise Him for the combination of peanut butter and banana. 

To enjoy the man He has given me. (Yes, taking embarrassing pictures of him dozing off counts as enjoying!!)

To quiet my soul enough to listen and hear from Him.  

I'm learning that there's more to God-- and my relationship with Him-- than just what I "do" for Him. I'm learning. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Sex and the Gospel, Part 2

So I'm continuing to procede carefully with this topic. I think I'll start with one very "mundane" way I've found that lies about sex have affected my life. It may not seem as gory or grossly fascinating as one might expect when reading about the fallout of something like "sexual brokenness," but it's real. And it's important to realize that sexuality doesn't fit neatly in a box that we can put on a shelf or under the bed- it's part of who we are as persons and so it affects areas of our lives that we think may be completely separate from it. It also is important to realize just how far-reaching the lies of enemy are, and conversely how far-reaching the truth of God is; when the gospel takes root in our hearts, it changes everything. That includes things we didn't even know needed changing! 

In my last post, I said my "variegated" past influenced how I thought about sex and also how I thought about myself as a woman. That's where I'm starting. The phrases, attitudes, and images presented to me in formative years taught me to believe that women are objects. Ie. they are supposed to look a certain way and act a certain way in order to be "performing up to snuff" for men. In my specific context, that "certain way" included adjectives like: pretty, thin, tan, (yes, tan!) sexy, cool, laid-back, fun, etc. Then, there were adjectives even more unspoken but equally assumed, such as: unintelligent, bad drivers, bad at math, overly emotional, irresponsible, incapable of making difficult decisions, etc. I say "in my specific context" because that was my unique experience. Maybe for you growing up, there was a different set of adjectives that women (or men!) were expected to fit. 

So how did this play out in my life? I thought of myself as a (predominantly sexual) object and so I acted like it. I thought it was more important for me to be skinny than to be smart, for example. And even though I felt smart and enjoyed thinking, I was incredibly insecure about it because I also believed women just weren't that smart. My job was to be pretty and fun, not serious and deep-thinking. Those qualities (when I dared reveal them) were made fun of, rebuked, or bemoaned. So, I believed what would win me love and affection and loyalty from a man was much more dependent on being skinny and good-looking and fun than my being smart or morally excellent or prayerful. So I cultivated what I thought were the "more important" qualities for a woman and therefore attracted the men who were looking for those qualities. (Imagine the paranoia I felt when good, godly men did take an interest in me, for reasons other than my being thin or sexy. I thought they wanted "one thing", because I couldn't imagine why else they'd want to have a relationship with me!) 

So, moving on. The sad reality is that for many women, these values are relatively achievable. A combination of the right genetics, diet, exercise routine, and hygiene can produce relatively satisfactory results. If women are objects, just be a darn good one, right? Well at some point I found that I wasn't as good at being said object as some other girls in my school. I didn't want to wear make-up every day. I was tragically bad at fixing my hair. I liked wearing clothes that were comfortable and didn't take twenty minutes to assemble in the morning. I enjoyed eating. So, what did I do? I decided to "bow out" of the competition. Rather than compete and come up short, I just started making fun of it all- including myself. "You think I care enough to take a shower in the morning?" "I'm the worst girl ever. I don't even know how to do my hair." "Shopping is so boring, who could enjoy that?" I said all these with the air of humor but they revealed a deep insecurity in me. If I couldn't be as good of an object (which, again, had very specific adjectives for me) then I would just go ahead and make fun of myself about it-- and act like I don't care-- before someone else does. 

The point I'm trying to make is not that doing hair or make-up (or the lack of it) is a problem; the point is that I attributed these things to my identity. I had a very small box in which I was supposed to fit, and I either found confidence when I did fit (ie. because I did happen to be thin) or felt worthless when I didn't (ie. because no amount of tanning salons can make this Irish skin bronze!) Ironically, I fled to both extremes for comfort. Fitting the mold and making fun of it. 

In Christ, my identity is far deeper than the style of my hair or color of my skin. My worth is much less temporal than the size of my waist or even my I.Q. In Christ, I'm appreciated-- and even delighted in-- for so many of the qualities I resented about myself growing up. My thoughts and emotions matter to Him-- He doesn't laugh at them or write off my opinions saying, "of course a woman would think that." In Christ, my physical qualities are enjoyed without defining me. They're a part of who I am, but not all of who I am-- because I'm a person, not a body. In Christ, I can admit that I need help learning how to do my hair without feeling like a failure. I can also admit that I don't like wearing make-up all the time, and that that's okay. 

What lies have you believed about what you're supposed to be as a man or woman? How has that influenced the way you relate to those of the same gender or opposite gender? What does God say about who you are and how He thinks of you? 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Layer by Layer

Lately I’ve had a ton of ideas for posts and very little time to write.  Today I specifically planned to sit down and focus on blogging but something got in my way.  By the time I realized time to blog was getting away from me, I recognized that I couldn’t make my heart and mind switch gears and write about something totally unrelated to what’s really going on in my life. So I’ve decided that today’s happenings have become #1 on my list of things to write about. It’s one thing for me to rant and rave about ideas I’m reading about in class (I love doing that) but it’s another thing to share how those ideas— this Jesus, this gospel— is reading me:  challenging and transforming my very life.

Today Michael and I got in an argument. It was over something very silly (as it usually seems to be). And yet, in a very silly argument— over how much of the dishwasher was unloaded by whom (gag me!)— God is doing very serious, very life-changing work.  The main issue that ends up taking the cake in most of our arguments is my attitude. I can’t seem to talk calmly and respectfully even if I’m trying to acknowledge that he’s right and I’m sorry. Basically, I develop this thorny exterior the minute I feel threatened and it’s really hard for me to shake, even when I want to. My counselor has said “a pattern of relating is like your skin; it’s so natural to you, you don’t even see it most of the time.” Well this is a pattern that I want to change, and I’ve started to think of it as peeling off my skin— asking myself questions that seem to have no answer. “Why am I so angry all of a sudden? Why can’t I look him in the eye? Why do I have to be so condescending? What am I afraid of?”

The miracle in all this is his attitude. He somehow, miraculously, manages to keep an even tone when talking with me; to respond with kindness to my unreasonable comments; to suggest we take a break if I get too heated. That’s exactly what happened tonight— he suggested we take a few minutes for me to cool down— so I walked next door to do something else for a while. When I looked in the mirror, I heard old voices ringing loudly in my head with condemnation and insults. Old voices that taught me the very pattern of “attack and kill” anyone who appears threatening. I heard again all the destructive words that might have been hurled at me by others who taught me how to fight dirty, and I felt as much shame in that moment as if I were hearing those words in real time. Then I realized, “my husband’s voice is different. He doesn’t insult me when he’s upset with me. He does conflict graciously.”

This broke me. It breaks me every time I let this reality sink in; and very slowly, layer by layer, the thorny exterior of skin that I’ve wrapped around my heart in self-protection is coming off. It’s not a theory that’s freeing me, it’s not a little mantra I repeat to myself; it’s the person of Jesus Christ being displayed in and through my husband that is transforming my heart. The gospel alone makes it possible for me to walk away from a nasty way of doing life on my terms, and the gospel alone makes it possible for Michael to respond to a nasty wife with consistent and grueling grace. (I’m sure his side of the story would make for an equally specific Christ-honoring blog post!) In other words, it’s not even a great guy who is bringing about transformation. This is simply the context and the medium through which God has chosen to display His incarnational love and truth in my life in this season. 

How can this encourage you? Look to the gospel— the person of Jesus— to answer those unanswerable questions in your life. Expect Him to answer you creatively. He’s not a corporate giant, providing the same cookie-cutter presentation in each of our lives. He knows His lambs and He knows how to melt each of our hearts in a personal way. And, don’t be surprised if you’re an instrument through which Jesus is creatively revealing Himself in the life of another. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Medium is the Message

I'm taking a class this semester called "gospel communication" which is basically a preaching class. That doesn't mean I'm in seminary to become a "preacher" but it does mean that I want to learn how to more effectively and confidently speak publicly about my faith. Some people laughed when I told them that I was nervous about having to speak in front of my classmates (Hannah? Scared of talking?) but it's true! Just because I ramble a lot doesn't mean I'm totally comfortable rambling in front of tons of people! But I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to learn, practice, and grow in something I know I'll be doing the rest of my life. (Maybe I'm just getting more comfortable being uncomfortable when I know it's for my good...!!)

Well, after that tangential introduction, I'll get to the actual point of this post. Preaching can, in a (very large) nutshell, be summarized as delivering a message. For the Christian, that message is, in a (not so large) nutshell, the gospel. So as a Christian preacher, a good question to ask is "what does it look like to preach the gospel?" Maybe your experience tells you "preaching the gospel" means someone shouting about "sinners" on the street downtown in an angry voice. Or maybe it makes you think of 90's Christian music and Billy Graham on stage. Or maybe you think of a pastor giving his congregation "7 steps" to being a good Christian. 

This book I'm reading for class summarized it like this: the medium is the message. So,
message = the good news of Jesus
medium = Jesus the Messiah. 
God didn't just peek out of Heaven (think Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and hand out a parchment with the cold hard facts. He came Himself, in human form. The medium is Himself the content of His message. The gospel is Jesus. Not 5 steps, not a list of rules, not any propositional truth in abstract reality. True to form, Jesus and His gospel challenge the religious and the non-religious alike. 

To the religious- it means that the affirmation of certain doctrines is not necessarily the good news Jesus brought. Why? Because Jesus did not just bring information. He brought Himself. He proclaimed His message in relationship with others; a relationship where He healed their diseases and cast out their demons; where He fed them, treated them with dignity, and washed their feet. A relationship where those He healed followed Him. If I as a "gospel communicator" think that my job is to pound information into heads, or if I think "my place in Heaven is safe" because I know which doctrinal boxes to check, I've missed the heart of the message and therefore have altered the message itself. I can't proclaim a message that's disconnected from the personality of Jesus. Whatever I say needs to be demonstrated in the flesh by the way I live. And I can't just fall back on what I "believe" in an intellectual sense; I'm called, as a Christian, to know Some One, not just some thing. 

To the non-religious- it means that the Truth is real and He is a real person who wants to be known. I can't just say, "my path to God is the one I choose because it works for me. God is loving and He just wants me to be happy! He doesn't care what I believe" any more than I can say, "my husband doesn't care what I believe about him or how I treat him; he loves me and wants me to be happy!" A real person wants real relationship. He wants to know and be known. This also means that His teachings can't be abstracted from who He claimed to be. I can't say, "Jesus was just a good teacher and I basically follow His principles, and that's enough." Jesus came as Friend and Lord, and if take His teachings but reject Him, I've missed the heart of His message and therefore altered the message itself. 

The beauty is that there's so much more to "belief" in Jesus than just swallowing difficult information or following the golden rule. It's about coming into contact with a real Person and embracing all that He is. Jesus- not a teaching, not a set of doctrines- is the Savior. He will change our beliefs about God and the way we live, that's for sure. But that's because the gospel (Jesus!) changes everything. 

"I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by Me." John 14:6