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A Thrill of Hope.

If you think God doesn’t want you, you’re precisely the one he wants.

In church yesterday, Pastor Mary highlighted God’s track record of coming down to us. Jesus arrived from heaven down to earth. The Holy Spirit “descended” on him like a dove. The veil in the temple ripped from top to bottom when Jesus was crucified. The New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation comes out of heaven to settle on our planet. God sent his Spirit from on high down to us humans waiting here for his return.

Not only does he physically meet us in our lowly condition, but he also reaches right past middle- and upper-class, white Westerners to get to the stepped on and forgotten castes in our modern societies. His pattern is so beautifully consistent, even when it comes to the grand entrance of his only Child. All the people he chose to immortalize in this miraculous story are the ones we in contemporary America tend to think of least – and think the least of:

  • Elizabeth and Zechariah, parents of John the Baptist, were elderly.
  • Elizabeth, for her own part, was infertile.
  • John the Baptist was an insanely weird hippie who feasted on bugs and lived in the desert.
  • Mary was a pregnant teenager who, theologians think, became a widow early on.
  • Joseph was a blue-collar carpenter.
  • Mary and Joseph became political refugees when Herod began the infanticide.
  • The shepherds, invited by angels to the birth of the Son of God, were impoverished.
  • The Magi, who came to visit Jesus in his toddlerhood, were pagan astrologists.

And if you go back to the lineage of Jesus, you’ll also find a prostitute, a woman who pretended to be a prostitute, and a pair guilty of adultery. Not a single one of these groups are esteemed, or even respected, by most middle- and upper-class, white Westerners. In fact, they’re all the crazies, the useless ones, those helplessly and forever stained by sin and misfortune.

But for God – they are the chosen people.

The chorus they comprise sings the truth of Luke 1:37: “For nothing is impossible for God.” He went to such lengths to prove his point as to make an old woman pregnant with an infant who would become a penniless desert preacher, shouting about repentance. That guy wouldn’t get much airtime in the city where I live, unless he was used as a headline for The Onion. God also made a teenager pregnant before she could even get married to a much older, poor carpenter, with whom she would end up running away in the night to escape an evil ruler who wanted to kill their brand-new son. God also handed out invites to his Son’s birth only to the most impoverished, worst smelling men in the country. That is who our God is. That is who he wants on his team.

Funny, because I was once rejected from a seminary’s application process just for being divorced. And yet God keeps choosing people exactly like me – weird, heartbroken, sinful, awkward people – to do the storytelling when it comes to his love. I’ve said and done terrible things. I’ve hurt, disrespected, and rejected others with my actions. I bear the scars of people doing the same to me. All stories for some other day that’s not Christmas. But based on the cast of Luke 1, looks like I’ve got a pretty fair shot at being used by God to show other people what his grace feels like. All those weird, dirty people in Luke 1 had enough goodness in them, enough light and hope, that God chose their weird, dirty selves to bring about his kingdom.

That’s just exactly the kind of God I can worship. At Christmas and all of forever.


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Filed under Broken Beauty, Jesus Loves Me

Sermon: Meekness

My family and I are in the middle of a move – as in, this time last week we were scrambling to find boxes holding church-appropriate clothes. My daughter showed up in a tank top and rainbow shorts, so we only partially succeeded. As of Tuesday morning when it was time to leave for preaching team, we had one house key and one garage opener. I asked my husband for the key – he was standing right in front of me with it – and he said, “Will you take the garage opener? I’ll need the key when I come back this afternoon.” That would’ve been fine if the garage opener had worked. As fate would have it, he had driven away by the time I discovered the door wouldn’t shut, with our open garage housing literally all our things. And already I was running late because I couldn’t find anything I needed. I did what any reasonable spouse would do and laid into him over text before driving to preaching team, seething.

“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”

Since “meek” is a word used to describe Christ, it pretty clearly doesn’t mean “weak” or “spineless” or “impotent” because that is not our God. In fact, the Greek word is praus, a military term denoting horses trained for battle. Without robbing them of their strength or power – since these qualities are vital in warfare – trainers prepared them to unflinchingly face weaponry, torches, and exploding cannons. They were taught to use their strength in response to their rider. They controlled their power. They were called praus, meek.

These horses exhibited a balance between aggression and passivity: they used their full power at the rider’s command. They submitted their strength. They didn’t get hot under the collar or act based on what they saw. They employed the extent of their might at the will of the one in control. They were secure in their role in relation to the rider; they were meek.

One way to look at biblical meekness is that it is power under control. It characterizes those of might, strength, and influence. So as citizens of the wealthiest country in the history of humanity, meekness is a relevant topic for everyone in the room.

Jesus responds to the Father the same way throughout the Gospels. Jesus – who turns over tables the Temple, constantly befuddles church authorities, heals every kind of physical and spiritual ailment, and speaks to crowds of thousands – obviously lacks no power. But in John 5:19, Jesus makes clear how he uses it: “The Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” And another example: his heart-wrenching prayer prior to his betrayal and consequent death sentence: “If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine” (Matthew 26:39). He controls his power, using it at the will of the Father. He doesn’t defend himself or get angry during his supremely unfair trial. As he awaits his punishment from the high priest and Pontius Pilate, he is pelted with insult after insult – from a mob, no less. He’s accused of what he hasn’t done, and misunderstood for what he has. But he remains silent, feeling no need to defend himself because he trusts the Father. He is gentle; he refuses to retaliate because he is meek. His power is under control. That takes a kind of courage unfamiliar to most of us.

This is not natural human behavior. Jesus’s course of action runs in the opposite direction of contemporary American culture. Corporate culture, in particular, writes us off as “weak” if we behave submissively, gently, and preferentially to others. As a result, most of us have learned that you really can get ahead by controlling, manipulating and scheming your way to the top. It seems that it’s not the meek inheriting the earth; it’s the aggressive, it’s those attempting to take advantage of other people before they can do the same us. And this is all reinforced by a zeitgeist that constantly asks us, “Have you received what you earned? Have you achieved enough? Are you enough?” It is exhausting.

I think Jesus’ heart is breaking for us when he says, as we sing every Sunday, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…Let me teach you, because I am meek and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-30). We will find rest in meekness, in trusting our strength to God, in finding our security not in our own power but in our identity as his so deeply loved children that we’ve been promised we’ll inherit the earth.

And the secret is the meek are already inheriting the earth. The ones who trust God’s goodness enjoy every gift he sends, rather than trying to leverage it for something always beyond reach. The ones who use their power at the command of their God are guaranteed victory, rather than having to scheme and hustle for it. The ones who wait for God to act on their behalf can rest in his wisdom and his sloshing-over-the-sides-of-the-bucket love, rather than taking matters into their own hands.

And so, after showing up at preaching team last Tuesday morning infuriated at my husband for a broken garage opener – sitting there self-righteously miserable in my anger – I was administered a discussion about how we’re secure in God and are therefore released to be meek. Using my strength to push against my husband wasn’t necessary or even helpful. Relinquishing it meant being able to trust that God’s plan of me preaching today couldn’t be foiled by a garage door that wouldn’t shut. I decided, after two hours’ worth meekness talk that it was the best route. Instead of spouting off at each other all day, when I backed off and chose not to keep defending myself and trying to exert my rights, my husband and I were back to being a team.

Meekness requires a posture of peaceful obedience coupled with ultimate trust in God’s wisdom and strength. In your everyday routines, what causes you to react with quick anger? Where do you feel inferior? Where do you feel misunderstood? Where do you feel a need to prove yourself or justify your actions? Where, ultimately, do you find your peace? These answers might show you where there’s work to be done toward increased meekness.

It’s so hard to choose this path, but so worth it. A weight is finally lifted, and we are set free. Our meekness comes from from the Holy Spirit, the very essence of God that God promises to all who come to Jesus. So, Mission Chattanooga, come to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, our love, our worth and value, our holiness…and our meekness. Come to Jesus! Amen.

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Eight Things You Have to Stop Saying to Women Who Struggle with Infertility.

Last month I wrote a paper about counseling women who struggle with infertility. Having received that diagnosis myself and living through multiple miscarriages and failed attempts at pregnancy, it’s a pain I know much more intimately than I would like. It’s also a pain God is redeeming by allowing me to study counseling. I hope one day to sit with women who experience this sorrow, comfort them, and let them know so much joy and magic are out there for them when they’re ready. Here are eight things I believe no woman in this situation should ever have to hear (and also four things I bet she would love to hear).

  1. “God has a plan for you,” “God gives us the desires of our heart,” or any variant of any Scripture. Like you, I believe these things too. If the woman in your life who is struggling with infertility is a Christian, then she believes them too. But when the plan she has always dreamed of is stolen, she doesn’t want to hear Scriptures, even if she believes them. She’s confused and heartbroken; platitudes, even Scriptural ones, aren’t helpful. When Jesus comforted people, he did not spurt Scripture and leave it at that. He cried with them (John 11:35), affirmed them (Luke 7:9), and spoke gently to them.
  1. “I couldn’t have a baby for years, but now we’re on Miracle #2!” That’s great for you. But it feels like you’re rubbing it in her face, not giving her hope.
  1. “Everything happens for a reason.” Where is this in the Bible? We do know that God works out everything for the benefit of those who trust and love him, but she doesn’t want to be told that right now. She’s hurting, and it feels like you don’t care when you say things like this instead of putting your head on her shoulder and crying with her.
  1. “You can always adopt.” She knows. She might decide to later. She’s heard the same stories you have about how beautiful adoption can be. But if adoption isn’t in her heart, it won’t suddenly change her countenance for you to bring it up. She won’t say, “Oh, you’re right! I never thought of that!” She’s dealing with jealousy, confusion, fear, anger, grief, shame, stress, and probably other painful emotions. Right now – and maybe always – adoption sounds to her like raising someone else’s child, not being a mother.
  1. “Just relax, and it will happen.” Sure, there’s science to back up the fact that plenty of women have conceived after it seemed all hope was lost. But telling her it’s her own fault that she hasn’t yet conceived because she’s too stressed isn’t a welcome theory. A little wine and a bath won’t cure grief. She needs support while her heart finds its way.
  1. “My kids fight all the time / cost us so much money / still don’t let us sleep through the night.” She would love to hear kids fighting in her house! She would love to have a baby who wakes her in the middle of the night! Even though you’re trying to tell her “kids aren’t all they’re cracked up to be,” you know you would never trade yours, and so does she. It’s like complaining that you have to take your Lamborghini to the mechanic.
  1. “Never give up hope!” Here’s the truth: she might never have a baby. Neither of you know what will happen in the future. Let her deal with the uncertainty on her terms. She might choose to keep trying to get pregnant or she might not, but that’s her business, not yours. 
  1. “I know how you feel. My cousin/sister/etc. couldn’t have children either.” Unless you have been diagnosed with infertility – actually had the sentence leveraged on you by a medical professional – you don’t know how she feels. Fearing you might not be able to have children doesn’t count. Having a relative who couldn’t have children doesn’t count. Taking longer than you wanted to get pregnant doesn’t count. No one knows how she feels except Jesus and the people she chooses to open up to. Let her tell you how she feels if she wants to.

Four Things a Woman Struggling with Infertility Might Love to Hear.

  1. “This isn’t fair.” Let her know she can vent her anger at the situation, even at God, if she needs to. It really isn’t fair that some teenagers get pregnant without trying or wanting to and some wives/stepmoms/aunts/Sunday school teachers/etc. are ready and deeply want to, but never conceive the first time. It’s not fair that she, this woman who so desperately wants to experience motherhood, isn’t “getting her heart’s desires.” Let her work through it.
  1. “If you don’t feel one speck better tomorrow, it’s okay.” When the third specialist confirmed my diagnosis, it seemed my some of my church acquaintances wanted me to starting getting over it immediately. Witnessing grief can make people uncomfortable. I went through times of hope, times of anger, times of feeling stolen from, times of jealousy, and I would’ve loved for someone to say, “If a bad day turns into a string of bad days, I’ll still be here. I won’t lose patience with you. This is hard, and it’s okay that it’s hard.”
  1. “I am here for you.” Don’t say it unless you mean it. But if you’re willing to truly walk through the darkness with her, she would be grateful. It’s a hard thing: if you say this, you’ll have to be ready to let her feel her feelings in all their intensity, call you at 11:00 p.m. because she read someone’s Facebook post and got insanely jealous, question her faith in front of you, and cry with her on Mother’s Day. But if you mean it, she could certainly use a friend who is willing to understand her.
  1. Nothing. Just hug her.

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Love Wins.

The church my man and I attend has real people in it – people who have excelled and fallen short in their efforts at relationships, being Christians, and life in general. In an environment like that, I shared my story out loud for the first time last Wednesday night. An unexpected thing happened: as difficult as it was to admit some of my more embarrassing mistakes, I became so proud of Jesus. So proud that my God is the kind of God who pursues diamonds in the rough. So proud that my God accepts me as I am – and you as you are – because he revels in the journey we’re on. So proud that my God is in control of the whole thing.

It’s like this. Addiction was a fourteen-year way of life for me – from 1996 to 2010 – and it sometimes nips at my heels even now. I didn’t reason my way out of it or will it to stop; you can’t treat addiction that way. Instead, I went to the office of a counselor hand-picked for me by God. For some, that sounds extreme I’m sure: couldn’t it just be a happy coincidence? But here’s the truth. I ended up finally making my decision to get help on a Wednesday that Dr. Morgan happened to be sharing the walk-in intakes, something he doesn’t always do. I arrived at the Health Clinic during his office hours, which are fewer than everyone else’s due to his research activities. He happened to be the one to take me back, even though several other counselors were available. His approach to counseling proved almost exclusively cognitive, in the sense that we looked around my brain and applied logic where I wasn’t. Given that I live my whole life in my brain, the method felt tailored for me. It’s all these reasons, and a few others, that assure me God oversaw my healing process, even when I wasn’t consulting him. He put me in the right setting to recognize what I was doing, why, and how to stop it. Then, he gave me the strength to change. If you’d ever seen me binge, you’d know: only Jesus can do that.

When I got married in June 2007, sexual dysfunction ignited my addiction, causing whatever shards of self-esteem I had left to dissolve in the heart-wrenching pain of loneliness and anger. My body was too wrong, too large, and sentenced me to a sexless marriage. Every failed “treatment” plunged me into further despair, and I looked to food with renewed zeal each time. I reached a low after my third miscarriage; not only was my body oversized, not only did it reject my then-husband, but it also made a farce of my dreams of motherhood. My destructive behavior had no limits: I binged, entered an inappropriate relationship, wallowed in self-pity and hatred, and ignored God’s invitations to surrender. I couldn’t see a way out of the dark and depression; for a while, I didn’t even want one. And even still, when I’d had enough, when I shrugged and said, “Fine, You win,” there was Jesus. Even when I’d turned Him down. Even after my divorce. Even when the old patterns lured me back. And now I can’t even see a shadow of the wife I was for so long. I have eyes only for my man, and I thoroughly enjoy him – loving him, living alongside him, sharing an intimacy with him that is exclusively ours. I have been made entirely new. Only Jesus can do that.

I shouldn’t be here, in this place of lightness and joy, after the places I’ve been. I spent years destroying my body, being unable and unwilling to stop abusing food. I’ve been through the loss associated with infidelity. I’ve felt the pain of my babies fading. I’ve walked through the disappointment and rage of (supposed) infertility. I’ve tried to soothe myself, to protect myself when I felt assaulted by the storm, only to wake up drowning in further waves of pain. But I’m here – joyful, peaceful, and free. Only Jesus can do that. I am married to the sexiest, strongest, kindest man God ever created. I am mother-by-marriage of two beautiful children that look just like my favorite man. I am mother-by-blood of a 34-week-old pregnancy miracle who is about to forever change my world for the better. I am blessed to live in a lovely home with a wonderful family that makes my life a joy beyond words, beyond anything I could’ve made for myself. But even if I lost everything tomorrow, I have been shown that my God is greater than the gifts he gives and the pain I endure. Whatever I live through tomorrow, He has the answers. He meets my needs. He loves me and speaks tenderly to me and remains faithfully beside me no matter where we go. No matter what happens, there’s Jesus.

That’s all I ever needed to know, really. I’m loved, I’m of priceless worth, and there’s always Jesus.

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Filed under Addiction Recovery, Broken Beauty, Jesus Loves Me, Once Divorced, Twice Married

No judgment.

My pastor says it’s pointless to judge people because 1) People have reasons—which you don’t know—for doing what they do, 2) You have plenty of your own crap to deal with, and 3) No one cares about your judgments anyway. I’ll be honest with you: judging others was something I struggled with for years because I was pretty sure I knew better than most people what they ought to be doing. It’s like Claire, the mom from Modern Family, said: “I know I can’t run [my daughter’s] life for her, but if she would let me, I’d be so good at it!” Into my early twenties, I had a judgment for everything, partly because being a Christian made me feel superior, partly because I was raised to have confidence in myself, and partly because I am human.

Last Friday would’ve been my fifth wedding anniversary, but now it’s a day that reminds me why I have no business judging others. When certain people heard of my separation and divorce, they became rigidly judgmental. Some wanted me to know that divorce is a sin. Others wanted me to know that it’s fine if my heart was so hardened I had to divorce, but that I could never remarry because that would be a sin. Once I was told that divorce wasn’t actually possible for a Christian. Someone else said that since we are attracted to the same type of person repeatedly, divorcing my first husband would only lead to divorcing second, third, and subsequent husbands. All I can say is thank God for my church and the grace I found in it. The leader of my Divorce Care group, a woman I deeply respect and love, was the first person to literally hold my hand as I cried and tell me she understood. As much as I appreciated the prayers and encouraging words of my friends and family, and I really did, the gift of being looked in the eye, understood, and shown grace was something that reached my soul.

It seems to me that God needs those of us who have been divorced, gone bankrupt, been hooked on this or that addiction, lost children, lost faith, lost dignity, and whatever else. He needs the women who got pregnant before they got married and the men who found someone else after they got married. He needs the ones who were bitter, lustful, abusive, brokenhearted. He needs people who can, like my Divorce Care leader, look his babies in the eye and say, “I get it. I lived that story too,” and comfort them in a way that mirrors his comforting of us. One of my favorite traits of my Divorce Care leader is that she is 100% shockproof. There is nothing you can say to this woman that raises her eyebrows in disgust or horror. You can tell her the worst things you’ve said and done, and she says things like, “Yeah, we tend to do that, don’t we?” The grace she has shown me, and so many others, is the very face of God. You can’t tell me God doesn’t use her story—the good, the bad, and the ugly in it—to reach his children.

I no longer assign blame for my divorce; it doesn’t matter. Anne Lamott says, “There are three things you can’t change: the past, the truth, and other people.” Divorce is a part of my past, and that’s that. Did I miss the will of God? Don’t know; don’t care. (Although I do not at all regret my first marriage.) Would things be different if I had done this or that instead? Don’t know; don’t care. This is what I do know and care about: nothing I have ever done, including divorce, has caused God not to love me anymore. Nothing I have ever done has changed God’s promise of protection, healing, and grace in my life. Nothing I have ever done has made God scrap his plans for me. I made mistakes in my marriage, and I live with the knowledge of having caused my ex-husband pain. But I do not have to live with guilt or shame. I am saved. I am a part of God’s plan for humanity. And he makes all things new. All things. New.

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As time went on, sex became somewhat easier: the shock of the pain ebbed because I knew what I was in for each time. But I wasn’t satisfied with that—I had more in mind for my sexuality—so I began reading voraciously. I read The Gift of Sex by Clifford and Joyce Penner, a book Dr. B called “a good starting place.” And it certainly would’ve been, had I been normal. I read Sheet Music by Kevin Leman, a recommendation from a friend that turned out to be really interesting, if not especially helpful in my then-current state. I read Cosmo articles. I read excerpts of The Celebration of Sex by Douglas Rosenau. I read The Act of Marriage by Tim and Beverly LaHaye (skip it). I read excerpts of Intended for Pleasure by Ed Wheat. I read articles from several websites. I even read a book about kissing. The problem with all that material was that nowhere did it describe anyone like me. Advice for avoiding awkward wedding nights, rekindling the passion for older couples, adjusting to babies in the house, and breaking sexual inhibitions abounded…but there was nothing for me. When I used indices to reread portions that supposedly addressed lack of sex drive and/or painful sex, the most I found was “Try some relaxation techniques,” or “See a doctor.” Once more I felt alone in my struggle and frustrated that I couldn’t seem to help myself. These books were designed for people whose biggest problem was ignorance or a stressful schedule. Mine was all-out dysfunction.

I seemed to be hitting the same wall with Dr. B by that point. I’d tried all the sexy music, sensual massage, glasses of wine, and non-intercourse intimacy I could handle. I’d lit candles, I’d watched romantic movies, I’d read and written some erotica. And don’t get me wrong: Dr. B’s influence was absolutely crucial in my battle for healthy sexuality, and with his help I made some very important strides. But my sometimes-impatient self was irked when the speed of my progress cooled. Even though there were occasional days and nights on which I truly wanted to have sex, it still wasn’t “making love.” It was fulfilling an uncomfortable, frustrating duty. I was nearing the end of my rapidly fraying rope, and unfortunately, that is where the story pauses for the next year and a half of my marriage. Sex was possible but excruciating, and my enthusiasm for satisfying sex was evaporating by the minute. I threw up my hands in frustration with God for not erasing the problem.

The night I ran completely out of patience, two years into marriage, is still as vivid a memory as the chili I ate tonight. My husband and I had another couple over for dinner, and after dessert we decided to play a game (as often happens if you are my dinner guest—fair warning). Although we knew we were at a disadvantage—they’d weathered several more years of marriage than we had—we were up for the challenge of the Newlywed Game. One question the two husbands were asked was, “When was your hottest night of lovemaking in the past year?” They both recorded answers with seemingly little difficulty. However, when my husband revealed his response, his friend said, “For us, pretty much every time is awesome. You must not have had a lot of sex if you can remember a specific night.” Usually I have a great poker face, but that night I sat there stunned, staring at my husband’s friend, with whom it didn’t seem to register that he’d said something deeply insulting. All the feelings of being exposed, of fighting an embarrassing battle of inadequacy, washed over me. Burning, crimson shame appeared on my face. Everybody knows, the sickening voice in my head whispered. Everybody knows.

For me, the problem with all this sexual strife is that it’s the one thing we’re supposed to figure out entirely on our own. All any person or book ever said was, “It hurts in the beginning,” and “Figuring it all out with your partner is so much fun!” Well…what about those of us for whom it was still painful after two years? What about those of us who couldn’t figure anything out, even with a manual like Sheet Music, because it was impossible to make even the “easy” stuff work? Who are we supposed to turn to? Try to talk about sex in your Bible study, and you’ll likely make the room fidget and drop eye contact faster than you can say “scented massage oil” unless you have an unusually open group. I found that very few people, even my closest friends, were able to give me real, honest information, their words being veiled by a sense of propriety. (Not that there’s anything wrong with propriety; it’s just frustrating to hear about it over and over when you truly need answers.)

After my husband’s friend made his comment, it was literally weeks before I was able to face my bedroom frustration again. Everything had simply begun to feel insurmountable.

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Sex at Church

Sex and church do not mix. At least they didn’t for me.

For the first 22 years of my life, I attended two Church of God churches. At Church #1, whose doors I marched through every Sunday of my childhood and for a year and a half in my early twenties, you’ll find healing, grace, and a profound sense of community. Church #2 is where I spent my adolescence, and since much of that revolved around the youth group, that is the only aspect of the church I’ll discuss here. The youth group at Church #2 was a place of emotional highs, legalistic rigidity, and statistics. It was more important to obey the rules than to have a real relationship with Jesus, for example. It was more important to bring in new people than to disciple the committed attendees. And it was very, very important not to have sex.

Like most churches, Church #2 believes in a trinity of sexual sins: homosexuality, adultery, and premarital sex. At Church #2 the third tended to be the most frequently discussed, usually during an abstinence campaign. Church #2 taught me a number of inaccuracies about sex, the gravity of which I didn’t fully realize until discussing them with Dr. B. I’ll share some of the subliminal messages I received from the youth pastor—not in an attempt to air my grievances, but to bare the reality of much religious instruction about sex.

1.) Sex is sex. This is the most detrimental of the lessons I learned because it paved the way for the rest. In sermons about sex at Church #2, no caveat was given about the difference between misuse of sex and monogamous sex. No sex seemed condoned by God. In the absence of a clause about the necessity of sex in the right kind of relationship, the resulting message is that sex, period, is sinful, not that immorality has its consequences. It’s true that when sex is used to fill a void, when it is carelessly tossed about, or when it is preceded by pressure, it will eventually lead to destruction of relationships and/or self. However, sex as an expression of commitment and love is a completely different ballgame. A gulf exists between those types of situations, one that was never addressed (to my knowledge) in Church #2’s youth group.

2.) Sex is disappointing. Over and over we were told that a virgin’s reaction after having sex the first time is typically, “That’s it?” This argument is that the media blows sex way out of proportion, leading people to believe that sex is neon awesome every time, whereas the truth is that it’s not all that. I assume the intent was to make us think we weren’t missing much. I find this unfair because as with anything in life, sex comes with a learning curve. The first time you make biscuits from scratch, they come out burned or doughy. The first time you clean your windshield, you streak it. The first time your child misbehaves, you suck at correction. That doesn’t mean you stop making the biscuits, cleaning the windshield, or correcting; it means you work at it and improve. The story doesn’t stop with “you’ll suck” (That’s what she said.). You probably won’t rock each other’s worlds the first time, but you learn. By saying sex is disappointing, you distract from this incredible gift of God.

3.) Sex is divorced from love. Never did love come up in a lesson about sex except in the context of “if he really loves you, he won’t force you to have sex.” (Of course, even this seemingly innocuous statement has an edge: if love is present, sex is not. Also, love is good; sex is bad.) Sex is not about expression here: it’s little more than the result of human biology and a sinful nature. Keep an eye on your hormones, and you’ll realize that your sex drive has to do with your youth and/or gender, not the loving relationship you’re in. Even terms like “making love”—a term I have come to prefer for several reasons—were banished from discussions about sex. No one ever told me that when you’re in a relationship with someone you love and admire, your heart fills with all sorts of desire for that person—you want an emotional and a spiritual connection, sure…but you also long for a physical connection. No one told me this was a normal and beautiful reaction to being cherished, being special to someone. Instead, I was taught that sex drive resulted from hormones or making out (or a combination of both), and that it would destroy my capacity for logical thought, fairly forcing me to unzip my shorts if I wasn’t vigilant.

4.) Sex is sinful and provokes divine judgment. The predominant arguments against sex were venereal disease, pregnancy, and emotional trauma. Any of these could be multifaceted, but pregnancy was the Big Problem. Church #2 essentially looked at it this way: 1) Choose abortion, and you’re a murderer. 2) Choose adoption, and you have to deal with the pain of losing a child. 3) As a teenager, you’re too much of an ill-prepared screw-up to try to raise the baby yourself. There was no way to win. And all this cause-and-effect was a virtual certainty: it’s God’s design for punishing sexual partners. To me, this God is a God of judgment, indeed a heartless God, who carelessly doles out life and death to teach a lesson. The miracle of birth becomes flesh-covered punishment. The heartbreak of fatal illness is your just desserts. So…have sex at your own risk, bucko.

You can see why these messages, all of which I deeply imbibed, contributed to my sexual struggles. There are others, but for the sake of space I will omit them for now. I’m sure that some who grew up in my youth group went on to have lots of great sex, but I also know I am not alone. Dr. B told me about a study he conducted with some colleagues years ago. The research team interviewed literally hundreds of people who fit into one of two groups: people who had been sexually abused and people who had been raised in sexually repressive religious environments. Would you believe that the effects were exactly the same? Dr. B’s research team discovered that both groups ended up with either sexual addiction or severe dysfunction—and sometimes both. The mental, emotional, and physical symptoms the two groups described were indistinguishable.

All of this then begs the question, “How should we teach about sex?” I don’t pretend to have the answer, but I have some ideas I’ll include in the next post. In the meantime, I would LOVE to hear the messages you received—good or bad—about sex from authority figures in your life. What has been your experience with religion and sex? How do you think we should teach about sex? This issue is really close to my heart, and I covet your insights.

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