A Very Pregnant Advent

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It’s a strange experience going through Advent as a pregnant woman, her baby boy due two days after the Baby Boy’s birthday.

I’ve never felt an emotional connection to Advent before. Where there was any sort of emotion in the lead up to Christmas, it was impatience and excitement about receiving presents, or frustration and fatigue about giving presents. There was nothing spiritual about that.

But carrying a child to term during Advent — that has been a spiritual experience.

The groaning, the grief, the long dark nights waiting, the wanting to give up hope but knowing the end is too close to really give up — that’s a spiritual feeling. And none of that is metaphorical, not for a pregnant woman at the end of the third trimester. I sit up most nights, at odd hours, sometimes crying, but mostly punching pillows into place and groaning, mentally screaming into them so I don’t wake my husband.

Ugh, and the hope — sometimes it’s what carries me through the day, but lately, it feels like I carry it, lugging it around like a ball and chain, because it’s what defines and constrains me. People ask me about the hope all the time. “Eight more days,” I say, wearily, more wearily than when I said “eighteen” or “eighty” just a few short weeks and months ago. What makes it bleak, like all hope, is that there can never be an actual countdown. We can only say, “Someday!” and “Soon!” and “Maybe today!”, and then wake up the next day and the next to say the same thing again. We get more discouraged the closer we are.

That’s a spiritual thing.

Another spiritual thing — all our doing and preparing makes a way, but it doesn’t make it happen. My husband is always asking, “Did you do your exercises, did you drink your raspberry leaf tea, did you look up yet another thing on the internet to try and get this baby out?” And I always tell him, “None of those things will make the baby come. They just get my body ready for when the baby decides to come. And nobody knows what makes the baby decide to come.”

That’s a very spiritual thing, a very Advent thing — there’s so much work to be done in the world, in us, but it’s only a preparation for when our Hope and Change and God decides to come. We have to do the work, but the work doesn’t do what we want it to do — it doesn’t make the waiting shorter or the coming quicker.

That’s the flip I’ve had to make in my mind: right now, it’s not about doing, it’s about going on. The nursery is ready. My body is ready. My mind is ready. My heart is ready. And I spent a lot of time and energy readying those things. Now, when I wake up in the middle of the night, when I’m sitting around on the couch, when somebody asks me about the due date for the millionth time, I can’t do anything. I must just go on. I just get through another night, let another day pass, take another breath — because he is coming. My baby is coming. He will come.

And I won’t remember any of the waiting and groaning, because the grieving hope will be turned to certain joy.

That’s Advent, isn’t it? That’s pregnancy. That’s life.

Whatever we’re waiting for, may it come quickly.

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When the Grinch Steals Christmas

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Over at my apartment, it feels like the Grinch stole Christmas. Until today, just eight days before Christmas, there wasn’t a Christmas decoration in sight.

The banner over our window still read, “Happy Fall,” with a couple inches of snow clearly visible behind it. The Christmas cards were shuffled under some bills, old pay stubs, and coupons for Maternity Motherhood nursing bras.

There was one plate of just a few cut-out sugar cookies, stacked on top of a Tupperware full of unfrosted cookies, and if you looked in our fridge, you’d find baggies of colored frosting left over from a week ago when we invited my sister to decorate cookies with us. We got a late start with the cookies, and then her baby got cranky for bedtime, and she left, and with her went all motivation to finish frosting the rest of the cookies. I don’t know what I was thinking — I’ve always hated decorating cut-out cookies.

I’m also bad at decorating in general. I said there wasn’t a Christmas decoration in sight, but that’s not entirely true. Every Christmasy thing we owned has been spread out over our table for weeks. Even though I had plenty time during the day, puttering around waiting for my baby to be born, I avoided it.

I was so much more prepared for Christmas this year than last. Joanna Gaines had come out with an inspirational holiday collection at Target. I had been pinning Christmas ideas since the summer. I had read the Christmas editions of both Better Homes & Gardens and Family Circle.

And then the thought of making decisions and things not looking right and me botching Christmas again…the only warm and fuzzy feeling I got at the thought of Christmas decorating was intense anxiety.

The Grinch is wrong, by the way. The true meaning of Christmas exists without presents and Who Hash, but what is Christmas without the traditions surrounding it? I’ll tell you what — just an ordinary day of reflection on family and togetherness and Jesus. All good, don’t get me wrong. But not Christmas.

Unfortunately for me, I haven’t had much luck with igniting the Christmas spirit on my own. Our first married Christmas, I thought it was simply a matter of meshing my husband’s and my favorite traditions and making them “ours.” That bombed the second we squabbled over when to open stockings — on St. Nick’s Day all the way in the beginning of December (wrong), or on Christmas morning (right).

“It wouldn’t be Christmas to me if we opened stockings at any other time than Christmas morning,” I pleaded. “That’s my favorite part of Christmas.”

Of course, opening stockings on St. Nick’s Day was one of his favorite parts of Christmas, too, and it just wouldn’t be Christmas without that.

I don’t know why we bothered arguing about it. It was a moot discussion, because Santa doesn’t visit anyone who lives without their parents.

We tried migrating over other family traditions — the Advent wreath, the canon of Christmas songs and movies, the driving around town in our pjs sipping chocolate shakes and looking at lights. Those never caught on, because I discovered something I’d never realized before as a kid — it’s not half as fun to be the adult in the situation, the one who has to hunt down those elusive purple candles at Michael’s, who has to go out and rent all the movies and CDs, who must Google the route around town and justify spending money on shakes.

And it’s no fun trying to be the sole motivation for all these things without an energetic younger sibling to support you. I learned that the hard way when I’d planned an entire St. Nick’s Day celebration only to hear the words, “I’m really tired and just want to go to bed” from my husband. It was 7:30. Party pooper.

Adrift in a Christmas season without any traditions of my own — that’s how I felt. And no matter how many nostalgic feelings I felt about Christmas, no matter how many times I scrolled through my Christmas Pinterest boards, I just couldn’t seem to make those traditions happen.

Then I realized I was doing it again — that thing I do as a young adult, trying to recreate something that no longer exists. I can never go back to being a little girl whose primary job in the kitchen is eating the cookies, not making them. I can never go back to being the recipient of Santa’s generosity, not the jolly old fellow himself. I can never go back to not being in charge of the budget or responsible for planning the day’s events or making the Christmas magic happen. Christmas wasn’t going to feel the same, because it, frankly, wasn’t the same.

Even when I go home for Christmas, it’s not the same. Someone’s always missing, off fulfilling their holiday obligations with their significant other’s family. There’s only one kid unjaded enough to get excited about Christmas cookies and decorating the tree. Some of the family traditions have stopped completely due to all the adolescent inertia in a house full of teenagers.

Christmas couldn’t be found there, either.

But the Grinch hadn’t stolen it completely.

Sure, we didn’t watch any of the holiday movies our families watched, and we didn’t get the tree up until eight days before Christmas, and we don’t have access to my dad’s complete collection of Mannheim Steamroller CDs, and, realistically, we probably won’t do a fraction of the things I wanted to do. And yeah, decorating sugar cookies doesn’t get me in the mood for Christmas anymore.

But we don’t have to do those things for it to be Christmas, and those old traditions don’t have to work magic in the way they used to. We’re our own little family, our own persons, and Christmas comes to life in different ways now.

That’s where all the anxiety and frustration was coming from — I wasn’t okay with that, with growing up, and accepting that things are different, so Christmas will be different too.

The Grinch didn’t return many of the old traditions that growing up stole — but their absence inspired some new ones. And when I look back at this Christmas season, I’m satisfied. I’m happy. I’m in the Christmas spirit — even if it’s eight days before Christmas and we only just decorate our home.

We spent a frosty day picking and cutting down our way-too-tall Christmas tree, sharing a kiss under the mistletoe at the owner’s bequest, and drinking hot cocoa with my brother-in-law who works on the tree farm.

We light two candles at every shared meal pretending that they’re Advent candles, since, after all, there were only two Sundays in Advent left by the time we set them up. We didn’t do any of the accompanying readings or prayers or songs, but there’s always next year.

My church gives us plenty of opportunities to sing Christmas carols, both in and out of service, and I love communal caroling.

I play Spotify Christmas playlists as background noise.

I sang through Handel’s Messiah — all of it — because that’s my favorite Christmas music of all. And maybe I’ll start over and sing the alto parts now.

What’s to stop me from eating the raw cookie dough and frosting left over from our failed cookie decorating endeavors?

But my very, very favorite — we read A Christmas Carol out loud. Next up is The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and, of course, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I hope that’s a tradition that carries on forever. But even if it doesn’t, in some other season of grown up life, I know there’s something else out there that can make Christmas feel exactly like Christmas is supposed to be.

Wives, Thank You Notes Aren’t Your Responsibility

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Before I got married, I watched newlyweds struggle to send out thank you notes for every pillow and pot and pan set they received. The bridal shower occurs smack dab during wedding planning, so those notes get shoved back. Then the wedding occurs, then the honeymoon, then moving, starting that new job, processing marriage, and hunting down your car paperwork (since of course your car fell apart somewhere amid all of that). You find the paperwork in a stack of junk mail and lists of people you need to thank. All fifty to three hundred of them.

Next weekend, you say. And then the next. And some of them happen, some of them don’t, until you’re so flustered and your hand is so cramped and you start questioning the whole stupid concept of etiquette and forget about thank you notes until your second anniversary.

Before I had a baby, I watched the same thing happen — the distraction, the frustration, the exhaustion, the defeat. And by that point, the baby is born and nothing gets done until you retire.

There’s one common thread to these sad tales — wives get stuck doing all the thank you notes.

It might be because wives generally get stuck with social obligations. It might be because women get thrown the bridal showers and baby showers while the husband- and dad-to-be stays home. Those are all things I think we should challenge (desperately), but in the meantime, here’s a quick and dirty tip to get all the thank you notes done without burn out:

Wives, don’t write all the thank you notes.

Erich and I split up wedding thank yous — he responded to his family and friends, and I responded to mine. That proved especially helpful because I had no idea who Aunt and Uncle Unpronounceable Polish Name were, and they had no idea who I was — and there were lots of aunts and uncles with unpronounceable Polish names on his side of the family. There were also people who neither of us knew.

I’m not sure how that happened.

Even more importantly than splitting up thank you note writing, we split up the mental load of thank you note writing. That is, I made it clear that this was not my task that I was delegating to him. This was his task that he was solely responsible for thinking about and completing. I would not remind him, nag him, or deal with the fallout if relatives started asking where their thank you notes were — just as he was not responsible for reminding me to complete my thank you notes, even if it took me months (or a year…) to complete them.

I cannot tell you how much of a relief that was — to not feel obligated to nag. Because that’s where nagging comes from, right? The feeling that it’s ultimately your responsibility and your reputation that takes a hit, so you must badger your husband to do it your way, in your time, instead of letting go of everything — the method, the time frame, the responsibility, the consequences.

Whenever anyone asked how thank you notes were coming, it felt amazing to simply say, “Oh, Erich’s in charge of the rest of them — ask him” — instead of throwing him under the bus to deflect from my embarrassment.

This makes for a much happier marriage.

Now that baby gifts and Christmas gifts are rolling in, I’m planning on revisiting this simple tip — he writes the notes for his family and friends, I write the notes for my family and friends. Of course, his family is now my family and vice versa, and I have more time on my hands than he does since I work part-time, so that changes things more than when we both worked full-time and hardly knew each other’s families.

But if the thank you notes get overwhelming, I’m not going to hesitate to pull in my husband. After all, expressing gratitude for gifts given to both of you is not a wife’s sole responsibility.

Coming to Terms with the Female Body

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I didn’t really have body image issues growing up. I just had body issues. I had an adolescent Gnostic dualism about my body — wanting to live in my head as much as possible, and terribly inconvenienced by my physical body.

I’m the kind of person who Googles scientific excuses for why I can’t exercise. (Small lung capacity, it turns out. A genetic problem. Look it up.) I would go whole days without eating because I was lost in a project. Getting sick was the end of the world, because I had little experience dealing with physical ailments — plus, they made thinking and reading and writing impossible. The worst.

Actually, the worst wasn’t the head cold I contracted from time to time or my burning lungs after a quick jog up to class.

It was my reproductive system.

How I hated it.

Long before it was legal, desirable, or safe to make babies, I got hit with monthly bleeding — and along with it, a set of other pleasant symptoms like cramps, passing out, vomiting, gastrointestinal distress, and incurable insomnia. And these are normal symptoms. And they come every twenty-eight days (except for when they take a bit longer and you become convinced it’s possible to get pregnant spontaneously).

It’s just a gross, miserable experience that leaves you waddling around in diaper-like pads. Oh, and on top of that, you can’t tell any male when you’re menstruating, so you go to work and pretend you’re fine even though your insides are about to explode. You lose your moral compass completely and make up the most ridiculous lies to explain your aches and lethargy, just so your professor or casual male acquaintance doesn’t have to know it’s your — ahem — time of month.

But even with all that misery, you can’t quite malign Aunt Flo, because at least she assures you you’re not pregnant (a great boost of confidence after scandalously holding your crush’s hand for the first time). Babies are wonderful, of course, in the general sense, but, in the brutally practical sense, not when you’re unemployed, or single, or right after you just spent nine months carrying and then birthing a previous child, or when you’re in your late forties and had made peace with menopause, or when you’ve got chronic illness, or any number of real reasons why carrying or caring for another child would be difficult.

Your body is oblivious to these legitimate reasons, and really, really wants to be pregnant — except for when it doesn’t, and you walk through the hell of infertility and miscarriage (still experiencing menstruation, of course). So you get to choose from a host of expensive or invasive or mood-killing or hormone-altering or not-quite-effective birth control options, none of which suit your complicated reproductive needs.

And then you’ve got to decide on a philosophical defense for why you picked natural or non-natural birth control, lest you feel guilty, which you already do, and then you subconsciously decide on abstinence and mumble that you’re too tired every time he looks at you in bed.

But eventually you do get pregnant, either because your birth control failed or you got a case of the baby fever or you were too excited about sexy times to seriously remember pregnancy.

And then, there’s pregnancy. Morning sickness, heartburn, insomnia, exhaustion, weight gain, etc.

And then comes childbirth — the brilliant idea of squeezing an entire baby through a 10 cm hole via excruciating pain, mangling your lady parts for at least six weeks and changing your body forever.

And if you’re breastfeeding, you’re on call 24/7, and might get mastitis, or cracked nipples, or just a good bite taken out of you when your baby gets feisty.

All of this takes up a huge chunk of a woman’s life. Maternity leave puts careers, hobbies, and relationships on hold. PMS lowers productivity. Pregnancy limits certain activities and tasks. Birth control can complicate a sex life.

This is the normal impact of a woman’s reproductive cycle, not counting all the things that could go wrong with it — anything from skipped periods to maternal death.

Being a woman doesn’t allow one the luxury of Gnostic body/mind dualism. The female body shows up in large, painful ways throughout most of a woman’s life.

To make matters worse, there is no male equivalent of PMS, menstruation, pregnancy, labor and delivery, or breastfeeding. Men can pursue their intellectual endeavors and ambitions without Aunt Flo knocking them out every twenty-eight days. There is zero gender equality in reproduction: men get one pleasant role to play, and then they can skip out with no natural consequences.

It’s as if the patriarchalists are right, and women are nothing more than babymaking machines.

***

That’s what I told my mentor when I was first engaged and exploring the disappointing world of family planning: “I feel like I’m nothing but a babymaking machine.”

“No, you’re not!” I was expecting her to say. “Rah rah, hear me roar, you can have it all!” — something along those lines was what I was expecting.

Instead she smiled and said, “You are a babymaking machine. But that’s not all you are.”

***

I’m not a Gnostic dualist. I’m a Christian who believes that matter means as much as mind, that when God said, “It was very good,” he was talking about body as well as soul. Who I am involves the abstract things — my mind, my soul, my personality, my goals, my loves, my dreams — and the concrete things — like my very, very female body.

My female body was created to grow and birth children in a shockingly miraculous (and painful) way. That’s a fact, love it or hate it. And my body is capable of so many other things, too.

And that’s all I have figured out right now. The rest of my thoughts are just questions. In a culture that cares so much about knowing who you are and choosing what defines you, how do I factor in the facts of my female body with who I am and what defines me? How much value do I assign my female body in determining my purpose and my definition of womanhood?

This is the heart of gender inequality — we have always extrapolated from male and female bodies male and female roles. The warrior strength of the man destines him for war, for example; the reproductive system of the woman destines her for the home.

This is the heart of the mommy wars — how much a woman’s body should inform how she conceives, bears, births, feeds, and raises her children.

This is the heart of redefining gender — how much the female body and its reproductive system dictates the definition of “woman.”

Opinions are all over the place.

There are those patriarchalists who would reduce me to my reproductive abilities and decide for me, based solely on my reproductive system, that I am to be a wife, a mother, a homemaker, and a subordinate, regardless of my other personal goals and capabilities. There are those who find it oppressive to involve the female body in either broad definitions of womanhood or personal definitions of womanhood. There are those who don’t desire children at all, or who use medical procedures and pills to stop or limit periods or reproduction. There are those who find it immoral to tamper with the reproductive system altogether or, indeed, with any natural process.

And then there’s the tricky business of figuring out what’s actually natural and what’s marred by the fall — or if we can even use “natural” as a word with moral meaning since everything “natural” to us is not the original, spotless creation.

I’m a babymaking machine, but I’m more than a babymaking machine. I’m more than a babymaking machine, but I’m a babymaking machine. How do those fit together to define womanhood, to define my womanhood?

I don’t know how to puzzle through this one to a fulfilling answer. In fact, I suspect I can’t intellectually puzzle through it. I’ve got to live it, and let my body inform my thinking in ways I didn’t let it before.

The Truth about Spiritual Compatibility

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Not a day goes by when I don’t thank God for my husband Erich.

Not just because of all the side-splitting humor, support, and sweetness he brings to my life, but mostly because it’s horrifying for me to think of what life would be like had I married a different man — had I married a “spiritually compatible” man.

I understood spiritual compatibility as “almost identical agreement about important theological things” and “almost identical spiritual lives.” You talked the same talk and walked the same walk. Anything less was compromising.

And then I fell in love with a Catholic boy who fit none of the criteria I’d labelled “spiritual compatibility.”

I couldn’t even use evangelical buzzwords to cushion his Catholicism: he wasn’t “on fire for Jesus”; he didn’t have “a heart for [overt missional goal].” His spirituality didn’t fit inside any of the popular descriptors for an acceptable Christian life.

As for agreement on important theological things? He wasn’t even aware of most of the historic theological debates. He had simple opinions and didn’t spend his free time agonizing over the correct interpretation of this one obscure verse and its implications for theology as a whole.

And when he did have a fervent theological opinion, it was clearly wrong.

I didn’t want to say it aloud then (it meant I was compromising and we’d have to break up), but we were not spiritually compatible. 

When I wasn’t agonizing over obscure Bible verses, I was agonizing over this tension: I loved him deeply; we belonged together in ways I sensed but didn’t even see at the time; but we were not at all on the same page theologically or spiritually. In the most audacious, ill-advised move of my life, I stayed with him. I doubled down on making our relationship work, totally confident we’d clear these obstacles, totally afraid we wouldn’t.

If I was an outsider looking in and giving advice, I would have told myself to give up. I would have pointed out, like some did, that our relationship went beyond the acceptable limit of spiritual compromise.

Then a funny thing happened: I acknowledged my doubts, and every spiritual thing I held dear shattered.

I didn’t know that, that someone as confident and opinionated and Biblical as I could lose it all in the blink of two years. By the end of it, there was little left of my spirituality to be compatible with. 

But there was still Erich, and his love for me. There was still Erich, and his respect for me. There was still Erich, and his commitment to me. 

By this time we were married, foolishly enough. Married just in time for everything I held dear to go up in suspension. It was enough to destroy a marriage built on spiritual compatibility. 

But blessedly, our marriage wasn’t built on that. It was built on that love, respect, and commitment that could separate “what you believe” from “who you are” in just the right way. 

Instead of an angry husband jilted to find out he was stuck with a heathen for better or for worse, I had a calm husband who expressed implicit trust, respect, and space for this new chapter of my spiritual journey. His spirituality was not tied up in mine. My doubts did not shatter his faith. His faith did not require shattering my doubts. 

He listened. We discussed. He let me say horrible things about God and Christianity; he let me ask pointed questions about his own spirituality without any defensiveness or fear. He never held me accountable to what I no longer believed. He never pressured me to express my faith and spirituality in a particular way, much less his way.

He wanted me to find my own way.

That’s why I thank God every day for him — for not being spiritually compatible in the way I wanted, but for being spiritually compatible in the way I needed, in the way I’d sensed and not understood for all the years we’d been together. I thank God I didn’t marry the boys with whom I was spiritually compatible — the fundamentalist, Calvinist, opinionated, Bible-thumping ones more in line with my rigid theology and shallow spirituality, the ones who would have feared or opposed or damned my faith shift.

I’ve seen those marriages. I cannot fathom living in one.

Ironically, if I were to use the old definition of spiritual compatibility, Erich and I would be very much spiritually compatible now. That’s the funny thing about a loving, respectful, fearless Christianity: it’s really appealing.

He’s the one rare person in my life who agrees with me on every major thing and most of the minor things. We understand spirituality similarly, even if we practice it differently. And most importantly, we give each other the space and respect to work out our questions and beliefs in God’s own timing. We support and value each other even when we disagree, and disagree strongly.

I share our story not as a blueprint for those on the path to marriage. I don’t advocate finding and marrying someone totally different from you in case you end up changing your mind on everything. I don’t think it’s wise to ignore disagreements and their potential aspect on marriage and especially parenting.

I’ll be totally honest: it’s far less stressful when we agree than when we disagree.

But if I can distill our unique situation into any sort of universal advice, it’s this: spiritual compatibility matters less about what someone believes and more about how they can support, respect, and encourage you in your faith — even when you disagree.

Spiritual compatibility is important, but I would redefine it not as agreement but as encouragement. Does this particular person with their particular set of beliefs and morals support, respect, and encourage me in my spirituality?

Within that obviously falls important areas of agreement — I couldn’t marry a misogynist, or someone with wildly different ideas of how to raise our children, or someone who wouldn’t be able or willing to attend the same church together.

But that also allows for some important areas of disagreement. I see articles all the time asking if a Calvinist and an Arminian can marry, or a Catholic and a Protestant, or a Pentecostal and a cessationist, or even an agnostic and a Christian. As someone who has asked these questions, I think it’s important to acknowledge that people different from us can still benefit our spiritual lives, can still support us and encourage us and help us both because of and in spite of our disagreements. And it’s up to every individual couple to decide how much agreement is necessary before the support, respect, and encouragement are beneficial. 

It’s also important to acknowledge that not all differences are equal: marrying a “cafeteria” Catholic like I did is a completely different experience than marrying a strict Catholic, because there’s less room in strict Catholicism for butting out of people’s spiritual lives.

But even a specific faith tradition is no guaranteed success or failure: each person expresses their faith differently according to their personality and their spiritual priorities — which is why we all know couples with fundamentally the same beliefs who are still falling apart over “minor” differences.

The question shouldn’t be, can a Calvinist and an Arminian marry, can a Catholic and a Protestant marry, but can fully practice my faith with the wholehearted support and respect of my potential spouse, and can he fully practice his faith with my wholehearted support and respect?

That’s what spiritual compatibility really is.

Why I Don’t Hate Calvinism

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I spent a good part of my formative theological years in Reformed, Calvinist circles. Yes, the stereotypes of Calvinists being argumentative, stubborn, and more than a bit tone-deaf are mostly true (I being the chief at fault there), but Calvinism itself was a safe haven for me.

I’ve always been keenly aware that what I most needed saving from was myself. First it was from the vile sins of a totally depraved heart, like getting frustrated when people were rude, or being a jerk of a big sister, or failing to read through the Bible in a year, or neglecting a robust prayer life. Then, as my faith started shifting, it was from my ignorance of my own ignorance — my people-pleasing, my fear, my brokenness, my humanness, the subconscious things that controlled what I believed and how I acted — things too subtle for me to even notice, much less combat.

I noticed how at the core of almost every (if not all) sin was hurt or human weakness. People lashed out in anger when they were bullied. Abusers were often once the abused. Kids shot their fellow students because they were misunderstood and ostracized.

If it were not for that hurt, compounded by human weakness, that turns into despair and then hate, what might this world look like?

And because these things are so subtle, many people are not even aware of when we grossly wrong another person or ourselves because of whatever lies we were taught or picked up or concluded due to our individual experiences.

My kindergartners constantly bullied and hit each other. I thought, at first, they just needed to learn to keep their hands to themselves. But that was not the issue. The issue was that their parents told them to fight when they were wronged. This was the inner city. Life or death might depend on being able to fight back. In a world of fear, hurt, and danger, violence, rather than peacemaking, made perfectly logical sense. It was my namby pamby rule of using words rather than violence that was stupid and immoral.

Due to our experiences, all of us get broken, wrong ideas implanted in our souls as perfectly logical and moral. Everyone is a good guy in their own ideology. Everyone is on the right side according to their view of the world.

Lord, have mercy.

I say that with all seriousness: Lord, have mercy, because we need some hands-on intervention into our brokenness.

This is why I never resonated with Christians’ exuberance over free will. “God is a gentleman. He never forces himself on anybody,” I heard frequently, as if that was the highest praise. “You are not insistent, You do not force me, You are not controlling,” Audrey Assad sings in her latest song “Deliverer.”

Of course, I understood the heart of these sentiments — we aren’t robots; true love comes from the opportunity to choose love freely. And all of those things I would come to believe and value in time.

But if I was honest with myself, both the past and present versions of me, I dislike the image of God the gentleman standing to the side as he watches the world burn; God the gentleman saying, “Depart from me; I never knew you,” when he could have stepped in and made himself known; God the gentleman creating free will in the first place when he knew it would cause us to suffer so much.

Embarrassingly, I resonate with John Donne’s shocking, violent depiction of God’s sovereignty:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Yes, batter me. Break, blow, and burn away all the ignorance and brokenness that drives us to hate and harm and choose all manner of evil in the name of good. We don’t know better, and you do, so do something.

Calvinism allows for a God who micromanages his elect, orchestrating their salvation, keeping them within the fold. I remember feeling such confidence, such an awash of grace, when I first learned the doctrines of irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints. Nothing, nothing, nothing — especially not my own ignorance or sin or weakness — could keep me from the love of God.

I was finally safe from my worst enemy — myself.

I love Calvinism for introducing me to a God like that — a Father so acutely aware of my limitations that he doesn’t just sit by as I obliviously wander into oncoming traffic; he runs and snatches me up; he doesn’t let me go even as I kick and scream and don’t understand. He loves me more than he loves my free will, which isn’t, in a world as broken as this, as free as we’d like to think.

***

This image of a fatherly, ever-loving, all-knowing, sovereign God is why I am ultimately no longer Calvinist.

The flipside of a God who chooses and keeps his elect is a God who chooses to damn the non-elect for no reason other than his pleasure — a vile departure from any notion of love. And because God chooses his elect willy nilly (i.e., according to his wise counsel), he’s not really saving us from ourselves as much as he is saving us from his capricious self.

Hence, most people, I discovered, hated Calvinism. It surprised me how much people hated Calvinism and the God revealed in Calvinism.

But this past year, I went through long periods of terror in the hands of an angry God. I felt like I couldn’t keep the faith; it was slipping away from me into agnosticism. I wanted so badly to stay Christian, but I wasn’t able to.

I felt damned.

And I knew from Calvinism that God was capable of saving the elect, that he would never leave me or forsake me, that the elect would persevere until the end. Since I wasn’t able to persevere until the end, since I was rapidly losing the faith, I was clearly the vessel he created for destruction.

No matter how much I railed at this ugly idea, that God damned his creation for his own glory, all I kept hearing was Paul heartlessly repeating, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”

Once again, my humanness got in the way of my salvation. This time, there was no rescuer.

***

Ironically, it was this spiritual experience that leads me more than ever to rejoice in God’s sovereignty.

As I’ve stepped outside of the raging Arminian and Calvinist debate, I no longer see salvation in terms of God’s sovereignty pitted against human will. Ardent supporters of either theologies will insist that, as total sovereignty and total free will are opposites, I have to choose one or the other as the primary instigator of predestination.

But I don’t see them as opposites. I see them as paradoxes. What we’re dealing with here is not a logical thing, but a spiritual, experiential thing with too many facets for a systematic theology. And as such, I’ve gained more clarity about the issue from abandoning the labels and the debates and the attempts to stitch together my favorite clobber verses. I’ve paid more attention to the metaphor and the mystery of God’s love as experienced through human love — particularly through parental love.

The more I interact with children through gentle parenting/teaching methods, the more I understand how it’s possible for God to be sovereign — for God to have his way — and for God to respect, honor, and allow our free choices in a way that doesn’t ultimately harm us.

In gentle parenting, when a child throws a tantrum, the parent doesn’t leave the room, close the door, and let the child deal with the negative behavior he chose (the equivalent of the worst of Arminianism, in my mind). Nor does the parent bark orders, punish, or demand that “you better do what I say — or else!” (the equivalent of the worst of Calvinism, in my mind).

The gentle parent knows that her child is acting out of legitimate discomfort and ignorance about how to handle that discomfort — hunger, sleepiness, disappointment, embarrassment, pain.

Knowing this, she sits with her child until the tantrum ends. If the child lunges at her, she gently blocks the child’s hand and says, “I understand you’re angry, but I won’t let you hit me.” If the child starts running around the room and throwing things, she stays within reach to make sure the child doesn’t harm himself. If he can’t keep himself or others safe, sometimes she enfolds him in her arms gently and firmly, empathizing and repeating that she will not let him hurt himself or others.

She will not be moved by the worst of his moments. She will not punish, threaten, or coerce her child into doing what she wants. She is always near, always ready to jump up and protect, jump up and rescue, until her love is so evident and so unavoidable and so relentless that her child collapses into her arms.

Unavoidable, relentless love wins out every time — not because it batters its way through, but because we were made for love, we were made in the image of love. No matter how broken, hurt, twisted, and sinful we are, there’s always a part of a us that can and will respond to love, given enough time, given enough relentless patience.

While I would no longer describe God’s sovereignty as a rape, I wouldn’t describe him as a gentleman either, waiting around to see what our free will will choose. I would describe him as that patient mother. His sovereignty isn’t invasive; it’s intimate. His patience isn’t passive; it’s involved.

Will he get his way in the end, with all men being saved? Will love reach us where we are most broken and hardened? Oh, I hope so. If anybody could do it, this sovereign, patient God could.

Readers, to focus the discussion, let’s not argue within the binary of Calvinism and Arminianism about which side is “right.” I myself am still capable of giving a point by point proof of Calvinism in rebuttal to this article. I’m more interested in hearing how God’s sovereignty and our free will makes a difference in your spirituality, how you have grown in your understanding of how they work together, etc. 

Me Too (Ish)

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When the “me too” hashtag started trending, I didn’t know whether to type those two words or not.

I am extraordinarily blessed to have experienced no overt sexual harassment, much less sexual assault. I’ve only been catcalled once, by stupid frat boys zipping by in broad daylight. I don’t even count that as catcalling. I was safe, they were driving too fast to even see who I was, and they didn’t say anything — just whistles and yells. They were rude and obnoxious, but it didn’t elicit any response from me except an eye roll.

I am even further blessed that the communities of men I’ve found myself in were respectful, friendly, and in firm control of their sexual desires. Even those with less feminist beliefs felt safe.

I took those things for granted, assuming that was a typical experience. It made sense to me, that men and women would respect each other, that harassment and harm came from scary strangers and obvious pervs, not from the good guys you thought you knew.

Then one of the good guys in my life turned out to be a perpetrator towards someone I dearly loved. My world has never looked the same again.

I didn’t need the “me too” hashtag to know how prevalent sexual harassment and assault was. By the time the hashtag started trending, I’d already heard the stories from the majority of my friends and acquaintances — stories not just of off-handed gross encounters, but of rape and molestation, often by family members. The horrific stories were equally common as the catcalling and sexting.

I am now more surprised to find a woman who hasn’t been molested sometime during her life. I was an odd, inexplicable exception.

And yet

I have my stories too, stories where men demeaned me, harassed me, pressured me, and felt entitled to me. I am not confident they classify as sexual harassment, but the harassment stemmed from the same root — male entitlement trying to exploit a woman perceived as weaker.

There was the time when I was nineteen, attending my home church on spring break. A man in his early thirties approached me after the service, impressed with a comment I’d made during the Sunday school hour. It turned out we both loved discussing theology, and he asked for my email to keep the conversation going — presumably. Having never experienced a negative outcome from handing out my email to strangers (I keep a blog, after all), I gave it to him.

A few days later, I received his diatribe on the evils of denominations; his mission as a prophet of God to, essentially, lure people away from any church that claimed a denomination; and, oh, by the way, I’d love to court you with the intention of marrying you.

After respectfully and firmly refuting every single theological point, I made it clear that I was extremely happy with my boyfriend, whom I planned on marrying. I also asked that we cease correspondence, since his main interest in emailing me was, it turns out, to develop a romantic relationship. (And I wasn’t comfortable sending cozy emails back and forth with a guy who thinks he’s a prophet of God. Minor point.)

His response shocked me. He ignored my careful theological arguments and honed in on the repugnant idea that I’d assumed he’d wanted to court me. Whatever made me think that was his intention?, he wanted to know, along with some bitter observations of my current romantic happiness. And he pressured me to still correspond; it was silly for me not to, since he hadn’t, as I’d brazenly assumed, made any advances on me whatsoever.

I didn’t respond. He later sent a more gracious email begging me to keep corresponding. I didn’t respond.

A few months later, a thick, single-spaced, double-sided packet was left on all the cars at my church, slandering individuals in my family with accusations too ridiculous and impossible for anybody to believe. It included his reassertion that he’d never made advances on me, and that if my parents didn’t want me talking to their daughter, they shouldn’t have let me talk to him.

Sexual harassment? Perhaps not technically. But it was a frightening, confusing, demeaning experience — from his gaslighting to his assumption that I was under my parents’ control to his refusal to take my clear no as an answer. And it all came from his obvious assumption that he deserved my attention on his terms.

I found out later that he has since gone from church to church doing something similar — trying to sow division in the churches while targeting younger and younger girls.

If that’s not predatory power play, I don’t know what is.

***

And then there was the puzzling encounter with the man at the fence. I was supervising my kindergarten students in the enclosed playground that ran alongside a road. From all the way across the playground, outside the fence, a young man began calling to me. Thinking it was a parent uncertain of where to go, I came over and asked him to repeat himself.

He wasn’t a parent. I have no idea who he was, or why he called over a woman who was clearly working and not even remotely close to the fence. For the next fifteen minutes, in the most casual, subtle, and friendly way possible, he tried to extract all kinds of personal information from me — my name, where I lived, what I did, and what my number was. He told his sob story about not having very many friends and how he’d love to keep in contact with me so we could hang out sometime.

Ah — this was clearly a smooth talker trying to flirt and get my number. I smiled and said I was married.

Without missing a beat, he said that didn’t matter; he just wanted to be friends; he didn’t have any friends; come on, just give me your number.

I was bewildered and disarmed, not wanting to assume the worst, not wanting to be unkind or unfriendly, but so uncomfortable and ready for this conversation to end. Somehow, he left — left me shaken and uncertain of what just happened, and what could have happened if a fence, a building full of people, and the excuse of being married hadn’t been available to me.

Sexual harassment? I have no idea. But the same feeling of being used on his terms for his purposes, his blatant disregard for my clear no — it was all there.

The security guard accidentally made it worse. He came out and told me he would keep me safe. He’d even pretend he was my husband as a last resort if the guy came back and wouldn’t leave me alone.

“Some guys just won’t take no for an answer unless you’re already with someone, you know?”

I could not believe that my dignity in many men’s eyes was tied to “belonging” to another man — that they would respect a man, but not me. Another frightening, disempowering experience.

The next time a strange man stopped at the fence and called to me, I pretended I didn’t hear. He lingered a few moments, then moved on.

***

And then there were all the comments I got on my post about respecting men enough to demand they take responsibility for their own sexual impulses. Let me say that I was lucky to receive only rude internet insults rather than the threats of rape or harm many other women have encountered and that plenty of men left respectful comments, whether they disagreed with me or not.

But there were still many graphic, demeaning comments that rattled me to the point of tears, to the point where I felt safest sitting close to my husband until my faith in mankind was restored. They weren’t directed at me, but they involved me.

The worst was this pleasant exchange:

Commenter One: “Honest question: how would you feel about a man treating you respectfully in person, but masturbating to the thought of you later that night?”

Me: “My initial reaction is horror.”

(Christian) Commenter Two: “lol…you’d find out that you need to be horrified 24/7 then.”

***

My point in all of this is not to garner sympathy. I was safe, in control, and protected in all of these situations. While the initial experiences were demeaning and frightening, they don’t control my life, and they refuse to sway my trust that there are good, honorable, sexually controlled men in this world.

Neither is my point to diminish the particular focus of #metoo — overt sexual harassment and sexual assault. I am aware that my experiences pale in comparison to the horrors the majority of women face. That’s why I didn’t write those two words.

My point is simply that there’s a male culture that disrespects a woman’s right to say no or to exist with inherent dignity. Male entitlement and female exploitation exist even apart from things of an overt sexual nature.

They say sexual harassment and assault are primarily issues of entitlement and power rather than sexual desire. If that’s the case, the experiences of those writing “me too” aren’t too different in their essence from my experiences — both kinds deal with a man trying to overpower another’s consent, autonomy, and dignity.

Without detracting from those who suffered sexual violations, I want to expand the conversation to all forms of male entitlement that lead to the abuse, exploitation, and dehumanizing of others. There’s a lot more awareness yet to be raised.

A Newsletter of Sorts

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Well, hey. I just wanted to cave into the boring trend of explaining long blog hiatuses.

What happened was, three weeks of illness, long work hours, and the third trimester.

In other words, I did not think any coherent thoughts during the past month. Zero. I just cried randomly.

I’ve begun thinking coherent thoughts again, thoughts like, “I only have a few weeks left before my self study course is due” and “I need to finish the baby registry” and “Shoot, I’ve got to sew that crib sheet before my sister takes her sewing machine away from me.”

And lots of great blog content, too, actually, but I’m in that intellectual funk where I can talk to myself in car about it all day long but go blank when I try to write about it. You know what I mean? It’s not writers’ block; I just need lots of mental bandwidth before I can write well, before I get just the right angle that captures exactly what I want to say.

Until then, you get these little updates:

30 Rock is the best, funniest, only comedy I’ve wanted to watch in its entirety. Like all good things, it got booted off Netflix and forced me to stay one step ahead of my bingewatching by ordering it from a neighboring library. Which leads me to this existential crisis: If Netflix never has anything good, and I can get everything I want for free from the library, why am I still paying money for this? Great question, Bailey.

Nesting is an actual thing, and it’s happening in bizarre ways. Remember me, the girl who hates homemaking? I don’t know where she went. Whenever I get upset at odd hours of the night, I’m up and scrubbing dishes, vacuuming, and picking Kleenex and empty pizza boxes off the floor. I’ve currently got three different projects started — repainting the changing table, sewing a crib sheet, and sewing a lovey. And my Pinterest boards are exploding with more projects I plan to do before Baby Stegersaurus comes.

Lesson planning is my absolute favorite. I am obsessed with creating unit studies, setting up invitations to play, and reading preschool book reviews. I spent a whole weekend mapping out homeschool plans for my child’s early elementary years (because I’d already had his tot school and preschool lesson plans made months beforehand, duh). Hand in hand with that, I can’t stop reading Reggio Emilia-based blogs like An Everyday Story and The Imagination Tree.

I got into mommy Facebook groups. They are the best and the worst. Mostly the worst right now, because I have yet to desperately need support at 4 AM. There’s one mommy group that spends most of its time responding in GIFs to stupid questions. There’s another with drama queens who believe the world’s problems mostly stem from scheduled bedtimes (personally, I’m sitting here more worried about the impact of their inability to follow basic grammar and logic). Moms preface their behavior questions with, “And he doesn’t get any sugar, dyes, vaccines, or television, so I know that’s not the problem.” Nobody seems to be able to find common ground with moms who don’t agree with every tiny parenting decision she makes. And everyone’s child seems to have a sensory disorder, be autistic, or have ADHD, ADD, ODD, or other heretofore unknown combinations of letters. Oh, and everything my mom ever fed, gave, or applied to me causes cancer.

I can’t believe it took me this long to hop onto the Brené Brown bandwagon. Despite my sluggish reading of late, I breezed through her latest, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone — which was not only a fabulous book itself but addressed everything I’ve been thinking about lately. (Check out my Goodreads page if you’re curious about what books I think I’m going to be able to read before the baby comes.)

And finally, pregnancy. I am 30 weeks along. Baby is doing fabulous; mama, not so much. I dislike being pregnant. A lot. Being the more cerebral type, I’ve always wondered what to do with my physical existence, but I haven’t encountered the sort of mind/body struggle you experience in pregnancy. I cry daily over some new or rediscovered limitation my body imposes on me — I feel incapable as a teacher because I can’t pick up crying children begging for “up” or remove three children vying for a spot in my limited lap space or pick up and redirect a naughty child, because I can’t move or breathe like a normal person. It’s a herculean effort to change sleeping positions — or worse, haul myself out of bed. (Erich is now used to me yelling for assistance or using his body as leverage.) Singing in the choir, my beloved, beloved hobby, has become a struggle due to sciatic pain or passing out cold due to anemia, less lung capacity, low blood sugar, or all the above. Everything physical is a struggle of some sort.

And none of my clothes fit.

But. I am thrilled to be a mom. Yes, we’ve had some stern talks, my son and I, about not going over the due date or jabbing me in the bladder. But I am so excited to meet him, pregnancy woes notwithstanding. I feel so close to him already, what with reading books and singing lullabies and referring to him by name. Erich and I finally agreed on a beautiful medieval German name that sounds modern and means, roughly translated, “your parents really can compromise!” I can’t wait to share it with you all once little Stegersaurus makes his appearance!

I’m looking forward to having more time and energy in a couple weeks to write. In the meantime, let me know what you’re up to!

I Found a Church!

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I was the odd Christian who loved going to church far more than daily devotions. I never missed a Sunday, whereas daily devotions were a pain and a frustration that didn’t get off the ground for longer than a few days strung together. Church was where I met God best. Even when I began deconstructing, church was the last thing to go — and only very reluctantly.

Despite my love of church, I’ve got a checkered church past. I once belonged to a home church that, while well-intentioned and on the surface a great fit, was controlling and spiritually abusive. I kept “growing out” of the two Baptist churches I attended most of my life. I say “growing out,” because even though they weren’t a good fit theologically, I stayed with them out of love for the community and ignorance about where else to go. They were like family. You don’t just abandon family because your beliefs change, no matter how frustrated or upset they make you.

This left me with so many questions about church after I got married and started the “settling down” process — in other words, the hunt for the forever church.

I wanted to be loyal to a church, not like the church hoppers who found fault with everything, but I didn’t want to end up bored out of my mind, offended, or leaving service midway in tears a couple years after joining. How was I supposed to anticipate where my spiritual growth would go?

I also questioned where to compromise, because there was always compromise involved when it came to denominations and me. I finally settled on the idea that while it would be ideal to agree with the denomination at large, it was more important to find a local church we felt comfortable with. Yes, it was disappointing to consider joining a church that belonged to the Orthodox Church of America, which was taking steps to further limit women’s involvement, but if that particular church was pastored by a self-proclaimed feminist, I wasn’t going to complain.

But finding out I was pregnant shook up our options. If we homeschooled, church might be a major social outlet, so a church with young families was more critical. Since we wanted our son baptized and able to take communion from birth, that quickly eliminated most options previously available to us as two baptized adults. I was initially willing to belong to a more male-dominated church, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of raising a child, particularly a girl, in a church that told her her womanhood barred her from service.

And these are just a few of the beliefs I could have personally overlooked; they either didn’t affect me and my husband because we were baptized adults, or they didn’t affect us because we knew tradition and theology well enough that disagreement didn’t confuse our faith. Now that we had to consider what we wanted our son to see, hear, and participate in, our options narrowed.

For a while, Erich and I visited an Orthodox church. We loved the liturgy, the theology, and the people of that church. Ultimately, we decided against it because I wasn’t comfortable with their anti-egalitarian overtones and because it was hard as Westerners to get our foot into the door of an Eastern church. The Eastern church calendar is different than the Western, which would alienate us from our Western families’ religious celebrations and practices.

And as petty as this is, the community felt foreign to us without some of the Western trappings of groups and adult Sunday school, and with the rigorous process of catechesis and chrismation. We were already shy, lonely, and totally new to the real world. Joining our family to an unfamiliar church tradition proved too much for our faith and social capacities at the time.

So for those reasons, and other reasons I’ll share at another time, we didn’t go to church for the majority of this year. When we did go, we would never go two Sundays in a row. It held little meaning for us, as I didn’t consider myself a Christian, and we were in the middle of moving, and church exacerbated spiritual and social problems.

Even after I decided to go back to Christianity, and even after we settled into the area we hope to live in for the rest of our lives, we were slow to find a church. And I will shamelessly admit this is partly because having two days a week to sleep in is glorious. But mostly, again, what was the point?

Then cancer and casseroles reminded me of how much I missed church.

A woman in my old church had been diagnosed with aggressive cancer, and I listened to my mom share the details of how she and the church got involved, bringing casseroles to the family, calling them, praying for her every Sunday, and all the things communities do.

I realized we wouldn’t have that if our family went through a tragedy. There would be no retired grandmas or homeschooled teens willing and able to watch the baby. There would be no assurance that anybody within several hours of us would be checking up on us weekly. And there would be no casseroles in foil pans. We’re fortunate to have my in laws five minutes away from us, and some close friends and family an hour or two from us, but that’s not quite the same thing as having a local community mobilize to your aid.

And that was my pious motivation to get serious about church hunting — wanting a community who would bring my family casseroles if something ever happened to us.

We worked out on paper that the Episcopal church would be the best fit for us theologically and practically, accommodating Erich’s Catholicism, my Protestantism, our shared desire to baptize and raise our son in a historic faith tradition, and our strongest theological beliefs. Eucharist every Sunday was nonnegotiable. Sacramentalism and liturgy were nonnegotiable. Our views on the Bible, tradition, equality, and love of the other were absolutely nonnegotiable.

We’ve been attending a local Episcopal church, and I love it. The community is warm, united, and diverse. It feels like one of those small town churches you read about in novels or watch in Hallmark movies, where the main issue is how to love one another instead of people’s pet theological fights, where parishioners are simultaneously ornery and opinionated but not above changing their mind by the end of the story.

The pastor journeyed from fundamentalism to, in his words, “crazy liberalism.” “I tell this to everybody, I’m a crazy liberal,” he told me. “Just so you know where I’m coming from.”

But his crazy liberalism results in simple, thought-provoking sermons that challenge all of us to take seriously Christ’s call to love, starting with the person in the pew next to us. He manages to touch on politics without ever being political. During one sermon, he mentioned how loving one’s enemies means doing good to them always, regardless of who they are. We were collecting money for hurricane relief efforts that Sunday, and he prompted us to remember that the money was going to people some didn’t think should be in America (illegal aliens) or people whose political views disturbed us — to the “others” we often treated as enemies. It was the most tactful, convicting reference to our nation’s divisions and its impact on our spiritual lives.

Then there’s the deacon with the pierced ear and the Kentucky accent who says, “Peace, y’all!” when we pass the peace, and the older ladies who waved the colored pom poms during our anthem from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Coat more vigorously than the kids. And the church still manages a reverence and solemnity lacking in many other churches we’ve visited.

Speaking of which, there’s the choir. It’s beautiful and fun and an easy foot into the community’s door (particularly since I passed out cold during our kickoff Sunday).

It’s not an absolutely perfect fit. I’m more theologically in agreement with Eastern Orthodoxy on certain issues. There aren’t any young couples our age, much less those with young children. We miss the five-senses experience of Orthodox liturgy. The congregational responses are just slightly different enough from Catholicism’s that we keep messing up and fumbling around in the Book of Common Prayer.

But for the first time in a long time, I am excited to go to church. I don’t want to sleep in on Sunday or go on weekend getaways if it means missing church. I meet God there. I am relieved that they encourage all who seek a closer relationship with God to take communion, as I still feel unworthy to partake. Once again, I think church is a crucial part of my spirituality.

Plus, it’s looking like this is the kind of church who would bring us casseroles when needed.

If You Want to Pursue the Truth, You’ll Never Fit In

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You know the proverbial pendulum swing — the tendency for people to go from one extreme to the next? Or the slippery slope, where if you believe or disbelieve one thing, you’ll inevitably end up believing or disbelieving a whole host of other things? They’re often used as scare tactics to keep the faithful walking in lockstep intellectual agreement. Dabble in feminism and you’ll end up a pro-baby killing atheist with an STD and a PhD in evolutionary biology. (So don’t dabble in feminism.)

There is, of course, some truth to these metaphors. Certain trains of thought, once abandoned or taken up, do connect well to certain other trains of thought. This is why, for instance, most of the egalitarians I know are more sympathetic toward social justice, and most of the complementarians I know gravitate more toward conservatism’s emphasis on order and authority. A strong emphasis on equality for women fits well with advocacy for racial and LGBTQ+ minorities. A strong belief that order and hierarchy does not undermine equality suits a conservative outlook that highly values respect for authority (e.g., the police, or the sitting Republican president). It makes sense that our beliefs about the structure of home life would spill into the structure of political life, and vice versa.

Hence it’s true that if you change your mind on complementarianism or egalitarianism, you’re liable to change your mind on an avalanche of other things, as we’ve all noted in people who switch ideological affiliations.

But I’ve made a recent breakthrough. I’ve found that even with the obvious fact that certain beliefs complement others well, the biggest reason people tend to jump on the pendulum or slide down a slippery slope is not intellectual consistency. It’s regular old peer pressure. 

When I left fundamentalism for unfundamentalism (whatever that meant), I vowed not to repeat the same mistakes I made in my past. I would not buy into a group, a person, or an ideology hook, line, and sinker — at least not so much that it prohibited me from examining them with an impartial and critical eye. I would not shut up that gut feeling that asked me to question. I would not parrot party lines before researching them myself. I would not demonize those who disagreed with me. I would not be a bigot. I would not get caught up in promoting my group’s agenda over the truth. 

In fact, I wouldn’t even join a group or adopt a label without thinking it over for a very, very long time.

So I was shocked when I found myself repeating some of my past fundamentalist mistakes — even though no one was threatening me with hellfire, and even though I technically didn’t even have a group to pressure me.

I would tweetstorm about what my Twitter tribe hated. I struggled to listen to that inner voice that warned me when I was giving up a deeply held belief just because that deeply held belief would cause conflict with my new friends. I found it was extremely hard to hold to any belief strongly without falling into somebody’s category of a bigot, no matter how tolerant and nuanced I strove to be. Even thoughtful, respectful groups had a point of no return — they wouldn’t damn me to hell, but they certainly wouldn’t like my comment on Facebook, and I would definitely get kicked out if I spoke up for my taboo beliefs.

My courage, my feeling of freedom to question and seek the truth, my desire to speak out, waned when I knew that the majority of my group would disagree with me. Oh, I didn’t always mind ticking off fundamentalists with my bold tweets and courageous blog posts. But I was honest enough to know that that wasn’t really bravery at all. There was always a safety net of people there to listen to me complain about the backlash and rev me up to fight the good fight again.

Bravery, I knew from experience, was speaking the truth even when you have everything to lose. I’d just risked losing my faith, my family, and my friends when I let go of fundamentalism. It was devastating, and I wasn’t eager to do anything like it so soon after finding a community that understood me.

What was wrong with me? Where was this fear, cowardice, and groupie-ism coming from? I had sworn off the echo chamber! I knew better!

According to Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, I was suffering from a condition called being human. In his research, he discovered that the human mind is designed not for impartially seeking the truth but for selectively filtering reality in order to bolster our social group. We naturally take an us vs. them posture, and we naturally feel our group is better, even if our group is nothing more consequential than being a Packers fan.

I was unconsciously participating in the kind of “truth-seeking” for which my brain was designed: the kind that knits me together with a group to parry outside blows, the kind that makes life certain and easy, that makes me feel accepted and stable.

It would be social suicide to rewire my brain to seek the pure, unadulterated truth apart from what my social group felt. That sort of truth-seeking — the actual kind, where fitting in doesn’t matter — is incredibly unnatural to human brains. The ability to be impartial, nuanced, and thorough — there’s a reason it’s so rare, and a reason people who possess it come across as “highly functioning sociopaths,” as Sherlock Holmes would say.

While I wouldn’t say I’ve got that gift, I am cursed with the two least compatible traits: the intense desire to know the truth at all costs and the intense desire to be approved, understood, and included. 

I didn’t find my journey after fundamentalism to be a slippery slope at all. It was a tug of war between these two desires — truth and social approval. Just when I wanted to settle in for a long slide, the desire for truth would start rapping at my conscience. There’s hypocrisy here. Why are you afraid to call it out? This doesn’t make sense no matter how long you’ve researched it. Why are you still trying to believe it? You don’t actually agree with this. Why are you pretending to celebrate it?

The answer was always fear — fear of losing my place in a group.

For the first time, I understood what Jesus meant when he said that the world would hate you, but pick up your cross. Being true to what I believed was good and right was a series of little deaths, little devastations, little ostracizations every single day. The whole truth didn’t lie in any one organization, person, book, movement, or ideology, so I could never check my brain and silence my conscience.

I can’t be a feminist, I’m told, because I have a  pro-life ethic from conception to death, and I can’t be truly pro-life because I’m a feminist. I’m not sex-positive, they say, because I take a negative stance on pornography, polyamory, and sex outside of committed relationships, but I’m still immoral for being sex-positive. The Pew Research Center categorizes me as a the right-leaning “Young Outsider” on politics, even though I’m regularly called a liberal. My gentle parenting group refuses to even entertain my belief that there’s a way to do gentle, child-led sleep coaching, but I’d get kicked out of regular parenting forums for my strident opposition to spanking.

And I didn’t enjoy Wonder Woman as much as I was supposed to. Where am I to go if we can’t even agree on Wonder Woman?!

I would ask you to pity me, except that I have always found someone to agree with me on a particular topic (even Wonder Woman). But the problem with having opinions is that it’s hard, if not impossible, to find someone who agrees with me on every topic, much less a whole group of people.

Instead of fighting this social reality, I’m working toward accepting it. As long as I care deeply about the beliefs I hold, I will never fully fit in, I won’t always be popular, and I won’t go through life without trodding on some toes, no matter how gracious and nuanced I try to be. (And I refuse to use the fact that I might get namecalled and misunderstood to purposefully offend and misunderstand others.) That makes being a social creature hard, if not impossible. But that’s the nature of truth-seeking with a human brain designed for social acceptance.