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.

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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.

Literary-Themed Nurseries

I took a break from learning about child development and racism in America this weekend to finalize my plans for our baby’s nursery.

We’ve made great progress! So far, we’ve got a crib, a bare rocking chair, a rickety changing table in need of refinishing, limited space, piles of extra junk, and a Pinterest board.

Because we’re bookworms, we decided on a literary theme — a nursery inspired by Eric Carle’s art. (“Who’s Eric Carle?” my Erich asked. Who are you if you don’t know Eric Carle?! I’m telling you, there’s a huge literary gap between big sisters who changed their siblings’ diapers and big brothers who were in diapers at the same time as their youngest sibling.)

If you, too, didn’t grow up re-reading your favorite children’s books to younger siblings, Eric Carle is known for bright, happy tissue paper collages bringing to life The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

Cute theme for a nursery, right?

The nursery powers that be did not agree. The one and only Eric Carle-themed nursery set offered on the Googleable internet is no longer available. (Thanks, Pottery Barn.) No problem, I’ll just pull together my own collection of Eric Carle stuff.

Again, a no. All canvas prints of brown bear and the very hungry caterpillar cost hundreds of dollars. Even the Etsy artist copies cost hundreds of dollars. Isn’t it so frustrating when artists want to make money?

No matter. I’d lean heavily on the inspired part of Eric Carle-inspired and find some bright, happy nursery things that look vaguely like tissue paper collages. But no. Apparently, I am way behind the nursery trends, because the hip moms only want monochromatic, muted, minimalist nurseries — unless they’re naming their daughter Vivienne, in which case, there’s an abundance of frills and pinks.

I scrolled through Pinterest for hours looking for any color that wasn’t pink or stark white or some mottled pigment that at first glance looks gray.

Okay. I get it. Nobody likes primary colors anymore.

But I’m determined to have my Eric Carle-inspired nursery — even if it means sewing my own colorful crib sheet.

So here we go. My mood board for the perfect Eric Carle-inspired nursery.

Eric Carle Inspiration

As you can see, we still can’t escape the gray trend. Basically, we’re incorporating his art style and colors — squiggly wallpaper as a statement behind the crib, Carle-esque bison for a changing pad cover (“They look demonic,” Erich says), a stripey green crib sheet (“No, seriously, Bailey, they look demonic“), and a cheery red paint for the changing table. Since we can’t afford real Eric Carle canvases, we’re going to try our hand at making our own animal pictures in his collage style.

Pray for us.

You all know how not crafty I am. I’d rather write a dissertation on what it says about our culture that we no longer value primary colors in nurseries than sew a crib sheet or make collages.

But instead of writing a dissertation, I made another mood board for our nonexistent second child’s nursery (which s/he won’t actually have, because we’ll have run out of rooms at that point, and the two kids will be sharing the Eric Carle-inspired nursery forever, because making the first nursery will have exhausted my decorative enthusiasm).

Ta-da! Another literary nursery theme — The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend.

Beekle Mood Board

(You’ve got to be really up on your children’s literature game to know and love Beekle enough to turn him into a nursery theme. Really up. As in, “I read to the unborn child in my womb as an excuse to procrastinate on sewing that Eric Carle-inspired crib sheet” up.)

Present Parenting: Beyond the Working/Stay-at-Home Debates

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There are huge rifts between working moms and stay-at-home moms. They form separate Facebook support groups. Real life groups have to go out of their way to say, “We welcome both working moms and stay-at-home moms.” There’s an awkward silence when you mention you’re going to be a stay-at-home mom to a group of working mothers, and there’s an awkward silence when you mention you’re going back to work in a group of stay-at-home moms.

Not necessarily a judgmental silence. Just the uncomfortable feeling that maybe we don’t have as much in common as mothers, after all.

It’s an issue of priorities, we often think — working mothers put themselves and their careers first and let the kids fall where they may. Stay-at-home moms prioritize their children. And we can know this, we can judge a woman’s commitment to her children or to her job based on where a woman predominantly spends her day.

Which makes sense — except that there are many other factors to consider. There’s the matter of finances. Having the option to be a stay-at-home mom is a privilege the working class and single moms can’t afford. (And not all women are cut out to be home entrepreneurs or start their own sustainable gardens.)

Then there’s the issue of less tangible resources — physical, emotional, and mental. In past days, extended families lived closer together, allowing extended family to look after all the grandchildren and cousins running afoot. Now it’s not uncommon for women to raise their kids states or even countries away from extended family. Some moms are new to the community and without any friends to trade date night babysitting or even let off some steam. Many fathers can’t afford or aren’t offered paternity leave, which cuts off more physical, emotional, and mental resources available to frazzled moms. All of this often adds up to stay-at-home moms unable to take a break, catch a breath, or engage in any other meaningful work until their last child turns eighteen.

While stay-at-home moms might indeed prioritize physical presence with their children over working moms, the isolation and stress of raising kids alone might not allow them to prioritize emotional presence. And while working moms don’t have the edge on physical presence with their kids, meaningful work apart from raising their children might energize these mothers to invest more emotional presence.

That’s where we need to center this conversation — on emotional presence, on present parenting. This goes beyond whether to work outside the home or stay at home. This is about evaluating and maximizing our emotional resources — and surprise, surprise, it looks different for every family.

As a teacher who loves working with kids and has a lot of patience with them, spending most of my day at home makes sense for me. Financially, we can swing it. My husband is already involved in daily household upkeep and expects to shoulder a good share of parenting when he comes home from work too, so I know I’m not in the parenting business alone.

On the other hand, I’m keenly aware of how loneliness, sleeplessness, and lack of adult conversation affects me. I’m keeping a part-time job (just a couple hours) outside of the home, leaving my baby in my husband’s care. This will give me the change in environment, the human interaction, and the independence of earning some money and doing other meaningful work that I need to keep my energy up. I would go insane stuck at home all day with a baby — and that’s not good for me at all.

But equally important, that’s not good for my baby, either.

[A]dvocacy for the full humanity of women cannot happen apart from advocacy for children. — Joyce Anne Mercer

And that’s another huge topic involved in present parenting — not merely “what works best for mama’s sanity?” but “what do my children most need from me?” We cannot effectively maximize our emotional resources if we’re not sure how much or what kind of emotional resources are needed to raise a happy, well-adjusted child. 

I recently read Erica Komisar’s Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters. Komisar introduced to me the idea of present parenting. Her thesis is that in the first three years, children particularly need their mothers. As a long-practicing psychotherapist, she links the rise in ADD/ADHD diagnoses and other behavior problems to the lack of present mothering in the first three years.

It was a hard and challenging read, even as a woman who knew from the start that I wanted to be my children’s primary caretaker. It was hard and challenging because as a feminist, I want to support all women’s choices. I didn’t want to hear another reason why women have to be stuck at home and pretend to be happy about it. I want to believe that all women’s choices positively affect their children.

But Komisar’s challenge isn’t, at its heart, a call for moms to quit their jobs and stay home until their babies turn three. She recognizes everything I noted above — the financial and emotional factors that require women to work, the reality of a workforce that penalizes mothers for taking maternity leave and quitting their job for even a few years.

All mothers can be present mothers, regardless of whether they work outside the home or stay home with their children. All mothers can prioritize their children’s needs, regardless of financial constraints. But mothers cannot be blind to the reality of their children’s needs, which often don’t fit conveniently with what we need or want. And children under three need a large amount of their mother’s emotional presence, in both quantity and quality — meaning mothers of young children must rearrange their priorities for a few years to match this reality.

In other words, mothers should maximize their emotional presence in accordance with their children’s developmental needs, not merely with their own needs. Again, this looks different for every woman, as a woman’s own financial or emotional needs factors into how well she can maximize her emotional presence.

This idea of present parenting doesn’t just challenge women regarding how much time they spend working or where they spend the majority of their day. A discussion on present parenting might prove an effective guide on how many children to have or when to have children — or whether to have children at all. Hey, quiverfull movement — can a mother really be emotionally present for a large number of kids in quick succession? Are advocates of large families blind to the reality of how badly children need their mother’s emotional presence and the reality that the more children you have, the fewer emotional resources you have? Maybe, maybe not!

Present parenting also gets our husbands involved in the question of work/life balance. These aren’t just women’s issues. Many dads get sucked into their work life, thinking that buying that extra car or just putting food on the table (only in a monetary sense, of course) is needed to support their families. And some feel guilty for wanting to be their children’s primary caretaker. But this simply isn’t true — his children require his emotional presence just as much as Mom’s. Where are his priorities? How can he rearrange his career goals to be more emotionally available to his family?

Both father and mother must look at their children’s emotional needs and their own ability to meet those needs in order to prioritize the right things at the right time. This often requires creativity beyond “Dad is the breadwinner, Mom is the caretaker.”

And then it goes even further beyond individual families to our communities. Our culture doesn’t prioritize present parenting; it prioritizes the materialism of the American dream. We don’t value children’s needs, as evidenced by our largely ineffective schools and daycares and the subquality pay teachers and caretakers receive. Most of us who want to spend more time with our families simply cannot, because we’re expected to be on call on the job, put in overtime, take shorter maternity leave or let vacation days stack up unused, all to show we’re valuable workers. Our financial security depends on our workaholicism.

All of us — moms and dads and childless folks alike — suffer from a devaluation of emotional presence, whether that’s investing in our kids or in our friendships or in our marriages or in our mental health.

So, mamas, let’s lead a cultural revolution. Let’s stop talking about whether we’re going to be a stay-at-home mom or a working mom, and start talking about how we plan on being emotionally present for our children, our families, and ourselves.

Photo by Liana Mikah on Unsplash

God Can’t Meet Your Emotional Needs

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Christians say strange, pious things all the time, but one of the most confusing of those strange, pious things is the idea that God is the one who must meet our emotional needs. I feel scandalous even questioning this idea, because it sounds so right on the surface.

As depicted in Christianity, our relationship with God is one of deep emotion and intimacy — God as father, as mother, as friend, as lover. Christ promises rest for the weary. He binds up the brokenhearted. Never will he leave us or forsake us. God is love.

Out of this, we’ve understandably developed this idea that God meets all our emotional needs. “Put your relationship with God first” translates into, “Run to God first with all your joys and pains.” Jesus is your best friend, Christians will say. Jesus is my boyfriend, teen girls will say. And woe to those who say otherwise — if you don’t find your emotional security in God, we’re warned, we’ll ruin all our relationships, human and divine.

It’s idolatry to expect any one person to fulfill all our needs. Only Jesus can do that.

When I first started dating, I felt guilty and idolatrous all the time, because, frankly, I preferred my boyfriend’s comfort to God’s. When I ran to God first and sobbed it all before him, I was met with silence. No words of advice. No hugs. No stupid jokes that lightened the mood. Just cold, existential silence…and the constant nagging thought that any comforting emotion I did feel was probably of my own manufacturing. And the other nagging thought that I shouldn’t think that way, and then that other one, where it was sinful of me to even expect an emotional experience, because spirituality wasn’t all about emotions, even though only God could ultimately meet my emotional needs.

Running to God first left me more distraught than running across campus to curl up next to a physically present person who verbally whispered, “I love you,” who advised me out loud in real time, who had real arms to hug me and a real mouth to tell me it was all okay.

Did he always meet my emotional needs? No, of course not. But it was less painful, even if equally frustrating, when my fallible boyfriend (or friend, or parent, or sibling, or professor) let me down emotionally than the perfect, omniscient, omnipresent God.

And the best of human comfort was by far preferable to the best of comfort I experienced alone with God. I could walk away from friends and family and feel full to the brim emotionally. I could walk away satisfied from a “God moment,” as I called them, but it was shorter lived, involved more emotional investment, was not reliably accessible, and rarely, if ever, left me overflowing.

For much of my childhood, I experienced periods where only Jesus was my friend. It was fine. I got by. But I much prefer life when I have human friends who laugh and hug and tease and physically exist without any mental exertion. Just Jesus was a lame friend, to be blasphemously honest, even if he was, in some vague, inaccessible sense, always there.

Like I said, scandalous. Idolatrous. Real Christians don’t feel that way. Hence the intense amount of guilt I felt about my closest relationships.

I question that now.

In much of mainstream Western spirituality (both Catholic and Protestant), emotions are categorized as primarily spiritual. The measure of one’s spirituality, to some extent, is one’s emotional connection to God. We might not admit it in our doctrinal statements, but I don’t think I’m alone in identifying the Christians with their hands raised, eyes closed, tears streaming down their faces as the more spiritual (especially if this response is consistent every single Sunday).

This is called pietism, an Eastern Orthodox priest told me. We prefer powerful sermons. We like our music stirring and emotional. If you’re Catholic, you depict Christ primarily as battered and anguished, hanging on a bloodied cross.

All of this to evoke some sort of emotional response, with the assumption that emotions really are spiritual, transcendent, and other-worldly.

But are they?

The more I study psychology, the more I’m convinced that emotions belong solidly in the physical realm. Physicality — illness, chemical imbalances, stress on the one hand; massage, exercise, warm baths on the other — affects mood. I’m amazed at how many problems a good night’s sleep solves when nothing else will.

And touch, we’re learning more and more, is vital to human well-being. Psychologists link a lack of human touch to aggression and an inability to regulate negative emotions in men, because there are limited forms of physical affection that men can give and receive without being perceived as sexual. Neglected infants who rarely receive cuddling suffer developmental delays and permanent mental damage. And on the flipside, infants who get regular skin-to-skin contact with their caregivers receive a developmental boost.

But we don’t need science to tell us how difficult life is when you’re far away from close friends and family and there’s nobody there to listen or give you a hug. It’s no shocker that we’re happier and healthier when connected to a good marriage, family, or community.

It shouldn’t be blasphemous to list consistent emotional and physical connection to other humans as a psychological and physical necessity. Yes, necessity.

We Christians are uncomfortable with thinking of companionship as a necessity, partly because of pietism and partly because good relationships aren’t as easily acquired as other necessities in life. It seems selfish to call relationships a necessity when so many come from broken families, operate without close friends, or long to be married. We want to offer hope to those less communally fortunate (especially if we find ourselves one of the lonely ones).

That’s where much of our strange, pious sayings originate. We tell women that Jesus can be their boyfriend to take away their heartache about being single. We tell kids that Jesus can be their best friend to give them something to grab onto when they’re bullied or isolated. We tell the lonely that Jesus is everywhere and always there, unlike any human. And we beef up that relationship with Jesus — he’s all I need; if you’ve got Jesus, you’ve got everything; even people in happy relationships need to run to Jesus first, or they’ll be a wreck.

But we know, deep down, that’s not true. Yes, Jesus can give hope, but Jesus cannot meet our emotional needs, not the way a human can, because emotional needs are primarily physical needs — like clothes and food and shelter. Just as we cannot wear, eat, or set up house in Jesus, we cannot meet our emotional needs in him.

There is a sense in which Jesus can meet our emotional needs, and it is in the same sense that he meets our other physical needs — through other people. He provides for our emotional needs through our own efforts to reach out and join community, just as he provides for our other physical needs through our own efforts to find a job and earn a paycheck. And when we are incapable of meeting our physical needs — whether it’s an emotional poverty or a financial poverty — he commands his body to be there with food, clothing, shelter, and, yes, friendship, if need be.

Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours. — Teresa of Avila

Ironically, this meeting of physical needs is a deeply spiritual act. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this,” James tells us, “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” He goes on to say,

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

This is precisely what we do when we tell emotionally needy people to run to Jesus. “Go in peace,” we tell them, “find friendship and love,” when it is through our physical body, our friendship, our presence that God wishes to reach them.

We can run to God when we run to others. We can connect with God when we connect with others. God is pleased when we eat real food, live in real houses, feel real heat, and get real hugs from real bodies when we need them. It is a terrible, terrible lie to guilt a person for wanting human touch and companionship, to send them on their knees to Jesus without giving them the tools to meet their emotional needs.

Which leads me to say that the tools to meet our emotional needs are not merely having friends, being married, or starting a family. People will not always be there, and even if they’re there physically, they’re not always there emotionally.

And even then, we can misdiagnose our emotional problems when we rely too heavily on others without developing self-regulation, self-soothing, and independence; when we pine away for a boyfriend while ignoring other relationships right in front of us; when we put too high of expectations on others. Sometimes our desire for companionship can distract us from the need to love ourselves, meet other physical needs, get an attitude adjustment, or just go take a nap. And of course our desperation for human love can manifest itself in a myriad of spiritual problems too.

But this is true for all physical needs. We can have too much or too little of material things that then causes mental, physical, and spiritual problems. We can be unregulated in our desire for material things. That doesn’t negate our need for food or clothing or work; it’s just to say that sometimes we need other things too, or we need to order our desires to get the most out of what we already have.

Many Christians today, particularly if they bow out of the long tradition of sacramental theology, are ascetics and reductionists when it comes to spirituality: the more you can believe without any sort of physical aid, the more you can deny your physicality (this unconscious thinking goes), the stronger Christian you are. Rosaries, weekly Eucharist, icons, the other five of the sacraments, candles, and incense are seen as primarily stumblingblocks to a real relationship with God.

Human relationships are treated the same way. Some Christians never attend church because their relationship with God allegedly doesn’t need a communal aspect. And if you try to tell someone that a big part of your relationship with God involves giving and receiving human love, you will get many questions about the legitimacy of your spirituality.

This is completely out of touch with the spirituality presented in Scripture, tradition, and the reality of who Jesus is.

Jesus became God with us in an incarnate, physical way. He fed the hungry. He healed the sick. He took a child on his knee. He developed relationships with others, who became so close to him that they leant upon his bosom during a supper that two thousand years later allows us to partake of him in a physical way. And even though he is no longer on earth, we experience God’s grace and presence through bread, wine, water, and chrism. Christianity is sacramental because our God became incarnate, and our God became incarnate because he knows our physical needs.

Sacramentalism aside, the fact that God instituted a community of people and commands that we partake in that community shows us that God will not call us to loneliness — ever. Loneliness is not a sustainable life for any human, even a human who has Jesus in her heart.

But loneliness builds dependence on God, a pious Christian might argue. It might, just as starvation might bring one closer to God. There are many mysteries about how this world works and how God works in it for good, but we do not stop feeding the hungry and helping the poor just because God might do a spiritual work.

In the same way, as part of Christ’s body, I am obligated to help those who are emotionally impoverished, regardless of what God can do and is doing spiritually through that impoverishment. And as a human being with a body, I am obligated to meet my emotional needs in a physical, emotional, human way.

So I will first run to my husband’s arms when I need comfort, and thank God that I can.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Saved by Affirming the Right Moral Stance

Just a quick thought, in light of Article X in the Nashville Statement: If our salvation is dependent on picking the right side during turbulent culture wars, the majority of our heroes of the faith is in hell for racism, sexism, and violence.

Martin Luther advocated horrific violence against Jews.

Augustine was, shall we say, not trying to look anti-misogynist.

Many great American Christians owned slaves and thought white people were superior to black people because the Bible clearly says so. 

Do we really want to get into this territory of deciding who is in and who is out based on where they land during the culture wars? Do we really want to take it upon ourselves to condemn the millennia of Christians before us who held the wrong social views? Do we really want to go there?

I certainly don’t. I’m not qualified to judge other people’s souls or the work God is doing in them. I believe there’s great urgency and need to discuss what is the Christian view on certain social issues, but that is far different from saying there’s a need to discern who is damned and who is saved — particularly on the basis of one, controversial topic.

It’s telling that those who support Article X don’t want to “go there” when it comes to any other moral issue. Apparently, supporting LGBTQ+ people after careful research, prayer, and study is a damnable offense, but the Christians who came before us who advocated violence instead of peace, racism instead of dignity, misogyny instead of equality — they get a free pass? God isn’t as strict on the supporters of other social evils as he is on the supporters of homosexuality?

How pathetic a gospel whose effectiveness wears off with one dose of LGBTQ+ acceptance! A gospel that covers a multitude of racial sins but just can’t quite reach LGBTQ+ acceptance. Knowing my own proclivity toward ignorance and misunderstanding, I find no comfort in grace contingent on me figuring out an issue as complicated, personal, and emotional as same-sex orientation and gender dysphoria.

The irony is that we all struggle with what is right and what is wrong. We all fall prey to misinformation and a lack of opportunity to learn the truth. We all have a tendency to get caught up in what our tribe says and lambaste the opposing side. We all share the same nature and the same Spirit and still come to radically different conclusions. We all believe that our careful, prayerful opinions (and even our rash, bigoted ones) are the Christian way. And often, we all once held the viewpoint we now oppose — with equal conviction about what the Bible clearly says….

Do we really want to be damned by the same standard of human frailty we all share?

Do we even want to judge ourselves in this way — that back when we believed such and such a view, even while we loved Jesus and sought his heart, we were damned? But now that our thinking evolved through whatever journey it took, we are saved by our affirmation of this moral, political thing?

Lord, have mercy on my soul if that’s the case, because I loved Jesus and believed some pretty abhorrent, ignorant things at the same time. Thank goodness I reached a state of enlightenment on moral issues before an untimely death.

This is what is meant when Jesus said, “Judge not, lest you too be judged.”

Nobody escapes damnation if salvation is dependent on believing the right things instead of on the scandalous mercy, grace, and love of God.

If we want a gospel, a grace, a salvation dependent on our political, moral stances, so be it — but we too will face the hellfire to which we damned others.

The Irrelevancy of the Nashville Statement

Article 10 of the Nashville Statement.

I waffle back and forth between anger and uncontrollable laughter at the Nashville Statement. Anger, because it is so spectacularly tone deaf. Laughter, because it is so spectacularly tone deaf.

Nothing prompted the Nashville Statement except the same old impending, post-Christian apocalypse already upon us, driven by the spirit of the secular age. In other words, there was no particular driving force except everyday evangelical paranoia. I mention this only because there are several other things that immediately come to mind as more timely for evangelicals to address.

How about a statement against white supremacy, what with this year’s national displays of xenophobia and racism culminating in white supremacists marching in the streets and feeding off the President’s forgiving words? Or speaking of the President, perhaps a statement against the many sexual sins he embodies? Surely, if it’s always timely to make broad, sweeping statements of judgment about sexuality, this year — when many in the evangelical church actively support a serial, unrepentant adulterer, fornicator, accused rapist, and sexist — would be a great year to chastise the church’s departure from the traditional Christian (hetero)sexual ethic.

Or if evangelicals must publicly state something about homosexuality, why not address all the grieving, estranged LGBTQ+ Christians whose “loving” families abandoned them, ridiculed them, and persecuted them? Why not apologize for the many ways the traditional Christian sexual ethic has been wielded as a weapon rather than as a healing? Why not acknowledge the high suicidal rate among transgender kids? Why not finally take the pastoral stance this issue desperately needs?

Of course, this is an oft-repeated criticism of the evangelical church — why are you always talking about homosexuality as the chief of all cultural evils when there are so many evils to choose from? But I will repeat it: Why, evangelical church, are you always talking about homosexuality as the chief of all cultural evils when there are so many evils to choose from? Even if you believe in the traditional sexual ethic, why is it that two gay Christians in a loving relationship is cataclysmically destructive in a way rampant divorce, adultery, white supremacy, abuse, and hateful rhetoric are not?

Yes, the breakdown of the family is alarming. But it should not be controversial to say that parents shunning their gay children, transgender kids committing suicide, husbands abusing their wives under a divine mandate, authoritarian parenting, porn use, infidelity, an adulterer-in-chief — those sorts of heterosexual sins are breaking down the family in a way gay marriage and transgender identity cannot and will not.

Like I said, when I first heard about the Nashville Statement, I wanted to laugh. The actual evangelical church — not to mention the church at large — is not particularly interested in hearing the same old stance against homosexuality. They’re more caught up in discussions of race, leaders trading their moral authority for political affluence, and the Christian machine’s destruction against those who disagree on secondary issues.

The Nashville Statement is thus wholly irrelevant to conversations and concerns that are most pressing or should be most pressing to the American church in its current political, sociocultural, and historical context.

Then again, I’m not surprised at its irrelevancy. Its callousness, poor timing, and ignorance of the concerns of real people who actually struggle with being a person of color or gay or gender dysphoric in the church is not a coincidence.

The statement was named after the location of its drafting, in the footsteps of historic articulations of orthodoxy like the Nicene Creed. The hubris of even daring to associate the Nashville Statement with the likes of the Nicene Creed shows an appalling ignorance about orthodoxy.

For one thing, all historic articulations of orthodox faith were ecumenical. The whole church got together and hashed out their differences with the hope that the Holy Spirit would guide them. There was an understanding that the truest devotion to Christian orthodoxy could not be accomplished by one church alone but by the whole, catholic Church. This is true from the very beginning, when the apostles met to discuss issues of inclusion and moral practice back in Acts 15.

There is nothing like that about the Nashville Statement — no wrestling, no invitation or openness to hear what God might doing in the LGBTQ+ Christian community, no input from those who disagree. There was nothing at all surprising about the Nashville Statement: it repeated the same poorly articulated fundamentalist party line about sexuality, with the intention of drawing a line between its adherents and its dissenters.

It’s backwards from how the church has operated when defining things as orthodox: first, the drafters of the Nashville Statement articulated what orthodoxy is; then, they issued it to the larger church to deal with.

This “sign your name” style of orthodoxy only further divides a divided, uninformed church catholic. The fact that there are counterstatements popping up around the internet, also articulating the one and only stance on Christian sexuality and inviting signatures from laypeople and clergy alike, demonstrates how ultimately ineffective the Nashville Statement was as an attempt to clarify orthodoxy once and for all.

But it’s not really about orthodoxy, is it? It’s not about rallying the church catholic to truth or inviting the LGBTQ+ community into wholeness and healing. Those who signed the Nashville Statement thinking such were sorely deceived. As president of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood explicitly stated, it’s about division. It’s about drawing lines in the sand.

It’s the classic evangelical obsession of reducing Christianity to who’s in and who’s out.

But the current debate is not primarily about the traditional Christian sexual ethic versus the secular spirit of the age — the who’s in and the who’s out. The debate is about whether the effects of the traditional Christian sexual ethic and the articulation of the traditional Christian sexual ethic are consistent with Christ. There is a huge gulf between those who signed the Nashville Statement and those who didn’t — and it’s, surprisingly, not between those who support the traditional Christian sexual ethic and those who don’t.

The signers of the Nashville Statement talked about the doctrine itself (“beautiful” and “precious” were common adjectives). The dissenters, even if they agreed with the traditional Christian sexual ethic, talked about the ugliness, despair, burdening, and violence these views and the traditional way of expressing these views had on the LGBTQ+ community.

Jen Hatmaker sums up the real issue in a series of tweets: “If the fruit of doctrine regularly & consistently creates shame, self-harm, suicide, & broken hearts, families, & churches, we [should] listen. … If the natural end to a doctrine is not consistently leading to whole, healthy, vibrant lives in Christ, something is wrong with it.”

This is at the heart of the evangelical debate on LGBTQ+ issues.

The Nashville Statement fails to understand that debate. It dismisses out of hand that its precious, beautiful doctrine, as stated, is or could at all be partially or wholly responsible for LGBTQ+ suffering. It offers its doctrine as an unequivocal solution to LGBTQ+ pain, when the people closest to the pain are insisting the doctrine is the cause of that pain.

Because of this misunderstanding, the real losers are those who think the Nashville Statement’s exclusion will affect the church. The Nashville Statement drew so sharp a line in the sand that its adherents cut themselves off from the rest of the church still in the throes of this debate. By regurgitating a solution without understanding the problem, they made themselves irrelevant. Laughably, they think a small segment of conservative evangelicalism, already compromised in morals and principles, has the authority to determine orthodoxy for the entire church catholic. In their zeal to decide who’s in and who’s out, they have only made themselves the outsiders.

But the Nashville Statement has no authority — neither in actuality nor in reputation. And so the rest of the church will grow deeper in wisdom, love, and truth, while the Nashville Statement fades into obscurity.

The Nashville Statement is nothing more than people wanting to be right stating their beliefs in public with no desire to hear about the real life consequences their beliefs wreak on the weaker — just another clanging cymbal in a cacophony of irrelevancy.

Photo Credit: Religion News Service

There Is No Such Thing as Female Submission

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It’s not an exaggeration to say that many Christians disconnect their views on women’s issues from the larger, more general teaching on Christian virtue. Case in point — submission.

If we’re discussing Ephesians 5:1-2, 21, for example, both women and men get the same, gender-neutral exhortation to “follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. … Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” We might ponder aloud in our Bible studies how we follow Christ’s example in our everyday lives.

Then the next verse lands, and all of that Jesus role playing comes to screeching halt. Husbands are Jesus to wives, and wives are the church, and that’s the end of that. With this new metaphor, the definition of submission changes from following God’s example, laying down one’s life, and mutually submitting to male submission = final authority (because Jesus gets the final say over the church, duh) and female submission = unilateral acquiescence (as is proper for the church submitting to the Lord of the universe).

Now that a patriarchal construct is set up wherein women are wives before they are followers of Christ — that is, they do not get to play Jesus in their marriage like they do in every other area of life — submission gets gendered. Always greet hubby with a smile when he walks in the door, no matter how hard your day. Never contradict him. He gets the final say over your life and family. Give him sex when he wants it.

This female version of submission is not only bona fide virtuous but also magical — it converts husbands, changes hearts, saves marriages, and (with a knowing wink to the ladies) ultimately gets women want they want, anyway.

It’s hard to know where this female submission diverges from Jesus’ example and slips into 1950’s manipulation tactics” “Oh, darling, always make your husband think that it was his idea first.”

It’s an understandable phenomenon: our culture loves finding gender differences, so whenever women are addressed in Scripture, we lose our minds and the objective of the Christian faith — which is living a life like Christ.

This is bonkers. Whatever is real about a woman’s spiritual state before God takes precedence over the temporary state of marriage. In other words, women get to play Jesus too.

We see this in the simple fact that the majority of moral and theological injunctions for Christian life are directed to everybody. Women are co-heirs, co-rulers, and one in Christ before they are wives. They too are priests and prophets. They get to follow Christ’s example and exercise their actual spiritual identity just as freely and exactly as men do.

And if a patriarchal power structure prevents that, well, you know it’s one of those worldly principalities and powers we take out as part of bringing in the kingdom.

The common objection is, of course, that applying the gender-neutral virtue of submission to specific instances is not the same thing as redefining it. “Submit one to another” simply looks different for the people on top than the people on bottom. It would be absolutely silly to suggest that parents submit to their child in the same way their child submits to them, would it not? A slave’s submission (or to make it less pointed, a servant’s or employee’s) submission to his master obviously doesn’t look like a master’s submission to his slave. Why get up in arms about a wife’s submission looking different than her husband’s submission?

Well, for one thing, the implication that wives are on the same level as children and slaves — that’s mildly upsetting to any self-respecting person.

But I don’t want to get into an argument about patriarchal power structures and their potential role in the twenty-first century. I simply want to call a spade a spade: control of any sort is not synonymous with submission, laying down one’s life, or following God’s example of love. Period. That’s why we dismantled slavery and why we’re working on dismantling patriarchal models of marriage and authoritarian parenting.

There’s not a pink version of submission that borders on subservience and a blue version of submission that borders on domination. Submission is submission, no matter the context.

I want to counteract this idea of pink and blue virtues not only because it enables oppression of women but because the pink virtue of submission just plain doesn’t work in the magical way complementarians tell us it does.

Female submission boils down to silence and acquiescence at some point. Of course, depending on the couple, a woman may get a say, if she gets even that. But even if she gets to be a part of the discussion, she doesn’t get to be a part of the decision. And once the decision is made, she must accept it and go silent. Voicing her opinion once her husband has made a decision, even if it’s over her own life, is the definition of an unsubmissive wife.

Silence and acquiescence are the opposite virtues of a healthy, abuse-free marriage — that is, communication and compromise. Those are the two biggest keys to relationships as intimate and complicated as marriage. If a definition of submission cuts women off from initiating communication and compromise in any way, shape, or form, that creates, rather than resolves, conflict.

Sacrificing one’s life is supposed to be about creating oneness, not about enabling abusive authority or laying out the doormat. Christ’s sacrifice means nothing, Paul says, if it’s used as an excuse to sin. Same thing goes here — a wife’s sacrifice means nothing if it’s taken as an excuse to sin.

And it can and will be taken as an excuse to sin — which is why anyone serious about bringing health and oneness to her marriage must arm herself with impenetrable boundaries.

I was flabbergasted to find out how obtuse my husband was to my sacrifices.

It was his job to the dishes, for instance. I, being the meek, mild wifey, took the time to wash up for him. I did it out of love, yes, because everybody needs a break from the dishes, but I, born and bred in patriarchy, am not immune to the myth of passive aggressive pink submission’s powers. Surely my act of kindness would rain down burning coals on his head and bring about a converted husband who didn’t leave all his chores to his wife.

Boy, was I wrong.

He wouldn’t even notice I did the dishes, for one thing. When I pointed it out that I did the dishes because I loved him, he happily hugged me with a guilty grin. And then didn’t do the dishes again that night. Or the next. And the more I did the dishes, the more he felt free to ignore them.

I mean, it made sense. I would do the same thing. Why take the effort to address one’s chronic laziness when you’ve got a meek and mild spousey to do so for you?

You know what comes next. Not really being the meek and mild wifey, I exploded at him. (That also didn’t get the dishes done, by the way.)

What did get the dishes done was sitting down and figuring out why he never did the dishes. Turns out he strongly prefers cooking to washing dishes, and a simple job switch was in order. We’ve never gone hungry when he’s in charge of the cooking.

Problem solved. Now I avoid doing the dishes.

All that to say, the funny thing about humans is that it’s easier to take advantage of nice people who never complain than to buck up and change. If your husband’s a real loser, you’re better off having some hard conversations in therapy than meekly agreeing to whatever he says.

This then brings us to the last and final point: Submission, not even magical pink submission, is not the be all to end all in a relationship. Just because a couple passages specifically connect women with submission doesn’t change the messy, honest reality of how marriage works.

Women must look to the whole example of Jesus — the meek man who turned over tables, questioned religious authority, and drove out moneychangers with a cord of whips — to understand what Christian submission and sacrifice looks like in their marriages. And we must afford them the tools and the space to do so, starting with Christocentric, gender-neutral definitions.

Photo Credit: Brain Sauce

Drawing Boundaries with Emotionally Abusive People

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Shelia Wray Gregoire at To Love, Honor, and Vacuum just posted an article on how to stop an emotional abuse cycle in marriage. The bottom line is consistently drawing a boundary — saying something like, “I will not tolerate belittling words. Come talk to me when you’re ready to have a respectful discussion” and then walking away.

As both a victim and a perpetrator of emotional abuse, I back this advice 100%.

I remember the first time, back in our dating days, when my husband refused to tolerate my berating. It was a late night, I was tired and stressed, I was being a classic jerk, and we were using that greatest of all communication methods — text. A small problem that could’ve been solved with a good night’s sleep on my end spiraled into a nasty character assassination. He finally texted, “I’m done with this conversation. Good night.”

It shocked me.

But it wasn’t his words alone that shocked me. It was the fact that he really was done with this conversation. He turned his phone off and went to bed, ignoring the tirade of desperate, angry messages I sent him in response to his boundary. When we both woke up the next morning, he still didn’t respond — and I was the one shamefacedly scrolling through last night’s vitriol, all so clearly one-sided and petty in the light of day. I felt so guilty that I sought him out, apologized, and moved on to more respectful conversations.

Boundary drawing works. (Not to be confused with stonewalling, which is another characteristic of dysfunctional couples and only further feeds the cycle of emotional abuse.)

The simple skill of meaning what you say and walking away from unproductive conversations and unwanted behavior applies to many other areas of life.

I use this regularly in comment moderation. If I say I am done with a conversation, I mean that I’m done. Even if the antagonist responds to that comment and tries to bait me back into the conversation, I don’t reply. I stay done. When engaging with someone disrespectful and intrusive, the best defense is a firm, consistent boundary I intend to follow through on.

It seems too simple, but it’s actually quite rare. The majority of people enter back into hopeless Facebook threads after dramatically announcing they’re through with the conversation. “I can’t believe I’m getting dragged into this again,” they’ll say,
“but….”

No buts. 

Say what you mean, mean what you say.

I instantly respect people who really do quit the conversation and refuse to budge, regardless of how the trolls play. And even if the trolls don’t share the same respect I do for that person, what can they do about it? They can’t touch a person who isn’t gratifying their disrespect with a reaction of any kind.

Oddly, this is the sort of thing we were supposed to have learnt in grade school. I taught my kids this little ditty about handling bullies and difficult people:

F-I-G-H-T
We don’t fight!
Talk it over, walk away,
Find another game to play. 

(And always feel free to come tell the teacher!)

It’s the same principle as Sheila shares in her article for adults. If respectful conversation isn’t possible, walk away and engage yourself in something else. Don’t get dragged into a cage match. It never ends well.

It’s unfortunate, but not unexpected, that many adults do not know how to appropriately deal with conflict or regulate their emotions even on this grade school level. We don’t talk it over and walk away. We don’t only say something when we have something nice to say. We don’t hold our hands and find our patience.

We all learned the catchphrases, but nobody explicitly taught us or modeled how to apply them when emotions ran their hottest. Now as adults, we feel as justified in lashing out because of our big people problems as we did throwing tantrums as little kids with our little people problems.

In fact, I see a direct correlation between a child having a meltdown and screaming out, “I hate you!” at her mommy and the wife having a meltdown and screaming similar epithets at her husband. There’s so much bottled up, legitimate, but unregulated pain and frustration that it explodes in verbal violence.

A parent’s response, much like a spouse’s, is often to fire back with sarcasm or equally hurtful words, to domineer, to in some way out-emotion the offender — or on the other end, to stonewall, cave in, bend over backwards, and just buy that bag of Oreos in the checkout line already. But none of those things are effective in the long-term, neither for children nor for emotionally unregulated adults.

That’s how I view both adult and child tantrums now — desperate cries for a cool head to step in and help deal with crushing emotion. And the first step to stepping in is often bowing out.

I once worked with a child who threw major tantrums — we’re talking overturning desks, hiding under tables, refusing to budge, along with the general symptoms of crying, screaming, and abandoning reason. I was at a complete loss until I picked up the simple tip of ignoring his tantrums.

“J,” I would tell him over his screams. “I can see you are frustrated that you can’t tie your shoes. I would love to help you. When you’re ready to calm down, come tell me and I’ll help you tie your shoes.”

Then I would walk away. Nothing he did drew my attention back to him. Inevitably — and it was a shorter and shorter period each time — I would feel a little tug and turn to find his tear-streaked face trying to burrow into my arms from shame and exhaustion. I would again reiterate how happy I was to help, and we would talk about how to handle future problems, and we would hug and spend some extra quality time together as we waited for the buses to arrive.

His behavior improved dramatically. All he wanted was attention, and he knew, both from my words and my avoidance of his tantrums, that the only way to get my attention was to approach me directly in a more regulated manner.

I think this is often the case in emotionally abusive relationships where the abusive partner isn’t suffering from a personality or character disorder like narcissism.* Something goes wrong in the relationship — someone doesn’t feel heard, loved, understood, respected, etc. — and the repeated efforts to fix what’s wrong fall on deaf ears and a hard heart. That’s when the adult tantrum — verbal and emotional abuse — starts to seem not only appealing but necessary.

If he doesn’t listen when I’m calmly, sweetly, respectfully presenting my thoughts and feelings, maybe he’ll listen if I scream it at the top of my lungs, slam a door, or throw a pillow or two. 

This is, obviously, a two-fold problem of emotional regulation on the one spouse’s part and of whatever behavior the other spouse committed that was contributing to the first spouse’s desperation.

Drawing emotional boundaries — and more importantly, keeping them — won’t snap boom bang fix the initial problem, but it will allow for the respectful conversations that will eventually bring about a solution. That’s a fresh start all relationships need from time to time.

*I’m going to offer a caveat similar to Sheila’s — many times the root of emotional abuse isn’t a misunderstanding compounded by emotional dysfunction but a serious psychological, personality, or character flaw in one individual. Drawing boundaries with this sort of person will neither save your marriage nor change your spouse. If you find yourself married to this kind of person, please empower yourself, seek professional help, and keep yourself and your children safe. 

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Some Uncompelling Reasons You Should Use NFP

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Dear People Who Feel We Shouldn’t Talk About Reproduction and Sex and Stuff in Public — I disagree, but am honoring your opinion by giving you a disclaimer that this post talks openly about reproduction and sex and stuff. Proceed at your own discretion.

I don’t have a strong opinion on natural family planning. I have strong experiences, mind you, but they are not the kind of experiences ideal for prescriptive purposes.

First of all, I am a fatalist when it comes to family planning. I have friends who conceived on NFP, the pill, and an IUD. Not the “oh, I knew somebody who knew somebody” “friend.” Immediate friends.

Your body wants to have babies. It will have the babies it wants. That is my current philosophy on reproduction as I cry over the prospect of being indefinitely pregnant until menopause.

Second, my use of NFP is borne of bitter travails with my body rather than a joyful acceptance of it. I don’t have a happy conversion story where NFP fixed my life and my marriage and my body image and prevented unwanted pregnancy.

Mostly, I just hate condoms. Hate them. And I am terrified of hormonal and chemical birth control’s side effects, which would mess with all my existing problems.

I’m of the opinion that the more natural a method is, the better, but I’m more of the opinion that something should get the job done. I take zinc for colds not because it’s natural but because it works. I take ibuprofen for cramps because peppermint oil and warm baths don’t. Natural and side effect free is a huge plus, but it is, in the end, only a plus.

I’m far more utilitarian than idealistic in my approach to the natural vs. unnatural showdown.

But since I’m a reproductive fatalist (see above), it’s nice to weakly combat the body’s intense desire to get pregnant with a natural method that doesn’t complicate sex or my mood.

Feminist friends, I am partially kidding about my reproductive fatalism. I’m not trying to spread misinformation about the effectiveness of certain reproductive methods over others. I’m not trying to disempower women’s choices over their bodies.

I’m just saying that my personal motto is, if you’re having sex, you might have a baby. Babies and sex often go hand in hand. It’s a natural thing. It’s a good thing — at least, babies are, even if the having of them isn’t. And I appreciate that NFP keeps that emphasis on natural in this context — using the body’s natural infertile period to plan your family as opposed to drugging up and suiting up as if you actually were in combat with your reproductive system.

On the flipside, I am no Michelle Duggar, God bless her. I love children. I love them so much that I believe they deserve as much time and individual attention as Mama can give them. My goal is quality, not quantity, mothering. If that means I feel I can only raise a handful of kids, so be it. If I feel I can effectively mother a string of five or six siblings one and a half years apart as planned, great. My actual children come first over potential children that I theoretically want.

That’s the idea, anyway.

With that in mind, I am strongly opposed to any notion that I should have a certain number of children or just forego all family planning and let Jesus take the wheel.

Obviously, there’s an important, abstract part of my beliefs that will happily welcome any child, no matter whether she’s number two or (gulp) number ten. But there’s also an important, practical part of my beliefs that knows that resources, time, and energy shrink the more children one has.

I don’t think it’s immoral to steward those resources, time, and energy for the good of existing family members, even if it involves unnatural means of family planning.

Fortunately, NFP provides an effective natural planning method (99% in fact, if you can forget that everybody you know got unexpectedly pregnant using NFP).

That leads to my experience with NFP itself.

Here’s my vote of confidence: I got pregnant while using NFP.

In NFP’s defense, we did not follow NFP strictly. We didn’t have any Catholic guilt or deep desire against children egging us into abstinence during the fertile period. We got lazy and lustful, relying too much on our luck and the regularity of my cycle to pay too much attention to basal body temperature or the exact consistency of cervical mucus.

So that happened.

I honestly don’t know what I’ll do if I ever want to actively prevent pregnancy, instead of half-heartedly saying, “Eh, maybe we should wait a year or two.” I extremely disliked intensive, conscious NFP tracking.

I’ll go into more detail in another post, but my time with NFP was nothing like the happy Catholics told me. It was wonderful to understand the rhythm of the female reproductive cycle — something I now miss as a pregnant lady — and that’s an aspect of NFP I think all women should learn.

But it also inadvertently introduced me to my reproductive fatalism. My body desperately wanted to get pregnant. It was made for pregnancy. I was nothing but a baby-making machine. 

That was my happy encounter with NFP.

It felt dehumanizing, frankly, to check for cervical mucus all day, every day. I was being a drama queen about it, but that was my honest reaction. It was a headache trying to figure out how that particular consistency of the day matched up with the three vague categories of egg whites, water, and school glue.

And don’t even get me started on basal body temperatures. I struggled far too much with insomnia, particularly when I first started tracking as an engaged college student, to go to bed and wake up at a regular enough time that my BBT meant anything.

But I couldn’t stress too much about tracking, because stress (and alcohol and travel) also could throw your predictions off.

I don’t know who these 99% effective ladies are, but they’re definitely all stress-free, teetotalling homebodies.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of NFP for me was the failed promise that NFP would bring my husband and me closer. “He’ll understand the natural rhythm of your body!” the brochures said. “He’ll track with you! Your marriage will be rainbows and sunshine all because of NFP!”

Yes, my husband understands how women’s bodies work and mine in particular. He suspected I was pregnant long before I did and could roughly predict where I was in my cycle. That was nice, and helpful. I could commiserate in my reproductive fatalism with him, and he would listen politely.

But beyond the emotional support, there wasn’t much of anything he could do to help me. I was the one sitting alone on the toilet checking cervical mucus. I was the one entering data in my Ovia Fertility app. I was the one pausing during cuddle times to remember how close I was to my fertile period.

It brought us together in one sense, but it also reminded me that men still don’t have any clue of what it’s like to be potentially pregnant and how stressful that is if one wants a life outside of being a pregnant and nursing mother. (He meekly agrees to carry the next child to term whenever I complain about this. If only. But he’s a gem nonetheless.)

So those are my strong experiences. To try to extrapolate some helpful advice from those experiences: NFP works, allegedly, and if it works for you, I highly recommend it. If you cried as much as I did, I feel you. And if you think your beloved form of birth control or family planning will protect you from you body’s reproductive wiles, well, I’ll start prepping your baby shower gift right now.

I’M KIDDING.

(Kind of.)

Photo by William Stitt on Unsplash