Bad theology

When Two Million People Read About Your Sex Life

A year and a half ago I wrote an article for RELEVANT magazine that was published online and later in print. I was utterly unprepared for the amount of attention it got. It ended up being RELEVANT’s number one article of the year for 2014 receiving over two million hits. This article was re-promoted by RELEVANT today on their Facebook page, so I wanted to post the link to my original reaction piece here for those who may be checking out this blog for the first time.

I have written much more thoroughly and extensively about this topic in a series of guest posts on my friend Brett’s blog and also hosted a series of guest posts from other writers on this topic here on my blog.  If you have questions for me, feel free to reach out here or through my contact page. I love hearing from you!

 

 

 

 

 

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field of barley and sunset

Getting Pumped for Judgment Day: From Fundamentalist Fear to Extraordinary Grace

If I had to choose a least favorite hymn, it would probably be “It Is Well With My Soul.”

As a child, I would sometimes sing this song at school or at a summer camp at the Baptist church. My understanding of this song was that lots and lots of bad things will probably happen to you, but you should still be glad as long as your soul is OK. Since this song reads like a list of awful things (sorrows like sea billows, Satan buffeting, etc.) I also interpreted that last verse “the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend” as a bad thing. After all, the songwriter said, “Even so, it is well with my soul.”

Although I understand the theology of this song better now, I’ve never been able to shake to connotations of my childhood. Whenever I hear it, I am gripped with a sense of sorrow and of fear.

When I was a child I believed in Christ’s return the way I believed in the rising sun. I took for granted that it would happen. I expected it at every moment. Whenever  the sun burst through the clouds after an afternoon storm I would turn my face to the sky, heart racing, wondering, “Is this it? Is He coming now, riding on those clouds, shining like the sun?” and I would be filled with fear.

***

In elementary school chapel I sat with my classmates in my scratchy plaid jumper and white oxford shirt and listened to our principal explaining judgment day. On that day, she said, all of our worst sins, even the ones we thought no one knew about, would be displayed in front of the whole world. For people who weren’t believers, this would be a horrible day, but for Christians, this would be a great day because after the whole world had watched that movie reel of our very worst moments, Jesus would step forward and erase the tape.

These words were meant to encourage belief, but they filled me with terror. I chewed my fingernails down to the quick while I imagined everyone I knew watching a video of my sins. I wasn’t comforted by Jesus erasing the tape. I was too busy panicking about everyone knowing I peeked at my spelling book for just a minute during the last test. And even at that young age, my fear worried me. Did this mean I wasn’t really a Christian? If this was meant to be a great day for Christians, then why was I so afraid of it? Shame pounded in my temples as I sent up fervent prayers to combat those of generations of saints, “Please, Jesus, won’t you tarry just a little longer?” I pleaded.

***

When I was in jr. high and high school I encountered a new theology of judgment. Judgment, I heard, was for the wicked, not for those favored of the Lord. When Christ returned in all of his glory, he would separate the righteous from the unrighteous like grain from chaff or sheep from goats. We need only worry that we were counted among the righteous.

On the surface this was comforting since Christ was my salvation. But over time, righteousness became equated with our good works. It was Christ’s righteousness that counted, but the only evidence of that was my actions. There were a dozen interwoven reasons why I was a perfectionist, but on a spiritual level, it was because I feared judgment – first and foremost from my church community and eventually from Christ himself.

I was a model child. I had perfect grades. I helped around the house. I babysat my sisters. I didn’t listen to secular music and I didn’t watch PG-13 movies. I never smoked, I never drank, I never even held hands with a boy. I didn’t even have a curfew to break because I was never out late enough to warrant one. I served in the youth group. At sixteen I was in charge of a whole cabin of girls at church camp who were only a few years younger than me. I played violin for the worship band. I ran the school’s mission team doing local and international outreaches. I can’t remember a single time that outright disobeyed my parents.

And yet, I was wracked with guilt for all the ways I failed. When I was sarcastic, when I used a disrespectful tone with my parents, when I was impatient with my sisters, when I lied because I was afraid of getting in trouble, when I got in a car accident, when I said mean things to make people laugh, when I tried to make myself feel smarter by making others feel dumb.

With a theology of judgment where God was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and my actions would determine which character I ended up with, how could I possibly think about judgment without fear? How could I ever be good enough to feel secure in my righteousness?

***

When we say The Apostle’s Creed we affirm that, “He will come to judge the living and the dead.” For most of my life I didn’t know how to rejoice in this judgment. I didn’t understand how this could be part of the good news.

But then grace broke in. And grace came in the words of Augustine.

See, Augustine had a different idea about this. He said what if judgment isn’t about God separating the righteous people from the wicked people? After all, who of us is 100% righteous or 100% wicked? Aren’t we all a mixture of both? What if our lives are like two plants that grow up side by side – one good and the other bad – and as they grow, they intertwine so much that you couldn’t separate the bad one without damaging the good one?

When asked about their biggest regrets, many people will say something like, “I don’t regret anything because even my mistakes were things that helped me to grow.” Our lives are full of both glory and suffering and sometimes the two are so closely linked that we can’t separate them even in our own minds. Sometimes our worst mistakes or experiences ultimately lead us to some of our best moments.

Augustine says, What if God lets the good and the bad grow up together for a time and judgment is when he separates them, once and for all, at the end?

We cannot perfect our lives. We cannot expunge all the evil that exists in the world. But maybe THAT’S what judgment day is for. Maybe it is about God extracting the bad, the evil, the sin, and the brokenness that is woven into our lives, and throwing it to the fire, leaving our lives perfect and whole. Wouldn’t this be the best thing that could ever happen to us? Wouldn’t this kind of judgment be the cause of great rejoicing?

Maybe judgment isn’t about shame. Maybe it isn’t God projecting a film of all our failings on a jumbotron. And maybe judgment isn’t about God choosing to bless some and judge others. Maybe judgment has nothing to do with our works of righteousness.

Maybe judgment is our deliverance. Maybe judgment is when we can finally stop wrestling with sin, when we can stop experiencing brokenness, when we can finally be pure. Maybe judgment is the greatest grace of all.

***

This essay is a little excerpt from the book I’ve been working on writing. I hope it’s something you could connect with!

abstinence

Sex Talk: New Relevant Article and Some Better Ways to Talk about Sex

A few months ago, Relevant asked me if I would do a sort of follow-up article to the article I published back in June, one that specifically dealt with overcoming shame in your sex life. I admit, I felt oddly stumped by this. I didn’t want to offer generic advice that boiled down to a bunch of clichés like, “Let go and let God.” At the same time, I didn’t want to take my experience and make it a how-to list. I didn’t want to claim that anyone can find freedom from shame by following these 5 easy steps. In the end, all I could really say is, “This is what happened to me. I hope it’s helpful or encouraging in some way.” That article was published over at Relevant today.

When I write pieces that point to the places I think purity culture got it wrong, I inevitably get comments saying, “Ok, but how should we talk about sex?” That’s a fair question and one that I hope a lot of people who are smarter and more influential than I am will put a lot of thought and time into answering. I don’t have a complete answer, but I do have a few thoughts about it.

I’ve shared some of these thoughts in different articles and guest posts over the past few months, but I decided to streamline them here. If you’re tired of reading about sex and purity culture, I will understand if you give this one a pass. I’m kind of tired of it myself. 😉

I don’t think churches are going to stop teaching abstinence. I’m not trying to make an argument that churches should stop teaching abstinence. But if churches are going to teach purity and abstinence then one thing that needs to change is the language we use to talk about sex, especially with teenagers.

What We Should Stop Saying:

Purity culture is famous for its metaphors. Growing up I heard things like, “Don’t start the engine if you aren’t ready to drive the car” used to warn teenagers that any physical contact (including holding hands and kissing) was a slippery slope straight into the jaws of fornication. I also saw and heard many illustrations that compared a person (usually a girl) who lost their virginity to a stick of gum that had already been chewed, to a rose that has had all of its petals pulled off, to a toothbrush that a lot of people have used, or to a cup of water that a bunch of people have spit into.

These kinds of metaphors equate humans and human sexuality with objects. They carry connotations that have resonance far beyond their intended effect. If you are used to thinking of human sexuality as a machine – an engine that starts if you hit the right buttons – you are ignoring the complexity of human sexuality and are isolating it from its place in the framework of our humanity.  Before marriage it looks like this; “Don’t press this button or flip that switch or you’ll cause sex to happen.” After marriage it can look like this: “I pressed all the buttons and flipped all the right switches – I am expecting sex to happen.” And if it doesn’t happen, “What did I do wrong?” or worse, “What’s wrong with my partner that they aren’t responding the way they are supposed to?”

Human sexuality is complex and it can’t be (and shouldn’t be) separated from our emotional, mental, spiritual, or otherwise physical state. This kind of language enforces the idea that our sex drive is the thing that controls us, rather than teaching a biblical, holistic view of the person where all the aspects of our humanity are equally valued.

The second set of illustrations (the chewed gum, the stripped rose) carry the message that our primary value is in our sexuality, or more specifically in our virginity. They say that our worth is tied to one part of us – our sexual status. This a terrible way to talk about a human being. It creates the image that sexual sin is the unforgiveable one because you can’t get clean once you’re dirty. It also provides a strong connotation of sex being dirty. Sure these illustrations are meant to be about pre-marital sex, but it’s pretty hard to make that distinction when the thought of sex conjures up the image of a dirty toothbrush or a communal spit cup.

What We Could Say Instead:

I think churches should focus more on teaching wholeness. Youth pastors should teach about whole and healthy relationships instead of isolating sex as though it exists in a vacuum.

I have seen and heard many Christian leaders try to produce “purity” in teenagers by building fear. The message is often something along the lines of “If you take one step down this road, you will lose control and not be able to stop yourself.”

I have to wonder if this isn’t a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy with teenagers. If you are constantly being told (directly or indirectly) that you are incapable of making good decisions, eventually you will start to believe it.

This kind of language fails to look at the person (specifically the teenager) as a holistic being. This attitude ASSUMES that teenagers must be controlled by their sex drive above all else. It teaches them to set strong boundaries out of fear that they will lose control instead of teaching them that their sexuality can exist in healthy balance with the other parts of their humanity.

I wonder if instead of teaching teenagers that they need to set these boundaries because they CAN’T make good decisions, we honored them as whole human beings who possess a sex drive, but also will and intellect and emotions and, most importantly for Christians, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which gives us the power to make right choices. Teenagers (and adults!) are still growing in their ability to handle all of these things. Even as adults we need healthy boundaries around any activities that we may go overboard with and that would cause one aspect of our humanity to be out of balance with the others. Setting boundaries is a way that we help ourselves to grow in wholeness.

So instead of looking at it through the lens of “These are the things I’m not going to do because I am afraid I’ll lose control” I think it would be far more powerful to choose what you ARE going to do and why you are going to do it. “I’m going to set boundaries that help me make wise choices so that I can grow as a WHOLE and complete person.”

With this kind of attitude, the boundaries you set are not just about controlling or suppressing sexuality. They are about engaging your mind and your will, creating opportunities to listen to the Holy Spirit and to grow in your ability to consistently make good decisions. Boundaries are not about restricting you because you are out of control. Boundaries are about creating opportunity for you to make the good decisions that you ARE capable of making.

Anglican church

On Prayer, Lost and Found

I once believed that ancient, corporate prayers were for those of shallow faith. I thought that written prayers were a cop-out for those too lazy or uncreative to pray on their own. At best, they were the training wheels of prayer—the “Now I lay me down to sleep,” prayers we were meant to outgrow as our faith deepened and swelled into something vibrantly alive. At worst, they were an indication of a faith that was not your own. A faith you’d borrowed from those who came before you. A faith you claimed because it was comfortable and required little of you.

In the church I grew up in, we often prayed out loud, everyone at the same time, a clamor of voices crying out to God together, but individually. It was a charismatic gathering where people prayed in tongues which we were taught to view as private prayer languages between a person’s spirit and God. Every prayer language was different, unique, a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence in that person.

While I no longer hold to the faith of my childhood, I have no wish to disparage these people or their undoubtedly earnest prayers. I simply reject the accompanying belief that prayer must be original to be sincere. As if a hundred “Father God, we just ask that you just…” ‘s were more authentic than St. Augustine’s prayer, “Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy,” simply by virtue of their spontaneity.

How can these old words spoken and written by people whose bodies withered away before you were even thought of accurately represent what you need to say to God today?  I once asked with scorn. And now, in this season, those ancient words have come to stand in the gap for me.

How strange, to turn from a faith where prayer was a private language of syllables that spoke from my heart straight to God’s ear, to a faith where prayer is grounded in the repetition of words set out for me by men and women who lived long before I, or my mother, or my grandmother or her grandmother, had taken our first breaths on this earth.

I am not alone in this. Many of my generation who were raised in evangelical traditions are turning now towards more liturgical gatherings. Anglican and Episcopalian churches are filling with those who long for a sense of rootedness they felt they lacked in the churches of their parents. Some have moved away from Protestantism altogether and have embraced the Orthodox or the Roman Catholic church.

I don’t know what I am right now. I don’t know that I’m evangelical and I don’t know that I’m not. In some ways living overseas has exempted me from making that decision. My local church community is a house church made up of people from various traditions and there is no label on our gathering.

What I know is this – at some point I lost prayer. I ran out of words or out of the will to form new ones. And it has been the prayers of the saints, past and present, that have given me the words I couldn’t find on my own. These words have an integrity that is entirely independent of me. These words are pillars that stand even when my faith feels frail and brittle.

I pray the words of St. Francis or of St. Benedict,  of Mary’s “Magnificat” or Anne Lamott’s “Help. Thanks. Wow.” and I find myself standing in the presence of God once again, on the shoulders of those who stood here before me.

 Image Credit: John E Lamper on Flickr.
Image By: http://tlwarenik42.deviantart.com/art/True-Love-Waits-91823081

Sex and the Church: Why We Need a Theology of Sex

Today I am excited to post the last piece in my guest series on Sex and the Church. I am even more excited to have my friend, Karissa Knox Sorrell, sharing her thoughts and experiences on a topic that we are both so passionate about. Karissa is an internet-friend-turning-real-life-friend which is one of the best things about being part of the blogging world. She is a beautiful and thoughtful writer whose self-described “faith wrestling” challenges and encourages me.  

If you missed the other parts of this series you can read them here, here, here, here, and here.

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The teenager stared at her reflection in the girls’ bathroom mirror, tears spilling down her cheeks. Suddenly, someone else entered the bathroom and rushed to her side. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m  – I’m – pregnant!” she choked out between sobs.

“Don’t you know you’re supposed to use a condom?” the friend asked.

The girl’s brow furrowed. “We did use a condom!” she exclaimed.

The video went on for about twenty more minutes, and then my youth pastor turned it off and talked to us about waiting until marriage to have sex. “You don’t want to find yourself in that girl’s situation,” he said. “Remember I Corinthians 6:19 and 20? Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” I underlined that verse in my Bible when I went home that night. I agreed with every word my youth pastor had said, internalizing the idea that sex had consequences and promising myself that I would wait.

I grew up in the True Love Waits era. I wore the T-shirt, signed the card, and once even wrote a newspaper article for my high school newspaper about waiting until marriage. Like a good Christian girl, I waited until my wedding night to have sex. But there was one problem: I still had an enormous amount of guilt and shame. I was afraid of my own body and its impulses. I had no idea how to embrace sex without feeling dirty. The scare tactics that had been used to get me to avoid sex had a side effect: They taught me that sex was bad, not beautiful.

I have come to believe that one of the problems with sex and the church is that we base our beliefs about romantic relationships and marriage on Bible verses that are about sex, not about romantic relationships and marriage. We need to be teaching our young people how to have healthy relationships, not simply to avoid sex.

I decided to do a little experiment and using Bible Gateway.com. I did a search of the NIV version of the Bible for the word sex. There were 77 verses about sex. The Old Testament had 42 verses and the New Testament had 35 verses.

23 of the 77 verses about sex had the words “do not” or “abstain.”

24 of the 77 verses about sex had the word “immoral” or “immorality.”

There was not one verse that had a positive connotation.

Let me say it again: Every single Bible verse about sex is negative. 

Is it any wonder that early in my marriage I was plagued with shame even though I was finally “allowed” to have sex? No. Because no one had ever told me how to have a marriage. They’d only told me how not to ruin a marriage. But unfortunately in process of trying not to ruin my future marriage, I damaged my understanding of sex, the body, and loving relationships.

Why wasn’t anyone teaching us about respect and listening and compromise? What wasn’t anyone teaching us how to express anger or disappointment or confusion in a healthy way? Why wasn’t anyone teaching us how to have a great sexual relationship? Why were we taught to hate our bodies, to cover up, to be afraid of our impulses, and to shame ourselves for any sexual feeling? I mean, six one-hour sessions of premarital counseling can not make up for years of being told that marriage is about one and only one thing: being sexually pure.

Now obviously my little internet search doesn’t make me a theologian who’s spent time on exegesis and hermeneutics. Song of Solomon is obviously a very sensuous book, and there are plenty of verses in the Bible that speak about love and speak to husbands and wives. And most of the verses about sex were encouraging believers to avoid sexual promiscuity, not sex itself.

But the fact remains that generally, sex is spoken of negatively in the Bible. When I couple that with the teachings I grew up on that always framed discussions about marriage and relationships around sex, I feel like I can confidently say that we have based our theology of romantic relationships and marriage on a handful of verses that are addressing sexual acts and that have a negative connotation.

So where does the church go from here? We can start by treating young people and singles as whole persons instead of walking hormonal messes. We can embrace a more holistic view of relationships and marriage, acknowledging the many facets of making a life with someone rather than simply focusing on sex. We can stop avoiding conversations about sex once the wedding rings go on. The church talks a lot about sex before people are married, but once they are, the topic becomes taboo. But that should be time to talk even more about sex and how to enjoy it!

It’s time for the church to do better. It’s time to rework and reframe our theology of relationships, sex, and marriage.

****

Karissa's BioKarissa Knox Sorrell is a writer and poet from Nashville, Tennessee. She also works with ESOL students and teachers. Karissa writes about faith wrestling, cultural intersections, reading, writing, and family life. Read more of her work at her blog or follow her on Twitter

 

 

Featured Image Credit: Jesus1st-Anime2nd at Deviant Art 

My home is in heaven

“This World is Not My Home” and Other T-shirts I Can’t Wear Anymore

In Jr. High I had a lime green t-shirt emblazoned with the words, “This world is not my home.” It was a billboard advertising my holy longing for heaven. My pastors would say things like, “When we suffer, we find hope in knowing that this world is not our home, our true home is in heaven and one day we will join God there and everything will be perfect.” And all God’s people said, “Amen.”

I wore my t-shirt proudly, secretly hoping that carrying the words on my body would make them true. Because, try as I might, I could never seem to muster up enough hatred for the world to really feel like I was a stranger wandering in a foreign land. I knew I was supposed to pray for Christ’s swift return, but secretly I sometimes prayed that he would wait just long enough for me to go to Jessie’s pool party, or to learn to drive, or to go to college, or to fall in love. I felt an urgency to see and experience everything I could before God took it all away.

Even as a child, I saw this desperation as a moral failing. It was undeniable proof that no matter how hard I tried to convince myself otherwise, I loved the world too much and loved God too little. “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life,” the pastor said and I shuddered in fear.* I worried that my hunger for life meant I wasn’t really saved. I asked Jesus into my heart again and again, hoping it would stick eventually.

As the church I grew up in grew and expanded, the focus shifted from evangelistic, fundamentalist values to more seeker-friendly messages of what God can do for you (another problem for another time), but those early impressions had taken root in my heart.

My church and school weren’t alone in these beliefs. In fact, there is a whole sector of Christian merchandise that capitalizes on the concept that this world is just a temporary annoyance that we endure without investing in until we can shake the dust from our feet and move on to the place we truly belong. (The song, “This world is not my home, I’m just passin’ through,” anyone?)

t-shirt

not my homeLike all good Christian kids, I memorized John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life,” but the Christianity I grew up in only seemed to care about the second part of that, the part where we needed to believe in Jesus. How could they miss what this most foundational of evangelical Scriptures spells out?

“For God so LOVED THE WORLD,” it says. God SO loved, not just individual people, you and me, but the world itself and everything in it.

But we didn’t treat the world like something God loved, much less like something we should love too. We treated the world like a place we feared, a place we wanted to separate ourselves from, or a place we wanted to escape from, bringing as many people along with us as possible.

A few weeks ago I listened to this sermon by Australian professor Ben Myers during our house church meeting. It’s part of a guest sermon series he preached on the Apostle’s Creed, specifically the phrase, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.”  Myers points out that to treat the world as a place we need to escape from, a place where we are just biding our time as we wait to be delivered, is denying God as a good creator. He points to the Scriptures’ depiction of the end of time when there will be bodily resurrection and where Christ will bring his kingdom to earth and reign. “Salvation will never be an escape from this world, but God’s loving restoration of a good creation.”

St. Francis of Assissi (patron saint of hippies and vegetarians) understood this so well that he wrote about the natural world as if it were part of his family – Brother Sun and Sister Moon. He doesn’t say this in a pantheistic, God-is-in-everything way, but in a way that acknowledges himself as a part of this wildly beautiful and good creation that he is at home in for as long as he is on Earth. His mission isn’t to escape the world. It’s to bring redemption and healing and reconciliation, working to restore creation to the perfectly good thing it was created to be.

This really struck me because I’ve lived most of my life believing that I wasn’t really meant to love this world as much as I do. I’ve never longed for heaven as a relief from this world, even in moments of suffering. The world is far from perfect and it certainly isn’t divine. There are broken bits that make my heart ache. But I still believe that it can be redeemed. I believe this world can be restored. And I want to be part of that work.

Jesus didn’t just come into the world and head straight to the cross. He came and he lived. He healed the sick, he raised the dead, he showed compassion, he taught another way. If his purpose was only to rescue us from a world that is beyond hope, why waste his time with these acts of redemption?

I believe we have a responsibility to work for justice and restoration in the world precisely because this world IS our home and because the Creator has given it value. God said he is making all things new, NOT all new things.**

__________________

* John 12:25

** I didn’t come up with that pithy phrase – my friend Laura actually reminded me of it, but I can’t remember where it came from.

Sex and the Church – So Scandalous: Guest Post on Same-Sex Attraction

I am so honored to share this story with you today. I admit that I wasn’t thinking about homosexuality when I first started thinking and writing about sex, Christianity, purity culture, and the evangelical church. Not because I didn’t think it mattered, but because my subconscious didn’t associate it with these other questions about sexuality and how churches talked about it with youth and adults. When I heard this story, I realized that I was part of this system. That I was someone who failed to even consider same-sex attraction and homosexuality as part of the conversation.

Looking back on my church experience growing up I can honestly say that in all of the many, many purity talks and True Love Waits banquets I attended I never once heard anyone address the fact that some people might not be fighting heterosexual lust. I never once heard anyone admit that it was possible that sexual struggles could transcend the question of whether or not to have premarital heterosexual sex.

The writer of this piece has asked to remain anonymous simply because she hasn’t had an opportunity to share these things with all of her friends and family members and wants to be able to have those conversations in person. I am amazed by her courage in sharing this story –particularly because she speaks from a place that almost everyone stands against.  Both the conservatives who want to pretend this isn’t an issue and the more liberal (Christians and non-Christians alike) who believe people should fully embrace their sexuality, no matter what it looks like.

If you have some encouragement to share, the writer will see the comments here. I know that you all have various opinions and beliefs about homosexuality – whether it’s right or wrong or anyone’s business in the first place. If you want to have those debates, there are lots of other places you can do that, but I do ask that you don’t do that here. Feel free to comment if this story impacted you in some way –I have wonderful readers and I trust that your comments will be kind even if you hold a different opinion from the writer’s.

If you missed the other parts of this series you can read them here, here, here, here, and here.

*****

True Love Waits

I am a twenty-something single woman.  I grew up attending a southern Baptist church with my parents and my siblings. When I was 7 years old, I came to know Christ as my Lord and Savior.

I have a long history of sexual confusion that dates back to the fourth or fifth grade when I kissed my best friend at the time. Passionately. After kissing her, I felt extremely guilty like I had committed some terrible sin. I cried for days and told her “We can’t do that anymore, I think God doesn’t like it”.  I tried talking to my mom about it.  But when I told her, Mom just said “as long as you guys aren’t doing it anymore, it’s okay”.

Really? Was it? How did she know? Was I normal? I wish she had sat down with me and asked me WHY I had done that. Maybe explained to me WHY it wasn’t okay. I never knew why. I just knew it was “wrong” and it made me feel guilty.

Unfortunately, this became a cycle in my childhood. The following year I had a different best friend and we did the exact same thing. I didn’t know why I kept doing it if it was wrong. But I also didn’t understand why it was wrong in the first place. I felt like something was wrong with me.

***

That wasn’t the first time I’d tried talking to my mom about sexuality.

Me: “Mom what is sex? What does sexy mean? I heard it on Happy Days”. My best friend and I both thought that if the word was “sex-y” then root word had to be “sex”.

Mom: “I have a book about it in my closet somewhere. We will talk about it later”.

But later never came. That was third grade. We never talked about it again.

Instead, on the ride home from a long road trip, my cousin took out a notebook and drew pictures for me of the male and female body and explained to me what her mom had explained to her.

I finally understood. Sort of.

I went back to school eager to share my new-found knowledge with my best friend. “Hey Amanda, I know! I know what it means!” I yelled up to her from the ground as she climbed the monkey bars. She looked down at me and curtly said to stop talking about it, because she knew what it meant too.

We were never friends again. The shame I felt was endless.

These experiences early-on taught me that sex was something to be ashamed of. After all, the mere knowledge of it had cost me a friendship.

***

In the 6th grade I read a purity book with a friend. The author explained that if you had “experimented” with friends in the past, it was just an experiment. It didn’t mean anything. Despite what the book said, I felt different about my experience. I hadn’t even known about sex when I had first started this pattern of kissing my friends, but I still wasn’t sure that this wasn’t something more.

We never talked about it at home and the only thing my church really taught me about sex was “True Love Waits.” Apparently that was the thing to do. When I was in the 7th grade everyone my age was so excited to pick out his or her purity ring, have the ceremony, sign the card, keep it forever, and one day give it to their future spouse.

For weeks leading up to the commitment ceremony we heard lectures about how to maintain purity, how to keep your distance from the opposite sex, and what you can and can’t do with your boyfriend/girlfriend. I remember a boy raising his hand and asking in the middle of our group gathering, “Is masturbation okay?” The entire group silenced to a stunned hush. A few giggles scattered throughout the youth group. We were embarrassed for him.

Even here at church in a class about sex, there were questions we were supposed to know better than to ask. There were words and thoughts that were off-limits entirely. He had said a bad word and that was wrong.

In a private girls-only session, I also asked the wrong question. One girl raised her hand “I know we shouldn’t sleep with our boyfriends, but can we at least lay down with them?” I remember thinking Why would that even be a problem? Why would you want to have sex if you don’t want to have babies? That question came flying out of my mouth and the older kids looked at me like I was hilarious.

No one even answered me and I just didn’t get it. I felt so different.

***

Around the same time as the True Love Waits Commitment at church, we had the “sex talk” at my private Christian school. We learned abstinence again. “Just don’t do it.” But when the main teacher left the room to take a call, the assistant teacher looked around and pulled out a banana. “I know you girls are doing it anyways,” she said, “I’m not stupid, so I will show you how to use a condom.” And there, in the room, she pulled out a condom and placed it on the banana.

Girls giggled around the room, but I just felt embarrassed. Humiliated. It was becoming more and more obvious how different I was from the rest of them. Sex was something for marriage. Between a man and a woman. I believed that with my whole heart. Was I the only one who intended to keep that commitment?

***
When we were 16  my best friend got her first boyfriend. She stopped calling and hanging out with me. I sat in the car and cried to my mom, “Why can’t we still be friends even though she’s dating him?” My mom replied “She can do things with him that she can’t do with you. She can kiss him” She chuckled.

In the back of my mind, I cried, She can kiss me too!  I instantly felt shame. I caught myself in mid-thought, willing myself to NOT say it. Although it had been a long time since those elementary school kisses, those feelings had never entirely gone away. I believed I was wrong, but I still didn’t know why. And I couldn’t ask anyone. I just didn’t feel safe.

***

At the ripe age of 18 I finally got my first boyfriend. My past of kissing best friends and girls was completely behind me and I thought I had finally moved on to how I was supposed to function. I finally felt normal.

But in my relationship with this guy, I felt so uncomfortable. I was constantly being reminded by all my friends and mentors from church to “keep my distance,” not to get too physical. They explained that as a girl, it was my job to set the boundaries in the relationship, because boys can’t control themselves. I felt afraid and anxious and uncomfortable being with him.

There was so much pressure and stress and fear and shame. When I went to college we broke up.

***

Then college happened. You know what I mean, don’t you? The world of academia, the world of independent thought and constant combative skepticism that takes hold of you. I took a Bible class that left me spinning with confusion about God’s Word and His truth. The first day I entered the classroom, the professor stood in front of class, “This” he said holding up the precious scriptures I had clung to my entire life, “has many errors in it.” He let the Bible drop to the ground. I watched it fall as the slap it made against the floor echoed through the room. It rocked my world.

Needless to say by the end of that semester, I no longer believed the Bible. Intellectually, I couldn’t trust it. I didn’t know if I could trust God. I became lost and confused.

Meanwhile, I discovered alcohol, which allowed me to let loose. I drank and partied and yes, I kissed people.

Girls. Only girls. I was still uncomfortable with men. The messages I had been taught growing up were seared into my brain, and they had left me confused. It felt wrong to be with men. They couldn’t control themselves and it wasn’t safe. I knew it was wrong to be with girls too, but every time I had asked why, no one could explain it to me. “It’s just wrong,” they said. “God says so.”  I was afraid to bring it up anymore.

It wasn’t long before I identified as lesbian and started dating. I struggled heavily and wrestled with this identity for nearly two years. During that time I dated a girl for 10 months. We were sexually involved. I remember feeling sick the first time. On my way to church the next morning I pulled over and vomited. I hated myself. I felt ashamed. I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t know why and I felt like I was the only Christian in the world who was experiencing this. I felt too ashamed to talk.

Still, I attended church. I just kept it all inside. This came naturally to me. I grew up attending a Christian school and showing up for church every Sunday and Wednesday. I was told that you don’t leave your dirty laundry out. You don’t wave it around. You don’t tell people about your broken bits. You don’t talk about personal things.

My sister got drunk on Saturday night? We don’t talk about it. Even though we believe drinking is wrong.

My brother punched a hole in the door? No one mentions it. Even though it makes me afraid.

My Uncle got caught doing drugs? Don’t tell anyone. It’s no one’s business.

The message I’d received my whole life was this; “Ignore it and keep going to church. As long as you go to church, you’re doing okay.” So I kept going to church.

I was so confused. Sexually. Emotionally. Mentally. Spiritually. I felt like I was being beat up every Sunday when I showed up to church. My girlfriend looked at me one Sunday morning and said, “Don’t go, babe. It ruins you.”

But she was wrong. It saved me.

My church friends eventually found out. Living a double life caught up with me, I guess. They approached me. Slowly, over a period of 6 months, they met with me… and Christ worked in me, despite my rejection of Him.

The last meeting we had was a surprise “come to Jesus” meeting. “This is the last meeting we’re having with you, but we love you.” They said, “We will be here to walk you through this when you come back to Him.”

That night when I got in my car I surrendered to Jesus. I broke up with my girlfriend later that week. After we broke up, I lay on the floor sobbing “WHY?” and listening  to the relentless rhythm of my cries echoing down the dorm hallway. I felt so broken and so angry.

And I came back to church….

Three years have passed since that time. It has been the most painful, honest, broken, excruciating three years of my life; yet for the first time, I have had open, honest, and loving communication with my church family about Sex and Marriage. About Shame and Sin and Trust. I feel open and honest. And my shame diminishes every time I face the King.

I’ve finally been able to ask the questions I’ve wanted answers to. I’ve learned why same-sex relationships are wrong. I have been mentored closely and I’ve had to let God change my thinking. How God made me to follow Him and why He desires purity from me are still hard things to accept sometimes.

My church family, my sisters in Christ, have formed a shield of safety around me. They have walked with me arm in arm through my questions, through my temptations, through my anger, and through my unbelief. There hasn’t been anything that I am not allowed to ask them. They’ve told me in love when I’m wrong and in love they’ve led me to His cross. They’ve helped me learn what it means to take my thoughts captive. They’ve walked with me and helped point out the lies that I’d believed for so long about sex, about marriage, and about men.

I’ve let Christ into the core of my being. He is reshaping my sexuality for me. I’m no longer defined by whom I’m attracted to because He has given me a new heart and a new identity.

I’m His child.

He is my father.

He is faithful. He is true, as is His word….And He loves me.

I can’t get over it.

I can’t get over His grace.

So scandalous.

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You can read the previous two posts in this series HERE and HERE. If  you would like to contribute to this series, you can email me at lily.e.dunn at gmail.com.