fear

The Flasher or Why I am a Feminist

I was eight years old the day I saw the flasher. I was riding my bike home from a friend’s house around the corner from mine. I was in the height of my American Girl days*, wearing a dress and an apron and lace-up boots, my hair in a thick golden braid that fell all the way down my back and kissed the bike seat, pedaling down the sidewalk on my pink bike with the white tires, pink streamers flying from the handlebars.  I turned the corner onto my street and was surprised to see a man in a tan truck parked on the street in front of my friend Paige’s house. We lived in a quiet neighborhood with lots of kids and no through-traffic. There weren’t many strangers around. I was even more surprised when he got out of his truck and I realized he wasn’t wearing pants or underwear. I thought maybe he was going to pee on the side of the road. (I had a brother, after all. I knew boys did that sort of thing.) I sped up and passed him on my bike. He stared at me as I went past. His eyes were bright blue.

***

I was too young to know about exhibitionists. Of course, I knew that people weren’t supposed to take their clothes off in public, but it never occurred to me that the man was doing it on purpose to show me his penis, much less that this was an actual crime. I can’t imagine how disturbed my mom must have been when I came inside.

Me (more confused than bothered): Mom, I saw something weird on the way home from Emily’s. This man got out of his truck and he wasn’t wearing any pants! I thought maybe he needed to use the bathroom, but he never did.

Mom: What? Where? Did he say anything to you? Did he touch you? What did he look like? Is he still there?

I still didn’t understand what a big deal it was until the policeman showed up. My mom, obviously fearful for me and the neighborhood of kids we lived in, had called the police to report the incident. The policeman asked me to describe the man. “Dirty blond hair, scruffy face, gray t-shirt, no pants. Bright blue eyes,” I recited, heart-pounding because I was talking to a policeman, etching that face into my memory forever.

***

For years after the incident, I had this fantasy of the man with the bright blue eyes outside of my window, trying to peek in so he could see me when I changed my clothes. Taking baths became a sort of torture. In the bathroom was a high transom window far above the bathtub, but in my mind, I saw the man with the gray shirt and the bright blue eyes on a ladder, leaned against the brick outside, peering down at me while I bathed. I perfected the art of the 90-second bath, jumping in and out with barely enough time to get wet.  My mom couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her doll-carrying, dress-up playing, tea-party hosting girly-girl who suddenly never wanted to take a bath. I don’t know why I never told her what I was afraid of, but I was eight and children aren’t logical.

***

I grew up in a very conservative household in a very conservative school and church environment. I developed early, suddenly sprouting breasts while I was still a child. These two facts together meant I was taught from a very early age about modesty. Keeping myself covered so that I didn’t attract attention to my body. My mother dutifully explained the basics of my anatomy, of what was happening to my body and why and the very simplest version of what sex was. (I didn’t believe her for a while. I remember feeling bad that she would tell me such a weird lie because it made me feel gross to think about it.) I continued to take record-breaking showers, convinced that the man with the blue eyes was only more interested now.

It was several more years before I learned the words for what exactly I was afraid of. I knew that I was afraid of men, but I couldn’t name my fears – of sex, of being raped or molested, of lewd remarks, of stares that made me feel dirty. And as I grew, a rising fear that my own body would betray me. I was weighed down with the heaviness of it. Sick with the shame of having breasts.

It wasn’t as though it was all I thought about. I played and read and sang and did my homework. But at night in my bed I would pray, “God, I know I told a lie today, but I’m sorry. Please don’t let me get raped.” It wasn’t exactly that I thought God would punish me for bad behavior by letting me be raped. I just thought maybe if I didn’t behave well enough, I couldn’t guarantee that he would protect me.

***

I lived a relatively privileged life and still, there were years I spent in daily fear that I would be harmed, simply because I was a girl-child. I grew up looking at my body with shame and with fear of what it might possibly attract. And I never understood this as being fundamentally wrong. It was just the way the world was.

I am a feminist because I don’t think little girls and grown women should live in fear of their own bodies, afraid that they might attract violence simply because of their anatomy. I am a feminist because I believe that women should be free from the fear of bodily harm, of discrimination, of social injustice, and of inequality in all of its forms.

But I am also a feminist because I believe men should be free from the stereotype that they are some sort of sexual animals, always poised to attack. Men should be free of having genuine kindness towards women judged as an action with ulterior motive. And men, too, should be free from the fear of any form of bodily harm, discrimination, social injustice, or inequality.

I don’t particularly like the word “feminist” because I think it’s too small of a word. It doesn’t reach far enough. I am a feminist, but not because I only believe in equality for women. Equality cannot be FOR someone at the expense of someone else. I am a feminist because I believe in the right of every human being to have equal access to health care, education, job opportunities, adequate food, clean water, adequate shelter, and freedom from bodily harm. I am a feminist because I believe in fighting for and insisting upon equality for all who are marginalized, be they women, minorities, orphans, the poor, the sick, the mentally ill, or anyone else who is treated as less than a valued human being by society.

I want to delve into all of that. But right now, I want to acknowledge where it started for me. I am a feminist because 8-year-old little girls should be able to take baths without being afraid.

* American Girl is a popular brand of historical books, (highly overpriced) dolls, clothes and accessories wildly popular with the 10 and under crowd when I was in elementary school. In fact, they are still fairly popular. I had Felicity, in case you were wondering.

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Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That (catching the anti-baby bug, or an update on the state of my uterus)

For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a mommy. Not only did I play with baby dolls from toddlerhood to embarrassingly far into my preteen years, but I also routinely made lists of the names I would give my children, updating them as my tastes matured.*

Not only did I want kids, I wanted a lot of them. Six! With a set of twins! Preferably redheaded! I said before I understood the dark realities of pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing. By the time I graduated from college I had bagged myself a red-headed sperm-donor husband and had brought my hopes down to the more reasonable goal of three to four biological children and at least one adopted child to break up all the little redheads.**

I wasn’t entirely naïve. I had done A LOT of babysitting in high school and college. Mostly with very young children. At one point my senior year I was getting up at 5:30 AM to watch kids for a few hours before school, heading to another family’s house from 10:30 – 3:30, and then finishing my day with a third family from 4:00-6:30. And after college I worked for a year as a full-time nanny, which I extensively chronicled earlier on this blog. I got burnt out and exhausted from working with small kids all the time, but no matter how tough it got, never once did I waver in my conviction that I wanted to have kids of my own someday.

About a year ago I got baby bug in the worst way. Everyone was getting pregnant and having babies and, being in a meaningless corporate job at the time, I found myself wishing for motherhood more than ever before. I knew that the timing wasn’t right. And I knew that the sudden, overwhelming urge to quit my job and grow a baby was not a good enough reason to bring a human into the world. But the logic of the situation did not stop me from hoping against hope that the baby fever was God’s way of preparing me for a surprise pregnancy. And even though I wasn’t trying to get pregnant (in fact, I was actively preventing) I still managed to feel disappointed every month when it became clear that God had not miraculously intervened and made my body defy science and logic to conceive anyway. Jonathan and I agreed that we would re-visit the topic of baby-having in a year or so and see how we felt about it then.

For several months I continued to have baby-on-the-brain. Then I decided that if getting pregnant in a year or so was a possibility, I should probably do all of the things I really wanted to do pre-baby. Hence the commencement of Operation Lily Runs a Marathon and Operation Lily Goes to Grad School. I really wanted to undertake Operation Lily Travels the World, but sometimes even I have to be an adult and realize that I can’t have everything, so I settled for last summer’s vacation to the Dominican Republic and my marathon trip to Disneyworld. I also decided that before I had kids I wanted to be healthier, which led me to a radical diet change where I cut all sugar and starch from my diet and started eating lean meats and vegetables. I lost 20 lbs in 7 weeks and have a lot more energy and much fewer health problems than I did before.

I’ve made a lot of changes and a lot of progress over the past year: I quit my job, started grad school, ran a marathon, changed my diet and lost weight, did some travel, grew out my hair, and stopped biting my fingernails. But something else changed too. Starting in about October and growing steadily ever since has been a strong feeling that I no longer want to have kids. Not just right now. Maybe not at all. Ever.

If you know me at all, you know how weird that is. Like I said before, all I have ever REALLY wanted in my life is to one day be a mommy. I mean, I’ve wanted to have a meaningful job and a good marriage and to write and help others and all of those things too, but even when some of those things have been unclear or I have felt directionless, I’ve always had this deep desire for motherhood someday to hold onto.

In fact, my desire to be a mother has driven me to the point of fear sometimes. Thinking of having a house full of kids has made me feel a lot of pressure to figure out what I want to do career-wise as fast as possible because I don’t feel I will have the luxury of going back to school or trying to figure that out once I start having kids. I have put a lot of pressure on myself to get these things figured out because, after all, I’m 25, and if I really want to have 4 kids, I’m going to have to get started on that in the next few years.

But for the last 4-5 months I’ve found myself wondering if I really want to have kids, and I’ve concluded that what I really want is to have babies, not children. In other words, I love the idea of carrying a baby and then having this tiny little creature who is part of Jonathan and part of me and part something all his own. But I don’t want to bring an 8-year-old to dance class or fight with a 10 year old about cleaning his room. And I certainly don’t ever want to have a teenaged son.

Frankly, there’s a part of me that doesn’t even understand what the point is of having children. I know most of you won’t get this, but sometimes I think, “I could spend most of my life raising these kids who may or may not turn out to be good people, regardless of how good of parents Jonathan and I are, and for what? So they can go out and have their children that they spend their lives raising those kids so that those kids can grow up and have their own families.” There’s just something inherently narcissistic about it to me. I mean, if we just wanted children out of a desire to give of ourselves and our love and raise great men and women to right the wrongs of the world, there would be no more orphans. We would look at these millions of parentless children and find exactly what we were looking for. But that’s not all. We might want those things, but we also want mini-me’s made in our own likenesses.

Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that there are parents in the world. After all, if my parents had felt this way, I would never have existed. And I like existing. I’m just not sure that, for me, the reasons above are good enough reasons to have children. I’ve been thinking a lot about parenting and how, to do it correctly, it really does require you to sacrifice everything for the sake of your kids. I see the family I work for now where the parents aren’t willing to self-sacrifice for the kids, and how their kids suffer for it even though they have all the material wealth in the world.

And I look at my own family. I have two parents whom I respect and admire deeply. Not once in my life have I ever doubted that they loved my siblings and I and that every parenting decision they made was genuinely out of a desire to do the best for us. And yet, I look at my siblings and me – my brother who has wrestled with addiction for at least 10 years, my sister, whose entire understanding of her world has been rocked to its core since leaving home, and me, who has lived believing that my best would never be good enough and that no matter how good I was and how hard I worked, fault would be found in me. My youngest sister is on the brink of adulthood now and we have yet to see the things she carries.

My point in saying all of this is not to rag on my parents. It’s to point out that even having some of the hardest-working, most self-sacrificing, godly and loving parents in the world, we have reached adulthood deeply scarred. If this is the reality for a family so committed to raising their children well and loving them deeply, I am utterly terrified to think of what I, a much more selfish person than either of my parents, might do to my theoretical children.

When I started to articulate how I am feeling about all of this, it sort of freaked me out. I mean, I have ALWAYS been the one who loved kids and couldn’t wait to have a family. And more than that, I’m really good with kids, especially really little kids. It’s one of my main skills – something I pride myself on. Jonathan and other close friends are convinced that this is a phase I am going through and that I won’t feel like this forever.*** They might be right and that will be ok. It may be a phase I am going through that will last 6 months or a year and then it will fade away and I will go back to the way I was before. But for now, this is where I’m at and I’m embracing it instead of fighting it.

So what does the future look like for the girl who spent her whole life planning on being a mommy only to discover that she might not want to be one? Honestly, from right here it’s looking pretty unlimited.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

* If I had named my kids at age 11 they would have been called Chloe and Oliver. But then, of course, we named our dog Chloe so I couldn’t use that one anymore.
**Because I am convinced that all of our children will be redheaded, recessive genes be damned!
***At least, Jonathan is certainly hoping that’s the case. I can’t really blame him, I mean it’s sort of false advertising for him to pick a wife based on the fact that she wants to bear him 4 sons, only to find out after the deal is sealed that she really doesn’t want any. Bad form, Me. He has assured me that he will still love me if I do not bear said sons. But I can tell he still thinks the whole thing will blow over.

When I’m Angry With God

So, I know this isn’t a very kosher Christian thing to say, but I’m just gonna go ahead and say it – sometimes I feel really angry with God.

When we first arrived in Raleigh we didn’t know anyone except Christina (my college roommate), but we were so blessed to make friends relatively quickly through a couple we met at our church. They lead our community group and through their welcoming us in, we became friends with them as well as a group of other wonderful people. 

One of the things I have loved most about Raleigh has been the sense of belonging we have felt from those who have welcomed us in and made us a part of their community.  This was the first time in my adult life that I truly felt like I belonged where I was, that Jonathan and I had made friends with other couples who were in similar life-stages and we were, that people were involved in our lives and we were involved in theirs. A few months ago when we were considering moving again to pursue grad school opportunities, I was so torn between wanting to pursue opportunities and wanting to stay here in this place where I saw a potential future for us. And that future wasn’t based on the careers we have here (which are way out of our fields) or the educational opportunities we’ve found, but on the people we’ve come to love.

In case you are really confused, that isn’t the part that makes me angry. The part that’s made me angry is that God now seems to be taking these very good things away from us. Our sweet friends who lead our community group suddenly got a job opportunity in the Chicago area and are moving in the next month (ironically they are moving within a few miles of where we used to live before coming here.) A second couple in our group suddenly had to opportunity to buy a fantastic little house, but it is in Durham and they will likely be looking for a church/community closer to them.  Another girl from our group has been given the amazing opportunity to move to Scotland and work with a church plant there. So essentially, in one fell swoop, most of our community has fallen apart. (If you are one of our few friends sticking around, we are so very grateful for you!!!) Intellectually, I recognize that all of these things are good for our friends and that my happiness about where these people live is probably not God’s main priority. Haha. Deep down I know that truly loving people means wanting God’s best for them, even if it doesn’t feel like the best thing for you, so on that level I do rejoice to see God providing exciting opportunities for my friends. But that doesn’t make me happy about the situation.

Please understand, I know that there are many, many worse things that can happen (and have happened) in life than all of your friends moving away. I’m really not trying to make the case that this is the worst thing ever. But it has brought up some real frustration for me that is connected to something a lot bigger than whether or not I have a lot of friends nearby. And maybe that is something you can relate to, whatever your particular disappointments have been.

This may seem like a bit of an over-reaction, but I’ve been really discouraged since finding out about all of these changes. It’s not that any one of these people was some ultimate source of happiness for us, but I did find a lot of fulfillment in belonging to this group of people and growing alongside them. It genuinely has helped me through the struggles of not having a job that I love and not knowing what we should be doing in the future to feel that these relationships were the thing God had clearly placed in front of me. I felt that even if I couldn’t see God’s hand in other areas, I could see it in these relationships and I took it as a confirmation that we were in the right place, doing the right thing, even when it was difficult. And now it feels like that small measure of peace and security is being taken away. Additionally, I feel like things are moving forward in so many of our friends lives and I feel  stuck in so many ways. Directionless and without even a short-term goal.

Why is it that the things you want to stay the same are always changing while the things you wish would change seem stuck the way they are forever?

The whole experience has launched me (yet again) into that series of questions I can never seem to get away from. What am I doing here? What should I be doing? There are so many directions I thought my life might take and so far, it hasn’t taken any of those. I have never held a job that I really loved. In fact, I have a difficult time even thinking of a job I truly think I would love.  Some days I just want to give up and resign myself to living a boring life moving from one uninspiring job to the next just to make enough money to live on, but that terrifies me more than anything. I can seriously think of nothing worse than living a life with no adventure.

I feel like I’ve been asking God the same questions year after year, and he never throws me a bone. Sometimes I just want to scream, why did you make me this way and give me all of these desires and then leave me with no guidance about what to do with that? If my life is meant to be spent moving from one uninspiring job to the next just to make enough money to live, why would you give me this deep desire for my life to be meaningful?

And I know what you are thinking… “Depends on what you think is meaningful,” so let me put it this way. I don’t want or need an impressive career, and I don’t think I need to move to Bangladesh. I just want to be able to look back at the end of a day or a week or even just a year and put my finger on moments that mattered. Things that had eternal significance. And instead I find myself plowing through my workday, desperate to get home where I can get away from the stress of my office to make dinner and read books and watch tv shows and fall into bed exhausted by 10:00.

God has been very good to us. He has provided for us. He has given us more than we need to survive. And most importantly, he has given us himself. Maybe it’s sinful for me to even be asking for more. But I want more. I want to know what in this whole wide world I’m supposed to be doing with my life. Because today it just feels like I’m wasting it.

So, that’s where I am at today. Though I’m genuinely excited to see these friends follow God’s leading, I’m sad to be losing them, and I’m feeling  discouraged that God seems to be at work everywhere except in my life. And frankly, all of these feelings are making me really angry.

The good news is, I don’t think God’s freaking out that I’m mad at him. And I don’t think he’s surprised. I believe he knows me intimately. That he understands the way my mind works and what triggers my emotions. That he loves me in my brokenness and foolishness. But somehow, on a day like today, none of those things are particularly comforting to me. Mostly, they are just making me a little more angry.

Life and Death: You know, the little things

My great aunt passed away this past Sunday. I know for many people a great aunt is a more distant relative, someone they only see a few times during their life, but my great aunt was like a second grandmother to me. She never married and didn’t have children of her own. She was handicapped her whole life and my grandmother took care of her, so she was a part of all of our family events and gatherings.  When my grandparents moved from New Orleans to live next door to my family after Hurricane Katrina she moved with them into a retirement community right around the corner from my grandparents’ new home. And when she was no longer able to manage her own apartment, she moved across the street into the nursing home.

My great aunt, Eva Marie Hubert. Isn't she lovely?

She was 80 years old, but she was mentally sharp as a tack, remembered everything, and didn’t even need reading glasses to see things perfectly. She was born in 1931 and contracted polio when she was only 10 months old. For her entire life she wore braces on her legs. She used a walker, and later a wheelchair when she lost the strength in her arms required to use the walker. My husband and I went with my family to visit her on Christmas Day. She was sitting up in her chair, looking very frail and incredibly thin, but talking about how she didn’t want to miss the Saints game on Monday night and her friend who was bringing her a pecan pie later on. She loved to give gifts. As a child I remember that every time we saw her she’d have picked out a few little things for us and have them wrapped up nicely, even after she was retired and had very little money to live on. Even in the nursing home, she would take candy or little things that people brought to her and tie them up in little plastic bags and hand them out to others in the nursing home who she thought looked sad. This Christmas she decided to give each of her grand-nieces a piece of jewelry from her own jewelry box.

Here she is opening her Christmas present when we went to see her on Christmas Day

A few days after Christmas she went into the hospital with pneumonia and didn’t recover. It’s always sad to lose someone, but I genuinely know that she was ready to go. She had lived a very full life and she wasn’t afraid to leave it. I think my grandmother will be affected the most by her loss as she has been caring for her sister since she was a little girl, but we are all thankful that she isn’t suffering and that she lived such a long, full life.

While this post is partly meant to remember and to celebrate my great aunt, it’s also about those of us still here. Even though my aunt has been steadily declining over the last few years, the finality of her death has really impacted me. It may not be as jarring or as tragic as a sudden death or the death of someone very young, but it’s still strange to me that she was here and we were talking with her just two weeks ago and now she’s not anymore. It’s made me realize how attached I am to this life, in spite of all the little things I find to complain about.

I was talking to Jonathan a few nights ago about how there’s a sense in which I feel that I, as a Christian, am not supposed to fear death. I’m not supposed to long for more of life. I’m supposed to embrace the time I’m given, but rest knowing that when this life is over I move on to something greater. But if I’m honest, I do fear it to some extent. I like this world. I love doing life with my husband and having a home together. I want to have babies and to see all of the amazing places in the world. I want to experience cultures, learn languages, adopt a child, write a book.

Here is a secret about me that is going to sound terribly morbid. For some reason I could never identify, I have always believed I would die young. I have no reason to think this –no medical conditions, no family history of sudden, early death, no impulse to engage in dangerous activities. It’s just something I’ve always believed somewhere in the back of my mind. It wasn’t until my relationship with Jonathan got really serious that I was able for the first time to even imagine myself growing old –because I can imagine him growing old and I can’t imagine ever being without him. And I think maybe it is this underlying belief, however unfounded, that subconsciously drives my overwhelming desires to travel and see and go and do and be and not waste time doing things I don’t care about.

I know that as a Christian I am supposed to feel that death only ushers me in to something greater than I can ever imagine – the presence of God.  And I do believe that. But there’s something even about heaven that I’ve always found frightening. Jonathan says it is because we cannot wrap our minds around something as large as eternity and it’s unsettling to think about the unknown and the unknowable. We are always somewhat afraid of what we don’t know and can’t anticipate. Sort of like how I (and I think many people) felt right before I got married—you know it’s going to be the most wonderful thing and you are excited for it, but at the same time, you are sort of anxious because it’s something you personally have never experienced and can’t quite imagine. You don’t have a mental framework for it. It is unlike anything you’ve done before.

I am not one of those people who can just pretend to have the “right” perspective on everything. I believe that there are people who genuinely feel more excited about heaven than earth, who have a more eternal perspective on life and death. But I admit that I am not there yet. And while this distresses me because I have always wanted to give the “right” answer, to have the “right” attitude, to say the “right” thing, I also think there’s something to learn from my own frailty.

If I recognize that I love life and say that I’m so grateful for the minutes and the hours and the days that I’ve had and that I hope to have, why do I still spend so much of that precious time just trying to get through it? Why do I sit at work and wish the time away?  Why do I spend the week just trying to push through so that I can get to the weekend? If I make the goal of each day to get to the end of it so I can once again crawl into my lovely bed, will those days add up to a life whose goal was just to reach the end of it? And isn’t that the exact opposite of that driving force that (sometimes unhealthily, I admit) beats with my heart Go everywhere. See everything. Don’t waste your days.

Conclusion: it’s ok that I can’t grasp eternity and that in my frailty, I even find it somewhat frightening. There is grace for that. It’s ok that I love life. It is a gift. I can’t place all of my value on things I will gain or experience in this life, but I can take these feelings and allow the Holy Spirit to use them. To say to my wandering heart, focus yourself. Live with intention. Stop running through your days just trying to make it to the end. Be attentive and be present, even when all you want to do is go home. Be mindful that the life you want to live is made up of what you do with your individual days, not just a handful of special moments.

So…Aunt Nan, I hope you’re dancing for the first time in your life with no braces on your legs. I have no way of knowing how many days I have left, if there is any validity to my feeling that I will lead a short life. But I trust that whenever my time here is over, there will be grace to bring me home. Without fear. And I sincerely hope, without regret.

The Dilemma of My Generation: When “You Can Do Anything!” Means, “You’d Better Make it Good!”

Not many people know this, but for the past several months I have been diligently pursuing applying to PhD programs in cultural anthropology.  Travel, different cultures, and many of the issues of applied anthropology have continued to fascinate me and as I’ve thought about what to do in life I’ve started to lean more towards further study of anthropology. I was thinking of pursuing the PhD because I wasn’t aware of much that could be done with just the master’s and because I thought having the PhD would give me the option of working in the non-profit sector or teaching in a university. I’m all set to take the GRE on Tuesday and over the past few weeks I have started contacting programs and asking more specific questions. Most programs require you to go into them with a very specific research question in mind and many recommend that you’ve already dialogued with a professor who would be willing to serve as your advisor. It’s a lot more work than simply filling out an application.

As I’ve started to get responses from people I’ve contacted I’ve become more and more discouraged. Not only has no one so much as said, “thanks for looking at our program” but they have by and large responded with an attitude like, “Why do you want to this? “ or “Why are you bothering me?” Yesterday I got in touch with a Wheaton grad who recently earned his PhD from the University of Virginia. He basically told me that if I get a PhD I will lose my faith, change all of my political views, and be completely unemployable because I’ll be overqualified to work with non-profits and I will be in a very, very competitive pool for the few available university positions that don’t even pay enough to support a family on.

I’ve become overwhelmed with the sense that maybe I am not pursuing this because it’s really the passion of my life and I know that it’s what I’m supposed to do, but rather that I’m pursuing it because I am so tired of not having goals or something to pursue and if I got into a PhD program that would give me something to spend the next 6-7 years working towards. Which probably is not a good enough reason.

I have a theory about people in my generation. Particularly people who have been blessed with a lot of opportunities. People who have good, supportive families and went to schools like Wheaton and have been told all of their lives that they are exceptional. The theory is this: being told that we are exceptional, having it drilled into our heads that we are destined for greatness has ruined us for ordinary life. Believing that I am extremely gifted and talented and that I could do anything I set my mind to and that I have been given privileges in order to do something amazing makes every ordinary, mundane day seem like a failure. I feel like I am not living up to my potential or to the expectations of all of these people who believe in me. I can see and agree that I have been given opportunities that not everyone gets and despite pulling my hair out trying to figure out what I’m meant to do with my life, I can’t help feeling that I’m squandering the gift of those opportunities. I feel that I have to (and want to) do something cool and significant and amazing with my life, but I have no earthly idea what it is and the feeling is beyond frustrating. Sometimes I feel like God is teasing me. Like he is saying, “I gave you all of these opportunities for a reason, but I’m not going to tell you what it is. But if you don’t figure it out on your own, you will be held accountable.” I know God’s not really like that, but sometimes it definitely feels that way.

It is the moral gem we learned from Spiderman, “With great privilege comes great responsibility.” I genuinely feel that if I don’t do something amazing with my life, I will have wasted it. Thank you, John Piper. And so today, as I sit in my cube and design flyers to sell properties and maintain databases, I feel that I am indeed wasting my precious life. Watching it slip past me day after day and week after week as I plod along doing the same thing with very few highs or lows to break the monotony.  I am striving to make the most of my days. To be a good friend, employee, co-worker, and wife. But mostly, this doesn’t feel like enough. Beyond the expectations of others, I’m disappointed in myself. And I am so afraid of life always being this way.  I am afraid I will finish life having seen and done so little. This is not at all a critique of those who do feel fulfilled by staying in one place or working a corporate job or just raising a family. But it is true that I have an insatiable desire to see and experience everything. I literally stay awake at night longing to see the canals in Venice and the Greek islands and the Great Barrier Reef and being afraid that I never will. It’s silly, I guess, but it’s true.

Every so often I strike out and choose a course of action from my list of possibilities (writing, non-profit work, academia, kindergarten teacher, pastry chef) and every time I am advised, “You shouldn’t pursue this unless you are 100% certain that this all you want to do in life ever, ever, ever.” And  between the “you can’t” s and the “you shouldn’t” s I’m advised to “wait” until I know. And I feel like I’m never going to just “know.” It’s completely unhelpful and infuriating, particularly when so many of my friends are in grad school or are already teachers or nurses or photographers, pursuing their chosen profession. Meanwhile I actually feel  hindered by all of my options. When you are led to believe that you can be anything you want and do anything you want and you are already an indecisive person (me!), it is a tremendous burden rather than a freedom to be asked to decide or to discern. Ultimately, all I want is to honor God with my life. To do what he has gifted me and called me to do. But I am so tired and so discouraged by doing nothing while I wait for him to tell me. And I’m tired of him not telling me. And I’m tired of feeling that any direction I try to move in is blocked.

This isn’t uplifting, but this is true. I know God has a purpose for my life, but I sure wish he’d share that information. And I know I’m not the only one.

Learning to Trust the Church Again: a really long post about coming out of a bad church situation and learning to believe in the goodness of the Church again

This past Sunday was a celebratory day in the Dunn household.  It was Jonathan’s final day of work at Starbucks in Raleigh. Not only was this exciting because he has a new job and no longer has to make coffee for picky customers 6 hours a day, but most importantly because he will no longer have to work on Sunday mornings. Ever. Since arriving in Raleigh two months ago, there have only been two Sunday mornings when Jonathan was not working (despite requests not to…don’t even get me started.) Because of this we have been making slow progress on our search for a church, but now we are hoping it won’t be long before we are involved somewhere. We are (shudder) hardcore church-shopping.

I hate the term church-shopping. I hate the idea of church-shopping. I firmly believe that the purpose of the church is not to meet all of our needs, to entertain us, or to cater to all of our preferences. The church as an institution is here to facilitate believers living as representations of Christ to one another and to those in their community. A church should facilitate spiritual growth in individuals as well as corporate growth as a community. This requires active participation by the congregation. And since the congregation (and the leadership) are made up of fallible people, there is no way that any church can escape imperfections. And yet, past experience has taught me that, universal imperfections acknowledged, not all churches are equally sound. Not all churches are honoring to God. Not all churches are a nurturing and healthy environment. So the idea for Jonathan and I is not to find the perfect church, but to find a healthy church and a community we can share life with, even if we don’t love everything about it. A church whose growth and development we can become a part of. People we can love and be loved by.

As we’ve begun to explore churches in Raleigh I’ve been surprised to realize how much my past experiences in the church are carrying over into our search for a new one. In some ways, Jonathan and I are on exactly the same page. For us, the most important things we are looking for in a church are biblically sound teaching and a community we feel we can really be accepted into. But in other ways, our different faith backgrounds and particularly my experiences in the church I was raised in have really affected the way I view the church.

The church I grew up in was mid-sized, but growing fast, charismatic and non-denominational. From that church I had more or less been led to believe that people in non-charismatic traditions were in a spiritually dry place and were not passionate about their faith. I actually had really well-meaning people caution me when Jonathan and I started dating that his Presbyterian background could result in us being unequally yoked because of our different beliefs about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. When I got to Wheaton, and particularly after Jonathan and I started dating, I encountered people from all different denominational backgrounds, many of whom were very passionate believers who understood things about Christianity that I had never even considered and were from mainline Protestant backgrounds. These were people who were excited about their faith, they just didn’t express it in the emotional way I was used to seeing. Not only that, but I found that while I had assumptions about them being dry and passionless, the prevailing attitude was that emotionally expressive, charismatic churches lacked depth and substance. Suddenly I was the anomaly.

Over my years at Wheaton it became clear that some of the things I had been taught in the church I grew up in were just plain wrong. Not just differences of opinion or a different interpretation, but bad theology. Worship had become a concert given by the most talented people under the guise that we were “pursuing excellence”, appearances were more important than real relationships, and the concept of “spiritual authority” led to abuse in the leadership. The church declared itself to be a “family,” but there were very strict rules for how the members of the family were expected to act. The teaching was that this church was God’s family and that any deviation from the way that church was running things was rebellion against God himself. If you disagreed with something that was said from the pulpit, it was up to you deal with your sinful inability to handle offenses. In words, no one would ever have said, “This is the perfect church,” but in practice, anything that was contrary to what the pastor wanted or said was rebelling against the “spiritual covering” God had given us in our church and pastor. Although they hadn’t started out that way, sermons had subtly changed to focus on what God can do for you or on how obeying God “opens to door for his blessing” which led to the underlying idea that if you hold up your end of the bargain, God will hold up his and that if you are not experiencing God’s blessing perhaps you need to be more obedient in some area of your life. Imagine the pressure of believe that God’s goodness is conditional based on your own goodness. Yikes.

As I grew in my intellectual knowledge of Christianity and my understanding of who God is I started to identify some of these things. I was startled by how many lies and unhealthy attitudes had been ingrained in me and the ways they came out in the way I thought about God and the world. As I began to identify these things, the result was that I started to push against anything that reminded me of the church I had grown up in. Not just reminded me theologically of it, but reminded me of it at all. For example, I somehow got the idea that because the church I’d grown up in had had amazing musicians and singers leading worship which eventually led to a “concert” like atmosphere, that truly holy worship must necessarily be really crappy music. 🙂 The church we attended at Wheaton had a  worship team made up of a rotating group of volunteers, many of whom were not the best singers or musicians, and the music they chose was more often than not CCM music from the late 80’s and early 90’s. It wasn’t the best quality, but it was heartfelt.

Part of my rejecting the tradition I’d come out of resulted in my becoming highly critical when it came to sermons and teaching. While I think it was good to come to a place of examining what was being preached in the light of Scripture and not just accepting anything that was spoken in a church, in some cases I actually became overly critical to the point that one small thing I wasn’t sure about caused me to reject an entire message or service. I was afraid of being deceived, but ultimately what happened was that I became too critical to receive much of anything. I would spent the entire service on the defensive, looking for something I disagreed with. I had started out on one end of the spectrum and then, like a pendulum, swung wildly the other way.

Gradually, through two very genuine and god-honoring churches we attended in Wheaton and in Naperville I began to understand how God can work through an imperfect church and speak into our lives, even when the worship isn’t the most beautiful or the sermon is less than riveting. And in the same way, I shouldn’t reject a church with a very talented worship team or a very engaging pastor just because that is similar to the church I grew up in. The key is not rejecting anything out of fear or accepting anything out of ignorance, but instead trusting that the Holy Spirit alive in me will direct me and that I can fully trust him, even if I’m not sure about a particular church service.

The churches we went to in Wheaton and then Naperville were both very stoic in terms of being expressive in worship and very conservative in terms of their theology. In a strange way, these traditional, conservative churches have really been a stretch for me. Because I grew up in an environment where people were very expressive in church, a service that is very quiet and worship that is very stoic are actually as uncomfortable to me as loud worship with people jumping around is to Jonathan. Because everyone is quiet and still I feel conspicuous if I clap or lift a hand. I feel that my expression of worship will distract those around me, whereas in an environment where people are generally more expressive, no one is going to notice if I sway to the beat. Through those experiences though I have learned firsthand that just feeling uncomfortable does not mean something’s wrong. Being out of my element does not mean I should shut down and reject everything I hear. And in the same way, being somewhere that I am more comfortable doesn’t make everything right.

By God’s grace I believe I am now in a position where I can see both extremes of the pendulum and am praying that God will help us find a healthy medium. I want to be able to trust where I see God working and to be able to receive with discernment but without fear. I would love to find a place that I can worship expressively and still be taught the challenging truths of the gospel. I want to find a place that serves the community and allows Christ to be the most attractive feature rather than displays of opulence, but that is concerned with being relevant. I want to be an active part of the miraculous, living body of Christ without fear of being hurt or rejected or deceived. That’s far more important than what the music sounds like or how entertained I am by the sermon or how technologically savvy the illustrations are.

So, in a very long-winded way this is me saying, OK, Lord, whatever you have for us, I am ready to receive it. My sails are flung out wide, let your winds guide us where you want us to go!

Oh Me of Little Faith

Well, we did it. We packed up the apartment and our cats and drove 15 hrs south and east to North Carolina. For the past few weeks we have been house-sitting for some family friends of Jonathan’s family who live in Durham but are out of town for the summer. During this time, Jonathan started working at the Starbucks he transferred to and I started looking for work even more diligently than I already had been.

Here’s a timeline of how the last few weeks went for me.

Friday July 8-arrived in Raleigh. Well, actually to Durham where we are house-sitting. Many thanks to Jonathan’s mom who helped us clean and pack and drive.

Saturday July 9th-unpacked stuff, returned moving van, applied for jobs online, was generally excited about life.

Sunday July 10th-applied for more jobs online. Despaired of ever finding a job. Told Jonathan I was sorry for thinking we should move here when I clearly would never find work. Resigned myself to a life of flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

Monday July 11th—received three interview requests, did a total of 8 interviews over the next ten days.

Friday July 22nd—received a job offer from CB Richard Ellis as an administrative and marketing assistant

Makes me pretty ashamed of Sunday July 10th.  But it also makes so grateful for God’s care in spite of me and my little faith. It makes me grateful that God’s faithfulness is not dependant on mine. And it makes me grateful that his mercies are new every morning.

Since being here I have already begun to feel more alive in some ways. I’ve started to think about going back to school and being excited by the possibility rather than daunted by it. My successful job interviews have given me a new dose of self-confidence and I no longer feel quite so much like I have nothing to offer. The beginning of our search for a new church has been exciting and I can sense in myself a spiritual hunger for a place to belong and to be a part of God’s story after a season of dryness and doubt.

This week we are moving from the house into our apartment. My mom is coming up to help us paint and get everything put away. I am hoping to start my new job August 1 and Jonathan is hoping to find a new job ASAP and not have to be at Starbucks too much longer. There’s still a lot of transition in our lives and we are looking forward to settling in and for this to start feeling more like home. In the meantime, I am working on the faith thing, choosing to trust in God’s care for us first, instead of allowing fear to swallow my faith.

More to come soon… and maybe some pics of the new place!