The Church

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Things I’m Loving About Being Anglican-ish

Since moving to South Carolina, Jonathan and I have been attending a small Anglican church. We are new to Anglicanism – the rhythms of the liturgy, the symbolism of the vestments, the movements and motions of the Eucharist. While I grew up with a working knowledge of the Catholic Mass, neither of us has ever consistently attended a liturgical church. Over the past few years we have both, for our own reasons, become more and more curious about it.

Jonathan and I come from wildly different church backgrounds – he was raised in a modest-sized, traditional Presbyterian church with a highly educated congregation. I was raised in a large, non-denominational charismatic church that drew people in with exciting music and impressive multimedia presentations. I would have characterized his church as dry and stodgy. He would have characterized mine as hyper-emotional and showy. In the first few years we were first married, we tried to find compromise in what we were looking for in a church – this became more and more complicated as time went on and both of us experienced significant changes in our beliefs. Being in a tradition that is new to both of us feels like a fresh start.

In Korea we visited a very small Anglican church with an English service. While I felt indifferent towards the service itself, I found myself very turned off by the attitude of some of the congregation members. Several of them were former evangelicals who felt they had found something far superior in the Anglican Church. They spoke of their former churches (or even the evangelical church as a whole) with scorn. I’m no champion of evangelical Christianity and I have a whole host of problems with the evangelical subculture, but I’m also deeply sensitive to the arrogance of people who dismiss other denominations’ sincere beliefs simply because they disagree. Just because I have been hurt or disappointed or disenchanted with evangelical Christianity doesn’t mean that God is not at work in those churches or that people who attend those churches aren’t able to have authentic, meaningful faith experiences. In the same way that I have always pushed back against evangelical criticism of Catholicism or of Protestant liturgical traditions, I reject the idea that the only right or good faith tradition is the one I’ve chosen.

Our foray into Anglicanism isn’t about rebelling against the way we were raised, bashing evangelicalism, or trying something new and trendy. It is our way of genuinely seeking to experience God in a new way and to understand our faith differently. I’ve been surprised by the things I’m coming to love about our Anglican church.

Participation is Required: One of the biggest differences in a liturgical service versus a typical evangelical service is that the congregation is required to participate. In an evangelical service you typically sing together for 20 minutes, then sit for 40 minutes and listen to a sermon, sing another song, and leave. In a liturgical service the congregation is required to respond at various intervals, to rise, to sit, to kneel, to speak. I understand that this could become very routine and lose its meaning over time, but for someone new to the tradition, it’s engaging in a way that my previous church experiences were not.

Words Carry Weight: Because the liturgy is scripted, the words have been weighed and measured and written just so. Not one is out of place and not one is without meaning. These are words that have been handed down for generations and they carry with them the weight of centuries of church history.

We are Connected to a Larger Body: Along with this sense of tradition comes a sense of rootedness, and of belonging in the larger body of the church in the world today as well as throughout history. We are not an individual congregation of people doing our own things. We are fundamentally connected to a group of people who are all reading the same passages and speaking the same words on the same day all across the world. There is something powerful about that.

The Eucharist is Central: Unlike most churches I’ve attended where the Eucharist (“Communion”) is a tangential part of the service and is added onto the end once a month or so, the Anglican service revolves around the Eucharist. I’m used to churches where sermons take up the bulk of the service – usually 30 or 40 minutes. In the Anglican Church (and other liturgical churches) the homily is quite short – 10 or 15 minutes – because the real service is building towards the Eucharist. Celebrating the Eucharist starts with corporate prayers of confession and moves into a holy celebration of grace.

Posture Matters: I didn’t grow up kneeling in church. To be honest, kneeling was something we associated with mass, which was (I’m sorry to say) something we frowned upon. But now I find it meaningful to engage my body. For faith to be something I do in the flesh and not just something I say with my mouth or feel in my heart. As my friend Steph writes, “Sometimes to learn a truth so deep in your soul that it changes the way you think, you have to actually do something with your body first.”

The most common question we’ve been asked from friends and relatives is, “Isn’t the liturgy boring? Don’t you feel disengaged when you repeat the same things over and over?” And my answer is simply, “No.”

It’s just as easy for me to disengage while listening to a 3-point sermon or singing a song with a repetitive chorus as it is while saying the Lord’s Prayer. I get out of it what I’m willing to put into it. Perhaps some day I won’t need to hear words like these every week:

“Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself, and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.”

But for now, those words are wearing grooves on my heart. Every week they cut a little deeper and sink down a little further into my soul.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Creative Commons Photo by Guldfisken http://www.flickr.com/photos/guldfisken/398144161/

Friday Book Chats: Searching for Sunday Book Review

searching for sundayI had been eagerly waiting for Rachel Held Evans’ new book Searching for Sunday to hit the shelves ever since I heard that it was in the works. While I’m only an occasional reader of her blog, which is more issue-focused and, frankly, sometimes too abrasive for me read consistently, I was deeply impacted by her first book Faith Unraveled, which told the story of her transition from an utterly confident (sometimes judgmental) completely sure-of-her-own-rightness Christian to one who wanted to wrestle with hard questions rather than write them off. So many of her stories and experiences and reflections were uncannily similar to my own and that book was like water in the desert to my soul.

When I learned that her new book would be specifically about her loving, leaving, and finding church again, I couldn’t wait to read it. All I can say is that it was even better than I was expecting it to be. Once again, I felt like I was reading my own diary at so many moments. To the point that if someone wanted to know where I’m at with the church, I would probably just hand them this book and say, “She says it better than I could.”

For the past few years I’ve struggled with church. And even as I’ve tried to remind myself that church isn’t primarily about what I can get out of it and that not all churches are the same, I’ve felt an increased disinterest in participating in the church. This has become more of a concern recently as we prepare to move back to the US, a move which will necessitate our finding a new church. I’ve found myself reluctant to even try. By the time I finished this book, I felt understood, even validated. But I also felt hope.

In the introduction, Evans’ pinpoints the reasons for the dissatisfaction that so many of our generation are feeling with the church:

“We don’t want to choose between science and religion or between our intellectual integrity and our faith. Instead, we long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. We want to talk about the tough stuff – biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, sexuality, racial reconciliation, and social justice – but without predetermined conclusions or simplistic answers. We want to bring our whole selves through the church doors, without leaving our hearts and minds behind, without wearing a mask….

We can’t be won back with hipper worship bands, fancy coffee shops, or pastors who wear skinny jeans. We Millennials have been advertised to our entire lives, so we can smell b.s. from a mile away. The church is the last place we want to be sold another product, the last place we want to be entertained.

Millenials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity. We are looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity. Like every generation before ours and every generation after, we’re looking for Jesus –the same Jesus who can be found in the strange places he’s always been found: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these.”

The rest of the book is structured around the seven sacraments – Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Communion, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage – but if that sounds dull and dry, don’t be fooled. This isn’t a book of theology. This is a very vulnerable and personal story masterfully woven together with the story of the church and with some breathtaking theological truths. Take for example this profound reminder that

“…what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out, but who it lets in….

Grace got out of hand the moment the God of the universe hung on a Roman cross with outstretched hands looked out upon those who had hung him there and declared ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’

Grace has been out of hand for more than two thousand years now. We best get used to it.”

Evans writes about stepping away from the church for a while as she wrestled with questions that no one seemed to want to discuss and becoming critical and cynical about the body as a whole. I saw myself in this, the way I began to feel when I went to my parents’ church or my in-laws’, or visited a new church with my husband.

“I expected the worst and smirked when I found it. So many of our sins begin with fear—fear of disappointment, fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of death, fear of obscurity. Cynicism may seem a mild transgression, but it is a patient predator that suffocates hope…”

For years I found myself growing more and more cynical about the church to the point that it was sometimes a struggle for me to admit that it could ever do any good at all, and this cynicism made it very difficult for me to accept that God is still using the church today. That, as Evans’ says,

“Church is a moment in tie when the kingdom of God draws near, when a meal, a story, a song , an apology, and even a failure is made holy by the presence of Jesus among us and within us.”

I can’t claim that I agreed 100% with every single word and idea in this book, but that really doesn’t matter to me because I agreed wholeheartedly with the spirit of this book which was like an empathetic companion in my grief, an understanding friend, and sustenance for my sometimes starving faith.

To me, the most beautiful thing about this book is that while it fully acknowledges the many problems with the church, particularly the evangelical church, it also leaves the reader with hope that maybe church can still be worth it. Maybe there is still value in this broken body. Maybe there is something so essential about the church that it’s worth investing in, in spite of all her failures.

Evans concludes, “God surprises us by showing up in ordinary things: in bread, in wine, in water, in words, in sickness, in healing, in death, in a manger of hay, in a mother’s womb, in an empty tomb. Church isn’t some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, Pay attention, this is holy ground; God is here. Even here, in the dark, God is busy making all things new.” 

Once after attending a service at my in-laws (genuinely lovely) church I turned to my husband and said, “I just can’t do it. If that’s what it has to look like for me to be a Christian, then I don’t want to be one. I don’t fit with the floral clad church ladies making small talk, I’m not moved by the choir, and I refuse to laugh at jokes that aren’t funny just because the pastor said them. I’m sorry, but I can’t ever do church like this.”

But this church that Evans writes about, this is a church I just might want to be a part of.

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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.

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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 

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Extremely Quiet and Incredibly Remote: An Uneventful Climb Towards Mid-Twenties Virginity

Today’s Sex and the Church post comes from my newly-wedded friend Meredith. Mere and I went to Wheaton together. We were both on staff for the newspaper and took some of the same writing classes. It wasn’t until after Wheaton that I realized just how wildly talented she is. Meredith’s writing is witty, insightful, genuine, and often pee-your-pants funny. I’m so excited to add her voice to this series. I love this piece SO MUCH partly because I can relate to it so well, but also because it’s another story no one ever tells. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.  For more from Meredith, be sure to check out her blog, Very Revealing  and follow her on Twitter @MeredithBazzoli.

You can check out previous posts in this series here, here, here, and here.

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Alex D Stewart on FlickrThe CTA brown line became my converse confessional booth. Sometimes a truth wells up to the tip of my tongue and I know that in the next hour or so, I will unleash it on the innocent person sitting next to me. In this case, it was my friend Ann.

Taken out of the warm lap of evangelicalism, my pearl of great price got turned on its head. In the past, friends disclosed illicit missteps to youth pastors and close circles of friends; as an adult, I found that within my new communities I had the dirty secret.

My sin? Unlike my friends who “fell off the path” and let boys’ hands wander too far up their shirts, I carried the sin of inexperience, omission, naïveté.

My confession:

  1. To those who thought me an experienced woman of the world, I want you to know that I lost my virginity just over a month ago. And not even on my wedding night; we watched “Too Cute: Pint Sized Edition” on Animal Planet.
  1. To those of you think I completed a task of great personal will power and moral strength, I must confess that, most of my life, remaining celibate was out of my hands. It would have been much harder to abstain from gluten, dairy, or television than saving sex for marriage.

I want to talk about virginity not as prize accomplished or a misguided evangelical pursuit, but as a mundane reality, not only for those who signed pledges and sealed themselves with purity rings, but also those who just ended up that way.

I grew up in an evangelical household during the “True Love Waits” movement. No one ever presented word-for-word biblical evidence to keep my legs closed, but sex sounded scary and magical—saving myself sounded romantic.

purity ringMy parents gave me a ring on my 13th birthday. They ordered it from a Christian book distributor, and it quickly bent to the shape of my ring finger. I penned a diary to my future husband and listened to love songs from musicals before bedtime. When no teenage boys knocked down my door to have their way with me, “waiting” and “saving myself” occupied my thoughts and satisfied the unease of loneliness.

My middle school and high school years passed with little to no romantic activity, let alone sexual activity. At times I wondered if a Rumplestiltskin-esque character made a bargain with my parents to keep suitors away from my “gift” until the correct prince came to unshackle me from my obscurity and to claim his prize, a girl who mentors mused might just be “too intimidating for boys.”

Mostly, I suspected that I was an ugly, kurmugeony thing, too furry and sweaty to land myself a boyfriend, or even a date to a school event.

The summer before college, I began my first long-term relationship with a boy from my church youth group. We were longtime friends taking baby steps out of the friend zone.

Each physical mile-marker scared me, not as gateway drugs into sexual immorality but as feats of physics—two inexperienced bodies fumbling towards one another, learning to interlace fingers and willing lips to meet.

We were young and I remained pure from sheer inertia. We had few opportunities to push the envelope of our purity since I lived in a dorm room at a Christian college, and he lived with his parents. I figured that we would get married, and as we discussed timelines and dates, waiting seemed manageable.

During this time, I made my decision to remain a virgin, in part, due to my anxiety and fear. With little boy experience since an “I’ll show you mine-you show me yours” encounter with the backdoor neighbor, nakedness terrified me.

I loathed my swirling patches of body hair and the way my thighs brushed together; I worried my nipples weren’t the right size. I wore an ultra-modest, Lands-End bathing suit made for moms wanting to hide their baby bodies, complete with a mid-thigh length skirt and a control top.

I held on to my virginity long enough for my heart to get broken. The man I thought I wanted to marry walked away.

I imagined him having illicit romps with other girls, betraying what felt like our shared vow to stay virgins. He zoomed away with little explanation, and I suffocated in the dust, sure I’d missed my one chance at marriage and sex.

Shortly the break up, I got my first gynecological exam. I dutifully answered the nurse’s questions about my sexual activity:

No, I’m not sexually active.

Yes, I’m sure.

Zero sexual partners.

Is there an option for less than one time?

Yes, I’m sure.

No, there is no possibility that I could be pregnant barring being raped in my sleep or receiving the second messiah.

No, I’m not a Mormon.

In my twenties, the prospects remained equally bleak. This time around I was in the places where people meet people, bars and theatres and the parties of mutual friends.

No takers.

No one ever tried to bed me.

The closest I got was someone else thinking I was going to hook up with someone. One night at a bar, a male colleague started to interrogate me about my faith, picking obscure Old Testament passages to trap me into making broad admissions about my beliefs. As we talked about the Philistines, our friends continued to drink, and soon decided that we, being engrossed in conversation, were in the process of hooking up. Across the way I heard my friend utter, “I think he’s going to bang her.”

Um no, absolutely not.

One, Two, skip a few more eventless years…

And then, Drew.

T and C Photographie

We re-met in July of last year, we started dating last August, and we got married this September. Sexual purity was low on the list of reasons to marry sooner rather than later. However the ability to cohabitate did definitely weigh in. Mostly, we clicked, in the sort of nauseating cosmic way. We knew we wanted to spend all of life together, and we wanted to start soon.

At the end of the day, we had both committed to remain celibate until marriage. For good, bad, and negligible reasons, we came to our relationship as 25-year-old virgins, equally rejected by all possible dating scenes and goofy in love with each other.

Although the fire of our early relationship made me question whether I’d keep my teenage pledge, things got dark fast. And then darker still. My mental illness, my mother’s cancer, and the injury and trauma caused by a dog attack left us weak, and not much in the mood for hanky panky. On top of that, I spent the majority of our relationship on anti-depressants that entirely muted my sex drive.

We didn’t go without talking about these things, shutting away the physical and embodied parts of our relationship to rattle on the fringes of our consciousness. Our attraction for each other felt profound. I knew Drew desired me and I him, but we saw our sexual relationship as a journey, one we wanted to continue into our seventies; the choices we made day to day didn’t hold pressure or urgency. Many days, I just needed Drew to hold me. This intimacy cut through layers and layers of me, leaving me much more naked then I knew I could be, far past my furry belly button and possibly unattractive nipples.

I don’t want to totally underplay my commitment to stay a virgin. There are few things I’ve stuck with since the 7th grade. Since that time, I’ve fallen off the wagon on tens of diets and wellness plans, discarded a beginning of the school year ritual*, and changed my opinion on many vegetables. (*It involved candles.)

I made choices about my sexuality and took agency at pivotal moments in my life, sometimes for reason of virtue but often out of fear or inaction. Virginity happened for me, it worked out in my case. And I’m grateful. I could find no greater partner to navigate the hilarious, scary, wonderful adventure of bodies becoming one.

If there is any challenge in this piece, I’d ask people to revisit and expand their idea of virgins. I know some virgins my age, some younger, and even a few forty-year-old virgins.

Some make hard choices all the time, while others remain unwilling virgins forced by circumstance over any religious commitment. All our stories are different and very few involve pioneer dresses, homeschooler braids, or being Mormon. Well, I did wear a pioneer costume as a docent in a museum, but that’s another essay.

The brown line neared my stop, creating a timeline for the secret burning behind my lips. Ann may have been mid-sentence, or maybe she was silent, I was only listening to the anxiety cyclone twirling its way through my nervous system and back again.

“I’m a virgin!” I blurted out.

“Yeah, I know.”

***

Dith Bazolli small for web-33-2Meredith Bazzoli is a comedian and writer  living just outside Chicago. She spends her days as an instructional assistant on the west side of Chicago and her nights practicing and performing improv. She loves hosting and DIY projects and her tall, dark, and handsome husband Drew. Meredith loves hearing and recording other’s stories, finding glimmers in the mundane, and seeking what it means to love and follow Christ in the everyday.

Image Credits: L -Train by Alex D Stewart on Flickr, Drew and Meredith by T and C Photographie

Beautiful and Dangerous: Towards a Better Way to Talk about Sex

JonathanHere it is, the moment you’ve all been waiting for! It’s the Hubby-Tells-All edition of my Sex and the Church series. Ok, not really. It’s more of the Hubby-Contributes-Some-Wise-and-Poignant-Thoughts-to-the-Conversation edition. But that’s way too long for a headline.

I am so honored to share this post from my wonderful husband. Jonathan is one of the wisest and most thoughtful people I’ve ever known. He has a way of cutting straight to the core of things.   He is also a wildly talented fiction writer and  the rocker of one sexy beard.

If you’ve missed any of the last three parts of this series, you can find them here, here,  here, here and here.

*****

“The first two facts which a healthy boy or girl feels about sex are these: first that it is beautiful and then that it is dangerous.”

G.K. Chesterton

Though Chesterton’s work often feels shockingly relevant to the present (considering he wrote almost a hundred years ago), this particular quote is one that, to me, doesn’t seem especially descriptive of us anymore, neither inside nor outside the church. A lot people might be down with the idea of sex as beautiful but don’t want to call it dangerous (not wishing to provoke judgment, guilt, or shame), while many on the flip side insist on the danger while rarely, if ever, articulating the beauty. And a wide swath in the middle seem to feel sex is as commonplace and ordinary as eating, drinking, and digesting – acts which at their core are not especially beautiful or dangerous. Yet I quite like the Chesterton quote and think it has something useful to say to us, if nothing else as an aspiration (which was maybe the point all along), so when Lily asked me to contribute to this series, my mind went here.

A lot of public debates we have in the church, by my feeble observation, force people into false binaries, requiring them to choose between a hardline A or B to the exclusion of any nuance. Maybe we’re taking a cue from most debates in the media and wider culture, or maybe debates just by their very nature split people into camps and make them fight (A: They do. B: They don’t. Debate amongst yourselves.). This isn’t to say that debate can’t occasionally be healthy, or that sometimes there aren’t situations where one side is simply wrong, or a million other things. I just mean that a lot of the time when we talk about sex in the church we seem to be asking something like, “Is sex beautiful or is it dangerous?” and I think maybe: Why not both?

Which again isn’t meant to discourage distinction, nor is it an especially easy way to dialogue. But I wonder if it shouldn’t be our goal. After all, isn’t it a sign of mature thinking to be able hold two ideas in your head without getting them confused or smushing them together? Shouldn’t this be our aim?

In this case I’d suggest that, within the Christian framework, sex is at the very least both beautiful and dangerous. Of the two it’s much easier to accept the idea of sex as beautiful, but I wonder if even in the church we sometimes lose sight of what that really means. It might seem beautiful merely because of the powerful feelings it engenders, but for Christians I think the beauty comes not from physical pleasure alone (though it’s nice, of course), but from the emotional and spiritual connection it brings with someone else, a kind of connection you can share in marriage that remains wholly unique, exclusively with you and your spouse, separate from everyone for all time. That is, I would argue, beautiful.

But for much of the same reason, it’s also dangerous. Dangerous not because sex outside of marriage is an unforgivable sin (which of course isn’t true) or even from something more immediate like the risk of unwanted pregnancy (which is unpersuasive, though does happen to be real), but dangerous because of the same emotional and spiritual forces that make it beautiful. Sex is dangerous because it’s powerful. It can ruin relationships with the ones you love, entangle you with those you don’t, and quite literally bring new people into your life. It has a fiercely potent draw on our attentions and motivations. It affects us at our core (as so much of the rest of this larger blog conversation has already testified). It can expose the things we hide. It can pull us closer to God or push us further from him.

The extreme positions in many popular Christian conversations about sex seem very interested in pushing us to one side or the other. Sex is either beautiful and should be celebrated in all forms, or it’s dangerous and should be treated with extreme caution. I think the solution is that it’s both, provided we’re willing to talk about what we mean by “beautiful” and “dangerous.”

I’m not pretending to break new ground here, and of course I say this not as any kind of expert (“sexpert”), but merely as someone else trying to reflect on sex and the church and where the dialogue might go from here. I hope we can continue to be open and thoughtful and gracious with each other, growing in our understanding without devolving into oversimplified camps, drawing closer to God day by day.

That, at the very least, should be our goal.

                                                                                                                                     

Jonathan lives in Daegu, South Korea, where he teaches and writes and enjoys being married to the most wonderful woman of all. You can follow him on twitter @jonvdunn