Last week I got to deliver a sermon at my church. A few things you’ll need to know in order to understand some of the things I talk about.
For about seven years now, my church has been trying to move into a new home. I don’t want to get into all the details of the numerous hopes, struggles, dreams, fears, and disappointments that have plagued this project, but I will say that it’s been pretty brutal.
In these past few months, it looks as if we’re finally at a place where we can actually move forward on this project. We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’re closer than we’ve ever been.
Texts for Sunday, April 7th:
John 20:19-31 (Story of Doubting Thomas)
I heard a story recently on NPR about the tempo of Beethoven’s music. The way the story goes, late in his career, a device gets invented called the metronome. This is something that keeps tempo by ticking out a precise number of beats per minute. For example, a setting of 120 would be two beats every second.
Initially, Beethoven resisted the use of the metronome, but after a while, he realized that through this device, he could ensure that for the rest of time, long after his death, that his musical pieces could be played, not just with the correct notes, but also at the correct speed. And so he took the time to go back to his previous scores and document the precise tempo at which he wanted his works to be performed.
Now here’s where things start to get interesting.
It turns out, that today, nobody ever performs his symphonies at the tempo he marked. Why? Because they’re insanely, some might say comically, fast.
Here’s an edited clip from the story:
As you can hear, sometimes Beethoven’s tempo is so fast that a performing the piece as marked presses up against the technical limits of even the best players in the world. Beethoven scholars and musicologists have puzzled over these tempo markings, trying to explain why they’re so fast. The most obvious explanation is that maybe the metronome that he was using was broken or maybe it had different markings than the ones we use today.
But here’s the crazy thing.
Someone actually found the very metronome (the exact one!) that Beethoven used and it works fine. 100 on Beethoven’s metronome is 100 on a modern metronome.
And there are other theories out there, some plausible, some highly speculative, but the fact is, we may never know what to make of Beethoven’s tempo markings – maybe all the recorded and performed works of his have been (and always will be) played slower than he intended.
This is actually rather odd, because the classical world can be one where attention to detail is prized. And you would think that correct tempo would be a pretty important detail to attend to. But no conductor ever follows them. In addition, not a single classical music critic ever complains about that fact, which is even more surprising because they usually complain about everything.
And I think there is something telling here. Somehow, even these sticklers for accuracy and authenticity understand that at the end of the day, beauty must prevail.
Now what about the text we have before us?
Here, we have, not musical notation, but narrative. And if there’s one thing that modern narrative has that this ancient writer did not include as much of, it’s the emotional tone of the story. And so just as we’ll never know precisely what Beethoven had in mind with his symphonies and their frenetic tempo markings, we may never know precisely what sort of emotional tone we should ascribe to Thomas and to Jesus here.
Of course, the history of interpretation and even translation has not been kind to Thomas.
But let’s take a look at Thomas, for a moment. What’s his tone? How did he sound when he said, “unless I see the marks in his hand and in his side, I won’t believe.”
Well, what just happened? Jesus showed up to the disciples and Thomas wasn’t there. He shows up later and they tell him, “We have seen the Lord!” And the text moves from there, directly into Thomas’ statement of disbelief.
But things couldn’t have gone that fast.
One of my professors likes to talk about how we are always at war with hope. And when he talks about this war with hope, he’s not talking about, “oh I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow,” or “I hope the Mariners win this year.” He’s talking about “I hope the chemo treatments will work again; I hope he can stay clean and sober; I hope she can carry the baby to term this time.”
These are big, unwieldy, slippery hopes. We wage war with these hopes because these are hopes that fight back. On the one hand, we so desperately want to cling to the tiniest thread of hope that things will turn out well. But on the other hand, we want to shield ourselves from the possibility of deep disappointment and so we push it away.
And here we have Thomas, mourning his beloved, dead rabbi. I wonder if that’s why he wasn’t there with the others – maybe he wanted to be alone with his grief for a while. And then he meets up with the other disciples and they’re going on and on about this crazy story of Jesus alive.
I picture Thomas in that moment, at war with hope – a tiny piece of him wanting desperately to believe that what his friends are telling him is true, but the disbelief… How could he bring himself to believe something so utterly impossibly good?
“No. That’s too good to be true. It can’t be. No, stop it! Unless I see the wounds, I won’t believe. I just can’t!”
And then a whole week goes by.
I’ll bet it really sucked to be Thomas that week. I bet it sucked to be around Thomas that week. I wouldn’t be surprised if by the time the next Sunday rolled around that Thomas got some of the other disciples wondering if they had actually seen what they had seen.
Findlay Family, we know what weeks like this are like, individually and corporately. In the course of our building projects, we’ve lived through years of these dark, despairing weeks. We know this war with hope. We know what it is to watch a beautiful dream wither away – even more, a dream that we thought God had called us to dream. And yet it was not to be.
How and where do we find God again in moments like that?
Can I admit that when we started the process of redesigning the building, that I found it difficult to hold hope? And even now, as previously insurmountable barriers have been falling and continue to fall, as the path towards completion grows brighter and clearer week by week – I still reserve a part of myself out of fear of disappointment.
But I need stories like Thomas’ to remind me that another Sunday does come. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Jesus came back just for Thomas. And what’s the first thing Jesus says to him? “Peace. Be at peace, Thomas. It really is me. See (gesturing to the holes in his hand)? See (to the wound in his side)? Thomas, your awful war with hope is over. You really can believe.”
And Thomas responds in utter awe, “My Lord and my God.”
What tone do we hear when we hear and read the words of Jesus?
There are no tempo markings, we have to somehow decide how to stage this performance. And in our choices, I hope we always err on the side of beauty, of gospel, of relentless, redemptive love.
And speaking of choices, in the next year or so, there will be many choices that will have to be made here at Findlay Street Christian Church.
See, there’s another sort of rebuilding and redesign that’s in the works, because the church isn’t the building. We (gesturing towards the congregation) are the church and if we are to be faithful witnesses of what God is on about in the world, if we want to move into this new neighborhood and integrate and invest ourselves into their community, then our community will change.
And there are some of us who are longing for change. And there are some of us who are unsure. And there are some who don’t like change or who won’t like the changes after they happen.
Next Sunday, we get to talk about a pretty significant change – our new name.
And our name is more than just the sign that we’ll hang above the door. It’ll be a large part of our identity – it’s how the neighbors will refer to us. It’ll be our calling card.
In the passage from Acts that Jo read earlier, the apostles and other followers of Christ had just been freed from jail. And they had been jailed by the religious leaders of the day for preaching the resurrection of Christ – a message of life and forgiveness, a message that claims that a new world is possible, that peace and reconciliation can be the new norm.
I trust that we’ll be received into the Beacon Hill neighborhood better than Peter and the apostles were, but like them, we are called to be witnesses, to be an example of how the Holy Spirit moving in our lives, in our congregation, in the neighborhood, and in the world.
These are challenging, exciting, yes, even hopeful times for our church. And it feels good, doesn’t it? I don’t know about you, but in these past few months, I’ve sensed a new sort of levity in the air on Sundays, a new sort of anticipation. The tone is shifting and the tempo is picking up.
Church, we have waited with Thomas long enough. Let us rejoice as we see dawn breaking in on this new, beautiful Sunday.
So, um… That’s a message of good news for the church and for all who know and live in resurrection. I had initially ended my sermon there, but there’s one more thing I’d like to address.
The season of Easter is a lovely time of resurrection and new life, and thanks be to God for that.
But there are some out there (and can I admit that I include myself in this group), there are some who are still in that long, lonely week of waiting with Thomas, waiting with some sort of long unrequited prayer. There are some who are still waging the long, cold war with hope. And like Thomas among the other rejoicing apostles, we watch those around us, those who have seen resurrection in their lives, celebrate.
And we wonder when or if our turn will ever come.
Again, can you imagine that week with Thomas? Can you hear the other disciples telling him, “hey, cheer up – Jesus will probably stop by again on Monday.” And maybe Thomas allows himself that little bit of hope. And then Monday comes and goes. And then Tuesday. And then Wednesday…
For those of us who are still waiting, who knows what part of the week we’re in. Maybe Sunday is just around the corner. Or maybe it’s still early Tuesday morning. And during that week, Thomas didn’t know – even the other disciples couldn’t have known – that Jesus would appear to them again.
In the second half of verse 29, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And while the focus there is on belief, the idea of waiting is there just beneath the surface. The writer, John, probably included that phrase because the early church would also have been waiting and wondering – “will Jesus return again? How long will we have to wait?” And we the church are still waiting with them.
But look again. What does Jesus say to those in wait? He says that we are blessed.
And yeah, it’s often hard to feel blessed, especially during extended periods of waiting, but if I can pull in Matthew’s Gospel here, Jesus has this to say about blessings:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Waiting for resurrection sucks. But we don’t wait alone. The kingdom of heaven waits with us and tells us that we will be comforted.
And I’ll end this time with these lyrics from a song by Sinead O’Connor:
All the pain that you have known
All the violence in your soul
All the “wrong” things you have done
I will take from you when I come
All mistakes made in distress
All of your unhappiness
I will take away with my kiss
I will give you tenderness
For child I am so glad I found you
Although my arms have always been around you
Sweet bird although you did not see me
I saw you
(audio credit: The Opiate Mass)
At The Seattle School, the MDiv program culminates in what they call the Integrative Project. It’s an opportunity for students to synthesize what they’ve been learning into a topic of their choosing – something related to what they hope to do with their degree after graduation.
I’ve chosen to talk about sex. Well, more specifically, singleness and sexuality in the church.
I’ll post up a lot more of what I’ve been working on after things are critiqued, edited, and finalized, but I am really excited about the direction this thing is taking and I wanted to offer up a teaser.
As always, thoughts, questions, rants and raves encouraged and appreciated.
For two years now, I’ve been working on a series of posts about how really poor church teachings in the area of singleness, sexuality, and dating have brought me to a place in life where I just turned 41 and I’m still a virgin who’s never been in a serious romantic relationship. Ever. And to be frank, it’s been a really awful ride.
Over these past two years I’ve been studying the issues surrounding the church’s teachings on singleness and sexuality, I’ve done a ton of writing on my blog about what I’ve been learning – both what I’ve been learning about my own story and about how the church can do better. On this second bit, I have to say that it hasn’t been easy. I’ve tried and jettisoned a number of proposals as friends have questioned and commented on them.
And now I’m finally at a place where I think I have something workable – a more helpful way of thinking and talking about singlenes and sexuality in the church that encourages healthy relationships – and here I mean intra-personal relationships (a healthy relationship within one’s self), interpersonal relationships (healthy relationships with others, more specifically, romantic interests), and our relationship with God.
But first I want to clarify a few things.
These posts are meant primarily for post-high school, non-married adults in the Christian church who are wanting to know more about how to navigate their sexuality and their dating life. Now I like to think that what I’m proposing will work with any couples, whether they align themselves with the Christian faith or not, but I will be speaking from and to a Christian framework. That is to say, I will be writing with the assumption that my audience shares in the belief that, to some degree or another, the Bible is the revealed word of God and serves as a kind of centering document in the life of the church.
Preliminary Terms and Definitions
Here I mean any unmarried person who may or may not be involved in a romantic relationship. Simple as that.
Sex is a biologically-based need which is oriented not only toward procreation but, indeed, toward pleasure and tension release. It aims at genital activity culminating in orgasm.1
Sexuality… is a much more comprehensive term associated with more diffuse and symbolic meanings, psychological and cultural orientations. While it includes sex and relates to biological organ systems, sexuality goes beyond this… Sexuality is our self-understanding and way of being in the world as male and female… It involves our affectional orientation toward those of the opposite and/or the same sex.2
In other words, our sexuality is a much larger category than sex. It includes the sex act, but it also contains things like the way we think and feel about sex. It includes how and why we act (or choose not to act) on our sexual desires and whether we embrace them or shame and repress them. It also has to do with an awareness of how the culture we live and grow up in shapes how we think, feel, and act on our sexuality.
This way of talking about singleness and sexuality goes under different names – the purity movement is a common one, abstinence-only education is another. Basically it is a way of talking about sexuality that focuses primarily on not having sex until one is married. A common idea in this culture is that all sexual thoughts, feelings, and desires are wrong and/or damaging outside the context of marriage. Because of this, some of these programs go as far as counseling people not to date at all until they have found someone they intend to marry.
(I’ll have a lot more to say about purity culture in a future post.)
Goals and Method
My goal is to outline a new framework for thinking about singleness and sexuality in the church. Much of the popular Christian literature around the topic of singleness and dating are highly problematic and while there are books that I’ve found to be tremendously helpful in laying out healthier, more life-affirming ways for singles to steward their sexuality, they tend to be written for a more academic audience. My hope is to take these academic works and restate their ideas in ways that are more accessible, relatable, and applicable.
I hope to accomplished this through a series of six posts, each no longer than 1,500 words.
Although I will be referencing a number of difference texts, most of my work centers around these three books:
The term “best practices” refers to a series of guidelines that, when followed, tend to lead to successful outcomes.
For example, in the computing world there can be a number of different ways to write a segment of computer code that will produce the same results. Think about this blog post that you’re reading right now. Underlying everything you see and read here are invisible lines of code that tell your computer browser where to put the text and the images, how to set up the columns that divide different parts of the page, and what color everything should be. Now there are lots of different ways to write those lines of code, but here’s the thing. Those lines of code should create web pages that look the same regardless of whether you’re using Chrome or Firefox or Safari on a Mac or a PC. In order to make sure web pages look the same across these different platforms, web designers work under a set of best practices that tend to bring about that consistency.
But here’s the thing.
An inexperienced web designer may write sloppy code that leads to a webpage that looks fine across different platforms. And sometimes even the most seasoned coder, operating well within best practices, will wind up with pages that don’t work as planned.
All that to say, what I propose to do with this series of blog posts is to offer some best practices when it comes to navigating singleness and sexuality in the church. Following these practices will not necessarily guarantee success and not following them does not necessarily mean that your relationships will end in failure. People are unique. Couples are unique. Because of that, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to dating. Learning how to steward one’s sexuality in relation to/with another’s is something that takes practice.
One Last Thing
There are a lot of books about singleness, sexuality, and dating in the church. They generally tend to fall into two categories.
I am unsatisfied with both extremes and am hoping to reframe this conversation in a way that does not lead to a wanton abandonment of all sexual norms on the one hand, nor a strict, life-sucking, shame-inducing, sexual asceticism, on the other.
The problem with abandoning rules altogether is that relationships can become self-seeking and exploitative. The problem with the rules-based approach is that the rules often get in the way of a couple’s relationship with one another. To give you a preview of where I hope to land, I want to replace the culture of purity (and the culture of complete license) with a culture of communication and consent – a culture where couples are committed to caring for themselves and the other (in that order) through open dialogue, a culture where couples are surrounded by a church community that helps people in relationship live into the fullness of what God has for them as well as living up to the boundaries that the couple decide upon together.
1.James B. Nelson, Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburh Publishing House, 1978), 17.
2.Ibid., 17-18. I should state here that while I’ll be speaking primarily from a heterosexual perspective, I believe the principles and practices I outline will be applicable across the Hetero-LGBTQ spectrum. I will not take on the issue of biblical justifications for LGBTQ orientation, but I do operate from the viewpoint that God affirms (and I would even say, celebrates) sexuality in many (though not necessarily all) forms. My hope is that one need not agree with my theological stance to benefit from the practices I will be proposing, but I do want to be open and up front about where I am coming from and what I believe.
3.Clayton L. Sullivan, Rescuing Sex From the Christians (New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006), 87-90.
So a few days ago, I posted this status update on twitter and facebook:
This was quite a monumental shift and an unexpected one at that (even for me).
This big shift was really the result of a number of smaller shifts – shifts that I didn’t even realize were taking place until they spilled out of my mouth in various conversations (paging Dr. Freud).
See, up until I posted that statement on facebook, I had been planning on moving back to Hawaii to do some kind of church something after graduating from grad school and being ordained with the Disciples of Christ. And because I’m graduating and getting ordained this year, I was anticipating being back in Hawaii by late 2013 or early 2014 at the latest. My six year stay in Seattle was coming to a close and that prompted a number of conversations with people who wanted to know what was next for me.
So, in different conversations, as people would ask me about my future plans, I found myself saying things like:
Each of those statements were given weeks apart and every time those words came out of my mouth, they came as a surprise to me. I mean, even as I was speaking them, it sounded as if that had been my plan along. I spoke with calm resolve, but internally I was stunned at what I was saying.
I’m on a flight back to Hawaii to attend the Hawaiian Island Ministries 2013 Conference. As a result of my newfound desire to get back into the dating scene, and upon the recommendation of a friend, I downloaded the book, No More Mr. Nice Guy, by Robert Glover (the book is about dating and it’s not as bad as the title makes it seem). In one of the chapters, Glover talks about how a lot of nice guys never get what they want in relationships because they don’t know what they want in life – they only know how to provide other people with what they want. And I gotta say, I totally resonated with what he was saying. In fact, about two years ago, I put up a post where I recognized that pattern in my own life. I wrote that
…I’ve been living for people. When I was hanging out with someone, I was hanging out for them. I was always thinking about what that person wanted out of the relationship. I kept trying to find ways that I could help this other person or somehow give them what they wanted from me.
So I’m on the plane, reading about the need to recognize and admit what it is that I want in life, and that’s when it hit me.
I don’t want to be a pastor. I want to be a writer.
It was quite an epiphany.
And the irony of the situation wasn’t lost on me. I came to this realization as I’m on a plane back to Hawaii for a conference that I attend in order to prepare myself to plant a church there.
So I made a decision. I decided to use the conference as a kind of discernment retreat. I would sit and listen to the speakers and basically, my approach was this: unless I hear something or make a connection with someone who somehow confirms that I really am supposed to come back to Hawaii as a pastor, I’m going to stay in Seattle for the foreseeable future.
And I listened. And I met and talked with people. And while it was abundantly clear that there is a huge need for a more progressive theological voice in the pulpit in Hawaii – one that could speak to and resonate with the younger, local population – it was also clear to me that I was not the one to bring it.
Well, let me be more specific. If I can speak with uncharacteristic candor about myself, I believe I could have had a successful church. I really enjoy writing sermons and I like delivering them. I’m also good at sitting with people and helping them work through their theological/personal issues. I have a relatively good grasp of media technology and understand how to use these tools to speak to today’s media-savvy culture. Of course none of these things (even in aggregate) guarantee a successful church plant, but I know I would have been able to give it a hell of a good go.
But there’s a huge difference between what someone can do and what someone wants to do.
And here’s what I came to see. If I were to do a church plant, I would be doing it for others – not for myself, and (this is a particularly haunting realization) maybe not even for God.
So what am I going to do?
Well, here I have to be a bit coy. I have a lot of ideas, but I’m not ready to reveal them quite yet. As a teaser, I can say that it’ll be related to a lot of the writing I’ve been doing on my blog and the research I’ve been doing for school. So, yeah, it’s going to likely have something to do with singleness and sexuality in the church. I’m super stoked about the possibilities and I can’t wait to get working on it.
Seattle will be the perfect place to launch it. I’ll have access to various seminary libraries, I’ll be able to stay in contact with faculty to get their input and I’ll be able to audit/sit in on classes. I have lots of techy friends who can help me with the back end stuff, and more importantly, with monetizing my ideas.
And the time is right. The Christian interwebs are abuzz with the topic of singleness and sexuality in the church these days (here are just a few examples) and I can’t wait to throw my own hat into the ring.
I’ve been in a writing frenzy these past few weeks.
That little crying spell did quite a number on me – a lot broke open within me, a lot of really old, hidden longing and discontent and anger.
But in a strangely ironic way, all this outpouring of angst and bile was prompted by an initial glimmer of hope – a hope that I want to remind myself of.
And that’s the topic of this (likely last) installment of the posts about Bob.
A few weeks ago, I posted this tweet:
Honestly, I put it up as kind of a joke. I didn’t actually mean it at the time.
And then I thought about it. And then I realized that it was actually kind of a good idea. And then something really unexpected happened.
The (emotional) shit started to hit the fan.
Again, some backstory is needed here to give you some context.
For just about all of my adult life, I’ve had terrible self esteem issues when it came to dating and relationships. Back in this very early post I described myself as someone who
accepted the thought that for whatever reason, I was chronically unappealing to women. I thought that perhaps because of some genetic defect, instead of releasing come-hither pheromones when attracted to a female, my body released a subtle, toxic go-yonder scent that made it impossible to hold the attention of anyone I was remotely attracted to.
There’s low self esteem, and then there’s self loathing. I used to have a really bad case of the latter. Let me share a brief story to illustrate how deep this loathing went.
Back in 2007, I had just moved to Seattle and was just starting to attend Quest Church. And that’s when I started to notice someone I came to call Quest Girl. She was smart, pretty, funny, fun – in short, she put the rush in crush (LOL). When I joined up with one of the church’s Bible studies, I ended up going to the same one she did (not entirely coincidentally).
Like most Bible studies, after the formal study portion is done, people hang around to mingle and catch up with friends. So a few months after joining this group, during one of these social times, Quest Girl walked across the room to where I was and started small talking. To me.
This was the first real conversation I had with her, so it was all really surfacy, chit chatty conversation. But you know how in small talk there are these pauses where two people normally break off the conversation and move on to talk to other people? There were a bunch of those pauses between Quest Girl and I, but here’s the thing. She didn’t move on. Each time one of these awkward lulls in our talk would crop up, she’d just stand there – sometimes looking at me, sometimes down at the cup in her hand. But she’d stand there until she or I (it was usually her) would find some other politely bland topic to chat about. And then there’d be another pause. And she’d stay standing there. And then we’d talk about something else.
It was painfully obvious (even to someone as utterly clueless when it comes to signs of attraction as I) that she was waiting for me to do something – something like asking her out for dinner or drinks or coffee/tea or walking her out to her car or asking for her number – something, anything!
But I just stood there like a fish, opening and closing my mouth as empty, insipid bubbles floated out.
My problem? On the inside, my brain was melting down. It was a train wreck up there. In addition to the “hurricane of terror screaming at me to bolt for the door” that I talked about in this post, there was something else in play, utterly frying my synapses.
Looking back on that time now, I believe I was suffering from an extreme case of cognitive dissonance – a condition where a brain tries to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time. It’s like this. When you try to hold two magnets together with the same poles facing one another, the poles repel and it’s impossible to get them to touch. The stronger the magnets, the stronger the repellant force. While Quest Girl was standing in front of me, almost pleading for me to ask her out, my brain was struggling to bring together two opposite and opposing ideas:
As hard as it tried, my brain could not hold these two ideas together but it also couldn’t let either of them go. And so in the midst of that struggle, it’s no wonder that it wasn’t able to string together these seven simple words: “would you like to go out sometime?”
Can you see how strong my doubt about my desirability was? It was so powerful that even when this woman that I had been crushing on for weeks was standing right there in front of me, signaling in no uncertain terms that she wanted me to ask her out, I still couldn’t overcome the belief that I was unwanted, unattractive, undesirable.
That, my friends, is what a shit ton of self loathing can do to a man.
That was six years ago. Many things in my life have changed since then. I’ve worked through copious amounts of bad theology and shallow church teaching. Years of counseling have helped me work through a number of unhealthy self-denial patterns and relational issues. But this fear and loathing attached to asking women out goes WAY back – even before the church heaped guilt and shame on top of things. I’ve simply had really shitty luck when it comes to women, a trend going all the way back to high school. (In particular, one short-lived relationship that turned out especially awful early in college left me acutely cynical about me and my self worth.)
The law of averages have not been kind to me when it comes to dating.
And so, to return to the tweet that I started this post with – “This year for lent, I’m going to give up singleness.”
That tweet was a direct result of finishing a post where I was able to identify why it was that in the past few years, I was always abandoning relationships with women just as the relationship was getting good. That was quite a breakthrough for me and I was eager to get myself back out into the dating world to see if I could do different. I started to ask women out (yeah, plural). So I sent out the tweet in a kind of triumphal, celebratory pronouncement of my newfound dating bravado.
And then all those old fears and feelings of self-loathing started to creep up again. I found myself thinking very old, very cynical thoughts – thoughts like,
“yeah, maybe she said she’ll go out with you but that’s just a sympathy date. She’s gonna dump your fat, ugly, repugnant ass the first chance she gets. I mean, why the hell would anyone want to have a relationship with you? I’m telling you, that was just a sympathy “yes,” not a real one, so get over yourself.”
And if you can’t tell from the context, thoughts like that pop into my head right after getting off the phone with someone who just agreed to go out with me.
It happens that fast.
In the following days and weeks, as doubt and fear about dating again swelled within me like a mushroom cloud, I started sending out tweets like this:
I want to believe, but… (Mark 9:24)
The problem with wrestling with hope is that it doesn’t put up much of a fight, even (maybe especially) when you need it to. #whereimat
But then I started to see Quest pastors tweet things like
Lent is not meant for a 40 day challenge but a changed life. (Pastor Aaron)
When you give up something, replace it with something beautiful. Removing weeds without planting something…only produces more weeds later. (Pastor Eugene)
And then I went to Quest’s Ash Wednesday service where, upon the imposition of ashes, these words were spoken over me: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”
And all of these lenten affirmations made me realize that this season really is an opportunity for me to take this liturgical season and my tweet about giving up singleness with the utmost seriousness. I also realized that it wasn’t necessarily singleness that I was giving up for lent, it was the debilitating cynicism regarding my singleness that I needed to fast from. I could choose to silence (or ignore) the voices trying to convince me that I’m undesirable. I could choose, instead, to believe that I’m awesome – that I’m so money, I don’t even know it.
Pastor Aaron’s tweet reminded me that I could take up a new conception of life and Pastor Eugene’s tweet challenged me to replace my self-loathing with self-belief. And the Ash Wednesday liturgical phrase reminded me that “…it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.“
This isn’t going to be an easy battle. These doubts around dating are old and entrenched. They’re reinforced by awful dating experiences and by bad church teachings. I’m not saying I’m going to emerge from this lenten season with a girlfriend, but I am saying that I am NOT going to let fear get in the way of trying. It’s me versus Clubber Lang and I’ve gotten my ass beat by him before, but that was then and this is the rematch.
Doubt is staring me down, saying, “I’m gonna bust you up.”
And I’m saying, “go for it.”
Who knows what this unexpected, unconventional lenten journey will bring. Worst case scenario, I go out on a bunch of dates with some really great women and none of these encounters blossom into a full blown relationship. In the mean time, I get to practice my swagga and gain some new confidence.
Best case scenario…
Well, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.
(Click here for part 1.)
Someone once asked the painter, Jackson Pollock how he knew when one of his paintings was done. He famously replied, “How do you know when you’re finished making love?”
To use Pollock’s metaphor, I sensed that I wasn’t done making love… to Bob.
And so I bring you…
In my previous post about this thing I called Bob, I was able to (finally) recognize it as “the piece of me that’s been screaming for love – God’s love as well as the love of others (more specifically, the longing for a woman to know and love, and to be known and loved by).”
But I also sensed something new – that in the years between encounters, Bob had also become about something more, something edgier, something much darker.
Luckily, this time around, it didn’t take me four years to understand what this new bit of Bob was about. This time, I knew exactly what this new bit represented.
In the past few years, I’ve written a bunch of posts about how damaging church teachings around sexuality have been in my life. But I think the scope of all that I’ve missed out on in life and love is only really hitting me now. And I’ve missed out on so very much. It makes me deeply remorseful. And it makes me furious.
I wish I could find those teachers and ask them:
Did I do it right? Is this how things were supposed to turn out? I’m turning 41 soon and in all these years, I’ve been unable to sustain a relationship with a woman because of the fear and guilt and shame that you cultivated within me.
But I’m still a virgin so it’s all good right?
And that’s not the only thing I’ve done right. I’ve also never gotten anyone pregnant. I’ve never had an STD. I’ve never “ruined” my “purity” by having sex outside of marriage.
If these are the blessings of chastity that you wanted to instill, congratulations. Mission accomplished. Job well done.
But you wanna know what else I’ve never done? I’ve never held a woman’s hand in mine while walking down the sidewalk. I’ve never felt a woman’s lips pressed upon my own. I don’t know what it’s like to watch a movie with my arm wrapped around the shoulder of the woman next to me. I’ve never slow danced with a woman without being awkward and uptight. I’ve never gone out on more than a handful of dates before having to inexplicably flee from the relationship because of internalized shame.
I’ve. Never. Been. In. Love.
Are you happy now? Is this what you wanted? Are you proud of me? Are you proud of yourself? Did I do it right? Is this how things were supposed to be?
Up in the preface of an earlier post, I wrote, “The statute of limitations on blaming the church for my relational problems has long since expired. In my own mind, I’ve already forgiven those pastors, teachers, and leaders – all of whom had the best intentions in teaching what they did. They were just passing on what they had been taught and what had worked for them.”
Thing is, when I wrote that, I was in analysis mode. I was thinking my way through the issues and questions that were plaguing me. The same was the case for the other posts in the series – I was writing from a clinical, distant place. I was trying to diagnose and describe.
Somehow, in my recent crying fit, all the things I discovered about how toxic the church’s teachings have been in this area of my life moved from my head down into my heart and then out to rest of my body. I felt the weight of all that I had lost, all that my life has missed out on – all of the missed opportunities for warmth, intimacy, and touch; all the beautiful, amazing women I hurt as I left them hanging, just as things were starting to get good; all the love that I never let in; all these potent, vital life experiences that I let slip by. It all hit me, all at once, in a gush of molten, bloody tears.
O, my God, my God. I have forsaken so much. I have wasted so many opportunities to love and be loved. I have sacrificed so much of my life on the altar of a false idol named Purity.
And what have I received in return?
See, all those relationships that I rejected? I didn’t know back then to blame the poor teachings of the church. If anything, those confusing experiences reinforced the idea that maybe the church was right – that relationships are dangerous and harmful and that I should just wait until God drops someone into my life like mana, magically falling from the sky. I didn’t blame the church and so I blamed myself. I would think, “well, that relationship didn’t work out. I must be doing something wrong – that’s what the church would tell me. Or maybe it’s me – maybe I’m just wrong.”
I thought my lack of finding intimate, loving relationship was my fault. I thought either I sucked at relationships or I just plain sucked myself. I felt utterly undesirable. I had no confidence, and that’s unappealing and so in the few times when I worked up the courage to ask someone out, it’s no wonder many of them said no. And then I’d feel even less desirable. Or in the even fewer cases where they said yes, we might go out for a couple dates and then my fear-and-shame trigger would go off and then I’d flee. And when that would happen, I would blame myself. And then again, I’d feel even less desirable than before.
It was a pretty vicious cycle of despair.
“…and the book says we may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us!”
And I’m sorry (actually, I’m not) for this bitter, melancholy post, but this is not the end of Bob. Not yet.
There’s a dim ember of hope flickering deep beneath this near-infinite sadness and regret.
I’ll write more on this hope in a future post but for now, I leave you with these lines from The Smashing Pumpkins.
“On a distant shoreline, she waves her arms to me
As all the thought police, are closing in for sleep”
About four years ago, I wrote a post about something (not someone) I called Bob.
Basically, I was writing about an experience I had at a contemplative church event. I won’t recap the events of the night (you can read about it here), but right near the beginning of the night, I experienced a huge crying fit. This is the kind of crying that comes from the depths, from way down deep in the psyche where the skeletons hide. I didn’t know what had prompted this crying and so I blogged about it and ended up calling this something, Bob.
A few months after that post, I put up another post where I made a rather astute observation.
…but before I can get to that, some backstory is in order.
Something shifted in me back in 2006. Prior to that year, I lived with an intense longing to be in a relationship. I used to complain about it all the time – how lonely I was and how none of the women I approached would go out with me. More than that, up until that time, praying for a girlfriend was the one consistent prayer of my life. But in 2006, something shifted. I don’t know what it was, but just like that, all that old longing for relationship was gone.
And so back in that other post, I made these speculative observations about what I thought Bob might be:
- …it’s taken me a long time to realize this but… and this is really hard for me to admit and write here… I wonder if I’ve lost my desire for and ability to love. And I don’t just mean love in the context of romantic relationships. I mean love in all contexts. And I know that sounds like hyperbole, like I’m being overly dramatic for the sake of making my blog worth reading but in this case, I mean it just as I’m writing it. I don’t think I give or receive love very well, if at all.
- I think that Bob is the part of me that still wants to love and be loved.
- I wonder if, after all those years of being an unhappy single person longing for love, some subconscious part of me got tired of being lonely and frustrated and so it just amputated that part of me – lopped it off and buried it away somewhere. And maybe it thought that was that. And I didn’t think all that much about it because I was more than happy to be rid of all that old longing. But maybe it wasn’t just the romantic love part of me that got put away. Maybe love can’t be so neatly dissected. Maybe all (or most) of my ability to know/give/receive love got buried as well.
That was four years ago. I had just started grad school and I hadn’t started seeing a counselor yet. I’ve changed and learned so much since then, but all these years later, I’m only now realizing how on the money I was in that post.
See, here’s the thing.
I had another run in with Bob a few days ago – my first since that time four years ago. Out of nowhere I found myself in the midst of another random, primal, cathartic crying session. Bob was back, but things were different this time. This time I knew exactly what Bob was. Turns out, I was spot on when I wrote, “I think that Bob is the part of me that still wants to love and be loved.”
In the past two years, many of my posts have focused on two topics: the problems with the way the church today deals with sexuality and my evolving thoughts about God. I thought the two topics were separate but it turns out, they’re far more related than I ever could have guessed. And I never imagined they had anything to do with Bob, but they did. Turns out, they were all about unmasking Bob.
The posts about sexuality helped me to see how really bad church teachings around singleness led me to a life that feared intimacy – so much so that I self-sabotaged all of my dating relationships well before they could become anything significant, well before love entered the picture. The posts about God led me to a theology premised on the idea that the simplest and most profound way to talk about God is to say that God is love – that God (in all of God’s mystery, elusiveness, and transcendence) is primarily known and experienced through the love that we experience in our lives here on earth.
Do you see what the problem for me is? Taken in reverse order, if God is primarily known through love and if past church teachings have led me to a way of being in the world that has kept me from loving and from being loved, then it’s no wonder that a few weeks ago, I could post a poem like this on my blog:
God is dead, and yet I pray I reach out into the void, without anticipation and my hands come back empty And yet I pray And yet, I pray
Or post a tweet like this
I want to believe, but… (Mark 9:24) #vaguetweet
In short, Bob is the piece of me that’s been screaming for love – God’s love as well as the love of others (more specifically, the longing for a woman to know and love, and to be known and loved by). Whatever happened back in 2006 that relieved me of my yearning for a girlfriend, it somehow severed off, entirely, the part of me that seeks to love and to be loved. In other words, Bob represents my long lost desire for intimate, loving relationship.
But the thing about the desire for relationship is that it’s an integral part of how we humans are wired.1 So when that longing and that desire went away (probably a kind of compartmentalizing, psychic defense mechanism), it’s as if Bob got pushed underwater. Bob was robbed of oxygen and these intense crying fits were like little moments when Bob was able to claw his way to the surface and grab a tiny bit of attention and air – air that his lungs had been burning for, burning since 2006.
So what happens now – now that I finally see what this Bob thing has been about, now that I finally recognize my own need and desire to find love and to be loved?
…and here I apologize but the answer to this will have to wait for the next post.
1In the realm of psychology, attachment theorists tell us that humans only become healthy human beings in the context of relationships. Social scientists say the same as do many philosophers. And certainly, the resurgence of Trinitarian and the wide umbrella of relational theology reveals God as a radically relational God who is known primarily (if not exclusively) in our loving relations to fellow human beings and the rest of creation.
One of the classes I have this semester is called Celtic Spirituality. As a spiritual formation class, it focuses more on the practices of the early Celtic Christians than on their theology, which I’m a little bummed about since their theology is pretty fascinating.
Anyway, this week in class, after talking about the features of Celtic prayer, our instructor asked us to try our hand at writing our own Celtic-style prayer.
I hemmed and hawed for a while and I squirmed in my seat because my prayer life as of late has been pretty sparse. And the difficulty for me in this prayer writing exercise wasn’t about not being able to or not wanting to pray, it was that the prayer I wanted to write seemed wrong, heretical, maybe even unholy. But at the same time, I recognized that for prayer to truly be prayer, it had to be honest and from the heart.
My spirituality isn’t in a very good place right now. I haven’t had a healthy spirituality in a long, long time. But if the Celts are right, then God’s presence can be found anywhere, even in the darkest, deepest, dingiest bog. I’m no expert on Celtic spirituality, but from what I’ve seen so far, their instruction manual for prayer seems to go something like this: be where you are, feel what you feel, say what you want to say, and trust that God will take care of the rest.
And so finally, just before time was up for this exercise, I decided to throw caution to the wind and I wrote this prayer.
For me, the prayer is simultaneously bleak and faintly hopeful, which is a good summary of my spirituality right now.
And I know the “God is dead” phrase is provocative, but for me, it a phrase with tremendous depth. It means far more than what the words seem to say.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.