414. God needs my sexual desire

29527670A few weeks ago at my church, Rev. Dr. Monica Coleman delivered a sermon that touched my heart, blew my mind, and basically rocked my world; so much so that I want to take a break from my latest series of posts to talk about it. But first, some context is in order.

The Loophole

I’ve done a ton of writing about how the hyper-conservative teachings around sex and sexuality really messed me up especially when it came to how I approached dating relationships. But here, I want to go a bit deeper and talk about how those teachings affected my sexuality.

In the most recent post in my latest series, I shared the story of a Christian man who had his penis in his girlfriend’s vagina and yet claimed (through some mental gymnastics) that they had not actually had sex. I used his story to show that the church has a vastly inadequate ideology about what sex is…

But I have to make a confession.

I empathize with that man because for most of my life, I’ve done something very similar. Like him, I was taught a very strict no-sex-before-marriage message, but found a loophole and milked the hell out of it. But unlike him, my loophole didn’t involve any sex. At least not for me.

And here, I want to confess that my loophole was lesbian porn. Let me (try to) explain how that worked.

In the conservative Christian context of my youth, it wasn’t just having sex that was sinful; I was taught that even lustful thoughts were sin (because Matthew 5:27–30). And while it was never stated outright, the assumption was that “lust” referred to thoughts about penis-in-vagina sex. So, horny teenager me, I figured that if I could be aroused by lesbian porn in a voyeuristic sort of way — aroused by watching their pleasuring of one another — then I was not sinning since my penis was not involved in any of their vaginas. That idea led to me watching and fantasizing about lesbian porn almost exclusively.

And no, that supposed workaround doesn’t actually make any sense, but here’s the thing. In his book, Embodiment, James Nelson argues that suppressed sexual desires can become “demonic.”1 And by that he means that suppressed sexual desires take unnatural, life-sapping forms.2

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Photo by keso s

The Consequences

Sexual desires are an intrinsic part of our God-breathed humanity, so denying them is akin to not breathing. A pouty kid may hold his breath in protest but the body’s need for air will eventually win out. Likewise, even with the most steadfast attempts to suppress one’s sexual desires, they will find a way through. And deprived of “natural”3 outlets, they will take warped (or demonic, to use Nelson’s terminology) forms.

As a young adult in an extremely strict conservative Christian context, I suppressed my sexuality so severely that the outlet my desires eventually found (lesbian porn) was completely disconnected from a healthy, embodied sexuality – my own bodily pleasure played no role in my own sexual fantasy life. Likewise, the bodily, relational pleasure of a partner also played no role.

Looking back now, it would have been great if my sexual fantasy life reoriented toward something closer to my cisgender heterosexuality once I stopped believing those overly strict teachings, but arousal patterns (especially ones formed during adolescence) can carve deep grooves in one’s sexual psyche. That, coupled with the fact that I remained single until my early 40’s (meaning my fixation on lesbian porn remained for over two decades) meant that when I eventually started seriously dating someone, the physically intimate aspect of our relationship was strained by my severely mis-oriented sexual fantasy life.

The Sermon – Light, Sweep, Search

Returning to where I started, the sermon I heard a few weeks ago blew my mind because it spoke directly to issues related to my writing. Her sermon was based on Jesus’ parable in Luke 15:8–10 about a woman who loses a coin, lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches to find it.

Dr. Coleman uses this idea of a lost coin to talk about vital, life-things that we need but have lost somehow. And in order to find it again, light is needed in the dark closets of our lives where we may find unexpected, unsavory things. And as we sweep through various compartments of our life, shit will get stirred up. But through a diligent search, the parable suggests that we will find… or be found.

(And I’m glossing over much of the nuance and poetry of her sermon so I encourage you to watch or listen to it for yourself.)


I’ve been writing about relationships and sex(uality) for well over ten years now. And as I listened to Dr. Coleman’s sermon, I realized all the thinking, reading, and writing I’ve been doing was akin to the light/sweep/search journey that the woman with the lost coin was on — a search for something so important it’s worth turning the house upside down to find.

I saw how so much of my writing has been about shining a light on the ways the problematic aspects of purity culture showed up in my life; namely how it taught me to “shield myself from the very person who longs to make my shields unnecessary.”

My writing, has also been about sweeping through the rooms of my life and in the process, kicking up the latent, hidden residue of the purity movement’s teachings. In the sweeping, I literally ugly cried when I found how much it had cost me, “all of the missed opportunities for warmth, intimacy, and touch…”

Lastly, my reading/writing/research has been part of a careful search. My capstone project in grad school was one where I tried to find new ways for the church to talk about relationships, sex, and sexuality. It’s been over five years since I graduated but my latest series of posts are proof that I’ve never stopped working on the topic. I’ve been re-searching, rethinking, and refining my ideas all this time.

It was quite a delight to make the connection between Dr. Coleman’s message and all the writing I’ve been doing. That alone would have made the sermon a huge blessing, but it turns out God had even more in store for me.

A Beautiful Sermon Turn
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Dr. Monica’s sermon makes a beautiful, surprising turn near the end. She points out that because Jesus is using the woman in this parable to personify God and God’s search for those who are lost, there’s another way to read the parable:

God is like a woman who had ten silver coins and lost one.
God is like a woman.
God is like a woman who needs every coin she has. God is like a woman who could not do what she needed to do without that one coin.
God is like a woman who turns on the lights, sweeps up the dirt, and turns her house upside down because she needs you.
God needs you.
She needs you to do what has to be done.
So come celebrate with me that God has found her lost coin.
Come celebrate with me that God is looking for you. Come celebrate with me that God is turning the couch over, throwing the pillows to the side to remind you that she needs you. Come celebrate with me that God is sweeping the house for you.
Come celebrate with me that God needs you.

By the time Dr. Coleman got to this part of the sermon, I knew what the vital thing I had lost was.

Shame is (quite literally) a hell of a thing. It’s slippery and sly.

I thought all these years of reading/thinking/writing at the intersection of church and sex meant that I had overcome all the old sexual shame that had been ingrained in me. But that was only one aspect of my search, one part of the process of reclaiming my long-lost, God-gifted sexual desire.

Thus far, my work has been laying the theological, intellectual framework needed to understand the goodness of my sexual desire. But God used Dr. Coleman’s sermon to show me that it’s now time for this search to shift from thinking about the goodness of my sexual desire to experiencing it, to living it.

Contrary to the purity-based messages I was raised with, I came to see that God was right there with me, down in the dirt and dust, looking for my long lost sexual desire — a desire that, unlike the disembodied/dissociated lesbian porn that purity culture had led me to, was one that is actually aligned with my cisgender heterosexuality.

And so, to reframe the words of Dr. Coleman,

Come celebrate with me that God is looking for [my heterosexual desire]. Come celebrate with me that God is turning the couch over, throwing the pillows to the side to remind [me] that she needs [my sexual desire]. Come celebrate with me that God is sweeping the house for [my sexual desire].
Come celebrate with me that God needs [my sexual desire].

And if purity culture has marred or robbed you of your sexual desire, I hope you can know, can feel that God is right there searching with/for you too.

But I want to be like David
throwing his clothes to the wind
to dance a jig in my skin
and be remade by your cleansing again

I give you myself, It’s all that I have
Broken and frail, I’m clay in your hands
And I’m spinning unconcealed
Dizzy on this wheel
For you, my love

From Dizzy by Sixpence None The Richer


  1. Regarding sexual desire, Nelson writes, “whatever our desires, they do not embarrass us in such a way that we need to push them out of consciousness, for to do that is to make them demonic. Instead, we can recognize them for what they are; we can name them and thus take the compelling power out of them” (emphasis mine). B. Nelson, Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Ausburg Publishing House, 1978), 82.  ↩
  2. And let me be clear here that I’m not saying that lesbian sex is unnatural. What I am saying is that a sisgender heterosexual man exclusively watching lesbian porn as a way to exploit a poorly defined purity ethic is pretty fucking unnatural.  ↩
  3. By which I mean desires that are aligned with one’s sexuality.  ↩
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398. tell me about pleasure – the sock puppet

[PREFACE]

A few years ago, I wrote a series of posts that I titled, “tell me about love,” where I tried to think through what exactly this thing called “love” actually is. However, the more I’ve come to learn about love, the more I realize that love is this huge complex, amalgam that’s made up of all sorts of component parts. And in a way, for me to write a series of posts called “tell me about love…”

I vastly underestimated the task of what I was asking.

The analogy might be like me saying, “tell me about heart surgery” when I don’t know the basics of human anatomy.

I knew what I was asking when I asked about love, but what I didn’t realize was how many of the fundamentals I was missing in even asking the question. I was, in a way, asking a question that was much more advanced than I was ready to answer. And so what I want to do is to take it a bit slower, to try and breakdown love as I have come to understand it, into more of its component parts and deal with or investigate these bits more closely in the hopes of reintegrating it into a larger whole and reclaiming and learning what this larger concept, this huge concept of love, actually is.

All that to say, I’m thinking of staring a new series of posts – a subset of “tell me about love” – and I’m going to call it: Tell me about pleasure.1

[END PREFACE]
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Tell me about pleasure. Because I don’t… I don’t know.

And this may sound strange to some people, but the question of “what brings me pleasure, what brings me joy?” It’s an empty question because I don’t know.2

And I think one of the reasons why I’m still so ill equipped to identify what brings me pleasure is because of the purity culture I was raised with in the church. In purity culture, not only was I taught to not pay attention to what brought pleasure into my life, I was also taught that pleasure was something to be avoided, something to be afraid of, something to deny, and to run from. And unfortunately, I took up that teaching wholeheartedly.

A key verse that I remember these early church leaders drilling into me was the verse about how Christ calls us to deny ourselves and to take up our cross and follow him. And the part that they definitely emphasized was the denying one’s self bit. They taught that the goal of the Christian life was to deny all of one’s self for the sake of living out the Christian life. And for them, the goal of the Christian life was simply to bring other people to Christ. So anything that got in the way of sharing the gospel3 was what needed to be denied and put away.

As an introvert, the thought of approaching people that I didn’t know (with theology I barely understood) horrified me. But that didn’t matter. Their basic message to me was,

Oh, you’re an introvert? Hey, fuck you! Don’t be an introvert. You need to deny that shit for the sake of taking up the cross and sharing the gospel with other people. Because if you don’t, then they’re going to go to hell, and that’s going to be on you, and you’re an asshole for being so selfish.”4

Their self-denial was meant to hollow me out, to rid me of any sense of self-awareness and/or agency. Basically, they were turning me into a sock puppet – an empty form that they could ram their fist up into and make me say what they wanted me to say. And the really insidious thing is that the more hollow and selfless and compliant I was, the better of a Christian I was in their eyes.

So all that to say, I was never taught to pay attention to my own desires, what brought me any kind of fulfillment or pleasure. I was only taught to listen to what they told me to do and believe and say.
Mirror

Photo by: Mandy Jouan

Fast forward to today.

I’ve long since rejected the self-denying theology I was raised with and I’m well aware of the toxic nature of what I was taught. I now have a theology that’s vasty different and I’m not afraid to voice it.5 My theology is much more meaningful to me and closely tied to who I am, and my beliefs are finally my own. It provides some structure and meaning for my life and while I’m grateful for all of that, it’s very much an intellectual endeavor.

To return to the sock puppet metaphor, it’s like I’ve been able to fill my head with new, better ideas and theology, but the rest of me – my body – is still empty. The insensitivity to and the unawareness of myself and what makes me happy, what I want, what makes me feel good – I don’t have that awareness.

And thus this new series of posts.

Tell me about pleasure.

Tell me about what feels sensual and delicious.

Tell me about how to integrate mind and body.6

Tell me how to (re)fill my empty sock puppet self with myself.
SockLight

Photo by: Diamond Geyser

[FOOTNOTES]

1 I don’t now exactly, right now, what other components of love that I’m going to be taking on, but for now, I’ll start with pleasure. And while I think desire is another characteristic that I’ll want to look into, I think the notion of pleasure comes before desire. The way I see it, we desire what brings us pleasure and so if we don’t know what brings us pleasure, we won’t know where/how to direct our desires.

2 This is a part of what’s caused so many of my relationship troubles – because it’s difficult for others to be in a relationship with me when I’m not in touch with my needs. Because what does that make me? I’m a phantom. I’m a ghost. And it’s no wonder they sometimes felt alone even when I was right there next to them.

3 Theirs was a very shallow sort of understanding of what it meant to share the gospel. Walk people through the Four Spiritual Laws and get them to pray the Sinner’s Prayer and your job was done.

4 Of course they didn’t use profanity. They used shame. And that’s unfortunate, because their shaming tactics were too subtle and subversive for my young mind to identify. So while shame was explicit, the implicit message was still a hearty, “fuck you – who you are doesn’t matter.”

5 I’m already working on posts that describe my current theology. Stay tuned!

6 And yes, there’s a kind of irony in writing a blog post about moving past thinking towards self/body awareness. But writing? Writing is pleasurable for me. I like the feel of the Mac chiclet keys under my fingers. And writing is what I know. And I don’t know where else to start.

386. damage and desire (part five) unlearning false church narratives

In my twenties, I attended some really conservative churches. I’ve written a number of times about how their teaching have been tremendously unhelpful in a number of different ways. And it seems like every time I identify a new kind of harm that was sown into my life and begin to work through it, I find another deeper layer of hurt.

A lot of this harm was based on what I’m going to call false church narratives.

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Photo by: Jano De Cesare

 
The first narrative told me that if I saved myself for marriage (denied my sexual desires, and avoided dating) then God would miraculously bring the perfect woman into my life. Just like that.

The second narrative was based primarily on Luke 9:23-25, and this one taught me that the life of a good, faithful Christian is one where I deny not just my sexual desires but all my desires. In this narrative, the goal of the Christian life is to deny my wants and needs for the sake of saving non-Christians. Then (according to Luke 9:24), the more I denied myself, the more God would bless and fill me to make up for all that I had given up.

Now combine the first (sexuality denying) narrative with the second (wholly self-denying) one and you wind up with a narrative that says a romantic relationship is one where each person denies themselves for the sake of the other. This third narrative said that if I denied myself and gave 110% of my attention to the needs of the other person then that other person would deny themself and give me 110% of their attention… and then somehow that was supposed to make for a beautiful relationship.

I’ve actually known for a while now that narratives like these are bunk. Unfortunately, it turns out that unlearning something false isn’t as simple as deciding that the old ideas are wrong. For me, even though I’ve been trying to do and think differently by taking my own needs/wants/desires into consideration, it turns out those old self-denial teachings go far deeper than I thought.

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve been seeing someone. It’s been just over three months now and for the most part it’s been pretty freaking amazing. One of the really great things about our relationship is that we both check in with one another on a regular basis – we ask each other how they’re feeling about life in general and about the relationship. And we’re both brutally (yet kindly) honest with each other. And here’s where the toxic nature of those old narratives really comes into play.

PageBurn

Photo by: Thomas Guignard

 
Sometimes she asks me how I’m doing and if there’s anything she can do for me or if there’s anything I’m wanting/needing from her. And when she asks me this, sometimes (far too often) I don’t have an answer.

I pause for a moment, look inward, and try to identify an issue/need/desire/want and there’s nothing there.

Now let me be clear here. Sometimes I’m just content with life. Sometimes I’m just happy to be there with her and so I don’t have any needs to communicate. But sometimes… sometimes I’m unsettled because I can sense that there is some kind of vague concern that I have but just can’t connect with… but that’s not it either.

It’s hard to explain.

See, sometimes, she asks me what I want and when I stop to think about it, there’s just nothing there. It’s like I don’t know how to want, how to need, how to desire anything for myself and so I don’t know how to answer her.

Because there is no answer.

And so I say, “I don’t know.”

Now here’s how wonderful she is. Sometimes she’ll take “I don’t know” at face value but sometimes she pauses and insists on an answer because she knows how the church has damaged me and wants more for/from me. She cares and so she wants me to reconnect with myself and my desires. And when I can’t, it sucks for me and it sucks for her. And sometimes she gets frustrated or I get frustrated. Or sometimes we just end up sad because here she is wanting more from me – wanting me – and there’s nothing there.

And all this because all those years ago, I did such a good job of being a faithful, self-denying Christian.

I wish I could put a nice ending on this post, but the best i can say is that as hard as it’s been to unlearn old shitty narratives, it is kind of cool (though not easy) to be able to write new ones. And I’ve got a sensational writing partner (re)writing with me.

BookBurn

Photo by: Michael Shaheen

383. best practices (a preview)

[PREFACE]

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.

[END PREFACE]
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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.

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.

Intended Audience

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

Singleness

Here I mean any unmarried person who may or may not be involved in a romantic relationship. Simple as that.

Sex

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

Basically, when I use the word, “sex,” I mean the sex act, the bump and grind, making whoopee, the wild thing.

Sexuality

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.
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Purity Culture

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.

Conversation Partners

Although I will be referencing a number of difference texts, most of my work centers around these three books:

Covers

Outline

  1. An Introduction (this post)
  2. My Story
  3. A Critique of Purity Culture
  4. Embodiment – Finding One’s Self
  5. Justice – Stewarding the Self in Relation to Others
  6. A Culture of Communication and Consent

Best Practices

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.

  1. Books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Choosing God’s Best, and the Every Man’s/Woman’s Battle Series have a very negative view of sexuality for single people. The basic message is, sexual arousal outside of marriage is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs.
  2. Though in the minority, there are books like Rescuing Sex From the Christians that make the case that the Bible never prohibits unmarried couples from having sex.3

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.

_______________
References:
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.

381. an unexpected (lenten) journey

Alternate title for this post: Bob redux (part 3)
Part 1
Part 2

[PREFACE]

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.

[END PREFACE]

A few weeks ago, I posted this tweet:

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.

Photo by: Adam Foster

Photo by: Adam Foster

 
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.

Photo by: Luca Cerabona

Photo by: Luca Cerabona

 
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:

Women I’m attracted to never find me attractive or want to go out with me.
I’m attracted to Quest Girl and she’s wanting to go out with me.

 
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.

PostSecret

Image from PostSecret

 
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…

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.

Photo by: Leeky-Boy

Photo by: Leeky-Boy

 
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)

and this

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…

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)

and

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.”

GoForIt

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.

380. Bob redux (part 2): the “blessings” of chastity

Photo by: fensterbme

Photo by: fensterbme

[PREFACE]

(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?”

Even though I was able to come to a fuller understanding of some things that had been troubling me in my previous post, I knew that there were aspects of Bob that I still needed to unpack.

To use Pollock’s metaphor, I sensed that I wasn’t done making love… to Bob.

And so I bring you…

[END PREFACE]

In my previous post about this metaphor I refer to as 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.

Image by: Hugh D. Crawford

 

I wish I could find those former purity-centered 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 did correctly. 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 for me, congratulations. Mission accomplished. Job well done.

But do you want to 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?

I’ve thought a lot about the problems purity culture has sown in my life, but 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 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.

Photo by: Mazda Hewitt

Photo by: Mazda Hewitt

 

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 Purity idol.

And what have I received in return?

Self loathing.

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 manna, 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 failure to find 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 of course that’s unappealing, so in the few instances 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 rarer cases where they said yes, we might go out for a couple dates but then my fear-and-shame trigger would go off and I’d flee. And when that would happen, I would blame myself. And then 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!”

Indeed.

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”