Monday, April 14, 2008

First comes love...

It has taken me a long time to write this post. I think I wanted to avoid it as long as I could because it had the potential to be bitter and because it is the most personal subject. I was actually surprised by how deeply writing this affected me. I expected to hesitate the most before sharing about my mental issues or my personal sin. But no, what I am most nervous about is addressing the idea of marriage as taught in Sunday School. Really there are three topics to cover- dating, marriage and sex. Marriage is at the forefront of my mind because my roommate is getting married next month and we are in full wedding mode. Except today, we paused from looking at flowers and dresses and invitations to talk about what marriage is and what we always thought it would be.

I should back up and say that marriage is good, it is right and it is holy. I do not have much baggage surrounding marriage because my parents have been married happily for twenty-eight years. My grandparents divorced when I was 19 (yes, I know that is weird and yes, many people told me how weird it was when it was happening). But that did not affect my idea of marriage much because of my parents.

To begin, if you look at our culture, it does not take long for something good to be twisted. We get so excited about something that is great that we become somewhat obsessed. Please see American Idol, Britney Spears and beanie babies as evidence. Each is good (I guess) in its own right but it gets weird when it’s a national obsession. I am simultaneously horrified and impressed that more people vote for our American Idol than for our President. The show itself is good and watched regularly in our apartment. But there is something wrong with these people who keep auditioning every year despite the fact that they are profiled each year for being so terrible. I love Britney Spear’s music. I can admit it. But the fact that we love her so much and put her on the cover of every magazine for doing things like shaving her head is disturbing and in some ways, has caused some of the problems she is facing now. As far as the beanie baby phenomenon- I cannot even venture to understand it. I just think it’s weird. We can take pretty much anything good and make it into an obsession.

For those of us who grew up in Sunday School, I think we did that with marriage. We all have a desire to be known, to be loved, to be chosen. We want the love, partnership and companion that we will find in marriage and in our spouse. This is where becomes so personal- I want to be married someday. Yes, I too am excited to have someone to spend national holidays with (it’s a line from When Harry Met Sally). But, we begin to obsess on it and that is where the problem lies. I do not want to imagine a future without being married.

At the beige church, I was possessed. I spent more time in church thinking about the story of my relationship with my future husband than what church actually meant. Over the course of four years, I thought I would marry one of five guys. I had the perfect Christian scenario for each of them. With Adam (names have been changed to prevent some serious embarassment), I met him early on in high school, we would go to prom together, we would go to college together and he would propose at the spot where we met in church, with his guitar and a song he had written just for me (that had religious overtones of course). Peter would propose on a mountain because it a. showed God’s creation and b. was where we liked to hike a lot. Mike would fall in love with me on a mission trip to Nepal and then would propose in Mexico, where I would be working as a missionary and an English teacher. James would fall madly in love with me when we were youth pastors together at the church. And Kevin would have been so enamored with my love of children and my desire to open an orphanage in Cuba that he would propose on the spot in Havana. Yes, I could have written Christian romance novels. I am so glad I did not. The important thing you will notice is that not one of these stories continued past the proposal. What more could there be?

This obsession continued in college too. I can vividly remember sitting around a table with a bunch of friends from college. We were all at Christian beach week (yes, we had Christian beach week. Yes, we drank and had fun). Someone said, “let’s play ‘where will we be in ten years.’” We went in a circle and took turns describing the life of the person on our right. My friend Bryan set up an elaborate scenario for our friend Chris involving tightrope walking and a motorcycle racing career. But then we got to one of the girls. “You’re going to be an amazing Christian counselor married to a doctor with four kids,” she said to the girl on her right, who promptly began to tear up. I am not kidding when I tell you that every girl around the table used that description for the girl on her right. I am also not kidding when I tell you that Mary and I played “Where would you be without Jesus” and we decided I would be a judgmental bitch and she would be addicted to painkillers. It was not the same game. In the whole discussion though, I was struck by the fact that no one described a life without including marriage.

In high school, we often read books about dating and marriage. I think in part because it appealed to our romantic nature. We wanted to read about couples who had not met before their engagement or who had kissed dating goodbye but still married great people. We wanted to know that no matter what, the people who wrote these books ended up married. I remember reading Passion and Purity and being excited that someday, someone would love me enough to marry me and desire me. And excited that someday someone would inspire true passion in me. I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye because I wanted to pursue the godliest path. And they all said that godly girls got good guys quickly. What is not to like about that message?

Looking back, I see how those books really just crushed us. Most are written to encourage Christian teenagers to not have sex before marriage (which, incidentally is not working. Christian kids are having sex at the same rate as non-Christian kids). They come from an opinion that having sex before marriage is the absolute worst thing that could happen. I think it’s a bad idea (for many reasons- not just because of the Bible) but I don’t think it’s the worst thing that could happen or that the whole institution of marriage depends on keeping us pure. Those books added so many more rules to our lives and depicted marriage as something much more important than it is. Again, I have the utmost respect for marriage but bear with me.

As my roommate and I were talking this morning, I said, “Christians seem to see marriage as the culmination of our lives. When really isn’t that supposed to be heaven?” And Laura said, “Christians have a flawed view of it. Often we love God so we can get married.” We were told that if we were good Christians, models of biblical femininity and hospitality, if we were patient and pure like the woman in Proverbs 31, God would reward us with a husband. We hear stories of women or men who prayed for a spouse and because they prayed and were “in God’s will” they met the right person. As far as we saw, life ended at the wedding. We acted in certain ways to keep us in God’s will, not because we love him and desire to serve him but because we would get a great wife or husband out of it. If you grew up in a youth group, you remember those talks about dating and marriage. People who were pure, patient and self-controlled got the good mates and good marriages. I wish someone had told me just how poisonous that line of thinking is.

Even outside of the topic of marriage, this is a common view of life- we have to have it all together before we can get whatever it is that we desire. We think we need to be good enough to deserve the perfect job, the perfect family, or the perfect spouse. It’s not how it works. Maybe it’s just me, but when I try to have it all together, I fail miserably. I always have. If this line of thinking is true, I am royally screwed. If I have to be perfect before I can be loved and married, it will never happen.

This brings me to another point. Metaphors point to something greater, they are not literal. In the Bible, marriage is a metaphor for how Jesus loves the church. He left his perfect heaven to enter into our dirty, messy lives and gave up his rights to all sorts of good things to be a sacrifice for us. And we do not have to perfect to get it; he loves us even when we’re completely flawed. That is damn romantic, if you ask me. But, we get more excited about the metaphor than we do about the real thing. It’s understandable because we can’t touch Jesus. We can’t wake up next to him and we cannot spend national holidays with him (you get what I am saying). Marriage is supposed to show us a small slice of what grace and Jesus are like. Marriage is not heaven. You are not incomplete without a spouse and you are not necessarily successful in your faith if you do have one. Our faith does not exist to get us a spouse or to guarantee us a perfect marriage. Our lives do not end with the wedding. Our lives keep going.

Marriage cannot be the culmination of the story of our lives. That’s already happened- Jesus sacrificed himself and rose from the dead. We were created, we fell and we were redeemed. That’s it. It’s done and marriage is not required. Marriage is a partnership, a moving forward in that faith together. It does not make you a super-Christian. You are loved already and yes, marriage will be great. I am excited for it. But there is more to be learned at church and in the Bible than how to catch a great guy. We’ve got enough reading material on that subject at it is.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

1400 baby!

My best friend from college, Mary, never answers her phone. She has been going through some tough stuff lately so I call her regularly to tell her voicemail I am thinking about her and hope she’s doing okay. So when she answered on Thursday night, I did not believe it was her. In fact, I thought she had changed the message to say “Hi Janey” because I call so often. But it was, in fact, Mary. We were talking about different things going on in our lives and she told me about yet another tragedy in her life (there have been a lot lately). She then said something interesting, “Whenever I am around Christians (she had just returned from some sort of retreat), I feel like we compete to see who has the worst problems and the most difficult life.” After a week of wondering what I could possibly write about, Mary gave me the answer.

Why do we compete for the worst life? It’s completely opposite of how most of us would think. Usually, we try to have the best life, the nicest, biggest, cheapest apartment (I live in New York where people freely discuss how much or how little they pay for rent- it’s not even remotely taboo). We try to have the nicest clothes or the best car or the smartest children. But I have noticed among Christians the same problem that Mary noticed. We all want to have the most difficult life.

I remember small group from the beige church and if someone shared a struggle or a sad thing, usually people would “hmm” or “yeah” while she spoke and then would share their own experience with that struggle or something sad. I remember in fifth grade Sunday School, I heard someone talking about their mom hitting something with her car. I immediately rushed into the conversation and said, “One time, my dad hit a rabbit. It was so sad.” That was a big deal for me- we had hit a rabbit on our vacation and I made my dad go back to make sure it was okay. It was not. Then my teacher informed me that this classmate of mine’s mom had hit a child with her car. I still feel awful about my statement.

I think we try to make our lives seem more difficult for a few reasons. I think part of it is what I addressed in an earlier blog post about testimonies. I think we believe that unless there is something major to triumph over, our story is worthless. It makes sense from a narrative perspective. Who wants to watch a movie where the hero just has to walk upstairs to get his princess? Or who wants to watch a movie about two dogs and a cat in the backyard? No, we want him to have to cut through huge briar forests and defeat the evil witch (Sleeping Beauty). We want the animals to have to walk all the way across America with some sassy dialogue and humorous antics (Homeward Bound) to get back to their families. Without difficulty, our stories seem much more boring. But we need to shift our thinking- we are not the heroes of our own stories. We are the princesses needing rescuing. I am going to write more on this later.

I also think it’s in reaction to what we are often compelled to do- be prideful and brag about our great lives. I can feel that reaction in me. Because we do not want to portray Jesus as the great white rabbit’s foot that can fix everything if we just carry him with us, we dive into a different picture- one where Jesus doesn’t fix anything on earth and in our lives and where our lives continue to suck or even get worse. There are two ends of the spectrum: those who preach the Health and Wealth Gospel and those who preach the Despair Gospel (if that makes sense). The first group is often quite popular, a la Joel Osteen, because they talk about Jesus like a self-help guru. We can live our best lives ever, make a lot of money, feel better, lose weight, fix whatever it is that ails us, etc. by believing in Jesus. Who doesn’t want that to work? Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, authentic Christianity says that there are bigger problems than our poverty, our illness and our weight issues.

This is where the second group tends toward a gospel of despair- the world is broken, we are sinful, nothing changes until we get to heaven. Our lives are more difficult because that is how we can know we are Christians, if our lives suck. There are flaws in this too, obviously. Whenever I hear people say that the world is in a downward spiral and we’re only a few steps away from the apocalyptic chaos depicted in Doomsday, Waterworld (a great movie if you watch it as a comedy rather than the drama it was intended to be) etc., I am always drawn to the Civil Rights Movement. It’s what I studied in school and I love that period of history because it shows how God does in fact care about people and our lives on earth and prompted thousands to move together to change things. I know it may not be the best example but you cannot convince me that culture is falling apart when only forty years ago, our entire culture shifted and serious wrongs were righted. And, Christians are not the only people who suffer. Everyone does. Suffering is not what makes us a Christian. It is what makes us human.

But back to the problem at hand, why do we compete for the Toughest Life Award? As I said, I think part of it is a desire for a better story and part is in reaction to the misguided Health and Wealth preachers. But I think part of it is also things we learned in Sunday School. We learned that Christians’ lives are not perfect just because they are Christians. And we learned about the saints (thank you Sacred Heart Catholic School) and martyrs of the faith. Job was held up as an example of how Christians should respond under duress. I think somewhere in my mind, I equated great suffering with great faith. I somehow came to believe that God did not want me to be happy, he wanted me to be sad. I walk around in great fear of the next tragedy. Whenever my life seems good or fun or like what I want it to be, I get anxious. I worry that something will happen to my family or my friends. I have become catastrophic. And I do not think I am alone.

I think deep down, I believe that God will continue to test me (again, see Job- it’s hard not to think we have to stand up under serious pressure to make God happy), because I am good enough to handle it. I think of Bible verses about how God will not give us more than we can bear. When you carry that idea through, you see how easy it is to believe that the best Christians, the ones who are suffering the most are the ones who can bear the most. Therefore, (I feel somewhat like a lawyer here), we think that we must suffer greatly to be great Christians.

But here’s the deal- we are never good enough to handle it. Yes, we may not collapse in a heap on the floor when tragedy strikes. We may have incredibly difficult lives (this is in no way to diminish those very sad experiences people have). But, we do not have to be cheerful or joyful or respond silently as Job did to be good Christians. The truth is we, on our own, are not good enough or strong enough to handle it. I wish someone had told me that suffering is not a test; you do not get a score. It’s like those kids in high school who would tell you what they got on the SAT, not just for your information but to make sure you knew how smart they are. Note to those kids- we get it- you’re smart. We do not have to “pass the test” on how to suffer well. It’s okay to be angry and hurt and cry out to God. Hell, Jesus did on the cross.

So what does this all mean? Does it mean we should quit telling our friends about our pain? No. It does, however, mean that maybe we should listen to one another before sharing our own problems and maybe we should take a moment to make sure we are sharing for the good of others and not to let them know we got a 1400 on our SATs, even if we did (I did not, for the record). And ultimately, we are not expected to suffer well. It is not an indication of whether you are a good Christian. Suffering is an experience we share as humans and we should say thank you to the God we can cry out to, rather than thank you for the suffering ‘cause it’s a chance to show how awesome I am. Though if anyone has prayed that prayer, I give you major points because it is hilarious.