The ‘Everybody Must Procreate’ Myth: Freeing Myself From the Societal Imposition of Motherhood

Lately, I’ve been thinking some unhelpful thoughts about the future that rob my mind from experiencing joy in the present moment without distraction. Thoughts that lead me to feel guilty about things that I can do “because I don’t have kids.” For example, I set my alarm many a Friday night to a leisurely waking hour that some folks with toddlers can only dream about. I feel guilty over having time to myself-some might call it ‘me-time,’ but I think that denotes selfishness instead of recognizing our own individual needs for renewal. This is free time that I get to choose how to spend. Time to workout for as long as I’d like, read for pleasure, or simply sit by candlelight in quiet meditation before going to bed. All of this is self-inflicted guilt because I believe I fall into the whole “oh-she-doesn’t-really-get-it-yet-because-she-doesn’t-have-kids” category. I think about the myriad of things my parents did for me and my two siblings; things I cannot even remember, like the hundreds of smelly diapers they changed, or all the times they were patient and forgiving towards me when I threw temper tantrums. And while I’ve been getting better at turning my guilt over these things into expressing gratitude for my parents’ dedication and love, I still get caught feeling like I might be selfish if I don’t do the same for future offspring one day, as though my entire worth as a human being is dictated by whether or not I chose to “selflessly” procreate.

I’ve always intended to have children one day, that is, through the means of adoption. I never was interested in having children biologically, though I’m grateful that there are women who choose to do so, giving the precious gift of life to another human being. Adoption can slow population growth, thus preserving our Earth’s precious resources. It can provide loving parents to one of the 132 million orphaned children on this planet. Additionally, the cost of adoption is not nearly what most might think, with adoptions ranging from $0-$2,500 in US foster care systems, $5,000-$40,000 in private agencies, and $7,000-$30,000 internationally.  Conversely, average costs for a vaginal delivery are $18,329 and $27,866 for a C-section. Despite my research, I’ve been criticized by some for my interest, and was even told surly, “That won’t REALLY be your child!” by someone close to me. I remain undismayed by this, knowing firmly that an adopted child is every bit as much MY child— yes, the kind of child you see on stage or in the pool and want to stand up for all to see, shouting, “That’s MY kid!” Beaming, overflowing with pride. Pride because I’ve dreamed of this child for so long, wondering in which country s/he would be born. Pride because I’ve wanted you, imagined you, and—if I decide to follow through with this desire– will one day treasure you as my very own child. So when asked if I want to have kids, my response is usually: I want to adopt one day, but the age that I wish to adopt gets a little bit later every year as time moves forward while my desire for motherhood halts.

And so, when I see pictures of my friends’ babies on Facebook, or see frazzled parents running to practices and meetings all over town, I lie in bed at night, wondering if that’s my same fate. I see women with pregnant bellies and am grateful that they would be so giving as to spend nine months, sometimes in discomfort, to give someone the opportunity to experience the incredible gift of life. Though I’ve never been pregnant, I contend that we, as a society, are sometimes inattentive on how to treat a woman who is pregnant. I’ve seen people excessively stare at a woman’s belly instead of make direct eye contact with her face. I’ve seen people lose interest in a woman’s personhood, ceasing to ask questions about the woman and her life, instead solely talking about her embryo, as if they choose to now view her exclusively through the identity of mother, instead of a mother AND a person. I imagine myself pregnant and cringe. Some months, I experience dysmenorrhea so intensely, that one time, I had to lock myself in the bathroom at work to lay down on the dirty floor in privacy to relieve severe menstrual cramps, as lying completely flat and popping round-the-clock ibuprofen are my only anodyne. Given my experiences with just having a monthly period, pregnancy sounds like a nightmare that you can’t wake up from until you’ve given birth…and then, there’s breastfeeding.

Let’s be clear. I know what I’m saying is probably skewed. I lack the perspective and maturity to understand the full realm of pregnancy as both a beautiful, miraculous thing to be celebrated, in addition to being something that can be painful or potentially socially isolating for some women. I don’t balance both sides of the beauty/discomfort scale, and my perception of pregnancy is entirely skewed because of it.

Skewed or not, though, I’ve given myself permission to not even have kids. To not even adopt, though my ardent depiction of adoption I mentioned earlier might suggest otherwise. Oh sure, I may very well change my mind. But by giving myself permission to not have children when many of my friends and family members are and when many societal, religious, or familial voices expect that each woman “should,” I am discovering blissful freedom. By loosening myself from the forced grip of motherhood, I am better able to love, understand, care for, support, and be present in the lives of women who wholeheartedly desire and embrace motherhood. I can love such friends (and their kids) without feeling as though I have to be doing what they have chosen to do with their lives. And who knows. One thing I’m learning about life is that things change. Despite being an obstinate person, I’ve changed views and decisions on things that I was once so sure about (like deciding not to go on my Peace Corps assignment). Perhaps in another 5-10 years, I will feel differently about the whole parenthood thing. My views, beliefs, and opinions that I held 5-10 years ago are not tit-for-tat those that I hold now. We exist in a life that is fully evolving, each day marked by choices that twist and turn us into people reignited, perhaps now with gifts like perspective and maturity

MotherhoodChoosing to become a parent is a deeply personal, intimate decision that only you as an individual, and then ultimately, you and your partner as a couple, can make. It is indeed a choice, though, especially if you use effective birth control (I understand that “oops-es” can happen- and I’ve met some beautiful people that were brought into this world through an unintended pregnancy). Having children is not a requirement. It’s not a demand. Certain religious voices might tell you otherwise. That’s what Evangelical Christians tried to tell me for years- that “motherhood is a woman’s highest calling.” But, like author Rachel Held Evans points out, “A Christian woman’s highest calling is not motherhood; a Christian woman’s highest calling is to follow Christ.”  What’s more freeing than anything else, though, is remembering that none of us have to do anything that isn’t the best choice for ourselves, just because it is the best choice for many others. You can serve and love unselfishly without having children, just like you can serve and love and have children. Not having children can be a great choice for you, just like having children can be a great choice for you. The important part is not to judge other’s decisions and to remember that you have a choice in the matter.

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My friend Jasmine with her daughter Alana, age seven.

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Dad and Sister, April 2010

I keep meeting and spending time with couples who have intentionally chosen to be childless. I’m amazed by their firm commitment to serve their communities, places of worship, and for using their time to promote goodness and peace in this world. Similarly, I’ve been meeting couples that have intentionally chosen to have children, and I’m amazed by how they love their kids with such character, teaching me so much about patience and dedication- what it means to truly love when it’s easy, and even more so, when it’s hard. They’ve taught me that if you quit and give up early, you miss out on beautiful memories that would have never been possible. I’ve watched my own parents deal with behavioral challenge after behavioral challenge in raising a daughter with Down Syndrome. But everytime I see her smile and hear her laugh, I am once again so grateful for their steadfast commitment to not give up on unconditional love, patience, and kindness, when anyone else would understand if they did. Yes. I’ve watched couples create identities as mothers (and fathers) as well as identities in their own personhood, interests, and dreams. Both of these kinds of couples- childless and child-filled alike- help mold, shape, and stretch my perspectives as I carefully, prudently choose the path that fits best for my life.

So until I’m ready to make a firm decision, you will find me musing, and asking questions- LOTS of them. I thank all of you who have patiently let me ask you very personal questions. I especially thank you for your honesty and vulnerability. It’s been said that “maturity is not believing everything you’re told.” So I’m ready to maturely move forward into my adulthood, freed from the critical voices that used to clobber my mind, and unburdened by anyone’s unspoken expectations, knowing that one day, if I decide to become a mother, it is because it was the cry of my heart, the melody of my passion. No expectations. No demands. Just love.

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To Fellows, With Love

(Preface: I’ve spent the past two weeks at the Global Health Corps Training Institute with 128 fellows from 22 counties between the ages of 22-30 who are spending one year in a global health fellowship in one of six placement countries. If you are interested in learning more about this program, please get in touch or check it out at: http://ghcorps.org/. I made this post public in case it might move you to shake and shape and create the world in which you wish to live).

This year…

ghc whole crew

Photo Credit: GHC 2014

…This year will be transformational.
I know, it’s a buzz-word that I was skeptical of in the beginning,
but now I have no other word for it.

This year will look like heart and passion.

This year will look like finally living the life I always wanted to live. 
This is the year for trying.
Of doing it scared.
Of taking chances and seeking out opportunity-
and where opportunity doesn’t exist, creating it. 

This year I will look at life experiences, social justice, and stories
from many perspectives other than my own.
Because my worldview has vastly expanded-
I’m not sure where the end-line boundaries are anymore on this life map that I’ve thrown to the wind. Because this new space feels big and real and way more rich in love and wonder and exploration than ever before. 

This is the year for asking questions. Lots of them.
Questions about people’s life experiences,
the things I don’t understand, the things that move my heart,
the deep questions that unfurl streams of inexplicable beauty.

This is the year to say what I really want to say,
no matter how vulnerable it feels,

and even if doing so might elicit tears… perhaps even more so.

MO 2014

MO 2014

Because I’ve tasted life in authentic community.

Because I’ve seen how much more enjoyable it is when
we collaborate instead of compete.

Because people I’ve known for just a couple weeks have generously and bravely shared parts of themselves with me… and I won’t take these conversations lightly as I hug these truths, these stories, these gems close in my heart.

Because I’ve been inspired.

As I lay here alone in my room tonight, it’s tempting to start to settle back into some of my old ways, but I come back to the realization that even if this fellowship year were to suddenly end tomorrow, it will have been nothing short of transformational.

But it’s not going to suddenly end. In fact, with just two weeks in,
it really, really is just beginning.

And when those final weeks close in, I know we’ll say, “Hellooooo fellows,”
gather ’round the table one last time in solidarity
and exchange stories we can only dream about now.
It will be amazing.
But until then, we have work to do.
And I’m so grateful to do it alongside folks amazing as you.
See you in Rwanda…
with a soccer ball.

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MO 2014

Finding My Voice (and a little pep talk for the young girls out there)

keep the earth below my feetI had a professor in college who taught us about the “principle of leaving and entering,” i.e. one cannot move forward to the next [life stage, opportunity, job, city, destination, you fill in the blank] without making peace with what you’re leaving behind [be it college, your hometown, you get the idea]. At the time, I was dreaming about volunteering abroad after college, and ready to leave behind the America I knew. But what I didn’t realize at 22 is that the next stage of life would be just as much about putting things behind as it would be about pursuing new things.
A couple years after college, I burnt out.
I. simply. Couldn’t. keep. Up.
I lost myself and become bitter and cynical towards much of what I saw around me.
It wasn’t until 2011 that I realized just how many voices of the past were still lingering in my head, like flies in desperate need of a fly swatter. Voices of a spiritual community that said women were to be submissive, to “let their husbands lead.” Churches that said males were to be “pastor, provider, and protector” of his wife. Voices that said being a female pastor was a sin. Voices that made sure everybody knew what Christianity stood against, but left the world puzzled as to what we actually stood for. Voices that tried to rescue souls from hell, while ignoring the literal hells and Gehennas in the world going on right now. Sexual slavery. HIV/AIDS. Extreme poverty. Orphans without homes. Should I keep going?

In 2012, I began a journey towards freedom- freedom of religion, of dogma, of other people’s demands, of paved paradises- into a personal journey of development and enrichment. It’s looked like lots of open spaces, lots of gathering ’round the table over wine and sweets and savories, lots of finding and losing myself on bicycles. In this freedom, it’s as though God took me by the hand to lovingly, but firmly, (because the lesson was too important to miss out on) teach me that the thing about the past is just that. It’s in the past. It cannot hurt you again. It cannot continue to hurt you or frustrate you unless you let those voices zap your energy from the present moment.
For far too long, this woman’s listened to voices of the past that were squelching life, joy, zest for the moment. Alas, I looked myself in the mirror, a good ol’ stare yourself down, straight-up-talk, with a little bit o’ lovin’, and a lot of bit of firmness. I looked in the mirror, and noticed a cynic. Ugh. I hate that word. To me, it’s synonymous with a passive, complaining, do-nothing-to-change-anything kind of persona. So I asked God to silence those voices, the ones that were slowly, painfully, hauntingly taking away my joy, my peace, my resolve, and silence them one and for all, to free me from the people and places and noises that were no longer helping me become the person I want to become. I asked God to change me from cynicism into activism. Hurt into compassion. Bitter to better.

Somewhere in the process, I learned that I don’t need to fight anymore.. not against those voices, at least. A little whisper breathed into my heart,
You’ve been freed.
Let your load feel lighter, your burdens from heavy rocks to little pieces of shiny yellow sand.
Put the boxing gloves down.
Breathe.
You no longer have to defend, nor strive, nor try to make yourself understood.”

I thought it would feel easier. But then I realized that that’s not quite the way it works. The moment you stand for something, there is something you are implicitly standing against. The more and more you become the person you want to be, the voice that isn’t God’s will try to steer you off course. When you become YOU, not someone else’s version of you, you will disappoint people. But let me tell you something, you will become the person you were made to be. The more you will realize that the very people still standing beside you are there because they really do love you, they really do care, and they really do desire God’s peace and love and blessings upon you, not out of pity, nor spite, but out of a selfless kind of love that has found its way through the broken chains of redemption, giving voice and beauty to the very fact that you and I are both humans, composed of flesh and blood, and you and I have both been created in the womb.
I am freed now from what’s been zapping precious energy, and I can’t wait to learn, and love, and do, and grow, and experience with this new found freedom what God can finally place in my life in the thoughts and corners and crevices of my heart that were once holding onto hurt, bitterness, and a seemingly endless desire to be understood. I am free. I can only imagine what will go in those pockets of my heart now. I can love without mountains of expectations or fears of being hurt.
I can express bona fide joy—my smiles will no longer be a veil, hiding a voice that’s afraid of being mistaken as impolite, too afraid to speak up.
I can operate out of a place that points to the horizon and feel alive in my soul, and my bones, and my eyes; to live the story, full and raw, not dependent upon things be one way or another, but ever confident that this risk of living a better story is so much better than living in the choking weight of others’ voices that try to drown out the one true voice of who you want to become.

Go point to your horizon.

MOVE.
You don’t have time to respond to your critics.
You simply don’t have time.
Be you, the REAL you, ALL of you… that’s what the world needs.
Go seek.
Go ask.
Because what I hope that the girls of new generations come  to realize is this: that if ever there was a time for women to rise up and unite, the time is now. Oh yes, I’m thankful for my sisters who gave me the ability to vote. For women who went to college and challenged typical professions. But there is so much work we still must do.

Advocate.
Preach.
Lobby.
Dream. Louder.

May you listen to that one constant in your heart.
May you give voice and flow to all that longs to leap inside of you.
May your songs be peace, may your dance be love, and may your love bring freedom.

Because you have a voice that’s no one else’s.
We’re ready to hear it.

The Stories Our Pictures Tell Us, Or, What I Learned from Sitting Alone for Two Hours in a Closet

                                                                                                 
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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot — “Little Gidding”

I just got back from a wonderful weekend in Philadelphia with my family. I always tell people from out of town that though I grieve summer’s end, the best time to visit PA is in the fall, where the gold, crimson red, and yellow trees will call you into attention, causing you to notice every little thing around you that you’d normally overlook. This weekend was no different. The sun shone all weekend, tall trees telling tales in goldenrod and setting sun orange.

It was a good weekend. One of those weekends that make you look deep inside of yourself and feel absolute gratitude for getting to experience it, all of it. I spent the majority of the weekend at Villanova University where hundreds of students put on the world’s largest student-run event for Special Olympics.  Cheering loudly, I’ll never forget the way they lined the walkway back to our cars, and high fived each athlete, as though we were married couples walking out to a procession line. When I told them thank you for their abounding energy, they just smiled, and replied, “We love this. It’s our favorite weekend all school year.”

I woke up the next morning and got to run with Special Olympics athletes in a 5k, delighting in the sun meeting my bare legs. November 2nd is far too into fall to be able to wear shorts, but today is different. The sweet 70 degree sun smiled at our legs. We danced the night away in the gym at the annual dance the students run, there we did the Cha Cha Slide, the Cotton Eye Joe, and The Wobble, whose choreography and lyrics I still don’t understand.

I watched my sister play soccer Sunday. For far too long in our relationship, she was the one watching me, and now I was thrilled to give back that time and attention to her. It was, perhaps, a moment of reconciliation, as if to make up for lost time.

As Sunday evening approached, the sun sunk at 4:58 PM thanks to daylight savings time. An extra hour of sleep? No thank you, I’d take an extra hour of daylight over extra sleep anyday. After sunset, I went upstairs and noticed a journal peeking out from my closet. Curious, I decided to take a look. Inside lie four boxes filled with letters, greeting cards, old swimming times, old swimming workouts, high school and graduation pictures, and friends’ wedding programs. There were printouts of old AIM conversations with boys I had crushes on. My polka dot scrunchie I wore way after scrunchies stopped being cool. I’m always a good 3-5 years behind the latest fashions.

A strange, but wonderful sense of nostalgia warmed me up like chamomile tea on a snowy day. I’m re-reading a wrinkled letter from one of my good guy friends from high school. One of my best friends created a senior project where students were asked to anonymously submit essays describing their experiences of love in order to “purge their feelings and maybe come to some resolution.” I don’t think it was until my binge in the closet that I fully appreciated the magnitude of her endeavor. Guys and girls alike anonymously poured out the most vulnerable parts of themselves on paper. I can’t believe he even gave me his letter, so personal. So visceral. I felt like I was reading a journal entry from a 35 year old who’s looking back on the thing or two that he’s learned from the journey he’s been on since he said “I Do” at an altar.

Their were greeting cards marking birthdays, apologies, thank you-s, and just-because’s. There was that note that my neighbors wrote me right before we all thought I’d be leaving for Peace Corps. Though I’ve made peace with my decision, it still stings a little bit each time I come across that name, or see a piece of paper of something I signed in the copious amounts of paperwork that the process entails. It hurts a little when dreams die. It hurts a little when you remember a part of yourself that was so filled with life, pulsating, passionate life. If I’m honest, there’s a part of myself that I never fully regained when I said no to my dream. Even though I’m most grateful for the ways in which I’ve healed since that time, looking back on ourselves and our lives can be hard, can’t it?

There’s my grandfather’s passport. I never got to meet the man, but from what I hear of him, he was the most amazing person. I’ve only ever seen pictures of him with the family or alone in solitude in his church robes. He was a pastor, a thinker, and I’d love nothing more than to pick his brain. He died at all-too-soon age of 53 from a heart attack in the middle of his kitchen. It hurts, doesn’t it, when you don’t get to meet the people that you want to meet? When lives are interrupted without your permission? Now, all that’s left in my hands are a picture of him at this last church service in Illinois before he and the family moved to PA and his old passport. I began prodding my dad for passport explanations. Why did he go to Russia, and South America, and who did he go with, and how long was he there for? Half of the stamps we couldn’t decipher, after all it was an expired passport from 1971.

There’s cards from my grandmother that all looked pretty standard: Hallmark cards signed in small, shaky cursive- “with love, Grandma.” I loved her; I know I did. It’s just that she had an aneurysm in 1985, just a few years before I was born. My only memories of her are of when she was in a walker. She and my aunt would come over for every birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas you name it. We would blow up whoopie cushions, put them under her seat, and after we heard the fart sound, we’d erupt in laughter while she proceeded to ask us to stop it. We would just keep laughing. And we never stopped it. I loved her presence; it felt like home whenever she was in our house. I just doubt that as a kid, I fully appreciated her. And she’s gone now. I still remember that dreaded phone call at my friend’s graduation party in June 2003. When the phone rang on my friend’s house line- I didn’t own a cell phone at the time- it was my mom on the other line. “I need you to come home now. It’s about Grandma.” And so, as soon as I got home, we went to Artman Nursing Home, where I saw a dead body for the first time. It was weird. And I didn’t like it. So I cried. We left, not talking much, and a week later I went to my first funeral. Our neighbors were there, as they have always been for every major life event. I still remember Mrs. Beerley giving me a big hug, as she looked me in eye and said, “It’s ok.” I hope Grandma knew how much I loved her, even when I didn’t express full interest in her life. I know she’s chock full of stories, like her husband (my grandfather), whom I also didn’t get to meet because life was cut short.

There were newspaper clippings from our local newspaper. I grew up in a neighborhood in which teachers came to school early to provide homework help. It felt safe. One time, the crime section read: “Three flags stolen from Flourtown Country Club golf course.” Really, I’m not making this stuff up. There’s also that time, because our town was so small, that I got in this same crime section for careless driving. It was an early morning, a long day and even longer night on July 2nd, 2005, as friends and I spent the day at Philadelphia’s Live 8 concert advocating for global action to end poverty, especially in Africa before the G8 summit. At 12 AM on July 3rd, I crashed into a telephone pole, wrecking public property (along with my car) and was even told I had to pay for it. A week later, I re-lived it all over again as I read “Melissa Otterbein, 18, cited for reckless driving….” Fortunately, I’d built enough rapport with the parents whose kids I coached and babysat. As I received cards from these families, all I could think was, “Hopefully they didn’t read the newspaper.”

I found some old CDs in the memory boxes, including a couple Christian cds. I stopped listening to Christian radio about two years ago when I grew tired of hearing infomercials about how there’s new aged speakers on Oprah who are leading people astray and if we really love people, we shouldn’t let them listen to these people. I grew tired of their cheesy slogans that they would repeat multiple times per hour. “Family friendly, kid safe.” What about those of us who don’t have kids? Does that mean public radio is evil? I hardly think so. Anyway, as I drove home later on, after I had left the closet, a strange familiar came over me as I found myself nervously singing the words again for the first time in a long time. I thought about the times when those songs carried me though difficult nights, when things weren’t so good at home. Or when I’d have those occasional teenage relationships dilemmas, experiencing life’s stress, but oh, I was happy. It didn’t even feel weird anymore to sing these songs. The attachment felt peaceful, like I could enjoy it while keeping it a safe arms-length away. I guess that’s where I am with Church now. I love God, but seem to keep Church that arms-length away. It wasn’t God who scared me, it was Church, well, just some Churches, that often minimized how I could find the love of God in my sister’s smile instead of ancient text that angered me most of the time.

It’s funny, I spent almost two hours in that closet and left the room a lot messier than I found it. I figured it would give me a good reason to go back in there the next time I’m home.  It’s amazing where photos and cds, or letters and decorations and old newspaper clippings can take us. It’s amazing how words on crinkly paper from a decade ago can help you make sense of today. It’s amazing how a box of photos that we can no longer reprint because we stopped using 35 mm film about the same time we stopped playing with pogs can spark up warm fuzzies and fear all in the same memory. TS Eliot once said,

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

I sense that in my boxes of nostalgia. I sense that we’re on this journey and the good, the difficult, the crushed, the joyful all carry us into our future in untied fragments. Someday, some great-grandchild might finger through our letters and CDs— what the hell were those, never the less tapes?–and smile. Perhaps they’ll ask their parents about us or put us back in a box. Or perhaps if you lived a life bold enough, they’ll proudly place your picture on a nightstand and smile at it when they wake up in the morning on their way to work.

It’s a strange life. We live it once. That’s it. And all that’s left are the memories. Half of them, we forget about, until an old photo jogs our memory as though we need basic instructions on how to look back on very own lives that we created. We do things everyday that we won’t even remember doing tomorrow, let alone 40 years from now. That’s weird.
But I hope when you go to bed tonight, you feel the love of those people.
I hope you keep taking those photographs, even if you’re scared to document this time of your life because you don’t want to re-live the pain you’re going through right now by finding it buried in the pixels of an old photograph. I hope you keep writing those journals, even if you don’t want to read the sad tale you documented on paper ten years from now.
Or maybe you’re having the time of your life, too busy to sit down and even capture it. But one day, though, someone’s going to look back in order to find themselves because they got lost too. We all get lost. I’m trying to keep up with these memories in order to make sense of my life and maybe you are too. It’s amazing how five people can experience the same event, but none will recall it the same exact way with the same exact details. We each bring forth our little vignettes and keep our lives sustained into another year, another decade, another century, or even millennium. It’s ok to look back on your pain. It was a part of your struggle. I only hope that the painful parts of your story will find some healing. I hope there’s days you can’t pen down because you were so overwhelmed by the privilege of being alive that even if you tried to write it down, no one would get it. Perhaps you too, just like TS Eliot will live along some day and be able to put back the pieces. We’ll find ourselves and lose ourselves until we glance up to the endless sky in these cracks and crevices of darkness and of light.

“It’s a victory to remember the forgotten picnic basket and your striped beach blanket. It’s a victory to remember how the jellyfish stung you and you ran screaming from the water. It’s a victory to remember dressing the wound with meat tenderizer and you saying I made it better…” -Jenny Hallowell, A History of Everything, Including You

Toilet Paper on Our Shoes (and other thoughts on brokenness and healing)

I keep running into these moments, like a giant rock that I continually trip over. Maybe you know those moments. When it’s just you, alone somewhere with your thoughts. Perhaps it’s nighttime and you’re driving back home and it’s just you, the car, a bumpy road, and God. And the light that was once green has now transcended from yellow to red. So you’re sitting there stuck at the red light, going nowhere, and it’s just you, these thoughts, the feel of the steering wheel, and this ominous presence in your car with you, speaking through the windshield, or next to you, or through a crack in the window, oh, I don’t know. And you can’t run, you can’t hide anywhere; you’re exposed. Your running and distracting and avoiding and fearing are called out. You can’t resort back to your usual mechanisms of escape because it’s just you, stopped at the red light of sameness or change.
It’s as if you have no other choice but to face the music of your life soundtrack. And it’s a CD mix you’ve never heard before, so you don’t know which songs are the fast tracks, and which ones are melancholy. And as the next track begins playing, you realize the music is a sad and somber tune and all you wish is for the next song to be of joy and merriment because life is short, damn it, and shouldn’t we be living in carpe diem every moment? So you try and focus on the things that make you happy and get you thinking “it’s all good,” “it won’t be so bad,” and you minimize that it’s about to get hard. But then this snowball from the past comes flying in your face and all you can feel is its wet sting as it slides down your face and into your coat, slowly melting frozen snowflakes onto your chest like butter on toast. Trying to tell you that spring will never come until you deal with whatever it is you have to deal with. Oh sure. Things change. The next day you’ll wake up and you won’t be alone again and you can go back to distracting yourself with friends and people and tasks and to-do lists. Spring will come anyway, because seasons change and evolve. But the degree to which we fully enjoy each of these things, unfettered, comes from our willingness to throw away the toilet paper dragging from our shoes. Maybe you’re in such a hurry that you don’t even notice the paper trail from your soles, which the whole world can see bright as day. And maybe, just maybe, there might be one tender-hearted person who pulls you aside, alone, privately, safely, waking you up to the toilet paper on your shoe, without embarrassing you or belittling you either. Because we all have had toilet paper on our shoes before and we all have monsters in our closets that sometimes like to reappear. I mean, it’s not about the toilet paper. It’s those conversation that say, “Hey, I’ve noticed something about you.” And someone asks you if you’re really happy and you just let out a confused cry. And that’s ok. That’s enough for that moment.

Inside each of us lies an innate longing for everything to be ok. And anything we can latch onto to show us that things are going to look up, get better, be ok… we cling to, perhaps for comfort, perhaps as futile attempts to block out change. To hold on when we should really let go. Sometimes I just want more than a verse that states, “but I’ve given you a future and hope.” I need more than that. I need to see, oh how I want to see. Oh how I want more assurance. Because everything inside of me screams, begs, demands for everything to be ok. And the longer I can’t see how it’s all going to be ok if I make this decision, or if that happpens, or if this occurs, the more I pine for assurance, signs, and control. Because everything seems so out of my control sometimes and quite frankly God,  sometimes it seems like you’re up there doing nothing.

And so some days, we find ourselves in Churches or other places of worship. I wonder sometimes, for every service I went to at that megachurch back in college, or at that Bible study event filled with a bunch of people smiling, talking about praying, and Evangelizing, and all that joy-in-the-Lord-is-our-strength stuff… was just a show. A bunch of BS. A bunch of people, but certainly not all, who were too afraid to speak of the monsters in their closets, the toilet paper on their shoes. A bunch of people who walk around “happy,” but deep down feel far from the abundant life to which we’re invited. A secretly empty population walking around just hoping to emulate a veneer of “the good Christian.” No. That would be a tragedy. My, my I don’t think we were ever created for the pretending and the “everything’s fine,” and the pity-filled, “Oh I’ll pray for you-s.” We were never meant to, perhaps, smile at every single worship service. What we were made for is community, authentic community. We were invited in, promised with, the opportunity to be a part of a community that says we’ll share our bread and our cup and your tears and my tears and together, we’ll taste something so rich and beautiful, we won’t understand why we ever used to settle for less– the excessive smiling and covering up of pain and doubt.

I know I can be a cynic, but I do know that not everyone of these circles are pretentious. And maybe all those people I saw were joyful and happy in the Lord. Maybe every single one of them was. Maybe.

I just wish I had more influences in my life then like I do now where we sit down at lunch and cry in front of each other. And talk about what depression meds we’ve been on. Where we admit that we too aren’t so sure about the messages we’ve been reiterated about hell or gender or any of those things that Jesus doesn’t really talk a whole lot about. And then where we get really excited and creative about all the ways in which we can find new ways to love, which Jesus talks a whole lot about. More people who go to counseling too and we laugh about how crazy we can be. More one on one conversations in which the two of us admit that we actually have no idea where we’re going with life right now or where this journey is taking us. More people who knew that Jesus could be worshipped on top of a hay bale as you and a friend live out his words to “learn from the birds” as they migrate Southbound, in strength and beauty, letting out a few drops of poo too. Lucky them; they don’t have to worry about the toilet paper-shoe part.

I’m grateful for all of the people in my life who’ve shed away their false layers, remaining open and transparent, as if secretly giving me permission to drop by guard and do the same. I’m grateful for these moments of brokenness in which God stops me, has my complete attention because I’m now shivering and crying alone in my room. “Why do you cause such tears to fall from my eyes and why this pain in my heart!?” I implore You. Though hard to recognize in the moment, I know it’s possible to choose to perceive these tears as a gift. I know Your words to be true when you hold my hand and whisper back, “Because I love you. And there is something good to come from this mess, but you won’t be able to see it yet.”  Some pains are just a part of this world; events that God never intended, but will warmly hold your hand and cry with you, yes, that’s His/Her hands embracing you. There are those other pains that grow- the consequences of our own actions or in-actions- and God looks you in the eye, puts a hand on your shoulder and says, “My child. Is this the only way you’ll slow down? Is this the only way I can gain your full attention before you hurt yourself even more?” And S/He swoops and breathes hope into our breaking hearts that things won’t always be this way. I just can’t expect to see these moments disappear if I don’t start dealing with the broken pieces I’ve tried to hide under my bed, or under my seat, or in my private thought life that no one but God can access. It’s as if S/he enters in, and takes you by the hand, and says, “Well go on now!” Cry. Mourn. Confess. Forgive. Heal. But refuse to sucumb to the notion that you’ll never get through this,” whatever the “this” happens to be at that moment.

Brokenness is a powerful tool for change. Even though as a kid in middle school youth group, I would sing, “Brokenness, brokenness is what I long for,” I would never ask for it to happen to me, willingly. But every time it does, I am always amazed at how God uses it to reveal something new about who S/He is, who I am, and where I still harbor my insecurities. God uses it to show us we’re stronger than we think we are if we would just face whatever it is that won’t stop pestering and festering.

And so tonight my candlelight is still burning. And I’m still feeling a bit of that brokenness and confusion about where and when this mess will intersect with beauty, but I do know this: I am not as alone as I initially felt I was. We have a God that will keep us from the lie we’re alone in those times of brokenness and healing. There is a God who can create something good out of something so hard, or ugly, or untimely, or even as trivial and embarrassing as toilet paper on our shoes.

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A Love Letter From God In The Midst of Confusion ((Part II))

Just some words of peace and love that I imagine God whispers in our ears in the mist of confusion or change. You are that Dear Child of God.

 We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
—T.S. Eliot
       

Dear Child of God,

Together, you and I have journeyed these times through and through. Every time it seems as though you face a new intersection, it’s tempting to think you’ll be alone, but let me assure you, you will never be truly alone. I will be with you always and I will send you love and kindness through the people around you. I promise. Choose to encourage yourself in the moments of un-joy that I am orchestrating things you just have no idea about yet. Yes, I will have beautiful new opportunities ahead of you.

I know it’s tempting to avoid and ignore feelings of pain, confusion, discomfort, anxiety. But there’s something bigger here, if you dare to look deeper in your bravest moment. I hope you can look back on my faithfulness and realize that every time you run away instead of facing the uncertainty of things unknown, you lose out on an opportunity for growth. There’s something here for you. Look again. Too big? Too scary? Gently lift the covers away from your face while I hold your hand. Child, while I wipe away the exhaustion from your face and plant a tender kiss on your forehead, I pray you’ll free your tarried mind from the burden of “why.” I can see the road ahead. You cannot. I know that frustrates you. But when you free yourself from the burden of having to have it all figured out now, have all the “whys” answered, you create space for my peace to enter in. It yearns to have room in your heart, your chest, your eyes, your smile, your soul. But inside of you, it’s crowded with the “why’s” and the secret fears that I already know of. There’s no room in the inn of your heart but I will find a way to make room to slip into your soul, through the cracks of your despondency as I melt your fears away like the wax from your midnight burning candle flickering in your dark room right now. I’ve come to bring light to your darkness. Let me in.

I know you’re afraid of rejection, of not being accepted by the people you meet. That your task-oriented, introverted personality tempts you to avoid investing in deep relationships. I assure you. Be yourself. I will give you new experiences of my love as you meet new people, find friends of freedom that you’ve been longing for. But you need community. And I want to show myself faithful to you in this arena. So leave the house. Put the keys in the ignition. Go meet someone new and get lost in their story. It will help shape or touch yours, anyway. Each of you have something to teach the world. When you’re feeling lost or confused or feel as though you can barely figure out how to make peace with the changes coming your away, check in on a friend and realize that they’re probably going through some of these same things too. Choose to be in it together. There’s going to be days that hurt, break, make you cry out in the dark. So speak gently to one another. Speak love to one another. Speak hope to one another. Speak of the strength with which I clothe you.

I know you’re trying to figure out where I’m leading you. I know it might seem like the steps you have to take are a giant waste of time. Just be faithful to the journey. Don’t get too caught up in it. Just go, one step at time. That a girl (that a boy). See, it’s bright and beautiful out there, isn’t it? I promise not to waste your years. The only moments you waste are those when you step away from Me and get distracted by your discontentment but sit there, on your floor, too afraid to try something different, to make a change. I see where you’re trying. I honor all tries, attempts at trying, successes and failures. Pick up your bones and shake the dust of your feet, child. Your shoes have some walking to do! To new places, to new faces, to the things I’ve put on your heart, if only you’d be courageous enough to follow through.

So go listen to that still small voice in your heart, whatever it’s telling you. Maybe it’s time to take another stab at your studies. Or go grab your bike and get on the open road. Or take that flight. Or meet up with that new friend you’re fond of. Or apply for that new position that keeps resurfacing in your mind. And when all of your life and career and relationships and choices seem to jumble into mass confusion, wanting your full attention, don’t forget to head outside and take a look up at my Pleiades. You know the Big Dipper looks awfully close to the kite you flew last spring. Trace its outlines with your finger toward the sky. Feel the edges of each star from 50 million miles away. My hands crafted these lights out here, and now, as you finish tracing the shapes of the stars in the air, pull those hands in close to your heart, for I am holding them.

I’m here.hampton beach

I’m here.

I love you, all of you, every day.

Your Maker

The shallow cracks within my soul.

There’s a path I sometimes walk
That doesn’t create wonder and gratitude nor beauty or intimacy
But that walks in the “in-between.”

That’s too afraid of change or the possibility of things turning out worse
So I don’t take full steps to make it better.

The part of me that trades in originality and audacity and brightness
For dullness and sameness.
And makes me feel like a let down
To the 18 year old girl inside of me
Who once woke up with an airbag in her face
Car slammed in a telephone pole
Calling 911
Vowing to never ever take the preciousness of life for granted ever again.

Who pushes off booking a Southbound flight
To roll down hills with my cousin
Who feels like a little sister
All because I’m scared of what will happen
If I don’t make the next dollar
And have to live off savings for a while.

There’s a part of me that doesn’t say the words I want to say
Because I’m scared to be different
And so I choke behind the voices that tell me to be quiet
Just to “fit in.”

There’s a part of me that wants to run the opposite direction of anything religious
And get pissed off at God
Or rebel against every Christian teaching
To spite the dogma of heavy nooses I’ve experienced in Evangelicism.

And sometimes,
I’m glad I do this.

Because in the defiance
I find space to stop hearing the words that hurts me.
And get to ask every unadulterated question I’ve ever wanted to ask.

But most of the time, I know I go home
To my room
And my candlelight
And it’s just me
And God
And I get scared of death
Or need hope
Utterly.
Within my soul
Every part of me in tune with my need for God
And I’m ashamed that I would ever turn my back on him/her
When the last thing God would do
Is turn his/her back on me.

So the words of the most subversive person I know
Whispers in my ear,
“Come with me
And I will show you the unforced rhythms of grace…”

There’s a part of my soul that dies a little when I think about how much time I spend
Ruminating on how much I dislike my job
But don’t know how to make my dreams reality
So I become like many Americans
And get a temporary high on Friday nights
That crashes 48 hours later
With the Sunday evening blues.

There’s a part of me that’s too afraid to take a chance on my dreams
Because they aren’t “academic” enough
Or important enough
Or impressive enough.
And that’s when I remember
I’m feeding into the trap
That certain careers are more important than others
When all we really need to do
Is find that makes us come alive
And go do that
And let everyone else
Chase success and notoriety
In a job they hate but think “looks good.”

There’s a part of me
That wishes I were the opposite gender
Because I hate the fact that mine
Makes me less muscular, less tall
And is laiden with propriety
And tells me to change my last name
And have kids
That I don’t really want to have.
At least not biologically.

There’s a part of me
That’s hurt by every ignorant statement
Mouthed by Evangelicals
Or conservative white or black men
Spewing out their desire for pompous power
By telling women how they should live (the “sanctity” of life) and die (don’t you care go into combat, after all, you’d make the military have to change the way it does things to become more gender equitable and that’s really inconvenient).

I realize how much I want to become sarcastic
And yell in anger
And let men see
A women get angry
Instead of passive, taciturn, and “nice.”

And sometimes I’m glad I do this.

But most of the time,
I think about Jesus.
And how hard it is to love the way he talks about loving.
Especially when it comes to loving those crazy (insert the opposite political party with which you affiliate).
And so I make a fool of myself
Missing out on an opportunity to develop my character
By instead choosing anger and resentment
Instead of something more courageous
Like love.

I walk these icy paths of the cracks within my soul
And confess my wasted moments
And ask God to redeem them
To start afresh in the morning
And ask for just a little more time in solitude
Here in the light
In open spaces
Where the sound of stillness
And the beat of my heart
And the wind on my face
All remind me to come alive
And be contraire
And get out of my head, my self, my biases
And get lost in the dreams and stories of each beating heart around me.

And together we’ll solidify the cracks
Until they become steady ground
Connecting hearts
And minds
And dreamers.

We’ll glance up to the endless sky
And find ourselves and lose ourselves
In these cracks and crevices
Of darkness
And of light.
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When You Don’t Know What You Believe Anymore. (Finding Community in the Midst of Uprootedness)

I was on the phone with a friend last night who was describing, through tears, the confusing, sometimes lonely, often uncertain journey of re-evaluating your faith. When you’re figuring out what you really believe versus what you’ve been taught to believe. When you have more questions than answers. When you see more grey than black and white. When you feel like you don’t fit in anywhere. I found glimpses of my story in my friend’s story and thought back to a time about a year and a half ago. It was quite a lonely time and I felt this innate desire to be understood; for just one person to say, “Yes, I’ve wondered about that too…”
Eventually, I would come to understand these feelings better through Ed Cyzewski’s “Divided We Unite” (free PDF version found here).

“For some of us who have been rooted in one spot for a while, sometimes the old answers and ways of doing things stop making sense. ‘Transplants’ are often in vulnerable positions, as they don’t feel like they fit anywhere, their beliefs have been shaken in some way… [One problem transplants may have] is they sometimes rush into something new without dealing with their previous hurts and disappointments. I saw this a lot with folks who were disappointed by the church and then jumped right into house churches or emerging churches without seeking healing first.”

Transplant! A-ha. It was the word I had been looking for but couldn’t put my finger on. A season of uprootedness is where I’ve been since my senior year of college, when the teachings of the Evangelical world didn’t fit in with how I understood gender, sexuality, salvation, and social justice. I’m still in “transplant.” And that’s ok. It’s nice here; I’ve finally found some fellow flowers in the field and know I’m not alone anymore.

This conversation with my friend brought back visceral memories of the past year and a half, when I was just beginning to verbalize my discontentment with “Christianity as usual.” I was only just starting to write out my truest feelings through a new outlet I created- this blog. I was only just beginning to speak up and share my truest feelings and opinions around other believers, as I didn’t want to ruffle too many feathers; rather, I just wanted to somehow arrive at a semblance of settledness and peace about my faith and wanted to get there as placidly as possible- you know, just kind of slide out of the back doors of former Churches and Christian groups and enter into an unprecedented dawning of a new era in my faith: freedom. Of having a voice without fear of being choked for voicing a different perspective, another way of living faith, another way of trying to love a God I can’t understand completely, but long to know deeply; a God I revere, but will no longer appease with praises and prayers that are null of the complete struggles I have with the Bible- with its violence and oppression of women– and gender, and Heaven and Hell and all the other stuff that I needed to be freed from and hash out with none other than my Maker.
Somewhere during this time span, God gave me an invaluable gift of freedom that I’m still exploring. The girl who finally left the “non-denom world” (Christianese for Churches that aren’t affiliated with any particular denomination and usually consider themselves Evangelical) for the United Church of Christ (and trembled the whole way, wondering when an Evangelical was going to tell me that denominations were bad or that the UCC is too liberal). The girl who was almost too afraid to post “6 reasons why I support question 6” for fear of retaliation from former conservative acquaintances became the girl who would speak at the UCC about how the church can be proponents of recognizing the imago dei in all by supporting marriage equality. I have much work to do on this road to freedom, but the familiar tears of my friend reminded me of the faith metamorphosis I’ve been through this year, as God brought some fellow stumbling, bumbling (whatever that means anyway) folks who love God and love people and don’t care for the dogma of anything else that takes away from this love. In my desperation, God brought such people into my life and they have shown me that I’m not alone; that there are more of us out there than we think.

So where are you right now? Have you ever been in a place where you weren’t sure what you believed and struggled to reconcile what you’ve been taught about Christian faith with what your experiences have been outside of the confined walls of doctrine and “shoulds?” Are you in that place now?
Hang on.
Reach out.
Speak up.
And find us out here in these open spaces…

Have you been through uprootedness before? Go reach out to someone who’s currently experiencing this. You remember how vulnerable and shaky it feels when your whole faith world gets thrown upsidedown. So go have that conversation. Go get that coffee. Go on that walk. And find a way to remind a fellow brother/sister/soon-to-be-friend that they aren’t the only one who feels this way.

Because no matter where we are in our faith journeys, we need each other. We need to know we’re not alone with our thoughts. With our questions. With our inability to sit still, hands folded on our laps, seated at our pews, secretly dying inside to a faith that is out of touch with reality, that’s not listening (just shouting), and that’s not loving (just pointing fingers).
We all need to know that we can love our God even if we want to release some of the things we were taught to believe about Christianity. And may we always come to know, deep, within our core, that there is and always will be room for us all at the table.
Come.
You may have heard you won’t belong if you doubt, or you won’t be “in,” if you question the way you do. But hear it crystal clear: you do belong. So come; have a seat. Or, if you’ve been sitting for way too long and need a fine place to stand, find your space to stand. Or run. Or cartwheel upon these endless fields of freedom. Come. There’s room for you. You’ll figure out what you believe in time. You don’t have to have it all figured out now. In the meantime, we’ll be here, in the muck and mire and mess and in the starting over and the joy, with you, beside you, learning with you, growing with you, questioning with you, passing around the cup and the bread and the Kingdom will Come, oh if but a taste of it in the now, and also in the forever and ever. Yes, yes, amen.
go out into the highways

When I’m a Jerk.

Sometimes I’m a jerk.

A self-centered, harried jerk.

Take tonight at the grocery store for example. Trying to multi-task in my “being relational” and “doing more for Jesus,” (yuck… Christianese makes me sick) I secretly want to yell at the lady with screaming, whiny kids in the cart next to me, interrupting my phone conversation, as I forget the fact that I, too, was once that whiny kid; just because I can’t recollect it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Continuing with the multi-tasking, in an effort to bury my head in memorizing one more GRE vocab word, I almost knock someone over while turning down the next the aisle.

I catch a glimpse of James Dobson’s new book “Bringing up Girls” (which of course came out after “Bringing up Boys”) for sale on a random book rack. I glare, grit my teeth, and think mean things about Focus on the Family, wondering what repressive gender role messages they’re trying to spew this time.

I’ve been saying “shit” a lot.

Oh man, I just dropped my cell phone again.
Shit.

I can’t find my keys again.
Shit.

Why aren’t I more organized?
Shit.

Why am I constantly losing things?
Shit.

I’m late to work, late to my friend’s house, late to church.
Shit, shit, and… er, shoot.

Ouch. I can be such a jerk. I’m embarrassed and ashamed writing this that all of this exists within me, sharing space with the same body that wants to live out the “fruits of the spirit.”
The jerk comes out when I give into the lie that we should incessantly strive to “do more.” Doing more is the antithesis of the “come all who are weary” invitation Jesus offers. Doing more turns me selfish. It’s ok if I speed or for you to let me in your lane on the highway, after all, because I’m trying to “do more” to serve (which inadvertently assumes, more so than you, the person in the lane who I just cut in front of. Wow. Two points for jerkiness.). Life is too short. I have to pack in as much as I can, after all, because you or I could die tomorrow, right? So carpe diem, baby!

…Nonsense.

I am so thankful that there’s a recourse to this type of thinking. This type of thinking ridden in self-centeredness; that tries to be a conduit of God’s love, but ends up offering nothing but shallow banter. You know. One of those “hope you’re doing well!”s versus a sincere, “Hey, how are you doing? All of you? Even the parts inside that you don’t want anyone to see?”

I’m thankful that more often than not, God isn’t calling us to “do more.” He’s calling us to back to the “unforced rhythms of grace.” (Matt. 11:28 MSG). He’s calling us back to our first Love. He’s calling creation back to the Creator. He’s calling us back to the simple “love God, love others, and love others as you love yourself.” Serve your neighbor, serve the poor, and serve yourself an ice-cold water bottle to stay hydrated on your Sabbath walk out in the woods. Love your neighbor, love the poor, love your family, love the screaming kids in the grocery aisle, love the elderly person who is “slowing you down,” and remember to consider yourself lucky if you should life to that ripe old age one day. Then, you, as an Old Grandma, or Old Grandpa—remember to forgive the teenager who is glaring at you, wishing you would move faster,  as you remember when you used to do the same towards the elderly.

Confess cynicism. Own up to your own jerk-iness whenever it rears its ugly head. Ask about someone else’s day when you’re tempted to dwell on your own. Start over. Practice patience. Offer a compliment instead of a complaint. Greet your cashier by name. Get lost laughing in games of “peek-a-boo” in the grocery line with the kids who were just having a temper tantrum. Get lost in the stars, get lost in Jesus’ face in the eyes of those who are poor, get lost in God’s love as you feel an appropriate sense of smallness come over you, as awe and wonder take over, leaving the jerk far, far, behind. Do less when you feel the suction of the “do more” trap. Slow down when you’re moving too fast— long enough to count the number of birds you can see in sky right now. Breathe. Dig deep. Hop in the Conga line. Yes. Carpe that diem. 

“Women Are Fine China” and Other Misconceptions of “Christian Gender Roles”

I’ve never understood the Evangelical preoccupation with “gender roles,” a phrase that Jesus never even mentions. The word “role” is defined as: 1) A part or character played by an actor or actress. 2) A proper or customary function. 3) The rights, obligations, and expected behavior patterns associated with a particular social status. It’s a word I don’t want to associate with my faith for several reasons. For one, I am cautious of following any type of socialized expectation without critical examination simply because of someone else’s implied standards of what they think is “normal,” “proper,” or “right” rather than fostering freedom for individuals to be their true created selves. The Jesus I worship did not adhere to societal expectations, but carved an identity that touched those who weren’t supposed to be touched, spoke to those who were not to be spoken to, and ate with those whom were not supposed to be given his company. And thank God he didn’t bend to what his society deemed appropriate, because otherwise there are women who would have never been touched or taught, people who would still be sick and unhealed, and there would not have been communication between “high” and “low” classes or cross-cultures (Samaritans and Judeans).
But perhaps my biggest problem with “roles” is that all of this leads to a show. I’m not trying out for a play; I’m showing up for my life. Therefore I don’t have a “prescribed role” to follow, line by line, scene by scene, for the applause of an audience of conservative Evangelical men. So putting on a “role” of who I “should” be instead of who I truly feel I am is disingenuous. Instead of carving out a subversive identity like Christ did, I fear that some circles of Evangelical culture contribute to this pretentious, shallow, unfulfilling “show” by its restrictive teachings on gender. Here in lies some of my experiences.

It was 2005 and I was a bright-eyed, eyes wide open, Division 1 collegiate swimmer in my freshmen year of college. I was feeling alive physically, mentally and spiritually in ways never before. That is, until I decided to read the entire Bible and gasped over passages in which Paul starts talking about women needing to be quiet in church and submissive to men. Trying to slough it off, I picked up some books on my college ministry’s recommended reading list. I picked up “Captivating” by Stasi Eldridge and was told that “every girl longs to be rescued and to be a princess.” Sorry, I was taught that the only person who could “rescue me” was Jesus and I’ll stick to that.

Enter sophomore year. This marked the beginning of wrestling with “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.” It was the year in which I cringed when I heard a guy from this same college ministry tell me that a female pastor was out of God’s will and her career choice was a sin.

It was the year in which one of the men in this particular ministry called me “to talk to me about something.” I made my way down to the college lounge, hair wet from swim practice, only to be told that when I wore a tank top (during that hot, 95 degree move-in day in August 2006), I “caused him to stumble.” He asked me repeatedly if I would please not wear tank tops anymore. I told him, “sorry, but I work out and when I sweat, I’d rather not have sweat stains.” What I really wanted to say was to please stop telling me it’s my fault that you’re stumbling. If you keep tripping, go grab some crutches, “man up,” and deal with your own sexuality instead of blaming me for the “feelings” you have (or a boner).

It was the year in which I was told from a male group bible study leader one cold, January evening that women were fine china and men were sturdy pots and that 1 Peter 3 meant that I had to be content with being fine china and embody a calm, gentle spirit. And in that moment of sitting in that guy’s apartment living room, with a fine china glass glaring me in the face, being told that’s what my gender is: essentially, fragile, I felt an aloneness and righteous anger that I will never forget. You see, my Bible study leader didn’t see that glass stare him in the face after working out in a weight room and swimming pool for five hours that day. He didn’t wake up at 6 a.m. to work out for two hours, only to return at 2:30 for another three. Or bench 90% of his body weight that day. Instead, this individual was inside all day preparing to tell me that the Bible says I’m fine china. When this Bible study night of oppression was over, I walked out of this guy’s apartment, tears warming my eyes as I trudged back to my apartment, imbued to only work twice as hard the next day, with each kick of my leg in the pool wanting to shout, “I AM NOT FINE CHINA!!!” For crying out loud, I am a Child of God. I happened to have developed two x chromosomes sometime in utero, before I had fingers and toes, thus making me a woman. My call is to love God and love others, no different from you. And so with a galvanizing spirit from that day forward, I vowed to pray. To serve. To love. To be strong. To benchpress. To dream. I will s o a r. I will continue on with this journey, ok with being contrary, if that’s what it takes.

And that’s exactly that it takes. Fast forward another year to summer 2007, the day before a dear friend’s wedding. The afternoon before the ceremony, a group of guys and girls affiliated with the wedding party went down to a lake for a picnic. Before we left the house, we had a pow-wow in which the guys requested that we wear a one piece bathing suit, no two pieces please. But it didn’t end at that. They then went on about “causing them to stumble” and requested that we not even wear bathing suits at all; we should wear a shirt and shorts to swim in the lake that day. I kept my mouth shut. Being a swimmer, I don’t have this feeling towards swimwear. A short car ride later, we arrive at the lake, dressed in our “bathing suits,” while the boys took off their shirts and splashed through the water in their swim trunks to their hearts content. Toward the end of the afternoon, we took pictures of us making pyramids. The guys had their shirts off, hairy (and not so hairy) chests completely exposed. The girls had their shirts on. And shorts. No swim wear. Just clothes that were supposed to count as such.

Upon graduating college and eventually moving back to Baltimore, I tried my best to find a church community with whom to devote quality time in involvement, but knew it was my queue to leave when there was an entire sermon on “the three P’s” in which men were instructed to be pastors, providers, and protectors to their wives. I met sincere, genuine people at this church, whom I respect and am grateful to have had in my life, but that was a clear signal that this was not the church for me to heal from restrictive gender roles.

And so I’m still trying to find my way; trying my best to keep a straight face through friends’ weddings in which “submission,” and “obey” have been used, but reached a bubbling point in 2011. I sat in the back row of a quaint church, tears streaming down my face, not because I was moved by the wedding, but because I was hurt. The pastor spoke about “knowing your roles.” I watched the groom, who I used to have a crush on (now grateful for God’s ways being higher than my ways when it comes to relationships!) listen to how he was instructed to be the leader of his wife, and I watched as the smiley wife’s eyes glittered as she was instructed to respect her husband’s leadership and to honor and encourage him. I walked out of the wedding ceremony swiftly, in hopes no one would see me, lest I attract attention to my tears rather than the wedding celebration. My boyfriend walked back with me to my car, putting his arm around my shoulder, to which I responded half angrily, half fearfully, “you don’t believe that stuff, do you?” “That’s not what you’re looking for, is it?” “Noo, babe, noo.” I was reassured. It made me question my faith all over again, not God and Jesus, but Church and Christianity and especially Evangelicalism. I couldn’t understand how this teaching at all correlated with the way Jesus lived, and couldn’t comprehend why she was being told that her new life mission was to honor her husband because that’s her “Biblical calling.”

And another “Biblical calling,” according to Evangelist John Piper, is to recognize that “God gave God gave Christianity a masculine feel,” as he proclaimed at the 2012 Desiring God: God, Manhood & Ministry – Building Men for the Body of Christ Conference.

So for many years I was slowly brewing inside with all of this, but after graduating college, I was no longer sad, in fact I was angry, and I’m not sure which I would rather feel, but perhaps the greatest feeling of all that I am JUST starting at this moment of my life to taste is FREEDOM.

Thankfully, I’ve gotten connected to organizations such as Christians for Biblical Equality and subscribed to the blogs of Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans and other women and organizations who are stepping out in faith to promote gender equality and have taken the time to dismantle the contextual aspects of scripture that entangle dissension and debate all too frequently.

Thankfully, I’m no longer cringing in my seat as a college student, behooved with anger but too afraid to speak up upon being repeatedly instructed that women needed to be willing to be led and should say yes to every guy who asks them out because they are demonstrating Godly courage (Where again, does Jesus say this in the Bible?).

No.

I’m not in my seat anymore.

I’m not angry at the megaphone.

I’m somewhere in between.

And I think it’s called freedom.

And though I still have much to learn, much to mature upon, much to learn about Christian unity in relation to voicing freedom from gender roles, I am learning how to let go of the lap bar and wave my hands in the air on this rollercoaster, no longer entertaining gender role dress rehearsals. And. I. Love. It.

Rachel Held Evans depicts the pitfalls of literal Biblical interpretation— http://www.rachelheldevans.com