Under His Voice: Obedience Beyond the Law

My quest to find the sweet spot in sex is not the only place I’m doing what I’m doing. In fact, it’s informed by other areas of my life where I’ve experienced the lifechanging power of the presence of God. A lot of what I’m doing for myself (and trying to make transparent to you, my dear readers), is trying to tear down things I encounter on this topic that don’t seem like they’re infused with His presence.  I’ve seen how unexpected and radical His impact on my life is in other areas, I want more of Him in all the parts of my life.

Now, if you’ve heard about the presence of God your entire life, I need to ask you to set aside your assumptions about what I mean for a minute. This is not the “I met God and turned my life around and now I’m happy behind my white picket fence” stories we’ve all heard. This is something far more radical.

I was baptized when I was ten, and I’ve gone to church my whole life. But there is something decidedly different about the last few years of my walk with God. I’ve always known how to follow His law, and I thought that was the goal, the end point. I thought that Christ died to enable me to follow the rules because my sinful heart was unable to do it on its own. But as I’ve let go of my ability to follow the rules (legalism) or lack of it (shame) to take ahold of the Person of God, as I’ve run hard after His presence in every aspect of my life, I’ve begun to see my life operate with a beauty, an elegance, an ineffable efficiency that I never would have thought possible.

I’ve realized that laws are just a way to see symptoms that I’m setting something else in a place where God’s presence should be. God doesn’t tell us things like “don’t commit adultery” so that we can just stop. He tells us so we can recognize a lack of Him in that particular area of our lives. It’s not for behavior modification, it’s for return to relationship with Him. If a good friend and I keep arguing over the same thing over and over, the way to fix it isn’t just to stop it already. It’s to find the relational breakdown and repair it, to  find the path to draw closer to each other. Obedience doesn’t satisfy the law, Christ does. (Matthew 5:17-25) And life with Christ is so, so much more… alive than what we get from just following rules.

His sacrifice on the cross doesn’t zap me with power to go and follow His laws. It helps me know where to bring my life to Him to fill it up. And when He’s there, when His reign is present… wow. When God and I have worked together to clear away misconecptions and idols, it’s like those areas of my life operate in a whole different universe. Time works differently. Money works differently. Relationships work differently. The pieces of my life fall into a breathtakingly elegant orbit around Christ at the center. And it is about as far from feeling safe in a cushy, satisfied life as I can handle.

Discipline and law are just a beginning, not an end in and of themselves. Discipline helps me get rid of the junk that’s been in the way of God’s work in my life. It clears the cobwebs from my vision so I can see Him work and join Him in it. And when He does step in, hang onto your hat. There is abundant life like I’ve never seen it before.

A good example of this is financial discipline. There’s a difference between Dave Ramsey and the loaves and fishes or the widow’s oil. Structure and rules will benefit you in the long run. Financially, they’ll get you to a safe place (most of the time). Obedience to rules helps eliminate risk. But there’s a different kind of obedience. Did you know that the word commonly used in the New Testament for obedience or submission is “hupakoe” which literally means “under the voice”? (Strongs 5218 if you feel like looking it up). Christ fulfilled the law. The law points us TO A PERSON. Deep obedience means being under His voice. To love His laws, yes, but to love Him even more. To the point that I will move past the safety and convention of laws when He asks me to. When people are hungry, to obey immediately when He asks me to give my only food to help feed others.

I did a Dave Ramsey course a few years ago. It helped clear away the clutter in my budget. As I finished the course, I felt called to live on half my income. I’ve spent two years working toward that. I thought that was the goal. Now that I’ve gotten there, He’s moving me toward more. He’s shown me how He provided for me over the years in ways I didn’t realize, years when I was angry at Him for letting me pour my time and resources into things I felt like didn’t give me appropriate return. I’m still benefitting from the abundance I was blind to during those years—they’ve paid for my house, among other things. A few months ago, gratitude for that moved me to tell God I’d give whatever money to whomever I felt called in my heart to give. I gave away several thousand dollars. One gift saved someone’s life (although I didn’t know it at the time). And then I got my tax return back—the largest ever—for more than I’d given away. Yesterday I gave that away, too. I’m anticipating another return on that so I can do it again. I’ll let you now when and how that happens, because I have no idea. I’m eagerly waiting for that surprise.

God wants us to invest as He does—high risk investment in people. Giving to the last. That’s the kind of giving He multiplies. And it’s well outside what conventional financial wisdom would tell us to do. It’s not only about obedience to rules, but intimate obedience, being under His voice not under His thumb. Sure, conventional wisdom and laws play a role. If I were squandering money in ways dishonoring to God, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing. But that’s just the start, it’s not the end point.

What does any of this have to do with sex? I’m glad you asked. Having seen the glory of God working in my life in other areas, I want that in my romantic life. It’s hard to describe what God does, but when I started this blog series, I hadn’t seen Him working in that part of my life the way I have begun to see in other parts. It wasn’t there when I was hooking up, and it also wasn’t there when I embraced legalism. One of the big problems I have with most Christian books on sex is that they emphasize rules for their own sake. On one hand, some explain why God’s design is for sex within marriage and then scare us with all of the ways doing it wrong can hurt us. Not necessarily untrue, but also not helpful. Marginally better (but still not great) are the descriptions of why the rules work, what the benefits are. Again, not untrue, but it’s not what I’m looking for here. I mean, really? Is anyone inspired by Christian literature on sex to run out and give up everything for it (Matthew 13:44)? I’m not.

I want to see the lifegiving, lifechanging power of God in relationship and sex. I don’t want to learn how to save myself from drowning. I don’t want to learn how to tread water. I want to learn to mount up on eagles’ wings, to shoot past the surface into the air. I don’t want to just quench my thirst to avoid dying, I want living water (John 4:10). I don’t just want to survive, I want abundant life (John 10:10). I want the new self (Ephesians 4:20-24). I want to find God where the rules are fulfilled and the abundant life begins. Rules are the first step (if we understand the heart of them), but they’re not the end in and of themselves. Jesus is.

Maybe I’m blind, but this is just not something I see yet in Christian literature in sex, and it’s not something I see often in the relationships around me. So, I’m just going to go after Jesus Himself the only way I know how—keep getting rid of the things that don’t look like Him until I begin to see Him showing up more brightly and clearly. I don’t know what it will look like when He does step in, but, dear reader, I know it will be amazing.

Chips, Queso, & Sex Drive

One reader asked me to write about the male sex drive. Since I’m not male… take this with a very large grain of salt. Perhaps even a block of salt, or an entire salt mine. This is my take based on my non-scientific observations. Because you have to start somewhere… (I’m not even going to try to address gender identity or any of that. I think my brain would explode. Maybe another day.)

I wrote recently about how we often use sex to address loneliness. I honestly think a big part of our sexual culture (from any perspective—oversexed, undersexed, the rules we make, the rules we break) is not about sex, but driven by or shaped to address problems of loneliness and isolation. I think this is a bigger issue for men than for women, for two reasons. The first is that women are taught from an early age to solve problems socially, even problems that aren’t social in nature. Give us an engineering problem, and we’ll address it by building a team and talking about it. Men (for better or worse) are taught to be more independent. I don’t think either is necessarily bad—they both have advantages and disadvantages. However, when it comes to addressing problems related to social isolation, we women seem to be more well-equipped. If nothing else, we seem to be more aware when we’re lonely.

The second factor in difference between male and female sex drives is the fact that boys typically discover sexual self-satisfaction earlier in their lives and more easily. It’s just… out there and easy to find. I don’t have kids, but I’ve heard from many moms of boys how young they are when they figure out self-soothing. Disappointed? Sad? Lonely? Angry? There’s a quick fix that will make you feel great for awhile even if the problem hasn’t gone away. Again, I’m not going to say that’s good or bad. Just different. What it does, though, is open an opportunity for boys to learn to use sex hormones to address problems that could be handled differently. Girls may develop a bigger toolkit for dealing with disappointment because we typically figure out that mechanism for releasing our own pleasure hormones later in life (if ever). We have to solve social-emotional problems creatively.

Here’s another food comparison. (I make so many food-sex comparisons, I’m starting to wonder if my sexual preferences are more kitchen thank kink.) I eat emotionally because it’s worked for me my whole life. Sometime in my formative years, I learned that chips and queso make me feel better, even if they’re not solving my emotional problems. Eating gives me a shortcut to achieving my end goal of feeling better, even if it doesn’t last. It’s not the best, but it’s effective enough that I keep doing it (and I probably will until I find a more powerful alternative). I learned to do that from a very young age—it’s deeply engrained in my habits and very hard to overcome. You may laugh when I say that I NEED chips and queso, but it sure feels that way sometimes.

This is controversial, but based on my own experience I’m going to say that sex isn’t a critical need. We can live without it. People do it all the time. I’ve spent most of my thirties celibate, the majority of that time out of a choice to be faithful rather than a choice to be celibate. That was hard. I remember describing myself as a starving animal at one point. I wouldn’t have chosen the sexless years of my marriage, but I grew through them. I grew even more by keeping a celibate lifestyle by choice later on. Personal growth is not what happens when you are deprived of something you need. If you’re deprived of something you need, you don’t become a more complete person, you eventually go crazy or you die. Was it right for my ex-husband to deprive me of sex for years? No. I wasn’t happy about it, but I was ok.

Celibacy isn’t some magic that you either have or you don’t—it’s an acquired skill. I think sex feels like an urgent biological need because we’re using it to biochemically patch deficiencies in the things we DO need to survive, like love and help and relationship. That’s why, even if we’re getting sex, it can feel like a compulsion. The more sex I have and the less emotional connection, the more I’m going to feel like I need sex, regardless of how much sex I’m actually getting.

So you have a society that’s relationally starved, you have boys growing up with one powerful tool for self-soothing that is well-developed and other tools underdeveloped. Throw in porn, and discovering sex at a time when we’re just learning to function socially as adults, and it’s easy to see how sex can become a panacea for problems it may not actually be the best tool to solve. I’d be sex-crazed too if I thought it was the only way I could fill certain needs. Oh wait, I have been.

I think we (men and women) sometimes use sex as a patch for relational problems. My thought is that there may be reasons men seem to lean more heavily on it. It’s powerfully effective temporarily. So is cocaine, for that matter. But when the hormones wear off, the problem is still there. I don’t think that’s what sex is meant for. (Or, not the ONLY or even primary thing it’s meant for.) Like emotional eating, it’s incredibly painful to remove it unless it’s already been replaced with something else that will fill the same need. Don’t take away my chips and queso if I have no other way to feel better after a crummy day at work. Don’t take away sex if when it’s gone I find myself desperately, irremediably alone.

Polyamory & the Pence Rule

I started out this blog series intending to blog about sex every day for a month. It’s been well over a month, and I haven’t come close to blogging every day. That’s just WAY more writing than I can handle. I’m just going to continue on the topic, posting at random intervals until I get tired of it. How does that sound? 🙂

As I’ve been writing on sex, I’ve gotten a lot of reading suggestions from friends. I’ve been reading as voraciously as it’s possible for a slow reader to do. This suggestion from an old friend (who knows my background very well) was one of the more intriguing ones:

This is going to be an odd suggestion, and you are of course welcome to ignore it, but… The best sex/relationship advise I have heard since the end of my marriage has nearly all come out of the polyamorous/ethical nonmonogamy world. Which, may sound odd, but the thing is, in order to balance multiple relationships, you have to first think far more deeply about relationships than most people ever do to begin with, and then you wind up with far more practical experience than most ever get.

Based on his recommendation, I’ve been reading The Smart Girl’s Guide to Polyamory, Everything You Need to Know About Open Relationships, Non-Monogamy, and Alternative Love by Dedeker WinstonI want to make something really clear from the beginning of this post: polyamory is not something that’s on the table for me. It’s just not. Moral questions aside, I’m just not built that way. I could spill some serious ink on that, but I’ll save it for another time.

So, with that out of the way, can I say that my friend was spot on? Can I call myself a polyamorist who doesn’t believe in having multiple sex partners at the same time? The book wasn’t just packed with really good, practical advice for dealing with people (I learned more from this book about good arguments than I have almost anywhere else), there were a ton of things I agreed with on a more philosophical level. I’ll probably write more posts about this, but the huge point of agreement that leapt out at me was this:

The way our culture treats monogamous relationships saddles them with too much and deprives us of significant benefits from other relationships.

One of the beautiful parts of Smart Girl’s Guide was when Winston wrote about how much love there is to be found everywhere. How polyamorists don’t like to tie themselves to one person because there are so many amazing people in the world, because no one person will meet all of your needs. Smart Girl’s Guide talks about raising children in communities, about open lines of communication between multiple partners, about going to one person to meet some needs and another for others. That reminds me of how I’ve learned to live my life, first out of necessity but now out of appreciation for the richness of my life with so much love from all sides. Spending years in a non-functioning marriage sucked, but one thing it did do for me was force me to look for healthy, supporting relationships outside of that one relationship and to appreciate the power of platonic touch. (I also pursued less healthy alternatives, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)

If you pursue it, there is a wealth of relationship to be had. I won’t pretend I’m great at this, but it is something I value and appreciate and put effort into. I’m not currently in a romantic relationship, but I have friends I can turn to in emergencies. I have a whole flock of people who will give me long hugs or hold my hand when I need it. (One friend has a 20-second minimum for hugs. It’s the best.) There are people who cook for me when I’m sick and check in on me when I’m down. People who have held me so tightly when I cried that I got snot in their hair. (Yeah, that’s happened. Twice. You’ve been warned.)

When I talk to friends all over the country, it is clear that my experience is tragically exceptional. Our culture is suffering from a deep, pervasive poverty of relationships. I’ve stopped counting the number of friends who have told me they are chronically lonely. Stay-at-home moms and retirees who barely have contact with the world outside their homes other than Facebook. People who don’t have friends other than their spouses. Sure, some of that can be personality driven. Some people are super introverted and they are happy that way. That’s fine, and it’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about people who are lonely, isolated, and deeply, deeply unhappy.

What does that have to do with sex? Well, I’m glad you asked. The common thread I see between the polyamory book and evangelical “purity culture” is that both associate that kind of closeness primarily with sexual relationships (inside or outside of marriage). Smart Girl jumps to the conclusion that, since we should be pursuing deeper relationships with more people, we should also be having sex with them. Purity culture guards carefully against all kinds of extramarital relationships because it sees any intimacy as a stepping stone to sex. Think about the Pence/Billy Graham Rule, that implies that men and women shouldn’t be alone together under any circumstances because it’s dangerous to their marriages. I have married friends who don’t text or email friends of the opposite sex without including their spouse in the conversation.

Those are unfortunately not uncommon, but one less common rule I’ve heard of that is worth mentioning because boils my blood is a 3-second limit on hugs. Between anyone.(Old news, I know. But still annoying.) WHAT ON GOD’S GREAT EARTH IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE IF THEY CAN’T HUG ANYONE WITHOUT FEELING FRISKY? I mean, am I crazy to think that most physical touch can and should be platonic? (Seriously, even in a romantic relationship, how much touch time is spent on sex? Shouldn’t there be just as much time holding hands and snuggling on the couch and sleeping in each other’s arms? I’m a big fan of sex, but other physical contact across all kinds of relationships is also great. I want both!!) Okay, I’m done ranting…

So… let’s consider that we evangelicals may be addressing a culture that is relationally malnourished by cutting back its food. If I thought I needed to have sex with people to have those kinds of close relationships, I would. Oh wait, I HAVE. Having started an affair over text message, I will tell you right now that lax rules about texting weren’t the heart of the problem. The heart was loneliness. When well-meaning friends told me, “take these guys numbers off your phone!” that’s pretty much what I told them. If I’m starving, locking the refrigerator isn’t going to help when there’s a store right down the street.

I don’t think rampant infidelity (particularly in the church) is a problem created by easy access. I think it stems, in part, from thinking it is only (or even mainly) romantic relationships that will feed our need, then limiting other relationships to protect The Sacred One. We are afraid because our romantic relationships aren’t what they should be, so we elevate them by digging a deep trench around them, carving away, diminishing, even eliminating other relationships. When we’re trying to keep the bad stuff out, we’re keeping the good out, too. When we put all of our eggs in the one rather unrealistic relationship basket, we’re contributing to a toxically lonely environment for ourselves.

I think healthy friendships make for healthy partners make for healthy partnerships. I think it’s very possible that normalizing platonic friendships between men and women and building more community in general makes cheating less enticing. If I don’t depend on one relationship to meet all my needs, I won’t give up on it so readily. And–dare I say it?–it seems like sex should be better when it’s an expression of joy overflowing from the life I have rather than an act of desperate grasping for the one I don’t…

Waking Desire (Part 6): Love

This is the final (!) episode of a six-part story. To read the rest of the series, go to Waking Desire. (The posts in the story are listed from newest to oldest. I’m working on fixing that when I have patience to wrestle with WordPress.)

Also, I’m still working on my sexier posts. Right now I’m reading a book about polyamory. Intrigued??! Check back soon… In the meantime, let’s get back to Emmy and her trail Viking. This post is long enough to split into several more episodes, but I won’t make you suffer through that. 😉 Thanks for following!

Bryson would be leaving soon for some kind of orchard conference “outside.” (That’s how Alaskans refer to places that aren’t Alaska.) He’d be visiting his own farm and planting thousands of trees. It had been six weeks and they’d still only ever gone on walks. And in spite of very romantic things he said to her–like when she slipped on the ice, and he said “next time, fall toward me. That’s what I’m here for.” Or all of the lovely compliments he paid her–he’d never so much as tried to hold her hand. Maybe he was shy, but that didn’t seem right.

He left the state. He texted, but, oddly enough, only during the day. I won’t go into details, but Emmy knew enough at this point about men juggling more than one relationship to know that was a bad sign. She waited until he got back to Anchorage. It wasn’t a good day. Her car had been t-boned with her in it. She was sore, she was cranky. His text popped up, “Hey, how about a walk?”

“You have a girlfriend outside?” She was done waiting.

“Yes I do… What makes you inquire?”

“Needed to test a hunch.”

“No worries. I was trying to find a way to tell you. Sorry.”

Emmy was livid. That is not a detail you accidentally leave out of hours of conversation over weeks of time. She was mad at Bryson, but she was even more mad at God. God had lulled her into admitting desires on her heart that she’d been pretty content keeping hidden. He’d poked and prodded them to life again only to completely decimate them. Jerk.

Emmy was mad at God for weeks. Months, actually. Much longer than her time with Bryson had actually lasted. She still kept talking to Him, fists clenched, jaw tight. (God, not Bryson. That was O-V-E-R.) A friend pointed out that God doesn’t as us to unclench our hands to leave them empty, but so that He can fill them. Let go to receive, not to lose. She knew it was true but she didn’t want to buy into it. It felt too painful.

Gradually, the memories and her anger with God faded without being resolved. A year passed–a year that no one could deny was epic, even Emmy. Travel, amazing times with friends, unearthing new talents, reshaping her career… A lot of those things had even been spurred on by inspiration and encouragement from two of they guys she’d dated. Still, Emmy occasionally thought back to Bryson, wondering what he was up to. She never saw him, even in the big small town of Anchorage. Maybe he’d moved back to his orchard and his girlfriend. For some reason, she decided the story belonged in a blog about God breaking through to the small details of our lives, in a series about sex and relationships…

At this point, dear reader, I am going to shift to the present. I’m sure you’re shocked to learn at this point that Emmy is me. 😉 I never really knew what to make of this story. When I started writing it, I thought I was going to conclude it with a big question mark. I honestly don’t even know why I started. I guess I like to write about God moments, and there were a lot of them in this story. Maybe I thought it would help me figure out what to make of God’s seemingly contradictory, capricious behavior.

And then as I started writing, “Bryson” started showing up in my life again. That was weird. I really didn’t know what to do with it, but there was no way I could let go of the series of coincidences. Once would be one thing, but several times in one week… While I was writing about him… Exactly a year after we last talked… It was just too much. We met for coffee. Twice. He still has a girlfriend. The brief spark of “maybe he’s changed and now is our time–maybe God is making good on his ‘hold my beer’ moment” was extinguished pretty quickly. That wasn’t too surprising. What was surprising was that 2018 Amy has no interest in the guy. None.

Seeing him sitting in front of me raised the hair on my neck, but when we met for coffee… nothing. I wouldn’t be interested even if he didn’t have a girlfriend. Even if he hadn’t been the kind of guy to carry on an extended flirtation while hiding the truth about his availability. He’s cute, he’s funny, he’s smart, he’s interesting. I like where he’s headed if he chooses to follow the hard and beautiful course of his life. But I know myself a whole lot better than I did a year ago. I think I have a ways to go before I feel confident I know what I’m looking for in a partner, but I’m more confident in who I am every day. I can’t think of a better foundation than that. And I know enough now to know he’s not for me.

Talking to him again has been like putting bookends on the last year of my life. It has given me a chance to look 2017 Amy square in the eye. I don’t think I would have done that as honestly if my trail Viking hadn’t shown up in my life again. I’d have written this story and felt a little sad, and that would have been the end of it.

So, after all that, what do I make of all of those God moments, the beautiful signs written across this story? (Or, for that matter, the fact that they seemed to shift meaning over the course of weeks?) I’ll try not to make generalities about how God uses signs or why. I’ve been humbled enough by this not to venture there. But what I do know about Him is that He likes to be on the journey with me. (There’s a reason they’re called “signs”, not “arrival depots.”) He rarely offers easy answers. In my past experience, when His answers do come, they are far more breathtaking than the easy ones would have been. I think, given the choice, I’ve seen enough to know that I actually prefer the hard road when it’s the one God has laid out.

I’ve realized that 2018 Amy wouldn’t WANT to have a relationship just dropped in her lap like that. I want to build and hone my wish list with God. I want to grow and stretch into something and come alongside someone who is doing the same. Even if God did do easy answers, 2018 Amy would tell Him “no thanks.”

I’m learning that, for me, the exhilarating life of faith isn’t a passive one spent quietly submitting to the will of God (no matter how beautiful or how difficult). Faith pairs well with strong desires. Faith is bold. Faith takes action. Faith just doesn’t know what the outcome is going to be, and so it is willing to hold the methods for getting there loosely even while pursuing them passionately. When God does drop hints, they are typically more along the lines of encouraging me to boldly go into the unknown than telling me what is actually going on. It’s like driving a powerful car with great fuel in it, destination unknown (to me). God doesn’t usually work in my passive hoping, He works with me, through me, as I act on it. Hope and action: both are required.

I’ll leave you with my paraphrase of I Corinthians 13:8-13: Prophecies, signs, and wonders are just flashes in time of the glory of a timeless, infinite God. You think that you get it, you feel like you know, but knowledge is ephemeral. As beautiful as they are, these moments are echoes on the wind, a shifting reflection that disappears if you look directly at it. I used to cling to those, like a child. (Okay, I still do.) But, I’m learning to look forward to the day when I will know and be known in the unflinching light of eternity. So, where does that leave me? Faith has me hoping for things without knowing how I will get them. Hope has me holding onto desire, even when my own lack of control of the outcome makes desire feel like a hot coal in my hands. And love, the greatest thing… Well, what are faith and hope without a God of love who knows what I need before I ask Him, without love for and from others to fuel my engine?

Waking Desire (Part 5): Unravelling

(This is part five of a story. To read the rest of the series, go to Waking Desire. The posts in the story are listed from newest to oldest. I’m working on fixing that. When I have patience to wrestle with WordPress. In the meantime… back to Emmy and her lumberjack Viking.)

The walks with Bryson were the highlights of Emmy’s days. They talked about all kinds of things. Europe. Food. Politics. Their families. Trees (always). The end of the world. Bryson was a bit of a conspiracy theorist, but that’s pretty normal for single men in Anchorage.

They talked about God. Because, of course they did. Emmy sometimes wondered if she annoyed people with how much she talked about God, but she didn’t really care. Bryson went to church–he was the second person Emmy had met dating who went to some weird underground church that Emmy had never heard of. It met on Tuesdays in people’s houses. Or something. None of her friends had ever heard of it, either. She had a fleeting thought that maybe this was something guys dating Christian women made up. There was probably some Reddit discussion board called r/datingcrazygodfreaks where guys all agreed that Jesus girls find it sexy when you make up an underground church that you attend…

Emmy often had crazy thoughts like that, and she was never sure how crazy they were. She’d recently come to terms with some things about her marriage that she’d been unable or unwilling to recognize at the time they happened, and it was messing with her sense of reality. One day she wondered whether it was possible that Bryson was some random homeless guy who lived on the bike trail (there were some in tents near the bridge). He would always just pop out of the woods, supposedly coming from his home across the creek. A home she’d never seen… Of course, he did have a jacket with the name of a the large oil company he worked for embroidered on it. And he didn’t look or smell like someone who didn’t have regular access to a shower. But still… These thoughts were hard to put away, even ones that she recognized as pretty odd.

One more persistent thought she kept tripping on was that they never did anything but go on walks. This was great for awhile, but after a few weeks, it just got weirder as time passed. It was her habit to walk to her dog on the trail every day anyway, so she kept it up, but he never seemed too enthusiastic about suggestions to do other activities. There was always an excuse, mainly that he didn’t have a car. That didn’t seem right. Maybe he was shy? Maybe she just needed to be more patient?

One day, they passed Emmy’s ex-husband on the trail by the lake. He passed without a word, and his face was so stretched with stress that she didn’t even recognize him until he was already behind them. She was completely discombobulated, and told Bryson, “I know it’s a small town, but… He never goes outside! And definitely not just to take a walk by a lake…”

“Maybe he’s a daywalker and you just didn’t know it?” They both giggled, but the encounter rattled her. She just wasn’t used to running into him randomly, and with the realizations about their marriage that kept bobbing to the surface of her consciousness completely unbidden, the whole thing was more uncomfortable than she liked to admit.

She went home agitated. The walks were still enjoyable, but the generous smattering of the God moments she’d seen at first were getting fewer and farther between. Her experience of God in the last year or so had been radically different from earlier in her life, and very different from most people she met. It wasn’t a shared experience you could count on by checking the box next to “Christian” on dating websites. It wasn’t until Bryson that she began to recognize how much she craved friendship not just with someone who knew Jesus, but company in her ability to see and hear Him. Not all Christians she knew had that. In fact, most didn’t.

Today when they’d talked about God, Bryson seemed like he’d backed away from those shared moments from their first few walks together, the ones when heaven shone through to the bike trail and they had both seen and heard. Not quite together, but ever-so-close. Adjacent visions. Now he’d stepped aside from it, he talked about the importance of the Old Testament law, about how his main experience of God was that he’d come back to God and the law when he was angry at someone for stealing his car. Emmy was looking for someone who knew grace, who knew and talked to God like her. She had thought she’d found that, but… Well, it had been that way for a few moments.

She prayed, “What is going on here? God, I’m confused.” The fruits of the spirit came to her: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. If that is where God is, and they were in her experience, God was there, right? Emmy alwas tries to go where God is, and she began to feel encouraged again. She looked up the verse in Galatians. Yeah, she’d remembered it right… and then her eyes strayed to the next column. It was her verse from Isaiah. Wait… what? She didn’t know it was quoted in the New Testament.

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The context of it floored her after her last God conversation with Bryson…

“Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically… So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.” (Galatians 4)

Phew. Children of freedom require free parents. That… this thing with Bryson wasn’t that, that much was becoming clear. He seemed much more like a child of law kind of guy. He certainly identified himself that way.

That week she was reading Hebrews with some friends, and ran across chapter 4, verse 2:

“For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.”

Could… people could hear sometimes without listening? See without seeking? She’d met so many people who were united by faith but who couldn’t see and hear. Was it possible there were people who could see and hear like her but chose to ignore it? It seemed incomprehensible to her that someone would turn away from that kind of beauty, that anyone could fail to run after it with every ounce of their energy once they’d gotten just a hint of it.

Their moment was crumbling. Emmy hung onto the fading light of it. She didn’t want to let go in spite of increasing doubts. Besides, what was up with the conflicting signs? Why would the light of the presence of God shine on Emmy and Bryson one way one minute and another the next? Ahem, God? Why would you get my hopes up and show off like that if you weren’t going to make good on your “hold my beer” moment? Just thinking about that gave her a lump in her throat. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer.

To be continued…

Waking Desire (Part 4): Wonder as We Wander

A note before I dig into my story again… The events in this story were a year ago. (Almost exactly a year ago, as it turns out, although that was not deliberate. Sometimes I’m a little in awe of the power of my subconscious.) I saw “Bryson” once during that year. Once, until I started blogging about him. Then he sat in the row in front of me at a show. I saw him on the street afterward. I ran into him again at a movie theatre last night, again in the row in front of me. As soon as I finish this blog post, I’m meeting him for coffee, one year and one day after our last walk. Weird coincidences. I hope you’re enjoying the show, dear reader… For what it’s worth, I composed this blog post yesterday, before I knew we were getting coffee.

(This is part four of a story. To read the rest of the series, go to Waking Desire.)

Emmy had been learning not to believe in coincidences. This particular confluence of circumstances–God speaking, other people’s stories, a sexy viking on her favorite trail–was impossible to ignore. Was it really possible that, after writing about walking a relationship path with God before you walk it with someone else, she’d met someone on the bike trail where she liked to talk to God? There was a poetry to that too beautiful NOT to be true. Animated and a bit dazed, she told her friends at the party about Bike Trail Bryson. Most of them thought it was a lovely story, but one friend’s response stuck in her head, “That just doesn’t happen. Are you sure he’s single?” She didn’t know, but she felt certain. With all of those signs, how could he not be?

Bryson texted the next day inviting her on a walk. “Meet me by the Narnia light?” She knew exactly where he meant–the surprising street light in the middle of the wooded trail, the one that shed a small and welcoming pool of light onto the snow in the middle of the wooded darkness. Whenever she encountered it, she half expected to hear the foxes that haunted the trail begin to speak English to her. She’d called it the Narnia light to herself for months.

“Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .” C.S. Lewis

He texted again two days after that. Before long, they were spending most evenings pacing the several miles of wooded trail by their homes (he lived about half a mile away). She learned that he was an engineer by day, but while he was furloughed during a recent layoff, he’d gone down to Washington and started an orchard on some property he owned. He’d selected trees that would last a century or more. And some exotic trees… did Emmy know that farmers had grown tropical fruit high in the Swiss Alps?

He called her Sunshine. Sometimes he greeted her with a wolf whistle, sometimes with the Norwegian word for “hello” and a nod to his beardless Viking hat.

He loved all trees. He told her the story of the trees on their trail and how they’d come to grow in Alaska. There was a birch that had split, its top half bent and hanging from the base by a thread. After days of grumbling about the city’s neglect of tree maintenance every time they passed it, he brought his own hatchet on their walk. Jacket off, muscles taut, he hacked the last bit of connecting fiber away. It wasn’t that warm out, but when he didn’t put his coat back on, Emmy didn’t complain. If he wanted her to watch his manly hands turn blue from showing off, she was happy to.

The summer before, when Emmy complained about the dating pool in Anchorage, a friend had reassured her that someday she’d find an intellectual lumberjack. It was only a matter of time and patience. It appeared the friend was spot on with his metaphor.

The moments on the trail were magical, even though Emmy wasn’t much for trees and orchards. She could converse intelligently with anyone about almost anything, and talking with men about things they have a deep passion for is always interesting. But it wasn’t just a deep personal connection, or even his beard and sparkling eyes that captivated Emmy. What really enchanted her were the God moments that jumped out when they were together and the fact that Bryson seemed to be seeing them, too, at least at first.

She felt a little crazy when she told people stories like how God had given her red boots, but the fact was she didn’t really care if she was crazy. She would talk to anyone who would listen about what God did in her life. She told Bryson about hearing God speak to her on the trail they walked, about the beautiful and loving things He said to her there. A few moments later, as they were passing the precise point on the trail where God had told her He had made her part of a new family (a story she hadn’t shared), Bryson stopped. “Did you hear that, Emmy?”

“Hear what…? No, I guess not.”

“There it is again!”

“Still didn’t hear anything.”

“The splashing?” (The creek alongside the trail was frozen)

“No.”

“Huh. Maybe I’m beginning to hear God on the trail the way you do.”

Silence. They turned around.

Flowers in the snowOn their way back, they noticed something they’d been too engrossed in conversation to see before: someone had stuck fresh flowers in the snow with handwritten quotes and poems hanging from the stems. They were an odd and beautiful sight, these frozen reminders of a season of warmth. Bryson and Emmy stopped to read the signs. The significance of one in particular stood out to Emmy. She took a photo:

To feel God brush against her soul, and to share the experience with someone in the moment was something unprecedented in Emmy’s romantic relationships. Was this even possible? Her relationship with God and her conversations with Him were deeply personal. It was like the inner dialogue we all have with ourselves, except with another person inside the echoing space of her head. Was it possible that the ineffable beauty of God in her life was something the two of them could share with a third person? That would be something. She said goodbye to Bryson on the trail with a sense of awe and wonder.

Waking Desire (Part 3): Truth & Beauty

(This is part 3 of a story. To read the rest of the series, go to Waking Desire.)

Emmy decided to tell her friend (and herself) the truth. She described the dreams. She spoke up about her real desires, the ones she’d kept hidden so long, even from herself. This was the first time she would speak her desires to a friend, her longing to be married again, to have kids. It was terrifying. And powerful. And (she had to admit) liberating.

The next morning, Emmy helped out with the kids at church. The lesson was on Abraham and Sarah having their only child Isaac when she was 90 and he was 100 years old. (Of course.)

Emmy walked the bike trail together with God after church. It was a bluebird Alaskan day, when the snow is still on the ground but the color of the sun has begun its shift from cold blue to warmer golds and yellows. Snow sifted from the trees, catching the sun in glittering clouds around her. This is beautiful, God. Thank you.

What I enjoy most, my love, is you enjoying it.

Contented silence, then…Okay, God. I get it. What you did for Abraham and Sarah, you can certainly do it for me. I trust you. But, um… kids? I need a man. In reality, that was the form desire usually took for her. This time it was a bit turned around.

God responded, but the things He said to Emmy weren’t always in words. The best I can think to put words on this particular expression is something along the lines of “Hold my beer.”

Emmy rounded a corner of the trail and there, walking confidently toward her, was a man. He was wearing silly crocheted hat made to look like a viking helmet and a smile that openly welcomed the day. They got closer, and Emmy saw sharp, laughing blue eyes and a blonde beard that any Alaskan man would be proud of.

Their paths finally crossed. “I like your hat.”

“Thanks.”

“Where’d you get it?”

“Beardhats.com. It came with an attachable beard… I lost it.” His voice. It was even better than his eyes and hat and beard. He spoke like it was a song.

“You lost it? Where? Is it hiding in your actual beard?”

They both laughed and stared at each other a minute as her dog began to bark her fool head off. Emmy apologized for the noise, the spell broke, and they both moved on.

Emmy’s head buzzed. What was up with that? She hadn’t believed in that kind of thing. Romance was silly (and vulnerable). Attraction that strong in a short conversation was ridiculous. She must have been out in the cold too long.

They were both circling a pond in opposite directions, and she could see him as she continued her walk. He seemed to be seeing her, too, but it was not a small pond and it was hard to tell for sure. They walked a bit until they met again. This time, they stopped and talked over the dog barking. The dog gave up after 20 minutes or so, her vigilance ignored, and they kept talking. For an hour.

“Let’s do this again.”

“Yes, let’s.”

“What’s your number?…” Number given. “Okay, you’re in my phone as Emmy Trail.”

“And you’re Bike Trail Bryson.”

He texted when he got home, “That was a lovely way to spend an afternoon.”

“Yes, it was. :)”

Emmy went to a Super Bowl party later that day, where she learned that another friend her age was expecting her first baby. Seriously, God? You really like to drive a point home sometimes…

Emmy had been learning not to believe in coincidences. This particular confluence of circumstances–God speaking, other people’s stories, a sexy viking on the trail–was impossible to ignore. Was it really possible that, after writing about walking a relationship path with God before you walk it with someone else, she’d met someone on the bike trail where she liked to talk to God? There was a poetry to that too beautiful NOT to be true. Animated and a bit dazed, she told her friends at the party about Bike Trail Bryson. Most of them thought it was a lovely story, but one friend’s response stuck in her head, “That just doesn’t happen. Are you sure he’s single?” She didn’t know, but she felt certain. With all of those signs, how could he not be?

(To be continued…)

Waking Desire (Part 2): A Dream is a Wish

(This is part 2 of a story. To read the rest of the series, go to Waking Desire.)

Emmy had been having dreams. Strange dreams about houses that stretch and grow. When she woke up and asked God what they meant, he pointed her to Isaiah 54:

Enlarge the place of your tent,
    and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
    and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
    and your offspring will possess the nations
    and will people the desolate cities.

Wow. That kind of caught her by surprise. She wasn’t used to applying verses like that to herself. Commands and parables, sure. But prophecies that her study Bible told her relate to Israel…? Seemed like a bit of a stretch.

Once, after she’d had these dreams several times, she was driving past her old house, the one she’d owned with her ex-husband. She parked for a moment across the street. For some reason, she felt like singing a little song. So she did. And then she cried. That house had held a lot of promise for her. She missed it. As she was driving away, God whispered to her to go back to Isaiah 54. And there was verse 1: “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud.”

Sing and cry… Okay. Okay.

She had to admit that, if the God of the universe can speak planets into existence, He can probably inspire poetry that has figurative and literal truth for Israel and for her… At the very least, there might be some metaphorical meaning in it for her. Friends pointed out that the dreams could indicate an expansion of her gifts. She was spending a lot more time on writing and music, after all… She put that one on a shelf and thought about it for awhile.

After the baby shower, Emmy had dinner with a dear friend. This friend jumped right into it, “Emmy, if you found out your ex was having a kid with a much younger woman, how would that make you feel? I mean, I know you always wanted kids, and now you’re in your late thirties and still single. How would you feel if you found out that after all of those years of putting you off when you wanted kids, he finally came around and decided to have kids with someone else?”

Emmy wasn’t even a bit ruffled. She’d had practice answering this question, out loud many times, even more often in her own head. “after all we went through together, the last person I’d want to have kids with is my ex. If someone else wants to try that grand experiment, she’s welcome to it. Besides, I’ve never been one of those people who just HAS to have kids. I’m okay with it either way.”

What she said felt pious, but she realized as they came out of her mouth this time that they weren’t true–the house dreams were awakening her to something she’d grown so accustomed to ignoring, she couldn’t even see it. It was so simple to use contentment to cover desire, to hang onto the things she had because it’s easier than admitting she wanted something she didn’t have. Desire doesn’t feel pious, it can even appear ungrateful. Besides, once I admit to desire, I admit that I don’t hold control over my own life.

The friend went on to tell about people in her church who had been conceiving unexpectedly. There was a woman who had undergone extensive fertility treatment to conceive her first child. Several miscarriages left her a bit afraid of the whole process. She was considering trying for a second when a mundane health problem took her to the doctor, where she learned she was pregnant again. Three months pregnant, as it turned out–well past the first few months when most miscarriages happen, already safe the worst of her fears before she even know she was pregnant. Story after story unfolded. In fact, they didn’t know it at the time, but this same friend would find out she was expecting a few months after their conversation.

Emmy decided to tell her friend (and herself) the truth. She described the dreams. She gave desire a voice. This was the first time it would speak out loud to a friend. It was terrifying. It was powerful. It was liberating.

(To be continued…)

Waking Desire (Part 1): Cake Day

We Christians love to talk about how God is a God who gives good things, who is a God of order, who comforts us… all of these are true. But sometimes I forget that one thing He is NOT is predictable. He likes to surprise us. And man, oh man, when I really want something, being surprised SUCKS. To be more accurate, when I really want something, waiting sucks. He likes to remind me that I want something, then invites me to sit in anticipation of Him meeting that desire without having any idea how or when He’s going to do it.

Frankly, it mostly pisses me off. Imagine Mom coming home from the grocery store with an amazing cake. Teenage me has sworn off cake because I think it’s bad for me, and Mom is like, “Hey, I brought home your FAVORITE cake. Remember how much you love it?” Then she waves it in front of my face and reminds me of all of the things I love about that cake until I’m ready to eat it right now. “Oh, no, that cake is for later.” What?? When later?? “Oh, just… later.” And I’m stuck looking at and wanting that damn cake every time I walk through the kitchen.

That’s God in my life. A lot. It’s something I’m learning to enjoy about Him (when I can let go of the fear that He’s not going to meet my needs and desires), but I admit I mostly find it annoying. Think I’m wrong? Let me tell you a romantic little story.

Once upon a time there was this woman. We’ll call her Emmy. (I assure you, any resemblance to my name Amy is completely coincidental.) Emmy was learning to enjoy the heck out of a celibate life. She was getting to know God. She was learning to have better, more fulfilling friendships. She was discovering things about herself she didn’t know before. It was a beautiful time–a time she walked closely with God, figuratively and literally. She and God took long walks together on the bike trail behind her house. They had special spots on the trail where He had whispered loving things in her ear. Things like, “I knew you would be here when I put this creek here,” and “I’ve made you part of a new family.”

Emmy was happy and content. She’d seen so many of her needs for love and intimacy being met in unexpectedly platonic ways. She had victory over that irresistible craving for intimacy that had driven her to sex with the nearest attractive guys she could lay her hands on. Maybe sex just wasn’t for her. She could handle it. Mostly. She began to forget that she’d asked God for a husband and a family. After all, she was within spitting distance of forty. She’d never wanted to be one of those woman who freak out because her biological clock is ticking. Contentment was safe. Being content made it easy to forget that her deep desire for specific intimacy might still be there. She only knew two ways to handle desire: 100% containment, or unleashing the beast. Taming it wasn’t her area of expertise.

There were occasional prods, pokes that woke desire, caused it to stick its nose out of its hibernation cave. Uninvited moments that delighted her but also left her feeling a bit like she’d been ambushed. There was the memorable week when she finally connected with a neighbor the day before he was supposed to move out of town. They went for drinks after he’d found her lost dog, and they closed down the bar talking. He extended his stay day by day as they made a tour of Anchorage restaurants and bars, talking late into the night like they’d known each other for years. Then it began to snow. The threat of icy roads on the trip south finally drove him away, leaving her with ghost traces of his kiss and the pressure of his hand on her back. It was just as well. A pasture fenced by time (not heartbreak) was a safe place for desire to come out and play.

There were moments like that, glimmers, really, when circumstances pushed desire out into the light. Emmy didn’t seek them out, but she didn’t fight them. Then came a weekend–she joked to her friends that it was “fertility weekend”. It also happened to be the weekend of the Super Bowl. There came a weekend when desire was pushed out into the open, naked and blinking. It started with a friend’s baby shower on Saturday. This friend was Emmy’s age, and pregnant with her first child. Emmy had avoided baby showers for awhile–the reminder that her ex had never been ready for kids was just too painful. But she was past that now, and she went happily, the token single friend with a gift of wine to save for after the baby was born.

There was, however, something a little different this time. You see, Emmy had been having dreams. Strange dreams about houses that stretch and grow. (To be continued…)

 

 

Letters from Christ (Part 2): A Little Background

I’ve gotten a few messages from friends and family saying they wonder where I’m going with this blog series on sex. (Side note: it is a personal goal to get as many people as possible to feel comfortable enough talking about this topic to comment publicly. Right now, public commenters are the minority by a wide margin.) It occurred to me that I haven’t been all that clear about my perspective on this. The fact is that I don’t know where I’m going with it, either. I do not have an end point or goal in mind. Call it a performance piece. Call it an act of faith. I consider it both.

Let me take a step back and tell you how I see God work. That crazy book called the Bible is hands-down the most masterful knitting together of images and themes across historical occurrences over centuries that ever… oh wait, it’s the only one. There’s nothing like it. When I studied literary theory in school, I heard about (and from) Christians who were skeptical of the discipline because theorists loved to point out how many different authors there were in the Bible. People got all worked up because someone said that maybe Moses hadn’t actually written the books that centuries of tradition attributed to him. For my part, I’m always amazed that, with so many writers, the Bible is so unified. If you don’t believe me, find a Bible with footnotes for the cross-references. Every page has like a half dozen or more. And that’s the basics. Pick up a study Bible or commentary and you’ll begin to see more and more. There aren’t too many authors with that kind of complex cohesiveness (Shakespeare and James Joyce come to mind). But to do that with (at minimum) dozens of authors over centuries, and to have an Author personality that shines through all of the writers’ voices… If you study literature like I do, it really beggars belief. It is truly an amazing book.

But not only did God author the Bible, He’s the master storyteller of my life. I quoted this passage in an earlier post: “And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3) There are many, many verses about people being “God’s workmanship” (Ephesians 2:1), about God being our “author and finisher” (Hebrews 12:2). The way He ties images and events together in the Bible? He does that in my life, too.

I believe in that so wholeheartedly that I don’t feel like I need to know my endpoint to start writing about this. My Author knows where it’s going. If I give the process to Him, He’ll carry it to its goal (Philippians 1:6). I believe that God can speak to me and those around me through my circumstances. I believe my testimony of His work of grace in my life is the most powerful thing I can narrate, and I believe He uses my failings as well as my successes. I’m not afraid of me being wrong, because I have seen Him work more powerfully through my weakness than through my strength (2 Corinthians 12:9). So I narrate and leave the conclusion to Him. As Oswald Chambers says in today’s reading, “The well of your incompleteness is deep, but make the effort and look away to Him.” When I make room for Him, He shows up. Every time.

The questions I’m asking in this blog series? They’re questions I’m exploring as I write these posts. I started this blog series because I was dating someone I was really fond of (we’ve since broken up), and struggling to find a path that honored God with my body AND my heart. I had also started writing some parts of my life into my divorce memoir where it was glaringly clear that sometimes the things you do to avoid sexual immorality can be worse. You know, like pushing a boyfriend who wasn’t ready (and, in retrospect, probably wasn’t REALLY interested) into marriage so we’d have an acceptable outlet for sex. I don’t see anything God-honoring about that.

The Bible says that God doesn’t tempt us. But my pastor and another wise friend pointed out that He does TEST us. God does reveal when something in me heart or head is off as an opportunity for me to stretch and grow. Temptation uses my desires to stretch me toward disobedience. Testing uses my desires to stretch me toward obedience. Either way, there is tension there as I’m shaped to a new mold. If I look back on how God has worked in my life, He is usually very slow, careful, and deliberate when it comes to unveiling sin. It is almost never an overnight process, because body, heart, and soul have to step out of it together. When I feel inclined to do something I know is wrong, my first reaction is no longer to panic and try to pull the emergency break. I pull out the desire in front of me, prayerfully examine my heart with God, and try to figure out how I got there to begin with, how to get all the parts of me dancing to a different rhythm.

So, this blog series is me doing that. It’s me taking step after faltering step, nudging my foot forward and around with each one, waiting to put my weight on it until I can feel the rock of Truth under it. And sometimes getting it wrong. It’s my working the Truth into my life as it happens, with God alongside. (Philippians 2:12) Lucky you, dear Reader. You get a front-row seat. Better grab the popcorn.