Abuse: It’s Not Only Where the Bruises Are

This particular topic has come to me three completely unrelated ways in the last week, so I decided to write an open letter to church leaders. I hope it’s helpful.

Dear Church Leader,

If you’re like me, you grew up in the church and heard many teachings about the sanctity of marriage, about what’s an acceptable reason for divorce and what is not. Guidelines. If we stay in them, we’re safely in God’s will. To start with, I don’t think that’s the best way to read the Bible. I agree 100% with my pastor, who preached recently that “It (the Bible) is not nearly as good at telling you want you can and can’t do as it is at telling you what the heart of God is.”

That said, what I heard over and over was the divorce is okay if there’s been adultery (Matthew 19:8-9), if there’s a non-Christian spouse who wants to leave (I Corinthians 7:15), or if there’s been physical abuse. Note that I did not list a scripture for that last one. Because there isn’t one. Have you heard or even taught that? Christian teachers throw that one in because… we love the people we’re teaching and we know in we hearts that some behavior is just not okay, whether you can find a passage in the Bible that spells that out plainly or not. But that’s as far as we’ll go outside the lines that are clearly drawn in scripture. If there are no bruises… well, we’re in a gray area there. Marriage is sacred and we absolutely need to press into the pain and difficulty, fight for our relationships.

But…

Consider that you may have a blind spot. That physical abuse may not be the Most Awful Thing that should push us past the boundaries of Bible-based guidelines, but simply one manifestation of something more insidious. It’s a blind spot I had myself until I went through my own divorce and started hearing the real stories behind other people’s divorces, the stories that they’re often reluctant to voice to counselors or church leaders, the brutal truths they’re shy to bring to the light. The stories whispered to me accompanied by a “I’ve never told anyone this, but…” Consider that by not really seeing these situations, we may be unintentionally burdening people with relationship guidelines.

Let me tell you about what a hard heart in a relationship can look like. Whenever I read that passage, I think of Pharoah, whose heart was hard. Who used and abused the Hebrews until they were empty shells of people. Who paid a high price to keep them with him because he could not bring himself to relinquish power. Do not discount that even though Christ has come, some hearts can still be hard like his, even hearts of people in the church…

It comes down to this: there are spouses who will use their partner’s willingness to sacrifice themselves for the relationship to destroy the person and destroy the relationship from the inside. There are people who are in the marriage with no intent to honor their spouse. Not just in the heat of the moment, but as a state, as a trajectory. Often, they get something out of preserving the marriage (respect in the community, free child care, or maybe divorce will cause them to lose their business or a lot of money–I see that one a lot). Sometimes, preserving the relationship is just about enjoying the power of it. They mistreat their spouses verbally but convince the abused spouse that it’s the victim spouse’s fault they’re not being treated honorably.

So you have a hard-hearted spouse who knowingly causes pain with no intent to rectify or repair the relationship and an abused spouse who leans into the relationship in spite of pain because when you’re married that’s what you do. The spouse who leans in may not know the pain-causing spouse is lying to them. (Sometimes to the extent of leading a double life.) The abusive spouse USES their goodwill and desire to work on the relationship in spite of the difficulties to get what they want.

The really insidious thing is that if the abused spouse doesn’t know the facts about the situation, doesn’t realize the abuser is lying, the relationship problems look on the surface like normal relationship dysfunction. One sermon I heard talked about yelling at each other, and that if you think you’re emotionally abused because you’re being yelled at, you’re mistaken. The fact is, sometimes it isn’t abuse, but sometimes it IS. If it’s being used to cover lies and cover patterns of behavior that are incredibly damaging to the abused spouse and to the relationship, it’s probably abuse. If it’s being used to control someone it IS ABUSE. Abuse is about power, about using whatever tool is available to maintain power in the relationship for selfish ends. Even physical abuse is about power. There are marks and bruises, but the real toll of it is that the physical beating hammers home lies in the victim’s mind that enable the abuser to maintain control.

Think about the Hebrews under hard-hearted Pharoah again. Imagine giving the Hebrews conventional boss-employee relationship advice. “Sometimes a job will require you to sweat and strain in the sun. That’s just what it takes sometimes to do right by your employer, to do your job. Man up and do what needs to be done.” It’s not untrue. But applied in the wrong situation, it could be incredibly damaging.

Be careful when you give blanket relationship advice. Of the people in these situations I’m describing, who do you think is listening to your teaching? Really hearing it with their hearts? The people who use marriage to get what they want while dishonoring and tearing down their spouses? Or the people who desperately want the relationship to work and keep trying anything they can find to make things better, who are willing to sacrifice themselves for it and do it again and again? It’s the latter. Emotionally abused spouses (often not aware they’re being abused) read all of the books, go to therapy (often by themselves), listen to the sermons–they try EVERYTHING. And all the while the abuser is telling them the dysfunction is their fault. So they’re trying everything and blaming themselves for failure when the relationship is actually failing because the abuser is tearing it apart. Conventional relationship advice given to abuse victims can actually enable the abuse by layering shame on top of the psychological power the abusers already hold. 

The worst part about this situation is often that it ends up being the abused spouse who has to pull the trigger on the divorce. Abusers are in the relationship for a reason, and they aren’t looking for a way out. Why should they? They’re having their cake and eating it too. This is particularly awful in the church. Abuse victims already feel bad because they think the relationship problems are their fault. They stop being able to cope–sometimes without really understanding why–and feel compelled to divorce. Since the abuser is good at appearances and lying, they shame the abuse victim for seeking divorce, often using the church leadership or teaching as a weapon.

There is unfortunately not an easy way to discern when this is going on. There’s no set of rules you can apply that will magically root out when someone is abused and when they’re simply tired of dealing with the difficulties that everyone encounters in marriage. I wish I could provide some. I will simply suggest the following:

1. Don’t be quick to judge or assume. Unless you know the person really well already, is HIGHLY unlikely you know enough to give practical advice. Remember those “I never told anyone this before, but…”s? In my experience, those almost always come out AFTER the separation or divorce.

2. If you don’t have a close enough relationship with the person coming to you for advice, build one. Speak life into the person, speak God’s truth, be kind. If her heart needs softening toward her spouse, God will do it. If her spouse’s heart is open to softening, God will do it. If there’s abuse that is hiding like I described, being reminded of her value in God’s eyes will help her recognize it and speak up about it. Love and truth will eventually push everything that is not love and truth to the surface.

After all, the heart of God is relationship, isn’t it? Draw near to Him and to each other. All of the other laws hang on that. 

Fat and Happy

I had an epiphany today. I am an emotional eater, and more often than not that means I eat because I’m happy. That’s right. It’s a GOOD thing. I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been, but when I look in the mirror, I see French cheese and dinners with people I care about. I’m not saying it’s phsyically healthy or even the best way to deal with happiness, but it’s not the way I’ve been thinking about food.

I was processing that epiphany and what it means for all of my posts where I’ve compared sex and emotional eating when a friend texted me:

“I made 5:15 [fancy special occasion steakhouse] dinner reserverations. Tonight. You in?”

“Hell yes. What’s the occasion?”

“I fucking need [fancy special occasion steakhouse] is the occasion. And you.”

Now, this friend… This will not be the last time he shows up on my blog, so I’ll give him a name—Bernard. He’s quite possibly the least Bernard-y person I know. I figure if I’m going to give someone a fake name, it should be REALLY fake. I’m tempted to call him “Not Bernard” or simply Bernard, but for the sake of my sanity and yours, I’ll just stick with Bernard.

Now, this friend Bernard has had one of the most horrific years I can imagine. And the last week has been kind of the brimstone icing on the cake from hell. When he says he needs [fancy special occasion steakhouse], that is not a throwaway statement. He’s had a horrible year, and he is a man who feels deeply. All the feels. Grief, joy, love, pain—he is not afraid of them.

I thought to myself, “what is it when a person who’s hurting deeply wants [fancy special occasion steakhouse]? I know this person, and I know that for him, this is not a distraction, it’s not a few moments of reprieve from grief. He will bring grief with him to dinner—I don’t think he’s capable of doing anything else. So what is it, then?” And something clicked in me. Something I never understood about joy in the face of grief, about whistling in the dark or the band playing as the Titanic sank or doing a happy thing because it’s what a deceased loved one “would have wanted”. It is this: that hopelessness is not our ally, that sometimes doing battle with wrong in the world means hanging onto joy with every ounce of strength. In the face of suffering (or, worse, the suffering of people we love), it is tempting to feel like I’m countering the Bad Thing by wallowing in sorrow, by taking the hopelessness of the moment and extending it into the foreseeable future. We embrace the reality of our grief and other feelings by letting them become everything.

Joy can feel inauthentic and disingenuous in the face of suffering. And certainly embracing distractions or numbing the pain can rob it of meaning. This is not the place for platitudes. But there is a place where real grief and authentic joy live alongside each other. Where solidarity with someone hurting or lost means that I grieve with them but hang onto hope when they can’t any more. When I own hope and joy and do not let the bad thing take them away from me even if my friend may have lost sight of them for himself. Sing and cry. Hold the light of hope in the face of darkness and loses its power to overwhelm. Weaponize joy.

I don’t know how to do this. I think… for it to be effective, I have to have one foot firmly planted in grief and one in joy. The thing is, I’m not great at either. I’m so accustomed to stuffing feelings away where they’re less disruptive. Bad feelings, good feelings, any feelings. I’m happy to draw them out in other people. But damned if I’m going to show them myself. I don’t have either foot firmly planted in any emotional space—I dance on top of feelings like hot coals. I don’t touch them any more than I have to.

When Bernard and I went on our first date, he got me crying (and cried a bit himself). We cried over life, the universe, everything. When you’re our age (around 40) and dating, there’s a lot of life to talk about, and a lot of it is emotionally moving. But having someone I barely knew SEE me—understand where I was and reflect it to me in such a powerful way—freaked me out. This was not the first time crying has happened on a first date, but it is the first time I was the one doing it. I’m happy to push and prod other people into vulnerability. But I’m not so happy to have someone else do that to me. I’ve gotten so adept at avoiding it by directing the conversation to the person I’m talking to that it is rare for someone to get past my armor. It was scary. I’m glad Bernard pursued a second date even after I turned him down a few times.

When I was going through my divorce, I learned a lot about vulnerability. I cried—openly—in just about every coffee shop in the city of Anchorage. Crisis got past my wall, and it was a good thing. But crisis and vulnerability have faded a bit, and with them my capacity to feel things. Not that the emotion isn’t there, but when I don’t express it, it comes out sideways. And I get scared and hide it.

Apparently I also eat emotion, bad and good. Which raises the question, what if I’m not eating to suppress emotions, but because for me it’s an acceptable emotional outlet? Eating quesadillas is easier than crying. Eating fancy steak dinner is easier than feeling… happy? I consume to express something that needs to come out, and eating is a way I know how to do it. It’s not so much that I am getting rid of the feeling, but that it needs to come out and eating is the way I know how to do it. In a nutshell, I’ve always thought of emotional eating as letting emotions have too much territory. I’m beginning to wonder if I got it backwards, if I eat emotions because I’m not letting them have enough presence and power.

I’m not sure where to go with it yet, but I’m going to chew on it awhile. And maybe next time I feel like eating a mid-afternoon quesadilla, I’ll find a way to let out the Amy who sings and cries instead.

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.

Say Your Big Dreams Out Loud

Today I turn 39. That’s a big number. For me, 38 has been a year of becoming bolder and thinking bigger. It’s been a year of learning to own my dreams and to believe in them. It’s been a year and a half since I began writing a memoir. It’s been almost that long since I registered the Trivial Circumstances domain name, unsure WHAT I would do with it but more certain about WHY. Writing used to be something I did in the wee, dark hours of the morning, quiet and alone. Writing was a solitary activity and I liked it that way. I wrote things I wanted to share, but sharing was the end result, not part of the process.

Last May, I was frustrated with my life the way it was where I was. I flew down to Seattle and Portland to be a tourist and visit friends. I was also considering moving. I wanted change in my life that was radical enough that I was considering selling my house and joining the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, stationed in Seattle. If I’d been able to get more money for my house, I would have done it. Writing was big to me, but I didn’t see it as the direction of my life. Doing big things meant doing them FOR OTHER PEOPLE. Exclusively. That’s what Christians do, right?

One stop on my trip was with a friend from college who has become a successful writer (like, multiple bestsellers successful). I wanted to talk to him about writing, but instead I made some excuses and ran away right after dinner with his family. I was intimidated. I felt like my own dreams and efforts didn’t matter much in the face of so much success. Why would I presume to waste his time? Never mind that this friend and his wife had made me dinner and shared their joyfully chaotic family life with me for the evening. Never mind that they would have been happy to talk with me about anything, really. They’re lovely people. I let the fears in my head get to me in a big way.

I shared this with Rebecca, another college friend I was visiting. I shared my writing dreams, my insecurities around my successful writer friend, my embarrassment over my insecurity. A few weeks after I got home, I received a package from her in the mail. It had some amazing 90s Star Trek stationery (!), a pencil that said “You Got This,” and a card that says “Say Your Big Dreams Out Loud”. She wrote me a note about being happy to be “seeding” my project. I can’t tell you how much that package meant to me. It was the beginning of sharing my dreams with the world. And what I found was that, when I feel inspired, I can share that inspiration with others. They LIKE it. When I’m excited, people want to be a part of my dreams. How cool is that?

From Rebecca’s encouraging seed, my writing has grown from a solo endeavor to a socially engaged activity. Sharing my writing has gone from something I dreaded to one of my favorite things about it. It’s not just that I talk to more people about what I do, involving others is quickly becoming and integral part of my art. Here are some highlights:

  • This blog, of course. Being able to write my heart and hear from people who are on the same path is life-changing for me. And I’ve really only been at it in earnest for about two months. I can’t wait to see what comes of it over the next year.
  • I’m helping start and lead the Creative Collective, an  organization for artists of all shapes and stripes. We meet once a month to inspire and help each other. People re-arrange their work schedules to come to this thing. We did our first showcase a few weeks ago, and it was AMAZING. Nearly 100 people came and everyone had so much fun we had to shoo people out the door after. Every month, someone does what we’re calling a “mini master class.” I’m on deck for May. I’ll be dusting off some of my art theory brain cells from grad school to do a talk about the presence of the artist in art. I couldn’t be more excited.
  • In the last two months, I’ve performed twice at one of the largest performance venues in the state. Twice. Once acting (which is hilarious to me) and once telling a story I wrote. Remember: a year ago I could barely even bring myself to tell people I was writing a book. Now I’m sharing my stories with hundreds of people (thousands if you count the radio broadcast and podcast).
  • I have three people on deck to start a Trivial Circumstances interview-style podcast! I know nothing about creating podcasts, but I already know it’s going to be awesome. I can’t wait to help other people share their stories. What an honor.

From Rebecca to my friend who writes to me about EVERY blog post to supportive co-workers to my writing critique group to people who find me at church just to tell me my writing meant something to them, I’m beginning to understand what acknowledgements section of a book is all about. I cannot do this by myself, nor would I want to.

I suppose you could look at all this and dismiss it as a craving for recognition or attention. Sometimes I think that might be it. But what I’m learning is that so much of the value I find in creating has come from the meaning my creation has for other people, the work it inspires them to do themselves. It’s not that I care that much about people thinking I’m awesome. What’s incredible is seeing the fire that starts in them when it’s ignited by my spark.

Art isn’t meant to function in a vacuum. Dreams aren’t something we’re meant to carry alone. They have a life of their own, a life that requires care and cultivation from more than one person. I hope that 39 is the year when I can empower others in their dreams and creativity the way Rebecca and others have empowered me.

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…

You Asked, I Deliver: Some Advice About Divorce

I got an email this week that started, “I have a friend who wants out of her marriage, or for him to shape up, but feels like as a Christian she has no option for divorce…” I get these questions a lot. As this same friend put it, “Being open and honest must get you a lot of feedback and questions. Like owning a pick up and always being the person who helps move.” That sums it up pretty well.

I’ve been hesitant to write and advice-style blog post about divorce for many, many reasons. But… I’ve been asked this often enough, there are a few common threads that I want to write about publicly. I’m addressing Christian women who feel like they’ve exhausted their options for fixing their marriages, because that’s who I typically hear from. If it applies in other scenarios, great. Either way, I’d love to hear whether this is helpful.

Dear Sister,

I’m sorry you are hurting. I can guess that you’re hurting badly because you’ve turned to me, and we live far away from one another or we’re not close friends, which means you feel like you have nowhere else to turn. It probably also means this problem has been going on for a long time. I’m sorry. I know the pain you feel. First of all, know this: You are priceless. Your presence in anyone’s life is a gift, whether they acknowledge it or not. Jesus died TO BE WITH YOU. That’s the end result of His sacrifice that we don’t hear enough about. He died for our sins SO HE COULD BE WITH US. He values our company that much.

I’m also hearing from you because you love God, and you just don’t know how to reconcile your situation with your love for Him. Bless you for wanting to do the right and God-honoring thing, for having a heart that desires unity with God and unity with your spouse in spite of extremely difficult circumstances. And when I say “bless you,” I mean just that. God will bless you, even though it doesn’t feel like it right now. Isaiah 54 is well worth reading—the whole chapter describes God’s love for neglected and abandoned wives. It talks specifically about that feeling of being abandoned by God. I started inserting a quote here and ended up with half the chapter. Just go read it.

Now, the elephant in the room. You’ve heard it a million times, like a broken record—God hates divorce. It is in the Bible: Malachi 2:16. Go look at the context, though. If you read verses 12-16, you’ll find that God hates all the things that lead up to the divorce, too, specifically (and repeatedly) when husbands who are “faithless” and treat their wives “treacherously” (depending on the translation). Yeah, if you’re writing to me, that’s probably gonna resonate for you. The conclusion of the passage? It’s not, “Don’t get a divorce under any circumstances.” It’s, “So guard yourselves in the spirit and do not be faithless.” As always, God cares most about the heart. I say this first because I hear of SO many situations where a person acts unmarried in everything except the legal document, leaving the spouse who would rather preserve the marriage feeling bad about being the one to actually file the paperwork. That’s just straight up cowardly. If you’re the spouse trying to fix things in the face of overwhelming odds and even opposition, you have no reason to feel bad about your actions. In fact, you should be proud of what you’ve been able to accomplish even if you’re don’t succeed at saving your marriage. I also say this because it’s important to remember that the heart of God is for our hearts. Jesus said divorce had been allowed because hearts were hard. If you have a hard-hearted spouse, God sees your situation with eyes of compassion and love. He cares about your broken heart.

Marriage is hard. Anyone who has been married knows that. Marriage is also strong. It can survive unimaginably hard times. Have real talks with enough people who have been married at least fifteen years, and you’ll find out that  “dealbreakers” like infidelity and major financial malfeasance aren’t as uncommon as you might think. Couples move on from those things to have strong marriages. But trajectory matters. Intent matters. Somewhere, there is a line between someone committed to the marriage who is just having a bad day/week/month/year and someone who is actively dismantling your union. I’m not going to pretend to know where that line is. I think that is an individual judgment call, one made after a lot of prayer. But it is there. I know women who have waited for years for their husbands to come around, and they did. It happens. But there is a point at which patience with bad behavior becomes destructive to everyone involved. Destructive to the person enduring it and destructive to the person whose behavior it enables. No one wins. That kind of destructive disunity is the thing God is calling out as bad when He says he hates divorce. I don’t think God requires us to stay in marriages that are defying His design for marriage at every conceivable point.

Here is my practical advice if you’re thinking about divorce:

  • Don’t run away from God. He loves you. The fact that you are considering divorce doesn’t change that. You are probably judging yourself for the things you could have done better in your marriage or for even considering divorce, He died so that He could look past those things to walk with you toward your breathtaking potential. You feel hopeless, he has plans to give you a hope and a future. Find a good list of the ways God sees you and read it as often as possible, out loud. Victory Over the Darkness has my favorite lists. Here are the first few: I am God’s child (John 1:12). I am Christ’s friend (John 15:15). I have been justified (Romans 5:1). I am united with the Lord, and I am one spirit with Him (I Corinthians 6:17).
  • Communicate and Calibrate. Find good people you can talk to. Wise people. People whose first response is not judgment or advice. People who will listen. Most importantly, people you are comfortable being open with. I hid a lot of things in my marriage from everyone. I was ashamed, and I felt disloyal airing our dirty laundry. Also, talking about it means admitting there’s a problem. Hiding became such a habit, I didn’t even bring some things up in counseling until well after my divorce. When you don’t talk to people, it is very easy to justify really bad things in your own head. I’ve seen people overlook rampant infidelity, physical abuse, drug use, even hiding dead bodies. When you’re in your own head, it’s also really easy to overreact to things that aren’t so bad—think about the little things that can upset us like husbands who bring home the wrong kind of cheese from the store or leave the toilet seat up. I’ve seen people react more strongly to incorrect cheese than to physical abuse—no joke. The more reasonable people you talk with openly, the better idea you’ll get of whether your reaction is proportionate to what is going on.  Try to include conversation with someone who has been through divorce. No one hates divorce more than people who’ve lived through it. They’re less likely to be judgmental and often more likely to give you sound, practical advice.
  • Consider separation. It may feel like a nuclear option, but it’s not. It’s a good strategy for giving you and your spouse space to collect your thoughts and clear your heads to see the truth of the situation.
  • Take care of yourself and remember that you’re not responsible for someone else’s actions. Even if you want to try to fix things or wait for your spouse to come around, that doesn’t mean you have to put up with being treated badly. Do what you need to do to ensure your needs are met, even if that means drawing lines that your spouse is unhappy about. He may try to use your healthy boundaries to blame you for his bad behavior. If there is harmful behavior going on, allowing it to continue instead of distancing yourself from it will only make the situation worse. Enlist support, because this will be hard.
  • Look at trajectory. Ultimately, you want to see evidence of where your spouse is headed, where his heart is leading him. If he is lying and persists in it, it’s not a good sign. Honestly, I think lies are the worst wrong someone can commit in a relationship. I used to see them as secondary issues—I did a bad thing, so I’m covering it up. Bad things can be overcome by good when people are truthful. If someone continues bad behavior but is truthful about it and shows signs of trying to fix it, you might actually be able to work with that. Lies prevent that. Lies put up barriers to relationship that can only be removed by truth. Fact-finding has limited effectiveness when it comes to lies (What will you do with what you learn? Confront the liar only to have him lie some more?), but I wrote about some other ways you can identify them in a previous post.
  • Pray. Well, duh, you say. Yes. Obvious. Less obvious is to pray for insight. Every time I’ve heard of someone praying for God to show a spouse’s true heart and intentions, He has done it in ways that cannot be ignored. I never prayed for insight in my marriage, only for healing. God very gently showed me later why He didn’t answer my prayers to heal our marriage—there were things going on I didn’t know about. He knows. Yes, pray for reconciliation. But also ask God to show you what He sees, ask Him for the truth. Even the act of asking can open your eyes to things you might not see otherwise. Also, ask God to give you direction–when to be patient and when to say enough is enough.
  • Try not to hide from people. There can be a lot of shame in these sorts of situations, even if you haven’t done anything wrong. Particularly at church. If you are around people who make you feel ashamed, find other people to be with. Try not to run away from people entirely. And try not to run exclusively to people who are also in the middle of separation or divorce—misery loves company, but it’s not usually helpful for much else.
  • If you’ve done everything you can, file for divorce in good conscience. You can’t make someone stay in a marriage they don’t want to be a constructive part of, nor should you.

I love you, I love your heart. You are breathtaking and amazing, and you will come out of this stronger and more beautiful no matter what happens. I believe in you.

Amy

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.