A Tale of Two Loves (Part 5): A Love that Breaks

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love. (If you go back to read the other posts, start from the bottom. They are in reverse order.) This is a process blog. In this case, that means I’m writing about constrained love in an effort to write my own way out of it. Because once I’ve seen it, I couldn’t live in it even if I wanted to. This post straddles the gap between the two kinds of love, Constrained and… unconstrained, for lack of a better word.

Today it has been exactly three years since my divorce hearing. Before I left for the courthouse that day, I changed my Facebook profile photo to one from our wedding day that I had always particularly liked. I posted it because it reminded me of what I was grieving, of the days when I remembered being happy together.

Facebook has done its Facebookly duty and reminded me of this photo every year since. I don’t remember which year I noticed—maybe last year, when I was realizing some hard truths about our marriage?—I noticed that Josh didn’t actually look happy in the photo. I’d already begun to notice sadness in more recent photos—the tense eyes and drawn lips in face I knew so well from thirteen years of marriage and five years of friendship and dating before that. But heavy photo documentation of our relationship only went as far back as Facebook, and, in my mind, only back to the point when things turned. I assumed he looked happier before that, although I don’t think I bothered to look. A story I’d told myself was that almost every marriage goes through the “seven year itch”. Some survive and some don’t. Ours had gone into a slow death spiral around then, and the photos I see all the time were a reflection of decline.

But here I am, year after year confronted with a photo from the very beginning of our marriage where I look happy and he does not. How did I not see it before? A lot of soul searching has led me to one conclusion—I didn’t want to. And, to be completely fair, I don’t think he wanted me to, either. He did propose, he did say “I do.” There were always assertions of love and affection and a desire for marriage (and physical chemistry that I thought backed it up.) Hindsight being what it is, of course I now see that there were other signs of his unhappiness besides his smile on our wedding day. But he did say that he wanted the same thing I did.

Sometimes I get angry about that. It was, after all, a lie to tell me he wanted something that he didn’t. I get mad that he let me continue to believe in a marriage long after he’d lost faith in it (if he’d ever had it to begin with). I get angry that he looked for ways to be happy outside of our relationship when I should have been enough without telling me the truth of it. But the fact is we both looked at problems in our marriage without seeing each other.

I faced the problems in our marriage by trying to make it a better place to be, by making myself into the best wife possible. I read all of the books. I did everything everyone said to do to try to be the thing he SHOULD want. I worked my tail off to help him through grad school. I learned to be a “keeper at home”, keep house better, cook better, be watchful of what he said he wanted. I built this artifice of what OUGHT to be, and squeezed myself smaller and smaller to try to fit in it, hoping to give him room to join me there.

What I didn’t do was learn to see him as a human being. To see his hurt where he was. To see when he was unhappy without fearing what it meant for “us”. To continue to be his friend even when I was his girlfriend and his wife. I learned a model of marriage built on “shoulds” and “ought tos” that ignored the person—the people–both of us, him and me. I built my palace of obligation and hoped he would come live in it with me.

He never did. It’s no surprise to me now that it wasn’t very enticing—I wasn’t happy there myself. He escaped in his own ways. And the end I burst through the shell I’d built trying to make myself into something I wasn’t, someone I thought would be more lovable. Ironically, burying myself more and more in my desperation to be seen.

In my fighting for marriage and his running away and hiding from it, we missed what should have been essential: We missed each other. Focusing on what the relationship was (or was not), neither of us saw the person right in front of us.

I have every right to be angry over things he did and how he treated me, and often I still am. But more and more, when I see this photo, I’m just sad. He was my friend before he was my boyfriend and then my husband. In trying to fit marriage into our relationship, we stopped being friends to each other. In trying to squeeze into a box that promised happiness and God’s blessing, we squeezed out our best opportunities to connect.

Unconstrained love is so simple. Love the person AS THEY ARE. No preconditions. Not based on what they do, but who they are. Love their motives more than their actions, believe in their best selves. Remind them that you still believe in their best selves even when they fail, but love the failed person as they are, where they are.

Unconstrained love is simple, but it is not easy. It sticks its neck out beyond the safety of convention and social norms, beyond what I want out of the relationship, pushing everything out of the way to see the person as they are. It doesn’t shy away from the pain that’s inevitable with relationships because it knows the the love and true knowledge of the person there is worth it.  Unconstrained love looks absolutely treacherous until you know that once you get past the fear of what could and maybe even will happen, real life begins where love flourishes.

When I look at that picture, I remember that it comes down to this: unconstrained love for my husband would have meant setting aside my fear that our marriage would end so I could see him where he was. He was hiding, but I could have seen it anyway if I’d wanted to. (That’s the beauty and the curse of marriage–you really can’t hide.) I couldn’t handle that, I kept pushing what I thought ought to be, and it did end. Now I’ve been through it: I sacrificed relationship to feed my fears, then I saw my fears become reality anyway. Next time I hope I can do better. Next time and every day.

A Tale of Two Loves (Part 4): The Ghost in the Gap

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love. (If you go back to read the other posts, start from the bottom. They are in reverse order.) This is a process blog. In this case, that means I’m writing about constrained love in an effort to write my own way out of it. Because once I’ve seen it, I couldn’t live in it even if I wanted to. This post straddles the gap between the two kinds of love, Constrained and… the other kind. I’m not sure what to call it yet. Last week I wrote about my difficulty in speaking hope.

There was another divide I believe prevented my ex from hearing my hope. Sure, I didn’t speak hope often enough. But even when I did, there was often something in between us that filtered what I said and did before it got to his heart. That thing was the story he was telling himself about our interactions.

My ex was in grad school for most of our marriage. I remember once when I was frustrated by how long it was taking him to finish, he told me, “But I’m doing this because YOU WANTED ME TO.”

Now, I never once dreamed up a scheme for him to go to grad school. I have no recollection of wanting him to get a PhD. Or, rather, I wanted it because it was his dream. But it was never something I would have dreamed of asking for myself or for us.

They are strangely strong, the stories we tell ourselves about what people think. As a deeply spiritual person, it makes sense to me that these stories originate from an entity the Bible calls the Father of Lies and the Accuser. If there is someone out to destroy our souls, what better way to do it than by whispering lies into our minds about ourselves and each other:

“You are not enough and this person knows it.”

“You’ll never be enough until you can [fill in the blank: Lose more weight. Keep your house clean.]”

We are really adept at repeating those lies to ourselves ad nauseum until they become part of our identity. I never really recognized my own negative self-talk until my life hit the skids during my divorce. I mean, as a good, supposedly self-aware citizen of the 21st century, I was aware of the concept. But I didn’t recognize it in myself. One day I began to notice that I told myself stories about things people would think of me that almost never became reality. “Better sweep up the dust bunnies or your dinner guests will notice and have a bad time because they won’t be able to think about anything else.” Or, “Everyone is noticing that stupid thing you do at work and thinking about it all day.”

I kept track once and I had a thought like that every seven minutes on average. That’s nearly ten times an hour, every waking hour of the day. And of course 99% of these thoughts never amounted to anything. But that 1% is a bitch. It’s enough to make me feel like the other 99% is right. “I was SO RIGHT when I suspected Joann would hate my hair. And that’s just the one time she happened to SAY something. I bet she’s thinking it all the friggin time. And I bet Jim-Bob and Matilda are too.” Suddenly, being right 1% of the time makes this self- talk essential to my survival. I learn to lean on it to anticipate bad things people might say and protect myself from them.

If I see my negative self-talk as a worthwhile protective instinct, I’m bound to use it to protect myself in the relationships closest to me. And it’s in my closest relationships where I are more likely to have it reinforced by the occasional snippy comment or “constructive criticism”. If I’ve already talked myself into believing people think I’m worthless, any negative comment can send me reeling.

I’ve heard that it takes seven positive interactions to make up for one negative one. And it’s no wonder. Most of us are working overtime to convince ourselves that we’re not enough. We’re operating at a deficit before our loved ones even open their mouths.

I never asked my ex to go to grad school. But the facts of what I actually wanted don’t matter that much. He told himself a story that I wanted him to go to grad school, and he heard everything I said on the subject through that filter. Every complaint, every criticism, anything I did that touched on this sore spot for him was augmented by this idea that he was only trying to do what I wanted him to do. There’s a gap, and then there’s the inadequacy-whispering ghost who lives there, telling us lies about ourselves, lies about our loved ones, amping up our insecurities until they’re the only thing we hear.

It’s amazing how quickly this inadequacy-whispering ghost travels from person to person. Nothing trips feelings of inadequacy like feelings of inadequacy being directed at you (or even blamed on you). If I see a loved one hurting, I immediately blame myself: Was it something I did? Something I said? And if they’re up in my face telling me it was, that seals the deal. The only thing that will get me spun up faster than suspecting I’m not enough is someone TELLING me I’m not. I don’t know about you, but this is the source of the majority of the arguments I’ve had with friends and loved ones. It’s not about the toilet paper roll facing the wrong way, it’s not about whether you called when I wanted you to, it’s about what it MEANS about how you feel about me. I start voicing that, the person I care about says those things don’t really MEAN what I think they do…And around we go.

The lying ghost in the gap is adept at pitting us against each other when our fight is not against one another but against the lies he is telling us. (Ephesians 6:12)

Was it fair to me that my ex thought I was the reason he was in grad school? Not at all. And I put most of my energy into arguing with him about how unfair it was. But his belief in it was a fact I needed to face when I related to him. And it’s that belief that I butt up against over and over in my relationships with other people. I can focus on the unfairness of the story they are telling themselves, or I can help re-narrate the story. Constrained love insists on my right to be understood (which is a real thing. And valid.) I believe unconstrained love can set that aside and fight the ghost in the gap alongside the person I care about. Which do you think is easier in the moment? Which do you think is more powerful? And ultimately, which do you think most effectively paves the way for me to be truly and deeply heard, anyway?

It is NOT WRONG to insist on what you know to be true, to defend yourself. In some cases people’s self-deceit is so strong that you cannot come alongside and help them re-narrate the story. There is a time for digging in your heels. But that is a final battle time, when you’ve realized that the person is so lost to the ghost in the gap that you cannot pull them back. It is not the the starting point, and it cannot be the day-to-day operation of relationships. Day in and day out we are built to fight the ghost together, side by side.

A Tale of Two Loves (Part 3): Hope May the Hardest Thing I Know

This is the third in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love, A Tale of Two Loves. (If you go back to read the other posts, start from the bottom. They are in reverse order.) This is a process blog. In this case, that means I’m writing about constrained love in an effort to write my own way out of it. Because once I’ve seen it, I couldn’t live in it even if I wanted to. This post straddles the gap between the two kinds of love, Constrained and… the other kind. I’m not sure what to call it yet. 🙂

The day we decided to divorce, my ex-husband said something that has stuck in my head despite my best efforts to forget it. He told me that he knew when I asked him to move out that I’d already given up on him.

I didn’t respond when he said it. But if I had, I might have said something like this (and yes, I’m definitely this eloquent in real life):

“I didn’t give up on you when I asked you to move out. I did it with the hope and expectation that you could do better. That you would fight for our marriage, fight for me. And you didn’t. In spite of your friends and family encouraging you to. You gave up on us long before I did, and I couldn’t pull you back. We’re here because I could only believe in you more than you believed in yourself for so long.”

Looking back, I don’t remember saying any of those things. Not then, not ever.

I’m not rethinking my divorce. I still think it was the inevitable choice. I’d tried everything I was capable of at the time. But I would be a fool if I didn’t think about what I could have done differently. What I should have done differently because it was the right thing to do, even if it might not have been enough to save my marriage. What he said has stuck with me because his heart was in it. And because, in spite of what I tell myself, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that he wasn’t wrong.

Of course, let me be very quick to point out that I wasn’t wrong either. I did have hope, in spite of what he thought. I still do. I have hope for who I know he can be. I still believe in what we could have been together.

So where was the disconnect?

What I’m learning has everything to do with the flavor of hope, and what I did with it.

Last post I wrote about fear being like a rock in your shoe. It hobbles hope. It hobbles love.

Hope with fear in it isn’t shared. I keep it to myself.

Hope with fear in it doesn’t trust people.

Hope with fear in it doesn’t stick its neck out.

Hope with fear in it doesn’t talk about the hope itself. It sees the gap between what is and what could be and describes that.

Hope with fear in it looks for people and things to blame for not being fulfilled.

Hope with fear in it is so fragile that I don’t trust anyone else to help me hold it.

Hope with fear in it looks for anything BUT people to trust. Believe in the institution of marriage. Believe in conventional relationship roles. (Or believe in NOT marriage. Believe in eliminating gender roles. Anything but relying on the person.)

Hope with fear in it tries to control behavior.

Falling in love is an interesting phenomon. A lot of people talk about the foolishness of it. Don’t lose your head over someone who doesn’t check the right boxes, or you’re asking for trouble. Don’t lose yourself in your emotions. You’ll regret it.

I’m not advocating throwing good judgment out the window, but I’m starting to think that what happens when you first fall in love is a gift to the rest of the relationship, not a weird lapse in judgment. In those early days, our eyes aren’t clouded—they’re clearly seeing what we hope for the person, what we know they can be. Early love is when we catch the vision for what could be. Our heart sees without hurt. When things get harder later on, it’s not necessarily because we lacked good judgment to begin with but because we’re encountering the inevitable gap between what we are and what we could be. Our gaps are where we hurt each other.

Hope with fear in it thinks the gap is the trajectory.

Fearless hope thinks the gap is an obstacle we overcome together.

Hope with fear in it talks about the pain points.

Fearless hope talks about the goal.

Hope with fear says, “You’re not the same person I fell in love with.”

Fearless hope says, “I see your potential even when you’ve lost sight of it.”

Hope with fear in it builds walls and convoluted workarounds to avoid the same pain twice.

Fearless hope knows to expect the same pain several times in the healing process, and counts it as worthwhile.

Brene Brown writes that she and her husband have an old subway sign hanging in their home: “Mind the Gap.” Fear with love in it screams about the gap. Fearless love knows that it is a pain point for everyone involved and treats the gap gingerly, focuses on where we are going.

My ex wasn’t wrong. I had hope for him, but I didn’t speak to him about it. When I thought I was, I wasn’t talking about the goal but the gap. I held hope but blamed him for not fulfilling it. What good is hope when you keep it to yourself? Or worse, isolate yourself in it to protect yourself from the pain when it goes unfulfilled? Or worst, fight against someone over your hope for them?

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (I Corinthians 13:7) 

A Tale of Two Loves (Part 1): Constrained Love

I started blogging regularly back in January of this year because I was hot under the collar about how we in the church approach sex. (Not THAT kind of hot under the collar. Or not ONLY that kind. Yeesh.)  As I’ve wandered my way blindly stumbling to the unnamed core of what really unsettled me, I’ve gotten farther from sex and closer to–dare I even say it?—love. The deeper I dig, the more I realize that I have a lot to learn (and unlearn) about love. I’m not talking only about romantic love, but how I relate to every person or being around me—my family, my friends, my coworkers, even my cranky dog. That’s scary. Uncovering this has left me feeling so vulnerable it has taken me nearly a month to write this post—not because I don’t know what to write, but because I know that once I post it, there is no going back. There is comfort in the way I have done things for a long time, in the path that has grown wide because I’ve walked it again and again. But, well, we know what the Bible says about the wide path

I don’t think anyone who identifies as a lover of Jesus would argue that we should be identifiable as Christians by our love. We even sing songs about love—our love, God’s love for us. Love, love, love. Its depth, its unshakeability, its pervasiveness, its power… We read the “love chapter” of the Bible at weddings. But like a statue touched by thousands of hands, it may be hard to see the face of Love clearly after all the handling.

I’m not sure whether it’s the root or a symptom, but how we see Jesus lies at the heart of this. I’ve mentioned on the blog before that I think it is a problem that we see the end goal of Jesus’ redemptive work on the cross as saving us from our sins. Praise God, He has redeemed me from my wicked ways! I have power over my own sin, thanks to Jesus. I do not want to discount the powerful effectiveness of the presence of God to change lives. I have seen families made whole, addicts come clean, finances restored, hearts revived. It’s all wonderful. Miraculous, even. But is it the goal of Jesus’ great sacrifice and God’s work in our lives? And if we see that as the end toward which God’s love reaches, what does that tell us about love?

Let me put that another way: I think it matters deeply how we see the goal of the Great Act of love that we preach to everyone who will listen. If the “God so loved the world SO THAT” we might be morally perfect, saved from the power and destruction of our own sins—if that is its MAIN PURPOSE—what is the love that we are offering?

I have begun to see in myself (and lately it feels like I see it in every Christian book I pick up) a love with the goal of behavior modification. If I love someone, I want them to be who they’re meant to be. Their best selves. I show love by helping them toward that goal.

That doesn’t really sound so bad. Well, ok, “behavior modification” has kind of a nasty ring to it. But what’s so bad about the rest? Don’t we all want someone to come alongside us in our aspirations? To see us the way we want to be on our best days and to help us get there?

A dear friend who also grew up in the church said recently that she has had to learn the value of complimenting people because in her childhood church culture, it seemed like giving a compliment detracted something from the giver. That resonated for me, and it gave me a new lens to start looking at my own behavior and heart. I began to notice that compliments (given or received) often feel inauthentic to me. I am very quick to look for what is behind them. When people tell me things they like about me, I feel weird if I don’t take them as opportunities to improve the things I don’t lie about myself. Physical appearance is an easy example. My hair may look great today (thans for telling me) but I really need to work on my… Fill in the blank. Posture, eyebrows, smile… emails! I spent too much time on my hair and got behind on work emails before the day really even started! The list is LONG.

Turn that around. When I tell people I see something good in them, I sometimes have ulterior motives. Let me tell you this nice thing about yourself so that I can help you out of that really nasty habit I see in you. Doing this is such an ingrained habit of mind that it’s hard for me to even catch myself, but it’s there. The end goal is helping the person achieve a better state, so I think of it as a good thing, or at worst, a small thing. It is easy for me to minimize it myself because I don’t like to think about the ugliness of it. But think of it as a starting point, then draw a line from it into years of relationship. There’s a trajectory there that churns my stomach if I let my mind rest on it long enough.

WHY would compliments feel so inauthentic? What does that say about how I experience love? Thank God His love for me is unconditional. But if the nature of that love is correction, if I believe that the Great Being of the universe (the one who is the definition of love itself) shows love by fixing me for the sake of fixing me, if the end goal is just pulling me out of the actions and consequences of sin…

…I may show love in a new romantic relationship primarily by evaluating its moral status or value. Try having a conversation with Christians about a new relationship and time how long it takes to be asked if you’re having sex. Nearly every Christian book I’ve read on dating (or finding a spouse) has that as a starting point. Seriously, go check out the first few chapters of any Christian book on dating. After all, how can a relationship be good if its moral foundations are shaky?

…Stretching that into years of relationship, I may see my responsibility to my spouse and to myself in marriage as helping us stay on the straight and narrow. We are the light of God to the world. And if the message we are broadcasting is one of God’s goal of saving us from our sins, we’d better get marriage right. Marriage is a safe place where we’re meant to experience love and respect, but we may even twist those around to serve the end-goal of right living. The bestselling book, Love and Respect: The Love She Most Desires; the Respect He Desperately Needs sounds promising. We recognize the need for both things in ourselves. We long for them. When I first read that book, the title was Love and Respect: Motivating Your Man God’s Way. It’s clear why the authors wanted to change that title, but the yeast of motivation is still there. Check out the very first sentence on the website home page: “We believe love best motivates a woman and respect most powerfully motivates a man.” Is that our goal? Motivation? To what? Why are love and respect for their own sake not enough?

…I may evaluate the value of the charitable things I do based on how effective they are at correcting circumstances and behaviors. If I’m helping women in crisis pregnancies, how many abortions have I prevented? If I’ve “adopted” a child in poverty, does she finish school? If I’m coming an addict, does he overcome the addiction?

… I may think that my child’s moral choices are so important that I will sacrifice my relationship with him or her for the sake of highlighting the destructiveness of their behavior. Drugs, sexuality…

Is the main way we experience and show love as help living within the bounds of what is Right?

What if we’re missing the real point and real power of Love?

To be continued…

Why I’m Not Religious

It’s been awhile since I’ve stopped telling people I’m “religious.” More recently, I began to simply respond that I love Jesus when someone asks if I’m a Christian. If another self-identified Christian starts talking enthusiastically about their church activities or their theological beliefs, I try to steer the conversation away from programs and precepts and toward talking about God himself. And if I can’t, I quietly change the subject. You see, my love for God is something that consumes my life. When I won’t shut up about Jesus on a first date, my dates often wonder why I didn’t identify myself as Christian in my online profile… God is an all-day-every-day-of-the-week presence in my life. But I’m not religious.

There’s the obvious reason, the one that seems to be getting clearer by the day: the politics, of course. I have more and more trouble identifying myself as part of a subculture that publicly promotes things that churn my stomach. Yes, we need to come alongside one another with grace toward each other’s faults. Yes, I believe in actively engaging with the church to try to produce change instead of dusting my hands off over every offense. But a church that denies assylum for the oppressed or that promotes “redemption” as a tool for elevating oppressors leaves very little space for grace to operate within its walls.

I used to think those kinds of problems were a few very vocal exceptions. That it was not a pervasive problem. I used to hear the horror stories like that and think, “Okay, but those aren’t the Christians I know. Those aren’t most of us. That’s just a few bad apples.”  Then a few years ago, I began to change my mind. Or rather, God began to work on my heart. It started with reading the Cross in the Closet five years ago. The author—a product of conservative American evangelical culture—posed as gay for a year and wrote about his experience. Say what you will about Kurek’s means for getting the material for his book, reading that book opened my eyes.  I began to understand that I couldn’t dismiss the bad experiences of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as exceptions. I began to see the hurtful things that had come out of my own mouth for what they were. And from that point, I started to look at my dearly held beliefs a little differently. With a problem that prevalent, it was harder to dismiss the growing concern in my mind that there was a deep and fatal flaw in my beliefs.

And then I got divorced, placing me firmly in another population of people who are routinely marginalized and harrassed by good, church-going “Christians”. I count myself blessed that I’ve experienced very little of that first-hand. At worst, for me there was an expectation on me to fix problems that weren’t really mine at a high cost to me personally in favor of the marriage. I lost a relationship with some of my in-laws. But it put me in a position to hear about much worse treatment other people have endured. Here’s one lovely story: a friend divorced her drug-addicted, abusive husband after years of helping him against resistance very strong pressure from her “god-fearing” in-laws to overlook the problems. One even told her, ““we all know what single moms do for money” and refused to help her one bit. I’ve long ago lost track fo the number of women I know personally who were told to try harder in abusive relationships because divorce is wrong, or who were otherwise judged or ostracized when they should have been helped.

Hearing stories like that over and over is enough to make anyone deeply cynical. I am no longer surprised by the news that 71% of evangelical Christians are happy with the job that president Trump is doing, or that some are vocally backing a pimp for political office. It’s harder than it was five years ago to dismiss what’s happening as a “few bad apples.”

The point I’ve come to is that Christianity doesn’t work as a belief system.

Yes, you read that right. I love Jesus, I love the Bible, but I don’t think Christianity works as a belief system. In fact, I think it may be one of the worst out there.

You see, any belief can become oppressive when it is elevated over a person or people. Think about it. This is true on a small scale and on large scales, from momentary selfishness to systematic tyranny. If my belief that divorce is wrong is stronger than my heart for that person, then it is easy to justify saying nasty things to bring them back in line (or, in the specific case I mentioned, to tell that person’s kids that someday you’ll explain to them the nasty truth about their mother). If WHAT I believe is more important than people, it is easier to justify (for instance) supporting inhumane immigration policies because I believe their obedience to the immigration laws is more important to me than their humane treatment. You may be able to balance the two, but when you come to the inevitable point where you have to pick principles or people, elevating principles will almost always take you somewhere bad.

Like I said, I think this is true of any belief system. To pick on something easy, there are a lot of things that are compelling about communism. Redistributing wealth so that everyone has what they need? I get that. But if the idea is more important than the people, you end up with the bloodbaths of the Russian and Chinese revolutions… you get the idea. Yes, sometimes it is simply despotic opportunitists (a few bad apples) hijacking beliefs in a volatile situation. Yes, sometimes the truths driving the action are inherently wrong (saying a certain race is inferior). But sometimes it’s simply good beliefs elevated above people. Dogma and despotism are not far apart.

If being a Christian is entirely (or even mostly) about holding, spreading, and enforcing specific beliefs, it’s not a huge leap to the place where I have to make choices between people and abstractions. It’s not a much bigger step beyond that to taking my beliefs and using them to protect my own insecurities and vulnerabilities. It’s just a few steps farther to where I use ideas as a hammer to try to get other people to do what I think is right at the expense of relationship and compassion, all in the name of Truth.

But why would I say Christianity is the worst belief system out there? Because of the demands its laws make. They are not just demands of behavior, but of the heart. Look at the ten commandments: Worship God. Don’t Covet. Don’t Lie. If you dip into the New Testament, love becomes an explicit requirement. These go well beyond reasonable social contracts. In fact, I think if you tried to really enforce them, the social situation becomes untenable. If Christianity is what we know about God and His universe, if it is about getting closer and helping one another obtain knowledge of an objective Truth, if one of the foundations for believing God’s laws in the Bible are superior because they are the best foundation for social contract—we are all screwed. (Jesus’ disciples got this. See Matthew 19:10)

“But, Amy,” you say. “But, Amy, we (Christians) have Jesus!” Yes, we do. “We have Jesus who died for our sins so we don’t have to live up to those rules.” Yes, also true. But I am not convinced that we Christians fully embrace that any more. Listen the next time you hear the gospel preached—it so often stops at “Jesus came to save us from our sins” without adding the absolutely critical, life-altering “SO THAT He could be with us. SO THAT we can have eternal life united with Him.” The cut-off version of the gospel runs a significant risk of telling us God saved us so that we can live better lives. If improved morality is the end point, salvation is an event that simply enables us to live the life we ought to. It does not relieve us of the burden of dogma and despotism, it (supposedly) zaps us with the power to meet their requirements. We still end up judging one another and ourselves when we fail. Eternal life becomes a reward rather than a restoration of the state we’re meant to live with God. We are left scrambling after a goal that is still unachievable (just maybe a little less so).

Do you see why I’m not at all surprised any more that the same culture that produced the Moral Majority in the 70s helped elect Donald Trump? It may seem inconsistent, but that is where elevating dogma over relationship—where believing that Jesus’ atonement zaps us with special powers to do good—will get us.

Some people see this as a reason to abandon Christianity entirely. If a religion doesn’t work as a belief system, what good is it? For my part, I have learned something different over the last few years. I’m learning to discard faith in beliefs for faith in a Person. I’m learning to read the Bible to help me recognize Him acting in my life rather than looking for truths that I could explain and validate. It’s the difference between knowing ABOUT someone and knowing someone personally. It’s the difference between an abstraction and a life lived alongside a Person.

Religion as we typically think of it today is about a What. About a truth understood in my head. About a way of living that serves as a solid social contract. It’s about a better life lived through precepts. I do not consider myself religious because I have faith in a God who claimed that a Person is The Truth, a Person is the Way, a Person is the Life. For me, loving God isn’t the What but the Who. Instead of dogmatically explaining all of the things I think I know about Him and what He wants by hanging the ten commandments in the courtroom or pointing out the specifics of all of the ways people have broken God’s laws, I can point the people I love to a Person who loves them, who wants to know and be known. I can set judgment aside because the One who has a right to judge died for them and for me. I don’t need to use beliefs as a hammer to show people God’s ways and get them to act right because they have their own path to experiencing the Way themselves.

I’m not religious because I believe in Christ. Christianity may very well be the worst religion possible. To try to follow its laws is to set yourself up to fail. To insist that others do it is oppressive. I believe in a Person who uses those laws to remind us that we need Him, as a persistent call to relationship rather than a hammer to enforce behavior. Who called us closer as He delivered those laws and who ultimately suffered and died for the sake of being able to know us as we are. Religion elevates a way of life as practice. It shows us what is required of us for a good life. Jesus fulfilled those requirements (and paid the price that failing to meet them exacts) so that He could be WITH us. If I’m a Christian, a “little Christ,” I have to constantly ask myself if I’m doing the same. And right now that means not being religious.

Forgiveness: The Story We Tell Ourselves

A few weeks ago, I took an all-day train and boat trip to see some Orcas in the wild. (Side note: sometimes I read the sentences I’ve written about my life and I have trouble believing how magical it is. I love Alaska.) When I wasn’t gawking at the scenery going by (mountains, glaciers, moose, bears… Oh my) I was reading. Two books, both a lot to chew on: Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey and The Emotionally Abused Woman by Beverly Engel. I kept alternating between them because each one was a lot to handle at once. They made for an interesting combination. Two kinds of empowerment, side by side.

The Emotionally Abused Woman was illumating when it comes to uncovering pain. And, as my friend and fellow traveler (physically and metaphorically) pointed out, what woman hasn’t been abused at some point? The number of women I know who haven’t is very, very low.

It’s a good thing to uncover pain, to lean into it, explore it, get angry about it. The first few chapters covered that, but then the author had this to say: “The entire healing process would likely take quite some time. During this time, you would be working on becoming more self-reliant, learning to trust your own judgment and perceptions, and raising your self-esteem…” She goes on to recommend psychotherapy, group therapy. Years of both.

Maybe I’m a dreamer, but… why does that have to take time? I don’t buy that.

Lies are the foundation of abuse. Lies that stick, lies that we start repeating to ourselves over and over. I will agree that it often takes time to realize I’ve been lied to. Abuse imprints the lies so deeply into my psyche that I confuse them for Reason, Conscience, Truth. I begin to see my world through them. If I have lived in that cloud for years, it can be difficult to learn to discern what is fog over my eyes and what is True. The world clear of fog looks unnatural and scary. It doesn’t look Real because it’s been so long since I’ve seen it. That takes time.

But there are two ways to deal with that. One is to clear the fog with a borrowed story specific to the pain. Engel follows her statement about the lengthy healing process with a recommendation for twelve-step programs, specifically Adult Children of Alcoholics and Codependents Anonymous. I have quite a few friends in recovery. Some have embraced the recovery identity, and they are amazing people who have saved countless other lives. I have nothing but respect for them. But there are others who have stepped beyond the recovery community. They feel like the constant reinforcement of the Addict identity is too limiting, that its ability to empower has a ceiling. I tend to agree with them. I don’t want my identity to be Addict/Abuse Victim/[Insert Weakness Here]. I want my identity to be Amy, Beloved Daughter of the Living God.

The power of recognizing pain is that it shows me that I need to be healed. Like the blind man in the Bible, I need to recognize the pain and WANT healing before it can happen. But borrowed identity that focuses on the pain point only addresses one wound at a time (or several). If I build my armor for each flaming dart that comes at me, I will spend my life constantly building new defenses. “My name is Amy and I’m a…[fill in the blank]” only battles the [fill in the blank].

It’s a mentality that builds an artifice around each wound. It comes up with rules that help us battle the thing that hurt us before. “Never again!” I won’t belittle myself again by repeating insults in my head, and here’s how. I won’t marry someone like that again, and here’s how. It acknowledges the power of the thing without overcoming it. If I don’t transcend the fog—if I only borrow some lenses that help me see through it —it has limited effectiveness.

I want to learn to shine in the fog instead of waiting for the light to come to me. I want to be the lighthouse instead of listening for the foghorn. Could it be that this is what Jesus meant when He called us the light of the world?

That is the second way, to BE the thing rather than to borrow it, to tell myself a big story instead of small one that’s pain-specific. I recently told a story at a local story-telling forum about a necklace my ex-husband bought me. As I put it on for a date, I remembered some odd things about when he gave it to me. The past took on a new meaning, and as I unpacked the new story, the necklace became something different for me. I sat in that for awhile, feeling bad for myself. And then I decided enough was enough. And I rewrote the story—the meaning of the past—with the Truth that I know deep in the core of my being.

The thing is, the past doesn’t change. What has happened to us doesn’t change. How it affects us does change, and we have a tremendous amount of power over that. Forgiveness is an incredibly powerful thing for everyone concerned. Lifechanging.

I’m not recommending glossing over the bad things that have been done to us. Forgiveness is not saying, “It’s okay,” or “they didn’t mean it.” It’s not swallowing the bad things others have done to us. It’s not keeping quiet about them, either. I think real forgiveness requires feeling the pain—REALLY feeling it. We have to see and feel the pain before we can look it square in the eye and decide that it will not define us.

The best definition of forgiveness I’ve heard is that it is deciding that the sin done against you will no longer affect you. That you will not try to compensate for the loss by hurting others OR YOURSELF. There may be layers of things to uncover that we need to forgive, but as we do, the decision to forgive at each step in the process can be a quick one. It’s deciding that who I am is not about what has been done to me. It’s a decision that may need to be made over and over, but every time it comes up it can be a quick one if I learn to tell myself the right story.

Isn’t that what Christ taught us? His blood paid the price and we are now God’s children, no matter what we’ve done or will do? I can forgive because I’m forgiven. My identity no longer depends on what I—or others—do. I can suspend my “right” to judge because there is nothing anyone can do that can take away my right standing before God. If I can tell myself that story, wrongs turn into learning experiences. I can give away my cloak and I can turn the other cheek.

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.

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…