Purity Rings & Other Lies

I was 13 when I put on my first purity ring.  It was silver and read “TRUE LOVE WAITS” in small block letters.  I loved that ring.  It was a symbol of my faith, my loyalty, my ability to perfectly follow the rules, and my worth.  I’ve always been a sucker for following the rules.  As Monica from Friends would say, “The rules control the fun!”  I loved the rules.  The rules shaped who I was.

I looked forward each year to the “sex talk” we were privy to at youth group.  All of the girls were hearded in one room and all the boys corralled into another.  The boys were lectured on the dangers of porn and masturbation.  The girls were told that sex would be magical if we would only wait until we found our one true soulmate, married him (always him – it was also heteronormative), and then had sex for the first time on our wedding night.  I looked forward to this weird, predictable litany because it reminded me every year that I was doing what I needed to do in order to be a “good Christian.”  I thought God would love me more if I followed the rules.  And every year I was reminded that I could check off another box on my Heaven Checklist.

What I didn’t see was how unequipped I actually was for a relationship.  We spent so much time talking about purity that I never thought to ask any questions about conflict resolution, loving communication, or how hard it is to try to understand the inside of someone else’s brain.  I thought that if I waited for my soulmate, everything would be perfect.  There would be no need for communication skills because I had saved my body for my one true love and that meant nothing would be able to tear us apart.  Everything would be perfect.

It turns out that relationships are SUPER HARD.  Even good, healthy relationships are (one more time for the people in the back) SUPER HARD.  I love my partner.  He’s the most kind and understanding person, and I know that we love each other deeply, but there are still times when we want to strangle each other.  We’ve had to learn how to ask for what we need, how to use “I feel” statements so that we aren’t constantly accusing each other, and how to talk through a conflict to arrive at the seed that it was really about.  I never learned how to do any of this in the church.  I had no idea that I needed to learn it.

Even more concerning is how my purity culture upbringing did not teach us about rape culture.  If anything, it perpetuated it.  First, the fact that we learned about our sexualities in gender separated rooms should really say more than enough.  The inherent belief that men have an unquenchable sex drive and women just want to be told they look pretty is the root of rape culture.  By learning about sexuality as a whole community, we could have fostered some of the communication piece we were so desperately missing.  Purity culture also taught me nothing about how to communicate what I want – whether I want to have sex or not, what to do if I don’t want to have sex, and what to do if I’m forced to have sex I don’t want to have.  It was presumed that all sex within marriage would be consensual.  (Hot tip: it’s not.)  There will be times that your spouse or partner wants sex and you do not and if you don’t know how to navigate that, it will be damaging.  

Furthermore, saving myself for marriage meant saving myself from all sexual encounters, even those that are unwelcomed.  There is an element of victim blaming in purity culture that is more than disturbing.  While it was never spelled out this clearly, it was only logical for me to presume that rape only happened to women who were actually asking for it – their clothes were slutty or they were drunk or they had been sexually active before.  All of these things fell under the category of not saving oneself, and that essentially negated assault as a possibility.  Being assaulted destroyed purity just as much as having sex with a high school boyfriend.  No matter what the situation, it was all the woman’s fault.

Purity culture has damaged so many relationships.  I’ve watched friends get married at 20 to avoid having sex before marriage only to get divorced a few years later.  I’ve watched women endure physical therapy well into their marriages to teach their vaginas to actually enjoy sex without pain.  I’ve watched people be exiled from their faith communities because of premarital pregnancy – planned or unplanned.  I’ve watched members of the LGBTQ community hide for decades (myself included) because of the heteronormativatiy preached within purity culture.  Purity culture hurts all of us.

I threw away my teenage purity ring long ago, but when I found out about Nadia Bolz-Weber’s plan for a vagina statue, I bought an identical ring on Amazon to throw in the fire.  If I’ve learned anything in my exodus from purity culture, it’s that we need to burn it to the ground and resurrect the ways we teach our children about their bodies.  Because if we want the next generations to fix this broken world, they first have to learn how to love themselves, their bodies, and their peers.  Following the rules will not do this for them, just like it didn’t do it for me.  Rings are easy.  Love is hard.

Why leave the closet?

It’s been a long few weeks, y’all.  Since coming out, I’ve gone to Wild Goose Festival (still haven’t written about that adventure), hosted my childhood best friend’s bachelorette party, moved to a new house, and sprained my ankle.  It’s been a time.  But through all that, lurking in the back of my mind was how to make sense of why I felt like it was important for me to come out.

I’ve been asked this questions several times, sometimes from people who are not affirming of the LGBTQ community and other times from people who are supportive and trying to get to know me better.  At first, I wasn’t sure how to answer.  I could only explain my coming out by saying that I knew I had to.  I couldn’t resist it anymore.  A part of me that had been beaten, oppressed, locked away, and shamed for so long finally had a chance to creep out into the light, and I was tired of telling it no.  After years of therapy and self-reflection, I finally developed the courage to say “hey, this is who I am.”  And once I fully embraced that thought, there was nothing I could do to stop it anymore.  For me, coming out as bi has nothing to do with polyamory (although plenty of people of all different sexualities are and find it fulfilling) or leaving my current relationship.  I am happy with a straight man.  But I am still a queer person, and I’m tired of being erased.

Bi erasure is a problem even within the queer community.  I constantly hear people say that bi people are just gays who haven’t come all the way out yet.  While that can sometimes be the case, bisexuality is also it’s own legitimate identity.  When I’m dating a man, I’m not “straight.”  If I were dating a woman, I wouldn’t be a lesbian.  If I were dating a trans person, my sexual identity would not depend on how they identified their gender.  No matter who I am with, I am still bi.  My identity is my own identity, regardless of who my partner is.  I do not want half of who I am to be erased simply because of who I’m with.

But it’s more than that.  It’s not just about me.

In case you’re not aware, the United Methodist Church is currently in the middle of a years-long debate about human sexuality.  For the past several General Conferences (held every four years – lining up with presidential election years in the US), voting on issues of human sexuality has resulted in arguments, protests, tears, and an inability to understand The Other.  Because of this current debate, I knew that I was putting myself at risk by coming out and simultaneously being a Methodist clergyperson.  I haven’t yet received any feedback from the church, but, technically, I could have my clergy credentials removed.  LGBTQ people are not allowed to be clergy in the Methodist church, which is a primary issue up for debate at all of these conferences.

The people in the congregations I’ve served need to know that someone among them is queer.  So many people who believe damaging things about homosexuality think that they don’t know anyone who’s queer.  It’s easy to have hurtful opinions about a group of people that you don’t actually know.  It’s much harder to look a member of that group in the face and share those opinions, especially if that person is a member of your faith community.  So, by coming out, I hope to also start conversations with people who don’t know where they stand and also with people who do know where they stand and want to have conversation about LGBTQ issues.  So if you have questions, let’s chat.

I want everyone to know who I am, even if it means losing a few relationships with those who refuse to accept me.  In this politically horrendous time, I cannot be silent any longer.  In a time when Christianity is seen as an exclusionary religion, I want to invite people on the margins in by showing them that I am on the margins too.  Being queer means so many different diverse things, just like the rainbow we wave, and I’m grateful to finally be a public member of this community.  So, let’s allow all the colors to be visible and make the world a little brighter with how fabulous we are.

 

 

GUEST POST: Who the heck am I, anyway?

I recently had the pleasure of getting to know Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass through the magic of Twitter.  A friend of mine asked if anyone she knew was doing work around #metoo and #churchtoo, and I immediately responded that I had done some writing on #metoo.  She connected me to Chrisie, who is doing some wonderful truth-telling, empowering work.  Chrisie and I immediately connected over being type 1’s on the Enneagram as well as our spirit animal, Leslie Knope.  We immediately decided to guest blog for each other.  You can find my post on her blog here.  Enjoy these words from Chrisie on the paradoxes of identity, realizing trauma, and self-discovery.

Growing up I thought that I would have life figured out by age 30. I would have a job, family, and know who I am and who I want to be. As I approach yet another birthday in my thirties, I now think that who I am and who I want to be is a fluid concept. Recently I have been reflecting on Psalm 139 and realized that I don’t really know myself as well as God does. In fact, in the last few months I haven’t been sure I even know myself at all. I find myself in a similar time of rebirth and discovery that I experienced in my early 20s.

I’m a 31-year-old pastor, mother, survivor, wife, advocate, and redhead. But am I more than those labels? Less? Confused? Lost? Can I accept the aspects of myself that I love and ignore the parts that I dislike or make me feel vulnerable? Is this how I want God to love me?

In the winter I discerned that God was calling me to embrace parts of my person that I have hid or shied away from. Most of life I have felt confused by who I am. I seem like mismatched pieces, incongruent and paradoxical parts smashed into one body. I love Star Wars but hate science fiction and fantasy, with the exception of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. I can ride roller coasters all day, but I am afraid of fast cars. I am an extreme extrovert, but I can read quietly for days at a time. I am ethically against divorce, but I have been divorced. I love pretty things, but I hate clothes shopping. I’m an incredibly strong and independent woman, but I ask my husband to fill up my gas tank.

I thought I had myself all figured out prior to this year and prided myself on my self-awareness and introspection. And maybe I did know myself, and simply grew and changed in the last year. It’s entirely possible as I had a baby and changed churches and roles from associate to solo pastor. God’s sudden call for me to expand my ministry and identity felt like I lost myself at best, a betrayal by God at worst. I argued with God and cried in the middle of the night. I didn’t know who I was outside of my call to ministry and I narrowly defined what ministry was. God did not. I wasn’t ashamed of my past, but I didn’t really share it for a variety of reasons. I didn’t want people to look at me with pity, I hated how people would see me differently knowing I had been a ‘victim’ of domestic violence and sexual assault, and I never wanted to hear “God is going to do amazing things with you, because of your past.” Why that statement made me crazy is a whole other blog post for another day, but I separated my ministry from my story, and I wanted it that way.

God knows every thought and every part of who we are. I believe that God is calling us as disciples to be on a constant journey to know ourselves. The good and the bad. The good so we can embrace it and the bad so that God can redeem it. A strange thing happened with I started to write and reclaim my WHOLE story. I felt more like myself than I had in a very long time. I found myself, when I didn’t even know that I had been missing. I found that if I went too many days without writing I felt anxious and separated from the Divine. Once I started rediscovering myself, I couldn’t stop. I got new glasses, launched a website, wrote a book, and dyed my red hair blonde. I joked that I was going through a quarter-life crisis, but I was lovingly reminded that I’m a little too old for it to be a quarter-life crisis.

In my self-discovery, I rediscovered the beauty of God. I fell in love with my Creator in a deeper way, because I had a deeper understanding of my own heart and life and who I am created to be. God already knows all that I am, have been, will be, and could be. The beautiful and the ugly. In my teens I thought I would know who I was in my 30s and in my 30s, I now believe that I will never fully know myself, and that’s a good thing, because I am evolving and learning. The good news is that God knows and loves me, even when I don’t know who I am, because God is the I Am.

About Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass:

Chrisie grew up in Eastern New Mexico and West Texas and is the daughter of a minister and schoolteacher. She went to college at the University of Texas at El Paso and studied Clinical Health Psychology and English and American Literature, where she graduated in 2011. Throughout her college years, Chrisie worked at various churches as and served as everything from an intern to a youth director to a children’s director.

Chrisie then attended Duke Divinity School from 2011-2014 where she received her Master’s of Divinity. She is currently an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church serving in the South Carolina Annual Conference as the pastor at Gilbert United Methodist Church. In 2012 she married Rev. Weston Pendergrass, who is also a United Methodist minister in South Carolina. They adopted a beautiful and curious baby boy in 2016.

Chrisie is a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault and suffered from symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during her seminary career. She is now a fierce advocate for women and women’s issues in the church and understanding of mental health and better mental health care available for all persons. Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass is available to come and speak at churches and events on these topics.

 

 

Shadow of Death

I was floating in a pool, my eyes rising above and then below the water line.  I remember a figure looming over the side of the pool, stooping down to look at me.  Next, I was in an ambulance, being told to keep my eyes open, but wanting more than anything to close them as I squinted against the sun.  I felt tired.  I was two years old and just wanted to go to sleep.  I remember being hooked up to all sorts of monitors in the hospital. My first memory.  Nearly drowning.

For a long time, I thought I wasn’t afraid of death, that it didn’t affect me.  I thought because I had experienced so much loss at such a young age, I was immune to grief.  My mother died when I was five years old, my gradfather when I was six.  Both of my grandmothers died when I was in middle school.  At some point in my coming of age, I began to take pride in my ability to absorb death and keep moving forward.  Funerals did not make me sad.  I was fine.

Simultaneously, though, my fear of my own death ran wild.  I developed nighttime anxiety.  I had trouble falling asleep and experienced what I can now identify as panic attacks.  I was convinced that I was going to be murdered.  Any sound in the house startled me.  I developed strange obsessive rituals to protect myself.  I pulled my blankets all the way up to my chin, reasoning that a murderer couldn’t get to me if I was covered up.  I made elaborate plans to hide in my closet or escape out the window if needed.  I also developed a fear of flying.  I first got on an airplane at 8 months old, so air travel wasn’t new to me.  Sometime in my teenage  years, though, I became convinced that the planes I traveled on would fall out of the sky to a firey death.  I was also afraid of swallowing pills – afraid I would choke on them.  I hid the vitamins I was supposed to take in a container in my bathroom so I wouldn’t risk suffocation.

My indifference toward grief was somehow counter-balanced by my obsession with keeping myself alive.  For the past decade or more, I felt shame for these obsessions.  I had never experienced anything life threatening, I thought, so why was I so afraid?  I lived in a safe area.  We had never had a break-in.  I had never so much as been in a bad car accident.  Why was it that I was experiencing such paralyzing fear of scenarios with which I had never come into contact?

Two weeks ago, my grandfather died.  He was sick for a long time and hadn’t been verbal for around a year, so in some ways I had been mourning him for a while.  I was asked to give a eulogy at his service, and I was glad to write and speak about him for my family.  However, as I looked around at my grieving family, I realized I was the only one not overcome with emotion.  Maybe part of it had to do with my need to keep it together in order to speak, but I know it was more than that.  Somehow, I had come to compartmentalize my relationship with death.  I could deal with the loss of others, but I had never learned to reconcile my own mortality.  And how could I, if my first memory is nearly drowning in a pool?

I am still learning to hold these things together.  I feel more sadness about leaving the ones I love behind when I die than I do about losing them.  I’m not sure what to make of that, other than to love them well while I can.  If loss has taught me one thing, it’s that living with secrets only brings about regret.  I am still frightened of my own mortality and pain, but the only way I have managed to release the fear is to know that I have no control.  I can try as hard as I want, but I still won’t always be able to protect myself or the ones I love.  So, all I can do is love them well, so that when I’m gone, they’ll know they were cared for.

Doxology

On Sunday morning,
the dusty organ tune
gradually modulates
from the offering hymn,
accompaniment of sacrifice,
as dry hands place freshly sealed envelopes
into cold gold plates lined with velvet,
to the doxology,
Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
We all stand and the pews creak with our shifting weight
to acknowledge the holiness of our gifts.
As I harmonize the Amen, Plagal cadence,
the organist’s skillful transformation
of D flat to G major
whispers
that I, too, can
modulate from
anything
to praise.

We Need Holy Saturday

Good Friday makes us uncomfortable.  The blood and the gore of the crucifixion makes us sick.  The guilt that all of this had to happen because of our own terrible actions in this world is almost too much.  And it is for these reasons that we must sit in this space known as Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

Most of us skip straight on through from Palm Sunday to Easter morning.  Those are the fun parts, the happy parts.  We listen to children sing and wave branches and sing Hallelujah.  But these two bookends of Holy Week mean significantly less without what happens in between.  If we consider the rest of Holy Week, Palm Sunday suddenly becomes a little more bittersweet.  While the people rejoice and make a beautiful gesture to Christ by laying down coats and branches, one that had been done before in their history to greet kings, Jesus knew what was coming.  He knew that because of these actions, he was seen as a threat to be exterminated by the Roman government.  He likely knew he was in danger by entering Jerusalem.  He knew the time was coming.  Yet, the people rejoiced and exalted him.

When Thursday comes, we remember the power of Eucharist.  These were the final moments of peace Jesus would have before the excruciating events leading up to his death.  For his disciples, it may have been just another Passover at first.  But then Jesus did some strange things.  He washed their feet.  He told them the bread was more than bread and the wine more than wine.  He tried his best to get the message through to them in these last moments they had together.  Not only was Maundy Thursday the last moments Jesus spent with those who loved him before his death, but it’s also Jesus’ final demonstration of what this whole thing has really been about.  He shows them humility.  He tells them that his body is a sacrifice.  He models the vulnerability of ministry.  And they still don’t quite get it.  But they will.

Then Friday comes.  So many of us don’t participate in Good Friday, especially compared to the droves of people who show up on Sunday.  Maybe it’s because we’re too busy or because we don’t see the point.  But there is no Easter without this terrible day.  If we cannot force ourselves to sit in the sadness and the pain of Friday, what good is Sunday?  If Christ is not dead, how can we celebrate him being alive?  We have to allow ourselves to experience the death to experience the resurrection.  In my tradition, we strip the sanctuary.  We read the painful Passion story and watch as candles get blown out and the adornments of the sanctuary are removed.  The crosses are hidden by black cloth.  There is nothing to celebrate.  Jesus is dead.  All is lost. It is painful.  I feel the weight of it in my chest.  Now, of course, we know what is coming.  But the disciples didn’t know.  They thought it was over.  When Christ declared, “it is finished,” it really was finished for them.  This man they had followed and given their lives to, who had shown them the face of God, was gone.  There is no victory in this day.  There is no hope.

Yesterday, on Good Friday, as I left the sanctuary of my church in silence, I was struck by the silence of all those around me.  We left the sanctuary without a sound and carried the reverence through the hallways of the church, only daring to speak once we had entered the parking lot.  The holiness of the pain and suffering we held space for was staggering.  The weight of Good Friday sunk in during these moments.  I was grateful to worship a God who understand my pain.

Today is Holy Saturday, perhaps my favorite liturgical day of the year.  That may seem like a strange statement, but the waiting of Holy Saturday sits true in my life.  In Saturday, there is tension.  Saturday is the day when the disciples began to process what had happened.  The tragedy was over.  The body was buried.  It was a day of sitting around and wondering, “what do we do now?”  It is a day of sitting in darkness.  In the words of Thomas Merton, “when the time comes to enter the darkness in which we are naked and helpless and alone; in which we see the insufficiency of our greatest strength and the hollowness of our strongest virtues; in which we have nothing of our own to rely on, and nothing in our nature to support us, and nothing in the world to guide us or give us light – then we find out whether or not we live by faith.”  It’s in the hours of Holy Saturday that we realize our weakness.  Human power cannot bring Christ back from the grave.  No amount of wailing or pleading done by the disciples could resurrect him.  They must have sat around together, confused, crying, defeated, as anyone does after a tragedy.  I imagine them sitting in a house all together.  No one knows what to say because the pain is too great.  They know they have to follow Christ’s instructions to continue to spread his message of hope, but things do not feel hopeful.  They feel broken and they only have each other.  Life feels like this sometimes.  In fact, for a lot of us, we often feel broken more than we feel resurrected.  And the feeling of Holy Saturday affirms that for me.  We have a God who knows suffering.  It’s ok for us to feel broken and lost and confused.  In fact, to fully open ourselves to these two days of mourning means that, when Sunday comes, we may rejoice more fully.

Right now there is pain.  But resurrection will come.  Be here in this pain, with me, with the disciples, and with Christ, but know that it won’t last forever.