I’m Learning to Like My Anger

Last fall I was invited to a Bible Study with a group of women.

It was on the book of Jeremiah and at first I wasn’t really sure I wanted to join. I’m a little afraid of Women’s Bible Studies. In fact, if an event is put on by a church and has the word “Ladies” in the title, I’m pretty sure I won’t have a good time there.

The Bible Studies that I’ve seen aren’t for women like me: the wild questioners unsatisfied with most answers, the introverted thinkers who sometimes blurt out opinions sans context, and those of us who like to use some unladylike words to make a point or a joke.

I was also pretty nervous because I’m scared of the Old Testament and the God it describes.

The book of Jeremiah seemed as intense as it gets. It’s the story of one guy who acts as a liaison between God and a specific group of people, and it all goes pretty badly. Nobody’s happy, they stop listening to each other, and most the humans either starve or get captured and exiled. Not even God gets what he wants.

There really isn’t any way to make all that a nice story fit for a light discussion over tea and cookies. It’s more the kind of story you wash down with bourbon on the rocks.

So I took a risk and showed up.

But seriously, the Old Testament God seems kind of freaky, right? That God appears in fire and smoke, leads armies to do horrible things, demands weird sacrifices and the wearing of tasseled robes in his presence. He seems angry and that scares me.

Anger seems uncontrollable and the cause of a lot of violence and hurt, both now and then. When I encounter it in my own closet of emotions or sense it in someone else, I tend to shut down. I want anger to go away as quickly as possible, because I see it as sinful and unacceptable in someone practicing love.

But as I committed to the study, I learned something interesting:

God’s anger is never without cause.

I expected a volatile yet removed deity, but instead I read about a God capable of being deeply engaged with a group of people. Someone who is angry and destructive all the time doesn’t have the capacity to also be truly vulnerable in intimate relationship.

I realized that God gets upset at the same things that make all the muscles in my back clench around my spine: manipulative authority figures, dishonesty, greed running rampant, injustice, spiritual abuse, and using power to take instead of practicing love. I actually liked God a little more when I realized we get mad over the same type of abusive behavior patterns.

I discovered a God who allowed people to experience severe consequences for their bad behavior even while patiently seeking a better, peaceful relationship.

I saw God modeling the same healthy behavior that I’m learning to practice in my own life; I saw boundaries and grace, real consequences and overwhelming hope for restoration.

And I learned all of this with a group of women who, despite their diversity, are very much like me. We are all wrestling with our pasts and futures, the emotional and spiritual bruises we have, and questions too big for any answers. We all get angry sometimes and maybe that’s okay.

All of it helped me realize that anger isn’t a sin; it’s a sign.

Anger is a powerful signal, woven into our brains and bodies, that something is wrong. It tells us what is important to us and when that important thing is missing or in danger. When we suppress our anger, it doesn’t go away. It just seeps into us and ends up poisoning the ground with every step we take.

That’s the dangerous part of anger – not that it exists – but that when we don’t pay attention to it properly, it becomes destructive. And when we ignore the signals of anger and the need to set boundaries or work something out, we’re missing out on an important tool. The things we don’t get out in the open and aren’t willing to root up or trace back, those are the things that end up controlling us, even if we think we’re being nice or holy or peaceful.

So I’m done trying to ignore, hide, or shame my anger into non-existence.

In fact, I’m committing to anger all the more fully. I’m treating it like a valuable signal instead of an evil feeling.

Trying this approach with anger doesn’t mean that I’m now the nicest person ever. Sometimes when I feel disrespected by someone, I still want to burn down their house or at least their reputation online. But when I express those feelings in safe place, when I allow them to exist in my body and spirit without trying to extinguish them early, I’m far less likely to act on my revenge fantasies. As I explore my anger and the reasons behind it, when I listen to her, I often find peace that goes deeper than any anger shut up by will alone.

Anger gives me the ability to see my boundaries clearly and speak up when they are crossed.

I don’t see anger as an excuse to become violent or hurtful to others. We’re always responsible for our behavior whether we have the best of intentions or a surge of powerful emotion. And I’m still wrestling with the violent imagery in the Old Testament. I’m wary of a theology that comes from any aspect of God other than Jesus’ life and resurrection. But I was surprised to find, in the story of Jeremiah and the people from Israel, a God beckoning with love and strength and emotion that looks a lot like the New Testament Jesus.

And maybe, just maybe, the next time I hear about a Bible study that scares me, I’ll join in again.

But I’m bringing my anger along. Turns out she likes tea and cookies.

[photo: GerryT, Creative Commons]

When Words Cut Deep

On Saturday I cut my finger.

It was the usual way: chopping kale, chattering away and not paying attention to my hands. When I sliced into the side of my index finger, I pressed the cut with my thumb and kept right on talking.

I guess I was hoping the skin would glue back together, the cells would fuse or whatever cells do, and it wouldn’t be a big deal. I squeezed the wound shut, the pressure numbing the pain. I didn’t acknowledge it right away, hoping if I just acted like my finger wasn’t cut, it wouldn’t be. Physical wounds tend to make me queasy.

Days later, it still throbs. Every time I think it’s fine, I take off the bandage and my puffy skin returns to a normal color, then I inevitably bash my finger on the side of my desk or while cleaning a dish in the sink and it bleeds again. As much as I want to use it as an excuse to stop working and washing dishes, mostly it reminds me that healing is a process I can’t rush.

On Sunday my friend cut me off.

I guessed something was wrong, we hadn’t talked in a few months, but we’re both in busy seasons of life and it could have been just one of those things. After a decade of friendship, you get used to the waxes and wanes. They don’t worry you as much, because you know you’ll eventually acknowledge them and tune your rhythms together again, and be stronger for it.

But not this time.

I heard the intention of care in her words, even though they gashed into me deeply. It came down to the fact that my life and faith are not fitting with her vision for my life and faith, so we are going separate ways for now.

I pressed my wound tightly for a few days, receding into my introverted space to grieve her words. I cocooned myself into the safety of books, cooking good food and going to bed early, and let’s be honest, probably drinking too much wine. I tried to compartmentalize and just get over it. But when I pulled off the band-aid too quickly, when I tried to pretend like it wasn’t a big deal and just move on like normal, it didn’t work. I started bleeding all over the place.

 A week later, her words still throb in my ears.

It’s like that party trick where someone grabs the tablecloth and tries to yank it off without disturbing a thing, but the table settings spill everywhere. Except it was me spilling everywhere. It was my hurt, infecting my work and writing and conversations. And I could easily blame it on her.

What she did and said was hurtful, even if she meant goodness for me. But I have to acknowledge that these wounds of mine were there long before she added hers. I do enough spilling and hurting on my own, with no one to blame but myself. It doesn’t excuse anyone’s behavior, but it helps me to remember that sometimes we bashing into each other unintentionally, even while trying to do our best.

And I’m reminded again that healing is a process I can’t force.

I went to counseling last year. This in itself is nothing spectacular. I think going to counseling should be one of those routine, mundane things like getting your teeth cleaned. It should be insightful and helpful, and hopefully more inspiring to health than the free toothbrush you’re offered on the way out the Dentist’s door.

One thing I appreciate about the practice of counseling is that it is all about the process. Direction is helpful, but if you go in with the results mapped out and all of your outcomes plotted on a graph, you’re going to be disappointed. And a good counselor will probably gently take the planned Healing 101 syllabus from your hands and set it aside and tell you that if you are looking for sure results, you might as well play the lottery. For investment purposes.

This is what is so tough about healing, and about living, too.

We cannot control it. We cannot make other people understand or like us, we cannot willpower our cuts to heal. We have to look at these wounds, clean them as best we can, put on bandages, and wait. We have to be gentle with ourselves and diligent in our attention to grace for our hurts and the people who cause them. We have to accept that our healing may not look like anyone else’s or even fit our own expectations.

We have to learn how to set boundaries for ourselves in scenarios where people are hurtful, even if they mean well.

Maybe things will change and my friend and I will be reconciled someday. I wouldn’t put it past the God of Reconciliation to get involved in that type of healing. But maybe we won’t and we’ll both heal on our own, in different ways.

But the thing that I know for sure is that, as I tread cautiously for a while, I’m not quitting. We don’t have to stop using knives when they cut and we don’t have to stop building relationships when they hurt. We can recommit to careful usage, honesty, healthy boundaries, and willingness to walk out the rest.

We can seek deeper healing even as we tend fresh wounds.

[Photo:  Victor Bezrukov, Creative Commons]

I Don’t Think God Has A Plan For My Love Life

He got my hopes up.

I was cautious, but I was hopeful. Hope is a tough one for me. It’s a word that circles around me; one I wish I could grab more often than I do. Usually I smile at hope as it fires past with someone else in tow.

But this time it was me. And I liked him. And he liked me back. Hope grew.

Who or when or why doesn’t really matter. But I will tell you that I was impressed by his heart and wit, couldn’t stop staring at his mouth, we had history and values in common, and he called off our camaraderie with no explanation at 1am via text message while I was on vacation.

Yikes.

It’s Valentine’s Day, so thoughts turn to romances old and new, steady and broken, whether we like it or not. It doesn’t really matter anymore if Saint Valentine wasn’t an archer, that this is a holiday made up by corporations to bridge the commercial lull between Christmas and Easter, or that naked babies arranging your love life from the clouds is an absolutely terrible idea.

We all have these stories. We all have stories of hope.

I’ll bet whether you’re committed or single, young or old, you know the sensation of giving up your cynicism about something or someone. You’ve felt a cautious hope lighting up inside you for a person or opportunity that seems really good, almost too good, but not quite so good that it’s impossible. You risk a little bit. You see reason to proceed. You hope a little bit more. You delight in this act of opening up to something new.

And it goes on.

Until it simply doesn’t.

Some people try to tell me that this is God’s plan. They write their stories, about all of the twists and turns that lead to marriage or the romance they have now. They assure me that I’m not behind schedule because I’m single, that God doesn’t operate on our schedules anyway, that I should focus on becoming The One for someone else, that God’s timetable is perfect if I just accept it. They have good stories full of true bravery and hope and yes, I can see God in it.

But I don’t think God has a plan.

At least, I don’t think God has a plan in the way that we talk about God having a plan.

See, people tend to talk about God having a plan like it’s linear and like it’s going to get better as it goes along. When this conversation plays out, singleness is a “stage” or “season” preparing me for some sort of glorious future that involves marriage.

Whenever it’s set up like this, marriage is the happiness offered to me at the end of the plan if I just stick it out. This leaves many of us constantly worrying about whether or not we’re “on plan” currently or feeling shame and questioning God when things go badly.

Because if God has a plan like that for my love life, it really sucks.

If God is charting and manipulating my relationship journey so I, The One, can finally meet you, The One, and then everything will be fine, then I want off this boat. Not because I want to quit difficult things or avoid challenges or stop growing or don’t trust God. It’s not even because I don’t think that romantic longevity is possible; I think it it absolutely is.

But this “plan” thing seems like it’s totally crazy making. It involves me saying that a large section of my life will only matter once I have a ring and some holy vows to mark it. It eliminates the stories of suffering or pain that happen in marriages, even good ones that last. It requires me to pretend like getting dumped by someone I was beginning to trust, someone I saw as a friend and colleague, doesn’t suck. Whether or not I get married some day will not change the pain of that experience. And the suggestion that God’s plan was behind that pain rather than a human decision makes God out to be kind of sadistic.

And the suggestion that God’s plan was behind that pain rather than a human decision makes God out to be kind of sadistic.

And, let’s get real, I don’t think that happiness is something I have to wait for or even find ultimately in a romantic relationship. I am not living in some sort of false enjoyment of life until I have a husband to make it real. This is my real life, now, and it is disappointing and it is good. And my faith in God is what helps me distinguish those two things.

When we only offer the “God has a plan” narrative, the one that says you must simply plod through all the hard things until they are magically revealed to have been good things or that they led you to good things, we are removing ourselves from reality.

My experience with God offers me a deeper centering in reality, not escapism. I don’t remember any stories of Jesus telling people someday their pain would make sense, that in the future they’d get something that would be better than healing in the moment.

Jesus stood with people.

He saw, touched, healed, and planted himself very much in their lives by inviting himself to dinner. He didn’t fix every single detail of their disappointments, but he didn’t offer people platitudes that his Father created their sufferings for some personal glory.

He walked around calling evil for what it was, driving it out, and weeping with those who experienced the death of hope.

And that, to me changes everything. I haven’t quite sorted out exactly how God works with us without controlling every detail, but it brings me comfort. It’s so much more powerful that trying to follow a map or hoping that other people are following their maps so that we can get past this mess and just get married. If there’s no map, but there is an incarnate God who will stand with us and for us, we can have peace even when things fall apart. We can simply engage with reality and ask God to meet us, wherever we are.

I don’t need a God with a blueprint plan if I can have a God who is with me.

Speak Up! Do you think God has a plan for your life? Does it help you through hardship? How do you experience God’s presence?

[Photo:  tmarsee530, Creative Commons]

The Day I Turned in My V-Card

My most life changing realizations happen in weird locations.

I’ve now had dramatic and lasting plot twists on an airplane, in my car, in a taco shop, and now, at a gluten free bakery. I can’t decide if it’s more exciting or terrifying that redirection can happen to me at any time, in any average place, but here it goes!

On a lovely fall day I was sitting in that bakery, snipping at a gluten free ginger scone, and all of a sudden I realized:

I’m not a virgin anymore.

I’m not saying I had sex in a gluten-free bakery, you guys. Please. The scones are very good, but not that good.

I am saying that in that bright little place, I broke a barrier and gave up an idea I’d held onto as a “Good Christian Girl” for a long, long time. If you grew up in American Christian culture, you know that a statement like mine is one of the most life changing, socially desolating, parentally disappointing pronouncements you can make. Especially if you’re a girl.

But I don’t care anymore; I’m done with virginity.

I’m done with that word and that idea. I’m done defining myself, my past and my future, in terms of who’s what has been where, or hasn’t. I’m done with stories for virgins and non-virgins, promises and praises, and sentiments of “restoration” that just push forward bulldozer loads of this horrible twisted shame.

I’m done splitting my sexuality into pieces, tying my identity to a word that has no medical definition but devastating social implications. I’m done with conversations about “technical virginity” and couples who “win the race to the altar.” Virginity is just another way that people in power talk about who’s in and who’s out of favor with Church, that we set up winners and losers in a Kingdom supposedly of equals.

It’s just another way we try to make God like us more than other people.

I’m done with the factions setting up beds in the streets and yelling at me to jump on in with them and live my life their way because it is best.

I’m done standing apart from my brothers and sisters who have been abused or manipulated or coerced or had their ability to choose taken away from them. I’m done adding to a culture that humiliates victims who are walking out healing in their own way. We’re quick to offer platitudes of grace, but oh so slow to engage the individuals or social structures that perpetuate abuse.

I’m done blanketing all sexual experience outside of marriage as sin and never acknowledging that abuse can happen within a marriage. I’m done with Christians enforcing oppression in the name of purity.

I am not a virgin or a non-virgin.

I am a human. I am Emily.

Whew. I am not kidding about the kick in those ginger scones, you guys.

After I had that strange, intense shift in my thinking, I took some time to sort it out.

I thought, prayed, read, discussed this issue with safe friends, listened, and tried to step away from the assumptions I was raised with and discover what I wanted to trust. I will be the first to tell you I don’t have it all figured out and I can think of a number of people who would agree.

I have not always handled my sexuality well, in the same way that I have not always handled my words, my appetites, my privilege or my finances well.

But instead of an all or nothing approach, instead of reducing the scope of human sexuality to one specific act and stamping that act with a no until marriage makes it a magical yes, I’m building a holistic sexual ethic. I’m learning to be aware of the difference between healthy interactions and harmful behavior patterns.

I’m discovering and setting my boundaries based on my present self, not a 3×5 card pledge I signed when I was 14.

I’m taking responsibility for my actions without being defined by them.

I am carefully drawing in all the pieces of my formerly fragmented self: my body, soul, mind, personality, and sexuality, into one revived human person, made alive in Christ.

I’m in process, and I trust that you are too.

And please, whether you waited or you didn’t, stop telling me that it will be “worth the wait.”

That phrase denies that intimacy between two humans will always require effort. Relationship exists in continual practice and communion, it doesn’t simply happen without effort because of choices you’ve made long ago. Whether or not you’re a virgin at your wedding, you will still have unique sexual baggage to navigate, because you are a sexual being and you exist before marriage.

Instead of offering some twisted hope to try to manipulate my actions, offer me friendship.

Tell me you trust me, that you respect my ability to make decisions, even if they are different from yours, that your love for me is not dependent on one moment, and you will walk with me through every bit as we learn and recover and celebrate life together.

Let’s talk about commitment, balance, love, consent, wisdom, grace, and the markers of personal, emotional, spiritual and relational health. Let’s open wide the discussions on equality and power structures and work to end abuse in all contexts.

Come, sit in that bakery with me and eat a scone and let’s work on a theology that has integrity all around it, not just in saying no.

Because I’m not just a virgin or a non-virgin. And neither are you.

Speak up! What did you learn about virginity growing up? Do you think it’s a concept that still holds value for you? How can we celebrate our lives without shaming others who have had different experiences?

[photo:Tokinu_Unikot, Creative Commons]

Why I Can’t Go to Church on Sundays

It’s because of my toes, really.

At least, that’s where it feels like it starts and at this point I’m equating beginnings with causality.

Yes, my toes caused this seizing up, this restriction around my ribs, this odd, half-hearted paralysis of my arms and legs.

This is why I can’t go to church on Sunday mornings.

There’s something in the air that even as I’m trying to write about it, feels like a large block of ice sitting on my lungs.

Last year I went to a new doctor, and another, and a third about a buzzing in my arms and legs. Not a tremor, not a muscle spasm, but a deep resonance, ringing in my nervous system. It felt like electricity inside my bones. And occasionally, the DANGER HIGH VOLTAGE light would come on. I couldn’t really move when it would happen, but part of that may have been my intense curiosity at this odd sensation.

It would only last a few seconds, and then I’d be fine.

Of course, I thought of all the worst-case scenarios. The beginnings of MS, or brain cancer, or some sort of alien ant colony taking up residence, or worse, that I was just imagining it.

But my doctors listened to me, asked all the questions, did the tests, and came up with a fairly mundane answer:

“Unidentified nervous system response to stress.”

They said it would calm down as I reduced my stress.

Which stress, I asked? The one where I have to pay my bills, or my grandma just had a stroke, or I am facing new waves of old relationship grief in yet another year? Those are just the things that everyone deals with, right? It wasn’t like there was one clear major stress factor in my life that I could just eliminate.

My doctors didn’t have specific formulas to fix it, but they told me to trust myself, to do my best and believe that everything would fit back together in my arms and legs and brain. My toes would be just fine.

Breathe and rest; wait and see, they said.

My nervous system isn’t the only thing dealing with flare-ups this year.

I haven’t really gone to church since last July.

You know that feeling of panic that you get on airplanes when they shut the door and you suddenly realize you are packed very tightly with 300 other people into a giant metal tube about to be launched into space? It’s like that, except I get it when I think about ordered pews in a big open sanctuary. It starts in my toes and screams at the rest of me to run. Away. Immediately.

I am overwhelmingly anxious about church services.

Me. The girl who routinely sat through 2.5 hour services growing up, who has judged others based on their inability to “commit” to a church, who has advocated head-down diligence as the way to get through any obstacle.

I’ve been having anxiety attacks about church.

I don’t have a problem with Christianity or God at all. My relationship with God is beautiful and vibrant. I’m deeply invested in the college age group ministry at my church. I worked through an intensive Bible Study in the book of Jeremiah all through the fall. I have a fantastic group of friends who encourage my faith.

But Sunday mornings are different; services are too much.

My spiritual nervous system is triggered. I can’t go without navigating tears, my throat closing, and so much internal screaming that I can’t even find grace in the bread (gluten free crackers, in my case) and wine. It starts in my toes and clutches up at my throat, racing through my legs and arms.

It’s not just a problem specific to my church. The electricity starts buzzing at the thought of any service, at any type of church, in any place. I am plotting exactly how I will run out the doors and away before I even arrive.

I haven’t figured out why this is happening.

“Unidentified spiritual nervous system response to stress.”

That’s what I need to do. Reduce stress.

Which one? The one where I’m increasingly uncomfortable with my community’s limits on women, or I grew up in a spiritually abusive, shame-driven church, or how I cannot stomach another “normal” couple cuddling in front of me to the sound of harmonizing voices while I am singing solo?

I recognize bits and pieces of this surging anxiety, but most of them are outside of my control.

My body is healthy now.

I don’t have those strange nervous system charges anymore and I can’t tell you exactly why. I have a better job now, and my grandma is doing well, and I am more practiced at navigating grief when it shows up.

But there wasn’t any formulaic cure, and I don’t think there is one for my church anxiety either. I actually made it through a church service last week with a close friend who hugged me and invited the two of us, my anxiety and me, to sit beside her. I’m grateful, but I don’t know what will happen next Sunday.

It feels strange to write a story without a conclusion.

It seems unhelpful to tell you about something that I haven’t conquered yet. I’m sorry. If I could just fix it or get over it, I would. But I’m not sure my church anxiety is something to be conquered as much as something to move through and breathe deeply, listening for every important grace. I can’t get through this by ignoring it, pressing on, and feeling guilty.

I trust this understanding that I have with God. I will do my best and believe that everything will fit back together in my arms and legs and brain and spirit.

I am waiting to see. I am balancing on my toes.

Speak Up! Have you ever had anxiety about church? What helped you heal? Are you afraid that alien ants may take over your body?

[Photo:  VinothChandar, Creative Commons]