I’m in a Weird Place about The Good Place

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Among the list of exciting new premiere’s that the TV execs would like to introduce us to this year is one from NBC: The Good Place, starring the sloth-loving and most wonderful Kristen Bell and the  hilarious, everybody-knows-his-name Ted Danson. This is how NBC describes it:

The show follows Eleanor Shellstrop, an ordinary woman who enters the afterlife and, thanks to some kind of error, is sent to the Good Place instead of the Bad Place, which is definitely where she belongs. While hiding in plain sight from Michael, the wise architect of the Good Place (who doesn’t know he’s made a mistake), she’s determined to shed her old way of living and discover the awesome (or, at least, the pretty good) person within.

It is, at its core, a show exploring what makes a good person. Or a good enough person, at least. And, true to its billing, it is a comedy. For example, The Good Place (naturally) cannot countenance any swearing, and so Eleanor’s outbursts come out as “that’s so forked up!”, and “bullshirt!”, which are just so obviously not rude I couldn’t help but laugh.

did laugh, but I was also very uneasy watching it – and I’m still processing whether I’ll go back and have Episode 3 keep me company while I scale Mt. Laundry in my living room tonight. I’m thinking probably not. I’m thinking this show may land up in the pile of “I started the series, I saw why people liked it, and I chose not to keep watching”. [For me, this virtual heap of discarded shows includes Breaking Bad (couldn’t stomach it… that bathtub!), New Girl (sex deserves more respect and it wasn’t funny any more), 24 (season 3 broke my heart. I need one redeeming character in a story), House of Cards (again, I need at least one person in the show I can root for). I choose books in lieu of any more hours with these shows.]

So what is it that rankles about The Good Place? It’s that both the premise and point of the show deal with two topics that I care very much about: questions of eternity/the afterlife, and questions on the development of character. What happens after we die? And how do our character choices affect that outcome? On both of these questions, The Good Place posits a theory that is diametrically opposed to what Jesus told us is the truth:

What happens in the afterlife?

The Good Place: If you’ve been a really good person; you get to go to the Good Place. Very few people are good enough to get in.

Jesus: There’s lots of space in my Father’s house; and I’ve gone to prepare a place for you. I’m the way, the truth and the life. Believe in me and I’ll take you there. (John 14:1-6, summarized)

How good do you need to be to get to the good afterlife place (wherever that is)?

The Good Place: Really, really, really good. As in, humanitarian-award-winner good. Better-than-average goodness isn’t good enough. 

Jesus: You need to be perfect. And no-one is. But that’s why I came: to live a perfect life and then die the Bad Place’s death; and offer to take your place. I took death so that you could gain entry to the Good Place. So the answer is: no one is good enough for the Good Place. And yet anyone and everyone is welcome through me. (Matthew 5:48, 1 Peter 3:18, John 3:16)

Of course, the plot of the show is about morally-worse-than-average Eleanor, who lands up in the Good Place by accident, and whose eternal soul mate (I’m not even going to comment on this aspect of the plot) is roped into helping her reform her character there. Now the thing is, friends—unlike Firefly or StarWars or The Hunger Games or any other variety of shows where I step into the world of fantasy and suspend disbelief for a while to enjoy the story—this story is just too important, and too close to home for me to ignore the glaring issues and just “escape” mindlessly into it.

Because, despite the show’s claim in Episode 1 that “the Christians only got it about 5% right on the afterlife, as did the Hindus, and the Muslims…”, Jesus was emphatic that he was the only one who had come “from above” and could tell us authoritatively what it was like (John 3:13). And the rest of the Bible is emphatic that Jesus was the only one who experienced death and came back to tell us how to get “through it”. The Christian claim on the afterlife—founded on Jesus’ resurrection—is more than a 5% gamble. It’s what we’ve staked our entire lives on.

Amy Simpson notes*, “many believe God is so impressed with our efforts at the soup kitchen that he could never bear to dish out anything but indulgence and a wink toward “good people” like us.” The Good Place plays headlong into this belief: if you’re good enough, the Powers That Be will be impressed and you will be Eternally Rewarded. The question is: who is good enough? The answer is: only Jesus, a message The Good Place rejects outright.

“But it’s just a show, and a funny one,” – I hear you say. “Why do you have to be all kinds of Christian uptight about it?”

Fair question.

I suppose the answer to this has to do with bananas and tweezers. In particular, the teensy little rubber bananas they sometimes lay out at my son’s preschool, in front of a mini cardboard box with a monkey face on it and a bright yellow pair of plastic tweezers. Next to it is a similar cardboard box with tiny, blue rubber bones and a cardboard box with a doggy’s face and a pair of blue tweezers. These “toys” are laid out as a treat, and the kids can choose which of the animals they’d like to feed today. Of course my son chooses the monkey, and screws up his face in concentration as he feeds the tiny bananas into the hole-that-is-the-monkey’s-mouth and counts the bananas: one. two. three. Afterwards, they sit on the mat and hear a story about llamas and their pajama drama. Hilarious. So fun. So funny.

“Mom! I fed the monkeys!” he says, and from his perspective, he did. But from his teacher’s perspective: he practiced eye-hand coordination, fine motor skills in grasping the tweezers, and worked on numeracy skills. He was also developing social and communicative skills in negotiating with his peers which of the activities they would work on and in which order. And then they listened to stories that weren’t just entertainment about llamas, but share a script on how to handle bedtime without making excuses. How to be patient when your parents can’t respond right away. It’s social scripting, the behavioral therapists tell us. It’s not just entertainment.

He comes home from school thinking he played all day… but his parents and teachers know it wasn’t all mindless fun. He’s been learning-through-play all day. We all do. We absorb lessons through the play we engage in and the stories we expose ourselves to. We learn about life (and the afterlife) and about love and loss and relationships and reality through the play and stories of our lives. None of us are neutral to the stories we surround ourselves with, and so I’m wary of stories like The Good Place which deliver spoonfuls of untruth and mask the taste with comedy. 

But then again, maybe that’s only really dangerous if we’re watching TV mindlessly. Perhaps, for some, The Good Place is exactly the show they need to be watching. Perhaps if it’s more than mindless entertainment, it might cause people to stop and ask themselves how they might fare in the Great Hereafter. If their lives were being assessed, how would they stand? Does that thought make them nervous? If they were Eleanor, and all of a sudden there was a reckoning on their choices – what would they be ashamed of? What would they wish they had oriented their lives around?

Asking those kinds of questions is, I think, a rare and critically important thing. The writer of Ecclesiastes says that one of the excellent reasons people should go to funerals is because it forces them to think about eternity:

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. (Eccl 7:2)

And so maybe there’s an argument to be made that it is better to watch The Good Place than to watch…. So You Think You Can Dance, for example. For death is the destiny of everyone, and there is a real Good Place to come, and we the living, should certainly take this to heart.

The Good Place is not a show I really want to keep watching: I think the answers it gives are wrong. But maybe, just maybe, I should be excited about it because at the very least, it’s asking some of the right questions.


  • Amy Simpson, “Doing Good for All the Right Reasons”, devotional on Isaiah 64:6 in NIV Bible for Women (p 1024.)

 

“How can I cope with my sexual feelings when I’m single and there’s no end to my celibacy in sight?”

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Dear Bronwyn,

I read your article on sexuality when you’re single  and the importance for me as a guy of developing gendered friendships with both men and women; but I’m not sure what that looks like. What do you mean by “embracing sexuality as a man” while remaining sexually pure in friendships with women?

I am 26 year old Christian man, trying to “wait until marriage”, but I’m struggling with feelings and needs, and the older I get, the more worried and sad I get about it. I don’t want to sin, but I feel the need to do some things I shouldn’t, and I just wish I could marry and fulfill these desires in a non-sinful way. I’ve tried eliminating thoughts of sex from my mind, but it isn’t working. I feel so guilty and unclean about these desires, and I’m lonely too because, while I make friends easily, I’m shy with the girls I’m interested in and nobody seems to like me enough to be my girlfriend. The fact that there are no dating prospects in sight (and so, no foreseeable end to this frustration) feels like an unending burden.

Can you help?

Lonely and Longing

Dear LaL,

Here’s the challenging thing about talking about sexuality these days: instead of sexuality referring to our identity as men and women, and what that means for us relationally; we almost always associate sexuality with SEX. This is very much a feature of the age we live in: we’re saturated in a sexualized and sexualizing world – where women are viewed as sexual objects: in obscene and awful way (like porn), but also in a zillion other ways that happen so frequently around us that we think it’s normal. “Getting the girl” is the plot for umpteen stories: a couple landing up in bed is the closing scene—the climax!—of narratives from TV to movies to music. Sexily clad women are in the media all around us: selling cars and web host services and beer and soap to men, and selling beauty products and dream vacations and who knows what else to women. The world we live in puts a CRAZY amount of pressure on men and women to direct their thoughts and goals towards landing up naked together.

I think the church has, in some way, drunk the Kool-Aid. We, too, have focused our conversations regarding sexuality on what you can and cannot do with your genitals. We haven’t left a lot of room for conversation and imagination on what it means to be men and women apart from being sexually active. We have bought into the lie that we are supposed to function as androgynous/asexual Christians in all our friendships and relationships; and then expected people to “flip a switch” and suddenly turn on their sexuality and express their maleness and femaleness safely once they’re married.

This doesn’t work. But of course, you know that. This is exactly what you’re struggling with. We are not asexual beings who suddenly get permission to inhabit our sexuality once we get married. We are, for the entire length of our lives, sexual beings. There is no way of being human without being male or female. It’s part of who we are, and so we need to think about what it means to live as a healthy MAN or a healthy WOMAN in all our relationships, in every season of life. And friend, in a world where the images and stories and sounds around you keep directing your focus towards the erotic, that’s a SERIOUS challenge.

But it’s a challenge you need to face.

You need to learn how to be friends with women without the glaring awareness of them as potential sex partners. You allude to struggling with masturbation, and I’m not really going to comment on that except to say that if porn is part of that struggle, it is making things exponentially worse for you. Porn hardwires the brain to see women and sex in an objectifying way, and with each participation in that body-brain experience, it puts more distance between you and the possibility of a healthy sexual relationship with a woman in the future.

However, even if porn is not part of the issue, it’s still a real challenge to learn to see women as whole, complete, made-in-the-image-of-God partners in life in a world which sees them as sexy bodies. You say you make friends easily but get shy when there’s a girl you’re interested in…  I strongly suspect that’s because all of a sudden you’re hyper aware of her as a potential sexual partner, and that distracts from you getting to know her as a person.

You need to learn how to be a guy who can talk to women, to listen to them and learn from them and work along side them and appreciate them as essential partners in life, and to be your full self in these relationships (not just a guy hoping to get a date). Are there opportunities for you to participate in group efforts where you work alongside women? Maybe serving in some capacity at church, or volunteering at a Habitat for Humanity project, or making sure you’re plugged into a small group that has both men and women talking about the big issues we face disciples of Jesus (and not just an accountability/confession group)? These kinds of scenarios are important: they shift the focus from the “small talk” of social meet-ups where the unspoken-but-desired-for-outcome is often romantic/sexual/dating interest; and instead have you working shoulder to shoulder with women.

If there are opportunities to laugh together, to get your hands dirty together on a project, be an environment where there is healthy hugging and touch. Doing these things might go a long way towards your relaxing around women and expanding your view of them… and in the process, you may well find yourself developing some new intimacy in friendships with the men and women around you… and maybe one day, one of those might lead to marriage and sex.

Your sexual feelings won’t be disappearing any time soon, but I do think there are ways you can pursue rewarding, affirming, healthy touch and intimacy in relationships without those needing to be sexual. Can I recommend Wesley Hill’s book Spiritual Friendship to you? He is a celibate gay Christian, which is not the struggle you’re facing, but his insights on deep, fulfilling relationships and stewarding our sexuality well while we’re celibate are really helpful and healthy. Even as a married, straight woman (and he is none of those things!); I’ve found a lot in his words to encourage me (as a woman, and inherently sexual being) to relate deeply and well to the men and women in the family of believers in a holy and wholly intimate way. Even once people are married, there may be seasons where sexual feelings can’t be expressed (due to illness or extended absences or childbearing or aging…), and so the question of learning to pursue healthy and holy intimacy in the face of pent of sexual tension is one all believers have to grapple with at some stage. You’re not alone in this. God knows us and will help us as we continue to ask Him for help in stewarding—rather than suppressing—our sexuality.

Blessings to you,

Bronwyn

 

 

My Strange Obsession (what’s yours?)

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It’s funny how when you’ve lived somewhere for a while, your community begins to know some of your particular likes, and finds personalized jokes and gifts and T-shirts that cater to that delightful quirk in your personality. For example, there was one year when I got five—FIVE (5)!—scarves for my birthday. Clearly, I have a reputation as a scarf person.

The age of social media makes these eccentricities even more obvious, because now friends will post jokes or memes and so, the trend reinforces itself. I’ve played music for several years, and so a friend shared this (brilliant) little clip with me:

And of course, it seems that everybody knows I love puns, so I am the grateful and giggling recipient of dozens of texts and messages every week with the very best of puns curated from the internet. (For example, this collection)

Now I am a quirky person and I love a lot of things, but not all of these are known (and broadcast) on social media. For example, I love black licorice (and try hard not to judge people who eat red vines. Ewww.) And probably my most listened to music album of all time is Julian Lloyd Weber’s collection of lullaby cello music (called Cradle Song). I think it is possibly the most relaxing music of all time. Here’s a sample:

But something that few people in the States know is that I have another secret obsession; one that might never have been brought to light until a friend posted THIS video on Facebook: a one minute promo on a new theme park that has opened up in New Jersey. Friends, I nearly screamed out loud watching this…

You see, as my friends from university days will know, I was not yet twenty when I fell in love with excavators. Yes. You read that right, excavators. I grew up in a house full of girls and don’t know that heavy construction machinery had ever been on my radar, but there was one day when I was passing by a construction site and I was just mesmerized by the elegance of the excavator. “It’s like a mechanical dinosaur,” I whispered, and my boyfriend pulled over the car so I could watch a while longer and have a “moment” with that big hulking piece of yellow. Real tears were shed, friends. I am not proud of this. But it happened.

And so it was that I became something of an excavator junkie. I built an excavator out of LEGO pieces and clapped my hands with delight when I got the hydraulics to work on it. I got a good-sized excavator replica as a gift for my 21st birthday and it held pride of place on my mantle for some time. When I discovered YouTube, this was one of the first videos I watched and re-watched and re-watched:

I still love excavators. I don’t cry anymore watching them, but I will admit that one of the great joys of having boys has been that I have got to spend so many hours playing with excavators again. So… now you know. This is one of my stranger obsessions. Feel free to share my joy in it, or just to have a good laugh at my expense. I’m okay with either.

But it makes me curious: do you have a strange obsession that makes no sense to others but still brings you joy? Gosh, I really hope so…

The Awkward Hello (after a long, long time away)

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Um. Hello.

It’s been a while since I wrote anything at all on this blog, and I’ve had a growing sense of awkwardness about what I might say when we saw each other again. A lot like some friendships, I suppose, when it’s been a while and you both know—as social media makes painfully clear—that Things Have Been Happening but you Haven’t Been Talking and so you’re just not sure where to start. And so, too often, you just don’t. You don’t send the text. You don’t write the email. You feel awkward about the distance and, at a loss for how to close it with the perfect “opening line”, you increase it.

I’ve been in that space for a few weeks: feeling like I needed to write a smashing blog post: a virtual Ta-DAAAA! to announce that summer was over and I’m back. (insert jazz hands here) But instead, I’ve opened up this page a half dozen times and stared at the cursor. Actually, last week I was cracking myself up (yes, I laugh at my own jokes) at a thought and I desperately wanted to turn it into a blog post but it turned out I was exactly three hundred and forty percent less technologically capable than I needed to be to pull it off.  The end result? More silence.

It has been a long, long silence. This summer was mostly spent with my kids swimming and reading library books (not at the same time, though), with a smattering of Vacation Bible School thrown in… ELEVEN WEEKS of ELEVEN HOUR DAYS of me and the kids. At home. In triple digit heat. (We ate a lot of ice-cream. We watched the Star Wars Trilogy. The real one. Don’t even start with the Clone Wars.) But in the midst of all this at-homeness and mothering-ness, I had one unapologetically girlie night and got to see Adele in concert. It was fabulous. No opening act: just her, in all her vocal glory. No dancers. No gimmicks. In an age where I feel like every news story has spin and every pop star is a carefully curated package, Adele is so refreshing. Listening to her sing is like bearing witness to the Redemption of Talent.

But we waited a long, long time before she came onstage. We got snacks. We had a drink. We told stories. We took Adele-Like extreme close-up eye-selfies:

But she did finally come on stage, and (of course), her first words were:

Hello. It’s me.

In the absence of a so-fantastic-it-must-certainly-go-viral blog post to break the silence, I thought I’d take a cue from Adele, and just say: Hello. It’s me. Because sometimes that’s all it takes just to get things going again, doesn’t it? After months of silence, we can pick up the phone, or send a text, or draft an email, or turn up on a doorstep with a cup of coffee and say: Hello.

In my experience, awkwardness doesn’t dissolve over time. Awkwardness in relationships is like awkwardness in dancing: it’s not being sure where to step so that you don’t step on someone’s toes. It’s uncertainty and fear of rejection and nervousness about whether your breath smells and whether they’d say something if it did.

But no-one ever became a better dancer by not dancing for a little while longer. And no one ever fixed an awkward friendship by prolonging a deafening silence. And, if that is true, no blogger ever got back in the game by waiting until she had the perfect post to share with you all.

So I’ll share an awkward selfie and just say “hello”. It’s nice to be back. I missed you.

The Ministry of The Happy Chicken

Not long ago, I met with a vivacious young woman who is just entering into vocational ministry. We shared parts of our stories as the ice clinked encouragingly in our lemonade glasses. Towards the end of our time together—which had started out with the awkwardness of strangers but then blended into story-telling and a host of “me too” moments—she seemed to remember herself and why she was here and, squaring her shoulders and getting back into “ministry-mode”, she asked me how I’d seen God at work through me recently.

It wasn’t so much the wording of the question as the timing and the tone of it, but I laughed (I can be rude that way). I told her that it had been a long time since I felt like I needed to give an accounting for my ministry. There was a time when I sat down at a computer and labored over a monthly report back to those who were supporting me financially and in prayer, and while I know none of them expected a graph chart with numbers of students converted and bibles distributed, in truth I did feel that I needed to give an account. Which sometimes might include numbers.

These days, I told her, when it comes to seeing God at work, I’m taking a longer view. Like moving from the narrative arc of a Pixar short movie to epic full-length features. “I have no idea whether what I’m doing is successful or fruitful,” I confessed, “it’s really hard to take an account of that when you’re in the day-in and day-out of it with kids, and when you have no idea who reads your stuff and whether it makes any difference. So I’m aiming for faithfulness. To be kind today. To tell the truth today. To show my neighbor the gospel today, perhaps by taking their trash bin in or watching someone’s kids while they are at the doctor. That’s about all. I really wouldn’t have much to put in a monthly ministry newsletter.”

Friends, even to me this answer sounds a little like a cop-out: should I not be more strategic? intentional? make the most of every opportunity? Maybe. I have certainly trained others in ministry to be strategic in their goals over the years. But then again: I myself have been under the tutelage of the Happy Chicken.the ministry of the

Meet my Happy Chicken.

This hot water bottle was a gift from my sister nearly twenty years ago. I think it was a birthday present, but I can’t be sure. But I remember thinking it was hilarious. My sister and I had joked for years about a Far Side Cartoon in which a forlorn man sits on a bed while a chicken looks on from the window sill. The caption read: “the bluebird of happiness long absent from his life, Ned is visited by the chicken of depression.”

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Of COURSE when my sister saw the hot water bottle chicken, she had to have it. (She’s always been one excellent gift-giver.) And so, the chicken of depression made its way into my home. Within a few years, I was finding my way into ministry, and found an increasing number of people sitting on my couch sharing their stories with me. Some were very, very sad; and armed as I was my newly-minted-theological-education, sometimes I tried to help with comforting explanations. But as we all know, this was almost never the right thing to say or do. For even if the hurting person’s lips are asking why did this happen, their hearts are asking who will be with me in this? And so, slowly, I learned to shut up and listen. It became something of a formula: tears would spring up, and I would offer tea, a pair of socks, and the chicken… because it helps to have something warm to hold, and the kettle was boiled anyway. (It didn’t seem appropriate, somehow to tell people that this was the Chicken of Depression, after all.)serious_chicken_by_sandra_boynton_canvas_print-r1f5f44ee6a7b480d9bf43daad7546afa_wt7_8byvr_324

Over time, friends who got to know my chicken re-named it: the Happy Chicken. And years later, when I discovered the wonder of all things Sandra Boynton and met her happy chicken characters who bore a striking resemblance to mine, the name was formalized.

I think, in some in-my-bones kind of way, the Happy Chicken taught me that the simplicity of listening and welcome offers Christian comfort in a way that even my best theology does not. Jesus did teach many truths about God, and God had been speaking comforting, true words for a long, long time before that. But Jesus came. He sat in the mess. He touched the unlovely. He listened. He ate with people. He ate dinner with the heartbroken and received their tears without needing to fix it right there and then.

But still, sitting quietly while people weep and marriages end and children starve and girls are sold and refugees drown in the Mediterranean feels desperately ineffective. And despite the fact that the quiet ministry of neighbors has brought me comfort more times than I can count, I still occasionally panic and think I should be doing more. We should have a plan here. If, after all, I was still writing a hypothetical newsletter updating people on God’s activity in and through my life, what on earth what I say? And if all I had to say was “I made tea and introduced people to the Happy Chicken”, would it make God look bad? Or Christianity insipid?

517SjSiMdxLIt was this taproot of fear that made D.L. Mayfield’s new book Assimilate or Go Home: Notes From a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith such a gift to me. Mayfield has such a writing gift: she crafts simple sentences with simple words—so easy to read—and yet the result is breathtaking. Reading her is like marveling at Leonardo daVinci’s finest work done on an etch-a-sketch.

But more than her beautiful writing, the message of this book spoke to me, and will speak to anyone who’s earnestly wanted to do great and beautiful things for God but then floundered when real life and messy relationships happened, making the monthly newsletter which was meant to sing of all God’s glory seemed so hard to write.

In a series of short, highly readable essays, Mayfield tells of her teenage zeal—holiday clubs! short term missions! seminary!—and her deep love for the displaced refugee communities in North America. And then she writes about what really happened next. She writes about failure: her awkward attempts to Jesus-ify conversations, and the skepticism with which her goodwill was sometimes (rightfully) regarded. She writes about the deep humbling of realizing people don’t change on our timeline or according to our well-intentioned western ways, and of learning that God has made something beautiful in every person and every culture – no matter how different and broken- and she tells of how, after all was said and done, she re-found (is re-finding!) faith in learning to sit and be a witness to all that God is doing, and to just love as she has an opportunity. She writes:

“I used to want to witness to people, to tell them the story of God in digestible pieces, to win them over to my side. But more and more I am hearing the still small voice calling me to be the witness. To live in proximity to pain and suffering and injustice instead of high-tailing it to a more calm and isolated life… To plant myself in a place where I am forced to confront the fact that my reality is not the reality of my neighbors. And to realize that nothing is how it should be, the ultimate true reality of what God’s dream for the world is.

Being a witness is harder than anything I have ever done. And he is asking all of us to do this task, to simultaneously see the realities of our broken world and testify to the truth that all is not well. To be a witness to the tragedy, to be a witness to the beauty. Jesus, the ultimate witness of the love of the Father heart of God, shows us the way…

He is asking us to drop everything and run, run in the direction of the world’s brokenness. And he is asking us to bring cake.”

He is asking us to bring cake. Mayfield’s love language is cake. And I’m thinking mine might be the Happy Chicken. Today I’m facing the broken world with eyes wide open and ears perked up. Who will God send my way today? I’m ready. The Happy Chicken and I are as ready as we can be.

 

5 Things Outlander Has Taught Me About Married Sex, My Body and Sexuality

A few weeks ago I wrote a post entitled Let’s Hear It For Hot, Married, Older People Sex, and gave a shoutout to the Outlander novels. An anonymous reader sent me her story of how Outlander has helped undo some of the damage done by Christian purity culture and reclaim a healthier view of married sex. 

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I grew up in what is commonly known in evangelical circles as “purity culture” —a reaction to the free love movement of the 60’s and 70’s our parents grew up in.

Purity culture was focused on avoidance, and it was fueled by fear and shame—fear of the opposite sex (girls were too tempting and boys had no self-control), fear of your own body (my body is dangerous because it causes other people to sin, and it causes me to sin), fear of your natural physiological sexual feelings (because sex, or really any kind of arousal, was wrong, wrong, wrong and evil, evil, evil).

I got married in my early 20s, woefully uneducated about sex. Being a “good Christian girl,” I saved my first kiss for my fiancé, and I was a virgin when we got married. I had learned some stuff from my married friends, but even then, Christian women didn’t talk much about sex other than to say men needed it, and it was a wife’s job to give it to them joyfully, without reservation, so the husbands wouldn’t be tempted by other women in the workplace. Apparently, even after marriage, boys never grow out of not being able to control their bodies, and it will always be the women’s job to manage that for them.

I read all the Christian sex books I could get my hands on. I tried to prepare myself for sex based off the books’ advice. I was afraid of the pain I’d read about, so I just focused on doing all I could to make it not hurt. Sure, the books were full of “sex is good. Sex is from God, and you will love sex” propaganda, but I had been taught to fear sex my whole life. And I was still afraid of it on our wedding night.

You can’t instill fear into people for decades and then expect them to flip a switch on their wedding night when sex goes from something to be avoided at all costs to the only thing that will keep a man faithful.

Truth is, there is no switch. After this kind of conditioning, you have to completely deconstruct the motherboard and rewire the system.

In our many years of marriage, my husband and I have had some fantastic sex. But the vice-grip of shame and fear from decades of wrong beliefs are hard to break. For years I was very disconnected from and ashamed of my own body, and I was repulsed by the way our bodies were meant to function—especially together. I have often thought, I must be getting something wrong. There must be more to this than I am experiencing. I found an answer in the most unlikely of places.

A couple of years ago, I discovered the fantasy series Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I read the first book in a matter of days. I couldn’t put them down. Although it isn’t strictly considered a romance novel, it does have a central romantic story woven throughout the eight books in the series. I was never allowed to read racy novels growing up, so even though I’m married and nearly 40, the explicit sex scenes in the book took me by surprise, and I initially felt hesitant about reading them. But in the end, I fell in love with the epic love story of Jamie and Claire. And something unlocked inside of me.

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There was something more to their sex—something different, deeper, and healthier. I am currently re-reading the series, and I feel like I’m getting my first real dose of healthy sex education. There are some sex ed lessons in Outlander I wish I had learned decades ago.

1. There is no shame in the human body. The human body—with all its forms and functions—is a good thing. It’s beautiful. The modern world is ashamed of women’s bodies whether it’s in the form of fat, stretch marks, cellulite, wrinkles, menstrual cycles, ovulation, or breast milk. We talk about these issues in hushed tones. We hide them with pads and special underwear. We spend ridiculous amounts of money trying to conceal and change how we are made. God forbid if we leak blood on our clothing during our periods (this was one of my greatest, most debilitating fears as a teenager), if breastmilk leaks onto a shirt, or if we talk about our period with men.

But I loved how matter of fact Claire and Jamie are about these things. A woman’s “courses” are a natural and normal part of life. Breastfeeding was not a novelty or something to be hidden or hushed. It was a beautiful part of giving life to another human being. Men’s anatomy and bodily functions were talked about as something normal, not something shameful. I found this extremely enlightening and refreshing.

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You cant tell, I said, at last. Its much too soon to be sure. 

He snorted briefly, and a tiny flicker of amusement lit his eyes.

And me a farmer, too! Sassenach, ye havena been a day late in your courses, in all the time since ye first took me to your bed. Ye havena bled now in forty-six days. (A scene between Jamie and Claire from Dragonfly in Amber)

And whats wrong wi the way ye smell? he said heatedly. At least ye smelt like a woman, not a damn flower garden. What dye think I am, a man or a bumblebee?(Jamie from Dragonfly in Amber)

To see the years touch ye gives me joy, Sassenach,he whispered, “—for it means that ye live.(Jamie from The Fiery Cross)

2. Sex is a normal part of a couples life together. I remember walking in on my parents having sex. It was awful. I was horrified and angry and embarrassed. But sex was a normal part of their routine, yet our family wasn’t able to openly talk about it with me. Therefore I received mixed messages: if sex is good and natural in marriage, why were they acting so awkward and ashamed?

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In Outlander, there are beautiful glimpses of what it looks like to be “naked and unashamed.”There are passages where Jamie and Claire are intimate with one another while in the presence of others (their teenage nephew who sleeps in the same room in a small cabin, fellow soldiers when Jamie is out with his men, etc). Of course they wanted privacy, and others wanted to give it to them, but in the end, it was understood that sex was not only a normal and expected thing in married life, but also a good thing.

“But you think he thinks I’m angry with him?”

“Oh, anyone could see that you are, Auntie,” he assured me earnestly.

Ye dinna look at him or speak to him save for what ye mustand,” he said, clearing his throat delicately, “I havena seen ye go to his bed, anytime this month past.”

“Well, he hasn’t come to mine, either!” I said hotly, before reflecting that this was scarcely a suitable conversation to be having with a seventeen-year-old boy. Ian hunched his shoulders and gave me an owlish look. “Well, he’s his pride, hasn’t he?” “God knows he has,” I said, rubbing a hand over my face.

“Ilook, Ian, thank you for saying something to me.” (A scene between Claire and Jamie’s nephew Ian in Drums of Autumn)

His aunt and uncle lay on the other side of the smoored fire, close wrought together as to look like one log, sharing warmthfHe heard a whisper, too low to make out the words but the intent behind them clear enough. He kept his breathing regular, a little louder than usuallIt was hard to fool Uncle Jamie, but there are times when a man wants to be fooled. (Young Ian’s observations in An Echo in the Bone)

3. Sex was a means to an end—the end being deep, soul connection. I have often perceived sex as a transaction, duty, or “par for the course” of marriage. But what if I started to view it as a means of soul connection, instead?

There is usually a scale in the back of my mind when my husband wants sex. Various thoughts will come crashing in: Has he treated me well? Do I feel like it? What else do we have to take care of? Often after a big fight, he would want to come back together. I never understood the appeal of “make-up sex.” I think I get it now. He is trying to reconnect. He needs to reconnect. I need to reconnect, too, but I right now I’m out of tune with my body and soul and can’t recognize this need. I’m working on it.

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Our lovemaking was always risk and promisefor if he held my life in his hands when he lay with me, I held his soul, and knew it.(Claire from Fiery Cross)

And you, my Sassenach? What were you born for? To be lady of a manor, or to sleep in the fields like a gypsy? To be a healer, or a don’s wife, or an outlaw’s lady?”

“I was born for you,” I said simply, and held out my arms to him.(Claire from Outlander)

But when I lay wiiEmilyfrom the first time. I knew. Kent who I was again. He looked up at her then, eyes dark and shadowed by loss. My soul didna wander while I sleptwhen I slept wiiher. (Young Ian from A Bre
ath of Snow and Ashes)

4. Intimacy is even hotter than sex. The depth of intimacy that Jamie and Claire have is stunning. And it is more attractive (and hotter) than the steamiest of sex scenes. The sex comes from this place of intimacy, and the intimacy is strengthened by the bond of sex. I can’t help but believe that this is very much what God intended, what He desires for us when He created mankind to be “one flesh” together.

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To have ye with me againto talk wi youto know I can say anything, not guard my words or hide my thoughtsGod, Sassenach, he said, the Lord knows I am lust-crazed as a lad, and I canna keep my hands from youor anything else—” he added, wryly, but I would count that all well lost, had I no more than the pleasure of havin ye by me, and to tell ye all my heart. (Jamie in Voyager) 

I kissed his cheek, damp and salty. I could feel his heart beating against my ribs, and wanted nothing more than to stay there forever, not moving, not making love, just breathing the same air.(Claire in Outlander)

When the day shall come, that we do part if my last words are not I love youyell ken it was because I didna have time.(Jamie in The Fiery Cross)

5. Sex is redeeming and healing. According to purity culture, you have one shot at having a guaranteed good sex life: remain pure before marriage. If you followed the rules, you were told you would have a wonderful, successful marriage and sex life. If you messed up, you were “chewed up gum.” Who would want that? I can’t help but grieve for the many people sitting around me in my youth group and summer camps who walked away internally branded with the scarlet letter of shame for their past mistakes and choices.

What I love about Jamie and Claire’s overarching story is that they were not perfect. They made mistakes, big ones. They made wrong choices with devastating consequences. But, they fight to regain the connection and depth of their bond. They fight for each other and work to draw close. And sex is always one of the ways they redeem one another.

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Dye ken that the only time I am without pain is in your bed, Sassenach? When I take ye, when I lie in your armsmy wounds are healed, then, my scars forgotten.(Jamie from The Fiery Cross) 

Come to bed, a nighean. Nothing hurts when ye love me. (Jamie from An Echo in the Bone)

You are my courage, as I am your conscience,” he whispered. You are my heartand I your compassion. We are neither of us whole, alone. Do ye not know that, Sassenach (Jamie from Drums of Autumn)

 I am not delusional enough to think that everyone has or will have a “Jamie and Claire” love story. Yes, I know it is fictional. But through my love of all things Outlander, I have connected with fans from all over the world who have fallen for this epic story. I have read “my Jamie” stories from women in their 40s and 80s. There are other Jamie and Claire’s out there.

Although I would love to have my own “Jamie and Claire” story, I don’t get bogged down by the fact that I don’t. I’m still learning so much about myself, my husband, and the possibilities for marriage through this story. And the healing that has come, personally, through this unlikely sex re-education—this re-wiring—his invaluable to me.

So from now on when someone asks me for a “good book on marriage or sex” for a new bride-to-be, I won’t be sending them the latest Christian celebrity author’s book on the topic. I will be sending them Outlander, and a bottle of scotch.

Just Hang The Darn Curtains

Our home is currently the site of an aggressive marketing campaign. Every door in the house, as well as the headboard of our bed and several walls are sporting hand-crafted posters, all bearing the same message: We want a dog.

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Apparently our children feel they have been in pet-limbo for long enough, and the Betta Fish–beloved as he is—is not meeting their snuggling and playing needs. Hence: Operation Wear Down The Parents. With Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs met, they are tackling their Hierarchy of Wants, and in their vision of what makes a house Home, a dog is high on the list. We’ve been putting it off for years.

Nearly four years, to be exact.

This Fall will mark four years since we bought our first house. Before then, our reason for not having a pet is that we were renting, and our lease agreements forbade pets. Then we bought a house, and found a new reason: we had two kids in diapers, and There’s Only So Much Poop Mama Can Handle. “Not until you’re potty trained,” we told the kids (a process that took YEARS longer than expected). But it finally happened, and with the potty-training obstacle removed, the real reason for our reticence was exposed: a dog is a long term commitment, and we didn’t want to make it. Not here, and not now.

The dog conversation has been tabled, but it raised another question for me: what else have I been putting off because I didn’t want to commit? As it turns out, a whole lot. Grateful as we were for our house, we have never thought it was the place we would stay in long-term, and as a result didn’t want to invest in it too deeply. Improvements—if any were to be made—were for the purposes of resale, not for our own enjoyment.

We’ve done things that needed to be done (like replace the A/C and the carpet which got doused with the neighborhood cat’s pee), but not much more. We have done no landscaping. We never hung curtains. The few artworks we own remain in the same places we put them when we first moved in, saying “it’ll do for now”. Part of this decorating malaise is certainly attributable to a my having 0% of Martha Stewart’s design genes and a pathological fear of Pinterest. But that’s not the deeper issue.  Thinking it wouldn’t be long until we moved house again, we didn’t commit to making this our home – a subtle but not insignificant reflection of our general tendency to find excuses to delay living fully in the moment.

We save a bottle of wine for “a special occasion”, and in doing so let multiple small but real opportunities for rejoicing pass by unnoticed. 

We buy a beautiful dress and keep it on the hanger, letting season after season go by without pulling it out and enjoying it just because we can.

We think of a friend we haven’t seen for a while and, wishing we could spend hours catching up, fail to send a text or call for a few minutes just to maintain connection. Months and years go by, and friendships wilt under our silent good intentions.

We see something that needs doing and, fearing we might not do it well enough, leave it undone.

We move into a house and, knowing we won’t want to live there forever, fail to live there well now.

This weekend I called a friend I haven’t spoken to in over a year, and while we were on the phone, I hung curtains. It took several trips to the store to get the right combination of mounting hardware and fittings, and the curtains aren’t perfect, but as we tumbled into bed last night after a weekend of team work, I looked up at the newly hung drapes in our room and couldn’t help but smile. The room that had felt like a workable “transitional bedroom” until we found the “home we really wanted” all of a sudden felt a lot more like our space.

Hang the darn curtains because THIS IS YOUR HOME RIGHT NOW. Break open the bottle of wine BECAUSE YOU’RE HAPPY. Wear the nice outfit just because it’s TUESDAY. Invite over the new person even though your house is messy BECAUSE WARM HOSPITALITY IS ALWAYS WELCOME. Call that friend, even if you just have five minutes: because never mind birds and bushes – A BRIEF TEXT IN THE HAND IS WORTH TWO IN THE DRAFTS FOLDER.

There’s value in investing in life now, even if our efforts are impartial and imperfect. As G.K. Chesterton said: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

Which includes my half-baked efforts at hanging curtains.

(But we’re still not ready for a dog.)