Unreliable Mirrors

A woman poses in a fun fair hall of mirrors, circa 1935 (BBC.co.uk)

I’m never sure if it’s a compliment if someone says “you’re really photogenic”. Do they mean “you are attractive and this photo shows it!” Or do they mean “this is a nice photo of you… in real life you don’t look really as good?” One thing is for sure: depending on the photographer and the angle, the same face can look a variety of different ways.

My children and my husband, for example, have a different perspective (literally) on what my face looks like. One looks more down on my hair, the others get to see much more of my chin (I try not to think about this, actually.) As for me: I see myself eye-to-eye in the bathroom mirror, which is the closest I can get to seeing an accurate reflection of what I look like. But often, others can reflect things to me that I don’t see: the tag sticking out of my shirt at the back. The bit of fluff behind my ear. Or, later in the day, the proverbial piece of spinach between my teeth. We need mirrors—glass or human—to tell us what we’re like.

Much more important than our physical appearance, though, is that we all rely on others to reflect back to us what we are really like as people. There are no bathroom mirrors that can tell us if we are kind, or self-deluded, or mentally unstable, or genuinely hilarious. We gather information about what we are like from the human mirrors around us: our family, our friends, our communities.

However, we human mirrors vary wildly in our ability to reflect truth. None of us are perfect mirrors: every part of us is affected by sin (this is what I understand by the phrase total depravity… not that we’re as bad as we can be, but that every aspect of our being is tainted by it). We all are prone to self-deception, self-focus, and self-interest; we are finite, fallible, and foolish—as one of my professors used to say—and so we all give somewhat “warped” feedback to the world around us.

But, some people give healthier reflections than others. And this post is my reflection (<< cannot resist puns) on whether the most significant relationships in our lives are providing us with reliable or unreliable mirrors about who we are as people. So much of our emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being depends on it.

The healthiest of relationships are ones where a person show us, as closely as they can, how God sees us. They see our dignity, our gifting, our strengths. They also see our flaws and our struggles, and they are able to reflect back to us when we might need to “take a good, hard look at ourselves.” They are able to help us identify our talents. They are able to name our blind-spots. The best of friendships, and the best of marriages, are those where we are loved by a reliable mirror. This person doesn’t always take our side in things (they are not a permanent instagram filter for our character!), but they are not critical by default (like the mirrors in the Target dressing room).

The most toxic of relationships, by contrast, are ones where the person is close enough to be playing a major role in you forming your self-perception of you, and they reflect a deeply distorted version of yourself. This, I think, is what gaslighting is at its worst (you need to know what gaslighting is. Read about it here.) This is what abusive relationships look like: where you begin to see yourself as a crazy, awful, terrible person and a blight on human existence… but the terrible twisted image you are seeing of yourself is not accurate because it isn’t you which is twisted as much as the twisted mirror which is reflecting back a distorted image.

So my question to you is this: take stock of the relationships in your life, and consider how reliable the “mirrors” are among your inner circle.

Are your mirrors telling you that you are wonderful and perfect and lovely all the time? If so, your mirrors may need to be sharpened up a little. We need others to help us see and identify our weaknesses, to gently point out where maybe we took offense too quickly, or are responding to some trigger from a past insecurity rather than the person in front of us.

Are your mirrors just pointing out your flaws? Do you feel like you’re always failing? Always responsible for someone else’s bad behavior? That you might be a little bit crazy? Do they see you for who you are? Or for what you can do for them? We need mirrors that also see our strengths, that hear and validate our voices and our value. If your primary relationships (with your parents, spouse, boss, best friend) show the signs of being deeply unreliable mirrors, please – get help. Not all our loved ones reflect the truth about ourselves back to us accurately.

Are your human mirrors reflecting both the beautiful and the broken in you? And do they love you, regardless? Ultimately, this is the way God sees us, and this is the self he wants us to see when we look at him. One day we will see him face to face, we will know and be fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12, 1 John 3:2), but until them he has given us Scripture as a mirror in which we can see our true selves, and he has given us other people who, as they themselves become more and more like Jesus, should also be better able to reflect true to us.

I’m hoping and praying that we will be increasingly reliable mirrors to others, and be loved and known by increasingly reliable mirrors in return.

 

Your Marriage Might Need Extra Sauce (and other things you didn’t expect)

I’m delighted to share an excerpt from Dorothy Greco’s EXCELLENT new book Making Marriage Beautiful today. I’m so tired of the “30 days/5 ways to being a happier/sexier/better spouse” type of stuff out there. I long for real wisdom that has stood the test of time, and which holds out hope even for hapless folk like me. This is a practical, funny, biblical and HELPFUL book. It doesn’t have a single cheesy “just plan a date night!” suggestion. Instead, it has stories about looking at ourselves and our loved ones with kinder, better eyes, and making small, doable beautiful changes day by day which add up to a lifetime of joy. See for yourself.

The first time I went to my husband’s house for Thanksgiving, was the first time I was confronted with my ethnocentric tendencies. There was twice as much food as needed, including lime Jell-O and canned green beans submerged in a thick, gray sauce. The turkey was ceremoniously placed front and center, and then his mother brought out two huge trays of lasagna. Lasagna. With extra sauce (this is important) and meatballs. For Thanksgiving.

After a prayer, the curtain went up and the opera began. Unlike at my home, there was no turn taking or insightful follow-up questions. One person simply started talking—to no one in particular—and then another layered their thoughts on top but not before turning up the volume. Then a third and fourth jumped in, making it impossible to really listen to anyone—something I eventually learned was not a priority. I’ve never been a fan of opera and even less so when I’m thrust into it without an opportunity to rehearse my lines. This experience helped me better understand Christopher, but I was not able to extrapolate his genetically coded mealtime expectations until we had a substantial fight not long after.

At our inaugural dinner party, we invited three couples over. The conversation was lively and the food excellent. Everyone seemed to enjoy the evening—except Christopher, who made several less-than-affirming comments about my culinary efforts. This same scenario played out multiple times before I pointedly inquired, “Why are you so critical of how I prepare meals for guests?” He shot back, “Because you don’t cook enough food and you never put out extra sauce when you make pasta!” Want to guess how our evening played out? That fight opened our eyes to a shocking reality: our family cultures had so deeply shaped our preferences, biases, and beliefs that we each reflexively judged anything different as wrong. This discovery allowed us to start tracing other marital challenges directly back to our formative years.

Like us, many of you may have ended up with overweight luggage as you packed for your honeymoon because you unknowingly crammed the suitcase full of culturally bound expectations and historic wounds. If we lack awareness regarding our ethnocentrism and our scars, we tend to assume we’re always right, become oppositional, and endlessly criticize and judge one another.

Because Christopher and I are white, we have not been victims of racism.  However, many of you not only have been but continue to be affected by this systemic sin. The highly publicized race-related issues of recent times have shattered any illusion that racism is a thing of the past. If you are a minority, you have most likely been traumatized by racial disparity, intentional segregation, and overt discrimination. It’s nearly impossible to grow up with an intact sense of self if you have been repeatedly told that you are less than and flawed. These deep wounds guide not only how we understand ourselves but also how we interact with others.

Evan, a Chinese American friend, grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood during the seventies. He doesn’t look back on his neighbors as racists but rather “ignorant ethnocentrists.” In his words:

My personality was reduced to my ethnic identity. There was a sense that everything that represented my family of origin was not accepted in the culture. I had to put on different masks and code-switch [modifying the way you express yourself depending on who you’re with]. I remember as young as first grade, maybe earlier, looking in the mirror and wishing that my facial features were different because I didn’t look like everyone else. In Chinese culture, it’s considered beautiful to have a wide, flat nose, but in American culture, it’s beautiful if you have a long, thin nose. I would sit in front of the mirror and squeeze my nose, hoping that it would become long and narrow. Think about how powerful the messages must have been for me as a seven-year-old child to feel that I had to change my face to be accepted.

Regardless of how we got our scars and how they manifest, they don’t magically disappear when we get married. We bring all of who we are into our marital covenants: our gifts, talents, and strengths but also our weaknesses, limitations, and brokenness. Our spouse is typically the first people who has gotten close enough to notice these scars.

    Our scars and internalized cultural values not only inform our beliefs and actions, but they also become the foundation for many of our expectations. As we enter into marriage, we have dozens of unspoken expectations for the small, seemingly incidental details of life together (e.g., who cleans the bathroom?) as well as the major, significant components of life (e.g., who sacrifices their career to care for a sick child or aging parent?). Sometimes we’re not even cognizant of our expectations until others fail to meet them. Sometimes an expectation emanates out of our wounds, which makes it more difficult for us to identify the expectation, let alone discern what drives it.

For example, not long after we were married, Christopher and I started having conflicts about what it meant to be home in time for dinner. After we negotiated what seemed like a reasonable compromise and then he showed up an hour (or more) late, I felt angry. He would apologize, but then we’d have a déjà vu moment the following week. Though I had legitimate reasons to be frustrated, his offense was a level three (out of ten—not that big a deal) and my response was a level eight (in other words, out of proportion). This disparity clued me in to the possibility that maybe this dynamic was uncovering a historic wound.

When we have the same conflicts over and over again, it’s likely that there’s something deeper going on that will provide an opportunity for healing if we can stop reacting and start exploring what’s driving our broken patterns. That was certainly true regarding our ongoing discord about mealtime. When I was twelve, my grandfather died and our extended family fractured due to some poor choices and miscommunication. After two of my father’s beloved siblings moved out of state, he turned to liquor to numb his pain. This eventually led to a full-blown alcohol addiction lasting more than a decade.

During my middle and high school years, dinner could be a tense affair. Would Dad be on time? Would he be sober? If he wasn’t, how would Mom respond? There was an obvious connection between my childhood wounds and our marital strife. Christopher’s struggle with time management uncovered my unresolved pain and amplified my unprocessed anger. My response replicated my family of origin’s patterns and certainly did not help Christopher feel loved or grow in his time management skills.

Obviously, not all expectations emerge from brokenness and pain. Many are inspired by God. When we vow to love, honor, and cherish until death do us part, we expect our spouse to stick with us, even if we become unemployed, cannot conceive, or develop serious health issues. We expect our spouse to tell the truth, advocate for us, and remain monogamous. These are healthy non-negotiables. In order to have a healthy marriage that is free from judgment, we need to discern which expectations are godly and life-giving and which ones adversely affect our marriages.

    As my husband and I have pursued healing for our historic wounds and let go of our need to be right, we’ve become less dogmatic and more flexible. These changes manifest in small but welcome ways. When I need to talk through something, Christopher no longer expects me to replicate his family’s operatic style of communication. When we have company, I try to serve more food than I know we need. And sometimes, I even remember to put extra sauce on the table.

 

This article was adapted from Making Marriage Beautiful (2017) published by David C Cook. Used with permission.
Dorothy Littell Greco writes on how following Jesus changes everything. Her work appears in Relevant, Christianity Today, The Mudroom, and Start Marriage Right, among others. Her first book, Making Marriage Beautiful was published by David C Cook in January. You can find more of her work on her website or by following her on Twitter (@dorothygreco) or Facebook (Words & Images by DorothyGreco)

Roll Your Eyes, Brothers and Sisters

I love it when my phone updates its emojis. My favorite of the new bunch?

The face palm.

This perfectly capture my response when reading (yet another) profoundly unhelpful article by a Christian for other Christians with Rules For Men and Women To Avoid Immorality. This time, the culprit was texting. Apparently, married people should NOT text people of the opposite sex, because “affairs don’t start with sex.”

This is pretty much what my face looked like:

So, let this sister just explain herself a second here, attached to my formal appeal to please Stop The Madness. This article prohibiting texting is a variation on a well-worn theme of Men And Women Should Just Stay The Heck Away From Each Other Unless They’re Married, and has as its underpinning two terrible and insulting beliefs. It is insulting to women because it fears that they are temptresses and seductresses (see Jen Wilkin’s excellent article here on this), and it is insulting to men because it treats men as helpless victims of their sex drives. Unless you’re married, then, you should have as little contact as possible with the opposite sex: no driving in cars with them (the “Billy Graham Rule”), no private conversations in offices, no dancing, and lately: no texting. Unless you’re copying your spouse on the text thread, warns the author.

This kind of thing drives me nuts, because it shows that believers in the church have bought into the widespread (and WRONG) belief that all male and female interaction is inherently SEXUAL in nature. I hear griping and moaning about the sexualization and objectification of women and the terrible eroticization of all relationships (why can’t guys be friends who love each other without people accusing them of being gay? why do all tv sitcoms have a friendship where one of the part have feelings for the other, which almost always ends in a season finale of THE KISS (or sex) to relieve the tension?) But when we treat men and women in the church as if they can’t reasonably relate to each other without being in constant, grave, and unavoidable danger of illicit sex… we are falling into the same trap.

We need to reclaim the space for GENDERED and NON-SEXUAL relationships.

Yes, the Bible has much to say about gendered, sexual relationships – marriage being foremost among these.

But the Bible has SO MUCH to say about gendered, non-sexual relationships, and we desperately need healthy role models and better conversation about what maleness and femaleness look like without anyone imagining anyone else naked. And, Scripture has language for how we do this. It’s the family language of brother and sister: gendered, warm, intimate, familiar, and totally clothed.

I live in a church community and have friendships with men and women. Yes, I am a married woman and I am friends with men: both married and single. And my husband has both male and female friends. And, when we were single, we both had married and single friends of both sexes. As far as I understand it, this is the beautiful pattern of community within the FAMILY of God: filled with brothers and sisters who sometimes squabble, sometimes disagree, but who really, really love each other and are on the SAME team. We desperately need to reset our default setting and learn to see the men and women around us primarily as brothers and sisters, rather than potential sexual partners.

This is not to say, however, that affairs don’t happen, or that we can say anything or do anything with anyone, male or female. But, so much more than rules about how close you should stand to a guy, or whether or not you can give your phone number to a married man, what this calls for is MATURITY and WISDOM. The question is always one of the heart: am I seeking other people’s BEST in this relationship? That’s what love requires. To follow this standard requires so much more than keeping your contact list limited to same-sex-friendships: it requires us being willing to search our hearts and lay our intentions bare before God. Asking hard questions of ourselves (like “why am I wanting this person’s attention?”) requires more diligent self-scrutiny. For me, one check is knowing that I’d be willing to show my husband any of my text exchanges with other men and women (which is an internal caveat for me), rather than simply ruling out any texting at all.

It may well be that, giving yourself a sober self-assessment of your habits and vices, that it may be better for you not to text Dude X or arrange a regular carpool ride with Miss Y because you know you’ll be vulnerable to crossing lines that brothers and sisters shouldn’t cross. But it shouldn’t mean writing half our family off complete as dangerous and deceptive.

Surely, we need to do better than that. We can do better than that. Yes, we all need to take care that we aren’t making choices that will lead us into temptation (of bad spending, bad gossiping, selfishness, and yes, sexual temptation too)… but surely to accomplish this we need is HEALTHY relationships guarded by wisdom, not ZERO relationships regulated by fear and suspicion.

 

 

 

What I Want More Than an End to Porn

A friend told me recently about a kid in third grade who was having behavioral troubles: saying and doing weird stuff, relating oddly to his peers. A little sleuth work from adults who love him revealed why: he’d been exposed to—and nearly devoured by—porn on his phone. He is eight years old.

EIGHT.

This story was shocking because of the age of the person involved, but sadly not because of the content. More and more I hear from pastors and friends and wives-of-husbands and mothers-of-teens about the soul-destroying , imagination-crushing, joy-sapping and trust-smashing effects of pornography. In their homes. Classrooms. Churches.

And, more recently, I’ve had young men (and women, because this is not just a men’s issue) tearfully confess to me how they feel like they’re drowning in this addiction. They know they shouldn’t, but they just don’t know how to stop. They can’t unsee what they’ve seen, and somewhere deep inside them there’s an insatiable visceral growl to see more, and more, and more.

I feel their despair and some of their hopelessness: addictions are so hard to break. Will they ever be able to have healthy sex lives? Is it really that bad? If they’re Christians, will God forgive them? Will they ever be able to go to sleep and not be assaulted by mental images that tantalize and torment them?

Of course, there’s all the research out there that says STOP, JUST STOP using porn. It’s bad for you: it’s rewiring your brain, wrecking adolescentsdestroying your capacity for intimacy in relationships, underpinning human trafficking, and more. Heck, even manly man magazine GQ has a list of reasons why you should stop watching porn, including that it declines arousal rates, increases rates of erectile dysfunction, and leads to all-round lower energy and productivity rates.

Stopping such high-sensory-feedback, addictive habits is notoriously difficult, particularly when there’s the cloak of shame that makes community support and encouragement (often the bedrock of any addiction recovery plan) all the more difficult. But the good advice and necessary steps to stopping remain important and true:

  • find a buddy/community who can help you identify when you feel weakest/most likely to indulge.
  • take practical steps to make access more difficult for you: alcoholics purge their homes of alcohol. Porn addicts  need to get their screens the heck out of their bedrooms and enclosed spaces. Put your phone and laptop in the living room. Keep the office door open. Install software that flags porn and give someone else the passwords to check it.
  • Look for the encouragement from people who’ve walked this road before you, whether in person or online. There are stories of people who’ve come out on the other side. These are important for the wisdom they give as well as for cultivating hope. We *need* to hear stories of people who will say “I used to have these images in my mind ALL the time, but it’s been a year and I’m not so haunted anymore. It gets better.”
  • Celebrate little victories. A year without porn doesn’t happen until you’ve had a day, two days, three days, a week without it. Each of these is worth celebrating.

But the more I listen and read and pray over this situation, the more I realize that I want more for people than for them to stop using pornYes, I want them to be free of the entrapment and shame and damage that it does – but I want more for them than freedom. Just like I want more for a caged animal than for it to be let out of its cage: I want to see it run free in its habitat. I want to see it flourishing in the areas it wasn’t able to before.

This is what I want for a generation trapped in porn addiction: I want them to be free, but I want more:

  • I want for you to have a network of healthy, rich, rewarding relationships with men and women of different ages. I want you to be able to laugh, work, partner, play, and grow with men and women in friendship and companionship, without it being weird or erotic. I want for you, young men, to have female FRIENDS you enjoy and admire and respect. I want for you, young women, to have male FRIENDS you enjoy and admire and respect. I don’t want you to be afraid of your own psyche or taunted imagination: I want you to be able to share a story or a project or a hug or whatever with freedom and joy with men or women around you.
  • I want you to kindle your creative imagination: to use your time and energy to devote to something you love and can do well. Hours of addiction, particularly addiction which rewires our brain with (terrible!) narrative plots, kill our imagination. I want you to invent something, build something, write something, chase after an ambition, run a 10k race, take up rock climbing, adopt a puppy and train it to do amazing tricks. Whatever. I want to see you experience joy and fulfillment in something you put your energy into.
  • I want you to experience your sexuality – your maleness or femaleness – as something good, beautiful, and true – not terrifying or debilitating or depraved. We are not androgynous personalities, we are male and female in all our relationships and endeavors, and I want you to know that being a woman is good and being a man is good and to think and pray and explore what that means. Our sex-crazed society has eroticized all of our gendered conversations and I want us to reclaim that good and holy ground: what does it mean to be a BROTHER and not just a sibling? What does it mean to be a DAUGHTER and not just a child? How is it unique that you are a GUY-friend or a GIRL-friend to your community? How do we experience being sons and daughters of God, and brothers and sisters in the church?
  • I want you to know the powerful and healing good of non-sexual, physical touch. Greet one another with a holy kiss, the Apostle said; and Jesus—while totally able to heal with a word—repeatedly TOUCHED people in his dealings with them. I want you to be able to give and receive hugs, handshakes, and the laying on of hands in prayer in life-affirming ways.
  • I want you to know, both in conviction and hopefully one day in experience, the richness that married sex can bring. It’s so much better, so much more rewarding, so vastly different from the sex that is peddled online. I want you to know that it’s possible and doable, even for broken people. I know, because I’m one of them.

Thinking through this list gives me courage, though. Because while there’s not a lot I can do to help people STOP using porn, there’s a lot I can do to help be part of a redeeming and healthy community of men and women. I can invite men and women over and be a healthy female friend to them. I can ask questions about people’s interests and hobbies and encourage them in them in creativity: attend that art exhibition, cheer them on in their first race, post a picture of their cool art on instagram. I can notice and affirm healthy relationships where I see them – for someone who’s internally feeling that they are not a safe or worthwhile person to be in a relationship with the opposite sex because of their internal shame struggle with porn, perhaps it could be life giving to have someone else affirm: “you were a good friend to her when you said/did x,y,z.” And, of course, we can be healthy touchers. I’m a believer in hugs and handshakes and words of affirmation. And, as readers of this blog know, I’m a believer in sharing hopeful, redemptive stories about marriage and sex.

There’s a battle going on for the hearts, minds, and imaginations of this generation. I can’t be the 1am gatekeeper or take down the porn industry; but this much I can do:

I can pray.

I can encourage.

And I can help be part of the forgiven and flourishing community of women and men that God intended for us, and keep inviting people to experience True Life there.

This much, I can do.

 

 

“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

 

 

The Fine Print on the Finest of Marriage Proposals

If you want to while away a couple of hours filled with laughter, tears, and OMG moments, search “marriage proposals” on YouTube. Here’s one that was a YEAR in the making:

Dear reader, our wedding proposal was nothing like that. In fact, we kinda decided to get married by accident. Or rather, we had a conversation late one night which got away from us and by the time we said goodbye at 2am or so, had talked about dates, location, and plans to meet one another’s families (we really hadn’t been dating long). The next day, we were both a little stunned: “Whoa. Wait. What WAS that? Are we… engaged?” We had effectively decided to get married, but there had been no declarations, or rings, or questions-asked-on-one-knee.

We decided to call that phase “pre-engaged”, and spent the next weeks talking with parents and looking at rings and imagining the possibilities. But the “proposal”—with ring and question and an official announcement to the world—was yet to happen at a later date.

One afternoon, it did. My boyfriend/beloved/pre-fiancè picked me up early so we could go walking before meeting friends for a birthday dinner. We drove five minutes from my house to the trail head of a walk along the slopes of the most beautiful mountain in the most beautiful city in the world.

This is the view from that walking trail:

The walk is called "The Pipe Track". I think the name is meant to throw tourists off the scent and keep it a local secret.

The pipe track runs along the contour path just below the sheer rock of this mountain, and above this set of beaches:

CPT Cape Town Camps Bay beach with Twelve Apostles b

So far, the scene is seeming pretty picturesque, right? (Just a regular afternoon walk for those blessed to live in Cape Town, folks) So we walked a while—maybe 45 mins or so—and came to a look out point with a bench. We stopped to catch our breath and sat down, taking in the sun slipping slowly out of the sky to the west, admiring the sparkle and relishing the breeze.

And then, without taking his eyes from the horizon, my dearest guy said: “So, you know that I’m a total sinner, right?”

Friends, I had no idea where the conversation was going. What on earth was he about to confess? 

He kept talking; reminding me that he makes mistakes and he fails and that although he tries to be a faithful friend and worker, he sometimes messes up. “I do love you,” he said, “but you know I’ll disappoint you.”

Still, I had no idea. 

I think I countered with some combination of “nobody’s perfect” and “we are forgiven all our sins” and “is there something you want to tell me?”

He paused. And then, turning to me, said this: “So, even knowing all this, are you sure you want to marry me?” I laughed. I said “of course!” I mean, after all, hadn’t we been talking about getting married for weeks already? If he was having second thoughts or doubts about my commitment, I wanted to put him at ease.

And you know what? I nearly goofed it. That “are you sure you want to marry me?” was the proposal. In case I had missed it (and I nearly had), a red velvet box had appeared in which sat nested a very, very sparkly ring. This was it: THIS was the proposal.

No “You are the most beautiful woman in the world and I can’t live without you.”

No “I love you more than life itself.”

No “Will you make me the happiest man in the world?”

No “I want to grow old with you.”

Instead, “So you know I’m a sinner… are you sure you want to marry me?”

What was I to do in the face of what seemed—certainly by YouTube standards—to be a colossal anticlimax of a proposal? Well, as Jane Eyre famously said:

Reader, I married him.

I’ve told the motley story of our engagement to many dating college students over the years: I’ve laughed and reminisced and loved the re-telling of it because, after all, it may not be Reality TV’s most fantastic story, but it is our story, and it is precious for that reason alone.

But over the years, as we have weathered more and more years of marriage, I look back on our engagement and marvel at the wisdom my then-pre-fiancè showed in his proposal. He knew from the get-go that marriage wasn’t about feeling-so-overwhelmed-by-love that all you could do was propose. He knew, and wanted to make I knew, that we were committing to loving each other as deeply flawed people: that marriage would be for better and for worse. In our heady days of imagining our future, it was easy to imagine the better part. He wanted to make sure I knew there would be days of worse. And that he would do his best to love me through those, and wanted to know if I’d do the same.

No one starts a building project without first doing a budget; and no king goes to war against another without first figuring out the relative strength of their troops, said Jesus. In the same way, people shouldn’t make commitments to Jesus without figuring out what’s involved. And, I daresay, they shouldn’t get engaged until they’ve taken a good hard look at the weaknesses and struggles in both themselves and their beloved and asked: “are you really sure you still want to do this?”

That’s wisdom. It doesn’t make for the best proposal videos, perhaps, but in hindsight, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Happy engagement-aversary, my love.

Let’s Hear It For Hot, Married, Older-People Sex

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Sex. Sex. Sex. It’s everywhere: in song lyrics and on TV and at the forefront of a vast percentage of the adverts and marketing flooding our senses. It’s the bait for selling everything from juice to Jaguars, the goal for dating, the remedy for existential funks, and the climax (forgive me) of most every rom-com storyline. And if a brief survey of the most popular movies and music right now is to be believed, the people Having All The Sex are young, beautiful couples with off-the-charts chemistry.

Except for this: it’s just not true.

And, while I’m not sure exactly how to do this, I think we need to speak up for the hotness and satisfaction of married, older-people sex.

The need for this became clearer to me a few years ago, when we lived in a rental situated between a house of senior sorority girls on one side, and the college men’s water polo team on the other. With adjoining back yards and single-glazed windows, we were unintentionally privy to more than a couple of their late night conversations as they discussed life, the universe and everything with each other.

One night, my husband and I were awake with a baby-who-would-not-sleep, and through our closed bedroom window could still hear three of the girls out on their porch talking about the guys they were involved with. One of them talked about the guy she’d hooked up with over the summer: how she thought he liked him, how the sex seemed good enough, but she just wasn’t sure if she was a booty call or if it was going anywhere. Her friends sympathized: they had been in similar situations themselves. One suggested ways to spice things up. The other suggested she cut him loose: maybe there was someone else who she’d “click with” better? They felt stuck, but were taking a “chin up” attitude. After all, what if this was as good as it gets?

My heart went out to these girls: they’d had dinner with us just a week before, and they’d made polite conversation with us about their majors, their plans for the summer, and the cuteness of our kids. But what we didn’t talk about—couldn’t talk about—were any of the deep and painful things that they were struggling with after they’d said their polite goodbyes and returned home. What we didn’t know they might need to know, and what they didn’t know we could tell them, was some hope and help that there was a possibility out there for so-much-better from sex and relationships than they imagined.

Of course, it wasn’t their fault: who talks about our deep fears of rejection and our needs for relational acceptance and how that has been tied to our ability and willingness to offer sex with the older married couple next door? Not them. And, actually, not us. It came as a shock to me that same year to realize how much I’d been drinking the “sex is for the young, hot hook-ups” Kool-Aid, too. This realization came one afternoon when—five months pregnant and planting vegetables in the garden with my toddler—I found myself hiding behind the bushes when the water polo guys appeared in their back yard. They’d been working out, and were pumped with adrenaline and testosterone. It was a roasting hot afternoon, and with beers in hand, they peeled off their shirts and began to blast one another with the garden hose. I couldn’t cope: all my teenage angst and inadequacy-around-the-beautiful-people came rushing back at the sight of those five bronzed chests, and I took cover under the foliage of the pomegranate tree while they testosteroned (yup, I’m making that a word) in the afternoon sun: splash and beer and a whole lot of smack talk about the girls they were hoping to “hit” later that night.

All of a sudden, I had a moment of perspective. Why was I hiding in the bushes? Why was I embarrassed around their display of virility? “Stand up,” I told myself, “and get a grip of this situation. You have a life these guys WISH they had right now: you have an income and independence and a completed education. You can drink wine without having your buddy-with-ID needing to buy it for you, and your pregnant belly is actually a testimony to having a sex life. These guys may be talking big about how hot the sex is going to be, but the truth is that even the one with the most “conquests” to his name probably doesn’t have anything close to the quality or quantity of sex that we (and most happily married) couples do.”

I crawled out from under the tree and waved at the water polo guys.

Here’s the thing: we don’t have many voices around us speaking up in favor of the merits of long-term, committed, married sex and relationships – and there’s a ROAR of voices elsewhere shouting something different. But there’s a catch – the privacy of a married relationship, with its attendant modesty (in language and behavior) which protects that intimacy, means that those who know about the rich rewards of exclusive long-term marital intimacy, are the least likely to talk about it, or to share the stories about how much, much better sex gets over a lifetime of learning to love, laugh and enjoy each other.

So the challenge is this: how do we uphold and celebrate that sex and sexiness belong firmly–and wonderfully— in marriage, in a way that honors the privacy of our marriages and doesn’t get into the cringe-worthy territory of publicly calling out our spouses as “smoking hot“?

For one, I think there does need to be a little more open conversation in safe settings. My friend Emily Dixon wrote a book called Scandalous: Things Good Christian Girls Don’t Talk About and Probably Should, inviting Christian women to recover healthy, vital sexuality in their identity rather than allowing the topic to be smothered by shame. If there’s a world of unhealthy and damaging conversation about sex out there, we aren’t going to redeem the topic by staying silent – we need to start a new conversation.

Of course: books and book clubs are always my go-to ways to start conversation, so I should mention I recently read the first couple of books in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon: a series I found un-put-downable in its storytelling but which also deserved the caveats I’d heard about scenes with explicit sex and not-a-small-amount-of-violence (like Game of Thrones for women, I joked with a friend). However, I’ll say this for Outlander: the sex is very, very steamy, but all the good sex in the book happens between a married couple. This was one of the author’s intentions in writing the series: she wanted to tell a story of a marriage whose passion stood the test of time. With nine epic novels completed in the Jamie-and-Claire saga, Gabaldon has done that – told a tale of a couple whose intimacy and desire for each other in every aspect grew over a lifetime. I’m not defending that Outlander (or particularly the television miniseries version) is right for everyone – but I respect Gabaldon’s goals. Her novels, while fictional, tell the truth about something our world desperately needs to hear:

Let’s hear it for hot, married, older people sex.

hot married sex