On celibacy, head covering, and all things countercultural

A reflection by Sarah

Why do people do the things that they do and choose the ways of life that they choose? Sometimes, there’s a clear story. Other times, the pathway is much more meandering with few direct signposts. Our journey with Christ is replete with experiences of God inviting us into different things, giving us gifts, and opening up to us unexpected possibilities.

During Lent this year, I took some time to step back and reflect on how intentionality is present in different aspects of my way of life. I think it’s important to examine our motives and our intentions regularly because life with God is dynamic. What was spiritually helpful two years ago might not be entirely beneficial now. We need time to discern what God might be calling us into in the here and now lest we find ourselves in a bit of a rut. God is calling us all to grow towards Christ.

Lindsey and I wrote an answer to the question “Why celibacy?” as our second blog post ever. We’re both asked the question constantly even now. Every time a person asks us why we’ve chosen celibacy, we have the opportunity to reflect anew on the life we committed to freely and joyously. My answer remains the same: I am celibate because I experience a strong sense of call to celibacy, and it brings me abundant joy. Living celibacy and blogging about celibacy with Lindsey has taught me a great deal about how other people perceive celibacy. Celibacy is countercultural, and one might argue that celibate partnership is countercultural in a different way than celibacy lived out in other contexts. Few people are accustomed to thinking about celibate vocations as diverse. Based on my early experiences of being drawn to celibacy, I’m not entirely surprised that as an adult I experience a call to this way of life. I committed to celibacy because I sensed that God was making this way of life possible for me.

But aside from vocation, I’ve experienced God opening up other things for me that would likely be deemed countercultural in American society. To be clear, I didn’t set out asking God to bless me to live a radically countercultural way of life. I wanted — and still want — to pursue Christ’s guidance and receive all of God’s provisions for my own journey, whatever those may be. There are parts of my life and my spirituality that would probably been culturally normative. And there are some parts that just seem a bit weird to others, including some members of my own Christian tradition.

My first encounter with head covering was interacting with Catholic nuns. I didn’t think any woman who wasn’t a nun covered her hair, and I had never thought much about it. The first time I realized that some Catholic lay women cover was in my early 20s when I attended services at one particular parish where a small group of women engaged in this spiritual practice. Immediately I found these women a bit brash and arrogant because they seemed interested in policing everyone else’s modesty. They would hand out pamphlets on modesty to uncovered women on a reasonably regular basis and shoot glances at people who were not dressed “properly” for church. I immediately associated these women with everything negative about overtly conservative forms of piety. They were the kind of people who always had an opinion about what rendered a Catholic especially devout or especially heretical and rarely hesitated in sharing their thoughts. There was no way ever that I would have wanted to be anything like these women. I didn’t see anything in their faith and practice that I wanted to emulate. Head covering was the last practice I ever wanted to adopt: I saw it as distracting, oppressive, unhealthily obsessive with proper devotion, and as an invitation to make one’s church politics visible.

Imagine my surprise when I got the first inkling that God might be opening head covering as a spiritual practice for me after my transition from Catholicism into my current Christian tradition. Whenever I experience a new idea that would — if followed through — case a major change in my life, I try not to jump to the conclusion that God is asking me act immediately. I know far too many people who have conveniently sensed “callings from God” that aligned tightly with their own desires, and have become miserable as a result of acting on these desires. I was confused because I didn’t actually want to start covering, so I kept an open mind that the idea might be coming from God and continued my regular spiritual practices as always.

I sat with this idea for a few months, and it never left. Over time, I came to realize that I might want to try covering. I eased into it slowly: I started wearing larger headbands to church to discern if there might be some spiritual benefit for me in covering. I noticed that since I never cover my head or wear large headbands when going about my daily life routine, wearing a covering at church or in my prayer corner helped me differentiate church from the rest of the world. I observed that it was easier for me to focus and viscerally encounter the truth that heaven meets earth during divine services. I saw my heart rejoicing with awareness that we exit time and space when we go to meet with Christ in prayer. I continued to bring all of my observations to God in times of private devotion, and I sensed God inviting me to make the practice of covering a regular part of my spiritual life.

While I felt peace about all of this, I noticed a huge amount of anxiety welling up inside of me at the same time because covering is easily noticeable. Even though a lot of women in my current Christian tradition practice covering, I still had some insecurity about whether I would stick out and cause distraction for others. Also, I didn’t know if other women who covered would recruit me to join some kind of effort toward spreading the practice to others in our community. I wondered if people would see me and think I had somehow willfully made myself a second-class citizen in church by consenting to the idea that women are somehow less than men. I thought about what my friends and acquaintances from other seasons in my life might think if they knew I was covering. How would friends who sat across from me in women’s studies courses respond? What lectures might I hear from Catholic friends at my former parish who robustly advocate against covering on any occasion? How would my friends who describe themselves readily as “liberated women” react? I even considered a question that I rarely ask myself anymore: “What would my parents think?” Despite all of these feelings and uncertainties, I decided to try it out anyway. I’ve been surprised and heartened that the practice of head covering continues to prove beneficial in my spiritual life.

When I’m talking to people about why I do what I do, I get just about as much variation in reactions from those asking me why I cover as I do from those asking me why I’m celibate. There are folks who expect me to respond with a blind appeal to one authority or another — something like “The Bible is clear that I should” or “Tradition has a consistent witness that I should.” These are the same kinds of answers people expect me to give when they ask me why I’m celibate. The real conversations begin happening when I explain the reasons for my choices. Occasionally a person who expects me to answer by appealing to authority will be challenged to consider alternate reasons for particular practices. Sometimes people ask me why I don’t answer first by appealing to authority. These folks occasionally go so far as to say that I clearly don’t respect the Bible or Tradition because I haven’t cited a certain verse or teaching as my first motivation. In these situations, I’ve received more than one lecture about why women should cover their heads and why gay people ought to be celibate. It seems odd to me that, for some people, unless your primary reason for making a particular choice is the Bible said so or Tradition clearly teaches, you can’t possibly be engaging in a practice in the right way. It’s bewildering to experience a person telling you that you’re just not committed to doing x, y, and z that you’ve made a voluntary decision to adopt because of God’s personal direction.

I don’t think every countercultural practice or way of life has to be engaged in with the intention of being countercultural. In fact, I think most of the time it’s better when a person adopts a practice because God has opened that practice up to that individual. I don’t think it’s necessarily good for a person to adopt a practice as an attempt to reject a cultural norm and shove it in other people’s faces. Taking on unusual practices in an effort to flee a cultural reality doesn’t always mean God will use that choice to bring one into a closer relationship with Christ.

It’s been interesting to live a few different realities that are countercultural alongside other realities that do fit into the box. I’m grateful for God’s immeasurable patience and good humor. And I pray that in all things God will continue to provide for me on my journey, whether God’s gifts are reasonably ordinary or delightfully personal in how they help me grow towards Christ.

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Meeting People in Sickness

A reflection by Lindsey

Lent is a time of year when people frequently ask me how God has been challenging me to grow spiritually. As far as the Church year goes, it’s the season where I feel most in touch with my humanity. Lent is a time where it seems absolutely normal to reflect on my sin, my frailty, my limitations, and Christ’s power in the midst of everything. This Lent has proven to be typical in these regards.

I’ve been watching a lot of suffering this season. An older friend of mine died recently because of congestive heart failure. Many of my friends have been experiencing profound grief after their friend was killed in a car accident, leaving behind his wife and six children. I’ve also seen firsthand what it means for Sarah to have an extremely aggressive form of Meniere’s disease. Sarah’s balance continues to decline, where Sarah is chronically exhausted from all of the different ways the body tries to compensate for vestibular system losses. And because it’s Lent, I find myself more inclined to say, “Okay God, what’s going on here? What are you trying to show me?”

The first thing I’ve realized is that it’s hard to make space for people who are sick. Many people have asked me if I’m praying for God to heal Sarah. In my lived experience, expecting God to heal Sarah miraculously creates much more pain and anger. I have a naive view of healing where God makes everything “all better” and it was like the sickness was little more than a bad dream. Praying for God to restore every aspect of Sarah’s health before the Meniere’s diagnosis feels futile as much, even as I do pray every day that God is ever-present, active, and bringing peace that surpasses all understanding. My sense of the miraculous has been recalibrated where I see how God might be active in the small bits of the day. When Sarah is laid out with a vertigo attack, I find myself praying that God would bring this spell to an end as quickly as possible and that the various medical treatments Sarah has tried would have some positive effect. I have also discovered that I spend a lot of time praying for myself that I would be patient, provide comfort, and remain present.

I have been convicted about how meeting people in sickness involves practicing radical hospitality. I can’t think of anyone I know who likes sickness. I have been around healthcare professionals my whole life. People work in healthcare because they want to see others get well, they want to alleviate suffering, and they want to provide a degree of care that others cannot provide; people do not work in healthcare because they think sickness is a good thing. Keeping vigil with a sick person can be exhausting work. Bearing witness to another’s pain, doing the limited things you can do to bring comfort, and voluntarily entering spaces that no one wants to be in require surrendering your own will. Meeting people in sickness takes commitment. If you’re healthy, you frequently have the option to seek respite. It’s hard to find balance between making good self-care choices and acknowledging how chronic illness affects the every-minute reality of your loved one.

Being present has tremendous power. I’ve been amazed at how simply being myself has provided so much comfort to Sarah. As I have prayed about remaining present through various iterations of our “new normal,” God has been a constant source of reassurance. I have noticed features of what I do as a caregiver. Sarah and I have seen glimpses of what God might be asking us to do as a community of two, and we pray about this together regularly. Our community has expanded to include Gemma, a two-year-old chocolate Labrador that we plan to train as a service dog. I’m learning to differentiate between sickness, disability, and realities that are simply different ways of experiencing the world. I have learned a lot about how hearing people and deaf people experience noise, silence, and motion differently. Helping Sarah move between where we parked our car and our target destination has given me new appreciation for people with mobility disabilities. I have learned to ask questions when people tell me that they’re not feeling well. I find myself more attentive to other people’s needs and more forthcoming when it comes to sharing my needs with others.

I can’t help but feel like I’m becoming just that much more human.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Finding our vocation

In thinking about finding our vocation, we like to say that our vocation found us. Neither of us set out with the goal of finding celibate partnership. Our life together emerged organically in ways that surprised and delighted us.

We’re well aware that some people consider celibate partnership as a sort of “Holy Grail” for LGBT Christians who are striving to live into celibacy vocationally. We’ve talked to LGBT Christians who perceive celibate partnership as a way to have lifelong companionship without any moral quandaries related to sexual activity. There’s a tendency to see our way of life as “marriage minus the sex,” but this fails to consider the specific textures, features, and patterns of celibacy that undergird the life we share.

Celibacy can be lived in diverse ways. Monastic communities and religious orders provide windows into various celibate ways of life. Additionally, many people live lives as singles in the world according to their unique gifts and abilities. The two of us do our best to learn from monastics while also discerning our own vocation as a community of two. As we have gotten to know other people who are living celibacy, we have come to see that celibate vocations are characterized by vulnerability, radical hospitality, a shared spiritual life, and commitment.

We’ve talked before about how we met and the challenges of finding language to describe the relationship we share. We have a few posts geared towards people who are considering the possibility of celibate partnership. But over the past few weeks, we’ve noticed that a sizable number of people interacting with our writing assume that we actively sought a romantic relationship with each other in an effort to get as close as we could to marriage without violating the teachings of our Christian tradition — that we found a loophole and decided to take full advantage of it. In fact, we’ve received several emails from people who want to know, “Where could I find a person who would desire a celibate partnership with me?”

While we can appreciate the various motivations that prompt readers to ask this question, we want to be clear that we were asking different questions of life, purpose, and relationships when we first met. The broader questions matter, especially in a world where marriage is often the default vocation. We think that beginning with partnership in mind when embracing a celibate vocation is putting the cart before the horse. It would be impossible for us to list all of the salient questions that we were asking, but we would like to share a few with you now.

What does it look like for human beings to have meaningful relationships with other human beings? We live in a time and place where marriage tends to be exalted above all other forms of relationship. One of Lindsey’s central questions in discerning vocation has focused on how people can understand that a relationship has meaning if it is not headed toward marriage. This question became a regular fixture in Lindsey’s prayer life: asking God to reveal meaningful relationships while highlighting various meanings present in those diverse relationships. God has shown us that we’re both fantastically connected with so many people; we talk about them as our family of choice. Though we share daily life in our little community of two, there are very few ways in which our relationship is more exclusive than other meaningful relationships that we hold dear.

What way of life has the greatest potential to draw me towards God? The world is full of choices, and many of these choices have the potential to draw a person away from God. Sarah has long recognized a need for accountability. Living in close community with other people enables Sarah to make better decisions. Because of this awareness, Sarah started looking at monastic communities while first discerning the possibility of celibacy several years ago. When it became clear that God was not calling Sarah to a particular monastery, Sarah prayerfully considered how God would provide strong connections with other people.

Where do I find strength and support to do the things God is asking me to do? Living in Christ radically reshapes one’s way of life. God frequently calls us towards more than we could possibly ask or imagine. Doing what God would have us do is incredibly challenging, and God provides communities so that the Body of Christ can be built up. Lindsey has a natural gift for encouraging other people and finds encouragement from others to be life-sustaining. It has been important for Lindsey to cultivate deep relationships characterized by mutual support.

How is God asking me to love others? As we’ve said before, we believe that celibate people love and serve the world differently than married people do. The differences may not always be readily apparent or even definable, but they are there nonetheless. We’ve found intrinsic knowledge in our hearts that God is calling the two of us to love and serve the world as celibate people. Neither of us desires marriage, but we are grateful for the opportunity to choose to opt in 100% with another person. We find ourselves propelled toward loving other people more fully because we provide consistent support, care, and encouragement to each other. In many ways, celibate partnership has helped both of us to   be less selfish, more open-hearted, and more compassionate than we would be living separately.

In no way is this list of questions exhaustive of how we were processing the world when our celibate vocation found us. We do hope that we have given you a glimpse into what kinds of things were on our minds when we met each other. When people ask us about how they could meet their celibate partner, we try to change the question by asking How do you understand celibacy? and What draws you towards a celibate vocation?

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

A quick update from Lindsey and Sarah

Hello, AQC readers. We’ve received a lot of contact lately from people who are wondering why we aren’t posting as much right now as we have been in the past and why some of our posts are releasing later in the day than others. We’ve also gotten a couple of questions about why our Saturday Symposium posts have disappeared, and a few more about why we’ve been so slow at answering our email.

During this season of life, we are adjusting to a new normal about once a month with Sarah’s balance. Sarah is currently receiving another series of ear injections, and the side effects from those are impacting our daily schedules in a number of ways: everything from figuring out logistics with household chores to determining how many hours of sleep we can get to keeping a prayer rule to finding occasions when we can actually do something fun and enjoyable. As we continue learning how to manage this together, we are learning a lot about God and our vocation as a celibate couple…but we also find ourselves exhausted much more often than we used to.

We absolutely love blogging. Interacting with you folks through comments and emails is a huge blessing to us. We try to post something at least three times a week, but sometimes we can’t do more than two posts. Occasionally, we may take a week or two off blogging if we sense that God is asking us to rest for a bit. Now that all Christians East and West have plunged into the season of Lent, it is the ideal time to take an occasional break and use that extra time to focus on preparing ourselves for Pascha (or Easter, if you prefer). All this is to say that we will continue to post something (usually more than one thing) every week. We’ll get back to the Saturday Symposium questions when we know that we’ll have enough energy to engage with readers who respond. And we’ll continue working our way slowly through our inbox.

Much love and many hugs,

Lindsey and Sarah

The Beginning of Gender

A reflection by Lindsey

I’ve been trying to sort through my own questions about faith, sexuality, and gender for nearly two decades. It hasn’t been a smooth or glamorous journey. Along the way, I’ve been amazed by the number of Christians I’ve met who respond to my questions with various short answers to shut down conversation. I’ve lost track of people who have told me things like “There’s no such thing as a gay Christian” or “The opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality; it’s holiness.” Like any other culturally contentious conversation, the talking points have shifted over time. Tracking the conversations over the past several months, I’ve observed a Back-to-Genesis approach where conservative Christians say things like, “The scriptural view of human sexuality is that God formed man and woman in His image (Gen 1:27-28) and these two were to become one flesh (Gen 2:23-24).” The quote can fit into a single tweet if one takes out Scriptural citations. I’ve started to see a greater reliance on this particular argument as conservative Christians have started to grapple with questions about transgender people. My goal in writing this post is to provide food for thought that moves respectful conversation forward.

One benefit to looking towards Genesis 1 and 2 is that these chapters describe our relationship with God before sin entered the world. They contain the beginning of our collective story as being God’s beloved creation. We share our status as creation with plants, animals, the stars and moon in the sky, oceans, and the earth itself. It’s important to remember that Genesis 1 and 2 discuss only the beginning; if we want to discuss the ending of our collective story, we’re left to puzzle through many of the obscure pointers found in Revelation or the various teasers scattered throughout the New Testament. The Gospel of John opens by echoing Genesis 1 to establish Christ’s presence and work at creation. We gain new insights into creation when we consider Genesis 1 and 2 as the beginning of our redemption where Christ is the author and perfector of the rest of the story.

Genesis 1 and 2 tell us about the beginning of gender. In Genesis 1, we read humans are created in the image of God as male and female. Genesis 2 provides more context by describing the creation of Adam and Eve. The Genesis account of creation centers on two people, Adam and Eve, to whom God had said, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” As much as I do not wish to quibble with the text, it seems abundantly clear to me that two people could never fulfill this call by themselves. These commands are given to all of humanity where we all do our best to conform ourselves to God’s likeness as we do the difficult work set before us. Our God is a triune God and is therefore fundamentally relational and communal. If we are created in God’s image and likeness, then we are fundamentally relational and communal as well. One reason why the world was so good at creation is that no relationships were broken. Adam and Eve had a one-flesh relationship because Eve’s flesh was formed directly from Adam’s. Vulnerability existed without shame; Genesis 2 ends with “the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”

Our lived experience of what God intended for us changed radically in Genesis 3. As wrongdoing entered into the world, so too did fear, shame, blame, and bloodshed. Relationships between creation, Eve, Adam, and God changed drastically. The relationship between man and woman was not the same: “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

These observations matter when we consider what Christ said when quoting these parts of Genesis. In Matthew 19, Jesus says to the Pharisees,

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

When his disciples ask more questions to try to understand, Jesus says,

“Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

It’s worth noting that Jesus is responding to a question about divorce. Jesus quotes Genesis when asked about people who are already married. Christ, who knows God’s creative intent, pulls from Genesis when discussing male and female while going beyond the creation narrative to discuss eunuchs. I believe any person commenting on sex and gender would do well to consider how eunuchs make valuable contributions to the human experience, even as we should acknowledge how eunuchs are not generally discussed in the Scripture. It’s worth mentioning that eunuchs are important figures in the books of Daniel and Acts.

When I think about the beginning of gender, I find it helpful to think about other facets of creation. Creation began as God said, “Let there be light.”  On the first day, God divided the light from darkness to create Day and Night. However, night does not lack light. On the fourth day, God created the sun and the moon. Day, night, light, and dark blend together. There is a seamlessness as all of time comes together. On the second day, God divided the waters to create dry land. But the land does not lack water. Not only does rain fall to nourish the plants that grow on the land, but also water collects to forms lakes and rivers. We also know water gathers under the land, making it possible for many people to access freshwater. Without the small proportion of water that is freshwater, life as we know it couldn’t exist. The water cycle gives people a way to conceptualize what is happening as water moves throughout the earth. Every photon and every water molecule serves as a marker for God’s amazing activity during creation.

When we are talking about the mystery of humanity, every person shows us something of the image of God. We can speak of Adam and Eve as prototypes of a sort for male and female, but these two people do not have a monopoly on the category. It would also be difficult to figure out the fullness of God’s intention for us as people simply by looking at the beginning of our collective story. We must consider the mystery of humanity through the words of Christ. Could it be that Christ knew that there would be people who blended male and female such that some would be eunuchs? Do we have space in our theological imagination to see seamlessness as human beings created in the image and likeness of God?

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.