Talking about “Real” Sexual Violence

This is part three in our series on sexual abuse. Click these links for parts one and two.

As we have written our first two posts this week, we have received a number of ideas and requests for topics to include in this series. A few readers have requested that we write about signs of sexual abuse, especially those that Christian parents may fail to notice. One reader asked specifically for more information about what to do if a person who claims to be abused fears perceived sexual advances from other people who are not abusers. Several people who have interacted with us online the past couple of days have used language such as “serious sexual violence,” “legitimate sexual violence,” and “real sexual violence” to differentiate what they see as levels of seriousness when it comes to unwelcome sexual advances made on another person. This is the topic we have chosen for today, and we think it relates well to the suggestion that we write about signs of sexual abuse. (If you have any suggestions for items to include in a future post on that topic, please let us know.)

Why is it that when we discuss sexual violence there is always a tendency to use a tier system for ranking the actions? Touching a young girl’s breasts becomes a not-so-serious tier 1 offense, whereas raping that same young girl is a tier 5 offense. Part of it may be that the legal system responds differently to different specific acts of sexual violence, so we feel justified in thinking of some as “not so bad” and others as “real sexual violence.” In reality, trauma of any kind impacts different people in different ways. We as a society think it’s normal for a veteran to develop PTSD, but tell people who have experienced sexual violence that they should just get over it because it wasn’t that big a deal…except in “some cases of violent rape.” This attitude keeps people from getting help when they have experienced sexual violence, and when we carry it into the church it prevents victims from finding safety in what should be the safest place on earth.

If you are not a survivor of sexual violence, you may have some misconceptions about how victims feel, what kinds of sexual violence can have lasting impacts, and what it means when a person tells you about an experience of sexual violence. The two of us had a long conversation last night about what Lindsey, who is not a survivor, mistakenly believed before meeting Sarah, who is. We’ve listed them below with some additional explanation.

“A person will always begin talking about sexual abuse by saying, ‘I was raped.'” If a person is confiding in you about a story of sexual violence, it is possible that “I was raped” will be the first item shared by the victim. But this is usually not the case. It’s very common for a victim to begin by sharing other details in order to test the listener and determine if that person is safe for further sharing. Victims have had their senses of trust and security violated. It can extremely difficult to share about an experience of sexual violence. One should never assume that the victim has already shared everything that happened, or that if the victim decides to tell more later the additions to the story are exaggerations for attention-seeking purposes. It took Sarah more than two years to share every detail of Sarah’s abuse with Lindsey.

“It’s only real sexual violence if the person was forcibly penetrated.” Sexual violence occurs when one person behaves sexually toward another person in a way that was not wanted or welcomed. It can involve touching and fondling as well as penetration and other actions. Often, an abuser who begins with unwanted sexual touching will eventually proceed to engaging in other sexual behaviors toward the victim. In this case, telling a victim the abuse isn’t real unless it’s penetration is like telling a person with symptoms of ebola, “It’s not real until you’re bleeding internally.” Even if the abuse doesn’t progress from fondling to rape, unwelcome sexual touching can be just as traumatic especially if the victim is met with disbelief instead of support.

“If it really happened, there will be an overwhelming amount of evidence to corroborate the victim’s story.” We’ve known many Christians who have stated confidently that their churches have the perfect policy for dealing with allegations of sexual violence: the story is investigated (whether by church elders alone or involving police too) and if there is sufficient evidence, action is taken. If there is not sufficient evidence, the incident is let go and treated as though it never arose in the first place. Such policies originate in the erroneous belief that there is always evidence if the victim is indeed telling the truth. In reality, it is almost impossible to prove that sexual violence occurred in most cases. If there are no witnesses and the perpetrator does not confess, the situation often becomes the word of the victim against the word of the perpetrator. But lack of evidence does not mean that the incident of sexual violence never occurred.

“Fear experienced by abuse victims is limited to the context of the abuse itself.” When victims lose their sense of security and trust, the world can become a frightening place. Other people who remind the victim of the perpetrator in any way may be perceived by the victim as a threat. Victims may fear touch from others or sights, sounds, smells, and other environmental factors that trigger memories of the abuse and the events surrounding it. It is common for people who experience sexual abuse to be hypervigilant. Victims may perceive innocent behaviors of others as threatening. This does not mean that the victim has fabricated the abuse story and is experiencing sexually deviant delusions; instead, it is a sign that the victim has indeed been abused. Do not accuse the victim of lying if this happens. Instead, assist the person in finding help from a trained professional.

“A support person always has a second chance to be a safe person.” If a victim confides in you, you may expect that person will give you multiple chances to respond well. There’s a perception that if a support person responds poorly during the victim’s first attempt at disclosure, the victim will understand, immediately forgive, and simply try the disclosure again. Most of the time, a support person only gets one chance to respond well. This is not to say that victims are never understanding when a support person feels clueless, but if your first response to disclosure of sexual violence is one of skepticism or outright disbelief, do not expect the victim to give you a second chance. This isn’t about vindictiveness or lack of forgiveness. It’s about the victim’s self-protection. Many victims of sexual violence come to see that very few people in their lives are safe people for discussing what happened to them. If you want to be a safe person in your friend or loved one’s healing process, you should never respond to the disclosure with the attitude that what occurred was not “real sexual violence.” Even if you have doubts or are unsure about the details, do not question the realness of the story. Seek help for yourself if needed.

Can you think of other misconceptions about “real sexual violence” and how it is disclosed? There are several beyond what we have listed here. Let’s discuss them together in the comments.

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.

Sexual Violence, Manipulation, and Cheap Grace

This is the second post in our series on sexual abuse. You can read the first post here.

A reflection by Sarah

Forgiveness is one of the most central ideas in all of Christian teaching. Christ commands us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who sin against us.” As he hung dying on the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Forgiveness seems like a straightforward concept: forgive everyone, always, and as many times as necessary. Yet anyone who has tried to put these teachings into action can attest to how challenging forgiveness can be. One reason forgiveness is so hard is that perfect forgiveness requires understanding both God’s mercy and God’s justice in a perfect way. Forgiveness, like other components of God’s mercy and justice, reflects the unfathomable and unknowable heart of God. When discussing sexual abuse, it’s paramount to sit in the tension between God’s mercy and God’s justice.

When I first became aware of the news about Josh Duggar’s sexual abuse of his sisters and at least one other girl during his teen years, I was not surprised that his response to the public focused on his asking for and receiving forgiveness both from God and the victims. What did surprise me was seeing that a large number of people I know believe this should be sufficient grounds for ceasing criticism of Josh and his parents and letting the crime remain a “private family matter.” It’s naive to think such a situation should ever have been a private family matter in the first place, and it’s even more naive to think forgiving an abuser is simple and straightforward. I do not claim to know what Josh Duggar’s victims’ psychological and spiritual processes have looked like over the years. It’s possible that they have indeed forgiven him fully. But it’s much more likely that there’s more to the story than we will ever hear. It’s possible that the forgiveness Josh claims they have extended to him is not actually forgiveness. I draw from my own personal experience in saying this.

In some manifestations of conservative Christianity, forgiveness is used as a tool of manipulation. This does not happen only in the Quiverfull movement, but across a wide variety of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions. To put some flesh on what I mean by “manipulation,” I’ll share a bit more detail about my own story.

One morning when I was 14, I had finally worked up the courage to tell my parents that I was being abused by a deacon at our church for two years at the time. We were at church early, the perpetrator had fondled my breasts and vaginal area while I was waiting outside the door of the women’s restroom, and I could not contain the truth any longer. I ran into the sanctuary, pulled my mom out and into the restroom, and began to tell her about what had been happening to me. I had barely scratched the surface of the details when I noticed her facial expression. It was cold and severe as she informed me that she thought I was either exaggerating or outright lying. No sooner than she dragged me back into a pew did my abuser approach her and comment on how tall I was growing, and that my height would come in handy next weekend when the church windows needed cleaning. My mom was completely fooled and forbade me to say anything about my “tale” to my dad immediately after church. I could not help myself, so I disobeyed and began blurting out random details of the story as we drove home. My dad’s response was to throw a screaming fit in the car, which terrified me into retracting part of the story and justifying my “incorrect” perception of my abuser’s behavior. This only made things worse, and I spent the rest of the day crying myself into a migraine as my parents told me that I was mentally ill, sexually deviant, unfit to be alone with my younger sister, at risk for tearing apart the entire church community, and in danger of going to hell. That evening, every inch of my privacy was revoked and I was forbidden to speak to anyone about this.

Over the next few months, the need for repentance was hammered into my skull day after day. Not my abuser’s repentance — my own. I was told that I should not commune and that I should instead be contemplating the state of my soul. Most of my mental space was consumed by suicide plans and how I would manage to find one that would work given how closely my parents were monitoring me. All this time, the abuse was continuing. I never had the chance to share the full extent of it because my parents’ condemnation was so swift and unwavering. Eventually, my dad saw what he thought might have been the deacon fondling me. His advice was that I should stay away from the deacon but be understanding and forgiving because of the deacon’s old age. Much later, my mom saw the abuse with her own eyes. Around the same time, a friend from church shared with me that she had also been abused by this deacon. When her parents and my parents eventually talked to each other I learned that this problem had been occurring for years with multiple victims, and those in the community who knew about it preferred to sweep it under the rug.

From that point forward, my parents began saying to me, “We’re sorry. Forgive us,” as though that should be enough to end the pain and bring about healing. Simultaneously, they made it clear that I was never to inform anyone of what had happened to me, and that disobeying this request would only cause more problems for me. At one point they took me to see a local psychiatrist who was all too willing to let them control what I said and did not say about the abuse. The psychiatrist — a mandated reporter, a person with a license to practice medicine — did not report anything. I was never asked for my opinion about how justice could be served. My abuser got away with everything. He was never held accountable by the community in any way. By the time I was an adult and considered reporting the abuse myself, he was ill and mostly homebound — no longer a threat to community safety. He had the privilege of reposing with the public image of a virtuous Christian who was a role model in the community for decades. The day I learned of his death was the same day in March 2015 when my audiologist informed me that I am deaf. I’m still sorting how I feel about the link between those two events.

As the years have gone by, my parents have begged for my forgiveness repeatedly. They ask me why I can’t just move on with my life, why I can’t accept their apology, and why I am still so bitter and resentful years after the last occurrence of sexual abuse. They inquire as to why I don’t just focus on the good memories of my childhood, as though the good times outweigh the reality that I was sexually abused and the abuse was hidden. What they don’t realize is that forgiveness is a process, and in situations like these it can take a very long time. To them, moving on with my life means not needing or wanting to talk about this anymore. It means shutting up, doing all the life things I’m doing now at age 30, and just not thinking about what happened all those years ago. To them, bitterness and resentment are the same as having strong feelings about it half my life later.

This is the problem with the brand of grace that’s peddled throughout much of American Christianity: Jesus forgives all sins immediately after we say that we are sorry, so it follows that every Christian who wants to be forgiving like Jesus will let go of any wrongdoing once the offenders have apologized. That is the mentality I was raised with, at least when it comes to forgiving parents for making accusations of lying and sexual deviancy in addition to covering up child sexual abuse. That’s why when I was a teenager, I thought parroting “I forgive you” to my parents was the only way to show faithfulness to Christ. I believed that the state of my soul was dependent on it, especially after years of hearing stories about how miserable my grandmother was when she reposed because of all the grudges she had held during her lifetime. I honestly believed that I had forgiven them until my mid-twenties when I realized that I had never really processed what had happened to me and how I felt about the fact that no one was ever held accountable.

“I’m sorry” does not yield automatic forgiveness. Grace is not a gum ball machine where a person can insert a quarter, then go skipping along and blowing bubbles in ten seconds. It’s easy to assume that a survivor is bitter and resentful when you are not the one who has to live with the lasting consequences of a child molester violating your body and your parents insisting on covering up the whole situation. This is why I am skeptical of the claim that Josh Duggar’s victims have forgiven him, and therefore all is well. Perhaps they have, but why are we assuming that is so? Why are we so willing to say that this situation is a private family matter where the victims chose to forgive and move on with their lives? The language in every statement from the Duggar family about this issue suggests a high likelihood that Josh’s victims were manipulated into “forgiveness.” Whether that is the case or not, it happens constantly in conservative Christianity and is inexcusable.

You may have read this whole post and decided that I am a bitter, resentful person who cannot find enough strength in Christ to forgive my parents or my abuser. I have been working for several years on forgiving my parents, and I will probably be continuing that work for several more years. That’s okay. It takes time. I have a kind and patient spiritual director, and will soon be looking again for a kind and patient therapist. Though I cannot yet say that I have forgiven my parents, I can say with confidence that I have forgiven my abuser fully. He sinned against me terribly, but I am no longer angry with him. I hope that in the hereafter, I will get the chance to meet his redeemed self and come to an understanding of the whys that still run through my mind from time to time. On the day I learned of his death, I prayed for the repose of his soul. Some survivors will think I am crazy for this, but I genuinely hope that he is at peace and free from whatever demons and passions that had hold of him when I was young. Getting to a place where I can say all of this has taken hours of therapy and spiritual direction and has required the support of my extensive family of choice. It cannot be forced. A person cannot be manipulated into hoping that her abuser is at rest rather than in torment. I would not hold this attitude up as an expectation for any other survivor. I could not have gotten to this place if I had not willingly distanced myself from the cheap grace messages I had been exposed to in my earliest years as a survivor.

As I engage in discussions on Facebook about the Duggar scandal, something one of my friends commented continues to stick out to me. The implications of this comment are frightening: “Any Jesus who would forgive something like this is no Jesus of mine.” I have to wonder if this kind of thought would still come up in response to sexual abuse if Christians did a better job of teaching forgiveness. If what I had learned about forgiveness as a child and teen was the traditional Christian understanding of forgiveness, I would agree with her. When we reduce forgiveness to, “Being sorry and apologizing is good enough to erase the sin entirely,” we distort the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection. We communicate that Jesus will save the child molester who makes a public showing of remorse, no questions asked…but when it comes to the child who has been severaly sinned against, her  salvation is dependent upon being manipulated into “forgiveness.”

Forgiveness is intimately connected to God’s judgement. When humans make so many misjudgments in cases of abuse, it can be difficult to trust that God can and will enact truly perfect justice. Until there is perfect justice, the cries of victims will continue bear witness to a world in desperate need of redemption. And so I continue to pray, “Lord have mercy. Show us a new way to relate to one another where abuse no longer exists. Bring healing to all of those who have been wronged. Open the doors of repentance to any who perpetuate the evils of abuse.”

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.

20 Things Christians Need to Stop Saying about Sexual Abuse

Hello readers! We are looking forward to writing regularly again. We’ve missed interacting with you all. Unfortunately, Sarah’s health has continued to decline. Because of this, it may be a while before we’re writing very consistently again.

Given recent items in the news, we have decided to spend some time talking about sexual abuse. It’s an important topic for the Church as a whole. We are disheartened to know that so many Christians feel woefully under-equipped and underprepared to respond appropriately to allegations of sexual abuse. Additionally, many Christians and non-Christians make strong assertions about how they think both celibacy and homosexuality relate to sexual abuse. We’ve shared previously that Sarah is a survivor of sexual abuse. We’d like to use today’s post to kick off a series related to sexual abuse, starting with 20 things Christians need to stop saying about this topic. Over the past few days, we have been engaged in many conversations about the molestation scandal within the Duggar family. While we are not talking about the Duggar family specifically, we’ve heard everything on this list either in response to this scandal or during Sarah’s process of healing from sexual abuse.

1. “Sexual abuse can’t happen in my church or in my family.” The problem with this statement is that yes, sexual abuse can happen in any environment. The vast majority of abusers are people known by the child. It’s much more likely that an abuser will be someone you know and trust than a shadowy figure lurking at the playground.

2. “But he (or she) is such a good Christian and contributes a lot to our community.” If you think a “good Christian” isn’t capable of sexually abusing a child, then you seriously underestimate the power of sin. Abuse happens because few people suspect those deemed by the community to be morally upright. Abusers are people who have regular access to children because they have earned a community’s trust.

3. “It was only touching. That’s not really abuse.” This is equivalent to saying something like, “It was only a knife. There’s no way your life was in danger during that mugging.” No one has the right to minimize someone else’s trauma. What is more, a person might be describing an incident of inappropriate touching as a way of testing whether you are a safe person to share with more openly about other kinds of unwelcome sexual advances. If you have never experienced unwanted sexual touching, you cannot know how frightening it is.

4. “But he’s only a teenager.” / “But he’s an old man who is probably senile.” / “But (insert reason here) and because of that, it shouldn’t be held against him (or her).” Making excuses because of a person’s age or ability level serves no one. Teenagers need to be held accountable for their actions. Those who are otherwise not mentally competent should be protected from finding themselves in situations where they would be at risk for behaving inappropriately. Focusing on the perpetrator and how responsible he/she is belittles the experience of the victim. The victim’s suffering is not contingent on the perpetrator’s age, motivation, sex, etc.

5. “Talking about this will bring scandal upon the Church and our family.” If you have an abuser lurking around because no one is willing to do anything about it, you already have scandal in your church. The victim is not the cause of scandal.

6. “But it happened so long ago.” Trauma is trauma, and the healing process rarely follows a nice, neat timeline. It’s easy to excuse the perpetrator by saying that he/she shouldn’t be held accountable for deeds done a decade ago when you aren’t the person having to live with the lasting consequences of those deeds. Saying that abuse shouldn’t matter because it happened years ago invalidates the experience of the victim.

7. “Everyone makes mistakes.” Abuse isn’t a mistake. It’s often the result of a careful process to select, groom, and gradually escalate episodes of inappropriate contact. Abuse is deliberate. And it’s a crime.

8. “But your abuser is welcome at God’s table. Who am I to exclude?” For the love of all things holy and sacred, do not use the sacred in this way. Would you have a person over for dinner if you knew that person was stealing substantive sums of money from you? Would you willfully see a person on a weekly basis if you knew that every time you saw that person he or she would be berating you with a steady stream of insults? We believe that different Christian traditions should be able to decide who can approach their communion tables, but if a sex offender receives communion as a member of a congregation that should never be held over the head of an abuse survivor. Don’t focus on who is receiving communion. Focus on promoting accountability within your faith community.

9. “You must have done something to cause this.” No, no, no, and a hundred times more, no. This kind of willful ignorance re-traumatizes the victim, prevents other people from coming forward, and allows an abuser to go unchecked for that much longer. No victim ever causes his or her abuse to happen.

10. “If he was touching your breasts, you must’ve been old enough to have breasts and be a temptation to him.” Too often, Christians will go to amazing lengths to contort what happened so that it follows a convenient narrative of the female “temptress”: we sin because we are tempted; the best way to avoid being sinned against is to avoid being a temptation. When considered against the dynamics of how abuse works this line of thinking is, once again, willful ignorance. We will say more about this topic in a future post. For now we’ll say that Christians are generally helpful when a person says, “I have sinned,” but unfortunately clueless when a person comes forward with, “I have been sinned against.”

11. “It couldn’t have happened that way. You’re exaggerating. You’re lying.” Sometimes it’s easier to accuse victims of lying than it is to wrestle with the implications of their stories. People can assert that a victim is lying when, in reality, they are saying, “That couldn’t have happened. I don’t believe that it happened. I don’t want to believe that it happened. That’s absolutely horrible, it makes me sick to my stomach, and I don’t know what to do. I’m not going to think about it.” Never accuse a person of lying when he/she confides in you about an experience of abuse. If you believe the person who is claiming to have been abused, almost every time you are believing the right person.

12. “If you were really abused and it really wasn’t your fault, don’t worry: God protected your purity.” This kind of response misrepresents Christianity on a fundamental level. The goal of being a Christian is not to remain physically untouched before marriage. The goal of practicing Christianity is fully embodying Christ and coming into a deeper union with God. This message tells the victim, “An untouched body before marriage matters more than anything, and I don’t know how to square that with what happened to you, so I’m just going to say that God fixed it.”

13. “You need to be more forgiving.” Christians tend to be full of advice for sexual abuse victims. Advice like this is manipulation. It’s code for, “You just need to get over it. I’m done listening to you.” Unfortunately when it comes to sexual abuse, “forgiveness” is often used to hide the allegations as quickly as possible so that the family and community don’t have to think about the truth anymore.

14. “If you report this, nothing will be done about it anyway.” Authorities can respond to sexual abuse allegations in many ways depending upon the situation. Oftentimes, filing a report with the police is a necessary first step for taking other actions. Victims should be able to report what happened to them to the police if they choose to do so. A Christian should never encourage someone to remain silent.

15. “If you report this, it will only drag your reputation through the mud.” This sentiment is another way to blame the victim. It highlights that reporting sexual abuse can be a humiliating process. The better option would be to work on improving the process and making it less painful instead of steering the victim away from reporting altogether.

16. “You need to have more compassion for his wife and children. If you report this, you’ll be causing them pain.” It’s distressing how many people can think about cases of childhood sexual abuse from the alleged perpetrator’s perspective. Yes, a perpetrator’s spouse and children will experience pain when the truth is revealed. But whose fault is that? It’s the fault of the perpetrator. Reporting abuse can prevent other people from being victimized. Any pain experienced by a perpetrator’s family due to reporting is an extension of the perpetrator’s own sin.

17. “Going to the authorities is spiteful and vengeful. Jesus doesn’t want us to be spiteful and vengeful.” No, going to the authorities is not necessarily about spite and vengeance. It’s about protecting others and seeking accountability. It is irresponsible to use Jesus’ teachings to manipulate a victim into shutting up.

18. “If your parents didn’t report the abuse but you report it yourself, social services will think your parents are the abusers and take you away from them. The state persecutes good Christian families.” And this is just another way to get victims to shut up. Failing to report abuse is a serious matter. Parents who are aware of abuse and don’t report it are breaking the law irrespective of whether they are Christians. The state is not going to pull children away from a family unless the abuser lives in the home. This is a ridiculous lie created for the purpose of scaring children into silence.

19. “God will judge based on truth. Do you think the police will judge better than God?” This sentiment places full responsibility back on the victim’s shoulders. This kind of counsel can help an abuser hide easily and avoid any kind of consequences. The kingdom of God is both “already” and “not yet.” Building the kingdom of God means dealing with injustice in the here and now as well as having faith in divine justice.

20. “You and your abuser are the same because we are all sinners.” This line of thinking is dangerous. It prevents victims from saying, “I have been sinned against.” It normalizes and equalizes abuse as “just another sin” and blames the victim in the process. It is true that we are all sinners, but this is not an appropriate response to someone who has experienced sexual abuse.

It is our hope that more Christians will start thinking about how to help the victim journey through the entirely messy healing process. If someone confides in you about being abused, consider responding with something like, “It really means a lot to me that you would trust me enough to tell me about this. Have you told anyone else? How can we work together to help make sure that you’re safe?”

Stay tuned this week for more installments in our series on sexual abuse.

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.

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.