Treasure in the Field, part 1 | Fiction Friday

There is a potential pitfall in posting little stories like this one, and that is that readers might assume them to be something they are not. Hence, my upfront disclaimer: this story is neither an autobiographical sketch nor a theological treatise. Writers often write what they know, so parts of my story may speak of my own life, but readers should not presume to guess which parts do or do not. (Example: I’m a married woman but I don’t live in a culture where arranged marriages are the norm…etc.) While the story may seem to be allegorical, each element should not be viewed as symbolic nor representative of some doctrine. Trust me, I’m not that deep. What I wrote here is pretty much just a little story, not a theological statement in disguise.

Enough preamble and disclaimer…

“What do you want?” he asked. “What is it you really want?” Years of living with this woman had tried his patience and exasperated him, and his tone reflected his frustration.

It had been an arranged marriage — as was their custom — and he thought he had finally made peace with the fact that she was not at all the sort of wife that he would have chosen. His sense of disappointment was no longer acute nor painful, and he had eventually managed to forgive the matchmaker for tricking him into marrying a woman who was so ill-suited to his needs. In fact, as the years passed, he had not only become rather accustomed to his wife but, despite everything, had even grown to love her.

But still — this wife of his! She was so impractical, such a dreamer! From the very beginning, she had refused to accept their marriage arrangement for what it was. Sometimes he wondered if she actually believed they lived in another land, a fairy tale land in which people married for friendship and romance. It was as if she held him to an unrealistic standard, as if she expected him to act like some love-sick, desperate suitor whose only desire in life was to woo her and win her heart — or as if she wanted him to act like a bosom buddy who couldn’t get enough of her presence. He refused to stoop to any such silliness. He let her know that her romantic longings were so far beneath him as to be not even worth his consideration. After all, he was her husband and he was certainly not going to pretend otherwise, nor would he degrade himself just to humor her childish, irrational fantasies.

But lately something had changed about his wife, and it puzzled him. As much as he had resented her juvenile, clingy and incessant demands for his attention, he found it vaguely unsettling not to be so desperately needed by her. It was ironic. She had finally stopped pestering and pressuring him, stopped demanding that he treat her like royalty, stopped behaving as a spoiled child, stopped insisting that he change — she was finally acting content with their relationship — and, instead of feeling relieved and thankful, he felt insecure and unloved. Although she was not overtly rebuffing him, he couldn’t help feeling rejected.

To add to his confusion, he had to admit that she was being neither cold nor indifferent towards him. In fact, she was kinder and gentler than she had ever been. Whenever she behaved in ways that irritated him, she apologized genuinely, and somehow managed to do those things that offended him less and less. She was much more pleasant to be around. He should have been happy with these improvements in her nature, but he felt uneasy instead.

Rather than clamoring for his attention as she had for most of their marriage, she had immersed herself lately in a study of the history of their land. That was one of his fields of expertise, but — stubborn as always — she preferred to study in her own way rather than consulting him. She filled her room with pictures and artifacts; she sought after those who sang the songs and legends of their people; she seemed especially drawn to anything regarding their long ago king. She even began corresponding with far flung scholars who claimed to be companions of this king no one else they knew had met in person — this absent king who supposedly ruled their land from a throne no one had seen, this mysterious king who had promised to return someday.

In fact, she had grown rather obsessed with finding out all she could about the king. Everyone in their land acknowledged him as “the real king”, even while admitting he had become, during the many years of his absence, little more than a figurehead. Other men ruled in his place and attempted to enforce their understanding of his laws and decrees. But his wife seemed to be taking things to an almost bizarre extreme, weirdly emphasizing that she was the king’s subject, swearing her allegiance to him in odd little ceremonies of her own devising, and even going so far as to re-enact part of an ancient ritual declaring herself a lifelong slave to the king.

At first he had told himself that her troubling but amusing behavior was the latest example of her many, intense, passing interests — a fad that would quickly fade away. Then he wondered if she had gotten caught up in some bizarre infatuation. Finally he had to admit that this was different than any of her previous hobbies: it was actually changing her. She was uncharacteristically content and peaceful…yet obviously filled with longing as well. So he asked her what she wanted.

What he really hoped to hear was what she wanted from him. He wanted to be the focus of her desires, even if those desires annoyed and frustrated him, even if he had no interest in ever seeing them fulfilled. He was so desperate for a reassuring answer that he humbled himself enough to tell her, “I need you to want me.” And then he asked her to tell him, finally, her deepest longings.

“I don’t think you want to know,” she said, “because my hopes and dreams are not about you. They’re about the king.”

And then she told him.

[Stay tuned next Fiction Friday for part two.]

The elephant in the room | Marriage Monday

Almost a year ago, I stumbled across a blog post dealing with the issue of marital rape, and whether a husband is in the wrong for insisting on sex even when it is painful to his wife. Frankly, the post along with a number of comments — and pretty much everything I read on the blog — is so problematic and disturbing that I don’t even want to link to it.

Even though other comments have been approved since then, mine is still awaiting moderation, about eleven months later:

This is what I see as the major issue — the elephant in the room that no one is fully addressing, although a few have hinted at it.

We cannot expect an unbelieving husband to want to love his wife as Christ loves the church. But the real elephant in the room? Most Christians have no idea what love means. They think it means leadership and a skewed, worldly view of authority. We gloss over the part where a husband is to lay down his life sacrificially for his wife, or we romanticize it by saying he should take a bullet for her should armed intruders ever enter their home.

Really? What husband in his right mind would do that if he is unwilling to forego sexual pleasure when his wife is in pain? But it’s nice to pretend he would, nice to pretend he would be a hero — because he knows the likelihood of that scenario is next to zero.

Our culture has made an idol of sexual pleasure, especially male sexual pleasure, and in order to avoid the appearance of bowing to the same idol, we have enshrined this as a need. We have bought into the lie that sex is mostly about meeting this all-consuming NEED on the part of the husband, rather than about unity, intimacy, and procreation.

Men no longer see sex as the physical expression of the sacrificial gift of themselves that they give to their wives in marriage. If they did, they would not avoid true intimacy (emotional and spiritual) in marriage, and they would abhor the very thought of asking the wife they love to give them a blow job while she is recovering from childbirth.

Sometimes the sacrifice men might be called to give to their wives is a foregoing of selfish sexual pleasure. But we don’t want to hear that.

The elephant in the room is that we have no idea what love means. We may sing songs about amazing grace and the love of Jesus, but our hearts remain hard, selfish and idolatrous. That is why our lack of compassion is so painfully obvious to everyone but us, why we can demand wives submit to demeaning and painful sex, and why we criticize women who suffer pain during intercourse for being selfish, childish, and refusing to go to doctors. (An aside: such statements betray woeful ignorance. Sciatica and chronic coccyx pain — just to name two potentially debilitating and devastatingly painful conditions off the top of my head — are not easily fixable.) We teach husbands that their compassion should be limited and fleeting, and should run out if their wives suffer ongoing pain. After all, the idol of sexual pleasure rules our hearts, not love.

May God have mercy.

Finding joy | Celebration Sunday

Maybe it’s just my temperament…after all, God made me to be that 3 year old who could skip happily through the house singing my made-up song of “Life is miserable!”…or maybe it’s my oblivious non-attention to detail that keeps me from seeing every imperfection and flaw…or maybe it’s being raised by parents who modeled gratitude rather than whiny complaining…or maybe it’s because so much of my early childhood was idyllic and happy…or maybe it’s because a friend once encouraged me to look for a blessing every day…or maybe it’s because I’ve never grown up enough to completely lose my childish sense of wonder…or maybe it’s because I need joy and beauty so much, almost as much as I need food and water…but it takes a lot — as in a LOT — for me to remain in a constant state of unhappiness for very long.

Yes, it seems contradictory. After all, I am no stranger to grief or sorrow. I am the same person who once penned reams of poetry with lines like, “melancholy has stolen my heart”, and who described myself as a “child of sorrow” in a never ending gloomy rain. I’ve experienced clinical depression so severe that it made me overcome my extreme aversion to antidepressants. Despair has almost killed me. Literally. More than once.

But joy always broke through.

Always.

The darkest of nights has always, eventually, been followed by a morning when joy came. That “eventually” may have taken excruciatingly long. Sometimes it was a somber joy. Sometimes it involved some initial teeth-gritting followed by an amazement that such great sorrow, and such heights and depths of joy, could exist in the same heart and mind in the very same instance.

But maybe it’s not me at all. Because the bottom line is that I can’t praise God for very long — I mean really praise Him rather than mouthing words — without remembering what kind of God He is. I find my perspective changing from “woe is me” to realizing that, even in the most horrific of circumstances, I have reasons for thanksgiving, even if I can’t think of one beyond, “Heaven will be better than this nightmarish horror.”

But then I remember Jesus. And He melts me. And He opens my eyes. Gratitude comes trickling into my spirit as I begin remembering Scripture passages that speak to whatever pain it is that I’m currently suffering. It may not happen quickly enough for me, but gratitude re-orients my thoughts and feelings. Maybe I am just unusually blessed, but it is rare (impossible?) for me to sit in God’s presence for very long without feeling enormously thankful for His extravagant, scandalous grace and generosity towards me.

Eventually more of my feelings follow. There have been valleys in my life, even valleys of the shadow of death. But, as Corrie ten Boom loved to remind us, there is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.

Today, incredible as it seems even to me, I thank God for the pits that threatened to consume me, because God’s love won out, every time. Even when I doubted or denied Him, when I wandered or ran away, He never gave up. Besides, for every pit there have been mountaintops — a few times, I have felt joy so overwhelming, so extreme, so powerful, so beyond description, that I thought if it lasted any longer with such intensity, my heart would give out and I would die. Seriously.

Because I choose to be grateful, today I choose joy. Today I choose happiness. Today I reach out with trembling, eager if still somewhat inhibited, weak and puny little hands towards the abundant life God keeps showering on me. How can I walk with Him, talk with Him, and listen to Him without — once in a while — experiencing a joy that spills over into a happiness that at least borders on giddiness?

A dear friend of mine promised me that, when I first recognized my true freedom in Christ, I would feel almost giddy about it. He was right; I still remember the moment it hit me and I wrote him an email that ended with, “Excuse me while I go out and dance in the streets.”

I know, I know. Happiness should not be our goal. It is a fleeting emotion. In many circumstances, it would be completely inappropriate to feel happy. We should be sober-minded, seek holiness, die to self, etc., etc.

But today I choose to celebrate. I probably won’t dance in the streets, because I’m still too shy and inhibited, but I’m not going to pretend that it’s somehow more spiritual to ignore all of God’s present blessings and put on a serious face just because I’m not in Heaven yet.

Little 3 year old me had it right. Life is miserable. Or at least it can be sometimes. But that’s no reason not to sing and dance some of the time — because God is good.

This is an adapted version of a previous post.

Rape aftermath: why I didn’t report | Survivor Saturday

Disclaimer/warning to family and friends: I know that some of you read this blog now and then, and so I wanted to warn you that this particular post might be especially sad and painful. Please consider that carefully before you continue reading. And remember that I’m OK now…in fact, much more than OK.

There has been a lot of discussion swirling around the recent verdict in the Stanford rape case. This is written in response to some of that.

In the morning, the older of my two rapists didn’t want me to leave. He mockingly and cruelly pretended as if we had just spent a lovely night together; why wouldn’t I stay for breakfast? He wouldn’t tell me where he had put my clothes, and jokingly insisted that I hadn’t been wearing any when my friend and I had come over for dinner the evening before.

Somehow I managed to find my clothes, put them on, and walk over to my apartment. No one was there. It was my first day at a new job, so I knew I had to hold myself together.

One of the legacies of the bullying and sexual abuse in my past was learning how to dissociate, how to “go away” or “make myself small” in order to separate myself as much as possible from my body. That’s how I could refuse to feel anything as I took that shower that rape survivors know all too well. To this day, I have no idea of the extent of my injuries. I was vaguely aware of upper body bruising that I accidentally caught glimpse of in the mirror. The next day, I dissociated during the exam done by my sweet, gentle, caring doctor — I still get tears of gratitude in my eyes whenever remembering him. In the shower that morning, I recall scrubbing and scrubbing, refusing to look, refusing to know, refusing to feel.

Of course I couldn’t escape every feeling. The sense of shame and filthiness was overwhelming, as was the sense that they had stolen my body. There are no words to describe what that felt like.

Somehow, I made it to work, a shattered little shell of my former self. Looking back, I am in awe of my strength. How did I manage that?

After work, I came back home, and was immediately convinced that I could not live with the knowledge of what happened to me. I came as close to killing myself as possible, saved only by my precious Jesus who presented me with a theological quandary. (Ever carried on an internal debate of Calvinism versus Arminianism with a loaded and cocked .357 magnum in your mouth and your finger on the trigger? I have.) Unable to resolve the issue of eternal security to my satisfaction, I next contemplated murder. All of this was done, believe it or not, with the utmost calm, and without a single tear.

I recognized that I might not be in the best frame of mind to decide on a course of action that would change my life forever, so I went for a drive…for hours upon aimless hours.

There is much more to the story than that, of course, but fast forward about three decades. I had decided that EMDR might be a helpful course of treatment, and my therapist was on board with the idea, even though it was outside of his scope of practice. So I found another temporary therapist, supposedly the local EMDR expert. Unfortunately, within weeks, I began referring to her among some of my friends as Bad Therapist.

Apparently she thought Donny and I had spent the past three years playing tiddlywinks or staring mutely at each other, because she insisted that I was not ready, not strong enough, to tell my story. She also saw nothing wrong with a therapist touching a sexual trauma survivor without permission, and found it weird that I didn’t appreciate this boundary violation. Supposedly all her other clients loved having their knees and thighs touched suddenly and without warning.

Knowing nothing about my rape, she asked me if I had reported it to the police. What? Why not?! Then she took issue with my answer.

Far be it from me to discourage anyone from reporting, I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for those who do. They are my heroes. Really and truly. But there has never been a moment in all the years since then that I have ever regretted not attempting to press charges against my rapists.

I was not strong enough.

Back then, I was only 23 years old, and it took more years than that until I was finally ready to tell my story, in as much torturous detail that I could manage, to my therapist. Donny believed me. This was not open court. He did not pick apart my account in an attempt to disprove my allegations, paint me as a liar, and try to convince a jury that I was the worst slut ever while my rapists were kind, upstanding citizens. Yet telling him what happened the night I was raped was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever made myself do, even all those years later. He had to cancel his next appointment because I was in no shape to leave his office when I was done with the telling. After that, I drove home somehow and collapsed in bed for the rest of the day, only to be tortured with night after night of flashbacks and nightmares.

Some people, and not just Bad Therapist, take issue with any survivor who doesn’t immediately go to the police. “Oh, yeah? If you were really raped, if it was a legitimate rape, you would have reported and your rapists would be in jail!” “You must not have thought it was that bad if you didn’t want your rapists locked up so they couldn’t rape anyone else.” “Obviously you knew your story wouldn’t hold up in court. Why should we believe you when you claim you were raped?”

But, if your rapist was caught in the act, and the case goes to court, and your rapist gets a slap on the wrist, some people will cry that this promising youth has suffered enough for his “20 minutes of action”, that being a registered sex offender is almost too overwhelming a punishment for any man to bear, and that the poor lad deserves our sympathy for all the trauma he has had to endure and will endure for the rest of his life. Besides, if young women didn’t drink and hang out with participants in the hook-up culture, rapists would have to figure out another tactic, and some might become so discouraged by the effort involved that they might even rape a few less women. At least that seems to be the logic.

We expect a lot from rape survivors. From birth onward, they need to be above reproach, living virtuous and cautious lives, avoiding any possibility of danger. Without being paranoid or anything but kind and gracious, they must not let down their guard for a moment. They must neither date nor should they reject men wishing to date them — lest their rejcted suitors feel compelled to rape them — but they must not date the wrong man either. They must be mind readers and self-defense experts who can predict the future. They must be tough, fierce, and fearless, incapable of being intimidated by any threat or the brandishing of any weapon. If, through no fault of their own, they manage to get themselves raped anyway, they must conduct themselves perfectly afterwards, showing whatever it is that we believe to be the appropriate emotional response and actions. They must immediately demonstrate expert knowledge of proper post-rape behavior, along with such clarity of thinking, impeccable instincts, wisdom, and a perfect memory for details, that it is as if their mental abilities and quick reactions were not just untouched by trauma, but enhanced by it. They must never make what we consider as a single mistake, not before the rape, not during, and not after.

I was 23. It seems awfully young to me now, but I was old enough to have learned these cultural lessons well. And, much to my sorrow, they are driven home to me again…and again…and again…whenever a rape case is discussed and dissected in the public sphere.

We need to change. We need to be different.

What am I feeding? | Faith Friday

My Lectionary reading this morning included a passage from Galations, and one particular verse jumped out at me.

For the one who sows to his own flesh will from his own flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.

I couldn’t help asking myself: am I indulging my flesh, feeding and catering to my selfish desires, nurturing those negative aspects of my nature — or am I doing all I can to strengthen my relationship with God and to make room for the Holy Spirit in my life?

What do I want to reap? Am I sowing the right seeds, planting and tending the right crop? I can’t scatter weed seeds, and spend my time tending them and watering them if what I really want to harvest is delicious fruit.

When I engage in selfishness, why am I surprised that I keep growing more selfish, more self-indulgent, and more full of an attitude of entitlement, rather than less?

My thoughts drifted to a sermon at a camp I attended in my teens, when the pastor described our internal battle, spirit versus flesh, as a struggle between a good dog and a bad dog. Which one would be stronger? He answered by saying, “It’s the one you keep feeding.”

Be careful what you feed.

I need that reminder today.