Saturday, July 30, 2011

Friends are Friends Forever

In the spirit of our current conversation, I leave you with this for the weekend:



(Thanks to Cameron Strang and the team at RELEVANT Media Group for reminding me of this gem.)

Friday, July 29, 2011

Friends Old and New

I don't talk about my parents much because they're private people. But today I have to tell you about one great thing I learned from my mother.

Growing up, I learned what healthy friendships looked like from my mom.

No, my mom was not my best friend growing up. I am not a Gilmore Girls-esque daughter. But I watched my mom be an amazing friend to literally dozens and dozens of women, and she gave me a vision for what it means to have lifelong girlfriends. She is still friends with women from grade school and college, yet somehow she continues to remain open to new friendships, making true friends in every place my parents have lived. I've found that her relational aptitude is quite rare.

Every time I've moved, I have experienced how difficult it is to simultaneously maintain old friendships and build new ones. In the past 10 years I've "left behind" four major groups of friends. Each move brings its challenges and rewards, but maintaining my friendships from a former home is one of the most challenging aspects of a move for me. I am an introvert, so I can only have so many deep conversations in one day. I also hate small talk, so "catching up" alone doesn't exactly appeal to me.

A few years ago, someone helped me understand that I simply do not have the capacity to be super close friends with dozens of people at once. I was advised to view my friendships in concentric circles: The more intimate the friendship, the fewer the friendships I could maintain at that level. For instance, I can only maintain four or five friendships at the most intimate level at once. But in the next ring out, I can maintain about 12-15 friendships. In my head, it looks something like this:

This diagram might seem a little cold to some people, but it is quite helpful for me. Your capacity may be much larger than mine, so perhaps you can have 12 Besties. Other people operate with one Bestie. I'm not saying everyone is like me, but I am showing you a model based on my own life.

Whether or not you've moved, you probably experience a similar model based on who you work with, go to class with, or share life stages with at any given moment. Based on life circumstances, it's normal for people to drift from one circle to another. If I want to maintain the same level of intimacy with all of my friends, I can do so, but not without a cost. Focusing all of my energy on existing friendships can actually be a deterrent to making new friends simply because new friends require time and energy. If I want to make room in my life for a new friend, it's necessary for me to let an old friend drift down to a more distant level of friendship.

This doesn't mean I am being negligent; this means I am being flexible. I should never let a friendship drift away because of unresolved conflict or hardness of heart. But sometimes, relationships change and that's okay. I'm not letting my friends drift off into space; I'm just accepting the fact that talking every few months might be more realistic than talking weekly.

With all of that said, distance does not automatically kill a friendship in this day and age. In fact, some of my closest friends live across the country. I think the constant interaction I have with a few friends via Facebook, Twitter, and Google Reader helps tremendously. When you share ideas with people and have an exchange of real thoughts, friendships remain healthy. Of course, there's nothing quite like face-to-face time. Skype, Google video chat, and the new Google Plus "hang out" feature get us awfully close, though.

So, how do you maintain old friendships while making room for new friends? Are you aware of your own capacity for intimacy? Do you sometimes feel guilty when the dynamic of a friendship changes?

Next week I'm going to follow this up with a post entitled Being Friends when it's Hard. That will hopefully continue the conversation so that we can talk about when to fight for a friendship and when to succumb to a downgrade in intimacy. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

My Smokin' Hot Wife...

'Smoke 1' photo (c) 2010, Jason Bolonski - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
I rarely write spur of the moment blog posts. Most of my posts marinade for days, weeks, or even months. But today, this topic seems to warrant a quick and short post. It's ironically fairly trivial yet important. 

Yesterday I tweeted:


That was before I knew about the Nascar prayer controversy. So now I'd like to elaborate.

To begin, yes, your wife is smokin' hot. I will never contend the accuracy of your statement. But if that is the only way you refer to her when you're trying to praise her in public, we have a few problems. And regardless of how often it happens to come from your mouth, the problem is that it often happens to come from the pulpit. That's a problem for all of us. Read on...

1) She has many other qualities that warrant public praise. By only focusing on her looks, you are implying that you care more about them than her skills, character, or personality. I know that this is probably untrue in your mind, but actions speak very loudly. Try praising her hard work or her bravery from time to time.

2) Beauty, for many women, is a difficult subject. We are constantly judged and judging ourselves based on how we look when we wake up, go to the store, or go to church. I think most Christian women try to walk the fine line between two extreme possibilities: A) Wow, she's really "let herself go." and B) Wow, she really cares too much about how she looks. Your words are only contributing to an environment of idolatry and preoccupation with our physical appearance.

3) Because this is such a touchy issue for many wives, imagine what would happen if the reverse was the norm. What aspect of your life always leaves you feeling a bit unsure of yourself? How you grill? How you father your children? How much money you make? If your wife always referred to you in that regard, would it ever get old that that is the subject she brings to everyone else's attention? "Here's my bringing-home-the-bacon husband." Okay, I admit that's a little (or lot) absurd. How about "Here's my genius husband?" Wouldn't that get old, even if it was true? And if you are simply choosing to praise your wife's looks because you know she feels insecure about them, that's admirable. But I simply don't think calling her "smokin' hot" is a good long-term solution to the actual problem at hand. Will you call her smokin' hot at 70?

4) I understand that when pastors and worship leaders stand on the stage at church they are in a place of temptation. They can see every woman in the audience and many men (and women!) love the attention from the opposite sex. Often, women are not dressed modestly in church and this causes a real temptation for men on stage who are trying to focus on leading a worship service and teaching the word of God. So, I understand the desire to talk about your smokin' hot wife in that moment. I would much prefer that you think about your smokin' hot wife than think about that smokin' hot coed in the third row. But maybe there is a more respectful way to honor your wife's beauty while you are on the stage at church. Maybe you can whisper how smokin' hot she is in her ear when you are off the stage? 

Now for my most serious point. The others have all been a little tongue-in-cheek, but this one is not:

5) Young girls are watching you and they are learning by example what it takes to be a Godly woman, to have a Godly marriage, or even to be a pastor's wife. What you teach them about these things is WAY less important than what they learn by watching the adults in their church, especially the church staff.  More is caught than taught. So are the teenage girls in earshot learning that they need to be smokin' hot to be a pastor's wife? Are they learning that that is all men care about? Chances are, yes. And that is the biggest problem.

So now I reiterate: Christian husbands: PLEASE stop referring to your smokin' hot wife as smokin' hot all the time. She is more than that, and you can be more creative than that.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

My Body is the Enemy

'libretto moves' photo (c) 2011, Aimanness Photography - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/I've always had a pretty healthy relationship with my body. Other than normal adolescent awkwardness, I have enjoyed the body I have. Unlike many of you, I've never suffered from a physical disability. The only disability I've ever deeply known has been my sinful heart. I've been in good health most of my life and I've only broken one bone. The only thing about my body I would probably change is my darn prone-to-bleed-profusely-at-any-minute nose. Seriously, that is inconvenient.

Truly, I am grateful for the things I can do with my body.

Let me tell you a short story. My college was filled with amazing women. They were brilliant, beautiful, creative, and fun. (Never move to New York City if you want to feel good about yourself.) But in the midst of these women, I discovered that I was one of the only women around who actually loved her body. In fact, I discovered that most women would change many things about their bodies if they were able. This baffled me. Remember that these women were all stunningly beautiful. For a variety of reasons, many of the women I knew treated their bodies as the enemy. Many women wished to disavow their bodies because of sexual pain it had seemingly brought upon them. Many others self mutilated in the privacy of their closets. And most suffered from eating disorders, the most common method used to express self-hatred.

And I had a hard time relating to my friends sometimes because I never really understood why you would view your body as the enemy.

But in April, as my body was failing at the most mysterious thing it could do--give and grow life--I understood. I felt that my body had failed me, my husband, our child, and our families. And I felt a strong urge to punish it. I thought that if only my body had been healthier, stronger, more determined, my miscarriage would not have happened. I hated my body for the life is had relinquished to death. As I bled endlessly, I felt myself at a fork in the road. That could've been the beginning of hating my body for life.

Fortunately, those feelings did not last. Truth spoke to my broken heart, telling it that my broken body was not to blame. Honestly, I don't know where Truth came from. I wish I had a magic recipe to share with you. But I didn't share the negative thoughts I was having about my body with my husband or my closest friends. Somehow Grace intervened, and I surrendered to it: My body was not the enemy. In fact, my body knew my pain intimately and ached with me. Further, I realized that hatred of my body was hatred of myself. I wanted to blame myself for what had happened. And I think this is often the case when we view our bodies as our enemies; our self-judgment, self-loathing, self-blame gets channeled into how we relate to our bodies.

But the separation between body and self is a false separation. When we view our bodies as our enemies, we are encouraging the fallen state of this world. Satan attempts to drive wedges between things: us and God, man and wife, brother and brother, science and faith. So we must fight the lies that lead to the compartmentalization of our bodies, souls, minds, and hearts. To believe in Shalom requires that I submit my body to Yahweh along with my whole life. And to submit my body to God means that I cannot hate it, judge it, or condemn it. Like the rest of me, it is broken. But it is being redeemed just as I am being redeemed. And I must be my body's greatest advocate, not its greatest enemy.

So to all of the women out there who feel their body is the enemy: For the first time, I kind of get it. I understand a bit of what many of you all feel all the time. And it sucks. I wanna sucker punch it in the face for all of you who struggle with the mirror, the scale, and the wardrobe. But I can't just punch this struggle in the face and make it go away. I can begin, however, by telling you that you're not alone.

Let's speak Truth and Grace into our dark places, in the privacy of our own bathrooms, in the confessional booth, or over coffee with a friend.

Your body is not your enemy.
Your body is NOT your enemy.
Your body is NOT YOUR ENEMY.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Blog Birthday: What Drives Me

Today is this blog's two year birthday! You can read my very first post here. I started this blog, originally titled Following Jesus as a Woman, strictly for exploring issues of womanhood and gender in light of faith in Christ. I was, bluntly, tired of just swallowing what others taught me about women in ministry. While I felt that any exploration of the issue would seem self-serving and rebellious, I took the plunge anyway. It has been an amazingly eye-opening journey that I have not walked alone. I have had women and men support, encourage, and challenge me and I am so grateful for them (you!) all. Since then, I have expanded what I write about, but I often revisit my original questions.

Lately I have been pondering what drives me to write both here at this blog and generally. I've realized that a combination of things are at work, some are good and some are probably bad. Sometimes I write out of anger, sometimes I write out of gratitude. Sometimes I simply write because I have to, I can't explain why. But mostly, I write because of you. Perhaps that's bad, but it's true.

Sometimes I think that Christ's love should be the only thing that compels me to act, write, love, think. I'm not sure that's the way God has designed us though. I think He's designed us to be compelled by the need around us too. How can witnessing bondage to addiction, abuse, and selfishness not compel me? How can I go unmoved by your stories of courage and creativity?


In the summer of 2009, when this blog was born, I was staffing a collegiate program in Vermont. I led the women's retreat that summer, pictured above. Twenty-five women crammed into the rectory and basement of a 250 year-old church in the farm country of New Hampshire. And as we all sat in that church basement one night to share what we had learned from Ephesians, the need was compelling.

You see, in 2009 I was already investing in the lives of men and women because that's what I had been taught to do by the amazing men and women who had invested in me. But when issues of gender and womanhood came up during Bible study and discipleship, my answers were flat, unsatisfying even to myself. But in the summer of 2009, as I heard story after story, I couldn't take it any longer. I had to do something to figure out what exactly the Bible said about us womenfolk. So Following Jesus was born.

It's been an amazing journey. I continue to write, but I feel that I am in a place of transition. I start seminary this year, and I have a feeling that you will notice a change in the way I think and write. I'm going to embrace that. If I lose "my voice" for a few years, it's not the end of the world. I know that submitting to higher education is good for me. It will be good for my pride.

But all the while, I will be compelled by the women (and men) I know. Your stories have changed me; they are woven together with my story as part of the Bigger Story. So, as a happy birthday to Following Jesus and as a commissioning to seminary, I remember you:

















I look forward to the generations of women that will come after us--friends, strangers, and our own daughters and granddaughters. And together we press onward and dig deeper.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Redemptive Pursuit: Hiding

hiddenphoto © 2007 emma | more info (via: Wylio)Hiding
by Laura Ziesel
July 11, 2011

Scripture:
"Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.And the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. Adam said, 'I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.' And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them."   Genesis 3:7-10, 21

Reflection:
What would you say is the only prerequisite to becoming a Christian? I once heard someone say that you can be unsure of a lot of the details of faith, but the one thing you must be sure of is that you have messed up at some point in your life. If you think youre perfect, faith in Christ is not for you.

Adam and Eve, unlike us, knew what it was to live in a perfect world untainted by sin and brokenness. They experienced marital unity, harmony with nature, and communion with God. But after the Shalom of Eden was broken, Adam and Eve experienced, for the first time, feelings of guilt and shame. And how did they respond? They covered themselves and they hid.

I think hiding imperfections is something we can all relate to. Physically, many of us wear outfits, make-up, and colors that hide our flaws. Socially we avoid people who bring out the worst in us. Spiritually, we are no different: We try to ignore certain sins, being slow to repent to God or others.

Even when we are not the ones who have messed things up, we can still feel the desire to hide our true selves from God and others. If we have been a victim of abuse, experienced miscarriage or infertility, or suffered a mental disorder, Satan whispers in our ear, lying to us that we must carry our pains as secrets. Though we may not be responsible for our difficult circumstances, we are tempted to cover our pain and exposure with fig leaves: Im fine; Im over it; I dont need help.

Unfortunately, our hiding from others and God only delays our healing. A heart broken because of sin and shame will eat you alive without the nourishing truth of Gods forgiveness and redemption. Hiding is self-protection. We are acting on a lie we tell ourselves: I, not God, will determine my faults, punishments, and value. However we come to a state of guilt and shame, hiding is self-protection and reveals our lack of trust in God.

Let us look to Jesusthe all-powerful Godwho forfeited his protection. Despite being part of the perfect community of the Trinity, He decided to come to Earth and dwell among sinful men. He entered the world as a naked, vulnerable baby. Think about that: God entered the world naked. And God died naked too, crucified as a criminal, exposed unjustly for all the world to see.

In Genesis 3:21, God made Adam and Eve clothing from animal skin. The text doesnt give this detail, but an animal had to die for Adam and Eve to have adequate clothing. That animal was the first sacrifice for sin. Now, because of Jesus, all of our sins, faults, and brokenness have been paid for in full, and we are eternally covered. He died naked, completely exposed to the jeering crowd, because He knew we needed eternal coverings for our sin. He subjected Himself to that misery and humiliation so that He could spend eternity with you.

Unbelievably, that was not the end. Jesus defeated guilt and shame by rising from the grave. And because He did that, we have hopehope that our guilt and shame can be used by God to accomplish great and selfless things. He can turn the things that make us run and hide into things that display His glory, if only wed let Him.

Let us not hide from God, let us come to Him humbly confessing our sins.

Prayer:
Father God,
You are all good, all wise, and all powerful. You knew me before I was born, and you know every thought before it is fully formed in my mind. Youve been with me in my darkest hours and during my most joyous days. I am sorry for hiding from You. Help me, forgive me, and comfort me. Thank you for Jesus who perfectly covered my faults at the expense of His own life. May I respond to His death and resurrection with gratitude and praise.


______________________

I will be posting my devotionals from The Redemptive Pursuit once a month as they are published. This is my July devotional. Read other devotionals by The Redemptive Pursuit here.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Barbs Hidden in Honorifics

deceptive bendsphoto © 2003 Paul Lim | more info (via: Wylio)
Since I have been on a journey of exploring what the Bible has to say about women and womanhood for the past two years, there is one assumption that has always perturbed me: The highest calling of any woman is to be a mother. This statement has not perturbed me because I desire to be childless, but because I believe this statement is both untrue and hurtful to women without children. It is untrue because I believe the highest calling of any woman is to be like Christ, to be His ambassador in a hurting and broken world. And it is hurtful because God does not call all women to motherhood, and when we artificially elevate motherhood, we imply that women who are not mothers have a lower status in their lives and calling. A woman who is not a mother is not any less of a woman simply because she has not been pregnant, given birth, breastfed, or mothered her own children.

But unintentionally hurting people when attempting to bring honor to other people turns out to be rather common. Regardless of the inherent truth in a statement, we must begin to think of the hidden barbs in our words of honor. 

For instance, I honestly cannot think of life without my husband. He is my best friend and an amazing life partner. But when I say things honoring my husband or marriage at large, my words can implicitly dishonor singleness. How many times have you heard a sermon containing a line like, "No greater opportunity for sanctification will present itself than your marriage"? While I agree that marriage is a great opportunity for sanctification, we must remember that God does not grant everyone this opportunity, and their opportunities for sanctification are just as noble and glorifying to God. Single people often sit silently when marriage is elevated above singleness, being wounded and alienated from community. 

The same is true for the attempts we make at congratulations or well-wishes. When a woman is pregnant or gives birth, many people say, "As long as it's a healthy baby..." But have you thought about how that makes parents of children with illnesses and disabilities feel? Does that mean that we do not want unhealthy babies? Similarly, when honoring our men and women in uniform, do our words imply dishonor to those who are not in the armed services? Or perhaps the most common in some ministry circles: Do our words praising pastors and missionaries wound those who God has called to be engineers, teachers, or chefs?

I know that thinking about all of the people we can possibly wound with our words is exhausting. We should not stop honoring marriage, motherhood, military service, or vocational ministry. But perhaps we can make attempts to honor singleness, childlessness, civilian life, or secular vocation in a balanced way? The pulpit might be a great place to start doing this. Since we usually hear a Mother's Day sermon and a Father's Day sermon, can we hear at least two sermons a year on the beauty and value of serving those outside our biological family? And perhaps your church can host a conference for single adults, divorced adults, or single parents every once in awhile in addition to the annual marriage conference. Let's get creative.

I'm not asking for perfection. All I'm asking is that we think about what we say before we say it and what we do before we do it. Our words and actions carry many meanings, and we should pay better attention to them. 

********

Have you ever been unintentionally hurt by words that were meant to praise someone else? How did you deal with this? How can we, as the offended parties, deal with these situations appropriately? And how might we, the unintentional offenders, learn to love and honor all the members of God's family?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Is Christianese Always Bad?

31.Lingua.JimSanborn.WCC.WDC.12jan08photo © 2008 Elvert Barnes | more info (via: Wylio)One of my biggest grievances against Christian culture is our bubble-like tendency. I believe we are genuinely hurting the cause of Christ when we create holy huddles, only experiencing the world through our own eyes or the eyes of other Christians. As is natural in all subcultures, Christians have developed dialects. Christians -- Protestants and Catholics, clergy and laymen -- use many terms that nonChristians would not understand. Well, perhaps more often than not outsiders understand us, but we simply look odd.

I've heard many people refer to this phenomenon as "speaking Christianese".

Some great examples of Christianese:

"Break bread together" vs "Eating together"
"Testimony" vs "Story" or "Account"
"Caused me to stumble" vs "Was hurtful to me"
"Felt convicted" vs "Felt bad" or "Felt remorse"

I hate to admit it, but lately I've found myself thinking in Christianese a lot more than normal. And this has me questioning my hatred of it. Upon giving Christianese a second look, I think I have a few solid reasons as to why it's not SO horrible.

1) Yes, we have Christian subcultures of all sorts: Baptist, Catholic, hipster, straight edge. But, our Christian dialect is not born simply out of our subcultures; it is mostly born out of our holy Scriptures. I am confident that a large part of why Christianese is coming to my mind these days is that I have been editing a Bible commentary for nearly 10 months now. I spend most of my days reading Scripture and editing words about Scripture. And, to be frank, being over-steeped in Scripture is pretty hard to accomplish. Joshua 1:8a says, "Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth, meditate on it day and night." That's a high bar to meet in terms of Scripture saturation, and I still don't think I've hit it. So if we, readers of the holy words of God, mingle the modern American vernacular with Scripture, I'm not so sure we should guilt ourselves about it; it's a result of time well spent feeding off of God's Word.

2) After my miscarriage, sometimes I had no words of my own. I was unable to form coherent thoughts and put words to my feelings. I think this is a common occurrence during grief. During a hard break-up in college, I struggled to vocalize my feelings. I listened to a lot of Fiona Apple that summer; her album "Extraordinary Machine" gave words to my grief, an extremely important thing for me. While listening to her album was important to the process of grief, it didn't help me move through the grief. A dear friend simply said to me, "I think it would help if you stopped listening to Fiona Apple so much." Ha. I laughed, but he was right; I needed to focus on truth instead of simply what I was feeling. Scripture is valuable during grief because we can find expressions of grief among the words, but they are rooted in truth and hope.

After my miscarriage this past Spring, T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland ran through my mind a lot, but I longed for Scripture to reclaim the dominant place in my mind. And eventually, it did. And once I was able to borrow the words of Scripture to express my grief, I thought and spoke in Christianese a lot. But you know what? I didn't give a rip. I had words, and I had words that were both helpful and true. So, I sounded like an 80-year-old church lady. Oh well.

3) Sometimes the Christian way of saying something holds a different or more complex meaning that cannot otherwise be expressed easily. For instance, when I say that breaking bread is an important part of community, I don't simply mean eating together. Breaking bread, in my mind, holds more meaning. It carries connotations of sharing, giving, receiving, honesty, and laughter. Likewise, "to feel convicted" is different than "to feel guilty" or "to make a decision". The word conviction implies that an outside party, the Holy Spirit, has intervened and influenced your thoughts and feelings. That sense of external interference is not implied easily using normal terminology.

So, what's your take on this? What are some other great examples of Christianese you can think of? Why and when do you think we should use it or not use it?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Birth Control, Fertility, and the Sovereignty of God

Ha, Birth Control???photo © 2007 Trey Matula | more info (via: Wylio)My friend Meredith started a great conversation in the comments of Lies About Getting Pregnant a few weeks ago. She asked my views on birth control and the sovereignty of God. I’ve been thinking about this topic for years, and it’s been in the forefront of my mind since Meredith posed her question. Today I’m going to take a stab at evaluating birth control using both theology and practicality. Ironically, this article in the NY Times was published just yesterday.

This post is long, but I beg you to hang tough. I’m breaking it into a few sections for easier skimming so that you can get to the good stuff at the end quickly if you so desire.

Personal Background

First, let me begin by explaining my background. I grew up in a largely conservative Evangelical Christian culture. The Baptists, Charismatics, and Presbyterians I spent time with didn’t seem to have a problem with birth control in any form. However, they also heavily promoted abstinence-only sex education. Mostly because I was a young girl in this environment, I didn’t learn much about birth control. Most families at our churches had 2-4 kids. In regard to the families at church with 10 kids, I simply thought they loved kids; I did not conceive of their reproductive choices theologically.

However, as soon as I arrived at NYU, I encountered a different sort of message about sexuality and birth control. In order to make sense of these conflicting views, I was forced to start thinking about these matters, and do so very quickly. If birth control was, in fact, contrary to the will of God, I wanted to obey. If abortion was not contrary to the will of God (as I believed), I was willing to change my mind on the matter. So, I started thinking about things theologically. But that didn’t get me very far because I was not, in fact, sexually active or using birth control. And like many things, experience colors our understanding of sexuality and reproduction.
Not 100% Effectivephoto © 2008 Nate Grigg | more info (via: Wylio)

When my husband and I were engaged, we discussed birth control and decided that we were not opposed to it medically or theologically, so I would go on the pill. This decision, however, was not extremely thought out. We were mostly being practical: I have irregular periods and we did not want to forego sex nor have a baby quickly after marriage. It seemed like the best option. We were aware that pregnancy could still happen on the pill and we would have (probably anxiously) welcomed it if God had given us a child at that time.

After about two years on the pill, I switched to the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) for a variety of reasons. Primarily, I had been having some minor health problems and we thought that removing birth control might help us identify if there was a real problem to deal with. (The problems were alleviated when I stopped taking the pill.) In addition, we started to feel that we should start our family sooner rather than later, and we wanted for me to be off the pill so that we could start trying when “the moment was right” without delay. (My doctor recommended a three-month window of time after going off the pill before trying to get pregnant.)

So today, we have been using FAM for 18 months. I have only achieved pregnancy once, and that was a planned pregnancy. Though it didn’t last, I believe that FAM helped us achieve pregnancy much more quickly than normal because we were so aware of my fertility already. We will continue to use FAM in the near future as we try to conceive again.

Terminology and Specifics

Fertility Chart for Most Fertile Daysphoto © 2011 Veronica Tilden, DO | more info (via: Wylio)
Now FAM is slightly different than Natural Family Planning (NFP), though they are often used interchangeably. Here’s a brief synopsis of their similarities and differences in case you are unfamiliar: Both rely on the woman’s natural signs of fertility to, depending on your goal, achieve or prevent pregnancy. Most women are a little different, but nearly any woman could be aware of her own fertility if she paid attention to her body’s signals. (Feel free to contact me if you would like resources for how to learn about your fertility.) Now the difference between FAM and NFP is mostly theological, but it plays out practically. NFP practitioners do not believe that the possibility of conception should be removed from the act of sex. Therefore, during the fertile time of the month, couples who use NFP abstain from sex. On the other hand, couples who practice FAM use a barrier or get creative during the woman’s fertile window each month to avoid pregnancy rather than avoiding sex altogether.

As far as non-natural birth control options, the physical effects on the body differ. I am not a medical provider, but I can tell you that most birth control pills prevent ovulation. When I speak of the pill, I am referring to all hormonally-based ovulation preventers, including the ring and the patch. There are other popular birth control options, such as IUDs, but these options have never crossed my path, so I do not know much about them. Another form of birth control I know little about is herbal birth control. I have heard that it works, but I have never met anyone who practices this method. But I don’t doubt that it can really work because people who know herbs and natural remedies stake a lot on being right or wrong about its efficacy.

The Theological Implications

Abstinence within Marriage

I have heard some people say that NFP is not a biblical option because Christian couples should be having regular, frequent sex and NFP involves about a week of abstinence each month. However, I am confident that mutually-approved abstinence for a week out of the month will not cause too much harm to most marriages. In fact, Jewish cleansing rites dictated about two weeks of abstinence (even from touching) between man and wife each month.

Before I was married, periods of abstinence in marriage seemed absolutely ridiculous to me. Why would you not have sex at the drop of a hat if you could? But I now see how valuable abstinence can be. For instance, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, in Kosher Sex, says that two weeks of abstinence makes the other two weeks of the month passionate and exciting.  I bet there is a lot of truth in his words. Abstinence can also be valuable for focusing on other aspects of the marriage, such as friendship, co-parenting, and partnership. And if done properly, focusing on other things only enhances sexual intimacy.

Practically, learning abstinence and sexual control within marriage is something not enough people value. Even for couples who want to have sex frequently and regularly, there are times when knowing how to handle sexual temptation without the option of immediate gratification is valuable: business trips, after giving birth, during illness and deployments. I am posting this article while my husband is on a mental health missions trip to Kenya for 23 days. (Prayers for him are welcome!) I’d love to be there with him, but as I was pregnant when the trip was being planned, I am not. Sometimes life just creates times of separation and knowing how to handle them is wise.

Gender Bias

But what NFP doesn’t give you is gender equality, at least if the woman in the relationship is being denied sex during the most hormonally-charged part of the month. To say it succinctly: Most women are randy when they ovulate. To deny intercourse during that time seems to be a major problem to me. Of course, not all women are this way, so NFP does not do a disservice to those women. This is one of those cases where thinking theologically about birth control only gets you so far. Trying to decide about NFP without being sexually active might leave you with some major blind spots. But differing sex drives of the spouses should be taken into consideration when deciding about birth control.

Control

One of the biggest objections I hear to FAM and the pill is that by using them we are “trying to take control” of our reproduction. I think this is the crux of the issue, at least theologically. I whole-heartedly believe that trying to take control of reproduction away from God is prideful and, frankly, impossible. And I am sure that many people who practice birth control in all forms are attempting to do just this. In fact, both NFP and FAM can actually give you more control, or at least the sense of it, than the pill or condoms; you are the one preventing pregnancy, not chemicals—or so it seems.

But when practiced in humility to God, birth control is simply a matter of stewardship and responsibility. Why do I believe this? Honestly, this is a theological belief based on personal experience. Now that I am aware of the signs of my fertility, I believe that God has given them to us so that we can enter sex sober-minded, able to make wise decisions. And if we use the pill in the same way—believing and submitting to the fact that God is still in charge—we are simply using it as a tool just as we do the signs of our fertility. If God had not intended for us to wisely manage our bodies, resources, and energy, He would not have given us such clear marks of fertility.

Have you ever thought that perhaps periods are a blessing for this very reason? Each month, we are given a window of definitely-not-fertile in which we know that conception is very unlikely. I don’t know when fertility awareness entered the human experience. But when women are aware of their bodies and able to pick up on subtle changes during ovulation, they will go into sex or postpone sex according to their desire to reproduce. Women may not make this decision consciously, but if you are aware that you are fertile and too exhausted from Baby A to think about Baby B, you are way more likely to put off sex. (Or would that just be me?) I simply think that if God has given us knowledge of fertility, then He is okay with us putting it to use.

(Men, you might be clueless as to why your wife is turned on or off at random times, but don’t try to figure her out like she’s a problem needing a solution. Just communicate.)

Conclusions, or Lack Thereof

Dare I say that I think women should be leading the charge in regard to theological understandings of birth control? I’m fine with men teaching about anything, even birth control and motherhood, if they are gifted by God to do so. But I also think that the physical experiences of female fertility give women a unique voice. Men do not know what it is like to read the signs of their bodies all day, every day. We do, and with that knowledge, we can say that ignorance of fertility is not how we are designed to operate. Perhaps our ignorance of fertility (among most women in America at least) is a result of the Fall? That’s a big stretch, so I’m not advocating it. But I am proposing that the question is worth discussing.

None of this, however, should be read as an endorsement of abortion. Nor am I advocating that children are anything less than blessings from God. I believe that even the most unwanted pregnancies are miracles, and that God oversees each and every sperm and egg rendezvous. If you are given children, it is a large responsibility, but the responsibility does not negate the beauty of the gift.

So, I would love to hear from you. What have I missed in this analysis? If you are a medical provider, please feel free to correct any of my information! How do your experiences color your understanding of birth control? Do you see any further conclusions that can be reached safely or with a bit of a leap? This post is simply part of a larger discussion; may it keep the conversation going.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Announcement

For the past year Josh and I have been living and working in Azusa, CA. He has been attending Azusa Pacific University as a student in their PsyD program. He will not graduate until 2015, so we're here for the long haul. 

Upon arrival in California, we had three major balls up in the air: earning income, grad school for me, and starting a family. Unfortunately, all three of these responsibilities were demands on my time and energy. We decided that the top priority went to earning income so that we could stabilize financially. Once I was able to make a modest living working at home, we decided that we had a pretty good opportunity to start a family; working from home is, afterall, the holy grail of working mothers' dreams. But now it seems all three balls are back in the air and are going to need to be juggled in the coming years...

I'm starting grad school in two short months at APU!

I'm going to be in the MA in Theological Studies program, a program that is designed to train me in Bible scholarship. My plan is to hit the ground running this Fall so that I can get as much of the program done as possible before we have children. Once we have children, I will probably (but who really knows?) have to scale back to part-time enrollment status. But for now, all engines are moving full steam toward earning this MATS. 

How we arrived at this decision is a bit of a longer story that is probably only interesting to our close friends. Suffice it to say, however, that this option was not even on our radar until a month ago. But once the opportunity presented itself, it made perfect sense to both of us for a lot of reasons. 

So, there you have it. Thanks for your thoughts as prayers as Josh and I will both be full-time graduate students and part-time workers for the 2011-2012 school year. Fun times are ahead. One day this year we'll pass each other in the hall at APU and give each other high fives! Hopefully we'll see to see each other more than that. As far as this blog goes, it's staying put and will continue to be the place I process my thoughts on Following Jesus. 

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