Thursday, March 29, 2012

Why More Sex on Screen Might be Good

Before I begin, can I just say that I’ve been pretty nervous to publish this one. I can see the places people will go with objecting to this blog, but I still think I have a point. I haven’t been able to shake my desire to start this conversation.

So, here goes…

Sex. Lots and lots of sex. That’s what we are culturally saturated with. Most of us realize this reality when we mindfully listen to the radio, pay attention to commercials on TV, or attend a party. Even within the church, lots of us seem to think that sex is the center of adult life.

Most of the time, Christians just give the tried and true response: “We’re too saturated with sex. It’s private and should remain that way!”

Today, I’d like to offer a counter-intuitive antidote to our preoccupation with sex. It might catch you off guard, so prepare yourself. Ready?

We need to be exposed to more sex—not movie sex, but real sex.

The reason: Real sex isn’t (always) sexy. In the movies, what we see is movie sex. Sure, sometimes real life sex is like movie sex. But most of the time? Sex isn’t like that at all.

How often do you see lube or condoms in sex scenes? Are people saying, “Nope, this position isn’t working.” Are the people even talking at all? Think about it! Are women experiencing any pain? Are there leg cramps, elbows to the nose, or sneezes?

I personally would love to see a sex scene right now that tries to show the difficulty of having sex while nauseous. Would. Love. It.

Respectful, non-graphic exposure to real sexuality will ground us in the reality that sex isn’t magic. Sex doesn’t fix our problems. Having sex doesn’t make us feel complete. Sex doesn’t solve our loneliness. And sex is often an expression of power, selfishness, and pain, not an expression of love, service, or covenant.  Sex isn’t always sexy. In fact, real sex might often make us cringe.

Fortunately, my husband and I were part of an honest community when we were dating and engaged, so we were as prepared for real sex as we probably could have been. But unfortunately, I have known numerous Christian newlyweds who have come home from their honeymoons disillusioned. What they experienced wasn’t what they had seen on screen their whole lives. And they’d never really heard Christians say, “Um, real sex isn’t always like that.” Instead, they had heard Christians simply try to hide sex in the Privacy of Marriage Bed closet.

I think Christian subculture does a huge disservice to virgin couples. Sex takes some learning. If you are waiting until marriage for sex, your honeymoon probably won’t be where your best sex happens. But that’s good. If it did, it’d be all downhill from there. That’s a sad thought. I offer the reality that your honeymoon may feel more like learning to ride a bike than effortlessly riding along with the wind in your hair. The training wheels may be frustrating and you may fall off a few times (literally). Movies and TV rarely show this reality, but maybe they should.

I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer about sex. But instead of agreeing with people who think that Christians should avoid talking about sex, I want us to have more honest conversations about sex. And when we talk about real sex, we see that it’s just one part of life, not the thing to which all things in life lead.

So, here’s to more sex on screen, as long as it’s realistic. Of course, of course… a respectful, non-graphic depiction of sex. But sex nonetheless.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Sharing Pregnancy News With Those Who Long

'Maryam has an announcement!' photo (c) 2009, Robert Scoble - license: first time I found out I was pregnant, some of my first thoughts were about my friends who were also trying to get pregnant. I wanted to tell one friend in particular before our news went public. She had been trying to get pregnant for about two years. Unfortunately, I miscarried before I was able to call her, but when I did call her to fill her in on all of the recent events, she was way more gracious than I expected.

I've written about the Haves and the Have Nots before. In that past year, we have bounced back and forth between being Haves and Have Nots in regard to pregnancy, we have lived life with friends who have been pregnant and lost pregnancies, and because I am writing about the sorrows of conception, I have made even more friends who are struggling to become parents. 

I have both given and received hard news about pregnancy a lot recently, and I have watched friends and family try to figure out how to inform others. During one week this past October, I felt the sting of many pregnancy announcements accumulate. That was a very, very difficult week. Since then, I have been thinking about if there are any principles of how to share pregnancy news with a loved one who is also wanting to be pregnant. It's been hard to come to any conclusions because all people and all relationships are different, but these are three tentative principles I have tried to live by myself:

1) Deliver the news earlier to them than to the world at large. This can be hard if you are friends with many couples who are trying to conceive, but if possible, give these friends and family a little bit of time before you go public to privately digest the information. To me, this shows honor to their grief, and it acknowledges the fact that the news might be hard. Often, this news is a mixed bag of sorrow and joy, and delivering the news early allows them to fully feel that sorrow before they need to publicly show their joy. 

2) Deliver the news directly. While it might be tempting to delegate news delivery to someone else, I don't think this is usually wise. In fact, I think it is actually quite hurtful. Honor your relationship by sharing the news yourself. When doing so, give them permission to not be happy right away. Perhaps it might even be worth saying something like, "I know this might be hard news, but I wanted to share it with you myself." If you don't want the news to be hard, there's no alleviating that by sending the news via another person. Hard news is simply hard.

3) Let the relationship guide you. Don't maximize or minimize a relationship with someone trying to conceive just to deliver bad news. If you are only acquaintances with someone, don't suddenly invite them to dinner or do something else completely out of the ordinary in order to share this news. Try to keep it normal. If you are very close friends with someone, try not to deliver the hard news via Facebook. If you are torn as to how to deliver the news (perhaps you sometimes talk on the phone with a friend but use email 90% of the time) ask yourself which method they would prefer, not which one makes you most comfortable. If you still don't know what method of delivery is best, admit that to them: "I hope calling was okay. I wasn't sure if I should call or email." My guess it that they'll appreciate the honesty.

You might disagree with me on these points. That's okay; I'm still thinking about this and I would love your feedback. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Seminary Update: On Not Being a Bible Expert

It's absolutely true what they say. The more you learn, the more you realize how little you know.

I've been learning a lot in seminary. But I've also been realizing that when I'm done with my classes, I won't be an expert, by any means.

I'll be finishing a year of Greek studies in 6 weeks. Do I know Greek? Yes, but barely. While I'm doing quite well in my course, I've realized that to say I really know Greek, I'm going to have to keep deepening my study of the language for a decade or more. Then, and maybe then, I can say that I know Greek. 

But you know what I have learned? I've learned how to learn Greek. If I don't know how to translate a word or phrase, I've been taught which resources to turn to, ancient and modern, to help me. I've learned how to teach myself.

I think this is an example of, above all else, what seminary is teaching me at the moment. When I graduate, after I've completed all of my required classes and some fun electives, I won't be an expert on the Bible. I won't be able to answer every question you have about the Bible, and I'm totally okay with that. You know why? Because I don't think that's what seminary should be. I don't think it should be a place where we go to get turned into Bible experts. 

I think seminary should be a place where we learn how to study the Bible. Maybe we'll pick up lots of information about the Bible along the way, but that's not the point.

I am so grateful that seminary is teaching me how to be a lifelong student. In fact, I'd say seminary is teaching me that I must be a lifelong student. There is no option if I want to be competent in my field. 

My professors, who I admire greatly, continue their education daily. It's an expected part of their job. And for their examples, for being able to say to their students, "I'm not familiar with that," I am so grateful. 

For now, I'm finishing up what will probably be my last full-time semester for a few years. I'm taking two Summer classes, will be done with those by July 13th, and then will I be a part-time student come Fall. As part of my course plan for my remaining time in school, I'm hoping to begin work on my thesis this Fall. I'm fairly sure I've picked a topic, and I'm excited about sinking my teeth into it. But I've come to realize that (you probably know where I'm going), even after I study and work on my dissertation topic for two years, I still won't be considered an expert on my topic. I'll have just begun. 

So, for everyone who has been asking how seminary is going, that's the synopsis as of late. Thanks for your prayers and continued support. 

P.S. Did you know a documentary is being made about the National Bible Quiz Championship? Did you even know this competition existed? Check it out!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The News of our Baby: A Year Later

Today marks the one year anniversary of when we found out about Baby Ziesel #1. I'll probably have a lot of thoughts during these next few weeks as I reflect upon where we were a year ago, but today, I'm simply going to remember The Day that We Received the News.


It was Sunday morning. Early. I, as usual, woke up needing to pee before the alarms went off for church. I took my temp. It was still nice and high. Then I headed to the bathroom. 

I was 12 dpo, so I took one of my cheapo pregnancy tests as had become the norm for that time of the month. They take five minutes to give an accurate result, so I left the bathroom for five minutes and opened my laptop in the dark of the living room. I don't like staring at pregnancy tests while they develop. I'd rather look away. I sat for five minutes, probably on Reader, maybe checking email. I can't remember. I just remember trying to pass the time so that I could go back to sleep.  

That month, I thought we had missed our window. I ovulated sooner than expected, so I was honestly not expecting to see a second line on that test strip. I had never seen a second line up to that point. I headed back to the bathroom, and picked up the test, fully prepared to throw it out immediately. As my hand made its way to the trash can out of habit, I pulled it back for a second glance. There was something I had never seen before: a second little line. 

It was faint, but it was there. 

I placed the test back on the counter and asked myself what to do. No more tests, I thought. I'll wait until tomorrow. Now I just need to tell Josh. 

Josh does not wake up well. He's not really a happy, smily morning person, except for when he gets to sleep in. It was early, on a Sunday. I knew waking him up with, "I'm pregnant!" would probably be too overwhelming. So I sat on the edge of the bed, leaned into him, kissed him, and said, "Good morning." I was trying so hard to suppress my smile, to give him time to wake up. 

He woke, smiled at me, as best he could. We made small talk for about 60 seconds. I'm not sure what about. Then I said, oh so hesitantly, "I think I'm pregnant." His eyes widened. He said something, but again, I don't remember. I just remember him getting up to go look at the test. 

After that, things become a little hazy in my memory. We sat out on the couch, in the dark, just staring at each other and talking for a long, long time. I remember calculating the due date. November 28, 2011. Most of the morning, we were happy, but definitely having a hard time digesting the news. We decided to skip church. I don't remember much of what we did that day before we left the apartment. I do remember taking this photo:

We talked about who to tell and when. We had small group that night, so we decided to tell our small group couple-friend (Anthony and Christine were parents already) who knew we were trying. (Not many people did at that time.) We went out to eat before small group. Japanese. Josh enjoyed the sushi, I ate cooked food (as I usually do at sushi anyway). We had a small box of my leftovers.

We arrived at the Princes early for small group, while they were eating dinner with the kids. We sat at the counter. A few minutes of small talk later, I said, "So, we had some faintly positive news this morning..." Anthony was excited. Christine cried quietly while smiling (she does that). The kids looked super confused. We figured out a few minutes later that no one else was able to make small group. We didn't mind. The kids went to bed shortly after dinner and then the four of us sat around talking, back when the couches were in the now-playroom. 

At some point, we hugged and said goodnight. We drove home, in the dark. The car smelled of Japanese leftovers. We were happy.


March 20, 2012 is different. A Tuesday. I have Greek homework. Seminary was a distant hope a year ago, something I thought I would do after Josh was making real money. But plans changed, as they so often do.

Today, I have a squirmy little 17-week-old baby in my belly. But this baby will never replace the first one that lived inside of me. This one is and always will be Baby Ziesel #2. 

And today, ironically enough, I am babysitting a 4-month-old baby that I have never met before (long story). My baby would be about 4 months now, too. And one day I'll meet my baby.

I can't do much to honor Baby Ziesel #1, but I can remember. We all deserve to be remembered.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Hospital Tour Questions?

'DSC_1468.JPG' photo (c) 2009, dchasteen - license:
In an effort to start researching our options for birth, I have scheduled our first hospital tour for three weeks from now. My insurance is somewhat restrictive, so right now I have three hospitals I can birth at with my OB, whom I respect and am fine with using (so far). We're aiming for as natural and intervention-free a birth as possible, so we will be taking a Bradley class this Summer. I'm also trying to read Natural Hospital Birth before our hospital tour, and so far it is a great resource.

So, while I would love to solicit all birthing advice at some point in the future, right now I'd love your advice for one specific topic only: the hospital tour. What questions should I ask on my hospital tour? If my guide does not have some answers, whom should I ask? Is it at all acceptable for me to ask a L&D nurse if I can find one while we're there? I know I can ask my OB at my next appointment as he is very good about answering questions we have, but I'm very aware that he won't actually be there for the majority of my birthing experience, so I would rather ask the people who will be.

The tour is 2.5 hours, so I'm guessing it will be extensive and provide lots of space for questions, so I want to be prepared.

Thanks for any help!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Stories of Hope: A House on Beekman

As many of you know, I went to NYU for my undergrad education. Going to NYU changed my life in so many ways. Of course, my time in the classroom was valuable; I am so thankful for it as I work my way through grad school now. But without doubt I learned more outside of the classroom than inside it. Usually, this was in regard to my faith or my friends. I met a God for thinkers at NYU, and I also lived and laughed and cried with Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. The friends I made there are my family in so many ways. 

It's easy for me to gush about NYU. It actually fulfilled my romanticized notion of having friends with ethnic, sexual, political, and cultural diversity. But, aside from our education-level, there was one type of diversity that was harder to find at NYU; the majority of my friends came from money.  Of course this wasn't true about all of my friends, but for most of us, money was available. We were, in nearly all worldly regards, privileged people.

Among my Christian friends, our privilege became something we wrestled with a lot: What does it mean to be a White person in a world of institutional racism that is designed to benefit me? What does it mean to be a man in a world of oppression and inequality toward women? How do we handle our wealth, education, and connections responsibly? How do we respond to our privilege in light of the Gospel? (It was probably not a coincidence that Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution was being passed around like candy during these years.)

Of course, many of us came to different conclusions in terms of practical living. But there was a commonality: We are called to steward our privilege on behalf of others and on behalf of the Kingdom. And while some of us have traveled the globe to serve people in India or Russia, today I want to share the story of a few friends (a group of all women!) who decided to move into the poorest neighborhood in America, the South Bronx, and pitch their tent there in the summer of 2008. Sadly, that neighborhood is only a few miles from our privileged life at NYU. 

Below is a video about Sara, one of the women, who continues to work in the South Bronx today. Today, the home they moved into has become a ministry on their street, Beekman Avenue. It is known as A House on Beekman. (RSS subscribers may have to click through.)

Today, I'm sharing with you a bit more about A House on Beekman. I hope this will give you hope, inspiration to do something similar in your neighborhood, or encourage you to support their work financially or through prayer. I sent Sara some questions that I thought you might ask her. Here are her responses:

What exactly is the mission of A House on Beekman? Has it changed over the years?

Our mission is to deliver holistic long-term care and services that will break the cycles of spiritual, emotional, educational, and economic poverty. Our mission was defined early last year; before that, we were simply loving our neighbors well.

What services/resources do you currently offer to the community?

Right now, we have tutoring after school twice a week.

Three nights a week we have “family dinners” for the community.

Twice a week, new Moms bring their babies to sing, read, play and learn how to better support their baby’s development through our Mommy & Me program. Past emotional and education support, Mommy & Me provides tangible goods such as diapers, books and educational toys to better enable our classroom’s environment translation into their homes.

Throughout any given week, various mentors meet with their mentees.

During the summer, we run an annual day camp for the elementary kids of Mott Haven.

We’ve also partnered with Trinity Grace Church’s youth group to care for the spiritual needs of our kids. Through that partnership, our teenagers participate in weekly gatherings, camps and retreats, and one-on-one discipleship with a leader.

What does your staff and volunteer team currently look like? What credentials/training do they have? What support do they have?

I am the only person currently on full-time staff. Ben Murphy, one of the men who lives in the house, works part time growing our mentorship and discipleship program for boys.

We have hired Lauren Wrenn, a long-time NYC public school teacher, to develop and direct the after-school program we are starting in September. She will officially begin this summer.

Sloan, a volunteer, teaches our Mommy and Me class. Sloan is extremely overqualified and a total steal for such a committed volunteer: with a Bachelors Degree in Music Education and a Master Level certification in the Kodaly Method of Music Education from North TX University & NYU, she taught and directed her own pre-school for over 10 years.

Are you currently associated with local or global churches or parachurch organizations? If so, which ones?

We are most closely knit with Trinity Grace Church, a local church in NYC with multiple neighborhood parishes. They have been my home church for 5 years and have supported us from the beginning. Currently, they serve as our fiscal sponsor, while we work towards our own not-for-profit status. We have partnered with the East Village parish as the home church for our kids, teenagers and families while we simultaneously look for a congregation more local to our neighborhood.

We are also linked with Redeemer Presbyterian, another NYC church. The chairman of our Board is Tracy Thornton, Redeemer’s Children’s Director. Through Tracy, we have had access to partnerships with their Mom’s groups and children’s ministry in several different ways and are currently competitors in their business plan competition through their Center for Faith and Work.

We also have several friendships with other organizations in the South Bronx working towards similar goals.

Are you hoping to expand your ministry in the future? If so, how?

We are working to expand our ministry. In 5 years we hope to have all of the below programs in full operation.

We will provide a linked set of services from pre-birth through college, in the following order:
Babies 101 – Provides pre-natal and parenting education to expectant mothers.
Mommy & Me – Equips and supports mothers with babies age 0-2 in an encouraging environment.
Pre-school – Prepares children ages 3-4 to enter kindergarten.
After School – Stimulates rigorous academic growth and builds core skills.
High School Support – Assists students in earning their high school diploma and job skill development, and assists with gaining admittance to universities or colleges.
Mentoring & Dreams to Reality A child mentoring program. Children are assigned volunteer mentors, who meet with them once a week to provide a positive role model, as well as spiritual and educational guidance. The children discuss their goals for the future, and the mentors provide encouragement and opportunities to realize these goals. For example, one child expressed his desire to become a chef. AHOB was able to arrange an opportunity for him to spend time with Jehangir Mehta, a famous Iron Chef competitor, and helped him enroll in cooking classes.
For adults we will provide:
Core Skills Education Education in financial planning / parenting, connections to higher education, job training, and job placement—with an aim to helping adults develop life goals and set out to achieve those goals.

Adults will also participate in programs focusing on more holistic spiritual and emotional development.

We want to holistically support our neighbors, enabling them to break the cycles of poverty in their lives and for many generations to come. In 2020, our hope is that each of the programs outlined as crucial pieces in the puzzle to long-term change, will be operational. I hope that in the distant future we will have begun replicating the process in other pockets of Mott Haven, our neighborhood in the South Bronx.

Is your ministry designed to work only with certain demographics in the South Bronx?

Right now, no one on our team speaks Spanish so by default we are only able to reach our English-speaking neighbors. Within the next few years that will undoubtedly change, better enabling us to work with any demographic.

One of our primary focuses is on the children least likely to succeed on their own. We want to be sure we are serving the kids whose parents would never take the time to sign them up for a charter school, or, pay a small fee for an after-school program. We started this ministry with the kids who were left to fend for themselves, on the street, into the late hours of the night, who aren’t eating meals regularly and who have never done a page of homework.  And we believe that’s who Jesus would be serving.

For every $100 given, where does it go? What percentage goes to admin? How is your actual operating budget broken down?

Our budget is broken down by program.  I fundraise separately for my salary.

Our fiscal year follows the school calendar starting in July. Below are the actual YTD numbers for our current fiscal year.
Family Dinner- 12%
Mentoring and Discipleship- 14%
Summer Camp- 17%
After School- 11%
Mommy and Me- 18%
Babies 101- 16%
Generosity- 7%*
General- 5%**

*Generally, we do not focus on short-term needs or crisis relief services, but, every so often, we will provide a family with groceries, a metrocard, school uniforms or help throw birthday parties. Our generosity fund exists for needs similar to this.

**The “General” category includes supplies, volunteer appreciation and training.

How do you grapple with the reality of race/class/education differences between you, your staff, and/or the neighborhood? How do you guard against paternalism and the Great White Savior stereotype?

I am made aware of the stark differences between my world in the South Bronx and the world of Manhattan, every day. Sometimes I deal with those injustices by allowing my heart to be broken over them, using that for fuel to ensure sure change happens.

I’ve often struggled to make the proper distinction between good practices [applicable to any person, regardless of race or class] and cultural differences in the culture of the South Bronx and the culture I grew up in that aren’t bad but just different.

As far as guarding against the Great White Savior stereotype, the way we started has played a big role in that. When we first moved to the South Bronx, we didn’t come here to DO anything. We wanted to make the poor, our neighbors and then, just be good neighbors to them. Before we had any programs or started “doing” anything, our neighbors just became our family and we became theirs. We were invited to Thanksgivings and Christmases, baby showers and birthday parties, we hung out in people’s living rooms for hours while hair was being braided and sang babies to sleep. We had dinners and parties. We were a shoulder to cry on or a friend to celebrate with, long before we were a resource. Our neighbors adopted us into the hood.  Meaning that still today, they relate to us as family and friends, not as teachers or program directors.

I also think it probably helps that unlike Harlem or parts of Brooklyn, the South Bronx hasn’t seen an influx of white people try to “save” them and haven’t been affected much by gentrification.

Tell us about a recent success story and a recent failure story from the front lines of the work.

Right now my favorite stories are coming out of our Mommy & Me Class. The class consists of eight Moms and their babies, all of whom are in their first year of life. Throughout the class we invite the Moms to join us in different tasks – one of these tasks is a set aside time for encouragement.

Our neighborhood is characterized by the way Moms yell and curse at their children - constantly tearing them down, never building them up.  To address this, we’ve carved out a portion of class where the moms tell their babies that they love them, that they’re proud of them, things that make them special and great things they have done in the past week. Hearing these moms speak words of truth and life into the tiny lives of their babies, is hands-down the best part of my week. I can’t begin to imagine the long-term difference these new found habits of truth-filled words will have on the lives of these babies for generations to come.

In the past few months, our biggest failure has been our mentorship program. Since the fall, we have had a list of 30 kids who are regularly a part of our lives, that want to be paired with mentors. Our goal was to have all of them paired by the New Year and we currently only have 4 pairs. We have found it extremely difficult to find willing mentors.

How can we find additional information about Beekman?

We are currently in the process of building our website so stay tuned for that! In the meantime you can follow us on Twitter for updates and pictures @ahouseonbeekman. [There are some great updates and photos at the Twitter page. However, Sara has given up social media for Lent, so the Twitter feed is a few weeks old.] Also we send out monthly-ish emails with updates and prayer requests. To receive those, email

How can we donate if we want to do so?

  • Give Online
    • Log on to
    • Click on the "Giving" tab.
    • Under the label "Give Online", click "Set up an account". After creating an account, fill in the amount of contribution and the payment method.
    • Select your contribution frequency in the drop down menu.
    • Be sure to Select the fund "Fundraising" and the subfund "South Bronx Initiative".
  • Mail a Check
    • Trinity Grace Church
      21 W 38th St 2nd Fl 
    • New York, NY 10018
    • Checks should be made out to Trinity Grace Church with "South Bronx" in the memo line.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Stories of Hope: Introduction

'HOPE' photo (c) 2011, Khalid Albaih - license:'s easy for me to see the problems in the Church. I often write about these because if I don't voice and process my thoughts with other Christians, I start to go to a dark place, a place void of hope or faith. Some people might not understand why talking about the problems I see helps, but that's okay. If you're wired like me, you get it: getting thoughts out of my head puts them in perspective. In my head, little things easily become BIG things. By voicing the problems I see, either here or privately, I can more easily see the things that are truly big: God and the work He is doing through the Church. 

So, in and effort to also voice the positive things I see, I'm starting a monthly blog series on things that are truly big; I'm going to be highlighting works of the Church that give me hope. Some of these stories will be about people I know personally, some will be about strangers. Some of these stories will be about an organization or ministry I would love for you to support, some will be about people you will have no way of helping. Like me, you might realize that these stories aren't stories of perfection. I've never found one of those stories. But, these are all stories that give me hope, and I'll take it any way that I can get it. My wish is that they would also give you hope. 

Our first story will arrive tomorrow. I will be telling you about some of my friends and the work they are doing in the South Bronx. I'm excited to share their story with you!

Also, consider this your formal invitation to pass on stories of hope to me when you come across them. They can be personal stories about your family, something you read in the news, or something your church or company is doing. To share them with me, feel free to comment on any blog post I've written, leave them on my Facebook page, or share them with me on Twitter. If you would prefer, you can share them with me privately here
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.   Hebrews 10:23-25

Stories of Hope: A House on Beekman
Stories of Hope: International Justice Mission

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Reading the Psalms Backward

'day 150' photo (c) 2012, Fiona Shields - license: just finished writing a paper on Psalm 99. Being camped out in a psalm this past weekend reminded me of when I spent a great deal of time in the psalms: the last 150 days of my engagement. 

In college, my husband and I had a lot of exposure to wisdom about marriage, dating, and engagement from older couples. One of the pieces of advice we received that seemed less earth-shattering was simply to read through the Psalms backward as a way to countdown to the wedding. So, when we were 150 days out from our wedding, we thought we'd give it a shot. It turns out to have been one of the things we loved most about engagement! (Although, the "things we loved about engagement" list is short.) Why?

For us, engagement was busy, yet we wanted some way to connect spiritually, to more deeply become one in those last days before marriage. We didn't read each psalm together, but even reading the same one separately each day created a great shared experience with Scripture in our hearts. We prayed about a lot of the same things after reading each psalm; sometimes they'd come up in conversation, and sometimes we would read them together to change up the routine. And, as a practical bonus, most psalms don't take too long too read.

In addition, engagement was a very emotional time. The psalms are a great resource when your emotions are overwhelming, confusing, or taking over your life. Sometimes it's hard to put words to what we feel, and such was the case for me just before I got married. Reading a psalm often forced me to recognize what was already going on inside of me. Many of them didn't resonate with me on the day that I read them, but overall, I would say that they helped me keep the lines of communication open with God during those very overwhelming days.

Of course, not everyone will be engaged during their lifetime, and this was such a great exercise I think it's worth repeating or adapting in some way. So here are some suggestions:

1) Read Psalms backward the 150 days before your wedding, and then start reading them in the correct order for the first 150 days of your marriage.

2) Read them backwards as a countdown to a big move or new job. If you don't have 150 days to prepare, just start in the middle, or read two a day.

3) Read them backwards as a countdown to a birth or adoption. Now, I know how problematic this is because babies don't arrive on predictable dates. But I think it would still be a great exercise, as long as you are mentally prepared to not get to Ps 1 or to get to Ps 1 two weeks before the baby arrives. As with the first 150 days of marriage, the first days of motherhood or fatherhood can be emotionally-charged, so reading a psalm a day in the correct order following a birth or adoption might also be helpful.

4) Read a psalm a day backward with your kids as they prepare for a long-anticipated day: a birthday, a transition to school, a surgery, a trip to Disney. I'm not sure what that might be for your kid, but reading a psalm with your child could be a good way to help them dialogue with you and with Jesus during anticipatory seasons of life.

Any other ideas for creative ways to use Psalms or any part of Scripture? Even if they might sound silly, like this one originally did to me, they might turn out to be golden. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Redemptive Pursuit: Sleep to Those He Loves

Sleep to Those He Loves
By Laura Ziesel
March 12, 2012

"In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat--for he grants sleep to those he loves." Psalm 127:2

I've always had a love-hate relationship with sleep. I was the youngest child in our family and when nighttime rolled around I went to bed before everyone else. I hated this. I imagined everyone else downstairs having fun without me. I would call for my mom and ask for water, a snack, or anything so that I wasn't alone. Unfortunately, this difficulty has carried over into adulthood. Even when tired, I often lay awake in bed with a racing mind, thinking about all of the things that need to get done tomorrow. Luckily, once I am finally able to go to sleep, I am able to sleep through the night. And it is then that I love sleep. 

During a course in college I learned that Leonardo Da Vinci trained himself to live on less and less sleep until he only needed about 3 hours of sleep a day. For a while, that sounded like a good idea. We put ourselves on diets and we exercise our bodies and our minds; why shouldn't we also discipline ourselves to live on less sleep? I think this is often a tempting idea for women. We have so many things on our plates that we feel responsible for: our paid work, our volunteer work, our families, our girlfriends, our bodies, our homes. It makes sense that less sleep would allow us to accomplish more on our never-ending to-do list. 
'sunroom nap' photo (c) 2008, Alex - license:  
But in college, while I was pondering the apparent waste my sleeping hours were in my day, sadly, I watched many close friends battle eating disorders, and the idea of sleep deprivation seemed less and less wise. It pained me to see them grasp for control over their bodies, to not accept that God created them with physical needs that, as hard as they tried, they could not override. Because I quickly saw the connection between how we view food and how we view sleep, intentional sleep deprivation lost its appeal. I'm so glad it did.  

God has created our bodies with needs. Even before Adam and Even sinned in the garden, God created them with a need for food. We also know that God's final work of creation, Eve, was made while Adam was asleep. In the perfect garden, our bodies slept and ate. 

We're far from perfect today, but we still have a need for sleep. If you think about it, at its most fundamental level, sleep is a daily reminder that we are not God, that when we rest the world continues spinning just fine. This is a humbling realization. Moreover, during the first mention of sleep in the Bible, while Adam slept, we see that God did some of His best work. Why God caused Adam to sleep is up for debate, but perhaps Eve could only be a pure gift from God to Adam if Adam had no control over her creation. Perhaps during our sleep God continues to do some of his best work on our behalf, work that he wants full credit for. 

There are so many theological insights about God and about us, his mere creations, when we ponder the fact that he created us with a need for sleep. But French poet Charles Peguy brings the central issue to light:

I don't like the man who doesn't sleep,
   says God.
Sleep is the friend of man,
Sleep is the friend of God.
Sleep is perhaps the most beautiful thing
   I have created.
And I myself rested on the seventh day. …
But they tell me that there are men
Who work well and sleep badly.
Who don't sleep. What a lack of
   confidence in me.

So sleep often and sleep well, knowing that although our work will never be done, God gives us the gift of rest, a gift that reminds us that his work is what truly matters.

You are the one who formed me. I confess that I fail to remember that you are in control and I am not. I confess that I am reluctant to admit my needs to others or even to myself. Help me to rest, both spiritually and physically, in the knowledge that you are not keeping a running tally of how much I get done each day, frowning upon me when I take a break. Thank you for creating me with a daily reminder to stop and be still. Thank you for always being at work and giving me the gift of rest and sleep. Amen.

I will be posting my devotionals from The Redemptive Pursuit once a month as they are published. Sign up to receive these weekly devotionals via email hereFollow The Redemptive Pursuit on Twitter or like us on Facebook.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Week 15 Update

Before launching some great (in my opinion) blog material next week, I wanted to give a quick personal update, especially about how the pregnancy is going. Aside from the pregnancy, life is busy, but deeply good. I'm in the midst of midterms, but genuinely enjoying my classes. I am taking Greek II, Gospels, and Kingdom of God (Joshua-Monarchy). My husband remains one of the hardest working people I know, putting in 75-hour weeks. Our date nights have continued to be necessary, and we welcome them eagerly.

The pregnancy continues to be free of complications, a fact which still surprises me when I think about it. I am no longer expecting miscarriage as I was in the first few weeks, but the fear still lingers. 

Just today we had an OB appointment and we had a new nurse who could not find the heartbeat on the first try. She left the room without saying much, and in those 2-3 minutes that she was gone, I had gone to The Dark Place. Luckily, my husband was there with me. She came back in and saw that I was upset and apologized profusely for not communicating more clearly; she simply didn't know what she was doing and wanted someone to help her. On the second try, she found a good, strong heartbeat quickly and continued to apologize for scaring me. 

That continues to be my fear: going in for an appointment and getting bad news. It doesn't make sense logically to me since I've started feeling the baby move, but logic has very little to do with the matter. 

We are attempting to find out the sex of the baby next month, and we will deal with the unpleasantries at that time, if they come. I have started to get a little bump, and though my energy is back I am still sick. 

Blessings to you all as Spring (or Autumn if you're in the Southern Hemisphere) rolls around. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Male and Female God Created (Most of) Them: Part 6

'All-Gender Restroom Sign' photo (c) 2008, Samir Luther - license: is the last in my series on the relationship between intersex individuals and the Church. To read the previous posts in the series, go to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5. I feel as if we could talk about this for a long time, but we have laid a good foundation for future conversations.

I wanted to end with a few practical steps for Christians, particularly those in Christian leadership. These are only the ones I have thought of, and I'm sure there are more, especially from intersex people themselves. Please feel free to add to these in the comments! 

1) Foster theological depth about personal brokenness among all people. Being pregnant, I really struggle with the happy-go-lucky language people use about pregnancy and babies. No, my baby will not be perfect nor will it be innocent. It will be born broken, even if it has ten fingers and ten toes. The Church needs to be a place where talking about brokenness is expected; it is, after all, the only prerequisite to faith in Christ: admitting our neediness. 

2) Create conversations about the tension between brokenness and God still being in control. I know this is a hard thing to do, but I know that sermons or small group materials that acknowledge this tension resonate deeply with me. How can all people, not just intersex individuals, wrestle with the Scriptural position that God knits each of us together in our mother's wombs, yet we are born inherently broken. Does God mess up? Absolutely not. Is he still in control? Absolutely. I think digging into this question within community can create angst, but it can also bear real fruit. Avoiding theological dilemmas like this is juvenile, especially when they are so relevant to how we view ourselves. 

3) Respect people's privacy. I know this sounds basic, but it's worth stating. If you suspect someone might be intersex, don't inquire. (And then examine why you have suspicions and if your reasons are healthy or not. If you suspect because a man likes to paint, read this.) With private information like this, always leave the power for disclosure in the hands of the individual. And if an individual does disclose to you, as always, never assume you can share their personal information with others. 

4) Offer non-sex-specific programming. Are all of your Bible studies for only men or only women? Where does that leave intersex individuals? I understand the value in male-only and female-only groups, but if you don't offer any small groups or events for mixed male and female groups, you will always force an intersex person to choose a sex. Let church be a place where they take a deep breath and actually be themselves if they do not identify as either male nor female. 

5) Have at least one bathroom on campus that is not sex specific. I know this is probably hard for small churches, but having a single-occupant bathroom that is for men, women, children, families, or people who do not want to choose a male or female restroom can go a long way. These help not just intersex individuals, but also single dads, adult children helping their opposite-sex elderly parents, and other groups of people.  

6) Create a church culture that is welcoming to those who break gender stereotypes. Many intersex individuals who live as men have high levels of estrogen, and many intersex individuals who live as women have high levels of testosterone. If your church is not a safe place for men who cry easily, it probably won't be a safe place for those intersex individuals who exhibit both masculine and feminine traits (though not all do). Read why strict gender stereotyping is not just bad for individuals but bad for the Gospel here if you want further thoughts on this topic.

7) Remember and remind others that God works in and through brokenness. Ours is a God who chose not to protect us from brokenness, thus removing our freedoms, but instead chose to enter into our brokenness and take it upon himself. He dove into this mess, and he creates beauty out of it rather than simply ignoring it or fixing it. He uses it rather than disdaining it. There's power in recognizing that truth. I think the brokenness of intersex individuals has huge redemptive potential, especially in regard to identity formation. 

We'd all love to hear your thoughts, so comment away if you have other ideas for Christian leaders. Also, try to process how some of these action steps could be applied in your sphere of influence with a friend or colleague. I'd love for this conversation to continue beyond the screens of our computers. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Male and Female God Made (Most of) Them: Part 5

'Interpreter' photo (c) 2005, Petteri Sulonen - license: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

I firmly believe that the Bible teaches that we are all biologically broken, just as we are psychologically, sexually, spiritually, socially broken people. In Part 4, I asked if intersex biology was a result of the Fall, and I concluded that it is, and most of you seemed to agree with my conclusion. 

While Christians have not always responded to social or psychological brokenness very well, I have observed, however, that Christians tend to respond in a healthy way to biological brokenness. Take the case of hearing-impaired individuals. Most of the churches I have attended have welcomed, accommodated, and integrated hearing-impaired individuals very well. They seem to accept the biological brokenness at work, but they also labor for the Church to be agents of redemption toward those with hearing impairments. They have not accepted the default social ostracizing that many hearing-impaired individuals have suffered, nor have the forced hearing-impaired individuals to simply "fit in" as if they aren't different. 

This, however, has not historically been the case with intersex individuals. Instead of being treated with dignity and being accommodated, many Christians have advocated "fixing" them, instead of accepting them how they are. This "just fix them" mentality has manifested itself in the use of gender assignment surgery or forcing intersex individuals to choose to identify as either male or female against their desires. Or Christians have simply ignored their existence. 

Yeah, not a stellar track record.

So, I want us to think about a serious question: Why do we not extend the same efforts toward intersex individuals that we do to others with biological brokenness?

Seriously. Why? 

I have a few guesses, but I'd love your thoughts. 

1) Culture at large does acknowledge or accept the existence of intersex people. This problem is not unique to the Church. While I expect the Church to do better than culture at large, I cannot ignore the fact that Church culture is influenced by culture at large. While I can think of famous people who have diabetes, are blind, or represent other groups with biological brokenness, the only intersex individual that I knew about before writing this series was Caster Semenya, a South African athlete. And I only knew of her because of the controversy surrounding her sex. And no, occasional appearances of intersex individuals as fictional characters on Grey's Anatomy do not count. It would be nice if culture had representations of intersex individuals who were a) real people and b) not portrayed as medical freak shows.

2) We don't see intersex individuals very often in our churches. This is both because they are not found in our churches frequently, and also because their brokenness is not something we can easily observe. Some intersex individuals are androgynous in nature, and we aren't sure if they are male or female from the get-go. But most appear to be either male or female, so we have no reason to suspect otherwise. While I don't advocate that we all start wearing signs advertising our hidden biological brokenness, I also think we should be aware that we simply do not see everything there is to know about a person.

3) Christians like to come to the rescue. Most people with biological brokenness are considered disabled in some way, such as those with hearing impairments. Intersex individuals, however, do not necessarily have a disability, so they really don't need help from others in the same way. This makes it hard for us to love them, because in doing so we are clearly not needed, not acting as a shining savior, not playing the martyr. When we help the blind, deaf, mentally disabled, or others with biological brokenness, we get to wear the martyr badge. We are made to look like we're stooping down, and sometimes we like that.

4) Intersex people reveal our own identity issues. I think this is the hardest problem to wrap our minds around, but I think we need to try. First, I firmly believe that we place too much of our identity in our maleness or our femaleness. From birth, or even in utero, this becomes an individual's primary identifying marker. I understand this practically, but as Christians, our primary means of establishing our identity should be Christ, not biology. I am, first and foremost, not a woman, I am a Christian. Second, when we do encounter intersex, trans, queer, or straight individuals who are androgynous in some way, our cultural notions of masculinity and femininity are challenged beyond our comfort zones. I've written about this extensively in previous posts, the most popular of which are Gender Stereotypes and In & Out. I recommend them if you are new to my writing. In short, I actually believe that strict, narrow notions of masculine and feminine are destructive, and that Christians should hold them loosely.  

As I write these reasons for our failure to love intersex people well as the Body of Christ, I am struck by how self-centered they are. Mostly, we have failed to love intersex individuals because of how they affect us, not because of anything they have done. I am, once again, so saddened by our behavior, by my behavior. I am completely culpable. I am part of this Church, and nearly all of the above reason apply to me as well. And I am so, so sorry. But I know that's not enough; I know we need to repent and change. 

So, can you think of any other reasons that we have failed to extend the same efforts to intersex individuals as we do to others with biological brokenness? It's hard for us to repent if we don't exactly know what our faults have been, so I think this is important to explore.

Part 6 is up, which is my final piece in this series. In it, I offer practical suggestions for churches, Christian colleges, and other ministries. If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them!
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