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Rachel Held Evans, author of the New York Times Bestseller, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, offered a collection of blog posts today on virginity and asks whether Christians idolize virginity. The ensuing comments (nearly 300 as of the writing of this blog) expose the complexity of this issue as well as the shame, pain, and other unintended consequences of messages that equate purity with virginity.

Our tendency to equate purity to virginity as simply a physical reality is reminiscent of the Pharisees and their focus on the external purity rituals while neglecting the heart. Jesus corrects this attitude in many ways including his teaching on lust (Matthew 5:28) – that a lustful attitude is a form of adultery, which was mostly considered a physical act, as well as a violation of property rights. But, the opposite error of imagining purity as only a state of mind is also a problem as it imagines that what we do in our body is of little consequence to our spirit and soul. Certainly, we see many who are victims of rape or sexual abuse needing to make a disconnection between their body and their mind/soul/spirit for survival, but this is not healthy, true to our human nature nor what God intends for humans who are created to image their creator.

white-rose-wallpaperBoth of these positions assume that purity is something we can possess within ourselves, or out of our own resources. Recently I’ve been reading Christ the Key by Theologian Kathryn Tanner who notes, “Like angels, humans can acquire the virtues that perfect them only by participating in what is other than themselves, the Word that in its simplicity is itself those things without acquiring them.” (Tanner, Christ the Key, Kindle Location 498) We are misguided to think of any human (even a newborn?) as pure in any sense apart from the pure light of Christ illuminating the whole person. Even in the Garden, God was the source of all purity and goodness, as Tanner quotes Gregory of Nyssa from “On Virginity,” that in the Garden we were “to enjoy the good in its purity . . . and to enjoy that, is in my judgment nothing else than ever to be with God, and to feel ceaselessly and continually this delight, unalloyed by anything that could tear us away from it.” (Tanner, Kindle Location 604 – I would like to read Gregory of Nyssa source on this topic!)

When we equate purity with virginity, we create a system in which we imagine we can somehow be pure apart from God. When we reject purity as virginity, and imagine purity as a state of mind, we create a system in which what we do with our bodies doesn’t matter but still seek to be pure apart from God. God is the only source of purity for us and we must be careful to teach our children well to look to God as the source of all of the goodness in their lives. By looking to Christ as our source, and allowing Christ to transform us, can we acquire the virtue of purity? To what degree can we “be pure”? Tanner notes, “when our minds are therefore formed according to the divine image, so are our bodies.” (Tanner, Kindle Location 983) Is this a unidirectional interface – the image of Christ affects our mind which then affects our bodies? If purity is something outside of ourselves, how then do we talk about, think about sexual ethics and what it means to be joined to another human being in such an intimate way?

These discussions about purity and virginity are complicated and raise many questions about what we believe about God, about living in community, and about what it means to be human. Together, we must work toward a sexual ethic that speaks more about integrity and what it means to be appropriately human than creating an in and out proposition where young people who choose to have sex before marriage are shamed and shunned while young people who wait to have sex until marriage are paralyzed by the “sex is evil” messages that they end up in therapists offices not long after their wedding night!

We must also make room for those who are abused, raped, and sexually trafficked to be welcome in our midst without feeling like lepers. And we must recognize the gender imbalance in these conversations and the implications for both men and women when the evangelical response to over-sexualization is an equally distorted over-sexualization asking for men to protect women’s vaginas! As if women are property again!!

Purity RingAs a young Christian, I heard the “Why Wait?” messages and was deeply shamed by them since I had not waited. Years later, after a period of abstaining from sex until marriage, I struggled deeply with wounds – not just from being shamed for not waiting, but from the pain of abuse by men who mistreated me and claimed to be entitled to possess me for their own pleasure, denying my humanity in the process. While most of my premarital sexual experiences were consensual, as a young teenager I don’t think I realized what I was consenting to. I was looking for love in all the wrong places and instead found many men who viewed women as sexual objects to possess for their own pleasure.

Here’s a reflection I wrote a while ago echoing the pain that only God can heal:

The arrow penetrated and lodged within my heart of hearts, deep under my skin. The wound healed over on the surface it seemed and only a crooked and painted scar remained. I tried to ignore the pain inside that the crooked scar was trying to hide. I told myself the wound was healed, there was no more bleeding – the skin was sealed. Yet deep inside the poisonous arrow remained and when I touched the scar, I winced in pain. The voices in my head said I’m scarred for life, there isn’t a man who would want me as a wife. Your sin has marred you beyond repair, there isn’t a man who will truly care. My heart was shattered as I believed the lies, and I found it impossible to trust most any guy. I thought they all only wanted to gain personal pleasure while giving me pain. I thought I had failed God and that God would deny my desire for intimacy and then I would cry.

Thank you, Rachel Held Evans, Elizabeth Esther, Sarah Bessey, Carolyn Custis James, and Dianna Anderson, for asking hard questions, telling real stories, and working to mitigate the unintended consequences of the purity=virginity message. As a mother of four daughters, ages 14-20, I am deeply concerned about these messages. Hopefully together we can write a new message that leads to life, health and human flourishing for women and men alike.


January 29, 2013 at 9:15 pm

Life Hurts, God Heals

“Sit still and be quiet!” Perhaps I should have used all caps when writing that, as it was not the calm and quiet instruction offered a four year old with a soft touch on the shoulder. No, it was the forceful command of a violent and rageful man – my father. I often heard that command barked out at me when I was young. But the most tangible memory is of hearing it around the dining room table. The dining room was off limits except when we ate there together as a family or with guests. The table was larger than life and the chairs were a deep, dark wood with gold embroidered upholstery. The fear of spilling something on the upholstery was almost as overwhelming as the fear aroused when sharply reminded to “sit still and be quiet!”

I loved my father (he passed away in 2006) but I also feared him. My mother tried to hide the black eyes and bruises, but we knew. And when we crossed the line (Dad’s line), we didn’t just get swats to correct our behavior. No, we received a whipping with his leather belt. I learned quickly from my sister, I didn’t ever want to see that belt taken off. So, I invented many ways of hiding. But, there were times when my “motor-mouth” got the best of me. And I would hear those words, loud and clear, “SIT STILL AND BE QUIET!” I can almost hear them even now as I write, and my heart is tempted to race. It’s almost an instinctual response – the kind that puts you into “fight or flight” mode. I always prefered flight over fight. Snuggling up to my mom’s legs and hiding under her skirt was a common safe haven when I was four.

LifeDanceThis wound from my childhood has taken on a life of it’s own at times. It’s kind of like a poisoned arrow was shot into my heart. The arrow may have been removed, but the poisoned tip was left behind. The wound has scarred over, but the pain remains beneath the surface and the poison seeps into my whole body and colors my interpretations of present events.

For instance, when I was checking out Student Ministries in my local church to see if it was where God wanted me to serve during this season, I visited for a few weeks and chatted with a few of the leaders. One Sunday, I shared with the Student Ministries Pastor some things I had experienced. He asked me if I was considering serving with the students and almost instantly my heart started to race. I didn’t realize it, but sometimes just talking with authority figures activates the poison from my past. I have learned enough to recognize the symptoms and didn’t run away and hide this time. Instead, I calmly responded and told him I would set a time to come in and talk to him about it. It didn’t take long for the fearful messages to start flooding my head – “He’s going to tell you that you talk too much and he only wants leaders who just listen and do what he says.” Now, it was obvious to others that that’s not the way this pastor works. He welcomes thoughtful and creative leaders and values what they have to say. But, my past experiences were coloring my present imagination and I could almost hear the words, “Sit still and be quiet.”

My sense of God leading me to work with Student Ministries was strong enough to inspire me to keep going, but at that moment I was very tempted to run and hide. Every fiber of my being wanted to escape the fear and just find some safe place to hide. Unfortunately, I’m too big to hide under my mom’s skirt anymore – and she rarely wears skirts or dresses anyway. Fortunately, God had other plans for me, plans for further healing and deliverance from the fear and from the lies that too frequently flooded my imagination. I scheduled an appointment with the Student Ministries Pastor, but knew I needed to speak with my prayer counselor first. As I met with my prayer counselor, she helped me make the connections between my heart-racing response to the pastor and the terror I experienced when I was young. During our time of prayer, the Holy Spirit helped me find that poisoned-arrow tip and with laser-like skill, God removed the poisoned tip and through the healing power of Christ in me, the poison was removed.

Here are some of the steps I took to experience healing from this poison within me:

  • I recognized the root source of the fear – the terror of being raised in a home filled with violence and verbal abuse.
  • I found a tangible memory that embodied that fear.
  • I thought about what I wanted to say to my Dad in that situation, but couldn’t.
  • I recognized and confessed my anger and rage toward my dad and his terrorizing behavior.
  • I asked God to give me the gift of forgiveness for my dad and to forgive me for my anger and rage toward my dad.
  • God helped me see the lies I believed about myself – like, “Nobody really wants to hear what you have to say.” “You really should just be calm and quiet like all the other Christian girls/women.” Etc. Then I acknowledged them as lies and chose not to believe them.
  • I asked God to show me the truth – what does God think about me? Does God want me to “sit still and be quiet”? What is God inviting me to do or be?

It would be nice if that one prayer experience delivered me from all fear for all time, but that’s not the way healing happened for me in this instance. As part of the healing, God showed me a picture of the kind of joyful life I am invited to participate in with Christ and the Holy Spirit. In prayer, I imagined myself as a little girl at that larger-than-life dining room table, but instead of my Dad sitting there at the head of the table, Jesus was standing there holding his hand out and inviting me to climb up over the gold-embroidered upholstery and jump up onto the table and dance. It was a beautiful image – very healing and freeing. But sometimes I still fear those who remind me of my dad in some way or another. I wish the fear was completely gone. Sometimes God heals instantly, but other times it’s a process. Perhaps it’s often a process to remind me to cling to Christ and depend on the Holy Spirit in my life…

dancelikenobodyswatchingOne Bible verse the Spirit keeps bringing to mind is 1 John 4:8, “Perfect love casts out fear.” This love that is referenced here is not my love – it’s not, “If you love perfectly you will not be afraid.” It’s not about another human love, like, “If your dad (or pastor or spouse) loves you perfectly, you won’t have to fear.” The only source of perfect love that I know of is God’s love. That’s the love that I cling to whenever I am tempted to fear. And that’s the love that is inviting me not to sit still and be quiet, but to get up and DANCE!

January 25, 2013 at 7:59 pm

Nice Christians Don’t Talk about Sex

“It seems that more than ever the compulsion today is to identify, to reduce someone to what is on the label. To identify is to control, to limit. To love is to call by name and so open the wide gates of creativity. But we forget names and turn to labels.” –Madeline L’Engle

LGBTQ is the latest in a long list of labels used to identify people with sexual orientations that differ from the heterosexual norm. I can never quite remember the right order – or even the right list, so I looked it up. LGBTQ is an initialism that represents Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer or Questioning. And questioning is exactly what Jenell Williams Paris does so well in The End of Sexual Identity. As a professor of anthropology, Paris understands culture. As an evangelical who was “carried in utero to Sunday morning worship and Wednesday evening prayer,” Paris understands evangelical Christians. But, she’s not a “nice” Christian. Paris writes, “Nice Christians pretend things are fine when they are not, say one thing and do another, and avoid difficult conversations.” (19) Paris dives into the deep end of the conversations around sexuality and challenges her readers to question the sexual identity framework – the cultural pattern by which people understand their sexuality.

The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are by Jenell Williams Paris The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are by Jenell Williams Paris

Early on, Paris defines terms, explains culture making, and gives an overview of the gender binary system we currently inhabit. She invites the reader to “imagine a different cultural world, one in which human sexual differences are not understood in binary categories, but as a spectrum.” (33) Paris then goes on to set up the problems she hopes to solve by rejecting sexual identity labels as she lays out the trouble with heterosexuality as well as the trouble with homosexuality in chapters two and three. Paris offers strong words against “the thought of” heterosexuality – even calling it an abomination! (43) I’m sure this has gotten her into quite a bit of trouble with those who are fervent in their efforts to label homosexuality as we know it today as an abomination. In her treatment of the historical ideas of homosexuality, I find Paris a bit lacking, but she makes up for her lack by excelling in her area of expertise – anthropology. Looking at the origins of homosexuality from an anthropological point of view sheds new light on oft-shrouded topic.

After setting up the problem with the sexual identity framework, Paris offers a view of sexual holiness that she hopes will refocus the conversation from labels that limit and control to a view of evaluating sexuality that devotes “proper attention to all the dimensions of human sexuality.” (82) Her focus on holiness is not about morality, as she notes, “When distorted, holiness is used as a synonym for morality, when really it’s about being more and more in love with God and with humanity.” (83) Her view of sexual holiness is generous and borne out of a Wesleyan understanding of holiness. In the last few chapters of the book she applies this ethic of sexual holiness to sexual desire, sexual intercourse, and celibacy. Paris does some good cultural work in these chapters, but she fails to convince me of the importance of sex as she seeks to answer the question implied in the subtitle of the book, “Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are.”

Paris offers some inspiring ideas in her chapter on celibacy, especially in her discussion of plausibility structures. A plausibility structure is “a concept that describes how a group of people come to share a sense of what is believable, or plausible.” (129) Many of the arguments in The End of Sexual Identity look to creation as a basis for understanding human sexuality, but I wonder how our plausibility structures would shift if we looked to the not-yet Kingdom to help us understand human sexuality? Instead of looking to what has been or what is, how will we imagine being human in a world where sex no longer defines us? Paris proposes a tearing down of the sexual identity framework to allow room for creating a culture where sexual identity does not define us – and it’s a good start, but we still have much work to do.

October 10, 2012 at 3:36 am 1 comment

The Missionary Position and Power

He asked me to give a toast at the wedding. While I wasn’t the one who introduced them, I got to play a big part in their early dating days. After all, they were young adult leaders in a youth ministry I was leading for a year. I got to see their love bloom and grow up close and personal, and I was often asked to give advice in the midst of some of the struggles that are part of parcel of learning to love. I’m excited to celebrate with them at their wedding today.

Grandpa Simpson: “In my day, women didn’t make a sound!”

I haven’t given a toast in a long time and weddings have changed quite a bit since I got married 20 years ago. Everybody wants to do something different. So, I asked a few more questions about what was expected of me. We’ve had our share of conversations about sex, so, I warned, “Maybe I’ll make a toast to your sex life in explicit detail…” He responded, “may we not be limited to the missionary position…” He always knows how to make me laugh.

I couldn’t help thinking about this as I interacted with readers on the Rachel Held Evans blog as Rachel responded to Jared Wilson’s blog which included talk about sex and submission (the original blog post has since been taken down as our friend Scot McKnight and others requested).

Why do we call sexual intercourse with the man on top and the woman on bottom the missionary position?

I’ve done some writing on this blog about the missional church and the shift from a Christendom-conquering-colonizing view of mission to a more relational-incarnational view of mission. I’ve also written on how important our use of language is in effecting cultural change.

One of the most disturbing parts of Jared Wilson’s post quoting Doug Wilson’s Fidelity is the use of the following description of sex as: A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.

Rachel Held Evans was one of the loudest voices in response. After I read her response, I wondered if my friend Jim Henderson had been talking with her.

One of Jim’s favorite maxims is, “It’s not about sex, it’s about power.” He writes in his latest book, The Resignation of Eve, “People who have power often don’t think about it, but people who don’t have power think about it all the time.” And as we’re told from the media, men think about sex all the time. And they are often the ones with the power. So, we should not be surprised when men post such things and fail to realize how powerful their words are – and how powerfully they may hurt others.

I wonder, what if we decided to reform our thinking around sex in the relational-incarnational ways that we are changing our thinking around mission? No more conquering and colonizing. But relating to one another in ways that seek understanding and empower one another to be fully human.

There has been so much violence done in the name of mission and submission over the years when mission was primarily viewed in the conquering and colonizing way. Is it any wonder that when we use such language in relation to sexual intercourse that those being conquered and colonized would feel violated? Jesus rejected the conquering and colonizing structures of his day when he refused to be the King in the way the people wanted him to be king. A Jesus kind of power is not a power over, but a giving up and giving away kind of power.

It’s not about sex. It’s about power.

I hope we can learn together how to better steward our power even in the most intimate of spaces – the marriage bed.

I’m continuing last week’s book offerings for my summer #freebookgiveaway. Sign up to get monthly email updates delivered straight to your inbox and you’ll be entered in the weekly drawing for free books when you confirm.

This week’s choices are:

This week’s choices are:

The Resignation of Eve: What If Adam's Rib Is No Longer Willing to Be the Church's Backbone? by Jim Henderson The Resignation of Eve: What If Adam’s Rib Is No Longer Willing to Be the Church’s Backbone? by Jim Henderson

Ruby Slippers: How the Soul of a Woman Brings Her Home by Jonalyn Grace Fincher Ruby Slippers: How the Soul of a Woman Brings Her Home by Jonalyn Grace Fincher

September 10, 2012 at 5:24 pm 2 comments

You Make Me Wanna Be BRAVE!

Karen and Merida featured in OCC Student Ministries “The Paper”, October 2011 Edition

She has the most beautiful wild-and-wonderful curly red hair! When I was young, I wanted curly red hair just like hers. No, I’m not talking about Merida,  firstborn of the Clan DunBroch from Pixar’s latest animated movie Brave – I’m talking about my own firstborn daughter, Karen Chapin. Our youth pastor was the first to let us know of her striking resemblance with the latest Disney princess when he reported on it in the youth ministry newspaper!

Karen Chapin, Senior Portrait 2011

Seriously, my daughter Karen’s hair is just as beautiful as Merida’s – no, it’s more beautiful, because it’s real. Merida is a made-up character on the movie screen – my Karen is a real, living, breathing, brave young woman who has had to face her own “my mom is a bear” moments. We’ve been anticipating the release of the movie for months and it came out just in time – the weekend after my birthday. We dragged our four daughters out of bed last Saturday morning for a matinee with the family and our closest friends. We enjoyed the wild adventures of Merida, firstborn of Clan Dunbroch, especially the way the movie broke with common fairytale gender roles and happily ever afters.

Since my girls are all teenagers now, I didn’t have to read a “Parent’s Guide to Brave” (though for parents of younger kids, I highly recommend this one). I heard the movie was supposed to be a “Feminist Bet” – flipping on the traditional fairytale script by refusing to feature a prince charming. Some have already written on their disappointment with the way the men are portrayed in the movie, but I thought the story was brilliant on many fronts.

(Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the movie, what follows may reveal more details than you are ready for…)

The Power of Story

One of the functions of fairytales is to expand our imagination, and Brave does a beautiful job of this. As Madeline L’Engle writes in Walking on Water, “it was through story that I was able to make some small sense of the confusions and complications of life. … Story was in no way an evasion of life, but a way of living life creatively instead of fearfully.” Brave invites us to live life creatively instead of fearfully – even when we are faced with uncertainty for the future,  unpredictability in the moment, and unfortunate pain from the past. Brave invites us to hold onto our heritage and learn from our cultural past without being trapped in tradition. Brave invites us to imagine a world where we make better choices than those who have come before us. “This ability to make choices, to help write our own story, is what makes us human, even when we make wrong choices, abusing our freedom and the freedom of others. The weary and war-torn world around us bears witness to the wrongness of many of our choices” reminds L’Engle.

The ferocious bear Mor’du is an example of the wrongness of many of our choices. Her father’s retelling of the fateful day when he lost his leg to the fearsome bear becomes the woof of the fabric of Merida’s imagination as she finishes her father’s tale for him around the dinner table. Perhaps it’s his fear of the powerful bear from his cultural legends that inspires him to give Merida a bow and arrow as a young lass, for even princesses need to learn to fight. His encounter with Mor’du that fateful day only serves to reinforce his choice to arm his daughter with the skills necessary to protect herself from the horrors of the world.

The traditions passed on to Merida through her mother’s storytelling of the warring clans become the warp in the fabric of her imagination. These stories keep the reality of our propensity for wearying ourselves through fighting and war in the forefront of her mind – and it’s her mother’s fear of war among the clans that motivate her to uphold the cultural tradition of arranging marriages to keep the peace. After all, that was the life she chose and it worked out well for her. But her fear limited her imagination.

The Power of Tradition

Tradition has many functions. When held onto out of fear it can suck the life out of us. But, when listened to as story, tradition can make us wise and even help to expand our imagination. Elinor holds onto the tradition of arranged marriage for her daughter out of fear of war breaking out in the kingdom. Merida grows up listening to the stories of her cultural history and the warring clans, but initially rejects them because they were tied to the confining tradition of arranged marriage. Yet, in the midst of rejecting the tradition of arranged marriages, Brave challenges our imagination about arranged marriages by showing us the obvious bond of love between Queen Elinor and King Fergus – whose marriage was also arranged. Arranged marriages often serve as a way for families, tribes, clans, cultures and kingdoms to live in cooperation with one another. When people are bonded by marriage (and hopefully love) the odds are they will learn to live well together.

Queen Elinor is a strong leader, which is apparent as the leaders of the clan look to her for final decisions. She chose to exercise her leadership role within the confines of tradition and the artificial societal restraints imposed on her and she expected her daughter to do the same. But Merida wants to make a different choice – she wants to change her fate. Her father seems uncertain about the cultural traditions as he encourages Merida to develop skills that were traditionally inappropriate for women, but he’s not quite ready to go up against his wife and challenge the tradition of arranged marriage. So, Merida, who listens well to the stories and rules of tradition, chooses to challenge tradition in her own way.

In accordance with our laws, only the firstborn may compete for the hand of the fair maiden. -Queen Elinor

I am Merida, firstborn descendant of Clan DunBroch, and I’ll be shooting for my own hand!

Powerful Women

While Brave is filled with images of strong women, some have criticized the portrayal of the men in the movie as upholding negative stereotypes of men being weak buffoons. The men are the one’s making the jokes and flipping their kilts to moon one another. But I wonder what’s so wrong with a bit of humor? After all, laughter is the best medicine. My husband uses humor to process new ideas and to deal with his discomfort with change. Humor is also a defense mechanism and a way of processing pain. Humor bypasses our logical and analytical faculties, sneaks around our fears and our pain, and allows truth to seep in through our emotions. King Fergus had experienced significant pain and fear in his encounter with Mor’du. Should we be surprised that his character is the one to provide the comic relief? I wonder if sometimes using humor is one of the bravest things we can do when faced with the uncomfortable and unmanageable realities of life?

I’m not sure I agree that the men are portrayed as weak. Are we calling King Fergus weak because Queen Elinor’s strength is in diplomacy? King Fergus was strong enough to survive a bear attack – is that not good enough? And the clan leaders are celebrated for their cooperative friendship that served to keep the peace for many years – is that not a strength worth noting? When I first started dating my husband he was a brand-new Christian. I was asked by one of my pastors if he would be able to be a strong spiritual leader. My husband is a very strong man in many ways – and spiritual too! But, his strength and spirituality are expressed differently than patriarchal Christian gender norms prescribe. Does that make him any less of a spiritual leader? His strength is in his serving and giving and providing, as well as his dry sense of humor, not in teaching or leading or diplomacy. He sacrifices so much for our family, and I can guarantee you that if a bear attacked, he’d give his right leg to defend us. If we want to make room for strong women leaders in society, perhaps we need to make room for weak men – or at least for men to be strong in a variety of ways that don’t always conform to church or cultural gender norms. We don’t all need to be strong or be the leader in the same ways at the same times.

King Fergus was known for his physical strength – he is the Bear King, but it isn’t his physical strength that saves that day. After all, one of the morals of this fairytale has to do with the legend of Mor’Du and how his desire for power through physical strength is his undoing and leads to war in the kingdom. While Elinor and Merida need healing in their relationship, Fergus and the Prince trapped in the bear body of Mor’Du (which means death) need healing and deliverance as well. Fergus is bent on revenge and the Prince is trapped in a living death by his prideful choice of seeking power over others. Death and revenge are not good places to dwell in life. Just as Merida and Elinor are blind to their own versions of pride, Fergus and the Prince are blinded by their pride as well. And what is the remedy? The power of a mother bear’s love.

Merida and Elinor

Merida and Elinor

Some argue that Brave is simply a mother-daughter tale and may not have lasting appeal among the boys and men in our society. I hope they are wrong. While the conflict between Merida and her mother certainly feature prominently in the story line, there is enough adventure and complexity in Brave to inspire us all and expand our imaginations. We need more good stories to help expand our imagination. We are living in a highly anxious society that is, like some of the characters in Brave, fearful of the worst case scenarios for our future. We live in a world where many of our personal decisions, societal laws and religious activities are borne out of fear. When all we can imagine is the worst case scenario, we stop imagining and start escaping.

The Power of Memory

Remembering our past rightly is a difficult task and Brave shows us the complexity of this task. Merida’s parents only tell her part of the story – and these memories and stories are uses to control and protect, and define their existence in so many ways. Miroslav Volf in The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World notes, “By distorting our memories of wrongs committed or suffered, we insulate ourselves from unpleasant truths about ourselves.” As Merida follows the Will-O-Wisps into the beautiful and dangerous mystical forest, the truth is revealed about her cultural history and the true identity of Mor’du. Her father’s memories of the wrongs done to him by Mor’du shape his identity, defining himself as The Bear King. But equally so, his identity is chained to the injuries he suffered and shapes the way he reacts to others – including his wife-turned-mamabear! Remembering rightly is a critical feature of healing for broken relationships. We must learn to live with the past without it’s wounds being kept open by the blade of memory. We must find ways to be reconciled to our past so we will not be chained to the pain and blinded into reacting without thinking.

Mor’Du from Disney Pixar’s Brave

The frightening deliverance scene in the majestic forest, while scary and intense, is magical in so many ways. But, some Christians criticize the use of magic in fairytales and fear that exposing our children to make-believe magicians will lead them to rebellion. After all, “rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.” (1 Sam. 15:23) But don’t we all want the easy way out sometimes? We want someone else to do the work for us, we want to find a system of belief (magic, religion, politics) to set things right for us. We want the power to be great leaders or the power to change our fate – but we look for that power in the wrong places. That’s not how God created the world to work. God created us for relationship and it’s in the context of healing broken relationships on the individual level and the societal level that we will set things right and find healing for the world. God invites us to be cooperative friends in this healing process. While I do believe witchcraft in general is not good, even God uses our turning to witches for good purposes – to show us where our faith has gone awry, to turn us to depend on the one power that is strong enough to overcome all evil – the power of love. And God is love.

The Power of Love

King Fergus and Queen Elinor give us an imagination for a cooperative relationship of love where gender roles don’t have to be strictly adhered to. When love overcomes our fears, we can find a way to live together in peace and imagine new ways to live lives of creative goodness for the sake of others. We identify with the characters in fairytales when they reflect our reality – even the reality that sometimes men are buffoons. But they also call us into a new reality and expand our imagination for new ways of thinking and being.

In the end we see Merida is just like her mother in many ways, but she is also just like her father. She turns out to be quite the skillful diplomat as well as a fierce warrior. I wonder, will movies like Brave help us make room for more generous expressions of what it means to be male and female? Can we be OK with “weak” men? Can we give up our traditions and our desires for power and revenge and begin to imagine new ways to change the world for the better?

Some are concerned about the scary bears and rightfully so. Parents of young children should be cautious about taking them to see this movie. Parents are the best judge of when their own children can handle the intense themes and imagery of Brave. We love the bears in Brave and I wouldn’t change a thing about how they are portrayed in the movie and the part they play in the story. After all, isn’t there a scary bear living inside of each of us?

Brave helps me want to face the beastly bear that lives inside of me, to recognize any harm I’ve done to my girls when I’ve forgotten who I am and given in to my less-than-human nature. Brave inspires me to work with my family to repair the brokenness in our relationships, to seek healing from our wounds from our families of origin, and be better human beings.  Brave encourages me to give my girls a voice and an imagination for new ways of cooperation in the Kingdom and new ways of loving.

Thank you, Disney Pixar, you make me wanna be Brave.

You don’t have to know how to wield a sword or shoot a bow and arrow to be Brave. Sometimes the bravest thing we can do is lay down our pride and mend our broken relationships.


In honor of two brave friends who tell stories well and help expand our imagination about what it means to be cooperative friends of Jesus, I’m giving away two more books this week to six people who sign up to receive monthly updates. I will select six winners who have signed up to receive monthly updates and contact them via email to make their book selection. I will also be posting book reviews of these books. If you are selected as a winner and want to submit your own book review, I will post your book review here as well. Here are the choices:

Unladylike: Resisting the Injustice of  Inequality in the Church by Pam Hogeweide Unladylike: Resisting the Injustice of Inequality in the Church by Pam Hogeweide

Adventures in Churchland: Finding Jesus in the Mess of Organized Religion by Dan Kimball Adventures in Churchland: Finding Jesus in the Mess of Organized Religionby Dan Kimball

July 1, 2012 at 8:56 am 8 comments

Are Ladyboys Gay? + #freebookgiveaway

Her white hair stood out in the sea of gray-haired dirty old men. I know, I’m stereotyping – not all the men in Pattaya were dirty and old. Some were dirty and young. Some were middle-aged and mostly clean looking – though who knows what was going on in their heads. It’s hard not to stereotype when you are people watching. I did plenty of people watching on Walking Street in Pattaya, along with my friend Carol and her white hair.

Carol is a very well-put-together woman with many grandchildren. She works and travels with Prisoners for Christ and has seen her share of the darker side of life. This was her first time seeing up close and personal the profession she’s only heard about from inside a jail. She was shocked. If her hair hadn’t already been white, I wonder if it would have turned white after our first night on Walking Street. She didn’t want to go back.

The things we saw in Pattaya are more than I could describe in a simple blog post, especially on Walking Street (the infamous and elaborate Red Light District in Pattaya). But, I will try to give you a few snapshots of some of the things we experienced.

The Men

  • Dirty Old Men: Yes, there were many gray-haired older men. I’m sure some of them were sweet old men just looking for companionship. But I’m also sure there was a fair share of dirty old men who’ve been coming to Pattaya year after year for a good time.
  • Dorks: Another demographic was the awkward middle-aged man. There was just something about him that indicated his lack of social prowess – maybe it was the large-rimmed glasses, the pants belted a little too high, or the stuttering and stammering. They usually traveled alone.
  • Wolves: They travel in packs and the packs come in various shapes and sizes. The bachelor party pack, the business junket pack, the Middle-Eastern macho-man pack. I’ve heard these “packs” often share – 1 or 2 females hired for the whole group.
  • Neophyte: These were the really young ones. Some didn’t even look old enough to drink legally. There were a few father-son teams – probably on “coming of age” trips.
  • Tomcats: Sometimes solo, sometimes with a friend, these guys were aggressive and often tattooed and flat-topped. They had muscle, and you could tell they weren’t afraid to use it.
  • Pimps: The dealers standing in the middle of the road hawking the wares, showing off lists of “menu items” for the Go Go and other places that were a few steps off the beaten path. The were undiscriminating, shoving the list in everyone’s face including mine.

The focus of our trip was not on the men – though we couldn’t really avoid them. Case in point: on our last day on Walking Street, a large and very drunk man tried to buy one of the ladies on our team. At first he wouldn’t take no for an answer, but after two of us rushed to shoo him away he finally gave up.

The Women

The women on Walking Street were an entirely different story. I was surprised by how many tourists of all shapes and sizes filled Walking Street. We even saw some family groups with young children strolling along! While the streets were filled with all sorts of people, the bar stools were usually occupied by men, with occasional women scattered here and there. We were some of those scattered women. And as I noted in last week’s post – we weren’t there for the sex.

We visited quite a few bars and encountered many very lovely women – or at least they all appeared to be women. But not all of them were born female – an those were the people who interested Carol the most – the ladyboys. We learned about them early in our trip and were taught how to pick them out in a crowd. I didn’t list them under the category of men, because, well, they are ladyboys and they are a common sight not only on Walking Street but in the stores in the malls, the restaurants on the streets, the hotel staff and other shops and businesses in Pattaya, Thailand. I’ve heard that many aspire to the most famous job a ladyboy could get – dancing at Tiffany’s and competing in the Miss Tiffany’s Universe Beauty Pageant.

Ladyboys are are born male, but most internally identify with the female gender. Some undergo hormone treatment starting at a young age – before they transition into manhood. They often opt for cosmetic surgery and many aspire to and obtain gender reassignment surgery. Ladyboys are becoming more accepted in Thai culture and are often called kathoey. According to The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality on Thailand, “Thai people mainly see the kathoey as either the ‘third gender,’ or a combination of the male and female genders.” But many ladyboys, especially those who have undergone complete gender reassignment surgery, consider themselves female. Even some who have yet to complete the gender reassignment see themselves as female and most refer to each other using feminine terms.

We visited Tiffany’s one night just after the show was letting out and were able to see some of the most popular ladyboys in town. The cabaret performers pose for pictures (and tips) with the patrons after the show. Many of the patrons are farang (foreigners) and are willing to pay a pretty penny to have their picture taken with these rare beauties. One of our new ladyboy friends came with us and was thrilled to have her photo taken with her role models. We tipped well. I was most interested in the shoes. My second daughter has been known to buy what my husband calls “Herman Munster” shoes. They are all the rage here in Thailand, especially with the ladyboys. I don’t quite understand why, since many of them are already six feet tall or taller!

The thing that surprised me the most about many of the ladyboys we met and those we saw in the pictures of Miss Tiffany’s Universe Pageant was how beautiful they are. I mean, seriously beautiful. I’ve met my share of transvestites when I lived in NY and these ladyboys were nothing like them. I think one of the biggest reasons for the differences is that many of the transvestites I met in the past had transitioned to manhood and then decided to cross-dress. I think I’ve only met one transgender woman in my life (before going to Pattaya) and she had transitioned after becoming an adult male. Perhaps one of the reasons the ladyboys are so successful at looking like females is that they transition while they are still boys. I imagine some of them transition later, and some transition in varying degrees. Our friend told us that by age 12 she knew she wanted to be a ladyboy and that by age 15 she started hormone treatments. She is a lovely person. She doesn’t consider herself gay – she considers herself a woman who likes men.

It’s amazing to see what medical science and a bit of creative make-up can do to transition a human born as a male to become a female in so many ways. This brings into question my beliefs about what it means to be male and female. I’ve already been wrestling with many questions about gender identity and how it is tied to our biological sex. This experience just adds a whole new layer of complexity. What if we could change our sex easily – would we and should we? What does it mean to be male or female – is it purely based on whether we have XX or XY chromosomes? What part do we play in determining our sexual identity? What role does society play? What role does science play? This leads me to a whole new set of questions about genetic engineering and intersexual conditions. If we could decide the sex of a baby before they were born, would we/should we? What do we do with the people who are born with intersex conditions (possibly 2%) – who decides what gender they should be? Should we wait until just before puberty to involve them in the decision? What about all the people who are born one sex but identify with the opposite sex’s gender identity? Are some people actually born gay? What is the role of gender identity in our understanding of what it means to be human and reflect the image of God? When we get our new bodies, those eternal bodies (1 Cor. 15:35-58), in the coming kingdom – will we be sexed? If we live forever in the coming kingdom, will there be any more need for sexual intercourse and reproduction?

I know, you’re probably not wondering about those things. But just in case you are, I’m inviting you to read some books with me this summer. And I’m giving away three copies of each to a few who are interested. Just sign up to receive monthly updates and I will select six winners to receive their book of choice. Here are the choices:

Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community by Andrew Marin Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Communityby Andrew Marin

The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are by Jenell Williams Paris The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Areby Jenell Williams Paris

Next Friday I will select six winners who have signed up to receive monthly updates and contact them via email to make their book selection. I will also be posting book reviews of the books. If you are selected as a winner and want to submit your own book review, I will post your book review here as well. Thank you for choosing to read my musings about sex and sexuality. It’s much more fun to think about these things with others.

June 23, 2012 at 4:29 pm 8 comments

I Hired a Prostitute, but We Didn’t Have Sex

(Note: This story is a composite of experiences during my trip to Pattaya )

We sat down at the bar to order a drink. She served us with a beautiful smile, but she wasn’t working there just to serve drinks. The bars in Pattaya are more of a front for the sex trade than the kind of bars I’ve visited at home. We spent some time getting to know her, asking about her family, sharing pictures – and even taking pictures together. We shared some laughs as she taught us some simple Thai phrases. We asked about her hopes and dreams – it was clear her work at the bar is a temporary situation. We asked if she likes the work – she knew we weren’t talking about serving drinks. She shrugged and explained that she has a “happy heart” and that she is able to “live there” even though she doesn’t like the work of selling her body to foreign men. She mentioned she has some nice “friends” who visit her – this is code for regular customer. We bought her a drink and chatted a bit longer then left for the evening with the promise to visit again before we leave town.

Workers on Walking StreetWe returned to the bar a couple nights later and brought our Thai friends. We invited her to join us for dinner so we could tell her about the options Global Breakthrough has to offer her to help her leave the sex trade industry. Over dinner we talked about her hopes and dreams some more. She wants to return to her home in the north to be with her mother and daughter. She hopes to be a teacher someday. But, with little education herself, it’s difficult for her to find much work that offers a livable wage. The money she earns at the bars in Pattaya are her best hope in response to the poverty at home. She’s not ready to leave the bars – she can’t imagine finding work that would actually provide for her personal needs and the needs of her family. Her wages help pay for her daughter’s education. She doesn’t want her daughter to end up in a bar in Pattaya. She chooses to work in the bars – but does she really have a choice?

Many would call her a prostitute , a sex worker, a whore. But she has a name. The name she gave me at the bar may not even be her real name. I invited her to dinner with our team and some other girls we met at bars. We paid her rate to buy her time – a customer usually pays around $10 to have sex with a bar girl. But, we didn’t have sex. Instead, we tried the best we could to show her love and affection that communicated to her that she is valuable and of much worth. Many of these girls come to the bars looking for love – hoping to meet a foreign man who will love them and marry them and deliver them from their poverty. They are looking for love in the wrong place – and very few actually find it there.

Many of the men who come to Pattaya have read one of the guides written for those vacationing in Pattaya who are there for the sex trade on how to take advantage of a Thai “Girlfriend.” These guides coach foreign men on the lies to tell their Thai “Girlfriend” in order to string them along so their vacation is the most enjoyable for them – and leave open the possibility for using them again when they return on a future vacation or business trip.   Some men are not looking for a Thai “Girlfriend” – they are just out to buy sex. We met a group of men from Afghanistan. There were about 8 of them. They hired two Thai ladies to share amongst themselves. Others want a different girl every night. Some are interested in lady-boys (more on this in a future post). We observed many “couples” during our week here, and one thing we all noticed was the lack of conversation. Many Thai sex workers speak very little if any foreign languages. Some speak a little English. We brought Thai translators with us to the bars and to our dinner dates with our new friends so we could have meaningful conversation. When I first told my oldest daughter about the birds and the bees, I told her she could ask me any question she wanted. After a few awkward moments of silence, she asked, “Do you and dad talk while having sex?” Somehow she intuitively knew there had to be a relational component of sex. It’s hard to imagine sex separated from even the most basic relational component – simple conversation.

How did sex become such a commodity? When did we separate sex from intimate relationship? Some argue that prostitution is the oldest profession, and they may be right. We might look to culture and world view issues to explain why Pattaya, Thailand has become the sex-trade capitol of the world, but sex trade is not exclusive to Thailand. Most every culture has some iteration of this brokenness.  Why has God allowed such brokenness and objectification of humanity to continue and evolve into the reckless buying and selling of sex as a vacation hot spot? Is patriarchy and the devaluing of women and girls to blame for this epidemic? Is it a version of religion that says women cannot be ordained or you must be a man to reach Nirvana, and so women learn to devalue themselves as unrighteous, unholy and unworthy slaves? Whatever the root cause, the sex trade mars our humanity and names women as reusable commodities to be bought and sold in the market for the sake of sexual pleasure. The image of God is broken in both men and women who participate in the sex trade. Not only are individual humans degraded in the sex trade, but as humans created in the image of God, the name of God is also degraded.

In Amos 2:6-7 we read:

Amos 2:6-7 CEB

The LORD proclaims:
For three crimes of Israel,
and for four,
I won’t hold back the punishment,
because they have sold the innocent
for silver,
and those in need
for a pair of sandals.
They crush the head of the poor
into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted
out of the way.
Father and son have intercourse
with the same young woman,
degrading my holy name.

Sex for hire degrades the image of God in humans. The name of God is degraded when we buy and sell the poor and the oppressed, and when multiple men have intercourse with the same woman.  The One True God, the only Righteous Judge, declares these things crimes. We cry out, “God, what are you going to do about these crimes?!”

Perhaps a better question is, “What am I doing about these crimes?!” God invites us to be cooperative friends of Jesus, living lives of creative goodness in the power of the Holy Spirit for the sake of others. I’ve just returned home from a week in Pattaya, Thailand where I saw things I wish I’d never seen. Where I learned of the broken dreams of many women who out of their poverty have been taken advantage of. While many of the sex workers have good motives – they are working to support their families – it is a shame on humanity that it would be more profitable for a woman to sell her body for the selfish desires of others than to work in a factory.

What am I doing about it? My commitment to stop sex trafficking has only just begun. I have only seen a glimpse of the global problem. I will continue to support organizations like Global Breakthrough. I will go back to Pattaya. I hope you will join me in this great cause. So now I ask, what are you going to do about it?


June 11, 2012 at 1:33 pm 14 comments

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