A testimony

Plants in late March
New life. One of my front yard sedums in early spring.

By the time I graduated from college, I was ready to quit being a Christian.

A young lifetime spent in the grasp of the American evangelical movement had worn me down. For so many years, I had been so faithful; I had been the Good Christian Girl. I played guitar in the youth group praise band. I led small groups. I memorized entire books of scripture. I once gave a speech (hard to call it a sermon) to our congregation on Proverbs. I went to evangelical summer camps and proselytized on city streets. I had faithful daily “quiet times” and by the age of 18, I had read through the entire Bible three times. I thought I was solid, as far as my eternal salvation was concerned.

But by the time I got to college, I wasn’t so sure. While I stayed involved in a church and in InterVarsity throughout my tenure at UNC, my spiritual energies were flagging. My soul was exhausted. I was thankful for my Christian community in college, and I made close, life-giving friendships through IV, but that network just fueled the fire of my attempts to be the summa cum laude Christian. Even though I tried, I was never up to snuff. I didn’t care enough about social justice. I didn’t volunteer on the weekends. I gossiped and lied and spent so much time pretending to be good. I couldn’t keep up this façade anymore, of being the Good Christian Girl. Because deep down, I knew I wasn’t.

When I got married, a few weeks after graduation, I started to quietly and silently think about throwing it all away. If Christianity meant being your Best Possible Self all the time, I wasn’t cut out for it. The barriers and judgments that came along with this brand of Christianity, especially the indictments against gay people and women, had also weighed heavily on my heart for many years. I was ready to be done with it all.

And then we found Christ Episcopal Church.

cvilleimages.com
An old postcard of Christ Church. Source: Cvilleimages.com.

My husband is a lifelong Episcopalian, so once we moved to town, he suggested that we try it out. We didn’t know a single person in Charlottesville, and so, why not? I went with bated breath and a hefty dose of apprehension. I had always been skeptical of the denomination, as a true and fiery evangelical Protestant. Isn’t it just a bunch of musty old liberals exchanging Hallmark card pleasantries? Plus, didn’t it smack of Catholicism lite? And what, they can’t make up their own prayers? They have to read them out of a book? What’s the big deal about communion anyway? The church I grew up on only gave us grape juice and crackers once a month, on a Wednesday night, for completely mysterious and unexplained reasons.

We started going to the 5 o’clock service, and over time, my fears dissipated. The clergy were instantly so friendly to us, and within a week, they had already learned our names (a notable accomplishment, when one of the names is “Guion”) and greeted us warmly. We started to make friends. We stalked the music minister at Kroger and looked like homeless puppies so that he’d have to hang out with us, out of his reservoir of pity and kindness.

On a community level, it was an immediately warm and comfortable place. But on a spiritual level, Christ Church dragged me back into belief.

Importantly, being there was the first time, in my entire Christian life, that I’d heard anyone talk about grace.

Yeah, the word was bandied about a lot in the churches of my youth. The word “grace” seemed to hold significant semantic currency, but it was never explained, and it certainly wasn’t practiced. Every pastor I grew up with would tell you that, of course, they believed in grace, in the gospel, in the forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but when it came down to it, it was up to you to get yourself right with God, to prove to God and everyone else that you were the Good Christian Girl. And then, only then, you could be acceptable. Then you could be loved.

The church I attended in college sprung out of a particularly aggressive, masculine brand of reformed Christianity, and today I feel ashamed to say I went there and that I loved it. Or I thought I did. It spoke to my deep need to feel in control of my salvation, to show everyone what a top-notch Christian I was. Jesus was at the center of every sermon, but he was a militant, performance-based Jesus. A CrossFit trainer Jesus who wanted to whip you into shape so that God could love you more. The congregation was filled every week with young hipster Christians, feverishly taking notes in their Moleskines to find out how they could make themselves lovable and forgiven.

This was not the message I heard at Christ Church. All I heard, week in and week out, was: God loves you exactly as you are, which is a pretty busted state. You are not going to make yourself better by your own effort or merit. Jesus wiped your slate clean. He died once, for everyone. Everyone. Come to Jesus. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. Hear this comfortable word from our Savior. This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

I was flabbergasted. This was Christianity? The same religion I was raised in? This endlessly forgiving collection of broken people? I was shocked by the message, delivered in utter absence of judgment, that I was royally messed up and that I had to stop pretending I wasn’t. Indeed, this grace was offensive. What about all of those prayer groups I led? What about the time when I memorized the entire book of Ephesians and recited it weekly? What about that? Was that for NOTHING? I wanted some credit. I wanted Jesus to pat me on the back and say, Great job, kid, I love you more than most people because you’re better than most people.

Being at Christ Church, I learned, quickly, that it was foolish to expect such a word from the Lord and Savior. Rather, the message was: Abby, you’re really screwed up. But you are welcome and loved just the same.

As it turns out, that was all I ever really needed to hear.

Mental potpourri

Starting to look like a jungle
This is the magnificent, prehistoric-looking birds’ nest fern from Windy!

Guion had me take this StrengthsFinder survey, and let me tell you, the results of this little online questionnaire resembled a talented fortune teller. So accurate! So specific! One of the statements said, “You probably learned to read at a very young age.” Yep. How did you know that?? Or: “You love to collect information and read books and websites that most people would probably find boring.” Uh-huh. Or: “Your ability to accomplish goals you set for yourself each day affects how you feel about your success as a human being.” Most definitely. Or: “You need to tone down the violence of your opinions about abusive dog breeding practices.” OK. Not the last one. But I wouldn’t have been surprised.

Things we’ve planted in the yard that we hope will live: forsythia, three blackberry bushes, three blueberry bushes, two apple trees, one (producing) cherry tree, two ilex hollies. Things to plant still: more hollies, rosemary, sedum, columbine, lavender, black-eyed susans, coreopsis, and later, irises and daffodils.

The horde of boy children next door have been very effective additional birth control.

I’m reading Hillary Rodham Clinton’s autobiography (Living History) right now, and I want to say, (1) I will always love Hillary, forever and always, and (2) Why are politicians such a pain to read? I feel like they’re always trying to sell me something about truth, justice, and the American way, and hence, I never believe anything that comes out of their mouths. Even when it’s the majestic Hillz.

This weekend, I am attending a seminar/conference on the church and homosexuality. I am expecting to hate it, but I am trying to go into it with an open, peaceful, nonaggressive mind. The seminar is not at my church, so I am a bit less emotionally invested in their conclusions, but as my mother recently said, every church, sooner or later, is going to have to take a stand on the issue. I just hope and pray that, when the time comes, our church takes a stand on the right side of history.

Semi-related: I am often troubled by the fact that the modern church is rarely an institution of social progress. Sometimes we are. More likely than not, however, we take the backward view. This is odd to me, because Jesus was such a progressive, radical dude. This is not to say that churches are not involved in social issues; of course they are. I suppose the deeper question is whether the church should be a progressive institution. Or is the church intentionally slow to change?

Would that we were all more like Jane Goodall.

On being a feminist and a Christian

Hiking at ShenandoahIn the community I grew up in, the phrase “Christian feminist” would have been perceived as a laughable oxymoron. Surely, one could not be both a Christian and a feminist! This is what my childhood community believed and taught. For all of its benefits, the evangelical homeschool community has never been a champion for women. Thankfully, my parents were thinking humans. They never forced us to conform to our culture’s limiting and backward perspectives of women, which advocated that girls stay home and learn to sew and practice “godly homemaking,” in preparation for the strapping husband who would show up at their doorsteps to court them in a pre-arranged agreement between their respective fathers. We knew some families who wouldn’t let their girls learn how to drive or go to college. This is not a joke. These extremely patriarchal notions were taught, believed, and perpetuated. I am always grateful, however, that these beliefs were not taught, believed, or perpetuated by my parents. My sister, for heaven’s sakes, became a nationally acclaimed hockey player. If that’s not a slap in the face to the conservative picture of meek, dainty girlhood, I don’t know what is.

As I grew up, I learned to laugh about the misogynistic ways of the community I was raised in. All of the tight-fisted and closed-minded reasons I had for clinging to conservative gender philosophies began to fall away. My university education was eye-opening, as it was for all of us to varying degrees. In particular, I began to respect women as artists and academics in a way that I had not before. My primary school and high school education, while broad, was traditional and credible information always came down from the infallible hands of a white man. The university introduced a new way of thinking and a new way of perceiving women as leaders, teachers, and creators. UNC-Chapel Hill, unlike other universities of its size and prestige, does not give preference to applicants based on gender; so, UNC’s class profile is nearly 60 percent female. I had no shortage of intelligent, capable, ambitious young women to surround myself with. As you know by now, I also fell in love with Virginia Woolf and her beautiful and compelling words in her essays, novels, and letters were particularly formative for me.

But as all of my old beliefs about women were chipped away, what continued to bother me was how those patriarchal ideas about men and women weren’t entirely gone from my life. Vestiges of these patriarchal politics cropped up in the Christian groups and churches all around me. Yes, they weren’t as blatant as what I knew as a homeschooler, but the church at large wasn’t very progressive toward women. The general message I received from church was that I, as a woman, was expected to serve on the cupcake committee but not contribute to church leadership, which was a boys-only club; I was expected to be a stay-at-home mother and if I wasn’t, I was failing God, America, and my children; I needed men to teach me anything worth knowing.

This struck me as odd. It still does, I guess. Jesus was all about justice and fairness for women. Things get murky with Paul and other writers, but if we’re just talking about what Jesus did and said, his approach toward women was extremely radical and loving. Women were not second-class humans to Jesus, although they were to the rest of his entire civilization. Jesus would not have asked the ladies he knew to bake cupcakes while the men did important stuff. No! Some of the very first churches were started by women in women’s homes (at least in the beginning, until they were edged out of any positions of leadership). From what we know of Jesus in the Gospels, women deserved the same respect, attention, and education that men did. While the world at large still doesn’t believe this (yes, even us “modern” Americans, where women are STILL paid 77 cents for every male dollar for the same jobs), shouldn’t the Church at least believe this?

Yet. It’s not polite to self-identify as a feminist among Christians. This was something I learned early on. Eyebrows shoot up. Women whisper that you shouldn’t say that; don’t you want to get married? Men back away. Suddenly, you’re not a thinking human, you’re a MAN HATER! A destroyer of FAMILY VALUES! A lot of Christian men I know are afraid of feminist women. In their defense, they may have met some unfortunately vociferous and self-righteous feminists who made them feel evil just for being male. That’s wrong. But this, however, is not the majority of feminists. The majority of feminists I know love men and want men to do well and prosper. But they also want women to do well and prosper. That’s all. When I say I’m a feminist, all I mean is that women should be treated like Jesus treated them. In love, fairness, justice, and equality under the law. The majority of women around the world today are not treated with fairness and justice. This is why I call myself a Christian feminist.

Feminist friends find it hard to believe that I’m a Christian. It goes both ways; they also see the terms as exclusive. I remember the disapproving and surprised looks from my Harvard-educated lesbian thesis adviser when she found out that not only was I a Christian, but I was also getting married at the age of 22. “I know how this looks,” I always wanted to tell her. “I’m writing a thesis about the subjugation of married woman in a patriarchal society, and here I am getting married straight out of college! I know it sounds like I have no self-awareness! Maybe I don’t. But I think these values of feminism and Christianity can live together peaceably.”

They can, after all. If Jesus wasn’t a feminist, I don’t know who is.

Second-class children: Women in church leadership

"Mary Magdalene," El Greco

I am not a theology blogger, so go easy on me here. This is just something I’ve been thinking about for a long, long time.

I grew up in the company of strong, intelligent Christian women, my mother especially. It is fair to say that most of what I know about God has come from women. Yes, our pastors were always male, and from them I learned the tenets of theology, but I really learned about Jesus–his ministry, grace, and compassion from women, whether from doing morning devotions with my mother, from watching the many women quietly and tirelessly serve our church, or from small groups with other women in high school and college.

When I was old enough, I marveled at the injunctions in the Bible that said women were not permitted to teach or hold any authority over a man. How could that be? All of my best teachers in my faith had been women. This seems appropriate. I was, after all, a girl. But it seemed strange to me, even then. Women can teach other women, but women can never be permitted to teach men in the church. This is odd. No Christian I know is upset by the fact that 76 percent of public school teachers are women. Women can and do preside over men in the workplace (finally). The famously misogynistic Liberty University has Michele Bachmann, candidate for the U.S. presidency, give their convocation speech, and yet they won’t permit women to graduate from their university with degrees in biblical teaching. (Liberty, therefore, seems fine with the idea of Bachmann running the entire country, but she can’t give a sermon at a church. What superb logic.)

So, what gives, 21st-century church? At long last, women can teach and “hold authority over” men in every other segment of society, but as soon as they step inside a church, they become subjugated again, not fit to teach a man anything. We are told that we are all children of God, but as a woman, I often feel like the second-class child of God.

Scripture does plainly say that women should not be permitted to teach over men. I know it does. But it also says that women have to wear veils in church, because they’re a symbol of a woman’s subjugation to her husband. Scripture also says that women aren’t allowed to pray, speak, or even ask questions in church. Mercifully, most churches today do not force women to wear veils or keep silent. These Pauline rules are now interpreted as culturally specific mandates. So, yay, we don’t have to follow them anymore, because we’re living in a supposedly post-patriarchal age!

My question is: Why aren’t we interpreting the passages about women in church leadership as culturally specific mandates? These anti-women-teaching rules for churches were handed down by a man in an undeniably patriarchal society–at the same time as these other rules on veils and speaking. But the vast majority of churches are still keeping women from any teaching or significant leadership roles today.

I’ve really appreciated the perspective of Guion’s aunt on this topic. Dr. Jane Tillman is a well-respected clinical psychologist in Massachusetts, but she is also ordained in the Episcopal church. We’ve exchanged a few e-mails on this topic and I’ve deeply appreciated her perspective, as a woman, believer, and seminary graduate. I did a lot of research on this subject but had such a struggle finding a woman’s input. All of the opinions I read were written by men who were in favor of keeping women out of teaching roles in the church. Until I heard from Aunt Jane. After providing a thorough historical perspective on this issue, she wrote this to me:

The role of an ordained person is 1) to teach; 2) to provide pastoral leadership, 3) to exercise sacramental authority.  I don’t see that women, by virtue of being women, are to be excluded from any of these practices.  Of course there is SOME scripture and certainly the weight of tradition arguing against this, but if the Kingdom of God on earth means that we are growing, dynamic, people then change over time is part of the plan.

Preach it, Aunt Jane! I can’t say it any better than she can, but my last word is this: If Jesus should be our model for how we treat people, I think we’re a far cry from what he practiced. Jesus was radical in his approach to women. He welcomed them into his community and named many of them as his disciples. He reached out to them; he sought their company. Women are recorded as starting and hosting some of the first churches in their homes. Then patriarchy crept in and kept women out. I think it’s time for the modern church to reverse its antiquated and discriminatory policies against women. I can’t help but think Jesus would have pushed the religious institutions of his day to do the same.

Hot-button issues

I love finding people who keep their Issues and Causes very close to themselves; the people who start long, passionate conversations if you are fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to mention a word that triggers them. You said the word “corn” and all of the sudden you’re locked in an hour-long conversation about the evil machinations of the FDA and big agribusiness. I like finding these people because they make me feel a bit less alone. They remind me that maybe I’m not the only person who has to rein herself in (often unsuccessfully) during conversations.

I probably care too much about things that I don’t know that much about. I was realizing this today. I am too quick to express my quickly formed opinions.

And so I write this list to caution you. These are the things that could trigger a brutally long and vehement conversation with me. You have been warned.

  • Any permutation on the topic of dogs. (Dog breeds, training, health, adoption, behavior, psychology, etc.)
  • Why Ayn Rand isn’t worth a second of anyone’s time.
  • Law school.
  • Homeschooling.
  • Mega-churches fixated on growth.
  • Reproductive rights.
  • Why paper and ink books still matter.
  • Christians judging other Christians for being on birth control.
  • Sororities and fraternities.
  • What I’ve been reading lately.
  • Anti-women policies and practices of conservatives.
  • Childhood obesity.
  • Dolphins.
  • Underpaid teachers.

Anyone else? Do you have “hot-button issues” that invariably embroil you in desperate, heated discussions–almost against your will? I hope I’m not the only one…

Things I should know

I’ve been thinking about gaps in my education lately. These are some things I should know more about:

  • The war in Afghanistan.
  • Science.
  • Financial markets and the principles of basic investing.
  • Japanese grammar.
  • The human body.
  • China.
  • Church history.
  • Divisions and functions of the branches of the U.S. military.
  • How to make things grow.
  • Russian history.
  • Fertility.
  • Cholesterol.
  • The Federal Reserve.
  • How to fix a spare tire.
  • Insurance policies.
  • How to read music.
  • Global warming.
  • Michele Bachmann.
  • Interest rates.
  • Calculus (and by “know more about” I mean “learn anything about”).
  • Currency exchange rates.
  • How to drive a manual transmission.
  • The Supreme Court.
  • Canadian provinces.
  • Latin and Greek roots.
  • The difference between Central and Latin America.

The reason why I don’t know more about these things is because, I suppose, I don’t find them fundamentally interesting. Even though I feel like I should. Do you know about these things? If so, enlighten me. I want to know.

Monday Snax

All filled up
NC State University graduation at the RBC Center in Raleigh.
We love him!
We love Win! So proud of the graduate.

As you can see, we had a very happy and Wolf Pack-y weekend in Raleigh celebrating Win’s graduation. We love hanging out with Win and with the Tillman-Pratt family and we got plenty of time to do that this weekend. Win’s the best bro-in-law ever and I’m excited to find out what he’ll be accomplishing next year! More photos on Flickr.

Snax with sweet tea and North Carolina-style barbecue:

People of Pharping. I can’t believe my little sister has been hanging out with these people; these photographs look straight out of Nat Geo to me. (Grace Farson)

Welcome to Pyongyang. To the great surprise of many, photographer Charlie Crane was granted unique access to the capital city of North Korea. His photographs of Pyongyang are chilling; the place looks just as cold and artificial as you would expect, and yet the faces of the North Korean people he captures are haunting. They appear so starkly alive in this superficial atmosphere. Highly recommended. (Behance)

Spring: Strawberry-Picking Season. It looks like all of the gorgeous young moms and their babies from our church went strawberry picking last week. The photos, and the babes, are delicious! (Cramer Photo)

Let’s Live Here. I mean, duh. Lush French chateaus for everyone! (Miss Moss)

Les Flaneurs. This looks like such a charming place to live. (My Funny Eye)

A Pool with a House. I’m not much for houses with backyard pools, but I could definitely make an exception here. (Wide Open Spaces)

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson. This is one of my favorite blogs. Designer Matt Dorfman shows the different book and magazine covers he creates for his clients. So fascinating, especially to see the final design that’s chosen and why. I think this cover is genius. (Matt Dorfman)

Sketchbook Series: Mattias Adolfsson. If I could draw, I’d fill up notebooks like this, too. Beautiful and fascinating! (Book By Its Cover)

Tea Leaves Ready for Harvesting Are Yellow-Green. Fun tea fact! This blog is great. Short little entries with great photographs from all around the world from a man who’s discovering the greatness of tea. (Discovering Tea)

Franklin and Gob’s Formal Portrait. Just because it’s awesome. (The Bluth Company)

The Mighty Fruit Bat. I’ve always wanted one for a pet. So fuzzy and so aerodynamic! I bet she would gently eat papaya from my open palm. Just like Stellaluna. (Folkloric)

In High Cotton. Speaking of fuzzy! Sheep are pretty cute from a distance. (Boulderneigh)

Dog Wants Statue to Play Fetch. OMG. So much laughter. Poor puppy just doesn’t understand! (Paw Nation)

What Your American Girl Doll Says about the Rest of Your Life. Hilarious. I had Kirsten and Kelsey had Felicity. I definitely judged girls who had Samantha; Samantha was the worst. How about you? How does your prediction match up? (The Hairpin)

Yellow

I am having a very yellow lunch today: banana, mango, and a yellow bell pepper. And I was going to have grilled pineapple, too, but I left it at home. Color! Yes, I could live purely off of fruit and vegetables (so long as dark chocolate counted as a vegetable).

Guion and I finished watching “The House of Flying Daggers” last night and it was exquisite. SO dramatic and beautiful. Ziyi Zhang has to be one of the most gorgeous women alive, too. I told Guion I generally hate films filled with fight scenes, but these fight scenes are more like dances than anything else.

I met a girl at our church on Sunday night (a fourth-year veterinary student in London) who is working this summer studying Joel Salatin’s chickens at Polyface Farm. I was, simply, jealous. I love what their website says: “We are in the redemption business.” Wendell Berry would love these people. Practicing resurrection all day long.