Thursday, June 13, 2013

Between God and Me and No One Else

A recent conversation with my husband, Ryan:

Me: "I have a hair appointment Thursday.  I'm going to have her cut my hair even shorter this time.  And dye it a little darker, too."
Ryan: "Okay."
Me: "It's kind of annoying having to go in for appointments more frequently to keep it shorter.  And always having to flat-iron it so it doesn't look weird.  I have honestly considered just shaving it off.  That would be way easier."
Ryan: "Haha.  Okay.  Your hair, your head."
Me: "Good answer, Babe."

And that is representative of how Ryan always responds in this type of conversation, not just regarding my hair.  My fitness level, my decision to have a permanent contraception procedure, my tattoos: I cannot think of anything having to do with my body – appearance or otherwise – that he has ever made me feel was anything other than my own decision.  And not out of indifference, either, but in a way that makes it clear that he will support whatever I decide.

It would simply never occur to my husband to think that I need his permission for any of these choices.  I'm only recently beginning to fully appreciate this about him.

When I was twelve, I wanted to start shaving my legs.  I tried to talk to my mom about it, but she told me I had to ask my dad.  My dad examined my shins (yes, really), said he didn't think they were that bad, so no shaving.  The discussion continued off-and-on for a few days, but he just didn't think it was necessary yet.  His mind was made up, the answer was no.

This is just one example of the many ways I was taught that choices about my body (or really any woman’s body) could not be made without the “wisdom” of a male authority.  In such teaching, the father is the intermediary until a girl is married, then her husband fills that role.  I still feel a twinge of humiliation about some of these things and still wrestle with the effects of being taught these (and other) distorted views about my body.  I know that my parents’ actions were a result of what they were taught in Evangelical/Homeschooling culture.  I know that they were not trying to humiliate me and they truly believed they were teaching me “Godly” principles.  I know I should be thankful that there are other areas where they did not adhere so strictly to the teachings from that culture. 

But still.

For years now, I have shaved my legs every single day.  Even during the cruel Midwestern winters when layers of warm clothing prevent so much as an ankle from peeking out.  Even when I was nine-months pregnant and unable to see my feet.  Even at times when Ryan and I are on completely opposite work schedules and don't see each other for days.  I shave my legs every single day for no other reason than I absolutely hate the way it feels not to have my legs shaved.  Read into that whatever else you will, but it’s my body and I’ll shave my legs if I want to.  I’ll also shave my head if I want to and get tattoos if I want to and never be pregnant again if I don’t want to.

I realize that will sound dangerously rebellious to some people; even as I wrote it, I could hear the teachings from my youth in the back of my mind trying to make me feel guilty for the boldness with which I am so publicly defying them.  But I've come to believe that much of what I was taught about bodies is a distortion of the truth.  Jesus was the Word made flesh, the mystery of the divine in physical, human form.  Why would God choose that if human bodies were something to be ashamed of?  Why would he give me a body if I couldn't even be trusted with the opportunity to make good choices with it?

I do not need to be ashamed of my body, nor do I need to look for the permission of some falsely-established human authority (father, husband, or otherwise) for the choices I make regarding it.  As long as I am not inflicting harm or dishonoring my commitments, no one else has a right to tell me what I should or should not do with the body God entrusted to me.

In fact, no one else has the right to make decisions for another person's body at all.  At my most basic, I am a person in a body – before I am a woman, a wife, or a mother.  A person’s body requires neither the approval nor the permission of another person. Maybe some of the choices I make (like my tattoos) are, at least in a way or in part, a physical symbol that I’m learning to embrace my body as a gift God gave to me and that I refuse to go back to a time when I was made to feel I couldn't be trusted to decide what is best for it.

And if I live more fully in my body with tattoos and shaved legs, that is between God and me and no one else.

"I do not recall ever being told that my flesh is good in church, 
or that God takes pleasure in it. 
Yet this is the central claim of the incarnation—
that God trusted flesh and blood to bring divine love to earth." - Barbara Brown Taylor

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Speaking the Same Language

I was homeschooled beginning in forth grade until my senior year, when I enrolled in the local public high school. I went to classes there in the morning and took courses at community college in the afternoon. During that one year in public high school, I shared a table in study hall with two exchange students, Andre' and Maria. I know what you’re thinking and yes, that does tell you everything you need to know about how well I fit in that year. Lucky for me, Maria and Andre' are fun, friendly, welcoming people and became some of my dearest friends that year.

Andre' was from Brazil and spoke Portuguese and Maria was from Spain and spoke Spanish.  I am not a linguist, so forgive me if I don’t explain this well, but apparently the more Cuban dialect of Spanish that Maria spoke was enough similar to the Portuguese Andre' spoke, that they could have conversations with each other in their own native languages and almost completely understand each other. They weren't speaking the same language, but their own knowledge of words and phrases, along with context and possibly some English thrown in from time to time, allowed them to communicate with each other more effectively that way than in English.  It was fascinating to observe their interactions when they did this.

Several weeks ago, while discussing my new church with a friend, he asked me why I feel it is so important to go to church when I can clearly maintain my faith without attending church (as I have been doing for almost a year), through reading and personal study. He then admitted that it has always surprised him that I identify as “Christian,” because I don’t put off a “Christian vibe.” 

Back in my youth group days, a comment like that (especially from a "non-Christian") would have sent me into some sort of existential crisis, but I knew exactly what he meant. He and I have always been able to communicate well and discuss various topics even though we have some fundamental differences on faith and politics and social issues.

Something about this reminded me of Maria and Andre'.

I realized that the most meaningful conversations I have about my faith tend to be with people who do not share it. I think the reason I connect so well with my non-faith friends when we talk belief is that these friends care about the process by which we arrive at our beliefs in the same way I do. We may not have arrived at the same conclusions or share the same faith, but we understand each other because my sick-soul, messy, uncertain faith-process quite similarly mirrors the journey that led them to choose not to believe. Parallel journeys with different conclusions, similar enough that we can understand each other even if we haven't arrived at the same place.

Different languages, but with dialects that allow for connection and understanding and community. It is beautiful, and I would argue, holy, even if they would not use that same word.

I know. None of that explains why I need church.

As much as I care about and need my Atheist/Agnostic/Other friends, I've come to see that I also need to be part of a community where I can discuss my faith without the necessity of translating our dialects back-and-forth between faith and non-faith language. I have found a few of these people via blogging and social media and I don't mean to downplay how much I appreciate those connections, but I need some of those in-person connections as well.

I do have people in my life with whom I have Christianity in common. I have my family and I have friends from previous church communities. Yet even though we share the language of faith, our dialects are so drastically different it can be difficult to communicate without misunderstanding each other. We may try to have discussions, but we’re often left gazing at each other over a seemingly untraversable chasm of theological differences. I may have a close enough relationship with some of them that we can talk to each other without shouting angrily over the chasm, but our attempts can leave us exhausted from the effort required to make sure we are questioning thoughts and belief rather than attacking each other. It is often easier to find a common, non-faith-related topic to discuss to avoid making too much of our differences.

I need to be in community with people of faith who speak the same faith language and dialect that I speak. This is not to say that I do not love those who speak their faith differently or will stop trying to connect with them over our differences This is not to say that I no longer need my non-faith friends, because I do need them, and I love and appreciate them more than they could know. Yet I am also longing to sit at a table and hold hands in prayer and break bread and make eye contact with at least a few people who speak faith with the same dialect, accent, and syntax I use. I know we won't agree on everything, but we will be able to speak freely without translation required.

And that is why I need church.