Saturday, August 5, 2017

When God Isn't Enough

Hello world, it's been some minutes.

Several people have approached me and asked why I don't blog anymore. Generally I mumble something about the demands of grad school and the fact that I have no free time, while sort of generally, dramatically bemoaning the overwhelming lack of inspiration & fear that my creative ability has finally exhausted itself. While there's some truth in most of these statements, the completely honest, vulnerable answer is that I've been afraid. I was scared. I lacked the courage needed to be honest and blog about what was on my heart, because at the beginning of this year I ran out of easy topics to write about. Anything else would require that I make a stand and be honest about what I actually believed it meant to be human, loved, lovely, sinful, fallen, and everything in between. I think I still lack a lot of that courage, but since my life has been made infinitely better recently by my dear friends' honesty, I want badly to follow their example.

Perhaps some of these topics won't seem like a big deal to you. Perhaps they wont feel like they need the disclaimer that I've given them. But to me they feel like stepping out of one skin and into another, all the while realizing that skin is shifting and without guarantee that the beliefs I hold are the right ones. So that being said, and disagreement being welcomed, onward we go.

I'm not sure how to introduce this topic, because there wasn't a turning point when I realized it was true. It was a combination of deep sadness, loneliness, a unique form of isolation, and searching. It was a bunch of long nights, the occasional tears, and questioning friends. It was aching in the same room as other aching people. More on that later. Largely, it was trying to bear all of this under the assumption that my relationship with God would fix it. That praying, Bible reading, devotional time, and quiet meditation would somehow quiet my spirit and my doubts, while also making me feel like I was less alone than I undeniably felt like I was. Eventually I came to the overwhelming, inescapable conclusion that God wasn't enough.

Now, if you find yourself gasping, hand to chest, fearing for my faith, don't worry. That last statement wasn't quite as heretical as maybe it initially pretended to be. And despite the fact that sometimes it's one of the most inconvenient aspects of my life, I haven't been able to get away from Christ and the way he seems to have my soul held tightly to him in a way that is equally inescapable. But after struggling for some time under the assumption that I was doing something wrong because my relationship with God was not fixing all my occasional emptiness, I've come to believe that I'm not entirely sure it was meant to at present.

In Genesis, God created Man in His image. The concept of Imago Dei, being created in the divine image, is an idea most Christians encounter early on. While it carries important information about God's relationship to us, it also carries important information about our relationship with one another. When Adam ruled the garden as its sole human occupant, God observed that it was not good for man to be alone. Not that it was bad for man to feel lonely, but that it was less than good for him to remain in isolation. This was true despite the fact that Adam found himself surrounded by nature in perfect form, every animal ever created, and walking in a relationship of unique intimacy with the Creator himself.  God walked with Adam and still saw that Adam needed more. Thus, Eve was created and the first relationship formed. When Adam and Eve fell, God removed an aspect of his presence from them. While they were still chosen by the Father, they were unable to enjoy the intimacy with him that they previously could. This also implies that while our relationship with God is all encompassing, it is incomplete this side of heaven. While this might seem like an observation made with common sense, it is often spoken about and lived out as if the opposite were true.

Enter Christ. Fully man, fully God, an ideal depiction of humanity in perfect relationship with the Father on Earth. Despite this, at the beginning of his ministry he chose to surround himself with the twelve men who would become his closest friends during his life. These men would then usher in the church age, a human filled picture of the body of Christ. This concept wasn't just built on community, it depended on it. While Christ did spend time alone with his father, the majority of his earthly life was spent in the company of his followers. In Gethsemane, Christ stood alone before God, but still kept his closest friends close behind because he didn't want to go through the approaching emotional agony alone. After Christ ascended into heaven, community threads through life of the church all the way up until our modern interpretations today.

So what's my point?

I've operated for most of my life under the belief that friends are great, but God is better. That community is important, but my individual understanding of, relationship to, and communion with Christ is of primary importance. This is in constant conflict with the fact that I am an extrovert whose love languages consist of physical touch and words of affirmation. Long distance friendship is nice, but presence is necessary if I'm going to built up at the soul level. If I tried to focus all my energy on perfecting my relationship to God as the primary relationship in my life, I wouldn't be healthy. Why? Because as of right now, that relationship aches with how utterly incomplete it is. Yes, that ache is there. The allegorical "God hole" that nothing else can fill. I feel it consistently and it makes my longing for heaven all the greater. In many ways, the incomplete nature of divine relationship ensures that I am never fully content in this mortal, human body, and am constantly longing to be in the presence of my Father in a way that can only come true within eternal worship. Acknowledging that however, almost means that I acknowledge that on this side of heaven, I am best comforted by the body of Christ here, present with me in brokenness.

My comfort is people. My friends. The beautiful, image bearing people indwelt with the Holy Spirit who act as Christ's body to me in the physical world as Christ holds me in the spiritual. They are as necessary to me as the bread I eat and the water I drink, because my relationship to God is not enough to sustain my physically within the fallen world. Likewise, my relationship with God is not enough to sustain me relationally in the fallen world. But, my relationship with Christ fills me with the grace necessary to love those around me well, and so within my physical relationships I am driven back to God time and time again. It is a never ending, communal circle that drives me closer to my Father and closer to my kindred spirits, and in both I honestly believe God is glorified, because good relationships serve to remind me that the best relationship is yet to come. It's okay He's not enough. It is not yet time for him to be.

There. I babbled. And maybe enough isn't the best word. Maybe the word "all" is better suited. Like I said, maybe that doesn't seem like the revelation to you that it has been to me over the past year, but realizing the importance of community has lifted rocks from on top of my chest. So here's till next time friends. And we beat on.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Defending Boudoir: an essay on morning light

Not long ago, a photographing genius whom I am lucky enough to be friends with texted me and asked me if I’d be willing to be part of her expanding her expertise and let her do a boudoir shoot with me as the subject. For those who don’t know, boudoir shoots are private, intimate, and usually done in lingerie or something similar. Traditionally they're taken for the purpose of brides giving them to husbands, directly prior to or on the wedding day. The male version is called dude-oir *cheering inspired by the clever pun ensues*. I’ll admit, my initial reaction was one of hesitation, embarrassment, and abstract terror. The fact that I was single, the fact that I wasn’t particularly sexy, and similar thoughts all seemed to provide ample evidence as to why I wasn’t the proper person to be asking. However, after agreeing and taking them, I firmly believe that every woman (or man, for that matter) should participate in a boudoir shoot at some point in their life, regardless of self-esteem or relationship status. Why? Well.

            Christians are notoriously bad at dealing with issues of sexuality or sensuality. Instead of taking point on the conversation, we tend to shove it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist, thinking if we refuse to address the topic we prevent ourselves from falling into sin and temptation. Instead, the awkwardness and shame ensures that we are permanently uncomfortable with an integral, extremely significant aspect of our being. But I continue to be a sexual being, regardless of whether I acknowledge that I am or not. Now, as a single woman, I am a sexual creation. Don’t misunderstand me: that aspect of my being persists regardless of whether or not I act on it. Refusing to acknowledge or address it stunts my growth and my maturity. Marriage isn’t the switch that suddenly transforms sex from shameful to exciting. It’s the context through which sex is glorifying. But if I’ve been taught my entire life that my sexuality is a shameful thing, that is a belief I will carry into marriage with my husband even though the context is finally correct.

            In a boudoir shoot, I am able to interact with my sexuality, sensuality, and physical beauty in a glorifying way. Moreover, I’m able to interact with it in a way that brings it into the rest of my being and makes me more fully myself as a person overall. My body belongs to me and the God who created it, and I have to be comfortable in my own skin before I can ever invite anyone to be comfortable with me. The desire to feel sexy isn’t restricted to those who are married; everyone wants to feel like they’re desirable and worth wanting.

            But my beauty was never intended to be exclusively sexual. The same body that is often oversexualized or found to be offensive also sustains and nurtures life in the most miraculous of ways, yet that’s rarely a topic that’s brought up. My beauty is far more than culture says it is, because it extends beyond how I can use it sexually. Yet, as girls we’re not sure how to interact with what cultures tells us beauty is, so we assume we’re not beautiful. Boudoir allows beauty to be found, explored, demonstrated, painted. It’s an opportunity to correct lies so often believed by men and women, that something about them is off or wrong. That they’re somehow worth less just because they’re not as attractive as another individual. That they’re less valuable because they don’t line up with what culture says is aesthetically pleasing. With each photo Stephanie took of me, she handed me another reminder that I am more than I believe myself to be. That I’m not just a rejected, broken human left behind by all the stories I haven’t been able to live and the people I haven’t been able to live them with. That I am valuable because I am. I am beautiful because of the way my body, soul, personality, and mind come together to form me. She showed me, for a few seconds, a sampling of my glory as an image bearer, a clouded picture of how God sees me, and she gave me a tangible way to come back to that reminder on the days when I forget.

            Boudoir shoots aren’t vain, sinful, or immodest. Like everything else in a fallen world, they can be twisted and distorted. Sexuality can be misused. Decency can be forgotten. But my modesty will never inhibit or prevent another person’s lust. My actions are not responsible for anyone else’s actions towards me, and I’m not allowed to blame anyone else for how I interact or love them, because that’s not how Jesus acted and that’s not what God requires. On the contrary, I’m asked to be responsible with what I’m given. Should the pictures go out to everybody? No. Is there a decency limit to the photos displayed? YES. And here, yet again, I’m handed another practical aspect of my sexuality that I’m held responsible for that goes beyond the sexual do’s and don’ts I was taught in church.

            Boudoir forces me to interact with the severity of vulnerability. Before the camera I’m reminded that being bare before another human is daunting, precious, and intimate. I’m reminded of the reason that sex and sexuality demand so much respect – because being naked before another human being is never a casual task. Not in body, not in soul, and never in spirit. Being stripped to my base takes away my pretense and my protections so there is nothing left to soften the potential blow of rejection, and the moment of realization is one of the single most terrifying experiences possible. That reminder demands action, particularly in a culture that says sex is as simple as separating the body from the person it houses. Intimacy is precious and should be handled with the caution and respect that it demands. Those concepts become real, even as a single woman, when I let down my walls before a camera in preparation for when I will let them down one day (Lord willing) for the man that I marry. But I can’t distance myself from the fact that I am a sexual being until the day he appears. Because, as my beautiful photography friend says, “my body belongs to me and to the God that created it. I get the gift of inviting my husband into that. But I was as full and complete a human being before I met him as I am now.”

            So, in closing, these are my thoughts. It’s amazing that they all sprang out of a simple hour and a half photography shoot, but being introduced to oneself always brings new dimensions of the self into focus. Thank you forever and always to the beautiful Steph Bailey, who spent her time bringing light and recalling me to life from behind the camera lens. And if this blog made you even the least bit curious about thinking about being part of a shoot yourself, I’ll just leave her website right here ;) 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016:: my heart.

Ah, the classic summing up of 2016 blog post. How quaint and cliche! I know, I know. I actually try to stay away from these in order to avoid the assumption that I have some sort of new take on life that will restructure the year and all the bad (and good) that occurred within it. This year in particular brought with it a lot of "realizations" that feel more like common sense than life changing truth, and in my pride I want to keep myself from blogging until I have something new and profound to say. But ironically, one of the things I learned this year was that sometimes I don't need new truth, I need to be reminded of the old ones. I need to be reminded that I am chosen, I am free, I am worth wanting. That I have already been made a new creation in God's grace, and even though I act out of my sin nature still (because the old me is all I know), that God continually, patiently, daily introduces me to and reminds me of the new Bethany that I am now. And as I walk in deeper understanding of God and the gospel, I walk into a new and deeper understanding of myself and how I bear Christ's image. And it is such incredible grace. "Novem te, novem me."

So without further ado, here are the things that the beautiful, chaotic mess of 2016 taught me::

Never apologize for loving people. My heart is always worried about making people uncomfortable. About whether or not this compliment, or that hug will make others think I'm weird or too much to deal with. Finally, I realized that if I spend all my time trying to predict how other people want me to act, I never get around to actually being me. And I realized that you never have any idea how you fit into someone's story, but as I walk in and out of the pages of peoples' lives I want my time there to be good. So speak truth, friends. Ask questions with the intention of caring about the answer. Give hugs. Write letters. Even when you're concerned it might be risky. You could be part of dispelling darkness and lies, and even when you don't know it, it's a beautiful thing to be a part of.

People give off starlight, especially when they're doing things they love. Watch them. THIS. I am surrounded by talented friends. They are intellectual, creative, artistic, have beautiful voices, can wax for hours on end about philosophical concepts, and put their hearts on paper in ways that continue to amaze me with every passing day. In those moments, they are alight with passion and promise and the unspoken realization that they are doing exactly what they were created to do. That kind of light is addicting, in the faith renewing, Christ glorifying, gospel type of way. And it has a crazy habit of making the people it touches rush to follow their passions too.

Everyone has a story. You don't need to know it, to respect it. I encounter image bearers daily. Some of them are kind and compassionate, and some of them are crabby, mean, and rough around the edges. They're the people who cut in front of me on the road that I scream at, and the family who shoves past me in the grocery store to take the last box of my favorite cereal. They infuriate me and make me want to scream and turn into a 5 year old and break things. And they remind me that I have absolutely no idea what's going on. At all. They're living a story I'm not a part of, and they could be having the worst day of their life. And even if I never see them again, for the 10 seconds that I operate within their world I can respect that their story matters, and not make it harder by shoving them back.

Jesus works in your life & doesn't seem to particularly care whether you want him to or not. Like, at all. I've tried everything. I've begged the Lord to change things, sulked because for some reason I thought THAT would change his mind, gone to church, stayed away from church, checked off my quiet time, told him I wanted His will done, told Him I never wanted to speak to Him again, and in the midst of all of it He continues to perform His quiet, consistent, loving renovation of my heart. It is painful and awful and horrible at times, but with each new sunrise He pulls me closer to who I am meant to be, and deeper into His love. And I've learned it's easier to just go along with it, and stop fighting. The ocean does not stop rolling just because I have planted my feet in the sand.

The things you get excited about, that light your heart up, are connected to your passions. They matter. No matter how small. I got into an argument with my best friend the other day because he said the phrase "well, what gets me excited doesn't really matter. It's things like video games and talking about book characters and analyzing big concepts that tie us together." And then he looked at me like he hadn't just said "yeah, what makes my heart beat faster is actually the meta-narrative weaving throughout all of humanity that shows up in stories and helps us realize what it means to be human." And then I threw a pillow at his face. Those things, no matter how small, matter. They are important. Pay attention.

Drink coffee to be functional. Drink tea to be cozy. My favorite memory from the semester is a night that I spent curled up in a friend's dorm room, drinking tea, as he, I, and two of our other friends read books together under fairy lights and just listened to the night pass. Associate good memories with tangible things, and when life gets hard and bad memories take hold, run back to the things that remind you of good. Like cups of tea and cozy rooms. Yes, we should always run to Christ first. But sometimes grace and peace on a bad night means holding a warm cup of tea with both hands, smelling the caramel as it wafts out of the mug, and remembering that all this cozy means that the bad doesn't last forever.

Take pictures. Lots of them. Live in the moment. But take pictures that matter. It's more than views. It's trying to capture that feeling of sitting around a table with your best friends, and knowing that you are known and know them in return. Or the light in someone's eyes as they open a gift that's perfect. Or watch a sunset. It's hard to capture, but those pictures and memories are worth holding onto.

Life is hard. Don't make it harder. Be kind, to strangers and to friends. Offer hope. Let those who don't have any borrow some of yours. Be patient. Lend out books. Share joy. Hold your tongue, and stand up for those who are unable to do so themselves. Fight for the weak. Fight for the broken. And love hard.

My worst was never meant to be compared to peoples' best. I scroll through Instagram every day and more often than not think things like "I'll never be that pretty, or that creative, or that adventurous, or that successful, or that spiritual." Because I know myself and my faults and my sins and my failures too intimately to ever think I have my life together. But my failures were never meant to be compared to other peoples' successes. Everyone is living a story. Everyone fails. We just don't broadcast it. Give yourself grace to have highs and lows, and remember that everyone else does to. Even when that's not what pictures reflect.

Transparency about what hurts leads to community. Be careful. But be honest. The friends that stuck around and became family know my heart, in all its brokenness and shattered pieces. They coaxed me out of darkness. It's the moment of "oh, you feel that to?!" that C.S. Lewis talks about. But that can only happen when we're honest about what we're struggling with. I'm not saying broadcast your story to the world. I'm saying let people shine light into your dark spots. And watch how much glory happens when it does. Because usually when one person starts being honest, it catches like fire.

It's okay to not grow up. Okay. Do adulthood and jobs and school and graduation and maturity and all the other things. But don't lose sight of childlike wonder. Get excited about beautiful sunsets and new books and puppy butts. Laugh for no reason. Dance in your bedroom. Find the bright spots in every day.

Darkness is necessary for light. This. This is the lesson I have been running from, fighting, and writhing underneath for an entire year now. In order to find the light, there has to be darkness. There has to be bad. There HAS to be. Because without those deep, dark, meaningless nights why on earth would I long for the sunrise? This year there has been an abundance of darkness, both in my life and on a global scale. And while it's been awful and horrible and I've hated it. But I have watched people step up and knit themselves together to form bonds in incredible ways. I have watched the world fight for the hurting, as my friends fight for me. I have grown attached, accustomed, in love with the sunrise because the sun just keeps rising, no matter how deep the night. And God's glory has been brilliant. It always is. But I see it most clearly at my darkest. And I become thankful for the bad parts, because they make me ache for the gospel. And I hate that. I wish everything could be ok and fun always. But that's not conducive to growth or becoming more Christ-like, because it's in the midst of the pains of growth that I realize God is moving. And sometimes I'm exactly where I'm meant to be (but think I'm not), and all of a sudden the light crests the hill and I realize the wilderness I thought I was walking through is actually the garden alight with morning dew. Christ's glory will always, always illuminate. But sometimes the bad has to happen first.

Welcome to the world, 2017. You have some big shoes to fill.