Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why Virginity Matters (or, Hey! Where's my unicorn?)

I really wanted to write about real estate tonight. I wanted to write a cozy and encouraging post about shopping for houses, hardwood floors, and decisions regarding mortgages. However, some things I saw on Facebook tonight (this, this, and this, in particular) have compelled me to address a topic I've been brooding over for months: virginity.

"Virgin with Unicorn" by Französischer Tapisseur (15th Century)

For the last few years I have been trying to understand what's so wonderful about virginity. The culture at large treats virginity among adults like a joke. Meanwhile, the standard evangelical line, which tends to discuss virginity only in the context of sexual purity before marriage, doesn't do much for  those of us who are adults with no immediate prospects for marriage. Last summer I addressed this issue in one of my most-read posts, "True Love Doesn't Wait"(read it here).

Considering virginity has been a lonely reflection, mainly because it seems awkward to introduce "the delights of virginity" as a topic for discussion at dinner. And yet, I think that if we expect young men and women to remain virgins, we should have something good to say about virginity. For my part, I experience virginity as something beautiful, particularly when I see how the Bible consistently uses sexual states to represent spiritual conditions. When I sit in a room of married friends, I often feel that I possess something--in my relationship to Christ as an unmarried person--that they do not, just as they, in their marriage, know and experience something as Christians that I have not known. I don't have a word for that feeling. Nor do I know if it is a valid feeling, a Spirit-led feeling. I'm rather ashamed that I am only now, at the age of 29, even bothering to wonder about it. 

If I were approaching this question as a scholar, I would probably need to start by addressing  the historical and anthropological research on virginity, including a survey of the many ways ideals about virginity have been misused throughout history. However, I'm writing tonight as Bethany, not as Dr. Bear, and so I begin not with a scholarly literature review, but with a question I began to ask as a teenager. When I was 14 or 15, I read that according to medieval folklore, only a virgin could tame a unicorn, calming the notoriously violent creature. Madeleine L'Engle makes modern use of this legend in her novel Many Waters, and the legend has fascinated me ever since. Something about a virgin is so alluring, so powerful, that even the wildest creature submits to it. The virgin in this legend is neither defenseless nor worthless; she has more power than even the mightiest and most aggressive hunter who tries--and fails--to catch the mythic creature. 

This legend echoes through my imagination whenever I read 2 Corinthians 11, as Paul writes to the church in Corinth, "I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ" (vv. 2-3).  

Paul contrasts a "pure virgin" with Eve, and the analogy is telling: if Eve was deceived by cunning, a virgin sees through lies. If Eve was led astray, a virgin remains on the path he or she has chosen. Paul chooses the physical state of virginity to symbolize clear-eyed, undaunted devotion to Christ. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that many medieval writers saw the unicorn legend--the strange creature tamed by a virgin--as an allegory for Christ's relationship to his mother Mary. 

These are only preliminary, tentative thoughts on a vast and mysterious topic. I don't know if I will be brave enough or wise enough to write any more on this subject, but I do feel that I can draw two conclusions from tonight's reflections: 

1) Sexual purity is crucial to a healthy Christian marriage, but discussions of virginity can't stop here. Allowing virginity to become a relic of outmoded culture, rather than a witness to new life in Christ, is a tragic failure of imagination. 

2) As a virgin, I should live my life in such a way that it becomes a symbol for the life of Christ's body on earth: undeceived, committed, and focused on the Way. 

I cannot pretend that I have a complete picture of why virginity matters to a Christian, just as I doubt most married Christians completely understand the mystery of Christ and the church, which their state of life is supposed to symbolize. I hope to ponder this question with prayer and joy in the years to come, and perhaps you'll ponder with me. In the meantime, let's not forget that most American adults can say they found someone to marry them, but one of these days, a few us are going to show up at church with a unicorn. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Prayers for a House and a Home

I've decided to buy a house. I looked at some properties before I moved last summer (read about that here and here), but I didn't have any peace about making such a big decision. The timeline would have been rushed, and I wasn't sure what part of town would be best for me. Perhaps more importantly, I was so overwhelmed by all that had happened in the first half of 2012 (finishing a dissertation, finding a job, leaving my Texas home of six years), that I didn't have the emotional wherewithal to commit to a house. I've been really happy with my apartment for the last seven months, and anyway, if I had bought a house last year, I might not having anything exciting to say in my Christmas letter for 2013.

So far, the process has been calm and simple. I contacted a Realtor I trust, selected a few houses as preliminary favorites, and tomorrow we will visit them. It all seems so ordinary, and yet this is a moment I have dreamt about since I was a little girl. I feel there ought to be festivities, or rituals of some kind, to mark tomorrow as a special day: The Day She Goes Out into the Wilderness to Seek Land and a House. (Granted -- this isn't exactly the wilderness. But let's not forget I live behind a place called "Catfish Junction," and within walking distance of a bow-hunting shop).

I'll save my grand celebrations for the day I actually purchase a house, with another soon after, when I plant a garden and can check off another item on my "Let's Be a Literal Proverbs 31 Woman" list. (I don't really have a list, but maybe I should. Between spinning wool into yarn, putting purple sheets on my bed, and considering land to purchase, I'm not doing too badly.)

Until I can host an official housewarming (what a wonderful term!), I want to be steady and diligent in prayer for this undertaking. Here's my prayer for this weekend:

God who settles the solitary in a home: thank you for all the houses you have already given me. Thank you for the snug white house on ninth street, the dorm room on the second floor of Burnett hall, the garage efficiency on Maple Avenue, our "lighthouse" apartment on the banks of the Brazos, my last bright room in Waco, and these little chapel-rooms in a land of bays and bayous. Thank you for all the people who have shared these homes with me: for my parents, assorted cats, one dog, for Rachel, and Mari, for another Mary, for Adrienne, for Jenn & Grant. Thank you for the food I could place on shelves or grow from the ground. Thank you for the money to keep the lights shining and the water running. Thank you for the guests and friends who visited these rooms and made them homes. 

God who is with us, please guide and bless this newest search. Take me to houses that are solid and well-built, with strong walls and good ground. Lead me to sidewalks where children could play and where neighbors know one another. Give me wise questions to ask about wiring and roofs, and let my imagination see how a place might welcome friends and strangers. 

God who loves, let me dedicate this place to you before I own it, before I even see it. Give me a house that I may continue to welcome students, make friends, house the homeless, and give beds for weary travelers. Let it become a gathering place and an outpost of your kingdom. Let it be a homely house in a dark world, let it be bigger on the inside, let its windows be called "Wonder" and all its doorways, "Hope." You, God, are our true home, and I pray my house will bear witness to that. 

In the name of Jesus, who made a home with us, amen.  

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Anxiety and the Crisis of Memory

Four years ago, the world turned dark.

It was January, 2009, and the spring semester was about to begin. The fall term had been difficult but victorious: I wrote in my journal that I felt myself to be "between the hammer and the anvil," yet the pressure exhilarated me. For one of my courses I had written over 300 pages between August and December, and in the other I had earned a nearly perfect grade in Old English.  After two years of uncertainty, I was finally beginning to believe that I was actually smart enough to be in a doctoral program.  I lived and worked with a wonderful community of students and scholars. I had a challenging and loving church home. I was on good terms with my parents and all my friends. 

Lights were all around, but I could only see the darkness. 

Intellectually, I knew everything was okay and more than okay, but that January, just before the first week of the new semester, something broke.

I felt like my world was tottering on the edge of a cliff. I couldn't stop crying, and I began to tremble uncontrollably. I couldn't articulate what was wrong precisely because it seemed that everything was wrong. A blackness hovered around the edge of my vision, as though I might blink and find the world extinguished. The first week of classes began: I went to school, taught my freshmen, attended my own classes, always on the verge of tears. I managed to do my work but little else, and when a friend asked when I had eaten last, I couldn't remember.

I couldn't remember. I don't mean I couldn't remember what was upsetting me: if anything could be called a "cause" of my anxiety and despair, it was probably three years of unresolved stress that I had written off as being "normal" for a diligent grad student. At the time, however, the fact that I could not remember goodness haunted me more than anything. During that dark January, my memory seemed to have betrayed me. One day, for example, I was walking from the library to my car when the name of a Victorian writer--Walter Pater, I think it was--flashed through my mind. Walter Pater has never been particularly important to my work, but in that moment, my mind quailed, and I started to panic. I felt guilty and exposed, as though my dissertation director might materialize in the parking lot and demand a full biography of Walter Pater. (He never did, in case you were wondering).

Throughout that January and into the spring, my memory turned sullen and silent. Walter Pater, I soon realized, was the least of my worries.

I couldn't remember how it felt to enjoy being alone.

I couldn't remember why sunshine had once made me smile.

I couldn't remember the confidence that had come from past semesters of successful coursework. 

I couldn't remember anything ever being easy; my anxiety never disrupted my teaching, but little tasks like picking up a pencil to write a note felt like training with lead weights.

I couldn't remember looking forward to the future. 

I couldn't remember how to quiet worrisome thoughts. 

I couldn't remember.

Most terribly, I couldn't remember the good gifts--peace above all--that God had given me in the past. Gone was the calm certainty my faith had always delivered. I don't mean that I no longer believed in God; I mean that my emotional response the world--fear and trembling--didn't match my claims that God was faithful, and loving, and compassionate. With every tremor, I seemed to contradict scripture. I was worrying about everything. I was neither strong nor courageous. I let my heart be troubled. I did not consider the lilies. 

And yet, once I realized that my anxiety was a crisis of memory, the black margin around my eyes began to fade. Work was good because it distracted me from fear, but in any spare or solitary moment, I poured all my energy into memorizing psalms, especially Psalm 84.

At the same time, many able hands began collecting and carrying memories I had lost in the dark. An excellent counselor helped me identify some of the thoughts that were feeding my anxiety, and challenged me to remember the promises God makes through the Bible. My friends remembered to invite me for supper or study sessions several times a week. My father came to stay for a week, then my mother, then my friend Julianna, and their presence--their mere, marvelous presence--reminded me that I was not alone. Other friends took time away from their own jobs, studies, or families to call and tell me about the times they had struggled with depression, and how they had come through. The books I read for my classes, especially The Pilgrim's Progress, The Book of Job, and Walter Brueggemann's The Message of the Psalms, reminded me that feeling pain did not mean I was unfaithful. The music of John Michael Talbot filled my mind so beautifully that anxious thoughts fell silent.  

I have no idea if my experience with anxiety and depression was typical. Thankfully, I have not endured anything similar since that strange spring four years ago. Regardless, I know that what I endured for a season, some people battle for years. The dark margin which I suffered so acutely is a chronic condition for some. And the betrayal of memory, the spiritual amnesia--perhaps that also haunts  other children who have forgotten they were created in the image of God. 

I often write about memories on this blog, and that's not because I am merely nostalgic by nature (though I am). I use this blog to remember the yellow weight of sunlight, the joy of friendship, the delight of good work, the strength of gardens, the wisdom of sparrows who make their nests on the altars of the Lord. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

They could not tell how to part.

A group of friends sit around a table, telling riddles and laughing. They've been traveling for months, perhaps even years. The road stretches on before them, but for tonight, they rest in the company of friends. This might be one of the few chances they have to sleep before resuming their long journey, but instead they sit up all night together, for "they could not tell how to part."

This scene comes from Part II of The Pilgrim's Progress, a seventeenth-century allegory of the Christian life. Part I, which is far better known, tells the story of Christian, who labors to reach the Celestial City despite many obstacles and enemies along the road. Often he journeys alone; at the most he may have one companion with him.  Part I dramatizes the Christian life as a solitary undertaking, and for many Christians throughout history, following Christ has meant abandoning all others for the sake of faith. In Part II, however, Bunyan envisions of the role of a church in the life of faith. Now the protagonist is Christiana, and while she must leave most of her friends and family, she soon finds others who are taking the same difficult road to paradise.

By the time Christiana and her friends reach the scene described above, they have faced all kinds of dangers and victories together. They have been attacked by wicked men, have conquered a giant, and have taken weaker pilgrims into their protection. Now they have reached the house of Gaius, a kind host who opens his table to them and instructs his cook to make the best dishes. The riddles they discuss are questions from the Bible, and  soon "were they very merry, and sat at the Table a long time, talking of many things." 

I don't agree with John Bunyan on every point of doctrine, but I love the picture he provides of the church on earth: it is a table where all weary pilgrims come to rest, to discuss the mysteries of Scripture, and, believe it or not, to be merry.

When I go to a church, I look for signs of this loving joy. Do people linger to talk after worship, or dash away to their separate lunches? Do members gather outside of official church hours, and when they do, do they tell holy riddles and laugh together? Have the people of the church walked down hard roads together? Do they use Sunday morning as a chance to give thanks for the miles traveled, and to gather strength for the miles still to go?

I don't simply want a community in which people don't mind spending time together; I want a place where Christians love one another so deeply that they cannot even tell how to part from one another. I have known such places, and I give thanks for them, but they take work, so much work, and prayer to sustain.

Have you ever known a church or Christian community like the one Bunyan describes? When Sunday mornings services are over, are you eager to leave, or do you linger, unable to say how to part from those you love? 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Beds for all who come

The words of the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti have been on my mind ever since I left Indiana yesterday morning:

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
        Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
        From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?
        A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
        You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
        Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
        They will not keep you standing at that door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
        Of labor you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
        Yea, beds for all who come.

A good poem makes meaning on several levels, and ultimately, this little poem is an allegory of the Christian life, with its promise of eternal rest after the difficult journey on earth. At the same time, many of its words apply so truly to smaller journeys.

My journey from Indiana to Alabama was not literally "up-hill all the way"; for the last three hundred miles, at least, I was moving steadily downhill toward my coastal home. Nevertheless, I made my Christmas journeys (800 miles each way) pondering the power and mystery of hospitality to travelers.

Ever since finishing college, I have travelled alone. As an introvert, I don't necessarily mind solitary hours in trains, planes, or cars, but I have had so many such hours that they have begun to feel lonely.   On some journeys, I wish for companions for practical reasons -- another driver, conversation to keep me alert, someone to watch my bag on a train full of strangers. At other times, the fact that I travel alone  makes me wonder if I will ever have anyone who will stay with me.  I am blessed to have friends and family in so many places, but sometimes I feel rather like a single pinball, ricocheting from one happy couple or family to another. For me, the "up-hill" part of most physical journeys I take is that I generally take them alone.

To dwell on loneliness, however, would be absurd and misleading. In truth, I have just returned from one of the most hospitable, social journeys I have ever made.

Heading north before Christmas, I stopped for a meal with one of my students, her parents and one sister, thanking God for a job where students, faculty, and families want to know one another. Farther along, I spent the night with my dear Mark and Moriah, sharing stories and wondering when the new baby would arrive (she came December 27, as it happened). When I reached my parents' house, they shouted, "She home!" and began the flurry of welcoming and showing. When it was time to return to Alabama, I drove an hour south to visit Lennon, Amy, and Andrew. We celebrated New Year's (a few days late), giggling over our silly-yet-sincere toasts ("May your cactus never dwindle, and your classes be triumphant! May friends be plentiful and your church search soulful!"). Lennon even offered to sabotage my car and keep me there -- a special kind of brotherly hospitality, I suppose. The next day, I stopped for lunch with Mark, Moriah, and the children -- including sweet newborn Grace. Finally, a night at the house of a student's family -- a veritable hostel, they called it, merry and full. We shared a meal, laughed over Youtube videos, watched Downtown Abbey, slept soundly.

After such happy visits, it was strange (not sad, but strange), to return to such a quiet little apartment. I am genuinely happy to be home (for this is my home, and a very good one), but my long drives north and south reminded me that in reality, "home" often feels more like Rossetti's poem than any sort of settled comfort. Home means leaving the place where you were a child and heading south with tears and snowflakes dimming your eyes. It means stopping first here, then here, to spend time with people who do not know one another, but who dwell as neighbors within your heart, and within God's.  It means experiencing--though a hug, a meal, a bed--the promise that in the larger, longer, darker journey, there are indeed "beds for all who come" to the house of the Father.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Twelve Days, Three Bears

Reflecting upon hope, faith, love, and joy is a really excellent way to experience hope, faith, love and joy while waiting for something--whether the end of a semester or the Parousia.

However, after so many posts on Advent expectation,  I haven't offered any Christmas blogs. My silence has a very good excuse -- I've simply been far too busy celebrating to spend much time with my computer.  However, today is the eleventh day of Christmas and my last full day with my parents, so I thought I should compile at least one post about this holiday. Here goes!

In concert with recent interest in Advent, I have determined that once Christmas begins, I should celebrate it for all its proper 12 Days, rather than considering December 25 to be the end of the holiday. If I am going to wait for Christmas through four weeks of Advent, I'm waiting for a festival of 12 days, not a single night of sweetness and light.

And so, with my joy in my heart, I give you the highlights from this year's 12 Days of Christmas:

The First Day of Christmas (and the last few days of Advent, since I arrived on December 21st)
   - Visiting with currents students, college friends, high school friends, and many more  on the long journey from Alabama to Indiana.
   - Reaching my parents' house a little early and surprising them. There are few sweeter sounds than people you love shouting, "She's home!!" as you open the door.
    - Being asked to share "What Christmas means to me" at my home church's Christmas Eve service.
    - Singing by candlelight on Christmas Eve
   - Sharing our Christmas table with a college undergrad and a Fullbright scholar from Cote d'Ivoire
   - Attending a Christmas open house hosted by long-time family friends, Jim and Barbara.
   - Walking with Daddy through my favorite hometown park.

The Second Day of Christmas
     - Waking to more snow than I've seen in years
     - Canceling our shopping plans in favor of warm blankets and hibernation

The Third Day of Christmas -
     - Visiting paternal relatives in Lafayette, Indiana. We saw two of my great-uncles and one of my father's first cousins. Perhaps most significantly, my father and his three siblings met and spent time together for the first time in years.

The Fourth Day of Christmas 
     - Seeing The Hobbit for a second time with my parents, both of whom are, like Bilbo and Frodo, humble people who are valiant and vital in eternal battles.
     - Watching episodes of Designing Women with my mother.
     - Reading purely for pleasure (specifically, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Children of Húrin and Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy).

The Fifth Day of Christmas 
    - Shopping at local thrift stores with both my parents. Daddy offered to chauffeur us through the still-icy roads, and Mama and I found such treasures.
    - Seeing the new Les Misérables film in very good company

The Sixth Day of Christmas 
    - Seeing two of my oldest friends and favorite people: Kyle and Lindsay, the brother and sister who made up 2/3 of my youth group for most of high school. I thank God for the friends they have been and the people they have become.
    - Taking a very cold walk with my father through the snowy night.

The Seventh and Eighth Days of Christmas 
    - Attending a New Year's Eve party with family friends, including several of my parents' former students. We ended 2012 by feasting, singing hymns, playing charades, giving thanks for the blessings of 2012, and celebrating with friends in Chile via Skype. We opened 2013 with s'mores, more hymns, storytelling, and prayer. Ever since, I have been praying that these good things would become portents for the year to come.
     - Sledding with my father.

The Ninth Day of Christmas 
   - Having tea with Liz, one of my parents' student leaders, who has been a faithful pen pal to me over the last few months. We had lots of fun discussing adventures in cooking, possibilities for missions service, and more.
   - Accompanying Liz to her Zumba class. I've been shy about trying Zumba, but I had so much fun, and I was proud that I was able to keep up for the entire hour. The session also renewed my taste for endorphins and helped wake me up after more than a week of sweets and hibernation.

The Tenth Day of Christmas 
    - Helping my parents and some of their students assemble welcome bags for international students.  I grew up watching my parents labor for the sake of college students, but I am more humbled and impressed by their work each time I come home.
    - Discovering that The Vicar of Dibley (a wonderful British comedy) is now available Netflix, and watching several episodes with Mama.

The Eleventh Day of Christmas 
    - Venturing one county north in search of Amish stores, and returning with items that are hard to find: cloth handkerchiefs, rye flour, yeast by the pound, and more.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas 
    - Tomorrow will be my last day in Indiana, as well as the last day of Christmas. I will drive an hour south to visit my dear friends Amy and Lennon. After spending the night there, I'll continue south all day Sunday and Monday. Please pray for safe travel as I return to Alabama.

I have rested more deeply on this visit home than I have in years. Last Christmas I was frantically working on my dissertation, and even over the summer I was preoccupied by a book chapter, travel, and moving plans. I was so thankful to come home and sleep late, watch movies, read, pray, sing, and snuggle with those I love. This Christmas was a long Sabbath after a wonderful but exhausting year. I'm eager to see what 2013 will hold, to return to work, to plan courses, and to see my already-dear students and colleagues.

Tonight, however, I am going to make another cup of tea, curl up on the couch, and enjoy one more precious night of Christmas.

Be merry, beloved.

What has been the merriest moment of your Christmas this year?