The Church’s Response to HIV/AIDS

AIDSribbonAs you may know, today is World AIDS Day. I thought it would be helpful and educational to highlight how various Christian denominations and organizations are actively addressing the spread of this disease. Of note is the fact that many denominations have individual congregations, conferences, districts, etc. that are actively engaged in fighting HIV/AIDS even if there is no coordinated effort at the denominational level. For instance, AME Churches are very much engaged in this fight and are especially active around Black AIDS Day in February.

Below you’ll find links to a number of faith initiatives that are addressing the spread of HIV, along with snippets of information from their websites. Please support these efforts in your prayers and in your substance. And, if you haven’t recently, get tested yourself — even and especially if you’re in a committed relationship!

Presbyterian AIDS Network – Presbyterian Church (USA)

The Presbyterian AIDS Network (PAN) welcomes those who advocate with and care for persons and families who have been infected or affected by HIV and AIDS. We encourage the Church to live out Jesus’ ministry of love and justice.

HIV and AIDS Ministry – United Church of Christ

  • Creates resources for HIV education and prevention
  • Provides technical assistance to local congregations and other settings to build and develop HIV/AIDS Programs
  • Participates in public policy advocacy
  • Works in partnership with individuals, congregations, associations, conferences, and other settings of the church, including Global Ministries, in addition to other churches and faiths.

United Methodist Global AIDS Fund – United Methodist Church

The United Methodist Global AIDS Fund (UMGAF) was established by the 2004 General Conference of The United Methodist Church. Its purpose is to strengthen the church’s compassionate response to HIV and AIDS and help to stem the tide of the pandemic. UMGAF supports programs that focus on prevention, advocacy, testing, and counseling. In 2014, its fund raising and funding focus in of the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission of HIV. Through the generosity of United Methodists and others, UMGAF has supported more than 200 programs in over 35 countries.

The Black Church and HIV: The Social Justice Imperative – NAACP

In 2012, with support from Gilead Sciences, Inc., the NAACP launched The Black Church and HIV: The Social Justice Imperative, working with the Black Church to reach the nearly 20 million African Americans that attend church regularly with messages about HIV. In the Fall of 2013, the NAACP and Gilead made a Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Commitment to Action to scale up The Black Church and HIV initiative over a five-year period to reach the 30 cities that make up nearly two-thirds of the nation’s HIV epidemic.

HIV and AIDS Programming – Catholic Relief Services

CRS supports 184 HIV programs in 35 countries.

HIV and AIDS Ministry – Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

AIDS has claimed the lives of more than 25 million people worldwide. Millions of children under the age of 18 in sub-Saharan Africa have lost one or both parents to AIDS. The ELCA, along with the international community, has pledged both resources and action. There is cause for great hope.

Let this be a living document. Post in the comments what your church/denomination is doing to stop the spread of HIV and minister to those who are infected.

Don’t Tell Me to Calm Down

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.

— James A. Baldwin

Last night’s announcement of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown left few if any black folks surprised. We knew better. We’ve seen this play out time and time again. If only that meant it would hurt less.

Let’s be clear: It will never be an easy thing to hear that no one will be held accountable for the shooting death of an unarmed person. It will especially not be easy when the unarmed person is young and black and his shooter is an officer of the law. If you need any understanding of why that is, a cursory look into U.S. history should give you some ideas. These incidents happen far more frequently than you realize, and their specters continue to linger in the psyches of black Americans. It’s disconcerting to know that it simply won’t matter to some people how many degrees you have, how many people respect you, or whether or not you have a family who loves you. To some,  you’re a threat — and despite the fact that your pants are pulled up and your diction is perfect, there is nothing you can do to change that.

Credit: Luvvie Ajaye
Credit: Luvvie Ajaye

With that said, I have a request for those who never have to think about these things, but are now all too quick to call for “calm,” particularly in the name of Jesus: Shut up.

Just. Stop. Talking.

I share with you the concern that no more people are hurt or harmed in the wake of this announcement. I, too, want nothing more than for the cries for justice to not have to share airtime with hurling bricks and incinerated cars. But calling for “calm” and “peace” is a cop-out. Why? Because those are things that are to be worked for. Those are things that cannot come about unless they are pursued. They don’t just magically appear out of thin air. You can’t expect that people will be free of their own personal psychological hell just because you said so.

When you call for “peace,” what you may actually be saying is, “Ignore how angry this makes you. Ignore how injurious this is to your psyche. Ignore how this makes you feel.” Where is the space for both you and them to acknowledge the pain and the re-opened wounds that are results of this? Why offer words when you could offer a shoulder? The community of Ferguson has been over-policed for months, so the last thing they need from any of us is the policing of their feelings.

I want Christians to [re]discover the art of sitting shiva. I want you to take, if not a week, some significant time to just sit with your brothers and sisters who mourn. Don’t preach at them. Don’t condescend to them. Don’t say much of anything. Do listen. Do be with them in their grief. Don’t try to talk them out of it, or cowardly avoid it. Be in it.

Especially if, after last night’s announcement, you didn’t find yourself lingering over your children as you put them to bed, wondering what you need to teach them so that they’re not killed for being threatening.

Especially if, after the announcement, you couldn’t play back in your mind the times you were stopped unjustly by law enforcement.

Especially if last night’s announcement didn’t open up old wounds for you.

Just sit down and shut up.

Then get up and maybe flip a few tables, à la the Prince of Peace himself. Make the peace  you so desperately want to appear.

Halloween, Ray Rice, Ebola, and the Pain of Black Folks

When the film Dear White People came out in limited release here in DC, I and a group of friends made a night of it. We were a diverse lot — black, white, Asian, young, youngish, and young-at-heart — a fairly far cry from the stark segregation of the film’s fictional  Winchester University.  I thought the movie was beautiful and funny, but it left me with a lot to unpack, much of which I’m still unpacking.

Without spoiling the movie for those who haven’t seen it, the major story arc involves a hip-hop themed party at the predominantly white and wealthy residence hall on campus. We’ve seen pictures of real-life parties like these — young white adults dressed in blackface, wearing Afro wigs, and very deliberately mimicking stereotypical depictions of blackness. In fact, the movie includes a few of these real-life pictures in its closing credits, reminding all of us that what the film was satirizing isn’t too far removed from reality.

And in 2014, it’s still close to it.

Every year around Halloween, we’re subjected to the poor judgment of those who would lampoon a very serious subject and somehow manage to insult an entire group of people in the process. This year, it’s the Ray Rice elevator incident:

 

I won’t post others, and there are many, sadly. You can view them here, if you must.

If that isn’t bad enough, I present to you the sexy Ebola nurse costume:

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Picture Credit: Buzzfeed

WTF is so “sexy” about a disease that has killed nearly 5,000 people, I don’t know.

What strikes me about all of this is not once do I remember anyone pairing a Riley Cooper jersey with a KKK hood after his infamous tirade at a Kenny Chesney concert last year. I don’t remember anyone wearing a Ben Roethlisberger jersey while carrying around an apparently inebriated blow-up doll. A cursory Google Image search of either of these things will turn up few results, if any. I guess making light of a talented WR’s racist rants, the sexual assault allegations against an elite quarterback, or depicting that quarterback’s alleged victim in such a demeaning way would have been in poor taste. And it certainly would have been in poor taste.

I just wish Janay Rice and the thousands of Africans who perished without so much as a raised eyebrow from the West had received the same consideration.

I’m curious as to what it is about the pain of people of color that invites the more demented among us to use it as fodder for a good time. What is so amusing about a woman getting knocked out in an elevator that it would move you to caricature her? Why is the line not drawn with her the way it is unwittingly drawn with others? And, for the love of all that is holy and decent, why add blackface on top of it all? By itself it’s insulting to an entire group of people, but in this context it ostensibly connects that group to the kind of behavior you’re lampooning. How can one be so far removed from the widespread sufferings of people an ocean away that one decides to make their suffering a “theme” of one’s holiday decorations?

In 2014, All Hallow’s Eve in America still has a race problem. The victimization of a woman  is “funny,” as is the fact that she and her aggressor are black.  A very real public threat that has impacted nearly exclusively black Africans and has recently given rise to some of the most vile and xenophobic “caution” we’ve ever seen is also “funny.” Somewhere this week, someone who’s not Asian will put on a coolie hat and a fake Fu Manchu mustache and call it a “costume.” Someone else will wear a Native American headdress and do the same. And I’ll cringe and weep because clearly they don’t have friends — at least not diverse or even good ones.

When Your Child’s Christian Homework Freaks You Out

This will be one of my more lighthearted posts. And I know I’m flirting with the blurring of the lines between this blog and my “mom” blog (which, seriously, I haven’t written on in a year). But my kid’s Christian homework yesterday kind of disturbed me. Kind of.

My daughter attends a small Lutheran school in our community. We chose this school because Lutheran education has a reputation for academic excellence and I wanted my child to have a Christian education rooted in grace. We love this school, and our daughter loves it even more. She’ll be attending this school for as long as we can help it.

Yesterday they did a unit on the story of Abraham and Isaac. You know the one — God tells dad to kill his son, but then says “SIKE!” and provides an animal for sacrifice instead. The kids brought home a “story wheel” that they had to illustrate. When my daughter illustrated the near-sacrifice of Isaac, this is what she drew:

abe1

Now go back and look at Abraham.

abe2

Now look at him again.

abe3

Am I the only one who finds this hilariously disturbing? Or disturbingly hilarious?

Abraham has fangs. He has fangs and a maniacal look on his face. By contrast, Isaac is clearly sad — or perhaps already dead. This is creepy. And funny. But creepy. But funny.

I had enough questions that I decided to make sure she understood the story. I asked her how she thought Abraham must have felt at the time. I asked if Isaac was dead in the picture (thankfully, he wasn’t). Basically, I tried to make sure we didn’t need to speak to a therapist in the foreseeable future.

And I totally acknowledge that I have a tendency to  think and over-think all things Bible (because Presbyterians), but it made me wonder, is this an appropriate story for kids?

I know we read it to our kids. I know we teach the story in Sunday school. But is it too heavy for them? Is this story potentially damaging to a young psyche? What if a child starts to wonder if their dad or mom would try to kill them  one day — because God might tell them to!

Or are they just happy that Isaac didn’t die? Maybe they focus on the salvation instead of the macabre.

For me, this was a sobering reminder that the Bible isn’t entirely G-rated, but I also never thought it needed to be. I’m perfectly fine with the messiness of the Bible, and I’ve often resisted attempts to sanitize it. That is, I’ve resisted those attempts for adults. I’m not at all prepared for the Bible’s messiness when it comes to my daughter’s first-grade class. I totally want it to be G-rated in this case!

Maybe I should calm down. Maybe I’m projecting. Maybe I should be glad they’re not doing a unit on Judges 19.

When it comes to kids and the Bible, do you think there are some stories we should stop telling? How do you deal with the “messiness” of the Bible when it comes to children’s education? Are we parents too sensitive about these things? Does my kid think Abraham is a monster, hence the fangs?

black-ish: First Thoughts

blackish

I’m one of the younger members of our Presbytery’s Black Presbyterian Caucus, and as such I often get volunteered for things. I don’t mind at all because the work is exciting and important. I say that to share the latest thing for which I’ve been volunteered: a panel discussion on Touré’s book, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now.  In the book, Touré sets out to take a comprehensive look at what it means to be Black in the 21st century and suggests that, as Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. would put it, “if there are 40 million black Americans, then there are 40 million ways to be black.” I certainly agree.

And I think it’s wonderful happenstance that I was volunteered for this discussion at the same time ABC would premiere its newest sitcom black-ish, which examines the very same themes. In the pilot episode, we have a successful professional who’s trying to reconcile his own idea of blackness with those of his family members — and does so clumsily. I tuned in last night to see how the show would treat the subject and perhaps if it could add anything to our book discussion next month. Here are a few of my immediate thoughts:

    • I thought the show was witty, and I get that the stereotypes/hyperbole had to be “in-your-face” for our first introduction to the Johnson family. However, I hope that tones down in future episodes — or gets smarter.
    • When Andre was essentially made the “black representative” for his co-workers and company, it felt painfully familiar. How many of us have been asked how the Black (or Asian, or Hispanic, or gay, or whatever) community feels about XYZ?

    • The Obama discussion made me realize that my own child has only ever known a black President. Living in a predominantly black neighborhood and having so much exposure to black people of all walks of life, she will likely grow up with the notion that blackness is normative. This was totally not my experience at her age.
    • Speaking of Obama, Andre strutting through his office and greeting the other black folks who worked there totally reminded me of the day after the President’s election.
    • “Andy’s” desire to have a bar mitzvah and change his name reminded me of the time my nephew started telling everyone he was Jewish. When you’re five years old, it’s hard to argue against the merits of getting presents for eight days during Hanukkah.
    • And Andy’s journey reminds all of us that young black people will have to determine for themselves what blackness means to them. Forty million ways…

Overall, I thought it was a good start to the series and I’m hopeful about its development. That a sitcom would unabashedly tackle the issue of race, culture, and changing norms is compelling. Courage and finesse will be required to do it well.

And with that, let me invite you in the DC area (and those who care to travel) to a book discussion!

whos-afraid-of-postblackness

Who’s Afraid of Post Blackness?: What it Means to Be Black Now

October 18 –10am to 1pm
Sargent Memorial Presbyterian Church
5109 Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue. N. E.
Washington, DC 20019 ~ 202-396-1710
Speaker—Dr. Gayraud Wilmore
Presenters also are-Rev. Lakesha Bradshaw & Ms. Denise Anderson
RSVP to Rev. Dr. Elenora Giddings Ivory.

In Defense of Using Jeremiah 29:11

Jeremiah 29:11 has been stalking me. It is the theme scripture for a women’s prayer brunch at which I’ll be preaching later this fall. Jeremiah 29:4-14 was the focus passage for this year’s NEXT Church gathering in Minneapolis. My friend, the Reverend Casey Wait Fitzgerald at Faith and Wonder, who is a gifted biblical storyteller, produced a video for the conference in which she enlisted a slew of folks to tell the story of that passage. Guess which verse Yours Truly was given to recite. Actually, go ahead and look for yourself:

It’s a favorite and heavily-quoted passage of scripture, but not everyone is happy about how popular it is.

Many have rightfully and cogently encouraged readers of the Bible to consider the context of this passage before quoting it all willy nilly. In an article published in Relevant Magazine. Thomas Turner of International Justice Mission reminds us that the passage must be understood in the context of community. In other words, God isn’t speaking about the journey of an individual, but of an entire community. Oh yeah, let’s not forget that pesky 70 years detail mentioned in verse 10. Things might turn out alright, but it would be seven decades before that happened.

The use of Jeremiah 29:11 has even been criticized in internet memes. A few of my favorites:

jeremiah2911

jeremiah2911b

jeremiah2911c

jeremiah2911d

Listen, I get it. As someone who highly values sound biblical exegesis, I totally understand that, for many serious students of the Bible, hearing Jeremiah 29:11 quoted to speak to everything from a job loss to an unexpected illness is like the sound of nails on a chalkboard. I honor the call to contextualization. As a student of Dr. Cain Hope Felder, I’ll be the first to tell you that “Text without context is pretext.” But I’m also not convinced that this passage can’t faithfully be used to encourage someone through a personal (or communal) rough patch.

People who read the Bible for answers, comfort, or reassurance often read it with the intent of seeing into the heart and character of God. What is God like? What would God care about? Would a loving God be concerned about what I’m going through? What situations in the Bible would suggest that God cares?

Reading Jeremiah 29:11 in its context gives you insight not just into the setting of the passage, but into the character of the God who is speaking. It is our tendency to judge future behavior by past behavior. Even as the community in the text was in exile, and even as they would remain in exile for a long time, and even as this exile was largely their own fault, God’s intentions toward them were still for good. Perhaps what this suggests to the casual or careful reader is that if God’s ultimate plans in that difficulty were for good, then maybe God’s ultimate plans their own difficulties and uncomfortable places are for the same. If this is the same God we’re talking about, hopefully that same propensity toward restoration is present.

If reading Jeremiah 29:11 helps strengthen you in the face of a recent cancer diagnosis, or it helps you hold onto hope as you face foreclosure, then perhaps that’s not the time for me to regurgitate what I learned in Hebrew Bible classes. Perhaps the text is already working as it should. If given the choice between being pastoral and being pedantic in these cases, guess which one I’m going to choose.

Brothers, Are You With Us?

brothers

You wouldn’t know it from this blog, but I’m a huge football fan. I’m one of those who get the shakes right after the Superbowl because of withdrawal. I was angry when they moved the Probowl because it meant the Superbowl really was the “end”  of the season (and it no longer fell on my birthday weekend). The preseason for me is like that first swig of wine you take after a long day at work. All of that excitement has been muted this season.

I haven’t been able to reconcile my love of the game with the message the NFL has sent to women in its two-game suspension of Ray Rice, after it came to light that he knocked his then-fiance unconscious. Yesterday new video of the incident from inside the elevator surfaced, and confronted with the brutality of it, the Ravens have cut Rice and the NFL has suspended him indefinitely.

From the beginning, many of us decried the two game suspension as a slap on the wrist, especially compared with longer suspensions that have been handed down for everything from substance abuse, DUIs, and dog fighting. Knocking a woman unconscious apparently isn’t as egregious an offense. I hope you hear my sarcasm.

Coupled with that paltry penalty had been the re-victimization of Rice’s now wife. Many male friends and colleagues (and, to a lesser extent, female ones) were asking what she could have possibly done to have provoked her own abuse. Speculation abounded as to what happened before, even though we had Rice’s own confession of what happened, as well as the video from outside the elevator showing him carrying her unconscious body. Even that wasn’t enough for a unilateral rebuke of what he did or a tougher sanction from his employer. We had to ask what she said to “make” him do it. We had to ask why she stayed. We had to make her guilty, too.

I’m tired of fighting this fight. I’m tired of explaining why victims shouldn’t be victimized. I’m tired of explaining why it isn’t their fault. I’m tired of having to rationalize why a young black teen shouldn’t have to pay with his life for walking in the middle of a street. I’m tired of having to explain why it’s not okay for a group of boys to sexually assault an inebriated teen girl at a party (and to document the whole thing on social media). I’m tired of having to explain that under no circumstances is it ever okay to knock your  loved one unconscious.

Brothers, what is it going to take for you to be on our side?

What is it going to take for you to understand how frustrating it is for us to have to relive these stories of women in the overbearing shadows of their abusers time and time again? Where is the widespread outcry among the fraternal organizations on issues of domestic violence? When will you educate others on the 40-years-worth of research we’ve had on battered person syndrome instead of using this woman’s allegiance to this man as an excuse for his violence toward her? When will I see male support of these issues the way I see the sisters rally around the families and communities of young black men who are killed simply for being young black men?

Christian brothers, when will you start challenging the Bible’s assertion that you are to have dominion over my body — that it is yours? When are you going to be sensitized to the patriarchal Sitz im Leben from which these texts came and hold them to the light of spiritual revelation and good ol’ common sense? I know you can do it, because you’ve done it when the Bible seemed to condone slavery. When is that same scrutiny going to apply to us?

Brothers, are you with us? Because right now, it sure doesn’t feel like it.

Watching Our Step: A Blues for Michael Brown

 

Photo Credit: NBC News
Photo Credit: NBC News

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

-2 Corinthians 3:17

When I was a child, I would accompany my mother as she did her weekend shopping. I would always ask for a candy bar, and she’d buy it for me. But even after paying for it, she wouldn’t let me have it until we left the store. We had to be in the parking lot before I would even see that candy, if not in the car. I always wondered why that was. Why couldn’t I eat it right there in the store? We paid for it — er, she paid for it. As I got older, I understood why.

My story is nearly identical to that of my peers and elders. Whether we were taught not to put our hands in our pockets while in the store or to keep our receipts in plain view, these are the innate teachings of black and brown parents to their children: never give anyone a reason to suspect you.

The lessons  were taught without using many words. It was in the way mom would spend all day cooking before a family road trip so that we would have food for the voyage. That wasn’t just to save money, although it certainly accomplished that end. It was also because when she was a child pit stops could prove deadly for a black family. They learned to travel at night and keep it moving, stopping only when absolutely necessary. Of course she knew how much times had changed since she was little, but she also knew how much they hadn’t.

If you grew up black or brown in this country, you, too, were probably taught in some way to watch your step. You were taught how to smile at people to disarm them and let them know you were one of the “good ones.” You were taught the rules of the traffic stop for when (not if) you were pulled over by the cops. Your mother worried that your Afro or dreadlocks might keep you from getting that job you were interviewing for. She might have begged you to press your hair or wear a wig so you didn’t stand out as much. They taught you all of this to keep you safe, to make sure you had a chance. As proud and smart and wonderful as they may have been, they still knew that wherever they went, they had to watch their step.

Everywhere, that is, except for the few safe havens where they could be themselves. The barber shop. The front porch or stoop. And, of course, the church.

I always thought the reason African-American church worship is so characteristically uninhibited isn’t just due to our inherent “Africanisms” (sorry, Herskovitz), but because everywhere else in American society Black folks have to be so soul-crushingly careful. Not so with God. Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. Freedom to shout. Freedom to cry. Freedom to dance. Freedom to run. Freedom to speak. Freedom to mourn. Freedom to celebrate. Freedom to be.

And it was only fitting that this freedom would spill outside of the church doors and into the streets of New York City, Montgomery, and Chicago. It was only fitting that it would ring out on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and reach the doors of the White House. But even as it rang and even as we marched, we would learn that we still needed to watch our step.

Rodney King taught us.

Yusef Hawkins taught us.

Amadou Diallo  taught us.

Sean Bell taught us.

And the lesson continues. It continues on the front porches of private citizens who too quickly assume the worst of someone who comes to them in need of help. It continues on BART train platforms. It continues on the sidewalks of a gated community in Sanford, Florida. It continues in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri.

Trayvon, Oscar, Rekia, Jordan, Renisha, Michael — I’m so sorry. If only teaching you could have saved you.

Howard University students standing in solidarity with Michael Brown. Photo credit: Urban Cusp.
Howard University students standing in solidarity with Michael Brown. Photo credit: Urban Cusp.

Suicide, Depression, and the Church

Depression

As the world reels over the apparent suicide of Robin Williams, the harsh realities of mental health are once again in front of us. And I am, once again, keenly aware of how unprepared some of us in the church are to deal with it.

Historically, the church has had a very muddy relationship with mental illness, addiction, and suicide. To its credit, the church has begun in fairly recent years to start addressing these realities holistically and step away  from the antiquated ideas it had once promulgated from its pulpits. But some of those ideas and attitudes linger, and it will take us some time to purge of them completely.

If you grew up in the church hearing that suicide is a sin, here’s why:

In the 4th and 5th centuries, a sect of Christianity called the Donatists (named after bishop Donatus Magnus) flourished in North Africa. They were known for their staunch opposition to any Christian who had formerly renounced the faith in the face of widespread persecution by Diocletian and now wanted to come back to the fold. Notably, they believed that suicide was a form of martyrdom, and that it would be better for a Christian to kill oneself than to be apostate. In his book, City of God, Augustine of Hippo vehemently opposed this view because in his estimation suicide was a violation of the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” And since you couldn’t repent of such a sin if you were dead, there could be no salvation for you. It’s Augustine’s influence on this subject that has most heavily informed the church’s approach to suicide for centuries.

While Donatism was indeed heresy, Augustine’s conclusion actually misses the mark. The Hebrew word used in that commandment, ratsakh, refers to unlawful killings such as premeditated murder which produce “blood guilt.” It does not refer to killings made in self defense, but killings that betray the fabric of the community. The commandment addresses righteous interactions with other human beings, not one’s own self. In fact, Talmudic understanding of this commandment is that murder can emcompass public shaming, slander, and personal attacks. Jesus himself even spoke about this. It is not a commandment against suicide.

That is not to say that we should encourage people to kill themselves. But what we have done is emcumbered people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts and the family members of people who have committed suicide in the most heartless of ways — and we’ve used God to do it.

Even as the church strives to become more aware of suicide and mental illness, there is still a tendency to dismiss illnesses such as depression and anxiety as indicative of a lack of faith. Schizophrenia and psychosis are even labeled as “possession” in many communities. As a person of faith, I do not discount the connection between body and spirit. I believe they are inextricable. But when it comes to mental illness, why do we ignore the “body” component? These are physical illnesses with identifiable physiological causes. If a sister or brother in our midst is diagnosed with cancer, we may pray for them, but we also fully expect them to see their oncologist. Too often, we expect people with crippling depression and anxiety to just “pray it away.”

Suicidal people are not selfish. They are sick. And what kind of church would we be if we turned our back on the sick?

When I dealt with crippling clinical depression years ago, I wish I could say the church took me more seriously. But the truth is the only people who cared for me holistically were my psychiatrist and my therapist. I don’t fault the church for this; they simply didn’t know any better. And the fact is society as a whole, both religious and secular, could stand a better education in this matter. But because so many people come to their faith communities when they are struggling with these things (because who else is going to support you and sit with you in your grief like your faith community?) we need to be particularly prepared and armed with life-saving information and understanding.

The sad reality is we won’t be able to save everyone. We won’t be able to stop every single person from completing suicide, even in the church. But we could be agents of healing for those who are struggling. We could be the reason someone seeks help. We could offer a hand to hold on the path to wholeness. We could be that lone point of light for the person who is in their last days before a completed suicide. And we could be the arms that wrap around the family members who try desperately to get their loved ones help to no avail, and are eventually left behind to pick up the pieces. We can at least do that.

Resources:

 

The Church Sex Abuse We Don’t Talk About

ashamed

This week I read an article from Samantha Pugsley in which she bravely recounted her upbringing in the church and how it nearly ruined her sexually.

No, she was not molested by a minister or trusted adult (at least I hope not). She, like nearly all youth in the church, was taught that sex was reserved for marriage and that she should save herself for her husband. She was one of many young girls who took the “true love waits” pledge, stating that they would abstain from sex, sexual thoughts, and anything that would lead to sexual arousal. As alluring as fantastic content from websites similar to https://www.nu-bay.com/categories/517/ladyboy are.

This would be all fine and good, except that for Samantha, she was taught from a very young age that her identity in Christ was directly linked to her sexuality and her sex life, so much so that she came to define who she was by it. She was taught, perhaps not intentionally, that conversion equaled sexual abstinence. That was the hallmark of her faith — being a member of the V-Squad. Otherwise, who was she in Christ? And who was she at all?

She’d spent a lifetime being taught that sex was essentially bad, or at least something about it was. So when she finally lost her virginity — on her wedding night — she couldn’t resolve that what she had done was good, natural, and okay. She still felt dirty.

Thankfully, she has a loving, supportive husband, but she still isn’t able to reconcile being a sexual being with being a Christian. While this saddens me deeply, I can’t help but understand it. It’s the story of so many of us who grew up in the church — especially girls. And it’s why I’m leery of so-called “purity culture,” not because I think that abstinence is bad (please, God, let my daughter wait!), but because I know that this is an area in which the church has likely done more harm than good. Much of these notions the church has had about purity, virginity, and girls’ bodies are profoundly (if unintentionally) abusive. It truly is a form of sex abuse in the church that no one talks about — and is, in fact, often sanctioned by the church.

Here are my issues with “purity culture” and the environment in which Ms. Pugsley was raised:

1. Abstinence is presented as a means of justification. Girls are taught to keep themselves “pure” because in doing so they show themselves righteous before God. Speaking from a Reformed perspective, the only thing that justifies us before God is grace. Justification is God’s purview. We can’t earn grace by what we do or don’t do.

We communicate to these girls that if they give it up before marriage, they are somehow ruined or spoiled. Should a person slip up and find themselves outside of the will of God, they need to know they are not ruined. God’s grace and love covers them. I think the church is so afraid of their youth making poor decisions that they go to great lengths to keep them away from certain behaviors and attitudes. But they (and we) cannot afford to live without grace. We will all fall short. Of course, that’s not an excuse to do whatever we want, but we need to remember that we can never “ruin” ourselves so badly that we’re out of God’s redemptive reach. And if we somehow could, then that means God is not omnipotent, Christ is powerless, and there is no reason for us to believe. Abstinence that is done out of a desire to be justified has missed the mark. Abstinence should be practiced as an expression of faith.

2. There’s an inordinate emphasis on sex life. In exercise circles, there’s a saying: Friends don’t let friends skip leg day. Otherwise, your upper body is ripped and strong, while you’re lower body is scrawny and weak. Putting this much emphasis on sex is like spiritually skipping “leg day.”

When your identity in Christ is so heavily connected to your sexuality, other areas of life remain untouched. What about in your giving? Your loving? Your service? Your embrace of the outcast and the downtrodden? Discipleship is all-encompassing; it doesn’t stop at what you do with your genitalia. Why the hyper-focus on “lusts of the flesh,” and even then only certain lusts?

3. It’s inequitable. Somewhere in America, a purity ball for girls and their fathers is being planned. Meanwhile, countless sons are being ushered off to football practice, where the locker room will be rife with lewd jokes and sexual innuendo while no one so much as bats an eye. We do not communicate abstinence and sexual responsibility in the same way to boys and girls. Girls are taught to save themselves. Boys, not so much. Girls are taught how not to get raped. Boys are not taught how not to rape. While it doesn’t end at the church, the church bears a lot of responsibility for dissonant messages our boys and girls receive concerning sex.

4. Girls are unfairly promised that their lives will be better for waiting. Waiting to have sex can keep us from a sundry of problems, including having children we can’t support, catching diseases we can’t get rid of, and making poor choices in partners who really want nothing more than to get off. But simply because we do things “God’s way” doesn’t preclude us from difficulties. After all, the rain falls on the just and the unjust, right? Jesus even told his disciples that they would have some troubles. Following God doesn’t mean that life will be all rainbows and butterflies, and we need to stop suggesting this to our kids. We would do better to encourage them in the knowledge that God is near to us especially when we’re brokenhearted.

And to be clear, you can wait until marriage and still marry a jackass. That doesn’t necessarily mean you did something wrong. It means you married a human being who, just like you, is in constant need of God’s grace and mercy.

5. Sex should be private. We look sideways at a person who talks constantly about their many sexual conquests. Why, then, should we parade virginity? Encourage it, yes, but parade it? When we do this, we put the weight of the world on these girls, so in the event that they fall — or even if they wait, as Ms. Pugsley did — the crash hurts a million times more.

Putting girls on these pedestals of purity fails to communicate to them what intimacy means. Intimacy means it’s between you, your partner, and, of course, God. Not your daddy. Not your church. Everyone doesn’t need to know when the proverbial cherry has been popped. Your body does not belong to us. Open conversations about sex are necessary, but that doesn’t mean you have to be put on display, whether you’re virginal or wanton. I think if we were more concerned about a true conversion of the heart rather than simply regulating actions, more of our young people would wait — and for the right reasons.

Ultimately, I wish healing for Ms. Pugsley and the legion of people who have been sexually damaged by both church and society. I’m sad that we use sex to bring people — girls and women in particular — into subjection, when it was always meant to be a gift to be enjoyed. But I hold onto hope that we can and will get it right one day.

How do you think we could do a better of job of addressing sexuality in the church?