Thursday, May 16, 2013

Promised vs. Engaged

Note: The promise ring I reference in this writing is in reference to a place holder for an engagement ring, not the promise/purity ring worn to demonstrate sexual purity prior to marriage.

Over the past few days my mom and I have had some interesting discussions involving this trend in relationships that I have noticed becoming pronounced amongst my friends. I do not know if anyone else is observing this particular phenomena amongst couples, especially Christian ones, but I find myself wary of the consequences it may bring. It is yet another affect of our dating relationships that I, personally, believe will prove more harmful than helpful. It grants the feeling of security and commitment when it, in actuality, puts full commitment on a stand still, satiating the feminine party and allowing the men to continue to build gumption enough to ask the all important question, on bended knee. It is a way to test the waters and suss out the possibility of rejection. It is the definition of actuarial science: probability, statistics, and assessment of risk. It is ridiculous. It is this idea of the "promise" ring, or in my family's derisive vocabulary "engaged to be engaged."

Promise rings, historically, have been a tradition, possibly beginning as early as the Middle Ages. These rings were, generally, given from a man to a woman with whom express intention of marriage was being made, but the money to wed or the financial stability to keep a wife was lacking without a man's commission. Ability to wed was entirely financially driven and matches were often subject to the approval of family or wealthy patrons. No physical contact of any kind was allowed prior to the wedding and couples engaged to be married were under strict supervision, unlike today's relational culture. Promise rings, however, were a statement of engagement with the idea that a wedding ring or a wedding was the thing that could not be afforded.

The trend I see amongst my friends and fellow believers, however, is a corruption of the original intention of the promise ring: its use a place holder for engagement, hence a ring stating we are engaged to be engaged. It is a ring that signifies that a man loves you and plans to marry you, but who has not yet proposed. It is something given, with the expectation of a proposal and proper ring soon to follow. That, right there, is the problem. It is commitment without commitment. It is the binding of yourself to another person, but not officially because he has not formally asked for your hand. It is an outrageous notion.

I believe that this practice causes great harm. It leaves people in a state of waiting. I do not believe in waiting, unless it is a very good reason. I am sorry, but a man is not one of those good reasons. He can either propose and make it official to everyone that you ARE getting married or not. There should be no in between, no ring saying I am going to propose soon. No! You can propose or you can leave. Those should be the two choices. I am not suggesting that at the time he presents you with a promise ring you should leave him. I am saying that he needs to understand, upfront, that you have expectations and a promise ring is not one of them. You want a proposal, a wedding, and to be him. A promise ring practically declares the inevitable, so I do not understand why it is in practice in the first place. Most of my friends who had promise rings got engaged within the following six months and are now married, others are expecting an engagement any week now. Why not just skip the promise ring all together?! If you know you're going to propose, spending money on a promise ring is uncalled for, I don't care if you believe it to be romantic.

Ladies, do not compromise. I hate it when people say, "Ladies, don't settle." We all settle. Everyone settles. People that don't settle on one person are called man-whores or players or easy women. So telling us women not to settle for the best man is ridiculous. What we should be saying is DON'T COMPRISE. Do not you dare compromise your values or your beliefs or who you know yourself to be and what you want out of life. If you refuse to compromise, you will be able to settle down with a man who is at your level and you won't be "settling" for someone less. Time to remove that tired and treacherous statement from all vocabulary, particularly believers' conversations, once and for all.

This is why I refuse to compromise on this notion of promised vs. engaged. Promised is now the precursor to engagement. It is an unnecessary and toxic middle step. You have to be able to move on with your life, to take the next step, especially because my friends, my age are marrying. We are still young, promise rings and the waiting for the proposal keep both parties stagnant. It lets men take more time. If they don't know if they are ready to marry when they offer you a promise ring, they should not be giving you one. That is why it is so damaging. It still gives him time to decide when to you that ring screams that he already knows and you have found your "One" (another myth I won't get into here).

Do NOT compromise. Promise rings are silly. I believe they have two exceptions to their use and only two: #1) a military relationship, in which the boyfriend is deployed or #2) a relationship where distance outside of military deployment is an issue. In these circumstances I believe the ring should be one the man already owns, not one he purchased--that is an engagement ring--and that ring signifies, "I will come back for you." It is a promise to come back, not a promise of proposal.

Promising to propose is hollow. Promising to marry is significant. You can begin making plans together, you can begin having those more difficult more intimate conversations. You can begin building a life in the same direction. A promise ring means none of that. Promises can be broken just like engagements are, but to treat a promise ring with equal weight of an engagement ring is treading water indefinitely. People have drowned for less. I don't want you to be one of them.

I know I may have offended some of you, perhaps even more of you than I realize. I know I have some friends who are currently promised and waiting on their own proposals that may become quite upset at my words. I only say them because I love you and I have seen how we date and the damage it causes and how fallen we are and how we complicate relationships more than we have to. I think promise rings complicate relationships. They are meant to be temporary: the dog-tags given back to the sailor when his ship returns from sea; the ring given back to the man who travelled abroad for six months for work or school or adventure but came back to pursue you, like he promised. He kept his promise it is time to move forward.

Perhaps together, perhaps apart.

But, you have to move forward. You have to keep living your life. You cannot spend it waiting. If you spend your life waiting without owning your expectations, I fear you will always be waiting. I want you to chase the life God has planned for you and I want you to run wild within the boundaries of that, with faith like a child and an awe and wonder that is so often lost as we get older. I want you to find someone who can run wild with you, who can pursue their own calling while supporting yours and you supporting theirs. I want you to experience sacrificial love, but not like this. Not by sacrificing on the words and glitter of a promise. Sacrificial love is a vow, overcome by death, hardened in the line of failure, and ultimately triumphant. It does not fear the peaks or valleys. It steps out in faith, in courage, in union.

Do not compromise. Do not lose yourself waiting for the proposal and planning your future around that expectation. Live the life God gave you and continue to live it with the person you love, the person who makes you laugh, the person who believes in you and what God has set in place for you, the person who makes you feel most like yourself, the person who reveals yet another side of God you may not have seen without them.

Keep focus on the vow, it protects its promises.

Expect a man to own to it.

Allow God to protect you from the ones that won't, until He introduces the one that will.

Protect your hearts, sisters. For the heart is a muscle and therefore, cannot be broken, but crushed.

A worthy man will ask on bended knee, not give a promise stating his intent to do so.

Untangle the deceptions. Lighten the burden. Increase communication. Lessen the heartache.

Never forget He loved you first. Never forget His love is perfect. Never forget you belong to Him.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

You're a Virgin?! Why?

My first exposure to the notion that I was sheltered came my freshman year of high school. Not only had my family moved 3/4 the way across the country (Washington to Pennsylvania), but I was contending with high school students I did not know how to handle. I was the oddity, that girl that had moved seven times. "Is your father military?" is always the question I get, even now at 22 years old. Families do not tend to move around a lot, at least not the ones I now found myself immersed in. It was the opposite of families I was raised with.

My father works in nuclear waste clean-up and nuclear power plant construction--when one job is done it is on to the next. The average is about two and a half years, three is we're lucky. The fact that we have had the same Pennsylvania address for eight years is outrageous. Perhaps I should insert a caveat with that: it is not for lack of trying. We were supposed to move after I graduated high school, but that never happened and I returned to Colorado for three years of university after having resided there a decade previously. My most complete memories begin with the three and a half years of my life in the Rockies.

The commonwealth of Pennsylvania, however, is structured differently, especially my regionally famous high school, which I hated for the first two years of attendance. I was picked on for being the ferocious animal rights activist (yes, I was that girl...) as classmates placed pictures of butchered wolves in my notebooks and slaughtered horses in my textbooks. I gained my first non-familialy designated nickname, because I don't know you well enough to tell you those (and if I do, we'll talk sometime): freshman. The junior and senior girls on my bus called me that. So did one of the theater girls.

My parents sounded overbearing to all of them. I never went to parties. I left Washington without telling this one basketball player that I "liked" him and did not call him when he wrote his number in my yearbook the week prior to my cross-country jaunt. I never did drugs or smoked (my father threatened to disinherit me if I did). I never swore worse than utilizing "crap." Outside of a sip of Budweiser at six (disgusting, my father declared he would never have to worry about me in high school), some Don Pérignon for finishing unpacking our house in PA, and a taste of peach schnapps my father poured into his orange juice at dinner one night my junior year, my first experience with alcohol was on my 21st birthday, which left some people I attended Christian university with, mystified. I had never slept with a boy, let alone kissed one, which has not changed.

The girls called me "freshman" because I had freshman morals. I did not do anything I was suppose to do in high school, like rebel. Clearly, these girls did not understand my idea of rebellion. Moving all over growing up makes running away appealing--rebelling is not always sex, drugs, and rock n' roll. As these girls graduated, however, their conversations grew distant. I disliked their stories of hooking up with their brother's roommate when they drove up for a weekend visitation at his college (what they did not realize is that his brother's roommate or friend won't exist like that if he ever finds out). I disliked hearing how not being easy made me worth less, that my lack of experience defined me.

It was never a difficult decision for me growing up. My cousin had a promise ring, vowing her virginity until marriage and I grew up respecting her approach to men, even the confidence she possessed in telling some guys to walk on because they made her sick. She married when I was in middle school and her fiancé said that in the weeks leading up to the wedding he grew anxious because he wanted nothing more than to remove her promise ring and hurl it at the wall across their honeymoon suite. As I am now a decade older than I was then, I can say that I greatly appreciate that imagery and would very much like my husband one day to actually do something similarly dramatic in deed and not just in word. I would, however, like my ring back, so it cannot go down a drain or out a window or get fed to the dog.

The first, outright, challenge to my promise ring (which is a classic silver band on my left ring finger) came the summer after my sophomore year. It was during a poetry seminar at a two-week writing institute I attended every summer. The only guy in my group brought up my ring and I explained that it was my promise to God, myself, my parents, and my (future) husband, that I will only sleep with him when we are married. Immediately, he declared my promise unrealistic and impossible to achieve so it was a waste of my time even attempting such a feat. "You won't make it to the alter a virgin," he insisted. "It cannot be done." I explained that my cousin had and she was happily married. He brushed it off, "She must have lied. No one can do it." The conversation spiraled from there. One of my friends tried to defend, explaining that it was my choice and she found it admirable I stood up for it. He would have none of it, "Even if you date a super duper Christian guy, you won't make it." Even looking back on that conversation from six years ago, I firmly believe he won our argument, even if he truly didn't. I viewed it as a loss because no matter what I had said, his opinion never changed. He called me crazy and fool-hardy and said he won't be surprised when I have multiple partners before getting married. I climbed into my mom's car twenty minutes later crying. I had never defended my purity before and I believed I had been steamrolled.

I have gotten a lot better since then. I have friends that believe the same as I do and we encourage one another. I have met many stand-up men, both Christian and non, and my faith is not utterly shattered by these conversations that whomever I marry will expect more of me than what I am prepared to give. As one of my favorite abstinence speakers said, "No ringy, no dingy." I cannot help but laugh at the crass, but utter truth of that statement. Just because I have found a solid foundation does not mean my views go unchallenged. In Christian circles, the perception is married or virgin upon sight of my ring, a quick question eliminates the first option. In non-Christain circles, the assumption is engaged or married, followed by shock at the actual meaning, often genuine confusion.

Back in the fall I had a conversation with a coworker, a man who perceives himself as God's gift to women physically and in all aspects of the bedroom because he is adventurous. You do with that information what you will, I am not elaborating more than that. He asked about my ring and I explained, which some people think is my first mistake, but I am not ashamed of what it stands for. If men know upfront they are either going to respect my decision or be completely bitter. It narrows down your options, and trust me, what you have left is where you should be looking in the first place. He asked why, outside of my faith, what practical reason could possibly exist for such an exception. The basis of his logical argument was this, "If you don't sleep with a man before you marry him, how will you know if he's bad in bed? You're just setting yourself up for lousy sex the rest of your marriage. That's why us atheists introduce sex into relationships (pardon his sweeping generalization that all non-believers are loose). We want to make sure we're compatible before we make a larger commitment to each other." Clearly, his interaction with virgins are limited, if not singular to me. My only rebuttal to this flawed argument, "If I have never slept with any man, but my husband, how would I know he's bad in bed? I would have no one to compare him to. And besides, isn't that a piece of the fun of being married? Even if it is, what you call "bad sex," it won't stay that way. Trust me."

Regardless of the fact that when I work with him he still seems unsure what exactly to do with me, since he cannot talk about his sexual exploits, his opinion on the matter has not changed. Neither has mine. So, to answer everyones' questions: Yes, I am a virgin. Yes, I am proud of that. No, you will not be able to change my mind. Is there fear associated with my honeymoon? Of course, but I have also never had a serious relationship (or really even a non-serious one) and if I were dating the man I am to marry, I trust that God will grant me serenity. I have been told that security like that overcomes fears we cannot even imagine living without. Is it a struggle? For me, a lot of time, no, but other times the worry over whether or not I will die a virgin overwhelms me. It is irrational, but I don't think I want to leave this earth without experiencing the most original human bond created by God. To say that I would feel cheated, even at 22, is an understatement.

And yes, some days the thought of sleeping with a guy sounds wonderful, I admit it, freely. I'm not perfect. I don't want you to think I'm this unblemished little flower. I find men attractive and thereby, distracting, just like any other woman. But it is a constant reminding and realigning of the goal: unity in marriage, without intrusion. Honor to God and my parents because I had the courage to stand up to everyone who said I'm crazy, that it's impossible for me to make it to the alter a virgin, and that even dating a wonderful Christian man is not enough.

And now, six years later, I understand the flaw in my very first conflict over purity. Everything he said reflected human will-power and self-control. We have them and demonstrate these skills, but they are intrinsically corrupted. I understand that I cannot do this alone. I understand that this is something I share with Deus. I understand that the support of my friends and family, including men, makes all the difference.

What you need to understand is that my decision is none of your concern. That was my mistake: believing that he had won an argument that he had no stake in. He just wants to see me fail.

When you have some stake in my purity, you can come and talk, but otherwise, you can stop asking, "Why?" It's a tired question and I will give you the same answer every time because, in the end, it is between me and God, it has never been between me and you anyway.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

When Words Fail

“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever should draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Hebrews 11:6

It was the spring of my sophomore year and I spent a lot of time in the secretary’s office at my college. She had an incredible sense of humor and she made everyone feel lighter, even when the burdens of life weighed us down. She was my sounding board and I discussed everything with her. Her interns always chimed in with their thoughts and perspectives.

On this particular day, I was asking for advice on my testimony. I had never formally shared it and now the group I met with once a week had asked me to be the testimony of the night. I did not know where to begin. Should I give a quick overview of my life and then testify from my current struggles and how my youth leader’s suicide had quickly unraveled the people around me? Or, should I talk about my life more whole picture? I was at a loss.

One of the interns looked at me and offered, “Well, Sheridan, you could do that, but you could start at your conversion moment too. That way everyone understands how you came to Christ and you can proceed from a common ground.” Unfortunately for her, I do not have a conversion moment. I was raised in the Church and do not remember a time where I did not know Christ as Savior and Son of God. My faith has grown more personal since high school, but I have never not believed. It was half the reason I was struggling, I did not know where to start. The secretary made some suggestions, but her intern appeared dumbfounded. The only thing she said, “I’m sorry, Sheridan, but I think it’s kind of sad you don’t have a conversion story.”

Words. Spoken in that moment. Destructive. Words--fallen just like our nature.

Language is one of the most powerful tools we possess as humans. It enables us to communicate with one another across unspeakable barriers. Words, though, have this double-edged tendency to be both our greatest achievement and our greatest downfall.

One simple statement, spoken without malice, passed judgment on my worthiness to offer my testimony, but further than that, questioned my salvation and faith in Christ. Granted, she may never have intended for me to feel that way, but the way it was spoken—with shock and pity—communicated these things. We can never judge someone’s faith by the existence of a conversion story--many may not have one. Belittling the value of my testimony because I have never slept around or done drugs, waited to drink until I was 21, and do not remember a defining moment where I did not have God and now do, is a disservice to the stories I have within me. Whether or not someone’s faith story pleases you is not the issue, the issue is do you recognize God’s fingerprints in the faith they have?

~Prayer from St. Augustine of Hippo~

O Lord my God, I believe in you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Insofar as I can, insofar as you have given me the power, I have sought you. I became weary and I labored.  O Lord my God, my sole hope, help me to believe and never to cease seeking you. Grant that I may always and ardently seek out your countenance. Give me the strength to seek you, for you help me to find you and you have more and more given me the hope of finding you.   Here I am before you with my firmness and my infirmity. Preserve the first and heal the second. Here I am before you with my strength and my ignorance. Where you have opened the door to me, welcome me at the entrance; where you have closed the door to me, open to my cry; enable me to remember you, to understand you, and to love you. Amen.