Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Piece Off

It is nearly the New Year here in America's heartland. But within the borders of Christendom, January 1 has long held religious significance unrelated to our modern calendars. As the doctrines of Christianity evolved, certain highlights of Jesus' biography took on larger-than-life importance, and were incorporated into the liturgical calendar for annual commemoration.

Last week, Christians celebrated the birth of a male in Roman-occupied Judea. By the reckoning used at that time, the first of January is the eighth day of Christ-Mass, making it...

     ...the day Jesus' blood was first shed by men in obedience to the Law of Moses...

          ...the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ! Oh, boy!

Circumcision of Christ, detail from Twelve Apostles Altar (Zwölf-Boten-Altar).
Painting by 
Friedrich Herlin of Nördlingen, 1466. Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. John 1:14

On the eighth day… it was time to circumcise the child...  Luke 2:21

And the child grew and became strong... Luke 2:40

Medieval theologians disagreed about what happened to this Holy Foreskin, or Holy Prepuce, as it is formally known. Some believed it returned to heaven with the ascending Christ. Others that it stayed behind on earth. It was said that Mary kept it as a souvenir. Charlemagne claimed an angel brought it to him--and he presented it to the Pope. A 16th-century Greek theologian, Leo Allatius, wrote a speculative essay suggesting that this particular bit of divine flesh stopped halfway between earth and heaven, forming the rings of Saturn!

When Agnes Blannbekin hit puberty in the thirteenth century, the Austrian peasant girl developed a craving for the Communion wafers offered as the Body of Christ. She claimed she could taste him in the Eucharist. A few years later, she joined a convent and became a vegetarian, Christ's flesh being all the meat she desired. Agnes heard voices, had visions involving bright lights, and even experienced orgasms during her spiritual "revelations" which sometimes involved being kissed by Christ. She became obsessed with the foreskin of the infant Jesus which she believed she felt on her tongue and swallowed sweetly at least one hundred times. Her confessor recorded many of Agnes' revelations, some of which were considered obscene. According to one, she was told that Christ's foreskin was resurrected when the rest of his body was returned to life after the crucifixion. Agnes lived as a nun in Vienna until her death in 1315.

David Friedman's book A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis reports on another visionary saint: "In the fourteenth century, Bridget of Sweden had a vision in which Mary appeared to her with the relic in her hand and told the future saint she gave the treasure to the apostle John." Bridget also described the foreskin's taste as sweet.

The mystic St. Catherine of Siena began having visions at the tender age of seven. She became a nun to escape "her family's attempts to marry her off". She claimed that Jesus himself cut off his Holy Foreskin and gave it to her to wear as a wedding ring. Catherine insisted she could see the foreskin when she looked at her ring until her death in 1380 at the age of 33.

In a 2007 study called "The Circumcision of Jesus Christ", psychiatrist and professor Johan Mattelaer and his colleagues explored historical references to the event.
"In Belgium alone there are no fewer than 54 listed works in churches, museums and public buildings relating to Christ's circumcision..."
"...The Dominican scholar AV Müller, writing in 1907, could list no fewer than 13 separate locations, all of which claimed to possess the sacred foreskin."
According to an article in the Guardian covering Mattelaer's research:
The study also reports that King Henry V stole the genuine article - the one so identified by Pope Clement VII - from the French in 1422, and that "the monks of Chartres were only able to recover it with great difficulty".
David Farley writes for Slate that the rediscovery of a foreskin relic in France in 1900 made the Vatican uncomfortable.
"...the Vatican decreed that anyone who wrote about or spoke the name of the holy foreskin would face excommunication.
Vatican II even took Jesus' circumcision day off the church calendar. But then 1960's hippies moving into the Italian ghost town of Calcata were intrigued by the "quirky" relic that had long been deemed the most legit in its category. They wouldn't shut up about the unique tourist attraction. The local priest eventually took it into his home for safekeeping in a shoebox in his closet. And in 1983, the piece of God mysteriously disappeared, leading to speculation that it may have been stolen by the Vatican.   

Have a happy Piece-off-God's-Penis Day!

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Real Maria von Trapp: An Arranged Marriage

The Sound of Music made Maria von Trapp's name famous in the United States. But Maria's real story gets lost in the Broadway makeover of her life. On coming to America, Maria Augusta Kutschera von Trapp wrote two memoirs: The Story of the Trapp Family Singers in 1949, and Maria in 1972, both of which I devoured as a young person. My mother was given Maria's first book to read when she was a student at Sacred Heart Hospital School of Practical Nursing. It left an indelible mark on her religious faith and on her parenting.

In no way can Maria von Trapp be described as "voiceless". She loved to speak, frankly and bluntly, and she did it often, lecturing audiences all over the world. Unfortunately, this sometimes meant depriving her family, especially her daughters, of their own voices. This, according to Maria, is her own story.

Maria was born on an Austrian train as her young mother was returning to Vienna after an extended holiday visit to her parents. When Maria was just two years old, she lost her mother to pneumonia--and her father to grief-filled wandering. Little Maria was raised by a kind but elderly cousin who had already raised Maria's half-brother (after their father lost his first wife, the boy's mother, in a tragic accident). The woman was very religious, taking Maria to morning Mass and reading her Bible stories which sometimes horrified the grieving child's sensibilities.
"Once my foster mother found me in a corner curled up over the Bible as I pierced the eyes of those bad men torturing our dear Lord--with a crochet hook." (Maria)
Maria grew up lonely and very anxious, with a large family of imaginary friends for company. When her father passed away, the young orphan was placed in the care of an abusive relative with a not-yet-diagnosed mental illness. The abusive foster father was both an atheist and a socialist and raised Maria to be critical of religious faith. When she escaped his home for the progressive teachers college, independent at last, the outspoken teen engaged a well-known Jesuit professor in argument. The white-haired priest convinced her that she was simply ignorant, that she had been born a Catholic and was Catholic still, and absolved her of her sins: "Ego Te Absolo".

The young woman left in such a daze that she walked into an oncoming streetcar and was knocked unconscious, but was otherwise unhurt.
"I got the book the priest suggested and saw... cold facts which were the opposite of what I had learned from my uncle and schoolteachers."  (Maria)
Maria as a college student
The college student felt she was entering a completely new life. After graduation, she joined some classmates for a hike in the high Alps. Watching a glorious sunset from a glacier overwhelmed and inspired her. And stirred her imagination. She would give her greatest gift back to nature's creator. In dramatic fashion, she would give up her love of mountain nature hikes. She would seclude herself in a dark medieval convent. Leaving her friends to camp on the mountain without her, she walked straight to a train station. Once in the city, she asked a policeman for directions to the strictest convent in town.

Tanned, wearing a backpack, with a coil of rope on her shoulder, and an ice pick in her hand, impetuous Maria asked to see "the boss" of the convent and announced she had come to stay.

Though the progressive and fun-loving young teacher hardly fit into the ancient Benedictine Abbey of Nonnberg, for two years Maria thrived on the feeling of security and sisterhood. Though she gained notoriety as a troublemaker, Maria herself could see that she was finally learning a degree of self-discipline. She used her college training daily as a teacher of fifth graders, a creative and demanding job which she loved. The free spirit had a home at last. She wanted to stay forever.

And then a widowed Navy Captain contacted the Abbey, looking for a teacher for his daughter, also named Maria. Little Maria von Trapp was recovering from illness; the doctor had recommended a year of homeschooling. And so, within hours, Maria arrived at the gate of Villa Trapp, prepared to spend nine months as a personal tutor.

Now Maria, who had felt alone for most of her life, fell in love with the Baron's well-behaved motherless children. As the weeks went by they warmed to her; the young ones crawled into her lap and hung on her stories in front of the fireplace. The family was already musical, and Maria adored music. She taught them her favorite folk songs and introduced new outdoor games with gusto. Here she could enjoy her favorite things while making children happy and  following the Will of God. She could play volleyball, go to Mass, whistle any tune she liked, and even eat well!

Maria felt sorry for the sweet, introverted, and maybe slightly depressed Baron, whom she found likable enough. Though she had no love for him, she utterly adored his children and prayed God would send them a kind new mother--not like his reluctant girlfriend who wanted to send the children away to live in boarding schools.

Even when gentle Georg von Trapp finally fell in love with and proposed to her, Maria still fully intended to return to the convent. "One cannot enter a convent and marry at the same time," she tried to explain to him.

When he asked if that was her final decision, she relied on the Abbey for backup.
"I have something you don't have. I have a Mistress of Novices. Whatever she says I'd consider as coming as from God. It is the Will of God. Let me go and ask her."  (TFS)
But the Reverend Mother herself broke the news to Maria:
" "We prayed to the Holy Ghost, and we held council, and it became clear to us that it is the Will of God that you marry the Captain and be a good mother to his children." "
"I had wanted to know the Will of God; but now when I met it, I refused to accept it. All my happiness was shattered and my heart, which had so longed to give itself entirely to God, felt rejected."  (TFS)
Maria returned to the von Trapp estate and tearfully gave Georg the news: "They said I have to marry you!"

And in November of 1927, Maria Kutschera did marry Georg von Trapp. He was forty-seven. She was twenty-two and ready to serve God "where He needed her most".

But Maria had large gaps in her sex education. And she still had her heart set on being a nun. In her mind, she was merely "extending her leave of absence" in order to raise the Baron's children. Martina was only four, so she would need a mother's care the longest.
"There wasn't any question of having children. I was only to bring up those he had already had.... But I made one fatal mistake: I thought it only happens if you want children." (Maria)
She went so far as to tell her fiance on the eve of their wedding that she still thought marriage an unnecessary step. They could still raise his kids together, after all. The shy former submarine captain only squeezed her hand. She was a college graduate, after all. Surely she didn't...? What had the nuns told her?? Perhaps he began to understand after the ceremony when she suggested he go ahead on the honeymoon and she would follow later.
"When I did understand it--it was too late." (Maria)
The betrayal was sharp. She had offered her chaste self to God and He had given her to someone else! Maria uses the story of Rachel, Leah, and Jacob to describe her feelings of being switched out. "Blazing mad", she told God she didn't want Him anymore, either. For weeks, she found excuses to avoid going to church. But on Christmas Day, she went to confession and decided to let God back into her life. And from then on, the von Trapps always celebrated that as their real wedding anniversary.

Over the months that followed, Maria did truly fall in love with her husband. And she dedicated herself wholeheartedly to her seven stepchildren.

Maria was so unprepared for her own first labor and delivery that she asked the midwife, "Will it take longer than half an hour?" Georg held Maria's hand like the old pro he was until Rosmarie made her debut at last. Though Maria had eight pregnancies in all, only three infants survived, due to problems with Maria's kidneys (a complication of misdiagnosed scarlet fever). Her youngest surviving child was certainly unplanned and a specialist in Munich even recommended abortion, believing another pregnancy was a threat to Maria's life. Being Catholics, the von Trapps were offended by the idea. Fortunately, mother and baby came through all right.

Through financial reverses, the beginning of a family choir, extensive travel across Europe, miscarriages, unplanned pregnancy, multiple sea voyages across the Atlantic, learning English, finding schools, more singing tours, a new baby, applying for citizenship, and the establishment of a music camp, farm, and ski lodge in Vermont, Maria more than had her hands full.

There was not always enough food for the large family. They squeezed into hotel rooms, and later a house that was too small, especially with a newborn. To save money, Maria decided the women of the family would continue wearing their traditional Austrian costumes instead of transitioning to contemporary American styles. She birthed Johannes at home, an oddity in white Philadelphia at that time. She used spankings to control her unruly little ones, especially the mischievous little Lorli, to the grief of the sensitive and conscientious Rosmarie. Sometimes these two youngest sisters were sent to religious boarding schools while the rest of the family traveled.

In the end, Rosmarie suffered much more than her naughty sister, having a "nervous breakdown" shortly after her father died in 1947. Rosmarie was eighteen, and overwhelmed with anxiety. She had been nine when the family left Austria, and unlike her older siblings, she was not asked for her opinion. Years of poverty, the move to America, the incessant travel, the public performances in multiple languages, new schools, family separations, living out of suitcases, two big brothers being drafted into World War II, plus her mother's repeated pregnancies and miscarriages had all been traumatic enough for Maria's shy firstborn. Losing her patient and soft-spoken father, who had always comforted her nightmares, was too much. Rosmarie disappeared for days. When she was found, she was treated with electroshock therapy, which she later described as "awful", and  psychiatric treatment.
"I tried so desperately hard never to give my husband's children the impression that I was their step-mother that I hardly dared to take care of my own babies as they came along. I left them mostly to their older sisters while depriving them of a true mother's love. Years later I made the same mistake all over again with the grandchildren."  (Maria)
Georg died in May. In September, Maria miscarried his last baby. It took such a toll on her physically that she missed their oldest son's wedding, and still took months to recover.

For years, Maria and Georg would say one Hail Mary for each of their children every day "in order that they might find the right mate in life". They preferred an old-fashioned family-style approach to courtship over the modern dating customs they encountered in America. This approach worked for son Werner, who married his sister Martina's best friend and had six children. His brother Rupert also raised six children.

Of the seven von Trapp daughters, Agathe, Maria, Hedwig, and Rosmarie remained single. Martina died giving birth to her first child. Johanna birthed seven children, and raised them in Austria. Lorli lived in Vermont and had seven daughters of her own.

Three von Trapp siblings spent years as Catholic lay missionaries in the South Pacific. Agathe ran a preschool and wrote fondly about her family's experiences before her father married her young stepmother, Maria. Johannes, the youngest von Trapp, capitalized on the family name to build his ski lodge business. He and his wife had just two children.

Rosmarie Trapp
Rosmarie suffered from depression and anxiety, and often felt guilty for trying to live a life different from her mother's. After two tumultuous decades, including an attempt at nursing school that brought on another breakdown, she found a measure of peace in the Israeli desert. Her priest in Michigan headed the Zionist organization Blossoming Rose, which operated a religious kibbutz, where Rosmarie found her own sense of purpose and connection.

In 1971, Maria and some of her daughters got swept up in the Catholic charismatic renewal movement. While attending a Catholic Pentecostal conference at Notre Dame University, Maria made a "personal commitment" to Jesus. She learned to pray in the new personal manner (like the Protestants), speaking aloud to God, extemporaneously, about even trivial matters. She even got comfortable with tongues.
"The new Pentecost for which Pope John XXIII had prayed so fervently at the opening of the Second Vatican Council had happened to all of us right there. One noticed it most in the spirit of genuine love. This was not starry-eyed emotionalism; this was the true thing."  (Maria)
According to Rosmarie, her mother Maria von Trapp suffered from epileptic seizures from her fifties on. Despite brain surgery, Maria was prone to hallucinations, including visions of ghosts. Their mother-daughter relationship was strained for many years, largely because Rosmarie felt her mother had been neglectful or abusive, but they were reconciled before Maria's death in 1987.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Christmas Story (Explicit)

Come, abide within me;
Let my soul, like Mary,
Be Thine earthly sanctuary.

-Gerhard ter Steegen (1729)

How many December sermons did I sit through thinking (or trying not to think) about sex? Year after year, I would ask myself if I would have been willing to be God's surrogate womb. I would sit at my piano singing the hymn above and imagine Jesus taking shape deep inside me until he was ready for me to reveal him to the world. Because the ultimate proof of God's favor would be motherhood. Children are his reward.

Spirit and flesh get all mixed up in Christianity, especially at Christmas. Christmas is about sex and procreation, an observation Alice Wendleken tries to avoid with pursed lips in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Considering the brevity of the Biblical nativity story, the number of  lines devoted to the reproductive organs is quite astounding.

Luke starts the story with the tale of an elderly priest, Zach, wordlessly impregnating his wrinkled wife, and not speaking to her for the next nine months (a punishment from God for questioning an angel). I don't know whether to read that as maddening or darkly comedic. Luke specifies that this couple is "very old". I try not to imagine a post-menopausal arthritic granny pushing a healthy boy out of her pelvis because the story says she considered pregnancy an honor, but my acquaintance with birth makes the picture all too vivid. A miracle, perhaps, but what was God thinking?

With one pregnancy accomplished, next God sends Gabriel to find Joseph's fiancee at her home in Nazareth. Mary is creeped out at being called "highly favored", but Gabe assures her that God approves of her so much that she is going to conceive a boy who will be king. Strange because the Jews don't have kings anymore.

Mary has had some sex education, and she already knows Joseph doesn't fit into this narrative. Gabriel's message is confusing to her. "How--?"

"The Holy Spirit's shadow will come over you, and the baby will be called God's son."

The Holy Spirit's shadow. That's some slang she hadn't heard before. She'll look it up in Urban Dictionary later. Right. "Well, I'm God's servant girl. Sounds good." Gabriel's work is done. He disappears.

(I always wondered if Mary had an orgasm when God impregnated her. I knew I shouldn't wonder that, but... And then when I was 21, I watched mesmerized at the Sight & Sound Theater's "Miracle of Christmas" show as they used music, colored lights, and a bit of drama to portray Mary having an ecstatic moment of, um, intimacy, with God? At least I wasn't the only one.)

Mary must have been ovulating when Gabe visited. And as soon as she misses a period, Mary leaves, too. Teenager or not, she takes off on a road trip to Judea to visit her aged but pregnant Cousin Lizzie for a few months. Cousin Zach never says a word.

And then Mary hikes back up to Galilee with God's son. Apparently before Lizzie gives birth to baby John. On the day all the friends and relations gather to celebrate cutting off a piece of John's baby penis, old Zach gets his speech back again. The story goes all over Judea.

We aren't told exactly when conscientious Joseph hears that his fiancee has cheated on him, but Matthew tells us he's pretty shaken up. They should probably break up.

But another angel shows up, this time in Joseph's troubled dreams. "Don't be afraid to marry Mary. The baby's from the Holy Spirit." Joseph takes his dreams seriously, as we find out in the next chapter, so when he wakes up, he brings Mary to live with him. But, and Matthew is explicit, they still don't have sex. Call it married, call it engaged, call it cohabitation, there is no intercourse going on. No orgasms till well after Jesus makes his debut. I can only hope Mary wasn't as horny as I was during my first pregnancy. Maybe Joseph knew he simply couldn't compete.

And then, they're traveling back to Judea--Mary's third cross-country trip this pregnancy and supposedly an 8-10 day walk. And you thought Jesus suffered for our sins... Small wonder the woman's ready to pop when they arrive! The New Testament doesn't mention a donkey, though he eventually became part of the legend. Maybe because worshipers couldn't handle Christmas, picturing a woman in her third trimester trekking across Palestine with a shy carpenter from Galilee who hadn't made it past second base yet.

Pastors always try to make the stable seem romantic. Behold the Savior's humble origins! But it wasn't a baby whose stretched-open vagina and torn perineum was exposed to the dust and dung. It wasn't a baby whose breasts swelled hard and hot, whose nipples cracked when her milk came in. Was squeamish Joseph her only companion? An observant Jewish husband isn't permitted to look at his wife's intimate parts during labor. He's not allowed to so much as hold her hand while she is niddah. Holy fucking mother of God!

(One pastor actually preached that Mary experienced no pain during Jesus' birth. He based this belief on an obscure verse in Isaiah. I adored that pastor, but I just couldn't believe him, even though I wanted it to be true, for Mary's sake as well as my own.)

We leave Mary still bleeding and cramping in a barn with her infant in a feed trough (attachment parenting wasn't in vogue that year!) and move on to shepherds hearing angels, Magi seeing stars, and all the babies and toddlers in Bethlehem being gruesomely murdered thanks to some rabbis who told Herod what their old scrolls said. Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men; Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

The next part of the story is in the "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" style. According to Matthew, the new family escapes to Egypt to live as refugees until King Herod dies. They come back later to settle in Nazareth. In Luke's version, they cut off a piece of the baby's penis the week after his birth, and name him according to the angel's instructions. Mary is still niddah for several more weeks. When the flow of lochia finally stops, Luke has them go up to the Temple in Jerusalem to sacrifice some birds. He concludes,
When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.
Now do the newlyweds finally get to have sex?? Roman Catholic teaching, of course, holds that Mary remained chaste for the rest of her life, which is good for teaching abstinence but doesn't jibe with other New Testament references to Jesus' siblings.

I can't help thinking that the Church was spinning the story from the first. If Theotokos (an Eastern Orthodox title for Jesus' mother) is portrayed as the ideal woman--perfectly submissive, chaste yet available, uncomplaining and undemanding, Joseph is also the perfectly faithful man: conscientious, magnanimous, trusting and self-disciplined to a fault.

Interestingly, Luke and Matthew are the only New Testament writers to say a word about Mary's sex life. Mark begins his gospel with Jesus as an adult while John speaks in esoteric language about light, flesh, and "the word". The Apostle Paul never mentions Mary, saying merely that Jesus was born of "a woman". As if he could have been born any other way...

Have a Fucking Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Christmas Story (Explicit)

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Ghosts of Christmas Past

A mountain of wrapped packages. Brown-boxed surprises delivered to our door. Delicious homemade feasts with a roast turkey as the centerpiece. Opening presents around the tree in our jammies. Holiday music albums always pulled out the day after Thanksgiving. Christmas records and cassettes with read-along storybooks. Strings of colored lights. The melted pop bottle ornament I'd made in kindergarten. The needlepoint crosses from Gramma. Tinsel garland when I was little, cranberries and popcorn when I was a teenager recreating Little House on the Prairie. Dressing up in robes for our own little Christmas pageants (with a real baby brother as Jesus and a sister as the donkey/pig). Weeks of baking: platters of fancy cookies, gingerbread boys, honey-lemon rolls, a shelf of pies. Snowy Cream of Wheat for breakfast. Candles, an Advent wreath, fighting over the snuffer. Taking turns opening the tiny windows on the Advent calendar. Leaning down the stairs to catch a glimpse of the laden stockings. Crispy turkey skin we called "bacon". Paper chains. The well-loved purple book of Christmas stories. 

The year Christmas fell on a Sunday so we went to church first, and when we got home we had to wait while Dad cleaned the carpet where the dog had soiled it. Christmas caroling down the halls of nursing homes that smelled like pee. The year that we were still opening gifts at 6 pm because opening a hundred gifts (one person at a time, with breaks for meals, takes so long. Having to get dressed before going downstairs. And line up and sing in a parade down to the kitchen for breakfast before gifts. Ice on the inside of the single-pane windows. Hiding presents in the mysterious boarded-up staircase accessible only from a ladder in the basement. The mountain of dishes that preceded the feast...and that remained in its wake. The year we were given a tree, and did not refuse it! The many, many December sermons I sat through thinking about (or trying not to think about) sex. The living nativity by the bay. Feeling lost and depressed as Christmas Day faded into Christmas night. Carob-coconut "haystacks". Belting out "O Holy Night" at a sing-along at the lighthouse in Northport. Driving through wealthy neighborhoods looking at the Christmas lights. Tithing my Christmas checks. Writing thank-you notes before opening the gifts.

The eight or so Christmases without a tree. The anxiety over avoiding Santa Claus. Gifts from relatives being withheld because they did not meet my parents' approval. Favorite Christmas albums about Jesus being taken out of circulation because they sounded "too secular". Knowing our beloved grandparents celebrated Christmas with forbidden card games and wine. Having a minor panic attack worrying that Dad would decide we should walk out of the Sight & Sound Theater's "Miracle of Christmas" performance because the songs about Jesus had a rock beat. Years and years of reciting the Christmas passage from the Gospel of Luke, just like Linus. My confusion and embarrassment when an elderly church lady asked our caroling group to sing "Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer"--it had been so long I'd forgotten the words. A horrid little tract from friends critical of celebrations of "Baal's-Mass". The tense year when we decided to draw names, and ended up postponing our Christmas till January. 

This paragraph written by Jo for the Paradise Recovered blog resonates with me, though my ghosts are kinder than hers:
Most people think that I have it all together, and the truth is that I don’t.  I learned how to pretend really, really well when I was in the group.  I was never really allowed to have my own feelings or opinions, and I am learning with the help of my counselor to feel my feelings and grieve my losses.  I’m learning to enjoy the holidays, but it is really, really hard.  My two kids really love Christmas, and I love giving it to them.  Still, there is always a sadness when they open their presents on Christmas morning.  I think about the little girl who knew that there was a Christmas and tried to make herself feel better about it because she claimed to be serving God.  She was tricked out of her childhood. 

I wish Christmas was an unadulterated font of happiness, but it isn't for me and that's the way it is.  The more I listen to people talk about their holiday experiences, the deeper my suspicions that "the hap- happiest season of all" is one enormous illusion: a mechanism for coping with the cold, the dark, and the last page of another calendar!

On the other hand, considering how many of our popular Christmas songs were gifts from Jewish songwriters, perhaps Christmastime is our society's grand aspiration toward joy, peace, and the embrace of humanity, in spite of the obstacles. Christmas is an audacious forward look, closure for what has been, the chutzpah necessary to move hopefully into the future. Christmas is an entire culture making lemons into lemonade, adding as much sweetness as required to overcome life's puckering edge.

I am trying to be patient with myself. To give myself space to work out my present feelings, both sad and glad. I'm trying to emphasize the things that make me happy:  movies, jigsaw puzzles, festive foods, Christmas lights! The things that are "sacred" to me:  rest, my husband, my children, time for reading, time for art, time observing nature's seasonal wonders. I am recycling old memories to create cozy new ones.

I will have happy holidays this year, damn it!

P.S.: If this post resonated with you, you may also appreciate "Avoiding Burnout", part of the Hurting for the Holidays series on Beth Morey's blog. Check it out!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Socialization and Boundaries

Have I mentioned how much I learn by observing my children?

We live too close to our kids' schools for them to ride the bus yet too far for them to walk alone, which makes for a lot of driving! But I have to admit, I cherish the minutes we get to share each afternoon as they tell me the things about their day that were the most significant to them. Often, they surprise me with what makes the top of their list.

I hear a lot of names: the friend they spent recess with, the friend they sat with at lunch, the friend who made them laugh in class, the friend they shared an inside joke with, the friend who got hurt, the friend who doesn't celebrate Christmas, the "best" friend, the friend who surprised them with a little gift.

When I was young, I lived for company. I was constantly begging my mom to invite other families to dinner. We socialized as families, only rarely as peer groups. So if I met a nice girl at church, the only way to get to know her better was to invite her parents and siblings to coordinate schedules in order to spend an evening at our house. What if her dad didn't get along with my dad? (In the end, all our friends came from other homeschooling families with stay-at-home moms who wore denim jumpers and breastfed their babies.) As I got older, I realized that guests meant extra housecleaning and extra work in the kitchen. It was still fun, but it was also a lot of work. By then, there were ten...eleven...twelve...thirteen of us. Our social invitations were limited to potlucks and graduation "open houses"!

When I married and moved to a new city where I knew no one but my in-laws, I was again desperate for company. I was always trying to gather people around my table: contacts from church, neighbors, extended family, old acquaintances with connections to Bill Gothard's cult. My husband, raised without siblings, could never quite understand my craving for social interaction, for sharing meals with other humans. It took years for me to realize that I was happier with a few quality friendships, even long-distance ones, than with frequent interactions with people I wasn't really compatible with.

With my kids in school forming so many new relationships, I braced myself for requests for guests, for playdates, for birthday parties, for outings with friends. When no one brought them up, I started asking. Maybe the kids had been too timid to ask. Were there any friends from school they would like to invite over sometime? To play with on a Saturday? To share their birthday cake?

No, it turns out, my kids just have better boundaries than I do. Each of them has plenty of friends at school. They enjoy their peers, look forward to seeing them, get along well with them, play at the activities that are available to them at school. But then my children come home and they enjoy each other, they play the games our family enjoys; they spend time playing alone, or reading, or watching their favorite shows. Sometimes they visit with friends in our neighborhood--friends they don't see at school. They rebuild connections here, then go out the next day and start again!

My siblings and I traveled as a pack when we went to a playground. "Public" spaces didn't mean "shared" so much as "available for temporary claims". We would keep our eyes on a piece of equipment, wait till all the other kids left it vacant, then swarm around our new territory. If another kid or two tried to engage with us, we would usually ignore them until they left, or until we tired and moved on to something else. When my family went
to the beach, we would pack up and head back to the car when other swimmers arrived.

My kids, especially the youngest, are much more comfortable in public spaces. They will engage with other children, play together, combine forces, join conversations. At the pool, the playground, or the gym, they are usually willing to accept other children as playmates. B--- will readily describe such a temporary attachment as "my new friend". Should a child not prove trustworthy, my children will distance themselves, recognizing instinctively that respect can be both earned and lost.

I applaud public education for helping my children learn boundaries. They are already more differentiated than I was at twice their age! They know where others end and they begin. They are neither isolated nor lonely. They are surrounded by opportunities to learn what matters to them: Shared values? Common interests? Compatible personalities? Similar or diverse customs? They get practical experience in cultivating relationships--what builds them and what damages them. They are learning which friends, or teachers, can be relied on, and which ones simply drain other people's energy.

Our entire family benefits from the social support that students provide to each other. At the beginning of this school year, our older two would build up a lot of anxiety and stress each day. It took a lot of my energy to coach them and reassure them. But as the year goes on, they are building stronger bonds with their classmates. They endure the same pressures, but they don't feel alone. By the time they get home these days, the kids have worked through most of their stresses. They have already laughed with a friend about the grumpy substitute or shared a complaint about being treated unfairly at recess. I bring them back to the house and they are ready to move on to happier things.

I can't help wondering how my life would be different if I had not been such a lonely child. What if church services and Vacation Bible School had not been my only contacts with peers? What if I had been surrounded with boys and girls my own age whose life experience was different from my own?

I learn so much from watching my children be human.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

HH on Facebook & Comments Streamlined

This blog now has a Facebook page!

Like Heresy in the Heartland to get updates about new posts, plus my favorite links, in your newsfeed.

I have also changed some settings "under the hood" to make it easier for all my readers to leave comments. So if you have been frustrated in the past, please try again soon!

And thanks for visiting. Having this space to process my past and my present has been so meaningful to me this year. I appreciate all the feedback and encouragement I've received!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Strange Stories of the Bible: Jehu's Zeal for the Lord

"by Christoph Weigel, c1695"

So Jehu slew all that remained of the house of Ahab in Jezreel, and all his great men, and his kinsfolk, and his priests, until he left him none remaining. And he arose and departed, and came to Samaria. And as he was at the shearing house in the way, Jehu met with the brethren of Ahaziah king of Judah, and said, "Who are ye?
And they answered, "We are the brethren of Ahaziah; and we go down to salute the children of the king and the children of the queen."
And he said, "Take them alive." And they took them alive, and slew them at the pit of the shearing house, even two and forty men; neither left he any of them.
And when he was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him: and he saluted him, and said to him, "Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?
And Jehonadab answered, "It is."
"If it be, give me thine hand."
And he gave him his hand; and he took him up to him into the chariot. And he said, "Come with me, and see my zeal for the Lord." So they made him ride in his chariot.
And when he came to Samaria, he slew all that remained unto Ahab in Samaria, till he had destroyed him, according to the saying of the Lord, which he spake to Elijah. 
And Jehu gathered all the people together, and said unto them, "Ahab served Baal a little; but Jehu shall serve him much. Now therefore call unto me all the prophets of Baal, all his servants, and all his priests; let none be wanting: for I have a great sacrifice to do to Baal; whosoever shall be wanting, he shall not live." But Jehu did it in subtilty, to the intent that he might destroy the worshipers of Baal. 
And Jehu said, "Proclaim a solemn assembly for Baal." And they proclaimed it. And Jehu sent through all Israel: and all the worshipers of Baal came, so that there was not a man left that came not. And they came into the house of Baal; and the house of Baal was full from one end to another.
And he said unto him that was over the vestry, "Bring forth vestments for all the worshipers of Baal." And he brought them forth vestments.
And Jehu went, and Jehonadab the son of Rechab, into the house of Baal, and said unto the worshipers of Baal, "Search, and look that there be here with you none of the servants of the Lord, but the worshipers of Baal only."
And when they went in to offer sacrifices and burnt offerings, Jehu appointed fourscore men without, and said, "If any of the men whom I have brought into your hands escape, he that letteth him go, his life shall be for the life of him."
And it came to pass, as soon as he had made an end of offering the burnt offering, that Jehu said to the guard and to the captains, "Go in, and slay them; let none come forth.
And they smote them with the edge of the sword; and the guard and the captains cast them out, and went to the city of the house of Baal. And they brought forth the images out of the house of Baal, and burned them. And they brake down the image of Baal, and brake down the house of Baal, and made it a draught house unto this day.
Thus Jehu destroyed Baal out of Israel. Howbeit from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin, Jehu departed not from after them, to wit, the golden calves that were in Bethel, and that were in Dan.
And the Lord said unto Jehu, "Because thou hast done well in executing that which is right in mine eyes, and hast done unto the house of Ahab according to all that was in mine heart, thy children of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel."
2 Kings 10:11-30 (KJV)

Friday, December 6, 2013

Jonathan Edwards & John Piper: Sour Stomach

We were all still recovering from a sermon by Charles Finney at the beginning of Wisdom Booklet #4, when we moved on to the subject of history. Where we were assaulted by another sermon.

"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is one of the most famous sermons in American history. But if there were such a sin as blasphemy, this sermon would be a fine example. From a Massachusetts pulpit in 1741, Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards described the Almighty as an arbitrary monster and his creation as loathsome.

Here are some excerpts:
...Whatever some have imagined and pretended about promises made to natural men's earnest seeking and knocking, it is plain and manifest, that whatever pains a natural man takes in religion, whatever prayers he makes, till he believes in Christ, God is under no manner of obligation to keep him a moment from eternal destruction.
There are the black clouds of God's wrath now hanging directly over your heads, full of the dreadful storm, and big with thunder; and were it not for the restraining hand of God, it would immediately burst forth upon you.
 The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep.

But when once the day of mercy is past, your most lamentable and dolorous cries and shrieks will be in vain; you will be wholly lost and thrown away of God, as to any regard to your welfare. God will have no other use to put you to, but to suffer misery; you shall be continued in being to no other end; for you will be a vessel of wrath fitted to destruction; and there will be no other use of this vessel, but to be filled full of wrath. God will be so far from pitying you when you cry to him, that it is said he will only "laugh and mock"…

Though horrified by Edwards' God, I was transfixed by the vivid imagery. Our family also had a dramatized biography of Jonathan Edwards ("Puritan Preacher and Philosopher") on cassette from Moody Bible Institute. Not only did the story cover the theological controversies of Edwards' time, it did not shy away from describing the aftermath of the Great Awakening--including a man in Edwards' congregation who committed suicide in despair after too many similar "revival" sermons. Between the audio version and the traumatizing Wisdom Booklet, spiders and hellfire became forever associated in my brain.

When Walt Disney needed lines for this over-the-top "hellfire & brimstone" sermon in the film Pollyanna (1960), writers tapped "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God". In the movie, the preacher uses his pulpit to manipulate the town with fear and guilt. No one commits suicide (it's a children's movie, after all), but one character declares with passionate resentment, "Sundays around here give folks sour stomach for the whole rest of the week!" Though not delivered in Edwards' characteristic monotone, many of the lines are lifted directly from Jonathan Edwards famous message.

Jonathan Edwards has been John Piper's hero for decades, ever since Piper encountered Edwards' essays as a seminarian. Piper told a conference in 1988: "Alongside the Bible, Edwards became the compass of my theological studies." In 2006, Piper reprinted one of Edwards' books in a volume of his own: God's Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards. In the preface, Piper writes, "Jonathan Edwards is in a class by himself in American history, perhaps in the history of Christendom....I take my stand on his shoulders... It is an honor to be associated with an Institute devoted to exalting the God of Jonathan Edwards..." And so on.

This is the same John Piper who pastors a church in Minneapolis. The same Piper who posted these thoughts on the evening following the 2007 highway bridge collapse that killed thirteen people in his city and injured or traumatized hundreds of others:
The meaning of the collapse of this bridge is that John Piper is a sinner and should repent or forfeit his life forever. That means I should turn from the silly preoccupations of my life and focus my mind’s attention and my heart’s affection on God and embrace Jesus Christ as my only hope for the forgiveness of my sins and for the hope of eternal life. That is God’s message in the collapse of this bridge. That is his most merciful message: there is still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction for those of us who live. If we could see the eternal calamity from which he is offering escape we would hear this as the most precious message in the world.
...During our family devotions...Talitha prayed “Please don’t let anyone blame God for this but give thanks that they were saved.” When I sat on her bed and tucked her in and blessed her and sang over her a few minutes ago, I said, “You know, Talitha, that was a good prayer, because when people ‘blame’ God for something, they are angry with him, and they are saying that he has done something wrong. That’s what “blame” means: accuse somebody of wrongdoing. But you and I know that God did not do anything wrong. God always does what is wise. And you and I know that God could have held up that bridge with one hand.” Talitha said, “With his pinky.” “Yes,” I said, “with his pinky. Which means that God had a purpose for not holding up that bridge, knowing all that would happen, and he is infinitely wise in all that he wills.”
Talitha said, “Maybe he let it fall because he wanted all the people of Minneapolis to fear him.” “Yes, Talitha,” I said, “I am sure that is one of the reasons God let the bridge fall.

I wonder how Jonathan Edwards would react to Piper's post today. think it would give him "sour stomach". But I also like to think that the melancholic Edwards would preach quite differently if he could return to Northampton today.

Edwards was a thoughtful man, after all--trapped in the 18th-century, yet daring to test innovation. He was unafraid of change, of shaking up the status quo by implementing new ideas, of attempting to reconcile old ways of thinking with new understanding. He kept up with scientific advances, even submitting to smallpox inoculation as an example to the Princeton student body to risk the experimental new procedure. He died of complications, a sacrifice to the cause of science as well as to "the will of God".

The Jonathan Edwards of the 1700's would never make it as a preacher of the gospel today. For one thing, he purchased and owned Negro slaves, including a man and his wife who were sold by the executors of Edwards' will. I wonder what they thought of their master's god? But Edwards gave his sermon long before David Livingstone explored the African continent. Before William Wilberforce campaigned to bring down the slave trade. Before ex-slaver John Newton wrote "Amazing Grace". Before the Founding Fathers revolted against England. Even before the first performance of Handel's Messiah, which opened in Europe the following year (1742) with the words of a very different God:
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.
Little wonder I developed anxiety issues after growing up with Jonathan Edwards' voice in my ear. Little wonder I was so relieved to find other theological viewpoints and to discover that others, as uncomfortable as I was, were asking the same questions!

Somehow, in my combined fright and abhorrence of a god who holds people over hell and lets bridges collapse, I had never considered (though Mark Twain had) the possibility of humans choosing hell for humanity's sake, or of turning down the invitation of heaven (as Desmond Tutu suggests) in solidarity with the world God is said to have loved. If hell is a place of hate, but one can choose it out of a heart of love, then is fear truly vanquished. Sour stomach must surrender!

Learning Guilt: Charles Finney

Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Matthew 5:4

A few months after becoming an Advanced Training Institute family, we began the Wisdom Booklet on the above verse. The major feature was a sermon by the lawyer-turned-revivalist Charles Finney

Charles Grandison Finney

I knew of Charles Finney as a dead preacher, but Gothard evidently admired him. Reflecting on the two men's controversial "ministries", one sees plenty of similarities of style and method. A PBS commentary on Finney quotes historian Sydney Ahlstrom, "In the Presbyterian church the tensions created by his kind of ministry contributed to a recurrence of schism."

Finney taught us to “mourn” over our sin and to pore over our wretchedness as with a microscope. In “Breaking Up the Fallow Ground”, he uses 19th-century psychobabble to instruct professing Christians in spiritual self-examination. We analyzed our souls carefully, searching for evidence of 26 different sins:
It is just as easy to make your minds feel on the subject of religion as it is on any other. God has put these states of mind under your control. If people were as unphilosophical about moving their limbs as they are about regulating their emotions, you would never have reached this meeting. 
If you mean to break up the fallow ground of your hearts, you must begin by looking at your hearts: examine and note the state of your minds, and see where you are. Many never seem to think about this. They pay no attention to their own hearts, and never know whether they are doing well in religion or not; whether they are gaining ground or going back; whether they are fruitful, or lying waste. Now you must draw off your attention from other things, and look into this. Make a business of it. Do not be in a hurry. Examine thoroughly the state of your hearts, and see where you are: whether you are walking with God every day, or with the devil; whether you are serving God or serving the devil most; whether you are under the dominion or the prince of darkness, or of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Self-examination consists in looking at your lives, in considering your actions, in calling up the past, and learning its true character. Look back over your past history. Take up your individual sins one by one, and look at them. I do not mean that you should just cast a glance at your past life, and see that it has been full of sins, and then go to God and make a sort of general confession, and ask for pardon. That is not the way. You must take them up one by one. Get a pen and paper and write them down as you remember them. Go over them as carefully as a merchant goes over his books and as often as a sin comes before your memory, add it the list. General confessions of sin will never do. Your sins were committed one by one; and as they come to you, review and repent of them one by one. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you your past sins...
1. Ingratitude. Take this sin and write down under that heading all the times you can remember where you have received favors from God and others for which you have never expressed gratitude or thankfulness. How many cases can you remember? Some remarkable change of events, that saved you from ruin. Write down the instances of God's goodness to you when you were in sin, before your conversion, for which you have never been half thankful enough; and the numerous mercies you have received since. How long the list of instances, where your ingratitude has been so black that you are forced to hide your face in confusion! Go on your knees and confess them one by one to God, and ask forgiveness. The very act of confession, by the laws of suggestion, will bring up others to your memory. Put these down. Go over them three or four times in this way, and see what an astonishing number of mercies there are for which you have never thanked God.
2. Lack of love to God. Think how grieved and alarmed you would be if you discovered any lack of affection for you in your wife, husband, or children; if you saw another absorbing their hearts, and thoughts, and time. Perhaps in such a case you would nearly die with a just and virtuous jealousy. Now, God calls Himself a jealous God; and have you not given your heart to other loves and infinitely offended Him?
3. Neglect of the Bible. Put down the cases when for perhaps weeks, or longer, God's Word was not a pleasure. Some people, indeed, read over whole chapters in such a way that they could not tell what they had been reading. If so, no wonder that your life is spent at random, and that your religion is such a miserable failure.
4. Unbelief. Recall the instances in which you have virtually charged the God of truth with lying, by your unbelief of His express promises and declarations. God has promised to give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him. Now, have you believed this? Have you expected Him to answer? Have you not virtually said in your hearts, when you prayed for the Holy Spirit: "I do not believe that I shall receive"? If you have not believed nor expected to receive the blessing which God has expressly promised, you have charged Him with lying.
5. Neglect of prayer. Think of the times when you have neglected secret prayer, family prayer, and prayer meetings; or have prayed in such a way as more grievously to offend God than to have omitted it altogether.
6. Neglect of the means of grace. When you have made stupid and meaningless excuses to prevent your attending meetings, have neglected and poured contempt upon the methods of salvation, simply because you dislike spiritual duties?

 And so on, for pages. I wrote carefully in the margins of my Wisdom Booklet, marking which sins I was guilty of, and giving specific examples. The project was completed in two or three days, but for decades afterward, the words "but let a man examine himself" made me shiver inside every time a pastor read from Corinthians before the "Lord's Supper". Just a few months before, we had learned to judge others by their appearance. Now we turned the same gaze of judgment in on our very selves.

Even years later when I had broken free of the cult and no longer imagined that wearing trousers was morally wrong or using birth control was an act of selfish pride, I could still feel the burden of guilt placed on my tender pre-adolescent heart.

There were so many sins to be aware of: sins of omission, sins of commission, original sin, and the scariest phrase of all in a Baptist preacher's toolbox--"known and unknown sin"! The Psalmist wrote, "In sin did my mother conceive me." Isaiah said even my righteousness was as offensive to God as a menstruous rag. Assuming that God was disgusted by bloody trash with vaginal odors, being alive as a human was practically a sin in itself!

And another sermon the same month would hammer that point home.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mandatory Motherhood

The cover article of a recent issue of New York magazine was entitled "My Abortion". It included first-person accounts from 26 women who had abortions between 1968 and 2013. While each woman's story is gripping and provides vital perspective, there is one I haven't been able to get out of mind.

In 2002, Cherisse, a paralegal, thought she was going to an abortion clinic, but the ultrasound technician she was referred to told her that having an abortion would ruin her uterus for bearing children in the future. Cherise kept that baby, but went on to have three abortions over the next five years before meeting a "reproductive-justice advocate who finally taught me how to understand my fertility."

And Cherisse is but one voice for throngs of desperate women seeking to make the best choices in difficult situations. Why would anyone who opposes abortion not want to equip women with the knowledge they need? Why not teach women to understand and care for their own bodies? Why rely on "lies and scare tactics"? Why give misleading or erroneous information like telling women they can go to college for free if they have a child?

At the ripe age of fourteen and a half, I was already learning and spouting many lies myself, winning a $50 prize from Right to Life for a speech in which I announced that "more abortions have occurred from Christians using the Pill than in all the abortion clinics combined" and lauded a couple in Tennessee with eleven offspring. I quoted the Old Testament: "Be fruitful and multiply" and paraphrased from the prophet Malachi. "God's purpose for marriage is that Godly offspring might be raised from the union."

Parroting arguments I'd heard, I threw myself headlong into subjects of which I was almost completely ignorant: "Islam is the most rapidly growing religion today", I said, "because of their respect for life. The average Islamic woman has six children; that's really pro-life!" And I went on: "Children are blessings, God's rewards to those who fear Him. But why do we place a limit on how many we'll take? With attitudes like that, how can ever expect to persuade the world to abolish abortion? Today many couples are having reversal surgeries and trusting God for more children..."

Little did I realize that I was promoting arguments from the Middle Ages. 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas posited that an unprotected vagina was the only place a man could ejaculate without imperiling his soul. For centuries since, this teaching on sex has been part of the good news of the gospel the Roman Catholic Church has promoted around the world. And if that isn't enough, the Church also opposes all forms of contraception.

Little did I dream standing under a portrait of the Pope on that spring night, that ten years later my own parents would have produced eleven children, that another three years later I would have conceived every time I ovulated since my marriage, that there was nothing natural about natural family planning, that condoms were as essential for my babies' wellbeing as for my own, that birth control is an expression of selflessness, and that one day my husband's vasectomy would be an occasion for rejoicing.

Cherisse was in Chicago, but women in Kansas face similar hurdles to self-care. Take A Better Choice, for example, a crisis pregnancy center operated by the Catholic Church. ABC offers pregnancy testing, STD education, information about abortion procedures, compassion, and "chastity mentoring". On the other side of town, the evangelical Pregnancy Crisis Center of Wichita offers pregnancy tests, STD testing, counseling on abstinence, parenting classes, Bible studies, and adoption information. PCC's website assures clients:
"Everything we do is focused on empowering you to make healthy, informed choices. Here you will meet people who care about you."
However, it also states:
"PCC is a limited medical facility and does not provide or refer for abortions or birth control."
Dr. Scott Stringfield is a family practitioner who is also the chairman of the board at Choices Medical Clinic, an anti-abortion organization affiliated with Via Christi Health that has the stated goal of helping women "come to know Christ". The Bible is his favorite book and his faith his primary passion. Stringfield serves on the faculty of Via Christi's Family Medicine residency program: according to the Choices website, the clinic has served as community rotation for over 200 residents. Nursing students from Wichita State also rotate at Choices, and the clinic offers internships for student sonographers from Washburn University. 

When asked recently--at a Q & A after a film screening in Wichita last month--about how his clinic helps women to avoid future unplanned pregnancies and whether he and his staff counsel women about contraception after delivery, Dr. Stringfield squirmed a bit. He does not see access to birth control as a problem for his clients. According to Dr. Stringfield, a woman can easily purchase contraceptives (condoms) at Walmart. But he had to choose his words carefully because he does, indeed, have a moral objection to any birth control method that might prevent a fertilized egg from becoming a pregnancy.

As a Protestant, Dr. Stringfield does not hold any religious objection to "barriers" that prevent sperm from entering a cervix, but after that...  Information on abortion risks? Oh, my, yes. But information on how not to get pregnant again? Well, no, that is a service Choices Medical Clinic does not currently offer.

My own unplanned pregnancy forever changed my perspective on reproductive rights. I well remember months of guilt and confusion, trying to learn about my body and sort out myth from fact. I often fantasized about visiting the pregnancy crisis center down the street, not that I needed financial help or was debating my options: I just longed for support, compassion, and honest information about controlling my fertility. What could they tell me, I wondered, to help me be there for my babies instead of dazed and sick on the couch? I loved sex, and I loved my husband, but I had no intention of spending the rest of my childbearing years pregnant! I wanted to be a devoted mom, an energetic wife. So what options did I have?

Today, ten years later, I finally called, heart racing as emotional memories flooded my soul. I chatted with a nurse--I'll call her Susan--on the Choices staff. I told her about Cherisse's experience. I told her about my own. I asked her what services are available to help women prevent future unwanted pregnancies. At first she echoed Dr. Stringfield's remarks, saying that women can purchase condoms at the grocery store. I agreed, but pointed out that condoms require a high degree of cooperation and are of little efficacy if a woman finds herself trapped in an abusive relationship.

"Susan" told me that her clinic refers pregnant women to either Via Christi (a Catholic hospital) or GraceMed (with ties to both Via Christi and Wesley Medical Center (HCA)) for prenatal and obstetric services. A discussion about contraception would presumably take place between a woman and her doctor after delivery.

"Do you tell them that the doctors at Via Christi cannot offer contraceptives?" I asked (remembering a conversation in our Catholic doctor's office).

No, the women are not told that. However, if a pregnant woman states that she does not want any more children in the future (i.e., desires a tubal ligation), the Choices staff will recommend she go to GraceMed, because Via Christi doctors are not permitted to perform that surgery.

Our conversation was cordial, and I could feel at its close that "Susan" could see how offering prenatal care is not enough. "We really need to have a talk about that here," she said. Perhaps she really had never pondered the subject before.

Women who don't want to get pregnant need options. They need to be empowered and educated about their own bodies. Right now, anti-abortion groups are focused on "supporting" pregnant women and telling women not to let a penis come near their vagina. As if married women never need to avoid pregnancy! Do they assume that married women don't even want sex anymore? Or that once a woman has borne a child, she knows all she needs to know about how to prevent it next time?

Certainly planned pregnancies account for some abortions, but if opponents of abortion also refuse to educate women about fertility or allow them access to contraceptives they can use on their own, how can they ever hope to reduce the number of abortions? I was largely ignorant of birth control methods when I became sexually active (after marriage, in my case), and I have written elsewhere of my experience trying to educate myself without breaking any commandments or accidentally creating any new human life. 

When Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics are the only organizations offering to help women understand, manage, and guard their fertility, it is time for the anti-abortion movement to realize that it is not about protecting or supporting women--it is about protecting fetuses by controlling women and making motherhood mandatory.