Christian Dating

Christian Dating in the Evangelical Culture: 10 Weird and Confusing Stages of the Modern Relationship

Let's read the story of Adam and Eve so I can sit metaphorically and literally  higher than you.

First hit when Googled “Christian Dating”

 

Christian Dating In the Evangelical Culture: 10 Weird and Confusing Stages of the Modern Relationship.

 

A friend sent me this article: Dating in the Hook-Up Culture: 10 Weird and Confusing Stages of the Modern Relationship, recently published on elitedaily.com.  While not completely accurate of my dating misadventures, it’s pretty close.  In fact it describes to a T the shape of the dating scene for many of my friends.  Well, many of my more “worldly” friends.  I have dear friends from Texas and Wheaton that are quite conservative and firmly believe in a Christian outlook on dating.  For them, I have written this short post about the weird and confusing stages in modern Christian relationships.

 

1. Praying for Future Spouse

We’ve all heard these prayers.  Equal parts “fleshly” desperation and authentic spiritual earnestness, they usually go something like this, “Dear God, I just pray right now for my future spouse.  God, I don’t know what he looks like, but probably like Hugh Jackman.  Just keep him safe and healthy and herpes-free. And just, God, keep his soul pure, and his hands, God, off that slut’s boobs. Amen”

 

2. The Testimony Sharing

It always starts innocently enough.  Or at least it has to seem that way.  Your close friends have known you’ve had a crush on that someone for a while now, and you finally have the guts to do something about it.  So you ask them nonchalantly to share their testimony or their story.  You don’t really care about their story, and will probably not remember most of it as you’ll sit there leaning forward nodding intently and trying not to be distracted by the dreamy eyes or low cut shirt.  While walking out the door, the interested party suggests, “Hey it was great to hear your story.  Do you want to get coffee sometime?  I’d love to hear more about what God’s doing in your life.”  This is a lie.  You want to put your tongue in their mouth.  But you will listen to what they say about what they perceive to be God’s work in their life to get there.

 

3. The Coffee Date

The coffee date is arguably the most important stage in this awkward and confusing, fledgling not-yet-relationship.  This is where you have to pull out the conversational skills and show that you can talk about something other than yourself, which is what the testimony time was all about.  Sometimes this stage can last three to four “chats.”  We’ll call them chats because no one is certain whether or not it’s a date even though he pays, and one or both is telling all their friends they think it’s a date.

 

4. Shameful Confession Time

This stage might involve alcohol, but most of the time, (weirdly) it doesn’t.  This is the stage where one somehow, following some unspoken rule, gets super emotional and shares insecurities, fears, and perhaps past sins (like eating disorders, pornography addictions, not being rooted daily in the Word, etc.) or what Evangelical Christians like to call “struggles.”  If the relationship is to move forward, this confession time results in some crying and hug time accompanied by some light petting and maybe a cheek kiss.

 

5. Outsourcing Prayer to your Small Group

But after the confessional time, one starts to get second thoughts.  One thinks to oneself, “Can I really date a non-Virgin?  Can I see myself dating someone who wears jorts?”  So one decides to give it over to Jesus.  And one’s small group.  Here, the small group/cell group/prayer group is asked to pray for the budding relationship.  “God, we just ask that you just give Niki discernment, and forgiveness, God, for the things that Taylor has done, and we just ask, God, that you bless them and help them, God, just follow you.”

 

6. The Makeout (and Subsequent Shame)

Feeling more confident and Spirit-filled after the prayer session, one realizes that they want to put the other’s tongue in their mouth more than they care what the other person did in the past.  So they makeout.  And then feel bad about it.  The thought process goes something like, “We’re not boyfriend/girlfriend yet…we haven’t really committed to each other yet…oh God-I-mean-gosh, what if we don’t get together?  Did I just commit adultery?”  This sexual guilt leads into stage seven.

 

7. The RDT

The famed RDT: the relationship defining talk.  If one can struggle through the blundering awkwardness of the RDT, then one is ready to be in a relationship.  Key words and phrases include: take things slow, glorify God, facebook official, and lots of use of the word Love but never in an “I love you” way.

 

8. The GF/BF label

Now the couple lives into their BF/GF status.  Going on dates, not dating other people, or even looking at other people, really.  Gotta bounce those eyes to stay pure.

 

9. Feeling guilty after getting past first base

Almost inevitably, despite the best intentions, a make out session will get hot and steamy, things will get out of control, and the “flesh” will get the better of a couple.  Whether this manifests itself in some under-the-shirt groping or below-the-belt ministrations, the couple crosses a spoken (or unspoken) line.  And then they feel guilty about it.  Here they either break up, or decide to move on to the next level.

 

10. Marriage

After tears and praying for God to restore one’s “spiritual virginity” by reversing the effects of that late night boob grab, the man buys the ring, gets down on one knee, and the rest is documented by a photographer who is not that great but goes to one of their churches and spot colors the bridesmaids’ dresses in post processing.

 

My Journey to Becoming a Slut

“Mostly I just don’t think it would be very beautiful.”

One of my writer-crushes Rachel, of racheltellsitlikeitis.com, wrote a piece about a year ago that I am just now getting around to responding to: “Non committal make outs: a treatise.”

As with all of Rachel’s writing, this piece is humorous, playful, reflective, and challenging.  In her biting and witty way, Rachel does a great job explaining the evangelical Christian guilt associated with non-committal make outs.

She makes a case for non-committal make outs concluding, “I don’t think you get handed the Sin Card for masturbation or some mostly-not-sexual making out with that person you aren’t dating.  It’s truly not worth all the guilt and shame we associate with it.”

But that’s not the end of the treatise.  She continues, “Non-committal make-outs (and masturbation) are not sinful, in my mind. But. I don’t think we should necessarily be basing our actions on what is sinful and what isn’t. That can just become about cheating the system, finding loopholes, feeling righteous and good.”

So what is the moral paradigm that we plug our decisions into in the hopes for an illuminated life?  Rachel cites Beauty.  Making out without attachment is not beautiful.  Or so Rachel says.

And I think I agree with her that the ideal is to make those physical connections with someone who shares a emotional connection, commitment, and attraction.  But I don’t know if I can agree with the proposition that the pursuit of Beauty is a valid standard of measure for our daily choices.

It sounds really nice.  And I want it to work.  But I’m not sure it does.

Beauty is subjective.  Beauty is learned.  And our perception of beauty changes over time.

I know, I know, this flies in the face of the Platonic ideals that I want to believe in.  It goes against my desire to assert that Truth is Beauty and that both are absolute.  But as much as I want to say that Beauty is absolute, unchanging, timeless, and universal, I don’t think the particularities of the world allow for that.

My own personal ideas of beauty have changed drastically within my own lifetime.  Even at the age of 15, I was aware that my standards of beauty changed within one semester.  I walked into my AP physics class immediately smitten with Anne.  She was the ideal of beauty for me.  Tall, thin, and the pinnacle of beauty as far as 15 year old Michael Toy was concerned.  But by Christmas time, I had a new standard of attractiveness: Emm. Emm, who had been in the class since day one, had a different body type than Anne and was also better at physics.  I don’t know for sure, but I’m fairly certain that intelligence and her mathematical aptitude influenced the change in my perception of beauty.  (That actually is a recurring theme in my life – becoming attracted to someone in class because she is really good at a certain subject.  Intellectual natural/sub-conscious selection at play, I’m sure.)  But whatever the reasons, my standards of beauty changed then and continue to change.

But enough of the personal anecdotal stuff.

Scientists say (yes, I am invoking the vague “Scientists” from journals and periodicals that normal people don’t have the time or expertise to read) that there are objective measures of beauty.  But for the most part, beauty, outside the three broad features or symmetry, averageness, and sexual dimorphism, is subjective within cultural and individual standards.

So if beauty is subjective within physical attraction, can other ideals of beauty be subjective and bound to cultural groups?

In the case of non-committal makeouts, masturbation, and even premarital sex, perhaps the reason Rachel and I don’t initially find these things “beautiful” is because of our evangelical Christian upbringing.

Our culture influences how we see the world.  Our perspectives on life, our ideas of the large narrative arcs, and our perception of beauty are all colored with hues mixed from the paint of the exposures and experiences.

Maybe there is something beautiful in non-committal make outs.  Maybe there is beauty there that resonates outside my experience and cultural worldview.

It is not the pinnacle of beauty in relationships within the Evangelical Christian monogamist  culture, but I am going to dare to say that there is beauty outside of that narrative.

Half a century ago, many Christians condemned miscegenation.  And look how that turned out.

Less than a decade ago, relatively few Christians were willing to say that a relationship between a man and another man could be beautiful.  But more and more, we are seeing a shift in that perspective.

I’m not writing to condone sexual anarchy.

I’m not going to go make out with a stranger at a club. Or go on a spree of one night stands.

And I’m not saying that some standard of universal Beauty doesn’t exist.  I want to believe that it does.

But I don’t know if the pursuit of beauty is a valid decision making paradigm.  For other narratives exist outside my culture.  And I think they can be beautiful.

**PS I’m not really becoming  someone who sleeps around all the time. I just wanted a captivating title.**

***PPS I am aware of the issues and concerns that have aggregated around the word slut, and while I don’t have time or space here to provide a properly nuanced explanation of my use of the word, I do hope that this post has combated “slut-shaming” or that kind of hegemonistic attitude***

[UPDATE 8.2.15: even if a universal standard of beauty doesn’t exist, the fact that a cultural construction is a cultural construction doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And certainly, finding what is beautiful using the resources within one’s own cultural narrative and experience is a valiant and wonderful thing.]

Ethics of Crushing a Crush

“Dear Michael, so I sent her a message…but she hasn’t responded. What does that mean?” – Anxious in Portland (not really Anxious or in Portland)

Who knew I would turn into Ann Landers or Abby?  I’m not a dating expert, unlike my brother, who had a shirt that said “Dating Consultant” from Old Navy.  But though I am not a dating consultant or an expert (in fact, I’m pretty up front about being bad at dating) I do want to give a go at this question in my meanderingly garrulous way.

We have encoded certain phrases to mean different things.  Sometimes these codes are society wide.  For example, when a girl I liked told me she was too busy to hang out because she had to wash her hair, I knew that phrase meant she was interested in dating me but her hygiene came first.  Sometimes these codes are shared among a group with a common interest.  This is common with movie quotes, tv sayings, or often inside jokes.  If I tell my best friend that something is a “Toynbee and Preston,” then he knows that I’m referring to a phone call, text, or other message that is utterly incoherent due to fatigue and/or alcohol.  But there are other phrases that are harder to decode.

For example: “Everything’s fine.”  What do those two words mean?  This is a trick question, as anyone who’s ever been in a relationship ought to know.  Those words have a range of meaning wider than Yao Ming’s wingspan.  Those words could mean, “I hate you right now. Leave me alone.”  Or they could mean, “I’m hurt right now, but everything’ll be okay in a bit.”  Or they could actually mean, “Everything’s fine.  I don’t know why you’re so concerned, I’m good now.”

There’s one particular message that’s incredibly hard to decode.  And that is silence.  Any communication theorist will tell you that silence is extremely important in communication.  But what exactly does it signify?  Silence, like the phrase “everything’s fine,” possesses an incredibly wide range of meaning.  When my siblings and I were little, my parents took measures to disambiguate between possible meanings of silence.  At around age 8 or 9, we figured out that if we pretended that we hadn’t heard certain instructions, then we couldn’t be held responsible for disobedience.  Our parents, being wiser and smarter than us, consequently required us to respond with “Yes sir/ma’am, I will fill-in-the-blank.”  And if we didn’t respond, our parents would prompt us for a verbal response.  Even today, if unsure the other party heard a request, we’ll jokingly admonish, “I need a verbal response!”

Well that works fine in disambiguating silence when one is face-to-face, but what about in distance correspondence?  With the rise of digital communication, silence is garnering more and more possible meanings.  Each time I send out a message, whether it’s a text message, email, facebook message, or online dating message, I send it out into the void, hoping that the intended recipient will receive it.

So what does it mean when she doesn’t respond?  Traditionally this has meant, “I’m just not interested.”

But it could mean, “Your message got lost in the hundreds of electronic messages flooding my inboxes each day.”  Or it could mean, “I don’t know…I have to think about this.”  Or it could mean, “I am really bad at keeping up with digital correspondence.”  We all have that friend, whose response to an email or facebook wall post is as rare as the steaks the Cullen family indulged in.

Well.  If I’ve learned anything in my year on okcupid, the notorious free online dating site, it’s that silence means, “I’m not interested.”  If someone is interested, she or he will stay in contact with you.  I know everyone’s busy.  And that often becomes an excuse for not replying to messages in a timely way.  And that’s fine.  But even if someone is busy, that person will make time to stay in contact with someone she or he is interested in.  I know that I’ve been guilty of playing this busyness card.  And I don’t feel good about it.

Silence is not fair.  In ethical communication, encoding a message requires that the recipient will be able to adequately decode the message.  One may say, “Well, I’m not actively encoding a message with my silence – it’s a passive move.”  But once someone contacts you, you are now a participant in a conversation.  Remaining silent may be passive in that you are not saying anything, but you are actively contributing to the conversation that has been initiated in your silence.  In not replying to a text, email, fb message or other form of communication indicating romantic intent, one is actively sending out the message that he or she is not interested.

However, the anguish of friends wondering, “Why didn’t she (or he) call me back?” is anecdotal proof that this message of silence is not always competently decoded.  There is too much ambiguity in silence.  As any academic trying to make an argument from silence knows.

I want to conclude by writing not to Anxious in Portland, but to Anxiety-causing-girl-in-anxious-in-Portland’s-life.  As hard as it is, as awful as it feels to be a friend-zoner or rejecter, just do it.  I am infinitely grateful to the girls who told me straight up, “Michael, I don’t want to date you.”  This left me free from wondering, from the anxiety of ambiguous silence, and from holding out hope that I’d met The One.

Tell the person crushing on you that he doesn’t stand a chance.  This can be done in nicer words, of course.  Eventually, your silence will probably be decoded as disinterest.  But in the words of Joel Osteen, take the high road.  You have the power to bring clarity and to dismiss confusion.  Take responsibility for your feelings (or lack thereof).  Instead of placing the burden of decoding an ambiguous message on the person brave enough to make a move, take the high road and send an easily decodable message.

Try, “I have to wash my hair.” There’s no ambiguity there.

Break the silence.

Getting Some Action

Part 4: Getting some action.

So the title of this is intentionally misleading. Much like the Jesus Wife article that came out last week.  (If you missed it check it out here.)  I am not going to talk about “getting some”, “hitting that”, “hooking up”, or whatever the kids these days are calling it.  I’ll save that talk for another day.

When I was little, I played a lot with three things: Legos, Micro-machines, and action figures.  So many action figures.  It all started when I was six years old and my mom took my brother and me to KB Toys and, since Andy had just seen Star Wars for the first time, he chose the Star Wars action figure of someone cool like R2-D2 or Darth Vader.  My memory fails me here.  I do however remember that I chose a rubber Han Solo in A New Hope attire.  He was rubber, and so the only pose you could really put him in was crucified or give-me-a-hug.  My mom convinced me that this one was a better choice than the cool plastic one my brother was getting because I could move his extremities and actually play with it.  My mom, who was right about a million-and-one other things, was wrong about this one.  This was the last rubber action figure I ever bought.  If I wanted a hug, I could turn to my purple stuffed animal dinosaur, Pancake.  We went on to collect a vast number of action figures, including a  number of other Han Solos.  We had Han in stormtrooper disguise, Han in Hoth gear, Han from Bespin, Han frozen in carbonite, Han in Endor gear, and Han in cermonial regalia from the end of episode IV.  What did we do with soe many Han action figure?  Well we often had a Han clan whenever we would set up our little worlds.  Or we would just switch out the Han we needed for the purpose of the scenario we were creating.  All of which ended with me wishing I could rescue Princess Leia, but my brother either foiling my attempt in persona bad guy, or my mom forcing us to clean up so we could go to the library.  Yes. I was a geek And a nerd.

What’s the point of this nostalgic rambling?  If you’re thinking, Oh no, Michael is now going to stretch this into some weird, forced analogy to the relational life, then you are correct, for that is precisely what I am going to do.

Upon reflection of my past relationships, romantic and otherwise, I noticed that you cannot have a true, authentic, intimate relationship without coming away changed.  In the very event of self-disclosure and of other-knowing, one is changed.  I know that dating-Michael is a lot different from single-Michael.  And I’d even go so far as to say that dating-person-a-michael is substantially different from dating-person-b-michael.  Almost as different as Endor-Han is from Bespin-Han.

Which brings me to the point I really want to make.  What does dating bring out in me?  What traits does a certain girl amplify or subdue?  What kind of person am I when I date?  Beyond that question, what kind of person do I want to be in life?  For that last question greatly influences the kind of girl I want to date and eventually marry.

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (and the 325 creed as well, for that matter) uses the phrase “light from light” to describe the divinity of Christ.  I tread on light ice in the analogies I am about to make, so please be gracious to me.  I am orthodox.  I promise.  If I overstep in my analogical statements, forgive me.

God has placed within each one of us, I am convinced, a passion – a telos, an end, a purpose.  In this telos, we find meaning, fulfillment, and completion.  Not completion because we are created inadequately – but completion in that fulfilling our purpose gives our very souls and beings a resonance with the plans and will of God that in moves us a state of joy and being that is greater than the ordinary creaturely existence we enjoy as mere observers of God’s creation.  When we become partakers of the Greater plan that God has for us – when we start to realize (by this I mean to make real, not comprehend) the purpose God has set for us, we resonate within a frequency that is life-giving.  This purpose is, I think, perhaps connected with our imago Dei, a trait that is connected somehow to the divine.  Not to be equated with the divine.  But instilled by the divine, and resonant with the divine will.  Which surely is something.

I think it is absolutely vital to surround myself with people who are light to my light.  The passion that they have doesn’t necessarily have to be the same as mine, but the passion for life, the passion for fulfilling the call that God has placed within that life is incredibly encouraging and uplifting.  Even if that person is daily trying to figure out what that passion and telos is, that’s still significant.

When I start to think about the kind of person I want to date, I think of someone who will be light to my light – whose passion will light up my own and inspire me to take on the world anew.  As one flame leaps when it comes in contact with another, so I hope my passion will leap each day in the encounters with my future spouse.

Now does this mean that I am going to subject the role of my future spouse to be in relation to my own growth and inspiration?  May it never be!  I hope that I can be the kind of person that will make that deep-seated passion and telos leap within the metaphorical womb of my future spouse.  (May God forgive me for making such awful metaphors.)

So what kind of action figure do I want to be?  Which Michael do I want to be?  Well I for sure don’t to be the one frozen in carbonite.  One of the reasons I hate the term complementarian is that it carries with it the notion that two people are incomplete until they fulfill each other, complementing each other.  I think that in an ideal relationship, two people, complete, and whole, as they were made by God, come together and make each other stronger.  There is no darkness to light in this relationship.  It is light from light.  As one flame leaps higher as it meets another flame, may I become the kind of person that encourages and vitalizes another that she or he might have an amplified passion and fire within him or her.  Note: my gender inclusive language is not a reflection of any confusion on my heterosexual sexual orientation. Just in case you were wondering.  No matter which Michael takes the prominent place in the Toy aisle, it is a straight one.

Be light.  Shine and may your light not merely illuminate the Truth within this dark world, but may it amplify the other lights in this shadowed time.

Single and Ready to … Settle?

Part 3. Singleness. I: Single and Ready to … Settle.

 

“You can keep praying for God to send you your princess, or you can learn from Abraham, get off your butt, get on your …donkey… and go find her.” – Andy Toy

 

Over the past two days I’ve driven 12 hours by myself.  Well I was by myself with Jesus.  And I spent a good portion of that time pondering the meaning of life.  To be more specific, the single life.  I am single as can be.  Mainly because being single or in a relationship is binary.  “I am as in-a-dating-relationship as can be,” falls under the category of stuff nobody says.  Nobody except homeschoolers maybe.

 

So what is the essence, purpose, and meaning of being single?  I was going to title this section, “The phemomenology of being single.”  Then I realized I’m probably single because I say stuff like that.  So I didn’t say that.  But I did.  Anyway.

 

Justin Bieber has a new scent out there for all the lovely ladies called Girlfriend, which, according to the Sephora people, is surprisingly and embarrassingly enticing.  So what goes into a scent that is essentially ‘Girlfriend’?  Well, if I were making it I’d put in a little vanilla, a little spice, a lot of sugar, and a dash of hazelnut.  Sounds more like a delicious latte than a scent.  I suppose that’s the barista in me.  But what if I was tasked with making a scent that captured the essence of being single?  It would probably include bitterness, complaints, dissatisfaction, a dash of “Why God?”, all bathed in loneliness.

 

But there’s more to being single than reading by myself with an Old Fashioned every Friday night, right?  There’s the courage building exercise of asking out girls only to be rejected, the increased motivation to talk to God while asking him to send a spouse, and incentive to stay fit and healthy looking.  Although for that last one, I spent the entire summer at the gym and while my biceps might be a little bigger, the spouse-shaped hole in my heart is still as empty as ever.

 

Forgive my borrowed metaphor from evangelical altar calls, but I feel like that’s the way a lot of people view relationships these days: I am incomplete without a spouse in my life.  And when that person comes along, all my failings, faults, and blemishes will go away because she will complement me and make me whole, turning me into the person that God intended me to be.

 

And that’s a lie from Satan.  In my experience, the healthiest relationships occur when two people come together from a place of strength.  A boy/girlfriend is not an emotional messiah.  He or she will not forgive you your sins and transform your shortcomings into a glorious testament to God’s grace.  That’s what Jesus does.  Brief aside to girls: When you guys use the Jesus is my boyfriend metaphor, please, please, please be careful that you don’t turn the concept of your future boyfriend into a messiah.  We are not Jesus.

 

Being single, for me, is a time I can concentrate on my own formation.  I can work on being a strong, light-bearing, loving Christian- so that when I do meet my future girlfriend, I am already on God’s journey of holistic redemption, and my relationship will not become a shallow imitation made up of emotional and physical affirmation from a girlfriend.

 

I want to urge all my single peers: work on yourself.  Work on becoming that person God wants you to be.  He’ll send you a spouse.  I promise.

 

In the meantime, Don’t settle.

 

Don’t settle into a pattern of self-mediocrity – you’re better than that.  As Jamie Lee Curtis taught me in Freaky Friday, you are a strong independent woman, and you don’t need a man to complete you.  I tell that to myself all the time and it feels good, especially when I say it in the mirror.  (Don’t worry, I’m confident in my sexuality and gender.)  Don’t settle into the mindset of, “Oh, I’ll never be perfect, and when I find that someone, he or she will make me a better me. But for now, I’ll just be an okay person.”  Going back to the idea of Self-gift from a previous section, prepare the gift of you that you will one day give to your spouse.

 

Don’t settle for anyone less than the person God has for you.  I know it’s hard being single.  Believe me, I know.  But don’t settle for someone who’s not right for you. (We’ll talk about compatibility and what “right” means later.)  You may meet someone who’s eight kinds of awesome and nine kinds of beautiful, but if he or she isn’t right for you, then you need to move on.

 

It’s cheesy, and it’s cliché, but it’s true.  There’s someone out there for you.  But til you find each other, be the best you that you can be.  That’s my paraphrase of one of my life mantras that I have forgotten the source: We all seek our destiny- but until we find it, we try.  Take advantage of this time of singleness as a time of individual growth.  And as we are relational beings, let that individual growth bear fruit within the community we are in.  Learn to live in community.  Learn to love, learn to share, learn to serve.

 

I briefly alluded above to the “Jesus is my boyfriend/spouse” idea that floats around evangelical youth groups.  Jesus is no one’s spouse.  The Biblical metaphor casts Jesus and the Church as groom and bride.  The Church is a body of believers, a corporate entity (etymological pun intended).  No one individual person is the Church.  Together, we make up the body of the church militant.  Each of us contributes to the body that is the bride of Christ – the imperfection, flaws, quarrelsome nature, unfaithfulness, and diversity – these all contribute to the beauty of the metaphor.  Jesus did not come so that single girls could have someone to share their emotional struggles with until they have a boyfriend to pour all that out on.  He came to transform broken people into a marvelous mosaic, held together with the power of his transcendent love and scintillating with the glory of redemption.

So instead of saying your boyfriend is your messiah, maybe live out the Church/Jesus love relationship by loving the church.  What would Jesus do?  Probably not pine away for a perfect knight in shining armor.  (yes, your knight is coming, but you don’t have to wait in the castle staring out the window til he comes.)  Practice love, service, and self-gift to the Church –Christ’s bride.  That’s what Jesus would do

 

And he isn’t single anymore.

The “L” Word

Part 2. The “L” word.

“Do you love me?” I Do. Sort of. Kind of. Mostly. I don’t know?

 

Love. What a wonderful word.  Full of resplendence, all kinds of warm fuzzy associations, and also imbued by our English speaking culture with a multitude of meanings.  What does it mean?  When do I tell the person I’m dating I love him or her?  What does it mean when I say that four-letter word?  (there are many ways to tell someone you love him or her, the notion of which was popularized to my generation by the five love languages book, but I want to look specifically at the use of the word Love in a dating relationship right now. Love languages we can examine later.)

 

When I was seven, I was rebuked by my soccer coach for saying that I loved chicken mcnuggets.  In his loud, I-can-be-heard-from-the-sideline, British accent, he coached my use of words, “Michael, that’s the same word you use to say you love your mother and your father.  That’s the same word you use to say you love your soccer coach. But more importantly, that’s the word we use to talk about God.  God Is Love.  Now, do you want to try rephrasing that sentence about chicken mcnuggets?”

 

Fast forward a bit in my life til I’m in middle school. I’m pretty sure I’m in love.  (I’m not.)  I think I’ve met the most perfect girl.  (I haven’t. No offense, middle school crush.)  And I can’t wait to profess my undying love to her.  (I don’t.)  All the feelings were there.  Even the mental dedication and devotion was there.  But did I dare call what I felt love?  Honestly, I can’t remember if I did or didn’t. I’m pretty sure I didn’t.

 

Skip through two relationships to the present, and where am I with love?  I’ve said it.  I’ve meant it.  And now…well.  Now I’m not in it anymore.  So what’s the deal?  It’s weird that two people can get so close, become so intimate, know each other so deeply, and care with such fervor and then * snap * just like that, the entire relationship is redefined without love.  And by “ * snap * “ I mean a good chunk of heartbrokenness, a few dozen tears, and at least one day of listening to Dashboard Confessional.

 

We’ll get to breakups later.  For now let’s look at this thing called ‘love’.  Really, let’s look at the use of the word love within a romantic, pre-marriage relationship (okay for the sake of brevity, is it cool if I use the term ‘dating relationship’ to mean a romantic, pre-marriage relationship?  Great. Otherwise I’ll start using acronyms like RPR and no one, including myself, will know what I’m talking about).

 

So what does this L word mean in a broad sense?  It means everything.  It means the look my hulk of a neighbor gives to his little daughters playing in the yard: full of tenderness, joy, and a depth of splendor that is unique to the father-child relationship.  It means the hours my mother spends in prayer for her never-incurring-stress/worry/anguish children.  It means the days of labor a poet spends searching for the words to accurately refract the pure feeling of devotion emanating from his soul into human language.  It means the blood spilled abroad for the freedom of those at home.  And it means the relationship of an 8 year old and chicken mcnuggets.  It means Everything.

 

Despite the ambiguity and universality in the meaning of love, we can find some specific meanings, purpose, and effect within a dating relationship.

 

I don’t know about you, but for me, the L word was a bit of a milestone in my relationships.  Now it really didn’t change the way I felt about the girls I said it to, but it did change the way we viewed our relationship.  It was a next step, a marker, a way of saying we were committed to each other.  And…look where that commitment took us.  We should’ve said comet-ed because our relationship was like a comet – went nowhere to nowhere, but was bright and kinda cool to watch as it went by.  Forgive my cynicism, I promise I’m not bitter.

 

I have observed three notable milestones of saying the phrase, “I love you.”

 

The first is the first time it is said.  (Or written.)  This is the most obvious milestone.  The first declaration of love in a romantic setting is kind of a big deal.  People flirt around the “L bomb” for a period that can last as long as several months before it is finally dropped.  And when it is, the blast is usually less than explosive.  At least in my experience.  Happiness, joy, warmth, I felt.  But I really didn’t feel anything profoundly new or shell-shocking.  Perhaps that’s because I’m very much a thinker and not a feeler.

 

I understand the reasoning behind withholding the use of the L word in a fledgling relationship, for as we discussed, we don’t want to be throwing our hearts around into a deep commitment without first weighing the cost of such a maneuver.  But in this kind of context, I think that dancing around one phrase or word is pretty ridiculous.  If you really care about another person, you genuinely want the best for them in a selfless (not necessarily completely self-giving) way, then why not tell someone how you feel about them.

 

I get that love is a big word that we need to guard with some kind of sacredness, but really, with all words, we imbue them with certain meanings in specific contexts.  We don’t have to be locked into the idea that saying “I love you” to your boy/girlfriend locks you into the same kind of relationship that is signified by the same words with a different semantic meaning.  Yes, I say those same three words to the Creator of the universe in my contemporary worship Sunday morning service, but as all words are metaphors, the semantic meaning in that context is not univocal.  It’s pretty obvious to everyone (hopefully) that I don’t want to marry chicken mcnuggets.  And just because I say those three words, doesn’t necessarily mean that I intend on marrying the recipient.  Communication of meaning is vital here.  What do we mean when we say different things?  Rather than being hung up on certain phrases or words, I think it’s more important to be honest and upfront about where you stand in regard to your feelings, thoughts, and attitudes within a relationship.  That doesn’t mean that you need to say, “I love you. And by that I mean I want to be with you right now, hold you, enjoy your presence, and soak in who you are,” or qualify your assertion of love every time you drop the L bomb.  But be proactive about being honest with yourself as well as your beloved about where you are in the relationship, your level of commitment, your level of trust, your level of comfort.  On the flip side, awareness of any hesitancy to commit, anything holding back trust or comfort should be acknowledged as well.  It is too easy to blanket a relationship with words of love, when true love and true intimacy demands the courage to dwell within honesty and frankness.

 

Milestone two.  When “I love you” is digitalized.  When it’s sent via text, email, or * cringe * facebook wall post, it signifies a more subtle change in the relationship.  I just said that we imbue language with meaning.  But the medium we choose for communication also influences the message significantly.  When I post, “I love you,” on someone’s facebook wall, we can hardly expect it to take on the same meaning those same words have when I cook a dinner for two, lean over a candlelit table, kiss her cheek and whisper those three words in her ear.

 

So how do we keep the L word from being trivialized by texts, fb messages, and other mediums?  The onus is on you for this one.  Be creative.  If like me, you’re not creative, use the internet.  There is a world full of ideas out there. If you’re on a tight budget and can’t afford to fill a field with daffodils, make your beau a dozen origami lilies.  Rip out a page from my book, rip out a page of a book, and sharpie in everything but the words, “I love you.”  (Irony behind the book choice in that story…maybe I’ll talk about that in a later post.)  Write a handwritten letter.  Print a close up picture of your smile, and write “You put a smile on my face each day” on the back and leave it somewhere your beloved will find it.

 

Words are just words.  But words are also the building blocks of civilized communication.  Take advantage of the words that God has given us.  Use this gift of language to express how you feel.  Don’t be afraid to use the L word.  It’s a word.  Just think hard about what you want to communicate and what the best word(s) and actions are to communicate that idea.

 

I’d like to dedicate this section to the current love of my life: my dear friends and ever comforting companion, chicken mcnuggets.

 

Michael’s Guide to Christian Dating. Part 1.

The Gift That (Should) Keep Giving

It is a dangerous occupation to embark on any theological discussion.  It is an even more dangerous endeavor to try to find one unifying principle to guide one’s thought.  Intellectual giants have fallen mightily when their guiding proposition becomes outdated or falls out of popular use.

But we must start somewhere, and as some ancient Chinese proverb-writer said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  The first step I want to make is to assert that humans have a telos, an end or a purpose.

In a statement made by the Second Vatican Council, popularly known as Vatican II, the Church asserts that humans find their purpose and end in self-gift.  “‘Man, who is the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self.’  This applies to every human being, as a person created in God’s image, whether man or woman” (Mulieris Dignitatem XXX).

So what is this Self-Gift?  Well, option one is to grab a mirror and seize your reflection.  Option two is to clone yourself.  Option three is much more challenging than a reflection or duplication, for it involves you.  The best illustration of self-gift is in Christ Jesus’ gift of himself to humanity.  His life, his death, his resurrection, it was all a gift for us and to the Father.  Trying to gaze into the life of Christ is akin to gazing into Infinity.  There are endless things to be learned and to meditate upon from His recorded life, not to mention the things that He did and said that were not recorded.  That said, let us draw from Christ’s life two admittedly overly-condensed and overly-simplified principles.  (In a brief aside, beware any writer who tries to draw from the Bible “principles”.  For the Bible is infinitely complex, and aside from selections from Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and Proverbs, it is not a collection of principles but a series of stories.  And even those instructions are given within the framework of a certain narrative.  Had God wanted to give us a set of timeless principles, I am sure he would have.  Instead, he has given us stories and narrative.  So I admit that I am committing a grievous foul in my principle chapter of deriving principles from the life of Christ, and so I beg your forgiveness, patience, and graciousness as I attempt to refract the pure Absolute Truth of the Infinite into a few distinguishable colors identifiable to the human eye.)

Christ’s gift of himself was complete.  He gave his all to all of us.  Holding nothing back, he humbled himself and let his entire life be a gift.  In his birth, he gave hope to the anawim, the poorest of the poor, the commonest of the common.  In his life, he gave healing, wisdom, and love both to the oppressed people of Israel, the outcast Samaritan, and the oppressing centurion.  In his suffering, He gave to us life.  In her Revelations of Divine Love, St Julian of Norwich recounts a vision she has of Christ, “He did not say, ‘If it were necessary to suffer more’, but ‘If I could suffer more’; for if he could suffer more, he would, even if it were not necessary” (19).  Christ gave all He could possibly give to us.

Secondly, Christ’s gift is continual.  In the gift of the Eucharist, or if you prefer to call it the Lord’s Supper, Christ continues to give himself to us.  (For those of you who have a less sacramental view of the Lord’s Supper, perhaps it will help if you think of it like this: Christ gave Himself once for all, and as time progresses, it is not just the apostles’ generation that was imparted with life saving grace from Christ’s death, but his gift continues into the present, the past, and into the future.)  In the accidents of the bread and the wine, Christ is with us when we take the elements.  Not only did he die for us, but he continues to live for us.  He intercedes on our behalf and bestows upon us grace.  Once in fourth grade I told a girl I’d be happy to die for her, but I probably wouldn’t live for her.  She got mad at me, and rightly so.  For to die for someone is once and done, but to choose to live for someone is a daily choice that involves an entire lifetime of decisions, sacrifices, and devotion.

We could reflect for days upon these two aspects of Christ’s gift of himself in wonderful, deep, transforming ways.  But I will leave that for your own private devotion.  For now let us pull back from gazing into the Infinite and reflect on how we can liken our lives to His in imitation of His sincere gift of self.

In the sacrament of marriage, self-gift is essential.  For those of you unfamiliar with the word sacrament, I am using it to mean a physical/earthly means of communicating God’s grace.  In the sacrament of marriage, one experiences God’s grace as he or she gives him/herself fully to one’s spouse.  “Wait a minute, Michael, I thought we were talking about dating – let’s wait on this whole marriage thing – my left ring finger is still naked.”  The reason I bring this up is that I want to have a defined and identifiable telos to dating.  The end goal is sacramental marriage, infused and shaped by complete self-gift to the other.

Now that we have the end goal defined, how are we to get there?  Surely I cannot fully and completely and sincerely give my whole entire self to every person I date.  That sounds like a load of heartache and heartbreak, which I wish on no one.  How are we to balance the idea that our purpose is to give of ourselves completely and continually in a dating relationship without whoring out our soul?

How do I find someone to whom I can freely, safely, and completely give my entirety?  When I have tried to give of myself, when that relationship ends, all that I had given, all of the Self that I had tried to offer was rejected and thrown back.  Unfortunately once one gives of oneself, there is not way to reintegrate and reclaim that gift of time, love, and energy back into one’s person.  That leads us to an interesting position.  How do we seek one to whom I can give my all without giving him or her my all?  And then, the next question becomes: how much self is too much to give to another outside of a marriage relationship?

So as you read, keep in mind, the principle of self-gift – what actions are selfless gifts, and what are selfish gifts?  Kierkegaard writes on the difference between eros and agape, in my badly summarized version, he sounds like this: Eros has to possess the object of love, in giving oneself in eros, one takes, controls, and grasps its object.  Agape, on the other hand, is a surrender.  Agape says, “Here I am, take me as you will, to do with what you wish.  I have no hidden agenda, no hidden manipulation to force you to love me, just a desire to be for you.”  As you can see, Agape is quite the dangerous love.  Even before marriage, how do we demonstrate the sentiment of agape over eros?  This is the question I want to explore throughout the rest of this book.

Michael’s Guide to Christian Dating. Part 0.

Michael Toy’s Guide to Christian Dating: The Dos and Donts You Never Learned in Sunday School

Part 0. (As a computer science minor, I start counting with zero. The zero also fits because this section is devoid of any actual content pertaining to dating. If you’re just skimming this looking for the part where I tell you exactly what to do to find your godly spouse in a godly way, then you might want to skip this part.)

An Introduction and rambling preamble.

 

A year or so ago I wrote a rather vague piece entitled “How to Date Like Jesus.”  There was really nothing in it that was at all practical, but rather just an exhortation to be selfless and self-giving, especially in relationships.  Sure, we as Christians know that we are supposed to put others first, to love selflessly, and pray a whole bunch, but what does that actually look like in real life?  This time around, I want to share from my own experience the lessons I’ve learned from rather poor relationship decisions that left my exes and me confused, hurt, and heartbroken.  Let’s get down to the practical stuff.  Is courtship a more modest way of seeking a mate than an un-antiquated style of dating?  Is making out on a first date a sin?  When is the right time to drop the “L” word?

I want to start with a little background about my relationship history.  First, I am single.  Though I have had failed relationships, I consider each one a success.  For in each relationship I learned a tremendous deal about life, love, and relationships and grew substantially in each.  In this work, I hope not to shout out a list of DO THIS and DON’T DO THIS, but I pray that you learn from my experience about what does and doesn’t work.  Mainly what doesn’t work.  One of my professors in college prayed everyday, “Lord, grant that I might learn vicariously from the mistakes of others, that I might not make the same mistakes.”   There’s no going back.  I’ve made my mistakes, and hopefully you can learn something from them.  If you wish to repeat my mistakes and see for yourself the hurt and pain that ensues, be my guest, but it is my prayer and intention that you learn vicariously from my mistakes.

Now when I started dating, my wise parents told me a lot of things, and I didn’t listen because I was sixteen years old and stupid.  Just smart enough to get the second highest score in my college Calculus II class, but stupid enough to think my parents didn’t know what they were talking about.  So.  If, like sixteen year old me, you think your parents don’t know anything, please heed the advice of your peer: a 22 year old, single, Christian guy just trying to find the gal God has placed on this world for him to marry.

It is my prayer that you can learn from my experience and my observations of my peers when it comes to dating.  I by no means claim to be an expert.  In fact, I am the opposite.  I am a complete failure.  But this failure doesn’t have to be yours.  Learn from my mistakes and become a better person from it.  I don’t have an “Aww” love story of boy meets girl, boy courts girl, and boy and girl have holy, passionate, godly sex and adorable babies.  But I have given and am giving this subject a fair amount of thought, and I invite you to think through these questions with me.

I am not a professional theologian.  I am not a professional dating expert.  I’m not the Christian version of Hitch.  I am not going to tell you how to find your Christian soul mate.  I’m just another guy on the same road you’re on, and I want to warn you of the dangers, toils, and snares that are on this road.

So is there such thing as a theology of dating?  It is important to understand as our premise that theology is never formed in a vacuum.  Partially because the vacuum is a relatively recent phenomenon – as my North Canton friends can attest.  But everything concerning man has occurred in History.  And history is made by people.  Every single person that has ever walked this earth and breathed from our now endangered atmosphere belongs to a specific era and locale.  And each era and each locale is stuck rather fixedly within its own cultural context.  The Bible transcends each culture and each age and each situation, but how do we apply those transcendental lessons that occurred within a specific cultural and temporal context from the Bible to our own context today?

I find myself bemoaning the fact again and again that there is no manual that tells me how to live my life in this present age.  WHY GOD??  Why couldn’t you in your foreknowledge say, “In the democratic country of America, when you are faced with two candidates you can’t fully support, then you must abstain from voting, for it is your duty to choose Good and to choose Life, not the lesser of two evils.”  Why couldn’t you say, “Michael, this is the person I chose for you to marry.  Better start saving up for that engagement ring.  You will marry, have lots of adorable babies, and won’t get a divorce.” Alas. No such manual exists.  Just an ancient document that tells about the Son of God who came to redeem the world.  Don’t get me wrong, that document is the Gospel, and in that is Life and Life everlasting, but for those of us who occasionally just want the application of Truth, the Bible is less than helpful.  The great love story of Song of Solomon, the glorious poem every Christian writer who writes on sex cites, was written by a man who had three hundred wives and six hundred concubines.  Tell me King Solomon’s cultural context is the same as mine, and I will show you a life of NOT sleeping with a different woman every night every two years.  That’s not to say that we cannot extract Biblical principles and apply them to life today.  For that is what the theologian does.  “Tradition [of the church] is important because it is the bridge that connects Scripture with our contemporary situation” (Cone 13).  This is the job of the theologian – to stand in the stream of theological tradition, connecting Scripture to the current lives and culture of the people of God.

While the Bible does not say, “Let not a man lead a woman on, nor a woman a man, and let he or she who does be cast out of the assembly until he or she repents,” it does have other things to say about that kind of behavior.  From the ninth commandment as well as the overarching Biblical principle of dignifying the spirit of humanity within each other, we can deduce that one should not lead people on.  From Michael’s spotty past experience, we can induce that one should not lead people on.  These are the kinds of questions and lessons I hope to tackle in this work.  I hope you’ll join me in learning from my mistakes and my 20/20 hindsight, that has helped so tremendously in looking back and seeing, “Oh, so that’s how I Should’ve practiced the principle of selflessness in application to dating.”  This is not meant to be an enduring work, for I’m sure the dating scene will change again within the next 50 years, as evidenced by the fact that it is already evolving around us.  But I hope that in this present age, it will at least help you to ask yourself the questions about love, dating, marriage, and sex that we often leave unasked or that Christian leaders leave unanswered.

The second to last thing I want to say is that in this work, I am going to assume heterosexuality.  I am not going to address questions of bisexuality, homosexuality, or pansexuality.  Those are questions outside the scope of this work, but are extremely important.  I hope that my silence on the subject will not be interpreted as condemnation of homosexual people or an endorsement of the idea that homosexuality and Christianity are incompatible.  Touchy subject that I’m not going to touch in this round.  Perhaps I should rename the work to A Guide to Heterosexual Christian Dating.  But I’m not.  Forgive me.

The last thing I want to do in this (pre) ramble is to say that the girls I dated (or tried to date) in the past are wonderful, terrific women of God.  If there is any fault in my past relationships, it is mine and I can shoulder the blame for that.  I am, thank God, friends with all those with whom I have a romantic past, and they are each a blessing in my current life.  I’m going to leave out names, details, and a few facts just to protect the pseudo-anonymity of these great gals.