Courtship took my church by storm in the 1990s. While I never read I Kissed Dating Goodbye, I was given a number of books about marriage and intimacy and taught explicitly that dating was preparation for divorce. Having never dated, I was not in a position to protest. I listened patiently to the story of the couple in my church who had married without so much as holding hands. They were the happiest couple after Eamon and Pearl, so clearly they’d done something right. I learned that smitten young Message couples would walk around holding each end of a shared stick, in order to express their affection without risking finger-to-finger contact. I thought to myself that it sounded a bit contrived.
I was sure, however, that the first man to touch me would take away something of my purity: a commodity I was given at birth and must guard throughout my life. I was spiritually dressed in a sparkling white wedding gown, which I must constantly defend against the oil of someone else’s hands. Kissing was out of the question. Branham taught that there were “sex glands” in the lips of men and women, and that the two sets should never meet except for marital procreation. But it wasn’t just physical contact to be avoided: broken hearts came, too, from loosely guarded emotions. I must never say the words, “I love you,” to anyone until I was engaged. True love could only happen to the pure.
And so it was with dread that I, at age 15, received and read an email from my friend Karl. I’d known him online for a couple of years – we had joined a message board and discussed our shared love of Japanese anime there. He had been left hanging when I purged my life of secular influences – indeed, I had also purged my life of him, along with the anime and my other very close friends. But on a whim I had logged into AIM, we’d talked, and he’d got my email address. He wrote to me about a dream he’d had where everything was right and beautiful, where I’d come back from my strange and sudden disappearance and told him that it was all okay, now I could finally be with him. He said he loved me. I stared at the email in helpless frustration. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t date! Especially not an unbeliever. With my cheeks burning in the shame of hypocrisy, I clattered out a terrified reply. “It’s not me you need,” I wrote through gritted teeth and tears. “It’s Jesus.” I never felt like such a liar.
Feeling sure that God would bless my efforts to fully commit myself to Him, I deliberately cast Karl out of my mind and immersed myself in a mythology of my own making: a story running from the time I entered the Message to the present. I rejected the name I’d used online, telling myself all that was “Sierra” was sinful and rebellious. “I will not be Sierra again,” I wrote in my journal furiously. I would rededicate my life to Christ, and revert to my childhood nickname, Tara. And onto the set of my little drama waltzed Sven.