Today we begin a yearlong series on Sexuality & The Church, and I want to start by simply setting the tone. As we enter this discussion together every Monday, my prayer is that we will keep these three truths at the center of all our conversations:
Stories are sacred, and we will treat them as such.
I have sat across the table at a coffee shop as a young woman, looking down at her hands, told me her story….complete with the difficult parts…. each word chosen with the kind of care and courage that made me recognize that moment as a precious gift. It was a gift because it cost her something—vulnerability, painful memories, the possibility of rejection. And it was a gift because it honored me to know I was trusted with something so valuable, so fragile, and so personal.
Stories faithfully and bravely told are sacred gifts, and in this series, we will treat them as such, with gentleness and respect. When people tell their stories, whether in the comment section or as part of a post, we will be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. (And I will monitor the comment section like a Mama Bear to ensure this is the case!) There will be interviews and guest posts from a variety of people with a variety of sexual orientations and backgrounds, and as we work our way through several books, I plan to alternate between more theoretical and theological works (like Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality by Jack Rogers and Sexuality and Holy Longing by Lisa Graham McMinn) and more personal, testimony-style books (like Torn by Justin Lee, Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill, and See Me Naked by Amy Frykholm).
That’s because when Christians talk about sexuality we tend to revert to…(pardon the pun)…positions. As in, we take other people’s stories and make them about us: where we stand on “issues” like homosexuality and premarital sex. Perhaps we do this because we are frightened by the complexity of sexuality, a complexity that does not lend itself to the comfortable categories that assure us that we’re right, that we’re “in,” that we’re safe, that we’re talking about “other” people from “other” places in “other” communities. Already I have been confronted with this as folks have sent me messages demanding to know where I “stand” on a variety of issues before they decide whether or not to even read the series, as if it’s a series about me and my beliefs. Homosexuality in particular has become a sort of blunt rock with which evangelicals draw lines in the sand to determine who is “in” and who is “out”—a classic case of the privileged using the marginalized for their own advancement and power. I’ve been warned by more people than I can count that if I don’t say just the right thing, if I don’t toe the party line when it comes to sexuality, I could lose speaking engagements, book deals, readers, even fellowship with other believers. We have become a Church that judges one another by how we judge one another, and that makes me sad.
I’ll never forget sitting in the living room of a family from my old church, engaged in a heated argument with several straight, married couples about whether or not one could be both a follower of Jesus and gay. The language had gotten ugly, judgmental, degrading. We were telling other people’s stories for them, without care or respect. We had, essentially, objectified our fellow human beings, which struck me as the opposite of a healthy, Christlike engagement of sexuality. Then and there I vowed never to have that conversation again unless a gay friend was present and welcomed.
So, at its heart, this series is not about positions, but about people. Homosexuality is not a mere “issue.” Singleness is not a mere “issue.” Marriage is not a mere “issue.” As any mother of a gay child or survivor of sexual abuse will tell you, when we talk about sexuality, we are talking about real people, real bodies, real families, real lives. To forget this is to subject our fellow human beings, created in the image of God, to a sort of theological objectification that robs them of their humanity and renders their stories, their experience, their backgrounds, their spirituality, their relationships, their struggles, and their joys down into something I can either “affirm” or “condemn,” something that is either “pure” or “defiled.” Yes, we are called to “test the spirits,” to think critically, to make judgment calls, and at times to call out sin, but above all, we are called to love. And love does not objectify. It is not rude or self-seeking. It does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth. And without love, our discussions and debates and polemics are just clanging cymbals that hurt the ears of God.
And so, as we listen to one another’s stories, we must quiet ourselves. We must listen. We must love. We must take off our shoes. For we are on sacred ground.
Scripture is sacred, and we will treat is as such.
The Bible was the topic of 2012’s yearlong series as we talked about loving the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be. This means recognizing our own biases and presuppositions when it comes to interpretation, educating ourselves about the culture and context in which the Bible was written and assembled, and resisting the universal tendency to conform the Bible into a weapon or an idol of our own making. Taking the Bible seriously, we learned, means accepting it on its own terms, living in its tensions and confronting those texts we don’t like or understand and sitting with them for a while, perhaps even a lifetime. It means respecting the Bible enough to wrestle with it.
That an ancient collection of history, poetry, letters, laws, prophecies, proverbs, and stories might have something important—indeed, sacred—to say about sexuality may seem like foolishness to many, but I am as committed as ever to the notion that Scripture is inspired by God, and useful for teaching, correcting, and training, so that the people of God are equipped for the good works we are called to share with the world.
And so, as part of the series, we will be discussing what the Bible says about sexuality, looking at the “big picture” as well as the particular texts that tend to spark debate. Some books I would like to review or work through include, Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality by Jack Rogers, Bible, Gender, Sexuality by James Brownson, Sexuality and the Christian Body and more. We may also need to work in a discussion of Song of Songs, which is one of my favorite books of the Bible. (The Shulamite girl is one of my favorite biblical women of valor!)
Now, I do not intend for these discussions around Scripture to stand in contrast to the stories we share, but rather to complement them. After all, the Bible is mostly stories, and even the letters and laws we tend to read as dry directives themselves arose from the context of a story. And so special attention will be given to books and articles that help us understand the relevant texts within their original contexts and in the context of God’s good and grand story of restoration and redemption.
Sexuality is sacred, and we will treat it as such.
How is sexuality sacred?
Well, I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. That’s something we will be exploring together as part of the series. (We’re learning together, remember?!)
But I’m pretty sure that preserving the sacredness of sexuality means speaking about it with reverence, respect, and truth (and with some humor now and then too, as I’m convinced that our ability to laugh at ourselves has a direct correlation to our ability to spot the idols in our lives). And I’m pretty sure that preserving the sacredness of sexuality means giving up control, relinquishing power, and leaving space for mystery.
Perhaps the hardest part of recognizing the sacredness of sexuality is acknowledging the fact that we will not master it, that we won’t ever be able to “get it right”—not exactly. As I said in A Year of Biblical Womanhood, we make the most beautiful things ugly when we try to systematize a mystery. I suspect this is why much of what the Bible has to say about sexuality is said with poetry.
On a final note, I want to acknowledge that as a straight, married woman, I am keenly aware of my own privilege and limitations in tackling this broad and complex topic, especially as it relates to the stories of my LGBT brothers and sisters and my many single readers. And so I need y’all to keep me accountable, to let me know if I veer into territory that is unhelpful or hurtful. I’ve also enlisted the help of a group of people I really respect. These are my “sex consultants,” charged with keeping me accountable, making suggestions, and (hopefully) contributing some guests posts or ideas:
To conclude, I’ve borrowed this prayer from Kimberly, which she shared on her blog yesterday and which I hope will set the tone for the rest of the series:
Gracious and loving God,
who was made known to us in the body of a babe,
born into poverty and despised by the state -
Our parent and brother
recognize the stranger as our kin.
listen attentively to our lives.
discern the murmuring of grace
planted by you in our hearts.
hear the the deep pain and soaring joy of others.
see our interdependence with others
to be your hands and feet in the world.
So, what do you think? How can this series be helpful, and what must we do to keep it from being hurtful? What suggestions do you have specifically for the series?
Oh, and if you're interested in reading along, I'm still nailing down the official reading list, but we will likely start off with a conversion about Justin Lee's Torn and Wesley Hill's Washed and Waiting, as they present two stories and two viewpoints shared with much grace. I'm hoping to interview both authors.