Good Christian Sex (a book review)

good-christian-sex-coverAs a pastor and mother of three, I spent a lot of time talking to them semi-awkwardly during their adolescence about sex, and when to have it and when it might be better to wait, and how to value themselves and how to value others, and attempting to put common sense safer sex practices into a context that reflected my, and I hoped their, faith stance. We are Christians of the liberal/progressive-ish flavor, and they grew up in a small New England city where church-going was on the downturn, so their classmates and friends were mostly not having this conversation through the filter of their faith, and the few who were came to it from the conservative end of the spectrum. I like to think I got my point across, that the idea of employing a love ethic based on the Great Commandment would go a long way toward ensuring good intimate relationships. I wrote in my 2009 blog post, “It’s about a sense that your existence matters deeply to the other person and your coming together is holy because of it.” Bromleigh McCleneghan commented on that post and quoted the line back to me with appreciation. Now she has written a great book expanding on the topic, Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option — and Other Things the Bible Says About Sex (2016: HarperOne).

The grace of being seen and known, of holy attentiveness to a partner, is possible, I’d argue, in any just and loving action toward another, and it’s part of what makes sexual encounters — or good ones, anyway — so pleasurable. (pp. 51-52)

McCleneghan uses her own admittedly privileged experiences as a conversation partner with modern scholars, voices from the Christian tradition, and scripture as she explores pleasure, desire, ethics, waiting, vulnerability, intimacy, fidelity, and the past we carry with us. By making herself vulnerable, she invites readers to lower their defenses. Her personal stories are matter-of-fact without feeling exhibitionist, one of the challenges of writing about sex. She writes about God as the deity well-known to progressive Christians but also intuited by pragmatic believers at many points on the theological spectrum. Somehow there has to be more to the complicated feelings of love and desire than a list of rules; if we reject old-school norms that advantaged men and straight people, we need an ethic for this time and a way to hold ourselves accountable.

Her writing voice is intelligent, pragmatic, humorous, and authentic. Her chapter about fidelity explores what “counts” as lust; in a world in which women who have been assaulted are blamed for tempting men in their weakness, I agree we need some new understandings. McCleneghan wrestles with the admonitions of Jesus, engages the work of Margaret Farley on Just Sex, and considers the philosopher Simon Blackburn. She lands in a place that, I believe, makes Good Christian Sense.

If love is about valuing another and honoring God’s image within her, lust is less concerned with the good of the other than with the meeting of a desire for union. It’s not that no affection for the object exists, just that his needs and wants are not the priority. (p. 191)

I must say, and this in no way diminishes my overall appreciation for the book, that although some of the people she surveyed were LGBTQ, this is a very straight book. It’s not that queer people cannot get something from her narrative or her theology, but they will see very little of their story represented. It’s a relatively young and mostly able-bodied book, but I appreciated the mentions of older couples who cannot marry for economic reasons and the recounting of a story of disability and the challenge it poses for intimacy. It’s also the story of a person who has been, as she names, fortunate in her relationships, her fertility, even her mistakes.

Yet, as a person who married as a young virgin and came out to myself relatively late in life (even after that blog post quoted above), I found that McCleneghan effectively captured something crucial about desire that played a part in my story.

Many women had sex for the first time for love, or because their partner wanted it, or because they had made up their minds that they were old enough and ready — in a rite of passage sort of way — but not because they desired it for themselves. Not because their partner had awakened the desire to share this powerful experience of vulnerability and grace. (p. 57)

McCleneghan is getting pushback from the conservative wing of the mainline church for being forthright. That’s exactly what I love about her writing, even in the passages where I disagree with her conclusions. This is a great book for people who live in the real world, where pastors most often marry couples who already live together, where parents want to guide their teenaged and 20-something offspring, but don’t want to be the hypocrites who say, “Do as I say but not as I did.” This is a great book for anyone trying to put words on a responsible sexual ethic for the 21st century, when we reach physical maturity early and marry late. This is a great book for young people who are trying to figure out how to be real, how to be kind, how to be loving and lovable and loved. I highly recommend it.

*****

I received a free copy of the book after agreeing to participate in a Book Tour, with no promises made in exchange.

Through bleary eyes (a prayer for pastors)

Holy One,

I hold an ideal for
Saturday night sleep
a complete sort of rest
that will deliver me
to Sunday, your day,
ready to represent,
to speak clearly
and winsomely,
to listen carefully
and deeply,
to teach wisely
and humbly.

twitter-picI hold an ideal
that does not account
for Saturday evening news
that has me
checking Twitter
and texting
grown-up children,
refreshing news sites
and cursing
journalists who clocked out
for the weekend, or
at least, the evening.

I meant to clock out.
Instead, I woke
rubbing eyes still tired,
nodding over my phone
to start the day
just as I ended the last.
Through bleary eyes,
I read bad news;
I prepare to bring
the Good News.
Wake me up!
Wake our hearts to you.

Amen.

When there’s nothing you can do (a prayer for pastors)

Sometimes the news comes
And there’s nothing you can do.
It’s too late, or too soon,
Or the middle of some
Slow-moving crisis
That is not yours to tend.

Sometimes they forget to tell you,
Or call late but say,
“Don’t come now.”
You lie awake.
Maybe you pray.
But there’s nothing you can *do.*

img_8588

Sometimes you are right there,
But immediate needs are bodily,
And it is not your turn to act.
Sit still. Listen.
Just be.
You can’t always act the hero.

And on those days, those nights,
When your part to play is
Spouse, Parent, Lover,
Child –
Let someone else take over.
If they offer to pray, say, “Please.”

Carry all (a prayer for pastors)

IMG_8524O God, we ask your blessing
on the tools we use for ministry
and the carryalls that hold them:

the computer bags from Best Buy
and the graduation gift briefcases,
the monogrammed LLBean totes,
and patterned Vera Bradley backpacks,
and the worn-out shoulder bags.

Bless the worn-out shoulders, too,
Lord, and the eager straight backs
of the enthusiastic and the athletic,
and the heavy hearts and weary minds
of those whose summer has been more
stressful than restful.

Bless us all, Holy One,
and the work we do for you,
and all the hopes and histories
we carry. Amen.

Recharge (a prayer for pastors)

RechargingBusily polishing
my sermon
I plug my phone
into my laptop.
My young son asks,

Is that a flash drive?

No, it’s my phone.
It’s charging.
He wonders
don’t I need to plug
in the laptop, too?

It’s like this sometimes.

I try to explain to
a logical 11-year-old
how it works, how
many things you can
plug into the laptop.

But isn’t it losing power?

Yes, but right now,
before I leave
for church,
the phone
matters more.

My logic.

I am the laptop,
giving out all the power
I have available
to charge up the ministry
yet to do today.

But don’t I need to plug in?

Lord, you are
the source
of all the power
that matters in this world.
Recharge me, I pray.

Phone at 57%. Time to go.

Amen.

For those who (a prayer for pastors)

end of summer to do listFor those who spent a weary day wrestling with the texts,

and those who did not sleep last night for cause theologic or domestic,

and those whose vacay starts when the benediction ends,

and those whose “to do” lists read haircuts, sneakers, calculators,

and those who wish to be busy as some of the rest but are sidelined by illness or injury or family requirements,

and those who are tired of being called poster children for their identity,

and those who are showing up but just not feeling it,

and those who are waiting for the place you will send them,

and those who are eager and righteous and ready,

and for all who support us in this work we do for you,

Gracious God, in your mercy,

hear this prayer.

*****

Special thanks from me this week to Karoline Lewis of “Dear Working Preacher,” who made me feel like I could do this thing.

Hamilton set

Things Hoped For

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

This time last year, I first started hearing about the newly opened Broadway show, “Hamilton,” when some friends of ours went to see it and declared it amazing. The composer went to the same college as my oldest, so I knew a little bit about him. Excitedly, as I do, I started reading all about it, and then reading news about it out loud. Kathryn thought it sounded weird. Why would you want to pay good money to see a musical about the Founding Fathers? Wasn’t that just for history major nerds … like me? It might as well be in French.

Whenever the subject came up, she would give me that look that says, “I don’t want to hear about it.” So I would listen to the music online, and read articles about the composer and performers, but I would close the browser window or turn off the sound whenever she came into the room.

I had no hope of going to see the show, which was getting more and more popular. The seats were being bought up and resold by ticket brokers, and the cost kept getting higher and higher. The only way to get the already expensive tickets at the list price was to watch the Hamilton website to see when new blocks of tickets were released, and to act fast. This all felt beyond my powers, especially since Kathryn didn’t care about going.

It wasn’t the first time I had wished for something that seemed unlikely, even impossible.

It didn’t stop me from enjoying the music, though. And my loftiest Hamilton-related hope was that somebody would think of giving me the original cast recording for Christmas.

When we don’t think something is possible – well, when I don’t think something is possible, I do two things. On the surface, on the outside, for public consumption, I resize my expectations. I might dream a little about what I would love to do, how I wish things would turn out. It’s easier to protect yourself. Don’t hope for too much, and you won’t get hurt.

That sounds pragmatic, and safe, doesn’t it?

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Hebrews 11:1 is a famous verse, the kind of thing preachers proclaim and other people embroider on pillows or decoupage on wall hangings. It sounds poetic, lyrical, but what does it mean? Faith is the assurance of things hoped for? If we’re going to get the things we hoped for, if they are assured, then why do we need faith?

I feel dissatisfied with this sometimes, with these smooth words that slide off my tongue.

And I wonder how God’s words sounded to Abraham, big, crazy promises about descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand at the seashore, a ridiculous promise to an old man with not one single child, and a wife too old to have a baby. Leave what you know, go out into the unknown lands, old man, and I will give you a legacy that will never die.

What made that old man think the Lord would come through?

It’s a slightly bigger trust fall than imagining going to see a Broadway show.

A lot bigger than hoping for a CD under the Christmas tree.

We take turns opening presents, and we weren’t too far into the rotation when I opened the Broadway cast recording of Hamilton. I was super excited! When you keep your hopes low, it’s not so hard to exceed them.

When it looked like everything had been opened, I still didn’t have a gift from Kathryn. She pointed to something I hadn’t seen, and Will brought it to me. Edward, our oldest, was sitting on the couch beside me, and as I unwrapped the flat present, I found a nice file folder. I mean, it was a high-quality folder, with elastic things to hold it shut, but…

Inside it were some paper file folders, also nice ones, and inside each one a sheet of paper, with something printed out. The print was small, and I had trouble focusing to see what it could be – tickets? To what?

He didn’t say anything, but Edward shifted beside me, and then my eyes found the word: Hamilton.

Kathryn had been saving up for two months to buy the tickets. There may have been a little subterfuge, a little feigning of disinterest in Hamilton, a little secret listening to the music when *I* wasn’t around.

It’s easy to see these things in hindsight.

By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:7-10)

Hear that: “the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Faith is not about ephemeral possibilities and fantastical dreams-come-true. Faith is not an act we perform for God. Faith is knowing God cares for us, even when we can’t see the things we hope for yet.

Abraham struck out into the wilderness with his wife and his servants and his flocks because that’s how faith works. He knew God had his back.

The ticket and the cast
The ticket and the cast

Those Hamilton tickets had to be purchased way in advance. The date on them was July 27th. In the meantime, we celebrated the Grammy the show won, and in June, so many Tony Awards. Then the announcements began of cast departures. I won’t pretend; there were a few moments here and there when we lamented. But by the time we climbed the stairs to our seats in the rear mezzanine of the Richard Rodgers Theater, we were beyond excited to be in the room where it happens.

The whole experience exceeded our hopes.

That’s not just a measure of how the actors performed. We worked through our doubts and came to the encounter with faith it would be a good thing.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 

Faith Church is in a time of uncertainty, hoping for a future you can’t quite see yet. Each of you has things hoped for in a new pastor. No one is more aware of that than the members of the Search Committee, who will soon start reading candidate profiles and watching for the one who will be right for all of you.

Hebrews was written to encourage new Christians who also lived in a time of uncertainty. Their community of faith formed with enthusiasm, then suffered negative social consequences – never a happy thing, their friends and neighbors thought they were strange. The early glow wore off, and that group of people they had to live with were clearly not all gathered in the perfected kingdom of God. They were flagging, and they needed a word of encouragement, to remind them of the firm foundation laid for them.

I imagine they wondered why they lived in the time they did, why it was they were the ones up against it, having to defend what they believed.

This letter reminded them of the truth about faith. Assurance and conviction don’t come on our own power or by our own effort. They come from God. They come in knowing God.

Jesus’ own disciples worried about how they would survive in the face of hostile authorities and unpredictable crowds, people they previously knew as neighbors. At the beginning of Luke 12, the gathered crowd was so large and unruly that people were trampling each other. After teaching the people and taking questions from the crowd, Jesus turns to his inner circle.

It is the disciples Jesus reassures in the passage we read this morning, “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Do not be afraid, he says. Then he goes on. Do not be afraid, but do be ready. Be aware. Be sure what you treasure, what you are keeping close to your heart.

Know who your God is.

Jesus tells the disciples, “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.”

What more could we hope for?

Faith is not an act we perform for God. Faith is knowing God cares for us, even when we can’t see the things we hope for yet.