Healthy Sexuality IV: Sexuality and Spirituality, When All is One – 9/26/10 – John 17,1 John 4, Rev. 21,22

There’s a beautiful scene in the movie The Motorcycle Diaries that takes place in a small hut of a leper colony in Peru, along the banks of the Amazon River.  The film is about the young Che Guevara in his early twenties when he was a medical student, before he became a revolutionary throughout Latin America.  The story is based on the journal he kept on this trek that he and his friend took up through South America.  One of the dynamics of the film is that the more he encounters the people of the land, and their struggles, the more impassioned he becomes on their behalf.  This scene in the small hut is a tender moment after he has been informed that a young woman, Silvia, is refusing to get a surgery that would save her life.  He asks the doctor if he can go in and be with her.  He enters, sits beside her bed, and begins talking with her.  She tells him that life is too much pain.  During their conversation it’s clear that he’s having trouble breathing well.  She asks him what’s wrong with him.  He says, “I was born with bad lungs.”  Then she pauses for a little bit and says, “Is that why you’re doctor?  Because you’re sick?”  He smiles and says that maybe that is the case.  They finish their conversation and later we see Silvia getting her needed surgery.

I love that question – “Is that why you’re a doctor, because you’re sick?” 

Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen called this dynamic the wounded healer.  The healer is himself/herself wounded, and out of their own brokenness and vulnerability, becomes an agent of healing for others.  Sometimes our calling in life is determined by our own deepest pain, that area where we have been permanently scarred and therefore have the passion and humility to guide others toward that healing place that we ourselves desire so much.

So, personally, if someone were to ask me, “Is that why you’re a pastor, because you struggle with your faith?” I think I would have to smile and say that maybe that is the case.  Maybe this applies to others of you in the vocation you have chosen, or that has chosen you.

When it comes to our sexuality, I think it’s pretty fair to say that we are all wounded.  This could possibly be through a particular experience or relationship, but even without a specific occasion of trauma or emotional pain,  the very reality of what it means to be a sexual being  carries with it woundedness, or, at least, need, longing, pain that seeks healing.

Our word sex could possibly have some associations with the Latin word secare, which means “to cut off,” “to sever.”  (This connection is made in Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing p. 193)  My first reaction to this is to flinch back and think that being cut off would actually make sex rather difficult.  Yikes.  But in this case this is the kind of being cut off that extends out to relationships and emotional bonds.  Being sexual involves an element of being disconnected from the whole, of being separated, cut off from the bigger relational network of life.

We could picture this biblically, with Adam having the rib over his heart ripped out of him in order to form a human partner.  Being in relationship for Adam first of all involves the pain of loss, like part of himself is now outside of his body, walking around on its own free will.  The primal wound of our humanity. 

We could also picture this in an evolutionary way.  To the best of our knowledge so far, everything used to be packed together in that solitary point and since the beginning the initial unity has exploded and expanded into fragments of stars and planets separated by light years of space, and, somewhere in all that, us human creatures, still carrying with us in the cells and atoms of our body that distant memory of unity and oneness.

Etymology, Scripture, and Cosmology all paint the same picture. 

Sex is a wonderful gift, a Divine gift, but it is a gift that comes with a powerful effect: a wound; an ache for reunion, desire for the coming together of the separate.  And, for better or for worse, it’s a gift that doesn’t come with a receipt, so we can’t decide we don’t want it and take it back to the store for a refund.  Thanks, but no thanks.  I think I’ll just take a nice sweater instead.   Something a little more… predictable.

We are sexual beings and part of what this means is that we ache our whole lives.  And we’re stuck with it.  Thanks a lot God.

One person asks another, “Is that why you’re sexual, seek connection, because you’re disconnected?”  Maybe.  Yes, definitely.  

But this is where it starts to get really interesting, because if we understand sexuality in this way, it starts sounding a whole lot like spirituality.  Spirituality has the same drive toward connectedness, toward wholeness, toward union with Creator and creation.  Directing our longings and energy toward its Source. 

In what Jews would consider to be something like their confession of faith, Deuteronomy 6:4 records “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”  There’s one of the big differences between us and God.  We are many, we are separate, but God is One.  In God there is no separateness.  There is no being cut off.  In God all things hold together.  All things belong.  All things have a place.  Hear O Israel, Listen up people, the Lord is One.” 

In John’s Gospel, Jesus prays for his disciples and the followers who will come after them, and he says, “(I pray) that they may be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.  I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” (John 17:21-23).

The spiritual movement that Jesus invites people into is the overcoming of separateness that happens when we come into the Oneness that is God.  “I in them and you in me,” getting tangled up together and bound up in the love of God.

Of all the New Testament writers, John has a unique way of talking about overcoming this separateness.  Those dualisms of body and soul, earth and heaven, physical and spiritual, are consistently resisted.  John’s is the Gospel of the Word becoming flesh, of incarnation, of celebrating God in the fleshy creatureliness of Jesus.  John refuses to allow us to believe that we can love God without loving our neighbor.  That we can somehow have a vertical relationship with God without having a horizontal relationship with brothers and sisters.  They must be held together.

Sometimes I wonder if John speaks this way because of the intimate relationship he had with Jesus.  We get let in on this closeness in one scene in particular during the last supper when the disciples are gathered reclining around the table with Jesus.  There’s a point where it says that John leaned back onto Jesus to ask him a question.  And the literal translation is that he asked the question “while leaning on Jesus’ chest” (John 13:25)  The KJV says that he was “lying on Jesus’ breast.”  One of the more intimate snapshots we get of a disciple relating with Jesus.  Imagine yourself leaning back and gently resting your head on Jesus’ chest, relaxing into that position and having a conversation with him, feeling your head rise and fall with every breath that he takes, feeling your own body vibrate with every word that passes over his vocal chords.  Tell me that wouldn’t affect your outlook on the world, your theology.

There is this persistent idea within Christian spirituality that we ultimately have to escape the body to find God.  John would like us to know that it is through the body, through incarnation, through our senses of touch, and smell, and sound, and sight, and taste, that we come to know God, that our separateness begins to be overcome.  “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”

If spirituality is about overcoming our separateness and sexuality is about overcoming our separateness then what do we with each one will continually affect the other.  They both share that impulse toward oneness.  And if sexuality is about overcoming our separateness, then it places sex, once again, in the realm of the sacred.

Sex has a mission.  Being a sexual human being is itself a vocation, a calling.  Our sexual vocation is to draw together.  To form bonds.  To strengthen the web of relationships.  To build up family, build up a neighborhood, build up community.  To walk further toward the unity of God.  We do this as wounded healers.

It’s one thing for a doctor to learn the steps of a medical procedure that will help someone heal.  It’s another thing when two people – each with their own issues and hurts and struggles – come together and dare to walk down the road toward emotional and physical intimacy.  Because they almost immediately start hurting each other.  Misunderstanding.  Not communicating well.  Counting on the other person to know what we need when we ourselves barely have a clue what we actually need.  It’s a wonder this ever works out at all.  And sometimes it doesn’t.

But sometimes both partners are able to confess their own woundedness, their longing for connection, and, somehow, from that place of vulnerability, some healing happens.  And intimacy grows.  And sexuality becomes a means by which we give and receive, not only physical pleasure, but also, healing.

Our sexuality and spirituality call us on a mission as wounded healers.  This is the energy we have been given for reaching out to one another and toward God, furthering the bonds that lead to wholeness.

One of the writers who has significantly influenced my own thinking on sexuality is the priest and scholar Ronald Rolheiser, someone I’ve referenced several times in this series.  As we try to summarize what it is we’ve been talking about and what this actually looks like in daily life, let me lean on him one more time to offer some sketches of this. 

This is what he suggests:  He asks, “How then might a Christian define sexuality?  Sexuality is a beautiful, good, extremely powerful, sacred energy, given us by God and experienced in every cell of our being as an irrepressible urge to overcome our incompleteness, to move toward unity and consummation with that which is beyond us.”  He then asks “What does sexuality in its full bloom look like?

–          When you see a young mother, so beaming with delight at her own child that, for that moment, all selfishness within her has given way to the sheer joy of seeing her child happy, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.

–          When you see a grandfather so proud of his grandson, who has just received his diploma, that, for that moment, his spirit is only compassion, altruism, and joy, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.

–          When you see an artist, after long frustration, look with such satisfaction on a work she has just completed that everything else for the moment is blotted out, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.

–          When you see someone throw back his or her head in genuine laughter, caught off guard by the surprise of joy itself, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in it mature bloom.

–          When you see an elderly nun who, never having slept with a man, been married, or given birth to a child, has through the years of selfless service become a person whose very compassion gives her a mischievous smile, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.

–          When you see a community gathered round a grave, making peace with tragedy and consoling each other so that life can go on, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.

–          When you see a table, surrounded by a family, laughing, arguing, and sharing life with each other, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.

–          When you see an elderly husband and wife who after nearly half a century of marriage have made such peace with each other’s humanity that now they can quietly share a bowl of soup, content just to know that the other is there, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.

Sexuality is not simply about finding a lover or even finding a friend.  It is about overcoming separateness by giving life and blessing it.” (The Holy Longing pp. 197-198)

It’s quite a list that he gives us to ponder.

So as we arrive at the end of this sexuality series – Sextember, alas, must come to a close – it is very much a coming full circle.  Starting out about talking about moving beyond the dualisms of church and culture, body and soul, and ending here with holding sexuality and spirituality in the same light, as we look toward the Oneness of God in which all things hold together, through whom we can become wounded healers.

The final image in all this comes from Scripture.  The surprise ending of the Bible, still with the writings of John, the book of Revelation, is that rather than people going to heaven, heaven comes down to people.  The vision of the new heavens and the new earth, the redemption of the world, is a coming together of all of these fragments.  God makes God’s home among us, sets up camp right in downtown New Jerusalem, and calls for a wedding feast.  Union, bonds of relationship, the two becoming one.  The spiritual and the physical, heaven and earth, are mixed and mingled, and reconciled together.

That’s the vision that we believe is already breaking into the world, already a possibility, already drawing us into itself through the grace of God.  Our sexuality is this God given energy that propels us toward the great wedding banquet where our woundedness finds its ultimate comfort.

Let the party begin.

Other sermons in this series:

Healthy Sexuality I: Our Bodies, God’s Image

Healthy Sexuality II: Created for Relationship

Healthy Sexuality III: Good Sex, Eros and Agape in Bed

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Love Is The Point – 5/10/09 – 1 John 4:7-21

It’s been said on good authority, by multiple authorities, that a preacher really only has three or four or maybe five sermons that they ever preach.  Every sermon, even if it is one of hundreds or thousands given in a lifetime, is just some version, a different take, on one of those basic, stock sermons.  I hate to give away some of the tricks of the trade, but from my experience, that’s probably about right.  It may even be right to say that there is just one sermon, that comes in unlimited varieties.  Hopefully there is variety.  There are these basic themes that keep getting repeated and revisited, looked at from every angle, told through different stories, spun with different metaphor, ordered with different points, that really all come back to several, or just one point. 

So if you think you’ve heard this one before, you’re right.  You have.  Many times.  You’ve heard it, I’ve heard it, and it is our lot in life, if we stick around the church, to hear it all the rest of our days.  And even after that it will be echoed over us, to those gathered around us, when we are put to rest. 

So you know what’s coming.  Hopefully you always will.  It’s no surprise.

The whole thing is summed up nicely in the words of 1 John 4:7,8, sort of a Cliff notes version of one of these sermons that keeps getting preached.   So here it is: “Dear ones, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God for God is love.”  That’s it.  There you have it.

Another trick of the trade in giving sermons is that you rarely give your main point up front.  You try and introduce something and work up to a point and bring people along with you in finding that point themselves.  It’s a great strategy, but, unfortunately, it has already been shot.  The point is already out there, in full, glorious, display.  It was shining brightly when we ended the day yesterday, and it was patiently waiting for us when we woke up this morning.  It has pre-empted, pre-ceded anything that has happened here and anything that will happen tomorrow.  It is not it that needs to be introduced to us, but us that need to be introduced to it, reminded again and again, having our eyes opened again to this truth.  “God is love.”  “Let us love one another.”

That we keep showing up for life, or for worship, or for whatever it is we show up for, would seem to indicate that we anticipate being further introduced to this reality.  We may not know what is the aim of our desire, but we know that we do desire, we desire to know more intimately, to live more fully, to feel more deeply.  Where do these desires come from?  To what are they ultimately directed?  The mystics and spiritual masters and scriptures would have us believe that they come from and are directed to God.  And what this looks like is us, loving one another. 

Since the point has already been stated, it’s possible the rest of the sermon might not have a point, so we’ll go forward knowing that we’ve already been introduced to all we need to know, and now we just get to walk around it a few laps to better familiarize ourselves with what we’re looking at.   

In my office/study there are a number of bookshelves.  I try to keep them somewhat organized, with different shelves for different subjects.  Ministry and pastoral care has its own area, theology has several shelves.  Ethics and peacemaking are grouped together.  Spirituality and prayer have their own sections.  Behind my desk there are several shelves of Bible commentaries, starting with Genesis and running through Revelation.  The least organized shelf is the one right behind my desk, right underneath the Bible commentaries.  This is the one where I keep those books that I need to have readily accessible.  The ones I am currently trying to work through or ones that I flip through often.  Several books have permanent residence on that shelf and may never be given a rightful place of rest in their proper category.  I grab them too often to want to get up every time and find them on shelves on the opposite wall.  One of those is a book called Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and the West (Daniel Ladinsky, translator).  This is a translation of poetry written by different spiritual masters, those for whom the love of God and the ability to put it into writing coincide in beautiful ways.  It’s hard for me to get very far in pondering the love of God without considering some of their words, their love poems. 

If everything we need to know has already been stated in 1 John 4:7-8, what else might John have to say?  How about a statement of the obvious followed by a statement of the impossible?  That’s 1 John 4:12.  Here’s what it says: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.” 

Obvious: “No one has ever seen God.”  Rabia, an Islamic holy woman from the 8th century would tend to agree: “Since no one really knows anything about God, those who think they do are just troublemakers.”  (p. 27) Hafiz writing in Persia 600 years later, adds this: “Power is safest in a poet’s hands, thus for the artist God will pose.”   (p. 162)  No one has ever seen God, but for all of us who do not yet know we are artists, God is posing.

Impossible: “God’s love is perfected in us.”  Perfect is not a word I would readily associate with love.  Love is too messy, too unpredictable, too mired in details and failures in communication, too frail, to be anywhere near perfect.  Meister Eckhart, Catholic monk and scholar wrote, “What keeps us alive, what allows us to endure?  I think it is the hope of loving, of being loved.  I heard a fable once about the sun going on a journey to find its source, and how the moon wept without her lover’s warm gaze.  We weep when light does not reach our hearts.  We wither like fields if someone close does not rain their kindness upon us.” (p. 109)  But John must think he’s on to something with this “love being perfected in us” thing because he soon brings it back up.  God’s love is perfected in us.  Or, another way of saying it, God’s love is being made complete in us.

One thing that seems to be consistently present in the experience of love, and the words of those who try and write about it, is that love takes us beyond the incompleteness of ourselves.  Or, better yet, it expands our selves and makes us more of a self.  Including more within our self.  Love inherently cracks through the hard shell that forms around us, such that it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish between where we end and another begins.  Love is being made complete in us.

It’s in John’s gospel that Jesus say, “I and the Father are one.”  You can’t get much more of a statement of love than that.  Jesus lived life such that the boundary between him and God, the place where he ended and God began, became common space, occupied by both.  So when Jesus says “I” in John’s gospel – “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the vine,” “I am the bread of life,” “I am the way,” the I that is speaking is an I that includes union with God.  It is not the I of the ego.  It is the I of incarnation.  The I of God becoming more of itself through those who embody this love.  Genesis speaks of the marriage union in a similar way: “the two shall become one flesh.”  Over the life of such a partnership, there is a spilling over of selfhood, a sharing of identity, in which the border between partners, becomes opened up.  The more we take our partner into account in our decisions, the more we learn the art of compromise, the art of co-operation, the art of having all things in common – in our imperfect relationships, love is being perfected.  Hafiz has his own twist on what love’s perfection might look like.  He says, “God and I have become like two giant fat people living in a tiny boat.  We keep bumping into each other and laughing.” P. 171.

Sandwiched between the obvious and the impossible – the practical.  1 John 4:12.  “No one has ever seen God.  If we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is made complete in us.”

God’s love in us looks like us loving one another.  This is working itself out in practical, relational ways every day.  John feels strongly about this and would like for us to get this straight.  Vv. 20-21 “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  The commandment we have is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” 

Thomas Aquinas was a great theologian of the 13th century, influencing much of western thought.  He wrote a massive systematic theology.  It must not have been enough to say all he wanted to say.  He also wrote poetry about the practical.

  I said to God, “Let me love you.”

And God replied, “Which part?”

“All of you, all of you,” I said.

“Dear,” God spoke, “you are as a mouse wanting to impregnate a tiger who is not even in heat.  It is a feat way beyond your courage and strength.  You would run from me if I removed me mask.”

I said to God again, “Beloved I need to love you – every aspect, every pore.”

And this time God said, “There is a hideous blemish on my body, though it is such an infinitesimal part of my Being – could you kiss that if it were revealed?”

“I will try, Lord, I will try.”

And then God said, “That blemish is all the hatred and cruelty in this world.” (p. 136)

 

St. Teresa of Avila was in love with God, and she also wrote about this being very practical:

“God’s hands can shape through ours.  And our sounds can somehow echo what God has never said,

For the Divine is really speechless, it is too in love to chat.

The Holy Wind ruffled our hair and caused a lot of commotion:

We think God made some rules

But how can that be true when our souls are really the governor of all.

God’s mind can shape through ours.

Our bodies – and the earth – are as clay.  Is that not so, my dear.

I have a lovely habit: at night in my prayers I touch everyone I have seen that day. 

I shape my heart like theirs and theirs like mine.  (p.283)

 

Another trick of the trade for giving a sermon: how to end.  This one I haven’t quite figured out yet.  How do you end a sermon so as to not give the impression that it’s actually done?  Try not to state something as if it’s the final word, but as if it’s suggestive of all of the other many words that could be said, that will be said, that will be heard as the Spirit continues to speak in each life. 

Possibly review several key images, presenting them in the form of a benediction.  May you know, dear beloved artists, that for you, God will pose.  Go and see if you can be like a giant fat person in a tiny boat with God.  Kiss cruelty and hatred as if it were a tiny blemish on God’s beautiful body.

Possibly restate your point, if you have a point, which in this case we do: “Brothers and sisters, let us love one another, for God is love.”

Or, possibly, when the time feels appropriate, simply back away from the pulpit, trusting that the Holy Spirit will take it from here.