Today I was on a panel for a Center for Teaching Excellence presentation at Southern Methodist University. Our panel consisted of 3 of us professors, one from the business school, one a physicist, and yours truly, the theologian. Our task was to share in 10 minutes apiece how we engage in “high impact teaching.” I talked about creating community gardens that then take on a life of their own and go in directions you never imagined. The business professor described a class she teaches that actually produces television commercials that are used by a major sports channel. But the presentation that keeps repeating itself in my mind came from Dr. Sekula, the physics professor who teaches his students how to fail boldly.
Failure, he said, is the key to being a scientist. Without a willingness to fail boldly, over and over again, there would be no scientific breakthroughs. Failure is how we learn, he said, as he showed slides depicting some of his students earning impressive awards for their achievements. For every achievement there are many necessary failures.
So I have been thinking about that, how failure has played out in my personal life and how I see it playing out in the church.
Last week I spent time at a national gathering for United Methodists who start new faith communities and endeavor to revive failing churches. As I talked with many people, listened to stories, and heard the questions that were raised, over and over I heard fear of failure. I wanted to gather up all the frightened and anxious people, the bean counters, the creatives, the apostolic types and the dreamers. I wanted to tell them over a cold beer to relax. Breathe. Fail.
Whatever freedom I have in my life, whatever wisdom might be forming, whatever capacity for kindness, compassion, empathy, and mercy have all come through experiences of failure.
That’s the way it is.
I wonder if we can take our cue from high impact teacher physicist Dr. Sekula, and help one another learn to fail our way into a better future?
Here is the problem. We have not learned from childhood, growing up, that every person is uniquely sexual in the same way that we have one-of-a-kind fingerprints. We have not been told that our sexuality is woven through our spirituality and our personality, and that it is expressed in all aspects of our creativity, generativity, self giving, transcendence, compassion, and true worship. This foundational understanding has been missing. We have not learned that our sexuality is sacred.
Instead we have consumed the message a thousand times a day through movies, television, advertising, awkward parents, and shaming theology that sexuality is about body parts, that it is a power stronger than God and unless you are married to a heterosexual partner, in league with Satan. Our sexual imagination has been utterly colonized by porn, video games, beauty pageants for little girls and jeans ads for pubescent boys and by the intrusive, exploitive, abusive words and acts done to one out of three of our daughters and one out of five of our sons who then bear the scars of that abuse for the rest of their lives.
Is it any wonder that in the church we can’t imagine better questions to ask about sexual virtue and sexual sin? We scarcely know what sexuality is. We have reduced it to a few acts involving genitals and breasts, divorced from the rest of life. In doing so we have committed violence against ourselves and our neighbors. Yet our hearts know there has to be something different. Even when we lack the language to describe our longing, we yearn for sexual wholeness in our lives.
What would be the implications for our understanding of sexual virtue if we had a robust, deep, and sacred appreciation for the inherent, unrepeatable, unique sexuality of each person in the way described above? How might our theology of sexuality be changed for the better? What would it look like to help our children grow up respecting their own bodies and the bodies of others, their own personhood and the personhood of others, their own unique footprint of creativity, compassion, self-giving, generativity, and transcendence as well as the footprint of others, their own sexuality and the sexuality of others? What might this mean for how we build healthy boundaries to protect, tend, and honor our own sexuality and the sexuality of others? What might this mean for sexual healing when our boundaries have been violated or we have violated the boundaries of others?
My sister Jeanine tells me that she never really understood what Jesus meant by turning the other cheek until she came out. She says she never really had to show grace—unmerited favor and regard—toward people who hate her until she discovered she was suddenly the despised “other.” What did the hating look like? Excommunication. Bullying. Religious double-speak such as “we love you unconditionally, but…” Hearing her long term, monogamous relationship and her beloved described as an abomination, and worse, all “in the name of Jesus.”
Coming out in an exclusive, shaming Christian world is the very means by which she has had to wrestle with and choose, again and again to pray Jesus’ prayer: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
We have talked about the irony of this turn of events a lot over the years, partly because I am a theologian and she is a therapist. We know from our own journeys and from our work in tending hearts and souls, that what passes as teaching on human sexuality in most churches is woefully incomplete and often just plain wrong. The problem, we think, is that the wrong set of questions shapes the discussion. Are you homo (bad) or hetero (good)? Having sex with anyone besides your own spouse (bad)? Married (good) or single (highly suspect)? These questions are too simplistic and too dualistic. They assume too much and ask too little.
It is past time to ask new, better questions about sexual virtue and sexual vice. The springboard for the new questions is not genitalia but imago Dei, the inherent sanctity and dignity of human life.
The homo that has our attention is homo sapiens. Do we understand ourselves and others as human beings made in the image of God?
The question of sexual orientation that concerns us is not whether people are hetero but are vehemens, having an orientation toward violence.
I believe sexual vice is behavior that in some way does violence to self or others sexually. This kind of vice can be physical or verbal, and as Jesus reminds us, mental and emotional. It is always spiritual. Abstinance from sexual vice is far more challenging than resisting fornication.
Sexual vice is sinful first and foremost because it violates, exploits, objectifies, manipulates, takes advantage of, and uses human beings. It treats humans made in the image of God, as commodities. Sometimes sexual vice is carried out to give pleasure to the perpetrator of the sin. Often it is an act in which domination is the goal, rather than sex per se. Sexualizing others, internet bullying around sexuality, sexual abuse of all kinds, sexual domestic violence…these are just a few of the possible sexual sins. So much of the fruit of sexual vice is sexual self-loathing, self harm, and self deception about one’s sexuality.
Sexual sin goes on all the time within the bonds of marriage including rape, sexual shaming, forced marriage between little girls and grown men in some cultures, and many other dehumanizing actions.
Violence against sexual minorities because of their sexuality is yet another area of sexual sin.
Corporate sexual sin is the name of the game in the advertising industry that objectifies and exploits the bodies of women and little girls to sell everything from jeans to plumbing. Ditto for the entertainment industry in which entire television programs are built around shaming women’s bodies. There is the cancerous, lucrative, soul-destroying universe of porn which feeds on images of human bodies, and yes, real humans are harmed in the making of porn.
Sexual sin objectifies and stereotypes men through cultural norms and expectations that reward the bifurcation of emotion from sexual activity, and that sexualize men to the point that every man is viewed as a potential sexual predator.
In light of sexual sin as a violent orientation, what then is sexual virtue? Is it not a deep integrity, respectfulness, and authenticity in how one lives one’s sexuality? Does it not begin with a fundamental respect for one’s identity as someone made in the image of God and then extend outward to other persons? Is it not inherently reverent of embodiedness?
Sexual virtue neither begins nor ends with genitalia, but with fully accepting, loving, and wisely stewarding our whole, embodied life as human beings. It begins with a deep commitment to the theological concept of imago Dei and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. It grows with a daily commitment to first do no harm and second, do all the good we can to ourselves, our neighbors, and our enemies.
If we will address sexual virtue and sexual vice with a new and better set of questions, we will find our way out of the morass of violence against the sexual “other.” We will be able to move forward into a deeper, more human and ultimately more holy understanding of embodiment. We will become better practitioners of sexual virtue.
I realized I was suffering from what Thomas R. Kelly calls “muchness and manyness.” Too many tasks, too little time, increasing panic as deadlines neared. The usual ways of praying seemed only to make things worse as I “journaled” lists of things to do and tried to listen to God through the chaos. So with the guidance of my spiritual director I went on a mini-retreat for a few hours. That was all I could afford, time-wise. She urged me to present the problem to “the Holy Friends,” her affectionate name for the Trinity. In prayer I welcomed the loving presence of the Holy Friends and told them I was at my wits’ end. I waited to see what would happen. After awhile I saw a mountain of debris with recognizable elements from my actual life–people, books, tasks, places, and more. Then I noticed the three friends, their backs to me, each standing with their hands on their hips and looking at the pile with me. They were between me and the pile. This is the honest to goodness truth–I heard them laugh. They shook their heads in wonder and said to each other, “My God, can you believe this?” Then slowly they began to confer together. Without me. They pointed at one thing and another, making a plan. They left me out of this process. I realized I did not have to watch the mountain any more because they were taking care of it. I did not have to order it because they were. I found myself sinking into peace. Relief. Rest. I could let go of the muchness and manyness and release the outcome. The peace that was given to me that day remained into the months ahead. Here is a rough sketch of what I saw. May all of us hear the laughter of the Holy Friends this day. May we take comfort in their abiding presence. May we be given the strength to let go of our muchness and manyness and dwell in sabbath rest.
“But how do you keep from becoming a cult?”
I am astonished at how many people assume that the moment several unrelated-by-marriage adults begin to share a home, pray faithfully for the neighbors and the world and demonstrate hospitality in the neighborhood, a deadly cult has formed. These assumptions come more from inside than outside the church, especially the Protestant church. I am never asked this question by Catholics, Orthodox, or Episcopalians because they always had faith-based intentional communities (aka religious orders). Their first comment is always, “How wonderful!”
The funny thing is, secular intentional communities are all around us and we think they are perfectly normal. Sororities and fraternities are a type of intentional community gathered around common values and practices. Not only do we think these are acceptable organizations, many of us work(ed) hard to get into them, and remain connected for life to our “sisters” or “brothers.” We also have intentional communities of senior citizens residing in assisted living villages where people eat together, exercise, and go on adventures together. No one worries about cults there, even though most of those communities have religious services, too. Every summer families send their children off to live in intentional community at summer camp for weeks on end. No one worries about the C word forming there.
I understand why people might fear a cult, of course. If it is a real danger. No one avoids religiously induced tyranny and blind obedience to narcissistic, violent, exploitive leaders more than I do. That is one reason why our leadership structures in Missional Wisdom communities are democratic, involve teams of several people, and diversity of thought. They are designed to give hives to would-be cult leaders.
In light of the oft-asked cult question, though, I laughed out loud when I saw the recent AARP article about a group of women of a certain age that decided to buy a home and live in community together for economic reasons. Lauded for their savvy business sense and resourcefulness, these women are middle class and Suze Orman worthy. I wonder if anyone asks them in a hushed, worried, voice, “But how will you avoid becoming a cult?”