Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Advent, Sex and Transformation ::

Innocent faces gathered on the stairs of the sanctuary podium, spellbound as he carried the figurines of a woman and man making their way to a little village in the night. This woman was pregnant, he told them. Their eyes darted and bodies shifted uneasily.

It was the first week of Advent and during the pastor’s children’s sermon the mystery of incarnation unfolded before my eyes with a new reality. An anxious reality. The more he talked of angels telling Joseph to marry a woman who was with child by the Holy Spirit, the more those little Oedipal hormones raced until—without warning—his four-year-old daughter launched from the floor like Rocky the Flying Squirrel and landed in a headlock on the pastor’s back!

Right smack dab in the middle of the Christmas story—replete with the nativity set—was sex. God sex. Gosh, we won’t even talk plainly to youngsters about where babies come from, and yet we introduce them to sex with supernatural stories about it. What’s the message? I wonder if this influences the way we Christians are so conflicted about sexuality? Could our anxiety about sex be about this divine wild card? That little baby Jesus lays in a little manger with his little genitalia and all we see are the angels singing, the wise men bringing not-so-childlike gifts, and the shepherds kneeling? The lambs, ox, and ass were probably the only ones to really understand—and not be anxious about it.

Should baby Jesus have been a hermaphrodite third-sexed hybrid, neither male nor female, but some kind of humanoid lacking altogether in sexual orientation? Can a testosterone-laden male Jesus save women? Did Francis of Assisi, founder of the celibate Franciscans, really want boys and girls to squirm at the sight of his nativity scene? (It is Francis who is credited with creating the figurine scene).

A healthy spirituality requires a healthy view of sexuality. Many heresies abound that carry on the historic anxiety of religious people about sexuality and human nature. In spite of repeated councils and theological arguments affirming the full divinity and full humanity of Christ, it is still easier for many to believe that Jesus was divine than to accept his full humanity. Images of a sexually-neuter, passionate-less Jesus defy the likelihood that in Jesus’ Palestinian culture a celibate rabbi would have been controver-sial big time. It is possible that he was married, argue many scholars.

The religion-induced uneasiness about sexuality is no more clearly seen than in approaches to the most sexual book in the Bible, the Song of Songs, in the Hebrew Scriptures. At one level, the book is a love story that exalts a couple’s romantic passions. But, the book has also been widely hailed through its history as a mystical allegory of the relationship between God (the Lover) and God’s people (the Beloved). The title is literally “The Most Beautiful Song” and is believed to have originally been a love song sung at weddings. The allegorical interpretation emphasizes its spiritual nature and the song was often used in this way during Passover in the spring. Rabbi Akiva, who according to the Talmud was the only rabbi to enter Paradise and live to tell about it, referred to the Song of Songs as the holiest book in the Bible, “the holy of holies” of Scripture.

For Christians who took the Song as an allegory, it depicted Christ pursuing His church. Such a view is too erotic for many religious folks. Any passion of Christ, as with one’s own libido, is best kept repressed and at a safe distance. Puritans avoided the book altogether as some sort of anomaly, and when it was referenced, the allegorical method was used. Since God is nowhere mentioned in the book, the debate has continued throughout Jewish and Christian history about whether it should be in the canon. Can anything sexual be spiritual?

To define spiritual love in purely non-affectionate, non-sensual ways is to ignore much of the passion of God’s desire for us. The tradition of the Song of Songs as portraying the relationship between God and God’s people is a sensuous, erotic one. Jesus’ use of marriage as a metaphor for our relationship with God likewise entails all the facets of love that can be expressed in the Greek language, and more: self-sacrificing, companioning and sensual. What kind of marriage lacks friendship and sensuality?

In our prayerful journeys, when we desire to snuggle God, crawl up in the lap of God, hug Jesus, feel God as a warm fuzzy—these may be expressions of the erotic in our spirituality. The biblical metaphors indicate that God likewise wants intimacy with us in all aspects of our being. The spiritual journey is about our growing into this relationship with God, not just in our ability to think properly about God or behave according to God’s rules.

Dare you, this Advent, to invite God to enter your full life? To permeate the whole of your humanity and adorn your earthiness with divine splendor? Do you dare to risk each pleasure with a “Thanks be to God” benediction, and by doing so, allow God to transform your sensuality? If we were so integrated with the divine longing, would our Christmas-time materialistic passions be likewise transformed into a deeper celebration of God’s abundance?

Christ is coming! Pursue peace with a passion. Announce the radical subversion of worldly powers with the peaceable seductions of God’s longing for relationship. Give birth to a new reality in your life and world—a reality so replete with God’s permeation that it supplants all that stands for self-absorption, bitterness, and marginal humanity and creates, instead, a holy marriage of flesh and spirit.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Other "Faithnet" Sites ::

I get a steady trickle of inquiries regarding the resources available on Occasionally, someone stumbles across our site while attempting to access other sites that they merely remember as "Faithnet something." -- Partnered with ABC News, Beliefnet provides an enormous variety and depth of religious reporting and polling. The content is broadly eclectic, encompassing various religious and spiritual traditions. I consider it a great spot to survey what is happening in the religious perspectives of others. There is also quite a large community of persons who frequent Beliefnet for various reasons, including chatting and polling.

"Where is the Belief-O-Matic?" is a question I've received numerous times. My all-time favorite feature of Beliefnet is the Belief-O-Matic quiz which purportedly tells you where you stand in the religious spectrum of things. Probably created as a bit of a hoot reminiscent of Gallagher's Sledge-o-Matic, nonetheless, Belief-O-Matic has endured as perhaps one of the chief reasons why people visit the site. You'll see the link at a prominent place at Beliefnet.

Compared to, Beliefnet has much deeper pockets (like the Mariana Trench vs. a south Texas mud puddle) and appeals to a much wider audience (like Yahoo vs. the smallest search engine). I like to think of Beliefnet as the religion section at the public library with a support group while Faithnet is more like a pastor's study (some good resources along with someone to pray with you). -- Stephen Richards began this site years ago--probably about the time that was getting started. He's constantly edging us out in the Google listings for "faithnet. " holds the ever growing collection of Richard's musings, mostly of things philosophical. Or, at least he engages in a rather philosophical discussion of things religious, such as the meaning of experience. Richards avoids the label of Christian, though he obviously maintains a Christian perspective in many ways. He acknowledges his debts to Buddhism for much of his spirituality, though he avoids the Buddhist label as well. Stephen, do you identify with Thomas Merton?

Compared to, Richards operates on a shoestring budget. Shoot, I sent him five bucks to even things up a bit. In contrast to's pastoral mission, is Richards' mission of providing resources for educators and intellectual seekers. A religion teacher himself, Richards provides some well-versed essays on various topics, from Augustine to Tillich to Plato to Buddha . . . you get the picture.

Midlife, Work and the Call of the Wild ::

More often than not, a crisis of livelihood confronts us at midlife. In light of the passing of time, we begin to question the meaning of our work. Does it fit us well? Are we stressed out over it, and why? Some people decide to retool with education and embark on a new career. Others find ways to redefine their work, integrating their growing self-definition into what they do for a living. Work becomes more interwoven with the fabric of life in an enriching way.

A juncture for better or worse, midlife can also be a season of disintegration when the meaning of life, much less work, escapes us. I have met many on the journey who have not transcended this crisis. Self-destructive behavior often results—at work or home—as if their call to God's distraction is more like the seducing sounds of the mythological Sirens who lured ancient sailors into ruin. It is imperative to discern the call of Christ from the compulsions of myth.

Myths are stories and symbols that carry the meanings and values of culture. Often we are not conscious of these myths that influence us so profoundly. Every family has myths that are passed from generation to generation but are stories never told. It is as if these untold stories create a compulsion that we are powerless over and doomed to act out. The role of the son or daughter, the drive to suc­ceed or fail, the meaning of pregnancy, abuse, addiction—all can be the subject of mythic compul­sions.

In Homer's Odyssey, the songs of the voluptuous Sirens enticed sailors to their treacherous shores. Odysseus ordered his crewmen to plug their ears and lash him to the mast so they could resist these ruinous en­chant­ments. But these Siren compulsions could be transcended. The music of Orpheus aboard ship with Jason and the Argonauts was more enchanting than even that of the Sirens. In response, the Sirens cast themselves into the rocky waters.

This myth portrays something of the nature of myth itself—and the power of distraction. We, like Odysseus, in seeking freedom from the forces that bind us, are bound to re-enact over and again the drama of our mythic compulsions. But Christ, like Orpheus, sounds a tune that is eternally more spellbinding and enrapturing. In hearkening to the call of Christ, and being subdued by it, we are freed from our compul­sions and the myths that produce them.
We will hear a call in midlife surrounding vocation. Will it be the distracting call of God urging us to health and faith or the destructive call of social myth?

Shadowy myth produces compulsions of extremes. We are either adrift in isolation or moored at the harbor of culture. We are either lost to ourselves or self-absorbed. We are either bound in powerlessness or deluded into thinking we are society's sovereign. The vocational call of Christ frees us from these extremes.