Trust. Remember. Go.

Baccalaureate sermon on Acts 1: 1-11, preached for the Wesley Foundation during UVA’s graduation weekend.

There are certain times in the Christian year when we never get to be together as the Wesley community.  The 4th Sunday in Advent and the entire Christmas season, being a prime one.  Every year in our community worship, we jump from the 3rd Sunday in Advent right into mid-January, the season after Epiphany.  I realize many of you may not have noticed this since Christmas is a busy time of year and you are worshipping, back together with family and friends at home.  I realize this is mainly a pastor’s lament, because we’re geeky and into the liturgical cycle, and because it’s a little weird, from my point of view as a worship planner and preacher, to fast forward through one of the best parts of the Christian year.

The Ascension and Pentecost are times like this, too.  I think I was a good six years into campus ministry before the school year made it to Pentecost, and that was only because it fell the day after our baccalaureate worship so I claimed it as Pentecost Eve.

Today is Ascension Eve.  And because we rarely make it to this point in the Christian year together, I was pleasantly surprised to see how perfectly the story of Jesus’ Ascension fits with the leave-taking of baccalaureate and graduation weekend.

Right at the end of the passage we just heard, Jesus is lifted up into the sky and beyond the clouds.  The disciples just stand there staring.  And the two men in white robes show up and ask, “Galileans why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?” (v. 11).

Does that question ring any bells for you?  Ascension is the end of the forty days of Easter.  Remember a similar early morning question back on Easter day?  In Luke’s gospel, when the women find the empty tomb, they are terrified and just stand there, staring and immobile, looking into the place where Jesus was.  Two men in white robes show up and ask them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24: 5).

These questions are bookends for us to the Easter season:  Why do you look for the living among the dead? … Why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?  Each time, Jesus’ disciples want just a little longer to stare.  It’s like they think he’ll come back or they will see something new when the clouds shift.  If the white-robed men didn’t show up with their questions would they have all stayed frozen to those spots, staring and waiting indefinitely?

Maybe this is a temptation you’re feeling this weekend.  To stay and stare.  Wait for a clear sign.  Bask in this place and these years and this Wesley family of faith.

I get it.

You are looking at a mighty marvelous sight…  Wesley friends who have become family – people you had never met just four years ago, without whom you can no longer imagine life making sense.  You are looking at Christ-centered community that’s made your time at UVA soul-nourishing and character-forming.  You are staring at a place that has become one of your most important places.  You are standing still on ground made holy by your time in this community of faith.  It’s worth another long, lingering look.

Take it in.

Then take it with you.

The disciples didn’t want to leave that empty tomb or that locked upper room.  They wanted to stay rooted to the spot where they last saw Jesus, even after the clouds had shifted.

But the gifts he gave them didn’t end on either of those hard, unimaginable, blessed spots.  He promised the gift of the Holy Spirit, the spread of their witness to the ends of the earth, and his eventual return.  He gave them himself, each other, and a mission.

You have the same gifts.

Your time at Wesley has been God-infused and blessed in ways you probably didn’t imagine before you arrived, and which will make you hungry for more wherever you go from here.  Let that hunger be your guide.  Don’t stand rooted to one spot, starving and staring.  Leave here knowing you are as full as can be right now and that God will keep feeding you “out there.”

God is not done with you yet.  You are not just graduating from UVA, you are being sent from Wesley, too, on a mission to witness to the incredible, stare-inducing love of Christ.  Whether you think you know what you’re doing or not.  Your degree, honors of honor that it is, is not the most important thing you got here.  You got discipleship training in being and becoming the body of Christ.  You received the gift of God’s Holy Spirit dancing among us, pulling us together in just four short years, into one family, one body, against all odds.

The Good News is now you know how to do it and what to look for.  Now you know it can happen in some other unexpected lonely first-time place.  The leave-taking is both beautiful and painful.  So is your mission.

The Good News is there’s nowhere to escape God or outrun that Love. God always gets there first and calls you on.  Just like when you left home and showed up at UVA to a puny dorm room with no friends, and parents about to drive off, wondering how in the world you would make it.

And look what happened.

Go ahead, take another look.  Drink it in.  Feel the fullness and the hunger.  Trust it.  Remember it.  And Go in peace, dear ones.

Thanks be to God!


Friday Five: Spring Renewal

Our state flower, blooming right alongside the Monticello Trail, another great local hike.

Our state flower, blooming right alongside the Monticello Trail, another great local hike.

 

 

Every Friday the RevGals post a play-along Friday Five.  (Have I mentioned we wrote a book?)  This week’s is wide open:  “share with us five experiences of renewal that you have recently enjoyed, or would like to launch this Easter season.”

Happy May Day, everyone, and here are my five…

 

  1. Hiking.  We hiked Crabtree Falls with company in town a couple weeks ago, as the forest was just waking up again and trillium were blooming.  My calves were so tight afterwards I had to use a rolling pin on them to get them to relax – which means we should be doing this one again and often.
  2. Crêpe fest.  A few years ago for my husband’s May birthday I declared it “Crêpe fest” and we made both savory (gruyere and mushroom) and sweet (Nutella, honey and cinnamon, lemon and sugar) crêpes.  It’s time for the festival to return.
  3. Visit my grandparents’ house.  My dad owns it now but I will always think of it as theirs.  I’ve been working on a longer piece about home and being southern.  It centers on this little spot on the map in the flat red-clay tobacco country of Virginia and how I’m connected to family and traditions and people there.
  4. Enjoy a real, decadent brunch.  Atlanta is the brunchingest town I’ve ever lived in and I have missed this in every other place I’ve lived.  To find a good restaurant that does both Saturday and Sunday brunch is a treasure (and a necessity for those of us with Sunday obligations).  I love lingering over a third cup of coffee and the sprawling feeling of morning merging into afternoon, in both time and cuisine.
  5. Writing retreat.  I had one planned for the exact week we got ten inches of snow in February.  The kind proprietors of the cabin I booked allowed me to reschedule and it’s coming up soon.  I’m looking forward to being offline, out of touch, and deeply absorbed.

Late to the party and invited to dance: Delight and the new RevGals book

First time holding the real live book in my hands.

First time holding the real live book in my hands.

I’m a relative newcomer to the RevGals and to blogging.  When I started Snow Day two years ago and announced it to a former-student-turned-colleague she replied, “How 2002 of you.”  Yeah, yeah, I know I’m late to the party.

In 2005 when RevGals began officially, many of the Gals were keeping their blogs anonymous.  As editor and contributor Martha Spong remembers in her There’s a Woman in the Pulpit essay, “The Worst Communion Ever,” many only knew one another by blog names.  In 2013 when I participated in a summer writing workshop at Collegeville there were two other RevGals in our twelve-person workshop that week.  Each of them had been part of the group and reading along on the blog for years.  One had gone on the first continuing education cruise.  They talked about the other women in the RevGals group like they knew them.  At the time, fresh to blogging and to the group, I was surprised by this.

By last year when I made a trip to the Festival of Faith and Writing, I had met a few RevGals through Facebook and chimed in on the posts asking who’d be going to the Festival and might want to meet up while there.  It still surprised me when, trying to leave early and discreetly from a Festival lunchtime chat hosted by RevGal Ruth Everhart, she spied my nametag, stopped mid-sentence in her presentation, and blurted out, “You’re Deborah Lewis!” Since I was at a writing festival, I wondered how many people in that room were thinking I must be someone they should know, the Deborah Lewis, famous writer.

I’m pretty sure no one did.  But versions of that moment are part of the fabric of the RevGals community.  Seeing one another for who we are – pastor, writer, mother, sister, queer, straight, at wits’ end, thriving, faithful, revolutionary – seeing one another for more of who we are than we can often share in our day-to-day ministry is at the heart of this community.  In long-held traditions like our weekly “Ask the Matriarch” column on the website and in less formal Facebook group posts and prayers, we can plop down in a comfy chair with a cup of something good and ask anything.  We can listen when someone’s had a horrible encounter and we can offer a word of compassion.  We can pour it out without worrying too much about sounding pastoral or professional.  We can be our whole, wonderful, wise, working-for-Jesus, womanly selves.

My essay, in print. Damn, that looks good.

Of course this is exactly the kind of group that would put together an excellent book full of reverent and funny reflections, encouragement and honesty, about this calling we share.  Ruth Everhart’s wonderful essay, “Swinging,” opens the book with the faithful family call and response of “stupid-heads” during a languid front porch afternoon.  Stacey Simpson Duke’s “I Rise Before the Sun” quietly affirms the beauty and necessity of engaging some place other than our ministries, as she realizes, “Knitting is a valuable practice on its own terms, which reminds me that I am a valuable person on my own terms, and not just because I do valuable things.”  (Full disclosure:  Stacey is a dear friend and my former seminary housemate but I would love her piece even if our friendship didn’t pre-date our RevGals connection.)  Jan Edmiston contemplates “What They Will Remember,” urging pastors to consider our own need for full lives and healthy practices, for ourselves and for the pastors who come after us.  Katie Mulligan claims to have been “reluctant” to write her poetic and inspired “Queer,” so I can only give thanks that she let it out in all its biting, funny, compassionate, injured, healed, prophetic glory.  When she writes “I am called to dance by the one who delights in me” it’s an invitation to join in.

I am delighted with this book.  I gobbled up There’s a Woman in the Pulpit as soon as it was available on Kindle.  I immediately went to my own essay (“The Weight of Ash”) and snapped an Instagram picture.  I marveled at seeing my words on the screen and, the next week, I breathed in that wonderful new book smell when the paperback arrived in the mail (and snapped some more pics).  But I already knew what I had written.  What kept me up late into the night were the words of my sisters, the RevGals.  I recognized some and was introduced to others, but through a long night of dive-in reading, I recognized in every one a kindred spirit, a sister and a colleague, another writer trying to put together a few words to reflect the mystery of God and the strangeness and the many blessings of the call we all try to follow.

 

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Disclaimer: I have written one of the essays in this book and I received one free copy as my contributor’s compensation.   Other than that – and some pride and excitement – I have not received any other compensation for this blog post and review of the book.

Get your book!  There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments & the Healing Power of Humor is available from Skylight Paths or at Amazon via the RevGalBlogPals site.

 


A Thin, Thick Place

A sermon on Acts 4: 32-35, John 20: 19-31, and Psalm 133, preached at Wesley Memorial UMC on April 12, 2015, during weekend festivities for the Wesley Foundation at UVA’s 50-year Celebration and Groundbreaking.

woman holding freshly baked Communion loaf

One of the Wesley bakers, with dairy-free, gluten-free bread fresh from the oven.

In my twenties I often concocted dream visions of communal living.  Visiting with Wesley Foundation friends or Appalachia Service Project friends, we would revel in our reunion weekends, drink up the goodness of being together again, and plot our Someday dreams…a retreat center and intentional community in a big farmhouse with a huge kitchen table, a garden, and a writing shed for me, a little removed from the bustle….a self-sufficient community where we could grow our own food, make our own furniture, create all the pottery for our kitchen… These were dreams born from tight communities of faith formed at pivotal times in our lives, and that remained touchstones for all of us, no matter the time or distance.  Whenever we got together we just wanted more.  Not to go “back” exactly, but to create again that sort of Spirit-infused, life-defining, deeply communal expression of faith and love.

In none of these scenarios was I thinking explicitly of today’s passage from Acts.  In all of these times I was remembering how good and full a community I had left, how lovely it was to dwell together in unity (to quote the psalmist).  We had come together in a thin place – what Celtic spirituality calls those spaces where heaven and earth seem to be closer and more permeable to one another than usual – and in that thin place, we’d made thick, substantial, meaty community.  We had seen glimpses and flickers of God’s kingdom made manifest and those were enough to sustain visions and lives.

When I think of the book of Acts, this is the passage I most often think of, though, we have to acknowledge, this idyllic time didn’t last that long.  This time when no one held private possessions and no one was needy didn’t last.  But it was thick and real while it lasted.  It was important enough to describe and include in scripture so no one would think Did that really happen?  Was I merely dreaming?

There are many thin places in the world but we are often too busy to notice them.

There are fewer thick communities and they can be so rare that we’re tempted to think we dreamt them.

We’re celebrating 50 years of ministry at the Wesley Foundation this weekend.  It isn’t 50 years total but 50 in our current building, which we’re renovating and showing some TLC this year.  Thanks to Ed for inviting me to preach here in the midst of this weekend as part of the celebration – how fitting, since Wesley Memorial has been our partner in campus ministry since the beginning.  We had 200 people worshipping and celebrating here yesterday, alumni from at least as far back as 1963, “Wesley legacy” families with parents and children who’ve all made Wesley home, the Bishop, our district superintendent, students, and tons of friends.

Those of us celebrating yesterday and many of you here know the Wesley Foundation as a thin place.  It’s holy ground, a thin place that’s home to a thick community with permeable boundaries, always being re-formed as people graduate and matriculate.

A couple of weeks ago the Wesley Foundation’s Student Coordinating Council (SCC) met for its “changeover” meeting, our peaceful transfer of power from one group of student leaders to the next.  One of our practices at that meeting is to offer words of gratitude for those rotating off the SCC.  At one point, in the midst of a long list of wonderful attributes and things she would miss about departing a student, one student stopped herself and blurted out,  “How are you real?”

In some ways this is what Thomas needed to know and see and feel for himself, when he met the resurrected Jesus.  How is any of this real?  Do you remember what Jesus does?  He does not refer to Thomas as a doubter or chastise him in any way.  He simply offers up the most visibly wounded part of his body and invites Thomas to stick his hand all the way in and get a good, tactile feel for it.  Thomas doesn’t even have to ask; he just has to reach out in the direction of the living, very real Christ.

How are you real?  Here, see for yourself.

At its best, this is what campus ministry is:  an invitation to see for yourself, in the midst of a community thick with the Spirit of the living Christ.  It’s the kind of place where people are transformed, where they become more fully who God is calling them to be and, though it may only last 4 years, it’s enough to sustain a vision for the future.

Let me hasten to add, about that early Christian community in Acts and about the Wesley Foundation, that there’s nothing out of the ordinary about the people involved.  Don’t get me wrong:  I love me some Wesleyanos!  But what I mean is, those early Christians weren’t somehow the cream of the crop, and though UVA students are the cream of the crop in many ways, Wesley folks aren’t the cream of the cream.  That’s not what makes the community faithful or memorable or life-transforming.  What makes both the Acts community and the Wesley community thick communities is the presence of the living Christ.  It’s not the prefect storm of personalities and skills, dreamers and engineers.  It’s Jesus.

How are you real?  Jesus.  The “thickening agent” in this recipe of love is the risen Christ.

The point of highlighting this long-ago and short-lived community from Acts isn’t to show what exceptional people they were.  It’s to show what’s possible when the center of your life and community is the living Christ.  The point is not that they were particularly un-needy people but rather that living with Christ at the center meant they prioritized the needs of others, they treated one another like family.

As I read our scripture passages this week I was struck by how physical and tangible the images are in each one.  The risen Christ offers the wound in his side to Thomas.  Surely the Acts community prays and worships together but we hear how they “bear powerful witness to the resurrection” (v. 33) by sharing things, the tangible goods they owned; they sold houses and properties and gave the proceeds to the group, to be used to purchase what they needed; people were housed and fed and clothed.  And Psalm 133 offers us the messy but luxurious image of Aaron’s long, thick, bushy beard, claiming that living together as one is like expensive oil poured over his head and running through that big beard, soaking it through.  Like I said, it’s messy, but it’s hard to read that and then think that spiritual things are separate and apart from physical things.

It’s also hard to read these passages and think that being faithful, being Christian is merely “between me and God.”  Part of what is real and tangible about God in these stories is that God is made manifest in Christian community….in living together as family…in making sure no one among us is needy…in offering breath, touch, forgiveness, sharing our vulnerable and wounded selves with one another…

The reason we had 200 people here yesterday is because this is a place and a people who have embodied life with the risen Christ.  People from across the decades are still savoring the thin place and space of their time at Wesley.  Students are fed here, literally, every Thursday night.  They stay up late together in Study Camp, offer rides home in the dark.  They take each other to the hospital, offer hugs on hard days, and water on hot mission trips.  Some meet their future mates here.  We welcome strangers – every fall when new students arrive, and many other times when someone comes in crisis, or when other religious groups fall short and they are looking for a faith community where they can be and become all of who God made them to be.

One of the clearest recent examples of “no needy persons among us” is our Communion bread.  At the 5pm worship service we celebrate Communion every week, gathered around the Table, offering the elements to one another around the circle.  It’s a highlight and an orienting moment in each week.

But in the past few years we noticed we were meeting more and more students with gluten sensitivities, celiac disease, and some folks who both gluten-free and dairy-free.  We struggled along for a while, using a little side plate on the Table to feed those who needed special bread at Communion.  It seemed like the best we could do.

Until a student asked if she could try making a loaf we could all eat.  There are two very important things to say about this endeavor:  1) It took her and a few other dedicated bakers experimenting for several weeks before we settled on the recipe we now use.  Those early loaves were not all pretty or as tasty as what we have now.  So, it wasn’t “perfect” from the start.  And 2)  The second thing to say is the one who offered to bake was not one of the students who had food allergies.  She herself didn’t need the bread to change for her own health – she wanted to do this so that there would be no needy persons among us.

These are the moments I hear students and alumni recount decades after their years here.  Deep spiritual moments expressed in physical ways, in the context of community…She remembered my name, he gave me a ride, they listened when I vented about my roommate, they didn’t laugh when I said I was thinking of going to seminary, they made bread I could eat, too…

Real, tangible bread, offered so that all could eat.  That’s what a community thick with Christ looks like – that’s what it tastes like!  That’s how love ends up looking like a round loaf of bread glistening with coconut oil on its crust.  That’s the simple but extravagantly grace-filled type of thing that keeps this a thin place thick with the love of Christ.  That’s why four years is a short time but long enough to send us out into the world and the rest of our lives, with the beacon of this community to orient us and the taste of heaven on our tongues.

Thanks be to God!

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photo credit:  © 2015 Aaron Stiles.  Used with permission.


There’s a woman in the pulpit…and her book’s on the bookshelf

I’m excited to announce the publication in April of There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments & the Healing Power of Humor (SkyLight Paths Publishing)

Available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

#WomaninthePulpit

It is a joy to be included in this collection of stories and prayers written by more than 50 of my colleagues who are members of RevGalBlogPals and who represent 14 denominations, 5 countries, and more than a dozen seminaries.

“In ministry, we constantly balance the sacred and the ordinary, juggling the two as expertly as we manage a chalice and a [baby] bottle. Even as we do things as simple as light the candles, set the table, break the bread and pour the wine, we invite people into a holy moment…. The women [in this book] not only have a wellspring of deep wisdom, but they also have the ability to dish out their knowledge with side-aching humor…. I am thrilled that their great wisdom and intelligence will be bound into the pages that I can turn to, lend and appreciate for years to come.”                           —from the Foreword by Rev. Carol Howard Merritt

Intended for laypeople, women hearing a call to ministry and clergy of all denominations, these stories and prayers will resonate with, challenge, encourage and amuse anyone who has a passion for their work and faith. A group reading guide will be available on the SkyLight Paths Publishing website – consider choosing it for your book group!


Working and Resting Revisited

resting hotel door hanger

I’ll admit this woman looks like she’s having fun.  But I was almost as dismayed with this hotel door hanger as I was with the all-working version we encountered in October.  I’m sure she’s working up a sweat with all that jumping.  I might even be willing to call it “rejuvenating,” but restful?

Why can’t she be taking a nap?  Or be snuggled beneath a blanket reading a book?  Why can’t she be listening to music with her feet propped up?

It seems one of the many causalities of our overworking is our resting.  When we deign to rest it now looks like a competitive sport rather than an afternoon spent dozing or meandering through a music collection.

Yeah, I know, it’s just a door hanger.  It’s some hotel marketing department’s creative answer to standard equipment.  I get that I’m allowed to rest how I want to no matter what the picture shows.  I just think we deserve work that looks less like a constant war and rest that looks a lot less like work.  We deserve cycles of work and rest rather than one-speed-fits-all living with the labels changed every now and then.


Another Aspect of Real Ministry

moneybags public domain_512px-New_Orleans_City_of_Old_Romance_and_New_Opportunity_Crop_p_23_Moneybags

One thing we don’t need more of is gloomy doom-filled prophecy about the state of the church, campus ministry, and money.  Another thing we don’t need is more clergy and campus ministers referring to things like fundraising and routine administrative work as “not real ministry.”  That’s like if Jesus, instead of telling the disciples to feed the 5000 (Mark 6: 30-44), had said, “I don’t care if they’re hungry.  We’ve been healing and teaching for days.  That’s real ministry.  I don’t care how they get fed so let’s get out of here”…

[Click here for the rest of the story and my tips for fundraising as a very real aspect of campus ministry, over at the National Campus Ministry Association blog.]

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photo credit:  By Southern Railway System [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 


Campus ministry is a different matter

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She was a student from a church in our district, located near enough to us that they serve dinners to students each year.  She grew up in that church and she was involved in the Wesley Foundation all four years of college, serving as a leader here in a variety of roles.  And she stopped me cold with her observation.  I had asked her to reflect on what makes Wesley different and valuable as a faith community for college students and she said, “No one at my home church would ever let me lead anything.”

I appreciate Tom Fuerst’s helpful reorientation this week on the topic of millennials’ engagement in church  (Why Aren’t Millenials Attending Your Church?).  He offers an antidote to the impotency of constant worry, and he gives one central thing every worshipping community could implement.  I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment that removing children and youth from worship, in favor of age-restricted and so-called age-appropriate activities, is misguided, has backfired, and has taken us too long to notice.

When he lumps campus ministry into the mix, I think he gets it wrong…

[Click here for the rest of the story at Ministry Matters.]

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Final Kiln at Nan’s

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I walked into Nan’s pottery studio the day before Easter four years ago.  Woody and I were eating lunch nearby, saw her brochure in the restaurant, and decided to follow the directions to her studio.  It was a lovely, rare, ambling afternoon, a little adventure of meandering the unfamiliar back roads leading to her long, sloping gravel driveway.

I knew I’d like her pots.  She had some on display in the restaurant, where I’d picked them up one by one and seen the same ”NR” stamp on the bottoms.  Even though we arrived as she was shooting a demo video she cheerfully stopped and gave us a tour.  I wandered through her cottage-like studio and showroom admiring the glazes and forms and bashfully saying, “No, I’m not a potter, but I’ve collected pottery for a long time.”

“I teach classes here.  I usually have a long waiting list but right now I happen to have an open spot, if you’re interested.”

That’s when things changed.  All the way home in the car Woody and I talked money and timing and how long the drive to class would take, but it was already a done deal.  I was doing it.

Becoming not just a potter, but Nan Rothwell’s student, has been one of the unexpected blessings of these past few years.  Pottery is a grounding and spiritual practice that gets me out of my head and back into my body, fully in the present moment.  I’ve written a few things about it here but this probably sums it up best.  I always knew, even before I held my first lump of clay, that I’d love working with it.  What I didn’t know until I became Nan’s student, was how much I needed a teacher.  Those of us in her classes said all the time how lucky we were.  We counted our blessings out loud, regularly.

Life keeps changing and one of those changes this past year was that Nan and her husband decided to try city living for the first time in decades.  In October, Nan closed her teaching studio and we fired the final kiln there.  Here are the last pots I made at Nan’s.

Nan’s teaching at a new place and I look forward to taking classes with her there.  It will all be different, but no matter how many places I sit down at a wheel and no matter how many teachers I learn from, Nan will always be my pottery teacher.  She’s the one who said completely obvious things that came from deep wisdom and forty years of throwing pots, but which were not obvious enough to me before she said and demonstrated them – things like, “Just because the wheel’s moving fast, doesn’t mean you have to.”  Nan has helped me move more slowly and deliberately at the wheel and in life.  She’s the one who let me become a student again and walked me over the threshold from admirer to potter.


Winter Afternoon Haiku. No Snow.

bird footprints in winter sand

I wrote these a few weeks back one afternoon, enjoying the late light but wishing for snow.  Looks like we might be getting some today, at last.  As I burrow in on the ultimate snow day – retreat! – here are two slightly different takes on winter hibernation.

 

Afternoon light slants

Winter’s long shadows stretching

Golden sun descends

 

Netflix beckons me

Siren song of temptation

Ten seasons of Friends

 

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photo credit:  © 2015 by Woody Sherman


What we talk about when we talk about sex

IMG_4156 copie

When I told the group of students in this semester’s Sabbath study that Sabbath is meant to be a time to explore and revel in what delights us that was OK.  When I said the Jewish tradition explicitly includes sex in the list of delights – that it’s actually prescribed as a Sabbath activity – that was OK, too.  When I made sure to say that, of course, the understanding is that these activities take place within a marriage, that was entirely expected and by the book, but it was not OK with me.

That’s what I am supposed to say.  It matches our common United Methodist understanding as expressed in the Book of Discipline.  I’m not sure how well it matches our lived experience as Christians in North America in 2015.  And I’m certain it’s not enough for most young adults to go on.  In this particular year of ministry at the University of Virginia I am increasingly uncomfortable with our church conversations about sexuality.  I wonder a lot about my role and responsibility as an ordained elder.  Is it merely to communicate current stances accurately?

I have known college students who have not yet experienced their first kiss and I have known others who’ve experienced sexual violence.  I’ve known students who are desperate to date and find someone and I’ve known others who don’t have time for that because they’re hyper-focused on the next academic and career steps.  I’ve known many students who date and have relationships while they are in school and many of them are sexually active.  What they all have in common is an appalling lack of religious language and imagery for full-bodied healthy sexuality.  Whether they adhere to it or not, they all know that in church circles sex is for marriage.  They know it’s a gift from God but it’s a pretty strange gift because it stays wrapped up in Christianese gift language without much exploration of how to use the gift.  “When you get married” is not enough of an exploration.  Leaving aside for now the huge problem that only certain people in certain places have the option for marriage, this is still a wholly unsatisfactory exploration.

As we discussed rape culture at the Wesley Foundation last semester, it became painfully apparent that unexamined, unexplored gift language can be a further assault to someone who has been sexually violated.  If, as some versions of the gift conversation go, this is the best most important gift God gives us and that’s why we need to save it for The One, then what is a raped woman supposed to do with all that?  What comfort and what level of conversation is available to her then, in a church community  that has only ever said this one thing about sex?  For that matter, what theological conversation is available to someone who is sexually active in consenting relationships, as many young adults (and older adults) are?  By our narrow focus and our silence are we communicating this is a “leave it at the door” kind of thing?

Our sacred scriptures contain extreme sexual violence (Judges 19 as just one example).  They also contain some of the most beautiful poetry, absolutely reveling and delighting in sexual exploration with one’s (unmarried) beloved (Song of Solomon).  Our central Christian story starts with an unmarried pregnant teenager and no matter how we understand those events and the notion of being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit as Mary was, those facts remain (Luke 1: 26-38).  What do these stories tell us about greed, betrayal, violence, and power?  About perseverance?  About resourcefulness? About mistakes and punishment?  What do they tell us about delight and the powerful connection to another person and that person’s body?  About the soaring wonder that we experience skin to skin?  What do they tell us about unexplained circumstances?  About loyalty?  About redemption and the holiness of embodied life and love?

These are just the tip of the iceberg, the first questions that come to mind when I read our community stories involving sex.  Notice how much more is going on than mere description of body parts or edicts about right behavior.  Notice how little we tend to say about the rest of it.

Saying only “save it for marriage” is not enough and it’s not a fair reflection of our own tradition.  In the case of someone who’s been sexually assaulted, if our sexuality conversation is so stilted, euphemistic, and childish that she can’t come (back) to church with the worst thing that’s happened to her, what are we here for anyway?  In the case of a restless experimenting teenager who already hasn’t “saved it,” where can she rejoin the church community conversation if she’s already out of bounds?

Ruth Everhart has posted several good pieces this week, asking preachers how we intend to deal with Valentine’s Day and sex.  Her posts are a good reminder that we need real, earthy, God-inclusive conversations about sexuality – and not just at Valentine’s Day.  The Atlantic published a thoughtful article last fall called “When ‘Do Unto Others’ Meets Hookup Culture” and we used it in our recent Wesley conversations.  The author points out that our basic ethic of treating others as we would like to be treated serves as a great starting place for conversations about sexuality.  This standard is more than mere consent and it requires attentiveness to the other person, the situation you are in, the relationship or lack thereof…It requires active engagement and moral reflection on an ongoing basis.

What if we in the church shifted focus from the before and after marriage conversation – what if instead of focusing on when to start having sex, we talk together about how we go about it, whenever it is we start?  What if we start from the supposition that God’s good gift of sexuality can be expressed in a variety of ways?  What if we admit it might be possible to have good, healthy, Christian sex for various reasons and in various forms of relationships, possibly even no relationship?  What if we start there because this opens our conversation up to the largest breadth of people and experiences?

When I hold “Ask Your Campus Minister” nights and students can put any questions they want to in a hat, I always pull one out that asks about sex.  Whether they’ve read it or not, they already know what our Book of Discipline says.  They don’t want to hear “Marriage.  Next question?”  They want something real that they can use.  They want something meaty and nuanced enough to carry them through the complexities of sexuality in its beautiful, surprising, confusing, God-given varieties.  Nothing less is OK.

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photo credit: © 2011 Renaud Camus , CC BY 2.0


If you had told me

welcome sign sullivans island

 

If you had told me I’d be writing poetry in a movie-set house

on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina,

on a grey rainy day in the middle of the week,

- as part of my job -

I might have believed it,

depending on when you’d told me.

 

The me who drank café crèmes in French cafés,

camped for the afternoon sipping

and pouring words into journals too myopic and lovesick to read now,

that me would have believed it.  No hesitation.

Of course, I’ll be a writer one day.  The set sounds perfect.

 

Twentysomething me, writer of the Bermuda short story

I showed every friend I had because, well, I was proud of it

and because I didn’t know what else to do with it,

she would have sheepishly asked, What kind of poetry?

 

Heartbroken me, would have sniffed, nodded,

looked up with red-rimmed eyes, knowingly.

What’s his name? 

 

Newly-minted seminarian me, the lonely one

still uncertain of her call after three years and a degree

who cried when the priest rubbed ashes on her forehead one Wednesday,

would have wanted to know What happened to ministry?

 

The oldest me

girl in a lavender bedroom

following the Ingalls family out west for the first time

would have – if you could have gotten her to look up from the book –

smiled

the unabashed smile of delight.