A Follow-up About Sex

It has come to my attention that some people took my post “Is Homosexuality a Sin” to be answering that question definitively in the affirmative and to be condemning those who engage in it. While I don’t think that is a fair reading of what I actually wrote, it troubles me nonetheless.

In my post, I placed masturbation, for instance, on the same level of “sinfulness” as I did gay sex. Now, I don’t go around asking folk, but I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t masturbate. Or, at least, the practical, psychological side of me hopes I don’t. I mean, I think we all ought to know how our bodies work and what brings them pleasure.

But I was suggesting that our modern, secular, casual, free-love, sex-as-Right sort of attitude is problematic from a spiritual standpoint, and I think that’s true. And I think it’s something that we should each examine in our own lives–each of us, not just Gay folk!

But now I’m going to go ahead and say something I didn’t say before because I {scoff} thought it was too controversial. And I realize I’m on theologically shaky ground here. But if sex is, in its deepest sense, meant to be the most profound way in which we engage in the Lord’s creation, in which we become like Him and create life ourselves, well, then, I’m just going to say that I think it’s hard for us to be spiritually “pure” in sex. And I’m not sure even He realizes the toll that that act takes on our small, limited, enfleshed beings. We are so far from being Gods ourselves that engaging in an act of creation is utterly terrifying. Even writers, who are creating nothing more than words on a page, understand this on some deep, visceral level.

One of the interpretations of Jesus’s life is that God did not understand what it was like to have bodies made of flesh so he sent down his son, in the flesh, in order to understand us better and bridge the gap between us. Jesus lived, ate, drank, and died, just like us. But as far as I know, nowhere in the scriptures does it say that Jesus engaged in sexual intercourse and brought new life into the world. And I think most Christians would find such a suggestion distasteful. To the contrary, the established doctrine is that Jesus, himself, was immaculately conceived. Sex, it seems, did not create him, and it did not touch his life on earth.

No matter how well we live or how righteous we try to be, we are not Gods. The extent to which we can actually approach Him is so limited. I think, therefore, that sex is hard on us. And I’m not sure that even those who choose to remain celibate (monastic communities, for instance) are “pure” in sex. I have read multiple accounts of rituals taking on strange sexual overtones, for instance. And who among us has not “sinned” in thought, at least?

I guess what I’m suggesting is a lot harder than people might think upon first reading. I think that sex is a challenge for us to become like God. But I don’t think any of us is actually going to get there. And the Good News is that God loves us anyway.

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Is Homosexuality a Sin?

So, just to start off: I have been a card-carrying member of the GLBTQ community since sexual impulses first started for me. I had my first girlfriend at 16. And I spent 8 continuous years in two separate (4 year) long-term relationships with women. I am practically a gold star. And now I am a devout Christian. I go to an Anglican church, and I believe that my relationship with God is the most important relationship I will ever have.

So, given all of that, I am finally wading into this discussion. Is homosexuality a sin?

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately. Not because it worries me so terribly much. I am quite sure of two things: 1) God loves me–he’s shown me this over and over by picking me up and treating me gently when things in my life have been awful, 2) I am a sinner many times over–I eff up pretty much everything there is to eff up. So this question has never really been one that kept me up at night. Neither, I admit a little sheepishly, has the question of Gay Marriage.

But at 32 and single, with my biological clock ticking fairly loudly, with all my friends getting married and moving away, etc. I have been thinking a LOT about love, marriage, relationships, family, and friendship. I have just been thinking a lot about people and how we interact with them. And I’ve been thinking about God and how to live life right.

Tonight I read a thoughtful piece on this topic: “Yes, Homosexuality Absolutely is  a Choice.” The author makes many good points that anti-Gay Christians do not seem to consider. Chief amongst them is that none of us does choose who or how we love. Nor do we consciously choose our desires. These things fall naturally out of our authentic expressions of ourselves. I think people who don’t see this really aren’t thinking seriously enough about human sexuality, period. Your heart responds to the people your heart responds to. Your body responds to the people your body responds to. The rational mind is not in control of these things. At all. Period. You love who you love. You want who you want.

OK, so far John Pavlovitz and I agree. But there is a difference between desire and action. And while we don’t choose what we want, we do choose what we do with that desire. And I’m not going to say that engaging in sexual activity with someone of the same gender is a sin or that forming lifelong partnerships or marriage is a sin. But I think it’s at least a possibility.

Here’s a hard truth I’ve been realizing: I believe that love is a gift from God, but in our daily lives, in practice, the way we handle love and act on it often hurts ourselves and others. I have watched one friend behave unconscionably cruelly to her husband for the past three years. And she behaves this way in front of her children. I have watched another friend carry on an affair with a married man that has driven her back to an eating disorder and him back to alcoholism. And another friend finally left her church and her family behind to follow her truth and marry the woman she loves. But, though they are together and are building a life that is beautiful in many ways, I have noticed that this friend has lost her moral compass. Her relationship with her wife has neither made her a better person, nor has it brought her closer to God. The opposite, at least so far, seems to be true. In each of these cases, love is the gift, but actions are the choice. And if our actions don’t make us better people and don’t bring us closer to God, then I think they are wrong.

Pavlovitz glosses over another issue. He says that anti-Gay Christians condense the sexuality of GLBTQ people to the physical act of sex while ignoring the emotional context of a person’s life. While this seems true, he uses the statement to gloss over the question of whether sex between two people of the same gender is wrong. Perhaps he assumes that if it is not wrong to love or desire someone of the same gender, then it can’t be wrong to physically act on that love or desire. But that conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow. And I’m going to say, I’m not sure.

I think it’s possible that we use our bodies wrongly nearly constantly in our post-modern society. But if so, it isn’t a problem that’s limited to GLBTQ folk who engage in sex. The bible seems to pretty clearly assert that sex is an act that takes place between a male husband and a female wife. But the point, that many people seem to gloss over, is not that they are male and female. It is that they are engaged in a sacred creative act that is meant to bear literal fruit. The partners are married, thus signifying their intention to live together as a unit and join in the creative act that brings new life into the world.

Two people of the same gender cannot engage in this process. It does not biologically work. So, if we take this as the deep and true purpose of the sexual union, then sex between two men or two women is a sin. It is wrong. But then, premarital sex is also a sin. Masturbation is a sin. Affairs are sins. Any “casual” sex is a sin. And this might be true. It might be that we are far too free with our bodies and that by “liberating” sex to a post-modern “right” to be enjoyed by all, we have cheapened it. We have robbed it of its power and the true sacredness that belongs to it. But if that’s true, then it’s a sin that nearly everyone in the modern world shares.

So, is homosexuality a sin?

Being Nice

So, I’m new to “mindfulness.” Actually, I’m inherently distrustful of anything new-agey-sounding. I like to think that I got my hippy-rebellion-post-everything stage over early. But I have started to notice and pay attention to my interactions with other people in a new (and perhaps “mindful”) way. This has had a number of very strange, and in many ways harmful, side-effects.

It was much easier for me to be in the world around humans before I started paying attention. I wasn’t close to most people, but I was fine with that. I used to pretend that people couldn’t see me, and in my mind, that gave me license to not really pay attention to them. That gave me a nice little bubble to operate in.

Paying attention to other people and holding in my constant awareness that they are paying attention to me and being affected by my actions and words is challenging. My skin has become much thinner. I am consciously aware of when other people are not behaving well. With me, towards me, but also towards themselves and other people. I am even aware of intentional slights that would have gone blissfully over my head six months ago. And I’m aware of my own poor behavior. I am aware of every snippy comment, every abrupt gesture, every lack of generosity. I am aware of how my mood affects others. I am aware of how my attitude changes the temperature in a room.

This is a lot of data that I am unaccustomed to.

This has affected my relationships with everyone on every level. And mostly, it is a struggle. But the biggest challenge, I’m discovering, is with the people who see me the most (big surprise!): my work colleagues. They are, each one, good people. They are good at their job. They are mostly kind. They all have a healthy sense of humor. They are fun to be around. And they all also have their little quirks, their own “mental health issues,” and their life dramas that they are going through. Just exactly the same as me. But we have to deal with each other day after day. And we have to deal with each other when we are upset, having a bad day, being (mostly unintentionally) rude to each other. We have to deal with each other when we are having our random issues that are triggered by each other. We just have to deal with each other. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

This is hard for me.

But I just got home from work, and I realized something that should have been painfully obvious. No, I don’t know how to deal with this one issue that one of my colleagues has with me that keeps coming up over and over. No, I can’t fix that other problem that another colleague is struggling with that affects us all. No, I haven’t figured out how to force myself to be happy when I’m not, or how to hide it. I don’t have an answer to a single one of these inter-personal problems that I am now aware of that is troubling me. But I did realize one thing that I CAN do. And I can ALWAYS do it, no matter what.

I can be nice.

If I haven’t eaten enough and I’m in a pissy mood, I can still be nice. I can ask nicely for what I need. I can say “please” and “thank you.” I can smile. I can remember that I’m dealing with another human who is dealing with whatever. If someone is rude to me, If someone is pawning off one of their issues on me, if someone is thoughtless, it doesn’t matter. I can still be nice.

I’m not talking about being self-sacrificing or holy. I’m not talking about ignoring whatever real, legitimate issues exist that must, I’m sure, eventually be dealt with. But no matter what they are, no matter where I am mentally or emotionally, I can still approach the world and the people around me with respect and kindness.

This shouldn’t be such a revelation for me, perhaps, but it is. Cheers!

What is Marriage?

I spent today reading about the lives of women. I was searching for something. I read about the open relationship between Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, and I thought about a friend whose marriage is dissolving at this moment. And I thought about the very simple conviction that I had at six years old: “I am going to get married and have a family.” And how I have based my life and my actions towards the assumption that that conviction would become a reality.

But what is marriage? Right now, right at this moment in history. What is it? Same sex couples have won the right to marry in most states now. Against a great deal of religious backlash. The most touted reason I’ve heard in defense of same sex marriage is that it gives financial perks to the couple. But deep down I think we all know that marriage isn’t about tax breaks. So what is it?

Heterosexual couples are divorcing at alarming rates today. And whenever a marriage ends, it seems to be viewed as a failure. Mostly lawyers get involved, and the couple that once promised to be together forever ends the affair by vilifying each other in order to get the most, financially, from the proceeding, and psychologically to allow themselves to move on from what was once a serious commitment.

So what is marriage today? Is it a series of tax-breaks? Is it a moral imperative that we are no longer good enough to stand up to? Is it a temporary commitment that allows us to form a household and see to the caring for of children in a more or less joint way, but that no longer really can be expected to be a lifelong commitment because we live so much longer now and we are so much more committed to the growth of the individual, particularly the woman?

I’m 32, and I’ve never been married. I have had two four year relationships, and the question of marriage came up in both of them, but something held me back. And, at least in one of them, it wasn’t lack of love. Speaking of love: I’ve fallen in love at least half a dozen times. With both men and women. And I started young. And I’m not fickle, either. I’ve loved the same person, at least in one instance, for over a decade. Maybe a lifetime, in that case, though the person in question is no longer even the person I love, and yet. . . When I was a teen, I remember thinking: “If I can fall in love so easily, how will I know when it’s the right person.” Is there such a thing? But I do know that I left behind that possibly-life-long love when I was still a teen because I didn’t want to marry him. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with someone who couldn’t put his arms around me, and I still believe that would have been the case.

My sister was a serial heterosexual monogamist when we were younger. Now she is a polyamorous bi-sexual. The last time she visited, she said that she didn’t think she would ever fall in love again because she’d just experienced too much. But the last time I fell in love, it was an odd experience, too, like I was watching outside myself. He was a man, a bit older, who had just divorced after a fifteen year marriage. He has two beautiful children, and he hates his ex-wife.

And there was chemistry, and sparks, and all the lovey-dovey naive feelings that one needs in order to enter into these things, but for the first time, I just didn’t fall into it. Instead, I watched. And I had a few strange thoughts. The first was that without allowing myself to fall head-first, I actually noticed the things about him that would have eventually come to drive me insane. We all have these ticks, bad-habits, personal struggles. The perk of falling in love, is that it tends to cloud our judgement enough that we overlook these things in the beloved until it’s too late, so to speak, and we’ve entered into the relationship. Then the next thought was that everyone has flaws. Besides just willfully ignoring them, how can you ever enter into a relationship with both eyes open? Then the conclusion: you can’t. People will drive you nuts. That is inevitable. The only way to be crazy enough to join your life with someone elses’ is to actually be crazy. Which is what falling in love effectively does for you.

And then, after I thought through all that, it occurred to me that “falling in love” is an insane feeling to base a lifelong commitment on. I mean, it makes sense, because it gets us out of ourselves. It overcomes our desire to be an island, enough to get us to join with another. And that is great because it insures the perpetuation of the species. Yay. But our average life-expectancy is like 80 years today. And no one stays “in love” for more than a couple years at most.

And then, in the midst of all of this philosophizing about love and marriage, an interesting and unprecedented (in my life, at least) thing happened. I met someone else. Well, no. I guess I’d met him awhile back, but I got to know him. And I didn’t fall in love with him at all. But I suddenly looked at him, and I looked at the man I was in love with. And I just suddenly wasn’t in love with that man anymore because I could see that this new man who I’d become friends with was, frankly, superior. He was a better man. Still, a very flawed man in his own unique ways, but superior, nonetheless. And I liked him a great deal. And I enjoyed his company. And his conversation.

This shook me to my foundation for reasons that are not clear to me. And I suddenly realized, like my sister, that I might never fall in love again. Because I no longer believe in falling in love. And because, despite that, somehow, miraculously, my heart seems to have found what it wants. What, in fact, it’s not willing to do without. And I don’t know why. But I looked at this new friend, and I saw that the way he approaches the world and thinks about it is so foreign to me, and so right in the direction I want to grow without ever having known it, that I just don’t want anyone but him. I won’t have anyone but him. And if he won’t have me, it turns out that I’ll have no one. And I think this must be love. And something more substantial than the other things I’ve called love before. But if it is, it comes as a complete surprise to me. And it doesn’t feel like I expected it to. And I don’t know what to do with it. And is this what marriage is about?

People have formed all sorts of liaisons with all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons. The way we live our lives is changing radically across our society right now. So what is marriage?

The Art of Discourse

Those of you who follow my blog Strong in the Broken Places will have noticed that I have not posted there in awhile. That is because my interests and pre-occupations have been broadening beyond the scope of that blog. I do not know, at this moment, if I will return to it, but here at The Forum for Discourse, I’d like to start a new kind of conversation today. I’d like to start a conversation about conversation with those of you who are brave and game enough for the venture; and I’d like to start a conversation about important issues that we face as a society and a planet.

You see, I’ve noticed that our means of near-instantaneous communication have multiplied–cell-phones, text-messages, instagram, facebook, email, linkedin, pinterest, twitter–and yet, the quality of our conversation has not kept up to pace. If anything, real, civil discussion about important matters seems to have suffered. Political people post about political topics, and those who agree with them read their posts and feel shored up and congratulate each other. Politer people refrain from posting such things in the first place. If two people of opposing viewpoints happen to start commenting on the same thing, the loudest one “wins.”

But nobody really wins, and that’s my point.

Our society is facing huge challenges today. What will we do about crippling student debt? Over-testing and failing schools? The housing crisis? Reproductive rights? Police violence against racial minorities? There are big questions that we all need to grapple with. What is Marriage? Who has the right to control who does it? What is mental illness? How do we define it? How do we interact with those who are suffering? Is there a place for faith in our society? And how do we allow faith into our daily lives while being respectful and caring towards those with different beliefs than ours?

If we all just believe what we believe and assume that “the other side” is stupid, I think we’re in trouble. But even trying to discuss these topics takes bravery, open-mindedness, and a whole slew of skills that are very tricky, and possibly–in this internet age–not yet even invented.

So today I want to ask: what makes discourse possible?

In a facebook flamewar I engaged in last night, I noticed that rudeness shuts down discussion. If you treat the other person like they are stupid, they aren’t going to share their thoughts openly. And the other side of that is that you aren’t going to really be listening to them if you think they are stupid.

Also, sometimes people don’t express themselves well, or they don’t express themselves the way you are used to. People with different perspectives often come from widely different backgrounds–socio-economic, religious, educational, regional–so we can’t expect everyone to share their ideas in the way that we would prefer. But if we really want to understand what they are saying, we will make an effort to look past those differences.

So here are my rules for discourse so far:

  1. Treat others with courtesy.
  2. Be actually open to others’ ideas.
  3. Try to understand the actual point being made.
  4. Ask clarifying questions if necessary.
  5. (via Pattie Brown) Pause before you post!

What other rules would you add? Have you had successful discussions on fraught topics? And what made them successful? I look forward to hearing from you!