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Love, Sex, and Marriage: Not Metaphors

Gustave-Claude-Etienne Courtois [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, I read this article from the Gospel Coalition by Jonathan Leeman: Love and the Inhumanity of Same-Sex Marriage.  I almost couldn’t get past the title, and it took me three tries to actually read the post.  If you haven’t already clicked on the link, you may not want to bother; it certainly lives down to its promise.

There is far too much in here for me to address in one blog post.  I would love to tackle the idea that Christians are throwing up our hands and saying, “Why bother fighting when the times they are a-changin’?”  That implies a passive, rather than an active, position on marriage equality that simply doesn’t exist for many of us.  I would also like to take on the assumption that it’s “sinful” to work for marriage equality and that Real, True Christians must wage war against it.  It would take several blog posts to explain my position on “Scriptural authority” and “final judgment.”  I already gave my opinion on Leeman’s stupid comment about “humanity” when I posted this on Facebook last night.

So, where do I go with this?

As I read through this, the one thought I kept returning to was how we know what love, sex, and marriage are or ought to be.  There seems to be an underlying idea among conservative Christians that these things are somehow a metaphor for God’s relationship with humanity.  Hand in hand with that view is the belief that this love is correctly represented by (cis) man-woman marriage with penis-in-vagina sex as its ultimate expression.

This belief is supported at least in part by a reading of texts such as Song of Solomon as both a metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel and as a “sex poem.”  It is also upheld by a backwards interpretation of what is meant by the Scriptures comparing the Church to a bride and Jesus to a groom.  That, however, is a stretch.  There is no indication that the Church was created as a bride, merely that the language used reflected something people understood–that is, the complex, intertwining relationship between husband and wife.  The same is true in other passages of Scripture drawing the same comparison.  In fact, Paul even says this is a mystery.

With such narrow definitions of love and intimacy, is it any wonder that people like Leeman would conclude that same-sex marriage (and, of course, same-sex lovemaking) are “less than human”?

When I read the Bible (full disclosure: I do not take Genesis 1-3 literally), I don’t read about how God made man and woman to be perfect relational complements or metaphors for God/humans or bodies that fit together just so.  I read, “God saw that it was not good for the [human] to be alone.”  We weren’t meant to live in isolation, but not because God was making a cosmic point.  God saw that the human heart needed human love and companionship.

While I don’t believe that God created us with the intent to use us to show God’s love, I do believe God’s love is reflected in us.  This isn’t limited, though, to man-woman marriage.  It’s present in our deepest friendships; in our parenting; in our siblings; and yes, in our most intimate relationships.  Not one of these things is a more perfect representation of God’s love; they are all imperfect–dark, like Paul’s reflecting glass.  They are facets of the same glorious diamond.

If we limit the full expression of God’s love to man-woman-marriage-sex as the pinnacle, we fail to honor the deep, profound love that is experienced elsewhere.  We begin to view the unmarried (especially women) as failing to achieve a holy ideal.  We determine same-sex couples to be “less than human” in their love.  We reject those who choose to be child-free as missing out on the actualization of “real” love.  That’s not what God wants for us.  Jesus made a promise to his followers: When two or more of us are gathered in his name, he will be with us.  That promise is so incredibly freeing when it comes to how we see love, particularly God’s love for us.

I see the beautiful, mysterious love of God all around me in humanity.  I see it when my son is baptized alongside a baby boy who has two mommies, while my child-free sister and my single-mom sister honor us with their presence.  I see it when my children talk about their futures and always include one another because their love for each other runs so deep.  I see it in my friends who, time after time, demonstrate their love for me in small ways.  I see it in those who spend their time and money working for peace and justice throughout the world.  I see it in the tender care offered by pastors to their congregations.  I see it in the midst of tragedy when people reach out, even risking their own safety, to tend to others.

God’s love isn’t limited to a single expression; therefore, mine will not be boxed in either.

You are loved

In case anyone missed it, many of us have been participating in an ongoing conversation about sexuality and sexual ethics.  There have been so many brave people sharing their stories with honesty and dignity.  Collectively, we all seem to need to move away from the shame and fear that have permeated conservative evangelical teaching.  This is an incredibly beautiful, brave venture and I’m proud to be part of it.

But.

After one of the first posts went up, Sarah Bessey’s wonderful I am damaged goods, I began to notice something that disturbed me.  Rather than understanding Sarah’s use of the phrase “damaged goods” for what it was in the context of her post, others were appropriating the term and using it to mean something very different.  I lost count of the number of times I saw someone post or tweet something like this:

We are all damaged goods.

I understand what they meant.  I, too, am a product of the doctrine of total depravity (that we are born without any goodness in us and our only worth comes from God).  While I no longer hold that view, I certainly respect those who do.  I also understand the sentiment to be a paraphrase of “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  That isn’t my primary concern here.

The phrase “damaged goods” breaks my heart not only for women like Sarah Bessey who have been told that their sexual histories have ruined them but for all of us.  We are not “damaged goods.”  Not one of us.

Words mean things.  “Damaged goods” is something we should use to describe a bruised banana or a dented can of tomatoes or a package of frozen peas that split open.  Damaged goods are unsaleable throw-aways.

Call us sinners, if you believe we are.  Say we make mistakes or that we sometimes hurt each other or that we need forgiveness (from people or God).

But don’t call us damaged goods.  Human beings are not ever damaged goods.

We are not spoiled, ruined, useless, or worthless.

We are beautiful.

We are precious.

We are valuable.

We are loved.

You are loved.  I am loved.  Let us reflect that love that no one will ever again believe he or she is damaged goods.

When Love Hurts

The other day, David Hayward (a.k.a. Naked Pastor) updated his Facebook status thus:

It’s going to hurt anyway. So if you’re going to love, give it everything.

He’s right.  We can’t save ourselves from hurt by refusing to expose ourselves to love.  That in mind, we may as well dive right into the deep end.

Because love doesn’t just hurt when we give it away and we’re rejected.  It doesn’t just hurt when we suffer abuses at the hands of another.  It doesn’t just hurt when our personal romance novel ends.  It hurts when we see others rejected, abused, and lonely.

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for a lot of people.  Right now, many people are grieving the recent deaths of students at a local high school.  (Two very different situations, but both tragic for the loss of young lives.)  Although I didn’t personally know either of the students, I do know people who did.  My heart aches for their loss.

If I chose to, I could wall myself off from others’ grief.  I could turn the other way, pretend it didn’t exist.  But if I do that, I miss out on the richness of a life lived in symbiosis with others.  In building my wall, I create my own prison.  I won’t avoid tragedies in my own life, but I may keep everyone else out, leaving myself no one to help carry my pain.  Not only that, I will effectively keep out joy.  I will miss out on all the good things that come from loving others and being loved in return.

There is no way to live on this earth without experiencing hurt.  There is only go through it alone, or with others.  I don’t know about you, but I’d rather keep the doors and windows of my heart wide open so I can know the fullness of joy, despite the pain.

Unwelcome

If we, as Christians and as churches, want to be known for our love and compassion, we might consider the ways in which we make some people feel rejected by Christ.  There are no people in existence for whom God does not possess infinite love and compassion.  Sometimes we need to draw on that, even when we feel uncomfortable.  I distinctly remember the turning point for me when I realized just how little we sometimes do to reach out to others.

About four years ago, I was at a multi-church function.*  I had the misfortune of hearing several pastors discussing how to handle difficult situations that had arisen in their congregations.  One pastor shared that a “man” dressed as (and probably living as) a woman had come to his church.  As he began, a couple of the others were nodding in approval.  They seemed to feel that this was a good sign, a sign that the church was reaching out with open, loving arms.  The pastor went on to explain that he had been “uncomfortable” with this person.  After the church service, he approached the visitor and explained that she would need to dress “appropriately” (that is, as a man) if she wanted to continue to attend.  The pastor went on to say that it was “distracting” to the other congregants.  The pastor concluded his story by telling the others that the visitor had, as yet, not returned to the church.  He shrugged, and affixed blame squarely on the shoulders of the visitor–if she didn’t want to comply with the dress code, it was her loss.

My feelings, in that moment, went from disbelief to confusion to outright anger.

I have many friends who have varying opinions about transgendered individuals, so for the moment, I want everyone to just lay aside your personal feelings.  Right now, I am considering one thing:  How does God expect us to treat people who come into our churches?  I understand that the leadership (and perhaps the pastor in particular) at that church likely believe that the transgendered person was a man with a fetish or a psychological problem or a “sin issue.”  Regardless, they still handled it badly.

Jesus, who “died for us while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8), who urges “all you who are weary and burdened” to come to him for rest Matthew 11:28), does not expect us to clean ourselves up before we approach the throne of grace.  When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well, he never told her that her live-in lover ought to move out.  He didn’t condemn the woman caught in adultery.  He allowed a prostitute to wash and embrace his feet, despite the protests of the religious leaders.  I doubt sincerely that he would have cast out a transgendered person for her manner of dress.

That church allowed someone to leave without really hearing the message of Jesus.  That pastor discouraged someone in need from receiving care.  Here came a person, hoping that church would provide shelter, love, and answers to life’s hurts.  Instead, she found rejection and alienation.  Is that really what we want to be known for?  Is that how we reflect God’s love to others?

We may feel uncomfortable in certain situations.  We still have a responsibility to show love and extend grace.

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*I am being intentionally vague here so that the event and people in question can remain safely anonymous.