July 7th, 2016
Intimacy was our focus last Sunday, with particular but not exclusive focus on its sexual dimension. While it sought to give clarity to some abiding questions, we know it likely provoked a host of others. Might not have been the optimal time to pause Q&A for the summer given the subject matter! But we hope to create other opportunities for discussing the issues raised (and not) by the sermon (and others). If it sparked thoughts or questions that are sticking with you, please reach out to me. I’d be glad to talk further. Meanwhile, let’s let this week’s Backstory address a few related questions we didn’t have time for:
We spoke of the sacredness of marriage Sunday. But how does one even gauge when they’re ready to marry? I know the question is wildly subjective and yet still worth asking, if for no other reason than we have an intuitive sense that there are at least some indications marriage would be a premature step. Alain de Botton (to whom we’ve given slight attention before) has no place for theism in his world, but he has surfaced in his new book on marriage, The Course of Love, some clear reasons why a gospel-shaped outlook would well serve anyone interested in getting and, more importantly, staying married. The last paragraph here (HT: Mockingbird) hearkens to the need for a Story which best helps us make sense of any given relationship’s inevitably imperfect story:
Pronouncing a lover “perfect” can only be a sign that we have failed to understand them. We can claim to have begun to know someone only when they have substantially disappointed us.
However, the problems aren’t theirs alone. Whomever we could meet would be radically imperfect: the stranger on the train, the old school acquaintance, the new friend online… Each of these, too, would be guaranteed to let us down. The facts of life have deformed all of our natures. No one among us has come through unscathed. We were all (necessarily) less than ideally parented: we fight rather than explain, we nag rather than teach, we fret instead of analyzing our worries, we lie and scatter blame where it doesn’t belong.
The chances of a perfect human emerging from the perilous gauntlet are nonexistent. We don’t have to know a stranger very well before knowing this about them. Their particular way of being maddening won’t be immediately apparent–it could take as long as a couple of years–but its existence can be theoretically assumed from the start…
It’s profoundly counterintuitive for us to think of ourselves as mad. We seem so normal and mostly so good–to ourselves. It’s everyone else who is out of step… and yet, maturity begins with the capacity to sense and, in good time and without defensiveness, admit our own craziness. If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are, the journey to self-knowledge hasn’t begun…
We speak of “love” as it if were a single, undifferentiated thing, but it comprises two very different modes: being loved and loving. We should marry when we are ready to do the latter and have become aware of our unnatural–and dangerous–fixation on the former.
We start out knowing only about “being loved”. It comes to seem, quite wrongly, the norm. To the child, it feels as if the parent were just spontaneously on hand to comfort, guide, entertain, feed, and clear up while remaining constantly warm and cheerful.
We take this idea of love with us into adulthood. Grown up, we hope for a re-creation of what it felt like to be ministered to and indulged. In a secret corner of our mind, we picture a lover who will anticipate our needs, read our hearts, act selflessly, and make everything better. It sounds “romantic”, yet it is a blueprint for disaster…
By the standards of most love stories, our own real relationships are almost all damaged and unsatisfactory. No wonder separation and divorce so often appear inevitable. But we should be careful not to judge our relationships by the expectations imposed on us by a frequently misleading aesthetic medium.
The fault lies with art, not life. Rather than split up, we may need to tell ourselves more accurate stories–stories that don’t dwell so much on the beginning, that don’t promise us complete understanding, that strive to normalize our troubles and show us a melancholy yet hopeful path through the course of love.
For all its capacity to set us up for a profound disillusionment, our vision of the romantic ideal hearkens to that understandable longing for a love that endures. The solution isn’t merely resignation toward our hapless enactments of love–the kind that leaves us without aspiration for enlivening love, both given and received. Rather it’s to take our failures of love to the One who came to transform them. In the knowing we are loved without condition or compare we find a new freedom to love if only to know that in our failures, love remains.
Next and very different question: What if you’ve been the victim of someone’s illicit sexual appetites? There may be no trauma like sexual trauma. Dawn Eden Goldstein was once a journalist covering rock celebrities. Only until after she converted to Roman Catholicism did the world learn of her history of being sexually-abused. Her newest book on the subject, Remembering God’s Mercy: Redeem the Past and Free Yourself from Painful Memories, speaks both to the particular issue of sexual abuse but also more broadly to traumas requiring something more than conventional psychological therapies. She writes:
I wrote this book to share the good news that Jesus Christ heals our memories. … Therapy can help us cope, but if we are truly to break free from the grip of past pain, we need spiritual help. Only the love of God can untangle the web of regrets and resentments that prevent us from moving forward. Only the Divine Physician can heal our hearts.
You can read a brief summary of her work here.
Her story has resonance both global and local.
Eden speaks of the glaring, profound ways sexual abuse can wreak havoc. But what are the subtler forms of denigration that, while not destined to lead to abuse, must still be seen as a danger, if only to our own souls? Jefferson Bethke offers some candid insight into the objectification of women–a habit of mind and heart to which we may need to be awoken. (It’s one of several talks posted by Q Ideas this week on the topic of upholding beauty and dignity in matters of sexuality.)
Marriages may bring forth children. So why do the responsibilities of child-raising so often feel like a conspiracy to undermine the solidity of the marriage? Gavin Ortlund offers his listicle of practices couples can take to nurture marriages for the long (but not interminable) haul of preparing our younglings for life.
The majority of us are mostly at a loss to say anything intelligent about the topic, even though it has of late become a hotbed of conversation and controversy in entertainment, law, and commerce. What of the meteoric rise in attention to the topic of, as it’s called, gender dysphoria–the sense that one’s biology doesn’t seem to fit with one’s inward sense of gender? Or, in a related but not identical issue, what of the situation when someone has a true congenital condition in which their genital organs were either incompletely formed, or not entirely assigned to one or the other gender? One must get a primer in a whole new vocabulary just to speak credibly on what has now emerged as a focus of private and public discourse.
Andrew Wilson is pastor of Eastbourne Church in London who spoke clearly and compassionately to this issue last month. He appealed to Jesus’s words in Matthew 19 about eunuchs as, while not an explicitly corresponding analogue, a category that has credible resonance. (This talk is also the one from which I gleaned an important phrase for last Sunday’s sermon.) If you’d like an introduction both to the topic and to how you might begin to think about responding, you could do worse than start here.
On a topic so new to our understanding we are bound to speak indelicately, even if it’s inadvertent. No matter the causes of what they now face, or how they may be inclined to respond to what they feel, where this conversation has to begin is with the dignity that comes by listening.
Okay, all of the preceding is inescapably but properly sobering. As we began the sermon, there is nothing like intimacy to offer the equal possibilities of delight and devastation.
Not to diminish the seriousness of it all, but allow us to conclude this week’s Backstory with an ode to intimate love by way of rendition of a familiar passage–perhaps like you haven’t before.
They’d been tasked by their aunt, recently married in Mexico City, to prepare a recitation of a text that would complement her nuptials. Here’s their attempt, unrehearsed, on the first take.