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Risk, Vulnerability, and Intimacy: A World-Changing Holy Week

Take, eat, this is my body.” Have you ever said that to someone? If you have, you probably did so privately, away from public view, and in a moment of romantic tenderness. It may have felt a bit risky and you made yourself quite vulnerable in saying it. That profound invitation is highly charged with intimacy – both in its offering and its potential rejection.intimacy_th4ree

Many Christian ministers actually issue that invitation weekly, sometimes daily, and rather publicly. Does that ritualized invitation sound risky? Does the rite vibrate with an intimate vulnerability? Do you or does anyone else gathered at the Eucharistic table blush when hearing those words? Take, eat, this is my body…

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Christianity’s annual pilgrimage through Holy Week. The events commemorated during this holiest of Christian weeks unfolded in a land occupied by an imperial army, exhibited all the narrative arcs of a classical tragedy, and culminated with a promise that still makes even the most devout among us at least a tad incredulous: love is stronger than death.

One of the focal points in this week spotlights a shared meal among close friends. This moment, I have come to believe, sheds indispensable light on the whole week and, therefore, on the very character of God revealed in Jesus – and in all those who seek to follow the same path into the mystery of God’s own life.

intimacy_handsMake no mistake: The path charted by this holy week beckons with a truly peculiar energy, more peculiar than its familiar liturgical cadences usually evoke. Peculiar not least for the kind of God this week proclaims: the God who risks vulnerability for the sake of intimacy.

Institutional Christianity has too often urged doing the right thing and living the right way so that we might persuade God to let us into Heaven. That urge reverses entirely the essence of the Gospel. The Eucharistic Table performs instead a remarkable claim: God makes God’s own self vulnerable to the ecstasies and foibles of bodily human intimacy.

“Take, eat,” Jesus says; “this is my body given for you” (Matthew 26:26). He says this with no guarantee whatsoever that this offering will be received well if at all. Notably, God initiates this moment of self-giving born from God’s own desire for intimacy.

Sexually intimate couples know, or at least intuit, what this holy week means. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, put it well when he noted that desire always carries risk because desire makes us vulnerable. Sex is an offering of the self, even in casual encounters, and very little can protect us from the potential of looking silly or feeling unwanted. “Nothing will stop sex from being tragic and comic,” Williams writes. “It is above all the area of our lives where we can be rejected in our bodily entirety, where we can venture into ‘exposed spontaneity’ . . . and find ourselves looking foolish or repellent.”

And that is divine risk, the very risk God takes with us and whole of God’s creation.

The gospel according to John foregrounds that astonishing risk by recounting hardly anything at all about a final meal but instead by describing the provocative moment when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples (13:3–11). That bodily moment of intimate tenderness is followed by another. The disciple “whom Jesus loved” reclined on Jesus’ breast during the meal, presumably sharing the kind of whispered small-talk that intimates often do.intimacy_baby_foot

These two gospel moments portray what many couples, households, and friends experience in cherished moments of communal intimacy around a shared table. Yet a third moment in this story disrupts these expressions of intimacy with a yearning for redemption. In the wake of tender foot washing and in the midst of intimate bodily contact, John inserts a moment of disrupted affection. Jesus declares just then that one of his companions will betray him.

Tenderness disrupted by betrayal – this distills in microcosm the human predicament. The fullness of that for which we yearn seems so impossibly and constantly out of reach. Intimacy is thwarted at nearly every turn, whether because of race, or ethnicity, or gender, or class, or neighborhood, or national borders. Surely somewhere, somehow we will find the intimacy of communion all of us seek beyond the imperial mechanisms of violence that seem always to disrupt the glorious intimacies of bodily life.

Whether in a shared meal or in tender foot washing, Eucharist displays an unimaginable hope in the most loving act imaginable—an unprotected offering of the self, both body and blood. The vulnerability of this offering bathes the Eucharistic Table with tender intimacy. It does something else as well: it indicts institutional Christianity for its own history of religious violence. From crusades and inquisitions to paternalistic and misogynistic repressions, the Church has betrayed the Table that ought to inspire an audacious hope.

eucharist_hands_bread_wineSexually intimate couples can remind all of us about where the holiness of this week’s hope resides: in the intimate offering of the self to another for the sake of life.

I’ve been quoting here from my two recent books, Divine Communion and Peculiar Faith. Those books emerged in large measure from the deep impact that more than thirty years of holy weeks has had on my spiritual/bodily self in the world. After all these years, I think I might finally be starting to grasp the deceptively simple and absurdly profound message of Christian faith: God yearns to be in intimate communion with God’s own creation. I am convinced that this insight can change the world.

The biblical writer known as Luke thought so too. In his account of the earliest Christian communities, he described the effects of these hopeful insights by quoting the violent detractors of their mission: “These people…have been turning the world upside down…” (Acts 17:6).

May this Holy Week overturn your own world, and with it, the many other worlds we all inhabit. And may it do so as it has always done, with divine moments of risk and vulnerability for the sake of heart-rending intimacy.

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Sacred Desire and Table Fellowship

When Christians put the words “God” and “sex” together in the same sentence we usually want to say something about ethics. Or more specifically, something about policies and rules. What we need to do first and often is to say something theological and spiritual.

So what can sexual intimacy tell us about God?  Why and how has this question been downplayed in Christian formation and neglected in Bible study? What dimension of Christian faith have we tossed under the bed and how can we restore the link between food, sexual intimacy, and the longing for God as the hoped-for promise of Divine Communion?

divine_communion_cover_full_resThose are some of the questions I tried to address with my new book, Divine Communion: A Eucharistic Theology of Sexual Intimacy.

It just so happens that this book has been published as I mark twenty-five years of ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. I’m celebrating both on Saturday evening, November 2, with a Celebration of Sacred Desire and Table Fellowship – food, music, and a book signing! If you’re in the Bay Area, please celebrate with me! (Use the contact form below for more details.)

To entice, lure, and seduce you into reading the book, here’s a bit of Q&A helpfully compiled by my publisher with some excerpts from the book itself:

What prompted you to write this book?
“Christian communities have been wrestling with sexual ethics for decades but without saying nearly enough about sexual theologies. The hesitancy of modern Western churches to address embodied sexual relations in spiritual practice explicitly highlights a critical gap between today’s Christian communities and historical traditions that I aim to bridge with this book. As I attempt that bridge-building, I imagine both biblical writers and Christian theologians over the centuries teetering on the brink of making the truly audacious claim they longed to make but could not quite bring themselves to do: erotic energy sits at the heart of Christian faith and practice.”

So, sex plays a role in faith?
“Love lies at the heart of the Gospel. I do not mean the sanitized or sentimental versions of love that proliferate in greeting cards. I mean, rather, the many forms love can take, all of which exhibit an erotic character, the hope for encounter and intimacy. Christians can claim even further that this deep desire for love originates with God, whose longing for intimacy not only shines forth from biblical texts and theological traditions but also in every elegant, fumbling, joyous, and disappointing or even traumatic encounter we have with sex and sexual intimacy. Divine eroticism shines forth from all these moments precisely because God created their physical and material conditions. God has done something else as well. By making human bodies, with their complex physiology and all their various parts and organs, God has planted in each of us a carnal pathway for encountering divine love.”

What’s your goal with this book?
Overall, I hope this book will encourage Christians to find fresh and invigorating ways to talk with each other about their own experiences with erotic desire and their longing for union with God. That conjunction describes the One Story of Christian faith and its kernel of good news for all those who ponder sexual ethics and who seek to live in a world of reconciliation and wholeness, with each other and with this planet of God’s creation. Christian communities enact and proclaim this startling story every time we gather around a ritual table to share a simple meal of bread and wine—a remarkably erotic and hopeful performance of Divine Communion.”song_solomon_qi

Contact me for more information about the celebration on November 2:

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Food, Sex, and God

Those three words hold the key to everything. I don’t mean that food does, important as it is, or that sex does, as delicious as it can be, or even God, especially when that once-powerful word reduces to religious rules.

I mean this: putting those three words together illumines the source of human distress and, at the same time, the hope that can lead us homeward.

eucharist_contemporaryFood, sex, and God intertwine at the very heart of Christian faith and spiritual practice. They always have, yet no one told me this when I was a child growing up in the Evangelical Bible belt. I still don’t hear it today, not from conservatives or from liberals.

What I do hear from pulpits and pod-casts sounds one of three themes, sometimes in combination: we have failed and need forgiveness; we need to work harder for social justice; mainline Christianity is over – next!

I mostly agree with each of those declarations, and they don’t say nearly enough. Missing from each is the proverbial elephant in Christianity’s living room. Nearly every Christian sees it sitting there and hardly anyone talks about it – hunger.

Human beings are hungry. We hunger for food in our bellies (essential for survival). We hunger for physical touch (essential for thriving). We hunger for intimacy (the very thing for which God makes us). These are not separate and distinct hungers; they describe the one and fundamental human desire for communion.

Over the last twenty-five years of ordained ministry I have, slowly but surely, come to see what I do and why when I stand at the Eucharistic Table. I stand there and I give voice to a deep and ancient longing, echoing among all the others standing there with me – the hope of communion. Or more precisely, the hope of being at home in our own bodies without shame, at home among others without guilt, and at home with God without any fear all at the same time.

So yes, we all need forgiveness; even more, healing the bodily shame that leads to isolation and violence. Yes, we need to work harder for a more just society; deeper still, for a world freed from the fear of difference. And mainline Christianity? I’m not worried about it. God’s own desire for communion will continue to lure us together, making friends from enemies and families from strangers.

I believe all this more than I might have after spending so much time in ecclesial debates over “homosexuality.” I used to complain – much like Pope Francis just recently did – that those debates merely distract the Church from attending to more important matters. I now see all those years of struggle as a divine gift.

The resilience of lesbian and gay people and the visibility of our relationships in Christian churches have prompted a profound question that we might not otherwise have asked. What do Christians really want to say about sex? I don’t mean only ethically. I mean, what do we want to say theologically and spiritually about sexual intimacy?divine_communion_cover_full_res

The best way to answer that question is to take it with us into a shared meal of bread and wine, to the Table of Divine Desire. Doing that unleashes a panoply of insights, which I try to chronicle in a new book due out next month – Divine Communion: A Eucharistic Theology of Sexual Intimacy.

Of course I hope you’ll buy the book (also available on all e-reader platforms). Even more, I hope it will spark prayerful conversation in Christian communities about hope itself – the world-changing hope catalyzed by food, sex, and God.

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Divine Erotics: God-Talk, Part 3

“Wham, bam, thank you ma’am” is an appalling approach to sexual intimacy (it even borders on the violent). It’s just as bad in religion and theology.

The “quickie” means so much more than it used to. Now everything is quick – news, ideas, meet-ups, meals, research, home-repair, shopping. The Internet seems to thrive on “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” energy – not always, but it’s time to name it where we see it.

I read recently about young adults having social media sex hook-ups. Some of them (rather wistfully, I might add) wondered what it might be like to have an extended conversation with their sex partners but decided to save that for their thirties. Many of these same denizens of Web culture have no desire at all for religion; they already “know” what that’s all about. Neighborhoods, stores, community centers – I wonder whether 18-year olds realize fully that these originally meant physical spaces.

I don’t believe the Internet somehow “caused” all this. I remember a moment back in the late 1980s, when I was a parish priest in the Chicago area. A parishioner, who came to the early service on Sundays, complained to me about how long the sermon was (12 minutes) and how tedious the prayers were (10 minutes). He actually said, “I just want the cookie” (referring to the Eucharistic sacrament).

I confess to indulging in a moment of questionable pastoral sensitivity when I replied, “Gee, Bob, why don’t you donate some money and we’ll build a drive-through. I can just toss the cookie in your mouth as you drive by on your way to the golf course.”

Not a high-water mark in my priestly vocation.

All of this raises some profound questions for me in this third of a three-part series on Christian theology – what it’s about and how to do it.

I mean questions like: Don’t we want to inhabit a space somewhere? Do we want to cultivate a relationship or just “have” one? Do we now think of religion, spirituality, relationships, communities, sex, fun, and pleasure all in the same way? Have they all been flattened to whatever works right now?

We see a brief image, a quick video clip, opening sentences of an essay, a book cover, a billboard or light-post sign – what do we glean from these? Usually impressions, maybe germs of an idea, some hints at substance, hors d’oeuvres promising a meal, if we’re lucky. So where do we go and what do we do with snippets?

To be clear, I’m excited and inspired by social media and all the new technological ways of connecting with others (I blogged about that here). The potential is there and we’ve only just begun figuring it out. And yet I worry.

In a visually-saturated, multi-media culture, I worry that the time-worn approach to spiritual wisdom is now devoid of time, let alone space. The Internet has exacerbated a decades-long trend of collapsing the time-space continuum – no one has any time and there are no more spaces.

Theology is not about information and data. Theology is not a hook-up. Theology takes time and it takes space. Theology relies on sustained attention to texts and practices, formation in ways of thinking and living, arduous engagements with contrary opinions and glorious synchronicities. Christian theology is about bodies and being in relationship with bodies, and that takes, well, time and space.

Okay, theology is off-putting. Let’s call it something else, like “God-relation,” and whatever that means requires sustained attention in a community of accountability that breathes together and reads and serves and nurtures wisdom together. Just like any significant human relationship that isn’t a quickie in an alley. (Quickie aside: I’m not judging particular sexual practices. I’m calling for more thought, especially as it relates to God.)

So I’m tugging at the oars of the boat I hope we Christians inhabit. What I think we’re aiming for is something like a theologically informed spiritual practice for the sake of social change. This won’t happen in November, or even in 2016. Forget election cycles. We have serious work to do on a deep, romantic relationship with the One who created us.

I’ve been suggesting in this blog series some ways to think about that. The recap of the series looks like this:

  1. Humbly guard against idolatry (God-Talk, Part 1)
  2. Follow the creeds as a compass without a map (God-talk, Part 2)
  3. Treat theology as words about a love affair (God-talk, Part 3 of 3)

Adopting these three postures certainly will not heal all the divisions among “liberals” and “conservatives” (and likely won’t heal any of them). But they could well give us something to talk about a bit more productively.

If we’re going to use labels and categories at all any more, I might follow the lead provided by Tripp Hudgins, a colleague at the Graduate Theological Union who has a great blog. He has suggested calling a liberal/conservative mash-up approach “postmodern preservatives.” I love that, though Tripp may well disagree with my approach. But here’s why I like his moniker.

It’s high time to jettison the “start-from-scratch-by-following-the-lead-of-culture” caricature of self-styled liberals. It’s equally high time to reject the stereotype of self-styled conservatives who only say “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”

“Postmodern preservatives” instead treat the Bible seriously but not just by quoting it and abstracting it from contemporary concerns. They likewise take seriously both cultural and scientific advances but not without drawing from the wisdom of historical traditions.

I actually don’t think this represents something entirely new. I believe “postmodern preservatives” would offer a profoundly constructive corrective to what I consider to be the colossal blunders of modern Western Christianity. And they would do so by insisting that both history and contemporary culture offer vital insights to nurturing humanity’s love affair with God – and God’s passionate desire for us.

I’ll offer more on this in future posts. But for now, can all of us Christians at least agree that we’re trying, as best we can, to respond to the romantic, erotic, loving invitation of the One who created us? We can’t do that with a quickie. It’s going to take time. Let’s make this marriage last.