Finding a Voice
Sunday, September 04, 2005
time, patience, & grace
Another excerpt from Lauren Winner's new book, Real Sex. "Timely" for this time of year, as students return to college, especially Christian colleges, with the intention and expectation of being formed further in the likeness of Christ. This word can help us all be a little more patient and full of grace -- with ourselves and with each other:
One ingredient in my own moving toward chastity was time, months and years of growing as a Christian. For, though I was baptized and confessing the name of Jesus at twenty-one, the process of living into Christianity, of being formed in Christian ways, is a long process, a life-long process. I say this not to excuse the sins of those new to the faith (and certainly not my own sins), but rather to remember what, in church-speak, we sometimes call discipleship and sometimes call formation. Something very dramatic and transformative happens when a person becomes a Christian, when a person is born again or baptized and gives her life to Jesus and the church. But conversation makes one a new Christian, not a mature one, and though it effects a change in one's heart and one's very being, it does not usually effect an instantaneous change in all one's habits and assumptions. In the early church, catechumens often took three years to prepare for baptism, precisely because new patterns of living take time to establish. In my own case, I became a Christian when I learned one very basic, true thing--that Jesus was God Himself, and that He had died to save me from my sins. There were, after that first lesson, still many things to learn--or, more to the point, to relearn. I had to relearn how to pray, how to interact with my family, how to spend money, how to use my time, how to comport my body, how to understand my work. Learning those new Christian habits took time. Indeed, it is still going on.
In my attempts to live chastely, prayer has been key. It may sound hokey, but I have prayed regularly that God would reshape my heart and my desires so that I would want the things He wants for me. And every day, I have prayed about sexuality when saying the line from the Lord's prayer, Lead us not into temptation. Of course, "temptation" doesn't refer just to sex, but for most unmarried Christians, sex is right up there on the list of temptations worth avoiding.
And (you may as well know upfront that I am an unreconstructed bookworm) reading had helped--reading the Bible, of course, but also ranging around Christian classics, the fathers and mothers of church history, whose accumulated wisdom about chastity offers a robust alternative to the confused messages our contemporary society sends us about sex.
Finally, a most important key ingredient: the church. The church--by which I mean the body of believers, rather than the buildings and pews they inhabit on Sundays--is part and parcel of that formation and discipleship of which I spoke earlier. We, one another's siblings in Christ, are meant to instruct and nurture, and we are also meant to reprimand and hold accountable. To be honest, in my own walk with chastity I have learned the importance of the church as much by the church's absence as its presence. sometimes I have been bowled over by the harm the church has done--in my life and others'--by speaking thoughtlessly, or not speaking at all, about sex. But other times I have been stunned by the generosity and compassion and firmness fellow Christians have shown me as I have wrestled with chastity and sexual sin. Like my confessor, they have quite simply spoken truth in love. (22-24)
Real Sex (or Sam was right)
Sam Berg was right. And David Guretzki, too. Both are my colleagues at Briercrest, and both have thought, written, and taught authoritatively about marriage, including sex. But I name Sam first because last year, when he presented a paper on a Christian perspective on marital sexual dysfunction, I asked what we can do to help singles with waiting. He answered that we need a richer, thicker theology of marriage. But how, I still wondered, along with several others in the room, does that help the singles? Lauren Winner has some ideas:
"True love waits" is not that compelling when you're twenty-nine and have been waiting, and wonder what, really, you're waiting for. (15)
Initially, I set out not to mention marriage at all in this book. For many of my own single years, I cringed when Christians talked about marriage. I was sick of hearing about nuptial bliss, sick of feeling as if I wasn't participating in authentic Christian life because I wasn't married, sick of feeling inferior to everyone who happened to be a wife. The book I write, I thought, won't have any of that. It will be the real deal about singleness, and it won't make anyone feel icky by prattling on about marriage.
But as I wrote, even before I met Griff [her husband], I realized there was a good reason that Christian conversations about sex often circle back to marriage. What sits at the center of Christian sexual ethics is not a negative view of sex; the Christian vision of marriage is not, at its most concise, merely "no sex before marriage." Rather, the heart of the Christian story about sex is a vigorously positive statement: sex was created for marriage. Without a robust account of the Christian vision of sex within marriage, the Christian insistence that unmarried folks refrain from sex just doesn't make any sense. And so I had to change my tack and write more about marriage than I had originally planned. I write about marriage because the core of this book is an effort to offer a definition, in a Christian vocabulary and grammar, of good sex, even (as the title suggests) of real sex. ...
I don't pretend to have a magic formula for ensuring premarital chastity. What I share in this book are some tools I wish I'd had sooner. My reflections come not only from my own experience, but from two years of conversations with pastors and counselors and lots and lots of single Christians. ... And so, though this book focuses on the topic of premarital chastity, it is not written only for the unmarried, for living chastely is a communal endeavor, one that requires the participation of the entire Christian community. And this book is also written for the whole Christian community because, if premarital chastity is my central topic, I also write about married sex. What does our belief that sex belongs in marriage teach us about what good married sex looks like? ...
... You will find that I have tried to articulate both the biblical vision of sex and the honest difficulties of living in this vision; I have tried to sketch both the tragedy of living outside the biblical vision and the hope for living within its bounds. And I have tried to evoke the beauty of desire, the beauty of how things were made. (25-26)
The bottom line is this: God created sex for marriage, and within a Christian moral vocabulary, it is impossible to defend sex outside of marriage. To more liberal readers, schooled on a generation of Christian ethics written in the wake of the sexual revolution, this may sound like old-fashioned hooey, but it is the simple, if sometimes difficult, truth. (29)
At the heart of [Wendell] Berry's vision is an idea called the household. Household seems, at first blush, to be just a synonym for home, but it is actually quite different from what most of us mean when we speak of home.
Today some of us think of homes as warm places where people come together for affection and love. Others think of homes as sites of dysfunction, places that should have been filled with warmth, but were instead marked by neglect and abuse. And some of us reside not in homes but in houses--physical dwelling places where people who happen to be related to one another (or who happen to be roommates) live out their relatively separate lives. Each family member has his own TV, his own cell phone, his own car. We each have our own busy schedules that often preclude our eating breakfast or dinner together. We go to our houses to refuel and to rest our bodies, and then we return to the places that really matter--our schools, our businesses, the places where we earn the money to pay for all those cell phones and cars.
A household, by contrast, is a place of shared mission, of shared work. Think back to the eighteenth century when people did most of their productive labor together in family units, in their households. Mothers and daughters spun flax together. Children helped parents plant and harvest crops. I don't mean to romanticize the difficulties and privations of life in earlier centuries--work was hard, medical care was sketchy, life was short.
And yet there was something powerfully good about those earlier households, something missing from many of our homes and houses today. There was a togetherness born not merely of affection but of mutual work. It didn't really matter if you liked your husband on a given Tuesday. You were stuck working with him all day anyhow. Your togetherness, your relationship, didn't rely on the caprice of your feelings. You were bound together, primarily, by a common undertaking--making your productive household run. Your household was not a place where individuals happened to congregate; it was a place of genuine mutuality.
To understand the good work that work does for families and neighbors, think about backyard cookouts. Sure, ordering pizza from Domino's would be simpler, less labor-intensive than stoking up the grill, chopping all that cabbage for coleslaw, tending to the hamburgers and hot dogs, making sure they don't get overcooked--but when I work together with my neighbors, even simple work like cabbage-chopping, I am participating in a shared enterprise with them, and that sharing strengthens the ties of our relationship. So you don't have to be an eighteenth-century farmer to begin to conceive of your home as a household. Rather, beginning to approach your meals, chores, and furnishings as part of a rich domestic economy, opportunities to connect you, your family, and your neighbors in truly shared undertakings. (55-56)
How does this get worked out in your life?