Archive for June, 2021

“Talitha cum”

Posted: June 23, 2021 in Uncategorized

“Talitha cum”

I want to tread lightly yet deeply with our Markan text this morning, Lightly, in the sense that I don’t want to examine the meaning of the particular story and the reasoning around the story’s inclusion in Mark but rather the placement of it in the gospel at all. What is the story addressing in its audience, if we can know anything at all about that and I want to do this by showing you a video of what I think might be the audience on its journey in our time today. I think what I am doing is exploring the hermeneutics of text in doing this but wiser minds than mine might suggests otherwise. What I hope you will see and hear is the search that many of us today are embarked on as church attendance declines and new opportunities arise in how we might approach an understanding of what religion might be or as Hopkins says, what Spirituality might be.

The first thing we note is that Mark is the second book of the four gospels; the second book of the New Testament; the forty-first book of the Bible. Why is it the second book is an interesting question because we believe it is the first gospel written because it is the shortest and the one that has very little of the great story we now consider as the orthodox story of who Jesus was. This suggests that it might have been a story of Jesus as opposed to a story about Jesus, and this might suggests that we might begin by asking not who this Jesus was and concentrate on why we think he was there in the first place. And let’s be honest also that we know very little of the thinking of the audience to Jesus let alone the audience of Mark. While the specific audience of Mark is not mentioned in the book itself we can expect both external and internal evidence to help provide information in this area. Externally, the earliest traditions associate Mark as being written based on the teachings of Peter while in Rome. This would indicate the audience included people in Rome interested in knowing more about the teachings of Jesus.

The second point is that there is little emphasis on Jewish traditions and less citations of Old Testament passages, so it is likely written for a Gentile (non-Jewish) audience in Rome. Further, many Aramaic expressions are translated, and some Latin terms are included. The book also provides several teachings in the forms of sayings or short stories with abrupt transitions from one section to the next.

The audience of Mark would quickly grow beyond Rome, however, as church history indicates Mark took his Gospel to North Africa. His work also likely influenced the other Gospels, especially Matthew and Luke, that both appear to use Mark’s writing as part of their own sources for their Gospels. In terms of time it is thought by many that it was most likely written in the early AD 60s when both Peter and Mark were ministering in the city of Rome. It was written no later than Mark’s death in AD 68. Some suggest an even earlier date in the AD 40s or 50s. In any case, Mark is most likely the earliest of the four Gospels.

Our particular reading today is about Jesus’ encounter with a synagogue leader and his ailing daughter, after pausing to describe Jesus healing a woman who had suffered for years with a debilitating hemorrhage. We remember the context in Mark as being after he controlled a fierce storm (Mark 4:35–41), expelled a legion of demons (Mark 5:1–13), and healed a chronically ill woman without even trying (Mark 5:25–34). Now He will raise the dead. This is the first of three times Jesus is recorded as raising the dead (John 11:1–44; Luke 7:11–17). Remember here that this is not about who Jesus is or was but rather about his faith, his understanding of the world and how one can engage in it with courage determination and most of all with hope. Despite this supernatural display, Jesus will soon go to his hometown of Nazareth where he will be rejected by the people who have known him longest. This account can also be found in Matthew 9:23–26 and Luke 8:49–56 and it is a call to the reality check, the call to see clearly the nature of a faith connection, the nature of faith as perhaps a ridiculous irrational motivation, That despite all the struggles of human life a positive, confidence in the love of God can make a new heaven and a new earth.

When Jesus arrives at Jairus’ house, He insists the girl is not dead but only “sleeping.” And here is the important thing. This is meant for metaphorical intent: she had physically died, but Jesus fully intends for the girl’s death to be temporary, like sleep. His actions now support His decision. He doesn’t lay His hands on her or anoint her with oil and pray. He takes her hand and helps her up, as if she is already on the cusp of waking.

The Greek root word for “taking” is krateo and means to hold securely with power. “Hand” is from the Greek root word cheir which infers a power that is used to help. As casual as Jesus’ words and gestures seem to be, the actual healing does take the power of the Holy Spirit. Changing the nature of this small piece of the universe is hard work.

And when it comes to the liturgy or the life changing words the phrase talitha cum is Aramaic and basically means “little girl, get up,” or “child, arise,” as Luke interprets it (Luke 8:54). It is thought that Mark included the literal Aramaic to prove that Jesus uses mere words, not a magical spell. It is not about miracle or supernatural belief but about human faith, human conviction, human loving. Our faith is not defined by great words in prayers, liturgical readings of scriptures with literal interpretation, or by some magic words, but rather by faith, or as I prefer to say by the act of trusting. That is where what we know as God’s grace is made real, and Jesus’ knew this.

Now I want to show you an interview with Anthony Hopkins that I think depicts the questions Mark was trying to ask in his context. Questions, that showed just what the guy Jesus was on about in his time.

Fear of What?

Posted: June 17, 2021 in Uncategorized

Fear of What? 

The theme for today’s service has been the anatomy of fear as we journey with the disciples in the boat on the lake when as is apparently not uncommon a storm arises and Jesus’ confidence is seen as indifference to their fear of possible drowning.

What this reminds us of is that fear is a very powerful thing in our lives. It prompts us to seek protection in times of very real danger. Sometimes it is a positive force as it motivates us into needed changes and surprising adventures. It also serves as a constant reminder that we are fragile, limited, and human. But on the other side of these impulses, we know fear also prompts us to lock the doors of our lives from the mystery and wonder of the unknown and run into places of isolated hiding. Very few emotions are stronger than fear.

Fear is a natural, powerful, and primitive human emotion. It involves a universal biochemical response as well as a high individual emotional response. Fear alerts us to the presence of danger or the threat of harm, whether that danger is physical or psychological. Sometimes fear stems from real threats, but it can also originate from imagined dangers. Fear can also be a symptom of some mental health conditions including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Fear is composed of two primary reactions to some type of perceived threat: those reactions are biochemical and emotional.

Taking a look at the biochemical reaction we see that fear is a natural emotion and a survival mechanism. When we confront a perceived threat, our bodies respond in specific ways. Physical reactions to fear include sweating, increased heart rate, and high adrenaline levels that make us extremely alert. This physical response is also known as the “fight or flight” response, with which our body prepares itself to either enter combat or run away. This biochemical reaction is likely an evolutionary development. It’s an automatic response that is crucial to our survival.

Taking a look at the emotional response we see that its response to fear, on the other hand, is highly personalized. Because fear involves some of the same chemical reactions in our brains that positive emotions like happiness and excitement do, feeling fear under certain circumstances can be seen as fun, like when you watch scary movies. Some people are adrenaline seekers, thriving on extreme sports and other fear-inducing thrill situations. Others have a negative reaction to the feeling of fear, avoiding fear-inducing situations at all costs.

Although the physical reaction is the same, the experience of fear may be perceived as either positive or negative, depending on the person, the environment and the situation.

This morning’s gospel story by the one we call Mark, is about fear. But fear of what? When Mark retold the story of ‘the stilling of the storm’ it is very likely his small community was either facing or recovering from, persecution in every direction. And in the face of this persecution or threats it seems their fear was directed at the silence of God. Or God’s felt absence (Webb 2007).

So, it is possible, their fears, their concerns, were expressed in these felt needs or similar words:
Is God indifferent to our suffering and persecution? For our tradition goes on to tell us, Mark told them this story. But I wonder if this story was heard?  Really heard, that is? It can’t be traced back to an event in the life of Jesus… All reputable scholars agree with that.

There are also strong hints this story has been influenced by the Hebrew story of Jonah. Or perhaps told as a counter story to the fame of Apollonius of Tyana, a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth “who was regarded as the master of storms, of fire, and of perils of all kinds” (Funk 1998: 77).

And according to one myth which was widespread at the time, the original act of creation involved God in a desperate, but finally victorious, contest with the forces of chaos and evil, which were identified with the waters of the sea. As a consequence, Mark and other storytellers of the day saw that the ability to control the sea and subdue storms as characteristic of having ‘divine power’ (Nineham 1963: 146).

But staying within this story, we can wonder if the telling of it worked as an answer to the community’s fears. It is very likely however that is didn’t work. Tis brings us back to our question: Fear of what.

There is an old Buddhist saying. That says something like: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. By itself its hard to see its value but the biblical scholar Walter Wink who had also commented on this Buddhist saying wrote: “We fall in love with our mentors or set them on pedestals, refusing to see their flaws and regarding them as bigger than life.  We project what we long for, into them” (Wink/LookSmart web site). And later on he added: “A storm threatens to engulf them.  Jesus is asleep in the stern.  They might have reproached him with, Don’t just lie there – bail!  Instead they attack him personally: ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’  They personalize the storm, almost as if he has sent it against them spitefully.  They address him not as another available hand in a crisis but as their teacher.  They project on(to) him concern for their well-being and survival, and are thus emptied of the inner resources to deal with the storm themselves – these weathered seamen!” (Wink/LookSmart web site).

Here we have an inkling of our answer to our original question: Fear of what? These experienced, fisher folk weren’t just surprised by, or afraid of, the storm. Been there.  Done that. The Sea of Galilee was notorious for storms. Every day they ventured out, was to engage in some risky business.

Neither were they suddenly regretting the fact they hadn’t clicked onto the Weather Company web site for the latest advice, before they set out. Yet, here they are, all “at sea on water”! (Carroll 2007: 46). Why? What were they afraid of? They, are afraid of themselves. They had lost their courage. They had developed a dependency on Jesus. And panic ensues as a result of their dependence.

Again Walter Wink is helpful, I reckon, with this comment: “They awoke (Jesus) with reproaches, not the cry of believers for help.  They also lacked faith in themselves.  The response is’ “You deal with the storm.  You are the seamen here.  You had the resources, and you failed to call upon them.  Exercise your own faith!” (Wink/LookSmart web site).

Now that is interesting…  Confront your fears. Forget your dependency. You have the resources.
Exercise your own faith! Stop relying on your beliefs, your set doctrines or creeds, stop being dependent on someone else’s interpretation. You have the resources, you have your faith and that is not belief but rather trust, find the positive fear not the negative one.

While these fisher folk were probably afraid of death in this moment, Jesus’ challenging of them in this story by Mark shows they (and by implication, Mark’s community) were also terrified of life!
“…they had given up their courage by entering into dependency on Jesus.  And so they experienced the storm not as challenge to overcome, but as an evil threat… A trap in someone else’s fears, where had their courage fled…?” (Wink/LookSmart web site).

They had not yet seen or heard the Gospel of Thomas (which didn’t make it into the Canon) says:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.  If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you” (GTh 70. Quoted in Webb 2007: 133). Maybe this is an answer to our question: Fear of what?

A number of years back now Dr Francis Macnab, a man like our own Lloyd Geering unleased a storm of protest when he suggested the church should issue ten New Commandments. Ten New Commandments or guidelines which assert a new way that is meaningful for the way we will need to live, now. I want to read them to you in the hope that you might not have heard them and you might like to think of them as an opposition to the fears that are generated by many of our traditions beliefs that have remained unchallenged for too long now.

Commandment 1: Believe in a Good Presence in your life.  Call that Good Presence: God, G-D, and follow that Good presence so that you live life fully: tolerantly, collaboratively, generously and with dignity.

Commandment 2: Believe in a God-Presence in your life that will lift you constantly to live harmoniously in yourself and with others, always searching for your best health and happiness.

Commandment 3: Take care of your home, your environments, your Planet and its vital resources for the life and health of people in all the world.

Commandment 4: Be kind and caring of the animals, the birds, and the creatures of land and the rivers and the seas.

Commandment 5: Help people develop their potential and become as fully functioning human beings as is possible from birth, through traumas and triumph to the end of their days.

Commandment 6: Be magnanimous and excessive in your support of good causes, and use your affluence and material goods and scientific skills in altruistic concern for the future of the world.

Commandment 7: Study ways to encourage and sustain the dignity, hope and integrity of all human beings and study ways to help all human beings embrace their dignity, hope, and integrity. 

Commandment 8: Be alive to new possibilities, new ways, and to the unfolding mysteries and wonders of life and the world.

Commandment 9: We often focus our lives on many things and pursuits that promise our fulfilment.  Study the deeper things of the Spirit, and the things of ultimate concern for all human beings.  Be part of an evolving life-enhancing Faith that will also bring a new resilience to the future.

Commandment 10:  Take time to worship the great Source of all the positive transforming energies of life, and search to be at one with ‘the spirit of the good, the tender and the beautiful.’

These Ten Commandments, suggests Francis Macnab, are: “positive, plausible and powerful.  If you embrace them, really put them into practice, they will change your life.  And they will change the world” (FMacnab. St Michael’s UC web site, 2009).

Especially, these could be a way of avoiding the fears that lock us in dependence on other people’s faith rather than our own and especially those of our tradition that were chosen in order to appease political or social control of the people. They might just help us on the journeys which take us through fearful ‘storms’.

Notes:
Carroll, J. 2007.  The Existential Jesus. Carlton North. Scribe Publications.
Funk, R. W. (ed) 1998.  The Acts of Jesus.  The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Nineham, D. E. 1963.  Saint Mark. The Pelican New Testament commentaries. Hammondsworth. Pelican Book.
Webb, V. 2007.  Like Catching Water in a Net. Human attempts to describe the divine. New York. Continuum International Publishing.

Harris Ian 2021 Hand in Hand Wellington NZ Cuba Press

rexae74@gmail.com

Mark 4:26-34

A Non-Empire Run by a Non-King!

The Lectionary designers are allowing our storyteller Mark to tell a story or two. The story or parable of scattered seed and the story or parable of the mustard seed. Or as Rex Hunt of who I am grateful for todays, inspiration, reminds us, the story of “Gradual growth, sleeper Sower, and Mischievous mustard.  (Reid 1999:61)

Like Rex I want to focus on just one of those parables today: Mischievous mustard. With the suggestion that all the stuff we have previously heard about this parable, suggests that there is a good chance many of us have heard that this is a story about contrast: tiny mustard seed grows into the greatest of all shrubs.

Botanically speaking “mustard does not grow to be the greatest of all shrubs, nor is it the smallest of all seeds; hyperbole is used to drive home the contrast.” (Reid 1999:68) On the other hand, wild mustard, a pesky weed, is almost impossible to eradicate once it has infested a paddock or vegetable garden. When you get it in your paddock, your paddock is ‘unclean’.

So, what might the storyteller be suggesting? Well! Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar suggest:
“Jesus’ audience would probably have expected God’s domain to be compared to something great, not something small.” (Funk 1993:59)

And then this interesting point: “As the tradition was passed on, it fell under the influence… of the mighty cedar of Lebanon as a metaphor for a towering empire… In his use of this metaphor, Jesus is understanding the image for comic effect.” (Funk 1993: 484) Either way, Funk says, the parable “betrays an underlying sense of humour on Jesus’ part.” (Funk 1993:485)

Other scholars take a different tack.  According to Funk they conclude Jesus “deliberately chose the symbol of the weed and its seed to represent the poor, the toll collectors, and the sinners: they are pesky intrusions into the ordered garden of society.” (Funk 1993:60)

But Bruce Sanguin, (2015) takes an ‘evolutionary’ tact. Suggesting that ‘seed’ is one of Jesus’ favourite metaphors,

Sanguin suggests three interrelated dynamics: 

  • the growth of the seed describes how God’s grace works in the universe, from the inside out and within the impulse to become;
  • we ourselves are divine seeds – the same natural grace that animates seeds is working within us to bear fruit;
  • the very image of God is within us in potential form, just as an oak is within an acorn in potential form.

Here I think is support for my suggestion of an “Almost’ God, a potential, ‘a yet to be that is promise and call’ A God that does not exists but rather ‘Insists” as John D Caputo puts it.

“But when humans focus on exteriors (the husk and not the kernel) we fall into idolatry, confusing the true life within with the shell.” When we lock our understandings in a belief system, or a creedal and doctrinal form and we lock it away from the potential and promise. Then we try to capture grace in the same way and we miss the miracle that is a dynamic living God at work in the potential and the yet to be.

So, as Rex says; there we have it.  Some brief reflections and good guesses based on some scholarship, on this parable. A parable about a pesky weed that can take over everything. Which, when you step back and think about it a bit, “is a strange analogy of the empire of God…  It pokes fun at our expectations that an empire must be a mighty anything.” (Scott 2001:37, 39)

But that is what makes this story a parable. And the analogy is nearly as strange as the two camps represented by this story. The first camp: the Roman Empire. The second camp: the undesirables, the nuisances and nobodies.  (Crossan 1991:276-79)

And so, the story plot unfolds…

Chapter 1: ‘We are here for the duration,’ said pompous Rome. ‘Stay in your place and we will let you live. Misbehave and you will end up like all these blokes.’

Chapter 2: ‘We aren’t going away either,’ said the undesirables. ‘There is a new kingdom coming and it is already breaking through.’

Chapter 3: Remembering the original ‘Jesus’ people’ were not a gathered community, they – the undesirables – begin to organize.

And the collection of Easter stories was their way of saying: “This new kingdom is a non-empire run by a non-king.  Its, way is peace through justice, and justice through non-violence. Not that of empire with might, and violence in search of peace. Its royal court consists of poets and crazy minstrels who think the poor should be filled with good things.  The non-king’s army is a band of off-key resisters who keep getting in the way as they sing for peace. “Don’t look for this new upside-down world in heaven.  It is right here, right now, within and without us.  Anyone who is ever left out, despised, rejected, forgotten, spit on, looked over, stood up, washed up, or left behind is in the non-king’s cabinet” (John Shuck. ‘Easter for the Nonreligious. Shuck & Juve blog site, 2009).

Mark the storyteller asks: ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?’ Well, now we’veheard the story, there are a few other questions we need to ask:
Where is God’s reign to be found? With what kind of power is it established? Who brings it?
Who stands to gain by its coming? Whose power is threatened by it? (Reid 1999:69)

Those questions become even more interesting for us when we reflect on what has taken place in our world in recent times. In the promise of a post covid world in New Zealand there has been a focus on refugees and migrants and the economic needs of our industries “If we regard people seeking a new home only as economic necessities then we might choose to close our doors to them.  But if we regard them as human beings in need, deserving of being treated with dignity, compassion and respect, we will be able to tap more easily into that great spirit of generosity that moved our hearts so deeply during the mosque attacks.

Barbara Reid, rather eloquently, brings it all back home, so to speak when she says: “The reign of God does not have to be imported from far-away… nor does it come with an impressive power.  Rather, it is found in every back yard, erupting out of unpretentious ventures of faith by unimportant people – but which have potentially world-transforming power” (Reid 1999:69).

Unpretentious ventures and unimportant people… who spend their Saturdays preparing meals for the hungry, who repair homes for our poorest sisters and brothers, who care for broken, hurting, and diseased bodies, who calm troubled minds, who risk their lives to protect the vulnerable, and who boldly speak truth to power on behalf of healthcare and equal rights.  (Shuck & Juve blog site, 2009)

To be sure, many parables can leave us frustrated. They are not neat parcels with answers inside.  Just like this one, which says: Take your choice.  Reign of God equals mighty cedar or pungent weed!

Meanwhile, Lloyd Geering’s comment of a few years ago is helpfully suggestive: “The Jesus most relevant to us is he who provided no ready-made answers but by his tantalizing stories prompted people to work out their own most appropriate answers to the problems of life.  That is why the parables… will be remembered long after the historic confessions and creeds have been forgotten.” (Geering 2002:145)

So equally important for us, is this additional persistent question: can we have faith with Jesus in the re-imagined world of the parables? The big question that persists for the church still remains. Can the 21st century congregation can live out such a 21st century gospel.

Notes:

Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.
Crossan, J. D. The Historical Jesus. The life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn. CollinsDove, 1991.
Funk, R. W. & R. W. Hoover. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. MacMillan Press, 1993.
Geering, L. G. Christianity Without God. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Reid, B. Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Mark. Year B. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press, 1999.
Scott, B. B. Re-imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2001.
Sanguin, B. The Way of the Wind: The Path and Practice of Evolutionary Christian Mysticism. Toronto. Evans & Sanguin, 2015.

rexae74@gmail.com

Sometimes life, like reality, isn’t what it seems.

The people in Samuel/s time thought they needed a King to progress the society as they knew it. The people in Jesus’ time thought that the rules around family hierarchies and structures were in need of reinforcing, We think that family and society and community is under threat today and the assumptions we make today about what is proper care of society environment and relationships are being challenged. I want to try to address this huge topic in a few minutes which is silly really but I will tell three stories to see if we can grasp the complexity of the topic in a few minutes. An impossible task by the way. The first story is about our perception of the cosmos, the big picture and I tell it to see if I can illustrate how our reality has changed, and the second is about the perception that more rules, more order and centralized control will deliver a more cohesive and peaceful world. And the third is about the personal human struggle with who we are as individual human beings in the journey of life. Our attempt to understand reality and gain what we think is some control over it. I hope you will catch what I mean.

It was Christmas Eve in December 1968. Apollo 8 was orbiting the moon, the American astronauts busy photographing possible landing sites for the missions that would follow. “On the fourth orbit, Commander Frank Borman decided to roll the craft away from the earth, rising.  “Oh my God,” he said.  “Here’s the earth coming up.”  Crew member Bill Anders grabbed a camera and took the photograph that became the iconic image perhaps of all time” (McKibben 2010:2) The space agency NASA gave the image the code name AS8-14-2383 But we now know it as “Earthrise”. As the other Apollo 8 Crew member, Jim Lovell, put it: “the earth… suddenly appeared as ‘a grand oasis’” (McKibben 2010:2). But author and environmental activist Bill McKibben has since pointed out: “…we no longer live on that planet” (McKibben 2010:2). Not that the world has ended. Earth is still a web of interconnected and interdependent forces and domains of existence. It is still the third rock out from the sun, located in a galaxy called the ‘Milky Way’. What has ended is the world as we thought we knew it. That ‘grand oasis’ has changed in profound ways “We imagine we still live back on that old planet”, says McKibben, “that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind.  But they are not.  It’s a different place.  A different planet” (McKibben 2010:2). That ‘different planet’ as McKibben describes it, has been brought about by global warming. The sudden surge in both greenhouse gases and global temperatures. And “a series of ominous feedback affects” (McKibben 2010:20). The world is a different place so why shouldn’t our understanding off God, humanity, and the cosmos be different?

The second story is the biblical story of a people who were convinced that only having a King would solve their societal issues and bring stability and order to their world. Samuel was all things to all people, a judge, and a one-man band. When the old curmudgeon wasn’t out in the field trying to fight off the Philistine guerrillas, he was riding his circuit trying to keep the tribes of Israel honest, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was giving them hell for cheating on Yahweh every time a new fertility god showed up with a come-hither look in his eye. When he reached retirement age, he might have turned things over to his sons, but they were a bunch of crooks who sold justice to the highest bidder, and the Israelites said maybe he’d better get them a king instead. They’d never had one before, but they felt the time had come. Samuel threw a fit.

He said there was only one king worth the time of day, and Yahweh was his name. He also told them kings were a bad lot from the word go and didn’t spare them a single sordid detail. They were always either drafting you into their armies or strong-arming you into taking care of their farms. They took your daughters and put them to work in their kitchens and perfume factories. They filled their barns with your livestock and got you to slave for them till you dropped in your tracks. What was more, if the Israelites chose a king, Yahweh would wash his hands of them and good riddance. Samuel had it on the highest authority. But the Israelites insisted, and since Samuel didn’t have the pep he’d once had, he finally gave in.

The king he dug up for them was a tall drink of water named Saul. He was too handsome for his own good, had a rich father, and when it came to religion tended to go off the deep end. Samuel had him in for a meal and, after explaining the job to him, anointed him with holy oil against his better judgment and made him the first king Israel ever had. He regretted this action till the day he died, and even in his grave the memory of it never gave him a moment’s peace. (1 Samuel 8-11)

The third story is one that I got from HuffPost off the internet. It is not the usual story read in church but it highlights the personal struggle with one’s own identity and engagement with life and I think goes to the reason for Jesus’ action in challenging the assumptions around family and what it might be in relations to culture, history and the field of life.

Samantha Boesch is a journalist with HuffPost and is talking following a Christian ministry meeting in 2009 during ng her freshman year of college.

She starts by saying that there are 12 women in the room, herself included, all seated in a circle of plastic folding chairs. Some of them are holding foam cups full of the free instant coffee offered to them at the door. She is on my second cup already.

“Hi, my name is Angela and I’m a sex addict,” the woman sitting directly across from Samantha says.

“Hi Angela,” the rest of the women respond in unison.

“This week, I … um … I’ve been struggling with watching porn again,” she continues.

Samantha listens as each of the women, in a clockwise direction, takes a turn speaking. Soon it will be her turn and she feel a knot forming in her stomach and she is overcome with a wave of nausea. They all continue to confess their transgressions of lust, masturbation, and late-night pornography-viewing escapades. The woman to Samantha’s right, Rebecca, finishes speaking. It’s now Samantha’s turn.

“Hi, I’m Samantha …” She says.

She pauses for a second, wondering if she has to say the next line. The group leader is looking at her with her eyes wide. Samantha feels like she’s staring into her soul.

“… And I’m a sex addict.” She says.

Samantha was 23 when she attended her first Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting and back then she believed with all of her heart that she had a sex addiction. For her entire life, her evangelical Christian community had told her that any sexual activity, thought or desire outside of marriage between a man and a woman was a grave sin against God. The path to her salvation had hinged on her ability to remain sexually pure. When she confessed her “sexual sins” to her church mentor in 2014 after years of struggling to ignore her sexuality, she suggested to Samantha that she seek recovery for her addiction.

Samantha attended the group for just under a year but her time spent there and the events that led her to those meetings had a lasting impact. She now knows that she was never a sex addict but instead was a product of a dangerously insidious purity culture that still thrives in many religious contexts today.

My parents weren’t raised religious, but Samantha was sent to Sunday School when they had life changing experiences that rocked their worlds. It was at Sunday School that Samantha learned about sin and salvation. She was told God created the world, was constantly angry at humans for messing up, and then sent his one and only son to die so that everyone else would be free. Her teachers warned the children about sin every chance they got. She was riddled with guilt her whole childhood and prayed to God every night before bed for forgiveness.

In the sixth grade, she heard about “sexual sin” for the first time. The youth group leader told them that God saved her from her lustful ways. She said she used to put her worth in men and in finding love. She explained she was empty, dirty and lost until God found her. “God saved me from my sexual sins,” she said. She cried as she told the children her story.

Samantha went home that night scared that something like that would happen to her, so she pleaded with God to save her from the same fate.

In high school, she dove even deeper into her Christian community and started attending a high school ministry group called Young Life. They talked a lot about sexual sin ― about things like sleeping with one’s boyfriend, doing things or watching porn. Like many young people in search of identity and seeking adulthood she was curious about sex and about her body and was constantly thinking about what it would be like to make out with the guy who sat behind her in chemistry class. Sex was on her mind ― just like most other teens ― but underneath, her thoughts thrummed a steady hum of shame.

In college, Samantha became a Young Life leader and continued investing time in her church community. she was still watching porn often, but she was trying to wean herself from it while simultaneously maintaining the appearance of purity that my community revered. After a while, though, the weight of knowing that God knew what she was doing felt too heavy to carry, so she decided to confess her sins to her friends and hopefully get help.

Everyone told her they were proud of her for being honest about such a dreadful sin. She was considered “brave” for her vulnerability. When she told my mentor, she was congratulated on taking such an enormous step of faith and recommended a few “sex/porn addict” support groups, one of which was the sex addicts group Samantha was hesitant at first, but she already had a friend who attended the group so she tagged along with her the following week.

Everyone in the group was a devout Christian, all trying desperately to avoid their sins of lust. After the first few months, Samantha was assigned a mentor. Her name was Ella and she had been a recovering sex addict for over five years. She was bright and bubbly but her shoulders hung low. She and Samantha would meet 30 minutes before each weekly group meeting to go over what she had been working on.

There was one meeting with Ella where Samantha was feeling particularly anxious. She had developed a crush on a co-worker and he had reciprocated my interest. Samantha was nervous to tell Ella that they had made out at a party the previous weekend. In the group they were encouraged to stay away from any sort of sexual activity, including kissing.

Just as Samantha had suspected, Ella was shocked at Samantha’s confession. She didn’t think it was a good idea for her to be making out with random guys while she was dealing with her recovery. Samantha stayed quiet and agreed with her but she felt uneasy on her drive home that night.

For the first time since she started attending, the group she was angry. She was mad at Ella for telling her what to do with her situation ― and at all of the other people from her church who had done the same.

Tears poured down her face and anger welled up inside her as she drove home. But almost as quickly she asked for forgiveness.

In the following months, no matter how hard she tried, Samantha couldn’t shake what she felt after that meeting with Ella. She was now hyperaware of the shame in her life and all around her. It was palpable. She would sit in church services, Bible studies and meetings, trying to drown out her anger with prayers to God. But it was too late. She felt she had let the anger in and she could no longer ignore it.

Then finally realized that her whole life had been made up of other people’s decisions ― decisions based on fear, misinformation and attempts to control. Samantha now saw the truth: Her sexuality, her body, the things she felt, the questions she had, and her desires weren’t evil.

By her 24th birthday, she had left Sex Addicts Anonymous. Her church community, too. The anger she allowed myself to feel after that meeting with Ella was the first time, she truly let herself push back against what her community believed. It was the first time she trusted myself and there was no turning back after that.

Do you think that might have been what Jesus was on about when he challenged the assumptions around family and its seemingly unassailable status in society in his time?

Samantha realized that her whole life had been made up of other people’s decisions ― decisions based on fear, misinformation and attempts to control. She now saw the truth: None of what she had now learned meant something was wrong with me. She wasn’t addicted to sex and she didn’t need the help she had been convinced she needed.

Walking away was terrifying because she spent her whole life believing what her community or her church family had told her and she was still worried she might be making the wrong choice. Maybe God would smite her and condemn her to hell. Maybe her life without the church would be miserable. But choosing to turn away from shame, being able to listen to the intuition that had been inside her all along, felt well worth the risk.

For our society as a whole, it’s obvious how these historical teachings have a far wider impact and can lead to a lack of comprehensive sex education, a lack of accountability, misogyny, homophobia, and sometimes even the sexual violence that we see in our culture on a daily basis.

Samantha’s story may not be the catalyst for change but she hopes that the church might realize how harmful some of its teachings are and take action to do better. She and I am sure most of you also, know that these beliefs seem to be the foundation of the church and, therefore, unlikely to change. However, like Jesus’ challenge to the accepted family culture of his time, maybe her story will be there to assist with the change that is needed.

She wants people to know they can live their life happily, confidently and without shame.

Samantha Boesch works as a writer and editor in Brooklyn, New York. She writes about health, wellness, and sexuality, and is studying to become a sex educator. You can connect with her on Instagram at @SamanthaBoesch or on Twitter at @SamanthaBoesch.

I want to finish today my attack on assumptions and cultural distortions by reminding us what theologian Gordon Kaufman said; that the traditional anthropomorphic god called God has long since died. The role of theology, was to seek to “reimagine, reconceive, reconstruct the symbol ‘God’ with metaphors drawn from the ways in which we now understand ourselves and our world” (Kaufman 2004:126).

Remember also that it is still the tendency of institutions, the church included, to dilute the power of spiritual experience, to honour the past above the present, and to restrain progressive tendencies out of fear and in favour of suppressive controls! What is now needed he says is a theology that helps people realise and feel the immense creativity that flows through them. And for that to happen, as Bishop Jack Spong has argued for years, more than a cosmetic updating of theological language is required in order for Christianity to become relevant in our time.

Progressive religion’s broad contributions are a recipe for dancing with and living in harmony with, our world and the various environments that help shape us. A call to live humanly and humanely. An invitation to hope this time.no other and a hope for the fullest and the best that human beings together in concert we can achieve.

Amen.

Notes:
Badger, C. R. The Reverend Charles Strong and the Australian Church. Melbourne: Abacada Press, 1971.
Gillett, P. R. “Theology of, by, and for religious naturalism” in Journal of Liberal Religion 6, 1, 1-6, 2006.
Kaufman, G. D. In the Beginning… Creativity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.
McKibben, B. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Melbourne: Black Inc., 2010.
Peters, K. E. Dancing with the Sacred. Evolution, Ecology, and God. Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2002.
Sanguin, B. The Advance of Love. Reading the Bible with an Evolutionary Heart. Vancouver: Evans & Sanguin Publishing, Forthcoming 2012.
Vosper, G. Amen. What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishing, 2012.

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