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

Posted: June 2, 2021 in Uncategorized

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.

rexae74@gmail.com

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