Fasting, Sex and Lent

See the source imageFIRST SUNDAY IN LENT

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, you led your people through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide us now, so that, following your Son, we may walk safely through the wilderness of this world toward the life you alone can give, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.” Luke 4:1-2.

Fasting is altogether incomprehensible in our present day culture. Commerce is geared toward satisfying appetites as soon as they arise, whether they stem from hunger, sexual desire or a craving for the latest i-doohicky from Apple.  The very idea that a person would refrain from feeding an appetite strikes us as absurd. When you have an appetite, you feed it. That’s why we have fast food. When you want to know something, Google it. The answer is at your fingertips. Want something and can’t afford it? That’s the beauty of credit and Amazon. Punch a few keys and what you want arrives at your doorstep within hours. No more waiting for things, sacrificing for things, saving for the future. You can have it all right now.

Of course, there is something lost here. Yes, washing and peeling fresh vegetables, cooking a pork roast to perfection, mashing potatoes, setting the table, getting the whole family together, pausing for a word of thanksgiving-all of that takes time, energy and discipline. When your stomach is growling, it might seem a lot simpler just to order a pizza. But there is more to a meal than satisfying a primitive appetite. A meal is about providing nourishment that builds a healthy body; it is about togetherness with family and loved ones; it is about recognizing that food, family and community are gifts that belong together. We do not live by bread alone and when we try to live that way, we starve ourselves to death at the deepest level.

Rev. Nadia Boltz-Weber, a pastor in my own denomination (ELCA), a stand up comedian and author, recently wrote an article published in the Christian Century entitled “Talking to My Children About Sex Without Shame.” Pastor Boltz-Weber laments the church’s failure to “embrace the reality” that our teenagers are sexually active and to take the initiative in providing them with guidance and information they need to avoid STDs, unanticipated pregnancies and sexual exploitation. Those of you who follow this blog know that I am 100% on board with sex-ed for children and the availability of confidential medical advice, contraception and medical care, including abortion, for women of all ages. See my post, “What it Means to be Pro-Life.”  I also agree with the pastor wholeheartedly when she points out that rules, whether religious, societal or civil, cannot protect our children from the dangers of our highly sexualized culture or give them the guidance they need to negotiate it. But shouldn’t we have more to say about the mystery of sex than physiology, safety and sanitation?

When it comes to having “the talk” with one’s children about sex, Pastor Boltz-Weber is refreshingly honest about her own experience: “I wanted to do better [than my parents] when I had kids. …[But] when it was my turn to have the sex talk with my own, I had no idea how to do it, either. Here, have a look:

2006: I mean to have “the talk” with Harper.
2007: I mean to have “the talk” with Harper.
2008: I mean to have “the talk” with Harper and Judah.
2009: The kids’ dad and I buy them each a book, hand it to them, and tell them to come to us if they have questions.

For all my big talk now about the things we can teach our children about sex, this was the extent of the sex talk I gave my kids when they were young.”

As a parent who has “been there,” I understand the difficulty of discussing sex with one’s children. But I don’t believe that difficulty arises from any sense of shame or discomfort we have with discussing penises, vaginas, orgasms, masturbation, rubbers or whatever else. I believe the root problem is that, like food, sex has become thoroughly divorced from its communal context. With the advent of reliable and widely available birth control coupled with the growing economic independence and opportunities for women in society, sex has become increasingly untethered from reproduction and married life. What, then, does a sexual act mean? Because we don’t really have a very good answer to that question, we find it difficult to discuss whatever parameters there might be for sexual expression. Indeed, it is hard to make the argument that there ought to be parameters if, like hunger, sexual desire has become only another appetite to be appeased. Why does it matter whether you get relief in the context of a long term relationship, a short term arrangement or a casual encounter? About the only requirement for sexual expression that we still seem to agree upon is mutual consent.[1]

I recently listened to a pastor addressing a group of us clergy on the topic of “story telling.” She related to us a story about how she wound up writing a funeral sermon in a hotel room following a one night stand with someone she met online. Perhaps we were all in a state of communal shock, but no one questioned the propriety of this liaison. At the time, I was a little taken aback. Upon further reflection, however, I had to wonder whether it is any more blameworthy to satisfy one’s sexual longings in a one night stand than it is to satisfy one’s appetite in the privacy of your car on the other side of the Wendy’s drive thru? If appetite is all there is to it, why not?[2]

Because, says Jesus, we do not live by bread alone. Eating isn’t just about food. Sure, we have the ability to satisfy our hunger whenever we wish and, unlike Jesus, we don’t even have to go to the trouble of turning stones into bread. But there is something off-you might even say demonic-about eating one’s bread in isolation. However much we may have separated ourselves from the soil and toil of our neighbors who grow, harvest and bring our food to places where it is processed for our own convenience; however much we may have convinced ourselves that we have provided for ourselves out of our own work and resourcefulness; and however much we have let the gods of convenience and efficiency deter us from communal meals, the fact remains that the food sustaining our lives is a gift from the One who gave us our lives. Food is not given merely to be consumed, but to be shared. As anyone who reads the Bible knows, meals are the cornerstone of community. The church is built around the meal we call Eucharist. We are the people who “spen[d] much time together” and “break bread at home, eating with glad and generous hearts.” Acts 2:46.

I believe we fast in order to give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to teach us the critical difference between genuine hunger and mere appetite. Our hunger is so much deeper and our need so much more profound than we know. We will never come into that holy hunger that only God can fill unless we are prepared to empty ourselves. We will never find fulfillment of our deepest needs unless we free ourselves from the tyranny of our appetites. Fasting can help us rediscover the meaning of bread in the fellowship of family, in the community of faith and in the very person of Jesus who is our bread. From that vantage point, perhaps we can also begin to reflect on many of the other appetites that blind us to our deeper hunger.

I don’t believe the church has any stock answers for our current disconnect with our sexuality. The moral rules we have inherited come from a time when coital sex always carried with it the potential for pregnancy, where women had no independent legal existence apart from the men to whom they belonged and when the institution of marriage served the salutary purpose of protecting vulnerable women and children. I don’t believe anyone in their right mind would want to return to that state of things even if it were possible. Nonetheless, I believe that our sexuality needs desperately to be grounded in meaning. Until that happens, we only spin our wheels trying to frame moral rules and social conventions. What the church can offer are its tried and true disciplines through which the Spirit creates and sustains communities capable of reflecting on our sexuality (and so many other dimensions of our existence) and contextualizing it. The season of Lent lifts up those disciplines and invites us to explore together the nature of our deepest hungers, the generosity of the God who promises to satisfy them and the way forward to a new day through repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Here are two poems, one by Jonathan Holden speaking to the emptiness of loveless sex and the other by Ellen Bass hinting at what sexual expression can be.

Sex Without Love

If evil had style
it might well resemble
those pointless experiments
we used to set up and run
with our legs and our hands
and our mouths between two
and four p.m. while our kids
were swimming in the public pool
and our wives, our husbands,
were somewhere else-
an hour when nobody wanted
to move, the heat
had gone breathless, slack
as if the afternoon
had been punched in the stomach,
a victim of what we’d coolly
decided to do. There might
be the nagging of a single mower.
At last even that would die
in the heat. Would catch
a rumor of thunder in the hills-
a signal, like the smirk
of swallowed amusement you’d slip
my direction by raising just
slightly your eyebrows as much
as to ask, Well, Shall we?
It’s a style might well resemble
the wholly gratuitous gear
we would then shift down to
as deliberately we would undress,
our eyes wide open without
compromise, curious to observe what
a body might be up to next
on such a hopeless afternoon,
just barely affection
enough-a pinch of salt-
to produce that sigh, when
for a lucky moment or so
curiosity can be mistaken
for enthusiasm and we learn
what we already know.

Source: Poetry, June 1985

Marriage
 
When you finally, after deep illness, lay
the length of your body on mine, isn’t it
like the strata of the earth, the pressure
of time on sand, mud, bits of shell, all
the years, uncountable wakings, sleepings,
sleepless nights, fights, ordinary mornings
talking about nothing, and the brief
fiery plummets, and the unselfconscious
silences of animals grazing, the moving
water, wind, ice that carries the minutes, leaves
behind minerals that bind the sediment into rock.
How to bear the weight, with every
flake of bone pressed in. Then, how to bear when
the weight is gone, the way a woman
whose neck has been coiled with brass
can no longer hold it up alone. Oh love,
it is balm, but also a seal. It binds us tight
as the fur of a rabbit to the rabbit.
When you strip it, grasping the edge
of the sliced skin, pulling the glossy membranes
apart, the body is warm and limp. If you could,
you’d climb inside that wet, slick skin
and carry it on your back. This is not
neat and white and lacy like a wedding,
not the bright effervescence of champagne
spilling over the throat of the bottle. This visceral
bloody union that is love, but
beyond love. Beyond charm and delight
the way you to yourself are past charm and delight.
This is the shucked meat of love, the alleys and broken
glass of love, the petals torn off the branches of love,
the dizzy hoarse cry, the stubborn hunger.

Source: Poetry, April 2018

Jonathan Holden (b. 1941) is a Professor of English at Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas. He was born in Morristown, New Jersey and received a bachelor’s degree in English from Oberlin College. From 1963 to 1965, he was an editorial assistant for Cambridge Book Company in Bronxville, New York. He then taught math at a high school in West Orange, New Jersey for two years. Holden received an master’s degree in creative writing from San Francisco State College and a Ph D in English from the University of Colorado. He was poet-in-residence at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. In 1978 he joined Kansas State University. He has served on the Pulitzer Prize poetry selection committee and was appointed poet laureate by the governor of Kansas in 2004. You can find out more about Jonathan Holden and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Ellen Bass (b. 1947) is an American poet and co-author of The Courage to Heal. She grew up in Pleasantville, New Jersey where her parents owned a liquor store. Her family later moved to Ventnor City, New Jersey. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Goucher College and pursued a master’s degree in creative writing at Boston University where she studied with poet, Anne Sexton. Bass currently lives in Santa Cruz, California where she teaches creative writing. You can learn more about Ellen Bass and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

[1] Consent is not the clear cut standard we sometimes imagine it to be. In most states, teenagers are deemed legally incapable of consent to sexual activity. Moreover, we might rightly ask what consent even means in our sexualized and patriarchal culture where the president of the United States can assert without any loss of support that, as a celebrity male, he is entitled to grab any girl he wishes by the genitals.

[2] In fairness to the speaker, I think she was at least hoping that her encounter might blossom into a deeper relationship. Yet I still have to wonder what meaning sex has in the context of such a tenuous encounter. Is it anything more than another form of  mutual entertainment, such going to a movie or taking a walk on the beach?

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