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I don’t want my 12 year old to have sex anytime soon. In fact, if I could control him (which I cannot) I would hope he would wait until he’s out of high school. But I can’t control him. Maybe he’ll fall deeply in love in high school. It happens. And well, he’ll be horny and in love. That usually equals sex.
We were recently talking about condoms. He wanted to know about condoms because he likes to create survival kits. Condoms can hold a whole lot of water, he explained. They’re good to have in a kit. We then talked about STDs and how condoms actually catch the sperm. He squirmed, but I had him in the car. I ended the conversation with, “I’ll have condoms for you anytime you need them for their proper use. I’m not giving them to you for your survival kit. They’re too expensive!”
Some Christians would be horrified by the previous two paragraphs. Some would wonder what kind of Christian parent talks about condoms with her almost thirteen year old. I’ve heard it before. Lots of people don’t think I’m Christian. That’s okay. I know I am. I know this for certain, because as much as I have tried to escape Jesus’ hold on me, I can’t. I follow.
My confidence in Christ’s calling allows me to ignore such comments. But how about the 15 year old, who loves God, loves her church, is being told sex is a sin, but wants to masturbate? Where does she find a healthy Christian ethic about her developing sexuality? And how about the Dad who is faithful and realistic, knows his young son will be having sex soon, and wants to have a faithful conversation with his son about sex, not just an STD/birth control conversation? Where does he turn for advice? And finally, how about the young single person: unmarried because they haven’t found the right partner, and not feeling so young anymore at 30? Is protecting their chastity really a necessary Christian goal? And who can they talk to?
In my experience, the last place you can find any life-giving Christian ethic about sex is in the church. If you escape the no-questions-asked chastity ethic, your Christian community probably just offered you what they offered me as a young adult: silence.
Silence helps no one. And treating sex--which is a really big deal--as a taboo topic just sows confusion. Mainstream and progressive Christians need to have more open and healthy conversations about sex. Thankfully someone agrees with me: Bromleigh McCleneghan. In her new book, Good Christian Sex, Bromleigh breaks the silence. Infact, she is bold enough to talk about masturbation (even for women) in a chapter entitled “My Favorite Feel.” Hallelujah! If my daughter ever shows up with a promise ring on her finger I might lock her in her room with a vibrator and have her read Bromleigh’s book.
While reading Good Christian Sex, I felt Bromleigh was a kindred spirit. Like me, as a young woman, she didn’t embrace the secular sexual norms saturating our culture that suggest sex is simply about pleasure. She knew her sexuality was connected to God and that any ethic she developed about sex must involve God.
Fortunately, God wants us to have love and sexual pleasure. And for Bromleigh, sex has more to do with loyalty and commitment than marriage and chastity. It’s amplified by love and diminished by promiscuity. At its best, sex expresses our body and soul together, and recognizes the body and soul of our partner. And these aren’t rules to be followed--they’re the ingredients of good Christian sex.
In one of the final chapters, “The Avoidable and the Inevitable," Bromleigh defines good Christian sex more subtly. Through narrative she speaks about being “all in” with her husband. I wish I could articulate more clearly how those few words, all in, will shape my conversations with my own children and the youth in my community, but I cannot. Read the book instead.
Good Christian Sex is funny, honest, and faithful. Bromleigh’s healthy sense of self and personal vulnerability transform this book from a stale ethical and theological pursuit to a comfortable conversation with a friend over coffee. If this book had been published while I was in college, I would have bought it in secret, and then read it cover to cover in my closet. After I emerged from my closet, I’m not sure my developing sexual ethic would have changed, but it would have been deepened, and most importantly I would have felt less alone.
Want to read more about my thoughts on sex? See my previous October 2014 blog: Sex is Great!
Let me first make some things clear:
Jesus messed me up. Completely. In fact, he messed up my life. Before Jesus, I aspired to live a neatly packaged life, where you did “good” from a distance, like collecting canned goods for the food pantry. But I never imagined myself meeting the folks who needed the food, or if I did, it was with warm, easy smiles. My interior life was not going to be messy either, overwrought with competing emotions and endless questions. The equation was to be simple: Earnest Kindness = Contentedness. Instead, Jesus grabbed hold of me and I have been wrestling with him since.
I had an epic wrestling match with Jesus this August. It was unexpected. For seventeen summers now, I have spent a week volunteering in some capacity with the rural poor. I thought after seventeen summers of rehabbing homes for those who Jesus tells us will be first in the kingdom of God, I would at least resign myself to Jesus’ call. Nope.
Here is the story:
She is a mother of five children. Her verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive ex-husband held her captive in her home for 6 months. She and her children fled the husband and their home. In the meantime, family members moved into her abandoned home and destroyed it. Now she is back, her ex is in jail, and her home is in ruins. Amazingly, the mother never once raised her voice at her five children who were not easy. Instead, she was loving and patient. Her fortitude amazed me.
Our job was not heroic. It was simple. We fixed the bathroom floor, spruced up her bathroom, painted her living room/kitchen, replaced a few broken windows, and installed a working light. I have done similar work in similarly heartbreaking situations in the past. So why did this house, this story, these children, this mother, break me?
Was it because I knew they had no heat in the winter and slept huddled in the basement in one single room with electric heaters? Was it because the children all showed signs of emotional trauma? Was it because there seems no way out of the cycle of poverty in rural Maine?
My real answer is shameful and honest.
It was the cockroaches.
I am not high maintenance (at least I had never thought so before). I can change the grossest diapers, clean up vomit, shovel horse stalls, wade through cow soup-manure, and clean just about anything I’ve ever encountered. Who knew cockroaches would do me in?
I was painting above the kitchen cabinets because I have mad cutting in skills with a brush. When I positioned myself awkwardly over the cabinets, I soon discovered they were littered with hundreds of dead and living roaches. I wanted to quit, but onward I pressed. We had to paint behind the fridge to complete the job. I felt like a gladiator before she enters the ring. I psyched myself up, talked myself through what would be waiting behind the fridge, and dug in. I moved that fridge, broom in hand, ready. I had to leave and dry heave in the yard after watching hundreds of roaches crawl out from under the fridge and behind the cabinets.
I stood outside for perhaps ten minutes, an eternity when there are others still working. I composed myself, wiped my watering eyes, and tried to give myself a pep speech: This work has to be done. If not me, then who? I was called to it, damn it! Get your ass in gear Rev. Henrich. Suck it up.
My pep speech failed. I remembered the story of Mother Theresa tending the body of a man covered in maggots. When the other nuns, with whom she worked, asked her how she managed, she simply answered, “I knew he was Jesus.” I was not going to see Jesus in cockroaches, but I did decide I would rather deal with cockroaches than maggots. I went back in, did my best, and painted the wall behind the fridge. And then all that afternoon and evening I felt angry.
Every morning I wipe down my kitchen counters. I take out my garbage regularly. I wash clothes, fold, and put them away on a regular basis. I sort through my fridge and throw away fruit that has spoiled. I change my kids’ sheets even though they do not notice. I spend a ridiculous amount of time and energy managing our refrigerator to make sure we are not wasting food. I buy groceries on sale and we eat healthy. Why wasn’t this mother doing all those things?! She had cockroaches in her house because there was old food everywhere.
Angry. Nasty. Venomous.
I knew my rant was privileged. I knew I wasn’t struggling with PTSD. I knew that poverty is so complicated, so multifaceted that just grocery shopping is ten times more difficult than anything I face. But still, I was self-centeredly angry. No matter how much shame accompanied my anger I remained stuck. I felt utterly defeated.
Over the past three weeks, my anger has dissipated. Grief has taken its place. I no longer feel ashamed of my anger, but instead am aware that somehow I had reached a breaking point. I accept that I am imperfect and no Mother Theresa. I also believe the limited work we did offered some hope, some buoy to cling to for a struggling mother. It was good work: faithful, needed, blessed. Yet how am I, an imperfect disciple, to follow Jesus when the work seems so futile? When cockroaches still crawl from beneath refrigerators?
I have no answer. If I did, it would merely be a platitude. Instead, I have come to accept, once again, that the work Jesus calls us to is difficult. It is never neatly packaged and rarely does it offer simple satisfaction. Praise songs never play in the background. Nice, clean church clothes are unsuitable. Truly believing that the first shall be last, means encountering cockroaches and maggots. It means wrestling with Jesus.
I am sad. I am frustrated. I am worn out. But in my prayers, I try to remember that God knows when a sparrow falls (Matthew 10). And I do feel assured that God numbers each hair on the heads of five children and a mother struggling in Maine.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.