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Archive for the ‘Dilemma Series’ Category

Note 1: This topic is too big for a single blog post; I know that. I can only address a few aspects of sex in order to make a point.

Note 2: As a heterosexual female, I can only reasonably speak to sex between men and women. Not to necessarily discount the rest, I am simply unfamiliar with other practices, nor do they help in my argument about the relationship between longing, sex, and unwanted pregnancies.

Spoiler Alert: If you have trouble with the words vagina, coitus, sexual intercourse, orgasm, ejaculation, or copulation, you may want to skip this post.

Random Facts and Processes

  • Sex is noted throughout the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments. Most of the time, it’s a warning. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immortality;” [I Thess 4:3, ESV]
  • Sex (as a word) has become, over time, an over-arching term for the whole she-bang (no pun intended): foreplay, coitus, and recovery.
  • Sexual intercourse can be a pleasant and satisfying experience often culminating in orgasm. In some cases, both partners (the ideal) have orgasms, but far too often, only one does, generally the man.
  • When two people agree to have sex, the immediate outcome is often pleasant.

However–

  • In the case of non-mutual consent, sexual intercourse is primarily one-sided with the male forcibly entering the female for personal satisfaction.
  • A male can also weaponize sexual intercourse, commonly called rape.
  • A woman, in these situations, is an “object.”

Nonetheless–

  • In all cases, if the man has successfully ejaculated inside a woman’s vagina, sperm laden semen will move through the vagina and into the cervix and beyond. In the case of withdrawing, also known as coitus interruptus or pulling out, it is possible for some sperm/semen to find its way up the path.

Long Term Outcomes

  • If either the man or the woman has an STD (sexually transmitted disease), that disease will likely pass to the partner.
  • Depending on the female cycle, a single sperm can successfully travel into the cervix and fertilize a waiting egg, create a single cell zygote, and in essence, create a pregnancy.

Why Do People Engage in Sex if One of the Key Long-Term Outcomes is Pregnancy?

  • They want to have a child together.
  • One or both use contraceptives to prevent a pregnancy. In other words, they don’t want a child. Unfortunately, they tend to forget that a surprise pregnancy can still happen. No contraceptive is completely foolproof.
  • Sex is fun.
  • Sex, particularly orgasms, release a number of hormones that specifically impact the partners. [see https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-what-happens-to-your-brain-when-you-orgasm] Among them are:
    • dopamine: releases feelings of pleasure, desire, and motivation.
    • oxytocin: releases feelings of bonding (the same hormone releases during breastfeeding), a sense of love and attachment. Note: after orgasm, oxytocin continues to be release in women which often explains their desire for post-coital closeness and “cuddling.”
    • prolactin: releases feelings of satisfaction.
    • serotonin: releases feelings of happiness and sleepiness, a good mood, and relaxation.
  • Having an orgasm stimulates the brain in the same way as “doing” drugs or listening to your favorite music.
  • One of the chemicals released during sex can even desensitize a person to pain.
  • All of these feelings and “hormone releases” are a “reward” for sex.

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the Father’s love is not in him. For everything that is in the world does not come from the Father. The desires of our flesh and the things our eyes see and want and the pride of this life come from the world.” [I John 2:15-16, NLV]

Is There Any Wonder?

  • In review, my previous post about “longing” was the set up for this simple truth: sex fills a lot of longings.
  • If a person is sad, lonely, anxious, afraid, disappointed, insecure, unloved, or just have any number of unmet needs, sex can fill the bill. For those moments, it all goes away, just like a drug-induced state of mind.
  • In a time of loss or deprivation, sex is usually still available. For such a reason, total strangers will have sex, like a drug, to forget their circumstances.

Historically–

Because, we must remember, for centuries, women were possessions or slaves (although some cultures have female goddesses and have created myths about women). But in practicality, ordinary women had many social restrictions, few rights, and lived in the home at the whim of men. There have been pioneer women in every age who stepped out of the norms, but true self-discovery for average women came in the last century, beginning with the right to vote.

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” [Genesis 1:27, ESV]

What I really want to highlight is that, in this modern era, sexual relations are different. Earlier, women were used for a man’s pleasure only, and at his demand, in addition to bearing children. Today, more women believe they should have equal say about when and how and with whom they have sex and they also want control over the outcomes.

For some people, this change for women is too brazen, outrageous, and merely sets the stage for widespread sexual immorality. For other people, this change for women means the freedom to experience intimacy in a variety of different ways.

But whether sex is forbidden or permissible, it is the drive to have sex and it’s “rewards,” that puts women at the locus where pregnancy can happen. The man plays a vital role and yet, a resulting pregnancy is still primarily viewed as the woman’s responsibility to carry.

So, in this era, most women want to have a say. They want a full participation and mutual responsibility. And yet, whichever partner has longings, needs, or desires, if a child is created, it’s still regarded as “her” problem and in some circles, her “sin” or “punishment.” In my mind, this view is held both in and out of marriage (a topic to be considered at another time – that of fidelity and infidelity).

I believe too many people have lost the ability to recognize sex as an intimate expression of love and a medium for spiritual union. Sexual encounters have become physical and hormonal experiences exclusively. Whether that’s good or bad, the result is a monumental disconnect between sex and the production of children.

“Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” [Genesis 2:24, ESV]

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Psalm 143:6
I stretch out my hands to You;
My soul longs for You, as a parched land. Selah.

Certainly, when it comes to scripture and to God, there is no greater thirst than the desire for God, to taste and see, to know and to be known. That is, if we recognize the source of our yearning. In discussion on this topic today, I was reminded of the fragility of our understanding. My friend said, in essence, that she believes longing for God is planted within all of us and that we are all, in one way or another, searching to return to who we are meant to be, in communion with God. How this resonated with me.

But what happens when we don’t know the source or true nature of what we are desiring or yearning to know? What if that longing is corrupted along the way? What if the idols of our world or the temporary “feel good” moments clamor to become the objects of our desire?

How many men and women have allowed sex to fill that void, or power, or success?

Longing is usually accompanied by vulnerability. In the language of faith, that is a good thing. Our hearts and spirits open to the Presence of God, we hear God’s “voice,” holy words are revealed in scripture, and we are willing to surrender–“Thy will be done.” But if our longing is misdirected and we are vulnerable as well, then we may find ourselves abused, physically or emotionally. We mistake sex for love, power for influence, and success for self-discovery.

In human psychology, longing is considered a “secondary” emotion, usually associated with the primary emotions of love and sadness. Often, longing is looking for a change. I love you, but I long for you to love me. I am sad, but I long for you to change so I won’t be sad anymore.

In my mind, the only truly safe place to put our longings is in God. When focus on other human beings, we move out of alignment. Like a car, we can still move forward, but with each mile, we become more and more damaged.

I long for a world where peace and justice and kindness reign. I long for understanding and trust and renewal. I long for unity. But my current ideas or thoughts about how our cultural losses can be undone, are misplaced. I have missed the point. No state of being can be mandated. No human law will change the course that is being set today through abused longings. Too many of us are looking for results before we look for the source of our fractures. We ignore our interdependence and play the “blame game.” We have become like two fans on separate sports teams “praying” to win. Whose prayers will God hear? Both and neither, because we are longing for the wrong result.

Let them give thanks to the Lord’s unfailing love
    and wonderful deeds for humankind,
for God satisfies the thirsty
    and fills the hungry with good things.
(Ps 109-8-9, NIV, pronoun edits my own)

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I’m sure some of you may be surprised that I am writing about prayer as a dilemma. After all, isn’t it fundamental to our faith? How could that be a problem? But then, if it’s not problematic in some way or another, why are there thousands of books written about prayer: how to do it, when to do it, why we do it, etc. From what I can see, most people spend a good deal of time lamenting how little they pray. I should–I could– if only and so on.

My first realization that there are a variety of ways to pray came from Richard Foster’s book, “Prayer.” Written in the early 90’s, he laid out 21 different types of prayers. Oh dear! I was only really good at the first one: simple prayer. So, I figured I’d read through the book, and one by one, I’d practice these other prayers. Ha! By the time I got to the the third one, I gave up (the prayer of Examen). I didn’t get it. Then.

In later years, I became deft at public prayer. I could really bring the people with me into the holy of holies, calling forth the power of a miraculous God. This was a time of many “Praise the Lords.” In those years, I also practiced praying in the spirit (and singing in the spirit). Looking back, I think the biggest benefit to praying in tongues is that words get out of the way.

I confess I also learned how to pray manipulatively; that is, in such a way as to suggest to God how situations, like my marriage for instance, could be better and what my husband could do to implement that change. He would be sitting next to me. Surely, I was infuriating.

As I began to do more speaking engagements and perform in churches or para-church organizations, I learned to pray for others. That was a sweet time, a meaningful time. There was a flow to touching another person’s spirit with my own through prayer.

When I did my skits, I often made fun of various prayer times: everything from prayer poses to coffee breaks to distractions and of course, falling asleep. People laughed because they recognized themselves in the skits. I drew from my own experience.

I knew and I know that prayer is important: it’s the way we communicate with God. But doesn’t God already know what we need? Healing? Food? Shelter? Work? A new Cadillac. Whoa, should we pray for such things? New acquisitions? A Trip to the Bahamas? More stuff? I don’t think so.

Gradually, year by year, my practice of prayer has changed and changed and changed. And although I can still pray out loud with the best of them, I find that silence is the deeper form of communication with God. In silence, I can experience the Presence of God and surrender to God’s intention. I am with God and God is with me. I am with Christ Jesus and Christ Jesus is with me. Holy Spirit is with me and I am with the Holy Spirit.

Privately, when I pray for others now, I say their names and then I wait. When I pray for our nation or our political turmoil or violence in the street or inequality, I state the situation, and then I release it to God. I read a passage of scripture and sit with it. I read a poem and ponder it. I write. I journal. I sit. I slow down. Prayer is more about listening than speaking. Prayer is dwelling in the secret place, God’s dwelling place. And it is in this place, that the words from that famous song make sense: It is well, it is well, it is well with my soul.

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Religious symbols

Yesterday, two friends and I discussed the word “religion.” The three of us have been working on “personal creeds” as an exercise in spiritual practice. After all, what do we believe? Is there more for us beyond the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed? Does it matter? And, is this creed-building an aspect of religion?

Librarian that I am, I looked up the definition. Webster’s has a few choices: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices; a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith; and, for interest’s sake, an archaic meaning: scrupulous conformity or “conscientiousness.” A thoughtful addition to all of these definitions comes from Wikipedia, “The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with faith, belief system or sometimes set of duties; however, in the words of Émile Durkheim, religion differs from private belief in that it is “something eminently social.” That resonates with me.

Religion has gotten a rather bad “rap” these days, primarily because of people who are using it to practice exclusivity. On one hand, they claim that everyone is welcome into their club, but that welcome only lasts as long as one follows the doctrine, the rules, the agreed upon credo. And yes, it is a social interaction. For many years, I learned to use the right language, to ignore the anti-whatever of the day, and to pretend I didn’t watch adult movies or read the Harry Potter series.

I remember attending churches where the word “religion” was used dismissively, as though, their worship ways were higher or “spirit-led” and therefore unbounded by the rigidity of religion. And yet, over time, these free spirits ended up with an “order of worship” and a belief statement and lines drawn in the sand. Often, the Bible, as a whole, is used as a standard, calling on the inerrancy of scripture as the foundation for everything. But, isn’t that religion?

I remember attending a church unlike my charismatic beginnings for about three years. Liturgical and systematic, every week’s service was codified and several passages from the book of prayer were repeated each week. This form of worship is often derided as “dead.” But, in the end, it was not the liturgy that drove us away, it was the people who said, in more ways than one, “we don’t do that here.”

Religion is an overarching term that encapsulates the way we choose to worship and what we believe. Just within the “Christian” religion, there are 6 major mega-blocs (according to http://www.philvaz.com/apologetics/a106.htm and The World Christian Encyclopedia [WCE], people who identify themselves as Independents, Protestants, Marginals, Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglicans.) Within those blocs, the WCE has identified 33,000 denominations. Each one slightly different in practice. Is there any wonder that people fall away? We’ve managed to make it all so very complicated.

Judaism has managed to keep the number around six or seven while Islam appears to have only two. I’m sure there are other minor differences there too of which I am unaware, but honestly, the comparison is noteworthy.

Religion, in and of itself, is not a bad word. In fact, it’s a very broad term, much like a forest. The trees and plants that make up that forest are varied and beautiful, useful and ornamental. But they are all part of the forest. And it’s the forest that helps keep us alive.

What do you believe?

 

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I am not talking about occupation, just to be clear.

The etymology of vocation goes back to the middle ages and has its roots in vocacioun which loosely means “summons.” Others often use the term “calling.” As soon as that word comes along, people get all religious about it: called to be a pastor or a priest or a nun. It’s some spooky thing a person hears and is led to sacrifice and surrender. I remember the first time I heard about calling after becoming a Christian and shook in my boots for fear of being called to Africa. (This is ironic now that I have delighted in volunteering at the Village of Hope in Zambia in recent years.)

self discoveryBut how does vocation manifest in the lives of regular people? Or does it? Is it a call from God even if the person is not a believer? There is no doubt in my mind that this is so. I can think of no other reason that a person would follow a passion for art (rarely accompanied by financial gain) or service to the poor and disenfranchised or an becoming an unpaid “first responder” or a master gardener or, of course, a true follower of the Christ (or as some now reference God: the Divine).

I have been reading a number of books lately that are catapulting me into my own search (despite my senior citizen status and my nearly 40 years as a believer). If anyone is interested, I recommend Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer, The Second Mountain by David Brooks, or The Gift of Being Yourself by David Benner, or Walking in Wonder by John O’Donohue. In one form or another, they discuss vocation in terms of self-discovery. But the most important feature in my mind is the idea that vocation (or giftings of the true self) are planted within and are waiting to pair with “need.”

All of these years, I have felt guilty for not actively taking my faith into the streets, befriending the homeless, feeding the poor, visiting the elderly or sick, serving in prison, or teaching children. These are all such wonderful good works. Out of that guilt, I have dabbled in all of these, but I have never really connected to the work. These are all great needs. In fact, our world will never lack need for human compassion and outreach. At one time or another, we all need help, we all fall or fail or suffer. And there will always be people who have it worse than us, whose lives teeter on the brink of death or survival.

What is my vocation in the face of need? What is specifically the perfect match between who I am and what my unique self can bring to the table of scarcity? Day by day, I rest in the certainty of threads being woven together, not just for what lies ahead but also incorporating what has already gone before. Nothing is wasted in God’s time.

“Today I understand vocation quite differently–not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received. Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”  –Parker Palmer

“. . . because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.” [2nd Timothy 1:12b

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I haven’t thought about these two terms as “entities” in a long time. Are they same or different? There are unique Hebrew and Greek words for them and I am aware the Bible uses them both in a variety of ways. As I read a variety of contemplative books, I see a score of variations. But, right now, I want to know what I believe or experience. Do I need to “know?”

Webster’s doesn’t help much, defining spirit as “an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organism,” or “the immaterial intelligent or sentient part of a person” while soul comes up as “the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life.” Both of these definitions like the words “animating” and “immaterial.” Of course, I already knew that.

When I look up diagrams, several pictures bubble to the top: concentric circles with spirit in the middle, Venn diagrams with overlapping circles, individual circles with arrows between them, and stacked circles within a body. Take your pick.

 

I can remember sitting under some pastors along the way who made this all sound conclusive, but it felt unattainable, as though holiness was a magic ring on a merry go round that I had to reach for, every time I went around. As a young believer, the message was “accept Jesus and boom! you’re good.” Later, “ask for the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and you’re completely covered.” But then, along came “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” [Philippians 2:12-13] or “consecrate yourself to God,” [Romans 12:1], or, “you have been chosen through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and to be obedient to Jesus Christ,” [I Peter 1:2]. Obedience, discipline, commitment, long-suffering. And all because I was wondering about the soul and spirit.

Here’s the end result of all this cacophony according to me . . . today.

Soul and Spirit dwell together and they inform each other. They can be small or large, luminous or dusky. They can operate autonomously or as one. They can sing. They can work with the Holy Spirit when they are open. They are not gender specific all the time. My soul can be a curmudgeon. My spirit never is. My soul can be goofy. My spirit waits. They both exult at the Presence of God. They both worship. They both need rest under the wings of God. [Are those really wings? Of course not, but my soul finds comfort there and my spirit is succored there.]

For this reason, I know, the ways of God are a mystery. And my soul dwells there in Spirit.

milky way soul and spirit

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While practicing Lectio Divina over the weekend, I found myself reading
Numbers 21:4-5:

“They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” ” [NIV]

impatienceAnd I immediately knew that “impatient” was the operative word for me. Impatience does not happen in the twinkling of an eye. It’s a process and literally, has steps along the way and thought patterns that culminate into full blown impatience. Here are just a few of the steps I discovered about myself.

  • I make assumptions about the destination and how long it will take to get there. This can be anything from walking my three-year-old grandson to the car to waiting for my lunch to be delivered at a restaurant. But it can also have a spiritual element: practicing silence (not 20 minutest yet??) or noting my unanswered prayers. 
  • I make assumptions of what I will or will not encounter. Why would I imagine that a “quiet time” would really be quiet: I live where cars, garbage trucks, pets, and a toddler manifest at will. 
  • I have often misunderstood the plan. How many times did I think I would be picked up at a certain time and discover it’s the wrong day? And how many times have I thought God wanted me to experience one moment when it was something altogether different? 
  • I don’t always recognize the early stages of impatience in my heart: it starts as a grumbling, like a gnawing hunger. At this point, there are no words, just a churning or frothiness within. 
  • Eventually, my grumbling becomes words, either out loud or in my head. I can rarely assuage the onslaught of impatience once words are formed. If anything, I’m digging in. Words make impatience stronger. 
  • My worst cases of impatience result in total disdain for “what is” and consequently, I miss what other thing could be born from the moment.
  • My personal inconvenience drives everything. It’s not long before hyperbole rules the day: How dare . . . ; I will NEVER . . . ; I hate . . . ; This ALWAYS . . .! And so on. The litany has its own rhythms and like the Baby Shark song, will not relent. 
  • As I review my episodes of impatience, whether with God or people, I can attest that I am no better than the Israelites. I complain, I lament, I give evidence of why I am justified in these feelings, and soon, I am ready to turn back. Whatever was awful before seems better than the way things are now. I think to myself, “if I can just avoid this situation, I will feel better. Life will be easier.” I’ll have that “old time religion.” 

gratefulRepercussions can develop from impatience that are more wretched than the original. Must I carry on until the “venomous snakes” (Numbers 21:6) show up before I repent? Or, can I breathe into the onslaught of impatient feelings and counter them with gratitude? 

That is the remedy, by the way. Just a simple expression of gratitude and acceptance. If I am surrendered to God, and believe God’s love for me, then really, is it too much to ask of myself to acknowledge the circumstances and walk them out? I want to say “yes, thanks,” and then see what happens. 

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