The other night, I gathered with a few friends and watched part 1 from a Polish film from 1989, called The Dekalog. It is a series of ten shorts with plots loosely based upon the Ten Commandments. We watched the first one based on “Thou shalt not have any gods before me.” Without giving too much of context to ruin the experience, a 12-year-old boy named Pawel lives alone with his father, a physics professor, who introduces him to his world of logic and computers. One morning the highly reflective Pawel is struck by the sight of a dead dog, and he asks his father some deep questions about death, to which is father only responds in a cold, scientific way. Later on, Pawel talks to his religious aunt, Irena, about his father’s explanations, and she very respectively engages him in a conversation about faith and God:
Pawel: Dad told me we are living to make life easier for those who will come after us, but it doesn’t always work out.
Irena: Not always, your father is right. It’s just..if you can do something for others to help, to be there, even if it’s only a little thing, you know you are needed…and life becomes brighter somehow. There are big and small things. Today you liked the dumplings, and that made me happy. One is alive, and it’s a present.
Later on in the scene, Pawel asks his aunt is she believes in God. She nods affirmingly and then he asks, “who is he?” She draws the young boy into an embracing hug and asks him “how do you feel now?” Pawel responds, “I love you.”
“Exactly,” Irena says, “that’s where he is.”
There is something so beautifully practical and simple and childlike in that response, and it does reflect the heart of God. I believe it’s safe to say that we do not experience God in an isolated chasm. We need each other. We give God’s love to each other.
Irena’s illustration echoes Thomas Merton’s sentiment:
“We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it is only when are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others. What do I mean by loving ourselves properly? I mean, first of all, desiring to live, accepting life as a very great gift and a great good, not because of what it gives us, but because of what it enables us to give to others.”
Together, in the Church
As maritally unattached people, we come to church many times feeling alienated from the emphasis on couples and families. We may feel unseen, unheard, and undervalued. It is dispiriting to sit alone in church where everyone seems to married. It is uncomfortable, but recently I have made the effort to sit with married couples. Finding safety with a few married couples has lent a more integrative Sunday experience. Through being more interwoven in the fabric of my church I can show myself to be a complete adult. As I get involved in my church whether I do childcare, work with the youth, or show hospitality to newcomers, I can in very small ways help people in their needs. Unfortunately, as a busy student, I am still figuring out how I can best serve the church in my single state.
Rev. Christopher says it takes bold communities of faith to tackle issues of sexuality publicly, but they can encourage men and women to talk about their particular struggles. The Church can become a safe place of healing and for growing relationships, characterized by grace. She helps us to consider this: membership in the Old Testament was through earthly marriage, but membership in the New Covenant is through new birth in Christ, and membership in the church family. There are countless stories of the early saints are about virgins who were killed for their refusal to marry. It wasn’t that the Church thought marriage was sinful; but Christian tradition has declared that a person’s value is not measured in terms of marital status. It is measured in terms of kingdom devotion. St. John Chrysostom says that marriage is the image of heaven and celibacy is the image of the kingdom. Lauren Winner says that “…singleness occupies a distinct and crucial place in God’s economy.”
Singleness also teaches us about eternity as Winner reminds me of Jesus’ difficult teaching on no marriage in heaven. In the resurrection life, we will be resurrected with Christ and known as particular people—our truest, realest selves. Our most lasting relationship is that of sibling as we can consider all of our co-heirs in Christ siblings. Even a husband or wife is first and foremost a brother or sister. Singles need close, intimate relationships—we are not meant to be left alone because we are not coupled. Jesus formed a family around himself, so far as to say publicly that his brothers and sisters were the ones gathered around Him—they are together, traveled together, and likely laughed and cried together. Lisa McMinn tells us when singles love others freely and openly, “they reflect this expansive, universal love of God. They reflect a God who is unencumbered and free in expressions of love that can be given to all without a sense of betrayal or infidelity.”
What does this have to do with chastity?
For a long time, I have been discontent with the church’s answers of why singles should maintain a traditional Christian sex ethic. It seems like the answer is “no, but don’t ask any questions.” I am coming to see that remaining spiritually clean, not only has to do with me, but it has to also deal with my relationships, especially my relationship with the Church.
In Real Sex, Lauren Winner reminds us that practicing chastity is a spiritual discipline, much like fasting from food that keeps us pure and holy. Practicing chastity as a discipline is loving (in obedience) to God, and it is loving to others. Premarital sex does not love as it is not in the confines of a covenant relationship. Loving behavior does not take advantage of peoples’ bodies—but it nurtures, develops intimacy, protests, and brings freedom to relationships in a biblically true way. Loving behavior does not bring about shame.
Adele Ahlberg Calhoun defines chastity as rooted in deep acceptance and respect and protection of a glorious body God given me and all other human beings. The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, where we cultivate its fruits. Winner explains that in Paul’s image, sex is joining your body to someone else’s. In baptism, we become part of Christ’s body, and it is Christ’s Body which gives one permission by marriage to join to another body. Outside of the wedding vows, we have no inherent right toward sex, as it is communally-sanctioned by the church, under God. To have sex outside of marriage is committing offense to the Body, becoming an embodied apostasy. The act is done against God, against the Church, and against oneself. Sexual immorality drives us away from the Church, but on the other side of sexual mortality, Stanley Grenz says, “The drive to bond with others in community is an expression of our fundamental sexuality, a sexuality that goes deeper than body parts, potential roles in reproduction and genital acts.”
Doing life with people in the midst of forgotten pain is hard. But actually being in the pain seems harder. Letting it sink in, and facing just leaves me exhausted and apathetic to things that are sliding down the priority list. End of semester papers, commitments, social responsibilities. In order to get through life, to do my assignments, to wake up for work, to keep alert and engaged at work, I sometimes numb myself by disconnecting. Loneliness seems just a safer place, then initiating. I go to other places to get my needs met.My iPhone becomes the tool in which I receive attention and affirmation, whether it is someone liking my Facebook post, or a cute guy messaging me on Match.com. Someone please acknowledge me is my cry. I might be chaste, but I still have idols that keep me from having good spiritual hygiene, and keep me from other people. Cornelius Plantinga says of idolatry,
All idolatry is not only treacherous but also futile. Human desire, deep and restless and seemingly unfillable keeps stuffing itself with finite goods, but these cannot satisfy. If we try to fill our hearts with anything besides the God of the universe, we find that we are overfed but undernourished, and we find that day by day, week by week, year after year, we are thinning down to a mere outline of a human being.
Charles Sherlock reminds us that being made in the image of God entails social relationships between humans (hortizontal), and the upward/downward notion of dominion (vertical), where we look up to hear and respond to God as obedient creatures called down to steward the created world.This underlies the notion of what it means to be fully human, but because of the Fall, we become people in danger of becoming isolated and “dehumanized”
As a young adult who is distinct from her family of origin but has no permanence of people to cleave to, I sometimes feel like my life is not lived in the dynamic and personal relationships which echo God’s Trinitarian bliss. Being a single person in transition can feel de-humanizing when community is not permanent, and the vertical parts of one’s life get difficult when there is no set vocation, and God seems to be far away. I can move toward a life mirroring Christ, the true likeness of God. I am called out of my sin of omission to truly perform the acts of being human. I am learning to recover my voice and re-develop a sense of differentiated agency. As I discover who I am within the context of a more integrated community, I cling to God’s family and I allow myself to be vulnerable to take initiative in intentionally developing relationships.
As a woman wonderfully made by God, I would like to bear his image in being an agent, someone on commission whether I counsel couples in conflict or lay in the sun for the afternoon with a roommate. Being an image bearer means imitating Christ in work, play, serving the created order, rest, and relationship. Sherlock says, “it is in the full humanity of Christ that human wholeness is displayed fully, in response to God, in his relation with others and in his own self.” Jesus ate and drink, even resurrected, and had a full emotional life, and full spiritual life. In living a fuller spiritual and emotional life, I will learn not to suppress my pain, but I will not allow it to control me. I will take it to the Lord, because he is with me in this pain. God has designed me for more than experiencing pain; he has designed me for joy and to share his joy with others; he delights when I eat with him in his presence.
We all need Easter
Easter was not a bad day, but I wasn’t really feeling it. I was away from my family and away from my best friends. I had a fun time with various friends, but I made quick meatballs. It felt different from laboring over my traditional Easter lasagna. So, I decided to do Easter again. My roommates, who had been out of town, were back and I invited a few other friends over. Sitting down together, we took some time to ponder what the resurrection really means. We looked at the story of Mary Magdalene, and the other women who ran in trembling shock and terror from the tomb. They were traumatized. Looking at John’s account, Mary M. did not trust the announcement of Jesus’ return until she faced the gardener who addressed her by her name. He did this in a very distinctively relational way that only Mary M. could know. He revealed himself to her so she could trust and believe.
The story of Mary M. at the tomb is a turn from traumatized disbelief into joyous belief and hope, and more to come. That is the resurrection. I could have once been possessed by several demons, and I could have thrown myself at many men, and Jesus would still reveal himself to me. He has chosen me, in him, before the foundation of the world, and he calls me lovely. Even though I feel completely unloveable.
The Jesus of the resurrection assures us that we are loveable, that we are dignified human beings. And he tells Mary M to tell the others. He empowers her to initiate connection through sharing his resurrected life. So they could eat, and drink and be together until his ascension. He invites Mary M. to use her pain and trauma to be vulnerable to connect to others, as she connects back with him, crying out “Rabboni!” as she embraces him with a hug.
This post- Easter dinner was special to me, to labor over a lasagna, to share it with people, to love them and celebrate resurrection life together. Mary M. and Irena are both teaching me how to meet others’ needs and to show my own needs, to share in God’s love in connectedness with his beloved ones.