Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Abi ponders Deb's book, Redeeming Sex

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Redeeming Sex, by the fabulous Debra Hirsch, is a book whose time has come. And it really is about time!

This book is one of those that everyone must read. Probably more than once. Then process it with someone else. Perhaps with one person, perhaps in a small group. Each of us have experienced books that cause us to shift. This is one of them. 

But be prepared for it to not be what you were expecting – whatever it is that you're expecting. Just let it be what it is and receive it as an unexpected gift.

Let me explain.

Bear with me while I explain, because it requires some back story.

I've recently been revisiting books by the late psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck. It never ceases to amaze me how profound they remain – and how differently they impact me each time I return. This winter my 19 year old son and I read through and processed Peck's first book, The Road Less Traveled. I filled a notebook with thoughts – the things I wanted to be sure to discuss with my son. He found it to be a very timely and profound experience and we had many hours of deep discussion.

Then I moved to a book Peck had written some ten years later, The Road Less Traveled and Beyond. I have said a number of times that the first chapter of this book alone is worth the price. It is about Thinking. He stated that he believed simplistic, disordered thinking was not only A problem, but THE problem in the world. I agreed when I first read it, and I agree even more now. Thinking is hard work. Those who are unwilling to embrace the work look for short cuts. Most short cuts end badly....

Peck said that even as a child he was prone to want to talk about things that no one wanted to talk about. That desire never left, for which I am sincerely grateful. His books have been full of things that everyone was thinking about but no one was talking about. He grew into a man who learned that life is difficult. In order to function well and overcome life's difficulties, he learned that discipline was the key. The career he chose required that one discipline he must hone into an art form was listening. And he found that most people responded more to being listened to than anything he might have to say to them. That's worth remembering....

Discipline was a tool belt consisting of four basic tools, said Peck. Each one of these tools is necessary to find one's way well in this challenging world of people and relationships and ideas. As I read through that first section on Discipline in Peck's first book, I was struck hard: I was not a disciplined person. I had some discipline. I knew how to work hard. I had a significant skill set. But I had a tendency to try to avoid some problems because of the emotional suffering that came with them. Peck said that this tendency is the primary basis for all human mental illness.

As I processed his “tools” I came to realize why my life has been so difficult. It was difficult because confronting and solving problems is painful. I don't like pain – things Peck identified as frustration, grief, sadness, loneliness, guilt, regret, anger, fear, anxiety, anguish and despair. I tend to want to avoid pain. But I stumbled over problems – and the pain they caused – that I was ill equipped to solve because I had not been consistent in the use of discipline's tools. How could that have happened? Somehow, I don't think I'm alone in this experience.

So, let's briefly identify these tools before I continue:
  1. Delaying gratification. Doing what must be done, especially those things that are very hard and not particularly enjoyable, actually is the least painful (in the long run) and allows us to get on with those things we want to do – the things that bring us joy. Procrastination is the anthesis of delaying gratification.
  2. Accepting responsibility. Having the courage to own our thoughts and actions – and the effect they have on other people and our relationships. Sometimes we try to accept responsibility for things that are not ours. Other times we project responsibility for our issues onto others. But if we don't learn how to consistently own our story, we move toward the disordered thinking that underpins mental illness.
  3. Dedication to the truth. My son and I were surprised by Peck's definition of a “white lie” as being truthful about what is said, while leaving out enough details so as to actually deceive by the withholding of truth. I think this is where “speaking the truth in love” comes into play. We need to speak to each other in ways that promote the best interest of the other. When we include or exclude things that are hurtful rather than helpful, we stray. Self-deception is the enemy here.
  4. Balancing (including bracketing). This is the discipline that disciplines discipline. This is where we check our preconceptions and biases. Where we set aside our first impressions in order to be able to listen fully to the other – to stand in their shoes and look out from their eyes. Where we look for context for the narrative, not just the facts. It is where cHesed enters as genuine affection, gracious response, and merciful initiative are extended toward the other.
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Well, after that long explanation of my context when I was reading Deb's book, I'm ready to share why I think her book is so important.

I think I'm not the only one who suffers with being inconsistently disciplined. I think it is a human problem. It is a problem with integrity – with the proper integration of spirituality and sexuality. And because humans have functioned within this particular disintegration for so very long, we have come to normalize it. We don't know we're blind because we think this is the way it is supposed to be.

Like Peck, Hirsch is someone who is comfortable talking about things most people aren't. She is like a fresh wind on a smoggy day. Deb has a way of taking normal things and hosing off the shame that has been applied to them. She sneaks past the watchful dragons of society – especially church society – and turns on the lights, chasing away specters of ignorance too long masquerading as truth.

Even though she doesn't use these terms, Deb has essentially asked us to pick up our tool belts and start using discipline's tools to help us learn to receive God's love, return God's love, and share God's love with one another. She is calling us to the tasks of discipleship as we live and walk in the Way of Jesus.

The tool that allows us to delay gratification has too often been misused – like using a wrench as a hammer. Even worse, when it comes to sexuality, it has too often been a matter of denying gratification. And this comes from not understanding the connection between spirituality and sexuality. Deb calls them two sides of the same coin. Perhaps I would say that sexuality and spirituality are like the wings of a bird – they have to work together if the bird is going to fly. Deb's words open the door of a cage that has kept so many birds cooped up for so long that they had forgotten they were ever meant to fly!

The tool that allows us to accept responsibility has been corroded with shame and guilt – bringing it out brings condemnation and dishonor from those who have forgotten that sanctification is a life-long journey of remembering that Jesus is our sanctification...we are accepted, we belong, because of what he did, not by what we have accomplished. Rather than always being ready to confess our sins one to another, we wear masks and hide behind pleasantries. Who are we trying to fool? Deb calls us to transparency and vulnerability so that forgiveness and restoration might arise.

The tool that allows us to be dedicated to the truth is too often blunted by ignorance. We are not really interested in what is true – just what is comfortable and consistent with what we already believe. Especially, what we have been told to believe by our leaders. We are discouraged from asking inconvenient questions and wrestling with our doubts and fears.

She asks us to stop telling white lies – to ourselves and to one another. Particularly, Deb asks us to stop lying about sin – that some sins are “worse” than others. That we call upon our courage and humility and take the plank out of our eye before we go after the speck in the eye of another. She calls us to stand in the sandals of Jesus and look at each other out of his eyes.

Finally, the tool that allows us to keep things in balance – to see things in the proper context – has been removed from many tool belts altogether! Preconceptions and biases and stereotypes combine with fears and outright misinformation to throw us off balance. All too often this is packaged as obedience, when it is more about power and control and order. Deb calls us to wade into the messiness and face our own fears about our own issues. Only then can we tackle our fears about others and allow the Spirit to show us how to love and accept them.

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Deb's transparency and vulnerability as she shares her story, and the stories of her family and friends, is almost as shocking as the details. And that's because she tells things just as they are – normal. She asks us to set aside what we might think “normal” is and stretch ourselves. Peck defines love as extending oneself for the spiritual growth of the self as well as the other. Hirsch provides fresh perspectives on many angles surrounding the issues of gender, sexual expression, marriage, celibacy – and what the church has thought about them through the centuries. Let's just say that not all of the church teachings have been consistent with the Scriptures, as seen through Hebraic lenses and the life and ministry of Jesus.

When I teach something that might be challenging or controversial, I ask those listening to not get derailed but set aside their disbelief long enough to listen deeply and understand what I'm actually saying. When they hear something that brings up questions, make a quick note of the thought or question – to discuss later, if needed. More often than not, the discipline of listening fully finds a way of answering those quickly scribbled questions. If not, at least it helps one ask the questions that remain with much more humility and openness.

I ask you to approach this thoughtful and humble and informative book with that same respect. Set aside what you think you know and let Deb take you deep inside her story. Let yourself feel what she shares so that empathy wells up in your heart, washes over your fears, and lets the perfect love of Jesus cast them out.

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Life is a wild ride. None of us get out of it alive. But it is meant to be filled with the most exquisite experiences of love and grace and mercy. This amazing book can help you get more of what God intends.

Be blessed,