One of the strange side-effects of taking up blogging is navigating the segues between what I say online, the people who read it and those who I know in real life. I’ve been told off for talking like this in the past, with the insistence that online relationships are also real. Maybe so, but my relationships with those I see in the flesh will, and I would argue should always, take priority over those I only have contact with over cyberspace.
The difficult part are those who fall into both camps. Walking into church at the weekend was a little strange, I’ve written 4 pretty lengthy posts offering my thoughts about relationships, and in small group settings over the past few days talked quite a lot about it. But this was a large gathering with people I know well, those I know a little, and many I do not know at all. And quite a few of them will have read my thoughts. I would really rather keep them in separate camps, as many people can read the blog as they like, but please not those I meet in my daily life (unfortunately I think the ship has sailed on that one). As a side note it’s interesting to see comments from people I haven’t seen in a few years, the internet can do some wonderful things.
I’ve always had a slightly insidious predilection for compartmentalising my life into little boxes, and not really being very comfortable when the edges blur. It lets me determine which picture I paint of myself, specific to the situation and I find it hard when friends, family or colleagues cross from one setting into another. The truth is the boxes we build are always porous, and they have to be, but we often construct them for our own convenience to let us present our best face, which may be different to different people.
Sometimes we forget that God lives in all our boxes.
He is there when we sing songs of worship, when we read the Bible, he’s there when we struggle to get out of bed and when we stagger back in smelling of pilchards. God is there when we love him and when he forget him. God is there when we nervously reach out a hand to touch the palm of the girl before us, he is there in the tears and the heartache. He is there in the ecstasy and the intimacy.
And we do none of these things separate from our relationship with God. A really key contribution to this subject is a chapter towards the end of Alan and Debra Hirsch’s book Untamed called ‘Too sexy for the church?’.
The church has been criticised for taking the language and behaviour of romance and using it for our relationship with God. Particularly stinging criticism has been levelled at some contemporary worship, as ‘Jesus is my girlfriend songs’. What we have not done as much of is consider the depth and the extent of our relationship with God and include within that our romance and relationships.
We deal with sexuality outside of the context of spirituality. And often the only place that it has within discipleship is its prohibition outside of marriage. It is often skipped over with uncommon haste the fact that we are sexual beings. That we have a sexual nature, which while often corrupted, is not in and of itself sinful outside marriage. Let me state this clearly, sexuality in singles is not sinful.
In Untamed the activities of several of the early church fathers is considered as mistaken; Origen, Augustine, and Simon Stylites went to pretty extreme measures to deny their desires because they felt they were incompatible with God’s holiness (including self castration and living on a pole for 40 years).
In the contemporary church there is often a lot of talk about the wonderful gift of sex that married people can enjoy. Following the Hirschs I want to suggest that the marriage covenant in which sexual relationships flourish is the high water mark of the second half the great commandment. To love the lord your God with all your heart soul mind and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself. We are to grow in relationship with God, and in relationship with people.
Too often we box up the little bits of our life and apply our beliefs to them in isolation, we ensure that our faith is sufficiently malleable to fit our context. So we might talk about marriage in church, we might talk about discipleship and the Lordship of Christ. But we don’t do enough to connect the dots.
While we talk openly and honestly about loving one another in church the purpose of it is a platonic, or perhaps agape, love, it is about building community, about knowing each other deeply. We don’t just leave things to chance, we set aside time, we meet together, we ask tough questions and aren’t satisfied by pat answers. It is not always easy, and often doesn’t work like this but at its best it is deliberate and it is clear.
We show no such clarity or intentionality in how we pursue relationships. It might best be characterised as a hazy fog. As well as the duality that often characterises our handling of sexuality, and detaches it from discipleship, there are a couple of other issues at work here. I’ll mention one briefly now, and the second deserves a post of its own.
We get sucked into a vortex of secrecy and uncertainty. And while we kind of guess that others experience similar dilemmas, we act in our own isolated world. An upshot of all this thinking and writing on relationships is a number of pretty frank conversations about it. I’ve started to try to put together, in my head at least, a definition to what this blog will be about, and if I want to achieve anything, I think it is to get people thinking and talking about areas of their faith which too often go unspoken.
I’m all for discretion in handling sensitive issues, where passions and emotions are in play, but don’t let privacy be an excuse for secrecy.
And the next one, well that would be relationship idolatry…