Putting Sex back into Christmas

Robin:

Each year at Christmas, we encounter the biblical description of what has become known as the Virgin Birth (not to be confused with“ immaculate conception,” which says the conception of Mary was immaculate).  We have two sources for this, chapter one of both the Gospel according to Matthew and according to Luke. Mark is silent, as is John. This “pure” way of Jesus’ conception maintains a powerful hold for many believers.

Long ago, I became convinced that this is theological make believe, dreamt up by those who felt that the Messiah could not be the Messiah if he were the product of the sexual activity of his parents. If he is going to be the Son of God, surely God must be his father, right?

Of course, this denies the fact that for me, and most Christians, and Jews, too, every human being is born a child of God. Whether this is literal or figurative is important but does not take away the power of the connection between humanity and the divine One. Without God, the Source of all life, we would not be here.

I remember when I served as a seminary field education intern at an Episcopal congregation in Brookline, MA, I was assigned to meet weekly with the women’s Bible study group. When I told them we would read the birth account from Matthew and from Luke for the following week, one of the members, an older woman born in England, said, “You won’t require us to believe in the virgin birth will you?” Others supported her.

I assured them we did not have theological litmus tests in the group. During our subsequent discussion of the texts, most of the women, some of whom were mothers, spoke very plainly about their belief that Jesus was the child of Mary and Joseph in all respects. The mothers spoke movingly about the birthing experience, including knowing that, whether their husbands were allowed to be present or not (this was 1981 and these births had taken place considerably earlier when the presence of fathers in the delivery room was less common), they shared the intense feelings—the pain and the joy—with the partner who shared the responsibility for creating and caring for this new life.

I was very moved. I thought about the stories of the birth in the stable, how Joseph is pictured as being there with Mary and the baby and how he took them to Egypt for safety against the rampage of King Herod. I also thought about the birth of my daughters, perhaps most powerfully the first but with all three, and how I was present in the delivery room and how I heard angels singing and creation cheering as Judy’s labor pains became more and more intense, then gave way to birth. Each time I felt overwhelming joy and awe. I wept, I thanked God again and again for bringing me and Judy together in the first place and then blessing our marriage and love-making and being on the parenting journey with us. We—Judy, God and I—were a threesome creating life.

I say love-making, but of course I mean sex. Over the course of our almost nine-year marriage, Judy and I had sexual intercourse—more than three times—that resulted in the births of three girls. Some people say, “We’re trying to make a baby.” It is a nice way of saying they are having sex, and hope sperm and egg will meet and mate.

For some reason we can’t talk about it. I think a key reason for that is the idea that Jesus had to be born without human sexual activity in order to be holy. In order to be better than every other human he could not be conceived in the usual way. That sets up a system in which human sexuality is devalued. I admit to not being an expert about ancient attitudes toward sex, so it is entirely possible, I imagine likely, that the devaluing of human sexuality was already a common social idea.

Either way, today we can’t even talk about sex in general, really talk about it, honestly and seriously without innuendo and jokes (often offensive). Currently, much conversation is, rightly, focused on the misuse and abuse of sex, and that soul-searching and fundamental change must continue.

DashHouse.com

Still, I want us as a society, and certainly those of us who are Christians, to find ways to talk more openly about the beauty and power of sex. One way to do that is to put the sex back in Christmas, or more accurately to jettison the Virgin Birth in favor of the real conception and the real birth which brought Jesus into the world.

According to polls, most Americans believe in the facticity of the Virgin Birth. Many Christian theologians and clergy, probably most, see it as an essential doctrine. “To remove the miraculous from Christmas is to remove this central story of Christianity,” according to Gary Burge, a professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. “It would dismantle the very center of Christian thought and take away the keystone of the arch of Christian theology.”

Burge, and many others share this view: If Jesus was not virgin-born, then he was not the son of God; if he was not the son of God, then he was just another crucified man and not the sacrifice that would redeem the sins of the world. (To read a journalistic account of this debate, click here )

I want to be clear on one point: I do not question the power of God to do this impregnating, but I do question whether God would see the need to undermine the power and beauty of divinely-inspired creation in order to anoint a human as Messiah.

God likes sex, wants us to have more of it—with consent—and enjoy it more, not only during the acts but to be able to talk about it and enjoy it openly in anticipation and memory. Indeed, I think if we could get sex really out in the open it would be less susceptible to abuse.

So, here’s to Mary and Joseph, who got it on and created Jesus of Nazareth. Thanks be to God!

Malachi:

Perhaps this is less of a risqué statement now than it would have been at other points, but as we approach the Christmas season, I have to make a confession: I have never believed in the immaculate conception, nor the concept of the virgin birth.

This is, perhaps, a strange thing because, after all, isn’t the virgin birth a central aspect of the Christmas story and, in fact, the entirety of the Christian faith? I remember having a conversation with someone- I believe it was my mother, while she was in seminary- and we were discussing the concepts of virgin birth and immaculate conception. She told me that what makes the story of Mary unusual isn’t the claim of impregnation while maintaining virginity-

Photo credit: NearlyCandy Photography

historically, queens would make this claim as justification for what made their sons fit to rule over other men; they were not just men, but half-gods, conceived through divine intervention and ordained by deity to rule. No, what made Mary’s claim uncommon wasn’t that she claimed immaculate conception, but that she did so as a commoner. She was not a queen and she was in no position to bear children destined to rule over others.

Understanding that history solidified my belief that Mary was not, in fact, a virgin. I don’t know how she was impregnated, but I assume one of two things happened: either she had premarital intercourse with someone (perhaps Joseph, perhaps someone else), or she was sexually assaulted and became pregnant as a result. Either way, I think there are powerful messages in the concept of the Christmas story that are missed when we cling to a belief in the virgin birth story.

I think we find an incredible story of mercy. A story that shows us the power of God to take a horrific experience (such as assault or rape) and transform it into something healing and powerful. Do I think that the birth of Jesus is a justification for the traumatic experience of rape? Of course not; I’ve never ascribed much to an “ends justify the means” mentality. Rape is, in and of itself, a traumatic, horrific experience, and to live through it (and bear children as a result of it) is atrocious. But the world is full of trauma and horrific experiences that people must figure out how to live through (as we continuously work to eradicate sexually-based violence), and in the story of Mary, I see an immense capacity for healing and transformation after a violating experience.

How can we come to heal from our own traumas and begin to see the experiences that shaped us in new ways? Without minimizing the horror of violence visited upon bodies, how can we realistically move through these experiences to come to a new way of existing in our world? Perhaps we become brazen, like Mary. Perhaps we speak up, and speak our truth. For her, her truth was that she was carrying a child destined to become the King of Kings, the Messiah. She was scorned and ridiculed for her truth, yet she spoke it anyway. What truth can we speak from our own wounds and traumas?

On a less heavy note, my preference is to believe that Mary had premarital

Photo credit

sex. Perhaps she was working as a sex worker, or perhaps she and Joseph got caught up in a moment of passion. Regardless, she broke social mores and bore the consequences of that. And God didn’t care. God is not bound my social rules, nor is God bound by expectations and social hierarchy. This child would be the vessel through which others would come to know and understand God, a message made that much more powerful in understanding that his roots are less than pristine.

What a message- we do not have to be perfect, or come from perfect circumstances, to be a vessel for God. We do not have to meet social criteria or man-made rules to be anointed and appointed. We are Enough, just as we are, not in spite of where we come from, but because of it. Mary had sex outside of wedlock and bore a child who would be known as the son of God. What further proof do we need in the awesome mercy of God, in the miracle of the Christmas story, in the power of our own sexuality to form and build and create?

I want to put the sex back into Christmas because I think the sex is important. I think that we have a rich, powerful story that explores the awesome power of sex to build and form connection, to create life- not just “life” in the sense of a child, but “life” in the sense of creating new life within each of us, allowing space for ourselves to grow in the power of God through our sexual experiences and expressions. Focusing on the virginity and purity of the story, for me, takes away from the awesome power of God to transform our lives- our very human, imperfect lives. Taking the sex out of Christmas allows us to cling to these ideas of purity and morality, an anti-sex sentiment that runs rampant in Christianity when, in fact, the origin of our faith is most likely rooted in sexual exploits that defied social rules!

Photo Credit here

Sex is good. And quite frankly, what I see in the Christmas story is one of God saying, “I don’t care if you signed the piece of paper before you fuck; I care that you live lives of intentionality and care, that you are willing to see the miracle of your existence and hear me when I speak your name. I care that you will listen to my call, even when others around you do not understand, even when others around you disagree, I want to know that you remain steadfast in your love for me.” And that is what I get out of Christmas: a story of healing. One of transformation. One where a young woman proudly claimed her right to bear children ordained by God. One where God shucks off the limiting rules of humanity and reminds us that God cannot be constrained by our limited perspectives on purity.

This is a message of hope, yes. One of power and transformation. But it is not found through ignoring, minimizing, or disregarding our sexual selves, but found through claiming, owning, experiencing them fully, and hearing when the voice of God speaks our names.

Summer of Transformations

Robin: 

revrobin2-023The three months since our hiatus began in late June have been filled with adventure and change for me.  I think of this as “My Naked Summer,” but this is about more than taking off my clothes. Another way to understand this time is to realize how much I have made friends with my own body, and in the process become more deeply connected with my soul.

I began this process with a four-day spiritual retreat at The Woods, an LGBT clothing optional campground near Lehighton, PA, in the Poconos. I packed gear and drove the 150 miles, excited to be on my way.  I pitched my tent, hiked trails and found secluded spots for periods of contemplation of nature, my life, and God.

Robin journaling at The Woods
Quiet time at The Woods

I had been unsure about why I desired a naked retreat, but as soon as I had a few hours of walking around sans clothes, with other people similarly undressed (and some dressed, too), I felt this great elation. I thought to myself, “this is the way I would like to live all the time.”  It seems clear to me that God called me there to learn this truth.

When I returned from camping, I knew I had to find more ways to be naked outdoors and among people. The ninth annual Philadelphia Naked Bike Ride in September beckoned. I am so glad I went—I experienced great joy hanging out with upwards of a thousand other naked or mostly naked folks, riding for more than two hours through downtown Philadelphia.

That’s me riding in Philadelphia, “Bare Is Beautiful” painted on my chest

There is a palpable sense of happiness and freedom in every group of naked people I have ever known, and this was no exception. It felt good to experience the approval of so many “textiles” watching us on every street, too. You can read more about it, and see a short video clip of me riding (note: you will see naked bodies) here as well as a reflection on the ride and my feelings before I went here

Again, I realized how much I yearn for nudity outside my home. So, right after I returned from Philadelphia I began learning more about several nudist groups I had joined but with which I had yet to connect.

The first result of that search is an event that sent my spirit soaring: standing, sitting, and lying nude in the studio of a photographer and artist. I was photographed extensively in various poses and then he spent an hour drawing my genitals. I loved the experience with the camera—my whole body felt alive, and I stopped worrying about my “Imperfections”—and want more, but watching him draw my dick and balls—he sat less than two feet in front of my sitting body—was fun and so very affirming. In that time, I shed more of my embarrassment (and shame) about my small “package” than in all the therapy and self-affirmation over many years. I look forward to more, even hoping to hire out for modeling in art classes.

Photo by J. Wayne Higgs (also shown drawing)

But this is about more than baring my body. Through that I am connecting more deeply with my soul. As I have become more comfortable with my physical being I have experienced a new sense of self as a gender queer cis gay male lover, Christian theologian and poet.

It feels like another coming out—there have several over the years in addition to coming out as gay in 1982—this time as a free, or at least freer, spirit, willing to move beyond a lifetime of obeisance to social norms. Even when I violated a norm, say sexuality in the 80’s, I compensated in other ways so no one would forget what a good guy I am.

I am still a good guy, at least I try to be, but that no longer includes hiding the beauty of my body, indeed the beauty of all bodies and it means being even more determined to talk about sex (and race, so connected to all this) in religious contexts—in fact, it means that I am becoming a more active, committed advocate for greater body and sexual openness in our society.  I am surely glad to continue this work with Malachi.

Soon I will change the name of my personal blog, “Make Love. Build Community,” to “The Naked Theologian.”  This new blog is not intended to focus on naked bodies, but it will not hide them (including my own) either.

My intention is to provide resources for an ongoing movement of free thinkers and free bodies, especially within, but not limited to, faith communities.  Liberation, justice, freedom are always about bodies. When our bodies are free, we have a better chance to be free in our whole selves, and to promote the freedom of others.

I recognize the risk of rejection and disapproval by some, but the call of God on my soul, and my body, is strong, and I am now, at 71, ready to respond to that call with renewed energy, joy, love and hope.

What a summer it has been, and what adventures lie ahead!

Malachi:

This has been a period of transformation. In many ways, this has been the culmination of lessons that began early this year and came to fruition throughout the course of the summer.

When Robin and I decided to take a hiatus from writing, I admit a sense of relief. This had begun to drain me more than feed me, and I had a summer of conferences and conventions looming that I knew would take every ounce of emotional strength I had. So I confess, I welcomed the respite, although I have missed the discussions Robin and I would have every week to reflect and prepare. As much as I needed the break, however, God does not. Though I wasn’t doing this particular work, I began to recognize that this may have been by design. After all, God had some work to do on me.

Much of what we have written about in the past is our own internal sense of our relationships with ourselves and the holy, how that manifests through the expressions of our bodies and the work of our hands and the exploration of our sexualities. For me, these things have come together in a singular way: learning rope.

photo by honey_bare

Rope (and rope bondage) is often portrayed as a sexual activity, a way to restrain a partner during intimacy. In reality, though, it is so much more than that. Rope can be performative (for those who are familiar with aerial silks, it’s not dissimilar). It can be meditative, it can be cathartic, it can be connective, it can be spiritual. For me, specifically, rope isn’t inherently sexual, but is a way for me to let go of anxiety around my body and body language. Because I spend so much time aware of my presentation- am I being open and accessible with my body language, or closed down and unapproachable? What do people see when they look at me, and is it what I want them to see?- rope gives me a respite from that. Someone else is arranging my body and positioning. Someone else is in control of what my body presents, how it moves, what it’s saying. It’s a specific type of comfort and freedom that’s difficult to explain, but it’s a place I have found a lot of peace.

This summer, I found connection unlike anything I have experienced in years with someone through tying with them. At one of the kink events I attended early in the summer, I met someone to whom I was immediately attracted who is part of the rope community, which is a subculture inside the larger BDSM community. He and I did a rope scene together in which he tied and moved me in various ways, and through that interaction, we both recognized a chemistry and connection that we both wanted to explore further. That dynamic quickly became sexual, and we have spent the summer building a relationship that feels mutual, balanced, and pushes both of us- both inside and outside of rope.

In August, I worked another event at which I was able to witness one of the most breathtaking rope performances I have ever seen. The performer took herself through a series of different body positions and manipulations through different ways of tying, creating an image of a chrysalis, and then cutting herself free. It was transformative- both the content of the performance, but also the impact it had on me.  Watching this ignited a passion in me- I wanted to learn how to do that– and I decided to begin-again- the journey of learning how to tie.

I’ve dabbled in learning rope before, but it hasn’t been the right time, and it’s never stuck. My own fears about being “bad” at rope often got in my own way, and I didn’t seek out the resources to learn how to be better. Immediately after watching the performance, however, I had a conversation with a friend who handled me a small length of rope and taught me two or three things to practice to get started, supporting my first steps in this journey. Not long thereafter, I had a conversation with someone who is the first person I ever tied with, explaining that I wanted to start learning, but I wanted to do so in a space that was more queer and femme-focused- voices that, much like in mainstream culture, are often drowned out by the voices of cis white heterosexual men. They concurred, and began organizing a monthly rope skill share at their home with a collection of queer and femme people who love rope. It has been in that space, more than any other, that I have found confidence, community, and support.

These interactions- meeting my now-sweetheart, watching that performance, and joining a queer rope group- have been the foundations of my explorations inside of rope. The performance was a catalyst to get involved in a community on which I have been on the periphery for years. The rope group gives me a safe place to learn and try new things without fear of judgement when I (inevitably) mess up. My sweetheart who, coincidentally, is also an engineer, built a rig in my home so that I could have a space to practice more. And through rope, I am constantly learning and challenging my own sense of perfectionism and fear of failure through the process of learning something new and very skill-based. I have found a deep peace when I tie, something that feels calm and meditative, something that feels like a way to deepen connection with my own body while simultaneously stepping out of self-consciousness. I am learning how to feel strong in my body, how to view my body as a source of strength and power.

Although in many ways, rope has felt like the catalyst, the reality is that there has been so much work to prepare myself to be open to new ways of engaging. Rope is a manifestation of openness and, while it is the most prominent, it is not the only one. New relationships, different means of understanding and articulating boundaries, and a powerful sense of autonomy and self-expression have all come from a sense of openness and willingness to be vulnerable and honest. That openness needed some time to settle and feel sustainable and safe, and for that, I am still immensely grateful that Robin and I took a period of time to pause and reflect. But we are- and I am- back now, and excited to push forward on the powerful and transformative journey of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

Have you experienced transformation through your body? If not, do you want to? What does your body teach you spiritually? Have you experienced profound change due to taking a break from work or studies or some other activity? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

Mark Your Calendar! November 8, right here, the next installment of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.