The Lived Sexual Body and a New Evangelism

Scot McKnight over at Jesus Creed posted Evangelicalism's obituary a few weeks ago. In a brief text message exchange at the time I wrote to him: "So you are giving up on the term "evangelical?' I was surprised to read that today. I don't think I can do that yet, though I totally agree with your assessment." He replied, "It means GOP." I didn't, but, in agreeing, I could have also added "and nearsighted on human sexuality."

I then went on to argue in a few lines that we can't abandon this beautiful, rich, biblical, gospel of the kingdom term. There is no better term to capture God's work of love and care for the world.

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I wrote, "You can't jump from the evangelical ship! You are The Godfather of evangelical awesome!" - that was great line if I do say so my self! The conversation moved on to Yankees and Cubs and that was it. 

I am now more willing, a few days later, to join in the pronouncement American evangelicalisms death. But "we are not like those who have no hope!" Just as I can say, Hallelujah, Christ is Risen!

So also, I can say, the Gospel of the King is good news again!

Evangelicalism is good news for our world! I have good news. And I want to tell others about the news, I desire others to follow Jesus, to cherish Scripture and live into its canonical story, to embrace the self-giving work of Christ, and to be enlisted into the work of "goodnews-ing" the world through deeds and words.

 Evangelical means a call to a vocation to be "Christ for others." 

Only those who’s ultimate standard is not his reason, his principles, conscience, freedom, or virtue; only the one who is prepared to sacrifice all of these when, in faith and in relationship to God alone, he is called to obedient and responsible action . . . founded in a God who promises forgiveness and consolation to the one who on account of such action becomes a sinner.
— "After Ten Years," Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In the recent book, Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality, I wrote an essay called "Bent Sexuality and the Pastor." It stood a bit apart from the others in its attempt to problematize so-called biblical and Christian sexuality in light of our brokenness and trauma. You might say it's grounded in a robust "already-not yet" theological anthropology. 

I am vocally critical  - even, God forbid, to the point of strong emotion [can't have that!] - of some traditionalists, particularly one segment of American Evangelicalism, now collected around the Nashville Statement, and some of whom have contributed to this volume. My embodied aversion to this approach is what I see as it's near complete myopia related to the complex nature of our sexual body. The sexual body, both our own and other’s, is bent irreparably until Jesus makes all things new. I oppose what I see as a selective application to the sexual body of an unbiblical over-realized eschatology, not possessing a theological anthropology rooted in a New Testament alteady-not yet. 

I’m ill at ease in both the “traditionalist” and the “affirming” positions, as they have galvanized into impenetrable fortified city-states within the region formerly known as evangelicalism; these now are labels of gospel orthodoxy for defining faithful identity. I’m an affirmational traditionalist or, if you prefer, a traditional affirmationalist. Whatever! Seriously?!

And even if I were to concede that theoretically or abstractly or idealisticly total repair in our human life before new creation was possible through the "merits and mediation of Jesus" - that wonderful Anglican phrase, we are so egregiously self-delusional and lacking self-awareness that we are incapable of both naming and repenting of degree of the angle of our individual and communal sexual bentness to survive God's judgment. 

But what a wonderful, even scandalous, reality the Gospel is! God's kindness, his patience with us, and attention to us is always and ever present until we reach eternity. Whatever the healing of our sexual body might encompass in this life, it will only every be partial. And it will only be realized because we have come to know God's limitless kindness and inexhaustible patience through the care, attention and contempt-free curiosity of the church. 

I am also critical of affirming advocates who redefine the gender of the sexual body such that its redefinition is detached from body. While qualification absolutely needs to be injected into the overly ordered gender binary of male and female, given the presence of real live humans who don't fit the structure and who are nevertheless made in God's image, I reject any attempt to abstract gender from the concrete sexual body. I might add however that I also think much of what is labeled as either male or female today has little to do with a biblical gender identity.

I pray that what will come of the battle over and against the sexual body within the church ultimately will be a new community of Jesus followers - perhaps a new evangelicalism (a people of good news), who outright reject the war. And instead they form a volunteer body of new evangelical medics who, while taking fire from both sides of the battle lines, courageously and heroically build and defend a field hospital situated in the middle of no man's land between the battle trenches where human sexual bodies lay as casualties of war.

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In my heart and mind it is to this heroic and dangerous endeavor that Jesus calls true disciples today - those who are biblicists, crucicentrists, conversionists, and activists - "at the dawn of the twenty-first century;" I'm "persuaded that faithfulness in our generation means" venturing courageously into the no man's land between the two warring armies to care, attend, lament and love where the collateral damage from the weapons of warfare have left the vulnerable terribly wounded, pinned down, isolated and resourceless.  

These Hands Were Made For Build'n!

My hands.

I never think about my hands until I do. I notice my hands more in the late fall and winter than any other time of the year. That’s why I’m writing this post in November and not in June; this is for one very good reason: they hurt!

Over the last several fall-winters I’ve been forced to notice my hands.

The hands tell the depth and breadth of stories your body knows.

My hands tell a story.

Actually, my hands tell many stories. Through the creases of wrinkles over my fingers and the leathery skin of my hands I can trace a history.  I agree with one thing the fortune teller believes, if you know you’re hands you’ll know your past and your future.

The hands tell the depth and breadth of stories your body knows.

My hands have meaning.

And the “plain meaning” of my hands are their age. You can’t hid your age in you hands, though there is a cottage industry attempting to discover how. On my hands, I see the age of my body. These hands, which I barely ever am conscious of until I am, reflect that I’m not a 16-year old, a 26-year old or even a 36-year old. These hands don’t lie about my 46 years. I have the hands of a nearly 50-year old.

My hands witness to a life of a near half-century.

The “plain meaning” of my hands are their age.

But if I do say so myself, I’ve got good hands. They are masculine. My fingers are not stumpy or thick. They are lean and they are rugged. If only my whole body looked as good as my hands!

None of my fingers point in uncomfortably odd directions since I’ve never broken a bone. My hands have held up pretty well I would say. And even though I spend most of my time typing with my hands or waving them around in a lecture, they look like they have held a shovel, swung a hammer, dug a fence.

My hands are the hands of a man. They are the hands of my father.

They are the hands of my father.

Some years ago, and this was probably a decade ago, I was with my dad, which doesn’t happen much at all. Truth be told I could nearly count out the number of times I've been with my father as an adult on one hand. It was one of those rare occasions when I noticed his hands. Actually I was taken by his hands. Its slightly embarrassing to admit such a thing. Although we have so little in common, he and I, what I realized then was we have the same hands. This realization was both immensely comforting and also startling.

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It was comfortable because I’m so rarely conscious of being a "son," that I feel much like an orphan much of the time. I see my mom yearly, but it’s not the same. As Robert E. Willitts' biological son, my hands resemble his; and in the presence of his hands, I felt I had a history beyond myself; I felt like a descendant of someone.

At the sight of his similar hands, for a moment, I didn’t feel so isolated and alone.

Why startling? Because, honestly, I don’t want to be like him in any way. Our similarly looking hands took be by surprise because I felt like his son. I don't like that feeling. My father left me when I was a boy and basically that was that. While there are always circumstances, the fact is when he left, he left. From my 11-year old boy's perspective, the day he called to tell us he wasn't coming home, he ceased being my father. 

But that’s another story. This is one about my hands.

My hands are storied.

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When I stretch out my hand, I notice the wrinkles of skin over my knuckles layer and smush together causing a crease to rise at the center of each knuckle, well really just off center. My knuckles recall the topography of the southern Negev with its geological folds and creases. My hands present a turbulent history.

The skin over the back of my hands I hardly recognize as my own. It looks old, weathered, aged. It’s not taut and young. Whereas the knuckles’ skin wrinkles only in a horizontal direct, the skin on my hands has wrinkles in every direction. When you pull it there’s little elasticity.

My hands present a turbulent history.

The palms of my hands have deep creases fanning outward like a set of river canyons; and tough-skinned callouses still present from the summer’s and fall’s yard work.

So I’ve become conscious of all these things in the last several years because in the fall-winter the skin cracks in the corners of the tips of my fingers. It’s the equivalent to having multiple paper cuts. My hands get so dry that the skin at the corners of my fingers crack open sometimes to the point of bleeding. Ouch is right!

There’s only really one solution to the problem, and it’s with this that I have a major dilemma.

Before I tell you tha,t can I tell you one more thing about hands that comes to my mind? It’s not about my hands but about my son’s hands.

“Daddy, my hands were made for build’n”

One day I was out with the kids running errands. Karla was probably on a work trip. Zion and Mary were 4- or 5-years old. Sometime in route to somewhere, Zion says “Daddy, I want to tell you something!” He said it very emphatically. So, I responded, “Yeah son, what is that.” He said “Daddy, my hands were made for build'n!” I giggled and said, “That’s awesome son! God has big plans for those building hands!”

That’s one of those things a child says that you don’t ever forget!

God has big plans for those build’n hands!”

Back to my dilemma. The best thing for cracked dry hands is a combination of Neosporin ointment with pain relief and Aquaphor. Now the thing about both Neosporin and Aquaphor is that both are super greasy and leave a greasy residue on anything your fingers touch.

So, here’s the dilemma: when you have these salves on your painful cracks you can’t use your hands. See the problem. My hands are never idle. Come to think of it, there isn’t a time in the waking hours that my hands are not busy with something. Whether their holding a fountain pen or a pencil, a book or my iPad, or typing on my laptop or scrolling the phone, or holding a steering wheel, my hands are always at work doing something.

There’s no time to heal. There’s too much to do.

They reveal to my consciousness true embodied things about me of which I would have preferred to remain unaware. 

No time for my hands to sit folded in prayer or still to heal. There are tasks to complete; ideas to write; emails to respond to; miles to run; meals to cook; dishes to clean.

The only time my hands are idle is the brief - and growing briefer with each year - hours I’m sleeping.

My hands tell a true story.

They reveal to my consciousness true embodied things about me of which I would have preferred to remain unaware.  

I agree fully with the Ancient Hebrew Sage who also saw truth in the hands when he wrote:

 A little sleep, a little slumber,
               a little folding of the hands to rest,    and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
               and want, like an armed warrior.
                                 (Prov. 6:10-11; 24:33-34)

I’ve learned his lesson perhaps all too well! Resting my hands is not a familiar practice.

What story do your hands tell? 

What story do your hands tell?
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The Jail Door

If Jesus were sitting right here right now next to you on this couch, what would you ask him to do for you? What do you really want Jesus to do for you?

“If Jesus were sitting right here right now next to you on this couch, what would you ask him to do for you? Joel. what do you really want Jesus to do for you?” Jonathan asked me “the question” at the end of our first intensive therapy session.

After three hours, the conversation revealed that I wasn’t really sure whether I believed God could work significantly, redemptively in my life. What’s more, I came face to face with the question of whether I even wanted to be healed.

I came to a crossroads.

Did I really want to be healed by God? Did I really believe God would heal me if, in fact, I wanted it?

The question behind all the questions.

But why wouldn’t I want to be healed? It seemed like a ridiculous thought, a broken person not sure if they want to be whole. The truth, however, was far from ridiculous: a state of bentness was all that I have known as an adult. I couldn't imagine a different kind of sexuality; no, correct that, I couldn't risk imagining a different one.

I had already told Scott, my therapist back in Chicago, in our very first counseling session months earlier in the summer of 2013, I was afraid of the person I would end up becoming as a result of the therapeutic process.

"To be honest," I told him, "I like who I am." The lack of self awareness in that statement is breathtaking! But from where I was sitting at the time I felt I had worked very hard to be successful, spiritually, relationally and professionally. 

I had accomplished significant things.
I had a strong work ethic.
I was a survivor and heroic.
I was successful.
My survival strategy had worked effectively for a very long time.

But this was not the truth.

The truth was that my marriage of 20 years was struggling to keep a pulse. I had a lack of sexual desire and avoided intimacy. I was emotionally shallow and lived with a hermit-like independence from others. I had sexual struggles I couldn’t seem to conquer in spite of tremendous spiritual and behavioral effort over decades. I was a pastor who found little enjoyment from ministry with people.

The truth was I had a deep ambivalence (a double-mindedness) about my life of which I was barely conscious at the time. 

In view of my own life experience and that of many other pastors with whom I have the privilege of hearing their stories, I believe that pastors are some of the most self-unaware people on the planet. And this, despite thinking and assuming otherwise.

I am the poster child for the self-unaware pastor.

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The path toward healing was extremely unpredictable - too unpredictable for a hyper-viligant person as I was and still am - and the goal was worse than unclear, it seemed impossibly out of reach.

What if I don’t like the person I became?

What if I’m not as accomplished and productive?

What if I really do begin to connect emotionally to people and to life?

What kind of mess would that affect create in me?

And worse, what if I risked vulnerability only to be disappointed or more deeply hurt?

I came into that first session of intensive therapy with Jonathan uncertain about what I would really be getting out of it. Wonder why I had come? 

I had flown from Chicago to Denver on an early October day in 2013 to see Jonathan. But I didn't really know anything about him. He was recommended to me as an Allstar therapist. 

His office was in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. The “Office Center” at 9200 W. Cross Drive where he had an office is a six-floor building. The structure looks like it was modeled after a communist-style headquarters, the kind you see in the Czech Republic or some other Central European city. It towers awkwardly over a generic shopping mall that one can find in every suburban city, the one with the J.C. Penny’s and Dillard’s.

The first floor of the office building contains a Wells Fargo bank and an American Family Insurance branch. The suite number for Restoring the Soul is #650, so I assumed it is on the sixth floor. I get into the elevator with two older gentlemen. I don’t’ remember much about the two except that one of them was hobbling around determined to get wherever he was going with only one good leg. I couldn’t help but simile to myself as each man exited, first at the third and then the fifth.

If they only knew why I was going to the sixth floor. That I was headed to talk to a shrink, a person I had never before met, about my story of sexual abuse and its impact. I could be totally wrong, but these two grizzled seniors, who could have very likely seen the evils of war and tragedy the likes of which I could not even begin to imagine, would not be caught dead sitting down with someone to talk about their “dark sexual stories.”

I recognize that I’m part of a generation that had a choice about being in war and is flabby and weak by the ease of wealth. I’m part of a different generation than these honorable men to be sure. But our generation has the will to fight a different, but no less wounding war.

I kept riding the elevator to the sixth floor because I had begun to appreciate the harm that was done to me. I had begun to recognize the damage I had done and was doing to myself. And I had acknowledged the wounds I’m inflicted on others. I had grown disillusioned.

I entered the suite where Jonathan's office was and after sitting for a minute in the waiting room, he walked up. He looked young, but I had expected as much. He wore cool chunky plastic framed glasses with combed back and slightly greying short hair. He had a Christian hipster persona. He was dressed in an un-tucked plaid short-sleeved short with a skinny tie, blue jeans and Chucks. My first impression was a good one.

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After getting some coffee, Jonathan steered me to the couch in his office; he sat in a vintage cloth armchair. His whole office had a distressed wood aesthetic, really cool. Among the décor was an old wild-west wood jail door he picked up in an antique shop in Central City, a town just over the mountains. The door was propped up in a corner of the room. At one point after a break we talked about the door. “Oh, that old jail door?” he said.  “I plan one day to make it into my desk.” 

The door had a rectangular shape. It was probably six feet tall and not much more than two feet wide. The top half of the door had a wide opening with a number of rusted steel bars. A slatted wood plank was hinged over the bars that could be opened from the outside.

The wood of the door was full of scars. And at the bottom of the door was a six-inch gash. The door was like a character out of a wild-west film with a rugged story to tell.

For now, the old jail door just leaned up against that wall. It was a powerful symbol in a therapist's office.

Jonathan talked also about his vocation as a liberator of prisoners, the breaking down of jail doors in human hearts. So it was not only a very cool piece of décor, but it was also a profound emblem. And I was captured by Jonathan’s imagination of his therapeutic vocation as jailbreak.

My experience of him over the course of our seven plus hours of our work together reflected his vocational ambition.

He was on a mission, in his own words, “to come and get me!" His strength, confidence and tenacity was both bracing and comforting. Someone was finally noticing I was jailed deeply buried behind the illusion of freedom and power I had projected. I could let someone else save me.

I certainly came to his office seeking the freedom Jesus made possible in his death and resurrection at exceedingly deeper levels of experience. I came to his office to see the jail door of my heart broken down; or at least I thought I had until he asked "the question."

When Jonathan asked me what did I want Jesus to do for me, I felt what maybe the cripple at the side of the pool of Bethesda in John 5 did when Jesus asked him a very similar kind of question.

Jesus comes to this man and asks what was a patently obvious question, “Do you want to be healed?” The nameless man had been crippled for nearly fourty years we’re told by the narrator. Could there be any more obvious question?

We also are told that he had been there in that position for “long time” waiting, waiting for what though?

The KJV, which is based on a much later set of Greek manuscripts, adds that the man was waiting to be helped into the pool when angels stirred the waters, as it was believed to be a healing movement. Whether or not we should take that additional information to be factual, it remains the case that the man was languishing in his harm alongside a “multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.” 

Jesus walks up to him and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” “Well, I’m here, aren’t I?” the man might have thought to himself. “Why do you think I’m here?”

I feel the audacity of Jesus' question.

Through Jonathan's question I heard Jesus asking me, “Do you want to be healed?” And I ask myself, “What do I want from you, Jesus?” I say to him, “Isn’t it obvious? Isn’t being here evidence enough that I want something different; I want a change in my life; I want healing?” Jesus says to me, “Yes and it’s a start.” “But here’s the thing”, he continues, “Neither the crippled man nor you need to be anywhere, not in a pool or on a therapist’s couch. I have come to you right here where you are, right now.”

I react, “But Jesus I came all this way. I am paying all this money. Of course, I want to be healed!” “Really?!”, Jesus replies, “I am ready and able to give you what you say you most deeply want, so the question is not from my side. It’s from yours.

I reacted, “But Jesus I came all this way. I am paying all this money. Of course, I want to be healed!” “Really?!”, Jesus replies, “I am ready and able to give you what you say you most deeply want, so the question is not from my side. It’s from yours.

What do you really want from me?”

“Ok”, I said. I pause and reflect for a few seconds. The thought unconsciously rolls off my tongue: “Whoa, this is dangerous moment.” “Ok, Jesus,” I went on, “My whole life is invested in this relationship with you. I prayed the sinner’s prayer when I was five years old; but the truth is I can’t ever remember a time when I didn’t believe in you. Even in my most rebellious periods as a teen I have never doubted your existence or that the gospel was true. That five-year-old boy praying that prayer in the basement of our Baptist church in New Jersey was the consequence of a heritage of belief. I have spent my entire adulthood either preparing for the ministry and teaching of the gospel or doing gospel ministry and teaching.”

But there, in that moment, I faced the jail door in the deepest part of my soul where the enemy of our souls has imprisoned me and I must decide if I do really believe.

Do I believe Jesus has the power to free me?

Does the gospel really matter for my most painful wounds?

I trusted in Jesus for my salvation from hell at five, but now at forty-six will I believe the gospel is actually a word-act of restoration for here and for now?

Does it really matter in the most significant things in my life?

Then I thought, “If the gospel is real, it must! What’s the point of Christian belief, if it can’t; if the gospel isn’t the ‘power of God for salvation?!’”

But I felt the question like a weight around my neck, “Do I have the courage to believe it for me? Am I willing to wager a faith I have spent my life affirming?”  

I am an evangelical New Testament scholar. I teach and publish on Jesus and the gospel message. I am a pastor; I have proclaimed the gospel many times. I have discipled many people in Christian faith through my adult life. So in this question, I sense that everything I’ve build my life around is at stake.

Do I entrust myself to the gospel I say I believe or don’t I? But here’s the dangerous truth: If a relationship with Jesus doesn’t affect my life now in this most significant thing, why should I have any confidence that he matters for the life-ever-after?

But for a while in the early hours of an October morning in 2013 in the fresh air of Colorado I wondered, “Do I really want to know the truth? Am I willing to risk so much?” I’m tempted by what I imagine to be no less than Evil himself to retreat from the question, to pretend that I never asked it. But I know that I can’t do that. Such a move would lack integrity and would get me nowhere. I knew I had to move. But boy it felt dangerous!

Jonathan is a really good reader of people and of the stories they tell, both verbally and non-verbally. As I was leaving that first session, he said he saw a tension in me between faith and hope on the one hand and doubt and pessimism on the other. He sent me out of his office with the question:

Will you believe the gospel?

And I heard that jail door rattle.

I heard that jail door rattle.