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.

Listen, Attend, Invite Lament

Grace needed to be larger than the lives of those who never recovered. It needed also to be sturdier than a tale of a straightforward recovery, less sanguine, less optimistically naïve, more scrappy and ambiguous. It needed as well to be imagined as gentle and embracing while not losing its radical otherness and its refreshing newness.
— Serena Jones, Trauma + Grace

It has been several weeks since the publication of the Nashville Statement. By most accounts, it came and went. Several anecdotal conversations with friends and colleagues around the country suggest to me that the Statement created some immediate attention and much of it negative – even from Evangelical leaders who might otherwise find much in it agreeable – but is either little known especially among millennials on college campuses or has made little impact even where considered.

My reaction to the statement surprised me and perhaps some others. It made me angry. I mean really angry. I found myself wanting to fight; and I did more than little on social media - I mean its just right there. And, strangely to me, my anger felt right to me. It felt "righteous." I'm not claiming it was; I'm just truthfully saying it did. I felt empowered deep from inside me to step into the arena and contend. The anger came from a very raw and authentic place. 

Some of my close friends reached out and cautioned me to be careful of my tone. I couldn’t figure out why they would say that? I respond to them: “No, this is not right!” The statement is a bullying tactic even if they don't see it! But they didn't seem to see it as clearly as I did. 

I respected and understood why these friends were cautioning me; and why they may have even felt it was out of character for me. I was conflicted. I felt these well-meaning friends were trying to silence me, or at least take the sharp edge off my words and be nicer. "Joel, your anger will obscure your message," they told me. "People won't hear what you are saying because all they'll get is your anger." 

But I just couldn't let go of the necessity of the emotion as it was just as much part of the message. Some things are not simply communicated with an exchange of ideas. Sexuality should leave little room for neutrality. This is a point on which I have full agreement with the Nashville Statement's intent.

To be "softer" seemed to me to be inauthentic. Seemed to dilute the message I felt not only from my head, but from within my bones. My anger was my body speaking along with my mind. 

Enter my wise friend Pete Sutton. While we were on one of our 5:15 AM runs,Pete both blessed my anger – and I so needed someone to bless my anger and say, "Joel your anger is good; I see you; you are present." I was in an authentic place. I showed up as me, not as a projection of what one should be. To do otherwise was to not be true to my soul and body. Pete offered wise advice and gave me an imagination for how I could offer my whole self vulnerably with the anger, but use it for a redemptive, instead of a cynical, end.

In the subsequent weeks after its publication, I’ve wrestled with my reaction to the Statement. Why was I angry? And against what or who was I angry? This essay is the outcome of that wrestling.

This is a lengthy openhearted essay, not simply a quick hit blog post. I know we are conditioned to stop reading posts when they get much beyond 800 words. But I hope you will stick with me to the end.

I want to make clear though, this is not a commentary on the Statement itself. It is a reflection on my response. It is an attempt to name what is true. I had an instinctual compulsion to fight for my own body and soul and for that of others who share aspects of my own story.

The Nashville Statement comes off to me as bullying. And I feel the need to fight the bully.

The Nashville Statement comes off to me as bullying. And I feel the need to fight the bully.

Recently, I have been speaking and writing about my complex sexuality. Someone needed to finally say something. . 

The more work I do in discipleship, education and therapy on understanding it, the more bewilderingly confusing it becomes. I have a bent sexuality. Sex is not a gift received in gratitude; it is a burden to bear. If it is a gift, it is a cruel one indeed. Sexuality is an enigma I am unable to solve. Whatever blessing God may have intended sex to be, it is experienced by me as a curse. And I curse it.

My sexuality was bent irreparably over a period of 3 years, between the ages of 13-16, when repeatedly sexually abused by my step-brother. My brother groomed me to a place of compliance with and desire for his dark sexual games. So, brilliant a predator was he, I believed I was a co-equal participant in the sexually explorative affairs. My perception of being his wholehearted partner in the hidden sex games taking place just inside the door of the bedroom we shared has oriented my self-perception toward severe contempt. And, as devastating, my sexual formation, by an agent of Evil’s harm, has structured by sexual orientation to this day.

On account of absolutely no fault of my own, my sexuality was warped; it was bent.

On account of absolutely no fault of my own, my sexuality was warped; it was bent.

The sexual dysfunctions, the sexual “sins” and the ongoing sexual struggles of my adulthood can not be reduced to an explanation of my own inherit sin nature. A message that was the basis of all reference to sexuality in the context of church. I'm not the only one at fault. I'm not the only or even primary culpable party.

I did not ask to be bent.
I don’t want to have this sexuality.
I would have never wanted a sexuality that felt most at home in the dark of impurity.
But that is what I’ve received.

And I refuse to take ultimate responsible for what I became.
As a 13-year old, I had no agency.
I could not say no! 
I could not tell. I could not scream.
And, no, I could not avoid being aroused by his touch and his caress; I could not avoid being captured erotically in my role in the sexual arousal of another man. I was a pubescent boy.

And, no, I could not avoid being aroused by his touch and his caress; I could not avoid being captured erotically in my role in the sexual arousal of another man.
I was a pubescent boy.

Yeah, I’m angry.
And, yeah, I take the statement personally.
I'm telling it now!
I'm yelling out now! 
I'm yelling at you framers and signatures of the NS statement. 
You bully me because of my bent sexuality.

While I do have sympathy with the interests of those who maintain a historic Christian perspective on gender and sexuality, I’m also more keenly aware of my own basic self-unawareness and my complete cognitive disconnection from my own body’s story of sexual trauma. A fact that is in no small part due to the fragmentation cultivated in my Evangelical experience. 

Just since entering my 40’s, I have begun to acknowledge the complexities, the tensions, the absurdities, and the contradictions of my own sexual identity. A set of issues, of which until now, I have not been aware.

Years of white knuckling discipline and the absence of real lasting progression in sexual purity brought me to a place of hopelessness and resignation. There was never an invitation to name kindly the parts of my bent sexuality of which I was aware, and an ongoing space of kind care that allowed the many, many elements of my trauma of which my conscious mind was unaware.

“God loves sex; He loves sinners, but he doesn’t put up long with an impaired sexuality!”

I was never invited to lament the bentness of my sexual identity because of what Evil had done. Hear this correctly. By lament, I don't mean a hatred of the bentness. I mean a kind grief for the harm done. Instead, there was only one direction of communication and only one message: “God loves sex; He loves sinners, but he doesn’t put up long with an impaired sexuality!”

But here’s the unvarnished truth that no one adult youth leader or pastor ever attuned to about me.

It’s a contradiction that is madding!

At the same time my high school youth pastor was teaching me to abstain from sex with a girl until marriage and under no circumstances ever masturbate —at that very same time—I was being discipled by my adult step-brother into a dark sexuality that taught me the arts of sexually pleasuring a man!

At the same time my high school youth pastor was teaching me to abstain from sex with a girl until marriage and under no circumstances ever masturbate —at that very same time—I was being discipled by my adult step-brother into a dark sexuality that taught me the arts of sexually pleasuring a man!

I don’t so much blame my youth pastor for this - such little attention was paid to sexual abuse in and outside the church - But I do feel it was a serious dereliction of his duty as a shepherd; he, along with other adults in my life paid insufficient attention to what was going on with me, adults such as my mom, step-dad and my dad, whose primary task was my protection. I blame the religious culture around sexuality mostly of which my religious leaders were products. My youth pastor gave me a biblical ethic on sexuality, I definitely learned that God wants my sexuality to be with a woman with whom I’m betrothed.

But that didn’t happen.

Instead my initial sexual formation was in the context of sexual abuse, an abuse of which my youth pastor was completely ignorant.

Yeah, the Statement feels like one big bully!

Whether intended or unintended, and I don’t presume to know the intentions and motives of those who signed the Statement, it’s attitude and form, makes me want to scream and say: “You still just don’t get it! You are still the same insensitive, inattentive, self-righteous blind religious leaders who pronounce a curse while thinking it a blessing. And when you are told it’s a curse you don’t reconsider; you don’t listen; you don’t lean in and try to read my story. No, you double down. You preach louder. You curse harder and deeper.”

I understand that none involved with the Statement would likely recognize themselves in my perspective of them and the Statement. But their inability to anticipate the way Evil will use this statement in his war of accusation against genuine children of God is infuriating to me. The whole thing lacks wisdom. I say, “What in the hell were you thinking?!”

But their inability to anticipate the way Evil will use this statement in his war of accusation against genuine children of God is infuriating to me.

Congratulations Nashville Statement framers and signatories, you have made the shame of the wound people deeper and the task of pastoring them even more difficult!  

When I read the statement, the framers and signatories feel to me like my youth leaders who were telling me to wait for sex till marriage cause “it’s such a wonderful gift from God that should be protected; don’t masturbate; anything below the neck is too far; and promise to never have sex until marriage because God’s vengeance is primarily and uniquely – at least that’s what it seems the implication of the message in the Statement – poured out on the sexually immoral.” All the while, I was learning the art of bringing a man to orgasm a several times a week!

The Nashville Statement reveals just how far away a segment of Evangelicals are from really having anything to say about sexuality that will actually make a difference in our church and world. I know that is a brash and strong assertion. I know it won’t engender me to those who are in support of it. I can accept that. My desire is not actually to influence them. I believe it is more than likely we will never see eye to eye on this.

I want the same thing they do: as many people as possible discovering and living into a flourishing life in the way of Jesus through the practice of God’s wise ordering of life.

But the irony is that at a very basic level I want the same thing they do: as many people as possible discovering and living into a flourishing life in the way of Jesus through the practice of God’s wise ordering of life.

My purpose in this essay is to extend an alternative invitation to the many followers of Jesus in our churches who, through no fault of their own, are either sexual minorities or for whom sexuality is bent, broken or disoriented. These many have spent their adolescence, emerging adulthood, early and middle adulthood (perhaps) in the Evangelical church hearing, in some cases teaching (as I had as a youth pastor), and in every case definitely white-knuckle fighting to practice the Evangelical sexual purity line.

These survivors of faith never heard the word, whether it was “Why Wait” in the 80’s or “True Love Waits” in the 90’s or some other more recent version of a heterosexual abstinence education as an invitation to a flourishing life. Instead, such campaigns of “sexuality” were experienced by our bodies, and mostly at a subconscious level, as a pronouncement of condemnation and contempt. Importantly, and against the assumptions of these Evangelical campaigns, a good many of the students who struggle with sexual purity do so not because these faithful disciples of Jesus had some unhinged, lustful sexuality that just needed more knowledge, more discipline.

Of course, there is that and the life of Godly wisdom invites us to practice self-control in all things.” Yes, of course I grant there’s a place for advocating a vision of human sexuality that brings our humanity to one of its highest joys. And all humans need to be encouraged to make right choices along the path to flourishing. Some simply need to be told, “It’s not a good idea to look at porn and masturbate!” or that sexuality has been designed by God to be practice in the context of a historically Christian view of marriage consisting of a male and female and is one of the most powerful realities in our lives.

There are sexually healthy adolescents and emerging adults who have been raised in supportive and godly family systems who may only require a curriculum and a clear statement on a biblical sexual ethic from their church community to confirm and support the cultivation of a godly and healthy human sexuality. Though, of course, healthy family systems are no guarantee of this.

But therein lies one of the real problems I have curriculums and statements, like the Nashville Statement (NS). They do very little for those who do not have a healthy sexuality through no fault of their own.

But therein lies one of the real problems I have curriculums and statements, like the Nashville Statement (NS). They do very little for those who do not have a healthy sexuality through no fault of their own.

This beleaguered group of wounded, but deeply committed lovers of Jesus, is so much larger than we acknowledge; whether it is sexual addiction, sexual dysfunction or the unrelenting desire for erotic sexual connection with someone of the same gender. And even if you’re thinking, “I don’t have SS attraction; I don’t have a story of sexual abuse; I don’t have an awareness of dysfunction,” there is more than enough data from a variety of sources these days to say without qualification that no one on the planet can avoid some level of sexual trauma. It is frankly the cost of being human in the kind of world we inhabit post-Eden.

Sexual trauma is not about some of us, it’s about all of us; it’s not a question of whether we’ve been traumatized, it’s a question of the extent of the trauma.

Sexual trauma is not about some of us, it’s about all of us; it’s not a question of whether we’ve been traumatized, it’s a question of the extent of the trauma.

So, in response to criticisms, the attempts by some advocates of the Nashville Statement to bracket the Statement’s purpose from the real lived existence of being human reveals a complete lack of clear-eyed self-awareness or a case of religious Asperger’s Syndrome, which, though intellectually bright and brilliant, these folks are emotionally clumsy and tone-deaf to social subtleties of others. The attempt to offer something less than a holistic vision of human sexuality is just stupid in the culture in which we live and in view of the terrible track record of Evangelicals have on sexuality.

It is for this reason, I am angered by the publication of yet another “ideology” from our evangelical side that is seemingly, if not actually, wholly unaware of just how complex human sexuality is in the kind of world we inhabit until the “renewal of all things” (Matt 19:28), which, as far as I can tell, has not yet taken place.

I write this essay as an advocate for those that have no voice. I write for the gay couple who courageously refuses to accept the revisionist position on historic Christian sexuality. But because they have not been [quote-unquote] “healed” of their SS attraction and erotic desire, they choose a path of suffering. They willingly attend a conservative evangelical church which, both implicitly and explicitly, calls their pattern life an abomination to God.  Why do they choose a path of suffering when there are other options? Because they believe that it’s in this kind of church they will hear the truth of the Bible taught and connect with God. I’m inclined to view it as an even more sacrificial pattern of life than the gay celibate alterative strongly advocated by a growing number of Evangelicals.

These dear brothers and sisters who know no other way to be, live at the mercy of God, it seems to me, the same way the tax collector did in Jesus’ parable in Luke 18:13: “He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I write also for the precious and beautiful image bearers who sit in isolated shame in our churches, who are bullied regularly by predominately male pastors who teach a so-called “biblical sexuality” that is more the product of their own experience than it is what the Bible essentially teaches, a sexuality that the pastor creates out of his own lived experience and, then, co-opts the Bible to make that experience normative. Like the pastor who deduces from the biological data of a penis and a vagina, that God designed a man to be a pursuer, and the female to be a receiver. And from there develops an interpretation of Ephesians 5 that validates that view. But because he knows that such neat classifications breakdown in real lived experience, he hedges his bets by referring to “necessary” exemptions.

I write also for the precious and beautiful image bearers who sit in isolated shame in our churches, who are bullied regularly by predominately male pastors who teach a so-called “biblical sexuality” that is more the product of their own experience than it is what the Bible essentially teaches, a sexuality that the pastor creates out of his own lived experience and, then, co-opts the Bible to make that experience normative

My patience has run thin with ideological statements as our preferred method of engaging sexuality both inside and outside, our very small sphere of Christian faith. I’m angry about the toxic combination of self-righteousness and self-unawareness in the use of the Bible.

My anger is redemptive because it gives me courage to protect myself; to say enough is enough on the sex thing people! It’s significant I realize, but we need to have a conversation not a statement. A conversation that reconsiders both the Bible’s teaching but, more than that, the lack of empathetic context for being human in the kind of world we inhabit.  

We need a biblical sexual ethic that allows the complexities of sexuality not only to be acknowledged in the very message of our vision of sexuality – in other words it must be in a statement! To be otherwise is to not be biblical.  But also the very form our faithful presence takes in communicating and embodying that message must be different than only or primarily statements, curriculums and ideologies. What’s more, my anger induces active movement as a first responder to stand between false theological judgement and the silent and shamed majority in our evangelical churches, who are both in the pew and, yes, many who are also behind the pulpit.

 

Not Essentially Biblical in All it Affirms and Denies

The Nashville statement is the most recent example of many of a wrong-footed evangelical approach to sexual minorities and those who are bent sexually. I'm focusing on it because it provides a case study. The NS presents biblically “true” statements embedded in an ideologically informed interpretation of the biblical truths. The ideology or framework informing the reading of Scripture may very well have been informed by Scripture – meaning its thrust and assumptions derive from a synthesis of the whole Bible. But it must be stated transparently: at least some of the positions on sexuality articulated in the Statement’s articles are not essentially scriptural.

By “essentially scriptural” I mean: since the Bible does not prove clear on a number of the elements the Statement addresses, it goes beyond the Bible by filling in gaps where there are ambiguities especially related to sanctification. So, some of the articles or parts of the articles in the NS result not from some kind of “plain reading” of the Bible, but from a certain kind of mediation of Scripture, which has, consequently, resulted in a certain kind of vision of concrete Christian living.

By “essentially scriptural” I mean: since the Bible does not prove clear on a number of the elements the Statement addresses, it goes beyond the Bible by filling in gaps where there are ambiguities especially related to sanctification. So, some of the articles or parts of the articles in the NS result not from some kind of “plain reading” of the Bible, but from a certain kind of mediation of Scripture, which has, consequently, resulted in a certain kind of vision of concrete Christian living.

To put it simply, some biblical truths expressed in the Statement are mediated truths; they are not direct biblical truths. They are contextualized in a vision of Christian living by something outside the Bible itself. Have I lost you? Let me put it this way. The Bible reveals the truth about God, the world and humanity. We agree. But we need to be clear that the truth of the Bible is not the same thing as our interpretation of the Bible. Scripture and an interpretation of Scripture are not the same. One is timeless divine truth; the other is a subjective attempt to render that truth into human and contemporary vernacular. Because of this it is possible to agree with elements of an article, while rejecting its overall intention.

I readily admit this hermeneutical reality is not only true for the NS, but it is true for every interpretation, mine included. No one interprets the Bible in an immediate or direct way, that is, apart from a context of reading that is informed by ideologies. What frustrates me about the NS is that it presumes a one-to-one correspondence between its interpretation of Christian sexuality and the Bible truth; there’s no acknowledgment of the hermeneutical reality; there’s absolutely no openheartedness to the other. There’s no hint of doubt.

Their certainty is breathtaking! And it comes off to me as bullying because it does not generously acknowledge the possibility of error or recognize any ambiguity in Scripture.

Having made such a strong point, I need to provide at least an example. I discern in the NS a broader evangelical tendency to an:

(1) Over-realized eschatology coupled with a
(2) Thorough-going Puritan understanding of sanctification

I discern in the NS a broad evangelical tendency to an:
(1) Over-realized eschatology coupled
with a (2) Thorough-going Puritan understanding of sanctification

Neither of which is essentially biblical. And arguably is deeply flawed.

It is difficult for me not to be cynical of the Statement when it claims to be a “true story of the world and our place in it.” Brief attention on Article 12, will suffice to demonstrate the point. The Article states:

WE AFFIRM that the grace of God in Christ gives both merciful pardon and transforming power, and that this pardon and power enable a follower of Jesus to put to death sinful desires . . .
WE DENY that the grace of God in Christ is insufficient to forgive all sexual sins and to give power for holiness to every believer . . .

I wholeheartedly agree that the Bible teaches what is stated in the first half of both the affirmation and the denial, namely God’s grace is sufficient to forgive sexual sin and to provide the resources spiritually, emotionally and physically to transform and heal. I do, in other words, believe in God’s healing power of wounds that are in hidden inside the body as much as He is able to heal the visible wounds of the body.

This should at least have caused a clearing-of-the-throat qualification of the Bible’s teaching on sanctification related to sexuality, that is, the limited degree of sanctification possible on this side of creation’s restoration.

However, when it comes to the second half of the two statements, problems emerge. I can agree quite readily that Scripture, particularly Paul’s letters, is full of admonitions to holiness by means of metaphors like “putting to death” and “taking off” the deeds of the flesh and the like. But, and here’s the rub, the actual extent of that death or that putting off activity of the believer – that is to say the extent of sanctification – is biblically much more ambiguous. The ambiguity is present even in the fact that Paul must exhort believers to bring their desires and their thinking into conformity to Christ.  

So, while the first part of the statement and the supposition of the second have biblical clear warrant to be sure, the primary intent of the statement moves well beyond the Bible’s teaching in implying, quite transparently I might add (!), that somehow there can be something of an ultimate “overcoming” of the realities of the present evil age in the “already-not yet,” the eschatological scenario that most Evangelicals, since E.G. Ladd, espouse. 

This should at least have caused a clearing-of-the-throat qualification of the Bible’s teaching on sanctification related to sexuality, that is, the limited degree of sanctification possible on this side of creation’s restoration. I believe what Paul taught his young believers is that we who follow Jesus, who are in wait of Jesus’ return, wait in a posture of hope for the future and for the full redemption of our bodies (Rom 8); we don’t, then, live now in the realization of that redemption!

I am so deeply grateful to God that He is kind – much kinder than this Statement would imply – and that he is well aware and fully acquainted with how damn hard it is simply to be human in the kind of world we inhabit. It is in fact out of his empathy for humanity he gives forgiveness and consolation. His grace is grief-generated.

I am so deeply grateful to God that He is kind – much kinder than this Statement would imply – and that he is well aware and fully acquainted with how damn hard it is simply to be human in the kind of world we inhabit. It is in fact out of his empathy for humanity he gives forgiveness and consolation. His grace is grief-generated.

The picture of Jesus in the center of a woman’s shame in the story of the so-called “woman caught in adultery,” found in the canonical gospels in John 8, is deeply formative for me in relationship to thinking about God and bent sexuality. I’ve written more about it elsewhere (See Todd Wilson’s recent book Mere Sexuality (Zondervan, 2017) where I have written an appendix). “Sexually bent” is my phrase for describing people, more than most of us realize or are willing to admit, whose sexuality has been warped by experiences as a human being in this world for which they have no culpability.

Article 12 of the NS presents a biblical truth, God’s grace forgives and transforms, but it is framed within the excessively impatient, contempt-driven, fear-based puritan vision of God and Christian sanctification which is simply not singularly or essentially taught in Scripture.

Article 12 of the NS presents a biblical truth, God’s grace forgives and transforms, but it is framed within the excessively impatient, contempt-driven, fear-based puritan vision of God and Christian sanctification which is simply not singularly or essentially taught in Scripture.

One could equally frame the biblical truths in the NS in a much more generous, compassionate, longsuffering picture of the Fatherhood of God. I’m 10 years a father. I have come to learn – through many failures and still imperfectly – the fundamental lesson about how to father my kids into a humble submission to my authority and into a space of human flourishing. Such outcomes for sustained character transformation come from a fathering that is above all kind, empathetic and attentive, one that is characterized by listening through the “sin” to the divinely created desire within the child that led to their inappropriate grasping for what God always intended beautifully and perfectly to give.

Fear-producing indignation, impatience, intimidation – these are effective in the short-term to generate compliance not doubt, but they do little to shape the heart toward the good in the long run.

As followers of Jesus, when we get to heaven, God will embrace us as His sons and daughters, not because we reached the appropriate level of “sin management,” to use a term coined by Dallas Willard, but because we are family.

Fear-producing indignation, impatience, intimidation – these are effective in the short-term to generate compliance not doubt, but they do little to shape the heart toward the good in the long run.

The Nashville Statement is presents a Puritan mediation of the Bible. The Puritans were the Christian sect that made up a large part  of the early colonists of North America. Fleeing the persecution of the State Church of England, they sought to establish the new world as a “city on a hill.” Their approach to Christian spirituality and sanctification has left a deep imprint on Evangelicalism. A fundamental element of their view of sanctification is the idea of progression forward toward holiness. Holiness in a Puritan view has a distinct definition of holiness that includes a grave afraid-ness of God, a severe self-introspection and a austerity of life.

Puritanism is only one approach to understanding Christian formation and sanctification; it cannot rightly be seen as the “biblical” understanding.

One of the most famous Puritans was Jonathan Edwards. His perspective can be grasped easily by his most famous sermon: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which was required reading in High School American Lit.

But Puritanism is only one approach to understanding Christian formation and sanctification; it cannot rightly be seen as the “biblical” understanding.

In my view, the Statement, and efforts like it informed by Puritanism, will do more harm than good by solidifying self-righteousness and contempt. It certainly does not create a culture of kindness around the complex issues of human sexuality. It will not invite followers of Jesus to come out of the dark corners and isolated closets and tell the truth finally and fully. All such a statement will do is drive wounded people further into hiding.

I predict the most signifiant impact of the Nashville Statement’s hermeneutical naiveté and its inappropriate certainty in its utilization of a Puritan shape of spiritual life will, on the one hand, heap unnecessary shame on wounded people, burying them deeper and making the task of pastoring them even more difficult, and, on the other, further entrench those under its authority against a world that needs the repentance only God's kindness will produce. 

 

Idea-ism Does Not Heal, Impatience Is Unbiblical and Shame is the Only Outcome

In my experience, these kinds of statements and similar attempts to form a sexual ethic have shown themselves largely if not completely ineffective. Just think for a moment how much was invested in the 80’s and 90’s to foster an abstinence Evangelical sexual culture in response to the crazy 70’s.

I know! I was both the product of it, graduating from high school in 1989, and I’m ashamed to admit now, a purveyor of it as a youth pastor in the decade of 1990’s. The amount of curriculum and pastoral staff hours dedicated to this topic if converted to dollars would be extraordinarily high. I can’t even imagine. And what has been the return on this investment? Well, I encourage you to read the preamble of the Nashville Statement and you will see exactly what we Evangelicals got for our money and time.

Because of the Statement’s underlying reductionistic anthropology that implicitly reduces human character formation to a cognitive process of knowing right then doing right, its attendant methodology of statement-making is unsurprisingly as ineffectual as the previous attempts at moral formation through cognitive formulation.

Let me correct that; it has proven extremely effective in producing shame. And it is precisely this the reason I responded so strongly against the statement.

The ongoing marginalization of the sexually bent disturbs and angers me.

Sexual trauma leaves internal bodily wounds not only spiritual or emotional ones. And these hidden bodily injuries must also be attended to.

My sexuality would never and has never been the same. I have worked so hard for so long to straighten my bent sexuality, although it was not until very recently I realized that a recognition of its fact in 1991 while in college was not nearly enough to address the spiritual, emotional and bodily warping that had happened to my sexuality. It took a three of decades, years of struggling unsuccessfully to be quote-unquote “sexually pure,” that for the most part I had given up the fight. Thankfully, at just that moment, someone invited me to grieve, to lament. To just simply be sad for the innocence that had been lost. I no longer believe in the concepts of “spiritual virgin” or  “second virginity” that I was taught. The idea that somehow the sexual trauma of an childhood experience can be erased from one's body. Sexual trauma leaves internal bodily wounds not only spiritual or emotional ones. And these hidden bodily injuries must also be attended to.

I have for decades attempted to order my life by such Idea-ism – an approach that teaches “Think Right, Live Right.” A vacuous approach to spiritual formation, I believe, that takes little-to-no account of the body in Christian formation other than as it sees it as an obstacle to practical righteousness that must be reined in and subdued.

The shame and contempt kept me “sinless” for a time—sometimes months, years or weeks or days. The more shame I felt and the longer I felt the shame the longer the duration between failures. Shame became a tool for sanctification. How about that!  I grew to be thankful for it. Shame was a partner in the fight. I used shame to maintain the highest level of morality.

The idea-ism has a short-term effect, but does not produced long term transformation. I regularly failed and fail. But as it turned out, this idea-ism is a gift that keeps giving. Because even the failure became an effective resource for me.

The failure produced a shame that cultivated a contempt. The shame and contempt kept me “sinless” for a time—sometimes months, years or weeks or days. The more shame I felt and the longer I felt the shame the longer the duration between failures. Shame became a tool for sanctification. How about that!  I grew to be thankful for it. Shame was a partner in the fight. I used shame to maintain the highest level of morality. I could stand up and have integrity because of my shame-produced morality.

I’ve learned that the best approach to the path of sexual healing – really the only effectively healing approach – is one that is inexhaustibly patient, expansively empathetic, tenderly kind and insatiably curious about a person’s story without a shadow of contempt. It’s an approach that has ultimate confidence in the God of truth and goodness who has shown himself to be far more empathetic about our human condition than we are towards either ourselves or others.

God does require us to repent and turn from sin; God doesn’t “condone” or “approve” or “bless” sin; but neither does he show us contempt because we are sinful. Because that is what we are until our redemption. Our level of brokenness in our humanness is far more complex than we admit.

God does require us to repent and turn from sin; God doesn’t “condone” or “approve” or “bless” sin; but neither does he show us contempt because we are sinful.

Do we really think, that after we sit silently for 30 minutes praying for God to point out any sin in us, and having identify a few things we’ve actually “kept a short sin account before God?” We are so utterly self-unconscious most of the time to our true state of being. The spiritualty of a “short sin account” is so sorely naïve; its underlying anthropology is absolutely insufficient for describing what we are as human animals, creations of God.

Most of the deepest levels of our sinfulness, function below our rational consciousness. Our position with the father is not because we’ve “kept a short account.” It’s because God is our father. The truth is, “Ain’t nobody straight, we’re all are bent.” And most of us have so little self-awareness we don’t know extent of the angle of the bentness. 

Our puritan tradition has led us to think we are more capable of holiness in the kind of world we inhabit than we are able. I think while our evangelical biblical theology has largely adopted the scheme of the so-called “already - not yet” of an inaugurated eschatology, our spiritual formation functions with a realized one. But the Apostle Paul said in Romans 8:23, “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.”

I’ve learned that the best approach to the path of sexual healing – really the only effectively healing approach – is one that is inexhaustibly patient, expansively empathetic, tenderly kind and insatiably curious about a person’s story without a shadow of contempt. It’s an approach that has ultimate confidence in the God of truth and goodness who has shown himself to be far more empathetic about our human condition than we are towards either ourselves or others.

A lack of a robust sense of the “not yet” leads to an impatient community lacking kindness and empathy. I think our bodies are much more traumatized and wounded than we have imagination to admit. I think the culture of Evangelical Christianity has contributed to the problem of marginalization and misunderstanding and judgmentalism around sexuality because of this impatient spirituality.The fight is too hard; the cost too high; and the church community too impatient that the “change” is not happening fast enough.

What then is an approach that will bring redemption to our world? 

Learn how to pay attention to the sexually traumatized among your dear people; have you ever thought that maybe the one who has a sexual addiction may have it, not simply because they are sinners and the lust of their hearts has run amuck, biblically and theologically that is just too damn simplistic! We are, of course, sinners, but there is a category of sin that comes from without; and many of these sexually struggling brothers and sisters were sexually abused as children; they were seized by Evil. Their bentness was set initially by a violence of their bodies – a wound lasts the length of a lifetime.

We don’t need your idea-ism; we don’t need your impatience; we don’t need your word of discipline; we need your presence, your persevering hospitality and your empathy; we need the presence of Christ in you to love us beyond our lack of recovery and healing.

They need you to pay attention and be curious about their story and invite them into a space of grief. They need you to stop focusing on the sin and see through the sin to the God-given longing of their heart that the Evil One has bent and warped. Their repentance, my repentance, comes from the experience of the kindness of God (Rom 2:4), not your contempt!

Don’t write a statement.
Listen.
Attend.
Invite lament.
And, be patient

The path toward healing, if there will be any before the restoration of all things, will be through the kindness of the expansive, boundless grace of God.

Don’t write a statement.
Listen.
Attend.
Invite lament.
And, be patient.

 

Trauma and Grace

I invite Evangelicals sympathetic to the Nashville Statement to read Serene Jones’ book Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World if they have not done so. The book will extend my reflections and plant them more deeply in a biblical theology of sin, lament and grace.

Close to the end of the book, Jones tells a fictional story about two women who meet at the foot of the cross in Jerusalem the day Jesus is crucified; one of them she calls Rachel. Rachel has experienced “befallen” sin, sin that doesn’t derive from one’s interior depravity, but is sin that is perpetrated against her by evil. It is a sin in that captures and entraps; a sin that makes it impossible to see the depths of the evil that still inhabits the body and soul (114).

Jones puts Rachel at the foot of Jesus’ cross. She imagines what possible glory mightRachel perceive in the Cross in her powerless, blank, disassociated, contempt-filled life. In what may be the most profound passage of the entire book, Jones captures the beauty of the gospel for the traumatized human: to know, without doubt, that if we were never able to straighten out the angle of our bent sexuality even a degree while we have breath, God loves me.

I close the essay with Jones’ eloquence:

The good news it reveals to her is that even if she never knows or acts as the creative, glorifying woman she was created to be, her glory shines nevertheless. It shines in the inexhaustible and brilliant particularity of her existence, in all its horrifying, lost details. That glory is simply the truth of her life. What could be more unexpected, more unmerited, than the sturdy reality that in God, she is loved; she is glorified by God and glorifies in God in the fullness of her loss. Her hands need not weave rich cloth, her future need not depend on past memories she will never reclaim; her acceptance by God—God’s trust in her—transcends and thus renders impotent her nonexistent trust in others.
— Serena Jones, Trauma + Grace

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