Rev. Cindy Shepherd tells the story of preaching a series on the Seven Deadly Sins, using country music clips as illustrations. For her sermon on Lust, she used the song "It Ain't Love (But it ain't Bad)," and closed with "Let's Chase Each other Round the Room Tonight." Shaking hands at the door after service, a 70-ish farmer told her that he had to hurry home and put on his track shoes. He headed out the door and his wife giggled into Cindy's ear, "Don't worry, I can catch 'im."
What a delight to know that despite the Church's long-term organized campaign against it, lust survives, bubbles up again and again under the repressed teachings and emerges to bless our lives with its hilarious indignities, with the uninhibited abandon that balances our buttoned-up social selves, with its sweaty shenanigans and improprieties. Of all of the Seven Deadly Sins, only lust is so connected with laughter, which is why I think the Church has historically found it so especially subversive. That, and the fact that lust can lead to transcendent sexual experience, which is something the Church has had a vested financial and institutional interest in controlling. Erotic energy is powerful, and it is a power that comes from being alive. It can be obtained for free and it can cause transcendent experience without the aid of guidance of a priest. How better to control a population than to control and proscribe their sexuality?
But I want you to know that the rejection and repression of lust doesn't originate with Jesus, who was a hands-on healer and who shared many erotic moments with people he encountered in his ministry. Someone with eroto-phobia does not allow a repentant prostitute to weep on his feet and then dry them with her hair, or cradle a sick man tenderly in his arms. But Jesus did give this strict teaching about lust: he said, "Even anyone who looks at a woman with lust has committed adultery." That's a tough teaching. It's tough because it's so strict, but it honors, at least, the connection between our bodies and our minds, our actions and our intentions. I imagine that Jesus knew from observation and perhaps personal experience that lust could easily get out of control, that it could result in coercion, violence, objectification, things which are not good, and not blessed. What did Freud say? That the brain is our biggest sex organ. Jesus knew that too.
However, what Jesus taught about governing the lustful instinct was taken by Paul and later Church Fathers to pathological extremes, giving us the terrible legacy of lust-phobia that still haunts our culture (not that other cultures don't have the same issue, even those with sex-affirming theologies, but that's another sermon) our opinions of ourselves and the way we enter into relationships.
I believe that of all the ways that the institutional Church has screwed up and perpetuated damaging messages throughout its history, its attitudes about sexuality are at the very top of the list. The very fact that the word "lust" or even "sex" spoken from the pulpit should make us uncomfortable says it all. The Western religious notion that we are split into two distinct parts, body and spirit, with body being the animalistic, inferior and inherently sinful and dirty of the two has caused monumental suffering in the human community for thousands of years. Have you ever met a woman who had no idea how she got pregnant? Or heard some of the myths about how sexually transmitted diseases get transmitted, or heard teens sharing wildly inaccurate information about how to avoid spreading STD's? Repression just begets ignorance, not purity of heart or spirit.
We may laugh at some of the teachings given to children about the evils of exploring their own or others' bodies but they're not really funny. They're terrifying. You'll go blind. You'll grow hair on your palms. You'll be ruined and no one will marry you. Speaking of marriage, I spoke at some length a couple of years ago to a bride who had been a loyal member of the True Love Waits virginity campaign of the Southern Baptist convention and who had absolutely no way to determine whether her husband's sexual expectations were normal, or totally perverted or what. She had been raised to think of marriage as the promised land of romantic fulfillment. That her wedded spouse might have lust for her rather than tender cuddly intentions was not part of the vision of married life. She was embarrassed, confused, and had never had any conversations with her husband about sex. She had saved herself for marriage but had no idea how her body worked, what her own desires were, or how to communicate with her life-long partner. How sad.
This is not moral education but abuse. Sexual moralism achieves nothing but to shut down the body and make the mind its jail-keeper. Our dualistic, compartmentalized lives begin very early. After being told that erotic feeling might actually be the road to eternal damnation, children become adults who may never achieve maturity and integration of body and mind. They are Adam and Eve caught again and again without their fig leaves, forever frozen in that moment of self-consciousness: oh no. I just realized I am naked. God is mad at me. I am ashamed. I am bad.
But then this! "Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me." The Song of Solomon is a bit of an embarrassment to Biblical scholars, who wonder why it was included in the Hebrew Scriptures at all, even though sex is considered a mitzvah, a good deed in the Jewish religion if engaged in within the bonds of marriage. It's a love poem between the faithful person and his God, say the critics. It uses sex as a metaphor for the soul's love for God. "How pleasant art thou, O love, for delights! ... Thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine?" "Let us get up early to the vineyards ... there will I give thee my love?" I don't think so. I think this is erotic poetry that was so beloved of the Israeli people that they included it in their holy book. I don't think it's a metaphor for anything. Go and read it for yourself. I think you will agree with me.
How would our lives, our communities, our crime statistics, our laws about pornography and prostitution be different if we were all taught early that bodies are sacred but also earthly, and that taking pleasure in the body's erotic sensations was a blessing, something to celebrate, something to learn about and understand so as to use well and wisely? Bravo to our O.W.L. curriculum for taking this approach. And in the wider culture, I am heartened to hear about sexual education that emphasizes abstinence not because sex is sinful or wrong, but because it's powerful, it makes us responsible for each other, and it bonds us in ways that are very intense. It's great to hear adults say to youth, "Listen, older people don't do that great a job dealing with the intensity of lust, either."
We all have a long way to go before we're practicing spiritually safe sex.
I am trying to retrieve Lust from the Seven Deadly Sin pile and look at its redeemable qualities because I think that religion has suffered greatly by rendering it shameful and unallowed. Our search for spiritual growth and ethical commitment and reverence is not just a cerebral activity but an incarnational one, a creaturely journey. Having a lust for life is a way of being religious: when we pursue sensual experiences like dancing, drumming, inhaling lilacs at the Arnold Arboretum with ecstatic reverence, making love, singing until the heart soars, fitting beautiful collage paper just so on the canvas, cooking with loving gusto for family, turning wood on a lathe, what's not spiritual about that? Lust is desire, and not all desire is sexual. We cannot be frightened away from it, but channel it, have a playful respect for it. To worship, to serve, to pray without authentic, felt desire in the body and heart leads to what Emerson called "corpse-cold religion."
Psalm 63 is attributed to King David. Listen to the desire here:
"O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water."
My body longs for you. Bing. There it is: the human condition! David could just as well have said, "Oh Life, my soul thirsts for you." He was like any rock star of today sobbing into the microphone of the desire for his baby, the beloved who may have a particular girl's name but who always represents our longing for a passionate, intensely connected life.
Lust can be as much a sensation of the mind and imagination as it can be of the body, as the two cannot be separated. And that is ultimately what the rush of lust can remind us of: we are body AND soul, mind AND matter. If we try to live exclusively out of one place, we get into serious trouble. It cannot be done. It should not be attempted. Baby hold onto me, whatever will be will be.
Oh, my love
I've hungered for your touch
a long lonely time
and time goes by so slowly
and time can do so much
are you still mine?
I need your love
I need your love
Godspeed your love to me.
("Unchained Melody," Hy Zaret, lyrics)
We are connected by this yearning, we are bound by it, wrapped in it.
When you leave here today and go forth into this amazing spring weekend, pay attention to how the world is seducing you, bursting into bloom, tantalizing you with the waft of warm wind across your face, snowdrops flowering through the dirt, daffodil and tulip shoots coming up green and promising more brilliant color to come, birds sending out mating calls and all sorts of song that sounds in your human ears deliciously because simply, you are an Earthling, and this is a sexy planet at a lusty time of year. How could we think we should or could be above this?
Arise my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone: See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth: the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. It's okay to fall in love with all of it, and to want it with all your heart, soul and body.
More than okay. Inevitable. And wonderful. Rejoice.