A few weeks ago at my church, Rev. Dr. Monica Coleman delivered a sermon that touched my heart, blew my mind, and basically rocked my world; so much so that I want to take a break from my latest series of posts to talk about it. But first, some context is in order.
I’ve done a ton of writing about how the hyper-conservative teachings around sex and sexuality really messed me up especially when it came to how I approached dating relationships. But here, I want to go a bit deeper and talk about how those teachings affected my sexuality.
In the most recent post in my latest series, I shared the story of a Christian man who had his penis in his girlfriend’s vagina and yet claimed (through some mental gymnastics) that they had not actually had sex. I used his story to show that the church has a vastly inadequate ideology about what sex is…
But I have to make a confession.
I empathize with that man because for most of my life, I’ve done something very similar. Like him, I was taught a very strict no-sex-before-marriage message, but found a loophole and milked the hell out of it. But unlike him, my loophole didn’t involve any sex. At least not for me.
And here, I want to confess that my loophole was lesbian porn. Let me (try to) explain how that worked.
In the conservative Christian context of my youth, it wasn’t just having sex that was sinful; I was taught that even lustful thoughts were sin (because Matthew 5:27–30). And while it was never stated outright, the assumption was that “lust” referred to thoughts about penis-in-vagina sex. So, horny teenager me, I figured that if I could be aroused by lesbian porn in a voyeuristic sort of way — aroused by watching their pleasuring of one another — then I was not sinning since my penis was not involved in any of their vaginas. That idea led to me watching and fantasizing about lesbian porn almost exclusively.
And no, that supposed workaround doesn’t actually make any sense, but here’s the thing. In his book, Embodiment, James Nelson argues that suppressed sexual desires can become “demonic.”1 And by that he means that suppressed sexual desires take unnatural, life-sapping forms.2
Sexual desires are an intrinsic part of our God-breathed humanity, so denying them is akin to not breathing. A pouty kid may hold his breath in protest but the body’s need for air will eventually win out. Likewise, even with the most steadfast attempts to suppress one’s sexual desires, they will find a way through. And deprived of “natural”3 outlets, they will take warped (or demonic, to use Nelson’s terminology) forms.
As a young adult in an extremely strict conservative Christian context, I suppressed my sexuality so severely that the outlet my desires eventually found (lesbian porn) was completely disconnected from a healthy, embodied sexuality – my own bodily pleasure played no role in my own sexual fantasy life. Likewise, the bodily, relational pleasure of a partner also played no role.
Looking back now, it would have been great if my sexual fantasy life reoriented toward something closer to my cisgender heterosexuality once I stopped believing those overly strict teachings, but arousal patterns (especially ones formed during adolescence) can carve deep grooves in one’s sexual psyche. That, coupled with the fact that I remained single until my early 40’s (meaning my fixation on lesbian porn remained for over two decades) meant that when I eventually started seriously dating someone, the physically intimate aspect of our relationship was strained by my severely mis-oriented sexual fantasy life.
The Sermon – Light, Sweep, Search
Returning to where I started, the sermon I heard a few weeks ago blew my mind because it spoke directly to issues related to my writing. Her sermon was based on Jesus’ parable in Luke 15:8–10 about a woman who loses a coin, lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches to find it.
Dr. Coleman uses this idea of a lost coin to talk about vital, life-things that we need but have lost somehow. And in order to find it again, light is needed in the dark closets of our lives where we may find unexpected, unsavory things. And as we sweep through various compartments of our life, shit will get stirred up. But through a diligent search, the parable suggests that we will find… or be found.
(And I’m glossing over much of the nuance and poetry of her sermon so I encourage you to watch or listen to it for yourself.)
I’ve been writing about relationships and sex(uality) for well over ten years now. And as I listened to Dr. Coleman’s sermon, I realized all the thinking, reading, and writing I’ve been doing was akin to the light/sweep/search journey that the woman with the lost coin was on — a search for something so important it’s worth turning the house upside down to find.
I saw how so much of my writing has been about shining a light on the ways the problematic aspects of purity culture showed up in my life; namely how it taught me to “shield myself from the very person who longs to make my shields unnecessary.”
My writing, has also been about sweeping through the rooms of my life and in the process, kicking up the latent, hidden residue of the purity movement’s teachings. In the sweeping, I literally ugly cried when I found how much it had cost me, “all of the missed opportunities for warmth, intimacy, and touch…”
Lastly, my reading/writing/research has been part of a careful search. My capstone project in grad school was one where I tried to find new ways for the church to talk about relationships, sex, and sexuality. It’s been over five years since I graduated but my latest series of posts are proof that I’ve never stopped working on the topic. I’ve been re-searching, rethinking, and refining my ideas all this time.
It was quite a delight to make the connection between Dr. Coleman’s message and all the writing I’ve been doing. That alone would have made the sermon a huge blessing, but it turns out God had even more in store for me.
A Beautiful Sermon Turn
Dr. Monica’s sermon makes a beautiful, surprising turn near the end. She points out that because Jesus is using the woman in this parable to personify God and God’s search for those who are lost, there’s another way to read the parable:
God is like a woman who had ten silver coins and lost one.
God is like a woman.
God is like a woman who needs every coin she has. God is like a woman who could not do what she needed to do without that one coin.
God is like a woman who turns on the lights, sweeps up the dirt, and turns her house upside down because she needs you.
God needs you.
She needs you to do what has to be done.
So come celebrate with me that God has found her lost coin.
Come celebrate with me that God is looking for you. Come celebrate with me that God is turning the couch over, throwing the pillows to the side to remind you that she needs you. Come celebrate with me that God is sweeping the house for you.
Come celebrate with me that God needs you.
By the time Dr. Coleman got to this part of the sermon, I knew what the vital thing I had lost was.
Shame is (quite literally) a hell of a thing. It’s slippery and sly.
I thought all these years of reading/thinking/writing at the intersection of church and sex meant that I had overcome all the old sexual shame that had been ingrained in me. But that was only one aspect of my search, one part of the process of reclaiming my long-lost, God-gifted sexual desire.
Thus far, my work has been laying the theological, intellectual framework needed to understand the goodness of my sexual desire. But God used Dr. Coleman’s sermon to show me that it’s now time for this search to shift from thinking about the goodness of my sexual desire to experiencing it, to living it.
Contrary to the purity-based messages I was raised with, I came to see that God was right there with me, down in the dirt and dust, looking for my long lost sexual desire — a desire that, unlike the disembodied/dissociated lesbian porn that purity culture had led me to, was one that is actually aligned with my cisgender heterosexuality.
And so, to reframe the words of Dr. Coleman,
Come celebrate with me that God is looking for [my heterosexual desire]. Come celebrate with me that God is turning the couch over, throwing the pillows to the side to remind [me] that she needs [my sexual desire]. Come celebrate with me that God is sweeping the house for [my sexual desire].
Come celebrate with me that God needs [my sexual desire].
And if purity culture has marred or robbed you of your sexual desire, I hope you can know, can feel that God is right there searching with/for you too.
But I want to be like David
throwing his clothes to the wind
to dance a jig in my skin
and be remade by your cleansing again
I give you myself, It’s all that I have
Broken and frail, I’m clay in your hands
And I’m spinning unconcealed
Dizzy on this wheel
For you, my love
- Regarding sexual desire, Nelson writes, “whatever our desires, they do not embarrass us in such a way that we need to push them out of consciousness, for to do that is to make them demonic. Instead, we can recognize them for what they are; we can name them and thus take the compelling power out of them” (emphasis mine). B. Nelson, Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Ausburg Publishing House, 1978), 82. ↩
- And let me be clear here that I’m not saying that lesbian sex is unnatural. What I am saying is that a sisgender heterosexual man exclusively watching lesbian porn as a way to exploit a poorly defined purity ethic is pretty fucking unnatural. ↩
- By which I mean desires that are aligned with one’s sexuality. ↩