Meaningful Conversation

[1] A few years ago, I walked into confirmation class and asked with great enthusiasm, “Guess what we’re going to talk about tonight, kids?” “What?” they replied, in their normal eye-rolling manner. “SEX!” I proclaimed. One boy looked at me in horror as the rest of the class tried to look anyplace else but in my direction. “You mean,” he stammered, “how…it…works?” This was clearly among the worst moments of his life so far; to talk with your pastor (your girl pastor, no less) about the biology of raging hormones was a terrifying prospect. “Not really,” I said. “Not the ‘how-to’ part, but what it means and what guidance God has given us about sex.” The class breathed a sigh of relief. At least there wouldn’t be any diagrams.

[2] Our topic that night was actually the sixth commandment, the perfect opportunity to open up discussion about human sexuality. The truth is, I was as nervous as they were. But I also knew that if they received nothing from the church about sex, the church was only doing them, and their families, a huge disservice. A clergy friend told me recently that it was never clear to her what “adultery” was when it was mentioned in confirmation class. “But I figured it had the word ‘adult’ in it,” she said, “so it wasn’t possibly something I could do since I was still a kid.” Take a deep breath, ELCA clergy: it’s time to talk about sex.

[3] I imagined the whole ELCA with that metaphorical look of horror on its face when word came to us that the draft of our Social Statement on Human Sexuality would be released. What would it say – or not say? Would we welcome it with open arms and publish it far and wide in our congregations – or round-file it immediately and hope no one read the news release of its publication? The last time we tried this, as I was entering seminary, all I heard were “wars and rumors of wars,” and despite Jesus’ counsel on that matter, there seemed to be a great deal of alarm.

[4] What does a Social Statement on Human Sexuality mean for my pastoral ministry? As I write this, I imagine the two congregations in which I have served as pastor, and I know that my first answer to that question depends a great deal upon which congregation I am in when the conversation takes place. Obviously, every pastor in the ELCA will need to translate the statement as well into his or her own context. Pieces of the document which create worry in one congregation may pass by without comment in another, and vice versa. No social statement of this or any church exists in a void. They, too, are living documents and we who read and teach them should realize both their value and their limitations.

[5] For my pastoral ministry now, in which I work largely with youth and families, the primary purpose of this social statement is to provoke discussion about the complicated gift of human sexuality and its enormously complicated place in our society. I would assume that, had there been a statement about human sexuality in the church of the 1950’s, it would have contained little to no discussion about the need for churches to be safe places for children; about our denominational support for preventing and addressing sexual harassment on the job; or about the economic and societal forces at work which favor cohabitation over marriage. My confirmation students would not use any of that language specifically, but they know those murky waters. Sex is everywhere, all the time, in their lives. Sex sells them cell phones and magazines and music and makeup. They worry about body images in the second grade. They watch their own families or those of their friends disintegrate or explode. There are very few safe places for them to confide their fears and worries, ask their questions, be taken seriously. Parents can certainly do it – but some don’t want to. Others don’t feel equipped to. And because their church has said little to them about their own sexuality, parents may not even know where to begin.

[6] For my pastoral ministry now, these are the living and important questions about sexuality. It may well be that the bulk of society no longer cares what any church says about sex; that most people will see the church as either hopelessly outdated or relentlessly vague, and dismiss any statement out of hand, on the rare occasion that they even know such a statement exists. Much media and congregational attention is given to matters of sexual orientation, and I would guess that there are those in our worshipping communities who will be disappointed that this draft statement says almost nothing about those questions other than to acknowledge much fundamental disagreement among us. I worry, however, that when it comes to my pastoral ministry, the arguments about orientation take up so much time that they leave no space for discussions which affect all of us, regardless of our sexual orientation. Whether you are straight or gay, single or married, cohabitating out of pure choice or economic necessity, the place of human sexuality in our society raises serious issues for we who believe that all people are created in the image of God. If we began our conversations about human sexuality from that which we have in common, if we spent more time imagining how sexuality of all people could find a healthy and respectful place in our society; if we as a church said together that regardless of orientation, we believe that sex is not a product, not ever – now that, in my mind, would be a starting point for meaningful pastoral ministry with all people. Certainly with children and families.

[7] Although there are plenty of people inside and outside the ELCA who expect a very clear-cut statement about what is right and wrong when it comes to human sexuality, I have found very few moments in pastoral ministry when clear-cut answers are either helpful or appropriate. For that reason, I find the openness of this draft meaningful, insofar as it acknowledges the complexities surrounding sexuality. Of the many weddings at which I have presided in nine years, fewer than five were for couples not already living together, and I know very few pastors who do not have exactly the same experience. One of the newest and most wide-reaching programs in the congregation I currently serve is “Safe Haven,” a training which is required for all volunteers who work with children, providing them a vocabulary like “good touch,” and “appropriate boundaries,” and reminding them why you can’t be alone in a room with a child. All pastors know plenty of elderly couples who genuinely love each other but simply can’t afford to marry and give up social security benefits.

[8] This is not a clear-cut world. The church and its pastors might be tempted to get attention by trying to be black-and-white about sexuality, but that’s nothing more than sound and fury, and we all know what that signifies. Meaningful pastoral conversation about human sexuality must be clear about one primary thing: a lot of this stuff isn’t clear anymore. If the church is not willing to acknowledge that, no one will care what we say about anything else. To give a pastoral example: I would rather talk with a cohabitating couple about the expectations and realities of marriage than turn them out of my office for living together. They’ll find someone to marry them without much trouble. If I believe my church has something meaningful to say to them about sex, then I need to keep the door open.

[9] Our theological and biblical heritage ought to give us freedom for just that kind of openness. We are not working on matters of salvation when we talk about sexuality, but on matters of just and good living for ourselves and our neighbors. In a time when many people assume that talking about sexuality in church probably involves a list of a thousand things you shouldn’t do in order to avoid hell – and who wants to hear that? – it ought to put our Lutheran tradition at the forefront to be freed from such a burden. Our congregations can be exactly the places where people confess and confront and wrestle with these very complex issues. All the reasons we have avoided that task over the years no longer matter. For the ELCA to provide me a statement on human sexuality which takes seriously the convoluted journey before us is, I believe, the best way for my pastoral ministry to be taken seriously when it comes to human sexuality. Anything less wouldn’t matter to me, or to anyone else.