“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat…. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”
Last week I “had the talk” with a group of young leaders in Romania, on the topic of “God and sex.” What was I thinking when I volunteered for that? While I’ve had countless informal conversations with these friends over the years on both subjects, it’s the first time we’ve tackled it formally in our leadership training.
Hmm, really, who wants to hear an old guy talk about sex? Someone suggested we just show pictures, which certainly might offer more engaging possibilities. Fortunately I’m only one part of the mix. While we wondered if the whole thing would unravel into goofy-ness, our young people’s earnest desire to learn and grow shone through. We had fun for sure, and had to reel it in at points. But they pressed in with many whiteboard brainstorms about what questions to explore – which became a plan for a number of weekly sessions.
Our session went great last week – beyond expectations. More about that in a moment. What caught me up short was a phone conversation with someone in the USA afterward. “I hope you started by teaching about purity. That has to be the foundation,” my friend advised. “Use the verse in Philippians and go from there.” Think, think, I thought. The verse on purity? Oh yes I remembered, chapter four. “Nothing else about sex will matter if there’s not purity.” I wasn’t so sure about that, but in the moment I couldn’t put my finger on why. Who can argue with purity? Snow and gold and Ivory soap? Lamely I offered that we’d be talking about purity.
At the risk of betraying precious individual confidences, I’ll paint with a large brush here and say that as a group our young people – formerly abandoned and institutionalized – have experienced sex in almost every way imaginable since they were very small children. Sex before they knew what sex was. Sex with orphanage staff. Sex with local officials, as a perk. Sex with bullies. Sex as bullies. Sex for money for other people. Sex for cigarettes. Sex with each other. Sex with both sexes, sex in groups, sex by themselves. Sex they didn’t want and sex they did. Yes, sex in every way imaginable except “purity.”
So where to start?
A “pure” place to start would be “the seat of Moses” the lawgiver. Famously, there were 613 Mosaic laws and quite a few were about sex. Moses’s seat is a good seat to sit on, when you can possibly imagine yourself pure.
No one imagines our young people pure. Least of all, themselves.
From the seat of Moses we might say “You’ve had it done to you wrong, and done it wrong yourselves, now get it right and here’s how.” But sex… ah sex. Sex! It goes so far, far, far beyond doing. It goes to being. To every blessed and dark corner of being. It becomes our being.
When you understand yourself to be a pool that’s been peed in, gum that’s been chewed, a flower with plucked petals – to use purity metaphors that yes actually get used – you can’t un-pee or un-chew or un-pluck. Any of us, if unflinchingly honest, have a lot more of this in us than we let on. Our young leaders in Romania have it in every cranny of their bodies and souls, with the added feature of seldom being able to hide it.
Our young people will wither before the seat of Moses. It will crush them. In fact it already has crushed them in a thousand ways. It’s much of what they think they know of God.
So where did we start? We started with Moses the storyteller. We started at the start of the story he told, with the Spirit moving over the face of the deep and bringing life. We started with a story of stuff – earthy, physical stuff – spinning out from delight and raucously cheered as good. We talked about hands down in dirt, playing, messing around, squishing and pushing body parts into humanity, lithe and sensuous. We went around the room telling each other about our own favorite pleasures of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. We rubbed fragrant lotion on each other’s hands. (Nope I didn’t lead that part. But it was nice!)
We asked each other the most beautiful question: whose image do we bear? Not could we, or should we, or might we bear. Whose image do we bear?
Afterward a young man pulled me aside. “This is the first time I have ever felt good about myself, even for a few minutes. This is the first time I have had hope.”
If the “seat of Moses” the lawgiver has become a hulking marble throne that crushes, could it be that Jesus calls us back – back to Moses of the liberating Exodus, further back to Moses barefoot before a burning bush, still further back to fingers in the mud? Those are the fingers Jesus lifts. He makes the burden light, calling us forward, forward, forward into marvelous light from which we need not flinch.
Good thing, because next session is about vaginas and penises.