Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection February 23, 2020
“Better Love Than Wine” (A Belated Happy Saint Valentine’s Day!) - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
In light of our recent Saint Valentine’s Day, I’d like to present a reflection on the Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon. The Song of Songs is a long love poem, a long erotic love poem. We might wonder why it is included in the Bible. Some commentators believe the poem can be seen as an allegory about God’s love for God’s people. But most commentators see it for what it is – a highly charged love poem. This book of the Bible never makes it into most Children’s Bibles!
The Song of Songs is a bit hard to understand but it’s clearly about a woman in love yearning for her beloved and her beloved returning her ardor, her passion, her love.
Why shouldn’t this erotic love poem be part of the Bible? Did God not create human sexuality? Did God not create humans with two great hungers: a hunger for God as well as a hunger for each other, for union and communion? As the late Billy Graham phrased it: “Sex is the most wonderful thing on this earth, as long as God is in it.”
Yet we seldom hear sermons about the energy of human love. So where can our young ones go to learn about the flame of human love? A flame the Song of Songs describes as a flame of Yahweh, a flame of God. Certainly parents must be the best of teachers on this subject but I fear overall our society isn’t too helpful in aiding our young towards developing a healthy sexuality.
When I entered my own adolescence many, many years ago, I didn’t have the advantage of a father’s advice and wisdom. As most know, my father died when I was eleven. My mother wasn’t very adept at helping me understand all the changes happening with adolescence.
I went to a high school boarding seminary at age 13. The priests who taught us at the seminary weren’t very helpful discussing or helping us understand the power of human sexuality.
When we took biology in our sophomore year, the priest teaching us skipped over the chapter on reproduction, asserting that we probably already knew what we needed to know about the subject. I wanted to raise my hand and say – “I need more information” – but the moment passed and I continued in my relative ignorance.
Even the library wasn’t very helpful. Books about human sexuality were virtually non-existent. When magazines came in, the librarians would cut out any photos or stories that might “enflame us.” So I was on my own as I sought to understand the riddle, the mysterious world, of human sexuality. Being on one’s own is not always the best place to be!
I’d like to share in this reflection some thoughts from the spiritual writer, Ronald Rolhesier, and his book, The Holy Longing. He writes: “Sex … is the most powerful of all fires, the best of all fires, the most dangerous of all fires, and the fire which, ultimately, lies at the base of everything, including the spiritual life.”
We probably all have some difficulties understanding the divine mystery of human sexuality. Sexuality is about our inherent incompleteness and our desire for union. The loneliness we all experience from time to time is actually a God-given emotional incentive to become more engaged with our fellow humans.
Sexuality is a sacred gift. As Rolheiser notes: “Sexuality is a beautiful, good, extremely powerful, sacred energy, given us by God and experienced in every cell of our being as an irrepressible urge to overcome our incompleteness, to move toward unity and consummation with that which is beyond us.”
The energy of sexuality is sometimes spoken of as Eros. Eros is the divinely-created energy that propels us into relationships. Eros seeks to join what is separate. It lies underneath our own being. Without Eros, none of us would be alive.
Those of us who are adults probably realize that the energy of Eros needs careful attention. Many can be naïve about its power. Some may even use its power in unhealthy ways that hurt others.
But sexuality is everywhere around us. As Rolheiser notes: “Sexuality is a wide energy and we are healthily sexual when we have love, community, communion, family, friendships, affection, creativity, joy, delight, humor, and self-transcendence in our lives.”
Yet how might we fashion a healthy spirituality of sexuality? How do we use its flame to warm us rather than burn us? How do we keep from falling off the ship of our own soul when it comes to the persistent power of human sexuality?
Rolhesier suggests: “Sexuality is not just like anything else, despite our culture’s protest. Its fire is so powerful, so precious, so close to the heart and soul of a person, and so godly, that it either gives life or takes it away.”
I believe God has given us the gift of sexuality, the gift of life-energy called Eros, but God cautions us to approach this energy with reverence. This means, according to Rolheiser, that we do not cross boundaries prematurely or irreverently.
In other words, we respect one another and do not seek to violate anyone’s full humanity including our own. And we have probably learned that sexual energy is not always friendly. It can take us where we would rather not go. Boundaries help us retain our dignity and our divinely-given humanity.
What might a healthy, a godly, sexuality look like? Again from Rolheiser: “A mature sexuality is when a person looks at what he or she has helped create, swells in a delight that breaks the prison of his or her own selfishness, and feels as God feels when God looks at creation.”
And what is the most important creation coming from sexuality? The most important creation that should come from sexuality is love which is more vital and primary than any new life that may arise.
Love is the reason God graced us, created us, with human sexuality. Love helps us escape the prison of our aloneness. Love breaks down the walls of our isolation. Love overwhelms the innate selfishness that we are heir to as humans. Love prepares us for the eternal love of the One Who Gave Us Life.
Again from Rolheiser: “…sexuality lies at the center of the spiritual life. A healthy sexuality is the single most powerful vehicle there is to lead us to selflessness and joy, just as unhealthy sexuality helps constellate selfishness and unhappiness as does nothing else … Sexuality is God’s energy within us.” What a wonderful way to understand the gift and blessing of human sexuality: to understand it as God’s energy within us!
So why is it that we find it so hard to discuss healthy sexuality in our society and in our churches? Why do we sometimes fail to see human sexuality as the blessing it is? What human flaw – what human sin - causes some humans to take the God-given blessing of sexuality and demonize it through sexual abuse, sexual violence, and pornography? Why do so many movies trivialize human intimacy? Why don’t we recognize human sexuality as a major way God has given us to achieve holiness?
Let me add some thoughts from Evelyn and James Whitehead’s book, A Sense of Sexuality: Christian Love and Intimacy: “As Americans we live in a society that complicates our attempts to tell the truth about sex. Even as we proclaim that sex is good, we know that it is not the only good. Sex participates in a community of human values … (including) generosity and justice and (loving) sacrifice. In adolescence, sex necessarily looms large; it can excite and even threaten us as nothing else can. Maturing into adult life, we gradually befriend sex – to learn to appreciate its power, to savor its delights, to see through some of its illusions. We make decisions to integrate sexual activity in our lives in ways that are consistent with our deepest values.”
The Whiteheads continue: “Cultural forces (however) can stunt this integration. America’s fascination with sex coaxes all of us to linger too long in adolescence. Our society exalts sex as the peak experience and primary focus of life. The industry of pornography feeds this fantasy, but thrives in more ‘respectable’ forms as well – in advertising, in the media, in entertainment. This national preoccupation takes sex out of context, separating pleasure from the accompanying dynamics of mutuality, responsibility, and commitment.”
Mutuality, responsibility, and commitment are what help us to become holy. And our task as disciples of Jesus Christ is to help each other become holy: becoming holy means uncovering the sacred within us and among us. And there is a deeper dimension to this holiness. We become holy when we pursue the persistent and deep longing within us to grow and become all that God created us to become.
This is, I believe, the real power underlying love’s forcefulness. Love pushes us to grow more aligned with God. Love pushes us to become what God wishes for us to become. Love is always creative – leading us into deeper and deeper intimacy – more and more aligned with God. True love always, always, leads us to God. This is one of the major truths I’ve discovered in life.
How much better is Love than Wine - as the Song of Solomon states numerous times! In love, we come closer to God. In love, God comes closer to us. Let me end this belated Valentine’s reflection with these words from The Song of Solomon: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. (Love’s) flashes are flashes of fire, the flame of God.” (Song of Solomon:8:6) May we all be eternally warmed with the flames of human and divine Love!
On Wednesday, February 12, I led the worship service at Smith Village. I challenged them to say “I Love You!” to everyone they met on Friday, Valentine’s Day. I wonder how THAT went!