Of Sex and Shepherds —05/02/06

Creator of our sensuality, guide us today. Teach us the beauty and the dangers of our body-to-body encounters. Let us find in you the deeper meaning of "this is my body, given for you" and, by your Holy Spirit, teach us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to you. Let us not be "conformed to this world, but [let us] be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds..." (Rom 12:1-2) In Jesus' name, amen

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with Andy Crouch, director of the Christian Vision Project. He was sharing his thoughts about culture—how we Christians often react to culture rather than try to shape it. And, I thought, "Well, isn't that sadly true, more than we'd like to admit." In fact, as Crouch and I sat there in the sun, sipping our "Choice" teas, I couldn't help think how it's true with our topic here today, "The Trap of Sensuality."

I'd been struggling with the topic not only for obvious reasons, but also because it embodied just this problem: sensuality, sex, and its companions have classically been something the church reacts to. We Christians find it easy to indict the surrounding culture, from its belly-baring fashions to its back-room rendezvous'. And, our topic title today certainly takes that road. The "Trap of Sensuality" seems to imply that sensuality is by its very nature dangerous, suspect, something to steer around. I realized, sitting across from Crouch's culture comment, that I've been uncomfortable with the approach to our topic because it seems more reactionary than visionary, more "watch out" than "what's the real deal".

Fortunately, by the last sip of my "Choice" tea that sunny morning, a new thought bubbled inside me: what I needed to do was go beyond reaction and move towards shaping. I could not just come here today and talk about the evils of sensuality. We'd have to do more, you and I. We'd have to look both ways.

It seemed to me there was no better way to do this than to tumble into Song of Songs , to grapple with its bright images of sensual love and its equally dark images of sensual love. Then, somehow we'd have to find our place in it, find the point of decision, the place of choice, understand what makes one sensuality bright and the other dark, so we could shape the culture of our own lives, our families, our little and larger societies.

The Song of Songs is one of those books the rabbis argued over. Should it go in? Should it stay out? I like to think that the final decision to tuck it in was meant to address the exact problem we face today: sensuality, sexuality is both bright and dark. And, we need a way to think about the two sides, for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, we don't want to end up in the kind of trap the Proverbs father warns his son about, "...an arrow pierces his liver, as a bird hastens to a snare, so he does not know that it will cost him his life." (Prov 7:23) Sensuality can clearly have a destructive quality, depending on how it's played out. On the other hand, we don't want to promote married or single emotional Frigidaire. For, sensuality, sexuality, is a natural, God-given part of us, that we can't just ignore.

So, what to do? I have struggled with this question in my own life, and I rather wish someone had given me the vision in Song of Songs a long time ago. Maybe it would have changed a few things. Anyhow, for this particular vision, this amazing interpretation of the Song , I have to give partial credit to Iaian Provan, writer of The NIV Application Commentary on Ecclesiastes/Song of Songs , published by Zondervan.

Provan digs into the poetry of the Song , turns its images around in the light, brushes them off and waves them before our eyes. He hums the deep rhythms of the Hebrew words, which lend a tune no English translation ever has for me. To put it simply, he explains a few things.

Beginning with this: the Song is not necessarily about Solomon and his beloved woman. It's more likely about two men and one woman. (Hold on, let me explain.) In the Song , Solomon, the king shows up as a woman conqueror, while the second man, a Shepherd, enters, for the most part, as a woman respecter. Additionally, the woman, the Shepherdess, is a figure to be reckoned with. As the dominant voice in the text, she has her own strong personality and choices to make. In the end, we learn something about the bright and dark sides of sensuality from both sets of relationships.

Before I get into all this, I should say that Provan laments that the Song is too often simply allegorized-as a picture of God and the Church. And, he says, the lack of a "literal sense of the text" has made it "too easy for men to sail the good ship allegory wherever they wished, avoiding those things in the ocean that they did not wish to comprehend." (p.247) Not to say that the allegorical approach has no value at all, but it keeps us from entering too deeply into the cries of the text. Which, in turn, leaves us little reason to seek vision from its heart, for our body-to-body encounters.

So, we'll leave the allegorical aside for another day. But today, today we will lift the veil on the Song's vision- its passionate, intense, instructive vision for a full-bodied sensuality, as well as a sensuality that might better have been traded in for a Shepherd's license.

To understand the difference between the two sensualities, one which is entered explosively and one which might better have been traded in for a Shepherd's license, we begin at the Song's first breath...

"Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth–
for your love is more delightful than wine.
Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes;
Your name is like perfume poured out...
Take me away with you–
let us hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers. (1:2-4)

While at first glance this appears to celebrate the king, Provan reminds us that the Hebrew is moving from third person to second to third, which causes some confusion. Who is being addressed here, and how? Provan suggests the woman is addressing her Shepherd-Lover and not King Solomon, with the final line "let the king bring me into his chambers" representing a memory of what the king had already done... he brought her into his chambers, where she was expected to perform the sexual act. Which, she in fact did, "While the king was at his table, my perfume spread its fragrance." (1:12) Yet, even so, this rather detached act (Solomon was at his table; her perfume went out yet did not draw him in) does not blunt her true love for the Shepherd, to whom she continues speaking,

"Tell me, you whom I love, where you graze your flock
and where you rest your sheep at midday... (1:7)
How handsome you are, my lover!
Oh, how charming!
And our bed is verdant.
The beams of our house are cedars;
our rafters are firs." (1:16-17)

We notice right away the contrast of indoor and outdoor imagery—King Solomon's cedar house and table being indoors, the lovers' sheepfold and forest bed being outdoors. Later, Solomon will also be pictured outdoors, but the sense will be entirely different. For now, we see that the connection between the Shepherd and the Shepherdess speaker is fertile, fruitful, rather like Eden. And, this sense continues in other parts of the Song , with raisin cakes, apples, pomegranates and mandrakes-all fertility fruits- associated with the Shepherd and Shepherdess. To the contrary, the Song begins to build a picture of death in the person of Solomon. The Shepherdess sings,

"Who is this coming up from the desert
like a column of smoke,
perfumed with myrrh and incense
made from all the spices of the merchant?"
Look! It is Solomon's carriage,
Escorted by sixty warriors...
All of them wearing the sword,
All experienced in battle,
Each with his sword at his side...
King Solomon made for himself the carriage;
He made it of wood from Lebanon." (3:6-9)

Solomon, now outdoors, shows up in a desert, a column of smoke his herald. His perfumes are man-made, from the merchant. He's surrounded by warriors, swords, and he lolls on a bed of Lebanon wood, the very cedars perhaps that the Shepherdess had previously lain under with her lover.

The imagery is enough to make the point. Solomon is false, man-made, lazy in love, reliant on coercion and strength. Yet the Hebrew words make an even stronger point. The word for perfume is actually one that means "to make sacrifices smoke" and the feminine word "coming up" is identical to the word for "burnt offering." Provan suggests, "A good case can thus be made for taking Song of Songs 3:6 as an allusion to the sacrificial female victim who lies on the 'altar,' which is Solomon's bed." (p.303)

This is sensuality somehow gone wrong, to which the end of the Song concludes,

"Solomon had a vineyard in Baal Hamon;
he let out his vineyard to tenants.
Each was to bring for its fruit
A thousand shekels of silver." (8:11)

At the last, the Song actually suggests that sensuality-gone-wrong has spiritual implications. Solomon, who sexually sacrificed a thousand women on his bed is finally said to have a vineyard in Baal Hamon. Provan notes, "The place name is interesting, for it not only means 'husband of a multitude'...but also evokes through its use of 'Baal' (the Canaanite deity...) the story in 1 Kings 11, where Solomon's many wives lead him astray into idolatry." (p.370)

Thus, perhaps, we can draw some conclusions about dark sensuality from Solomon's place in the Song . Dark sensuality seems related to coercion or conquering—think of the warriors and swords. Dark sensuality takes what has been living, like the Shepherdess' cedars of Lebanon, and subverts it to serve the dead cause of self-think of Solomon's wooden carriage bed. Dark sensuality is more entwined with transaction than transformational relationship, which belies a certain laziness of spirit—think of Solomon lolling on his bed, bedecked with the wares of the merchant. Dark sensuality has the illusion of broadness and freedom, yet ends in the narrow worship of sensuality itself—think of Solomon's multitude of women that bring him to the lap of the false fertility god Baal.

Contrast this to the bright sensuality of the Shepherd and the Shepherdess, which is simply one aspect of a deeper, transformational, committed, sacrificial relationship, analogous to marriage. This relationship looks more like what Yancey refers to when he talks about the Puritan conception of marriage, " 'the little church within the Church,' a place to test and also develop spiritual character. Every day marriage calls both partners to love and forgive and stay faithful—hard work that only makes sense if we are convinced somehow that we are participating in a kind of alternate history, one set in eternity." (an eternity, I might add, that reaches toward Eden.) Yancey further suggests that as "two independent people share a common reality, a kind of transfiguration takes place. A 'second love' emerges." (p.94, Rumors of Another World )

A closer look at the core of the Song polishes this second love into brilliance. Yes, the Shepherd and Shepherdess are spice and heat, milk and honey, wine and henna blossoms—explosive sensuality. But, they face the question of transfiguration, transformation (versus transaction) just as much as Solomon did. They face the choice to shepherd or coerce, to labor or loll. They face the temptation of broad love versus love cupped between only them. They, too, face the threat of the desert.

Remember the declarations of the both the Shepherd and the Shepherdess? At one point, she cries out, "No wonder the maidens love you!" (1:3). This is some kind of sweet, handsome guy, with no lack of admirers. Couldn't he also have Solomon's thousand, or at least a sizable shepherd's flock? His sensuality is palpable, and wouldn't it be tempting to let it pour forth to the multitudes? Likewise, the Shepherd calls to her, "most beautiful of women..." (1:8) She, too can turn heads. But, no. They've decided instead to pour their sensuality into one bowl. She sings of it, "I am my lover's and my lover is mine..." (6:3)

The incredible fragrance that rises from that one bowl shocks the senses into ecstasy. It is a sensuality affirmed, celebrated, elaborated in spicy words of love. Now, there's a vision of Christian sensuality worth embracing, no? But, how does it burst into fragrance? Think of the minute attention to detail between the lovers. As Provan says, there's "much wooing in the passage." (p.327)

This wooing comes in several forms. One is found in the Shepherd's act of recontextualizing the woman's trauma experienced in Solomon's chambers. The war symbols, the power symbols, and so on, are placed in control of the woman, through the poetic affirmations of the Shepherd. "Your neck is like the tower of David," he croons, "...on it hang a thousand shields, all of them shields of warriors." (4:4) Additionally, he invites her, "Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me. See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone." (2:10-11)

As Provan notes, this is a "beautiful example of...the way in which affirming words function to 'push back the chaos and shape our lives into order and beauty.' " Do we lack explosive sensuality in our marriages? Perhaps we need to come back to this simple act... the act of frequently affirming our beloved, of pushing back the chaos in his or her life, to make emotional room for a new, fresh, and intense love.

It's all too easy, being in close proximity, to do the opposite, to take aim at our lover's heart, inflicting fresh wounds and deadening desire. This is why I like the image of the Shepherd, who binds up wounds and carries the other as a lamb. Oftentimes, I try to ask myself, who am I being right now with my lover? A marksman, or a shepherd? How can I be a shepherd?

Partner to affirmation is simple celebration of our beloved. This, too, we see in the Song . It heats up bright, sensuous desire again and again. "You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride; you have stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes...Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride; milk and honey are under your tongue." (4:9,11) "How handsome you are, my lover! Oh, how charming!" (1:16) "...at our door is every delicacy, both new and old, that I have stored up for you, my lover." (6:13)

Recently, I realized I needed to find this place of celebration again with my spouse—not easy when the day and children stand between us. So, I began to make it my pleasure to send a flirty email now and again, one that celebrates my spouse's lovely qualities. And, believe me, it helps us steal each other's hearts. It reminds us of the one bowl we poured our sensuality into long ago. And, it invites tasting.

Yet, the bright sensuality of the committed couple is sometimes challenged by failures. We see this in the center of the Song , where the Shepherd thrusts "his hand through the latch opening" (5:4) after the Shepherdess complains at her lover's knock, "I have taken off my robe—must I put it on again? I have washed my feet—must I soil them again?" (5:3). The Hebrew here is saturated with sexual allusion, and the basic idea is that she gets lazy about love, while he gets coercive. Each lover fails to ask the question, "How can I shepherd you, right now?" and the results are violently heart-rending—this described in the beating and bruising and naked exposure she suffers at the hands of the watchmen.

If you've faced sexual stops and starts, due to laziness in love or an attitude of coercion, then you can probably identify with the complete sense of being ravished and bruised in your emotions. Failure in the committed love relationship is almost worse than being sacrificed to a Solomon who you didn't love in the first place.

But, ultimately, the Song is hopeful. The ones committed to a transformative relationship can get past the starts and stops, can find a way to shepherd each other, if they keep walking together, remembering the advent of their love. In 8:5, the Song questions, "Who is this coming up from the desert leaning on her lover? " Then it recalls, "Under the apple tree I roused you; there your mother conceived you, there she who was in labor gave you birth." (8:5)

John Gottman, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work , notes that couples who make it through the desert times often use this technique. They retell the story of their beginnings, when they first roused one another. They remember when the other was born into their sight, lovely and lively and new. This remembrance can cut through the negative and rebuild a relationship where one leans on the other, creating life where there was desert death.

Once, when I was going through a particularly negative time, I tried this out. I spent time remembering our beginnings and how my spouse had been born into my sight. And I found a time to share this with my spouse; such simple retelling and remembering surprised me with its power to transform.

That being said, before I leave this talk, I must ask, what of the person who is not in committed relationship to another? What role does sensuality play? How to handle it? The Song suggests strongly, "do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires" (8:4) In other words, for the single person, even for the married person meeting someone other than his spouse, there's a time to let sensuality wait or sleep.

Yet, the danger is, as the Benedictine nuns noted to author Kathleen Norris, "that we... deny our true feelings and become rigid, afraid to relate. We distance ourselves from both men and women.... Several sisters spoke to [Norris] about emotional frigidity as a maladaptation that celibate women are especially prone to." (p.255, The Cloister Walk )

It's worth reading how the Benedictines work to accept their feelings, without rousing them, as to avoid emotional frigidity. Part of this work involves admitting the feelings and sharing them with God and a sister, but it's also more than that. (Do read Norris' The Cloister Walk if you'd like the full picture.) For now, I'll just give you one sister's conclusion about the fruit of a sensuality not pursued. She says, "'Celibacy...has given me a good way to integrate my sexuality with my spirituality; I've come to realize that the goal of both is union with God and others.'" Another sister put it simply, "'The fruit of celibacy is hospitality.'" (p.263)

It seems that this sums up the whole issue of sensuality... that what we might seek is the fruit of hospitality. That word hospitality brings me back to the vocation of shepherd, so that my whole relation to sensuality might be approached through the question, "How can I be a shepherd to you?" Of course, this is a question I'll answer differently at different times, with different people. Yet, choosing to ask this question is a step toward shaping my sensual side. When I ask, "How can I be a shepherd to you?", I choose the possibility of being hospitable and healing—somewhat like a warm cup of tea in the gentle morning sun.

Good shepherd, who came to bind up the broken-hearted, may we follow after you. In all our encounters, may our sensual sides find in you a tutor-teach us to bind up, to heal, to shepherd, to sacrifice, for the love of others. Let us not be the cause of broken hearts, but let us be havens of hospitality, spurring others on to love and good deeds and a journey deeper into You. In Jesus' name, amen.