Sunday, May 28, 2017

Pastoral Prayer for Living Between Two Kingdoms

based on Acts 1:6-14 and Ignatius of Loyola's "Two Standards" meditation

Faithful God, we straddle a world between the banners of two different and distinct kingdoms. One encompasses all that determines our tangible success or failure. It is a kingdom of complex and interlocking systems of taxation, defense, entertainment, family systems, neighborhoods, elected officials, and laws. Many take great pride in this kingdom and wish it well because its prosperity means our prosperity; its health means our health. Others have borne the brunt of unfair policies and imperfect enactors, and those who see this are ever working toward a more just way to be in community together.

Under the other banner is a kingdom of great divine promise revealed through Christ, one that claims and exudes heavenly values and eternal truths. It is a kingdom where all are invited to banquets and all find healing and hope. It is a kingdom ever breaking into view and of which we may catch glimpses whenever one shows compassion, makes for peace, works for justice.

We are torn between these kingdoms, between the already and the not yet, between what we believe is proven and what is yet to be realized. We live in the kingdoms of this world while striving to live out of what yours calls us to be. And in our efforts, we stop to pray and seek replenishment to be a part of your mission for earth to reflect heaven.

O God, between these banners, we seek your Spirit. As we continue living in and loving those in this kingdom, may it be in a way that gives glory to yours. Amen.

Friday, May 26, 2017

May 2017 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for May...

1. This month we saw Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, in which we see that Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot are a more established group that hire themselves out to protect planets against threats. After they manage to anger a client (which isn't difficult for them), their escape crash lands them on a world where they meet Ego and his companion Mantis. This meeting sends each of them on a path of further discovering who they are, and what their relationships to each other mean. The film has incredible visuals, a coherent weaving of narratives, brilliantly-timed comedy, and yet another awesome '70s and '80s era soundtrack. I enjoyed this more than the first outing.

2. I finally got around to watching Luke Cage on Netflix this month, the third of four Marvel shows featuring one of the characters who will eventually become The Defenders. I really liked Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and Cage the character already made an appearance in the latter. We meet up with him as he tries to make a life in Harlem, but a network of organized crime eventually lands at his friend and mentor's barbershop door and he has to take up a mantle that he doesn't want. I tried to judge this show on its own merits rather than compare it to its predecessors, and it stood well on its own but at times struggled to rise to the same heights. For instance, I didn't find the villains as compelling; they didn't have that larger-than-life quality that Kingpin and Kilgrave did. But it did touch on some societal issues related to race that were very timely for this present moment. So while maybe a half-step down from the others, I still enjoyed it.

3. We're almost finished with the third season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix, which just came out on May 19th. This time around Kimmy is working out a divorce from the "Reverend" who held her hostage (Jon Hamm is hilarious in this role) while also going to college. Meanwhile, Titus continues to figure out how to pursue his dream to perform (he does a fun parody of the BeyoncĂ© Lemonade video), among other things. This was actually an uptick from the 2nd season, which I really didn't get into as much as I thought I would. All four of the principal characters experience a certain maturation over the course of these episodes, which not only provided laughs along the way but helped the series as a whole move forward with the right amount of heart.

4. I recently read Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don't Belong To, Lillian Daniel's follow-up to When Spiritual But Not Religious Isn't Enough, which received heavy criticism and scrutiny for its tone toward the "spiritual but not religious." Daniel has since heard from many who fall into that category and has learned some other things along the way, and while in this book she acknowledges that the beliefs of SBNRs are a little more variant and hard to pin down, she also doesn't want the church's attempts to evangelize or appeal to them to be one primarily of apology. Rather than prefacing every church conversation with a non-churchgoer with contrition about everything that has ever been perpetrated in the name of Christianity, she suggests that we should instead talk about what we're for, why we're different, and what we find meaningful. I was glad I gave this book a chance.

5. This month I heard about the newest album by punk band Sorority Noise called You're Not as _____ as You Think. One theme of the record is lead singer Cameron Boucher's grief after losing a good friend, which is evident throughout but very poignant in the first song, "No Halo," both the lyrics and video for which hit my soul in the face the first time I experienced them. This is a strong, stirring album that I've been listening to all month. Here's that video for "No Halo:"

Monday, May 22, 2017

Pastor Iron Man

I had a dream last week. I was at a church, which didn't look like the church that I pastor but I knew that it was my church in that way you know things in dreams.

I was about ready to lead worship and was heading from my office down to the sanctuary, but in my dream I wasn't wearing my usual alb. Instead, I was wearing Iron Man's suit.

Yes, I was dressed like Iron Man. And I wasn't actually walking to the sanctuary, but flying to it. Because you see, I was dressed like Iron Man, so why wouldn't you fly when you're dressed like Iron Man?

I flew all the way down the hall, all the way down the aisle, and up to the pulpit. And I started to lead worship, dressed as Iron Man.

And that was it. I don't remember actually talking to anyone in my dream and I don't remember what the worship theme was or what time of year it was or anything. I just remember that I was standing in a church--my church--in Iron Man's suit.

I have a lot of dreams where I'll think about them for a few minutes after I wake up and then let them fade from my memory, but every so often I have one that seems to demand that I let it hang around for a while. These dreams seem to want me to consider their implications, like my subconscious is working something out and I need to keep processing it in wakefulness in order to resolve it properly.

So why was I flying around as Iron Man in a church? I have a few ideas, but I have to give some background for it to make sense to anyone else.

My first few years of pastoral ministry, I was hit square in the face by the reality of the Church's situation. Not just my particular church, but the Church with a capital C, although my church was a microcosm of those larger issues.

I could see how played out certain forms and traditions were, how lackadaisical people had become about doing them or justifying why they were done at all.

I need to say early that this wasn't, and isn't, just about worship. That's still the big third rail issue in a lot of places (and on a lot of blogs), and these issues did manifest in that area as well, but it wasn't just that. It was how we organize, how we teach, how we reach out to the community, how we think about serving in mission.

When I started in ministry, it all seemed to be changing. What little theory and practical experience I received in seminary both wasn't an adequate amount, nor did it account for these deeper problems that seemed to crop up so fast after starting my first call.

So I had to read. I had to educate myself both on the ground and to understand why certain things were happening. I read about cultural shifts, the end of Christianity's dominance in societal spheres, the crumbling assumptions about shared values and practices in the marketplace. And I read about people and places that were doing something about it, trying new things like increased approaches to technology, utilizing pop culture as entry points, starting fresh without any of the traditional norms.

I tried some stuff myself. Some of it worked and some of it didn't. But along the way I explained why. I tried to share what I'd learned about these changing times. Some of it took root, I think.

By the time I ended my first call, I thought I'd learned some things. I thought I was better prepared to do this again in a different way someplace else.

But it all seems to be happening faster now. The number of activities competing for people's time and attention seem to have increased exponentially. The "spiritual but not religious," "nones," and "dones" are only becoming more numerous. I just found out this last week that not only do I need to keep worrying about Millennials, but I already have to start worrying about the generation after them, too.

Individuals and families in my own setting are just as caught up in all of this. I'm watching it happen in real time; it's not just something happening out there.

At some point, I just accepted that this is how things are. I stopped panicking and just started trying to live into it. And I'm not sure exactly when. But maybe that's good. I don't need to pinpoint the moment I stopped thinking so consciously about it and kept showing up to work every day, hoping to respond to it as best I can.

Every once in a while, I become surprised all over again. I become surprised at how much the church has to compete with, how dominant technology and online methods of interaction have become, how forceful some are in expressing that what we're doing isn't enough for them or that we should be changing faster.

And while I wait for that surprise to finally wear off again, I show up. I show up, and I keep asking how we can do things differently. Faithfully, but differently.

As I've done this, I've struggled with two issues that inevitably have only made this adaptation more difficult. The first thing is that I try to do it all myself, as if I'm wearing a protective armor where I know what I'm doing and nobody else could possibly do it as well. And the second thing, because of the first, is that I end up thinking and acting as if the church is mine to save all on my own, as if I'm a superhero flying into battle.

I've also learned what happens when I try to do it all by myself. I stretch myself thin, I cut corners with my self care, I take the burden of the whole damn church onto myself because I think I have to, and I block others out while I do it. And then I get frustrated and tired and resentful and I end up being no good to anybody.

So here's where Iron Man comes in. He wears protective armor before flying in to save the world from some grave threat. And here I was in a dream, wearing that exact armor flying into the church presumably to preach and pray and read the Bible, but probably also thinking I need to save it all by myself.

I know the old thoughts and habits. They're creeping up again even as I thought I'd learned my lesson. I'm trying to be the church's superhero in the face of rapid change, and it's not going to go well if I try to do this by myself.

I think my subconscious knows this, wanting me to get out ahead of it before things get bad.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Summer Reading

The summer months will soon be upon us, and I've been compiling my latest list of works I intend to read between now and my favorite season of the year.

I do like summer for many reasons. It means the local ice cream stand is open, things are a little less busy at the church, my family's annual trip to the beach is coming up, and I can hang out on our back patio.

Here's my current plan of what I'll be reading while I enjoy those things.
  • My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris
  • What Is the Bible? by Rob Bell
  • How to Survive the Apocalypse by Robert Joustra
  • Contemporary Churches by Louis F. Kavar
  • Crazy Is My Superpower by A.J. Mendez Brooks
  • The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
  • Leviathan by Scott Westerfield
  • Cold Magic by Kate Elliot
So, one graphic novel, just a few theology/churchy books, a memoir, and a few novels. I like to keep it light this time of year.

What's on your reading list for the summer months?

(Does it include this book?)

Monday, May 15, 2017

Searching for the Fountain of Youth Group

I have a new post up at the UCC's New Sacred blog entitled Searching for the Fountain of Youth Group:

My senior high youth group  was bright, engaged, eager to share opinions, and compassionate.

I still carry those days with me as my entrance into Christian discipleship: the informal yet passionate conversation mixed with opportunities to participate in service projects were my first, lasting taste of what it means to be part of the church.

I believe that many others who have been a part of youth groups could say similar things. But after graduation, that energy disappears and something else takes its place.

Read the rest at New Sacred.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Vintage CC: God's Feminine Side

This post comes from February 2012, when a popular author challenged bloggers to write something about female images of God. This is what I came up with. I thought it appropriate as we head into Mother's Day Weekend, especially as that day factors prominently into the post.

During my third and final year of seminary, I was student pastor of a large UCC church just down the street from the school. Out of my entire seminary career, it was the only contextual education experience where, stereotypically, the seminarian was given everything that nobody else on staff wanted to do: I coordinated the senior high ministry, I organized the Thanksgiving Day service (producing this wonderful memory), and I preached on two Sundays that nobody else wanted, namely Scout Sunday and Mother's Day.

I didn't really get the big deal about Scout Sunday, but I did understand the bother with Mother's Day. There is a certain contingent that perhaps expects or prefers the gushing, wine-and-roses sort of sermon about wonderful mothers and motherhood on that particular day, but to go full bore with this tact easily leaves out those with bad relationships with their mothers, those who are unable to be mothers, those grieving their mothers, mothers grieving children, and so on. So let's give it to the seminarian and let him deal with it.

I ended up giving a sermon about God as parent, trying to stay pretty neutral about the whole thing. I celebrated how God acts as parent for us, watching over us and encouraging us. I did my best to avoid pronouns and favoring God as Father or Mother in particular and probably at least implied that God is beyond male and female designations even as they are helpful to understanding who God is and what God is like. I was pretty pleased with how it turned out, to be honest.

As I received people in the greeting line afterward, an elderly lady came up and shook my hand, but her handshake was such that she wanted me to lean down so that she could say something. I obliged, and was subjected to a 30-second half-whispered rant right in my ear about how God is male and should be addressed as Father, after which she promptly stormed out of the narthex.

Obviously, I'd struck a nerve that morning. There has long been a debate in my denomination, the United Church of Christ, about which gender-specific pronouns to use for God, if any. Our most recent hymnal caused one such stir, and a recent change to our Constitution and By-Laws caused another. And if you talk to the right people in my congregation, you can still hear all about a former pastor addressing God as Mother Hen during a prayer, and this happened two decades ago. These serve as examples of just how heated the debate over God's gender can get, and how important it is to people that God be addressed in certain ways.

What's really at stake in this debate? It really depends on who you talk to. For some, it's a matter of staying true to a Biblical image of God and, more generally, staying true to a correct interpretation of the Bible. Those who insist upon God's maleness will point to Jesus addressing God as Father, among other instances, to show that this is a position scripturally tested and approved, so why are you arguing otherwise? This may inevitably lead to a more general argument about correct scriptural interpretation: if you don't address God in male terms, as the Bible clearly does, then what else don't you believe about the Bible?

In truth, God is sometimes depicted as having more feminine characteristics in the Bible. I offer a brief quote from the post I link above:
But in addition to masculine imagery there are many feminine images as well, such as mother (Isaiah 42:14, Numbers 11:12, Isaiah 46:3-4), seamstress (Nehemiah 9:21), and hen (Matthew 23:37), among many others.
Yes, there really was Biblical precedent for that former pastor to address God as Mother Hen. Whether I personally would have chosen to do that in this context is another matter. Regardless, there come instances in scripture where God is more the tender nurturer, the concerned gatherer of offspring, or the one crying out in labor while birthing a people. The first two, it is worth mentioning, can be done by fathers, but certainly not the third.

Besides that Biblical imagery, aren't there times when we need God to be more the nurturer, comforter, gatherer, birther? There are churches and ministries that thrive on emphasizing God as warrior, king, MMA fighter (don't get me started), but there come times when we need God as more of a gentle encouraging presence in our lives, healing and assuring and embracing. This is why at times the prophets and others chose the imagery they did. At times Israel needed God to go to war for them, and at times they needed God to speak comforting and reassuring words. In times of grief or despair, do we really need God-as-warrior telling us to suck it up, or do we need God-as-comforter helping us to recover? The Biblical writers had no problem recognizing when each was needed, so many modern Christians would do well to explore the diverse images for God that address our diverse needs.

There really is nothing to be afraid of regarding God's feminine side. After all, God created humanity, both male and female, in God's image (Genesis 1:27). There is plenty of room to consider how men and women are both created in God's image, and how in turn God's image is embodied in each. God exhibits traditionally masculine and feminine characteristics in human experience recorded in scripture, throughout the theological writings of the church, and in modern movements, and so we would do well to celebrate them all rather than emphasize some and downplay others. The latter actually limits God, while the former more fully recognizes how we may experience God and how God is present and active in the world.

Monday, May 08, 2017

What is Fasting?

Previously: What is the Examen?, What is Lectio Divina?

I meant to have this latest entry in my ongoing series on spiritual practices posted during Lent, as many people take on fasts of various kinds during that season. Needless to say, that didn't happen. Of course, fasting is not limited to a particular time of year, and may be observed during many seasons of life not primarily dictated by the liturgical calendar. So maybe for some this is more timely now than it would have been earlier. Or it will be later. Whatever.

I'll begin by pointing out that, in my experience, fasting seems to have a bad rap among Christians that other disciplines don't, and for several reasons. One objection that I've encountered has to do with its arbitrariness: when groups I've been a part of have elected to take on a fast for a set period, some have chosen not to participate because they haven't understood its point. A second objection is that its nature is more negative: you are denying yourself something rather than taking something on, and some see even the smallest act of abstention as rigid, unnecessary, legalistic, or punitive. Finally, some associate fasting with shame. This may relate to other things such as body image issues, and some may be better off unpacking those problems or choosing another practice altogether if it raises concerns along those lines.

The rest of this post may touch on these objections, but my main intention is to explain what fasting is meant to be. I'm not interested in convincing you that it is worthwhile so much as exploring in brief what it's based on and how someone might observe it safely.

First, where does the idea of fasting come from? The best-known example probably comes from the Gospels where Jesus fasts in the wilderness for 40 days (the basis for Lent). But there are other places in both Testaments where individuals or groups observe fasts for a period of time, including the Jewish people in Esther (4:16), Paul in Acts (9:9), instructions for the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:27), and the call to fasting and repentance by the prophet Joel (2:15). This only touches the surface of many more Biblical examples.

At their root, these calls to fast are times of spiritual renewal and refocusing on God's presence, promises, and purpose for those who do it. At times it is an act of penance, but not always. Sometimes, as with Jesus, it is merely part of a process of focusing on one's relationship with God. The idea that it is primarily or solely an act of self-flagellation is misguided. A time of refocusing can be caused by a realization of some sinful or selfish attitude or action, but it is not the only circumstance that may call for this practice.

So, how to fast? There are at least three things to consider.

First, the how. Fasting normally is not total. It traditionally means food only; one should still take in fluids such as water and juices to keep up one's physical health. Pay attention to what your body needs to make up for what you won't be consuming. Sometimes, as during Lent, you may only fast from certain food items. Make sure you understand what is included before beginning, and how to nourish yourself.

Second, the how long. Be clear with yourself on the length of time you will be observing your fast. Are you doing this for a day? Several days? A week? Setting this timeframe will help you plan for it.

Third, the why. As already mentioned, fasting is spiritual. Its aim is to focus on God's purposes for your life. Maybe this will come with a mind-opening spiritual revelation, but forcing it or considering your fast a failure if  it doesn't happen is to miss the point. Fasting is the act of removing one thing for a time in order to place God at the center in its place. Neither should fasting be considered a quick and easy weight-loss plan. There are other ways to pursue physical goals, and having that as the primary intention is placing something other than God at the central purpose.

To reiterate, fasting is a spiritual discipline to grow in your relationship with God. Do so only as you feel personally led and with healthy preparations in place.

(Work consulted: Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster)

Thursday, May 04, 2017

May the Small Sips Be With You

Read this a few times. Aaron J. Smith reflects on his experience with reconciling the Bible with mental illness:
The Bible is full of wisdom and food for faith in Jesus. It is the story and revelation of Jesus the gospel. But it is not the handbook for all of life we have made it out to be. It’s important that we talk about more than just what is in the Bible. There are parts of our existence and lives that the Bible never talks about because that’s not the purpose of scripture. Sola scriptura might be a good rule for our churches, but it is a horrible way to live our lives.
When it comes to matters of mental health, we need to be intentional in speaking about them, after all, 1 in 4 people deals with mental health issues of one kind or another. These aren’t spiritual problems. From addictions to eating disorders to bipolar these things are broken brain problems. We need to acknowledge the reality of mental illness in our congregations and we need to speak to it. Speaking out about it in the church is the only way to combat the unspoken (and spoken) bad theology that surrounds mental illness.
This is one of the many, many issues where the church is called to discern what its faith is meant to say and do in the absence of a clear, life-giving, informed viewpoint from scripture. That's not to say that there aren't clues or some general guidelines for how to consider those who struggle with mental illness that we can take away from Jesus and the prophets, but we do need to fill in a lot of blanks. And the way we do this is we listen to experts in the field and do the work of reconciling their wisdom with what we as people of faith can offer.

This is also why "just follow the Bible" and "just stay out of politics" are unhelpful phrases. The former doesn't actually have every answer to every problem, and the latter ignores ways disciples of Jesus are meant to respond to the very real issues of the day that affect millions of lives.

Don't force it. See what I did there? Jan Edmiston reflects on what makes traditions meaningful:
Explaining our traditions is a good thing. But making them meaningful is not something we can control (In the words of Regina George: We can’t make “fetch” happen.)
We can’t decide that something will become meaningful to us. It’s meaningful or it isn’t. Or maybe it doesn’t seem very meaningful at one point in our lives but – as time passes – it’s meaning deepens.
The tasks of a 21st Century spiritual leader include being the tour guide who explains our faith traditions and the storyteller/performer who connects the brain with the spirit.
I can think of so many church traditions I've had to navigate over the years that have been based on little more than inertia: the time when it meant something has passed, the set of people who found it meaningful are mostly gone, but the congregation keeps doing them because it's what they do. And there have been times when I've tried to start new traditions or practices where after a few times I had to admit that it just wasn't catching on; other people weren't attaching the same meaning to it that I was.

In both cases, people need to admit what is working and what isn't. And in at least some of those cases, maybe explaining it better could help others attach meaning to it and maybe fall in love with it. But you never know what will catch on and what won't, and it takes intentionality and attentiveness and discernment to figure it out and be honest about it.

When comfort is the greatest need. Mike Mercer reflects on when the call to be pastoral is more important than theological correctness:
Tonight I’m going to be sitting down with several couples who have suffered perinatal losses. It will be our first support group meeting together. They will tell their stories and I will listen, and I will probably cry with them. For the next six weeks, we’ll be together, and it will never get any easier. I’ll have trouble sleeping, imagining their inconceivable pain.
Just to think that some of them might go into a church and get a pastor like one of these neo-reformed biblicists, who cannot, with absolute confidence, assure them of the certain love of a God who welcomes, without exception, all the little ones, who lifts up the helpless, who carries the weak, and takes care of all who cannot care for themselves, makes me want to scream.
This way of approaching life and its challenges is biblicist idiocy.
Mike really brings it here. Certain strands of Christianity tend to be pastorally tone-deaf because they haven't developed a way to address people's real-life struggles. The more important point becomes saying something about God's sovereignty or parsing the finer ts and is of how people express their grief. It's unhelpful, and in some cases outright abusive.

In the face of tragedy, the church needs ways to speak comfort to those who mourn. And if "what the Bible says" is really more important than soothing another's pain, then maybe read what the Bible says about Jesus' call to do just that.

How youth group destroyed/saved the church. Miguel reflects on changes the church needs to make and how GenX and Millennial believers are changing it, but comes at it from a fresh angle:
We are looking for non-traditional churches and offerings. Increasingly it’s become about service for millennials and gen-x’ers. Not the Sunday morning kind of service, but actual getting off your bum and getting your hands dirty doing the work kind of service. There is article after article pointing to this as well ( Here’s one I found particularly readable ). In fact, the Gallup poll that was posted in that article seems to reaffirm that point as well. Millennials are looking for something different. We’ve been beaten down by the world that tells us we aren’t worth much and then shown the same from the churches we decide to try. We grew up in different programs. The vast majority of us went to youth programming at a local church. We grew up with this idea that church didn’t always have to be the stuffy pews on a Sunday morning. No, most of us experienced the Divine on short-term mission trips, in a youth group, at a lock-in (God help me), at a service project, using our talents for a youth Sunday service, or even hanging out with our dorky well-meaning youth workers. This is why so often in my career as a dorky well-meaning youth worker I tried so hard to emphasize the importance of Sunday morning. I didn’t want the trend to continue. I tried to help. But it was bigger than me.
So, in sum: churches offer a radically different experience of faith than Sunday morning worship, then eventually we expect them to assimilate into what we do during that hour and leave all they've been conditioned to expect behind. Said "graduates" of our youth programs are increasingly saying, "Uh...nope."

I think this is why I found the emerging church so attractive for a while: a lot of it sounded like youth group. Non-traditional worship gatherings, sitting around on couches or in coffee shops discussing theology, a strong emphasis on service. In a lot of ways, it was as if people who'd grown up with a certain kind of youth group experience came of age, looked around, and wanted more from the church.

I have more to say about this topic, but I have to organize my thoughts into a coherent piece of writing first.

I have watched this many times. In honor of Star Wars Day and on the off chance you haven't seen it yet, here's the first trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi:

Misc. Father Jeremy with a list of things that hopefully you didn't say on Easter. Rebecca Todd Peters on how to pray when you don't believe in magic. Gordon Atkinson on still thinking about someone he hurt years ago. Jeff Brumley on how the church offering contemplative practices can help reach the "spiritual but not religious." Hey, I think some other guy named Jeff wrote a book that talks about this.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Book Review: Sex, God, & the Conservative Church by Tina Schermer Sellers

One of the challenges I believe we face as therapists is helping our clients who seek to integrate their spiritual selves with their sexual selves, especially if their religious upbringing is foreign to us. As a sex therapist who also teaches at a Christian university, I have seen firsthand the floundering of young couples who grew up steeped in a religious culture that has historically treated the body and its desires with suspicion, and how often they have no idea how to live as sexual beings in their relationships and daily life. - Tina Schermer Sellers, Sex, God & the Conservative Church

I wasn't introduced to the so-called purity movement until my early college years. In those days, Joshua Harris' I Kissed Dating Goodbye had just been released and was already taking off. I even read it myself my freshman year, and in the aftermath of a breakup seemed sensible and true. Thankfully for me, that viewpoint eventually wore off, but the culture of shame that surrounded any conversation about sex was widespread among the evangelical subculture around campus. The wrath of those who wielded it burned me more than once, which made it all the easier to leave it behind in favor of greater honesty and healthier views concerning sex, sensuality, dating, and how all of it relates to spirituality.

All of that is to say that my own experience with conservative Christian attitudes and approaches toward such things was stifling and damaging, but it was also relatively brief. I find it very difficult to imagine being brought up in that culture during my most formative years, let alone the possible lasting effects it would have when exploring relationships. And yet for millions of people this is what they are steeped in, and what causes problems for them later.

Sex therapist Tina Schermer Sellers has counseled many in this exact position, and who encounter many difficulties in reconciling what they were taught with the reality of what they find once in marriage or an otherwise committed relationship. In Sex, God, & the Conservative Church: Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy, she shares what she has learned in talking to individuals and couples wrestling with what their faith has taught them about sexuality. While the primary audience for this book seems to be fellow therapists, there is much here for laypeople as well.

Sellers spends the early chapters of the book naming the cultural issues that lead many raised by conservative Christianity to seek guidance down the road. She describes the general principles by which this tradition operates, including noteworthy authors and programs that champion it (Harris' books, among others, get a shoutout). Sellers explores the effect that things like abstinence-only education, families that leave children and youth to trial-and-error learning and discourage healthy discussion even at appropriate ages, and the shame-based tactics that many churches and conferences use to encourage purity have on people as they develop.

Sellers presents all of this with honesty but without judgment or scorn, showing that these are issues to be taken seriously due to how deeply many have internalized these ideas and how much time and attention it takes to unpack them.

Before fully pivoting to solutions, Sellers also offers a brief treatment of how sex has been commodified and sold to the public by reinforcing gender norms and presenting it as transactional. Many are taught both in the wider culture and in the conservative church that sex is something for men to receive and women to give, while men are also more free to experiment while women are meant to remain modest and pure. If left unchecked, such views of sex can lead to resentment, withholding, weaponizing, and abuse, among other problems that may occur between couples.

After this exploration come two chapters on a "sex-positive God" and a "sex-positive gospel," the theological heart of the book. Sellers shows a keen awareness here that her primary audience may not necessarily have even a working understanding of Christian faith, so she takes time and care to present a case both from the Bible and from Christian history that sex is a gift from God, meant to be celebrated and enjoyed rather than feared.

The final chapters are the most overtly geared toward fellow therapists, as Sellers offers many options, tools, and helpful hints to help professionals deal well with clients who are struggling with what their faith background has taught them. I admit some difficulty in relating to this part of the book, but there may still be some useful tidbits to be gained here by non-therapists regarding how they can pursue greater intimacy, understanding, and care with their partners.

All in all, Sex. God, & the Conservative Church presents an honest assessment of the challenges conservative Christian thought presents to couples attempting to navigate healthy relationships. It does assume that such couples will be a man and woman--perhaps a natural product of Sellers' clinical experience among other factors--so those seeking a resource that also explores LGBTQ-related dimensions of such an upbringing will want to look elsewhere. Aside from that, this is a worthwhile resource for those in relevant helping professions as well as laypeople.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)