When I look back on my most exciting adventures as a single woman, I won't remember wishing I'd been having sex instead. I didn't. Yes, I am trying to obey God through chastity during this season, but closing myself off to sex has hardly closed me off to my body as well.
The day after I turned 33, I climbed inside a small, three-wheeled taxi, rode to the edge of a jungle deep in the Amazon, and hiked 90 minutes to a tiny village. Several hours later, I found myself eating cake with students at a small mission school there after a few rounds "Feliz Cumpleaños" in honor of my birthday and a special anniversary for the school.
I could not have been more bodily present to that adventure than I was. It was more than enough, to feel a sandy, wood-plank floor beneath bare feet, smell the cooking fire over which a late-night snack was prepared, hear the joyful singing of strangers with whom I shared a deep spiritual kinship, see their smiles in the flickering light, and eat the cake with which we celebrated each other and our vastly good God.
In his goodness, that God has kept me single far longer than I ever wanted. Yet perhaps precisely because I have stayed single for so long, I have been free to visit a dozen countries and more than 20 states, free to hear jazz in India, feel equatorial rain on my skin in Singapore, eat tiny fried shark in New Zealand, smell sage and piñon in Santa Fe, andsee the 200-year-old home where my great grandmother lived as a girl on the Isle of Mann.
Do then I define my single adulthood as saying no to sex or as stretching the boundaries of bodily experience ever outward? Both are true in a way, yet I would argue the latter accounts more completely for my life since I left home.
As I wrote last week, however, the church often lapses into focusing mainly on negative advice to singles — "Don't have sex" — rather than giving us positive exhortations we can live into. And we do this despite the fact that Adam and Eve were ensnared precisely by focusing not on the complex and beautiful garden God gave them to enjoy and cultivate, but on the one tree from which they weren't allowed to eat. An entire world of freedom was narrowed down to a single restriction.
To some extent, the overemphasis on sex may reflect an underlying Gnosticism, as others have noted. The Protestant church tends to favor an ascetic approach to worship that privileges the ears over a more full-bodied engagement with God and each other. Though communion provides the most multi-sensory experience, many churches take it only monthly.
Intentional or not, these communal habits subtly suggest that God doesn't really need our whole bodies, except to make new humans. Yet how strikingly different was Jesus' approach to his own and others' embodiment! He constantly enjoyed the sensual feast of dinner parties, showed immense concern for disease and physical ailment, and frequently touched the people he healed though proximity wasn't a requirement for miracles.
Chastity for Jesus was richly and fully embodied. Shouldn't ours be too? Last time I discussed how singleness uniquely frees us to pursue relationships, but I also want to suggest some ways it frees us to use our bodies nonsexually. I hope these two pieces help kick off some larger, longer, more in-depth conversations we as the church need to have about what the season of singleness is for, instead of just what it restricts.
Patronize the arts. Singleness brings a fair degree of financial autonomy. Thus, I've invested a good deal in CDs and mp3s, concert tickets and support of the non-profit radio stations whose blues programs I so enjoy. A lot of that has been predicated on my own enjoyment, but more and more I do things like order my music from the amazing if often behind-the-times record store near my house, or buy CDs I don't always like because I believe in the musicians who recorded them, and want those artists to keep on creating.
In a brutally pragmatic culture like ours, the arts can seem more "nice to have" than essential, especially in difficult economic times. Yet, certain arts engage our senses in ways that draw out our humanity as nothing else can. The longer I live, the more convinced I am that the arts play a vital role in helping us become all that God created us to be, in helping us be fully human. And when you patronize the arts, you are not only living more wholly yourself, but also helping to sustain artists so they can help many people become more fully human.
Explore all five senses. Sex is probably one of the most completely embodied acts a person can undertake, insofar as it engages all the senses. But I wonder sometimes if that doesn't result in a somewhat superficial sensuality. To use a possibly very flawed example, imagine a special engine with five spark plugs. When the starter fires and power is equally distributed to all five spark plugs, the engine roars to a start with enough strength to move a car. I doubt many people have watched that happen with conventional engines and wondered how each individual spark plug would function when isolated and given full power. But let's say someone tried that experiment with this engine, and it turned out the first spark plug could play "Taps," the second grilled a sandwich, the third sang "Hallelujah," the fourth blew a lavender-smelling steam that freshened your breath when inhaled and the fifth used the sun to bleach all the stains on your shirt. Who's to say our bodies aren't a bit like that engine?
Years ago, John Piper introduced the notion of Christian Hedonism, an attempt to reframe a concept rich in sensuality. "We all make a god out of what we take the most pleasure in. Christian Hedonists want to make God their God by seeking after the greatest pleasure—pleasure in him," Piper said. I've long liked that idea, yet I think we tend to approach it too intellectually. It's time we started exploring how eyes and ears, but also skin, limbs, tongues, and noses might delight in God. In that, Christian singles may even enjoy some advantages.