Pastoral Care of the Sexual Person

Mattaman McKearnee
March 9, 2011
Japanese Devastation
March 14, 2011

Were it not for sexual improprieties, deviancies, abnormalities, undue indulgences, and any manner of impotencies caused by psychological, emotional, and physical sickness, pastors would be right out of the job. It is, of course, uncouth to speak of sexuality openly in Western cultures, and yet the pastor often gets an earful more than he or she would like—precisely because such talk is unwelcome elsewhere. Therefore, let this be added to their age-old epithet: Physicians of Souls … and Sexual Persons.

The job description for clergy in most denominations, then, leaves the door open for sex talk. And sometimes it is healing, and other times, quite disturbing. One dimension of that conversation invariably deals directly with cross-cultural conflicts in perceptions of human sexuality and how/where/when it should be expressed. But divorcing the self as a sexual human being from these conversations is imperative. There is a point at which appeal to the human sexual nature as a pastor is important to connect with an individual, but it just as easily gets in the way and collapses the boundaries that makes effective pastoral care truly healing. The question, of course, is: What is that boundary?

I would like to say there is a formula for determining when some vulnerability is too much venerability, likewise when admission of personal sexual struggles is beneficial and when it is damaging. Truth be told, like so much of human nature, there are no hard and fast rules. This I recently learned from personal experience, when an older woman asked if I would be involved in her culture’s tradition of sexual expression (kama sutra). I said no, which she took instantly as a rejection of herself in toto, and of her traditions, and, by extension, her ancestors.

While I do believe in the interconnectedness of human history and its necessary role in the present, it cannot be so in bed with our current selves that we lack any sort of definition without it. Furthermore, it’s ridiculous to equate one’s sexual self with one’s entire self (a persistent flaw of the young homosexual community), making a statement about sexuality the essence of purpose and being. In foreign cultures, sexuality is prized as a means of expressing adoration of and devotion to the gods. I think it would do us Westerners good were we to take some of that sexual sanctity and translate it for our society. At the same time, however, it cannot be assumed that we do not revere God and others when we choose to embrace a different view of sexuality. It makes me wonder, in the particular instance when I was propositioned by this older woman, if there was much openness to my culture at all. Her stories were tied inextricably to Victorian-era Asia, dominated in large part by British mannerisms and social mores; these were, of course, tremendous influences on her during years of sexual maturation. So, too, were the values of mother Asia—a continent where sexuality is often an expression less of love and more of loyalty, devotion, service, sacrifice, and humility. Where the gods of yesteryear’s religions embraced ritualistic practice of sex for worship, Britain introduced the hush-hush of the sexual sphere, relegating it to the most private confines of the curtained bedroom. I can only imagine that this woman’s sexual desires were at some level stifled under such discipline, and that chased her back to an Asiatic view of sexuality.

But how to convince such a person that my inability to participate with her in that expression is not my rejection of any part of her humanity? I can say, and have said, that I do not reject her, but this hardly seems to be accepted. Some 80 years of the permutations of exclusion and verbal abuse, and one is hardly sensitive to talk. Very well, I understand. But I cannot bend to action when that action compromises my integrity as a human being. Where is the common ground to which I can appeal?

Sexuality. I wish it were something less volatile, less touchy, but there it is. This woman and I are both sexual creatures. Our cultures both scripted our sexual lives for us, dictating how, where, and when sexuality should be expressed. And though these paths for each of us are different, they are paths that theoretically lead to the same thing—a healthy, satisfying expression of the sexual self. There are struggles for each of us; these can be shared. There are triumphs for each of us; these can be shared. But while individual stories differ, it is the open mind and open heart which allow for true understanding. I seek the priesthood, but do not consent to society’s (and the church’s) injunction to remain celibate; she, in turn, seeks belonging in both Western Christian societies and her native Asiatic polytheistic cultures, agreeing partially to the sanctity of monogamy, while rebelling against it for holy self expression through sex. Alas, if engaging in sex were the only way to cross borders for mutual comprehension, comprehension would never occur. There is a deeper level to reach—the transcendent human level. And that is what I must encourage.

Or should have encouraged, had I not bumbled the whole relationship from the start. My inclination is to be deferential, humbling my own thoughts and opinions to make room for those foreign to my own—not because I see the challenge to widen my view of the world, but because I believe in the paramount commandment of loving and accepting the neighbor as more important than my own comfort. It is a sometimes-fault that has stung me too many times to mention. Still, I see its value. How can I grow in the understanding of others if I can’t put my comforts aside for a while to engage in their very different lives? So I did with this woman, squelching my own most-ardent beliefs while she perjured herself with talk of Jesus the radical Judge and Punisher. The sexual requests of me were the weighty straws that resulted in the ultimate collapse of our brief relationship—mounted on accusations against friends, rejections of loved ones, and invectives hurled at decent Christians whom I dearly care for. It is, perhaps, better that our relationship is no more, and yet I can’t help but feel there is a good woman beneath the bitter, jaded façade. There is much hurt there, and I sought, above all else, to reach and heal the wounds that remained open.

Let it be said, for good or for bad, no pastor can cure all ills. A recognition of one’s limitations is key to any successful ministry; I learned this quite painfully during my time with the Asian princess. I convinced myself that the insults angrily thrown out by this woman were the product of open wounds, the anger a consequence of exclusion and abuse. Perhaps I was right. And it is the most painful of circumstances when someone who wishes to heal can see the wound and has no salve. This, I feel, was the case with the old woman of Asia who treated me sometimes with tremendous kindness, sometimes with brash dismissal. I explained it all away so that I could keep reaching, keep tending those wounds. Until, in the very last instant, my methods had failed me and I learned: I am no physician.

Was I sexually invaded? Did I experience a gross abuse of my own inner sanctum where I hold all things, all people, all creation dear? Did I open myself up too wide?

Does it matter? My father often quotes an old adage that is particularly à propos here. It is cliché, and bruised, and badly in need of renovation, but it somehow still rings true: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Father God and father my father have a point. If nothing else, I will take this experience with me as I learn—as I try to learn—to become a Physician of the Soul and the Sexual Person, preparing sometimes to be violated, sometimes ultimately to fail. Lord, give me the strength and the wisdom to give those moments over to you.

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