Because I’m going to be preaching and teaching on the subject of sexual ethics and relationships this winter, I’m reading and talking about sex a lot these days. I’ve recently read this, received this in the mail from someone, and just finished this on a recent flight. This last book was terribly powerful; well written, transparent, as he shared his joy in what I call “shalom moments” while swimming in a sea of unfulfilled desires. His struggle is profound and near the surface because Wesley self identifies as a “gay Christian, committed to celibacy”. If ever there was a category destined to anger nearly everyone, this would be it, which leads me to believe that he embraces this identity, not by choice, but by because of the realities of his life and commitment to Christ.
Though it’s a worthy topic for another time, this post isn’t about about homosexuality and celibacy. It’s about a much larger subject: unfulfilled desire. What impresses me about Wesley’s story is that he’s embraced the reality of self-denial, realizing that following the conviction of his heart will mean saying no to some desires of his heart. He writes of the great struggle this is, of loneliness, battle, failure, grace. Over and over again as I read this, I found myself agreeing, not in some sort of distant and far off way, but in solidarity. I’d reflect on my own struggles with self-denial, my own failures and unfulfilled longings, my realization that for all the beauty and blessing of my life, there remain desires, aches, losses, longings some of which will never be fulfilled. Of course the pain of my cross is different than yours, than his. But what captured me was the reminder that everyone has a cross, or more accurately crosses, if this bit about “dying daily” is at all true.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood this too. He was engaged, but imprisoned, executed before his wedding date. Here’s what he writes about unfulfilled desire:
Wishes to which we cling too tightly can easily rob us of some of what we can and indeed ought to be. By contrast, wishes we repeatedly overcome for the sake of our present tasks make us richer. One can have a fulfilled life despite numerous unfulfilled wishes. I wonder if there many left who believe this?
The irony for me has been this: once I’m settled with the reality that I’ll never achieve perfect intimacy, ongoing perfect sexual satisfaction, perfect financial security, ongoing perfect health, something liberating slowly begins to happen. I begin to wrestle with the brokenness of both myself this world, seeing my failures and those of our world as we teeter once again on the brink of war, as we become increasingly isolated, addicted, violent, and fearful as a species. “Come Quickly!” some of us cry, and the cry is deep because we’re not disengaged cynics who have said, “to hell with all of it” and settled into a tiny world of greed and good vacations. We know that we’re made for o so much more than this, made for unimaginable glory, intimacy, peace, beauty. CS Lewis reminds us that this ache is good and appropriate when he writes about our “lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off…”
Oddly though, in the midst of this mourning and longing, this learning to walk on God’s high road of self denial, something strange happens. As the seeds of self denial and wrestling and mourning fall into soil of my heart, what germinates is the very last things I’d have expected:
Joy and gratitude!
The sun rises this morning and her light penetrates the leaves on the tree in just such a way that the droplets of rain still clinging to the drenched leaves shine like jewels amidst the rich gold of autumn. And all this while I run, propelling my old, yet still strong legs along a path around a glorious lake that’s become almost an extension of me these past 17 years. The bed of leaves through which I run as the earth enjoys the final yawn of autumn before a long winter nap remind me that Lord of this earth is glorious, and faithful to us all. Yes. O Yes. There’s much shalom, right here and now, right in the midst of unfulfilled desires, and weariness, and wars macro and micro.
Nothing’s fixed by running around the lake, except maybe my bacon encrusted heart. But the moments of shalom that come with the run, the impending ski season, or the coffee, or the smile, laughter, hug; these moments of shalom make all the toil worth it.
Just don’t make shalom your idol, trying to settle down and build a bombproof, suffering proof life. That’s what Cain did, and Nimrod, and its all of us in our worst moments. Receive moments of shalom for what they are: hints of where we’re headed – and gifts to strengthen us for the journey, because the answer to Ingrid Micahelson’s query, “Are we there yet?” is a simple no. We’re not there yet…not by a long shot. Embracing this painful reality is step one in becoming people of joy and gratitude.