Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Story of Sex and Ministry

I remember the moment that God finally convinced me to open my heart to pastoral ministry.  It was the day after my birthday.  I was having a conversation with a fellow student about sex...

The Backstory

I grew up in a church that did not allow women in leadership.  Period.  I wandered from major to major in college, a rebel without a clue; the only thing I wanted to do was learn about God, but that seemed pointless given my context.  After all, a religion degree does not a "successful, contributing member of society" make, so I looked into law, teaching, communications, and psych.  It was not until I ended up in another church under the care of amazing women leaders that it dawned on me: Women are called to ministry - in the church even.

Fast-forward a couple of years and the next thing I know, I'm presenting the "message" at local recovery groups, "leading worship," and eventually "preaching" in conjunction with mission trips and thesis work.  I completed my degree in management and HR only to have a fellow student say to me, "If you don't become a pastor, I'm going to have to kick your ..."

A pastor?  I don't think so. I'd have to be crazy.  I still hadn't completely wrapped my head around women in leadership, let alone women as pastors.  (Sorry, ladies, but I am a recovering fundamentalist.)

Interestingly, my thesis recommendation for this little church up north of the river was to hire an Administrative Pastor.  Even more interesting was the experience of being recommended for that position.  The weird thing was, in that context it didn't scare the frijoles out of me.  I could actually see myself doing something like that.  After all, I had just finished a management degree that focused exclusively on human relations.  Weird.

Of course, I couldn't go be a pastor for a baptist church, so fast-forward again to graduate studies in counseling, and that brings us to the conversation about sex...

I remember it well because it was one I had actually had many times before. When it had happened before, however, it had been me trying to explain to a very sick sex-addict exactly what he was doing to his heart, mind, spirit, and marriage.  I had tried to describe the desensitization process, the isolation, the objectification that occurs with pornography use.  I had hoped to depict the mental, emotional, and relational repercussions.  I had wanted to open his eyes to something he could not see within the context of his justifications, a truth as stark and as real as I was.  But he refused and his distortion of sex eventually cost him his marriage, his relationship with God, and his freedom.  He walked away from the church and is now in jail for the crimes he perpetrated.

That man was my husband. I watched as his preoccupation with sex addicted and then changed him until he almost wasn't human anymore.

I've since done quite the research on sexual addiction, the epidemic sweeping the US and now other countries of the world.  I've perused Christian literature on the subject - which often minimizes or over-spiritualizes the issue.  In fact, I agree with recovering addict, pastor, and specialist Mark Laaser when he says that the "Every [insert pertinent subject]'s Battle" books are generally crap; they do not even touch the physiological, spiritual, and emotional ramifications of masturbation and pornography use.  The leading researcher and author is Dr. Patrick Carnes (see his book Out of the Shadows).

But I digress.

The Thing About Sex

The bottom line was this:  One night in class, while talking with another counseling student, I learned about the ground-breaking attachment studies that have exposed the physiological, psychological, emotional, and relational effects of sexual addiction.  It was the first time that I experienced someone else telling me what I had been trying to tell others for years.  I have since taken the class that sparked this conversation, and this is what I learned:

There are two primary chemicals released in the brain during sex: Oxytocin and Dopamine.  Oxytocin is the "peace" chemical created by and in attached, intimate (committed) relationships.  Dopamine is the "high" and it is also highly acidic.  The two chemicals together bring pleasure and well-being, promoting mental health and all of the benefits associated with sex.  However, without the right amount of oxytocin, dopamine actually eats away at the the brain.  It then drains away, leaving the brain in a state of deprivation experienced as a "crash," or depression, from which it takes 10 days for the brain to recover and return to a normal chemical balance.  Studies are showing that, over time, this acidic dopamine flood destroys brain tissue to the point of measurable crevasses and holes in the frontal cortex.

Sexual stimulation outside of a committed, attached, intimate relationship does not produce enough oxytocin to balance dopamine levels.  

Literally, casual sex, pornography use, masturbation ... destroys brain tissue.  The worst part is, it destroys the part of the brain where personality and impulse control is managed.  It is also the part of the brain that facilitates our ability to understand the difference between right and wrong and to create intimate relationships, connection, and attachment.

And people think that it's not hurting anyone.  Not only does this create addiction (ie. reaching out to a "substance" to feel better, only to feel worse and need more of the "substance" to feel better again) but it literally changes your personality and thinking over time, destroys your impulse control, isolates you and then erodes your ability to foster and create the intimacy and connection you need to survive.  It is not just that pornography itself objectifies people, it is that it fosters the process of disconnecting and dehumanizing self, others, and relationship physiologically in your brain.

Suddenly, Paul's words "everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial" seem particularly pertinent.  It is not a question of what is sin and what isn't.  It is not a question of "how far" one can go.  It is a matter of that which creates or destroys life within you and your relationships, your body and your spirit.  This is why accepting, understanding, and stewarding our sexuality is so vital to us as human beings.  This is why it isn't just about marriage, too, because destructive, addictive sexuality occurs in marriage all the time, with heart-breaking consequences.

The Pastoral Thing

This was the process I watched unfold in my marriage.  This was the spiritual truth I could see as plain as day.  As I stood in class that night having a discussion about sex, it was as if God confirmed a message He had given me, a message that was not just for my own relationship, my own church, my own recovery, but for a time and for a people.

I mentioned that I began preaching as a part of missions trips - specifically, a trip to Africa.  It was a strange and miraculous adventure that I thought would culminate into a call to missions, to Africa, or to something similar.  I almost didn't expect to come home from the trip - at least, I didn't expect my heart to come home.  Something did happen on that excursion, but not what I expected.  It was in Africa that God turned my heart back to the US, a country under a fog of distraction and disconnect, blind to its own beauty and potential, its calling to partner with the world to make disciples, its neediness.  Since that trip in 2007 I have been searching to be equipped to minister to my people.  I started graduate studies in counseling for that purpose, and that is where, 2 years later, I received this confirmation.  That is where I think I have started to understand what God might be calling me to do about this blind and needy country.  At the very least, in that moment in class, I understood that I needed to speak out, to expose the "world that has been pulled over our eyes" and the damage it is doing to us as a church, as a people. If that means being a pastor, so be it. 

In other words, I have been known to say, "Where He leads me, I will follow."  It is the credo that took me to Africa.  And if He leads me to be a pastor because that is the culmination of the message, the gifts, and the passions He has placed in my heart, or if that is just His plan, then so be it.

The Good News

I will close with this good news: The brain damage caused by sexual addiction is one of the only kinds of damage that can actually be undone.  The way to promote healing?  Intimate relationships.  Healthy, attached, intimate relationships stimulate the growth and development of the frontal cortex.  This is how babies grow and develop - and another reason why relationship - family, community, the church - is so important to us as human beings from the cradle to the grave.  This is part of the reason why recovery groups work - they facilitate authenticity, vulnerability, accountability, knowing and being known - they facilitate the creation of real connection and intimacy.  In fact, the 12 Steps reconstruct one's ability to build relationship, among many other amazing things.  But recovery is a process.  It is vital to stop the damage by "sobering up" so that the brain can recuperate and heal, and you can learn how to love and be loved again (or perhaps for the first time).  That is why recovery from sexual addiction calls for sexual abstinence even in marriage, sometimes for up to a year!  Abstinence creates the needed environment to begin physiological, emotional, and relational recovery, which is why I believe sexual stewardship starts when you are single.