“And Without Shame” on Song of Songs 3:1-5 by Joe Ellis — October 15, 2023
The more I sit with the poetry and stories in the Song of Songs, the more I am captured by the poem’s bewildering mixture of passionate, of desire, of tender affection and respect, as well as a startling absence of shame. Guilt is when someone says, “I did something wrong.” Shame is when someone says, “There is something wrong with me.”
Here we have a woman who has an obviously strong and healthy sense of her own sexuality. And she has no shame! After all, here she is pursuing her beloved in the heart of the night with boldness and desire — and there is no sense of shame. No sense of, “There is something wrong with me." How does a person develop a positive sexuality without shame? Is it all up to the individual? Or maybe it's something special about the couple? For sure. But what about non-sexual relationships? Can the non-sexual relationships we’re in move us towards a positive sexuality, without shame? That’s the question I’d like to explore this morning.
I’m assuming that our sexual selves do not develop in a vacuum. As we grow and develop, the people with whom we are in relationship have a significant impact on our sexuality. In this poem we see a few different relationships at play apart from her relationship as a lover. There’s the relationship with her mother, the relationship with the guards, and her relationship with the daughters of Jerusalem. I’d like to use those relationships as examples, inviting us to wonder about similar relationships in our own lives — and the impact that those relationships can have on whether our sexuality develops with or without shame.
Let’s start out with talking about the role of family in shaping our sexuality. This woman has certainly learned to speak the language of desire. She opens the poem, confessing her desire to search “for the one my soul loves.” She speaks with a bewildering mixture of passion, desire, tender affection and respect, and with a startling absence of shame. Here in this poem, as elsewhere in the Song of Songs, this woman has learned to speak the language of sensuality, of sexuality, and with deep affection (a few verses earlier we hear her say those immortal words, “My lover is mine and I am his….” So, where did she learn to speak this language so well? Where do we learn to speak any language? We learn to speak it at home. You don’t learn the language of love from the dudes you hang out with at lunch at high school. These are words best taught in the intimacy of family life. Throughout the Song of Songs, she is speaking her mother tongue, or her mother’s tongue. The poetry in the Song of Songs seems to be born from the familial experience of seeing affection and intimacy, hearing affection and intimate words spoken, and even being taught the language of affection and intimacy. That’s why in verse four she says, “When I found him whom my soul loves / I held him and would not let him go / until I brought him into my mother’s house / and into the chamber of her that conceived me.” To us, this seems just weird. Let’s just acknowledge that talking about sex within the context of family always has a definite weird factor. I remember, in elementary school my mom pulled me from a sex education class for a dentist appointment. She said, “We will have to continue this conversation at home.” I remember thinking with alarm, “I hope not!” But we never did.
In the near eastern culture, mothers had a special role in teaching about sex. You’ll find this woman mention her mother a number of times throughout the book. In her culture, as with many ancient cultures, it was the mother’s role to instruct her daughter in the act of love. Now, despite the weirdness, there is also something sweet about her desire to bring her beloved back to the place where she first learned the language of love. Like me, you no doubt you have questions about what exactly her mother taught her. Was it technique? Was it how reproduction works? Did she share her own experience of romance? Did she talk about her own fears and joys around lovemaking? We don’t know. Whatever her mother said, we see that the impact is that her daughter is comfortable with her desire, without shame.
This may feel like quite the contrast to the home that many of us grew up in. It certainly is a contrast to my own home. Two weeks ago, I was taking a course called, Marriage and Family Course. The instructor asked me to draw a circle on a piece of paper. On the inside of the circle I was asked to name the emotions that we were allowed to express in our family of origin, and the topics we could talk about. That was super easy, and I was pleased to see what a well rounded family I grew up in. Then, on the outside of the circle I was asked to write the emotions that I couldn’t express or the topics we couldn’t talk about. I was stuck for a while, and then I realized what it was — sex. We couldn’t talk about sex and sexuality. We couldn’t talk about desire, we couldn’t talk about good ways of channeling desire. This meant we certainly couldn’t talk about the areas of sexuality that can be coupled with shame — like masturbation, or internet porn, or getting caught making out, or the grinding ways that couples danced at high school dances and the way the school staff tried to break them up. We couldn’t talk about my friends who had had sex already, or my desire to have sex. I seldom saw a lot of public displays of affection from my parents. I certainly knew they loved each other, but they weren’t overt about their sexuality. When we would watch a movie with kissing, my dad would sort of make a silly scream. We all thought it was funny, but we would sort of all hold our breath till it was over. So for me, my sexuality and sexual expression was pretty secret, that I could not talk to anyone about it. One of the gifts of joining a big church in my early twenties was that I found some guys that I could talk about sexuality with. The world of my sexuality was no longer a secret.
What do you think it would be like to teach the language of sexuality at home, as this woman so obviously had from her mother? How would it look to regularly create space for short conversations in our family? What do you think would be the impact on shame if we had safe, non-anxious, open conversations around sexuality. Honestly, it scares me, just a little bit. After all, moving against the grain of your family of origin is tough work. How easy was it to talk about sex in your own family of origin? Was it safe? Were boundaries respected? Was there anything you couldn’t talk about?
Now, let’s shift the focus from the mother figure in this poem to the guards. Did you notice their role in this story? They don’t really have much of a part to play in this little section. She just asks the guards, “Have you seen him whom I love so?” It seems that they just shrug their shoulders and she goes on her way. The guards throughout the Song of Songs represent gatekeepers — they keep the city in order. Later in chapter 5 we hear that the woman again goes out at night looking for the her beloved. She runs into the guards. This time they think that she is a prostitute and they punish her by beating and humiliating her. The guards are striving to keep order. Like the guards in this poem, church communities can take on the role of attempting to keep sexuality in order. Sometimes, we don’t say anything — like the guards in this chapter who literally don’t say a word. That’s not the ideal, but I’ve often heard people say, “My church community just never talks about sex.” On the other hand, sometimes church communities have tried to stand guard and have adopted similar tactics to the guards in chapter 5 — punishment and humiliation. And shame, saying things like, “There is something wrong with you.”
Sadly, we’re finding that was a big part of the purity culture in the late 90s, early 2000s. The purity culture was spearheaded by a book called, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” whereby young Christians were taught to court solely for the purpose of getting married. This created a lot of pressure for single people to know if the person you were meeting up with on a first date was going to be the one you wanted to marry. A person could feel like they should know this by the end of dinner. The purity culture taught that any form of physical intimacy is really bad unless you are married. There were all sorts of well meaning attempts to reinforce this ideal: young women were given purity rings, asked to sign purity contracts, went to purity dances with their dads. In my twenties, I attended a wedding where the couple kissed for the first time at the altar. That was the gold standard for the purity movement.
But most humans fall short of those ideals, and when that happens, we become the guards in the Song of Songs and we beat ourselves up. Many young people would experience sexual desire, become aroused when dating, and wound themselves with deep shame. As you may know, I do believe that marriage is truly the only container that can safely hold our sexuality. Yet when we foster communities that condemn any manifestation of sexuality, sexual expression, or desire before we are married — the shame doesn’t magically disappear once a couple gets married. Shame is tenacious. That sense of, “There is something wrong with me” can end up persisting far into marriage. Shame about the past can wreak havoc in intimate relationships.
Now maybe you’re feeling the tension. How do we help people stay within boundaries while not heaping pile of shame on them? Often church communities can foster deep shame. Interestingly, the woman in the poem may have a word of advice for us. Perhaps, she may represent people in our church communities who have learned to speak wisdom around our sexuality — there are in fact wise people in church communities who have spoken much needed words of wisdom.
Speaking to her city friends, the woman in the Song of Songs says, “I make you swear, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the deer or by the gazelles of the field, that you shall not stir nor rouse love until it pleases.” A commentator, Tremper Longman, suggests that the woman in this poem is warning these other women who want to experience a similar level of intimacy, but this woman is telling her friends “not to force it. Wait for love to blossom; don’t hurry it….” She warns others not to arouse love until they are ready to meet its rigours, both physical and emotional. Love is not a passing fling but rather a demanding and exhausting relationship.” This wise woman is moving us towards seeing our sexuality in a more positive way, something that needs to be nurtured with care (rather than quashed and squelched outright). I wonder if we can keep going in that direction. How can we help each other to see our sexuality as something to be tended and nurtured in a relationship — like a plant that needs to be sometimes watered and fertilized, and sometimes pruned?
In her book, Sex, God, and the Conservative Church, Tina Schermer Sellers offers some questions that may guide individuals and couples into learning how best to nurture with care their desire and need for physical intimacy. As you listen to these questions, you might ask yourself why might these questions be important to answer as a single person who desires to be in a relationship? Why might these questions be helpful to answer as a single person who does not desire to be in a relationship? Are they still important to answer? Why might these be important for dating couple to answer these questions? Why might these questions still be important for a married couple to talk about? What do you think would be the impact of these questions on shame — the sense that there is something wrong with me and my sexual desire:
How would you approach your beloved (intimately, sexually) if you wanted him or her to feel God’s presence, love and justice in every way you touch?
How would you want to be approached in order to experience God’s presence, love, and justice and to help you know that you are chosen by God?
How would you approach your partner if you wanted him or her to experience the image of God within them?
How would you want your partner to approach you so that you experience God’s image within you?
How would you approach your beloved (physically) to show your desire to share and to serve one another, versus expecting your needs or their needs to trump or silence the desires of the other?
How would you express to your partner that you wish to open your heart and receive and give love with your fullest attention, presence and sexual awareness?
How could you open your heart to receive the loving intention of you partner?”
Questions like these invite us to go quite a bit deeper than, “How far can we go without it being sin?” They’re quite a bit deeper than, “How many times a week should a married couple have sex?” They move us beyond shame, beyond a sense that there is something wrong with me in my desire. They invite us to reflect on the relationship between intimacy and the deepest part of ourselves. How do you feel about these questions? Do they feel risky to you? Do these questions feel messy? Do you wish someone had asked you some of these questions as you were trying to figure out how to be in an intimate relationship? Do you wish someone would ask you these questions even now?
Did you notice that in those questions there is a connection between intimacy with God and intimacy with each other? We’ve been talking about how our community shapes our intimacy with one another, but what if we turned the question on its head? How might our intimacy with one another shape our intimacy with God? What if we encounter in the poetry of the Song of Songs an invitation to how we are to approach God?
We began by noticing that this poet writes with passionate desire, a deep tender affection and respect, and a startling absence of shame. I’ve wondered if many Christians have not learned to speak to God in this way, with the words of a lover — “O, You are fair, my friend, O you are fair.” I’ve wondered if many Christians have not learned to hear from God words spoken as from the heart of a lover. Have you ever heard Jesus speak to you, “You are wholly fair, my friend, there is no blemish in you.” I’ve wondered if primarily we speak to God the words of the intellect to the neglect of the words of the heart. How might you want to respond to this invitation in the Song of Songs to learn to speak the language of a lover to our God? How might you look at your intimacy with God in a new way?