Sitting in church not long ago as a particularly graphic section of First Corinthians came up, I was thankful that my older son was home sick, and my daughter lost in her world of crayons and markers.
“Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself.” 1 Cor 6:18
I could imagine my almost eleven-year old son stage whispering, “What’s fornication?” I’m confident that he doesn’t want to know. If people are kissing passionately on TV, he self-censors and takes a snack break. If I bring up anything body-related, he cringes and hides.
Sexuality and gender seem unique in their capacity to elicit terror in adults and embarrassment in children. We want our children’s lives to be uncomplicated and blissfully content, not morally ambiguous and full of hard questions. I think some of what makes it so nerve-wracking to talk about is also a sign of how spiritually and theologically unique—and important—this is. As children grow up and explore their gender and sexual identity, they are asking the big questions about who they are.
Femininity and masculinity, attraction and sexuality—the wider culture places these identities as some of the most important classifications of person. And our culture loves binaries. But binaries don’t always apply. It’s our either/or world that demands allegiance to male vs female, straight vs gay. But God sees us in our complexity. As our kids move forward in the world and discern their own identities, we need to help them know that God made them whole and holy, wherever they end up on the spectrum.
Still, there’s that word. I would never use the word “fornication” myself, but I see what St. Paul is getting at: sexual expression outside the confines of love, commitment, and generosity.
Unfortunately, the church has a terrible track record when it comes to living up to our own theology about our bodies. “Fornication” has almost entirely been interpreted as meaning sexual expression outside the confines of patriarchal heterosexual marriage. But in almost the very next sentence, we’re told that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit within!
Our bodies are vessels of God’s Spirit. They are made for love, and for pleasure. Can you imagine if instead of emphasizing the body’s capacity for sin, the church had instead, for millennia, taught us to celebrate this way of connecting to God?
Our children need to be taught joy in their bodies, a primal, bedrock joy and gratitude for the gifts of God we encounter in our most personal experiences. Our children need to be taught to respect this temple in others, never to coerce or manipulate for their own gain. They need to be taught to hold on fiercely and to fight for it for others.
An image comes to mind from the parable of the sower. As parents, our job is to build up good soil for our children. The world is full of birds who will be quick to try to steal their joy, to tell them they don’t measure up or have to be a certain way to deserve love. As we raise our children, our job is to create the conditions for rich, deep, well-nourished soil that can withstand the assaults of the world. God delights in all varieties of love, all varieties of bodies, all varieties of human expression. Teach joy first.
How do you talk with your kids about gender and sexuality? What do you think matters most?