If you talk to one of my close friends, Susanne, she will enthusiastically tell you how her sense of sexuality as a single evangelical woman changed in the first year of our friendship. It was not too long after our friendship began to be intentional that I noticed Susanne was intent on being fully present with the person in front of her.
Including me, her married male friend growing closer to her.
When you are in her presence, she seeks to be fully attentive to you with a self-awareness and other-awareness, an openness to a posture of deep listening, a readiness to respond appropriately and holistically to the other’s presence; once you have earned her trust, she is unafraid of intense emotional-spiritual connection; she’s authentic and honest about her limits, her strengths, and weaknesses.
I’ve come to know that about her in the past seven years.
Those two words—fully present—convey a profound shift in male-female relationships for evangelical leaders.
In the past several years I have paid close attention to how female therapists (both Christian and not Christian) have been practicing this discipline with their male clients. As all of you might know, the “sexual purity” culture that became a staple for evangelicals didn’t merely include “just say no” to sex, but also just say no to deep emotional-spiritual connection between men and women where there was no romantic trajectory.
But female therapists would be up to speed on all dark dynamics of sexuality that can happen to a woman behind closed doors with a man when no one else is there. They know the data on intimate violence, male aggression, male lust, emotional adultery, extramarital affairs—all the wild and dark stuff that evangelicals have appealed to for justification of keeping men and women an arm’s length distance from each other.
These women would know all about being vulnerable to exploitation, violence, insatiable lust, false accusations, embellished accusations about their integrity, deliberate attempts out of vindictiveness to spread rumors, etc.
But appointment by appointment, male client by male client, these courageous women are choosing to meet with men behind closed doors and engage them in ways that would have made their great grandmothers blush.
In Halee Gray Scott’s recent church-centered model book, Daring Mighty Things, she cheered women on with inspiring stories and reflection to take risks, to be bold; she encouraged women to press through old stereotypes that blocked women from taking leadership. Her book came with numerous blurbs from evangelical women like Sue Edwards, Carolyn Custis James, and Sarah Sumner, to name a few.
I thought the first eight chapters were great.
Then there was the ninth chapter. Suddenly, her courageous and daring rhetoric disappeared. In this chapter she addresses “healthy” sexuality and cross-gender friendships. Her audacity for courage shrinks in the face of patriarchal anxieties. She applauds a male pastor and a female pastor who sign a contract to never be alone.
She shows no social awareness of female therapists, female spiritual directors, and other bold women who are practicing day in, and day out to be fully present with men behind closed doors. When I read her chapter I wondered if she had ever had a face-to-face relationship with a male therapist or a male spiritual director over a period of time. It didn’t appear as if she had any face-to-face in-depth friendships with men where she learned trust being fully present alone with them.
You see, my friends, I think the notion of fully present is going to encourage more and more Christian women to boldly go where Scott could not take them in this book. Thousands of female therapists and spiritual directors have already paved the way for other Christian women who want to move beyond the patriarchal anxieties of Scott’s book.
Believers are already beginning to warm up to this fully present practice and rhetoric. Shauna Niequist has a new book out, Present Over Perfect that wrestles with full being present over perfection. She doesn’t explore friendships between men and women becoming fully present but she’s becoming more attuned to the practice within her marriage and close connections.
Other evangelical thinkers are beginning to enter into the fully present practice. Especially pertaining to sexuality. Evangelical philosopher Esther Meek in her book, Loving to Know, writes, “It is important to realize that intimacy does not require sexual relations. Intimacy, as a friend of mine defines it, is “in-to-me-see”—fundamentally, being present to one another. It is not, in all relationships, diminished by the absence of sexual relations. In fact sexual relations, if inappropriately focused on the body, can diminish intimacy” (italics inserted).
Evangelical pastor Graeme Anderson recently reflected this shift in a book, Servantship: Sixteen Movements on the Four Movements of Radical Servantship. He wrote, “We need a renewed vision of sexuality in the kingdom of God…We are sexual persons. We must never try to deny or reject that in any way. Rather, the intention here is to learn how to healthily express one’s sexuality while being authentically present within one’s context and community…Sexuality, within this vision, can be deeply vulnerable. It involves being fully present to bless others” (italics inserted).
I think we can make these observations now about being fully present with other-sex relationships.
- We can learn to be fully present to other-sex friends when no one else is around.
Yes, I could easily include male therapists here but I am sticking with female therapists because of their bold model, example, leadership that Scott’s book neglected to wrestle with. After years of thousands of appointments between female therapists and male clients behind closed doors we now know that one can be fully present toward the other-sex person without fully present becoming sexualized.
The Billy Graham rule era now looks closer to the medieval era than where we are now.
- Fully present is a moment-by-moment practice that embraces self-awareness, other-awareness, vulnerability, authentic openness, and a fierce loyalty/responsibility to an intimate presence without sex.
Female therapists are showing up every day. So are male clients. And so are male therapists. Many of them for years. Evangelical “wise” strategies toward the opposite sex shaped by patriarchal anxieties have been avoidance, keeping the other-sex at arm’s length, staying clear of shared intimacy with the opposite sex. The established wisdom of being fully present for the common good in therapeutic relationships is now becoming something that Christian women and men can enter into as an authentic practice of loving one’s neighbor.
- The fully present male-female therapeutic dyad (and here, it doesn’t matter which sex the therapist is) is now a social relationship where relational depth/trust is healing, life-giving, and empowering.
When it comes to sexuality, evangelical leaders are known for celebrating either the church (large group) or the small group for healthy relationships between men and women.
We now know that this contemplative awareness of being fully present can be known in one-on-one relationships with the opposite sex can be a common good on this side of patriarchy.
Small groups may be healthy for personal, psychological, and spiritual transformation. Now we can add one-on-one male-female dyads as social spaces for the common good and healthy relationships.
I want to be clear. There are other psychological relational approaches right now too, so I am not trying to put all the eggs in one basket here. But this fully present approach that has been happening behind closed doors? This gives women a full range of healthy choices in engaging men in marriages, mentor-mentee relationships, workplace relationships, career aspirations, in neighborhoods, and pastoral leadership.
In thousands of everyday, ordinary therapeutic relationships female therapists are collaborating with their female clients on how to heal from patriarchal wounds, coercion, and abuse toward being fully present when they are around men in their homes, their neighborhoods, their workplaces, and their ministries.
Of course, as I close this particular post, this social move to be fully present in male-female relationships inspires me in my relationship with my wife and female friends. It calls us—men and women—into a deeper realism of God’s heart for our homes, churches, neighborhoods, and cities. It inspires us not to sexualize fully present—something that is common in evangelical sexuality. It inspires us to see fully present is a part of a bigger, healthier picture for the common good between men and women. Shalom.