Browsing Among the Lilies

okeefe lilyMy lover has gone down to his garden,
    to his spice beds,
to browse in the gardens
    and gather the lilies.
I am my lover’s, and my lover is mine.
    He browses among the lilies.
Song of Solomon 6:2-3 (NLT)

A few years ago Wendy and I were at the Des Moines Art Center browsing through the Center’s collection. We came across a painting by Georgia O’Keefe. “Oh my goodness,” Wendy softly exclaimed by side. “There’s no mistaking what that’s about!” O’Keefe is sometimes referred to as the mother of American modernism. She was particularly fond of painting enlarged flower blossoms, presenting them close up as if you are viewing just a part of the blossom through a magnifying glass. She often used lilies and sections of lilies.

O’Keefe came to prominence as a painter in the early part of the 20th century about the same time that Freud’s theories on psycho analysis rocked the world. Perhaps it was inevitable that O’Keefe’s paintings would be psychoanalyzed under the magnifying glass of Freudian thought just as she painted magnified views of her subjects. Despite the artists own denials, it has long been noted that her paintings seem to conjure up parallels to female sexual anatomy. Thus, Wendy’s soft exclamation upon viewing O’Keefe’s painting.

Lilies, in particular, have always had strong metaphorical parallels to sexuality dating back to ancient times. Roman and Greek mythology viewed the lily as a flower of purity, chastity and innocence. Even church tradition associates lilies with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Roman tradition was that Venus, the goddess of love, was so envious of the pure beauty of the lily that she gave the lily it’s large, long pistil in it’s center to make it less attractive. The pistil at the center of the lily’s flower has long been noted for its’ phallic metaphors; The center of the pure, white petals of the Calla Lilly being seemingly penetrated by the long, large pistil.

It is no wonder that Solomon’s ancient song of the budding, erotic love between the young king and the young woman of his harem would include imagery of the lilies. Solomon himself wrote, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Georgia O’Keefe did not invent the parallel between the lily and a woman’s sexual organs. If anything, her art was natural prey for metaphorical connections humans have made between the lily and sexuality for thousands of years.

Now, read the verse above once more and imagine an infatuated young woman saying these words as she fantasizes about the man whom she wants to marry and become her lover. Does Solomon’s song really intend these sexual metaphors? A hormonal young man writes a song about the sexual tension between himself and a gorgeous young woman whom he desires sexually. It doesn’t take a giant leap of reason.

God created us male and female. He created us as sexual beings with hormones and sexual desires. He created a natural order in which people grow, develop, desire one another and have sexual relations through which new life is created. He called it “good.” Too often in a pursuit of purifying the ranks from the sinful excesses with which many indulge  our natural appetites, the institutional church has thrown the baby out with the bath water. Many of us have forgotten to embrace, celebrate, and appreciate the natural God-given appetite which, when experienced as God intended, remains as pure as a lily.

The Art and Progression of Sexual Intimacy

Source: Smithsonian via Flickr
Source: Smithsonian via Flickr

My lover tried to unlatch the door,
    and my heart thrilled within me.
Song of Solomon 5:4 (NLT)

One of the things that I love about the Song of Solomon is the way the relational give and take develops between the young man and the young woman in the duet. Like all relationships, there is a progression of the relationship from the beginning of the song to the end. There is the initial infatuation with one another as they look upon one another and are impressed with what they see. Then there is the growing desire for one another as they seek to be in one another’s presence. In today’s chapter we feel the growing desire and anticipation of sexual intimacy.

The young woman is having another dream, and this time she hears the young man attempting to unlatch the door of her bedroom. Her heart is thrilled (and, I suspect, other parts of her as well). When she gets up to let him in, she finds him gone. Disappointed, she runs through the streets in a frantic search for him. The night watchmen find her and beat her up. You can see in the dream the anticipation of intimacy, the disappointment that it has not happened, and the intense feelings of personal pain and injury that she has not been able to consummate her love.

I have learned over time that sexual intimacy in marriage is best built with anticipation, just like the progression in Solomon’s song. While sex occasionally occurs at the spur of the moment, motivated by a surprisingly sudden surge of hormones, the truth is that there is typically a subtle song and dance that happens between me and Wendy. A glance and casual touch at the breakfast table hints at the possibility that this day may come to a passionate end. Hints are dropped by the wearing of things that the other has commented pleases his or her eye. A dab of cologne on a day that none is typically warranted. There is the casual touch in public that lingers a moment longer than usual. The mind is engaged. The eyes are engaged. The sense of smell is stimulated. The ears hear coded messages: “I shaved my legs today.”

Playful thoughts flitter in and out of each other’s minds during the day. Anticipation builds. A regular evening dinner takes on new layers of sensual meaning as each become aware of what I mentioned in yesterday’s post: There is a connection between senses. The feeding of one appetite will invariably lead to another. The main course tastes so good. The wine seems downright decadent, and savoring the dessert feels almost sinful.

One of the things that Solomon’s song subtly conveys to me is that the climactic, sexually intimate event of the day does not typically just happen. It happens when husband and wife learn and know one another’s subtle, sensory dance. It is me learning how to slowly feed multiple senses of my wife during the day in the ways she best responds. It is my wife learning just how to tease the deliberate build up of anticipation that will lead to a successful, intimate feast after dinner that night. There is an art to the intimacy between husband and wife that takes on the unique characteristics of the two artists involved in creating the intimate moment.

In contrast, I find that popular media (especially pornography) likes to portray sex like it’s most awesome when easily cranked out like one of those ultra high speed photocopiers at Kinko’s (yes, pun intended): Get it fast. Get it often. Get it easy. Everyone gets a copy. Sure, you get the picture – but it’s monochrome, impersonal, and unoriginal. Each one is just like the one before. It quickly becomes meaningless and lifeless. You crank out more copies hoping for something different in the output picture, but it will never be an original work of art.

My experience is that sexual intimacy does not become a breathtaking original work of art unless there are two people learning to create something together over time, learning to work together, make mistakes, erase errors, try something new, explore, play, complement one another’s individual style, and develop their own unique style as a couple over time together. As Solomon’s Song suggests, there is a progression. It gets better, deeper, more refined, and even more powerful in ways neither husband nor wife could scarcely imagine, even in the intoxicating infatuation of the early relationship.

Sexual intimacy between husband and wife is a work of art.

Sensually Good

wendy vander wells chocolate truffle cheesecakeSolomon:
You are my private garden, my treasure, my bride,
    a secluded spring, a hidden fountain.

Young Woman:
Awake, north wind!

    Rise up, south wind!
Blow on my garden
    and spread its fragrance all around.
Come into your garden, my love;
    taste its finest fruits.
Song of Solomon 4:12, 16 (NLT)

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a true “foodie.” When I was a kid I drove my folks crazy with my narrow list of acceptable foods. My preferred menu was grilled cheese sandwiches, blueberry pop-tarts, eggo waffles, and Lucky Charms (are you noticing a sugary breakfast theme?) and pretty much nothing else. As I’ve gotten older my palate has expanded, but my preferred menu is still pretty narrowly defined in comparison to most people.

At the same time, I love food and have come to appreciate a good meal (not to be confused with a big meal) as one of life’s true pleasures. As an adult, I’ve also come to realize the sensuality of food and drink. I’ve learned that certain foods stimulate more than just my taste buds. I’ve realized that food and drink in certain combinations have a stronger affect than when they are consumed my themselves. I’ve even come to realize that certain foods create emotional and physical responses within me. Confession: I have found Wendy’s cheesecake to be, for me, such a sensual experience that at times it feels simply erotic.

How interesting to find in the lyrics of Solomon’s song these erotic references to gardens, fruits, food and the imagery of taste. There is a connection between our God given senses. God created our bodies to sense and experience a wide range of feelings and emotions and He called it “good.” To be sure, any sensual appetite can be taken to excess in all sorts of unhealthy ways, but the sensual experience is not in itself wrong of sinful. In fact, sensual experiences are natural, healthy and spiritually good when experienced in the proper context. How sad that the institutional church has, through the years, gotten so confused about this truth. In an effort to stamp out the excess of our sensual appetites the church often tries to deny, outlaw, and shame the senses themselves. I find this reactionary legalistic excess to simply be a mirror image of the excess indulgence they attempt to thwart. In reality, both extremes are equally sinful.

Jesus said he came to give us abundant life. This includes a healthy appreciation for the breadth of senses God gave us to properly experience the full range of creation in its sensual glory.

Date Weekend in the Twin Cities

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Wendy and I had a fun weekend in the Twin Cities as we made our annual pilgrimage to a Minnesota Vikings game. It was a perfect fall weekend with lots of warm sunshine during the day while the evenings and mornings were crisp with cool fall air. The drive up on Saturday afforded us time to catch up on some much needed conversation. Road construction in Minnesota was awful and gave us more time in the car together than we really wanted, but what do you expect from Minnesota (nine months of winter – three months of road construction)?

We arrived at our hotel which was just blocks from Mall of America field. We checked in and freshened up before heading to our favorite Twin Cities’ haunt, the original Buca Di Beppo’s (literally translated from Italian thats “Joe’s Basement”). Wonderful meal. We headed back to the hotel to watch Zero Dark Thirty which we’ve had from Netflix and have been trying to watch forever. We cuddled into bed and pulled it up on the ol’ laptop. Fascinating movie. Definitely kept us awake.

Sunday morning dawned and we walked the mile or so from our hotel to Al’s Breakfast in Dinkytown by the University of Minnesota. Al’s is a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon that has been in operation since the area populated with rail workers back in the old days. Al’s has thirteen bar stools. That’s it. People line up behind the bar stools, out the door, and down the sidewalk to wait for a chance at breakfast made on the grill right behind the bar. It’s a unique experience for sure. We enjoyed a big breakfast and then walked back to the hotel to get ready for the game.

It was another mile or so walk to the stadium, but with all of the feasting we were happy for the exercise and the weather was so beautiful we didn’t care. The Vikings are building a new stadium next year so this is likely our last visit to the old Metrodome. We had great seats in the seventh row on one of the end zones. I got a chance to catch some great shots with my camera. Being the home opener, it was packed with fans expecting the Vikes to take it to the hapless Cleveland Browns. On the way to the game Wendy said, “I hope it’s not a blowout. I hope it’s a close game and the crowd is into it the whole time.” She got her wish as the lead went back and forth. Unfortunately, the Vikes gave up a winning touchdown with 51 seconds left in the fourth quarter and it happened right in front of us. Bummer. As one fellow fan put it, when you lose to the worst team in the NFL, that pretty much makes your team the worst team in the NFL. It’s going to be a long season.

We walked back to the hotel and enjoyed a drink on the patio of the neighboring micro-brew while we waited for traffic to thin out. We then headed to the suburbs where I had client meetings scheduled on Monday and Tuesday. Sunday evening was spent enjoying pizza on the bed while we watched Sunday night football.

Monday evening we went to Mall of America and did a little shopping. Wendy found some great stuff and we both bought hats at a cool little hat shop I don’t ever remember seeing there before. We grabbed a bite at Buffalo Wild Wings before heading back to the hotel. After client meetings on Tuesday we headed home.

On the way home Wendy mentioned how refreshed she felt by our weekend getaway. I was grateful for that. We got home at 6:40 and had just enough time to change our clothes ant be at the community center for a 7:00 rehearsal. Talk about an abrupt re-entry. Nevertheless, it was a great weekend together.

Meeting the Parents

Then scarcely had I left them
    when I found my love!
I caught and held him tightly,
    then I brought him to my mother’s house,
    into my mother’s bed, where I had been conceived.
Song of Solomon 3:4 (NLT)

When I was a young man I found myself desperately seeking “the one.” Looking back after years of introspection and therapy, I think that I now begin to understand why I felt so driven to find a girl to marry. At the time, however, I just followed my heart and hormones without much thought or question. I was on the prowl to find the girl I would marry. To that end, I dated several girls, and was rejected by as many as I dated. Some relationships lasted a day or two. Some made it a few weeks. Some lasted months. A few where on-again-off-again over a decent span of time.

This morning I was reminded of a very nice young lady whom I dated in college. We had dated a month or so when she invited me home to meet the parents. I was a pretty sharp kid, but I was completely unaware of the gravity of her invitation. While spending the weekend with her parents and family, I suddenly began to realize that she was also on the prowl to find “the one” and she had decided that I was it. This trip home was not about a fun weekend getaway from campus. I was on display for inspection as “the one.” I found myself scared and freaked out by the sudden and subtle seriousness of the situation. I quickly and awkwardly ran away from that relationship.

I thought about that fateful weekend as I read this morning of Solomon’s young female lover dreaming of her search to find him. When she eventually locates “the one,” she immediately brings him back to her mother’s house, into her mother’s bed where she had been conceived. There is something deeply rooted in our human experience here. It’s serious stuff when a young woman takes a young man home to meet the parents. Ironically, God’s Message defines marriage as a man and woman leaving their respective parents and homes to become one with each other.

Today, I am pondering this dance of courtship that men and women have been doing since the beginning of civilization. As I think back to all of my dating relationships I shake my head at my own foolishness, awkwardness and inexperience. I appreciate many positive experiences and regret many mistakes. And yet, I am thankful for all of my relational experiences and the lessons they have taught me. Most of all, I am grateful for God leading my long and winding road of relationships to Wendy, and pray I have learned my lessons well enough to be “the one” who blesses her every day of our journey together.

With Nobody Else But Me

Isaac Newton apple tree, Babson College, 231 F...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest
    is my beloved among the young men.
I delight to sit in his shade,
    and his fruit is sweet to my taste.
Song of Solomon 2:2 (NIV)

I am reminded this morning of two relationships in my past. In each relationship, the young woman whose affections I was courting would regularly talk about other guys. It was either young men they had dated previously or I else I would realize that there was a guy that she always seemed to talking about in random discussions. Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. In each of these relationships I soon began to feel diminished. No matter how much time and attention they gave me, I realized that these young ladies’ hearts and true affections were focused elsewhere.

How interesting that the young women in Solomon’s lovers’ duet speaks of her man as a fruitful apple tree in the middle of the forest. She sees the tree for the forest. I also find another hint of the original paradise in Eden. While the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis does not specifically state that the tree of forbidden fruit was an apple tree, art and tradition always depicts it as an apple. The picture here is of exclusivity. To her he is the one tree that stands out.  She delights in the shade under his limbs and tastes the sweetness of his fruit. Once again, the metaphors are layered with meaning both spiritual and sexual.

Very early in our relationship, Wendy and I were walking on the street and she suddenly saw a man with whom she had once been in relationship. She asked me to wait for her for a moment and I watched as she spoke briefly and directly to the man. She returned to explain to me that she felt it necessary to tell the man that in no uncertain terms what was in the past between them was in the past. She did not want to hear from him and she would not talk to him again. I felt honored in that moment, and it’s something I have never forgotten. In contrast to the previous relationships I described, in which I constantly felt diminished, I suddenly felt infused with sudden strength. I felt Wendy leaving the forest to settle in under the shade of my boughs.

Be mindful and wary of misplaced and competing affections and appetites.

Speaking of songs, I am also reminded this morning of the lyrics to an old Andrews Sisters song from WWII (don’t ask me how I know, my brain works in mysterious ways!):

Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me, 
Anyone else but me, anyone else but me, NO NO NO! 
Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me 
Till I come marching home.

A Hint of Paradise

wendy at als

Kiss me and kiss me again,
    for your love is sweeter than wine.
Song of Solomon 1:2 (NLT)

 

I sit in a hotel lobby as I write this. I have a couple of days in client meetings early this week, so Wendy and I left on Saturday morning to tack on a little weekend getaway to my business trip. We’ve had a lot of fun and it’s been one long date since we left on Saturday morning. As I write this post the elevator music in the lobby is playing “Babe” by Styx, the sappy late 70’s early 80’s power ballad that conjures up memories of school dances, teen romances and off the chart infatuations. I laughed to myself as I heard it and thought about it in context of a romantic getaway with my bride. For some strange reason, I thought it would be fun to start Song of Solomon this morning.

The lyrics of Solomon’s ancient, romantic power ballad bills itself as “more wonderful than any other.” The duet (with back up chorus) starts with the young woman saying that her lover’s kisses are “sweeter than wine.” The truth is that love is intoxicating. I feel it this morning. I’ve felt it all weekend. I’m feeling drunk and sappy with love for Wendy who is my wife, my lover, and my friend. And, I’m enjoying it thoroughly, thank you very much.

Conservative theologians like to point out that Song of Solomon is an ancient allegory of the relationship between Jesus (e.g. the king) and the church (e.g. his bride). I get that, but that’s where the stuffy legalists like to leave the conversation. God forbid we actually have a conversation about the healthy sexual relationship between a husband and wife. What a shame. God is an artist and great art communicates truth on a multitude of different levels. Song of Solomon is an incredible set of ancient lyrics full of sappy romance and strong sexual references both overt (e.g. “my lover is a sachet of myrrh lying between my breasts”) and subtle.

God, the artist, created us male and female. He created us naked. He told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. Love, intimacy and sex between husband and wife was part of the original ideal and when we are blessed to experience a moment of it here, East of Eden, it is allows us to capture, even for a brief moment, a hint of the original paradise.