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.


Whole, Free, & Leaping with Joy

With Sherman Van Zee in USP's "Christmas Post" 2006
With Sherman Van Zee in USP’s “Christmas Post” 2006

“But for you who fear my name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings. And you will go free, leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture.” Malachi 4:2 (NLT)

It’s always a shock to find out first thing in the morning that a friend has died unexpectedly. I was blessed to share the stage with our friend Sherm and to direct him. He was a sweet spirit and a gentle soul. He was a fellow wayfarer, following Jesus. He shared with us some of his story, and much of it was filled with sadness and many trials. Yet, whenever I worked with or spent time with him he was full of joy.

I read this verse from the prophet Malachi this morning, and was reminded of Sherman. His journey through this earthly life ended this week, but the Sun of Righteousness has just risen at his homecoming. The scars on his soul are healed. I am encouraged to think of him whole, free, and leaping with joy.

Playing the Roles We are Given

English: A painting created by Leonardo Da Vin...
English: A painting created by Leonardo Da Vinci depicting St John the baptist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Look! I am sending my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” Malachi 3:1 (NLT)

I am teaching a Wednesday night class on creativity. In the first week I made a case for the truth that every human being is made in the image of the Creator, therefore every human being is creative. How the creativity plays out from one person to the next is determined by a whole host of variables, but we are all creative.

Last night our class talked about the fact that some people are creatively gifted in unique ways. A few individuals are prodigies and artistic geniuses in a way that the majority of us will never know nor experience. This does not mean, however, that our creativity is not necessary nor important.

When I read about the messenger in Malachi’s prophesy, I thought about John the Baptist about whom Jesus said the prophecy pointed. John lived a life scratched out in the Judean desert. His role was to prepare the way for and hand the spotlight over to Jesus:

The interest of the people by now was building. They were all beginning to wonder, “Could this John be the Messiah?” But John intervened: “I’m baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.” Luke 3:15-17 (MSG) [emphasis added]

I love that John understood his role, and played it well. We so often and unwittingly commit the sin of envy. We compare ourselves to others who have gifts and abilities that we wish we had. We feel less than. We choose to believe that because we do not have the lead role, because we are not in the spotlight, or because our gifts and talents go unrecognized that our gifts and talents do not matter. Nothing could be further from the truth. We each have a role to play, and when we do not play our role the entire drama is diminished.

Misapplied Emphasis

LOL Just divorced. And no, that's not my car.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“For I hate divorce!” says the Lord, the God of Israel. “To divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. “So guard your heart; do not be unfaithful to your wife.” Malachi 2:16 (NLT)

Along the journey I have come to perceive that I and my fellow Jesus followers are prone to what I call “misapplied emphasis.” We see a nugget of truth, pull it out of the overarching context of God’s Message, hold it up into the spotlight, and place so much emphasis on it that it no longer fits into the landscape of truth from which we plucked it. We love, in particular, to do this with sin.

In my never ending sojourn through God’s Message I have learned that there are some foundational concepts about sin:

  • Sin breaks things.
  • In God’s economy, if you commit just one small sin, you are as guilty as if you broke every rule in the entire book.
  • No one can earn salvation by being good enough. You can’t wholly fix yourself.
  • We are all, every one of us, broken.
  • God redeems what is broken.

Our modern culture can scarcely imagine what life was like in the days of Malachi. Divorce was not just a moral issue but an issue of social justice. In the culture of that day women were treated more or less like livestock. Jewish men ritually prayed “God, I thank you that I am not a gentile (a non-Jew) and I thank you that I am not a woman.” If a man wanted to divorce a woman, he just simply presented her with a certificate of divorce. It was a cultural death sentence and she immediately became a societal problem. She had no social standing with which to get a job, get an education, or make a living. Often, the only options for divorced women were begging or prostitution. That’s why God followed up the statement “I hate divorce” with the explanation that a man of that day divorcing his wife was to “overwhelm her with cruelty.” Through the prophet Malachi, God is listing out some of the ways that the priests of that day had been dishonorable. The problem of men callously casting off their wives to become society’s problem was up at the top of the list. It was a matter of fidelity and honor, but it was also a matter of justice.

So, of course God hates divorce. Divorce was not in the original plan. Divorce is not the ideal. However, we are broken people. We lead broken lives. We experience broken relationships. The fact that Malachi spotlights divorce as an example of how the priests of his day were dishonoring God does not elevate divorce as a greater or more heinous sin than any other sin. Write “God hates” on a piece of paper and you can fill in the blank after those words with any and every wrongdoing you can think of. You can aptly say that God hates gluttony, but I’ve noticed there appears to be little concern nor stigma attached to this behavior at church potlucks. At the same time, as a broken person who is divorced I can share specific instances of being treated with suspicion and contempt by my fellow believers because of the scarlet “D” they seem to see indelibly stitched on my chest. Misapplied emphasis. Lord, have mercy on us.

I am divorced. The story of my journey did not end on Friday, May 13, 2005 when a judge signed the divorce decree. My story is still being written as day-by-day I struggle with the consequences of my past mistakes as well as my continued brokenness which daily reveals itself in my pride, arrogance, ingratitude, greed, laziness, indulgence of appetites and a host of other behaviors that God hates just was much as He hates divorce. But my story does not end with divorce any more than Jesus’ story ended at the cross. I am in process and am experiencing a greater fullness of love, life, joy, peace, and goodness than at any other time of my entire life.

Good news: Jesus came to redeem what is broken, and that includes me.