Joseph Sharp’s new book is an answer to my prayers. In the midst of the summer doldrums I had asked God to send me an uplifting book that I could read before fall classes covered me up with a series of complex and densely packed books on the intricacies of theological thought. I wanted a book that would stretch me spiritually without boggling my mind. Sharp’s book, Spiritual Maturity: Stories and Reflections for the Ongoing Journey of the Spirit, was God’s answer to that prayer.
That’s not to say Spiritual Maturity doesn’t challenge the intellect. It certainly does, but more importantly the book is a deep challenge to our spirits, calling us to new heights of spiritual awareness that many of us, myself included, may find extremely frightening.
But Sharp, a gay man who has been living with HIV for almost half his life, assures us that fear can be a good thing and can actually be quite helpful as we begin to realize our spiritual maturity. “… [F]ear,” he writes, “if acknowledged and accepted into my emotional reality, can become something other than the fear itself. If I’m conscious enough to begin to open to my fearful experiences, often these experiences begin transforming from the hard, tight pit of retraction into something else entirely — something gentle and soft, a whisper that calls me deeper toward grace.”
And it is because the call to take that path toward spiritual maturity comes to us as whisper instead of a shout that so many people either miss or avoid the path altogether. The road to spiritual maturity is hard, fraught with painful lessons, spiritual and mental set backs, and forgetful moments of anguish when we wonder why we even embarked upon this journey in the first place. However, the path is also marked by moments of great joy, peace and grace. But even before we begin to walk the path of spiritual maturity we must start by giving ourselves permission to go on a search that might disturb us greatly, but in the end will bless us just as greatly.
That may be, ultimately, the hardest thing to do in our quest to become spiritually mature, and Sharp acknowledged this in a recent interview with Whosoever.
“As we as gay people realize our own internal stashes of homophobia,” he said, “we have to also realize our stashes of internalized lack of permission and start giving ourselves permission to be wonderfully, fearfully human.”
Giving yourself permission or “grand permission” as Sharp calls it, means letting go of your rigid beliefs about what religion, or God, or spirituality is supposed to look like, and letting God take you into the mystery of life with all its grace and grit.
“Authentic spirituality is something more than words and theories to help us escape life’s pain,” Sharp said. “Authentic spirituality has to be something that helps us be present and alive and move through the pain and love one another during it.”
The true purpose of our spirituality, then, according to Sharp, is “not to guarantee us a blissful life, but a meaningful one.”
I saw my own journey written all over the pages of this book. Whosoever began because I finally gave myself the “grand permission” to explore what it meant to live as both a lesbian and a Christian. The spiritually correct thing to do would be to have accepted, at face value, the teachings of the church that I cannot be both, and to choose. And for awhile, I did just that. I chose to leave God and the church altogether. But, I couldn’t avoid that whisper that kept calling me back to the path of meaningful spirituality. I had already found a certain amount of bliss just living outside the church and its judgmental doctrines. But, if I wanted a meaningful spirituality, it meant grappling with the hard issues — grappling with just what it meant to be both lesbian and Christian. And like Jacob, when we wrestle with God, we may often experience the pain of getting our hip out of joint, but we’ll also experience God’s blessings.
Sharp’s book is a guide on how to wrestle with the angels, and though we may experience great pain, we’ll also experience great blessings. But, we must realize that when we give ourselves permission to wrestle with the angels and with our faith we have to step outside that realm of “spiritual correctness” and face the threats and insults from those who would seek to push us back in line.
“We must recognize our spiritual correctness whenever it arises,” Sharp advised. “In political correctness language becomes a parody of itself when language is more important than the underlying content. Spiritual correctness is the same way. The appearance becomes more important than the underlying authentic reality. The appearance is not what God is about. In Luke, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is within you. That answer comes after a disciple asked how he would recognize the kingdom and Jesus says you won’t recognize it because it doesn’t have any appearance by which you can recognize it. Instead, Jesus told them that the kingdom is among you or within you. That’s a profound thing for me to continue to reflect on.”
That is profound — the kingdom is within, not in church doctrine or dogma or ritual, but within ourselves, ready to be cultivated just like a tender flower.
But that kind of an idea is offensive to many people. Traditions within the church continue to exercise a strong hold on many of us. Even within the GLBT community churches that preach a new brand of spiritual correctness are growing in number and membership. We crave pat answers to hard questions. We want a list written in black and white of what’s wrong and what’s right so we know how to behave. We seek comfort in the old doctrines, clinging to them like a lifesaver in a roiling sea. We see these doctrines as eternal, never changing and offering us the comfort that we’re “spiritually correct” in God’s eyes.
Sharp reminds us that much has changed within the church — within every religion — over the course of their histories.
“Doctrinal beliefs are constantly being reexamined, re-explored and re-questioned in light of contemporary real-life experience,” he told Whosoever. “If that weren’t happening there would be no need for sermons on Sunday or theological journals or discussions of any kind. It would all be set. Because the world changes and because we believe that our spirituality and our religion has a timeless aspect to it we have to continually grapple with being in time and being mortal and be willing to reevaluate our understanding of the eternal.”
In short, we cheat ourselves out of great blessings by playing it safe spiritually and accepting the easy “yes or no” answers religion is so often happy to hand us. Sharp’s advice? Ask questions of your religion — probe your faith.
“Take it out of realm of spirituality. If your child was in a class with a teacher who discouraged questioning, disagreement and independent thinking you would think this is the worst teacher in the world,” he said. “But we do this in church all the time.”
But, once you begin to ask those questions — once you give yourself permission to ask those questions — you can’t go back to the spiritual correctness that held you before the journey. I’ve tried, and so has Sharp. There are times when the questions get too big and the answers are too slow in coming, or they never come at all, that I yearn to be off the path, back in the big safe world of clear “right and wrong” answers.
It’s all a part of the ongoing journey, however.
“In John 4, Jesus tells us that whoever drinks of the water he offers will never thirst,” Sharp said. “Once we’ve had a taste of this water we can’t just go back to tap. We’ll always know what we’re missing. I yearn to still believe the simple. I wish it were as simple as literally believing a certain text. If it really worked I’d probably do it even if it weren’t true, but it doesn’t work because I have to deny and repress so much of the reality around me. This is part of recognizing that the journey is always ongoing.”
And because that journey is forever ongoing, and because the answers we seek will probably always be elusive in some form or another, we’ll come face to face with many people who will criticize us for even beginning such an arduous journey. Many have attacked my journey as folly and jeered at me when I didn’t have answers readily available for their hard questions — answers they certainly had because they believed the Bible “plainly” answered it — forgetting context and other nit picks of biblical scholarship.
“The discernment between biblical practice and biblical principle is important. It’s always amazed me that as Christians we believe this text is a direct link somehow to God, to spirit. If that were true then nothing would be more important than truly understanding this text, yet people who seem to say that the most spend so much time not trying to fully understand it but trying to literalize it and make it small,” Sharp mused.
The criticisms you get, along with the growing spiritual maturity you experience on this path, with the help of Sharp’s excellent book, forces us to “talk our walk” as Sharp puts it. The goal, despite what our critics tell us, is not to “fix” our walk, he writes but “rather, the aim is to ‘talk’ the walk and then let it be. Let it float — contradictions, complications, injustices, warts and all.” We cannot avoid uncertainty in our spirituality, or seek to bury it with platitudes about “God’s will.” Instead, we must embrace it, and live into the ambiguity, feeling the awe that goes along with be a beloved Child of an enormous God that encompasses everything!
As we “talk our walk” we become what Sharp calls “activists.”
“Your personal activism doesn’t have to be flashy and outrageous,” he said. “Sometimes being an activist is just being openly gay and standing upon the rock and being loving and not getting into the game of doing scripture with our critics.”
The path of spiritual maturity, then, is a hard one. It’s a path that will stretch you spiritually and intellectually. It’s a path that will change you from the inside out and teach you how to live in the gray areas where hard and fast answers are impossible, but grace abounds. It’s also a path that will invite criticism and, ultimately, may not give you any set answers to any of life’s hard questions. But, it’s well worth the journey. Take Joseph Sharp along as one of your guides. He knows the path well, and his book may just be the answer to your prayers, too.
The founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, Rev. Candace Chellew earned her Masters of Theological studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Her first book, “Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians”, was published by Jossey-Bass in 2008. She currently serves as the Spiritual Director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C.