Discipleship for Wayfarers

I recently talked with Matt Woodley of Preaching Today about how pastors might approach the topic of homosexuality in sermons and other parish teaching opportunities. (The interview is available for free, but you might have to register at the site to access it in its entirety.)

For those who have heard me talk about these matters before, there won’t be much that’s new here. But I thought it would be valuable to try to restate, specifically for an audience of preachers and pastors, some of my gradually-coalescing musings on friendship.

Here’s an excerpt:

I think we need to have an approach to pastoral ministry that allows for a long-term sense of waiting and enduring something that we wish were otherwise. For me, for example, there are many ways in which I just don’t feel that I am made for celibacy. I mean, it often leads to loneliness, to difficulty. The natural impulse of a pastor is to want to say to a person who is suffering, “Let’s make this better. Let’s fix this condition of celibacy so that it’s not so painful anymore.” I think that comes from a good motivation, but the most helpful pastors in my life have recognized there are many situations that people find themselves in that you can’t fix. So the pastoral strategy then becomes not “how do we rescue this person out of this terrible condition?” but “how do we help this person flourish and find love?”

Paul talks a lot in 2 Corinthians about being weak, and you never get the sense from him that God has delivered him from weakness. In fact, God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in your weakness”—not by rescuing you out of your weakness. I find it helpful when a pastor can recognize that being gay is not something we’re going to fix. There may be a diminishment of same-sex attraction that some people experience, or there may not. But either way, it’s not something that you can just fix. So the question is, How do we help this person find grace and hope in the midst of a situation that may never be what they would wish for?

We also need to remember Christian history’s rich theology of friendship. We’ve forgotten about examples like Aelred of Rievaulx who wrote a treatise called “Spiritual Friendship.” He offers a vision of a very serious, robust kind of love. We need to recover that view of friendship and offer it to our celibate friends like me who need to understand that we’re not doomed to a life of loneliness and no connections. I can really pour myself out in friendship. I can be with others who pour their lives out for me in friendship. So the choice isn’t just between marriage and romance or loneliness. Suddenly the choices look very different.

The rest of the interview is here, and I would welcome your feedback.

10 thoughts on “Discipleship for Wayfarers

  1. Pingback: Discipleship for Wayfarers » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  2. I can’t post on the FT website for some reason so I’ll put my comment here…

    Wesley,

    I like much of what you have written, but something doesn’t sound quite right. You say:

    So the question is, How do we help this person find grace and hope in the midst of a situation that may never be what they would wish for?

    I’m writing from my gut here, and with the weakest possible qualifications on the subject. But how does being straight make it any easier to find grace and hope? Is there any connection between the two whatsoever? We are talking about sexual identity–i.e. the now nearly universal practice of claiming an identity for oneself based on how we desire to achieve orgasm. In that sense calling oneself a heterosexual is just as much a problem as calling oneself a homosexual.

    The assumption, to my ears anyway, that creeps in your sentence above is that most of us have an easier time finding grace and hope because we have a desire to achieve sexual orgasms with someone of the opposite sex. Yes, I recognize that a Christian with an SSA may experience a loneliness in a way that other Christians will not (although what about those of us who are not sexually attractive to anyone?). But my point is that I worry how well we can address their problems when we can’t even see we share the same problem. That is, we are starting off from the deeply flawed belief that grace and hope reigns more easily in our lives because of our sexual identity.

    • I think in the sense that we look at the vertical relationship between ourselves and God, there is no difference.

      It is in the horizontal, our relationships with others and, especially, in the failure of the straight Christian to share God’s grace with the gay where the lack of grace lies. It is not hope of heaven that is missing but hope that one’s brothers and sisters in Christ will treat one as a brother and not a stranger, or worse.

      The straight individual, I think, can see the mercy of Christ in fellow Christians in a way straight Christians do not allow the gay Christian to do so.

      • I totally agree! I sometimes get annoyed when straight Christians start on a tangent about sexual identity and how they don’t have straight pride parades and that gays shouldn’t identify by their sexual preferences, etc. Part of it comes from straights themselves seeing same-sex attracted people as bad and dangerous. We all know that feeling of being overly scrutinized in our relationships with others, especially children, because of our attractions. There is a difference in how we relate to one another. It’s not the same for a straight Christian who almost always will have the opportunity to marry and form a family if they so choose. Gay Christians will seldom have that opportunity. We also have to be silent about it most of the time. If there was a “straight pill” I’d definitely take it. It’s not that other people’s struggles can’t be just as hard. It’s just that to many Christians gays are always an enemy so where do we go to get the Christian support we ought to get?

  3. I am entering this comment here because as of yet I have not been able to post it at First Things:

    Wesley,

    I like much of what you have written, but something doesn’t sound quite right. You say:

    So the question is, How do we help this person find grace and hope in the midst of a situation that may never be what they would wish for?

    I’m writing from my gut here, and with the weakest possible qualifications on the subject. But how does being straight make it any easier to find grace and hope? Is there any connection between the two whatsoever? We are talking about sexual identity–i.e. the now nearly universal practice of claiming an identity for oneself based on how we desire to achieve orgasm. In that sense calling oneself a heterosexual is just as much a problem as calling oneself a homosexual.

    The assumption, to my ears anyway, that creeps in your sentence above is that most of us have an easier time finding grace and hope because we have a desire to achieve sexual orgasms with someone of the opposite sex. Yes, I recognize that a Christian with an SSA may experience a loneliness in a way that other Christians will not (although what about those of us who are not sexually attractive to anyone?). But my point is that I worry how well we can address their problems when we can’t even see we share the same problem. That is, we are starting off from the deeply flawed belief that grace and hope reigns more easily in our lives because of our sexual identity.

  4. Thanks for this post, I think the specific pastoral perspective that you’re advocating here is an important, especially for those in church leadership. Too often the focus is on trying to change the sexual desires, which very seldom works, and almost always will engender in people a feeling that those desires need to change before they can be a ‘normal Christian.’

    You’ve exposed the false dichotomy (marriage, or loneliness!) that lies underneath the surface of many who feel despondent about where the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality leaves them.

    Many quote Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 to demonstrate the blessings of marriage (and rightly so), but we are shooting ourselves in the foot if we fail to realise that the principles in these verses are not at all restricted to marriage. They apply equally as strongly to friendship.

    “If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no-one to help him up!”

    “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”

    Thanks again for sharing.

  5. And once again, the problems faced by gay Christians have lessons that will be helpful for all Christians.

    Indeed, there are some things that can’t be fixed. The spouse, divorced through no fault of his own, now facing a lifetime alone. Isn’t the need to “fix it” part of what is behind the divorce laws that have destroyed marriage for so many people? We would rather look the other way, or accept remarriage after divorce, than accept that people have to live with situations or conditions they would rather not have.

    I’m not in any way implying any sort of equivalence in the situations. It’s just that I think what you are doing is going to have impact far beyond gay Christians. You are recovering a whole new area of spirituality that is sorely needed, and all of your brothers and sisters will be nourished by it.

  6. Pingback: What makes a church safe? | Spiritual Friendship

  7. I’m gay. I have plenty of friends. We see a lot of each other and sure, we give each other a lot of mutual support and love.

    But no matter how many movies or plays I go to accompanied by good friends, no matter how many dinner parties or barbecues I attend, I still go home to an empty apartment every night. I still experience the lack of an intimate partnership as emptiness and loss. It’s still an enormous hole in my heart and my existence that mere friends cannot ever fill, wholly or even partially.

    This idea that perfect friendship makes up for eternal celibacy is a mirage. Friendship isn’t designed to fill the hole left by the lack of a partner any more than water is designed to fill the hole left by food. I can drink as much water as I like and be perfectly hydrated, but if I don’t eat anything then I’ll feel hungry and no amount of water will make the hunger go away. It’s true that a glass of water can take edge off hunger, for a few moments. But it can never truly sate the hunger because that’s not what water is designed to do.

    What Wesley Hill and others who’ve decided they must be celibate are asking us to do is never eat again. They maintain that all we need is water and that water is just as good as food and that if we have enough water, we need never feel hungry. But that’s just ludicrous and I think they know it. If you don’t eat, you’re going to feel hunger no matter how much you drink. If you refuse to have a partner, you’re going to feel lonely and incomplete no matter how many friends you have.

    As far as I can see, those gay people who choose celibacy “for the sake of God” need to man up and deal with the resultant feelings of loneliness and alienation as a perfectly normal and natural by-product of their “lifestyle choice”. If I decided never to eat again, I’d be a fool if I thought copious amounts of water would sate my hunger. I’d simply have to deal with the hunger as a normal and natural side-effect of my decision to do without food. And as the decision would be mine and mine alone, if I then went crying to everyone about how hungry I was and expected them to do something about it, I’d be worse than a fool. I’d be an attention-seeking parasite.

    OK, so you’re celibate. It’s your choice. It’s your decision. So deal with it and stop looking for loopholes and trying to squirm out of the trap you’ve set for yourself. You think God requires this of you, so He must require your suffering. So … suffer. If you think it’s going to lead you to paradise, what do a few years of suffering matter anyway?

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