Interview with Jonathan Merritt

Over at his Religion News Service site blog yesterday, Jonathan Merritt interviewed yours truly about my new book Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian.

The interview started off with my saying,

According to Christian writers of the past, spiritual or Christ-centered friendship—the kind of friendship I’m writing about—is a bond between two (or more) people who feel affection for each other. But it’s also a bond that has a trajectory. It’s a relationship that’s about helping one another along towards deeper love of God and neighbor. I like that but would add that as those sorts of friendships mature and deepen, they often start to become more committed and permanent. It’s almost as if the friends want to become more like spiritual siblings.

And it goes on from there. Read the whole thing.

“The Gift of Friendship”

SF book cover

Some of you will know already that I have a new book that’s just been released. It’s called Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian, and I’m very happy (and a bit nervous, too, truth be told!) that it’s now out in the world and finding its way to readers.

Today, over at my publisher’s blog, I’ve got a guest post that explains how I came to write the book and that gives a bit of teaser-taste of its contents. Here’s an excerpt:

Being gay and celibate can leave you wondering whether you’re left out in the cold when it comes to committed, stable, intimate relationships. Watching many of your friends pair up and get married, you wonder if you have to settle for something less than that—for relationships that always end with separation or distance. And sometimes friendship, which is all too fleeting in our mobile society, comes to seem like a consolation prize. As blogger Casey Pick has written, “No community is quite so sensitive to the reality that, for all its virtues, friendship isn’t family.”

But what if Christian friendships, or at least some of them, were able to become more committed, more bound by promises, and more recognized as integral, lasting parts of gay Christians’ lives? What if friendship were able to look more familial?

If I were to describe the hope and joy I’ve found in my own gay, celibate life, I would point to moments where that shift has happened in my friendships.

Please click through and read the rest of the post, if you’re interested.

Travelogue from Oz

Last week I was in Sydney, Australia (or “Oz,” as they abbreviate/pronounce it!) to give a series of talks. I spoke at two day conferences hosted by Liberty Christian Ministries. I also spoke at Moore Theological College (and some enterprising student wrote up a nice summary of what I said!), as well as St. Barnabas’ Anglican Church and a few other places. (There’s a video here, if you want to see the kinds of things I discussed.) It was a wonderful, refreshing trip—one of the highlights of my entire (relatively short, admittedly) career of public speaking on matters gay and Christian!—and I wanted to talk about a few of the things that stood out to me.

What I think I’ll remember most are two conversations I had with two different small groups of people, not more than 20 or so, after the two day conferences finished. When I was done speaking, I hung out in an upstairs Sunday School classroom at the church where the conference had been held and just chatted with whomever stuck around.

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My Friendship with Ron Belgau

One of the things I’d like to do more often here at Spiritual Friendship is tell stories of friendship. Theological reflection, of the sort I usually do in my posts, can only go so far. What we need more of—what I need more of—are stories of real life friendships that describe how vital Christian friendship can be.

With that in mind, I’d like to pay tribute to my friend Ron Belgau in this post. Ron and I met initially via email, through a mutual friend. When he expressed appreciation for my first book, Washed and Waiting, I asked him to share further thoughts on it. Then, due to how thoughtful and rich his response was, I decided I couldn’t answer it until I had time to produce an equally thoughtful and rich reply—which meant that I stayed silent for about six months. Ron waited patiently, and then he wrote again, and from there our friendship took off. We wrote, we talked via Skype with him in the U.S. and me in England, and, eventually, we had the chance to meet in person at a speaking gig I had and enjoy a long walk along the Battery in Charleston, South Carolina.

Out of those conversations, we started a private online gathering for gay/lesbian/SSA Christians who wanted to try to live by traditional biblical sexual ethics. The conversations we helped nurture there were among the most significant I’ve been a part of. And, eventually, they became the basis for what Ron and I are trying to do here with SF, the sort of public face of our earlier private effort.

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“Celibacy for the Common Good”

Over at First Things today, I posted a summary of my 9-minute(!) talk last week at “Q Commons” at Gordon College in Massachusetts. Here’s a snippet:

I suggested that celibacy is an important reminder that love isn’t reducible to what we do in bed or over a candlelit table for two. It is a reminder that love exceeds the boundaries of the nuclear family. Celibacy is not about a heroic feat of willpower. It’s about giving up one way of expressing love in order to be able to love widely, profligately, indiscriminately. It’s about foregoing a spouse in order to love a community. It’s about giving up the possibility of children in order to become a spiritual father or mother in the family called “church.” It’s about being a little less entangled in the life of the world in order to be a little more free to celebrate the coming kingdom of God, in which none of us will be married and all of us will be spiritual friends with everyone else in the new creation that God will usher in. In the words of Ronald Rolheiser, “Celibacy, if properly lived, can be an important way to keep alive, visible and in the flesh, that part of the incarnation which tells us that when one is speaking of love, the human heart is the central organ.”

Please click through and read the whole thing! There’s a great quote from our own Eve Tushnet at the end.

Three Cheers for Eve Tushnet!

Tushnet book cover

Over at Christianity Today, I’ve got a review up of our own Eve Tushnet’s new book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.

The first part of the review is my very personal story of stumbling upon Eve’s blog—now hosted by Patheos—several years ago:

Sometime in 2007 I discovered Eve Tushnet’s writing. I can’t recall exactly how I found her non-flashy, off-the-beaten-path blog, tagged with the teasing moniker “Conservatism reborn in twisted sisterhood,” but somehow I landed there, following a trail of hyperlinks. I used to read her posts in the morning, while sipping coffee, huddled over my laptop in my cell-like flat in England, when I was just starting graduate school.

Tushnet is a gay Catholic writer who embraces her church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. By the time I learned about her, I’d been admitting to myself for a few years that I was gay, though I hadn’t told many other people yet. I was still too frightened and unsure of what kind of welcome (or lack thereof) I’d receive. You know those novels and movies about the yearning, aching twentysomethings who are trying to disentangle and sort out their erotic and religious longings, while dreading loneliness and rejection above all else? That was me. Imagine Charles Ryder from Brideshead Revisited, all angsty and insecure, but with a small-town-USA upbringing, and you’ll get the picture. I needed a lifeline. I was hungry to know I wasn’t alone.

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Before and After

This is the manuscript I spoke from when I gave a talk last Friday, February 6, in a chapel service at Houghton College in New York.

This morning I want to talk about before and after.

We often tell our stories using those words—before and after.

It’s the language we are given in church. “I once was lost, but now am found / Was blind, but now I see,” we sing.

Before and after.

It’s the language of our “testimonies,” if you grew up in a church that had those. “Before I came to faith, I was wandering far from God. But now, after I met Christ, I am different.”

It’s also the language of the Bible. Jesus tells a story about a young man who bilked his father for his inheritance, burned through it on wild parties and rebellious behavior, and then came to his senses, having hit rock bottom. He gets up and begins to walk home and before he can even utter an apology, his father is already stringing up the “Welcome Back” banner and catering a big feast in his honor.

Before and after.

I’d like us to spend a few minutes looking at one of the stories in the Gospels. I want to tell you my personal “before and after” story, but before I do that, I want us to hear from Jesus.

In the Fourth Gospel, chapter 9, there is a character who was born blind. And Jesus sees him on the side of the road. Turning to him, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world,” and then, memorably, he spits on the ground, makes a paste of mud and applies it to the man’s eyes, and then tells him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. “Then,” the Gospel says, “he went and washed and came back able to see.”

This is a very famous “before and after” story. But the “after” part isn’t exactly what we might expect.

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A Blessed Feast of St. Aelred to You

Aelred icon

Today is the feast day of Aelred of Rievaulx, often called the patron saint of friendship. The image above is a photograph of an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM, that some dear friends of mine gave me at Christmas this year.

And here is my memory of visiting the ruin of Rievaulx Abbey a few years ago:

Rounding the bend in the road from the village of Thirsk in North Yorkshire, your first glimpse of Rievaulx Abbey will take your breath away. One minute you’re on a backcountry lane, charmed by the gentle slopes and the green of the farmlands but unprepared for the sudden sight of gray stone walls and arches. The next minute you’re staring at an eleventh-century Cistercian ruin, enclosed in a wooded dale like an unearthed treasure. Coming from the opposite direction, from the east, you might have the reaction my friend described to me once in an e-mail: “I’ve only ever approached Rievaulx on foot, after the over-the-moors-and-through-the-forest walk from Helmsley, but whenever I go there, I imagine those first monks standing in that valley, with the lovely little river running through it and the low wooded hills to break the wind, and saying, ‘Yes. This is the place.’”

My one visit to Rievaulx was a pilgrimage of sorts to honor Aelred, the abbey’s fourth abbot who ruled the Benedictine community from 1147 until his death in 1167. Known best for his treatises On Spiritual Friendship and The Mirror of Charity, in which he sketched a vision for monastic community, Aelred has become the unofficial patron saint of friendship, owing to his powerful depiction of the spiritual fruitfulness of same-sex love. I went to Rievaulx out of gratitude for that witness. I stood in what remains of the abbot’s quarters—now just a stone outline indicating where the four walls would have been—and said a prayer of thanks for the treatises that say of friendship what we moderns typically reserve for marital love: “See to what limits love should reach among friends, namely to a willingness to die for each other.”

I don’t know how you might choose to mark Aelred’s feast day today, or if you’re even comfortable marking saints’ feast days, but I’d encourage you to try something, be it small or large. I myself am planning to make a simple dinner for my housemates to give thanks for their company tonight. Perhaps you would want to start planning an “anniversary of friendship” trip to celebrate the years you’ve known a particular friend, as a friend of mine is planning at the moment for a longtime friend of hers. Or perhaps you’d want to write a note to a friend, expressing your gratitude with words. Maybe you’d want to approach your pastor or priest and ask him or her to come and pray a blessing over you and your friend. Or maybe you’d want to suggest to your priest that there be a Sunday School class or church retreat on the topic, and you could help with the planning and implementation of it. If you’re in college, maybe you’d want to suggest to your campus minister that there be a small group Bible study on the theme; I know one campus minister who’s just written one for her students, and she tells me it’s been a big hit.

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Does Your Church *Like* Gay People?

On Sunday, while I was in Denver to see my brother and sister-in-law, I visited House for All Sinners and Saints (HFASS), one of the most well known queer-inclusive churches in the country, I suppose. But that reputation wasn’t the only reason why I visited, despite my obvious personal investment in those matters and my intense curiosity on that front. Mostly I chose to visit because I’ve been pretty powerfully affected by Lutheran preaching—with its law/gospel dialectic—and HFASS’ pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, is preaching some of the most potent Lutheran sermons around these days. I first heard about HFASS and Nadia from this article by Jason Byassee, I think, and then I read Nadia’s book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint. Suffice it to say, since then, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to hear this tattooed, foul-mouthed preacher in person, and this last Sunday was my chance.

Now, I disagree with Nadia Bolz-Weber pretty seriously on a whole host of things, many of which I take to be urgently central matters of Christian faith and practice. As a theologically conservative believer who thinks that traditional Christian moral teaching on (say) gay sex can’t be neatly separated from creedal orthodoxy (as if the former were revisable, with the latter able to be preserved intact), I don’t want to offer unqualified praise in this post for what Nadia Bolz-Weber’s ministry is about. Still, though, I find myself agreeing with Rod Dreher that I have something—or more than one thing!—to learn from her about what it means to be a Christian. As I sat there on Sunday night watching her interact with her congregation, and listening to her preach, I found myself wishing that what she models were more characteristic of the conservative churches and communities in which I live and minister. In short, I’m provoked and instructed by her, and I expect to go on learning from her in the coming years.

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On Disagreeing About “Homosexuality”: A Thought Experiment

As Mark Yarhouse pointed out yesterday, Julie Rodgers (and by extension many of the rest of us who blog here at Spiritual Friendship) has recently been facing criticism from her fellow Christians for the way she describes her sexuality and her faith. She writes:

A gay orientation can be understood as an overall draw toward someone of the same sex, which is usually a desire for a deeper level intimacy with those of the same sex. Just like a heterosexual orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for straight sex, a gay orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for gay sex. This longing for intimacy is usually experienced as a desire for nearness, for partnership, for close friendship, rich conversation, and an overall appreciation of beauty. The best way I can describe my experience of “being gay” is that with certain women I feel the “it” factor: that sense of chemistry that longs to share life with them, to know and be known by them, to be drawn outside of myself in self-giving love for them. When I feel all Lesbiany, I experience it as a desire to build a home with a woman that will create an energizing love that spills over into the kind of hospitality that actually provides guests with clean sheets and something other than protein bars. Most women feel that chemistry or longing for other men (even though it can’t be reduced to a desire to have sex with other men), while I usually feel like “bros” with men. This causes me to see the world through a different lens than my straight peers, to exist in the world in a slightly different way. As God has redeemed and transformed me, he’s tapped into those gay parts of me that now overflow into compassion for marginalized people and empathy for social outcasts—he’s used my gay way of being for His glory rather than making me straight.

Here’s an example of the kind of pushback Julie has received: Owen Strachan, an assistant professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College, has argued that this way of speaking

is deeply problematic. It is flawed at the core. Our sins do not enrich our perspective on life; our sins twist God’s good gifts and obscure the purposes of our bodies and our world. Sin never improves your outlook on the world. It always distorts it. Please hear me: there is nothing redemptive about sin. Grace, on the other hand, is the very substance of redemption. But sin has nothing to do with goodness. As far as the east is from the west, so far is sin from any positive moral component.

You can read the rest of his argument here, which can be summarized in three points: “1. The Bible never speaks of positive components of our sins… 2. Homosexuality in Scripture is not neutral. It is evil… 3. Homosexual orientation, therefore, does not yield an enhanced Christian spirituality.”

I’m still trying to understand for myself exactly where the disagreement lies, so this post isn’t going to be my last word on the subject. For now, I just want to try out a thought experiment. I want to suggest that these sharply differing views—Julie’s and Owen Strachan’s—are, in part, the result of different understandings of what “homosexuality” fundamentally is.

As I pointed out a few weeks ago, depending on which historical era you lived in, you thought about same-sex desire and same-sex sexual expression differently. If you were a Christian in the medieval era, for instance, you probably thought of same-sex sexual behavior as an instance of lust giving birth to passionate transgression. What was in your sights wasn’t “gay culture” or “being gay” but acting wrongly or desiring wrongly (i.e., being tempted, nurturing lustful imaginations, etc.). You thought about sex between persons of the same sex as a vice that could potentially befall anyone, and you knew that Christianity condemned it categorically, no matter who committed it or what extenuating circumstances there might have been. Continue reading