Hoping for Love

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My friend Alan Jacobs, a traditional sort of Anglican Christian, wrote this the day after the Obergefell ruling:

Perhaps I am soft on sin, or otherwise deficient in serious Christian formation — actually, it’s certain that I am — but in any case I could not help being moved by many of the scenes yesterday of gay people getting married, even right here in Texas. I hope that many American gays and lesbians choose marriage over promiscuity, and I hope those who marry stay married, and flourish.

I know what he’s saying. I felt that too.

But I was thinking more today, What is that experience? For those of us like me who hold to a Christian view of marriage that contradicts the SCOTUS definition, what does it mean to be moved by scenes of gay marriage?

Well, for starters—and I’m speaking for myself here, not necessarily for Alan—I think that for many, many (not all) gay people in America today, the options have not been (1) belong to a healthy, vibrant Christian community in which celibacy is held in high esteem and deep spiritual friendships with members of the same sex and opportunities for loving service and hospitality abound or (2) be in a romantic relationship with a partner of the same sex. That has not been the choice facing many gay and lesbian people. Instead, for many (not all) today, the options have been (1) be ostracized (or worse) in church and effectively live without meaningful same-sex closeness of any kind or (2) be in a romantic relationship with a partner of the same sex. Listen, readers, this is the reality for many gay people who have had a brush with the Christian church in recent years:

So many people have been told (explicitly) that they aren’t welcome, treated as problems rather than persons. They’ve been disowned, had their trust betrayed and their confidences exposed, been kicked out of their homes and their churches, threatened with expulsion. They’ve listened as preachers proclaimed that people like them were destroying the church, that their desires were uniquely and Satanically destructive, that homosexuality by its nature cut them off from God; that their only hope for a faithful Christian life was to repent of their homosexuality, become straight, and get married. All by Christians who claimed that their actions were the result of their faith in Jesus.

And often this abuse—I know labels can obscure complexity but in this case I think naming the abuse is important—is inflicted on people who are trying to live out the full Christian sexual ethic. The treatment they receive would be unjustifiable even if (and even when) they reject Christian teaching on homosexuality, but what’s sort of amazing is that simply self-identifying as gay or even “struggling with same-sex attraction” will earn you condemnation and shame in many Christian communities. Your shame is treated as a sign of faith; any hints of self-acceptance are treated as rejection of God. It should come as little surprise that many of the people who receive this mistreatment eventually reject (what I believe to be) the Christian sexual ethic, and often reject Christianity entirely.

So, I think part of the reason I got a lump in my throat on Friday as I was scrolling through news feeds and seeing gay friends’ pictures pop up on Facebook and Twitter is because I know that for so many of these people, the alternative to their current jubilation has been a gulf of loneliness and marginalization. I persist in believing in the traditional Christian picture of marriage—what G. K. Chesterton once called a “triangle of truisms,” i.e., “father, mother and child”—but I know that when many people depart from it, they’re doing so after undergoing a significant amount of ill-treatment.

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The “Benedict Option” and the Dazzled Pagan Eye

After yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage (about which more here), there’s been a lot of chatter in my Twitter feed and email inbox about the so-called “Benedict Option”—the view that we traditionalist Christians, who continue to believe that marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman, are in a kind of cultural exile and that our calling, therefore, is to “a limited, strategic withdrawal… from the mainstream of American popular culture, for the sake of shoring up our understanding of what the church is, and what we must do to be the church” (as Rod Dreher puts it). In other words, a lot of my orthodox Christian friends are asking what it looks like to be faithful to Christian teaching now that the state’s definition of marriage diverges so widely from the church’s biblical and traditional definition.

One of the earliest posts I read on this approach was by the Duke Divinity School theologian Paul Griffiths, published years ago on his now (alas!) closed-down blog. Probably around 2006 or 2007, from what I can remember, Griffiths wrote this:

In the America of our day, it is about as difficult (or as easy) to make what the Church teaches about marriage comprehensible and convincing (the latter more difficult than the former) to the educated locals as it is to make the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception or the Real Presence so.

If that empirical claim is right… , then the conclusion strongly suggested by it is that the Church should not, at the moment, oppose legal recognition of same-sex unions. Those who have undergone a profoundly pagan catechesis on these questions will believe and behave as pagans do; it would be good for them and for the Church if the Church were not to attempt to constrain them by advocating positions in public policy based upon the view that what she teaches resonates in all human hearts—because it doesn’t, true though it is.

What the pagans need on this matter is conversion, not argument; and what the Church ought to do to encourage that is to burnish the practice of marriage by Catholics until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.

Griffiths has since the time of this writing apparently shifted his views on same-sex marriage, but I’m not interested in exploring that change here. What I am interested in is Griffiths’ final sentence from this old blog post, which has haunted me ever since I first read it: The church’s calling now, and all the more so now that Griffiths’ hypothetical legalization of same-sex marriage is now the law of the land, is to burnish the practice of marriage until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.

On the surface of it, I’m not sure how that strategy would work. How is it that Christians’ purifying of their own male-and-female marriages will work to convince, say, a happily satisfied pagan couple to give up their gay sex and convert to traditional Christianity? How is that, to return to the Benedict Option mentioned above, Christians’ strategic withdrawal from mainstream culture and our commitment to our own re-conversion will prove attractive to an indifferent, or hostile, pagan world?

I’m not sure what the answers to these questions are, but I am increasingly convinced those are precisely the questions to ask.

But let me go ahead take a stab anyway at imagining some answers.

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An Initial Response to SCOTUS: Where Do We Look for the End of Loneliness?

Over at First Things, I’ve contributed to a symposium on yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling. The questions each of us were given to answer were these: “How should we respond to how the Supreme Court has ruled? What’s next?”

My answer started off with a riff on a really affecting gay memoir:

In his memoir Denial: My Twenty-Five Years Without a Soul, the gay journalist Jonathan Rauch says that there once existed a frightened young man tortured with the certainty that there was no place in the world for the love he experienced. That man was Rauch, and there was no home for him—none, that is, until he and his fellow Americans decided he had the right to marry. “They and he have found, at last, a name for his soul. It is not monster or eunuch. Nor indeed homosexual. It is: husband.”

When I read Rauch’s book, that last sentence left a lump in my throat. That receiving the word husband felt to Rauch like the relief of a negative biopsy—“You’re not sick or twisted or crazy; you’re just hindered from giving and receiving love, and now the hindrance is removed”—goes a long way toward explaining the jubilation so many gay and lesbian people feel in the wake of the Obergefell v. Hodges SCOTUS ruling. Finally, their loves may be dignified not with the anemic moniker friend or partner or the clinical epithet disordered or the disdainful slur pervert but rather with the venerable, ordinary, immediately recognizable words husband or wife.

You can read the rest of what I wrote by clicking through—basically, in my contribution, I fault us Christians, the churches themselves, for our complicity in promoting erroneous views of marriage (“we,” not just “them,” share the blame!)—but I wanted to take the opportunity here to say a little bit more.

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A Pentecost Meditation

This coming Sunday is the Day of Pentecost (for those of us in Western traditions), and it has struck me powerfully in recent years that we don’t really have a name for the time between Ascension Day and Pentecost.

The collect for the Seventh Sunday of Easter from the Book of Common Prayer bridges the gap between those saving events by connecting Jesus’ ascension with the Spirit’s outpouring: “O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us and exalt us to that place where our Saviour Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.” Still, even in that prayer itself (whose precursor, incidentally, the Venerable Bede is said to have prayed on his deathbed), you can hear how the time between Ascension Day and Pentecost is one of those liminal periods in the church’s year, like Holy Saturday, when we’re reminded of the fact that a basic task of God’s people is simply to wait. Jesus is bodily absent from his followers at this point, having ascended into heaven, and yet the Spirit has not yet been given. “And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father…” (Acts 1:4).

Wait.

And the Spirit himself, after he has been poured out on the day of Pentecost, becomes a sign of a different kind of waiting but one that is still, nonetheless, waiting. His presence doesn’t so much “make up” for the absence of Jesus as insure that Jesus and his followers will one day be reunited. The Spirit acts as a kind of engagement ring, a pledge and foretaste of the still-future consummation of the Lamb’s wedding feast. The Spirit, St. Paul says, “is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Ephesians 1:14). So the Spirit, in a sense, enables us to continue living in the liminal space in between Jesus’ first and second comings, an in-between time that was felt acutely after Jesus left and before the Spirit descended in tongues of fire in that upper room in Jerusalem.

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Friendship in the Valley of the Shadow

Via David Mills, here is a remarkable essay that touches on tons of themes we’ve covered over the past few years on this blog. The author is Matthew Teague, and the title of the Esquire magazine piece is simply “The Friend.”

When Teague’s wife Nicole was diagnosed, at age 34, with ovarian cancer that had metastasized to her stomach, the couple’s friend Dane Faucheux left his hometown, his apartment, his own friends, and his girlfriend to move in with them and help see them through the nightmare.

There is so much to appreciate in this raw, unsparing piece, but what stood out to me most were the places where the author reflects on the sheer mystery of why and how someone who’s made no vows, has no blood ties, and has nothing material to gain from the relationship decides to commit to it nevertheless. “I had married into this situation,” Teague writes, “but how had [Dane] gotten here? Love is not a big-enough word.”

Although Teague’s piece is a meditation on the death of his wife Nicole, not Dane his friend, this essay may well be a prime instance of what Eve Tushnet has called “the death-haunted art of friendship.” Teague is paying tribute to Dane in the awful wake of cancer, and what he’s describing is an enormous instance of self-sacrifice. “It may help,” Eve says, when we are trying to understand friendship specifically as a vocation, “to ponder the humiliations of caring for vomiting, querulous, or bedridden friends, and the humiliation of being cared for by a friend when we’re in that state ourselves, as part of the cross borne by those whose love is poured out in friendship.”

If that’s what you want to ponder, I would really urge you to read Teague’s essay. It is brutal and beautiful.

A New Project on the Christian Theology of Marriage

Some readers here may be interested to know about a theological project I’ve been involved with over the last several months—a project that touches on many themes that are near and dear to this blog.

Beginning last summer, a group of clergy and lay people, most of whom belong to The Episcopal Church (TEC), began working on a series of essays to try to articulate some of the key aspects of a Christian theology of marriage. We’re calling our project Fully Alive. As the brief description on our website says,

There is an important conversation going on about marriage today. It is happening in society. It is also happening in the Church. People are asking questions about what marriage is and what it is for. Fully Alive is a project by a group of Christians who are seeking to answer these questions deeply and prayerfully, while also considering some even bigger questions that lurk in the background of our conversation on marriage. What does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to be a woman or a man? Is it possible for people who come to radically different conclusions about these things to live together with integrity in one society? What about in one church?

In the weeks and months ahead, Fully Alive will be publishing essays and creating resources. This website will have all the latest information. Fully Alive is sponsored by the Communion Partner Bishops.

The background to our work is as follows. At the 2012 TEC General Convention, a Task Force on the study of marriage was created to report back to the next convention—which is happening this year, in June, in Salt Lake City—on the history and theology of marriage. The Task Force’s report was released in February. At General Convention next month, the Task Force will propose Resolution A050 which would change the church’s canons to allow for same-sex couples to marry alongside opposite-sex couples.

Today, we at Fully Alive are responding to the Task Force’s report with an article of our own in the Anglican Theological Review. I played a part in crafting this article, and I wanted to alert readers here to it. Our essay tries to lay out a different picture of what marriage is and what it is for than the picture the TEC Task Force has offered.

If you’re so inclined, please do help us spread the word. We’d like to see our essay widely read and discussed and—please God—used next month to shed some light on the debates at General Convention. More than that, we’d like to see what we’ve written benefit the church catholic, as we all together seek God’s will for the meaning and practice of Christian marriage.

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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