Mourning the Loss of My Friend Chris

Here’s a more immediately personal post than I often write.

I’ve just lost one of my best friends, and I thought it would be appropriate to share here at Spiritual Friendship the remembrance I wrote of him. It’s been posted over at Books & Culture, and you can read the whole thing there. For now, an excerpt:

When I stepped off the train in Oxford, Chris was standing there in the station waiting for me, his face breaking into its characteristic goofy grin when I landed on the platform, but he didn’t stay still longer than it took to give me a tight hug. He pivoted as soon as he released my shoulders, grabbed one of my bags, and sped toward the rental car. We were already late for the adventure he had planned. We were going to drive from Oxford to the little village of Wolvey in Warwickshire, roughly 115 kilometers away, to look for a tombstone.

When Chris was growing up in Oregon, his family employed an Englishman named William Alcott Bailey as a part time gardener and handyman. Chris learned the value of hard work, he said, from Bailey. He learned how to work with his hands and see a yard project through to its finish, but, even more, he learned how to take ownership and pride in his work. He learned those things, specifically, from Bailey. And now, in between his other responsibilities in the UK, lecturing and researching for a new edition of one of C. S. Lewis’ books, he wanted to go looking for Bailey’s grave, as a way of paying tribute to someone that, in retrospect, he viewed as essential to the arc of his childhood. He knew Bailey had spent his childhood in Wolvey, but that was about it. Whatever leads he had had petered out there. We’d just have to look for the tombstone, assuming that Bailey would have wanted to be buried where he grew up.

I wish I could capture the simultaneity of Chris’ fiercely serious fixation on this task and his boyish, smiling enthusiasm for being on a quest. It wasn’t unusual for him—that combination of zeal and playfulness is what had made me want to be friends with him from the beginning—but it was what made Chris unique. And I wasn’t the only one who loved him for it, but, nonetheless, I treasured the feeling that this particular glimpse into it was mine. This was a special trip for just the two of us, a way for me to learn more about my friend’s upbringing and to delight in what made him happy.

We never found William Alcott Bailey’s grave. We traipsed around the overgrown C of E parish cemetery, uncovering some Baileys that Chris was convinced were his Bailey’s relations, but as far as we could tell, there was no “William Alcott.” Undeterred, we went to the pub anyway to toast him. At the Blue Pig just down the road—I still remember sitting across from Chris at our table by the window, with the glint of summer evening sun caught in our pint glasses—we hoisted our ales “to William Alcott Bailey and his good memory.” Afterwards, we lit pipes and walked the length of the empty fields behind the pub and talked. The conversation was vigorous, spirited, meandering, as it always was with Chris, with both of us talking over each other at various junctures, stalled only by moments of concentration for an occasional relight.

Chris later said that trip to Wolvey cemented our friendship. I inwardly beamed whenever I heard him tell the story—as I did many times in the intervening years—to others.

Chris was for many years the director of The Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College and he was for the past year professor of theology at the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He died last Thursday evening, July 10. He was an exemplary scholar, teacher, mentor, and friend to many. But more than that, he was a Christian who believed in the hope of the resurrection. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

On the Need for Gay Christian Role Models

Samuel Ernest is a young blogger whom I haven’t yet had the privilege of meeting, but we’ve corresponded a bit, and I regularly read his sensitive, thoughtful posts with interest. His latest, about his decision to enter The Episcopal Church, was particularly striking. Here’s a portion that stood out to me:

In the 1970’s, when AIDS first began killing off a generation of gay men, my parish provided free burials to anyone claimed by the disease. Gay people go to my church. They are regular attenders—people who have been practicing Christians since before I was born. They are also leaders. One hard part about being gay in [the] denomination [I grew up in] that doesn’t really talk about homosexuality is the difficulty I had in finding role models—people who have wrestled with the questions I’m asking and who can provide insight and wisdom about how to live faithfully while holding those questions. Without such mentors it feels like you always need to be a trailblazer, which might sound exciting sometimes but really is just pretty exhausting and lonely.

Another difficulty I used to have, which I mentioned earlier, was getting stuck dwelling on things like the uncertainty of not knowing how people would treat me if they knew that I was gay (which only increased after I came out on this blog), trying not to say or do anything that might draw negative attention to myself, the persistent thoughts that—wrong though I knew them to be—kept popping up: that I’m different and obtrusive, that I need to retreat. At St. Paul’s I haven’t been so focused on myself and my sexuality because I know that no matter where I end up—in a relationship, with a family, called to celibacy, or just plain single—my church will be there to support me and celebrate life with me. And likewise, I will support the Church I love, not as a trailblazer, but as a servant, whether that be as a layperson, musician, member of the vestry, deacon, or priest.

I’m struck by many things about this, but mainly it prompts me to ask what would have to happen for churches who uphold the historic position on marriage and sexuality (marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman, and sexual abstinence is called for among those outside that covenant) to be places where the appearance of gay role models was normal. My experience was similar to Samuel’s insofar as my church growing up scarcely admitted the existence of gay people, let alone talked about the various possibilities for their sanctified witness among us.

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Spreading the “Spiritual Friendship” News

And one more thing, before I stop blogging for a couple of weeks of vacation!

Here is a conversation I had recently with Katelyn Beaty, published in The Living Church, about (among other things) the Spiritual Friendship blog.

Please do check it out. Here’s an excerpt:

I became interested in the topic [of friendship] because of my concern for the flourishing of gay people in the Church. As someone who is gay, and who holds to the Church’s traditional view — that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman ordered toward the bearing and raising of children — I am committed to celibacy. And I’ve gotten to know many others who are in my shoes, which means that I’ve become interested in how we might learn to practice a healthy and fruitful celibacy.

C.S. Lewis notes that we in the modern world don’t pay nearly as much attention to friendship as we do to romantic love, but Scripture and the Christian tradition challenge us on that point. You can’t read someone like Aelred of Rievaulx or Bonhoeffer and not conclude that friendship is just as honorable, and worthy of time and energy, as marriage and family. Friendship, too, can be a site of sacrifice and devotion, a place where we give and receive genuine love. And for me, that opens up fresh ways of thinking about celibacy. Outside of a monastic context, as someone who lives and works as an ordinary member of an Anglican parish, I am still called, precisely as a celibate man, to make binding commitments and promises to my fellow Christians.

You can click through and read the whole thing here.

Reading Sarah Coakley

One of the most significant books I’ve read recently (or just anytime, period) that has to do with gay Christian whatnot is Sarah Coakley’s new God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’. You can read a very short version of some of its main lines of argument here, and, if you’re interested, you can read my take on the book over at First Things for low price of $1.99 (or why not subscribe?)!

Joshua Gonnerman has already mentioned Coakley’s project here at SF, but I wanted to mention it one more time and draw your attention to a new review of it from Beth Felker Jones. I mention this because I think Felker Jones’ critique of Coakley’s book is especially relevant for the conversations we’re having here at SF.

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The Healing Moment of Coming Out

When I started college, I still often wondered if I was a failed Arkansan. I’d grown up in a warmly encouraging, close-knit family, and I never doubted that my parents admired and appreciated who I’d become. (Their tears when they dropped me off at my residence hall couldn’t take away the surge of pride I’d seen wash over them the day before when the incoming freshman class had all been addressed by the college president.) But, by many measures, I was an outsider during my growing up years. I never learned to love sports like my dad, and to this day I don’t really follow any with any religiosity (though I do get inordinately excited about the Olympics and the World Cup). I never took up fishing or hunting, which put me out of step with not only my immediate and extended family but also many of my closest friends. I was decidedly un-athletic and didn’t play pick-up soccer or basketball games with my friends, let alone join a school team. And my reading was increasingly taking me down intellectual byways and toward conclusions I was sure many of even my very closest friends wouldn’t understand or, even if they did, wouldn’t share.

It’s a time-tested plot device to have a young misfit finally come into his own at university (think of Chaim Potok’s remarkable novels, for example), but it really did happen that way for me. When I got to college, I finally realized that I wasn’t so much a mutant specimen of my native culture; I just seemed to belong to a different culture altogether. In my dorm and in my classes, I finally met others who were more or less like me. I remember sitting down to lunch one day during my first week of college with a fellow student who had read all the same theologians I had, and like a smothering fan boy, I nearly asked for his autograph. I was so pleased and surprised to find a fellow nerd who was also, it seemed, rather normal by other measures, that I went a little overboard in expressing my enthusiasm. Our friendship never took off, but within days I’d met a dozen others like him.

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“His Grief Became a Light to Us”

A reader of my book Washed and Waiting, in which I talk at some length about Henri Nouwen’s life as a celibate gay priest, just wrote me an email about how that part of Nouwen’s life intersected with his own. With my reader’s permission, I’d like to share a portion of his email:

I was his student at Yale, working on my Ph.D. when I talked someone into letting his masters level, divinity school lecture course count as a Ph.D. class. I was unable to profit much from the course due to my biases and the form my brokenness took at the time, but I did get into one conversation with him about [John] Calvin’s spirituality after a class. My profs that year featured one luminary after another—Luke Johnson, Sidney Ahlstrom, Conrad Russell (son of Bertrand), etc.—so I wasn’t awestruck, but as he invited me to walk back to his office, then to stay a while, I felt that I never so completely had the attention of someone who didn’t know me at all. He listened with a stunning focus—as if I were the only person in his world, that nothing could be more important than my shallow comments and questions. At the end, he encouraged me a little and gave me a copy of one of his books, with a lovely inscription. No one knew of his same-sex attraction, but some of us felt that he suffered from some wound that, coupled with his holiness and insight, expressed itself in his marvelous tenderness. So his grief, handled with maturity, became a light to us—a model for us all.

I was greatly moved by this remembrance, and I share it here as a reminder of what grace our gay Christian lives are capable of. Even in the midst of longing and yearning like Nouwen’s, we are given gifts that we may pass on to others.

The Ministry Gay Christians Have

I’ve been working behind the scenes to help organize a small gathering (about which I hope to say more in due course) on the topic of Christianity and homosexuality, and I had an insight today, as I was working on this, that I’m not sure I’ve had before.

I was discussing with the other event coordinators the title for the gathering. We’re pretty sure it’s going to be “Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction: Finding Paths to Ministry.”

But just as the flyers are about to go to press, someone pointed out an ambiguity in the title. It’s not clear whether “ministry” in the subtitle refers to the ministry Christians have towards and for gay Christians or the ministry gay Christians themselves have in the body of Christ (and the world at large). Should we, this person wondered, alter the title so as to remove the ambiguity or should we leave it as it is?

I ended up making the case for leaving it as it is and hoping that the ambiguity will be provocative and productive. But as I stepped away from the email thread and thought about it more, I wondered if maybe this exchange between the other organizers and me was a microcosm of some of the larger patterns of miscommunication and misunderstanding that we in the Christian world have around the issue of homosexuality. Is our goal to try to find a way to help a certain subset of broken, struggling Christians find healing and hope? Or, even if something so limited isn’t our goal, do we often talk in such a way that people might have that impression? Or, alternatively, is our goal to try to encourage gay people in our churches to recognize the way their (our!) “particular mix of the Fall” (as Francis Schaeffer called it) and their equally particular experiences of grace and redemption may have uniquely positioned them to bring gifts to the church and the world that no one else has?

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Scruffy Hospitality

I always like seeing this emphasis in discussions of hospitality:

After seven years of marriage, my wife and I have welcomed numerous friends into our home. Once we decide to host friends for an evening, we usually kick into get ready mode, a fast and furious sprint in the days and hours before our friends arrive. We divide and conquer the to-do list: select a menu, complete grocery shopping, mow the lawn, sweep the floors, run the vacuum, clean the playroom, wipe the bird crap off our lawn chairs (we have lots of trees), set the table, clean the playroom (again), and somehow, someway, pray all that happens before the doorbell rings.

Over the years, that to-do list has prepared us for hosting company, but it has also prevented us from welcoming friends in our home. Unwritten Southern rules of offering hospitality with excellence have affected how often we invite people in our home. ‘We should have the __________s over sometime.’ And then we delay or postpone the invitation. Why? Because the to-do list is always there, the gap between our day-to-day home and the presentable, acceptable-for-hospitality version of our home.

But over the past several months, Emily and I are learning to lay those conventions aside. Why? Because inviting friends into our lives when we are only ‘excellent’ isn’t friendship. Sure, there are still times we like to go all out, spruce up the house and cook a huge, Jamie Oliver style meal. It can be fun and it’s enjoyable to do things well. But that standard of excellence is rarely possible with two children under the age of 3. Friendship isn’t about always being ‘excellent’ with one another. Friendship is about preparing a space for authentic conversation. And sometimes authenticity happens when everything is a bit scruffy.

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The Silence of Jesus and the Voice of the Apostles

Late last week Sarah Pulliam Bailey posted an interview with Marilynne Robinson. Here’s an excerpt:

Q: For Christians who hold the view that marriage is between a man and a woman, do you think they’ll become a smaller group over time?

A: It’s hard to know. There has never been a period in world history where same-sex relationships were more routine and normal than in Hellenistic culture at the time of Christ. Does Jesus ever mention the issue? I bet it must have been all around him. You can get in a lot of trouble eating oysters if you are a literalist about Leviticus. I’m a great admirer of the Old Testament. It’s an absolute trove of goodness and richness. But I don’t think we should stone witches. And if you choose to value one or two verses in Leviticus over the enormous, passionate calls for social justice that you find right through the Old Testament, that’s primitive. There are a thousand ways that we would all be doomed for violating the Sabbath and all kinds of other things, if we were literalists.

I revere Marilynne Robinson—if there’s a midnight release party at my local bookstore for her novel Lila this fall, I’ll be there—but her answer here represents so much of what I find distressing about the quality of our debates over these matters at present.

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What Kind of Friend Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

My copy of Charles Marsh’s new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer will be dispatched to my house soon, so for now I’m making do by reading John Stackhouse’s fine review of it. Someone on Twitter sent it to me the other day, with this tag: “Bonhoeffer was a celibate gay Christian. Thoughts?” Intrigued, I landed on this paragraph from Stackhouse:

Bonhoeffer’s former student, longtime confidante, and first biographer, [Eberhard] Bethge comes through in this book as a significant character—but chiefly as the object of Bonhoeffer’s increasingly lavish affections, the expressions of which in actions, gifts, and words seem to fascinate Marsh perhaps more than they will every reader. Marsh never once refers to homosexuality and only once or twice refers to sexual desire at all, but he frequently paints Bonhoeffer as the ardent suitor while Bethge wants to remain “just friends.” What Marsh doesn’t ever do is explore directly whether a same-sex friendship without sexual desire can be this intense, even erotic in the sense of deep desire for closeness that can become (excessively) possessive. Bonhoeffer, who grew up without a close friend and whose twin Sabine gets married rather young, seems lonely until he meets Bethge, and then pours himself into that friendship as a river surges through a channel rather too small for it. Marsh defends the chastity of the two men, but one wonders if Marsh might usefully have hinted less and ruminated more. (Remember, it isn’t as if Marsh is overdelicate about such themes. He is quite willing to detail and pronounce upon the sexual sins of both Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, and to do so without the scholarly cover of actual citation of sources.)

I can’t tell what Stackhouse intends with the sentence just before the parenthesis. Is he implying that if Marsh had ruminated a bit more, he might have concluded that a pursuit of friendship as intense as Bonhoeffer’s must have been fueled by sexual desire (thus lending credence to the idea that Bonhoeffer was gay, albeit celibate)? Or is Stackhouse rather suggesting that more interrogation on Marsh’s part would have shown our suspicion of Bonhoeffer’s being gay to be a post-gay-rights-era preoccupation, all too ready to classify people as either “gay” or “straight” and not attuned enough to the complexity, even for “straight” people, of desire in simple friendship? As I say, I can’t tell, but I’d like to continue the conversation.

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