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.

The Labor of Love

Imagine a man who quits his job and moves across the country for the woman he loves. This act is either incredibly beautiful or incredibly stupid. One critical fact makes the difference: how she responds.

“Love at first sight” only works for those who have not learned the labors of love. For how can one love another when he does not yet know how to love the other? The greatest love is less like a disembodied hook-up and more like one striking image from John Green’s The Fault in our Stars (the tragically funny book, which I saw as a movie and laughed when I wasn’t supposed to—sorry, fellow movie-goers!). The protagonist reflects, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

A love which is truly for the other is a slow love, because it is a patient love. It does not demand that the beloved immediately open himself until he is ready. And it is a love that constantly adjusts itself as more of the other is revealed. It constantly adjusts its giving according to the beloved’s need. And if the beloved is not prepared to receive love, it will not thrust itself upon the beloved.

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Spiritual Friendship in Slate

Today, Slate Magazine‘s Outward blog features a new article by Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart on celibate gay Christians. It’s a respectful, thoughtful piece, and I appreciated my conversations with the author, who I think “got” the key focus of Spiritual Friendship:

All the B Siders I talked to were eager to combat the widespread view of celibacy as necessarily leading to a life of unending loneliness and isolation. In fact, many of the discussions they have among themselves have moved past the question of whether and why to remain celibate and on to how one can do so and still live a fulfilling life. This more practical, positive focus is intended to address something they believe has long been lacking in the mostly negative messages that their faith communities have long presented to LGBTQ people.

Be sure to check out the whole article.

Friendship: The Love that Dare not Speak Its Name

Today, Universalis offers a reflection about friendship:

Friendship: the love that dare not speak its name

Once upon a time, there was friendship. Once upon a time, society accepted that the love of friends could be the single most important thing in a person’s life, and they did more than just accept, they celebrated the fact. Throughout history, discourses and sermons have been written in praise of friendship. When Alfred Tennyson’s friend Arthur Hugh Hallam died tragically young in 1833, he spent the next seventeen years writing the great poem “In Memoriam” as a memorial to his friend; and Hallam is a first name used among the Tennyson family to this day. Looking further back, we can see Damon and Pythias, Pylades and Orestes, David and Jonathan…

Perhaps the change was the fault of Freud and Oscar Wilde; and then again, perhaps not. But today no love is accepted as valid that is not in some way sexual, and even if we set out to reject the sex-obsessed outlook of today’s society, we think in those terms despite ourselves. When St Aelred writes of “this most loving youth”, we all say to ourselves “oh yes” in a knowing way, sure that we have guessed the smutty truth.

What a waste! What a wicked denial and perversion of love! God has made friendship – did not Christ have his own beloved disciple? – and how dare we corrupt it and deny it! Of course, we must not despise sex: sex is holy, divinely ordained as a way of love and procreation – but it is not the only love. Friendship is not “mere” friendship, not a second-best; still less is it a repressed substitute for erotic love. It is a love in its own right, powerful, holy, overwhelming. A world with Eros but without friendship is a world full of isolated, self-obsessed couples, of love unshared – a sad thing indeed. And we are heading that way.

The denial of friendship is an evil thing and evil in its effects. When my pulse beats faster at the sight of my friend, when his presence feels like a bolt of electricity – is this really sex in disguise? Am I to run away – which would be a tragedy – in order to preserve my chastity, or am I to try to overcome my revulsion and make a pass – which would be worse? Modern society seems to give us nothing but this harsh choice between a cold heart and a hot body. Who knows how many of the impressionable young are led into ultimately unendurable vices precisely because they cannot face what seems the only available alternative? And when, as is inevitable, they have destroyed friendship by turning it into something it is not, what choice do we give them but to repeat the error, each time more desperately? As if one could see the stars by diving ever deeper into the mud!

Let us accept friendship. Let us accept it as a true and passionate gift of God. Let us accept it in others without reading anything else into it – “repressed” or not. Let us rejoice if it is given to us, be glad if it is given to others. Jonathan loved David not because of what he could get out of him, but because he was David: let us celebrate this motiveless love of the Other, an echo of the pure love of Heaven. We ought to love everyone like that: but one should at least start somewhere.

And if, like Aelred, we have made the mistake of seeking a physical consummation of a love that does not require it, then let us, like St Aelred, not recoil from that love but go forward, transcend that error, until the love becomes a redeemed and radiant thing that others will see and rejoice, giving thanks to God.

(Thanks to Melinda Selmys for bringing this to my attention! If anyone knows who wrote this, I would love to get in touch with the author.)

Theologues Podcast: Sexuality and the Church

Ron Belgau

I was recently invited to join the Theologues podcast to talk about homosexuality and Spiritual Friendship:

Brandon Peach guest hosts this episode with Stan Patton, Jonathan Balmer and our featured guest Ron Belgau, co-founder of Spiritual Friendship and a gay and celibate Christian on how the Church should approach homosexuality, whether or not homosexuality is a sin, what the Church can do to be present for those who are homosexual in their midst, marriage and our cultural perspective on sex. This was a really enjoyable show and I think you’ll like hearing Brandon passive-aggressively insult our guests as well as about Jonathan’s Lego obsession.

It was a good conversation, sometimes serious, sometimes funny, mostly friendly. Check it out!

Important Legal Notice: While I stand by my recommendations of hard cider, strawberries, and the Boeing 747, as well as my endorsement of Brideshead Revisited and The Cruel Sea, I did not endorse, recommend or in any way promote the Twilight series. I started to tell a story that would have mocked the Twilight series, was cut off by the host, and my intent twisted by the editors. Everyone involved will be hearing from my lawyers.

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.

A Love that Fills, and a Love that Opens

Some friends of mine were recently married. As a part of their wedding ceremony, they included the prayer:

“For those suffering from broken hearts and homes, from loneliness or the dread of it; and for all called to the generosity of the single or celibate; that they might inspire [name of bride and groom] by their conformity to Christ, and always find in them fiercely devoted friends, and in their house a second home.”

This is a rather odd prayer for American weddings, which are often primarily (or purely) celebrations of a “filling love” between the husband and wife. We often celebrate marital love as a love in which the man and woman are seen as fulfilling each others’ deepest desires, creating an insular community in which the couple is viewed as “enough” for each other. The couple is seen as creating a home for themselves, but not a home for others.

But this couple is not only creating a home for themselves; they also desire a home for their friends. This prayer shows a deliberate resistance to one of the greatest tendencies of erotic love: the tendency for that love to be a raging flame in which the couple is consumed by an exclusive desire for each other, a flame that both impassions the couple and burns those who may come too near to them. We’ve all known people who, upon starting a romantic relationship, will abandon their friends and allow all their time and energy to be consumed by their significant other.

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Here Is Your Answer, But You Can’t Have It

Recently, one of my friends on Facebook pointed me to an article on the Gospel Coalition blog about a man who experiences an intensely deep friendship with another guy.  It really is beautiful.  The author’s name is Chad Ashby, and in the article, he makes what I would consider to be a correct distinction between deep love between men and homosexual attraction. He says,

To love another man as your own soul (1 Sam. 18:1) is not homosexual love; it is the love of Christ. It is a true willingness to lay down your life for your brothers (1 John 3:16). We must build these kinds of relationships with one another: men who truly love other men.

As I read Ashby’s description of his friendship, I found my heart soaring. It is this type of deep relationship that I long for (and experience with a select few of my close friends). This “Spiritual Friendship”, it seems, is one of the many life-saving graces that God has given to me and many like me in order to successfully live a chaste life.

And yet, as I read the article, I also felt strangely alienated. Ashby makes it very clear that the type of love he is referring to is not homoerotic.  But what about when this type of love is also accompanied by a homosexual orientation? What happens when I, as a Christian celibate gay man, experience this type of love, but right alongside of it experience erotic attraction as well? Would Ashby be so quick to tell me to pursue close, intimate friendships?  Or would he tell me that it now becomes too dangerous?  I’m not sure…

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Romance of Friendship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer - 1923

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – 1923

I am not a scholar of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I have not read a book-length biography of the man. And my exposure to his writing is limited to Letters and Papers from Prison, the unabridged version (800 pages)!

With those prefatory remarks out of the way, let me say that I am intrigued by how two reviewers of a recent biography have responded to a claim about Bonhoeffer’s homosexual disposition. Charles Marsh, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, has authored, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. My goal here is not to adjudicate the truth or falsehood of Mr. Marsh’s claim, but to ask why we are making much ado about Bonhoeffer’s alleged sexuality, which may be some-thing or no-thing at all.

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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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