CRC Young Adult Leadership Task Force: Wesley Hill Interview

Today, the Young Adult Leadership Task Force of the Christian Reformed Church posted an interview of Wesley Hill by Brianna DeWitt:

I recently interviewed Wesley Hill on his new book, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian. He draws from Scripture and church tradition to show that friendship can be so much more than watching Netflix and eating pizza with people, but can instead be committed, deep, enriching relationships. The implications are profound for all people, regardless of relationship status. It is a needed reminder that the love in friendship is genuine and important, particularly for Christians who truly mean it when they say they desire close-knit communities.

SF book cover1.  How does spiritual friendship differ from other friendship? Should we aspire for all of our friendships to fall into this category?

Not necessarily. I like acquaintances and casual friendships as much as the next person. Certain friends you may meet once a month at the sports bar to watch a game together, and that’s great. But with certain friends, making a commitment to one another, to help nurture each other’s love of God and neighbor, can be an important step. It shifts friendship into the category of spiritual brother- or sisterhood. “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother,” Scripture says, and that’s something to treasure and nurture when it happens.

2.  As a celibate gay Christian, you write that part of your desire to rediscover the true intention of friendship was to avoid a lonely life–and yet, you repeatedly emphasize the importance of friendship for all people–gay, straight, single, married, and otherwise. Why is friendship uniquely important, even for people who have spouses and children? 

One of the myths many Christians have believed in recent years is that marriage and family life is the pinnacle of human love. I remember getting that message loud and clear in my church’s youth group: save sex for marriage, and then you’ll live happily ever after! But of course romance and marriage shouldn’t be thought of that way because that places far too much of a burden on one person to be everything to another. Having spiritual friends can be an important reminder to each spouse that they not only belong to one another, they belong to the church, to their community, as well.

Check out the whole interview.

Matthew Loftus on Wesley Hill’s Spiritual Friendship book

SF book coverMatthew Loftus has written a review of Wesley Hill’s new Spiritual Friendship book for MereOrthodoxy. Titled “Material Dimensions of Spiritual Friendship,” Loftus’s essay offers a brief summary of the book, and explores three questions about spiritual friendship, culture, and mission that arise both from his own experience as a doctor in inner city Baltimore and from the challenges Wesley raises in the book.

Wesley Hill’s new book Spiritual Friendship is not an easy read. It’s short, yes, coming in at under 150 pages. But in that space Hill manages to be disquieting on a subject that is often taken for granted–specifically, the question of how we form and maintain intimate friendships. Part historical survey, part Biblical analysis, and part personal reflection, Spiritual Friendship manages to be informative and insightful but also unnerving and challenging. Rather than a full review, I’d like to briefly summarize the themes in the book and then respond to some of the questions that it raises. Since Wesley grounded his exploration of friendship in his experiences and friendships, I’d like to do the same as I recount some of what my wife and I have learned from our time in inner-city Baltimore.

The first part of the book looks at the situation we are in with regards to friendship, using the author’s own experience as a celibate gay Christian as a jumping-off point for how much more anemic our honor of friendship is now–particularly same-sex friendships– than they apparently used to be. He assigns as much blame for the decline in friendship’s power and privilege to the modern instinct that boils every interaction down to its sexual nature as he does to the reactionary traditionalism that wants to elevate marriage well beyond all other human relationships. What we’re left with nowadays is friendship as purely voluntary, thus making the idea of intimacy and mutual comfort wholly dependent on the whims of our friends. Wesley’s Christianity Today cover story from last year covers many of these same themes in a more compressed fashion, which lead to a great discussion of vowed friendships in particular here at Mere Fidelity.

In the second half of the book, Wesley gets more personal as he looks at how difficult these intimate friendships are to build and maintain. Regardless of one’s stance on questions of gay identity, it is hard not to be moved by the quandary he puts forth: gay and lesbian Christians who choose to honor the Biblical teaching by remaining celibate (and all Christians who don’t marry) are shut out of the intimate companionship that marriage provides–erotic or not–and so far have been left to their own devices to find ways to ameliorate the attendant loneliness and isolation they face. He relates the moving story of how one particular friendship fell apart and concludes the book with a chapter about how his local church has been trying to find ways to foster friendship–and how powerful the Eucharist in particular can be in unifying us as a community. However, these relationships are still incredibly vulnerable to the mobility many of now experience as we transition from wherever we grew up to wherever we study to wherever we find a job thereafter. While never really resolving the tension inherent in this mobility, he emphasizes the importance of friendships that require serious commitment to one another, particularly as they give us the opportunity to suffer together and share in the burdens that come to all believers–not just the celibate.

There’s obviously a lot more in the book than what I’ve summarized above, but I want to emphasize that the book left this reader feeling incomplete, asking more questions than when I started. I suspect that this is by design, though it is a book that stands on its own even as it complements the body of work accumulating at the blog Wesley helped to start (http://spiritualfriendship.org/). The three lines of thought I’d like to explore are: What else has fueled our cultural denigration of friendship besides our changing cultural mores, and can we change these upstream factors? How do we think about intimate spiritual friendships across class lines, and is there a particular call to suffer there? Finally, to what degree does our understanding of the local church and its mission affect how we forge our friendships–or is it the other way around?

Read the full review.

Metaphors of Brotherhood and Sisterhood

This is just a quick post to note that we don’t use sibling metaphors a lot on this site, and maybe we should. They played an important role in articulating the meaning of vowed friendship in both Eastern and Western Christianity (the terms adelphopoeisis and “wedded brotherhood” both use this metaphor) and they reflect an understanding of friendship as a form of kinship.

Wesley Hill quotes me talking about the way that certain friendships, over time, take on the quality of givenness which we associate with familial relationships: You’re stuck with your brothers. You may not be able to see or speak to them, but they remain bound to you, a part of your family for as long as you live.

This shouldn’t be the only language we use for friendship, or even for spiritual friendship. Many people value the choice and freedom of friendship, whereas sibling language emphasizes givenness and permanence. The people who prefer free friendship kind of baffle me, to be honest–to me, rituals, promises, and obligations are adornments which beautify any relationship!–but our different personality types should be able to coexist.

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C. S. Lewis on Friendship at First Sight

I have visiting nieces and nephews at the moment, which means I’ve been reading more children’s literature recently. As I was reading, I was struck by this passage in C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

All morning on the following day they sailed in fairly shallow water and the bottom was weedy. Just before midday Lucy saw a large shoal of fishes grazing on the weed. They were all eating steadily and all moving in the same direction. “Just like a flock of sheep,” thought Lucy. Suddenly she saw a little Sea Girl of about her own age in the middle of them—a quiet, lonely-looking girl with a sort of crook in her hand. Lucy felt sure that this girl must be a shepherdess—or perhaps a fish-herdess—and that the shoal was really a flock at pasture. Both the fishes and the girl were quite close to the surface. And just as the girl, gliding in the shallow water, and Lucy, leaning over the bulwark, came opposite to one another, the girl looked up and stared straight into Lucy’s face. Neither could speak to the other and in a moment the Sea Girl dropped astern. But Lucy will never forget her face. It did not look frightened or angry like those of the other Sea People. Lucy had liked that girl and she felt certain the girl had liked her. In that one moment they had somehow become friends. There does not seem to be much chance of their meeting again in that world or any other. But if ever they do they will rush together with their hands held out.

Lewis GreevesWe often speak of love at first sight, and, since Freud, are invited to think of it primarily in terms of sexual attraction. But I suspect that the phenomenon of being suddenly drawn to someone—but drawn to them as a potential friend, not as a potential lover—is much more common than we usually think. In Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, Lewis himself related an experience like this from his own boyhood:

Many chapters ago I mentioned a boy who lived near us and who had tried, quite unsuccessfully, to make friends with my brother and myself. His name was Arthur and he was my brother’s exact contemporary; he and I had been at Campbell together though we never met. I think it was shortly before the beginning of my last term at Wyvern that I received a message saying that Arthur was in bed, convalescent, and would welcome a visit. I can’t remember what led me to accept this invitation, but for some reason I did.

I found Arthur sitting up in bed. On the table beside him lay a copy of Myths of the Norsemen.

“Do you like that?” said I.

“Do you like that?”said he.

Next moment the book was in our hands, our heads were bent close together, we were pointing, quoting, talking—soon almost shouting—discovering in a torrent of questions that we liked not only the same thing, but the same parts of it and in the same way; that both knew the stab of Joy and that, for both, the arrow was shot from the North. Many thousands of people have had the experience of finding the first friend, and it is none the less a wonder; as great a wonder (pace the novelists) as first love, or even a greater. I had been so far from thinking such a friend possible that I had never even longed for one; no more than I longed to be King of England. If I had found that Arthur had independently built up an exact replica of the Boxonian world I should not really have been much more surprised. Nothing, I suspect, is more astonishing in any man’s life than the discovery that there do exist people very, very like himself.

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Remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Martyrdom

Seventy years ago today, the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis in the Flossenbürg concentration camp.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1923

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1923

There are two distinctly different accounts of his death. Hermann Fischer-Hüllstrung, a Nazi doctor who witnessed Bonhoeffer’s death, wrote that “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

Dr. Fischer-Hüllstrung may, however, have been whitewashing a much more brutal scene. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, Ferdinand Schlingensiepen argues, “Fischer-Hüllstrung had the job of reviving political prisoners after they had been hanged until they were almost dead, in order to prolong the agony of their dying.” Because Bonhoeffer was executed as a political prisoner, he may well have died a lingering, painful death.

Whether Bonhoeffer’s death was a model of peaceful resignation to God’s will, or was drawn out by the horrors of Nazi torture, throughout his life he chose the costly way, repeatedly risking suffering for the sake of fidelity to the Gospel.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate.” On the other hand, “Costly grace,” Bonhoeffer says, “is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake the man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ for which the disciple leaves his nets and follows Him.”

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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.

Wartburg Watch: Even Celibacy Is Not Enough for Some Christians

Washed and WaitingOver at a blog called The Wartburg Watch, there’s a nice discussion of Spiritual Friendship and some of the challenges we’ve received from conservative critics. The post (and the blog) may be of interest to some of our readers.

Years ago, when my little daughter was suffering from brain tumor, I felt overwhelmed with the difficulties of managing my other children while coping with my own feelings of overwhelming pain for my daughter and fear for her future. My husband had to maintain his job so that we had the insurance to help pay for the medical bills. I felt quite lonely even though I had wonderful friends who supported me, helping with my other children and making meals for us. How does one explain the pain and fears to others who are not experiencing it?

I was directed to a group that dealt with the difficulties of having a child with a serious brain tumor. I found great comfort in the group as we discussed our issues. Children’s Hospital in Dallas provided professionals to help us work through all sorts of things. It was so comforting to be with a group of people who got it even if I didn’t say a word.

I grew to understand the importance of the support such groups offer. We formed friendships and held each other up through the inevitable pain and sorrows that arose.

That is why I was excited when I learned about the development of Spiritual Friendship amongst celibate gays. Before I go any further, I would ask that we keep this discussion centered around those gay Christians who have decided that they believe they should remain celibate. This is important to this post because I want to show that even when individuals make decisions that should be acceptable to conservative Christian, they still get criticized.

Check out the whole post.

Pope Francis: A Friend to Pray with

I recently came across a homily that Pope Francis delivered last year, and thought I would share it. Lent is usually thought of as a time for fasting, but it is also a time for prayer. Francis reminds us that Moses “speaks freely before the Lord” and in doing so “he teaches us how to pray: without fear, freely, even with insistence.” He reminds us that our deepest and most nourishing spiritual friendship is the friendship that we cultivate with God in prayer. This summary of the Pope’s homily comes from L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly ed. in English, n. 15, 11 April 2014.

Pope Francis

In his homily at Holy Mass, Pope Francis reflected on the nature of prayer. The Pope based his reflection, and the little “manual” of prayer he proposed, on the day’s first Reading from Exodus (32:7-14), which recounts “Moses’ prayer for his people who had fallen into the grave sin of idolatry.”

The Pope introduced his remarks by noting that God reproved Moses, saying to him: “Go down; for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves.”

It is as though God wished to distance himself through their dialogue, saying: “I have nothing to do with this people; they are yours, they are no longer mine.” But Moses responds: “O Lord, why does thy wrath burn hot against thy people, whom thou has brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” The Pope observed: “the people stood as it were between two masters, between two fathers: the people of God and the people of Moses.”

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Frederica Mathewes-Green: A Sacrifice for a Friend

Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is an award-winning Antiochian Orthodox author and lecturer, married to an Orthodox priest [full bio here]. The following was published on her website on March 13; we repost it here with her generous permission. 

I recently received an email from a young man, an Orthodox catechumen, who is concerned about his best friend. This friend recently came out as gay and, after being scolded by family and church friends, has joined an “affirming” church that will endorse his choices.

The young man writing to me said he was encouraged by something in one of my podcasts. I had said that there is room in our faith for people of the same sex to form loving relationships. This kind of love is called “friendship.” It has always been held in honor, and appears in the Bible and throughout Church history. It can be found between two siblings, or between people who met as children, or as adults. Same-sex, non-sexual love is unlike romantic love in that it doesn’t include a sexual component, but it can be every bit as strong. It is to our loss that the concept of nonsexual friendship love has largely vanished. Those bonds between men and men, and between women and women, run strong and deep, and are foundational to society.

We can see life-long, same-sex friendships among many pairs of the saints, for example St. Sophronius (AD 560-638) and St. John Moschus (AD 550-619), whose feast was March 11. While still in their twenties these young men set out on pilgrimage through Egypt, Sinai, and Palestine. They wanted to see and hear the wise elders of the desert, and the book they wrote, The Spiritual Meadow, is a treasure of the early church. The two men were companions until death, and St. Sophronius fulfilled St. John’s final wish to be buried in Jerusalem.

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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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