Forsaking All Others

For one of my graduate school classes last year we learned to create lists of goals with a counseling client, a process called “goaling.” Our professor went through the process with a classmate and then asked each of us to break up into pairs and work through goaling with our partner. After dictating to my partner, a close friend of mine, we were instructed to begin talking through how to order them and to make sure they were just hard enough to be difficult but not so difficult as to be impossible. After doing this together I had assembled what I felt was a good list. It covered the major areas of my life: spiritual, educational, personal, and financial. My partner felt that after looking at my list something was missing. He didn’t say what he thought that could be other than that it just felt like my list was missing something. At that point it dawned on me the things that everyone else in my class’s list included but were missing from mine. So I leaned over to complete my list that he had been recording on his laptop and wrote the following at the top of my list:

  1. To marry the man I love.
  2. To have a family who is centered on Christ and that we would grow closer to Him and to each other.
  3. To have a home that is a refuge for many.

After writing these it took me a moment to absorb the shock of actually verbalizing these desires. My friend was then satisfied that I had written an honest list rather than merely the list I felt I should write. After looking at it for a moment I then deleted the three additions and left the list as it was originally.

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Copyright 2015 Gregg Webb

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Day of Silence

Spiritual Friendship does not have a lot in common with the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). On most questions related to sexuality, we hold positions very different from theirs. It is unlikely that they would endorse our approach, and we do not endorse theirs. But we do share a concern with the way sexual minority youth are treated. Two years ago, Jeremy Erickson wrote a post about the Day of Silence, which also linked to this 2010 Day of Silence post from Disputed Mutability, who is a friend of this blog. Jeremy also recommended Bill Henson’s Lead Them Home and Shawn Harrison’s six:11 Ministries  as organizations that address anti-gay bullying in a way that is faithful to a traditional Christian sexual ethic.

Some Christians have raised the concern that anti-bullying efforts like the Day of Silence can be used to silence Christians. I believe that the most effective way to address that problem is to make it clear that traditional Christian convictions about sexual ethics are no barrier to acknowledging and trying to fix the bullying that LGBT youth experience. I think that all bullying is important and needs to be addressed. But in order to do that effectively, it’s not enough to just say “bullying is bad.” We need to understand different types of bullying and make sure that our anti-bullying policies are adequate to address all of the problems that need to be addressed. And that means understanding and specifically addressing the concerns of sexual minority youth.

I am not involved with either primary or secondary education. I am not, therefore, in the best position to make policy recommendations, or even to understand fully what the actual situation on the ground is today. I imagine it is quite different from what it was when I was in high school, but I believe that, in at least some parts of the country, the environment is still quite hostile for LGBT youth.

Dante0097And in one respect, at least, I know that the problem is much worse now than it was in the early 1990s. When I was in high school, I remember homosexuality being mentioned only a half dozen times or so at church. Today, the discussion is inescapable. And as difficult as some of the things I experienced in my teens were, I never had to read a Crisis Magazine comment thread. Internet comments sometimes bring out the very worst in human nature, and if I had read some of those comment threads as a teen, I think it is quite possible I would have been permanently alienated from Christian faith. Jesus said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:5-6). Many of the comments about homosexuality at Crisis and other Christian publications are a very public expression of the deadly sin of wrath. This calls for a serious examination of conscience and a repentance that is as public as the original sin. Only public humility and repentance can begin to undo the damage to Christian witness done by this kind of public self-righteousness. In this regard, it’s worth remembering that Jesus was not crucified by a conspiracy of sexual sinners: it was the self-righteous religious pundits of His day who plotted to have Him murdered. 

In this post, I want to talk a bit about my own experience, in order to highlight some of the ways that it is difficult to be sexually different in adolescence—especially in a culture like ours, which makes sexuality so central to identity, and is divided by such sharp conflicts over sexual ethics.

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The Self-Defeating Sexualization of Gay and Same-Sex Attracted Christians

I’ve written before about how often gay or same-sex attracted people are treated as if the central spiritual and moral issues of our lives are all sexual. For some reason this story strikes me as the most poignant example. But we’re subjected to so many demands that we repeat, “I’m chaste! I’m celibate!” in order to earn an uncertain welcome in the church.

Some straight Christians seem to view everything we bring to our churches solely through the lens of our sexuality. I just heard a couple heartbreaking stories from friends who were told that the abuse they had suffered, or their struggles with addiction, were the result of their homosexuality. I’ve had friends whose pastors assessed friendships and other relationships solely on the basis of whether they helped the friend remain chaste—as if chastity were the only virtue, and friendship was a sort of chastity accountability partnership. Basically, gay people are sometimes treated as if all our experiences are unusually sexually-charged, and all our relationships are either a) focused solely on chastity, or b) near occasions of sin.

This sexualization harms us (and our churches) in a lot of ways.

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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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Faith, Hope, Love…and Loneliness

In high school, I would cry quietly in my bed. I felt like an outsider in my faith community. I felt a measure of rejection from my family. I felt confusion, shame, and insecurity about my sexuality. All of these added up to one simple feeling: I was lonely. So I wept and prayed every night for Jesus to show up, physically, in my room. He never did.

Throughout my twenties, I’ve gone through periods of asking for that same thing. The reasons have changed, as have the pressures and responsibilities of life. But that silent, desperate plea has not. Please, Jesus. Now. You did it for Thomas. Can’t you do it for me? Just for long enough to know that you’re really here; that my life really matters to you; that this painful obedience and denial is worth something immeasurable to you. But still he resists.

Loneliness persists.

Solitary Tree

I’ve had a thousand reasons why I’ve felt lonely over the years. When I was young, my dad left, so I felt lonely when I looked up at the family pictures in my friends’ houses. I played classical music and enjoyed musical theater, so I felt lonely when my friends met up after school for garage band sessions. I knew my sexuality was different, so I felt lonely when I couldn’t talk about that boy in the back of that class with my friends because not only was it weird to them; it was a black mark of a sinful disposition. As kids, our loneliness can feel insurmountable.

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Some Clarifications Regarding Sexual Orientation and Spiritual Friendship

In contemporary Western culture, it’s common to describe oneself as gay, straight, or bi, depending on whether one’s sexual attractions are primarily directed to the same sex, the opposite sex, or both sexes. This way of thinking is so pervasive that it is difficult to avoid either the terminology or the assumptions behind it.

As I have said before, I think that the contrast between carnal and spiritual friendship, as described by Aelred of Rievaulx, ultimately provides a more helpful framework for understanding Christian teaching on same-sex friendship and homosexuality than the framework that categorizes people based on sexual orientation. However, sexual orientation categories are difficult to avoid. It’s not just a matter of words used: it’s also a matter of much deeper assumptions that shape the way people interpret their experience.

School of Athens

In this post, I want to examine these categories more closely. Doing so will, I hope, provide insight into why the writers at Spiritual Friendship have been willing to engage with—and how we have tried to challenge—the categories of sexual orientation and sexual identity in contemporary culture.

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To Celibacy—Part 1

Editor’s Note: When the founders and regular writers at Spiritual Friendship originally got together, we united around the following statement: “God created us male and female, and His plan for sexual intimacy is only properly fulfilled in the union of husband and wife in marriage.” But we also recognize that there are many folks in the church who are still trying to come to grips with traditional Christian sexual ethics and aren’t as certain as we are of what they embrace. Others are pretty sure that we at SF are wrong, and so they are instead upholding what’s come to be called a “Side A” stance (that God blesses monogamous, faithful same-sex sexual partnerships). Those of us who edit and write regularly at SF haven’t changed our views at all, but we do from time to time want to offer a platform to friendly dissenters.

Tim OttoTim Otto (MTS, Duke Divinity School), the pastor for teaching and preaching at Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco, is someone who identifies as gay, Christian, and “Side A,” but he’s also celibate. And Tim has remarkably insightful things to say about celibacy—things that we believe our readers would want to hear and think about. So, although we and Tim aren’t in complete agreement, we want to share two recent reflections he’s written on his vow of celibacy with which we are in agreement. We want to share these two posts because we believe they’re compassionate, humane, insightful, and worth pondering. We at SF are grateful for Tim Otto’s friendship, and we commend these posts to you for prayerful consideration. If you are interested in more, you may want to check out his book, Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict over Gay Relationships. You can also follow him on Twitter at @Tim_Otto or on Facebook— Wesley Hill

I made a vow, six years ago, to be celibate. The night before the vow I went with friends to a trendy Tapas bar in San Francisco. Next to us a group of frat guys were making loud, boisterous toasts. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and soon we were lifting our glasses with them. At one point my friend, the mischievous Michael, hoisted his glass and bellowed, “To Celibacy!”

CC by Quinn Dombrowski SA -2.0Everyone lifted their glasses and yelled, “Hear, hear!” and then those at the next table began muttering about what they had heard. “What?” “What did he say?” they asked each other.

Now, six years later I find myself asking, “What?” “What have I done?” It is not that I want to renounce the vow. I made the vow thoughtfully; I took the vow knowing it was the next faithful step for me in following Jesus. But as some of my married friends testify, the cost of a promise only becomes evident in the keeping of it.

I’m grieving the sacrifices it entails. I feel guilty about this. My church relates to Christians in South Sudan and as I write this I know that hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and are living in refugee camps. At its best, knowledge like that helps me keep a sense of perspective on the losses I feel. But I’ve found that if I’m not honest about my perceived losses, I descend into an oppressive, grey cloud. So I will name them and grieve them:

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Gay Is Not The Scandal, Celibacy Is

I’m sure the last thing that most of us want to read is yet another pontification on the term “gay”. Hear me out.

In his book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, the great Reformed theologian John Murray makes a helpful observation that sheds some light on our modern discussion of LGBT terminology. Discussing the Calvinist teaching of Limited Atonement, he asks whether or not the title of the doctrine is a fair representation of the content. He concludes, “But it is not the term used that is important; it is that which it denotes.”

I bring this up, not to discuss controversial doctrines, but because John Murray has unintentionally put his finger on one of the main issues in the gay debate. It seems that one of the questions of perennial interest in this conversation about sexuality is, “What does the term ‘gay’ denote?” Does it denote a particular behavior or sinful lifestyle? Or does it simply describe an experience of sexuality, and say nothing one way or the other about how that experience is lived out? Many conservatives insist on anathematizing the term because they argue it necessarily entails a sinful expression of sexuality. They assert that people who label themselves as gay usually mean to say that they also engage in gay sex.

We here at Spiritual Friendship are living testaments to the fact that this is a false assumption. There are many people that mean no such thing by labeling themselves as gay. In fact, I truly believe that most people in our culture, even unbelievers, do not normally give the term “gay” such a meaning that would denote sexual activity. So why, then, is it such a widely held assumption?

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At the Intersection of Ethics and Ecclesiology

Over at the Gospel Coalition, Corey Widmer has a post that reads like it could have appeared here at Spiritual Friendship. There are at least two points he makes that are especially relevant to our discussions here.

The first has to do with the church as an alternative plausibility structure:

I believe one of the most serious callings of the church in our age is to create new, countercultural plausibility structures that make the demands of the gospel plausible, practical, and attractive. If a gay friend is going to embrace a life of chastity for Jesus Christ, she must be able to look into the future and see not only the loss and pain but also the possibility that a real fulfilling life can be lived. If we don’t work at this task, if we don’t create the kinds of communities in which the countercultural lifestyle we’re advocating is supported and upheld, we’ll continue to see people choose plausibility structures that make more sense and have greater support from the culture.

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You Can’t Be a Virgin Alone

I was talking a bit this week with Todd Billings, who is a professor of Reformed theology at Western Seminary in Holland Michigan, and he passed along an essay he wrote when he was single and in his late twenties. The piece is a reflection of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity, and I found it very engaging.

A sample:

Gregory’s vision of virginal life is one of fullness, not absence. “The more we come to know the wealth of virginity the more we have disdain for the other life, having learned from the comparison how many precious things it lacks.” Divided love — non-virginal love — is poor love.

Indeed, while Seinfeld’s Elaine would be horrified at the thought, Gregory calls attention to the “freedom of virginity.” The virginal soul, its attachments rooted in God, has freedom from “greed, anger, hatred, the desire for empty fame and all such things.” Since the virginal soul does not seek after these other loves, it is not a slave to them. It is free to be a bride of Christ.

Further, for Gregory, virginity is not a curse or an accident, but a “gift” with great “grandeur.” It does not result from God’s failing to provide someone to love, but from “grace.” The virgin anticipates the time when there will be “no distance between himself and the presence of God.” To experience a foretaste of eternal life with God is far from an accident.

We have grown accustomed to seeing virginity in terms of lack — an empty bed, a Valentine’s Day spent alone. But Gregory reverses the imagery. Virginity is a special foretaste of the divine presence, an anticipation of the resurrected state where believers are especially suited to experience this presence. Moreover, for Gregory, virginity is an “ally” and a friend. It accompanies us on the Christian path of rejecting the worldly loves that threaten to displace our love for God. For the Christian, virginity is not about loneliness. Indeed, for the Christian, it is impossible to be a virgin alone.

The whole essay is thoughtful and accessible—do read it all—and it’s doubly encouraging to me to think of it originally being published in the ecumenical magazine Regeneration Quarterly, which had a sizable evangelical readership when it was still in print. Sometimes working against their own history and current church cultures, many Reformed and more broadly Reformational evangelicals whom I know want to try to rediscover and honor celibacy in their churches today. May their tribe increase.