“The Birth Pangs of This Present Age”

Yesterday I spoke in chapel at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. Here’s what I said:

In a few more weeks, at the end of November, those of us who worship in more high church or liturgical traditions will be starting our new church year. While the rest of the world celebrates the start of the New Year on January 1st, we’ll celebrate the start of the new Christian year on the first Sunday of Advent, the season that will lead us up to the first great feast of the Christian year, Christmas.

The word advent is a word that means arrival or appearing or coming. It’s the time of the year when we wait, once again, for the arrival of Jesus, for him to be born of Mary and laid in the manger and worshiped by angels and shepherds and kings. It’s a time of year when the church remembers that we have to be a patient and expectant and hopeful, pilgrim people. We have to look and long for the coming of the Messiah. And so we wait on tiptoe for several weeks, with hunger and yearning, for the shining feast of Christmas.

Advent may be my favorite time of the Christian calendar. Almost every year, I feel like I stagger into it with relief. After a long summer filled with all sorts of activities and travels, and usually, for me, a more chaotic schedule, I stumble into Advent and breathe a little more deeply and rest a little more easily. Advent reminds me of who I am, of Whom I’m waiting for, and what story I’m a part of.

As I say, I can’t wait for it. Even now, in September, I’m counting down the days. And I’ve been preparing myself for it this year by thinking again about that little story in Luke’s Gospel about Anna the prophetess. You may or may not remember it, because if you blink, you’ll miss it. It’s poignant and powerful, but it’s short and Luke doesn’t linger over it. Here’s what he tells us:

[W]hen the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law… [t]here was… a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher [who was there]. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. (2:27, 36-38)

I have been thinking about this character Anna. It’s unclear how long she’s been without her husband, but the text seems to suggest it’s been a long time, probably multiple decades. The text doesn’t say, but I think we can infer that she didn’t plan to live her life as a single woman. She had married a husband, probably imagining herself having children and living as a wife for many long years. But something tragic happened, and so she’s alone again. And in her widowhood, she devotes herself to prayer. She stays at the temple as long as she can, every day. She worships the God of Israel, and she often gives up food because her longing for this God and the redemption of Israel that he’s promised is so intense. And then, maybe when she least expects it, she meets the child Jesus. Mary and Joseph bring him to the temple, and after years and years of waiting and praying, Anna gets to see him with her own eyes. Her hoping is turned into seeing; her fasting is turned into feasting.

I resonate so much with characters like Anna. My situation is different from hers in all sorts of ways: I’m a man, not a woman; I’m not a Jew or a prophet or a daily visitor to the temple; instead I’m a twenty-first century American Christian who doesn’t fast nearly as much as I probably should. But I am single like Anna, and I don’t feel that it’s been exactly my choice to be single. And I’m groaning for the day when I get to see Jesus face to face and praise God like Anna did.

I grew up thinking, presumably like Anna did, that I would get married. I remember playing house with my younger sister and imagining what it would be like one day to have a family of my own. I can remember, as a teenager, driving by a gabled house with a big front porch and seeing parents playing outside with their kids and wondering if my future house and yard might look similar.

But as I grew older and went through puberty, it started to dawn on me that the desires I expected to be feeling weren’t the ones I was actually experiencing. I wasn’t becoming romantically attracted to girls. I didn’t lie awake at night fantasizing about them or wondering which girls I might ask out on dates. When I tried to imagine kissing a girl or holding her hand, I mostly felt a kind of blank nothingness: no desire for those things, no curiosity about them, no instinct to pursue them. Instead, to my confusion and shame and dismay, I was feeling those kinds of things for my male friends. I had a close group of guy friends, and I started to find several of them physically attractive. I remember sitting outside one summer on a camping trip, trying to keep myself from stealing glances at one of my best friends, whom I was beginning to realize was beautiful. He was wearing shorts, and I kept secretly trying to glance at his legs without him seeing me.

But it wasn’t just these physical attractions that confused me. There were also emotional and romantic longings I didn’t know what to do about. I realized that I wanted to know my friend in a deep and maybe even exclusive way. I wished somehow that I could express my care for him, and have him express a devotion to me in return. I certainly didn’t have words for this at the time; I just knew I wanted more intimacy and commitment than what guys usually experienced with one another. I wanted to write him notes and take him out for a meal and ask him about his life.

At the time I was processing all these feelings, I was also growing in my Christian faith. I had been raised in the church from the time I was born, and I was still going to church and helping lead Bible studies. I was reading books by people like C. S. Lewis and Henri Nouwen. I was learning to pray on my own. I remember being on a ski trip in Colorado, and, riding on the lift with my youth pastor, I told him I wanted to try to figure out what St. Paul meant when he said that Christians should “pray without ceasing.” Above all, I was realizing that I really did believe what my parents had raised me to believe: that Jesus was God in the flesh, that he died for the sins of the world and rose from the dead and would come again a second time to make the whole world new.

Eventually, I realized I needed to figure out how my faith in Christ connected—or didn’t connect—with my sexuality. The turning point happened for me when I was exactly where you are, a student at a Christian college. I was a sophomore at Wheaton College, near Chicago, and it was the scariest thing I had ever done, but I made an appointment to meet one of my professors in his office. When I got there and sat down, my mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton and my palms were slick with sweat. I’m sure my neck was red, and maybe my eyes were watering too. I didn’t know how to tell my professor that I thought I was gay, but I knew I needed to. I was scared that if I admitted this, it might mean that I was disqualified from Christian ministry and maybe even living a godly Christian life. But, in spite of the fear, I felt that I couldn’t keep this a secret any longer. I don’t remember exactly what words I used, but I think I probably said something like: “I’m struggling with homosexuality, and I don’t know what to do about it.”

That was a milestone for me. At age 20, for the first time in my life, I was confiding in someone about my sexual angst and confusion. And over the following weeks and months, as I talked more with my professor and then with a professional counselor and then with my pastor and others, I started to wrestle seriously with the question of how I ought to live with my same-sex desires as a Christian.

Some Christians told me in no uncertain terms that God wanted to “heal” me from these desires. They told me that somehow my father had probably failed to model healthy masculinity for me and affirm his love and admiration for me, so that my “father wound” had led to my homosexuality. They told me that God could heal this wound, and I could develop heterosexual desires if I did the hard work of facing my wounds. And for a long time, I wondered if they were right. I combed through my childhood memories, trying to find the moment—any moment—that might indicate some developmental problem. I went to a charismatic counselor who promised that I could be delivered from my same-sex attractions. But the more I tried to pray for God to take away these desires and the more counseling I received, the less any of it seemed to be delivering what I’d been promised. I was still just as same-sex attracted as ever, and I couldn’t ever manage to shoehorn my pretty “normal” evangelical Christian childhood into the sad narrative that my counselor told me it had to fit into.

Other Christians told me to give up all this angst and try a different approach altogether. I still remember sitting down with a close Christian friend and hearing him tell me that he had changed his mind about homosexuality. He used to believe it was a temptation that I ought to try to resist but now he wondered if it was simply a natural variant in human behavior. It could be used for evil, but it could also be used for good. I could marry another man and, together, we could love each other and serve Christ and practice hospitality.

I felt unsettled by what my friend said. My same-sex attractions certainly didn’t seem like they were going away, and they also did seem “natural” in the sense that I never consciously chose to experience them. I also couldn’t deny that imagining a happy future with a man whom I loved and who loved me back was truly a happy thought. I imagined myself as a husband, and I thought I could be a good one. But the problem was that if I pursued a same-sex marriage, I knew I would be out of step with Scripture and with centuries of traditional Christian teaching.

I went back to the Bible and read again about how God created humankind in his image, “male and female he created them” and that “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’” (Genesis 1:27-28) in a way that a same-sex couple couldn’t fulfill. And I read that Jesus, when he was asked about divorce, pointed to the fact that in God’s kingdom marriage was being renewed (rather than discarded or reimagined): “So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matthew 19:6). And I read about how this male-and-female marriage was a picture of the unity-in-distinction of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:21-33), and how marriage pointed ahead to the final union of the Lamb of God and his Bride at the last day (Revelation 19:6-9). When I took all these passages together, the picture seemed pretty consistent. As my gay Catholic friend Eve Tushnet has put it,

[T]he Bible sets apart sexual difference as a uniquely profound form of difference. Marriage, as the union of man and woman, represents communion with the Other in a way which makes it an especially powerful image of the way we can commune with the God who remains Other.

And, for that reason, I couldn’t—and I still can’t—see a way for me to enter into a same-sex marriage without damaging my trust in God’s Word.

And that leaves me in a difficult place. I’m still just as same-sex attracted as I was when I was fourteen and in the throes of puberty. I don’t expect, in other words, to ever marry a woman. But I’m also still convinced that the way Christians have read the Bible on the theme of marriage—that marriage is meant to be the lifelong covenantal union of male and female, open to the gift of children, and that sexual intimacy is to be reserved for that union alone—is still the right way to read the Bible. So where does that leave me? It leaves me feeling like I’m called to a difficult, costly sort of discipleship. It leaves me pursuing a life of sexual purity as a single—or, as I prefer, a “celibate”—man. It leaves me saying “no” to my desire for sexual intimacy with another man and looking for ways to say “yes” to chaste friendship and involvement in my church and service to my extended family and others. Often this whole experience leaves me feeling like St. Paul described the Christian life in his great letter to the Romans: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (8:22-23).

But here’s the thing. The more I think about the church season of Advent coming up—the more I think about an old Jewish prophet like Anna, living her life as a single woman in tireless prayer and fasting in the temple, waiting for the Messiah to show up—the more I think my life is just one of the many ways God calls all of us to wait for our redemption in costly, difficult ways.

Maybe you’re here this morning with an ongoing temptation or challenge or struggle that you’ve prayed would go away and it just hasn’t. Maybe, like Paul, you have some kind of thorn in your flesh, some kind of weakness or heartache or confusion that you’ve asked God to take away and he hasn’t. And where does that leave you? I think it leaves you and me in the same place: We are loved by God, we’re baptized into Christ’s body, but we’re still praying and waiting in the temple like Anna for Jesus to come back again and make all things new.

There’s a prayer (called a “collect”) that Anglicans in the Church of England pray during Advent, and it goes like this:

Eternal God,
as Mary waited for the birth of your Son,
so we wait for his coming in glory;
bring us through the birth pangs of this present age
to see, with her, our great salvation
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Think about that prayer. It pictures Mary, the mother of Jesus, as someone who was waiting for Jesus to be born (like Anna was waiting in the temple). But it also pictures us in a similar place as Mary: we too are waiting, not for Jesus’ first coming (because that’s already past) but for his second coming, for his “coming in glory.” But notice how the collect describes our waiting: it’s as though, along with Mary, we’re living through “birth pangs.” We’re living with tears and groaning and crying out. If that’s how you feel this morning, whether you’re gay or bisexual or straight or whether your groaning has to do with something else entirely, you’re in good company. It’s the way I feel too, and it’s the way that Scripture and the church show us the Christian life can often feel, even for great saints like Mary. Finally, the prayer encourages us to expect that we, like Mary, and like Anna in the temple, will one day “see our great salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord.” We will see him face to face.

Amen.

2 thoughts on ““The Birth Pangs of This Present Age”

  1. Reblogged this on Kiwianglo's Blog and commented:
    I am putting this article on my blog for the express purpose of bearing witness to an intrtinsically gay person – a minister of religion in North America, who explains – much better than I could – the reality of that FACT.
    He feels thst his sexuality is a gift from God, which he, personaly, has been called to offer up as ‘a sweet-smelling sacrifice’ – without the ties and comforts of Marriage – in order to concentrate on a life of prayer for the Coming of God’s Kingdom (as Jesus describes – as an alternative to heterosexual marriage – as a ‘erunch for ther service of God’s Kingdom’.

    What Wesley Hill here confirms for himself is that, as an intrinsically gay person, he has been ‘gifted’ with homosexuality as a way of avoiding the need for what he sees as the Biblical call to hetrerosexual marriage. How he differs froim me, and others who have been led to think like me on this issue, is in his understanding of a biblical injunction against the prospect of a close marriage-type relationship for samesex attracted people.

    Jesus, himself had a ‘close and intimate’ relationship with his disciple, John, “The Belove”. This was exemplified in the Gospel of John by his description of him laying his head on the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper – a posture than indicated more than a casual relationship not shared, by Jesus, with the other diciples.

    While I can understand Weslery’s own perception of his calling – to be a ‘eunuch in the service of the Kingdom’, not all ‘eunuchs’ (gays?) are confined within the description of this type of person in Matt:19: 12-13.
    That their are ‘eunuchs from their mother’s womb’ could include those who may not be called to this state specifically ‘in the service of the Kingdom’ (catholic priests and Religious). May they not, in fact, be called to a quasi-married state with another person of their own gender? Obviously, therre are Christians, of whom I am one, who think that this is a distinct possibility

    Father Ron Smith, Chjristchurch, New Zealand

  2. Pingback: Waiting | thoughtsofaryan

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