The Forgotten Side of the Mountain

Over the last few days, I’ve been attending a private retreat for lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians. Sunday evening, I was asked to offer a few words of reflection for the group. This is a rough transcript of what I said. 

come-to-me-jesuit-retreat-center

Come to me, all who labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you.

A retreat is an opportunity for refreshment. We leave behind the troubles of our everyday lives, and come here to spend a few days seeking God together.

Each of us comes from a different place. Some of us bring joy and hope to the retreat, others come burdened by grief and anxiety: struggles in prayer, struggles with loneliness, struggles with sin that you may feel mired in. Some had travel problems, unexpected traffic, airport delays, etc. And some bring more serious issues like depression.

Most of the people in this community originally met through online forums. This weekend, we’ve deepened our friendships face-to-face. The conversations this weekend are a reminder that we are really made to know each other face-to-face. It’s far more affirming to sit with a group of friends and talk than it is to exchange messages online—though it’s wonderful to be able to keep in touch with distant friends in a way that was impossible in the past.

But as wonderful as face-to-face contact can be, we are returning home tomorrow. I’d like to reflect a bit on how to move forward.

Cherish the friendships you have made or deepened here. Keep in touch. Friendships with others who share your commitment to Christ and understand and encourage you can help you grow closer to God. And guard those friendships from temptation, as we strive to encourage each other in Christ.

I also want to talk a little about what you can do when you get home. As most of you know, my main focus is Spiritual Friendship. Although the main public manifestation of that work is a blog, we haven’t focused on creating an online support community. Rather, our writing and speaking, as well as what we do behind the scenes, is focused primarily on helping existing Christian communities—colleges and universities, local churches, families, and so forth—do a better job of loving gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in their midst, and to defend Christian teaching on love and human sexuality in a more Christ-like fashion.

I want to say three things this afternoon which will, I hope, accompany you as you leave the temporary refreshment of the community at this retreat and return to your homes. I will say something about hope, I will say something about love, and I will offer you a rash vow.

Hope

Hope is, first and foremost, about perseverance.

I’ve been doing this kind of ministry in one form or another since 1997. I’ve been involved with a number of different organizations and seen different approaches come and go. I’ve known a lot of men and women who embraced traditional sexual ethics with joy and passion, only, like the seed planted in rocky soil, to later become discouraged, see their passion wither, and fall away.

In my own life, there have been times when I was enthusiastic about the path God has called me to, and there have been times when I’ve grown very weary, and felt strongly tempted to give up, because of loneliness, because of Christian hypocrisy, because of lack of support, and because of my own sinful nature.

But God’s promise is not that we win once and for all and don’t have to struggle any more. It isn’t even that we spend a few months or maybe a couple of years as a “baby Christian,” and then grow up and live a mature Christian life without temptation or struggle. I do believe that we experience growth in our faith, and the struggles of a more mature Christian are rather different from those of a novice. But neither my study of Scripture and Christian history, nor my own experience of life, gives me any reason to believe that growth in faith and obedience means lessening of struggle.

Thus, Paul could write, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4).

But how do we endure? In this morning’s readings at Mass, we heard Paul’s words to Timothy:

The saying is sure: If we have died with Him, we shall also live with Him; if we endure, we shall also reign with Him; if we deny Him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, He remains faithful—for He cannot deny Himself. (2 Timothy 11-13)

Endurance is not easy. Like Abraham climbing to the top of Mt. Moriah, or Moses climbing up Mt. Sinai, or Christ dragging the cross up Mt. Calvary, it wears us down. There are no easy paths up the Mountain of God. And so some simply turn away from God entirely. Paul indicates that those who do so are eternally separated from God.

So where does that leave us? I think that if any of us reflect honestly on our lives, we will see many times where, like the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, we lack the will even to stay awake to watch and pray with Christ. When He was arrested and crucified, they all ran away—all but the Apostle John.

But even though they were faithless, He remains faithful, suffering death on the cross for them, and seeking them out and restoring them after the resurrection. We can persevere not because of our strength, but because He is faithful to us in our weakness, and continues to seek us out. No matter how you have been unfaithful, or no matter how you fail in faithfulness as you return home, He remains faithful. He continues to seek you, and it’s never too late to turn back.

We have to be faithful. But even when we are faithless, he remains faithful, keeps calling us back. It’s never too late to go back. If He is faithful to forgive us seventy times seven times, our faithfulness often means repenting seventy times seven times.

So a part of hope is just this plodding forward, trusting that God is there sustaining us when He seems absent, trusting that He will receive us back even when we have sinned or turned away, trusting that His will is for our good, even when we don’t see that good here and now.

But is that the only hope the Church can offer to lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians?

Love

Our real hope is not that we will just persevere in obedience. It is that we will be loved—loved by God, of course, but also that we will be loved by other human beings. Even when Adam enjoyed perfect, sinless communion with God in the Garden of Eden, God still said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18).

Of course, God’s immediate answer to Adam’s loneliness was Eve. Marriage is an important image of God’s love for us in both the Old and New Testaments. Paul tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and laid down His life for her, and says that the union of husband and wife is an image of Christ’s union with the Church (Ephesians 5:25, 32). So for Christians, marriage is an important expression of the love we are called to.

Over the last century or so, however, the sexual revolution has dramatically altered our society’s perception of love. Most in our culture think that being denied sexual intimacy means being deprived of love. And this attitude often creeps into Christian culture. Forgetting that both Jesus and the Apostle Paul were celibate, many Christians quote their words on marriage as if they were teaching that marriage is the highest expression of human love, a baptized version of a Disney princess’s romance.

So for decades, the ex-gay movement thought that the hope the Church should offer lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians was the hope that they could experience a change in their sexual attraction and marry someone of the opposite sex. But of course, this hope proved unrealistic for many, and today, far fewer Christians are willing to push the ex-gay message.

As the ex-gay message has lost credibility, more and more Christians have begun to embrace various revisionist arguments claiming that same-sex marriage is compatible with Christianity. After considerable conflict, some denominations have begun to embrace these arguments. This has led some Christian communities to split, and left others mired in a bitter ongoing debate.

What both of these views have in common is an exaggerated view of the importance of marriage, and a lack of appreciation for the importance of friendship and celibacy in both Scripture and the Christian tradition.

Both the Old and New Testaments call Abraham a friend of God (2 Chronicles 20:7; James 2:23). God “spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). And at the Last Supper, Jesus frames His own sacrifice on the cross as an act of friendship: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The friendship of David and Jonathan is the most thoroughly described Biblical example of a covenant relationship (see especially 1 Samuel 18-20).

And both Jesus and Paul commend celibacy, suggesting that it in some circumstances it is better than marriage (see Matthew 19:12, 1 Corinthians 7:1, 7-8, 11, 25-40).

Sin always takes something good that is given by God and tries to use it in a way that God never intended. As a result of the excessive cultural focus on romantic/sexual love, and the excessive Christian focus on marriage, it’s easy for Christians who believe the Bible forbids homosexual acts to frame the issue as “two men can’t get married.” This is a purely negative expression of the Bible’s teaching.

But if we take Christian teaching on friendship more seriously, we could also frame the question by saying, “Friendship between two men can be beautiful—even better than the love of a man and a woman—but sexual activity is the wrong way to express that love” (see 2 Samuel 1:26). Instead of just saying no, this approach offers an education in true love.

One of the guiding beliefs behind the Spiritual Friendship blog is that by better understanding how friendship fits into God’s plan, we will better understand how to offer a compelling and hopeful response to the revisionist arguments described above, because friendship is the authentic—and ultimately the most fulfilling—expression of love between two men or two women.

An analogy may help to illustrate the point. I grew up in Port Angeles Washington. On a clear day, Mount Baker is visible about a hundred miles away to the northwest.

Mount Baker

Last year, I was invited  to speak in Vancouver, and while I was up there I saw a mountain I didn’t recognize. I asked my hosts what it was, and learned to my surprise that it was Mt. Baker.

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Looking northeast from Port Angeles, the mountain has a rather different shape than it has looking southeast from Vancouver. Yet it’s the same mountain.

This is a good image of what I am trying to do by rediscovering Christian teaching on friendship. Marriage, and raising children, are important ways of learning to love, and learning about God’s love. And in our culture, they are the familiar face of the mountain, the side that everyone tries to scale.

Friendship is the forgotten side of the mountain. It can be, as it was for David and Jonathan, a profound human love. It is also the relationship God has with those—like Abraham, Moses, and the Apostles—who have collaborated most profoundly in bringing His love to the human race. But it has been largely forgotten. As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, “To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”

Today is the feast of Blessed John Henry Newman. Newman preached a sermon on the “Love of Friends and Relations,” which drew its inspiration from the relationship between Jesus and John, the Beloved Disciple. In that sermon, he taught that “the best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely, is to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us.”

We are called to love God, to love our neighbor, even to love our enemies. But this love grows, Newman taught, through learning to love our friends and family members—the people whom chance or providence places in our lives—well.

A Rash Vow

October 9 is also the anniversary of the beginning of a three week pilgrimage I took to Europe. In mid-September, 2002, my friend Steve was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Soon after his diagnosis, he asked if I would be willing to accompany him on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. I agreed, but as he rushed to make arrangements, his pilgrimage plans quickly metastasized, spreading from Lourdes into Paris and to the uttermost parts of France.

So, from October 9 to October 31, I was in France, visiting Churches and shrines, going to daily mass, praying all the decades of the Rosary every day, driving from place to place, and talking with Steve, listening to him reminisce about his life, about his mistakes, about the ways God had dramatically rescued him, and about his thoughts on preparing for death. (I also heard the Latin name of every tree and flower that we saw, because Steve was into that sort of thing, but that is probable less relevant to the lessons I learned from the pilgrimage.)

That was fourteen years ago. Tomorrow, we will leave the retreat, and return to our homes, our friends, our families.

To commemorate that retreat, for the next three weeks, until October 31, I will blog on the question, “What hope can the Church offer lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians?”

There are at least two different ways to answer this question. One set of answers are addressed to us—to lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians—and tell us what authentic Christian hope looks like for us, which is to say, how we can love and be loved in the way God intended us to love. Another set of answers are addressed to the broader Church—to parents, pastors, educators, youth group leaders, and the people in the pews—and explore how to be a genuine minister of the Gospel, and not merely a Pharisee who binds on heavy burdens without lifting a finger to help (see Luke 11:46).

My reflections on this question will be grouped into three major themes: first, an understanding of the situation of lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians in the Church and in society; second, an understanding of Christian friendship; and third, an exploration of the various expressions of Christian community.

The Christian life is not easy. The Apostle Paul asked the Galatians, “Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). Yet though there are heavy burdens for us to carry as we walk with Christ, we know that He will refresh us.

I hope the rest of the retreat is profitable for each of you. Take time to pray. Draw strength and comfort from the friendships nurtured here. And I hope that as you return home, these reflections will inspire you be a voice of hope and love in your own communities.


This post is part of a larger series of posts loosely organized around the question, “What hope can the Church offer lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians?” To see other posts in the series, click here.

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