I’m back from the remarkably wonderful Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College where I spoke several times on the theme of (what else?) friendship. One of those times was with the retired English literature professor and author Daniel Taylor, and our topic was “Writing on Friendship”—how it’s been done, how we’ve tried it, how it might go wrong, and so on.
A few days ago on Twitter, my friend Mollie Hemingway linked to a piece written by a pastor friend of hers, Todd Peperkorn, on depression—or, more specifically, on lessons he’s learned from a decade of surviving depression. I resonated with it very much and found myself almost immediately making connections between Pastor Peperkorn’s experience and my experience of same-sex desire.
Before I go any further, though, I have a caveat or two. I’m wary of Christian portrayals of same-sex attracted folks as “special cases” who are always prone to depression or excessive lust (or whatever). I worry about the power dynamic in play when straight Christians view gay Christians as charity projects. When Christian leaders write sentences like this, “At the heart of the homosexual condition is a deep loneliness, the natural human hunger for mutual love, a search for identity, and a longing for completeness,” I’m not really satisfied unless they turn around and say the same thing about fallen-heterosexuality-as-we-know-it. We’re all prone to weakness, temptation, and sin, and any Christian talk that implies otherwise needs to relearn the gospel.
Furthermore, I think there are crucial differences between the experience of depression and the experience of same-sex sexual desire. The former is something that tends to isolate the sufferer and hinder engagement with others, whereas the latter—misdirected though traditional Christianity understands it to be—is fundamentally about the longing for love, about the desire to give oneself to another human being made in God’s image.
Caveats aside, though, there are genuine connections for me between my same-sex sexual desire and other Christians’ experiences of various forms of suffering. If there is, as Chris Roberts likes to say, “solidarity amongst the many ways of patiently cultivating chastity,” there is also the more fundamental solidarity of sharing in the same fallen condition. Insofar as my sexual orientation directs me away from the kind of sex God intended to be experienced in marriage, I experience it as a “trial.” And in that way, I feel a real kinship with Pastor Peperkorn and his experience of depression. We’re both trying to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12-13) while contending with what Francis Schaeffer once called our own peculiar mix of the fall.
One of the first Christian books I ever read (once I started reading books on my own, simply for pleasure, in high school) was Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew. It ends like this:
The other two days [besides Holy Saturday] have earned names on the church calendar: Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Yet in a real sense we live on Saturday, the day with no name. What the disciples experienced on a small scale—three days, in grief over one man who had died on a cross—we now live through on a cosmic scale. Human history grinds on, between the time of promise and fulfillment. Can we trust that God can make something holy and beautiful and good out of a world that includes Bosnia and Rwanda, and inner-city ghettoes and jammed prisons in the richest nation on earth? It’s Saturday on planet earth; will Sunday ever come?
That dark, Golgothan Friday can only be called Good because of what happened on Easter Sunday, a day which gives a tantalizing clue to the riddle of the universe. Easter opened up a crack in a universe winding down toward entropy and decay, sealing the promise that someday God will enlarge the miracle of Easter to cosmic scale.
It is a good thing to remember that in the cosmic drama, we live out our days on Saturday, the in-between day with no name. I know a woman whose grandmother lies buried under 150-year-old live oak trees in the cemetery of an Episcopal church in rural Louisiana. In accordance with the grandmother’s instructions, only one word is carved on the tombstone: “Waiting.”
Longtime readers of this blog will know that my entire framework for thinking about my life as a gay, celibate believer is built around that idea of “waiting.” In the midst of ongoing loneliness and struggle, I am “wait[ing]… for the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). And that’s been true for several years now, ever since my early twenties when I was just beginning to work through what my Christian faith meant for my homosexuality.
During my conversation with Julie Rodgers at City Church last weekend, the moderator voiced a question that our friend Tim Otto had posed. If people like me are celebrating committed spiritual friendships, is there any good reason to think that that vision couldn’t include sex for gay couples? In other words, if I’m celebrating spiritual friendship so intensely, why not also celebrate the physical consummation of that love in committed same-sex partnerships? Here’s how Tim put it in his review of my book a while ago:
[I]f Wesley is encouraging people of the same sex to “go all the way” in spiritual, emotional, and intellectual ways, why not “go all the way” with the body as well?…
I’m curious as to how Wesley would respond to concerns that by singling out physical intimacy as wrong, his proposal is dualist or even gnostic.
Tim’s question, I think, is in some ways a deepening of Julie’s. Why should “Side B” be a part of what we’re all about here at SF, and, perhaps more poignantly, isn’t “Side B”—i.e., asking gay Christians to refrain from gay sex in faithfulness to Scriptural teaching—potentially curtailing many rich forms of friendship that gay Christians may be called to?
This past weekend I visited City Church in San Francisco to have a public conversation with my friend Julie Rodgers about moral disagreement over same-sex marriage in the church. The goal of the conversation was to explore our differences—Julie is “Side A,” which means she believes God blesses same-sex marriages, and I’m “Side B,” believing that marriage is “male and female”—and to talk about what it might look like to find friendship and some kind of common cause in the midst of disagreement.
I won’t go into all of what happened at the event—the audio recording should be posted soon at the church’s website, and you can listen for yourself—but I did want to reflect a bit here on a couple of the points of divergence between Julie and me, in the hope of continuing the conversation…
Today over at Catalyst, an online magazine for United Methodist seminarians, I’ve got an essay that tries to play with the idea that friendship isn’t for anything in particular. This idea has a pedigree in Christian reflection, and I’ve been wondering about it for years—wondering in what sense it is and isn’t true.
One of the centermost doctrines of Christian faith is that God’s love in creation and redemption seeks no return from us in the form of a counter gift. God made the world for the hell of it, as Terry Eagleton once quipped, out of sheer exuberance and aesthetic delight. And God withheld nothing in the mission to save humanity, uniting himself to humanity indissolubly in the Incarnation and giving up his life in death, even the most ignominious and torturous sort of death, and pouring himself out in tongues of fire in Jerusalem at Pentecost. There was, as Eagleton says laconically, “nothing in it for him.” Nothing, that is, other than God’s desire to be in communion with us.
Perhaps this is at the heart of why Christians came to celebrate it. Friendship is a token or participation in that divine lavishness. When I travel overseas to visit a friend, spending more money than I have on plane fare and gifts that I’ve carefully selected in light of the little hobbies and secret interests of my friend that I am lucky enough to know about, I’m doing so not in order to guarantee a specific response or to meet a need. I’m doing these things, rather, because I like my friend, because I hope to go on knowing him and loving him for years to come, because his company gives me pleasure. In friendship, I’m not looking for my friend to achieve something on my behalf or award me with some hoped-for prize, nor am I looking to supply some lack in him. Rather, I’m looking to be in his presence because he is someone whose presence I enjoy. In these ways, among others, friendship is perhaps a vestige or aftershock of the kind of love God displays in Christ.
Over the phone recently, a friend said to me, “Why do you think Jesus said what he said to his disciples in the Gospel of John: ‘I do not call you servants any longer … but I have called you friends’?”
I hesitated, unsure of where he was going.
“Surely it’s because they’re not his underlings; they’re not doing anything for him. They’re his equals. They’re his fellows. He loves them because he loves them.”
You can read the whole thing here.
As Lent moves rapidly towards its close, I’ve been trying (and mostly failing) to make space in my life for some more meditative reading, and right now I’m inching through Frances Young’s God’s Presence: A Contemporary Recapitulation of Early Christianity. It’s a remarkably unclassifiable book, as Young weaves her work in Patristics (the study of the church Fathers) together with personal, pastoral reflections, largely revolving around her disabled son Arthur. Today this passage struck me in an especially forceful way:
Arthur’s limited experience, limited above all in ability to process the world external to himself, is a crucial element in who he is, in his real personhood. An ultimate destiny in which he was suddenly ‘perfected’ (whatever that might mean) is inconceivable—for he would no longer be Arthur but some other person. His limited embodied self is what exists, and what will be must be in continuity with that. There will also be discontinuities—the promise of resurrection is the transcendence of our mortal ‘flesh and blood’ state. So there’s hope for transformation of this life’s limitations and vulnerabilities, of someone like Arthur receiving greater gifts while truly remaining himself. Perhaps the transformation to be hoped for is less intellectual or physical advance and more the kind of thing anticipated in the present when the fruits of the Spirit are realized in relationships.
Not only am I intrinsically interested in what Young says here—in disability and resurrection theology—but I also can’t help but be struck by how this relates to my situation as a gay, celibate Christian believer. As readers of this blog know, I (and others) sometimes reach for the metaphor of disability as way of thinking about our sexual orientations. In my book Washed and Waiting I used the metaphor of “healing” to describe how I thought my sexuality would be transformed when Christ returns. In my chapter on Nouwen, I wrote, “I expect to stand with Henri Nouwen at the resurrection and marvel that neither of us is homosexual anymore.”
For those few of you who may be interested in this kind of reflection, I’ve got a post up today over at Covenant, the blog of the Episcopalian magazine The Living Church, on what it looks like to try to be faithful as a gay, theologically conservative Episcopalian/Anglican.
Earlier this month, the Archbishop of Canterbury invited all 37 Primates of the worldwide Anglican Communion to come to Canterbury and talk and pray together for the future of Anglican unity. And, predictably, homosexuality and same-sex marriage proved to be one of the difficult issues that came up.
I wrote about what this gathering means for those of us who, like me, belong to the Anglican Communion as gay believers who are theologically “conservative.” Please have a look, if that interests you.
A reader just sent an email with an excerpt from a biography that I think will be of interest to a lot of our readers here. The book is Evelyn Waugh’s life of Ronald Knox, the English Catholic convert and author of many detective stories, among other things. In his early adulthood, Knox developed a strong friendship with a young man named Guy Lawrence. As Waugh reflects on the place of this friendship in Knox’s life, he includes a lengthy quote from Fr. Bede Jarrett, which was originally addressed to a monk who was troubled by how intensely he had developed an affection for one specific friend:
Then, as for the point you mention, I would only say this, that I am exceedingly glad. I am glad because I think your temptation has always been towards Puritanism, narrowness, a certain inhumanity… You were afraid of life because you wanted to be a saint and because you knew you were an artist…
… Now evil is overcome by good, by God, by love of God, by reaching for Him everywhere. You must not be afraid of looking for Him in the eyes of a friend. He is there. You can at least be sure of that. To love others is not to lose Him but if possible to find Him in them. He is in them. You will miss finding Him only if you merely love yourself in them. That is the blinding nature of passion; it is self-love masquerading under a very noble disguise…
… I agree to say that your desire to bring God to Y. is sufficient justification for your friendship is all bunkum… You love Y. because you love him, neither more nor less, because he’s lovable. You won’t find any other sincere reason however hard you try… Enjoy your friendship, pay the price of the following pain for it, and remember it in your Mass and let Him be a third in it. The opening of The Spiritual Friendship: “Here We are, thou and I and I hope that between us Christ is a third.” Oh dear friendship, what a gift of God it is. Speak no ill of it.
Mac Stewart, a curate at All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Oklahoma City, has just written a post on friendship that brings together so many of the threads we’ve talked about here at SF over the years. It’s basically a one-stop primer on some classic Christian thinking about friendship. But Stewart is also concerned to talk about friendship’s contemporary relevance:
A Christian understanding of friendship as the richest and most intense possible form of human closeness may in fact be one of the gifts that Christianity has to offer a post-Christian world that now has a very hard time imagining forms of intimacy and affection that don’t involve genital contact.
Specifically, Stewart wants to encourage us all—married or single—to think about friendship as a site for deep devotion and affection:
[T]here is a whole wonderful realm of relational intimacy that our culture misses out on by loading all of its human-closeness eggs in the basket of specifically sexual intimacy. We tend to refer to these latter relationships as “romantic,” and yet perhaps our sense of romance here is a bit impoverished. Perhaps there is room for a kind of romance with our beloved friends: doing for one another the little deeds of affection that we often associate with a lover wooing his or her espoused, things like writing letters that affirm the beloved’s virtues and beauty, attending carefully to the things that delight their soul and spontaneously and gratuitously fulfilling them, forbearing with their irritating eccentricities while dwelling on their excellences, overcoming their occasional coldness with a deeper kindness.