A Happy Convergence

Sometimes it really does seem that Providence arranges remarkable and helpful convergences.

This week, just after I’d read these hope-giving lines from Eve Tushnet’s reflections on her role in the whole “gay Catholic” conversation and the upcoming Revoice conference —

We’re constantly being told that same-sex sexual desire is disordered, which I accept, as I accept all that is taught by Holy Mother Church. But when people (or ducks) try to tell you how to order your desires, they always try to get you to keep the expression of desire the same, but change the object. This is the “become straight” option, if “option” is the word I want. There is another way for desire to become ordered: same object, different expression. People who long for same-sex love and intimacy should maybe be encouraged to learn how to do that, since it is good, and holy, and beautiful.

— I happened to get an email from a friend that pointed me to a letter written by the great Evangelical Anglican preacher Charles Simeon (1759-1836) to his friend Mary Elliott. This letter, it seemed to me, dovetailed beautifully with Eve’s blog post. Here is an excerpt from the letter, written the year before Simeon’s death:

In your letter of this morning you express a fear that you may love your dear Mother or a friend too much; and I am anxious to correct that idea without loss of time; first, because it is a source of disquiet to the conscience, and next because it is an error which almost universally prevails in the Church of God. That we may show our love improperly I readily grant; but that we can love one another too much I utterly deny, provided only it be in subserviency to the love of God. I think I have explained to you that word fervently (‘see that ye love one another with a pure Heart’): its precise meaning is intensely. No two words in any two languages more exactly agree than ‘intensely’ does with the original. If then our love be with a pure heart, this alone were sufficient to establish the point. . . .

Christianity does not encourage apathy; it is to regulate, not to eradicate, our affections. It admits of their full operation, but tempers them as to their measure and sanctifies them to the Lord. I have often been comforted by knowing that Lazarus and his sisters were peculiarly beloved of their Lord, and that John was an object of His more than ordinary attachment; and from hence you will see that, if I have written this for your instruction, I have had an eye also to my own vindication, if I should appear to err in the discharge of the most delightful of all duties.

If you’ve never been told by your fellow Christians that the personal object of your desire—not just what you might want to do sinfully with that person, but rather the personal object him- or herself—is wrong for you to have, period, then this might not resonate with you as much as it does with me. But for those of us who have been told that, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways—for those of us who have been told that the way to godliness is by removing ourselves altogether from the kinds of friendships in which we might be tempted—it comes as healing balm when you’re told instead, “Christianity… is to regulate, not to eradicate, our affections.”

It’s not a sin for men to love men, or women to love women. On the contrary.

Finding Love Again

For a long time, partly at our friend Eve Tushnet’s suggestion, I’ve wanted to try to write about how and why I’ve formed such deep and lasting friendships with married couples. This is, I gather, somewhat unusual for people like me who are both gay and celibate. Strange or not, though, it’s been one of the most significant parts of my efforts to embrace life and health in celibacy. So here’s my best effort (so I think) to try to tell that story.

I do want to say here what I probably should have said more clearly in the essay itself: this is not the story of Gay Christian Celibacy, capital-g, capital-c, capital-c, and if this doesn’t match what you feel or know, I certainly don’t think that indicates any failure or deficiency on your part.

This is just my story — or a slice of my story. But I’m offering it in the hope that it can inspire at least some of us to be more forthcoming about the pains and joys unique to our specific stories of going through life without spouses of our own.

On Evangelical Bigotry

I’ve obscured a couple of identifying details in the interest of discretion, but here is a true story.

Just before I came out in my mid-twenties, I had preached several sermons at a church where some close friends of mine attended. Those sermons had been warmly received, and many people who heard them encouraged me to continue seeking to discern whether I had a calling to pastoral ministry.

Then I came out.

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On “Church Discipline”

Whether it’s the Catholic Eve Tushnet writing about “bad Catholics” or the Baptist Nick Roen writing about when Christians are obligated to leave a church that rejects certain Scriptural teachings, we here at SF have circled around the theme of what Protestants often call “church discipline”—i.e., when and why and how we may be asked to refrain from receiving Communion because of an unwillingness to repent.

For those of you who want to keep thinking about this topic, I’ve got a long post on it—and particularly how it relates to gay people and sexual sin—up today over at The Living Church magazine’s Covenant blog. Any thoughts you’d want to leave in the comment box would be most welcome!

“Nothing is as Beautiful as a Human Being”

I remember a day several years ago, when I was training for ministry, that I sat around a table and talked with a group of Christian friends, all male, about lust. One of the men was a pastor at the church where we were all members. As we discussed various ways of trying to practice “custody of the eyes,” the pastor made a statement to this effect: “No one would be tempted by lust if you were standing in front of the Grand Canyon right now. Or in front of Bridalveil Fall at Yosemite National Park. The splendor and grandeur of those places would be so overwhelming that you’d turn from fantasizing to wonder at their beauty instead.” This was meant, I think, as a strategy: Learn how to crowd out whatever fascination with an image of a human you’re nurturing with something more overwhelmingly fascinating.

At the time, that comment struck me as… let’s just say highly unworkable. It still does. As much as I love nature — I spent much of my high school years hiking and camping in the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico and Colorado, and I consider Yosemite to be the most jaw-dropping instance of natural majesty I’ve ever had the good luck of witnessing — nothing holds my fascination like the human form. I thought of all this again when I read this tweet from another pastor, Vito Aiuto, this week:

If that’s true for more people than just Aiuto and me, our strategy for resisting sexual temptation has to look pretty different than what my pastor was recommending, doesn’t it? When the temptation comes to nurture fantasies that cannot be rightfully fulfilled, to treat others as mere objects for our titillation, even if only in the privacy of our thoughts — when the desiring gaze lingers “like a slug on a rose,” in Cyrano de Bergerac’s yucky phrase — surely the answer cannot be to start trying to picture boulders and forests and creeks instead. That sounds to me like a counsel to fight a conflagration with thimbleful of water.

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On “Church Clarity” and the Cost of Staying Put

A few weeks ago a website called Church Clarity launched. Their stated goal is to encourage churches, primarily evangelical ones, it seems, to be upfront about their policies regarding LGBTQ members. If, for instance, some churches will hospitably “welcome” LGBTQ members but not allow them to serve in leadership roles or receive Communion, Church Clarity wants those churches to own up to that policy on their websites so that potential members can see ahead of time what they’re getting into. As their own website indicates, they’re developing a database that offers “scores”:

The Church Clarity database scores churches on how clearly their websites communicate their policies. Currently, we are evaluating clarity of policies regarding LGBTQ people. To begin, we’ve published a selection of evangelical churches in America. The goal is to compile a comprehensive database of as many churches, especially evangelical ones, as possible.

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Gay Students at Christian Colleges: What’s Our Vision for Their Flourishing?

In January, I spoke to a room full of Christian college presidents for the annual gathering of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. The topic they set for me was how to talk about a Christian theology of marriage with real compassion for students wrestling through questions of sexual identity. The CCCU has now transcribed my remarks, and you can read them here.

An excerpt:

I want to suggest to you that one of the most important things you can do on your campuses is cast a vision of what a hopeful future could look like for your students who are same-sex attracted. For so many of us, when we think about living out our lives in the evangelical church as gay—and as celibate, probably, for most of us—the future looks blank. We can’t picture what it would look like because we don’t have models of how this goes. I’ve spent all my life in the church, and I have rarely seen people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who are talking openly about what it looks like to embrace a vocation of celibacy.

I remember recently talking to a Roman Catholic friend of mine who grew up in the church. He said, “From the time I was 4 years old, it was a huge question in my mind as to whether God might call me to be celibate”—because God might call him to be a priest. As soon as I heard him say that, I thought, “Our childhoods were so profoundly different because it never occurred to me that God might call me to be celibate. It never occurred to me to contemplate the single life.” I always simply assumed I’d go to college and meet my spouse like my parents did and live a Christian life by having kids and being part of a family values church. That was the future; that was the path. It never occurred to me that God might have in mind a vocation of celibacy. I apparently never read 1 Corinthians 7.

But this is the challenge for you, to cast a vision—and it doesn’t have to be one vision; I think there are 100 different models that this could take for your students—but to cast a vision [for your students]: “This is what a hopeful future looks like for you. If you’re same-sex attracted, and you’ve tried everything, and you haven’t experienced one iota of change in your same-sex attraction, and you’re wanting to give your life to God in celibacy, that does not have to equal loneliness. That does not have to equal isolation. … There’s a life for you. There’s a future for you that doesn’t simply look like alienation from your fellow believers in the church who seem to be so fixated on the nuclear family.” … What I am praying for you is that you will find yourself thinking of your same-sex attracted students not as a liability on your campus, but as people you’re in solidarity with.

You can read the rest here.

Why Do We Think the Bible is Against Same-Sex Marriage?

I’ve just returned from Calgary, Alberta where Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian Network (GCN), and I had a public dialogue on All Things Gay and Christian for the Anglican Church of Canada diocese there. It’s not the first time he and I have done something like this, but we both agreed that this one seemed to touch on all the major issues—debates over biblical interpretation, the church’s need for repentance for its treatment of LGBTQ persons, the need to celebrate singleness, to name just a few—in a way we felt was particularly effective. And it helps that Justin such a gracious and generous friend.

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The Benedictine Confessional

The righteousness of the saints in this world consists
more in the forgiveness of sins
than in the perfection of virtues.
—St. Augustine

To my knowledge, I’ve only written about the so-called “Benedict Option”—the subject of Rod Dreher’s new bestselling book—once, and it was after the SCOTUS Obergefell ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in all fifty states. In that post, I quoted from the Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths:

What the pagans need on this matter [of same-sex marriage] is conversion, not argument; and what the Church ought to do to encourage that is to burnish the practice of marriage by Catholics until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.

In other words, if anyone is going to be convinced of the Scriptural, traditional Christian teaching on marriage and sex, it’s going to be because of winsome, attractive, beautiful Christian practice of that teaching. The living out of the biblical teaching on marriage is what will be persuasive, when all political and theological arguments seem to be ineffectual. And that viewpoint, it would seem, is what the “Benedict Option,” at its best, is all about. It’s about strategically regrouping and recommitting ourselves to serious discipleship so that the world can see we’re not just interested in “culture warring” but that we’re mainly about living out what we profess to believe.

I still think, two years after Obergefell, this is basically right. But I’ve also been thinking lately, since Dreher’s book has been published and I’ve now had a chance to read it, about a qualification or addendum I’d want to make: When Griffiths talks about Christians’ “burnishing the practice of marriage,” that can’t mean “practicing Christian marriage ‘successfully’ or flawlessly.” It also, and inevitably (given the reality of what the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion call the “remaining corruption” of those who are regenerated in Christ), must mean confessing sin and finding forgiveness and pursuing reconciliation in our marriages.

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Rediscovering Friendship, Alabama-style

I’m in Birmingham, Alabama for the next few days to preach at the Cathedral Church of the Advent and — you guessed it! — to give a talk later tonight on “spiritual friendship.” The good folks over at AL.com were kind enough to let me say something on their website about friendship, and I thought it would be worth sharing here too. An excerpt:

When I move to a new city, as I have had to do four times in the last decade, the question that usually looms largest in my mind is: Will I be able to make new friends here? I’ve been single all of my adult life, and without a spouse or children to help ease my transitions, I rely a lot on friendship, both for the support and comfort I need but also so that I can have a dependable place in my life to give support and comfort to others. Friendship isn’t just an optional luxury for me. It feels more like a calling.

For a while, my passion for finding and cultivating close friendship felt like an uncommon hobby with no blogs or group texts or nerdy conferences where I could go to gush with fellow hobbyists about it. Sometimes it seemed as though I were making things up as I went along, performing a dance of friendship I had to choreograph myself. I knew a lot of people were like me — men consistently report wanting close friendships at the same rates that women say they do — but it also seemed like a secret that none of us wanted to discuss with each other.

But then, being a Christian, I decided to start rummaging through the history of my religious tradition, looking for friendship exemplars — forerunners and models and saints — whose lives and writings might be able to give me guidance for my twenty-first century life…

Read the rest here.