A month ago, just before sunset, I was out walking along a quiet rural road near my home when my phone rang.
“Are you sitting down?” My mother asked in a voice that clearly wasn’t normal. I wasn’t, but there wasn’t anywhere convenient to sit nearby, so I asked what was wrong anyway.
“Trent was killed in a car accident tonight.”
Trent is—I typed is out of habit, but now realize I must say was—my 18-year-old nephew. He was on his way home from studying with friends, and would have graduated from high school in just three weeks.
The day he died was also, as it happened, his mother’s birthday. Two days after Mother’s Day.
There is a before and after to grief: one minute, your life, and the lives of your friends and family members are humming along in the ordinary way; the next moment, you enter a new and very different world. For the first few hours, the first few days, you keep thinking you may wake up, realize that this has been a nightmare, that Trent is still alive, that his mother is not hysterical, that his father is not stoically holding himself together while their whole world comes apart. But you keep waking up, and he is still dead.
I recently had the opportunity to speak at a small Christian university’s chapel about sexuality, friendship, justice, and the calling of the church. You can listen to the message here. If you don’t have 27 minutes or if you hate references to Harry Potter in talks about sexuality, I cobbled together a partial transcript of the second half of the presentation below. There’s so much else to say, but hopefully it’s a small encouragement.
[After an opening section on the connection between, friendship, empathy, and social justice]:
Friendship, knowledge of someone, creates the foundational commitment that enables acts of mercy and justice to be meaningful, mutual, and ultimately good. Trying to serve people without developing friendship and empathy will only cause harm.
We nod our heads about friendship and community and service, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of daily life, of making substantive changes to our communities, most Christians leave sexual minorities to fend for themselves.
Gay/SSA Christians frequently feel stuck and isolated between a broader society that increasingly stigmatizes and misunderstands our religious convictions and a church that is often disinterested in or openly hostile to our existence. The church is our family, and yet we have to fight so hard not to be held at arm’s length.
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.
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.
Cross-posted from Catholic Authenticity
The BBC has an interesting story today on an “intense” friendship between John Paul II and philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka. The story itself is quite beautiful, but it’s also interesting to see the reactions that circle around it. On the one hand, someone at the BBC seems to be doing their best to milk a little bit of salacious click-bait out of the matter (as a writer, I suspect the hand of an editor in this – the lines that hint at non-existent intrigue seem a little forced, as if they were added or augmented after the original draft.) On the other hand, some of the comments that I’ve seen on FaceBook make it clear that a certain portion of the Catholic world would have been scandalized even without the BBC’s help.
Caption: Spiritual Friendship celebrated friendship before Facebook thought doing so was cool.
“He Went Down Upon His Knee Before Her On The Poor Mean Stairs, And Put An End Of Her Shawl To His Lips” (1870s) by Harry French
In Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times (1854), Stephen Blackpool works as a Hand in Mr. Bounderby’s factory of Coketown, England.
Stephen looked older, but he had a hard life. It is said that every life has its roses and thorns; there seemed, however, to have been a misadventure or mistake in Stephen’s case, whereby somebody else had become possessed of his roses, and he had become possessed of the same somebody else’s thorns in addition to his own. He had known, to use his words, a peck of trouble. He was usually called Old Stephen, in a kind of rough homage to the fact.
Although married to “a disabled, drunken creature,” Stephen’s spiritual intimacy lies with Rachael, another Hand in Coketown, who “had taken great pity on him years ago, and to her alone had opened his closed heart all this time, on the subject of his miseries; and he knew very well that if he were free to ask her, she would take him.”
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.