It is a gray Tuesday in November. The year is 1994, and I am a sophomore at the University of Washington in Seattle. I am pacing nervously up and down the sidewalk in front of Terry Hall, waiting for my friend Matt. Although long experience has taught me that he will be a few minutes late, I am five minutes early.
I rehearse the scene. Matt will arrive (a little behind schedule) and apologize that he didn’t make it on time. I will say it’s no big deal. We will shake hands. Then we will walk into the cafeteria, where we will grab lunch. We will chat about this and that—my classes, his job search, good books we’ve read recently, how we think the election will turn out.
In yesterday’s post, I alluded to a pilgrimage to France with my friend Steve in October of 2002. Today, I want to reflect more deeply on that experience.
On the morning of September 17, 2002, Steve had checked into Swedish hospital in Seattle with stomach pain. That afternoon, following a wide array of tests, an oncologist broke the news that he had pancreatic cancer, and had as little as three months to live.
Later that week, I received a cryptic phone call, asking if we could meet to talk. We met at a Vietnamese restaurant, and over enormous bowls of Pho soup, Steve asked if I would be available to accompany him on a pilgrimage to Europe. He wanted to bathe in the healing waters of Lourdes, and if his time on earth was to be limited, he wanted to use some of it seeing some of Europe’s great pilgrimage sites.
I had a conference to attend in San Diego in early October, and another in New York in early November. But if we spent the last three weeks of October, I could do it. We hastily booked plane tickets, and sketched out an itinerary.
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, 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.
It has been a difficult season for me. I’ve been transitioning cities, working through heartbreak, living with nearly constant heartache, beginning the long-term career job hunt, and learning to live life without the basic structure provided by classes and coursework. Many of my friends are also struggling through difficult break-ups, divorce, depression, addiction, and deep loneliness. Life is difficult and it is messy, but it also has profound moments of beauty and restoration woven between the pain and lament.
In January of this past year, the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity (ISSI), under the leadership of Dr. Olya Zaporozhets and Dr. Mark Yarhouse, conducted a study concerning psychological factors and the spirituality of celibate gay Christians that relate to the wellbeing of “Side” B gay Christians. One of the student members of ISSI, Christine Baker, recently completed the analysis and write-up of the collected data in her dissertation, which is entitled, “Attachment, Well-Being, Distress, and Spirituality in Celibate Gay Christians”. We would like to first begin by expressing our gratitude to everyone who participated in the study. We are thankful for your time as it is very valuable, especially in such a busy world. We, therefore, truly want to thank you all for taking the time to complete the survey. We would also like to provide you all with a short summary of the results, as part of the debriefing process and in appreciation for the contribution to the research you all provided through your participation.
Several years ago, Eve Tushnet wrote, “you can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.” This need to focus on the positive side of Christian discipleship has often been echoed by other Spiritual Friendship writers. Most recently, Melinda Selmys said, “If we are going to say ‘no’ to gay marriage, we have to provide gay people with human relationships where we offer love, fidelity and mutual support.”
This focus on the positive vocation to love is not an original formula we came up with. It is a basic element of Christian and Catholic teaching, applied to the particularities of ministry to lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons.
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…