Holy Saturday for Gay Christians

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.

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True Fulfillment

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?

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What is Friendship *For*?

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.

An excerpt:

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.

Will I Be Gay in the Resurrection?

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.”

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Gay, “Conservative,” and Anglican — What Now?

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.

“You Must Not Be Afraid of Looking for God in the Eyes of a Friend”

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.

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What is Spiritual Friendship? A Basic Primer

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.

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Desiring Differently

For my money, some of the very sharpest, most creative, most genuinely helpful stuff being written on Christian faith and (homo)sexuality is by my friend Steve Holmes, a Baptist minister who teaches theology at the University of St. Andrews. I’ve mentioned Steve before here at SF—if you haven’t already, do read about his “Queer Hippo” project, and check out this interview with Vicki Beeching—and I wanted to mention him again today because he’s just posted the paper he gave at this year’s meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.

Here’s an excerpt that I hope will entice a lot of you to go and read the whole essay:

At some point in the twentieth century, we in the West became convinced that sexual activity is necessary for healthy and properly adult human life. Let me, inexactly, call this the ‘Freudian’ position. The call to celibacy in this context sounds like an act of astonishing cruelty, depriving someone of a basic necessity for human flourishing.

Our inherited ethical tradition does not have the language or arguments to deal with this challenge, because it is not the challenge it was crafted to address. We have, literally, nothing to say theologically (and this is true whether we think the right way forward is conservative or progressive, which is why there are presently so few good books on sexual ethics from any side).

It gets worse, though: for a couple of generations, we Evangelicals – and all other Protestants – essentially surrendered to this error by making marriage an inevitable part of Christian maturity. We constructed church programmes on the assumption that single people were either young adults preparing for marriage or elderly and widowed; we doubted ministerial candidates who was not married, because they could therefore not be properly ‘grown up’. This was a capitulation to an error, but it sort of worked OK – until the churches were forced to acknowledge that some people are lesbian/gay/exclusively same-sex attracted, and so not able to accept the inevitability of (traditional) marriage. If we think marriage belongs necessarily to the fulness of life, not in a response to death, then we have no answers for lesbian and gay disciples that are not culturally unimaginable and unspeakably cruel.

We can see this capitulation working itself out in the way in which, in many churches, the beginning and end of sexual ethics is telling young people to ‘save themselves for marriage’ as if sex was an uncomplicated human good that merely needs to be properly located by our moral reasoning. Let us be completely clear: that is not a Christian sexual ethic; that is the ethic of a pagan fertility cult that worships sex because it cannot believe in the resurrection of Christ. We should rather teach people, young and old, married and single – and in complex erotic relationships – that their lived responses to their sexual desires must be ever increasingly ordered to the resurrected life of the Kingdom.

The deep reflection of the Church on the Scriptures has led to the conviction that there are two, and only two, ways of life that are so ordered: marriage and celibacy. Marriage – if it is to be something good, and not merely a concession to our stony hearts, is absolutely not a space for the unlimited indulgence of sexual desires. Rather, it is a set of practices in and through which we learn to desire differently. We’ve heard already Paul insisting on a mutual bodily surrender between spouses in 1 Corinthians; these internal acts of mutual submission, of re-ordering our sinful and selfish desires, are reinforced by the necessary openness to procreation that exists in the marriage relationship. Children, in the light of the resurrection of Christ, are not a way of responding to death, but an opportunity for our crabbed and incurved selves to be opened out in love.

Celibacy, if it is to be something good, and not merely the presence of an absence, is similarly a set of practices in and through which we learn to desire differently. Lacking the opportunity to endlessly submit to a spouse, the celibate Christian will intentionally seek ways to open her life out in love – and the church, if it is to be faithful to the gospel of the resurrection – must offer her such ways. Inevitably these will involve practices of community, probably ordered by rule; I strongly suspect that they will need to involve the sorts of vowed friendships that Wesley Hill was talking about in part on Tuesday night.

Please read the whole thing.

The Future of Asceticism

Over the last couple of years, Eve Tushnet and I have batted around the idea of co-writing a blog post or essay as if we were looking back on the present from the vantage point of fifty years or so. What will be different in Christian conversations about homosexuality in several decades? And what will we wish we had changed sooner?

I’ve been thinking again about this as I’ve been reading the Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley’s newest book this past week, The New Asceticism: Gender, Sexuality and the Quest for God, which I hope to write a lot more about here in the days to come (and which I’ll be reviewing for Books & Culture). One of the main things Coakley is concerned to do in this book is to help us all achieve better, more Christian disagreements with each other, and the sort of future she imagines for “sexuality” discussions is one that I am powerfully drawn to.

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Reflections on the Feast of St. Francis

Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, whom I chose as my confirmation saint when I was received into the Catholic Church in 1999.

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G. K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis was one of many books that helped introduce me to the truth and beauty of the Catholic faith. But Francis himself stuck with me in a special way.

I was particularly drawn by the powerful combination of joy and asceticism in his personality.

Asceticism was not new to me. I had grown up Southern Baptist, and joined the Presbyterian Church in America in college. I had been profoundly moved by Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. I had also been committed to celibacy since my late teens. So though I have learned more of asceticism and the cross since becoming Catholic, I already knew about the cost and sacrifice involved in responding to Christ’s call to come and follow.

What I did not realize, until I encountered St. Francis, was the deeper “Yes!” that made sense of and gave life in the midst of the many things I had to say “no” to in order to remain faithful to Christ. Continue reading