Just before midnight on December 29, 1972, Eastern Airlines flight 401 was descending toward Miami International Airport with 176 souls on board. The night was a clear with no moon.
When the pilots attempted to lower the landing gear, the green light indicating that the nose gear was down and locked failed to illuminate. They informed Air Traffic Control that they were aborting the landing, and requested a holding pattern. The controller directed them to climb and circle over the Everglades.
Over the next few minutes, as the pilots sought to trouble-shoot the problem with the landing gear, they didn’t monitor their instruments, and so did not notice that the plane was slowly descending. Over the next several minutes, the crew became so focused on fixing the landing gear problem that they lost situational awareness. They weren’t paying attention to their altitude, and missed warning chimes informing them that the plane was drifting downwards.
A few minutes later, the plane slammed into the Everglades, killing 99 of the passengers and crew on board; all of the survivors sustained injuries, most of them serious enough to require hospitalization.
[This post was originally written for Friday, October 14. A combination of weather-related travel delays and getting feedback from my friend Chris delayed posting until now.]
In the fall of 2009, I moved to South Bend for a year-long exchange at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion. At the Ethics and Culture Conference that November, I met Chris Damian, a Notre Dame freshman interested in philosophy and theology.
For the first couple of years after we met, we had interesting conversations when we ran into each other (which was not often) and exchanged occasional emails if one of us saw something we thought would interest the other. He was popular and charismatic, and I saw his natural leadership talents emerge as he immersed himself in pro-life activism and defending the faith on campus.
After a couple of years passed like this, I was in South Bend again for a conference, and we arranged to meet for dinner. At some point in the conversation, we got into a discussion of homosexuality and changing sexual orientation. Chris thought Christians should talk more about hope for orientation change.
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.
Yesterday, after speaking at Asbury University the day before, I crossed the street and preached the following sermon in a chapel service at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky:
At Trinity where I’m a faculty member, I recently taught a course on the Gospel of Mark, so I’ve been thinking again about some of Mark’s final scenes. In particular, I’ve been powerfully struck all over again by the so-called “cry of dereliction”—Jesus’ last words from the cross in Mark, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
For so many modern Christians, of course, these words are at the heart of any post-Holocaust theology worth its salt. If we don’t have a God who shares in our agony and misery, then we don’t have a God we can believe in. This is the verse that Jürgen Moltmann put at the heart of his classic book The Crucified God, and it’s probably what prompted Dietrich Bonhoeffer to say, “Only the suffering God can help.” As I told my students, many modern Christians, myself included, are drawn to the way Mark doesn’t prettify or whitewash the horror of the crucifixion. He lets us see the full depths of human suffering, and he shows us Jesus right in the middle of that suffering.
But not all the Gospels follow Mark on this score. Luke chooses not to make the cry of dereliction the final words of Jesus from the cross. Instead, here’s what Luke says: “Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.” In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus seems to die in trust and confidence that God has not forsaken him. He entrusts his spirit to God, and he calls God his “Father.”
Yesterday I spoke in chapel at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. Here’s what I said:
In a few more weeks, at the end of November, those of us who worship in more high church or liturgical traditions will be starting our new church year. While the rest of the world celebrates the start of the New Year on January 1st, we’ll celebrate the start of the new Christian year on the first Sunday of Advent, the season that will lead us up to the first great feast of the Christian year, Christmas.
The word advent is a word that means arrival or appearing or coming. It’s the time of the year when we wait, once again, for the arrival of Jesus, for him to be born of Mary and laid in the manger and worshiped by angels and shepherds and kings. It’s a time of year when the church remembers that we have to be a patient and expectant and hopeful, pilgrim people. We have to look and long for the coming of the Messiah. And so we wait on tiptoe for several weeks, with hunger and yearning, for the shining feast of Christmas.
Advent may be my favorite time of the Christian calendar. Almost every year, I feel like I stagger into it with relief. After a long summer filled with all sorts of activities and travels, and usually, for me, a more chaotic schedule, I stumble into Advent and breathe a little more deeply and rest a little more easily. Advent reminds me of who I am, of Whom I’m waiting for, and what story I’m a part of.
As I was taking it in, another thought struck me, one that I and others have written about before, but came into sharper focus as I read Wes’ words. It has to do with the charisma, or gift, of celibacy. I have heard this gift used as an argument against the traditional sexual ethic. The case, as fairly as I can put it, goes something like this: throughout church history celibacy has been a voluntary state chosen in conjunction with a call from God. But to “mandate” celibacy for all gay Christians removes it from the realm of voluntary and places it in the realm of requirement. And requiring celibacy for those who have not discerned the gift of celibacy for themselves is cruel and outside the heart of God.
This would be an appropriate place to discuss the calling to a mixed-orientation marriage (MOM), but that is for a different post. As I was reading Wes’ piece, it struck me that neither Jesus nor the Apostle Paul speak of the gift of celibacy as strictly voluntary. Rather, both affirm the notion that if you are in a state of celibacy, regardless of the circumstances that led you there, it is to be viewed as a beautiful gift from God.
One of the primary ways I’ve thought about my own life as a gay, celibate believer and also about my larger project of trying to make the church more of a nurturing haven for other gay/SSA/queer believers is in terms of what J. R. R. Tolkien called “the long defeat.” His regal character Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, surveying the long years of her immortality and all the seasons of mingled loss and triumph she’s witnessed, says, “Through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” And Tolkien himself identifies with her: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”
It seems to me that this philosophy of history, if we may call it that, is the ideal one for anyone who has exceptionally difficult, frustrating, even agonizing, but nevertheless vitally important work to do. For such people, the expectation of victory can be a terrible thing — it can raise hopes in (relatively) good times only to shatter them when the inevitable downturn comes. Conversely, the one who fights the long defeat can be all the more thankful for victories, even small ones, precisely because (as St. Augustine said about ecstatic religious experiences) he or she does not expect them and is prepared to live without them.
This perspective on history and on the individual Christian pilgrimage has meant a lot to me. As someone who hasn’t received one iota of the promised “change” in my sexual orientation that some Christians have held out to me, and as someone who also hasn’t been able to embrace a more progressive understanding of same-sex marriage, I’ve often felt like I’m fighting a kind of long defeat: I’m gay but not seeking a same-sex partner, and I’m still gay and so also not seeking an opposite-sex spouse, and what that feels like is… well, it often feels like the way St. Paul describes his rather stark view of the Christian life in Romans 8: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
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 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.