Is the “Side B Gay Christian Movement” a Millstone?

One thing that has always struck me about Rosaria Butterfield’s story is how different it is from my own. By Butterfield’s account, she initially dated men and had a few bad experiences. She did not start to date women until her late twenties, after becoming involved in feminist academia. From her telling, it seems it was less a matter of pursuing relationships with women because she was naturally attracted to them, and more a matter of rebellion against traditional ideas. And indeed, Butterfield describes her primary sin issue as rebellion against God’s design.

Image result for Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert

Contrast this with my own story. As I’ve discussed before, I first started to realize that I was attracted to other guys around puberty, though I was in denial about it for quite a while. I was horrified and ashamed over this, because I was committed to following Christianity and never bought the revisionist arguments about sexual ethics. As a result, my primary response was to try to rid myself of my feelings for the same sex. A lot of my questions and difficulties came from the realization that my feelings just weren’t changing, despite my best efforts. I certainly had (and still have) some struggles with sin in terms of things like lustful thoughts, but I’m a virgin, and I never got into porn.

Why should we expect that the same approach that worked for Butterfield would work well in my situation?

It’s definitely true that there’s a single Gospel for all believers. Nonetheless, we usually recognize that people in different situations will need different approaches to bring this same Gospel to bear in their lives. Continue reading

The Aim of Christian Friendship

Over the last decade of my life, I’ve realized more fully the importance and true meaning of friendship. As a celibate Christian without the likelihood of future marriage, and for others like me, friendship within community is one of the main ways our sanctification works itself out. Friends point out our strengths and weaknesses, and challenge us to move forward; we need this in order to grow and mature in the faith as we struggle to believe along side of one another.

In the past few years, my friendships have taken a variety of forms. My friends and I have sung karaoke together. We’ve laughed and cried together. We’ve sat in silence pondering the world’s problems. We’ve savored beauty within nature and in the amazing taste of a mocha. We’ve gone on vacations and stayed up late playing board games.

There is immense joy to be had through sharing these moments with friends. That joy is good and should be celebrated. But the exhortation of friends calling me forward is even more important. The friends who most challenge and encourage me serve me to the highest degree, because they call me to walk more closely with God.

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How Should We Then Live?

The recent debate surrounding the essay “Conjugal Friendship” by Giacomo Sanfilippo has yet again reminded me of a the importance of dialogue surrounding sexual minorities in the Orthodox Church. I’m not an expert in the theology of Florensky so I will leave the theological particulars to Sanfilippo and other theologians. I do have experience though in how the Church discusses sexual minorities and interacts with the LGBT community. I have read a few critiques and seen several posts by Orthodox writers and clergy reacting to the post on “Conjugal Friendship.” Most seem to be reading into his essay or assuming the worst about it and lamenting what they see as just another attack on the Church’s steadfast commitment to the traditional sacrament of marriage. I would like to take this opportunity to offer a few reflections on how we as a Church can better discuss the various paths available to sexual minorities within the Church rather than Sanfilippo’s specific content or that of his critics.

   ©️ 2017 Gregg Webb

What I took away from Sanfilippo’s essay was less the specific arguments or case he makes for developing an Orthodox theology of Same-Sex love, and more the fact that he is attempting to find paths of living for sexual minorities within the church. As both a gay man and an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I wrestle daily to try and figure out what I am called by my church to surrender and to give up. I am constantly reminded of all that I am asked to forsake at the Church’s request of fidelity to its, and my own, understanding of same-sex sexual expressions. I don’t need to be reminded that the path my heart most naturally is inclined towards, that of pursuing a husband and a family in a same-sex partnership, is not available to me. I don’t need to be reminded that I am called daily towards chastity and celibacy and to remain steadfast in following all that the Church teaches related to sexual intimacy. I know these things all too well and those battles within my heart rage continually. I need no reminders of these battles or allegiances. Continue reading

What Language Shall I Borrow to Thank Thee, Dearest Friend?

“Greater love has no man than this: that He lay down his life for His friends.” John 15:13.

Crucifixion

One of the most beautiful of the Good Friday hymns is “O Sacred Head now Wounded.” It is often attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, but was more likely written by another Cistercian named Arnulf of Leuven (c. 1200–1250). The English translation below was done in 1830 by James Waddel Alexander (1804-1859).

The words of the hymn remind us not only of the depth of Christ’s love, but also that He suffers because of our sins.

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”

And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

And He said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43).

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Newman on the Love of Relations and Friends

Tomorrow is Holy Thursday, the first service of the Easter Triduum. On Holy Thursday, we remember Christ’s Last Supper with the Apostles.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another. (John 15:12-17)

Christ came to lay down His life to conquer the power of sin in us, and to enable us to become friends of God. As we approach the Easter Triduum, this sermon from Blessed John Henry Newman on the “Love of Relations and Friends,” originally preached on the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, seems a fitting way to reflect on what it really means to love God and to love each other.

Detail from The Last Supper - Carl Heinrich Bloch
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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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Permission to Lament

In one of Henri Nouwen’s newly published letters, there comes this moment of real human transparency and frailty:

What I keep hoping for are friends who protect, support and care for my celibate choice while not withholding from me a nurturing affective friendship that allows me to shed some tears of loneliness from time to time and return to the “battlefield” knowing that I have friends who support me.

Nouwen, for those readers who may not know, was a renowned priest and spiritual guide, in person as he taught at Harvard and Yale and worked among disabled persons at L’Arche and through his many books and talks, and was outed as gay after his death in 1996 by his first biographer. His story of ongoing, unchanged same-sex longings and vowed, evidently lifelong celibacy has given a lot of hope and courage to many of us who blog here at SF. If an evangelical Anglican may be permitted patron saints, Nouwen is certainly mine. (I even have an icon of him hanging in my office; just don’t tell the Dean of my seminary!)

When I read this portion of one of his letters, I underlined it immediately. It sounds like the sort of thing I’ve said to numerous friends over the years: “Please do support me in my choice to be celibate—please help me live out that commitment well. But please also let me also talk openly from time to time about the loneliness it inevitably involves. Let me lament, and please don’t offer cheap comfort.” As I’ve sought to live my life as an openly gay, celibate Christian in the church, one of the most encouraging gifts I’ve received from my fellow Christians is permission to “shed some tears of loneliness from time to time.”

For me it’s crucial to distinguish lament from despair. The Catholic theologian Josef Pieper has described the latter as the conclusion that we will never arrive at our heavenly home. If hope is the characteristic posture of wayfaring Christians, of believers who are “on the way,” then despair is its inversion. If hope says, “I’m not there yet, but I’m counting on what I can’t see,” despair says, “I’m not there yet, and I never will be.” Despair is a rejection of wayfaring. Despair is giving up on the pilgrim way. Despair is sitting down on the side of the road in the certainty that it leads nowhere, that there is no new Jerusalem lying at its end.

But lament is different. If despair says, “The road has no destination,” lament sounds a contrasting note: “I know there will be joy when I arrive at the destination, but I’m not there yet, and this road feels very long and hard sometimes.” If despair gives up on the pilgrim way, lament keeps putting one foot in front of the other—while crying (Psalm 126:5-6). If despair’s head is downcast, lament’s face may be shining with tears but it is upturned, addressing God. If despair gives up, lament gives way on occasion—to frustration (Psalm 13:1-2), to groaning (Romans 8:18-25), to complaining (Psalm 22:1).

From all my years spent in evangelical Christian churches, I feel confident in saying that many Christians are good at resisting despair—and also, alas, equally good at resisting lament. Theologian Ben Myers’ reflection on sadness is diagnostic:

In the Protestant West today, smiling has become a moral imperative. The smile is regarded as the objective externalization of a well-ordered life. Sadness is moral failure…. Where evangelical churches theologize happiness and ritualize the smile, sad believers are spiritually ostracized. Sadness is the scarlet letter of the contemporary church, embroidered proof of a person’s spiritual failure.

And the real casualty of this pathologization of sadness is, paradoxically, hope. “A culture without sadness is a culture without hope.” If hope is the virtue of wayfarers, then hope must involve sadness and lament. If you erase sadness, you’re in danger of erasing the sad pilgrim herself, whose sadness is a sign that she hasn’t given up the pilgrim way, that she’s not joined despair on the side of the road, that she’s still waiting for the city of God. Her sadness is an index of the hope she still carries.

Three stories in conclusion to try to make all this more concrete.

When I was in my early twenties and just beginning both to come to terms with my homosexuality and to talk with my fellow Christians about it, I remember sitting with a friend whom I trusted and trying to describe for her how it felt to watch many of my friends from the Christian college I attended pair up and get married. I said I knew marriage wasn’t “the answer” to my loneliness, but also, I confessed, attending all these weddings made me wistful, desirous, and often tearful. And without missing a beat, I remember my friend saying, “Wes, you will get married one day. I know that. You may not see it now, but I believe God will give that to you.” And just like that, in that one instant, my desire to talk any further about my ambivalence, confusion, and frustration in celibacy evaporated, and I looked for a way to end the conversation. Lament suddenly felt as if it had been prohibited.

Fast-forward ten years to my early thirties. I was sitting with another friend, an Anglican priest whose children were almost all grown and out of the house, confiding in him that much of the angst of my twenties had diminished but also that I still wrestled with loneliness. I knew, I said, that marriage is arduous and costly and not in any way a “solution” to problems. And yet, and yet. I told my friend that when I read statements like Justice Kennedy’s—that those gay folks who want marriage equality “hope… not to be condemned to live in loneliness”—I find myself grieving a bit over the thought that marriage, and all that goes with it, isn’t likely in the cards for me. To which my priest replied, “Wes, even the very best marriages leave people lonely. I’m in a very, very good marriage, and I still deal with loneliness.” And again, although I knew he meant well—and despite the fact that I knew what he said was true!—I found that I suddenly had no more desire to talk with him about the particular shape of my loneliness and, as Nouwen wrote, “shed some tears” over it. My unique experience of loneliness had, I felt, been quickly subsumed under some generic umbrella of loneliness that married people experience too. My friend certainly didn’t intend to do this, but the effect of his words on me in that moment was to curtail my lament. I didn’t know how to go on from there to unburden myself, to give words to what seemed like a special kind of loneliness that I was wrestling through.

In contrast to both of these stories, I find myself thinking about another conversation that happened several years ago. I had just finished writing the manuscript for my book Washed and Waiting, and a friend who had gone over each chapter with a fine-tooth editorial comb had invited me to lunch to talk about it. When I arrived at her door, she gave me a hug and ushered me into the dining room. As I sat down next to her husband, I wondered whether I was about to hear correction or admonition: “Wes, you write a lot about the loneliness of being single, but…” That admonition never came. Instead, what my friend wanted to tell me was that she felt she had a better sense of what it felt like to be navigating life while gay and Christian. She said my manuscript had made her think of the gay believers she’d known over the years and how heroic—that was the word she used—they are. She said she better understood and that she wanted to think with me about how best to offer friendship and support to them—to me. I realized, leaving her house that day, that that’s what I had been most hungry for: I wanted someone to hear me say how hard this road could be. I wasn’t looking for an excuse to quit the road, to give up the pilgrim way. But what I felt I did need was someone for whom my sadness, my loneliness, wouldn’t be treated as an obvious sign of spiritual failure or a problem to be overcome or a misunderstanding to be corrected.

There’s a vast difference between lament and despair, and the friends I cherish most are those who know how to help me fight the latter while understanding and offering much leeway for the former.

Russell Moore and his critics

russell-moore-erlc

I don’t often comment on politics, and when I do, I’m more likely to talk about the dangers that contemporary American politics pose for Christian witness than to engage in partisan debate.

The current situation in the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is a case in point.

Theologically, ERLC President Russell Moore is a straight-up-the line Southern Baptist. On the controversial issues within the denomination, he never wavers from the orthodox Southern Baptist answers. He’s an inerrantist, he affirms six day creation, and he’s a complementarian, to cite just a few examples.

Politically, he has firmly opposed abortion and same-sex marriage, playing a leading role in defending Christian ethics in the public square.

Recently, he’s gotten into hot water with a lot of Southern Baptists for his opposition to Donald Trump.

There is nothing that he has called Trump out for doing that Southern Baptists have not long condemned. Trump has bragged about adultery, and about relations with women that at the very least verge on sexual assault. He is uncharitable and vindictive toward his critics. He is vulgar, and has very little concern with the truth of his assertions. There is no reason to believe his pro-life convictions are based on much more than political calculation. He is the sort of candidate the religious right was created forty years ago to oppose.

Moore has made clear that he’s not attacking any Christian who decided, after carefully weighing their options, that Trump was the lesser of two evils, and cast their vote for him. There is a “massive difference,” he says, between them and those Christians who sought to excuse Trump’s immorality or confuse the definition of the Gospel to make Trump seem like a serious Christian.

In the Old Testament, again and again, the prophets call God’s people to radical holiness, and the people, again and again, put their trust in princes and political alliances. That drama is being played out again today.

As a student of that history, I admire Russell Moore’s prophetic boldness in continuing to defend the Gospel, even when it is out of season.

I also hope, for his sake, that this particular “old, old story” doesn’t repeat itself among Southern Baptists today.

Photo credit: ERLC.

“Jigs for Marriage and Celibacy”

Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers! I know I speak for Ron and all the other contributors too when I say that we are so grateful to be in this virtual community with you all, and we’re thankful for every interaction we’ve had with you here.

Just today, Comment magazine unlocked a piece I wrote for their latest print issue on “how to die in marriage and celibacy.” An excerpt:

… Jesus goes on to discuss the matter of singleness, on which topic he is equally stringent. Don’t make the mistake, he seems to say to his followers, of thinking that if you opt out of marriage, you are thereby exempted from martyrdom. Whether one is unmarried due to a biological incapacity for spousal union or prevented from it by circumstances or embracing that state voluntarily, Jesus imagines the unwed as those whose lives are to be lived “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (19:12). Christian singleness too, like Christian marriage, is not about “brief joy and long sadness,” to return to Luther’s quote above. It is instead one more way in which we begin to unlearn selfishness, to embrace a kind of spiritual martyrdom, and find our desires redirected toward the city of God. Singleness too is about holy dying, about the sanctifying transformation of desire and belonging.

The whole piece is about how, whatever vocation we’re led into, it’s going to be a pathway of dying to our “old selves” and embracing our new life in Christ. As C. S. Lewis memorably put it, “Die before you die. There is no chance after.”

Maybe it’s an odd thought for Thanksgiving Day, but I hope that it’s an encouraging one in a roundabout way. So many of you who stop by here to read and think with us are living this life of daily death-and-resurrection, and it inspires me to no end.

Amid the Wreckage of the Christian Right

eastern-airlines-401

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.

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