Photograph of Igor Stravinsky by Irving Penn. New York, April 22, 1948
A single man, like myself, confronts solitude every day as patient friend or relentless enemy, as cure or ailment, as mountain vista or obscure cave. The 20th century Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, experienced these binaries in his own life. Without solidarity, solitude is unbearable, as Neruda said about his foreign service in Rangoon, Burma: “Solitude, in this case, was not a formula for building up a writing mood but something as hard as a prison wall; you could smash your head against the wall and nobody came, no matter how you screamed or wept.” With solidarity, however, solitude is not only bearable but even productive, as he said in 1971 Nobel Prize lecture:
There arises an insight which the poet must learn through other people. There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song – but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.
Outside discussions about gay and lesbian people, I’ve found that most Protestants tend to have a very low view of celibacy. This manifests itself in a number of ways. For example, single seminary graduates often find that it can be difficult to become a pastor in an evangelical church without being married. Lack of marriage can be viewed with suspicion, as an indication that people are likely to fall to sexual sin. Some even argue that failure to marry is a sinful shirking of adult responsibility.
Underlying much of this attitude is the belief that for the vast majority of people, celibacy is either impossible or cannot be fulfilling. For example, many Protestants blame the Catholic sex abuse scandal on the requirement that priests remain unmarried, and this is taken as a cautionary tale against an expectation of celibacy. Many Protestants see celibate living as a needless source of loneliness, and as the sort of thing that can be viewed as a form of punishment. On the other hand, they see marriage as the universal solution to the problems of loneliness and sexual temptation.
This relates to the increasing movement of Protestant communities in the direction of viewing marriage as a legitimate vocation for same-sex couples. It is becoming increasingly well-known that there are people with a stable, enduring pattern of attraction to people of the same sex, without corresponding attractions to people of the opposite sex. There are a number of such people who blog here on Spiritual Friendship (although I’m not actually one of them). For such people, marriage to someone of the opposite sex can bring significant issues and is not always advisable.
Caravaggio: The Calling of St. Matthew
I recently preached a sermon on “The Gift of Singleness,” based on Matthew 19:10-12. The main point of that text—and therefore the sermon—was that for those called to it, singleness should be received as a gift from God. I organized the sermon into three points to help unpack and support that thesis:
- “The Gift is Given (vv. 10-11)”
- “Circumstances are Seen (vs. 12)”
- “Singleness is Savored (vs. 12)”
So that is where we are going.
An old (2007) sermon from John Piper: “Single in Christ: A Name Better Than Sons and Daughters.”
I will start and end with my main point and, in the middle, cover a wide terrain of Scripture to support it. My main point is that God promises those of you who remain single in Christ blessings that are better than the blessings of marriage and children, and he calls you to display, by the Christ-exalting devotion of your singleness, the truths about Christ and his kingdom that shine more clearly through singleness than through marriage and childrearing. The truths, namely,
- That the family of God grows not by propagation through sexual intercourse, but by regeneration through faith in Christ;
- That relationships in Christ are more permanent, and more precious, than relationships in families (and, of course, it is wonderful when relationships in families are also relationships in Christ; but we know that is often not the case);
- That marriage is temporary, and finally gives way to the relationship to which it was pointing all along: Christ and the church—the way a picture is no longer needed when you see face to face;
- That faithfulness to Christ defines the value of life; all other relationships get their final significance from this. No family relationship is ultimate; relationship to Christ is.
To say the main point more briefly: God promises spectacular blessings to those of you who remain single in Christ, and he gives you an extraordinary calling for your life. To be single in Christ is, therefore, not a falling short of God’s best, but a path of Christ-exalting, covenant-keeping obedience that many are called to walk.
Watch the video above, or check out the whole sermon at Desiring God.
Over at a blog called The Wartburg Watch, there’s a nice discussion of Spiritual Friendship and some of the challenges we’ve received from conservative critics. The post (and the blog) may be of interest to some of our readers.
Years ago, when my little daughter was suffering from brain tumor, I felt overwhelmed with the difficulties of managing my other children while coping with my own feelings of overwhelming pain for my daughter and fear for her future. My husband had to maintain his job so that we had the insurance to help pay for the medical bills. I felt quite lonely even though I had wonderful friends who supported me, helping with my other children and making meals for us. How does one explain the pain and fears to others who are not experiencing it?
I was directed to a group that dealt with the difficulties of having a child with a serious brain tumor. I found great comfort in the group as we discussed our issues. Children’s Hospital in Dallas provided professionals to help us work through all sorts of things. It was so comforting to be with a group of people who got it even if I didn’t say a word.
I grew to understand the importance of the support such groups offer. We formed friendships and held each other up through the inevitable pain and sorrows that arose.
That is why I was excited when I learned about the development of Spiritual Friendship amongst celibate gays. Before I go any further, I would ask that we keep this discussion centered around those gay Christians who have decided that they believe they should remain celibate. This is important to this post because I want to show that even when individuals make decisions that should be acceptable to conservative Christian, they still get criticized.
Check out the whole post.
As I related in a recent post, I made a vow, six years ago, to be celibate. I invited a hundred friends and family together for the ceremony. Friends did a skit about my journey out of the closet, Jesse sang Orphan Girl, Dan sang If it Be Your Will, Debbie preached from Scripture and quoted Jayber Crow, and Dale officiated as I made promises. Afterwards we ate, danced, and testified.
I’ve wondered if I made too big a deal of it. Did I try to valorize a simple step of obedience that God was asking me to take? Was it an enormous exercise of ego? Was it my inner drama queen coming out? Was it a jealous, “I’m gonna have my wedding day too?”
I’m sure my pride was a motivating factor. But here is the outcome I didn’t expect: on that day I felt overwhelmingly, euphorically, well-loved. I emerged from that day feeling commissioned, blessed, humbled by care, and stuffed full of grace.
Over a year ago, I wrote a post recounting my experience as a bisexually-attracted man. That post was mostly a reflection on my own experience, with some takeaways coming from that. I’ve been thinking for a while about writing a “part two” discussing how this interfaces with questions of the Christian faith and the broader conversation that Spiritual Friendship is contributing to. I recommend reading my first post before this one if you haven’t already.
Given that I do frequently experience attraction, including sexual desire, towards women, marriage is a significant eventual possibility for my life. Although every marriage has its difficulties, I don’t expect that I’d have significant difficulties resulting specifically from being married to a woman. One could describe me as “celibate” on account of the fact that I’m single and sexually abstinent, but my convictions do not point me toward lifelong celibacy as strongly as for others on here. This state in life may well be much more transient for me. So does this mean that the conversation happening on Spiritual Friendship is less relevant to people like me?
I don’t think so. One thing I’ve really appreciated about how Ron and Wes have run Spiritual Friendship is the way they have intentionally cultivated a conversation that is broader than celibacy. Two of our contributors, Kyle Keating and Melinda Selmys, have written about their experiences in marriages to people of the opposite sex. I’ve learned a lot from them, as well as from other people in similar situations, about what healthy marriages can look like when one spouse is a sexual minority.
There is also a great deal I share in common with celibate gay Christians, simply by virtue of being someone who experiences same-sex attraction and has traditional Christian convictions about sexual ethics.
I’m sure the last thing that most of us want to read is yet another pontification on the term “gay”. Hear me out.
In his book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, the great Reformed theologian John Murray makes a helpful observation that sheds some light on our modern discussion of LGBT terminology. Discussing the Calvinist teaching of Limited Atonement, he asks whether or not the title of the doctrine is a fair representation of the content. He concludes, “But it is not the term used that is important; it is that which it denotes.”
I bring this up, not to discuss controversial doctrines, but because John Murray has unintentionally put his finger on one of the main issues in the gay debate. It seems that one of the questions of perennial interest in this conversation about sexuality is, “What does the term ‘gay’ denote?” Does it denote a particular behavior or sinful lifestyle? Or does it simply describe an experience of sexuality, and say nothing one way or the other about how that experience is lived out? Many conservatives insist on anathematizing the term because they argue it necessarily entails a sinful expression of sexuality. They assert that people who label themselves as gay usually mean to say that they also engage in gay sex.
We here at Spiritual Friendship are living testaments to the fact that this is a false assumption. There are many people that mean no such thing by labeling themselves as gay. In fact, I truly believe that most people in our culture, even unbelievers, do not normally give the term “gay” such a meaning that would denote sexual activity. So why, then, is it such a widely held assumption?
I wrote the cover story for this month’s issue of Christianity Today on—you guessed it!—friendship.
A lot of what I say in the piece grew out of conversations here at SF, and I am truly grateful to you all for reading and thinking with me over the past months about these things. A fuller version will appear in my forthcoming book, but until then, here’s a teaser trailer:
I imagine a future in the church when the call to chastity would no longer sound like a dreary sentence to lifelong loneliness for a gay Christian like me. I imagine Christian communities in which friendships are celebrated and honored—where it’s normal for families to live near or with single people; where it’s expected that celibate gay people would form significant attachments to other single people, families, and pastors; where it’s standard practice for friends to spend holidays together or share vacations; where it’s not out of the ordinary for friends to consider staying put, resisting the allure of constant mobility, for the sake of their friendships. I imagine a church where genuine love isn’t located exclusively or even primarily in marriage, but where marriage and friendship and other bonds of affection are all seen as different forms of the same love we all are called to pursue.
By shifting our practice of friendship to a more committed, honored form of love, we can witness—above all—to a kingdom in which the ties between spiritual siblings are the strongest ties of all. Marriage, Jesus tells us, will be entirely transformed in the future, barely recognizable to those who know it in its present form (Matt. 22:30). Bonds of biology, likewise, are relativized in Jesus’ world (Mark 3:31–35). But the loves that unite Christians to each other across marital, racial, and familial lines are loves that will last. More than that, they are loves that witness that Christ’s love is available to all. Not everyone can be a parent or a spouse, but anyone and everyone can be a friend.
Read the whole thing.
Some friends of mine were recently married. As a part of their wedding ceremony, they included the prayer:
“For those suffering from broken hearts and homes, from loneliness or the dread of it; and for all called to the generosity of the single or celibate; that they might inspire [name of bride and groom] by their conformity to Christ, and always find in them fiercely devoted friends, and in their house a second home.”
This is a rather odd prayer for American weddings, which are often primarily (or purely) celebrations of a “filling love” between the husband and wife. We often celebrate marital love as a love in which the man and woman are seen as fulfilling each others’ deepest desires, creating an insular community in which the couple is viewed as “enough” for each other. The couple is seen as creating a home for themselves, but not a home for others.
But this couple is not only creating a home for themselves; they also desire a home for their friends. This prayer shows a deliberate resistance to one of the greatest tendencies of erotic love: the tendency for that love to be a raging flame in which the couple is consumed by an exclusive desire for each other, a flame that both impassions the couple and burns those who may come too near to them. We’ve all known people who, upon starting a romantic relationship, will abandon their friends and allow all their time and energy to be consumed by their significant other.