Tish Harrison Warren: True Love Dies

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In Christianity Today, Tish Harrison Warren writes about this year’s juxtaposition of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day:

In John 15, Jesus said that the greatest form of love is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Strikingly, he holds up the highest ideal of love as friendship, not erotic love. And, perhaps more shockingly, the highest form of love is not “happily ever after,” but love that results in suffering and death for your friends.

I have a number of very close friends who are celibate, which inevitably entails some degree of loneliness, grief, and suffering. They have chosen to forestall some happiness, in the short-term at least. The false promise of Valentine’s Day—that life begins and ends with finding your romantic “soulmate” —is radically rejected by my friends’ decision to embrace celibacy. And yet, it’s not all doom and gloom and solitary sadness for them, because their choice is born of love and conviction, and though there are days of very real sorrow and pain, they also experience profound joy. Through both suffering and joy, my friends witness to the wonder and glory of friendship with God and also to the friendship and love of a community.

Many married couples, too, if they’re honest, will confess that they have also faced long stretches of catastrophic loneliness—times when they sat on a marriage counselor’s couch, white-knuckling their wedding vows, times when divorce seemed the happiest of all bad options—and yet they remained in the marriage. If marital love is to last, it will inevitably require the couple to lay down their lives for each other.

Jesus goes on to say, “You are my friends if you do whatever I command you” (John 15). Amidst the howling loneliness found both in marriage and celibacy, we face a kind of death born of obedience. Married and celibate Christians face different types of loneliness, yet they somehow match one another. Each calling lends its own joys, and each calling demands suffering. Each reveals the hope and redemption of the God of love, and each will require us to cling to him for dear life.

Image credit: J. McGuire, taken from Christianity Today article.

Benedict XVI: Do Not Be Afraid of Friendship with Christ

Pope Benedixt XVI

On February 11, 2013 Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would resign the Papacy. Last week, I shared a reflection on friendship Benedict shared in 2011, on the sixtieth anniversary of his ordination. Today, in honor of the fifth anniversary of his resignation, I offer another reflection on friendship with Christ, this taken from his 2005 homily marking his installation as the Bishop of Rome:

Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.

“Nothing is as Beautiful as a Human Being”

I remember a day several years ago, when I was training for ministry, that I sat around a table and talked with a group of Christian friends, all male, about lust. One of the men was a pastor at the church where we were all members. As we discussed various ways of trying to practice “custody of the eyes,” the pastor made a statement to this effect: “No one would be tempted by lust if you were standing in front of the Grand Canyon right now. Or in front of Bridalveil Fall at Yosemite National Park. The splendor and grandeur of those places would be so overwhelming that you’d turn from fantasizing to wonder at their beauty instead.” This was meant, I think, as a strategy: Learn how to crowd out whatever fascination with an image of a human you’re nurturing with something more overwhelmingly fascinating.

At the time, that comment struck me as… let’s just say highly unworkable. It still does. As much as I love nature — I spent much of my high school years hiking and camping in the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico and Colorado, and I consider Yosemite to be the most jaw-dropping instance of natural majesty I’ve ever had the good luck of witnessing — nothing holds my fascination like the human form. I thought of all this again when I read this tweet from another pastor, Vito Aiuto, this week:

If that’s true for more people than just Aiuto and me, our strategy for resisting sexual temptation has to look pretty different than what my pastor was recommending, doesn’t it? When the temptation comes to nurture fantasies that cannot be rightfully fulfilled, to treat others as mere objects for our titillation, even if only in the privacy of our thoughts — when the desiring gaze lingers “like a slug on a rose,” in Cyrano de Bergerac’s yucky phrase — surely the answer cannot be to start trying to picture boulders and forests and creeks instead. That sounds to me like a counsel to fight a conflagration with thimbleful of water.

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What’s a Body to Do? The Place of Beauty and the Body in Non-Sexual Loves

Editor’s note: Deanna Briody, a guest contributor, has a Masters in Church History and Theology from Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. She currently serves as the Graduate Writing Tutor and Facilitator of Partnerships at Trinity.

“Are you gay?” Too many people have asked. Growing up, the question upset me, as it flowered—not out of any expressed sexual longing for women—but out of my observable preference for basketball shorts over skinny jeans, sports over The Bachelor, and persistent, stubborn boyfriend-less-ness over the more common (though often less than tempting) boyfriend-ed-ness. Each time I answered the question with a stone-faced “No. I’m not gay,” adding a huffy “but thanks for asking,” in my head.

I wasn’t lying. I had, since puberty, experienced more or less consistent sexual desire for men, and I had never been aware of anything similar directed toward women. Late in my college years, however, a new awareness dawned on me. I began to notice the presence of something like desire in a number of my closest female friendships. I could trace it back from friend to friend and locate its beginnings early in high school. It was, as far as I could tell, a longing for closeness, a longing to know and be known in my female relationships. The more I thought about it, though, the more clearly I could see that there was something physical about the longing. I was drawn to their beauty: face, eyes, intensity of expression, though these were always accompanied by a loveliness that went deeper than skin. All the same, I desired a physical closeness to the beauty—ostensible and otherwise—that I had seen.

As I became aware of this desire filtering up through my past, I became simultaneously aware of its ongoing presence within me. I would notice myself noticing women: at weddings, at volleyball tournaments, in coffee shops and movies. It wasn’t all the time. I don’t even think it was more frequent than it had been. But now, and for the first time, it was within my powers of observation.

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Peace, Peace? Further Thoughts on Staying Put

Wes recently wrote a reflection about the Church Clarity website, and what it might mean for someone who differs from a church’s stated beliefs on sexuality to “stay put” as it were, in spite of serious disagreement.

I want to say right away how much I love and appreciate Wes and his writing. He, perhaps more than anyone, has given me a profound vision of committed friendship and helped me to see a path for positive flourishing in the midst of my same-sex attractions. I am deeply thankful to God for his grace to me through Wes.

Furthermore, regarding Wes’s post, I share much of his concern that we not too easily abandon ship in our commitment to a local church, denomination, or broad Christian tradition based on any and every disagreement we might encounter. When it comes to issues not primary to salvation and the heart of the gospel, membership vows should mean a great deal in our decision making. I also recognize that Wes is coming from a context where his broad church tradition is in the midst of significant change in understanding sexual ethics. I am very sympathetic to the tension he must feel as one who affirms the traditional biblical view of marriage and same-sex sexual activity within the Episcopal Church.

However, one of the unique features of Spiritual Friendship is that all of the contributors do not agree on everything. As I read Wes’s post, I must confess that I was not persuaded by his argument. Part of the reason for this likely flows from exegetical differences, as well as the different ecclesial structures in which we are living. Additionally, my reservations flow from the pastoral perspective from which I write. After all, I am a pastor in a local church, so the question of whether to stay or go takes on a particular flavor for me. In other words, I am not asking the question, “Should I as an individual believer commit to stay at a church with whom I am in serious disagreement?” Instead, the question for me becomes, “There are people at our church who regularly attend, seek to become members, be baptized, take communion, and flourish as Christians. In light of these disagreements on sexuality, how can my fellow pastors and I effectively shepherd our church as a whole AND the individual believers of whom our local body is comprised?”

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On “Church Clarity” and the Cost of Staying Put

A few weeks ago a website called Church Clarity launched. Their stated goal is to encourage churches, primarily evangelical ones, it seems, to be upfront about their policies regarding LGBTQ members. If, for instance, some churches will hospitably “welcome” LGBTQ members but not allow them to serve in leadership roles or receive Communion, Church Clarity wants those churches to own up to that policy on their websites so that potential members can see ahead of time what they’re getting into. As their own website indicates, they’re developing a database that offers “scores”:

The Church Clarity database scores churches on how clearly their websites communicate their policies. Currently, we are evaluating clarity of policies regarding LGBTQ people. To begin, we’ve published a selection of evangelical churches in America. The goal is to compile a comprehensive database of as many churches, especially evangelical ones, as possible.

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Sacrifice and Sexual Ethics

Crucifixion

God doesn’t promise that He’ll only ask you for the sacrifices you agree with and understand. – Eve Tushnet

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself; accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked; accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. – Terence Malick, Tree of Life

In paragraph 265 of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis teaches:

We have to arrive at the point where the good that the intellect grasps can take root in us as a profound affective inclination, as a thirst for the good that outweighs other attractions and helps us to realize that what we consider objectively good is also good “for us” here and now. A good ethical education includes showing a person that it is in his own interest to do what is right. Today, it is less and less effective to demand something that calls for effort and sacrifice, without clearly pointing to the benefits which it can bring.

The basic message is traditional. Morality involves rational pursuit of the good. This is so by definition because humanity was created with a desire for happiness (which, as St Augustine beautifully explains in his Confessions, can ultimately be satisfied only by God) – or, as ancient Greeks called it, eudaimonia (“flourishing”). Whatever we choose, we choose because we judge, rightly or wrongly, that it will contribute to eudaimonia. As Herbert McCabe puts it:

Living well means doing good because you want to do it, because you have become the kind of you that just naturally wants to do this.

The Church believes her rules surrounding sexual behaviour are not arbitrary. The goods indicated as desirable by Church teaching are (in the Holy Father’s words) good “for us,” given the way our nature was created. Pope Francis is restating the Church’s belief that her teachings on sex concern natural law, not eccelesiastical policy.

But paradigms of moral behaviour in Scripture often cannot be understood within the context of an ethic solely focused on the pursuit of eudaimonia. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ prays:

Abba, Father … all things are possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will. (Mark 14:36)

Christ, God and man, had two wills and two intellects (human and divine). His prayer indicates the desire of his (human) will is at odds with the Father’s desire. This suggests that Christ’s human intellect, in itself, could not grasp that his Passion was “in his own interest.” If it had grasped this, even his human will would have desired to undergo the Passion, since the will naturally desires what the intellect grasps as good.

St Augustine says that by praying as he did, Christ “shows Himself to have willed something else than did His Father.” St Thomas Aquinas explains this by arguing that although Christ’s “will as reason” always “willed the same as God,” in his “rational will considered as nature, Christ could will what God did not.” What is important to note is that even the human will of Jesus, although it never experienced disordered affection, cannot be said to have had a “profound affective inclination” toward his proper good at all times; nor can his human intellect, in itself, have been capable of completely comprehending that good, even though Christ’s human intellect (unlike ours) knew everything possible for a human intellect to know.

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Heartbreak and Celibacy Pt. 3

(See Part 1 & Part 2)

Part 3: What Heartbreak and Heartache Have Taught Me About Community

I’m a verbal processor and am usually a miserable failure at not gushing most details of my life with anyone trustworthy who will listen. I must have shared about my feelings for Corey with dozens and dozens of friends those first first two years, even if it was difficult for me to find the right language. Many of my celibate friends empathized and connected through their own stories of heartache and longing—friends who listened to the same laments over and over again and friends who called things as they saw them. My Side A friends, who were open to same-sex relationships, were thankful that I was finally coming to terms with my humanity and experiencing what most typical boys experienced a decade earlier. They helped me know that what I experienced is merely a part of life and a part of growing up. I had few examples of what to do with romantic feelings as a celibate gay man, which made it difficult to know how normal or abnormal my experiences were. As I learned, falling in love and going through heartache and heartbreak is just a part of life, celibate or not. I was thankful for the advice and empathy my friends shared as well as their enduring patience with me.

As a celibate gay man, I never thought I was supposed to fall in love. Matthew Vines, the popular gay-affirming apologist, has said that one of the worst things that can happen to a celibate gay man or woman is to fall in love. I don’t know if it is the single worst thing, but I think it is an especially excruciating challenge for many of us. In the celibate world, there are few models or examples of just getting through experiences of falling in love, and as a result, few talk about that experience openly. More than one of my celibate friends have participated in the wedding of the man or woman they were in love with at one time. For many of them, that was a heartache they endured silently. What they were feeling was something they believed they needed to reject or fear. So often they endured these intense feelings silently and alone.

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©️ Gregg Webb 2014

 

Some of my affirming friends lost faith in their convictions about celibacy after they experienced mutual romantic connection. It was easy to get caught up in the rush of feelings that you never thought were possible and a connection you never believed could really exist. In most cases they eventually experienced heartbreak but almost always didn’t stop pursuing romantic relationships after that first experience. The veil had been torn down, and they suddenly realized what, in a sense, they’d been missing. The challenge for celibate gay Christians is: How do you walk right up to the edge of the brink, look your feelings in the eye and acknowledge that they are real and important, but still choose not to walk down the path that these feelings are naturally inclined to lead? Continue reading

Heartbreak and Celibacy Pt. 1

Part 1: What Heartbreak and Heartache Have Taught Me About Myself

How do you live with heartbreak when you were never supposed to fall in love? What happens when you fall in love with a friend and you don’t want to ruin a friendship? How do you find the goodness in loving someone even if those feelings are, at some point, also romantic? I still don’t think I really know the answers to these questions, although the circumstances of my life seem hell-bent on teaching me. Heartaches and heartbreaks have taught me about myself, about my heart, and about my community. These are lessons I’m slowly learning, and I hope that in these ramblings maybe you too will find some semblance of an answer. At the very least, you’ll find something that you can empathize with, because at some point, gay or straight, heartache and heartbreak happen.

Twice in my adult life I’ve fallen in love with a man. Early crushes may have happened before adulthood, nothing significant enough to write about. The first time I fell in love was for a writer I’d gotten to know through his blog. I’ll call him Corey. As much as I struggled not to fall in love with Corey, I eventually did. I was madly in denial about what I was experiencing because it felt so incongruent with my values and, in many ways, pointless. Hundreds of miles separated us, and he never reciprocated my feelings, so there were fewer kicks to the face emotionally that would have made the nature of my feelings more apparent to me.

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©️ Gregg Webb 2014

Caught up in all of the heartache was fear. I feared what these feelings meant for me and for my future life as a celibate gay man. I couldn’t figure out which of the feelings I experienced were acceptable and which I was supposed to try and kill off. It took me over a year just to start finding language I felt comfortable with to describe what I was feeling. In many ways, because falling in love seemed pointless as a celibate gay man, I just wanted to forget about the whole thing altogether. My heart, and sometimes my dear friends, never really let me ignore it entirely, though I tried. It took Spotify listing my number one song of 2014 as “I Don’t Wanna Love Somebody Else,” by A Great Big World, for me to begin accepting that even the music I was (cluelessly) listening to somehow expressed what I could not. Experiences like the one I wrote about in “Forsaking All Others also helped me come to terms with my myself and slowly began to help me identify what I was feeling. Continue reading

Friends as Family Perspective

We are looking to enhance our understanding of the experiences of celibate gay Christians and their support system. We would like to interview friends who are close to celibate gay Christians or function as family in the lives of celibate gay Christians and could speak to that friendship. We would like to understand how people have built supportive friendships and to learn about the challenges, approaches, and your shared wisdom in building such relationships.  You don’t have to be living together as family, although a communal life together is an option for being included in the interviews. We are also open to interviewing celibate gay Christians who are in a covenant partnership or related relationship that is intentional in the way we described above.

These interviews are confidential, and we have some funds to support a limited number of interviews.

The interview takes about 40 minutes or so to complete and is typically done by phone or Skype. If you are interested in sharing some of your experience, please email me at markyar@regent.edu.