Gay Students at Christian Colleges: What’s Our Vision for Their Flourishing?

In January, I spoke to a room full of Christian college presidents for the annual gathering of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. The topic they set for me was how to talk about a Christian theology of marriage with real compassion for students wrestling through questions of sexual identity. The CCCU has now transcribed my remarks, and you can read them here.

An excerpt:

I want to suggest to you that one of the most important things you can do on your campuses is cast a vision of what a hopeful future could look like for your students who are same-sex attracted. For so many of us, when we think about living out our lives in the evangelical church as gay—and as celibate, probably, for most of us—the future looks blank. We can’t picture what it would look like because we don’t have models of how this goes. I’ve spent all my life in the church, and I have rarely seen people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who are talking openly about what it looks like to embrace a vocation of celibacy.

I remember recently talking to a Roman Catholic friend of mine who grew up in the church. He said, “From the time I was 4 years old, it was a huge question in my mind as to whether God might call me to be celibate”—because God might call him to be a priest. As soon as I heard him say that, I thought, “Our childhoods were so profoundly different because it never occurred to me that God might call me to be celibate. It never occurred to me to contemplate the single life.” I always simply assumed I’d go to college and meet my spouse like my parents did and live a Christian life by having kids and being part of a family values church. That was the future; that was the path. It never occurred to me that God might have in mind a vocation of celibacy. I apparently never read 1 Corinthians 7.

But this is the challenge for you, to cast a vision—and it doesn’t have to be one vision; I think there are 100 different models that this could take for your students—but to cast a vision [for your students]: “This is what a hopeful future looks like for you. If you’re same-sex attracted, and you’ve tried everything, and you haven’t experienced one iota of change in your same-sex attraction, and you’re wanting to give your life to God in celibacy, that does not have to equal loneliness. That does not have to equal isolation. … There’s a life for you. There’s a future for you that doesn’t simply look like alienation from your fellow believers in the church who seem to be so fixated on the nuclear family.” … What I am praying for you is that you will find yourself thinking of your same-sex attracted students not as a liability on your campus, but as people you’re in solidarity with.

You can read the rest here.

Why Do We Think the Bible is Against Same-Sex Marriage?

I’ve just returned from Calgary, Alberta where Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian Network (GCN), and I had a public dialogue on All Things Gay and Christian for the Anglican Church of Canada diocese there. It’s not the first time he and I have done something like this, but we both agreed that this one seemed to touch on all the major issues—debates over biblical interpretation, the church’s need for repentance for its treatment of LGBTQ persons, the need to celebrate singleness, to name just a few—in a way we felt was particularly effective. And it helps that Justin such a gracious and generous friend.

Continue reading

The Everyday Touches of Life

I got to know my brother, Parker, when I moved in with his family my sophomore year of college.

I know, that’s a strange sentence. You see, Parker is my brother, but we aren’t actually related by blood or legal family name (his last name is Fischer). He’s my brother because we decided to be brothers. Simple as that.

My freshman year, I became close friends with Parker’s older (blood) brothers, Travis and Tylor, and I started hanging out at their family home during most of my free time. Eventually, since I basically lived there anyway, it became natural for me to officially move in. During my year and a half in the Fischer home, I became a part of their family. And Parker—and Travis and Tylor—became my brothers.

*          *          *

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Rediscovering Friendship, Alabama-style

I’m in Birmingham, Alabama for the next few days to preach at the Cathedral Church of the Advent and — you guessed it! — to give a talk later tonight on “spiritual friendship.” The good folks over at AL.com were kind enough to let me say something on their website about friendship, and I thought it would be worth sharing here too. An excerpt:

When I move to a new city, as I have had to do four times in the last decade, the question that usually looms largest in my mind is: Will I be able to make new friends here? I’ve been single all of my adult life, and without a spouse or children to help ease my transitions, I rely a lot on friendship, both for the support and comfort I need but also so that I can have a dependable place in my life to give support and comfort to others. Friendship isn’t just an optional luxury for me. It feels more like a calling.

For a while, my passion for finding and cultivating close friendship felt like an uncommon hobby with no blogs or group texts or nerdy conferences where I could go to gush with fellow hobbyists about it. Sometimes it seemed as though I were making things up as I went along, performing a dance of friendship I had to choreograph myself. I knew a lot of people were like me — men consistently report wanting close friendships at the same rates that women say they do — but it also seemed like a secret that none of us wanted to discuss with each other.

But then, being a Christian, I decided to start rummaging through the history of my religious tradition, looking for friendship exemplars — forerunners and models and saints — whose lives and writings might be able to give me guidance for my twenty-first century life…

Read the rest here.

Rod Dreher on LGBT Christians and the Benedict Option

The Benedict Option

Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, is getting a lot of attention these days. We plan to have a full review of the book soon. In the meantime, our readers may appreciate the following excerpt, where Dreher talks about how the Church should respond to singles in general, and LGBT Christians in particular:

“Everyone is searching for love. It’s the most basic human desire. Whether one seeks that love in carnal pleasures, in material possessions, or God, everyone is seeking,” says Brother Evagrius of Norcia. “The monastic life, in a nutshell, is giving up every other pleasure for the love of God. Everything in the monastic life is built around helping you to achieve that.”

A congregation cannot be a monastery, but there is no reason why it should not reach out to hold its single members closer, as members of the church family. As Brother Augustine told me, there are days when he feels exhausted by the rigors of the monastic life—and on those days, he relies on the charity of his brother monks to carry him. Why can’t we serve our unmarried community members in a similar way?

Moreover, if a parish community has the resources, it should consider establishing single-sex group houses for its unmarried members to live in prayerful fellowship as what you might call lay monastics. It is hard to live chastely in a culture as eroticized as ours, especially when there is so little respect for chastity. One expects this from the world, but the church must be different.

All unmarried Christians are called to live celibately, but at least heterosexuals have the possibility of marriage. Gay Christians do not, which makes their struggle even more intense.

Worse, too many gay Christians face rejection from the very people they should be able to count on: the church. The angry vehemence with which many gay activists condemn Christianity is rooted in large part in the cultural memory of rejection and hatred by the church. Christians need to own up to our past in this regard and to repent of it.

Continue reading

On Gay Loneliness

This Huffington Post article, by Michael Hobbes, on “gay loneliness after gay rights” has been making the rounds. I first saw it when a friend of mine sent me the link last week, and I was truly moved by it. Here’s a taste:

The term researchers use to explain this phenomenon [of disproportionate experiences of depression, loneliness, and suicide among gay men] is “minority stress.” In its most direct form, it’s pretty simple: Being a member of a marginalized group requires extra effort. When you’re the only woman at a business meeting, or the only black guy in your college dorm, you have to think on a level that members of the majority don’t. If you stand up to your boss, or fail to, are you playing into stereotypes of women in the workplace? If you don’t ace a test, will people think it’s because of your race? Even if you don’t experience overt stigma, considering these possibilities takes its toll over time.

For gay people, the effect is magnified by the fact that our minority status is hidden. Not only do we have to do all this extra work and answer all these internal questions when we’re 12, but we also have to do it without being able to talk to our friends or parents about it.

John Pachankis, a stress researcher at Yale, says the real damage gets done in the five or so years between realizing your sexuality and starting to tell other people. Even relatively small stressors in this period have an outsized effect — not because they’re directly traumatic, but because we start to expect them. “No one has to call you queer for you to adjust your behavior to avoid being called that,” Salway says.

James, now a mostly-out 20-year-old, tells me that in seventh grade, when he was a closeted 12-year-old, a female classmate asked him what he thought about another girl. “Well, she looks like a man,” he said, without thinking, “so yeah, maybe I would have sex with her.”

Immediately, he says, he panicked. “I was like, did anyone catch that? Did they tell anyone else I said it that way?”

This is how I spent my adolescence, too: being careful, slipping up, stressing out, overcompensating. Once, at a water park, one of my middle-school friends caught me staring at him as we waited for a slide. “Dude, did you just check me out?” he said. I managed to deflect — something like “Sorry, you’re not my type” — then I spent weeks afterward worried about what he was thinking about me. But he never brought it up. All the bullying took place in my head.

The whole article is worth your attention, and it’s already prompted a lot of conversation in my circles, but I just want to make two brief points that I haven’t seen others making in quite the same way.

Continue reading

One More Reason to Avoid “Gay”?

We’ve been around “the ‘gay’ identity label” block so many times before — see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here — but I had a conversation this week that made me wonder if one more post just may be worthwhile.

The basic question is this: Should Christians who experience sexual and romantic desire for members of the same sex, and who want to live chastely in accord with biblical and traditional Christian teaching, describe themselves with identity labels like “lesbian,” “gay,” or “bi”?

The case for a No answer has been put pretty well by our friends over at the Living Out site:

The Bible knows nothing of the concept of “sexual orientation” — so no-one is ever referred to in the Bible as being gay, lesbian, straight, or bisexual. God’s word speaks only of sexual practices, i.e., those which are pleasing to God (sex within marriage, which is between one man and one woman) and those which are not (all other sex, whatever the context). I now have a new identity, one which is based not on who I’m sexually attracted to, but rooted in my most important relationship of all, that is my relationship with Jesus Christ…. “If anyone is in Christ,” writes the Apostle Paul to Christians in Corinth, where some had been converted to faith in Christ from a background of same-sex practice, “he is a new creation; the old has gone the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). For me, part of the “old” that “has gone” is this idea of identifying myself and describing myself according to my sexual attractions. If I were to hold on to that label “gay”, as if it’s somehow intrinsic to who I am now, then by denying myself a same-sex relationship it would feel as if I’d be denying who I really am (an accusation some of my gay friends already level at me). If my true identity is in Christ, however, then denying myself a same-sex relationship seems like a much more positive outworking of my commitment to follow Jesus Christ and to put him first in my life.

I don’t want to rehash my case for a Yes answer — you can follow the links above if you want to see some examples of such a case. Instead, I want to ask you, dear readers, about a different reason entirely for answering the question in the negative.

Continue reading

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.

“Beyond marriage and religious life”

Our own Eve Tushnet has a new piece in America magazine about non-marital ways people can belong to one another. I recommend it enthusiastically.

My housemates Aidan and Melanie Smith and I—about whom I’ve written before—were interviewed here, along with other friends of SF like Tim Otto. Go read the whole thing!

My favorite part of the article was how it ended:

Several people I spoke with emphasized that they had not had any expectations for their way of life—or they had to lose the expectations they did have. They did not feel that they had successfully achieved friendship, partnership, community membership. These were things they received through luck or Providence. Love did not solve their problems; it was as likely to sharpen their loneliness as to relieve it. As Zoe Mullery said, “You’d think [community] would deal with your loneliness better—and it doesn’t.” They are grateful, not satisfied.

The God who emerges in their words is a weird and unpredictable God. It is a God who wants you to love others, to make your life a gift, but who offers no guarantees that anybody but him will take you up on the offer. This God may call you to break societal norms but give you no guidance in how to do it well. This God will use your loneliness and insecurity to drive you to love others, but then make you see that no human being—and maybe nothing in this life—can satisfy your hunger to be loved. In the battle between solitude and community, community wins—even contemplatives rejoice in and suffer the intense relationships found in a monastery. Yet it might be said that our willingness to accept and sacrifice for our community obligations must rest on the bedrock of our solitude with God.

As someone pursuing an intentionally single, chaste life in community with dearly loved, “committed” friends, I would co-sign every single word of this. And I want that phrase “grateful, not satisfied” carved on my tombstone.