For a long time, partly at our friend Eve Tushnet’s suggestion, I’ve wanted to try to write about how and why I’ve formed such deep and lasting friendships with married couples. This is, I gather, somewhat unusual for people like me who are both gay and celibate. Strange or not, though, it’s been one of the most significant parts of my efforts to embrace life and health in celibacy. So here’s my best effort (so I think) to try to tell that story.
I do want to say here what I probably should have said more clearly in the essay itself: this is not the story of Gay Christian Celibacy, capital-g, capital-c, capital-c, and if this doesn’t match what you feel or know, I certainly don’t think that indicates any failure or deficiency on your part.
This is just my story — or a slice of my story. But I’m offering it in the hope that it can inspire at least some of us to be more forthcoming about the pains and joys unique to our specific stories of going through life without spouses of our own.
I’ve obscured a couple of identifying details in the interest of discretion, but here is a true story.
Just before I came out in my mid-twenties, I had preached several sermons at a church where some close friends of mine attended. Those sermons had been warmly received, and many people who heard them encouraged me to continue seeking to discern whether I had a calling to pastoral ministry.
Then I came out.
Whether it’s the Catholic Eve Tushnet writing about “bad Catholics” or the Baptist Nick Roen writing about when Christians are obligated to leave a church that rejects certain Scriptural teachings, we here at SF have circled around the theme of what Protestants often call “church discipline”—i.e., when and why and how we may be asked to refrain from receiving Communion because of an unwillingness to repent.
For those of you who want to keep thinking about this topic, I’ve got a long post on it—and particularly how it relates to gay people and sexual sin—up today over at The Living Church magazine’s Covenant blog. Any thoughts you’d want to leave in the comment box would be most welcome!
In discussions on the Bible and gay relationships, a common refrain is that Jesus never said anything about the subject, so it must not have been a priority for him. There are a variety of sound conservative responses, such as pointing to the belief that all Scripture is inspired by God, not just the direct words of Jesus.
In this piece, however, I’m going to focus on a different problem with this argument: those who make it often reject the direct teaching of Jesus on sexual ethics anyway. We do have an authoritative condemnation of remarriage after divorce in most circumstances. For example, see Matthew 19:3-9.
A book making the argument discussed here
When someone points out that we don’t have a direct record of Jesus condemning gay sex, does that person accept Jesus’s teaching about divorce and remarriage? In many (if not most) cases, the answer to this question is “no.” If the person isn’t willing to accept the teaching of Jesus on other similar matters, then the point about gay sex is just a smokescreen.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.