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.

When Friendship Isn’t a “Solution”

Paul Wadell, author of some of the few contemporary treatments of friendship in the Christian tradition (that draw on St. Aelred, among others), has an article in an old issue of the Christian Century on a complicated friendship of his. Going through some of my old files today, I ran across Wadell’s essay and found myself thinking about it again. (The piece is behind the paywall, sadly. But for the few of you who may subscribe, here’s the link. It’s worth reading.)

Wadell tells the story of an especially rich friendship from his high school days that later became painful and led to heartache and a “parting of the ways.” He and his friend started traveling different roads and lost the ability to understand and sympathize with one another. But neither of them, it seems, gave up on the friendship entirely. Wadell only tells snippets of the story, but it seems to me from what he wrote that the relationship remained pretty touch and go until the friend’s death. There was genuine love, even reconciliation and forgiveness, but never a return to that joy that sparked the friendship in the first place. And this got me reflecting on a paradox at the heart of friendship.

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What Is Gender Dysphoria?

Here are several talks featured at Q Ideas this week. The first is a talk I gave at Q Denver titled, What is Gender Dysphoria?  I try to explain the phenomenon, as well as provide a little background information on theories of etiology, prevalence, and management strategies.

The second talk is by Melinda Selmys, who shares about her own experiences with gender dyshporia.

After we both spoke, Gabe Lyons invited us to join him for a time to Q & A from the audience. This was a helpful opportunity to reflect further on gender dysphoria:

To give you a little background on Q Ideas, here is a description from their website:

Q was birthed out of Gabe Lyons’ vision to see Christians, especially leaders, recover a vision for their historic responsibility to renew and restore cultures. Inspired by Chuck Colson’s statement, “Christians are called to redeem entire cultures, not just individuals,” Gabe set out to reintroduce Christians to what had seemed missing in recent decades from an American expression of Christian faithfulness; valuing both personal and cultural renewal, not one over the other. Re-educating Christians to this orthodox and unifying concept has become central to the vision of Q.

Together, we explore topics that fall into four broad themes: culture, future, church, and gospel. Q facilitates the investigation of deeper engagement and responsibility in each of these areas. As we continue to work through these ideas on a deeper level, so grows our commitment to equipping innovators, social entrepreneurs, entertainers, artists, church-shapers, futurists, scientists, educators, historians, environmentalists, and everyday people to do extraordinary things. At Q Ideas, you’ll see a broad spectrum of content represented in our small group curriculum, essays, videos, blog articles, and podcasts. These are all contributed and commissioned to shed light on unique areas of culture and the church.

Unchosen Gay Celibacy?

two-roads

A recurring theme that shows up in many articles at Spiritual Friendship is the concept of unchosen gay celibacy. As I’m in a mixed orientation marriage, it’s to be expected that I have a complicated relationship with that idea. In this post, I’d like to share some thoughts on unchosen gay celibacy from the perspective of a gay man who has chosen marriage to a woman. This is not a refutation or criticism of what’s already been written on the topic. Rather, I see it as a sort of addendum to what I believe are excellent articles that have no doubt ministered to celibate gay Christians who face the particular challenges associated with that calling.

My marital status notwithstanding, so much of what’s written here, here, and here resonates deeply with me. That’s because I’m not just nominally gay. It’s a real part of my life. Yet the calling of celibacy that those articles, as well as most of the relevant material out there, assume for gay Christians does not pertain to me. So what is the difference maker? What’s different about those of us who are contributors or who frequently participate in the conversation here at SF for whom marriage, not celibacy, is God’s calling?

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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.

Podcast: “Homosexuality and Christian Faithfulness”

I recently sat down with Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary — well, sort of; I sat in my office and talked with him via Skype — and I wanted to share that conversation here. Darrell interviewed me about my Washed and Waiting and Spiritual Friendship books, and while there may not be a lot that’s new here if you’ve heard me talk before, maybe it’s still something a few of you might appreciate.

Here’s the breakdown of the conversation:

00:56

Hill’s books and background

02:23

Same-sex attraction and the Christian

07:45

Hill’s book, Washed and Waiting

10:58

Sexuality in 1 Corinthians 6 and Romans 8

14:12

Hill’s conversation with this parents

17:35

How the church can minister to same-sex attracted and single people

20:10

Hill’s book, Spiritual Friendship

25:20

Jesus’ example of singleness and self-sacrifice

30:50

The concept of friendship

36:00

Three categories for friendship

39:27

Friendships with a deeper lever of commitment

41:35

The need for friendship

42:31

Multiple layers of friendships and serving together

43:32

Hospitality and staying connected

 

A high school “AP Friendship” class?

Rat and Mole with Dragonfly

My first earnest prayer was for a good friend.

At eight years old, I developed a haunting sense that I didn’t fit in anywhere, and that insecurity only grew more intense through high school and into college. But what I discovered there floored me and, no, it wasn’t just the friendly people.

In an honors Great Books program characterized just as much by intellectual joy as by rigor, students of all majors were mixed together and plunged into the most influential texts and the biggest questions of Western history. And after discussing enough modern epistemology, epic poetry, mystical theology, and Victorian literature in a room of political science, viola, anthropology, and business majors, I discovered the biggest idea I’ve ever seen.

Our best discussions have been the ones in which we got to know the author, cared about what he or she cared about, and tried to discern the truth they communicated. My best job interviews have been the ones in which I have gotten to know the company, articulate my understanding of what they care about, and discussed how I could help them love what they care about.

To read a book, have difficult conversations, and get a fitting job, all require that I become a good friend: to care about the other person, care about what they care about, and seek their good and the good of whatever they love. True friendship binds all things together.

My most earnest prayer today is that I would continue to become a good friend.

Today, I am a high school teacher, and it is my job to commission students to faithfully enter whatever comes next. But marriage is not a universal calling, nor is college. Nor is church ministry or a traditional job? So to what can I commission my students?

To friendship with God and man. 

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On Christians Who Change Their Minds

Over at First Things, I’ve got a new column on my frustration with the way the renowned Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff went about making his case for same-sex marriage:

Clearly, there exists in the church today the possibility of genuine, reasoned, substantive debate over the rightness of same-sex marriage. Some of the most humane and beautiful Christian writing I’ve read in recent years has come from same-sex-marriage advocates like the Episcopalian Eugene Rogers and the British feminist theologian Sarah Coakley. And that’s why Wolterstorff’s lecture is particularly dismaying: By firing cheap shots and caricaturing the traditional views he hopes to overturn, he hampers a debate whose depth and maturity could be further deepened.

Wolterstorff is, of course, simply one more example of the way Christians of all stripes are switching “sides,” so to speak, and affirming same-sex marriage. The popular blogger Jen Hatmaker made the news just this past week for the same thing, and she stands in a long line that includes, to pick only a couple of more recent examples, ethicist David Gushee and New Testament scholar Daniel Kirk.

There’s so much that could be said about this trend, and I tried to say a few constructive things in my column, but mainly I keep thinking about this post from my friend Alan Jacobs, written a couple of years ago now. Alan makes the point that if we, whether individual believers or churches or Christian organizations, change our views to affirm same-sex marriage because we think that’s what God has always affirmed, then that means we have to look back on all our long years of being non-affirming and view them as a capitulation to an ungodly cultural homophobia. We have to acknowledge that the church was—that we ourselves were—captive to an un-Christian way of approaching gay people for years upon years. Or if, like me, you think the historic Christian view of marriage is correct and that same-sex sexual practice is sinful, then you have to view all these recent changes of mind, like Nick Wolterstorff’s, as a similar sort of capitulation to culture, only in the opposite direction. And as Alan writes,

that’s the key issue, it seems to me — that’s what churches and other Christian organizations need to be thinking about. Either throughout your history or at some significant point in your history you let your views on a massively important issue be shaped largely by what was acceptable in the cultural circles within which you hoped to be welcome. How do you plan to keep that from happening again?

It’s a haunting question, to be sure.