A feeling of gratitude came over me as I wrapped up reading Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian by Wesley Hill. I will not forget what I read in the pages of this book. It changed the way I see friendships. It changed the way I see gay or same sex attracted people and their burden. Every pastor should read this book. We pastors desperately need more solutions to gay dilemma than our current binary of “it’s okay” or “it’s bad.” My hearts aches for Christian men and women saddled with same sex attraction and with Scripture’s directive that homosexual sex in sinful. This topic was a lot easier (1-2 decades ago) when we all thought gay people were choosing to be gay. We could just preach that it was sinful, and those gay people could just choose the straight path instead. How little did we know.
In the roughly 10-20 years since this was the dominant mindset in the church, as we’ve learned more from gay / SSA people, we’ve learned that for the vast majority of them no such choice was ever made and no such corrective choice is possible. Not only have they tried a thousand times to make that corrective choice and prayed earnestly for it, the lack of answer from God, in addition to the continued “it’s bad” message from the Church has driven so many to emotional despair and spiritual paralysis.
I praise God for Wesley Hill and others like him who are trying to create alternative biblical solutions for themselves and other gay / SSA Christians who want to follow the Bible’s commands on sex. They know that, “do it, it’s okay” doesn’t mesh with the Bible they have committed to follow, but they also know you simply can’t leave a gay / SSA person there. They know this from the pain and isolation of their own lives.
In chapters 1-4, Wesley presents a compelling case for kinship-like friendship to allow gay / SSA Christians to love and be loved in a way that is consistent with Scripture. He gives convincing scriptural evidence for how this type of biblical friendship has been lost in Western culture and needs to be reclaimed by the church for all members, gay or straight, married or single.
What I love about Wesley is his ruthless honesty. He essentially spends all of chapter 5 making sure the reader understands he is not presenting a quick fix to the emotional ache that gay / SSA people feel. He wants to make sure gay / SSA Christians, as well as pastors looking for the magic bullet solution to all of this, understand that there is no magic bullet. He wants to make sure people understand if they walk down the path of kinship / covenantal friendship, they will meet pain and disappointment. This is not a good sales pitch! But it is real and it is honest. Us pastors hate this. We want a systematic theology that fixes everything. We want the right answer that grounds us in Scripture and that gives everyone warm fuzzies.
Wesley chills any warm fuzzies in chapter 5 when he gives a behind the scenes look at Henri Nouwen, a gay celibate Christian leader who Wesley has mentioned throughout the book and who has served as a life example to Wesley personally. While I’m not gay or celibate, I too have always bonded intimately with Nouwen’s writing. He shares almost all my insecurities, and while I am married, I know that my longing for lust, porn, or other women is rooted in the same longings Nouwen writes about. Longings for acceptance, validation, and approval. The desire to be desired. These of course spill into my life as a church planter and author as well, as they did in Nouwen’s author and vocational ministry life. I am telling you without exaggeration that Nouwen’s books The Return of the Prodigal Son, Letters to Marc about Jesus, In the Name of Jesus, and The Way of the Heart have been the most soul-transforming books I have ever read, reminding me of my identity in Christ and allowing me to viscerally feel the love the Father has for me. These books and his many others like them can give the impression that Nouwen, such a sage in the area of experiencing the love of the Father at its deepest level, at the level that quenches our thirst indefinitely, never struggled again in this area. What makes Nouwen such an effective and relatable writer is he that writes from his wound, where he and you know this is not the case. He is the wounded healer and it shows. But in chapter 5, Hill goes out of his way to make sure we understand what it’s really like for a gay, celibate Christian to live the life Nouwen lived and writes about. To make sure we really understand this isn’t a silver bullet. To profoundly understand the meaning of “wounded.” Hill uses biographies written after Nouwen’s death, as well as details given here and there by Nouwen in his writings, to take us into the raw, authentic ache that Nouwen experienced in his singleness and celibacy.
Henri Nouwen had fallen in love with a close male friend named Nathan. He maintained his vow of celibacy and wasn’t pursuing a homosexual relationship with Nathan, but his feelings were deep and strong and beyond his control. He had become codependent on Nathan for his sense of identity and acceptance. When Nathan realized the real depth of Nouwen’s feelings for him, he withdrew and their friendship dissolved.
Nouwen writes: “…the enormous space that had been opened for me could not be filled by the one who had opened it.” He often writes about how only Jesus can fill this void (as I do in Beyond the Battle: A Man’s Guide to His Identity in Christ in an Oversexualized World) and Hill references that Nouwen “eventually wrote about the place of peace he arrived at, speaking of the ‘inner voice of love’ that he heard at the end of the anguish. It’s a picture of rest, of still waters after a squall.”
Boom. The end. Magic bullet locked, loaded, and fired.
I wish it was that simple, but Hill refuses to let us stop there. He goes on:
Truthfully, though, that’s not the image I took away from reading Nouwen’s account and spending time with his biographers. I pictured him instead in his room, alone, receiving the Blessed Sacrament away from the community to which he belonged, unable to meet the gaze of anyone but the priest who tipped the chalice toward his lips. “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you in everlasting life,” the priest said, and I pictured Nouwen crying.
I imagined him in his therapist’s office, curled in a fetal position. I pictured the therapist, per the regiment they had already agreed on, placing his arms around Nouwen’s weeping form and holding him, speaking in hushed tones, “You’re safe. You’re loved. Your heart is greater than your wounds.”
I pictured the alienation, the loneliness.Spiritual friendship, page 95
When Wesley says he “pictured” this, he’s not imagining “what if” scenarios, he is talking about the actual accounts from Nouwen’s biographers. He is saying that’s the part I picture. That’s the part I am living. That’s what’s most vivid to me.
Hill begins winding down his book by wanting to make sure he does not idealize friendship as a quick fix for loneliness and relational burdens, rather than as something requiring substantial burden-bearing itself. You will get your heart broken anytime you love. Therefore Hill says, the calling of friendship is a call to pain. Joy, yes, and consolation, but not as a substitute for pain (page 99).
I couldn’t help but feel a little melancholy and mournful as I finished up chapter 5. A needed sobriety to be sure, but unsettling nonetheless.
The book’s sixth and final chapter gives some helpful ways to cultivate deeper friendships, whether gay or straight, married or single, particularly in the church context. It ends with an image of hope from a friendship in Wesley’s life, but definitely will be a feeling of “To be continued…” as well. A feeling that this thing could still unravel anytime and likely will some day end. But it’s good for today.
And I suppose that’s how it is for gay / SSA Christians more often than not. No magic bullets. Rarely much closure. But a lot of “To be continues.”
Pastors and straight Christians must begin to understand this. This road of waiting that gay / SSA Christians walk. A waiting that will likely never have a neat and shiny bow tied on top of it, this side of eternity.
Up to this point, we have not had room for this unresolved tension within contemporary Western Christianity. The Psalms make room for it, which is why I am falling more and more in love with them. Wesley’s life has had no choice but to make room for it. The unresolved tension has moved in and he has had to accommodate it, whether he’s wanted to or not.
Our theology and approach to ministering to gay / SSA Christians needs to make room for it as well.
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