I was with Susanne recently. At this moment in the conversation, we were talking about my voice, my life, and the big picture of cross-sex friendship. My heart immediately began to swell up with overflowing gratitude. By many evangelical accounts I was not supposed to be where I was in the moment.
I thoroughly enjoyed this Sabbath-sized moment resting in her presence; we share deep trust with each other. In our intimate friendship we share this real and concrete sense of safety and security and also delight in one another. It doesn’t get any better than this, I thought.
Well, that has to be put into context. I’ve had similar “it doesn’t get any better than this” moments in my friendship with Susanne back in 2009. Then again in 2010. And more in 2011. Those moments were also present at various times in the last four years. In her immediate presence I was experiencing another one of those moments. Those, “it doesn’t get any better than this” moments in my friendship with Susanne keep coming.
“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing.”
Charlotte to Wilbur in Charlotte's Web
Five years ago today, I published the ground-breaking book, Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions. It was the first full length book from an evangelical with high aspirations to explore the mystery of sexuality and friendship. Does the Christian faith give hope for men and women as sexual beings to participate in a relational intimacy we would identify as personal friendship?
Evangelical publishers were spooked by such a notion and turned me down. .
Five years later, evangelical publishers have not budged.
Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions remains the only full length book on other sex friendship by an evangelical.
The notion of cross-sex friendship faces two enormous hurdles in the evangelical community. In the eyes of many evangelicals, a woman as a friend in the sense as another self (in relationship with a man) remains closely akin to women mingling with the guys after they have served casseroles at potlucks. Or women in emotional relationships with other women.
Valentine's Day 2015. For all the persons who have a significant other, partner, spouse or in a dating relationship, Valentine's Day is an an invitation to intimacy. In America, it is a particular gendered day of cultural celebration. Women expect to be showered with attention, courted, wooed by men. Yes, the Western culture is changing where women expect to be courted regardless of gender, but Valentine's Day is a gendered day of celebration.
Many women understand Valentine's Day as a day to receive intimate attention, lavished attention, and, ultimately special attention from their significant others. In the Western world Valentine's Day is a cultural marker for the women to feel extraspecial.
“For if my enemy had reviled me, I would verily have borne with it…But it was you, my equal, my close companion, my well-loved friend…We had intimate talks with each other…and we went to the house of God in company.” 55th Psalm
“If you lead you will eventually serve with Judas or Peter. Betrayal in some form is as sure as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.”
It is safe to say that one of the darkest periods in my life the past ten years was when a close friend betrayed me. Just as the Psalmist agonized over his friend’s betrayal, I too, experienced a friend who turned from a trusted, well-loved friend into a relational enemy. A powerful dose of intimate betrayal can push us into a Psalm lamenting trauma.
In my thirty plus years as an evangelical, I’ve read and heard Psalm 55:22 “Cast your burden on the Lord and He will sustain you” quoted for myriads of burdens but never for what the Psalmist anguished over: the traumatic betrayal of a friend. And yet, as part of ancient and deep wisdom, we clearly read in Psalm 55 one of most painful burdens we can experience in this life is when a close friend turns on us and deeply wounds us.
The Gospels also challenge any superficial or simplistic notions about how we can avoid intimate betrayal. In Jesus we see the fullness of God. Incarnate Love. Yet Judas who ate with Jesus, walked many miles with Jesus, witnessed Jesus’ abounding love up close and personal still betrayed the Love he encountered. Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss.
Is intimacy worth the risk of such deep betrayal? I’m not just talking about intimate friendship. I am, but I am thinking beyond that. Intimacy as an orientation as a way of life. What do I mean?
Like many evangelicals, I too, had a romantic red-letter edition Bible which powerfully shaped my view of love. For thirty plus years I had all the rhetoric and clichés of love down pat as a Bible-believing evangelical.
Oh, I don’t mean the Bibles which have the quotes of Jesus in red letters.
I mean the red-letter edition that interprets the fullness of divine love as romantic coupledom. Many evangelicals in our favorite institutions of romantic love (churches, colleges, seminaries, etc.) are eager to tell us what the Bible means when it talks about love and romantic coupledom in the twenty-first century.
Let me share with you some verses oozing with evangelical romantic red that I found in evangelical books on marriage. The following sample come from two books: Forever and Always:The Art of Intimacy and Friends and Lovers: Cultivating Companionship and Intimacy in Marriage:
Friends, we had some awesome posts on cross-gender friendship in 2014! This is indeed a boundary-shifting conversation men and women are having. It was hard to select just ten! There were some awesome guest-posts on my blog in the month of May. Every one of them deserved to be in this list. Some posts were written by pastors. Others by therapists. There were other strong voices contributing as well. These posts show the breadth and depth of Christian voices emerging on cross-gender friendship in 2014.
This post written by assistant professor of congregation formation, Rachel Jacobs for Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.
"Cross-gender friendships have much to offer us in broadening and nuancing our understanding of the opposite sex. In addition, since men’s and women’s spiritual journeys differ in some significant ways, a cross-gender friendship can spur us to further growth in ways that same gendered friends who are traveling the same path cannot."
"But in asking questions of cross- sex friendships, we need to question our own skepticism. Is our hunger for answers masking our own fear of being known? Don’t some of us feel like marriage paid the debt we owe to interacting with the opposite sex? And now, we can dismiss the rest of the women (or men) out there as threats to our marriage."
What a year 2014 was! So many great books that indicate Christians are moving more away from the sexualization of friendship within the Christian community. It was quite a challenge to think through my top ten books for 2014. Some of these books were published in 2014. Others are older but I read them for the first time this year. In order to make my top ten a book list, I nominate books which have shaped my thinking about the sexuality-faith-friendship connection this year. There have been some great books I’ve read this year but if they didn’t contribute to the sexuality-faith-friendship connection, they didn’t make the list.
1. Saving Desire: The Seduction of Christian Theology
“By trying to engage desire more directly as a Christian practice, we might also break out of the dichotomy between secular hedonism and oppressive morality. Bringing our sexuality directly into the life of faith through mindfulness and prayer makes it possible to better distinguish what is life-giving from what is debilitating… It is the discovery of how harmful alienated sexuality can be, not least as it serves patriarchal interests at the expense of one's inner wisdom. When we become more attuned to what is destructive and what is healing, we might also acknowledge a wider range of eroticism and love that is life-giving and healing.” Wendy Farley
"Students are expected to arrive at the first class session having already read the entirety of
C. S. Lewis’ essay on “Friendship” in his book The Four Loves and Dan Brennan’s
Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions book. At that first class meeting (June 9), students will
hand in a 2,000-word essay that has three parts: (a) First, the paper should include a
discussion of how Lewis understands the relationship between friendship and romantic
love; (b) second, the paper should discusse whether Dan Brennan’s book agrees or
disagrees with Lewis’ conclusions about friendship and romantic love; and (c) third, the
paper should indicate where and why the student agrees or disagrees with both Lewis
and Brennan. Each paper should feature a clear, strong thesis statement in its
introduction, and each subsequent section of the paper should contribute to articulating
and defending that thesis."
About every six months I google my name and my book to see if there is any mention about Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions out there I may have missed that I would be interested in. And there it was. A syllabus by Wesley Hill on his class "A Christian Theology of Friendship" that happened last June. Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions was a required textbook for this class. Students had to engage me and Lewis on romantic love and friendship.
"I could never take a chance Of losing love to find romance In the mysterious distance Between a man and a woman."
"You can run from love And if it's really love it will find you Catch you by the heel But you can't be numb for love"
A Man and A WomanU2
December 15 2005. A married man and a single woman both living in the Chicago suburbs embark at noon on a drive together to see U2 playing in Omaha Nebraska that night. The tickets were given to them as an early Christmas gift from the married man's wife. They were both excited to see U2 but they could hardly share their joy with their community because they were both conservative evangelicals at the time.
Married men and single women just don't go alone together to music concerts. Oh yeah, they especially don't take eight hour (one way) road trips together unchaperoned. Embodied redemption, intimate presence, trust, grace, and love only happen in between a man and a woman in romance according to conservative evangelical scripts of dos and don'ts. Embodied redemption carries no deep goodness or beauty between a married man and single woman, unchaperoned.
We told only a trusted few. But not many. I remember she got a call from someone while we were on the way to Omaha. She said to the caller, "You promise to not tell others? Dan and I are on the way to Omaha to see U2 tonight."
One of my closest female friends is taking me out to dinner tonight (in light of my upcoming b-day). Reflecting on the mutual delight between us this deep into the friendship. Evangelicals fear/project that if you experience this much interpersonal delight between the sexes you either a) do sex, or b) undermine marital intimacy. Such reductionism speaks of our small views of God.
Learning to receive and express delight is imitating God’s heart for community. It is a social practice that is healing and life-giving not just to the immediate individuals but to the immediate personal community. This is what it looks like to nurture intimacy within the church between the sexes.
Make no mistake: we are in this massive change of boundary-shifting conversation. Yes, a lot of evangelicals are nervous. Many evangelicals find this boundary-shifting conversation unsettling. It's important that we process this anxiety. It's also important for those of us on the frontline of this conversation to recognize we are in this epic shift in the early part of the twenty-first century. It's essential to respect those who draw different boundary lines. As leaders we have to recognize the amazing breadth and depth of this boundary-shifting conversation.
It occurred to me recently that I haven't written a post on eros and friendship in a while. Believe it or not, I continue to come across resources that reveal the changing face of eros, sexuality, and friendship. I understand for those you who identify as evangelicals it is a major shift for you to warm up to the idea of erotic possibilities in friendship. Many evangelicals continue to sexualize eros.
In a sub-section of the chapter with the sub-heading "Erotic Possibilities" they explore the erotic possiblities of friendship. Clearly understanding that sexual intimacy is one of the possibilities they also assert erotic possibilities for platonic friends:
"The erotic possibilities of friendship— the opportunities for closeness, affection, mutual support, delight, concern —are vast and complex... More often, friendship between women and men thrives in the decision to exclude sexual sharing...Both history and personal experience testify to the reality of significant emotional relationships in which genital sexuality has no part. Attraction and affection are strong , as are mutual concern and care. But the communion of these friendships does not include sexual sharing."
But I know friends who have passionate differences on the meaning of embodiedness, sexuality, chastity, celibacy, and love. My feminist friends see men in authority have used chastity as a tool of power against women for centuries. I have gay friends who believe same sex marriage is a gift from God. I also know friends who have fierce convictions about celibacy adhering to a traditional sexual ethic. Then, there are friends who believe mutual consent is a higher value than celibacy.
So there is no way I can explore the riches of Tushnet’s new book without diving into the politics of contemporary love as it were. Some of my LGBT friends supporting equality in marriage will have strong reactions to Tushnet’s book. They will consider her commitment to a traditional sexual ethic to be naïve and oppressive. Some other friends are excited about her book.
One misunderstanding of celibacy is that it represents the absence or frustration of sexual desire, that it points to a unique gift that is comparatively rare in persons, akin to asexuality. To the contrary, the witness of celibates is quite desirous. Instead of the absence of sexuality, celibacy is an expression of sexuality, an expression that refuses to reduce eros to sex.
Deep community. Intentional friendships with single female friends. What does it mean for single women to know the fullness of life? Like so many other Christians in America, the first 25 adult years of my Christian experience I had no imagination for deep non-marital relationships. As Christena observed in her post, I had no imagination for intentional intimate friendship. That kind of friendship was synonymous with marital friendship!
I've learned a lot from single women about single women and friendship in recent years.
In the last decade I’ve come to see that both marriage and friendship have a “missional” or outward orientation. I would stand with Catholic theologian David Matzko McCarthy that marriage is “in the middle of a larger network of preferential loves.” As my personal community intersected with my church community, intentional friendship with single women is an important part of my story now. I fiercely love my wife and as of tomorrow, we'll be married thirty-three years!
“Okay, tell me what you really think of Dan and his cross-gender friends. Are you really on board with him?” A well-meaning curious single woman was asking Sheila my wife while I had briefly stepped away from the restaurant table. It was her first time to talk with Sheila alone.
This moment between Sheila and the single woman came to mind when I read Christena Cleveland’s post on Social Justice for Single People. If anyone fits the description of a single social justice warrior it is Christena.
She writes about the void in her life as an unmarried person:
But I grew up in a faith tradition that didn’t prepare me for life as an unmarried person. And the American Christian world is so unimaginative when it comes to non-marital relationships. I’m afraid I’ve become unimaginative as well… the daily processing piece with another human being has been and is missing. Married people have a Barnabas in their spouse, but there are no ready-made Barnabases for unmarried people.
The painful truth is that most of us as Christians have not learned to do intentional deep friendships well. And we certainly do not have a good track record with intentional community toward single women. As Christena observed, there is a long list of stories about how the Church marginalizes unmarried people.
Two links within Christianity Today this month. One in their magazine and one in Her.menuetics speaking of love for the long haul:
"The years have tamped the crazy-fun fireworks of our newlywed life into slow-burning embers. It may not be the stuff of Hollywood movies or pop songs, but they are the byproduct of a partnership that’s survived great hardship. We cherish the moments of happiness we’ve shared (and hope to continue to discover in the coming years together), but pursuing happiness is not our goal. Continuing to live within the embrace of God’s faithfulness is."
"What we need isn't disinterested, disembodied camaraderie, in which we keep distance from one another's hearts and stories. We need stronger bonds for brothers and sisters in Christ.
Writer and activist Maggie Gallagher describes two kinds of relationships. To the first she gives the tag "You're mine because I love you." In this relationship, you and I may belong to a special friendship and share many of the joys that friendship makes possible. But such joys will last only as long as my love lasts. If I tire of you or am hurt by you, I'm free to walk away—no obligations, no hoops to jump through, no strings attached.
I imagine a church where genuine love isn't located exclusively or even primarily in marriage, but where marriage and friendship and other bonds of affection are all seen as different forms of the same love we all are called to pursue.
By shifting our practice of friendship to a more committed, honored form of love, we can witness—above all—to a kingdom in which the ties between spiritual siblings are the strongest ties of all...But the loves that unite Christians to each other across marital, racial, and familial lines are loves that will last. "