Wesley Hill: Spiritual Friendship – Biola University Chapel

By | September 2, 2019


>>Well good morning. It’s very good to be at Biola. This is not my first time to Biola and I’m very glad to be back. I had forgotten how green
and beautiful your campus is. So I was enjoying walking around this morning and I hope
to meet many of you throughout the day. I’m going to be on campus most of the day. So thank you for having me here, thank you, Chris, for those words. I’m going to be talking about the theme of friendship this morning,
spiritual friendship. And it feels very appropriate
that I’m surrounded by friends here this morning. Chris has been a friend,
as he said, for about a decade now. Misty and Matt and another Matt, and it’s wonderful to have
friends here who I’ve known for a long time and I
hope to make new friends as I’m here today as well. I’d like to pray once more as we begin so if you would bow with me for prayer. Gracious God, I pray that You
will open our minds and hearts to hear from You. To hear from Your Word. To see Jesus as the
Friend that He was and is. I pray in His name, Amen. Well I want to start this
morning by telling you about a play by Tom Stoppard. Some of you will know
the name Tom Stoppard. He’s probably most famous
I guess for the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Some of you know, hopefully. He co-wrote Shakespeare in Love, so he’s a well-known playwright. This play that I want to
talk about this morning is one of perhaps his lesser known works. It’s called The Invention of Love. And it’s about the life of
the poet and text critic A. E. Housman, who died in 1936. He was quite famous for
a collection of poems, A Shropshire Lad and, it was several years ago, I was coming to terms with
my own same-sex attraction, which I’ll say a little
bit more about later. And a friend of mine said, have you read The Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard? And I hadn’t even heard
of it, so immediately I ordered it and read it. And I discovered why he said
you should read this play and think about this play
in relation to your life and your questions. In the middle of the play is
a scene where A.E. Housman meets his departed self. So he’s in his 20’s,
he’s a student at Oxford at the time of this scene
in the middle of the play, and he meets the older
deceased version of himself who’s lived his whole life, and now they get to have a conversation. Fascinating scene. And the younger Housman is
beginning to come to terms with his own homosexuality. And he’s really asking himself
the question in the Oxford of his day, what does
it look like to be true to this part of myself. How should I love? How should I express my longings? And what he finds himself
doing in this scene is he’s reaching back for examples
from the classical past, the Greek and the Roman past these kind of noble ideals
of same-sex friendship. Comradeship in arms. The sacred band of thieves and all that. And he’s sort of waxing eloquent about how much easier it was for
a man to love another man centuries ago. And he says if you try to
do that today in Oxford, you get into trouble. But back then, in the past, in
this kind of classical vision of friendship, you could give
your life for another man and it was honorable. It was something that was esteemed, something that was
understood in the culture. There was a category for
thinking about same-sex love. And he finds himself describing
this in eloquent terms, and his older cynical self, his dead self, says to him in reply, that won’t work. Love will not be deflected
from its mischief so easily. And so you get this
fascinating back and forth of these two Housmans
having a conversation about what it means to have
desire to love another man. How should that be interpreted? How should that be expressed? How should it not be expressed? How should it be
acknowledged and lived into and celebrated but also
recognized as a potentially dangerous and potentially
problematic desire. So that’s right in the middle of this play and here I am with my own questions, my own yearnings, and
I’m reading this play and I’m thinking that’s
exactly my question. As a Christian, I grew
up in a Christian family and I knew that I wanted
to remain a Christian. I wanted to remain faithful to scripture, but yet I knew that I had a
nearly exclusive attraction to persons of my own sex. And my burning question at the time that I opened this play was, how do
I hold these things together? What does it mean to live as
a faithful disciple of Jesus with a homosexual orientation? What does it mean to be gay
or to be same-sex attracted or whatever term you prefer to use, what does it mean to be that in relation to the lordship of Jesus? That was my question. Does it simply mean I’m
called to deny this love, this yearning, this longing
for intimacy with men, or is there some way,
like Housman hints at, in this scene the
younger Housman hints at, of offering it to be
transformed, to be deepened, to be ennobled in the life of faith. What does it look like for someone who is attracted to members of their own sex to find their love not
simply denied or ignored, but somehow transformed? Somehow sanctified. Somehow offered to God. So what I want to do this morning, in the time that we have left is, I want to share with
you some of the things I’ve been thinking about
lately that have kind of been prompted by reading Stoppard
and some other sources. As Chris said, I’m working
on a project about this, a writing project about friendship. And I just want to share with you some of the fruits of that, and I want to share it in
the form of three commitments that I think all of us as
believers in Christ could make that would I think significantly
strengthen our lives as church communities, our
lives as a campus community, our lives as individual disciples. Three commitments we might make that would begin to alter
the way we think about same-sex love, the way we
think about friendship, the way we think about
how we love one another in the body of Christ. And the way I want to do
this, I want to preface it by talking just for a moment
about why this question feels so urgent to me, and why this feels so important. Why would I come and devote a chapel talk to this question of friendship? And it has to do, as I
said at the beginning, with the reality of same-sex attraction. I’ve done a few events
like this in recent months, and I’m meeting a lot of people who are your age, who are
sitting where you sit now, or who have recently graduated from an institution like this, and they’re filled with
questions about what it means, they know they don’t want
to abandon their faith, they know they don’t want to
give up on following Christ, but they also know they don’t fit into the category of straight. They don’t fit into the
category of heterosexual and they’re wondering, what
does discipleship look like in that reality? What does it look like to be faithful? What does it look like
not simply to be faithful, but to be whole, to be healthy, to be flourishing in the body of Christ? Jesus said that he came to offer life and to offer it abundantly. And the question you may
be asking this morning, the question I have
friends who are asking, the question I’m asking is, what does it look like
to find a life of beauty, a life of love, a life
of humane flourishing in the body of Christ as a
same-sex attracted Christian? I received an email
from a friend recently, and I’ve asked his
permission if I can share an excerpt of this because I think he puts really poignantly the
question I want you to feel. The question, if you’re not asking it, certainly someone you
know is likely asking it. Here’s what he says. He says “what I cannot imagine,
what causes me to wince “in terror, is the thought
of being celibate in my 40’s, “50’s, 60’s and beyond. “Perhaps I lack your strength
or contentment for celibacy. “Perhaps I have not experienced
the relational support “to joyfully pursue a
vocation of celibacy. “Whatever the case, I’m
profoundly restless. “So restless that at times
I feel like I’m suffocating “under the burden of it. “Call it weakness, I
just need to be needed. “And not needed by a friend
who closes the distance “with a phone call, a drive, or a flight. “I need to be needed by
a companion who is there “when I return from work, “there when I walk in the park, “there when I prepare a meal for dinner, “there when I read from a book out loud. “There when I go to bed, “there when I wake up, “there when I cry or laugh. “There when I’m sick. “In short, I desire a
covenantal relationship “where my helper and I witness
each other’s moments of “being, to use Virginia
Woolf’s lovely expression. “Otherwise, I dread the
thought of having those moments “forever unwitnessed. “Sure, God witnesses my moments of being, “but that’s not enough. “I need the face of God in a watchful “and loving human face.” Do you hear the urgency there? He’s feeling that God is
calling him to celibacy. He feels that this is what
it means to be faithful to the revelation we’ve
been given in scripture. And yet he’s acknowledging
there’s a pain there. There’s a loneliness there, there’s an isolation. And he’s asking, what
does health look like? What does flourishing
look like in that kind of difficult road of discipleship? That’s the question I’m asking. I won’t go into all my story, you can maybe pick up my
book if you’re interested in the long version, but I realized at a young age that I was exclusively attracted to
members of my own sex. I’d grown up in a Christian family, two loving Christian parents, I had a wonderful youth group that I was part of in high school. And yet I somehow felt
that this area of my life was so shameful that it
ought to be kept a secret. And it wasn’t until I went to Wheaton and met people like Chris, that I began to learn to
open up this part of my life, this part of my story to the
healing light of the Gospel, and began to wrestle with
these questions in community. And my questions sounded
very much like that email I just read to you and in some ways still today they sound like that email. So what I want to do in
the time we have left is I want to share with you
three commitments we might make as a church. Three commitments we might
make as individual followers of Christ that would speak into the life of someone like my friend
who wrote that email or someone like your
friend, or someone like you. First thing I think we
could do as a church is to recognize the need for friendship, same sex friendship to be
elevated and strengthened. It’s very easy to find examples of the word friend in our culture. I mean, the most obvious
example is the way it has now become a
verb thanks to Facebook to friend someone on Facebook. And you know, we have these
ways of kind of casually throwing the term around, and our culture is saturated with it. But I think we also recognize, many of us, that that version of friendship that our culture gives to us, that we’ve kind of unthinkingly imbibed is
actually in many ways not a very rich conception of friendship. I mean, most of us wouldn’t
think anything at all about having a friend that
we enjoy hanging out with but then, if another job comes along, or a better opportunity comes along, we’ll quickly move, and we’ll hopefully keep
in touch by email and Twitter and all these things, but there’s not a deep bond to it. Likewise I think when you think about
what we choose to invest honor in in the church, if you think about marriage, we have a public ceremony, a kind of sacramental rite where we say this bond is so important, and it’s sanctioned by God that we’re gonna honor it publicly and we’re going to invite
the whole church family to come and witness these vows in order that they can be
there to strengthen the vows and to make sure the couple
has the support they need to be faithful to those vows. We elevate the love of
parents and children. We often find retreats and
programs in our churches that are aimed at strengthening
the nuclear family and I think that’s all to the good, but the point is, we have all these mechanisms
to recognize many different forms of love in the body of Christ and friendship can too often
easily slide off the map. Friendship is not something
we think of as worth elevating and strengthening in that way. And I remember when I first ran across a very short and perhaps
somewhat obscure treatise from the medieval era written
by Aelred of Rievaulx, an abbot in the north
of England in Yorkshire at Rievaulx Abbey. And he writes this dialogue
on spiritual friendship and I remember having
to close the book and just set it aside and
think about it for a while when he said a friend, a spiritual friend, your same-sex friend
that you’re related to in the monastery is someone that you should be willing
to go to the cross for. And what struck me about that
when I closed the book is that’s the language we
normally reserve for marriage in most of our churches. That’s the language that
we tend to reserve for a parent or child bond. We don’t tend to think
that way about friendship. What would it mean if we did begin to think that way about friendship? If your friend was someone
that you recognized the need to elevate this love, to strengthen this love, you said this person
that I’ve gotten close to over these four years at Biola, this is not someone I’m willing
to let go when I graduate. This is a friendship I’m going to look for ways to strengthen and I’m going to ask my church community, my friend community,
to recognize that love and validate that love and
help me strengthen that love. That’s the first thing
I would say we could do as churches, as communities
that might actually give some hope to people like me. To people like my email correspondent. The second thing I think we might do is to recognize the need if friendship is going to be strengthened
and elevated and honored it needs some kind of promissory element or commitment involved in it. And again, we recognize this
very easily with marriage. We recognize there’s, God has given us sanction in
Ephesians 5 and Matthew 19 and other places for this
particular bond to be recognized, to be elevated,
to be honored in the church. The writer to the Hebrews
says let the marriage bed be held in honor in the church. And I think we’re
absolutely right to do that. Whether we’re right to do marriages, to do wedding ceremonies
in the way we often do them is another question. I have my questions
about whether we ought to strengthen marriages in
perhaps different ways than we’re often used to
strengthening them but nonetheless we recognize if this bond
is going to be significant in the lives of these
two people in the way that it needs to be, it
needs to be a promise. It needs to be a covenant. It needs to be a sealed commitment. And I wonder what it might
mean if we began to think of other relationships as in
need of not identical promises, not marriage vows per se
but some kind of element where two people are able
to say to one another, or more than two people, we are so concerned to be in
one another’s Christian lives that we won’t simply say
that but we will actually make promises that require
some kind of sacrifice of us. My own experience in this is as Chris said I did my graduate work in England and one of the great gifts
of my time in England was friendship, actually. I spent four years in Durham
and I remember one night I was standing in my kitchen
and I was washing dishes and my phone rang and so I
wiped the suds off my hand and answered the phone, and it was my friend Jono. And he said I have a serious
question I want to ask you. And so I sat down and said okay fire away. And he said I want to
ask if you would consider being the godfather of our daughter. There was a daughter that had
been born to Jono and Megan while we were in graduate school together and I said, you know, I didn’t
want to answer right away because I knew this is
a very serious thing. This is about making
promises at Callie’s baptism to make a lifelong
commitment to being there to strengthen her faith in Christ and to speak into her life. And I said well let me pray about it, and I called Jono back a
couple days later and said I really would like to say yes to this. And I want to share with you
just a little bit of what I ended up writing to Jono
to thank him for this honor. I said, “not being married
myself or having kids, “I’ve often thought of
Jesus’ words to Peter “when Peter says see we have “left everything and followed you. “And Jesus replies, truly I
say to you, there is no one “who has left house, or
brothers or sisters or mother “or father or children
or lands for my sake “and for the Gospel, who will
not receive a hundred fold “now in this time houses
and brothers and sisters and “mothers and children and
lands with persecutions. “And in the age to come, eternal life.” And then I said this to Jono. “I take comfort from this “that in Jesus’ economy,
leaving the prospect of being “a husband and father myself, “does not mean being without a family. “Surely part of what Jesus
means is that in following Him, “we discover a new family. “In the church, I as a
single person can have “new brothers and sisters and mothers “and fathers and children. “I can say that I’m very
happy and very honored that “part of God’s surrounding
me with new family “is His bringing you two
and your kids into my life.” And I think what happened in
subsequent weeks and months, now years, is Jono, Megan and I began
to recognize this isn’t simply about drawing
me into Callie’s life, but it’s about drawing me
into their family’s life. It’s about recognizing if
our friendship is going to be elevated and strengthened in
the way that we want it to be, it needs to have a promissory
element built into it. It needs to have me standing
there at Callie’s baptism saying I promise, in the sight
of this church community, that I will stand with her as she grows and I’ll stand with her
parents as they try to raise her in the nurture and
admonition of The Lord. Well thirdly and finally, I think we can recognize,
we can make a commitment in the church to recognize
that these kind of friendships that I’m talking about
have the potential for grace and blessing beyond themselves. They have the potential
to bless and enrich the life of the family of God. As I’ve been doing my
research on friendship for this book that I’m writing, one of the fascinating
texts that I’ve discovered is a text written by a Russian genius named Pablo Florinski. And it’s a collection of letters. It’s a massive book, but
it’s 12 letters that he wrote on eastern orthodox theology. And one of the letters
is all about friendship. And one of the things
Florinski does in those letters is he uses the metaphor
of a molecular bond to talk about how
friends, pairs of friends, are related to the wider body of Christ. He says if you think about the church, you know we can’t know
everyone in the church, we can’t be immediately related
to everyone in the church, but what we can do is
think of the relationships in which we’re already involved, relationships like me with
Jono and Megan for instance. We can think of those as building
blocks or molecular bonds that in a sense work to hold the whole body of Christ together. And in that way, enrich and strengthen the wider body of Christ. I think that’s such a
suggestive way of thinking about friendship is not simply meant to be, to turn the partners in on
themselves and be exclusive, but it’s meant to be a bond
that strengthens the partners and teaches the partners
about what it might mean to love beyond the
circle of the friendship. There have been many people
in the history of the church who have been very
worried about friendship for precisely that reason. That it is something that becomes ingrown, it becomes exclusive it becomes narrow. There’s a letter that I’ve come to love, rather, a sermon that I’ve come to love from John Henry Newman, the famous Anglican
convert to Catholicism. And he addresses this
issue and he sounds a lot like Florinski when he says, “There have been men before
now who’ve supposed that “Christian love was so
diffusive as not to admit “of concentration upon individuals “so that we ought to
love all men equally.” So in other words he’s saying, you know, as you read through the Christian past, you encounter a lot of
suspicion of friendship. Friendship is not something
we’re supposed to invest in, because we Christians are
called to love everybody, including our enemies. So there’s no room for this
kind of vowed, committed friendship of the kind
that I’m talking about. And Newman continues,
“Many there are who without “bringing forward any theory,
yet consider practically “that the love of many
is something superior “to the love of one or two. “And these people neglect the charities “of private life while
busy in the schemes of “an expansive benevolence “or of affecting a general union “and conciliation among Christians.” So Newman is saying that’s
the opinion that’s out there. And not listen to how he responds to it. He says, “Now I shall here maintain “in opposition to such
notions of Christian love. “And with our Savior’s pattern before me.” And he’s thinking of the
pattern like we had read to us. Jesus is so deeply committed
to these friends of his. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, that the only time we see him deeply moved to the point of tears is in
that passage in the Gospels. And the conclusion, you
heard it read this morning, the conclusion that the
people who are standing around come to is see how much he loved them. That’s the love of friendship
they’re talking about. That’s what kind of love it was. So with our Savior’s pattern
before me, Newman says, “The best preparation,”
This is what he maintains, “The best preparation for
loving the world at large “and loving it duly and
wisely is to cultivate “an intimate friendship
and affection towards “those who are immediately about us.” In other words he’s saying, if you hope to love your enemy, if you hope to love beyond
your own charmed circle, as you should, that’s what Christ calls us to do, one of the ways in which you
can begin to learn to do that is to love the neighbor
whom God has already brought into your life. To love that friend like
Mary or Martha or Lazarus, that God has brought into your life. And Newman says I can have confidence that that may be the case because I’m looking at the pattern of Christ. I’m looking at the pattern that scripture has laid out for us. This is what friendship looks like. It’s honored. It’s esteemed. It’s written into the
pages of the fourth gospel. It’s there for the taking. It’s there for the rediscovering for us. So that’s what I’d like to
leave us with this morning. I’d like to leave you with
the invitation to consider making these three
commitments in your own way. I don’t know how it might look for you. I can begin to imagine some of the ways in which it might look
on a campus like this where you’re surrounded by people who I hope will be your lifelong friends. But I don’t know. I would invite you to think creatively. Think outside the box. Think in conversation
with the rich heritage of the Christian tradition. There is so much in
the Christian tradition about friendship that
we’ve simply forgotten. Blow the dust off those sources
and re-discover this love. I don’t know what it
might look like for you but I would encourage you
as you leave chapel today to think about what way you
might recognize the need for your friendships to be
elevated and strengthened. Could you make a commitment to recognize the need for promises in your friendships? Not casual bonds, but promises. And could you also make
a commitment to begin to recognize the potential
in those friendships for grace and blessing beyond
your own immediate circle? So that you might begin
to think of your vocation as I’m called to strengthen
the body of Christ, I’m called to love beyond the borders of the body of Christ. I’m called to love even my enemies by beginning to learn
what it means to love in this friendship or friendships
that God has given me. I don’t have any illusions
that this will solve the question of loneliness
for gay Christians. It’s a question I continue
to return to in my life. I don’t have any illusions
that this is the kind of magic bullet solution to the question of same-sex attraction that
you’re wrestling with, that many of our churches
and denominations are wrestling with, but what I do feel is
that that conversation would look different the questions we ask would look different the questions would be deeper and richer if we brought to the conversation a rich, robust theology of friendship. If we recognize with our
Savior’s pattern before us as Newman says that
friendship is a genuine love in its own right. It’s a love worth honoring. It’s a love worth celebrating. It’s a love, as Aelred
said, that would be willing to go all the way to the cross. Would you bow with me for prayer? Lord Jesus, we thank You
that You are the Friend who went to the cross
to make us your friends. May You now make us
friends of one another. May we discover new depths of
friendship with one another as we follow Your cruciform life. We pray in Your name Amen. Go in peace.>>Announcer: Biola
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