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Following up on this past Saturday’s “End of Sexual Identity” event, I want to share about another book that has the potential to change the Church’s conversation about sexuality.  It’s Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.

Hill writes as a self-identified gay Christian man who is choosing to remain celibate.  As he shares in the book, it’s difficult to find others speaking up from his position.  The voices that speak the loudest in the Church’s debates about sexuality are either (1) those thumping the Bible defending traditional Christian views of sexuality, often with insensitivity toward those who experience same-sex attraction, or (2) those promoting the more culturally acceptable view that homosexual activity is not sin.  The arguments between those two sides are often marked by callousness and lack of compassion.  People become entrenched in their positions and then talk past each other.  Perhaps because of that insensitivity, it’s hard to hear the voice of men and women who experience attraction to members of the same sex, yet deliberately choose, because of their Christian convictions, not to live into those attractions.  Shame, the feeling that their sin is “worse” than others, and fear of insensitive responses from others in the Church too often keep Christians who experience same-sex attraction in a lonely closet. Thankfully, Hill has given voice to that struggle, and his voice needs to be heard.

Though Hill identifies as a gay man, and uses categories like “homosexual” in ways which Jenell Paris would not, he makes it clear that the most important part of his identity is his identity in Christ. And his very personal story bears witness to the fact that one’s identity in Christ includes taking up one’s cross.  Hill writes movingly about the loneliness, isolation, and shame he’s experienced.  But he also shares about loving community and supportive friends, other celibate gay men who have served as role models (including Henri Nouwen), and the hope he has looking forward to the day when Jesus will say to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  The personal aspect of Washed and Waiting makes it impossible to talk about homosexuality in abstract terms.  It’s a deeply personal matter, and this is a moving testimony from someone living a deeply personal struggle. 

Anyone interested in the Church’s debates about sexuality should read this book. Anyone who’s struggling with their sexuality and unsure where to look for guidance should read it, too.  Just as I hoped our event with Jenell Paris would change the conversation about sexuality in the Church by giving us different language for the Church to use, I think this book can change the conversation by presenting a different perspective: that of someone who’s chosen the counter-cultural path of celibacy. Hill makes it clear that such a path is not easy, but he believes it’s the right path. One does not have to express oneself sexually in order to be fully human. Jesus Christ was fully human and remained celibate. Surely the Church should be a place where voices like Hill’s can speak openly as they seek faithfulness to their Lord.

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I serve the Church in a denomination that has been entrenched in battles over human sexuality for decades.  Debates about ordination of people in active homosexual relationships, as well as about the definition or marriage, are tearing the Church apart.  Seven years ago, I went to a national conference for our denomination and saw the battle taking place.  Neither side listened to the other.  They talked past each other.  What was authoritative for one side wasn’t for the other.  There was no common ground on which a debate could even fairly take place.  Ever since, I’ve wondered if there could be a healthier, more constructive way for the Church to handle its debates about sexuality. Is there a better way to talk about sexual morality as Christians?  Is there a better way to frame the conversation?

I think there is.

This Saturday, January 28th, Upper Room is going to host an event with anthropologist, author, and professor Jenell Williams Paris called “The End of Sexual Identity.” Paris’s book, The End of Sexual Identity, takes a unique approach to our culture’s conversation about sexuality, particularly categories like homosexuality and heterosexuality.  And I think this approach could have a really positive impact on the way the Church talks about sex.  For a preview of what Jenell has to say, you can listen to this interview with her.

There is more information on Upper Room’s site and you can click here to register for the event.  It runs from 10am to 3:30pm.  The morning and afternoon sessions will also include panel responses from a variety of people living out their sexuality in different ways. Lunch will be available through Franktuary, who will be selling hot dogs and other items on site.

Ash Wednesday this year falls on February 22nd.  That’s exactly one month and one day from today. In past years, I’ve found myself waiting until the last minute to haphazardly make commitments to Lenten spiritual disciplines or practices.  This year, I’m trying to think carefully ahead of time about how to pursue a deeper relationship with God during that penitential season.  For me, this Lent may entail taking on certain practices around food and fasting.  I also plan to read The Ladder of Divine Ascent, which I’ve heard is traditional Lenten reading in some strains of Eastern Christianity. I’ve been reading other writings from the early Church on spiritual disciplines for a few years now and have been enriched by the fathers’ immense wisdom, their challenging calls to holiness, and their teachings on prayer.  Now I’m looking forward to learning from St. John Climacus this Lent.

For those who want to engage such literature from the fathers, but aren’t quite ready to dive in with something as massive as The Ladder of Divine Ascent, I have another book recommendation. On the Way to the Cross: 40 Days with the Church Fathers is a Lenten devotional published this year by InterVarsity Press which combines a rhythm of daily prayer with commentary on scripture from the great leaders of the early Church.

book coverOn the Way to the Cross follows a simple format.  Each day’s meditation begins with a confession of sin taken from the Book of Common Prayer. A reading from the Gospel of John follows confession, then commentary from various church fathers and a closing prayer, also from a patristic source.  Each day also has suggested Psalms for evening reading. The commentary from the fathers is very similar to what one would find the Ancient Christian Commentary series – quotations from early Church writers which give insight into the text from a different point of view than that used by many modern biblical scholars.  For example commentary on John 4:1-26 includes a lesson spiritual prayer from Abraham of Nathpar:

Do not imagine, my beloved, that prayer consists solely of words or that it can be learned by means of words.  No, listen to the truth of the matter from the Lord: spiritual prayer is not learned and does not reach fullness as a result of either learning or the repetition of words.  For it is not to a man that you are praying, before whom you can repeat a well-composed speech.  It is to him who is Spirit that you are directing the movements of prayer.  You should pray therefore, in spirit, seeing that he is spirit.  He shows that no special place or vocal utterance is required for someone who prays in fullness to God. (Pages 33-34.)

My favorite parts of the  devotional are the prayers themselves.  These offer a glimpse into the passionate worship and devotion that shaped the fathers’ interpretation of scripture.  They also offer inspiration to believers today and give poetic voice to what may be deep prayers of our own hearts.  For example, the same reflection on John 4:1-26 concludes with a prayer from the Irish missionary Columbanus:

I beseech you, merciful God, to allow me to drink from the stream which flows from your fountain of life.  May I taste the sweet beauty of its waters, which sprang from the very depths of your truth.  O Lord, you are that fountain from which I desire with all my heart to drink.  Give me, Lord Jesus, this water, that it may quench the burning spiritual thirst within my soul, and purify me from all sin.  I know, King of Glory, that I am asking from you a great gift.  But you give to your faithful people without counting the cost, and you promise even greater things in the future. Indeed, nothing is greater than yourself, and you have given yourself to mankind on the cross.  Therefore in praying for the waters of life, I am praying that you, the source of those waters, will give yourself to me.  You are my light, my salvation , my food, my drink, my God. (Page 34.)

Amen.  May God grant us ways to drink from that stream of life this Lent.

We’re ten days into 2012.  That’s plenty of time for plenty of New Year’s resolutions to have been made and to have already been broken.    I find this sad because resolutions actually do have power to yield dramatic fruit in our lives, if we’re willing to stick to them for the long-haul.

Yesterday I read a post by John Stahl-Wert called “Resolved.” which describes the lifelong resolutions made by three great figures from American history. These resolutions were not weak, shallow, or trite. They were resolutions which required deep development of character, resolutions to seek justice, live obediently, and fulfill one’s duties.  As Stahl-Wert points out, these men “believed that their impact in the world would spring from their character; that their character would spring from their investments in character, and that character investment is a life-long pursuit.”

Another man whose investment in his character left a lasting impression upon the world is Charles de Foucauld.  Since I first read his writings last August, I’ve found his passion for prayer, his imitation of Christ, and his heart for evangelism inspiring.   Now I’m reading his Spiritual Autobiography, and (with providential timing) this week I came across the set of bold, life-defining resolutions he made while living in Nazareth and seeking to imitate the life of Christ:

I resolve: To ask for martyrdom, long for it, and if it please God, suffer it in order to love Jesus with a greater love; To have zeal for souls, a burning love for the salvation of souls – which have all been ransomed at so unique a price; To despise no one, but to desire the greatest good for everyone because everyone is covered by the blood of Jesus;  . . . To be perfect, to be holy myself, for Jesus held me so dear that he gave his love for me; . . . To have an infinite horror of sin and the imperfection that leads to it, because it has already cost Jesus so dear;  . . . To have absolute trust in the love of God, an inextinguishable faith in his love, because he has proved it to me by being wiling to suffer such pains for me; To be humble at the thought of all he has done for me, and the little I have done for him; To long for sufferings to give him love for love, and imitate him, and not be crowned with roses whereas he was crowned with thorns . . .  (The Spiritual Autobiography of Charles de Foucauld, Jean-Francois Six, ed. [Ijamsville, Md: Word Among Us Press 2003] pp. 93-94)

Strengthened by Christ to fulfill his calling, Foucauld lived into all of resolutions he made.  He left Nazareth to live a simple and prayerful live the Sahara desert, bearing witness to Christ by his example and holiness among the nomadic Tuareg people group.  Having asked for martyrdom, he received it, being murdered there in 1916.

The power of Foucauld’s resolutions lies in the fact that they were all ways of “taking up his cross”.  Foucauld resolved to seek holiness, to take up his cross and follow the Jesus who said “he who does not take up his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:38).  That resolution, and the cruciform life Foucauld thus led, left an impact on the world.  Today there are thousands of people following Foucauld’s example officially in religious and lay communities around the globe.  I imagine thousands more are unofficial followers of him, individuals like myself who have simply been inspired by him to seek a deeper life with Christ.

When Jesus becomes Lord of our lives, he doesn’t wait for an arbitrary starting date like January 1st to ask us to resolve to seek his Kingdom.  He asks today: Are we willing to resolve to seek his Kingdom, his holiness, even his cross?

For the past two mornings, as I’ve tried to start my day sitting in silence and contemplation in my study, I’ve noticed a disturbing contrast.  To my left, on the desk, are icons and a candle.  To my right are bookshelves.  On the left, I see an image of Christ on the cross, an image Mary holding Jesus, and an image of St. Michael the Archangel.  They’re illumined by a small candle.  The scene invites prayer and reflection. And in the stillness of the early morning, I feel like I should be able to focus prayerfully.

But my eyes are drawn instead toward the books.  The shelves overflow with more books than I have time to read.  I look at them an instantly start thinking of the books I want to read or should read or need to re-read.  Most of these books are “theological” in one sense or another.  They’re books that I read in seminary, or that are relevant to my work as a pastor and church-planter.  They’re books that should cultivate the knowledge of God.  But on these mornings they’ve served instead as a distraction from the even more immediate knowledge of God to be gained through prayer. This troubles me.

The overflowing, disordered bookshelves on one side of the room are an icon of the modern academic approach to theology.  My bookshelves and the academy say that if you are a theologian, you publish books which systematically expound upon doctrines and dogmas.  I look at the bookshelves and become anxious, thinking of all the books I want to read or feel I should read.  There is a never-ending buffet of literature out there to be consumed.  As Ecclesiastes says, “Of the making of many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (12:12b).  These bookshelves cultivate tiredness more than prayer.

The icons on the other side of the room are, well, icons – windows to another reality and a different kind of theology. I look at them and sense a call to stillness, the sort of stillness where God can speak for Himself.  Experience of the never-ending reality of God inspires awe and worship, not anxiety.  Books still certainly have a place in this kind of theology, but they’re different and are read differently, more slowly.  The point isn’t the making or reading of many books. The point is growth into the likeness of Christ, which is infinitely more valuable.  These books and icons and candles echo the words of Evagrios the Solitary, “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly you are a theologian.”   My eyes are still naturally drawn toward the bookshelves, but I want the latter kind of theology, prayer.