The Limitations of Covenant Friendship

friendship

I love the examples of covenant friendships in the Bible, namely between David and Jonathan and Ruth and Naomi. I also admire Sarah and Lindsey who identify as “a celibate, LGBT, Christian couple.” In general, I think that Spiritual Friendship is great and I can especially identify with the Celtic concept of “Anam Cara” (a “soul friend”) explained so eloquently by John O’Donohue:

“With the anam cara you could share your innermost self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. […] In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension. The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of social acquaintance fall away, you can be as you really are. Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where you are understood, you are at home. Understanding nourishes belonging.”

Even as I appreciate all of these versions of covenant friendship, I disagree with those who assert that it is a way for LGBT people to have the same shot at intimacy as their straight counterparts.

My first reservation has to do with the fact that for an LGBT person in a covenant friendship, it is nearly impossible to prevent emotional intimacy from developing into romance. In Spiritual Friendship, Wesley Hill agrees saying, “You can’t very well commit yourself to pursuing chaste same-sex friendship as a gay Christian and expect that romantic, erotic feelings won’t somehow, be involved in that pursuit.” Some might argue for drawing a “clear” boundary at physical sexual acts, but if physical same-sex relationships are not God’s will, it would logically follow that romance isn’t ok either. Another approach is to learn to recognize red flags to help identify when the thin line between emotional intimacy and romance is in danger of becoming blurred. As an example (but speaking in the context of straight opposite-sex friendships), Jonalyn Fincher shares in this video, “the words ‘isolation’ and ‘privacy’ quickly trigger romantic ideas to me.” But if a covenant friendship is between two men or two women (as is modeled in the biblical examples of David and Jonathan and Ruth and Naomi), both isolation and privacy are a given. Hill continues, explaining that it is not a question of whether or not these close friendships will involve romantic attraction, rather, “The question is […] how my friends and I will choose to respond to or negotiate that reality when it appears.” He explains that this obviously complicates the relationship because “Not only did I have to be circumspect and make sure I maintained appropriate boundaries and safeguards in my pursuit of intimacy, but I also had to find male friends who wouldn’t mind the challenges that come when a friend like me is attracted to them.” A priest friend of his added, “we need Christians who won’t freak out when their gay friends develop crushes on them.” Unfortunately, we have a long, long way to go before that becomes a reality.

In Spiritual Friendship, Hill first explains the view that friendship is unique and treasured because we can choose to end it at any time; it is entirely voluntary and unencumbered by any sense of duty. But he then inquires as to “whether [or not] friendship should be so free and unconstrained” and asks, “Should we begin to imagine friendship as more stable, permanent, and binding than we often do?” “Yes,” he concludes, and suggests that we use the familial language of “brother” and “sister” to signify permanence, longevity, and indestructibility. Ultimately, Hill asks, “What would it mean if we made promises to each other, precisely as friends?” I think to myself realistically (and admittedly cynically), Those promises would be broken. When we speak of covenant friendships, it is my understanding that we are not necessarily saying that both of these friends will refrain from getting married to another person. In this poignant article, Carrie English articulates the bittersweet occasion of such circumstances noting that “weddings change friendships forever. Priorities have been declared in public. She’ll be there for him in sickness and in health, till death do they part. She’ll be there for you on your birthday or when he has to work late.” But perhaps Justin Lee best articulates the most basic objections to the “solution” of covenant friendships in his book Torn when he writes, “seeing that Adam was alone, God did not simply say, ‘I am sufficient for you’; nor did God expect Adam to meet those needs with a friend.” We know it is not good for man to be alone. We know that it is better for someone to marry than to burn with desire. So, why doesn’t that apply to LGBT people? (If your answer to this is “because the Bible says so” you can find a brief explanation of both traditional and progressive biblical interpretations here).

For the most part, I can identify with Hill who writes, “I find myself wondering which is the greater danger – the ever-present possibility of codependency, sexual transgression, emotional smothering (and other temptations that come with close friendship) or else the burden, not to mention the attendant temptations, of isolation and solitude created by the absence of human closeness?” His priest reminds him encouragingly, “when have Christians ever believed in playing it safe?” So of course developing close friendships is best. As Lord Tennyson famously penned, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all.” Unfortunately though, because of the complexities and limitations of covenant friendships, they cannot provide the same shot at intimacy for LGBT people that marriage provides for straight people.

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The Meaning of “Yield”

Corn and Spider WebIn Anam Cara, John O’Donohue poignantly describes examples from nature that illustrate how yielding brings shelter, belonging, and protection. He begins by painting a picture of a field of corn in Autumn:

“When the wind catches the corn, it does not stand stiff and direct against the force of the wind; were it to do this, the wind would rip it asunder. No. The corn weaves with the wind, it bends low. And when the wind is gone, it weaves back and finds its own poise and balance again. There is also the lovely story of the wolf-spider, which never builds its web between two hard objects like two stones. If it did this, the web would be rent by the wind. Instinctively, it builds its web between two blades of grass. When the wind comes, the web lowers with the grass until the wind has passed, then it comes back up and finds its point of balance and equilibrium again” (p.102-103).

I’ve been thinking recently about how the different definitions of the word “yield” are interconnected. To yield, of course, means “to surrender” and “to submit,” but it also refers to the process of cultivation and harvest. To walk with God means to yield our will to His; “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’” (Isaiah 55:8-9). Yielding is clearly for our good and His glory, but we still have to grapple with the fact that it is linked to suffering. In The Art of Happiness, Howard Cutler explains that in Western Society, “as suffering becomes less visible, it is no longer seen as part of the fundamental nature of human beings – but rather as an anomaly, a sign that something has gone terribly wrong, a sign of ‘failure’ of some system, an infringement on our guaranteed right to happiness!” (p. 121). As Cutler indicates, it is foolish to go through life thinking that we can avoid all suffering. On the other hand, prioritizing the virtue of yielding to God’s will does not mean that we seek suffering. Avoiding each of these extremes is the key to having healthy expectations of the suffering that life entails.

Choosing to crucify the flesh by yielding one’s will to God’s seems foolish to those who don’t know Him. Even for those who do, it is still a constant struggle. In Pilgrimage of a Soul, Phileena Heuertz tells us that “Decisions that stand in opposition to the status quo are not for the faint-hearted; they require courage, honesty and risk. These kinds of decisions release us into our destiny. Abundant life awaits each of us, but we must die to obtain it” (p. 116). God, Jehovah Jireh, gives us everything we need to walk the path of discipleship. He motivates us with His promises, provides a way out when we are tempted, and empowers us to co-labor with Him. Yielding is not only about sacrifice, it is also about great returns. To yield means “to bear” and “to produce by the natural process of cultivation.” There is an abundant harvest in store for those who yield to God! Psalm 1:3 assures us, “That person [who delights in and meditates on the law of the Lord] is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.” So let us sit in His presence, wait quietly, and listen. Let us yield and “allow another the right to speak in a debate.” Let us “give as due or required” and relinquish possession of what we cherish most. Let us be gentle with ourselves as we learn to surrender completely and submit to Him alone.