"Enduring friendship shall possess the world." Jürgen Moltmann
“A friendship is a relationship that at one level is simply mutual delight in the presence to each other.” Sallie McFague
“God is the ultimate communion of Persons in friendship…We are made for friendship.” Liz Carmichael
“What we lack is an imagination for an intimacy that is friendship.” David Wood
Ever since attending the Wild Goose Festival this past August with Jennifer Ould, I’ve wanted to do a simple post on the spiritual practice and delight of celebrating cross-sex friendship.
It’s quite possible that such a spiritual practice strikes many as naïve audacity while it draws others into consider the ultimate banquet feast in God’s kingdom yet to come.
For those who are uncomfortable with intimate friendship between men and women, the notion of celebrating out in the public on a blog could be seen as flouting this controversial subject in front of others.
How can one be so audacious to celebrate in the midst of brokenness and evil in the world? Won’t such celebrating persuade some people that closeness between men and women is not dangerous?
Celebrating a friendship between a married man and a single makes many evangelicals nervous. “You’ve gone too far, Brennan. While we may agree men and women can be friends, you take it too far. There are limits”
I’m probably not going to draw their reconsideration of platonic intimate bonding by posting something on celebrating. This whole notion of taking something too far is a fascinating one to explore.
Many sincere, well-intentioned Christians thought others were taking it too far when they advocated freedom for all African-Americans who were slaves in the 19th century. Many conservative Christians thought it was too far when others were championing women’s right to vote. For centuries Christians thought it was going too far to experience deep pleasure when they had sex. Along those same lines, many Christian men still believe women who are passionate are “too emotional.”
There is an endless list of subjects once considered “too much” which is now delightfully embraced by Christians. While I blog on celebrating cross-sex friendship, the awareness of that shifting list continues to be in front of me. I don’t wish to stir up the proverbial hornet’s nest.
Permit to address two thoughts which seek to discourage celebration of cross-sex friendship. The first is the notion of celebrating in the presence of sexual brokenness in the world. We all have heard stories of megachurch pastors committing adultery. We all know stories of marriages ending (whether over adultery or some other reason). We read of men in the purity/modesty culture who can’t seem to look at women without lusting.
Does your close friend’s divorce stop you from celebrating your marriage, your marital love, and your ongoing anniversaries out in public? Facebook brings us all together and within seconds we can read a status of joyfully celebrating so many years of marriage while the next status from someone else reminds us of their recent marital breakup.
More on this in a moment.
The second thought pertains to the fear of the reckless boldness of celebration and stepping out of line. Reckless boldness between men and women who are not married to each but have no romantic trajectory--here we get deep into the fears and nervousness of those who think celebrating cross-sex friendship is too much.
Deep within Christian tradition and a robust spirituality, sex, celebration, and friendship are 3 different sacred paths in which we can experience deep connection and union as we learn let go of our fears and shame in the presence of other's trust.
In all three, trust, mutual deep pleasure, mutual deep delight are not automatic.
In all three, there is a full engagement of our bodies.
In all three, the deeper the trust between parties involved, the more relaxed the parties are to enter into a particular kind of sacred wildness and play.
David Ford ponders what the ultimate feast looks like in the Kingdom:
"To envisage the ultimate feast is to imagine an endless flow of communication between those who love and enjoy each other. It embraces body language, facial expressions, the ways we eat, drink, toast, dance, and sing."
Can cross-gender friends in the present, deliberately celebrate their union?
Eastern Orthodox theologian and author Paul O'Callaghan says of the Ultimate feast that it is "a vision of friendship in a most intensely celebratory realization."
Jean Vanier argues that Christians ought to celebrate unity
"Celebration is a manifestation and a recalling of our deepest and most important values; it holds up and honours all things in life that call us to unity and to love....A community which no longer celebrates its joy at being together, united to God and open to others, risks death. Rules and regulations do not give life."
There is nothing more beautiful on earth than people who have trust in each other...The celebration of unity is the celebration of trust we have in each other...Celebrations on earth are essentially celebrations of hope."
For cross-gender friends, why not celebrate their unity?
And what about the beauty of deep freedom revealed in the presence of such celebrations of friends love for each other? Dietrich Bonhoeffer writing from a prison cell in a Nazi concentration camp poignantly asks:
"Who is there...in our times, who can devote himself...to music, friendship, games, or happiness? Surely not the 'ethical' man, but only the Christian...I believe within the sphere of this freedom friendship is by far the rarest and most precious treasure, for where else does it survive in this world of ours, dominated as it is by [work, marriage, and state]."
Celebrations and friendships like maturing sex relationships take us deep into spiritual formation. They point us to the Ultimate feast. And could part of that formation between men and women as friends be a path of deep pleasure within their love for each other?
So many of us have been shamed and conditioned to fear deep pleasure in the sacred from sex to friendship to celebration.
Amy Frykholm suggests that:
"True, deep, real pleasure is an avenue to the Holy. Through discernment, wonder, and aliveness, we will know what real pleasure is. We will be able to determine— actively, bodily, and through our senses— what Julian means by “taking pleasure in God.” And when we sense true pleasure, we will trust it and be able to act boldly in it and with it... If we pay very close attention, I think we will find that the pleasures of excess, hedonism, and self-indulgence are thin. Deeper, wider, more lasting pleasures are available as we grow more attentive to and more comfortable in our own skins, and as we give up the notion that pleasure is inherently selfish. The deepest pleasures that I know— and certainly I don’t have the definitive word— are fairly simple and involve connectedness to other people."
This definitely would be a sacred path of embodied engagement of celebration and friendship. Just like in maturing sexual relationships, we learn in celebration a deeper union, a deeper connectedness without giving up our individuality. Likewise, cross-gender friendships can learn to celebrate.
"Playfulness means the devaluation of control. Play involves the capacity to trust and surrender to the moment. So also with friendship. "
This is the path of healthy robust celebration. The freedom and delight to surrender to the moment of deeper connection.