In celebration of this month’s fifth anniversary of my blog, the last entry of January and every Wednesday of February I’m providing links to the most visited posts of each year. For 2014, that would be My Loneliness Led Me to God and virtually tied for second, Does a Corporation Have a Soul? and “I Had No Idea Your Blog Was Gay.”
During a visit to New York City, a gay seminarian and I enjoyed becoming acquainted as we walked through Central Park together. It was mid-November and dead brown leaves crunched beneath our feet at the same time others stubbornly clung to branches overhead, caressed by a cool, but not cold, breeze. A dip in the road led to a small, wooden bridge over a small brook. From this place, looking round, no visible sign revealed that we were in the heart of a city. It was on this bridge, leaning on opposite handrails, facing one another, that my new friend told me a touching story.
When he was a child, he began, his first trip from home occurred when his parents sent him to a church camp somewhere in the midst of a forest. He was frightened and lonely. He missed his family terribly. A manifestation of his feelings over the separation came one night as he dreamt that his father, walking to church, had fallen beneath the wheels of an oncoming car.
The other kids all seemed to have been there before and knew one another, and he did not feel included. He felt particularly vulnerable, and he believed they sensed his vulnerability. We know that kids can be cruel to one another. We are tempted by traditional theology to conclude that this suggests some innate human corruption, but I believe cruelty is something we learn, not something with which we are born. At one point they taunted him, throwing pine cones at him from the roof of one of the cabins. He ran away, crying, and hid himself in a small corner of his cabin.
A storm broke outside, and the darkness of heavy clouds and oncoming night accentuated the boy’s inner turmoil. An older boy, a camp counselor, came looking for him. When he found the younger boy, he seemed to understand and feel his pain, loneliness, and sense of not belonging. And he comforted him. He held him in his arms for a while, and his strength lessened the younger boy’s fear. He found him a chocolate bar, then reunited him with his campmates. The rain had since stopped, and they were gathered around a campfire. The older boy and the younger boy sat together.
The next day was the final day of camp. His parents came to take him home. As he prepared to depart, the older boy came to say good-bye. He handed the younger boy a cross that he had fashioned for him, held together with string where the carved sticks crossed, which could be hung by another string tied at the top. There was tenderness in the older boy’s gesture.
Now, hearing my new friend tell the story, I intuited something more between them than would have met his parents’ eyes. A spark between the younger and older boy, a spark of tenderness, of compassion, of love. Love that at once was eros and agape and philia.
My friend sighed. “That cross is my most valuable possession, and even if I were to lose it, it would still be here within me,” he said, pointing to his chest, passionate tears coming to his eyes. We held one another on the bridge, and I felt the presence of the other boy in our long hug. He probably did not know how profoundly he had touched the young boy who would become this seminarian. For in the older boy’s touch, the younger boy had not only experienced the affirming touch of another boy: he had also felt Jesus’ touch. His occasion for telling this story to me had come in the context of explaining the importance of Jesus in his faith, something he was unwilling to sacrifice in the radical enclave of New York’s Union Seminary.
When he later showed me the cross, I felt as if I were handling an icon or relic of a saint that had crossed my friend’s path.
Upon my return home, I opened the box of a similar relic of a saint that had crossed a friend’s path. It too is a small cross, but of silver metal with elaborate etching on it. It too had been given out of love and friendship at a church camp. But it had been passed from a younger man to an older one.
The older man was a Methodist minister I met when I was a student at Yale Divinity School eighteen years before. He was married, and had gone through years of Freudian psychotherapy at the hands of psychiatrists who believed his homosexuality was a “fear of castration.” Essentially I told him that was bunk. Eventually, I knew his own experience would lead him to the same conclusion. He intuited that too, and our few conversations arose from his heartfelt wish to accept that he was gay.
To show his appreciation one day, he handed me a gift. I opened the small box and found the beautiful silver cross. He explained its significance. As one of the leaders of a church camp, one of the teenaged men had taken a liking to him—a liking that apparently included eros and agape and philia, though that was never explicitly expressed. My friend said that it made him feel so good to be loved by another man! At the same time, it frightened him. On the final day of camp, the young man had given him this cross to express his deep feelings for the minister.
I protested, “Surely you want to keep this cross, given its meaning in your life!” I don’t remember exactly how he responded, but I believe he gave it to me both because he knew that I would honor its value and because passing it on to me signified the important bonding we had enjoyed as we shared what it meant to be gay, to be Christian, to be men.
When crosses were first devised out of the cruelty that human hearts have learned, who would’ve imagined that God could have transformed such a cruel machine into an icon of love between an older and a younger boy, and between a younger and an older man? Or that such a cause for suffering could create communion among all kinds of Christians?
Of course the cross would have no power for other than cruelty were it not for Jesus. His touch could heal—even cruelty. And as we touch one another as the Body of Christ, I mean, really touch, with eros and agape and philia—we too will heal our hearts and one another’s hearts of their cruelty. And love—eros and agape and philia—will allow, enable, and offer us communion.
A longer version of this was first published in February 1991 as one of my monthly columns for the More Light Update, edited by James D. Anderson. The Union Seminary student became a well-known documentary filmmaker.
A reading for this week of Lent:
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