Here's a piece I wrote back in the spring about some good changes and things I see happening back at my alma mater (that sounds weird to say...). Bethel is one of my favorite places, and I'm thankful for the ways God is moving there, especially in the sense that LGBTQ students are starting to feel safer and that the atmosphere is shifting for the better. Hopefully, this is just the beginning.
Sometimes, I think fiction is one of the hardest styles and genres of writing to want to excel at. Maybe it's just me, but I think the inability to churn out piece after piece of fiction (since I've been finding that even short stories are challenging to mass produce, for lack of a better term) makes it seem almost like the loftiest of writing goals. Unlike poetry, nonfiction, or other types of essays, it takes time to develop the voice, style, characters, flow, and all the other elements that go into crafting quality fiction, which I think frequently prevents writers from being able to showcase their fiction ability regularly. It seems to come down to actually publishing a popular novel or getting a short story published in a good literary mag, and that can be discouraging for a lot of writers I feel like.
This has been something that's run through my head a lot as of late, especially since I've mentioned that I've been doing a good deal of storyboarding and outlining for fiction the past few days, and it almost feels like all of that work has nothing to show for itself, since I haven't actually written anything yet, just conceptualized ideas and thought through them.
At any rate, that's some of my internal process I've been going through while trying to write fiction the past couple days. So, today, I'm publishing another piece that I wrote a little while back. Even reading through it now, it sort of seems all over the place, but that makes a little sense since it was originally born out of a sort of literary pep talk I was trying to give myself at the time.
inhale, exhale (you're okay)
You said it. It’s done. It’s out. But somehow, it still feels almost as heavy as the first time. Or maybe it always does.
You inhale and tell yourself it’s okay. Then you exhale and let the silence tell you’re okay. Because the stillness isn’t tense. There’s no thickening of the air. Instead, the quiet invites you to continue telling your story.
So you inhale and tell yourself you’re okay, and you exhale and let the empty air affirm that you are indeed okay. Because there’s no hesitation. There’s no held breath, no ellipsis, no comma at the end of the sentence. For once, a period and its finality are comforting, because it means you’re okay.
Your emotions are okay. Your feelings are okay. Your desires and every unspoken thing are okay. And by extension, that means you are okay.
So you inhale and exhale nervously.
But you’re still okay.
There are no arguments. There are no reasons. There’s no theological rhetoric or overspiritualization. There’s just stillness.
So you inhale and you exhale. You’re okay. Because there are no questions, no comments, no concerns. You’re just okay.
So you inhale and you exhale, letting it sink in, to the depths of your soul and being, something so fundamental, yet something so often misplaced.
You’re okay. You’re okay as a person, and your love is okay too, not bound by binary systems or arbitrary rules. And your heart is also okay, not strange or out of place because its love pulls you toward an identical set of chromosomes.
So you inhale and you exhale. You breathe it in deeply so that it settles in your lungs, so that it puts down roots, so that it fills every empty space of your being, so that it echoes within, constantly reminding you that after everything you’ve even been told:
This is the fifth entry in a series of posts on friendship. To find the others once they’ve been published, find the menu button in the upper right corner of the blog and see “Summer Friendship Series.”
Something that I’ve noticed about American relational culture recently, and perhaps especially so with Christian American relational culture, is that we really like to have lines clearly drawn. I see this as the reason why we have phenomena in Christian colleges like DTRs (defining the relationship). There seems to be an increasing neediness to always know what the status of your relationship with another person, and it doesn’t necessarily come from within ourselves. More often than not, it comes as an external question, when we may or may not have been thinking about it.
I think most of us have probably found ourselves in a situation, or at least observed a situation in which two people have begun spending significant amounts of time with each other, prompting some or all of their friends to probe them on whether they’re “just friends” or something more than friends. This can be an incredibly awkward or frustrating experience for everyone involved, regardless of whether the two people actually might have feelings for each other and are trying to navigate that or whether they are close friends who enjoy spending a lot of time together.
Either way, I think this fascination with needing to define relationships has begun hurting our conceptions of friendship, because along with a desire to know exactly what status a relationship has, there also exists an assumption that the relationship will also fit neatly within the preconceived assumptions of what “just friends” or something more than friends might look like. (That being said, I’ve really grown to hate the term “just friends” as I’ve been learning more about friendship and working through this series, because I’ve come to realize it’s a rather derogatory way to refer to a relationship as beautiful as friendship.) If we really think about it, friendships already tend to exist in the middle ground of a Venn diagram, but our attitudes toward them skew towards trying to keep them cleanly isolated to only their safe extremes on a gradient spectrum and this severely limits our ability to understand and have healthy friendships in my opinion.
I've really grown to hate the term "just friends," because I've come to realize it's such a derogatory way to refer to a relationship as beautiful as friendship.
Anam Cara || Irish Gaelic
In conducting my linguistic research for this post as well as my last, this term for a relationship between friends impacted me the most. I had originally found it online while doing some cursory searches for terms for intimate friendship in other languages, but I wasn’t quite sure if I was understanding it correctly until I came across the word again while I was reading Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber, used in a eulogy by one half of an inseparable pair of friends in reference to the other after her untimely death. Though the Bible doesn’t go into detail about the specific circumstances, I like to think David’s mourning over Jonathan’s death in 2 Samuel was similar to the heart wrenching eulogy spanning several pages in Accidental Saints half of the pair of friends wrote for the other. It read similarly to how a lover might have mourned for a lost partner, and that’s when I was sure that I understood how this term was meant to be used.
According to tradition, spiritual friendship occurs when the spirits of two people are knit together and become one in a manner parallel to how God said two spouses would become one flesh in Genesis.
A simple definition of ‘anam cara’ refers to it being the Celtic spiritual belief in the bonding of two souls in friendship. In Celtic spirituality, the soul is thought of as radiating out from the body in an aura that interacts with everything and everyone that you come into contact with. If a person formed a strong enough bond or connection with another person, through being fully open and fully trusting of each other, among other things, it was believed that their souls began to run and flow together as one and that they had found an ‘anam cara.’ Though that may sound romantic in nature and though this term is often translated as ‘soul mate,’ the literal translation is ‘soul friend,’ this translation being supported by the modern Irish notion that while your spouse may be an ‘anam cara,’ it’s still usually reserved for friends rather than lovers. In a way, this makes sense and causes this perception of an ‘anam cara’ to align more closely with the oft forgotten Christian idea of spiritual friendship as a result. According to tradition, spiritual friendship occurs in which the spirits of two people are knit together and become one in a manner parallel to how God said in Genesis that two spouses would become one flesh through their physical union, an idea taken from 1 Samuel 18 when David’s soul is described as being knit to Jonathan’s upon meeting him for the first time. Specifically, it says this:
As soon as he had finished talking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. And Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. // 1 Samuel 18:1-3
This passage was something my mind was immediately drawn to upon reading about the concept of an ‘anam cara,’ and I think it fits the description well. Though the only kind of covenant relationship that we recognize and celebrate at all anymore is the covenant relationship of marriage (which is a problem that needs to be remedied in American Christianity), multiple different kinds of covenant relationships existed in the Bible, including this covenant of friendship between David and Jonathan as well as the covenants that God Himself made with Israel and later with all believers. For this reason, I see it as impossible to deny the significance and weight friendship holds when certain types of friendships are bound together by the same kinds of covenants that seal relationships that we as Christians tend to idolize, such as the covenant of marriage. This is especially true when Jonathan risks his life and crosses his father, the king of Israel, for the sake of his friendship and covenant with David later in the story, all acts of love and sacrifice that we typically only see in portrayed within the confines of romantic love in many stories that we grow up with today, which does so much to destroy the beauty, depth, and intimacy of what true friendship is supposed to look like.
The only kind of covenant relationship that we recognize and celebrate anymore in American Christianity is the covenant of marriage, which is a problem that needs to be remedied.
If my friend, Sheridan, is my [nakama] from my last post, then my friend Joseph is my anam cara.
I first met Joseph under less than ideal circumstances and basically by accident a few years ago. I was at this weeklong, overnight leadership camp being held a Christian college, and I definitely wasn’t there voluntarily. Though not necessarily forced to go, I probably would’ve come up with any excuse to back out if my family and I hadn’t already paid for it, and I had been dreading it even more so when I realized that I likely wouldn’t know anybody else there upon arrival. And to top it all off, you weren’t allowed to bring your phone or any other type of electronic device in order to keep you present during the week. Great.
The camp consisted of three or four lecture-type sessions every day with teaching on various aspects of leadership and worldview with team activities (which you were sorted into randomly), meals, and free time in between. During the first session the first night, I had spotted a friend from church that I vaguely knew across the way and my awkward self made its way over in order to hide the fact that I was still feeling horribly uncomfortable. With him was Joseph, and if I’m being honest, at that moment, I felt something similar to what Jonathan felt when he met David. In that moment, I knew I wanted this person in my life, probably forever, but at the same time, I met him during our five minutes of stretching and mingling time in the middle of a session, so I wasn’t actually sure if I would see him again or actually become friends with him.
That quickly changed the next day. Our first block of free time in the afternoon had just rolled around, and I wasn’t really sure who I was going to be spending the next three hours with. Having been pretty exhausted the previous night from the dread of not even wanting to be at this camp, I went to bed early without really meeting anyone else, plagued by a runny nose and cough due to the mold that was lowkey growing in the dorms we were staying in. So like any awkward camper, I looked at the directory to see what room the church friend I hardly knew was staying in and thought I’d pop over there to see if I could not be alone for those three hours of free time. When I knocked on the door, Joseph answered, being roommates with this church friend and struck up a conversation with me after informing me that the guy I had actually been looking for was gone and he didn’t know where he was. And thus began an entire week of spending the majority of our time together, along with the small group of friends that we formed, ditching our assigned small groups to eat with each other, being essentially inseparable during sessions, and swapping numbers at the end of camp to ensure that we would remain in contact. We’ve been friends since then, our lives continuing to intersect almost accidentally, like when we both discovered about two weeks before Welcome Week that we’d both be going to Bethel in the fall of 2013.
"You can tell how strong the friendship is by the silence that envelops it. Lovers and spouses may talk frequently about their 'relationship,' but friends tend to let their regard for one another speak for itself or let others point it out." // Andrew Sullivan
He truly is one of my soul friends, and he’s one of the few people that I really do feel comfortable sharing my soul with. He’s a strong non-anxious presence, being one of the very few people I feel completely safe and unjudged with, and we’ve both made it clear that nothing is off limits between us. We can talk about anything and everything without feeling like we’re burdening or annoying each other with it, which goes for both the smallest of things and the biggest. Beyond that sense of just safety with him, he’s also so good for me, because he challenges me on why I think certain things and doesn’t just agree with me in order to avoid a potential disagreement in opinion. So, we’ll have excellent talks that weave in and out of serious and lighthearted topics, and he’s also incredible at just being, which is probably one of my favorite things about him. I’ve read several articles recently that talk about how millennials don’t know how to handle silence and just being, but Joseph is a pro at mindful silence and makes me want to be better at it too. All in all, I think a quote by Andrew Sullivan, who wrote extensively about this idea of ‘anam cara’ in his book Love Undetected, describes our relationship quite well. He writes, “You can tell how strong the friendship is by the silence that envelops it. Lovers and spouses may talk frequently about their “relationship,” but friends tend to let their regard for one another speak for itself or let others point it out.”
The very last words are particularly relevant. Even as of late, several people have asked me if we’re together, and some don’t even believe me when I tell them that we aren’t, which is just funny to me. I mean, I’m not shy about saying that I do genuinely love him, but even that seems to be such a polarizing thing to say in American relational culture. They always assume that something else must be going on between us because there’s just no precedent for that kind of friendship in American culture, and that raises a lot of good questions. Why can’t friends pay for each other when they go out to meals together? Why can’t friends hold hands or link arms walking down the street (this is actually quite common in many countries, especially non-Westernized countries, but also countries like Spain and Italy)? And why can’t friends say “I love you,” to each other?
Why have we created such a warped and distorted view of friendship in American culture that we've started to believe friendships can't be this deep or intimate without being a threat to marriage?
I think our perception of friendship has been so warped and distorted in American culture and American Christian culture that we’ve started to believe that friendships can’t be this deep or this intimate without being a threat to marriage or romantic relationships because the lines might be too blurry. While obviously those relationships are distinct, it’s worth keeping in mind that the Greeks and even C.S. Lewis counted friendship among the different forms of love, so why do we keep insisting on limiting love to the kind we see in romcoms and keeping it in a box when it’s so much broader and more beautiful than that? I think that perhaps if we reoriented and repaired our perceptions of friendship and other forms of love that aren’t romantic, sexual love, maybe those relationships in our lives would be improved and strengthened too, because we’d start to see love more holistically than the way it’s been fed to us over the last several decades.
Maybe the Greeks were onto something when they used different words for the different forms of love. Maybe they knew that having only one word to encompass so many different kinds of nuanced relationships would cause us to unhealthily emphasize one over all the others. Maybe that’s the source of our Christian idolization of marriage and romantic relationships.
All of that being said, start thinking about how you think about your significant others in your life, because they can be your friends, your family, and so many other people other than just someone you might be romantically involved with. Do you automatically prioritize a romantic relationship over others in your life? If so, why? And is it even Biblical to do that?
Maybe the source of our Christian idolization of marriage and romantic relationships stems from the fact that the words we have to talk about different kinds of relationships in American English are so limited and narrow, lacking the nuance that the Greeks had to talk about love.
After that, start thinking about how you can love your friends better. Tell your friends you love them. Show some physical affection maybe. I’m not necessarily saying we need to knock marriage down a few notches, but I am definitely saying that friendship is a beautiful and complex thing that hasn’t been getting enough of the credit it truly deserves.
(In writing this post, I referenced a couple articles and they can be found at these links below if you’re interested in reading more about this kind of friendship.)
Coming up in this series on friendship: covenant friendship and intimacy between friends, reviving friendship by untangling romanticism and sexuality, and some thoughts on a culture that tells us not to really love our friends, among other topics. Subscribe to the blog to get email notifications of new posts and like ‘Jonah Venegas’ on Facebook in order to get updates as posts come out, and let me know in the comments or on social media what you’re thinking about all of this stuff and please, please share my writing if you resonate with it!
Amidst all of the culture wars that our world and society are currently embroiled in, it goes without saying that there’s always room for more grace, and I believe that’s true. If you’ve ever read any books or articles about conflict resolution, they will usually tell you that the blame for a problem can very rarely be 100% attributed to one party. In most cases, both or all parties have contributed at least a little bit to the overarching problem, regardless of whether that split is revealed to be 97% one party’s fault and only 3% the other party’s fault. That’s a pretty significant split, and that doesn’t mean that the one guilty party hasn’t done something wrong. In simple terms, most conflicts usually involve one party who was wronged and another party that committed the wrong, but what this conflict resolution strategy does is to point out that in any given conflict, there were often factors on both or all sides that were key to the situation unfolding the way that it did. And this is the perspective of grace with which I try to approach the raging controversial debates, but so often, it feels like maintaining a posture of grace is getting you nowhere, which very quickly becomes exhausting. It’s widely believed that a grace-filled approach doesn’t really satisfy anyone, especially because the majority of the controversial issues being discussed in the world today are intricately intertwined with existing power imbalances. It’s difficult, if not impossible at times, to tell LGBTQ people or people of color to have grace and acknowledge their tiny contributions to the overall problems that result in their oppression without making it into a case of victim blaming. This is even more true in certain cases, because the powerful majority will often be quick to take those concessions and admissions of miniscule contributions to the conflict and use them to justify the systems of oppression or institutionalized inequality that are already in place, resulting in zero progression or change. They take the grace and self-awareness of the oppressed to mean that there’s nothing wrong and thus the same inequalities and injustices continue to perpetuate themselves.
However, at the same time, we’ve seen that the opposite doesn’t really tend to work either, when the oppressed go on the offensive, or perhaps even just try to point out the systems of oppression and inequality that are already in place, without even being too pointed. The majority rushes to their own defense. This is where we get movements like #NotAllWhitePeople, #NotAllMen, #NotAllChristians, and the like. But this doesn’t do anything to remedy the injustices that exist in the world either, because this only continues to pit groups of people against each other, when conflict resolution is really what needs to happen. This is because neither group wants to be wrong. The oppressed obviously don’t want to concede because they have been wronged; that’s factual. And the majority doesn’t want to be seen as bigoted, sexist, racist, homophobic, or any other form of ignorant. But all that gets us is a stalemate, with neither side, but mostly the majority side not willing to admit to any wrongdoing. And there we find ourselves deadlocked in conflict.
So what do we do with that?
Honestly, I think that the solution is that the majority needs to have more grace, because if only the oppressed, whether those are gender minorities, racial minorities, sexual minorities, or any other kind, are willing to have grace and be introspective, we really will be stuck at a stalemate.
And that grace can manifest in many ways, but I think that one of the most important is simply listening, listening to our stories, to our hurts, to what we have to say about things that directly affect us. Specifically related to LGBTQ issues and the church, it’s all too common for straight, white, cisgender pastors and speakers to get all the attention for the work that they’re doing with LGBTQ people. While I certainly don’t want to downplay the impact that allies have had, I think that it’s a little hypocritical for people to say that they are our allies and that they care about and love LGBTQ people when they won’t listen to us or let us tell our own stories, rather than trying to tell them for us. Who better to tell our stories than us? Because the bottom line is that we have voices. No one can take that away from us, but it’s a very harsh reality that though we have voices, many people choose not to listen to us.
And that’s where grace comes in. There’s no doubt in my mind that all parties involved in any given conflict need to approach it from a posture of grace, but at the same time, perhaps the majority needs to take its turn at being gracious, and in many cases, having grace starts with actually listening.
Alright, here's the full, unedited version of the article that was published in the Bethel Clarion earlier this week, detailing my stream of thought about the Mark Yarhouse sexuality event last week. The Clarion staff did a great job editing it, but it definitely read more like a newspaper article (as it should have) than some of my normal writing, so I wanted to stick the original version up on here. Take a read if you weren't at the event or haven't already. I checked the time on my phone as I speed walked through the BC on my way to the Underground. It was already 8:01pm and I was late, having just come from helping lead an exam review session for CWC. Mark Yarhouse, a psychologist and professor from Regent University, was giving a talk on sexuality and I was going to be there, though a bit reluctant at first. From what I had heard and read of him in the past, I wasn’t incredibly optimistic about the event, but the Underground was relatively full, so I slid into the second row from the front and took out my notebook just as it was beginning.
Over the course of his talk, which consisted of a presentation of his research on sexual minorities at Christian colleges and a Q&A afterward, I found myself pleasantly surprised at how well he handled the topic and how nuanced many of his answers were, a sentiment that I found many other LGBT students in attendance shared following the event.
Among the positives in his presentation, he gave a mildly muddled, but overall helpful explanation of why it’s important to LGBT people to identify as “gay,” “lesbian,” etc., rather than “same-sex attracted” or “homosexual.” This is an important distinction for the Bethel community to realize because using non-standard terminology can often carry dehumanizing connotations for LGBT students, even Christian LGBT students, because they often have roots that go back to ex-gay reparative therapy movements or when homosexuality was still considered a mental health disorder, two things that he also touched on briefly.
In addition, he affirmed several fundamental truths of existence for LGBT Christians that often get glossed over the highly politicized culture wars over LGBT issues. Among these, he made it clear that it is very possible to be gay or lesbian or transgender and also a Christian, defending that those two things are not mutually exclusive, something that is still debated in some Christian circles. Further, he noted that even though he doesn’t take an affirming stance in terms of same-sex marriage or sexual relationships, that doesn’t mean that people who do are necessarily wrong. He explained that many of his LGBT friends hold different positions there, but that doesn’t have any impact on the quality or legitimacy of their relationship, because there are many good Christians who happen to fall on different sides of that spectrum of belief. This is so significant because these types of differences tend to be highly polarized, with either side being alternately considered morally right or morally wrong, so the fact that he also explicitly stated that he never questioned the faith of his friends who held to differing beliefs is a good example of how non-affirming Christians can and should react to those kinds of differences, choosing to maintain relationships with people who hold other perspectives rather than feeling the constant need to remind them that we disagree with them. And this goes for both sides, affirming and non-affirming.
Finally, he also spoke quite a bit on what it might look like to engage with these kinds of issues on Christian college campuses, his main point being that we should strive to create safe spaces where LGBT students can still feel wanted and fully included in those communities. Thus, he spoke against using the phrase “love the sinner; hate the sin,” a popular saying that has been used in reference to LGBT Christians and only serves to reduce those people to their sexuality while simultaneously dehumanizing them. In addition, he indicated that he’s not a proponent of reparative therapy, meant to make LGBT Christians straight, and only reserves the right of sexual orientation change efforts to informed adults who voluntarily seek it out. Rather, he advocated for the climate change on Christian college campuses and support for LGBT students, pointing out that LGBT students have no fewer needs for intimacy than straight students, that coming from interpersonal relationships and social and institutional support among other sources. Thus, while his claims that policy change is probably not the most realistic expectation for LGBT students might upset some and be considered less than satisfactory, his calls for broader and deeper support for LGBT students at Christian colleges are a bright spot and definitely a good starting point for schools like Bethel.
Overall, it was refreshing to hear a speaker that represented our stories more or less accurately, portrayed us in a humanizing way, and helped other students and faculty understand what it’s like to walk the journeys that we do a little better. Though ideally we would be hearing these stories from LGBT Christians and students themselves, the mere fact that this event occurred and that he was willing to engage with the difficult questions many of us raised is a positive step toward the right direction for a place like Bethel, especially for students who still harbor fears of alienation, unacceptance, or backlash related to coming out.
Beyond that, though events like this may be considered to be only baby steps by students who are looking for more sweeping reform and change, they are still strides in the right direction and help raise greater awareness for topics like this at Bethel. It’s my opinion that events like these are the beginnings of creating places of openness and safety where LGBT students can feel comfortable and supported coming out and being a part the community fully, not fearing reprisal, condemnation, or questioning of their faith, but rather feeling wanted, included, and valued.
Obviously, there’s still more work to do, but I personally hope that all the positive progress will encourage more students to come out and share their stories, being willing to help drive the movement to create safe spaces and be the change that they’re looking for, both for their own benefit and for the benefit of students that will come to Bethel in the future. Though it might take a while to get there, the progress and openness that I’ve seen gives me a vision of Bethel possibly becoming a model of how Christian colleges, though non-affirming officially, can become safe spaces that advocate for the humanity and inclusion of LGBT students.