Wesley Hill’s “Washed and Waiting”

June 1, 2012

This week I read Wesley Hill’s poignant memoir Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. Hill, like many homosexual Christians who find that they can’t not be gay, has chosen the difficult path of celibacy.

Along with the Bible and the weight of two millennia of Christian reflection on the subject, I commend celibacy to all unmarried Christians, with the understanding that Christian marriage is between one man and one woman. As I’ve said before, this puts me at odds with many of my fellow United Methodist clergy, and is deeply counter-cultural.

Hill’s book only reinforces my convictions. Like me, Hill is unpersuaded by creative exegesis that reinterprets what the Bible otherwise says clearly on the subject. But for both Hill and me, the conviction is deeper than proof-texting a few verses and saying the-Bible-tells-me-so. Against the autonomy that many Christians feel they should have over their sex lives, Hill writes:

From the gospel’s point of view, then, there is no absolute right or unconditional guarantee of sexual fulfillment for Christian believers. And this is one more reason the Bible and the church’s prohibitions of homoeroticism have seemed less and less surprising or arbitrary or unfair the more I’ve thought about them within the context of the gospel. If all Christians must surrender their bodies to God in Christ whenever they enter the fellowship of Christ’s body, then it should come as no great shock that God might actually make demands of those Christians and their bodies—demands proving that God, and God alone, has authority over us.[1]

I’m pleased that Hill “agrees” with much of what I’ve written on the subject. Unlike me, however, Hill has paid for the privilege of his convictions.

Having said that, I need to offer an apology. I see now that much of what I’ve said on the topic recently—or at least the way I’ve said it—has been way too glib. I’m sorry. I failed to appreciate how all-consuming this struggle is for gay Christians who are trying their best to be faithful to the Lord. Moreover, I’ve been nursing my own bruised feelings from arguments I’ve had with clergy friends on the subject, and my tone has reflected that pain.

Whatever else Hill’s book is, it is the opposite of glib—as even Hill’s critics would surely concede. Hill describes an unrelenting struggle against something that is at the core of his being. I kept waiting for life to get easier for him. I kept waiting for a happy ending that never quite came.

For me, the most devastating passage in the book took place toward the end, long after Hill came out as a gay, celibate Christian, long after he’d found love and acceptance among Christian friends, long after—silly me—I imagined his struggle should have gotten easier. He describes going to a friend’s wedding reception. All his friends were dancing. They eventually talked him into joining them. They introduced him to a dance partner, a beautiful young woman named Karis. Reluctantly, Hill asked her to dance. (I assume she knew Hill was gay.)

As Hill set the scene, I became aware that I was rooting for Hill to feel an attraction for her. And Hill was apparently rooting for himself to feel something, too.

A couple of days later I explained to my friend Chris over breakfast what had happened. We danced, I said. I was with this beautiful girl. I was holding her hand and touching her back. Her dress was thin and showed every curve on her body, I said. I could feel her sweating through the dress, and, inches from her face, I could see every exquisite feature she had. “And, Chris,” I said. “I felt nothing. No attraction. No awakening or arousal of any kind. No sexual desire whatsoever.”

Chris nodded. He knows my situation backward and forward and wasn’t fazed by what I was telling him.

“The worst of it,” I continued, “is that while I wasn’t attracted at all to this stunningly beautiful person who was my dance partner, I couldn’t stop looking at the guy dancing several feet away from me. I did notice him. I noticed his body, his moves. Chris,” I said, “I was attracted to this guy. All I could see and desire was another guy across the room while I’m dancing with this girl. This is so frustrating. This is what it means to be gay, and I would give anything to change it!”[2]

What do you say to that? How do you tie up this experience with a bow and make it all better? Where’s the consolation?

Consolation does come for Hill, but, unlike my words on the subject, it never comes neatly or easily.

All of us who struggle with sin, whether we’re gay or straight, should be able relate to Hill’s beautiful reflections on God’s grace. I’ll leave you with this:

Christianity’s good news provides—amply so—for the forgiveness of sins and the wiping away of guilt and the removal of any and all divine wrath through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Seen in this light, the demand that we say no to our homosexual impulses need not seem impossible. If we have failed in the past, we can receive grace—a clean slate, a fresh start. If we fail today or tomorrow in our struggle to be faithful to God’s commands, that, too, may be forgiven. Feeling that the guilt of past homosexual sins or present homosexual failures is beyond the scope of God’s grace should never be a barrier preventing anyone from embracing the demands of the gospel. God has already anticipated our objection and extravagantly answered it with the mercy of the cross.[3]

Amen.

1. Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 70.

2. Ibid., 133.

3. Ibid., 64.

16 Responses to “Wesley Hill’s “Washed and Waiting””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    A good post. I totally agree that we have no right to expect that God will necessarily allow us to be “fulfilled” sexually, or in any other physical way. In fact, we are called upon to “deny ourselves.” If we hold on to our lives as we sinfully want them to be, we “lose.” We only “win” when we are willing to give those sinful desires up. (Or, to the extent that we cannot “put them away,” then “battle them down.”)

    Personally, and with a great deal of trepidation at the admission, I suffer from looking where I should not on the internet when it comes to lust. As Hill says, fortunately God forgives those failures. But they are failures. Like any other sin, including homosexuality, it is necessary to admit the sinfulness of the conduct. It is also necessary to fight against it.

    I agree that God’s grace lends assistance from His Spirit in such battles. However, since I can’t blame the Spirit for when I fail, then certainly there must be some “effort” exerted on my own part as well to “make that happen.” Actually, it is substantially that “effort on our own part” that is primarily what God is looking for and what he will judge us about upon his return, on the Judgment Day.

    Pray for me that I overcome my own “heterosexual” lust as relates to the internet, even as I will from now on pray for Hill to overcome his homosexual lust. (I admit it seems a little inconsistent to ask for prayer over something that also seems mine to overcome, but certainly the Bible teaches for such prayers for ourselves and others. I have to work, but when I do, then God’s Spirit comes and “helps me out.” Or, something like that.)


  2. Brent,

    I have chosen not to comment on your previous posts that have stated your opinion on where the Bible “clearly” stands on the topic of homosexuality (I am always eager to discuss in kind conversation opinions on the “clarity” of the Bible). Thank you for your well written apology in this post. I am glad you read Wesley Hill’s book. It produced some change in yor heart, and I find that to be good.

    When auditing Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson’s class, “The Theology of Paul and the Jesus Paul Knew,” I came away with a changed opinion and understanding of Paul and of Paul’s letters. This experience gave me even more cause to enjoy discussion about the “clarity of the Bible.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      Susan,

      You don’t have to hold back on my account! I would welcome a discussion about where the Bible “clearly” stands on this very important issue confronting our church. You might misunderstand me. I do think it’s sufficiently clear. Jews in the first century thought it was clear. And for most of these past two millennia the Church has thought it clear. I haven’t at all changed my view of what the Bible says on the subject. I repent of my sometimes glib attitude when discussing it.

      It was heartening to me that Wesley Hill, who has every possible motive to reinterpret the Bible in such a way as to make it easier, more comfortable on himself, refuses to do so. He agrees with the traditional stance of the Church.

      I appreciate more fully how incredibly difficult and burdensome this stance is. But I don’t disagree that being faithful to Jesus means being celibate outside of marriage between a woman and man.

      I disagree with Luke Johnson, as do many equally reputable New Testament Bible scholars… including United Methodist Richard Hays at Duke and my man N.T. Wright. I’ve read a little of Johnson on the subject, but I would love for you to tell me how he understands scripture regarding homosexuality.


      • Brent,

        I knew your opinion had not changed on this topic. I clearly understood your apology. I agree to disagree with you as I feel no need to change your opinion. I am content to let the Holy Spirit accomplish that work. This is why I do not often feel the need to engage in this topic electronically and on rare occasions in person.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Susan,

        Forgive me, but doesn’t the Holy Spirit want us to use words sometimes in order to bring about change? I’m frustrated that so many of my fellow United Methodist clergy don’t use words, electronically or otherwise, when it comes to homosexuality. Yet they want radical change in the life of our church.

        It’s not fair that they keep the rest of us in the dark. What is it that they know, so confidently, so passionately, for example, that John Wesley himself didn’t know—not to mention two millennia of church doctors? I wish they would enlighten us.

        No thanks. I like using words, and I’m trying to be transparent. If the Holy Spirit convinces me otherwise, I’ll be the first to say so. But the Holy Spirit speaks not only through the Bible but also tradition, the overwhelming consensus of which says that homosexual practice is, to put it no more strongly, “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

        At the risk of letting my anti-Catholic bias show through, I’m often struck by the way Catholics like Luke Johnson speak as if the Bible (or Paul’s letters) were hopelessly obscure and out of reach for us average non-scholars. How convenient, since Johnson knows most of his fellow Catholics won’t read it anyway!

        What about those of us who do read it, who feel like it’s important to wrestle with it, and who believe that God can actually speak to us through it? Are we hopelessly overmatched? All these words, like Romans 1:24-27, which seem to say one thing, are really saying something else entirely! Greek wasn’t even a requirement at Candler, and somehow we’re supposed to get up each week and say something intelligent about what the Bible says? How do we know what we’re talking about? What makes us think that we can trust any of these plain English words, not just on the subject of homosexuality, but on so many other things?


      • Brent,

        After enjoying a fabulously prepared six course meal, European style with paired wines, at In de Keuken (Dutch for in the Kitchen) in Amsterdam with my daughter, I will respond to your last post.

        We are in agreement that Candler School of Theology does not require Greek or Hebrew for graduation. However, we are in disagreement, …”like Luke Johnson speak as if the Bible ( or Paul’s letters) were hopelessly obscure and out of reach for us average non-scholars”. This was not my experience of Johnson at all in the course I audited. Instead, because of his years of study and scholarship of Paul and his command of Greek, he was able to make Paul and his culture, his Jewish world view and context, and his transformation–not conversion–to being a follower of Christ understandable and helpful to more accurately interpret Paul’s writings. The failure on the part of clergy is that too many of us do not teach in this manner to those who are ready and prepared by clergy to hear and critically think through the diversity of opinions of scholars like Johnson, Hays and Wright.

        I, too, like using words; and I , too, know how well my words are often used against me, and that, Brent, is a discussion that I will not have online in blog comments, on fb, or twitter (this comment is not personally directed to you–it is about the ways words cabn be cut and pasted and edited and sent around the world in seconds). I am a direct person of confidence, and I can readily and quickly express my opinion and defend it. I also know that some people are not able to bear it, and that is something I have learned from living the life I have lived–the one that is full of God’s gracious love and mercy that have shaped and taught me that, “incompatible with Christian teaching” is a phrase that is fraught with a load of Christian history that can illustrate ways of what can happen when anyone in leadership and power in the Christian church wants to enforce the “clarity of the Bible.” I stand by my statement that the Bible is never that clear. I think biblical scholars exist and get paid exactly because the Bible is not clear.

        I do believe that scripture is primary, and that I am to use reason, experience and church/Christian tradition as I meditate on, search and study scripture. I think Wesley would support me on this statement. I will look forward to future face-to-face and blog comments and replies.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Susan,

        Enjoy your trip and your daughter and grandchildren! I forgot you were in Holland. Why are you reading my blog? 😉

        I forgot for a moment that my position on homosexuality was actually the “official” one, although “incompatible with Christian teaching” is a lousy way of putting it. If my parishioners disagree with me (and many of them do) I can at least fall back on, “It’s in the book!” I guess my colleagues on the other side don’t have that luxury.

        Of course the Bible is complex, and we should bring the best of our exegetical and theological resources to bear on understanding it. But we didn’t wake up and discover that the Bible was complex in 1971. My point about Wesley is that, although the word “homosexuality” didn’t exist in the 18th century, he understood that people had same sex relationships. He would have no trouble, I’m sure, affirming the UMC’s current stance.

        So what do we do? Pat Wesley on the head and say, “Well, we know better now”? It’s chronological snobbery, as C.S. Lewis would say. I can’t figure out what special insight we’ve gained on the subject of human sexuality in the past two hundred years that improves upon anything that the saints before us already told us. On the contrary, it seems clear to me that, more often than not, we moderns and post-moderns are confused.


  3. Brent,

    I take issue with these words you wrote:
    “My point about Wesley is that, although the word “homosexuality” didn’t exist in the 18th century, he understood that people had same sex relationships. He would have no trouble, I’m sure, affirming the UMC’s current stance.”

    My understanding of Wesley has led me to describe him as an adult educator, practical theologian, progressive, and a transformational leader. He had women teaching and preaching, no doubt as a result of his mother’s strong theological influence in his life; and he was excluded from the Anglican church by his ordained colleagues/peers due to his unorthodox practice of ministry in the 18th century.

    Considering the ways Wesley brought his own experience, reason, and Christian history and tradition (recall that he had grandparents who died on the authority of church leaders who had them put to death because they refused to tow the “official” line of The Church of England”) to searching, studying, and understanding scripture, I strongly disagree with your last sentence above, “He would have no trouble, I’m sure, affirming the UMC’s current stance.”

    I think just the opposite way about Wesley in that I believe due to the divergence of scripture interpretation and understanding on the topic of homosexuality among educated UM clergy and laity today that Wesley would have us engage in the hard, difficult, prayerful and intentional “holy conferencing” that he used with those he had mentored and trained to preach and teach the Bible to others. I am convinced that this Wesley practice has not been implemented fully and wholely in the UMC, although I have seen a written description of this process that took place at Glenn Memorial UMC with laity and clergy of that congregation.

    Chronological snobbery is not where I’m coming from either. Again, scripture is not clear on this topic and on numerous other topics.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Oh dear… Instead of arguing from silence about what Wesley would or wouldn’t affirm regarding the UMC’s position on homosexuality, we have Wesley’s actual words from his commentary on the Bible. The fact is that those scripture passages that are so unclear to you were, in fact, quite clear to him.

      Again, what do people on the pro-gay equality side know that he didn’t? If you’re afraid to engage the argument in writing, beyond asserting that scripture is very unclear on the subject, I would love to meet with you face to face. Let’s have lunch. We’ll be good Methodists and have a ” holy conversation” on the subject.

  4. revdrtaylor Says:

    Agreed–let’s have lunch. Please let me know some options that will fit your schedule. You can email or text me with options when I return on June 8. Now how many words did it take to get to this point 😏?

  5. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I have to agree with you on the clarity of the Bible’s stance on homosexuality and the “gymnastics” involved in trying to “get around” the clear proscription in order to be more “understanding.” I believe it is in Leviticus 18 that Moses writes (and attributes the statement to God directly), that a man shall not sleep with a man as a man sleeps with a woman, for that is an abomination. This seems pretty clear as to what is being talked about, and how God feels on the subject. Not to be avoided on the basis that this is OT, Paul in the NT, in speaking in Romans 1 of the extent of depravity coming from rejection of God, again uses very clear language as to what he is talking about (and includes lesbianism). Nowhere in the Bible is there some implied, much less explicit, reference to a “loving” or “committed” relationship” as somehow authorizing the very conduct which is so strongly condemned. That’s more “gymnastics.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      Yes, but you know what people on the other side will say about Leviticus? It also prohibits eating shellfish. So if we eat shrimp and lobster, why do we bother condemning homosexuality? Not agreeing with that view, just anticipating the objection.

      But of course you can turn that argument around. Leviticus also contains the great commandment. If we disregard the shellfish commandment, why not disregard the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves? What keeps us from throwing the whole book out? Jesus certainly didn’t, and the vast majority of the Church has always been able to discern the difference between commands about shellfish and commands that get to the heart of God’s intentions for Creation—which, as you say, is affirmed by Paul in Romans 1 and elsewhere.

      I agree with you: these interpretive “gymnastics” are ad hoc arguments created for the specific purpose of refuting any straightforward reading of the Bible.

      So, for me, Wesley Hill has a great deal of credibility on the subject: he has every reason to side with those who reinterpret these texts against 2000 years of interpretive tradition, but he refuses.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, you are right about the shellfish proscription, and it is necessary to have some rational interperative basis to distinguish between the two commands. (Such as, for example, possible health considerations for the Jews of the time on the one hand, versus the other stated to be an “abomination.”) However, the main point I was trying to make with Leviticus was that it is not the case that the Bible was talking about something other than homosexuality qua homosexuality with its proscriptions. Both in Moses’ day and Paul’s day (and at all other times the subject is mentioned), everyone was perfectly clear about what the subject was they were dealing with, and absolutely prohibited it, without any “qualifications” that they really meant, “except in a loving, committed relationship” (which, in fact, a lot of practicing homosexuals don’t have anyway–they are just as likely to “fornicate” without such a “relationship” as their vast heterosexual compatriots are concerned).

  6. brentwhite Says:

    I see what you mean… That the Leviticus verse is referring to rape or humiliation (supposedly something victors in battle would sometimes do to the vanquished) and not homosexuality per se. Similar arguments are made about Sodom and Gomorrah and Paul’s words in Romans 1… It’s not homosexual behavior, per se; it’s the way the behavior is carried out. If only, gay-equality proponents say, people back then could have imagined such a thing as same-sex, monogamous, lifelong, committed relationships, then…

    My main problem is that such a view contradicts Genesis 1 and 2, which speaks to God’s intentions for man and woman. (And Genesis 1 and 2 is what Paul has in mind in Romans 1. Not to mention that Jesus affirms Genesis 1 and 2 explicitly.) The Bible isn’t picking any two representative human beings—one who happens to be a woman named Eve and the other who happens to be a man named Adam. But any two human beings would do, so long as they’re in a committed, monogamous relationship.

    No, it matters that they are male and female together, that they are complementary, that they are unlike one another in these significant ways.

    See what I mean?

  7. Tom Harkins Says:

    I totally agree. (Sorry, I can’t resist an aside–doesn’t Jesus’ explicit affirmation of Genesis 1 & 2 have something to say to those who reject a literal Adam and Eve in favor of the theory of evolution?)

    • brentwhite Says:

      No. Even theistic evolutionists could believe in a literal Adam and Eve or that Jesus was speaking symbolically. I disagree with you, as you know. Go to Scot McKnight’s blog on patheos. He has written extensively on the subject in a fair-minded way. It doesn’t interest me because I fail to see what’s at stake in the question.


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