This summer at Sacred Friendship Summer Camp we have been exploring friendship from all different angles. The bottom line to all of them seems to be that they require humility, openness, intention, and God's help! Friendship cannot be mastered, but we can continue to grow in our abilities. One of the leading voices in cross-gender friendships in the church is Dan Brennan
. he's the author of Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women
and the catalyst behind the first-ever gathering last fall centered exclusively on cross-gender friendships--When Jesus Met Mary: A Conference Exploring Friendship Between Men and Women.
He is a friend of The Refuge from afar, cheerleader for all-things-friendship, and a great challenger for all of us to explore what it means to be intimately connected in the family of God beyond superficialities. Another bonus is that he'll be at the refuge in october!
Kathy gave him some questions to answer on email related to cross-gender friendships as part of our summer series. Pretend we are sitting at The Refuge on wednesday night, listening in:
- You are married and have several really strong cross-gender friendships with women. How do you navigate that with your wife?
Sheila and I take friendship seriously—both in marriage and beyond. I know you expect me to say this, but I say it because it is true and it is necessary. Sheila is my best friend. We’re committed to each other. We share a physical and personal intimacy as a married couple that is exclusive.
We are both committed to an ever-deepening communion of friendship in our marriage. We practice intentional, wide-open transparency, truthfulness, tenderness, vulnerability, and ongoing companionship.
Deep friendships beyond - or perhaps I should say “alongside” or even “within” - marriage form their own particular intensity and passion as friends/spouses open themselves up to the Spirit’s work in shaping communal bonds in their lives.
So Sheila and I navigate any of our friendships through our own ongoing intimacy. We are both committed to fullness in mutual discernment regarding how our marriage interfaces with these friendships. A huge part of the flourishing in these friendships has not only been Sheila’s trust in me but also her trust in these friends. She has reached a deep comfort level with them because she knows them.
- Why do you think cross-gender friendships are so important in Christian community?
1) In the new creation, there is a new social order between men and women. There is a spiritual oneness between men and women in Christ.
2) Friendship is the great equalizer between men and women in this new creation. There is no “under” or “over” in friendship. By seeking the fullest good of the other in friendship, freedom and justice are expressed in concrete relationships.
3) Jesus came so that all men and women share the fullness of life in profound unity together. This is what he prayed for in John 17. Jesus wants men and women to know the fullness of the communion of love dwelling in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
4) Deep reconciliation between men and women is one of our greatest challenges in a culture that sexualizes all closeness and intimacy. Sexualizing closeness is a deep barrier impeding reconciliation.
5) All men and women (not just those who are married) carry the image of a God Who is Love. The Trinity is an intimate, ever-lasting partnership of Love and Friendship.
6) Intimate friendship between men and women is not only an authentic, life-giving path of unlimited flourishing and shalom in marriage but in our churches and communities. It is spiritually formative. Friends seeking God together as our highest good, participate in “a microcosm both of desirable human community and of the utopia of eternal life” (Anna Peterson).
- What have you learned about God, yourself & others through your cross-gender friendships in the past several years?
I’ve learned I can experience closeness with women over the course of time—and still cherish and prize an exclusive love for Sheila as my one and only wife. My closeness with my friends doesn’t compete with my marriage. I have learned to seek the highest good and deepest beauty for my wife and my friends.
To embrace my friend’s beauty (I am referring to their entire embodied beauty—not merely their physical appearance) in friendship is a positive affirmation of sexuality and spiritual connection. To practice gentleness-tenderness in platonic intimacy through word, gesture, or touch is a positive expression of sexuality and spirituality.
My friendships have taught me that God is friendship even as the Catholic monk, St. Aelred declared. God is known through union in friendship. Jesus says eternal life is knowing God (John 17:3). God is wild. God is beautiful. God is present as we practice intimate friendship.
- What are some practical relationship skills that you try to apply in your cross-gender friendships?
If we are not intentional, friendships can remain superficial, replaceable connections. Generosity of spirit with no strings attached, kindness, gentleness-tenderness, patience, and attentiveness are important skills in seeking the good of my friends.
The skill of learning to “let go” expectations, surrendering to healthy goodness in friendship may, ironically, foster an even deeper intimacy, a deeper oneness. Authentic healthy intimacy in friendship is not about possession or entitlement.
- What do you have to say to the skeptics who say "It's not possible for men and women to really be friends"?
For thousands of years friendship was something serious and transformative. Yet, during that stretch some of world’s greatest thinkers thought it was impossible for women to have enduring, virtuous, real friendships.
I can appreciate and respect those whose lenses see only the damage and brokenness between men and women. There will be Christians who disagree with me. I’m not going to change their minds. For them there is too much sin and brokenness to expect deep healing in the present world.
But to those who are open to hope and fullness in this life, deep reconciliation between men and women is not an impossible dream. My story and many other stories witness to the fact it is possible for men and women to learn together as friends to seek deep goodness and beauty by following Jesus and seeking his kingdom.
- We have been practicing a lot of friendship skills over the course of the summer. What words of advice or wisdom do you have for someone who is beginning to explore cross-gender friendship more intentionally?
This is a great start. There is no shortcut to life-giving, healthy intimate friendships. They don’t happen overnight. The formation of friendship between two people with different histories, different dreams, and different personalities takes time but is so worth it.
Each one of us has to take full responsibility for themselves in nurturing friendship. Be responsible for your own self-awareness. Be willing to be transparent with trusted others (beyond your spouse if you are married).
In the course of forming friendship, don’t be afraid to have “defining the relationship” talks or to check in with your friend about expectations and boundaries. Friendships are not static.
Deep beauty and goodness in reconciliation expressed through friendship is worth the risk.
Thanks, Dan, for stirring the pot and causing us to think and explore. A question for us: What are you learning about the value of cross-gender friendships?