I walked into the hostel on yet another trip away from home. This one was for choice, to see some friends who’d flown over from England. But it was still a 6 hour round trip in the car for me, and so I’d decided to treat myself on my final day off of the year, and stay over in a hostel in the mountains and go running in the morning.
I walked in tired from the drive and sat down in the hostel foyer, where many others were lounging around, to watch something online on my laptop, and have a can of Beamish. Half an hour later, and the chat was interesting enough around me that I joined in.
Soon I found myself chatting to a likeminded runner – an Aussie lass who’d come to the Wicklows to run and to hike with friends. On hearing my intention to run in the morning before I set off for work, she said she’d join me, if we went early enough for her to join her friends hiking afterwards. And so looking sceptically at my unopened second can of Beamish at my feet, she agreed a 6am start time with me.
But it wasn’t me holding the morning up, and by ten past six, I not only was up, stretched and ready, but also had been the breakfast for hundreds of midges, that swarm the lakes of Glendalough at many times of year. Soon, she joined me, and we set off, ready for 20km in the hills.
I love running. Partly the freedom of being able to mentally escape. Partly the endorphins making the rest of the day a happier one. And partly the joy of the scenery around me and the fun of not having a care in the world.
And even better when you’ve someone to share that with. We set off, happily chatting about everything and anything in life, from our stories, through to running chat and local tips. There’s something about running side by side that always makes me open up to whoever I’m running with and be vulnerable with them. And sure enough, throughout this chat, she shared of how she’d split up from her boyfriend a few months ago and how she was there to get away from life and see what’s next. She was asking advice, I was sharing of my experiences in life, and we were both asking questions and sharing our life longings. Would I like to come to her part of the country and run in the mountains near her?
Conversation never gets too deep before my answers generally intrigue people. And so it was here. She said she’d never met someone who was so free in life, and wanted to develop themselves and push their limits, but yet someone who kept on chatting about Jesus.
“Do you mind me asking? You seem so liberal in many ways, and such fun. But you keep mentioning this Jesus person as if you know him. Which is different from all those religious people I’ve met before. So do you still hold to all his conservative values?”
And with my answer barely off the tip of my tongue, she nodded, smiled at me, and then declared she was going to head back to the hostel and let me run on alone. I wondered whether I could have answered any differently and kept a running buddy. It amused me that the liberals of this world aren’t very liberal at all when they hear someone takes seriously a worldview that can’t imagine adhering to.
But the question was twofold. Was it really me saying I wasn’t prepared to have sex that signalled the early end of our brief getting to know each other? And regardless, should I even have put my tired self in the place of chatting away to a girl at 11pm at night, in a hostel space where both of us were anonymous? And then to go running with her at 6am in the morning alone in the mountains? Was I, despite my professed conservative ethics, secretly being motivated by a desire for her?
Such questions are not abstract theoretical ones, but ones that shape our every day lives in many circumstances. Should we have lunch alone with that colleague? Should we meet to study the Bible with people of the opposite gender? Should we have close friends of the opposite gender, even when we’re married? The list could go on.
It’s one that a lot of ink has been spilt on and causes inevitable stereotyping of the “other” side. On one hand, a great desire for holiness, and an awareness that we live in a victim culture – what happens if that women had claimed I had done something to her up the mountains? What if I’d been tired enough to forget the consequences and to have gotten off with her? On the other hand, a wonderful modelling of the fact that we as renewed-hearted-believers, can have deep friendships with those of the opposite gender to us, that shape us, help us, and point us onwards to Jesus, without the least hint of a sexual nature.
And it’s not just theoretical. One deacon at a church locally recently ran off with a woman alone, and threw the towel in with his faith. Another church won’t employ single female workers incase their male workers “stumble”.
And that’s where two books I’ve recently read have been very helpful in helping me see that everything doesn’t have to be seen through Freud’s lenses of sexual desires and in fact, the church can be a place that walks free of constantly having to make boundaries and live in bubbles from each other.
Aimee Byrd’s book: Why can’t we be friends?
Joshua Jones’ book: Forbidden Friendships
Aimee makes a persuasive case, for why we ought to be seeing our brothers and sisters in Christ as exactly that – brothers and sisters. She digs deep into into how the answer to abuse scandals and #metoo culture of this day in age, is not separation, but wise engagement in meaningful and deep friendships. She looks into scriptural examples, church history and much more, to find many including Jesus, who’d fall short of the modern evangelical boundaries set, where one can’t spend time with someone of the opposite sex. She profoundly reflects on the depth of brother-sister bonds, and wonders where we’ll go in a same-sex attracted world….do we have to abandon all meaningful friendships regardless of gender, for fear of people misconstruing our friendship even between friends of the same gender?
Aimee’s writing is not for someone who wants a light read, but those who pick it up will plumb depths on the topic that I wish books like Vaughan Robert’s “True Friendship” could have at least skimmed. She also perhaps doesn’t sit with the sceptic enough to convince those on the opposite extreme – as she will have found out in very public online critiques that have gone on. But ultimately, I thought I was picking up something I wasn’t going to be challenged by, and instead I found myself stirred to appreciate new ways of looking at friendship, humbled by parts that made me weep in repentance for how I’ve acted towards women at times, and inspired to see far more depth to Biblical community that I’ve ever known before. Forget reading another book on the sexual revolution, same-sex attraction, or similar topics: start here!
But for those who might want an easier read that shows more awareness of sceptical thinking on this topic, you might be better heading over and picking up Josh’s book first. He writes clearly, simply, engagingly and along the same lines.
More than that, I’ve seen him in action, and his life models a world that takes holiness seriously, while still discipling people of both genders in ways in a depth and maturity of faith and expression that isn’t often seen.
In a world obsessed by porn, which lets that shape hearts more than God’s word on the topic, it is not surprising that we’ve generated the culture of misunderstanding we have on this one. But as Josh says, the answer isn’t in running to the opposite extreme, but by enjoying the good gift God has given us: friendship.
And where it has been lived out well, it’s ridiculously freeing. No more wondering about the intentions of others. No more having to constantly withdraw. No more surface level Sunday post-church conversations. Real community.