Today I am pleased to introduce you to Jeff Chu. Jeff is the author of Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America—a fantastic book that is part-memoir, part investigative analysis. The book, which just released last week, explores the intersection of faith, politics, and sexuality in America in a way that is thought-provoking, well-researched, colorful, and deeply personal without being indulgent. I highly recommend checking it out.
Over his eclectic journalistic career, Jeff Chu has interviewed presidents and paupers, corporate execs and preachers, Britney Spears and Ben Kingsley. As a writer and editor for Time, Conde Nast Portfolio, and Fast Company, he has compiled a portfolio that includes stories on megahit-making Swedish songwriters (a piece for which he went clubbing in Stockholm); James Bond (for which he stood on a Spanish beach and watched Halle Berry emerge from the waves over and over and over); undercover missionaries in the Arab world (he traveled to North Africa and went to church); and the decline of Christianity in Europe (he prayed). On the wall of his New York office, you'll find a quote from former Senator John Warner, who once told Jeff: "You're a good little interviewer!" A California native, Jeff went to high school at Miami's Westminster Christian, where he sat behind Alex Rodriguez in Mr. Warner's world history class. A graduate of Princeton and the London School of Economics, Jeff has received fellowships from the Phillips Foundation and the French-American Foundation, and in 2012, was part of the Seminar on Debates in Religion and Sexuality at Harvard Divinity School. The nephew and grandson of Baptist preachers, he is an elder at Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York. He loves the San Francisco 49ers, the Book of Ecclesiastes, and clementines. And he detests marzipan more than he can explain in words.
I hope you enjoy this post as much as I did.
Are we there yet?
By Jeff Chu
“Jesus will not accept you, because of your hard heart and hate for him.”
“We must treat homosexuals like those suffering a mental disorder, because that is exactly what it is. If anything, we should have pity on these people.”
“You need a good ex-gay therapist.”
Last week, messages like these filled comments sections of websites where my writing was being discussed. On Facebook, I was informed that I was clearly not saved. My inbox brought warnings that I needed to repent.
I interviewed more than 300 people for my book, but intertwined with their stories is my own. I’ve never written about my life or my faith before, and naively, perhaps, I didn’t expect this onslaught. The night before my book came out, I sat at my desk in my office and did something that I haven’t done in years: I wept.
For almost an hour, the tears rained down my face. I held my head in my hands, and I shook. Then, inside, I heard the softest echoes of my beloved late grandmother’s warbly voice, speaking to me in Cantonese as she had when I was 8: “You’re a big boy. Don’t cry. Big boys don’t cry. Crying doesn’t do anything.”
Well, this big boy does cry—and on that day, it did do something. These were, at first, tears for fears—fears of being judged, fears of being condemned, fears of what might happen when the world saw me, through my book, for who I was and no longer for who I’ve long tried to be.
Then they became tears of grief. In some ways, I felt as if I were being excommunicated from my church—these messages all came from people who would place themselves in the evangelical part of the church that I grew up in. But in truth, they couldn’t kick me out. In soul and spirit, I’d already left those precincts of the church, and I was belatedly mourning that departure. I was also weeping for the loss of certainty—or at least the illusion of it that I once worked so hard to maintain.
When I was a young journalist, I was taught to “kill your darlings.” Sometimes we writers will concoct a pun or a phrase that we just fall in love with. Applaud your own unparalleled cleverness, your unmistakable wit, I was told. Then cut what you just wrote. Your infatuation is also often the enemy of clarity—and sometimes truth.
One thing I had to mourn last week was the killing of perhaps my greatest darling: the persona of the Good Christian I long maintained, under the theory that it could somehow help preserve my faith.
This is, of course, a fallacy: Sometimes we speak as if our faith—and the faith—is unchanging. God may not change, but our beliefs and our understanding of Him do. Faith can’t be preserved, as if it were strawberries in jam or an unlucky beetle in ancient amber. It’s dynamic. It struggles and stumbles, waxing and waning, colored by circumstance, shifted by our spirits, and shaped (we hope) by the Spirit. I think, for instance, of Roman Catholicism, and how the Virgin Mary officially became retroactively and posthumously sin-free in the 19th century. And I think of the denomination I grew up, the Southern Baptist Convention, whose own less-than-immaculate conception was rooted in unfortunate disagreements with their northern brethren over slavery.
For a long time, I resisted change. Though I felt alienated from the church and culture of my childhood, I played the image game well. I was treasurer of my college evangelical-fellowship group. I mentored younger students, my mouth saying things with far more surety than my heart ever felt. I even had a (shortish) string of long-term girlfriends—wonderful, godly women who, thank God, found much more suitable men to marry.
My semblance of pious normality reflected a Sunday-best mentality spilling over into the rest of the week. I thought that if, perhaps, I did a goody-goody-enough job with the façade, maybe it would percolate into the rest of me, preserving my faith. On some level, I guess I naively thought that I might even be able to fool God.
I had to kill that person, that darling. I had to stop lying. And when I cried, I guess some of the tears were for that old Jeff. That costume, more comfortable than I’d like to admit even now, was a great hiding place, a cocoon that I convinced myself was safe. It was a big game of pretend, and I was pretty good at it, except that all games get old—or maybe you just get too old to play them.
A church of costumes and hiding places isn’t a place I want to be.
What we need, more than ever, is a church where we can shed the pretenses, and bring our doubts, our big questions, and our bigger fears. I don’t think I’m alone in desiring that. What I suspect many of us crave is a church where we can be our whole, ugly-beautiful selves.
This is who I really am: I am not an issue. I am a follower of Jesus. I love my husband like you love your husband. Sometimes I daydream during church, which I feel especially guilty about now that I am an elder. I am afraid to go to India because I don’t know if I am man enough to handle that much poverty in my face. I like to load the washer, but I’m terrible at unloading the dryer. I am really judgmental. I use the F-word a little too much. Sometimes, if I find a very old French fry, I will be tempted to eat it. (I will neither confirm nor deny that I ever have.) I love the Bible, and I believe that sin is a real thing, but I wish I understood better what God meant by it. I went to a Taylor Swift concert last week—for my job—and enjoyed it more than I’d like to admit. I need a good editor.
And who are you? Maybe you laugh too loudly. Or you cry too much. You love, even though you’re not always sure how to show it. You belch when you think nobody is listening. You love justice, but you’re not always sure what it looks like. You question your pastor. You watch too much Honey Boo Boo (which is to say, you watch it at all). You lie awake in bed some nights wondering whether God is as real as you want Him to be. You eat too many meals in your car. You say, “Bless her heart,” when you have no intention of blessing any part of her.
Can we be these people in church? We must be—and the church that I’m talking about is not a building but the collection of the people who are trying their best to walk with Jesus. It does not end at 12:15 on Sundays. It’s wherever we and our hopes and our complicated, messy lives are. It’s a place where we aren’t afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
Our church is a place where we’re unafraid to acknowledge that we’re always in beta. I was thinking about this during church this past Sunday. In his Easter sermon, my beloved pastor, Daniel Meeter, encouraged us to imagine “the life of the world to come … Imagine always trusting other people, without having to be careful, always being open and candid about yourself without having your guard up, and even knowing yourself with clarity and honesty and peace,” he said. “Well, you are not there yet.”
Maybe I’ll end up in hell. Maybe I do have a mental disorder. Maybe their Jesus won’t accept me. But I still cling to a Jesus who will meet me—and will meet us all—where I am now. Can we build a church that welcomes our mutual strengths but also allows—and even embraces—our confessions of weakness? Can we be that community? Will you join me on this journey?