Thoughts on ‘Does Jesus Really Love Me?’

I’ve just finished reading Jeff Chu’s new book Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, and I highly recommend it. Besides being well-written and engaging (I could hardly put it down), it’s also very illuminating. The book is a balanced, fair-minded collection of snapshots of virtually every corner of the (Protestant) Christian discussion of LGBTQ matters. If someone wanted to get a sense for how American Protestants treat their gay and lesbian neighbors, this is the book I would give them first. It covers Westboro Baptist, The Episcopal Church, and everything in between.

Jeff, the author, is gay, and I found it especially interesting when, near the end of the book, he reflects a bit on what kind of church he himself is drawn to. First, he says this about a parish of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) that he visited in Nevada:

One of the wonderful things about the Metropolitan Community Church is that it has always focused on those (many) people whom the broader church alienates. Pastor William explains it beautifully when he describes his approach to those who have been alienated by the community of faith. “You give them constant doses of the truth, the truth that is based in love that is unconditional,” he says. “You love them until they can hear that they are lovable. You love them until they know nobody else can define who they are. You love them until they can process their pain without reliving their pain.” The MCC home page affirms this, boldly proclaiming: “Empowerment.” “Hope.” “Bridges that liberate and unite voices of sacred defiance.”

Yet this plan never mentions God. While the denomination has clear roots in Christianity and most MCC congregations are more overtly Christian than the San Francisco one, faith does not seem to be its unifying element—sexuality does. Perhaps it has become more a network of community centers, where gays and lesbians can gather and talk about the things of the spirit and the soul, whatever religious system they may subscribe to. Which is nice, but for me, it’s not church. And while I don’t want alienation or exclusion when I’m in the pews, I’m also not there to celebrate other people. I thought the whole point was to celebrate God.

Jeff contrasts his experience at the MCC congregation with his visit to Highlands Church in Denver, which he describes as trying to balance “an evangelical bent with full embrace of gays and lesbians without being a totally gay church.”

The name Highlands strikes me as particularly apt given an accusation often directed at more liberal churches: that they go for lowest-common-denominator, people-pleasing theology, something that [the pastors] Mark [Tidd] and Jenny [Morgan] have strived to avoid. “This church is deeply Christo-centric,” Jenny says. “What I mean by that is that the foundation of this church is the person, the work, and the teaching of Jesus Christ. His death. His resurrection. The belief that he is coming back. That he was and is God.”

I challenge her on this point, because nearly everyone says that they focus on Christ; it’s just that they differ on what this means and what this demands…. But what’s compelling is their argument that they are not trying to build a community of convenience.

Reading Jeff’s reflections here caused me to ponder again how many of us young gay Christians are looking not only for love and acceptance but also for truth (not that love and truth are ever finally separable).

I was recently with a group of gay Catholics (none of whom dissent from Church teaching), and one of the things that deeply impressed me was how, because of their acceptance of their Church’s doctrine, they weren’t expending much energy in trying to figure out what they ought to believe about sex and marriage. Their question wasn’t, “What must Christianity say about homosexuality?” but rather, “Given what Christianity does say, how can we live into that teaching in a way that’s life-giving, humanizing, loving, etc.?” Their focus was on how to make the celibate life beautiful. One of them asked me (in so many words) if it was hard to be gay and celibate in the Anglican Communion, where sexual ethics are hotly debated at the moment and there is no consensus. “Surely that must make your life harder, not easier,” he said. And reading Jeff’s account of his visit to Highlands, I thought again about this conversation I had and how many of us—including Jeff and me, it seems, in our very different ways—are looking for some clear convictions in our churches within which we can flourish. (I happen to belong to a parish of the Anglican Church in North America where I do receive clear guidance on sexual ethics, as well as pastoral care, but my Catholic friend is of course right that my Communion is fractured over just this issue at present.)

Which brings me to my main disappointment with what Jeff has written. There’s a chapter in his book on celibacy, and it follows the story of Kevin, a man in his fifties who is a Christian, gay, and celibate. Near the end of that chapter, Jeff writes:

Before I met Kevin, I thought of celibacy as an extended period of inaction that follows a choice, albeit a monumental one. If you could describe it as an act, it would be one of rejection, of pushing away sex and intimacy. There were certainly moments during my time with Kevin where I felt what I think is one of the worst, most condescending, most damnably judgmental human emotions: pity. But I came away from St. Paul [Minnesota, where Kevin lives] humbled. I realized that, if anything, Kevin’s lifestyle was not one choice but an active and constant series of them: the choice to resist his desire for companionship and closeness with men; the choice to set aside his perceived physical wants in favor of his perceived spiritual needs; the choice to sacrifice his earthly happiness for the eternal joy that he is convinced has been promised to him by his God. To him, celibacy hasn’t been an act of fencing himself off; rather, it has been one of opening up, of embracing the sanctuary that he believes his Lord provides.

On the one hand, I appreciate the unflinching honesty of this. Celibacy is often profoundly difficult, and those of us who adhere to the traditional Christian sexual ethic do ourselves no favors if we try to downplay the ascesis it demands of gay Christians. Jeff’s book manages to portray Kevin’s celibacy realistically, I think, and that is a good thing. But by closing his chapter with a description of Kevin’s celibacy as “the choice to resist his desire for companionship” and as “the choice to sacrifice his earthly happiness”—well, I think readers will be left to conclude that this is the primary experience of celibate gay Christians and that celibacy could never be as companionable and joyful as it must be to defeat isolation.

And I don’t have an argument to the contrary. I want to be careful not to place the blame squarely on Kevin (or Jeff) here, since part of the difficulty of practicing celibacy in our time is that we (Protestants, at least) inhabit church cultures that don’t imagine ways for celibate people to belong in the way we easily imagine married people belonging. I can say, however, that I want to live a celibate life that is full of friendship, loving service, and joy and that, in some measure, I am finding such a life with the help of the communities and parishes to which I’ve belonged and currently belong. And I can point to some other friends of mine who also want to live just that kind of life and are also finding that it is possible.

But they (we!) continue to need inspiration and encouragement. As Sarah Coakley has said, quoting St. Gregory of Nyssa,

[W]e cannot believe it unless we see it lived. [Gregory] writes, “Any theory divorced from living examples… is like an unbreathing statue.” And there, perhaps, lies the true challenge for us today: the counter-cultural production—not of film-stars, sports heroes or faithless royal families—but of erotic “saints” to inspire us.

May God give us such saints. And may God give them the courage to come out and talk honestly about their experiences of celibacy, and may God gives our churches the grace to support them as they do so.

7 thoughts on “Thoughts on ‘Does Jesus Really Love Me?’

  1. Thanks for writing this Wesley.

    I hope that your generation will indeed have an easier time with celibacy. But, unfortunately, as a committed celibate homosexual man in his 50s, I can say that Kevin’s experience is pretty typical. (I use “homosexual” because back when I was a kid “gay” did mean something different than “homosexual” – but I understand how the younger generation looks at it differently)

    I was born in the 60s when the standard nuclear family of the 50s was still held to be the ideal. Singleness was seen as a temporary state and no one knew what to do with celibacy outside the Roman Catholic Church. I was a teen through the 70s and the sexual revolution depicted celibacy as an unattainable and old fashioned goal.

    So, unfortunately, Kevin’s experience and Jeff Chu’s depiction of it are pretty accurate.

    After extreme isolation in high school (I never even went into the house of the kid I considered my best friend more than 3 feet past the entrance) I experienced an incredible time of friendship throughout college and graduate school. I wish now that I had not made those friends. In high school I didn’t mind isolation because I didn’t know everything different. But today the isolation is almost physical pain because I now know how much more satisfying life could be.

    Christ said we would have to carry a cross and so, since He died for me, I will carry it rather than find a sexual relationship. But I do wish the Church today did not see the need to make the cross even heavier by constantly preaching against homosexuality with little or no evidence of forgiveness and so little willingness to love.

    Perhaps if we celibate homosexuals of the 70s and 80s had been braver and had been willing to be open things would have been better.

    I hope your generation can change that. And if there are even a handful of people as articulate and passionate as you are (yes, i read your book – about a dozens times) then I think the future is a lot brighter for our young people than the present has been for us.

    God bless

    • The sheer amount of resources Wesley has at his disposal : multiple communities full of intellectuals and other high thinking and functioning people are not available to the lay man.
      Other people just have to live – – and what are they going to do?

  2. Matt…I just wanted to thank you. You’ve reminded me why it’s so important to have the courage to answer back to those who make your cross heavier. God bless you.

  3. Thank you for sharing Matt. I can relate to what you say about the isolation as a physical pain. I often feel that too. Maybe all us lonely people should move to same town. :)

  4. rsOK, finished the book, “Does Jesus Really Love Me.”

    Very well done book. I do have a few comments:

    Firstly, I think he was a little too harsh on the ex-gay movement. Yes, they made some mistakes. But back in the seventies many of the leaders had experienced some change, at least in so far as many of them developed sexual affection for individual woman who became their wives. They were naive and thought that this meant that they would eventually become fully “heterosexual.” Remember the 70s was a heady time when we all thought we could change the world for the better. We were gong to “make love not war,” end world hunger, end pollution and end greed. A lot of people faced the reality of broken hopes in the following decades, and not just in the area of sexuality. So i think the failure of the ex-gay movement was due a lot less to the sexual dishonesty or in-authenticity Jeff Chu seems to ascribed to the ex-gay leaders and more to the foolish innocence of the times. Today’s ministries that focus on sexuality are often more mature and offer a broader range of goals and services than was true 3 decades ago. It varies from group to group but I think there is a lot more good there than he gave them credit for.

    I also think this book illustrates how we need to pay attention to how our message is perceived by the world. Too often we seem to preach “holiness of living” from the wrong side of the cross. We either preach as if one must first give up homosexual behavior before being qualified for salvation, or as if we want to get people saved in order to make them straight. I think Jeff Chu’s book does an excellent job throughout of depicting how that is heard by our society. It doesn’t sound like much fun or very attractive and Christ didn’t do it that way. He didn’t tell Matthew or Zacchaeus, “follow me so that you will have the power to stop being a greedy tax collector.” He did not confront the woman at the well or the Syrophoenician woman with their sins and insist they stop doing them before he talked to them or helped. He ate with them, invited them and formed a relationship with them first and, at least in the case of Zacchaeus and Matthew, they responded by changing their attitudes and lives.

    The 1st century church also did not go around telling pagans what was wrong with them and offering to show them how to change. it was Christians willingness to put their lives on the line to help those weaker or less fortunate than themselves as well as their willingness to die horrible deaths rather than worship other gods that got the attention of the ancient world.

    I see the same thing today. Every single “gay” person I know who has chosen celibacy or to marry a person of the opposite sex learned about Jesus and His mercy FIRST and later, sometimes after much time, came to the conclusion that homosexual behavior just didn’t fit with their new relationship with Christ.

    While not being dishonest, we do need to learn to proclaim the cross first and more centrally in everything we say. And we need to learn to live in such a way that the love of Christ does shine through and we are not just “telling the truth in love.”

    So I think the book was very instructive in how our message is heard to the world. We do not need to change our message to appeal to the world, but we do need to consider whether Christ and the cross are clearly being proclaimed as they ought.

    And, finally, he was 100 spot on when he talked in the last chapters about pastors being sheep rather than shepherds. Pastors need to have courage not only to deal with the tough issues but to do them in a biblical way that might not be popular with their members. They may have to learn to say “I am less concerned about who a man is sleeping with than whether he know what Christ has done for him.” And then they need to have the courage to let Christ do the work and the changing and be a lot less “sheeplike” in taking the hardnosed stand that doesn’t work.

    Excellent book – thanks for recommending it. I wish every pastor would read it.

  5. Hmm, sorry to add more but that last bit made it sound like pastors should ignore sin – and that’s not my point. Rather, we need to keep the primary focus on the answer to sin – the cross.

    Here is an example. As a pastor, I often have to deal with couples living together before marriage. I know a lot of pastors whose first step is to confront the couple and tell them this behavior is not acceptable and that they must repent and change if they wish to remain in the church.

    What I have found works better is to invite the couple to our basic Christian information class. (usually one is new the the church and comes because their boyfriend/girlfriend does). So that way I get several classes to talk about Christ, doctrine and, especially the cross. Then we start through the 10 commandments. When we get to “Thou shalt not commit adultery” we start talking about the purpose and place of sex. Almost every time a light goes on and one of the couple says, “we are sinning, aren’t we? how do we fix this.” I almost never have to bring the subject up and they are almost always willing to make things right. – because, without hiding that sex before marriage is a sin, we talked about Christ first and more and laid the foundation.

    I think we need to do something similar with homosexuality. We need to lay a clear and solid foundation of the cross and put homosexuality in the context of the cross and person of Christ rather than the other way around. so every answer we give to questions of homosexuality really need to start with Christ and then lead to the topic of homosexuality rather than start with a rant about the evils of the gay lifestyle and little about forgiveness, maybe, at the end.

  6. Wesley how does your theology play out for people who are not outgoing and Type A like yourself?
    You’re actively trying to make this all work. What about others who lack the resources and the drive that you have?
    How are they to experience this life?

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