This past weekend Level Ground was in Portland, Oregon for the Gay Christian Network Conference. We saw old friends, made new ones, ran a great workshop, and had the privilege of hearing our board member Jeff Chu share this message as the conference's opening keynote. We are so grateful for his friendship, wisdom, and courage as our board member and friend. Jeff, we are incredibly proud of you!
It's a long message, but worth every single minute it takes to read!
Opening Keynote Gay Christian Network Conference Portland, Oregon January 8, 2015 Re-posted with permission from Jeff's blog.
At my house, we eat family-style.
In a Chinese family, the table is perhaps the most important space we have. It is where we gather. It’s where family dynamics, in all their mess and dysfunction and beauty, play out. In a family-style meal, you see the diversity of our personalities and the drama of our lives echoed in the narrative of the food. In the story of the Chinese family table, a complete meal balances salty and sweet, sour and spicy. You need to mix textures: from the slightly slimy, chewy resistance of pickled jellyfish to the even-geriatrics-can-eat-it softness of pillow-like steamed tofu to the crackle of the fried chicken’s skin or the prawn cracker traditionally served with it. You won’t like everything, but Grandma puts it on your plate anyway. As a kid, you eat it all too, sometimes under duress—there’s a traditional threat that, every morsel of food and every grain of rice you leave behind in your bowl, that’s how many pockmarks your spouse will have.
The table is a microcosm of our larger lives, a place where we both see our good manners and our bad. The table is where we see power dynamics—gender roles and occasional attempts to defy them, silent children growing into adults with voices and then fading back into old folk who get the best food but rarely the best listening. The table is where we celebrate—when my cousin got married a few months ago, there were 150 people at the church but 350 showed up for the wedding banquet. It is where we mourn—after my grandfather’s funeral, I remember feeling a little odd about that, as if we were saying, “Well, he’s dead but we’re not. We still gotta eat.”
The table is where we live in fear of failure and humiliation. Failure means a particular thing at my table. It means not having extra food. Why would they eat with abandon if they have to count the pieces of meat and wonder if everyone has had enough? This is all about my internal standards. That’s my guilt.
At the table, I learn the meaning too of another kind of failure—the one we call shame. If guilt is internal, then shame is external. If guilt happens in privacy, then shame is public—and among my people, shame happens at the table, often in unspoken, insidious ways.
At the table, I learn that my voice isn’t valued. It doesn’t even sound like it’s supposed to—one relative said to me at dinner once: “Huh, did you know that you talk like a girl?”
At the table, I learn to hide my truths and guard my secrets. I hear how they talk—or perhaps, worse yet, how they don’t. How they invent euphemisms or erase those who don’t fit their norms.
At the table, I learn how it feels to have people be ashamed of you.
At the table, after coming out to my mom, I see the flipside of not keeping secrets. We’re at an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, and I’d just told my mom about an hour before. My dad and sister are there, but they don’t know yet. By providence or chance—depends on your theology, I guess—we get an incredibly hot waiter. My mother looks at him and at me, and bursts into tears. I realize: She thinks I am making a pass at him. I realize: She thinks I have some kind of gay magic—we, this hottie and I—and something is happening. Which is awesome, ridiculous, and mortifying. I was just trying to order lasagna.
At the table—in preparation for it, in meditation on it, in fellowship around it—I learn better lessons and unlearn damaging ones. If it’s true that in the things of this earth, we see glimpses of the new one, and if it’s true that as Christians we are called to work toward the model and the manifestation of the new heaven and the new earth, what will the new family table look like? What does it mean to sit and eat and drink? What kind of table has God prepared for us—and how does God prepare us for it, meal after meal, day after day?
Over the next days, we’re going to build a little community here. Imagine a ginormous table around which we will talk, laugh, cry, maybe debate a little and, I hope, share stories a lot. I’m no pastor, no theologian—maybe another day, you’ll get exegesis. I just want to chat with you about what’s been on my mind. I want to think with you about what we bring to this table, to this community, and what the implications of that will be.
Let’s start with my fears. We don’t have time to talk about them all, you’re not my therapists, so just highlights. For one thing, I’m really nervous about public speaking and really nervous to be in front of you tonight—I’m a writer, not a talker. If I knew how much talking the release of a book required, I might never have done it. So I ask your grace and mercy in advance.
Since I am just meeting most of you for the first time, I suppose I should tell you about myself. As I said, I am no pastor, no theologian. I’m just a layman and a simple pilgrim, an asker of questions and a collector of stories, somehow lucky enough to ask questions and collect stories for a living. I am an Oregon Ducks fan; God willing, Monday night is going to be awesome. I’m married—my husband, Tristan, is a lovely, weird, Catholic white boy from Texas.
I am Asian of the Chinese and specifically Hong Kong persuasion—if I had a superhero name, it would be the Yellow Peril. I grew up in a devout Baptist family. My great-grandfather was a missionary, my grandfather a preacher, my grandmother a Bible teacher at a Christian school. My uncle is a preacher, my dad and uncles and great uncles and aunts mostly deacons. In our world, a real prayer is a long prayer, and church isn’t just church—it’s a culture. Once, I asked my dad, “Why is my mother having such a hard time with all this?” He said, “You have to understand: We’re not just Christian. We’re Baptist.”
I live in Brooklyn, New York, where I attend Old First Reformed Church. I’m also an elder there, which I can barely say with a straight face. It’s a miracle that I still find myself in church on Sunday let alone at an elders’ meeting. I think it reflects God’s twisted humor that a congregation out there called me to the eldership, but hey-ho. We believe in a God who uses all things, don’t we?
I am a first-timer at this conference. But I’ve known about GCN for years, well before I profiled it in my book. Years ago, I did what I know many of you did: I Googled “gay Christian” and ended up on the GCN site. I’d click around the message boards and read and read, puzzling over all these people who seemed so much sure about their faith as well as their sexuality. I wondered whether I could ever be like them. GCN was a small but important way station on my journey, where, unbeknownst to them, many people offered me the gifts of their very examples. So it’s especially humbling to stand before you today. Thank you to all you builders and dreamers, especially Justin, for what you have meant not just to me but to so many others over the years. Your work has been life-saving and life-giving.
So. My fears. My fears then and my fears now are not so different: As in so many areas of my life, on GCN, I was a wallflower. Don’t be fooled by the fact that I’m up here instead of sitting in the farthest chair in the back row. What is this fear? I say I want to be known, but then I worry about what would happen if you did really know me. I fear a confirmed diagnosis of my impostor syndrome—that the last article I will write will be the first that the world calls out as the worst, that the last thing I said will be the first that cements that I’m actually a charlatan. I fear rejection, which is largely what I have known in the church. I fear humiliation, which is largely what I’ve felt in Christian communities. I fear disappointing people, which is largely what I think I’ve done to my family and some friends.
I remember, in college, in my evangelical fellowship group, I’d go to meetings and feel like the biggest fake in the world. Lots of times, the group’s geekier members would sit up late with their very own copies of Grudem’s Systematic Theology—you all have one, right?—and I didn’t know what systematic theology even was; the dumber among us would read John Piper, but I couldn’t get past the first chapter of “Desiring God.” Well, during worship time on Friday nights, people would be singing four-part harmony, and I’d be one-man cacophony. I was a closeted gay boy, dating girls and doing my best to conform to what was expected of me—by the people around me, certainly, but also, by extension, by God. Especially during the open prayer time, when people would share their requests aloud, I was just on a different wavelength. The way it would work at my fellowship is that, after the person said their prayer request, we’d have this awkward silence while 99% of us engaged in a season of fervent silent prayer that the Holy Spirit would pick someone else to pray out loud. Eight centuries later, someone in the group would say: “I’ll pray for that!” So one night, this freshman, on fire for the Lord, was just beside himself, crying his way through his prayer request. I will never forget him asking the group to lift him up “because I didn’t share Jesus with anyone this week.” Well, this guy is all crying, and people are murmuring their understanding all around us as if this was their pet sin too, and several of them said, “I’ll pray for that!” Not only had I not shared Jesus with anyone that week—I didn’t even think about it. I just wanted to kiss boys and not let on to my girlfriend and finish my history paper. And I thought, “Who is going to pray for THAT hot mess of a request?” And how could I fit in, if that was the guy’s biggest problem? How could I be his brother, if that was the sin he struggled with? Who could understand my issues? I didn’t feel sympathy let alone empathy—I didn’t know how.
So I hid. I hid my questions about my faith and about my sexuality. I hid my fears. I hid my hopes. At times, I’ve cried.
Some people say honesty flourishes in our media now, especially with user-generated content, Facebook statuses, tweetstreams, and blogs and in the confessional essays that we find on the Internet. That may be true. But honesty and vulnerability are different. It’s an enormous, and enormously important, difference, one that has much to do with risk and with the fears that I just talked about. So here is my question for you:
Can this place, this table, this microcosm of church that we’re making here, be a place of vulnerability? People will tell pieces of their stories, honest to God, but can we go beyond surface sharing? Can they share with you the parts that will make you uncomfortable or that will trigger your “judgment” reflex—because, gay and/or Christian, I know many of us have strong, well-used “judgment” reflexes—and will you receive that information with empathy? Can this be a table where one of us confesses pain at not sharing Jesus and another shares conflicted feelings about wanting to kiss boys—and we receive both with mercy? If not, why not? What are we afraid of?
Can I still have confidence in your fellowship, for instance, if I share with you, unshakeable Christians, that some days, as much as I love Jesus and especially the idea of Jesus, I wonder if I’m not actually an agnostic? Other days, I feel like I cling to belief with little more than my spiritual fingernails. As I’ve taken my book on the road, at almost every reading, I’ve been asked for my conclusions. “So does Jesus really love you?” they say. I say I didn’t come up with that title—my agent did—and I think it’s maudlin and cheesy and I wanted something pretentious and literary. Anyway, is there still a place for me if I tell you that the answer to that question, some days, is that I’m not sure? What do you feel if I confess that my faith is at times less a reality and more an aspiration? I know I’m not the only one here with this question—thank you, Eric Andrew, who tweeted the other day: “#GCNConf – not sure a nearly agnostic has a place.”
Conservative, can I tell you about how, in the past, I sought temporary refuge in some sexual relationships that, even now, I don’t entirely regret—and not just because they were a part of my journey here? Can you receive that admission without a silent tsk-tsk?
Liberal, can I share with you not just my profound respect for gracious voices like those of my friend Wes Hill, who wrote Washed & Waiting, and Lindsey and Sarah, the wise, celibate women behind the blog A Queer Calling, but also my envy for their brand of faithfulness? Can I tell you that I wonder whether I am spiritually weaker than they are, and why my faith is so small? Can you receive these thoughts without smug condescension or some silent diagnosis of unreconciled self-loathing? Can we not just empathize with their callings but also genuinely seek to understand them?
Can you hear me when I tell you that sometimes the black clouds hover over my soul and I wonder whether it is worth it to go on? And then I feel like a horrible person, devaluing the love all around me, which makes me wonder all over again? Can you believe me if I say that often it has nothing to do with my sexuality? Can you hear me?
Will you celebrate with me when I tell you that my decision to stop lying about my sexuality—to be not just honest but also vulnerable about this aspect of my being—has pushed me closer to Jesus? Can you wish God’s blessing on my relationship with my husband, seeing it as a force for potential good in our lives, even if you hold different views about marriage and sex?
If you are Side A, can you regard Side B without pity? If you are Side B, can you look at Side A without judgment? If I told you that I’m Side C or Side M or Side Z—or if I were to refuse to opt for sides or labels, because they vex me—could you meet me there too?
Can we create a community without litmus tests, just a shared pursuit of Jesus, and will we welcome the quote-unquote alien with all his fears and her disappointments and messed-up, marked-up human roadmaps and interpretations of Scripture?
A quick aside: Two days ago, we marked Epiphany. I was reading about the visit of the Magi, and I was thinking about how, if a trio of astrologers like them showed up at our churches today, most would either turn them away, calling them crazy, or invite them in with that “welcome” that means keeping a close watch so that the heathens don’t disrupt things. But from the beginning of Jesus’ life on earth, he subverted our norms. From infancy, Jesus welcomed outsiders, Gentiles, the uncircumcised. As NT Wright puts it, the takeaway of the Epiphany story, which he says is “not the kind of cozy-picture-book story we have created for ourselves,” is this: “Come to Jesus, by whatever route you can, and with the best gifts you can find.”
“Come to Jesus, by whatever route you can, and with the best gifts you can find.”
Can we offer each other that same generosity and welcome? Can we walk alongside each other, by whatever routes we can, without you judging the gift I picked out or me criticizing your route?
Can you hang on with me when I quote someone like NT Wright but then confess that clarity almost always eludes me when it comes to the Scriptures, that the idea of having anything near all the answers seems like a fantasy to me, and in fact I have a hard time with those who act like they do, regardless of where they are on the theological spectrum?
Can you not think me crazy when I say that my faith has been sustained by moments that I call miraculous—and, when I’ve needed it, something I interpret to be that still, small voice of God?
And finally, will you honor me with your trust? This person whom you haven’t met before but who also claims to try to do his best to follow Jesus? What can you give me of your story? Will you risk it with me? Can we make ourselves mutually vulnerable?
Friends, I think I know the answers already: No. No. No. No, I don’t think we can do these things, not all of them and not all the time. Our fears are too great—for some pastors, it’s a loss of financial stability or the large congregation they’ve built; for some believers, it’s a sacrifice of the façade of certainty; for most of us, worry about the “other” or being “wrong.”
And then I have to say yes, we can do these things and in fact we must, because the church is a sick institution that is too much human and not enough divine. We can do these things, because on my better days, I believe our God, who makes the impossible possible and the human divine. On my better days, I believe in a Jesus who knows our relational shortcomings intimately and more than makes up the difference and can redeem even our worst tweets. On my better days, I’m confident that the Holy Spirit can inhabit me in my brokenness—not queer brokenness, not gay brokenness, not Chinese brokenness, not American brokenness—just all-around human brokenness—and make me—and all of us— whole again. Our hope in God provides an antidote to the fear in me.
The church I have known is a place where a lot of people languish. We may dress down these days in church, but we’re still all buttoned-up—and spiritually, we suffer. Sometimes I wonder to what degree we are even making ourselves vulnerable to God—which would seem to be a prerequisite to spiritual growth—when, more often than not, we’re not making ourselves vulnerable to each other. We don’t nurture each other aggressively. We don’t cultivate or honor or talk enough about the kind of intimate friendship that so many of us would benefit from—and I am not talking about sexual intimacy. Patient friendship. Gracious friendship. Risky friendship.
The church I hope for—the table I long for—is a place where we can be known. It’s a place where we stand equal before Jesus and with each other, all of us sinful beings, on the level ground that Isaiah speaks of. It’s a place where we can bring our scars and sorrows, our stories and our doubts, our huge questions and our otherworldly aspirations. It’s a place that does not act surprised at the gravity of sin in the world, that does not resort to puffed-up outrage at slights, that feels no need to defend itself. We have spent too long in costumes and closets, unseen and unknown. And we have paid the price for that. But will we risk even more, revealing our hearts to each other? Friends, would you do that with me? Can we build this kind of church and this kind of table here?
My book, if I am going to be totally honest, is not that vulnerable. It sometimes irritates me that people call it a memoir, because other people’s stories take up many times more ink than my own and the book is less about my own trajectory than those of hundreds of people who gave me glimpses of their lives. I criss-crossed the country to learn—this adventure was and has been incredibly personal—but any conclusions in the text reflect maybe 0.1% of the learning and processing I’ve done.
Truthfully, I didn’t know then how to be vulnerable. I’m a private person. What glimpses I give you of my self in the book are carefully worded and edited. They’re not untrue, but they’re also not totally open or, if you knew me then and know me now, truly vulnerable.
I’m still growing in this area of my emotional and spiritual life. Vulnerability is something that I have slowly learned at the table—at the book-signing table, where readers pried open my heart by opening theirs; at the panel-discussion table and the reading table, where audiences asked me bracingly candid questions that I could only dodge at the cost of my authenticity; at kitchen tables of people who hosted me on my book tour; at the office tables of pastors who, stung by my critique of them as being called to be shepherds but behaving like sheep, wanted to discuss what I meant by that; at my own dining table at home, where I often answer Facebook messages and emails from readers who write with heart-wrenching testimonies and questions—always, questions. Sometimes it has been the proverbial two steps forward and one step back; I’m always going to be one of those writers who read the comments sections, and this may dismay both groups, but the folks who comment at Christianity Today and the Huffington Post are more alike than they’d ever want to be—ready to dismiss your value, your intellect, your faith, your lessons learned, with the little daggers of their words. When that happens, sometimes you cry. Sometimes you doubt your own value and your own intellect, your faith and your own lessons learned. Sometimes you grow a little more scar tissue. Sometimes, though, you grow a little more beautifully vulnerable, remembering the conversations at the other tables—the ones that built trust and with trust, built vulnerability.
I’ve been mulling, too, in my own wrestling with Scripture, the many times the table appears in the Bible. Sometimes it is a literal table, such as the acacia-wood table in the Temple, veneered in pure gold, where the priests placed the bread of presence. This wasn’t meant to suggest that God needed to eat, of course. The bread—this quotidian item, this everyday foodstuff—represented God’s provision for the people of God. It commemorated the manna that kept the people going generations before. It foreshadowed the daily bread that Jesus told us to pray for. It symbolized God’s constancy.
That constancy, that confidence, is there too in the 23rd Psalm, where a table unexpectedly appears. I don’t know if you’ve ever considered what a weird little poem the 23rd Psalm is, at least in its English incarnation. If you wrote something like it and gave it to a poetry prof who had never read it before, I don’t think you’d get an A, because in our modern context, it’s that odd. After we emerge from that super-melodramatic valley of the shadow of death, suddenly we have David praising God, saying, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over.” But this is on the face of it a vexing verse, because this seems like the worst time for a banquet, as the enemy armies are massing. It is also slyly funny and kind of confidently snotty. God is saying, Okay, enemies, you want to take me on? Fine. But first, we’re going to picnic. And the way the verse points not just to God’s provision, but to God’s overprovision—these aren’t a soldier’s MREs. This is a full-on feast; the Septuagint renders the last verse differently, giving us a clearer sense of what’s in that cup: “Your cup,” says one translation, “was supremely intoxicating.” Is pre-battle any time to get wasted? But I guess if God is the one who’s buying the wine and doing the pour, who am I to argue?
Psalms are conversations with God, and this psalm affirms faith and aspires for redemption. David uses a motif that ultimately reappears several times in Scripture—in Ezekiel, for instance, and in Revelation, always referring to God’s eventual triumph. In reading and repeating it, we nod at God’s present-day provision and hope for God’s ultimate reward. These promises, these ways in which God calls for our trust, are relational investments that help cultivate vulnerability.
As I reflect on the table, this place of conversation, that I hope we’ll build together here, I realize that, for some, in earthly terms, we’re building at the wrong time. So, at our table, I’m thinking that we have to leave some empty chairs. I’m not suggesting anything like saving a chair for Jesus at Christmas dinner—and apologies to you if your family does that, but you have to admit it’s super-cheesy. We’re going to save seats for those who didn’t make it here, for those who will re-join us in another life. We’re going to save seats for Tyler Clementi and for Leelah Alcorn and for thousands of others who were taken from us too soon, whether by persecution or circumstance or—let’s just say it—murder.
We’re also going to save seats for those who haven’t made it here yet. And I want to be clear that “made it here” is no judgment about what strain of theology, what hermeneutic, is correct, beyond the strain that says every human being is beloved by God, that every person, no matter their orientation or identity, has inherent dignity.
We’re going to save seats for sisters and brothers like a friend of mine in the South, who can’t even imagine being among us. I posted a request to my Facebook friends asking them to send wisdom, prayers, and owls as I was puzzling over what to discuss with you all, and he started chatting with me, so I asked what came to mind as he read my post. Here is what he said to me:
“I am in the closet still so I may not be the right voice. Some days I find myself barely hanging on, and other days I feel like I can make it. It is lonely and no one around here knows. That just fuels the loneliness. If I allow myself to dwell in that place too long I will find myself depressed and honestly wanting to find a drug to make me straight and in my town’s eyes normal. I wish I were there,” he said. “I wish I could be a part of something. I know many would look at me with pity for staying in the closet, but there is more to this journey than being with a man. It is protecting my family and hopefully being a voice of truth for those who would never hear it.”
So we’re going to save seats for those like my friend, who cannot be here themselves. And we are going to honor their lives and listen for the echoes of their stories in the stories of those who are here. We need these ghosts in our conversation.
The word “conversation” is beautiful. It is not, primarily or mainly, about talking. It’s about the dynamic we create when we’re with others—speaking, yes, but also being silent, the ebbs and flows, the rises and falls, the momentum and the moments of stillness. Conversation’s Latin roots literally mean “to keep company with.”
For me as a journalist, the biggest gift is a conversation—the opportunity to keep company with someone else, to walk alongside him for an hour or a day, to talk and to observe and to experience life from her perspective for a bit. I got into this business because I thought I liked writing. It turns out that I don’t like writing much at all, not for publication anyway. It is, at least for me, a hideous, gut-wrenching, teeth-gnashing experience that I would recommend to others only with severe caveats. But though I am deeply introverted, I do like the reporting part of my job—the conversation part.
Sometimes, someone will ask me, “Who is your favorite person you’ve ever interviewed?” I’ve interviewed a lot of people over my career, first at Time Magazine and then at Conde Nast and now at Fast Company. Most people expect me to answer with the name of a famous person: “Britney Spears,” or “Halle Berry,” or “Tory Burch.” And while I had fascinating conversations with all of them—take “fascinating” as you wish and we can talk details later—they were not my favorites. My favorite people to interview are those who invite me to the kitchen table and into their lives. It’s not just what they say, but also how they say it and the experience of keeping company with them, whether for five minutes or for five hours. It’s creating a shared memory, like the farmer in Rwanda who could not have been more delighted when she lured me into her chicken coop and laughed as I walked in all the chicken shit. It’s the mixed-orientation couple I write about in my book—the husband a pastor and the wife an architect, who invited me into their home for several days, who baked fresh bread and shared it with me after we sat down for breakfast and read their customary psalm, and told me their stories with a bracing candor about their journey with Jesus, their sex lives, their insecurities, their joys. It’s the Georgia dad I also write about, a former Christian counselor who faced a crisis in the life of his family after his wife came out as a lesbian; toward the end of my time with this bear of a man, he was bent over, crying. “Jeff,” he said, “in all these years, nobody has ever asked me for my story.”
In my dream world, nobody would ever say that. Every person’s story matters—because every person matters. Each story has elements that are extraordinary. And though I didn’t realize it when I entered journalism—because discerning one’s call isn’t something that happens at one moment or even in one season but constantly and repeatedly—I think part of mine is to help amplify voices that aren’t often heard, to help people believe that they have a part in our broader conversation. In their differences from my own experience, diverse voices illuminate something about the richness of humanity. Even the pain is instructive—perhaps more so than the delight.
I know there has been concern in past years that GCN keynoters have often not come from the LGBT community. And I’m honored and humbled to be standing before you as a gay man. But my voice is just that—my voice, one small voice. Your voices—your hundreds of voices, diverse and distinct, squeaky and deep, broken and halting, mellifluous and melodious—are what matter. Your voices make the table what it is. Your voices, your stories, your experiences, your choices of what to bring to our conversation—of how to keep company with one another—will define these days.
The table I long for—the church I hope for—is a place where we will keep company with one another in deep and profound ways. We will listen to the loud voices, but even more so we will keep our ears open for whispers. The conversation won’t always be easy. But if we do it right, it will be powerful and it will help us grow. If we focus on the bread of the presence of God, which we have done nothing to deserve and yet receive with the promise of more, it will transform us and our conversation. If we cry out for Jesus-like justice yet hold on to a tenor of grace—and that is not an either/or—we will build a table that enriches life. Can we build that here?
Finally, friends, some thoughts on community. Is there anyone who has written as powerfully as Dietrich Bonhoeffer on what it means to be a community of Jesus? In his book “Life Together,” he writes that “the fellowship of the table has a festive quality. It is a constantly recurring reminder in the midst of our everyday work of God’s resting after His work, of the Sabbath as the meaning and goal of the week and its toil. Our life is not only travail and labor; it is also refreshment and joy in the goodness of God. We labor, but God nourishes and sustains us… Through our daily meals, He is calling us to rejoice, to keep holiday in the midst of our working day.”
I love me some Bonhoeffer, but I was not thinking about Saint Dietrich and his highbrow musings on meals the other afternoon, when in the midst of a really crappy writing day, I realized that it was after 2 o’clock and I still hadn’t had lunch, and as I dug out a spotty banana and a single-serving bag of Pirate’s Booty, I was not philosophizing on the joy of the goodness of God or thinking about how to make a little holiday in my mouth.
Here is the truth about what Bonhoeffer writes, though: The aspiration is true and noble. Every meal is a new opportunity. Every time we break bread together, that companionship is another chance for community—for building our shared lives together. I choose the word “companionship” intentionally, because it actually means a person you break bread with—its roots are com- (with) and panis (bread). Every breakfast, lunch, and dinner is an invitation to go a little deeper, to be a little bit truer in who we are and who we aim to be—not just individually but also, and perhaps especially, collectively. When Bonhoeffer juxtaposes the struggle of daily life and the festivity of the family meal, he’s not suggesting that we pretend that there is no pain. I believe he’s compelling to do exactly the opposite—without the pain, you don’t fully appreciate the joy. And our call is to bring all of ourselves, baggage and scars, to the table and to reframe it, reexamine it, reimagine it.
A final word-geek moment. Community comes from “communis,” Latin for “shared by many.” Put another way, it means “sharing a spirit.” It’s such a powerful concept, especially in the context of the sacred. It’s such an important word, too, for our faith, coming as it does from a family of words with such resonance for the Christian life: community, communal, commune, communion. We return again and again to the table. We fail and then we confess our sins against God and each other, we rest in the hope of God and then we do it all over again.
The work of a community is hard. Being in community is hard. Community means longsuffering. Community demands patience. Community requires asking for forgiveness and granting it. Community begs repeatedly for understanding. Community tests our bonds and then it tests them again. Community demands justice for its members, but doesn’t always agree on what justice looks like or how to achieve it. Community pushes our human limits. Community survives only by grace. Community cannot thrive without grace. Community is grace manifested and personified and multiplied.
Community needs grace because I will use the wrong pronoun.
Because I will fuck up.
Because I will offend somebody because I just said the f-word.
Because someone else will be offended that somebody was offended because I just said the f-word.
Because we will resort to outrage, because outrage is easy and compassion is hard.
Because sometimes I will just be annoying.
Because sometimes I will not do the hard work of understanding your motives or sometimes will actually willfully misunderstand what you are saying.
Because then we have to start over again, sit down again, remind ourselves that Jesus calls us to be companions again.
This is the messy business of community. This is the hard work of faith. Living out the love that Jesus calls us to is demanding. So demanding to the point of being counterintuitive and definitely not human. So demanding that sometimes I really don’t like it, even if I need to do it.
I have come to realize that there is in my life a major obstacle to community, one that doesn’t seem to stray very far from me. That obstacle is me. It is my ego. It is my baggage. It is my flawed personality. It is every ounce of me that claims to be unique in a way that makes it impossible for anyone to understand me and my pain. It is narcissism and self-pity and anger and gracelessness. It is my own form of American exceptionalism. I think of the many times that I have whined about loneliness. But often, I have nobody to blame but myself. I push the other chairs away from the table, and then I wonder why nobody comes to sit with me.
Perhaps for you, your obstacle is a desire for comfort—even though Jesus never promised comfort in his community. You can be comfortable if others think pretty much like you. Perhaps for you, your obstacle is just laziness—it’s easier not to think. I can see how if you don’t look toward the margins, then pretty much they don’t exist for you. I can understand that, just as some people like to expand their pictures by drawing some more—a little more crayon here, how about some colored pencil there—for others, their favorite implement, the tool they use to tidy up their image of the world, is an ever-present eraser.
In every one of these cases, the problem is perspective. Whether your spiritual drug of choice is self-absorption or false comfort or erasure, the problem is shortsightedness—narrow vision. In every one of these cases, the problem is a failure to see the reality—indeed, the complexity—of our families, our communities, our world.
The tougher, more humbling route is to confront the complications—and this is something that I’ve learned very powerfully in my own life, through circumstances I never expected. A few of you may have read or heard a story I wrote called “The Meaning of a Meal.” If you have, well, you’re going to hear it again. I want to share this story with you, because it is a story about community. It is a story about eating family-style. It is a story of relationship. It is a story of imperfection. It is a story of a work-in-progress. But above those things, it’s a story of my mom and me.
To give you some background, my mother and I have had a fraught relationship. I love her to the depths of my being. Nobody gives hugs like my mom. Nobody makes fried rice like my mom’s. But nobody else has written me letters like my mom’s, which quoted Bible verses I’m sure you’ve all heard, which don’t need repeating here. Nobody else challenges me in quite the same way. Nobody else annoys me like she does. If there were such a thing as an emotional physicist, I would invite her to examine this relationship. How can two people, two objects, simultaneously be so close together yet so far apart?
THE MEANING OF A MEAL*
For lunch today, I had some steamed spareribs over rice. The ribs have been in my fridge for over a week—and not a word from you, food-safety hardliners. My stomach’s not just fine. It’s also full, and so is my heart. My mother cooked these ribs when she was visiting, and they were some of the best I’ve ever eaten.
I don’t know how to make ribs like my mom’s. Part of it is, I think, that something tastes better when someone else has cooked it, and that’s especially true if that someone else is my mother, by far the best cook in our extended family. I love my grandmother, but anything she may try to tell you about those culinary genes being passed down is a lie.
Another part of it is her secret sauce, some elixir containing Shaoxing wine, black-bean sauce, salt, white pepper—maybe sesame oil? I can’t remember. I’m sure she has told me before. “It’s easy!” I hear her say. She would probably add that, as usual, I just wasn’t listening. I could ask her for a more precise recipe, but she’d just sigh. She has almost no recipes written down—they’re all in her head.
A third part of it, though, was something that has nothing, really, to do with the food itself so much as what the food represented. Last winter, she emailed me to ask whether I might like for her to come to New York “and cook a dinner for you for your birthday.” When I read her words, my heart leaped into hyper-speed and I broke out into a sweat. She hadn’t been to visit in years, not since my boyfriend and I moved together and not since that boyfriend became my husband. She had met him only once, and that meeting was, to be generous, awkward. She didn’t come to our wedding, but some months later, she sent that email.
Food is, in our family, so many things. It is what we fight about; we started taking cruises together partly because there isn’t any argument about where to have dinner. It is our most beloved group activity; one of the indelible memories of my childhood is sitting in my aunt and uncle’s laughter-filled kitchen in Hong Kong, late one sticky summer’s night, a plastic sheet on the table covered by a quickly shrinking mound of fresh lychees and a quickly growing pile of peels and pits. It is the thing we can always talk about when we have nothing else. If I am at a loss for something to say to my mother, I can always ask her—and genuinely, because I always want to know—how to cook a particular dish of hers.
For my mother, food plays a specific and important role, saying things that she cannot. Even the paraphernalia of mealtime has significance. When she arrived in New York, one of the first things she did was to pull a gift out of her bag: an antique pair of ivory chopsticks. Everyone in our family has a pair, inscribed in red with our names. These were for my husband. She told him that it was my job to figure out where to get the inscription done. I reminded her that it was also her job to help me come up with a Chinese name for the white boy.
Also note that she never asked if she could come visit; the question was whether I wanted her to come cook a dinner. We took her for other meals while she was in New York—Koreatown, where she happily picked at a whole fried fish; dim sum in Brooklyn Chinatown, where her face radiated delight at a simple plate of fish balls; our friend Adam’s restaurant, Lunetta, where she dove into a huge and fragrant bowl of mussels. But those other lunches and dinners were appetizers and desserts. This trip was about one meal.
Eleven friends joined us, dear and patient people who have played their own supportive parts on our journey and who knew that this meal wasn’t just about the food. That Saturday, it turned out that my mom had prepared a dish for each one of us. At 5:30pm, they began coming out of the kitchen: first, the starters—freshly griddled scallion pancakes, spring rolls, and seaweed-wrapped sticky-rice balls with Chinese sausage and dried shrimp. Then, the mains: Scrambled egg and tomato—always a homey crowd-pleaser. A half-dozen types of mushroom, braised with abalone. Big piles of Chinese greens, dressed simply in oyster sauce. Slivers of pork tossed with crisp triangles of two kinds of tofu. Two chickens, one steamed and one poached in soy sauce. Shrimp stir-fried with a multicolored medley of vegetables. Two whole black bass, steamed with ginger and green onions. A beef stew, with big, gooey chunks of tendon. Those spareribs.
This was her gift, her gesture of lavish love, her way of saying that she’s trying. She started cooking more than twenty-four hours before the first guest arrived, standing and stirring and chopping and tasting until her arms and legs ached and her own appetite was gone. She wanted nothing more than for us to stuff ourselves silly—to simply receive.
Where do we go from here? I don’t know. It was one visit, one big meal and several smaller ones. We ate well. We were all on our best behavior, and we got along. There was some laughter. Nobody cried. It doesn’t mean that we agree on theology or politics or that she’s going to run for president of her local chapter of PFLAG. It means she’s working hard—and so are we—to love as best we know how. In some ways, it was a big event. In others, just baby steps.
There is, I suppose, a lesson in the way she cooks, something that I want to try to remember as we keep walking forward alongside each other: In my mother’s kitchen, nothing happens quickly. You plan. You marinade. You stew. You wait.
Then, eventually, you feast.
First, my mom came back this past summer, and she cooked for us again, and it was a little bit easier than the time before. For one thing, Tristan and I weren’t as mean to her this time—we invited fewer people.
Second, my mom’s name is Grace. And it has been one of my great joys to watch as she seeks to live out her name, hard as that may be. She teaches me so much. And I hope I teach her a little something. We may not share the same theology, but we are community in that we share a spirit and we are companions as we repeatedly try again to break bread together. We may quibble about whether she is accepting my husband and me, affirming us, tolerating us. These semantic questions, while primary to some people, are not primary to me or to Tristan. What’s primary to us is that we are in relationship—difficult, painful, costly relationship. Beautiful, life-giving, wonderful relationship.
I laugh with my mom about something stupid and then I get pissed off at my mom about something silly, and she laughs with me about something silly and then she gets pissed off at me about something stupid, though she would never use such coarse language to say so. Is it because I’m gay? Maybe. But really it’s because she’s my mom and I’m her son, and that is what parents and children do. That is what families do. And then we sit down at the table and we break bread together, and then we do it all over again. And again. And again. Through the pain. Through the joy.
Before I close, I want to say something to the many parents at this conference: Thank you for being here, for loving your children as best you know how, for venturing outside your comfort zones. Thank you for the ways in which you have stretched and in which you will continue to stretch. Thank you for being bold enough not to settle for easy answers, to hold the tension. Thank you for being at the table with us. Also, I’m jealous of your kids. I wish my mom were here. I so wish she were here.
To all of you—I want to make you a promise, and I hope you will promise each other the same thing as we continue throughout these days: I promise you my presence. I will give you what time I can. I will listen more than I talk. I will ask more questions than I offer answers. I will honor your stories. I will open myself to your voice. That means I will hear not what I want to or what I want to respond to, but what’s important to you, what matters to you, what you are really trying to say, even when you are struggling to find the words. If you need one, I will give you a hug—and I just want to explain that this is a really big deal and a limited-time offer, because I am not a huggy person. I will strive for the state of grace that the poet Miller Williams, who died last week, describes this way:
Have compassion for everyone you meet
even if they don’t want it.
What appears bad manners, an ill temper
Or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears
Have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
Down there where the spirit meets the bone.
The table I long for—the church I hope for—is a place where we let others see where the spirit meets the bone and help heal the wounds. The table I long for—the church I hope for—has the grace of the Gospel as its magnificent centerpiece. The table I long for—the church I hope for—is where we care more about our companions than about winning our arguments with them, where we set aside the condescension that accompanies our notion that we need to bring them our truth. The table I long for—the church I hope for—has each of you sitting around it, struggling to hold the knowledge that you, vulnerable you and courageous you, are beloved by God, not just welcome but desperately, fiercely wanted. The table I long for—the church I hope for—is made of rough-hewn humility, nailed together by a Jesus who has given us the ridiculous freedom to be wrong and yet still be made right. The table I long for—the church I hope for—is a place where we love especially when it isn’t easy, allowing us to be vulnerable, inviting every voice to join the conversation, pushing us meal by meal toward community, toward communion. Can we build that kind of church, that kind of table? I think so.
And at that table, we’re going to eat family-style.
“The Meaning of a Meal” was originally published on Medium in August 2013